It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Four
By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories
5 Goodmonth, 570
Tyrius, Thokk, Larry, and Aurora awoke to the smell of fresh bread and batter-fried fish rising from The Mermaid’s kitchen. Babshapka had been awake for hours already—elves do not sleep like other races. He spent the early morning seated near the open window of the bedroom he shared with the half-elf girl, staring out over the town and to the water.
At breakfast, Aurora continued the discussion she had initiated the night before, exchanging stories and manipulating the conversation toward a resolution to form an adventuring company. Tyrius was reluctant to commit to anything long-term. His goal was to get Larry to the Moot of the Great Druid, and he recognized that he would need coin to accomplish even that. Why should I doubt the light of Pelor? If these two elvish folks want to help me get coin by doing some noble deeds, so much the better. They were still talking when visitors arrived—Lieutenant Dan of the town watch, and several of the watchmen that Tyrius encountered the previous day. He cast a curious eye over Babshapka and Aurora, letting his eyes linger perhaps a few moments too long on the pretty half-elf. Then he turned to Tyrius and addressed him with a stern and non-nonsense tone, “I’ve come to meet you all and see that you found yourselves some honest lodgings. I want to see that you have paid Ruth here with good coin, and that you understand you now have six days left to find either employment or a patron.”
Tyrius sighed a nodded. Thokk picked at his teeth and sniffed at the air.
The watch officer levelled a finger at the half-orc and continued with the warning, “Understand that violence of any kind, including drawing weapons or threatening the townsfolk, will not be tolerated.”
“My good sir,” Tyrius said solemnly and with his best air of noble honor, “I assure you that my companions and I will cause no stir or trouble, that we have paid in full, and will pay for our future lodgings and all that we eat and drink in this good city, and that we will be on our way and gone from your fair town before Godsday next. In fact, we have taken up this good scholar and her warder, and we intend to accompany them on an adventure.”
“Pray tell, what is the nature of this ‘venture?”
The pretty half-elf stood and introduced herself with a flirtatious smile. “I am Aurora, a scholar from Ulek and a student of history and lore. Perhaps you can tell me something of the local history of Saltmarsh and then I will be able to tell you of the adventure we intend to undertake. I would be curious to know what dangers threaten the safety of these citizens and how the men of the local watch, brave men like yourself, deal with such dangers.”
The unanticipated attention from the beautiful and exotic-looking stranger discomfited the watch officer. He stammered, “There…there really are no current dangers to the town itself, and the watch…under my leadership of course…keeps things safe, quite safe enough.” He thought for a moment before adding, “In times past, Salters have seen marsh orcs come raiding, and there’s some that speak of curses from the occasional bog witch, and there have been goblin raids from the Dreadwood.”
“Those sound like formidable threats to me,” Aurora replied.
Lieutenant Dan drew himself up a little straighter and puffed out his chest, “Well, we Salters take care of ourselves well enough, though there be dangers aplenty. Pirates on the Azure Sea are always a concern, but they do not menace the town itself.”
Thokk leaned forward, taking in every word keenly.
“As a scholar of lore,” the watch officer continued, “You have no doubt heard of the Long Summer, some fifteen years ago, when the flickers came out of the marshes in the north and burnt and pillaged all up and down the Javan.”
“Of course, of course,” replied Aurora, “but that was long ago. Are there no dangers today that press upon the concern of the brave men of the watch?”
“Not at all. Under my watchful eye, Saltmarsh is peaceful and prosperous. And,” he added with just a bit too much emphasis and a menacing glance at Tyrius and his companions, “I intend to keep it that way, so if you and these would-be-heroes are seeking to sell your swords or find some adventure, you’ll will find nothing to interest yourselves hereabouts, and really should clear off sooner rather than later.”
The watch officer left, and Aurora put the same questions to Ruth, wondering if perhaps the Lieutenant might be concealing some matter which could prove useful to her investigation, but the matron’s answers were nearly identical to those of the watchman excepting that she made no remarks about clearing off. Ruth was apparently more than happy to accept their coin, and she assured them, “You are all welcome to stay at The Merry Mermaid as long as you would like.”
“I need to put together a few supplies and nose about a bit, and by now the merchants will be at their stalls. I should like to find some magical items or potions,” Aurora said to Babshapka. Turning to Tyrius, she invited, “If you and your friends have no better occupation this morning, you might come with us to explore the great city of Saltmarsh and find our first adventure!”
“I have purchases to make as well if we are to embark upon a holy quest,” Tyrius agreed. “We would be pleased to accompany you.”
As the five newcomers stepped through the door of The Mermaid and out into the city streets, they drew curious stares and gawking expressions from everyone they met. Elves and dwarves made an uncommon enough sight in their own right, but they were never seen in company together and as a strict rule, never in company with a half-orc. The odd party of strangers soon found the Lord’s Marketplace, an open-air collection of stalls with people of all sorts buying and bartering for the dozens of different supplies and luxuries available in a town of that size. Aurora seized upon the opportunity to talk to more than a score of stallkeepers and customers, asking each of them in turn the subtle questions about the history of the area and looming threats to the town while she pretended to be interested in the wares on display. Babshapka trailed her silently. His sharp eyes watched the people around her and how they reacted rather than bothering with the conversants themselves. The conversations all repeated the sentiments of the watch officer, though some sellers emphasized the threat of orcs more (especially when Thokk lumbered by), and others the bog witches, and others the goblins, the flickers, or the pirates; the litany of villains was the same, but none, it seemed, posed any consistent or immediate threat.
Aurora tried casting her nets for adventuring leads at a few more stalls, but she pulled them back empty. In addition to fishing for clues about conspiracies, she had asked about those who sold magical supplies, such as potions of healing, as well as quality incense (that she might use in her find familiar spell, although she did not mention that last part). Most of the townsfolk stiffened at the mention of magic, and a few even made signs to ward off evil. Some of the more trusting sorts took her request for “potions of healing” to mean herbal remedies, and they pointed her in the direction of the town’s herbalist, across the commons from the marketplace.
For his part, Tyrius organized the purchase of various supplies the group would need if they were to leave town together and enter the Dreadwood or some other adventure. “Does everyone have a waterskin? A bedroll? Is there enough cheese and hardtack for everyone for a week at least?” He made careful purchases, stretching the few coins that remained as far as possible, but he had difficulty concentrating on the task at hand. He had to spend as much effort keeping Thokk and Larry out of trouble as negotiating trades.
While Tyrius made purchases and Aurora made inquiries, Babshapka caught sight of the halfling scallywag from their ship wandering the stalls.
“So we meet again, and I see that you have taken up with characters more savory than sailors,” the halfling said sarcastically with a perfunctory nod toward Thokk and Larry.
“Not all that seems base is low, nor is every high thing lofty,” Tyrius said with some edge to his voice.
“Well priest, or whatever you are, if you want to know about things base and low, you need only ask,” the halfling said with a laugh and a bow.
“This is Barnabus,” Aurora explained by way of introductions, “A minstrel who sailed with us.”
“Would you care to see my instrument?” the halfling quipped while cupping himself obscenely. Thokk snarled and bared his teeth, and the smarmy smile quickly fled from the halfling’s face. Turning to address Aurora directly, Barnabus said with an exaggerated tone of sensual enticement, “I hope you found your accommodations satisfactory, if lonely. For my part, I took my repose in a fine inn with a bath and a feather pillow …”
Ignoring his solicitation, Aurora cut in, “We have agreed to adventure together with this noble paladin of Pelor and his charges. You should join us. Why sing for a few coppers when there is the promise of gold … and more?”
“Team with you?” he began loudly. “I wouldn’t…” he paused, his intended rhetorical performance, which he had practiced all morning and in which he planned on denouncing her for all the marketplace to hear as a shrill and fickle harpy, stalled on his tongue. “Everyone knows about adventuring groups, of course,” he said thoughtfully. “They merely set foot outside town and fissures in the earth open for them, leading to caves filled with monsters and treasures. If you fools want to tackle the monsters, I don’t mind a share of the treasures. I’ve heard it is said that adventurers even have magic items thrown at them by the denizens of the darkness. For a few useful magic items, I could swallow my pride and suffer even you, you annoying temptress!” Barnabus’ pride was strong, but his greed was stronger. “I wouldn’t want to refuse such a potentially lucrative venture. At least not until the next ship comes to town.”
Tyrius conferred with Barnabus and the two of them ticked through a mental inventory of supplies they might need for an extended journey before declaring their party fully equipped for travel. For all her efforts, Aurora had not acquired a single clue about a secretive Suel conspiracy, not any leads for a potential adventure of any type, nor even a single magic component. They left the marketplace and headed across the commons. The grass was a lush green, close-cropped by the grazing knots of sheep and goats that wandered here and there.
As they passed among the livestock, Aurora noticed a throng of children left the marketplace and followed them at a discrete distance. “It appears that we have acquired a small flock of our own,” Aurora said to Babshapka.
The elf sighed and spoke for the first time that day, “They have been following us ever since we entered the market. We have attracted every guttersnipe in town.”
An herbalist’s shop stood on the other side of the road from a much larger building of strange construction. It was all of wood, with a lower story and a roofless upper level. Both levels were without walls, with large timber support columns and beams that left the whole structure open to the elements except that the floor of the upper level formed the ceiling of the lower. An open spiral stair constructed of narrow planks set into a vertical post in the center of the lower level ascended precariously to a trapdoor without even a railing. Behind the building and perpendicular to it were a series of bound straw bales covered in lime—apparently archery targets for the town watch or whomever else practiced with a bow thereabouts. There was a single crude, scarecrow-like manikin as well, dented and pock-marked. A small shed behind the building was roofed with three walls, but one open side revealed several cut yew boughs curing.
As they drew still closer, they could spy wooden frames set with cressets on both the lower and upper stories of the open building. Tyrius was the first to take them for altars and the whole building a temple of some kind. Since all the walls were open, there did not appear to be an “entrance” per se, but he led them around to the side nearest the road for formality’s sake. Just then a man emerged from a small dwelling next to the temple, a house they later learned was the temple’s rectory. The man was dressed oddly, in loose breeches but without a shirt. He did, however, wear a light linen cape. The man’s pale skin was covered in freckles, particularly his broad shoulders and face. Undoubtedly his odd style was comfortable in the heat of the midsummer’s sun, but it seemed awfully immodest for local standards. Aside from Thokk, they had seen no-one bare-chested in town but infants.
In reply to Tyrius’ inquiry, the bare-chested man replied, “I am Aeravis, priest of Phaulkon. Yes, this building is the Aerie of Phaulkon, a temple to my god.”
“We are seeking potions of healing,” Aurora explained.
“I am a priest and can heal, but I do not mix potions. When someone comes to me with a wound or affliction, I pray over the person and offer what cure I am able in exchange for an appropriate donation to the Aerie.”
“Perhaps you have incense you might spare to sell us,” she persisted.
“The small store I possess I use for sacred services; I have none to spare. Such refined goods are hard to come by in this small town. But the next time a merchant ship makes port with incense and spices on board, if you are still in town, I will let you know.”
“You are the second priest we have met since coming to Saltmarsh. A priest named Flern met us at the docks.”
The priest of Phaulkon chuckled. “That ne’er-do-well? Let’s just say that some of us worship the wind, and some of us are blown by the wind from town to town. I wouldn’t get accustomed to seeing him around, if I were you.”
Aurora asked him about threats to the town, and he replied with the same litany as the others, but added one more. “The greatest threat here is complacency, of course. It has been peaceful so long that it is hard to get these staid townsfolk to prepare for danger. Look at yon gaggle of followers you have attracted,” he said and pointed to the children, most of them sitting in the shade of the bow shack or the practice targets, but still watching the party. “Why, there’s at least two of those strapping lads strong enough to string a bow, but do they come to practice of a week? No, the lazy urchins. Why don’t you ask them what threats they face? Most like their father’s belt is the only thing they ever were afeared of.”
Aurora laughed dismissively, but Tyrius looked suddenly inspired. He took out his brightest copper coin, then began tossing and catching it so that it glinted in the sun. Once he had attracted the attention of the youths he ambled slowly over to them. “We need to find real threats, not chasing boggarts,” Aurora called after him, but Tyrius ignored her.
Aurora crossed the street to try the herbalist’s shop but she found the door closed.
“Out gathering herbs,” called Aeravis and shrugged.
Tyrius greeted the children with a toss of his long golden hair, and one of them, apparently a girl beneath the street dust and scabbed knees, blushed. “So, I have a game for you,” he said in perfect Keoish, but his northern accent sounded exotic to their ears.
“A game?” they respond in chorus, some eagerly and some with suspicion.
“The game is this—I ask you a question, and if you answer truthfully, you get a copper sparrow.”
The youngest of the children began jumping, begging to be chosen, but the largest boy turned on them, brandishing his fist, and they sat down sullenly. He turned back around to Tyrius.
“Ain’t nothin’ fer free,” he says. “Wat’s ther catch?”
“The catch is this,” smiled Tyrius. “I am a servant of the Sun God,” and he pointed up at the disk of the sun, now almost directly overhead. “If you take my coin and lie to me, you’ll have him to reckon with.” The boy snorted—but he didn’t offer to play. Sensing the restlessness of his band, though, he waved another boy forward, smaller than him, but still one of the largest present.
“I’ll play,” said the youth.
“Alight,” said Tyrius holding forth his fist without releasing the coin, “Here is my question—What is it you fear the most in this village?”
“Me Pa, wen he’s been in ther cups!” the boy said without hesitation. A roar of laughter went up from the children. Tyrius smiled and handed the boy the coin. He was instantly mobbed by children all trying to see if it was real. He bit the metal and grinned.
Tyrius fixed his gaze upon the oldest girl and drew forth another copper from his pouch. “And you, young miss, what is it you fear?”
“I ain’t afeared o’ nothin’,” she said definitely, and then, when a nearby boy sniggered, she shoved him so hard he fell to the ground.
Tyrius closed his hand about the coin and frowned. “The coin is only for those who tell the truth,” he said, “those are my rules, and the rules of Holy Pelor.”
The girl stared at her feet. “Malenxa, the bog witch,” she whispered, and a few of the children shuddered. Tyrius tossed the copper at the spot where her gaze was fixed on the ground. She snatched the coin up, then took off at a run across the commons.
“I bet she be goin’ ter buy sweets!” said one of the smaller boys jealously.
“Nah,” said another. “She be buyin’ milk fer her baby sister. Her ma’s done gone dry, an’ don’t her sister holler all night!” That got much laughter as well.
Tyrius pointed at another youth, one of the smaller lads. He pulled a third coin from his purse. The boy started to answer, then stopped, then started again, and stopped. “Petey’s afeared o’ so much, ‘e don’t even ken what ‘e be afeared o’ ther most!” cracked the largest boy, and everyone laughed while the boy flushed.
“The alky-mist ghost!” the small boy blurted out, and the unruly crowd went coldly silent. Tyrius noted that a few of them made the ward against evil.
“Aurora…” he called over his shoulder. “You might want to hear this.”
The full tale took thrice as long to tell as necessary, with half of the children interrupting each other and trying to tell it at the same time. Just outside of town, along the coast road, on a lonely cliff overlooking the sea, was the abandoned house of a long-dead alchemist-magician. Even while alive he was an evil sort, but death made him worse, as his ghost haunted the house and killed, in quite terrible ways that seemed to vary with each child doing the telling, any who entered. That would not be so bad, were his spirit confined to the house. But there was one way (no, two! NO, three!) that he could actually leave the house. For anyone who walked the coast road (for business, travel, or even a spot of poaching in the wood) and passed the house, if they were incautious and allowed the shadow of the house to fall on any part of their body, then the ghost could leave the house, come to them at night, and strangle them in their bed. Furthermore, if one was so foolish as to travel the coast road by night, it was more than likely that one would see eerie lights, or hear screams, coming from the house. In that case, the ghost could also come to you. The only escape in any of these cases was to spend the next night in a temple, and any of the five temples in town would do. The ghost could not chase you on holy ground, and so would give up, return to his house, and you were safe.
When the tale was largely done, and the urchins were just arguing over details, and who really knew someone who was killed by the ghost, “no, really,” the party members looked at one another. Tyrius and Aurora found this as likely an adventuring idea as any they had heard so far. Larry grumbled that the undead are abominations and need to be destroyed. Babshapka rolled his eyes and said his duty was in protecting Aurora. Barnabus asked a few clarifying questions of the children—yes, the alchemist could turn lead into gold, and yes, there was a mysterious treasure still hidden in the house that was never recovered after he died—and then declared that he was “in.” Only Thokk objected. “Fah—a ghost is made of wind! Thokk’s mighty axe will cleave a ghost in one stroke, and the fight will be over too quickly to enjoy.” He reached for his axe to pull it out and demonstrate, and Tyrius had to physically restrain him.
“Yes,” said Tyrius as he struggled with Thokk, “an adventure outside of the town limits would be perfect.”
The party agreed to return to The Mermaid and collect their gear (including Tyrius’ chain hauberk, which he had not donned for town). They retraced their steps across the commons with the gaggle of urchins surrounding them, though several of the children were pulled away by angry parents upon their return to the market. Those that remained were chased off by Ruth and her broom when they arrived at The Mermaid. Unnoticed by the party, one of the youths was neither taken away by parents nor chased off by Ruth. Rather, he darted behind a stall as soon as they reached the marketplace, and then dashed off by himself down a side street. Ultimately, he arrived breathless at the shop of Master Merchant Murphy.
Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!2/23/2018;
Don’t miss chapter five, The Haunted House Saltmarsh. Follow greyhawkstories.com.