It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Seven
By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories
[Avast! Spoilers ahead.]
7 Goodmonth, 570
Tyrius, Aurora, and Barnabus held a hushed strategy session over breakfast. They sat by themselves at a different table from the other three party members, and they stopped talking whenever Ruth appeared from the kitchen. Tyrius reiterated, “We simply need to appear before the town council and tell them what transpired in the haunted house.”
Aurora shook her head emphatically, “You are being naïve!”
Barnabus agreed, leaned forward, and hissed, “No one needs know anything until we have determined the disposition of the recovered smuggled goods! We are in possession of bolts and bolts of silk, casks and casks of fine brandy. This is a fortune, and it belongs as much to us as to anyone. As soon as the council learns of this windfall, they will seize the goods without a second thought!”
Tyrius objected, “There is what is right and what is wrong, and I choose to be on the side of what is right. I will not be a party to theft, even if it be from thieves and smugglers. Surely the council members will appropriately reward us with a portion of the recovered goods, which is more than we had yesterday and as much as we deserve.”
Barnabus smiled impatiently, “Listen, noble knight. We can report everything we found in the cellar, down to the last gold earring if you want, but we are better off keeping what was found in the sea caves a secret until we find a way to move the goods to Seaton and sell them there, for the benefit of the whole party—equal shares all around. After all, we are the ones who risked our necks, not the council.”
Tyrius’ face darkened. His voice took on a note of firm resolve. “I will not lie, or hide goods for simple monetary gain.”
Aurora tried a more subtle approach. “Whomever was receiving these smuggled goods,” she explained, “is likely to be both wealthy and powerful. If they are not on the city council themselves, they are likely to have allies, eyes and ears, on the council. For all we know, the council itself could already be aware of the smuggling ring and be using it to enrich the town at the expense of the king!”
Barnabus nodded emphatically. Aurora continued, “I’m just saying that we have to tread carefully here. The smuggler could have given us the name of this Master Merchant Murphey as a ruse or decoy. If the council, or at least some members of it, are complicit, we will put ourselves in significant danger by exposing their secrets to the public. As strangers in town, we are more than likely to be set up as fall guys and find ourselves charged with the very crimes we are reporting. The less we reveal to the council, the better, especially about the sea caves. We are safer pretending we don’t even know about the caves, so that we don’t make anyone tip their hand.”
Tyrius considered that argument more seriously. “If you agree to report the matter, I will let you speak for us. Reveal as much or as little as seems to prudent to you, only do not ensnare us in a web of deceit. I will not lie. If I am asked a direct question, I will answer truthfully, if not fully. Nor will I allow you to blatantly mislead the councilmen.”
Aurora and Barnabus exchanged glances. The latter sighed and rolled his eyes before mumbling, “That’s the best we can expect from a paladin.”
Lieutenant Dan summoned the adventurers to the council meeting at mid-morning. Larry and Babshapka remained at the Merry Mermaid with the party’s gear. Thokk was left outside the council chambers with orders to guard their escape route (just in case one was needed) but otherwise not to interact with anyone. Tyrius, Aurora, and Barnabus were ushered in before the council.
Ten of the fourteen Saltmarsh council members awaited them in the room. Not all of the members could make it on such short notice. The worse for us, thought Aurora as introductions were made, for Murphey could well be one of those missing. All of those present were men, except for a priestess of Osprem, and all were dressed in fine, if not noble, clothes. There were other priests, a number of merchants and tradesmen, and various civil officials. It soon became clear that the meeting was being run by a man named Secun, who was the chief customs officer of Saltmarsh and an agent of the king himself. The others spoke only when he invited them to do so or, occasionally, when he did not object to their interruptions.
Aurora introduced herself as a traveling scholar of little account, here simply to document the exploits of an odd band of would-be adventurers. She told the council members of the party’s arrival in town just three days ago, of their lodging at the Merry Mermaid, of the warm reception they had received from the townsfolk. Recognizing Aeravis on the council, although in much finer robes than when they last saw him, Aurora even said that their decision to explore the haunted house had been upon his suggestion. The priest looked puzzled at this, but he did not contradict her.
Aurora described how they found nothing of interest in the upper part of the house (and she specifically did not mention Nadine) but how, upon finding a hidden basement, they were immediately set upon by a large band of ruffians. With a glance at Tyrius and Barnabas, she told of the silk and brandy found in the basement and how the sole survivor claimed to be a smuggler, their goods destined for “a merchant in town.” This last bit caused a stir of fevered whispering which Secun had to silence. Secun pressed Aurora for more information on this merchant. She scanned the faces of those present, looking for any betraying an expression of anger, fear, or guilt. “I do not suggest any accusation or raise any allegation,” she said carefully, “I merely repeat the words of the self-confessed smuggler, for whatever they are worth.”
Secun noted dryly, “Since your party failed to take any prisoners that could be interrogated by this council, but instead killed most, let some escape, and even freed one such man, you force us to take your word, not theirs. Did the prisoner mention the name of the merchant?”
Aurora felt her confidence wavering. She glanced nervously at Tyrius, and he returned an unblinking, serious stare. Aurora hesitated another moment, and then admitted, “The smuggler called him ‘Master Merchant Murphey.’”
Immediately the council erupted into a frenzied uproar. One merchant, a heavy fellow with quivering jowls, rose from his chair and moved to speak privately with Secun. The heated words of their exchange could not be overheard above the general din. Secun soon sent him back to his seat. A host of eyes followed the heavy man. Aurora took careful note of the man’s face. She did not remember his name from the introductions.
When the council was done asking questions, Tyrius presented them with the bolt of silk, the head of the gnoll, and the knight’s shield. The three of them left the room while the council deliberated. A servant brought refreshments. Eventually they were called back to the council chamber.
“The council thanks you for bringing this matter to our attention,” Secun said. “But we cannot take any definitive action without better evidence. We will dispatch a force of constables under the command of a customs officer to verify these things in the house itself.”
The high constable interjected, apparently repeating a previous petition, to be allowed town funds as a hazard bonus for his men, since “everyone knows that the house is cursed.” At a frown from Secun, he amended this to “because the common men believe the house is cursed,” but he maintained his petition until a quick vote was held which denied him the funds.
The council further resolved that a force of constables be sent to the various locations frequented by Murphey—his shop, his townhouse, his warehouse—and that he be brought in for questioning. Secun expressly warned the party not to interfere in that due process, as the council did not want to prejudice the witness before he had a chance to testify for himself under oath. Aurora agreed and they took their leave, but not before Secun further warned her, as a “simple scholar,” to stop trying to buy magic components in the town, since she was frightening the marketfolk.
“News travels fast in the small town, apparently,” Aurora observed as they made their way back to The Mermaid. “I just overheard that cooper say that the council is investigating Master Murphey about his involvement in the smuggling.”
“I heard the name among those goodwives,” Barnabas said with a nod toward a cluster of woman. “And all this before we are half-way back to the inn.”
Tyrius looked distressed. He turned to his companions and asked, “How will justice be served if the constables do not apprehend Murphey before he can catch word and escape? Should we not at least find the man, to ensure he does not flee?”
“You heard what the councilman said to me!” Aurora said. “You can do what you want. But I dare not further raise my own profile in this fish-scented town. I’m not for disobeying the direct orders of the town council.” She headed off toward the inn, not waiting to see whether or not the rest followed her.
“But you two are with me?” Tyrius asked hopefully. Barnabas shrugged his consent, and Thokk hefted his axe with a smile. “We need only find the shop of Master Murphey.”
The shop of Master Murphey turned out to be a general store. A crowd had already gathered around it, but the shop was closed, itself an oddity, and Murphey was nowhere to be seen. Tyrius pounded on the door and demanded entrance, but received no response. Thokk, not exactly knowing why they were there but excited by Tyrius’ calls, slammed his shoulder into the door and broke the simple latch. The trio searched the store, and even the stock rooms in the back, but found no trace of anyone. “He does not seem to be here,” Tyrius announced to the crowd. “But he will be found. Until then, see to it that not a single button is missing from this store, or you will have us to answer to for it.” After issuing the stern warning, he continued to busy himself with the search.
Watching from the crowd, in a simple brown threadbare peasant’s robe with a hood, Nadine saw the trio enter the store of her employer. She then slipped off around to the stable on the side, quickly saddled and bridled a riding horse, put a cart horse on a lead, then took both horses into the alley behind the shop. She returned to the stable, emptied a half-lantern’s worth of oil onto a manure pile, and used flint and steel to set it ablaze before returning to the alley.
“Fire!” called someone in the crowd when the flame became visible through the open stable door. The crowd took up the cry immediately; even those who did not see the flames. Precious few buildings in Saltmarsh were of stone. A fire could easily sweep through the town and in a few hours render dozens dead and hundreds homeless. The alarm spread and the constables dispatched to apprehend Murphey arrived on the scene just in time to forget their charge and join those running to wells with buckets.
Tyrius heard the commotion, exited the shop, and saw what was happening. He called Barnabas and Thokk to join him, and he took charge of the bucket brigade, organizing people into lines rather than each one haphazardly dashing about. Thokk returned to the store only long enough to grab a bushel basket of oranges before dumping out the fruits and heading off for a well with the basket. Barnabus contributed to the effort by setting pace for the crowd with a fast rhythmic sea shanty. His clear voice called out the cadence, and he accompanied himself on the lute. Sure enough, the people began to move the buckets back and forth in an efficient and tight choreography.
With everyone thus occupied, Murphey emerged from the secret attic of the store, exited through a back door, and met Nadine in the alley. He carried with him saddlebags full of food, gold coins, and even a few gems. He passed a small gem to Nadine while she held the riding horse for him to mount, and then he rode through the streets of Saltmarsh and out to the coast road, receiving only a few cries of “Isn’t that…” and “Hey, stop!” after him before he was away. Nadine walked the cart horse slowly to the other end of town before leaving. Murphey had a long head start on her and a saddle, but his horse was laden both with his baggage and his considerable bulk. She had no doubt she would be able to catch up with him before their arrival in Seaton.
An hour later, with the fire long extinguished and no one hurt, Tyrius and his two companions made their way to a warehouse said to be owned or rented by Murphey. A small party of local militia men intercepted them, and the leader of the group said, “Ye’re to return to The Merry Mermaid and stay there ‘til ye be summoned by the council.”
That evening, Tyrius, Barnabus and Aurora appeared before the council for a second time, and this time the council numbered thirteen, with the only missing member being the Lord of Saltmarsh himself. Secun was not the only councilman wroth with the party for expressly violating the mandate to leave Murphey alone. The high constable reported to the other members of the council, “Had it not been for the interference of these meddling strangers, my men would have taken Murphey alive!”
Tyrius apologized profusely. More than by his contrition, however, many on the council appeared mollified by the situation itself. With Murphey fled, the merchant could be declared guilty by admission in absentia, saving a prolonged and uncertain trial that would pit his word against that of the strangers. Even better, since Murphey had left no known heirs, the council was free to seize his considerable assets in the name of the town. More than one of them looked to profit either personally or professionally from his downfall, and it appeared to be only the officials of the viscount that were left out of the windfall and legitimately angry with the party.
Secun admitted that the constables and customs officers that had been dispatched to the “haunted” house had returned and reported that everything was exactly as the party claimed, further strengthening the case against Murphey and legitimizing the party’s story of having broken up a smuggling ring. While the viscount’s officials might not be getting a share of Murphey’s estate, they would likely receive a commendation or reward from the viscount or even the king for having ended this crime against the crown. Lastly, those on the council representing the temples of Saltmarsh thanked the party for helping to end the idea of the alchemist’s house as cursed and as a blight on the name of the town. The town council decided to award the party the impressive sum of 300 gold lions for their efforts to date in breaking up the smuggling ring, to be divided among the party members as they saw fit.
The high constable declared the slain gnoll a “monster” and all the slain smugglers to be “outlaws” so that the party would face no legal repercussions from their kin (charges of manslaughter, or claims of weregild) for their deaths. Moreover, the party was awarded the “Right of Pillage” on all goods recovered from the haunted house and sanctioned to take immediate possession of them. However, the council specifically and clearly stated that since the crown tax had not been paid on the silk and brandy, the party would have to pay the twenty-five percent duty on them to the custom house in order to take legal possession.
The council also offered to pay two nights’ food and lodging (from the time the party left the haunted house yesterday followed by the crowd, to tomorrow morning after tonight’s meeting with the council) at The Merry Mermaid from council funds. While the council did not grant title to the haunted house or its land as some in the party had been hoping for, they gave the party “squatter’s rights” to allow them to camp there free of any fee for the time being and without being charged with vagrancy.
Aurora asked, “Why would we want to camp there?”
Secun cleared his throat and told the high constable check the doors and windows to make sure there were no eavesdroppers hanging about before continuing, “Assuming the smuggler’s tale of supply by ship is true, it is very likely that the sea-based smugglers have no idea of your actions against their land-based crew, as there is no easy communication between the two groups. We therefore propose that a trap be laid, such that the next time the smuggler’s ship appears (which we estimate to be between two weeks and a month hence), you will row out to the ship, pretending to be the smugglers, and then seize the ship and take prisoner its crew. We are prepared to promise you fifty gold lions each to any of you who survive, as well as right of pillage for anything you manage to capture from the ship. If you agree to this generous arrangement, we ask that no more than half of your company be absent from Saltmarsh (or the house) at any point in time until the smuggler’s ship reappears and the matter is resolved. The customs house will send out patrols, day and night, of excise men to remain on the lookout for the ship and will notify you as soon as it is spotted.”
“We are grateful for the reward and find it more than generous,” Tyrius said on behalf of the party. “And I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are interested in your offer of future employment.”
“But we will need to discuss the offer with the rest of our companions,” Aurora added, with an eye toward negotiating a higher reward in the future.
That evening, Aurora gathered her five teammates at a single table at The Merry Mermaid and bade them drink as much ale as they would, for the council was buying. Even before the meeting was officially convened, everyone pledged to help in the upcoming battle against the sea-going smugglers. Once everyone had put down a first round, Aurora began talking of the future.
“First of all, everyone, congratulations on a wonderful and successful adventure! Despite a few missteps along the way, we’ve handled ourselves admirably and saved Saltmarsh from looming criminal activity right on its back doorstep. Cheers!”
The companions cheered. Thokk quickly quaffed another drink. Aurora noticed the other guests in The Mermaid trying to listen in on the conversation. Ruth stood in the door of the kitchen. Aurora lowered her voice before continuing. “However, I worry that we have stepped on quite a few toes in the doing. By now, my friends, you know me as a capable …” she leaned in and mouthed the words, “spell caster” before continuing, “in search of adventure, but a good friend of mine once wisely advised me to keep a low profile in this area of the world. This town harbors deep-seated prejudice against the magical arts, and so I present myself to others as a writer and common scholar. I believe it would be a wise course of action for me to burnish that side of my reputation. We’ve also irritated some members of the council (including the rather important Master Secun himself) in the way our efforts were concluded, so I think a little massaging of the egos of the local community is also in order. I think that I can help kill two birds with one stone and offer to publish an extremely flattering account of our latest activities as a broadside. How does this sound to everyone…”
Aurora wrote with an imaginary quill in the air as she recited loudly, “…A lowly group of ragtag mercenaries are hired in secret by the Saltmarsh town council to investigate a local building of suspicion. Disbelieving the legends of ghosts and necromancers, the wise high constable, chief customs officer, and lord of Saltmarsh encouraged the mercenaries to infiltrate the house and learn the truth of the situation, fearing that the house may present a threat to the town or the king’s authority in the region. Proving their suspicions correct, the mercenary band uncovers an extensive smuggling operation and learns of a local contact in Saltmarsh working with the smugglers to defraud the king of justly-earned tariffs! On instruction from chief customs officer Secun, the mercenaries were then sent to reconnoiter merchant warehouses believed to be the most likely sources of the urban contact. Once again validating Master Secun’s outstanding deductive skills, the fence of the goods was quickly revealed as a local merchant. Sadly, though, the deceitful merchant set fire to a stable and threatened to burn down not only the stables and the general store (containing much of the evidence against him), but half of Saltmarsh itself! Good Master Secun and the council courageously ordered the mercenaries to divert all their efforts to fighting the raging fire, saving the town in the process, but granting the criminal flight. The council has now set its goal toward ending the smuggling operation for good and restoring the king’s authority to the region in their charge.”
The rest of the group chuckled over their drinks as Aurora slid into old habits of storytelling, but they agreed that it couldn’t hurt to try to mend a few bridges with their current employers.
“That is all fine and well,” mused Barnabus, “but not many of the folk hereabouts can read. Mayhap you should write your account for the parlors of the elite, while I compose a ballad for the public houses frequented by the commoners…”
“Indeed,” agreed Aurora. “Also,” she continued, “I suggest that we offer to keep ourselves somewhat secluded in the ‘haunted house’ to help avoid any further unpleasantness from occurring in this provincial little town. We could even fund a few structural repairs to the home and suggest that, with our help, the haunted house could be turned into a minor attraction along the coast road after we’ve dealt with the smugglers— ‘come relive the terrifying tale of the haunted house of Saltmarsh!’ Of course,” Aurora rolled her eyes, “the council’s wisdom and loyalty to the king will be a central part of the information presented on tours, and proceeds from the house can benefit Saltmarsh at their discretion for years to come. We can use all this as a perfect excuse for making a few trips to Seaton. I, for example, ‘need to pick up supplies’ for writing the account of the council’s heroics.”
Chuckles erupted from the party members. “Actually,” she whispered, “I am anxious to meet with someone who might teach me a few new tricks, and I could use some additional reagents for spells I think we all might find handy. We’ll need some basic lumber and building supplies for stabilizing and improving house, too. Tyrius, you mentioned you’re wanting to visit a temple as well.”
“Just so,” replied the noble paladin. “I am told there is a temple to Sol in Seaton. Many of my faith consider Sol and Pelor to be two faces of the same god. I doubt I will find a temple to Pelor here in the south, so I would wish to be shriven by a priest of Sol in recognition of the divine providence we received in routing the smugglers.”
“While we’re there,” continued Aurora, “we might as well sell off the treasure we collected at top coin. Surely we can find multiple goldsmiths, curio shops, and gem shops in such a big city. Collecting bids and bartering up the price will likely get us a far better deal than we could in turning over our spoils to the merchants of Saltmarsh. Seaton is likely to have a few trading houses where we can stash something for a rainy day, as well.”
Barnabus suggested that if they were selling things in Seaton, he was sure he could move the silks and brandy without paying the king’s tariff, but Tyrius informed him that that was not going to happen. After the drinks and celebration, the party stayed the night in The Merry Mermaid. Barnabus was already at work on his ballad as the rest of the party drifted off to bed.
Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!
Don’t miss chapter eight of It Started in Saltmarsh: “Sanballet’s Refrain.” Follow greyhawkstories.com for the next exciting story.