It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Nine
By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories
8 Goodmonth, 570
Barnabas reclined against the contraband in the back of the wagon, paying no attention to the excise officers driving him. Tom held the reigns, and his sister sat up front beside him. As the ill-mannered halfling bard crooned about his heroics, Willa and Tom shared a secret smile and a roll of the eyes.
Willa still wore her heavy suit of chain armor. Though it was second-hand and ill-fitting when she acquired it, it was a prized possession—a present from Secun from when she made corporal. She had worn it on the coast road and the Bale road numerous times, and it even saved her from a blade once. She also carried her preferred weapons, a longsword and dagger. The dagger was for close-quarter fights when the craft was so small that a step could unbalance it, but she preferred the sword any time the deck was stable. If there was space, she preferred to use the sword two-handed for maximum effect, though she had been known to switch to one-handed so as to throw her dagger left-handed, a move seldom suspected. She did not carry a shield. Lots of the excise officers did carry them, but she found them completely impractical at sea.
“I’d like to lay hand on a greatsword,” she thought to herself, “And mayhaps I will if I can make any claim to fair share of wha’e’r becomes this booty.”
Wilhelmina ‘Willa’ Stoutly was a lifelong “Salter,” born in Saltmarsh as the first child of a poor fishing family. Her father owned a small rowboat but mostly worked on the larger trawlers of more prosperous men. Her early life had been happy enough, with a kind and industrious mother and a hard-working and indulgent father. Her father didn’t begrudge her being a girl and indeed raised her to know the fishing craft as well as he did. Neighbors often said he simply never noticed that Willa was a girl, which was fine with her, as she was strong, swift, and adventurous.
She had lived so long as an only child, until the advanced age of eight, that she simply assumed she would always be one, and perhaps her parents did as well. Everyone seemed surprised when her mother was again with child. Still, Willa was a big girl (nearly a maiden!), confident in her parents’ love, and did not worry overly much about the new arrival.
Willa and her father were off fishing, more from pleasure than necessity, when her new brother Tom was born. The boy entered the world with an unexpectedly difficult birth and her mother passed soon after. The death of his wife devastated Willa’s father. He went through the motions of providing for the family, but the joy had gone out of his life. The sympathy and charity of neighbors kept the babe in milk for a year or so, but after that it increasingly fell to Willa to look after the family. The more she grew, the more responsibilities she could assume as her father retreated into idle depression and drink. Yes, she resented the sibling that had cost her both her parents, but she was also the only one keeping Tom alive, and as he grew, he did show her all the affection and appreciation that a child would its parent. He was never as serious as she, never as responsible, but then he never had to be.
Willa was twelve or thirteen (she hadn’t yet bled) when the militia officers began to hassle her father for not showing up for the monthly drills, or, when he did show up, for being drunk. After numerous warnings, he spent a weekend in the stocks. The next time muster was called, Willa went in his stead. The pimply-faced sergeant told her she couldn’t represent her family as long as there was an able adult male, and she told him she would go home if he could beat her two falls of three in wrestling. When she pinned his arm behind his back and made him cry yield on the first bout, he didn’t ask for a second fall.
Willa found she actually enjoyed the militia, especially the weapons training. When she acquitted herself well in a skirmish with marsh goblins, she was hooked. She put in for auxiliary patrol duty, up and down the road to Fort Bale. The patrol work was occasional, but it was a guaranteed wage, and better than fishing all day and coming home with empty nets.
The real breakthrough came when a position as an excise officer opened up. Sure, her sex was held against her, but the Saltmarsh Customs House had no one else at the ready who could both competently swing a sword and navigate a boat. Her corporal told her that she would be replaced as soon as they did find someone, but she managed to distinguish herself in an encounter with pirates and get promoted before they dismissed her, and after that she became a fixture. Excise work was still part time, but it was regular and any one day spent checking tariffs and cargos earned her as much as three to five days fishing on her own.
Now, at twenty-five and already an “old maid,” she had attained the rank of corporal. The Customs Master, Secun, trusted her implicitly. He said more than once, “I’d name ye capt’n o’ ther excise off’cers in an ’artbeat if I thought the ‘pointment be ‘proved by the Viscount.” More often than not, Willa found herself to be the ranking officer on missions, so she commanded in fact if not in title. Now that her brother Tom had reached the age of 15, she was able to bully and cajole him into starting as an excise officer too. He preferred the freedom of private fishing, but how he intended to ever make enough money to take a wife he had never been able to articulate. He protested, “I’ve no plan to marry,” but then again, as far as Willa could see, he had no plans for anything, and considering the number of maids he frequented, it could not be long before one was found to be carrying. Tom actually did a decent job at officering, so long as Willa was not in his group.
Several days earlier, Willa heard the commotion about the strangers who arrived in town and claimed to have explored the haunted house. They supposedly discovered a smuggler’s nest, though their claims sounded long on conjecture and short on evidence. Willa never doubted that there were smugglers involved, and now she had all the evidence she needed loaded in the wagon, but the real motives of the strangers, with not a one of them a crown subject, remained suspect to her. Could they have been working with the smugglers all along? Could they be attempting to gain some sort of local notoriety to hatch an even bigger crime? They had driven merchant Murphey out of town without a trial and upset the town council to no end. Her patron Secun, in particular, had some choice words for them that almost brought a blush to her cheeks, and she reckoned she could sling invectives with the saltiest sailor. The council wanted them to seize the smuggler’s supply ship when next it makes port. Secun told Willa that she was to go with them.
“So far as they know,” Secun said, “You will be there to navigate and assist, but your real job will be to find out more about them, especially whether they are who they are presenting themselves as and whether they are representing their actions accurately to the council.” Secun let her choose one private to take with her, and she picked Tom. Ordinarily she would take anyone else, as he always found a way to subvert her authority on missions, but in this case he was the only one she could trust not to mouth off in town about their real mission.
“Thank you for conveyance,” Barnabas said as he clambered off the back of the wagon outside a tavern in Saltmarsh. “This lucky establishment will enjoy the official debut of my epic new ballad tonight, and I will enjoy a night of generous tips, food and drink, and, unless things go in some unexpected direction, a companion to warm my bed tonight.” Gathering his things, Barnabas offered a quick bow to Willa and Tom before striding into the tavern, whistling the tune from the refrain, “Of Barnabus the minstrel!
“Ye gonna go ta ‘ear ‘im tonight?” Tom asked with a knowing smile.
“I’d as soon take ‘im out, toss ‘im into ther Azure an see if an ‘obniz can swim.”
Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!
Artwork: Félix Ziem: Tunny Fishing
Don’t miss chapter ten of It Started in Saltmarsh: Taking Care of Business
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