Swimming Lessons

It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Eleven

By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories

13-22 Goodmonth, 570

By midmorning, the party had returned to Saltmarsh. Acting with alacrity, Tyrius went straightaway to the Customs House where he found Secun already at a table working through a pile of papers. The townsman rose to greet the young paladin, and Tyrius returned the gesture with a polite bow before handing him the still-sealed letter from the Viscount.

Secun broke the seal and read the letter on the spot, nodding as he went. When he finished, he returned to his chair behind the table, tucked the parchment away, and motioned for Tyrius to take a seat in an open chair. Tyrius shook his head, “Thank you my lord; I will remain standing for now, until I have heard your words.”

“Well, the Viscount has approved the operation and we are now officially sanctioned to proceed. Saltmarsh is prepared to offer your party the following, in addition to our previous considerations: The merchants on the council will purchase any captured goods your party wishes to sell or turn into cash, whether left over from the house or what you may acquire in the future from the smuggler’s ship. The price will be a fair one. If your party prefers to take possession of the goods and contraband and sell them yourselves in Seaton, you are free to do so.

“Moreover, should your party require any gear for your assault on the smuggler’s ship, and it is not available here in Saltmarsh, the merchants on the council have agreed to import such goods for the market price in Seaton, with no markup or charge for the transportation.

“Finally, the clergy on the council will agree to make available to your party healing or other divine assistance and services for the rates generally applied to favored non-worshippers.”

Tyrius bowed again and thanked Secun, “With the favor of the divine light and the consent of all the gods of right and law, we will not fail the Council, nor the Viscount, nor the King.”

Tyrius returned to meet the rest of the party at The Mermaid. Babshapka successfully located Barnabus and had some limited success rousing him despite his objections about the early hour (it being already midday). Once they had assembled in the common room downstairs, Aurora took charge of proceedings. “Our first order of business is to use my new pearl to identify the magic stone that Tyrius obtained from alchemist’s remains.”

Tyrius reached into the pouch at his side, but an expression of dismay came over his face as he felt around inside for the stone. He quickly searched his bag and his pockets, emptying contents onto the table and double-checking his things. “Alas, what sin have I committed to suffer such misfortune of chance?” he protested.

All the while Thokk scowled darkly, his eyes darting about to each face. “This glowy-stone?” he asked, drawing the magical gem forth from his own pouch.

“How did you get that?” Tyrius exclaimed, more in surprise than reproach.

“Found it after you leave!” Thokk said defensively. “Tyrius plays a trick and hides it in Thokk’s pouch to test him?” He bared his teeth, and added sarcastically, “Very nice friend!”

“I swear on my honor, I did no such deceit,” Tyrius protested with a vigorous shake of the head.

“I don’t like the sound of this,” Aurora said quietly and warily. “Thokk, please give it me, and I will get to the bottom of this trickery.” She glanced over to the innkeeper who sat at a table across the common room, busying herself peeling onions and trying to appear as if she was not listening in on the conversation. “Ruth,” Aurora said. “I’m exhausted from the morning’s hike, and I would like water and a room upstairs to lie down in before lunch.”

Once her privacy was secured, Aurora arranged the supplies needed to create a magical potion which should give her the ability to identify the properties of a charmed object. She injected the concoction along with the pearl, waited a moment for the magic to take effect, and then turned her attention to the glowing stone. “A luckstone,” she heard herself say. “No,” she corrected herself, “A cursed luckstone.” In the gleaming facets of the gem, she seemed to momentarily see the features of Thokk’s face. “So you’ve chosen yourself a victim,” she said to the evil stone. “He was the first to take you from the alchemist, wasn’t he? And I suppose you are also responsible for the death of the alchemist.”

The stone glowed softly with an evil light. Aurora carefully wrapped it up in a kerchief, dropped it into a leather pouch, pulled the drawstring, and tied it up tight. In just the time it took her to walk downstairs to report her findings to the party, however, the stone had disappeared from her pouch and reappeared in Thokk’s pouch. Eyes now wide with fear, Thokk pulled it forth. “Throw it in the sea!” he said, but even as he said the words, his fingers closed around it possessively.

Aurora shook her head, “If only it were that simple.”

“Well done, half-blood,” Barnabas said sarcastically. “Leave it to you to pick up a bad luckstone. I suppose it’s going to turn you queer in the head and we’ll have to kill you.”

“What if we buried it or crushed it?” Larry suggested.

“The magic is too powerful,” Aurora explained. “Besides, even if we actually could destroy it, it is now linked to Thokk and we might do him harm in the process.”

“If it’s a cursed item,” Tyrius said, “perhaps a blessing can reverse it.”

Aurora, Tyrius, and Thokk set off for the temple of Phaulkon to beseech the aid of the priest. To their great relief, Aeravis said, “I will be able to remove the curse, but it will cost you more than a copper sparrow.”

“We have received the assurance of the council that the priests of Saltmarsh will provide us whatever divinities or sanctities we require at the same fair price that might be applied to favored non-worshippers,” Tyrius stated.

“Favored non-worshipper?” Aeravis said quizzically, his eyes locking with Aurora’s. “I wonder how this girl divined the nature of your cursed gem.”

Aurora returned his gaze without flinching, but her face betrayed her discomfort. “I’m a scholar,” she replied weakly.  “I have read of such things before.”

“Well, girl,” the priest said, “I’ll favor you, though you be a stranger and a non-believer. I’ll even favor this outlaw half-blood if the council tells me so.” Aeravis said. “For 65 gold lions my blessing will remove the curse.”

Aurora’s heart sank, but there was nothing for it except to agree to the terms and let the priest do his work. He took the gem and inspected it before turning his attention to Thokk. The half-orc trembled, visibly disturbed. The entire ritual took only a few moments. Some incense, an invocation, a brief prayer, and the priest laid his hands upon the half-orc’s head. Then he closed the stone in an engraved wooden box.

“It’s done,” he said.

“How do we know?” Aurora demanded. “What if it didn’t work?”

“Forgive her impertinence,” Tyrius apologized. “She does not mean to blaspheme.”

Having now spent most of the party’s reward money, they returned to The Mermaid where Ruth’s soup had grown cold. Organizing her thoughts in her head as she ate, Aurora decided to explain their financial situation as the result of “identifying and removing the curse.” She omitted mentioning to Barnabus that she spent far more on purchasing another pearl and copying spells. Sighing heavily, she added, “Well, there’s nothing for it. Our grand plans to disband and retire to a life of luxury after capturing this smuggling ship are going to have to be set aside for a while. I foresee us traveling and working together for quite some time into the future if you’re all up for it. As things stand now, we can scarcely afford to rooms for the night, so I propose we return to our post at the alchemist’s house.”

“Suit yourself,” Barnabas said sourly. “I have a show tonight and a comfortable bed awaiting me after. I’ll join you on the morrow, but from now on, no one spends a copper of the common purse without common consent!”

That comment put the party into an argument over who was the leader and who had the authority to spend the proceeds of their adventures for the common benefit of all. It quickly became apparent that both Aurora and Tyrius considered themselves to be the one in charge, but neither one wanted to take the responsibility for having spent down the purse. As the argument continued, a bleary-eyed Wilhelmina Stoutley appeared at the front door of The Mermaid. She scolded the party, “In yer absence, me an’ Tom’s been patrollin’ ther coast at night, e’en though none o’ ther council be think’n the ship’ll come in so soon.”  As if there might be spies everywhere, she dismissed Ruth (who said she needed to go to market in any case), closed the shutters (over everyone’s objections with the room already overly hot) and posted Tom outside. The she asked, “Now tell me, ‘ow far has yer plannin’ and prep’ration come?”

“We plan to wait until one of the excise officers sees the ship,” Aurora said with a note of defensiveness in her voice. “They will alert us by rowing to the hidden sea cave, and then we will row out in the captured jollyboat to meet the smugglers.”

“And then?” Willa demanded.

“Well we … I mean to say, then, well at that point,” Aurora stammered before admitting, “Actually, we haven’t discussed the details further than that.”

Willa was not impressed. She peppered them with questions and seemed dubious about their abilities. “Can any of ye swim? Can ye row? Can ye row quietly? What ‘bout ther signalin’ system? ‘ave any of ye learnt thar lantern code? Will ye be wearin’ armor? What happens if one o’ ye falls into the sea while wearin’ armor? ‘ave you thought t’ pr’pare a charm ar twain?” A three-hour strategy session followed, with much back and forth. Only when Ruth reappeared in the late afternoon, saying she absolutely must start on supper, did Willa relent and let the party go.

“Except for Barnabas, we are all returning to the alchemist’s house,” they told her, “And we’ll prepare our own meal there.”

“That’ll do jus’ fine,” Willa said. “But on the morrow at firs’ light, we begin trainin’ with swimmin’ and rowin’.”

Willa told Tom that he would be taking the nightly patrol by himself that night, as she intended to accompany the party to the house. The excise cutter was to be docked in Saltmarsh at the end of each of its patrols so as not to draw attention to the house. When they reached alchemist’s house, the party immediately began preparing an evening meal while Willa inspected the smugglers’ jollyboat. She was pleased to find that there was sackcloth for muffling the oarlocks, and two grappling hooks, but she was dumbfounded to learn that the party had not even looked in it yet! She shook her head in disbelief at the party’s incompetence.

The next day, Willa had the party in the jollyboat as soon as it was light enough to see in the sea cave without a torch. As a small mercy, she said they would train on the rowing while the morning air remained cool and then move to swimming in the heat of the day. She arranged the party’s seating in the jollyboat, explaining to them the importance of balancing their weight especially port and starboard but also fore and aft. She rowed them out of the cave itself, and even the most casual of them was immediately impressed by the skill and strength she needed to get them beyond the surf zone of water crashing on the huge rocks that concealed the entrance of the cave. Once they were out in calmer, open water, she allowed them turns on the oars. First Thokk and Tyrius tried rowing, each alone, with two oars, and then she put them together in teams, such that each of them handled a single oar but the two sides of the boat were rowed in tandem. After much practice, and after all were hot and sweaty, she took them away from the house and along the rocky coast until she spied a small spit with a protected tide pool behind, only perturbed by the largest of waves. Beaching the jollyboat, she had them strip down to small clothes, wade into the water, and practice floating. Babshapka and Thokk needed no swimming lessons. While the others made short ventures out to the open water and back by doggy-paddle, Thokk whooped and hollered as he splashed about. He also ended up drinking far more salt water than he should have, being used to rivers mountain streams. Willa told him he would pay for that later. When they were all cold, shivering, and cramping, she allowed them back in the boat and told them that they could warm themselves by rowing back to the cave.

Barnabus joined the party at the house while they were at lunch. Despite protesting, “I was born on a ship … nearly,” Willa insisted he join the rest in the afternoon’s swimming and rowing lessons. That evening every member of the party nursed tried muscles, aching bones, and blistered hands. Even the indefatigable Babshapka seemed spent.

“Now wouldn’ it be a fine dereliction of our duty if we didn’ set a watch o’er ther sea by night,” Willa said knowingly. Over their objections, she drew up a watch schedule. She sent the first watcher up to the second floor to take a shift at the window. More than one of them ended up spending their “watch time” asleep leaning against the wall of the room upstairs.

The swimming and rowing lessons continued for the next several days. Rather than losing the opportunities for spellcasting, Aurora used her daily allotment of magical potential to place an enchantment of magical armor over herself, Babashapka, and Tyrius before they slept each night. “It’s better than wasting the spells,” she explained, “And it makes me stay in practice.”

With Thokk and Tyrius now potentially capable of rowing the jollyboat each by himself alone, and the others capable so long as they worked with a partner, some of the party put forth that it might be best to have the smuggler’s jollyboat act as a decoy, rowing slowly out to the ship, while the excise cutter snuck around from the seaward side with the real boarding party. To accomplish this, they decided that they would need more grapnels, so they requested that Willa purchase those in town, along with a set of dark cloaks for all of them to hide their features. Further, they debated among themselves about what to do with anyone on the ship who might surrender to them. The disposition of prisoners proved to be a major point of contention after the fight with the smugglers before, and they did not wish to make that mistake again, especially in a time-sensitive situation. After much circular discussion, Tyrius finally suggested that they request instruction from the council, as that could obviate the need for debate. Willa said that she would venture into Saltmarsh to report to the council the next morning, provided that the group promised to practice without her supervision.

Willa returned in the afternoon with the grapnels and with clear instruction: the party must not under any circumstances let any of the officers go, nor were any deals to be struck with them. They must be captured if possible and turned over to the council; if they could not be captured, the officers must be killed. However, any common smugglers could be dealt with at the discretion of the party. Willa had further news of interest. After considerable debate, the council had granted the party’s “right of pillage” to extend to the smuggler’s ship itself! The party had not thought to ask about this, but were very pleased to learn it. “Ye can thank me fer that bit too,” Willa said with a grin. In fact, Willa had put the question to the council herself, since after several nightly strategy sessions, she had become increasingly concerned by Aurora’s repeated requests for her to purchase acid in town, and even more concerned about Larry’s declaration, “First we thunderwave to clear the deck! Then we set the ship on fire! Burn it down and let it sink!” Willa had decided it would be better for all concerned to give the party a reason to capture the ship intact.

A few days later, Willa gave the party a “holiday in town.” It was good for everyone to let loose a bit after having lived in close quarters in the cellar for nearly a week. Willa arranged for a tour of a trading cog captained by a friend of hers (Captain Saul) who was in port for the day. They studied it from the docks, then went above and below decks, getting a feel for the size and space, approaches, how to manage the ladders between decks, and so forth.

Rather than walking back out to the house in the afternoon, Willa and Tom sailed them back in the excise cutter. The party was now set on their strategy involving both the jollyboat and the cutter, so Willa had persuaded Secun that the cutter needed to be based in the sea cave rather than the town. Tom joined them in the cellar.

That evening, a new strategy session was launched. They all agreed on the dual approach to the smuggler’s ship, but they decided that most of the party would need to be in the smuggler’s jollyboat so as not to arouse suspicions from the ship. Thokk and Barnabus, the huge half-orc and diminutive halfling, were the least likely to be mistaken for smugglers, so they would be in the excise cutter and try a stealthy approach, passing beneath the prow of the smuggler’s ship and attempting an unseen boarding on the far side. Barnabus could then attempt to eliminate opposition without being seen, while Thokk created a distraction on deck that might allow those in the jollyboat to board. Starting the next day, Thokk practiced rowing the cutter by himself.

Although Luna was nearing full, summer storm clouds were building at sea and the nights were growing darker. Willa believed the smugglers might try to use the weather to get near shore without being seen, and she felt such an attempt was imminent. That night, at the strategy session, she said, “I’ll be contactin’ ther council on ther morrow.”

In the morning, Willa returned to Saltmarsh to give another report to the council, and the party practiced on their own. Tom seemed content to sleep all day after patrolling all night in the cutter. When Willa appeared in the evening, she brought strange news and a stranger person with her. The news was that, by order of the council, Tom would not be going with them in the boarding attempt, rather, the stranger would. Over their objections, Willa reminded them that someone would need to remain at the house to signal the ship even after they launched, “Altho’ o’ course ye hae not considered t’at afore now.”

The strange woman with Willa was slight of build, almost frail in appearance, although she moved with a fluid grace. She wore simple traveler’s robes and carried a staff, with no obvious weapons or armor about her. But it was her skin that was the most striking. It was of a golden hue such as none of them had ever seen before. She had green eyes. Her eyebrows indicated that she should have dark black hair, but her head was smoothly shaven. She spoke an oddly accented Common, and with a little questioning, Aurora determined that the newcomer was of the Baklun people, from far to the north and west, in a place she called the “Plains of the Paynims.” How she was to assist the party in taking the ship or why the council insisted on her presence was not explained.

The new woman, who called herself “Shefak Ishu,” remained silent during the nightly deliberations and strategy sessions, but she participated in the rowing and swimming, and she even took her turn at the nightly watch. Aurora pressed her for details and fished for information.

Shefak Ishu was born to a wandering tribe of horse nomads in the Plains of the Paynims. Although physically weak, she was considered wise beyond her years by the holy women of the tribe. When she was a girl, her tribe’s travels took them near a temple to Xan Yae, “The Lady of Perfection,” the Bakluni goddess of Mental and Physical Mastery. She enrolled as an acolyte, with her family hoping that she would become a priestess. After years of training, she found that she excelled more at physical combat than prayer and spell-casting, so the rashaw moved her from the divinity studies to the halls of the devout—a marital order of disciples not unlike the monks of other temples.

“In the halls of the devout, I learned the story of Zuoken, the most perfect disciple of Xan Yae,” the newcomer confided in Aurora. “Three score years ago, Zuoken was imprisoned, but no one knows where. It is the goal of every devotee of Xan Yae to find and release Zuoken.”

“And you think you will find him on a smuggler’s ship?”

The girl smiled and shook her head. “When I completed my training, I asked for permission to travel and look for clues as to where Zuoken might be imprisoned. I followed the rising sun to the east and the rivers to the south. After months of travel I came to this kingdom. The people of these lands all stare at me. I suppose they have never seen a Bakluni woman.”

“But why here? Why Keoland and Saltmarsh?” Aurora asked.

“There is an ancient forest called the Dreadwood, which is supposed to be home to many evil secrets. Rumors led me to believe I should begin my quest for Zuoken under those trees. I travelled to the city of Seaton, trying to find people who could guide me to the Dreadwood, but the local constables harassed me and accused me of witchcraft. They do not appreciate the presence of a Bakluni woman in their heathen town. But I did nothing illegal, nor did I put any hex on anyone, so they have been unable to arrest or deport me.

“One week ago, a representative of the Viscount of Salinmor (who is also the Lord of Seaton) summoned me to appear before him. He told me about all of you and your mission, and he suggested that, if I join you on your mission, you might assist me on mine.”

Aurora smiled inwardly.  Her ultimate goal of assembling a team of adventurers to explore the Dreadwood was one step closer to completion.

Two days after Shefak’s arrival, thick storm clouds obscured the sky, and a light fog was on the water. Far off at sea, heat lightning flashed on the horizon, but no sound of thunder reached the shore. Most of the party were asleep when Tom burst into the cellar from the secret door to the sea cave, shouting that he had spotted a ship. Without pausing to answer questions, he grabbed a lantern and headed up the stairs to the house, ready to return the smuggler’s signals.

Oh, the blades did flash, the blood did flow,

Thokk’s anger it did kindle,

but through it all there shone the smile,

of Barnabus the minstrel!

Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!

Don’t miss chapter twelve of It Started in Saltmarsh: Battle for the Sea Ghost. Follow greyhawkstories.com for the next exciting story. 

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