It was a dark and stormy night, not fit for beast nor man. An unholy storm wrecked its wrath upon the town, besieging all. For those of the Shackles, a storm such as this would usually signal the arrival of the Eye. But this was something else. No less fierce than the Eye of Abendego in its intensity the storm raged. But of this tempest, there seemed an underlying current of unrest and villainy which seemed to taint the storm this night.
For days the docks had been still. No captain with a flint of sense would dare set sail under these conditions. Over long years, the rocks offshore had caused the death of many a fine, and many an unworthy, ship. Under the best of conditions plowing the ways to the Port Peril was treacherous. Under the demon-like deluge it now was under, downright suicide.
Those in town who had sense remained holed up in their shacks and rooms. For days the storm had thrashed unabated, making a miserable life in that armpit of a town even more miserable. Storms like this couldn’t last forever. Common sense told one that. But then again, a storm such as this has rarely been seen in the Shackles, so common sense was a poor compass for deciding the staying power of the storm.
But now, some activity was seen at the docks. A captain pushed and cursed a few rain drenched sailors through preparations to set to sea. The sailors, long accustomed to the most fierce storms at sea, still looked at the rain clouds with fear. The ship’s crew had suffered mightily during their last voyage, and now they were under-crewed. They wondered, silently, if their captain had finally lost his senses, which would lead to the death of them all.
But they were of no position to argue – the whip from a taskmaster cracked frequently, and the sailors continued upon their preparations as best they could. “Move lively, you scum” the villain shouted. “We be putting sail before morn. The captain senses this storm will break ere day, and we will sail with the tide.”
“With half a crew?” one of the bedraggle ones laments.
A fresh crack of the whip, and another welt upon the sailor is revealed. “Don’t you worry about the crew. The captain right now is recruiting another fine lot. We’ll be fully crewed, don’t you worry. Now back to work.” The whip cracks once more, this time in unison with a peal of thunder, and the crew tucks their rain-besotted heads down and return to their labors.
The smoke-filled room swarmed with the worst of humanity. Seeking shelter from the raging storm outside, a mass of humanity had crowded into this already overcrowded tavern. With ships not being able to set sail for days now due to the storm, the taverns have been packed with those caged souls. Unable to salve the yearning to put to sea, the crews of many a merchant vessel, and other untitled of a villainous nature, sought diversion upon land.
So it was to the tavern adjoining the Crescent harbor the surliest gathered. Loud music, laughter, pipe burn, and the occasional knife filled the air. Well-worn barmaids carried pitchers of ale, helpless to stop the constant onslaught of roving hands. The more deft and practiced purveyors of ale could avoid the worst of these assaults, sending out well-aimed kicks to shins while parlaying the occasional allowed grope for an extra coin in recompense, to the seemingly never-ending amusement of the patrons. But even these veterans were put to their limit, and more often than not yielded dejectedly, accepting the evils which their ration in life and the storm had wrought.
This night, a half-dozen group of newcomers had gathered within the tavern as well. Their first time in Port Peril, perhaps they now wonder if this tavern was the best selection the district had to offer. But this tavern had to suffice, for the storm outside would brook to further intruders, meting out punishment for any who strayed beneath its wrath.
Drinking their mugs, this group stayed to itself, at first merely sharing barely a head nod or sentence between the lot. But as the night carried on, for the most part they became more loquacious, the ale performing its duty quite admirably. But they were all strangers to one another, brought together seemingly at random to this corner of the tavern by circumstance. Or so at casual glance it seemed.
A busty barmaid approaches the group, calling out her desire to service their needs. Ale to be brought, or perhaps more?, the inquiry went. The maid, a stout yet shapely dark lass of mwagni breed, is well honed at her banter, and soon she is away to cater to their thirst.
Of the group, a large man wearing a rather dark and dirty apron, perhaps blood stains, is well into his cups. As the mwagni leaves to bring more ale, he steps outside to relieve himself.
Stumbling through the rain, the large man, who introduced himself earlier as Bruno Kevala, a fine cook with sating his thirst as his main pursuit, makes his way to the privy. The privy, not much more than a hole cut through the rotted and barnacle-crusted dock, bore boards as stained as Bruno’s apron. Huddling under the meager overhead cover, he begins to send his stream of relief into the waters below.
But his night has come to a premature term. Following Bruno out the tavern a large and hooded man. Pulling out a small bully club from his sash, he brandishes it and brings it swiftly and hard upon the head of Bruno. The cook goes down, unconscious, while continuing to relieve himself of the night’s consumption, adding yet another stain upon the soiled apron.
Remaining in the tavern, the four other strangers remained together. The mwagni barmaid has made her way back to the group, serving up her proclamation of the finest ale the tavern has to offer. The four take their portions and drink, incognizant of the smirks and head shakes which the regular patrons of the tavern offer.
The smallest of the group is a goblin, an uncommon sight within the shackles, and one not usually well welcomed in Port Peril. But coin is coin, and the goblin’s purse bulges. Gorbo Gutstabber he proclaims as his name, though he hasn’t a tale that matches his name other than a severe bout of dysentery earlier in the day.
Gorbo has made quick friends with a human cleric of the group, who is gluttonously drinking his ale while repeatedly casting the blessing of Besmara about the tavern. With each raise of the mug, his blessings become more fervent and jolly. Brother Jamie, his corpulent body an even match for his boisterous voice, is the most pleasant of all in this unpleasant circumstance.
Two others are partaking with this group. First is a giant of a man, whose pale skin is a beacon which puts him out of sorts with the well-tanned hues of most patrons within the tavern. Preferring to pour his ale from the mug into his own drinking horn, Rogald Blackclaw laughs the heartiest, enjoying the adventure of this newfound experience. Alternating pounding his fist upon the bar with his hammer upon the floor, Rogald leaves no doubt that he was in the room and enjoying his merry time with his newfound compadres.
The final one is a quiet man. Tall, slender, pale, dark hood pulled up covering his equally dark hair and eyes. He acknowledges the others using a barest hint of a nod with an overt grimace. Fens Watergrave tolerates his new companions, but only because no other stools were available in this last resort of a tavern. Seated at the bar, he watches with ill amusement the antics of Gorbo, now scrambling up the back of Brother Jamie and flipping onto the bar, all the while holding his mug without spilling a drop.
But as the new drinks are consumed, an odd feeling overcomes each. Eyes from the rest of the tavern suddenly avert, and the four might as well not even be in the tavern. The other patrons had seen this before. And in but moments, each of the group begins to waver, and soon are each slumped unconscious upon the bar or in a tangled knot upon the floor.
A quick press of unsavory sailors surge forward, thrusting hoods over the heads of the unconscious five. A small bag of coin is tossed to the mwagni barmaid who tucks it swiftly into a secure crevice. The prone bodies are drug and carried out the back entrance, headed toward the docks. Their adventure is just beginning.
Consciousness comes slowly to each of the companions. Each was gifted with a panging headache, exacerbated by the none-too gentle rocking of the floor beneath them. The room where they were dumped was barely large enough to fit their bruised and prone bodies. The large bulk of Rogald, Brother Jamie, and Bruno was only partially offset by the slim frame of Fens. Luckily for the party, Gorbo was nowhere to be seen, so that at least gave them a bit of space – though goblins were never known to take up too much space, and Gutstabber was certainly one of the smaller of his kind.
As each tries to shake off the pounding headache and queasy unrest in their stomach, their eyes began to adjust to the darkness of the room. A single door allotted a sliver of light under its misshapen bottom, and slowly the space was dimly revealed as all wooden construction with a large beam running up the middle of the space. The thankful darkness was welcomed, though, as each worked to shake off the effects from the tavern. Each in turn realizes that all their possessions had been stripped from them.
“Drugged” gasped Brother Jamie. “Blessed be Besmara, why would they do such to me?”
“At least you got yours in your ale. Mine me gots in the back o’ my head” moaned Bruno, trying to shift a bit to make himself a bit more comfortable on the uneven floor while gently probing the lump at the base of his skull. As he did so, a muffled, high-pitched squeal causes each to cover their ears. Slowly, Bruno realizes that the uneven floor beneath him is moving, with something trying to push hard against his bulk.
Rolling with a grunt to the side, Gorbo is suddenly released from beneath the mass of Bruno. “Geez, Bruno” the creature squeaks “that was really nasty” a revolted Gorbo divulges as he turns his head to the side and covers his nose as the room fills with the emittance of Bruno’s release.
Gorbo stands up shakily and begins to groan loudly, holding his head with both hands as he begins to wail. “Oh, my head hurts. Why it hurt so much, Brother Jamie?” Swaying from side to side, the miniature goblin continues the histrionics “Oh, Brother Jamie (glad you’re hear by the way) whatever happened last night. We wazn’t doing a thing bad, and next thing…”
“Knock it off, Gorbo” Rogald interrupts, shaking his head while swatting at the diminutive creature, who barely dodges the blow the half-hearted blow. “My head is killing me too, and your squealing ain’t helping matters.”
“Ok, ok. Geez, Rogald, I wasn’t trying to be mean or nothing” the goblin apologizes. “Just I was drinking my ale, and now my head hurts, and the floor is rocking, and I was stuck under Bruno’s smelly apron, and I just wanted to… Hey, that hurt. Why’d you smack me, Fens. Ok, Ok, I get it. Gorbo be quite now.”
Fens has made it shakily to his feet, and like the others feels the ill effects of the poisoned draught consumed. But now there is noise from beyond the door, and the party promptly gets quiet in quick anticipation. Abruptly, the door swings inward with violence, cracking into Gorbo where he had tried to cuddle out of the way in the corner.
“Ouch!” he cries. “Hey…”
That was all Gorbo was able to get out before a crack of the whip brings silence to the room. “All right, you scum. Up with you, and get out here into this room. Let me see what kind of presents I’ve been brought.”
Standing in the doorway is a tall, thin man wearing an unbuttoned knee-length black jacket. Wielding a long feathered whip in his hand, fingernails matching the dark black of his eyes, his braided beard sways to the side as he cracks the whip again. “Out you get, and now, scum, afore Master Scourge lays this whip to your hide.”
The party stumbles out of the room, blinking rapidly in the still dim light, but which is still bright to their foggy eyes. Master Scourge looks over the party, then explains their circumstances.
“You see hear, I’ll be having none of your talk, you hear. When I say jump, you jump, and jump far. You all be crew now serving the captain. Captain Barnabus Harrigan. Upon the Wormwood you be, and that now be your lot.” Standing there with his long whip in hand, Scourge is an imposing sight, and not one expecting to be trifled with.
“But what’d we do?” squealed Gorbo. “We didn’t do nothing, just had some…”
That all Gorbo got out before the tail of the whip cracks against his chest, causing the goblin to cry out in a fit of pain.
“When I want you to talk, I’ll tell you to talk, and what to say” Scourge scolds. “Now you listen here. And listen ye goodly. Don’t matter who you are. Don’t matter what you were. Don’t matter where ye been. Now, ye be crew upon the Wormwood. And Captain Barnabus to dispense with as he please. And for now, he has dispensed you to me. Any questions?”
Brother Jamie quickly grabs Gorbo and covers his mouth, as the rest of the party remains silent.
“Good, I thought not. Now, up on deck, you scum. Time to meet the captain.” With a crack of his whip, Master Scourge sends the party up the companionway and onto the main deck of the Wormwood.
Blinking into the bright sunlight of day, they discover themselves upon the deck of a three-masted ship, fully one hundred feet in length and perhaps a third that in girth. The vessel was put to sea. Land was not in sight. Sea swells brought the ship in quick successions up and down, for the surf was choppy this day. Though the sun shone bright, the sea had not yet forgotten the wrath of the storm which had just passed through the preceding days.
About the deck, several dozen crew and ship officers had gathered to welcome the new crew. Laughs and taunts came from many in the crew as they stumbled their way out from the ladder, with Brother Jamie spilling his frame upon the deck, taking Fens with him.
Master Scourge cracks the whip again, and the crew settles down and becomes quiet. From up above on the quarterdeck, an imposing figure steps forward, surveying the scene. A mountain of a man, exuding cruelty, Captain Barnabus is strapped in leather armor, left eye encompassed in a patch, with a great braided beard hanging down his chest. Striking his great jagged dagger into the hand-rail, all movement on deck seizes.
“I be Captain Barnabus Harrigan. And you, you filth, are now crew upon my ship, the Wormwood. Ye serve the Wormwood, ye serve her well, and I deem to allow ye to live.” His great voice bellows over the sound of the sea crashing along the length of the ship.
“There be few rules. But let me be clear. The rules will be followed. Ye break the rules, the whip will be employed.”
The captain now commands the full attention of all on board “First, ye follow the code. Forsake the code, ye git the whip.”
“Second, ye obey the officers. Flout the officers, ye git the whip.”
Captain Barnabus now stares down intently at the scum below him, and continues “And finally, ye are never to address me. Talk to me, ye git the whip, and given the keelhaul as desert.”
Letting that last proclamation sink in, he ends his welcome “If the rules are not followed, Master Scourge will ensure punishment is meted out. Mister Plugg, I believe I can turn these vermin over to ye.” Turning away abruptly, the Captain strides quickly away back into his cabin, slamming his door behind his massive frame.
At that, another sailor steps forward, clean-shaven but for a short braided goatee matching his long knot of hair streaming down his back. Dressed in a fine purple cloak while carrying a well-worn cat-o-nine tails, he surveys the new crew with evident scorn. “So, you be the new crew what that we’ll be using to man this ship. Well, a sorry handful it looks. Two fatties, a skinny, a pale tall one already taken to a burn, and a sheep-bleeping goblin. A sorry lot indeed.”
“Alright” Plugg calls out. “Let’s see if any of you got any skill at all. To the top of the mainsail you go. No thinking, just get moving. Start climbing! Now!” At that, Scourge cracks his whip twice over the heads of the five, and a hasty scramble ensues.
Fens is the first in action, waiting for just such a test. Knowing he won’t make it to the top climbing the ropes against the others, he starts by kicking a boot out at Gorbo to gain a moment and rushes to the ropes.
Gorbo, ducking under the kick, calls out “Hey, why’d you do that, Fens. I thought we wuz friends” and rushes past Fens, who is struggling with the ropes. In an instant, Gorbo is swinging nimbly up the ropes.
Right next to Gorbo, Rogald sprints into action, and begins to swiftly climb as well, his tall frame granting an advantage over the squat goblin. Soon, Rogald has outpaced the goblin, and it looks to be race between the two.
The two fattest members of the party, though, begin protestations. Bruno goes over to the ropes, looks up and shakes his head “I can’t do that. I’m a cook, sir, not a bloody monkey.” As reply, Bruno accepts a fresh whip whelp from Scourge, and Bruno slumps down on the deck moaning “I can’t climb that, no way, no how.”
Now next to Bruno, Brother Jamie laughs and calls out “O Magnificent Besmara, grant me quickness and agility as I now move to climb these blessed ropes. May the ropes be strengthened as they my faith in the holy goddess, and not fail under my most impressive weight.” Continuing on with his prayers, Brother Jamie is fervent in his appeals, but makes no attempt to climb, realizing the utter futility of such action, accepting the unending derision and jeers from the crew.
But the need for either Bruno or Brother Jamie to climb is naught. For Rogald suddenly cries out in great fear, and quickens his ascent up the ropes. In a flash, he has made it to the top of the ropes, outpacing even the nimble goblin. The Blackclaw, though, looks down in fear, staring in horror at Fens, who now steps away from the rope with a smirk.
“Ah, so we’s have a finger wriggler, have we?” Plugg calls out. “Ain’t that special. But no more casting those nasty spells at other crew, now, hey, slim man.”
Fens steps back, as the rest of the crew alternate between cheers for Rogald for his quick climb, and jeers at his look of terror as he looks down to the deck. With a wave of his hand, Fens dispenses with his magic, and clarity replaces fear in Rogald’s eyes. He’ll be having a chat later with old Watergrave, he will.
“Alrighty, now” Plugg calls out. “We got ourselves a rigger.”
“Oh pooh” a disappointed Gorbo pouts. “I would have been an excellent rigger.”
Plugg ignores the pout “Fat man with the apron, to Fishguts the Cook for you. A man of such girth must be proficient indeed with the culinary. For the rest of you worthless worms, I’ve got special tasks for each. Everyone else, back to your jobs.”
The fun now over, the rest of the crew separate and begin to get back to work.
Rogald and Gorbo climb down the ropes and gather with the others, and soon Plugg has assigned them their tasks. Rogald will man the sails in the rigging, while Bruno will join the cook below. The rest are set to scrubbing the deck and other mundane tasks.
After a short acquaintance with their duties, the new crew are dismissed below to prepare for night. Entering the hold, and now having more than a blinded look about, there appears to be far more sleeping spaces available than crew. They separate, each selecting their own space. All they have now are the few clothes on their back and a small smelly chest at the foot of each of their moldy hammocks.
Gorbo Gutstabber and Brother Jamie go off and decide to bunk together, and soon they are chatting amicably. Brother Jamie fascinates Gorbo with his tales of Besmara. A deranged man named Cog listens with intent Brother Jamie’s oracle stories, and seems most absorbed by those which entail. The more gruesome and unpleasant stories of death, though, seem to fascinate Cog the most.
After telling several tales, Brother Jamie suddenly looks intently at the goblin and proclaims that Gorbo is destined for greatness. Brother Jamie has been granted a vision by Besmara the Blessed, and Gorbo shall one day be a great leader. Oh, what an exceptional day this is for Gorbo. First drugged, then kidnapped and turned into a pirate, and now he is destined for greatness. Gorbo responds with loud applause amid his squeals of delight.
Rogald is off to the side observing the spectacle, shaking his head at the juvenile display of the squirt. He is soon joined by a cute female pirate, Sendara, also bemused by the same spectacle. With long flowing locks of red hair cascading beneath her hat, she deftly deflects the advances of the pale man while pronouncing that Brother Jamie won’t last the night. Rogald admires the fine hardened shape of the pirate while silently agreeing the enthusiastic oracle future appears fleeting.
Soon, a foul-mouthed female halfling storms into the hold, bringing with her wake a string of intricate curses that could be championed by none. Complaining coarsely that some foul ratgut has stolen her fiddle, she swears bloody, eye-popping revenge upon the culprits. Looking at the newly arrived crew, she promises swift death to each of them as well. But then she reconsiders in a fit of pique. If they manage to find her fiddle that some foul swinerat has filched, then perhaps she may allow them to live. Her name is Rosie, a stout fighter in a bitter mode, and not one to be trifled with.
Fens has made his way to the foulest area of the hold, trying his best to ignore the spectacle of his newfound companions. Far to the back of the hold the ceiling dips down low, and it’s here that Watergrave finds yet another halfling. This one is a jittery sort, having been kidnapped and recruited for the Wormwood just a few weeks ago. He calls himself Ratling, and tolerates Fens enough to allow him to bed down, but no more.
The next day, the sun once again shines bright, and promises a hot day ahead. The unruly seas of the past storm have calmed, and the Wormwood slices smoothly through the gentle swells of the sea. A fine and perfect day upon the sea, had in not been for Master Scourge’s whip.
Woken from an uneasy slumber, induced by a liberal portion of grog before the last bell, the crew in the hold scrambled up the companionway and prepare to accept their duties.
As expected, Bruno is given to Krupp to help in the galley.
“We’ll see if ye know how to stick a pig” Krupp promises.
“Ah, fine suckling pig. One of my specialties” promises Bruno. They depart together to begin their preparations.
Rogald the Rigger is assigned the ropes, and up into the rigging he goes. With the wind offering a blustery fare, Blackclaw is keep busy throughout the day. But his pale skin, used more to heavy cloaks of fur amid a cold northern sun, acclimates poorly to the bare scorch of the sea sun. Soon his pale skin is roasted a rosie red, adding a discomforting anguish while he plies his trade.
Brother Jamie is assigned to repairing some torn sails. The lashing of the past storm offers a bounty of ripped sails, and Brother Jamie spiritedly tries his hand with needle and thread. But his efforts are futile, and Mister Plugg is none too pleased, expressed by the frequent lashings that he inflicts upon the fat waves of Brother Jamie’s back.
Gutstabber does fine in his tasking, though his boredom is evident to all. Wanting to please Mister Plugg, he demonstrates his quick grasp of fashioning the proper knots into the newly acquired ropes the ship will need this sail. Though Mister Plugg may be pleasantly surprised, he offers none of it to Gorbo, and instead berates the little goblin for his untidy workspace. Disappointed, Gutstabber promises to do better and redoubles his efforts.
Seeing that Fens held no compunction for bedding amidst the fouler parts of the ship, Mister Plugg sends Watergrave down below to man the bilge pumps. The heavy seas crashing over the bow of the ship over the past days has filled the bilge with water, and Fens is sent to operate the pumps. But while Fens takes no mind to the filth of the bilge, his meager strength, weakened further by the after effects of being drugged and then getting re-acquainted with the sea, is not sufficient for the pump. After several fruitless hours laboring away, Plugg sends Fens away. As Fens clambers back on deck to his new duties of scrubbing the deck, Plugg calls for Owlbear, who soon can be heard stomping below towards the pump. Shortly, the bellows of the pump begins purging, sending a thick stream of bilge waste back to the sea.
While the rest of the companions had labored away under the watchful eye and pliant whip of Scourge, Bruno was busy at work with the meagre supplies at hand to assist with dinner. Krupp the cook was dubious at first, having been given many other worthless sods whose claim to cookery amounted to little more than an aversion from hard labor. But Kevala demonstrates deftness with the butcher’s blade, and the meal that is served to Captain Barnabus is awarded high praise. Krupp accepts the compliments for himself. While perhaps Bruno is a better cook than Krupp, Krupp is in charge of the galley, and he plans to task Bruno harshly as his comeuppance.
During dinner amongst the crew, Rogald, rebuffed the previous night by Sendara, makes even less headway with Rosie. Still distempered because of her stolen fiddle, she’s a tempest about to explode. But a hint of a promise is given, and that of her appreciation to those who retrieve and return her fiddle. Though Rogald is spurned for the night, his comfort is in the promise of a lovely reward if only he can divine the location of the fiddle.
The evening ends with the assembly of all hands on deck. And it is here that the companions are introduced to the dispensing of punishment aboard the Wormwood. Two crewmen are brought forward before Captain Barnabus. Their crimes, dereliction of duty due to poor performance of their assigned tasks that day. The Captain sentences each appropriately for their poor work, and soon Master Scourge has administered three lashes upon each of the miscreants.
After the lashings, a final scrawny pirate is brought forward, bound in chains. The accusation is thievery, to which the pirate proclaims his innocence as nothing more than a misunderstanding among friends.
Having proclaimed his innocence, and at the same time having spoken to the Captain, Barnabus pronounces his judgment. “Guilty ye be. Ye broke the pirate code, but now the code shall dispense justice. Master Scourge. Keelhaul the villain. And do it thrice.”
A desperate cry arises from the condemned fellow, while a cheer arises from the crew. But not all the crew cheer as Jape is taken forward. The condemned is bound to a rope, and without a word, is thrust overboard from the head of the ship. The rope is tied in the stern, and as Jape is thrust in, two crew positioned on the poop deck begin to pull swiftly on the rope, dragging the pirate underwater the length of the ship.
After the first such pass, Jape had ceased his struggles. By the third pass, there was little left of the man. But what remained was stuck in a cage paraded the length of the ship and hung upon the bowsprit for all to see. A reminder to all of the consequences invoked when breaking the code.
The crew is dismissed, and the companions go quickly below to their rest. It has been but two days at sea, but already it seems as though they had lived a poor lifetime upon the foulness of the Wormwood.