Laughing Lass, Part One

By Ed Greenwood

Rumors into Shining Legend

By far the most perilous stretch of waters in the Vilhon Reach is Churning Bay ("Orthgalass" to the elves, dwarves, and gnomes), the narrow, tide-scoured inlet that lies between Hlondeth and the open waters of the Reach. Ships beyond number have been driven onto its rocky shores by wild waves, and there either pounded apart, or holed and then dragged back out into the roiling gulf to either sink or be torn apart by the churning waters. In particular, two intersecting "standing waves" (known as variously as "Umberlee's Fingers" or "Umberlee's Delight") develop in certain conditions and wrestle together, suffering no vessel to pass them unscathed -- and acting as a barrier for all submerged objects, preventing them from washing out of the bay into the Reach.

Yet at low tides, when only barges and small boats can safely traverse the shallow gulf between the deep Reach and the watery basin close around the wharves of Hlondeth, Orthgalass becomes frustratingly placid for all-too-brief periods. These times are called "Sêlune's Smiles."

Among the most pampered, valued, and highly paid men in Hlondeth are the Ravallan, a guild or society of powerful, expert rowers employed to make swift runs down from Hlondeth out into the Reach in slender, swift coastal boats during Sêlune's Smiles. The Ravallan swear direct oaths of loyalty to the Mrastaress of Hlondeth, Dediana Extaminos, and propel no cargoes for merchants who stand not in her favor.

Among the most daring entrepreneurs of Hlondeth are the Sssrathluth (literally, Wet-heads, from "sssrath," to get wet, to be submerged, to bathe; and "luth," or head, though a literal translation of luth is "where the teeth are"). This ragtag group of rivals has within it adventurers from all over the Realms who've come to the docks of Hlondeth in hopes of salvaging riches from the sunken wrecks whose shattered remnants so thickly line the bottom of Churning Bay.

With the aid of water-breathing spells provided by the yuan-ti patrons for whom they work, bands of Sssrathluth race out into the littered, aquatic-monster roamed bottom of Orthgalass during almost every Smile, racing like the madmen most sea captains plying the Vilhon regard them as. They hasten to search and plunder the riven ships, that in some places lay tangled and spilled six vessels deep, recovering anything portable of value they can. Attacks from lurking underwater predators and rival Sssrathluth make their work dangerous indeed (though it's considered shameful in Hlondeth for any yuan-ti to act openly against Sssrathluth working for other serpentfolk), and few Sssrathluth flourish for more than a handcount of seasons.

Among the most famous wrecks sunk in Churning Bay is a carrack from Westgate that broke in two on the rocks midway down the gulf during a sudden storm four summers ago, and sank immediately. The Laughing Lass is said to have been carrying gold -- lots of gold.

If some of the tales in Hlondeth are true, one of its holds was piled high with chests containing a thousand gold pieces each: 200,000 gold pieces (or more) in all, plus at least two small chests of mixed gems. This gathered wealth belonged to a syndicate of merchants intending to purchase great quantities of perfumes, drugs, and poisons (then much in demand in Sembia, among feuding rival merchants; and in Cormyr, among nobles seeking to bring down the ruling Obarskyrs under Sembian enticement) so as to make their fortunes at one stroke.

Word has spread up and down the Vilhon, and thence from port to port around the Sea of Fallen Stars, of this fabulous treasure. It awaits the bold -- sailors whisper hoarsely, their eyes alight with greed -- still lying just underwater in the oh-so-shallow, ah-so-narrow gulf, though no Sssrathluth who've gone to plunder it have ever returned.

Some folk say flesh-devouring monsters lurk amid the wrecks of Churning Bay, growing steadily fatter, and some say a fell curse clings to the gold, that slays all who touch it with magic. Yet such tales have always clung to Orthgalass, down the years, sometimes told boastfully by the Sssrathluth themselves . . . and Sssrathluth do come back alive from their venturings into the depths, and do make coins in plenty.

Some whisper that those who've plundered the Laughing Lass are just keeping their successes secret until they can empty the wreck entirely. But then, rumors also mention that the wreck may not hold gold at all, but is being used -- by someone or something -- as a lure for the boldest, bravest adventurers. . . .

Find out more about the Laughing Lass next week.

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