The prelude, published with Chapter One in The Dragon #1 (June, 1976) contains a fascinating glimpse into the OD&D game world:
In the infinity of cosmic probabilities there stretches an endless succession of earths, this one being but one of the possible realities. Those in close proximity to our world are but little different from it, but countless alternatives to history exist, and as these co-worlds become more removed from this plane of reality so their resemblance becomes removed. There are, then, worlds which are gloriously superior to ours, some which are horribly worse, but most are merely different in some way. Far from our probability line is a world called by its inhabitants Oerth. It is very similar to this earth in many ways, but it is also quite different...If the learned men of Oerth were able to tell you its geography they would say that in relation to our planet they are quite alike. Asia is a trifle smaller, Europe and North America a trifle larger — but the scientists (or rather philosophers) of Oerth are not able to explain this for two reasons: They neither know of the alternate worlds in Oerth’s probability line nor do they have any sure knowledge of Oerth’s geography outside their immediate areas. Likewise, Oerth has races similar in many respects to ours, and their migrations and distribution somewhat resemble those of our world, but their histories differ sharply from ours departing from our probability line some 2,500 years ago. Then the changes were but small, but over the intervening centuries the difference has grown so that there is now no resemblance between Oerth and Earth when the contemporary models are compared.Oerth is backward in terms of our planet. It is a dreaming world. Socially, culturally, technologically it is behind us. When the probability line split there were other changes than those of an historical nature, and scientific laws differ also. What is fact on Earth may be fancy on Oerth and vice versa. So a strange blend of Medieval cultures exist in the known lands of Oerth, and what lies in the terra incognita of Africa or across the Western Ocean is the subject of much myth and supposition only. Ships which ply the waters venture not into such areas, and few are the souls hardy enough to dare expeditions east or south, for things as they are seem quite satisfactory as centuries of tradition prove.
The Gnome Cache, The Dragon #1, June, 1976
I find the comment about a divergence of timelines "some 2,500 years ago" intriguing, as Oerth's history prior to that would be similar to our own ancient past (differing from the planet Oerth of AD&D's World of Greyhawk setting).
We are introduced to Dunstan, truculent son of the merchant Rodigast of Endstad, who plunders his father's strongbox in order to finance a quest for fame and glory (an interesting take on the 3d6x10 starting gold).
Dunstan strikes eastwards for Rauxes, capital city of the Overking of Thalland (the Great Kingdom). Stopping to rest at a roadside shrine to Saint Cuthburt of the Cudgel, he falls in with a band of unscrupulous ruffians.
Before there was time to reply a buxom wench began plopping tankards of foaming ale before them
Coming to the Inn of the Riven Oak, Dunstan and his newfound companions eat and drink their fill. The following morning, a brawl ensues. Dunstan makes his getaway, but is intercepted by two soldiers searching for a runaway, matching his description.
A quick look around revealed no sign of human habitation, so he remounted and urged the tired horse up a large, steep hill.
Providing a false name, Dunstan states that he was accosted by ruffians, and leads the soldiers back to the Inn, stealing one of their horses amid the confusion. Recognizing that he will be apprehended if he continues to the capital, he considers his options:
Well, thought he, if the capital of the kingdom is forbidden to me, there is no choice but to seek my fortune as far away from the court of the Overking as practical. How far was practical? South were forbidding deserts — beyond them who knew? There were the Monley Isles eastward, but they were in too close proximity to Endstad. To the west were the vast stretches of the Silent Forest, farther still the outpost of Far Pass, and then only arid steppes. Where else, then, could he journey save to the north? The realm of Eddoric IV reached far in this direction, but the borders were constantly in turmoil as the people of that region were fiercely independent, resisting any attempt to push the Overking’s sovereignty beyond the Arnn River. Service in one of these marches could be obtained with ease, and promotion would be rapid for the opportunities of battle were common.
The Gnome Cache, The Dragon #3, October, 1976
These locations appear to reference the map of the Great Kingdom. Coming to the hamlet of Huddlefoot, Dunstan stables his horse and sleeps in its stall. The following morning, he convinces the stableboy, Mellerd, to accompany him as a guide to the north.
Should he run the little bastard through? Dunstan wondered. It wouldn't do to have him telling tales all over the countryside...
Mellard eventually determines that Dunstan is a renegade, but chooses to throw in his lot with him, anyway. Crossing the Upplands of Nyrn, they arrive at the village of Deepwell, where Dunstan trades his stolen horse for a roan stallion, also purchasing armor and equipment.
Joining the retinue of Evan the Trader, a dealer in the rich furs of Nehron-Land, they cross the Aarn river and reach Rheyton-Town, a week later. Before continuing on, the caravan is joined by a number of mercenaries, led by a Thallite captain.
Heading northward, we come to a familiar location:
The land was sparsely settled, but much to Evan’s relief they reached the border keep of Blackmoor unmolested by robbers. The trader railed at the tallage levied upon his caravan by the marcher lord, but there was no help for it. Dunstan suspected he was secretly so pleased at the ease with which the passage was made that he would have paid twice the duty. As they departed from the village of Blackmoor, the grim walls of the guardian castle frowned down upon their left, a reminder that the land was held by force of arms. The soldiers Dunstan saw were as grim as their fortress, and the young man mused that the peace here was due mainly to strong warriors. From the looks cast at them by the Nehron peasants who inhabited the settlement and the surrounding farms, this border noble bore down heavily upon his unwilling subjects. A twist in the lane soon removed the castle from sight, and the whole matter passed from consideration.
The Gnome Cache, The Dragon #6, April, 1977
Concerned about pursuit, Dunstan ponders his next move:
By avoiding the border fortress he could head westwards towards Kimbry. If by some chance the Overking’s Warders ever managed to track him as far as Weal, they would lose the scent there, for beyond that place Nehron became a wilderness of forest and hills. Warders would never venture to search for him among the hostile barbarians dwelling there, of this he was certain.
The Gnome Cache, The Dragon #6, April, 1977
The caravan is halted by a roadblock. A large tree has been felled "so as to completely bar the road where it passed between two very steep hills." It's an ambush, and Dunstan and Mellard are lucky to escape with their lives.
Their passage south is blocked by roving bands of Nehronlanders, who have just raided Blackmoor, and so the pair travel west. Passing through a trackless forest, bordering on the Senescent Hills, they come to a valley through which a dark river flows.
Suddenly, they hear a cry. Coming to a hilltop, Dunstan and Mellard are astonished to see a dwarf being pursued by a pack of giant toads and weirdly hopping men. At this point, the story ends. No further installments were ever published.
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Gnome Cache". It's earnest style evokes a bygone era of pulp adventure, and the antiquated speech of its characters weaves an atmosphere very different and compelling from the vanilla fantasy so popular today.
Dunstan is a complex protagonist. He steals, is motivated by selfishness and pride, but desires accolades and respect. He can be naive and impulsive, but appears to be a warrior of some skill, and respects a rough code of honor.
The world that Gygax envisioned for this adventure is clearly that of the OD&D game, and the geographical details and characters could be used in an OD&D campaign. I particularly enjoyed reading about Blackmoor and its environs.
The story ends on a cliffhanger. It's a shame the serialization was never continued, but it was recently revealed that the complete manuscript has been located. I would love to see this published, along with maps and illustrations.
The "giant toads and weirdly leaping men" at the end of the last installment could have been followers of Wastri, a toadlike demigod discussed further in "The Incomplete Villain" an article by Gygax published in Dragon #300 (Oct, 2002).