Tric handles the after dinner clean-up. “Here’s a bump on a log, rather than a stick in the mud,” he tells the nearby nest of mudcrawlers as he tosses skewered leftovers down near them. The creatures ooze over the eel remains and keep going. All that is left in their wake are the bones. “Hunh. Glad they didn’t eat me,” Tric mutters. He scrapes some of the drying mud off his chest. “You left this, pal,” he says, flinging it at the closest blob.
The Beard is still perched on a rock near the fire. It occurs to Tric that, as part of his charge from High Lord Volas, he should try to find out what he can about the action Knots and the Beard took part in near elvish lands. He relishes the opportunity to embrace his new role as spy. It is true that the high lord was primarily concerned with undead activity, but maybe Tric can learn something about that, too. The partners are quite well-traveled and may have observed something pertinent. Tric opens with an innocent question. “So, how did you fare in the fight?”
“I not only subdued one ruffian, I disarmed the main antagonist. And I came out unscathed myself,” the Beard replies. It is not said as a full-on brag, but Tric suspects there is permanent score-keeping going on between him and Knots.
“Indeed, I was only hit with some mud. But, let’s see… I got two naga… I guess the bird gets some credit…” The Beard debates with Tric about who actually gets credit for the myrmidon. Tric learns that in some mercenary jobs, such credit results in bonus pay. After some back and forth, Tric suggests Tomos should get the credit.
“But the guy was already drifting away in the current,” the Beard counters.
“Yes, but Heppa is the one who got him stuck in the water,” Tric says, realizing the Beard would not have been able to see her casting with that wagon in the way. “What, do you think a naga is just not going to be able to swim away? That doesn’t just happen on its own.”
“Ah! More of your elvish magic,” the Beard grumbles.
“Well, yes.” That gives Tric the in he needs for his topic of interest. “Knots mentioned that you and he did have an engagement on the elvish border somewhere. The Aethenwood? Was that recently?”
This question does not sound at all innocent to the Beard, but the news he has is old enough that it is unlikely to get him into any trouble with this undercover elvish lord or whoever he reports to. “That was ten years ago,” he says. He doubts this elf will try anything, but he keeps his hand near his axe and his fingers limber. “We were engaged in some actions to deal with elves from the Aethenwoods who were harassing Wesnoth farmers. And therefore their nobles.”
“Right, right. Because your nobles are nominally charged with protecting the farmers,” Tric says. The Beard is certainly not as relaxed as Knots is, Tric can plainly see. The way he stretches out his fingers and drums them against his knee suggests someone who has had a bad temper in the past and is working hard to keep it under control. If he decides I’m a threat, though, he will certainly be ready to act.
“There was already a lot of soreness down in Kerlath Province from stuff further back in time,” the Beard adds.
The names of places just wash over Tric. Ten years ago is long enough that Volas would already know as much as he needed to about the conflict. This seems like a good time to ask about the main subject of Tric’s mission for the High Lord. “Surely you’re not old enough to have fought against Mal-Ravanal, but have you and Knots fought undead since then in any of your campaigns?”
“We have gone up against skeletons and such a few times. We’ve spent some time in the Northlands, above the Great River. Now and then reclusive necromancer-types make trouble up there.”
Friends for Kachen, Tric jokes to himself. As the Beard continues to talk on this topic, Tric learns that the borders of Wesnoth do not officially extend north of the Great River. However, there is a lot of settlement moving in that direction which could lay the groundwork for Wesnoth claiming that land.
“When we’ve been up there, it’s generally been for things like some second son taking a bunch of hamlets and declaring them to be a duchy now. So then we’ve got to do something to calm the surrounding area. Sometimes that does mean that somebody hanging out in a cave somewhere steps out in a black robe and declares, ‘Me and my skeleton friends don’t approve of your duchy.’ And then we fight.” The Beard’s delivery is rather matter-of-fact. He certainly does not sound afraid of necromancers. “I’ve fought my fair share of skeletons. You know what? Those necromancers, you chop them with an axe, and they go down. Getting close enough to chop them with an axe is a challenge. That’s what this is for,” he says, patting his throwing hatchet. “Sometimes you can’t get close enough for the big axe, and you have to use the small one.”
“Ah, but have you ever dealt with a ghost?” Tric asks, some pride creeping into his voice. “Trying to hack through one of those would give you a hard time, wouldn’t it?”
“Nah, the sort of necromancer who hangs out in those hillsides wouldn’t be strong enough to control a ghost,” the Beard says dismissively.
Interesting, Tric thinks, though he is careful not to show it. That means Kachen has more control over necromancy than they do. Tric saw Kachen issue orders to skeletons and have them obey. The orders were to halt, not to go do something, but still, he clearly can control undead. He expends a lot of energy simply telling them—somehow—to stay away. Tric has wondered for a long time what the true story behind the ghost in the Foul Fen was, and now he begins to assemble a narrative based on logic, rather than excitement. He has previously entertained the idea that Kachen summoned the ghost, but now it seems far more likely that the ghost was around already. Kachen flat-out told Tric that the swamp was not entirely at rest, and though he said he had not seen skeletons, he did not say he had not seen any undead. He must have been keeping that ghost away from his campsite the entire time he was there. When he left, that risked the ghost attacking Tric and Heppa on their return. How to deal with that? Renegotiate the terms of its contract.
Kachen must have gotten the ghost to accept keeping a dwarf out as sufficient for fulfilling its mission. The ghost never attacked Tric or Heppa at all. It only appeared when Glammur entered the keep, and it stated it had fulfilled its mission when Tric knocked it down after Glammur left the keep. That must have been good enough for it to have considered the keep defended from dwarves. Tric, of course, will still tell his story about shooting the ghost twice.
If Tric and Heppa had returned without a dwarf, the reprogrammed ghost might never have made itself known to them. But if they returned with a dwarf, that could have been a danger to Kachen, who was on the outs with Untdunben. So having the ghost stop a dwarf served Kachen’s own needs—protecting his note to the elves—and gave the ghost a job that fit with whatever it was supposed to do before. Whether Kachen wants to be or not, he is a powerful necromancer, Tric reflects. Kachen may not be a powerful mage in the traditional human sense—because his schooling was interrupted and the burden of his family’s legacy has weighed on him so heavily—but maybe he could have been. Tric wonders how much energy Kachen had to expend to keep undead away from Alduin while he was there. Being on an island would not help much; skeletons have no need to breathe and could just walk underwater to get there. What Kachen really needs is a home in the middle of a lava lake, Tric decides.
The next logical conclusion is more ominous. If Kachen wanted to be, he could be a much more powerful necromancer. More troublesome, more dangerous. The fact that he has not embraced that power speaks well of him, but he could also just be biding his time. Or will circumstances force him to one day decide he is safest on the other side of an undead army? That would be fine if Kachen were just retiring somewhere far to the east, beyond the Bitter Swamp. He is already exiled; at least that far from Wesnoth he would be safe from other humans.
Finally, it occurs to Tric that other necromancers could be a danger to Kachen as well, contesting his control of the undead. Not a pleasant thought with which to end the night…