In the morning, Heppa can feel that her hair has come back down and is more voluminous than usual. She looks at her reflection in the river with a giant grin. Some sections that were alchemically treated now have a green tinge to them. Heppa runs up to Knots to excitedly show him the outcome of the experiment. “I warned you something like this might happen,” he tells her. Heppa does not mind though; it was an excellent experience.
The rest of the day is spent finding a way back to the caravan. It is not just elves on a pony this time. There is a cart of prisoners that needs to traverse the trackless wilderness. Although it feels like long ago, it was only midday yesterday that the elves rode through this area for the first time, but Heppa did not write down any of her observations from that on her map. She was too preoccupied with the hair experiment last night to even think about pulling her inks and parchment out.
Rhodri is in quite a mood when the prison wagon finally rolls up more than a full day after leaving the rest of the caravan. The other carts have all made it across the unmarked ford and fought their way back to the planned track west of the destroyed bridge, but it was not easy. Henrick and his recruits were supposed to be responsible for the prisoners; in their absence, there was an escape attempt that Rhodri’s depleted hired guards had to handle.
Although they place the blame squarely on Henrick, Rhodri’s lecturing extends to Tric, Heppa, Knots, and the Beard. The main thrust is the importance of prioritizing the caravan above all else. “From this point forward,” Rhodri says, “those prisoners are solely Henrick’s responsibility even though he has more prisoners than before. It is more important for the goods to be protected. I had better not catch you dallying with the South Tower guards, or I will dock your pay for dereliction of duty.”
Knots and the Beard take the orders with equanimity and head off to guard something non-dangerous. Tric is not as pleased, though. This puts a bit of a damper on the elves’ freedom of association. He tries to put things in a different light for Rhodri. First he tells the caravan manager all about the battle. In the guise of giving them a full accounting of the injuries sustained—so Rhodri will know the battle did not cost too much—Tric repeats over and over again details of the ferry. He concludes, “It’s true that this cost you some extra coin, having to wait while we went so far out of the way, but there’s opportunity here. That bridge is out and there is a ferry that somebody will need to operate. The raft is still clipped in; we made sure the setup was all intact. If you or someone you know were to operate that, you’d come out well ahead.”
Rhodri listens to the business plan but then picks it apart. They appreciate that Tric is considering the commercial aspects of the matter, but he has not thought through the plan enough. As Tric himself experienced, there is not even a track leading to or from the ferry location. A good deal of work would need to be done to make it an easy location for large groups of wagons to reach. The trees around here are not very numerous or impressive, but many would need to be cut down to clear the new loop connecting the ferry to the existing track on each side of this river and bypassing the bridge. It is already slow going between South Tower and Weldyn because there is not a proper road. To deviate any more than necessary from the rough track they have now would cost time.
Rhodri concludes the mentoring session with reassurances. “I am not mad at you. I am mad at Henrick. I did not want these criminals in the caravan to begin with, but I had to comply.”
“Aren’t you getting paid to haul them?” Tric asks. “Or are they just tagging along?”
Rhodri admits they are getting paid, but prisoners are not great goods. The rate of return is fixed; there is no potential for markup at the destination, unlike the other products they are transporting. And the prisoners have introduced extra trouble.
“That’s true,” Tric allows. “Carts of grain tend not to try to escape.”
“Or to incite people to blow up bridges,” Rhodri points out.
“Well, maybe when we reach Weldyn you can petition some official to compensate you for these extra delays and that you were forced to take on additional prisoners.”
“You’d better believe I will be discussing this matter with the recipients of this delivery!” Rhodri grumbles.
“Don’t worry, though,” Tric says. “It’s no problem that we have two more prisoners to guard. No extra charge from us.”
“Damn straight, there’s no extra charge. This bridge debacle has added two extra days to the trip already. You’ll take your six coins a day, as we agreed.”
* * *
The final days of the trip are hot. It is the height of summer, and there is little shade in the plains that the caravan now passes through. The city of Weldyn is on the River Weldyn, far southwest of South Tower, but the terrain forces the caravan further west before it can cut south again and return to the cooler water’s edge.
Towards the end of the route, the caravan rolls onto a proper road, and the outlying huts and houses grow thicker. Many are flying dark blue flags. The elves learn from their companions that the pennants indicate the occupants are in good standing—that they have paid their taxes, in other words. In the distance, Tric and Heppa can see that on the city walls itself, the dark blue flags have gold edging, and there is an occasional banner with a golden shield in the center.
Mate wheels above the caravan. Tric keeps an eye on the magpie and is initially concerned when he sees other birds converging toward Mate. Alric’s mother keeps falcons here, as do at least some of the local nobles. Tric hopes none of them will attack his pal. He feels some relief when he catches flashes of black and white and hears familiar warbling. The open plains are home to magpies, and Mate has made some new friends. After flying with them a while, Mate swoops back down to rejoin the caravan. Tric pulls out a snack and suddenly other magpies swoop in to partake as well. “I’ve only got so many fish heads,” Tric warns them. “You’re going to have to share.” The birds enjoy their snacks and play alongside the caravan. Mate teases some with ribbons, while others play with fish bones. Their tumbling antics are amusing but occasionally slow them down too much. When they cannot catch up by running, they fly forward again, back to where the elves are.
“Just think of the stories he tells!” Heppa says, watch Mate chatter with the other birds.
And so the caravan approaches the capital of Wesnoth, accompanied by a small magpie carnival. The city of Weldyn looks enormous to elvish eyes. South Tower seemed big compared to the main village in Estbryn Forest, and Weldyn puts that overgrown outpost to shame. Just the city walls themselves are three stories high. “This place is a fortress,” Tric murmurs. These are walls that are meant to be defended.
“The final battle to defeat Mal-Ravanal happened somewhere in this valley here,” Heppa reminds him, looking at the countryside around them. “Maybe we can check that out while we’re here.”
“Why not? We stir up undead wherever we go anyway,” Tric jokes.
“At the very least, I can put it on the map.” She brings her attention back to the city ahead. “Three stories high,” she says with awe. “How do you even build that?!”
Tric is not as impressed. Trees are naturally that tall and more. Heppa continues to marvel at the city, but Tric is no longer paying attention. Already he is getting ideas for an even grander city, which he will place far, far to the east. He can claim its ruins are there, with walls ten stories tall—on the shortest building—and made not of stone, but of steel…