The caravan rolls on through the hot, dusty fields, the smell of commerce and sounds of stories filling the air. The stopping point this night seems to be one it has used before, as several firepits are already in the ground, some with logs—of the wood variety, not parchment—around them. The wagons circle up, people and livestock sheltering within them. Today’s terrain has been mostly grasslands with scraggly trees. The willows and mesquites are the natural type for the area, not the mistreated survivors of human settlements that need the care of woses. Although they are spread out and not grouped as forests—loner trees, Tric jokes—they still provide enough cover to hide threats.
Right now, though, that is someone else’s problem, whoever is assigned the night watch. Off duty at last, Heppa is glad for a chance to update her map with the territory they have passed through. The night air has a chill to it, and a low fire burns in front of her seat on a log, providing a bit of warmth and light for her to write by. As Heppa works, the map margins fill with the inevitable scribbles about magic theory.
Tric, meanwhile, is messing around with Mate. The magpie’s sudden squawk startles Heppa. She looks up and sees that the bird has flown straight up, well out of arm’s reach. An axe flies into the clearing, thunking to the ground in their area. “Yeah, don’t like that much, do you?” a voice shouts from the darkness.
“Oh, that’s where that hair came from,” Tric mutters, looking beyond Heppa. She turns around and sees a tall human, bulked out with muscle. He is a white man with a bald head and the reddest, bushiest beard she has seen outside Untdunben. His mustache flows into it, and the beard spreads out across his wide chest, covering the upper half of his hauberk. Beneath the chainmail that extends to his thighs, he has leather pants and well-worn boots. He is looking up at where Mate is circling, addressing his words to the sky. Then he steps in closer to the fire to retrieve his throwing axe. A shield is secured across his back, and a larger axe hangs from a ring on his belt.
Tric is reasonably sure he knows what provoked this action, but he is still not thrilled to have a weapon thrown so near him. Or to be taken so unawares. “What’s the big idea, throwing an axe at us?” he demands. Although Tric has not met this fellow before, he has seen him in the caravan. He is one of the other mercenaries that Rhodri hired and just goes by the moniker, the Beard.
“Are we under attack?” Heppa asks, sounding more curious than alarmed. She is still not battle-hardened enough to immediately ready a weapon.
“Friendly fire, c’mon!” Tric admonishes the Beard. “Well, are we under attack or not?” Mate’s stupid, stupid calls from above undermine his authority a bit.
“I wasn’t aiming for you,” the Beard says. “In fact, I just saved your scalp from that monstrosity.” He gestures up at Mate with his throwing axe as he speaks, but he returns it to his belt rather than attack again.
A devious plan has come into Tric’s head. He looks up in feigned alarm and puts a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Stop. Right. There,” he cautions softly. “That is no ordinary bird. That, sir, is a pixie dragon.” Mate supports the claim with the call pixie dragon, pixie dragon. “Tell me, do birds talk like that, friend?” Tric has made a box of rocks look impressive just through the power of his voice; he hopes he can do the same to Mate. It is dark now, and the Beard probably did not get that good of a look at Mate earlier. “Deep in the mountains, deeper than the dwarves… You’ve heard of drakes? This is a creature that even drakes fear. You see, in the tunnels, no large dragon could possibly survive or even move anywhere. But the dreaded pixie dragon… one tenth the size, ten times the danger.” Tric pulls out one of his knuckle dusters and twirls it around, presenting it like a pair of spectacles. “Look for yourself. See its true form,” he says, demonstrating looking at Mate through the finger holes and then holding Nasir’s woodwork out to the Beard.
The grizzled veteran shakes Trics hand off his shoulder and steps back away from Tric. He squares off, adopting a facing oriented toward Tric. Moss below, it’s the time of the night when I get punched, Tric thinks. He had the same luck trying to trick Renwick. Perhaps these experienced fighters are tougher nuts to crack than Sleidr was. Or maybe Sleidr’s greed primed him to embrace the illusion… Tric reflects. The Beard’s hand hovers near his larger axe, the fingers flexing, but he does not pull the weapon… yet. The man is clearly ready for something.
“So,” the Beard says, “what are you? Some sort of elvish noble slumming it?”
From her seat on the nearby log, Heppa answers, “Yes. Tric’s not, but I am, a little.”
“Sort of, yes,” Tric says. His birth father was from House Thrandolil, after all. “Sorry about your beard. We can probably reattach it. Elves have some capabilities that humans may lack.”
The Beard raises a bushy red eyebrow. “What, braiding?”
“And we did spend some time with dwarves,” Tric continues, “which it looks like your beard could perhaps compare to, sir.”
“I ain’t no dwarf,” the man objects.
“No, you’re twice as tall, and it looks like four times as strong. But they do have impressive beards, I’m sure you would agree.”
“I do have some medical skill, if you’re hurt,” Heppa adds in case Mate actually damaged skin. She does wonder, though, if she can use her healing magic to graft torn hairs back together.
“I think only his pride is hurt,” a playful new voice comments from behind Heppa.
We really need to pay more attention, Tric thinks, picking the newcomer out of the darkness behind his cousin. We are so bad at this alertness thing. Hezzis grabbed a halberd out from under their nose; these two fellows could have done much worse, if they had wanted to. The man joining the conversation is another mercenary, one of slighter build than the Beard. He wears chain, too, but a lighter haubergeon that protects just his chest and probably keeps him more mobile. He has two swords, one at each hip. They do not look as flimsy as Gwaffalyn’s rapier, but they are lighter than Heppa’s sword. The man has black skin, and his even darker hair is worn in tight twists. Like the Beard, this mercenary takes his name from his grooming; Tric has heard him referred to as Knots.
“I found the rascal,” the Beard tells Knots, still bristling.
“It’s just a bird,” Knots replies. He has a more relaxed bearing than the Beard, and there is amusement in his voice. But he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think there might be trouble, Tric judges, remaining cautious. He may want to de-escalate this, but he is still ready. The man is hard to get a read on beyond that, though.
“Mr. Beard—” Tric begins.
“It’s just the Beard,” the offended party growls.
“Beard, sure,” Tric allows. “I apologize. The bird got confused. He was looking for someone else with red hair. I don’t know if you saw one of the little girls? She was speaking with the mage earlier.”
“It was going to maim her?” the Beard asks, still a bit riled. “Was that its plan?”
“No, but he is a surprisingly fierce companion, I will admit. He evaded your axe. He got right up in your face… Be glad he’s on our side. But if you like, we can try to reattach your beard, to properly heal it together. Mend it in the ways of the forest.”
“You’re proposing to do some sort of magical reattachment of the hair?” The human sounds incredulous. Tric has no idea if that is possible, but that is what he was suggesting.
Heppa comments that she cannot really tell where the missing piece came from. There is no obvious gap in the huge, bushy mass.
Since the man seems wary of the idea anyway, Tric offers instead, “How about… we can trim your beard for you, sir?”
“You want to take even more of my beard away?!”
“Don’t think of it as taking it away. Think of it as, your beard is a sculpture, and we want it to look its best. There are a lot of pieces here and there. If we clean those up a little bit, it will look great. I’m sure Knots here would agree,” Tric tries.
“What can we do to make this right?” Heppa asks, her tone much more apologetic than Tric’s.
The more recent arrival presents an alternate solution. “How about you let us do your hair?” Knots offers with a wide grin.
“How about we give you one of Mate’s feathers? No?” Tric counters. He is not particularly guarded about his hair, but he does not want to agree to unspecified changes. The way he wears it with his red bandana gives him a lot of flexibility regarding how he reveals his ears. “Can we just agree that this will make a great story? Let’s hope this is the most exciting thing that happens during the trip, eh? Are you really bothered about the bird taking some of your beard, Beard? Or are you more bothered that he was able to get through and snatch some of it and you couldn’t stop him?” It is perhaps an uncomfortable question to ask, so Tric softens it by continuing disarmingly, “Elves don’t have beards, so we don’t understand, of course.”
“He’s right. Bird got through your guard,” Knots says.
“Look, he’s flying through the air. No one is expecting threats to come from the sky, right?” Tric adds, providing the Beard with an out. “How many other things attack you from that direction? A dragon?”
“Generally not,” the Beard agrees.
“So it’s not a place you would think to look, right?” Tric continues trying to placate him. “An orc wouldn’t be able to sneak up on you, right? Perhaps not an elf.” Tric pauses and considers that, his ego not quite letting him downplay elves so much. “Perhaps maybe,” he amends.
Heppa is a little disappointed. She was curious to see what they would do with Tric’s hair. She offers her own as a stand-in, but Tric immediately rejects that.
“This problem was not your fault,” he argues.
“And your hair looks too fine for what I had in mind, anyway,” Knots comments.
“Enough with the hair stuff,” the Beard declares. “Why don’t you demonstrate some of this supposed elvish martial flare?”
“You’d like to see some renowned elvish archery?” Tric takes a step toward where his Manu bow lies on the ground.
“No. Let’s spar.”
“That I can do,” Tric agrees. He looks over the Beard and Knots. “We doing this one at a time or two at once?” he asks with great bluster, cracking his knuckles.
Knots laughs. “This isn’t my fight,” he says, sitting down next to Heppa on the log to enjoy the show.