Mari-Elin leads the elves through a long stretch of tunnels, passing several branch points along the way. The underground passageways are a lot more elaborate than they had realized, so they are glad to have found a guide to the dwarvish fortress. All that stands between them and their goal is some cart stuck in the mud. As they walk, the cousins fill the time and the silence with questions. They learn that Mari-Elin only works below ground; she does not live down there. She views questions about her employer with suspicion, although she does answer some on more general topics. The mushrooms, for example, are not her main food source; they are special ones specifically for dealing with injuries.
When Mari-Elin finally pauses alongside a subterranean river, Tric realizes this is the same water network he was already following. She jams her sturdy torch into a crevice, and Tric does likewise. Then she points out a spot in the water where a wooden handle juts out above the surface. The current is languid now, but early yesterday, when she was crossing the shallow ford just a little ways farther up, a huge surge of water came coursing through, knocking her and her cart downstream. It smashed against some rocks, and she was washed even farther. She has since made several trips back into the water, trying to fix the cart so she can push it. Her other approach was to remove some of the cargo to lighten the cart, but she has only been able to get one crate to shore since they are themselves quite heavy.
“If this cart stays stuck in here, you’re going to ruin this whole river,” Tric opines. Heppa looks down into the water at what types of plants grow in the underground stream, suggesting possible ways she could adapt her bramble spell to aid in this endeavor. Tric mentions lassoing with vines, and Mari-Elin points out that she does have rope. “Ah, all right, well, what other resources do we have on hand?” Tric asks. “The torches… some bog iron… Heppa could maybe freeze something. What was in your cart? Is there anything there we could use?”
Mari-Elin frowns a bit, unsure about the motives of these nosy elves who seem to want to interfere with the dwarvish project, but she is out of options. What is a carter without a cart, after all? She heads down the ledge alongside the river and pulls back some large leaf-like clusters of lichen, revealing a curl of rope and a crate with a wooden wheel leaning against it. “I’m not supposed to open these,” she says, as she begins prying the box open. “I’m just supposed to transport them.”
“Well, I think they broke open during transport,” Tric says.
She smirks at him over her shoulder. “That’s a good one. It was when the whole cart accident happened. Right.” Then her smile fades. “Oh no! I hope none of them actually did! I’ll have to keep diving down there and gathering up everything…”
Tric tries to keep her spirits up. “Let’s get the cart out first and see if it’s got everything.”
The crate top opens to reveal not potatoes this time, but a wide assortment of finely-crafted weapons, all with forged components. Swords, axes, knives, maces…
“Is that what’s in all of them?” Heppa asks, alarmed.
“I just cart the goods,” Mari-Elin quickly says, not wanting to deal with any hassle over the martial implications of what she moves. “I don’t pack the crates myself.”
The elf’s response relieves Mari-Elin a bit. “They’re all going to be so heavy! They’ll just sink.”
“Oh! Good point. That means they probably haven’t floated too far down the river. If anything broke, they’ll just be right along the bottom here.”
Together, they all work up a plan to loop a rope around the cart so that Tric and Mari-Elin can pull it while Heppa has plants push from beneath. As Tric prepares for his dive, he and Heppa joke around about merfolk and seahorsefolk.
“Uh, no. The naga down here are not friendly,” Mari-Elin warns them.
That catches Tric’s attention, but he is already teetering on the bank. As he splashes into the water, he calls out, “Naga? What’s a naga?” The next they see of him, he is climbing back out of the water farther downstream on the opposite side, gasping for air. The currents below the water were too strong for him to make it around the cart, but his pride will not let him admit that. He dresses up the situation a bit. “I thought it would be easier if we hauled it back to the ford with you on that side and me on this side,” he announces. That sounds plausible…
Mari-Elin is not fooled. She can tell this fellow is not an experienced swimmer. However, his idea is a good one. The two of them start pulling while the elvish sorceress coaxes the algae and slimy river weeds into a slick surface. Step by step, they walk the rope toward the ford, dragging the cart along with them. As it moves into shallower water, she notes with relief that only one crate is missing. At the ford the cart lists to the side with the shattered wheel. Heppa and Tric examine the damage while Mari-Elin trots over to grab her spare wheel. She rolls it back, and the sorceress takes it. Mari-Elin squats with her back to the cart and grabs it with two hands. She stands, raising it high enough for the wheel to go on. The sorceress lines the part up and then asks the other elf what kind of wheel he thinks it is.
“Well, this looks like it might be a wheel of dwarvish manufacture, a little smaller than other wheels you might have seen… There is less wood content because dwarves don’t live around trees so much.” He takes the wheel and looks at it more closely. “I don’t see any worked stone or metal in here, though. It is just a wooden wheel.”
Arms shaking, Mari-Elin asks, “Are you going to attach it or not?”
“You don’t want to rush this kind of thing,” he says, but he hands the part back over to Heppa and she begins screwing it on. “Sure but steady, pointed ear, that’s the elvish way,” he recites, as if it is from some childhood verse.
Sure, they have big ears, but it’s how nosey they are that is more worrisome, Mari-Elin thinks. Still, they are being helpful, so when the fellow asks about using one of the weapons to fish for the missing crate, she agrees to let him handle the merchandise. As he ties the rope to it, he resumes his bluster.
“Now, actually, I’ve been accused of being too good a fisherman. But, from time to time, even I end up fishing out an old boot or crate.” He flings the makeshift fishing line out, and it catches on something, but the item is too heavy to drag in this way. “How important was it to get all these crates?” he asks.
With one end of the rope now affixed near the submerged crate, they have a line in place to help reach it. Mari-Elin lowers herself into the water and starts heading down, but she hits a pocket of swift current that tugs strongly at her, and she loses hold of the rope. With a yelp, she goes under. Tric jumps in, one hand on the rope, hoping to reach her before she gets too far away, but he is not fast enough. She bobs along and gets caught in an eddy farther down the stream. Hepalonia upends the crate on shore, spilling its contents along the bank, then flings the empty crate toward the swirling water. Mari-Elin catches the improvised flotation device. The impact is enough to jar her out of the eddy. As she floats away, she shouts, “Give me a few minutes and I’ll be back! I know the place I can climb out.”
Heppa did learn about how to properly maintain weapons when she received her sword, so she sets about drying off the ones now scattered across the riverbank. Tric Manu pulls himself back out of the water, and then the two of them look around in vain for any indication of lodestone in the area. With his magnetism plan thus foiled, he bats around ideas with Hepalonia, and they settle on using the empty crate as a floatation device once Mari-Elin gets back. In preparation, they begin accumulating rocks for weights and filling their waterskins with air to assemble a makeshift ballast system. When Mari-Elin rejoins them, they enact their plan, floating Tric and the crate out with the rope attached to it, but it works about as well as everything else they have tried so far.
As Tric Manu pulls himself back ashore again, Heppa examines the walls. If the area is still draining from the sudden overflow yesterday, then maybe Mari-Elin can just wait this out. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case. With a sigh, she tells the human, “I was hoping there might be some indicator that the water would drain more, but the water lines don’t show that. I think your only option is to come back later with more friends. Friends who can swim well.”
The woman frowns, and Tric jumps in. “Look,” he tells her, “remember where this is. Mark it on a map somewhere. Leave that map lying around for someone else to find. And it’ll be a great adventure for them! We don’t want to deny them that adventure of finding Mari’s lost treasure.”
“Yeah, it’s lost treasure for me! I’m not going to get paid!”
“You did everything you could,” Tric says encouragingly. “Was part of the delivery agreement that you would risk your life drowning to bring this stuff? And, the water… you said it was higher and faster when this happened to you yesterday? That was the last time there was one of these thunderous shakes on the surface.”
“Oh… that’s a good point. The seller should be liable,” Mari-Elin says.
“It looks like your employer caused this problem, and you should be entitled to some sort of carter’s compensation.”
Mari-Elin mulls it over. She had been trying to handle the matter on her own, without any of her business associates knowing about her trouble with the delivery. “I can see how I can blame the dwarves themselves for it, but I’m not sure…”
Tric recasts her struggles, painting them in a better light. “You uncovered an incredible flaw in the local water system. Flooding in tunnels, that’s one of the worst things that can happen in a mine, isn’t it? Or a forge. Or a fortress.” Mari-Elin takes his point. While this particular tunnel is her own route, these types of things could also be happening in other sections of the tunnels. She wonders if she can get increased hazard pay for the deliveries now. Tric tells her that he and Heppa will back up her story when she reports to the dwarves.
“All right,” Mari-Elin says decisively. “I’ll do what I said. I’ll take you to the fortress so you can sort out whatever issues you have with what they’re doing. And maybe I can find someone there who will take responsibility for increasing the hazard of delivering the goods that they themselves want delivered!”
Heppa offers the consolation that given how hard it was for the three of them to recover the lost crate, it is unlikely anyone else will be able to get at it before Mari-Elin can return with better equipment. Then Hepalonia puts the empty crate on the cart and rolls it over to the weapons scattered across the ground. She and her cousin help Mari-Elin refill the crate.
As they work, Tric Manu’s idle chatter manages to elicit more details from the human about her job. Mari-Elin has to X-off some sort of tally board when she picks up her crates and then do the same on paper when she delivers them. The elves are impressed at such a system and wonder about the underlying communication between the two sides. Mari-Elin shrugs. “I don’t know how often Merriver’s people talk with Knutan.”
Hepalonia compliments the quality of the weapons. “Dwarves know what they’re doing,” the human observes.
“Is this just regular trade for them, or are they planning to go to war with someone?” Tric asks.
Another shrug from Mari-Elin. “I don’t know what Merriver’s planning to do.”
“Fair enough,” Tric acknowledges.