After a decent night’s sleep on a floor covered in straw—not as comfortable as her bed back home but better than the rough terrain in Kachen’s keep—Hepalonia joins Tric Manu as he accompanies Mari-Elin to the cart-loading area. Her cousin seems to have a plan, and she intends to watch how it plays out and contribute where she can.
A giant chalkboard is set into the cavern wall. Words in a strange script run down one side like a list, and beside each are drawn a long stream of boxes, many of which are X-ed out. Staring up at the largest slate he has ever seen, Tric murmurs a potential line for his future memoir of this expedition. “Highest among the dwarves is the accountant.” He squints his eyes a bit, trying to make out the words, but concludes, “And he’s got terrible handwriting… Or maybe it’s a form of secret script so no one else can read the ledger.”
“No, it looks like a list of weapons,” Heppa tells him. Swords and knives have the most checkboxes, but more obscure weapons are on the list. Judging from the number of empty boxes, the project is still only partially finished. Although the amount of weapons stacked around them is not excessive, the number indicated by the histogram would be enough to arm every single elf in all of Estbryn Forest, plus more besides. Tric marvels at the impressive wall of accounting, so mundane and yet also so imposing.
In front of the chalkboard stands a dwarf with a very long stick tipped in chalk. Mari-Elin marches up to him and begins her spiel. “Something that Trigadur is doing disrupted the trade routes and washed out my cart! It’s your group’s fault that half the merchandise got lost. You need to give me replacements.”
Tric finally realizes that she picks up weapons here, rather than delivers them to this spot. If these weapons are for an army, then that army is not what is fouling the water. I bet that army is in South Tower, he thinks, based on where Mari-Elin said these tunnels lead.
The dwarf switches out the chalk color for his stick and then reaches it back up to circle a few X-ed off boxes. He shouts for one of his lackeys to go notify Trigadur, as this is not an accounting problem. Mari-Elin adds, “And these elves want to talk to Trigadur also.”
An escort takes the three of them away from the accounting area to a central plaza. A dwarf in soot-stained leathers with a knife on his belt strides across the space to them. His light brown skin is also smeared with soot. Some sort of strange pole is strapped to his back and pokes up over his shoulder. “What’s this all aboot, then?” he asks.
Tric immediately steps up to take the lead before Mari-Elin can make her complaints. “Trigadur, I am Tric Manu and this is my cousin Hepalonia. We are from Estbryn Forest. We have started noticing recently that the water has gone bad, and we traced it back to the swamp that is immediately above your fortress here. Once a week, with every phase of the moon, the surface shakes and quakes, and great bubbles come up through the swamp, tainting the water even further.”
“I’m surprised pointy-ears such as yerself hae ventured all the way doon here, just tae tell me what the time of day is,” the dwarf responds indifferently.
“That does not happen in most swamps,” Tric clarifies. “Is there something you do on a weekly basis that releases this toxic gas?”
The dwarf folds his arms across his chest, trapping his long braided brown beard against it. “I suppose thare always was a chance something like that would happen.” He nods to himself. “If that’s all, then?”
“It is also causing flooding in your own caves, as Mari here will attest,” Tric tells Trigadur. His human companion takes her cue, agitatedly describing the flooding and how she cannot be held responsible for having lost part of her shipment. Tric makes a show of calming her down. “There is nothing you could have done,” he assures her.
Trigadur stands unmoved against the onslaught of accusations, and Hepalonia realizes that they have not actually requested anything of him. This is so far just a collection of observations. “Trigadur,” she begins politely, “could we investigate to see? We are trying to solve this mystery.” After all, they do not know for certain that the dwarves really are the source of the problem. It would be nice to be able to check out their operation.
“The water is tainted. We need to drink that water. So we need to make it not-tainted,” Tric says plainly. “If something you are doing is tainting the water, we need to help you fix that.”
“Or ye need tae go drink other water.”
“It’s in everyone’s interest to have water that’s safe to drink,” Tric tries.
“It’s nae in mah interest what water’s in a swamp way above mah head. Filling the quota’s in mah interest.”
“It’s bad for the saurians above—” Trigadur interrupts Tric with a laugh; the dwarf certainly does not care what is bad for saurians. “They need to stay in good spirits. They’re the only things keeping the walking corpses in check. If the walking corpses are not held in check, they’re going to walk into your cave. And I don’t think you want to deal with that.” Tric prefers not to be coercive, but it seems he needs a new approach for making this dwarf understand that the water situation really is a serious issue.
“We’ve lived in these caves fer centuries. Mal-Ravanal’s forces did nae clear us oot. Whatever is lingering aroond above is nae goin’ tae clear us oot either,” Trigadur replies dismissively. “If undead start walkin’ the tunnels, dwarves will cut them doon.”
That’s a good solution to the undead issue, actually, Heppa thinks. She tries to remember where she has heard Mal-Ravanal mentioned before. Was that the elvish necromancer Daddy said was just one of Breda’s stories? Or is it the human one that the Null Stone stopped?
“I can understand ye weak-willed elves are nervous aboot the undead—”
“If you are doing something that is making cracks reach up to the swamp, one of these days it might come raining down on you,” Tric points out.
Finally something he has said actually makes Trigadur view this as more than just someone else’s problem. The dwarf frowns a bit, and Tric can see in his unfocused gaze that he is already considering potential plans. Whether it is to stop the cracks from forming or to simply redirect the leakage elsewhere, Tric does not know. Given their interaction so far, he considers the latter more likely.
“Ye can look aroond, but yer goin’ tae have an escort. These twa will keep ye oot of trouble.” He shouts, “Daven, Port, get over here. I’ve got more important things tae dae than watch them. See tae it that ye dae nae leave them alone.” Two younger-looking dwarves approach, each with a small shield and spear. Trigadur turns back to the elves. “Mah work is important fer mah clan, and only mah lord can declare it finished.”
“What happens when you fill up all your checkboxes on your chalkboard,” Tric asks. “Does that mean you’re done?”
“When all those boxes are check aff, Merriver will have everything she needs, and this job will be fulfilled. But humans, they like tae think they’re nae like orcs, but they fight among themselves just as much. And humans and orcs both showed up on oor shores at the same time, did nae they?”
Heppa nods at his point. He’s not wrong about that! Kachen told us there are different factions of humans. It has only been a few days, and already she has learned so much about the wider world beyond Estbryn Forest.
“I’m sure that after Merriver, there will be other purchasers lined up. But that’s Lord Knutan’s job tae arrange. I’ll just keep workin’ the forges.” With that, Trigadur turns and clomps away. He speaks to some underlings and waves in the direction of Mari-Elin’s cart. They rush over to it and begin loading it.
As Trigador walks away, Tric gets a good look at the strange pole on his back. Now that it is in full view, he can see that it is a pipe with a flared end. It has some sort of stock at the other end that reminds him of a crossbow, but he is not sure how these disparate parts all work together. He thinks that maybe it is a blowpipe for darts, and an airbag—like those used in dwarvish bagpipes—could be attached for propulsion.
Heppa watches Trigadur depart as well, but her eyes fall upon a different sight. Through the archway to which he is headed, she sees a group of dwarves ushering along some trolls. Some of the burly blue-gray creatures are the same height as the dwarves, but only because they are moving on all-fours. The trolls are bald, with long, pointed ears and piercing red eyes. The ones standing upright are taller even than elves. I don’t know why they have trolls down here… Can they even control them? Something here could get out of hand fast, she worries. “Tric Manu, do you see those trolls?” she hisses.
“Hmm? Huge and strong, regrows limbs,” he replies, almost automatically, his mind still on the strange weapon. He snaps back to attention, turning to their new companions with a friendly greeting. “Where do you fellows go to have fun?”
“Back tae the alehoose.”
“There’s a brewer?” Tric asks. “Or do you get it imported?”
They scoff at that suggestion and offer to take him there. This guard duty now seems as though it will be much more entertaining than just taking some elves around the refinery and the forge.
“Wait, I thought we were going to look at their operation,” Heppa starts, confused.
“Cool it,” Tric says out of the side of his mouth, waving at his cousin to shush her.
“Well, I guess we have time…” Heppa concedes, curious about what Tric Manu is planning.
The elves bid farewell to Mari-Elin, who needs to get underway. She has lost two days already and has a lot of time to make up. They wish her well on her trip, and Tric suggests that if she ever finds herself on the east side of Estbryn Forest, she might find other things to cart there which would not require she spend so much time underground. Heppa laughs and points out that Connie really did not like having to carry those crates of potatoes. They describe some landmarks and the distillers to her.
“Tell Connie and Marvin that Tric and Heppa sent you,” Tric tells her. “Just… one more thing… You’re not connected to Earl Gweddry at all, right?”
Mari-Elin bursts out laughing. She waves goodbye and heads over to her now fully-loaded cart.
“Didn’t think so,” Tric says under his breath. “Pretty sure they’re planning some kind of rebellion. Good thing it is not our problem!”
“Yes,” Heppa agrees. “As long as the water is good and the swamp does not come flooding in here, we’re fine, I guess.”