The night in the keep passes uneventfully. In the morning, they pack up what provisions remain to see them through the multi-day hike back to their village. Heppa gives the letter one last read before placing it back in its case and then into her bag. “So, I guess we know where Kachen went to school,” she says.
“Maybe, or at least he knows those people. You know, he probably did go to school there.” Tric agrees. The man certainly did seem educated. “Alduin has a big magical academy, and he clearly had some magical training.” Tric then notices his cousin staring over his shoulder.
“What is that?!” she asks curiously.
Tric turns around and sees a small green flag visible over the wall, clearly mounted just outside the keep. It bears a striking resemblance to the banners they saw in the dwarvish fortress. Tric hastily steps through the doorway, Heppa close on his heels, and finds Glammur there. “Are you claiming this keep for Untdunben?”
“Nae, I’m simply markin’ it as a safe place tae stay fer other travelers,” they answer innocently.
“But do the dwarves of Untdunben see it that way, or is that just how you see it?” Tric presses.
“They are the closest proper settlement and the most recent refresher of mah supply of ribbons.”
“Right, right… I’m just saying that other people might look upon it as though they’re claiming territory, and they might get upset.”
“Dae ye want tae take it doon?” Glammur asks.
“I think we should put another one up, just to make things clear.” Tric rummages through his little knapsack and pulls out a small square of cloth. If you can see a tree, you are in the forest, he thinks. He steps over to the now extinguished fire pit and picks up a partially burnt piece of wood. With it he sketches a simple tree on his handkerchief. “This will have to do.” He is not sure what a saurian would put on her own flag, as Hezzis did not wear any kind of emblem.
Meanwhile, Heppa asks Glammur if this is a common practice among travelers, or if it is specific to dwarves, putting up a green flag like this. The dwarf clarifies that this particular pennant is Knutan’s banner. However, it is customary to set out signs of welcome so that travelers know they can expect hospitality in a place. Similarly, those who travel across open country leave such markers to indicate that a place makes a good campsite.
Once Tric’s tree flag is up alongside Knutan’s green standard, they begin their travels. The elves retrace the route they took to the swamp so as to not risk getting lost cutting across new land. This takes them to Connie and Marvin’s still, where Tric lets the humans know that Mari-Elin the Carter might be willing to transport some things for them. “She’s in the know; she’s got some good networks,” he tells them. “Let’s just say she’s not friends with the taxman either.”
Over the course of the next few days, Hepalonia peppers Glammur with questions. A topic of particular interest to her is what aging looks like among non-elves. She asks whether Glammur has ever seen older humans and if it is true that they lose their teeth. She also wants to know whether this happens to dwarves. Tric remains satisfied with his decision to take possession of the skull until they reach Uncle Thran. Anyone who did not know Heppa might think she was personally interested in necromancy given how fixated she is on the topic of aging. It could sound to some like she wants to live forever and never get old.
Glammur has met plenty of old humans and shares that some of them do lose their teeth. The dwarf makes it clear that they have not made a practice of studying teeth. However, they have encountered humans who were missing some, as well as a few particularly aged humans who were all gums. Tric points out that this could be from getting into barroom fights, and Glammur suggests diet might also play a role. As for hair, Glammur says that some humans have their hair turn gray or white as they age, while others lose it completely. Gesturing at their own partially gray hair, they comment that they have seen more summers than the two elves combined. Aging is somewhat similar between humans and dwarves, but Glammur insists that dwarves are hardier folk. They are less likely to lose their teeth, and their lifespans are longer.
“Probably drinking is what grants dwarves their extended lifespan?” Tric suggests. Glammur laughs and points out that everyone needs to drink.
“Neither of those things happen to elves,” Heppa observes, “the hair or the teeth.”
“Well, elves are different,” Glammur says.
“Oh! How so?”
“Dwarves could tell ye a thing or twae aboot hoo they think elves are different. Probably yer own folk would tell ye different stories.”
And so it continues for a few days, as they make their way to the undisputed lands of the Estbryn Forest. Tric happily points out the first substantial stand of trees he spots, announcing, “Welcome to the Estbryn Forest!” It is over a rise, and Glammur is too short to see it until they have hiked on a bit farther.
“I thought we were already in the forest,” Heppa says.
“Right, the outer, outer Estbryn Forest, which the humans call the Estmark Hills. Soon, though, we’ll be in what is known as the downwood, which is much more densely packed.”
Several hours later, they are finally under the canopy. A slight rustling alerts them that they are not alone, and then suddenly, a whole squad of elves with arrows nocked and strings drawn back step out from hiding places behind bushes and trees. Hepalonia blushes, mortified. She has never dealt with coming back into the forest before, and it totally did not occur to her that this would happen.
Tric is a bit embarrassed as well, but he plays it cool. “Renwick! Didn’t you see this dwarf invading? It took you this long?” he says jocularly to a bulked-up elf with one sword drawn and a second still sheathed over his shoulder. His long, straight blond hair is held back with a red bandana much like Tric’s tight brown curls are. “No, no! This is our good friend Glammur. Please demur.”
“Ah, Tric Manu. What are you doing bringing a dwarf into our forest?” Renwick asks, tossing his chin in Glammur’s direction.
“A-a-ah! Not just a dwarf.”
“That’s a dwarf.”
“Glammur happens to be dwarf, yes, but Glammur is sort of like one of our scouts, visiting places—”
“So you are bringing an advance party for a dwarvish army into our forest?”
“Quite the opposite!”
“Glammur is our guest,” Hepalonia inserts, adding the weight of her noble connections. “A guest of the House of Thrandolil.”
“Hepalonia and I visited the fortress of Untdunben,” Tric explains. “They were kind enough to let us visit. It would be a sad day indeed if dwarves had better hospitality than our own elves of the Estbryn Forest.”
“Fine, fine, but some of the patrol are going along with you,” Renwick declares.
“That will not be necessary,” Tric insists. “Glammur is with us. But, please, continue to keep an excellent lookout here on the midwood part of Estbryn Forest. Why aren’t you out on the edge of the forest? Did you know that we encountered undead not three days hence?”
“That is why you should not leave the forest,” Renwick replies. “The forest is safe—because we keep it that way.”
“The midforest is safe, but on the outskirts anything could happen,” Tric rebuts. “But you are doing a good job! Keep doing it, while we take our guest to check in.”
Renwick relents, not wanting to break up his border patrol if undead have been active nearby. The party continues onward. As soon as they are out of earshot of the others, Hepalonia turns to Glammur. “Please accept my sincerest apologies. I did not think ahead.”
“Yes, I didn’t think about that either,” Tric agrees. “We don’t get a lot of visitors. Particularly not new visitors.”
“I think ye handled that quite well,” Glammur grants them graciously. Tric comments on how much easier it was for him and his cousin to get into the dwarvish fortress, and Glammur reminds him that the elves also had someone to provide an introduction, the carter from the bat story Heppa told.
“But it wasn’t like the dwarvish guard at the door was pointing a spear at us. It wasn’t an ambush.”
“I guess that is the difference between having proper gates and having just a territory that ye say is yer home.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Tric admits. “It’s hard to put up gates when the trees are your walls.”
“What would they hide behind?” Hepalonia asks, seemingly out of nowhere. Her companions look at her questioningly. “In the tunnels, I mean.” Tric Manu suggests rocks and shadows, while Glammur points out that ledges and hollowed out areas provide additional points from which to surprise intruders. “Ah. And I guess I would be less concerned about a couple strangers if I were sitting on a stash of weapons like they were,” Heppa observes. “That could boost some confidence. Even if many of them were for sale, the dwarves themselves were still very well equipped.” Further conversation on how to set up subterranean ambushes carries them the rest of the way into the heart of the forest.