Kachen’s camp is the safest place around, and since they have probably found what they are looking for, that is where they take the injured man. Tric helps Kachen along while Heppa keeps an eye out for any more of those walking corpses. There is some discussion of whether this area still counts as forest; Tric insists that what Kachen has called a shrub is actually a young tree. He searches for a name and settles for the shrub tree. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you back to camp,” he assures the human, “and tonight, dinner is on us!” After all, Kachen has a fair bit of stores, and if they are all moving on soon, they need to reduce the carrying load. Plus they have their dried meats back from the saurian.
“I appreciate not being dinner myself,” Kachen replies, leaning heavily upon Tric and gritting his teeth against each jarring step.
“There’s not much meat on you. She wouldn’t even have enjoyed it, I don’t think. Anyway, I’ll fix dinner while Heppa fixes you up.”
Hepalonia nods and tells Kachen that they have some herbs and poultices that should help. “Are you going to hunt?” she asks her cousin. He assures her that he has the dinner situation well under control without directly answering her question.
Within the crumbling walls of the ruined keep, Hepalonia sets down her bag and leans the staff to the side. She does wonder whether it will draw more undead to them, but she settles on treating Kachen as her first priority. She fishes out medical supplies while he takes off his outer robe and gingerly removes his torn and blood-drenched linen shirt. Heppa now gets a good look not just at his new injury, but also at his pronounced ribs. With his hood gone, this is her first really clear look at his face as well. The gauntness, the bags under his eyes… he looks exhausted far beyond just bearing the recent pain. Her initial examination is a little more thorough than is probably necessary, but she justifies to herself that if she knows his underlying health condition, she will be better able to cater to his specific needs. As she works, she politely narrates all her actions, so that he is not alarmed by a touch or a movement. Then she cleans the injury, stitches it up, applies some salve, and secures bandages in place using strips of cloth around his ribs. She advises him to lie down and rest.
Did he even sleep at all last night? she wonders. Or any night recently? His under-nourished condition is also puzzling. He has plenty of stores here; he even shared some of the food with them last night. When she thinks back on it though, he did not eat much of it himself. She concludes that his inability to sleep well is what has caused his current level of exhaustion and his poor appetite. When she first met him, she thought he was kind of creepy. There was something that seemed unnatural about him, and this impression was compounded by how the local wildlife, that saurian, responded to him. But maybe she misread him. Maybe it is this place that is creepy, and he has been alone here for a few months. How well would I be sleeping under those conditions?
When Heppa finishes patching up Kachen, Tric brings over his masterpiece, a pot of everything soup. Scrounging around in supply piles and pantries is refreshingly easier than in the wild. It’s still living off the land, he tells himself. The dish has Kachen’s weak ale as the liquid base with his bland biscuits as thickener. Some of his simple dried meats supply protein, but Tric also added in more flavorful ones from Uncle Thran’s pantry. “Better to carry all of these supplies out of here in our stomachs than on our backs.”
“Kachen could really use some rest and some sustenance,” Heppa observes. “I don’t know if we should move on so quickly.” Tric assures her that he certainly was not planning on heading anywhere else that day.
“Where are you intending to move on to?” Kachen asks. “Prior to finding that staff—which we still need to examine—you had suggested that if we found something, we might consider breaking it apart. But Tric has several times mentioned other battlefields that could have items of interest. Do you have a specific battlefield that is next on your list?”
“Oh, yeah! There’s one south of Estbryn Forest,” Tric tells him. That is not a place name with which Kachen is familiar. “Wherever you see a tree is Estbryn Forest,” Tric declares, “until you no longer see a tree.”
“That’s a very unhelpful answer,” Kachen remarks.
Heppa clarifies that they would be heading southwest of their current location, and Tric insists that it would just be a few days at a nice, leisurely pace. Heppa suggests it might be better to remain where they are for a few days of healing and study. Tric agrees that is fine as long as they do not go into the bog. He does not want to be in breach of agreement with the skirmisher.
“Do you know if there are any villages along the route to that site?” Kachen asks.
“I don’t think there are….” Tric observes Kachen relax a bit at his answer, leading him to suspect that the human is interested in avoiding villages, not resupplying at them. “There are a couple kindly fellows operating a small still—though don’t tell Gweddry.”
Whatever relief Kachen was feeling evaporates. “What does Earl Gweddry have to do with any of this?” Tric tries to wave away the question saying he only half-understands the whole excise situation, but Heppa volunteers that it was something to do with taxes. Kachen’s alarm grows. “And who are you recovering these materials for, again?”
Last night something about Kachen really rubbed Heppa the wrong way, but she has softened toward him now that she understands how little sleep he is operating on. She is willing to admit certain things now that she held back then. “My father is a scholar,” she tells him.
“Right, right,” Kachen says almost to himself, “this is an elvish research project.”
“Yes, of course,” Hepalonia replies. Then, trying to lighten the mood a bit, she jokes, “Did you think we were working for orcs?”
“No, it was starting to sound like you worked for Wesnoth,” he admits, opening up a bit.
“The humans?” Heppa asks.
“Yes… but you know there are more humans than just Wesnoth, right?”
“Of course!” Tric speaks up in full bluster mode. “Everyone knows that!” His cousin looks at him, confusion writ across her face. “Okay, so not everyone knows that. It’s a tightly guarded secret that there are other human communities out there beyond Wesnoth.”
Hepalonia’s dabbling at scouting and shamanistic studies has left her ill-informed on this topic. Humans came over to the continent bringing orcs along behind them, and then they set up… whatever they set up. “I guess?” she says uncertainly, wondering why it matters. Oh, orcs have clans… maybe this is like that. “Are you not from the Wesnoth clan?”
“The Clans are ostensibly part of Wesnoth,” Kachen tells her. “Konrad asserts his power over the Horse Lords.”
“And… you are… from the horse lords?” Heppa asks, trying to put Kachen’s seemingly unrelated comments together in a way that makes some sort of sense. He seems concerned about something, but she cannot figure out what it could be.
“You’re the one who was asking about the Clans,” he counters.
“The clan of Wesnoth. The forest of Wesnoth?” Heppa tries out various turns of phrase to see if any fit.
“The country of Wesnoth,” Kachen states plainly, as though this should be obvious.
“Yes, it is predominantly rural, despite having several large settlements,” Tric interjects, interpreting country as meaning countryside.
Hepalonia admits that Kachen is the third human she has ever met, and at that point, he finally comprehends the scope of her ignorance. She has a very different cultural framework and set of assumptions from which she is working. Tric he is not sure of, because the fellow seems determined to maintain a deceptive front of his own. Kachen is aware of it, but he has not yet discerned the motivation for it. He leaves that alone for now and delivers a geopolitical lecture on the human country of Wesnoth, checking in with his listeners along the way to clarify terms and make sure they are following along. Hepalonia presents questions now and then, while Tric just soaks it all up as potential fodder for future ridiculous tales of his own.
Wesnoth is one extremely large community of humans that covers a huge, diverse stretch of land. Geographically speaking, there are vast plains down the middle of it, but there are also hilly sections as well as forests, and it has several significant rivers. Kachen admits to being from much farther west. Given the amount of space that Wesnoth covers, there are many sub-communities within it, but the country of Wesnoth is one political unit.
Hepalonia relates this to what she has heard about orcs and the in-fighting among them. “So, are you from a different faction?” she asks, wondering if he would have problems within Wesnoth because of that.
“I was born within Wesnoth,” Kachen replies noncommittally. He is spared from further elaboration on relevant details of his past by Tric’s vivid imagination.
“Wait a minute! Are you actually the rightful King of Wesnoth, and this Konrad guy is an imposter?” The impact of his bold question is muted a bit by his cousin asking what a king is again. He clarifies that it is sort of like High Lord Volas, chair of the Estbryn Forest Council.
“No,” Kachen replies, with a smile and quiet chuckle. In response to Tric’s next excited question, he clarifies that he is also not in line to inherit. “And actually, Konrad II doesn’t have any heirs.” This creates more confusion for Hepalonia, since no elf is guaranteed a spot on the Council just because one of their parents had one. Kachen explains that the crown of Wesnoth passes to the oldest male descendent in the direct line, or if there is none the oldest female one. “Since Konrad II has no surviving children, when he does get around to dying there will be a whole bunch of distaff lineages—” Kachen realizes he is getting too technical again and tries to simplify. “Probably people will fight over who will be in charge. Considering how much the land has been torn up over the last fifty years, who knows what will become of Wesnoth after that.”
Heppa turns to her cousin, “But why would you think Kachen was in direct line? Presumably not all humans are related to each other.”
“Presumably they are,” Tric counters, “or they wouldn’t all be humans.”
“What would be the odds?” Heppa muses. Then, with renewed interest, she turns back to Kachen, “What would be the odds?”
He shakes his head. “I am not from any sort of noble line.” They have digressed so far from their original topic that it takes him a moment to get his lecture back on track. “Wesnoth is a political unit that a group of humans has, but not every human on the continent is a member of that entity. That faction, to use your term. Whenever humans came here, they spread, covering the land, and some of them came together as Wesnoth. Across the continent, though, humans live in many places that Wesnoth can’t claim. In these hills here—although Wesnoth does claim ownership of them—probably half the people you talk to would dispute that.”
He sees Heppa shoot a meaningful glance at her cousin, and then Tric says, “We’d be in that half.”
For his part, Kachen is satisfied now that these elves are not planning to take him to a Wesnoth settlement, and he lets the geopolitical discussion drop.