There is a loud rumbling boom, and the patch of squishy ground shakes. Heppa, who is kneeling for her sample, is fine. But Tric falls backward, arms pinwheeling. He splashes into the bog. Covered in muck, he resurfaces and wipes his eyes clear. “Oh, shrubs, the pig hindquarter has gotten all wet!”
“You should have wrapped it,” his cousin observes, helping him back up onto moist land.
“But then the saurian wouldn’t be able to smell it,” he counters. “And what was that, anyway?” Tric is pretty sure he did not just happen to lose his balance. Pretty sure. “Did you feel the earth tremble just now?”
“Yes,” Heppa acknowledges. “There was a loud noise, as well.”
“But thunderstorms don’t make the ground shake, and besides, there are no clouds.” Tric continues rambling on, presenting a series of far-fetched explanations.
Sometimes her cousin just talks to talk, but Hepalonia does not mind. She actually finds that it helps her brainstorm as well. “I have heard of earthquakes in the Northlands, far beyond the Great River, but nothing like that should happen in the Estmark Hills. We never had any tremors in Estbryn Forest growing up. I don’t believe the earth currents flow like that here. What could it have been though, if not an earthquake?”
“Dwarves tunneling underneath?” Tric suggests. “Or drakes?”
Suddenly, a sibilant voice behind them declares, “You were supposed to leave!” and a small throwing spear sinks into the mud between the two cousins.
Tric spins around and sees the skirmisher in the water, raised just enough to give her arm clearance for throwing. “Whoa! Whoa! Easy! The deal was to take the meat away, but… I thought…” He makes a show of revealing the haunch. “That you might be interested in some.”
“What trade are you making this time?”
Tric inquires about the noise and shaking, and she brushes it off, saying simply that the swamp is unsettled. “Was it any different under the water? Does this normally happen?”
“Is it a common problem?” Heppa interjects.
Tric pulls out a more grandiose word. “Is it portentous?”
“That is a matter for the augurs to decide,” the saurian replies.
“Have they decided that sometimes it’s portentous?” Tric presses.
The skirmisher scoffs. “That’s men’s work!”
Clearly there are things about saurian culture that Tric is rubbing up against. Heppa is practically shaking with curiosity next to him, wondering what the event was. “Do you know what’s unsettled? Here, let me just come out and say it: are the dead rising?” He unslings the hunk of meat and tosses it over to the saurian.
She snatches it out of the air and fatalistically declares, “Whatever the sounds bring will come for us eventually. But I have not seen the walking dead celebrating the noise or shaking. Just bubbles have come so far.”
“Forgive me if this is an inappropriate question, but… do you live here? Is this swamp your home? It seems like a dangerous place.”
The saurian agrees with Tric’s assessment but insists she can handle herself. However, she goes on to state that a clan such as hers that has lost its recent battles is fated to lose access to prime hunting grounds. “But this territory is my charge. As small as my clan may be, it is my job to provide for them.”
Tric turns to his cousin. “She said bubbles. Do you think the bad water is connected to this?” Heppa agrees it is worth pursuing. He asks the saurian if there is a place she can take them to where she has seen bubbles.
“I doubt an egg crusher such as you would be able to swim that far, but you can try to follow me.” The saurian begins to swim away, leaving the elves to scramble aboard their raft in an effort to keep pace.
The cousins paddle and push and pole along until finally the unstable raft flips over sending them both tumbling into the water. Through the murky soup, Tric sees the saurian grab Heppa’s wrist and swim down. Oh, so when she said far, she meant depth, not distance, he realizes. He tells himself that he must not have been chosen because it is women’s work.
Tric kicks himself up towards the surface. The first thing he does after sucking in a breath is to blame their difficulties on the raft’s lack of a rudder. Then he pulls himself back onto the shoddy craft. While he waits for Heppa and the saurian to come back, he notices large bubbles occasionally bursting at the surface. There is no sulfurous stench associated with them, nor anything else to differentiate the newly released air from that already around him.
Tric’s imagination kicks into overdrive, trying to come up with a large beast that sleeps under the water and releases bubbles every now and then. One day it will awaken and surface, then terrorize the land. Oh, maybe it’s a dragon!
Heppa, covered in filth, finally appears again, as does the skirmisher, who declares, “That’s the sort of thing that happens every time.”
Tric looks to his cousin, and she shrugs, telling him that the water was too murky for her to see what the saurian was pointing out. He then offers an apology to the skirmisher and explains, “Our elvish eyes are attuned to seeing the far reaches of the wind, not the far depths of the waters. Could you describe what was down there?”
“There are these cracks, these cracks in the bedrock. They come with each of the loud noises. With each phase of the moon, the halves and wholes, these cracks are made and bubbles come up from them.”
“That is odd,” Tric declares. “Have these always been happening as long as your clan has been here?”
“For as long as I have provided for my clan, a full turning of the seasons.”
Heppa, now alongside him on the raft, suggests using the dowsing rod again. He turns that around on her, encouraging her to do so since it was her idea. She pulls out the implement and concentrates. The sensations are more intense here than they were by Marvin and Connie’s still. “The ecological integrity is out of balance,” Hepalonia announces. The impressions from the rod indicate that imbalance exists in the acidity, as well as in the kinds of diseases abiding in the water. “There are also mineral contaminants in there that are not safe for consumption.” Heppa dips in an empty waterskin to take a sample. “How are you feeling?” she asks the saurian. “Is the water quality affecting you? It’s not very good.”
Something about the question rubs the skirmisher the wrong way. “My egg clutches are none of your business, egg crusher!” she hisses at Heppa.
Tric swiftly intervenes before offense turns to violence. “You know what, you’re right. It was wrong of us to ask about your eggs. This water also flows into our forest,” he explains. “If there’s something bad with the water, but there is something we can do to fix it… We’re doing it for ourselves,” he says, in case her pride has been scratched, “but it could help you too. Swimming in the water is probably not good for you. Do you want to ride on the raft, too?” He scoots over to make room for her. As she scrambles aboard, he introduces himself and his cousin to the saurian, whose name is Hezzis.
Hepalonia hardly notices. A whole new set of questions have begun marching through her mind. I wonder if the acidity will cause problems for her eggs. Do they just get laid in the water? How many clutches might there be around here?
Hezzis consents to the elves fixing the problem. “You took away the dark one, so if you can also fix the water, that would be good.”
“I don’t know if we have the tools to do that right now,” Tric says, trying to dampen the skirmisher’s expectations. “This isn’t the only place that has bubbles, right?”
“They come up from the cracks in the ground. If you cannot fix it here, maybe you should go into the caves, then,” Hezzis suggests.
“There’s a cave?” Tric blurts out, accidentally admitting a gap in his rangery knowledge.
“There’s a cave?!” Heppa delights.
“The caves are further into the hills, but maybe they would lead down below the swamp, and then you can fill the cracks with mud paste, or however else you want to fix them. Maybe the drums will be there, too, and you can break them,” Hezzis comments, providing suggestions based on her simplistic interpretation of the situation.
Tric asks Hezzis to show them where the cave is, making it clear that he does not expect her to enter it with them. She agrees but points out it will take at least a day to reach. Hepalonia suggests they wait until tomorrow to head out. As payment for her guide services, Tric offers Hezzis an additional hog hindquarter. Kachen’s not going to eat the whole thing, so we can certainly spare it, he figures. Their human friend will still be recovering from his injuries, so there will be no question of him going along to the cave. Still, it would be best to keep him and Hezzis apart. “We’ll meet you on the east side of the swamp first thing in the morning,” Tric says, pointing in a random direction.
“Your elvish terms mean nothing to me,” Hezzis hisses back. They agree to meet on the sunrise side of the bog. Then the skirmisher bounds away, hopping from tussock to reed patch to mossy rock, moving swiftly through the swamp while avoiding the water itself.