The cousins set up camp on the edge of the swamp. Despite the moist environment, they get a comforting blaze going and soon everything is dry. They divvy up tasks, and as Heppa takes care of hers, she is relieved to find that her headache has cleared up. They finally sit down together to boil water drawn from the plants and ground, and there is some more discussion of who should deal with the larger water issue. Tric Manu insists that he has moved on from his water dowsing career. “The water called out to you,” he tells his cousin. “It would be rude and inappropriate for me to intervene at this point.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Hepalonia tells him. “We’re family, Tric Manu.”
“I don’t just mean to you. It would be rude to the water,” Tric claims. “You don’t want to upset it.”
“What happens when it gets upset?” his cousin inquires.
Moss Below, Heppa asks a lot of questions! “Well, it depends on what’s wrong with the water. I’ve heard that far to the west there is a great ocean full of water. There are people who live in the water, and they revere the water, like we revere the forest. The trees are everything to us; the water is everything to them. So if the water is angry out there, you get stormy seas, ruined algae crops, plagues of water locusts…”
“Do they eat the water?”
“They drink the water,” Tric quickly answers.
Heppa smiles, enjoying what she perceives to be a fun game of hypotheticals. She does not always get such polite responses to her many questions. Certainly not from Quaemilya. Her sister never has time for nonsense, whereas it is one of Tric Manu’s main pastimes. He is fast becoming her favorite cousin, but there is no need to tell him that. It would just go to his head. “They’re made of water?” she asks. This is absurd, but it is fun to play with the idea of locusts in water. If they did exist, what would they be like? she wonders.
“Well, partly,” Tric replies, relaxing into the conversation more. He can tell she is not buying it, that she is just playing along, but it is good practice for unsuspecting audiences. They go back and forth for a while, filling in even more details of this fictional pelagic ecosystem and hypothesizing about what merfolk must be like.
When the topic is finally exhausted, they decide to turn in for the night after one more snack. Tric opens his rucksack and roots around in it for a moment. “Heppa… when did you eat all the eggs… and venison…?” She says she did not, so he asks the next obvious question, considering that the pouch of their preserved foods is missing. “Were you carrying them, then? I thought the meat and such was in my bag.” Heppa comes over to join him, and they notice that the ground in the area is littered with dried fruit.
Alarmed, they look around to see if anything else is amiss and realize that the halberd is also gone, though the raft and shield remain. “What…?” Heppa breathes out. She had thought maybe a squirrel had gotten at their provisions, but… “A halberd is a pretty big thing…” They were perhaps having too much fun with their game, considering all that happened around them without their notice. “It must have been a person.”
Tric agrees. “While an animal could have taken it, they can’t use it. Most don’t have opposable thumbs.” He holds his fists up and wiggles the thumbs around demonstratively. “That’s what separates sentient species from non-sentient species. This is why orcs are technically sentient, regardless of how smart or dumb they are.” Heppa chuckles, and he shrugs. “I don’t make the rules.”
“Did the water rise and take all our sources of protein?”
“Maybe it got angry because we took stuff from it?”
Heppa tries to stifle her giggles, but she cannot. “You don’t think it would want the fruit too?”
“No, not the dried fruit… nobody likes that. But it wants the dried meat to reconstitute it, I guess.”
“We should search for tracks,” Heppa suggests, after she has had her laugh. “You’re good at that, Tric Manu. You would think that someone dragging off a halberd would leave a trail or weigh their own footprints down.”
Tric nods and quickly whips together a torch. He does not think there is currently anyone else nearby, so he judges the risk of exposing his position to be minimal. Sure, it is possible that there are threatening people around, but it is definite that there is insecure footing in the boggy environment. He does not want to step in the wrong place and fall in.
The ground is really wet, and their own steps are rapidly erased by muck rushing back in to fill the depressions they leave behind. They spend an hour searching around, circling the entire camp, before Tric finally admits, “I got nothing. Maybe it was a large bird or bat?”
Heppa wonders again what would take a halberd and meat, if not a human. It does not make sense to her that an animal would do so. The meat, maybe, but not the halberd. She thinks it over a while, before suggesting, “This could have been saurians.” She remembers hearing that they live in swampy areas and fight with polearms. Usually spears, rather than halberds, of course. They are also carnivorous, and even eat their own kind sometimes. Not a pleasant thought.
“Ah, saurians,” Tric agrees knowingly. “Short and scaly, fleet of foot,” he recites. Heppa shares that saurians partake in a lot of inter-clan warfare and often eat the fallen that result. “I guess it is good they didn’t try to eat us,” Tric comments.
“But why didn’t they?” Heppa muses.
Tric theorizes that the saurian might not have been hungry or did not want to distract them from their conversation. “We might have fought back then, whereas I don’t think the dried venison put up much of a fight.”
Heppa begins picking up the dried fruit littering the ground, joking that maybe it was left behind because it would have fought back. On a more serious note, she asks, “Do you know how to hunt?” From the amount of food that remains, she judges they have only a few day’s worth. Beyond that, they will need to live off the land to make up for the loss or head to a settlement.
“Absolutely! I’m quite a hunter.” Tric shows off his bow and pulls the string back a few times. “I’m already a renowned ranger in some parts.”
“Well, you’re our survival expert. What do we do? Set up traps? Post watches? Spread around some herbal repellent?”
Tric acknowledges the good idea and heads back into the foliage around their campsite to set up some traps. It begins simple, like it always does, but he cannot resist elaboration. First, it is just a matter of some vines to trigger a noisemaker constructed from sticks and the old shield. No, he thinks, I need to catch whoever did this. He expands it to entangling whoever sets it off and possibly launching the raft at them.
Once everything is set up to his satisfaction, Tric stands there on the outside of the traps, looking in at the camp. Heppa, he can see by the fire light, is busy gathering their stuff together. So it is not her hand that suddenly lays itself upon his shoulder.