Heppa hears her cousin approach and not because his footsteps are heavy; he is talking with someone. A hooded figure moves into the circle of firelight alongside him. “Hey, Heppa!” Tric Manu calls out cheerfully, “I ran into somebody after setting up the traps.” He starts to make an introduction and then realizes he never got a name. The man supplies it, Kachen. “He’s also interested in these control crystals and trying to find them.” Tric leaves them to talk and starts packing up their bedrolls, preparing to move the camp despite having just secured it with traps.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Kachen,” Heppa says politely, inclining her head at the appropriate angle. “I am Hepalonia.” The human before her looks sickly, and she cannot help but wonder what is wrong with him. Poor nutrition as a child? The local environment? An illness? The water? That last gives her pause. Even if it is not causing his health issue, the impure water could be a problem for saurians living in this swamp. They spend so much time in the water that they might be absorbing the impurities as well as imbibing them. Maybe that’s why the saurian didn’t attack us, if he’s unhealthy.
“Have you encountered many of these shards?” her new companion asks, drawing her attention back. “What have you located in this swamp so far?”
Heppa tells him about the halberd and the rusty old shield. “Maybe there is something else over there,” she waves an arm in the direction they searched, “but we can’t get down to it. And you? How long have you been in the area conducting your study?”
Kachen tells her that in his few months here, he has found no such control crystals. “But I have been very cautious about what I have chosen to do, partially because of the skirmisher that is around.” He gets the same look from her that Tric gave him. “The saurian.”
“So there is a saurian,” she states with satisfaction.
“There is at least the one,” he assures her. “I have not seen groups of them.”
Heppa starts to theorize aloud about the saurian’s health but then realizes she does not know the proper way to refer to the creature: he, she, it? Though he himself was using depersonalizing language earlier, Kachen tells her that among saurians, the warrior caste is female. “Does she look healthy?” Heppa asks.
“Healthy?” Kachen gives a weak dismissive laugh. “How would I know what an unhealthy saurian looks like?”
She goes through a list of qualities she would expect any sickly reptile or amphibian to have. “Scales falling off? Moving slowly?”
“I have not gotten close enough to give her scales a thorough inspection. That’s a good way to end up skewered.”
How much of a threat can she be? Heppa wonders. Out loud, she observes, “Presumably she stole our halberd and a good portion of our food, but she did not attack us.”
Kachen pointedly looks at her and then over at Tric, two young elves in the prime of health. “Perhaps she was deterred by your number. But I feel she would not show the same caution around me. I would not wish to get so close to her as to put it to the test.”
Heppa explains her interest in the saurian’s health is related to the corrupted water. That term—corrupted—raises Kachen’s interest, and he asks what she means by it. She clarifies that she knows the water is tainted somehow, but that she does not have a lot of experience using a dowsing rod so she was not able to get more details from the instrument. “Saurians are creatures that reside primarily in the water. It might affect their health.”
“So she might be easier to deal with, is what you are suggesting,” Kachen concludes, a more ruthless interpretation of her words than she intended. “Maybe I have been unnecessarily cautious.”
“Perhaps,” she allows, a little creeped out. “I’m not saying to go confront her. I’m just curious about the source of the problems with the water. Lack of health might give an indication of what’s wrong with it,” she suggests, leaving an opening for him to say something about his own illness, but he does not take the bait.
“Is that why you are investigating the control crystals?” Kachen inquires. When Heppa tells him that is a separate matter, he asks, “Then why does an elf care about such things?”
“About the water?”
“About the shards.”
Many possibilities race through Hepalonia’s mind for how to respond to this question. What is he implying? That elves have no business doing this? Or that there’s something nefarious about it? Better an elf than a human. Daddy says elves cannot do dark magic. Far more dangerous for a human to have these materials because they will do something with them. Ultimately, though, her mother’s many admonishments keep her polite. “Why is a human interested in these shards?” she counters.
Kachen says nothing, just presses his lips together and nods with a sort of resigned acceptance, as if her rejoinder was expected.
Knapsack on and a bedroll under each arm, Tric steps up, oblivious to the tension between the other two. “Hey, we’re ready to move to the new campsite. Kachen, you said it would be cool to crash at your place, right?”
The human turns from Heppa to Tric. “Yes. My location is far more defensible than this one.”
“Cool! Do you mind me asking… Why were you wandering around in the dark, then? You could have stepped in the wrong place in the swamp and fallen right in!”
“Some things are not observable during the light.”
Although she felt a little insulted by Kachen earlier, Heppa cannot suppress her curiosity now. “Like what?”
Kachen is saved from answering by Tric’s constant need to show off his knowledge. “Like the moon. It only comes out at night. Does that affect the chance of seeing undead? Or the shards, do they reflect moonlight in a particular way?”
“Well, perhaps when we find one, we will see,” Kachen suggests.
“Sounds great!” Tric claps their new companion on the back, and the frail human stumbles a little from the enthusiastic gesture.
The elves follow Kachen through the dark to a small rise farther from the water’s edge, where stand ruins of an old, abandoned keep. It was a bit awkward carrying their raft with them, but now it performs a new function, serving as a makeshift door across a break in the rubble. Though they are tumbled down in places, the walls provide ample protection from visitors sneaking up to stealthily drag off supplies.
Heppa asks Kachen if he has been attacked while living in the swamp, and he admits that although he has managed to avoid getting close enough to the saurian for her to harm him, he has run afoul of other natural dangers in the area. He is being kind enough to provide them with shelter, including sharing some of his biscuits and weak ale, so she offers him use of their herbs and poultices if he has any wounds from those encounters. If she is honest with herself, she is also making the friendly gesture in an attempt to find out what is wrong with him. Since he has been drinking from his own supply, not the swamp, his weak health cannot be attributed to the tainted water. Her strategy does not work, however, because he declines, saying that he is not wounded. The site secure and their bellies full, they go to sleep.