The next day, despite all the not-water finding Tric has been doing, they come across a bubbling stream. Based on the distant rushing sounds, it might even connect to a more powerful river not too far away. Of more immediate interest to Hepalonia, though, is a crate that she notices stuffed under some low-lying shrubs near it. There are some sticks leaning against it in a rather sad attempt at camouflage.
Heppa cracks the box open to take a look inside and, to her surprise, finds potatoes. Some are small, some are misshapen. A few look bruised, perhaps from rough travel. No one with other options would choose to eat these potatoes. She sees all these details because she roots around in the box, trying to determine if anything is concealed below them. But no, there is no false bottom, no hidden treasure. This is somebody’s cache of potatoes… in a box… in the wilderness. Why? “Tric Manu!” she calls, to attract her cousin’s attention. “Somebody must be around; I found their experiment.”
“Experiment?” he asks. Heppa points at the box. “Who hides potatoes?” Tric wonders.
“Or they were storing them?” Heppa suggests. “I don’t know.”
Tric looks over the crate itself, wondering if it is of human or possibly dwarvish manufacture. All he sees is boards and nails, though. My dad’s a water dowser, not a carpenter. There is no imprint or fancy craftwork. “This box has been out here quite a while,” he declares authoritatively. “But the potatoes are fresh, at least.”
Heppa twists her lips to the side and makes a sound of disagreement. “Not the freshest.”
“Well, I’ll look around.” Tric examines the ground, looking for any sign of how the crate arrived.
While he does so, Heppa closes the box up and attempts to improve upon the owner’s paltry stick screen. There is not much to work with in the scrubby environment, and finally she just slaps some lichen on top of it in frustration and declares it good enough. She hears a little cheer of triumph from her cousin and thinks, Ah, excellent, he’s good at tracking.
Tric has located fresh tracks, and what is even more impressive to himself, has confirmed that they are neither his nor Hepalonia’s. No, these prints are far too wide. They are also deeper and belong to some kind of boot with a stiffer sole than the soft worked-leather favored by elvish cordwainers. Not an elf… and based on the length, probably not a dwarf. Tric looks around a bit more, in case the mysterious non-elf accidentally left anything else behind when positioning the potatoes. He is rewarded with an empty glass bottle. That’s unusual. The elves of Estbryn do use glass to hold potions and some beverages, but for travel, soft bladders like Tric’s waterskin make a lot more sense. “Somebody’s been littering in our forest,” he declares. He stands up, bottle in hand, and holds it out for Heppa to see.
“A bottle? What’s in there?” Heppa takes the item to examine it. Given that it has no trace of dirt or sand inside it, she suspects it held some sort of liquid. She sniffs at it, but there is no lingering scent, either. Frustrated by no answers, she hands the bottle back to her cousin. He slips it into a pouch on his belt, muttering that potato stashes are one thing but that they need to keep the forest clean.
Tric Manu points out to Heppa the footprints and how they head higher up into the hills, traveling along the stream. Heppa does not care about the mystery person. If they are not around to complain about elves rifling through their potatoes, then they are of no concern. But she wonders why the potatoes are right here. If it’s an experiment, maybe there is something unique about this environment, she considers. Or maybe they are affecting it. Nothing in the immediate vicinity seems strange, though.
Deciding to check the water, Heppa pulls out Uncle Nasir’s dowsing rod and waves the stick at the stream. She failed last time in the village, and she really wants it to work this time, so she concentrates intently on the implement and the energy of the (admittedly thin) forest around her. She puts too much of herself into the primal magic, and she feels an internal twinge, a jab deep within, as the dowsing rod conveys its findings to her. Maybe I’m too close to the water, she thinks, taking a step back from the stream.
The dowsing rod indicates the bubbling stream quite clearly but judges it inferior, unfit for consumption. This flow might ultimately feed into the water source of her settlement, so Heppa makes a mental note to inform the appropriate people when they get back home. I’m sure the water dowsers would care. Oh! There’s one right here. “So what’s wrong with this water?” she asks her cousin.
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“The rod says it’s no good.”
“Well, is… uh… Is your rod calibrated right?” Tric asks, fishing around for excuses.
“Yeah, of course! You gave it to me.”
“Oh, of course! Of course it’s calibrated,” Tric laughs nervously. His cousin insists that the functional rod is giving her a sense of the water’s poor quality. “Well, there could be a lot of reasons,” Tric suggests. “If there’s too much iron… Or if someone’s littering in the forest!” He pulls the bottle back out and waves it to back up his argument. “That’s probably what it is.”
“Well, you try it, and you see.”
“Oh, no, no,” Tric demurs. “You did a good job. You picked that up very quickly.”
Heppa puts Nasir’s dowsing rod away. “Well, I’m letting you know, since that’s what your profession is.”
Tric objects. “Strictly speaking, I’m not a water dowser. I’ve moved on from that career. But I’ll let my dad know. He’ll be glad to know that we found that out.” And there has been talk about problems with water in the east, he remembers.
“Okay, well, we shouldn’t drink it,” Heppa declares. “But you already knew that, right?”
“Right. And finding good water has been tricky in this part of the woods, so that’s more confirmation.” He looks down at the bottle in his hand. “Maybe this is part of it. People throwing stuff into creeks, turning them into cricks.” Heppa checks with him that potatoes should not be able to do that. “No, probably these potatoes, misshapen as they are, are just a victim,” Tric tells her. “But this person’s tracks lead farther uphill, farther upstream.”
“Wait,” Heppa says, suddenly looking around herself more intently. They have some elevation here, more than she expected, and yet there is no sign in the distance of the Sandy Wastes off to the south. “What creek is this? Where are we?” She is enjoying being out of the settlement in the real forest on an adventure, but it would be helpful to actually get where they intended to go.
Tric points out a thin column of smoke now visible over a rise. “Maybe that’s our potato cacher,” he tells his cousin.
“I wonder if they know where we are,” Heppa suggests.
Tric does not admit that he does not. “Yeah, they might know some things about this area if they live here. Or maybe they know what’s causing a problem with the stream water. Like if they have a dead cow that they left in the stream, that would ruin the whole thing. Or an old wagon or cart that they dumped in there, that would ruin it too.”
“A pile of old food,” Heppa suggests, catching on to what she perceives to be a game. “Maybe some rotting shrubbery?”
“Yeah, those are good ones. Are you sure you shouldn’t have been a water dowser?” Heppa laughs and points out that they have no evidence for any of these things. She asks if Tric will include them in his report to his father, and he waves that away, claiming he will take care of those details. “Anyway, let’s see what this smoke is about. I think it’s probably coming from the hut of someone who is living around here. Or camping around here. Or littering around here.”
Heppa has no idea where they are and does not think that Tric Manu does either. She agrees to go meet the locals, but she suggests her cousin take the lead. In her experience, elves do not litter, so she supposes they will be dealing with humans soon. It is better for the half-human to interface with them. “I’m sure you speak their language,” she says.
Tric raises an eyebrow at that comment. He grew up in the same elvish settlement she did, after all. But he does not protest. He wanted to take the lead anyway. That is where legends are born.