Tric Manu and Hepalonia tramp along the stream heading up the rise to look for the source of the smoke. Before they locate a building or firepit, however, arrows come whizzing through the thin tree cover at them. The first one embeds in a trunk right near Tric. “In our own forest!” he objects. The next few arrows clip his arm, and he lets out a startled cry.
Tric sees two humans up ahead, well-tanned men clad in rough homespun, each with a simple bow and clunky boots. “It’s the excise men!” one of them shouts to the other.
We don’t need to fight this battle, Heppa thinks. She turns and runs, unaware that her cousin has chosen to stay.
A little shocked, Tric ducks behind one of the squat oaks that are the best cover he can find at this elevation. Getting hit by an arrow is a first for him. Kalenz was shot by arrows; I’ve been shot by arrows. We have a lot in common! Tric finds it all quite exciting. If he were dead, that might be different, but these are just minor gashes. He cracks a smile. This is exactly the adventure he was looking for. Except maybe for the blood. It looks like Heppa might also be seeking cover, just much farther down the hill. That is fine; he can handle this. “Excuse me!” Tric shouts. “Are you littering arrows in our forest? And is this your bottle that you left lying around?”
Way behind her, Heppa hears her cousin engaging their attackers in dialogue. What?! What is he doing? She attended some scouting seminars, and they were mainly focused on avoiding danger. When arrows start flying, a scout draws back, returning home with news of invasion. There was no discussion of parlay. At least, not in the beginner class.
Tric’s words do not cow the humans. They close the distance, one of them angling toward Tric while shouting to his companion, “One of them’s getting away. You’ve got to stop them. They’ll report us.”
Heppa sees her pursuer crashing through the low shrubs and brambles after her. He is clearly human, though not as tall as the one issuing orders farther back. Humans! And they shot Tric Manu! So much for her cousin serving as an intermediary between peoples. And excise… Oh, right, humans have taxes on things. Hepalonia pulls up short and spins around to face the man running towards her. Hands on her hips, unconsciously channeling her mother, she admonishes him, “Silly humans! We’re not here for your human currency.” It does not occur to her to put a hand on the hilt of her sword or unsling her bow.
Oh, they think we’re after their money! Tric realizes. These guys don’t look like they would have any money anyway. They’re, what, potato farmers? “We don’t care about your potatoes!” he tells the man coming toward him. “And furthermore, if you grew those potatoes around here, that water is terrible. Ease up, okay?”
Dammit, we’re found out. They know everything! Marvin thinks. They might not be agents of the crown, but they are still a problem. He stalks over to the one who held his ground. Up close now, he can see that he is a tall, thin, brown-skinned fellow in olive green and tan leather. His corkscrewing dark brown hair is held back by a red bandana worn as a headband. The one who ran, he now sees, is fair-skinned and similarly clad. The long ears protruding through her platinum blond hair, as well as her willowy frame, mark her as an elf. “All right, get your partner back up here,” Marvin demands. “We gotta know everything you know about our operation, or those arrows are going to be the start of a very bad day for you.”
“Ah, I disagree,” Tric cuts in. “I think this is actually the middle of a very good day for me,” he says with a grin, adrenaline coursing through his system. Then he calls down the hill, “Hey, Heppa, we’re going to work something out. I think it’s okay.”
Heppa considers the whole situation. The human who was charging at her has come to a halt, bow in hand. He vacillates between looking questioningly back at his leader and glowering menacingly at her. Meanwhile, Tric Manu is being awfully cool for someone who was just shot. Maybe it’s a human greeting? Shooting arrows? Nothing in her education has prepared her for this; humans are a complete mystery. Tric Manu’s human—well, half—so he must have knowledge of human things. She decides to defer to his expertise. Plus, she is not sure she can outrun these fellows, and Tric Manu is injured. He is her cousin, after all, and she would probably get in trouble if some really serious harm were to come to him. He is not a bad traveling companion, either. Certainly more fun than her sister Quaemilya. Heppa starts back up the hills, holding her palms up where the humans can see they are empty.
“Hey, no, we’re not surrendering,” Tric calls down to her. “None of that.” He gestures for her to lower her hands.
Heppa turns her arm movement into a shrug. Maybe this is a dominance thing, like with elk…
“Do you mind if I bandage myself before we carry on? I’d hate to bleed all over you,” Tric calls out to the humans. He wraps a hand around one of his torn sleeves, applying pressure to the wound. Given his casual delivery, Heppa wonders if his human heritage gives him a higher pain tolerance than she has as a full elf.
“Anyway, it’s not really a big deal if you’re storing potatoes,” Tric continues. “I don’t know why you would do that in the forest, anyway. But you can’t leave your bottles around! A chipmunk could get stuck in there.” He hands over the bottle. “We don’t need to tell anyone about you, but you just can’t do this!”
Marvin takes the bottle back, recovering the evidence of his operation. He turns to his partner down the hill and brandishes it. “Connie, what the hell! You can’t just be dropping these things. Don’t you know that’s littering in the forest?” Tric listens with interest, noting how he is using Tric’s own version of events to aid his manipulation of someone else. Brilliant! This guy is good.
“Since when do we care about littering?” Heppa hears Connie mutter.
“Go get the damn box and drag it up here. I don’t care how tired you are,” Marvin orders. His partner grumbles more, but he clomps on down the hill past Heppa. Turning back to Tric, Marvin nods at his arm and says, “Yeah, feel free to tie that up.”