As they approach the South Tower itself, Heppa prattles on about how much fun medical exploration is. “Even if people don’t like you, they will tell you things when you’re engaged in medical talk.”
“I think it is called a conversation,” Tric suggests. Speaking of which, he wonders how much Heppa has paid attention to the one they were just having about planning an ambush tonight.
“Heledd can be kind of frosty, but she talked to me about her wounds.” A lot of people have shared with Heppa when she is taking care of their injuries. Kachen, Gumreddoc, Heledd, Alric… It is like there is a certain intimacy in the medical act. “But she is very cool about all the rest of this. I would think she would be happy about the opportunity for revenge. She does not show much emotion at all.”
“Don’t you know, she had her heart cut out as well?” Tric says in jest.
“Maybe I could fix that, but I don’t know much about fixing human minds. Unless you meant physically? I’d love to see that.” Tric’s eyes go wide. “Not doing it, but the scars,” Heppa clarifies. Tric suggests she might have the opportunity if he ends up shooting one of the Rats.
Heppa rolls her shoulders, delighted again that she is allowed to stand up straight. They walk past the House of Light and then see Mhaev up ahead, waiting for them at the gate of the Tower. She has handled everything for them to be allowed to visit; there is no need to deal with any functionaries. The gate guards salute her and then step aside as she leads the elves within the outer wall.
The tour begins at the exterior base with some chit-chat and commentary on the architecture. “When I first arrived at the Southern Outpost myself, it was a mere palisade with a slightly glorified shanty town built around it. Gweddry was just scraping together a defense,” Mhaev tells them.
Tric takes advantage of the opening. Perhaps starting with the ambush site is the way to go. “Some of these buildings are older than they look. Was there a town here in the past? There are some ruins here and there.”
“There was the outpost, the palisade,” Mhaev reiterates. “There were buildings here. This is an area that Wesnoth has periodically settled and re-settled. Things fall into disarray, and then they build up again. We’re in that up-sweep period now. Sure, you’ll find about the city that there will be older houses, some of which are rundown, that are left over from previous troughs. But the Tower itself is relatively new construction, just put up in the last twenty, twenty-five years or so. After the war, Gweddry decided that he wanted this to be the seat of his new earldom.”
“The start of his campaign, makes sense,” Tric remarks.
“Yes, and as a symbol that he was in it for the long haul. A lot of other settlement has since built up around, and now we have the thriving city you see today. It’s true that North Tower around the old Northern Outpost is larger in area, but that’s because they had more open land to spread out into for settlement. But our town is doing quite well,” Mhaev concludes with pride.
“I have to say it’s been… exciting while we’ve been here. Granted, there’s the festival going on, which is pretty interesting. I know you said it’s on an upswing. Do you mind if I ask… Do you feel crime has been getting better or worse around here? I apologize if it is not my place to even ask such a thing.”
“There’s plenty of lawlessness in the Estmark Hills,” Mhaev tells him, “and some of it spills over into the surrounding lands. That is a constant thorn in Wesnoth’s side. And unfortunately, once urban centers develop, then a new type of crime comes in. Then it’s not highwaymen and banditry. Instead you’re dealing with thieves breaking into people’s homes and pickpockets and the like…”
“Wealth does tend to attract these things,” Tric agrees.
Mhaev nods. “Festivals like the one we have going now attract wealth and fairgoers, but they also attract criminal elements. Now let’s go into the Tower…”
She takes them through the enormous double doors into the building itself, and Mate flies down to ride inside on Tric’s shoulder. The elves admire whatever she points out. Tric tries again to work up to the ambush topic. “When we were at the shops earlier today, we crossed paths with some fellows who seemed—upon further reflection—maybe not so good.”
Mhaev’s mouth twists into a sardonic smirk. “Do you think you’re a keen judge of human character?”
“Well, when I briefly conversed with the fellow, I accidentally let slip that, no, we don’t really know anyone in town and… he seemed to have marked us as someone of interest.” Tric describes Sleidr in case he is already known to the authorities. “Our level of wealth was perhaps projected higher than it should have been,” Tric adds in a very roundabout manner. “Thankfully, I told him that we were staying in the dilapidated manor down by the docks. But I’m a little concerned. He kept making this weird signal to some associate of his. I’m a little concerned it might be a… what is it… a gang? I think I saw the other guy pick somebody’s pocket, but I don’t know for sure.”
Mhaev sighs, and Tric realizes he has laid it on a bit too thick. “Why are you spinning stories?” she demands.
“All right, look, we did have a run in with some group of thieves,” he admits. “They’re called the Rats.”
“You should have just told me… son.” She stumbles over addressing Tric, trying to find the appropriate term and have it sound natural coming from her. “You don’t need to play these things up.” She shakes her head, bewildered. “You had a run-in with the Rats? What were you doing?”
“We were pretending to be richer than we are. It was dumb… obviously. I did have the good sense to tell him I was staying somewhere I wasn’t,” Tric adds. He is a little surprised that Mate does not comment on his stupidity, but the bird is preoccupied practicing knots with the Estbryn ribbon, Terwaen’s favor, and locks of Tric’s springy hair. He reflects that maybe he has more in common with the druid Fenowin then he thought.
“So… the Rats, you say,” Mhaev prompts her distracted son. Tric provides a description of Sleidr again and emphasizes that he seemed keen to act. They have been walking around the ground floor of the tower, Mhaev keeping them moving as the conversation has progressed. She stops now in front of a door, which she opens. “Henrick,” she calls in, “get me everything we have on the Rats.”
“Right away, captain,” a pale swordsman with a huge bushy mustache replies.
“You have a description of the fellow, that’s good,” Mhaev tells Tric. “Do you know how big a posse he is scraping together for this operation?”
Tric relates Heledd’s assessment that there will be a half-dozen or so flunkies and two gang leaders. “He was definitely looking for an opal today,” he throws in, just in case there have been any crimes related to that since Sleidr left their company. “I don’t know if he was trying to steal one or just buy one real quick. The fellow seems really into rocks.”
“All right,” Mhaev acknowledges. “Now level with me. How certain are you that they will actually be at this location tonight?” Tric assures her of his confidence, judging that the thief is unlikely to chicken out. There has been a hint of rain in the air, but whether that would cause Sleidr to stay away or actually be more likely to come, Tric is unsure.
Henrick comes tromping up with a leather folder full of parchment, but Mhaev waves him back as Tric’s next words slowly squeeze out. “I may have sold him a rock that was just a rock, but… he thinks it’s not? So…”
“You were engaging in selling counterfeit gems?!”
“No, no, no! I did not say it was a gem! I just said it was very valuable.” He adds a note of naivety to his voice as he tacks on, “Was that wrong?”
“You know, when I said that this festival attracted a certain criminal element, I wasn’t expecting my own son to be one of the conmen present!”
“Look, I’m sorry! He gave me ten coins. Should I just turn that in here, and we’ll call it square?” Mhaev gapes at Tric. “I’ll donate it to the House of Light,” he offers.
“You know, crimes committed against criminals, those I can let slide,” Mhaev decides dismissively.
Tric offers that if there is anything he can do to help make this right, he is willing. “He’ll be looking for me to be there,” he adds.
“Henrick!” Mhaev shouts, and her sergeant quickly appears again. She asks him for the information they have on the Rats, including their tools and techniques. He flips through the thick ledger and summarizes that they are mainly pickpockets and thieves, but some of them are known to use poisoned knives. Mhaev conducts a tactical analysis, recommending ranged fighters such as bowmen who are effective at longer range than knife throwers are. They discuss the terrain some, since she is concerned that archers will not be as useful inside a building. Tric points out there is a decently sized courtyard. The dilapidated manor has roofing over some parts of it, which means bowmen up on the roof shooting down at thieves in the courtyard is an option. Mhaev tells Henrick to assemble a force, but to keep it small, since they do not want their quarry to spot them before the trap is sprung.
With that task delegated to the sergeant, Mhaev checks whether the elves feel comfortable continuing on with the tour. She thinks there is enough time, and Tric concurs that he does not expect the raid to happen until past midnight, so he certainly has time.
Mhaev smiles at her son. “I’m glad you’re taking responsibility for whatever part you played in this. However innocent or tricksy you thought you were being, this is a good way to make right on any wrongs you may have committed in your brush with crime.”
“I want to leave good stories in my wake,” Tric concurs. “And crime just doesn’t work for that.”