The morning after Kachen leaves Estbryn Forest, Hepalonia and Tric Manu are summoned to a private meeting with High Lord Volas, an uncommon occurrence. Her mother was not wringing her hands with concern about the meeting, but Heppa still feels a little nervous. “You just defended an alleged necromancer before the council. That is the most high-profile thing that you have done in the village. It is not surprising that the high lord knows your name now,” Mother commented when the news was delivered. “But change into something appropriate before you go.”
Tric makes light of the invitation, cheekily asking the servant whether it includes breakfast or if he should eat first. He is told firmly that he is not being invited to dine with the high lord. “You are being summoned to have the high lord speak with you,” the servant clarifies. Already wearing the best clothes he has, Tric heads through the palisade and into the high lord’s home. Volas’s house is not as large as that of Lady Glynnis and Sir Marthynec, but it is more configurable, since certain sections of it can be rearranged by coaxing brambles. The palisade, for example, is no longer as robust, the defensive thickets having been scaled back now that all threat to the citizenry is gone.
Rather than be taken to the hall where the trial was, Tric is escorted to a small sitting room. There he finds his cousin already waiting, looking sharp in a grey and white dress with gold piping. The aide invites them to have a seat at a small table. When the cousins are alone, Tric pours himself a glass of cold water from the pitcher resting on it. He takes a sip and comments, “Dad did a good job finding this water.”
“What do you think this is about?” Heppa asks. “Do you think we’re in trouble?”
“That’s usually a good bet, anyway,” Tric observes. “Maybe he just wants to confirm that we escorted Kachen out and there weren’t any problems.”
“I feel like if it was something really bad, Mother would have warned me,” Heppa says. “She didn’t even tell me to behave myself.”
“Now that concerns me!” Tric replies.
Nervous, Heppa looks around, distracting herself by wondering about various things in the room. She asks Tric his opinion on things like where the water came from or what stuffing the cushions contain. Tric grows more anxious, too, and misses several good opportunities to respond to her questions with outlandish answers. High society is not really in Tric’s comfort zone, though he may brashly pretend so from time to time. The high lord of his own forest is not someone Tric can risk toying with, however. Tric lives here; he needs to be a little more careful than when he is out beyond the forest.
Volas enters the room and greets the cousins. He is formally dressed in his green leathers. The reinforced chest is embroidered with swirling dark green patterns evocative of branches, and the multi-layered shoulder pads resemble a stack of leaves. His puffy ivory sleeves are pulled close at his wrist by green leather cuffs, while a deep red cloak flows behind him. An intricate gold circlet, larger than the ones Heppa’s parents have, holds his long, platinum blond hair in place. Hepalonia, raised properly, responds with the appropriate greeting, and Tric follows along as best he can. Volas takes a seat in the most impressive chair present and says, “Well, that was a most interesting day, two days ago, was it not?”
Tric is actually tongue-tied for once, unsure of the right way to act. He was able to get a bit of a read on Volas at the trial, and it seems to him that the noble enjoys his position of authority. Savors it, even. Unlike Uncle Thran, who mostly ignores his inherited status, Volas likes the responsibilities of nobility and the respect that brings him. Tric’s own mother is ambitious, but she has spent her life fighting her way up to her current rank. Volas had it handed to him by fate and is not inclined to ever let it go.
Heppa has had many far more interesting days than the one spent standing in front of the council at a table covered in maps. The day she fought undead in the tunnels, for example. But she politely concurs. “Oh, yes! Have you had to do such proceedings very often before?” she asks, curious but also unsure if she is overstepping bounds.
Although Volas’s primary focus at the recent trial was on deciding the proper course for his people, he also took advantage of the opportunity to evaluate these two up-and-coming young elves. Hepalonia, for example, demonstrated a passion for knowledge and a deep desire to form connections that can explain the world and how it operates. “This is not the first inquest I’ve presided over during my decades of keeping the forest running smoothly,” Volas shares with her. “For example, there were a few inquests thirty-some years ago. Among other things, there was an investigation into whether any information was leaked to the orcs that attempted to assassinate me.” He waves that away, as though it does not matter, while at the same time his mentioning of it indicates that it does. “You two both showed that you’re quite sharp. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a place on the council for you in another hundred years or so, Hepalonia.”
“Why, thank you,” Heppa replies automatically, ingrained politeness covering that she is mortified at the suggestion. She smiles and nods agreeably. Her mother would be proud at how well Heppa does concealing her inner turmoil, but Heppa hopes she never finds out about this.
“And what are your long-term plans, Tric Manu?” Volas asks. “Where do you see yourself in fifty or seventy years?” His friendly demeanor makes it clear that the cousins are not in trouble after all. Rather, they are actually worth his paying attention to.
Volas’s charming manner helps Tric relax into the conversation, and he gets swept away detailing his grandiose plans. “Well, first, we have to go to Dan’Tonk. There’s somebody there who planned an expedition across the Sandy Wastes. I want to be the first elf, the first Manu to go back over the Sandy Wastes. Cross over there, have whatever adventures are going on in the East—I hear there’s horse folk over there. Cross back, reforge those connections…” The discussion of his master plan goes on for several minutes, and Volas can barely get a word in. “I don’t have as much time as Kalenz, I think, so I’ve got to do everything a little bit faster. But I’ll definitely go places that he probably never had the chance to,” Tric continues. He wants to do amazing things, but he also wants people to someday tell stories of him the way they now do of Kalenz. “It’ll be a scary thing to do, but over on the other side of the mountain to the east, I hear there’s a giant ruined city. Swarming with undead once, but who knows anymore. That’d be cool to see. See the ocean, too. That’d be a good thing to visit one day…”
When Tric Manu finally exhausts his ideas, Volas talks with him and Heppa about the opportunities spread out before them. They are young, growing their first leaves so to speak, and he feels they could benefit from some mentorship. “It would be good for you to have elves of standing who can usher you along your way,” he tells them. This conversation is partly about determining their interests in order to facilitate such matches but also to figure out how they can contribute to Volas’s own grand plans for the forest. Although Tric’s focus is on the wider world, it is clear from the conversation here and the inquest itself that both he and Heppa want to protect Estbryn. This provides Volas an entry into his next topic.
“Recent events aside,” the high lord says, “the forest is rather safe and secure from outside troubles. It’s true, though, that the humans do bring their problems through every now and then. It would be wise to be more aware of just what the extent of the growing undead problem is. As Hepalonia so graphically demonstrated with her map, this is a rising problem. We rode it out thirty years ago—not without some loss along the way. We’ve already lost two elves recently, and we want to prevent any more of that from happening. While you travel for whatever Lord Thrandolil has tasked you to do, I would like you to also gather field reports for me on the status of undead threat and bring back news to me of what you see.” Turning to Heppa he says, “Expand your map out as you travel and continue to note where these undead are. You’re very sharp: take note of what patterns you see. We need to be able to predict if and when this is going to impact us here in the forest. The humans ascribed the problem thirty years ago to a lich coming from the east. Obviously, we’re in between Wesnoth and what they term ‘the east’. If trouble is coming from somewhere to the west this time, that is not as big a deal to us. But if it is somehow the same issue as previously, we need to be aware and alert. Maybe increase the extent of our patrols and other such preparations.”
This has the weight of a command, to Tric’s thinking, though it is couched in the language of a request. You will be spies for us, wherever you go, Tric reinterprets the words. Being an emissary can now be a front for our spy work.
Looks like I really am going to be a scout, Heppa thinks. She attended only a few classes on that and thought she had managed to avoid any long-term commitments in that field. It seems the high lord has other plans in mind. She might as well start on the task right now. “If they come through the human lands, they could potentially be building up a large army of undead?” She raises her voice questioningly at the end, not wanting to outright challenge Volas’s view of the situation.
Her cousin picks right up on what she is saying. “Yeah, right. Whereas if they come from the east, there are some dwarves there,” Tric adds. “They’ll probably shut their doors, but that could buy us a bit of time.”
Volas nods, seeing their point. “So if there is a problem that is starting in the west, by the time it actually reaches Estbryn Forest, it will be a much larger force than one starting in the east. Yes, this exact sort of concern is why we need the information. This is why we need to know what is going on out there. Just keep your ears sharp as you travel and report to me about any active threats when you return to the village.”
“Would you like us to visit other elves in other forests to ask what they know of the same issue?” Tric inquires. “The Great Forest? Wesmere? The Aethenwood?”
“Ah, the Aethenwood. They had trouble thirty-some years ago, themselves. That might even have been forty years ago…” Volas waves away the details, that scale of time not mattering so much to an elf.
“Would that be of interest to you as well? Or do you already receive such information by other means?” Tric asks.
“I have diplomatic channels to the other elvish forests. However, if in your travels you encounter other elves with news of the regions around their homes, that could be useful. The sort of ear-to-the-ground stories you are likely to hear would be more detailed and specific than the high-level communications I exchange. That different flavor of intelligence could help round out the filtered and honed information I already have access to. By all means, pass on what you learn from other elves and engage with them about what they are observing.”
So spy even on other elves. Got it. This must be part of Volas’s grand plan to unite the four woods. Tric jazzes up for himself the rather straightforward request for reconnaissance and liaising, things that he and Heppa would be likely to do already in their work for Thrandolil. They can do this for the high lord, and maybe someday if Tric needs a favor from Volas, he can yank on that vine.
With his commission accepted, Volas says, “Great! And you’ll head out to start doing that tomorrow.” This, too, sounds more like an order than a suggestion. Tric has no objections, though. A task from the high lord himself is a valid excuse to get out of border patrol duty. Heppa just nods, nervous about a formal commitment but sticking to her polite upbringing.
“As you are aware, since you were there when the council deliberated, that whole matter is now settled. But what the council decides legislatively sometimes takes a few years for people to process emotionally,” Volas explains. “There are definitely people in the village who need time to let their passions settle. It would be best for you two—having represented the opposing side of a contentious debate—to not be here.” He wants to make sure that the two young elves understand all that has gone into this request. Although he is high lord, Volas operates with a council, and he is used to explaining his decisions. He is proud to be a leader, but he works within a framework that requires him to make others understand and accept his wisdom. These young ones especially need help in that regard.
“We understand and appreciate the nature of this mission. We are capable of the required nuances,” Tric says archly, seeking to imply that they can handle its covertness, while not actually being too overt about that sentiment. “We will report back as we come across useful and interesting information. You can trust us with this kind of mission.”
Volas demonstrates his trust by providing a roll of ribbon to Tric. This really is a serious thing, Tric thinks, as he accepts the favor. It is similar to the gold-edged blue material that Baeowin hands out, but it is intricately embroidered with the butterfly that is Estbryn Forest’s symbol. Humans might not recognize it as anything significant, but other elves will certainly understand its cachet.
The high lord then dismisses the cousins. Tric takes one last drink of cool water, mumbling gratefully about how refreshing it is. He sees Heppa bowing and hastens to do the same. Then they leave Volas’s presence and his home.