Following lunch, Tric searches through more of the buildings himself, looking for any indications of where people might have secured valuables. He is not so much looking for treasure as he is for personal heirlooms that could have been forgotten during a hasty evacuation. It proves a frustrating afternoon though, as his efforts uncover no strongboxes or secret stashes. Either the inhabitants took everything valuable with them when they left, or they did not have much to begin with.
Hepalonia stays relatively near to her cousin for safety’s sake, devoting her attention to the former animal enclosures. She finds an old shovel but also evidence that the humans kept more than livestock here. Small pieces of metal that look to be part of tack indicate that they had horses for riding, not just for pulling carts or plows. Of course any leather components would have rotted long ago, she figures. Occasionally as she digs through the dirt and mud, Heppa hears creaking noises which seem to be coming from a nearby cluster of trees. Periodically, she nervously glances in that direction, and at one point, she thinks she sees a pair of glowing orange eyes way, way up.
“Tric Manu! I think there may be something watching us from the trees over there,” she announces, pointing at one dim copse. “I don’t know if they’ll come close, or even what it was, but… something.” Her cousin asks a variety of clarifying questions, but all she can really say from the look she got was that whatever it is, it is larger than a raccoon and high up. She is not even certain if the eyes were truly glowing or just eerily reflecting light. “It was just… creepy.”
Tric is in favor of checking it out since there is still an hour or so of daylight remaining. Heppa, a bit more wise to the dangers of the wilderness now, unslings her bow. She allows him to go first, and he does not mind. A creepy, glowing-eyed creature is just the distraction he needs to take his mind off the disappointment of not yet finding anything actionable regarding his mother. “Maybe it’s just a floating set of eyes—just eyes!”
“That’s not really better,” Heppa says nervously, readying an arrow. “And why would they just be floating? Magic?”
“Magic gone wrong. We’ll be cautious. If it’s just a pair of glowing eyes, well, that’s new, right?” Tric says encouragingly, as he strides toward the group of trees. There is no sneaking, not across such open grassy terrain. He supposes they could slither through the grass on their bellies, but that seems overkill for this. He settles for just approaching the area quietly. Or rather, as quietly as two people who like to talk are able to.
The copse is composed of a group of small, young-looking trees underneath a very large tree in the middle. As they get closer, the source of the eyes reveals itself. Bark peels back away from two patches on the broad central trunk, and orange light glows from them. There are no irises or pupils, just a solid luminosity.
Heppa gasps, but not in fear.
“Is that Fenowin?” Tric jokes.
“It’s not a tree… it’s a wose!” Hepalonia says excitedly. Woses are one of the few real manifestations of the fae present in visible reality. They appear as tree-like shapes, but they are mobile; they can uproot themselves and move around, in addition to having appendages that they can control. They are ancient beings inherently in tune with the currents of nature in a way that druids aspire to be. Only elvish shydes come remotely close to this level of connection with the source of elvish magic.
“It’s a wose!” Heppa says again, voice tinged with awe. What elvish magic attempts to tap into, woses are just by their very nature. Woses do not need to learn how to access the fae currents; they are what enable woses to do anything at all.
“Tall and sturdy, full of wisdom,” Tric recites. “I didn’t know there were woses in Estbryn Forest, did you?”
A creaky voice says, “You are a long way from the forest.”
“Everywhere you see a tree is the forest,” Tric replies.
Tric is taken aback. “What do you mean, no?”
“That is not true,” the wose declares.
“If you see a tree, where are you then, if not the forest?”
Branches shift and shake, and within the lines of the bark, the elves begin to see the general contours of a face. In addition to the eyes, there are suggestions of a nose and mouth even though they are not required for breathing or eating. With this more relatable appearance now fully emerged, the wose continues, gesturing with its branches to the small trees beneath its reach. “You see a poor and lonely being when you see a single tree.”
“We’re so very sorry to disturb you, most esteemed one,” Hepalonia politely intercedes, following the greeting with a formal introduction and exchange of names. Inside, though, she is shaking with excitement. Just wait ‘til I tell Fenowin about this!
The wose nods its branches, accepting the gracious address. It seems open to conversation, and Tric grows hopeful that this could be an opportunity to learn about what exactly happened here. “Venerable Roombledoombledeur, were you near this area some thirty winters ago when humans were here planting their crops and tending their animals?” Tric asks, gesturing towards the enclosure where Heppa found pieces of tack. “And cutting down trees? It was a dark time, I know.”
As the conversation proceeds, Heppa peers curiously at the other trees in this copse. They are all thin and look young. None of them respond in any way: no branches shake, no eyes crack open. These others seem to just really be trees, specifically fruit-bearing ones. As she looks further afield, though, at the other groupings of trees about, she realizes that they all follow the same general arrangement, with a tall central tree whose branches seem to move independently of the wind. Roombledoombledeur is not the only wose present.
Roombledoombledeur tells Tric and Heppa about the woses’ activities in this area. They are here providing shade to the saplings to slow their growth so that they can be more resilient over time. It criticized Tric’s definition of forest because a tree by itself is just a tree, whereas a forest is a community of trees. From the wose’s perspective, a forest only extends as far as the root network goes. “Once trees are removed from the root network of their brethren, they are alone and they are weak. They are not strong enough to live full lives.” The woses here are nurturing these clusters of trees, remnants of the humans’ orchards, so that they will be more healthy and resilient. “With our protection, they will grow stronger and their roots will spread farther. In just a few centuries, they will be able to connect back to the Estbryn Forest.”
The woses operate on a time scale on par with the lifetime of an elf. Tric and Heppa are appreciative of this. Deforestation cannot be fixed overnight, nor can it be solved simply by slapping down a field of saplings. It is good to have such ancient and wise guardians in place to right these wrongs.
Roombledoombledeur and its colleagues moved into this area for observation around when the Estbryn elves came down to monitor and squabble with the humans. The elves did not live in the area in any permanent sense; they had temporary encampments on the edge of the forest to emphasize their preexisting relationship with the woodlands here. The elvish position was that the woods were not abandoned and the humans could not simply come in and chop down whatever they wanted. “That was already too late for a number of the trees here,” Roombledoombledeur sadly states.
The woses themselves did not participate in any of the fighting between the humans and the elves; they simply monitored the situation with an eye for how things would work out best for the trees in the long run. “Once the elves left and the humans left, and the skeletons and everything went away—”
“Wait. Time out,” Tric says, making sure he heard that last part correctly. “All right, go ahead.”
“Then we woses moved into position over the most promising sets of trees here to begin guiding and nurturing them.” Although the central knot of each copse is composed of fruit trees, the elves now begin to notice that younger trees of other types surround the original orchards. The woses have been seeding the edges of each group, varying the tree composition and slowly extending the footprint back toward the Estbryn Forest. They have also removed some trees that grew too fast and became a danger to the others. Such trees consumed too many resources and would not have survived more than fifty years anyway, as they would likely be taken down by strong weather events.
Tric really appreciates the woses’ environmental protection efforts. And also, although the woses’ focus is shepherding the trees, it is clear they have knowledge of things pertaining to the human settlement and the elvish withdrawal. Indeed, they have tantalizing information about skeletons coming through the area. “Roombledoombledeur, how are you doing? I don’t have much to offer, just this waterskin. Thankfully you’re outside the watershed to the northeast that currently has bad water…”
“There was a stable,” Hepalonia points out. “There may be some really good dirt. Presumably they did not clear out all the manure when they left.” It is the closest thing to a gift she can think of to present to the esteemed wose. Woses do not truly need anything that elves can provided, but Roombledoombledeur is grateful for the consideration. So begins a fruitful exchange.