When they reach the house, Tilyn introduces the two elves to his father, Gumreddoc. The older human is on the shaded porch in a rocking chair, but he wears a broad-brimmed hat just like his son. He is slowly rocking back and forth, chewing the end of a long piece of grass. This arrangement foils Hepalonia’s initial attempts to determine his hair color and whether he still has teeth.
Normally, his cousin is quite polite, but since she is just staring at the man, grinning stupidly, Tric quickly begins the engagement. “Master Gumreddoc,” he starts grandly, “tidings from the elves of the Estbryn Forest. Your son was telling us that you yourself fought against Mal-Ravanal’s forces.”
“It’s such a pleasure to meet you!” Heppa cuts in excitedly.
Tric undoes his red headband and wipes the sweat from his brow. He casually exposes his only slightly pointy ears, thinking that he might seem less alien if the humans realize he is only half an elf. Maybe that can soothe some of Tilyn’s anxiety. The farmer is eyeing Heppa nervously.
The old man stops rocking and pulls the grass from his mouth. “No, no, I’m a farmer now. My days in the infantry are long behind me. You, you’re travelers. What’s the news from out there?” He makes a sweeping gesture with his arm.
Tric tells Gumreddoc that it is not a good time for water in the Estmark Hills but that it should clear up in a couple months. He rambles on about a few things relevant to elves: which trees are in bloom, which birds are migrating back into the area. “Yes, it’s spring. Also a good time for planting.” Time for a slick segue. “Say, in all your time as a farmer—I understand that humans have to plow deeply into these fields—have you ever turned up anything that people had left there? That had fallen into the field? If you have found anything like that which we might examine or know where we might look, we would be most grateful. We, in return, could…” Tric really does not want to do anymore digging, but he suspects he knows a service his cousin would be eager to provide. “My cousin Heppa here is very skilled in elvish healing magics. If anything has been ailing you, like a bad knee, perhaps…”
The offer works. The elves’ payment is actually a reward for Hepalonia, an opportunity to examine an elderly human and learn more about what aging does to these people. It turns out that examinations yield clearer results when the patient is both aware and completely cooperative. While it is true that Kachen was a willing patient for the spear wound in his side, Heppa never did directly address his exhaustion or malnutrition with him. Gumreddoc, on the other hand, she peppers with questions. “I’m not familiar with human age…” she begins politely. He shows no reluctance in answering that he is fifty-nine years old.
From that starting point, they discuss his aching knees and shoulder. The latter has bothered him ever since the war. “I was heavy infantry back in the day. Used to fight with a mace all the time. Swing, crush, swing, crush. That’s the way you deal with skeletons.”
Heppa confirms that such repetitive motion can cause long-lasting damage. She does some manipulation of the joint to explore its limitations. From this close vantage point, she is also able to observe that he only has about half as many teeth as she does. From what she can remember observing while he spoke, Kachen had a full set. This current human subject, though, has partially rotten gums, which may be why not all the teeth have stuck around. Heppa asks, and Gumreddoc says that some of his teeth he lost in battle, as he certainly got smashed in the face a time or two. He points out the faint scar from where an orc once caught him across the cheek, just where his helm did not protect him.
Overall, Gumreddoc seems in mostly good health, just limited by his joint pain. He is also in good spirits, with a drive to be more active. Heppa asks him to remove his hat for the medical examination, which reveals a fringe of gray hair around the sides of his bald pate. He insists that when he was Tilyn’s age he had a full head of nice brown hair, just like his son still does. Losing it runs in the family, though, he says.
“You are pretty healthy,” Hepalonia assures him. “Let’s see what we can do about these joints.” She draws forth fae power with which she coaxes the growth of cartilage in Gumreddoc’s knees and soothes irritations in his shoulder. She suspects these areas will wear back down over time, so she provides some suggestions on exercises that can help keep the joints limber. All in all, though, she is pleased with how the casting went. So far, she is finding it easier to use healing magic to improve conditions such as these—or Tric’s inebriation in Untdunben—than to seal violent wounds like her bat bites.
Tric, meanwhile, is allowed inside the home to look through a chest of odds and ends that the family has accumulated over the years. It contains a variety of knick-knacks and mundane objects, whatever struck the fancy of an adolescent Tilyn. But down below the bird feathers, cool rocks, and elvish arrowheads, Tric uncovers part of a broken sword that bears the same maker’s mark as his own knife.
When Tric steps back out onto the porch, Gumreddoc appears quite at ease with his elvish companion. The old human is telling Heppa about how he was part of Gweddry’s force that fell back from the Southern Outpost. “No one is going to look askance at retreating in the face of undead,” Tric assures him. Heppa nods; she has screamed at all the ones she has encountered.
“I was part of the whole campaign. And let me tell you, I was quite happy when it was all over. So was King Konrad. We survivors received accolades from him. Gweddry got an earldom; I got this plot of land.” He says this without any bitterness. “Mind you, we didn’t all go through what Gweddry went through. I’m quite happy with this plot, that I could pass it on to my son and live out my days in relative peace here with my grandchildren.”
“Now, in those times… We know of Mal-Ravanal as the head lich, but were there others? Did he have lackey liches?” Tric asks, somewhat tentatively, not wanting to upset this source of information.
“Oh, were there others!” Gumreddoc replies with a hint of exasperation. “Three of Mal-Ravanal’s… lackeys…” The human chuckles, and continues, “It feels strange to use that term for such powerful and fearsome foes, but it is true that Mal-Ravanal sent others to do his bidding. Three of them combined chased us out of the Southern Outpost.”
Tric reframes the event to bolster the man’s confidence, emphasizing that it required three of them to chase the human forces out. Gumreddoc snorts. He is of the opinion that if they had had the magical support that they needed, they could have held the Southern Outpost. He sighs. “But Gweddry called for the retreat…”
“And it all worked out,” Tric reminds him. “We heard that one of those lackeys, Mal-Uldhar, came through this area around then chasing a group of humans from that direction.” He points back east, towards Hisanham. “Were you in this area at that time?”
“I don’t really know the names of any these… these co-liches. It’s all Mal-This and Mal-That and Mal-The-Other-Thing. Hard to keep them straight over the sounds of battle. But the ones who chased us out of the Southern Outpost, I do remember that two fellows and a skeleton were the ones in charge. Prior to those enemies making themselves known to us, there were a number of people fleeing from the east. Some of them joined our forces and fought with Gweddry, bolstering our ranks.”
“Did you personally know any of these refugees?” Tric asks.
“We haven’t really kept in touch over the years, but I did fight alongside some.”
“Do any of them live nearby? Do you know of any refugees in South Tower that we could talk to, that you knew, maybe?”
Gumreddoc tells the elves that some of the refugees who joined Gweddry’s forces fought through the whole entire campaign. At the end, not everybody wanted to be rewarded with a plot of land because some people were not farmers, they were craftspeople or artisans, workers in the trades. Also, some people rose in the ranks, getting promotions over the course of the war. They got the taste for military service and stayed in that line of work. Of course, many others died, too. Gumreddoc only knows a few people in what is now called South Tower who were originally from the group of refugees that Tric is interested in. “There’s a blacksmith who fought alongside us but also helped maintain our weaponry.”
Tric pulls out the rusty knife Heppa found in Hisanham and shows it to Gumreddoc. “This symbol?”
“Oh, yes, yes, that’s his. Serces made that. He works in the Southern Outpost—excuse me, South Tower.”
If humans cannot keep the name of the place straight, how can elves be expected to? Tric wonders. He asks about what the settlement is called, and Gumreddoc explains that he was stationed at the Southern Outpost when it was a simple encampment with palisades. He grew up around this area, and in his youth, the Southern Outpost was actually abandoned. When news of ill tidings to the east began, King Konrad II revived the two outposts, Southern and Northern, making them defensive centers once again. Gumreddoc’s own grandfather worked at the Southern Outpost when it was a real frontier fort. After the whole war with Mal-Ravanal, Gweddry was made Earl of Estmark, but really what that means is this entire side of the River Weldyn. And since that time, a proper town has grown up around the old fortifications, the town of South Tower. Gumreddoc chuckles. “You know, as a child, I was happy to get off the farm and live a life of adventure. Now I’m glad to have a plot of land.”
Heppa enjoys listening to the man’s life story, and Tric, too, is happy to take it all in. Probably Gumreddoc himself is glad of an audience for his tales. He returns to the topic of the refugees. “There are probably a few others in South Tower. Could be a baker, for all I know! But the blacksmith, I remember Serces well. And even Gweddry’s current captain of the guard was a former refugee.”
“Talking to a person of that standing could be hard to arrange,” Tric mutters.
“Oh, she takes an active role in the guard,” Gumreddoc tells him. “She’s a very hands-on leader, since she rose from the ranks herself.” Tric very casually asks what this captain is called, and the old man replies, “Her name is Mhaev.”
Hepalonia feels like that name sounds familiar, but she is not sure where she has heard it. Her cousin adjusts his bandana, holding back his hair with it and tying it a little too tightly around his ear tips. He seems no longer interested in asking questions, and Heppa is happy to supply some of her own. Elves maintain gardens, but they do not raise crops like these humans seem to, so she discusses agriculture with Gumreddoc for a while. He does not exactly think farming is fun, but it is certainly better than marching to war all the time. He describes, too, the sense of satisfaction that comes from pushing back the wild and cultivating the land, making it productive. Gumreddoc sounds proud as he talks about cutting back trees with his own hands and making something out of nothing. “Nothing was here before,” he tells her. “It was just wild land. And now look at it! Sure, it’s not exactly a prosperous farm, but it is a farm. It was mine, and now my son has it, and then the grandchildren will. We made this.” Heppa listens raptly to this human perspective, withholding judgment in favor of getting information. These ideas are foreign to elvish ears, wilderness being the desired state of things.
It is getting late in the day, and the elves accept Gumreddoc’s offer of hospitality for the night. Tric has lost any focus on recovering necromantic staves; his plan is to head straight towards town in the morning. Heppa graciously thanks the humans, appreciating the opportunity for overnight observation on the effectiveness of her healing magics. Over dinner, Gumreddoc is quite cheerful, already moving with more ease and feeling spry. He is downright excited by the prospect of working out in the fields tomorrow.
The elves also get to meet the grandchildren when Daddoc and Myfi come in from their chores. These are the first human children Heppa has ever seen, and she asks their ages. Myfi is a particularly outgoing five-year-old, and the girl tells her all about the teeth she has recently lost. Hepalonia is surprised at how talkative such a young human is, as well as the extent of chores that are her responsibility. Thirteen-year-old Daddoc is much quieter, but from what his sister says, they both seem to have full-time jobs on the farm, which is far more than Heppa was doing at their age. I don’t even have a proper job now, she thinks.
All through dinner, Tric has been very quiet, collecting himself and coming to terms with his mother being within reach. He has been preoccupied with formulating and then throwing away various ideas for how to talk to the captain of the guard without getting arrested in the process. Maybe she will have some interest in Merriver and her weapons… That would solve multiple problems. If there is no buyer for the weapons, the dwarves will not need to do all that mining and will not ruin any more water. And I’d get to talk to Mom.
After the meal, though, he decides to repay their hosts by entertaining the children with a story. Rather than tell a legend about Kalenz or a tall tale about himself, Tric settles on the story of Heppa and the bats. Or, as it has been recast, the story of fire and ice, the Winter Queen. “You might despise the winter,” he finally concludes, “but you need that freeze to clear everything out so that spring can come again.” Rather than paying attention to the moral, Myfi asks a bunch of questions about the bats. Tric goodnaturedly answers her questions, talking about how pointy the teeth are and engaging in some sleight-of-hand tricks as he emphasizes the size of the bat swarms. “And if so ever you encounter bats, fear not! You will be armed with—” Fwoosh! He pulls out a torch and lights it, “—perhaps a torch.” Fwoosh! A second one lends its brightness to his show. “Perhaps two.”
The story sounds better and better every time Heppa hears it, though she does not remember half of what Tric Manu claims happened. As they bed down for the night, wrapped in their blankets on the living room floor, Heppa reflects on how well this trip is turning out so far. She has gotten the opportunity to spend time with both a wose and an old human. She fishes out her map and scribbles down some medical notes and thoughts about human physiology.
And next is South Tower, a whole human settlement! She knows Tric has things he wants to do there, and she is happy to follow along, but she is also interested in talking with Kachen’s friend, Alric. She is curious if he knows Kachen from before… Maybe Alric will be willing to talk about what he knows about Kachen, or maybe he will have a lead on where she and Tric Manu can find some artifacts. Maybe he is the one who told Kachen where to go look…. And there are so many other things that she is sure will be interesting. There is so much to learn outside the forest!