Verse 12: SUSPICIOUS MINDS
The morning after the brawl at the Greenhill, Captain Polglase, taking full advantage of her on-leave status, rose at dawn, a full hour later than normal. She further indulged herself in a leisurely breakfast at a nearby open-air café. While enjoying her third cup of cho, she mulled over her options for the day. Her only pre-existing commitment was with Ilfgar the Tentmaker who was refurbishing her field pavilion. That left the rest of her schedule wide open. She was just penciling in a trip to the Outfitters Guild when her instincts warned her of potential peril. Setting her cup down, she scanned the crowd, one hand resting on the hilt of her banded sword. Sure enough, two figures were approaching, one of which was immediately identifiable as the Forest Troll she had electrocuted. Despite the creature's regenerative qualities, it still moved as if its bark was infested with weevils.
The Man accompanying the Troll signaled for it to keep its distance, then approached Polglase, cap in hand. He was muscular, with deep brown skin, and immaculately clean work clothes. He bowed deferentially and waited to be recognized before speaking. Noting that the niceties had been properly observed, Polglase nodded at him.
"Begging the Captain's pardon," he began, "I am Mumbaas Erthenag, a landscaper by trade." The Man hesitated, looked back at his companion, and continued. "This is a matter of some delicacy, Captain, and I mean no disrespect. I appreciate the fine work you Dragoons do in keeping us safe from marauding behemoths and infestations of karyakk hordes and all. I was saying to my missus just the other day –"
"Get on with it," Polglase barked.
Erthenag dropped his hat, started to bend down to pick it up, then reconsidered. "Yes, that is to say, um… did you per chance destroy a Forest Troll last night? If you did, I be certain it was for the best of reasons and completely justified, but my employee here wishes to know so as it can observe the proper mourning rituals."
"No," said Polglase.
The landscaper took a step backwards. "No, you did not, or no, you decline to answer?"
"No, I did not destroy any Troll last night, Forest or otherwise," Polglase explained. "I did some damage to your rambunctious underling there, and to a Sand Troll, but its fellow left the Greenhill under its own power. The last I saw, it was chasing a Minstrel. I would have followed, but there was considerable property damage and some injuries that claimed priority. I have no idea of its current whereabouts."
The Forest Troll started forward, but Erthenag ordered it to hold its ground. "Do you know how I might be able to contact this Minstrel then?"
"None at all. You might try his Guild. I believe he was a New Traditionalist. Now if you will excuse me." The interview, as far as Polglase was concerned, was finished.
The Forest Troll, however, appeared to believe otherwise. Over its employer's protestations, it moved forward. "You help find!" it demanded.
"The word you are looking for," Polglase rasped, "is 'please.'"
The Troll stared impassively. Erthenag gulped and stammered, "That word is not in its vocabulary, but I beseech you. With our Sand Troll on regeneration leave, and most of our workers concerned over their missing comrade, it will be extremely difficult for me to make my deadline. I am facing serious late penalties if I default. I would gladly compensate you for your time."
Polglase bristled at the suggestion. "A Dragoon is NOT for hire. However, I am concerned about the missing Minstrel. He is a passing fair balladeer, and good company. I should regret seeing him come to harm. For that reason only," she emphasized, "I will return to the place where both were last seen, and determine if there are any clues to their fate. I trust that arrangement is satisfactory."
"Very," the landscaper gulped, obviously relieved.
Few signs of the previous evening's donnybrook remained at the Greenhill. The back wall of the tavern had been rebuilt, and the presence of a Spirits Cart showed that the publican was restocking his shelves. Polglase paid scant attention to what might be happening inside. Instead, she bent to examine the ground immediately outside. She stood, advanced a few steps, and bent again. She repeated this process twice more. Erthenag and the Troll, who had been standing off to the side at her command, responded to her summons, stopping when she raised a hand.
Polglase pointed at the ground. "There are bootprints and root scratches in the soft dirt. Judging by the length of the stride and the fact that the toe depression is deeper than the heel mark, the boot wearer was running. I surmise that this was the Minstrel, since I saw no others leave the tavern via this temporary exit. Do you follow me so far?” Man and Troll both stared woodenly. Undeterred, Polglase continued her discourse. "Here and here, the root scratching overrides the bootmarks, which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the Forest Troll followed the Minstrel. Since both lead towards the northeast, I shall do likewise. Follow, but try to step only where I step."
The three trudged off together. Occasionally, Polglase signaled a halt while she examined patches of dirt and places where the grass had been disturbed. Eventually, they climbed a gentle slope to the top of a small hill. Polglase covered the entire summit before she bade the others to join her there.
"The trail definitely leads here, but it ends here as well. There are gouges in the ground, and it looks like something was uprooted over here." She pointed to a patch where a circle of sod had been severely disarranged. "But there is no indication of a fight. I find no traces of blood, bark, or sap. Aside from these gouges, there is nothing here that I would have expected to find if there had been a scuffle. It is as if both simply fell off the face of Kal."
"Perhaps a giant winged creature, like a roc, carried them both away," Erthenag ventured.
Polglase shook her head. "Wrong season. I'd think wyvern, but there'd be wingtip and tail marks. No scorching anywhere, either, and that generally follows a wyvern like flies follow a fertilizer cart. No, this is passing strange indeed." She wandered the area again, re-examining the traces, but quite evidently making herself no wiser. Finally, she approached the others, wiping dirt from her hands, and looking very perplexed.
"This goes beyond my abilities," she admitted. "We need to summon a Pathfinder. I assume your offer of compensation extends to an expert's services?" Erthenag reluctantly agreed, and went off in search of one. Polglase and the Forest Troll waited for his return in stolid silence.
"Sorry," the Forest Troll mumbled.
"Did you say something?" the Dragoon asked the Troll, not trusting her ears.
A pause. "Sorry. Wrong accuse Captain kill [sound of axe chopping through an upholstered cedar footstool]. I sorry. Good Captain help."
"Apology accepted. That Minstrel did not cheat your friend. 'Twas a fair game, and his cards were better. If you want to play poker with other races, you should learn to keep your sap down. When we find it, you should tell it not to get angry when it loses and not to make unfounded accusations."
"Will try, but it can be real knot-head sometime."
In a little over an hour, Erthenag returned with a hooded Elf dressed in bright orange trailblazing robes, his Pathfinder Guild badge pinned prominently to his right ear. The Elf crossed both hands over his chest, hands facing inward. Polglase returned the traditional gesture of greeting. Erthenag had briefed the Pathfinder, who gently but firmly ordered everyone to retreat to the bottom of the hill. They watched as the Elf floated serenely mere feather's widths off the ground, minutely examining every single part of the rise, pausing to illuminate items and locations of particular interest with brilliant flashes of blue light. After a while, Polglase went to the tavern to commandeer refreshments. This was clearly going to take a while.
At last, the Pathfinder floated down the hillside and made landfall. "Chaos vortex," he declared. "Very small, very brief chaos vortex. Lasted just under five minutes. The Imperial went first. He tried to resist, but the suction was far too strong. The Forest Troll followed 126 seconds later. It sank its roots into the ground, but that did not save it either. The vortex opened at 19:78 last night, give or take a minute."
"The source of the storm?" Polglase asked.
The Elf paused before answering. "This is sheer conjecture, mind you, but it does not feel natural. The phenomenon was too limited. A true chaos storm would have caused far more disruption. If you ask me, I would say it was created by means artificial. By whom or how, I would not even hazard a guess."
Polglase looked past the Elf's shoulder to the stark monolithic tower in the near distance. "Maybe you would not care to guess," she said grimly, "but I have a pretty good idea where to begin my inquiries."
"That is, of course, your business. Mine here is concluded." Erthenag paid the Pathfinder, who took his leave. Satisfied, if saddened, by the news, Man and Troll also prepared to go. The landscaper stopped to thank Polglase before departing, offering to buy her luncheon, since it was past high sun.
Polglase consulted her chronotaph. "By Gavra's Silver Host," she cursed, "I must hurry or I shall be late." With that she sped off towards town. Her questions were many, but they would perforce have to wait. That evening, she vowed, Shim Po would provide some answers.