Owerst Nandliss strode purposefully out to the campfire in front of the garden house. The workers were finishing their breakfast, sharpening their axes and otherwise preparing for the day's work ahead of them.
"Good morning, Gentlemen." Several of them looked up from their business. "I'm looking for the fellow in charge here."
One of the men pointed over his shoulder to the garden house. Nandliss recognized the accent of the Eccoscian lower classes in his speech. "Ya wanna talk ta Greimz. He's tha man in charge har'bout."
"Thank you, good sir."
"Ayuh. But arnt no sar." The man grinned up at him with a mouth that contained about half the usual compliment of teeth.
Nandliss approached the house and let himself inside. The front door opened to a narrow hall with a doorway directly ahead and a door to either side of the entrance, staggered down its length. He could hear voices coming from the other end of the hall, so he went straight to the back doorway and into a small dining kitchen. Around a table with a large map on it sat three men: Rikard and two strangers. One of the strangers was a short, stocky human, the other an Aelf. The three of them went silent as soon as he entered.
"Ah, Rikard! A good morning to you."
"And to you, Owerst Nandliss." Rikard stood and bowed. The other two men merely looked at him.
"I'm here to speak to the head of the camp. I assume one of these two gentlemen?"
"Yes, it's Master Greimz here," Rikard indicated the human. "We were just planning the work for today."
"Pleased to meet you both," Nandliss bowed to each of them in turn. "Unusual to see one of the Alpenfolk here. I'm honored."
The Aelf and the man both stood and returned the Owerst's bow. The Aelf spoke first: "And I am honored to meet you, Owerst. Tales of your deeds precede you."
"Is there something we can do to help you, sir?" asked Greimz.
"I just had a few questions about the goings-on here."
"I'm sure Master Greimz will be happy to answer them," said Rikard, "But please bear in mind that there's much work to be done. The Countess wants these trees gone as soon as possible."
"Ah yes. It seems a shame to destroy an entire forest on such a whim, but I suppose it is her property to do with as she will."
"I'll be brief, then."
"Thank you, Owerst."
"How long have you been working this wood?"
"Rikard hired us about three weeks ago."
"How well do you know your team?"
"Dael here has been working with me for six or seven years now, some of the other men even longer. Most of them, though, I hired just for this job."
"Are all of them from abroad?"
"Most of my team comes from Eccoscia, as do I, but we have quite a few Palonians, as well as a couple of Rivvenlanders and Ehronians."
"What else can you tell me about them?"
"Not much else to tell. There are five other Aelfin, a couple of Dvergar, and the rest human. We number twenty-two in all."
"All foresters by trade?"
"Well, most of 'em are. Some are general labor, but as we're away from the cities here, I didn't think Guild Law came into the hiring decisions."
"No - I shouldn't think it would. Have any of you seen anything unusual since you've been here?"
"Not that I'm aware of. It's a big forest, though."
"Well, I won't take any more of your time. Just take care, as there are likely to be a number of people wandering through the wood - myself included."
"Don't worry yourself, sir. I'll be sure that my men keep a sharp eye out."
"Thank you." Just as he came to the doorway, Nandliss turned back. "Rikard – might I have a brief word with you?"
"Certainly, Owerst." Rikard walked with him into the hall.
"Rikard, where did you find this team?"
"Oh, I asked around down at Lunelton."
"And why did you hire so many foreigners?"
"I didn't hire them all. I hired Greimz and his team. He hired the extras."
"How did you meet Greimz?"
"Well, after I put the word out that we wanted such a large team, he was the first that answered, and he was the only one that was sure he could hire so many. Lumber is a big business in Eccoscia, so there are always men ready to work. Since there's so much competition there, it was easy for him to find men willing to work here."
"I see. Well, thank you, Rikard. That will be all for now."
Elinge Froske and Mr. Insel walked around the outside of LaDuce Manor. They had exited the front and gone around the entire west wing. As they'd expected there would be, there were a large number of footprints around that side of the manor house – this was the side where the foresters walked around between the garden house and where the Willow wood had its nearest approach. They made their way behind the gardens and to the rear of the east wing. There were a few trees – mostly oaks and maples – scattered about in this area, but nowhere near enough to qualify as a forest. They discussed amongst themselves whether the Countess would have these trees destroyed, too.
Mr. Insel felt it would be a shame, "Some of these are good for climbing. And look over there: pears. It would be a real shame to cut down the fruit trees." He walked to the nearest tree and put his hand to the fruit. It snapped off easily. He handed it to Elinge before grabbing another for himself.
"Very near ripe, I think," he said as he pushed on the neck of the pear.
"Thank you, Mr. Insel." Elinge took a bite of hers. "Yes, firm yet sweet."
"You're quite welcome, Miss Froske."
They continued walking around the house, eating their pears.
"There don't seem to be any footprints around here, have you noticed that, Mr. Insel?"
"So it would seem. One would think the children, at least, would come out here for the fruit and to climb the trees."
"Indeed. Oh! But here are some now." On the ground were some large boot prints – too large to belong to the twins. They lay in two directions: northward and south toward the house.
"Which way do you think, Mr. Insel?"
"Well, Miss Froske, as it's the house that most interests us at the moment, I should go in that direction first. We can always come back and see where the northward tracks lead later."
"I agree. Tell me … do you notice anything unusual about these prints?"
"Well, the ones heading to the house seem to be a bit deeper. I expect someone was carrying something this way. Should I call for Master Nandliss? He's likely to make more out of any tracks than we are, considering his experience."
"We may yet have need of the Owerst, but I think we can take a quick look ourselves. No sense bothering him just yet."
"As you say, Miss."
They followed the tracks to the back of the house where they immediately took a turn east, along the wall. The windows here were boarded up, so they weren't sure which rooms were in this part of the house. The tracks ended at small cluster of tall azaleas.
"An odd place for a shrubbery – so far from the main garden, don't you think, mr. Insel?"
"I do indeed. They're not terribly well-pruned, either."
They pushed past the shrubs and followed the tracks into a small clearing, in the middle of which was the stool of a coppiced ash tree that looked to have been harvested recently. Against the house was a stone step leading down to a cellar door. The footprints ended at the ash stool, but continued in the three feet between the stool and stair.
"Now what do you suppose someone was putting in there recently?"
"I don't know, Miss Froske."
"Only one way to find out."
Elinge approached the door and tried the handle. It was locked.
"Well, isn't that curious? Hardly an impediment, though, would you say, Mr. Insel?"
The tall man went slightly stiff, and his voice grew flat. "If I'm to investigate, I'll need full run of the house and grounds. And I'll need to be able to question anyone and expect truthful answers without reservation. You will have all of those, with one exception. I need my rest. You are welcome into my personal chambers, should you need access, but you will make arrangements beforehand."
"I'd say that's permission granted." She reached into a small pouch hidden in the folds of her skirts and retrieved a small flat strip of metal and a bit of tense wire and set to work on the lock. After only a few seconds – during which there were a few nearly inaudible clicks of the lock levers – there was a small popping sound as the bolt withdrew. Elinge turned the handle again and the door opened.
They entered a low-ceilinged cellar filled with old crates and broken furniture. There were cobwebs and dust everywhere, which made continuing to follow the tracks quite simple, even in the low light. They led to the back of the chamber where against a wall leaned a number of rusty tools and piles of dirty rags.
As Elinge examined the wall, Insel began lifting crates. Most appeared to be empty, or at least very light. Upon picking up the sixth one they heard a strange clattering noise from inside.
"There." Elinge looked up. The crate Mr. Insel was holding appeared to be newer than the others, and heavier. "What do you suppose someone's brought in here? Let's have it open."
Insel sat the crate down again. Elinge reached him one of the old metal tools which he then used to pry open the top of the crate. Inside was a lot of packing straw and rags. He pulled out one of the rags which was wrapped around something large and heavy. Unwrapping the rag revealed an enormous crystal – a foot and a half long and about six inches in diameter – emitting a faint purple light. The whole crate was full of these large crystals, but they all glowed in different colors, as though there were a small spark of light inside each of them, straining to get out.
"This is … a surprise," Elinge said breathlessly. "Do you know what this means?"
"I'm afraid so, Miss Froske," he said – his frown was bathed in dappled light. "It means trouble."
"Yes. A great deal of trouble. Someone's using this manor to smuggle these crystals … somewhere. But, to where, and whence? And why would someone take such a risk? If news of this got to the Temple, there would be a team of Inquisitors here in little more than a day."
Mr. Insel only grunted.
"Quickly! Put them back. We have to cover our tracks. No one must know what we've found. At least not until we know who's behind this."
They began re-wrapping the crystals and packing them back into the container. Mr. Insel pounded the lid back on the top and placed the crate back where he'd found it. They returned the tools and vacated the cellar, Elinge using her picks to re-place the lever tumblers in the door's lock.
They then worked their way back through the shrubbery and continued on their course around the house. Near the northeast corner stood a white willow tree.
"Isn't that curious, Mr. Insel? An ash and a willow."
"Like in the old Countess's dream and in the note."
"It could simply be coincidence, I suppose. After all, there are many of both types growing all around here – especially in the forest."
"If dreams come to us from our own inner minds, as the infamous Dr. Jehltsen asserts, then it might be that she simply had these on her mind – especially as it was by an accident with a willow that her daughter Passed."
"That could very well be. But then there's the note which appears to have been written before the dream."
"Might still be coincidence."
"Yes ... but a very odd one. I think there are two facts we need to know now, Mr. Insel. Have you any idea what they might be?"
"Well, I expect one of them is to find out who has the key to that cellar."
"Yes. And the other?"
"Hmm ... who wrote the note?"
"Very good. I think when we discover the identity of those persons ..."
"Or perhaps it's the same person," interjected Mr. Insel.
"Or person, yes ... once we know, I think we'll a much better idea of what's really going on at LaDuce Manor."
"How do we go about that, then, Miss Froske?"
"I have some ideas, Mr. Insel. Let's go and have a chat with Rikard."