Elves are weird.
Buck made up his mind on that quickly. That guest happened to be the same elven lady at the Apothecary. Same pointed ears and pale-everything. She looked like any other twenty-something- elven features being the exception. Unlike every other twenty-something in town... she had a semblance of modesty. She wore a thick robe that covered her from the neck down- and when she came she brought a tall wagon carried by a pair of stags. They looked rather robust, more like the kind of deer you'd find in Europe than the white-tail he was used to back home in Georgia. It had doors that locked and curtains inside it.
By Rodrick's admission, she came by every year before the festival, bringing with her gifts and products to sell. The chief of Brookheim had a fondness for her, and allowed her to give away prizes for the winners of the contests held there. From what he gathered elves had a sort of universal knack for magic. They oft made charms and trinkets, and had cohabitated in the Republic with humans for as long as the country had been founded. Grandma Willow had mothered Amelia, who had mothered Alexandra, and thus they were an elf-blooded family. There were more people with elven blood than not, and Alexandra was a quarter elven herself. Amelia must've kept her youthful looks through her half-elven blood, Buck reckoned. Compared to them? Alex looked a little childish.
The young kids greeted Willow with riotous ferocity. He feared they'd tear her to shreds if he didn't know they adored her. The elven woman nearly suffocated in her descendants- and even sickly Alexandra dragged herself out of bed to shower Grandma Willow with affection. The ever youthful elf sent her back into bed with a fresh new book- an adventure novel, he thought- then greeted her children and in-laws. Tomas and Amelia gave their mother a kiss on each cheek, while Rodrick and Angelica gave the lady full-bodied hugs that took her feet off the ground. When she finally caught a break, she looked over at Roebuck and raised an eyebrow. She recognized him.
"It's nice to see all of you, but- oho?" Willow sized him up. It made the man feel like a piece of meat on a butcher block. "Why if it isn't the strapping young lad from the apothecary! Has my daughter finally picked out a man good enough for Alexandra-"
"Mother!" Amelia laughed. "Please! He's just a lad Addy and Xandra found, he's staying here and helping out until he gets his bearings. We've had him in for a month or so."
"Well! " Willow gave her daughter a rough pat on the back, grinning. "Why you sent him out to get medicine for her! Back in my day that may as well have made him a suitor! So when's the wedding, you know I'm just itching for more great-grandbabies-"
"H-hey!" Alexandra steamed, sniffled, then broke into a coughing fit. "He's- not!"
"Mother!" Amelia and Angelica escorted Alexandra back to her room, though it left Buck and Tomas and Rodrick all awkwardly looking between themselves and Willow. The elven matron wore a silly smirk and slid into a seat, waiting for the women to return. "You can't say things like that."
Willow shrugged innocently. "What? Why, Sir Roebuck here is right about marrying age, and so's Alexandra! You know how I met your father? He got me out of a sticky situation with a bunch of bandits, and you know the first thing he did when we got all alone together-"
"Mama!" Tomas and his young men rolled their eyes at their matriarch's antics. Buck shifted on each foot awkwardly, hands clasped together and just trying to look polite. Adalard stuck his tongue out, while the two younger brothers seemed a little bit unaware of what their ancestor spoke of. Buck rarely heard Tomas speak, but he had a smooth, even tone. "We have a guest. Could you please contain yourself?"
The smug elf crossed her legs and grinned. "Well I'm just happy that my only granddaughter is finally around a good man her age!"
Buck cleared his throat. "Hi, Miss Willow. I don't think we really introduced ourselves. Name's Roebuck, Jack Roebuck, and I, uh, well, as ya can see your folks are keeping me pretty well set up and fed. Good to meet ya!"
"It's a pleasure meeting you, young man." She smiled and stood up, giving him a full-bodied hug and a peck on the cheek.
With her... introduction, Willow took up residence in the family's home. She found Buck's living arrangements odd, thinking it far beneath the man to sleep in a loft. The elf had almost admonished Rodrick and Amelia- before Buck chimed up and said it was his idea. He liked having a little privacy. They got their introductions and catching-up out of the way, while Buck- liked, but not part of the family, excused himself back to his loft. He clambered back up and got into the dry Codex again, struggling to read through it.
He read it out aloud to himself. "Hesse, oldest province in the Republic of Man, breadbasket, lots of elves... right, right..." The man's eyes drooped with the boring information he'd tried to familiarize himself with. "Good God almighty, worse than watchin' paint dry. Couldn't ya make this into like, a comic book or somethin'?"
There came no response from Ziva.
Buck fell asleep in the afternoon, with warm air in the loft and the codex draped across his chest. He didn't dream much since he got to Hesse: he kind of lived his dream out there. Where do you go from having good food, good company, and good-looking women? Isn't that what every God-fearing, honest American dreams about in the end? He idly catnapped, flitting images of the Republic's history conjured up in his mind. He couldn't help but imagine the ancient rulers of the Republic in Roman get-ups. Like Jason and the Argonauts. But his dreams soon faded into the image of a fire in his head, a spark exploding into a raging inferno.
A great fire licked his fingers, it kissed him, consumed him, then he woke.
While he slept his lips curled into a grimace and a cold sweat soaked his shirt. The man pondered his dream for a moment, before putting the thought away. Maybe ancient history wasn't for him. He flipped to another section to occupy his time, but no matter what he did he couldn't keep his eyes on it. The book's text mocked him with how impenetrably dry it laid out the demographics and relations of the Republic. When he thought himself wore out for the day- he heard the meal bell, putting away the book and joining the farmers for an early dinner.
Buck spent the next week helping out in the village at Tomas and Rodrick's request. For the few weeks he spent there he'd mostly only ventured into town on errands. He got a lot of looks from the villagers: he tanned a little easier than they did and his jet-black hair stood out in a sea of redheads, blondes and brunettes. Not to mention he stood head and shoulders above just about everyone there. Were they really human? He was tall back home, but when a young child ran up and yelped about "Rodrick's Highlander" he couldn't help but feel self-conscious about it. He caught quite a few odd looks from folks unused to seeing such a big fellow.
But it did mean that when there was heavy lifting to do, he did well for it. The folks here were prone to using magic to lift heavy things: seems they had a pretty good grasp of ergonomics. Buck couldn't wrap his head around the stuff himself, so he just up and lifted everything the old fashioned way. By lifting it. He worked aside the next strongest in town, those being Tomas' older sons- whose names he always got mixed up. He just called them "all of y'alls" and figured he'd memorize it later. The men set up the heavier decorations in town. They worked like dogs, from early in the morning to late in the afternoon.
Yet despite working like a dog, he couldn't keep his mind off Alexandra. Her condition fluctuated, some days she was up and about, others she laid bedridden. From what he gathered, Bed-flu came and went in magicians. Alexandra knew quite a bit of magic, so she often came down with it. It made him feel a little sorry for her- the girl loved magic and every time she could demonstrate her talents, Buck watched. She could do things with just a few gestures and breath from her lips that would be impossible back home. Make things levitate and soar through the air like birds, animate small golems of dirt and twigs, and even when he'd cut open his finger, seal the wound up handily. Watching even her most basic attempts at magic fizzle out hurt empathetically for him.
And- well, Buck was a man, after all, and Alexandra a woman. He couldn't help himself. Slim, streamlined and petite just happened to be the things that got his motor going. By her own admission she didn't get a lot of attention. The girl outright hated her expected duties of marriage, of being a housewife, a mother and a partner to someone. It must've been his earnestness and open mind that got her divulging that. From the few peeks of her novels Buck got, she had a fixation on romance, adventure and most curiously to him, portal novels, as she called them. They featured handsome, boyish men saving the day with great powers bestowed upon them. And usually getting into smutty adventures with their elven consorts. Buck pointed out how he technically came through a portal- but Alexandra didn't say a word on that and shut him up real quick.
"What're you thinking about?" Eugenius- he often went by Eugene- nudged him, the two carrying a heavy chest out of a merchant's wagon. They set it down inside the trading post's secure storage, before exiting the musty room and taking a moment to catch some fresh air.
"Alexandra," Buck wouldn't lie, that's exactly what he thought about, "I hope she's doing well."
"I bet she's fine. She gets sick all of the time." Eugene shrugged and wiped sweat off his face. "You barely know her."
Buck shrugged and pulled a waterskin out, taking a big gulp and offering it to the younger man. "And? Don't mean I don't care about her."
The thin blonde man squinted at Buck, gears turning in his head. Then he grabbed his own waterskin and chugged it down. When he finished he wiped his lips off and laughed. "Do you- hold on, what do you mean by that?"
He chuckled. "Eh. Well. You know. I think she's nice."
"You do?" Eugene snickered. "She's stuck-up, reads her books all day. If you like her, you like her, but... I wouldn't know about that."
"She's your cousin, you can say nicer things about her than that." Buck snorted. "C'mon. Y'know, where I come from, we didn't have too many thin girls. Lot of, real big'uns, talkin' real big."
The young man's eyes widened. "Big? Like Hesse girls? I know a girl who says she got a minotaur for a daddy and she's pretty- uh, I mean, she's pretty big. Like that kind of big?"
"I'm talkin' like they're fat, Eugene, fat. Pig fat, feed 'em slop, not bull big, feed 'em right." He held his gut. Buck thinned out a little bit in his stay there, but he kept a lot of his weight. "Like they got big ole' guts and too much on 'em. I mean we had a lot of fat guys too, y'know, back where I'm from we had so much food and it was all, greasy. Sugary. Salty. Real bad stuff for ya. Ya had to go lookin' for good stuff."
"Lookin' like pigs. Hell they squealed like 'em too. Now me personally I don't like that." He stretched an arm out and flexed a muscle. "See, cause we had all kinds of machines that did stuff ya used to do by hand, so we all got lazy. And when ya eat so much greasy fatty stuff it just, y'know. Makes ya fat."
"Were you fat?"
"Hell nah, I wasn't." Buck grinned. "But y'know back where I'm from we had a lot of jobs it was just sittin' down and workin' on machines, so what we used to do is we went to places where we just had weights and- how'd I say it- we had machines that letcha run in one place."
Eugene looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "What?"
"Yeah. It sounds dumb when I put it that way. But-" He tapped the side of his head. "-well I don't really know where I'm goin' sayin' this, but, uh, tellin' ya now, I like slim and skinny. Kind of a rarity back home so, uh, y'know."
"...I, think I get it. Is that... why?" Eugene looked around. "Is that why?"
"Well she's smart and blonde and she's got lots of freckles. Freckles are nice. I like 'em. We don't have a lot of yella-haired ladies near me." Buck brushed a finger through his own black hair- it'd gotten down to fall around his eyes now. He wondered if they had a barber in town. "I think I like her."
"Well she's not exactly marriage material..."
The thought got Buck snickering but he chose not to voice it, instead gathering his thoughts. He finished off his waterskin and slung it on his hip. "You kiddin' me? She ain't got too bad an attitude, she listens when I tell her stories, and where I come from any girl walkin' around her house with no top on is marriage material, I'll tell ya that much."
Eugene laughed. "She doesn't want to get married, she wants to learn magic!"
The two men broke into small talk, hanging out in front of the trading post. They chattered about what they'd do in the festival. Eugene confirmed he'd ask that minotaur girl out- Buck remembering from his textbook that... there was a great compatibility between the animal-featured folks and elves. Some of that must have rubbed off on the many elf-blooded folks here. Buck made it clear that if Alexandra would be well, he'd ask her. It was worth a shot, after all. They kept on with this, before-
"Hey, is that Grandma Willow?" Eugene looked over. Buck twisted around. Brookheim sat by their river, and the trading post sat almost on top of it. They had a platform built onto the river, where flat barges and small boats could sail down and trade goods. The two men hurried over to the fence of the platform, watching Grandma Willow float a little skiff down. She looked over her shoulder every few seconds, clutching tightly to a small container of- something she had, he couldn't tell. "Oh- it is! Hey, Willow, what're ya doing?"
"Oh- Oh hi Eugene!" Her anxious face faded, casting a smile towards the two young men. She waved and got her slow-moving boat moving towards the dock. "Just gathering a few ingredients is all, help me moor this thing up! I'm in a bit of a hurry!"
"Huh, alright." Buck and Eugene stepped down- though Eugene had to grab his spears, one long and conventional, the other a large, oversized knife. It was his duty as a guard to be armed.
Buck got there first and helped guide Grandma Willow into the dock. Before he could even ask what she had, she clambered up onto the docks. He helped her up, but when he offered to grab that container- a ceramic pot, covered in a slimy substance that marred her robes- she refused, holding onto it. "They need to be taken care of swiftly, it's for one of my potions!" She offered as an explanation, but Buck had his doubts.
She ran off back to her wagon, he figured, while he tied up the small boat to some of the rigs. Eugene helped out with the other end, the two chuckling to themselves- before the boat shifted all of a sudden, as if bumped from below.
"The hell was that?" Buck stood up, the hair on the back of his neck rising up.
"I don't know." Eugene finished tying up his side, grabbing his spears. "There are big mud-dogs up the river sometimes. Usually they aren't too bad-aaAAH, hey, what is that!?"
A great dark shape welled up from the water. It had a smooth surface, a flat, wide shape that let it flow smoothly, but it wasn't a gator or crocodile he recognized. Stubby but muscular limbs hung off its side, followed by a thick, meaty tail. Openings in its back drew in water, but it blew out as the creature swam, propelling it fast through the water. Buck barely caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared.
"Is that a mud-dog?" Buck felt the dock shake with the creature's passing. "Is that a mud-dog!?"
"Oh- oh no, Buck, get back!"
The last thing he thought about before his world exploded was how much he was gonna hurt in the morning- and how much he was gonna cuss out ole' Grandma Willow.