Damian and Remus did a damn fine job of holding back the tide. They were strong young men favored by the church. Friedrich retreated. Mostly because he couldn't withstand a stiff breeze, from the looks of things. The man ought not be in front of a roaring crowd. Willow said something- it was probably sarcastic or something inane. But Buck stood like the Rock of Gibraltar, unmoving and observant. The tide of people burst through the church's doors and washed over him like a wave crashing on a cliffside.
She came to be a terrible victim of circumstance- that circumstance being a thronging mass of people dragging her out and elevating her onto the festival platform. The great mass of her townsfolk drowned her in equal amounts of questions and gifts. A cartwright presented her a pair of wagons, a farmer and the oxen to pull it. A rancher led a buckskin saddle-horse out, and cobblers, tailors and smiths took every measurement they could from her. The poor girl could hardly get a word out under the deluge of attention and nascent hero-worship.
Buck half-smiled and half-cringed: she never struck him as the crowd-surfing type. There wasn't a good way to stop it, they'd just have to let it peter out. Even Magister Friedrich declared it a fool's errand to get in the way of it. Buck figured she'd be the makings for some kind of Jim Bowie or Appleseed kind of folk hero. She'd already gotten her hometown wrapped around her finger without even trying.
It took a lot of eyes off of him, though, and as he turned away he found himself beside a certain elven woman.
"Miss Willow!" He ducked into the shady canopy she rested under. Despite the humid weather, the elf wore thick robes. And yet he didn't see a drop of sweat on her face. Her eyes had a sharpness to him, picking over Buck even as he looked down on her. He stood a head above her, but alone and focused she had enough presence to remind Buck of a stately, strong tree. Elves, he reckoned, must have had longer lives and a more graceful aging than humans did. Her sylvan beauty couldn't help the stoney mask she wore, Buck couldn't get a read on the pointy-eared matron. "How you doin'? Do ya mind if we have a talk real quick?"
"Sure, sure, sweet thing, you don't even have to ask. Oh I'm doing wonderfully!" The woman cracked the slightest of smiles. "Why my grandbabies are all growing up to be fine, wonderful, amazing kiddos, Eugenius is a protege with his spear, Adalard would make a fantastic fisherman-"
"-Your only granddaughter is a chosen one from a church prophecy."
Willow gasped dramatically. "Why yes, that too! I just like to point out how they're all doing so well!"
Buck stretched and brushed his fingers against the canopy, looming over the thin elf. The din of the crowd would mask their conversation, and for how much energy the town had, he doubted they'd care much for two folks chatting away. He had a litany of questions and a growing clarity. "Yeah, yeah, that's all well and good. Say, I saw a real gorgeous lady the other day. About, eh, little shorter than Alex, lot more meat on her bones, dark hair, nice tan, wears skimpy dresses. Real bubbly, uh, urban personality. That ring any bells to you?"
Willow rubbed her lip in faux contemplation. "Somewhat..."
"Got claws and paws, a tail and half a coat of fur like a coyote. Tends to disappear on ya." Buck leaned against the building and watched hawk-like as the woman pursed her lips.
"You're getting awfully specific, young man, but I do know someone like that." Her eyebrows furrowed. "A coyote? Is that a kind of animal? I do business with a few, ahem, proprietors of Wyldkin parlors, if you understand."
"Uh- Jackal, dingo, fox, not a wolf and not a dog. Bushy, scraggly, all uh, kinda sketchy looking." He hunted for the next words. "Real tricky type. Works in the shadows? Ziva? Usually goes by the unspoken title? Real tricky, chaotic type? I saw you speak with someone matchin' that description the other night, well, figured I'd ask and, y'know, see if we have uh, any mutual relationships."
The elf snickered. "Goodness. Were you moon-struck or something? Gone a.bit lunatic? Talking about Her-Spoken-Of-Hushly, our Lady Serendipitous, She the Unspoken Goddess? What sort of superstition have you gotten into! You seemed so well grounded, why I can't imagine what you'll whisper in my Alexandra's ears-"
"Hah. Hah. Funny innuendo. Cool it." Buck felt an iron ring clasp around his gut. The man didn't have much trouble piecing things together. He thought quickly even as Willow wore something coy. He tried to remember what were elves known for back home, in literature. What did Tolkien and Warcraft and all the fantasy books he'd skimmed and heard secondhand have to say about thin, pointy-eared, long-lived... Magically potent, religiously-alien, mystical creatures. He started with the most reasonable thing he could figure out. "Ya wouldn't know so much about her unless ya had somethin' to do with her."
Willow frowned. "Keep your voice down."
"Sure, sure." Buck smiled, showing his teeth. "But I know ya know somethin', ma'am. And I'm in a figurin'-out kinda mindset right now. Alexandra's family has some of the most bountiful fields I've ever seen. You got two daughters-"
"Er, with their father-" Willow corrected him. "I've had a few human husbands and, of course, I've got a few other young ones still kicking, but do go on."
Buck blinked. That was new. Sure did explain why Willow had such a motherly aura to her. He had yet to read up on elvish history in the Codex, but he'd get to that later. "Right, well, all I'm saying is that ya have a very prosperous, fortunate family. And your business, I figure it's what, alchemy? Herbalism? Mixin' fun ingredients to- do whatever, getcha some hen's teeth and dog tongues and eye... Or, well, egg of newt."
Her lips pulled into a tight, thin line. Willow crossed her arms but stood a little more stoically than she ought to have. But for a fleeting moment Buck caught recognition in her eye. She said nothing but nodded in confirmation.
"Yeah, ya didn't think I wouldn't figure that one out? C'mon, I got better memory than that. Ya get off a boat haulin' something slimy and not a minute later I get attacked by a mud-dog, one of them flame spittin' salamanders that tastes all delicious?" He grinned. "What I'm sayin' is I ain't born yesterday. What'll your family think if they hear ya had a part in getting my leg chewed up by that salamander and that nice dock all tore up? And all for, whaddaya even make with salamander eggs, caviar? Salamander? Y'know, what'd they think if they knew you were responsible for their nice young helpin' hand, y'know, your darlin' granddaughter's confidant, witness headin' to the capital, y'know, just askin' since I got ya right here.``
"I use it for...Weight-retaining formulae." Willow muttered, shaking her head. "It was just an unfortunate accident, you know-"
"Still ultimately yer fault, and y'know, when there's accidents, ya gotta make things right with whoever ya might hurt cause of yer negligence." He smirked and ground his healed up foot in the ground. "That salamander damn near took off the foot I use for kickin' ass, and y'know I just can't help my heart- first there's a wild animal comin' after me, then I have ta' kill it so horribly, it's a lotta emotional weight a man's gotta carry."
It got her rolling her eyes. "You carry a lot of weight already, but emotional weight-you must certainly carry that burden, young one, don’t you?"
Buck shrugged. Alex let out a loud yelp from somewhere in the pile of gifts she'd gotten, but he couldn't pay any attention to it . The man rubbed his thumb and finger together. "I got a funny book that tells me everything about the country like a textbook. Only thing I ain't seen in it is anything about our little Goddess friend. I put one and one and one together, y'know, read between the lines on the codex and I figure, I'll be a big, tough, stoic man and ain't say a peep about them salamanders if all ya do is just tell me what ya know about Ziva. I mean, ya must get along, the both of ya treat me like a piece of meat. Trying to use your womanly wiles on me."
Willow took offense to that, grinding her heel into the dirt. "I do not.”
"She's too touchy and you want me in bed with yer daughter." Buck jammed a thumb into the elf's chest, right on her neckline. It took the wind out of her, and he scowled. "And honestly y'all both are terrible about that. Why don't we go somewhere a little more, private, y'know, wouldn't want us being overheard now speaking of someone that makes a name of being, whatchamacallit, the Unspoken one?"
He hadn't really expected that bit of verbal jiu-jitsu to work. His usual specialty was in verbal boxing, where going straight through and having little nuance made all the difference. It didn't leave him victorious, but it did spark a mischievous grin in Willow: he'd obviously shown her a different side of himself. And while Buck was no debate champion... He had figured most folks didn't want to get into heated disagreements with the biggest guy in the room.
And, well, he wasn't lying or trying to intimidate, he just laid out factually and emotionally what he knew. That appeal seemed to work, as the two split off and headed back towards the family homestead. It would leave the two of them with some privacy.
Willow had a spring in her step, holding her robe up to keep dust off it. The long braid she wore fell down to a belt of bags, where Buck noted she hung a dagger and some kind of large grimoire from her hips. He hadn't paid much attention to them, but he had taken notes: most of the people here had some talent for magic. Those that made it a skill used some kind of implement: typically a wand or a staff carved from wood. There weren't quite as many elves in the village, but he surmised they preferred dirks and knives for casting spells. From what little he knew about Alexandra's magic, she preferred a baton. Or just no implement at all, since she'd been quite the natural protege.
Not like he could cast any spells. Magic seemed off limits to him. He regarded it mostly as a curiosity and not something intrinsically wonderful. The people here had many charmed trinkets and common spells they used in day to day life. He found it analogous to how folks carried wallets and keys and flashlights and knives and guns back home. An everyday part of life that nobody felt the need to extol. The man had great success being strong as an ox. Willow casually flung aside the doors of her wagon without even touching them, a feat she took as simply as Buck would lifting a stone.
The elven woman took a seat on the back of her wagon, crossing her legs and looking up at Buck. Her stags were let loose in the fields to graze. The creatures stood apart from Rodrick's livestock, tending to prefer shade and the fence near Willow's wagon. Mixed scents of incense and chemicals wafted out. Buck didn't pay much mind to it, though he pinched his nose and stepped aside for fresher air. The sun beat down a little harshly, drops of sweat falling and wetting the earthen path.
"Would you like a drink?" Willow asked, one hand in the wagon reaching for something.
"Sure. If ya got any co-cola, I'd like some." Buck half-joked. "Don't think you would-"
"Well I don't have co-cola. Is Pepsi okay?" She pulled a sealed glass bottle out. Familiar caramel-colored soda, bubbling up around the container. It had a small cap crimped on top. Condensation formed immediately as it met the warm air.
Buck blinked. That... couldn't be, could it? He eyed the drink suspiciously, took it, and examined it. The Codex mentioned illusionists, conjurers, or alchemists. But this was, in all respects, a bottle of soda. He had no clue if there was a magician capable of summoning a bottle of Coca-Cola, capable of disguising a bottle as Coca-Cola, or a chemist that had the recipe for Coca-Cola. Or...
"Wh- Pepsi-Cola?" He held the bottle up and let the sunlight pour through it. "Why do you have Pepsi-Cola?"
Willow snapped her fingers and the cap blew off. The Pepsi bubbled up and spilled out around his fingers. Sticky, sugary, soda. He stared at the glass. He couldn't bring himself to drink it, he just couldn't, he laid it back on the edge of Willow's wagon and turned away. "What's wrong?"
“I thought I was in Heaven after I died, y'know, blonde chicks and living on a farm and getting me some good eating." He rubbed his nose. "I must be in Hell, because ya got Pepsi, not Coke. Where ya even get this stuff, Willow?"
Willow chuckled and sipped on her own bottle of Pepsi. "You know about a hundred years ago, I met one of these heroes, you know Admiral Gottfried? Father of the navy? Well, I just happened to end up with this fellow named Bradberton, and he showed me a recipe for this drink. It's quite refreshing!"
"It's Pepsi! Pepsi's for yankees!" Buck snapped. "Why'na hell do ya have Pepsi- hold on, you wait just a minute, how long ago was this?”
She hummed and withdrew the book from her side. She pulled it out of the leather wrap and revealed what Buck had suspected: another Codex like his. This one was bound in a darker-hued leather and given an inlay of silver. It had weathered many of Willow's adventures, he reckoned, but leaned more towards "well-loved" than "battle-scarred." She opened the pages and flipped towards the back before presenting a page of handwritten notes to Buck. "Oh, I'd wager it wasn't exactly a hundred years, maybe closer to... Eighty-seven? Something like that. This Bradberton fellow even wrote down his recipe for me, he was quite the chemist!"
The man read over the pages in amazement, before pushing the book back into the elf's hands. He took a deep breath and spoke the first thing on his mind: "You have the original Pepsi recipe!?"
"Well he said he had to modify it for the local palate. There's a brewhouse at Port Stillwater that makes the stuff, and they make a mean drink called a rumpepsi. It's Rum and Pepsi. Oh that stuff will make you childish now."
Buck howled laughing. "Rum and Pepsi!? You call it a rum and Pepsi!? It's a rum and Coke where I'm from!"
"You should try it!"
"I have! I had a rum and coke before I-" he choked up a little, quickly sobering with the memory. He took notice of a few rounded stones fizzing at the bottom of the bottle. He picked it back up and noted it felt cooler at the base. "-before I died and came here."
Willow pursed her lips. "I'm aware."
He narrowed his eyes. "Bradberton... Inventor of pepsi... Hold on, ain't ya say he worked with Gottfried? Why wasn't he mentioned in any part of the book I read?"
"Oh, him?" Willow sipped her Pepsi again. Buck couldn't resist: he popped the cap off and took a sip. It tasted sugary and sweet, there wasn't any corn syrup in there. Either way, he couldn't drink much of it, he'd grown unused to the soda's taste in his time in Brookheim. "Well, you know how history is, they only ever remember the big names. The movers and shakers as you'd say. It's just Gottfried and his party, not Gottfried and Bradberton and all of them, you know?"
He nodded, remembering Ziva's own admissions. The man stayed silent for a minute, piecing together what he'd been told, before sipping the pepsi again and pointing a finger towards Willow. "You're in cahoots with Ziva. Ziva puts her thumb on the events goin' on in this country. The way she does that is, what, takin' dead men from my home and droppin" them here? And they happen to be in bed with these chosen heroes. That it?"
"Men and women. And I suppose the bed part was figurative before, but-"
"Okay, irregardless of that, I take it you've been around for the last few." He sipped again. "And yer obviously in good enough graces with yer goddess, Ziva, that ya get front row seats to these events. Now if I ain't wrong, Ziva's a tricky type, I ain't got a good read on her 'cept for knowing she's too damn touchy. All over me. She likes men too much."
"She's just as fond of the women she chooses." Willow pointed out.
"Maybe. Now when I got here she says there's another fella she picked out. Who's he?"
Willow chuckled. "Oh, Nick Petty? Latest author? Writer of all those portal novels? Alexandra loves them. I'm still not sure how he remembers all of those stories so well, or how he puts them to paper so easily."
Buck chugged half his drink. "Sounds like a plagiarist." He'd sure missed a few things from back home. He missed cicadas at night, he missed easy sugar and, a little twinge in his heart, he missed his family in his old life. He didn't miss Pepsi. But drinking it left him nostalgic. "What's his deal?"
The elf coughed and stepped away for a moment. "His deal? Why as far as I'm aware he's still upholding his part of his bargain."
"She told me he was indisposed or something. Married, I think." He figured an author, of such renown, would be a little more prominent of a figure. "Yet he still got brought over here?"
Willow nodded and reached into her wagon again, this time withdrawing another book. This one... Looked remarkably less lavish and more commercial than either of their codices, and Buck immediately recognized the bindings and the cover: this was a copy of a Petty book. "He did! Ziva never tells me why, you know, but- oh! You almost made me forget- I have a print of his latest work for Alex to read. Autographed, even!"
"That's funny." He laughed and read over the cover of the book. It looked cheaply bound and printed. The paper was rough, and there was a symbol on the front, something abstract. Probably the mark of whatever publisher had taken this book. "Alexandra thinks I'm insane for telling her I come from another world. Yet here ya are saying her favorite author is from where I'm from, too? Ain't that funny? C'mon, I betcha think that's funny."
Someone let out a loud holler, and the two turned. A mass of bodies flowed down the streets, and clad in small-town regalia came Alexandra. They flung a wreath over her neck, stuffed a bundle of old weapons on her back, and put the horse under her. Both of the long, leggy ones came down the dirt road swaying side to side. He could see she had her eyes trained on the homestead- and mostly on Willow's wagon. Even from afar, Buck saw her demeanor shift, as if the curious conversation the two were having "Oh I think that's very funny."
"Well I don't think it's very funny!" Buck slammed the bottle down and leaned in close. "Christ, talk about timing. Look, I got a lot to talk about-"
The elven matron shushed him, pushing the book up into his chest. "-And unfortunately, I've not got a lot of time! You know my services are needed and oh wouldn't you rather prefer being with your girl instead of little ole’ me?"
He cussed and snatched the book. "I ain't gonna make too much of a scene cause yer Alex's family but I swear on God-"
Her hands grasped his side. She leaned over and waved to her granddaughter. "Alex! Dear! How's it going?"
Alex squealed. "I don't- know- how to ride one of these things!"
"You'll get the hang of it!" Willow leaned back. "Now, Buck, could you do me a favor and give this to Alex when you get the time? I've got a terribly important appointment that this entire debacle with the church has so terribly interrupted!"
"We aren't done talking!" He hissed but took the book, thumbing over the thick cover. It had a thick lacquer on it, and the emblem was roughly embossed in the front. "You- I need answers, Willow!"
"And I'm sure you'll get them-" she clambered back up in her wagon and began to batten down. Before she buttoned up completely, she stuck her head out and shot him a grin. "-but, no really, I need to get back to work. Potions to brew, people to talk to, things like that. Why don't you take some time and hang out with Alex some more? You two get along well enough!"
"Oh c'mon!" Buck barked, as Alex went up on her unsteady gait beside Buck and Willow's wagon. He composed himself well enough to speak with her "Hiya, Alex. How you doin'?"
"Horribly!" She cried, atop her horse and festooned with gifts.