In which Halwende meets a resident of the northern wilds.
He woke before dawn. The midnight stars still shone down at the western edge of the little clearing they camped in. He stretched and stuck his tongue out at the stiffness in his shoulders. He was too young to be stiff. He rolled up to a sitting position and stretched again. Something snuffled in the darkness, out of sight of the dim red light of the dying fire. Dying fire? He eased to his knees, then his feet, and unsheathed his sword as well as grabbing his heavy staff. He poked wood into the fire, attention away from the flames for once.
The snuffling sound grew louder, and heavy breathing, or the breaths of something large, came through the darkness. No small animals moved. He set his staff down for a moment and reached for his bow. If it came into the light, and looked dangerous, he needed to be ready. Don’t shoot what I can’t be sure of killing, I know, but that doesn’t sound harmless. The breathing moved farther away, and bark ripped, or sounded like it ripped. Was that with teeth, or with claws? Bieber used teeth and didn’t hurt men, unless they had brain sickness. Other things had claws.
“That sounds big, m’lord,” Kal murmured from behind him. The fire grew brighter, casting more light. “Like whatever lives in th’ rocks to th’ west.”
“Aye. I’m not going to shoot blind.” He’d probably hit it and make it mad, or miss and hit a laupen or other equally friendly beast.
The thing moved away. He and Kal eased closer to the fire, warming themselves. Halwende and pulled on his boots. He sheathed his sword, but strapped it on. Kal held his hands close to the flame as he squatted beside the fire ring. “I don’ know, m’lord. Are you sure—”
Whunf Whunf Whunf! A large dark shape lumbered out of the pre-dawn shadows. “Shit!” someone squeaked.
Halwende grabbed his bow and arrows, and nocked a hunting arrow. The thing had small eyes, a hump over its shoulders, and large feet that ended in claws. It peered at them, sniffed, and whunfed again. Roawr! It pawed at Magnus. He rolled as far and fast as he could, and the thing turned to the side, giving Halwende a clear shot. He aimed for where the heart should be.
Thunp, the shot hit. Whzzz thunk, a slinger stone hit the beast’s snout, turning it from Magnus. Halwende put another arrow into the chest. Blood and foam gushed. Whzzz thunk, another slung stone hit just below the small, pointed ear.
Roawr! The beast crashed into the forest. The sound of heavy steps in the underbrush stopped all at once. Thwumpf. The men breathed as quietly as they could, waiting, listening.
“Are the ovstrala still with us?” Halwende asked, once he got moisture into his mouth. He needed to piss, too.
Magnus checked. “They’re still here. One’s tethered to each end of the wagon, goin’ different ways.” The others grinned. It would be hard for them to run off that way. Not impossible, no, nothing was impossible to ovstrala if they put their shoulders to it, but hard, and not quiet.
“My beasts are here,” the teamster, Tai, grumbled, appearing from that edge of the clearing. “wagon too. What was that?”
Halwende glanced into the dark woods beyond the fire light. “I’m not going to look until Rella’s blessed us a little more.” He unstrung his bow, slid it back into the case, and found a tree to water. He’d gotten a lung shot, at least one, and those arrowheads worked deeper into the flesh as the beast moved. “It might have friends.”
“Or a mate.” Kal took a long breath. “Never heard of anything that big what hunted in a group, like laupen.”
“No, me either, but I’ve never seen one of those before,” Halwende said. I hope its edible, or the hide’s tannable.
They ate a camp breakfast, and only them, once the sun cast clear shadows, did they go look for the brown thing. It had traveled a quarter league, no more, before collapsing. Blood came from the long, blunt muzzle, and from the ear, where the slung stone had hit. Heart blood and other things formed a mat in the fur of the flank. The beast had four claws on the end of each foot, blunt but thick, like a digging spade. Blunt, light brown teeth like a giant ovsta filled the mouth. Not a meat eater, then, unless like radhle it ate carrion as well as plant food.
“That’s a big winter cloak, m’lord,” Magnus observed.
“Aye. His grace should be pleased, if we can get it back before it goes bad.” Halwende considered the creature, and tried to lift one leg. It wasn’t as dense as it seemed. “And we can skin it without gettin’ crushed ourselves.”
The sun passed noon before they got the thing skinned, paws and all, and some of the meat into the wagon. The ovstrala seemed pleased to move, and stepped out with good speed. They moved around the hills into the valley as birds called a warning of their presence. Two cervi raced into the distance, dam and yearling. Halwende didn’t bother them. No man hunted a female with nursing calves if he could help it. It wasn’t forbidden, but Valdher did not favor it, either. The air smelled of sweet, crushed herbs, something new to Halwende. Here he belonged, here on the edge of the settled lands, here in Valdher’s realm. He studied the land, mentally placing a road, watch-posts, farms and other settlements. All the plants looked familiar, aside from one with brilliant blue stems and berries that even the birds had not touched. He wouldn’t touch it, either, not until a healer or someone could test it.
As they passed through the land, the men blazed marks on the trees, both sides of the trunks, and piled stones into cairns. They stopped earlier that afternoon, and Halwende wrote out what they’d seen, where, and how they’d marked which trees. Why can I recall every blaze and cairn, but not the laws of trade and merchant-right? Land rules made sense, good sense. How much a Comb-side pfund differed from a Valke pfund? He had no idea and shouldn’t have to worry about it. That’s what merchants, priests of Marsdaam, and law speakers were for.
Kal brought a cervi buck in just as they finished making camp. Halwende considered the giant beast’s meat, and soaked it in water and a bit of vinegar, just in case, then cooked it in water in a pot overnight. They ran sticks through the cervi and cooked the meat over the flames. While the meat cooked, the three Valke men took turns scraping the flesh off the large hairy pelt, as best they could, then covering it with a layer of needle-leaf and eich bark from the blazes on those trees. That would help keep pests away, and perhaps start a bit of tanning.
The next day, Halwende and Kal crossed the valley. They found a workable ford across the big stream, and used that to reach the foot of the hills. Here too they blazed and made cairns, some of them with stones large enough to need two men to move easily. They found enough good stone that Halwende made a mental note about building a town or at least another large keep here. He went up the south slope of the facing hill, just high enough to get a good view. “Here,” he whispered. “Here needs a town, or even a town with city right, if the land proves to be good, and if perhaps the Scavenger favors us with a metal or salt place.” The hills looked rocky enough to possibly hold metal in them, but that was the Scavenger’s land, not his, and he would not presume to look. “Not that I know what to look for, other than finding ingots or a hole full of pots and tools.” He snorted to himself. Noble he might be, but he knew that finished goods did not grow on bushes, or appear fully finished from holes in the ground! “Maybe life would be easier if they did,” he grumbled as he rejoined Magnus.
“My lord?” Magnus asked as he cleaned sap off his hatchet and sharpened the blade.
“Thinking about how nice it would be to find a tree laden with hot pies, or roasted schaef legs laced with shatter-root slices.”
Magnus laughed, baring crooked teeth. “M’lord, like as not Radmar would send a sausage or meat pie tree, and all the cats an’ dogs north of the Comb would vanish.”
“Probably, or the fruit would all be sour apfel.” They looked so tasty, and curdled milk if you dropped a slice in the milk bucket.
The big beast’s meat tasted . . . Halwende chewed and considered. Not gamy, no, but not as good as kine. It wasn’t as strong as schaef, either. Tough, though, without much fat in the flesh. Maybe in the late autumn or winter, when wild things put on fat for the season. He’d eat it again, but only if he needed to. Food’s food, and if it doesn’t kill you, Valdher be praised for Her gifts and mercy. Man could eat laupen, but not often and not easily. Like tanning the hide, it could be done, but the gods had provided better animals for leather and food.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved
Couple hiccups, which break the train of events:
“and reached for his bow.” – works better if he strings the bow. Chekhov’s rule of archery, as he unstrings the bow later.
“Halwende and pulled on ..” – removing the and or adding “knelt’ completes the action. that also avoid collision with strapping on his sword (difficult while seated, and with Something Of Unusual Size nearby, not smart).
Nice action and tell by way of showing. Halwende demonstrates some of the other ducal skills, of planning generations ahead for additional keep, town, walls, farmlands. That thought sequence also sets up some future struggle, to hold the blazed and claimed lands. Getting more interesting, especially if a Scavenger’s son or daughter finds a salt lick or spring in the area.
Now why would a large likely plant-eater approach a fire? [Just a question.]
I’ve been scoped out by the neighbor’s cattle every so often. Not a concern when it’s one or two placid cows, but when That Neighbor was raising longhorns, there was a bit of a pucker factor, especially with the bull. (Let’s just say the mourning was, er, muted when he passed away.)
Yep, same question as Paul. Odd…
Dark forces at work?
Something is puzzling me. You have the large unknown animal being hit by an arrow and a slung stone, then crashing away into the brush. Then “The sound of heavy steps in the underbrush stopped all at once. Thwumpf.” This implies the animal collapsed quickly, and was still within easy earshot of the camp when it died.
Later you say “it had traveled a quarter league, no more, before collapsing.” Problem is, a traditional English “league” is roughly equal to three miles – thus, a quarter-league is 3/4th of a mile. How could they still hear the animal that far away?
Thanks, that was the other narrative break that wouldn’t come to mind. You get more hearing range on a calm night, and a lung-shot beast would be thrashing, but that’s straining limits in the woods. Might be that league is used as the long measure here, on the order of a mile, which makes it a more reasonable 1/4 mile. Our hostess would need to clarify this.
I thought it was obvious that the new beast was some sort of bear.
*boggles at everyone*
I first thought bear or other large omnivore, but the teeth description implies something cattle-ish. At least, I assume any self-respecting omnivore would have some useful incisors and canines.
I’ll leave it up to Our Gracious Hostess to explain. Or not. 🙂
The description given, especially the large size and four claws meant for digging, made me think of an animal that’s now extinct: Megatherium, the giant ground sloth.