Chapter 12 - Whatever It Takes
The two of us moved through the forest at a respectable speed. Hans knew that I could keep up with him easily so he didn't bother slowing down. He'd duck under branches, jump across narrow streams, and slide down muddy slopes while I followed right behind him. In just an hour, we had covered a large distance and were pretty far from Southcreek.
"Hey Hans..." I said, sitting down as we took a short break.
"Most of the troops have been sent to the front. Soon the kingdom might start drafting from the villages."
"Yeah. When that happens, I'll probably have to serve. I'm too good of an archer to ignore."
"Doesn't it scare you?"
"Of course it does." He answered lazily, not sounding the least bit concerned. "Especially since it means I'll have to leave Madalynn and the baby."
Silence fell again.
To be honest, I was a total stranger to war. Reading books or watching documentaries back on Earth could never compare to the real thing. There's a tension hanging in the air these days that no amount of food or song can get rid of. The last time I went to Bask, the streets were sparsely populated and it felt like everyone was on edge. I sense an invisible pressure bearing down on me too, as if it's screaming that things can't - no, won't - stay like this. It's a suffocating feeling, like a terrible calamity will come for us soon if I don't do something.
Maybe it's right. I have a growing suspicion that this conflict is somehow related to me.
Perhaps I'm even meant to stop it one day like some hero of justice. That's how this setting usually goes, right?
I'm an Ascendant - whatever that is, I know it's not normal. There's another one like me on this world too. The system's "danger rating" rose sharply when that fact was revealed, so it's another thing that worries me. I don't know what exactly will happen if we ever meet. Somehow I doubt that he'll be nice enough to explain what kind of existence we're supposed to be.
Damn it, I want nothing to do with any of this. Can't everyone just calm down and let me live here undisturbed?
"You know..." Hans continued. "Elswain has seen seven wars in the last two hundred years, yet Southcreek has never been touched. This village is our sanctuary; it's our responsibility to keep it safe for future generations."
"I see." I answered quietly, mulling over his words.
A few faces came to my mind right then. Yeah, I have a family of my own too, those who made me feel completely at home in this strange new world. I'm not interested in becoming a hero, but if it's to protect the people I care about...
"You don't have to worry, kid. The army doesn't accept anyone younger than sixteen." Hans chuckled, seeing my expression. "Plus, your skills make you too valuable to put on the front line. You can save hundreds of our troops - Humfort would never throw that away."
Hans was trying to reassure me, yet I could only feel a slight sense of guilt at his words. It's hypocritical, isn't it? My only desire is to live a carefree life; I don't want to fight, but at the same time I feel like I'm making other people die in my place. While I understand that I really am more useful in a herbalist's workshop than on the battlefield, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
* * *
"Ah, we're close. Do you hear that?"
I listened carefully. Soon I could hear the faint sound of a distressed animal grunting and squealing.
"Yeah. Looks like we got lucky." Hans grinned. "I only set it yesterday and we've already got ourselves a little piggy."
We entered a heavily shaded part of the forest. The trees here were hundreds of years old and towered high into the sky. They formed an impressive canopy that blocked off much of the sunlight. Even though it was the middle of the day, I could barely see the forest floor. The thick carpet of fallen leaves certainly didn't help, but we were still able to find our way to the source of the noise.
"Considering how energetic it is, it was probably caught less than an hour ago." Hans murmured, crouching down.
It was a small wild boar - barely more than a suckling - held captive in a cleverly hidden wooden box trap. I could see the remains of a bait inside the box next to the shivering animal. The young boar continued to squeal and push against the cage, trying desperately to escape. Looks like bacon is on the menu.
"Gotcha." Hans laughed. "Pretty small, but that's expected. The older hogs are smarter."
Ignoring the animal's cries, Hans began explaining how the trap work. It was a fairly simple contraption with a single entrance - the door was designed to close once anything of a certain size entered. What's more, it was in a shaded and hidden area where the caught animal would not be exposed to the elements. The box looked sturdy enough to keep the tiny boar in and any curious predators out.
"We've seen boar tracks around here before, so this one likely strayed too far from its sounder."
"Oh. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen any traps before in the forest."
"Most hunters look down on trapping." Hans explained. "It's seen as a poacher or coward's way of doing things. That's why we avoid setting up traps unless times are tough. But as far as I'm concerned, the method doesn't matter - whatever it takes to put food on the table, you know?"
I nodded. That's something I appreciated about Hans - he erred on the side of pragmatism.
"The path of the hunter has many branches. We use the bow, but some prefer to surround the animal and take it down with long spears. Others rely on trained dogs or falcons. You're smart, patient, and good with your hands, so I think that making traps would suit you best. It's not something you get to brag about to the girls, but that doesn't matter.
"With what you've learned from Hyacinth, you'll never have trouble earning a living in any town in this continent." Hans continued talking. "What you need is a way of feeding yourself if that's not an option, such as if you ever get lost in the wilderness or if you piss off a noble and have to run for your life. Chasing after food every day wouldn't be reliable enough with your archery skill - no offense - so trapping is more efficient from a survival standpoint."
That makes sense. While it takes time and energy to make the traps, after setting them up you only have to check them once or twice a day. The traps can only catch small game, but they will free up the rest of my day to focus on other things like building shelter or foraging.
"When we get back to the village, I'll teach you how to make basic traps. But don't worry, I'll still welcome you in the hunts any day if you ever feel the itch." Hans chuckled.
"Hah, maybe I'll take you up on that." I answered with a smirk. "My range is terrible, but if I can sneak within twenty five yards of a buck, it won't matter."
"Just make sure you don't get gored by its antlers when you miss."
"Oy, you've got no confidence in me at all..."
The two of us laughed. Then I turned back to the poor boar that was still stuck in the trap, staring at us with terror filled eyes. Aww, it's actually pretty cute. Such a shame that we can't keep it as a pet - wild boars are extremely dangerous when they grow to full size.
"So... how do we get it out?"
He patted me on the back.
"You've got a spear. Stab it through the gaps. After it's dead, I'll open the trap and take it out." He explained.
"I've never killed anything larger than a rabbit!"
"Don't worry, I'll show you where to aim. Just thrust hard, don't make it suffer."
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of! Come on, you do it, I don't want to torture the poor pig."
"No no no, this is a valuable learning experience. You're not wimping out on me today, Thomas."
After a little more idiotic back and forth between us, I finally gave up and decided to just get it over with. I walked over to the trap and held the spear tightly with both hands. Sorry about this, little piggy. Paying close attention to Hans' advice, I forcefully stabbed downwards into the trap with my spear. There was a short high pitched squeal, followed by total silence.
"Good job. You actually got it on the first try." Hans said, impressed.
"The spear is pretty sharp." I answered a bit shakily. I've killed a rabbit before (on Gina's insistence), but it was over so quick that it didn't make any noise. This was different.
Hans then crouched down to open the trap. He pulled out the bloody pig's body then beckoned for me to come closer. When I did, he pressed a hunting knife into my hands. The silver haired young man grinned at my confusion.
"Time to teach you how to field dress a boar."
* * *
We ended up checking three more traps after that, one of which had snared a fat rabbit by the feet. Hans left the honor of killing and dressing it to me. While we were checking the traps, Hans explained how each one worked and why he chose to set it up in that location. Every place was near some obvious signs of wildlife, maximizing the chances of catching something. We didn't bother resetting the traps, though; Hans didn't feel like checking them again tomorrow.
"No matter what, never leave a live trap unchecked for more than a day." He stressed. It was extremely cruel to let a wild animal die of starvation or exposure. "The other hunters won't mind you using traps if you're just trying to learn, but it's different if you make an animal suffer."
We made our way back to the village, with two burlap bags on my back containing the animal carcasses. It was almost dusk by the time we returned. but Hans still dragged me off to his house to begin teaching me how to make each of the traps he had showed me today. It didn't take long for me to understand the principles behind every design, and how to use them effectively.
"Good. I think you've got the gist of it, but let's pick it up again tomorrow morning." Hans said in a satisfied tone. "Anyway, want to have dinner with us tonight?"
"Sure!" I answered immediately. Hyacinth's cooking was great, but I would never pass up a chance to taste Madalynn's stuff.
Dinner with the young hunter's family was fun, if a bit chaotic. It's amazing how much fuss a newborn can kick up. Madalynn deftly set the table while Hans and I tried to soothe the baby until she finally fell asleep. As expected, the food was amazing. The suckling boar's meat still had that distinct "wild" taste, but it was very tender and gelatinous thanks to the high amount of collagen in its flesh. I lavished the chef with compliments in between huge mouthfuls of food - though I did try to preserve my table manners, unlike the man seated next to me. Hans you lucky bastard, getting to eat like this every day...
When I finally bade my gracious hosts good night and made my way back home, I was so stuffed that I could barely walk straight. Unsurprisingly, Whitelaw was still working when I arrived. He snorted in contempt when I stumbled into the house like a drunk pigeon. Afterwards, he grabbed my new spear and berated me for not cleaning the blood off properly. I answered half-heartedly, too full to care, so for the next hour he went on and on about how I should respect my equipment more.
As I sat there listening to him preach, I couldn't help but smile.
At that moment, I couldn't even remember why I was so worried about the future. With so many good people on my side, I was sure that no matter what comes, it wouldn't be impossible for us to deal with.
I thought that even if something dangerous were to happen, it would be years later and we would see it coming. We lived in one of the safest parts of the kingdom, far away from any real threats. That complacency would prove fatal.
If only I understood back then what kind of enemy we were up against, I would not have wasted so much time.
There are so many things I could have done differently. The System had given me a fighting chance against an impossibly strong foe, but I squandered it.