"Hey, I'm Claude Ferd, an Aueran from Whitestag. I'm currently posted in Squirrel Village. It's a pleasure to meet you. What's your name?"
The girl merely hit the back of his head.
"I really don't mean you ill. You know I'm a magus, too. Even my mother doesn't know it. I was so worried people would hunt me down if the found out I'd always planned to live like a nomad or a hermit. I'm not asking anything from you in exchange for food. I'm just helping you as a fellow magus."
The girl's ears twitched, but she kept her tongue.
Claude shared his story from the cookbook he'd found, how it was a diary of a normal rune magus which contained the meditation technique he now knew, and how it'd been his first step on the path of magecraft.
He told the girl much, including everything he knew about magic on the continent from his mistress, even the bearded magus' ambush and how he'd escaped. He didn't, however, reveal his spells. He had to keep something secret -- just in case.
He told her less about his life as a magus than about his life as a transmigrator; without saying it in as many words, of course. In just two short years, he had grown from sixteen to eighteen. Many changes occurred and forced him on a military path. Now, he was almost twenty-one. Three years had passed since his enlistment.
After finishing his story, he lay down on the grass and relaxed. He had finally rid himself of an immense burden. Unloading one's worries to a stranger brought much relief, far more than he'd imagined it would. He didn't know the girl, not even her name, but she didn't feel like a threat.
She broke the silence only after he finished.
"Are you still training in your meditation technique?"
"I am now," Claude nodded, but he wasn't sure whether the girl saw it, "I stopped training when I first enlisted because I lived in a tent with eleven other people. I couldn't concentrate with all the snoring, and I was generally too tired to stay awake long enough to get into the proper mental state.
"I only finally got to train regularly again after I was promoted to second lieutenant last year and was given my own room. I would have been a two-ring rune magus by now if I could have kept up my normal training. Instead, I'm still at least two-and-a-half years away."
"I don't understand... You... magus... Why join the army? You can live free... or... live like us in the forest... Nobody would find you..."
She finally spared him a glance. Her eyes made him nervous.
He met her gaze with a bitter smile.
"You don't understand. You live in the Duchy of Askilin where nobility still reigns supreme. You live in the baron's fief, so without his permission, nobody can come here to capture a rogue magus like you. You're generally left alone as long as you don't make trouble for the local noble. If you're lucky they might decide to purchase a couple trinkets from you.
"Aueras is different. We've done away with the feudal system as you have it. The king has direct rule over all of the kingdom. You can still find places to hide and live in the middle of mountain ranges or other impassable terrains, but if anyone finds out about you, you will be hunted down.
"On top of that, unless you have a high social standing, which you can't get without exposing yourself excessively to others, you can't travel around to keep people from finding out about you. Peasants, which most people start out as, can't travel in the kingdom. They are bound to their birth town unless they have very good reasons, and permission from the king's government. If you're discovered to be travelling illegally, you'll spend the rest of your days in a penal work-camp, often on the front lines, especially during war time. My best choice was to join the army and work my way up the ladder until I'm in a position to live a free life. I'd say I've been doing pretty well on that front.
"As for deserting now that I'm here... If I do that, my family would suffer in my stead."
"I see--" The girl nodded slightly. "--Your kingdom sounds horrible. You don't have any freedom. No wonder you carry a musket even though you're a magus."
Claude didn't know how to respond.
"It's not horrible, the kingdom's just a little stricter than most others. It's a trade, really. We've given up some freedom in exchange for stability and relative wealth. Peasant's aren't rich by any stretch of the imagination, but they do live in much better conditions on average than in any kingdom.
"In some ways, the strict regulations help to protect them. They don't have to worry about being attacked by magi or being hurt by spells. Even though now we have weapons like the musket that can be used against magi, magic is still a godly existence in the eye of the mundane folk. Magi are still people who regard most people as ants. If they are crossed, who knew what consequences there would be?"
The girl found it rather hard to understand his sentiments, perhaps because of her naivete from living a secluded life for so long. Or maybe she didn't know how much power the magi wielded over the mundane folk because of her lack of exposure to them since young. The two of them fell into another bout of silence. By then, the hoof on the metal stake had more or less cooked. The girl sprinkled some salt on it and put it on the ground for Blackwind to feast on.
"Aren't you going to have this honeyed bread? I'll bring some more fresh meat for you the next time, but it'll probably have to wait until after the rainy season. It's too difficult to travel here in between. By the way, you haven't told me your name yet."
The girl merely humphed and took the sack of honeyed bread into her shack. Either she felt shy about eating the bread in front of him or she just didn't want to tell him her name.
Claude smiled and patted down the dust on him. He had no intention of entering the shack. Looking to the wolf that was ravaging the hoof, he said, "Blackwind, I'm taking my leave now. Tell your master for me, will you?"
The wolf sniffed Claude before biting the hoof and putting it aside, wagging its tail, its rear facing Claude as if it was afraid he would fight it for the hoof.
Claude chuckled and shouted at the shack.
"I'm leaving! Take care! You can look for me at the campsite outside Squirrel Village if anything comes up. Just use my name."
Right before he stepped out of the forest, he turned back and saw the girl standing by the shack's entrance, watching him leave. He smiled and waved at her before going his way.
After returning to camp, Myjack reported what the villagers had traded. When he heard the chief had traded two wild wood essence roots preserved three to four decades ago, in other words, ginseng, for a carton of gran wine and some other supplies, he knew that the old man had quite a bit of treasure stashed in his home and only appeared poor on the outside.
He had Myjack pass him the wood essence roots. He would give one to Perunt since he used two grandwood potions from his personal collection on him to treat him back then. He would be happy to finally get some wood essence. Claude kept the other for his own use, since it was hard to find one on the market even if one had the money for it. Maybe he ought to have Perunt make it into a grandwood potion for him. A wild wood essence root of three to four decades old could probably be used to make four to five average-quality grandwood potions.
He was quite busy for the next two days. Mazik had been detained by him, so it meant he would have to take over his duties. He checked whether the irrigation system of the campsite was working well and had the soldiers scatter insect repellent powders at various corners. When the rainy season arrived,. the poisonous snakes, scorpions and centipedes would wake from their long, winter slumber and crawl to dry spots. There was no lack of poisonous critters in the mountains and it was crucial to undertake preventive measures lest soldiers get hurt in vain.
Myjack wasn't able to catch any breather either. As Claude told Mazik that day, the villagers of Blackstone also came to the campsite after word of their supplies spread. Some people from the further Carmen Village also came with sacks of supplies to trade. The two villages had close ties with Squirrel Village and they didn't mind going there to trade for the convenience.
On the 7th of the 3rd month, the first heavy rainfall finally came. The rain on Freia during the season wasn't like the light drizzles. Instead, they were full-blown rainstorms accompanied by thunder and lightning. The roads turned to mud and the rivers overflowed. Flash floods were common. People could only stay home in such weather. They could only visit their neighbours in the moments between storms, provided the roads weren't completely untraversable.
Fortunately, they prepared enough dried wood and charcoal in the base. The cinders burning in the fireplace warmed the room well. Mazik lucked out and won a bottle of gran wine from a card game with Claude. It didn't take more than half a bottle before he was knocked out, though. Claude didn't bother to chastise him for getting drunk, since it was hardly possible for their enemy to march troops to them in that weather, let alone attack them.
A brawl did occur between the soldiers staying in the stone warehouses. He had no choice but to settle the matter himself, even if he had to go out in the rain. He punished the soldiers that provoked the fight and had the tentsmen of those soldiers punish them with squats, sit-ups and many other workout activities so that the soldiers wouldn't have any extra energy to fight.
A week passed and everything seemed in order, much to Claude's relief. The rainy season would pass in another ten or so days, after which he'd have to arrange for the men to begin digging trenches and fortifying their defences to expand the camp. It would be ideal if he could remain posted there until the war ended. At the very least, he would be safe there and wouldn't have to go on the battlefield to risk his life.
Deep in the night, Myjack and Gum in the next room had fallen asleep. Claude could hear their familiar snores. He had just completed a meditation session, so he didn't really feel sleepy. So, he walked to his window and opened it to look at the rain falling from the dark skies.
All of a sudden, a familiar howl sounded from behind Squirrel Village. It sounded harsh and pained. Claude shuddered and began to have a bad premonition. Did something happen to the girl? Was the wolf calling for help?
"Awoooooooooo!" He heard the howl again. It was as if it was urging him on.
Claude darted downstairs in a hurry and put on a beastskin raincoat. He informed the soldiers on guard duty of his excursion and ran for the mountains behind the village. The ground was muddy and the flowing water was so deep that it almost seemed like a river had formed. He stumbled up the mountain and saw Blackwind standing on the green stone beneath the cherry blossom tree, howling towards the village.