Claude sighed at the sight of the old, broken hut.
"All I did was find trouble for myself... I didn't think I'd have to help her skin the bear after saving her..."
After making the trip back and tending to the pair's wounds, he worked through the night and the next morning. He cooked some beef oat gruel with some herbs that aided in blood production to nourish the magus girl.
The girl only awoke late the next morning. Claude thought she would ask him where she was and whether he had saved her, but the first thing she said while her head was still burning was, "Bear... bear skin..."
"You killed it. It's still in your hut. I saved you thanks to Blackwind. You're in my campsite now. Rest. You need it to recover. You would've died from blood loss last night if I didn't bring you back."
The girl finally noticed this wasn't her hut. She looked at the bandages all over her body and glared at Claude.
"Were you the one who took my clothes off?"
"I didn't have much of a choice. We've no women in the unit and you were in too critical a condition to wait for the healers. It's not like I had much time to get a look at you even if I wanted, anyway."
The girl immediately yanked off her blanket and said she was going back home for clothes. Claude was completely flabbergasted.
"You can't even stand properly! Going back is suicidal! Wait until your wounds recover. I really didn't have a choice but to undress you. I absolutely wasn't trying to take a peek."
"I'm not going back because of that. I'm going to harvest the black bear's carcass before it rots.".
Claude pressed the girl back into bed.
"Are you daft? Look at this rain! It's a fool's errand!. It's only a black bear anyway. I'll hunt you two more when you're recovered. The village chief said there are quite a lot of bears beyond the forest."
The girl just kept insisting she return. She said the carcass would be of great use. The skin, gall bladder, and bones were nothing short of treasures. Having no other choice, Claude said he would make another trip and get her the parts.
The girl swirled and collapsed back onto the bed. She sighed in a daze, and gave in.
She shouted a couple words as he was leaving.
"You must skin it the exact way I did my old bearskin. It'll only be useful if it's done that way."
Fortunately, the rain was much lighter now. Claude prepared to leave after he finished preparing the gruel and feeding it to the girl. Gum wanted to tag along, but Claude had him and Myjack stay behind to take care of the girl. Myjack didn't dare to enter the room with such a large black wolf so it was fine. Claude was also concerned that having Gum around would make it inconvenient to do certain things, such as casting spells.
Claude took two workhorses with him. The short and stout creatures scaled the mountain paths stably and could bear a lot of weight. The mountain folk mainly used them as beasts of burden and mounts. There were six mountain workhorses in Claude's camp which Myjack got from base to help with moving supplies. Claude was going to skin the bear and bring some meat back to base to freshen up their menu. The cold rainy season would also slow the spoiling of the meat.
He could see rather clearly in the day. Even so, it took him three hours to make it to the forest. He tied the horses to a nearby tree, then entered the half-collapsed hut.
The inside was still somewhat dry. Thanks to the bit of a raise on which it had been built, no water had accumulated into puddles inside. The inside of the shack was left untouched and the things were laid out the same as yesterday. The only difference was the disappearance of the vines binding the bear on the ground. It seemed that the vine spell the girl cast had a time limit. He wondered how long it could last.
The smell of blood was thick inside. The bear was large and weighed around seven hundred catties, so it probably wasn't lacking in blood. The girl was truly impressive for having slain a bear of that size despite being ambushed.
The reason he insisted on not bringing Gum along as his guard was so that he could use Magus' Hands and Fine Control to strip the skin off the bear. He did so the way Maria guided him when they were removing the skin of the niros crocodile to make tomes and scrolls. If he didn't use the spells, flipping the carcass around alone would be hellishly difficult.
He cast Luminous Pearl and had it float near the roof of the shack for some lighting. Then, he unrolled the old bearskin beneath the table. It was the one the girl wore before. Based on the size of the skin, it was almost as large as the bear in the shack now. Claude did notice that it was rather worn. Much of the fur on the back had fallen off, and there were many spots that seemed to be sewn and mended. While it looked rather complete at first glance, it was actually quite torn up and beaten upon closer inspection.
Claude found it weird why the girl insisted that he skin the bear to match with her old bearskin. Was there some secret to the skin? Claude scrutinised it and noticed that the skull and the paws inside the skin were still intact. There was only an incision about two feet long at the centre of the chest. It looked like the bones and meat were hollowed out after that incision was made.
It seemed he wouldn't be getting a taste of the bear paws, then. Still, wasn't it a little too troublesome to go about the skinning that way? What significance would it make for the girl? Claude looked closer at the old skin and found that the sharp claws on the paws could freely extend and retract. They looked shiny and sharp as if they were still attached to a live bear.
Whatever. He was there now, so he might as well finish it. Fortunately, knowing those two spells would save him lots of time. If he had to skin it with his own hands and tools, it would take at least a day or two. He cast Magus' Hands and easily flipped the carcass over.
The black bear had died from a black, iron spearhead that pierced through the crescent moon pattern on its chest. Apparently, the girl had pierced the spearhead into its chest after she bound it with her vines and the bear managed to break one claw free during her death struggle and gave her a huge maul. Thankfully, she managed to back off right before it hit and avoided the fate of having her chest cavity completely torn open and managing to survive with only the three scratch wounds on her chest, albeit passing out from blood loss.
Claude recalled the second time he went to the forest. He remembered seeing the girl skinning a squirrel with her black spearhead. He slapped his forehead when he thought if he hadn't snapped her spear, she wouldn't have had to engage the bear in such close proximity in the first place.
Though he brought her food, clothing and utensils, he failed to bring her a new weapon with which to defend herself. Maybe the savage impression she gave him caused him to neglect considering her need for such a weapon in the first place. A look at the shack should've made him understand that the only metal object she had to defend herself with was that black spearhead. The spearhead wasn't sharp enough to kill the bear in one strike and caused it to lash out instead to injure the girl.
Thank goodness for Blackwind for calling him to her rescue. Claude calmed down and focused. He cast Magus' Hand and Fine Control, changing one of the hands into a slaughtering blade and replicating the incision on the old bearskin with great precision.
An hour later, the new bearskin with the four paws and skull intact was ready. Claude laid it on the ground and let the rainwater wash it clean of blood before casting Magus' Hands again to shave the meat off the large bones he removed and packed them in his linen sack. As for the gallbladder, it had already been stored within a bamboo container he brought.
Claude brought a number of linen sacks with him. He had four workhorses anyway and could bring anything he deemed useful from the bear back with him. He had three full sacks of bear meat chops weighing around three hundred catties in total. The larger bones also weighed around a hundred catties. Coupled with the bearskin drained of blood, Claude estimated that it would weigh some six hundred catties in total.
When he finished dealing with the bear, he looked at the ruined old shack and thought that it was no longer habitable. Putting aside the torn wooden walls, the smell of blood and meat chunks within would surely attract unwelcome critters like snakes and ants. By the time the rainwater seeped into the ground, it would be insect fest galore. Even if he wanted to, there was no way he could help fix the shack. The blood that seeped down into the ground would leave it smelling bloody long after.
The girl and wolf were already taken to his camp to recover anyway. They definitely wouldn't be moving back to the shack during the rainy season. Fixing it would have to wait until the 4th month earliest. He packed up whatever he could inside the shack into the patchwork cloth he found on the bed and stuffed the whole thing into one linen sack before returning.
By the time he reached camp with the two workhorses, it was already eight in the evening. Myjack had prepared some hot water for him to bathe. He instructed Gum to unload the workhorses and put the three sacks of meat inside the main hall on the ground floor to be braised during the night, and the other five linen sacks to be moved to his room.
When he finished bathing and changed into new clothes, the sacks were already inside the room. The girl was still lying in bed, seemingly having just woken up. She rolled to her side with her flushed face and looked at the wolf sniffing the sacks as it circled around them with bandages wrapped all over it. It was a comical sight indeed.
"Oh, you're awake." Claude went to the bedside and touched her forehead. It was still warm, but much better than she first woke up that morning. "How are you feeling?"
"Y-you're... you're back?"
She wanted so badly to curl into the sheets out of embarrassment, but lacked the energy. She tried her best to tug on them nevertheless. She seemed to have been thinking so hard she didn't notice Claude approach.
"The... the bearskin..."
"It's done. I brought it back--" He pointed at the five bags. "--I did it just like the old one. Also, your shack is ruined, so I brought anything I thought you might need back as well."
"Im... Impossible..." she said, surprised, "H-how could you finish so fast... You left at noon... I... I want to see it... Help me up. I don't have the strength..."