The girl ignored her weakness and knelt as she inspected the new bearskin. It had been washed in rainwater a couple times, but it still smelt of blood. Her inspection lasted ten minutes. When she was finished, her eyes darted up to Claude, sparkling.
"How did you do it?"
"Easy," Claude said, avoiding her gaze, "Spells. It would have taken me a day if I did everything by hand."
The girl nodded, unfazed by his mention of magic. She carefully rubbed out any unevenness in the pelt, and moved it into the sun.
Claude bent down to help her.
"Need help tanning it?"
The girl shook her head.
"No. I'd ruin it if I tanned it now. Dry it first. I need it for my spell."
"To pretend to be a bear? I recall you were wearing the old bearskin the first time I saw you. It looked like a weird bear to me. I was wondering how a black bear could walk so oddly. Didn't think it was actually a little girl though."
The girl's face flushed. She shot him an angry glare. She was still embarrassed at being caught in a birthday suit on her way to the bath.
"I was using a spell called Mimic. You think I can do it with just any old bearskin? The old one was getting too old. It's been used for at least twenty years now. There's no way to turn into a proper black bear with it, anymore. When I'm recovered, I'll have to inscribe rune formations on this one, but it should let me turn into a proper bear," she explained, her face still red.
"Mimic? Shouldn't it be Morph?"
Was she a druid?
"I remember reading a novel with evil magi that could turn into different beasts. I see it was probably inspired by a spell like yours."
"Mama told me magi didn't have to use skins in the past. They only needed precious materials. Even though it's said to be a transformation, it's more accurate to call it an illusion. In the eyes of others, we would possess the strength and agility of wild beasts. But when the magic resources began to run out, there was no way to cast that spell anymore, so we had to adapt Morph into Mimic. We now need skins in good condition to turn into a true beast."
"Do you think magi are evil?" she asked after a pause.
"All of humanity thinks so, at least. I don't think either of us are evil, but that will do nothing to change our fate if we're discovered. I see magic as a tool. Good or evil has nothing to do with it. That's up to the hands using it.
"I learned magic out of curiosity and the desire to unravel its mysteries. I've never wanted to hurt anyone. If people don't offend me, I won't offend them. Magic allows me to hold this principle without fear. I only worry about dragging my family into the dirty business of magi hunts. Nobody's suspected me thus far though.
"You remind me of my sister, Anna. She's seventeen; also a magus. When I realised she had a talent for magic, I warned her about the taboo. She insisted on learning it, however. I left home three years ago. She should be a one-ring rune magus by now. I trust she's taking good care of my mother and brother. I'm not helping you because of some ulterior motive. I didn't want someone who reminded me of my sister to die so easily. To tell you the truth, I admire you."
The girl lowered her head guiltily.
"Sorry, I thought you were like the others and wanted something from me..."
Claude laughed dryly.
"Haha, what could I want from you? You don't have as many spells as I do and live you live the life of a recluse. You've nothing valuable I could want. The only thing I could possibly think of is your wolf."
The wolf glanced up at Claude, then walked to its master's side protectively.
"Its eyes were still closed when Mama picked it up. She had me raise it. When I became a one-ring magus, I used Enlighten to open its mind and connect it to mine. That's why it's so smart," she said as she stroked the wolf and hugged it.
"By the way, I still don't know your name. Isn't it about time you introduced yourself?"
"I... I'm called She-sherulati Covenbrun... Y-you can c-call me S... Sheila..." the girl said, her faded blush instantly returning.
"Nice to meet you, Sheila," Claude said, "Did you learn magic from your mother? Where is she now? And why are you living alone?"
Sheila's face paled.
"Sorry, Sheila. I shouldn't have pried."
Claude slapped his face.
"I'm fine--" She shook her head. "--One summer, a hawk-nosed magus came. I think he was mama's acquaintance. He seemed to have asked her to travel to a place called Nubissia. He said that a magic ruin was discovered and he wanted to go excavate it. He formed a group with most of mama's other acquaintances and said that they would be gone for no more than half a year. The ruins was said to have more than a thousand years of history, and it had been preserved and left undiscovered for a long time, so the haul should be quite substantial.
"My mama was moved by the proposition and decided to go along with him. I was fourteen back then and could take care of myself. Blackwind was all grown up as well, so mama asked me to stay here and wait for her. She'd only be gone for half a year. But she never returned after that. It has been four years since then and I didn't receive the slightest word. I don't know where to look for her either, so I could only continue waiting."
Claude breathed a long sigh. It was truly a tragic treasure hunt.
"You don't know where the Nubissia continent is? It's a far wider and wilder place than Freia. However, most nations have their own colonies there. I heard that a voyage there by ship takes twenty days if it proceeds smoothly. Thankfully, you hadn't set out to look for her yet, or I wouldn't have gotten the chance to meet you."
"It's not like I don't w-want to look for her... J-just... I don't know where to start looking... I've lived here all my life with mama and Blackwind and don't know how to talk to others... Mama tells me all men are mean liars and those who offer anything always want something in return..."
Claude stroked his nose awkwardly. Wasn't she being a little too forward?
Footsteps sounded at the bottom of the stairs, then someone knocked on the door.
Claude was delighted at the interruption. He didn't know how to continue the conversation from there.
Myjack entered and jumped when he saw the bearskin on the ground.
"Sir, your grilled bear chops are done," he said when he'd recomposed himself, "Do you want me to bring it up, or would you like to eat downstairs?"
Claude glanced at the girl.
"Want some food? We cooked the bear you killed."
"I want some, give Blackwind some too."
"Alright, I'll bring it up for you."
"Sir, was she really the one who killed the bear?" Myjack asked when they'd descended the stairs.
"Of course. How else would I bring one back? The bear probably broke into her shack when it was looking for food. Even though she was hurt, she managed to kill it with the help of the black wolf. The poor creature was injured as well."
When he went downstairs, he saw Mazik, Gum and the two signallers eating away at the chops. Mazik seemed a little drunk as he shot Claude a thumbs-up and said, "Sir, you're really something... To think you managed to trick that pretty lass to come here..."
Claude gave him an annoyed punch. "What nonsense are you spouting? She's the daughter of a hunter and lives in the mountains. I got to know her when I was trekking. She was injured by a black bear attack and her wolfdog called me to go save her. We are just friends."
"Male-female relationships always start from friends," Mazik mumbled, "Why can't I become friends with a pretty girl? It's all because of your pretty little face... All women like those faces..."
"Eat your fill and scram," Claude chided.
The other three giggled as they munched on.
Claude got a plate and took a piece of grilled chop for Sheila and another three in a wooden bowl for Blackwind. Two of the remaining three was for him and the last one was for Myjack.
"By the way, Sir, what do you have in mind for the other two large sacks of bear meat?" Myjack asked.
"You and Gum can have a piece or two tonight. Get the rest marinated. Salt it first and dip it in honey, spice and soy sauce for two hours before grilling it in an oiled pan. Then, cook it in a pot with large flame for an hour before drying it. You can have them with black bread tomorrow. Just prepare it like how I showed you to prepare beef the last time, understood?"
He then turned to Gum.
"You, don't eat too much meat. Have some bread if you're hungry. Don't eat five catties of meat in one night like you did to our thirty catties of beef the last time. Just have a taste of the meat, but don't make it your main dish."
He went back upstairs and when the girl finished eating, he asked, "Sheila, there's another sack of bear bones. What do you want to do with them? They're too smelly to leave in the room."
"I need to hollow them out for the marrow. That's a main ingredient I use to make paste for external wounds. But I don't have any energy now. Just put the sack at a safe place and I'll deal with them when I recover."
Claude put down his empty plate.
"Why don't I help you hollow them out? That way insects won't gather around the bones."
Right after he said that, he laid out an oiled cloth on the ground and got a jar with a large opening. He cast Magus' Hands and Fine Control without reservation and easily snapped one bone after another and emptied the marrow out into the jar. Within half an hour, he finished tending to the whole sack of bones. The envious look on the girl's face only intensified.
"This spell really is useful. It's so convenient."
She was practically drooling.
"They are Magus' Hands and Fine Control. They are rune spells magi from centuries ago use for alchemy experiments. I use them for most household chores. Now you know why I was so quick to skin the bear, right? I used these spells to break your vines too. I would be willing to trade spells with you if you're interested."
Her eyes glowed brightly, but darkened just as quickly.
"I only know five spells. Mama took her tome when she left. It had many spells I couldn't learn. She also left with many magic items. I'm a two-ring magus, but I only have five basic spells in my first ring, and they're not nearly as useful as yours..."
So her mom gave away her treasures instead of returning with more. The doubt he held in mind was finally cleared. He could tell from the smog traps in the forest that her magic power was far stronger than his. Now he knew it was because she was a ring higher than him. Being able to reach this level at just 18 was impressive. She certainly had far more talent than he.
Too bad she didn't have any combat spells. No wonder she used the vines to bind him and attacked with the spear. She had no other way.
"Tell me, what are your spells? I'll see if I want to trade."
Claude almost seemed like an old man trying to bait a little girl with candy.