Claude walked dandily on the road, his musket slung over his shoulder. Three hares hung on his belt and he strained under five more turkeys. The four friends had set probably hundreds of snares over the last five days of hunting. They'd concentrated on five areas, however, which made it much easier to find them again.
They didn't place the snares in the same place two days in a row, but they stayed in the same area. They, at first, focused on shrubs and thick knolls of grass. It had served them well, and they'd struggled to carry everything back to the pickup points.
They usually left the groups of snares that were completely untouched. They'd not set any new snares the day before, since they'd decided to stop trapping for the time being, so the only snares left to take care today were the untouched ones left the days before. Everything Claude carried with him now came from those.
Claude circled the larger area for two hours, only heading home after he was absolutely certain he hadn't left a single snare intact.
He really struggled. The hares weren't a problem, but the turkeys were damn heavy. They'd usually split the catch between the four of them so each usually only had two or three turkeys to worry about, which was already a heavy load. Now he had to handle five. He headed to Poplar Ridge Farmstead instead of limping back to town. It would be great if he could catch a ride into town with Regan.
The stead was pretty big, though not huge, handling a whole ten acres. It didn't produce wheat, however; it grew fruits and vegetables. They also had a decent chicken coup. The owners didn't live on the farm, which was very unusual. Apparently it was a family farm inherited by a merchant from the prefectural capital. He only came by once every couple of years, only four times, in fact, since he'd inherited the place. It was run by a foreman in his stead, a distant relative of his, actually.
The whole farm was tended by four families, beside the foreman's. Regan was a loose farmhand. He looked after the dogs, drove the carriage to transport things around the farm and to and from town, and did a few other miscellaneous things as needed. The stead had three dogs, but they weren't really that useful. The only time they barked was when their food was late or their water dry. They didn't even catch hares or rats.
The stead's boundaries lay on the bank of a small, two-meter-wide waterway. They were great for irrigation, and worked just as well as a clear indication of where the border was so most farms built them on their borders. It also meant less space was wasted on the farm itself to have the waterway run there, and it also meant they could split the cost and work of maintaining them with their neighbours. They also kept any kept animals from crossing too easily. They did walkways across them here and there, though, so it didn't obstruct Claude as he headed to the farm.
He didn't expect to run into the dogs, however. That said, they really didn't look like watchdogs. They were much bigger and their fur had a weird colour. The town's watchdogs were a dark grey, almost black. A few were brown, but they were very much in the minority. These, however, had a mixture of white, light grey, and a milky yellow -- about the colour of urine. Besides their size, they reminded him of huskies.
A fat woman walked out of a nearby barn a few barks after Claude arrived and yelled at the dogs. She only turned her attention to him once they were obediently sat beside her, and asked what he wanted.
Claude told her he was looking for Regan. The woman stared at him almost suspiciously for a couple long moments before pointing at a small building nearby and vanishing back into the barn without another word.
The dogs didn't follow, almost clinging to Claude instead as he headed to the small building, their barks replaced by enthusiastic sniffs and Claude didn't know which was worse.
The small building turned out to be a stable. The carriage stood just outside the entrance, and a couple horses neighed inside. Regan was kneeling beside a large box. Claude heard small yelps as he got closer, and it turned out the man was playing with a litter of puppies. They were no more than six weeks old. They were all white, and gnawed and scratched on the box and Regan's hand as much as each other.
"Why are you here?" Regan asked, hearing Claude approach with the three dogs.
Claude tossed him a hare before he spoke.
"For you, as promised. This will be the last time though."
"Thanks a lot," Regan smiled as he picked up the hare, "It's plump! Guess we'll have an extra dish tonight. Oh, are you heading back to town now?"
"If you wait half an hour, I can give you a lift. I just need to load the eggs and a couple baskets of blueberries."
"Okay, let me just drop this off at the kitchen first," Regan said, swinging the hare by its ears for emphasis, "Entertain these little ones for me, will ya? They love to play."
Regan stroked the three dogs' heads as he walked by.
They were great fun to play with, it turned out. The puffballs were irresistible. The big ones lazed somewhere behind Claude, eyeing him and his catchings in equal measure.
The half an hour flew by and Regan was standing behind Claude before he knew it.
"What breed are they? They're not the watchdogs' little ones, are they?" Claude asked without turning around.
"They're not watchdogs," a strange voice answered him, "They're proper lardor snowhounds, so are the pups, young man."
Claude spun around a little too quickly for his dignity. The voice came from a white-bearded man.
"Sorry, Regan said there were three watchdogs on the farm. I'm not that familiar with dog breeds so I didn't know any better," Claude apologised.
"No worries. I'm Mokro, the supervisor," the old man smiled.
He approached the box and touched the little puppies' heads.
"Pleased to meet you, Sir. I'm Claude, Regan's friend. I was going to hitch a ride back to town on the carriage."
"He told me," Mokro said, standing back up and glancing at the animals stacked by the wall, "Did you catch everything yourself? They're still alive... You didn't shoot them?"
"No, I trapped them," Claude answered sincerely.
"Regan said you used some kind of concoction to knock them out?"
So Regan was quite the talker. Good thing Claude didn't even so much as hint at how he'd really done it.
"Yes. I dipped grains and leaves in it. They love those," Claude answered.
"Makes sense. I've heard of people using wheat and alcohol."
Claude laughed and shook his head.
"Won't work. I remember reading about someone who did that to catch turkeys, but the author made it up. Turkeys won't eat the grain if they smell of alcohol. That's what rotten wheat eventually smells like. Not to mention the alcohol would evaporate long before anything gets to eating it."
"Your concoction doesn't sound much different from alcohol though," the old man retorted.
Claude smiled quietly. He noticed the agenda hidden behind the question.
Mokro wasn't surprised when Claude didn't answer him.
"You're Morssen's boy, aren't you?"
"I've met him a few times. He's a good bureaucrat. Whitestag wouldn't be where it is today without him."
"Thank you. I'm sure my father will be happy to hear it," Claude smiled politely.
"You like puppies? I can give you one if you want," Mokro offered out of the blue.
"I appreciate the sentiment. They're cute, but I don't think I want one," Claude said, raising his guard.
Nothing was ever for free, and this man just asked about his concoction...
"Lardor snowhounds are perfect playmates for children," Mokro said, kneeling beside Claude as he looked at the fur balls inside the box, "The northerners see them as members of their family. They're loyal, reliable, brave, sensitive, and incredibly intelligent.
"They don't have much of a history in the kingdom though. The were first brought here about two hundred years ago. Some merchant gave them to Stellin III as a birthday gift. They bastardised with other dogs from the palace, however, so the royal hounds have no pure bloodlines anymore, well, they would have if Stellin IX hadn't sent people north to get him pure snowhounds again.
"These three obviously aren't purebreds but they're close. They're only three generations removed from a pure line. They're the most popular breed in the cities."
Claude was somewhat moved and thought about Bloweyk's unreasonable demands. If he could get him a little pup, he might not have to buy him more gifts, and Bloweyk would be nine clouds higher than he would about any other toy. Plus it ought to keep him off his mother.
"You're really willing to give me a pup?" Claude asked, licking the inside of his lips.
"It's a cub, not a pup," Mokro said somewhat unhappily, "If you like it, sure. Your father's done a lot for the town, and the farm's benefited a lot from the town's growth, so I would be happy to give him a pup."
"I can't take. My dad won't let me accept gifts for him on his behalf," Claude said sadly, staring at the puppies again, "I can trade for it with some of my catch. How about a turkey and a hare?"
Mokro laughed heartily and gave Claude a high five.
"Alright, deal. You can pick any one and take it with you."