Claude believed that he would never forget this night. When Welikro’s gun thundered, the whole forest quieted down. Apart from the sound of the breeze and flowing water, he only heard the sound of the deers running back into the woods. All Claude could see was the shot deer pulsating slightly as it lay in the stream.
The four of them walked towards the deer with their torches. Welikro reloaded his gun and handed it to Claude, letting the other three keep watch while he skinned and cut the deer open.
“We can’t bring this deer back to our camp to dissect. That will cause the camp to smell like blood and attract other fierce beasts in the mountains. It definitely won’t end well for us. Most probably, we will have to keep our eyes peeled and our weapons loaded for the whole night if it comes to that and we won’t have any energy to go on a hike tomorrow.”
As Welikro lectured on, he skinned the deer in a practiced manner. “To a hunter, the best thing to do after a kill is the skinning because the flesh is still flexible and it’s easy to separate the skin and flesh quickly. Animals dead for a long time will be hard all over, so skinning them would be much harder and if one’s not careful, their fur will be ruined and we won’t be able to get a perfect peace. My father taught me all this.”
The moon shone into the stream in the distance, causing it to glitter and sparkle. The torches impaled into the ground cast a red glow in the surroundings. Claude, Borkal and Eriksson looked at the quiet forest with their weapons in hand and back to the busy Welikro while listening to the lecture, all the while the blood was carried along with the flow of the stream nonstop.
In only half an hour, Welikro had cut the deer into four huge chunks. The head, hooves, tails and innards were all discarded. After rinsing the skin of the deer and the four chunks in the stream, he bound it with two vines and said with satisfaction, “Let’s go back.”
That deer wasn’t huge. After being cut apart, each chunk weight only around 20 catties. When they got back to camp, Claude washed their iron pot briefly, cut the left hind leg into little chunks and simmered it in the pot over the fire. The other three huge chunks were prepared to be cut into strips and smoked into jerky, which they could bring home if they couldn’t finish all of it. After all, it was the first prey the four of them hunted, a deer at that. Letting their family taste their catch was a subtle, but effective way of bragging.
Welikro on the other hand cut a few branches to make a rack to hang the skin out with. After that, he used a small knife to clear the skin of the blood vessels and flesh chunks that remained before applying a layer of charcoal ash on it.
Borkal and Eriksson had lost the desire to sleep long ago. Eriksson looked at the deerskin and said. “Wero, your shot was damn accurate! It went through the head without ruining the pelt at all. I bet that you can sell this for a silver thale at Whitestag.”
“That’s not all,” Borkal said with a shake of his head, “This is a deer pelt. All hunters know that deers are the most agile of animals. They’re just like the elves of the forest. They’re also really easy to startle and they run the moment they detect the slightest presence. Hunting them is not an easy feat. I didn’t think that we’d be so lucky to be able to get a deer with its fur so nicely preserved. Putting the leather shops aside, I bet the tailors will be scrambling for it. We won’t sell it if we don’t get at least one thale and five riyases.”
“Wero, why don’t we camp at the stream tomorrow night as well? We might be able to get another deer,” suggested Eriksson with a glow in his eyes. In his mind, the deers running in the forest were nothing but living silver thales.
“Nope, I doubt that there will be any deers stopping there for a drink,” Welikro said with a shake of his head without slowing his hands down, “You are all aware that deers are cowardly creatures. But their memories are also quite good. Since we killed that deer near the stream, they will definitely not go back there for a drink in a while. They will remember that they’ve lost a companion there.”
After finishing the deer meat soup, Borkal and Eriksson went to bed. As if was their first night camping, Welikro felt that it would be better for him to be on night duty with Claude so that they could help each other out. They would wake Eriksson and Borkal in another three or four hours to switch.
The rack with the pelt had been moved near the fire by Welikro. He was going to bake it for a bit to dry it out. As he did so, he cut a few chunks of deer meat and roasted them over the fire. The oils that fell into the fire caused it to sizzle.
Seeing Claude hang a few meat strips above the fire to smoke, Welikro pointed at the salted deer meat nearby and asked, “Do you want to hang these up as well?”
“No need. We’ll be using that to make deer cutlet tomorrow morning. Didn’t we bring some butter and a pan? That would be perfect to make breakfast with. This meat won’t spoil overnight, right?” asked Claude.
“No, they won’t,” Welikro said with certainty, “The night isn’t hot. It’ll cool down fast. You also applied some salt on it, so I doubt it’ll be spoiling anytime soon.”
Claude hung the meat he wanted smoked and sat down. “Wero, are we really going to the ruins of the magic tower tomorrow and camping there?”
“What’s wrong? Feeling scared?”
“No, I just wanted to know whether the ruins of the tower are really as huge as you say they were. Seeing those walls, I really wonder how the ancient magi manage to use such huge rocks to build the tower.”
“Well, the shock’s only there when you see it for the first time. Most of it is just crumbled walls. There’s nothing really interesting about it.” Welikro stuffed a piece of deer meat into his mouth before spitting it out. Perhaps it hadn’t been roasted well enough yet.
“Then, was there a basement at the ruins?” Claude asked, “Since the top of the magic tower is already gone, I wonder if there’s a lower floor like the basement in our homes.”
“Perhaps there is,” Welikro said as he pondered, “I recall that there are three entrances heading downwards with stone steps. However, I didn’t go there. I heard my father talk about another floor below, but a lot of mud built up down there. It’s about a foot deep.”
Three entrances heading down? I wonder if the steps all lead down to the same space beneath or if they’re separated rooms instead, with each flight of steps only leading to one of them?
Welikro said that he hadn’t been there before and didn’t know how it was. After some thought, Claude decided that he would search the rear of each of those stone steps to see whether the things mentioned in the diary of Landes were there.
“What’s up? Think of something?” asked Welikro when he saw Claude looking at the fire in a dazed manner.
“It’s nothing,” Claude whispered as he gazed into the fire, “I was just thinking why the magi constructed such a magic tower on Egret. Oh, and Wero, almost all the books I read call the magi evil, but they didn’t bother to mention why. Do you know the reason?”
“I don’t know either,” Welikro said apologetically, “You know that I’ve never liked to read and don’t have any interest in history whatsoever. My father taught me to only care about living out this life of mine. What’s the point of caring about so much? Those big shots will deal with the matters larger than us. It has nothing to do with people like us.”
“Hahaha,” Claude laughed and said, “Your father’s right. All we have to do is to live out our own lives and don’t poke our noses into these conspiracies. We are just little peasants. All we have to do is to think of a way to gain dignitarian status when we grow up.”
The forest in the distance started to recover its former busyness. All sorts of noises could be heard once more. A loud howl was heard in the distance and Welikro made a hushing gesture with his finger and listened attentively.
Soon, Welikro returned to normal. “Don’t worry. That was the howl of a lynx. It probably discovered the remains of the deer we left at the stream and began to fight over it. That cry is their battle call which they use to threaten their enemy and to assert their dominance over that territory. They are afraid of humans and are of no threat to us.”
Nothing else happened apart from that little interlude. When the jerky was properly smoked, it was already around four in the morning. So, they woke Borkal and Eriksson up and handed their torches to them before going in their tent to sleep.
It was his very first hunting trip and they had gotten a deer right off the bat. They would also be going to the ruins of the magic tower tomorrow. Claude felt rather excited about it and couldn’t sleep no matter how he tossed around. After a while, he heard Welikro snoring slightly as well as Eriksson and Borkal’s hushed whispers before gradually falling asleep.
By the time he came to, it was already bright outside. The sunlight caused his tent to look rather transparent. Through the seam in the tent opening, he saw that his three mates had already begun taking the other tent apart.
“What time is it?” Claude exited the tent and stretched.
“It’s almost nine,” replied Borkal after he took a look at his crystal sandglass. He had brought it over to keep time. It had to be flipped over once every six hours so that the sand in one side can begin to flow to the other to keep track of time.
“Why didn’t you wake me up earlier? It’s already this late,” complained Claude.
“Wero said that you were busy smoking meat last night, so you’re probably really worn out. We didn’t wake you up to let you get more sleep. Now that you’re awake, make us some breakfast. We’re hungry,” said Eriksson with a smile.
Ah, they’re hungry already. Claude noticed that the meat soup leftovers last night within the pot had been finished by them. He quickly washed up, gargled, and made his way to the extinguished bonfire. He put a few pieces of firewood inside, ignited them and placed his pan on the rack to start grilling the deer cutlets.
After breakfast, the four of them kept their camping gear and stashed whatever they had on the boat. They brought what they needed in their rucksacks. Since they would be camping for only one night in the ruins, they didn’t need to bring too much stuff along. According to Welikro’s schedule, they would arrive at the ruins by noon. They would have the rest of the afternoon for hunting to try their luck at another game. During the night, they would camp at the ruins to polish their courage.
As they walked along the ruined rocky path, Claude realized that Welikro was right. Only the magi could have built such a thing. Normal humans would be far from capable of doing so with pure labor alone. The rocks at the start of the path were broken apart by the roots of the plants, so it wasn’t apparent at first. But as they climbed higher, he realized that he wasn’t walking on a stair-like construction. Instead, it was a long road that spiraled along the hill. The path could allow a carriage to drive straight up to the magic tower at the top of the hill when it was still in good condition.
Borkal and Eriksson were also quite fascinated by that stone path. The long walk caused them to start talking about the scary tales they heard about Egret. They had been talking about all sorts of common rumors heard in Whitestag about this place for a good while, some of which Claude had never heard before. Eriksson was the one who knew most about these stories probably because he often listened to the tales the sailors at the docks told. Many of the rumors about Egret were nothing but rambles of drunk sailors.
Welikro on the other hand didn’t appear the slightest. Ever since his father brought him to Egret to hunt and camp at the ruins during winter, he no longer believed in those rumors.
After two-odd hours of walking, Welikro pointed to the front and said, “We’re here. Behold, the ruins.”