With everyone around the fire Chu got a fresh rock bread and started slicing it. He then took out from a bag a small tin. Opening the resealable cover showed the yellow color of salted butter. He pasted it on the bread slices and then held them over the fire to melt. The drool leaking out of his companions mouths flowed as they stared hungrily at him.
When it was finished he shared it for all of them. The shacks were far apart in the slums, they were not lacking in open spaces. Otherwise the smell from their cooking would have created chaos. A tin of butter was worth twenty coppers. The large-sized one that Chu took out was a favorite by adventurers and cost forty coppers.
“Eat up and then we’ll talk. Ming don’t stuff yourself. Our body has to gradually become accustomed to solid meals.”
Chu knocked Ming who was guzzling down the bread. He was aware that they had to slowly feed their bodies solid food. It was one of the reasons he only used the butter very lightly. Last thing he needed was a bellyache in the middle of the night. The experience of using the outdoors as a washroom was definitely unforgettable.
“How bad is winter in the slums?”
After everyone had their fill, Chu tossed out the question. All eyes fell on Ming since he had first-hand experience.
“Winter… the only way to describe it is terrible. No the word TERROR is what I mean.”
Ming shared his experience of winter with them. Trouble began when the snow started to fall. The cold invaded the flimsy built shacks causing some to freeze to death. Even with a fire it was hard to keep warm during the nights. To add to this injury people began stealing the bedding from others. More than once he came home from work to find his blankets missing.
“But the real horror was yet to come.”
When the snow blocked the roads the woodsmen stopped for the winter. Firewood started to become scarce as nobody was willing to risk venturing into the forest. Shacks were used as people had to share their homes to survive. If this wasn’t enough the wolves came.
White wolves form packs during winter. They then become bold enough to raid the villages. The slums were an easy target as it had no defense like the village. Many times people had to run to the village gates to avoid being killed and eaten. Sometimes the wolves were so daring as to bypass the village and head for the farms just beyond it. There they would wreck havoc on the livestock.
If that wasn’t enough trouble the real terror began. During the snowstorms and cold nights a new danger arrived. People were simply dragged away without a trace. Worse yet it happened both in the slums and the village. One farm was found empty after the winter devoid of both the family and livestock.
“I heard about that. People were saying they only saw blood trails on the snow. Even the hunters’ were scared to track it.”
Chu glanced at Lucy as Ming continued.
“Old man Rob said he saw it. It was a demon beast that walked on two feet. He died the next week from the cold.”
Chu shook his head. Maybe the old guy was simply delirious from a fever and spouted nonsense. Village people were as a rule the most superstitious. Anyway the previous memories of this body was near useless in terms of knowledge. Right now he was trying to get actual facts.
“What about food?”
“We stored up food and begged in the village when it ran out. Sometimes we scavenged the shacks of those who died to find firewood and food. It all boils down to how long you can starve and hold out.”
Chu listened until Ming was finished.
It was the case of survival of the fittest. This place was a brutal zone for snuffing out the weak. If wasn’t for him risking his life, he would be on a slow path to starvation. It could be even worse given his low social standing in the slums.
The ladder rungs of society were definitely too far apart for the lower standing peasantry. The quotes of living to survive and survive to live was made for them. It was a one way slow spiral down. Only in death was salvation.
The next level was the one where the scales balance and you are making just enough to feed yourself. Imagine that to reach this level from the bottom meant risking one’s life. You either sell yourself or engage in a high risk venture to escape. Hunting, robbing, becoming a lady of the night all these were some of the choices.
Chu was slowly understanding the predicament he was in. He didn’t hesitate to curse the previous body’s owner for his total lack of foresight and ignorance.
He rounded up the facts from the information gathered and stated it to the others.
“So what you say is that we need security from the cold, people, wolves and so called ‘demon beast’. None of which can be found in the slums.”
Ming nodded his head in affirmation.
“Yes but I forgot to mention another thing. Sometimes the men in the village would come into the slums and abduct the girls. Sometimes they might return, but most of the times they disappeared after winter.”
The young girls were already scared and this just added to their fears. Lucy was stoic and tried to comfort them. She was old enough to understand what Ming meant. A girl with no power behind her in this world was like a lone hen tossed in a pen of roosters. Sooner or later….well, unfortunately that was how it was.
Chu weighed the options he had. If he remained in the slums there was a high probability of any or all of the mentioned disasters happening. If he went into the village and returned home he might avoid these problems. The setback to this would be he couldn’t do what he wanted. He would also lose out on the chance to make money from killing some wolves.
What he wanted was a place that provided safety yet still allowed him the benefit of acting freely. Like a new born calf in front of the tiger, Chu was as ignorant of the dangers of the forest. Even though the beast here were bigger than on earth, his head was still swollen from the previous battles. There was a reason that the most seasoned hunters feared that place.
Wolves were not the only beast roaming a winter forest.
“Are there abandoned farm houses?”
“Huh? you want to start farming Chu? Pretty hard during winter.”
“No what I need is a place that we can shelter during the winter BUT still close to the village and forest.”
“But with what Ming just said, wouldn’t that be dangerous?”
He looked at Lucy to answer her question.
“Very dangerous but I prefer to deal with wild beast than people. Being isolated from them is one problem gone. If we stock up on food we can survive on our own.”
Chu was confident in this matter. After all it was like babysitting a bunch of kids. This was made easy since they all listened to him anyway. Adults would blatantly override his leadership. Bigger kids would simply beat him into submission. In a child’s body barely recovering from malnutrition, he could do without experiencing such pain.
“First find a place and move in secretly before the snow piles up. Buy food to stockpile. If we need any more we can make a trip to the village.”
Griz told Chu that the Trading post was open during the day. They closed at night carting remaining dead animals that need to be handled into their stockroom in the village.
“Will we be hunting in the forest?”
“No need to risk our lives.”
Why go into the forest when the beast are coming to us, Chu thought. He would make use of them if they crossed his path.
“So that’s the plan. Tomorrow we are going to look for a place on the south side of the village.”
Chu intended to take Ming and Lucy. He chose the south side because he didn’t want to accidentally meet up any hunters. Since most of them were on the north side then the chances should be less.
“Now to deal with you guys.”
Chu looked over the Dyna and Sakura. These girls were still weak looking and to young to handle hard work. Both of them were only eight and were cared for by Lucy. None of the girls were related but treated each other as sisters because of circumstance.
Lucy broke his thoughts.
“Chu….just help them for the winter, after that then…”
Lucy bit her lip as she begged but Chu cut her off.
“I never said that I was going to abandon them or anything. I just think that they can be useful.”
Chu took out the sewing kits and threads along with a small knife.
“Tomorrow they can start sorting through these cloth bundles. Patch the good clothes and make sheets with the others.”
Young girls were taught these kind of skills early. Chu showed them what he wanted. Padded clothes that were made by stitching three and four layers of cloth on top and quilts using the same method. This would be a bonus in keeping them warm for the winter.
“Three days. We only have three days to find a place and move out. If we wait longer then with what we have, you can imagine our fate.”
Currently they were the richest residents in the slums. If word ever got out then their fate would be like a drunken rich man ending up in a ghetto neighborhood of homosexuals. Stripped clean of his clothes and belongings would be the least of his worries.
After Lucy and her friends left, Chu and Ming began packing and sorting out the equipment.
“Ming how much pellets do we have left?”
“Ah, about eight or ten.”
Chu made a list in his head of what he needed. If they managed to find a good place it would be great. His backup plan was to get all of them to stay with his family for the winter. This was a last resort since it would mean exposing some of his wealth. The other reason was that he didn’t want to make any mistakes that would get his family to doubt his character.
Being burned at the stake for suspicion as a spawn of hell was not on his bucket list.
He raised the fire and started to browse through a book. It was a small notebook size that was made from rough parchment paper bonded by threads. It was commonly used by illiterate adventurers to introduce basic letters and words. The letters were like symbols that represented what they meant. The numbers were something like roman numerals and easy to understand.
These aids were helpful to identify the words of frequented places by adventurers and mercenaries in this world. It was sought after by the noobs who came from low status and were illiterate. Words like tavern, blacksmith and the ever popular brothel were listed. Brief introductions were also given.
Only when his eyes became tired did he fall asleep.
Ming woke him up in the morning. He had already got the fire going and boiling water to drink. Chu made some more bread and butter making sure to leave extra for the others who would be coming over. By the time they were finished Lucy and company joined them.
They left the two girls working on the rags. For slum residents the little girls were not converting rags to gold, but the end product was way more valuable. Warmth during winter from good clothes was worth a life.
The older three children made their way south across the grasslands. They were prepared for a tiring walk.
The hunt for a home has begun.