Returning to the village
The next day Chu set out for the village. He left in the morning as soon as the sun came up. Chu and Ming carried a spear each while Lucy had a crossbow slung across her back. Between then they took turns pulling a small sled.
Under Chu’s instruction Clod built a small sled out of the cut pieces of board. It was made slightly longer than a wheelbarrow. A double rope was attached to the front for pulling. He had Ming test it out before their trip pulling it along the snow with three of the girls in tow.
The weather was clear with only blue skies as far as the eye could see. If a storm blew up by chance, they had enough time to reach and hunker down in the village or return to the barn.
With the grasslands covered in just under two foot of snow it was slow going. Pulling the sled while wearing their padded clothing and wrapped in scarves under a hooded cloak was exhausting. If not for them taking their time and being accustomed to hard work they might already have given up.
The snow blanketed the world in white. If not for the trees in the distance and the few ruins they remembered, it could have been easy to get lost. They stopped to rest a few times under some of the familiar ones. These broken structures offered little protection from the elements. They were useful in providing a comfort to the mind.
It was easier to hide and spot something in the open plains, and a wall no matter if broken still gave a sense of security.
Halfway on the trip they stopped at one of the ruins they had seen. This was one with three walls. Chu took out a bundle from the sled. It was a tarp made from sewing a couple of sheets together. With Ming’s help they quickly constructed a makeshift tent using a corner of the walls as two sides.
This place was one of the places that Chu had hidden some firewood bundles. Crawling under the tent he used some dry pieces he brought to light a fire near the walls. He then leaned the firewood on the wall to dry from the heat of the fire. They remained here for a while eating an early lunch of reheated bread and sliced meat.
Before they left he removed the tent and stamped out the fire. Although the firewood was covered in snow, he was surprised how easily it had started to burn after dusting of the snow. In the future he only needed a small bag with wood chips to act as kindling for the fire. The flint he used to light the fire was worth every silver. Up to now he had doubted Griz on its superior spark generation than the cheaper ones in the market.
They reached the village in the early afternoon. They had taken their time and did have to trudge through snow. The Trading post was desolate without the usual scurrying of workers, merchants and hunters. There were only a few guards and a clerk at the receiving bay. Most of the activities were now carried out at their General store located within the village.
Chu didn’t waste time here and went into the village. Most of his items he needed was food that would be kept at the General store. The gates at the village entrance was half closed. Upon seeing the children and their poor makeshift sled the guards easily labeled them as slum children and let them pass. The well insulated padded outfits designed by Chu were hidden below deliberately patched cloaks.
At the General store a large familiar shadow greeted them.
“What the heck! Where the hell have you been?”
Chu was slightly surprised at the question. He did remember telling Griz that he was going to hunker down for the winter. The manager obviously knew he was no longer living in the slum area. He did borrow a cart from him after all when he hauled his belongings away.
“Why the concern Mr Griz. Has something happened?”
Griz pulled them to a corner of the counter. The few people in the shop were taken care by another two clerks who were Griz’s assistants.
“When last have you been to the village?”
“This is my first trip after I left.”
Griz gave Chu the latest news of what happened. Being the head of the Trading post, he was entitled to the latest gossips and activities.
About two weeks ago hunters in the north reported sighting wolf packs. These packs had around twenty to thirty wolves and were starting to move into the grasslands. Once wolf packs begin to move out of the forest, it means they have become daring enough to challenge humans settlements.
A hunting group has already fallen prey to one such pack. On the open grasslands a wolf pack is a dangerous enemy. With nowhere to run and climb, packs steamroll over their foes through vicious attacks from all directions utilizing their numbers. The ferocity of a pack with their endless chasing stamina on open ground was something those traveling on foot could never hope to outrun.
Two days ago a wolf pack raided the slums during the night. In the chaos about ten people lost their lives. The rest barely managed to escape into the village. By the time the garrison responded they were long gone. Several farms in the north have already reported packs roaming about, so half the garrison have already been sent out on patrols. Along with some commissioned hunters they are to track and kill those in the grasslands.
There was also rumors from the north of teams of adventurers and lone trappers disappearing without a trace. This showed how wide a scope of territory the packs were claiming as their hunting grounds.
“I don’t know which hole you dug yourself into these weeks but I suggest you return to the village. This year the northern forts reported a lot more beast than usual came through the mountains.”
Griz gave him some friendly advice. This was information that would be shared among merchants and traders. It would have been first hand information in a near isolated place like this.
He continued talking to Chu.
“With the north starting to broil, soon these beast raids are going to be more daring. Wolves are one thing, but there are other animals that can easily scale walls or break them.”
“I see. Then I am going to be in a hurry today. Please give me these items that I need. Don’t forget that summer discount.”
Chu gave a reply and then started to list all the supplies he needed. He didn’t forget to add-on some more cross-bolt purchases.
Griz had an assistant bring over the items he wanted. He didn’t know if the kid had balls or was just plain ignorant of the situation these villages faced during the winter season. Given a choice he would have long followed the last merchant caravan leaving before the snow began to fall. The only reason he was here was because of the posting of personnel by the Trading post.
Chu made a quick stop at home to reassure his family he was ok, and then met up with the others at the gate. He was adamant they eat something first before setting out. This return trip had to be made in haste.
Information showed the wolf packs were in the north. A wild animal hunting through cunning and stalking is not going to remain in the same place to become the prey. Beast of this type tend to be smart and migrate to the least suspected place to strike again.
If the north was now so hot, the most likely place would be for the animals to try their luck in the south.
If it was such a simple deduction from his part, it would be easy for a smart hunter like a wolf to think of something like this.
Living in a remote place to avoid the troubles in the village was a wise choice. If he was in the village, not to mention the slums his family might have been prey to others for the riches they suddenly had. The price of isolation was lack of information. In a dangerous place like this in the wilderness, that was courting death.
The wolf packs had started to move freely on the plains. That much was true as expected each year. However there was one key word Griz mentioned.
There was more than one.
With the hunting that takes place in the fall and beginning of winter, the wolves usually number enough to form a pack. Outside of that are some old lone wolf stragglers.
Given the animal’s intelligence, it would only be a matter of time before they circle to the south of the village. In a barn farthest from the village and neighboring farms lay the home of fresh prey.
What animal wouldn’t stalk and prod to inspect their defenses in hopes of food.
The problem was that this information came a little late for him. Who knows if the packs were already gathering near the south forest to roam the adjacent grasslands. They did strike the village already, south of the village was him.
The casual walk to return home now was fraught with danger. As the furthest from the village to the south they may avoid detection, but wolves had a keen tracking skill. The barn was safe but being caught outside was the problem.
“Lucy load the crossbow and scout for us. Ming and I will handle the sled. We have to hurry back, outside is not safe anymore.”
Chu decided to risk it. If he left the sled and ran back, they would have to stretch their food supply. Weather he ran or walked on this open grassland, they would still be easy picking for a wolf pack. The most he could do was hurry to the barn.
The only noise was the crunching of the snow as they moved. The journey back was done in silence. They spared no effort to rush home. Drenched under the clothes and load the trip home was uneventful. He felt during the whole time as if hungry eyes were constantly trained onto his back.
Only when he entered the barn did Chu feel like a mountain was lifted off him.
Chu took some time to recover from the pressure he felt. It was one thing to be on a tree hunting a single beast. It was another to meet up a pack on the open plains. This kind of shock was like the time he faced the unstoppable Snow bear. If wasn’t for Lucy bravery he would be hanging on that rope until the bear ripped him down.
After a quick cleanup, Chu gathered them on the platform during the evening meal. Recounting the words of Griz the most he could do was calm their fears. Hopefully the patrolling soldiers would be able to lessen the number of wolves and keep them deterred.
“We will not use the well from outside. Keep it hidden and draw the water from below. Clod I want the trapdoor and floor above the cellar reinforced with some boards. We will continue to sleep down there.”
“Can’t we sleep on here on the platform? It is high and the wolves can’t reach us here.”
Sue chimed. The fear of beast ripping through the floor above their heads was a little terrifying now that they had to think about it.
“No I want us down in that cellar at night. Until I am convinced that only wolves dare to attack from the forest then we have to hide.”
He remembered Griz talking about other dangers. Right now he considered himself an ignorant fool on the ways of this world. Unless necessary he preferred to hide and observe than to risk his life again.
“Hopefully since we are so far south of the village and away from the farmhouses, we should be safe….”
It was logical thinking since south of them was only grasslands that stretched for miles until the farms circling the next village could be reached. However why did Chu feel he just raised the proverbial flag?
The night passes quicky and quietly. It seemed as if they were all worried for nothing. Yes they had to take extra precautions but it was also something they expected. The day was cloudly and Chu hoped for a blizzard to dump as much snow making it hard for moving around.
He was begining to think he was overestimating the situation. By late evening they were back to the usual routine. This was until a muffled shout came from above.
The whispered shout came from above. The emotions behind it nearly made him curse. Looking up he saw the fear and excited face of Miki staring down. She was beckoning to come up in haste to join her.
He scrambled up the ladder to the platform. He didn’t have time to settle himself when she clutched his arm in a vice. Her other small hand extended out pointing to the forest.
The sight confirmed his fears and had him thanking the gods for the boon of making it home in time.
On the edge of the forest a white wolf could be seen walking slowly out under the setting sun. It raised its head and sniffed the air and then continued walking forwards out into the grasslands. It moved a mile away like it was heading northeast to the inner farms. When it reached near north of the barn it stopped bending down and sniffed.
The setting sun provided enough light to show the lines where both it and theirs intersected.
‘F%$##! it found our tracks!’
It constantly sniffed and was heading towards the village when it turned around to follow the tracks as it led to the barn.It remained around a mile away as if in serious contemplation. Finally it slowly made a few steps south and raised its head.
The wolf gazed towards the barn as if looking straight at them. Chu nearly ducked in reflex. He remained stiff as a board as the wolf stopped and faced the direction of the barn, lifted it head and gave a mournful howl.
Miki pinched his arm and pointed to the forest stifling a gasp from her mouth.
From the forest in the dusk, shadows starting moving from under the trees as they emerged into solid recognizable shapes.
A wolf pack had arrived.