36 Ashan 721
Smoke tossed her head against the leading rein, as uneasy with the crowds of a town as Dan himself was, but he really didn't want to haul the deer carcass over his own shoulders all the way to the clinic, so here they were. He hissed a wordless croon through his teeth in an attempt to soothe the pony, and rested his free hand on her shoulder, in front of the pack saddle. He had a debt to pay. A whole (well, nearly whole, he'd removed the head (the brain made a good tanning agent) and lower legs (with their precious sinew from the tendons there) as well as field dressing
it) deer, if an old one, so more tough meat than tender, but perfectly edible by his standards, which were, if he was going to be honest, influenced by arcs of going hungry. Hunger always made everything taste better, but this was the Dust Quarter after all. Even with the improvements that had been made, hunger was still going to be a familiar visitor to the homes here.
He picked his way through the streets with his pony close behind him, retracing his earlier route to the clinic, helped this time by having sunlight to navigate by and remind him which direction he was going in. He passed the end of a road that led to the Dust Market and made a mental note to look there for saddle soap on his way out. The real thing cleaned and fed the leather so much better than anything he could concoct himself, and that meant that the leather of the saddles and reins and straps stayed softer and more flexible rather than stiffening up to the point that it chafed the ponies to wear and eventually rubbed sore spots into their hide - which then in turn would have to be treated before they became infected. It wasn't worth it, not when he was passing a market anyway.
He didn't go up to the front entrance this time as he had when he had come as a patient, but worked his way down a side alley to where the kitchen entrance was, beside the clinic's herb garden. He was glad to see a rough wooden hitching post there, presumably for deliveries. He hitched Smoke to it, gathered up his courage, and tapped on the kitchen door. The cook opened it, and he held out his message tablet on which he had written that this was a delivery of fresh meat in payment of his (Dan's) debt for being treated
, and that he only knew Common Sign.
The cook squinted and mumbled her way through the message, and then looked past him to where Smoke stood with the deer on her back. Her eyes widened and then narrowed in thought and she beckoned him to bring it in. Dan nodded and hauled the carcass off Smoke's back. He loosened the girth of her pack saddle so that she could be comfortable while she waited for him, then heaved the deer up onto his own shoulders and stumbled after the cook into the kitchen. She directed him to place it on one side and asked with crude but understandable Sign, "You chop? You skin?"
Dan nodded again, on surer ground with that, and she nodded back and left him to it. He drew his knife and began to skin the deer, beginning at the shoulders. He pulled up an edge of hide until it stretched the bonds holding skin to muscle, slid the knife in to cut it free, then pulled a bit more. Sometimes the knife slipped and he had to pull it back hastily before he poked a hole in the hide. It was easier to skin a deer shortly after killing it, but this time, the ease of transporting it while keeping the meat mostly protected had taken higher priority. Gradually though, he got one side of the hide free, and paused to clean and sharpen the knife before he heaved the carcass over onto the other side and began to skin the other half.
At last, after much pulling and tugging and cutting, he managed to get the entire remaining part of the skin free. He rolled it into as neat a cylinder as he could manage for easier handling and then pushed it to one side while he dealt with the meat. A folded hide would take up less space, but folding an uncured skin often led to flaws and cracks later. If he was butchering the carcass for himself, he would cut it into a multitude of thin strips at this point and hang them up to dry and smoke so they would keep. He wasn't butchering this one for himself though, so he looked up to find the cook watching him. He drew in a breath, tasting the smoke from the cookfire, onions and cooking herbs rather than the medicinal scent of the rest of the clinic, and asked, "How big?"
She stooped and took one side of the carcass, and pointed to the hooks for hanging meat. Dan took the other side and together they lifted it and secured it to the meat hooks while she considered. At last she decided she wanted some large pieces for roasting, some diced for stewing, and some chopped fine to make into hard sausage for storage. She showed him where the available tools were and Dan went to work, starting with the legs and major primary cuts and working his way down and in, cleaning away bone dust as he went and laying the cut sections on the cold stone slab.
The cook took one of the larger boned pieces, sprinkled a thick layer of chopped herbs over one side, and then rolled and tied it into shape and place so that it was ready to be pot roasted. She nodded approvingly at Dan's work as he began to chop another section.
"Know new place? Stormwaste place? You go?"
Dan blinked, because it was the first he had heard of anything happening out in the Stormwastes. "Not know," he signed cautiously after taking a moment to finish that stretch of work and put his borrowed cleaver down. "New place?"
The information came out in short bursts, but he pieced it together eventually. The Lightning Knights had plans afoot to reclaim the Stormwastes as somewhere to live. They were going to build new towns and villages out there, and recruiting settlers from the Dust Quarter. The cook thought, with Dan's skills as a hunter, that he would be a good fit for it, because the knights could probably do with someone who actually knew what they were doing with regards to bringing down animals to eat rather than in defensive combat.
Dan thought back to some of the knights he had encountered
, and couldn't find it in him to disagree, though outwardly he offered nothing but a shrugged maybe. And yes, maybe he would wander over that way, with due caution for the dangers of the Stomwastes themselves, and see what was happening. Maybe he'd even take some wild plants with him to replant over there, because he would take almost any bet that the knights wouldn't think any further than farm crops and farm animals. If you wanted a place to truly come alive, however, you needed plants for the wild animals and the birds and the insects to feed on, in order for them to feed each other in the ever interconnected web that was the wild. If you wanted fish in your lake or rivers, then the fish needed plants or insects or both to feed it and shade it, shelter it and nurture it. And the insects it fed on needed food of their own, and any fish that died would, in turn, feed and nourish the plants. Besides, if he
was going to extend his living range in that direction, then he also needed food he could gather. He was, or at least tried to be, part of that interconnection, taking only what he needed, and giving back enough that the land would thrive rather than suffer in his wake.
He finished at last, with the carcass stripped down to bare bones fit only for nourishing soup, gathered up the skin, and took his leave. Outside, he checked Smoke over while she lipped his shirt as a welcome back, tightened the girth again for the journey home, and fastened the rolled hide as a much lighter load to the pack saddle. He untied her, gathered up the leading rein and turned for home. He had a lot to think about, but a least, he decided, he didn't owe anyone anything any more and couldn't be coerced into going over to the Stormwastes if he came to the conclusion that he didn't want to go there after all. Whatever happened, it would be purely his own choice, and that was just how he liked it.
-1 field dressed deer carcass, in payment for healing
"Signed words" Spoken words