They found a nice place to camp. It was close to a small limestone stream and provided a clear view of both the old baobab daemon and the supposedly daemon-infested mountain. With both markers in sight, it was unlikely anyone would cross either unintentionally. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough tents nor were the ones they had big enough for all of them. Thus, whilst Valerian took Alenwaa and Petilia through setting perimeter alarms and protections, he tasked John’s group with building a lean-to for the rest. Thankfully, that wasn’t too hard. They were the cream of the crop amongst cultivators and truly industrious when the need arose.
Drusilla and her hunting party had already set off by this point. They made slow and cautious sweeps of the area. After determining that there were no daemons or credible threats in their immediate surroundings, they tracked down a small sounder of warthogs they’d come across earlier. It only took a single knife throw from Drusilla to kill one of the poor beasts. Then they cleaned it and brought it back to camp.
The setup was quite simple. They only had three tents. Two were to be given to the ladies whilst the last and also the largest would be used to make bedding in the lean-to as well as a tarp over its entrance.
‘Shelter. Water. Food’ Valerian thought, looking around the camp, at the stream and at the still bleeding carcass of the freshly butchered warthog.
“Anyone here with decent culinary skills?” he turned, asking his squad, eyes looking to each in turn.
Alenwaa shook his head. Petilia sought to speak up but a glance from Bohn made the words die unsaid in her throat.
“So, none of you can cook?”
Seeing his leader floundering, James spoke up, “I can make gruel and a few kinds of soup but I’m not sure anyone here would like to taste my cooking. If we have some rice, I can cook it.”
Valerian turned to the person beside him. Raphael, in response. coloured fiercely. He’d been completely useless thus far and now… “I have a lot of sisters”, he offered weakly. Seeing the look Valerian shot him, he hurried to explain. “I mostly helped out at the shop or the clinic. They were the ones who took care of things like that”, he defended.
Next was Drusilla.
“Don’t look at me!” she snapped. “Do I look like I do things like that?”
The entire squad took a moment to appreciate her armour pieces, array of deadly weapons and dark leathers as well as her many piercings. No, she did not. Valerian would have turned to Tamara next but he remembered how she’d nodded earlier when Berengar said, ‘That’s what the servants are for, isn’t it?’
After waiting for a few more seconds, Valerian sighed softly, giving up. Cooking was one of those skills he’d never actually thought to learn. Being a hunter, he was reasonably skilled at roasting and smoking meat and he could make a few kinds of soup when he found some wild vegetables out in the field, but everything else? He hated to think it but there was probably little difference between him and Bohn in that respect. His role had always been to bag the big game and have Avery hand it over to the manor’s cooks then sit back and wait for his meals to come.
“I guess I’ll do it then”, he said in resignation. “Can I at least get help with making the fire pit?” John and Alenwaa stepped forward but Raphael, eager to prove himself capable of something had already jumped into action.
“I think I spotted a fruit tree earlier when we were scouting. I’ll take the girls and we’ll check it out. Maybe we can find some herbs and mushrooms or something”, Bohn voiced out of the blue.
‘All the girls just to find a fruit three?’ Valerian puzzled. ‘Five people! Why only girls?’ He wasn’t the only one. A few of the other guys gave curious glances their way.
“Lady business”, Berengar whispered loudly and knowingly to the boys beside him.
No. That wasn’t it. Valerian surmised looking over the group. The others were unprepared so it wasn’t planned. ‘No matter, he decided, giving them permission and choosing not to press into it. ‘It seems harmless enough.’
The ladies walked off into the woods, following Bohn. The dual attributed arcanist had sort of become the nominal leader for the girls of Squad Two. Something the boys were as yet unaware of. Before joining up with the squad, she had been one of the influential leaders in the girls’ longhouses. Sadly, she failed to make it into the ranks of the elite. Still, the other girls listened to her and followed her lead on issues hence why the healer had heeded her unspoken command.
Petilia waited patiently. Once they were quite some ways into the woods, she asked her question.
“Tamara…” she began. “Why did you stop me earlier?”
“Do you really have to ask that?” Cybele, who’d caught their exchange earlier questioned incredulously. The others looked at her in surprise for her unusual tone. She was the quietest in the group. So quiet that they often had to remind themselves that she was there.
This left the mild-mannered Petilia a bit perturbed and unsure as to how to continue.
It was now Tamara’s turn to sigh as she shook her head at the girl’s naivety. “Look”, she started. “The guys might not say it but I’m willing to bet they were hoping to leave the task of cooking to us. ‘The womenfolk!’” she said with clear disdain.
“I wasn’t going to volunteer you guys, just myself”, Petilia tried to point out.
“It’s the same thing. What don’t you understand?” She asked. “We are ‘womenfolk’!” she emphasised.
“We can’t allow them to think that we’re going to be cooking for them. Trust me. You volunteer and every mealtime they’d look to you to do it again. It won’t just be you either. They’d expect it from all of us.”
“‘Petilia is doing it, why can’t you?'” she said in an impression of Berengar. “Next thing you know, we’ll be cleaning after them and setting up camp. I didn’t come all the way here to cook, clean and fetch water for a bunch of overgrown boys. If I refused to do that for my brothers back home, I’m surely not doing so now”.
“Wait…you girls can actually cook?” Laura asked.
“Of course”, Tamara affirmed. “You can’t?”
Laura shook her head.
“Well, my mother insisted on it”, Tamara revealed. “A lady is not a lady until she can wash and cook rice properly. She cannot be a wife if she cannot make a hearty meal.”
“My mother said something similar only with the arts”, Laura told them.
“Really?” they asked curiously.
“Yes”, she affirmed. “I can play three musical instruments, sing, dance and paint.”
“I was never asked to learn anything about cooking”, she added. “Then again, I don’t think my mum can cook either. Maybe that’s why.”
“That’s definitely the reason”, Cybele reasoned. “My mother couldn’t cook either. It was the main cause of conflict between her and my father’s mother. They fought all the time. Refusing to accept that someone as incompetent as my mother would be matriarch when she is gone, Grandma took it upon herself to make sure I was trained to be a proper wife.”
The others listened to intently to her words. This was a rare occurrence. None of them had heard her speak this passionately about anything in the time they had known her.
“The old lady was determined to make me into the perfect daughter of the Stonemasons”, Cybele vented. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t escape her. Every time she came over to our home, she’d practically tie me to her hip. Together, we’d cook, sculpt and make all kinds of pottery. Then, we’d brew tea or make flower arrangements. That’s how I got so good at the bow”, she revealed shrugging the armament off her shoulder and into her hands.
“Clay objects make good targets”, she elucidated. “They also make a very satisfying sound when they break. Whenever grandma left, I’d have the servants line our work up and shoot them. With time, I began to challenge myself.”
“She must have cracked her skull when she found out you’d signed up to come here”, Tamara said smiling.
“She was proud actually”, Cybele said to their astonishment. She smiled as well only in nostalgia. “Apparently, being a powerful cultivator is precisely what a Stonemason should be.”
“What about you Pet?”
“I sing, cook and clean”, she reported. “My mother also made sure I knew how to run a household. I never minded learning really. It’s useful and music is a balm for the heart as a well as the soul. I can do so much with it. As for the others, we will all have homes of our own in the future. Is it not better that we…”
“Dru?” Laura asked, cutting the healer off. They were indulging in their chance to rant and complain about their upbringing. They didn’t need to hear from someone who was not only content with hers but had also enjoyed and recommended it. The others joined her, turning to face the girl-with-too-many-weapons and away from Petilia, ignoring her protests. If Laura hadn’t done so they would have. No one wanted to listen to her anymore.
“When I told my mother I wanted to start and lead my own mercenary band. She handed me over to a matron who forced to learn ‘ladylike pursuits more in line with my station’. Sewing, knitting, crochet, embroidery, I’ve likely been trained in everything there is to do with needles”, Drusilla told them.
“Wow!” Tamara exclaimed softly. The others were of a similar mind. They tried to picture the weapons mistress sitting in a rocking chair with balls of yarn and a pair of knitting needles.
“Like Petilia said, it wasn’t too bad”, she said with a smile. “You can make all kinds of patterns and images and needles can be easily turned into weapons if you have the right talents.”
As she said so, a silvery flash appeared on her hands, fading away to reveal ten centimetre long spikes between her fingers. A small flick of her wrist sent them thunking into the trunk of a nearby tree. There, they quivered in its bark in a vertical spread.
“You can make clothes?” Cybele questioned. “Then, why do you dress so…”
The question did not even need to be completed.
“Dresses and gowns don’t really match my aesthetic”, Drusilla explained. “I can make them but it doesn’t mean I have to wear them. I’ve dedicated myself to battle. Gowns are impractical for my purposes. However, I do have some handcrafted night things if you’d like to take a look.”
Their expressions brightened immediately. Soon, their talk dissolved into a discussion on evil old matrons and their families’ expectations of them even as they examined and praised some samples of Drusilla’s work.
Valerian and the other boys had settled on a simple stone ringed pit into which they’d piled their wood. Luckily, he still had his hunting gear. Included was a nice spit and few cooking utensils. The only thing left was to season the meat. That reminded Valerian of something. Avery had this special sauce he rubbed into their roast as it cooked. It gave it a wonderful, spicy taste.
Searching his ring for it, Valerian’s express soured. Checking every spatial equipment he had on him, even his top-secret one, Valerian was forced to come to one conclusion. Looking at the pork regretfully, he thought. ‘This isn’t going well. This isn’t going well at all.’
Noticing his expression, Pugio asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It appears I left some of my hunting-no, camping gear with my valet!” Valerian answered.
“What did you leave?” the other asked curiously.
“The crockpot, the spices, the meat brush, sauces, etc.I don’t even have salt.” Valerian lamented.
“You…what?” came that stunned response.
I’m sorry. It was a mistake”, Valerian admittedly remorsefully. “I can no longer guarantee the quality of the meal we’re going to have.”
“Not that!” Pugio interjected. “You left something behind! So, even you can be forgetful.”
“Clearly, it was my valet who didn’t pack well enough”, Valerian tried to clarify. By now, their conversation had caught the ears of everyone around them.
“Uh huh!” Pugio muttered disbelievingly.
“He was probably so used to carrying it around for me that he neglected to put it in my rings before we parted ways.”, Valerian defensively. “Still, the fault lies with me. I should have cross-checked or supervised to ensure it was done right. That was my mistake.”
“Sure, sure” Berengar said with a smile. getting in on it. Truthfully, the matter was no big deal but he decided that he liked seeing his publicly faultless leader off balance.
“Blame the servant why don’t you. He isn’t even here to defend himself”, he said adding to the fire.
“For shame!” Pugio exclaimed. “To think our leader was such a person. And I always thought him a proper gentleman. One of the few still left in this dark world.”
“I…” Valerian began. However, he caught himself and kept quiet. Anything he said now will only worsen the matter. Unfortunately, it was too late.
“Raphael!” Berengar yelled hysterically. “Quick, help him! It’s getting worse. He’s forgotten what he was going to say. Save our leader!”
John couldn’t help himself. He started snickering. Valerian huffed and turned away. It was obvious what they were doing now. They could tease him all they wanted. He refused to give them any more satisfaction. He would simply ignore them till they ceased their childish act. Rather, he focused on the meat he was supposed to be working on.
“He isn’t doing what I think he is, is he?” Berengar said fearfully.
It had to be said that Pugio was a master at picking cues. He understood right away. “My word!” he exclaimed. “He means to serve us tasteless meat. Are you truly that cruel? Just because you left your spices behind doesn’t mean you should condemn the rest of us to suffer with you for your mistakes.”
“Yeah!” Berengar chimed in. “No one asked you to be forgetful!”
The dark look Valerian shot at them over his shoulder could have frozen the stream in front of him.