"A man who can cook for himself, will never go hungry, but a man who can get a woman to cook for him, has made it in life." ~ Unknown mercenary.



Snow drizzled outside the window, everything was a wet white. The frozen wind descended in frigid gusts. The cabin jutted out of this white blanket, breaking the seamless purity of the mountainside, like a nail only half-hammered, three days abandoned.

Reidy and Tarkel had left for Windbury on skis a seven days ago. The letters they carried didn't have the customary household seal, but Lorist's handwriting was unmistakable, and his personal seal was worth far more than a household stamp in these trying times.

The order of most immediate concern was for Camorra. Lorist suggested a solution to the coming predicament, a simple, one word solution written in large bold strokes over half the page: borrow. No peasant, merchant, or noble household, no business, factory, storehouse, or other enterprise in his own lands or those of his allies was out of reach, as long as they had food, they had to lend it to him.

War had indeed ravaged the kingdom for years now, but none of the fighting had been done in either his or his allies' lands, so most of their stores were still wholly intact. On top of that, the years had been fair and gave good harvest, it would take a miracle, or an absolute idiot, for a house to not have full stores. Even Arriotoli's barony had overflowing vaults. The house usually bought most of their harvest, but they always held back some as a failsafe in case of famine or, indeed, war. Food was the most stable resource in the world, after all, because it was always needed, it always had value, and that only skyrocketed in wartime. Lorist trusted the three legions wouldn't have any problems borrowing from the nobles. No one would dare cross his forces when their master was the kingdom's only swordsaint, especially for a little food that was promised to be repaid with interest.

In a few more days the convoy would set out on their great pilgrimage. Even Arriotoli would not be spared. It displeased her quite a bit, but she knew how crucial this was to salvaging the situation so she could only stand by her lover's side.

The new year had rolled around three days ago, hence the abandoned cabin. Lorist spent the celebration in the castle with his lover and child. His injuried recovered, his lover had been demanding his undivided attention for these three days, determined to give Terryke a sibling.

"Crazy woman..." complained Lorist as he slapped his waist.

It was expected of lovers to be in each other's arms a lot of the time, but three days of uninterrupted loving was just punishment. If one put him out of commission for three days, what would five more, all two years deprived of his care, do to him? The thought sent shivers down his aching spine. Swordsaint or not, he could not handle so many women.

I'm overthinking... Lorist slapped his forehead.

He knocked the icicles off the sill above the door with his batons and entered. He took off his ludicrously thick clothing and put on something more reasonable, quickly lighting the brazier and fireplace to begin heating up the place. Next came the snow in the yard, lone man or not, housework had to be done.

It took him until early afternoon to finish the work needed outside and decided to patrol the forest before moving to dealing with the inside of the cabin. The decision came neither of a sense of duty to fulfill his temporary guard duties, and most certainly not out of a desire to avoid the work still needed inside the cabin. He just wanted to check the traps for any catches.

Many of his traps had indeed caught prey, but his three day absence was long enough for most of them to be devoured by passing predators, leaving only a bone or two connected to the actual snare. Some had no carcass at all, and only the blood and disturbance of the snare revealed they'd caught something. It was a shame. His traps had been set to catch turkeys and hare. They were plentiful and easy to find, and were the most delicious of all possible catches in early winter, having fattened themselves up for the season.

Seven of the 18 traps he'd set were undisturbed but empty. Three located in harder-to-reach places gave him two turkeys and a wild hare, but the remaining eight had been poached and the traps themselves ruined. The devastation he found at these traps and in the areas around them, convinced him several large predators had descended the mountain. At least two, maybe three wolves, and one magical bear. It seemed he would not be getting his much desired rest for a while.

Lorist had no thought of lighting the beacon though. He had returned to the peak of the Dan Ocean Ki-refining Technique's third stage, about rank 1 blademaster level, so the four pests, while irritating, were nothing he could not handle. He would be insulting himself if he lit the beacon, after all, the strongest person that could come to his aid would be Arriatoli herself, who was just a two-star silver rank.

He returned to the cabin, cleaned it, and made dinner -- turkey, hare, and mushroom soup, and a few sausages and several slices of black bread. He downed a few cups of raspberry wine, took another herbal bath, and went to bed.

The time was nearly right to begin training the Aquametal Technique again. The sooner he became a swordsaint again, the better. It would let him solve the house's troubles once and for all.

He found himself questioning the worth of being duke more often here in the mountain. It was true that nobles led far more luxurious lives than the peasantry, but with it came far greater stresses and troubles, most draining of which was the backstabbing and internal politics of their families. He had been the foreman of a workshop in his last life, these tribulations were far beyond his desire to deal with, and he didn't feel he really needed the luxuries he got in return. For all his stress and work he didn't get a television, a computer, the internet or a mobile phone. Had it been is old life, the only troubles he had to go through for all of the above was a day job and a little saving. No matter how high he rose in this worlds ranks, he could never even come close to the peasantry of his old life, and he certainly would never be as worry-free as them; if anything his worries would only grow and multiply. Oh, how he wished he could give all this up for a simple life like he'd had.

It did him no good to dwell on such things, however, however much he wished for it, he would never have his old life again, and pining for it would certainly not solve the very real tourbles he faced now. Besides, he was kept safe in this world not by his power or his position, but his cultivation. And what made it worthwhile for him were his loved ones, his responsibilities, and the joy of cultivating. His previous life could not give him the thrill of breaking through in his cultivation; he could not experience the pleasure of playing god with his enemies within his domain… He didn't think the joys of his previous life, missing them as much as he did, was worth giving up what he had now.

Besides, his family, friends, subordinates, allies, and vassals pinned their hopes and dreams on him. He could not let them down. And then there were his three disciples, the three stooges. He certainly could not give up the joy of teaching the young ones.

Young ones? Am I growing old? I never used to bother with this much idle pondering. Lorist stroked his finally smooth chin.

Arriotoli refused to let him keep it. 'It's all for your disguise and you don't have to be afraid of the blademaster anymore'. They both knew it was only a convenient excuse. She just didn't appreciate his grand facial hair. He eventually caved and let her shave it, but she even went as far as to apply oil to his jaw. It now felt like an egg, or a baby's arse...

The hare sizzled as it's fat dripped on the coals.

They had a really good fall, huh? Just a bit more. A pinch of salt… There we go. Now it just needs to crisp up.

Last night's put was heating up again, the leftovers of the soup slowly turning liquid again. Its fragrance slowly wafted out the half-open window and chimney and drifted into the forest.

Hmm! Not bad.

Lorist wasn't a chef by any stretch of the imagination, but he believed he had quite decent skills, it was definitely above average for males of his age and background. He moved the pot to the table, shifting the brazier into a corner with his foot and brought over the bread and a flask of wine. He was just marvelling at his handiwork when he heard claws scratching at the front door.

He shut the door to the kitchen, moved the brazier to one of the rooms -- plunging the rest of the place into darkness -- and made his gingerly way to the window. Below him three cattle-sized wolves circled the house, scratching at the door in turns. They stopped and sniffed the air every time the wind shifted, as if to make sure the sent was still coming from the odd landscape feature in front of them.

Great! I was going to look for you today anyway, but you were kind enough to spare me the trouble.

He closed the window carefully, got the sword on the table, and headed for his bedroom. He climbed out of the window onto the roof there and moved to the edge. The wolves continued to claw at the door and circle around in blissful ignorance of the devil looming over them, their minds wholly focused on getting to the source of the scent.

Lorist stepped off the roof and sunk into the soil beneath, crushing one of the wolves beneath him. His sword flung out and impaled itself in the second wolf through its eye. The poor puppy collapsed to the ground silently. The final wolf reacted in time, however, and flashed to the edge of the yard, preferring to stare at the intruder from a safe distance.

Lorist walked towards it calmly, sword in hand. The wolf glared at him but didn't make any moves. Instead, it backed of slowly, keeping a good distance. Lorist dashed at him the moment he reached the edge of the yard himself. The wolf responded in kind, leaping at him. Lorist flashed his blade and stepped out of the way, letting the lump of flesh crash into the other two lumps by the cabin.

"Dumb as always. Why do they insist on chasing everything they come across and think I'd stand nice and still for them to hit? Well, thanks to that the pelts are mostly intact so they should be worth a bit, and I don't even have to waste too much effort on cleaning them."

He returned to the crushed-but-still-whimpering wolf and finished it off with a stab through what remained of its eye socket. Just as he was about to open the door, however, he suddenly vanished. A miniscule moment later, a claw streaked by where he'd been standing. Leaving several deep etches on the door.

Lorist landed three meters away.

Today seems to be my lucky day! All four of my prey came to me. I didn't even have to leave the yard!

The beast that faced him now stood at least 2.5 meters on its hinds, about as big as a magical beast could get. Oh, how happy Arriotoli would be to get its pelt. She had a few magic pelts, but they were nowhere near as big as this one would be, and they were certainly not as intact.

She'll probably brag about how brave her house was and how valiantly they fought against the bear. I doubt she'll consider me an outsider for this, well, even if she did, I doubt she'd admit it and give up the glory.

The bear stared at its paw incredulously. How had its prey just vanished? It was certain it should be a paste by now. Its attention suddenly drifted to the wolf carcasses by the door and forgot about Lorist completely. It just wanted to enjoy the feast.

"Fuck off! They're mine!"

Lorist appeared in front of the beast and sheathed his sword in its eye. The bear roared in pain and flailed wildly for a few moments before it collapsed.

Arriotoli arrived a few hours later to check on her hubby, having heard the beast's cry all the way down in the valley. When she saw the creatures in the yard, she buried her tongue in Lorist's mouth for a few seconds before taking the carcasses away.