When Myjack was just about to go up the mountains with Claude and Gum, they saw the old woman coming back. He wasn't in a rush, so he whispered to his companions.
"Sir, I saw her go up with a basket. She doesn't have it now, so she must have left it in the wild."
"Let's go and have a look. I'm curious about what was in the basket," Claude said.
What in the world were the villagers hiding?
The basket was easy to spot. Myjack noticed that it had been placed under a large cherry blossom tree the last time. It was the most obvious spot in the wood. It rested on a moss-covered stone now.
The three snuck closer quietly. The content was covered with a linen cloth. Claude perked his ears, ensured nobody was nearby, and pointed at the basket.
"Check what's inside."
Gum lit his torch and Myjack lifted the linen cover. Inside was nothing but half a loaf of black bread, a small wheat biscuit, a smoked sausage, and a small packet of salt.
"This ought to be food from our canteen. The village chief bought exactly this with a couple coppers," Myjack said.
They'd had a surplus of food lately, so they'd taken to selling some of the harder-to-preserve rations. They were due another shipment in the third month, so they really didn't need that much food. Claude really had wasted food this time. There really was no reason to requisition that much.
Gum looked at the basket.
"Sir, I think someone from the village is hiding in the mountains. I don't see another reason to leave food here. This doesn't look like a shrine to a god, so it's definitely not an offering. And it's only about enough for one meal."
It may be just one meal's worth for Gum, it was worth at least two day's food for a normal person. Claude was disappointed. He had guessed a young widow had fled to the mountains when she heard about foreign soldiers coming to the town. No wonder the village elders and the chief had tried so hard to dissuade him from going into the forest and up the mountain.
"Let's go. Put out the torch and follow me. What a waste. I thought they were hiding something interesting."
He wasn't that interested in young widows, but he stopped after suddenly feeling something was off.
First, the villagers didn't have any strong national sentiments. The only people from outside the village they really knew as Baron Norwelik Wey Frinslan and his men. And then they only knew them as oppressors and exploiters. Claude and his men were considered liberators.
Claude had made sure to tell them there would be no lord lording over them anymore. They were genuinely happy and had embraced Claude's arrival whole-heartedly. His band also treated the villagers fairly and amicably. They'd even found them some odd jobs here and there. Logically, they should be able to share any secret they had.
It was starting to seem more and more like they weren't trying to hide a young widow. The chastity of widows had fallen on the societal priority list in recent years. As Mazik had said, young widows were generally quite welcoming of soldiers. Not only would they be given an opportunity to make good money, they might even conceive a child on which they could rely later in their life.
"We'll hide nearby and wait to see what happens to the basket," Claude decided.
The three hid behind the trees on a patch of rocky ground some forty metres away from the basket where they could still see the basket clearly.
Not long after, a black shadow darted past the tree and approached the basket.
Myjack clutched Claude's shirt nervously. Claude and Gum's eyes were wide open. They would never have dreamt of seeing something similar.
A black wolf the size of a pony stood beside the stone. Its two quiet, green eyes glowed in the darkness, but it bit onto the handle of another basket. It put its basket down next to the stone, and, just as it was about to bite into the new basket's handle, it lowered its head and started sniffing. After a while, it started growling at Claude and company.
The black wolf approached slowly, then stopped, turned around, and stared at the basket. It paced in circles while growling as if it really wanted to leap at Claude, but couldn't when it thought about the basket.
This continued for several minutes, then it finally took a deep sniff, and took the basket and darted away.
The three snapped out of their daze several moments later. The notion of an animal coming to retrieve the basket hadn't occurred to them at all.
"This... is this wolf a spirit? I heard the old folks say some magic beasts can speak the human tongue and are really intelligent," Myjack muttered.
"You're talking about the dragon. In the books, only dragons know how to speak, black wolves don't. This black wolf is obviously trained by someone. That's why it could suppress its natural instincts. A normal black wolf would've pounced us the moment it smelled us. The food inside the basket is for people, not for wolves after all." Claude gave Myjack's head a knock and told Gum, "Light the torch again. Let's see what's in the basket the wolf brought here."
There were two small bottles made from green-coloured clay about the size of Claude's fists and capped with loose corks. When they were opened, a sweet odour came out.
"This is wild honey," Claude said after he gave it a taste.
Myjack opened another bottle and said, "Ptooey! This smells real bad. Is it some kind of medicine?"
Claude took a look and thought, <i>isn't this the dark-green paste the villagers use for fevers and colds?</i> The few of the sick soldiers drank a large bowl of the paste mixed with some water and recovered after a night of sweating. It seemed to work better than normal cold medicine.
Claude had attempted to ask the village chief to sell him the recipe for a huge price of five crowns, but the chief wouldn't give it no matter what. Claude thought it might be a precious ancestral recipe, so he didn't force him to do so. Now, he found out that the village chief had traded the paste with someone else.
At the sight of the dark woods, Claude said after some consideration, "Put the things back. We're going back."
"Sir, don't you want to see who's hiding up there?" Myjack asked.
"It's not someone from the village," Claude replied, "It should be some hermit who doesn't want to show their face. Even though I want to know who they are, I don't want you two to do something so risky. Someone who can tame such a large black wolf is definitely not normal. As long as they don't get in our way, let them be. Someone who would bother to trade with the villagers probably isn't a bad person anyway."
"Sir, even if they can tame a black wolf like that, they shouldn't be able to take on us with our muskets, right? Why don't we get the rest to search the whole mountains behind the village? I doubt they'd be able to hide from us," Gum said, still rather dissatisfied.
Claude smiled and shook his head. "There's no need. The mountains are vast and there are tons of places to hide. We don't have any qualms with them anyway, so why bother going through all that trouble? Even though we will be staying here for quite a while, the villagers think we're only passing by. Let them continue to keep their secret. We'll pretend to not notice anything if they don't get in our way."
"Yes, Sir. We'll listen to your orders," the two said in unison.
"Go get some rest today. Don't tell the other soldiers about what you saw here lest they get curious and search that person out. Sometimes, even our muskets can't protect us. That black wolf has a sensitive sense of smell and it'll be hard to catch them off guard. I don't want any of our brothers to get hurt because of their curiosity, got it?" Claude warned sternly.
The warning made them consider the consequences and they hurriedly resolved themselves to not tell anyone about what happened.
"Alright, I trust you two. I need you both to go back to base tomorrow and ask Major Lederfanc for some insect repellant for the mountains and some medicine. The weather's getting warm again and the insects are back. We need to insect-proof our campsite soon. I will also give you some money to purchase some good ingredients from town. Get me some good blackwheat ale and fruit wine. I doubt the two bottles in my room will last. Mazik has been trying to rob me of them."
Myjack and Gum broke out laughing. Mazik's alcoholic cravings had begun to act up recently but there wasn't anything to drink in the camp. All that was left were the two bottles in Claude's room, which he had been begging to be given a sip from. But no matter what he tried, he wasn't able to get any. He even gambled Claude for them only to lose all the money he had on him. Having no other choice, he took two days of leave and went to Blackstone Village where Moriad was to swindle some booze for his addiction.
"Sir, are you buying them for Sergeant-Major Mazik?" Myjack asked.
Claude laughed. "That fellow already lost all his money to me, so he won't have much left for alcohol. I'm only buying some to let him have his fill for now. I already advised him to quit drinking if he wants to get promoted to second lieutenant. Otherwise, it'd be hard for him to climb the ladder. But he said he can't because it's a habit he picked up from the battlefield. He would always get himself dead drunk after surviving every battle or he wouldn't be able to sleep. He's actually rather pitiful in that regard."
"By the way, Sir, with the mountain path in such a bad state, what do we do if the carriage with the alcohol can't pass through?" Gum asked.
"We'll just spend a little more money to hire some workhorses to transport them. I can still afford an expense like that."