Claude didn't know why the girl lived alone in the mountains. However, he could tell she had nothing but hostility for him. Even though he was able to subdue her without breaking a sweat, he didn't attempt to pry open her past to learn everything about her.
Despite transmigrating to this new world, he still held his core virtue of respecting others' privacy. Since the magus wasn't willing to interact with him, he didn't force the matter. He left his food behind to help her out and wasn't expecting anything else in return, because he understood how hard it must be to live alone in the wilderness, isolated from society. The state of the shack told him all he needed to know.
He looked back and saw that she had already untied her wolf. The two were staring back at him. Claude smiled and waved to her before turning to leave when the wolf howled.
Perhaps he could ask the village chief about the girl. The villagers, who were hiding the girl's presence, probably knew something about her. Since he had already seen the girl and the black wolf himself, the village chief might not see the need to hide it any longer.
He travelled through the route heading for Squirrel Village on his way back instead of doubling back. There were only two hills and one small ridge to cross for him to reach the forested slope near Squirrel Village. It saved him half the travel time.
It was already nine or so when he made it to the village. It was dark and nothing was lit, so he figured that the villagers had gone to sleep. Claude planned to talk to the village chief the next day, so he decided to go back to camp and have some food.
He ordered some food from the kitchen and went upstairs. The moment he turned the last corner, his face darkened. Everything had been tossed out of his room, furniture included, into the corridor.
"Where did he hide it?" he heard Mazik mumble to himself.
"What are you doing?" Claude asked frigidly.
The bastard was a little too daring. He had to be taught a lesson.
"Ugh--" Mazik froze for a moment, then jerked to attention. "--I wanted to dry your furniture while you were away since the rainy season is just around the corner! I also wanted to put some insect repellant in your room."
"So I should thank you for this?" Claude asked as he motioned to the mess in the corridor.
The bastard was actually trying to sell him a favour rather than admitting that he'd been searching for Claude's wine!
"You're welcome, Sir," Mazik smiled.
"Hehe... Mazik you bastard!"
Claude was so furious he laughed.
"We both know what you're really up to. You have ten minutes to put everything back where they belong and get out of my sight! I've sent Myjack and Gum out to get alcohol for the rainy season. If a certain someone pisses me off again, he won't be getting any."
Mazik darted downstairs and ordered the two signallers to help him move the furniture.
Claude wondered whether he was too lenient on the bastard. Bastard or not, however, he was a reliable subordinate otherwise. On top of that, Claude couldn't just send him packing; he didn't have anyone with which to replace him. He could punish him for breaking into his quarters, but that would be a slap on the wrist at best.
"Whatever. I'll deal with him some other time."
Claude went straight to the village chief's house the next morning. It was the only building that didn't look like a shack, but it was still old and worn. The chief and his wife were both at home collecting firewood in the yard. The rainy season would last some twenty days and was just around the corner. They wouldn't be able to collect usable firewood during that time, so they had to stock up beforehand.
Claude found an old log and sat down.
"I went to the mountains yesterday. I saw the wolf and that--"
The two dropped their wood, and their jaws, and stared at him.
"Wait, why are you two looking at me like that?"
The chief glanced at his wife. She ran to the yard's entrance and checked the street, then slammed the gate shut and locked it.
"Sir, did you see the witch?" the chief asked in barely more than a whisper.
"You're brave. She's terrifying. Aren't you afraid?" the old woman asked, returning to her husband's side.
Claude recalled the terrifying mask on the girl's wall.
"She's a witch? I didn't think much about it. I just thought she was crazy. The wolf is real, however. I even talked to her. I asked her the way back but she didn't say anything. She just pointed into the woods."
"Your luck really excellent. You should be glad you saw her while she was sober. If she hadn't been..." the chief's wife's voice trailed off without completing the sentence.
"Sober? What do you mean? Is the witch really crazy?"
"No. She usually turns into a black bear. She becomes very aggressive when she does. Who knows what would've happened if you ran into her while she was like that..." the chief answered confidently.
Turn into a bear Claude's arse! It was just a costume... He didn't know if he should be impressed by the girl's acting skills, or dismayed at the villagers' gullibility.
"I'm serious," the chief continued earnestly, "I once went out hunting with the lord. The witch attacked some of his servants. Three died and the fourth was crippled for life. The lord was so terrified he left that very day. He's not visited the village since, never mind go into the forest. I saw the corpses with my own eyes too. You could barely recognise them as human."
Something didn't make sense. The girl should've been a child at the time. She could not have fought four adults, killed three, and wounded the fourth.
"How long have you known about her?" Claude asked.
"... About twenty years. I remember being saved by her once. I was thirty at the time. The lord came to the village and demanded we get him hydrangeas. We didn't have any, so we had to head up the mountain to find some. It took five days, but we got one near a cliff. I slipped and fell down it when I tried to pick it, thought. But then, a large black bear leapt in and saved me.
"I thought I was gone for good and passed out from the pain, but I woke up several hours later -- under a tree and wounds treated and bandaged. Even the hydrangea was fine. I saw some scribbles on the ground near me. It said we could exchange salt and food for medicine and told us where to leave the stuff.
"We've been trading with her ever since. So it's not that we don't want to sell you the recipe for that medicine, it's that we don't know it in the first place. The paste isn't for treating external injuries. In the past, the witch used to make a kind of black paste that was magical for treating external wounds, but two years ago, she said that she ran out of ingredients and couldn't make more. The only thing we can still buy it the green one that treats fevers and colds."
The chief's account provided many clues. The witch in the chief's story was not the same one he'd met. She might have been the girl's teacher or guardian though. She clearly wasn't around anymore, however.
"She hasn't hurt anyone?" Claude asked.
"No, Sir. Everyone knows the wilderness behind the ridge is her territory. We keep away. It's too far anyway. We only go up the mountains for foraging and firewood. The witch's medicine has also become our specialty."
"No wonder you told me not to go there. You were afraid I would discover this."
"Please forgive us, Sir," the chief apologised sincerely, "We wouldn't worry about the witch ourselves. I doubt anything will happen if we run into her. But you're an outsider, so we don't know whether the witch will hurt you..."
"Don't worry. I won't disturb her peace nor will I blame you for wanting to keep it secret. I won't tell anyone else about it. Instead, I should thank her for pointing me the right way in the mountains. Who knows if I would've been able to make it back without her help. Since she wants salt and food, I'll go trade them with her two days later. You're won't fault me for that, right?"
"Ah, we won't. We are actually rather thankful for her. The paste she makes allows us to trade other daily necessities that we need. However, our poor village isn't able to provide her with any good food. How could we blame you for wanting to help her? Instead, we should thank you."
"Alright, then it's decided. Get back to your work then. I'll be taking my leave now. By the way, Myjack and Gum will come back from town with some supplies and blackwheat ale. If your village needs anything else, feel free to trade them with some goods from the mountain," Claude said as he left.
"Ah, thank you for your care, Sir," the two thanked in unison. As there was no longer a lord in the area, the things they foraged from the mountain belonged to them. Trading them with Claude was a rather good idea as it saved them the trouble of going to town.