Chapter 35 — Wolf Pack
After briefly clearing up the mess left by their battle, the merchant squad resumed travelling toward their next destination.
Due to his injuries, Soran could not ride a horse and could only sit in one of the cargo carts. The mistress did not invite Soran to her carriage since they were not that close yet, but she did invite Vivian to join her. However, Vivian shook her head and rejected the offer, then climbed up onto the cargo cart to sit beside Soran.
As the squad moved on, the merchant guards continued scouting their surroundings. The voices of merchants ordering the workers to fill up the pits on the road could be heard from time to time; perhaps because of the big rain a while ago, the roads were all muddy and puddles were everywhere.
Soran's clothes had gotten rather dirty from the battle with the ankhegs. Considering he had been rolling on the ground to avoid attacks, it was only natural his clothing turned muddy. Vivian removed the chunks of dried mud and patted the remaining dust off Soran, then rubbed and blew away the mud on her hands.
Others were occupied with their own business, but they could not help but smile when they saw the siblings sitting in the cart. Everyone took a liking to the two of them, especially the mysterious mistress of the squad. She would often open the curtains on her carriage to look at them, and her vision was mostly focused on Vivian, as though something about the little girl was attracting her attention.
It was a peaceful scene, in direct contrast to their previous encounter with the ankhegs.
Soran took out a tattered cloth and began cleaning his curved sword. Ankheg blood was acidic, and it might damage his weapon if he did not remove the bloodstains from the sword as soon as possible. He did not seem to be bothered by Vivian, who was still trying her best to clean his clothes, attempting to blow off the dust stuck between the small gaps of the loosely woven shirt. Patches of brown and grey were still visible on his shirt, and Vivian was dissatisfied because of it.
"Use this," the head guard said with a smile as he took out a small sack and tossed it over to Soran. "It's a type of refined oil which can help preserve weapons."
Obviously, preserving a sword was a lot more complicated than merely wiping and whetting it from time to time. To those who made a living through battles, having a good weapon was essential to protecting themselves from danger.
Soran gladly received the sack from the head guard. Using his fingers, he carefully applied the refined oil on his curved sword. Since it could prevent weapons from rusting, it was best to bring refined oil when adventuring, at least before acquiring Rare-grade weapons. It was not as though Rare-grade weapons did not require maintenance—even enchanted weapons would need to be taken care of regularly—but they no longer required constant care. This kind of care for one’s weapon was the proper attitude of an adventurer and a combatant.
Soran sheathed the curved sword after wiping it with a cloth once again. Perhaps because he had used a lot of energy in the previous battle and sustained blood loss from the thigh injury, he was tired and fell asleep not long after. Vivian got drowsy after looking at her sleeping brother for a while, and she leaned her head onto Soran's chest while being careful not to touch his wound.
Like that, the merchant squad continued travelling.
When the guards who were riding horses walked past the cart where the siblings were resting, they tried to reduce the noises they made out of respect for Soran. Soran probably could not defeat the guards in a one-on-one situation, but he still earned their respect in the battle with the ankhegs nonetheless.
In fact, Soran was not in deep slumber; he would rarely fall asleep completely when travelling in the wilderness. It was more like he was taking a nap instead, his mind half-awake while his body slept. Since he was aware of the dangers in the wilderness, he would never let his guard down, and the slightest of noises would alert and wake him up.
It was already late, yet the merchant squad still showed no intention of stopping.
Vivian was sound asleep in his arms when Soran finally woke up, so he tried to free his hands without waking her. His effort was in vain though, as Vivian yawned and rubbed her eyes, then asked, "Big brother, you woke up?"
Soran smiled and carressed her hair in response.
One of the merchant guards whom he fought together with against the ankhegs walked over and tossed him a bag of bread and smoked meat. The bread was all prepared beforehand, thus its texture was rather hard. The smoked meat was easier to eat as it was slightly warm and had a better taste.
Travelling in the wilderness was a tough task, so travellers did not pay much heed to the quality of food they ate during their journey. Most carried their food inside their clothes with a waist strap to keep their meals from becoming icy cold, and it was effective to a certain extent.
Soran tore a piece of bread and handed it to Vivian along with a slice of smoked meat. Since the squad did not stop and start a fire for preparing their meals, there was no soup or stew available.
Soran ate the bread and took a sip of water to make it easier to chew, then told Vivian in a low voice, "I'll fetch you something good when we camp tonight."
This was the wilderness; hunting a rabbit or two was a piece of cake for Soran, who had extraordinary reflexes and agility. There were no signs of human activity anywhere, implying that he might be able to find a wide variety of wild game.
Vivian was not picky about food, and she quietly ate her meal beside Soran.
All of a sudden, she tensed up and looked at the nearby forest. Vivian tugged Soran's clothes with her small hands and said worriedly, "Big brother. Something is looking at us."
Soran stood up vigilantly and placed his hand on the hilt of his curved sword. He surveyed their surroundings carefully but was unable to find anything. However, Soran could still guess who the observers were from his past experiences.
"It's fine," he said, patting the young girl's head, and continued, "Those are gnolls which live in this area. They probably noticed us trespassing in their territory.
"There’s nothing to worry about. They won't dare attack a large merchant squad like ours, so it will be fine when we leave their territory."
Gnolls were one of the most common types of monsters in the wild.
They had sharp claws and teeth and agile bodies, as well as considerable intelligence, posing a much greater threat than goblins or kobolds.
Gnolls tended to attack those who travelled alone and rarely assaulted large-scale merchant squads unless they were completely confident.
Gnolls, being carnivorous, tended to form tribes with rather small numbers. Most tribes only had fifteen to thirty gnolls, and those were further split into families of five to eight. Rather than fighting against heavily armed guards, they would instead hunt goblins and kobolds to fill their stomachs. At the very least, hunting goblins and kobolds was the safer choice.
If they attacked armed humans, they would more often than not suffer casualties. As long as people travelled in groups of five or more, the gnolls would most likely let them pass. Even if they chose to attack the group, they would first tail their prey for a while before launching a sneak attack during the night.
The forest grew denser as the merchant squad continued to travel, thus the guards reduced their scouting range and increased the number of guards who were leading the way to five. These measures were done to ensure that they could provide sufficient support in case of emergencies.
Some of the merchants began grumbling in dissatisfaction, as travelling in the dark was both dangerous and troublesome. The cows and horses would slow down if their surroundings got too dark.
As if answering their complaints, a bright full moon appeared in the sky. The cool, chilly moonlight illuminated the road, making it easier for the squad to travel.
The merchant guards lit their torches while the workers began fixing theirs onto the carts. The mysterious mistress silently stepped out of her carriage and looked around, then pointed her finger at the top of her carriage and chanted a weird half-syllable.
Light—a globe of light materialised on top of the carriage.
Considering that her spell had an effective range of roughly one hundred feet (around thirty meters), the mistress certainly had considerable levels in the Wizard profession.
The merchant squad cheered as she finished casting the spell. The power of magic was a source of encouragement for many, and the merchants also felt safer after witnessing the mistress' abilities.
"Big sis is so good at magic." Vivian crept next to Soran. "It was so tiny when I used Light, but everywhere's so bright when she uses it!"
Soran stared at the cart while deep in thought; he found it hard to believe that the mysterious mistress was in fact an advanced witch who was at least Level 15.
The light brought convenience to the squad, but it also exposed their location. Pairs of dark green eyes could be seen staring at them in the dark forest; they belonged to the nearby wolves and wild beasts.
The loud and clear howl resounded throughout the area, and an alpha wolf the size of a cow emerged from behind a short hill; it was a wild worg.
It glared at the distant merchant squad, locking its gaze onto the large carriage in the center. As if it could sense the stare from the mistress, the worg shuddered in fear and let out a low howl. Replying howls could be heard from the wolves hiding in the forest answering their leader. The pairs of green eyes disappeared as they turned around and followed the retreating worg.
Worgs had decent intelligence for wild beasts, with some of them being even smarter than warhorses. There was plenty of prey available in the wild, thus there was no need to bother with such a heavily guarded merchant squad, not to mention the fact that there was a wizard (witch) among them.
It was as if their fear toward spellcasters was within their blood. Countless past experiences allowed these beasts to learn that those who could cast spells were not to be trifled with.
As long as they were not provoked, wild beasts would rarely attack enemies who could cast spells.
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