A sonorous singing voice accompanied by the sound of water resounded through the air.
“Now, row with the currents towards the eastern great abyss, north to south.”
The oars are jarring at the ship’s stern with creaking sounds. The compelling north wind blows upstream the severe wintry northern sea route. The plain, raw sounds of the people’s paltry spills down upon the water’s surface.
“Neither ice, mountains, sand nor wood exist on top of water.”
There are two demonic domains existing in the eastern region of the continent possessed by the Asuria Kingdom. One of them is the Lifeless Desert at the northeastern tip and the other is the Impure Illusionary Forest at the southern end. If you are talking about the greatest demonic domain of the continent, there is still the Heaven’s Boundary Mountain Range, which stretches from east to west as if dividing the human’s sphere and is occupied by huge ice fields freezing all life.
Asuria Kingdom as well as the Eberia Empire have both determined the Heaven’s Boundary Mountain Range to be their northern border, but rivers, holding abundant amounts of water, are originating from there. One of them is the Eastern Dragon River in the eastern part of the continent, that flows southwards as if selfishly attempting to split the Asuria Kingdom into two parts. However, there is no one who has seen the end of its journey as it reaches the ocean. That’s because the forest spreading in the lower reaches of the Eastern Dragon River is the Impure Illusionary Forest.
The Impure Illusionary Forest… is a large forest ruled by devilishness. The man, who held a sword at the side of the boat, stirred a bit and merely raked up the neck of the cloak. The creases of his imposing black eyebrows are deepening below the green hood.
The man’s name is Bertrand.
His stature, that also brimmed with the pride of a veteran, is now stained by fatigue sticking to it. It looks as if he is curling himself up completely using the sword as cane. The thought of his own fecklessness further aggregates the wrinkles on his forehead. Having a dazzling faith within his heart, there isn’t anything that could make him lose his way in his advance. But the current him is a man who couldn’t carry out his lord’s orders.
Bertrand traveled the vastness of the Asuria Kingdom for more than 2 years following Marko’s order to search for Jikil Rosa. It was a searching trip as if looking for a grain on a field covered by snow, that’s how distressing it was.
At any rate, searching for a person whose face he doesn’t even know is simply impossible. He might have caught sight of her at that fateful dilemma, but nothing more than the figure of Salomon was burned into Bertrand’s eyes within the chaos on the battlefield. His only help is that the other party owns an outward appearance characteristic to a certain minority group, but in the end that was to no avail since there are also other people with the same birthplace besides her.
Bertrand proceeded towards the capital of the Asuria Kingdom at the beginning.
On that day of the “Festival of the Holy Flame” Jikil Rosa was captured by the kingdom’s soldiers right on the spot when Salomon was burned at the stake. They discovered her as she infiltrated the plaza dressed up as village girl.
At those days Salomon was isolated and helpless in the capital. Completely dissolving the troops he led at the time of destroying the army of the Eberia Empire and changing the assignments of the military commanders, that were his subordinates, many of them were stationed close to the front at the Plain of Wandering Calamity. Not only did they break up the volunteer army so that not a single soldier remained, they were even monitored for the period of a whole year.
The king, the church and even the masses… I wonder just how many people were afraid of Salomon’s clout? The aspects of being tied by reverence and dread have the same nature. Even after leaving the front, Salomon, who ruled over death in that land, dominated them all. Bertrand can do nothing but agree. There is no means to escape for anyone. That’s because death is such a beast.
The princess’ statement might have been the excuse. However, for the hearts of the whole nation it was oil that flared up the flames during that wild party. But that’s only natural. Society will do anything if it’s for the sake of pushing its anxiety aside.
For this reason, Bertrand admires the action of Jikil Rosa, who at that time made a deed capable of turning all of society into her enemy. You may even call it the appearance of a martyr. The crazed masses should have craved for her death without doubt. Or they might have believed in her death after having seen her taken away. However, she hasn’t been killed. Jikil Rosa was handed over into the custody of the church and safely released afterwards.
The accuracy of that information was high. It cost quite a lot, but he listened to the story of an old woman who personally took care of Jikil Rosa in the church at that time. He was told by the people from the agency that she had already gone insane due to old age, however once he visited the old woman in her filthy hut, Bertrand unveiled this to be no more than a rumour spread to deceive the world. That old woman was also one of the minority.
Her ethnic group is one possessing darkish skin and red eyes as they try to live in hiding in the large ice fields. And, they are also owning the trait of anti-aging longevity. Whether it’s a lie or the truth, it is supposed that their ancestors were dark elves, who are known to be evil in illustrated stories. Their longevity means living for more than 150 years. Moreover, their back won’t even buckle.
Even the old woman, who was secluded in her hut, was intellectual and vigorous for her own age. Although she didn’t believe in Bertrand’s objective until the bitter end, she at least didn’t transmit a malicious intent and talked about the situation back then in a whisper.
Jikil Rosa, who was brought to the church in a death-like state, stayed idle as if around her time had stopped without even showing any kind of emotions. Sometimes her red eyes, famous as demon eyes, were staring into empty space. No matter at what place she was, she always only faced southwards.
Also, Jikil Rosa was treated as a guest rather than as prisoner. Without even any examination and interrogation, she was simply under house arrest keeping her in a room isolated from society, the old woman recollected. She was left alone.
Though only sometimes, a person came to interview her. Bertrand also knew the name of that person.
Joachim Beck. He is now a middle-aged man possessing a certain influence in the church as bishop. He still had the social rank of priest at the time, place and occasion of Jikil Rosa’s arrest. He was the man who directed Salomon’s execution by burning at the stake by his fervent intimation and gestures on the platform.
The woman, who tried to rescue Salomon, was visited by the man, who led the masses to kill Salomon.
However, Bertrand doesn’t comprehend the meaning of that. The old woman doesn’t know either. It could have been compassion, scorn or an attempt of faith’s guidance. It is completely unknown, however, Joakim was also the person who ordered the safe release of Jikil Rosa. There was no doubt in that, the old woman strongly asserted.
He chose a suitable time, when Jikil Rosa’s lingering excitement cooled down, to free her… that’s the only result remaining, Bertrand was bewildered. And at the same time he harbored feelings of admiration that it had gone the way Marko had predicted it.
“There is the possibility that she was arrested by the church temporarily, however she should have been released safely.” (Marko)
It might have been words spoken due to some kind of foresight and knowledge. Bertrand reflected how foolish he was when he pursued death by nothing but the distance between swords on the battlefield. Won’t someone, who is really controlling death, seize the distance to death from one end to the other of the continent… ? That’s what he thought.
On the other hand Bertrand was tormented by not having a trail more than he expected. Was she someone who secluded herself from society? Or was she someone hiding herself considering her own safety? Either way, he was going to unveil the secret of Jikil Rosa. He was lost because of pacing too hurriedly.
Therefore Bertrand decided to keep up the search by using two ways. The first method was to scatter his subordinates all over the country so that they could call upon each and every young woman of the minority. Even if they don’t know her face, it is a fact that she is a warrior. It will take money and time, however it is possible to obtain information from the underworld as well.
The other method, Bertrand himself would do, was to trace the locations related to Salomon. This one is the result of carefully considering Jikil Rosa’s emotions. She, who lost Salomon, has made her way to one of those locations… although I’m not sure what kind of relationship these two shared, if I take into account her appearing at the site of the execution under risk of her own life, the possibility for that seemed to be very high.
And thus Bertrand’s journey began.
He was tracing her from the capital to the battlefields close-by to the cities which were enveloped in the maelstrom. At every place he went, he asked the people who knew about Salomon. Every day he headed to the next location after having listened to many of them. You could already call this Bertrand’s pilgrimage that he offers to his lord, Marko. Even while searching for Jikil Rosa, it was a journey of collecting the rumours of Salomon’s exploits.
He was born in in a farm village of the Marquis Maruyalanta territory in the north of the Asuria Kingdom. Having quickly lost his mother who gave birth to him and being shunned by the second wife, he started his public duty. Resolving this kind of discord caused by having no blood relation, the village’s elders praised his method. It seemed a lot was expected by the village of the bright Salomon. And then Salmon’s father and mother-in-law died. I hear it was due to sickness.
His place of employment became a merchant’s store in the territorial capital. Going by the clerk of that place, which is even now known as a large store, Salomon was an exceedingly excellent merchant. He was promoted from apprentice to sales clerk to head clerk at rapid strides.
“I was always only taught this. There were many people who adored him dearly since he was a fair person though strict. He had many enemies due to being too excellent, but, well, if you put aside the 2 or 3 people he erased socially… there weren’t any people who went against him publicly, you know.” (Clerk)
Though he doesn’t get angry easily, it wouldn’t end without any victims once he got into that state… He was such a kind of merchant. It was something the clerk talked about happily, but he said that Salomon’s end was deplorable.
“Salomon an evil person? … The war probably made him go insane, right? Or maybe he swallowed the medicine of a witch? I can’t bear it either way. I can’t even pray for his happiness in the next life openly.” (Clerk)
This clerk, who spent time together with Salomon in their apprentice period, smiled awkwardly and returned to the store. He didn’t try to put his hands on the money, prepared as reward, at all.
With the birth of the soldier Salomon, he rose to being a man of valor in the Asuria Kingdom easily.
The hero, chosen by the church holding a holy ceremony, skilfully led the army as patriotic leader. He stirred up the momentum of counter-offensive in Asuria Kingdom, whose situation was gradually getting worse and worse. The war fronts alternated between west and east. The merchants also actively transported goods accordingly. It was at such time. The soldiers of a certain fortress were lured out and furthermore crushed by the Eberia Empire’s army. With that impetus the fortress was besieged. The soldiers were confused and the commander, supposed to lead them, was cooped up in bed.
Was it coincidence or inevitability? … There was a man who was staying at this particular fortress due to having brought in goods. It was Salomon.
Salomon, instructing the subordinates of the merchants as head clerk, carried out the goods outside the fortress. It caused both armies to be surprised. The kingdom’s army didn’t remember handing down such an order. The imperial army assumed it to be nothing else but submitting the goods before surrendering. Finishing the transport while not being interrupted by either, Salomon, who selfishly opened the gate, selfishly closed it once again. The soldiers inside and outside the fortress likely stared dumbfounded at the goods piled up in front of the gate.
“And here’s what boss said! I did as I liked since I still haven’t received the payment. For you guys it’s fine to do as you like as well, whether it is to fight or to escape!”
The man, who stood up and moved over while gulping down sake, was at that time a volunteer soldier who was jammed into that fortress. He is a former convict known in the city as parasite, but as for Bertrand his charges were something giving him a favorable impression. Damage of property, violence, rioting… the reason he caused those was because 「I heard the slandering of boss」. The person called boss is Salomon.
“We wouldn’ be able ta hole up in da fortress as da goods had been taken out, so we ha’to fight as well. Well, there was no way reinforcements were comin’ even if we holed up in da fortress in da first place. Having said dat, dat didn’ mean we coulda fight directly from da front either since on top of losin’ out on da numbers, the commander was stayin’ in bed due to injury.” (Hoodlum)
The former volunteer soldier, enthusiastically talking about it with many gestures, said “However,” while even laughing ferociously.
“Dat’s why we understood. We didn’ have any choice left but to escape like daredevils. Did boss consider to somehow hold da fortress together with da injured commander before doin’ something reckless as this? It was somethin’ pointless ta think about. Besides, we didn’ even had da time to leisurely think about dat either.” (Hoodlum)
And they went into action. Having no one else left, they seeked instructions from Salomon. They escaped in a line by opening the gate on the enemy’s weak side. It was possible to do so within the confusion of command. The enemy camp, who had lost its fighting spirit for an unknown reason, tried to keep their lives while being rushed by a zealous, ferocious group. The battlefield turned into mayhem.
Many broke through the enemy lines although it caused victims. Moreover they weren’t pursued either. On top of the fortress being intact, a large amount of goods had been simply placed in front of the enemy’s eyes. It might also have been an effect of the running a lot wearing seedy-looking attires. Even though only few, who had a social rank, remained not able to ignore the commanders.
“However, dat wasn’ the end. Boss envisioned how things will turn out. Though we considered da penalty connected to deserting from the army, just survivin’ in dat situation was a tight fit. Cause of dat, he asked us whether we wouldn’ keep him a bit company since he wanted to go pick up the lost property.” (Hoodlum)
And it turned into a plan.
While rallying the escaping soldiers, Salomon called together the soldiers who were scattered in the previous skirmish at the same time. Hoisting a flag he had borrowed, he stipulated a do-or-die defensive battle with the purpose of sharing the fate of the commander in the fortress and even promised rewards for the people who struggled hard… he bet on an assault upon the fortress that was on the verge of falling.
Something like gathering the goods was just a camouflage. Salomon’s aim was to make the fortress itself a live bait.
Discarding the goods of the merchants, having many soldiers escape and furthermore somehow even unable to surrender to get away from the battle, the fortress’ soldiers were forced into a do-or-die battle of holding the fortress… should they be sympathized with? Or, being broken through by a group similar to starving wolves although being bewildered how to handle the goods piled up in front of them, receiving a frenzied resistance once they attacked the fortress with new fighting spirit and furthermore having victory in front of their eyes, the imperial army was stabbed with blades in the back… should they be sympathized with?
Turning the state of the chaotic battlefield into a state of feverish mood, it became a formal victory of the Asuria Kingdom’s army due to the retreat of the Eberia Empire’s army. Without killing the commander, without stealing the fortress, they even left the goods at the place they’ve been placed. Instead the management in proportion to the plundered items had increased.
“And then boss said. These goods are still things belonging to me. Considering your circumstances, I will decrease the amount to be paid a bit. Then da lowered amount was distributed to us. Dat was da reward he lured us with!” (Hoodlum)
Even as the dispute with the people in charge of the kingdom’s army unfolded into a second battle, the intensifying war situation produced many compromises and selfishness. In conclusion Salomon became a soldier. It was a form of enforced recruitment called attachment to the volunteer army after having applied on-site. It meant “Though we won’t punish you, go and die.”
Who could have guessed that this decision would influence the kingdom’s fate on a grand scale?
“… What do they mean with hero. Is it dat remarkable to die beautifully? Huh? Boss was a genius at winning. He roared a shout of victory at us, who were neglected within the fortress and accepted death after losing miserably. What’s with dat? Damn it! Just as we lost the worry of losing, they killed boss… damn it! Sons of a bitch!!!” (Hoodlum)
It might be due to his war wounds. Bertrand slipped a larger portion of money into the hand of the former volunteer soldier, who had one leg and one arm. No matter how many former volunteer soldiers he met afterwards, all of them kept their affections towards Salomon hidden within their chests.
It didn’t even take much time for the group to be called like that. Bertrand is able to guess the reason for that from the words of the former volunteer soldiers. It’s victory. Though it turns into the story of whether chicken or egg was first, the soldiers, who were led by Salomon, believed in victory and thus they won. Without doubt the unifying force of “fight once you start to fight” increased.
How many cities did he visit? On how many battlefield did he stand?
He walks to the north as Salomon’s life was in the kingdom’s north. After that grave battle, which overwhelmed Bertrand, Salomon, returning to the capital, vanished within the flames. His corpse, which had turned into charred remains, hadn’t been put into a tomb either. It was simply dumped into the river. And a single woman was captured.
Jikil Rosa’s footprints were nowhere to be found.
There was absolutely no information about her from his subordinates.
At last, at the time he could do nothing else, Bertrand decided to head south.
It was due to him remembering something he was told by the old woman of the minority people. It was about Jikil’s eyes, even if they were called demon’s eyes, gazing often to the south. It was a far too ambiguous information, however he had no other choice anymore but to cling to it.
The Impure Illusionary Forest.
In a small village close to the large forest that is an ominous place outside the human world in the south, Bertrand finally procured plausible information. A man, who was a shepherd before, saw a woman, who appeared to be Jikil Rosa, head into the forest. If that was really her, she shouldn’t be found anywhere else.
And Bertrand pushed his way through the demonic domain… having experienced something difficult to describe, he is now jolting atop a ship.
“The southern demonic domain is the forest of witches. If children enter it, their souls are twisted and wither.”
He listens to the singing voice of the boatman in the back. Since only this section of the lyrics strangely resounded within his heart, Bertrand stood up and grasped his word tightly. Unpleasant sweat is tracing down his cheek.
(After reporting this major information temporarily, next time for sure, I will wager this life… !) (Bertrand)
A conspicuously cold wind was blowing.
Once he looked… the far away ridgeline of the Heaven’s Boundary Mountain Range stood out sharply in the clear sky.