The place where Erika led Kisa to after leaving Ilsa and the other two behind was a mountain ridge overgrown with trees.
Although he was told to get on top of it by Erika, there was only vegetation to be found there, making Kisa form a puzzled expression. Wondering just what might be here, Kisa tried to survey the surroundings and raise his head.
“Don’t raise your head as you please! You will be seen!”
Being reprimanded by Erika’s subdued voice, Kisa lowered his head in a hurry. Due to that Erika clicks her tongue once and then says,
“Look over there! Listen! Make sure to not shake the thicket.”
Kisa’s eyes followed the target of Erika’s finger, which seems so thin that it would be broken merely by a tap.
Once he did, he saw something white down the mountain on the other side of the ridge located in-between a small valley. However, it was impossible for Kisa’s eyes to make anything out from this distance.
“Don’t you get it from seeing it?”
Kisa pouts slightly due to Erika’s attitude of assuming that it’s only natural to see it.
“Don’t count on the eyesight of a former modern person.”
Kisa himself probably intended for that to be a monologue, but elves have such good ears that they wouldn’t even fail to hear the whispers of the wind. Erika overheard all of it.
However, not knowing the meaning of the word modern person, Erika is baffled as she doesn’t know how she should react.
Meanwhile Kisa opened the bag hanging at his waist while grumbling as he didn’t want to use it in front of someone he doesn’t really know, and took out something that was wrapped up in many layers of a soft cloth.
“I guess it will be fine as long as it doesn’t break.”
While saying so, Kisa unwraps the cloth.
Erika peeked at Kisa’s hands, curious about just what he has taken out, but once she saw the item appearing from within the cloth, she raises a little shriek in surprise.
What had been wrapped up by the cloth were two crystals in different sizes. Both have flat shapes. The larger one expands slightly towards the middle, and in contrast, the smaller one becomes narrower. However, neither of them has any cloudiness or distortions. It’s not like she’s well-informed about gems, but even Erika comprehended that these were quite expensive items.
Next Kisa takes out a thick leather from within his bag and creates a pipe by rolling up the leather with practiced hand movements. And then he inserts the larger crystal on one side of the pipe and the smaller one on the other side, affixing the crystals by tying them with strings that were affixed to the leather.
“Say, what’s that…?”
“Mmmh. A little good luck charm? I guess something like that.”
Saying that, Kisa started to look into the pipe from the side where the small crystal had been inserted.
Does he plan to evaluate crystals at such a time?
Due to Kisa’s bizarre behavior that doesn’t seem to match the time, place and occasion, Erika knits her well-featured brows.
However, it seemed as if Kisa hasn’t noticed her irritation at all.
“…This is…a tent, huh?”
Just as Kisa says, it was a tent made out of cloth that had obviously turned yellow from being exposed to the sunlight for a long time.
The place where the tent had been erected is a steep slope where trees are densely growing. It’s the only spot there with a gently-sloping, almost flat, surface. The tent being present likely meant that people are living there. Looking at the still thickly growing weeds that reach up to knee length, it appears as if the tent had been built up very recently.
Moreover, several simple sun-shading tarps were placed around the vicinity of the big tent. Men, who appeared to be ruffians no matter how you look at them, were sitting and lying sprawled out on cloths and pelts spread out on the ground below the tarps. They wore a mish-mash of attire that seemed to be whatever they liked.
Going by a rough count, I guess their number slightly exceeds ten.
“Those guys are bandits…?”
Even though she’s displeased with the attitude of Kisa, who asks in his spare time while still evaluating the crystal, Erika nodded and answered,
“Three of our elder sisters are being kept over there.”
Kisa asks, “Elder sisters?”, as if parroting her words.
“We are not connected by blood. However, for me they are more important than real elder sisters.”
As if matching with Erika’s reply, the scream of a woman could be heard from the bandits’ camp.
At that moment all blood visibly drains from Erika’s face.
The one who screamed is likely one of the captured elven women. Kisa looked for elven women inside the campsite, but he couldn’t find any. Then they are probably being held within the tent located in the middle. If it’s the sole, proper tent within the camp, it’s more than certain that the guys leading the bandits are to be found there. It’s pretty easy to guess what’s happening in there.
Erika wore such a grave expression that it looked as if she would rush towards the enemy camp at any moment. Kisa, concerned for her, grabs her hand to hold her back.
Once he does, Erika became pale up to her lips and her body trembled with a start. But, as she immediately realizes that the one grasping her hand is Kisa, her cheeks become red in anger and she violently shakes her arm.
I ended up making her angry, but even so, she seems to be much calmer than just a moment ago. Erika jerks her chin towards Kisa in order to get away from the camp while patting the hand he grabbed with an annoyed look.
Once they arrive at a place with plenty of distance to the bandits’ camp, Erika spoke up,
“It was that night, when we picked you up…”
In order to evade the eyes of their pursuers, Erika and the other girls tried to cross the river during the rain. They chose a place that seemed to be easy to cross and yet wasn’t visible by others in advance, but even so, it was a life risking gamble to cross the river which had swollen due to the rain. Even though it looked like their bodies would be swept up by the raging stream many times over, they desperately crossed the river, relying on the ropes they had tied around each others waists.
When everyone somehow managed to get on the other side safely, all of them were so exhausted that they couldn’t even form any words.
“That’s why we didn’t notice how those guys were approaching us.”
In addition to their senses dulling due to the fatigue, the sound of the rain, which continued to fall intensely, negated the sounds and presences of the approaching bandits. When Erika’s group noticed the bandits, they had already been surrounded.
“The elder sister, who noticed it first, told us to run away and deliberately went towards the bandits with another of our elder sisters.”
The voice of Erika, who remembers the scenery of that time, trembled slightly.
“We were taken along by the last remaining elder sister and somehow ran away. But, there was a bandit in front of us. Therefore our elder sister grappled with him while telling us to escape…”
At last Erika packed her words with the fury welling up from within her throat.
The details she mentioned were incoherent, but Kisa was able to grasp the rough outline.
Very likely the first two women had become decoys, and the remaining third woman probably held back the bandits by frantically using her body in order to allow Erika and the little girls to get away. Even Erika most likely didn’t want to escape while leaving her elder sisters behind. I believe that for the sake of the very young girls who were together with her, she ran away while harboring heartrending grief.
The appearance of the silent Erika, whose shoulders were trembling, was too painful to look at for Kisa. He slightly forcefully changed the topic.
“I heard that bandits appear around here, but for them to have a hiding place in such a place.”
“Do you know these guys?”
“Yeah. Most recently I heard rumors that bandits had appeared in this area.”
It’s an ongoing fact that such fellows infest the vicinity of the national border.
Because even patrolling soldiers can’t be readily moved since there’s the fear of pointlessly aggravating the neighboring country, the public order around the border tends to deteriorate. Also, since the bandits know that the patrolling guards won’t be able to catch them if they cross the border, they immediately take refuge in the neighboring country as soon as something happens, making their subjugation difficult.
Very likely the bandits have erected only one tent as hiding place so that they can move their base on short notice.
“Those guys are targeting former slaves who escaped after hearing rumors of Bolnis.”
Due to Kisa’s remark, Erika clicked her tongue and hit a nearby tree with the bottom of her fist.
Crossing the river by using the bridge that had been built in the southern plains is a popular route to go to Bolnis from Holmea. However, because the visibility in the plains is good and a fortress presently manned by the Holmean army, it’s a dangerous route for runaway slaves who have to avoid the eyes of people. For that reason, runaway slaves tend towards using hidden paths within the forests. And even if there are no bridges, they choose paths close to the northern mountains where the small width of the river makes it easier to cross.
Those bandits have probably anticipated that and are waiting for their prey after having spread out their nets around here.
We nicely leapt into the web spun by a poisonous spider.
Unable to watch Erika, whose body is quivering due to those regrets, Kisa hurriedly adds on his next words,
“B-But, it will be alright! Let’s hurry and go to Bolnis. Since we know the place where they are hiding, we will be able to finish them off without letting a single one of them escape alive!”
Kisa pushes out his chest full of confidence and drums on it.
“Leave it to me. Even though I might look like this, I do have a little bit of influence within the city.”
Kisa doesn’t look like such a reliable man, but due to him frantically trying to encourage her, Erika abruptly showed a sad smile.
“How nice would it be if that was possible…”
Kisa was perplexed as he didn’t understand what Erika wanted to say, but from her next words he understood the meaning of her smile.
“Once I returned to the place where we had been attacked, I found scraps of the clothes worn by my elder sister and a message addressed to us—”
At that point she stopped talking for a short break and then continued,
“—It told us to come to their place within three days. Otherwise they will kill our captured comrades.”
Very carefully, she carved even a map indicating the location of the bandits’ hideout on the trunk of a nearby tree from memory. Erika chewed on her lips.
“That’s a lie.”
In the eyes of the bandits, elven runaway slaves are valuable prey.
If this had been human or dwarven runaway slaves, they would have been able to receive the reward or prize money by taking their heads back to their owner after killing them. However, if it’s elven runaway slaves, there’s plenty profit from keeping them alive such as receiving the reward or selling them elsewhere.
“I know that!”
Erika spit out those words passionately.
“But! Do you think that I can abandon my elder sisters, who escaped with us up until here, and run away just because of that!?”
When the aftertaste of her angry words had disappeared, only painful silence ruled over the vicinity.
What Kisa managed to finally squeeze out after a time, where one could slowly count to ten, was nothing more than a common apology. However, Erika also regained her composure somewhat.
“Sorry. I went too far as well.”
After closing her lips tightly once as if she were putting up with something, Erika continued her words,
“But, even if I know that it’s a lie, I can’t abandon them. When I think that one of my elder sisters could be hurt by the bandits as retaliation for us having run away, I can’t bear it at all.”
It’s not only the debt of gratitude for having sacrificed themselves for the sake of saving us.
We are friends who supported each other as fellow slaves throughout those nightmarish days.
If it had been just me by myself, I would have likely gone crazy or ended my life long ago. ‘The reason why that didn’t happen is because I had friends who experienced the hardships of being slaves of humans together with me. Just by my friends being in the same circumstances as me, my heart was saved, albeit only a little. It can’t be put into words just how happy I was when my shoulders were gently touched as I shed tears due to the repulsive sensation of my body being so indelibly stained.
And yet, us shamelessly becoming free; there’s no way for that to be any good.
“I have a request.”
Erika said with a faint smile on her lips.
“Please, I’d like you to take those children to Bolnis.”
Kisa noticed that Erika deliberately didn’t say “us” but “those children.”
“No way, you are…!?”
“I will go to the bandit hideout.”
Erika says without showing any hesitation.
“But, if you do something like that…!”
“I know. —But if no one goes, they might really kill one of my elder sisters. If at least I go there…”
Kisa couldn’t condemn this as foolishness.
Even Erika has understood that already. Even so, she can’t go to Bolnis while discarding her captured friends.
“That’s why I ask you. Please, somehow, at least lead those children to Bolnis.”
Kisa finally realized why she had rescued him.
If I consider Erika’s circumstances, she probably doesn’t want to even look at a human man. Much less to say that it was nothing but painful for her to save my life. And yet she saved me for the sake of entrusting me with these children. From the very start she had planned to offer her body to the bandits.
Erika takes off the necklace that hung around her neck and held it out towards the surprised Kisa who couldn’t say anything in return.
Although it might be called a necklace, it was just a crystal piece with a hole where a string passed through. It’s a simple item where it’s easy to tell that it had been made by an amateur.
Looking at it properly, even the piece of crystal is a crude item with many impurities. A cluster of countless white needles had gathered together in the center of the crystal. It was a vertical, long and narrow cluster. The top and bottom of that cluster spread in a fan-shape. Many emerald crystal grains that look like algae are scattered around the folding fan’s part spreading to above.
There’s no mistake that it’s a mutated crystal, but by no means is it an expensive item.
“Doesn’t it look as if a tree is growing within the crystal?”
Kisa, who looked at the crystal piece once more after being told so, consented with an “Indeed.”
The bundle of white needle crystallizations as trunk, the lower part that spreads out as roots and the upper part, where the emerald crystal grains are scattered, as foliage.
“I discovered it in my childhood while playing at a dry river bed. For there to be a tree within a crystal, that’s unusual. So, when I brought it back home, dad affixed a string to it, changing it into a necklace.”
As if yearning for the memories of that time, Erika squinted and gazed at the crystal piece. Then she tightly shut her eyes obviously holding back her tears and hangs her head.
“This is my treasure.”
Erika took Kisa’s hand, dropped the necklace on his palm and forced his hand shut.
“That’s the only thing the current me can give you. Please, hear my request. Please save the children.”
Even if that’s a treasure for Erika, it’s no more than a simple, mutated crystal in the eyes of other people. To say nothing of Kisa possessing two crystals that are far more expensive. But even so, due to her misery and embarrassment that she can’t give him anything but something like that, Erika could only hide her face in silence, unable to even look straight into Kisa’s face.
However, Kisa didn’t laugh at that.
He fully understood the value of that necklace.
Certainly, as jewelry that necklace probably doesn’t possess that much value.
But, she was a slave.
There’s no way for a slave, whose body is essentially just a possession of another person, to have their own personal effects. It’s likely that such things would be thrown away‘ There are also humans who would take them away as entertainment.
Even so, she persisted in frantically protecting only this necklace.
Kisa was able to feel the heavy weight of the small necklace in his hand.
What to do? What should I do?
Kisa asked himself within his mind.
No matter how I think about it, it’s the worst possible situation.
On an emotional level he feels that he wants to save Erika and the others. If my own strength is necessary, I will lend it to them as much as they want.
But, if we try to rescue the captured elven women, very likely—no, definitely not only Erika, but even I will be exposed to danger. If we fail in rescuing the elven women and instead even Erika and the children are caught, it’ll be like putting the cart before the horse.
Besides, I’m an outsider to begin with. Erika hasn’t told me that she wants me to save her either. She asked me to take the little girls to Bolnis. There’s no reason for me to be blamed just because I did as I was told.
Kisa’s heart started to incline towards weakness.
At that moment.
“Please. Even if it’s only those children, I want them to be allowed to live on. The city of Bolnis is a country claiming to be a state where all races can coexist—”
Erika couldn’t bear the silence of Kisa, who doesn’t reply no matter how long she waits, and thus added even more words.
“—Going there is our dream.”
The effect of those words was dramatic.
No sooner than widening his eyes to the limit in surprise, next Kisa’s face becomes bright red with his whole body trembling slightly. After that lasted for a short while, he deeply drops his shoulders and spit out a grand sigh after having held back his breathing until then.
“Ah, damn it! Shit! If I’m told that, I can’t escape, now can I!? Aah! I will do it! I will make sure to get it done!”
Kisa shouts while briskly scratching his head.
“It’s not only those children! It’s everyone! I will take everyone to Bolnis!”
Erika stared in wonder due to Kisa’s words.