Being guided by Rudophus, Kuffner passed through the abandoned fort and surveyed the situation in the city, just to shout out in shock, “T-This is…!”
All he could see was a truly deserted town. Not a single of the 3,000 dwarves, who were supposed to live here, was visible anywhere. Their replacements were countless scarecrows. Moreover, those scarecrows were nothing more than simple, wooden crosses that had been rammed into the ground with armors and helmets as decorations. They were made so crudely that they’d have been exposed right away if not for the shadows within the fort, but this fact only served to fan their vexation even further.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just limited to scarecrows either. Cows and goats, who had been released from their barns, were carefreely grazing at the roadsides around the scarecrows. Ropes had been tied to the cattle. At the other end of those ropes were spears which had been stabbed upright into kettles and pots filled with stones. As the cows and goats moved around in search of food and water, they dragged the pots and kettles along, making it look from a distance as if people holding spears were walking around.
“In other words, they made us watch over scarecrows and cattle for the last three days…?”
As he gradually came to a realization of the situation, anger welled up within Kuffner’s chest. Acting on impulse, he kicked a nearby spear pot over. However, the spear, which had been planted upright inside the pot with its round bottom, got back up based on the same principle as a self-righting doll. Kuffner’s nose took a hearty bash by the spear that powerfully jumped back up thanks to the recoil, causing him to squat down due to the severe pain.
Rudophus turned a blind eye on the blunder of his comrade.
“…I’m having my soldiers search the town right now. We’ll hear from them soon enough if they find something.”
Just as he predicted, a soldier came to report a short time later that they had found a building where the soldiers, who had been stationed here, were locked in. In response to those news, Kuffner and Rudophus ran over in a hurry. The place where the soldiers had been imprisoned was a slave hut, similar to a jail, which had been previously crammed with dwarven slaves. Although they hadn’t been killed, the soldiers were in a terrible state after having stayed there for several days without having their wounds treated on top of having been given only little food.
The soldier with the highest rank among the rescued soldiers tried to express his thanks and apologize, but Kuffner interrupted him.
“Rather than that, the copper! Where’s the copper!?”
Even though Kuffner had grabbed his collar and was violently shaking him, resulting in his head bouncing back and forth, the soldier answered, “If it’s the copper for the capital, we had it all placed on wagons, and moved to the square…”
“Where’s the square!? Where!?!”
As soon as the soldier pointed in the direction of the square, Kuffner tossed the soldier away and rushed off. After ordering his soldiers to treat their rescued comrades, Rudophus chased after Kuffner.
At the time when he finally caught up to Kuffner, the young officer stood stock still in the middle of the road, utterly dumbfounded. Looking back after noticing Rudophus’ presence, Kuffner revealed a hollow smile, his cheeks cramping. And then he pointed a trembling finger at the square in front of him.
“R-Rudophus, the wagons are…there’s no copper…!”
Let alone the wagons loaded with copper, not a single piece of copper could be seen anywhere. All that was left on the deserted square were many deep wheel tracks.
Souma’s surroundings got excited by Garam’s report that they had successfully taken large amounts of copper out of Marven alongside all dwarves.
“To have a whole town of dwarves emigrate; you’re doing bold things as usual.” Marchronis commented on Souma’s plan to take in all the dwarves of Marven.
In this era, towns and villages formed their own world. Abandoning that world and emigrating was usually unthinkable. Of course there were occasions where people were driven out of their towns and villages during wartimes, but in such cases, most of them had no choice but to become refugees. The fate awaiting such people was being hunted down by bandits or dying a dog’s death at the roadside. In short, abandoning your city was synonymous to death.
This alone dampened the support for this plan for many people, just like Marchronis. For the sake of winning these people over, Souma brought up a precedent he knew of.
“It’s a story of the past I’ve heard, but when a ruler, known for his deep benevolence, had no choice but to give up on his city and run away in light of an approaching, big enemy army, the citizens, who adored their ruler, followed his lead. ――This time we have done our utmost to prepare everything that’s needed in advance. I don’t consider it impossible at all.”
Everyone could come to terms with that explanation. However, had Souma continued to explain the precedent in detail, they might have reacted differently. The precedent mentioned by Souma was something he had read in the manga “Annals of the Three Kingdoms.” It was about the time when Liu Bei evacuated Xinye to get away from Cao Cao‘s advancing army. Even Marchronis and the others would never expect that Souma had gotten the idea from a book he read for entertainment.
Moreover, the notification of Holmea’s soldiers having stormed Marven was delivered by Pipi at that point.
“So they realized only now that 《Ferocious Fang》 and the others left the town long ago, huh?”
As Holmea’s army had been led around by the nose thanks to Souma’s plan, Shyemul was looking as if she could barely hold herself back from jumping around in joy, but next to her, Souma donned a troubled look. Mostly because Holmea’s army had moved quicker than he had anticipated.
At present, the soldiers that could be sent to Marven on short notice should only be those of the royal army at the capital. Extracting soldiers from the capital’s defense was a serious matter, and nothing that could be done within a day. This swift response despite that limitation only allowed the assumption that the soldiers had moved based on someone having predicted this incident.
But, the attack on Copper Mine Marven had been carefully planned and prepared over close to five years. It was unthinkable that someone had seen through it, nor did there exist any signs of it having happened.
Souma tried to laugh it off as himself being too much of a worrywart. However, the name of a certain man suddenly crossed his mind.
However, Souma immediately expelled it out of his mind. It was hard to imagine that this man had done something after having fallen in disgrace with King Warius, resulting in him being placed under house arrest and losing most of his supporters.
Anyway, even if I try to speculate about the reason for Holmea’s swift response now, I’m simply lacking information to come to a conclusion.
Making a clear cut here, Souma gave priority to dealing with what was going on now.
“Pipi, please pass on the following to Garam: You’re free to discard the copper in the worst case. Your lives matter the most.”
Holmea should put more emphasis on recovering the stolen copper than slaughtering the runaway dwarves. If they throw the copper away in a dire situation, it might be able to buy them enough time to escape while Holmea’s army picks up the copper.
Once Pipi confirmed the message for Garam, she took an approach run in a jog, flapped her arms (and thus wings) widely, and took off into the sky. After circling a few times, Pipi flew off eastwards.
Shyemul hesitantly called to Souma who watched Pipi fly away, “Hey, Soma. Is it okay for us to not go pick them up?”
‘She’s not clearly voicing it out, but I guess she’s worried about her brother after all.
Souma apologetically shook his head, “That’d be a bad idea.”
Souma’s group was merely training the new recruits over here, but that alone already drew the attention of Holmea’s soldiers on the other side of the river. If they were to head out in order to pick up Garam’s group, they’d also lead Holmea’s soldiers to them.
After explaining as much, Souma smiled so as to give Shyemul a peace of mind, “It’ll be okay. I’ve taught Garam a plan for times when push comes to shove. Besides――” Souma stared in Holmea’s direction with a ill-boding smile, “――if the ones leading Holmea’s unit are ordinary people, they won’t be able to find Garam and the other so easily.”
“Copper! We must get back the copper at any cost!” Kuffner stressed, sending his spit flying. “On top of having women, children, the elderly, and sick as well as injured people with them, the runaway dwarves took a huge amount of copper! They should be moving like turtles. Hence, it should still be more than possible to catch up with them!”
Rudophus agreed with this view as well. However, just in case he designated 500 infantrymen to thoroughly search the mine and its circumference. Suspecting the possibility that the dwarves only pretended to have carried the copper away while in reality having hidden it in the area was very typical for the cautious Rudophus.
“Listen! Investigate every possible place, be it areas that have been dug up just recently, tunnels that caved in a little while ago, above the ceilings and below the floors of every house, inside the walls, and even the shit holes in the lavatories! Locate the copper, no matter what it takes!”
After instructing the infantrymen, Rudophus returned to the road together with Kuffner, each leading their respective soldiers. Having been strictly ordered by King Warius to recover the copper, both led their soldiers further and further westwards, following the road in pursuit of the dwarves and the stolen copper.
Of course, the men were given almost no rest. Because of that, several men dropped out after losing all their stamina. However, without even looking back at those soldiers, Rudophus and Kuffner galloped along the road, single-mindedly searching the area high and low.
But, even after one and the two days, they couldn’t catch up with the dwarves, who had seemingly vanished. Moreover, not a single one of the travelers they seized on their way reported a sighting of several thousand dwarves.
And then, at last, they reached Luoma, Holmea’s westernmost city while still unable to spot the fleeing zoan and dwarves. Even while puzzled just what was going on here, they quickly went to meet with Luoma’s lord.
As soon as they faced the lord, Kuffner asked him without any prefaces, “Did any dwarves carrying copper arrive in this place!?”
However, Luoma’s lord, who was busy handling the lords gathering in the city for the sake of the revolting slave subjugation, curtly dealt with Kuffner and Rudophus, telling them that he hadn’t seen or heard of any such people having come to Luoma.
Immediately following, the two were chased out of the lord’s residence because of Kuffner’s rude behavior.
As they looked at each other, Kuffner asked, “Rudophus, where are the dwarves and copper?”
“No clue. ――Didn’t we pass them somewhere along the way?”
They were talking about zoan and dwarves who could see well in the dark. It wouldn’t be strange for them to hide themselves somewhere during the day, limiting their traveling to the night. It was quite possible that they had overtaken the slaves at some point without noticing.
Kuffner and Rudophus, who believed this to be the case, scolded their exhausted soldiers, returning the way they came from a little while ago. However, this time they also searched all the places along the road, which seemed like they could be used by the dwarves to hide out such as forests and valleys. It took them twice as much time to reach a place close to Marven again.
And yet, they didn’t find a single trace of the zoan and dwarves, not to mention the copper.