The salt mine was surrounded by an imposing iron fence. The gate on the southern side opened onto a road for transporting salt and daily necessities. In the mornings, the gatekeeper would open the door, but since there was no gatekeeper now, the gate remained closed.
If I search the gatekeeper’s hut, I will probably find the keys.
However, Van decided to climb the fence without opening the gate. Even though he knew that the top of the fence had spikes, both to prevent slaves from escaping and to guard against invaders, he didn’t want anyone to realise that someone had escaped.
Standing on an inverted bucket he had found in the dump by the fence, he folded up a horse blanket he had also scavenged and threw it over the spikes. Then he tossed his baggage over to the other side, before climbing over the fence with the baby on his back.
Once he was over the fence, he stood on his toes and ripped down the blanket, throwing it over again to fall on the other side. With luck, it would look as though the bucket and the blanket had simply been blown from the trash dump by the wind.
Well, if they set dogs on us, this won’t be enough to let us get away, though.
Thinking about it now, he realized that he hadn’t heard any dog barking at all. Although the slave overseers always had several dogs with them for the intimidation factor, there was no sign of any dogs.
Were they also finished off by those beasts?
It wouldn’t surprise me if they had been bitten to death, not if they had been attacked when they were chained in the dog house.
I should have investigated it yesterday.
But yesterday the dogs didn’t even cross my mind.
I’m pretty dumb, huh?
All this time living hopelessly as a slave must have eroded something in my mind without me realising. I have stopped paying attention to things that would have been second nature to me in the past.
Looking into the dense forest spread out before him, Van breathed a sigh.
Probably because he was carrying it in the sling that he had found next to the mother’s body, the little girl had obediently clung to him through the entire ordeal, not making a sound. Thanks to that, he has been able to cross the fence much more easily than he had expected.
“…You really are a good girl.”
As he muttered this under his breath and rocked her a bit, the baby piped up cheerfully, “Nyaga, tonton!”
She was probably used to being carried on her mother’s back. Van started to walk with the luggage in hand and the baby, heartily babbling something with her small voice, on his back.
Thankfully his body felt light, likely an outcome of his belly being filled with plenty of food. Even though he was carrying a child, had a sword strapped to his hip, and was holding a bow and quiver in one hand and the luggage in the other, it didn’t bother him at all.
The forest was deep, and all the trees grew upwards towards the distant sky. Even now, with signs of autumn visible everywhere, trees that hadn’t yet lost their leaves still formed a canopy, blocking out the sun. It was a quiet and gloomy forest, but the undergrowth wasn’t too thick, and he didn’t have much trouble navigating it even without a path.
Van didn’t have a clear idea what he was going to do from now on. His hometown had already fallen into the hands of the conquerors.
Like a wave, the Akafah Kingdom was slowly but inexorably being swallowed by the Ziol Empire. The Toga Mountainous District, the westernmost point of the Akafah Kingdom, would be swallowed up last. Even children knew that there was no hope against the huge Empire, but it was also a commonly-known fact that small border clans would be treated like slaves if they submitted without resisting.
Even if they wished to run, the Muconia Kingdom, which was known to be far crueler in its reign than Ziol, blocked the way to the west.
Because the Akafah Kingdom cleverly pledged its allegiance to Ziol early on, and had already been granted a certain status within the Empire, the people of Akafah were guaranteed commoner status within an imperial province.
However, even though the clans spread across the Toga Mountains District spoke the same language and repelled foreign invaders like Muconia as part of the Akafah army, they weren’t considered <Akafan>. Since they were allowed independence on the condition that they swore fealty towards the King of Akafah, the people of Toga were not included when the Akafan became Ziolians after Akafah was ceded to Ziol.
Since Ziol had advanced on them over a number of years, the administration of Akafah’s main provinces had been taken over with minimal disruption. When the Empire genuinely began to work towards subjugating Toga to complete their conquest, the King of Akafah dispatched messengers to every clan, telling them that he could negotiate in their stead to secure the safety of the clansmen and prevent Ziol from marching on them, so long as they pledged allegiance to the Ziol emperor at this point.
But the King of Akafah could only offer to「secure their safety」with his power. As the former ruler of what was now a province of Akafah, he would have no influence over their statuses after they submitted. The treatment of ethnic groups had great influence on the control over the borders of the empire, and as such, it was not appropriate to have the former ruler of a province involved in such talks.
Ziol had a policy of deliberately separating the people in the lower classes from their old land, and having them settle in distant, conquered territories. If they were to be included into Ziol as people of lower class and not as commoners like the people of Akafah, they would be forced to live a harsh life in an unfamiliar, distant land.
The path that the chiefs of the cornered Gansa Clan chose after many long discussions was to put up a <Resistance>. The plan was to prove to Ziol that they were valuable assets. By resisting to the bitter end and demonstrating their might as a warrior clan, they would ultimately negotiate to become the first line of defense in the western region in exchange for favorable conditions. They thought that they might be able to keep living in their native lands if they could gain Ziol’s recognition as a defensive force that could make use of their familiarity with the terrain to control the border with Muconia.
The keys to this plan were the ones who would sacrifice themselves as death soldiers in this hopeless battle were referred to as <Lone Horn>. <Lone Horn>, a band of warriors consisting of men who had strayed from a normal life.
It was a traditional system from the time when the gods wandered this world in the shape of Flying Deer. The men in <Lone Horn> had all pledged to die in defense of the clan, should it be necessary, in exchange for being exempt from the laws of the clan. Even outsiders, who may have ended up in Toga after leaving their hometowns for one reason or another, could be accepted as members of the clan if they volunteered to join <Lone Horn>. ──It was exactly because such an organisation existed that the clan chiefs could come up with the plan of resistance.
The Toga Mountainous District was located at the western border of Akafah. They had been continuously tormented by invasions from the west. The invaders didn’t just bring war, they also brought disease. Plagues had occurred multiple times, particularly in the last few decades, resulting in some of the smaller clans losing almost all their members.
Countless men had lost their families to war and disease, drifting away from their former homes and winding up in the care of the Gansa Clan. <Lone Horn> having grown bigger than ever before was another factor that had led to the clan chiefs concluding that this plan would be feasible.
When the clan chiefs proposed the plan to Van, who had been the leader of <Lone Horn>, he and his comrades had easily accepted it with a laugh.
In the depth of his heart, he had been grateful for the wonderful excuse to depart to the place where his wife and child were waiting that had presented itself to him. His parents, grandparents, and even his older brother had long departed and he, who had also lost his wife and child, had spent a long time living in an empty, meaningless daze.
The <Land of Everlasting Spring>, where his loved ones had presumably gone, was an eternal rest that welcomed those who had perished from sickness, calamity, or age, but would not accept someone who had taken their own life due to heartache. This was especially true for those who rode puyka, who had sworn to live on until they could ultimately go out in a blaze of glory for the lives of their comrades.
It was said that a cowardly, suicidal person, who succumbed to despair and broke that pledge, would have to eternally wander the path of daytime.
He felt like walking a pale white path with his shadow stretching out long behind him for all eternity rather suited him in some ways, but if the <Land of Everlasting Spring> truly existed, he didn’t want to subject his wife and son to the grief and pain of waiting for him forever.
It’s impossible for the living to know whether the <Land of Everlasting Spring> truly exists.
However, if I’m going to meet my end, I want to be able to join my wife and son in the Land of Everlasting Spring, Van thought.
After he had accepted the request of the clan chiefs, Van led his men, all of whom were burdened with the same hopelessness as him, and plunged himself into long days of battle. Luring the enemies into Toga’s steep mountains and forests where they couldn’t move freely on horse, they rode the puyka, which were extremely well-suited to mountain warfare, and mounted countless surprise attacks…
Their resistance lasted for nearly two years. Fear of the <Puyka Riders>, who suddenly appeared from the depths of the forest or on tops of steep cliffs, etched itself deeply into the hearts of the Ziolian soldiers. For a time they had even felt that the Ziol army had started to consider pulling out.
Their resistance finally bore fruit, and the clan chiefs were offered advantageous ceasefire conditions by Ziol.
As the negotiations continued to proceed, <Lone Horn> ignored the orders of the clan chiefs, acting like crazed extremists in a do-or-die-resistance as an unrelated party, and finally, after fighting fiercely in the battle of the Cashna Riverside, they were tragically scattered, magnificently fulfilling their duty.
The clan chiefs and the other men were quite resolute. They probably told the clans the truth though likely a slightly more glorified version, to respect the deaths of the <Lone Horn>. I’m worried that has happened to my hometown, but there are many in Ziol who would curse me for my deeds, and the chances of me being caught should I return are high. I don’t want to do anything that might implicate the clan.
…In any case.
The faint sunlight pierced through trees as they rustled in the wind.
I died in that place.
It’s ironic. A man like me managed to survive both the battle of Cashna Riverside and the salt mine.
Van smiled wryly as his earlobe was pulled by the small hand.
“What, are you hungry?”
The baby naturally didn’t answer, and started to play with Van’s earlobe, twisting and pulling at it with great enthusiasm.
He let her play since it didn’t hurt anyway, but the touch of her small fingers awoke distant memories in him, and a sharp pain pierced his chest. Pushing down the emerging emotions, Van turned his feelings and thoughts back to the future.
…Now then, I wonder what we should do next?
He vaguely remembered the geography of this area. After his wife and child had passed, leaving him behind, he had wandered, visiting all kinds of places for a very long time. Even after he learned that Ziol would attack, he and his comrades had disguised themselves as merchants, and gone around investigating Akafah inside and out, so he roughly knew where to find which city.
Anyway, I guess I’ll go have a look at Kazan.
Kazan is a huge trade city. In the past it was the capital of the Akafah Kingdom. Nowadays it has become the provincial capital where Ziol’s Imperial Governor ruled over Akafah. I know what to expect since I’ve been there twice. And, because it’s a trade city with a highly transient population, I should be able to gather plenty of information. Maybe some kind of job will come my way, too.
I also have to find foster parents for this lil’ one.
There’s a temple over there, and since people from all over visit the city, various gods worshiped by the people are enshrined in the temple. A priest might be able to help this orphaned child.
None of them were reliable prospects, but he had no choice but to try it anyway.
He had noticed that the sky had darkened a while ago, and just past noon, it began to drizzle lightly. With the dense cover of the trees above him, he didn’t get particularly wet, but Van untied the sling, lowered the baby, took off the hooded moku (mantle) he had worn, and put it then back on over the baby on his back.
Just as he began to rock the baby, who had begun to fuss over having a moku draped over her, he smelled smoke.
It was strange.
The scent that wafted over immediately informed him that a boar was being roasted over an open fire – he could almost see the scene before him.
A young man kindling a fire by himself in the shade of a pocket in a moss-covered rock…such a sight flashed through his mind for an instant, and then vanished.
Just when Van decided to look for an animal trail to avoid the area, the baby started to cry.
“Oncha, nyaga! Nyagaaa!”
She pushed against Van’s nape with both hands, irritated that she couldn’t get the moku off, and immediately started to bawl loudly. None of his rocking or whispered scolding managed to quiet her crying. She was so loud that startled birds flew off and mice fled through the thicket with a rustle.
“Whoa, wait a moment! How can you cry so loudly.”
As he gave up and addressed the small child, he heard a thin voice from the other side of the trees.
“…re, anyone there?”
It wasn’t in the Ziolian language, but that of Akafah. It had an accent characteristic of the people at the border lands. Probably because of that, the shout reminded him of his comrades. He was startled, but since it also had a slight northern accent, Van pulled himself together, and quickened his pace while ignoring the voice.
But the voice quickly began to plead pitifully. .
“If there’s anyone there, please! Please help me!”
Van reflexively stopped.
“Please, don’t go! Help! I can’t walk since I sprained my foot terribly!”
The voice sounded frantic. Usually he wouldn’t respond at all. There were many bandits in forests like this one. Getting close by pretending to ask for help, killing the softhearted people, and then stealing their belongings; such muggers were a dime a dozen.
However, he couldn’t help but hesitate. For some reason, he knew without a doubt that the man was young and by himself. He was convinced that the fleeting image that he had seen when he smelled the smoke reflected reality.
He couldn’t put his finger on why he was so sure.
──Is there really a moss-covered rock on the other side of these trees…?
I’m also quite the impulsive one, am I not?
The sobbing baby on his back, Van opened the mouth of his hunting knife’s sheath, ready to draw at a moment’s notice. He pushed his way through the thicket, slowly moving in the direction of the smoke.