Hossal and Makokan made their way into the salt mine after lunch. Since all the mine overseers had unexpectedly died, they needed someone familiar with the interior of the mine to guide them. As such, Hossal had suggested to Yotal that they should discuss the initial relief measures over lunch.
The guide, who had been brought over by a soldier, was a man with white hair. He appeared to be over sixty years old, but his stride was confident, and he looked very healthy.
Makokan was taken aback when he saw him.
Yotal had unexpectedly brought an Akafan in as a guide and Makokan couldn’t help but glance at Hossal, but Hossal simply gazed blankly at the old man, his expression betraying none of his thoughts.
Having been led before Yotal, the man knelt and bowed his head.
“Oh, I remember you. You are the man called Grandfather and <Walking Library of Akafah>, right? If I remember correctly, your name was Tohrim or some such, wasn’t it?”
Tohrim lifted his head, and replied with a deep voice, “Yes, my name is Tohrim. I think we met once when you were just twelve or thirteen years old, Lord Yotal, and I certainly did not expect that you would still remember me. It’s a deep honor.”
Yotal smiled, “Indeed. It was before my coming of age ceremony. You’re right, it’s a distant memory, but I feel like this place was better organized back when you were serving as Head Overseer here.”
A conflicted look briefly passed through Tohrim’s eyes. Despite noticing it, Yotal’s expression didn’t change.
The Akafah Salt Mine had been discovered by the Akafans living in these lands, and it had produced salt for several hundred years, supporting the Akafah Kingdom financially. The mine had been forcibly converted from the traditional Akafan methods to being run on expendable slave labor during Yotal’s father’s generation, but while Yotal was aware that this change was not supported by the local Akafans, Yotal silently ignored it.
…This man is surprisingly smart.
Makokan saw Yotal in a more positive light.
For a young man hailing from the family of the lord entrusted with the Akafah territory, the frontline of Ziol’s western expansion, Yotal seemed a little too sensitive.
Indeed, he seems to be a man who prefers diplomacy over brute force. But perhaps it’s merely the facade hiding his unshakeable will. Unexpectedly, the rumor that he had married the niece of the Akafan King after personally visiting him and showing him the utmost respect might actually be true.
Back when that rumor made its rounds, I simply thought that it was a story Lord Ouhan purposely exaggerated to appear as a good ruler who treated the Akafan king, who had sworn fealty, with proper respect and not a cruel conqueror, but surprisingly it might be the real story.
As a matter of fact, last night, his wife and son seemed calm and happy in his mansion. Even if the mansion was built in the Ziolian style, it somehow exuded the nice open feeling of Akafan buildings, unlike Lord Ouhan’s castle for example. Besides, he also speaks respectfully towards Hossal and doesn’t abuse his authority as second son of the prince-elector.
Makokan judged, as he observed Yotal’s stately profile.
I think, for us, he’s a man to be valued. He might be able to rein in his elder brother, Utal, who’s as overbearing and arrogant as his father. If that is true, he could become an important bridgem, spanning the two races.
Come to think of it, he allowed Hossal in to make his observations before letting the clerical healers know. Just by that alone, his strong will and open-mindedness for the sake of profit is obvious. The Akafans might realize this as well.
Tohrim thanked him, though it was dispassionate and perhaps a little sarcastic, “Such words are wasted on someone like me. Back then I was inexperienced and it showed in my management, but it is truly an honor for you to remember it.”
Yotal nodded and turned to face Hossal.
“Are you acquainted with Tohrim?”
Hossal smiled, “Of course I am. Even a failure of an Otawalian like me, who has devoted all his time in the medical field, has been to Akafah multiple times in my youth.”
Yotal nodded, his face not revealing any thoughts he might have on what Hossal had just said.
“I suppose that makes sense.”
Makokan’s face became gloomy after hearing their exchange.
…What, so I was the only one who didn’t know Tohrim.
Picking up on Makokan’s expression with his sharp eyes, Hossal chuckled.
“It’s your first time meeting him, isn’t it? ──Tohrim used to work here as the Head Overseer of the salt mine. He knows everything there is to be known about this place; he’s truly a walking library. There’s no one better than him to guide us.”
Tohrim bowed while smiling wryly.
“It is an honor to meet you after all this time, Master Hossal. Thank you for your generous words. It is a great privilege for me to have been chosen to guide you into <Akafah’s Treasury>.”
Hossal smiled pleasantly in return, “…Thanks, we’re in your care.”
Stepping into the dark tunnels, Makokan was surprised by their size. There was a high ceiling of black, shiny bedrock, and the broad tunnel in front stretched deep into the darkness. Something resembling a drain spout extended out of the darkness. Water dripped slowly into a big barrel placed at the end.
Seeing the barrel with its dense crust of salt, Tohrim looked back at Yotal, “This may be impertinent of me, but would you allow us to manage the salt water until the situation calms down?”
Yotal nodded, “I had planned to ask you anyway. We won’t be able to replace all the slaves immediately, but the key issue is the loss of all the technicians who were trained to deal with the salt. If you can arrange for your people to work, I will follow up on my father and elder brother, and ensure you receive a reasonable salary.”
Tohrim bowed his head, “Very well, consider it done.”
Hossal carefully surveyed the tunnel without any interest in their conversation. The salt mine’s interior was so beautiful that he couldn’t help but be captivated by it.
The tunnel was supported by a thick wooden framework in strategic points, but most of it was bare rock. When the light hit the black surface of the rock, flickering white stripes would appear as if a quartz glaze had been applied to it.
“…Salt is mysterious.”
Tohrim’s voice echoed through the empty tunnel.
“There are places that seem smooth as glass like here, but in other places it will crystalize out of the walls like blooming flowers. Deep down at the bottom of the mine, some of those crystals have grown so huge that you will wonder whether they are truly simply salt. Salt dwells deep in the ground in a surprisingly great variety of shapes.”
Instead of a torch, he held a big glass hanging light that looked like a calabash. The stable glow illuminated the surroundings through the glass.
“What a nice hanging light. Is it one that’s used in salt mines?”
Tohrim smiled in response to Hossal’s question, and answered, “That is right,” as he nodded, and after casting a fleeting glance at Hossal, added, “The oil lasts for exactly six mal (approx. six hours). ──In the past, the salt miners always remained below ground for just six mal. Looking at the level of the oil, they knew how much longer they had to dig for, even in the darkness of the underground.”
Tohrim didn’t look back at Yotal, who was behind him. If he had done so, those words would have become a criticism rather than an explanation. He had refrained, but the rage deep that was surely in the pit of Tohrim’s stomach seemed to radiate from his back regardless.
Before long, a huge gaping hole in the bedrock came into sight.
“This is the Heaven’s Passage Pit, the hole where the brine and rock salt dug up in the lower layers is dragged up with pulleys.”
Makokan placed his hands on the railing and peered into the hole, immediately feeling goosebumps appear on his cheeks.
I can’t see the bottom. There’s nothing but a vertical ladder extending down into the dark abyss.
There were pulleys secured to the ceiling, and thick ropes dangled down from the pulleys, but even the ends of the ropes, which slowly swayed in the slight, and almost wistful breeze, couldn’t be seen.
“…Don’t tell me, we’re not going down those ladders, are we?”
Hossal laughed at Makokan mumbling to himself.
“You know, your voice is cracking. Are you scared?”
Makokan looked at his young master, “I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be afraid of this.”
Hossal raised an eyebrow, “I’m not that frightened.”
Hearing how calm he was in the evenness of his tone, the others looked perplexedly at Hossal.
“…I would happily pass on climbing down as well, though.”
Yotal turned his eyes towards the commander, “There should be safety lines, no?”
“Yes.” The commander nodded, picking up some leather belts with metal fixtures that could be hooked at the railing, and handing them out.
“We are going down to the third layer, right?”
Checking with the commander and ensuring that his safety line was long enough, Tohrim put the leather belt around his waist with practiced moves, and clipped the metal fixture at the end of the safety line to the hook on the belt.
“I will go first then. Please follow me and climb down the ladder. Be careful not to slip since the ladder is covered in salt.” With that, he looked at Makokan, “Wood lasts an extremely long time in a salt mine. The same cannot be said for metal.”
Then Tohrim descended the ladder with all the agility of a young man. Makokan sighed, and followed him apprehensively, but Hossal apparently genuinely didn’t consider it scary, and climbed down indifferently.
A cold breeze blew up from below. The smell of salt hung heavy in the wind. It was the kind of the smell people could easily associate with the bottom of the ocean. A faint scent of filth and something else that was familiar was carried by the wind as well.
Just as Makokan frowned, wondering why he could smell horses here, he heard Tohrim’s voice from below.
“Commander, the horse is still tied up, isn’t it?”
The commander responded from above, “It is.”
As Makokan neared the second layer, he actually spotted a horse. It looked his way and shook its head, apparently unsettled.
“It is a pack horse to turn the pulleys. ──Poor fellow hasn’t seen daylight for a week now.”
Suddenly something white moved nimbly at the edge of the hole.
“A cat. When you bring a horse into the mine, pesky mice will follow, targeting its food.” Tohrim chuckled. “The cats can move between here and the outside as they please. They were a rather good distraction from the painful work, back when I worked here.”
Hearing that mice were present, Makokan reflexively looked up at Hossal.
“…Well, it will probably be alright.” Hossal’s calm voice sounded from above. “This place is fairly far away from cities and villages. However, we should perform a thorough extermination so that they don’t slip into the cargo.”
Tohrim and Yotal silently climbed down the ladder without interrupting the conversation.
Soon, Tohrim’s voice could be heard again, “Come, you are almost there.”
And then Tohrim vanished.
Makokan carefully stretched his foot out from the ladder. Only once his sole hit the bedrock of the third layer did he let go of the ladder in relief. By this point, his back was drenched in cold sweat.
It sure is nice to have solid ground beneath my feet.
Right now he didn’t want to think about the fact that he had to climb this ladder once more to get back up to the surface. Behind him he could hear Hossal and the others stepping down on the bedrock one after the other. Given the echo, this layer seemed to be fairly vast as well, but it was pitch dark with Tohrim’s hanging lamp being the only source of light.
“What about the lights?”
Once Makokan brought it up, Tohrim looked back, “There are torches hanging on the wall, but please wait a moment.”
Before Tohrim lit the torches, he picked up a long and narrow rod, which had been leaning against the rock wall.
A soot cleaner?
Something fluffy-looking was attached to the end of the rod that seemed long enough to reach up to the ceiling. Tohrim set it on fire, then straightened the rod up with a jerk, and made a stroking gesture along the tunnel’s ceiling with the fire. Upon which, the fire at the rod’s end became brightened for an instant.
He waved the burning rod all over the ceiling, before muttering to himself, “…I think it’ll be fine,” and lowering the rod, and extinguishing the flame.
“Were you removing the burnable essence?”
In response to Hossal’s question, Tohrim looked back, “Indeed. If you are negligent in removing any combustible materials, it will lead to disaster in the layers around here. Apparently, in my father’s time, a tunnel burned for several months because of this.”
Hossal looked up to the dark ceiling, saying, “It doesn’t look as though much burnable essence had gathered up there, does it?”
“That’s true. It actually makes me wonder whether it had been cleaned four or five days ago.”
Makokan narrowed his eyes.
The soldiers also said that there were abnormalities reported up until fourteen days ago. Something must have happened around that time, as expected.
Tohrim lit the torches hanging on the rock wall, dimly lighting up the whole tunnel. Yotal groaned a little upon the scenery revealing itself in front of him.
Corpses were strewn randomly on the ground within the dark rock chambers. There were corpses anywhere you looked as far as the eyes could see.
“Considering that this many corpses are here, the smell is rather less pungent than expected.” Hossal said to himself.
“I think it’s because the deeper parts of a salt mine have a dense concentration of salt in the air.”
Hossal stared at a rock chamber for a bit and pondered about something, but then he turned to face Tohrim.
“Can you lend me that lamp for a minute?”
Taking the lamp from Tohrim, Hossal entered the rock chamber, squatted down in front of the corpse closest to the entrance, and started to examine it.
“…Is it the Black Wolf Fever, after all?”
Hossal nodded in response to Yotal, “Probably. Of course I can’t give a conclusive judgment yet, but at least the symptoms closely resemble those of the corpses I examined on the surface.”
Hossal stood up, and looked back at the commander.
“Now then, would you lead us to the place in question then?”
The commander nodded, and headed deeper into a rock chamber, sidestepping the corpses along the way. All the corpses had shackles attached to their ankles, which were attached with thick chains to stakes driven into the bedrock.
Even though they were attacked by beasts, they had no way to escape, and thus had probably no choice but to be bitten.
Makokan unconsciously clenched his fists in disgust, his chest heavy as he thought of the despair of their last moments.
“…This is the place.”
There was just one spot – the place pointed out by the commander – that was free of corpses, like a missing tooth. Moreover, the chain extending from the stake in the bedrock had been torn in half.
Seeing that, Tohrim commented, “I do not think this can be torn apart with the strength of a human.”
Hossal looked up to Makokan, smiling.
“Try to break it. You’ve got the strength to smash in a horse’s neck, it might be possible to break it if it’s you.”
Makokan borrowed the lamp from his young master, crouched down, and examined the chain in detail. One of the iron links in the chain had broken after being stretched to its limits. Rust had formed and the iron had been corroded by the salt, but when he tried pulling at it, he sensed a heavy, very solid feedback. He took a solid stance, coiled the chain around his wrist, and tried pulling with his full weight, but the chain didn’t budge an inch.
“…So it’s impossible even with your strength, huh?”
Makokan nodded, and while answering, “Yes. Though it might be a different matter if you had a horse pull it,” he tried to carefully illuminate the bedrock around here with the hanging light.
From the dirty straw that was scattered on one side, he knew that someone had been sleeping here. Makokan glanced at the commander, who looked back with a sullen expression. It was obvious to anyone that a slave had been chained here, clear evidence of the commander’s oversight, but Yotal didn’t reprimand him, simply staring at the torn chain with a grim look.
“If it can’t be broken with the power of one person, whoever was here might have received help from someone, right?”
Makokan hummed at Yotal’s words, “That’s a possibility.”
He didn’t know for sure what had happened here, but that slave seemed to be injured. There were traces of blood on some of the bedrock. When he lifted his head, about to inform the others of his observation, his eyes met Hossal’s.
Hossal’s look told him to stay silent
──What sharp eyes he has. Traces of blood on black bedrock shouldn’t be noticeable unless you know what to look for, but it looks like Young Master spotted them long ago. All the bite wounds we’ve seen so far were shallow, and wouldn’t cause a flowing wound. Assuming the slave who had been tied here was bitten by a beast, the blood probably dripped onto the ground when they squeezed the wound by themselves.
…However, why didn’t they die after being bitten?
Makokan looked towards Hossal, and his young master pulled a strange face in return. His eyes were vacant as if his soul had left its body.
──He’s thinking about something so intensely.
Makokan rather wanted to see into his young master’s brain and watch his thoughts race.
The commander took out a bundle of papers from his pocket, and started to compare the numbers on the chain with a list recording the slaves’ birthplaces and other information. It was probably difficult to read the letters in the dim light. Also checking the chains of the neighboring slaves, he pondered for a considerably long time, but eventually his finger, which had traced the names down the list, stopped.
“…It appears to be a slave called Van of the Ganza Clan.”
The name caused Yotal, who was standing next to the commander, to stir.
“Van of the Ganza Clan, you say?”
Surprised by the tone of Yotal’s voice, the commander raised his head, “Indeed, Lord Yotal.”
Yotal pointed at the documents, “There are notes at the back of the list, right? Are there any records as to where he was captured?”
The commander brought the list under the light in a hurry. Straining his eyes, he read the text behind the name.
“He was captured at the battle of the Cashna Riverside.”
Yotal snatched the list away, and after confirming it with his own eyes, he looked down at the twisted chain, and clicked his tongue.
“…Him of all men.” Yotal said with a growl, puzzling the commander, “Since you came from the southern battle corps, you probably don’t know about the battles in the west, but you should have at least heard of the name <Lone Horn>, right?”
Surprise crept into the eyes of the commander, “I have. …I see, so Ganza is the clan those crazy warriors belong to?”
Yotal nodded, “If it says here that he was captured at the Cashna Riverside, there’s no doubt about it. The one who was chained here is the leader of <Lone Horn> ─ <Van of the Splintered Horn>.”
Yotal, realizing that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the conversation and would be confused, shifted his focus to Hossal and Makokan.
“In the Toga Mountainous District there exists a troublesome clan that uses puyka. It was a very small clan, but it took an extremely long time and much effort to put just them down. You don’t know of the name <Lone Horn>, do you?”
Hossal spoke up, “I have heard of them. Something along the lines of them fighting in an elusive manner on the backs of puyka.”
Yotal smiled bitterly, “If they had just displayed such a battle style during the battles in the Toga Mountainous District where they had full knowledge of the terrain, it wouldn’t be all that unusual, but <Lone Horn> were as cunning as foxes. They were cheeky madmen who would go so far as to raid the fortresses of our army that dotted the forests and grasslands in the flatland. They were a truly annoying bunch.” Glancing down at the chain, Yotal added, “The one who commanded <Lone Horn> was this guy. He was quite conspicuous since he always wore a helmet with a damaged antler on the left side. I heard the soldiers complain many times that their arrows seemed to always miss him despite him always spearheading the charge.
Hossal listened to the story with his eyes partly closed, but he abruptly interrupted, “You are quite well-informed about that man, aren’t you? For you, a warrior leader of a tiny clan in the Toga Mountainous District should barely even be a thorn in your side, right?”
A bitter look flashed through Yotal’s eyes, and vanished immediately.
“…Two excellent generals were killed by this guy. He had abysmal luck; this man was the sole survivor of the battle at the Cashna Riverside where <Lone Horn> met its end. I heard he stood in solitude among the piles of corpses littering the ground like a lone, dead tree.”
His voice echoed hollowly through the tunnel. The men remained silent for a moment. In the chilly darkness, they stared at the empty spot on the floor.
Before long, Hossal faintly twisted the corners of his mouth, and whispered, “…And even here he’s the sole survivor among heaps of corpses.” After that remark, he quickly changed his tone, and inquired, “Was he a big fellow? One that could possibly tear this chain.”
Yotal shook his head, “No, according to the soldiers’ accounts, it was more that he was a man with the ferocity of a wolf rather than him being of any intimidating size.”
“Hmm,” hummed Hossal, refusing to elaborate further.
For a while, the men stayed quiet, each immersed in his own thoughts as they stood in the gloomy tunnel littered with corpses. At some point, a faint smile formed on Hossal’s lips, and he looked at Makokan after quickly lifting his head.
“Can you trace this slave?”
Makokan furrowed his eyebrows, “Impossible.”
“However, you possess tracking skills, don’t you?”
“You’re right, my father passed those skills on to me, but it’s been more than twenty years since I actually put them to use. I also lack experience. …Besides.” Makokan looked around him, and then continued, “Too much time has passed. Father often said that a chase is like a perishable good. The traces fade as time moves on. Pursuing a slave who escaped several days ago is impossible. I think it would be fastest to have the soldiers search for him.”
While answering, a feeling of doubt about something stirred within his chest.
Young Master should be already aware of this, so why is he deliberately asking…?
When Makokan finished his speech, Yotal smiled, “No, in regards to this matter, it’ll be alright even without your help. In times such as these, it’s common practice to adopt a two-sided approach.”
“A two-sided approach?”
Yotal nodded at Hossal’s question, “Yes. We will have the soldiers search and post official notices in the villages and towns, but we will leave the tracking to experts.” With a faint smile Yotal looked at Hossal and Tohrim. “We have received much help from the skilled trace hunters of Akafah.”
Tohrim pursed his lips, listening to those words with a bitter expression.