Akafah was located in the northwest of the former Otawal Kingdom. The winters are long, and the summers short. Many areas are very cold. All of these factors make it difficult to grow crops here, but merchants were still drawn to the land by the salt produced from the salt mine, extolled as Akafah’s treasure, and the fine pelts that could be obtained from the animals that dwelt in the deep forests and mountain ridges.
Although it is known as a land with a harsh climate, there are huge grasslands in the southern Yukata Plains that are famous for raising great horses. The horses raised here have fiery crimson coats, wild temperaments, and excel in endurance thanks to their small builds.
Akafah’s cavalry corps, which inspired as much fear as fierce wolves, was grounded on these <Akafan Fire Horses>, but when Akafah was conquered by Ziol, the stallions were confiscated by Ziol, along with their grazing pastures. Nowadays, the southern grasslands are merely grazing pastures for the sheep farmed by the Ziolians that had been brought all the way here. The ones Yotal mentioned were being troubled by the wild dogs were the shepherds who had migrated to this southern grassland.
Some of the <People of the Fire Horses>, who lived in these Yutaka Plains, became dependent on the people of the Yukata Mountainous District, the ethnic group from which Makokan hailed, while others turned into wandering horse breeders. There were also many who drifted to the northwestern plateaus, living hard lives in unfamiliar places, hating life in the city.
However, it was very rare for people who migrated to the northern Oki District to be <Afuar Oma>. In the first place, the Oki District in Akafah’s north was a gathering point for nomads of various lands. The people there generally wandered with their reindeer, though the expansive mountains and forests of the region also allowed some people to subsist by hunting, in addition to raising reindeer.
Those people had already bonded deeply and did not discriminate against the Ziolians, who also made a living raising reindeer. For the <Afuar Oma>, who obstinately continued to loathe and resent the Ziolians, the Oki District was likely a difficult place to feel at home.
But then again, raising reindeer wasn’t exclusive to the Oki District. Even in the regions slightly to the southeast of Oki, people made a living hunting, gathering, and raising reindeer. Those were the people Yotal was thinking of when he mentioned the Akafan slave hunters. In order to get to their village, one had to follow a narrow path that wound through the woodlands.
Tohrim was silent as they rode through the forest, but once the forest gave way to an expansive grassland, he glanced at Hossal.
“Has Malji visited the sacred land for greetings recently?”
Makokan looked in surprise at his young master and Tohrim.
…What was that? The hunter leader we’re going to meet is a man who frequently visits Otawal’s Sacred Land?
Ignoring Makokan’s bewilderment, Hossal answered Tohrim’s question, “I think I heard that recently he’s been leaving that part to his son. He almost never personally makes the trip, does he? It’s been at least three years since I saw him last.” He cast a fleeting glance at Makokan, lifting an eyebrow. “You were born into a family of <Inner Servants>, and yet you didn’t notice anything from yesterday’s exchange? Speaking of Akafah’s tracking hunters, they’re probably Molpha.”
Hearing the term Molpha, Makokan was taken aback.
“…I see. Those hunters belong to the <Network of the King of Akafah>.”
Of course Makokan knew about the existence of the clans who had over many many generations been tasked with the duty to capture bandits and enemy spies, back when Akafah’s king still ruled over Akafah. He heard they possessed astounding tracking abilities, and were feared as elusive hunters, said to have a network spanning the entire country.
Tohrim sighed, and muttered, “The <Network of the King of Akafah>, eh? What a nostalgic name.” He looked up at Makokan, “Please don’t mention that name in front of them.”
When Makokan was about to ask why, Hossal cut in from the side, “Ever since Otawal and Akafah surrendered to Ziol, the only thing they’ve been doing is chasing runaway slaves by order of Ziol. They would probably be offended if they heard their former name from our mouths.” A cynical look flashed through Hossal’s eyes. “In the past they were hunters deeply trusted by Akafah’s king, and at the same time they were hunters who used those techniques to serve us Otawalians. Many Molpha also worked in the musty <Inner> of the sacred land, which you refused to work for. I’m pretty sure, because Yotal is a sharp and capable man, he calmly saw us off despite being fully aware of the relationship between us.”
Makokan’s expression turned sullen.
I see, so that was what yesterday’s exchange was about, huh?
He was embarrassed by how long it took for him to realize it.
“Are you still in touch with them even now?”
Hossal laughed, “Of course. Especially Malji. His eldest son has had a difficult illness since childhood, so Grandfather needs to personally treat him. As such, the bonds between us are deep.”
There was an ice-cold sinking feeling in Makokan’s chest. The <Sacred People> of Otawal’s Sacred Land still secretly support the hunters of the former Akafah Kingdom.
In other words…I guess it means the old ruling relationships are still unbroken. Even after being conquered by Ziol, they keep flowing ceaselessly like an underground waterway, and once you see past the veneer that is the ground, you’ll find that the ties of the two old countries are still strong, despite what it may seem.
Yotal knows that. And even with that knowledge, he uses the Molpha and the Otawalians for the sake of Ziol. All the time half suspecting, and half trusting them. It’s just like a spider weaving its web on top of another spider’s web.
Makokan started to feel a little sick as the image took over his mind. Not paying any heed to Makokan’s gloominess, Hossal and Tohrim began to talk indifferently about the current state of the Molpha.
“Malji is still the hunter leader, but you see, after his wife passed away, his age has started to show a bit. However, he’s still looking hale and hearty, and since he has his reputation, his control over the hunters hasn’t waned.”
“Hmm, I see. …I guess you’re right. Well, he has already passed the age of seventy. I wonder if any other useful hunters have begun making a name for themselves.”
“Just as I mentioned earlier, Malji’s eldest is sick, and tragedy struck his second son. He might have splendidly followed in his father’s steps for all his skills, but met his unfortunate end too early. His third son is, well, reasonably capable. Of course there are several other skilled guys as well, though.”
Staring into the distance, Tohrim quietly said, “I believe that Sae might be the best out of everyone.”
“Sae? A woman?”
“Indeed. She’s Malji’s eldest daughter. I think she’ll be 32 or 33 soon. She was married for some time, but came back.” Tohrim’s eyes belied his faint smile. “She doesn’t look the part since she’s rather quiet, but her tracking skills might be better than Malji’s even in his golden days.”
“Hoh…” Hossal’s eyes gleamed in interest. “I had absolutely no idea that there was a woman like that.”
Tohrim smiled wryly.
“The Molpha men have a reputation to uphold. Even if Sae were to achieve a meritorious deed, they wouldn’t make it public. However, I…” While lightly stroking his chin, Tohrim continued, “A while ago I asked Sae to track someone for me. I was blown away when I personally witnessed her skills.”
Tohrim closed his mouth for a moment, and then looked directly at Hossal.
“About the slave in question, you want him to be placed in your care without first being cleared by the Ziolians, right?”
Hossal raised his eyebrow slightly.
“…What gave you that impression?”
His smile fading, Tohrim replied, “Because you remained silent about the traces of blood in the remnants left by the slave.”
Hossal also became serious. He remained quiet for a little while, but then suddenly broke into a smile.
” I should expect nothing less of the right hand man of Akafah’s king.”
Tohrim merely listened silently, but Makokan thought in his mind, I see. So that’s how it is. This elderly man probably possesses a lot more power than he lets on, so to say, he’s a big player in the shadows.
After a long sigh, Hossal revealed a faint smile.
“I think the slave in question was bitten by a beast just like the other slaves. Why was he the one to survive after being bitten? …You’re right, to me he’s more valuable than any jewel.”
Still maintaining a grave expression, Tohrim said, “That doesn’t mean that everyone else will see him as a jewel. He is a shining, unpolished gemstone only in your hands.”
Sighing, Tohrim looked towards the mist-covered mountain range.
“Be that as it may, the gods occasionally have a flair for irony. Despite belonging to <Lone Horn>, <Van of the Splintered Horn> was always disregarded by death, and forced to continue to live on…”
Hearing his muttering, Hossal smirked.
“Oh, I see. <Lone Horn> were the sad bunch looking for a place to die, weren’t they?”
Tohrim shrugged his shoulders, “Yes. Even the savage tribes living deep in the mountains know of despair. They were truly tragic death soldiers, who were much more enthusiastic about dying than living.” Suddenly showing an ironic smile, Tohrim shifted his eyes towards Hossal, “<Van of the Splintered Horn> had another alias. Did you know?”
Tohrim’s smile deepened.
“It’s <Head Grabber Van>.”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow, “Did he also work as a headhunter?”
“No, no, it refers to the head grabbing of falconry.”
Falcons, masters of hunting, pin down the heads of their prey. If they were to restrain their prey by pinning the back or the buttocks, the prey could potentially counterattack or escape, but by pinning down the head, the falcons ensured that they wouldn’t be able to get away.
“In every battle, <Van of the Splintered Horn> would defeat the enemy leader at the very beginning. Even if the commander hid himself behind several hundred soldiers, he would ingeniously circumvent them, and always kill the commander first. Start the killing from the commander. That was his strategy.”
Hossal’s eyes lit up, “Oohh! He sounds like quite the interesting guy.”
“It seemed like a move from a dispassionate fighting style rather than a showy one, but as you say, he might really be a fascinatingly charismatic man. I often heard rumors about him. Even the folks of the surrounding clans cheered him on whenever he led the Ziolian army around by the nose, and in the same vein, the Ziolians loathed him more than anything. ──That’s probably the reason why he wasn’t executed on the spot after the battle of Kashna’s Riverside, and instead enslaved in the salt mine.” Narrowing his eyes, Tohrim shook his head, “If he is the runaway, I don’t think that he’ll be caught so easily.”
“I’ll bet. Besides, I don’t want him to have any hostility towards us.” Hossal frowned. “However, if he’s such a shrewd guy, it’ll be all the more troublesome. We don’t want to escalate things by having hunters chase him carelessly.”
“That’s certainly true. …In that case, I recommend having Sae on this case, after all. She’s a quick-witted woman, so she’ll likely handle the situation well.”
Hossal lifted an eyebrow, looking at Tohrim. He likely found it interesting that such a cunning man would push so hard for a single woman. A faint smile crept into his eyes.
“Okay. If you recommend her, I’ll trust your judgment. ──Please let me speak with Sae.”