The sun, which would skulk around the horizon as if it didn’t want to set on a summer’s day, was now rapidly sinking. As they neared the mountainous district, its colors changing from a faint red into a purple, a herd of grazing reindeer came into sight. The herd stayed halfway up the mountain with its bountiful grasses during summer, then descended into the lowlands when the harsh winter blanketed the mountains in deep layers of snow.
The northern lands were also difficult for the grasses and trees. Once the reindeer had eaten all the lichen they liked, it would take a long time for them to grow again. Because of that, the people of this land had no choice but to continuously move with their reindeer herds.
This area, which was so difficult to grow crops in, wasn’t an easy place to live. This was most likely the very reason why the people living here didn’t pursue a single occupation, and instead cultivated the skills to continue earning their livelihood in other ways, if and when their current occupations were no longer viable.
It’s said that those born as Molpha are led into the mountains but the old hunters of <Dusk>, and taught how to survive in the mountains as soon as they are able to walk. Over the course of this training, it is possible to ascertain whether the new Molpha was suited to being a hunter or a herdsman. Those suited to be hunters become <Mountain Molpha>, and those suited to be herdsman become <Meadows Molpha>. The division is carried out without regard to gender, and as girls would marry a Molpha man of either terrain as soon as they reached a marriageable age, many people moved between the <Mountain> and <Meadows>.
The <Meadows Molpha> had already descended from the summer pastures to the winter pastures. When they entered the stone wind break, the people who noticed Tohrim bowed their heads with deep respect and affection and exchanged a few words. The children looked up at Hossal and Makokan with their mouths wide open and their eyes full of wonder, likely because visitors were so rare. In contrast, wariness and curiosity about what could have brought the group here was painted all over the adults’ faces. They were probably curious as to what kind of prey they would make the <Mountain Molpha> chase.
Once the group left the village and entered the mountain range, the surrounding landscape changed drastically. Welcoming the autumn, the trees had changed their leaves into faint golden colors, and the forest was bathed in the waning twilight. Occasionally, the cries of deer managed to reach them through the trees.
The horses followed a narrow path that may or may not actually exist, crunching the fallen leaves beneath their hooves. Tohrim spurred his horse on, carefully looking over each tree they passed. At some point he seemed to have found something, stopping his horse and leaning forward to look more closely at a switch of larch. Then he looked back, and told them to get off their horses.
“It looks like they’re staying here this year.”
Dismounting, Makokan called out to Tohrim, “Is there a symbol or something like that?”
Tohrim turned back to face him and nodded.
“Yes. The location of the village this year can be found in the way the branch is folded. ──If you don’t remember the locations of the various possible sites for the village, you won’t understand even if you see the symbol, though.” With that, Tohrim grabbed the horse’s bridle. “The path gets rather narrow from here on out, so please try your utmost not to allow your own bodies or your horses to make too much contact with the thicket. The Molpha hate it when traces remain in the thicket.”
Makokan furrowed his brows.
“Wouldn’t it be better to stay on the horses then? It will be easier to direct them?”
A wry smile appeared on Tohrim’s face.
“The branch also told us that there are traps ahead of here. There should be filaments stretched out at about the height of a rider’s chest. If you touch them, you will head straight to the next world, so be careful.”
Makokan closed his mouth, and started to obediently lead his horse.
After following the animal trail for a while, the smell of smoke drifted their way. The barking of many dogs overlapped, cutting sharply through the silence.
Tohrim pulled out a small pipe from under his top, and after he blew into it, the dogs’ barking gradually subsided, eventually ceasing completely.
“…What obedient dogs.”
Tohrim smiled at Makokan’s murmur.
“The Molpha’s hunting dogs have been trained properly.”
The thicket, which had previously looked as though it would stretch on infinitely, probably because it had been carefully cultivated for concealment, suddenly opened up as they stepped forward. Following Tohrim and Hossal out of the thicket, Makokan was stopped in his tracks by the landscape that had unfolded before him.
Several tents had been set up, but because of the deep brown of the tents’ material or maybe because of the ingenious way they were positioned, they blended easily into the foliage around them, and didn’t look out of place at all. There were people and dogs around and smoke rising from the tents but, for some reason, Makokan couldn’t believe that this was a village, even after seeing it with his own eyes.
As Tohrim started to walk again, an old woman approached them slowly. With a cheerful smile, she lowered her head towards Tohrim as well as bending a little at the waist.
“It’s truly a fine day, isn’t it Sir Tohrim?”
Makokan was startled and stared at the woman. ──He reacted like that because she was speaking fluent Otawalian. Seemingly amused by his surprise, the woman cast a smile at Makokan, and then lowered her head very deeply in Hossal’s direction.
“I welcome you, young lord of the Sacred Land.”
Hossal nodded, and spoke to the woman with a smile, “It’s been a while, Muryo. I’m delighted to see you in good health.”
“Thank you very much. Thanks to you, I still have most of my teeth.” She flashed a smile, and then turned back to Tohrim.
“Do you have business with my elder brother?”
“Yeah. It’s urgent. Can we meet him?”
Muryo’s face clouded over. “It’s a bit inopportune right now. My brother is out with the men on the autumn’s bear hunt.”
“I see. …When did they leave?”
“Three days ago. If they’re early, they might come back tonight, but that is just a rough estimate, nothing is certain.”
“Well, that makes sense. It does depend on how the hunt goes. No helping it. Would you allow us to wait here?”
Seeing him stroke his chin as he weighed the options, Muryo asked, “Several <Dusk> have stayed behind, but perhaps they aren’t sufficient for your business?”
“Yeah. This is a matter that we need to speak directly to Malji about, I think. …By the way, did Sae leave with the men?”
“Sae?” Muryo lifted an eyebrow, laughing. “If you’re looking for Sae, she’s here. She still counts as a woman, in the ways it counts.”
Taken aback, Tohrim smiled bitterly.
“Oh, I forgot, Malji went bear hunting, didn’t he? ──Haha, I’m getting old as well.”
While listening to their conversation, Makokan thought, Well, totally understandable. No matter how skilled for a woman she might be, she won’t be allowed to hunt bears.
Were his thoughts apparent on his face? Suddenly Muryo looked up at Makokan with a smile.
“Women don’t hunt bears. It’s not they can’t hunt them, they just don’t do it.”
“…Bears are affiliated with the earth, after all.” Hossal muttered.
Muryo nodded deeply at that.
Seeing how Makokan was looking back and forth between them in confusion, Hossal curtly explained, “Molpha divide creatures into the categories of earth and wind. Because bears and women belong to earth, women won’t hunt bears. Because deer and rabbits belong to wind, men won’t hunt them. ──Correct, Muryo?”
“Yes, it is as you say.”
…What a pain.
Makokan gave up halfway through listening to the two.
Local traditions like this are everywhere, but doing such a troublesome matter in this harsh region will just reduce the efficiency, won’t it?
Muryo gazed up at Makokan.
“It sounds like a weird story to you, doesn’t it?”
“No, well…” Makokan replied while scratching his beard. “If that’s how you handle things around here, it’s not my place to say anything, but I believe there is likely a lot of game you allow to get away in that case.”
Muryo’s smile deepened.
“We often go hunting with our spouses and siblings. It’s fine as long as someone hunts the game.”
“Oh…” Makokan smiled wryly. “You’re right. The idea that women would hunt hadn’t occurred to me. But still, the existence of game you can’t hunt means that there will be game you will have no choice but to let go. If you could hunt everything, the amount of potential prey would go up, right?”
“That’s certainly right… That’s why the gods taught us to limit our sphere of action, didn’t they? It’s something I was often told by the old <Dusk> woman during my childhood: the mountains thrive because there’s game we overlook.”
Seeing that Makokan was unable to say anything else, Hossal burst into an evil laughter next to him. When Makokan sullenly looked at his young master, Hossal raised an eyebrow at him nonchalantly, and then turned to Muryo with a serious look.
“By the way Muryo, we have something serious to talk about with your niece, but would it be rude for us to talk to her without passing it through Malji first?”
Muryo considered his question for a moment, but then shook her head.
“Given that you said it’s urgent, I don’t think that he would mind. However, once my brother comes back, I would like you to tell him what you have asked his daughter to do.”
“That’s only natural.”
“Then, please follow me this way. Sae is behind that tent. Please come to my tent while I have someone call her. I will prepare some tea, so please talk inside.”
“Thanks. However, it’s not necessary to have someone else get her. We’ll go get her on the way to your tent.”
Muryo nodded and said, “Then let’s do as you say.”
Muryo raised a hand, giving some kind of sign to the young people watching from afar. Thereupon, the youths gracefully glided over, and took charge of the horses. Smooth movements upon a single sign without any hesitation. ──The youths were just like trained hunting dogs.
As they walked towards the rear of the tent pointed out by Muryo, they could hear children energetically saying things. Hossal didn’t say anything, but when he stopped in the shade of the tent, Tohrim and Makokan stood beside him instead of moving forward.
There were meadows behind the tent, and a small brook weaved its way along the border between forest and meadows. A group of children was by the side of the brook. In the middle of the group was a single large tree. A big deer had been skillfully suspended from a tough branch. Its head and antlers remained, but below its head, the pelt had been cleanly stripped off, exposing the white fat and red flesh beneath. Its innards had likely been removed right after it was caught and there was a red emptiness in their place.
“Aunty, I’m holding it!” A boy around ten years old screamed shrilly as he held onto the deer’s thigh.
His voice was cheerful, but since his legs were quivering, a girl who seemed to be his big sister, and his buddy yelled, “Brace your feet and hold it up properly!” and “Want me to take over?”
The small woman who had been addressed as aunty was indifferently processing the deer among the clamoring children. As she taught a tall girl, who was intently watching her every move, she swiftly plunged a hunting knife into the deer’s hip, and after ensuring that the boy was supporting the thigh, cut the tendons of the bone joints in one go. The heavy thigh was completely disconnected from the hip immediately.
The boy managed to hold onto the thigh without dropping it, though his face turned red with exertion. The other children ran up to him, helping out. Together they gently placed the thigh down on an old skin that had been spread out on the meadow.
…Wow. Makokan muttered under his breath. I’ve seen deer being dismantled several times. If you insert the blade along the hipbone and cut the joint tendons, it’s simple to disconnect the thighs, but it’s still not usually something that can be done so quickly. Even from here, I can appreciate how extraordinarily skilled she is, especially since she effortlessly pushed that hunting knife into the deer’s body as if it were soft fat.
Noticing eyes on her, she glanced their way for a second, but once she had determined that they were content to merely watch, she only nodded with a smile, and returned her attention to the work in front of her.
Of course it wasn’t the same for the children. Trading looks and whispering amongst each other on the side, they paid a great deal of attention to the three men standing to the side. The woman continued her work dispassionately, occasionally calling out to the children to help with small tasks.
After checking that all the body parts were on the old skin and that she was done, Hossal finally moved.
Hearing Tohrim call her name as he approached with Hossal, Sae passed the hunting knife to the tall girl next to her, and turned in their direction.
“It’s truly a fine day, Sir Tohrim.” She greeted gently as she bowed with both her hands pressed against her knees.
She seems to be a kind person. Being directly stared at, Makokan couldn’t feel at ease. If I remember correctly, she’s over thirty, but her light brown eyes are full of life, and she still looks fairly young. She doesn’t use any makeup at all, and the only accessory on her is the humble hair ribbon at her nape. A person who projected calm. ──No matter how you look at her, she doesn’t look anything like a skilled hunter.
Standing right in front of her, Hossal spoke up, “You’re Sae, right? I’m Hossal Yugroil. There’s something I’d like to request from you.”
Sae’s eyes trembled faintly.
“Young Lord of the Yugroil family, I’m deeply honored to make your acquaintance. …What business might you have with me?”
As soon as she asked this, Hossal immediately broke into a smile.
“Man, how nice. No unnecessary prattling. So that’s why you have Tohrim’s trust.”
Being praised, Sae smiled, but there was still some uneasiness visible in her eyes. There was a small dimple under her lip, which made her seem rather pitiable. Makokan pursed his lips, staring at the small female hunter.