Sae arrived at Akafah’s salt mine with almost no possessions. Even though she didn’t know how long this trip would last, seeing how she would be chasing after a fugitive from now on, she only brought one dog and one small leather bag slung across her back.
Seeing her appearance, Makokan was reminded of the saying, “Nimble like a hunter,” that was often used by the Akafan.
She bowed deeply towards Yotal, who had come out to meet them, after getting off the back of Tohrim’s horse. Yotal watched the female hunter with a keen interest.
“I heard the story from the fast runner. You’re Malji’s daughter?”
Sae raised her head, nodding.
“Yes, we are greatly indebted to you.”
Yotal smiled, “The indebted ones are us. ──I hear Malji has already gone out to hunt the wild dogs?”
“Indeed. Father and the other men have gone into the forests nearby.”
While listening, Makokan remembered the displeased look of the Hunting Leader called Malji. The old hunter hadn’t said anything at all when Hossal was explaining the situation, and even when Hossal finished, he had only nodded.
It might also be possible that he was exhausted after returning from a hard hunting trip. However, it felt as though that wasn’t the only reason that he felt so gloomy.
He had called the men, and calmly informed them that they would depart on a long trip at dawn. The men, whose faces showed that they were clearly fatigued, didn’t ask anything nor did they even nod, they simply left the tent in silence once their leader gestured to them that they were free to withdraw.
Those men are now in the surrounding forests.
Makokan felt like he could see their hunting dog-like figures as they soundlessly prowled through the dim undergrowth.
“As for the tracking, three days ago I was told that I would hear the details after greeting you, Lord Yotal.”
Yotal nodded at Sae’s words. He cast a glance down at the dog by Sae’s feet.
“That’s a fine dog. Yours?”
Sae smiled and looked down at the dog which was sitting alert. Probably sensing that they were talking about it, the dog looked up steadily at its master. It was a large dog with fierce features, and likely had some wolf blood running through its veins.
“Yes, he has been helping me out for a fairly long time now.”
“I see. ──However, no matter how good the nose, following what remains of the scent might be difficult even for a dog. I mean, seven days have already passed since the slave ran away.”
“You are right. It looks like it has rained, too. …I can’t say anything with certainty, but there might still be something he can do for me in this case. Would you please leave it to us?”
Yotal’s expression revealed that this was a somewhat unexpected answer. Yotal was a smart man. He sensed the surprisingly tough core hidden beneath the gentle face of the small woman in front of him.
“Sure. Tell me if there’s anything you need.”
“Thank you very much.”
Sae bowed, and then looked towards the entrance of the salt mine’s tunnel system.
“If there is anyone who is knowledgeable about the lives of the slaves here, I would like to speak with them first, if possible.”
“Right. I have called for a smart person who used to be a guard here. I will have that person show you around.”
Hossal, who had been listening to their conversation from a small distance, looked up at Makokan.
“You go and help her as well.”
When Makokan responded with surprise, Hossal nonchalantly said, “Accompany Sae until you find the slave. And report all the details of what you see and hear to me.”
Makokan blinked, “But, I’m your attendant. There’s no way that I can leave your side just like that.”
Hossal laughed, “I have no need for a babysitter. Stay silent and do as you’re told. Also, don’t get in Sae’s way.”
Makokan sulked, but in his mind he thought that this might be unexpectedly good. After all he had been curious as to how skilled the woman called Sae was.
“…And.” Hossal added as an afterthought, “Don’t make a move on that woman.”
Makokan thought that it might be Hossal’s usual frivolous chitchat, but Hossal looked serious. When Makokan remained silent, Hossal said in a whisper, “She’s a lonesome one. ──She’s someone who would cause you a great deal of grief.”
Without replying, Makokan moodily watched as Sae talked to the middle-aged soldier who had just been summoned.
Sae diligently listened to the soldier. Only after asking even about the most trivial of things, things about the slaves’ work in the mines that one would never think were relevant to the task at hand, did she finally leave her dog at the mine’s entrance, and descend into the deep tunnels of the mine.
Many corpses still lay in the dark tunnels. Wincing at the sight, Sae put her hands together and offered a prayer. Makokan gloomily noted how her fingertips trembled slightly.
After a short pause, she lifted her head and made her way to where the runaway had previously slept, only to stare motionlessly at the spot. Sae stared at the spot for so long that the guiding soldier, who was standing behind her, shifted restlessly in boredom. Eventually she crouched with both arms pressed against her knees and, bending down so low that it looked as if she was pressing her cheeks to the bedrock, she studied the floor.
Getting up, she went further into the tunnel, paying careful attention to where she placed her feet, and stared at the chain that had been torn off. She touched the chain, and looked at the surrounding ground, and then, all of a sudden, her face clouded over.
“…What’s wrong?” Makokan asked.
Sae lifted her face, about to say something, but immediately shook her head, and quietly answered, “It’s nothing.”
Afterwards she leaned against the rock wall, standing stock still. Though she was facing Makokan and the soldier, her eyes weren’t focused on them.
She doesn’t see us, muttered Makokan in his mind. This person is clearly seeing something else right now.
Looking closely, her eyes were wandering a little.
She isn’t watching the movements of the runaway slave with her eyes, is she──? I don’t think that’s possible, even as he reached this conclusion, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that that was what was happening.
Taking a short breath, Sae crouched down, selected a bundle of the straw littered on the floor, and stuffed it under her obi.
“…Sorry for making you wait. Let’s go back to the surface.”
Once Sae exited the tunnels, the dog, which was waiting where it had been told, stood up, happily wagging its tail. She approached it, took the straw out from under her obi, and had the hunting dog learn the scent.
Immediately, the dog’s behavior changed. The muscles from the tip of its nose down to its nape tensed, and its tail stretched out horizontally. It lowered its snout to the ground, lifted its nose up high, and repeatedly sniffed the air, but couldn’t pick up a trail, eventually growling lowly, obviously bewildered.
“…As expected, I think it will be difficult to have the dog chase after the slave. It has rained, and a large number of people have passed through here.”
In response to Makokan’s remark, Sae turned around to him. “True. Though it would be nice if anything remained in a place that was sheltered from the rain.”
Sae signaled the hunting dog to follow her, and headed towards the buildings next to the mine.
…Oh, indeed. If it’s indoors, the smell might not have been washed away. Still, quite a few days have already passed. Many people have likely gone in and out to carry out the corpses. It won’t be easy to find a trail in such a situation.
Sae abruptly stopped, turned around, and asked the soldier, “Did one of the soldiers break down that door?”
The soldier shook his head, “No, it was already broken when we got here. We put the rod there as a support to keep it open, though.”
After asking about the purpose of each building, she bowed to him, gave her thanks, and told him, “That should be plenty. Please return to your own work.”
Watching the soldier leave, Makokan approached Sae and asked in a low voice, “Just now, when you were by the chain, did you discover something?”
Sae’s eyes shook. She was clearly hesitant to say anything, but in the end, she sighed lightly, and spoke up.
“You might think that I have gone crazy, but I believe <Van of the Splintered Horn> tore off that chain by himself.”
Looking up at Makokan, Sae smiled bitterly.
“At the very least I can’t reach any other conclusion from the traces left behind there.”
Makokan knitted his eyebrows. “What kind of traces were they?”
Sae quietly answered, “I think he tried to run away but forgot that he was still shackled to the bedrock. That’s why, his right foot was pulled by the chain, like this…”
Sae pushed her hands forward while leaving her right foot behind as if being dragged back.
“There were traces of him pitching forward, falling down, and catching himself with both hands. After that.”
Sae turned around, bent her waist a bit, and acted out pulling the chain with both hands.
“He braced his legs like this, and left traces of the soles of his feet sliding across the ground in the straw. If someone had helped him break the chain, this area…” Sae retreated several steps and pointed at the spot. “There should have been other footprints around here from someone else, but there was nothing like that. All that’s left then is this…”
Sae fell on her backside, and turned onto all fours to get up.
“There are only the traces of a single person falling back, getting up in a hurry, and starting to run.”
Makokan had been staring at Sae with his mouth slightly open.
I wonder how she saw traces like that. I saw that the straw was messed up, but can you really tell what exact movements occurred just from the way the straw was trampled?
Sae cast her eyes down, gently touching the dog’s ear.
“That’s what I could read from it, but I could be wrong. ──Please ask the person in question once we find him.” With those words, Sae turned her back on Makokan, and approached the kitchen with a line of chimneys protruding from its roof.
As soon as they neared the door, the hunting dog’s behavior changed. It repeatedly sniffed at the thick, broken planks of the door.
“It looks like Van’s smell still lingers here.”
Hearing Makokan’s remark, Sae nodded while staring at the door.
“He probably rammed his body against it several times. In this place…”
Gently pushing the dog’s nose aside, she pulled out something that had been caught in a splintered plank.
“His clothes were loose, and a thread got stuck.”
Passing that thread to Makokan, Sae stepped into the kitchen. There were no corpses to be found inside. A long kitchen table had been pushed away diagonally, probably by the serfs or soldiers to make way for removing the corpses.
Just as she had done in the mine, Sae first stood still, taking in the whole picture. Then she examined it from a low position with her face barely above the floor. After repeating this several times, she came to a halt next to the kitchen table. And then, looking up at the bundles of sausages hanging from the ceiling, she slowly headed deeper inside, finally leaving the building through the backdoor.
Makokan followed her outside to another kitchen-like building.
“This one is the kitchen for the slaves, I suppose. ──That door hasn’t been broken down, huh?”
“Yes.” Sae nodded.
She went around the side of the building, which was weakly illuminated in the light of the setting sun, and crouched down to closely examine something on the ground that had piqued her interest. Then she stood up, walked to the area beneath a dormer window, and stared at the ground over there.
Coming to some kind of conclusion, she abruptly got up, returned to the previous kitchen, and returned after a little while with a small chair in one hand. Sae pointed at the ground while holding the chair.
“Over here are traces of the ground having been wiped and evened out by hand. He probably put this chair here, got on top of it, and entered through the window.” As she spoke, she turned the chair over, and showed it to Makokan.
I see, there’s dried mud on the underside of the chair’s legs.
“I think he put the chair back after roughly wiping it down.”
Makokan furrowed his brows. Even though he was staring at the ground, he couldn’t see anything that would suggest that the ground had been purposefully evened out.
“Please stand over here and look at it in this way.”
Following Sae’s directions and matching her line of sight, he felt like there certainly was a faint difference between the ground here and elsewhere. However, the difference was so minimal that he only saw it after he had been informed of its existence.
While looking up to the dormer window, Sae said, “If it hadn’t rained, traces like these might not have been made at all, but the rain made the ground soft, allowing for faint palm traces to remain.”
Afterwards, Sae raised her hand to the height of Makokan’s forehead.
“Going by the traces left behind inside the salt mine, I think he’s around this tall. He’s a man with a light body and a lot of strength.”
She pulled out a thin strand of hair from the rest of the collection in her obi, and showed it to Makokan.
“His hair is black, close to brown. Going by his hair, not much time has passed since he was brought here. His hair is a bad state, sure, but compared to the hair of the corpse next to his bedding, it’s still thick and healthy.” Her eyes darkened slightly. “The hair of slaves who have gone through a long period of terrible treatment is a lot thinner and more brittle. The color would fade over time as well.”
Makokan silently listened to her low voice. Now he fully understood why a man of Tohrim’s caliber admired and trusted this woman completely. Her tracking skills were god-like.
However…this woman isn’t suited for this kind of work.
That thought lingered in his mind.
Sae sighed softly, put the hair into Makokan’s hand, turned on her heels, and entered the slaves’ kitchen. The kitchen was wide and deserted. The beam of sunlight shining down from the window illuminated the dust slowly dancing in the air. Several footprints were visible on the floor, probably those of the soldiers who had cleared away the corpses, but Sae began to carefully examine them one-by-one.
The hunting dog also sniffed at the air. It appears that there was no doubt that Van had stayed here.
As the autumn sun waned and dusk set in outside and inside the kitchen, Sae peeked into one furnace, and stopped moving again.
“Is something wrong?” Makokan asked.
Sae stirred, and then stood up silently. In the pale blue darkness, her figure had lost its distinct shape, making her look almost like a ghost.
“He spent the night here,” muttering that, Sae looked down at the floor in front of the furnace. “It looks like he also took a bath. There are traces from a washbasin left on the floor. Those might be traces from baths that the women who worked here took, but since there are no such traces in front of any of the other furnaces, I think that the women took their baths elsewhere. If that’s the case, he washed his body before leaving this place…”
The sound of someone calling could be heard from outside, drowning out those last words.
“It looks like we’re being called.” Makokan commented.
Sae nodded and started to walk towards the door.
There was still a little light on the horizon, but most of the sky had already taken on the color of night. A soldier with a torch in hand could be seen leading a single tall man their way. The man was a Molpha.
He walked gracefully up to them and said to Sae, without any greetings, “Leader is calling for you. …We found traces in the forest.”