The sound of the river, quietly winding its way far below, was carried up the cliff by the wind. On the right was a steep cliff, on the left a steep slope that descended all the way down to the bottom of a huge basin. Makokan sighed for the umpteenth time as he followed the path, one so narrow that one wagon could barely fit on it, while riding a reindeer.
“…I definitely never expected that I would end up coming all the way to a place like this.”
Winter comes fast in this area. There’s still some time left before the first snow, but once it starts falling, I doubt that we’ll be able to pass this way – it’ll be buried in snow. Now I understand why Sae said to use reindeer instead of horses. Even now the path is frosted in some parts and muddy in others, making it easy to slip.
Akafah’s big reindeer were well-built, allowing them to carry even the burly Makokan without any issues.
Besides, as beasts originating from lands of intense coldness, reindeer have completely different hooves to horses. They can walk atop soft snow by distributing their weight with every step. The edges of their hooves are sharp, allowing them to walk across even ice without slipping. I don’t think we could have taken this way if not for Akafah’s reindeer.
Still, no matter how suited reindeer might be for bad roads, I can’t shake the feeling that if we continue along this treacherous cliffside path and the freezing wind continues to blow, they might lose their footing at some point and we will fall into the valley.
Hearing Makokan’s grumbling, Sae turned around with a smile on her face.
“We’re almost there. I think we will be able to go down into the basin and reach the village before sunset.”
“Hopefully. I have a hunch that it will snow tonight.”
Sae looked up at the sky as well, and nodded.
On the other side of the huge valley, a mountainous region stretched as far as the eye could see. The snow-capped mountain ridges were contrasted against a pale yellow sky, which slowly faded into a pale grey. The sky seemed to melancholically stretch on, endlessly gray but faintly glowing, as if the light was trapped behind it.
“…I think I made a wrong call. If I had known that it was this far away, waiting until spring would have been smarter.”
She had agreed with the departure time, under the impression that they would make it before snowfall, but with the way things were going, even if they found the runaway slave, the way back would be blocked off.
Gazing at the majestic landscape expanding in the distance, Sae said, “We can sleep outside even if the snow starts to fall.”
Makokan frowned. “Give me a break. Please don’t make me camp out in the snow. ──Let’s return the way we came.”
Sae turned around and laughed.
“Please don’t say such childish things. I’m sure you’re aware that even if we were to turn back now we would be camping in the snow anyway. It will be alright. As long as we manage to find the village, I’m sure they will let us stay until spring.”
He wanted to retort that being cooped up indoors in such a backwater area was a bad joke at best, but refrained.
The search is heavily dependent on luck. The situation might change if we wait until spring. I’m partly responsible since I agreed when Sae said that we should begin searching the Oki valley at once. ──Though I certainly hadn’t expected that Sae would consider passing the winter in this place. This is why I dislike hunters and nomads.
Makokan sighed in his mind.
Since they’re constantly on the move, they don’t give a damn where they spend the night. Shit, I really want a hot bath!
Taking a hot soak, eating good food, and sleeping in a soft bed surrounded by thick walls and a roof ─ aren’t these important to living like a human being?
With the smell of snow in the air and the wind blowing against his face, Makokan sighed very deeply.
The one who had determined that it was possible that the runaway slave had escaped into the Oki District was Tohrim, but the one who had discovered a clue that they could follow was Sae. The hunters led by Sae’s father had discovered the remains of a campfire and Sae had read the traces to deduce that the runaway had met someone with a wagon.
Impressively, Sae’s hunting dog had managed to pick up the slave’s scent from the ground near the fire despite how many days had since passed, confirming that the slave had indeed passed through this way. After diligently examining the traces around the campfire, Sae concluded that the man that the slave had met seemed to be injured so heavily that he couldn’t walk. The ground, which was mushy because of the rain, had the marks of someone bracing to lift up someone else and placing them on a wagon.
Moreover, Sae identified from the remaining hoof prints that the beast pulling the wagon wasn’t a reindeer or a horse, but a puyka. When it came to people who kept puyka, those of the western Toga Mountainous District would immediately come to mind, but thanks to the western policies of Ziol it had become popular to raise puyka even in this area.
Having said that, it was difficult to imagine that a merchant or farmer would use puyka instead of horses or reindeer because they were so difficult to handle. The most likely explanation was that a northern nomad had made camp in the area on their way to sell pelts or something similar in the city.
Sae had determined that they were headed towards Kazan after following the wagon’s tracks for a while, but Kazan was the biggest trade city in the area. As expected, even Sae couldn’t follow their trail along roads that were frequented by hundreds of wagons every day. As such, they entrusted the search in the city to Tohrim.
Makokan felt a chill run down his spine at the fact that it didn’t even take Tohrim three days from hearing the story to learning the whereabouts of the runaway slave.
It seemed like Tohrim had contacted the trade association of Kazan, asking them to investigate whether there had been a wounded man with a puyka wagon among those who came to sell pelts, and the news had spread like wildfire, resulting in a flood of information.
The people of Akafah’s upper class still held power over the people in every corner of their former country. That was clearly displayed in the speed with which the information had come.
There were a number of men who had come to sell pelts with puyka wagons, but only a youth called Toma was injured to an extent that he couldn’t walk. Hearing from the furrier that a well-built man had supported Toma, Tohrim deduced that this man had to be the runaway slave in question, and notified Sae.
“It seems that the man was around forty years old, and had dark brown, close to black, hair. His appearance and circumstances fit perfectly with what you’ve told me. That man apparently said that he was looking forward to working with Toma from now on, because he thought he would stay and work for Toma’s family.” Tohrim reported his findings with a smile, before his face clouded over. “However, I don’t know the precise location of the hometown of the man called Toma. Toma is a common name. It looks like he’s one of the people of Oki, but Oki refers to the entirety of a huge basin, a low mountainous district, and its valley. Many nomad settlements are scattered all over the place there.”
Sae shook her head when Tohrim suggested that they wait until spring to continue searching, and answered that it was best to be fast if it came to searching.
The sun, which had been content to simply be a slightly brighter patch behind the gray clouds, began to shine through them before long. Its golden rays poured down onto the wide expanse of the basin. The sun was still high up in the sky, but once it started to go down, it would vanish behind the mountains’ ridge in the blink of an eye. Afterwards, night would fall and the basin would be plunged into darkness.
Fortunately the path along the cliff started to slope downwards, descending into the basin little by little. Like small isolated dots scattered all over the grasslands, men herding their cattle along the river could be seen. That fact brightened the mood of the two travelers a bit.
Finding the village or the sun going down, it’s tough to say which will come first.
Just as Makokan came to this conclusion, he saw Sae, who was riding ahead of him, suddenly pulling on the reins and stopping her reindeer as if she had noticed something.
As he called out to her, Makokan also noticed it.
Without him realising, the entire right side of his body, the half facing the cliff, was covered in goosebumps. As he looked up, something moved atop the cliff. Something black pushed its way through the overgrown bushes, showing its face.
A wild dog, huh? No, it’s way too big to be a dog. It might be a wolf.
As soon as he registered the first one, he immediately noticed several more black heads lurking within the bushes all around, looking down on them. Their yellow eyes were fixed on them.
A freezing dread filled Makokan as his stomach dropped. He quickly placed his hand on the hilt, popped the sword from the sheathe, and drew the blade.
As if it had been a signal, a great number of black shadows leapt down, rushing down the cliff with unbelievable agility, and making a beeline directly for the two of them.
One beast jumped up with a yelp of pain. Risking a peek, he saw that Sae had gotten off her reindeer without him noticing, readied her short bow, and shot an arrow. She continued firing arrows with a terrifying speed. Each time, nearly before he registered the fact that she had retrieved an arrow from her quiver and nocked it, there would be a dull thump as another black beast was pierced by the arrow.
The arrows flew one after the other. A beast would jump, thump against the path and tumble down into the valley below with every arrow.
However, Makokan didn’t have the spare time to admire her for long. A rotten smell hit his face and Makokan swung his sword down, slaying a beast. As soon as the body left his sword, another beast took its place and attacked him. He didn’t even have the time to watch his downed enemies fall into the valley. If he were to stab his foes, it would take time to draw out the sword so Makokan determinedly slashed his sword left and right, cutting down beasts as if he was warding off pebbles being thrown at him.
Sweat dripped into his eyes. The reindeer he was straddling was terrified, and because of its unsteady movements, he couldn’t hold his stance properly. For just an instant, his concentration waned…and in that gap, a beast went for his throat. He didn’t have the time to swing his sword. He instinctively covered his throat with an arm, having resolved himself to be bitten, but the beast was sent flying sideways with a yelp.
Sae had turned her bow in his direction. ──Before he could thank her for saving him, a beast took the opening in her defenses that Sae had left by turning his way and leapt. Under the weight of the beast, Sae staggered, and Makokan watched in horror as she missed her step on the path.
Makokan jumped off his reindeer with a shout, and tried to extend his hand towards Sae, but there was no way that he would make it in time.
Crashing into the dry bushes as she tumbled down, Sae sent up a cloud of dust. As they fell, Makokan faintly made out the silhouette of the beast being thrown from Sae’s body. A splash in the distance told him where she had landed. For an instant a white dot appeared on the water’s surface, but it was immediately swallowed by the current and vanished.
Makokan bent over the path along the cliff, and yelled himself hoarse. Hopelessly, his voice was swept away by the wind and only a stifling silence answered. ──The one that attacked Sae was probably the last of the pack. There were no moving beasts remaining.
Drenched in sweat and taking quick, rough breaths, Makokan looked around. As he was taking another look down from the cliff, something like white cotton touched his eyelid.
Snow fluttered down from the gray sky, like a soundless sigh. After a while of staring at the bottom of the valley in a daze, Makokan stood up, and shook his numb head, trying to regain himself.
This isn’t the time to act like a moron.
Beasts with arrows still sticking out of them were scattered here and there atop the path. Some were still twitching with pain. He looked at the beasts, which seemed bigger than dogs but smaller than wolves, and then at his reindeer, whose escape had been foiled when its reins had been caught in a bush. It was totally frightened, its body trembling violently.
Sae’s reindeer had likely run far away by now, seeing as he couldn’t spot it anywhere. Makokan spoke soothingly as he approached his own reindeer to calm it down, and picked up the reins. The feel of familiar leather beneath his fingers allowed him to regain a small sense of normality.
Makokan wiped his sword against the cuff of his shirt and sheathed it before taking off the sword belt and slinging it across his shoulder. Then he mounted his reindeer, spurring it onwards to descend the cliff by tightly pressing his legs against its abdomen.
He knew that he was in a dangerous situation. If he lost his reindeer at a place like this, his life would be forfeit. He had confidence in his ability to handle a mount. He rather preferred guiding it while mounted than on foot.
As soon as it started to descend, the reindeer carefully tested each step as it continued to go down the slope. It was a long and harrowing descent, but as the path descended, the slope became gentler, allowing reindeer and rider to somehow get to the riverside without suffering any injuries.
The snow had begun to flurry at this point.
With his worry clear on his face, Makokan shouted until his throat was hoarse. Following the river on his reindeer, he continued to search for Sae, but with his sight hindered by the falling snow, he couldn’t spot her.
Makokan felt like he could hear the barking of dogs further down the river, but even when he tried to look in that direction, all he could see was a wall of dancing snow. The sun hadn’t set yet, but wherever he looked there was a wall of dull white. The howl of the wind started to echo boundlessly across the desolate land.