Winter arrived early that year, and was much harsher than the last, just like Ouma had predicted. Snow began falling heavily in late autumn, becoming full-blown blizzards that lasted several days by the time winter arrived.
Kiya went about completing her work as usual since it wasn’t in her nature to openly show what was on her mind, but every now and then she stared vacantly at the snow-laden sky.
As if Kiya’s feelings had reached them, Ouma and the others managed to safely return during a gap between blizzards. The night of their return, loud laughter and chatting could be heard inside the tent for the first time in a while.
Since they had sold their reindeer for a reasonable price, Ouma had brought back fruit preserved in sugar and salmon pickled in salt as souvenirs in addition to their necessities. The salmon was soaked in oil, and once it had been cooked, the oil from the salted side of the skin proved to be unbelievably tasty.
The reindeer auction market was held twice a year, in spring and late autumn, but whenever the time came, many livestock-farmers from all over Akafah would gather at a big trading site located near the old capital Kazan. Since peddlers swarmed the place as well, a huge party was held on the night of the last day of the market, they recounted.
After the joyful dinner, while Kiya and Granny Manya left the tent to put the remaining salmon away in the storehouse, Ouma tugged on Van’s sleeve to get his attention. He seemed to have purposely waited for them to leave, and whispered, so as to not wake Yuna who was sleeping between Van’s knees, “I heard a nasty rumor at the reindeer market.”
“Yeah, looks like we got a disease loose.”
Hearing that, Toma interjected, “Ain’t no disease. They said it don’t pass from people ta people.”
Looking at his son, Ouma clicked his tongue in irritation.
“Ain’t no difference what ya call the damn thing. Even if ya don’t get’t from people, it’d still be’n epidemic if ya die anytime a dog gits ya.”
Listening to them bicker, Van felt anxiety stir in his chest.
“Is it rabies?” Van asked, causing Ouma to furrow his eyebrows.
Looking into his eyes, Van was surprised to see true fear deep in them.
“Nah, that ain’t it,” Ouma replied, patting his knee. “…I hear it’s Black Wolf Fever.”
Van knitted his eyebrows, “Black Wolf Fever?”
Ouma fixedly stared at Van.
“Ya ought to be well familiar with it. Ain’t it a disease from where ya came from? Or therabouts at least.”
Van smiled bitterly, “There was no such disease amongst our people. …If I remember correctly, the black wolves said to have caused the downfall of the old Otawal Kingdom were apparently captured in the mountains of my birthplace, but the elders said that none of the folks of the Toga Mountains died of the disease. Besides, I heard that all the wolves had been wiped out by the Akafan soldiers in a huge mountain hunt a very long time ago, so there’s hardly any of black wolves left nowadays. Rather, aren’t there more of them around here?”
Ouma scratched his cheek.
“Yeah, there’s a few of ‘em – ya can spot ‘em here n there. I ain’t heard of any folks gettin’ sick or dying after getting bit either.” Ouma sighed. “That’s the nasty part. Bad enough there’s a disease on the loose, but what’s even worse…”
Ouma broke off, falling silent.
Toma, who had been facing his father, turned to Van and muttered, “See, ‘ccording to all the folks, it ain’t just a disease, it’s <Akafah’s Curse>.”
“Only them Ziolians die ‘pparently. Even when they get bit, Akafans and Oki are all okay, ’s just the Ziolians and immigrants that croak.”
“That’s bullshit,” Van spat out. “That story has probably cropped up because it’s a historical fact that the Akafans didn’t suffer from the terrifying disease that ruined old Otawal.”
Van looked at the two.
“People are drawn to what they want to believe. I think it’s a rumor born from the resentment towards Ziolians.”
Ouma shook his head.
“Thought so first as well. Actually, I had this massive fight with the guy spreadin’ the rumor. If Toma weren’t there ta stop me, I woulda split their heads open with the back of ma hatchet.”
Toma smiled wryly at his father, but his lips were bloodless. Ouma blinked stiffly.
“…But, it’s got ta be true. Folk I’ve known for thirty odd years told me the same story. They all figure it has ta be true.”
Toma faced Van, “Seems like a buncha folks have died already. Immigrant villages on the southern Yukata Plains bin saying they been losing people to dog bites for a while now. I hear immigrants on the south side o’ the Oki Basin have been hit bad too. Those dang hounds o’ the gods’re gettin’ closer to the old capital, and looks like somethin’ real big happened this autumn.”
Toma recounted the tragedy which took place during the falconry competition that King Akafah and Lord Ouhan had presided over, his saliva flying.
“They been sayin’ even Lord Utal passed. He got bit by black dogs that suddenly appeared, and had rashes all over ‘im before he died. And even though a buncha Ziolian ladies passed away, all o’ King Akafah’s relatives were okay even though they got bit by the same dogs,” Toma said gloomily. “All this added up, I can’t doubt the rumor even if I wanted to. Akafan gods are killing one Ziolian after another for tainting Akafan lands. Looks like Akafah is gonna return ta being a country o’ Akafans again…”
“That’s a load of crap,” Ouma barked. “S’all just convenient interpretation, like Van said. I heard some Akafan royalty had their arms or legs stop moving or somethin’.”
“Yeah, I did hear that too. I think it was the king’s nephew? Heard he couldn’t walk no more.”
“Ain’t all either. Didn’t the Ziolian grandkid o’ Lord Ouhan survive?”
Toma smiled bitterly.
“You talking about Lord Orim…? Well, he’s the reason why everybody’s saying this is the will o’ the gods. That boy was spared cuz he’s half Akafan.” Toma continued with a sigh, “Lord Utal hated the Akafans and passed so quick but Lord Yotal married King Akafah’s grandkid and his kid survived. Don’ think anyone’s not realized what this means.”
As if suddenly remembering something, Toma looked at Van.
“Look, all the slaves in Akafah’s Salt Mine died that one night, didn’t they? It was ’round the time I met you…”
“Everyone’s been saying that musta been the beginning, lookin’ back now. Akafah’s Salt Mine used ta be a sacred place bestowed to the Akafan by the gods, but the Ziolians made it a hellhole for slaves. ‘s probably why the gods’ hounds attacked the place first, folks’re sayin’.” Toma whispered as he wrapped his arms around himself, “That pack I saw in the forest that night…I thought they were mountain dogs, but maybe they were the gods’ hounds. If that’s true, why’d they left me alone. I’m half…”
Ouma extended his hand, and slapped the back of his son’s head.
“Stop it with the stupid stuff! You’re a man of Oki. Why would the gods punish decent folk!?”
Startled by the loud exclamation, Yuna woke up and looked around restlessly, tears already starting to well up in her eyes. Van hugged her close and bounced her a couple times.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, everything is fine.”
Yuna acted like a spoiled crybaby for a bit but must have been quite sleepy since she fell back asleep being rocked for a bit. The interruption to their dispute seemed to have calmed Ouma and Toma down a bit, too.
Once Yuna was asleep again, Ouma sighed lightly, “Please don’t say anythin’ ta Kiya, okay?”
Van looked at Ouma.
“But she’ll hear about it sooner or later, won’t she?”
Ouma nodded, “When spring comes round, I guess. …But even if just for winter…I just don’ wan’ her ta worry bout silly rumors y’know.”
With that, Kiya and Granny Manya returned. With them, they brought back the scent of the cold night wind and the usual nightly calm. Even as Yuna’s warmth and weight was on his thighs, Van felt a chill in his back.
That beast…its eyes definitely had a strange gleam as they shone in the mine’s darkness. As if it knew what it came for. Like a soldier carrying out an order.
Still, Van had no intention of believing the rumor that those beasts were sent by the gods.
People twist facts to fit into what they want to believe.
Even in his home village, various rumors circulated whenever an illness spread. If an illness caused a persistent cough, it was rumored that someone had spit on the root of a tree inhabited by a god. If many people had loose bowels, river purification ceremonies were carried out because that was caused by someone tainting the river, and so on. When he was a child, Van had believed what the adults told him, but nowadays such stories evoked only anger.
He was reminded of his son’s sparkling eyes, and heard his innocent laughter in his mind.
That boy…there was absolutely no reason why he had to get sick. If anyone in this world deserves to be cursed, it should be the people who use the will of the gods to suit their own wishes. However, those people, no, even far crueler and worse criminals live a long and happy life. Life and death shouldn’t be used by people to further their own ulterior motives.
Staring into the flickering flames, Van focused on Yuna’s warmth as she slept between his knees.