Hearing someone calling out with a “Heeey!”, Van turned to see Yoki waving at him. Van was slightly leaned over, gently stroking around Zuppy’s horn as she rubbed her nose against him. Placing the ashim down on the snow, he started to walk towards Yoki.
When the season of love came about, the puyka would often eat this lichen. A pregnant doe craves ashim in particular. As such, it was important to go out and harvest fresh ashim, which thrived even under the snow, for the does to eat. Wading through the heavy snow of the forest to dig out ashim was heavy labor, but one had to endure so that the does could give birth to healthy children.
But then again, since he could now find ashim by its smell, it had become much easier to collect despite the snow. In the past, Van hadn’t even noticed the ashim’s fragrance, but nowadays the smell stirred his heart in an odd way. Unlike mohoki, the smell was rather pleasant, but a part of him was still repulsed by it.
Whenever he smelled ashim, it reminded him of that night when he had run with the mongrels. This might also be one of the reasons why the scent of this green lichen weighed on his mind and heart.
He approached with small, light steps over the snow, and when he got close enough Yoki said stiffly, “S’ real real bad…ya got a messenger wit’ <Glossy Feathers> here for ya.”
Just as Van was about to ask for a clarification, the direction of the wind changed, and he suddenly sensed a scent he hadn’t ever encountered before. It was a mix of a grassy moss scent he smelt in the forest before, the smell of charred herbs, and the faint stench of rotten eggs.
A visitor clad in all those scents was on the other side of the tent’s curtain.
“Ya don’ know tha <Glossy Feathers>?” Yoki asked, irritably. “Ain’t there a <Tree Spirit Lord> over in Toga?”
“S’pose not then. S’ a lord who c’n traverse this world and beyond apparently. When tha <Tree Spirit Lord> invites ‘nyone, messenger always comes wit’ a raven feather for ‘em.” Yoki said, waving his hand impatiently like he couldn’t get through the explanation quickly enough. “Anyway, come wit’ me.”
Keeping pace with Yoki as he took long strides back, Van recalled the raven he had seen that morning.
It was too dazzling, so I couldn’t get a clear view of it, but I guess that wasn’t a normal raven after all, huh? <Tree Spirit Lord>… A lord capable of moving past the boundaries between worlds. I suppose he’s someone like the <Dancing Spirit Master>. 1
At Van’s hometown, there was a lord capable of shedding her physical body and freely moving between this world and the next as a spirit called <Dancing Spirit Master>.
There might be a person like that amongst the Oki people as well.
Remembering the <Dancing Spirit Master>, a nostalgic feeling welled up within Van. In his childhood, the previous <Dancing Spirit Master> had often looked after him. She had been a lively granny called Yohkina who was always smiling. She loved to tease the children, and since she knew all the embarrassing tales about the adults from their own youths, people always became flustered and tried to get away as soon as possible whenever she appeared before them.
However, for some reason Van had liked Yohkina, and Yohkina had liked him as well. Whenever she spotted Van, she called him over, saying, “Hey, lil puyka brat, come over here for a moment, will you?”, and gave him fruit or honey-glazed candies.
She had also saved his life before. He had once mischievously gone into the mountains at night with his friends as a test of courage, but lost his footing on a cliff, suffering heavy injuries from the fall. Even though he could hear his friends panicking and crying out for him in the darkness, the intense pain made it so that he couldn’t call back to let them know his position. The one who rescued him back then was Yohkina. He didn’t know how she found him, but she figured out where he had fallen and told his father and the other adults.
The only words that reached him through the mindless daze he had lived in after his wife and child passed away were Yohkina’s
At about the same time he began hearing rumors of Ziol approaching, Yohkina yielded her duty as <Dancing Spirit Master> to her daughter, and headed off on a journey. Some people spoke badly of her, saying that she had seen a terrible omen and was running away, but Van believed that she had a good reason for leaving the Toga Mountainous District.
He had been sad that the person he turned to in times of need had left, but he also had a feeling that in this particular case she would have merely told him, “My domain is the passing of twilight, war and the like is none of my business,” and he thought that this would have been very typical of her, too.
If I assume that the <Tree Spirit Lord> who’s calling for me right now is someone similar to the <Dancing Spirit Master>, their soul might have been in the raven I saw this morning.
The moment he thought this, he suddenly remembered what Yuna had said when she saw the raven.
──A twinkle, twinkle, shiny, shiny granny!
Van furrowed his eyebrows, feeling a chill run down his back.
When he lifted the flap leading into the tent, he saw a small woman sitting inside. Like everyone else here, she had many reindeer pelts wrapped around her but many tiny blue globes had been sewn into her hood, casting stabbing reflections of light when she moved.
Ouma and the others stood around her. Yuna spotted Van with her sharp eyes, shook off Kiya’s hand, and flapped both her hands at him. “Pa! Pa!”
Everyone’s eyes turned in Van’s direction. The small woman bowed. There were wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, but she wasn’t that old. She looked to be in her fifties.
Van picked up Yuna as she rushed over, and returned the woman’s bow.
In the woman’s hands were jet-black raven feathers, shining slickly like they were wet.
Calmly holding out two feathers of different sizes, she announced, “I am a messenger of the <Tree Spirit Lord>. Please call me Azenomi. He who dwells in <Yomida’s Forest>, where hot springs gush and beyond which streams of fire sigh, wishes to meet you and your young daughter. Sudden as this request might be, may I ask that you make your way to us when the blizzards next lull?”
Before Van could answer, Yuna quickly extended a hand, snatching the feathers out of Azenomi’s hand.
“Pa, look! Very pwetty～” She brought the feather close to the tip of her nose while smiling sweetly.
“…Hey, stop that.”
Just as Van was about to scold her, Azenomi smiled, “My child, what color might those feathers be to you?”
Van thought that the question might have been too difficult for her to understand, but as she played with the two feathers, Yuna answered, “You shee, dey’re shiny shiny. Jus’ like sno.”
Ouma and Manya looked troubled, not knowing what to say, but Azenomi laughed happily, “Aha! Yes, yes, they are the color of snow!”
Yuna’s answer must have pleased her quite a bit. Her cheeks still rosy from laughing, she seemed to relax a little, looking kindly at Van and asking,
“I wonder, what color do these have for you?”
Having been asked, Van took another look at the feathers. Even though they had appeared black to him up until now, when he tried to focus on them the feathers seemed to sway and warp.
Van squinted, muttering, “…I can’t see them.”
Azenomi’s eyes widened slightly. She stared at him for a while, obviously preoccupied with her own thoughts but eventually she nodded.
“I see. ──Such people might exist as well, I suppose.” Then Azenomi asked him in a gentle voice once more, “How about it? Will you come back with me?”
Van didn’t answer immediately, staring at Yuna in his arms.
If the one summoning us, the <Tree Spirit Lord>, is like the <Dancing Spirit Master>, they speak for the gods. Refusal is not an option.
Van also desperately wanted to know how they came to know of Yuna and him, as well as why they had been summoned but he had quite a few concerns too.
Some strange changes are happening to me. They’re probably happening to this girl, too. If those changes are because we have been bitten by those beasts, I wonder what someone who serves the gods will think. They might try to purge us as sinister beings who have been corrupted by the bites of impure beings.
He saw Kiya stirring, looking up at her elderly husband with an uneasy expression. When Van saw this, his heart suddenly settled down.
Whether we go or escape, it is something that only concerns us. We cannot afford to trouble the people living here. Besides, I have to find out just what is happening to us right now. Otherwise I won’t be able to figure out what to do next. If it were only me, it wouldn’t matter all that much. However, the warm child in my arms has only just started her journey through life. ──I must find a path that will allow her to lead a life of happiness.
Van looked at Azenomi, nodding.
“We will go with you.”
Azenomi smiled in relief, “I see. I’m glad to hear that. And, once again, I’m sorry for springing this on you all of a sudden.”
Hearing how friendly she had become, Ouma’s face twitched, “…Umm, excuse me.”
Azenomi turned around, looking at him, “Yes?”
After clearing his throat, Ouma continued, “I’m really sorry to disturb you, but might this be something related to what happened a couple nights ago?”
Azenomi’s expression changed, a troubled expression on her face, “A few nights ago, what do you mean?”
Ouma glanced at his wife, at Yoki and Toma, and then at Van, and after clearly resolving himself, frankly answered, “Three nights ago, ‘pack a’ mongrels attacked our puyka. Van o’er here tried ta rescue the puyka, and uh, beat ‘em ta death…” After clearing his throat again, he continued, “Jus’ killin’ ‘em outright without tryin’ ta drive ‘em off wit’ fire first weren’t the right thing ta do, but ‘e also knows what ‘e did, and I’m sure he’s reflecting on it. And, ‘e did it all fer us in the first place.”
Azenomi had listened to Ouma with a slightly startled reaction, only reacting slightly when he brought up the “pack of mongrels”. However, it immediately vanished.
Once Ouma finished talking, Azenomi tilted her head to the side and answered quite calmly, “Oh, it does sound like something quite significant happened. You may be right, the <Tree Spirit Lord’s> invitation might be because of that, but it might also be completely unrelated. Whatever it is, sorry, I can’t give you an answer. I haven’t been told anything about why the invitation was extended.” Then Azenomi added, trying to soothe the tension in the room, “But you see, you don’t have anything to worry about, alright? I’m sure you’re well aware, but the <Tree Spirit Lord> exists to keep the flow in order. If there’s something wrong, he will fix it.”
Ouma pursed his lips, looking at Van. Azenomi had spoken in a gentle manner, but her words had an edge to them.
Ouma seemed to hear it as well. For a while he stayed silent, looking at Van like he wanted to say something, before exhaling and whispering, “If yer goin’ ta go, then so be it. …We’ll be here ‘til ‘bout the middle of spring, jus’ keep that in mind.”
Van met Ouma’s gaze, and then deeply lowered his head.
Since the trip to <Yomida’s Forest> would take five days, it was decided that they would use the rest of this day to prepare for the journey, and depart the next morning.
If it had been a bit colder, the snow would have frozen over, making it easier for the reindeer to walk and for the sleigh to slide, but the snow in the forest was still soft, so the trip would be quite arduous.
Van had expected that trips that would require long nights alone in the snow to be quite intimidating for a woman, but Azenomi seemed to be familiar with traveling like this, and simply straddled her reindeer with a truly carefree expression. Furthermore, her reindeer was well trained and kept advancing without any hesitation, obviously capable of recognizing the barely noticeable forest trails.
Van thought that Yuna would cry when they left Ouma’s family, but she was in a surprisingly good mood as she slowly swayed on the reindeer’s back, curled up in a small basket for children that they used around here when traveling.
A thin layer of clouds blanketed the sky, but every once in a while, pale sunlight shone through onto the calm forest. When the sun began to wane, Van entrusted Yuna to Azenomi, and started preparing for their night outdoors.
He searched for a place protected from the wind, constructed a wall of snow around it with a long-handled wooden shovel, and spread out reindeer pelts inside. In the middle of the makeshift snow dwelling, where sparks wouldn’t reach the pelts, he set up a fireplace. While he was doing this, Yuna started to roll around on the pelts, squealing, “Lok, lok a’ me～”
“Make sure you don’t kick the snow wall.” Van warned her, but Yuna, who loved to roll around, pretended to not hear him and kept thrashing about.
Without any indication that she would tire anytime soon, Yuna kept rolling energetically until Azenomi picked her up with a laugh, tickling her cheeks.
They slept outside together that night, and then another, but Azenomi never asked Van about his past. Likewise she never spoke of her own past. She merely spent her time playing with Yuna, or singing songs in a deep voice.
Van deliberately avoided asking her things as well. But then again, he had no problems with staying silent. Rather, he was grateful that he could remain quiet.
Only Yuna alone actively kept chattering clumsily, though she would crawl into Van’s arms and fall asleep fairly early every night.
Once Yuna was asleep, the stillness of winter would reign supreme. The sounds of the brushwood crackling as it burned, the sound of snow piled on the tree branches falling to the ground as the smoke swirled past, the small squeaking of a mouse being eaten within the thicket…
Though the strange sounds melded into a cacophony, individually they were of little significance and meaning. He let them flow past him like a breeze that gently engulfed one’s body before moving on.
In the past, the forest at night was something terrifying but now he was inexplicably at peace in the forest. As if he were floating down a gentle stream, he kept drifting, allowing it to wash over him.
Wary of a possible attack by those beasts or wolves, he kept his hatchet within reach but the calm atmosphere soon lulled him into a light slumber. However, as he slowly drifted into the land of dreams, he felt the sensation of countless eyes watching him from afar, causing him to wake in surprise, only to have that impression quickly fade, and his eyelids grow heavy once more with sleep.
They spent four days camping outdoors. Soon it was the morning of the fifth day. It was very chilly at dawn.
Van couldn’t sleep too deeply since he needed to keep the fire going to keep Yuna warm, and when the morning sun shone down on their camp he woke immediately.
Azenomi was also up before the sun and had put some water and green tea into a hand-held pot over the fire to boil. The tea, made out of some kind of leaf, gave off an invigorating aroma. Azenomi added a clump of cloudy honey into the tea, stirred it, and passed it to Van.
Sipping the tea slowly as it cooled, its sweet warmth seeped into Van’s chilled body, and he felt like he had been reborn. Even Yuna, who had been grumbling about either being cold or sleepy, quickly cheered up after drinking the tea.
“Are we still a long way away?” Once Van asked as he chewed on warm jerky, Azenomi shook her head with a smile.
“We’ll arrive in the early afternoon. At the latest, we’ll make it by evening.”
A short while after they left their camp, the forest suddenly opened up, revealing a gently sloping snow field. The blindingly bright snow field was dotted with many black rocks of mysterious shapes and forms. Beyond the rocks was a dense forest and beyond that, a tall mountain rose in the distance.
The instant he saw the ridgeline of that mountain, Van reflexively stopped his reindeer. He had had his suspicions as they had travelled, and as he had suspected, they had been traveling in the direction of his homeland. The tall mountain that had just come into sight was Otogaya’s Peak, the northeastern edge of the Toga Mountainous District. It looked a little different since he was looking at it from the other side now, but it was still unmistakably the mountain of his homeland.
Getting a glimpse of a very, very nostalgic mountain, he felt a stabbing pain in his chest.
“Pa! Dat, wat’s dat? Onbaa (monster)?” Hearing trepidation in Yuna’s voice, Van lifted her out of the basket, and placed her between his knees.
“It’s not an onbaa. They’re just rocks.”
It was understandable that Yuna was frightened. The rocks strewn before them were very different from those Yuna was used to seeing. The had jagged edges, and they had taken on shapes that looked like monsters who were petrified while in agonizing pain.
“…Those are…Fire Blood Rocks, huh?”
Hearing Van’s muttering, Azenomi looked back at him and nodded.
“Indeed, you’re right. I’m surprised that you know of them.”
His eyes half closed to try and block out the dazzling reflections of the snow, “There’s a similar place near where I was born as well.”
Otogaya’s Peak was a mountain that blew fire, and sometimes faint trails of smoke could be seen rising from its summit. On the other side of Otogaya’s Peak lay the <Field of Fire Blood Rocks> which closely resembled the scene before him. The old clan members had often said, “Land close to the mountain of fire has thin skin.” And it was quite observable: one could see the movements of the ground in the area and in some parts of the mountain streams there were even places that gushed hot water.
Van had frequently soaked in hot baths that had been made by diverting the warm water formed by the hot water mixing with the mountain stream. Because those baths had been readily available to him for as long as he could remember, not being able to bathe when out on an expedition was really tough on him.
Since it was unthinkable to bring up bathing while he was staying with the reindeer people, not to mention his days in the salt mine, he longingly wished to use the baths again now that he had been reminded of them.
…If the skin of the land here is as thin as it is over there, perhaps there’s hot water gushing out on this side too.
Van smiled wryly when such a thought suddenly crossed his mind, but it actually seemed to be entirely possible.
The Fire Blood Rocks here, whose bizarre shapes were clear now that they were closer, occupied a much smaller area than the <Field of Fire Blood Rocks> in his homeland, but they were very similar. The <Field of Fire Blood Rocks> was a rocky area said to have formed in the distant past, when Otogaya’s Peak hurled fire high up into the sky, and its burning blood hardened afterwards. The children always felt that it was a great place to hold tests of courage since it was such a strange place, but their parents would discourage them by warning them about monsters that breathed poison lurking behind the bizarre rocks.
And, since some children had actually seen birds flying above the rock field drop out of the sky like they had been shot down with stones, and sometimes a stench so smelly that it made breathing difficult wafted down to the village, the children never went against their parents’ instructions.
As Van walked across the snow field, caught in his nostalgia, the direction of the wind changed, bringing with it a weird faint smell of rotten eggs.
Seeing Van quickly cover Yuna’s nose with a hand, Azenomi smiled, “It’s alright. Though the monsters’ breath stinks, breathing in this much won’t harm you. The truly dangerous poison breath comes from the mountain’s northern side and doesn’t reach the grotto of <Yomida’s Forest> where the <Tree Spirit Lord> dwells.”
Adding that, “We’re almost there,” Azenomi led their little party through the rocks. Skilfully handling her reindeer, Azenomi quickly passed through the field of Fire Blood Rocks.
At first, Yuna stiffened as they approached the rocks, but as Van began to follow the narrow path through the rocks, she leaned forward to behold the rocks with sparkling eyes.
“Scaly, reiny! Scaly, granny! Ah! Dere’s a mouz, too!”
The rocks apparently looked like a reindeer, a grandmother, and a mouse to her. The stench of the poisonous breath waxed and waned with the wind, but once Van got used to it, it stopped bothering him.
As they left the rocky area and entered the forest, their surroundings immediately became dim.
The blood of the land seems to have flowed all the way here, too. Looking closely, the rocks covered by tree roots are the same color as Fire Blood Rocks. Even land that has been swept by fire will recover, and the plants will return to it…
It suddenly reminded Van of a poem recited by an elder in the past.
The skin of the land here is thin. This forest is warmer than all others. Thus moss covers the trees and ivy hangs low from the boughs.
On the other side of a curtain of ivy, a towering rock wall soon came into sight.
“Great, we’ve arrived.” Azenomi looked back, smiling.
The wall was blanketed in white and green moss and the entrance to a cave was set in it like a great gaping maw. It was a pitch-black, heading down into the earth.
T/N: No new chapter next week. Next one will be on July the 29th.