Azenomi retrieved a small flute from her pocket, and brought it to her lips. The tone of the small flute was unbelievably clear as it echoed into the cave. As the ring of the third note faded, a woman closely resembling Azenomi appeared from within the cave.
Van bowed, and then handed her a small bag that he had taken out of his pocket. It contained copper coins that Ouma had given him, as it was apparently customary to pay once you entered Yomida’s Forest.
However, the woman didn’t accept Van’s bag.
“Thank you very much for your consideration. However, as it was we who extended the invitation, I have been instructed not to accept this.” She bowed deeply with a smile. “Thank you for coming all this way. Traversing the snow-laden path must have been exhausting. Please come inside. I shall take care of your reindeer, please make yourselves comfortable in our humble abode.”
Van returned the bow, gave her the reins of his reindeer to her as prompted, and followed Azenomi into the cave with Yuna in one arm.
When he stepped inside, Van’s eyes widened in astonishment at how incomprehensibly vast it was. Several tunnels branched out of the huge cave, which extended into the distant darkness. Unlike the salt mine, which had been dug out by human hands, the cavern had been created by the earth itself.
He had sensed the presence of many other people in the cavern from outside, but now that he was inside, he was assaulted by the many voices and presences echoed through the branching tunnels into the open space.
There were many small holes in the rock face, allowing fine threads of light into the cave, providing more light than one would expect.
“It’s rather dry in here, isn’t it?” Azenomi commented with a smile.
Most caves were usually a lot damper. As you went deeper, the oppressive darkness and the cold damp breath of the earth would slowly fill you with a creeping fear ── that was what Van had imagined this place would be like. However, while it was majestic, this cave did not intimidate you.
“A long, long time ago, our honorable ancestors spent years of their lives to make this a comfortable living space. I’m sure it must have been strenuous work for human hands.” As Azenomi emotionally chronicled the history of the cave, Van heard footsteps approaching from the right side.
Soon a middle-aged man appeared from one of the many branch tunnels. He had a small build, and lowered his left shoulder almost imperceptibly whenever he took a step, probably because of an injury to his legs or waist.
After giving Van a light bow, he welcomed Azenomi home.
“And His Lordship?”
In response to Azenomi’s question, the man scratched his chin before answering, “That’s…he headed over to that place a little while ago…I s’pose there’s not much we can do beyond taking our guests to a room to rest for a while.”
He’s probably from a different region to Azenomi. He has the accent of the south.
“Oh my… Healing?”
“Aye. This morning the folks of the Tonami Clan brought their children over.”
Azenomi nodded, and then turned to Van.
“I’m terribly sorry that this is happening even after you travelled such long distances to get here at our invitation. It looks like urgent patients have come…”
Van shook his head, “Don’t worry about us. We don’t mind waiting a while.”
“Thank you very much. In that case, this Naka shall guide you. Please warm yourselves in the hot baths first. In the meantime, we shall prepare your meal.”
Van reflexively asked, “You have a bath with hot water?”
Azenomi’s smile deepened at the obvious joy that Van had let onto his face.
“Indeed, indeed. We’ve got a spring with very wonderful hot water. Please feel free to use it to your heart’s content.”
The man called Naka also nodded, “Please follow me. I shall show you everything.”
He plucked a light hanging from a small stake that had been driven into the rock face and began to lead the way. Carrying Yuna in his left arm, Van followed him into a branching tunnel.
The tunnel’s entrance was low, but not so much that he needed to crouch. It curved slightly as they went deeper.
Naka continued to press forward, the light swaying with every step and casting big shadows across the walls. He led them to a cave that was roughly the size of a tent. It had a small fireplace glowing a faint crimson from the ashes of a banked fire. Two ventilation holes had been drilled into the rock. Pillars of sunlight shone down from them, making the whole place unexpectedly bright.
An abundance of reindeer pelts carpeted the floor, and several pelts had been piled up near the wall, and were probably used as bedding. A bucket filled with water was also present.
“The toilet is down the tunnel there. Do you need to use it at the moment?”
Van looked at Yuna’s face.
“You want to go pee-pee?”
Yuna vehemently shook her head.
Van lifted an eyebrow as he stared at her. Until some time ago she had always said that she didn’t need to pee, only to lose control as she had held back, but since she had properly articulated her own needs lately, Van decided it would be fine.
“Please just show us where it is.”
Naka nodded at Van’s request, saying, “Please leave your luggage here as we’re going to head straight to the bath. The toilet is on the way.”
Van lowered their luggage on the pelts like he was told, but as it wasn’t as though this place had a door, he felt slightly concerned about just leaving their things in a place accessible to anyone.
Apparently having guessed his feelings, Naka smiled, “There are no thieves here. …Everyone who comes here wishes to be saved by the gods of heaven and earth.”
Following Naka who had lowered the lamp and started to walk again, Van came to a conclusion.
As I had expected, a <Tree Spirit Lord> is just like a <Dancing Spirit Master>. They are people who heal the ill and save those haunted by evil spirits… I’m pretty sure this is where the sick who need to stay for a long time are housed.
After they passed the toilet, which Naka dutifully pointed out, the tunnel gradually became brighter and curls of steam danced in the air. The end of the tunnel led to another cave.
“Come, the hot bath is over here.” Naka turned around after pointing out the entrance with his hand. “Have you already had the opportunity to soak in hot water before?”
Van nodded, “There were places with hot water back home, too.”
Clear relief was visible on Naka’s face.
“That’s great to hear. Teaching people who have never been in a hot bath before is quite a chore. Well then, the hot water can be found inside. You can take off your clothes here, and before entering the bath, I’d like to ask you to draw some hot water into a bucket and wash your body. I shall let you know when the preparations for your meal are done. Please take it slow n’ easy until then,” said Naka, turning on his heels and leaving.
When Van put Yuna down, she grabbed the hem of his coat, somewhat confused.
“Pa, waaat’s tis place here?”
“It’s a place to soak in hot water. It’s comfortable and warm.”
Grasping her tiny hand, he entered the bath. The interior was so wide that he almost sighed in admiration. There were several baskets nearby for storing clothes. Apparently someone had already entered the bath before them. A single basket had been placed by the wall, covered by a cloth.
As there was a partitioning screen between the bath and dressing room, he couldn’t see into the bath but there was a faint scent in the air that convinced him that a woman was in the bath. He thought that it was a somewhat nostalgic scent, but he couldn’t recall where he had smelled it last.
For a moment he wondered whether it would be bad to enter a bath already occupied by an unknown woman, but Naka didn’t seem to have paid it any mind, and since Yuna had been chattering continuously for a while now, the woman should have heard their voices. The fact that she hadn’t called out to them despite that meant the woman didn’t care about who might enter either. Van thought that she was probably an elderly woman who had stopped caring about the relationships between men and women.
Van swiftly took off his clothes, undressed Yuna who was rattling away like a waterfall, put their clothes into a basket, and picked Yuna up again. The floor of a bath was often quite slippery. He had picked her up to make sure she didn’t fall and Yuna squealed happily, probably over the skin-to-skin contact.
The area beyond the partitioning screen was enveloped in a thick wall of steam. There were several ventilation holes in the upper parts of the walls, near the ceiling. Countless rays of the evening sunlight pierced through the steam through those holes. Beneath the loose web woven by the dusky light and the steam, a single woman was soaking in the hot water.
She was in her thirties, with some youthfulness still in her face. Her skin was smooth and glossy.
Once their eyes met, Van got flustered and unconsciously used Yuna as a cover. Seeing that, the woman quickly cast her face down, as if trying to conceal it in the water. Her white shoulders were trembling…in laughter.
Realizing how ridiculous he must have looked, Van started to laugh as well.
While grinning broadly, he said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t expect to run into a young woman here,” and tried to leave.
But the woman called out to him in a hurry, “…Excuse me.”
She had only said this much, but began to cough violently. Van silently waited for her to catch her breath before she spoke again, “Please don’t mind me and feel free to enter. You can’t see much in the water anyway.”
She had tears in her eyes.
“…Why’s dat awntie laffin?”
Van unintentionally exchanged a look with the woman, and smiled wryly at Yuna’s mystified look.
“It’s because I acted strangely.”
Van nodded lightly at the woman, and knelt down while letting Yuna dangle from his hands. Then he scooped up some water with a bucket, and gently splashed it on Yuna.
The water was the perfect temperature, but Yuna yelled “Hoooch!”
“Liar.” With a grin, Van scooped up more water, and washed his own body next.
“Ish really hoooch!”
Van replied to the pouting Yuna, “Feel free to stay here by yourself then. I’m going to soak in the bath.”
In response, Yuna puffed up her cheeks, screamed “No,” and threw herself into his embrace.
As Van lifted her up, and slowly submerged them both in the hot water, Yuna tensed with a stiff expression, but once the water reached her shoulders, her expression became relaxed and happy.
Van heard the woman giggle, probably at Yuna’s way of speaking. Yuna furrowed her eyebrows, looking at the woman.
“Yo aar laffin again. Why aar yo laffin?”
While smiling, the woman apologized to Yuna, and said, “You’re so very cute that I couldn’t help laughing.” Then she asked Yuna with a gentle voice, “What’s your name?”
Yuna stared at the woman for a while but eventually answered, “Yuna.”
“What a nice name. How old are you?”
In response to the woman’s question, Yuna looked up to Van with a troubled face.
“She’s going to be four soon. She hasn’t quite got her mouth under control yet, though.”
The woman blinked, “Four, you say…? I see.”
There was a tinge of sorrow in the woman’s eyes. She watched Yuna with a gentle expression, as if caught in a memory. Yuna stared back at her with keen curiosity, and then suddenly asked, “Watsh yor name?”
Taken by surprise, the woman’s eyes widened slightly, but immediately reverted back to a gentle smile.
“Sae. This auntie is called Sae.”
Yuna glanced up to Van, and as if to hide her embarrassment, she began to thrash her feet against Van’s knees, splashing up the hot water.
“Hey, behave yourself.”
Pulling Yuna closer and settling her on his knees again, Van shifted his gaze to Sae.
“…Did you get injured?”
There was a long scar stretching from her left shoulder to her elbow. Van thought that the injury must have happened quite a while ago, since it had already become white.
Sae looked at her own left arm, and confirmed Van’s assumption.
“When I fell into a river, I cut myself on a stone at the bottom.”
“The river was cold since I fell when the snow had begun to fall, so I didn’t lose too much blood but I nearly froze to death,” Sae recounted in a dispassionate tone. “It happened quite a while ago, so I don’t feel any pain from it anymore.”
As she said this, Sae looked at Van’s arm.
“Did you also come here to get a wound healed?”
Van knitted his eyebrows.
“Yes, the one on your arm.”
When he followed Sae’s gaze down to his own left arm, Van was startled to find that the wound the beast had given him had changed into a queer mix of violet and green. Violet streaks extended along the blood veins away from the scar, in a way reminiscent of grass roots
He had spent most of his time wrapped up in thick furs lately and hadn’t looked closely at his arm in a while, but he was sure that it hadn’t been this color, at least over the last summer. Surprised, he lifted Yuna up and checked the wound on her foot. It had also changed color, though it was a lot fainter than his.
He probably had a rather grim expression, since Sae called out to him in worry, “…Is something wrong?”
Van sighed, and answered, “No, I just hadn’t noticed that it had taken on such a color.”
“It doesn’t hurt?”
Van shook his head, “It’s been quite a while since I got this.”
Solemnly Sae whispered, “If it doesn’t hurt, then I guess it’s probably fine but it might be good to have the <Tree Spirit Lord> take a look at it, just in case.”
Van nodded while staring at his own arm.
T/N: No new chapter next week. The very, very low reception of this work is currently killing all my motivation to TL it. Next one will be on August the 12th.