Chapter 6 – Until the snow melts
It was a cold winter day.
Many people were walking through the alleyways while the snow was falling incessantly. Among them, one girl wore a seedy hood and walked while hanging her head.
The girl’s name was Erize. She looked lovely, with her long, golden hair and skin that was as fair as snow.
She was twelve years old. Still a child.
After walking for a while, the girl reached the baker’s shop.
The interior of the shop was quiet, and the only people there were the middle-aged male shopkeeper who was reading a newspaper and a young witch who looked at the rows of bread with a happy expression.
Erize hurriedly picked up a loaf of bread, promptly took it to the counter, and took out some money.
“Oji-san, I’d like to buy this.”
The shopkeeper glanced at the money while folding his newspaper, and then looked at Erize with an irritated expression.
“You’re here again? …Sorry, but I’m not selling anything to you. Go away.”
“Why? I have money, don’t I? Please sell me some bread. I want my younger sister to eat something nice.”
“Who knows where you stole this money from? I can’t accept it.”
The shopkeeper put his hand on the money that Erize had placed on the counter, and pushed it back towards her.
“…Please sell me some bread.”
“Didn’t you hear me the first time? I’m not going to sell anything to a monster like you.”
In the end, the girl left the shop without buying anything.
The young witch in the store looked at that exchange of words with a mystified expression.
After being rejected by the baker, Erize eventually reached a small roadside stall.
That stall did not have an attendant. There was no shopkeeper, instead there was only a box to put money in. The words “One copper coin per apple. Please put in the corresponding amount depending on how many you want to buy,” were written on the box.
As no store was willing to sell her food, Erize had only been eating these apples lately.
…Even though she wanted to give her younger sister something other than apples once in a while.
While thinking that, Erize put the apples in her bag and put the appropriate number of coins into the box.
“Hey, you. What do you think you’re doing?”
She heard that voice, and then someone grabbed her hand.
She looked up with a startled expression, and saw a man with a scary expression standing there.
“I put this box here for humans to use. Not for something like you—now, return those apples.”
“But I already put in the money…”
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t want to sell anything to you.”
“Now, give those back, you monster.”
Saying that, the man gripped her arm tighter.
At this rate, she would have no food left. They would not be able to make it through winter. Her younger sister might die. After such fears accumulated in her mind in a moment of silence, Erize resorted to wild tactics.
She bit down as hard as she could on the man’s hand.
“Ouch! What the hell are you doing, you brat!?”
The man loosened his grip for a second and, taking that chance, Erize shook off his hand and ran off while carrying the apples.
After running for a while, the girl looked around restlessly as she reached her own house.
More than half the roof had fallen in due to a fire, and even the portion of the house that barely had a roof didn’t have a floor. The walls also had large holes in them, and it didn’t look like it would be able to keep the elements out at all.
The girl called this place home.
In front of the house.
There was a small parcel in front of the house that was just the right size to hold with the palms of both her hands. Every morning, afternoon, and night, a similar parcel would always be left in front of her house.
Maybe the parcel contained something different this time—the girl picked up the parcel while looking a little hopeful.
After opening it,
“Ugh! How horrible!”
Erize immediately threw it away. The parcel that she had thrown away hit the wall of the neighboring house and expelled its contents onto the snow, namely, the dead body of a rat and several immobile insects.
A brown coloured liquid slowly seeped into the snow.
“…Oh no. After all the trouble he took to make it.”
“Such a waste.”
“That’s so rude.”
The girl could see her neighbors who were saying such things while looking at what she had done.
After glaring at them, Erize disappeared into her own house.
“Welcome back, Onee-chan.”
Erize heard that voice come from a corner of the house.
Walking a little deeper into the house, she saw a young girl who was huddled up in a futon that was made by patching different types of fabric together.
She looked exactly like Erize, with her golden hair and skin as white as snow. She was Erize’s little sister, younger by two years. Her name was Millina.
“I’m back, Millina—here, I have something for you.”
Erize went up to her sister and snuggled into the futon beside her, then took out a bright green apple from the paper bag and gave it to her.
“Wow! That’s amazing. Where did you get it?”
“I bought it because I wanted you to get better quickly, Millina. Eat as much as you want, okay?”
“Yes! Thank you!”
After seeing her little sister biting into the apple with a smile on her face, Erize’s expression lightened as well.
“How do you feel?”
“I got better after eating the apple!”
“Really? That’s great.”
Erize felt something prickle her heart when she remembered how her hand had been grabbed at the roadside stall.
“….I’m sorry it’s always like this.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“It’s always the same thing, you must be bored of it, right?”
“Hmm…? But I like apples. I don’t mind eating them everyday!”
“…I see. That’s great.”
Saying that, Erize put her hand into the bag and took out the apple that was her share.
Once they finished eating these, then they would truly be out of food this time. The thing she had been relying on until now could no longer be used.
While being depressed about the dark future that awaited them, Erize bit into the apple and took off her hood.
There was no need to hide what was growing on her head while she was inside her house.
After removing the hood that was a little too tight for her, two curved, sheep-like horns were revealed.
She was a therianthrope that looked similar to a human.
Sadly, the apples that she had bought only lasted them a day. The day after they had run out of food, Erize gently got out of the futon so as to not wake Millina, and went to the main street—to the apple vendor’s stand.
After confirming that the stall owner was not nearby, Erize picked up a few apples and put them in her bag. After her bag was full, she took out some money and was about to put it into the box, but,
“…It should be fine even if I don’t put any money inside, right?”
She didn’t put the money in in the box.
Whether she put the money in the box or not, the result would be the same. In that case, she could steal as many as she liked. She was definitely not doing anything wrong. She was not at fault.
While making many excuses to herself, she tried to move away from the stall.
That’s when it happened.
A hand lightly fell on Erize’s shoulder.
Startled, she looked around and saw that a witch was standing there.
“That’s wrong. You need to properly pay for what you take.”
It was the young witch she had seen the day before yesterday in the baker’s shop.
Throwing a few silver coins into the box, the witch spoke.
“How about we talk for a bit?”
Her ash-grey hair swayed lightly, and she gave a gentle smile.
I arrived at this country while continuing to travel aimlessly, and received a summons from the magistrate in charge of the city on my first day here, right after I purchased some bread at the bakery.
I was often called upon to resolve problems in a country because I had the rank of a witch.
“Please take a seat, Elaina-sama.”
After being guided to the reception room, I returned the greeting and sat down on one of the sofas that had been arranged around a table.
“So, what is your request? Ah, would you like some bread?”
“No, thank you.”
“Is that so… Would you mind if I listened to you while eating?”
I took out a roll of bread from the bag that I had just purchased at the baker’s shop, and started to eat it.
The magistrate started to speak after giving a tired sigh.
“This country is currently burdened with a certain problem… we would like for you to solve that problem for us.”
I nodded while chewing.
The magistrate made a complicated expression and continued to speak.
“We would like to hire you to solve the issue regarding this therianthrope.”
Saying so, he passed a drawing to me. It was a strange of drawing of a person… or at least, it looked like a human. The most distinctive part of her appearance was the two horns that were growing on her head. They were curved horns similar to what you would find on a sheep.
“This therianthrope is currently living in our country, but there is a problem regarding this… Simply put, there is a rift between her and the citizens of the country. Hence, I would like to request that you temporarily take this therianthrope out of the country—”
And so, he explained the whole story behind the request to me.
It was a story of a horrible country, horrible people, and a pitiful little girl.
After hearing the whole story, I wonder what kind of expression I had on my face?
It was probably not a very good expression. In fact, I was despising them. I was even angry.
“…So you want me to kick her out of the country for a reason like that?”
After hearing my words, he clenched his fist tightly and slowly nodded.
“Even I feel bad about it… but I don’t see any other option after things have gotten to such a bad state.”
And then, with a dark and bitter expression, he asked me,
“Please, can you do something to save her…?”
I didn’t want to decide on whether to accept the request or not based only on what I had heard from the magistrate. So I decided to take one full day to see the state of affairs for myself.
I took the map that the magistrate gave me and went to the place that was marked on it—where the therianthrope currently lived. Over there, I found a dilapidated house where more than half of the house was in ruin.
After seeing the little girl who lived inside, I was very surprised. It was the little girl I had seen in the bakery yesterday.
After seeing that, I decided to accept the job.
I did not meet with the therianthrope girl directly that day. I decided to do a little research before taking that step. I walked around and asked the baker I visited the other day, the owner of the roadside stall, people in the neighborhood, and other citizens who were walking in the street about the therianthrope child.
Every one of them told me pretty much exactly the same thing.
The next day.
I was staked out in the vicinity of the dilapidated house since early morning, when I saw that girl come out of the house.
She was headed towards a roadside stall that was on the main street. It looked like that stall was not manned, and instead it had a box for people to leave money in.
Over there, the girl was doing something bad.
That’s why I immediately went over to stop her.
I lightly laid a hand on her shoulder and said,
“That’s wrong. You need to properly pay for what you take.”
I took the girl with me and went to a restaurant that was on a street corner. There were not many people inside, partly because it was so early in the morning.
We sat facing each other at a table near the window.
“Ah, don’t worry. It’s my treat.”
I said that to the girl who was hanging her head despite the many delicious dishes placed on the table in front of her, but she still had a depressed expression.
Maybe she’s tense? Or maybe she’s feeling conscious about the dirty looks she’s getting from the people inside the store?
“What’s your name?”
“Ah, so you’re Erize-san. My name is Elaina. I am a traveling witch.”
“So, what exactly were you trying to do earlier?”
When I said that, the girl made a startled expression, pulled the hood deeper around her face, and hung her head even lower.
“…Umm, please don’t tell anyone about what I did earlier.”
“I didn’t ask you that to blackmail you. I asked you because I’m simply curious. If I’m not wrong, we saw each other at the baker’s store the day before yesterday, right? You were acting strangely that day as well, so I became curious.”
“That’s why I’m asking, would you be willing to tell me more about yourself?”
After I asked that, Erize-san talked to me properly for the first time.
“…You’ll probably feel disgusted after hearing me talk about myself.”
“Is that because you have horns growing on your head?”
“Actually, I caught a glimpse of them through the gap in your hood earlier. They’re curved like a sheep’s horns and rather cute.”
Startled, Erize-san looked at the window that was beside her. That window that was displaying a peaceful sight of the city outside, and was also reflecting the figure of the girl. A brown coloured horn was visible through a gap in her hood.
“I am a traveler. I have seen many different types of people so far. I won’t be prejudiced or discriminate for no reason. I won’t feel disgusted even if I see a person like you.”
Actually, I thought she was kind of cute.
After hearing that, she finally turned around and looked at me.
And then, she started speaking as if she was resigned to her fate.
“Umm, I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone about this either…”
She prefixed her tale with that sentence.
Apparently, Erize-san used to live peacefully with her family on a mountain some distance away from human settlements.
Her parents would hunt animals with a bow and clean the carcass, and she would cook the meat along with her sickly little sister. They were used to passing days in such a peaceful manner.
However, something happened one day about one month ago.
“When we get back, I’ll teach you how to use the bow.”
Saying that, her father went out to hunt with their mother as usual.
While waiting with her little sister for them to return, Erize-san was in high spirits about finally being able to come into her own.
However, their parents didn’t come back no matter how long they waited.
Were they having trouble finding game to hunt? The two of them waited many, many hours while wondering if that was the case, but their parents still didn’t come back.
The next day.
Some unknown people came to their house while riding in a large horse-drawn carriage. One of them introduced himself as the magistrate in charge of this country. The other three were merchants.
The people who had arrived all of a sudden unloaded two large bags from the carriage and conveyed the sad truth to the girls. Erize-san’s parents had died after falling off a cliff while they were hunting. The merchants from his country had discovered their bodies while they were traveling through the mountains.
The magistrate spoke to them after opening the bags and showing them the battered bodies of their parents.
The two of them cried. They clung to the bodies of their parents and cried loudly. However, their parents’ bodies had gone cold a long time ago.
The magistrate of the country made a certain offer to the girls who had lost their means of support.
“We can’t just leave you two alone out here. I would like for you two to come to our country and take refuge there.”
After that, the magistrate had the merchants who found the bodies dig graves for them and took the hands of the two girls who were still in a daze.
The two of them were taken away to a different place before they were even able to come to grips with what had happened.
After arriving at this country, a house was prepared for the two of them to live in.
“I’ll leave food for you in front of the house everyday, so you can eat that. Also, this is for your living expenses.”
The magistrate gave Erize-san some food and enough money to live for a few days and told her,
“I’ll bring you more money at regular intervals. Feel free to use it as you wish. If you run out of money, let me know at once.”
Until the two of you recover, the country will look after your needs—he also said that.
The country accepted the two girls as citizens.
“—But apparently, the people living in this country thought differently.”
Erize-san said that after letting out a breath.
“Right after we started living in this country, the house that was prepared for us was set on fire.”
I remembered the condition of the place where the girl was currently living.
It was a wreck, and more than half of the house was destroyed.
“The people of this country kept harassing us as if it was the natural thing to do, even after they burned down the house. They treated us as monsters every time they saw us, refused to sell us anything even though we had money, and they even ruined the money and food that the magistrate brought for us.”
“That’s why, we lived until the day before yesterday eating apples from the unmanned roadside stall, but…”
Even that option was no longer available. I see.
“…I understand the situation.”
“At this rate, there’s a high chance that you will die of starvation at some time in the near future?”
“…Yes. Well, that’s basically how it is.”
“Hmm, I see. I pretty much understand what’s going on.”
I said that after nodding several times.
“By the way, I have a request for you. Would you be willing to hear it?”
“What is it?”
“If you’re willing to listen to my request, then you can go ahead and eat this food. You can also take it back home, if you wish.”
“But you said that it was your treat earlier…”
“Ah, I take that back.”
“What do you say?”
“…What is your request?”
The girl stared at me while being on her guard.
After intentionally giving a long pause, I looked straight at her and asked for one single thing.
“Allow me to save you.”
Perhaps that was the last thing she expected to hear. Erize-san stared blankly back at me.
While waiting for the girl to answer, I touched my knife and fork.
The food that had been prepared for us had gone cold because of our long discussion.
In the current situation, the girl had no viable choices.
As they were not allowed to use money, could not obtain the things they needed, and could not rely on anyone within the country, her only option was to go along with someone from outside the country like me.
Surely the girl wasn’t idealistic enough to do nothing and let such a chance slip by.
“……If I reject that request, what will you do?”
“I tell everyone in the country about what you were trying to do at the roadside stall.”
“…That’s unfair. You said you weren’t trying to blackmail me earlier.”
“Ah, well, I take that back too.”
“So, what will it be? Are you willing to accept my request?”
“…Is it really okay to do that? I have nothing to give you in return, Elaina-san.”
“It’s fine. I have a lot of free time. Besides—”
“I’m not cold enough to leave things as they are after hearing something like that.”
And so, I ended up agreeing to help Erize-san.
However, taking action right away seems like a chore… I mean, I needed time to prepare, so we parted ways for that day.
And then, next morning.
We met up at the gate leading out of the country.
After waiting for about ten minutes like that while carrying some items and stamping my feet to stay warm, she slowly trotted out of the gate wearing the same clothes as yesterday.
“Sorry, I’m late… wait, what is that?”
Erize-san’s gaze was drawn to the thing I held in my hands.
“Ah, this? It’s a bow and arrows.”
I gave an additional explanation while playing with the string of the bow by pulling it and making it hum.
“Erize-san, I think it’s time for you to learn how to use the bow and arrow.”
“If you are able to hunt your own food, then you won’t need to rely on the people in the country, right?”
For that reason, I had spent the previous day preparing the bow and arrow, and gathering other items that they might need in the future.
“Witch-san, you know how to use a bow and arrow?”
“I’m good enough to pierce through an apple that has been set on top of a person’s head.”
“Ehh, why would anyone do that…?”
“I’m an expert who is good enough to reluctantly shoot through a fan atop a swaying ship after being told “Entertain us by shooting through this fan.””
“Like I said, why would anyone do that…”
I took the hand of the girl who looked doubtful and led her into the forest that had been covered in white snow.
There was an archery range that gave off the impression of being handmade waiting for us inside the forest that had many tall trees. The surfaces of several trees had been scraped flat, and a round target had been carved into them. A little distance away from the targets, there was a sign that read “Please aim at the targets from here (If you hit the center, you win a prize).” It’s in my handwriting, by the way.
“You probably won’t hit anything if you start with shooting at animals right away, so let’s spend some time here honing your skill.”
That was a place I secretly prepared yesterday.
“What’s the prize?”
“Fufufu. That’s a surprise for when you manage to hit the target.”
After that, I stood next to Erize-san and showed her how to take a proper stance, and gave her hints on how to hit the target.
“To begin with, go ahead and take a shot.”
And so, the girl fired off an arrow… Or so she thought, but the arrow just fell to the ground.
“……Did you perhaps think that the targets are buried under the snow?”
The days of training started off in such a fashion.
Everyday, we would go to the forest outside the country where Erize-san would shoot arrows until noon, after which we would return to the country while shivering and have lunch at the restaurant. Once we were full, we would go back to the forest and resume practice.
Although she was bad at it in the beginning, it didn’t take long for Erize-san to be able to hit the targets. Actually, she was shooting arrows with a beautiful form in just three days. The pace of her improvement was astounding. No, maybe my instruction was just that good? Perhaps I’m suited to being a teacher?
“Ah, I did it! Look, Elaina-san, I hit the center!”
Five days after we started training, I heard Erize-san shouting in joy after her arrow hit the target with a satisfying “thunk”.
“So, what are you going to give me as a reward?”
Erize-san smiled after running over to me and asked that in an excited voice.
I told her after purposely dragging out the suspense for a bit.
“I’ll buy you clothes that you like, as many as you want. That is your reward.”
I thought she would be happy, but instead she made a complicated expression.
“…You mean, just my share?”
“What do you mean?”
“Umm… I’d like to get some for my little sister as well…”
I gently patted Erize-san’s head.
“It’s okay, I’ll buy any amount of whatever you want.”
As I felt the stiff cloth and the horns underneath, the girl looked at me and smiled.
After obtaining new clothes, the girl’s training advanced to the next level.
In the snow-covered forest, there was a set of cute footprints meandering around the trees. At the end of the trail, there was a single, pure white rabbit which was hopping while blending in with the snow, headed somewhere while twitching its nose and ears.
This time, she was not aiming at a stationary archery target, but at a living animal.
“Is there another reward if I hit it?”
“If you manage to hit it, I’ll let you eat my cooking.”
“……Is that more delicious than the restaurant that we always go to?”
“It’s rude to compare an amateur to a professional.”
“……I would like something else as a reward.”
“You’re too damn honest, Erize-san.”
“By the way, the rabbit will get away if you keep talking about unnecessary things.”
Erize-san took up her stance and looked at the rabbit with a narrow gaze. After that, she let out a single white breath and let the arrow fly.
The arrow flew straight into the snow and buried itself inside.
“……Did you perhaps think that the rabbit was hibernating underneath the snow?”
After that, we continued our daily schedule of going back and forth between the outside and the restaurant in the country.
“—Ah, I ordered too much food again today. It’s my mistake. Here, Erize-san, take this as a souvenir and eat it at home”
At the restaurant, I gave Erize-san the leftover food as usual.
“Thanks for always doing this, Elaina-san.”
Erize-san gave me a faint smile while carefully accepting the parcel with both hands.
When I first met her, she always had a depressed expression on her face, but before I realized it, she became capable of giving me a warm smile with a gentle expression—or so it looked.
Was it just my imagination? Was I being conceited?
Despite my misgivings, I felt that I was helping to progress the story in a good direction, one step at a time.
At this rate, I might be able to complete the job given to me in my own way.
On the afternoon of the day that I thought that, the girl managed to bring down a rabbit successfully.
It had stopped snowing, and it was a bright, sunny day.
“Look, Elaina-san! I did it! I actually did it!”
A small rabbit lay on its side on top of the snow that was glittering from the light of the sun. A red stain spread on the snow as the rabbit’s legs convulsed as if trying to escape from the arrow that had pierced its neck.
“You finally did it. It looks delicious.”
I lifted the arrow without waiting for the rabbit’s life to cease. A limp rabbit came up with the arrow, along with a corresponding sense of weight.
“…By the way, the reward you were talking about, Elaina-san…”
“Yes, my handmade cooking.”
“Are you going to cook this?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Do you know how to prepare the meat?”
“Despite how I look, I’m an expert when it comes to preparing rabbit meat. I’m so good at it that it makes the rabbits tremble.”
“…But rabbits are always trembling, aren’t they?”
“Also, I have a suggestion, although it’s not part of the reward.”
“Hmm? What is it?”
I placed the unmoving rabbit on top of some clear snow that was not stained with blood. The snow crumbled and made way to accommodate the body of the rabbit.
“There was a house you lived in before coming here, right? Would you like to live there once again?”
“Go back home? But—”
“You have become capable of hunting by yourself. There is no reason for you to force yourself to live in that country anymore. So, what do you say? Would you like to return to the house that you used to live in along with your parents?”
The girl stayed silent.
“Of course, I won’t force you to go if you don’t want to.”
I waited while looking forward to her reply.
A silence came upon the forest, and after a little while,
“You’re… right. Yes. I want to go. It might be okay to leave that country now.”
I felt relieved after hearing her words.
With this, she would finally be safe—or so I convinced myself.
We returned to the country after draining the blood from the rabbit on the spot and tying it with string.
It was just before noon by the time we got back to the country, and there were a lot of people on the main street. Every time we passed by someone, they looked at us as if they were looking at something strange, and every time that happened, Erize-san’s head would droop even further.
“You don’t need to worry about it anymore.”
When I said that and touched her shoulder, she gave me a powerless smile.
It appeared that Erize-san was fairly happy about being able to leave this country—and the half-destroyed place that served as her home—as she ran into the house to bring out her luggage as soon as we reached there.
The country magistrate who had given me the job appeared over there at the same time.
“…Elaina-sama. How is the job going?”
He gave me a short bow while holding a small parcel in his hand.
“It’s going well. I think everything will be settled soon just the way you wanted it.”
“…I see. That’s good.”
“You don’t look particularly happy after hearing that, though.”
“It might have been what we wanted, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best possible outcome.”
After staying silent for a moment, I said to him,
“I think that I have done my best for her, in my own way. The girl has already reached a level where you won’t need to leave that parcel for her anymore.”
Even from where I was standing, I could see the magistrate’s fingers tighten around the parcel.
“…Thank you very much. My apologies for getting you involved in our mess.”
He bowed very low to me, and then turned his back.
“I know this is impertinent, but I have just one other request for you, Elaina-sama.”
“Depending on the contents, I may increase my fee amount, is that okay?”
He did not reply to my words.
“If there is an opportunity, I would like to convey our true feelings to her someday.”
After saying just that, he walked away.
I did not reply to his words.
That is because I did not know if I would be able to grant his request.
A while after he left, Erize-san came back. Carrying a lot of luggage in both her hands.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. It took a while to wake my little sister up.”
She was carrying her little sister on her back.
“I haven’t introduced her to you yet, right? Elaina-san, this is my little sister, Millina.”
It looked like the time when I had to convey their true feelings to this girl was steadily approaching.
It was approaching at a slow pace, but definitely getting closer.
After reaching that place and lightly knocking off the snow which was sticking to her shoes outside the door, Erize-san just said those two words. She walked into the house while carrying Millina-san.
Following her example, I also knocked the snow off my shoes and went inside. There was a set of damp footsteps leading all the way to the dining room.
In front of the kitchen, there was a table with four chairs set on two opposite sides. It must have been used by all four members of her family at one point.
Only one of those chairs was currently drawn.
Her little sister had been made to sit on that chair.
“Elaina-san, what are you going to make using that rabbit?”
Erize-san was looking at my hands as she spoke.
“…How about a cream stew?”
“Yay! That’s Millina’s favourite!”
Erize-san hugged her sister’s shoulders from behind and expressed her joy.
There was no reply.
“…Yeah! I can’t wait!”
She nodded to her little sister with a happy look on her face.
I then said to her,
“I’ll make it now, so wait here, Erize-san.”
“Yes, I’ll be waiting here with my little sister.”
Erize-san sat next to her little sister while having a big smile on her face.
My voice echoed fruitlessly.
As I was cooking, her cheerful voice reached my ears.
“Hey, it’s kind of nostalgic, isn’t it?”
“From now on, I’ll take care of the work that Dad and Mom used to do. Ah, but I have to cook as well, so I’ll have more work than they did.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’m sure I’ll be able to do it well.”
It was the same even while we were on the way here. It was also terrible to see how Erize-san acted while she was carrying her sister and leaving the country.
She had a happy expression on her face while listening to her little sister’s voice that I could not hear.
A delicious smell wafted from the pot in which the stew was simmering.
I was finally able to take a deep breath in the middle of this choking atmosphere. After taking a deep breath, I stirred the contents of the pot.
The smell of carrots, potatoes, and rabbit meat that were mixed with the white cream wafted out from within.
It looked like all the things I had done after coming to this country were meaningless.
I agreed to the magistrate’s request, and got her out of that terrible country. I made a plan that would give her back her freedom, and at the same time, I prepared an environment where she could learn to hunt so that she could live by herself. I made it so that she would be able to return to this house. After doing so much—getting her out of the country and away from other people—I had hoped that she would regain her sanity.
It was useless, after all.
It looks like I was just naively wishing for that to happen.
The tragic circumstances surrounding that girl could not be erased by something of that level.
I turned around from where I was standing in the kitchen, and looked at her. Erize-san, who had been smiling at her little sister, noticed my gaze.
“Ah, Elaina-san. Is it done already?”
“It just needs to simmer for a while.”
“Oh, so it’ll be done soon!”
“…No, it’s nothing.”
“Hey, something about you seems weird, Elaina-san. You didn’t talk much on our way here, and even after getting here, you’ve barely said a word or two.”
“You haven’t said anything to my little sister either…. Really, something is strange. It feels weird.”
“…You think I’m being strange?”
When I continued to stay silent,
“ —You’re really being strange.”
Erize-san nodded at the voice that I could not hear.
After that, she left me alone and returned to talking happily with her little sister.
“—Maybe she’s not feeling well?”
“—Ahaha. That’s true. Maybe she’ll feel better after eating the stew.”
“—Right? I should cook something next time to thank her.”
She kept looking at her little sister, with a happy expression on her face.
It was a scene that I could no longer endure.
“Hmm? What is it?”
I winced a little as she mercilessly turned that bright smile towards me. It appears I started to become scared of her smile at some point.
I looked away from her, and,
“…Erize-san, please stop doing that.”
And then, I said it to her.
I just described what I was seeing to her.
“Your little sister is dead.”
She had been made to sit on one of the four chairs around the table.
It was a girl wearing a long coat similar to the one Erize-san was wearing, and I was able to catch a glimpse of beautiful, golden hair peeking out from the gap in her hood.
It was a corpse that was giving off such a bad smell, it was all I could do to keep from gagging.
“It happened one month ago. Some merchants from my country banded together and did something very wrong.”
What I had heard while sitting opposite to the magistrate that day was a horrible, tragic tale.
“There was a family of therianthropes living together quite close to our country—and these merchants decided to capture and sell them. They said that they did it because they were in desperate need of money.
The merchants first tried to capture the parents who were out hunting. They approached the pair, lying about being lost, and tried to capture them when they let down their guard.
Of course, the couple did not let themselves get captured so easily. The two of them fought back strongly even though they had been surrounded by the merchants. As the fight broke out on a mountain slope with bad footing, the couple and some of the merchants unfortunately slipped and fell down the mountain.
The remaining merchants climbed down to check on their condition, but all of them had died. The therianthrope couple had done nothing wrong, yet they lost their lives here due to the plot of the bad merchants.
This is the main cause behind the sorry situation we are currently in.
Of the band of merchants, three of them were still alive. They brought the corpses back to the country and explained the situation to me.
Regrettably, they lied. They said that, “Three merchants and two therianthropes who lived in the vicinity died due to an accident.”
I believed their words, and seeing as how the therianthropes were a married couple, I wondered if they had any children. Perhaps those children were still waiting for their parents to come back—thinking that, I took those merchants with me and returned to the mountains. After some searching, we found their house.”
The things he said after that matched what I heard from Erize-san for the most part. The magistrate told Erize-san and her sister that their parents had passed away in an accident, and then brought them back to the country.
However, there was a definite difference in what I heard from Erize-san and what the magistrate told me from this point onwards.
“A few days after the girls started to live in our country, there was an accident.”
And so, he told me what had really happened.
“The surviving merchants attempted to go after the girls this time in order to sell them and make money. One night, they snuck into the house where the girls were living, equipped with torches and knives.
The three merchants first came across the older sister. She—Erize, just like her parents, did not back down even though she was surrounded by the adults. She struggled mightily.
However, she is still only a child. The difference in stature and strength was too large. She was quickly overwhelmed by the merchants.
And so, the merchants began to take their revenge. The men dropped their knives and beat her. Kicked her. Even after she cowered in fear and begged them to stop while crying, they continued to hurt her. They probably planned to hurt her at the level where she wouldn’t die, and then capture her afterward.
It was then that one of the men was stabbed in the back by the knife that he had dropped.
Turning around, he saw a girl who looked a little younger than Erize. The younger sister, Millina, had tried to save her older sister who was being one-sidedly beaten up by the men.
The man shouted a wordless scream of rage and, releasing the older sister, he hit the younger sister with the torch that he was carrying in his hand. After that, he threw away the torch and picked up another knife that had fallen on the ground. He then advanced upon Millina who was holding her face and moaning in pain, and stabbed her over and over until she died.
He had gone too far. That was the thought that went through the minds of the other two men, and so they tried to stop him. However, before they could take action, the man who was straddling the little sister ceased to move.
Picking up the third knife that was lying on the ground, Erize had killed him. As Erize continued to stand there in a dazed manner, the fire from the discarded torch had begun to spread and the house was being consumed by flickering flames that kept getting larger.
The two merchants who were still alive panicked and ran away from there.
By the time I reached the house after hearing about it from the neighboring residents, the fire had already spread to the outside of the house. We immediately went to work and put the fire out, but more than half the house had already been destroyed.
The cause of the fire was quickly ascertained. There were three knives at the scene, the burned corpse of one of the merchants, and eyewitness accounts from neighboring residents. Based on their testimonies, I came to the conclusion that the merchants were behind this, and had the two of them captured.
After interrogating them, they finally told us the truth. However, knowing the truth didn’t change the fact that it was too late to do anything about it.
Ever since the day the fire broke out, Erize was changed.
She refuses to let go of her little sister’s corpse. In fact, she behaves as if that corpse is still a living person. She gives it food, dresses it up, and sleeps while cuddling up to it.
Due to the acts of the merchants of this country and my mistaken judgement, the young girl ended up losing her mind.
After the two merchants confessed to their crimes, Erize’s activities came to light and the rumors spread throughout the country. The people feel sorry for her, but they still began to fear and avoid her.
Erize also began to turn a deaf ear to what the people in the country were saying. She appeared to be frightened by them, and started to avoid the people as well. It has come to the point where we are incapable of doing anything more for her.”
And so, the magistrate ended his story. While leaving out the most important detail.
I responded with a sigh.
“You took in a cute little girl, but now you want her to leave because she is causing problems for you. However, you are not able to get her to leave because she refuses to listen to what you say. You’re afraid to get violent with her because you don’t know what she’ll do. So you want an outsider to deal with the situation. Is that right?”
Seeing how he stayed silent like a coward, I added some more words.
“…So you want me to kick her out of the country for a reason like that?”
I went to the half-destroyed house while feeling conflicted about whether I should accept the job or not. When I saw you there, Erize-san, I was extremely surprised. And so, I decided to take the job. That’s because I had already met you once before at the baker’s shop.
The day after I met you at the apple stall, I walked around the country talking to people about the situation. Every single one of them said the same thing to me.
“Such a pitiful child.”
Even the people I talked to on the street said the same thing.
“I really feel sorry for her.”
“She ended up in such a state because of some bad people… it’s really deplorable.”
The housewives who live in the houses neighboring the one you lived in were also frowning in displeasure.
“She ended up living in a place like that because of what some bad adults did…”
“Yes… it’s really quite pitiful. She even refuses to eat the food that the magistrate brings for her.”
“Look, over by that wall. See where she threw away that parcel of food? She always does that. Whether it’s food or money, she just throws it away.”
Even the man who owns the roadside stall said this while rubbing his bandaged hand.
“She’d apparently been stealing apples from my stall for quite a while. Well, I know her circumstances so I wasn’t going to hold it against her—I just thought she should eat something other than apples once in a while, so I thought of taking her to some restaurant. After that, she shouted all kinds of stuff at me… and that’s how I ended up in this state.”
The man who owns the bakery also said this.
“Ah, Witch-san. You saw what happened as well, right? She always comes in here and tries to buy bread with something like that. I understand that she’s to be pitied… but I run a business as well, so I’m having trouble dealing with her.”
The day I first saw you at the bakery, I saw something very strange.
A little girl wearing a deep hood took a large number of dead bugs out of her pocket and tried to exchange those for bread. It was a strange sight.
The girl called those dead bugs, “money”.
After talking for a bit with the owner of the shop who had kindly told her with a troubled expression on his face that he couldn’t give her bread in exchange for bugs, the girl made a shocked expression and ran out of the store.
After seeing that spectacle, I was quite confused.
I found out that it was you on the next day.
That is why I decided to accept this job, for your sake.
Erize-san just said that phrase after I told her everything I had seen and heard. She then raised her head while sitting next to Millina-san, and,
“It’s a lie—the whole of this is just lies. Why? Why are you trying to make me suffer as well, Elaina-san?”
“Did someone order you to say this kind of stuff to me? Elaina-san, you saw it too, right? The people in that country are all evil.”
“The people of that country treated me as a monster. They burned down my house. But my little sister isn’t dead. She’s right here, sitting next to me.”
“That’s why, it’s a lie. It’s all just nonsense.”
Saying that, she shook Millina-san’s shoulder. The head of the girl who had died a long time ago swayed in a strange manner.
“See? She’s still alive. My little sister isn’t dead—”
As if to contradict and betray her words, the body fell from the chair after being shaken violently.
With a loud sound, the thing that had once been Millina-san fell to the ground and rolled.
At that moment, the girl seemed to have realized something.
“N-No… My little sister, Millina is alive—-”
She stood up and stretched her hand towards the corpse, but stopped before touching it. Only her fingertips were violently trembling.
Her appearance was incredibly pitiful.
“No, no, no no…! It can’t be, it can’t be! Millina is… but she was living together with me all this time! She can’t be dead…!”
“Please come back.”
And so, I told her.
“Please allow me to save you.”
She didn’t reply to my words.
The only thing that escaped from her mouth was a wordless muttering.
Her trembling fingers tightly clutched my robe.
No, no, it’s a lie, please stop.
She just kept mumbling those words incoherently.
Eventually, her muttering rose to a shriek, and she started to shed tears while clinging to me.
I didn’t let her go until her tears finally stopped.
“Ah, Elaina-sama. Thank you for your efforts… wait, you’re eating bread again.”
“Yes, I’ve grown to like it—although, this is probably the last time I’ll get to eat it.”
“Meaning, I’ve safely completed the job that you gave me. I’m going to leave this country by the end of the day, and I don’t intend to ever come near this place again.”
“As usual, you don’t look very happy.”
“As I told you earlier, we didn’t want to kick that girl out of our country. It was just that we had no other choice.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you gave up trying at some point along the way—speaking of which, about my reward.”
“……Ah, yes. That’s right. Let’s see—”
“You don’t need to pay me. Could you deliver it to her house instead?”
“I’m not going to say it again.”
“In any case, I’m not going to accept it. That’s all.”
“…Elaina-sama, how is she? Has she gotten better?”
“Who knows? There’s nothing I can tell you.”
“Yes. Well then, I’ll be going now.”
“…Please take care.”
“Ah, that’s right. There’s something I forgot to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“When that girls comes here again—please don’t make that sort of expression in front of her, okay?”
I stayed with her for quite some time.
The girl ran through the snowy terrain underneath the bright sun while hunting, and the two of us cooked together. We just kept repeating this.
I lived pleasantly in the time that flowed in this manner.
Once Erize-san became proficient at hunting all by herself, she suddenly opened her mouth one day, and,
“I’ve come into my own now.”
She said those words to someone while standing before the graves of her three family members.
“In that case, you don’t need me anymore, right?”
“It’s not like I don’t need you… but thanks for everything you’ve done until now, Elaina-san.”
“You don’t need to thank me—I just did whatever I was capable of.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll return to my travels.”
“…It’s going to get lonely.”
“If you feel that way, I don’t mind accompanying you on your travels.”
“Ah, that’s a little…”
“You’re too damn honest, Elaina-san.”
“What do you plan to do from now on, Erize-san?”
After I said that, she removed the hood that she was wearing and looked up at the sky. Her breath rose up into the air like smoke, and vanished.
The sun floating in the sky gave off a faint sense of warmth, but it was still weak enough to be dispersed by the cold wind.
“I’m planning to return to that country after some time passes.”
Erize-san looked at me and said that.
“…Even though that place is full of nothing but bad memories?”
“Yes. But I feel like I’ll be able to make some different memories if I go there now.”
And then, she said this.
“Besides, I did something bad to the people of that country, so I want to apologize.”
“Well, although I’ve said that, I haven’t decided to go there just yet. I just felt that it would be nice to do that.”
“I see. I think that’s a good idea.”
Saying so, I nodded.
“In any case, I’ll go there once I’ve made up my mind and properly said goodbye to everyone here. I just want to stay for a little while longer—until the snow melts.”
At that time, we heard a sound coming from the forest behind us.
Looking around, we saw that some of the snow that was piled up on a tree’s branches had fallen to the ground. A hint of green began to reappear in the world that was dyed a pure white color, gently shaking its head.
The snow will probably disappear soon, a little bit at a time.
“Looks like it’ll still take a while.”
At my words, she gently shook her head and smiled.
“It won’t be much longer now.”