Chapter 13 – For the Homeland
It was a range of low, sand-colored mountains.
There were small patches of trees and vegetation on the otherwise desolate mountain range, offering a bare modicum of color. However, as the sky was overcast with gray-colored clouds, even those plants were currently hidden in shadow.
A girl was flying alone on a broom in this dreary place.
The girl was wearing a black robe, a tricorne, and a star-shaped brooch. As her attire implied, she was indeed a witch, and also a traveler. Her hair which was the same color as the clouds swayed in the sand-laden wind, and her azure eyes looked in the direction in which she was traveling.
There were no countries in sight.
However, she spotted something strange instead—just who was this girl who was gazing at this landscape that looked like the aftermath of a disaster?
Yes, it was me.
Lying in my path was the corpse of a huge fox-like creature that looked large enough to swallow a person whole—if I remember right, it belongs to a species called the Giant Fox—and there were several men and women crowded around it.
They were climbing atop the fox that had fallen on its side, and were cutting off pieces of its sand-colored pelt. Sawing off its thick, luxurious tail. Forcing open its large mouth and cutting off the fangs. These people were attacking the corpse of the fox, without caring about the copious amount of thick, dark blood that was oozing from its corpse.
They were speaking happily, saying things like『Today’s game is a big one』 and 『We’ll get a good price for this much』. They had an expression that indicated that they were filled with a sense of accomplishment.
I slowed down my broom and stopped near them. Somehow, I just didn’t feel like passing them by.
Also, there was something I wanted to confirm.
When I got off my broom, a small cloud of dust puffed up around my feet and disappeared in the wind. Those people noticed me at the same time.
They stopped working and looked over at me. Eventually, the man who had been using his sword to cut up the top of the fox opened his mouth to speak.
“Hey. What is it, do you have something to say to us?”
I did not detect any hostility or suspicion in his words. I was slightly relieved.
I took a breath and spoke in a loud voice so that all of the people could hear me.
“Umm, I was hoping someone could give me directions.”
“I see, so you’re lost. Did you run away from home or something?”
“I’m a traveler.”
“Oh? So, are you lost?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I had no idea where I was. Even when the weather is clear, you can’t see very far ahead in this mountainous terrain. What’s more, there weren’t a lot of countries in this place as there wasn’t a lot of water. It looks like it would be hard to live here, after all. For this reason, the countries in arid regions are often far away from each other.
You might even have to camp out for several days before you reached the next country. There’s a also a chance that you might lose your sense of direction and end up flying to some strange place. That was something I wanted to avoid at all costs, so I stopped here to interrupt these people in the middle of their hunt.
The man on top of the Giant Fox said,
“Haha! I see. Sorry Witch-san, but we don’t know much about this area either. We’re not from around here.”
After saying such words that threatened to make me fall into depression,
“But I know where the nearest country from here is. I’ll tell you.”
He laughed while saying that.
It was a wonderful smile, but as his face, sword, and clothes were all covered in blood, it made for a strangely repulsive picture.
A lady who had shoved her hands into the Giant Fox’s mouth was the one who told me where the nearest country was. She was a beautiful woman with dark brown skin and elegant black hair.
“Umm, to begin with, we’re right about here—”
Her finger traced along my map that I had unfolded on top of a convenient rock lying nearby.
Maybe because she had had her hands in a corpse’s mouth until just a little while ago, she was giving off an intensely bad smell. There are flies gathering around her, is this person really okay like this?
“And so, the country closest to where we are right now is this one.”
Saying that, she pressed her finger on a spot on the map.
I urged her to continue while breathing through my mouth.
“I don’t know how fast your broom can go, but a horse-drawn carriage takes about one day to get there.”
Ah, so I can get there in a few hours. Thank goodness.
“There aren’t any mountains between here and that country, so you can just keep moving in a straight line until you get there, like this.”
Her finger traced a path on the map.
“…You’ve been breathing roughly from some time, are you okay?”
“It’s nothing to worry about.”
I nodded to her.
“So which way should I go from here?”
After comparing the map to the surroundings several times,
“Umm… Ah, it’s this way. This way should be correct.”
She smiled at me while pointing in a particular direction.
Well, that’s that. In such a simple manner, I was no longer lost.
“Thank you very much. Now I can get to the next country by the end of the day.”
“Oh, it’s fine. There’s no reason to hold back when helping someone with something as simple as directions.”
The intense smell and cloud of flies around her mixed in with my impression of her as a good person to create a rather chaotic impression overall. Behind her, her friends had returned to their work.
They were cutting off its pelt and carrying it off, and removing its tail.
“What are they—I mean, what are all of you doing?”
“Hmm? We’re hunting.”
Her tone sounded like she wanted to ask “Can’t you tell by looking?”
“That’s a Giant Fox, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Have you seen one before?”
“Well, I haven’t seen one that was alive.”
Although, since they are said to be savage enough to attack and eat humans, I’d heard about them before.
“The fur and fangs from a Giant Fox sell for a lot of money. That’s why we came all the way to this land to hunt.”
“Oh, I see.”
“We’re going to take the money back to our hometown to help the people there.”
I was confused at the sudden change in topic, and the lady explained their circumstances to me.
According to what she said, their homeland was being ravaged by the spread of disease, and they had come here as travelers to try and help the people back at home. They were hunting Giant Foxes and selling their fur and fangs in the large countries nearby to earn the money needed to buy medicine to cure the epidemic in their homeland.
As they carried out their hunting and got rid of the Giant Foxes that were menacing the area, rumors of their exploits traveled like wildfire to all the nearby countries, and soon enough, they were receiving commissions from those countries to wipe out the Giant Foxes in the area.
In any case, in the three months since they had left their homeland, these people had amassed a considerable amount of wealth. The lady told me this with a proud look on her face.
She also told me that she couldn’t wait to use the money that they had earned to help their friends who were suffering back home.
The lady went to cart that was waiting nearby, brought back a pouch, and placed it on my hand. I could feel that it was fairly heavy.
Looking inside, I saw that it was packed full of some powder. It’s probably some kind of medicine.
“This is the medicine.”
I was right.
“By the way, Witch-san… I’m not asking you to return the favor for giving you directions, but would you be willing to do something for me while you continue to travel?”
I tilted my head.
“If your travels bring you to our village at some point, would you be willing to deliver this to the head of our village? We need to stay here and continue to hunt for some time yet.”
“Are you really okay with handing this over to a traveler like me?”
“You don’t look like a bad person, after all.”
“…You’re too trusting.”
Well, it’s not like I’d steal it or anything. It’s of no use to me.
What’s more, she was kind enough to give me directions, so there’s that as well.
“Can you tell me where that country is?”
Hearing me say that, the lady was overly happy.
“Thank you! That would really help a lot! Let’s see, our country is—”
Saying that, she looked down at the map again.
After several seconds,
She frowned with her finger moving around a particular spot on the map.
“Hmm? It’s not drawn on the map. It’s supposed to be around here somewhere—”
Her finger was pointing to a place near the edge of the map.
That was a place that I had visited once before.
“I’m sorry. I can’t go in that direction. After I reach the nearest country, I plan to keep traveling in the direction opposite to the direction in which your home country lies.”
I said that while putting on a calm expression.
“I’m sorry, Even though you were kind enough to give me directions…”
“You don’t need to worry about that—I’m the one who should apologize. I acted too rudely.”
I returned the pouch with the medicine to the lady while she had a crestfallen expression on her face. The heavy feeling of the purse disappeared from my hands.
After spending a few moments unsure of what I should say to her,
“I hope that you manage to get back to your hometown safely.”
I blurted out something foolish. I could only say something bland like this.
“Thank you. You’re kind.”
The lady gave me a sad smile.
Seeing her expression, I felt a terrible pain in my heart.
Regarding the place that the lady had indicated, I had been there once before.
It was about two months ago. This happened before I obtained my map of this region.
It wasn’t a case of their hometown not being drawn on the map due to an oversight. That country no longer existed in that place.
When I happened across that place two months ago, what I found there was a large number of corpses. There were several dead Giant Foxes, soldiers, and civilians, and their bodies were all piled up like a mountain of refuse. There were bodies of people who looked like they were merely lying still with their eyes open, while others had been partially eaten and their insides were spilling out. Some of the bodies couldn’t even be considered human, and just looked like a mass of some unidentifiable substance. There were countless such corpses scattered around.
The scene was so gruesome that I wanted to cover my eyes.
However, there were still some people alive there. At one place that used to be a village, a bunch of people had gathered around the body of a Giant Fox, just like the people I met earlier.
Just what were they doing?
The men who had gathered around the Giant Fox told me.
“We are soldiers dispatched from the neighboring countries. We had received word that this area was infested with Giant Foxes, so we were sent to deal with it.”
“By the time we got the information, it was already too late for this village. As you can see, the villagers are all dead.”
“Some idiots somewhere have driven all the Giant Foxes out of their country—Giant Foxes are not native to this region.”
“Even our country is facing problems thanks to those idiots. It’s really deplorable.”
“According to some merchants I met, there is a group of people somewhere who are going around killing every Giant Fox they can find. That overhunting is probably the cause of this mess.”
“The damage won’t stop here. After being chased out of the deserts, the Giant Foxes are slowly destroying this region. It’s only a matter of time before our country is attacked as well.”
After that, one of the soldiers begged me for a favour.
“Witch-san, if you come across those people who are hunting Giant Foxes during your travels, would you please let us know? I can’t be at peace until I kill those idiots.”
The man was almost clinging to me when he asked that, and I nodded to him.
Back then, I still didn’t know about the lady and her friends, or their circumstances.
I got back on my broom and resumed flying while creating a small cloud of dust.
I followed the directions as were given by the lady out of the kindness of her heart. The next country should come into view soon.
The landscape is still as dreary as ever and there are no signs of a country anywhere nearby. However, as long as it has not fallen into ruin, there must be people living there.
In the end, I wasn’t able to fulfill the wishes of either side. The wish of the soldiers who were troubled due to their villages being attacked by Giant Foxes, and the wish of the lady and her friends who were going around hunting dangerous animals for the sake of their homeland. I wasn’t able to grant either of them.
I just averted my gaze from the terribly sad events and cruel reality.
No one involved in this incident came out of it being happy, and no one would be happy in the future either. The reality of this situation was far too fruitless.
However, I was incapable of doing anything about it.
No matter how much they struggle, the only thing waiting for them is despair.
Such a sad turn of events.
Those words I whispered were not meant for anyone in particular. They dissolved into the sand beneath the extremely clear sky, and vanished.