Arc 1, New Moon
This was the last night Ernst would spend with the hunters. After walking for one more day, they would reach the outlying village of the Meissen territory. There should be a welcome party for him in the manor of that village. The hunters would part with him from there.
Even though Ernst had said that it would be fine if they at least rested for a day at the manor, the hunters politely declined. Winter was growing deeper and deeper. If they delayed their departure for even one day, the valley might close on them. The snow seemed to be falling more heavily this year.
After passing through the valley, they entered Meissen’s forest. They lit a fire with the drywood they collected here and there.
The forest within Meissen’s territory was quiet. Here, the land, the people, and the beasts were all barren and starving. In this forest, there wasn’t a single sign of a living creature.
They spoke quietly while drinking warm tea. Ernst listened to the hunters’ stories, and he in turn told them stories of his time at the villa. When they heard about how Ernst had been tricked by the butler’s tale of the wolf, the hunters’ grim faces broke out into smiles.
When they got along like this, it made Ernst feel regretful over how they would have to part ways. But it wasn’t as if he could ask them to come along with him. After all, these men lived their lives as hunters.
Ernst told them that he wanted to apologize for the horse they lost. He also wanted to thank them for safely bringing him to Meissen. Yet these things were also firmly refused. They couldn’t receive more compensation than what had already been decided, they said.
They drank tea and began preparing to rest. Today, too, the hunters switched off on fire-watching duty between themselves. The four of them had overcome their obstacles. They chatted about various things.
It didn’t feel as if, by tomorrow night, they would all be gone.
They walked through the forest. The trees in Meissen were wide and tall. It sure would be hard to chop these down,said the hunters, who also worked as lumberjacks.
Was that so? Ernst had thought that it would be better if the trees were large, but it seemed that it wasn’t good if they were too large.
Moreover, it was even difficult to find trees for firewood.
When Ernst asked why that was, the hunters answered that there wasn’t any deadwood in this forest. Along with that, last night, they had only found enough firewood to fuel a fire for one night despite how long they had searched.
Something moved between the trees. The hunters’ feet stopped. They covered Ernst, who stood at the back, and gazed into the depths of the forest.
It was a deer.
Even to Ernst’s eyes, the sight of this deer with its enormous horns was eyecatching. They stared at this outstanding deer. It was incredibly large. The hunters let out murmurs of amazement. Though where they were bordered Lux Kingdom to the north, it also bordered Grude to the east, so the animals were quite large, weren’t they? the hunters said.
A map of Meissen’s territory drifted through Ernst’s head.
Certainly, if you kept walking east, you would reach the land of Grude. There, you would find Grude Country, a land which existed solely for the purpose of trade. Grude Country was located in the approximate center of the Grude continent, and it was said that the rest of the land was filled with dry rocks and reddish soil.
That large man of the bathing chamber belonged to one of the four races which lived in Grude, the Dunberts. All four of the races of Grude shared enormous and sturdy physiques. The animals which dwelled there were also larger than could ever be imagined in the Schell continent.
The deer had stared fixedly in their direction, then turned its body and leapt away.
If we’d brought that deer down, it would’ve made for a fine meal, the youngest hunter said. With that size, it would’ve been a pain, the eldest hunter replied.
When Ernst asked why, the hunter explained that it was too big to be brought down by the arrows used in Schell. Then why not use a knife or hatchet? Ernst once again asked. Even if they did, with a beast that big, it was impossible to even get close to it, the hunter explained, then shook his head as if trying to let go of his own reluctance.
In the distance, they heard the sorrowful cry of a wolf. Even those wolves wouldn’t be able to bring down that deer, the hunters muttered, showing a trace of sympathy.
The forest wasn’t withered of life. Yet what abounded within it was the frustrating feeling of being unable to grasp that which was right before your eyes.
The village was bleak and desolate. The welcoming reception from the manor consisted of solely one butler.
The villagers who unsteadily crept out from their dilapidated shacks all wore clothing that looked rough and chafing. Even though the people of Schell continent were strong against the cold, they still wouldn’t walk around like that in a place like this. They were thin and emaciated, and their limbs looked like sticks.
Ernst had unconsciously frozen still. One of the hunters softly pushed his back. Ernst suddenly remembered to walk, and he went to thank the butler who had come to greet him.
Well then, the hunters said, about to leave. Ernst hurriedly rushed to hold them back a bit. He expressed his thanks to them, and for the first time in his life, he lowered his head and bowed.
Though the hunters, the butler, and the villagers were stunned, Ernst’s bow had come naturally. The hunters had brought him through such an arduous journey; just bowing his head once wasn’t enough of a sacrifice to pay them back for everything.
He raised his head and saw the faces of the hunters. He looked at each and every one of their faces, wanting to carve into his mind the memory of what they looked like, and then he shook the hand of each of them to say goodbye.
They had bulky, rough-skinned hands, those warm hunters.