A short chapter this time thankfully. I was able to do it, and finish up all my Christmas shopping in just one day.
Section 3: The Other End of the Tracks
As dawn broke, we finished our breakfast and immediately left the inn. A white glow shined across the blue sky, and every breath we took was like a miniature white cloud. We did leave our bulky baggage back in our room though, so it was much easier to move around now.
Goldmund no longer had to pull that heavy wagon, so he was light on his feet this morning. But, the same couldn’t be said for the two people walking behind him.
“Uu, come on Iris. There’s really nothing that you’ve done wrong?”
In complete contrast to the bright blue sky in front of me, a dark, gloomy voice hit my back. Turning my head around, I saw Toslin’s hateful glare.
“N-Nothing at all!”
“You could still do your confession right now. You’ve lived for 16 years already. It’s perfectly normal to have one or two things you feel guilty about you know? Come out with it; we’re all friends here.”
Unlike Toslin, Carol’s expression was a lot more distant. Her eyes, they were just like a zombie’s. A zombie who only wishes to devour the living and make them just as empty as they are. The illustration of a zombie I had seen in a book I read had eyes just as hollow and depressing.
“I am a virtuous, ordinary person! So let’s steel ourselves already. Today is all about searching for Quinn.”
Even now the two of them were tottering behind with hurt butts. Ohh, is this really going to be okay………..?
“Maybe you hit them too hard, just a bit………?”
As the one responsible for all of this, Rose’s face was naturally clouded over.
“It’s fine. I’m told every day that an adventurer’s greatest tool is their body. That’s why such a small hit to their butts won’t amount to much for them.”
“If that’s the case then you should be fine hitting Iris’s butt too! Maybe then you’ll see just how much pain you’ve caused!”
“Yeah Rose, things are way too sweet from your eyes. Okay Rose, I’ll forgive you, now spank Iris’s butt too!”
The two of them were screaming together right in the middle of the village during the early morning when the square was full of people who had just gotten up. The stares I was getting from the villagers around us really hurt.
“Yes, however………I cannot pass judgement on a sinless person.”
Rose turned them down with a serious look. Naturally of course, this is the reasonable opinion to have. I nodded my head.
“Come now, let’s move quickly. A person’s life may hang in the balance.”
The expectations the villagers’ gazes sparked my sense of duty. Don’t worry, I’ll have found Quinn before the day is done. I briskly walked out of the village square, Toslin and Carol chuckling about something as they followed closely behind me.
After leaving the village, we arrived at a mountain trail that would eventually lead to the highway. Step by step, we slowly made our way down the path while trying to keep an eye on all the numerous tracks that had carved themselves through the set snow. Some of the tracks veered off the mountain path, moving into a thinner road that was probably an animal trail, but we ignored those. You could tell at a glance that the distance between the wheels was much too small, and the depths of the grooves in the snow were too shallow.
“It was only a little, but you looked like you were enjoying yourself back then, Rose.”
Bent over and observing each set of tracks, Carol suddenly stood up and turned towards Rose with half closed eyes.
“Think about what you’re saying a little Carol. Rose would never think something like that. Isn’t that right?”
My back was starting to get sore from being bent over all this time, so I stood up straight and stretched. Rose brushed her long hair behind her ear and turned towards Carol.
“Umm. In truth, just a little………”
“Hey you guys. Come on, let’s quit talking about unimportant things and quickly………….um, huh?”
My mind stopped working for a second, and I dumbfoundedly turned towards an embarrassed Rose.
“Carol and Toslin are just so cute. Fufufu, I am a little embarrassed. So you noticed then?”
Rose was talking as if she had pulled some small prank, but the rest of us were as still and quiet as a rock. Carol kept opening and closing her mouth like a fish on dry land before suddenly pointing an accusatory finger at Rose.
“If-If you think we’re cute then you should’ve gone easy on us!”
Is that the problem here? I really wanted to cut in with a few thoughts of my own, but………..um, so………….well, it’s fine.
“So, anyways. We should start with figuring out which of these tracks we’re going to follow.”
“Th-That’s right. Time’s already growing short, and we still haven’t made a guess.”
Toslin decided not to think about it too deeply as well, and we turned back to work. Although our job here is simple, it’s no exaggeration to say that choosing the right tracks to follow here is the difference between success and failure.
“Ah, how about this one here? It appears to have the same depth as what Iris described. But the width of the wagon……….it’s hard to tell with all these other tracks going in the same direction.”
Rose pointed at one set of tracks. Taking a look, they certainly were as deep as the ones I had seen yesterday, and the wheels would’ve been about as thick as the ones on Quinn’s wagon as well.
“How is it Iris?”
Carol looked over my shoulder interested. We haven’t found any other notable tracks, so I suggested that we start off by following these ones for now at least.
“Okay. Well then let’s get moving. Carol, you take the lead.”
“Right. Leave it to me.”
Just as you’d expect, with work in front of them, neither Toslin nor Carol would complain about how their butts hurt. And so looking like a proper professional, Carol started walking ahead.
Was it about an hour after we started walking? Suddenly, Carol’s feet stopped in the snow.
“Is there something wrong?”
Carol pointed off in the distance when Rose asked.
“Look there, one set of tracks set off the trail. I didn’t mind them at first, but there are some unusual footprints following along with them.”
We all looked to where Carol was pointing, but unfortunately it was so far off I couldn’t see anything. All I could make out were the densely growing trees and the white snow covering the ground. So we started our way down the slope, being careful of the meandering and loose footing.
“Over there? It’s pretty far off from the road.”
Just as Carol had said, there were a set of tracks that had turned off the mountain trail and descended to the valley below. Well even if I call it a valley, the slope down isn’t steep, and you can walk down it easily.
“By the look of it, there was a bit of chaos here with the way the footprints spread out.”
“Ah, do you think bandits?”
The footprints were going in the same direction as the wheel tracks.
My heart rate jumps up, and I quickly start looking around us. I suddenly feel uneasy, thinking they might be hiding somewhere behind those trees, listening in on everything we’re saying as we speak. My anxiety must have been obvious because Goldmund walked over and licked my face to calm me down.
“But there aren’t that many of them. One of them……….um, who……..”
“Yeah, right right. There’s that guy…….and maybe seven to eight others. I can’t really tell because everything’s been messed up.”
“There’s nothing for you to feel worried about Iris. Do you think we’ll lose to a bunch of small-minded bandits who’d hang around a place like this?”
Toslin patted my shoulder with a smile. She looked so kind yet gallant. Just like the main character of a heroic epic. My heart started pounding in a different way.
“See? Then let’s go. Carol, be on full alert.”
“Ah but………..I’m hungry………..let’s get something to eat as soon as this is done.”
“Fine so take the front. Let’s see, Rose will take the rear and protect Iris. Goldmund too if you would.”
Toslin gave out her directions and moved to join up with Carol in the front, but not before spanking me in the butt first.
“You, wai……….enough Toslin!”
“Come Iris. Let’s teach these nonbelievers about the Goddess’s power.”
Rose’s smile, Goldmund’s reliability, and Toslin’s strong gaze. Add all those together with Carol taking the front and her go-at-your-own-pace attitude, and any anxiety I felt dissipated.
“R-Right. I’ll do my best.”
The fact that I’m powerless hasn’t changed. Nevertheless, that’s not going to stop me from trying.