Section 4: A Trace
Following the footprints and descending further into the valley, we soon found a wagon that had been abandoned in the snow. The wagon was toppled over on its side, and while the cargo it was carrying was still there, the animal that had been pulling it was nowhere to be found. The wheel tracks we had been following came to an end here.
“This……….it almost looks like the wagon was suddenly hit by something.”
Toslin picked up something the wagon had been carrying that was scattered around most likely when the wagon toppled over. It was a familiar-looking small bottle filled with a thick, yellowish liquid. Without a doubt, it was the same bottle Carol and I had been shown yesterday at the workshop.
“Over here. The footprints……….they’re still continuing on away from the wagon. Also some bad news. It looks like somebody’s been hurt.”
Carol was pointing at a spot a little bit away from the wagon where a few crimson splotches had splashed over. They continued further away from the wagon alongside the footprints. Anybody would know they were bloodstains only by looking at them.
“Their wounds would’ve been deep. Would they have been able to walk on their own with such a wound…………?”
Rose knelt down and scooped up some of the bloody snow.
“Um, well……….doesn’t that mean Quinn is seriously injured? Th-This is awful!”
Not knowing what to do, I start to panic, and all my thoughts start to jumble together. If something has happened to to Quinn, then the village head and Ryland would…….. When that thought finally settles in my mind, I immediately start following the footprints away from the wreckage.
“Hey, hold on a minute.”
Suddenly Carol was holding onto my skirt. I noticed Toslin get flustered and turned her gaze away which definitely means my wool underwear was visible again.
“Wai……….what are you doing Carol!?”
I got flustered myself and tried shaking her hand off, but then I noticed there wasn’t any hint of a joke in the look Carol was giving me.
“I get why you’re being so impatient, but don’t you think there’s something strange here?”
“Eh, wha- something is? There’s a wagon here, and Quinn’s injured. If that’s the case, then doesn’t he need help as soon as possible!?”
Rose nodded her head at my point.
“That’s right. Looking at these bloodstains, he is deeply wounded, and a good amount of time has already passed. If he is bearing injuries as serious as these, we cannot afford to waste even a single moment.”
“Yeah well, I feel the same way there. If the guy dies, our reward will get reduced. But isn’t there something else? Who are we going to be protecting this guy from?”
Carol was staring at the footprints as she spoke. Her profile was so intellectual it made me start to think that carefree smile of hers back at the inn had been a lie.
“Aah, I see. What you’re saying then is if a group of thieves has attacked Quinn, then why is all the medicine left behind.”
“Yeah. It’s really strange when you think about it. A thief is a thief because they steal things. But since there are a whole lot of things here left to steal, we have to think something else happened.”
My voice unconsciously leaked out. That’s it. Carol’s right. And what I was doing could’ve gotten us killed. This isn’t smart at all. I looked at Carol’s face and took a deep breath. I have to stay calm and keep my wits about me.
“So then, what in the world…….. Something other than a bandit……something like a monster attack then?”
“Mm, the chances of it being goblins is high. But judging by the size of the footprints, we might actually be able to rule them out. Perhaps it’s that dark elf. Look, that fairy was afraid for her village. If that is somewhere around here, Quinn might’ve gotten himself wrapped up somehow.”
“A dark elf wouldn’t have attacked a single human if their goal was the fairy village though. So wouldn’t it be a bandit after all? Perhaps rather than the medicine, Quinn was their goal all along? They were aiming for a ransom?”
“If I were the thieves, I wouldn’t do that. That guy’s a village head in name only and doesn’t look like he’d have any money at all. It’d be much better to just take the delivery on the spot and sell it for a high price.”
“You’re merciless. You know you absolutely shouldn’t say stuff like that in front of the person themselves right?”
“That kind of stuff is common sense.”
“I don’t know. When it comes to you, I’m not so sure. But anyway, we should proceed with caution either way. In the worst case it’s a dark elf, but even if it’s not, that means we’d still have some bandits to deal with at the very least.”
“Right. I-I understand……….”
I held back my urge to run forward, staying behind Toslin and the others while trying to stay vigilant of our surroundings. Please, please………..let Quinn be safe. While hoping for the safety of a man I’ve never met before, I offered a prayer to a Goddess I’ve never seen before.
Some time has passed since then. The crunch of the snow keeps echoing on endlessly with each step we take. The further we go, the thicker the forest gets and the thinner the snow on the ground becomes. It isn’t even noon, yet it has already gotten so dark. I keep turning my head around to try and be aware of my surroundings, but if it’s like this, something could easily be hiding behind the trees without me noticing.
“Aa…….what’s wrong Carol?”
Because Toslin stopped so suddenly, I ended up banging my head against her hard armor.
“Ow…………Ouch! What, is something wrong?”
When I peeked around Toslin with both my hands covering my sore, throbbing forehead, I saw Carol with her index finger pressed in front of her lips. Both of my hands shot down and covered my mouth instead. Rose and Toslin both bent low and killed their breathing.
“A cave……….is it. There is something quite ancient about it.”
We hid ourselves behind a nearby tree, stuck so close together I could hear Rose’s breathing. In front of us………it looked like there was a cliff jutting up towards the canopy, but now that we were only a couple dozen meters away from it, I was just barely able to make out a hole in the rock that could be a cave if I squinted.
“It looks like the footprints lead here right?”
Carol stealthily moved forward, and we carefully followed. My heart is already beating so violently I’m afraid it might explode. But, it’s a little strange that even with all that thumping, my heart still catches when I look at Toslin’s back.
“Woah……..what an amazing cliff……… How many years would it take for this much ivy to grow this thick…………”
I’m thinking about stuff like that even though a bunch of bandits could jump out any minute now, and a battle could start. But I can’t help but to notice how this moss grows on such a steep cliff, and the vigorous growth of these vines. If we really wanted to, maybe we could climb up them? or not.
“Hey, don’t just stand out there in the open. Come over here.”
Toslin whispered over and started motioning for me to hurry up from the entrance of the cave.
When I rushed over to where Toslin and the others had gathered, I found Carol staring intently at the ground. This far into the cave there was no more snow on the ground, but the weak sunlight wasn’t making it easy to see the wet leaves scattered across the floor.
“The blood stains continue in here. Somebody was definitely in here. But……I’m not too sure, but it looks like the footprints split in two.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Carol pointed towards her feet and then pointed to the inside of the cave shrouded in darkness.
“One set of footprints walks into the cave just like this. It’s hard to see because all the snow’s gone, but these ones here, you can see they go back into the forest if you look closely enough. Somebody probably keeps coming and going out of the cave. They’re doing it pretty frequently to boot.”
“It could still be something else, something not human. Something that could leave footprints similar to a human such as a goblin………..”
“Or, the dark elf?”
“Any of them are a possibility.”
“So in conclusion, we can confirm that the injured person is in this cave. Meanwhile we don’t know if the other set of footprints belongs to some bandits, goblins, or a dark elf, but we do know they’re constantly coming and going from the cave.”
Keeping her voice down, Toslin frowned.
“In that case, this could prove to be a real nuisance. It will be difficult to mount a rescue if they take him hostage.”
“Honestly we don’t know what’s going to come out of this pot until we open the lid. What should we do? Quit? To tell you the truth, I’d like to avoid getting involved with a dark elf. Can’t they use really strong magic?”
“That’d be the smart thing to do. But we don’t have a choice but to move forward here. Well it’ll only be a dark elf in the worst case scenario, and if it is, just leave it to me.”
Toslin let out a long sigh before drawing the long sword from her back.
“Oops, it’ll be a bit difficult for Goldmund to follow us in though.”
“Yeah that’s right. Let’s hide him in that thicket near the entrance.”
“Sorry Goldmund. Just wait here for a little bit.”
Goldmund sent a small breath from his nose and sat down on top of a bush, crushing it underneath his weight. The guy who is always protecting me won’t be there, but after I made such a big scene in front of Ryland, I can’t sit back and say I’m scared now.
“Iris isn’t going to hide here too?”
Toslin could probably sense my anxiety, but I still shook my head.
“That’s right. Me too, I’m going. I have to help Quinn.”
I said so as confidently as I could while feeling the dagger hanging at my waist.