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Chapter 8 – Ceasefire after a Decade
With every step I took, I could feel the soft earth squis.h.i.+ng beneath my feet.
The unceasing overnight rain that fell in this region had stubbornly left its traces in the form of moisture covering the forest.
The raindrops on the foliage every so often slid off the leaves and fell while reflecting the midday sun, only to be absorbed by the sodden ground or my tricorne.
The path through the forest was damp, and the air was hot as befitting the early summer season.
It's way too hot. So irritating.
A weak breeze gently shook the fallen leaves near my feet.
Walking through the forest while feeling annoyed was the last thing I wanted to do, but if I used my broom to fly in such a situation, I would no doubt be drenched by the remaining raindrops while trying to fly above the trees.
However, I'm getting drenched in sweat by continuing to walk like this nonetheless, so there is no reprieve at all.
I held my staff in both hands, and continued to walk while directing a weak breeze in my direction.
"Aahhhh… The air is so clammy…"
I don't wear a robe on days as hot as this. I've taken it off. I'm wearing a s.h.i.+rt and skirt and my tricorne, getup that would make people look twice and wonder whether I was actually a witch or not.
Due to that, the air directed from my staff was able to flow over me without any restriction, and it was barely strong enough to make my ash-gray hair flutter and caress the nape of my neck. However, instead of making me feel better, it only served to irritate me further.
On the list of things that I hate, this damp climate comes right after rain.
I really want to reach the next country soon and let my body rest at an inn.
Just how much further until the next country?
It looks like I'll be there in another thirty minutes.
"Another thirty minutes to Selial Kingdom."
There was a signboard helpfully posted along the path that told me so.
"Please feel free to take a break here."
There was even a small bench placed nearby as though it was an afterthought. Although in this climate, it is more like an unwelcome favor.
However, it looked like there were people in this world who were tolerant enough to accept even unwelcome favors such as this.
There was a man sitting on the bench, absentmindedly fanning himself with a folding fan.
From what I could see, it appeared he had been sitting there for a while. The dampness of his sweat had left patterns on his s.h.i.+rt, and a trace of fatigue could be seen in his expression. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, and there was some grey mixed in with his otherwise black hair. Don't tell me he has been patiently sitting here for a long time?
By the way, there was a large amount of water and food set aside next to him, so maybe he planned to continue sitting there for a while.
That is what I thought, but there was no way that could happen.
Also, there was a strange creature at his feet that had mop-like hair. I wonder if it is a pet. It looks like a giant moss ball.
"Are you a traveler?"
After walking up to the bench, I called out to the man who was sitting there.
I stood there while proudly blowing air at myself with my staff; and forced a refreshed expression on my face.
It seemed my conscience was incapacitated by the heat.
The man slowly shook his head in answer to my question, and,
"No. I'm a resident of that country."
Saying that, he pointed in the direction from which my freshly made footprints extended.
At present you could only see the forest in that direction, but quite a distance away, there was a place called the Melnel Kingdom where I had stayed until this morning.
By the way, there was nothing noteworthy about that country.
"So you're from that country… Are you perhaps a merchant? It looks like you've been working hard."
"No. I'm not a merchant either. I'm just a regular citizen of that kingdom. Also, it's not like I have any particular work in the Selial Kingdom either."
I tilted my head in confusion.
"Then what are you doing in a place like this?"
"I'm waiting for someone."
"Oh? It looks like the person you're waiting for isn't very punctual."
I mean, he's completely drenched in sweat, after all.
"Seriously. That person has no sense of punctuality at all."
"How long have you been waiting here?"
I was just curious to hear his answer. I didn't particularly mean anything by it, nor was I overcome with feelings of admiration for his tolerance in waiting even after being drenched in sweat.
However, the man said,
"I've been waiting here for the past ten years."
After saying something that bothered me a little, he continued,
"Also, I plan to keep staying here in the future."
And he said something that interested me greatly.
"Of course, I have to work as well, so it's not like I'm here around the clock. But whenever I find time, I always wait here like this. I've been waiting here all this time for that person. About ten years have pa.s.sed in that manner."
Since my interest was stoked, I sat down on the bench as well and listened as the man, who introduced himself as Nord, started speaking to me.
To ensure that he didn't have to look twice before realizing it, I introduced myself as a witch, and then,
"Who are you waiting for?"
I asked that while feeling curious.
"My wife. She went to the country down the road ten years ago, and hasn't returned since then. So, I've been waiting here all this time."
"Why don't you just go to that country yourself and look for her there?"
However, the man slowly shook his head.
"That country and mine had a war ten years ago, and we are in a situation where we have no dealings with each other. The current state is such that if someone from my country goes to that country, they won't even open the gates."
"So that's why you can't go."
"Yes. So I've been waiting here."
For ten whole years?
Hang on, more importantly…
"The fact that your wife went to that country ten years ago — does that mean she defected or something like that?"
"No. My wife is a witch. So she went to the other country to fight."
"I can guess what you want to say. Since she hasn't returned even after waiting for ten years, you think she might be dead, right?"
"I think that might be the case as well. But if there's even the slightest chance of her still being alive, I have no choice but to wait, do you see?"
"So that's how it is?"
"That's how it is. We are a married couple after all."
I was sitting silently, thinking of something to say to him, when it happened.
The creature that was lying beside him got up and started moving around.
That creature with long, mop-like hair lifted its round, moss ball-like body off the ground and started moving around on legs that were too numerous to count.
The legs of the creature, what I had previously taken to be hair, were easily taller than me, so sitting on the bench as I was, I had to look up to see its face — or the portion of its body that appeared to be one. I couldn't see any eyes. It was just a round, fuzzy hairball.
"……Umm, what exactly is this creature? I had been vaguely wondering about it since earlier, but…"
The fuzzy hairball stretched its innumerable legs between the man and me, and eventually settled down on the bench between us.
The man patted the fuzzy hairball that came to sit beside him and replied,
"Oh, so you were curious about it after all? This here is some sort of mysterious creature."
"Ah, that is apparent just by looking at it."
"Also, this creature lives here, on this bench."
I unintentionally nodded as if I understood, but…
"Umm… that means…"
On second thought, I don't understand it at all.
It lives on the bench? Huh?
"To tell you the truth, I don't know much about this creature either. After the war ended and my wife had still not come back, I started waiting here on this bench. Since that day, this creature has always been here, on this bench. It's always here, from morning till night."
"Maybe this creature is waiting for someone here as well."
"……That may be the case."
"The reason I've been able to patiently wait for my wife here for all this time is because of this guy. I feel strangely comforted when it is by my side, so I am able to wait here like this."
Saying so, the man once again patted the fuzzy ball.
The fuzzy ball shook slightly.
"……Does it dislike the touch?"
"No, this is how it shows happiness."
I tried to pat it as well.
Once again, the fuzzy hairball shook a little. From under its tufty texture, I could feel a vibration.
"Ah, now it's unhappy."
"I can only see it as having the same reaction as when you patted it."
"Well, you're a beginner, so that's all you see. However, I can tell."
"So that's how it is?"
"Yes, that's how it is."
"You share an understanding like a middle-aged couple."
"We've been together for ten years, after all."
The man fanned himself with his folding fan as he calmly said,
"And we will be together in the future as well."
And that's why he understands everything about that creature — that's what he told me.
A gust of wind heavy with moisture blew through the forest at that time.
The wind that was neither cool nor hot blew in between us, and the fuzzy hairball shook gently.
I had absolutely no idea what kind of feeling that signified.
In that manner, after taking a short break, I finally reached that country.
It was strange.
What I saw before me was at odds with what I had heard from that man.
"Welcome, Witch-sama! Are you from the other country?"
The man had told me that the gates of the country were firmly shut, but not only were they open, the guard at the gate also welcomed me with a beaming smile on his face.
"I am a traveler. I'm not a citizen of the other country."
"I see! How long do you plan on staying here?"
After asking me that, the guard said,
"We would appreciate it if you could stay for a minimum of three days, at least……"
"Hmm? Why is that?"
That was a pretty strange request.
Why three days?
The guard replied,
"In three days from now, this country is going to declare a ceasefire!"
He said something even more strange.
I felt my head start to hurt.
I spent the next two days sightseeing in that country. I had been asked to stay for at least three days, after all, and I was also curious about what was going to happen.
It looked like the residents of this country were eagerly looking forward to the declaration of ceasefire.
『Finally, the war is ending!』
『After ten years, the day we've been waiting for has finally arrived!』
『We can finally put this behind us!』
There were signboards and posters with things like that written on them, posted all over the city.
By the way, why was the ceasefire to be announced after three days? When I was staying in the other country, I had heard that the war had ended a long time ago. Why did only this side think that the war was still ongoing?
I wanted to walk around and get some answers, and in fact I managed to kill some time doing exactly that. However, the people of this country weren't able to answer to my satisfaction at all.
"It's okay, you'll understand it after three days."
They just avoided my questions with vague hints like that.
And then, before I knew it, it was already the day when the ceasefire was set to be announced.
However, after those three days had gone by, I still had no idea what was going on.
I had no idea what the reason was.
The people had gathered in the plaza of the city. It looked like everyone there was just a spectator, and they were all staring at the center of the plaza like they expected something to happen.
There was a group of soldiers standing there in a circle, armed with rifles. And they were aiming those rifles inwards, at what was inside the circle.
Why were they aiming their rifles at a large number of strange creatures that looked like fuzzy hairb.a.l.l.s? They resembled the fuzzy hairball that was with the man I met on the road in the forest, why were they being surrounded?
To me, it looked like the people of this country were ganging up to torment them, and making a show out of it.
That was because the fuzzy hairb.a.l.l.s had gathered together and appeared to be trembling in fright.
"What's going on?"
I tapped on the shoulder of a person who was staring at the fuzzy hairb.a.l.l.s, and asked that question.
And then, that person answered like it was a perfectly natural thing.
"What, isn't it obvious? It's the witches from the other country."
I finally heard the truth about what was happening in this country.
It had happened ten years ago.
The effects of the war were felt inside this country as well. A group of around ten witches from the other country appeared in this country.
On the other hand, this country had only a single witch. From the beginning, she had no chance of winning.
The ten-odd witches went on a rampage within the country. They destroyed buildings, weapons… in a methodical fas.h.i.+on, they started to rob this country of its ability to fight.
Driven into a corner, the people of this country left the fate of the country to the only witch from this country.
"Is there no way to destroy that large group of witches in one go?"
They asked her.
That witch, who loved her country more than anything else, gave her life to stop the attacks of the enemy witches.
She gave her life, and in exchange placed a curse on them.
The curse affected the witches who were flying around the country. It turned them into those strange creatures.
After losing their only witch, who was the last ray of hope, this country rushed to prepare for a defensive battle. However, the other country didn't launch any a.s.saults after that.
The war naturally ended in this manner, and the two countries stopped interacting with each other.
"By the way, those strange creatures have some unique features."
"They are closer to objects than living creatures. They apparently have no need to eat, and they don't die, no matter what happens."
"They were unfazed after being drowned in water, and for some reason didn't burn when thrown into a fire. If hit by a stray bullet, they'll just spit the bullet out. Those things are immortal."
"It looks like the witch from our country planned this so that we would not be able to forget about the war and put the past behind us. However, there is a limit even to immortality. There is a time limit to the curse placed by her. After ten years, they stop being immortal."
"……So you mean…"
"That's right. Today marks the end of those ten years."
"That is why we are celebrating. That is why today marks the end of the war."
That's what they said.
The cheers from the gathered populace increased in intensity, and their voices joined together in a countdown.
The sound of the people clapping to the beat of the countdown seemed to urge the soldiers to take action. On the other side of the crowd of people, I caught a glimpse of the soldiers steadying their guns.
The sound of loud gunshots reverberated throughout the plaza.
Amidst cheers and applause, lovely red flower petals bloomed in the middle of the plaza and danced through the air.
It wasn't a metaphor. It was simply and actually just red flower petals floating in the wind. When I held out my hand, one of the petals, blown by the wind, landed on my palm.
The petals were shot out of the guns. They did not spew fire, and of course, no one died. Not only that, but,
"……Finally! I've finally managed to turn human again!"
"Aaah… Those ten years felt so long…"
"I've finally been released from h.e.l.l… Each and every one of those days was so hard to get through…"
"Wine! Someone bring me some wine!"
"I want cake!"
"I'll take a man instead."
The strange creatures that were huddled together in the centre of the ring of soldiers turned back into humans — into witches. Amidst the red petals, they were hugging the soldiers and other citizens of the country and rejoicing.
"Umm, what just happened?"
Once again, I was very puzzled.
"What, isn't it obvious? Everyone is rejoicing because the war has ended!"
"Umm, I thought that since ten years have pa.s.sed and they are not longer immortal, they would be killed. I was fully expecting a serious situation like that, but…"
"What are you talking about? Of course we wouldn't do something like that. Over the course of ten years, we mended our relations with those witches. We decided to forgive each other and live together in peace."
"……But then, why did you close the gates and refuse to establish contact with the other country?"
"That couldn't be helped. Once the war was over and both countries tried to reconcile, what do you think would happen if we just handed over the creatures that the witches turned into? Do you think they would forgive us if we said something like 『We turned all your witches into these weird creatures, but we don't have the will to fight anymore?』 It would be like throwing fuel on a fire. That is why we waited for the ten years to pa.s.s."
"Have you forgiven the people from the other country?"
"We forgave them, and received forgiveness in return. It took a long time. That is why we are rejoicing together with the witches."
Thinking about it, it felt anticlimactic.
Saying that they would no longer be immortal after ten years, simply meant that the curse would come undone after ten years. The fuzzy hairb.a.l.l.s weren't shuddering in fear when they were surrounded by the soldiers, instead they were trembling in delight.
What an incredibly anticlimactic ending.
I was completely let down.
"By the way, you're a traveler, right? Do the people of the other country still bear a grudge against us?"
After hearing that question, I smiled wryly and replied,
"In the other country, today apparently marks the tenth year since the end of hostilities."
After that, I stayed for a few more days in that city filled with joy.
I spent my time interacting with the witches who were finally able to go back to being humans after ten years, and telling the people of the country about the state of affairs outside.
Apparently, the people of country had already decided on what they wanted to do next.
Along with properly opening the country to outsiders after a decade, they planned to return the witches to the other country and send a formal declaration of peace.
I hope it goes well.
Well, it doesn't really matter to me either way.
A few days after that incident, I left that country.
The gloomy rain clouds that hung over the forest had disappeared, and a crisp and dry wind blew across my collar.
It was a pleasant breeze.
It would probably feel really good to fly on my broom on a day like this.
"Alright, time to go."
Taking a break is fine, but it should be done in moderation.
I stood up from the bench that had been placed in the forest, pulled out my broom, and sat on it side-saddle. Below the gently rising broom, dust swirled on the parched ground and settled on the bench.
The empty bench continued to stand there, as if patiently awaiting the next person who would come to sit on it.