The firewood in the cresset crackled.
“—Who goes there?!” About ten steps away, a man with a tough face and a spear challenged Kei.
The villager’s face was flushed with nervousness. Full of suspicion, his gaze pierced through Kei.
The other men around him also had the same look. They were hunched over and held any weapons they had on hand; clubs, hoes, and lumber axes readied, prepared to move at any time.
It was their entire combat force. Not a single one of them even tried to hide their wariness toward Kei.
…What a warm welcome this is.
Their focus on Kei sent a tingle down his spine. Not quite bloodlust, but it was obvious that he was an uninvited guest.
Kei briefly thought to himself, how should I go about answering? He couldn’t stay quiet forever. “I’m not anyone suspicious.”
Letting them know he wasn’t an enemy came first.
“‘Not anyone suspicious’…?”
The villagers confronting Kei murmured with each other quietly.
A new moon in the dead of night. Hardly the time for someone to go for a stroll.
He came out from the darkness on horseback without a torch.
His entire body was covered in leather armor. A sword at his hip, and a heavy bow in hand.
Lastly, he held a young girl in his left arm.
Her brow was slick with sweat, she was pale like a sickly person.
She wore foreign black clothes that they had never seen before.
But for some reason, it seemed she’d been roughed up by someone.
The front of her clothes were cut open, exposing her white chest.
—He’s suspicious. He’s way too suspicious.
That was the consensus of the men. In fact, there wasn’t a single non-suspicious point about him.
“…So, who are you?” the man in the middle asked again, but with a lower tone, readying his spear once more.
They’re being even more cautious of me…? Kei pondered to himself, but then replied, “Right. To put it frankly, we were just attacked by robbers and wound up here after escaping.”
He then summed up exactly what their situation was.
They were surrounded by fog and before they knew it they were somewhere unfamiliar. The sun had set so they set up camp, but then were attacked by what seemed to be a group of thieves before escaping into the grove of trees.
After that, he noticed torchlight in the pitch black and went toward it. That was the situation.
He didn’t tell a single lie. Although, he did keep the fact that they were players from a game called 『Demondal』hidden. He spoke as if they were normal travelers through and through.
After listening to Kei’s story the tough faced villager slightly lowered his spear and asked with a bewildered yet cautious expression, “…So, in the end, what is it that you want?”
“Honestly, we didn’t come here with any particular desire. We just came to check out what the light was… Why exactly were you all up and moving about at this hour?” questioned Kei.
“…I’ll answer your question,” said a deep voice casually.
It came from Kei’s right. A man holding a bow sluggishly came out from the shadows of a small house, perfectly in Kei’s blind spot.
His face was good looking. He looked sullen with the lower half of his face concealed by a reddish brown beard. The man was well-built, with an honest and serious face. Tight brown clothes wrapped around his body and a feather decorated leather cap adorned his head.
“I’m Mandel… A hunter of this village,” said the good looking man—Mandel—as he lightly removed his cap.
Kei realized that he had yet to give his name. “I’m Kei. A pleasure.” As he said this, perhaps due to being an archer himself, his eyes were naturally drawn to the bow Mandel was holding.
It was a simple short bow. It was made of wood with a glossy finish, while the handle was wrapped with black cloth. Several other villagers also carried bows, but Mandel’s gave off the impression of long use. It was most likely used for hunting day after day.
Mandel’s hat drew Kei’s attention next. Specifically, the feather on it. He stared at the feather on Mandel’s hat.
For a moment, they caught each other’s gaze.
Smiles crept up onto both of their faces. A silent understanding. The men around them all wore perplexed expressions.
“…And as for why we were moving about,” Mandel returned to being straight-faced as if nothing happened and continued to speak, “just a bit ago, we suddenly heard a terrible howl. Everyone roused themselves out of bed… It may have been a ferocious monster.”
“Yeah. They occasionally come into human territory from the woods or the mountains in this season. We can’t let ourselves get attacked while we sleep… We’ll probably sleep in shifts tonight.” He gestured to the villagers around him. “Kei, you were in the grove, right…? Did you see anything?”
“Hmm… Not really, I didn’t see anything like that beast you mentioned.”
Even thinking back upon it, he couldn’t think of anything. Only the Hound Wolves sent by their assailants came to mind; they didn’t even make it to the grove.
“I suppose that even if there were a monster you wouldn’t be able to see it in this darkness,” the man with the spear cut into the silence with a hint of irritation.
“Mikazuki—the horses weren’t alerted, so at the very least, there wasn’t anything in the area. For what it’s worth, both this guy and I can see pretty well in the dark,” he patted Mikazuki’s neck.
The villagers eyed up Kei and then the darkness with suspicious expressions. Mandel just nodded and honestly replied with, “I see.”
“—Pardon us while you’re in the middle of your conversation.”
The sound of footsteps on stone approached from the center of the village.
From the darkness appeared a hunched old man with white hair and a plump middle-aged man.
“Welcome, travelers. I am Bennett, the leader of the village ‘Tahfu.’”
“I’m his son, Danny.”
A small smile rose on the old man with white hair, Bennett’s, face. His plump son introduced himself with a haughty attitude.
I see. So the village leader and leader-to-be have shown up.
Kei made sure to not be rude while trying to observe the two.
The village leader, Bennett, seemed like a good-natured old man. At a glance he appeared kind, but below his eyebrows, which were pulled down into a ハ shape, his gaze nonchalantly took in all of Kei. The words ‘devious old man’ came to mind.
On the other hand, there wasn’t much to his son, Danny. He was plump, slovenly, and, whether good or bad, gave off the impression of a born aristocrat. In a way they were alike, but unlike Bennett, he didn’t have a timid face and his gaze toward them was rude. He specifically seemed to focus on Aileen, who was being held by Kei.
And they call this village ‘Tahfu’…
Kei had never heard of the village in the game. As he thought to himself that this wasn’t a game after all, he spoke, “I apologize for being on horseback. My name is Keiichi Nogawa. Keiichi is my first name, and Nogawa is my family name. I’m sorry for the ruckus we’ve caused.” He said confidently as he removed the cloth hiding his face.
The villagers quietly began talking among themselves. Bennett’s smiling face seemed stuck that way as it had not changed, but Danny’s eyebrows perked up and his complexion became somewhat stiff.
“…Nogawa-dono. What can our village do for you?” Bennett asked politely with his insincere smile.
“Just Kei is fine. We just finished discussing that earlier, but we didn’t come here with any particular desire in mind. Although,” his eyes fell to the girl in his arms.
She was sweating still and moaned in her sleep, “Uungh…”
Kei resumed, “She isn’t in very good shape. If possible, I want to let her rest…” He asked the rest with his eyes, How about it? He continued further, “Of course, we will provide appropriate compensation.”
“I see, I see,” Bennet slowly responded agreeably. “As you said, your friend doesn’t seem too well. However, I am not certain whether or not our small village will have anything of use to you… I will ask the other villagers. Danny, Cronen, help me.”
Bennett bowed as if to say, we will return shortly, and then turned and walked away. Danny and the spear wielder—apparently named Cronen—followed suit.
As Kei watched them from atop his horse, Bennett and Cronen gave off a similar feeling. He shifted his attention to the figure behind them, “…Mandel.”
“Hm…? What is it?”
“That guy, Cronen, the spear wielder, is he related to the leader?”
“Yes, he’s also his son… The eldest is Danny, next is Cronen.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Satisfied, Kei thought to himself that there was a little of an age gap between the two brothers, unaware of the grim faces the villagers around him wore.
† † †
After moving far enough into the darkness that Kei wouldn’t be able to see, Bennett began, “So, Cronen. If I recall, you have an open bed in your house, no?”
“Father! You couldn’t possibly be considering letting them into our village?”
“That was my intention.” At Cronen’s raised voice Bennett tilted his head as if to ask, was I wrong?
“You both heard his story! What would we do if he’s one of those thieves?!”
That seemed to be the most of Cronen’s worries.
Pretending to be attacked by thieves and dressing up one member as someone that barely escaped alive—slipping into their target village, trying to undermine the authority from the inside, and then taking advantage of the chaos and attacking.
Cronen had often heard from peddlers that a group of thieves used this trick to make easy money.
“Hah… I was wondering what the fuss was about, but I guess that’s it. Seriously, did you think that something you came up with hadn’t already been considered by me or Father?” Danny shrugged his shoulders and sighed after making that spiteful remark. The atmosphere around them all but said, this is why you’re a failure of a brother.
“Your way of thinking is too extreme, Cronen. The possibility of that is low,” Bennett wasn’t angry nor mocking him; he just said plainly, “I am aware that recently there have been groups like that. However, the way that Kei-something snuck in would have been too suspicious. He picked up the grassland peoples’ habit and gave his family name, even. He’s not suspicious at all. Also, at best, they’re a distraction. If they were thieves and had such quality equipment then they’re probably doing fine already.”
Danny rubbed his chin as he took over for Bennett, “It’s just as Father says. If I were a thief, I would have sent a slightly thinner, normal person in.”
“You don’t understand because you are a poor judge of character, Cronen. All the equipment that Kei had was top-class, you know.”
Only after his brother pointed it out, did Cronen look at Kei’s belongings and realize that he had entirely read into it too much.
Bennett and Danny, who followed in his footsteps, had experience with various materials as representatives of the village, so they naturally gained the ability to judge quality. Their initial judgement came from their role of carefully observing the other party during their first meeting.
Bennett narrowed his eyes and thought about the equipment Kei wore. “That leather armor is amazingly well made. On top of that, those wonderful ornaments I’ve never seen before—even the ones just on his chest piece would be at least ten silver.”
“Ten silver?!” rang Cronen’s hysteric voice at Bennett’s estimation. Ten silver was proportionate to a peasant’s food expenses for a year. “I thought that even expensive leather armor, at most, cost one silver though?”
“Idiot, that’s just tanned leathers that are sewn together; it’s a cheap, poor quality item. Those low quality items can’t be compared with the hardening, defensive capabilities, and the effort put into that guy’s armor. For now, assume he’s of a different social status. Moreover, there’s that small ornament. When I went out shopping before, I looked at various armor, clothing, and accessories, but I didn’t see anything as fashionable as that ornament. Even if it were just a work of art it still holds value.”
“A very skilled artisan must have tailored it. Even if someone saved up, it doesn’t look like something that one can buy on a whim… Besides that, Danny, have you noticed his horse?”
“Yes, it was a very nice horse, wasn’t it!” Danny clapped his hands together and praised their horses, “Their fine colored hair, their clever features, even their physique isn’t comparable to an ordinary horse! I’ve never seen a fine horse, but it would probably be like that. There are even two of them!”
Now that you mention it, Cronen thought. The horse that Kei rode in on certainly seemed like it was top class.
The village only owned one horse, and that was for pulling carts. But comparing it to their horses, filled to the brim with strength, would just be absurd.
“Yes, the horses themselves are quite something, but… it’s their foreheads. They both have talismans embedded.”
“Talismans?” Danny and Cronen simultaneously questioned.
“I myself have only laid eyes upon the real things once. It’s a charm against evil spirits. Not some lucky charm, but one imbued with magic. They are said to weaken the power of devils and magic, protecting the possessor. Even I can feel the magical power; they’re probably very powerful ones.”
Bennett chuckled audibly and smiled.
Except for cases of very talented people, or people who trained vigorously, generally, humans’ magic power increased with age. After the age of fifty it would start to increase dramatically.
Along with that, the ability to perceive magic would also increase. The more one aged, the more they could perceive. People said that even ‘spirits’ could be sensed with sharp enough senses. It was said that in one’s dying hour, their perception became strong enough to see the spirits of the deceased.
Furthermore, even in ‘Tahfu’, the oldest man, Bennett, only slightly felt the power of the talisman.
“A talisman, huh.” Cronen held his chin and exhaled deeply in thought.
—He understood that it was something amazing, but he just couldn’t actually feel it himself.
That was how Cronen actually felt about it.
In his 20 years of life he had never seen an object imbued with magic. Of course, he knew that such items were valuable; he heard from peddlers that creating magic items took a lot of money. However, since he didn’t have any personal experience with it, he couldn’t truly understand how amazing it was.
“…That man, just what is he really?”
It seemed that his brother, Danny, had come to grips with the severity of the situation. “Father, it’s possible that man is a nobleman.”
“You may be right…” Bennett stroked his beard with an easygoing attitude.
“The armor is one thing, but the talisman isn’t something you can get just by saving up enough money.”
“To think that, even the horses have such a thing…”
“After all, without appropriate social status it would be impossible.”
“I can’t imagine that the horses would have them but the owners don’t.”
“I see. Assuming the girl he brought has one too, then there are a total of four talismans… With just what that man has the entire village could live comfortably for an entire year.”
“Yeah! Speaking of which, that girl isn’t just an ordinary person either!” Danny’s nostrils flared and he lost all composure. “The fine smoothness and lack of blemishes on her pure, white skin! Her beautiful, long, lustrous blonde hair! It’s impossible for her to be a commoner, she is definitely of noble blood!”
Cronen sighed openly at the plump man’s sudden excitement and Bennett’s lack of response. He even married the most beautiful girl in the village… His fondness for women is a problem.
Cronen, considerably younger than his brother, looked coldly at him. It was an open secret that when Danny went shopping in town, he would return smelling of brothel perfumes. It wasn’t like the village’s money was being embezzled, he spent the money from goods that sold higher than expected, so no one ever complained.
“Hey, Father, do the grassland people have nobles as well?” Exhausted, Cronen leaned on his spear for support while questioning Bennett.
“They do not. It is because, fundamentally, they have clans. There are only some clan heads or elders that manage the clan.”
“So then, that guy, Kei…”
“He did not have a clan tattoo on his face, and his introduction was unusual. Most likely, he is not one of the grassland people… I don’t understand why he would purposely look like one. Just where did he come from?”
“It seems like he himself is unsure. In the middle of his travels he was caught in a fog, before he knew it, he was near the rocky mountain, is what he said. They may have been caught up in some mysterious phenomenon, he said.”
Bennett looked suspiciously at Cronen. And then, realizing that his son took the words of a suspicious traveler at face value, made a half astonished, half resigned face.
“…Well, whatever. It’s their business, they probably have things they don’t want to talk about. Now then, about what is to come. Hey, Danny! Listen, would you?!”
To Danny, who had been grinningly broadly to himself, everything had been going in one ear and out the other. Now he snapped back to reality.
“Ah, sorry, Father. I was spacing out.”
“…Haah. Going back to the first question, Cronen. You have a spare bed in your house, right?”
“Yes. I keep it ready to be used at any time just in case.” He gave a small nod.
It was a small room, similar to a storeroom, but his wife liked to keep things clean so it was cleaned regularly.
“Alright. Then I’ll be leaving the girl that man brought in your house.”
“What was that?! Father, there’s a spare bedroom in my house too, you know! I could even wake Cynthia, then another space would be available too!” Danny’s nostrils flared once again as he snapped at Bennett’s words.
“It would make the morning worse. Let Cynthia, your wife, stay asleep.” Bennett bluntly opposed. “Now then, Cronen, I have something to ask of you. Since you are taking care of the girl, I ask you to stand guard over her.”
Not nurse her, but stand guard. Cronen knit his brows at the uncomfortable feeling of the words.
“Yes, stand guard. It’s very unlikely… but just in case they actually are thieves.”
Seeing Bennett’s serious expression, Danny and Cronen naturally became tense too.
“Even a young girl like her could set fire to the village if she isn’t watched. Cronen, you are strong and you are skilled. For argument’s sake, even if she is a thief, as long as you’re there, you could control her.”
“Of course, I can’t lose to a girl like her,” brimming with confidence Cronen nodded.
“Hmm. With that appearance, if she actually had that much energy, then her acting is top-class, but…” Bennett recalled the image of the girl’s condition, held in Kei’s arms, and muttered quietly, “Well, it’s fine. As for Kei, we’ll treat him like any other visitor and invite him to my house. And to be safe, I’ll call Mandel to guard us.
“Mandel… is coming to our place?” Danny openly wore an expression of distaste.
“There’s no helping it. Is there anyone more skilled than Mandel in this village? He has brute strength and incredible marksmanship.”
“Well… you’re right.”
Danny reluctantly acknowledged it, but his unpleasant expression showed he was still unsatisfied. However, Bennett didn’t so much as acknowledge his childish protest. He simply informed them of the decision with a serious expression. “That’s how it is. Neither of you press them for information. They have their reasons for keeping quiet. It is best if we don’t get involved, whatever those reasons may be. Be as polite as you can, take care of them without prejudice, and provide for them what you can. We want them to leave as soon as possible. Don’t forget even a single thing I just said.”
At any rate, Bennett nodded a few times at his sons’ understanding.
“—Now then,” Bennett turned, and while hitting his crooked back, smiled. “I can’t have the visitors waiting forever. I should go receive them.”
He slowly began walking towards where his uninvited guests waited, like a kind, amiable old man.
Nogawa-dono: The plan was always to keep honorifics, there just haven’t been any until this point.