Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 10

14-3 The skies over Rin’u were clear for the first time in a long time. Early that morning, Kiitsu arrived in the company of a woman.

“She would prefer not to use her name for now, other than we are sheltering her at Fukyuu Temple.”

Kyoshi eyed her suspiciously. At a glance, she appeared to be a gaunt and unremarkable middle-aged woman when she was, in fact, much younger.

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“We believe we had good reason to grant her sanctuary. No, she is not wanted by the authorities. But when he disappeared, she was in the vicinity of Kan’you Mountain.”

Risai invited her in. “I apologize for our shabby accommodations. Please sit down.”

“She does not have any particular illness, but she does have difficulty eating and sleeping. Before Fukyuu Temple took her in, something terrible happened to her, the consequences of which have continued to affect her six years on.”

“Six years—”

Kiitsu nodded. “Six years ago, soon after he fell out of sight, she was found floating in a river and was brought to Fukyuu Temple. The evidence suggested she had been attacked by persons unknown. Her whole body was covered with wounds, leaving her in a very serious state. Though we were able to save her life, for a long time, she remained in a constant state of fear and was haunted by an agitated state of mind. For a while, she could not summon the words to speak. The mere presence of another human being caused her to scream and run about attempting to flee. I’m afraid she likely has no good memory of what happened to her. All we know for certain was that she was treated in an exceedingly harsh manner. Her fingers were broken and her teeth pulled out.”

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“What in the world!”

Risai gave her a closer look. Her gaunt and emaciated condition notwithstanding, she was indeed a young woman. Risai placed her age in in her mid-twenties or even younger. Six years ago, she would have been barely out of her teens.

“Is she all right with being brought here?”

“She has calmed down a good deal of late. She able to go out now if it is sufficiently calm and quiet. Of course, her condition varies, but she is mostly able to get on with her daily activities. She no longer loses her presence of mind as she once did.”

“You have been through a lot,” Risai said to her.

The woman nodded.

“She was one of the refugees on Kan’you Mountain. They holed up in the ruins and snuck onto Kan’you Mountain.”

Risai and Kyoshi both drew deep breaths.

“You don’t suppose—” Risai muttered.

Kiitsu nodded and gently urged her to continue. In a barely audible voice, she began to speak.

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“I was on the mountains back then, along with four of my colleagues.”

She had a hard time speaking and struggled to string the words together. The softness of her speech made following her account all the more difficult. But according to the story she told, she was living in the mountains at the time, along with four fellow refugees. They ventured into the mines every day to comb through the tailings for precious stones. As refugees, she didn’t know where they came from or how they got there. There were three men and one woman. One was an old man. The other two men were in middle age. The woman was five years her senior.

Asen’s purges displaced large numbers of people across Bun Province. War and the ravages of war temporarily separated them from their registered towns and villages. The refugees were different. Once displaced persons themselves, some became refugees when their connection to the land was completely severed. In order to get by, others deliberately discarded their internal passports and registration papers. The refugees were those for whom this became their fixed and normal state. The refugees often gathered among the displaced persons, where it was easier to live amidst the relative disorder.

The woman was one of the latter.

The five of them stayed together for over a year as a kind of family. The old man in particular treated her as his daughter, her own parents having cast her aside as a child. She had no idea what became of them. She hadn’t seen them since they were separated in a big city in Jou Province, likely abandoned amidst the hustle and bustle. At that point, with no papers, she became a refugee. She didn’t even know the town she was born in.

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While they were on the road, they met another man and teamed up together. In such a fashion, they added another to their little troupe and then lost one. Someone got sick and died. Someone simply disappeared. That was the state they’d ended up in when they arrived at the outskirts of Kan’you Mountain. Including the woman, there were six of them left.

Since the troubles, the others had become refugees due to the despotic rule of the land gangs. They lost their passports and became nomads.

They lived in the mountains, not in one of the abandoned hamlets but in a small cabin closer to the mines. The ground around the cabin was pockmarked with holes, ventilation shafts, and old test pits left behind by prospectors in various stages of collapse. From there they could slip deeper into the mountain to collect the tailings.

“Kan’you Mountain was uninhabited, though now and then a watchman came around.”

They didn’t know if they were actual watchmen. But they showed up now and then and poked around. Even if the mines weren’t operating, that didn’t mean people could just come and go as they pleased. That’s why they used the old tunnels to access the mine faces. It was dangerous, to be sure. In fact, not long after the woman arrived at Kan’you Mountain, they lost one of their number to an accident.

“A middle-aged lady. The ground beneath her collapsed and she fell down a deep hole. She was like a mother to me.”

They grouped their way through the pitch-black tunnels, relying on small pine torches. The work was hard and exceedingly dangerous and the profits were slim. But now and then they’d stumble across a valuable stone. That glimmer of hope was enough to keep them going back into the shafts. Besides which, they had no other means of supporting themselves.

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They’d heard that several small bands of refugees like theirs could be found scattered across the mountain, living in ramshackle cabins near the mouths of the more accessible pits and mines.

One day, the woman went into the mines as she usually did. That day, she heard a human voice in an updraft of air. At the time, for reasons not at all clear to them, all human activity had ceased around Kan’you Mountain. The miners had long since deserted their claims. They found it all quite strange.

“It was not one of the refugees. We always whisper in the mines. We’d never shout like that.”

It was illegal to take stones off Kan’you Mountain without a license. They didn’t have permission to be on the mountain in the first place. If their presence became known to the authorities, they’d get kicked out at the very least, possibly arrested and hauled before a judge. To avoid being seen, they hid out on the mountainside and waited to see what developed. They heard the voice all that day.

“It was the same the next day as well.”

Perhaps mining operations had started up again on Kan’you Mountain. If that was the case, then they stood to lose their livelihood. With those concerns on their minds, they shifted their attention to the mountain approach. There they could clearly make out a group of what appeared to be soldiers. Dozens of them. Soldiers were going in and out of the mountain while others guarded two big wooden crates.

They laid down a bed of round logs and rolled the crates across the logs into a mine shaft.

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“Big wooden boxes—” Kyoshi muttered.

The woman nodded. “Very big boxes. Each one was the size of a small barn. And build like strongboxes.”

Risai said, “A small barn. That certainly is big.”

“They had a whole team of horses pulling them. The soldiers guarding the boxes looked really nervous. There was something dangerous inside those boxes. They moved them into the hole and then a large number of soldiers followed behind with an assortment of tools.”

Moving such large objects around took a fair amount of time. The woman and her companion gave up on working the mines that day as well.

“In the end, their activities continued for three full days.”

Peace and quiet finally returned to the mountain two days later. The soldiers disappeared along with any evidence of the large scale undertaking they’d been engaged in.

“They graded the earth and erased even their footprints. Everything was like it was before.”

“They literally covered their tracks. I wonder what was inside those boxes.”

The woman shook her head. “I do not know. But something moved.”

“Something moved?”

p. 134

“That’s what the soldiers said. They grew quite alarmed. Something moved inside one of the boxes and made it shake back and forth.”

“A living thing—”

“That’s what I think too. It gave off the scent of a wild beast.”

Risai mulled over this information.

“The old man said something funny was going on. Those soldiers were up to no good. We’d better not go crawling back into the tunnels anytime soon.”

He insisted this was definitely a wait and see situation, and we ought to get off Kan’you Mountain for the time being. But the woman wasn’t ready to abandon the mines. If she found enough salable stones, she’d have enough to live on for a while longer.

“The men kept saying they needed a little more time, just a little more time. When we returned to the mine, we heard that voice rising up from the depths.” The woman hugged her arms around her shoulders as if recalling the fear she felt back then. “A dreadful sound, like the scream of a beast or a scream or a shout. Guttural and shrill and truly terrible. I froze in my tracks. That was when I heard the mountain collapsing around me.”

Along with a great cloud of dust, the thunderclap of the collapse roared through the mine shaft. They knew at once it was a cave-in, having experienced them too many times already. But the scale was completely different this time. Tremors shook the whole mountain. The sound of falling rocks reverberated again and again from the tunnels. The air grew so thick with dust it was impossible to see anything.

p. 135

“I smelled something burning. I thought they must have used fires or torches inside the mine.”

She didn’t see any connection to the landslides. In any case, their only thought was to run for their lives. They were only able to escape because they had not ventured too far in. They crawled out of the tunnel. The scale of this cave-in was anything but normal. The mountain itself may have collapsed. Fearing such a possibility, they hurried down the mountainside. At the same time, they spotted soldiers descending the mountain in much the same way.

“They glanced around and saw us too.”

For a moment, the soldiers started after them. The woman immediately turned and fled down the slope. The old man missed his chance to make a clean getaway. He later said the soldiers didn’t pursue him but instead continued to descend the mountain.

“The old man said that since they’d spotted us, we should run away while we could.”

But the rest of them couldn’t make up their minds. They persuaded him to stay one more day and returned to the cabin. The next day, the soldiers returned to search for them, soldiers wearing red and black armor.

“Someone shouted to run for it. We tried but they captured us.” The woman hugged her arms around her shoulders all the tighter. “Myself as well.”

Her voice shaking, she said she didn’t recall anything after that.

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Risai held her hand. “That’s okay. You don’t need to remember.”

The woman turned to Risai with imploring eyes. “They killed the old man and dragged the other girl into the tunnels. All I heard after that was her terrible screams.”

“I see—”

“I was next. I do remember they called themselves the Ukou. A name I will never forget.”

“The Ukou,” Seishi muttered to himself. “There was a company of solders in Asen’s army that went by that name.”

“The enemy. They killed everybody.”

Though she said they’d all been killed, Fukyuu Temple never recovered the other bodies, Kiitsu explained. They weren’t able to get onto the mountain to search for them.

“And it probably wouldn’t have done us any good if we had.”

By the time the woman returned to consciousness, and at last regained possession of her senses, the seasons had changed. Despite all that had happened, rushing to the scene of the crime now would accomplish nothing.

“Given her condition, there was likely no one left there alive. They saw something they were not supposed to see.”

“I agree.”

p. 137

The woman and her companions observed the soldiers making some sort of preparations at the mountain. But Asen’s army must not have known they were being observed. Subsequently, the sight of the soldiers leaving Kan’you Mountain was clearly something nobody else was supposed to have seen.

“Fukyuu Temple has sheltered her ever since. To be sure, Fukyuu Temple cannot confirm her presence there. Jokan-sama will only politely state that she went into hiding. He believes it is imperative not to give anybody in Kouki any reason to notice where she is or that she is even alive, and certainly not that Fukyuu Temple is providing her shelter.

“Makes sense,” Risai said. “No matter what, we will not disclose anything about her or make any inquiries about her. We would only hope to see her sheltered in as hospitable a manner as possible.”

Kiitsu thanked them with a bow, and Kyoshi finally concluded that the cool and reserved attitude they’d seen on display at Fukyuu Temple, and from Jokan himself, was because of this woman. He might have even thought it inhospitable considering the trust Enchou had placed in them, though now the reasons for that cool reserve became clear.

“But why all of a sudden?” Kyoshi blurted out.

A moment of awkwardness followed as Kiitsu hung his head. “I spoke out of turn before. In fact, Jokan-sama received a letter from Moku’u-sama at Sekirin Temple yesterday. In the letter, she cautioned that news of a new emperor being enthroned was in likely in error and to exercise all due caution with any similar reports.”

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“Moku’u-sama went to such lengths—”

Kiitsu nodded. “Meaning that Moku’u-sama concluded that you were deserving of her trust. On that basis, Jokan-sama also chose to entrust you with this evidence.”

“I see,” Risai said with a respectful bow of her own.

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