The next morning, while Kazuya and Victorique ate their breakfast of black tea, bread, and ham cold cuts in the inn’s dining room, they heard the sound of several young men coming down the staircase.
A man of medium build, sporting a beard and tortoiseshell glasses, was chattering nonstop as he descended the stairs—he was clearly the talkative sort. Another man of similar height, wearing a superbly tailored jacket and a shiny gold watch, was smiling agreeably and making brief responses to show that he was listening. His voice was high-pitched and carried far.
A large, hunched man trailed behind them. He was the only one who noticed Kazuya and Victorique, and he greeted them in a soft, nearly inaudible voice while blushing slightly. He seemed to be a rather shy young man.
The men sat down and began to eat, pouring milk into their tea and tearing the bread into pieces with much gusto.
The talkative bearded man with the glasses introduced himself and the others to the two youngsters without missing a beat. He said that the three of them were students at a university of fine arts in Sauvure, studying painting. They liked to travel in their spare time, and had formed a party to tour the countryside, performing sketches along the way.
“All thanks to this guy and his rich family. You saw that car outside, right? Derek’s parents bought it for him.” He gave the man with the watch and the expensive jacket a slap on the shoulder, causing him to squeak shrilly in response. His name was apparently Derek. He was the same height as the bearded man, but he had a smooth, feminine-looking face. The garrulous bearded man was named Alain. The last one, the tallest of their group, answered in a sheepish whisper that his name was Raoul. He must have been easily embarrassed, for simply giving his own name caused him to once again turn a bit red in the face.
Alain began gleefully boasting about how they were going to take their state-of-the-art German automobile up to the village of the Grey Wolves, and extolling the praises of Derek’s parents for buying the car for him. It seemed that the three of them were relying on Derek’s wallet for their travel expenses, and hence puffed him up as much as possible, but Alain the chatterbox was evidently the boss of the group. Raoul smiled and kept quiet. He was so meek that he almost disappeared into the background.
At this point, the innkeeper brought another pot of tea and interjected, “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s impossible to take a car to the village of the Grey Wolves. These mountains are too steep for a car to do the job.”
“…You’re kidding!” Derek, the owner of the car, raised his high voice in protest. Alain was also taken aback, and started to argue. Raoul said nothing, but his face showed worry.
“You’ll have to hire a carriage. Horses should be able to handle those slopes.”
Derek nodded, seemingly defeated. But the bearded Alain continued to complain loudly. The reserved Raoul gazed at him with a troubled frown.
Then Mildred walked in the room with heavy footsteps, finally awake after sleeping in later than everyone else. She yawned widely, mumbling a bleary-eyed, “’Morning…”
“Whoa!” Kazuya couldn’t help exclaiming in surprise. He again smelled a strong stench of alcohol clinging to the nun. The three young men also noticed it, and they stared at Mildred as if they had never seen the likes of her before.
The innkeeper spoke unconcernedly. “These kids are going to the same place you are. So why don’t you hire a carriage together? If the five of you ride in one, it’ll be cheaper per person.”
“…Make that six.” Mildred staggered to her seat, and held up a wobbly hand. Everyone turned to her, startled. “I’m going, too.”
“…Why?” asked Kazuya.
Mildred glared at him. “Why not? I wanna go, too. Six people. Nice to meet you all.”
The three students nodded, reeling as Mildred’s stinking breath hit them in their faces.
A clap of thunder echoed from far away. It crashed dully, like a butcher knife chopping chunks of meat on a table. Several thunderclaps roared, and then the cloudy morning sky resumed its silence.
Huge drops of rain fell, staining the clothes of the people waiting in front of the inn.
“It’s this carriage right here. The coachman is top notch.”
The innkeeper pointed at a carriage that was slowly approaching them from the road. The antiquated four-wheeled carriage, drawn by two horses, had an old man as driver, his face half-hidden by a long beard. Despite his advanced age, the outline of thick and powerful arms attached to broad shoulders was clearly visible from beneath a cloak that looked as timeworn as the carriage.
Coming closer, the old man shouted at the innkeeper, “Take a car, you say? Absurd. Even with a carriage, you need experience getting there or you’re not getting there at all.”
The old man went on to say that the people from the nameless village had told him to bring any visitors who had arrived on account of the advertisement up to the village in his carriage. But the fare he quoted was much higher than market price. Kazuya started to object, saying that it was far too much, but Derek, the son of rich parents, pulled out his bulky wallet and immediately paid the full price.
The coachman did a double-take when he saw the wallet, and a look of dismay clouded his face, perhaps in regret that he hadn’t asked for an even higher price. Kazuya tried to speak, but the bearded Alain stopped him.
“Don’t worry about it. That much is nothing to Derek.”
“…But I should at least contribute a little bit, too.”
“Nah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Alain said this proudly, as if he had been the one to pay the fare. Kazuya’s eyes met Raoul’s. The quiet man shrugged, silently reiterating what Alain had said.
The six of them loaded their luggage into the carriage and climbed inside, sitting three abreast. The carriage slowly began to move.
When they at last left the cobblestone roads of the town and headed up a mountain road muddy with peat, the ride suddenly became very bumpy. They could tell that they had crossed onto a steep, slick road. The box-like carriage rocked wildly, endlessly, as if it had been seized from above by a giant and shaken from side to side.
Mildred mumbled, “I don’t feel so good….”
The three men paused their jovial chatter to exchange looks of alarm. The bearded Alain spoke for the others. “Are you hungover, sister?”
Mildred shook her head, not even able to manage a reply.
Victorique reached out to crack open the wooden window.
Ran began to fall, shimmering against the outside of the window in delicate patterns.
Thickly tangled copper-colored shrubs continued down both sides of the road, so solidly entwined that the rain did nothing to shake them. A bank covered in moss and ferns soon came into view, and below that was a cliff that towered so high that looking down would make one dizzy. If the coachman made the slightest misstep in handling the horses, they would end up falling headlong into the abyss. Further beyond that point, the summit of a hill looked down upon them, veiled in mist.
The carriage approached a narrow, dilapidated stone bridge, and crossed it with wheels and hooves clattering. Underneath the bridge was a swift, muddy stream, an icy river that flowed along the valley floor.
After crossing the river, the trees gradually began to increase in height. The plants were olive-colored, dampened and swaying in the drizzle. Dark, nearly black soil spread out below them. For how much longer would they have to climb? wondered Kazuya. As the trees grew taller, the forest became even darker. Now they were shrouded in pitch darkness even though it was morning, as if they had wandered into a nightmare and lost their way in a world not their own. Oak trees stood bent and twisted from years of exposure to wind and rain, forming silhouettes like an old woman’s bowed back, their entwined branches bleached white.
Kazuya whispered to Victorique, “I wanted to ask you something….”
“That nun stole the Dresden plate at the bazaar, but she still hasn’t been caught. And she said that she was born in Horowitz, but the innkeeper denied it. What’s going on with her…?”
“You don’t have to worry about her,” Victorique declared cryptically. And then she turned away, apparently bored by the topic of conversation. Kazuya reluctantly fell silent.
On and on the carriage went, for what felt like an eternity.
At last, it suddenly brightened outside.
They had passed through the forest and arrived at a strange alcove.
Hills surrounded it, like the rounded bottom of a shallow drinking glass. At the very bottom of the glass, tall fortified walls encircled a dense cluster of stone houses that made up a small town…
The carriage stopped.
For some reason, the two horses started to shake their heads and whinny. The coachman hit the struggling horses with his whip, goading them onward. But the horses continued to throw their heads about, stamping lightly on the ground in their distress.
The six passengers slowly climbed out of the carriage.
There was a tall precipice between a gorge and the steep road that the carriage had just climbed. The vertical cliff formed an immense wall that kept going further and further down. When Kazuya tried to peek over the edge, the gorge was so deep that his head swam. Sunlight reflected off the craggy rocks of the cliff as if they were sharp-edged knives. At the distant bottom ran a streak of white. It was rushing turbulently, burbling loudly—a muddy stream. The powerful flow of water emitted white foam as the waves slammed against the rocks, shooting cold sprays of water into the air.
Kazuya turned away from the scene below the cliff, and looked up at the village of grey stone.
At that moment, the sky cleared, and the sun shone brightly again, casting its shine upon a moss-covered stone tower and square houses.
The six of them squinted their eyes against the light.
The three young men let out raucous, almost exaggerated whoops of joy.
“Just like I imagined it!”
“This is uncharted territory. Incredible!”
The coachman heard them, and grimaced.
Kazuya looked down at Victorique’s face as she stood next to him. She was staring up at the stone-grey village, her face completely expressionless.
Beneath the cliff, they saw stone gateposts and an enormous iron door. It looked large and forbidding, existing to defend against any intrusion from the outside world. An impregnably high wall stretched around it. The sight was like a medieval walled city that had been transported to the present day.
The weathered wooden drawbridge rose up. It consisted of a crude wooden plank whose color had faded from years of use. Wide enough to admit one carriage, several thick ropes were strung along the sides to use as railing.
The ominous crest of the Grey Wolves loomed darkly on the iron gate.
“…This is where I take my leave,” the coachman said, preparing to depart quickly. “They said that the midsummer festival starts tomorrow morning and ends in the evening. I’ll come back here to pick you up when it’s time.”
The horses again whinnied hoarsely, their hooves stamping impatiently against the ground.
When Kazuya turned to look at the carriage, he heard a loud clanging from behind. He turned back just in time to see the ancient drawbridge slowly began to descend toward him.
And at the same time, the heavy iron door was also beginning to move, ever so slowly….