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Imperial Era, Year 216. Counting from the day of the oath, five years had elapsed.
Chrom Jarrett had settled down in a home he built deep in the mountains where he had spent his childhood. Gathering wild vegetables in the mountains every day and hunting wild beasts for food, he was living a simple life almost no different from that of his ancestors in the ancient past. Listening to the rustling noises of the forest, feeling the palpable presences of living animals, this life involved bearing the blazing summer heat and shivering under the chilly winter cold.
To Chrom who had once lived in the imperial capital, this kind of life in the mountains not only filled him with a sense of nostalgia but also aided him in re-acquiring all kinds of instinctive senses again. More importantly, this sort of quiet environment was essential to Chrom for ruminating, contemplating and developing a holistic understanding of the various skills he had learned in the imperial capital.
Thus, after experiencing the same changes of the four seasons multiple times, he survived a long and harsh winter again this year. Fresh green shoots were also sprouting all over the mountain wilderness.
"Hey hey, Chrom."
While Chrom had his eyes partially closed, absent-mindedly enjoying the spring breeze against his face, the girl raised her little hand and tugged his sleeve gently.
"What's the matter, Ryuryu?"
The girl whom Chrom addressed as Ryuryu was looking into the distance at the vast mountain forest with her sleepy-looking eyes. Chrom followed her expressionless gaze and saw a stretch of rosy forest, filled with an air of fantasy.
(It's blooming again this year!)
Chrom thought to himself. The cherry blossoms, adding a layer of faint pink to the surface of the mountains, were astoundingly beautiful just like last year.
Chrom turned his gaze at Ryuryu who was gazing at the cherry blossom forest in a daze. At roughly thirteen years of age, Ryuryu possessed a face with vestiges of childishness. After witnessing her whimsical speech and behavior, it would not be surprising for someone to mistaken her for a sheltered daughter from a noble household. The kind of rustic airs unique to mountain dwellers could not be sensed from her at all.
Seeing her gaze fixated on that patch of forest with blooming cherry blossoms, Chrom took the initiative to ask a question.
"Ryuryu, are you hungry?"
"Yes, I am."
Seeing Ryuryu nod honestly and respond, Chrom immediately took out meat jerky from his front pocket.
"Is this jerky?"
"Yes, it's jerky indeed."
"Are you dissatisfied?"
"No, but I do wish to eat something else once in a while."
Despite saying that, Ryuryu reached out to take the jerky that Chrom handed over. Stuffing it into her mouth, she began to chew.
Just as the two of them were chatting casually, Chrom suddenly felt a presence behind him.
Having realized the identity of the visitor, Chrom turned around without hurrying. The visitor was an old man who would frequently show up quietly. Appearing before Chrom, he stroked his long beard lightly.
"Chrom, there is something that is troubling me."
Saying that, the old man gave Chrom a different vibe from before.
"Did something happen?"
"...Some lowlanders have evidently entered the mountain."
"Lowlanders? But this area is very near the volcano and compasses don't work."
"Indeed. The visitors apparently knew this and consequently brought four mountain dwellers as guides."
"Even so, it'll still be dangerous. Besides, as mountain dwellers, these people should be stopping them instead. Carelessly putting lowlanders at risk is against the rules of the mountain..."
Even when accompanied by those who were familiar with mountain geography, entering this mountain forest, akin to a sea of trees, was still quite dangerous. In particular, this land where magnetic fields were in disarray was regarded as an absolutely forbidden zone. Telling lowlanders not to enter without permission was part of a mountain dweller's duty. This was how a trusting relationship was built between settlements and the mountains.
Chrom began to contemplate about how to deal with these mountain dwellers who had clearly neglected their duties when the old man brought up something even more unbelievable.
"Hmm, it seems that they have mixed poison into the lowlanders' food with ulterior motives."
Hearing that, Chrom instantly reached out and grabbed two sets of bows and arrows that were propped up on the side.
"Please tell me the exact location."
"Are you going there?"
"Of course. If mountain dwellers are causing trouble, it's also my duty as a mountain dweller to stop them."
"I see, I see. I do not wish to see unnecessary bloodshed in the mountains either."
As soon as the old man finished, he provided Chrom with various information including the detailed location and number of people at the scene.
The place was not far away, but even at normal running speed, it would still take thirty minutes to reach, hence taking a shortcut was imperiative. There was a total of four mountain dwellers and six lowlanders at the scene. Although the lowlanders had numerical superiority, it would be a totally different situation if they were poisoned.
Chrom picked up several vials of antidote he had preserved in advance and stuffed them into his front pocket. Immediately, Ryuryu suddenly asked him with a piece of jerky in her mouth, "Are you going somewhere?"
"Yeah... Do you want to help out, Ryuryu?"
Chrom nodded at Ryuryu and handed one of his bows to her, then ran as quickly as he could. Exiting the thatched hut, he ran down the mountain in one go, jumping down a rocky slope that was almost like a cliff. The difference in elevation was over 218m, a terrifying height. Be that as it may, Chrom jumped down without hesitation, stepping on a nearby foothold of rock then following his momentum to jump to the next rock. By kicking virtually vertical rocks to slow down his rate of descent, he raced down the mountain in almost no time at all.
Meanwhile, Ryuryu followed him closely without even needing to catch her breath.
Along the way, Chrom found a tree he needed and immediately stopped, drew out his machete and stabbed the trunk. Using his machete to chop the tree hard, he also applied force to make the blade slice vertically down from the cut. As the blade slid down, following the fibers of the wood, he successfully extracted a patch of bark.
Slicing the bark vertically in equal intervals, he quickly created dozens of wooden rods. Then he shaved the front ends of the sticks into sharp pyramids. At this point, the wooden rods gradually started to resemble arrows. However, these arrows were not fitted with fletchings. It would be utterly impossible for arrows to strike targets accurately without fletchings, but Chrom did not seem to mind at all. Placing these arrows into his quiver, he began to hurry on his way again.
"Hey Chrom, even if you make wooden arrows from the bark..."
Even the normally expressionless Ryuryu was showing a troubled look.
"I know what you're trying to say, but this will suffice for my purposes."
"Oh, I see."
Ryuryu nodded and did not pursue the issue any further. While explaining to Ryuryu what needed to be done next, Chrom continued to sprint.
After running like this for a while, they finally reached the vicinity of their destination.
At this moment, a conversation could be heard from the depths of the forest.
Chrom and Ryuryu concealed their presences and hid behind trees to observe the situation.
"Hehehe, looks like the drugs are definitely taking effect."
Men clad in animal skin clothing, unique to mountain dwellers, grinned crudely. The numbers were as described as the old man, a total of four. Nearby, there were several human corpses that were dressed as soldiers.
(Am I too late...?)
Chrom secretly clicked his tongue mentally then turned his gaze back to the mountain dwellers.
The group had surrounded a young girl who seemed to be a minor.
"Hey look, this little lady seems angry."
"Too bad~~ She can't move even if she's angry."
It looked like the girl was unharmed for now.
The girl glared sharply at the mountain dwellers but was probably powerless to do anything else. She showed no signs of trying to get up and resist. It looked like she was under the effects of a paralyzing drug.
With a pained look, the girl mustered all her strength to force out a voice.
"...Why... do this?"
Hearing the hoarse and barely audible question, one of the mountain dwellers instantly spat and shouted at her.
"You're asking us why? Isn't it obvious? Of course we're under orders from the one who gave us this."
Saying that, the mountain dweller made a circular gesture reminiscent of money.
"And what a tidy sum it was."
"It's rare for us to find such lucrative hired work."
"As a reward for simply poisoning this little lass, this is quite a big fortune."
The mountain dwellers were laughing one after another. Listening to their jeering, the girl reacted with a bitter expression of chagrin.
One of the mountain dwellers suddenly grinned lewdly. Sticking his tongue out, he licked his lips.
"...By the way, as expected from a lowlander girl, what a pretty face."
"What a waste to just kill her off like that."
"Since we have to bury her anyway, let's have some fun first."
"That goes without saying. It'd be too tragic if this little lass died without experiencing the pleasures of life."
Extremely shameless laughter resounded in the deep mountain forest. One man was about to extend his dirty paws to strip the girl.
(Observing the situation longer is not an option.)
While making his decision, Chrom took out a wooden arrow from his quiver. Rather than the makeshift arrows he had created earlier, this was a sharp arrow fitted with fletchings that he normally used for hunting.
Drawing the bowstring tight, he instantly aimed for his target and released the arrow to fly with a rapid whoosh.
The arrow flew through the trees and pierced the shoulder of the mountain dweller who was trying to molest the girl.
Suddenly knocked back by the arrow piercing his shoulder, the man began to cry and wail, unable to bear the agony. The mountain dwellers looked around them uneasily with bated breaths. Seeing that, Chrom and Ryuryu instantly shot their makeshift arrows in different directions. Flying from their bows without prior aiming, the arrows would bend and bounce as soon as they struck trees, changing in trajectory, finally stabbing into the ground near the mountain dwellers who were about to make a move on the girl.
Thus Chrom and Ryuryu kept shooting arrows repeatedly, confident that the arrows, bouncing off the trees, would give their opponents the illusion that the arrows were coming from all directions in the forest.
"W-Where are they?"
As expected, the flustered mountain dwellers desperately tried to survey their surroundings. However, there was not a single soul in sight as far as they could see.
"...Let's stop for now, Ryuryu."
"Until I give the signal, stay here and be prepared to adapt to the situation."
Chrom nodded in response to Ryuryu's answer, then dashed out from the shadows among the trees.
With frightened gazes, the mountain dwellers all looked at Chrom.
Chrom put on a flawless pose and narrowed his eyes at the four mountain dwellers.
"I'm sorry for interrupting your fun, but may I ask you to show mercy and let that girl go?"
"Y-You... Who the heck are you!?"
"Am I obliged to introduce myself?"
"Say that again..."
Chrom spoke indifferently with a calm expression. The mountain dwellers surrounding the girl instantly revealed malicious looks.
"Your actions have already violated the rules of the mountain. You not only drugged the lowlanders but even intended to kill them cruelly. None of these behaviors are permitted by the rules of the mountain."
These words put awkward expressions on the mountain dweller's faces again, striking fear into their hearts. But that only happened for a brief instant. The mountain dwellers instantly fell silent, motioned to one another with their eyes and brought their hands to the hilts of their machetes. Hence, Chrom spoke in rapid fire before they could draw their blades, "Go ahead if you want to silence us, but take note that we're quite numerous. Our numbers are enough to heavily injure all of you."
The instant Chrom finished and raised his hand lightly, numerous arrows flew forth from all directions. Plunging into the ground at the scene, all of these arrows were shot by Ryuryu.
"...I'm not lying, right?"
The awkward looks on the mountain dweller's faces became even more obvious. Judging from the angles of the arrows, there ought to be an illusion that they were surrounded in a semi-circular formation.
"So what's the decision? I'm telling you now that I'll turn a blind eye if you agree to withdraw here and now. Or should I simply report to the chiefs that you were violating the rules of the mountain? The latter would be quite unwise a choice."
However, the mountain dwellers still retorted, refusing to give up.
"S-So what!? Why should the chiefs listen to some unknown guy like you...?"
"They won't believe me? Don't be ridiculous. Isn't there an eyewitness right here?"
Saying that, Chrom pointed at the girl.
"Even if the chiefs don't buy my story, they'll believe the lowlander's account at least. Because once ties are broken with the towns in the lowlands, we'll never get salt and grain again."
To the mountain dwellers, the rules were absolute. As soon as actions violating the rules of the mountain reached the chiefs, the culprits would assuredly be rejected by the community. Those who broke the rules were known as "the ostracized." The fate awaiting the ostracized was being loners for the rest of their lives, unable to receive aid from anyone even when suffering from hunger or disease in the mountains. There was probably no harsher fate when trying to survive in a treacherous natural environment.
The mountain dwellers seemed to have decided their answer.
"F-Fine... You really aren't gonna report to the chiefs, right?"
"Yeah, that's definitely my intention. As long as you guys back off right now..."
After a moment's silence, the mountain dwellers left the scene in trepidation.
After making sure they had gone far away, Chrom came to the girl and extended his palm.
"What a disaster out of nowhere, where are you..."
Where are you from? What is your name? —Before Chrom could finish, he took a clear look at her face and instantly reeled back in surprise.
"Don't tell me you're... Fifnise?"
Murmuring Chrom's name quietly, the girl breathed a long sigh of relief as though her tense nerves had snapped. Then utterly exhausted, she closed her eyes.
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