"What relation do you have with the witch?"
I froze for a moment, not quite understanding the question.
"I asked, what relation do you have with the witch?"
His eyes narrowed, intensifying his glare.
Witch? Does he mean Yumias? He does, doesn't he? But... What relation?
She was the one who granted my absurd wish on death's door. Albeit, she did scare me a little. Or rather, quite a bit.
Be that as it may, but did Greyward know about me? About what I am and how I came here... I couldn't just tell him about all of this, could I...
He now turned around, facing me directly. He was imposing, tall, and that just made it all the worse. Towering right in front of me... He scared me.
"I'd like an answer."
I opened my mouth and closed it again. What should I even say? And if I didn't say anything, what would he do?
His eyes narrowed even more. I knew I had to say something, but...
No, get yourself together.
I took a breath and braced myself as best as I could, clenching my fists in front of my chest. I had to say something. My relation with Yumias... For me... she was mostly just a stranger. Someone I met by chance... A scary stranger...
"There... There's no real... relation... between us..." I stammered.
His eyes widened a little, his glare slowly turning into a stare full of suspicion. Yet, the tension stayed. As if something was pressing down on me.
He continued staring at me, silently. After a long time, at least it felt like one, he turned away from me, walked a few steps before stopping once more and sighed.
All of a sudden, the oppressive atmosphere disappeared and I could feel my knees giving in. Finding myself suddenly on the ground, I tried to process what had just happened.
"I apologise, but I had to make sure."
He glanced at me and then stared at the sky.
"That thing already messed with us too many times. But, you're just a victim as well, aren't you?"
"... Vic... tim?"
It took me a little before I understand what he meant.
"I heard a little bit from Korwen about you. That thing kidnapped you, changed your body and left you all alone in an unfamiliar place, right?"
Kidnapped? You could argue that to be the case but... I would have died at the time. In a sense, she gave me a second chance...
If it wasn't for her I would be dead now...
Maybe sensing my confusion he came over to me and sat down in front of me, on the ground, then he stretched out his hand and pat my head, a weak and gentle smile on his face.
He didn't say anything, he just continued patting my head and ruffling my hair. After a minute or so, his hand left my head, leaving me slightly bewildered.
"Would you mind telling me the little that you know?" he asked after another short silence.
"... What I know?"
"About that thing, the witch."
His expression turned serious once more.
"Lily might love her as a parent... but I loathe her."
My eyes went wide at the sudden confession.
"She messed with us, played with us, made a fool of us. And not only of us, of everyone, of everything. I've seen it over the years, watched it... Sometimes she granted people's wishes. Other times she drove people into despair, even into suicide at times. All for the sake of entertainment as she claims. She doesn't even see us as people, we're just her playthings. There's no way I could ever like such an abomination that toys with people's lives."
He grabbed the pouch on his belt, rummaging through it and taking out something reminiscent of a cigar. He also pulled out a little fire stone, so he could use it to light the cigar.
"I doubt that you do, but want one too?"
I slowly shook my head. I had no recollection of ever smoking and I didn't really have the intention of trying it out. Not now, and most likely not in the future either.
He took a drag from the cigar and let out some smoke from his mouth.
"I hate that abomination. And I want to know as much as I can, to prevent even more tragedies from occurring."
He looked up once more towards the sky, silently smoking. It gave me a bit of time to sort my thoughts. Because I was a little confused. Yes, I knew she was messing around, doing unreasonable things. But... from his words, that wasn't even the beginning.
Is she really that bad? Even driving people into... suicide?
If I had to describe my impression, she felt more like...
Like a capricious child. But... She's not a child.
She wasn't. She wasn't a child, she was an adult. A rather old adult, actually.
"Miss Yumi, do you know the Witch's Tale?"
"... The Witch's Tale?"
I cocked my head at the sudden question.
"Yes. It's the legend about the Grand Witch. Or, the Miracle Witch, the Plague Witch, the Witch of Calamity, there are as many names and titles for her as there are people. Although those are the more well-known ones."
He took another drag from his cigar.
"You should ask Little Lily about it when you got some time. It's a rather long tale. It does portray quite well her nature, though."
"... So, you really believe that she is... that witch?"
I recalled Karen asking that question to Lily as well. After all, it was quite unbelievable if she really was a character from a legend.
"I do. I'd love to say that I know for sure... unfortunately there's no real evidence for it. But... the things she can do and in fact, does... they are ridiculous. She can do things that should be completely impossible according to current magic theory."
He shook his head for some reason.
"But... that's not something we can do anything about. None of us can."
His expression turned sullen. No, it was more like, despair had hit him.
"Listen well. Never, never trust her. Nothing she says is ever the full truth. She lies straight into your face, she changes facts, tells only half-truths. I don't know what she told you, but disregard it all. Everything."
He nodded in response to my question.
Everything... But... Wouldn't that mean I should disregard... what she told me... But... She even showed them to me.
But, how did she even do that? Once I thought about it, how did she even show them to me?
I quickly shook my head. I... didn't want to doubt her. Because... It was about my old family. I truly hoped they had recovered and were living a good life. Even if she was using it to deceive me, I really hoped that part was true.
He's... not wrong. I don't know whether she told us the truth or tried to deceive us. But... somewhere...
'Naive.' That was how Korwen described me early on. Maybe I really was naive. The past days... I got used to it. So quickly. Without even realising. I had to reflect on that. On a lot of things.
When I first met Yumias, I was scared, worried. She was a monster. But somewhere, slowly, she changed from monster to plain Yumias for me. I hadn't even noticed.
Still, even so...
Being suspicious of her was one thing I could agree on. But, honestly, I didn't want to doubt every word she said. She was the one who, in a way, saved me and granted me a second chance. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't even be here. In spite of her... questionable methods.
I face Greyward again. He had already finished smoking his cigar and was rubbing the short stump onto the ground to extinguish it.
"I... I want to find it out myself first."
"Find it out?"
"Nn. Even if you tell me those things... She saved me. I owe her. I do think she is suspicious, scary, and I probably shouldn't believe everything she says. But... I want to see it for myself first."
Did she just save me out of a whim? Did she just pick up Lily because she thought it was fun? Was that really the case? Or... did she have another reason, that we don't know? I... I would like to know first.
Whether she was someone I had to be wary about or not. There were too many things I didn't know about her.
I just couldn't agree yet. I only met her twice... I was sure she hid things from me, from us, but...
Speaking of which... I... never asked her about that. That one scene I saw, in that cursed dream. Right at the end. The clearing, that... egg... and me.
"I see. I hope you won't regret it. Regardless, be careful. If not for yourself, then for Lily."
"... I'll try."
"Try, huh. Well, It's better than nothing."
He stood up and patted away the dirt from his pants.
"We already wasted quite a bit of time. Come, we still got other things to do."
I cautiously stood up, making sure I wouldn't fall to the ground immediately once more. Thankfully, I didn't. My knees still felt a little weak, though.
Greyward was already moving on so I hurried after him.
"Mh, I think it was here..."
Greyward rummaged in a crate in his personal wagon. Apparently, the captains and the officers all had their own respective wagons. Thanks to that, they gave more the impression of someone's room. A desk, shelves, various weapons hanging on the walls. A lot of weapons hanging on the walls. Axes, hammers, spears, a very ornate lance, even bows and crossbows, a pistol and something reminiscent of a musket.
"Nn, no swords?"
"Ah, I just wondered why there are no swords among those weapons."
"Ahh, that. The only good swords we have are Lily's. She's the only one even bothering with them."
"Nn? Why only Lily?"
Greyward lifted his head out from the crate and looked over some of the weapons.
"Because there aren't many opportunities to use swords in our line of work. I heard Korwen recommended you to learn about bodyguard work, so you might actually get to use them a little more often than us."
"Uh, I'm not quite sure I understand?"
"Mh? Ah, you don't know about when to use which weapons? Well, let's see. What do you think is the advantage of a one-handed sword over that axe."
I looked over to the large axe he was pointing at.
"Uh... It's lighter?"
"That's correct. Anything else?"
"... No, nothing comes to mind."
"There are a few more reasons but one of the more important ones is, that they are handy. They aren't in the way and you can comfortably carry them with you. The axe is in the way and clunky, not to mention it's a lot heavier than a sword."
Certainly, a sword would be a lot easier to carry around. But I had never even really thought about such a thing.
"Now, an axe is actually a pretty bad example. But you get the gist of it, right? Now, what do you think is the difference between a sword compared to that one?"
He pointed at the spear.
Even I could immediately guess this one.
"Exactly. Before you even get in range with the sword, the spear will have you impaled three times over."
He returned to the crate and continued looking through it.
"A sword is handy, it's comparatively small and very lightweight. You can carry it and bring it just about everywhere. That makes it attractive for guards, patrols and just about everyone who needs to react quickly. But mercenaries rarely have these situations. Most of our work is monster subjugation or participating in wars. It's group combat. Spears, lances, halberds, those are the weapons we mainly work with for melee combat. Even an axe works better most of the time."
He pulled something large out from the crate and put it aside. Old parts of a plate armour...
"In a way, using swords is Lily's declaration that she dislikes that kind of combat. I mean, combat in wars. She prefers a fight between two equal parties. In a sense, she's more of a martial artist than a mercenary. Although I am half certain that she just got a thing for swords... Her collection is taking way too much space..."
"She's collecting swords. You didn't know? Her only actual weapon is the Zweihänder, all other swords are just part of her collection. She likes to carry them around, thinking she looks imposing though. It makes my head ache. Who would even fall for that..."
Maybe I shouldn't comment on that. After all, it did look imposing for me, on our first meeting.
"But... I am also grateful, to you all."
"We travelled a lot, but... many countries don't have a great view of beastkins. At some point, she just disguised herself with that pendant all the time. But... since she met you all, she hasn't been using it anymore."
Rather than she hadn't... Didn't Karen confiscate that pendant?
Well, Lily was a lot cuter like this anyway, so if someone asked me, that was fine.
"Ah, here it is."
Greyward pulled a black something out of the crate.
"I knew it was still there. Mh, but it's a little old... I hope he can still fix this..."
He dusted it off. It was a black leather armour. Is what I would like to say. But no matter how I looked at it, that wasn't just 'armour'.
Rather, it was a long, black dress with long sleeves. A large leather plate dyed in black covered the chest. There also seemed to be some more leather plates beneath the cloth, but they weren't visible from the outside.
"... That's not the armour we were looking for, is it?"
"What are you talking about, it clearly is."
Greyward looked at me confused. He didn't seem to understand my slight apprehension at seeing this.
That wasn't armour. It was a cute dress which coincidentally had a leather plate sewed on it. You couldn't tell me that was armour.
Greyward furrowed his brows, looking a little annoyed. He might have guessed my thoughts.
"Lily really used to like this one, you know. It was such a shame that she grew out of it."
"I wish she would wear the new one at least."
There was a large version of this? Really? I somehow could understand that Lily didn't want to wear this. Actually, it wouldn't really fit the disguised Lily but... It might actually look cute on her now. Now I wanted to see that.
"Now then, I'll leave you alone for a bit, so try it on."
Greyward handed me the dress and left the wagon.
Now I was left alone with this dress. I stared at it, then held it up, spread out in front of me. It was actually quite heavy. Like, really heavy. Signs of use and age could be found all over it. Scratches, fixed tears, etc. But despite that, you could clearly see that this wasn't a cheap dress. It was even embroidered with the emblem of the Black Guards. It was arguably hard to see, though, since it was all black... Why was everything black? Okay, they were named Black Guards, but they could at least use a few different colours, couldn't they?
Ah, whatever... I guess I can't avoid this, can I...
It wasn't like I was completely against it anyway. It was a little cute, after all. More so than these clothes I was currently wearing at least, which were mostly practical. Although, the clothes I got from Wanda were more on the cute side too.
I sighed. There wasn't any way to avoid it anyway.
Here goes nothing.
"Nn, it's a little tight."
I had successfully squeezed myself into the dress. Squeezing, was the correct choice of words, because it was actually still a little too small. For the most part, it wasn't that bad, but the breastplate felt a little uncomfortable. It pressed into my ribcage...
Still, a mirror would have been nice... There wasn't one here, though.
Still, it's really quite heavy.
Just as I had expected, there were leather plates below the cloth as well. Or rather, inside. And quite a lot in fact. Most of the upper body and the arms were protected. Regardless, actually wearing it, made me realise it once more. This wasn't armour. It was a dress with some leather plates. Even I knew that this wasn't the most practical...
Whatever, it's still better than nothing. But I'm a little curious. Mr Greyward is quite protective when it comes to Lily, so... Nn, let's ask him later.
I nodded to myself and opened the door of the wagon, where Greyward was waiting.
"Mh? Oh, never would have thought I'd see that dress being worn ever again. It looks good on you."
"Ah... Nn, thank you..."
The praise was a little embarrassing, but it sure felt nice.
"So, how is it? Does it fit?"
"Nn, it's a little tight and small."
"Mh, where exactly?"
"Mostly the breastplate and the shoulders."
"As expected, huh."
He walked to my side and inspected the plate from close up. He tried moving it a little, which was quite a little unpleasant. It didn't really hurt, but...
"We'll have to fix that, I guess. At least readjusting the plate. Like that it'll only hinder your movement. The cloth will probably stay a little tight for now, but there's no time to fix that. Well, I'll ask nonetheless if we can fix that. Anything else?"
"Nn, no. That's it."
He nodded, looking over at me from various angles to check if everything was in order. It was a bit embarrassing.
"Then, let's go."
"To the one who can adjust this."
He turned around and motioned me to follow him. I quickly grabbed my old clothes that I left in the wagon and ran after him.
"Nn, Mr Greyward, I have a question."
"This dress, why... why a dress? This isn't really the most practical, is it?"
"Oh? You noticed."
He grinned at me.
"You're right. It's not the most practical."
Surely not to just look good on Lily. At least I hoped so.
"Just like I told you about weapons earlier, armour also has different uses."
"You met my men back in that hideout, right? What did you think?"
"What I thought? That they were impressive."
Those men holding halberds and crossbows in heavy, black armour. They were imposing. Truly imposing.
"And there you already got your answer."
"There exists armour to be as practical as possible. And then there's armour like this, with the purpose of being imposing. Unfortunately, you can't always have both of those, so you have to forsake some of the more practical parts."
"Haa... But... If I may say so, but this... isn't really imposing."
It was cute. But not imposing. In the first place, it was probably very hard for a young girl to look imposing...
"Well, maybe imposing isn't the right word. It has to make an impression. Young girls like you or Lily, you won't look imposing or scary. But you can draw attention. If you look cute or beautiful, people's gazes will naturally land on you. Look."
He pointed to the side. Taking a glance there, I saw a few mercenaries from the Black Guards quickly averting their gazes.
"Just like those idiots did, people will naturally take a look. But on the battlefield..."
"On the battlefield, that short lapse of attention can very well spell your doom."
"Well, it is also dangerous, though. When all the attention is drawn to you, it becomes just all the more dangerous. You become a figure of import. A target."
A target. That... That sounded scary. But...
I see... This is something even I can do.
I was no good at fighting. And there was no way I would be able to learn it in such a short time. I could probably practise some more with the crossbow, but if I would be able to hit anything was questionable at best.
But if it was about being a figurehead, a target... Then even I could do that.
"Scared?" asks Greyward.
"... A little."
"That's natural. Don't worry, we'll protect you."
He laughed heartily.
"Well, it'd be great if you can help out a little, though. I've been wondering, but... You can use magic, right?"
"... Nn. A little, at least."
"A little? Mh, but if you can already use some, it shouldn't be too hard. I guess I'll ask Wendl later."
I tilted my head in curiosity.
"Wendl can surely teach you a little magic that could be useful in the field."
"What, you don't want to?"
"... No, not at all."
In fact, I welcomed it. The only ones who could teach me were Ria and Lily. But Lily had told me that her magic wasn't really good neither for referencing nor for teaching. In fact, I still hadn't seen her using magic even once... And in regards to Ria... It was hard to follow her explanations for longer than two minutes.
That was why I was actually feeling a little excited. Assuming this guy wasn't as eccentric...
"Well, let's leave that for later. For now..."
Greyward stopped at a wagon and knocked on the door. A few seconds later it opened and a young man peeked out.
"Mh? Captain? How can I help you? Maintenance again?"
"Kind of. You need to adjust something."
Greyward motioned with his chin in my direction. The young man looked over and his eyes widened.
"That... Never would have thought to see that dress again."
"It's too small for her, though. So adjust it for her."
The man stroked his chin, not saying anything for a few seconds before turning to Greyward again.
"Are you sure, Captain? I'm fairly certain I'd have to take it apart completely for that..."
"It's fine. It's better it gets some use. It only collects dust in a crate otherwise. Do what you have to."
"... Understood, Captain."
The man nodded in acknowledgement.
"How much can you get done before we leave again?"
"Mh, I don't have much work yet so I might actually be able to completely finish it up before more people come to me asking me to fix up their inner armour for the umpteenth time. Ah, but I might have to replace some of the metal parts, so that depends on Wormaz. Best case I'll be done tomorrow morning, though."
"Good. Then get to it. I'll leave her in your care for now."
"Understood. Ah, Captain."
The man called out once more to Greyward who I was intending to leave.
"The embroidery, I can cut that part out for you."
"... No, it's fine. Leave it."
Not saying another word he left me alone with that man.
"Mh, well, if he's sure about it."
He scratched the back of his head and watched Greyward's back disappearing between the wagons.
"Now then. Ah, right, I didn't even introduce myself yet, did I? I'm Kohno. Responsible for all matters of sewing, weaving, tanning and so on."
"Ah, I'm Yumi."
"Yumi? Oh, you're that little friend of Lily's. I see. Now, come in, let's not stand here outside."
He welcomed me into the wagon. Upon entering I was left quite surprised. Similar to how Greyward's felt like a personal room, this completely felt like a workshop. A mobile workshop.
"There's not much space, sorry about that. Ah, there's a chair, feel free to sit down."
I walked over to the half-buried chair he pointed at. There were all manners of cloth and leather piled up on it which I had to place elsewhere first...
"Now, first. Captain said it's too small, but could you tell me exactly which parts are?"
"Nn. The breastplate is... quite uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable? Digging in?"
"I see. Could you raise your arms so I can take a look?"
I nodded and raised my arms. Just like Greyward earlier, he tugged at it a little.
"Mh, that's quick to fix. Should only take me a few minutes. Could you take it off?"
Take it off? Did he just ask me to get naked here? He was staring at me, completely oblivious.
"Uhm... Is there somewhere here where I can change my clothes?"
I tried asking, an attempt at giving him a little hint. Before my change I probably wouldn't have minded something like this but... It was a little different now. Not to mention that it was a bit embarrassing, regardless if you were male or female, the thought also made me feel a little uncomfortable.
"Place to... Oh. Oh, sorry about that. I'll leave you alone, call me when you changed!"
He literally stormed out of the wagon, bright red. He probably finally realised what he had asked. With a sigh, I quickly changed into my other clothes that I had brought along. After making sure that I was properly clothed again I called him in again.
"Ahaha, sorry about that. Really. It's usually always old men so, out of habit. Sorry. Really!"
"Nn, it's fine."
I smiled wryly at his apology.
He took the dress from me and put it down at his workbench. He didn't sit down though, instead, fiddling with the dress in some incomprehensible manner.
He cautiously glanced over to me.
"I... Uhm... I need to take measurements..."
"Ahh, over the clothes is fine! Really!"
He was completely in panic mode. It was a little amusing to watch, but also irritating.
I stood up and walked over to him. He stared a little bewildered at me.
"Are you going to measure me or not?"
"... Yes, I, I'll measure!"
He quickly took the measurement tape and cautiously approached me.
This might take a while...
Around half an earth hour later he had finally finished taking all measurements and asked me whatever else he needed to know. Now he sat on his workbench and adjusted the dress while I watched him. I didn't really understand in the least what he was even doing, but it was nonetheless interesting to watch.
He had completely opened the seams of the dress and taken out the breastplate and all other leather plates. He pried open a few of those plates even, revealing metal stripes inside. That explained why the whole thing was so heavy... Not only was it stuffed full of leather but there was also metal inside.
Still, why is he sorting the plates onto two piles?
After prying them open, he put the plate on one of two piles. I wanted to ask but I was a little scared of disturbing him. A chance revealed itself after a while though, when he had presumably taken out all plates and sorted them.
He shook his head and sighed.
"Is something the matter?"
"Mh? Oh. Well, yes."
He turned to me and then pointed at the two piles.
"I kind of expected it, but... I'll have to replace all of those leather plates."
"All. Even the breastplate."
If he had to replace that all... What was even the point of all this?
He smiled wryly.
"The metal stripes are partly rusted and some of the plates are falling apart. You want this to protect you, right? But I wouldn't trust armour that's on the verge of falling apart."
So, in the end, the whole search for useable armour had been useless...
"This leather was made with old techniques anyway, so it's not bad to replace it. With the time and the materials I have, I can only make one from cheap leather, though. Sorry about that.
"Ah, no. No need to apologise."
"Ahaha, well. After this whole thing ended I can make one from better leather. I also heard from the captain that we might be able to use some really nice monster materials in the future. I'm looking forward to working with those."
Monster materials? He couldn't mean... He probably did...
I wondered what he would say if he knew that the source for those was sitting right in front of him...
"But... After this, shouldn't I return this to Mr Greyward?"
"Why would you? He already gave it to you. So, you should just use it. And it looks good anyway, right?"
"Isn't this important to him, though?"
"And isn't that exactly why you should use it?"
It was the reason why I should use it? What did he even mean with that?
"Honour this gift and use it well. I think that's the best way to show your appreciation. In any case, I agree that we shouldn't let useable armour lie around."
"... Except this wasn't really useable, was it?"
"Well, I can salvage some stuff from those, so it's not all bad, you know."
He smiled wryly, lifting up one of the plates.
"There are many things you can still do with these. Like making them into small bags. Nothing gets wasted here, unless it's completely useless, like the rusted metal parts. Albeit, I'm no smith, Wormaz still might find a use for those."
"Nothing gets wasted..."
"That's how it is. We got to make the most out of everything we have, right?"
Making the most out of the things we had...
I glanced at the dress on the workbench. It didn't really look much like a dress anymore, right now. But we were going to make use of this. I did feel a little bad about it, though. It was clear that this was an important memory to Greyward, yet he saw fit with giving it to me.
I looked over the cloth and spotted the embroidery and one side.
"Nn, why did you ask Mr Greyward about the embroidery?"
"The embroidery? Ah, if I should cut that out for him? Well..."
Kohno grinned mischievously.
"You see, the embroidery was done by the captain himself."
"... By himself?"
"Yeah. It took him apparently nearly a whole month, according to my old man, but sure enough, he did it himself. And it's pretty good too.
That... was a surprise.
"He... really loves Lily, doesn't he?"
"He does. We all do. She's the captain's precious daughter. It's a little sad seeing her growing up and slowly distancing herself but... That doesn't change how important she is. It wouldn't be an understatement that she's the most important person for the captain. For many of us."
The most important person... And yet, here we were, bringing Lily into our own little family. It... made me feel quite bad about it.
But Lily loves this family of hers too. That much I already know.
It would be nice, it would be nice if she never had to decide between either side. That we could all continue like this.
I think it was a good decision. It was a good decision to stay with the mercenaries. Not just for the three little ones, but also for Lily.
In the end, the only ones who were out of place here were Karen, Rina and me. We had no prior relations with the mercenaries, we had no strong attachment. But these girls all did. And we shouldn't try to rip them apart from these relationships. We shouldn't.
And that's exactly why... Why we have to make sure that it stays like this.