She could feel a comforting touch, flowing around freely.
It was a little bit cold, but its gentle brushing against Celiastina’s limp body set her mind at ease.
Celiastina slowly opened her heavy eyelids, and lifted her head slightly.
She had difficulty focusing. What she saw indistinctly before her eyes, were they blades of grass? Come to think of it, the smell of vibrant greenery was tickling her nose.
Where was she right now? What was she doing?
Her awareness returning bit by bit, Celiastina raised her body upright with sluggish movements. ——Her body was so heavy. But she managed to twist her body to look at her surroundings. Somehow, she had ended up sitting in a riverbank.
Her body was mostly submerged in water. Only her upper half was reclining on the carpet of grass along the riverside, and it seems like she lost consciousness in that position. She must have been in the water for a long time, her limbs completely chilled.
Pulling up the dress which had become heavy with the weight of water, Celiastina managed to crawl onto the grass. There was a dense forest along the side of the river. A jet black night sky peeked through intervals between tall trees. Stars twinkled here and there, as if they held back from dotting the painted black sky, the shape of the moon not at all visible.
“Where is this, I wonder?” Celiastina whispered, becoming uneasy.
She vaguely understood that this was a brook inside a forest, but how had she come to this sort of place? What was she doing here? She had not the faintest clue. Had she been out for a walk? But if she looked a little further away, a sharp slope and the naked surface of a rock face came into view. It wasn’t really an appropriate place for a walk. If a frail girl with nothing on her person came to a place like this, then maybe she had given up on the world and was committing suicide——suicide?
Celiastina looked up in surprise.
She suddenly remembered something very important.
“That’s…right. I—was dead!”
On top of that, she was supposed to be the substitute for a complete stranger who also died, and regained life for a brief period of time—no wait, wasn’t she forced into it? What had happened in that completely white world was steadily coming back.
“I’m——no longer Yuna?!” Celiastina exclaimed to herself in shock.
She held out both hands and stared fixedly. But if they were the palms of a girl her own age, there was little difference she could detect. All the more impossible in this darkness. She couldn’t even check a reflection of her face in the water’s surface on a moonless night like this.
That’s not your immediate concern, Celiastina told herself after reconsidering.
She still had her memories of getting hit by the horse-drawn carriage when she was Yuna, and she still remembered everything the angel had told her in the white world. She would need to ascertain the fact if she was already “Celiastina”. Well, she wanted to confirm with her eyes, but more important now was how she’ll return alive from this slightly desolate forest. If it was arranged through God’s will that she live as Celiastina for the time, it wasn’t like she could spit on His intentions, could she? Granted life, she would rather not try to sever it immediately again, she hadn’t been a sinner lacking faith. …Even if she couldn’t strongly agree to this.
“But, I sure am exhausted.”
It’s a good thing I don’t have to kill myself in this remote place with nothing in it, sighed Celiastina.
Since she had been someone else not so long ago, she did not notice her own eccentric behavior.
At any rate, she needed to get herself out of the woods. Why did the girl choose her last moment to be like this? Whatever she knew or did about it, if she didn’t find someone first she wouldn’t be able to talk about it. Feeling like a rocking boat, Celiastina forced her body to stand up.
“Dear Lord, where is this, a swamp or something?”
If that was the case, climbing to the top of the slope would probably reveal a way out.
Nevertheless, to have to do such heavy exercise so soon after reviving was harsh. Thoughts of the wonderful life better than some peers promised to her by the angel crossed her mind, and she deflated. But there was no point in complaining about it now. Celiastina approached the slope, and checked the firmness of the earth. The slope was gradual, the ground not at all rough nor was it loose. If she grabbed for the grass and tree trunks, it didn’t seem like she wouldn’t be able to climb.
Firing herself up, she reached out for the blades of grass that would serve as her starting point——that was when.
STOMP STOMP the sound of horse’s hooves came to her attention. Followed by the faint voice of a man. She couldn’t make out what he was saying at first, but not long after listening carefully she could tell he was calling out the name of the saint. ——There was someone looking for her!
However, the sound of the horse’s hooves and the voice repeatedly came close then moved away again, never quite approaching her location. If this went on he would fail to notice her and move on. Deducing this, Celiastina promptly raised her voice, as loud as she could. Including her time as Yuna, she had never screamed so hard before.
“I’m here!! Save me!!”
……Did she fail? Her voice must be getting absorbed by the landscape, it made no echo at all.
Urgh, no good after all.
She tried exchanging words for the loudest voice she could make. She thought her voice might be twice as loud compared to before, but was it really?
Just as her voice began to rise hysterically in despair, it seemed like she was finally noticed on the other side. The sound of a horse galloping her way was much clearer than before.
“I, I’m here! Please, find me!”
This time she could clearly make out that voice. It was low, appealing, and comforting. To Celiastina right now, even that greatly pressed voice felt to her like a blessing, full of God’s compassion.
The figure of a man on horseback suddenly popped up from atop of the slope. It was all she could do to find his silhouette in the darkness, but it seemed like she had been reliably located by the other party.
“To be in such a dangerous place… Please wait for me!” the owner of the voice told her sharply.
He climbed down from his horse and steadily descended into the swamp. She could tell his agility was not that of an ordinary man, but someone who had received serious training.
In the blink of an eye, he had made his way to her side, grabbing her shoulders strongly with both hands.
“Are you safe?!”
He stared at Celiastina with deadly serious, jet black eyes—eyes with a sharp center that could shake anyone, to the point she quailed unintentionally.
The man took a moment to scan Celiastina from head to toe, confirming she bore no external wounds. He was well-dressed and did not seem to be a commoner from the area. Above all, he carried himself with the air of a noble. He must be someone very important, she thought.
“Are you hurt anywhere?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“We should return to the royal palace as soon as possible. Please hold on to me.”
So saying, the man suddenly lifted Celiastina into his arms, climbing out of the swamp in the same easy manner he had come down. They went up so quickly, Celiastina could do no more than cling to him out of misery and desperation.
He continued to hold her as he placed her on his waiting horse, then he himself then jumped into the seat behind her. Before she could even say anything, he trotted the horse.
She noticed something from this chain of events.
It would seem he was angry.
(Th-that’s reasonable. He was searching for me because I went missing. If he worried, then it’s likely he’d be angry as well.)
“……I’d like to start with how you ventured into the forest alone, without anyone else,” he said in a voice filled with the very anger she had been expecting.
It carried a considerable edge of frost, making Celiastina’s shoulders jump with a start.
“And then your lack of return despite the passing of days. How much do you think everyone worried?”
She felt extremely small and ashamed with every word. It was criticism for things Yuna would never consider doing as her own self, but now she was Celiastina. She considered it best to resign herself to taking his censure, remaining silent as she listened.
“For the life of me, I pray that you not do things like this. From the bottom of my heart, I’m begging you.”
I’m sorry, Celiastina said in a very small voice. However, her words seemed to disappear with the sound of the wind flying past. If she couldn’t tell him this way, then—Celiastina awkwardly twisted herself around to look up at the young man handling the bridles from behind her.
“Um, thank you so much for coming this far to find me. I’m very grateful to you.”
As soon as she finished, his eyes opened wide in an expression of shock. Then he grimaced, a cynical smile settling on his lips.
“——What in the world are you feigning at? Is this a new form of mockery or something?”
This time it was Celiastina who stiffened, unable to meet the eyes of this man she apparently disdained.