Hidden behind big spruce trees, there were three moss-covered rocks. In a ditch in the shade of those rocks, a single youth sat with his legs stretched out and his back against a rock. His face was pale and he looked completely exhausted, like he could collapse at any moment.
A reindeer cart like those often used by the cattle herders from the north of Akafah was off to the side, but the reindeer meant to pull the cart was nowhere to be found.
Meat on a skewer was being grilled over the fire, sizzling quietly.
With his reindeer fur clothing, he looked like the very definition of a northern cattle herder, but his face – weakly illuminated by the flames – didn’t have the characteristic features of a northerner, making it difficult to guess his origins. His eyes were narrow, and his nose low. Features that reminded one of a Ziolian.
Van stared at his face, feeling mildly astonished.
At this point, Akafah had already been under the rule of Ziol for a long time. Among the immigrants Ziol sent into Akafah in droves, there were some who built villages and towns for just immigrants, trying to protect their traditions as Ziolians even after coming to a foreign country, but there were also many who mingled and married Akafan. Particularly in the northern regions there were many such people, and a new generation descended from both nationalities was growing up. This youth might also be biracial.
When Van stepped into the ditch after passing through the grove of trees, astonishment surfaced on the pale face of the youth.
──He most definitely hadn’t expected a man with a baby on his back to show up, had he?
The youth’s eyes glazed over in fear as soon as he noticed that Van had his hands placed on his sword.
“…P-Please don’t kill me.”
He tried to draw back, his lips trembling.
A tattoo visible on his cheek marked him as having already had his coming of age ceremony. Seeing the sign of Akafah’s northern people on the flat Ziolian face was jarring, but he didn’t feel much disgust because of it, only pity.
Van carefully surveyed his surroundings and then lifted his hand from the hilt of the sword, and asked calmly, “How did you sprain your foot?”
The youth blinked, blood slowly returning to his face before long.
“…Wild dogs.” The youth muttered, wetting his lips. He started to explain the situation in broken sentences, “I was going to Kazan to sell pelts…that was already three days ago…the usual path was blocked by a fallen tree. I tried a different path, it turned into a huge detour and night fell before I knew it. I was pretty depressed but I decided to make camp here. I think it was after midnight… Suddenly that damn pack of wild dogs spilled out like accursed, black water…”
He had hurriedly climbed into his cart to hide in a panic, and the wild dogs thankfully passed him by like a black stream. Unfortunately the puyka that had been tied to a tree had gotten frightened and, when it tried to run, tangled itself up in the leather leash.
“Even though I tried to help take it off, the damn thing didn’t listen to me. When I finally untied it, it ran away and made me fall over…”
According to him, that was the moment he had badly twisted his foot, losing the ability to walk. Ever since then he had been helplessly camping outside while waiting for someone to pass by and rescue him.
“I did wonder if the folks frequenting the salt mine would even come here but no one came for three whole days. I thought that it was hopeless, and got really scared…”
A pitiful expression, so childish that you would think that he hadn’t yet had the coming of age ceremony, appeared on the youth’s face.
Van silently looked down at the youth for a short while. Then he turned on his heels, and went over to the tree where the puyka had been bound. The little girl on his back had not only stopped her loud crying, but had completely cheered up – maybe because she was bewildered by the new situation or because the diversion had completely distracted her from her boredom – and was making popping sounds with her tongue.
Brushing his fingers across the marks that had been left on the tree by the frantic tugging on the leash, Van looked back at the youth, “You said that a puyka had been tied to this tree, right? I was sure that the northern people only used reindeer, though.”
Suspicion crept into the eyes of the youth, “You don’t know?” Getting no response from Van, he sighed, “It might be different wherever you’re from, but where I live there was an imperial decree around the end of the year before last, which declared that we’ll receive a tax reduction if we raise more puyka instead of reindeer. Everyone started to get puyka from Toga in a hurry, but in the end they said that puyka were wild animals to the core, were difficult to raise, and hard to handle, and generally not worth it for a small reduction in tax. I thought that it might be obedient since it’s a deer, but see how wrong I was.”
Certainly there are some tricks to handling a puyka. But to people who only know reindeer, puyka are a bit much.
…Come to think of it.
A while ago, I did hear rumors of the folks from the Okuba Clan on the other side of the mountain rounding up puyka and moving them to Akafah.
The Okuba were puyka nomads just like Van’s clan, but they submitted to Ziol early on, and right now they were scattered in various places as serfs. When his comrades at <Lone Horn> got wind of the Ziol army ordering the members of the Okuba Clan that had remained at the base of the Toga Mountainous District as serfs to distribute puyka to Akafah, they had ridiculed them, saying, “Those cursed Ziolans have finally reached the point of trying to ride puyka themselves after being thoroughly tormented by us, eh?”
Even then, not a single one of them was worried. After all puyka were completely different from horses or reindeer. It was impossible to become a puyka rider in a year or two.
All of them thought that Ziol would probably give up fairly quickly once they hit a wall even if they tried to do it, but it looks like Ziol might be more serious than we thought about raising a puyka cavalry division.
It’s even possible that my folks have ended up helping them with this now.
Just as he thought that, the sound of the rain suddenly intensified.
“…Oh damn, now it’s turned into a downpour.” The youth muttered and crammed the brushwood beneath his cart so that it wouldn’t get wet. As he did so, he looked at Van with entreating eyes, “There’s a tarp inside the cart, but I…can’t stand up…”
Van lowered the pipsqueak from his back, and held her out to the youth, “Hold her in your arms.”
The youth hugged the baby with surprisingly familiar movements.
Van pulled a small tent plane out of the cart. Between the cart and rock, he somehow managed to erect a rain shelter big enough for all three of them to fit. Sitting down next to the youth who was still clutching the baby, Van retrieved a famu and cheese from his bags.
“Want a bite?” He asked.
The youth nodded in response, his eyes gleaming.
“Thank ya. I got some inside the hamper on my cart as well, but it got really painful yesterday, and I couldn’t get up at all anymore. I didn’t have anything to eat besides the meat that I took out beforehand. Here, have some of my meat too. The boars this year are really delicious because the kashy fruits ripened nicely.”
Van smiled, “I appreciate it deeply. …Oh, it tastes really good.”
Van cut up the famu with a small knife, and placed the cheese on top. Then he stabbed famu and cheese with a skewer and held it out over the fire. After the cheese melted, forming a sheen on top, he handed it to the youth. The young man bobbed his head in thanks and accepted it, but a small hand reached up from below, almost intercepting the famu.
“…Oh, hey, hey.”
The youth lifted the famu out of the little one’s reach while laughing.
“I will make one for you as well, so wait just a bit, okay?” Van laughed as well, letting the baby have a piece of famu that hadn’t been grilled yet for the time being.
The little girl started to chew on it enthusiastically, apparently having been hungry.
“What a lively lil’ one.” The youth lifted an eyebrow as he watched her.
“She’s got steel lungs, too.” Van smiled wryly.
The way she was screaming before, I still can’t believe that she’s a girl. It was so loud that I was trembling in my boots.
Nestled together in the heavy rain, they ate famu and cheese roasted over the fire, and sank their teeth into the soft, fragrant boar meat, salting it as they went. The cheese that Van had brought with him out of the salt mine was made from cow’s milk. It wasn’t unpleasant, but to Van it seemed to be missing something.
“…You said that puyka are hard to handle.” Van suddenly mentioned. “But, they do produce milk.”
The youth looked at Van, startled, “Ya can drink the milk of puyka?”
“Yep, you can,” Van answered as he stared into the fire. “Reindeer milk is richer and sweeter than that of a cow, but a puyka’s milk is a lot thicker. It has a full-bodied, rich flavor. Cheese made from puyka milk is truly superb.”
At that moment, from deep within the forest, a call of “Puyouuuu…” sounded, breaking the incessant pitter patter of raindrops landing on the tarp.
The youth immediately paused, gazing into the rainy forest. “What was that, just now? ──That wasn’t a deer, or even a moose, was it?”
Mooses that dwarfed humans lived in the forests of Akafah. By autumn each year, the males in the prime of their lives grew magnificent horns, and females called to the males in high tones like the sound of hunting horns.
However, just as the youth had said, the call just now hadn’t been from a moose. Van smiled without realizing it himself. ──It was a very nostalgic voice to him.
“…It’s your puyka.” Van murmured. “What did you call it?”
In the middle of reaching for a boar meat skewer, the youth stopped, and looked at Van with a puzzled expression, “Eh? Oh, it’s Tomboy. Cuz she’s got a temper on her despite being female. My old man named her like that.”
“I see,” Van replied while stroking his chin. “Did your Zuppy happen to have a habit of nudging your back with her nose?”
The youth’s bewilderment deepened visibly.
“My back? Yeah, she did sometimes. Man, it was annoying since I almost fell over every time she suddenly nudged me forward like that. Even though she hadn’t done that before we came here…the stupid thing only picked up bad habits.”
Van suddenly let out a short burst of laughter. He paused for a while afterwards, but then quietly said, “Can you introduce me to a merchant who sells pelts in Kazan if I get her back for you?”
The youth gazed at Van with a bewildered look. “To a pelt seller in Kazan? You? Are you a hunter?”
Van pointedly glanced at the bow he had stuffed under the cart to keep it dry.
“I have enough skill to live off hunting, but due to some special circumstances, I can’t return home now. I was on the way to Kazan, and was going to look for some work to make a living. A pelt seller will know about the hunting ground rights and the conventional practices around here. However, since pelt sellers are nitpicky about their turf, they won’t take me seriously if I just turn up as a complete stranger, right?”
“Well, yeah, that makes sense…”
The youth cast his eyes down as if thinking about something, averting his eyes from Van.
He probably remembered that he doesn’t know anything about the people taking shelter from the rain with him. For a reindeer nomad, pelt sellers are important business partners. There’s no doubt that he’s hesitating because introducing someone with special circumstances to his pelt seller might cause problems later down the road.
Van smiled as he watched the youth fret.
──He’s a fine young man. He’s seriously considering the future.
Finishing his skewer, Van stabbed it into the ground before standing up and brushing off his knees. And then he picked up a leather leash which had been coiled under the cart.
The youth quickly lifted his face, shooting Van a questioning look.
“Anyway, I will go look for the puyka. Can you watch the baby?”
“Eh? Sure, that’s fine, but…”
Van said with a gentle voice while audibly pulling the leash taut a few times, “Think about the matter with the pelt seller on the journey to Kazan. I intend to go to Kazan, too. With that foot, you probably won’t be able to get there by yourself, so I’ll take you to the city gate with me.”