As soon as he stepped foot outside the shelter, the rain, which was still making the leaves dance, soaked him to the bone. The rain was cold, but it didn’t perturb him.
Puyka were more compassionate than the youth believed. They were also creatures that became lonely easily and would become forlorn as soon as they were separated from their bonded mates. Nudging people’s backs with its nose was an act of deep affection, and frequently doing so clearly showed that Zuppy was emotionally attached to the youth.
Once a puyka was emotionally attached, it wouldn’t forget its friend.
Additionally, this wasn’t Zuppy’s natural habitat. It was a forest without other puyka. Even though Zuppy was female, it still wouldn’t be possible for her to join a flock of other puyka. If the season had been different, it would have returned to the campfire with the youth once the smell of the wild dogs disappeared, even if it were left to its own devices.
However, right now it was the season of love for the puyka.
Puyka and moose were quite closely related. A female puyka was smaller than a male moose, but females of both species were of a similar size once fully grown, so it could also conceive the child of a moose. In Van’s hometown, there were also times when they deliberately paired up puyka and moose, to produce puyka with a stronger physique.
Given how she sounded just now, Zuppy must be wandering around after becoming excited by the scent of a male moose in heat. And yet she hasn’t strayed too far. As long as I can get close enough to see her, there will be a way to bring her back.
Leaving the campfire, Van went to the tree the puyka had been tied to, crouched down, and stared at the wet, fallen leaves. As his eyes became accustomed to it, he was able to make out the tracks left by hooves on the leaves.
Even when I was standing here before, I noticed the smell of a puyka’s urine in the air. When a puyka is frightened, it will run away while leaking urine. Back home, I made dogs trace that smell.
As he thought this, Van felt a small fluttering deep in his chest.
──Even if it’s mating season, a puyka’s urine isn’t so strong-smelling that it would linger for so long. Even though it’s already been three days since she ran away, why can I still perceive it so clearly?
He even knew that it wasn’t a new smell. In fact, he could sense traces of the smell on the ground, forming an intermittent trail that seemed to glow like the marks of a snail for Van.
He felt as if there was a dam, blocking the way deep in his nose, almost between his brows. Once the dam broke, a multitude of scents would flood his senses, spilling over into his sight ── that was the feeling he got.
There’s still some kind of hesitation in my heart, and so the blockage inside my nose hasn’t been cleared completely yet. I wonder what’s going to happen if I let the dam break…
Van stood stock still in the ashen forest as the rain continued to pour, trying to calm his racing pulse.
Something is happening to me.
Subconsciously, he had known of the changes since that night, but he was terrified of thinking about what it would mean. And yet, even though he was scared, a strange feeling of pleasure pounded deep in his body. An itchy heat spread beneath his skin. As if a thin layer of skin was peeling off.
Won’t a lustrous new me appear if I let this continue, like a butterfly resolutely unfolding its wet wings after breaking free from its cocoon…?
As soon as he thought that, a sharp voice reverberated in his ears.
──…Don’t let go…of me.
Van reflexively shut his eyes, tightly grasping the leather leash in his hand.
Don’t let go of me.
Something was telling him that he mustn’t yield control to this strange sensation; that he mustn’t hand over himself.
There was another smaller voice from deep in his heart. A voice telling him that this was already a part of him as well.
With his eyes still closed Van breathed in deeply, and then slowly opened them.
The smell of the trees and soil after a rain filled his senses and what had previously been a jumble began to slowly become clear. Van sighed.
I’m going to bring back…the puyka.
I will follow the scent that I see and bring back the puyka. I will do whatever needs to be done. And even if I don’t want to, I’ll probably find out what kind of a creature I’ve become.
Probably because he had calmed down, he could see the scent more clearly than before. He began to follow it at a walking pace, and when the light of the campfire had finally vanished behind the trees, he discovered a small puddle of water glowing a slight pink.
──The remains of a male moose’s urination.
Many hoof prints from a puyka were trampled into the mud around it.
What a hopeless missy. You were attracted to this guy, eh?
There was the presence of a moose in the trees just ahead. He could hear excited breathing, and the dull thump of stamping hooves. When the scent reached his nose, it combined with the sounds he had heard and produced a vivid scene in his mind, as if it was taking place right in front of his eyes.
Closing his eyes, Van watched what the sound and the scent had revealed.
Two male moose faced each other. They were imposing males in the prime of their lives. Lowering their magnificently square horns, they snorted threats at each other. And on the other side was a somewhat slender deer. It was a female puyka, her nostrils wide as she took in the scent of the males in front of her.
Opening his eyes, Van started to approach with his footsteps silenced. Reaching his destination and slowly peeking out from the shadows of the trees, a scene almost identical to what he had imagined greeted him.
The huge frames of the moose clashed against each other. The earth trembled, and horn collided against horn with a hollow sound. The horns repeatedly struck each other as they jostled with their big bodies. As dictated by their biology – for no other reason than that – they put their lives on the line, clashing with each other with all their strength.
The horns of one buck were suddenly and forcefully pushed down, causing its entire body to twist and forcing its face to the ground. The male resisted frantically, not giving up, but the difference in strength was evident and insurmountable. As the loser limped away, the winner didn’t give chase, merely watching on as the defeated left in disgrace.
Unnoticed, the rain had stopped, and the evening light shone through the gaps in the clouds, dying the grassland a brilliant gold.
Van silently observed the ritual of love between victor and puyka that had started in the beams of golden light.
When he returned to the campfire with the puyka, the youth’s mouth dropped open, his eyes wide.
“…Zuppy! ──How did ya…?”
Van bound the puyka, which was repeatedly nuzzling its nose into his armpit, to a branch as he gently stroked it. When Van clicked his tongue, the puyka made a similar sound and shook its nose at him. Having taken care of the puyka, Van sat down at the fire.
“A puyka will come if you click your tongue at it. Did you know that?”
The youth shook his head, still looking dumbfounded, “No, the old man of the Okuba Clan, who sold this one to us, just said to call her by name, so I always did just that.”
“I see. Calling her name works as well, but it’s better if you also learned how to click your tongue.” Van smiled as he warmed his cold hands by the fire. “This Mrs. Tomboy is going to give birth to a moose next year.”
“…Eh?” The youth’s eyes widened even further in surprise. “Puyka can be paired with moose?”
“Yeah. It’s difficult to have them give birth, but if they are able to deliver it successfully, the child will be strong.”
The youth fell silent, and absentmindedly stared into the fire for a while. The baby was sleeping comfortably in his arms. Only the sounds of the fire crackling and the puyka grazing echoed through the twilight forest. Eventually, the youth looked at Van as if he had just awoken from a long dream
“Yer a person from the Toga area, aren’t ya? Ya got the accent after all.”
Van nodded, and recounted a very short version of his life he had thought up beforehand.
“I originate from the Mazo Clan. I made a living by hunting and herding puyka, but I fell in love with a woman who hailed from the south so I divorced my wife. It’s a little silly, but that’s why I’m drifting now.”
The Mazo is a tiny clan composed of several families. Moreover, since they live deep in the steep mountains, even Ziol didn’t bother dispatching soldiers to subjugate them. Even when trading pelts and meat, they would ask the neighboring clans to act as intermediaries and never descended the mountains themselves, so the odds of his lie being exposed were low.
“I never heard o’ the Mazo before. So folks like that exist as well, eh?”
“Ah, they are a small clan, so they might be less well known around here, but…if you’re curious, ask the guys from the Okuba Clan. They should know.”
The youth nodded with a cryptic expression.
“…And, this child is?”
“The child of the southern woman from her previous marriage. She was struck by disease and passed all too suddenly.”
Once Van gave his curt answer, the youth blinked and didn’t ask any further. Lowering his eyes to the fire, he seemed to be thinking again, but soon he lifted his face once more, looking directly at Van.
“It really was a big help that ya brought back Zuppy. Thanks.”
Van accepted his words with a nod.
The youth licked his lips nervously, and added, “I don’t mind introducing ya to a pelt seller, but I might be able to find ya some work if yer lookin’.”
Van lifted an eyebrow, and the youth hesitated briefly before continuing, “It kinda depends on my old man. If he says it’s no good even after I bring ya all the way there, it’ll be hopeless, but even so, for me it’ll be a big help if ya could come…” After the youth said excitedly, spraying saliva everywhere before grinning embarrassedly, “Sorry. I get rambly when I’m flustered. ──Basically, I’m saying that I’d like ya to come to our place. We’re an awfully small clan, and pretty poor, but we should be able to earn enough money to feed you and the kid.”
The youth added while scratching his flushed cheek, “Just a lil’ while ago, a really nasty illness ran through our village, an’ my older brother got done in by it. My old man’s waist ain’t much good anymore. That’s why I had to go sell the meat and pelts by myself…”
He had probably hardened his resolve as he spoke. Determination gleamed in the young man’s eyes. “We gotta increase the number of puyka at any cost ta cover food expenses on top o’ paying taxes, but for some reason they won’t have any kids. They just don’t pair up.”
The youth glanced at Zuppy, “If that one’s really pregnant, I’d definitely want her to give birth to a healthy child. ──However, it ain’t as if any of us ever assisted on a puyka’s birth, and if the dad’s a moose, it’ll be a difficult delivery, won’t it?”
Van nodded, “Well, it’s to be expected.”
“In that case, it’ll really be a huge help if ya were with us at that time.”
At some point, the youth had begun to look at Van entreatingly.
“Please, we can’ afford to lose Zuppy. ──I’ll do my best to persuade my dad and the others, so won’t ya please come with me?” Saying this, he held out his hand in a hurry. “I’m Toma. Toma Yuu Oki (Toma of the Oki Clan).”
Clasping the hand offered to him, Van told the youth his own name.
Beams of evening light poured through the leaves, shining on the forest that still glistened with the recent rain. In the dim light, Van suddenly recalled the fallen leaves that had floated on the water’s surface of the mountain stream at his home.