Even though the weather had been fine until then, by afternoon the wind picked up in strength and as soon as the sun sank below the horizon the snow began to buffet him. When he finally heaved himself over the top of the hill, he was met with a breathtaking view of the land blanketed in blue snow that stretched endlessly into the distance. Singular lights could be seen, dotted across the blue darkness like fallen stars.
Breathing out in relief, Van stopped and took the rope of the sleigh he had been pulling off his shoulder. The reindeer fur coat, which had belonged to Toma’s big brother, was a bit small for Van but kept him toasty warm nonetheless. His extremities were still dry thanks to the tight seams of the leather boots and gloves but, in weather as cold as this, just being outside was enough to chill you to the core.
As he watched the lights of the houses, Van clapped his hands together several times to encourage his blood circulation.
I hope Yuna is still in a good mood.
Because Grandma Manya had a habit of humming a song as she did her handiwork, despite being somewhat tone-deaf, the little one had been in a rather good mood recently. She had been faithfully mimicking the weird melody and as a result it had become a rather catchy tune for Van.
Once he returned to the tent, the little one immediately broke out into a broad smile, ran up to him on still-shaky legs, and leaped onto him with, “Pa!”
The baby, who he had named Yuna, was learning the language just like the sandy soil absorbed rain, but for some reason, she didn’t call Van “Papa” but “Pa.” Since this way of calling him “Pa” was funny, Van deliberately allowed her to continue.
The wild boar that he had placed on the sleigh was already frozen stiff. It was good that he had skinned it and processed its meat while the sun was still out. It had been caught in a trap that was a fair distance away, and it was already early afternoon when he had found it. He had considered taking the carcass home right after removing the intestines and washing it out, but had smelled the snow in the air and decided to dismantle it on the spot.
It caused him to get back late, but in its current state it would be possible to cut it up so long as they thawed it out on the stones of the fireplace enclosure for a short while. Tonight’s dinner would be a boar stew that would warm him up from the stomach.
Time flew and almost two months had passed since they had begun living in Oki, Toma’s homeland.
Toma, whom they had met in the forest by the salt mine, went to the Trade City Kazan to sell pelts and obtain food and other necessities at the end of autumn. Van bought a reindeer to pull the wagon with the money he stole from the salt mine, and they traveled together with Toma. They had arrived in this village around the time when snow would soon start to flutter down.
Their final destination was the basin of the Oki District, the northernmost area of Akafah, but according to Toma, this place would be their winter dwelling. During summer they would move to the mountainous district and plains that were much closer to the ocean, on the other side of the mountains.
They were in a gentle ravine along the river flowing into the basin, where it was slightly warmer than the bottom of the basin. Since the mountains blocked the snow-laden clouds, the snow cover was lighter as well. Because the reindeer would be able to find and eat their favorite food, reindeer lichen, even in the dead of winter by scraping away the snow with their hooves, they would herd their reindeer this way every year before the first snow, said Toma.
Reindeer lichen, the type of lichen preferred by reindeer, grew slowly. Once it was completely eaten, it wouldn’t grow enough to be eaten again for a good few years. Because of that, the people around here dwelt in different locations every year. He told them that they would return to this year’s dwelling in several years.
While listening to his words, Van thought, I see, that means keeping reindeer has its own distinctive hardships.
Since puyka would also decimate the plant life in an area if they stayed too long, they also needed to move to new grazing pastures every season. However, the leaf buds and grasses that the puyka preferred grew back quickly so it wasn’t necessary to find completely new grounds every year. To the people of Ziol, who only knew of the grazing requirements of horses and cows, it might seem like there was no difference between reindeer and puyka, but in reality they were completely different animals. It was impossible for a reindeer keeper to begin raising puyka at the drop of a hat. Van understood exactly what it was that had driven Toma to ask a complete stranger to help him.
However, they would have their own pride, and those who had tied themselves in marriage to Ziolians were particularly sensitive to the scrutiny of their peers. Likely worried about what his father and uncle would say if he came back with strangers of unknown origin with him, Toma repeatedly stressed on the way back home that Van’s acceptance would be entirely dependent on the will of his father. Of course, this was something that Van had resolved for himself from the very start.
‘I’ll think about what comes next if Toma’s father turns us down. Even if he doesn’t allow us to stay indefinitely, he likely won’t be so heartless as to drive away someone with a child in tow in the dead of winter so I’ll consider our next course of action over the winter.
With such thoughts, they continued to make great strides in their journey. The winter domicile they reached at long last was a very small residential area consisting of merely three tents within a stone windbreak.
Toma’s parents and grandparents, who had come out to greet him, were likely surprised by the burly visitor who had appeared all of a sudden. For a while they just stood stock still in a daze, unable to even voice words of greetings.
Just as Van had expected, Toma’s mother was a Ziolian, but perhaps because she had been married for a long time, she didn’t feel out of place amongst the northern herders at all. Ouma, Toma’s father, was quite old. Perhaps he had taken Toma’s mother as his second wife after his first wife passed away.
He had looked at Van with a stiff expression, but once his son started to explain the situation, he hung on his every word, and when his son finally finished talking, he nodded slowly and held out a hand.
He extended his thanks to Van for saving his son, and said that it would be up to the clan head whether Van would be accepted as <Migrator> (someone deemed a brethren albeit not originating from the clan), but that he was welcome to stay as long as he wanted if he were allowed to stay and work. They would be able to accommodate him with the current number of tents and food.
His way of speaking felt ruggedly honest, but the strength Van felt from his heavily wrinkled and dry hand touched his heart.
Van immediately learned why they had been welcomed without even a question towards their backgrounds, despite being complete strangers who had turned up unexpectedly ──Toma’s home was an extremely poor household consisting of two families living together with a herd of merely fifteen reindeer.
For a single family to survive the way the people around here lived, at least twenty reindeer were necessary. For two families to survive on fifteen reindeer was impossible to begin with. On top of that, the only man in his prime was Yoki, Toma’s uncle, and there were no young men besides Toma either. In the past they had more able-bodied males and small children, but on top of two families’ tents being tragically crushed by an avalanche four years ago, Yoki’s son and Toma’s elder brother passed away the year before last due to an epidemic. All of this information was given to Van by Toma’s father in a detached voice.
He said Yoki’s daughter had married and they also had a grandchild, but the family she had married into was on the other side of the forest, far in the northwest, and they couldn’t go meet her easily since they were poor.
If worse came to worst, there was always the option of joining another household by calling attention to their distress at the clan meeting. In times of hardships they would help one another, and there were households they had close ties with, so they would likely be welcomed without any hard feelings if push came to shove, but it would still be embarrassing. The women would need to attend to families unfamiliar to them, and the elderly would require care-taking. If it was even remotely possible, they wanted to live with their old family, Toma’s father explained.
He deliberately didn’t mention it, but one of the reasons why he didn’t want to rely on other households might be the fact that his wife was a Ziolian immigrant. Toma’s mother, Kiya, had, as expected, been forced to immigrate from a remote area in Ziol. She had come to this region when she was still a little girl, but her family had successively lost its members to illness and injury in this unknown land. She said that they were rescued by Ouma’s family when they were completely at a loss. Since her family belonged to an ethnic group of reindeer herders in Ziol’s north, and as fellow northerners were known for helping out each other, it naturally led to Kiya marrying Ouma.
Her family lived nearby, and they still helped each other, but she said that the other side struggled to survive as well.
In addition to barely being able to survive in this way, taxes were taken according to reindeer headcount. Those descending from immigrants were taxed more lightly, but since that exemption only applied to Toma and his mother, it wasn’t much help. That’s why Ouma made the drastic decision to sell his reindeer and buy the tax-exempted puyka. However, raising unfamiliar animals hadn’t worked out well and they were on the brink of making a painful choice.
When they saw the bags filled with beans, potatoes, dried fruits and grain, which Toma had bought with the money he got from selling the pelts, they shed large tears while gently stroking the luggage with trembling hands. ──These were truly life-saving provisions.
And, the arrival of a strong worker in the prime of his life said to be well-acquainted with puyka seemed to give them a spark of hope that they might be somehow able keep their own livelihoods in the future without having to rely on other households.
The sparkle in their eyes as they looked at me, an outsider, was truly touching.
With the feeling that he was needed, Van felt compelled to answer their expectations. Winter was right around the corner. In order to allow the elderly and children to pass the winter safely, there was no time to idle around. Given that Toma, whose leg injury hadn’t healed yet, still couldn’t work outside, Van first set out to prepare the firewood he needed to sharpen his hunting knife and build traps.
As cutting the necessary amount of firewood in the forest, piling it up and drying it was difficult work, Yoki and the others had apparently begun a good while ago, but even so, what they had gathered was far from sufficient.
Once he finished that, Van helped Ouma and Yoki fix the winter paling for the reindeer and puyka. The people around here usually didn’t bother with building enclosures for their reindeer. As long as they tied down the young animals, the parent animals wouldn’t leave. Because reindeer moved in herds, the herd wouldn’t go far even without an enclosure as long as the females didn’t leave the settlement.
However, it was different in winter. In winter, when the wolves were starving in the forests, reindeer became the ideal prey for them. A sturdy winter enclosure that would keep out the wolves was necessary, no matter what.
The hunting dogs, which had pieces of wood hanging at their necks, stared at Van and the others building the enclosure with somewhat discontent looks. With their big ears and nimble legs, they were excellent hunting companions, but because they were trained to hunt, they were liable to attack the still-young reindeer. Because of that, pieces of wood hung from their necks when they were at the settlement to make sure that they wouldn’t be able to enter the enclosure even if the gate was open, Ouma explained.
He wiped away the sweat drenching his face from the tiring effort of sharpening the logs for the enclosure.
“Hey, someone run into the forest, and put some wood pieces around the necks of our black brothers (wolves) as well.”
He said with a loud voice, but the joke had apparently long run its course as even his wife, who was helping out next to him, only revealed a bitter smile.
The winter preparations weren’t limited to building an enclosure. They also had to stock up on food to survive the winter by planting traps in the mountains, hunting boar, deer, and mountain birds, catch fish, and create sausages and smoked meat.
The people around here were excellent hunters, but Van was also a natural hunter. Van brought back a certain amount of prey everyday, even though he was hunting in forests of a region unfamiliar to him. When Ouma saw the prey Van brought back for the first time, his smile softened.
“You’re a decent hunter, aren’t you?”
The way of killing prey without making it suffer unnecessarily ─ Ouma was a man who fully comprehended Van’s skills and feelings.
The prospect of somehow getting through this winter with the food Toma had bought, and the hunted prey that Van was steadily adding to, caused everyone to visibly cheer up.
However, even if they were to pass this winter, there were more problems after that. Originally it was the reindeer that supported the livelihood of this settlement, but their numbers were far too low, and even though they barely managed to make a living, the tax collectors would come with the spring. They wouldn’t be able to receive a tax reduction if they couldn’t show the tax collectors that they had succeeded in breeding puyka.
Those worries of the future lurked in their minds. Sometimes the women sighed, but they still continued to work themselves to the bone from dawn till dusk to prepare for the winter by smoking meat and sun drying what fruits could be gathered in this season while doing the housework.
If you live and work together, you will also get to know their temper.
Anyone in the settlement could guess that Van was a man with special circumstances, but neither Ouma, Yoki nor the women asked. They might have been afraid that Van might leave them if they awkwardly tried to question him.
Either way, he was grateful that they accepted him and Yuna warmly. He couldn’t believe that the authorities would spare the effort and costs to search for a single runaway slave, but the fact that he was a runaway slave still remained. Precisely because he didn’t know when and under what circumstances he would need to leave this place, he wanted to repay their favor as much as he could while they allowed him to stay here.
The biggest help I can give them is…probably how to raise a puyka.
The moment he thought this, Van quickly became fraught with emotions, smiling reflexively. No matter the situation, when he thought about being able to interact with puyka, Van’s blood became warm. It was those times that he was fully aware that he was a puyka rider, through and through.