The baby Van had brought with him easily fit in with the two families. Since there hadn’t been any young children around for a long time, the women took care of her with great joy. Fortunately the baby wasn’t shy either, and before long, she started to play around on the knees of Kiya, Toma’s mother, as if she had been born here.
When Toma’s grandmother, Manya, asked Van about the child’s name, he answered with Yuna on the spur of the moment. Seeing that the child had looked on blankly instead of responding to the name, some thought that it was a sign of a problem, but nowadays the child was referring to herself as Yunacha, since she didn’t have great control over her tongue yet.
Yuna was a child he had rescued due to a strange twist of fate, but seeing this child break out into a broad smile every time she saw him, Van felt a quiet, but deep sense of gratification. Each night when Yuna sat on his knees by the fire, Van thought about how fortunate he had been to encounter this child inside the stove on that day.
He was tired but satisfied as he headed back towards their tent in the blue-grey of the dusk after a long day of hunting. Without him noticing, he had begun to consider the return to the tent, which was situated at the foot of a gently-sloping hill, as something reassuring.
Coming to a stop in front of the tent, Van unloaded all the boar meat from the sleigh, hoisted it on his shoulder, and lifted up the cloth door of the tent as he announced his return. Yuna quickly got up from where she was playing by the fireside, her face sparkling.
“Pa! Pa hus come bak!”
As she tried to run, her foot got caught in the pelt that Kiya had been tanning and, not having the chance to stretch her hands out before her, she fell over with a thump. She immediately started to cry with a heartrending voice.
“Yeah, yeah, good grief, just what should I do with you.” Kiya quickly took her into her arms, and rocked back and forth to soothe her, but Yuna continued to cry.
Van smiled wryly, and after dropping the meat in a cold area at the edge of the tent, he took Yuna off Kiya and lifted her with a “Guuun.” Each time she was lifted up and swung around with a “Guuun,” Yuna, whose eyes had widened into perfect circles out of surprise, broke out into squealing laughter.
“Girl was just in tears, and now she’s crackin’ up. Cant make her mind up at all huh?” Manya laughed as she continued her sewing at the fireside.
Even Toma, who had been making rope beside her, revealed a smile.
“Quite the big boar, musta been heavy.” Ouma, who had taken a hatchet to go process meat, returned to the fireside with two chunks of meat and sat down.
“Yes, it also had pretty big footprints, but there were very few footprints from young boars.” Van answered as he lowered Yuna.
Ouma nodded, “I got that feelin’ these days too. Bit o’ a worry.”
Toma raised his head from where he was sharpening a hunting knife.
“That’s cuz of all the black bros round here lately, yeah? Least that’s what uncle said before.”
“He’s probably got that right. Even so, why’re there so many now? Since we only got a few reindeer and puyka left, enclosure’ll fit ‘em, but once spring comes ’round and the fawns’re born, we ain’t gonna be able to even sleep at night.”
Van took the hunting knife, which Toma had sharpened for him, and heated it over the fire before cutting up the frozen meat so that it would be easier to eat.
While he was preparing the meat, he asked, “You people haven’t done the <Rite of Sending Off Siblings>?”
In response, Ouma looked surprised.
“Hoh, Toga people do it too, then?”
Wolves were different from other beasts. They were beasts destined to live and hunt together with their kin, and if you traced them back to their origins they were said to have been created by the same god that humans had been. In addition, wolves were far closer to their godly parent than humans were. They were sacred beasts that ought to be feared since they could smoothly slip into the deep darkness, weaving in and out between the boundaries of the underworld and the living world. That’s why humans had to show their respect for them. The people of these lands would never refer to them so impolitely as to call them wolves like the accursed farmers did.
In the past, beautiful wolves with glittering black fur inhabited Toga’s mountains, but so many of them had been killed for supposedly carrying terrifying diseases, you couldn’t find many of them there nowadays. Because of this, the number of wild dogs had exploded and they acted like they owned the place, despite there being gray-backed wolves in the Toga Mountainous District as well. According to the elders, the gray wolves were the reason that the numbers of the wild dogs were somewhat kept in check.
Of course, wolves attacked puyka. That was troublesome, but regardless, the people weren’t allowed to kill them like they would prey. They had to dissuade them from hunting puyka by letting their brothers know that they were troubled by their actions and persuading them with shouting or fires.
When their brothers’ numbers began to get too great and they began to disregard the needs of the people despite how respectful they had been, the humans steeled their hearts for the first time, and decided to hold a ritual. ──That was the <Rite of Sending Off Siblings>.
Ouma gently stroked his chin while gazing at the flames.
“Yer right. If our brothers’ numbers are getting like this, might be time to start thinking ’bout it. Assuming this also happ’nin’ in other places, might crop up at the next moon’s <Clan Meet>.”
With that, the topic shifted to the neighboring clans. Before long, just as conversation began to falter, an appetizing aroma drifted through the tent.
The boar meat had been chopped into small chunks and placed onto skewers that had been stabbed into the ash around the fireplace. The oil dripped down from the skewers in drops, and a savory aroma spread through the tent as it sizzled. When the oil made contact with the ash, small sparks would be sent up, causing Yuna to clap her hands and squeal with joy.
Seeing that, Kiya laughed. “Keep the God of Hearths pleased, okay? You gotta keep blowing at the fire while you do the clap clap.”
“Hier, yu shay?”
“That’s right. The God of Hearth loves boar grease, after all.”
As Kiya opened the lid of the pot simmering over the fire, a cloud of steam escaped. The gentle aroma of the boiling greens and boar meat permeated the tent.
“I think the greens are almost done as well. Let’s enjoy the food.” Kiya said as she scooped the broth into bowls.
These greens, which grew beneath the snow, were very fragrant. Kiya had often bought these greens from the farmers that lived at the riverside who planted them, but since the snow would only get deeper from now on, the farmers would likely stop coming to sell their produce soon.
In the coming days they would rely on what the trees produced, which they had gathered and stored during autumn, and root crops, which could be kept for a long time if they were buried beneath the snow. As such, they had to slowly savor the taste of these greens as they ate.
The boar meat had been cooked well. As soon as it entered Van’s mouth, it melted, its rich flavour delighting his taste buds. The boar stew Kiya had made was very delicious, but it was somewhat different to the taste of the stew Van was used to eating.
It’s probably because it doesn’t have any green mountain onion in it.
His wife had always added green mountain onions to their boar stew. While the stinging, sharp taste of the raw onion was good too, when you let it simmer in a boar stew the onions would absorb the tender grease and become sweet. That sweetness, aroma, and its faint spiciness was a nostalgic memory for him.
In addition there was fragrant, baked pau (bread) made out of wheat flour. Eating pau soaked in the remaining broth, that wonderful flavor… unfortunately, I think it’s way too cold to grow wheat around here. The women could only bake sour pau made of rye flour.
Still, Ouma and the others ate it gratefully.
“Couldn’t eat things like this, before,” Ouma explained calmly. “We were real surprised the first time Kiya made it. Ain’t never expected something this delicious to exist.”
Kiya smiled faintly as her husband praised her, but then she sighed when Ouma added, “Bein’ able to grow rye and ogi beans even in these cold lands, it’s damn amazin’. We’re real thankful to the folks from Ziol. Brought great stuff with ’em. But accordin’ to what I heard, there seem to be folks acting all high n’ mighty in the southern plains. I hear there were folks attackin’ the immigrants, blamin’ them cuz apparently they made them horses go mad.”
Van had also heard about that incident. The southern Yukata Plains originally belonged to the people raising fire horses, but after that area fell under the rule of Ziol, many sheep were unleashed onto those plains, and fields for rye and beans were created. It had happened some time ago, but because the fire horses that ate the rye died one after another, the enraged <Afuar Oma> had set the villages of the immigrants on fire, and it all developed into such a disturbance that the Ziolian army had to step in.
The Ziolian army suppressed the incident by executing the <Afuar Oma> who had participated in the fire attacks, but apparently they also took the opportunity to expel all the <Afuar Oma> from the Yukata Plains, depriving them of their homeland.
“…I really wonder if they knew about wheat, those people who kept fire horses.”
Once her husband finished talking, Kiya quietly added, “Poisonous ears tend to be found in rye, after all.”
She’s right, sometimes poisonous ears grow amongst the rye. But, Akafah’s large grasslands, where the <Afuar Oma> live, is also home to oats called Akafan wheat. That should have been a staple there. Does Akafan wheat not grow any poisonous ears?
That might be the case here. The <Afuar Oma> were hostile towards the immigrants for bringing in poison, but in this region the immigrants are being thanked for introducing delicious food. I wonder what that folks back home in Toga think about it, Van pondered as he ate the black pau.
“Well, only natural that different areas got different animals and stuff growing in it, ain’t it?” Ouma said while slurping the broth. “In fact, sounds like the Ziolian folks ain’t drinkin’ milk. Right? Ya told me all about that, didn’cha?”
Being addressed by her husband, Kiya laughed gently.
“You couldn’t believe me at first, could you dear?”
Ouma scowled at her, “I mean, s’only natural. Right? It’s really weird there’s folks who don’t drink milk, y’know? What’s the point in raisin’ horses and cows, if you ain’t drinkin’ their milk?”
Kiya smiled bitterly.
“True Ziolians are believers of the Sacred Spirit Faith, so they won’t allow corrupted food to enter their mouths. According to the Sacred Spirit Faith, people drink the milk of their mothers, so if they were to drink the milk of animals, they’d turn into those animals, it seems. The people living in the southern towns and the farmers in that area appear to believe in the Sacred Spirit Faith, too. But, even if our people are called Ziolians, we were simply included in the territory as they expanded, so we aren’t believers of the Sacred Spirit Faith. We have grown up with reindeer milk for many, many generations now. You’ll find people like us elsewhere as well, won’t you?”
Van had been watching Yuna as he listened to the two talk.
For Yuna, who came here before she could remember the taste of her mother’s cooking, Kiya’s cooking will likely become the taste of home.
Yuna was joyfully eating, her mouth smeared with most of the first serving she had received. Just a little while ago, she tried to drink the hot broth immediately and kicked up a fuss, crying, “Hoch, hoch!”. Now she spooned small mouthfuls and carefully blew on each one to cool it down.
Watching Yuna purse her small lips very deliberately and blow at the spoon with a “phew, phew” caused Van to smile involuntarily.
“Even without you blowing so much, it’s already cooled down now, right?”
Yuna shook her head in response, denying his words with, “Nay, itsh shtil hoch.”
Recently she’s talking back a lot. Looks like she’s in that kind of phase. I wonder how old this child is, Van wondered absentmindedly.
Remembering his own child, and the children of his relatives, Van tried to make an estimation based on how they behaved, but there was no way that he could find out precisely how old she was.
She’s probably around one and a half, or maybe even two years old by now.
While they were traveling, she sometimes cried while remembering her mother. Especially at night, she often cried as he tried to lull her to sleep. However, she had stopped doing such things now. At night she clung to Van as she slept in his arms.
This child probably doesn’t remember her mother’s face anymore. ──It was a disheartening thought, seeing how she had protected this child with her life after putting her into the stove.
I have to tell her once she grows up a bit and can understand more. Though there isn’t that much I can tell Yuna about her mother… Still, I can tell her just how much her mother had loved her.
That was what Van was thinking about as he watched Yuna eat the broth with great concentration.