Just as it seemed as though the long, dark winter would last forever, he suddenly realised that the color of the sunlight that illuminated his cheeks had changed – the snow storms became rarer, the snow melted, and first tough buds had begun to sprout on the glittering dew-covered branches.
Spring in the northern lands was like a child. As soon as it was woken from its long slumber it began to frolic, leaving a trail of colorful chaos in its wake. Green grasses grew in patches in the black, wet soil left behind as the snow melted, and flowers began to bloom in all kinds of colors. The trees in the forests bore new leaves all at once, delicate flowers hidden amongst the new shoots.
If spring was a child, early summer could be described as a girl on the cusp of maturity. That girl had a faint, refreshing aroma, which quickly turned into a grassy fragrance so intense it stirred your heart. And as early summer visited the lands, the various beasts of the forests began to birth and rear their children.
“…Really? You can find them?” Toma whispered.
“Yeah.” Van smiled. “They always give birth in the same kind of place.”
When spring came around, Van told Ouma and the others to release the puyka into the forest. At first they were worried that they might lose them forever if they let them run free, but Van persuaded them that setting the puyka free in the forest was an extremely important matter.
Puyka weren’t like horses and cows, which could be kept behind fences indefinitely. They were similar to reindeer in that aspect, but puyka were wilder, and detested being confined more than anything. They weren’t cattle. The trick to raising puyka lay in the deep bonds that they formed with people.
Puyka migrated through forests and mountains throughout their lives. While deer traversed surprisingly large distances even in deep snow, puyka had a more limited range – probably because they had a more diverse diet.
In the Toga Mountainous District, where Van had been born, the men of the clan would travel the forests and mountains from an early age, following their fathers and elder brothers. As they watched over their puyka herds, it would become second nature to them to know when and where to find their puyka.
Puyka that had been born and raised in the wild would never grow accustomed to humans. However, if you familiarized them with the scent of humans from birth, and strategically deepened those bonds as they matured, that connection would never vanish for as long as the puyka lived.
Unlike other deer, Puyka had two children in each litter. The fawns that were separated from their mothers so that they could be domesticated were always the bigger ones that had received the lion’s share of milk.
Even now, Van could remember the words that his father had repeated like a mantra: “…The weak fawns to the mother, the strong fawns to us,” as they had watched a young doe give birth within the overbearing smell of fresh leaves that had filled the air.
Male and female puyka could be trained for riding, but since a male would become uncontrollable during the mating period, they had to be neutered. Since the next generation would be too weak if they stole all the strong fawns, they could only determine the number of fawns to take after carefully scrutinizing the condition of the whole herd.
A male puyka, like deer, would lose its antlers at the beginning of spring, but male puyka that were neutered would retain their antlers for some reason. Their physique would subtly change as well. Their muscle strength would deteriorate to some extent, but their stamina would increase, probably because they didn’t have to expend any energy towards preparing to mate any more. Since they became more obedient, they were easier to ride.
When Van taught Ouma and the others how to breed and train puyka for riding, they were astounded and shook their heads.
“Ehhh, seems like quite the troublesome way.” Ouma said with a sigh. “Reindeer’re simpler n’ more useful, I’d say.”
Certainly, it might be as he says.
Every part of a reindeer was useful, from its milk to its pelt, meat, and bones. You could also use it as a mount when travelling, or have it pull baggage. A puyka’s milk was also delicious, and in the event that there were too many males, they were eaten as well, but for the clans in the Toga Mountainous District, puyka weren’t a source of food, but cherished friends on whom they were allowed to ride.
The Toga Mountainous District was further south than the Oki District. It had patches of fertile land, allowing wheat and potatoes to be grown in the valleys. Its forests were abundant with game for hunting, and since you could also gather lots of medicinal plants, trade between the natives and people travelling through the passes was prosperous too.
The people of the Oki District lived and died by their reindeer, whereas the people of Toga could afford to treasure their puyka. There was a distinctive difference in the standing of the deer. As they heard about and began to understand the ways of the Toga people, Ouma and the others also changed how they looked at puyka.
“So yer tellin’ me,” Ouma smiled wryly as he watched the puyka vanish into the forest, happy to have been released from the enclosure, “that that lot from Ziol don’t understand nuffin’.”
Hearing that, Van nodded while laughing.
As Ouma says, the upper ranks of Ziol are trying to breed puyka under a huge misunderstanding. I think they think that it’ll be like breeding war horses, but puyka are completely different from war horses.
Because bucks would stop listening to what humans told them once the breeding season started, you had to select bucks to be trained as mounts during their childhood, and neuter them. Raising puyka for riding while also continuing their bloodlines would take many years.
“…So it’d be totally pointless even if we’d handed over them puyka after we bred them with yer help..” Ouma’s eyes filled with anxiety as he said that.
When they realize, the Ziolians will probably stop offering to reduce taxes in exchange for breeding puyka. There’s maybe one or two years before then. …Looks like Ouma is starting to think about whether or not they should work towards buying back reindeer with the money saved through breeding puyka before the Ziolians notice that fact.
While he acknowledged this logic, Van was worried what would happen to the puyka that were deemed useless. And there was one more thing that he was secretly worried about.
──Won’t the Ziolians think of conscripting Oki’s young men as puyka riders once they realise that bonds must be built from birth? Building a defensive line in the remote regions using the locals sounds a fairly typical Ziolian tactic.
However, Van hadn’t told Ouma about this worry yet. If he had, Ouma would be troubled. He was sure to agonize over which to choose, poverty or conscription. Van didn’t want to burden Ouma with such hypotheticals when the puyka hadn’t even been bred yet.
There should be some way to make this work given the numbers of reindeer and puyka. I will take my time and carefully plan for the future. For now, I must make sure the puyka to give birth to their children without problems. I have to watch over the pregnant Zuppy so that she can safely deliver her children in this foreign forest and conceive again in the coming autumn together with the other females. Only when that succeeds, will Ouma and the others be able to realize their future plans.
However, as early summer set in, another problem of raising both reindeer and puyka together became apparent. ──The puyka were due to give birth at the same time that the reindeer needed to be moved to their summer pastures.
“Didn’t have ‘ny pregnant does last year. Though that’s prob’ly cuz we had ‘em roped up n pulled ‘em around the whole time.” Ouma said.
Doing something that was so against their very natures is likely one of the reasons why the breeding didn’t work out.
Having said that, it would be unthinkable to leave the reindeer in these empty winter pastures, especially since the horseflies and mosquitoes formed swarms in this season. As omnivores, reindeer ate mice and insects as well, but even without considering the need for food, the summer pastures had coastal winds that would blow the horseflies and mosquitoes away from the reindeer.
As a result of everyone putting their heads together and discussing it over several days, Ouma finally slapped his knees and agreed with Toma’s plan to cooperate with their neighbors. It was decided that they would put the call out to the Ziolian immigrants, such as Kiya’s relatives. Since Kiya’s family also had their fair share of trouble with breeding puyka, they had been saying for a long time now that they wanted to meet the expert in puyka breeding after hearing that he had settled in the area from Kiya.
When Kiya brought the idea up with them, not only her little brother’s household, but the folks of other clans immediately agreed. After gathering and talking it over, it was decided that three young men, Kiya’s nephews, would remain in this area with Van and Toma to learn how to raise puyka. The other people would try moving to the summer pastures with both groups of reindeer.
Kiya offering to remain behind to take care of Yuna was very welcome for Van. It was only natural, but Kiya’s nephews all looked very Ziolian. Whenever Van saw their flat, unreadable faces, he was reflexively reminded of the faces of the enemy soldiers he had faced on bloody battlefields, and couldn’t help feeling unpleasant, as if something was stabbing his chest.
The three nephews, named Mino, Chida, and Moki, also seemed to be nervous being around a man they had only just met. Even though they accompanied him every day, they remained silent when entering the forest, and never smiled either.
The one who changed their awkward relationship was Yuna.
One morning, when Van was preparing to head out together with the youths, Yuna suddenly rushed into their tent. Kiya’s nephews had looked up at her and burst into laughter.
Wondering what had happened, Van turned around and reflexively broke into a smile. He tried his best to hold back, but quickly failed and began to laugh out loud ── because Yuna was pulling a ridiculous face.
She was lugging around a huge basket that was almost half her height, filled with raspberries and glossy, red, small fruits called mocho that she had apparently picked with Kiya. That would have been fine, but she had probably been greedy and wanted to carry and eat as many of them as possible. Her cheeks were stuffed full of mocho, puffed out like a squirrel, and so full her mouth couldn’t close. Moreover, on closer inspection, a mocho was even in one of her nostrils.
Yuna’s eyes were darting about and she was whimpering like she was in pain, but Van and the young men were rolling around with laughter, and couldn’t quite rally themselves to help her. If you can’t close your mouth, you can’t chew or swallow either. Continuing to laugh breathlessly, Van grabbed Yuna’s face. Once he had managed to pry the fruits out of her mouth with his fingers, Yuna managed to breathe out deeply in relief.
At that moment, the red fruit in her nose flew out with a plop, which caused Van and the youths to throw back their heads and howl with laughter once more.
“Datsh nod funy!” Yuna had tears running down her face in anger, but they all had tears forming in their own eyes from excessive laughter.
Kiya came up behind Yuna, smiling gently at the scene before her. She lifted up Yuna in her arms, and wiped away Yuna’s tears while saying, “Now, now, no need to get angry.” However, Yuna remained furious for a while.
A little while later, Van got another surprise when Toma told him, “Mino and the others were truly shocked that you could burst out into such a loud laughter as well, Mr. Van.”
“Why would they be?”
Toma smiled bitterly, “Why, ya ask…Mr. Van, ya look mad all the time. First time I laid eyes on ya, I thought it was time to say my g’byes.”
Hearing this, Van realized for the first time, I see, Mino, Chida, and Moki have been afraid of me all this time. I guess that’s also my bad. They probably kept silent and expressionless because they wanted to play it tough even though they were frightened.
With that thought, the faces of the young warriors he had trained in the past suddenly crossed his mind. All of them remained silent and had stoic expressions on all the time, as if nothing would scare them.
He was mystified by the faces of the young men from his hometown and the faces of the Ziolian youths merging in his mind.
Time dulls all things. Even the uncomfortable feeling of walking through a foreign forest with foreign youths following me around will probably be nothing but a distant memory one day.
By the time when Zuppy’s belly had grown enough for it to be noticeable, a sign she was nearly ready to deliver her children, the nephews had become so talkative that they wouldn’t lose to Toma, throwing questions at Van with great zeal.