Note: This is posted “as is”, no editing or proof reading involved, as part of the 30 Shorts In 30 Days project. During April I will be attempting to write and post a new short story everyday.
Drops of water were falling off the icicles with a steady patter, and occasional whomps could be heard as clumps of snow fell from the pine trees. Winter was over and spring was arriving in the taiga of Siberia, and as the sun rose each morning more of winter’s harsh coldness melted away.
Vadim emerged from his wooden hut and surveyed the horizon. Soon the snow would be gone and the herd would need to move. It wasn’t a bad life, he mused. He was pretty much his own boss, and he enjoyed the solitude that his job afforded him. At the first sign of winter he moved with the herd to the lower steppes, and as winter faded he moved with them back into the upper regions. He had the company of his tribe, small in number but big in heart. Every winter when they arrived back at the lower steppes there would be an opportunity to change herders. If the life away from civilization got too lonely, you could spend a year in town with the majority of the tribe, but every adult had to spend at least one year in five away shepherding.
The shepherding itself wasn’t at all difficult. The animals were slow, yet graceful in their movements. And while the herders protected them, they didn’t farm them. They didn’t eat their meat, they didn’t tan their hides. They weren’t farmers, they were protectors. They didn’t even have to direct their charges, the herd knew where it was going, and they followed.
Occasionally a member of the herd would fall through melting ice into a frozen lake, and that rescuing them was the hardest part of the job. Vadim lost his own son to the ice four years previous. It took at least four herders with ropes and the pulling power of the rest of the herd to drag out any member that fell into the lakes. Sasha was in the lake with the beast, making sure the knots held during the pull, and lost his grip. Vadim mourned him every day, but every day he also gave thanks that the animal was saved. Their herd was the last of its kind, and he had two other sons. It was a hard and harsh view, he knew, but it was a hard and harsh land.
The fur coats of the herd members were already starting to gain their summer lichen, another couple of weeks and they’d be ready to move. The lichen grew in the matted fur over summer, the moisture it held kept the animals cool in the sun, and the colouring provided excellent camouflage for the large beasts. He’d best set the tribe to rubbing buttermilk onto the backs and flanks of the animals to encourage the growth. During the winter the snow clung to them, and during the summer lichen did the same job. The animals general moved slow enough to not disturb the lichen, but it was better to safe. Risks were not worth taking out here.
It still amazed him after his forty years as leader of the tribe that they’d managed to keep the herd a secret. For countless generations they’d remained nomadic, following the herd along its seasonal migrations, and the knowledge of how to watch and protect them had been passed down through their oral tradition. That was one of the first rules, nothing was ever written down. Leave no trace, and you’re harder to find, and that included writing anything down.
The sound of a young calf trumpeting to greet the rising sun drew him out of his reverie. Spring was coming, and the mammoths knew it.