I licked my chapped lips. They tasted like dry blood, my lips that is.
You see, each time a hunting party leaves our hamlet by the bay, all the young men line up in this longhouse where the Council of Elders meets. All the elders take turns standing in the front and saying important things to show they’re important people because they get to speak at this important ritual and all. It’s really a big to-do. Then one of the elders walks down the line with a bucket of this concoction called sponami. It’s a thick, purple, syrupy drink, just like the purple syrupy norwulf blood that it’s made from. When the elder gets to you, you scoop up a ladle full of sponami and bring it to your lips and throw your head back and the elder puts his hands on your shoulder and says some more important things.
They say it’s supposed to strengthen your soul for the hunt or something, but I hate it, sponami that is. It tastes so bitter that it makes me want to puke. And that bitter, bitter taste lingers in your mouth all day and the dried sponami sticks to your lips and you have to retaste it each time your tongue touches your lips.
But that’s what hunters do. They drink sponami right before they hunt. So that’s what I do because I’m a hunter.
Other hunters say they like it, the sponami that is, but I think they just want to look brave and vigorous in front of the Council of Elders. You know, being able to drink their sponami and not puking and all. Sheesh! Like going on a hunt for norwulves is not brave enough, they have to pretend to like sponami too. I mean, I don’t go around telling people that I dislike sponami or anything because it’s a tradition and all, and I actually like traditions, but I don’t go around telling people I like it because that seems dishonest. I mean, I may not like sponami, but at least I’m honest.
Sometimes I think the whole point of drinking sponami is that it tastes so bad. You see, there are so many young boys who want to become hunters. It’s what all the little boys dream about doing when they become men, becoming hunters that is. You know, all the little boys of the kingdom grow up listening to the old men tell tales of great hunters and they run around in the woods pretending to be hunters when they play with their friends and stuff like that. Some of those boys actually get an apprenticeship to learn how to hunt, like me, and then only some of those apprentices will actually become hunters. So there has to be a way to decide which boys become apprentices and which apprentices become hunters. Perhaps finding those who spit out the sponami is an easy way to find those who aren’t totally dedicated to hunting. You know, if you’re not even willing to drink the sponami and not make a big deal over how bad it tastes, then you’d never handle the actual dangers of actual hunting.
Anyways, I licked my blood-flavored lips and was thinking about how bitter they taste.
I found this nice perch on the south face of the mountain just big enough for me to crouch on. Well, big enough for me and my gear like my bow and arrows, skis, and a bag filled with some rope and dry rations and stuff. It was really just a piece of flat rock sticking out from the mountainside, this perch that is, but it was nice. Sturdy too. I say this perch was nice because it protected me from the howling wintry wind. When I say howling, I don’t mean it was just blowing strong, I mean the wind actually made these ghostly howling sounds as it whipped through the steep and narrow passages of these mountains.
So I crouched deeply to hide from the howling wind and used my bow for balance. My legs were tired from walking all day. I left my hunting party this morning and walked all day deeper and deeper into the mountains, pushing myself to go farther and farther north, until I found this perch. It’s a real slog, you know, walking all day through these mountains and the cold and all. My gear gets heavy and my ramskin boots are warm, but awfully uncomfortable. So it felt restful just to take the weight of my bag off my back for a while and be still and wait.
The air is dangerously cold this deep into the mountains too. And today, well today was especially cold. It’s one of those days where the cold air whips through the mountain passages and bites your exposed skin, which, ironically, feels like a burning sensation, you know, like it does when your skin touches a hot iron. And up here, where there are few trees to act as a windbreak, the air swirls and twirls and there are few places to hide. No matter how good you bundle yourself, the cold air ceaselessly finds any bare skin or gaps in your clothing, no matter how slight, and then nips it. Your face and your fingers and your toes just feel like they’re getting bit all the time by the frigid air. Nip, nip, nip. That little gap where your parka sleeve meets your mittens. Nip, nip, nip. Even your eyeballs get nipped when it gets this cold. Your eyeballs! But this perch was nice. It mostly blocked the wind so I wasn’t getting nipped too bad.
My mind really gets racing sometimes. I just kept thinking about how I hate sponami and I hate the cold and that leads me to thinking that maybe I don’t really want to be a hunter. I mean, I really like the idea of being a hunter, just like I did when I was a boy, but I don’t like to do a lot of the things that hunters must do. You know, I just keep thinking “what kind of hunter doesn’t like sponami and doesn’t like the cold?” and stuff like that. So I try not to think about those things because it would be real sad if I was sitting on this perch deep in the mountains and I realized I didn’t want to be a hunter.
My mitten-covered hands tugged the wool lining of my hood to cover a bit of my exposed cheek. I wiggled my toes inside of my ramskin boots to keep the blood flowing. God, the air was cold today. Each exhale hung in the air like a puff of smoke for a moment, which gave me something to look at while I waited for the norwulves to come.
“Focus, Xander. For Chrissakes, focus.”
That’s my name, Xander. Xander Rowe actually. My mind wanders sometimes when I am on a norwulf hunt, especially when I am hunting alone and there is nothing else to do but wait and watch and stay warm like I was right now, so I have to keep snapping it back into place, my mind that is. I usually yell at myself to focus just like my mentor, Thoren, yells at me when he sees my mind wander. I even use my own name when I yell at myself just like Thoren does. You know, I yell “Focus, Xander” and stuff like that. It’s kinda funny, my yelling at myself and all, but it works and I guess that’s all that matters.
The real reason I chose this perch to sit on is because of the view though. Not because it was scenic or anything, although it was, and not because it was a shelter from the howling wind, although it was, but because it was strategic. That’s a word hunters use to describe things that are helpful to having a successful hunt like a good view, strategic that is. So I left my hunting party this morning and headed north all alone when I came upon this field of bluegrass. This field was the perfect hunting spot, you know, exactly what I was looking for. So I looked around the walls of the mountains that surrounded the field for a strategic view. That’s when I found this perch. From here I could look down on the lush valley below. The mountain descended quickly below my feet. I inched my feet all the way to the edge of my little perch so I could see everything. Well, almost to the edge. I always stay back a little bit when I am high up because I’m afraid of heights too.
Man, what a pathetic hunter I am. I hate sponami, cold air, and heights.
The rocks and boulders that covered the mountainside created this jagged slope like the edge of a serrated blade all the way down. I hated that metaphor, the mountainside looks like the edge of a serrated blade that is. I’d heard a master hunter say it once. I remember it well. He had these gnarly and scarred hands and a face tattoo. A real rough looking guy, which I guess bothered him, you know, that he looked so rough. So when he said that metaphor I thought it sounded like he was trying too much to sound both masculine and insightful, like he was so worried about his reputation and all. And now I hated myself for using the metaphor too. Not that I don’t worry about my reputation, I do, worry about my reputation that is, but I hate that I’m the type of man who worries about his reputation. But sitting here on my perch and looking down the mountainside, the edge did actually look a bit like a knife’s edge.
So the serrated knife’s edge of the mountainside descended steeply below my feet, and then, at the base, the rocky mountain turned to soil and met a small field of bluegrass. The waving blades of grass actually looked like the blue sea when the wind blew. You know, the waves would actually move across the field from one end to the other. It was shiny and pretty. And on the edges of the far end of that field was a big patch of thatchleberry bushes. You know, green bushes with thorn-covered branches and berries that stayed bright orange all winter long.
This field of bluegrass with thatchleberry bushes deep in the mountains was right on the norwulves’ migration path. And I could see the whole field from my perch. But it was much farther north than our typical hunting area, this field of bluegrass that is. It was deeper in the mountains and more dangerous to reach, especially during the frigid winter hunting season. But that’s exactly why I chose this place, you know, because it’s deeper in the mountains and more dangerous.
“God, they must be close?” I wasn’t sure if I thought that or said that aloud. Sometimes when I am alone I talk to myself just to break the silence of nature. I like being alone and having time to think, but I don’t like the silence if that makes any sense.
I looked to the west. The red sun was just above the highest peak. It would be dark soon.
God it was cold. I kept wiggling my fingers in my mittens and my toes in my boots, you know, to try and keep my blood flowing. And I kept watching each exhale hang in the air for a moment before it faded into the coldness.
My thoughts were broken by the unmistakable sound of the norwulf cackle bouncing through the rocky valleys of the mountains. It was a grating sound that reminded me of the sound a child makes when they are awoken in the middle of the night and cry for their mother. Some of the other hunters say they like the sound, but I don’t. It’s kinda scary, the norwulf cackle that is.
Usually I would berate myself for being afraid of the norwulf cackle too, you know, just another reason why I’m not a good hunter and all, but there was no time for that now. Maybe later, when I am watching the stars and trying to sleep I would berate myself real good for all the reasons I wasn’t a good hunter.
“Focus, Xander. Focus!”
The cackles got closer and louder. The norwulves would be here any time now. The anticipation warmed my fingers and toes.
I kept track of how long it was from the time I heard the norwulve’s cackle and when they came. Sound bounces around the mountains and has a way of playing tricks on your mind. Especially in the winter, you know, because sound travels so quickly through the frigid air and you’re always wearing a hood that covers your ears and all. So, it’s hard for an untrained ear to judge direction and distance out here in the cold mountains. But me, being an apprentice hunter, needed to hone my skills so someday I can teach these tricks to others when I become a master hunter. You know, when I was a master hunter I could teach my apprentices how to judge the direction and distance of norwulves just from the sound of their cackles. Well, at least I hoped that I would become a master hunter someday. But more about that later. I have to focus now.
Finally, a shadow smoothly drifted over me and quickly darted down the mountainside. Then another shadow. And another. These shadows were quickly followed by three norwulves that glided to the field of bluegrass below my perch. Their fat little pig bodies actually looked small from up here as they rooted around the field and made their ugly little grunting noises. And then the whole sky darkened with the shadows of the flock of norwulves that was migrating north for the winter. One after another, norwulf after norwulf, they drifted from the sky above down to the grassy blue field below. Their piercing cackles filled the air. My God, they were loud. There were so many too. This was truly a big flock. And their cackles were amplified by the rock walls of the mountains in every direction.
My heart raced as more and more norwulves glided downward from the sky and softly landed in the sea of bluegrass below. I felt like I could reach out and touch some of the low-flying norwulves as they glided over my head and hugged the mountainside on their way down. When they flew overhead, you could see their large three-toed feet tucked tightly to their portly wool-covered bodies. Their curved talons are large enough to tear the flesh of an unfortunate man. It was terrifying to be honest. But I guess that’s the point. You know, hunters are seen as so brave because they kill these terrifying beasts.
I thought about firing an arrow into the flock. You know, just drawing my bow and shooting it into the air. The arrow would almost be certain to hit a norwulf because there was so many of them. I could bring my kill back to my hamlet by the bay and make up some story about how good of a hunter I was. People would think I was brave, especially if my story was a good one. I was all alone. I could make up whatever story I wanted and make myself as brave as I wanted and nobody would know. But that would not be an honorable kill, to aimlessly kill a norwulf and then make up a story to make myself sound brave that is. I didn’t want to live with that forever. I needed to find one, the one, norwulf and hunt it honorably and stick it with a skillful shot from my bow. Then I could feel proud of myself and I could tell my story honestly and others would think I was brave. One arrow just beneath the wing that would drive through its breast meat and through its rib cage and into its heart. An honorable kill would show the Council of Elders that I deserved to become a master hunter. One skillful shot and my life could be changed forever.
Finally, silence. Well, mostly silence. I could still hear the little ugly grunting noises the norwulves made as they rooted around in the bluegrass below searching for grub and little rodents to eat. There must have been a hundred of them in the flock. Rooting in the bluegrass. Rolling. Grunting. Eating. Eventually they would sleep for the night right there in that field of bluegrass.
I tried to follow all the steps that Thoren had taught me. “Make notes of where the flock is resting. What direction is the wind blowing? Where are the sows? Where are the boars?” Those are the names of the female norwulves and the male norwulves, sows and boars that is.
I drew an arrow from the quiver that hung from my belt and rested the broadhead on the rock shelf on which I crouched. I leaned the erect arrow against my palm and gave the fletching a firm blow and watched the shaft of the now-spinning arrow go round and round. This was a technique that all hunters learn to check that their arrows are straight. Spinning the arrow that is. The shaft on this arrow was true. Straight as an arrow as they say. But this arrow was special, this was the arrow that I was going to use to harvest my norwulf. Of course I knew these arrows were true because I checked them all when I was packing. I was just fidgeting with the arrow while I waited and watched.
You see, earlier this morning, as my hunting party was preparing to leave our hamlet by the bay, my mentor, Thoren, told me this would be my last hunting season unless I did something truly brave and skillful to impress the Council of Elders. The Council had met last night, as they do before each harvest season begins, and talked about the apprentices in their guild, as they do before each harvest season begins. You know, which apprentice hunters are brave and skillful and which are not. The Council decided I have not shown the bravery and skill to become a hunter. You know, they said “I was not brave enough” and “I was not skillful enough” and things like that. They said it was time for me to leave the guild and make room for another young man to have his chance. As you can imagine, this news was devastating, the news that my apprenticeship would be over that is. But Thoren pleaded with the elders to give me one last chance. At least that’s what Thoren told me this morning.
“Xander is a good boy,” Thoren told me he told the elders. “He is steady. Give him one final hunt to prove his bravery.”
Five years. That’s how long I have been an apprentice hunter. I worked hard too. I was not the best hunter for sure. I was good at shooting my bow and I had become fast at field dressing a norwulf. But others were better and faster. I could drag the slain bodies of the norwulves across the snow. But others were stronger. The thing I lacked, the thing the elders didn’t see in me, was bravery. You know, the thing that quality that all hunters have. It’s hard to explain what it is, you know, bravery, but I guess it’s one of those things you know when you see it.
I knew what I needed to do. I had to harvest a big norwulf and be truly brave when doing it. And even that was no guarantee. Even if I was brave, the elders must know that I am brave. I just kept thinking about how I had to do something so brave and skillful that the elders could not ignore me.
So when Thoren and I and all his other apprentices left our hamlet by the bay to hunt the norwulves early this morning, I walked with the group far to the north where the river comes from the mountains and empties into the sea, to our usual hunting grounds, and I told Thoren that I needed to do my hunt alone. Killing a norwulf alone would be truly brave. He understood this was what I must do. He rested his old, wise hand on my head and wished me luck as I disappeared alone north into the mountains.
The red sun was just peering through a gap of mountain peaks on the horizon and was nearly gone now. It would be dark soon, which meant it would be even colder soon. I couldn’t stay here on my perch much longer because I couldn’t risk stumbling in the dark and falling down the mountain. I had to do it quietly too, walk down the mountain that is, so I didn’t startle the norwulves that would be sleeping in the field below.
“Patience, Xander,” I kept telling myself as I carefully navigated down the mountainside thinking about the norwulves sleeping just below me. I must find a place to rest for the night and return for my big day tomorrow.