xander rowe, chapter 10

I woke to the sound of a crackling fire. You know, the really loud snapping and popping sounds that firewood makes when the flames are really hot. It reminds me of the violent sound of a butcher breaking down a carcass with a hatchet, you know, the blunt force of the swinging blade roughly breaking through bones and tendons and stuff. It’s true. Sometimes I’ll sit next to a fire and my spine shivers in discomfort at the snapping sounds of the hot flames because it reminds me of a body being broken. But right now it was a soothing sound, the sound of the wood snapping and popping in the heat of the fire that is. It was a pleasant way to be awoken. 

A heavy blanket draped over my body and pressed it into the bed. God it was a heavy blanket. It felt real nice though, like it was giving you a hug or something, the heavy blanket that is. 

So my body awoke to the warmth of the fire snapping and popping and the weight of the heavy blanket giving my body a hug.

My eyes followed the rough hewn wooden beams of the ceiling of the small cabin and then down the chimney to the fireplace. An old bearded man crouched by the fire and poked it with a stick. It didn’t appear that he’d noticed that I’d awoken because he just crouched there, really focused on what he was doing, you know, staring at the fire and poking it with a stick and causing a hundred little embers to float up into the air and fizzle out and all. I mean, if he’d noticed that I’d awoken I would think he’d speak or look at me or something. But he just crouched there like the only thing that mattered in the world was slowly poking that flickering fire with his stick. 

It’s funny, but it didn’t really startle me or anything, you know, to wake in this unfamiliar small cabin and to see this old man poking the fire and all. Perhaps I was too tired to be startled. I don’t know. Maybe I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. It was just confusing. As if my mind was trying to make sense of a situation that didn’t make sense. But nothing did, make sense that is. You know, where I was and who this old man was. It felt like a dream. It must be, a dream that is. So I told myself this was a dream, my eyes closed, and I went back to sleep hoping that I would wake up and I’d be back in a familiar place. 

My eyes opened again. I’m not sure if I just blinked or if I fell asleep for a while. But I was awake now. At least I think I was awake. My eyes followed the rough hewn beams across the ceiling again and down the chimney to the fireplace again. The old bearded man was still crouched by the fire, but was now slowly stirring a wooden spoon in this large black pot and humming to himself like he was the only person in the world. He was humming a tune that vaguely sounded like the hunting songs that we sing to get all the young men excited before the norwulf migration begins. But he seemed awfully chipper, the old man that is, you know, like the sort of chipper humming you do when you think you’re all alone, like when you’re gathering berries out in the woods and you know there’s nobody else around or something. 

Perhaps I was dead. That might explain why the old man didn’t acknowledge me or why he was humming like he was all alone. I must have rustled or groaned or something, because the old man stopped his chipper humming and turned his wiry body towards me in this jerky fashion, like I’d startled him or something, like he forgot I was there until I made a sound. His eyes focused on mine. Then he moved his mouth as if he was speaking to me. The words were all muffled like he was talking under water or something. I don’t know, my mind was kinda foggy. But at least I knew I wasn’t dead. 

My eyes were heavy too. I tried my hardest to keep them open, you know, to try and stay awake so I could make sense of this situation and to try and make out the words the old man was speaking and all, but my mind was weak. My eyes blinked a few slow and heavy blinks as my mind’s eye alternated between the image of the old man moving his mouth as if he was speaking and the pitch darkness of my closed eyes. 

My eyelids shut again despite my mind’s efforts to keep them open. And I’m pretty sure I went back to sleep again. I really don’t know I guess. You know, about whether I went back to sleep again.

My eyes opened a third time. It felt like I merely blinked, but I must have rested because my mind was clearer. I had no idea of how much time had passed since my eyes were open the last time. I really didn’t. And I had no idea whether it was night or day. I really didn’t. And I had no idea where I was other than in some small cabin. As far as I could tell, I was alone in that cabin, you know, other than the sound of the wood still snapping and popping in the fireplace.

I tried to lift my body out of the bed, but a pain shot through my stomach when I moved. It was this real sharp pain too, sort like I was getting stabbed with a knife right in the gut or something. It wasn’t just my gut though. The pain shot from my stomach in a thousand different directions and caused all the little muscles in my body to tense up, you know, my toes curled, my back tightened, and my face twisted into an ugly, painful grimace. I hate that feeling of being in such pain that you can’t control your body and all, you know, where your whole body stiffens in a real distorted position. I actually tensed so hard that I gagged, like my stomach was twisted so hard that it wrung like a wet rag. But my stomach was empty, I just got that acidic taste in my mouth. Anyways, I slowly eased my achy body back into the bed and found a comfortable position lying on my back. 

I breathed a sigh of relief of laying down again and, eventually, the pain in my stomach melted away. My hands felt under my shirt, you know, down where that pain was, but I wasn’t wearing a shirt. I had no memory of removing my shirt. I touched my fingertips to the bandages that wrapped my stomach, which reminded me that the beast of a norwulf had gored me at some point. I had no memory of how those bandages got there. 

I thought the thoughts that men do in these situations. You know “where am I?” and “how did I get here?” and “why are my bags in the corner?” and all. I just noticed that my bag was hanging from a hook near the door. 

You know, I always thought it would be an eerie feeling to wake up in a place with no memory of how you got there. And now that it happened to me, it was, an eerie feeling that is. It was just as scary as facing the norwulf I suppose, but scary in a different way. It was more like your mind was imagining things that make you scared, whereas the norwulf was scary because, well, because it was this beast that was stronger than you. God, I hate being scared of the fears your mind makes up. 

“Focus, Xander.” This was no time to lay in bed and think about why I was scared. I needed to think about where I was and how I got here and all. So I laid there and thought for a good while, but my thoughts just went round and round because I was trying to make sense out of a senseless situation. 

The crunching sound of approaching footsteps walking through the snow interrupted my thoughts. My eyes and ears focused on the door. My heart pounded. I sat up. Or at least I tried to sit up. You see, the pain shot through my stomach and all over my body again when I moved. You know, that real sharp pain that feels like getting stabbed and makes your face grimace in pain. My body tensed up into this odd distorted shape again. And I laid on my back to ease the pain again. I think I was going to go for my bag and search for a knife or something, you know, when I heard footsteps and tried to sit up, I’m not really sure. I guess I thought I needed to protect myself from whoever was approaching the cabin. 

Anyways, the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow stopped. I took a nervous breath. The cabin door creaked open. A boot entered the opening of the door followed by the rest of a man. The old man with a beard, the one who I’d seen earlier poking the fire and stirring the pot, entered the cabin with an armful of firewood. The bundle of firewood he carried must have weighed more than him, which is not much. You see, he was rail thin, the old man with the beard that is. Even in his leather pants his legs looked not much thicker than the stick I used to make my spear. But he seemed to not have any problems lugging the firewood. 

He was a strong old wiry man. 

The old man stared at me with his young blue eyes. This made sense, you know, if I had a stranger in my cabin I’d look at them when I walked in the door too, you know, just to check. I’d look them over real good. 

It’s amazing how everything about the man was old other than his eyes. He had a white beard that hung to his chest and deep wrinkles in the corners of his eyes like a dried sea bed. But his eyes, well, his eyes were blue and young like the clear sky on a sunny day. 

Anyways, the old man looked me over real good with his young blue eyes. 

“Ah, the hunter awakes.” The old man had this jovial way about his voice, you know, like he was telling a joke to a friend. He gently set the firewood on the floor next to the chimney. It must have been obvious that I was a hunter. Perhaps he’d figured it out from the things in my bag or perhaps he’d seen the tattoo on my arm or something. I’m not really sure, you know, how he knew that I was a hunter and all. But I sort of liked that he called me “the hunter.” Even in my condition, I was sort of proud of being thought of as a hunter. Anyways, the conversation moved on. He knew I was a hunter and I didn’t know how he knew. And I never corrected him by explaining that I was only an apprentice hunter. 

I tried to ask the old man questions about this situation. You know, “Where am I?” and “Who are you?” and stuff like that. But when I tried to talk my voice was bone-weary. I think I might have even coughed too, I’m not sure. Anyways, I sounded real weak regardless of the exact questions I asked and whether I coughed or not. My voice kinda scared myself at how weak it sounded. You know, you expect your voice to sound a certain way, like, well your voice, and then it comes out real weak and sickly. Hearing your voice like that, it makes you wonder how badly your body is hurt. It also was kinda painful to talk. You don’t realize that each utterance uses some little stomach muscles when you speak until you have a wound in your stomach. Then each of those little muscles has its own little pain whenever you try to speak, 

Between not being able to sit up and hearing my sickly and frail voice, I figured the norwulf must have gored me real good. 

Anyways, the old man looked back at me with his young blue eyes. He ran his fingers through the grey beard that hung from his face down to his chest. His fingers worked on removing a few small sticks from the armful of firewood he’d carried that had stuck into his beard. It was real uncomfortable too, you know, having the old man stare at me and me stare back at him and having his fingers fidgeting at the sticks in his beard and all.  

Finally, the old man spoke again. 

“I am Roki. And this is Roki’s castle.” I understood him this time. He, the old man, Roki I guess, outstretched his arms and lifted his palms towards the ceiling as if to say that this whole cabin was his. “And Roki is king of Roki’s castle. King Roki welcomes you as a guest and a friend to his castle.” 

He had a banter about his speech, Roki that is. Like whatever he was saying was clever or something. Like when he called himself a king and his cabin a castle, he said it with this little chuckle and seemed a bit too pleased at the joke he thought he was making. But I didn’t know Roki so I didn’t chuckle back. It probably came off as rude, not chuckling back and all, but I was still sizing up the situation, and I didn’t want to start chuckling with this stranger and have him thinking we were friends or anything. Besides, chuckling when I’m not supposed to chuckle can be worse than not chuckling. I had a hard time telling if he was just a go-lucky guy who enjoyed the idle conversation between strangers or if he was not right in his head, you know, a crazy man who lives in his own fantasy world and thinks the birds and trees talk to him and stuff like that. For all I know he actually did think he was King Roki and he actually did think this cabin was his castle. So between not knowing who Roki was and the pain in my stomach, I just laid in bed, listened, and didn’t chuckle along. 

“You are in Roki’s castle, my friend. Deep into the mountains. Far to the north of the hamlets where the hunters live. You, you my friend, are very far from home, that is for sure. Roki saw your fire the night of the big storm. Oh yes, the hunter was not very discreet.” I guess I was the hunter in this scenario. “Roki saw you pursue the norwulf into the cave. You are a very lucky boy to be alive my friend. Roki followed you and brought you back to my castle after the norwulf hurt you. And Roki cleaned your wounds.”

I didn’t really bother me that the old man talked about himself like another person would. You know, referring to himself as Roki and his cabin as Roki’s castle and all. I knew some apprentice hunters who did that once in a while, you know, use their own name when they talked about themselves. It always came off as arrogant and other guys wanted to punch them in their faces for being so arrogant. But Roki wasn’t doing it to be arrogant, at least it didn’t seem so. It was just sort of the way he talked and it took me a while to pick up on his cadence. But it did make me think that Roki was a bit crazy. 

“Thanks and all, you know, for cleaning my wounds. I–”. I guess my voice sounded weaker than before and my face must have showed pain because Roki raised his hand and silenced me.

“No more talk. You must rest my friend,” and he turned his back to tend to the fire and to stir the pot with the wooden spoon.  

What an odd man. Here I am, worrying about being rude, and he cuts me off and turns his back to me. “You are a hermit?” I said to Roki’s back. 

My mind pieced together the information. There are legends of hermits living in these mountains. You know, men who live a life of solitude, you know, without the company of others. I guess that’s a gentle way of describing them, hermits that is. They hunt their own food and gather their own plants and just sort of avoid society altogether. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’d never met a hermit before. Come to think of it, I’d never seen one either. So I wasn’t quite sure if hermits actually existed or if they were just part of the tales that hunters swap about the northern mountains. One of my friends, Iver, says he found a hermit’s cabin once and went inside and meandered through the hermit’s belongings and stuff. But you never know if Iver was telling the truth or just telling a tale. He fibbed sometimes, Iver that is, because then everybody would hang onto his every word and all when he told his stories. Boy did he like the attention. He’d go on and on for a long time too. It was entertaining and all, you know, listening to his stories, but you could never take it too seriously because of the fibbing. 

Anyways, apprentice hunters were always told to avoid hermits. You know, if you ever came across one in the woods you should never talk to them or try to get away as quickly as possible. I couldn’t remember why. It must be because they are dangerous or something. You know, because they live alone they’re not bound to the laws like everybody else or something. I’m not really sure. 

Thankfully, Roki didn’t seem offended by my direct questioning because my body wasn’t in any shape to defend myself if we started arguing and all. “A hermit? No. Roki is no hermit. Roki is a king.” He broke into this little jig where his rail thin legs kicked to the side one-at-a-time and his rail thin arms pumped down towards the ground and he did a little chuckle while he danced. 

I blankly stared back. I was pretty sure this guy, this Roki, was a hermit. A crazy hermit. I mean, this cabin was small for one man. There was only one bed, one chair, and a handful of things hanging from the walls like an axe, a few cooking blades, a few pots, and a pair of skis. These were the belongings of one man, Roki was the only person living here. 

“Who are you?” I asked again slowly and clearly so there was no misunderstanding. “Do you live here alone? Or do you have peoples?” God it hurt to talk. I don’t know why my words got slower and louder. I mean, Roki seemed to understand what I was saying and all. But it just sort of came out that I spoke in this slow and loud voice. Anyways, I wanted to know if he had peoples, you know, whether he lived here in this cabin all by himself. 

Roki never did answer my questions, you know, about having peoples. But his non-answer was itself an answer. 

I sat my body up. It was really painful, sitting up and all, but I propped myself up against the wall. After a few minutes the pain melted away. 

The old man went over to his pot by the fireplace and poured a ladle of its contents into two bowls. 

“Answer me this my friend: Why do hunters kill norwulves?”

Roki handed me a bowl. 

“What do you mean, why? It is what hunters do.” That answer satisfied me, but didn’t satisfy Roki.

“Do you get meat from the norwulves?”

“No.”

“Milk?”

“No.”

“Then why?” 

I told Roki that I wasn’t feeling well and I went back to sleep.