The sun had fallen below the mountaintops and a few of the brighter stars faintly peppered the sky. It was quite dark by the time I made it to a good resting place. Not so dark that I couldn’t see, but much darker than what I’d hoped. I should have left my perch on the mountain earlier so I had some daylight left. Instead, each footstep required seeing through the fading light to carefully place your foot and feeling the ground through the soles of your boots. It was a painfully slow descent down the mountain to be sure, which only made it darker by the time I’d got to the bottom.
I berated myself as I started my tasks. “God, why did I have to let it get so dark. Silly Xander. Stupid, stupid, Xander. These poor timing errors are exactly the type of thing the elders had in mind when they said you weren’t a hunter.” It was important to be silent tonight because sound travels far in the cold mountains and I couldn’t spook the sleeping norwulf flock. So I berated myself quietly.
Nevertheless, I made it down the mountain and I found a nice patch of soil that was downwind of the sleeping norwulf flock so they couldn’t smell me while I slept. I would need to approach them from the downwind direction tomorrow morning, the norwulf flock that is. But for now I needed to eat some food and get some rest and prepare my mind. Tomorrow morning I would harvest a norwulf and drag the body back to my hamlet by the bay before sundown. Thoren would be proud. The other apprentice hunters would be envious. And the elders would be impressed that I harvested the norwulf all by myself and they would finally see that I could become a brave and skillful hunter. Or at least that was the plan I kept running through my head.
I didn’t have the courage to imagine the alternative. You know, that I would not get a norwulf and that I would have to return to the hamlet by the bay empty-handed and that I would not get to become a hunter. God, that would be devastating. Even thinking about thinking about those thoughts made me disappointed.
“Focus, Xander. Enough dreaming.” I needed to focus my mind because it really was getting dark and I needed to work quickly on my tasks.
The first thing I needed to do was build a fire. Fire was life when you are in the wilderness. The air was noticeably colder since the sun dropped below the mountains. I knelt on the cold soil and fumbled around a bit trying to open my leather pouch of matches. I removed my mittens and let the cold air bite my bare hands. My fingers were so cold and shaky that I ended up dumping a good twenty matches onto the dirt floor. I felt around the dark to grab a match, but my fingers were so numb that it was hard to feel anything.
God, Thoren would roll his eyes in disappointment if he could see my exposed hands feeling around the dirt looking for matches in the dark. Building a fire is the job they give to first-year apprentices, mere boys, and here I was, an apprentice of five years, and I was failing. It truly would be embarrassing if my legacy was that I died of cold because I couldn’t build a fire because I stupidly let it get dark on me.
“God, I should have left earlier because it was getting darker and darker,” I kept repeating as I fumbled around this lightless patch of soil. Quietly yelling at myself was keeping me warm.
I eventually found a match. I eventually lit a fire. And I eventually had some light to work. I used cantaberry branches to build my fire that I gathered on my way down the mountain. These branches burned a nearly smokeless fire and the leaves made a delicious tea that I would enjoy in the morning.
The cantaberry branches crackled in the orange glow of the fire and the flickering flames lit up my resting spot and cast my shadow onto the thicket of evergreen trees that surrounded me. I just sat there warming my bare hands. It felt good to be able to move my fingers without the pain that causes your hands to hurt like an old man’s hands. I knew there was much more work to do before I could rest, but the warmth of the fire was so relieving and the flickering flames were mesmerizing to look at. So I just sat there staring at the rising flames and listening to the crackling branches and letting the warm flames brush against my face.
I don’t know how long I sat there staring at the fire. A long time I suppose because it was now pitch black. Probably too long. I always do this sort of thing. You know, there’s work to be done and I find myself just sitting by a fire and letting my mind wander. Not even on productive thoughts, just wandering from one unimportant thought to the next like a stray leaf getting blown around in the wind. Then I think about how much time I would have if I could have added up all these hours and minutes and seconds of me just sitting. It would surely add up to days of time. Maybe even weeks. It makes me feel guilty too, you know, for all the time I’d wasted over the past few years. God, to have that time back. I would put it to better use the second time around, I swear.
I complained out of frustration for my disobedient mind. “Focus, Xander! For goodness sakes, focus!” I promised myself that if I focused and got my tasks done that my mind could wander as aimlessly as it wanted as I fell asleep. For now I had to work.
The first task was to stack the rocks around the fire just like Thoren had taught me. Large, flat rocks around the bottom and smaller rocks at the top. These rocks hid the flame. There are creatures and hermits in these mountains and you can see a flame for a long distance when it is dark and clear like it was tonight. It’s best to hide the flame as much as possible. Building the rocks around the fire also protected the flames from the wind so that it burns a nice slow smoldering burn and the cantaberry wood lasts longer. A good fire should last all night, at least that’s what Thoren taught me. Building the rocks around the fire warms the rocks too. That makes for a nice bed, the warm rocks that is, but more about that later. Right now I needed to eat.
I got a pot full of nice clean snow from under a bush and rested my pot on the rocks by the fire. The warmth of the fire melted the snow in my pot as I carefully unpacked my belongings.
These pots, you know, the ones that hunters carry, are specially made for hunters. Not too thick that they are heavy, because hunters must travel light, but not too thin that they would crush easy, because hunters do many brave things that can crush their gear. That would be devastating for a hunter’s pot to be crushed. And these pots have a curved handle so they can be hung from a belt or from a bag, which is nice because hunters must carry all their things. I always carry the pot from my belt because that’s what all the young hunters do. The old hunters hang their pots on their bags. It’s not better, hanging the pot from your belt and all, but young men are always looking for ways to do things just a bit differently than their elders. You know, we like traditions and all, but we also want to assert our independence too. When I become a master hunter I suppose my apprentices will do things their way. And so it goes, each generation straddles the line between respecting traditions and asserting their independence.
Anyways, looking at these pots always reminded me of the small hamlet deep into the east grove, far inland and away from the sea, where I grew up, Norwick. In Norwick there were many men who made these pots for hunters. Potters, that’s what these men who made pots were called. And I watched these potters make many pots when I was a child: I can still hear the sounds of the potters’ shops when I close my eyes too. You know, the sounds of the potters banging and rapping and tapping the metal with their hammers for hours and hours until a pot emerged. The hunters would come to Norwick in the summer and talk to the potters and inspect their pots and entertain the potters with stories of hunting the norwulves.
Anyways, my mind always wanders to those thoughts when I see a hunter’s pot.
If I looked closely, I could see the little dents all over my pot from the potter’s tools. Hours of work and thousands of dents from the thousands of taps of a hammer went into each pot. I wouldn’t have the patience for that sort of work, at least that’s what I thought when I looked at the little hammer dents in my pot. I’d probably start out good, you know, with the real careful taps of a hammer, but then I’d just want to hit it hard. You know, take a big swing and strike the metal with my hammer real good just to see what would happen. I really don’t know, I’ve never made a pot in my life.
When I was a young boy, back when I still lived in Norwick, some of my friends’ fathers were potters and now their fathers are old or dead and the sons are now grown men and are now potters. Their sons will watch them work and will learn how to make these special pots for hunters too. It’s this nice little chain of fathers teaching their sons who will grow up to teach their sons who will grow up to teach their sons the skills of how to choose the best metals and how to hold the hammer right and stuff like that.
It’s kinda sad when you think about it, the miners bring the metals to the potters and the potters make pots for the hunters, but only the hunters actually get to hunt. The miners and the potters never get the excitement of hunting the norwulf. In fact, many men in Norwick have never left the grove in their entire lives. They were born being a miner or a potter and they will die being a miner or a potter.
That’s why I left Norwick you know, to become a hunter.
My father was not a miner or a potter. He was a fletcher, which is what the men who make arrows call themselves. He had this nice little shop with a thatched roof and this big wooden table in the middle of his room where he set all his tools and worked. When I got to be an older child, perhaps around my seventh summer, I helped my father and learned his craft. That’s how I became an apprentice hunter actually, by making arrows with my father that is.
Thoren would visit Norwick during the summer to gather supplies for the next hunting season just like many hunters do. He would visit the farmers and the potters and the tanners. And, of course, he would visit the fletchers. Thoren would gather his supplies and entertain the craftsmen with his tales of hunting the norwulf and flatter them by saying it was only possible because of their skills. He would tell the farmer that his food sustained his hunting party for three days while they hunted the norwulf flock. He told the miner that his metal was the strongest metal for piercing the norwulf’s hide. He told the tanner that his leather was the warmest leather. And he told my father that his arrows were the straightest at shooting the norwulf. Maybe he was just being nice or liked to entertain the craftsmen. Or maybe he was trying to get a good trade. I don’t know why Thoren told these stories.
Anyways, I was very good at finding the straightest branches that would make the best arrows. I would go deep into the grove with my hatchet and bring back armfuls of arrowwood from the evergreens that surround Nowrick into my father’s fletching shop and he would tell me which branches were good for making arrows and which were not. You know, my father was trying to teach me about being a fletcher and all. For three years I set aside the best arrowwood for Thoren. I had this little pile in the corner of my father’s shop where I would neatly stack the best arrowwood and I’d say “These branches are for Thoren’s arrows.” My father was happy that I’d taken an interest in making arrows for the hunters so he let me do this. And each of those years Thoren harvested a norwulf with my arrows. And each year Thoren would return to my father and ask about Xander, the boy who made his arrows. Thoren was nice like that, you know, saying that I made his arrows when I just picked out his arrowwood. My father made the arrows, but it flattered my father that a hunter knew his son’s name, so he never corrected Thoren. If you wanted to flatter a craftsman, then compliment his son. The craftsmen love hearing good things about their sons more than hearing good things about their crafts.
Anyways, Thoren knew my name and knew that I was an eager young boy. Then, in my sixteenth summer, Thoren asked my father if I, Xander, would like to become an apprentice hunter. This was a rare offer, becoming an apprentice hunter that is. Very few boys from the grove are asked to become hunters. I begged and pleaded with my father. I would leave the grove and live by the bay and Thoren would become my mentor as I learned how to hunt. My father was sad that I, his only son, didn’t want to be a fletcher like him, and I suppose he was worried about who would take care of him as he aged if I left the grove.
He’s dead now, my father that is. Another man and his son are the only fletchers left in all of Norwick. Thoren and his apprentices, including me, get our arrows from him now.
The snow in the pot had finally melted into a warm water. I poured three spoonfuls of dried bracca beans into the pot and let them simmer. Bracca beans are what all hunters eat while they are hunting. They are dry and light and full of vitamins and they taste like dirt. The bean mongers soak them in flavored brine too before drying them because they know their beans taste like dirt and they are trying to get them to taste less like dirt when they are cooked. Even with the brine flavor though, I hate the taste of bracca beans. They taste like spoonfuls of briny dirt balls. And they have this gritty feel to them, like you are grinding sand between your teeth when you eat. I hate them. But it’s what hunters do when they are hunting, eat bracca beans that is. So I eat bracca beans when I am hunting too because I want to be a hunter and that’s what hunters do. And, if all goes well tomorrow morning, I will become a great hunter and I will get apprentices of my own some day and make them eat bracca beans while they hunt.
Three spoonfuls of bracca beans tonight, three for a midday meal tomorrow after I harvest my norwulf, and then I would still have an emergency ration if my day ran long tomorrow as I dragged my harvest back to my hamlet by the bay. That’s another thing Thoren taught me, you know, to always leave an emergency ration. You never know what sort of situation you’ll find yourself in out here in the wild. Thoren always says it in a more spiritual way though, you know, like “keeping extra rations is respecting the power of the wilderness” or something like that.
These are the thoughts that ran through my head as I stared at my potful of beans resting on the rocks at the edge of the fire.
I neatly emptied the contents of my bag onto the two long skis that always have strapped to my back while my beans cooked. I carefully inspected each item to make sure they weren’t damaged during my travels through the mountains. Metal blades must never rest on the forest floor and my knives must be easily reached in case there is danger in the night, so those get set on the skis next to where I slept. My bow rested upright on a tree and my quiver hung on a branch that was out of arm’s reach. A bow and arrow are no use at night in the dark.
I used my small shovel to dig a shallow trench where I planned on laying for the night. Then I took the top row of stones, you know, the real small stones, away from the fire and laid them in the trench and covered them with a thin layer of dirt and placed my blanket on top. The heat from the stones would glow with warmth and provide my body with heat all night long. I crawled into my now-empty bag. I loved that feeling of being warm while the air around you was cold.
I ate my potful of bracca beans. God they tasted awful. And the gritty, sandy feeling on your teeth was awful too. But I need the nutrition. The cold really does take the energy out of your body. I mustn’t let myself become weak over a silly thing like bad taste.
One of my favorite things to do is look up at the stars at night. The legends say that each of the stars in the sky represent great hunters of the past. Back in Norwick, all the young boys sit attently as the elders point their fingers towards the stars and share the tales of the bravery and skill of these great hunters. These tales plant the idea in each young boy’s mind that the greatest and bravest thing you can do is to grow up and become a hunter. And so the last thing they hear before they go to sleep is these tales of the stars and the hunters. And the next day the young boys jump out of their beds and are all energized by their dreams and they run around the grove and pretend to be great hunters. And these boys do this for years and years until they grow up and all they know is these dreams of hunting. I know these are tales now, myths the elders tell the little boys so they can ensure there will be more hunters in the next generation, but I can’t remember if I actually believed these stories were true or not when I was a child. You know, whether the stars were actually the spirits of great hunters and all. I know it’s silly, but I, a young man now, still like to fall asleep looking at the stars and dream of becoming a great hunter just like I did when I was a little boy. Someday when I am no longer alive, it would be the greatest thing in the world to have my memory live in a star and little boys could look up in the sky and listen to the old men tell my tales.
Tomorrow would be my chance. I will wake before the sun rises over the mountaintops in the east. I will be unseen and unheard as I sneak to the edge of the sleeping norwulf flock and wait and watch. I will find the biggest norwulf in the entire flock and shoot him with my arrow. It will be truly brave and skillful. My eyes were closed now. My body was tired. And the thoughts of returning to the bay with my norwulf made me warm as I fell asleep.