The grating racket of the startled norwulf flock had left the valley. No more squeals of panic and no more pounding of heavy feet striking the ground and stuff like that. It was silent now, you know, other than the sound of the wind still howling through the hollow mountains and my low groans from my achy body. I crawled out from under the thatchleberry bush and looked to the blue sky above. All appeared calm for now. But my eyes sure were attentive.
God my leg hurt. I laid on my stomach under that bush for so long that I hadn’t put weight on it since my heart calmed. I stood. Or at least I tried to stand. A pain shot all the way from my hip to my toes and I collapsed to my knees and then all the way to the ground. A real sharp pain too. One of those pains that leaves your face all gnarled and ugly from when your mind knows your body is broken. And your body just falls to the ground.
I laid at the edge of the field of bluegrass and ran my hands over my body, you know, looking for which pains left my body broken. My whole hand could fit into the gash on my cowhide pants. My thigh was wounded, but appeared to not be bleeding. Now that my heart calmed I started feeling all sorts of small pains too. My ribs were sore, probably from getting knocked down by the sow. And my hands were sore from holding onto the thatchleberry bushes when the sow was tugging my body by the boot. It’s amazing how you don’t notice these little sorenesses when your heart is pounding.
“Stupid, Xander. Foolish, Xander. Why would you run into a norwulf flock?” I berated myself nice and good as I laid in that field and stared at the clouds in the sky and let my body ache. “Did you think you were going to be brave? How brave will you seem when you have to explain this to Thoren and the elders? Stupid, Xander. They surely will all laugh at your foolishness.” These were not just thoughts going through my head, I knew I was speaking aloud now. Yelling in fact. I was serious too, I acted stupidly by running into the norwulf flock. I could have been killed. I was lucky to be here and I musn’t let my mind forget that.
It eased the pain in my leg to yell at myself. So I sat there at the edge of the field and really lit into myself. You know, really try to hurt my pride for being so stupid and reckless. My curses and howls echoed off the mountains, my fist struck the ground over and over, and I really made a ruckus. The more I hurt my pride, the less my body hurt.
Turns out I was tossed right onto my quiver. At least that’s what I assumed from the location of the wound on my thigh and the hole that was torn into my pants. It all happened so fast. But that’s what must have happened. Three of my arrows were broken, one was shot into the beast’s wing, and one arrow was shot far away into the mountainside when I got bowled over. That leaves me with twenty good arrows.
I really am a fool sometimes. The beast was lost, my leg was wounded, and I am counting arrows, the least important thing in the world, like a child. God, maybe I don’t have the stuff of great hunters because I cannot even control my mind. It just wanders on its own and couldn’t care less about my commands.
Anyways, my leg hurt, and the yelling helped cope with the pain, so I lit into myself again about my foolishness and I yelled and cursed about how foolish it was that I was counting arrows right now.
So one of the arrows tore right through the quiver, my cowhide pants, and into the flesh of my left thigh. It was a real gash too, the wound in my thigh that is. But thankfully it was not bleeding.
My mind wandered again. “God, the beast. I should follow the flock and pursue the beast.” And then I snapped my mind back. “No, first thing’s first. I needed to tend to my wounds.” I berated myself again for my indecisiveness.
The sow’s grasp left three long gashes along the back of my ramskin boot that ran from the ankle to the heel. It really shows you how powerful these beasts are, you know, that their claws can tear through a leather boot and all. Anyways, my foot was not harmed, it was just cold now that my boot was torn and my heart had calmed.
I crawled across the field with bluegrass towards my bag that I’d left earlier, you know, before I foolishly ran into the norwulf flock trying to be brave or something. I had some medicine and cloth for bandages in the outside pouch of the bag. So here I am, crawling across the field because my leg is too wounded to walk and I am thinking about how soft the bluegrass is on my face. It’s funny how my mind works sometimes.
Anyways, I got to my bag and I got to my medicine and I tended to the wound in my leg. The medicine is this powder that you sprinkle on the wound. I don’t even know what it is to be honest, but it’s white and it sort of smells salty, you know, just like the sea water when the ice thaws in the spring. It’s just what hunters always carry with them, the salty powdered medicine that is, so I carry it with me too. The medicine soaks up the blood and takes the pain away. There must be some sort of drug in it or something. I’m not sure. Right now I’m just thankful for the relief.
So I sprinkled the medicine onto my wound and wrapped my leg in a bandage. I could walk again without the stabbing pain.
It was a chaotic few moments when I startled the norwulf flock. My things had been strewn about the field during the panic. I walked into the field of bluegrass and gathered my arrows and quiver that I dropped when I scampered away. And I gathered my bow too. Well, the two halves of my bow. My bow broke you see. I must have fallen on it or a norwulf stepped on it or something. I really don’t remember, but that must be what happened.
I sat at the edge of the field for what seemed like a long time. My back rested against my bag and my mind wandered about all that just happened. The sun was now directly overhead and it felt good and warm on my face. I closed my eyes. I don’t know if I’d fallen asleep for a while or not. I think I did, but I really don’t know. But I was awake now. And alert.
The norwulf flock is long gone now. And spooked. There would be no way that I could sneak up to them again like I did this morning.
“Dammit!” I yelled as I threw one half of my bow into the field of bluegrass. “Dammit to hell!”
If the norwulf flock was not spooked before, all my yelling and cursing surely has them spooked now.
I walked over to where I’d seen the beast of a norwulf and kicked the dirt for a while at the lost opportunity. I called myself “stupid” and “foolish” and “impatient” and I swore that I would give the Gods anything to have one more chance to take my first shot just one more time.
I’d spent many hours practicing shooting my bow. All apprentice hunters did. It’s one of the things we do most between hunting seasons. I’d shot so many practice arrows that the skin on my fingers that held my bow strings were calloused and hard. Thousands and thousands of arrows were shot into the bales of straw in preparation for today. And each shot I would pretend the bale of straw was a giant norwulf. Now I’d had my shot at a real norwulf. You know, it wasn’t a bale of straw that I was pretending was a beast, I’d shot an arrow at an actual beast, a great beast, a beast that was gonna make me a hunter. And I failed. God, it was devastating to have missed my chance.
I looked around at the field with nothing in it but me and a sea of bluegrass and my broken bow and I knew the beast had escaped and so did my chances of proving my bravery and skill to the elders.
“Glory was in my grasp and I let it slip away because of my foolishness,” I yelled into the sky. No norwulf and now no bow.
My mind raced some more.
I didn’t know what I’d end up doing, not just what I’d be doing in the next few hours, but what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. Perhaps I’d go back to Norwick and try my hand at being a fletcher. You know, open up a small shop where I could make arrows and entertain the young boys with tales of the years I was an apprentice hunter. Perhaps I would tell them about Thoren and the great beast of a norwulf that I’d shot in the wing. And the boys of Norwick would sit attently as I told my stories and made my arrows. They’d say that “Xander the fletcher has the best stories.” And the boys would ask their father if they knew that Xander the fletcher was an apprentice hunter when he was a young man. And the boys would run around the trees in the grove playing out the adventures that I’d told them by shooting pretend arrows at imaginary norwulves and dream of being hunters themselves. Perhaps I’d find a wife and have a son that would become a fletcher too. And he’d gather arrowwood for me like I did for my father.
But this would be very hard now, you know, being a fletcher and all. When my father died I did not take over his shop like most sons do when their fathers die. My father’s one-room shop with the thatched roof is gone now. His tools are all gone now. Plus, I really don’t know how to be a fletcher. I only helped with the unskilled tasks of arrow making like gathering wood from the grove. You know, the jobs they give to little boys to keep them busy and make them think they are helping. I left before my father mentored me on the skillful parts of making arrows. You know, the skillful parts that take years for young men to learn. But I was with Thoren, chasing my dream of becoming a hunter while I could have been learning the skillful parts of being a fletcher from my father. I told myself that I was learning different skills. Besides, who would even buy my arrows? All my father’s clients buy their arrows from other fletchers in Norwick now. Even Thoren, my father’s best customer, would probably not buy arrows from me unless it was out of charity for poor Xander who was not brave enough to become a hunter. And I wouldn’t want charity. If I was a fletcher I would want to have honor. No, I could not go back to being a fletcher.
I also lost my chances of becoming a father. I mean, you never know, maybe I’d meet a woman in the grove who’d become my wife. But I had a woman, Ingrid, who was a girl I was going to marry. At least I thought I was going to marry her. You see, we were in love. You know, the type of love that young people fall into right after they are children and right before they become men and women. We’d run deep into the woods around the grove outside of Norwick and find a place to be alone and chatter about becoming adults. She would listen to me jabber for hours about the dreams of a wide-eyed boy who gathered arrows for Thoren and wanted to leave Norwick and be the bravest and most skillful hunter. And I’d jabber about how I believed the young boys would someday look up at the stars in the night sky and tell the tales of Xander the great hunter. And I’d come back to Norwick and the young boys would all point at me and watch me from a distance. I don’t think she believed me, you know, that I wanted to leave Norwick and be a hunter, because she’d always say something like “oh, Xander you’ve got such dreams” and then she’d go on and talk about how she wanted to raise a family in Norwick and all.
But I left Ingrid when I left Norwick to go hunt with Thoren. I didn’t even say goodbye. It was young and foolish of me to just leave her behind like I did. Anyways, she has a husband now, he’s a potter, and Ingrid would never forgive me for my youthful foolishness, you know, that I left her without saying anything like I did. Now, when I go to Norwick I avoid seeing Ingrid because deep down I am a coward when it comes to facing my past. If I was to ever have a wife, it would not be Ingrid.
So I was kicking the dirt on the spot where I’d shot the beast. I cursed my bad luck. And in my mind I was making plans on returning back the hamlet by the bay. You know, which route I’d take south, figuring out how many rations I needed for the journey, and how best to travel with my wounds and all. I even cried. I know because the wet tears froze to my face and hurt the corners of my eyes. But then I saw it in the dirt I was kicking. A smear of purple blood. By my feet. That’s norwulf blood. Then a few drops more. It was a blood trail.
This hunt was not over yet.
It’s possible the arrow wounded the giant beast’s wing enough that it couldn’t fly away with the rest of the flock. If so, that would mean that the wounded norwulf was separated from his flock. And that would mean that there was still a chance at killing this beast and returning to the hamlet by the bay and impressing the elders with my bravery.
I became silent and knelt down in the field of bluegrass. Perhaps the beast was near. It was foolish of me to have yelled at myself even if it did help ease the pain in my leg. “Foolish, stupid, impatient, Xander.” I berated myself silently so as not to further startle the wounded beast of a norwulf.
I followed the trail of purple blood to the edge of the field. It led north into the mountains beyond the perch where I watched the flock from yesterday. I already was the most north that I’d ever been. Following the trail would mean venturing farther into the unfamiliar northern mountains. My mind was racing with all the information that went into the decision I had to make: Follow the wounded norwulf to the north into the mountains or return home to the south?
I would easily have enough rations if I returned to the hamlet by the bay now. I would probably have to spend one more night in the mountains before I would be home and could warm myself in a bed and eat a meal that didn’t taste like dirt. I would be hungry and tired, but it would be a fairly easy trip. However, this would mean that I’d return empty-handed. You know, I would have to accept that my hunt had failed. I would have to tell everybody about how I got my wounds and how I broke my bow and how I let the beast of a norwulf get away. Worst of all, this would surely mean the elders would not be impressed and I would not become a hunter.
If I went north and followed the norwulf, then there was much less certainty. I only had enough rations for one more day, maybe two if I was very frugal. My bow was broken, which meant that I would have to kill the norwulf with a blade that I held in my hand. It would be dangerous for sure, killing a norwulf with a blade that is. But it would be dangerous and brave. I don’t know if that’s been done before. And a norwulf that large, that would mean that my name would be known everywhere. Children would hear tales of Xander who killed the giant norwulf with his knife as they stared at my star in the sky. Grown men would be nervous to shake the hand that thrust a blade into the giant norwulf. And the elders would all be convinced that I was a brave man.
Sometimes your mind gets clouded by foolish aspirations. I feared that was happening to me now because I kept thinking about the story that would be told about Xander the hunter. I think that men tell the boys stories of the great hunters so in moments like this the boys make the foolish choice that pushes them beyond their fears. I convinced myself that I could kill the norwulf and could become a great and brave hunter. I decided to follow the blood trail north.