xander rowe, chapter 5

I gathered my belongings and followed the trail of purple norwulf blood–a few drops here, a smear there– that left the north end of the field. It disappeared into the mountains, the trail of blood that is, and I followed. I tried not to think that each of my steps took me farther from the hamlet by the bay and farther from a warm bed and farther from food that doesn’t taste like dirt. And I tried not to think about how each step meant I was deeper and deeper into these unknown mountains and my rations were getting less and less sufficient for a safe return. No, I tried not to think of those things. 

On the other side of my mind I also knew that it was foolish not to think of those things, but I tried to quiet that side of my mind so I could focus on tracking the beast. I needed blind faith that if I single-mindedly pursued the beast that everything would somehow work out. It was a foolish thought, you know, ignoring how far you’ve traveled and how many rations you have left and all, but that is what it takes to be brave, blind faith that compels you to go beyond the point of rational behavior, or so I told myself.

So, despite more sober thoughts, I followed the trail of blood farther and farther north into the mountains and I kept telling myself how brave I was for doing so. 

It was not an easy thing to do, follow the blood that is. I hadn’t done it much because my hunting party usually killed the norwulves cleanly, which means there is not much tracking to do. The norwulves laid where they were struck down by the arrows and the apprentice hunters would field dress them right on the spot. You know, remove the innards and leave a pile of guts in the fields where the fallen norwulves would lay. But the fact that I kept finding new drops of blood each ten paces or so meant that the beast was both wounded good and still moving at a decent clip through the mountains. 

I took solace in thinking that Thoren would be proud at his apprentice tracking the norwulf blood so well, or at least that’s what I told myself. Like it took skill to follow a trail of purple blood through the woods. It really just took patience. 

I told myself that I needed to remember all these things, like the tracking of blood, because I will need to retell them to the elders when I return with the great norwulf beast. They will surely ask for my story and I want to be sure to impress them. 

The sun steadily lowered in the sky and the shadows got longer as I walked farther and farther north. I would soon run out of daylight and the cold air would soon get colder. I would not find the beast of a norwulf tonight. But I would pick up the blood trail in the morning and continue my hunt tomorrow when I am rested. 

I set up my resting spot much like I did the night before. I gathered cantaberry branches and made a fire and stacked the stones neatly around the flames. I neatly laid out my blades so they didn’t rest on the soil. I ate a potful of bracca beans. And I complained to myself at how much the beans tasted like dirt. Even though my body was weakened, I cut back on my rations. I wasn’t sure if that was a wise decision or not, you know, to cut back my rations because my wounded body needed nutrition with being tired and wounded and all. I really didn’t know how much longer I could make these beans last. Perhaps two more meals. Three at most. And that would not be leaving me with any emergency rations. 

The coldness of the air becomes even more intense when the sun goes down. God it was cold in these mountains. My mind had been busy all day tracking the blood trail and I forgot to complain much about the cold. Now that I was hunched by the fire and had food in my belly and the dark had filled the air I thought I would complain a bit to pass the time. So I rested my mittens by the fire and held my bared palms to the heat of the flames. It’s such an odd feeling, you know, to have your palms be warmed by the fire and the backs of your hands be cold from the air. Anyways, I stared at the backs of my hands and cursed the cold air for being so damn nippy and unforgiving. 

After a while I snapped my attention back to the important things. “No time for complaining about the cold, Xander. You are a hunter. And hunting is done in the cold. And great and brave hunters do not complain about the cold. Children complain about the cold. You are a man, not a child.” I was right, there was work to be done. I needed to tend to the wound in my thigh, sew my pants where the arrow had pierced my leg, and I needed to rest my body. 

So I tended and sewed and rested in the flickering lights of the fire. 

It’s an eerie feeling when you stare up at the night sky and there are no stars staring back. These clouds rolled in late in the day as the sun was setting, these thick and smokey clouds, but I hoped they were just passing overhead. But they kept coming and thickened as the day went on, the clouds in the sky that is. I feared they were storm clouds. But there was nothing I could do about it now, the weather that is. If a storm was coming, it would not matter whether I wanted it to come. 

So the thick and smokey clouds rolled in from the north, the sun disappeared below the mountains, and now there were no stars of the great hunters in the sky. 

The weather changes quickly in the mountains, perhaps it was just a few passing clouds. That last thought, the one about these clouds quietly passing through, comforted me enough for me to sleep. So I crawled inside of my bag and laid my head down and went to sleep for the night. I dreamed of the giant norwulf and prayed that tomorrow I would be given a chance to kill him. 

My sleep was restless. My mind raced. The powdered medicine wore off and my leg hurt, but not so badly that I wanted to fumble around in the dark and the cold to apply more medicine. So I laid in my bag, half awake, and feeling the throbbing of my wounded leg. It was getting stronger as the night went on too, the throbbing in my leg that is. It was really bothersome, I tossed and turned trying to find a way that I could lay my body so my leg didn’t hurt. But I couldn’t find a comfortable position. And all the tossing and turning and throbbing in my leg made it impossible to sleep. And I worried about the clouds in the sky and whether they were storm clouds even though I’d sworn that I wouldn’t worry about them. And I tried to calm my mind by telling myself stories of great hunters, but the stars were covered and my mind couldn’t tell the stories without the stars. And I had brief thoughts about waking up and heading back south. “Perhaps I’d made a mistake in pursuing this beast north into the mountains,” I wasn’t sure if I thought that to myself or said it aloud. About that last thought, the one about whether it was a mistake to pursue this beast north into the mountains, I tried to silence that thought with even grander thoughts of killing the great beast and becoming a hunter. 

When I was a child and Thoren would visit Norwick in the summer and entertain the craftsmen with his tales of hunting glory, he would visit my father’s shop, just like he did for all the other craftsmen, and pick up the arrows and ask my father questions about the arrowheads and the fletchings. And my father would answer. He had this deep timbre in his voice when he spoke too, Thoren that is. It made him sound very strong and wise. So Thoren would hold the arrows in his strong hands and ask these questions and I think he was sizing up my father’s character more than learning about the arrows. You know, like he wanted to know that the man who made his arrows was an honest man or something. He was honest too, my father that is. Anyways, I remember the first time that I’d seen Thoren in my father’s shop. He was tall and muscular and when he’d pick up an arrow you could see him imagining the arrow flying through the sky towards a norwulf chest. I remember hiding from him, under a table or something, and watching from a distance like the shy child I was. And he would pretend to not see me hiding and watching. That was nice of him, to pretend not to see me and all. Anyways, it was like a God had walked into my father’s shop, which was a really big deal for a little child. It really was, a big deal that is. I remember there were many solid black lines tattooed on his forearms too. I don’t remember how I’d learned it, but a hunter gets a new black line tattooed across his forearm each time he kills a norwulf. Perhaps I asked my father about the tattoos and perhaps he told me what they meant. I really don’t remember. 

So there I was, half awake in my bag trying to stay warm. And I was thinking back at the first time I’d seen Thoren’s tattooed forearm. 

I only had one tattoo on my forearm. In the second year of my apprenticeship, which would be three years ago from now, I was a driver on the first norwulf hunt of the season. You know, we were trying to push the norwulf flock towards the setters. I was real inexperienced. I’d never even shot an arrow at a norwulf the entire first hunting season. So there we were, pushing this flock of norwulves towards Thoren and the other setters, when a juvenile boar got spooked by one of the other apprentices and ran around in circles in a panic. This boar must have got disoriented in all the confusion because he turned right towards me. My hands were shaky. So shaky that I nearly shook the arrow right off the rest. I drew my bow and my fingers released the arrow. And the bow let out this twang that it does when the string throws an arrow. The shot was true. And the arrow drove deep into the norwulf chest and through his heart. The norwulf fell to the ground. There was no blood trail to follow. 

When we returned to the hamlet by the bay I got to retell that story dozens of times as the apprentices toasted our mugs of ale and swapped stories of the hunting season. So I smiled and laughed and toasted many times about how I killed a norwulf with my first shot ever. But there was no blood trail. 

The air was still cold and the clouds still smothered the light from the stars in the sky. I rubbed the sole tattoo on my arm as I thought about my one and only norwulf kill. 

My father died two days before we left for that hunt. So he never got to see my tattoo and he never got to tell his friends about his son, Xander, the little boy from Norwick who killed a norwulf on his very first shot. 

Some of the other apprentice hunters have many tattoos. Everybody says that we’re a hunting party, you know, that we should take pride in the success of the party and not the individual, but all the apprentices know how many tattoos each other has. I mean, that’s why we tattoo our forearms when we kill a norwulf, you know, to keep track of how many kills we, as individuals, have. I mean, if it was really where we only cared about how many kills our hunting party has, then we would get tattoos when our party kills a norwulf or not get tattoos at all or something. One of my good friends, Sem, has seven tattoos. Seven! And Sem became an apprentice hunter a year after me. When I compare my forearm to Sem’s, I get real jealous. Perhaps the elders were right, you know, about me not being a hunter and all. 

Anyways, we being young men and there being many more apprentices than positions for hunters, it creates this situation where all the apprentices are competing with one another for how many tattoos you have on your arm. 

So I spent the whole night thinking about how desperately I wanted to get another tattoo on my forearm. It was a nice thought, getting another tattoo that is. It kept me warm. But it’s also frustrating when you are tired and you cannot sleep because your mind is racing and you know you will be tired the next day. 

So the sun slowly rose over the eastern mountaintops. It was so cloudy so the sun just created this dull glow behind the thick clouds in the sky that created a hazy and smoky light. I felt tired and sore. And now that I was fumbling around my resting place gathering my belongings I was even more cold. I was tired and sore and cold. 

The clouds above were all sorts of greys and blacks. Storm clouds. Dammit. 

I found the trail of purple norwulf blood and continued following it through the valleys of the mountains as the storm clouds rumbled unsettlingly in the sky above. It really sounds ominous in the mountain valleys too, the rumbling of storm clouds that is. The sounds just bounce around the rock walls and scares your soul. The rumbling clouds also sound a bit like rolling rocks, so you always get this eerie feeling that you are going to get caught in an avalanche or something too. You know, you hear the thunder roll and your body jumps like there are rocks tumbling down onto you or something. 

Anyways, if it snowed I may lose the trail of blood. God that would be such an unfortunate turn of events, you know, if the snow covered the blood trail. 

I walked for a while, perhaps an hour, and came upon a matted thicket of grass and bushes that were covered in purple norwulf blood. This is where the beast had slept last night. Knowing that I was standing where the beast laid invigorated my mind. It made me forget about the soreness of my wounds and the tiredness of my mind and the coldness of my body and the rumbling of the storm clouds above. I forgot those things at least for a moment. Rather, I started having flashes of me returning to the bay with the great beast and everybody would chatter about my bravery. 

I repeated over-and-over thoughts that made me less cold. You know, stuff like “the beast is close,” “the beast is wounded,” and “the beast is mine for the taking.” And these thoughts kept my mind busy as I pushed deeper and deeper into the mountains. 

At midday I saw the first flake of snow swirl and twirl through the twisting wind of the mountain air. I don’t know if that snowflake ever touched the ground, you know, it just sort of blew through the air and got carried in whichever direction the wind blew it. Then more flakes fell from the grey sky and were swept up in the wind and all of those flakes were swirling and twirling through the air. Some of those flakes must have reached the ground because the snow was gathering now. The wind gained strength too. “I must keep following the purple blood before it’s all covered in snow and is lost forever,” I said to myself as I put my head down and pushed into the wind. This was my last chance to get this beast. If I ever wanted to become a hunter, I needed to find every last ounce of courage and resolve in my body and put it to use right now. 

However, just as my mind was more determined than ever, the storm increased. Enough snow had fallen that I could see my footprints. The rocks of the mountains became slippery in the fresh snow. And the trail of purple norwulf blood was covered. Gusts of wind often knocked me to my knees. A real cold wind too, the kind that shoots frigid air into your hood and down your back and chills your body. The type of chill that really shivers your body and makes your bones rattle. “The gods were trying to hinder me,” I complained to the empty mountains. 

The snow deepened. It was over my feet now. I put on my snowshoes and trudged through the mountains. 

My pursuit of the beast had slowed as my mind was thinking about seeking shelter from the storm. 

One more peak. I promised myself that after I reached the top of this small ridge that I would find some shelter and rest my body and try to warm myself. I planned on reaching the top of the ridge and assessing the landscape. You know, look for a path forward or for some shelter or something. 

I was not prepared for what I saw. At the top of that ridge, the one that I’d promised myself would be the last one that I’d climb, I saw him there. The giant norwulf beast was plodding through the valley below. I instinctively dropped to my knees so my body did not make a silhouette on the mountaintop. Shelter from the storm would have to wait.

He was magnificent, the norwulf beast that is. He looked both small from being so distant and bigger than I remembered. You could tell how large he was from the size of his body and how he’d plod through the snowstorm. The snow gathered on his shaggy, woolly pig body and his wounded left wing was held tentatively in this sort of uneven cocked position on his back. He was hurt for sure. But he seemed determined to escape me. You know, his giant three-toed feet pounded through the fresh, white snow as I watched him slowly inch forward through the valley. He had no intention of stopping. 

The heart in my chest pounded with excitement, which made me forget about how cold I was. “We meet again,” I talked quietly to the beast. 

I cursed the bad luck that caused me to break my bow. I cursed it to hell. If I had my bow I would be able to strike the beast with an arrow from a distance. Even with the swirling wind, my bow would be the best tool for this job. “Not now, Xander, there is no purpose in cursing your broken bow. That is a useless thought.” My bow was broken and now I would have to kill the beast with one of the blades I carried around my belt. 

From the top of the ridge where I stood, I also could see exactly where the norwulf was headed. The rock-covered mountains were ending and evolved into a rocky shore that met an ice-covered sea. Unlike the steep and deep mountains, the frozen sea created a flat terrain that went all the way to the horizon. The norwulf was headed towards the water. 

I should have known the sea was near. I’d seen a sea bird earlier. The bird brought back flashes of my first hunt with Thoren. That first hunt was the first time I’d seen a sea bird in my life because they don’t fly as far inland as Norwick. Later that day, you know, the day of my first hunt, was the first time I’d seen the sea and smelled the salty scent of the sea water. Instead of this memory, I should have known the sea was near. But that was right before the storm began so I forgot to think deeply about it, the sea bird and the idea that I was close to the sea that is. I really frustrate myself sometimes. I saw a bird earlier and I should have thought harder about what that meant. This sea would not have been unanticipated if I was paying attention. My mind wanders when I need to be more attentive. “When I become a great hunter, and I have apprentices of my own, I must be more attentive,” I told myself. I mean, if I want to tell my apprentices they must be attentive, I would have to be attentive myself. 

“Not now. Focus, Xander. Do not think about the things you must tell your apprentices.” I snapped my mind back to the beast below. “The norwulf is headed for the sea.”

You see, you wouldn’t know it by looking, but norwulves are excellent swimmers, even in the icy waters that would kill a man from the cold. They can hold their breath for a long time too. Much longer than even the strongest man. The fact that they are not only large and powerful beasts, but that they can fly and swim is what makes them such impressive prey, the norwulves that is. And escaping into the water is one way that norwulves evade hunters. They go deep into the water and wait. They wait for a long time. Then they surface far away. Thoren had told me that once, you know, about the norwulves escaping into the water, although I’d never actually seen it before. I had to quickly descend the mountain and cut off the beast before he reached the water.