xander rowe, chapter 6

The beast of a norwulf pounded and plodded one heavy foot after the other through the fresh snow and towards the sea. 

God it was cold. The biting wind blew the snowflakes into my frozen face and it felt like a thousand needles pelting my cheekbones at each moment. The snow that was blown directly into my face was caught in my beard, which made my blonde-colored beard appear white like an old man. And my eyes were a hue of red that only comes from hours of the frigid wind brushing over your face. You know it’s cold when your eyeballs are so cold that it hurts to blink. 

I knelt on the top of the snowy ridgetop. The thoughts in my mind aimlessly swirled just like the stormy wind with what to do next. 

“I must not think, I must do.” I actually said this to myself as if it was a plan rather than meaningless words. My mind rallied my body’s energies. I didn’t really know what I’d do once I started to act. But I guess I thought I could will myself to act wisely if I pretended to be more decisive that I really was. You know, pretend to be brave and you might actually act bravely or something. 

So I tied the hooked blade that hung from my belt to the end of my roll of twine that hung from my belt and headed down the mountainside. If all went well, my instincts would take over and guide my actions. I’d heard a tale of a great hunter who snagged a norwulf with such a setup, you know, a hooked blade with twine tied to it. This hunter hooked the norwulf with their hooked blade and tied the norwulf to a tree. I forget the rest of the story, but I remembered the part about snagging the beast. That incomplete memory was enough for me to act. 

It didn’t seem like a great idea, hooking the norwulf and all, and I had no idea how this would all play out, but it was the first idea that came to mind. By the time I’d realized this was not a well-thought plan my body was already moving down the mountain. As I ran, I convinced myself this was a brave idea even though I knew that was just me trying to calm my doubts. 

This hooked blade, the one that hung from my belt and the one that I tied to the end of my twine, was given to me by my good friend, Sem. Sem was another one of Thoren’s apprentice hunters. Well, sort of. You see, he joined our hunting party in my second hunting season, Sem that is. The thing is that Sem’s father, Magnus, was Thoren’s noble patron. That means that Magnus pays for Thoren to hunt the norwulves and pays for Thoren’s gear and rations and apprentices and stuff. Magnus is a very powerful man, which means his son, Sem, also is an important young man and had been from the moment he was born. 

I chuckle each time I think about being born an important young man. Imagine a helpless baby, not even able to hold his own head up, not knowing a single thing about the world, and grown men think of this baby as important just because his father is important. I mean, I suppose the men treat the baby as important merely so the father sees them treating them as important, but the whole situation seems silly to me, you know, grown men fawning over a baby. And here’s the real silly part, the father is only important because his father was important who was only important because his father was important and it goes on and on until there are so many generations of important fathers and their important sons that the name itself is the only thing that matters. I mean, all these important people are being important, but nobody is doing anything important. I suppose that somewhere in this chain of fathers and sons that somebody must have actually done something important, you know, other than be born important, but that information tends to get forgotten in the retelling of the story so many times. 

I guess that’s the way the world works though. You know, some men are important because they do brave things and some men are important because they are born that way. 

I laugh at the absurdity of it all, you know, the important fathers with their important sons. But I also feel sort of sad for these important babies, like Sem. You know, they are born an important young man, but they don’t know they are important because they’re a baby. And they certainly haven’t done anything brave, you know, on account of being a baby and all. But at some point these babies will grow to be children and somebody tells them they are important or they start to figure out how the world works and at some point they must start to think of themselves as important and all. I’m not really sure exactly how it happens, but at some point they must realize that other people think of you as important. That must be an odd feeling, that feeling of unearned importance that is. And I feel sad, you know, to be treated as important and then find out that it’s not because of anything you’d done but just because you have the right father.

Anyways, my good friend Sem is an apprentice hunter just like me, but he will never become a hunter nor does he want to become a hunter. Some day, when Magnus dies, Sem is going to inherit his father’s wealth and will become an important man who is a patron of hunters too. Magnus sent Sem to hunt with Thoren so he could learn about the hunting culture, you know, drink sponami and sing hunting songs and stuff. I guess this experience is supposed to make Sem a wise patron because he’d been on a few norwulf hunts and slept under the stars in the mountains and all. Really I think it just gives Sem the adventures that young men like to have. You know, adventures about hunting and stuff that he could use to impress other young men or a woman or something. I bet that Magnus’ father made him be an apprentice hunter too when he was Sem’s age. I don’t know. I should ask Sem about it sometime. Anyways, hunting is sort of like a long vacation for Sem. Something to do while he waits for his father to die. 

You see, there is a time when the children of noble patrons are old enough that they are not children, but are young enough that their fathers are still alive. The children are not children and are not yet the head of the family. It is during this time that they are young men with all the energy that young men have and they sit idly waiting to inherit their father’s wealth. And so they use their fathers’ wealth to occupy their time and seek some sort of outlet for their youthful energies. Some of them hire the wisest men as their tutors and read the wisest books in hopes that they too will become wise or at least sound wise or something. Some join a fishing boat and learn the ways of navigating by the stars and enjoy the adventures of seeing exotic ports and maybe even catch a few fish. And some, like Sem, hunt. I guess they want to prove that their lives of privilege has not dulled their instincts that make them a man, you know, that they are still capable of being afraid and proud and brave and stuff. Without these little divergences they would never have a chance to feel these feelings. Maybe they want to prove that they are important all by themselves and not just because of who their fathers are. I don’t know really. I probably shouldn’t speculate too much either. I mean, Sem is a good guy and all, even if he treats hunting more like a hobby, so I don’t want to say he isn’t really important. It’s just that he’s important because of who his father is that’s all. 

No matter what, these children who are born important always end up just being wealthy and important. You know, they don’t ever end up being a fisherman or a hunter or a wise man. They fool around for a few years while they are young fishing or hunting or learning how to sound wise. Then they grow up to be important, wealthy, and old. Their fathers die, they inherit their father’s wealth, and then they wait to die so their sons can have their turns being wealthy. 

So Sem joined our hunting party a few years back. It’s not like Thoren had a chance to tell Magnus “no” or anything. Sem just wanted to feel fear and pride and to occupy his time until he was a few years closer to becoming a noble patron when his father passed. He wanted to kill a norwulf so he could brag to his other important friends that he killed a norwulf when he was a young man. 

As you would expect from the son of a noble patron, Sem had the best equipment too, you know, the warmest boots, the strongest bow, and whatnot. So Sem had this nice curved blade of a knife. I remember telling him that it looked like the moon hanging from his belt because it had this crescent shape and it glistened a bit when the light hit the smooth silver metal just right. It was new too, meaning it had never touched blood before, the knife that is, which is why it glistened. And one day we were on a hunt and Sem was looking the wrong way, which can happen in all the commotion of a norwulf hunt, and nearly got ran over by a charging norwulf. I mean, I don’t know if he was frozen with fear or if he was watching a bird fly in the sky or what, but he would have got ran over by that norwulf if I hadn’t grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him out of the way at the last moment. I mean, the very last moment. I saved Sem’s life that day. I did too, save his life that is. I mean, I wasn’t just going to watch another man get ran over. Anyways, that was the time Sem realized that hunting wasn’t just a vacation or a hobby, but that being a hunter was dangerous work. 

I think that’s exactly the type of experience Magnus wanted Sem to have, you know, almost getting killed and all. The funny thing is that Sem seemed to like it, you know, almost being killed and all. Later at the camp he kept feeling his chest and how his heart had never beat that hard before in all his privileged life and he talked about how exciting the hunt was and how Xander had pulled him to safety at the last moment. And he always had this big toothy grin when he said it too like almost getting killed was the best thing that happened to him, like it was a thrill or something. And the norwulf got bigger and faster and closer each time that he told the story. I got the sense that Sem had never really felt the fear of death in his entire privileged life before. Maybe he was afraid of an unfamiliar sound in the dark or something, but those are petty and childish fears that everybody has. Sem had probably never got the rush of actually fearing for your life, you know, where you almost die and all. And so Sem felt the thrill of his heart instinctually racing and the fire that fills your blood that can make a man feel strong enough to lift the heaviest rock. You aren’t even aware that you are capable of these feelings until you are in those moments and then the primal parts of your mind and body take over. And I’m sure that Sem had never felt that way in his whole privileged life. 

But the funny thing about Sem is that he also never really understood that he nearly died. I mean, almost dying was part of his story that he told and retold and all, but I don’t think he really understood the dying part if that makes sense. It was like he thought that sons of important fathers don’t die over things like a charging norwulf or something. So Sem got all the excitement and none of the fear of almost dying. What should have been a humbling experience became, in fact, an emboldening one. And so he would chase that thrilling feeling that you get when you almost die. This made him do foolish things sometimes. 

So I saved Sem’s life from the charging norwulf. Hunters have this tradition where you give somebody a knife if they save your life and all. So Sem, wanting to learn the ways of the hunters, gave me this new knife with the blade that was curved like the moon because I saved his life. It’s supposed to be a big deal, you know, giving another hunter a knife and all, because knives are tools to be cherished. Knives are the products of hours and hours of labor that must be honored. And fathers hand them down to their sons, knives that is. But to Sem, these knives were not to be cherished. They were merely a possession to him. A thing. It’s not like Sem disliked these knives, it’s just that he lacked cherishing them if you know what I mean. So he went through the feelingless motions of handing me the knife and it was no big deal to him. 

That knife has proudly hung on my belt on every hunt since I saved Sem’s life. 

I ran down the mountainside to try and cut off the beast before he reached the sea. I held the knife with the curved blade–the blade that Sem gave me–in my hand as I ran too. This was a dangerous thing to do, running with a blade that is, because the snow was slick and the wound on my leg was hurting and it would be very easy to fall on one of the rocks buried in the snow and hurt yourself. But running down the snowy and steep mountain with a knife was another one of those things that is only foolish and dangerous if I don’t kill the norwulf. If I succeed, then foolishly running down the snowy and steep mountain will be a brave thing. The more foolish, the more brave. 

God my leg hurt. The sharp pains shot down my leg as I ran. I wished I’d applied more of the powdered medicine to my wounds. But there was no time for that now. I must focus on staying upright as I make my way down the mountain so I can kill the beast. 

So there I was, running down the mountain, the curved blade was clenched in my fist, my wounded leg was throbbing, I had some vague plan about hooking the beast that I’d vaguely remembered from some tale I’d heard once, and the norwulf heard me closing in on him. The beast’s pace went from this steady plod to a slow gallup. His giant three-toed claws threw up the freshly-fallen snow to make this cloud of snowflakes that followed his body. That was the first time I knew the norwulf had seen me, when he picked up his pace and all. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I reached the bottom of the mountain either. I just knew that I was running to get close to the beast and I hoped my instincts would guide my actions. 

This whole endeavor seemed foolish, but the Gods were with me, or so I told myself. The norwulf would be running directly below a small ridge at the same time I would be above. 

The pain in my leg shot from my left hip down to the toes of my left foot as I launched myself recklessly from the small ridge into the air. While in the air I had another one of those moments where time moves slowly because I remember thinking both about how brave and instinctual it was for me to leap down onto the back of the wounded norwulf and, at the same time, at how impatient and foolish this choice was. Even if I timed my jump perfectly, there was little assurance that landing on the norwulf would end well. I’d probably hit my body hard onto a flapping wing or something and seriously hurt myself. But I jumped and I was falling and it was foolish and reckless and there was no turning back. 

My falling body landed right on top of the beast’s back and I drove my curved knife as hard as I could between his shoulders. I felt like a hero in the stories that old men tell young boys because I’d actually landed on top of the beast and I actually drove the blade through the wooly fleece of the beast and into his back meat. I could feel the warm norwulf blood run into the beast’s yarny hair and onto my cold hands. The norwolf squealed in pain and bucked wildly. He violently flapped his wings and bucked his head back to try and strike me or throw me off or something. But I gripped my free hand into the beast’s long hair and hung on tightly as the beast convulsed in pain.

I pressed my weight into the back of the blade to drive it deeper and deeper into the beast’s muscular back. There was nothing but meat as far as my blade could reach. This second thrust made the beast squeal even louder and flail even more violently. 

I was thrown clear of the beast, my body slammed into the snow-covered ground, but my curved knife had stuck. 

So there I was, laying on the ground. One end of the twine was tied to the curved knife stuck into the back of the norwulf and the other end was tied to my belt. 

Thankfully the beast’s instinct was to flee and not fight. The impact of my body being thrown into the rocky ground dazed my mind and knocked the wind from my lungs. It was an odd feeling, like the world spun around me for a moment as I laid on the rocky beach listening to the ringing in my ears. I don’t think I was knocked out, you know, where I wasn’t awake or anything, at least it didn’t feel like it, but I’m not really sure. But I would have been defenseless had the norwulf turned his ire towards me. 

In the tales of the great hunters, the elders do not tell the young boys how much these brave acts hurt. Probably because that would make them sound less brave. I don’t know, it seems like the pain makes these acts sound more brave to me. Anyways, my body hurt from jumping and landing on the beast’s back and my body hurt when I was thrown to the rocky beach. No, actually doing these acts hurts much more than they tell you in the stories. 

God, being brave is rough, which is the point I suppose. If it was easy to be brave, then everybody would be brave and then the brave acts would not be brave. 

The norwulf ran across the rocky beach and took up all the slack in my twine until the jolt of the twine being pulled taut and yanked my body. My arms and legs hung lifelessly from my body. Reaching the end of the twine simultaneously dug the knife deeper into the beast’s back and jerked my body from its rest. This was accompanied by the norwulf letting out another one of his piercing squeals of pain, you know, the ones that make your bones rattle out of fear. I suppose it was a squeal of pain, but I’m not sure. 

The strong beast easily pulled my body as he continued to run towards the sea. I was helplessly sliding and bouncing across the gravelly beach. 

This was brutal, I’d never been drug across the ground like this before. But here I was bouncing across the rocky beach, my body rattling off each bump on the ground. I felt like a little fish that the little boys back in Norwick would catch and then keep on a string and then run across the banks of the streams to proudly show their father. They’d run and hold the string, the children that is, and the fish would be dragged behind the children’s feet bouncing across the ground and desperately flailing and flopping to try and escape even though it was futile. 

This jostling and rolling and bouncing from being drug across the beach woke up my mind. The ground was so frozen and rocky and hard that I was sure that I’d have a thousand small bruises when my heart stopped racing. 

My arms and legs were flailing and being pulled under my body. My body rolled from stomach to back to stomach again. I tried desperately to grab rocks and dig in my feet to resist the beast’s power. But it was useless. The beast was too strong. I ended up with a thousand little nicks and cuts on my hands from trying to dig into the dirt or hold onto a rock or something but, despite my frenzied attempts at resisting, the beast easily pulled me at his will. 

Perhaps my resistance was actually causing the beast to pull harder. I really didn’t know. So I stopped trying to resist the beast’s pulls and I tried to grab the rope or something just to make my body less hurtful as I was being dragged. 

I ended up gripping the rope with both hands and being dragged on my side. The bouncing off the rocks still hurt, but this was the least bad position. 

Finally my body stopped being dragged across the beach. Relief. I finally caught my breath and thanked the Gods for stopping the punishing experience of being dragged by the beast. I laid on my back and looked up at the snow still falling from the grey sky above and just slowly opened and closed my hands a few times. God that felt both painful and relieving to just open and close my hands. 

I looked up to see the norwulf clawing at a small hole it had found in the icy sea. 

God, I’d never felt so beat up in all my life. “No time for complaining, Xander, the beast is busy.” I yelled at my mind to focus on my next steps. I was right too, to remind my mind to be focused that is, because I was tethered to this beast who was clawing at the ice to go under the water. If I did not act quickly, then I might get pulled under the water too and I would surely die.

I rolled my achy body onto its stomach and mustered the energy to get to my knees. I took off my mittens that were tattered from trying to resist the beast’s will and I worked my sore fingers at untying the knot that held the twine to my belt. The beast had pulled that knot too tightly to undo, at least too tightly to undo with my sore fingers. My hands were not working well, you know, being all sore and gnarled. But I clumsily removed one of my short blades from my belt and sawed through the twine to free myself. 

I could have walked away right then and there. I was untethered from the beast. He could go under the water and escape my pursuit. I could start my trek home to the hamlet by the bay. But no, I could not stop. I had to banish those thoughts from my mind. I implored my mind to continue hunting the beast. I would have to remember this decision to tell the elders when I returned, you know, that I decided to continue hunting the beast after being dragged across the beach, because they would be impressed at my persistence and bravery. 

I felt proud too. You know, to continue hunting and all. Perhaps there was something in my soul that only brave hunters have. That something that pushes you to pursue the hard option even though it may be a dangerous option.