The frigid wind whipped across the rocky beach and out to the open sea. It cut right through my parka and through my flesh and sent a chill straight into my bones. The swirling wind continued to pepper my face with snowflakes even though my cheeks were so numb that I’d long ago stopped feeling the pain in my face. And for a moment my teeth chattered so hard I thought they might break right inside of my mouth and I would have to spit out a mouthful of teeth parts onto the ground.
Yep, there was no doubt about it. I was probably as cold as I’d ever been in my life.
Even over the howling wind and through the muffled hood of my parka I could hear the beast’s claws grating against the ice as he was desperately trying to create a hole into the sea. What a spine-tingling sound, the beast’s long and hard claws grating against the hard sea ice that is. It reminded me of the sound of a man trying to saw through bone with a dull blade. Just a slow scrape, scrape, scrape of two hard materials grinding against one another that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. I tried not to imagine what those long claws would do to a man’s flesh. But I didn’t have to imagine, I knew. I tried not to think those thoughts though because it would make me less likely to act.
The twinge in the beast’s posture meant he was in pain from the hooked knife sticking into his back. You know, he had a slight lean to his posture, like one leg was longer than the other, and most of his work was being done by his right paw. The hooked blade must have stuck into the muscles that work the left paw. I’m not really sure I guess, but that would make sense. But he steadily pawed at the hole in the ice and didn’t seem to pay any attention to me staring at him from a distance.
Seeing my newly-cut twine laying next to me reminded me that the beast and I were no longer tethered together. If the beast slipped into the water he would be gone forever and this whole hunt would be a failure. There was slack in the twine, but nothing to tie it to. No trees out in the middle of the frozen sea and not even a large rock or something.
“I mustn’t let my beast get away,” I thought to myself, or perhaps I said that aloud, I’m not really sure. Anyways, I started referring to the norwulf as “my beast” because I needed my mind to stay focused.
My frozen and clumsy hands worked quickly tying the twine to my skis. These skis were as long as me. The plan was for these skis to form a cross that would catch the edge of the hole in the ice so the norwulf could not pull it through. It was makeshift and desperate, this contraption I was making out of skis that is, but I was desperate and it was the first idea that came to mind. I didn’t have time to think of other alternatives.
My numb and sore hands struggled to form the skis into a cross and to bind the skis together with the loose twine. The unnerving scraping and grating of the norwulf claws on the ice filled my ears. The beast is working fast, I must work fast. The numbness in my hands caused me to fumble the twine. The pressure of working quickly also caused my hands to fumble the twine a bit. And my body shivered from the cold, which made my hands even more clumsy. “Focus, Xander,” I instructed myself to slow down and make the knot tight. I peered at the beast. He was still clawing at the ice. I still had time. Finally, I had made a hasty knot around my skis and tightened it with all the strength my arms could muster.
I dropped the bag off my back onto the snow next to my skis and reached for some weapons. You know, anything that could be used to stab, poke, or bludgeon the beast. “Dammit,” I let out a yell that echoed through the valley. The belt loop holding my dagger was empty. It must have fallen out somewhere when I was being dragged. After my bow broke, I thought my dagger was the best choice of weapon to kill the beast. In my mind’s eye, I imagined stabbing the beast through the ribs with my dagger. There was no time to go back and look for it, my dagger that is, it was gone now. Besides, it would be covered by snow now anyways and would be impossible to find. I grabbed a short blade in one hand, my hatchet in the other, and sprinted towards the norwulf.
I really don’t know what had gotten into me over the past day. I am usually cautious, I really am, maybe even a little scared of norwulves, although I could never admit that to Thoren or any of the other apprentices. But my instincts seemed to take over my body as I ran towards the beast without much consideration of just how impatient and foolish my actions were. Perhaps, I thought, I may be brave after all.
My mind told my body to run faster than the icy surface of the sea would allow. My legs scampered quickly, but I clumsily slipped and slid my way across the frozen surface of the sea towards the beast. Both hands gripped weapons. And my blood warmed as it does right before you kill your prey. The beast methodically pawed at the ice, not paying any attention to me approaching him from behind. Right as I was within striking distance the beast slumped into the hole he’d been clawing at. My swinging hatchet came down hard and struck his back with a dull thud as he disappeared into the darkness of the sea below.
The beast’s body caused an overflow of water to spread outward from the hole and spill onto the frozen surface of the sea. The freshly-fallen snow absorbed the water and created a slush. The water bobbed up and down a few times within the hole until it calmed again.
The beast swam quickly. The twine quickly fed into the water. I rolled to the side to avoid the skis that flew across the frozen sea. There was a sudden jolt when the skis caught the edges of the hole. The wooden skis flexed, but held. I honestly couldn’t believe that the skis had caught the hole like I’d planned. It was another one of those unbelievable events that seems like it was from the hunting tales the old men tell the young boys. Even then, I expected either the skis to break or the hooked blade to tear out of the flesh of the norwulf’s back or something. But this make-shift contraption seemed to hold the beast.
I had hooked the beast.
To be honest, I am relieved the beast slipped into the water rather than fight because it is a fight I might not have won. Again, it seemed as if the Gods were protecting me from the worst outcomes of my impulses right now.
My skis flexed some more as my beast pulled harder from under the ice. The skis held again. And then another pull. The skis held once more. The beast would have to come back to this hole for air eventually. Norwulves can hold their breath longer than the strongest man, but they do need air. This beast was frightened and wounded. I didn’t know how much time I’d have before he resurfaced. But I had to ready myself for when he returned.
I knelt next to the hole in the ice. I laid out my weapons in preparation for when the norwulf re-emerged for air. The excited blood flowing through my veins made me forget about the cold and allowed me to work quickly. I had the remainder of my arrows, two short blades, a hatchet, and a skinning knife. I wished I had my dagger back and then I yelled at myself to focus on the tasks that needed to be done and to stop dwelling on my lost dagger.
My eyes stared down the hole in the ice and vigilantly watched for any signs of the beast.
God it was cold and lonesome out on that frozen sea. And, other than the swirling wind pressing against my body, it was silent. Not even the sea birds came out this far from shore. I sang hunting songs to distract myself and wiggled my toes to keep my blood flowing. All the while I stared into the hole in the ice. I laid on my stomach and hugged the ground closely. My head hung over the open hole in the ice and stared into the blackness of the sea. Perhaps I could somehow get below the punishing wind if I laid flat enough. But it was useless. I was completely exposed to the cold and stormy air swirling all around me.
Staring down that hole in the ice was terrifying. The twine quickly disappeared into a foggy blackness that seemed to have no end. It just disappeared into a vast nothingness. It actually made me fearful, looking down that hole that is, because it seemed to go on and on forever. Hanging my head over that hole in the ice felt like I was staring into the mouth of a whale, like I might get swallowed and there would be no escape. So I looked up instead. The mountains off in the distance were barely visible through the swirling snowstorm. God I just wanted to trek across the ice and find a windbreak within those mountains and build a warm fire.
“No! Focus, Xander. Don’t let your mind wander.” I imagined myself as an old man looking back at me laying on this icy sea and how disappointed I would be if I missed my chance at the norwulf. “Do not do anything that you will regret later as an old man. You are cold, but a strong mind can overcome this coldness.”
I held my breath as I waited to compare how long I could hold my breath to the great beast. I held my breath and then exhaled when I couldn’t hold it any longer. I did this many times before I conceded that the beast was superior to me in holding one’s breath. He was underwater for so long that the water in the hole had a thin layer of ice again. I broke the fragile ice away with my hatchet to keep the hole open.
The twine went slack and hung in the dark water as far as I could see. The tension on the skis was released. And there was a dark blob moving in the foggy sea inside of the hole in the ice.
My heart startled. Energy shot through my veins. Alertness filled my mind. I brought myself to my knees and tightly gripped an arrow and my hatchet. I clenched the weapons tightly in my fists. And for a moment I didn’t feel the stinging cold in my body.
The water in the hole bubbled. The blob grew quickly. Then the beast appeared, swimming quickly towards the opening in the ice, it’s face staring directly at my face waiting above. My muscles tightened. The norwulf peered its wooly head out of the hole and knocked the crossed skis to the side. Water poured out onto the surface of the ice and splashed my face. My arm struck the arrow down onto the beast’s face, but it glanced off the horn that ran along its nose and disappeared into the darkness of the sea. My other arm swung the hatchet down with a thud onto the beast’s back. My swinging hatchet threw up a splash of water onto my face as the beast disappeared back under water. It didn’t feel like a solid blow, but each blow would bring me one step closer to killing the beast, or so I told myself.
The norwulf disappeared into the water again. The skis were tugged back over the hole again. The twine was pulled taut again. And I laid my stomach onto the ice again.
My sleeve wiped the sea water from my face. Ice had already formed on my beard.
“Focus, Xander. Don’t let your mind wander.” I vigilantly watched the water.
The rush of striking the beast had warmed my body and concentrated my mind. I reassured myself that I had struck the beast many times with my hatchet.
The encounter with the beast left a pool of purple blood floating in the water in the hole in the ice. The blood froze into a thousand little round and purple pebbles of norwulf blood.
No time to rest. The line slackened and the tension on the skis released just as it had before. I saw the dark blob moving in the water below. It moved quickly towards the hole.
The beast sprang his front claws onto the edge of the hole, the frigid water rushed out of the hole and splashed against my body, and I could smell the beast’s salty breath as he let out a piercing squeal right into my face. I stuck him with an arrow in his side, but the arrow, having only a narrow shaft that was hard to grip, did not penetrate deeply. The beast’s wool protected him.
I swung my hatchet with all my strength and struck the beast by his front shoulder. Purple blood splashed across my chest. The beast squealed in pain.
Another swing of my hatchet landed with a thud on the beast’s shoulder. And then another. The beast squealed and writhed as I rained hatchet blows down onto his body as quickly as my arm could swing. The thrashing beast was throwing water all over as he struggled and squirmed to get out of the hole. I did not know how lethal the blows from my hatchet were, but I reasoned that each swing had to bring me closer to my goal of killing the beast. So I just kept swinging and swinging and swinging as if I was frantically trying to chop down a tree. And each swing landed with a dull thud that struck the beast’s body in no particular place.
The beast now brought his entire body out of the hole and stood on the ice in front of me. He tried to intimidate me with a thundering roar, but I did not let my fear stop me. I charged at him with my hatchet and swung, but his lowered head rammed through me and knocked me to the ice. I clenched my ribs in pain as the beast’s head struck my body and my body struck the hard surface of the frozen sea. My body slid a long way across the icy surface of the sea. My hatchet flew out of my hand. I really don’t know which direction or how far it flew to be honest. It all just happened so fast.
I could hear the beast’s paws thumping the ice as he scurried past my stunned body and towards the mountains. I crawled towards the leaving beast just in time to grab the twine that he was still dragging behind him. The twine slipped between the weak grip of my hands. I hastily wrapped the twine around my forearm. My body was jerked as the line pulled taut. And I was being dragged across the icy sea once again, this time inland. All of my weapons and my bag were left behind me as I commanded my hands to hold on tightly.
“Do not let go,” I yelled at my hands. “Do not let go you weak, weak hands.” But they were too weak. My hands were not responding to my mind’s commands. The twine unwrapped itself from my forearm and slipped through my grip as I cursed my hands for not listening to my mind. I laid on the icy sea and watched the norwulf trudge farther and farther away. The crossed skis bouncing behind him from the twine that was still coming from his back. Eventually the beast disappeared into the swirling snowstorm and, presumably, into the mountains to the north.
I laid on the ice for a while and felt the aching of my ribs and my wounded leg. I really don’t know how long I laid there. I think I cried too because the corners of my eyes hurt from the wet tears freezing to my face. I may have even fell asleep for a moment. I’m really not sure if I slept. But eventually I mustered the energy to stand up and limp back to the hole in the ice to gather my things. Without my things I would have no food and would not be able to build a fire. I could not feel my fingers and toes. Icicles hung from my bearded face. Even If I started a fire now, the cold might still take some of my fingers and toes. This was a very dangerous cold, my body might not last. And I was as good as dead out here in the frigid wilderness without food and fire.
The beast had gotten away for now, but it was badly injured.