I gathered all my belongings that had been strewn about the icy surface of the frozen sea. Well almost all my belongings. I’d lost a short blade somewhere. One of the blades that dangled from my belt. Perhaps it was covered in snow. Perhaps it got kicked down the hole in the ice during the scuffle with the beast and rested on the bed of the sea. I really don’t know. And I really don’t care. My primary concern was getting shelter and starting a fire.
My hands and feet felt like clubs hanging from my body and I was worried about what hues of blues and purples my skin was turning. And the few parts of my arms and legs that weren’t numb started to feel achy again now that my heart calmed, you know, from getting dragged across rocks and getting rammed by the norwulf and all. This was a dangerous time. My body would start failing soon.
My wounded leg still hurt too much to put weight on it. The shooting pain still shot down from my left hip to my left toes, my face still grimaced, and I still cursed uncontrollably whenever I walked. It wasn’t even a walk, it was a pathetic limp. So I fashioned a sled out of my skis that I used to drag my bag across the ice.
What a pitiful sight I must have been. Wounded. Hungry. Tired. Cold. My one good leg dragging my bad leg and all of my body, one pitiful step at a time, dragging my bag. Thoren and the elders would surely be disappointed if they could see me right now.
I cursed myself real good for being such a pathetic sight. It warmed my blood and eased the pain, cursing that is.
I limped my body and dragged my belongings towards the mountains to the north where the norwulf had escaped. Well, I tried heading north anyways. It was terribly hard to navigate. The swirling snow made everything look white and hazy and the wind whipped across my frozen cheeks. I mostly stared at my feet when I walked, you know, to protect my face from the wind. And, when I did look up, the dark storm clouds made it impossible to locate the sun in the sky. It was just a blanket of grey rumbling clouds from one horizon to the next and the sun let out this dull light that didn’t come from any particular place. This whole place had this gloomy feel, like it wasn’t dark and it wasn’t light, it was just grey and cold. So I just put my head down and plodded through the snow and prayed to the Gods that I would stumble to someplace warm.
To be honest, the swirling snow made me feel a bit sick too. All I could see was a thousand little white dots whizzing past my face. And some of the snowflakes, which were more like tiny balls of ice, pelted off my eyeball, which hurt, like my eye was getting poked with a thousand little needles. The whole scene was disorienting, like I was falling off a cliff or something. It made me dizzy and lightheaded. I felt like my mind would start spinning and wouldn’t know which way was up or down and I was going to keel over onto the ice. I could vaguely see the mountains through the storm of swirling and twirling snowflakes. You know, some rough mountain-shaped objects somewhere on the horizon. But it gave me something to walk towards, the hazy mountains that is. I wasn’t really sure if those were the mountains the nowrulf had escaped into or not, but I desperately needed to find a windbreak and start a fire soon. I would consider it an auspicious event if it was anywhere near the norwulf to be honest.
“Just head towards those mountains,” I kept saying to myself. As long as I could hear my voice, then it meant that I was alive, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself as I trudged across the deepening snow, so I kept speaking aloud. You know, “head towards the mountain, Xander,” and “one foot in front of the other, Xander,” and “you’re almost there, Xander,” and stuff like that. I’d just say anything to will my body to take one more step. In an odd way, hearing my own voice was a bit reassuring too, like I wasn’t terribly alone out here in the unrelenting wilderness, like I had a friend in this struggle to survive. I tried not to think about how far away I was from the hamlet by the bay. And I tried not to think about how few rations I had left. No, those thoughts would not do me any good right now. If I thought about those thoughts I would just be afraid and depressed.
The snow deepened. I plodded my heavy feet, one after another, steadily towards the mountains. My right knee came nearly to my chest with each step just to get over the deepening snow and then my wounded left leg would sort of drag behind in this pathetic limp. It made for some odd footprints in the snow, you know, with one foot walking and one foot dragging. Anyways, only having one good leg made me real unstable too. The wind knocked my weak and wounded body over several times. Each time the wind pressed my body real hard I dropped to my knees, I cursed the pain that shot through my wounded leg, and then fell to the ground out of exhaustion. And each time I wanted to just lay in the snow and rest and cry at how much of a failure I was.
Some great hunter I am, wanting to cry and all. But I willed myself to get up immediately each time. “No lying in the snow, Xander,” I would yell out of fear that I would not get back up. Then I would curse the wind for blowing me down.
It was getting dark. I cursed myself for letting it get dark again. “Stupid, Xander. Foolish, Xander. How could you let it get dark again?” I thought about Thoren and the elders for a moment, about how they would be disappointed in the predicament I got myself into. Yep, I cursed myself real good as I limped slowly towards the mountains. It took my mind off my achy body and my exhaustion and the cold, the cursing that is.
So I reached the rocky beach and then I eventually reached the mountains. My body was exhausted from trudging through the snow. I desperately looked for something, anything, that would offer some relief from the wind. A nook or a cave or something. It was getting dangerously dark, my hands and feet hadn’t been felt in quite some time, and I needed to build a fire fast before my body started to fail.
The temperature drops quickly when it gets dark. My body shook violently. It really did. I shook so hard that I nearly lost my balance a few times. You know, my body would shake and then I would shift my weight or something and my knees weakened and I felt like I was gonna shake myself until I fell off my feet. I actually did once, shake myself to the ground that is. I was standing and shivering and the wind was swirling and then the ground just came closer and closer to my face until my face smashed into the powdery snow. Luckily the fall woke me up and I kept limping along.
I fumbled around in the dark. The wind dictated my direction more than my mind. And I kept stumbling over rocks that were buried in the snow and running into trees because I couldn’t even see the reach of my arms it was so dark. I eventually felt my way to a small cavity on the side of a boulder that was wedged in the saddle between two mountains. It wasn’t much, but it was better to try and make this work as a campsite rather than wander around in the dark looking for something better. If I crouched real low and hugged the boulder real tight, the wind blew overhead, which was the biggest relief of all.
I threw my bag down onto the ground, kicked away the snow until I reached the rocky ground, and hastily started scooping all the contents out of my bag into the dark. I know this was undisciplined and noisy and Thoren would be ashamed at his apprentice being so impatient and loud, but I needed to find my matches quickly.
I paused. My ears perked. The sound of the norwulf crying in the distance caught my attention. I thought I heard him earlier, the beast that is, but I wasn’t sure if it was the wind howling through the trees. But I heard him good and clearly this time. The beast was near.
“Focus, Xander. Fire first. Then you can think about the beast.” I was right, you know, to think about the fire first.
I knelt on the ground I’d just kicked clear and neatly laid a mittenful of cantaberry branches in a haphazard pile. I would have made a nice base of kindling, but my fingers were failing me and the wind was moving just enough, so the pile was haphazard. I clumsily dumped the matches from my leather satchel onto the ground in front of me. My mittens clawed at the ground trying to pick up a single match. My whole body violently shivered as I cursed the cold and my unresponsive fingers as my mittened hands raked the ground and unsuccessfully tried to grab a match. I cursed my numb and useless fingers for not listening to my mind. I finally clamped a match between my two mittens. I carefully raised it towards my face and then dropped it into the dark in front of me.
“Dammit,” I yelled into the snowstorm out of frustration. “Dammit to hell.”
I brought my face right to the ground where I’d dumped the matches. There was just enough of the dull light in the air that I could see if I brought my face right to the ground. I actually think my nose touched the snow at one point, but I’m not sure because my nose was too numb to feel anything.
It’s a scary feeling. You know, having it be so dark that you can’t see past your nose and the wind and beasts howling around you and having to start a fire to stay alive and all. But I could not think about being scared. Right now I had to focus on building a fire.
My mittens clumsily clawed away again at the ground, frantically trying to grab the matches. And these matches looked like the sticks and dirt that covered the ground, so I had to look real closely. Finally, I clamped another match between my mittens. I pressed my palms together so I didn’t drop it. It was an odd feeling, you know, with my numb hands in my thick leather mittens. It felt like I was trying to pick up a match with two clubs attached to my arms rather than with my hands. You know, I could see my hands and I could see the match, but there was no sense of feeling of my hands holding a match, just two lifeless limbs that I could vaguely control.
“Focus, Xander,”I spoke in a slow and reassuring voice. I brought the unlit match to my mouth and grabbed it between my chattering teeth. I then grabbed the match stone from the ground and held it between my mittened hands. “Focus,” I thought. I tried to run the stone across the head of the match I held between my teeth.
God, my whole body was madly shivering, which made it clumsy to do anything. I couldn’t see past my nose and I couldn’t feel anything, my hands, my lips, my face. Nothing. I was totally numb and shivering uncontrollably.
I could not drop this match. “Focus,” I said in my mind with a calm and reassuring voice. I closed my eyes and visualized my arms moving near my mouth. My eyes were not helping anyways.
After a few misses I finally ran the stone across the match. I could hear it ignite. The glow of the match pierced the darkness and lit up my face. My lips quivered and it took all my self-control to not let my teeth chatter and drop the match. I lowered my body onto my stomach and gently set the lit match onto my hastily-built pile of kindling. I then protected the small and fragile match from the wind with my body and my mittens like I was cradling a tiny baby in my hands.
My ears perked at another norwulf howl that echoed through the mountains. The beast is still near.
“Focus, Xander, you fool.” I snapped my attention back to the fire. “I must coddle this flame. This flame is the only thing that will keep me alive tonight. This fire is life. Fire first. Then the beast.” My shivering hands formed a cup around the flame as I cursed the wind howling around me. If I failed to build this flame into a fire, I wasn’t sure if I would have the wherewithal to strike a new match. I slowly fed more small branches onto the flame–one at a time and gently–and prayed the flame grew stronger. As the flame grew stronger, my hopes of survival also gained strength. It was as if the flames and my hopes were one and the same right now–as one grew, so did the other.
The small flame grew into a fire. Feeling came back to my hands and feet. It really hurt to, you know, having your hands and feet thaw like this, but the pain felt good. I kicked around in the snow for more firewood and more rocks to build a windbreak around the life-giving hearth that I’d created. I didn’t care about the size of the fire and how indiscrete it was. I didn’t care if every living creature in the mountains knew where my fire was, I was just glad to know that I would survive the night. So I piled on the wood as fast as I could find it which made the flames grow high.
I squatted with my back against the boulder and listened to the wind and the norwulf howl around me. I prayed to the starless sky that the storm would end soon. I was hunched so far over the fire that the flames were nearly reaching the beard that hung from my face. My body shook from being weak and cold so hard that it nearly knocked me over.
The blood slowly came back to my fingers. I must have slowly opened and closed my hands a hundred times and inspected them in the light of the fire. God that hurt, the blood coming back to my fingers that is. My mind had nothing to do but to churn over and over how much all the nicks and scrapes on my hands hurt, which made them hurt more, which made me think about it more, which made them hurt more.
My mind was too concerned about the fire to sleep. You know, that the fire would slowly weaken and the swirling winds would shift ever so slightly and my body would be so tired that it would not wake easily. And then, with one unfortunate gust of wind, the life-giving fire would be gone, the light would turn to dark, and the puff of smoke where the fire used to be would be quickly carried off by the wind into the mountains. Both the fire and I would be extinguished forever. I feared this so much that I stayed awake for the second night in a row.
There was only one other time I remember being alone and feeding a fire all night. That was when I left Norwick to join Thoren. You see, my father did not want me to leave Norwick and become a hunter. I told my father that “Thoren invited Xander, the boy who makes his arrows, to join him.” He, my dear and sweet father, told me that “Thoren is a hunter and that hunters say these things to the craftsmen. You know, hunters will flatter the craftsmen by complimenting their sons. Their words do not mean what they mean.” I did not believe him, my father that is, you know, that Thoren was only trying to flatter my father. I cursed my father and said that he was only saying these things because I was his only son and he was worried about his fletching business and who would care for him as an old man if I, his only son, left Norwick. I said many mean things that I now regret.
So anyways, I cursed my father and he cursed me. We cursed each other for several days and nights. Then I left Norwick one night. I told nobody. Not my father, not Ingrid, not my childhood friends. I gathered what few things I could carry and I left the grove. For two days and two nights I trekked to the hamlet by the bay to join Thoren. Both of those nights I could not sleep. I think I was regretful about the things I said to my father and how I’d left and I was nervous about joining Thoren and all. So I stayed awake for several nights in a row, feeding the fire little sticks and thinking thoughts.
I could hear the beast of a norwulf howling in the distance. He was probably calling out for his flock to find him. But each howl fed my resolve. If the beast was not sleeping, then I would not sleep either.
So I sat there, slowly churning my thoughts over and over in my mind, listening to the norwulf howl, and feeling the hundred small pains in my hands. It was a bit peaceful, you know, watching the glow of the flames and listening to the wood crackle while the storm violently swirled all around you. It was like I had a brief respite from the world–the hunt and Thoren and the elders–and I was given time to think.
I thought about impressing the elders with the great beast and winning patronage as a brave hunter and all. And I thought about the place on my forearm where I would proudly immortalize my kill with a new tattoo–a solid black stripe going across my left forearm just above my other tattoo. Young men would ask me to tell them the story behind the tattoo–”tell us about the norwulf you killed,” they would say–and I would tell them about the field with bluegrass and the frozen sea and me hunched over this fire the night before I slayed the beast. These dreams were comforting. They took me away from the cold, the dreams that is. In fact, for a moment I drifted off to sleep while I was crouched over the fire and nearly fell into the flames. Imagine that, I fell asleep while I was crouching. Luckily, I was startled from falling and my body woke in time to catch myself.
Some time in the night I’d ventured into the trees near my fire and felt around the dark for a large stick. I found a nice one, a large stick that is, that was nearly as tall as me and was just the right size for my clenched hand to hold. I wanted to be prepared for the norwulf the moment it became light enough to see. So I brought this stick back to my fire and, by the dim light of the flickering flames, I tethered a small blade to this stick to fashion myself a spear. For now I would wait and ensure my spear was strong. I must have rechecked the knot that held my knife to the stick a hundred times while I waited for the morning light to come. Strong stick, strong knot, sharp blade. I was satisfied with the weapon I’d created.
My bag was heavy. Especially now that my leg was wounded and my body was weak. And I could not drag it through the mountains like I did across the frozen sea, the bag that is. No, dragging a heavy bag would not work while I climbed mountains and cut through dense trees in pursuit of the beast. So I planned to stash it here, my bag that is, in the cavity by my fire, so I could travel light tomorrow as I stalked the beast.
In a few hours, I would use the remainder of my powdered medicine to dull the pain in my wounded leg, I would eat the remainder of my beans for strength, I would leave my belongings in the small cavity by my fire, and I would sing hunting songs to myself as I went to kill the beast.