xander rowe, chapter 9

The blanket of darkness that filled the night slowly softened. There would be no sunrise today, just a somber and colorless light that would eventually fill the air. Just like yesterday, today also would be grey. 

The storm still whipped the snowflakes through the mountain air in no particular direction–just around and around in this violent swirling pattern–that resulted in everything being chilled and fragile. It hadn’t ceased all night, the wind that is, because the distinct swirling sound never stopped. 

I climbed out of my bag and was greeted with the unforgiving coldness that filled the air. I fed a few small branches into the still smoldering embers of my fire to warm my hands and face. God, it was cold out. 

“It is time to be brave and win your future, Xander.” It took all my effort for my mind to convince my body that it could withstand the cold that awaited me beyond the reach of my fire. 

My ears perked. The norwulf howled in the distance just like it had been howling on and off throughout the night. And loudly too. As loudly as the gusts of wind howled, and they were loud, the norwulf howled louder. 

Hearing that howl, that sad and gloomy howl of the wounded beast reaching out for his flock, was just the nudge I needed for motivation. It was time to hunt. 

I gathered everything that was not essential into my bag and tethered it tightly to a tree by my fire. Then I tied a rope high into a tree so I could find my bag even if it got covered in snow. You know, I would just have to find the tree with the rope and follow the rope down to my snow-covered bag. It was a trick that Thoren had taught me once, how to make sure you could find your bag in a snowstorm by tying it to a tree that is. All of the young men who were apprentice hunters scoffed at these “old man” tricks, but I am glad that I learned this one. Later, after I killed the beast, I would return for my things. 

I travelled light and nimbly. All I would carry with me today was my snowshoes, the spear I’d created, and the hatchet that slung from my belt. 

I closed my eyes and soaked in one last breath of warmth by the fire and headed into the swirling wind and towards the norwulf howls.  

Fire really is life giving in these mountains. My body became cold to the core as soon as I left my resting place. The first few steps are the hardest, you know, your body is chilled and you keep looking back at the flickering flames of your fire and you tell yourself “just go back for one last moment of warmth.” But your mind must be strong, you know, to keep heading deeper into the cold and farther from your fire. The trick is to remind yourself that no amount of warmth would stick with your body once you leave the comforts of the fire. You could go back for one more moment of warmth, and then one more, and then one more. Eventually you must leave the warmth and face the coldness. It is best to leave quickly, accept the coldness of the air, and don’t look back at your fire. 

So I left. I carried only the essentials. And I did not look back at my fire. 

The snow was deep. Walking was hard, even with my snowshoes. Some places were bare where the wind swept away the snow and some places gathered snow that formed drifts taller than my head. And sometimes the freshly-fallen snow was hard and crusted on top and soft and powdery underneath. This snow was dangerous, the snow that is hard on top and soft underneath that is. You must either walk gently on top of the hard and slippery surface and risk slipping or step hard to break through the crust and reach the soft bottom, which can cause the snow to give away quickly beneath your feet. 

Anyways, the sad howling of the wounded beast continued. He howled and howled hoping that members of his flock would hear him and join him. I kept telling myself he was trying to find his flock and not his family. I tried not to think of the norwulf having a family and all. Because if he had a family, then he might have a son. If he had a son, then I would be killing a son’s father. And I didn’t want to think of myself as killing a son’s father. Boy, that would really be tough, you know, if I knew this beast had a son. I couldn’t allow those thoughts to enter my mind and spoil my hunt, I must think of him as a beast only. A beast who was merely trying to find his flock. 

The storm increased in strength. It was now an angry and violent storm, like a man who drank too much ale and was cussing and fighting with his friends. I talked to the storm, pleaded with it, but just like the drunk man it would not listen. It was just angry and disagreeable, the storm that is. 

Walking became harder. The gusts of wind easily blew my weakened body to the ground. Each strong gust collapsed me to my knees and I willed myself to return to my feet and push deeper into the mountains with each fall. Walking at all required me to rest my weight on anything for balance–my spear, tree branches, the ground. And the wind was biting cold too. My body shivered uncontrollably. And progress was slow. 

When I was a child back in Norwick I would go into the grove to gather firewood for my father during the winter. I would imagine myself as a hunter stalking norwulves just like the tales the old men would tell us children. I imagined that I was brave and resolved and that the cold did not bother me. I pretended to trudge through the snow as I hunted the beasts in my imagination. I’d stay outside as long as possible and then, when I couldn’t stand another moment of cold, I’d go into our home and warm my body. It’s kind of funny thinking about that now, you know, trying to make myself cold so I could pretend to be a hunter and all. It is a much different feeling when you are exposed to the cold for days and you do not have a warm home to escape to when your body needs warming. But I like to remember the things I used to play as a child because it distracts me from the cold. 

Each time the norwulf’s howl echoed through the mountains I was reminded of my purpose. I must kill this beast. 

It was terribly hard to tell which direction the howls came from. The blizzard of white snowflakes whipped around me at such a speed that they disoriented my sight. And the sounds bounce around the mountains in a way that easily misleads the ears because the echoes come at you from all directions. But he sounded close, the beast that is.

Another howl filled the air. And then another. The beast was near. 

A great gust of wind pounded my body, like God’s hand reached down and gave poor Xander a nice shove. I dropped to my knees and cursed the wind. I remember this gust of wind specifically because that was right before I’d seen the beast–that magnificent, woolly, pig-bodied beast. He was on the mountainside above me. His three-toed paws pounding through the crusty top of the snow as he disappeared over the top of the ridge and out of sight. 

Energy rushed to my body and alertness filled my mind at the sight of the beast. The thought of coldness was not at the fore of my mind for the first time all day. I was no longer fighting the storm and chasing ghostly howls through these mountains, but I was now chasing a beast I could see. 

My hands tightened around my spear. I imagined plunging the blade deep into the body of the beast as I headed up the mountain. The wind pressed against my body. I nearly fell many times as I ascended the mountainside. But I leaned into the wind and put one foot in front of the other. I was resolved to continue. 

“Just over this ridge, Xander,” I talked to myself to keep me motivated. 

I eventually reached the ridgetop. The howling wind filled my ears. My knees fell to the snow. My eyes scanned the other side of the mountain desperately trying to see the beast again. But nothing. Well, not nothing, there was mountains as far as I could see through the snowstorm and all, but there was no beast. My heart sank in my chest as I tried to understand how I’d lost track of the beast. It was as if he’d vanished. Those horrible thoughts of me being a failed hunter entered my mind as I stared at the barren mountainside. 

The beast went over the ridge right where I stood. I was certain. I looked behind me to see if I’d veered off track somewhere, you know, drifted in one direction when I had my head down to fight into the wind. Even though the snowstorm had covered my tracks, I knew I was standing right where the beast was standing a short time ago. 

I planted my spear in the snow out of frustration. And I knelt on the snowy ridge of the mountains. My head slowly scanned the landscape from left to right. Perhaps my first glance was hasty and inattentive so I really focused this time. My eyes focused on anything that was not white until I was confident it was not the beast. It was mostly rocks sticking up from the snow. But no beast. The beast eluded me once again. 

“Stupid, Xander. Foolish, Xander.” I wasn’t exactly sure what I was yelling at myself for. Just the circumstances I suppose. You know, that I’d lost track of the beast. 

The sound of the swirling snowstorm was broken by another norwulf howl. This one was so loud that it sounded like it’d come from inside of my parka hood. A shiver shook my spine. It was not a shiver of my body fighting the cold either, it was a shiver of fright, you know, from the closeness of the norwulf howl. My muscles tensed and my grip tightened even more. My mittened hands felt like they were crushing my spear. The direction of the howl was unmistakable. It came from right behind me. 

Just below me was the opening to a cave. I raised from my knees and willed my body to face its fear and walk to the cave opening. It was a cleave in the mountainside just large enough for my body to enter, the cave opening that is. I could see nothing but darkness inside. It disappeared into nothingness just like the sea did in the hole in the ice. I stuck my spear into the darkness and it didn’t touch anything for as far as it reached.

Perhaps this wasn’t where the beast was. I didn’t want my mind to admit that the beast was hiding in the darkness. But I knew I would have to enter the cave to kill the beast. 

I took my first tentative step inside the cave and reached my spear as far as my arms could reach. Again, the spear touched nothing but darkness. Another howl came from deep in the cave and filled the air. My heart pounded and my body jumped back out of fear. That last howl sounded as if the beast was just in front of me. I swear that I could smell the salty breath of the norwulf inside the cave, but it could also be my mind playing tricks. I really wasn’t sure. I was so nervous and my mind was racing that it was hard to tell what was real and what was just a fear my mind spun together. 

If there ever was a time to be brave, this was it. With my body in such a weakened condition, this might be my last chance at killing this beast. I retook my first step into the cave. And then another. And then another. I was now completely inside the lightless cave. 

My body followed my spear tip, even though it was so dark that I couldn’t see the knife I’d tethered to the end. My teeth chattered so hard out of cold and fear that I could hear them echoing off the cave walls. 

My body instinctively froze. A low and rumbling growl was coming from the darkness. Not an angry growl, but the sort of growl a dog makes right before fighting, you know, this calm and intimidating rumbling sound. I inched my feet forward to move slightly deeper into the dark cave. The growling continued. 

The grip on my spear tightened. 

My heart pounded. 

I reached my spear into the darkness towards the growl. Not in a thrust, but just this gentle reach to try and touch something. 

Nothing.

I inched my feet forward one more time. And I reached my spear into the darkness towards the growling one more time. 

Nothing.

I moved the tip of my spear in a circle trying to feel something. Anything. 

Nothing. 

The growling stopped. God, silence is scarier than the growling. The sound of norwulf claws gripping the floor of the cave was unmistakable. It’s amazing how, even in the pitch black, I knew what that sound was. You know, the norwulf’s claws tightening like it was trying to gain traction on the cave floor right before he lunges his body forward. God that is a scary sound. Especially in the dark too. 

My eyes were wide open, my mind was focused, but I could not see a thing. 

Then silence. Deafening and terrifying silence. No more sounds of my chattering teeth echoing off the cave walls. No growling. No claws gripping the cave floor. Just the sound of the fear building in your mind of what dangers await.

It is a horribly lonely feeling being in a cave where you can’t see and there is no sound. It’s like you are willing your senses to work. Imploring them. Commanding them. And they won’t. And then you realize how completely and utterly vulnerable you are. I slowly moved my spear tip in a circle in front of my body again. It touched nothing, my spear tip that is. No sight, no sound, and no sense of touch. 

It felt like I stood there in silence for an hour. It was actually only a few breaths. 

Then the complete silence exploded in a fury. The body of the norwulf rammed into the spear tip and pushed it back into my body. The handle punched my ribs and threw my body into the wall of the cave. A gnashing growl filled the air and bounced around the cave walls. My body was stunned and my spear fell somewhere into the dark.

I dropped to my knees and keeled over in pain. My lungs let out a gasping sound as they desperately tried to gather air. I frantically groped the cave floor looking for the spear. No success.  

I gasped for air and groped the floor and feared the growling sounds that filled the cave. 

A giant claw grabbed my wounded left leg and tossed my body like a toy. My hands desperately groped my belt and finally gathered my hatchet. I swung wildly wherever my arm could reach. The beast’s claws dug into the meat of my thigh. I screamed in agony as the pain shot both up and down my leg. I hoped my screams would be unpleasant enough that the beast would leave me, but the claws dug in deeper. 

I pounded the darkness with my fist and my hatchet, hoping that I would cause pain wherever they struck. I swung into the darkness below, by the claws digging into my leg, because the beast was down there somewhere. My blows rained onto the body of the beast, but I couldn’t see exactly where on the body I was hitting. I continued yelling and swinging like a madman. 

A claw simultaneously released from my thigh and pressed into my chest. I gripped the hatchet with both hands and swung down with all my power. My swing landed with a dull thud somewhere on the beast’s body. I don’t know where. I tried to swing again, but the claw tightened and tore into the flesh of my chest. My arms froze in mid-swing from the pain. The muscles that swung my hatchet were not responding to my mind’s commands. 

My body lowered to the cave floor and the beast’s weight pressed all the breath out of my body. 

I was trying to kill the beast, but not to become a great hunter, but merely to survive. 

The beast clenched a powerful claw around my shoulder. Now there were claws on both my chest and my shoulder. My parka provided some protection, but my shoulder muscles were painfully crushed in the beast’s grip. His wool brushed across my face. I could smell the salt on his warm breath. I pushed against his body with all my remaining energy, but my arms were too weak. My body lowered to the floor of the cave. 

My instincts were to flail wildly. My mind didn’t tell my body to flail, but it did. I guess the fear of death will do that to you, make you flail that is. It was my body’s last ounces of energy and life. 

My flailing slackened the beast’s grip ever so slightly. I swung my hatchet one last time. It struck the beast somewhere in the face. At least I am guessing it was his face because I swung right in front of my face and the beast was laying on top of me. Anyways, the norwulf let out a squeal of pain and released his grip. 

I inhaled deeply. Air returned to my lungs. 

I clung to the norwulf’s wool and it dragged me across the cave towards the opening. I could see light again. The beast was trying to leave. 

“No. You mustn’t leave yet,” I yelled at the beast in my weakened voice. “I must kill you first.” 

I swung my hatchet at the beast’s body. I continued to yell at the beast as I struck him with my hatchet once more. My body was weak and my blows were ineffective. The beast turned back into the cave, I jumped onto his back and held him at the base of his wing, and he flailed frantically. 

He was still powerful, the beast that is, even though he was wounded. I could feel it in the way he threw my body around like it was an annoyance more than a threat to his life. My body was tossed aside the beast against the cave wall again. My body was stunned again. My vision blurred again.

I stood crookedly, favoring my non-wounded leg and hunched over from the pain in my chest muscles where the beast’s claws dug into my breast. My pathetic body stood between the beast and the cave’s opening. 

The beast ran towards the opening of the cave. I think the beast was hoping that I would move out of fear, but I bravely did not. I clenched the hatchet as the beast neared me. My hatchet-wielding arm raised above my head. The beast was right in front of me. My arm swung downward. The beast’s head lowered and he now led his charge with his horn. 

My hatchet never struck the beast. The horn stuck right through my parka and into the soft body of my stomach. For a moment my vision went red. My body went limp. The hatchet harmlessly fell onto the ground. And a gurgling sound came from my mouth as blood oozed from my mouth and into my beard. The funny thing is that I had no pain. I always thought this would be the most painful thing in the world, getting gored in the stomach, but my body was very numb all over. 

My motionless body was tossed and dragged as the beast unskewered me from his horn. I laid on the ground at the opening of the cave and watched the beast plod through the snowstorm away from the cave and out of sight. 

My mind was yelling at my body, “Get up, the beast is getting away.” It’s an eerie feeling, having your mind command your body to move and having your body not respond that is. It did not matter how hard my mind yelled, my body just laid on the ground motionless. 

My beast got away. My mind was clear, but my body was not responding. The white snow on the cave floor next to my body was dyed red with my blood and purple with the norwulf blood.  

My mind commanded my body to stand. Nothing.

My mind commanded my body to crawl across the snow. Nothing.

My mind even commanded my wide-open eyes to close. And still nothing. 

This is what it felt like to die.