The black wolf
The trail is fresh.
It stopped snowing half an hour ago. The snow was almost virgin. Just here and there a crow had left the imprint of its talons and under a tree the shapes of little squirrel feet loomed.
And there were the trails of the hind.
Evert loosened the strap that held his quiver and let it slide down his side where he could reach the arrows faster and more easily. Then he began to follow the trails.
On the left hand side there was a little grove consisting of some dozen fir trees bending under the pressure of the fresh fallen snow. He frowned as he saw that one of the branches not far ahead was free of the white mantle and a small mound of snow underneath proved that it had been covered like the others until recently.
Evert grasped the branch. It wasn’t only free of snow but at least at the tip free of needles. Just some of them still held on to the wood, lonely and twisted. Some more were lying on the snow mantle underneath the branch but most of the needles were missing completely.
He didn’t need to lower his sight to the trails to know what he was dealing with. Only a ripper ate fir needles in this way. As a precaution he grasped his sword, maybe the beast was still near.
He had been taken by surprise by a ripper once. He had been couched and hadn’t noticed the porcine animal sneaking up behind him until he’d felt its warm breath on his neck and had been alarmed by a sudden grunt. But it had been too late. The beast had driven its teeth into the flesh of his leg. Its fangs had cut through the fur and the leather he’d worn, through flesh and cord right to the bone. Just in time he’d been able to draw his knife and had stabbed it into the side of the beast. He’d put the ripper to flight but then he’d succumbed to the pain. Helpless and nearly fainting as he’d been he had witnessed how the leather of his trousers had gone black and the snow underneath him had turned red. At the end Bogir had found him and had brought him back to the clan where his parents had been out of their minds in fear for their son. But this hadn’t been the end to the story. He had had to learn that the worst about rippers weren’t their sharp fangs but the diseases you could get from their bite. He’d spent a whole month in bed under half a dozen furs of bisons alternating between sweating like hell and freezing like he hadn’t in the coldest of Nordmar’s winters. In the end Gydja’s herbs and spells had healed him along with the good will of the ancestors. But the Gydja wasn’t here now, just like Bogir, who, so he was told, had given up hunting. Concerning the good will of the ancestors: That was something he didn’t want to think about. He had the suspicion that if he did an inner voice would rise – a voice that would sound suspiciously like Garik – and would whisper him that he had lost this good will through his defiance of his ancestral line from his grandfather Harald to Snorre the cunning. In short he didn’t want to encounter another ripper. The scars he had from his first encounter with such a beast sufficed as a reminder.
He took a closer look at the ground surrounding the trunk of the fir tree. There, where the thicker branches and the needles had a brown ring of mud, the ground was dug over. Also the ripper. Which other animal would dig through the frozen ground witch its snout to get some roots or a small rodent? Evert looked back to the trails of the hind. They crossed those of the ripper but there were no signs for a fight. He knelt down for a moment and took a closer look at the trails. The trails of the ripper were slightly blurred from the gusts of wind that rose every few minutes from the big canyon and made the fir trees rustle. Those of the hind were fresher so apparently both animals hadn’t met and no one had disputed his quarry so far. Also the chance of the ripper bursting out between the trees was small. Probably the beast had already moved on.
Evert also moved on and followed the trails of the hind’s hoofs in the snow. Much had changed since back then. He had been an adolescent and had seen maybe twelve or thirteen winters. He had been on his first solo hunt instead of being accompanied by his father or Bogir or Jensgar or a different member of the clan. Meanwhile he had become a young man, had completed his challenge of manliness, had hunted down his first sabertooth long ago and even had fought against some orcs. He had also been on so many solo hunts he couldn’t count them and even lived alone outside of the clan.
He was no Orc Slayer and even less a chief and would never become one regardless of how much some of his brothers in the clan blamed him for that. But hunting, that was something he now was good at.
Once again a gust of wind from the canyon to his right rose. But this time it wasn’t a short one breaking of immediately. Evert followed the trails but took of his gloves while moving. He licked his thumb and held it in the wind. The wind came from the south east which was perfect. He could follow the hind without worrying that the hind might pick up his scent.
Behind the grove there was smoke rising from a hilltop. He stayed in the shadow of the hill under a slightly overlapping cliff. Most orcs camped in the north or the east and one of his men wouldn’t pitch his camp in the open like that, so he assumed that it were some goblins. Probably they wouldn’t bother climbing down the hill just for him but there was no need to provoke them.
On the other side of the hill the canyon turned south and cleared into a slightly sloping plane with spruces and pine trees growing. Evert saw a hare fleeing into the brushwood as he neared him, but he wasn’t interested in bunnies today. If he couldn’t catch the hind he hoped that a bunny had found his way into one of the traps he had laid out around his camp. Nonetheless he was hoping that he could taste some deer this evening and it wasn’t far. That he knew for sure.
He found his quarry on a small clearing while the hind was pawing between the fallen branches and the snow for some grass. He approached the hind from behind between some bushes and slowly put an arrow on the bowstring. Like his bow he had made the arrow by himself, like Gunnar had shown him. The tip was made of a wolf’s tooth and therefore extremely pointed and excellent for the hunt for game.
The hind rose its head and its big round eyes searched hectically the brushwood all around. Its ears were erected and one was slightly twitching. Evert stressed the bowstring slowly so he wouldn’t make a noise as it would be neck or nothing in a few seconds. Whether he was stressing the bowstring for the hind or for what it had scented he didn’t know himself. Maybe a sabertooth had the same goal as he did? Was there an orc scout on the hunt here in the area?
The animal dashed away and he let loose his bowstring. His arrow, aimed for the neck, hit the flank and found his way into the flesh right above the left leg. In an instant he had a second arrow ready but his prey would surely have escaped if it weren’t for a black lightning bolt coming from the other side of the clearing and launching into the hind.
In the blink of an eye everything was over. The wolf stood over the dead hind the white fangs dripping with red blood. Evert’s second arrow was pointed at the wolf but he let it sink slowly. Not only that wild ice wolves never hunt alone but he also knew only one ice wolf that wasn’t white like the ice of Nordmar but pitch black. He put his arrow back in the quiver and left his cover. The wolf, like the hind, hadn’t picked up his scent because the wind was still coming from the front but now it bared its teeth and snarled. Evert paused for a moment. Such a behavior wasn’t typical for the tamed wolves at his clan. What happened next was even more surprising. A man came from between the trees behind the wolf. Evert wasn’t surprised by the fact that a man was here, in fact he was expecting this since he had recognized the wolf, but it wasn’t the man he had anticipated. The sight was a pleasing one nonetheless.
“Evert, nice to see you!” The two men met in the middle of the clearing and hugged.
“Are you on your way to the clan?” Evert asked the other huntsman. He knew that they were half way between Ronar’s hunting lodge and the village. His counterpart nodded. He was older than Evert but still a young man. His den was stately and his cloths were made of furs and leather just like Evert’s. The bow on his shoulder was similar to Evert’s one also. Like all hunters of the Wolf Clan he used a bow that was devised by Helmar one of their ancestors and that was extremely useful for the hunt. All of Nordmar knew this bows as Wolf Rippers. “Have spent enough time in my hut” explained Ronar. “It’s time I get back to the clan, meet some people and get a little bit of rest. I haven’t had a Nordmar Nogginfog for weeks.” He pointed behind him. There was a sleigh he pulled by a rope that was full of furs and a bag with claws and teeth bound to it. “Also it’s time to bring my quarry to Rune. He is awaiting our yield impatiently these days.”
Evert’s eyes went back from Ronar’s furs to the black wolf that took no notice of them and instead punched its teeth in the dead hind.
“Since when does Bullvik’s wolf belong to you?”
Ronar’s look eclipsed. “It doesn’t. I just ran into it.”
Evert’s heart misgave him. “What happened to Bullvik?”
“He accompanied one of the hunting parties your father is sending out nowadays. They met some orcs and he was brought home on his shield. I guess you can imagine how devastated Arsa is now.”
Bullvik. Rune had joked one time that one of Bullvik’s ancestors must have been an ogre. Bullvik had been a real giant with arms like tree trunks and had been one of the best warriors of the clan. Hogar had been the only one of the Orc Slayers who had been able to hold a candle to him. And after all Hogar was the Hersir. All of the women of the clan had been jealous of Arsa and her husband, but they probably weren’t anymore. A living man was better than a dead one, even if the dead one was Bullvik. The idea that even such a warrior like Bullvik wasn’t safe from the orcs was a disturbing one.
“And his wolf?”
“I wasn’t there, but the men say that he went insane. He raged under the orcs and then ran away. No one has seen him since then until he crossed my path.”
Evert turned to the wolf again. Its mother had expulsed it from the litter, he knew, because of his black fur. This fur was told to be a bad omen, a curse by the ancestors. But Bullvik had taken care of the wolf, they had become inseparable and together they had killed quite a few orcs. Slowly Evert walked towards the wolf and immediately it raised its head and started to bare its teeth. Evert made another step and the wolf snarled. “Be careful!” warned Ronar and took of his gloves to show Evert the deep cuts on his hand. “It already bit me. I think it has gone wild and unpredictable. It doesn’t let me touch it and I’m happy that it follows me to the clan. And in between I’m almost surprised that it doesn’t attack me. I’m hoping that the Gydja has some advice or maybe Bogir. Maybe he can calm down the wolf.
“How is Bogir anyway?” Evert acted on the new topic.
“Last time I was in the village the situation hadn’t changed. He sits at the fire, talks little and doesn’t want to go hunting.”
The worrying feeling in Evert’s chest grew stronger. Bullvik, who had always seemed so strong and unbeatable died in battle. Bogir, who had been the best hunter in the clan since Evert’s birth, and who had taught Evert so many things and had saved his life, sat apathetically in front of his hut. The orcs stormed the land of the ancestors in rising numbers and made living more and more difficult. It was like a dark shadow lied over Nordmar.
“I’m sorry for your quarry” said Ronar and thus snapped him out of his thoughts. “I fear you won’t get much out of this hind.”
Evert smiled wickedly. “The wolf shall have the meat. I’m hoping that a hare stumbled in one of my traps.”
“Don’t you want to join me?” asked Ronar.
“No thanks, you know…” he broke off without knowing how to end this sentence himself.
“We lost some good men, not only Bullvik. And I fear it will get worse. More and more orcs are coming. At the moment they seem to concentrate on the Hammer Clan but I don’t want to imagine what will happen when they are finished with them. The hunt gets more and more difficult. We could use your help.”
“Father will take care of everything.” Evert responded, but after the latest news he got from Ronar not as confidently, as he would have been beforehand.
“He sends out the hunters in bigger parties and sends some Orc Slayers to escort them” granted Ronar. “But as you can see with Bullvik even with them they are not safe. Additionally half of the wild animals are chased off by so many people at one spot. Nonetheless except for Hanson and me no one is leaving the village alone. Some think that Grim should rather seek the open battle with the orcs than just protecting the village and the hunting parties. They think he should send reinforcements to the Hammer Clan.”
Evert sighed. “And surely they think I should finally join the Orc Slayers and lead the warriors in this open battle because that is the will of the ancestors.”
Ronar pulled his hands up defensively. “I didn’t want to say that.”
“I Know. But others do.”
“Don’t care about them. You know how it is. Especially in bad times everyone thinks he himself would be the best jarl.”
“My father is the best jarl.” Evert and his father might not talk much since he became a hunter, but Grim was undoubtedly a great leader and he was doing the right thing. The clan was too small for an open fight with the orcs. It had to defend itself and make sure that the hunters brought home enough food for the survival of the village. Those demanding action and taking up the fight against the orcs from Grim were the same ones asking Evert to finally join the Orc Slayers and to follow the path of the ancestors.
“Just think about it”, said Ronar.
Evert nodded. “I will.” Then he forced himself to put on a little smile and padded Ronar’s shoulder. “Take care.”
The other hunter repeated the gesture. “You too. Farewell, and may the ancestors watch over you.”
Like he had hoped a bunny had fallen into one of his traps near the snow line. The even more pleasing surprise was the column of smoke that rose above the pass. In the grass next to Evert’s camp sat Wilson and roasted a deer above the open fire. Seeing Evert coming this way he stood up. “Evert! I’ve been asking myself if I would still find you up here.” Both men shook hands. “Do you want to have a share of this? The meat should be ready soon and I can’t take everything with me down the pass anyway. Evert smiled. “It’s a pleasure. You wouldn’t imagine.” And sitting down next to the fire and pulling of the gloves to warm his hands he asked: “How was your hunt?”
“Splendid. I hunted down a shadow beast, and what a nice one.” He pointed at the fur that he had spread out on the ground a little bit away from the fire. A particular pretty one. Big and thick and black, but a little bit silvery in the shine of the fire and the slowly setting sun, scraggy but at the same time silky. “In Faring there is an orc that should give me 400 pieces of gold for that.”
Evert nodded approvingly. Wilson was a gifted hunter what was exceptional for one who came from the flat lands. Even most of Nordmar’s hunters wouldn’t get near a shadow beast. “Over there in the bush I’ve hidden some claws and furs. Not as impressive as your fur, but they should be worth some gold anyway. You can take them with you like always, they shall be my payment for the deer haunch.”
Wilson waved aside. “Don’t mention it.”
“And for some booze” Evert amended. “I really need a good booze.” And while he was sitting there and staring into the fire he thought about Ronar’s words. Maybe it really was time to visit the clan once more. One black wolf had returned to the Wolf Clan. Why shouldn’t the other one too?
Text: Jünger des Xardas