The rifle stock fits my shoulder naturally as I rest my cheek against the cold, hard wood, sighting down the barrel length. I can feel the curve of the trigger under the flat of my index finger and as always that brief sense of anticipation. I squeeze the trigger.
“Son of a dolyak’s mother…” I bite off the futile curse in the wake of the rifle’s report, which still echoes cleanly throughout the frozen forest. Fragments of snow and dirt pepper a hacked log, spraying a crudely painted, but so far unscathed target.
Breathing deeply I swing the rifle up again, reload, pull it in tight, sight and fire all in one well-practised motion. The same spray of snow and dirt explodes beside the log.
“The Den Mother does not arm her cubs with rocks, Asbjorn.” His weary advice plays in my mind. Old Father so easily dashing the hopes of his son’s initial excitement – and how excited I had been to have discovered this wonderful device. I had argued with him of course, told him of the tradesman’s words: a weapon fit for only the finest hunter. Old Father may have conceded that norn truly are the finest hunters; beyond this though his words spoke only of the Spirits’ gifts and in part I had to concede, for I was not yet ready to tell him about the two barrels of ale I had squandered in the exchange.
I breathe in and begin to release air slowly. Old Father had turned over in the end, unwilling to confront the true chief of our den, a memory that always brings a smile.
Feeding the chamber, I sight and I remember more. “Oh let him, old man,” she berates with gruff words. “Let him play with his new stick. Maybe he’ll bring back a brace of rabbits for supper; it’ll save you bending your own bow.”
We fed well that night. Even Old Father had to admit, once you got past the tattered and bloody mess, once you actually worked out where to start skinning from, the hunt had been a success and that was all that counted.
“Skritt’s brains! Is your barrel askew?” I hold it out before me, horizontal across the palms of my hands. The rifle is a simple design in truth, an original Inglewood stock decorated with a filigree etching, and an unbound steel barrel which had only been replaced about a year before. Simple, yes, and certainly has no chance of winning the eyes of a young hunter in these times, but just as effective as any of the darksteel plated bores you would care to put her up against; it’s the Spirits’ gift, right Old Father?
With a usually unnoticed habit, I catch myself running my fingers through the greying hairs of my beard whilst eyeing the target. I reload and lift the rifle once more. “Always to the left,” I mutter as I draw a breath, wait, release, squeeze and fire.
This time the log shudders under the impact of the bullet and fragments of bark scatter across the forest floor, but the target remains unharmed. Maybe the barrel is fouled? Yet I’ve fired hundreds of rounds this year and only these last few months has the problem grown noticeably worse. A new barrel fouls if you are not careful, but all I can think is that perhaps it’s time to hang you above a fireplace, rather than be slung across my shoulder. The trees remain silent to my plight and not even the irregular sound of thawing ice, sudden cracks that fill the otherwise quiet, can offer a sensible course. I do not like to bring gloomy thoughts home but I can feel my mood darkening just like the approaching night. The only relief is that the promise of new snow on the air will bury the shame of my target practice.
The rifle jostles against my back as I tread the path home. It is an ugly reminder, as irrational thoughts would have it, that the chafing is intentional and I have half a mind to cast it off, sling it into the passing undergrowth where it can rust and be done with. Except there was that time a while back – Infallible Garrom. Do you remember him? I pat the rifle butt and grin. We really did show him, as well as prove the folly of his namesake.
“I am looking for a hunter. I am told that there is one here who can shoot a breadthless length – that is to say without width or height.” The asura had marched straight into the village that day, towing two weary looking companions, and accosted the first inhabitant within earshot. “Well?”
The norn, who I think may have been Jarl, stared blankly before responding, “What?”
The asura turned to his companions, who had already slumped to the ground amid a collection of packs, and threw them both a questioning look before returning his attention to the bemused norn. “A straight line – to whom would I offer the challenge of a shooting competition?”
The norn growled, “I can shoot as well as any, but I’m busy.”
“Pity.” Clasping his hands behind his back, the asura rocked on his feet before continuing, “To establish merit and accolade – accolade being but the course, of course – I have travelled Tyria with the intention of besting all in the aforementioned competition, finally to tread many miles upon crystalline precipitation that, as some halfwit insists, norn of all the – collectively termed – intelligent species, can actually shoot well.”
“Are you mocking me?” Jarl balled a single fist, only slightly smaller than the asura’s head.
“No,” stated the asura simply. “I can only conclude: I shoot better than you, despite your obvious advantage of being acclimatised to a low-pressure system. Is that simple enough?”
So it had proceeded with Jarl, enticed by the asura, stomping off to fetch his hunting bow. When Jarl returned, the asura had simply laughed and it had taken a number of curious onlookers several minutes to restrain the norn, and a further several minutes of repeated explanations by the asura that he intended to shoot a rifle, not a bow as Jarl had understood.
I consider myself modest by comparison to many of my brethren, yet freely admit I felt a great sense of pride when I was called for that day. Tradition is in our hearts and there are still to this day few of us willing to take up the tools introduced through trade and mixing with the other races of our world, and yet the spirit is found within. Tales of my skill with the rifle had travelled further than I was aware and so it was this asura – Infallible Garrom he had introduced himself as – deigned to seek me out.
Three shots, one target, over five hundred yards was the challenge laid out. Five hundred yards is quite the distance, only made shorter when you are facing down a charging dolyak bull. Yet this was no hunt and I remember the fear of thinking: will the Spirits find reason? Shooting over five hundred yards in a contest of pride, pitting norn against asura, introduced questionable tenets.
We shot one apiece, our guest shooting first and to my surprise, and perhaps shame to have had such doubts, I matched him shot for shot. Infallible Garrom wielded a weapon like no other I have seen, so much so that during the process of setting it up, some did not even believe it to be a rifle. Yet with my accomplishments, and to his dismay, even the doubters were happy to forget the contraption itself and turn their attention to hurling mockery and jeers at the stumped asura.
Jarl then saw an opportunity to take it further and had walked out towards the target, holding a couple of small logs under one arm. Eventually he turned to face us, transferring a log to each hand. “One apiece, hit ‘em on the wing. Ready?”
We had both nodded and Jarl hurled the logs skywards. I suppose I had known what the outcome would be all along – I guess that is why Jarl did what he did.
Snow is starting to fall and I suck in the air as it turns colder, stopping on the track for a moment to watch as the darkness deepens; I have always loved this time of day. Sliding the rifle from my shoulder, I hold it out before me again.
“We sure did show that little rat. Maybe it is time to put you on the hooks and to have less of this dogged contemplation or they’ll be putting me out to pasture too.”
“Talking to the trees again, old bear?”
“Ah, Helena, my love.” I smile at the female norn approaching down the path; the thought of the rifle held in my hands becomes secondary to the moment.
She laughs. “I swear at times, if I did not know you better, you’d make a lousy norn – something troubling you?”
“Not any more,” I grin.
She laughs again, her head tilting back and a silvery white mane of hair tumbling across her shoulders. “And a hopeless romantic, too. Now tell me, why is it that as I take a break in the solace of the forest, I stumble upon your crazed ramblings?”
I present the rifle to her. “If I don’t compensate – and it varies – I couldn’t hit a herd of dolyak at ten paces. Something’s wrong, maybe the bore is fouled?” I shrug, trying to suggest that it matters little.
She ignores my attempts at distraction and simply says, “Sight for me.” So I check the chamber is empty and lift the rifle to my shoulder, winking at her down the length of the barrel as she stares into my eyes. But those grey eyes ignore me and instead she lifts a finger. “Follow,” she commands as the finger moves from side to side several times, then the same back and forth. “Okay, drop it.”
Helena glances off to either side of the trail and steps into the undergrowth, moving through the trees with her arms out, hands brushing at the tall trunks. I follow behind, curious of her intent. After fifty yards or so she stops. “There, the cluster of icicles.” She points and nods before moving behind me to give me a clear shot.
“Okay,” I reply and load the rifle, take aim and fire. Only the silence is disturbed as the gunshot reverberates around the forest.
I feel like refusing. A confusing sense of foolishness bothers me and I wonder what is to be gained from all of this. “Okay,” I sigh reluctantly.
I load the rifle once more and pull the butt tight into my shoulder, finger closing on the trigger, and as I squeeze, Helena reaches around, gently placing a hand over my left eye.
The rifle fires and despite her interference, the ice hanging from the branch explodes. I stare dumbfounded as she steps back.
“It seems you may have seen one too many winters, my love,” she chuckles.
Turning to face her, the foolishness dissolves and I can feel a sense of right reassert itself. “Confounded woman,” I mutter just for good measure.
Helena performs a mock bow. “You are once more with Spirit.”
“Aye, so it seems.” Yet now this troubles me and she knows this too.
All is quiet as we stand a few feet apart beneath the fall of snow and she studies my face closely. “You have made your name, Asbjorn. You bested-“
I wave my hand to interrupt her. “Besting that asura was only the beginning of my legend.” I wonder if she can hear the doubt in my voice. “A simple prologue to a tale of bold undertaking,” I continue to boast.
She smiles and nods with a thoughtful expression and is just about to reply when we both hear a sound that does not belong to the forest, even at nightfall. It starts as a low hum, climbing rapidly in pitch – I feel the hair on my arms rise and then, just a few yards from where we are standing, there is a brilliant flash of white followed closely by a deafening crack. A pulse of warm air rushes over us as we both dive into the snow for cover.
Everything is silent once more and I roll quickly to one side, lifting my head to get a look at the surroundings. The flash has ruined my night vision and I try to blink spots of green from my eyes. Something moves. A figure rises from the undergrowth, humanoid no doubt, but too small to be a norn. It clutches hold of a tree as it staggers up, then vomits hard.
Helena is up on her feet first as I follow, bringing my rifle to bear, clutching for rounds to load. The figure slumps against the tree as it finishes retching and a male voice stutters weakly, “H-h-help me.”