Saturday Snippet: a Viking hunting adventure

Readers seemed to like the snippet I posted from a proposed Viking/fantasy novel a couple of weeks ago:  so here’s another one.  The book is taking shape very quickly, and should be ready shortly.

In this excerpt, the young Alvar (by now entering his teens) is hunting an elg, which is the Norwegian (and Viking) word for what we in North America call a moose.  A pund is a Viking measure of weight equalling approximately twelve US pounds:  a mark weighs approximately eight US ounces.

     We happened upon the tracks of a large elg, following a narrow game trail through the forest. The huge creature’s broad, flat antlers reached out to either side of its head, scraping snow off branches, making a bare path through the trees that was easy to follow even without its hoofprints. It was very unusual to see an elg in these parts, and we were not equipped to carry so much meat; but I decided at once that it would be worth taking. We could always call others to help carry it.
As usual, Ludde hung back with the two thralls, letting me take the lead. I had the feeling he and Ragnvaldr were letting me do as much as possible, to test and assess me for some reason, but I did not know why. I simply accepted it.
As we moved further into the woods, I began to get an idea. I turned to Ludde. “We are close now. I think I know where he is going. This trail goes along for another half a league, dropping steadily, then turns sharply around an outcrop of rock and goes down to a stream that has not fully iced over. I think he is going to drink there. If we hurry, we can take a short-cut down those rocks, then run to meet him as he makes the turn.”
“He is very large,” Ludde objected. “How will you take him?”
“I can squeeze into a gap in the rocks at the turn. He will not see me until it is too late. He’ll be right next to me, where I can reach him easily.”
Ludde hesitated, then said, “We can try it. I will stand further back, in case your blow misses.”
“There will be no concealment for you. I know of only the one crevice in the rocks. I shall have to take him alone.”
“It will be dangerous. If you miss, he will be close enough to trample you, and frightened and angry enough to do it.”
I shrugged. “It is a risk, but I shall be careful. We need the meat. Our stores are very low.”
“That is true.”
We slid and jumped down the rocks, then hurried along their base until we came to the stream. Ludde and the thralls stayed on the far side of it, where there was concealment, while I crossed, hopping from stone to stone, then made my way up the slope to the point where it turned. The crevice was as I remembered it; but I had grown since I was last there. It was a struggle to fit myself inside, and I had to stand with my spear held upright, just outside it. It was not an ideal position, but it was the best that could be done. Fortunately, what little wind there was blew towards me, so the elg would not scent me before it was within reach.
I was beginning to shiver in the icy cold when I heard a faint scrabbling behind me. I risked a quick glance outside. Three large gray wolves had come down to the stream to drink: but the leader, a big beast with an impressive ruff, caught a scent – perhaps mine, perhaps something else. His head went back as he opened his mouth to howl a warning. At that moment, the elg came around the corner, and saw them. The giant creature froze in surprise for a brief instant. I aimed my spear at the blood vessels in its neck, and thrust deep.
The elg exploded into action, rearing up, front legs kicking out frantically at me, dislodging the spear from its neck – but a thick stream of blood spouted, proof that the broad cutting head of the spear had given it a mortal wound. I rolled to one side to avoid its hooves as the three wolves turned and raced up the hill. They were fixated on what they intended to be their next meal. As they drew closer, the leader scented the blood, and growled. The elg tried to turn and flee, but in the very close, confined space at the turn, it could only rear and lash out with its hooves as it struggled in the underbrush. It overbalanced in its panic, and fell on its side.
From beyond the stream I heard shouts and oaths as Ludde and the thralls ran across it and started up the slope towards me. The wolves heard them, too. The two at the rear looked back, hesitated, then ran into the brush: but the leader had the blood smell in his nostrils, and an angry hunger upon him. He was a huge beast, larger than many of his kind, while I was only a short, slight figure, much less imposing than a full-grown man would have appeared to him. He must have decided that I was less of a threat than those behind him. He bared his teeth, growled again, and charged straight at me.
The elg was struggling to its feet, but I had to ignore it, and hope that it would not lash out at me. I turned my spear towards the wolf, slammed the butt of the shaft into the snow, braced it with my foot, and aimed the spearhead at the wolf as it threw itself at me. The point took it in the chest, and drove deep into its body. The animal howled in agonized fury, struggling against the metal impaling it as it slid down the shaft of the spear towards me. Its jaws snapped viciously, grazing my fingers on the shaft – then it and the spear were ripped from my grasp by a frenzied kick from the dying elg, that caught the wolf square in its body and flung it against the rocks. The spear shaft slammed into me and knocked me off my feet, just in time to avoid another huge hoof that smashed through the space where my head had just been.
All was chaos. The elg was bellowing, heaving, and struggling to move, but its rapid blood loss had already begun to weaken it. Its blood was everywhere, pouring out of its neck in a veritable stream, coating everything around it – including me – in muddy gore. The wolf was howling and growling, trying to get to its feet, but the spear had struck deep into its vitals, and impeded its movements. Also, I think the elg’s kick had broken some of its ribs. I tried to get to my feet, reaching for the dagger at my side, only to find it had been dislodged from its sheath in my fall. I looked around frantically, saw it lying on the ground, and dived for it; but as I rose, I was struck again by the spear shaft as the wolf, unbelievably, regained its feet for a moment before it finally collapsed, snarling and snapping in its death throes at the wood that impaled it. A moment later the elg also fell again, its hind leg bruising my thigh as it went down, kicking in its death throes, and taking me down with it once more. My head struck the rocks behind me a glancing blow, and everything went black.
I came back to a hand slapping my cheeks, and Ludde’s voice calling, “Wake up! Damn you, boy, wake up!” I blinked, and looked up into his eyes hovering just above mine. A look of sudden, enormous relief washed over his face as he sat back. “You’ve got a hard head, boy, I’ll tell the world! Don’t try to get up yet. Lie still while we drag this elg clear of you, and make room.”
I heard the three of them huff and puff as they hauled on the dead animal’s limbs, dragging it far enough away that I could gather my legs under me. I staggered to my feet, leaning on the rocks behind me for support. My head ached fiercely, and my fingers could feel a bruised place behind and to one side of the crown of my head, oozing blood. I looked around. The wolf was stretched out motionless, the spear still stuck deep inside its body. The elg was no longer moving. Everything was red with blood for ells around. Even Ludde and the thralls were splashed with it by now.
Ludde handed me a waterskin, and I drank gratefully as he turned to the thralls. “There’s so much meat here, we’ll never be able to cut and carry it ourselves. Both of you, run back to the longhouse. Get the carts and ox teams from both steadings, and bring them back here, as close as you can get to this spot. Bring all the thralls with you, too. Two of you stay with the carts, to protect the teams against those other wolves, and wash them out in the stream. The rest of you, come here with knives, hatchets and sacks. It’s not yet midday, so we’ll have time to harvest this whole beast and have it back at the steading before the sun goes down. There must be almost a hundred punds weight of good meat here, and we won’t waste a bit of it!”
As they ran off, beaming smiles on their faces at the thought of the feast they knew would be coming tonight, I thought fast. A hundred punds would be equivalent to almost two and a half thousand marks. This single elg would bring us three-quarters of the weight of meat from the twenty animals we had slaughtered at the beginning of winter.

. . .

“Here, let me help you out of this tangle,” Ludde went on, leading me to a rock that stood to one side. He brushed the snow off it, and helped me sit down. “Rest here until your head stops spinning, and drink more of that water. While you recover, I’m going to skin out that wolf before it stiffens up. We’ll tan its hide, and your mother and Ragna can sew it onto a woolen base to make a cloak for you.”
I watched him withdraw the spear from the wolf’s chest, then set to work, carefully cutting the hide loose from the body and peeling it off. I couldn’t help grinning at the thought that the hide was now as red as he and I were, covered in the blood of the moose. We were all going to need some serious cleaning when we got back to the steading.

I have no idea how my writing muse works.  If you’d told me, when I began writing for a living, that I’d be publishing in four genres – military science fiction, fantasy, Western and memoir – within a few years, I’d have laughed at you!  Still people seem to like what I write, for which I’m truly grateful;  so I’ll keep scribbling for your reading pleasure.

Peter

15 comments

  1. Nice vignette – reasons for the hunt, setup, and good action. A lot of actions and story got shown, not told. Close combat with a moose? That reads true to compressed violence. I’ve seen the aftermath on vehicles and structures. Good work.

    Ludde and Ragnvar may test him for different reasons, both looking at his ability to lead men on a hunt or a raid. The head and leg injuries make a good segue for the next couple vignettes. Ragnvar may try something foolish, next?

  2. Peter, I have so many books to read and here you come adding to my long list of books yet to purchase.

    You do write a fine tale.

    Jerry

  3. There was for me a moment of confusion, when
    [front legs kicking out frantically at me, dislodging the spear ]
    was followed by
    [I turned my spear towards the wolf]
    …I had let “dislodging” translate into “tearing from my grip.”
    My bad, but still an icy patch on the road.

  4. Action-wise, it rocks; detail-wise, you might want to check things. For me, it just doesn’t work.

    The animal is an elk, not elg. Elk is what they’re called in English this side of the Atlantic and they have antlers, not horns.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elk

    And those big antlers, especially the plates, make them keen-eared and are used for defense and attack. It would attack Alvar with its antlers, not its hooves.

    BTW I rather doubt they would butcher the elk on the spot. Rather they might put the carcass on a travois or cart and haul it back to one of the farmsteads and butcher it there. This will keep flies and birds off the meat for starters and enable better recovery of the innards – intestines and the like. Likewise the wolf. Wolf meat may not taste good, but it can be fed to the dogs and thralls. And again the innards would be of use. Waste not, want not. Does skinning early actually stop the coat from stiffening? I had a rabbit skin that stiffened.

    BTW2 since this is a fantasy, you might consider what is called the Irish Elk

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_elk

    though it would be ill-suited to a dense forest. Hey, The 13th Warrior had Neanderthals!

  5. @Quartz:

    No, the animal is not an elk – it’s a moose. I’ve done my research. See: https://www.norwegianamerican.com/barneblad-moose-or-elk/ . As for attacking Alvar, note the very close quarters of the encounter. That limits everyone’s options, attacker and defender alike. Furthermore, they would not have room to put the moose on a sled or travois and haul it back intact. Very close quarters would prevent that, as would the weight – 1,500 to 2,000 pounds in our terms. That’s too heavy to haul, particularly by those on foot.

    The Vikings did not eat wolf meat, as far as I know, or feed it to their dogs. The animal was ascribed certain supernatural properties in their perspective on life. However, I’ll do some more research and see whether I can use that.

  6. > No, the animal is not an elk – it’s a moose

    I suggest you check your sourcee: an elk is a moose.

    Anyway, I think that little snippet shows just how much thought has to go into such a short passage and how it takes just one little thing to bring things to a screeching halt.

  7. If the beast has palmate antlers with wide flat areas, it’s a moose. That certainly seems to be what’s described in the snippet. The elk has no such wide, flattened, areas to its antlers and they’re more upright than those of a moose. So what’s being hunted is Alces alces, known in North America as moose but, alas, as elk in Europe because they speak the English version of English which never caught on to them being a different animal.

  8. There are elk where I live in SW Washington; herds of them. Males with antlers, females without. No moose. I’ve liked moose since I first saw Rocky and Bullwinkle, yearrrrrrrrrrrrrs ago.

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