Sorin and master Iorek’s workload increased steadily over the next few days. With the Great Hunt fast approaching, it became more important than ever to make sure all the weapons, armor, and tokens were crafted on time. With so many orders coming in, master Iorek eventually relented and allowed Sorin to work on armor and showpieces for the Great Hunt. The elder blacksmith steadfastly refused to let his apprentice work on weapons, however, due to his inexperience with that kind of smithing.
Sorin threw himself into his work, stoking the smithy’s coals at sunrise and banking them well after the rest of the village had gone to sleep. In addition to the standard orders of shovels, picks, and other necessary village pieces, he worked on bracers, greaves, and bucklers. Master Iorek supervised his work from time to time, but after the second day, he left Sorin alone, trusting that his apprentice really did know what he was doing.
And he did. Sorin had a knack with armor, an innate understanding of how to achieve the perfect curve and how to properly secure a brace to a wooden shield. Word had spread of his work on Renna’s bracers and his commissions soon included a discussion of designs to be etched into the metal. While master Iorek kept a large percentage of every commission Sorin received, he allowed the younger norn to keep all of the earnings he made off of his etchings.
A week after Aric had tried to raise a fuss in the smithy, Sorin was working late, putting the finishing touches on a set of pauldrons for one of Renna’s friends. Master Iorek had already gone to bed and Sorin was just finishing an etching of an eagle in flight with a noise from outside caught his ear.
He paused and looked up from his work, frowning. He had closed the large barn door on his master’s side of the forge but left the one on his side open a few feet to ease the stifling heat of the forge. Sorin waited, and the sound came again, loud and strident in the night air. A horn? It sounded closer than the last sounding, but who would be blowing a horn at this time of night?
Setting aside his slender etching pen and tap hammer, Sorin approached the open door of the smithy. Halfway to the door he paused, and after a moment’s hesitation, he retrieved one of the hammers hanging from the wall and stepped outside. The only light in the village came from the forge-fire spilling through the door behind him. Heavy snow clouds obscured the moon and stars, casting the rest of the village in darkness. His sweat-slicked skin prickled in the cold air and an errant breeze carried a faint, unusual odor to his nose. It was musky… similar to a dolyak, but…
He could make out a series of muffled thumping now. The horn blew again, much closer, than it had been before, and two more sounded on the heels of the first. Sorin recognized that trumpeting call now, and the musky odor, and the sound of hoofbeats in full gallop. A chill that had nothing to do with the night air swept up his spine.
His hand tightened around his hammer and he bellowed, “Minotaurs! Minotaurs in the-“
A massive shape emerged from the darkness ahead of Sorin, galloping toward him. With a startled shout, he ducked back into the forge, throwing himself aside as the creature burst through the door, showering the air with splintered wood. The beast’s shoulder struck Sorin’s side as it plunged into the smithy and sent him careening into the wall, his hammer spinning free of his grasp, his ribs aching from the impact. He caught himself against the wall as the minotaur bellowed and began rampaging.
It was an Alpine Minotaur, a bull in the prime of its life, at least three times Sorin’s bulk. It tried to rear and cracked a ceiling beam, then fell heavily onto its forelegs. It twisted and kicked with its hind legs, knocking over an anvil. The minotaur swung its head from side to side, snorting and bellowing until it laid its eyes on Sorin and charged.
He pushed away from the wall and lunged toward the furnace, hoping the minotaur would charge back outside. He had moved too early, though, and the minotaur tried to turn and follow him, its hooves scrabbling against the hardwood floor. The bulk of its body slammed into the wall with a thunderous crack, the boards splitting beneath its weight. The beast hefted itself back onto its hooves, unbothered by its crash.
“Sorin? What in the name of the frozen north are you…” Sorin glanced to the side, finding master Iorek standing in the doorway to his room, clad only in his smallclothes. The bulky smith’s voice trailed off as he laid eyes on the minotaur. The bull turned its head, locking gazes with the blacksmith, and scuffed the floor with one forehoof.
The minotaur charged and Sorin threw himself forward, thinking only of saving master Iorek from the monster’s headlong rush. They met in the center of the forge, Sorin throwing his weight behind his left shoulder as he rammed the monster’s flank. To both his and the bull’s surprise, the minotaur swayed under the impact, its right legs lifting off of the ground. The monster bleated and kicked at the air for a moment before it crashed to the ground, its momentum carrying it into the wall not ten feet from where master Iorek stood.
Sorin recoiled from the impact and staggered against his master’s anvil, clutching his aching shoulder. “Get out of here!” he shouted at the older blacksmith. “We need to warn the village!”
“Jormag take you!” master Iorek roared at the bull, retrieving his massive sledge from its place near his work table. “No man or beast makes a wreck of my forge!” He charged at the minotaur as it rolled to its feet, his sledge raised, but before he could drop it, the best tossed its head and knocked the stout norn to the side with a sweep of one great, curving horn. Pulled off balance by his sledge, the blacksmith stumbled and fell near the ruins of the broken barn door. The creature snorted as it gained its feet, its beady black eyes on the fallen blacksmith.
“Here!” Sorin shouted, waving his arms and wincing with every movement of his left shoulder. “Over here! Look at me! Look at me!” The minotaur glanced at him and bleated. “Come at me, you filthy cow!” The bull pawed the floor, bellowed, and charged – not at master Iorek, but at Sorin.
Now what? The thought flitted across his mind as he dove through the door leading to the courtyard behind the smithy. He ducked past the heavy chains hanging from above just as the doorway behind him exploded with a thundering crash, splintered wood pelting his broad back. Without looking behind him, Sorin dove to the side, landing in a pile of snow he had swept up earlier that day.
There was a rattle of chains and a bleat of alarm. Sorin rolled onto his back, out of the drift, and found the minotaur tangled in the loops of chains suspended from the timbers above the courtyard. He and master Iorek used those chains to secure dolyaks for shoeing. One end of each chain was secured to the ceiling with heavy hooks while the other end was looped over timbers and secured to winches along the wall of the hut, allowing them to adjust the slack of each chain when needed.
The wooden supports creaked and cracked as the bull thrashed. It had tangled its forelegs and neck in the loops of chain and was trying desperately to free itself. Sorin’s eyes locked onto the loop of chain around the creature’s neck and a desperate idea occurred to him.
He scrambled to his feet and cautiously approached the snared beast. One of the timbers cracked and splintered, freeing one of the minotaur’s forelegs. As soon as it shifted its weight onto its freed leg, Sorin lunged forward, using one of the hanging chains to hoist himself up onto the creature’s back. He grabbed one side of the chain looped around the creature’s neck and clung to the minotaur’s back as it bucked and thrashed. Another timber splintered, freeing its other leg. The rig had not been designed to support so much weight flailing about. Gritting his teeth, Sorin reached up and grabbed the hook securing the end of the chain to the beam above him. With one quick motion, he freed the chain and then hooked the end to the exposed length on the other side of the minotaur’s neck, collaring it.
The beam above Sorin splintered and snapped, one half swinging down to knock him from his perch. He hit the ground and rolled away from the minotaur and toward the winch that connected to the chain around the minotaur’s neck. Just as he reached it, the monster trumpeted and stamped the ground. Sorin glanced over his shoulder in time to see the bull turn and charge back into the forge. The winch would never hold against the strength of a charging minotaur, so Sorin quickly grabbed the train and looped it around his forearm before the minotaur pulled it taut. He had just secured his grip on the chain when all the slack vanished, nearly wrenching his arm out of its socket as he was pulled off of his feet and dragged across the snow, the winch exploding from its mountings behind him.
Pain blossomed in his shoulder as he was dragged kicking and gasping through the smithy, the cold metal chain biting into his arm. Sorin cried out, but the sound that emerged from his throat sounded more like a snarl than a scream. He caught a fleeting glimpse of master Iorek, moving through the wreckage, and then he was outside again.
The minotaur galloped forward, snorting and tossing its head, and Sorin was dragged along behind it, clutching the chain with both hands and trying to gain some sense of the world around him. Villagers were shouting and cursing all around him, accompanied by the trumpeting call of minotaurs. How many of the beasts were there? How were the other villagers doing? Far better than I am, he suspected.
The bull came to a stop and reared, braying into the night. Fearing that he might not get another chance, Sorin scrambled to his feet, braced himself in the snow and pulled. The bull croaked and fell upon its forelegs, thrashing its head. Sorin leaned backward, his biceps flexing, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulders. He yanked hard on the chain, and the bull swung its head toward him, its eyes bulging. It dug its forehooves into the ground and leaned away from the blacksmith’s apprentice, coughing and gagging as the chain around its neck tightened. Sorin began sliding forward as the minotaur pulled against him, but he dug his heels into the hard earth beneath the snow and leaned back, a snarl rising from the back of his throat. The chain cut deeply into his arm and warm, red blood welled up between the chain links. Sorin bellowed a challenge at the monster before him and yanked harder on the chain.
The loop of chain around the minotaur’s neck cut into its bulging muscles and tightened around its windpipe. Spittle flew from its mouth as it tossed its head, but it could not pull away from Sorin’s grip. Its nostrils flared, it kicked and spat, but it could not break free. It tried to bellow, but a choking mewl was the only thing that escaped its broad mouth. Sorin pulled harder, and the minotaur staggered. He pulled again, and its forelegs crumpled.
Sorin advanced, looping lengths of chain around his bloody forearm arm until he stood over the minotaur. Its flanks heaved sporadically and its eyes rolled frantically, but it seemed to have lost its strength. Bracing one foot against the bull’s neck, Sorin pulled on the chain until the minotaur’s tongue lolled out of its mouth and its flanks stilled. It twitched sporadically in death, but Sorin held on for another minute before he felt certain enough to release the chain.
He looked down on his kill, panting, his shoulders aching, his right forearm numb and crisscrossed by bloody welts. All at once his strength faded and he stumbled backwards, barely catching himself in time to fall to one knee. He was vaguely aware of someone calling his name and looked up as master Iorek knelt beside him, gripping his shoulders.
“What?” Sorin asked, confused.
“It’s over,” the grizzled old blacksmith repeated, shaking him gently. “The minotaurs are all dead. Half a dozen came storming through the village.” He looked past Sorin, toward the bull. “Only one bull, though. Spirits, but he’s a big one… and you… you killed him! My own apprentice, throttling a minotaur with his bare hands!”
“I had a chain,” Sorin said vaguely, looking around. A number of dark shapes lay scattered throughout the village, illuminated by torches carried by the awakened villagers. Several of the dead minotaurs were riddled with arrows, one had an axe buried in its back, and another had its head resting on the ground several feet from its body.
The village itself was in shambles. The smithy was half-collapsed, along with three other huts that Sorin could see. Another looked to be on fire, but a trio of norn were shoveling snow onto the burning home, quenching the flames. Aric stood nearby, pale-faced and trembling, with a bloody sword in his hand. Brom was nowhere in sight, but Meldun stood beside him, scowling. Renna was also nearby, speaking quietly with her parents. Her mother had a bow in her hand and her father carried a sword.
“My father,” Sorin said, trying to rise. “I… I need to check on my father.”
“Easy, son. I sent Fridgeir down that way myself. Take a moment and catch your breath.” He crouched down and lifted Sorin’s right arm. “Gotta get that looked after,” he grunted. “I’ll go get Freya.”
As master Iorek rose to retrieve Renna’s mother, Sorin’s gaze settled on the dead bull once more. He had killed that bull himself, with nothing more than a heavy chain. I killed it, Sorin realized, feeling a strange mixture of pride and nausea. I… I killed it. Me… the blacksmith’s apprentice.
Sorin stared down at his trembling hands, one pale in the flickering torchlight, the other darkened by blood. The same hands he used every day to make tools and armor for the village were the same hands that had killed the minotaur. No longer the hands of a maker, but the hands of… what? A warrior? A hunter? A killer?
Sorin promptly bent over and vomited into the snow.