The Novice - Taran Matharu

1

It was now or never. If Fletcher didn’t make this kill, he would go hungry tonight. Dusk was fast approaching and he was already running late. He needed to make his way back to the village soon, or the gates would close. If that happened, he would either have to bribe the guards with money he didn’t have or take his chances in the woods overnight.

The young elk had just finished rubbing its antlers against a tall pine, scraping the soft velvet that coated them to leave the sharp tines beneath. From its small size and stature, Fletcher could tell it was a juvenile, sporting its first set of antlers. It was a fine specimen, with glossy fur and bright, intelligent eyes.

Fletcher felt almost ashamed to hunt such a majestic creature, yet he was already adding up its value in his head. The thick coat would do well when the fur traders came by, especially as it was now winter. It would probably make at least five shillings. The antlers were in good condition, if a little small, they might fetch four shillings if he was lucky. It was the meat he craved the most, gamy red venison that would drip sizzling fat into his cooking fire.

A thick mist hung heavy in the air, coating Fletcher in a thin layer of dew. The forest was unusually still. Normally the wind rattled the branches, allowing him to stalk through the undergrowth unheard. Now he barely allowed himself to breathe.

He unslung his bow and nocked an arrow to it. It was his best arrow, the shaft straight and true, the fletching from good goose feathers rather than the cheap turkey feathers he bought in the market. He took a shallow breath and drew back on the bowstring. It was slippery on his fingers; he had coated it in goose-fat to protect it from the moisture in the air.

The point swam in and out of focus as he centred it on the elk. Fletcher was crouched a good hundred feet away, hidden in the tall grass. A difficult shot, but the lack of wind brought its own rewards. No gust to jar the arrow in its flight.

He breathed and shot in one fluid motion, embracing the moment of stillness in body and mind that he had learned from bitter and hungry experience. He heard the dull thrum of the bowstring jarring and then a thud as the arrow hit home.

It was a beautiful shot, taking the elk through the chest, into the lungs and heart. The animal collapsed and convulsed, thrashing on the ground, its hooves drumming a tattoo on the earth in its death throes.

He sprinted towards his prey and drew a skinning knife from the slim scabbard at his thigh, but the stag was dead before he got to it. A good clean kill, that’s what Berdon would have said. But killing was always messy. The bloody froth bubbling from the elk’s mouth was testament to that.

He removed the arrow carefully and was happy to see the shaft had not snapped, nor had the flint point chipped on the elk’s ribs. Although he was Fletcher by name, the amount of time he spent binding his arrows frustrated him. He preferred the work Berdon would occasionally give him, hammering and shaping iron in the forge. Perhaps it was the heat, or the way his muscles ached deliciously after a hard day’s work. Or maybe it was the coin that weighed down his pockets when he was paid afterwards.

The young elk was heavy, but he was not far from the village. The antlers made