The Novice: Summoner, Book One
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 centered 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 toward 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. 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 afterward.
The young elk was heavy, but he was not far from the village. The antlers made for good handholds, and the carcass slipped easily enough over the wet grass. His only concern would be the wolves or even the wildcats now. It was not unknown for them to steal a hunter's meal, if not his life, as he brought his prize back home.
He was hunting on the ridge of the Beartooth Mountains, so called for their distinctive twin peaks that looked like two canines. The village lay on the jagged ridge between them, the only path up to it on a steep and rocky trail in clear view from the gates. A thick wooden palisade surrounded the village, with small watchtowers at intervals along the top. It had not been attacked for a long time, only once in Fletcher's fifteen years in fact. Even then, it had been a small band of thieves rather than an orc raid, unlikely as that was this far north of the jungles. Despite this, the village council took security very seriously, and getting in after the ninth bell was always a nightmare for latecomers.
Fletcher maneuvered the animal's carcass onto the thick grass that grew beside the rocky path. He didn't want to damage the coat; it was the most valuable part of the elk. Furs were one of the few resources the village had to trade, earning it its name: Pelt.
It was heavy going and the path was treacherous underfoot, even more so in the dark. The sun had already disappeared behind the ridge, and Fletcher knew the bell would be sounding any minute. He gritted his teeth and hurried, stumbling and cursing as he grazed his knees on the gravel.
His heart sank when he reached the front gates. They were closed, the lanterns above lit for their nightlong vigil. The lazy guards had closed up early, eager for a drink in the village tavern.
"You lazy sods! The ninth bell hasn't even rung yet." Fletcher cursed and let the elk's antlers fall to the ground. "Let me in! I'm not sleeping out here just because you can't wait to drink yourselves stupid." He slammed his boot into the door.
"Now, now, Fletcher, keep it down. There's good people sleeping in here," came a voice from above. It was Didric. He leaned out over the parapet above Fletcher, his large moonish face grinning nastily.
Fletcher grimaced. Of all the guards who could have been on duty tonight, it had to be Didric Cavell, the worst of the bunch. He was fifteen, the same age as Fletcher, but he fancied himself a full-grown man. Fletcher did not like Didric. The guardsman was a bully, always looking for an excuse to exercise his authority.
"I sent the day-watch off early tonight. You see, I take my duties very seriously. Can't be too careful with the traders arriving tomorrow. You never know what kind of riffraff will be sneaking about outside." He chuckled at his jibe.
"Let me in, Didric. You and I both know that the gates should be open until the ninth bell," said Fletcher. Even as he spoke he heard the bell begin its sonorous knell, echoing dully in valleys below.
"What was that? I can't hear you," yelled Didric, holding a hand up to his ear theatrically.
"I said let me in, you dolt. This is illegal! I'll have to report you if you don't open the gates this minute," he shouted, flaring up at the pale face above the palisade.
"Well, you could do that, and I certainly wouldn't begrudge you your right to. In all likelihood we would both be punished, and that wouldn't do anyone any good. So why don't we cut a deal here. You leave me that elk, and I save you the trouble of sleeping in the forest tonight."
"Shove it up your arse," Fletcher spat in disbelief. This was blatant blackmail.
"Come now, Fletcher, be reasonable. The wolves and the wildcats will come prowling, and even a bright campfire won't keep them away in the winter. You can either leg it when they arrive, or stay and be an appetizer. Either way, even if you do last until morning, you'll be walking through these gates empty-handed. Let me help you out." Didric's voice was almost friendly, as if he was doing Fletcher a favor.
Fletcher's face burned red. This was beyond anything he had experienced before. Unfairness was common in Pelt, and Fletcher had long ago accepted that in a world of haves and have-nots, he was definitely the latter. But now this spoiled brat, a son to one of the richest men in the village no less, was stealing from him.
"Is that it then?" Fletcher asked, his voice low and angry. "You think you're very clever, don't you?"
"It's just the logical conclusion to a situation in which I happen to be the beneficiary," Didric said, flicking his blond fringe from his eyes. It was well known that Didric was privately tutored, flaunting his education with flowery speech. It was his father's hope that he would one day be a judge, eventually going to a law house in one of the larger cities in Hominum.
"You forgot one thing," Fletcher growled. "I would much rather sleep out in the woods than watch you take my kill."
"Hah! I think I'll call your bluff. I've a long night ahead of me. It will be fun to watch you try and fend off the wolves," Didric said with a laugh.
Fletcher knew Didric was baiting him, but it didn't stop his blood boiling. He gulped the anger down, but it still simmered at the back of his mind.
"I won't give you the elk. There's five shillings in the fur alone, and the meat will be worth another three. Just let me in, and I'll forget about reporting you. We can put this whole thing behind us," Fletcher suggested, swallowing his pride with difficulty.
"I'll tell you what. I can't come away completely empty-handed, that wouldn't do now, would it? But since I'm feeling generous, if you give me those antlers you neglected to mention, I'll call it a night, and we can both get what we want."
Fletcher stiffened at the nerve of the suggestion. He struggled for a moment and then let it go. Four shillings were worth a night in his own bed, and to Didric it was nothing but pocket change. He groaned and took out his skinning knife. It was razor sharp, but it was not designed for cutting through antlers. He hated to mutilate the elk, but he would have to take its head.
A minute later and with some sawing at the vertebrae, the head was in his hands, dripping blood all over his moccasins. He grimaced and held it up for Didric to see.
"Alright, Didric, come and get it," Fletcher said, brandishing the grisly trophy.
"Throw it up here," said Didric. "I don't trust you to hand it over."
"What?" cried Fletcher in disbelief.
"Throw it up now or the deal is off. I can't be bothered to wrestle it from you and get blood all over my uniform," Didric threatened. Fletcher groaned and hurled it up, spattering his own tunic with blood as he did so. It flew over Didric's head and clattered on the parapet. He made no move to get it.
"Nice doing business with you, Fletcher. I'll see you tomorrow. Have fun camping in the woods," he said cheerily.
"Wait," shouted Fletcher. "What about our deal?"
"I held up my end of the bargain, Fletcher. I said I'd call it a night, and we'd both get what we want. And you said earlier you would rather sleep in the woods than give me your elk. So there you go, you get what you want, and I get what I want. You really should pay attention to the wording in any agreement, Fletcher. It's the first lesson a judge learns." His face began to withdraw from the parapet.
"That wasn't the deal! Let me in, you little worm!" Fletcher roared, kicking at the door.
"No, no, my bed is waiting for me back at home. I can't say the same for you though." Didric laughed as he turned away.
"You're on watch tonight. You can't go home," yelled Fletcher. If Didric left his watch, Fletcher could get his revenge by reporting him. He had never considered himself a snitch, but for Didric he would make an exception.
"Oh, it's not my watch," Didric's voice shouted faintly as he descended the palisade steps. "I never said it was. I told Jakov I'd keep an eye out while he used the privy. He should be back any minute."
Fletcher clenched his fists, almost unable to comprehend the extent of Didric's deceit. He looked at the headless carcass by his ruined shoes. As the fury rose up in him like bile in his throat, he had only one thought in his mind. This was not the end of it. Not by a long shot.
Copyright © 2015 by Taran Matharu, Ltd.