“What are those for?” said Henry.
“What do you think?” Gilbert replied. “We’re going on the hunt. We need to be able to fell the beast, aye?”
“It looks painful.”
“This is far kinder than an un-barbed arrow, I assure you,” said Gilbert. “And we’ll finish the beast quickly if this is not sufficient.”
“I’m beginning to think I ought to remain here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Henry,” said Balayn. “Come with us.” Balayn was leaning in the doorway, smiling crookedly.
“I can see killing in defense,” said Henry. “But this may be too much for me.”
“But you’ll be happy to eat it,” said Balayn, now stepping into the chamber. “These are the realities of life, Henry. If we want meat, we have to kill for it. It doesn’t grow on bushes.”
“I know. I know,” said Henry. “Can’t I just accept the reality without having to engage in it?”
“Ride with us at least Henry,” said Gilbert. “I won’t make you draw the bow.”
“Karrick will most likely make the kill anyway,” said Balayn. “He is a crack shot.”
“Alex will be with us too. He is an avid hunter,” added Gilbert.
“Alex is a good man,” said Henry. “It is nice to have his company.”
“All right, then,” Gilbert clapped Henry hard on the shoulder. “On your feet. Let us go.”
They rode for an hour deeper and deeper into the woods. Karrick and Alex both rode with an arrow nocked and ready to fire, guiding their horses only with the pressure of their legs. Gilbert was ready as well, with a crossbow cocked hanging from the pommel of his saddle. It wasn’t loaded as yet, but he could grab it and load it quickly. Balayn similarly had a crossbow ready, unloaded and cocked.
Henry was the only one of them not ready to kill. He wanted to turn back, but equally he wanted to be close to Gilbert, who struggled so after the injury to his arm. He hoped silently that the hunt would not be successful so that he wouldn’t have to watch a living thing die.
Karrick raised his hand and they all stopped. Alex pointed off the the right. The faint clicking of hooves carried through the air. They slid off their horses and carefully picked their way toward the sound. They walked side by side in line to insure that one man could not accidentally put an arrow through his friend. By then, both Gilbert and Balayn had loaded their crossbows.
A noise came from their left, and the men reoriented their line and crept forward. They stopped. Alex signaled that the quarry was just ahead. The men spread out, still keeping in line. Henry stayed close to Gilbert, worried that he could fall and not catch himself well. They inched forward, watching carefully ahead, while also keeping the others in sight.
In front of them the bushes exploded as a massive buck leapt up and charged at them. Gilbert fired his crossbow at point blank, then fell back onto Henry. They curled together into a ball, shielding themselves from flying hooves. The massive beast dove away. As Balayn cried out. The thrum of bow strings echoed through the trees and the crashing stopped.
Gilbert struggled from Henry’s grasp and clambered to his feet. Henry followed him, picking up the crossbow that Gilbert has left behind.
Alex stood over the buck and loosed an arrow directly into its heart. The animal ceased to kick its legs, but still fought for breath.
Gilbert pressed a knife into Henry’s hand. “Give it peace, Henry. Cut its throat.”
Henry knelt beside the buck’s head and said a soft prayer. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You must. Relieve its pain,” said Balayn.
Henry sighed and placed the blade against the animal’s throat. He clinched his teeth and cut deeply. Blood sprayed briefly from the wound, splashing warmly on Henry’s face. The flow slowed, then stopped.
Gilbert knelt beside Henry and prayed softly. He rocked back on his heels. “Tonight we eat well, brothers. Let us honor this animal for its sacrifice.”
Henry sat to the side as the others dressed the deer and prepared to carry it back to the castle. He was tasked with cleaning the arrows that had been salvaged from the deer’s body. He examined them closely. Razor sharp. Deadly. Though it still took three to drop the beast. The bolt from Gilbert’s crossbow had narrowly missed the heart. Karrick’s shot had pierced the vertebral column and nearly paralyzed the animal. That arrow was destroyed in the process. The final shot through the heart by Alex was the finishing shot. Slitting its throat probably only saved the beast a minute or two of suffering.
It was a curious balance, thought Henry. Life and death. Survival. Not everyone can live. Not everything can live. He wondered why he was alive. Gilbert was sitting nearby giving directions and laughing at the playful banter of the others. Henry smiled. He was alive. Moreso now than yesterday.