The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 3)
“We could hear the fighting,” Matilda explained as she carefully dabbed her cloth at the wound on the hunter’s head. He’d staggered to their house through the night and found both sisters waiting for him at the door, their faces stricken with concern. “We just weren’t about to try and head out there to figure out what was going on. What were we even supposed to do about it?”
“No no… it’s alright,” Belmius responded with a low wave of his hand. He was feeling dizzy and the motion was not easy to manage. “I am sorry about the… cabin...” He slurred out the statement with some effort. Matilda frowned and looked to her sister.
“Drink more of this,” Renan ordered, assisting Belmius in raising a cup of water to his lips. “You’re going to need some good rest to recover from that hit your head took. I’ll fix up a place for you to sleep tonight.” She set the emptied cup down and stepped away.
“A cart...” Belmius murmured out and Renan turned, raising her eyebrow. “Could I borrow… a cart? Tomorrow?” Belmius repeated, managing out more of his train of thought. “It’s just that I made a deal with the tavern owner in town and agreed to bring the beast back for them...”
The sisters exchanged bewildered looks before Renan gave him a firm stare.
“How about you get some sleep and when you can think straight you can try asking that again, alright?”
Later the next day the two sisters relented a cart to the hunter after finding he was still determined the haul the corpse of the beast away. Shiloh was a mixture of horrified and awed at the sight of the dead monster.
“There is a rather large hole in it,” Belmius stated. “Apologies to you and your cousin for that.”
“There’s a hole in you,” Shiloh’s eyes widened in alarm as they noted the bandage around the hunter’s head. “Are you alright? No brains spilling out anywhere?”
“I am fine.” Belmius answered with a broad grin. “I have had worse.”
The tavern keeper bit their lower lip, concerned yet impressed by the presented concept.
“Well, why don’t you come on in to have a drink and relax while maybe telling me about those times you’ve had worse?” They offered with a grin. Belmius let out a laugh as he accepted their offer.
He talked at length about his hunts leading up to the bear and Shiloh was rapt as they listened. Their deep interest encouraged the hunter during his retelling and soon he was lost in his own stories, often using one hand to mime the maw of some creature while he pretended to fight them with his other. Shiloh gasped and cheered in delight at the tales. Other townsfolk arrived, mostly looking for a meal or a drink, but they too ended up pulled into the brawny young hunter’s stories of monsters and close calls.
He ended it all with his retelling of the bear and the sleepless night he’d just experienced, pointing to his wrapped head as he stated “And if this is not proof enough, there is still the body right outside!” before sharing a laugh with his gathered audience.
“So now it’s off to Bulmar, huh?” Shiloh had returned to their duties, speaking to Belmius between orders and servicing thirsty customers.
“I would like to hit this curse at its center,” Belmius confirmed with a nod before taking a drink of his beer. Shiloh shrugged.
“Would be a shame, though, wouldn’t it? I mean, what sort of work are you going to get done with no one in need of someone big and strong to come around hunting monsters for them?” They teased with a grin. Belmius chuckled.
“There will always be something to give good folk trouble that they will need help with. I am just as fine if it is a simple wolf or big cat.”
“I suppose so. But if it’s all the same, you wouldn’t mind keeping me in mind if you slay another monster or two? I’d love to decorate the place up a bit more.” They grinned as they folded their arms and leaned over the counter. “You know, wholly in your honor.” They gave the hunter a coy wink. Belmius let out another laugh.
“Yes, yes. And all the people coming to see all the monsters displayed, that part does not cross your mind, eh?”
They shrugged, making no effort to even feign at innocence.
“If increase in business is the price I must pay to enshrine your great deeds, then so be it.”
That earned a guffaw from Belmius. He appreciated the cheeky humor.
“I will keep you in mind, yes. But no promises. I cannot be hauling bears through the countryside day in and out.”
“Fair,” Shiloh agreed with a grin. “The one I have now will at least be something for a little while. You know, I should put up a plaque with your name under it!” They mused as they looked out across the tavern’s main room, considering where to display the great trophy. “’Caught by Belmius’. Ah… too bland. You need a title to go with that. ‘Bested by Belmius the, uh… Monster Hunter’? Wandering Huntsman?”
“Eh...” The young hunter politely groaned out his displeasure of the titles. Shiloh laughed.
“Well I’ll work on it!”
Belmius stayed at the town for a couple more days as he rested from his head injury. Shiloh offered him a spare cot in their residence above the tavern and he accepted. Finally he felt it was time to move on.
He was offered a ride to the swampside town by a young woman named Callie and he warmly accepted her offer. They made small talk to pass the hours of travel down the lonely road. Callie spoke at length about her life and family and Belmius listened quietly and added a small chuckle or acknowledging word where appropriate.
“So where are you from?” Callie asked him with friendly curiosity. Belmius smiled and shook his head.
“Nowhere that matters. I do not plan on returning.”
“Something bad happen?” She cautiously ventured to ask. He smiled again and gazed forward down the roadway.
“You got family there?”
“You keep in touch?”
Callie frowned and looked forward herself as they rode, cart bumping and rocking gently as it was pulled along by a docile little gray mare.
“Sorry if I’ve been prying.”
“You have not.”
Despite the brief responses, Belmius seemed fully relaxed and comfortable. Callie had no reason to believe she’d upset him, regardless of what her mind told her, and she tried to shake the sensation to keep her spirits up.
“So you don’t talk about yourself much, do you?”
“There is not much to say.”
“You literally spent an entire evening telling a tavern full of people about meat-eating deer that walked on two legs and how you fought them out of a falling tree.” Callie shot him a skeptical look. Belmius laughed.
“Ah, but after the hunting stories are done, what then? People want to hear excitement.” Belmius shook his head, a smile still on his face. “My life is boring beyond that. There is not much to tell.”
Callie frowned thoughtfully.
“That’s not all true, you know. Sometimes people want to hear the boring stuff. The stuff that makes you relatable, makes you feel like just another real person.”
“Perhaps that is true,” Belmius agree with a sniff, his smile fading for the moment as he gazed out over the horizon at the trees that closed in around the road. “But… not today, I am afraid.” The kind grin returned as he declined her press for small talk. Callie grimaced softly in disappointment but nodded.
They arrived at Bulmar early in the evening. A thin fog was settled over the town, making the area look still and calm despite the stories he’d heard. Belmius thanked Callie for the ride and offered her payment for her trouble. She declined. He offered again, insisting politely on repaying her for her work.
“An apology for my silence,” he added charmingly. She smiled and finally accepted.
“You may not be much for conversation, but I’d be glad to help you any time,” Callie told him genuinely.
Belmius headed into the town, not entirely certain where to start looking but knowing at least who he was looking for. Bulmar was larger than his previous stops but it was not much busier. Some folks milled about but most were busy with the ins and outs of their day.
In the distance Belmius could hear the clang of a hammer and smelled the smoke of a forge and he worked his way through the streets of town toward the noise and scent. Soon he came upon the building and found a man working there, his dark skin stained further from his labor. He wiped his brow and lifted his gaze from the horseshoe he was working on as the broad hunter approached.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Quinn,” Belmius said with a smile. The smith eyed him skeptically and shrugged.
“Quinn isn’t interested in seeing anyone. Not these days.”
“He will be interested in seeing me,” Belmius assured kindly.
The smith looked him over again, gaze narrowing in consideration.
“What’s your name, stranger?”
“I am Belmius,” the young hunter stated, extending a hand.
“Riktor,” the smith answered, reaching out to take the hunter’s wrist firmly and gave a strong shake. “I’ve heard about you, Belmius. Folks around town been wondering if you’d actually show up here.”
“Well, here I am,” Belmius stated with a broad grin, holding his arms open. “Now, you will help me find Quinn? I am here to speak to him about a curse.”
Riktor nodded and glanced out along the road. He leaned and pointed.
“Northeast a bit, ’round the bend in the road and past the general store. He’ll be the house with the large shack next to it.”
“Thank you, friend.” Belmius nodded graciously.
“Just hope he’s up for the company today,” Riktor stated with a shrug before he returned to his work.
Belmius followed the smith’s directions and soon found himself standing before a building that looked to match what Riktor had described. It was a two-story home, though the second story was little more than just an attic or single room, and had a wooden porch with steps that creaked and groaned as Belmius climbed them. The porch was devoid of any decorations in a way that implied things had been present before but were now torn down. Discolorations in wood where something had spent years resting, bare nail heads where objects once hung, and holes where mounted items had been removed.
Belmius knocked and the door felt firm and heavy under his fist. Closed. Unwelcoming. He waited for several moments and then tried again.
It was getting later and the sun fell low. The fog that filled the area quickened the onset of the evening and Belmius could hear the town grow quiet as people settled into their homes. He relented to the closed door and stepped down off the porch, heading back into town to seek out a place to stay.
He found an inn and as he entered it the innkeeper looked surprised at the appearance of a customer.
“Shouldn’t be out so late,” she said with concern, her forehead creasing in worry. She looked only a little older than Belmius himself, her skin dark and her bountiful hair pulled back in tight rows of braids. “Things get dangerous after dark.”
“I have been dealing with dangerous things plenty lately,” Belmius said with little concern. “I expect no less from here.”
“You’re Belmius, aren’t you?” She hazarded to guess. “People talk about you sometimes, mention some big hunter coming through the area.”
“So I have heard.” He gestured about her establishment. “You are not too busy?”
“People don’t come around so much these days. Our main export businesses have been shut down and most folks don’t like the sound of cursed swamps,” she admitted dryly. “Mostly I run this place as a restaurant now but I figure you’re interested in a room, aren’t you?” He nodded. She pulled a key off the wall behind her counter and tossed it over to him. “Well here. Room’s free. Just do a lady a favor and buy some meals, alright?”
“I will, yes,” Belmius agreed with a smile.
“We lock up here a half hour before sunset so if you’re in or out at nightfall, that’s where you’re staying,” she warned. “The beast comes by at night.”
“The Nedran?” Belmius asked. The innkeeper shook her head.
“No. The wolf,” she explained and her voice grew weary. She did not appear concerned or alarmed but looked tired, the expression of someone exhausted by a trouble she’d been forced to grow accustomed to. “Big, awful thing. Been hunting people for years now but won’t show its face in the day. Town started following a curfew after all sorts of folks were being drug away at night. We had a watch going and they all got taken out. Hunters try and stay up for the creature and they’re gone. Some folks would just step out their front doors in the dark to head to a neighbor’s and would never make it that far.” She shrugged helplessly. “We tried lighting the streets better but would find torch poles ripped out. Tried setting up a fence but every night it was torn apart and we were never able to make progress. Now we just shut down before nightfall.”
“This has been going since the curse started?” Belmius asked, leaning onto the counter as he listened.
“Happened just weeks after Quinn’s run-in a few years ago,” she nodded. “Wolf’s been here ever since.”
Belmius give a low, brief hum as his eyes fell down to the counter top. He was silent for a moment as he thought.
“Anyone seen the creature?”
“No one who’s been around to talk about it afterward,” the innkeeper stated grimly.
“Well I shall try to make that different,” Belmius replied with calm reassurance. “There has been much I have faced down in these past months.”
The innkeeper did not look impressed. It was not a cynical skepticism but more of a somber disbelief, the look of someone who’d experienced too much loss to raise hopes any more.
“Well, you’re a good man for wanting to try,” her response was one more of dismissal than praise. “I’ve seen plenty of good men come to vanish these past several years, though.”
Belmius left her to return to her work, what little she had of it, and headed upstairs to find his room and settle in for the night. He unpacked his few belongings and took the time to wash up after his long journey. Darkness came quickly and before he was out of his bath he could hear the innkeeper downstairs moving about, making good of her promise as she locked the building up tight. The hunter did not enjoy the sensation of being kept inside, regardless of whether or not he had any plans to head out again that night, but for now he could make do.
Belmius sat up in his room and stared out the window into the foggy scenery below. All lights were out so their glare would not hinder his view as he watched the misty streets. He was on the second story of the inn and the windows could be opened outward, as his was now. A cold, damp breeze trickled lazily in as he sat, one arm resting on the sill, and listened for sounds of anything in the darkness.
The night was still and silent, unnaturally so. It lacked a sense of calm or comfort. He could not see anything through the rolling fog but his own curious mind and faint shadows in the night hinted at mysteries shrouded just out of sight.
Belmius let out a soft sigh, a low breath through his nose. This place should be like any of the others, but perhaps for its proximity to the swamp and the Aylon therein, the entire town carried an air of dread that the hunter was having trouble shaking. For the first time in a long while he felt hesitant when considering the task before him. For the first time in a long while he questioned his abilities.
For the first time, he felt doubt.