The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 7)

“I am going to need a sword.” Belmius rested an arm casually on Riktor’s counter. The smith was regarding him with an incredulous look, though some awe yet lingered in his gaze. Here was a man who, twice now, had spent more than one day and one night in the swamps and each time he returned he seemed more or less unfazed by his experiences in the cursed land. Quinn, the oldest and most renowned hunter in Bulmar, had gone in and returned a husk of himself. Belmius had once come back greatly wounded, though stoic and determined after the event, and now here he was again, slightly battered but no worse for wear, with a fire in his eyes lit anew.

“So… The crossbow didn’t work out, then…?” The smith hesitated in his question. To his surprise Belmius gave a deep laugh.

“No, no.” The large young man stated, shaking his head. He gave Riktor a broad grin. “It did not, I am afraid. Did not even make it back out with me. But a sword, that I am confident in.” Belmius dropped a heavy bag of coins on the counter and pushed them forward toward the smith. “It needs to be not like any other. Not lightweight and flexible. You must make this one large and heavy. It must do the work for me on the downswing, have its weight add to its momentum. Like an axe. A cleaver of a sword.”

“I don’t even know where to start with that,” Riktor admitted. He gestured to some of the small daggers and hatchet heads on display in his shop. “I usually just work on smaller items.”

“Ah, but I have faith in you that you will do this,” Belmius smiled warmly at the man, his words and expression genuine. “And I am in no hurry. You will take your time, yes? You will craft for me what I need.”

Riktor was intrigued by Belmius’ calm demeanor, the hunter’s assurance slowly growing contagious. He considered the sack of coins before he looked up at Belmius again.

“I haven’t even told you my price.”

Belmius shrugged.

“If it is not enough, I will simply make more before it is done.”

Riktor hesitated, again looking down at the pouch of wealth.

“You can do this,” Belmius’ deep voice was encouraging and calm. “You have been a smith for this town for how many years now? How many folks have you serviced? How many hunters have you crafted for?” The large man shifted to rest both arms on the counter top, leaning forward as he gave the smith a look of confidence. “Did you not just tell me a few days ago that you thought it would be amazing if your work was good enough to bring down a dragon?”

“Yes,” Riktor’s brow furrowed in uncertainty. “But the crossbow-”

“Simply was not the tool for the job.” Belmius leaned back again, resting his hands flat on the counter. “Do we use a hammer for sewing? No. A needle for plowing? No. The correct tool must be used for success. The correct tool for me will be a sword,” he said, placing a hand to his broad chest. “And you, I believe, have the skill to make it for me.” He leaned forward again, giving the man a warm smile. “A great weapon rests inside you. I simply need you to have that faith in yourself to bring it out for me.”

Riktor was silent for a long moment, staring at Belmius with an unreadable expression. Finally his forehead scrunched in wonder.

“What happened to you in those swamps?”

Belmius drew back and laughed again. His response both disarming to Riktor’s uncertainty and eased his apprehension, but at the same time he could not understand why this man made light of such a daunting task: The task to kill a dragon.

“You will forge this for me, yes?” Belmius pressed again and Riktor nodded. It was difficult to disagree with the good-natured hunter, to not be swept up in his confidence and believe in the ease of the situation he presented. It was difficult to not believe in his own ability with the way the man spoke.

“I suppose I will, yes,” Riktor agreed, finally taking the payment before him. “But it will take time. I’ll need...” he shrugged, “several months.”

“Then I suppose I will be getting to know this town very well, ah?” Belmius responded with a grin. “Good man. I thank you.”

Belmius felt good about what task lay before him. He felt the same confidence he’d carried when first stepping onto Ms. Feeney’s porch, and before even that, when leaving to start his long journey. He saw the obstacles in his path, great mountains seeming unsurpassable: a dragon unaffected by iron bolts or claws and fangs of monster, with deadly breath that could freeze and shattered an object in seconds. But now he also saw a reality beyond that, of him standing victorious over the beast, of being the first to strike down an Aylon. He was getting his chance to prove himself. He was eager to see his own journey unfold.

He returned to Rochelle to explain to her the change in his situation, that he was now going to be around Bulmar for much longer than expected. He offered to begin paying for his room but she refused.

“Make yourself useful with the upkeep,” she offered instead. “Pay me for the meals. Clean up around here. Help me with some of the work and we’ll be even for it.” Belmius agreed readily.

Quinn was fidgety. Nervous. Anxious.

“You’re going back for it a third time?” The old hunter wrung his hands together and cast a look away as he and Belmius sat in his dirty and cluttered home. Quinn found it difficult to look at Belmius as he spoke. It was as though something about the hunter spooked him. Or brought up a sense of shame. Belmius could understand either. Quinn did not like witnessing the comparison between the two of them, the thought of someone he had been, someone he could have been, and the tired old man he was now. He especially did not like hearing Belmius’ descriptions of the Nedran and seeing how unshaken the hunter was from it all.

“If I do not go back for it, it will never stop haunting you,” Belmius responded, his voice low and slow as he regarded the man who shrunk in the wicker chair before him. First Belmius had been intrigued to meet the reclusive hunter, then disgusted at his admittance of cowardice and false disability in his effort to avoid having to face the swamps again. Now he found he felt pity for the man.

“I think you are right,” Quinn said with a low sigh, his gaze turning down as he squeezed his hands. “When you said it wasn’t that the Nedran made strong men weak. You’ve seen it twice now and you’re still ready to face it…” Quinn’s voice dropped to a barely audible level. He looked hollow and sounded empty as he spoke, as if any spirit left within him was diminished now. “I was just a weak man pretending to be strong… and I crumbled as soon as that was tested...”

Belmius drew in a deep breath, considering him silently. They sat for several seconds, neither one saying anything more, Quinn just shifting uncomfortably under the young hunter’s steady gaze. Then Belmius stood without a word, headed over to the table where dirty bowls and bottles were strewn among crumpled papers, and began collecting the dishes.

“What are you doing?” Quinn lifted his head, confusion plain on his face as his brow creased. He frowned.

“Rochelle will not want to deal with me around her all of the time while I am here,” Belmius spoke over his shoulder, still working as he stacked bottles and carried them away. “I will want to keep myself busy.”

“You don’t need to- … You can’t-...” Quinn sputtered out, his face growing hot with shame as he watched the young man work to gather messes he’d left collecting for years. With shaking hands he pushed himself out of his chair and stood up on unsteady feet. “You shouldn’t be doing that...”

Belmius cast him a defiant look as he dropped a stack of bowls in a dish tub, then grabbed a jug from nearby.

“I’ll be back when I have water,” he said firmly. “If you wish to help, you can start a fire in the stove before I return so I may boil some.” He then headed out of Quinn’s house to find either a cistern or well-pump.

The next day Riktor sent for Belmius to return to his shop. The young hunter arrived to find several drafts drawn up, all different sorts of swords that the smith offered to him for consideration. Belmius looked them over, a frown on his face as his brow wrinkled and his eyes scanned through notes of dimensions and material.

“I need bigger,” he said, dismissing the collection.

“You want bigger than this?” Riktor asked skeptically, pointing to the sketch of a six-foot blade. Belmius gave a shrug of his square shoulders and let out a soft groan.

“Broader then, perhaps. These are not quite what I am looking for.”

Riktor drew his mouth into a thin line. The hunter seemed to know what he didn’t want, but that was not helping him.

“I don’t have much reference for anything else. You said ‘like a cleaver’ but I’ve got no record of something quite like that being done before, not at this scale. It’s hard to go off of nothing, you know.”

“This will accomplish an act that has never been done before,” Belmius offered. “It is natural it will look like something that has never been crafted before.”

Riktor let out a sigh but nodded.

“Alright, then. I’ll keep working on it.”

In return for the work, Belmius offered to run errands for the smith and made deliveries for him, covering smaller tasks that would otherwise eat into the man’s time. Riktor accepted his assistance and sent Belmius to and from different residents in town to deliver finished packages or collect payments or supplies.

Gradually the hunter came to know more and more people in the quiet town of Bulmar, and more and more people began to see him as more than just the man who came and slayed a monster. They were opening up to him, growing livelier. Hope was returning to their town, something they had not felt in years, and they received it from the confident broad grin of a large young man who had freed them from the terror of the wolf that hunted the night. They felt relief in a future where soon the dragon may be slain and the curse it set upon them would finally be gone for good.

“I mean, things have been all quiet since you fought that wolf, you know?” Rochelle broached the thought while Belmius sat eating breakfast one morning in her serving room. She joined him often now for the morning meals. “It’s been several weeks and there’s been no noises out at night, no tracks or signs of trouble.” She took a bite of egg on toast and regarded the young hunter as she chewed.

“The dragon is still out there, though,” Belmius mused.

“Yeah, but now you’ve spooked it. Think about it...” Rochelle gripped her cloth napkin tightly in her hand, rolling a corner of it between her fingertips as she spoke. “Dragon’s never had someone go out to face it more than once, right? And you’ve managed to kill that beast that’s been hounding us for years… so… I think it’s scared now.” She lifted her gaze to Belmius, large dark eyes considering him. “And once you’ve got it scared of you, what’s the reason to go back just to kill it? Just stick around… it won’t want the trouble. It’ll finally let up on its curse if it thinks that won’t bring you back out to face it again, don’t you think?”

Belmius could read the worry clear in her eyes. He gave her a soft smile.

“You still think for my safety?”

“What I think, is,” Rochelle’s words came out quickly as she looked away and let go of her napkin, drawing her hands to her lap self-consciously. “That making it back alive twice is already pushing your luck. I’m worried that with a third time, that luck won’t hold. It’ll learn your tricks, it’ll know how to counter you.”

“You would prefer I leave it to brood and plan alone and undisturbed, then?”

“I didn’t say-” Rochelle started before she cut herself off with a sigh. “You know, we don’t even know that’s what it’s doing. It could have even moved on! Your work could already be done, Belmius!” She frowned at him, her expression full of concern. “Can’t we just call this good enough and let it rest?”

“And then what?” Belmius prodded, taking a bite of his meal and chewing as his question lingered. “What if I move on and all the things come back? What if I go and it hits even harder because I was not here to stop it?”

“So don’t go!” Rochelle blurted out, more upset in her voice than she was intending. She drew back, her face hot as she looked away. “So don’t go, then. Maybe think about staying? Aren’t you tired of traveling all the time? Just running off from one danger to another?”

Belmius fell silent. He let out a slow breath of a sigh, looking down at his plate and bowl, thinking about her questions. Thinking about what they meant, what they could mean. He lifted his gaze back up to her dark face and gave her a small but genuine grin.

“I am not a man who likes to leave a task half done,” He finally admitted. “There is no rest for me while that dragon is still out there. I will not be alright until I know it is dead.”

“So is this more about helping us and the town or is this more about you?” Rochelle leaned back and folded her arms as she fixed him with a stern look. Belmius let out another deep breath.

“It is both,” he relented. “I do not want to be a man who left something unfinished. But also, I do not want to be someone who left a town unguarded. I am sorry.” He lifted his cloth napkin to wipe his mouth before setting it down and regarded Rochelle with a polite smile. “I will not be staying. Only until the job is done will I remain here, and then I go again.” He excused himself from breakfast, took his plates for cleaning, and left the woman alone at the table.

Belmius returned to Quinn’s to continue work on restoring the forlorn man’s home into something more suitable for a residence. Quinn at first responded with dulled resentment but gradually grew cautiously appreciative and even grateful. The younger man’s diligence and focus spurred the old hunter slowly into action. Though it was difficult for him to care much about himself these days, there was some inspiration to be found in trying to accomplish tasks before Belmius had a chance to get them done. Like a benign spite that anyone else would dare to try and clean up the messes he had made. Or perhaps a productive shame that led him to to want to prove that the only mess Belmius needed to handle for him was that of the Nedran’s Curse and not of something so simple as a dirty house and careless living.

Belmius asked the old hunter if he could stay through the night and cook them both dinner.

“Rochelle is quite busy today,” the large young man halfheartedly offered as explanation. “I would prefer to not be in her way.”

He did not work very hard to make his lie convincing, feeling that Quinn would be more compelled to allow his company over a sloppy lie than a better one. Quinn’s eyes narrowed skeptically at Belmius’ weak excuse and something in the older man sparked; the dimmest birth of a new flame of life.

“You can stay tonight,” Quinn agreed. “But you’d better be working out whatever’s come up tomorrow. I know Rochelle can be a little hard, but her heart’s always in the right place.”

Belmius accepted the minor scolding with an understanding nod. For a moment Quinn relaxed into the feeling of an older mentor talking to young blood, someone he could relate to back in his youth. For a moment Belmius began to see hints of the man Quinn used to be, the one that the townsfolk spoke of as a fond but distant memory.

“Besides,” Quinn added with a scowl. “She’s the innkeeper, and I don’t feel like having you board up here for however long this all takes just because you got her so mad at you that she didn’t want your face around anymore.”

Belmius hit the armrest of his chair hard with his open hand as he laughed. He cooked a soup for them that night and gradually coaxed stories from the old hunter about years gone and of times when he used to travel to help those who reached out to him. With every hour they stayed up and talked Quinn grew a little more lively, the color returning to his face under the light of lanterns and candles.

The next day Belmius was not ready to head back to the inn. He did not want to see Rochelle again, not just yet, not after their conversation the morning before. He left Quinn’s and wandered aimlessly through town before his footsteps brought him to the borders of Bulmar and then beyond, moving him through dark muck and deep waters.

It had become so natural, the feeling of the swamp. It was so easy to think of it when his mind stilled, so easy to head to it now when he was troubled. Before he knew it the hunter was wading out from waist-high waters and stepping onto firm, muddy banks, already deep within the silent wetlands.

The time it took for him to head through the area was not so long now. The sun still moved quite a bit in the sky and the travel still wiped any sense of how long he’d been trudging through muck and water, but now instead of feeling like ages, it felt like only seconds. Even now he’d made the journey near thoughtlessly, simply looking for a place of solitude to sort through the concerns that disrupted his mind.

The hunter lowered himself down onto his knees to rest, putting his hands heavily on his legs as he breathed in deep. Tall white trees around him rustled and swayed and he heard a noise, low and soft but droning. Like a gentle wind he could not feel.

“I understand she wants me to stay,” he spoke aloud to the emptiness around him, giving voice to the thoughts he could not otherwise silence or quell. “I wish she understood that I cannot, that I must see this through, but how could I possibly explain to her?”

Have Faith. The thought crossed his mind in reassurance. All things will come together. Understanding would come and she would know this hunt must be completed. They all would, Belmius thought to himself. The wind around him hissed gently and he felt the weight of his concerns lift as he relaxed among the still trees and the dark mud.

He had faith they would all come to know the dragon must be ended once and for all.

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