The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 8)

“You weren’t trying it again already, were you?” Rochelle scolded as Belmius showed up for lunch. She regarded his muddy clothes with an equally dirty look. He was not entirely sure what to tell her.

“Riktor has only just shown me a draft for a sword that I have liked.” He stated, recounting his brief stop by the smith’s shop on his way back into town. “He is still weeks away from being done. I am not going back to the dragon without the weapon for it.”

“So what were you doing in the swamps? Don’t you track anything in here, I just swept and mopped!”

Belmius could not help but grin at her chiding as he held in the doorway, his broad frame filling it near entirely.

“A hunter grows restless without a hunt to chase,” he told her casually. “I went to search for signs of any more trouble that may be coming. I don’t want us caught by surprise if the beast sends out something to retaliate.”

“And did you find anything?” Rochelle asked in a tone that implied she had no interest in his answer as she busied herself with setting up tables.

“Not yet,” Belmius admitted agreeably. “But vigilance is key.”

“There’s a bucket outside to wash yourself up with before you can come in here,” Rochelle stated dismissively, setting out cutlery. “Or you can head to Quinn’s and clean up there. He came by this morning asking about you.” She whirled around and fixed Belmius with a sharp look. “Did you tell him something about us?”

“Only that you were busy and I did not want to be in the way,” Belmius offered, his answer honest.

“Yeah, well...” she turned back to her tables, moving through them as she hurriedly resumed her work. “Way he was talking, he seemed to be getting some ideas.”

“The way you have been talking, I have been getting some ideas,” the young hunter confessed.

Rochelle whirled to face him again, glaring at the great man from across the room. She brandished a steak knife and waggled it threateningly in the air for a moment.

“I will throw this at you.”

“I did not mean any offense,” Belmius admitted, raising his hands up in a sign of appeasement. Try as he might, he could not quell the amusement that tinged his voice.

“Shut up,” Rochelle countered and turned back to her work, more flustered by embarrassment than honest upset. “Just get cleaned up before you come in here.”

For the days that followed the hunter easily found enough work to keep himself busy. Every morning he would assist Rochelle with early chores, then he visited Riktor to see if the smith had any errands while he worked on the large blade. Then he was off to Quinn’s to help with cleaning, usually to arrive back at Rochelle’s later in the evening before nightfall. She still locked up a half hour before dark and he still respected that curfew as best as he could.

It was a foggy gray evening as Belmius walked back to the inn, returning from Quinn’s home. Though there was still plenty of time before dark, the world around him grew quickly dimmer as the thick haze hindered whatever light the evening offered.

The town was silent, something natural for Bulmar as it prepared for nightfall, but the cloud that moved through enhanced that silence. Belmius’ footsteps on the wet ground sounded loud to his ears, echoing off the sides of buildings hidden in the mist as he walked through streets that were growing familiar to him during his stay. He’d spent more time at this place than any other since the start of his journey, and for what it was, the restless hunter found he did enjoy his time in the swamp-side settlement.

A scream shattered the stillness. Belmius’ stomach twisted as he recognized the voice instantly, his head snapping quickly in the direction of Rochelle’s cry.

Before her shrill call could fade, another sound was already rising to complete with it. An otherworldly shriek ripped through the fog; a bellowing wail, like a mockery of the innkeeper’s shout. In its wake came the uproar of terrible barking and gnashing snarls, and immediately Belmius was off, tearing through shrouded streets to reach Rochelle before whatever monstrosity, whose ravenous calls still echoed, caught her first.

Through the thick haze a dark figure emerged before Belmius. He threw his arms out to catch the innkeeper as she slammed into him in her mad dash, steadying her before the muddy ground could claim either of them.

Rochelle drew back quickly, eyes wide in panicked alarm. Then recognition crossed her face and she whirled to point into the thick fog.

“There!” She cried out. “They were just there!”

Belmius drew his hatchet and Rochelle ducked behind the great bulwark of a human. The awful baying was only growing louder, a cacophony of horrendous, bestial calls and barks that drew ever closer. Belmius watched the road blindly as he clutched his hatchet tightly. He did not know what new monstrosities had found their way here, but he was ready for them.

A low form burst through the thick fog, rabid and snarling. It leaped at the hunter, throwing itself at him with outstretched claws, its maw opened wide. Sharp metal collided with skull as Belmius swung hard, throwing the beast sideways. It let forth an unnatural shriek as it hit the ground.

It looked only like a wolf, a true wolf, in every manner of the word. It was not twisted, not stretched in size. No tusks or bones or lesions covered its body, and for the briefest moment Belmius allowed himself to believe that was all it might be. Simply a wolf, one having returned now that the great predator that stalked Bulmar was gone.

Then its still body shuddered, and with a lurch the creature pushed itself back up.

One side of its dark muzzle curled into a snarl. The other side was splayed wide open, mangled by the hunter’s axe. Flesh hung down from exposed bone and its eye bulged from the socket, red and distorted. Blood and saliva drooled thickly from its broken jaw as its dark fur bristled and it fixed its mutilated glare on the large hunter.

“Oh… No...” Rochelle stated as she backed up, her tone assertive as though her sheer disapproval would be enough to dispel the beast before them.

“Yeah…” Belmius concurred with her displeasure, a deep grimace forming on the hunter’s face. “Back… back to the inn, I think.”

Snarls and bays sounded out from the thick haze behind the broken beast. Rochelle took off in a run at Belmius’ suggestion. Before the hunter could follow, the wounded thing before him let out a horrible gargle of a noise and lunged again. The hunter responded with another strong blow of his hatchet. This time he did not linger to watch it rise as he raced after Rochelle.

The massive hunter overtook Rochelle quickly and both arrived at the safety of the inn together, the pack hot on their heels. They rushed inside and Rochelle slammed the door heavily behind them, throwing bolts and locks feverishly to maintain their barricade.

“Okay, no!” She repeated in frantic upset. “No! Those things aren’t supposed to be out during the day!”

“Yes,” Belmius agreed thickly, his tone sullen in wonder. “And they’re not supposed to get back up when I split their face open, either.”

Rochelle turned and pressed her back to the door, needing the feeling of its sturdiness to reassure her frantic mind of its strength as the ravenous cries of angered wolves assaulted the quaint security of her inn.

“Where did they come from??” She demanded. Belmius could only shrug helplessly.

“Perhaps they have come now that the larger one is gone,” he mused with a frown.

“You think this is part of the Nedran’s Curse? Or that maybe it sent these to stop you from returning to it?”

Belmius did not answer her. He did not have time. The heavy door rattled and Rochelle hopped forward with a startled yelp, turning to glare at the wooden structure that betrayed her reassurance. From the other side of it came the awful noises of scratching nails and splintering wood as the beasts clawed and dug at the door and its frame.

Belmius ran upstairs to his room, returning moments later with his bow and quiver. Rochelle gave him an incredulous look.

“You’re not going out there! This close to night with a whole pack of monsters?!” She demanded angrily. Belmius opened his mouth to argue but the door shook with a heavy bang and Rochelle cursed as she turned to it again, taking several more steps back.

“Either I go out there or they come in here,” Belmius growled as he nocked an arrow to his bowstring. “I’m not so sure they’re going to leave on their own now that they’ve followed us.” He gestured with a nod toward the bolts. “Open the door for me and stay behind it.”

“You can not be serious!”

The door pounded and shook. Thick wood fractured and splintered as the wolves scratched and tore relentlessly, their awful huffing growls raising in ravenous frenzy. Belmius pulled his bow taut and cast his gaze over to Rochelle before turning back toward the door expectantly. The inn keeper cursed again, then moved forward to unlock the single barrier between themselves and the beasts beyond it. The door shuddered and bucked, as though anticipating its release.

“Close it and lock it again after I’m out,” the huntsman instructed, his stance stiff and ready. The innkeeper swore a third profanity, her version of acknowledgment. The last lock came undone and deftly she grabbed the handle, pulling the door open and closing herself in the little space behind it.

One of the wolves staggered as it rammed itself bodily into open air and tumbled ungracefully through the empty doorway. Another followed in hot pursuit, lunging over its recovering pack mate as it leaped into the inn with an awful wail. It was met by two fast shots and long arrows buried themselves into its shoulder and face, staggering the monstrosity back with their impact.

Belmius lowered his weapon and charged through the cluster of beasts, bracing himself as he slammed past raking claws and bodies of dirtied fur. The massive hunter raced out into the street and the creatures whirled to followed after him, forgetting the inn in their chase as the few that breached the building scrambled to rejoin the hunting pack. Belmius heard the door slam behind him and spared the slightest grunt of relief. For the moment Rochelle was safe, but he needed to get these creatures out of Bulmar.

The huntsman fled for the swamp, the treacherous wilderness now an area so familiar to him, almost more so than the town itself despite having spent more of his time within the settlement. He did not fancy his chances to fight wolves among thin trees, but he felt he could gain an advantage over them in deep waters. Something he could still wade through might force them into swimming, or at least remove their footing enough to spare him their lunges and quick maneuvers.

He barreled into the wetlands and across dark mud, the clamor of the wolves echoing close behind him. Belmius tossed his bow aside as he ran, discarding it in the muck. He would find it later. He already knew these foes did not fall to simple wounds. He pulled his hatchet up from his side and clutched it tight. Its sharp blade would be his best chance to truly debilitate the creatures.

Belmius rushed heedlessly into the murky water that swelled up quickly around him, turning to face the beasts with a goading cry and wave of his arms. They rushed to the bank of the dark lake and came to a halt, staring out at the hunter with unblinking eyes. One was marred by a long arrow shaft that protruded from its head like some awful horn, another embedded between neck and shoulder. The beast with a split face drooled and panted, tongue hanging limply.

“Come on!” the hunter taunted again, briefly fearful that the beasts might retreat back to the town.

Instead they lurched and shuddered, rearing on hind legs as their bodies snapped and contorted, convulsing in violent jerks. Then with a wail they fell, their forms crumbling into a shower of mud that splattered along the shore. Belmius remained in the water, hatchet still raised, hesitant and perplexed by what he’d just witnessed.

“What is this?” He muttered out, eyes scanning the now empty and still swamp.

The water around him rippled. Trees at the edge of the dark fluid shifted. A wind he could not feel whispered through the white forest.

The threat of the Nedran’s Curse lives on. Your hunt will not be questioned now. The thought slipped into his mind so easily, its reassurance nearly lulling him into a state of calm, but Belmius shook his head. The implications of it did not sit well with him. He could not find reassurance in the thought of Bulmar in danger.

But danger has existed always. The reminder pressed gently, bringing up images of a red hound and stories from Quinn and Rochelle. A monster tore lives apart long before you were here. At least now the Huntsman will guard the town and its people as his weapon is finished.

“What?” Belmius’ voice broke the silence of the dark swamp around him as he questioned the thoughts that surfaced so easily in his mind. They felt so assured, felt so much his own, but still he found a part of himself struggling against accepting them.

The Nedran’s Curse, the thought echoed once more, and this time Belmius thought he heard it as Rochelle’s voice, the woman turning to him at the inn, asking about the wolves. An unmoving wind rippled the water’s surface.

Belmius thought back to Rochelle, to the conversation they’d had several days ago that had led him away to Quinn’s for the evening. And then out to the swamps the next day, kneeling in dark mud as he expressed his worries to a quiet land. He’d been told to have faith. He’d been told things would come together.

“No…” he muttered out as the pieces fell into place. “No,” he looked to the trees again, searching their empty rows for something he could not see but could feel was there, was here with him now. “There has to be another way!”

Everyone will know you must end the terror, the thought coaxed. It was not wrong. He bolstered against it.

“People will get hurt!”

The Huntsman will keep them safe. Is that not what you have come here for? The assurance wrapped itself around him tightly, water sloshing lazily against his stomach as it disturbed around the still hunter.

Belmius went silent. He’d come here for a fight. It had been the catalyst, the very thing that first brought him to the doorstep of Ms. Feeney’s ranch. But after hearing tales of Quinn, after meeting the people he helped free from these nightmarish creatures, yes, he supposed he’d come here to protect as well. At least Bulmar, he found, he wanted to protect. Rochelle and Riktor, even Quinn himself, and the people of the town that he was slowly grown to recognize. He did want to protect them. That was why he struggled so much now with the thought of these demon wolves that crumbled into mud.

Do not doubt. Have faith. The thought repeated gently in his mind. When the dragon is destroyed, its false curse will be lifted. Bulmar will know you as its savior, and you will be able to leave it and its people with assurance of their peace.

Belmius clenched his jaw. The thoughts were right. Regardless of what these monsters were, of where they came from, they would stop once the Nedran was dead. He had demanded a chance to prove himself in the fight against it, and with new threats assaulting the town, there would be nothing to sway him from returning to that fight.

The hunter let out a long, deep sigh, calming his nerves after the chase. He felt heavy as he trudged from the water and started back toward town, pausing to search for his discarded bow before he left the swamp.

It was already late when the attack had begun. By the time he returned to the inn it was after dark, well beyond the time he knew Rochelle locked up. He took his chances at her building anyway.

“Rochelle?” The huntsman knocked heavily on the gouged and splintered door. To his surprise, it opened.

Rochelle reached out, grabbed him by the shirt, pulled his muddy form into the building, and threw her arms around him. Belmius waited, partially in shock from the response. Rochelle finally drew back and wiped at her eyes, sniffing before she cleared her throat.

“That was because you saved me. And also because I was worried,” she admitted, then looked down at her own mud-covered outfit and gave a dismayed sigh. “Damnit…”

Belmius held his arms up helplessly. Rochelle shook her head and sighed again as she shoved the door closed. With another sniff she crossed her arms and looked up at the large hunter.

“Did you get them?”

“I lost them in the swamps,” Belmius admitted, his tone sullen. Rochelle grimaced and looked down at the floor.

“Fine. Okay… I guess… you were right.” She huffed and wiped at an eye before refolding her arms, her eyes still downcast. “I just wanted to think we could finally be safe, that the danger could finally have passed..”

“Rochelle...” Belmius tentatively reached out a hand, placing it firmly on the woman’s shoulder. She flicked her eyes up briefly to him but did not raise her head.

“I will take care of this,” he told her firmly, promise in his voice.

“I’m sure,” she admitted reluctantly. She reached up and brushed some of her hair aside as she considered the floor. “I just wish you didn’t have to.”

It was still several weeks before the weapon was done. Talk of the attack quickly spread through town and once more Bulmar became a reclusive and guarded place. Riktor worked with more urgency on Belmius’ weapon and Rochelle did not challenge the hunter about his ambition. Quinn once more grew anxious and withdrawn, whispering again about nightmares of pale yellow eyes.

Belmius did not like to see the change that spread through the town as it reverted back to such a guarded state. He missed the looks of open hope and relief in people’s faces as now each week brought the threat of another attack. So far no one had been lost to the creatures that emerged from the swamps – awful wolves that prowled in the evening, terrible reptiles that slunk from shadows at night, and strange twisted things that crept during the stillest parts of the morning – but any sense of safety was been completely disrupted.

People around town talked about the sword Riktor was building and discussed in earnest their hopes that it would be finished soon and that Belmius would finally put an end to the dragon that plagued them. The huntsman spent his time prowling, playing games with these new demons as he brought them away from Bulmar and its people, always managing to shake them for several days at a time before another threat would emerge.

He did not like the fear the beasts brought, but a part of him did enjoy a return to the hunt, a respite from the every-day routine he’d begun to follow. The monsters were not kind in their attacks, either, and Belmius suffered the brunt of rending claws and piercing fangs as the demons challenged his tactics and forced his guile. More than once Rochelle brought the doctor to her inn and voiced loud concerns about which fight would be the hunter’s last. Belmius found it easy to dismiss her concern with a knowing chuckle, reminding her that his last fight would come when the dragon in the swamps was struck down.

Finally the day came when the blade was done.

Riktor sent for Belmius and the hunter arrived at his forges. The blacksmith looked ragged and tired, having exhausted himself on the several months of work. If Belmius had not known any better, he would have assumed the man had forgone sleep to finish the task.

The weapon was massive, a huge blade of steel that looked more like a glorified carver’s knife than any proper sword, and counting the hilt it was nearly as tall as the large hunter himself. He took the grip of it in both hands and hefted it carefully, getting a feel for its weight. Even for Belmius it took great strength to lift and wield.

“Well?” Riktor asked, his own gaze skeptical.

Belmius admired the work. It felt good in his hands, it felt right.

“It’s perfect.” But it did not feel finished. “Thank you.”

“Is this it then?” The smith hesitated. “This is what will kill that monster?”

“I am certain of it.” It just needed something more.

“Sheathing a weapon like this is a… unique… challenge,” Riktor mentioned as he watched Belmius manipulate the blade slowly. “I spoke with the leather worker and she’s come up with something that we think may work. Here,” he beckoned Belmius over and the hunter very carefully set down the incredible weapon before he followed.

The smith threw open a chest and pulled out a large leather contraption. It looked like a cross between a harness and a frog.

“You make sure this strap up here is near your shoulder,” the smith raised the harness up and helped Belmius slip it on. The leather hold sat down at his waist, diagonal from the strap Riktor was referring to. Belmius pulled the belts of the harness tight and buckled them across his chest.

“Now when you take the blade,” Riktor gestured for the hunter to do so, “reach back to catch the tip in the leather sheath. Then close the strap around the hilt. Undo the strap while you’re holding the hilt and you should be able to draw it back out.” Belmius had to step out and away from Riktor’s building and practice the motion in the streets a few times just so he could have the space needed to maneuver the unruly weapon. It was cumbersome and he would have to adjust to the hefty weight on his back, but it was manageable. It would serve its purpose.

Belmius thanked Riktor again and headed back to the inn. Rochelle was waiting for him, a knowing look in her eyes. She frowned as she saw the sword on his back.

“That looks absolutely unwieldy.”

Belmius chuckled.

“My ability to lift it says otherwise.”

She chose to ignore the remark.

“Are you sure this is going to be what you need to fight that dragon?” She asked, her frown deepening.

“I am certain,” Belmius nodded, “you will see.”

“I hope you’re right...” She did not sound convinced.

Belmius stopped by his room to retrieve what he needed. He would not be taking his bow with him, there would be no room on his back for his quiver. His hatchet would stay behind as well. The sword would be all he needed. The sword and… one more thing.

The hunter grabbed his old water flask that sat in his pack. He lifted it up and shook it, listening to the slosh of the liquid inside. Blood. The serpent he’d drained when he left the swamp so many months ago. By now it should have coagulated, should be absolutely useless. But as he opened the flask the sharp smell of copper and acid hit is nose. It was just as fresh now as it had been then. He closed the flask back up and did not question it. He took it, grabbed a cloth, and left.

It was late as Rochelle saw him out of the inn and though she asked him to stay one more night, to leave the next day with more daylight on his hands, he turned her offer down. He knew he would be spending a night in the swamps, regardless. It was simply that long of a travel to reach the Nedran’s lair. But the concept of camping in the dark wetlands did not trouble him now as it did in the past. He found a part of himself looking forward to it.

He was ready to finally see this journey through to the end, ready to bring peace to Bulmar once and for all. Ready to prove his word to the Presence that waited near the heart of the swamps.

The day grew later as he waded through the waist-deep waters toward the more solid lands beyond it. Darkness crept in through the bone-white forest as he moved through endless trees that sprouted from dark mud, not evening feeling the need for light to see his path. The soft drone of wind moved around him, though as always he never felt it.

As the moons rose high above it was finally time for Belmius to stop. He felt shadows encircle and close in on him but he did not mind their presence. He drew the weapon from his back and sat down on muddy ground, resting the massive sword carefully across his lap, the edge of the metal facing him. Then he pulled up the flask of blood, poured its contents onto the cloth, and spent the night polishing the blade with the acrid crimson liquid until it shone like oiled steel, reflecting in the moonlight.

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