The Hunter, Artemis Cromwell, was beside himself. For the first time in a very long time he had no idea what to do. Under his wide-brimmed hat he cast a glance at the happy, humming child of the gods who rode beside him. Well, one god in particular. Arasil, God of Virtue and Aid to the Weak. Unfortunately for him, this meant she had taken vows of celibacy and sobriety. He sighed deeply.
It was going to be a long trip.
Somehow the girl had taken it into her head that he was weak, if not of body then of spirit, and decided it was her duty to help him. Or at the very least keep him from dying, as he had almost done in the town of Calpin, where they met. Never mind that he'd been doing this since he was a teenager, when he'd watched his uncle get torn apart and half devoured by a werewolf, which he'd then gone on to kill while it was busy eating his mentor. He was a professional, damn it, and he didn't need some snot-nosed brat fluttering about, getting herself into trouble. He sighed again.
She noticed this time, and halted her humming to look over and ask, "Is something wrong, Sir Artemis? You've been sighing all morning, as if you've a weight on your soul."
"Yes, girl, and you've been humming like an insipid child ever since we left that inn with its watered down beer and beds that I'm certain were stuffed with rocks."
She shrugged. "I slept fine. Maybe," she ventured while eyeing him, "it's your attitude about the accommodations that is the problem."
He growled, whipping his head to regard her. "And maybe the problem is, being a woman of the cloth, you're used to sleeping on rocks in service of your god. No boozing, no sex, it wouldn't surprise me if your god didn't allow you to be comfortable while you slept as well."
Artemis was enacting a plan he'd devised last night while not sleeping in that stiff as a board bed he'd overpaid for. He really didn't want this sweet young thing to be harmed; or worse, killed; while traveling with him. She'd nursed him back to health after that Nelminth had beaten him within an inch of his life, and he felt he owed her at least the courtesy of not getting her killed. He was not sure he could live with that, nor was he keen to find out.
And so, he had taken to being rigorously and constantly unpleasant to her in an effort to drive her away. Better she hate him for being a stupid, drunken letch than to be maimed or killed by something trying to get at him. But the girl's pleasant attitude and stately composure was nigh unflappable. Try as he might, she was never anything but a perfect lady, even when he was at his most vile.
"On the contrary, Sir Artemis, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves. But our vows do supersede our desires. So if a bed of rocks is what my Lord gives me, then a bed of rocks is what I shall sleep on. But if a downy mattress and silk sheets are provided," she shrugged, "as I said, we are permitted to take pleasure in some things. But yes, no drinking or carrousing for us. Although we are allowed certain things, as I said.” She grinned. “My Lord is far more concerned with actual sins and wrong.”
“So why don’t you go find someone else to follow around?” The Hunter asked with more venom than he felt.
She was unperturbed. “Oh, but I have my hands full with you, I do believe. A drunk, a womanizer, and one who has...lax moral standards in other areas to boot. No, I do believe my job as ordained by my Lord is to help you. And besides, you do seem to need help with not dying.” She smirked at him, taking pleasure in his discomfiture.
He sputtered, having been taken aback by this. “I am perfectly capable of not dying, you silly little girl!” he huffed when he’d regained himself somewhat. “I’ve been doing this since I was younger than you, for god’s sake!”
She laughed a bit, covering her face with her hand. “And had I not been there that Nelminth would’ve sent you to your grave even though you’d already sent it to its own. You should learn to be more grateful for gifts from the gods.”
“Gifts from the gods?” he scoffed. “Oh yes, how very kind of the gods to gift me with an annoying brat who doesn’t know the first thing about self-defense for me to watch over. And with vows of celibacy and sobriety on top!” He shook his head. “No, girl, I’d be thanking the gods to keep themselves out of my business and let me get on with my life without burdening me with one of their sweet little lambs to watch over.”
“So you think I’m sweet?” she asked coquettishly.
He blustered in an attempt to muster some kind of retort, and had been on the brink of saying something truly blue when she cut him off.
“Well regardless of what you think of me, my God watches over me. If my faith is strong, he will ensure I come to no harm.”
He’d been about to laugh at her when he was cut off yet again as a large stag, pierced with several arrows, leaking blood, jumped out of the woods to his left and over their horses, nearly caving in his skull in the process. As it was his cloak was only a little bloodier and he was only a little shaken. Seeing a hoof flailing through the air an inch from the tip of your nose can do that to a man.
Artemis drew his horse up short, while Ana calmly brought her mare to a stop. It seemed unperturbed by the whole affair, and began cropping grass in the road.
“Oh my,” she said, not letting her composure fall, “I wonder what that’s all about?”
He rounded on her, his eyes blazing, and shouted, “What do you think it was about? Some damn huntsman was trying to kill that damn thing and it almost took my damn head off! The hoof was right here!” He held his hand in front of his face to demonstrate. “If I find that hunter I’ll shove his bow up his-”
At that moment the brush on the side of the road the stag had come from exploded in a flurry of motion, and a man broke through to stand just on their side of the tree line. He was dressed in leathers and a cloak dyed in mellow greens and browns, carrying a well-crafted bow in his left hand, holding an arrow in his right. He took them in without wasting a moment and asked in a deep voice, “Did a stag just run through here? Full of arrows?”
Artemis wiped a hand down his face, pulling his features into a caricature of their normal handsomeness. He sighed angrily, hopped off his horse, and walked right up to the huntsman till he was screaming in his face. “Yes, it did! And its hoof almost caved my skull in! Now if you’ll kindly hand me your bow and bend over, I’ve got a bit of sodomy to take care of! Ana, look away.”
The huntsman threw off his hood and raised an eyebrow. He was certain he could take this man if it came to a fight, but he’d prefer to avoid one if at all possible. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know anyone would be travelling down this road, and a wounded animal is difficult to predict at the best of times.” He spied the blood on the ground, and on Artemis, and snapped to attention. “So it went that way!” he cried, pointing into the brush on the other side of the road. “Help me catch it and I will share the meat with you as an apology.”
Artemis considered. He was still shaking with rage, but fresh venison did sound good. It had been a while since they’d stopped to eat, and trail rations weren’t the most appetizing of foodstuffs. He spat on the ground. “Fine,” he grumbled, “we’ll help you. What’s your name, huntsman?”
“I am Victor Dryden. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And you are?”
Artemis’ ears perked up. “Victor Dryden? Don’t you recognize me? It’s Artemis! Artemis Cromwell!”
The Ranger, for that was his true profession, boggled. “Artemis? Gods, it’s been years! How have you been?”
“Oh, you know, almost got killed by a Nelminth. Nothing serious.”
Victor chuckled. “Still hunting monsters, eh? I told you it’d land you in the morgue one day!”
“Oh probably, but not this day! What have you been up to?”
Victor spread out his arms to take in the woods. “I do what I’ve always done, my friend. I tend the forest. I protect the animals. Occasionally I hunt one for food. It’s a simple life, but satisfying.”
They heard a small cough behind them and turned. Ana had gotten off her horse and was standing awkwardly behind Artemis, waiting to stop a fight that never materialized.
Artemis plucked at the brim of his hat, embarrassed, and said, “Ah, yes. Victor, this is Ana. She’s somehow taken it into her head that I can be saved, or some such nonsense. Either way, she appears to be my companion, for now.” This last said with a pointed look at Ana. “Ana, this is Victor, an old war friend of mine. Now a Ranger, apparently.”
Ana curtsied, and Victor gave a sweeping bow, saying, “It’s lovely to meet you, my lady.”
“And you as well, Sir Victor.”
Victor came to his feet and said, “I apologize for cutting the pleasantries short, but I have a stag to catch. Will you help me, Artemis?”
“Of course,” the Hunter responded, shining a fierce grin. “I’d not let a piece of venison like that escape my dinner plate.”
“Then if you will excuse us, Lady Ana,” Victor bowed again, “we have some business to take care of.”
The two ran off into the forest after the stag, while Ana stood in the road with the horses. She heard a crack of gunfire, and a cry of, “Don’t! You’ll spoil the meat!” In short order the two came back through the brush, hauling the stag between them.
“Bloody ruined it, is what you did,” Victor grumbled.
“I think you mean, ‘Took down the stag because I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with my fancy arrows,’” Artemis retorted.
“You know for a fact that…” Victor stopped, looking at Ana, and dropped the stag in the road, saying, “Now is not the time for such conversation. We have the creature, that’s all that matters. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll begin preparing dinner.”
Artemis dropped his part of the stag as well, and began building a fire while Victor skinned the carcass and hung it up to bleed out, much to Ana’s discomfiture. She was beginning to look a bit green, and Artemis suggested she take the horses off to find fresh grass. She did, and Artemis got the fire lit. He dragged a couple of logs over for benches, and he and Victor sat down. Artemis took a flask out of one of his many pouches, took a swig, then passed it to Victor. The Ranger drank, sighing with the burn.
“I’m glad you sent the girl away, Artemis.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“I have business to discuss with you. Actually, I’m grateful you rode by when you did, for I don’t know who else I could go to with such trouble.”
“Well, we’re already drinking,” Artemis grinned. “Feel free to unburden yourself, friend.”
“I’ve had…trouble lately,” Victor started haltingly. “My arrows miss their mark when I’m sure I aimed true. I trip over roots that never would’ve caught me before this all began. Animals I hunt seem to have some preternatural awareness that I’m there, despite me being quiet enough to sneak up on a door mouse.”
“Sure you’re not just getting old, friend?” Artemis grinned. “Old Man Time comes for us all at some point.”
Victor shook his head. “No, I’m sure this is a hex of some sort. I think she might’ve found me.”
Artemis took another drink and scratched his head under his hat. “She? I don’t recall any ‘she.’”
“Ophelia!” Victor reached over and shook Artemis by the shoulder. “You know her! The Gypsy Queen!”
Artemis’ eyes widened with recognition. “Ohhh, by the gods.” He shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I told you it was a bad idea to go getting involved with a gypsy, but did you listen to me? No, of course not. A few nights of fun are far more important than sage advice from a friend!”
“I’m sure she’s behind this. It’s been mild inconveniences up to now, but I’m worried this…curse or whatever it is might get more extreme. I need your help to break this, or maybe talk some damned sense into the woman!”
“What can I do? I’m a monster hunter, not a relationship counselor! You want me to kill her? Because I can probably manage that, but I doubt you could afford my-“
“No, I don’t want her dead!” Victor looked disgusted. “What happened to you? I just want her to leave me be. This is getting intolerable, and as I said, I fear it may grow worse.”
Artemis chuckled and took a swig from the flask. “Well, you know the saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’”
Victor was not amused. “I imagine you know a bit about that, don't you?”
“Either way, if that’s what it is then you’ve got a big problem on your hands, my friend. I’m not sure this is something I can solve. But,” his eyes shined, and he clasped his friend by the wrist, “if I am able to help you, I will.”
Victor sighed, looking relieved. He shook Artemis’ arm. “I thank you. I was beginning to think that I had gone mad, but then I struck on the idea of Ophelia being behind it, and it seems too perfect to let go. Shall we travel to her encampment tomorrow?”
“Oh, I don’t see why not,” Artemis lounged, sliding to the ground and resting his back on the log. “Though from what I remember the Gypsies move all over. How do you expect to find them?”
“I had news from a traveler to the town you left. They’re close. We should have no trouble.”
“That’s good. We’ll get this taken care of for you, Victor.”
“I will owe you a large debt for this help, Artemis.”
“Think nothing of it, my friend. If it is Ophelia, you might not live long enough to repay me. But I try to do right by my friends while they’re alive.”
At that point Ana walked up, leading the two horses. “I did not wish to intrude, but if it is foul magic you seek defense against, Sir Victor, I may be able to help.”
“Nah, girl,” Artemis waved her off, “this is a hex. You could get rid of it, but a week later she’d just make a new one. The only solution is to go to Ophelia and fix the problem.”
“Well, in the meantime I might ease your suffering.” She tilted her head back, eyes closed, and placed her palm on Victor’s forehead. She prayed under her breath, and neither Victor nor Artemis could make out the words. A slight glow suffused her, then traveled down her arm to Victor’s head. Victor started as if struck, then laughed.
“My lady, I truly believe you are a servant of the gods. I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me. Hopefully it will last until we find Ophelia.”
“The gifts of the gods are many,” she said piously, “for those who are willing to accept them.” Ana threw a look at Artemis.
The Hunter nodded, saying, “I’ll trust to the gifts of the bottle, thank you kindly.” He took another swig.
As night fell they judged the stag bled, and began cutting it up for cooking. Ana looked away while all this was going on, trying to ignore the slicing sounds as they divvied up the meat. Victor speared several choice bits and began roasting them, and they ate and cooked late into the night. At last most of the meat was roasted, and Victor took first watch as Artemis and Ana slept.
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