Two weeks before, the Hunter walked his chestnut mare into town. The horse, named Marcy, was old, and he had decided to give her a rest. He'd just come from the neighboring kingdom of Haldmuth. The village there had been facing trouble from a tribe of savage orcs and goblins, which could turn into a warband if given enough time and victories. Artemis had partnered with several idiots calling themselves 'heroes' and 'adventurers,' as if those titles had meant something, and together they had broken the warband by killing its driving force, the leader. In the process several of the morons he'd been with had died, but that didn't bother Artemis at all. More money for him. In the end, the job had been successful, and that's all that mattered. And the leader’s largest and probably most powerful lieutenant had gotten away, and that would mean another warband in the future with another group of morons and more burned villages and slain citizens. Artemis grinned. He liked having job security almost as much as he liked his job.
And he loved his job.
It was the only job he was suited for, the only job that would keep his curse in check. Well, perhaps curse was a strong word. He only turned into a near-mindless, bloodthirsty beast whenever he encountered Faeries. And given the rarity of these creatures it wasn't as if that happened often. Just often enough, and on enough of his supposed 'nights off' to be annoying and what he considered to be a trial directly from the gods to test his soul. Whatever the facts of his predicament, Artemis Cromwell believed himself to be sorely put upon by the gods, the world around him, and life in general. It was why he drank so much. That was why, despite it being fairly early in the afternoon, he was looking to stop in at a tavern and have himself a bottle or two. After he spoke to the mayor of this fine burg, of course.
He walked his horse up to the gates, all towns had gates this far out in the countryside, and stopped. He tipped his wide-brimmed hat, a thing that would look ridiculous on just about anyone else, and looked up to see the crossbows of the town guard trained on him. Holding his horse's reins in one hand and sweeping out his cloak with the other to reveal his long sword to the guardsmen, he bowed deeply and with a bit of sarcasm.
“Gentlemen,” he called in his gruff voice, “Which town do I have the pleasure of finding myself at this fine day?”
“This be Calpin!” one of the guardsmen, presumably the leader, yelled back. “Who be ye? Friend or fiend?”
Artemis smiled a bit at that. “A bit of both, good sir! I come to your fair burg to rest my weary horse, have a drink in one of what I’m sure are your grand alehouses, and perhaps find myself some work along the way! May I enter?”
“What kinda work ye be lookin’ fer, stranger? We don’t take too kindly to those looking to cause trouble around these parts!”
“I can assure you that the only person I wish to put into trouble is myself, and perhaps, in so doing, relieve your good citizens of some of their own.”
“I’ll thank ye to speak plainly, outlander! We’re simple folk hereabouts, and not given to fancy speech or underhanded oddballs just walked up from outta the blue!”
“Then I’ll trouble you with no more of my fancy speech, gentle guardsman! I am Artemis Cromwell, and I am a Hunter. I’ve just come from the neighboring kingdom yonder way,” he indicated the general direction with his free hand, “And I seek work in your lovely city. Be it roving bands of goblins, dracosinas, or even those magical creatures called hereabouts as Fae, I make it my business to hunt these creatures down and ensure they cause no more trouble to humans. I mean your citizens no harm, I assure you.” He bowed again.
The guardsman seemed to think for a bit. His compatriots kept their crossbows trained on Artemis, not wavering for a second. The Hunter wasn't even sure they had blinked once during the meeting. After a moment the guard shrugged, saying, "I'll be down in a moment, stranger, ye just stay right there! And no funny business or sudden moves, or me boys'll turn ye into a right foppish pincushion where you stand. Hear me?"
"Oh, I hear you, noble guardsman. I and my elderly mare shall await you right on this spot!" Artemis pointed at the ground he was currently standing on.
"See that ye do!" And with that the guard left his post to move towards the gate. Artemis could hear his boots thumping on the wood of the stairs as he maneuvered his way down. Eventually he heard the man call again, and the gate slowly began to open. It was a monstrous thing, large shaven trees banded with iron thanks to a superstition that iron somehow had some mystic property that protected against magical creatures. It didn't, but Artemis didn't exactly see the worth in spreading that knowledge around. If it was destined to make its way into the common, it would make it without his help. Well, maybe with a bit of his help. That all depended on whether or not the rumor of Faeries in this land proved true.
The gate creaked open enough to admit one person, and the presumable Captain of the guard walked out with a couple of others following him. Artemis smiled his most disarming smile, his goatee splitting in what he hoped was friendliness. "Gentlemen, so good of you to meet me here. I approve of your caution, what with the dangers in the countryside these days."
"So glad ye approve." the Captain said, his voice dripping. "Now, who are ye and what do ye want in our town?"
"Well, as I said, I am Artemis Cromwell, and I am a Hunter. I dispose of nasty things that might threaten good people, and all I ask in return is a few coins to cover my living and travelling expenses."
"So ye're a mercenary?" the Captain asked.
"After a fashion, I suppose. Though I generally don't fight men." Artemis smiled again. "My foes are more… dangerous, in nature. If you've been having trouble with goblins, orcs, gnolls, werewolves, vampires- honestly, it would be simpler if I listed off the things I don't kill. My skills also extend to eliminating what I believe you term Faeries in these parts."
"He's one o' them monster hunters, boss," a stout man said from behind the Captain.
"I heard that them's more'n half monster theyself," a young voice spoke up from next to him.
The stout man spoke again, "Oh yes, boss. They's that's of the Hunter trade are said to be cursed. They go mad, like, when there's monsters around. Leave a right nasty scene behind 'em, I heard."
The Captain looked at his entourage then looked Artemis up and down, evaluating him, contemplating. "I know ye'd not be willing to tell, but I has to ask. Is there any truth to this, sir? It's my job to guard this city, and I needs ta know if we'd be letting more trouble in than we already has. Y'unnerstan’, we've got children in town. We can't have no stranger makin' trouble of hisself. Endangerin' folk with his wild ways and whatnot."
"I perfectly understand, my good fellow. What your men say is true, though some people call what I have a pact with the gods rather than a curse. For such it is, though I myself am inclined to believe the curse story more than a bit." The guardsman made to speak, but Cromwell held up a leather-gloved hand, silencing him. "However," he continued, "I can assure you that my- let's call it an irregularity- bears no danger to your people. It only manifests itself around Faeries and even then I do not become some ravening, bloodthirsty monster ready to drink the blood of children and rape virgins. I merely become… better at killing Faeries. I've even been known to spirit a human or two out of danger in my fits of battle. I promise that I will harm not a hair on the head of any person in your village."
The guardsman considered his words. This man had been honest with him, at least. The Captain was a good judge of character, and could read people like books. It was clear this man hadn't lied to him, but he hadn't told him the whole truth, either. Finally he relented. "Okay, stranger. Artemis, was it?" He continued at the Hunter's nod, "We’ll allow ye in the city. But at first sign of trouble we'll have ye strung up in the gallows in the town square, make no mistake. Call it a trial period."
"Then a trial period we shall call it!" Artemis rubbed his hands together in glee. He reached out and shook the Captain's gauntleted fist. "I swear on my mother's grave that you'll have no trouble out of me, my good man."
"If a creature like that has a mother," the stout man whispered under his breath. Artemis caught it, and so did the Captain.
Turning on the man, the Captain said, "None o' that! He's done nothing wrong, and we won't be actin like he has till he does!" He turned back to face Artemis. "But we'll be watching ye all the same, Hunter. There be somethin' ye're not tellin' me. I don't know what it is, not yet, but if ye cause trouble I'll make good on that threat to string ye up like a common horse thief."
Artemis held his hands up in a placating gesture. "I can promise you'll get no trouble out of me. If you wish to have me watched, who am I to tell you how to do your job?"
"Exactly. Who are ye? That be the question. I doubt I'll be gettin' an answer, but all the same ye're welcome in our town. For now." He extended his forefinger for emphasis on this last point.
Artemis swept his hat off his head and bowed low. "I thank you for the minuscule trust you are putting in me. I can expect no more, and in truth I expected a lot less." He rose to his full height and refitted his hat on his head, grinning again as he took up his horse's reins. "Now if you gentlemen would be kind enough to direct me to a place I could stable my enervated horse, as well as a place to quench the desert that is my throat at the moment, I would be eternally grateful."
The guards allowed him through the gate, though not without watchful glares and scowls of disapproval, and told him where his horse could be cared for and where he could find a drink. He thanked them heartily; no need to work up animosity with the local guard population; and continued on his way, whistling a jaunty tune he picked up in one whorehouse or another. He tipped the hostler generously, found his way to the tavern; which consequently doubled as an inn; rented a room, and proceeded to get blackout drunk on what the bartender claimed was the best in the house. Artemis didn't have the energy to argue with him. Besides, cheap stuff got the job done just as well as the high-end liquor.
The next couple of weeks went about as well as Artemis could expect. The mayor hadn’t had much information for him. There were rumors of creatures about, and several murders had occurred in the past couple months. Most of the victims had been children. That, in particular, upset him. Apparently it had been quiet for a week or so. But the Hunter knew better than to expect that to last. It wasn't until the last night of that fortnight he spent in town that he felt his power, his curse, begin to stir…
This story was featured in the DimensionBucket Media anthology, Darkest of Dreams: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B073WPKMDC/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=jimfear138-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=B073WPKMDC&linkId=0ef22a21e890a33c5fc0a8711774d068
(Part 1 here: https://steemit.com/fiction/@jimfear138/the-hunter-part-1)