Owen passes through the town gates with a nod to the guardsmen, the open woodland sprawled before him. He inhales deeply, savouring the dawn chill. The steady clink of the blacksmith’s forge and the faint chatter of voices fades behind him as he heads deeper into the forest.
The spring thaw is already throwing off winter’s icy shackles. Budding magnolias droop their lush pink crowns overhead as he walks along the well-trodden path, the sounds of newborn life flowing around him. A stream tinkling over mossy stones. Birds chirping. Green grass and purple crocuses breaching the patches of snow. A magpie chuckles overhead.
A tawny fox eyes him from atop a twisted root ahead. It wrinkles its muzzle and snarls, fur bristling and ears flattened. Owen just gazes back, blue eyes staring deep into gold. That was me once. Showing my teeth and growling, acting tough. Warning others away out of fear, to protect myself, not to hurt anyone. Just a bluff. All bark, no bite. He smiles and walks on, drawing closer. The fox’s eyes widen before it yelps and streaks away into the undergrowth, white brush flickering.
Owen smiles fondly after it. Take care, matey. Good hunting.
Soon the path opens out into a secluded haven, a small pond surrounded by sawn tree stumps sodden with age and festooned with toadstools. Places to sit and admire the peaceful hush. But its beauty is lost on Owen, who stomps to the pool’s edge and glares down at his reflection.
‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’ He crouches low. ‘I’m talking to you, Owen Belmont. Of House Belmont with no living relatives. Last surviving monster hunter, out here in the gaping grey stinking armpit of the world. What the actual fuck are you thinking? Idiot.’
He scuffs the water, stands up and begins pacing, counting off on his fingers. ‘You’re a tramp. You’re excommunicated. You have no family, you have no friends. You’ve spent your entire adult life alone, being hated by everybody you ever met.’ He raises his eyes towards the treetops. ‘And you were fine with that. You even liked it. Nobody could get near you. Nobody could ruin your fucked-up life anymore because there wasn’t much left to ruin, was there? But that last tiny little sliver? That was all yours.’ He clenches his fists, almost seething. ‘And then what? A pretty girl holds your hand and takes you to bed and oooh, all of a sudden –’
‘All of a sudden your world upturns overnight, and you’re left feeling utterly lost.’
Owen tenses and whirls around, hand dropping to his shortsword. Then he relaxes. ‘Oh, it’s you.’
Andrei grins back, leaning against a treetrunk with folded arms. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to eavesdrop.’
Owen regards him flatly. ‘You weren’t following me, were you?’
The Magistrate scoffs. ‘Of course not! Just …’ His sharp gaze slides over Owen, assessing. ‘Wanted to get a better look at you in daylight.’ He chuckles. ‘Such an entrance last night! Dragging in a dead veidraugr behind your horse. Quite the dramatic flourish.’
Fair enough. Owen rolls his eyes and draws back his cloak, baring the gleaming family crest resplendent across his surcoat. ‘Owen Belmont. Of House Belmont. Monster fighter, demon slayer, beer drinker, yadda yadda yadda … satisfied?’
Andrei frowns. ‘You could’ve told me that yesterday.’
Owen nods towards the distant spire peeping above the treetops. ‘Your local, uh … cultists made me think perhaps that name shouldn’t be spoken aloud round here. Since they apparently love demons and, well …’ he shrugs, ‘I kill them.’
Andrei regards him dubiously. ‘Yeah? Prove it.’
Ugh. Fine, fine. Showboating it is. Owen nods towards a gnarled oak across the clearing, maybe twenty feet away and ten feet up. ‘See that branch stump?’ His hand drifts toward his bandolier of throwing knives. ‘Pretend it’s a gargoyle’s eye.’
Andrei squints into the distance. ‘You mean with that big scar down the –’
Ssssthunk! The knife whizzes from Owen’s hand like chain lightning. It pinwheels hissing through the air and thuds deep into the centre of the stump. Bullseye.
Owen lowers his outstretched arm. ‘Well?’
Andrei gapes between him and his target with newfound respect. ‘Oh! You’re really the last living Belmont?’
‘In the flesh,’ Owen deadpans.
Andrei blushes and bows. ‘Forgive my skepticism. My deepest apologies for doubting you.’ He waddles close, patting Owen’s shoulder. ‘Thought I recognised that noble family crest on your fine tunic. Well,’ he wrinkles his nose, ‘this fine tunic that has in fact seen better days. Hasn’t it? Maybe one of our local artisans might conduct some discreet repairs upon it.’ He winks. ‘Perhaps even introduce it to the apparent mysteries of soap and water.’
Owen pulls away, scowling. ‘All right, all right! What d’you want?’
‘Just wanted to check how you were. Settling in well?’ He smiles knowingly. ‘Maria’s rather a crusty landlady, isn’t she?’
‘Er, we’ve …’ fucked. ‘… met,’ Owen settles on.
‘Glad to hear. What brings you to remote Reikstadt?’
Owen shrugs. ‘You had demon trouble. I’m a Belmont, remember? We go where the trouble is.’
Andrei nods. ‘So why skulk out here away from everyone else?’
‘Hopefully to get five damn minutes of privacy for once. What’s your excuse?’
‘Fair enough.’ Andrei sweeps an arm over the peaceful glade. ‘This is my little place of refuge, too. I come out here to think sometimes. Gather my thoughts. Get some peace and quiet.’
Owen raises a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Pretty sure your nice little house has a door on it somewhere.’
Andrei chuckles. ‘I can’t always relax at home. A public man with a public role? Someone always comes knocking for me eventually. Asking for a favour. Wanting my advice. Somebody always needs something.’ He waddles over to a mouldy tree stump and sits, hands resting on his plump belly. ‘Sometimes I have to walk far outside the town to be able to see it properly. Regain some perspective, y’know? Get away for five bloody minutes.’ He inhales deeply, then smiles. ‘So: you’re an actual Belmont! I grew up with stories about your family. The Belmont Clan! Living legends, killing grumpkins and snarkrippers and all the other horrid beasties our wetnurse frightened me with.’
Owen grimaces. ‘Scary bedtime tales, huh?’
‘Mostly. They still tell them here, y’know. But they have a different ending now.’
Andrei leans in, voice lowering to a jovial whisper. ‘They end with “And the Belmonts aren’t here to save you anymore, so if you aren’t good the monsters will come gobble you all up!” Works wonders on kids.’
Owen almost eyerolls into next week. ‘Christ,’ he mutters.
Andrei smiles indulgently. ‘Heh-heh. Well, Reikstadters are a basic sort of folk. Simple-minded. Honest to the point of brutality, bless them.’
Owen’s eyes narrow. ‘You’re … not one of them?’
Andrei shrugs. ‘Not really. Can’t be part of a town and also rule it well. To be a good leader, you’ll always be … held apart from the rest of your world.’ He smiles as two woodpigeons whir away through the trees overhead. ‘I was born here, so at least I can claim to be a Reikstadter. But my family all left when I was young – we moved to the capital.’ He scoffs. ‘I remember thinking as we rolled out those gates: “God, hope I’ll never see this crapsack shithole again.” Funny old world, eh?’
Owen nods grudgingly. ‘Felt the same when I left my old home. Places have a strange habit of catching back up with you.’
‘Suppose so. Like circular roads.’ Andrei pulls out a wineskin flask and swigs from it, then tosses it across to Owen. ‘I rose in court at the capital and did just well enough to be sent back here, to head the town myself. A penance, of sorts.’ Andrei chuckles to himself. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’
Owen takes a grateful sip of wine before tossing it back. ‘Do you miss it?’
‘Targoviste?’ Andrei snorts. ‘Not really. Although coming back here to run the town was an odd little eye-opener for me. The same stories happen in cities, but there are so many more people around that the stories just rush on by. Soon forgotten. But here? Every little story is such a huge event. People natter on about them for days after. A wedding. A farming accident. A sickness.’ He bows his head, gazing down into empty hands. ‘A lost child. A death. They have … an importance to the whole place. Just doesn’t happen in cities.’ He sighs, then pats his knees and brightens. ‘So! How long have you been roaming the countryside, then?’
Owen shrugs. ‘Couple of years. I meant to grow up learning monster-slaying at my dad’s knee, but …’ He trails off. Blinks away the memories, the smoke, the crackling flames, the screams. ‘… Things happened, and I just decided to keep travelling, I s’pose.’
Andrei eases upright with a groan of relief. ‘Always on the move. Doesn’t sound like you’ve decided much of anything, really.’
Owen shrugs, ambivalent. ‘I guess not.’
Andrei gives him a sidelong smirk, eyes twinkling shrewdly. ‘Not really a man with a plan, are you, Belmont?’
Owen’s jaw clenches remembering the bishop of Gresit, those pale bulging eyes aflame with madness … ‘Don’t especially trust men with plans, no. That Sala git in town, he’s a man with a plan.’
Andrei’s face darkens. ‘Fucking charlatan,’ he mutters. ‘We used to see his type all the time skulking around the capital. Zealots flouncing about in their robes and incense, droning on about “The End Times” and “Judgement is nigh”. Pah!’ He waves a dismissive hand. ‘Never liked priests, myself.’
Owen finds himself smiling. ‘Me neither.’
Andrei grins back. ‘Finally, someone with good sense!’ Sunlight dazzles them as they emerge from the trees before Reikstadt’s walls. As they approach the wooden stockade Andrei slows, frowning at the gatepost. ‘Wait.’ He leans closer. ‘That wasn’t there yesterday.’
Owen peers past him. A glyph has been carved deep into the wood. Looks like an ornate curly letter h with a line slashed through its vertical, forming a crude cross. Something about it tugs at his memory … he shrugs. ‘You sure that’s not just some idiot kid fucking around with his first penknife?’
Andrei straightens up, fists clenched and face flushed. ‘Children do not run around defacing property with knives in my town. Rule-breakers don’t run around at all, if I can help it!’
Owen nods slowly. ‘Riiight. And you know for sure that it’s brand new? Wasn’t there yesterday?’
Andrei shakes his head, grim-faced. ‘This is my town, Belmont. It’s my job to pay attention to it. My responsibility to safeguard law and order here. My job to ensure disruptive troublemakers don’t go dashing around causing such a damn nuisance!’
Aaand his control freak is showing again. Owen sighs. ‘I gotta admit, running a township does not sound like it’s much fun.’
Andrei inclines his head with a brittle smile. ‘It has its little pleasures. Fancy joining me for tea?’
‘Not really.’ Owen’s gaze slides to the men-at-arms now flanking his host, and rolls his eyes. ‘On second thoughts, do I actually have a choice?’
Andrei smirks back. ‘Not really.’ He beckons Owen onward. ‘Hot leaf juice first, beer later. C’mon!’
© 2021 | Tom Burton