The Stag's Head Inn
By: Jayson Dougherty
This story was originally submitted to Mythic!
The tavern was situated along an empty stretch of uncobbled highway, bordered by walls of looming trees which seemed to lean inwards the more you watched them. It was a regular stopping point for travelers, a place where you could get a hot meal and a reasonably soft bed. At least here the thick wooden walls protected from the biting cold, and worse, twisted creatures lurking in the black shadows of the woods.
Every so often, the creatures' numbers would grow out of hand, and the tavern owner would scrape together his coin and send word out to the neighboring villages for mercenaries and soldiers. The turnout was always a mixed bag, so to speak, because work around these parts was slim for those without a trade. The owner would gaze in awe at the grimaces of the hardened veterans, bedecked in armor and weaponry. He'd cast a wary glance over the men folk that had nowhere else to turn, and heave a saddened sigh at the sight of young lads who around glanced nervously and struggled to keep a grip on weapons designed for much larger men; no doubt some distant ancestors who had left their blades as heirlooms for future generations.
The day's hunt had gone well, despite the thick blanket of snow, and the backroom was piled high with the trophies brought back at final light: heads, pelts and in some cases, horns and claws. The pure white of the snowfall was now stained and slick with the dark blood of the unnatural beasts, and the tortured shrieks that filled the air still echoed in many an ear. A quick glance at the tavern's occupants revealed what he feared. Though there were a fair few stunned looking youths, there were vastly fewer now than there had been at daybreak. The majority of the warriors now were professional fighters, battle-hardened and bitter. Many of the surviving young men would not participate further, a single taste of combat enough to turn them away for good. Those were the lucky ones. Of those who stayed, some would perish before week's end, but some would live through it, and a new generation of mercenaries would be born.
Suddenly, the tavern door creaked painfully as it swung open on rusted hinges. A freezing blast of wind and snow blew inside between the gaps of the doorframe, and the silhouette enshrined within it. Grizzled patrons lifted their heads groggily, their scarred and weary faces barely registering the stabbing chill. The mysterious figure entered slowly, swinging the door shut behind him. He approached the bar, his steel-toed leather boots echoing dully against the stone floor. The owner eyed him cautiously, for he didn't resemble any of the warriors seated around the tavern's round tables. He was tall, for one thing, the owner guessed about six-foot-four or five, and though his frame was hidden beneath a floor-length coat, he didn't appear particularly muscular. Lastly, his face was hidden by the shadow of a curiously tall hat, which seemed to draw the attention of some of the more worldly soldiers, who hurriedly excused themselves and made a muted dash for the stairwell. Still, an extra hand was an extra hand, and so the owner put on what he considered a hospitable grin and extended his usual greeting.
"Hello, friend, welcome to the Stag's Head Inn. Can I assume that you're here to sign up for the hunt?"
"The hunt?" the stranger replied simply, his voice deep and rough, sending chills up the owner's spine.
"Y-yes, the hunt, that's why everyone's here at the moment," the owner stuttered. "A gold coin for every proof of kill of one of the wood's tainted beasts."
"I suppose you could say I am here to hunt," was the response, that voice seemingly piercing to a person's very soul, "I seek a witch."
At these words, the owner's blood ran cold, and all noise in the tavern seemed to stop at once. The oppressive silence was broken all too quickly, as a cacophony of scraping chairs and shifting armor filled the room. This time no excuses were made, they all knew the reason, and before he could so much as blink, the owner found himself alone with the stranger. He knew now why the other mercenaries had left earlier, the man's hat was the style worn almost solely by people even the toughest of warriors feared, the mysterious order of the Witch Hunters.
"I-I'm sorry, s-sire," the owner almost shouted in his sudden panic, "There's n-n-no witches here, just myself and some hired swords."
"In that case, I shall require your finest room and..." the Witch Hunter turned and sneered at the steaming bowls of affectionately titled 'Potato Slop', "a decent meal."
A pouch was thrown onto the bench, scattering gold and silver coins as it landed,
"Take what you need," he said coldly, as he turned toward a now-abandoned table, "Just bring me something edible, and whatever passes for a drink in these parts."
The tavern owner bowed awkwardly, and mumbled a quick acknowledgement before setting about the task with as much speed as his shaking legs could muster, for to stir the ire of a Witch Hunter was to invite death.