Ivan pushed open the inn’s door, a heavy piece of oak that was heavily lacquered and engraved with a holy cross. He noted idly the strings of garlic hanging from the awning over the door, along with the shiny silver piece embedded in the doorknob. The owner of this tavern was wary of the supernatural and had gone to great lengths to ward away all of the creatures that could cause harm to humans. Ivan wondered whether he should tell the innkeeper that many of the fouler creatures of the night were immune to the protections erected around the squat building.
A palpable wave of heat and smoke hit Ivan in the face, thawing his wind-chilled cheeks as he stepped into the inn, eyes scanning the room for anything that could pose a threat. The room was massive, with high walls crisscrossed with heavy wooden beams, supported by thick columns of smoke-stained wood. A stone hearth embedded in the far wall held a low fire with a black cauldron suspended above it, the tantalizing scent of lamb stew mixing with the heady scent of tart tobacco.
Several young woman, all with red hair tied back in loose ponytails with wide hips and brilliant smiles, moved amidst the crowd with platters of ale and mead, dispensing the drinks to the numerous foresters and farmers that had come to the inn tonight to drown their woes. Silver coins exchanged hands as the drinks were gratefully accepted by weary men, who sloshed the drinks back immediately, obviously in hopes of ridding themselves of the ill thoughts that plagued the nameless town in the middle of the countryside.
The bar was manned by a heavyset man with hair as white as the snow falling outside, his ruddy face and piggish eyes giving him the appearance of a cross between a boar and a man. He wore a dirty apron, stained with countless spills from the mugs of drink being filled a little too much. He regarded Ivan with a gimlet eye, polishing a mug with a dirty rag as he pretended to listen to the combined woes of four older men sitting on the stools at his bar.
Ivan knew why the bartender was looking at him the way he did; Ivan’s appearance didn’t endear trust from strangers, from his long black coat to his bandolier of silver knives. A heavy crossbow was slung over his back, with a flintlock pistol resting on his hip beneath the flaps of his coat. His gloves and leggings, also black, would make any uninformed citizen worry he was a practitioner of the Black Arts. The small silver Raven that dangled from a chain around his neck marked him for what he was, which had often forced him to beat a hasty retreat from towns where those who knew what he was outed him.
But he doubted that would happen here.
Wiping his boots on the tattered rug at the entrance, knocking off gathered ice and snow, Ivan stepped into the bar and walked over to a table that had just been vacated by several glassy-eyed men, who staggered past him in stupors that would hopefully guide them safely home. The table was messy, several tankards tipped over with ale leaking out onto the smooth wooden table, with an empty bowl of lamb stew holding a wooden spoon. Ivan grabbed one of the chairs and pulled it out before settling in at the table, making eye contact with one of the red-headed barmaids.
She hurried over, sashaying her hips in a slightly exaggerated way as she moved. Ivan didn’t complain, but he kept his mind out of the gutter: he had a job to do.
“Hey there hon,” the bar maid said in way of introduction, moving to clean the table of the remnants of the last customers. “Sorry about the mess, the whole town seems to be turning out, what with the murders and all…”
“Murders?” Ivan asked, feigning ignorance. The head of his Roost had heard of the murders a week ago and dispatched Ivan to investigate. Ivan had been given no briefing on the nature of the attacks, nor what the locals were doing in light of the attacks.
“Yeah, the Cavey family was found dead a while ago,” the bar maid explained as she gathered the dirty dishes. “The father, his wife and mother, and the three daughters… all dead.”
“How?” Ivan asked.
The bar maid shrugged. “From what I heard they were murdered, their throats slashed. My brother helped cart the bodies to the church in town, where they were blessed before being buried.”
“Was there a funeral?” Ivan inquired, trying to sound as unobtrusive as possible.
The bar maid looked at Ivan for a moment, her eyes hazel eyes searching his for a moment, searching for something. Whatever it was, she must have found it. “No,” she said slowly as she lowered her voice. “They were buried quickly and quietly, with little fanfare. Some of the townsfolk were worried they may rise as unclean spirits, what with how they died.”
“A natural fear,” Ivan nodded. “Are there any leads on who is responsible for the crime?”
The bar maid pursed her lips before shaking her head. “Listen, are you going to order anything or not?”
“Oh, forgive my ill manners,” Ivan said with false cheer. “I’ll take a bowl of lamb soup, along with an ale.”
The bar maid nodded and turned, carrying her tray of dirty dishes towards a door that went into a room behind the bar, presumably where all dirty dishes were destined. Ivan allowed his eyes to rove over the room, settling on a table of younger men, men who were barely out of their teens.
Dressed in layered woolen clothing, these three men were drinking sullenly from their tankards while muttering amongst themselves, all three of which were now staring at Ivan without any attempt to try and hide the fact. Ivan pulled three silver coins from his side satchel, laying them on the table for when the bar maid brought his order. Leaning back in his squeaky chair, Ivan crossed his arms as he listened to the various conversations taking place around him.
Most of the people were worried about whether the murderer had moved on, and whether the Cavey family would find rest in their graves. Some spoke of their neighbors in hushed whispers, naming names of those they thought could possibly be the murderer; others expounded on the increasingly creative ways they were defending their homes from supernatural attacks. Lines of salt, pages from the bible nailed to the doors, crosses stacked upon crosses with strands of garlic dangling before every window and door.
Yes, these men were truly worried for their lives.
Probably with good reason, Ivan mused as the bar maid brought over a tankard of ale and a steaming bowl of soup, potatoes and chunks of lamb bathed in a watery broth. Ivan smiled and slid the three coins to the bar maid, telling her the third coin was for her.
She smiled at him, albeit guardedly. She hurried to another table that was flagging her down, slipping the coins into a pocket into her apron. Ivan allowed his eyes to drift back over to the table with the four men. They were still staring at him, guzzling their drinks as their musings grew darker with every passing moment.
Ivan took a sip of his ale, fighting back the urge to wince at the foul taste of the watered down alcohol. He chased it away with a spoonful of stew, savoring the warmth as it suffused his throat. He took his time polishing off the bowl of soup, sipping his ale every few moments.
After what seemed like an hour, the four men rose from their table almost as one, wobbling gingerly on their feet. Ivan set his tankard down on the table as the four youths stumbled over to his table, the largest of the four men, a towering blonde with shaggy blonde hair, slammed the table with both of his hands.
Ivan looked up at the man calmly, fighting the urge to smirk. “Yes?”
“We don’t take kindly to strangers around here,” the man slurred, his friends clapping him on the back in a show of support. “I think it’s time you leave.”
“I showed up not long ago my friend, after marching through the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of the night,” Ivan explained. “I plan on staying here tonight and moving on in the morning to go about my business. I would appreciate it if you would allow me to go about my business.”
“And what is your business, huh?” The man growled.
Ivan gave a toothy smile, spreading his hands wide as he gave the young man a sidelong view. “I’m a monster hunter. And from what I’ve been told, your village here might have a monster in the area that might need to be hunted down.”
“We can take care of our own around here mister,” the bartender spoke up, his booming voice echoing over the bar. “So you can just go about your own business and get up on out of here!”
Ivan looked over at the swine of a bartender and nodded. “I’d love to do that sir, but I have standing orders from the Church to come to this region and investigate the murders. The higher ups seem to think something… unholy may have been involved in the killings.”
The many patrons of the bar slumped over in their seats began muttering amongst each other. The bartender pounded a meaty fist on the bar, rattling several tankards. “I will not have some upstart fool coming into my bar and telling me what he’ll be doing in my town!”
Ivan moved quicker than the liquored-up townsfolk could register, flicking a slender knife from a sheathe on his wrist as he lunged forward, gripping the back of the young man’s neck before pressing the razor-sharp blade to his throat. The bar went silent as he did this, the young man falling still as he sensed the danger he was in. The bartender’s face was turning an unhealthy shade of puce as Ivan stared into his eyes.
“I’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future, paying with silver given to the Church for tasks such as these,” Ivan said slowly. “I won’t require any aid from your people save for information, and I promise I won’t be bumbling about in your way.”
The bartender fumed for a moment before turning to the back wall, where a number of keys hung from hooks. “Room three,” he barked, tossing the key across the bar at Ivan, who folded the blade into his sheathe before releasing the young man in one fluid motion before catching the key.
“Excellent!” Ivan exclaimed. “I’ll begin my examination of the murder site on the morrow. I assume it hasn’t been cleaned?”
“No,” a man said, gazing down into his drink. “Most of us fear the home is cursed.”