Portrait of the Wystren Empire – preview excerpt from LinkTales vol 2

How do you tell a story about a lost world without getting into a huge, dull historical lecture? Well, you have to start from someplace small. In this case, a simple tale about a woman and her brother traversing a walkway across a flooded moor in the dead of night. In the process, we get a glimpse of life in the lands of King Wystrus, and a small hint about the history and mythology of the land as well.
Warning: This story may be ‘triggering’ for those who are rape-sensitive.

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The fog rolled off of the moor like a great wave of blinding white, and it was all Maeve could do to keep drunken Caedric from staggering off the road and into a sinkhole to drown. The rainy season had been with them for months, and it was a fair miracle the roads hadn’t been covered over by water yet. The moors were less a field at present, and more a series of silvery ponds and finger islands of jutting rock and sodden patches of earth that rose almost as high out of the water as the wooden road itself.

The moors were usually only like this during the rainy season, but the rainy season had been with them for two months longer than usual, and had cost the lives of a score of unwary villagers in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, this was the time of the Parisian Festival, a month of celebrating and remembering the wisdom and sacrifices of the prophet Paris. There was no small amount of drinking and carousing at this time of year, leading up to the Parismass, a supposedly chaste event that nevertheless lead to the siring of many babies in mid-autumn.

Originally, the peoples of Wystrus didn’t celebrate the Euroboran holiday cycle, but in recent days, there had been many disciples who had entered the Wystren lands unarmed to share the teachings of Paris, and though many resisted, there were no small few who found the great man’s teachings a comfort.

Maeve considered herself a Parisian, but in her heart, she knew her loyalties were sworn to an older, more mystical tradition. Her grandmother had been a pagan priestess, and when Maeve’s parents had died defending their home from marauders, Gran had raised her in the sacred arts to follow after her into the priesthood. However, Maeve had learned by then of the teachings of Paris, and her heart was torn between the old and new faiths.

Caedric, however, had no such problems. Her younger brother was nominally a pagan, but enjoyed the Parisian celebrations with the best of them, often and loudly proclaiming that he would accept Paris’ teachings into his heart when the man turned up to buy him a pint, and happily drinking whatever well-intended rounds had been bought for him under this premise.

Depending on how one looked at it, Caedric had been extremely successful in his counter-proselytizing efforts that evening, and it fell to Maeve—literally—to ensure Caedric made it to his bed.

There was a particularly broad expanse of wooden road that stretched through the worst part of the moor, which was wide enough to allow a cart to pass safely and still allow foot passage on either side. Normally, Maeve felt that this was the safest part of the track, but tonight she had the vaguest premonition that all was not well. She walked Caedric through the cool night air, breeze barely moving the shifting grey mists, until they came upon three strange men, clearly dressed as outsiders, dark, miserable, hungry men, and the looks on their faces were unpleasant; they were smiling, but the smiles never touched their eyes.

Maeve becalmed herself and moved to pass alongside of them, but of course they moved in and circled her and her inebriated brother. Caedric was too far into his cups to be of any use to her, and for once, she wasn’t so sure that was a good thing. One of the men drew a dagger and moved toward her, and Caedric did indeed rouse to the sound, but stumbled and fumbled as he drew his sword. The other two strangers moved to take him down, drawing short swords that marked them as mercenaries from the south.

Maeve waited until their backs were turned, and then drew her own dirk, quickly stepping forward and thrusting it under the man’s ribs. He squealed with rage and swung to knock her away, but she held fast with her arm around his neck, the way Caedric had taught her, and she was never more grateful for the lesson. Her victim’s partner turned toward her while the first stranger square doff against Caedric, still weaving but quickly getting a grip on himself.

However, she knew a trick worth two of theirs, and sliced her blade neatly through her victim’s side, carefully flicking her blade strike upward and across her assailant’s field of vision, which suddenly became sprayed with red. The man yelped and clutched at his eyes, and soon was shrieking in pain as the sympathetic magic she had imbued her blade with caused her victim’s blood to become acidic in the air as she flung it into her attacker’s eyes.

Maeve actually allowed herself a moment to think that the worst was passed, until she heard a gurgling cry behind her, and saw the villain who had lead the attack draw his dagger from Caedric’s belly. Caedric lurched dangerously close to the edge, and Maeve moved to catch him, but his attacker was upon her and belted her soundly across the face with his closed fist, sending her reeling to the deck, her head a field of stars and drums. She looked up in time to see the villain shove Caedric over the side with a cold splash.

Then he turned to assess his situation. Seeing he still had the upper hand, Maeve could almost read his mind as he decided he was going to finish this his way before moving on, exacting his revenge for the inconvenience she had inflicted on him and his men. He wielded his dagger with intent and stepped toward her warily, catching her by the hair before she could strike out against him. She brought up her dirk to slash his calves, but found he wore plated leggings under his woolen bindings. He kicked at her brutally and smashed her ribs before he stepped down on her hand, forcing her to release the handle of her weapon.

Maeve scrambled to get away from him, but he dragged her to heel under the weight of his fist in her hair and his knee against her shoulder. He shoved her downward until her face was digging into the rough wood of the walkway, and then yelped in anguish as he moved to take her forcibly from behind. Her skirts hiked up over her waist, he positioned himself behind her, cruelly pinning her arm to her back to hold her in position. Maeve could just feel his prick pushing against her when she let out a primal scream.

At first, he laughed and began shoving his worm painfully into her sex, her tears feeding his viciousness. However, this lasted only a moment before he learned the truth about Maeve’s tears; they were meant for another. Not until she felt him go rigid and start to gurgle did she allow herself the opportunity to scramble from his grip and restore what dignity she could. Standing in tip toes, her erstwhile victor was choking and gasping as ribbons of solid fog like enormous fingers crushed his throat. She allowed herself the briefest of pained smiles, but then remembered Caedric and turned away from the villain’s death throes.

She threw off her heavy woolen  dress and dived into the water at the place she remembered Caedric going under, and thrashed about in the frigid water to find him. She was rapidly losing hope, her body seizing up as the ice water began to freeze her through. At that moment, a massive arm of fog reached down and plucked her up from the icy depths and deposited her on the deck. Even as she climbed back into her clothes, Caedric’s own body levitated from the cold water, his face already a rictus of frozen death.

His body was softly laid out on the deck, and the fog began to cohere into the form of a grey, hooded man, which then floated toward her. Her eyes shut tight and her tears came unbidden this time, until she felt a cool hand press against her face, a finger brushing her tears aside, seeming to absorb them. When she had opened her eyes and stopped crying, she peered into the depths of the dark creature’s concealed face, seeing aught but the dark mystery of nothingness.

The creature turned from her and walked back to Caedric’s body, stepping through him and then beyond, vanishing into the mists from which it came. In a moment, Caedric began coughing violently, spitting up ice water and gasping for air. Maeve rushed to him, entirely forgetting her own suffering, and took him into her arms. She carefully held him so he could finish ejecting the water, his body wracked with shivers and jolts, until at last he was finished, breathing raspily but steadily.

In a moment, it occurred to her she would have to get them both home, but also knew she couldn’t leave the miscreants to invite questions or reprisals. She rose resolutely from her brother’s shivering body and walked to the first of their would-be conquerors, and shoved at him with her foot. When he did not stir, she knelt down by him and proceeded to shove him over the side of the walkway. This act she then repeated with his associate, and then her rapist, and though she knew the blood stains would be a source of questions, the answers would not come until spring, long after the waters had frozen over and the bodies had been obliterated by the elements. If there were ever any questions, few would think to condemn her for her part in their outcome, if ever they suspected.

She stood for a moment looking over the edge, and almost imagined she could see her rapist’s face looking up at her from his watery grave. He hadn’t completed his act, but that mattered little in her defilement; it merely meant there would be fewer consequences. She would not have to bear a bastard into the world, and she would not have a constant reminder of her humiliation. But somehow, she didn’t feel defiled. She felt victorious; as if her knowledge had won her this victory. She knew not whether her tears would ever be so useful again, but having the spirits of the elements come to her aid was a far better use for those tears than crying over her wounded spirit. Many a woman and child had been abused before her and few ever got to see their attacker punished so thoroughly before their very eyes. A moment’s pity for the son of a bitch, who had no way of knowing he was trifling with the granddaughter of a priestess. What he would doubtless call a witch, and condemn or destroy.

To Hellos with him.

She gathered up her brother and lead him down the walkway, bruised and beaten but alive, and a little closer to her faith for having met her own personal saviour. She would continue to follow the teachings of Paris through the rest of her days, but would never turn her back on her family’s traditions again. And though she neither recorded nor told her story to a living soul, she did pass on her grandmother’s teachings to her own daughters.

For that was the way of her people.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle
for the upcoming collection, LinkTales volume Two: The Best Laid Plans Never Get Played

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