The Beast Of Wystyra
My father once said that the bravest thing that a man could do was die.
For many people in our homeland, death took the face of hooded figure in black who wore the dismembered skull of a bull, snapped at the jaw, on the crown of his head. He would ride on a grey speckled stallion, a wagon trailing behind him. The undertaker. He roamed our lands collecting life and taking it to the next world. I used to have nightmares of when he would enter our town and harvest the bodies of the ill and the dead together, because there is no point enduring the journey twice.
As we grew older, we learned to accept the undertaker as a part of our world, he would come and go with the seasons, and we never seemed to see him as he made his way nearer.
However, what I learned when I made my way through Wystyra was that death did not have to bear the face of a withered man donning an animal skull, instead, it could take on the form of a seventeen-year-old girl that wore her hair in pigtails. I thought she was an apparition; that she would follow me, making a mockery of my attempt to traverse the wasteland. Yet, she managed to eke out an existence so purposeful, to pursue life and take it as your own.
My father also said that the most cowardly thing a man could do was to run; a skill I had honed during my many years estrangement.
I realise, now, that myself and the undertaker were not as different as I once thought. However, he would roam these lands in search of death and I in search people to kill.
Which was how I got myself in a predicament, buried in a hole in Wystyra, the northernmost territory of my country, seeking a new life. All because of my work, or, more accurately, one of the many occupational hazards involved with my work.
Wystyra was much colder than I had anticipated, I regretted not wearing a pair of gloves as soon as I passed through the territory, I wished I could have turned back and bought some, but the sack of gold on my hip had grown light through my travels, and no amount of mercenary work could outweigh the cost of nights staying in a warm bed during wartime.
I’d never listened to why inflation occurred, but it suddenly became easy to digest; the reason housing strangers was suddenly a lucrative trade, was because you never knew if you were harbouring a wanted man. Of course, those in the kingdom that let me stay the night had done exactly that, but, what are a few half-truths between strangers.
It was hard to go undetected in Wystyra, a blanket of snow seemed to cover every surface; every hole was concealed by a sheet of crisp white, and the constant flurries could only cover footprints so quickly. All I could do when I crossed over, was pray that anyone who saw the impressions made by boots assumed they were made by a native, and not an enemy.
The region, despite the bitter cold, is beautiful; a stark contrast to my homeland territory. Unlike the village where I grew up, Wystrya was covered in snowy mountain and tyrannous cliffs. The sky seemed fed more unreachable than it had ever been in my home village, and yet it was comforting to be shrouded in this blanket of snow as if you had gone to bed with the rest of the region lulled to sleep by the cries of faraway birds and under the smile of a waning moon.
Finding my way around however was nowhere near as easy as it was back home with no clear paths to the foreign eye, I had to navigate by watching the migratory birds overhead and pray that I happened upon a village, to find a guide that never came.
I found that, with each passing day – the white became more comforting – it never seemed to melt away, and the constant flurries of snow became less of an inconvenience. I was growing hardier and although my fingers had grown blistered from the callous cold, I was still able to wield my axe, tear down brittle trees, build fires, and sleep in caves or holes that I had dug in the snowy slopes.
The further I went into Wystyra, the harsher the weather seemed to become. The snowfall, that was once a mere flurry, was gradually transitioning into blizzards. My nose felt like it had turned to stone, I couldn’t feel my fingertips as they gripped the hilt of my axe, and although I knew the deeper I got into Wystyra, the less likely I was to be discovered by soldiers and bounty hunters, but I also knew that if I was found so far afield, there was no way I would make it out alive.
It was maybe a week after I arrived in the region that I found myself struggling with what I can only call white madness. Nothing seemed clear anymore; even when I closed my eyes I could see snowfall, my ears were like ice, the skin was peeling backward, pools of blood freezing in my eardrums. I could feel snowfall like it had formed a phantom limb, an inescapable itch that formed under the plating of steel armour. I longed to be bare, free of the sensation; it was like a constant presence crawling along my skin melting down the back of my neck.
No matter how hard I tried to stay warm, cold steel against my chain-link undershirt, and white button-down shirt. I felt as if I was freezing from the inside out; blood vessels contracting and turning to icicles in my veins.
I was going insane, and I still had no idea whether I was on the right path to find the relics that were rumoured to linger within these mountains.
Each nightly attempt for food, shelter and warmth felt more tiresome. A diet of snow wasn’t healthy, and although it kept me hydrated, my teeth hurt at the thought of shovelling the snow from underfoot into my mouth. I hadn’t eaten a real meal in days, and even moss from the sides of caves was becoming infrequent.
Then there was the absence of timber. Loose timber anyway. I was covering less ground each day due to trees having been hacked at by natives, all the low branches having been used for firewood long ago.
I found that I was having the same problem again, and in heavy snowfall, I was growing even more stiff, and the leather of my trousers was wearing thin from scaling the trunks of the narrow Wystyran trees.
I’d maybe made it a mile that day, I should have just gone back to my previous campsite, but, instead, after falling out of a tree and snapping my bow, I was left with just an axe. Axes have never been my weapon of choice, but it was all I had left.
My back was sore, and my limbs ached as I trudged through the snow to where I was going to set up camp. I barely had enough wood for a fire, even including my broken bow. I dared not stray too far from the trees, lest I fall into a disused tunnel. Wystyra was a mining region, where criminals often made new starts, and worked for a keen honest living.
There were a few mine shafts hidden under the snow, so instead, I decided to dig a hole in the snow to rest in, concealed from any animals that sought a meal.
Resting my head on a bed of frost, I slowly let my eyes close.
That’s when I heard boots crunching through the previously untouched snow, confident, purposeful steps heading with haste toward the hole I had dug. High heeled boots, scuffing through the crisp snowfall.
A woman with short, choppy blonde hair inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of burning timber. She wore the front strands of her hair pinned to the back of her head. A dark navy-blue overcoat, lined with white furs at the hood, collar, and sleeves. It was distinctly a men’s coat, shoulders far too wide, and that hung around past her knees, beneath which, were a pair of black leathery trousers. Her high heeled, black pointed boots were submerged in the snow, and she walked with a heavy-footed pace, as if she was wading through puddles in her footwear and outside. She shivered, drawing a gloved hand to her freckled face, and rubbed her pink cheeks.
She was wielding a weapon far too big for her, dragging a large, narrow harpoon, a trail of dripping blood trailing behind her as she approached the soft glow of the fire. She squatted down and warmed her hands against the flame. Her cheeks and nose were pink from the nippy winds on the incline where I’d set up camp.
“Oh look at that,” she said to the wilderness around her, “Just the man I wanted to see. Julian Slater. Wanted for treason, dead or alive.”
“I see my reputation precedes me, and if I might be so bold, Gorgeous, I take payment in many forms.”
She wrinkled her nose – kneeling down in front of me. Slowly she shoved snow nearer to me from nearby, filling the hole with me inside it. As the volume of nearby snow began to dwindle, she retreated a few metres and collected some fresh snowfall from a nearby cliff’s edge.
“Careful you don’t pick up any stones from over there!” I called.
She dropped the snow on my head.
And with a thud of stone on skull, I passed out.
When I came to, the fire was burning with more timber and the hole I had gone inside was filled so there was no room for me to escape. She had my axe to hand, and a few scratches on the sides of her face.
“There is quite a bounty on your head,” she said, up to her mid-shins in the snow, leering over me, my body submerged in the snow, “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you now and take you to the King.”
“Dragging me out of this hole you’ve made me would be a pain.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’d also be rotted beyond recognition by the time you got me to the king.”
She put her hands on her hips, “I could just harpoon you. It would be easy, and you could have the slow, painful death a treacherous worm deserves.”
“Wait, I know you,” I said, narrowing my eyes, “You’re the fisherman’s daughter. He used to set up shop along the river, that means we’re by the river, right? Right! Oh my gosh, what was your name. what was your name, Ah, Ah, Ar, Ari? Ari!”
She swallowed hard, “Hilary, Hill, and so what, that doesn’t change a thing.”
“It changes everything! For one we used to play together.”
“Surely you wouldn’t let your old friend, get strung up for a crime he didn’t commit, would you?”
She frowned, crossing her arms, “How can you be caught, and then say you didn’t do it?”
“I’m a mercenary!”
“Then why do you have a bounty on your head for treason?”
“That’s what men in the trade like to call miscommunication.”
She snorted a laugh, beginning to pace, “I can’t believe this!”
She pointed the head of my axe at me, shaking the hilt as she glared, “I can’t believe you! You – you! You are despicable! You’re wanted for treason, and you want me to just let you go and disappear into the wind like some mysterious lothario. Jules, I know where you live. I’m not like the other women you’ve bedded and schmoozed in your time.”
“Excuse me-” I interjected, “I’ll have you know that I haven’t just bedded and schmoozed women in my time.”
“Not the point!” she snapped, “Listen to me! You will come with me, and I will collect your bounty, because, while you were off galivanting with weapons, my father was up to his eyes in debt for our boat. And now he’s sleeping with the fishes, and if you refuse, you will be to.”
“I’m – I – I am very sorry for your loss.”
“Shut up. Accept these terms or you will be joining my father, and you have my word on that,” Hilary said, her voice trembling.
I knew, just as did she if she were to keep that promise, she would need me to go with her willingly. Which was reason enough not to trust her.
My father was right, it was a brave thing to look death in the face.
But, I nodded, and she dropped my axe in the snow, and helped me hoist myself out of the hole. My leather poncho was sodden, and shoes were filled with puddles. I grimaced as I staggered to my feet. My feet felt like they were made of feathers, and my legs lined with lead.
Hill huffed, placing one hand on her hip, pursing her lips, cheeks puffed out. She sighed.
I rolled my eyes, crossing my arms across my chest. But, as I turned away from my former schoolmate, I caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye. I bit my lip. The squabbling had seemingly alerted one of the beasts that made nests in the nearby abandoned mines. I swallowed hard; until then, I had managed to evade them.
It was all her fault, of course.
She watched me draw my axe, “Really think you can beat me with that puny steel axe!”
I shook my head, steadying my balance in the snow, moving my wrist back and forward with the hefty axe in hand, testing its weight. She frowned, turning to face what had caught my attention. She squeaked, scuttling back a step.
I hadn’t encountered one awake yet, but, I had stumbled into caves where they rested; high arching spines fanned out into spears and spines, fanning along the outer ridges of its body. An armoured outer-shell covered the crown of its head, casting shadows onto narrow, yellow eyes. Beneath its large jaws were jowls that led to its wrinkled scaly neck, each protecting vulnerable blood vessels. Despite its long body, it had short, stumpy legs, and armoured knees, and unlike demonic beasts, bore two toes on the front leg, and talon like claws on the hind legs. It breathed heavily from its flared nostrils.
I looked over my shoulder, reaching behind my shoulder for my bow and arrows, cursing under my breath as I realised my mistake. I couldn’t shoot it, my bow was kindling; ash in the wind. All there was, was Hill, who until just moments ago was trying to have me hung, drawn and quartered, before the King and his court. But even her knees were buckling as the beast kneaded the frozen earth beneath its feet.
“It’s okay, Hill,” she whispered to herself, “It’s just like a fish, a very big fish. A big scary fish with legs, and teeth. Lots of teeth. You can do this. You can do this.”
She lifted her head, glaring over at me.
The beast, having been alerted to us, with Hill’s display, was beginning to make its way over, heavy feet stomping through the snow, its wide body colliding with tree trunks and sending more snow falling into our path as it strode toward us.
We both made the same noise as it began the charge, both leaping out of the way.
But, despite her panic, Hill was the first to strike the beast, using her harpoon to scratch at its armoured skin in a downward motion, the metal of her blade scraping along the scales as if they were a rival’s blade.
I could have left her. I could have grabbed my things and retreated. But what would I have done if it followed me? This creature has adapted to its terrain; I’ve been here for mere weeks.
I gritted my teeth and balled up some snow in my fist, hurtling it at the beast’s face. Although it wasn’t a clean shot at its eye, it did leave the beast disorientated, slightly. It shook it’s head and turned away from Hill to face me, stomping the ground, and making it quake around us.
Hill shrieked, scrambling to stand on some of the cliff face that wasn’t trembling with the ripples of snow. But the creature’s eyes weren’t on her. They were on me.
It reared back onto its hind legs, and attempted to swat at me, catching my arm and tearing the chainmail between my pieces of armour. I groaned at the impact – falling backward into the snow.
I squinted, peering upward at the creature, axe in hand. Across from me, Hill was fumbling with the smooth hilt of her harpoon. She seemed to have the same thought as I did, working together was better than running and being followed.
She ran past the creature, stood to its rear, leaping over its thrashing tail. She took a deep, shaky breath and swung her axe over her head, flames emanating from the golden blade.
I gulped, as the spines of the creature bristled. A glutaral roar came from between its jaws. It turned it’s head to Hill, curling around her like a serpent. She squeaked, skittering backward, stumbling in her pointed toe boots. It’s tail whipped around, striking her legs as she attempted to stay upright. She wasn’t dressed for a fight, and the lack of cladding and armour as clear, the less durable leathers having been forced apart after a few lashes from the beast’s tail.
I got to my feet, breathing heavily, not even bothering to brush myself down, and charged. As I stumbled over my own feet, I took my axe in both hands overhead, and grunted, chopping downward.
I had lodged my axe in the centre of it’s back. It pierced the outer armour, and a small but consistent trickle of deep, crimson blood oozed from the gash.
Dislodging the blade from a thrashing monster, however, wasn’t so easy.
I clung to the hilt of my axe, struggling to hold my bodyweight up by my arms in the relentless chill – my blistered fingers were slipping. After a few futile tugs, I had to give up, leaping into the snow.
The creature let out a cry, stomping. It bared its large teeth at Hill, saliva trickling down the folds of its neck.
She swung her harpoon, blade pointing at the creature’s jaws, a warning to stay back, but the noises coming from her were less confident.
“Hill!” I shouted, “Aim for its underbelly!”
“You’re the mercenary!” she snapped, stumbling back a step, “You aim for it’s underbelly!”
“I’m busy!” I hissed through gritted teeth, attempting to find the stone that had knocked me out before, but to no avail.
“Busy! Get a knife or something Mister Mercenary!” she shouted back, gritting her teeth. She took a step backward, and pivoted on her left foot, lunging toward the creature. She ran, shoes crunching through the snow, and slashed the monster across the torso, her blade getting stuck in the soft skin and fat.
I snatched up her leather satchel and tipped the contents out, finding a splintered harpoon inside. Despite its shorter hilt, it would certainly do.
I ran to Hill’s aid, attempting to cut the beast.
It let out a wail, teetering from side to side, staggering back from whence it came. Lame and unsteady before collapsing in a heap, blood pouring from the wound she dealt it, my blade still lodged in its back.