Author’s Note: First let me say that this short story has absolutely positively no connection whatsoever to the purpose of this blog — that is, the Version Universe. Currently, the “Real World” (patent pending) has put my writing on temporary hiatus, so I thought I’d post an old story from the archives. Inspired by many hours of playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, it’s a tale of tragedy and friendship. The next Army of the Cross story, “Cross Examinations” (politics in the age of the apocalypse) will be along as time allows.
(c) 2016 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author. It has been published previously under the alias “Carthoris”.
“Lindra, Odin’s beard is that really you?” Seated in a shadowy corner of the Whitestone Inn, Lindra was a woman thin to the point of emaciation. Shrinking deeper into the shadows at the other’s voice, she hid her gaze from the newcomer.
“Where have you been all this time?” the other woman pressed. “I was beginning to think you died of the plague or got eaten by a wild animal.”
Lindra cringed at that last, her eyes briefly filled with a mixture of fear and panic. The woman sat down on the side of the table opposite her, brow crinkled in worry. The two had been the closest of friends since they were both small, and this wasn’t like her at all.
“I shouldn’t have come here,” Lindra muttered in a barely-audible voice. “I forgot you lived here. I forget so much lately.”
“You forgot we both grew up here? Lindra, what’s happened to you?” It was at this point that the woman got a good look at her old friend. Her hair was long, dirty and unkempt, while her clothing was little better than old rags: ripped in all the wrong places and stained with mud and … was that … blood? “Lindra, what’s wrong? Please, let me help. There must be something I can do.”
“No, there’s nothing!” Lindra said in a pained whisper. “Leave me alone. I just came here to get warm and buy a hot meal.”
“What … that?” The woman waved a hand at the “meal” the other woman was eating. It was the cheapest the Inn had to offer, and little better than offal. “Lindra, talk to me. Please!”
“No,” Lindra replied. Leaning forward, she resumed shoveling the foul stuff into her mouth.
“Don’t eat that! Here, if you can’t afford anything better let me …” Lindra made as if to object, but hunger overruled her pride. The woman waved the owner over, and ordered a healthy portion of roast lamb for Lindra. The owner frowned, clearly not liking the raggedy figure, but more than happy to accept the offered gold.
“Why are you doing this?” Lindra asked as they waited for the meal.
“You’re my oldest and dearest friend,” the woman responded. “You’re clearly in trouble and need help.”
“You can’t help me,” Lindra replied, her voice hoarse and strained. “No one can. Walk away. Please, just leave and don’t look back. Trust me, I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Lindra, what’s wrong? What’s happened to you? How did you get like … like this?” The woman waved her hand at Lindra’s hair and attire. But Lindra just shook her head and looked away, hiding once more in the shadows. She stayed that way until the owner returned with a plate of meat and roasted potatoes. Lindra eyed the man warily, like a rabbit watching a preditor pacing just outside his burrow. Once the man was gone, she tore into the feast like someone starving. Which, the woman realized studying the gaunt figure, she likely was. The woman waited, concern warring with patience as Lindra cleaned her plate. When she was finished, she sat up straight — straighter than she had in all the while since her friend joined her. Lindra stared at her friend across the table, and her eyes shone with renewed clarity.
“Legends,” she said without preamble. “Legends and myths.”
“What about them?”
“They’re not all true, you know.”
The woman laughed at that “revelation”.
“I’m serious. It’s not that they’re false, you know. Just incomplete and misleading.”
“Are we talking about anything in particular?”
“Take vampires, for example. Most people think they spend their days sleeping in coffins, and can’t come outside while the sun’s up.”
“Goes without saying, I think. Not that I’ve met any myself, of course.”
“I have,” Lindra said in a flat voice that spoke volumes about that experience. “They sleep in beds, just like everyone else, and can go outside during the day — as long as it’s cloudy or rainy and they’ve recently … fed.”
“Yes. Both. I don’t understand. What does that have to do with you?”
“Vampires have unique abilities, yes. They also have unique … vulnerabilities, like exposure to sunlight. But, all in all, their life — or, rather their un-life — isn’t so bad. They’re still in control of their lives. As much as people hate and fear them, it’s not so bad being a vampire.”
“And you know that … how? Personal experience?” The woman meant it as a joke, a bit of teasing to bring a smile to her old friend’s lips. But Lindra frowned and grew even more serious instead.
“There are times …” Lindra whispered to herself.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” the woman replied, still trying to brighten the mood. “It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon, so no vampires anywhere to be seen. I think you can relax!”
“Then there are werewolves,” Lindra continued in the barest of whispers. “People think they can only change during a full moon. Some even think they can change at will. But nothing could be farther from the truth. In some ways, they’re like the opposite of vampires. When the sun sets, the Beast comes out. Always, without fail. All hope of thought or reason is gone. And, being much, much larger in height and bulk than their human form, all clothing and armor bursts at the seams — when it isn’t torn to shreds in a savage effort to be free of the last remnants of humanity.”
“Yes, but … every night? I’ve never heard that before.”
“You wouldn’t,” Lindra replied. It was difficult to tell with her head down and her face in shadow, but it almost looked like her eyes were wet with tears. “In the morning, the Beast returns to human form — lost somewhere in the wilderness, without clothing, armor, or weapons.”
“That’s just awful. How would such a person survive? I mean, if they don’t freeze to death, they might get attacked by animals or brigands.”
“In that case, the Beast has been known to return. For a short while, just long enough to slay the attacker and … and feed. The … human … quickly learns to stay away from inhabited areas, so the Beast won’t kill anybody.”
The woman nodded. “Not to mention that people in these parts would attack a naked man or woman on sight as ‘an abomination’. God, that sounds depressing.”
Lindra nodded. “Imagine never being able to enjoy human company, for fear that the Beast will emerge.”
“But can someone live in the woods like that, never visiting a town or village?”
“No, not always. You get cold, and wet, and hungry — if the Beast doesn’t feed on human meat, the human half suffers, you see. But the worst of it is being so … alone. Sometimes, you just have to be with people, you know what I mean? You pull scraps of bloody cloth from a dead body, or raid a crypt for a length of wrapping — anything, no matter how dirty or foul smelling, because as long as you’re wearing … something … you won’t be attacked on the street.”
“A naked woman would as likely be raped as attacked with a sword or mace, I should think” the woman said thoughtfully.
Lindra actually grinned at that. “The rapist might begin his encounter with a woman, but it would end with the Beast.”
“A fitting end, that,” the woman agreed.
“Indeed,” Lindra replied, her lips twitching in a self-satisfied grin as she spoke.
“But I still don’t understand,” the woman said. “What does all this have to do with you?”
Lindra stared at her old friend in surprise and frustration. “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Lindra, did someone rape you? Is that what this is all about? You’re afraid of being attacked again?”
Lindra blew out a long shaky breath, clearly annoyed at her friend’s obstinence. Then, she frowned, as the annoyance became something darker and more sinister. She began to panic, which made everything worse.
“This was a mistake,” Lindra said, standing. “I must be going. Thank you for the meal. I really do appreciate it.” She almost ran for the door.
“Lindra, wait!” But the woman’s old friend was already through the door and into the street. She ran after her. Once in the street, the woman spotted her friend a short distance away, and ran after her.
Lindra turned, and yelled “Stay away,” when she saw the woman in pursuit. Desperate to escape, Lindra dove down a narrow alley. But it was a dead end. Breathing hard, she stopped and turned to face her old friend.
“Lindra, what’s wrong? Let me help.”
Lindra’s breathing was heavy, and her hands pulled at the rags covering her breasts as if to get more air into her lungs.
“You can’t,” Lindra replied, her voice even harsher than before, pitched low so that it was almost a growl. “Please, for the love of all that’s holy, get away from me. Do it now, I beg you!”
At that moment, a spike of pain drove itself up Lindra’s spine, forcing her to bend her body almost double. She opened her mouth and released a blood curdling scream.
“Lindra!” The woman was at her friend’s side in a heartbeat.
“Leave me,” Lindra pleaded in a voice that was so low-pitched and animal-like that it was hardly human anymore. Lindra fell to the ground on her hands and knees, where she began to change. Her friend, to this point not having any experience with either vampires or werewolves, stood by in shock and disbelief.
Feral eyes looked up at the woman, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth and the odor of a recent lamb dinner yawned wide. There followed a second scream, but this time it wasn’t Lindra.