A Traveller’s Guide: The Unholy Kingdom of Mercia (Guest Post from Benjamin Aeveryn)
Hiya! Welcome to another “Traveller’s Guide”!
“A Traveller’s Guide…” is a fun little project where authors introduce us to their realms, worlds, and hidden places. There will be times where I (or a certain goblin) will guide you around parts of Venari, but there will also be times (like today!) when another author will pop in and take us on a little adventure.
In this edition, author Benjamin Aeveryn will be introducing us to The Unholy Kingdom of Mercia as part of the Escapist Book Co’s tour for “Salt in the Wound”.
“Salt in the Wound” is the first book in Aeveryn’s grimdark series “Rainfallen”.
About “Salt in the Wound”
Our world is lost to time. Only our myths remain.
Once rain was a symbol of hope and harvest. Now it brings only death.
Humanity survives in sheltered cities and canvas-covered towns. Travel between these patches of safety is rare and dangerous.
It’s what Galahad lives for.
But while seeking a lost cache of salt—a fortune he plans to use to build a shelter over his hometown—Galahad is betrayed by the friends he holds dearest.
They leave him for dead. Unfortunately for them, he lives.
Torn between seeking justice or revenge, Galahad knows one thing for certain: that treasure is his, and he’ll do anything to reclaim it.
Excerpt (Chapter 1)
“Cathedral,” Galahad whispered as he peered up at the mouldering edifice. It was mossy, cracked, and slick with natural ooze. Rainwights had left long claw marks in the stone. The roof had caved in, but that could have happened a century ago. Earth was taking a long time with her revenge.
The structure didn’t sing “destiny” as he approached. It didn’t seem to have anything to say at all. It was as dead as the mossy cars that lined the street.
This would be the best part of his day. The time when the treasure might still be inside. For three years he’d led his friends in search of the lost cache of the Long-haired Priest. The legendary treasure of crystal, magic, and sword—or so the stories went.
Three years to bring him to this moment of possibility. This precipice.
He was ready for this quest to end, but after so much disappointment, it was hard to summon any optimism.
“Grand, innit?” Elaine said at his side, her voice smoke-burned and half-slurred from day drinking. How Galahad loved her crooked grin with her bottom two front teeth missing, scarred brow, and twice-broken nose. A cigarette glowed orange between her fingers and her eye makeup had the smudged look of having been applied yesterday.
“Guess it was once.”
“I can believe it, yeah. That’s a place for a dead priest’s treasure.” She whistled through the gap in her teeth. “You really found it. Always knew it’d pay to have some brains in the crew.”
“Wouldn’t say I’m the brains. Maybe the reason.”
“Not sure that’s different.”
“If I had any brains, I wouldn’t be out of the capital’s shelter.”
“Obviously. But it’s all relative, right?” Elaine flicked her cigarette; it sparked as it struck a piece of rubble. “What about me then?”
The beauty. The humour. The life.
But he couldn’t say any of that.
“The, uh, the heart,” he offered.
She slapped his arm, laughing. “You’re a fucking prick. The heart? What the fuck does that mean?”
Embarrassment burned his cheeks. He looked away so she wouldn’t see the shade they’d turned. “I dunno… The early starts, the long hikes, the disappointment… the danger—none of it’s so bad when you’re there to cheer me up.” He cleared his throat. “To cheer us up, I mean.”
“Aww.” Elaine cocked her head, voice thick with mock sincerity. “That’s absolutely sickening, you freak.”
He’d said too much. Fucking hell. It was the adrenaline from finally finding the cathedral. Deciphering the Long-haired Priest’s nebulous riddles had him on a high that opium would struggle to match. This wasn’t the time to embarrass himself. They were working.
A step forward. Blood thrummed in his ears. These moments were what life was all about. Excited and defeated. Hot and cold. Heart thumping, skin tingling. Every clue pointed to this cathedral as the resting place of the Long-haired Priest’s cache.
Just like the last time, at the old shipyard. And the time before, at the mausoleum. Even now, Lance and the others were investigating another lead, on the border between the Unholy Kingdom of Mercia and the Sceptre of Wessex.
He looked back at Elaine and she gave him a wink, urged him forward with a nod that made his stomach twist. Today he’d tell her how he felt. Late in the evening, after some drinks, when the celebration or commiseration lulled and he could catch her aside from the others. His days of cowardice were behind him. Today he would tell her.
Stone crunched under his boots as he entered the half-collapsed cathedral. What remnants of the pews were pocked and rot-dark. The air was musty, even without a roof. The far wall of the building curved. Galahad guessed this was where priests would promulgate their sermons. Elaine was right, it was grand. Must have been quite a thing to see the Long-haired Priest up here, shouting about the big He in the sky.
As Galahad pushed aside a heavy slab of debris, his pessimism faltered. This place felt right. The holy site; the majesty of the location. If the Long-haired Priest’s cache was to be found anywhere, it would be here.
Fingers fumbling with excitement, he shoved back more of the wreckage, unearthed a wooden hatch—splintered but intact.
“Anything to get excited about?” Elaine called as she wobbled, trying not to trip on the rubble. “Yeah…” Galahad said over his shoulder.
“Yeah, I think there is.”
The hatch groaned when he tugged on its iron ring. With a second pull, the wood cracked and peeled away. He kicked the splinters in, peered into the hole. It stank of old air and damp stone. The hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention. It was dark down there, but he could see the floor below and it was near enough to drop down.
The dust that plumed as his boots hit stone made him cough and his eyes sting. He covered his face with the sleeve of his black denim jacket and squinted into the gloom. With a flick of his wrist, he lit his lighter and held up the flame. It barely added any illumination, but it was enough.
He’d found it.
The lost cache of the Long-haired Priest.
The legends said it housed crystal, magic, and sword, but Galahad thought he knew what was really down here. Time to find out if his guess held true.
Before him was a row of plastic chests, vanishing into the dark. He approached the first with reverence. This was it. Dust so thick it slid off like a grey blanket when he lifted the lid. Inside were huge plastic bags: a technology lost to the world long before this treasure was hidden.
With trembling fingers, he opened the first bag. Anticipation fluttered in his gut, making him queasy. He almost couldn’t bring himself to look, but when he did a flood of relief washed away his nerves. It was filled with salt. His hunch had been correct: this was the rumoured crystal. Chest upon chest stuffed with 5kg bags of pink salt crystals. The Long-haired Priest had relished in misdirection.
There would be a festival in the village when he brought this home. After three years of searching, he’d finally found it. Relief, pride, and a touch of sorrow fought inside him. He’d miss studying the esoteric ramblings of that priest. In a way, he was saying goodbye to an old friend. His eyes stung as tears welled but he wiped them away before they had a chance to fully form.
Finally the residents of Wickerton could afford the materials to build a permanent shelter to protect them from the rain. They would no longer have to cower under a patchwork of canvas.
Replacing the salt in the chest, he delved further into the stone chamber.
Salt was not the only thing said to rest in the Long-haired Priest’s cache.
Sarcophagi sat in indents along the walls. This must have been a crypt. These people buried their dead beneath the building in which they prayed. A curious custom.
Galahad came to the final chest. This one made of steel, an alloy they’d rediscovered in the capital, though they were forced to trade with The Bright Crown of Northumbria for the ore. There were scratches around the clasp, as if a lock had once fastened it, though he saw none there now. The chest screeched with rust as he opened it, making his ears ring. Inside were two wooden boxes. One long and narrow, the other square. Carefully, he lifted them, closed the chest, then laid the boxes on top.
He opened the square box first. The inside was elegantly upholstered with red velvet. Nestled there was a single vial of a liquid the colour of whisky. Curious, Galahad took the vial and popped the stopper, gave it a sniff. Peat, oak, a distant hint of stone fruit. Whisky from before the rain turned and the old world fell. From before rainwights walked within the Earth’s storms.
There was barely a sip’s worth, impossible to share. With a shrug, he tipped the vial to his lips. The whisky burned tongue and throat with delicious fire. It made him cough, but it was worth the pain. The depth of flavour was astounding. Harsh and beautiful; a summer rainstorm in his mouth. Lightning in a bottle.
That truly was magic.
The sound of boots against stone told him Elaine had followed him.
“Can you believe it?” he called over his shoulder as he unclasped the next box. “After all this fucking time. It’s real. The myth of the Long-haired Priest was no myth at all!”
This box held a sword and scabbard. No riddles here. It was a sword, plain and simple. Though the box was elegantly lined, like the other, and the ebony scabbard was finely detailed with an intricate pyrographic script, the sword itself had no special flourish in its making. It was straight, double-edged, and though it was longer than an arming sword, it was still light enough to wield one-handed.
“Elaine? I said, ‘Can you believe it?’”
“Spooky down here.” She hugged her elbows, pantomimed shivers.
“It’s a crypt,” Galahad said. “Think there’s zombies in these coffins?”
“That a kind of zombie?”
“A kind of coffin.”
“Oh… boring.” She lifted the lid to one of the plastic chests, made a clicking sound with her tongue. “Hey, you were right. It’s salt.”
“Wasn’t going to be rubies.”
“Shame. I like red stones. They go well with my wardrobe. Ooh, the salt’s pink though.”
“Everything you wear is black.”
“Look who’s in a glass house shitting out the window now, eh? Lemme hold that.”
Galahad passed her the sword.
“Not much to it.”
“Balance is perfect. Not a speck of rust. That’s weird.”
“It was stored well,” Galahad pointed out.
“Even so. It’s been down here a century at least.” She swung it, cutting the air with a faint whup. “What kinda steel don’t rust after a hundred years?”
Galahad took a few steps towards the light at the entrance when a wave of vertigo struck him. That whisky must have been stronger than he’d thought. One sip and it had him off balance.
“Give me a leg up?” he asked. Elaine tossed the sword unceremoniously onto the lid of a chest, then knelt and put out her hands for him to use as a foothold. He searched for purchase on the rough stone opening. Something warm seized his hand. He recoiled, almost lost his balance before he realised someone was helping him up.
“I always knew you’d find it.” A man’s voice, oddly wistful.
Galahad squinted into the light.
“Percy? Ain’t you in the south?”
“Dead end. Thought you might need a hand.” Percival flashed a flat smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He looked exhausted. Must have travelled long hours to catch up with Galahad and Elaine all the way out here. They had been at this hunt too long. Already they’d lost Fay to drink and smoke in the capital. After this, Galahad planned to have a nice long rest. No more treasure hunting; not for a while, at least.
The edges of the hatch were rough on his fingers, all wood dust and poorly sanded stone. Percy’s incongruous appearance had him rattled. He was supposed to be in Wessex with Lance and Gwen. With a grunt, Galahad scrambled the rest of the way out of the hatch, briefly caught his breath on the dusty stone. “It’s down there, you know. Chest after chest of salt.”
“Just like you said.”
“Innit just. How’d you find us?” After the gloom of the crypt, the sunlight made him blink.
“Pale Adam pointed us in the right direction. Saw you leaving the capital.”
Pale Adam—always an eager hand if there was money on the table, but as loose lipped as they came. Galahad could hardly blame him for talking; it would have been like trying to blame the sea for wetting a beach.
“You bring fresh horses? Can’t see my raggedy bugger dragging my cart with all this.”
“Course we did.”
“We?” Galahad patted chalky grey dust from the sleeves of his black denim jacket. His eyes were adjusting now. And there, two silhouettes beyond the rubble. He shielded his eyes, squinted. They came into focus.
“Lance…? Gwen?” He climbed and stumbled his way out of the cathedral, a broad smile on his face. He embraced his friends in turn, then stepped back, happy but confused. “What are you doing here?”
Scrabbling and swearing and the sound of brittle stone crumbling as Percival helped Elaine out of the crypt.
“You were right about the salt?” Lance said, trying to spit out the blonde hair blown into his mouth by the wind.
“Sure. Was wrong about the rest, though.”
“Remind me what you thought the ‘magic’ was?”
“Books. Knowledge of some kind. Thought the sword would be tools. Maybe knives. The salt was always the real treasure.”
“Too true.” Lance nodded. “A real treasure. They’ve trouble with it in the south, you know. The Fucking Duke needs salt for his men and they’ve not enough manpower to pull it from the sea.”
“They’ll want a trade deal with the Bright Crown.”
“And risk every shipment travelling through the Unholy Kingdom of Mercia? Not likely.”
“You’re looking well,” Gwen interjected. Her white-blonde hair reflected the sun so zealously it made Galahad a little snow blind. Sometimes people mistook Lance and Gwen for twins, with their blonde hair and lean physiques, but in truth, they’d never met before Gwen came back from the circus three years ago.
“Er, thanks. You look good as well, I guess.” And she did. Bright-eyed and smiling. No sign of the exhaustion he’d seen in Percival, or that he felt in his bones. That wasn’t right. If they’d ridden up from Wessex, they should all be knackered.
“It’s a matter of scale,” Lance intoned, carrying on where he’d left off before he was interrupted. “What’s a bit of salt, really, to some village bumpkins?”
“It’s everything. You know it is.”
A loose stone scraped against tile. Galahad whipped his head round. Too slow. The tip of that plain sword burst from his stomach; it was still sharp after years of disuse. He stared down at it, eyes disbelieving. There was no pain. Not at first. For several long seconds, all he could think was, Elaine. They can’t get to Elaine. And then the pain bloomed as blood spread like an ugly butterfly on the belly of his shirt.
Percival whispered in his ear, “Sorry, brother. Lance frightens me.”
Lance continued talking as if nothing had happened. “We’ve got a better offer. A price you wouldn’t believe. Enough for a fresh start. We can buy houses in a city where you can actually see the fucking sky! If you really cared about your family, you’d have convinced them to leave that shithole town behind years ago.”
It hurt when Percy withdrew the sword. The blade snagged on the way out, tearing through his intestines, ripping the wall of muscle that protected his stomach. Galahad went cold all over. Polar sheets writhed beneath his skin. On his knees now. Pounding in his ears.
Lance drew a long knife, walked calmly to him. Galahad strained to raise his arms in surrender. Overhead the sky was free of clouds, but in the distance there was a storm brewing. Black as Elaine’s hair. He hoped she’d ran when Percival had taken the sword. That she was safe.
Perhaps he should pray to the great He in the sky, like the Long-haired Priest had all those decades before.
Elaine’s battle cry answered his novice prayer and Galahad’s heart tore in two. She wasn’t built for force like Fay, or for acrobatics like Gwen. She was a leaf in the wind. A poisoner; a spy.
“No…” Galahad croaked. He was already dead. There was no saving him. Her sacrifice was pointless.
Still she came, knife like a needle swishing in an arc towards Lance’s neck. Gwen moved with her usual grace, forearm up to block Elaine’s swing, feet dancing to bring her within reach. Percival turned, raised the sword with resignation. But the women were already away. Elaine was furious, eyes demonic red. What she lacked in training and strength, she almost made up for with fury. Almost. Gwen was an artisan of death, blocking and feinting, her breathing steady. All Galahad could do was watch, blood pouring from his stomach like a waterfall. His forehead chilled.
Percival closed his eyes, lips moving inaudibly. Then he stepped towards the women, a finality in the way he hefted that dull sword.
Lance put the sole of his boot on Galahad’s shoulder, pushed him over with the slightest force. The thrumming in Galahad’s temples drowned out the sounds of combat. His vision faded to a black vignette. Lance crouched beside him, cocked his head as if examining a painting rather than watching his friend of many years bleed to death.
“We really are sorry, you know. But we have to do what’s best for us, yeah? This isn’t the world you read about in those books of yours, mate. It’s fucked. And we gotta do fucked shit to survive.”
“So you cut a deal with the duke… fine…” Galahad’s mouth filled with the overwhelming taste of iron. A trickle of wet on his chin, then the skin went numb. “But why like this?”
Lance shook his head. “Come on, man. You’d never have let us take the salt. You care too much for that shithole town.”
Galahad’s eyes rolled into the back of his head; he struggled to focus on Lance’s petite features. With the last of his strength, he lifted his head, locked eyes with the traitor.
“Please… Let Elaine go… She… She won’t be trouble… Please, let her go…”
“You poor sod.” Lance drove his knife through Galahad’s neck. “She’s already dead, mate.”
Now, let’s head to The Unholy Kingdom of Mercia…
The Unholy Kingdom of Mercia
Published by an anonymous scholar, upon their return to Rome.
The Unholy Kingdom of Mercia has thrice earned its name.
The first and most obvious cause for this epithet is the country’s distinct lack of religion. Even bordered by the fanatical Bright Crown of Northumbria, the Unholy Kingdom of Mercia manages to keep faith forever in struggling infancy. King Rohit’s grandfather was the first of his line to abandon their old beliefs. The first Unholy King. After three generations of secularism, religion has been replaced by an indulgence of the king’s chemists. If the Mercian’s can be said to worship anything, it is the purity of their precious powders. While not ostensibly prohibited by law, the old faiths carry a social stigma great enough to quash most wandering minds. And who can blame them? Hard to believe in a greater force when trapped beneath all that smothering stone.
And that brings us neatly to the second cause. Of all sheltered cities, New London, Mercia’s capital, is the darkest. The dankest. The most damp and cavernous. Stone in every direction. Never warm, but never truly freezing. Ever-burning oil lamps do their best to replace the sun; they fail. The people live out entire lives in the gloom. They have become pallid, thin. Many are too poor to afford proper nutrition. Beyond the capital, things are little better. Waystop towns and farmsteads go protected by little more than canvas shelters.
Life is short and hard in the Unholy Kingdom of Mercia.
And third? Well, where does it rain harder than Mercia? Yes, the rainwights are a curse spread across the globe. But nowhere in my travels have I come across a land so utterly devastated by them. Even in the heart of summer, rain is frequent. A dangerous land for the most hardened traveller. I myself was caught off-guard on more than one occasion. Me, of all people. Someone who’s journeyed to all corners of the new Roman Empire and beyond. Nowhere does the rain strike so often and so fiercely. Never before had I seen rainwights wrought in such clear details as they stalked my meagre caravan, kept at bay by our temporary canvas shelter.
A truly unholy place.
So do I then declare Mercia to be of no interest to the empire? False.
I have already advised our beloved emperor to make use of the Mercians’ affinity for chemistry. The king’s chemists, whilst almost renegade in their freedoms and lack of accountability, are undeniably brilliant. They have medicines and concoctions decades more advanced than anything this side of Santan.
The country also boasts smaller treasures.
The curry served in the capital’s markets is of a delicious and unique variety. Sweetly spiced, heavy with cinnamon. A true winter curry.
Good food can be found in the many pubs as well. While the variety of meat may be lacking—anyone with no taste for chicken is out of luck—nowhere will you find a richer or more fragrant gravy. Just be sure to double check the prices before ordering. This is not a cheap kingdom to travel, especially now with taxes at their highest.
Finally, we have the marvel of their textiles and engineering. Whilst paratempas—the great, rugged umbrellas designed to repel the rainwights and their storms—are not strictly a Mercian invention, this is truly where the devices have been perfected. I heard rumours that the Mercian design may be a poor imitation of a Northumbrian original, but as I am yet to fully explore the Bright Crown, for now those rumours remain to be investigated.
Trips to the Unholy Kingdom of Mercia should be arranged sooner, rather than later. Turmoil is afoot and taxes continue to increase. I believe a great destabilisation is nigh.
Visit now, delight in their food and powders, and be sure to leave before chaos falls.
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About the Author
Benjamin Aeveryn is an author of SFF from Cambridge, UK, where he lives with his beautiful fiance and a grumpy old cat. Salt in the Wound is his debut novel. People say his work is grimdark fantasy, but for a vision of England where it’s always raining, infrastructure is crumbling, and nobody trusts their neighbours, he only has to look out of his window.