Month: May 2016

Retreat

Algar slumped against a tree, exhausted and in pain. The handful of Saxons who’d survived the battle limped north along the dirt road. They had fled North through the night, evading the Norman knights and scouts as they rode down stragglers. Dawn was breaking over the horizon and a chilly morning dew had covered the grassy fields.

Algar pulled his helmet off and set it next to him, his fingers brushing against the fresh sword cuts and battle marks. He could feel bruises forming over his body along with opened wounds. Under his mail, his tunic was still damp with sweat and blood. The morning air was still and cool. The birds chirping were like a lullaby, calling him to sleep. He wanted to sleep more than anything.

The men walking down the road were a pathetic sight.  Many had abandoned their weapons and shields. Others were wounded and bleeding but nobody stopped marching. After a whole day of battle, after watching their king die and after being hunted like dogs, they marched on. They were good men, loyal and forlorn.

“Water?” Kenrick offered, holding a half-full deerskin. Algar took it and wetted his bone-dry mouth. Kenrick had a deep cut across his cheek and the blood on his mail told of a wound in his side. Despite his injury, he had kept his Dane axe through the night.

“You look like shit.” Kenrick said. Algar gave a weak smile.

“Just a little sleep and I’ll be right.” Algar said.

“Aye. Won’t we all? But now is not the time to sleep. We must go.” Algar’s muscles ached and his stomach groaned. The prospect of even standing up seemed beyond doing, much less marching or fighting.

“Where will we go?”

“North. The lords and nobles will rally our army and we’ll fight again.” Kenrick said, adjusting his Axe.

“Why?”

Kenrick looked at him, genuinely surprised. “What’s this now?”

“Why go North?” Algar asked.

“We have a war to fight, Algar.” Kenrick said, his tone turning firm.

“We fought a war. We fought all sodding day. And we lost. We lost our army and our king and his brothers.” Algar felt like he was dropping a weight off his back. He felt a defeated relief in saying it all out loud.

“We lost a battle. And we lost a king. But we’re still alive. We still have men. And so we’ll fight.”

Algar was so tired of fighting. He was tired of everything. God, all he wanted was to put his head down and sleep.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting?” He asked.

Kenrick sighed. There was pain in his eyes that wasn’t coming from his wounds. It seemed as if his hair had turned grey in the space of a day. But still he stood, weathered but unbowed.

“Living is fighting.”

Words

Sam wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. She’d finally stopped crying but still felt raw. The shattered picture frame was still in pieces by the bedroom door. She checked her phone again, even though she knew there was no response.

Why did she have to needle him? She should have noticed when he came into the apartment that he was in no mood to talk about it. She should have just let it be for the night.

But why did she have to put things on hold for him? You can’t just not have a response to someone saying ‘I love you’, it wasn’t fair to her to have to sit on her hands for him to decide to talk about it. Sam felt more tears creeping up behind her eyes. Her feelings were so churned they were tying her insides in knots.

Every item in the bedroom sent a fresh bolt of emotion through her. The little grey teddy bear he’d bought her on their third date, the almost empty bottle of clubman aftershave that he had clumsily asked her for, the Notre Dame sweatshirt he’d specifically ordered two sizes too big for her, everything had some story or history attached to it. All she wanted was to rewind time to a week ago when they were a normal couple.

Sam kept replaying the way he left in her head. In her mind’s eye, she could see him clench his jaw and see him twitching with frustration and anger. Then something inside him snapped and he turned around. Not a word or even an angry slam of the apartment door, just a turnaround and then he was down the hall.

Fine! Just fucking go! She had screamed at him as he left. She might have even meant it at the time. What she really wanted was for him to let it out. He’d been off since her birthday and she wanted him to just talk to her about it. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Her feet were freezing but she couldn’t bring herself to lay down. She just sat at the foot of the bed, feeling the fallout cling to every piece of fabric as it poisoned the memories around her. The bright white numbers on her phone read 2:40 AM. She felt completely spent but had no energy or desire to sleep. The melted yellow light from the streetlights filtered in through the windows, casting a dim haze on the otherwise still and dark apartment. The air still smelled of winter night as the cold crept through the glass pane.

Sam’s ears perked as she heard a key unlock the door and John walk in. Her heart fell down into her stomach and all the air in her body jammed itself in her throat. He stood before her in only a button down and his slacks. His shoes were still untied and caked with melting snow. Even in the low light, he looked terrible. His hands were cracked and his eyes looked sunken.

The two stared at each other for what felt like ages. Sam no longer tried to fight the tears as they rolled down her face. God, she needed him to say something, anything. The apartment was so quiet she could hear his wristwatch tick, second after second.

He stepped forward with heavy and exhausted steps. The smoldering repression was gone from his face, replaced with weariness and pain.

“I can’t go” he said.

“What?” Sam asked, not fully sure what he meant. John paused for another moment, as if one wrong word might unleash an avalanche.

“You told me to go. But I can’t” he said. Sam felt regret burning up inside her. She had a million things to say right, all bubbling inside her throat. But before she could even start talking, John slowly cupped her face in his hands.

His skin was frozen and sent shivers down Sam’s spine but she kept her eyes on John.

“Not now…” John continued, his voice wavering. Vulnerability resonated off his body as much as the cold did. He looked at Sam like she was fate itself. She’d never seen him like this before. He was so raw and unprotected. It filled her with a sense of fear that even the slightest breath might shatter him.

“…cause I love you” John said, the words leaving his mouth like a prayer of absolution. The collage of emotion inside Sam continued to blend and overlap as she felt warmth slowly pour into her soul. John slowly put his arms around her and held onto her like without her, he might collapse. His shirt was damp and cold but Sam didn’t care. She ran her hands through his hair and kissed him as softly as she could as he hung his face on her shoulder.

Way of the North

Renrir stared into the dark and storm-churned waters of the Sea of Chaos. The winds carried ice and stung his cheeks, but he stood still. His bondsmen and attendants stood by him, waiting for a command from their Jarl.

It had been almost two years since his son took to the sea at the helm of his own ship. Other raiders had returned with spoils and slaves but none had any news of Volkmar. The Vitki had no wisdom or insight to his son’s fate, only the same words Renrir had heard when he was a boy.

The Blood Father only rewards the strong.

Some of the warriors had told him that it was a sign that the boy was weak and that it is best he die on foreign waves. They reminded him of how there is no room for weakness in the North. Renrir didn’t argue with them, for he knew they were right. But deep down, he felt a small tinge of worry and shame. I hope he died well, he thought.

The boy had survived childbirth when his mother did not. Born amidst blood, the Vitki told him. He was marked by the Blood Father, they said. Renrir had felt great pride in the boy and secretly hoped that it would be Volkmar who would take the title of Jarl when Renrir’s time had come.

The wind picked up and the ice cut even harder into his weathered skin. The cold crept through his furs and clung to his bones. Renrir could feel the years wearing down on him. His muscles, still taut and powerful, felt rusted and chipped. Pain radiated from his fingers when he held his sword and he felt the cold more and more each day. He could see the way his warriors looked to him. They still believed he was the Renrir who had taken to sea and cleaved his way through the empire all the way to Sylvania. They would remain fiercely loyal until it was clear that he was too old to fight.

He had prayed to the Blood Father and the Winter Lord for a son capable of sending him to the Halls of Glory. But now it seemed that he would have to take to the sea again to find death.

“Ship!” One of the warriors shouted, pointing to the storm-covered horizon. Renrirs’s entire hold peered into the distance and sure enough there was a lone red sail. As the ship drew nearer, it was clear even from a distance that the craft had seen dozens of battles. Arrows still stuck from the shields that lined her hull and the sail was ripped in many places. A giant’s skull hung from the ship’s bow.

The reavers aboard the ship were adorned in mail and fur, with hungry looks in their faces. When Renrir saw the captain of the ship, he smiled to himself. The young warrior was tall and had shoulders as broad as a bear’s. His pale blond beard was clasped with the runic symbol for Ulric fashioned from whalebone and his arms were covered in scars. He had carved the mark of the Blood Father into his neck and a large scar ran across his face, splitting his left eyebrow. It was hard to imagine that this man had once left the shore as a bare-faced youth.

Renrir’s warriors clasped these sea-reavers in tight embraces as they stepped onto the snow-covered ground. From the ship, they unloaded what seemed like an endless pile of treasures and trophies. Coins from the empire, banners from Bretonnia and even the giant axe and helmet of a felled Orc warboss were carried off the longship. Following their treasures came the thralls, elves and men alike. All were bloodied and bruised as they cowered and shivered in the cold of their new home.

Volkmar stepped before his father and bent his knee, the antlers adorned to his helmet pointing out like a wall of spears. “My lord, I offer you this mighty gift.” He said, wasting no time in adhering to the code of the Graelings. He produced a battle-axe with ornate carvings in the hilt and the flat of the blade.

“Taken from one of the horse-lords of the South and anointed in battle, may it shed fresh blood in your hands.” He spoke, his shipmates, lowering their heads as the gift was presented.

Renrir took the weapon in his hand and lifted it into the freezing air. Feeling the rush of youth again, he swung the axe and cleaved the head off of the closest thrall. A jet of blood flew into the sky as the elf’s body collapsed to the ground. Suddenly, the entire shore was alive with the roaring of Norscans as they cheered and beat their weapons against their shields. The roaring and cheering grew louder as the the Vitki dragged the corpse to the water to offer it as thanks to the sea gods for bringing the reavers home.

From the meadhall, Renrir could see his thralls and servants preparing for a great feast. He could practically taste the mead and roasted elk. As the warhird started to march towards the hall, Renrir stole a glance at his son, who was at the head of his men and already exciting Renrir’s warriors with promises to tell them of his exploits in the South.

Finally, a worthy challenger. Renrir thought. You will make my death glorious.

 

Naked

Ray looked out at the grey sea lapping endlessly against the sand. The cool morning air kissed his chest and filled his nose with the scent of salt. The beach was deserted from what he could see. It was far too chilly a morning for anybody save the odd diehard, too driven to maintain a perfect figure to let the sedate grey stop him.

Ray loved this weather. It was nature when she was naked and alone. Nobody was taking in the view, no tourist snapping away with a camera or a couple creating a cinematic memory. There was no mask or pretense to the world on days like this. The world for just a moment stepped out of its many given forms and shapes to simply be for a moment. Ray was envious.

The beach was so empty and inviting that Ray could practically feel the damp morning sand bending around his feet. What he’d give to walk out of the door, across the deck and down into the water. He’d always kicked the idea around of buying a boat and drifting off into the sea. He’d head down south and find a place where he could finally stop switching masks. He’d be free to stretch out and give himself a chance to be. Even now, all he wanted to do was to wade into the foaming grey water until it lapped over his head.

He smiled as his wants gnawed away inside of him.

He stole a glance at his watch. 8:03 AM. He still had a whole morning before his work began. He thought of making himself some coffee until he remembered there was nothing in the kitchen. Not a solitary thing save for his flask, sitting on the counter where he’d left it the night before. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten any meal in a kitchen. It felt like ages since he was in one spot long enough to have any sort of domestic comfort. Inside the bedroom, vacant and unfilled as it was when he first stepped in it last night was a single slim metal suitcase. That was his whole life, sitting inside that sleek and cold case.

Everything about the world on the other side of this glass screen-door felt so sterile and cold. From the empty kitchen to his pressed suit jacket and shirt, still hanging where he’d left them the night before. Nothing felt alive in this chic and barren place.  Ray’s stomach growled, angry at being left with nothing but a splash of whiskey for almost a day and a half. He stared at the horizon, picturing how far he’d have to swim to cross the horizon.

Ray stepped back into the dark living room. On the coffee table was his tool of trade, a reminder of work awaiting him this afternoon. He picked it up and checked the safety before tucking into the back of his khakis. When he was dressed and he stepped out into the grey morning, he saw the sun slowly starting to peek through the clouds. Ray felt a pang of sorrow as he slid his sunglasses on.

Yeah, me too.

Motherland

Kostyantyn walked along the dirt path, enjoying the shade of the autumn trees that still had leaves. His grandson, Mykola ran ahead of him, kicking up piles of leaves and urging Kostyantyn to hurry up. The old man smiled even as his arthritic knees ached with each step. He reached into his jacket and pulled out an old crumpled pack of Belomorkanals and lit one up.

“Grandpa! You’re not supposed to smoke!” Mykola called out, running back to his grandfather. Kostyantyn smiled and shook his head. “This is a special occasion. Your papa will understand.” He exhaled, thinking for a moment of the first one he’d had. It was bent and tasted faintly of diesel fuel. The tanker who’d given it to him had laughed as he coughed and wheezed.

The two continued down the road, the lake slowly coming into view between the trees. At the shore was a sun-baked wooden pier with a faded green row boat tethered to it, bobbing up and down on greenish blue water. The paint was chipped and one of the seats was broken. Kostyantyn always swore he’d fix it some day or other. Though perhaps he’d wait until Mykola was just a little bit older to trust with tools.

“Is that your boat, grandpa?” Mykola asked, running down to the pier and gesturing at the old craft. Kostyantyn smiled again. Mykola looked ready to jump in and row off without him. All week, he had been flooding Kostyantyn with an endless series of questions about the hallowed Sunday fishing trip. Clearly, the boy’s father had oversold the outing to this excitable sandy-haired child.

Keeping the pain to himself, Kostyantyn prepared the boat and the spare fishing gear he’d brought with stiff and weathered hands. Mykola was more eager to get on the water than to help. As he watched his grandson stare eagerly at the boat and the lake itself, Kostyantyn couldn’t help but wonder what his own son, Anton, had thought of their first fishing trip together. It had been a long time ago and the weather was poorer as he remembered. Kostyantyn was not as calm back then. The war hadn’t quite finished with him yet.

He felt a pang of sorrow in his heart. How was Anton to understand? It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t there for when the fascists came, or the commissars before them. He was born into a different time…and a different land.

“Halt!” The voice cut through the quiet of the morning and Kostyantyn shot his head to the trail to see armed men marching towards him. They wore track pants and combat boots with their body armor underneath old surplus field jackets. Some wore balaclavas while others had patrol caps. Their leader had a cigarette tucked behind his ear.

“What’re you doing out here, old timer?” the leader asked, hand lazily resting on his sidearm.

“Just taking my grandson fishing.” Kostyantyn said as Mykola hid behind him. Kostyantyn put his hand on the boy’s head and broadened his chest to make himself as much of a shield as he could.

“Fishing, huh?” the leader said, indifferent and slightly condescending. The other men brandished their weapons and shared glances with each other. From their stances and voices, it was clear they were young and brash, except for their leader. His voice and his weathered brown eyes betrayed years of experience.

“Yes sir.” Kostyantyn said, his tone unthreatening but firm.

“Do you live around here?” the leader asked.

“Yes.”

“There’s a battlefield ten kilometers west of here. Why haven’t you left?” he asked, slight a sharper edge to his voice than before.

“Because this is home.” Kostyantyn said. A few of the men in the background chuckled or whispered amongst themselves but Kostyantyn kept his gaze fixed on the leader’s eyes.

“Are you Ukrainian?” he asked.

“I’m stubborn.”

There was moment of intense silence before the men all started laughing. All of them, except the leader, who simply gave a smile. It was a smile Kostyantyn had seen years ago before he left on the train for the front. It was through fogged and dirty glass but Kostyantyn remembered it so vividly. An old farmer quietly walking down a dirt path guiding a horse had given him that same smile. At the time, he didn’t understand what it meant.

“Enjoy your fishing.” The leader said, sliding the cigarette out from behind his ear and lighting it up. Kostyantyn gave the unit a knowing smile as they turned to follow their leader, unsure of what had just happened.

Birthday Girl

Sam smiled as her friends snapped off another picture. Her college roommate Andrea gave her a huge hug after the flash blinded them for a moment.

“8 Myles girls!” she cried out, excited and tipsy. All of Sam’s friends from college repeated their freshmen year slogan. Their group broke off from their table and charged the bar. Within a few minutes, a fresh round of shots were being poured and distributed amongst everyone.

“To the birthday girl!” somebody called out and they all toasted their shot glasses. Sam downed her drink as best she could. The rail vodka went down rough and hot, bringing back contact memories of college. She looked down the bar and saw her boyfriend, John, sitting further down turned to face her group.

She slipped out of her mob of friends before they decided to do another round of shots. John’s smile was warm and reserved. His broad shoulders were relaxed and he actually looked relaxed. Normally, it was a war of attrition to get John to come out a bar like this unless he was already hammered. She was thankful he’d been so agreeable tonight.

“Are you alright, babe?” she asked him but the DJ drowned her out with another Taylor Swift song. John just kept smiling at her. When they first started dating, she thought it was goofy and kind of dumb-looking. She still made fun of him for it but secretly she’d come to love it. He looked so at ease when he smiled that way.

“Are you alright?” she asked again, louder and closer to his ear.

“I’m great, just sitting this one out. I don’t want to cause a panic with my killer dance moves” he said, giving her his fake “cool guy” face. John couldn’t dance to save his life. She’d tried with him once and the two of them had to sit down because they were both laughing so hard. She smiled at the memory and kissed him before turning back to her friends.

At first, her friends said that John was too opposite for her. He was the overly-serious, “old man” in school. She’d go crazy with such a downer, they all said. But now, they all saw it. Sam and John just clicked together. He challenged her and didn’t let her just float by on charm alone. It drove her crazy and she loved it.

In fact, she was ready to admit she loved him. Sam smiled to herself as she joined her friends dancing. It’s not like John was the first boyfriend she’d loved before. But that didn’t mean it still wasn’t something important to her. She felt like she was in high-school again, getting over-excited about a crush. She couldn’t put her finger on it but something felt different about this relationship. The song switched and all she could think about was how she wanted to drag John off his barstool and make him dance with her.

Sam looked back at the bar but he was gone.Probably in the bathroom, she thought to herself. As more friends crowded in around her, she quietly agreed that she’d tell him tonight.

Warriors

Mathias threw a stick grenade into the field, killing two advancing soldiers. Snow and dirt showered his trench as bullets and shrapnel flew around his head. One of the men next to him panicked and crouched down, trying to disappear from the fight. Mathias grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to his feet.

“You can either fight or you can die!” he screamed in the Orc’s ear. He then shook the private’s rifle and pressed him against the wall of the trench. The terrified militiaman fired his rifle and Mathias helped him work the bolt. “Good man. Now keep firing!” he said, patting the soldier on the head.

He worked his way along the line, encouraging his men to keep fighting as the Takarj pressed closer and closer to the trench. Adrenaline was pumping through his body as he fired again and again, maneuvering along the narrow wooden duckboard. Takarj soldiers slumped to the ground like heaps of grey and brown against the harsh white landscape. Even as their casualties mounted, they pressed forward. Mathias cursed and reloaded his rifle. His fear of dying had given way to anger as he passed over every dead Orc in the trench. They were farmhands and factory workers, some with barely a week’s training. Now, desperate and outnumbered, they were dying in a frozen hole like dogs.

If he and his men were going to die, then he’d make sure these bastards paid for every Orc they killed.

On and on, the constant barrage of gunfire and explosions rattled Mathias’s skull. All along the line, blood poured from his men’s ears. Their faces were covered in soot, dirt and sweat. Some cried while others shouted every curse they knew. A handful simply fired and reloaded. The leading Takarj were within reach of the trench when fresh rifle fire erupted, cutting down the enemy. Mathias looked around and saw muzzle flashes from the crest of distant knoll. More and more Takarj fell dead, and the survivors began to waiver in the face of this new threat. Caught between two walls of fire, they lost the will to advance and started to retreat. A handful of officers tried to keep them moving forward but they only made themselves easier targets.

“Cease fire! Hold your fire!” Mathias called out to his men. The Takarj soldiers were retreating in a disorganized mob. The wounded and dead littered the ground in front of Mathias’s trench-line. The sound of scattered rifle fire crackled along the line as nervous militiamen fired at anything that moved. More screaming from Mathias and the company’s sergeants eventually stopped the shooting.

When his own men finally regained enough composure to hold their fire did the white-clad ski-troops emerge from a distant knoll. Mathias ordered his men to stand down as he hoisted himself out of the trench to meet his saviors. As he walked through the snow-coated battlefield, the groans of the wounded Takarj soldiers filled his ears while the smell of cordite coated his nostrils. Takarj bodies were everywhere, scattered everywhere like leaves in an autumn breeze. A few slowly dragged themselves through the snow while others simply cradled their wounds and prayed in foreign tongues.

“Where’s your commanding officer, soldier?” a deep and Northern voice called out to him. Mathias turned to face whoever had called out only to see a living legend before him.

“Lieutenant Mathias Anthonsen, 53rd Koldtwand reserves, 3rd company, sir. Our captain was killed by enemy fire. I’ve been leading the company since.” He addressed out of instinct, standing at attention despite the battle-high still thick in his bloodstream. The Orc before him was tall with strong features but uncommonly pale skin. In his deep blue eyes there was a spark of dangerous energy that seemed to crackle and spark with life.

“Colonel Henrikki Lehto, 28th Queen’s Mountain Rifles. What are you doing out here?” he asked, the predatory glint in his eye continuing to sparkle.

“We received orders to hold this position against any and all Takarj assaults.” Mathias reported, in as professional a tone as he could muster. The adrenaline was still pumping through his blood and the fear of another assault haunted his thoughts and senses.

Colonel Lehto looked around and chuckled, “It seems you’ve more than held your position, Lieutenant.”

With a swift and genuine movement, he patted Mathias on the shoulder. “We need lads like you in the army proper, not wasting their talent in the reserves.” Mathias felt a swell of pride at the statement. Barely a month ago, he had been one of hundreds of reservists, struggling to load his rifle and march in step but here he was being commended by the legendary white wolf of Djävulenstand.

“Thank you sir!” he responded, trying to maintain discipline. Colonel Lehto smiled before he turned to his men. “Captain, police their weapons and search for any intelligence these butchers may have.” One of the white-clad troopers with a field cap nodded and barked orders to the nearby men. Colonel Lehto pulled a map out from his breast pocket and unfolded it before Mathias.

“We’ve been raiding Takarj supply lines, trying to slow their advance. This unit you fought off was likely one of the advanced scouting parties of the 3rd Army, probing for weaknesses in our line.” Mathias listened intently, trying to absorb as much information as he could as he studied every point and gesture the colonel made to the map before them.

“General Kotila’s bringing up the 1st Army to reinforce our line here but he’ll need time. We’re going to buy him that time.”

“Sir, our orders are to hold the inroads to Jorhanstad.” Mathias said.

“My orders are the same, lieutenant. But I can’t do that with light infantry hiding in trenches against whole divisions. We need to strike them where they’re weakest.” He looked to the Orcs milling about in tattered white smocks and dirt-stained camouflage. “And to do that, I need men like you.”

“Sir?” Mathias asked, still not able to believe what was happening.

“We’re at war, lieutenant. If we’re going to win this war, I need warriors. Now time and men are in short supply today but you and your men did a damn good job here today.” The colonel looked Mathias square in the eye while extending his hand.

“Help us save her majesty. Help us throw these invaders across the mountains and help us save the kingdom.” The patriotic charm that the newspapers always spoke of was even more seductive in the flesh. Mathias felt in this moment that with enough men, Colonel Lehto could win the war all by himself. He was a true leader; patriotic, fearless and inspiring.

“My men and I are at your disposal.” Mathias said.

“Outstanding! Now the first order of-“ the colonel was cut off by his men cheering and hollering. Both the colonel and Mathias turned to see ski-troopers dragging wounded Takarj officers and soldiers through the snow. A crowd of the sky-troops gathered around, jeering and cursing the wounded before them.

“Medic!” Mathias called out but the colonel raised his hand up to stop him. Mathias was confused. “I’ll place them in the stockades, sir.” He said, waving his militia out of their trench. The colonel smirked and shook his head. “No. We’ll handle this as warriors. Watch and learn Lieutenant.” The colonel pulled out a hunter’s knife from a sheath tucked under his belt. He grabbed the most senior Takarj by the hair and pulled his head back.

“These are the monsters who burn our homes, who rape our wives and who kill our sons. These are the devils who would take our lands and make us slaves. These butchers starve us and hunt us. They make war on all of Räthyr.” The ski-troops howled and roared profanities as the colonel whipped them into a frenzy. Even a few of the militiamen took on the look of starved animals, eager for vengeance.

“If war against Räthyr is what they seek, then we’ll give them war.” He bellowed as his men cheered and raised their rifles into the air. He crouched down, holding the wounded major’s face in his hands.

“This is a message to your emperor.” The colonel said before he slid his knife across the throat of the major. A jet of blood shot into the sky before the colonel kicked the man flat onto his back. The air filled with the war-cries of the ski-troops. Mathias was horrified. Before he could even react or intervene, Colonel Lehto pulled out his pistol and shot the remaining wounded in the head, one by one. The cheers drowned out the gunshots.

Haunted

Marcus waved his torch in front of him as he crept through the low passage within the cave. The air was close and smelled of moss. The walls of the cave seemed to be slowly digesting Marcus as his mail scraped against the damp stone. He couldn’t lose the sense of unease that had followed him into the cave. The blind man’s smile was still clear in his mind and the feeling crept up his spine like a finger of ice.

His steps echoed through the pitch darkness and his stomach clenched tight. Something wasn’t right about this cave but he felt a strange compulsion to press forward. A king must never show fear, he could almost see his father’s gaunt and stoic face. Marcus took a small measure of comfort in the memory and crouched down even lower to proceed.

He bumped and clambered through the caverns, repeatedly hitting his head on the ceiling or cutting his hand on a jagged stone until the cold and hard texture of rock was replaced with the wet, sticky feel of a spider’s web. Marcus almost dropped his torch, he was so surprised. A massive spider’s web formed a shroud that blocked his way.

He tried to swallow the lump in his throat and pulled at web. As he did, a small army of spiders the size of his fist scurried across the cave floor up the walls. Marcus shook, his childhood fear bubbling up inside him. He felt the furry leg of one of the beasts against his hand and he waved his torch back and forth in panic. More nightmares crawled out of their burrows and holes in the ground and scurried away from the flame. Marcus crushed one under his boot and kept the torch in front of him. As they passed him, the insects emitted a skin-crawling noise. Marcus pushed himself through the web, desperate to escape the creatures crawling around him.

On the other side, Marcus found himself in an open space within the cave, illuminated by a distant and thin shaft of light. He stepped forward as if the light were a sign from the heavens. Though as he walked forward, he suddenly felt a wave of cold air wrap around him. It was an unearthly cold that seemed to cut right through his cloak and latched onto his heart.

“Hello Marcus.”

Marcus felt a bolt of terror tear from his throat down to his balls. He gripped the torch as tight as he could. “Who’s there?!” he cried out into the din.

“You know who it is.” The voice replied. Marcus’s stomach tied itself in knots and he wanted to throw up. This couldn’t be real. Surely he was ill and this was a fever dream. Or perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him in the dark.

“You look frightened” the voice said, awash in predatory malice and arrogance. Marcus unsheathed his sword and held it forward along with his torch. “Show yourself!” he challenged, trying desperately to keep his voice steady.

“I’m right here.” The voice said behind him close enough that he could feel the words pouring into his ear. Marcus turned and to his horror saw a tall man standing before him. The man was pale and gaunt with a gash that ran the width of his belly. Bright red innards hung by his feet. The stains of blood streaked out of his mouth. Marcus dropped his sword.

“This isn’t real.” Marcus said aloud, his hands trembling.

“Isn’t it? It certainly seems real enough to me.” The man said, his face still contorted in a malevolent smile. “You’re not here. This is all just a dream.” Marcus declared, trying to assure himself as much as he was trying to dispel the specter in front of him.

The ghost laughed, “Ahh Marcus. You haven’t changed at all. Clinging to dreams when reality proves too daunting.” Marcus didn’t know how to respond. He was afraid to move or else he’d have dove headfirst into a sea of insects to escape.

“What are you?” Marcus finally forced himself to say. “Such a thing to say. Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me. Has it really been so long since we last met?” the ghost replied, circling Marcus.

“It can’t be…you can’t be here!” Marcus said, his breath quickly escaping his body. The realization slowly poured over him like pitch.

“But I am here.” The ghost retorted, “Tell me Marcus: how well does that crown fit?”

Marcus had to turn his face away from the ghost’s jet-black eyes. His armor suddenly felt impossibly heavy, anchoring him in place as the ghost continued.

“Does it fit you snug or do you find it heavy and oversized?”

“What does it matter to you?” Marcus said, still averting his eyes. Suddenly, he felt the ghost’s dead hands grab him by the throat and lift him into the air.

“It..was…MINE!” the ghost roared into his face. Marcus had tried to forget that temper but here it was, more terrifying than anything he had seen in his childhood.

“Mine! And you stole it from me. Can you tell me why?” The ghost released him and Marcus felt shame now mixing with his fear. It was a shame he’d buried for years. As it surfaced, it choked him and left him speechless.

“You can’t can you?” the ghost looked down on him, disgust etched across every feature, “You can’t even admit to it after all this time?”

Marcus tried to speak but nothing came.

“You’re pathetic. Still the same simple whelp unfit to bear our father’s name, much less his crown.” The ghost looked up, too repulsed to stare down anymore.

The words were clawing at the inside of Marcus’s skull and he felt tears burning behind his eyes.

“I am the king.” He forced himself to say, practically gagging as he did. The phantom turned, his gaze now one of cold hatred.

“You’re a coward. Did mother have to comfort you when father laid my body upon the pyre? Did you look away when they set me on fire?” Marcus remembered the funeral and how he refused to hold mother’s hand for fear she’d notice the trembling.

“And now you hide your cowardice with bluster and arrogance. All your good nature and all your regal bearing. But I know the truth.” The ghost said, slowly crouching down, causing more of its intestines to spill out of his wound.

“Stop it!” Marcus cried out, covering his face with his arms, desperate to silence the voice.

“Do you know that the truth is?” the ghost taunted him. Marcus crawled away, reaching for his torch. The ghost snuffed out the flame and continued to lean closer to Marcus’s face.

“All your victories, all your titles and all your splendor can neither hide what you are nor erase what you’ve done.”

Marcus felt tears streaming down his cheeks and he begged for the ghost to stop. He threw his cloak over himself and pressed his hands firmly against his ears, no longer trying to escape.

“You’ll never be rid of me, kinslayer.” The ghost said. Marcus screamed out into the darkness as the voice echoed off the cave walls and inside his head.

The pale shaft of light vanished, leaving Marcus huddled on ground, his brother’s laugh ringing in his ears.

Inner Sanctum

Mira opened her eyes and stretched out her arms, taking in the lavish comfort of the soft cotton sheets she was sleeping in. The morning light was punctuated with the dull vibrating hum of the airship’s main engine. She had worried that the noise would be unbearable yet now that the craft was lazily floating along the countryside, its distant yet constant presence felt like a lifeline to the ground, which was something she welcomed.

Through the large glass window panes, she could see the rolling barley fields and deep green hills of Tybernia stretching out for miles. She had often seen the penny-artists trying to sell paintings of the countryside and had even worked on a farmstead before moving to the capital but to see the vastness and the purity of it all from so high above was truly breathtaking. It was so incredible a vista that the trappings and furnishings of the cabin almost came across as an annoyance to her. But then, she considered the owner of those trappings.

At the head of the cabin, facing the bow of the airship was the minister’s writing table. An ornately carved and handsome piece of lacquered mahogany, it was covered with a sea of letters, papers, books and maps. Sitting on top of a stack of books was a small marble ashtray. A hedge of extinguished cigars jutted out of the top of the tray in every direction. Mira could smell the smoke on everything in the cabin and felt a tinge of sympathy for whoever was tasked with tidying up this hermit’s den whenever the airship came down to earth.

She laid back down in bed and closed her eyes, wondering how many other women had been allowed into this inner sanctum. Could she truly be the first person to share this cabin with him? Her thoughts were interrupted by a new aroma. It was the smell of cinnamon and coffee. She opened her eyes as her stomach awoke to see Viktor placing a serving tray on the nightstand. “All I ask is avoid spilling if you can. I hear enough complaints about ash.” He said, stealing a biscuit off the tray.

“Good morning to you too.” She said, giving him a playful smile. He seemed distracted as he sat at his desk, dipping his biscuit into a small porcelain cup.

“If you’d prefer something more substantial, I’ll see what can be arranged.” He said, rifling through the papers on his desk, looking for a matchbox. This was the first time she had ever seen Viktor truly at work. All the times she’d seen him in his office, he was either rakishly relaxed or impatient as a child. But here, floating above the world, she saw a different man.

Everything about him spoke of a man who was lost in the machinations and turnings of a runaway mind. His feet were bare and his suspender had slipped off his left shoulder. Instead of the traditional dressing gown favored by the nobles, he simply wore a white dress shirt unbuttoned and partially tucked into his trousers. It was so strange to see him like this after a year of seeing him constantly put together.

She rolled over to the nightstand and gingerly dipped a biscuit into her coffee.  The hard crunch of the biscuit gave way to the sweet taste of sugar and cinnamon. She helped herself to the tray as Viktor sat, writing away, occasionally standing to check some map or dig through a mountain of correspondence. As he worked, a new stack of letters took shape by his side. How he kept track of it all, she could only guess. With no discernable pattern or rhythm, he wrote letter after letter. At times he would stop writing one letter only to start a three page memorandum before returning to his original task. It was dizzying to watch.

“And there!” Viktor finally declared, blowing a smoke ring onto the last letter he wrote. He sealed it and added it to one of his many piles. Mira was startled by the sudden outburst which had broken the morning stillness. He turned around to face her and seemed surprised to find her watching him. He nervously fumbled with his hands and snubbed out his cigar. Before her eyes, this posh and proper old hound had transformed into a bumbling youth full of nervous energy and totally lost in his own world.

“I’m terribly sorry for that. You must be bored stiff.” He said, his fingers fumbling with one of the buttons on his shirt.

“I enjoy watching you work.” She said, her voice amorous and genuine. Viktor smiled back, running a hand through his salt and pepper hair.

“You do?” he asked. She laughed at him and nodded her head.

“Well I feel simply dreadful. What a neglectful host I’ve been.” He said, the aristocrat slowly regaining control over the tone of his voice. As she watched, it was as if he were putting on a jacket. His nervous fidgeting slowly faded and the embarrassment departed from his voice. His dark green eyes regained their focus on her as he stepped out of his head and back into the cabin.

He slowly but purposefully walked towards the bed like he was approaching the Emperor’s throne. For all of his bluster and pageantry, Viktor had the natural grace that seemed to be a growing rarity amongst the highborn. He climbed onto the bed and crawled to meet her.

“I beg your forgiveness my lady. How may I correct this terrible slight?” he asked, the devilish twinkle in his eye now fully returned.