Month: June 2017

The Battle of Stefansrygg

Milo curled tighter into his dugout in the trench as a fresh shower of splinters and hot earth showered him. The explosions from the enemy artillery rattled his body and his head ached from the constant noise and shock waves. The Orcs around him all crouched low and clung to the earthen walls of the trench, blood trickling down from their shattered ear drums. The rain of artillery shells had gone on for what felt like hours and had coated the bottom of the trench with a thick layer of dirt. Black clouds of smoke from the explosions and the rancid smell of explosive choked Milo and turned the early morning to night.

Lieutenant Dahl was trying to move along the trench but was clambering and stumbling over his men as they tucked themselves away or fell wounded to the floor. He was shouting orders but Milo couldn’t hear a word of them. All he could hear was the constant series of explosions and the patter of falling debris. A man fell on top of Milo, screaming and clutching his arm. There was a sliver of shrapnel protruding from his shoulder. Milo shook the man to get his attention then tried to pull out the shard. The metal was hot and burned Milo’s fingers but he persisted.

The piece of metal gave way and Milo tossed it away, shaking his hand to try and ease the burning. The man continued screaming as he clutched the cut and blood dripped between his dirty fingers. More explosions pulverized the hillside and the black smoke grew thicker. Milo put his sleeve to his mouth to shield himself from the poisonous air. A lanky Orc with the thin sideburns threw up next to him.

More shells. More explosions. The hellscape refused to relent. Milo’s brain felt like a pebble in an avalanche, constantly tossed and colliding with his skull. The sheer force of explosion and constant tremor left him feeling weakened and sick. The splinters and dirt continued to rain through the smoke and threatened to bury the whole trench alive. A ball of fire and dust exploded further down the line. A shell must have crashed directly inside the trench.

Henry had told him that soldiering was largely sore feet and hardtack. Milo wished more than ever he was back marching down dusty roads and across open fields. The blisters on his feet and the sweat-soaked hours spent under the sun seemed like paradise to this hell. All the stories of gallant marches under the smoke and thunder of muskets and cannon did nothing to prepare a man for being a living target dummy for artillery crews thousands of yards away. He didn’t even have a rifle to cling to, instead he was tucked into a communal grave, clutching his knees to his body and shielding his head under his arms.

Even the opinions of the old veterans living on the frontier or of barrack roosters who still owned cuirasses were useless on this battlefield. Charge out and meet the foe! They’d declare, trusting in the strength of an Orc with a bayonet or blade to turn the tide no matter the impracticality. They’d cite the countless battles turned at the decisive moment by a swift charge and melee. The trench is the tool of the coward, they’d scoff, useful for sieges and latrines. Yet how was one to make use of the bayonet now with the sky filled with shrapnel and the enemy not even in sight?

Milo let out a scream of frustration, his voice almost silent in the storm of war. He cursed the Tarkaj artillery, the officers who’d led him to this damned hill. He blasphemed against the gods and even against his father for sending him off to the army. More shells answered his outburst and threw heated dirt into his mouth.

He tucked his head back into his chest and knees while spitting out the chemical-tasting earth. The men in the trench all followed his example. The veterans, the reservists, officers and privates; everybody tried to burrow into the ground and make themselves as small as possible. A fresh explosion came so close that Milo’s hearing vanished and was replaced with just a sharp ringing. The effect was disorienting and eerie, leaving him with just the ringing and the distant vague booms of explosions.

Slowly, the ringing receded and the painfully familiar roar began again. But slowly, the roar lessened. The explosions became less frequent, to the point of actually having pauses between them. The shelling receded and then finally stopped.

The world was silent for a moment. The absence of the artillery’s thunderclaps left Milo and the company feeling almost numb. The shockwaves and tremors were gone. Now there was the sound of men burrowing themselves out from underneath the cloak of dirt and the groans of the wounded. Milo untucked himself and carefully stood up. His muscles were sore from the hours of hunching and any movement caused him pain and discomfort. One by one, the other men in the trench slowly stood up and brushed dirt off themselves. As they stood, they checked to see if they had been wounded in the barrage.

Milo patted himself and checked to see if there was any blood on his uniform. He felt a warm and damp feeling on his legs and his heart froze. He nervously ran a hand over himself, petrified of any injury to his manhood. When he found everything to be where it should be, he was simultaneously relieved and embarrassed to discover the source of the sensation. It wasn’t blood that damped his trousers. He nervously turned to face the trench wall and hide his shame. However, a quick glance down the line revealed he was not the only man to suffer an accident. Several men had stains on the front or back of their trousers, while others had evidence of vomit still on their faces.

The black smoke drifted away and daylight broke through. The sky was cloudless and a vibrant blue. Milo had never been happier to see the sun. Finally able to hear his own thoughts, his head also pulsed with pain. He looked over the trench parapet and saw explosions from where he assumed the enemy positions were. This couldn’t be his regiment returning fire. The field guns for his regiment had been delayed. It had to be one of General Nyman’s corps attacking. He peered into the countryside and could only make out the very same eruptions of smoke, fire and earth that had pulverized his company’s trench all morning. He tried to summon some sort of martial fervor or feeling of vengeance to see the enemy enduring the same torture he had but he was too exhausted for any such emotion.

“Still alive, Ekstrӧm? “ Henry called out. Milo turned in the direction of the voice and saw the old rascal walking unsteadily through the pockmarked ground. His gaunt and unattractive face was covered with dirt and soot. His dark green field jacket was open to reveal his shirt, stained with sweat. He held two rifles in his hands. He handed one of the rifles to Milo and he took it with shaking hands.

“Sore feet and hardtack, huh?” Milo said, his voice hoarse from screaming.

“Mostly. This is what it is the rest of the time.”  Henry replied, his bemused smile unshaken by the war. “Congratulations boy-o: you survived your first engagement.”

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Summer Job

Wyatt broke another piece of drywall over his knee and tossed it in the pile he’d been building for the last two hours. The powdery grey dust clung to his face and choked his throat. The afternoon sun was bearing down, baking the construction site and making the white of the drywall harsh and bright. Wyatt’s back ached from the constant hunching over and lifting. All he wanted to do was drink an entire gallon of water before lying down to return to his sleep, interrupted at 5 AM.

Wyatt’s boss, TJ, pulled up in his battered red pickup truck to make a final inspection before he left for the day.

“How’s it going, bud?” TJ asked, stepping out of the cab. TJ was a scrawny wire-frame of a man inside work boots and faded blue jeans. As usual, he had an almost empty bottle of diet coke in one hand and a Marlboro burning down to the butt in his mouth.

“Almost finished here, boss.” Wyatt said, wiping the sweat from his face. TJ nodded in approval and slipped the butt of his old cigarette into the coke bottle before pulling out a fresh smoke.

“I’m sorry to stick you on this by yourself.” TJ said, exhaling smoke as he did.

“It’s no biggie.” Wyatt broke down another piece of drywall and added it to the pile.

“You got all the loose shit out of the house right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Alright. Well just get all this in the dumpster and you’re done for the day. Here’re the keys for the dump truck. Just put em through the mail slot on the office door when you’re done.” Wyatt nodded, though the idea of reloading all the drywall was exhausting.

“Thanks.” TJ said before climbing back into his truck and making his way down the neighborhood to inspect the concrete foundation pouring on the other side of the development. Wyatt held the keys TJ had tossed him and with a sigh of resignation, trudged down the sidewalk to get the dump truck.

The cab of the dump truck was filthy and covered with a thick layer of dust, baked in by the days’ worth of unshaded sunlight. Just the act of climbing into the driver’s seat stirred the dust and dirt into a cloud that stifled the already cramped space. The smell of the old pleather seat and the stale odor of cigarette and fast food were all made even more unbearable thanks to the heat.

Wyatt sat for a moment, his foot engaging the clutch, feeling the August day weighing down and enticing him to sleep, in spite of the discomfort. All he’d have to do was lean his head back and close his eyes and the buzzing of insects and muggy air would do the rest. He turned the key and the engine rumbled to life.

When he pulled up to the pile of discarded and broken down drywall, he set right to work in loading it, feeling the urge to be done for the week welling up inside him. Clasping pieces together and heaving up as many as he could at a time, Wyatt set to work in loading the truck.

Slowly, armful by armful, the pile shrunk.  The grass and trees of the neighborhood were vibrant green with a yellow tinge brought on by the sun. Gone was the sun-bleached white of high noon. Wyatt could feel that the work day was slowly dragging to a close. The occasional and far too short-lived breeze of air kissed his neck and promised him a cooler evening.

One armful after another. Beads of sweat trickled down his forearms leaving traces in the dust that clung to his skin.

By the time he had moved the truck and unloaded the discarded material into the massive red dumpster in the construction vehicle parking lot, Wyatt felt almost numb with exhaustion. The green of his t-shirt was darkened with sweat and his arms glistened in the setting sun. He could feel the soreness setting into the small of his back as he took a seat on the side of the dumpster, his boots knocking idly against the metal.

The houses on the row all followed a similar layout with only the smallest of differences in their overall plan. Some stood fully constructed and only awaiting families to furnish them while others still only had the wooden skeletons of their frames standing. The bricklayers had been building up the chimney in the lot next to where Wyatt had been working. He envied them their trade in constructing something more permanent. They could always drive past and point to the structure they helped erect, brick by brick. Wyatt looked into the dumpster full of broken drywall and shook his head.

As he parked the truck, his phone buzzed to a text from his girlfriend Melissa.

How was work?

Wyatt was too tired to really get into a conversation about it.

It was long but it’s over now.

Wanna stop over here? We can order some food if you want 🙂

Wyatt hadn’t planned on stopping at her place. As much as he liked being with her, her house wasn’t home. He stood by the door to the construction office, mentally weighing the decision in his head. He sighed and put the truck keys through the mail slot.

Sure. I’ll be over in a few minutes.

The drive to Melissa’s was a short one. Wyatt left his music off and didn’t bother to turn on the air conditioning, instead opting to just put the windows down. He was still sweating like a pig but knew that there was air conditioning in his immediate future. A few miles down the road and he was in a development that looked eerily similar to the one he’d come from. But instead of the drab yellow backhoes and vacant lawns, there were cars and some form of children’s toys in each yard.

Wyatt pulled up to Melissa’s house and slowly pulled himself out of his car. He walked up the path winding through the professionally maintained lawn and rang the doorbell. In the shade, he felt just a touch cooler enjoyed the setting sun’s light changing from yellow to amber.

Melissa opened the door and greeted him with a smile and a quick kiss. Her large brown eyes were the first warmth Wyatt had felt all day that he didn’t mind. Her dirty blonde hair was as usual trying to hide her face. Even in her jeans and faded pink t-shirt, she still looked put together and pristine. Wyatt stepped into the sweet air-conditioned air and felt all the heat that was weighing down on him peel off in a moment.

“You look funky.” Melissa said as Wyatt pulled off his boots.

“I feel pretty funky.” He replied with a half-smile, acutely aware of how dirty he was.

“Did you want to grab a shower? I’ve got a pair of your jeans still here you can wear after.” Melissa said, smiling. Wyatt nodded and thanked her. He walked through the house up to the second floor shower. As he did, it still struck him as odd at just how immaculately clean the house was. Everything looked ready to be modelled for a perspective buyer. Were it not for the collection of photos and the odd piece of mail, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a model house. Even the kitchen was neatly maintained and organized. The carpet was crisp and cream colored, and all the furnishing smart and new-looking. It looked incredible and artificial at the same time. Wyatt treaded carefully in his socks, fearful of leaving some stain or mark that would betray he was ever there.

He stepped into the bathroom and pulled the sweaty t-shirt off his back, revealing his pale skin underneath. His arms were darkened with sunlight and grime while the rest of him was merely flushed. Melissa stepped in for a second with a clean towel for him.

“Thanks.” He said, embarrassed to be disturbing the pristine bathroom with his grime.

She smiled and kissed him again.

Despite the great sensation of removing the dirt from his body, Wyatt kept his shower brief. He was far more interested in laying down than washing. He clambered out of the shower and quickly threw on the jeans Melissa had brought him.

He exited the bathroom and walked into Melissa’s room. Like an oasis, her bed was resplendent in its soft purple comforter and thick pillows. Without a second thought, Wyatt laid down and let out an audible groan of satisfaction as he did. The pain in his back dissipated and he felt the exhaustion slip off his body like the shower water had a moment ago.

Melissa stepped into her room and shut the door behind him.

“Feel better?” She asked. Wyatt nodded and felt his eyelids grow heavy. Melissa climbed on top of him and sat there with a playful look on her face. Normally, this was enough of a cue for Wyatt to take a hands-on approach, but now, he was content just to rest.

She leaned down to kiss him and he weakly put his arms around her.

“What do you want to do for dinner?” she asked him. Her voice sounded distant and the words only half-registered.

“Babe?” Wyatt’s hands slipped down her back before coming to rest on her hips.

“Wyatt?” The light had gone out and his breathing had slowed. Melissa asked him again but he was fast asleep.

Homestead

Valter Ekstrӧm rode along the dirt path to his homestead, the dust of the road clinging to the sweat on his brow and streaking his white shirt. The midday sun baked the plains and left the air hot and stagnant without a single gust of wind to break the heat. The brightness of the sun drowned the color of the land in a pale hot light that forced Valter to squint as he made his way towards the comfort of shade.

On the porch of the white farmhouse, Kaija was sitting on the deck swing, reading as she idly rocked back and forth. When she noticed him riding down the road, she gave him a wave and announced Valter’s arrival to the rest of the house. When Valter was close enough, Kaija called out to him.

“Did you have a pleasant ride, Papa?” Valter nodded as he dismounted, eager to get out of the sun.

“Where is your brother?” he asked. Kaija shrugged. “He went to check the south field I think.”

The lanky human farmhand ran across the yard to take Valter’s horse. Valter stepped onto the porch and removed his hat, dabbing the sweat from his forehead with his kerchief. Kaija’s face was buried in another book from some starving human writer.

“Why do you read that nonsense?” Valter asked.

“Would you like me to read more of our local writers?” Kaija retorted, giving him a smart look. Valter answered with a raised eyebrow of bemusement. In his heart, he knew she was right. The political pamphlets and newspapers of the southern provinces made for poor reading.

Valter walked into the foyer of his house and was greeted by the light seafoam colored walls that his wife had insisted on. Pictures of Valter’s father and other deceased family members kept a vigilant watch over the house’s entrance while the grandfather clock kept time quietly in the corner. Valter had no real eye for decoration and was grateful that Irja had taken the initiative on making the house a proper home.

He stepped into the kitchen and sat down at the table, feeling the weight of the heat slowly easing off his shoulders. Irja entered the kitchen and kissed Valter’s forehead. Unlike Valter, Irja was pure farming stock. With a large, strong frame and a round, unassuming face, she looked far more at home on the frontier than Valter ever did. Whatever attraction Irja lacked, she was a good mother and well-suited to life in the borderlands.

“What’s the latest news from town?” she asked. Valter grumbled as Irja placed a plate of dried mutton sausage and black beer bread in front of him. With no concern for etiquette, Valter tore into the spread before him.

“There’s trouble on the border. They might call up the reserves.” He said, chewing through a link of spiced meat. Irja shook her head as she placed a glass of water next to Valter’s plate. He greedily gulped it down, washing down the meat and dust that clung to his throat. “I need to speak with the boys.”

Milo was the first to appear after being summoned by his mother. He was sandy-haired  young man with pine-green skin made darker by a childhood in the fields. While strong and healthy, he looked younger than his age, much to his distress. He took a seat in the living room, adjusting his suspenders. Valter’s eldest daughter Mikaela entered next after giving her father a quick kiss. Mikaela favored her mother with a similar round face and tightly braided dark blonde hair, though was of slighter build. She took her place next to Irja, highlighting the similarity even further.

Hugo entered the room last, the dust from his morning ride still hovering about him. Even a penny novelist would struggle to describe a more ideal countryman. Hugo stood tall with broad shoulders atop a frame of sinew and close cropped hair well out the way of his strong, angular face. His white shirt stretched across his muscles and even the dust that streaked his boots and trousers seemed like a fitting ascent rather than a mark of dishevelment. He was a true Orc of the land, as the old farmsteaders would say.

“What’s the latest news from town?” Hugo asked, wiping the sweat from his face.

“There are disputes with the humans to the North. A colonel from the frontier reserves was taking names of all able men in the event we should be called up.” Valter announced, all of his children taking in the news in their own way. The girls stirred and looked to each other while Milo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Everybody waited for Valter to speak.

“I volunteered our farmhands to the auxiliaries and requested that you boys stay on the farm.” Valter said, watching the relief fall in his wife’s eyes.

“They would let you do that?” Mikaela asked. Valter nodded.

“We may be granted exception provided we supply grain to the army. But in the event the reserves are called to regular service then at least one man from each household must go. If it comes to it, Milo will go.” Milo’s face displayed a flash of total surprise he tried to suppress.

“Gods, why Milo? He’s barely of age!” Irja protested.

“The boy’s nineteen and in good health.” Valter countered, his tone grim and even.

“Why not let me go if the reserves are called?” Hugo asked.

“Without our hands, I’ll need you working in the fields. If the call is made, then your brother will answer.”

“Valter, please. Milo can’t go off to war. Surely taking the help is enough!” Irja said.

“Damnit, he’ll go if I say so, woman!” Valter shot back. The room tensed as Irja stepped back. She bore a look of scorn into Valter’s neck.

“If the call is made, I’ll answer it, mother.” Milo finally spoke. Valter nodded in approval but his face remained sour. His children all quietly took in the news and waited for Valter to speak again. Even Hugo knew better than to challenge his father’s authority now.

“Is there anything else, father?” Mikaela asked, trying to ease the tension.

“Things will likely grow harder in the coming weeks. I expect you all to pull your weight. Understood?” Valter asked as his family solemnly nodded.  He turned and exited the room, unwilling to endure more of Irja’s silent anger or the looks of his children.