Stories

Coming Back

The train clicked along the rainy countryside, its passengers still reveling in final moments of their liberty pass. Kurt sipped coffee from a cheap and ugly brown mug while his crew sprawled out across the car.

“You pig! It’s definitely a rash!” Heinrich yelled followed by a bout of laughter from the others as Thomas pushed him away, trying to hide his insecurity about the possible souvenir he acquired from the lower wharf whorehouse. The submariners, in fresh clothes, washed and clean shaven only looked respectable from a distance. To look at them for more than a moment was to see them for the loud and crass brothers they were. The smell of diesel fuel that never seemed to go away or the grease that rested in the corners of their fingernails were the true uniforms of their trade.

“Herr Kaleun! How were the girls in the officer’s ball?” Willie called out, waving a half-empty stein of beer. Kurt gave him a look that was equal parts officer and friend.

“Better than you’ll ever see, Matrose.” He answered with a look that quietly told Willie to check himself. The burly Saxon sheepishly nodded before guzzling down the second half of his beer. The men continued to talk and revel amongst themselves, still lost in the nightclubs and brothels they had squandered their wages on. A few of the lads, the machinists from Bavaria, had kept themselves in good order, sending letters to mothers or sweethearts down South. Whether in letter or twenty minute intervals, they had all reached out for something, a comfort to remind them they weren’t at sea.

Kurt closed his eyes, trying to fold away his memories like photographs.

You have to focus on the little details, she had whispered to him in the morning. He smiled at her words tickling his ear with her cute Swedish accent. The scent of jasmine that always followed her or the way her cinnamon brunette hair refused to ever cooperate with her designs come the morning. Even with all her style and makeup, she never looked more perfect than when she rose from the bed, its covers and sheets scattered from amorous friction. Even the overcast grey of morning seemed to brighten and she wrapped the crème colored sheet around herself.

There she was.

Minerva given life.

One of the navy attendants entered the car and the band of hooligans reined themselves in.

“We’ll be in Wilhelmshaven in about half an hour,” he paused, “You are to report to your boat immediately and be prepared to get underway before dark.”

The mood darkened instantly.

Wilhelmshaven. The name made every man’s skin bristle. It was the gateway to their hell on earth. Once they passed through the checkpoint, it was back to sweat, salt and exhaust. Each man knew he was just a quick review by the Kaiser’s favorite admiral of the week away from being thrust back into the terror of the North Atlantic.

Doing the best they could to keep bright their spirits before the seawater extinguished them, the men chatted far quieter now even after the attendant in his heavily-starched uniform left.

“Will you be here when I come back?” He had asked her, admiring her as she made no attempt to dress herself in anything more than the sheet.

“That depends. Will you come back?” she replied.

“For you? Always.” He said, giving her a cheeky smile. She had glided over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could still see the flicker of fear behind her bright green eyes.

“You’re incredibly selfish, you know that?” she said, the echo of tenderness dampening the impact of it.

“That seems a little unfair, no?” He said, smiling coyly. She let the sheet fall off her body.

“You know what I mean.” Kurt shifted, reaching for a cigarette from the silver case on the nightstand.

“That’s what your other lovers are for.” He said, perhaps a touch too pointedly as he struck a match. Before he could even move the flame she reached out and pinched it dead before clasping his chin in her hand.

“I don’t miss any of the others,” her face hanging mere millimeters from his, “I miss you.”

“I love you too” he said, his smile naked on his still bearded face. She frowned at him and pressed off of his chest. He sprang into action and delicately wrapped her in his arms, kissing her neck as he did. He smiled as he remembered how her skin felt on his lips.

The train rolled along, bringing Kurt mile by mile back to the war. From the arms of his Minerva back to the cold gaze of the angel of death. But still, Kurt smiled to himself.

The men glanced at their captain, sitting quietly in his seat, his face locked in a half-smile as his closed eyes pointed out the window.

“Bloody officers. Probably nothing but caviar and dancing girls in those parties.” Willie grumbled.

“Oh come off it. The Kaleun’s not the white glove type.” Heinrich said, to the chuckle of the men listening.

They amused themselves by painting cartoons in whispered voices of their oil-stained and rough-hewn captain breaking glasses to the horror of prim and proper surface fleet officers.

Advertisements

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.”

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.

Retiring

“Here’s to you, Mark. You were a hell of a judge! Enjoy the well-earned retirement.” Teddy Warner toasted as he tapped his bottle of Yuengling against Mark’s scotch. Teddy was the last friend that had come out for Mark’s retirement party. It wasn’t a big event or anything, just a small gathering with some of the cops and lawyers he’d known as well as a fishing buddy or two. Big events weren’t Mark’s style.

“Thanks Teddy. Are you gonna be OK going home?” Mark asked, taking a sip of scotch. Teddy chuckled as he put his FOP baseball cap on his bald boulder of a head and slid on his coat.

“I’ll be fine. Carol’s waiting outside with the car. Are you gonna be OK getting home?”

“You bet. Thanks for coming out.” Mark wished his friend a safe trip home after they set a time to meet for lunch. With Teddy’s departure, Mark was back to being on his own. Just another patron in a bar that had long since changed from the first time he’d been there. The old bartenders were gone along with most of the patrons he’d known. Now it was a mix of young people in a bar with one foot caught in the past. Photos of old timers and local celebrities still hung on the walls but were slowly being pushed aside for flatscreen TVs showing the game. Mark sighed and took another sip of his drink, enjoying the calm.

“Excuse me? Mr. Reynold?” a man’s voice broke Mark out of his contemplation. He turned to see a man looking right at him.

“Yes? Do I know you?” Mark asked, unable to place the face smiling so intently at him.

“Oh sorry, the name’s Roman. I’m sorry to interrupt you but I overheard your friend before he left. You’re Judge Reynold, yes?” The man asked, his voice awash with serendipitous excitement.

“Former judge, yes. Have we met before?” Mark asked, still confused as to who this stranger was.

“Not in person but you lectured at Temple once. Mr. Reynold forgive me but you’re something of a local legend in my neighborhood.  You were the judge on the Aronov case in ’96 yes?”

Mark was caught flat-footed. The Aronov case felt like a lifetime ago. Some Russian jew from the Northeast part of the city who’d been running some gambling racket out of his barbershop. It was a straightforward enough case, hardly worth taking any great note of.

“Yes, I was the judge for that.” Mark said slowly. The man smiled at him again and extended his hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir.” The two shook hands and Mark smiled as he studied the fellow. He was young and wiry with dark blue eyes set deep in his angular face. His jet black hair was close cut and his face shaved. His hands were gloved and his overcoat hung open, dampness from melted snow still visible on the shoulders. Despite his friendly demeanor, there was something off about him. His movements were as if a current of electricity was pulsing underneath his skin, a static energy that Mark couldn’t quite place.

“What brings you here?” Mark asked Roman.

“Oh I just stopped in here for a drink on my way home from class. I’m glad I did though. Can I buy you a drink sir?” Roman asked.

Nice to have a fan Mark thought.

“I’ll take another scotch on the rocks. And you can call me Mark, kid.” Roman gave him a smile and turned towards the bar. With his new acquaintance gone, Mark finished his drink. He wouldn’t say no to someone buying a round for him. He’d have preferred his first twenty-something fan to be a girl but a drink was a drink. He just hoped this kid wasn’t trying to fuck him.

In a short order, Roman rematerialized with a glass of scotch in one hand and vodka in the other.

“Cheers.” Mark said as he toasted his new friend. “So you know the Aronov case?”

Roman threw back his drink before speaking. “Everybody in my neighborhood knew the Aronov case.”

“It wasn’t such a big case. God, what was his first name again?” Mark struggled through the cobwebs in his mind to recall the name. Like a weathered photo, he could vaguely remember the man, standing in the courtroom looking forlorn and defeated on the day he sentenced him.

“Oh in my neighborhood, even little news was big if it was local. I think it was something with a J-“

“Julius! That’s it” Mark plucked the name from the dark as the memory came closer to the surface.

“Right that was it. Anyway the whole event was all anybody talked about.” Roman said, trying to pull up the memories himself.

“That must have been a little before your time wouldn’t it?” Mark asked, trying to figure out what was behind this kid’s interest.

“Oh I was about 10 or somewhere close to it. My mother would talk about it all day though. She talked about everything but this was a major event. Practically feels like a part of my life it was such a talked about thing.” Roman said, smiling to himself, no doubt recalling the memories.

“I didn’t think it was such a big deal.” Mark said, honestly at a loss the notoriety at the case. He’d been part of far larger and high profile ones in his time. What the hell was so special about this small time gangster from Bustleton?

“Maybe it wasn’t a big case but it got me interested in law. Kind of set me up on the career path you know?” Roman said. Then it all clicked in Mark’s head. This asshole was looking for a fast-track to employment out of law school. He gave a little chuckle and patted the kid on the back. He was smart pick a smaller profile case. Most of the other brown-nosers wanted to talk all about his work on the Philadelphia mob. The kid was clever…but not clever enough.

Mark entertained the kid’s questions about his career and about how he decided the sentence, all the usual subtle attempts to build a personal rapport. He enjoyed another scotch and led the kid on, content to let him think that he was making any sort of progress. The law school grads were usually out this time of year, searching for some way to get a leg up or find some special patron. Mark had little patience for them. Nobody had helped him when he was starting out.

“I gotta take a leak.” Mark announced, taking a break from Roman’s attention and feeling the scotch catching up with him. He stood on surprisingly uneasy legs and shambled towards the bathroom.

Heh. Caught up in the pageantry.

The bathroom was a small room with a single urinal and dirty white tiles on the floor. Years of drunken patrons had left the walls covered with graffiti and scribbles. The florescent light twitched and flickered to life as Mark stepped into the space and stumbled towards the urinal. He wondered if that last scotch had been a good idea as he relieved himself.

You only retire once, he comforted himself.

The door opened and Roman stepped in. Mark glanced over and breathed an unsubtle sigh of annoyance. Couldn’t he even piss in peace?

“Look can you give me a minute here, kid?” He said. Even with his senses dulled, he felt the kid crowding close behind him.

“Sorry, I’ve just got a quick message for you from my father, Julius.” Roman said, his tone cold and menacing. Mark paused as he tried to make sense of what the kid said when he felt a hand grab the tuft of hair on the back of his head and jerk his head back. Before Mark could even process what was happening, he felt a white hot slicing pain across his throat as bright hot blood spurted out onto the wall. In an instant the knife had run the course of his throat and he felt all the breath in his body escaping through the wound. Instinctively, he clutched his throat as more blood poured out between his fingers.

He slumped against the wall and tried to turn around. He saw Roman panting and holding a straight razor in his left hand. Mark could feel his pulse slowing against his fingers as he crumpled to the floor, his blood making the tiles slick. He looked up at the kid standing just far enough away to avoid any incidental spray and felt hatred pouring out his eyes. Roman stood there with a cruel and satisfied smile on his face like he’d just unloaded some great weight.

Mark’s head grew light and his vision greyed. The pain in his throat became more and more distant as his eyelids grew heavy.

Roman leaned down, his face close to Mark.

“Ваше оскорбление было возвращено”

Homecoming

Anthony walked down the boulevard as rain poured down the brim of his hat. He felt the water slowly soaking through his overcoat and dampening his shirt while the wind threatened to dislodge his hat. He cursed as he contemplated trying to light a cigarette. He was discouraged from the idea as he crossed through an intersection and a fresh gust of wind sent rain slapping across his cheek.

Javecs was a typical Bolthar city: medieval, damp and insular. From the winding streets built upon cow paths to the decrepit red castle in the city center, it was a place that wore modernity with great disdain. Rows of rust colored brick buildings lined the street, dimly lit by the street lights. They were a far cry from the brighter and neater buildings of the capital that Anthony had become so used to. Also lacking was any trace of Orcish architecture. Not one statue or stoic stone building was to be found in this castle city.

His meeting with the Bolthar regional council was as frustrating as to be expected. Why Viktor thought that Anthony’s presence might warm negotiations was a mystery. Anthony was a sundrii and the old roosters in the council would never forgive that. If there was anything they hated more than an aljaman it was a deserter, real or perceived.

At the end of the block was a tavern with an appropriately self-glorifying title. The Freeman’s Pike was an ugly two story building with faded green paint and an iron sign swinging in the storm, its hinges squeaking and whining. Anthony stepped through the door, desperate to escape the rain.

Inside was a collection of locals, all clad in their oil-cloth coats and wet fur hats. The men sported the thick mustaches still fashionable up north and the few women present sat quietly, dressed in muted colors and rustically functional styles.

Anthony weaved through the patrons and found an open seat at the bar. He set himself down, removing his hat and running his hand through his damp hair to slick it back out of his face. The bartender was an ogre of a man with a sour face and a bald head atop broad heavy shoulders.

“Black gin” he ordered. The bartender studied him for a moment before turning to get the half-full bottle on the shelf. Within moments a tumbler of the bitter black liquor appeared before Anthony. He studied the other drinks available. The selection was limited to a few local beers and the strong red wines that every pub and roadhouse seemed to have at least one bottle of. He knew it would have been pointless to ask for Ten Crowns, his preferred bourbon.

He took a sip of his drink and the bitter liquid burnt his throat. He’d forgotten how strong and grim a drink it was. He remembered stealing a bottle of it and passing it around with the other serving boys one night in his youth. It was a hard drink then but he’d taken swig after swig that night. Age had not taken the bitterness out of it.

“You ain’t from Javecs are you?” the bartender asked, now made curious by Anthony’s familiarity with the customs.

“Korvolen” Anthony said, the town’s name rang like a curse. The bartender frowned and several patrons within earshot grumbled some.

“You don’t have a Korvolen accent.” The man sitting two stools to Anthony’s left tossed out as he shot back his own glass of black liquor, “You sound more like an aljaman.”

“I’ve been living down south, in Tybernia.” Anthony said slowly, now acutely aware of how rusty his Bolthar had become. Every man within earshot gave him a dirty look. Normally, he’d have kept the fact to himself but his contempt for their standoffishness overcame him.

Foreigners down south attracted company. Questions of home countries and of travels were the bread and butter of tavern conversation. Whether they had traveled themselves, the southerners had a craving for stories of lands outside their own sunny valleys and mountainsides. Perhaps it was simply a hunger for more tales of beauty and grandeur to match their own countryside. Perhaps his people in this rain-logged hole disdained interest in other lands because their own were so pitiful.

Rain continued to tap heavily against the fog-choked glass windows as Anthony took another sip of his drink. After years apart, he was back in that unwelcome land called home.

Occupied Dublin, 1955

Liam adjusted his cap as the rain poured down the brim. The streetlights shimmered in the rainfall and cast a glistening twinkle of yellow light on the wet pavement. At the end of the block, he could see the green lights and sign for the Wild Geese pub. The prospect of a pint and a warm place to enjoy it were extremely enticing. He shivered and contemplated what the hell he was even doing out in the cold.

The old pre-war postcard contained simple enough instructions:

I’m not dead.

Meet me Tuesday night at 8 on Grafton Street.

Connor.

Liam thought of every possibility for how a postcard from a dead man arrived in his flat a week ago and could come up with nothing. His first thought was maybe it was the police, but if the Nazis were interested in him, they’d have kicked his door down. Even the British auxiliaries were prone to overt and loud actions against enemies of the state. Nobody else would think to pull such a despicable prank like leave him a note signed by Connor days after his funeral. It had to come from the man himself.

A fresh gust of wind slapped more rain against his overcoat and he looked up the street. It remained deserted. Liam checked his wrist watch and saw the time was exactly 8 PM. He sighed and gave a thought to heading in for a drink.

Even amidst the static of rain falling in puddles and on rooftops, Liam made out the sound of footsteps in water. He turned to see a man in a soaked grey overcoat and hat reaching out a cigarette.

“Do you have a light?” the man asked. Liam couldn’t quite make out the face underneath the hat but he knew the voice. He felt a million questions suddenly charge to the front of his mind and didn’t know where to start.

Connor repeated the question.

Liam dug his hand into his pants pocket until he found his lighter.

“Ahh grand. Best step out of this rain eh?” Connor said, motioning to the alley between the two brick buildings Liam had been using for shelter. The two stepped into the darkness. The neutral damp air of the street was replaced with a stale odor of mold and still water.

Connor checked down the alley and when he was satisfied, adjusted the brim of his hat, revealing his face. He reached out and took the lighter from Liam’s hand to light the damp cigarette still hanging between his fingers. With the illumination of the flame, Liam could see the Connor’s face clearer. The man looked older than his years with his baby face was now etched with a week old stubble and his cheeks thinner. His blue eyes sparked and flared with the lighter’s flame He exhaled a stream of smoke as he closed the lighter and with a smile tossed it back to Liam.

“Thanks” he said, his smile disappearing as he did.

“What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were dead!” Liam declared, trying to regain his wits and control his voice.

“Did you really think I’d kill myself?”  Liam thought for a moment. Connor was too vain for suicide.

“No.” Connor gave him a half smile at that. “You still lied to me. To everybody”

Connor’s smile vanished and remorse colored his face. “I know and I’m sorry for that. If there were a different way I’d have happily taken it.”

“So why the funeral?”

“Jackboots tried to arrest me last week. I had to disappear. Being dead seemed like an easy way to do it.” Connor answered.

“Who was in the coffin?”

“The German who tried to take me in. We switched wallets and gave him my time piece when we dumped my car in the river.”

That’s what the mourners at the funeral said; that it was a car driven into the water. They’d commented on such a dramatic way to end it all.

“Who’s ‘we’?” Liam asked, the picture still not clear. Connor glanced around before tossing his cigarette into a nearby puddle.

“The war’s not over Liam.” He felt anger twitching in his hands.

“You fake your death and all to start some damn trouble with the Germans?” Liam said, his voice sharp and his words aimed directly at Connor. “Why the hell did you reach out to me?!”

“Cause Jerry’s a bad landlord. Even you have to have noticed that.”

“Jerry took on the world and won.” Liam said, “He fought us, the Tommies, the reds and the yanks and he still won.” Liam shot out, his own frustration and depression heating his words. Right after the war, everybody spoke of resisting and of carrying on the fight. But one by one, the agitators disappeared or tempered down as the Reich settled in across Europe. The free radio stations and underground newspapers were shut down and fewer people showed up to protests. Soon the apartment raids and German troops became infrequent but the fervor of resistance was gone.

“Aye he won in ’45. But the Jerries are slipping now. Ten years of trying to tame the East, they’re relying more on the Brit fascists to govern now.”

“So what if they are? You cause trouble and we’ll have SS troops instead of blueshirts patrolling the street.” Liam countered.

“Didn’t our da’s say the something similar about Collins and the RIC.” Connor said with a half-smile. Liam grumbled but admitted that Connor had a point. Connor stepped forward, his weary but still energetic face coming into the light.

“We’re working with the boys up North, properly organizing this time. But we need volunteers for the Dublin station.” Liam could feel the invitation about to be extended. With it, he pictured his entire life of keeping his head down and scrapping together enough Reichmarks for his flat being uprooted.

“And I’m assuming you’re heading up that effort?” Liam asked. Connor nodded his head.

“Aye. It won’t be easy or pleasant. I’m sorry for what I did but I won’t apologize for asking you to join me.”

“Of course not. You must be the only Fenian to be unaffected by guilt.” Liam jabbed.

“Guilty about lying? Yes. But feeling guilty for making Dublin unwelcoming to these bastards? No.”

“I could use your help with the effort.” It was the same statement Connor had used whenever he was about to rope Liam into some foolish adventure or other. The warmth in his voice and the light in his eyes, visible even in the dark had been untouched by Nazi occupation. It was the same warmth and confidence Liam had seen in his friend before he slipped across the sea to join the RAF.

With a sigh, Liam put out his hand, ready to pick his head up and face the world.

Bitte, beende Es

Kostyantyn wiped the sweat from his face on the wool sleeve of his uniform as his squad pushed through a burning café. The air was thick with smoke and his mouth tasted of ash but he pressed on. The rattle of rifle and machinegun fire danced off the crumbling walls of the tombstone buildings all around him. As he stepped into the pulverized sidewalk, the smoke thinned to reveal distant black shapes scrambling into the rubble at the end of the block.

“Fire!” Lt. Yashin ordered as he unleashed a long burst with his PPSh. The rest of the men followed his command and the clatter of Mosin-Nagant’s and Tokarevs filled his ears. He looked down the iron-sights of his own rifle and shot at one of the black shapes. Dust and debris kicked up as stray bullets missed their marks, further obscuring the survivors they shot at. No return fire answered them.

“Look at the Fascists run!” Anton cheered as he reloaded his sub-machinegun.  Kostyantyn felt vengeance pumping through his blood alongside the adrenaline of battle. All of the pain he’d endured, all of the brutality of the Fascists and his own officers, the friends he’d seen ripped to pieces, this would be the end of it.

Let your farms burn. Your families die, he cursed the shadows as he pulled the bolt back on his rifle. The shooting continued for what felt like only a handful of minutes until the silhouettes were no more. Lt. Yashin shouted over the chaos for the men to cease-firing. Kostyantyn’s heart pounded away inside his chest. Slowly, the squad made its way up the street. The gunfire of nearby engagements kept everybody on edge as they carefully stepped deeper into the dying heart of the Reich.

They came to the mouth of where the survivors had been retreating to: an eviscerated four story hotel. A burnt sign hung over the freshly-blasted hole in the building’s front. The sign was far too faded and perforated with bullet-holes to read what was once written there, not that Kostyantyn could even read Cyrillic, much less the alien characters of the Germans.

A ramp of debris and rubble led all the way to the exposed second floor of the hotel. Lt. Yashin waved the men to advance up the mound and secure the building. Kostyantyn started climbing the rubble, followed by his comrades. As he did, he passed the bodies of the Fascists who were too slow to scurry away into the building. Their black uniforms were covered in dust and the light grey powder of obliterated concrete. Most were young looking, with their close-cut blond hair tucked under black field caps and hairless faces frozen in agony. A few were old men, with grey mustaches and wrinkled hands.

On the second floor, a wounded Fascist clutched his stomach and blood oozed through his fingers. His skin looked like wrinkled wallpaper and his eyes were dull. With his free hand, he struggled to raise a pistol. Anton pulled out his Tokarev and put a bullet through the man’s chest. He slumped forward, the pistol falling hard against the floor. Anton pulled the pistol out of the dead man’s hand and tucked the souvenir into his belt. A few of the men chuckled as they passed the corpse.

They continued through the once-decadent halls and rooms of the hotel, looking for any sign of resistance. As he crept through, Kostyantyn couldn’t help but feel angry and envious at the scraps of luxury that remained in the forlorn rooms. Bed frames and pillows bigger than anything he’d known in his life, wardrobes that must have cost more than everything he’d ever owned and so much space for a single room. Each room just reinforced the anger that had sat in his stomach since the Red Army had crossed into Poland. What was my farm to all of this?

As the sound of his comrades became distant in the ruined maze of the hotel, Kostyantyn noticed a small trail of blood on the filthy carpet. He brought his rifle up and followed it, acutely aware of every floorboard creak as he did. He hoped that the trail would end in a dead Fascist and that the war around them might conceal his footsteps.

The trail diverted into a room.

Kostyantyn held his breath as he approached the door frame. He strained his ears for a clue as to how many were there.

The crack of a gunshot exploded out of the room. Kostyantyn instinctively ducked down but there was no sign that the shot had been at him. He reached to his belt but there were no grenades left. He cursed inside his head and closed his eyes.

With a second’s prayer, he turned into the room, rifle ready. To his surprise, he found the source of the blood. Two Germans were in the room, one sitting with his back against a section of intact wall and the other crouched in front of him.

“Stop!” Kostyantyn shouted. The crouching German slowly dropped a pistol on the floor and raised his hands to the ceiling.

“Don’t move!” Kostyantyn yelled again, his rifle trained squarely on the back of the Fascist’s head. The figure ignored his command and rose to his feet. Kostyantyn didn’t recognize it at first but the German was a boy. He turned around and Kostyantyn’s stomach knotted itself.

The boy’s eyes cut right through Kostyantyn, making it painful to meet his gaze. They were bloodshot and the skin around turned red from tears. The boy couldn’t have been older than thirteen, a pup of a child. When he couldn’t bear to look into the tortured green eyes, he noticed the blood splatter on the back wall. The boy had shot the second German.

The dead man was older and bald, his uniform tattered and dirty with a dark crimson stain growing across the chest. His green eyes, lifeless and open, looked down at the floor. Kostyantyn’s insides twisted as the situation dawned on him and the boy continued to stare at him.

“Bitte, beende es” the child said, his voice shaken and hopeless. Kostyantyn couldn’t understand the language but the expression made it clear what he had asked for. For the first time since he was drafted, his hands trembled.

Kostyantyn had killed dozens, if not hundreds of the Fascists since the commissars took him from his field. With rifle, grenade, bayonet and bare hands, he’d taken the lives of these jackbooted devils. Before every battle, the officers reminded him and the others that it was these blonde-haired and blue-eyed murderers who had burned down their homes, raped their wives and killed their comrades. The commissars spoke of their war against the Motherland and how killing these invaders was the noblest calling that Kostyantyn could achieve. Since he’d put on the itchy wool uniform of the Soviet Union, killing had been easy and easily rewarded with medals and promotions.

Until now.

“Bitte, beende es.” The boy said again, taking a step towards the end of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He couldn’t meet the boy’s haunting and broken gaze. All he could think of was his parents, starved and emaciated, the winter the commissars had taken the village’s harvest. As Kostyantyn whimpered and groaned while his belly distended, his parents labored on, forgoing their meagre slivers of food so that Kostyantyn could carry on. When he was too exhausted to cry, he remembered the look on his mother and father’s face. It was the same look this boy was giving him now.

He heard the footsteps of his comrades coming down the hall and still his muscles were frozen. The boy’s face was struck with urgency.

“Beende es!” he cried, putting his head against the muzzle of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He swallowed hard, clenched his jaw tight and squeezed the trigger.

Inside the room, the report of the rifle echoed and Kostyantyn’s ears rang. The war was replaced with nothing and then a dull ringing. And then the boy.

He lay flat on his back, the grizzly aftermath of the gunshot apparent all over the wall and the corpse of his father.

Desires

“Do you always travel this light?” Venus asked as she scanned the room. Misha locked the hotel door behind him and tossed his keycard on the coffee table.

“This is business, not a vacation.” He responded, observing the droid as she continued her inspection of his room. He’d be lying to himself if he said that she wasn’t an impressive design. Her hair was raven black and sat in lush waves just below her shoulders. Her body was designed with professional grace and precision, not like the Barbie-doll prostitution droids you’d find on in a brothel. She had enticing curves that gave her an organic quality. But it was her face that stuck with him. Something about those synthetic golden honey eyes. He liked that there was a touch of artificiality to her.

“So what do you do when you’re not working, Mr. Businessman?” She turned and asked him, a coy and teasing smile hanging from the corners of her mouth.

He ignored the flirtation as he removed his suit jacket and hung it up, careful to avoid any wrinkles or damages. He noticed her staring at his pistol and holster hanging by his shoulder. “Is that meant to impress me?” she asked, her smile unchanged.

“Do I have to impress you?” Misha retorted, “I thought you were programmed to be impressed by me.” She sat on the coffee table and crossed her legs.

“That’s what your employer sent you to purchase isn’t it? Programmable compatibility? Besides, if Mr. Patel believed you just wanted a pretty escort, he’d have given you a different model. He guessed that you might want something a little more…complex.”

“And that’s what you are? Complex?”

“Something like that.” Misha opened the bottle of vodka and poured himself a full glass. The whole time, those honey eyes stared straight at him.

“So you won’t do what I say?” He asked.

“You haven’t told me to do anything” she replied without skipping a beat.

“Stand up.” He said. She complied.

“Sit down.” She made her way to his bed. “Not there. On the couch” She raised an eye brow but complied. “Not feeling adventurous?”

“Not looking for pleasure” he answered, satisfied that his point had been proven.

“What is it you’re looking for then?” She asked, stretching out on the couch. He took a sip of vodka and held it in his mouth until it burned. He kept repeating in his head that this was only a program, nothing more than an imitation of reality. But it was a very convincing one.

“I’m not looking for anything.” He said after swallowing his drink.

“Yes you are.” She responded, standing up. “Maybe it isn’t pleasure but you are looking for something.”

He tensed as she came closer and closer to him, her eyes burning with electricity. His pulse quickened and he didn’t know whether to reach for his gun or her.

“All that precision, your suits, your manners, your control: you’ve bound yourself up.” She draped an arm around his neck. Misha’s stomach knotted and he braced with every muscle in his body. “You want to come out.”

Her face was millimeters from his. Her lavender perfume reached out and hooked into his brain. “You want to unwind” Each word was seductive and warm on his ear. He felt a vein of desires rising up in him. They pressed so hard against him that his very skin ached and itched. He wanted to rip her skin-tight dress off and fuck her until he couldn’t move. He wanted to lay in bed with her and hold her. He wanted to talk to her, not about business or some coy game of verbal chess but just talk. He wanted her to be real.

“You’re not real.” Misha said, trying to bring himself back in control.

“This is real.” She said, drawing a finger from the back of his ear across his neck, “This is real.” She guided his hand first from her breast to her cheek. “This conversation is real”

“But you’re not.” She wrapped both arms around him and stared him square in the eye.

“I can be real for you.” Misha looked into the eyes that had intrigued him the minute he saw her in Mr. Patel’s club. Designed and customized to react the exact same way human eyes do, behind them was a complex web of circuitry and wire, all working seamlessly and invisibly to produce the perfect woman. Programs and algorithms, constantly adapting and totally focused on him from every word he uttered to the smallest facial tick, burned away to serve and seduce him. A synthetic succubus, ready to play lover, confidant and therapist all at the same time and she could be all his.

“No.” Misha removed her arms from around his neck, “You can’t”.

No Matter the Cost

The longship glided across the still river waters, oars quietly propelling it along. Volkmar stood at the ship’s bow clutching his war axe tight in his hand. The wounds and bruises from the previous night’s battle were still raw and pain radiated across his body. Still, he kept his gaze on the riverbank and his mind off his injuries.

Volkmar heard Torgyr’s heavy step before the bear spoke a word, “Helmsman, Hodrik’s dead.” The Graeling spoke in a raspy and weathered voice.

“His wounds were fresh and his sword was well used. The Blood-Father will welcome him in the Halls of Glory.” Volkmar said. Torgyr raised his sword to the sky in silent prayer. “Where are we headed next?” Torgyr asked.

Volkmar frowned as he scanned the moonlit banks. The forests and stones seemed pathetic and engorged compared to the gaunt trees of his father’s jarldom. All of the South was like this; soft and fat. The land’s abundance had turned the men of the South into weak and bloated cowards. They fought with regiments, magic and machines. Even their gods were weak, with priests fawning over trinkets and relics rather than blood and runes.

“There is a walled town, Vinnaburg, at the mouth of the river. If the wind doesn’t turn against us, we’ll reach it before dawn and then butcher them all.” Volkmar said, the prospect of fresh battle giving him renewed fire in his chest. There was a silence between the two Norscans and Torgyr’s unease was palpable. Volkmar turned to look his first mate in the eye as well as see to the remains of his crew.

Haggard and bloodthirsty Northmen covered the deck of his ship. Bloodied and fur-covered reavers manned the oars or tended to wounds while a few kept watch with bows at the ready. Not a man was present without some wound or injury but all wore them with pride. However, as proud as they were, they numbered only twenty six. The town Volkmar aimed to sack was not insubstantial and boasted a garrison at least twice times his number if not more. His ship was already adorned with the glorious bounty and scars of successful raids, more than enough to return to Norsca with honor.

But Volkmar felt the call of Ulric on the wind.

“Harder and deeper bites the wolf who’s tasted his own blood.” Volkmar said, loud enough for the crew to hear it. They looked up to their leader and waited to hear what he’d say next, “We have tasted our own blood. And now we will bite harder and deeper.” He announced, fire building in his tone. The reavers looked to him while they rowed, their faces worn with the pain of raiding and fighting but still eager to hear what their helmsman would say.

“The Southmen hide behind stone walls and pray to their weak gods. They beg and whimper like worms” Volkmar continued, hatred igniting and giving him renewed energy. “We’ll show them how the gods of the North answer cowardice.” A few men raised weapons and fists to the sky.

The rowing intensified as the reavers’ appetites for glory were sharpened, each man determined to prove his bravery and strength. Only Torgyr kept his reserve.

Volkmar returned to the prow of the ship, satisfied with his men’s reaction. Torgyr approached him again.

“If we were to keep to the East bank, we’d save a day on the voyage back to Norsca. Provisions are barely enough as is. We may well run out before we reach the Graelands.” Torgyr raised his concerns.

“So?” Volkmar shot back, his disdain for the concerns brazen as his wounds.

“Volkmar…booty and glory are well and good but men can’t live on it alone.” Torgyr answered, keeping his tone even.

“The sea is full of fat merchant ships and sleeping patrols. We’ll find provision. Besides, wolves hunt better when they’re hungry.” Volkmar answered.

“It’s not the men that concern me.”

“Then what does concern you? I’ve never known you to be fearful of a battle.” Volkmar spat out, a tongue of pain licking up his ribs.

“We sail and sack for more than just ourselves. We reave for the jarldom and for the North.” Torgyr answered, anger burning through his otherwise still tone.

Volkmar was silent. Torgyr had a point. A reaver may seek glory for himself but a helmsman was measured by what he brought back to the tribe. In winter, a boat full of meat and barley was more valuable than the mightiest of trophies. They’d already been away longer than the Vikti had predicted. Was he fighting for the tribe or to prove himself a warrior?

To sail past was the safer choice. Any other helmsman would do the same and no one would think less of him. But he was son of Renrir the Skull-Taker. To make the safer choice would taint him forever as the lesser of the tribe. He could not live with such shame.

He stared at the water, moonlight sitting on its surface like a sheet of ice. His muscles ached and he could feel the cool night’s wind stinging his blood-stained bandages. His skull felt like scraped metal and a steel knot formed in his stomach.

The Blood Father only rewards the strong. He could hear his father’s voice, stern and cold as the North.

“We sail for Vinnaburg.” Volkmar said, his tone absolute, “and by axe and sword we will win or die.”