death

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.

 

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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.

Final Words of Lord Robert Helbrecht

I stand here, on the cusp of my execution at the hands of you madmen, you murderers. I stand accused of treason. For forty years I have served this kingdom. I have given sons to it. I have shed blood for it. I have sworn oaths to a king, the same king you slaughtered. I will not swear oaths to this false republic, to you ambitious killers. So tell these glorious revolutionaries to aim with both eyes and to mind their powder. Enjoy the prize of another unarmed man murdered. Gods save the king.

Wrath of the Norse

Dull pain echoed across his body before Marcus opened his eyes. He lifted his head out of the frigid dirt that caked onto his forehead and face, anchored there by dried blood. His chest caught fire every time he took a breath and his brain pounded against the wall of his skull.

Marcus sat up and tried to get his bearings. The woods spread behind him. There was a light frost on the ground and the sun climbed to high noon behind a veil of grey. The air carried no noises: no chirping of birds, no chopping of wood, nothing. Normally the morning brought forth a symphony of sounds, but now there was an unearthly stillness. The smell of fire filled his nostrils.

Marcus rose on unsteady legs and prepared for a sluggish journey home. It was when he turned that he saw the origin of the fire: his village. As he approached, he saw the ruined remains of his once calm corner of the world. The sea-weathered stone houses had been torn down and their roofs set aflame. Overturned baskets and simple furniture littered the ground. And then there were the bodies. Men and women laid dismembered across the ground with spears and arrows sticking out of them. A hatchet protruded from the town blacksmith’s back. Blood splattered across the ground.

What little air that was in his chest vanished. This couldn’t be real. He had woken up that morning and the lazy sounds of the village morn were present as they always were. Now there was silence and death. This couldn’t be right. This isn’t right. This doesn’t make sense.

Like a dream stepping into dawn, the memory of that morning slowly came back to Marcus. He remembered his papa tasking him to check the traps they had set in the woods the evening before. He was walking up the lone dirt path when something emerged from the woods. It was a man, a burly armored hulk of a man. He’d carried a great round shield and an axe. The last moment Marcus could recall was the crack of his nose breaking as that shield came across his face.

Throughout the village were footprints and tracks. There must have been more of the strange warriors in the woods. His mama had always told him of dangerous men that came from the sea to grab children who misbehaved, but he always thought those were stories for his younger brother and sister.

He limped down the main path to his hut near the storehouse. Despite his exhaustion, the reality of the massacre was starting to set in. Panic was crawling up from his stomach and fueling the burning pain in his lungs. With each body he passed, Marcus braced to see his dead family. When he came to his home, he saw his papa slumped against the stone wall of the hut, his woodcutting axe still clutched in his hands. Dried blood left dark crimson stains in his tunic. Mama was closer to the shore; a spear was standing upright in her back. Marcus felt his heart sinking deeper and deeper into his damaged chest. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he had to find his brother and sister first.

He made his way to the shore where he found a few more dead villagers but no sign of his siblings. He walked down the beach and saw a strange track in the sand. It looked like a trail of a fishing boat but was much larger. It also seemed to come from the land. Next to the track, Marcus saw the necklace that his mama had made for his little sister, Hilda. It was a small, unassuming thing: just a simple woven necklace of a horse. Marcus knew the pretty green and gold threads that his mama favored. A horrifying thought crawled into Marcus’s mind.

Could the men from the forest have taken his sister and brother?

He collapsed in a heap on the beach, looking out to the dark and churning sea. The quiet was more oppressive than the devastation around him. Marcus held his head and let his tears flow. He wept in silence. He had started the morning, annoyed at still having to perform the childish chore of checking traps. As the tears ran down his bruised face, Marcus wished harder than he ever had before to wake up and start that morning over.

The pale sun disappeared behind the clouds and the world grew darker.

First, Do No Harm

I coughed and felt more blood spray from my nose and mouth. Everything hurt and my fever was getting worse. My cold sweat mixed with my blood and I winced in agony. I was shivering but I could feel sweat pouring out of my body. The light felt unearthly bright and it hurt my eyes. Every time I turned my head, the world seemed to move at half-pace to catch up.

I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was going to die. Half of my company was in this medical camp. We had all heard stories about it; some boys would be off hunting the terrorists in the jungle and they’d catch some horrible virus. We always joked that it was some dumb Euro boys who’d never been in a jungle before. But the joke was on us now.

Even through the muffled sound of my blood-clotted ears, I could hear her and her attendants making their daily rounds. You could always tell when she was on rounds because there was always begging for food, water or a bullet through the head from each tent. One by one, she’d walk into our little makeshift rooms and scribble in her little journal and clipboard. It didn’t matter if you begged or cursed or tried to get up. She would just observe and then walk out.

I remembered seeing her when my company was first sent to Angola. She was there with a few other American nurses and assistants, and a handful of black guards in baggy uniforms carrying Portuguese rifles. We were on a patrol and passed through her camp. She said she was doing research that would save thousands. We all just shrugged and pressed deeper into the jungle. She wasn’t the first doctor we saw in the bush. We figured she’d come to set up camp and tend to the wounded. We were wrong.

Most of us were already bleeding out of our eyeballs when her attendants brought us back to camp. One of the attendants, a fat bald man with a red sweaty face, told me there had been a virus in the village well we were clearing out. Then the doctor came in. She just wrote away in her damn journal, looking me over like a dead cow on the side of the road. I yelled out for her to help me. I wanted something, anything to stop the pain. She didn’t say a word. She just kept taking notes then left the room. The red-faced bastard leaned over me and told me that there was no help for me. He told me that the good doctor was going to watch me die. He added that my death might save thousands, as if that was supposed to make me feel better or to take my suffering in silence.

I could her getting closer, leaving a trail of misery behind her. My world was getting dim but I had life enough to get even. The doctor may have been smart, but she was no soldier. Her minions took my rifle but they didn’t check my pack. They didn’t find the old Mauser I bought off a German in Johannesburg. It almost killed me but I dragged myself over to my pack and grabbed my prize handgun. I clambered back into the cot and settled back into the putrid puddle of my own blood and excrement. It wouldn’t matter much longer. Soon I’d be dead one way or the other.

I clicked off the safety, swearing that when she showed her face here today, my room would be the last one she ever entered.