Fantasy

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.”

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.

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.

 

Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunted

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello Marcus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus tried to speak but nothing came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Sanctum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Entrance

Marcus walked along the narrow pathway, hand tight on the hilt of his sword. His bodyguards followed behind him, their nervousness as palpable as the mist that cloaked the mountain trail. The mist of the early morning clung to every rock and dampened his clothes. The world itself seemed devoid of color with grey stone blending into the mist. Even the occasional patch of grass or foliage appeared to be a dead green. The mountain had claimed the life of everything around it, leaving only sallow corpses behind.  Marcus himself felt a pang of unease as he pressed forward. It would be one thing if the villagers had told him stories of a monster or some great beast that lived in the mountain. As gruesome and terrifying it may be, it was something of this world, something he could defeat.

The warning of the old women in the village clung to his mind more than all the others.

There’s darkness in that mountain.

“Come on, lads. Not much further now.” Marcus said, affecting a lighthearted and adventurous tone. His men took heart and trudged through the cold morning fog.

The path widened as it came to the entrance of a cave. Sitting on a rock was an old man, clothed in the robes of a monk and a blindfold over his eyes. The dark crimson stains of old dried blood loomed over the blindfold where his eyes would be.

“Hail, good ser!” Marcus called out as his retinue approached. The blind man slowly tilted his head up, looking just above Marcus.

“You are lost” the blind man said after a moment of silence. Marcus and his knights looked to each other, confused at the statement.

“We seek the entrance to this mountain. Is this it?” Gregor asked, stepping forward. Gregor’s tone was somber and authoritative but Marcus could feel a hint of unease behind it.

The blind man continued to stare at some unknown point. Gregor and Marcus shared a look of confusion before Marcus took the lead again.

“What are you doing in this place, old man?” Marcus asked.

“Watching.” The blind man said. The blind man’s face was etched with deep crags and wrinkles. A sea of grey bristles pierced his chin. His robes were weather-beaten and as course as the jagged stones that surrounded them.

“We were told that several villagers have disappeared in the mountain. Have you met any other travelers?” Marcus asked again, pushing the growing unease down his throat and trying to maintain his calm and warm attitude. The blind man said nothing.

Marcus shifted his weight. “Do you know what lies within that cave?”

The blind man turned to look directly at Marcus. The bloodstained spots seemed to bore into Marcus’s very body and he fought as hard as he could to suppress a shiver.

“Darkness.” The knights touched their swords and all turned nervous eyes towards the mouth of the cave. The mist seemed to grow thicker and the air colder.

Marcus felt a compulsion to turn the retinue around and leave immediately. He had assured himself that the villagers were merely exaggerating because they were afraid. Surely chosen knights of the realm had nothing to fear from some peasant superstition. But here, at the entrance to this cave, Marcus felt wrong. The old man’s warning, the darkness of the cave, the very air itself seemed to tell of danger. But he had given his word and come this far. How could he turn away now?

He stepped forward and Gregor moved to follow.

The blind man raised a hand, fast as lightning, and blocked Gregor.

“Your king must go alone.” He said. The entire retinue paused. How did he know that it was the king’s retinue?

“We are bound to the king and will not leave his side.” Gregor said, defiant of the old man. Some of the other knights stepped forward as well, determined to make a bold show for their king. But a few others held their ground, fearful of stepping to close to the cave.

“Why must I go alone?” Marcus asked.

“Only you can see the darkness” the old man said. The retinue looked to Marcus, waiting for his orders. He felt the weight of their eyes resting on him heavier than his mail or his cloak.

“Well lads, it appears as if I must win all the glory myself today.” Marcus said, trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t seem to work.

“Your Majesty, please. Let at least one of us accompany you.” Gregor protested. Marcus turned to the blind man who remained silent with his hand outstretched.

“Have no fear, Lord Gregor. I survived a fortnight in your halls. I can survive whatever darkness there is in this cave.” Marcus joked. A handful of the knights let out a nervous chuckle.

Marcus turned and readied a torch. One of his men handed him a flint. He hoped he at least appeared to be brave. Marcus was glad nobody could see his hand trembling in his glove or the cold sweat breaking out across his body.

With one last glance to his retinue and to the blind man, Marcus stepped into the damp echoing air of the cave entrance. As the cavernous noise and wind died to dull hoarse whisper, Marcus swore he saw the blind man unleash a cruel smile for just a moment.

Redemption

Stefan walked up to the weathered priest under the shade of the cherry blossom tree. The priest was an old wolf of a man, with crags etched deep into his face and clean shaven from crown to chin. Even under his unassuming rough-worn black robe, one could see his physique was the same as a reaver from the north.

“Excuse me?” Stefan asked in a hushed voice, “are you the priest Luther?” The monk didn’t stir.

“Please. Just call me Luther.” He said, calm and focused. Stefan came close to the little stone bench where Luther was sitting. He waited to be offered a seat but Luther didn’t move or open his eyes.

“You can sit down anytime you like,” Luther said, with a smirk peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Stefan was glad for the simple manner and took the seat. A gentle breeze danced across the garden, shaking loose a couple of pink and white petals.

“What can I do for you?” Luther asked.

“I was told to seek out your wisdom.” Stefan answered. The priest let out a laugh that broke the serenity and stillness.

“Someone’s played an awful trick on you if you think I have any wisdom.”

“The inn-keep by the crossroads told me I should seek your wisdom before…”

“Before what?”

“I’m traveling south on my way to join the barefoot brothers,” Stefan said, “I asked the inn-keep for a room for the night. When I told him where I was headed, he told me that if I went and talked to you, he’d let me have a room free of charge.”

Luther opened his eyes and shifted in his seat. Stefan felt uneasy by the action. He felt like he had just blasphemed or insulted the man.

“And why do you want to join the brothers?” Luther asked, just a shade sterner. Stefan shifted again in his seat, uncomfortable in the monk’s presence.

“I need to repent.” Stefan finally confessed. He waited for the tone of voice to get sterner or accusatory. Instead, Luther simply asked, “Repent for what?”

“I…I acted foolishly.” Stefan felt the story stuck in his throat. The priest laughed again, this time even harder. It was such a genuine laugh that even with his nerves frayed, Stefan couldn’t fight back a smile. Luther struggled to control himself enough to ask, “How foolishly?”

“I struck my older brother with a hammer.” Stefan said. Luther kept on chuckling.

“My boy, I could tell you stories about my brothers that would have made a strike with a hammer seem like an act of virtue.”

The comment made Stefan feel a little better but it didn’t wash away the shame of his action.

“I hurt him.” Stefan said.

“Hammer strikes often do.” Luther replied. Stefan wanted to cry he felt so bad. Luther must have noticed his distress. “Well if you’re going to be so damn grim, you’d better tell me the whole story.”

Stefan took a deep breath and began his shameful tale.

“My brother and I were working the anvil. We’re both the sons of the village blacksmith. We were working the anvil and I…I smashed his hand.” Stefan stammered out slowly.

“I take it wasn’t an accident.” Luther said, not quite as jovial.

“No it wasn’t.” Stefan said, feeling tears burning behind his eyes.

“Why’d you do it?” Luther asked, no judgement in his voice. Stefan sighed again, feeling so pathetic.

“There was this girl walking past our smith. Her name was Vara. She had these beautiful purple eyes. I’d never seen eyes like those before. Purple eyes and red hair, red like the sunrise. I loved her. I love her voice and the way she’d sing little songs to herself when she’d come back from the millstone.”

Luther let out another half-laugh though this one was more for himself. “Young love will distra-“

“She didn’t distract me. She didn’t love me.” Stefan said, bowing his head low.

“And your brother made fun of you for it?” Luther asked.

“No. She loved Genneth. She was walking past the smith to see him.” Stefan corrected him, keeping his head hung low.

“So you broke Genneth’s hand.” Luther said, putting the puzzle together. Stefan nodded his head, feeling like a felon. Genneth was always the golden son. He was older, with a handsome face and a strong chin. He’d been Da’s chosen apprentice while Stefan was only allowed to work the bellows. Stefan was always the helper, never equal.

“And for that you want to join the barefoot brothers?” Luther asked with neither jest nor judgement in his question.

“What else can I do?” Stefan asked, the emotion burning through his thinly veiled composure, “I broke his hand, shattered the bones. You can’t smith with only one hand. I hurt my brother, I took away his future. What else can I do?”

“What do you think joining the brotherhood will do?” Luther asked.

“Everyone knows the stories. Rendrik the rapist who found redemption and forgiveness in the eyes of the gods. Or Borg, thief who stole from rich and poor. He joined them and he still leads pilgrimages even at 89 years of age.” Stefan said with a sniffle.

“So that’s the sort of company you feel you belong in?” Luther asked.

“If they can find redemption, I know I can.” Stefan said. Luther raised his eyebrows and gave a look that simply said, possibly.

“You can find redemption in other ways too.” Luther said after a moment. Stefan looked up at the monk. The look Luther was giving him was not a sweet look but it wasn’t hard withering stare that he was so afraid that the priest would unleash.

“Like how? I can’t mend my brother’s hand.” Stefan said.

“No you can’t.” Luther said as he rubbed his head. Stefan felt crushed at the statement. He knew it was true but it was so absolute and only reminded him of what he did. The two sat in silence for a moment. Stefan stared down at his rough leather boots and the monk’s thin sandals.

The monk stood up and walked over to the low wall that marked the edge of the garden. On the other side was a clear view of the emerald sea off in the distance.

“Do you know what’s beyond that horizon?” Luther asked suddenly. Stefan shook his head. He had barely any knowledge of where he was now, much less on the other side of the sea.

“On the other side of that pretty green water, ways up north are the Winter Tears. Islands covered in snow, ice and home to the red ones. Do you know who those are?” Stefan shook his head no again.

“They’re the northmen who worship the red goddess Krietha. She’s the goddess of war and battle, the high-queen of the gods of the north. The red ones pay honor to her by sailing out from their frozen homelands to burn, pillage and sack everything they can find. The strongest warriors from every tribe and family gather under the banner of skulls, the red ones’ sacred war banner. When they’ve gathered enough strength they set sail and conquer everything and everyone who stands before them.” The priest told the story without breaking his gaze on the horizon. Stefan felt a sudden chill run down his spine and the breeze, previously so soothing felt colder as the story continued.

“I was young warrior when I first sailed. A pup of a warrior, brash and arrogant as all the others, but I’ll never forget how alive I felt when I ripped open my first throat.” Luther was no longer in the garden. In his mind’s eye he was back on a long-forgotten battlefield, in armor and sword in hand.

“I raided this monastery. We had shattered an army a few miles up the road and were running down the survivors. My tribesmen and I chased a few levies into the monastery and we cut off their heads. Then we sacked everything of value then melted the shrines of the gods.” Luther confessed it all but without any trace of remorse or sadness. He looked back at Stefan who was dumbfounded and shocked.

“Crime enough, eh?” Luther asked with a smirk.

“How…why are…” Stefan didn’t even know what to ask.

“Why am I here? Simple. I found my redemption here.” Luther said in a very matter-of-fact way, “I returned years later. I helped rebuild the monastery, tilled the earth for this garden. I re-laid this old wall here too.” Luther said with happy tap on his craft.

“So…you found redemption in the eyes of the gods, just like the brothers do.” Stefan finally concluded, trying to make sense of the story he’d just been told. Luther soured his face.

“The hell I did! I found redemption in setting stone and mortar. I found it in tilling this damned soil.” Stefan scratched his head, now more confused than shocked.

“But how di-“ Luther didn’t even wait for Stefan to form a question. He turned to face Stefan and took a softer tone of voice that still rang with authority and experience.

“You can’t fix your brother’s hand. You can’t make your pretty purple-eyed girl love you. But you can keep the forge hot. You can swing a hammer. Now you tell me where you’ll find redemption: in the forge or without shoes?” Stefan suddenly felt a sliver of happiness as Luther gave him a smile and a little wink so fast you’d barely notice it. Luther patted Stefan on the shoulder and then gave him a gentle tap on the cheek. Luther’s hands were like leather.

Stefan thanked Luther for his words and turned to leave the abbey. He had passed the little stone bench and the cherry blossom tree when he turned to look back at Luther, who was back to staring out over the sea.

“Luther?” Stefan asked. The old man turned his head.

“Do you still worship the red goddess?”

The warrior slowly smiled.

Agreement

Richard finally pried off the boards blocking the doorway to the abandoned house. The forlorn building creaked and moaned as his boots pressed against the ancient boards. Undeterred, Richard continued through the musty and cobweb consumed wreck. Inside a room in the basement stood a wardrobe, alone against a wall. Richard walked up to it, pulled open the door and tapped the back of it. A hollow echo sounded and Richard removed the back to reveal a stone staircase. He struck a match, lit a small candle and walked down the steps.

The air was cold and the smell of spilled ale and whiskey clung to the walls like rancid perfume. The little room was littered with empty wine bottles, the stubs of cigars and pipe ash. Sitting facing the stairway was a man. He was slumped to his side and his head hung forward. A tall man, even while sitting, with a curtain of black hair running down past his shoulders. Richard waved the light closer to the man’s face. Slowly, the eyelids lifted and two unnatural ice-blue eyes reflected in the flame.

“Morning,” Richard said. The man sitting lifted his head up and stretched, creaking as he did.

“What fool awakens me?” the man said, still moving sluggishly as he rubbed his eyes.

“Mr. Richard Hogan, here on behalf of his Royal Majesty, King George,” Richard said, giving a half bow as he did. The man chuckled. “I have long since forgotten who was king,”

“Well be that as it may, I’m here on his behalf…to ask for your help,”

“What sort of help would his majesty possibly want from me?” the man said with a coy smile on his bearded and dirty face. He had a strange accent that Richard couldn’t place. He also spoke in a slow, deliberate manner.

“Both he and Britannia need your help for an upcoming campaign in Spain,” Richard said. The man slumped back, resting his head on his hand.

“How predictable. And who is his majesty at war with now?” the man asked.

“How long have you been in here?” Richard countered, genuinely curious. The man smiled again as he closed his eyes.

“There was a lion from the North on road to Moscow when I last saw the world,” He said after a moment.

“And you haven’t been out since?”

“When you’ve wandered the world for as long as I have, you’ll have trouble keeping interested in anything,” the man answered without opening his eyes.

“That sounds terribly boring,” Richard said, trying to interest the creature in his proposition.

“I’ve had plenty of excitement. I’m long overdue for a portion of boredom,” the man said.

“Well perhaps I might convince you to postpone your boredom?” Richard asked politely.

The man laughed, “There’s very little you have to offer that could convince me to do anything,”

“His majesty and his government are willing to pay you handsomely for services rendered,”

The man didn’t move or change his tone, “Wealth is of little consequence to a man of my years,”

“You’d have the chance to kill a great many Frenchmen,” Richard offered up.

“And why should I feel such scorn towards Frenchmen? They’ve done me no harm. They haven’t disturbed my rest,” the man said with a wicked little smile in the corner of his mouth.

Richard anticipated needing to use his last reason, but wanted to deliver it just right.

“It seems there’s no convincing you,” He said.

“I’m afraid not. Now I would suggest that you make your way back up those steps before I decide to take measures to exact revenge for a rude and pointless awakening,” the man said with the voice of spider speaking to a captured fly.

“Well I wouldn’t want that. I suppose I’ll leave then,” Richard said, waiting for another veiled goodbye.

“No you won’t,” The man said, again without opening his eyes.

“No?”

“You knew how to find me, which means you were informed about me. Whoever informed you would have known that neither coin nor blood would be sufficient payment. Whoever sent you wouldn’t waste your time or mine unless he had something compelling. Now your master’s idea of compelling will most likely not match my own but I’m curious enough to hear it. So why don’t you spare us more of this predicable performance and tell me what other promise his majesty and Britannia are willing to make me?”

Richard couldn’t help but smile. He had been instructed and properly briefed. For someone locked away from the world, this man’s senses were still sharp.

“Are you familiar the name countess Malvina Davenfield?”

“No. Should I be?” the man asked.

“Perhaps. According to a series of secret letters between Marshal Soult and one of his chief spies, the countess’s true name is Cyra,” The man’s eyes shot open. Before Richard could even react, the man raced towards him, grabbed him by the throat and held him a foot off the ground.

“You’re lying,” the man said, his voice far angrier. Richard struggled to breathe as the fingers tightened like rope around his windpipe. He wheezed and choked, trying to force his own fingers through the iron grip. The man released him and Richard fell to the ground, gasping for air.

“Maybe I am,” Richard finally managed to cough out, “but maybe I’m not. You could be certain if you agree to work for us,” The man stood, clearly contemplating his choice. Richard picked himself up off the ground and dusted off his coat.

“That was…unexpected,” the man said as he paced back to the stone chair against the wall.

“Indeed,” Richard said with a smug smile, “but would you say it is compelling?” The man kept his back to Richard for a moment. He was confident he had convinced the man but Richard slipped his hand to the back of his jacket and gripped the handle of a small silver dagger just in case he miscalculated.

The man turned back to face Richard, now recomposed.

“Do we have an agreement?” Richard asked. Even in the dim candle light, Richard could see the man draw a slow and malicious smile across his face. As he did, two thin fangs grew out of his mouth and down his chin.

“When do we leave?”

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.