home

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.

Advertisements

Motherland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Are you Ukrainian?” he asked.

“I’m stubborn.”

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

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