soldiers

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.”

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.

A Sword’s Thoughts

Gabe wiped the sweat off his face as more fireworks exploded in the hot night sky and the sound of revelry filled the city streets. Everybody was in the streets, celebrating and waving flags. The soldiers were embraced by men and kissed by women. Even the police were caught up in the spirit of victory as they turned a blind eye to the prostitutes plying their trade. Gabe chuckled to himself at the sight of delirious joy. It was hard to imagine that the city was forlorn and sorrowful that morning or that it was a battlefield six months ago.

The waiter brought over a bottle of American whiskey and Gabe slipped him a fifty dollar bill. Gabe took a swig from the bottle itself and his mouth burned with the taste of Tennessee sour-mash. Of the few patrons in the restaurant, Gabe was the only one not standing in jubilation or toasting to the crowds outside. He simply sat with his boot resting on the chair opposite him and his equipment in a duffel bag by his side. He still kept his .45 secured in his holster, just to ward off any trouble or rowdy locals.

The restaurant was an old, pre-war style establishment that had once dreamed in white marble and Parisian design. The civil war had not touched it but it was clear that this once opulent eatery was a relic of a bygone era. The Romanesque statues had seen the fortune and splendor wither away across the span of generations while the once pristine tiled floor slowly chipped and faded. Even the waiter’s pressed white shirt and bow tie hung loose on the aging wearer. Gabe felt like his very presence was somehow accelerating the decay.

A handful of young soldiers stepped into the dining room and were greeted like heroes. Men raised glasses to them and the pretty redheaded hostess let them all kiss her on the cheek before showing them to a table.

They tried to look the part of relaxed warriors but it was clear these lads were shaking with enthusiasm and drunk off of the adoration of the city. They had rolled the sleeves of their uniforms up and left their shirts open, trying to look the part of grizzled veterans but the cleanliness of their clothes and boots betrayed them. The patrons didn’t notice and Gabe wasn’t about to spoil their night.

“Hey! I know you!” one of them shouted, pointing at Gabe. Out of reflex, he put his hand to his sidearm as the soldier who’d recognized him encouraged his mates to gather around. The enthusiasm in the soldier’s eyes made Gabe relax, but only a little.

“You bailed my unit out of the Hotel Atlantic. You’re a mercenary right?” the kid recalled, excited and nervous. Gabe nodded the affirmative, remembering the battle. The government troops had gotten a little too bold and walked right into a rebel counterattack. What started as temporary rally point turned into a two week siege.

“Why aren’t you celebrating? The war’s over, friend!” one of the soldiers said, throwing back his drink and cheering.

“Your war’s over.” Gabe corrected him.

“Our war. You shed blood with us: you’re one of us.” The soldier who’d recognized him said.

“This is your country, your home, your victory. Not mine.” Gabe said, his tone calm but firm. The soldiers enthusiastic faces dimmed slightly as they looked to their ringleader.

“You saved my life, fought for us and helped us save this country. This is your victory too.” The boy said, unable to comprehend how someone could pass up the opportunity to take part in this celebration. Gabe knew he’d never be able to make these boys understand, certainly not on a night like tonight.

“A sword knows nothing of victory or defeat. It only knows battle.” He said with a smile and patted the boy on the shoulder as he stood.

“Sir! These heroes look thirsty!” Gabe called to the waiter who quickly hurried over. Gabe slid two more fifty dollar bills into the waiter’s hand and then hoisted up his gear. As he made his way past the soldiers, he winked at the ringleader, who could only look on with confusion.

On the streets, the roar of the crowd was interrupted with the thunderous clamp and dazzling gold and red light of the fireworks. Save for his partially concealed pistol and his boots, Gabe looked like just another person. He maneuvered through the mobs, recognizing buildings and alleys where he’d previously fought and killed. Each boom and blast of a firework reminded him of the mortars and grenades that used to sound nightly.

When he finally made it past the crowds back to the small flat that he and a few of the other mercenaries had been using, he thought for a moment about the last two years he’d spent here. He’d fought across the country, killed more men than he could count and helped stop these people from killing each other, if only for a moment. He’d seen heroism and cowardice on both sides and witnessed the cruel arbitrary nature of war inflicted on people too poor or unfortunate to get out of the way.

Yet for all he’d seen, for all the battles he’d fought, only one word seemed to summate his feelings: dispassion. Time would march on and perhaps this was the bloody prologue to an era of prosperity and peace that would heal the wounds of civil war to the point where all his actions faded into obscurity. Or maybe all his effort had simply set the stage for bloodier conflict to come. Perhaps he’d even be called back, fighting for one side or the other.

He thought of the soldier in the restaurant he’d saved. The kid was a scared little fisherman’s son who’d never held a rifle before. When Gabe saw him inside the hotel, there was a foul-smelling brown stain on the back of his pants. But tonight, that kid was a hero to his country. Maybe tonight, that kid would meet a woman and he’d begin to start life as a family man. Or maybe he’d decide to work to build up the ruins of his homeland.

Or maybe he’d simply turn in his rifle and return to his fishing boat.

Gabe wiped the fresh sweat from his face and loaded his equipment onto his motorcycle. As the engine kicked to life, Gabe took in the neighborhood landmarks that he’d never bothered to remember. Out of habit, he checked his pistol again and pulled out a grease-stained map. The runway where the rest of his outfit was waiting was roughly twenty miles east of the city. From there, the plane would take him to wherever war required him to be. There was always another war. Always a fresh world to make changes that would ripple unseen.

He slowly set off down the road, feeling the indifference of the city to his presence surround him.

Retreat

Algar slumped against a tree, exhausted and in pain. The handful of Saxons who’d survived the battle limped north along the dirt road. They had fled North through the night, evading the Norman knights and scouts as they rode down stragglers. Dawn was breaking over the horizon and a chilly morning dew had covered the grassy fields.

Algar pulled his helmet off and set it next to him, his fingers brushing against the fresh sword cuts and battle marks. He could feel bruises forming over his body along with opened wounds. Under his mail, his tunic was still damp with sweat and blood. The morning air was still and cool. The birds chirping were like a lullaby, calling him to sleep. He wanted to sleep more than anything.

The men walking down the road were a pathetic sight.  Many had abandoned their weapons and shields. Others were wounded and bleeding but nobody stopped marching. After a whole day of battle, after watching their king die and after being hunted like dogs, they marched on. They were good men, loyal and forlorn.

“Water?” Kenrick offered, holding a half-full deerskin. Algar took it and wetted his bone-dry mouth. Kenrick had a deep cut across his cheek and the blood on his mail told of a wound in his side. Despite his injury, he had kept his Dane axe through the night.

“You look like shit.” Kenrick said. Algar gave a weak smile.

“Just a little sleep and I’ll be right.” Algar said.

“Aye. Won’t we all? But now is not the time to sleep. We must go.” Algar’s muscles ached and his stomach groaned. The prospect of even standing up seemed beyond doing, much less marching or fighting.

“Where will we go?”

“North. The lords and nobles will rally our army and we’ll fight again.” Kenrick said, adjusting his Axe.

“Why?”

Kenrick looked at him, genuinely surprised. “What’s this now?”

“Why go North?” Algar asked.

“We have a war to fight, Algar.” Kenrick said, his tone turning firm.

“We fought a war. We fought all sodding day. And we lost. We lost our army and our king and his brothers.” Algar felt like he was dropping a weight off his back. He felt a defeated relief in saying it all out loud.

“We lost a battle. And we lost a king. But we’re still alive. We still have men. And so we’ll fight.”

Algar was so tired of fighting. He was tired of everything. God, all he wanted was to put his head down and sleep.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting?” He asked.

Kenrick sighed. There was pain in his eyes that wasn’t coming from his wounds. It seemed as if his hair had turned grey in the space of a day. But still he stood, weathered but unbowed.

“Living is fighting.”

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.

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.

Escalation

“I’ll take point.” Collin said, bringing his carbine up to his shoulder. Kelly nodded and stacked up behind him. “Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on the deck and looking for extraction.” She said into the mic around her neck. The team waited inside the squat brick building as dull chaos of battle echoed through the alleys and streets.

“Roger that Foxtrot Sierra five. Proceed to our forward command post at 17th and Columbia. We’ll get you home from there.” the voice in both their ears said. “You ready to go?” Kelly asked. Collin gave her a thumbs up. She checked her rifle, gave Collin a light pat on the shoulder and they set off.

Outside the building, the air was cooling off as the sun slid towards the horizon. The oppressive baked white light was now a warm glaze of orange and red as dusk came. Step by step, Kelly and Collin scurried through the maze of brick and concrete, careful to watch for any threats. Every clatter of an assault rifle sent a spike of adrenaline through their bodies.

Kelly could feel her muscles tensing and the sweat from the day’s heat and her own nervousness clinging to her body armor. Her stomach growled and her throat was dry but still she kept her focus on each window they passed and her hands ready to snap her weapon to any threat. She maneuvered through the debris-littered streets in perfect sync with her partner. She had always taken pride in how well they could move together without the need for digitally enhanced read-outs or equipment. They just gelled.

Collin came up to a street corner and put his hand up. The two stopped dead, hunched against the thin sheet metal of a make-shift kiosk someone had built. Carefully, Collin peeked around the corner, his carbine raised to answer any shots that rang out. He was about to wave Kelly to cross the road when he screamed “Dow-“

An explosion finished the sentence for him as the shanty collapsed on top of both of them. Kelly’s ears were ringing and she felt the weight of the shanty pressing against her armor. The world seemed to be swimming in slow motion as the sound of her breathing echoed inside her own head. She was only vaguely aware of the incoming bullets smacking into the ground around her. She pushed against the piece of metal sitting on her chest. A bullet pinged off it as she did.

When Kelly wiggled free, she peered through the dust and smoke for her partner. Collin was on his hands and knees and appeared as dazed as she was. She reached out and grabbed him by the belt. He turned but fell on his side. The haze wore off when Kelly noticed why he’d fallen. Collin’s right arm had been shredded off just below the elbow.

Collin must have recognized it around the same time because he started screaming in pain. Kelly grabbed him by the collar of his armor and started dragging him to behind firmer cover. The ringing in her ears had toned down enough to hear Collin spewing profanity and wincing as blood ran from his mangled stump.

“FUCK!” was the first word she could clearly make out.

“You’re gonna be alright.” She said, pulling the field aid kit out of her rucksack. More bullets hissed and smacked into the pavement as she readied a tourniquet. Collin clinched his teeth as she tightened it around what remained of his arm. “Control! We’re under heavy fire and need an immediate medevac for one critically wounded.” She reported into the comm as she continued treating Collin’s wound.

“Copy that five. We cannot medevac from your current position. Get to the forward command post and we can get you out there.”

“Jesus Christ! That’s still ten blocks away! Request close air support!” Kelly yelled as another explosion showered the two of them with dust and chips of asphalt.

“Negative that request five. We cannot spare any CAS at this time. Advise you disengage immediately.” The mechanical tone of command underlined the desperation of their situation.

“Great fuckin advice!” Kelly screamed as she brought her rifle up, looking for a target. The fire was coming from an elevated position and the sheer volume made it clear that they were easily outnumbered. Kelly leaned as carefully as she could from behind cover and fired off a few rounds into a window where she could make out muzzle flashes. The return volley of gunfire blew a chunk out of the wall she was using for cover and she cursed again.

Suddenly, Collin threw a smoke grenade into the street and a cloud of grey began to block everyone’s field of vision.

“Get running. I’ll keep ‘em busy.” He said, trying to un-holster his pistol. “It’s been a shitty enough day without you pulling the martyr card.” Kelly said, managing to crack a smile through the smoke. Collin wanted to protest but Kelly grabbed his remaining arm and pulled him to his feet before he could say anything. He let out another cry of pain as she slung his left arm over her shoulder.

“Ready?” Kelly asked, balancing her partner on one shoulder and her rifle in the opposite hand.

“Ready!” Collin snarled through gritted teeth. With a deep breath, they hobbled across the street as more bullets filled the air around them. Small shards of concrete and pavement peppered them and a bullet grazed Kelly’s knee but they pressed on to the other side.

Kelly slammed the two of them into a thick wall, well out of sight of the enemy shooters. “Are you dead?” she asked, almost surprised to have made it.

“Not yet.” Collin said, equally as surprised.

“Cool. Then let’s get out of here” She said as they limped down the alley towards their evac point.

Partners

Collin settled on his stomach and flipped open the cover of his rifle’s scope. The city-scape was a mix of squat concrete structures and rusting sheet metal shanties. The echo of automatic weapons and the rumbling engines of vehicles came from several directions.

“Control, Foxtrot Sierra five is on-site.” He said into his mic.

“So did you talk to Joe?” Kelly asked him as she made herself cozy in her spotter’s position. Collin felt a flash of irritation. Why did Kelly always pick the worst time to make small talk?

“Not now, Kelly.” Collin said, focusing down the scope. Kelly chuckled as she deployed the observation drone. “You didn’t did you?”

Collin sighed, “No. I didn’t talk to Joe.”

“Reb, one o’clock. Roof of the blue building.” Kelly called out, her normally playful tone replaced with a mechanical and emotionless one.

“Range?”

“306 meters.” Collin put the crosshairs over the enemy soldier, slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The rifle’s report pierced the relative quiet of their rooftop perch. Collin watched the bullet hit the target square in the chest. A mist of blood came out of his chest and he slumped to the ground.

“Hit. He’s down.” Kelly confirmed. Collin pulled the bolt back on his rifle and ejected the spent casing. “You know you’ve got to talk to him.” She continued, seamlessly switching back to her playful tone. Collin sighed and continued scanning the rooftops and windows.

“See this is your problem. You try and tamp down those little things called feelings and you wonder why Joe’s always upset with you.” Kelly continued lecturing him. He had heard it all before. Ever since command had made them partners, she’d appointed herself Collin’s shrink as well as his spotter.

“Doesn’t the army have rules against having conversations like this during missions?” Collin asked, trying to keep focus on the battlefield.

“There you go again. This is what I’m ta-. Shooter, twelve o’clock. Fourth floor window, Grey building.” Kelly called out, never taking her eyes off her binoculars. Collin dialed in the target and saw the rebel setting up a machinegun in the window. Another exhale, another squeeze of the trigger. The rebel fell backwards into the room, taking the weapon with him.

“Hit. Kill confirmed.” Kelly said, “Burying all those feelings isn’t healthy.”

“Jesus Christ. You’re worse than he is.” Collin grumbled, “In the middle of a goddamn war and you two want to talk about my fucking emotions.”

“What’s that say about you then? Kill rebs from dawn till dusk, sure. But letting either of your partners what’s going on in your head? That’s where you draw the line?” Kelly asked.

Collin hated when Kelly made points like that. He wanted to tell her to leave him alone, to keep her mind on the mission. He wanted to tell Joe that fretting about their relationship seemed incredibly petty while the country was literally tearing itself apart. Most of all, he wanted to push all of this bullshit out of his head. The federal army didn’t need someone in tune with his emotions: it needed a sharpshooter who could consistently hit the mark.

“I don’t need to talk about it cause there’s nothing-“

“Reb. 10 o’clock. Rooftop of the McDonalds. He’s behind the AC unit.”

“Range?”

“389 meters.” Through the scope, Collin waited, his muscles tensing in anticipation. The air was hot and quiet between the two as both were fixed on observing their target. Through the scope, Collin saw only the flat metal of the AC block. Seconds ticked away into minutes. He could feel sweat trickling down his face and he could practically chew on the early summer humidity.

Then, after what felt like a lifetime, the black helmet of the rebel slowly peered out from the cover. Collin exhaled but waited just a second more. The rebel put his whole head out and Collin squeezed.

The rifle kicked into his shoulder and Collin watched through the scope as the bullet connected squarely with its target, the gruesome report visible across the roof.

“Kill confirmed.” Kelly said.

Collin wiped the sweat off his face before returning his eye to the scope.

“Nobody’s saying there’s anything wrong with you. I’m just saying if you stay bottled up like that, either you’re gonna snap or he’s gonna walk.” Kelly returned to giving advice. Her tone wasn’t playful anymore. There was a genuine concern and emotion that colored it.

The two were quiet again for a moment.

“Droid. Three o’clock. Shanty with the flag graffiti on it.” Collin scanned the cobbled together houses until he found the one in question. The wall facing them had the Federal Union’s flag spray-painted on it but the twenty stars had been replaced with swastikas. Inside the shanty, he could just make out the shaded outline of an assault droid. Collin put the crosshairs over its chest and fired.

“Good hit.” Kelly confirmed the droid was scrap. “You’re not a droid, slick. Talking helps”

Collin sighed again. It was going to be a long watch.

Brothers in Arms

The chirping of crickets and other insects provided a gentle music to the low grumbling of the army camp. The fire crackled and snapped as the flames grew lower underneath the cooking pot. Jubei tossed a twig into the flame and looked to his brothers. Kato was stirring the stew and adding a few spices to give it flavor. A few others were gathered around the fire, laughing or telling stories. Some told stories of previous campaigns, others of romantic conquests. Ushia was the loudest with his infamous story of how he had served in the 1st Guard Regiment, the Emperor’s Own.

The younger men were enthralled with his lusty tales of cannon smoke and the king’s colors. Ushia was a showman and knew how to embellish a tale and keep it believable. As his stories grew larger and grander, he would become more animated, waving his hands or acting out how the battle unfolded. When he was at the peak of the story, he produced his most prized possession; his sergeant’s stripes and the Imperial family crest of his old uniform.

Even the most veteran of the company were impressed at that. It wasn’t uncommon for Orcs to serve in the Imperial army, but it was rare to see them in the Guards, much less as a sergeant. Ushia had every right to be proud.

The moment was tarnished when Jubei noticed a human officer waiting for an audience. Knowing better than to keep his employer waiting, Jubei quickly rose to his feet and walked over to the officer.

“Colonel,” the human captain said to him. The human looked slightly uncomfortable to be in the orc camp, like he was trying to avoid getting too close lest it stain his uniform. Jubei didn’t care much. Discomfort was nothing compared to the looks his father received or his father before him.

“Yes, captain?” Jubei replied with a hint of superiority at reminding the human of his rank.

“By the order of General-Lord Biesty, you and your company are to form up behind the 25th Light Foot. You will defend the 25th’s right flank and join them in their assault on Stephen’s hill,” he spoke while holding a small map to illustrate what the morning’s battle plan was.

Jubei and his men had already surveyed the battlefield when they first arrived. The enemy had the advantage of terrain with a series of knolls and low hills giving their cannon perfect position over the imperial army once it took to the field. The cannons would have to be captured or they could disrupt the entire army. Jubei could see the necessity of it but it still wounded his pride to be the escorts of skirmishers and scavengers. He had hoped to be placed on the line; to charge at the heart of the enemy with the proud red and silver colors of the Free-Company at the head of his men. However, money was money and if he was being paid to defend the 25th, then that was exactly what he would do.

“Very well. Inform General-Lord Biesty that my men will not disappoint,” the captain bowed before turning to leave. Jubei returned to the warmth of the fire and the company of his men.

Kato was ladling stew to the men and there was a quiet as the men ate. Jubei sat down where he had been before and Kato picked up a violin. Kato was a world apart from Ushia; a quiet soldier who sought only to raise the men around him at no benefit to himself. He played an old marching tune and a few of the veterans joined him in singing. Everybody joined him for the chorus.

“Sing our story and our graces,
Of our deaths in foreign places!
Sing them loud and fear our faces,
On this battlefield!”

No matter the battle, no matter the side they fought for or against, they would do their colors and each other proud. They would leave a legacy worthy of songs in any language across the continent. Jubei felt emotion welling up inside his chest at his boys, his brothers.

Scared

The early morning sun warmed the chilly air as the weary column of grey came to a halt. Ulrich Bauer rubbed his eyes with a dirty hand and pulled his last cigarette out of his jacket pocket. A passing engineer held out a light and Ulrich pushed the smoke out his nostrils slowly. The column had been on a forced march since yesterday afternoon and everybody was visibly exhausted.  Most of the battalion’s half-tracks had been destroyed or ran out of fuel, so the men had to walk.

“Rest for thirty, boys. We’re redeploying around those low hills.” The Major said from the turret of the lead panzer. His voice still had authority but his jacket was smeared with oil stains. There was still a crimson stain on the bandage around his left eye. With the order, the men all moved far enough away from the road that if a fighter strafed the column, they’d have a chance to escape.

“Spare a smoke?” Ulrich turned to see Johann giving a weak smile. Ulrich held out his cigarette and Johann took a quick hit off it.

“Danke” he replied as he pulled his cap off. Johann had survived a flamethrower exploding next to him but it had seared his face. The entire right side of his face was burnt and his hair was gone along with his right eye-brow.

“How’s that?” Ulrich said with a slight nod to the burn.

“Looks as bad as it is” Johann let out a half chuckle. A year ago, he’d have been sent home. A year ago.

“Maybe you’ll get a medal out of it” Ulrich quipped.

“I’d settle for hospital bed” Johann replied. They both knew the likelihood of that. Ulrich patted his friend on the shoulder and stepped off the road.

He made his way to a small tree and slowly sat down to lean against it. The bayonet wound on his side still hadn’t fully healed and it hurt to bend. But right now, his exhaustion overcame his apprehension about inflicting more damage upon himself.

“Do you mind if I-“ Ulrich knew the voice before he saw the face. It was that scrawny boy from Frankfurt with the blue eyes. The boy wanted to take a seat by the tree as well. Ulrich nodded and exhaled more cigarette smoke.

“I’ve never been this far east.” The boy said. Ulrich pitied the poor lad. He couldn’t have been older than fifteen. He was the latest bunch of replacements that command could scrape together. The boy didn’t even come with a rifle.

“What do you make of it?” Ulrich asked, with his eyes half-open. The boy didn’t answer. A pair of panzergrenadiers walked past, their uniforms in tatters. You knew this unit had seen terrible fighting just by smelling them. The stench of unwashed bodies, sulfur, blood, dirt, shit, gasoline, it hung over every one of them like a poison cloud.

“Hey, Unterfeldwebel, better teach him how to shave now before the Reds do.” One of the grenadiers quipped as he walked by. Most of the unit had been in combat for a few years now. They thought little of the babies and pensioners that the high command doled out as reinforcements. A year ago and Ulrich would have agreed. But now it didn’t matter.

Ulrich’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft whimpering. He turned to see the boy trying to hide his face as tears streamed down his adolescent cheeks. It wasn’t the first time Ulrich had seen soldiers cry before, but this boy wasn’t a soldier.

“We’re all going to die aren’t we?” He asked, choking down his own tears. Ulrich knew the answer was yes. He’d accepted that face a long time ago. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to answer this boy’s question.

The boy’s sobs grew louder and Ulrich watched his face grow redder. Perhaps now more than ever before, Ulrich knew the war was lost. He knew that he’d never return home, he’d never take this uniform off.

It was a fate he’d accepted for himself. He’d answer for the crimes he committed. But this boy had done nothing. He’d never finished school, never had a teenage fumbling with a sweetheart. He’d never raise a family or grow old. He would die along with the rest of the condemned.

Ulrich took his cap off and placed it on the boy’s head to preserve what tiny shred of dignity there was left. The boy tucked himself under Ulrich’s arm and whimpered. A lightning bolt of pain shot through Ulrich as the boy nudged the tender wound on his side but Ulrich let the child stay where he was.

“I’m scared” the boy squeaked out. Ulrich knew the feeling. He knew nothing he could say would make this boy feel better.

“Me too” Ulrich said in a low voice. Over the dull rumble of idle engines, the distant report of artillery echoed like a distant drum.