StoryADay Challenge

Retiring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What brings you here?” Mark asked Roman.

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

Nice to have a fan Mark thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heh. Caught up in the pageantry.

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

You only retire once, he comforted himself.

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

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

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

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

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

Roman leaned down, his face close to Mark.

“Ваше оскорбление было возвращено”

Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occupied Dublin, 1955

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

The old pre-war postcard contained simple enough instructions:

I’m not dead.

Meet me Tuesday night at 8 on Grafton Street.

Connor.

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

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

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

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

Connor repeated the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So why the funeral?”

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

“Who was in the coffin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Words

Sam wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. She’d finally stopped crying but still felt raw. The shattered picture frame was still in pieces by the bedroom door. She checked her phone again, even though she knew there was no response.

Why did she have to needle him? She should have noticed when he came into the apartment that he was in no mood to talk about it. She should have just let it be for the night.

But why did she have to put things on hold for him? You can’t just not have a response to someone saying ‘I love you’, it wasn’t fair to her to have to sit on her hands for him to decide to talk about it. Sam felt more tears creeping up behind her eyes. Her feelings were so churned they were tying her insides in knots.

Every item in the bedroom sent a fresh bolt of emotion through her. The little grey teddy bear he’d bought her on their third date, the almost empty bottle of clubman aftershave that he had clumsily asked her for, the Notre Dame sweatshirt he’d specifically ordered two sizes too big for her, everything had some story or history attached to it. All she wanted was to rewind time to a week ago when they were a normal couple.

Sam kept replaying the way he left in her head. In her mind’s eye, she could see him clench his jaw and see him twitching with frustration and anger. Then something inside him snapped and he turned around. Not a word or even an angry slam of the apartment door, just a turnaround and then he was down the hall.

Fine! Just fucking go! She had screamed at him as he left. She might have even meant it at the time. What she really wanted was for him to let it out. He’d been off since her birthday and she wanted him to just talk to her about it. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

Her feet were freezing but she couldn’t bring herself to lay down. She just sat at the foot of the bed, feeling the fallout cling to every piece of fabric as it poisoned the memories around her. The bright white numbers on her phone read 2:40 AM. She felt completely spent but had no energy or desire to sleep. The melted yellow light from the streetlights filtered in through the windows, casting a dim haze on the otherwise still and dark apartment. The air still smelled of winter night as the cold crept through the glass pane.

Sam’s ears perked as she heard a key unlock the door and John walk in. Her heart fell down into her stomach and all the air in her body jammed itself in her throat. He stood before her in only a button down and his slacks. His shoes were still untied and caked with melting snow. Even in the low light, he looked terrible. His hands were cracked and his eyes looked sunken.

The two stared at each other for what felt like ages. Sam no longer tried to fight the tears as they rolled down her face. God, she needed him to say something, anything. The apartment was so quiet she could hear his wristwatch tick, second after second.

He stepped forward with heavy and exhausted steps. The smoldering repression was gone from his face, replaced with weariness and pain.

“I can’t go” he said.

“What?” Sam asked, not fully sure what he meant. John paused for another moment, as if one wrong word might unleash an avalanche.

“You told me to go. But I can’t” he said. Sam felt regret burning up inside her. She had a million things to say right, all bubbling inside her throat. But before she could even start talking, John slowly cupped her face in his hands.

His skin was frozen and sent shivers down Sam’s spine but she kept her eyes on John.

“Not now…” John continued, his voice wavering. Vulnerability resonated off his body as much as the cold did. He looked at Sam like she was fate itself. She’d never seen him like this before. He was so raw and unprotected. It filled her with a sense of fear that even the slightest breath might shatter him.

“…cause I love you” John said, the words leaving his mouth like a prayer of absolution. The collage of emotion inside Sam continued to blend and overlap as she felt warmth slowly pour into her soul. John slowly put his arms around her and held onto her like without her, he might collapse. His shirt was damp and cold but Sam didn’t care. She ran her hands through his hair and kissed him as softly as she could as he hung his face on her shoulder.

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.

 

Naked

Ray looked out at the grey sea lapping endlessly against the sand. The cool morning air kissed his chest and filled his nose with the scent of salt. The beach was deserted from what he could see. It was far too chilly a morning for anybody save the odd diehard, too driven to maintain a perfect figure to let the sedate grey stop him.

Ray loved this weather. It was nature when she was naked and alone. Nobody was taking in the view, no tourist snapping away with a camera or a couple creating a cinematic memory. There was no mask or pretense to the world on days like this. The world for just a moment stepped out of its many given forms and shapes to simply be for a moment. Ray was envious.

The beach was so empty and inviting that Ray could practically feel the damp morning sand bending around his feet. What he’d give to walk out of the door, across the deck and down into the water. He’d always kicked the idea around of buying a boat and drifting off into the sea. He’d head down south and find a place where he could finally stop switching masks. He’d be free to stretch out and give himself a chance to be. Even now, all he wanted to do was to wade into the foaming grey water until it lapped over his head.

He smiled as his wants gnawed away inside of him.

He stole a glance at his watch. 8:03 AM. He still had a whole morning before his work began. He thought of making himself some coffee until he remembered there was nothing in the kitchen. Not a solitary thing save for his flask, sitting on the counter where he’d left it the night before. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten any meal in a kitchen. It felt like ages since he was in one spot long enough to have any sort of domestic comfort. Inside the bedroom, vacant and unfilled as it was when he first stepped in it last night was a single slim metal suitcase. That was his whole life, sitting inside that sleek and cold case.

Everything about the world on the other side of this glass screen-door felt so sterile and cold. From the empty kitchen to his pressed suit jacket and shirt, still hanging where he’d left them the night before. Nothing felt alive in this chic and barren place.  Ray’s stomach growled, angry at being left with nothing but a splash of whiskey for almost a day and a half. He stared at the horizon, picturing how far he’d have to swim to cross the horizon.

Ray stepped back into the dark living room. On the coffee table was his tool of trade, a reminder of work awaiting him this afternoon. He picked it up and checked the safety before tucking into the back of his khakis. When he was dressed and he stepped out into the grey morning, he saw the sun slowly starting to peek through the clouds. Ray felt a pang of sorrow as he slid his sunglasses on.

Yeah, me too.

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.