war

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.”

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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.

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.