Them and Us
by Martin Hall
The night air blew cold around the quiet village as a small group of men combed its flickering ruins, cloaked against the crisp chill of the north. "They were here, and not long ago. The Krieg, if I'm any judge. Spread out. Find survivors. Anyone who can tell me where that ship went." Their leader poked his cane around in the ashes of what was once a respectable townhouse. A figure edged its way around the group, shivering, his breath coming out in frozen bursts. He pulled his thin cloak closer around him. His eyes were wide as he struggled to take in the devastation around him. His foot caught on a fallen tile, sending a loud crack through the shattered hamlet.
The leader turned on him abruptly. "I thought I told you to stay on the ship, Hartig." He growled. The smaller man shrank back before the leader, a large Vendel man with a short blonde beard. His mouth opened to form a reply, then snapped shut as the big man twisted his mouth into a scowl. "If the League wants this to succeed, it can keep its interference to a minimum." He dismissed Hartig with a wave of his hand.
"Of course, Captain Guttormson. I apologise." The little man moved away from the group, and flickering fires picked out his progress through the streets of the fishing village, towards the beach where his boat waited. The streets were full of ghosts. Joris Hartig shivered again. Believe the Vesten or not, he could feel the departed drifting around the scene of the massacre. He choked back a tear. This was a different world. It was nothing like Kirk. Nothing at all like Kirk. Echoes sounded strange in the red half-light, and the figures of mercenaries combing the wreckage looked like nothing so much as Valkyries flitting across the field of battle, searching for the worthy dead. A sharp noise within the fallen beams of a house made him turn. This was not like the other noises, less like the final sagging of a forgotten town than the sound of movement. A survivor! Joris picked his way cautiously through the lane towards the beams, his heart pounding in his ears. As he neared the ruin, a hand pushed a scorched table to one side and Joris jumped back, gasping. The man who made his way to his feet was a Vesten raider. His eyes focused on Joris and he let loose a fearsome howl, bringing his stained blade out of the ash and swinging it through the air.
"I have a pistol aimed!" squeaked Joris timidly, drawing the weapon from his belt. It seemed to take an eternity as the warrior staggered forward. The Vesten gritted his teeth and his great sword took a swipe at Joris. The League representative fell backwards over a smouldering timber, the pistol cracking into the air in shock. His eyes screwed shut, Joris gasped for breath as he felt blood seep across his chest. After an endless moment of waiting, he opened his eyes and looked around. The Vesten coughed blood over Joris feet as he struggled to remain on his feet. Drawn by the shout and the gunshot, cloaked men converged on the warrior as Joris scrambled backward into the lane. Joris looked on as a mercenary brought his panzerhand down roughly on the Vestens temple with a dull crack, then again and again as the man refused to fall. He attempted to stand as the blows rained down upon him, eventually only hitting the ground as blood streamed from his face from a dozen places. Guttormson and his henchmen strode through the smoke as the man fell, his eyebrows gathering together at the site of Joris.
"I told you to get back to the ship, representative Hartig," hissed the captain in tones that did not convey the respect the position deserved. "Not take a tour. This place is dangerous." Turning his back, he addressed the mercenaries. "He lives?" he queried, indicating the fallen Vesten with his chin. The Eisen nodded. "Good. He'll wish he hadn't. I think today we shall discover how much pain the Vesten can ignore. He drew a knife. Bring him round. He's our only chance to find the Krieg."
Joris had reached the boat by the time the screaming started. The cut across his chest mad him wince every time he breathed. He didn't sleep well. It would be a while before he could.
Charred timbers bobbed in the water, the oars of a longship drifting among them. The sea brought the wreckage of the battle to the small rocky beach. The shattered skeletons of log buildings cast smoky patterns into the crisp dawn air, and the cove framed the sails of the Sea Lion, the seal of the League set high at its mast. Joris strode across the beach to the place where Guttormson had erected a tripod of logs. Jorund stoked a fire beside the tripod with his dagger while a man hung from his legs between the logs, bound. He glared defiantly at Joris as he approached, unrolling a sketch. Joris nodded. "Ivar
Halfdanesson, captain of the Krieg. Duly noted, captain. The Leagues bounty will
be paid on his return to Kirk to face justice. Well done."
Jorund Guttormson turned to face Joris, an odd smile on his face. "He won't be going back to Kirk, Representative. You see, Halfdanesson has probably been in contact with Olafsdottir recently. Jorund's eye took in every detail on the suspended man's face as he thrust his knife back into the flames. "He can tell me where she is. And Olafsdottir is worth far more to me than him." He looked at Joris, challenging him. Then he stepped slowly over to Halfdanesson and plunged the knife into his stomach. To his credit, he did not scream. Joris gasped, appalled. "He will tell me." Guttormson glared at Halfdanesson with determination in his eyes. "Hoist him higher." The mercenaries pulled Halfdanesson's face level with Jorund's. "You will tell me, won't you? I only want to end this conflict. Bring peace to both our peoples." He smiled grimly as he twisted the knife. "I don't enjoy this any more than you do. Tell me and its all over. Where is Olafsdottir? Where?" For emphasis, he leaned on the blade. Halfdanesson opened his mouth to speak, a dry rattle of denied agony.
"Traitor. Grumfather will forsake you and your kind. Valhalla shall sweep down upon you." Jorund caught the edge of conviction in his voice. "Where?" he spat. "How? What's her plan?" Halfdanesson coughed dark blood into Guttormson's bright beard, and he recoiled.
"Cut him down! Guttormson readied his broadsword as the mercenaries obeyed. He'll tell me everything once I have his left hand. A man who cannot raise a shield to defend his fellows is no man at all. Without the right, it will be much worse." The struggling captain was brought to the ground. Joris turned and ran, hoping the sound of his feet on gravel would drown out the nightmare behind him.
ship set course for the Mirror there and then, the prow of the Vendel warship
parting the waves to the south. As the climes grew warmer, Joris
found himself on deck more frequently during Ketty Tappan's watch at the wheel.
He turned from the sea as the coast of Avalon hung in the distance, wringing
his hands together. While his wound healed, his memory still stung with what
he had seen on the beach that day. Fearful of what he was about to say, he turned
to Ketty to find she had tied the wheel in place and come forward to him already.
"Joris?" Her voice was quiet and fearful. "What is it?"
"This is wrong, Ketty. This whole thing is wrong." There, he thought. It's said now. "What are we doing? These are our people, and we are theirs!"
Ketty slipped her hand into Joris', noting that the printers hand was softer by far than hers. "They will kill us, Joris. All of us, like in that fishing village. They don't care that we want a quiet life. They want bloodshed, a brave death and an honoured memory."
"The crew of the Krieg didn't get a brave death. Our marines went ashore in the dead of night, and butchered them in their sleep. Then Guttormson had them buried in an unmarked pit."
"They were killers. The captain was probably enraged by what they did to those poor people." Ketty looked Joris in the eyes. He was crying. She tried to hide her surprise.
Joris saw in his mind Guttormson's face as he tortured Halfdanesson. "No, he wasn't enraged. He was cruel, ruthless. But he didn't seem to care about our dead. I don't think he cares about anything except getting Olafsdottir." He wiped a tear from his eye. "Not enraged."
Ketty wrestled a braid of hair under control as she turned away from Joris. "It's us or them, Joris. We have no choice. They won't stop until they kill us." The salt air stung her eyes, and she blinked as she hid her face.
Joris sat by the rail, dangling his feet over the sea. He unbuttoned his cloak and laid it across the deck next to him. "Sit with me, Ketty. At least until your watch is done." She slipped silently onto the cloak, sniffing slightly as she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. Together, they looked out across the waves.