Got something neat to share with you today. Privateer Press has granted me permission to host a few of my published Iron Kingdoms short stories on the blog. Most of these come from old issues of No Quarter magazine, and this first one, “Confirmed Kill,” ties into the Acts of War novels, Flashpoint and Aftershock. The story features two of my favorite characters from the series, the trollkin sniper Horgrum and his spotter Sergeant Sharp. “Confirmed Kill” is the story of how these two came to work together in the Cygnaran Army.
New to the Iron Kingdoms? Check out this link for an introduction to this war-torn world of steam power and sorcery.
Art by Néstor Ossandón.
by Aeryn Rudel
Northern Thornwood, 606 AR
“Take them and go!” Horgrum’s father shouted, pointing his axe at the tree line. Vargal Oakheart was an aging trollkin, but still mighty, and his voice boomed over the din of gunshots and battle cries.
Horgrum shook his head. “No, I will fight.” He had his own axe in hand, but its blade was clean, unlike his father’s, which was stained red with the blood of the invaders.
Vargal glanced behind him, where their village burned, where humans in crimson armor slaughtered their people. He turned back to Horgrum and put a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder. “We are lost, Horgrum,” he said, his voice thick with sorrow. “Take your brother and sister and flee.” Solissa was thirteen and Kolor only ten, too small and too young to fight. They cowered behind their older brother, wincing at each booming report of an enemy rifle.
“And go where?” Horgrum demanded. He was twenty years old and a seasoned fighter, and the thought of leaving his village and kriel sickened him.
“South, to Cygnar,” Vargal said. “You will be safe there.”
Horgrum opened his mouth to challenge his father, but the sound of hooves cut short his protest. A human in bright red armor astride a great black horse emerged from the smoke and flame.
“Go!” Vargal shouted and shoved Horgrum backward. He took his axe in both hands and turned to face the enemy.
Horgrum pushed Solissa toward the trees, and she took Kolor’s hand. They ran.
Before he entered the woods, Horgrum turned back to see the human warrior barreling down on his father. Vargal twisted aside from the Khadoran’s lance and lashed out with his axe at the passing horse. The great blade hewed through one of the animal’s legs, and it crashed to the ground, throwing its rider. Horgrum smiled as his father closed on the enemy and split the human’s skull with a short overhand strike.
Horgrum’s grip tightened around his own axe. These humans, these Khadorans, were not so strong. The kin could defeat them. He took a step toward the clearing.
“No, Horgrum.” Solissa’s hand on his arm stropped him.
Vargal had pulled his weapon free from the corpse and turned back toward the battle. Through the smoke Horgrum could see more trollkin and humans fighting. He could help his people. He could defend them.
He took another step, and a single sharp report rang out. His father stopped midstride, and blood poured down his back from a fist-sized hole that had blossomed between his broad shoulders. He collapsed to his knees, and then pitched over into the dirt.
Horgrum shook off Solissa’s hand and raced toward his father, screaming in rage. He made it five paces before another shot rang out. The bullet struck his axe, smashing it from his grip. He dove to the ground. Bodies lay everywhere, human and trollkin. His hand fell across the butt of a rifle as something huge loomed out of the smoke, a human warrior encased in steam-powered armor that made him nearly as large and powerful as a full-blooded troll.
Horgrum picked up the rifle. It was big by human standards, long-barreled and finely machined. He had never used such a weapon, but he’d seen them fired. He rested the butt against his shoulder and curled his smallest finger around the trigger; the others would not fit inside the guard. The armored man charged, and Horgrum stared down the rifle’s barrel. A sense of calm flowed over him, his rage and fear drained away, and only the enemy and the rifle remained. He drew in a breath and aimed as best he could, peering through the attached scope and adjusting until he felt centered over the enemy’s heart. He pulled the trigger, and the gun bucked and spat smoke.
The armored human stumbled, and Horgrum couldn’t tell if his shot was the cause, or if he’d even hit his target. Then the man faltered again, blood sluiced down his helmet from the visor slit, and he fell over backward. Horgrum had not hit the spot he’d intended, but Dhunia had graced him with a bit of luck.
Horgrum had no time to celebrate. Another shot rang out and dizzying pain lanced through his right shoulder. Another soldier appeared. This one wore no armor, but he carried a rifle like the one Horgrum had taken from the enemy corpse. He was an older man, with graying hair falling beneath a red cap. A livid scar marred his angular face and ran from his right brow to the middle of his nose. This had to be the human who killed his father.
Despite his wound, he wanted to find a way to kill this man, but Solissa’s voice from the tree line called him back to reality. “Horgrum, more soldiers are coming!”
He turned and lurched toward his sister, expecting the human to shoot him in the back as he ran. No shot came, and he made it to the trees, the enemy rifle gripped tightly in his right hand.
* * *
Ceryl in Cygnar, autumn 609 AR
“Is that a Vanar Liberator?” the soldier asked incredulously, rising up from behind his desk.
Horgrum looked down at the rifle in his hand. He hadn’t known it had a name. He’d brought it to the Ceryl recruitment office because he thought human soldiers supplied their own weapons, just as the warriors in his kriel had.
“I took it,” he said, unsure how to respond. He’d waited in line for an hour. The army in Ceryl, his home for the last year, was looking for volunteers to serve in the trencher corps, the name for warriors in Cygnar that had a reputation for being tough and capable. Regular folk seemed to look up to them, at any rate.
The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “Took it from whom? These are pretty rare.”
Horgrum glanced around the small, square room. There were two other men here, both wearing the same blue uniform. They stared at him. “One of the Khadorans who attacked my village carried this weapon. I took it from his corpse to defend myself.”
“You don’t say?” The first soldier’s expression changed from suspicious to approving. “When and where?”
“Three years ago, in the northern Thornwood,” Horgrum said. Maybe what had happened to his kriel would strengthen his chances of acceptance. He needed what the army offered. He, Kolor, and Solissa lived in one of the squalid trollkin slums, and though he often found work on the docks—his strength made him a good laborer—it paid little. The army paid more and consistently, and with that money, he could take better care of his brother and sister.
“If he killed a Widowmaker and took his gun, you should pin a bloody medal on him,” someone said from the long line of others hoping to join the trenchers.
The soldier chuckled at that. “Experience killing the reds isn’t a requirement, but it doesn’t hurt. I’m Corporal Newsome. What’s your name?”
“Horgrum, son of Vargal Oakheart.”
“Well, Horgrum, the trenchers can always use someone of your size, strength, and, uh, durability, and we’ve recruited a number of trollkin in the past . . . ” He paused and looked down at Horgrum’s rifle again. “You any good with that thing?”
“I have become skilled with this weapon,” Horgrum said. He’d practiced with the gun as often as possible. It was difficult to get ammunition, but he hunted game outside the city whenever he could to put more food on the table for his siblings. The gun was not designed for a trollkin, but over the years he’d traded work with a gunsmith who had modified the stock and trigger guard to fit his frame and thicker fingers. He’d developed a knack for the weapon, finding if he was patient, he could usually make his shot. He enjoyed stalking his prey and taking it down with a single, perfectly placed shot.
“Well, if that’s the case, maybe lugging around a chain gun in the trenches isn’t the best spot for you,” Corporal Newsome said. “Stay here for a second.” He turned and walked through a door behind him. Horgrum could hear him talking to someone else, and then Corporal Newsome and another human appeared. The second man was older, gaunt-faced, and of middling height. Rather than the simple uniform Newsome wore, this man was attired in partial trencher armor and gear, including a nicked and much-repaired steel breastplate that suggested combat time. He carried himself with the ease of someone well accustomed to the weight and encumbrance of his gear.
“Sergeant Sharp, this is Horgrum Oakheart. He’s got a Vanar Liberator he took off a dead Khadoran,” Corporal Newsome said. “Says he can use it too.”
Sergeant Sharp approached. “Fought some Reds, have you?”
“They attacked my kriel in the northern Thornwood. Killed my people. I took one of their weapons and killed one of them before I . . . fled. I’ve been practicing with it ever since.”
Sergeant Sharp frowned, and Horgrum saw something on the man’s face he did not expect: sympathy. “I’m truly sorry to hear that,” he said. “Can you shoot well?”
“I can,” Horgrum said confidently.
* * *
The recruitment office was part of small garrison near the Ceryl docks. Behind it were barracks for some of the trenchers stationed in the city, and behind that a rifle range. The soldiers here used the ocean to their advantage, and their “range” was a series of targets attached to floating buoys at various distances.
“Those targets are at 100, 200, 300, and 500 yards.” Sharp pointed to the target buoys as they approached the firing line. The other soldiers in the recruitment office and some twenty of the potential recruits had followed them, all eager to see a trollkin fire a Khadoran rifle. “That Liberator has the range to hit any one of them.”
Horgrum nodded. He’d taken a deer at a distance greater than the farthest target—once. The man-shaped targets on the buoys were smaller, and the wind here would affect a shot at the longer ranges. “If I show you I can shoot this gun. You will let me be a trencher?”
Sharp smiled. “Oh, you’ve already got that locked. Trollkin never have any problems meeting trencher physical requirements. We take ’em whenever we can, but I’m looking for snipers. If you can shoot that rifle well enough, there could be a better place for you, one more suited to your talents and with better pay.”
Better pay. That got Horgrum’s attention. Solissa and Kolor would not go hungry on a trencher’s salary, but if he could make more, he could provide more: better food, a better place to live, and more opportunities to make a good life for themselves.
“What must I do to prove I can use this rifle?” Horgrum asked.
“I’ll give you six shots. Two each at 200, 300, and 500 yards. If I like what I see, we’ll talk further.”
“No,” Horgrum said. “I will put a bullet through the head of the farthest target. If I do, you make me a sniper. If I miss, I will ‘lug a chain gun’ for Corporal Newsome.” He hated to gamble this way with the future of his brother and sister, but his need was too great for empty promises. This Sergeant Sharp seemed an honorable man who respected such a challenge.
Sharp said nothing for a moment, then grinned. “Okay, Horgrum. You hit that target, with one shot, and you’re in.” Behind them, the assembled soldiers and recruits began making wagers.
Horgrum nodded, put the rifle to his shoulder, and pulled back the firing pin. He set the front sight on the head of the target buoy. It bobbed up and down on the water, and he felt a breeze blowing in from the south—and it was shifting. It would slow his bullet, and he would have to adjust for that. All in all, this was a much harder shot than he had let on. Why had he promised it all on one shot? It now seemed reckless. He gritted his teeth and put doubts aside. He needed this, for his kith, and the buoy was not running away from him at top speed through the brush. He drew in a breath, letting the silent calm of rifle and target settle over him. The voices of the men around him faded away, and his world became the wind, the sight, and the target in the water.
He waited, getting used to the rhythm of the target’s movement on the waves. He curled his finger around the trigger. The target bobbed down, up, down, up. He squeezed. The rifle bucked his shoulder and the explosive report drowned out everything.
He looked back at Sharp.
“Pull it in, private,” Sharp said, and one of the soldiers ran forward to pull at the thick rope connected to the target buoy.
As the target neared the dock, all were silent until the hole just left of center in the target’s head became visible. Then, laughter and cheers, plus a few groans from those who had bet against him, rose from the crowd.
Sharp held out his hand to Horgrum. “Welcome to the trenchers, Private Horgrum. We’re going to need to get you a bigger rifle.”
* * *
The Black River in Occupied Llael, summer 611 AR
Horgrum cradled the Raevhan Express prototype in his arms and crouched low to the ground near the river’s edge. Designed for a trollkin’s frame, the massive rifle, with its oversized trigger guard, enlarged stock, and weight of nearly thirty-pounds, was engineered to propel a gigantic projectile with force and accuracy unequaled by any other military rifle. Since passing basic training and gaining a position as a trencher sniper, he’d become intimately familiar with the gun. He’d named it Dhunia’s Mercy. Sometimes he missed his old Vanar Liberator, especially on long, grueling hikes.
“What do you see, Corporal?” Sergeant Sharp asked and squatted down next to him. He’d been assigned to the sergeant soon after basic, teaming up as one of the first Trencher Express Teams, each consisting of a trollkin sniper and a human spotter. Sharp was his commanding officer, but more than that, he was a brother in arms and one of the only true friends he had among the Cygnaran military. He had come to think of Sharp as an extension of his kith.
“Boots, soft,” Horgrum said. “Moving north toward Riversmet.” They were in Khadoran territory, scouting along the Black River for Lord General Coleman Stryker, who had quietly led an invasion force into occupied Llael.
“Not Man-O-War or Winter Guard,” Sharp said. “How many?”
Horgrum studied the tracks again. “Three—two men and a woman.”
Sharp rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “They usually travel in groups of four. They must have lost a man somewhere.”
“Greywind Tower isn’t far from here,” Horgrum said. “The Resistance may have gotten one of them.”
Sharp grimaced. He didn’t like that answer. “Maybe. Suggestions?”
“Follow the tracks, find them, and kill them.”
Sharp frowned. “That simple, eh, Corporal?”
Horgrum shrugged. It was simple, just very dangerous.
“You know hitting a Widowmaker team, even with a man down, is risky,” Sharp said. “You look me in the eye and tell me you want to do this because of our mission in Llael and not because you’re looking for Red Cap.”
This had been a bone of contention between them since the beginning. He and Sharp were often tasked with counter-sniper operations, and they’d killed dozens of their Khadoran counterparts. Each time, Horgrum had looked for Red Cap, the name he’d given the sniper who’d killed his father. Several times they had gone out of their way to seek out Widowmakers, sometimes pushing against the limits of their orders. The thought of his father brought back memories as vivid as the day they had happened. Sharp was familiar with the destruction of Horgrum’s kriel, and though he sympathized with his partner’s desire for vengeance, he did not approve of Horgrum’s singular pursuit of it.
Horgrum could not look Sharp in the eye, but he said, “Widowmakers are also scouts, and if they’ve come this far south, they may have seen the army. We can’t let them return to report.”
Sharp’s frown deepened, but Horgrum knew his reasoning was sound, even if it wasn’t his primary motivator. The sergeant let out an irritated sigh after a few moments. “Bloody hell. Then let’s hope we spot them before they spot us. I’d like to keep my head on my shoulders for a few more days.”
* * *
“He’ll have heard the shots,” Sharp said, staring through his spyglass at the small Khadoran camp at the bottom of the hill.
Horgrum viewed the darkened camp through the scope on his rifle. Two corpses lay splayed out near the river, illuminated only by soft moonlight. He could only tell the gender of the first corpse. The top two-thirds of the man’s head had been torn away by a bullet the size of a shot glass. He’d taken the Khadoran sniper from nearly six hundred yards—a good shot—but he frowned as his scope moved to the second body. The woman had moved from a crouch to standing just as he fired, and the bullet had struck her neck. She’d bled out quickly, but it was not a clean kill.
“Yes, he will have heard,” Horgrum said. There was no ignoring the thunderous report of the Raevhan Express.
“I can see tracks moving away from the camp,” Sharp said. “Looks like he went off for a piss or something, heard the shots, and decided to stay gone.”
“He will look for us,” Horgrum said. They knew a third sniper lurked nearby, but they hadn’t seen him yet. They’d found the camp and taken the opportunity to eliminate two of the Widowmakers, figuring they’d eventually track down the third.
“Agreed,” Sharp said. “And if he’s any good. We’re going to need to flush him out.”
Horgrum didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?”
“I think he’s in those trees there. By the river. Good cover and sight lines. He’s waiting for one of us to stick our head up so he can shoot it off.”
“Likely,” Horgrum said.
“Well, we can’t just bugger off and leave him to hustle it back to home base. So, one of us needs to draw him out, and since you’ve got the big gun, that’s me.”
“No, Sharp,” Horgrum said. “I can take a bullet. You can’t.” Trollkin healed quickly and could survive wounds that would be fatal to softer-skinned humans.
Sharp chuckled. “One of these days you’re going to figure out I’m in charge, and you do what I say, not the other way around. Now, keep your rifle on those trees. I’m going to work my way down the hill on my belly. It’s dark, and a man on his stomach is a bitch of a target. He’ll need some time to aim properly, which means you’ll see him before he shoots.”
Horgrum took his eye away from the rifle’s scope to protest further, but Sharp had already left, and Horgrum could hear him wriggling through the leaves on his belly. “Dhunia, protect him,” he said under his breath and put his eye back on the scope.
The copse of trees where the sniper likely hid was dark, and it was difficult to make out individual trees. He waited, knowing Sharp’s peril grew with every moment that passed.
Then, something moved. A spot of color in the black, illuminated briefly by the full moon overhead–a red cap. The sights and smells of his burning village came roaring back to Horgrum. Fear and rage mingled at his inability to protect his father and kriel from the enemy.
He drew in a deep breath and set his cross hairs in that spot of crimson. He would protect Sharp. He saw the glint of moonlight on the enemy’s scope as his rifle came up, and Horgrum squeezed the trigger. The thunder and fire of the Raevhan lit up the night for a split second, blinding him. When he could see through the scope again, the red cap had disappeared. He hadn’t heard another shot, but if they’d fired simultaneously he wouldn’t have.
“Sharp?” he called out.
Silence. And then, “You get him?”
Relief poured over Horgrum, and he took the rifle away from his shoulder. “I got him.”
* * *
“This one’s been around awhile,” Sharp said, squatting over the body of the dead Widowmaker. “That red cap means one-hundred confirmed kills. Could be him.”
Horgrum frowned. His bullet had all but disintegrated the Widowmaker’s head. He thought he’d seen a flash of silver hair beneath it just before he pulled the trigger, but he couldn’t tell if this red cap was his Red Cap. “I didn’t see his face.”
Sharp’s snatched the red cap from the ground and waved it at Horgrum. “This is the second marksman we’ve killed with a red cap. Do you know how many marksmen like that there are in the entire goddamn Khadoran army?”
Horgrum stared at his feet, rage and shame warring for control of his emotions. “Not many.”
“And you’ve killed two of them,” Sharp continued. He held the cap out to Horgrum. “Send this back to your brother and sister, and tell them you killed him. Let them put your father to rest in their hearts, even if you can’t.”
Horgrum accepted the hat, trying to recall the face of the sniper who had killed Vargal Oakheart. He recalled a scar and white hair, but nothing else. The man had become a symbol of the vengeance he craved and little more. It ate away at his heart, and he was letting it. He loosed a long, steadying breath and said, “Red Cap had one-hundred confirmed kills?”
“A lot of them good Cygnaran soldiers,” Sharp said. “You’ve put a stop to that.”
Horgrum stuck the cap beneath his breastplate. “I’ll send this to Ceryl, to Solissa and Kolor. They’ll know what it means.”
Sharp smiled. “Sounds like a confirmed kill to me.”
Originally published in No Quarter #72, June 2017
Want more Horgrum and Sharp? You can read about their adventures alongside Lord General Coleman Stryker and Asheth Magnus in the Acts of War novels.