A Week of Writing: 10/8/18 to 10/14/18

Fell of the weekly writing update wagon there for a bit, but I’m back at it. Happy Monday.

Words to Write By

This week it’s another one of my favorite quotes from Stephen King.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

—Stephen King

Show me a writer that doesn’t procrastinate, and, well, I just won’t believe you. 🙂 I think we all do it, and why do we do it? Mr. King hits that particular nail on the head with his quote. Before I actually start writing, all I can think about is what might go wrong, how I won’t be able to write that scene convincingly, make that character believable, revise this chapter into something coherent, even compelling. Of course, when I get over myself, and start, you know, writing, it’s never as bad or as hard as I feared. When I finish for the day, I almost always look back and think, “Now, why did it take me so long to get started?”

The Novel

I’ve been working on and off on the revisions of the novel for the last couple of weeks. Primarily, I’ve been writing new material to fix some of the plot holes and character motivation problems. This week, I’ll paste that new material in to the manuscript and then begin the process of revising the book as a whole. I’m still shooting to finish this round of revisions by the end of the month.

Short Stories

I started a couple new short stories last week. One is a compete rewrite and re-imagining of a piece I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, and the other is a completely new idea for a horror/humor anthology call. Just a couple of short story submissions last week, though I did send a few more the week before.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 0

These two submission give me 102 for the year, and you might have seen my post about hitting my 100-sub goal. At this pace, I should end 2018 with something in the neighborhood of 120 to 130 submissions.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

10/8/18: 100 Submissions – An Analysis 

This posts gives you the dirty details on my journey to 100 submissions: all the rejections, acceptances, the works.

10/12/18: My Acceptance Rate by the Numbers

An in-depth look at my acceptance rates broken down by type of market.

Goals

Keep revising the novel and finish the two short stories I started. And, as always, more submissions.

Submission Spotlight

This week, Pseudopod, one of my favorite markets, has opened again to general submissions. They’re part of the Escape Artist group of podcasts that publish awesome audio short stories. Pseudopod is their horror podcast, and, as you can imagine, that’s kind of my jam. I also might be a little biased since they published my story “Night Games.” But only a little. They are a pro-paying market with a great editorial staff, so send them something if you have a story that fits. Submission guidelines below.

Pseudopod Submission Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

My Acceptance Rates by the Numbers

I’ve blogged about the chances of getting published by specific markets, but what about a more personal view of the subject? If you’re regularly submitting work to semi-pro and pro markets (with a token/free market here and there), how many acceptances should you expect? Hard to say, honestly. There’s not a lot of data out there regarding what a good overall acceptance percentage looks like. Since the only hard data point I have is my own experience, let’s take a look at my numbers since I’ve been tracking my submissions through Duotrope.

The table below shows the last seven years, complete with how many submissions I sent, how many were rejected, how many were lost, never responded, or withdrawn, how many were accepted, and my overall acceptance percentage for the year. I calculated my acceptance percentage by dividing the number of acceptances by the number of submissions less the number of withdrawals and pending subs. Pending subs only affected the numbers for 2018. (If you counted those pending subs, my acceptance rate for 2018 would be 16%.)

Year Subs Reject L/N/W Accept Acc %
2012 6 5 1 0 0%
2013 16 14 2 0 0%
2014 38 29 4 5 15%
2015 46 37 2 7 16%
2016 53 43 2 8 16%
2017 73 64 4 5 7%
2018 101* 72 2 16 18%
Total 333 264 17 41 13.4%

*to date

I wasn’t writing much short fiction in 2012 and 2013, but things picked up the following year, and I started submitting more and getting some acceptances. As the years went on, I sent more submissions, and I received more acceptances. Then 2017 happened, and I’m still not completely sure why I struggled so much to get stories accepted. With 2017 in the rear view, 2018 has been, by far, my best year for both submissions and acceptances.

With the exception of 2017, my acceptance rate has hovered around 15% and I;m at 13.4% overall. I think that’s pretty solid. I’ve heard anecdotally that a 10% acceptance rate is about average. Again, I have no data to back that up, and, honestly, I think the acceptance percentage can vary a lot based on the type of market you submit to. So let’s look at pro, semi-pro, and token/free markets and see if it makes a difference in my overall acceptance percentages. As usual, I’m using the Duotrope definitions for pro (.05/word and up), semi-pro (.01 to .04/word), and token (under .01/word).

Market % of Subs Acceptance %
Pro 53% 6%
Semi-Pro 33% 11%
Token/Free 14% 47%

As you can see, more than half of my subs go to pro markets. The next biggest chunk go to semi-pro markets, and, finally, about fifteen percent go to token/free markets. Not surprisingly, my acceptance percentages line up with the general acceptance rates of the three market categories. Pro markets are hardest to crack, then semi-pro, then token/free. This is not to say there is always a correlation between pay and how hard it is to get an acceptance from a market. There are many fine token/free publishers who put out top-notch stuff and have acceptance rates in the low single digits.

Now let’s look at the numbers for just 2018, and see if my strategy of subbing primarily to pro markets is working.

Market % of Subs Acceptance %
Pro 67% 9%
Semi-Pro 22% 16%
Token/Free 11% 70%

This year I’m sending even more subs to pro markets and my acceptance percentages are trending up in all categories That’s a trend I hope continues this year and into next. So, why am I seeing more success in 2018? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Dumb luck. As I’ve said many, many times, sometimes getting a story published is about putting the right piece in front of the right editor at the right time. I think I did that more in 2018. Conversely, I think I might have been equally unlucky in 2017, as some of the stories I’ve sold this year, I started subbing last year.
  2. Better stuff. I think my short story skills have improved over the last couple of years, especially with flash fiction, and I think that’s translating into more acceptances.
  3. Better submission targeting. I’ve learned a lot this year about which markets are more likely to accept my work and which aren’t, and that may have led to a few more acceptances.

Of course, I am still very much a work in progress, but I think I might have figured out some things that will lead to more success in the years to come. I hope. 🙂


Care to share your own acceptance rates? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Submission Statement: September 2018

Another month of submissions, rejections, and acceptances in the books. Here’s how September shook out.

September 2018 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 10
  • Rejections: 6
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 1

I’m happy with ten submissions for the month, and two acceptances is pretty solid too. Only one publication this month, but I’ve got a bunch slated for October. As for total submissions, I finished September with 96, just four away from my goal of 100.

Rejections

Six rejections for September.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 1
  • Personal Rejections: 0

Mostly standard form rejections from pro markets this month, though I think one might be an upper tier (more on that below).

Spotlight Rejection

The spotlight rejection for September comes from a pro market I’ve never submitted to before (though I certainly will again).

Dear Aeryn,

Thank you for submitting [story title] to [publisher] for consideration. Unfortunately, we’re going to pass on this one. It just didn’t work for us.

We look forward to reading further submissions from you.

Best,

This might be an upper-tier rejection, but it could just be their standard form too. Some markets include verbiage like the second sentence in all their rejections. Since I don’t have any other rejections from this publisher to compare it to, it’s hard to say.

Acceptances

Two acceptances this month. That continues my streak of eight straight months with at least one acceptance. So far, only January has skunked me. The two acceptances in September bring my yearly total to sixteen.

Here’s one of the acceptances I received in September. This one is for a story that had received a bunch of close-but-no-cigars. It took second place in a flash fiction contest, and I’m very pleased it has finally found a home.

Hi Aeryn,

We’re happy to announce that your story [story title] is the Second Place winner of our [contest name]

We’ll be publishing your story on October 19.

There’s more to this acceptance, but it’s just the usual payment and rights stuff. This one should be available to read soon.

Publication

One publication in September, which you can read below.

“What Kind of Hero?”

Published by Ellipsis Zine


And that was my September. Tell me about yours.

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Old Friends, New Blood

Hey, Iron Kingdoms readers, got something special for you today. In the past, I’ve put up stories that were published in the pages of No Quarter magazine or part of organized play for Privateer Press, but not today. Today, I present a completely new and unpublished Iron Kingdoms short-short story that has never been read by anyone outside of the Privateer Press editorial staff. That same editorial staff has given me the go-ahead to share it with you. (Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Doug.)

So let’s head to war-torn Llael for “Old Friends, New Blood.”


Old Friends, New Blood

By Aeryn Rudel

 

“Your weapons,” the guard said and pointed to a low table beside the door. He was little more than a boy, and the casual, almost bored tone of his request rankled Fyodor Goska.

“Do you think I mean to put a knife in Kovnik Ivachev?” Fyodor stepped close. “Do you think you could stop me?”

The guard stiffened, and his hand fell to the haft of his axe. For a brief moment, Fyodor toyed with letting him pull it off his belt. Then he placed one broad hand on the boy’s shoulder, laughed and unbuckled the broad belt that held his knives. “You are too serious, soldier.”

The guard relaxed. “Thank you, sir.” Fyodor heard respect now, and, he noted, the appropriate amount of fear.

He put his weapons on the table, and the guard opened the door to the kovnik’s office. Fyodor found Ivachev behind his desk, head down over some document. The room was sparsely appointed, but the few pieces of furniture looked expensive. Gregor Ivachev was the same age as Fyodor and nearly as big. He loomed behind his desk, a gray-haired warlord out of place in these clerical surroundings. “Fyodor,” he said and stood. “Good to see you, old friend.”

Fyodor nodded. “It has been a long time since we met face to face.”

“Too true, but there are certain protocols that must be followed.” Ivachev gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk.

Fyodor moved closer but did not sit; instead, he gripped the back of the offered chair and leaned forward. The pose made the big muscles in his arms and shoulder bulge. “Protocols you have now violated.”

Ivachev frowned. “I am aware. I did so because you are my friend.”

“Is that what I am?” Fyodor said. “Maybe, once, on the streets of Korsk, when we were young.”

“I do not regret leaving the bratya,” Ivachev said. “Just as you do not regret staying. We chose different paths, but here we are, together.”

“Very well,” Fyodor said. “Speak on, friend.”

“You have done good work for us in Llael,” Ivachev began. “I am pleased with your many successes—“

“Before your office reeks of horse shit, get to the point,” Fyodor said.

The kovnik smiled. “I have spent too long among dignitaries and aristocrats.” He cleared his throat. “The incident at the docks has given some in the High Kommand reason to doubt the effectiveness of your men.”.

Fyodor laughed, short and sharp. “You mean the incident where the Khadoran military failed to inform me the insurgents were led by a warcaster? The incident where I lost eight men and my son lost a leg?”

Ivachev drew in a deep breath. “I know what happened could not be avoided, Fyodor. But some in Merywyn do not approve of the use of the bratyas to enforce our rule. They seek any excuse.”

“And I am that excuse, eh?” Fyodor said and spat. “My men and I have served you well, Gregor. You know this.”

“I do, and you must not forget we have both profited by our agreement.” Ivachev pointed one thick finger at Fyodor.

“Then how do we maintain our agreement in light of my failure?”

“That is why I called you here,” Ivachev said. “I have convinced those with doubts in the High Kommand to give you another chance, let you prove your worth. I wanted to tell you personally.”

“I have been underboss for twenty years,” Fyodor said, shaking his head. “I took that position and maintained it by proving myself, again and again, to my men, to rival bratyas, and to you, Gregor. What more must I prove?”

“To me? Nothing,” Ivachev said. “To those who doubt, you must kill someone.”

Fyodor shrugged. “The blades of my bratya are red and wet.”

“What of your own blades?”

For a moment, Fyodor could not speak. The question struck him like a hammer blow. His vision swam with images of closing his fingers around Ivachev’s throat and squeezing the life from him. “You dare . . .” was all he could manage, but his glare would have loosened the bowels of most men.

Ivachev was not most men, and he held Fyodor’s murderous gaze, unflinching, and slid a folder across his desk. “Kill this man. By your own hand. No one will doubt you again.”

Fyodor sucked in a great gulp of air and took a tight rein on his anger—it would not serve him here. He picked up the folder but did not look at its contents. “It will be done,” he said, his voice flat and measured.

Ivachev nodded. “I am sorry it has come to this. I wish it were otherwise.”

“I am sorry too, old friend.”

***

It had been some time since he stalked a target on his own. It felt good to worry about nothing but himself and his quarry.

The man he would kill this night thought himself invulnerable in his grand house along the river, his station shielding him from harm like a suit of Man-O-War armor. Fyodor would prove him wrong.

Only one guard patrolled the grounds, making a slow circuit around the outer wall. Fyodor watched him from the shadows, waiting for the right moment. It came soon enough. The guard stopped, set his rifle against the wall, and unbuckled his pants. The splash of urine against the stone covered Fyodor’s approach. He clamped one hand around the man’s mouth, wrenched his head back, and slashed his throat. The blood emptied in steaming gouts, and Fyodor pushed the body into the shadows at the base of the wall. Then he leaped, grasped the top of the ten-foot barrier with one hand, and pulled himself up and over. He dropped to the cobblestones on the other side in a tight, controlled roll, then crossed the courtyard to the house.

Fyodor made his way to the rear of the building and found a servant’s entrance. Unguarded. Beyond lay a short hallway, leading to an antechamber and a broad stairway.

He climbed the stairs, both long knives in hand. At the top stretched another hallway, this one with many doors to the left and right. He ignored them. The door at the end of the hall was his destination. Warm yellow light spilled from beneath it, and he heard voices beyond.

He flipped one of his blades over into a throwing grip and kicked open the door. His hand flashed down, the knife spinning from it on a lethal arc. The weapon struck one target with a dull thud as he stepped into the room and he surged  toward the other.

Ivachev stared in horror, his mouth a round O of surprise. The boy who had stood guard outside his office the other morning lay on the floor before the kovnik, Fyodor’s knife buried to the hilt in his chest. The boy’s eyes were wide, terrified, and he tried in vain to pull the knife from his heart.

Ivachev had a pistol at his belt, but he’d been too long away from the streets of Korsk, and the lessons it taught, one of which was a knife is always quicker than a gun in close quarters. The gun came up, too slow, and Fyodor smashed it aside. He lashed out with a heavy boot, and kicked Ivachev’s feet out from under him. The kovnik crashed to the floor, and Fyodor followed him down, planting a knee in Ivachev’s chest, pinning him. He put a knife at the kovnik’s throat.

The boy had stopped moving and lay still in a wide pool of scarlet.

“Why?” Ivachev said.

“More than a leg,” Fyodor whispered. “But we pay our blood debts in full and then some, do we not? It was your information that cost me so dear.” He leaned down, pushing his face inches from Ivachev’s. “Your information that caused some to lose faith in you.”

Ivachev opened his mouth to say something, but Fyodor had finished talking. He opened his old friend’s throat with a quick sawing cut, then held him down while he bled out.

When it was over, Fyodor retrieved his blade from the body of young Marcus Ivachev, then returned to the corpse of his father and wiped his blades clean on Ivachev’s uniform. “You were right about one thing, Kovnik. I did have to kill a man.”

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Peace of Mind

Got another piece of Iron Kingdoms fiction you today. This one is called “Peace of Mind” and it also comes from an issue of No Quarter magazine. It features members of the Searforge Commission, a mercenary company drawn from the dwarven empire of Rhul. This story centers around a group of miscreants and unfortunates stationed at a backwater fort where they can’t get into much trouble. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

New to Privateer Press and the Iron Kingdoms? Check out this link for an introduction to this war-torn world of steam power and sorcery.


Peace of Mind

By Aeryn Rudel

Valkar rubbed his hands together and shivered. The sun was sinking on the horizon, and the tolerable cold of the day gave way to the unbearable chill of the long winter night. His watch didn’t end for another two hours, and he looked longingly back through the gates of Baram Fort toward the light and noise from the barracks. He shook his head and turned his gaze back to the small winding road that led up to the small fortress. Warmth and food would have to wait. Although the High Shield Gun Corps stationed at Baram Fort was not exactly known for following the rigid guidelines set forth by the Searforge Commission, Captain Vornek Blackheel considered dereliction of watch one of the few actionable offenses.

Drinking while on duty, fortunately, was not on the captain’s list of punishable activities. “Ecken,” Valkar said to his fellow guard, a much younger dwarf standing on the other side of the wide gate. “Give me a bit of that. These old bones are aching something fierce.”

Ecken had been dozing on his feet, a skill at which he was quite accomplished. The young dwarf came awake with a start and fixed Valkar with a hazy stare. “What did you say, Valk?”

“I said gimme a swig of uiske.”

Ecken looked down at the battered metal flask he’d been clutching to his breastplate and smiled. “Sure, Valk.” He walked across the short space between them, swaying slightly. He wasn’t quite falling-down drunk yet.

Ecken held out the flask. Valkar reached for it, but before he could take it, Ecken dropped it. The young dwarf stooped to retrieve the container, and his helmet tumbled from his head, revealing the huge scar above his left ear. The surgeons had removed a portion of Ecken’s brain after a Khadoran bullet had plowed through his skull. The hair hadn’t grown back over the wound.

Valk grimaced. “I’ll get it, Ecken.” He bent down and retrieved the flask and Ecken’s helmet, wincing as his aching knees popped.

“Sorry, Valk.” Ecken put his helmet back on.

Valk took a drink from Ecken’s flask, letting the cheap uiske burn a path of warmth down his middle, then handed it back. “You’re a good lad, Ecken. When our watch is over we’ll get some food, hey? You need more in your stomach than that Khadoran fire water.”

Ecken frowned. “I’m not hungry. I just want to go to sleep. My head hurts.”

Valkar put a hand on the younger dwarf’s shoulder. “I know. But I got my orders, and one of them is make sure Ecken eats.” Captain Blackheel had placed Ecken under Valkar’s care shortly after the wounded dwarf arrived at Fort Baram. It was the only place the Searforge would allow him to serve, a high mountain fortress in the middle of nowhere filled with the dregs of the Gun Corps: drunks, thieves, and miscreants. Ecken’s wound gave him near constant headaches, and it made him prone to violent mood swings, leaving him largely unfit for anything but guard duty at a fort that rarely saw visitors. It was a mercy, Valkar supposed, the Searforge had let Ecken remain in the corps, draw pay, and receive something resembling supervision and care.

A black look fell across Ecken’s face, and Valkar thought he might explode into one of his rages. They came on with little provocation, and Ecken would shout and bellow, even physically assault anyone who came near. The rest of the dwarves at Baram Fort knew to avoid their injured compatriot during these times, and only Valkar could calm Ecken down, usually. Last week, Lieutenant Murgan, the fort’s ogrun second-in-command, had to restrain Ecken, holding him immobile while he thrashed and cursed. After that, he’d fallen into a black depression that lasted days. The only thing that seemed to give him some measure of peace was drinking, and though Valkar knew inebriation wasn’t doing anything but masking the pain, he couldn’t begrudge the young dwarf his one escape from a grim reality.

“Okay, Valk,” Ecken said, and his face softened. “I’ll eat some porridge. I think I can keep that down.”

Valkar smiled, relieved. “Good lad. Now back to your post.”

Ecken nodded and returned to his side of the gate. Valkar didn’t mind looking after the young dwarf; it gave him something to do, a purpose. He’d come to Baram Fort not because he was a drunk, a coward, or even a bad soldier. His only crime was growing old. He’d served in the Gun Corps for fifty years, never rising above the rank of sergeant because he was happiest in the trenches, wading through the mud and blood with the grunts. Then they’d told him he was too old to serve, that it was time to set his rifle and axe down. They offered him a fair pension, but what would he do with it? He had no children, no wife, and only distant relatives. He’d get older, grow decrepit, and then die alone. He’d refused to retire, so they granted him one final post, a place where the Searforge Commission could forget about him. He accepted and found his place among Baram Fort’s group of misfits. At least he wouldn’t die alone.

“There’s a wagon coming, Valk,” Ecken said, pulling Valkar out of his thoughts.

Valkar looked down the narrow road, a nameless and little-used trade route that ran from the Rhulic city of Drotuhn and climbed through the Thundercliff Peaks, eventually connecting to Hellspass, the more conventional route for traders travelling between Khador and Rhul. Fort Baram was positioned to guard this all-but-forgotten route from the few travelers and merchants who used it—mostly to avoid the steep tolls of Hellspass.

A large wagon pulled by two huge Khadoran draft horses rumbled toward the fort. The driver wore a heavy black cloak with a hood, and eight men in chainmail hauberks with axes on their belts and rifles over their shoulders walked alongside the wagon.

Valkar frowned. He’d never seen a wagon so heavily guarded pass through Baram Fort. He glanced back through the gates; there were a few other dwarves moving about in the yard, on duty, and two or three more manning the walls, but they were coming up on a watch change and most of the troops were in the barracks.

“Ecken, let me do the talking here. Alright, lad?” Ecken nodded and took another drink from his flask. “And put that away.”

The wagon drew to a stop twenty feet from the gate. It was Valkar’s and Ecken’s jobs to speak with all those passing through and to check their goods for contraband. Valkar picked up his shield, a heavy square thing with a notch at the top that served as a rifle rest, and approached the Khadorans. His breastplate and chainmail felt heavier than usual, and his joints ached with every step. Ecken followed him.

“Good day, friend,” the driver in the wagon called down in passable Rhulic.

Valkar looked up at a weathered, bearded face and blue eyes that glinted like chips of ice from the depths of a hood. “What’s your business, and where are you headed?” Valkar asked, beginning their standard line of questioning.

“I am a dealer in exotic animals, and I have purchased one of your famed white bears from a trainer in Drotuhn.” He looked back at the payload of his wagon. There were three cages there, covered in a tarp. The tarp was rimed with ice. “We are travelling back to Skirov, where I run a menagerie.”

Valkar nodded. “Bear, huh?” He’d visited Drotuhn on many occasions, and they were known for quarrying stone, not training dangerous beasts. “Why are there three cages?”

The Khadoran merchant smiled. “I was hoping to buy a few other beasts, but the deals fell through. Two are empty.”

Valkar looked over at Ecken. The young dwarf was standing on the other side of the wagon, closer to the cages. His brows were furrowed in puzzlement, “I don’t smell bear, Valk,” he said. “I’ve smelled them before. Something stinks over here, but it’s not bear.”

The Khadoran’s guards had moved closer, four on each side of the wagon. Their faces were hard, weathered, experienced. They were professional fighting men.

“Do you have a bill of sale?” Valkar asked. He could feel the tension in the air. Something was wrong here, and he felt exposed, vulnerable. He had a horn at his belt he could sound to alert the fort of an attack, and his hand crept down to it.

“Of course,” the Khadoran said. He rummaged through the inside of his cloak. It took a little too long, and Valkar’s hand closed around the horn. But the Khadoran produced nothing more threatening than a thin sheaf of papers. He handed them down to Valkar.

Valkar ran his eyes over the first page. The Khadoran’s name was Dima Glukhov, or at least it was the name he’d put on the bill of sale. Everything looked in order. The man had purchased a bear from the market in Drotuhn and paid one hundred gul for it—more money than Valkar would see in a year. He handed the papers back to the Khadoran. “This looks in order, Tradesman Glukhov.”

“Excellent. Then we can be on our way and pass through your fortress?”

Valkar considered that. The papers were in order, but it was their job to confirm the goods stated by a merchant were actually what they were carrying. He could let them go. Captain Blackheel wouldn’t care. But something bothered him, a curious sense of dread that seemed to hang over the Khadoran and his wagon. He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then said to the Khadoran, “One more bit of business. I need to verify if your cargo is what you say it is.”

A black look fell across the Khadoran’s face, and his eyes became flat and hard. “I hardly think that is necessary.” His voice was low, measured. “Perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement.” He reached again into his cloak and pulled out a small sack tied with a drawstring. It clinked. “There is fifty gul here. Take it and let us be on our way.”

It was a lot of money, and almost every other member of Baram Fort would have taken it and let the Khadorans through. It just made Valkar angry. He opened his mouth to say something, but Ecken’s voice cut him off.

“Valk, there’s a man in this cage . . . with swords on his hands.”

Ecken had lifted the tarp on the closest cage and was peering beneath it. Valkar had been a soldier for over fifty years, and in that time he’d developed something like a sixth sense when it came to violence. He could almost taste it in the air. He knew the Khadorans were going to attack, but he was too slow to shout a warning as the guard nearest Ecken unlimbered his axe and smashed it into the young dwarf’s helmet. Arcane runes formed around Dima Glukhov’s fist and he unleashed a blast of freezing air at Valkar, smashing him to the ground and robbing the strength from his limbs.

Valkar’s hands were gloved against the chill, and they had kept the worst of the Khadoran sorcerer’s spell at bay. He fumbled for the horn at his belt, hearing Khadoran thugs moving toward him. He brought the horn to his lips and blew a single sharp note.

***

Mindslaver Orixus came awake to the sound of the human and dwarf speaking. He could feel their minds at the edge of his consciousness, but he couldn’t touch them yet. The alchemical mist the human had used on him was crude but effective; it dulled his mental abilities, made his thinking sluggish and uncoordinated. But his faculties were returning to him, and as they did, they brought cold anger and shame. That this pathetic human had managed to ensnare him and four drudges stung him. He’d taken a risk by leaving the hive with such a small guard, but the wounded soldiers on the battlefield near the hive offered a tantalizing collection of raw materials, and he wanted them before his rivals could lay claim.

The human had been waiting for him, expecting him. Orixus had been hit with the sorcerer’s freezing spell and unable to move or think. They’d stuffed him and his drudges into cages, treating him—Mindslaver Orixus, second of five in the Terxat Hive—like a mindless beast.

Rage flowed through his body, and its heat steadily burned away the fog in his mind. He could feel the human’s alchemical tranquilizer fading, like a melting iceberg. He would soon be free. The sounds of combat erupted outside his cage, and the cephalyx was pleased. His enemies would be distracted, long enough for him to regain full control of his abilities. He gathered all the mental force he could muster and pushed against the poison restraining him, hastening its dissipation.

Soon.

***

Valkar climbed to his feet, his legs heavy and slow. Ecken had gone down, and he feared the young dwarf had been killed, but he had more pressing concerns. He could hear the dwarves in the fort responding to his horn. The sound of many voices and the clatter of armor drifted through the gates.

One of the Khadoran thugs bore down on him. The man was big, maybe twice Valkar’s height, and he was swinging a two-handed axe. Valkar brought his shield up and the heavy axe cracked into it, biting deep into the top edge. This is just what Valkar had wanted. He let go of his shield, and his opponent had twenty pounds of iron and wood dangling at the end of his now-useless weapon. The human tried to pull the axe free, but Valkar brought up his carbine with practiced ease and shot the man through the chest. The heavy dwarven slug ripped through the man’s chain mail and shredded his heart.

Loud cursing in Khadoran drew Valkar’s attention back to Dima Glukhov. The Khadoran had jumped down from the wagon and held a single-bitted war axe in his right hand, its head encircled with runes. Glukhov was heading for Valkar, and a ring of azure light formed around his fist.

Valkar backpedaled, heading toward the open gate. He stood little chance against the Khadoran spellcaster. The loud cracks of dwarven carbines sounded behind him, and he heard one voice rising above the din. “What in the name of Ghor’s bleeding ass is going on out here?!” Captain Blackheel had a drill instructor’s volume, and everyone turned in his direction. Looming beside him was his second, Murgan. The ogrun was armored head-to-toe in chain and plate and had his warcleaver and shield in hand.

A line of gun corps riflemen had formed before the dwarven commander, and they parted to let Valkar through. Glukhov stood in front of his wagon, his men around him. The spell runes had disappeared.

“What happened, sergeant?” Murgan asked as Valkar drew near.

“We were checking their goods, and they attacked. One of ‘em knocked Ecken down. He’s still out there.”

Captain Blackheel grunted in irritation. Then he settled his helmet on his head, hitched his breastplate into a more comfortable position, and took hold of his axe. He stepped through the line of dwarven riflemen, his face a black cloud of anger.

“Alright, you bloody Reds,” he began, looking directly at Glukhov. “You can lay down your arms and tell me why you attacked my boys, or I can give the order and shoot you until you stop twitching. What’ll it be?”

The captain was black-tempered, surly, and frequently drunk, but he was also one of the bravest dwarves Valkar knew and a skilled battle leader. He’d always meant to ask the captain how he’d ended up at Baram.

Glukhov lowered his axe and smiled. “You seem a reasonable sort. I need to get through your fort, and I’m willing to pay to do it.”

“You killed one of my boys,” Blackheel said. “I can’t let that stand.”

Valkar didn’t know if Ecken was dead, but he dared not say anything.

“And you killed one of mine, so we’re even on that score.”

Captain Blackheel spat out the wad of sourleaf he’d been chewing, reached into his pouch for another, and stuffed the dried leaves under his bottom lip. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t like it. You’re gonna put your weapons down, let us take you into custody, and then we’ll see what the Trademaster at Hellspass has to say about your cargo. Whatever the hell it is.”

Glukhov’s eyes went wide, and something that looked like fear flashed across his face. The runes formed around his fist again, and Blackheel raised his hand, signaling to the twenty rifles behind him to take aim. “I mean it, Red.”

Valkar felt the air grow thick with tension, but then something else appeared in the back of his mind, a presence, looming and dark. He heard the telltale metallic clatter of locks falling away, and then something rose up over the wagon, hovering like a grim black wraith.

Dread speared Valkar’s guts as the thing came into the light, drifting through the air behind Glukhov. It was man-shaped and clad entirely in black leather, but its head was a swollen orb from which five blue lights shone, eyes maybe. Worst of all, four metallic limbs jutted over the creature’s back, each tipped with a hooked blade.

“Captain,” Valkar called out, but it was too late. The creature descended on Glukhov like a great black spider, its metallic limbs scything forward. The Khadoran spellcaster’s head came away from his neck in a spray of blood, and he collapsed to the ground twitching.

“Fire!” Captain Blackheel called.

Nothing happened.

Valkar looked down the lines of riflemen and saw blank stares, their weapons hung limply in their hands.

Valkar then felt the creature’s presence grow in his mind, and he heard its voice, an irresistible whisper. Come to me. His feet moved at the behest of another, and he saw he was not alone, the rest of Baram Fort had lowered their weapons and shuffled toward the spindly black horror

Valkar tried to fight it, to push away the monster’s influence, but he couldn’t. He was a prisoner in his own head, watching his body move and react as if it belonged to someone else. The Khadoran thugs were enthralled as well, moving closer to the creature.

From behind the wagon came four more abominations. They were men, or might have been once, but their bodies had been altered, augmented. Each wore a heavy helmet that covered the head and neck. Yellow light glowed from the visor slits. Their arms ended in a curious array of blades, clamps, and saws, like something you might see on a warjack.

Yes, this is your future, you pathetic worms, the creature whispered into Valkar’s mind, maybe into all their minds. He was shown images of dark caverns filled with terrible apparatuses where men became monsters, where flesh was replaced with steel and wire, and where the soul and will were scrubbed clean from mortal minds.

Movement to Valkar’s left caught his eye. He couldn’t turn his head, but, on the periphery of his vision, he saw Ecken stand up. He was relieved the young dwarf had survived but horrified he would be subjected to the same terrible fate as the rest of them.

Ecken was closer to the black-shrouded monster, and he shuffled up to it. It glanced down at him, and Valkar felt its curiosity ripple through his mind . . . then, shockingly, fear. The creature tried to move away, but Ecken had his axe in hand. He swung it, buried the steel in the creature’s midsection.

A piercing psychic wail of shock and agony burst through Valkar’s mind and he fell to his knees, clutching his head. The dwarves and humans around him did the same.

Ecken yanked his axe free in a spray of blood and brought it around again, this time in an overhand strike at the creature’s misshapen skull. The blow landed true, and the monster’s head burst like an overripe melon, splattering gore in all directions.

The presence in Valkar’s mind winked out, and he was once again in control of his body. He climbed to his feet and broke into a stumbling run toward Ecken. The young dwarf stood over the corpse of the alien creature, a puzzled look on his face.

“Are you okay, lad?” Valkar said and took Ecken by the shoulders.

Ecken smiled and pushed his helmet off his head. It had a big dent in it where the Khadoran thug had struck him. He let the helmet fall to the ground, reached up, and touched the gruesome scar above his ear. “I felt it, Valkar. It was in my head, but it couldn’t make me do what it wanted.” He laughed softly. “I think the surgeons cut that part out.”

Valkar pulled the injured dwarf into a tight embrace. “Thank the ancestors,” he said then gently pushed Ecken back and looked into his eyes. “You’re still a soldier, lad. And you did a soldier’s work today. Saved us all. Don’t you forget that.”

“Put these bastards in shackles,” Captain Blackheel bellowed behind them. The rest of the gun corps collected the weapons of the remaining Khadoran thugs, who had lost all interest in fighting and handed them over without a fuss. “Now put ‘em in cold storage until we figure this mess out.”

The captain walked over to Ecken and Valkar and looked down at the corpse of the black-clad creature at their feet. “What in the name of all that is good and green is that bloody thing?” he said. “Never seen anything like it. What about you, old man?”

Valkar shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Well put it into cold storage with the rest of these Khadoran fools,” Blackheel said. “And, Ecken, good work, soldier.” He walked away, bellowing more orders.

Ecken pulled his flask from his belt and shook it, but he didn’t take the cap off.

“Go on, lad. You’ve more than earned yourself a drink,” Valkar said.

Ecken looked up at him, his eyes filled with a deep and abiding sadness. The clear understanding of all that Khadoran bullet had taken from him was overwhelmingly evident on Ecken’s face. It hurt Valkar to see it. “Not now, Valk,” Ecken said, putting the flask away. “Maybe I should eat something.”

Valkar looked away and wiped at his eyes, but he showed Ecken a smile when he turned back. “Right, lad; let’s get some food into you.”

***

Originally appeared in No Quarter #67, published by Privateer Press


If you’d like to read more about the dwarves of Baram Fort, you can do so right here on this blog. The story “Wayward Fortunes” features another adventure with the misfit Rhulfolk and their captain, Vornek Blackheel.

“Do Me A Favor” & Other Free Flash Fiction

It’s great when you find a publisher who’s willing to publish your work. It’s even better when you find a publisher who’s willing to publish your work more than once. Today marks my fourth story with The Arcanist, an excellent publisher of speculative flash fiction. The story is called “Do Me A Favor,” and it’s a quirky little horror/black humor mashup. You can check out the story below, along with three other stories I’ve published with The Arcanist. 

So, uh, do me a favor and read these stories. 😉

“Do Me a Favor” – Published 8/3/18

“The Food Bank” – Published 4/6/18

“Reunion” – Published 12/1/17 

“Cowtown” – Published 8/4/17


I hope you enjoyed “Do Me a Favor” and maybe a few other stories I published with The Arcanist. If you’re a writer of speculative flash fiction, give The Arcanist a look. They pay pro rates, and they’re just generally great to work with. Submission guidelines right here.

Iron Kingdoms Fiction – Confirmed Kill

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 AftershockThe 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.

Confirmed Kill

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.

“Show me.”

* * *

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.”

“Widowmakers?”

Horgrum nodded.

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.