Some would have called it serene. This morning. Dew shimmering on the blades of grass. A thin fog still hanging in the air. Trees swaying gently. Birds in the sky.
The silence was deafening, to Tapio.
He sat on a log outside of his cabin. Not far away his cooking fire was simmering down. He stared, lazily, into the wilderness ahead.
He stroked his scruffy, growing beard. Tapio had allowed it to overgrow in the last few days. His dirty blonde hair was growing without direction. He did not wish it to do so, but he found himself distracted in recent months.
He tried to focus on anything that would take him away from the silence. Birds chirping. A critter rustling through the underbrush. Somewhere far off the roar of a brooke was softened with distance to a steady buzz of sound.
But the silence was still there. And in that silence, his nightmares waited to ambush him. Moans of ghosts. Screams of artillery shells. The thunder of massive-
The squeaking of a wheel. Tapio snapped back from the silence. He sharply took in a bit of cold air. His eyes scanned the outskirts of his small home, to where the road passed along the trees. His eyes listed further down the lane, until he gave up.
The baying of a large beast accompanied further squeaks, and Tapio decided to wait patiently for the travelers to approach. Sure enough, from behind a bush still clinging onto a few bits of snow, finally travelers appeared.
Tapio could make out the large form of a massive Musk Ox, standing an impressive nine, maybe even ten feet tall. It was ladened with supplies, and strapped to an equally impressive wagon. The wagon was also filled to a tipping point with crates, boxes, and bags as well as a wooden chair and a beuro that could be spied strapped onto it.
As they approached, their owners became visible. A woman and a child sat upon the back of the Musk Ox. Another, slightly older child was sitting upon the mound on the wagon. Walking beside them, a gentleman walked with a rifle as a walking stick.
Tapio decided to stand, as a silent sign of greeting and respect. However, he did not call out. The group had come up the road and nearly passed before they took notice of his hut. The gentleman’s head was raised. His eyes scanned around before he nodded a greeting to Tapio. They hurried along.
Tapio huffed to himself. This was the third such group in only two days. This one didn’t even speak or stop to ask for supplies. He was beginning to wonder what was with all the traffic. They were all following the road Northwest. He frowned, wondering what was that direction. The town of Mammakko? It was a large town with a pretty sizable ship dock. However he was unaware of any major reason people would be heading that way besides passing through.
With a hum, Tapio allowed his eyes to drift to the South East. The town of Södomuonio was the closest to him, and it is where he got most of his supplies monthly. He decided that must’ve been the most likely place these pilgrims must’ve been coming from.
He found himself inside, grabbing a small satchel and some supplies. His eyes lingered, for a moment, on a metal trunk in the back. It was covered with a layer of dust, and a crumpled blanket made of reindeer hide. His heart felt heavy, and he blinked away any thoughts of opening it for the first time in years. His eyes slowly, for a minute, drifted up to a rifle hanging above it.
He turned and walked from the hut, walking almost directly into the gentleman from the cart. They both started at the almost collision, and without words, recomposed themselves.
The bearded man cleared his throat, “You live here?”
“Yes,” answered Tapio.
“You should pack up and head west,” said the man, “Not safe.”
Tapio furrowed his brows. The other man nodded, and turned to walk away.
Over his shoulder, he said “Invaders. Not safe.”
Tapio narrowed his eyes, but the man was uninterested in elaborating. His family watched, terrified. Tapio looked back over his shoulder, towards the town. His eyes scanned the skies. Clear. Slightly grey. No smoke.
Tapio found his hands reaching back into his doorway and pulling out a worn leather belt with two hatchets hastily tied to them. Strapping it around his waist, Tapio headed down towards the stream.
It took him barely 30 minutes to reach the small stream and he began following it. He checked his traps along the way, clipping a few fish he had managed to catch here and there. Perhaps he could sell a few at Södomuonio to get a few extra supplies.
Tapio found himself wandering, closer to the town. His thoughts were starting to drift again. With every step, he began feeling it. The distant drum of heavy footsteps. The scent of exhaust. Blood. Fire. He could almost hear the distant screams-
He was knocked back into reality. His head swiveled. His heart rate felt like it was pounding in his chest. He looked around. He was in the forest, still. He assumed not far from the road. His eyes searched around him. No one. He saw no animals. What had grabbed his attention so?
That’s when he heard it again. Loud and clear. A yell of pain from a man. It wasn’t far away, straight ahead. Tapio took in a sharp breath.
Carefully he made his way through the brush. After a few moments, he broke through the brush on the edge of some farmland. Ahead he could see a small house, chimney smoke still billowing out of it.
A farmer laid on the ground, he held his hand aloft, defensively. He was surrounded by men in red uniforms. They wore black fur hats and belts of pouches and ammunition. They were laughing and speaking in harsh tones to one another. Rusviet.
Tapio found his hands white-knuckling his hatchets. Why were Rusviet soldiers so far into the Nordic Kingdom? Shouldn’t the military have kept them out miles from here? Were they at war?
“Come, old man,” said the closest Rusviet Soldier, stepping towards the cowering farmer, “We have been patient enough with you, and we are running low on it. You are a farmer, yes? Do you grow more than wives on this farm, or no?”
“Consider it,” said another soldier, struggling more with the Nordic tongue, “Toll for the new Rusviet travelers.”
“Rulers, fool,” laughed the first, who spoke a quick sentence in Rusviet.
The soldiers cascaded, once again, into fits of laughter. This time, however, the one closest to the farmer looked beyond their group, spotting Tapio. The soldier’s laugh cut off, for a second, but after his eyes swept Tapio his face twisted into a smile. His momentary look of alarm caught the attention of his comrades, who spun around. Two of the soldiers raised their rifles. Two more had the new automatic shotguns Rusviet had begun to favor. The ‘leader’ pulled out a revolver, and stepped around the farmer, walking towards Tapio.
“Hey, look at this, huh?” he said, “Who is this? Did the farmer fail to mention his son, huh?”
“I do not know him, please!” cried the farmer.
“I was talking to you,” said the leader, “Don’t you speak the north?”
Tapio took a deep breath, “I am Tapio Virtanen. Son of Roth Virtanen.”
Tapio switched to Rusviet, a language he only vaguely knew, “We have you surrounded. Drop your weapons.”
The soldiers stopped cold in their footprints. They looked to each other. Soldiers growling their language back and forth. For a moment Tapio wondered if he had misspoke. It had been many years since the Great War.
The soldiers eyes scanned the surrounding wood, before their words turned playful, and a few barked laughter. They continued their approach, spreading out. One of the shotgun wielding ones looked back at the farmer, and slowed his pace, holding back.
“So, big child,” said the soldier, “You are very brave, but not good with the numbers, yes? I count you and the farmer.”
The soldiers began to spread out. The leader was now only a few steps away from Tapio now.
“There is more of us,” said the soldier, “Than you, my friend.”
“Two against five?” said Tapio.
“You can hardly call it a fair fight,” said the leader, cocking the hammer of his revolver.
“I could not agree more.”
The leader laughed at that, raising his revolver, “ Do svidaniya , foolish man.”
Tapio barely felt the wooden handles of his hatchets dropping into his palms.
By the time the first soldier put together what had happened, Tapio had already swung up his left hand. The hatchet caught the revolver easily, throwing the barrel to the sky. The gun went off, causing the soldiers to start. The leader stepped forward involuntarily. Tapio’s second hatchet from his right hand dug expertly into his back.
Tapio already raised his left hand again. He tossed his hatchet right into the neck of the farthest soldier over to his right., who dropped his shotgun. The farthest one over to the left brought his rifle to bare. Tapio was already over by him, ripping the hatchet from the other’s back.
His arm grabbed the barrel of the rifle, thrusting it to the side. The soldier screamed in his language as Tapio brought his hatchet into his shoulder.
His comrade behind him leveled his shotgun. Tapio pulled on the hatchet, bringing the wounded soldier between him and the shotgun’s barrel. The shotgun went off. Tapio was sprayed with blood. He was not even aware of his screaming.
And just like that, he was back on the line. Blood staining the snowdrifts. The smell of burning oil and sickly iron. Explosions rang out. The Hersir gave a mighty battle cry. The cry was upheld by the soldiers surrounding him. To Valholl. Soldiers of the kingdom to his left and right. The thunder of the feet of the titanic mechs. He lifted his rifle, once more out of ammunition. The scream of the Rusviet soldier ahead of him.
Private Virtanen hoped he calculated his distance well as he swung out with the empty rifle. The rifle ripped the Rusviet’s rifle from his hands.
A blink later they were on the ground. RIfle to his throat. Rusviet soldier screaming between his legs. Tapio pressed down with all his strength. The Rusviet pushed back harder. Their eyes locked. His breath and fury against Tapio’s face. Tapio screamed back. His voice carrying across the battlefield. A gunshot flew passed his head.
An explosion exploded from not far away. Tapio was knocked from the soldier’s body. The last soldier who was apart from the group was screaming. An explosion had taken his leg, and left behind a small scorch mark in the earth.
Tapio looked to the soldier lying next to him. His face had been bashed in. Tapio held the other soldier’s rifle in his hands, bloodied. He shook his head, standing to his feet. He brought the rifle to bare, turning to a figure approaching them.
A Nordic Soldier stood not far away, holding a grenade launcher in his hands. It smoked. His eyes were wide. He was dressed in an official uniform, long great coat buttoned, modern soldier’s cap on his head. He was clean shaven and had bits of short brunette hair peaking out of his cap.
Tapio was breathing heavily. He looked around him. The Rusviet soldiers laid dead around him. The last one screamed from his wound. Tapio looked to the soldier, whose eyes were wide.
“My thanks,” Tapio managed to say.
The soldier took a few hesitant steps forward, “Uhm… greetings. Sorry to… intrude. Rusviet soldiers.”
“I noticed,” said Tapio.
“Did I… are you Sergeant Tapio Virtanen?”
Tapio looked to him, closing his eyes and sighing. He could hear the screaming. Commands from his Hirsir still ringing in his ears. Or was that the screaming of the Rusviet survivor?
“Is he going to be alright?” asked the soldier.
Tapio looked to him. He eyed the soldier, who was screaming, holding onto his stump where the leg used to be. Tapio observed the rifle he held in his hands, before aiming it and firing. The shot ripped into his chest, and the soldier fell backward. His screams turned to gurgles. After a moment or two, the soldier was quiet.
The Nordic Soldier turned away, and began to breathe a little harder. Tapio eyed him uneasily.
“Can I help you, soldier?”
“Sergeant Virtanen, I have orders… from the King, sir.”
Tapio closed his eyes. He wiped his brow, feeling the warm, sticky wetness of blood on his sleeve. He recoiled from his arm, and frowned at the blood. Tapio’s eyes scanned around him at the bodies. He could see the farmer had risen and was just ducking into his home. He looked out terrified and slammed the door.
“So it is true,” said the soldier, “Rusviet soldiers in the Kingdom?”
“So it would seem,” said Tapio, “Invaders.”
Tapio looked over to the soldier. He still had his back to the massacre, his hand extended with a scroll in hand. Tapio reached out and took it from him. The scroll was just a telegram, rolled into a scroll. It had the seal of the King on it.
Tapio lowered it without reading it. It was an official summons. Tapio sighed.
“I cannot say, sir,” said the soldier, “But if soldiers are this far west…”
Tapio rose from his position, he began walking back to his hut. The soldier looked around, before nervously following Tapio.
“S-Sir? Where are you going?”
Tapio decided to take the road this time, hoping that it would be faster. He ignored the soldier, walking almost at a stagger back toward his hut.