Brother Thranis of the Blood Ravens stirred his tasteless, odourless gruel without enthusiasm and then raised the spoon to his mouth. Clear liquid the consistency of petroleum jelly dropped from its sides. With a grimace, he swallowed, lowered the spoon again to take another mouthful and reconsidered.
As a Space Marine he could eat pretty much anything organic. It wasn’t really the food that offended him, but the atmosphere in the Watch Fortress Refectory. Where the mess hall aboard the 3rd Company Battle Barge Litany of Fury was full of laughter, good-natured teasing and the susurrus of animated conversation, this place was quiet and depressing.
With so many different traditions in one place, the camaraderie that pervaded a Chapter was missing. Some didn’t talk at all, just prayed silently over their food and ignored their surroundings. Those who did talk usually limited their interactions to a select few brothers, often their 'cousins'. Some were shunned completely, especially Librarians and those marked by geneseed anomalies. Unfortunately Thranis shared their fate, even though he was neither a psyker nor marked by mutation. Going by the jeers of 'Witch' that followed him around, he was considered a Librarian by proxy, since his Chapter valued them so.
And even if conversations happened in the refectory, they were different. Good-natured teasing became stinging insult. Friendly rivalry gave way to serious power plays which could erupt everywhere at any time. Duels or brawls were forbidden and punished, but a determined soul could always find a way to assert their superiority.
At this point, a raised voice cut through his musings. He looked up and saw – without any real surprise – the Space Wolf Skrallan drop into an unoccupied seat and place his elbow on the table in a universal gesture of challenge.
“Well, old man” – under different circumstances, the Wolf’s laughter would have been infectious, while here it was merely obnoxious – “let’s see what you are made of.”
The subject of Skrallan’s ire, Navarre, the veteran Sword Brother of the Black Templars, raised his shaven head from his meal and threw a glance that should have seen the troublemaker eviscerated on the spot. “Get lost.”
Thranis got up, unclear on his own intention. Did he want to leave before all of this devolved into ugliness that might see him caught up in it, too? Was he going to step in and try to defuse the situation, before it escalated? Or was he simply trying to find a front row seat for the fireworks?
“He” – the Space Wolf pointed at a Battle Brother of the Salamanders Chapter – “said he had heard him” – now he indicated an Ultramarine – “say that you said you could take me. Well, show me what you've got.”
A mere glance at the Templar should have told anyone how amazingly unlikely this claim was. He went rigid, massive slabs of muscle straining against the fabric of his black fatigues. Clearly, he had never heard of these allegations and resented them.
‘I’m going to regret this.’
The Blood Raven crossed the hall in a few long strides, and dropped into the seat beside the Templar, startling him from his obviously mounting fury.
Then, everything happened at once. The Space Wolf perked up, grinning “Oh, a challenger”, while Navarre growled “I fight my own battles, witch”, and Thranis swallowed a sigh.
“This isn’t a battle, and I’m not a witch.” He put his arm on the table. “I just need to work up a little appetite, to be able to deal with this food.”
Grinning, Skrallan slid over and grabbed the offered hand with calloused fingers. “Whatever you say. Brother Navarre, give the signal.”
By now, several more brothers had come over, watching. Armwrestling wasn’t exactly spectacular, but it beat the dour silence that afflicted the Refectory otherwise.
The Templar glowered at both of them as he got up, but he didn’t refuse. “Second hand on the table. Fight clean. In the name of the Emperor, GO!” As the referee, he had to watch closely and he did.
Thranis felt the weight of his gaze more than the Space Wolf’s efforts to force his hand downwards. He pushed against the other Space Marine, planting his feet solidly on the floor so he wouldn’t be unbalanced, never taking his attention off his opponent's yellow animal eyes. It had been years since he had last done this, back when he’d been a Scout.
Now, as trainee in the Deathwatch, the situation wasn’t that different, he realised, as he shored up his will against his opponent’s enthusiasm. He had no idea if he could win – Skrallan’s Chapter was renowned for their physical strength. And yet, the Blood Raven held his own, as his body began to react to the situation. The challenge had been impulsive, but now the bout was underway, he was unwilling to lose which surprised him. Seemed like there was still enough of Scout Thranis left…
He gritted his teeth and had to concentrate not to show them in a gesture of dominance or to add his growl to the Wolf’s, who bared his fangs and began to show strain, too. Skrallan's reddish mane was dark wet already, and he blinked furiously to clear his eyes. Sweat soaked Thranis's fatigues, collected on his bald crown and ran down his face and arm. Slowly his second heart began to pick up pace in answer to the physical exertion. Only loosely was he still aware of Navarre prowling around them, and the other brothers watching.
The tabletop was getting slippery. Distantly the Blood Raven heard encouragements, and he noticed most of them seemed to be for the Space Wolf. “Take the witch!”
Adrenalin peaking in his system, Thranis finally abandoned his self-control and forced his burning biceps into supreme effort. “I’m not a witch”, he snarled.
That didn’t mean he was stupid. Teeth bared, he changed the angle of the force he brought to bear on his opponent a minute amount and gave one last heave: As Skrallan attempted to counter, his elbow slipped a fraction and the Blood Raven exploited the opportunity. Their hands crashed down and it was Thranis who was on top.
To the credit of the present brothers, they were cheering him, as the Templar announced in his death knell voice: “Winner, Thranis.”
The Space Wolf rubbed his hand. “Not bad for a witch.”
And with a speed that nobody would have believed the bulky Black Templar capable of, Navarre caught Thranis’s fist before he could lay Skrallan out.