“Valgard, what does that look like to you?” asks Eirik.
“That’s an army of unstoppable, armored myths,” Valgard replies.
Reports of dredge sightings had been pouring into the city of Strand almost every day. Scouts either came back from the north with what sounded like gross exaggerations, or they didn’t come back at all. Eirik would have gone to check for himself if he wasn’t responsible for the well-being of the city.
But now, stomping down from the hills toward Strand was nothing short of an invasion of the colossal stone warriors, framed upon the backdrop of ominous, booming storm clouds.
“Hurry to the upper city,” Eirik shouts above a whistling wind to Valgard, who is already hoofing it up the steep hill. “Tell those idiot holdouts to evacuate with the rest or they’re going to die in their precious homesteads!”
“And you?” yells back Valgard, over his shoulder, “Where are you planning to die?”
“The docks!” Eirik replies. He stutters, ready to add that he had no intention of dying there. Valgard was already gone, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the smirk that must have been on his face.
Strand is a city of trade between the lands of the humans and the varl; horned giants who had brokered a tentative peace with their neighbors, so long ago. Men and varl had almost even started to get along lately. But the city was also built like a fortress on a hill because that wasn’t always the case. A skirmish with angry varl is one thing— an invasion from dredge is another. And when they began to march from the realm of fables and against Strand’s walls, most of the traders fled to the seas. Anyone who couldn’t afford their outrageous fees fled south on foot. With the black-clad nightmare storming over the hills this very moment, Eirik thinks that opportunity may have passed...
His heart racing, Eirik finally reaches what looks like a flotsam battlefield; ship wreckage in the water and along the shoreline, where disagreements turned to bloodshed. Still, if he squinted it didn’t look much different from the average tournament week in Strand. Just higher stakes, he’d tell himself.
A shout draws Eirik’s eye to where men in the Governor’s colors are bouncing angry townsfolk off their shields. One of the guards has caught himself on fire trying to pull thrown torches off the last ship still floating in the bay. Approaching from behind, Eirik bowls over a man no doubt leading the revolt, and plants an axe in his back. No time for diplomacy. Accomplices spit and curse as they scatter from the docks.m
“Run all the way out of Strand, you dumb bastards!” a guard barks. It’s an insult Eirik never cared for. Working to snuff the fire from singed timber, the guard tells Eirik, “The other two ships got busted up when we wouldn’t let ‘em be stolen.”
Only one remains. The guard’s pleading expression is easy to read.
“Alright,” Eirik exhales. “I’ll tell the governor he’s out of time. We’ll be back soon.”
It was no great secret that despite being the Steward of Strand, Eirik really works for the Governor, a man with a long history of getting himself nearly killed; if not by backstabbing clan leaders, then his own steadfast stubbornness. Eirik spins, sprinting from the docks and up the long hill leading to the Great Hall.
As he bursts through the great hall doors, Eirik wonders how many people must have done the same, noting their wobbling hinges. He’d have looked into fixing them if the whole city weren’t being torn asunder. These are the sort of thoughts that invade your head when there’s something so monumental happening that you haven’t properly conceived of it yet.
Strand was about to disappear.
“I want to bring the tapestry,” the Governor says, pawing at a gold and red weaving above his throne. More poor decision making in the face of annihilation.
“Why didn’t you take it down before now?” Eirik sighs. He already knows the man’s obsession with the banner, and the lineage that gave the Governor his throne in Strand. Eirik’s heard that story a few too many times.
“We’re out of time,” Eirik continues. “I’ve got a ship ready for us in the— who is this?”
Alongside the Governor are a host of attendants and personal bodyguards, who have gathered a comical amount of unnecessities at the Governor’s behest, but two empty-handed guests are unfamiliar. One is a hawkish woman with platinum hair and a painted face, the other a varl wearing a heavy cloak that hides his face. The kind of people Eirik thinks he really should have noticed sooner.
“A Valka!” the Governor says proudly, as if he had had the foresight to reach out to the spellweaver’s council for help. He had not.
“I am Alfrun,” says the woman. Eirik has spent a lot of time sizing people up over his career, and he considers himself pretty good at it. This one gives off a powerful confidence, but there’s certainly something off about the pair, too.
“My companion is called Kivi,” Alfrun continues. “The council sent me to accompany the Governor of Strand to Manaharr where we can speak. We should go now.”
Alfrun eyes Eirik as if daring him to disagree. Strange day, he thinks, but the Valka’s tower at Manaharr is the same direction they were heading regardless. There will be time to work out the details on the ship. Now where is...
“I’m here,” says Valgard, stumbling through the doors, holding his bloodied neck. He flinches at his wounds as he adds, “Not sure it was worth it. The rich fools who wouldn’t leave their homes are certainly staying now.”
The dredge are wasting no time.
“The Valka’s right,” Eirik says, turning aside her gaze. “We should go now.” Just beyond the window, Eirik can see dredge cresting the hillside like swarming black insects.
“That serving plate,” the Governor motions to an attendant.
“Leave it!” shouts Eirik, dragging the Governor out of the great hall. “Are you alright?” he adds, noting that the elderly man is behaving oddly, his breathing heavy. He seems almost delirious.
“Long day,” he replies. Eirik wonders when the Governor last slept.
The group shuffles down empty streets toward the harbor with arm-fulls of luxury goods, the sounds of a dying city echo off the ring of mountains that form the bay inlet. Their ship comes into view down in the bay.
“Only one?” gasps the Governor.
“More importantly, why is it leaving?” Valgard points out. The vessel is unmistakably pulling away from the harbor.
The guards must have been slaughtered, thinks Eirik, the ship floating away unmanned. But when he sees gold and red-clad figures moving on the deck, the painful truth is inescapable.
“Traitors!” Eirik screams, his voice rising above the destruction like a ringing bell. The guards stand in the ship and look to the Governor on the hill, but make no motion to return. Even from this distance their stillness bleeds shame.
Then the waters around the ship churn, as if buffeted by rain or the pecking of hungry fish. Black prongs emerge from the bay’s reflective surface, dozens of flat-horned helms peeking from below. The side of the ship is gripped by black claws, topples, and is torn to splinters. The water goes red.
Pouring down from the mountains, dredge had simply walked into the bay, across its muddy bottom. Now they came from below, onto the shore, up the hill.
“So, back to the great hall?” asks Valgard.
Ascending the hill once again, Eirik spies what looks likes stars against the backdrop of the dark sky, like the return of night. It’s not stars. It’s the shimmering eyes of dredge. Valgard draws his heavy shield from over his back. “Eirik, get everyone else back inside! Guards, form up on me!”
The guards bravely rush forth, a credit to their training, their shields joining into a wall as the men move together. They crash into the dredge line, wood cracking as stone axes find purchase in their round shields. But they hold.
The sight does nothing to help the Governor, whose pale forehead glistens. Eirik grabs the unwell man and guides him back to the great hall, but the dredge mass begins to seep around the guard’s formation.
In the mad scramble, both the governor’s attendants fall with a clatter of silver bowls and meaningless trinkets. One guard dies before he hit the ground, and another suffers the loss of a leg. He would bleed out before he could be pulled back to the thick walls of the great hall.
The Valka and her enormous companion haven’t lifted a finger, Eirik fumes. Mid-thought, he learns why.
Dredge await before the doors. Alfrun’s companion throws off his cloak to reveal not a varl, but another colossal dredge, indistinguishable from the rest. At first the others hesitate, confused, then they attack, hissing. Kivi scoops a fallen tower shield from the ground and wades into the fray with his coal-black axe until it is hard to tell one dredge from another.
A scream from back toward the great hall shakes Eirik out of his daze, hissing stones skipping off the ground around him, shattering in bursts of blue flame as he sprints uphill, his legs burning. He spies Valgard doing the same along with the guards who are still standing.
“Bar the doors!” shouts Eirik, stumbling only as Kivi enters last, pushing the doors shut behind with a heavy hand. Worn wood creaks under his weight. Eirik wishes for the second time that day he had fixed the loose hinges on the great hall doors as he wedges an over-turned table against them.
Valgard fights with the frenzy of a cornered animal to keep dredge from pouring through other openings, and to cover breaches from the stinging storm wind. Kivi remained motionless at the doors, covered in the blood of his own kind. The last of the guards dies to a dredge arm thrust between wooden boards that has to be severed before it would withdraw, while the Governor droops against the back wall, holding his head. When Eirik turns again to check on him, he is holding his chest.
The Governor falls to the floor, tearing down the banner that had hung behind his throne for generations.
“Where’s the wound?” shouts Valgard, pulling the man out from beneath the tapestry. “Where’s the Valka, can’t they heal wounds?”
Alfrun stands over the gasping man, wearing a deep frown. “There’s no wound,” she says. “His heart is failing, I can see it. If I am to pull at these threads it may do more harm than good.”
“Try!” Eirik shouts, but the Governor grabs his hand. He’s pulled close before he can protest. The dying man whispers meekly and Eirik strains to hear it.
“I know I must seem like a doddering fool these last few hours, Eirik,” he says. “Foolish and afraid. That’s not how I want to be remembered... by my son… the one who was here when it mattered.” The acknowledgement is not a revelation to Eirik, but it is the first time it had been uttered aloud. That’s heavy enough. Eirik always had plenty of other things to worry about than being a bastard, but it was no coincidence that he had stayed in Strand long past when it made sense to do so.
The Governor continues, “The banner is yours by rights, and... I want you to have it. I know you’ll survive this.” He smiles between gasps. “In a way, I’m glad we came back. This is where I should stay.”
The vicious pounding on the doors stops. The heavy footsteps recede, and there is a low, deep silence in the great hall that eventually comes to rest, as does Strand’s last living Governor.
The survivors in the great hall look between one another. Eirik and his long-time friend Valgard. A woman who claims to be a Valka, and a dredge warrior. The bodies of fallen guards and attendants, and Eirik’s dead father- the Governor of Strand- laying half-covered by his banner. The room shudders as the storm rumbles overhead, raising its own voice: a chorus of unnatural wails and shrieks.
Alfrun sits cross-legged on the floor, painting shapes in the air with her fingers, looking out of place. Lights begin to twinkle around her, illuminating the torn and blighted skin of her hands and forearms. Her face and clothes look like casualties of hard living. And last Eirik checked, Valka didn’t have dredge bodyguards. The cavernous room, tainted by the smell of rust and smoke, made dark as a crypt by the blackness outside, takes on a golden glow.
“This is no storm,” Alfrun says. “It is a curse.”
“Who are you?” Eirik growls.
“I am still only Alfrun. I’m afraid I’m no Valka, as you have suspected. And this is Kivi, a friend. We came as ambassadors. A darkness is swallowing this land, pushing the dredge along with anyone else caught in it. I lied to your Governor because it was quicker; we needed a ship to outpace this calamity. I’ll admit, it was much harder turning your attentions away then the rest of them.”
She sighs, with an overwhelming sense of resignation. “But there’s no getting ahead of the darkness now, not on foot. We’re stuck here. So stay within the light.”
“Why should we believe you’re an ambassador for them?” Valgard replies, nodding his head toward Kivi. “The same dredge that just tore Strand to pieces and trapped us here?”
Kivi moves for the first time in hours, unnaturally still before, like a stone. The dredge reveals a hammer and chisel, and takes a silver serving platter from a table. He raps the edge of the plate with the hammer, and carves bevels onto its vibrating surface as effortlessly as if writing with quill and ink.
Kivi slides the plate to Eirik. There is a series of images, similar in style to those woven into the tapestry covering the Governor. In astounding detail, it shows two groups of dredge heading in different directions. When Eirik looks at his father’s banner, he sees how the carvings were meant to be an amendment to the story woven there.
“A lot of history beneath the surface,” says Alfrun, tapping the floor. “Bigger than what I can tell you now, about the sculptors learning to be born, and two generations of what you call dredge that are not the same... and the Sundr who killed each other to ensure war instead of peace.”
Eirik takes it all in. He looks to Valgard, who shrugs unhelpfully.
“Why not explain it right now?” Eirik asks.
“Because right now,” replies Alfrun. “We have bigger problems.”
A violent banging on the doors comes again, similar to before, but this time alongside wailing and screaming as if souls were being torn from their dead bodies. Planks burst from the impact of twisted and warped weapons. Dark monstrosities instantly replace whatever fear Eirik had of dredge.
“Don’t run,” Alfrun says calmly. “There’s another light, far on the horizon. And it’s coming to us.”