This story is by Alex Klark and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I remember the day they came.
It was a peaceful morning with pink skies and purple seas. The sand was soft and cool as I pushed my fingers deep into the ground. Behind me, the ocean crested and fell, water splashing at my feet.
Our village was small and friendly, comprised of farmers including my father. So, when they came ashore, we had no fighting chance.
“Be careful of the waves, Joseph!” shouted my mother in the distance.
I ignored her, continuing to dig and scoop like a dog hiding bone. Mother always said that even though I’d gone in the water before with father. With him, I was never afraid—braved the surf and held my breath underwater until we emerged.
My mother’s shriek drew my attention. I snapped my head towards her, then followed her eyes to the water. A large, lurking, figure appeared on the water’s horizon. A shape unlike any I’d ever seen with a long neck and a face carved of fierce teeth and round, hollow eyes of doom. I stumbled back, kicking my feet and crawling backward, pawing at the sand to distance myself from the approaching peril.
More appeared—a fleet of them—as my mother snatched me up, heaving me onto her chest and running. Unable to look away, I watched in both fear and astonishment as tentacles unraveled from their centers and gave birth to a mass of screaming fiends, spilling onto the beach, ripping and roaring towards us.
Mother burst into our house for protection, laid the log across the door and scurried into the bedroom. Desperate to hide me, she stashed me under the bed, the sole hiding place our home had to offer and gave me a strong shush, putting her fingers at her lips.
“You must be quiet, Joe.”
A thunderous crash sounded the room; the creature had broken through the door in a single effort. Wood splinters spliced the air and she stifled a scream.
Outside, I heard the shouts of our neighbors and commotion resonating from the livestock. Inside, I traced my mother’s footsteps as she prepared to face the danger. The creature’s woolly feet dripped, soggy from the beach and squished with each closing step. My mother shuffled, maybe she had a weapon, wielded a kitchen knife or broomstick, I’m not sure, but in a single crack and thud, she fell.
Mother had collapsed in an angle with her eyes facing me—they were open with an emotionless stare—and body twisted the opposite. She exhibited no movement and silently, a crimson plume blossomed underneath her.
So much blood.
It soaked into her blonde hair like dipping a brush in wood stain, then flowed toward me. I pulled my hand away, tucking it into my chest. Salt tinged my lips, but this was no time to wipe my wet face as the creature bypassed mother’s body and ventured beyond my line of sight. Heavy footfalls landed behind me and I held still, tight in a little ball, and prayed for father’s return from the field.
Without warning, a firm grip seized me around the waist and yanked.
“No!” I screamed and reached for mother, slapped my hands into that pool of blood I was avoiding seconds ago, calling for her. “Ma!”
I kicked and squirmed without avail; the creature was strong and held me snug. It was hairy, an animal, and smelled foul—a combination of blood, fish rot, and salt spray. Instinctively, I leaned forward and bit the appendage around me. It roared and dropped me free. I scrambled to my feet, slipping slightly in blood and fled. Outside, I was met with thick, stinging smoke. Squinting, I watched other creatures breathe fire, setting homes and barns ablaze.
Automatically, I flanked right into the fields, towards father, and ran. My small size gave me an advantage, able to snake between the crop rows while the creature slashed and hacked its path through. Plus, I was no stranger to the whip of the tall grasses, I had played in the fields often. But this was no game, I was being hunted.
“Papa!” I choked. “Papa!”
Panicked, I peered back to gauge the distance between prey and predator. Suddenly, my foot struck a lump and I was propelled forward, falling with hands splayed and landed with dirt in my mouth. I turned and discovered the source of my fall.
He lay motionless on the ground, face up, but eyes closed.
I threw my body on him and fisted his shirt. “Papa! Wake up!” I tugged. “Please! Wake up…” But, like mother, there was no life left in him. With nowhere else left to flee, no one else to protect me, I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him.
The creature’s heavy breathing alerted me to its presence. I expected to have been snatched up immediately, but it hesitated—seemed to understand—and gave me a moment to grieve. When its arms returned around my waist, I went without fight and hung limp in sorrow.
13 years later.
A heavy, familiar, arm draped across my shoulder as we spotted the first sign of land in weeks. It had been my longest journey yet and I paused my oar.
“Are you ready, my second?”
I nodded to my mentor, my guardian, and, our leader.
“Yes, Commander,” I replied.
“You’ve proven yourself well, eh?”
Again, I nodded and returned to rowing with my necklace of bones clanking in cadence. The past decade of forays had become routine, encroaching on small towns plundering food, stealing riches, and indulging in womanly or otherwise, physical pleasures. This next incursion was a crucial turning point; ahead lay a city with a king and promise towards a new way of life.
“You’re the special one,” Commander said, gripping the nape of my neck.
Commander said this to me since I was a child and I never understood why he kept me (raised me) until now.
The thick of the morning fog aided our approach, blurred the silhouette of our ships as we disembarked. We took the outskirts in silence, twists of necks and deep slices across throats.
“Prepare the ropes,” I instructed.
As expected, our presence was detected during the ascent of the walls. Horns sounded, and the resistance began. Their soldiers marched while civilians fled. We lost some to fire-tipped arrows and others to catapulted rock. But, when we succeeded over the city walls, they ultimately fell to our swords.
They were weak, and I was proud of my people, plunging blades with purpose and throwing axes with precision. Efficiency in every blow. The city’s defeat was imminent, and they retreated into the castle as a final sanctuary.
In less than ten strokes, the throne doors yielded to the battering ram and a gust of wooden fibers filled the air. Entering, we infringed on a devout sight; the King and his people were joined in prayer.
“Be strong and courageous,” the King recited. “Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD, your God goes with you; he—”
I cleared my throat and switched to my native tongue. “Your prayers will not help you,” I said.
Several gasps echoed behind the King while he squinted his eyes, judging me and trying to see past my mask, past the warpaint.
“Who are you? And how do you speak our language?” the King demanded.
“My name is Joseph.” I upturned my hands in an introductory motion. “We are the Northmen and my leader, the Commander,” I nodded toward my mentor, “has a proposal for you.”
The King’s face scrunched in understanding, then turned to anger. “How could you?” he said. “These are—are your people too! You traitor! You should be hanged for your—”
I drew my dagger in a threatening gesture that silenced the King. Checkmated, he changed his demeanor and reluctantly, raised an eyebrow.
“As you know…” I continued and began to clean the blood-stained blade across my wrist guard, which was fabricated from my proudest kill, a polar bear. “We’ve ransacked your land for years. Accordingly, it has become… wearisome and not a very sustainable way of existence. Your soils are rich, and rain, plentiful. Therefore, I’m here to negotiate a treaty. What say you?”
Before the King responded, a young girl afront the commoners began to cry, sucking in her quivering lower lip. I turned to look at her and she flinched. Her hair was blonde, tousled from the chaos of panic and survival. A color I used to be so familiar, so fond of, and so long ago. Reminded, I knew exactly what she was thinking—what I looked like to a child her age.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said and wiped the warpaint from my eyes. “See? I am no monster, just a man.”