"Kaelin!" he called, rousing his son with a smile, "let's pull in the net and go home, we've done enough for one day."
Kaelin stumbled over to the stern and bent down to grab at the net. As Cedric watched his son come toward him, he noticed a reflection in the near distance, like the glint of starlight on metal. Squinting, he leaned over the side of the ship to peer at it. He could barely make out the outline of a large ship, headed in his direction. He frowned, wondering what any ship that size would be doing in this part of the Cold Sea. Suddenly, he caught another glint out of the corner of his eye. He looked, straining his eyes to see.
Kaelin finished untangling the net and looked over at his father to see if he was ready to help him pull it in. His father seemed to be looking at something in the distance, when suddenly, his eyes went wide and the blood drained from his face. Kaelin felt an icy tremor go through him.
"What is it?" he asked nervously, looking over his shoulder to see.
"The... the net... quickly. Pull it in quickly!" Cedric cried, panic-stricken.
Suddenly afraid, Kaelin grabbed the net with both hands and pulled with all his strength as his father pulled on the other end. The net, heavy with fish came slowly and with great effort. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he heaved. He looked up to see what had so unnerved his father and he saw a ship, and then another... a fleet! The ships were huge, high-bowed and their prows were plated with steel that reflected the pale starlight, making them look like dozens of ghostly spears pointed at him. Kaelin turned back to the net, pulling with despairing might. Finally, it was in. Cedric ran to the mast crying out: "The sail! The sail!" His voice was high-pitched and cracking. Kaelin rushed over to help, looking out toward the ships as he moved. They looked much larger now, their three masts reaching up to the sky. They moved very quickly and Kaelin and his father's tiny fishing boat floated squarely in their path.
The two fishermen pulled with every bit of strength they had, and the sail jerked up along the mast. As the sail reached the top, the wind grabbed it and it billowed outward with a sharp crack. Their boat began to move, racing for the security of the shore. Kaelin turned to see the massive warships approaching them quickly. The waters around their prows were cleanly split and forcefully shoved aside. The lead ship was almost upon them. The waters around their little boat churned violently, the fishing vessel lurched and shook, throwing Cedric and his son to the deck.
Shaken and wet from the waves crashing against the hull, Kaelin turned onto his back and saw the metallic prow of the lead ship towering above him. He screamed with every last ounce of strength left to him, but the fury of the waters and the sounds of the splintering fishing boat drowned out his howl as the heavy battleship rode over them, leaving only broken fragments in its wake.
* * *
Haal Quickeye, Viceroy of Caim, stood at the bow of the Black Wind, the flagship of the Iceborn invasion fleet. He watched as the coast of Gaurvia drew nearer. As was typical of Caimen, his long hair was dark brown, matching his thick eyebrows. He was a tall man and strong, with thickly muscled arms and legs, and broad shoulders and back. A simple brown leather sheath at his side held his equally simple, steel glaive. Out of his bushy eyebrows peered two bright green eyes for which he was well known, like his father before him. His father, Dietrik Quickeye, had been born a commoner, the son of a soldier. Lacking any natural heirs, the former King had ennobled Dietrik and selected him to take the throne because of the wise council he had provided over the years. The Caimen, along with the other peoples of Varice, chose their name upon being ennobled, a custom that the Gaurvians had carried with them when they emigrated from Varice five hundred years ago
Numerous fishing boats, dwarfed by the mighty bulk of the Iceborn fleet, were pulled under the waters by the mass of the warships. The few little vessels that steered clear of the warships’ wake were rained upon by flights of flaming arrows. All ships were to be burned or sunk, by orders of the King of Varice. News of the Iceborn fleet’s incursion was to be as contained as possible, which meant killing everyone they could not contain within the city. Haal noticed a long lean galley flying Gaurvian colours moving along the coast, rushing toward the port of Rest. The ship was obviously a coastal patrol vessel as it had no sail, but a single bank of oars on each side. Haal’s breath caught for a moment as he worried that the galley might raise the alarm in the city, eliminating their advantage of surprise. The Caimen relaxed as soon as he observed the vessel more carefully. He counted about twenty-six oars on the side visible to him. The Black Wind would intercept her easily. The wind was favourable, although even if it were not, the mighty dreadnought could lower a hundred oars from each of its three banks on either side of the ship. The galley was surely revered as a fine engine of war by the complacent Gaurvians, but next to any of the invading Iceborn ships, it was a gnat. By the count of her oars, Haal judged that she could hold no more than a hundred soldiers. There were two thousand fiercesome Iceborn aboard the Black Wind, and eight thousand more aboard the other five dreadnoughts. As the flagship approached the galley, Quickeye prepared to order his bowmen to fire on the hapless vessel, until he noticed another of the dreadnoughts bearing down on the Gaurvian ship at full speed. Haal watched silently as the Merciless smashed into the smaller ship, cleaving it in two. Arrows flew swiftly and deadly into the men floundering among the wreck, leaving no survivors to chance.
As the fleet neared the long wharfs of the port, shallow rowboats were hurriedly loaded with heavily armed men and dropped to the water. The launches flew across the water, rushing past the slowing dreadnoughts under power of the grim warriors at their oars. The smaller boats beached themselves on the sandy shore. The warriors released their oars and drew their weapons. They ran into the city of Rest without a war cry or a single spoken word. As the few who had witnessed the arrival of the enemy horde attempted to raise the alarm, the Iceborn began their mayhem.
Wooden doors splintered, as frenzied warriors stormed into peasant households. Fathers and husbands were cut down by merciless axe blows, mothers and wives were beaten and raped, children were crushed by mailed fists, infants were torn from their mother’s bosom and smashed against walls. The anguished screams of the dying mixed with the gleeful cries of the destroyers. The city screamed itself awake. Peasants fled their homes, running for the city gates or the docks, desperately trying to escape the carnage. Soldiers rushed from the barracks to fight the intruders, and were met with flying javelins. A cry went up from the attackers as they revelled in their blood lust. Their halberds shattered and the watchmen crumpled under the broadswords and broadaxes of the Iceborn. The invaders swiftly slaughtered the guards, and the pillaging continued.
Haal watched the massacre with disgust. It was not by choice that he had led his soldiers, the men of Caim, into this campaign of senseless violence. Though they were occasionally drawn into fighting, mostly to defend against Siv raids, the Caimen led peaceful lives, by comparison to their neighbours. Until the day they were forced to defend themselves against the invading horde of Hargans that now ruled over the entire continent of Varice. When those Hargans and their Siv conscripts marched into the Needle Woods on their way to Haal’s borders, the Caimen were waiting for them, hidden in the trees. As the enemy army passed them by, Haal had commanded his warriors to swing out of the trees upon the unsuspecting invaders’ flank. Unfortunately, the invading army had more than doubled Haal’s in size and didn’t rely on any kind of formation, but merely the strength and brutality of its individual soldiers. The invaders fought where they stood while the rest of the army rushed to join the fray. As soon as the tide began to turn against him, Haal sounded a retreat. The Caimen’s knowledge of the woods and the Hargan and Siv’s discomfort at being surrounded by trees, allowed them to escape. They repeated their treetop attacks twice more, but when the horde had finally escaped the woods, they still vastly outnumbered the Caimen. Knowing that a head on confrontation on open ground would result in a massacre of his troops, Haal had surrendered his kingdom without any further resistance.
Haal looked over at the man who had led that horde, Masc Blackheart, self-crowned High King of all Iceborn. The man was a giant, towering over even Haal. Although he was not old, not more than thirty years, his long, coarse hair was white as snow. The pupils of his eyes, charcoal grey, showed no reflection. When Haal first looked into Masc’s eyes, it seemed to him that the greyness permeated his entire body. At his side, the Blackheart wore a naked steel bastard sword. Despite having slain countless fiercesome fighters, he bore no scars. The Blackheart had conquered the entire continent of Varice, bending the three hardened Iceborn peoples to his will. It was a feat that only one other man had ever accomplished, Byron the Bloody, son of Siv the Savage from whom the Siv people took their name; but his reign had lasted only six years. It had been nearly that already since Masc Blackheart first ruled, but he was not content. He wanted, it would seem, the world. As soon as his conquest of Varice was complete, he began preparing to take his armies over the Cold Sea. When Masc commanded Haal to have his people build him a fleet of warships, the Quickeye had asked him why he wanted to continue his conquest now that he already controlled so much.
“To rid the world of fools,” had been his cryptic answer.
The triple-decked dreadnought warships formed into a blockade around the port, killing anyone foolish or unlucky enough to wander within bowshot. The King beckoned to Quickeye as he boarded a small launch. The Viceroy immediately complied, and the small vessel was lowered into the water.
Haal stepped out of the small launch as it beached itself. He watched the man behind him disembark, a look of savage glee plastered across his face and a wicked glint in his pale blue eyes. Aachen Coldblood, Viceroy of Siv, was as cruel and cold a man as any Iceborn had ever been. Like many of the Siv, Coldblood was stocky and brawny by comparison to the other Iceborn peoples, but like all Iceborn he wore his oily black hair long.
Haal followed the Blackheart into the city, flanked by Masc’s personal guard. The sounds of battle were already beginning to fade. Broken and battered bodies littered the streets, blood flowed through the gutters, organs, viscera and severed limbs lay strewn about. Haal noticed a man wearing the mail and garb of the Gaurvians, with a broken javelin protruding from his throat, still clutching his halberd with dead hands. They passed a young woman crawling slowly from her home, gripping a dirk rammed into her stomach. She looked up at Haal, her mouth and chin covered in blood, her eyes blinded by agony, before collapsing onto the cold stones that paved the streets. Haal turned quickly away, his throat clenched, and he felt rage mounting within him. He grabbed the hilt of his sword, his knuckles whitening.
The small party walked steadily along the main street while around them, warriors ate and drank stolen food and wine, and had their way with whatever women or fresh corpses they desired. Although Haal had witnessed the savagery of the Hargans and the Siv before, he had never imagined the horror that now surrounded him. Even the callous Aachen seemed a touch disquieted by the orgy of blood he had just witnessed. The Blackheart paid no attention to his soldiers’ cruelty, his eyes fixed on the mansion at the heart of the city.
As they approached the home of the city’s Regent, they halted, watching a group of warriors dragging a bound man through the gates surrounding the estate. A broad, toothless Hargan threw the prisoner to his knees before the Blackheart. Visibly trembling, the man raised his battered head. Welts and bruises covered his face, and one eye was swollen shut. He coughed suddenly, racking his lungs, and finally spat out a glob of blood. Unmoved, Masc looked at the warriors and spoke.
“Did he manage to send any birds?”
“Aye, one rook took flight, but Irthag there put an arrow through it.” As the toothless warrior reported, two others clapped their comrade on the back with a wordless shout of triumph. Masc did not answer them, but instead looked down at the man at his feet.
“And what is to be done with you now?” asked the Blackheart, his tone flat.
“I am Jarren Freeborn, Regent of Rest. I will die with honour, while you will suffer the torments of the honourless.”
Gaurvians and Iceborn shared the same language, Berish, but a distinct accent, evolved over the years of separation, distinguished their way of speaking. Haal academically noted the man’s Gaurvian accent as he steeled himself against any compassion he felt for the doomed man. He did not know what Masc had in mind for the bold Regent, but he knew he would not like it. The King was not known for his mercy, instead, he was known for his lack of it. Freeborn stopped shivering, and his eye showed a gleam of defiance as he glared up at the conqueror towering above him. The warriors ceased their jabbering and looked hesitantly at their sovereign.
“I will see you again in Gehenna, where you should grow a more rigid spine than you did in this life.”
Masc drew his heavy sword and beheaded the man with one clean stroke. The lifeless body thudded to the ground, blood spattering over Haal’s boots. The warriors laughed raucously and took up their witless chattering as they returned to the pillaging. As the Blackheart grinned in satisfaction, Haal reflected that rather than showing any kind of emotion, that smile showed only teeth.