Twan van Tilborg – Regicide
“Oars up, lads.”
Two dozen oars creaked in their oarlocks as the rowers turned them upwards, letting the Regicide cut through the icy waves on its own. King Helbrec hung on the tiller, forcing the prow of the longship to larboard, smoothly steering around a jagged chunk of ice. The men were quiet, frost settling in their beards as they breathed, their eyes locked on the frozen crags ahead.
“We’re going in,” Helbrec said. “Signal the Lamprey and ready your weapons.”
Old Man Ulloc waved a lantern at the longboat following in their wake, while the warriors on deck picked up pikes, axes, and jagged harpoons. They were his veterans, the shields on their back encrusted with tokens earned in countless hunts and battles, yet despite several centuries of experience between them, not a man looked at ease. There were no pre-battle jokes or bets, no hands slapped on fur-clad shoulders. Just sullen silence. Helbrec shivered as he eased his grip on the tiller, and the Regicide settled in its course between two towering crags of pale-blue ice.
“Larboard!” the lookout at the prow shouted. “Body in the water!”
Helbrec’s guts turned to slush as half the crew rushed to the gunwale, reaching across the water with boathooks. The half-frozen corpse was heaved over the side and rolled onto the deck. Helbrec saw the green shield on its back, and breathed out. Not Cylle. It’s not my little girl.
A crewman Helbrec’s age sunk to his knees by the body, sobbing as he brushed a lock of stiff hair out of the brine-bloated face. His brothers in arms laid hands on his shoulders. “We’ll end her for this,” they said, grateful that it wasn’t their son or daughter, face down in the water. That feeling of relief didn’t last long.
The strait between the crags widened like a funnel, giving way to a black expanse of sea. The wrecked remains of the large merchant ship they sought sat embedded in the side of an iceberg. The pungent reek of putrefaction lay on the air like a fog.
“Gods beyond, help us all,” Helbrec muttered. The sea between them and the shipwreck was dotted with floating corpses. Eels churned up the water as they feasted on bloated flesh, fighting as they ripped at the bodies. There was a splash as a nearby corpse was suddenly pulled under. Crewmen muttered prayers to the Gods, their fingers twitching as they made signs to ward off evil.
“Signal the Lamprey to start collecting the bodies,” Helbrec said. “We’ll check the wreckage.” That’s where Cylle will be, he promised himself. She’s a survivor, always was.
The oars dipped into the water, and they crossed the distance in a few quick strokes. The wreckage looked even worse up close; shattered timbers, fallen mast bobbing as the waves caught the waterlogged sail. It looked like the vessel had been flung against the ice.
They shouted for survivors, hoping any were alive to hear them. There was no reply, so they tied the longship to the wreckage and lowered a boarding plank. Helbrec shrugged his shield off his shoulder, took up his axe, and was the first to cross. He squeezed through a splintery hole in the side, and had to fight back the urge to vomit as he took in the sight inside.
There were more corpses here, most torn apart in the crash, bloody pincushions stuck with splinters. Those weren’t the ones that turned Helbrec’s stomach, though.
Old Man Ulloc climbed in behind him and swore. “Ysgubor Brennin did this,” he muttered. Queen Undertow. Helbrec shivered. Four of the bodies had been killed through constriction, their arms and legs broken, skin bruised. They were covered in thick, blue slime.
“They fought back,” Ulloc muttered, dipping a finger in it. “Gods, did they fight back. Blue-blooded bitch.”
Helbrec didn’t respond. He looked around, searching the corpses, the weight in his stomach increasing. Cylle wasn’t among them.
There was a splintering crash from outside, followed by cries of alarm. Helbrec immediately worked his way through the hole in the ship’s side. He leapt back to the Regicide, his nose revolting against the putrid stench, which was stronger than ever. “What the fuck happened?” he roared, and his men pointed out across the water. The sea churned where the Lamprey had been moments ago, warriors drifting in the freezing water, crying out for help. Helbrec was just in time to see a long, scarlet tentacle wrap itself around a sailor, pulling him down.
“To the oars,” Helbrec shouted, his hand on the tiller. “Get us underway! Let’s have the Regicide live up to her name! We’re killing ourselves some bloody royalty today!” The oars dipped into the water, and the Regicide gained speed – then came to a jarring stop.
The longship rose from the water, thick, oozing tentacles creeping up the sides, wrapping themselves around the mast. The timbers groaned under the pressure. Men hacked at the creature, opening long gashes in its oily skin, thick, blue blood splattering. Helbrec pulled on the tiller, but he was too late. The Regicide was raised above the water for a lingering moment, then disappeared beneath the waves.
Burning cold brought Helbrec back to his senses. His lungs were screaming, his body wrapped in a red tentacle, tight like a vice. There were men around him, bodies towed by the current, grasped by tentacles, banging into the remains of the Regicide, and amidst the wreckage…
Luminous eyes in a gargantuan, scarlet body, its writhing tentacles grasping for corpses, pulling them down to a beak-like maw. Helbrec saw her, then, locked in another tentacle, held up against Undertow’s hideous body. Cylle. Drowned, her long curls flowing in the icy water. Helbrec screamed, and his lungs filled with ice. He thrashed and struggled, his vision blacking out.
His fingers found the haft of his axe, and regicide was the last thing on his mind.