Note: This is a sequel to my earlier series, Season of Ice.
The city lay in ruins.
As the longboats commandeered by Mabinne and her magic-users sailed off to the south, the primary port city of Ikslund lay frozen, covered by ice as deep as a big man was tall. Buildings had collapsed under the weight of the ice; the roads into the city were blocked. People standing in the open were locked into sheathes of ice, freezing and suffocating. Thousands died in a few minutes after Mabinne had crushed the soul crystal, directed the overwhelming flow of power into her ice magic and locked the city and the port solidly under an instant glacier.
But the late-summer sun still shone on the city. Before Mabinne’s commandeered ships were out of sight, water began to drip from the ice.
On the outskirts of the city, the ice ran thinner and thinner as the distance from the port increased. A league from the port, the ice was only a fingers-width thick, and people and stock easily pulled free. Within the hour riders were fanning out, across the countryside, to inform Ikslund of the disaster. One veteran of the King’s cavalry saddled his horse and headed for the King’s court at Thunder Castle, a day’s ride to the east. Within a day, Ikslunders bundled in winter clothing were entering the city, looking for survivors.
Nightfall brought a halt to the searching all too soon, but in the morning more people had gathered. Two men, brothers, tied iron ice-walkers to their boots and penetrated the city as far as the harbor. A horrible sight awaited them.
“It’s like whoever did this had a grudge,” one of them said.
Here, by the docks, the layer of ice was not as thick, covering the ground and the wooden docks to a depth of no more than a hands-breadth. Here and there, on the docks and around the nearby offices and warehouses, were strange, upright caskets of ice, ice frozen hard as granite, only now showing signs of thaw as the morning sun strengthened.
And in each casket was an Ikslunder. Most of them had the look of summer raiders, although some of the caskets contained dock workers, merchants and, in several heartbreaking instances, children.
One of the brothers gave voice to both of their thoughts: “It’s as though one of the ice giants from the old legends took form and froze the city.”
“Look, over there. One of these ice coffins is broken open.”
A few paces away one of the caskets was indeed broken. A stout figure, wrapped in a sodden bison-hide jacket, hung from the ice, his head, upper chest and right arm exposed. The brothers hurried to his side.
“Gods beneath us,” one of them exclaimed. “He’s still breathing.”
“Let’s get this ice chipped away. We need to get him to the healers. He may be the only one who can tell everyone what happened here.”
Thunder Castle, Ikslund: Two years after the fall of Port Stronghold
King Harald Iron-Jaw was getting on in years, having just seen his sixty-fifth summer. Twenty years earlier, after his successful war against Beretan, Jutland and Mondria, he had been a great hero to the Ikslunders. Now – now, with the magic-user army of Mabinne the Merciless ravaging their country, he was rather less so.
Harald was a big man, like most Ikslunder men; broad-shouldered, ruddy faced, with thick red hair and a magnificent russet beard, both now streaked with gray. Seated on his mammoth-tusk throne in the castle’s great hall, wearing his shaggy mammoth-hide robes of office, he still cut an imposing figure.
But the war was damaging his standing in Ikslund. Unless something changed, he was in danger of facing a Moot, at which the nation of Ikslund would choose a new king.
He was hoping that the man who now stood in front of him could change all that. This was, after all, the sole survivor of the fall of Port Stronghold.
The man was clearly badly damaged by the freezing of Ikslund’s major port. He had, Harald had been told, only survived because his great strength had somehow enabled him to move his head back and forth enough to crack the ice over his face, allowing him to breathe – barely – and to eventually work himself free. But on the rest of him, the frost had taken its toll. His left leg was missing below the knee, where a wooden peg now took the place of the missing appendage. His right foot, Harald had been told, was wooden as well, after the amputation of everything below the ankle. His left arm ended just below the elbow, and on that stump, he wore a heavy leather-and-wood appendage that ended in a heavy iron casting, made to look like the head of a blacksmith’s hammer. His right hand was missing the fourth and fifth fingers, but Harald understood that the man had, in the months since he had gotten out of the recovery bed, been training himself to cast a heavy lance with his ruined right hand.
The rest of him, at least what was visible under the heavy bison-skin robes he wore, was badly scarred by severe frostbite. A patch covered his missing left eye. His long, tangled hair and his matted beard were as white as new snow, but he looked strong enough.
It was his expression that impressed the King. He wore a dark scowl, his one blue eye glittered with rage. This was a man bent on vengeance.
“So,” Harald said. “You are the man of legend; the man storytellers are singing of. The sole survivor of Port Stronghold.”
The man bent his head in a minimal show of respect. “I am, Highness.” His ruined voice was that of black water dripping into cold pools in some dark place.
“What do you seek?”
“Revenge for yourself? Or revenge for Port Stronghold?”
“Both,” the man answered, candidly.
“That may take some time,” the King informed him. “Mabinne’s army – and navy – is growing day by day.”
“Revenge, Highness,” the big man rasped, “is patient.”
“You know Mabinne the Merciless personally, I am given to understand.”
“I do. I took her as a slave on a raid to Beretan, the year before Port Stronghold fell. As I had no woman at my farm, I kept her on, instead of sending her to the slave market. She was mine for a year, and with her magic-users wiles, she found her way into my confidence, and into my affections, which is why I removed her binding collar.” He stopped to catch his breath; clearly speaking was not easy for him. “I assure you, Highness, I will make no similar mistake in the future. And, Highness, that makes me ideally suited to bring her to her just end. I know the bitch, as no one else does.”
“I remember your father,” the King mused. “A braver warrior never drew breath. Can you live up to him?”
“I can, Highness. I will.”
“Step forward, then, you who was Hengist Jorgenson, now known as Hengist Hammer-Fist.”
Hengist limped forward, to just in front of the throne. “I cannot easily kneel, Highness,” he apologized.
“Never mind that,” Harald said, waving a dismissive hand. “That’s not necessary.”
Hengist nodded gratefully.
The King extended his hand. “I name you General Hengist Hammer-Fist. I have five ships and five hundred men at the port of Greenstead. They are to be yours.”
Now the big man bowed, as deeply as his ruined body would allow. “Endless thanks, Highness. I swear, by the scars I bear, by my life, by my blood, by my teeth, by the bones of my father, and by all the gods below, that I will bring Mabinne the Merciless before you, in a binding collar and chains – and nothing else.”
“Now that,” the King said, “I will look forward to.” He produced a scroll, handed it to the scarred man. “Your commission. I will order an escort to take you to Greenstead.”
“With all my heart, I thank you, Highness. You will not regret this.”
“I’m sure I won’t. I have another gift for you, Hammer-Fist.” The King turned to a nearby servant and made a gesture. The servant nodded and disappeared. “Would you object to magic-users in your army?”
“I would not,” Hengist replied. “Indeed, it would help to even the odds.”
“Good.” The King smiled as two women entered the great hall, escorted by the servant. “I give you the twins – Agneyastra and Kristol Anagsdottir. They are well motivated; they, too, seek revenge against Beretan.”
“Fire and ice,” Hengist mused. “That would be useful.” He nodded to the twins. “I presume you took your names from your powers?”
“We did.” The women each raised their hands, Agneyastra her left, Kristol her right. Agneyastra’s hand lit up with a clear, blue flame. Kristol’s hand gave off a sparkling haze of ice crystals. “Our magic is substantially more powerful if we are in contact.” They joined hands, and both displays strengthened noticeably.
“Interesting. Are you willing to spend months afield or at sea, to fight, to suffer, to eat bad food and suffer cold, heat, seasickness, to see your comrades wounded and killed, to stand the chance of being wounded or killed yourselves?”
“Our parents were killed in a Beretanian raid when we were but six summers,” Agneyastra said. “Also, our younger brother. Our older sister was taken as a slave. For all we know she is still enslaved somewhere in Beretan.”
“We will suffer anything,” Kristol added. “Anything, in the name of vengeance.”
“I think we will get on very well,” Hengist said. He regarded the twins. They were typical Ikslund women in being tall, long-legged, and fair. They seemed to be about his age; both had pale blue eyes and pale blonde, almost white hair, gathered into two braids that hung over their shoulders. Hengist noted also that they were identically beautiful.
That part of him, at least, was still fully functional.
It will be difficult to tell them apart, Hengist realized. Never mind. I suppose that will sort itself out. “Greenstead is a two-day ride away. Have you horses?”
“I will order the stables to provide horses for them,” the King interjected.
“Good. Highness, by your leave, we will depart at once.”
“Of course. May the gods see to your success.”
Hengist nodded to the King. He glanced at the twins, who smiled, nastily, identically, angrily, with narrowed eyes. “I presume you have clothes and so forth to gather. Can you meet me at the front gate in an hour?”
“We will be there,” Kristol said.