Far to the west – the Sea of Dreams

Mabinne awoke slowly.  She could hear her people moving around outside the large tent that made up her sleeping quarters.  A gentle wind rippled the canvas.  The morning sun shining through the trees made a shifting pattern of shadows on the tent.

Mabinne the Merciless, she mused.  More like Mabinne the Exhausted.

Mabinne yawned.  She got up from the hard pallet on the canvas floor, used her slops pot, splashed her face with some water from a basin on a low table next to her pallet.  She pulled her nightshirt off over her head, dropped it on the pallet and dressed quickly, donning neither an ankle-length dress as she would have worn in Beretan nor the tunic and leggings she had worn in Ikslund, but instead a light jersey of some off-white Jutlander fabric.  The jersey hung to her knees, so she simply added a belt about her waist, pulled on some knee-high, soft leather boots and went outside.

The sun was already well up.  Mabinne felt a trifle guilty for sleeping late, as many of her followers were already moving about, but she reminded herself that they were not on campaign at the moment.  You can’t worry about everything, she reminded herself, and you need sleep as much as anyone, and probably more than most.

An old rumor voiced by an older Beretanian man in Mabinne’s army had led them to sail west, seemingly off the face of the earth, to find the archipelago of islands in the middle of a warm current that ran up from the south.  The camp was set on the beach on one of the larger islands, a good way above the tideline in the shade of some scattered trees, close enough to the water to see any ships approaching.  That seemed unlikely, since in her year with the seagoing Ikslunders Mabinne had not heard anyone even speak of islands to the west; the appellation of Sea of Dreams had been assigned by Mabinne herself, on first beholding the lovely, green, warm lands contained therein.

A person could build a home here, she thought, not for the first time.  A people could build a society here.  Some of the people had explored inland and found forests of oak and maple farther from the salt water, as well as a rocky spine of mountains in the middle of the island.  The forests were full of birds, and there were fish in the sparkling streams that ran down from the mountains but oddly, nothing with fur lived in the archipelago.

It was a warm morning.  Mabinne walked over to the communal cooking area.  A large kettle stood on one of the fire-pits.  Mabinne found a metal cup, poured some tea, stuck a forefinger in the cup and cooled it until it was near freezing, as she preferred her morning tea cold on warm days.

“Lady Mabinne,” a gravelly voice greeted her.  Mabinne looked up to see a pale, ice-eyed Jutlander, Andreas Kokko, who led the soldier’s contingent of Mabinne’s army; that is, the portion of her forces that were not magic-users, but ordinary troops.  With his men, Mabinne’s ‘army’ had grown in number to almost five hundred, and that army was now scattered across three nearby islands, fishing, hunting, preserving food, resting, and preparing for the next attack.

“General Kokko,” Mabinne greeted the man.

“Lady,” the man went on, “we have been on the island a ten-day.  My men are becoming restless.  When do you anticipate sailing back to the mainland?  When do we take the fight to the enemy again?”

“I would like everyone to have another day or two to rest,” Mabinne thought out loud.  “There is a trading village in Ikslund, south of the mountains, on the Black River.  I would like to take that village.  There is something there that may prove very useful to my magic-users.”  She reached into her tunic pocket and brought out the one remaining soul crystal, that she had bought in the magic shop in Tillgatt, the year before.  The crystal, hanging on a silver chain, sparkled in the sunlight, black with hints of deep purple.  “This,” she said.  “When held by a magic-user, can enhance their abilities greatly.  But I have only the one, and as I understand, they do not last forever; they can be used gradually, or they can be crushed and give the wielder a sudden, overwhelming burst of magical power.”

“Ah,” Kokko nodded.  “Port Stronghold.”

“Indeed.  That is what happened to my other soul crystal.  They are a thing of the Ashlands, but I found two in a shop in Tillgatt.  I would like to find more.”

“Without going all the way to the Ashlands,” Kokko nodded.  “I see.  Well, Lady, may I tell my men to prepare to depart the day after tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Mabinne conceded.  “That will do.”

The Jutlander general raised one finger to his brow by way of salute, grinned evilly and left.  Clearly the man was anxious to get back into the fray.  Mabinne wondered if all his men were so anxious.

Aalis Pummeroy walked around from the back of Mabinne’s tent.  The girl had shown a knack for leading magic-users in battle and had effectively become Mabinne’s second-in-command.

“Lady Mabinne,” she said, “I heard General Kokko.  What did he want?”

“He and his men, they are anxious to get back in the fray.”

“Anxious for loot,” Aalis snorted.

Mabinne nodded.  “I suppose so.  That has always been the primary motivation for armies in war, hasn’t it?  We can hardly pay them in gold, and not all of our army is driven by revenge.  Most of them are not.  We have managed to prevent them taking slaves, but yes, they are here for plunder, but we need them, and they know it.”

“What will we do when someone else makes them a better offer?”

“They are mostly Jutlanders.  Jutland is allied to Beretan.”

“They are mercenaries,” Aalis argued.  “They fight for loot, not for a cause.”

Mabinne held up her slender right hand.  A gesture, and frost formed on her fingers.  “We have over a hundred Beretanian and Mondrian magic-users in camp as well,” she pointed out.  “I think General Kokko knows better than to try to run afoul of the amount of magic power we have among us.”

“Lady,” Aalis said, “I hope you are right.  If I may ask, what did you tell the General?”

“I told him to wait two days,” Mabinne replied.  “I think in that time we can stock fresh water and provisions enough.  I plan to strike up the Black River to a trading town called Tillgatt.  I’m not sure where we will go after that.”

“Up a river?  How will we do that?”

“Carefully.”  Mabinne picked up a stick and began sketching in the sand at her feet.  “I see it working thusly:  The Ikslunder longboats we have will take twenty or twenty-five passengers, and they draw rather less than our Jutlander triremes.  We will land near the coast, where we can beach on the banks on both sides.  General Kokko can take his troops, evenly divided, up both sides of the river.  There is a bridge in Tillgatt; we’ll want to make sure that is captured as fast as possible.  We will take most of the magic-users up the river in five of the longboats.  Our wind-magic users can move us quickly and quietly.  With any luck at all, we can fall on Tillgatt before the alarm is raised.”

“Are there Ikslunder troops there?”

“Some magistrates and town constabulary, no more than that.”

“You sound as though you’ve seen this place,” Aalis observed.

“Yes.  When I was the captive of that big Ikslunder Hengist, who you last saw frozen into a block of ice.  That was my observation then, and since we have not raided near that area, nor have we gone far up any rivers, I am counting on Tillgatt still being only lightly guarded.”

“Why this place in particular?  It seems a fair amount of risk to take a trading village.”

Once again, Mabinne produced the soul crystal.  “You’ve seen this.  It was one of these that enabled me to coat Port Stronghold in ice, but it was destroyed in the process.  I have only one remaining.”

“You’ve shown it to me before, of course.  What you haven’t said is where we can get more.”

Mabinne looked up at the younger woman.  “In Tillgatt, there in the main market street, there is a magic-user shop run by an Ashlander woman.  It was from her that I obtained my soul crystals.  If she has more, we will take them; they will be invaluable to us.  If she has none, then she will tell me where she got the ones she did have, and we will go there.  But one way or another, I will see us with more of these, as they are potent weapons.”

“I understand.”  Aalis smiled.  “I’ll look forward to trying one.”

Two days later, as Mabinne had promised, the raiders boarded their motley collection of Jutlander triremes and captured Ikslunder longboats and set off for the east.