“Smoke!” A wind-magic user standing in the prow of the lead longboat was pointing to the shore south of their position. Several columns of gray-black smoke were rising there, from where Mabinne knew there was a small Beretanian town.
Again, Mabinne said to herself. There’s someone new in charge of the Ikslunder troops, someone who is taking them on the offensive. Their General, what was his name, Gustafson, he would not be so bold.
Mabinne shook her head. Whatever was going on, there was a Beretanian town ablaze, and General Kokko’s infantry was still straggling down the coast. “Wind users,” Mabinne called out, “move us towards the shore. We’ll see what’s going on.”
Aalis Pummeroy stood up, looking at the pillars of smoke. “General Kokko’s troops may well be an hour or more’s march away. If we land, we won’t have his support.”
“It may be just bandits,” Mabinne suggested.
“But if it’s not? What if it’s Ikslunder soldiers?”
“We have almost all of our magic-users in the fleet.” Mabinne reached into her pouch to make sure the soul crystal was safe inside. “And we can always retreat to the ships if we are outmatched. Our wind-magic users can move us quickly offshore.”
Allis nodded. Her face wore a reluctant look, but she held her tongue.
A wind came up, guided by the several wind-magic wielders, and the longboats approached a good landing site to the north of the burning town. As the prows of the boats touched shore, the magic-users jumped off.
“Form a line,” Mabinne ordered. “Fire magic, to the left of the line, near the trees. Ice in the center. Wind-magic users on the right.”
We should have brought a few of General Kokko’s runners with us, Mabinne thought. If I could get word to him somehow, have him move as quickly as possible to join us… We could wait until he arrives, but there may be people still under attack in the town. No, we’ll move in.
“All right,” Mabinne called. “Let’s move.” The mages sorted themselves out and slowly, cautiously moved down the beach towards the seaside town. Mabinne and Aalis walked a few paces behind the line, watching.
None of them noticed a small movement in the tumbled grass under the nearest trees. There, in a concealed hole covered with woven grass, hid General Gustafson and one of his captains. The younger man was twitching nervously. “There must be forty of them, magic-users all!”
“Let them go past,” the General whispered. “Remember the plan.”
Hengist had placed a hundred archers in such concealed holes, completely flanking Mabinne’s magic users. Every one of the archers had a powerful Ikslunder bow and iron-tipped, barbed arrows. Hengist himself was the only one above ground, watching from a thick patch of brush as Mabinne’s line of mages moved slowly ahead. The left flank of the line passed a broken stick stuck into the sand…
Hengist raised a large ivory whistle to his lips and blew a loud blast.
Sixty of General Gustafson’s best archers threw back the covers on their holes just inside the treeline. Standing up, they exposed just enough of themselves to draw bows and loose arrows.
Mabinne’s force mustered forty magic-users on a long line, facing south along the beach; the Ikslunder archers had them horribly flanked. The first round of sixty arrows lanced into the line, killing or wounding half their number. Before any of the magic-users could react, a second round of arrow stung the line, killing or wounding more.
Mabinne’s fire-users, being closest to the tree line, suffered the worst, with not even one of them surviving the two rounds of arrows. The next most powerful group, the ice wielders, fell in large numbers as well, with only three unhurt. The wind-users, while least able to affect the battle, retained half their number.
Hengist blew a second blast on the whistle.
A hundred Ikslunder infantry burst out of the town and charged, shouting like demons.
Two wind-users struck from Mabinne’s right flank, conjuring a series of whirlwinds that swept away part of the Ikslunder attackers, sending them screaming off over the ocean to be dumped two hundred paces away from the beach. Mabinne moved forward, Aalis at her side; the two summoned their powers as they ran.
Why aren’t the archers targeting us? Mabinne looked to her left. She could see the line of Ikslunder archers, standing in waist-high pits, drawing bows for a third volley. She stopped, grabbed Aalis’ arm, pointed. “There,” she said, “The archers. Burn them out.”
Aalis raised one hand. She took a deep breath. Fire danced over her fingertips.
In the trees, Hengist unleashed the final signal, two short, sharp blasts on the whistle.
Behind Mabinne and Aalis, under the tumbled grass, the sand erupted. Two buried wooden doors, covered with sand and each over a shallow pit in the sand, were suddenly tossed aside. General Gustafson leaped up from one pit and his Captain Munnin from the other. Munnin held a heavy lance. As soon as he was on his feet, he took aim and cast the lance. Gustafson ran forward.
Munnin’s lance transfixed Aalis, entering between her shoulder blades and exiting between her breasts. The flame dancing on her fingers went out. She looked down, saw the blood-covered iron point of the lance protruding from her chest. “Oh,” she said. She fell to her knees, then to one side.
Mabinne saw Aalis go down. She screamed. “Aalis!”
She heard running feet on the sand. Before she could react, before she could even turn, General Gustafson hit her, knocked her to the ground, stunning her.
Mabinne struggled. She raised her hand, frost forming on her fingers, but she felt the cold metal of a binding collar snapping around her neck. Gustafson tapped the contacts, pressed his thumb on the jewel, and Mabinne felt the horribly familiar sensation of her power fading away. She reached into her pouch, grabbing at the one soul crystal she had left, but Gustafson grabbed her wrist. “Oh no,” he said, grinning. He took the soul crystal from her pouch. “I don’t know what this is, but I think it best I keep it for now.”
Gustafson looked up. The Ikslunder infantry was cleaning up the magic-users. All was going according to plan. He turned towards the treeline, placing one boot on Mabinne’s waist. “General!” he roared. “We have her!”
“Good,” came a voice from a shadowy figure under the trees. The voice was gravely, damaged somehow, yet strangely familiar…
Mabinne gasped as Hengist stumped out onto the beach. “You! How…”
Hengist limped to where General Gustafson held Mabinne the Merciless to the sand. He looked around; her magic-users were either dead or collared. There was still the matter of her infantry, presumably closing in, but Hengist had a moment to gloat. “Yes, my sweet, it’s me. Surprised to see me alive, are you? Well, I am. You hurt me, Mabinne, you hurt me badly, but I’m alive.”
He reached down, grabbed the collar, hauled Mabinne to her feet.
“Now,” he said in a conversational tone, “Tell me, Mabinne, where you and your army have been hiding in between raids?”
Mabinne suggested Hengist perform an act that was both unhygienic and anatomically impossible.
“Now now,” Hengist chided her. “That’s not very polite.”
Meanwhile, General Gustafson was shouting orders. “All of you,” he roared at the infantry, who were just finishing the clean-up of Mabinne’s magic-users. “Form a line on the beach facing north.”
“I’m moving Mabinne the Merciless off the beach,” Hengist called to his second-in-command. “We’ll take one of their longboats. Call off a crew for me. We’ll wait a hundred paces offshore.”
“Very well.” Gustafson pointed at ten men. “You lot. Go with the General.”
“And us?” Hengist turned to see the twins, who had been left out of the battle.
“Come with me.”
One of Gustafson’s soldiers came forward with a length of hemp line. He bound Mabinne’s hands, tightly, uncomfortably, behind her. “Come on,” Hengist ordered Mabinne, shoving her towards one of the longboats; the ten-man skeleton crew was already swarming over the captured boat. “Get in. Agneyastra and Kristol, come along.”
A scout ran down the beach. “Infantry coming,” he shouted. “Three to four hundred. Maybe a half-hour away.”
General Gustafson started shouting his men into line.
Behind him, Aalis stirred. She took a bubbling, agonizing breath, extended a hand. General Gustafson was enveloped in flame, transforming him in an instant to a screaming torch. Aalis waved her hand; the bulk of Gustafson’s soldiers burst into flame.
From the longboat, Kristol gestured and encased Aalis in a block of ice, but the damage was done.
“Shit,” Hengist breathed. He shouted at the remaining infantry; no more than forty had survived the fire-users’ final, overwhelming blast of power. “Seize the longboats! We move away from the coast!”
How suddenly things can change in war. Hengist turned back to Mabinne. “Tell us where you have been hiding,” he ordered. “Tell me now, or I’ll pitch you over the side.”
Mabinne thought very rapidly for a few seconds. She hadn’t left the island untended…
“South by southwest,” she said at last. “Sail south by southwest. There is a chain of islands. The largest is on the north of the chain. That’s where we have been resting.”