“How fast the hunter becomes the hunted,” Hengist mused. He stood at the back of the captured longboat, watching four ships full of Mabinne’s soldiers a league or so away, in pursuit. The early-morning sun was casting long shadows from the ships onto the sea, making them easier to locate. A few paces across the water was the second captured longboat, bearing thirty-six soldiers.
We’ll have to find this island, Hengist reminded himself. Find someplace to set up a defense. Some spot where the twins can use their powers to their best advantage. They have that crystal they took from Mabinne. They claim it enhances magic-users’ power. Will that be enough to tip the scale?
Hengist shrugged. All would depend on how far ahead of Mabinne’s troops they could make landfall, and so far there was no land in sight. He walked forward and seated himself across from Mabinne.
Her hands were now free, necessarily as she had to eat, drink, and perform necessary tasks. She sat now, leaning against the side of the boat. She gave Hengist a speculative look.
“Was I really so bad to you,” Hengist said, a slight smile on his face, “that I drove you to this?” He held up his hammer-fist, and then used it to tap his wooden leg.
Mabinne frowned. “You killed my husband. You took me, and then took me as your slave.”
Hengist leaned forward. “And then I made you my wife. I bequeathed my lands and property to you. I loved you.”
“I know.” Mabinne looked down. “I know that, yes. But I ask you, were our positions reversed, would you have ever stopped seeking revenge?”
“I suppose not. But you had your revenge against me, and then went on to seek it against my people.”
“As did you, raiding into Beretan?”
“A fair point.” Hengist looked up at the blue sky. “I suppose we are both to blame.”
“But you…” Mabinne stopped suddenly. She remembered Hengist’s narrative of the war in his father’s time:
“Sweet,” Hengist said gently, “the town we are heading for was occupied by Beretanian troops for three years. Beretan invaded the south side of this peninsula, along with Mondria, while the Jutlanders came at us from the west. Port Stronghold held out, but the invaders swept over most of the countryside. Towns, villages, farms were burned, whole families taken into slavery. This academy you speak of, it’s on the south end of Beretan near the coast, yes?”
“On a cliff overlooking the ocean, yes.”
“And many of the workers, the cooks, stable-men, drovers and so on are Ikslunders, yes?”
“Why, yes,” Mabinne replied in some confusion; she had noted that as a girl in the academy, but had never given it any thought; the tall, fair Ikslunders were just servants and workers, surely?
“Slaves,” Hengist said.
“Gods beneath us,” Mabinne breathed. “Where does it stop?”
“I fear it does not,” Hengist said.
“We’re all quite mad,” Mabinne whispered.
They sat in silence for some time, with only the wind in the sails for company. Then:
A shout came from from the front of the longboat: “Land!”
Mabinne and Hengist stood. Mabinne squinted, looking at the faint green strip of land visible to the west. “That should be it,” she said. “That should be our island.”
Hengist nodded. “Oarsmen! To the oars! Move us to that land, as fast as possible!”
They landed in the early afternoon. Hengist’s boat touched the beach first, with the second longboat arriving minutes later. The four ships of Mabinne’s fleet had closed the gap, and with them only a few hundred paces from the beach, Hengist’s forces only had moments to spare.
There was a row of tents just off the sand, under some odd-looking trees. The sun shone down brightly from a clear sky. “No cover,” Hengist mused, “save one big rock. Wonderful.”
Agneyastra and Kristol came to stand by his side. “Where do you want us?”
“I’m not sure yet. Let’s get off the boat. Mabinne, you’re coming with me. No, don’t look at me like that; I’ll carry you if I must, but I’d rather not.”
They clambered over the sides of the ship, dropping into the shallow water and wading up to the beach. Hengist watched Mabinne; she was looking at the row of tents, a little too intently to suit him.
What was left of the Ikslunder infantry leaped off their longboat and scurried towards the trees.
Hengist stopped. He held Mabinne by one arm, but she was ignoring him, watching the tents.
Why is Mabinne watching those tents? She’s powerless…
…unless she left someone behind who is not…
Hengist pulled on Mabinne’s arm. The big rock outcrop he had noticed was a few paces away; it was the only natural cover in sight. “Come on,” he urged her. He looked over his shoulder at the twins. “Follow me. Stay alert.”
There were only two guards on the camp, but both were accomplished magic-users. They waited until the line of Hengist’s remaining infantry was almost to the tree line before they struck. They stepped a pace away from the row of tents, two young women, both Beretanian from their looks and dress. They raised their hands. A skirl of wind picked up sand and blasted it at the infantry, blinding them. A blast of fire followed, incinerating half the line.
Kristol reached towards the Beretanians and gestured. Spears of ice shot from her fingers, skewering the Beretanians. Agneyastra followed with a blast of flame that reduced Mabinne’s magic-users to screaming, bubbling torches.
Behind them, Mabinne’s soldiers were landing. General Kokko was in the forefront. He looked up the beach, saw a big, obviously crippled Ikslunder dragging away his army’s leader. “Lady Mabinne!” he shouted.
Agneyastra gestured; Mabinne’s general went up in flames.
“Form up!” Hengist roared at what was left of his troops. There were, maybe, twenty, to withstand what appeared to be a hundred or more Jutlander infantry.
The soldiers looked around them. Half of their comrades lay in the sand, burning into char. The trees were nearby, offering cover and perhaps escape, but they were Ikslunders, warriors born, and so they formed a line and drew swords.
Mabinne’s men did likewise.
Hengist dragged Mabinne behind the one big rock outcrop. He could barely see over the monolith.
The Ikslunders, screaming like furies, charged down the beach. The Jutlanders, the last few of them still jumping down from the beached ships, hurried to form up to meet them. Both sides came together with a great clashing of steel.
In front of the rocks, Agneyastra and Kristol looked at each other.
“As good a place as any,” Kristol smiled at her sister.
“As good a place as any,” Agneyastra agreed.
Agneyastra took the soul crystal from a pouch on her belt. She held her right hand out to her sister, the soul crystal in her palm.
Kristol took her sister’s hand in her left hand. They walked forward, slowly. Halfway to the water, they shared one last look. Then they clasped their hands, tighter, until the soul crystal crushed.
The twins threw their heads back, screaming, as the power raced through them, overwhelming their control. Flames and ice burst from them.
Hengist grabbed Mabinne. He threw her to the sand behind the great rock and threw himself on top of her. “Keep your head down,” he ground out. “Close your eyes. This will be bad.”
The twins exploded, the mass of their bodies lost in a maelstrom of fire, ice and steam that wiped the opposing forces away. Flames rushed and crackled, down the beach, over the ships. Ice spicules rose from the sand, skewering infantrymen before flashing away into steam. The water of the sea itself boiled, froze, and boiled again. The Jutlander ships and Ikslunder longboats alike shuddered, burned, cracked apart from frost, then burned again. The very ground shook.
Finally, a blast of steam rolled away from the beach. Hengist and Mabinne were caught up in the fringes, rolled a few paces away from the rock, lifted in the air and slammed down again. The last thing Hengist saw was an Ikslunder longboat, blown a hundred paces out to sea, burning furiously, while a Jutlander ship lay across the beach, broken open by a dozen spikes of ice.