She was Margueryt Cordelia Diane Sebastiane, Prince of Gossunge, Shieldmaid Commander, Chevalier Order St. Mykhael of the Holy Sword of Flame, the legitimate daughter and heir-apparent to Duke Dafythe of the Northlands. As first cousin to the Norman Emperor Kharles V, she was also next in line of succession to the imperial throne after her aged father so long as Kharles remained unmarried and fathered no licit child. At thirty-one, she was a vigorous woman in her prime, young enough to retain her ideals but old enough to strain impatiently at the bonds which kept her from achieving them.
Elsewhere in the world lived those who would think it odd that women of the highest birth should take up arms. Elsewhere, well-bred daughters were raised to perform domestic activities. Music, spinning, delicate needlecraft were appropriate; games with sword and shield were unseemly, unfeminine, immodest. Some would think Mara’s pursuit of the warrior-life strange and remarkable—if they imagined it at all. Yet Mara and her cousin Katheryne took this vocation as their natural birthright, for this had been the way of Norman imperial daughters for centuries, since Eduarde Victor had named his firstborn Elizabeth heir before his infant son. A woman who would rule in this mighty Empire must be able to defend her given land and title. No one, not husband nor brother, could bear that responsibility for her; the earliest female Emperors—Elizabeth among them—had been betrayed by both.
Little princelings, boys and girls, were taught from childhood that battle waged for the sake of the Empire was their greatest service and highest honor. For an heir-apparent, this education was especially crucial. Younger sisters might have the luxury of dainty pursuits, but the firstborn couldn’t afford to be demure.
Mara been born a Prince. From the cradle, she heard tales of her glorious ancestors: Kharlemagne, Rykharde Lyonheart, Robert the Bruce, Margueryt the Bold—how proud she had been at this legendary namesake! She was a daughter of ancient royal lines: Plantagenet, Stuart, Capet, a dozen others who had won their kingdoms through conquest. Their blood ran in her veins. Long before she understood its urgency, she felt the call to arms.
She hadn’t forgotten the first exhilarating clash of tin when her elder and illegitimate brother Ambris had taught her the art of fencing. Norman princelings learned the rudiments of swordplay as soon as they were old enough to hold a hilt in their two small hands and Ambris, an excellent swordsman himself as a diplomat must be, was an adroit instructor. Even today, when he could be persuaded to spar with her for the sake of exercise, he moved with admirable elegance and dexterity, but he had no passion for the game. It didn’t fire his blood as it did hers. From the moment she’d first held a sword as a little girl, she’d known that this wonderful sport was what she was meant for. Her first strokes and parries with the light foil seemed as natural as taking breath.
Her education had prepared her for a military life. She studied the Crusades with fervent interest and memorized the details of every campaign conducted against the Spanish by her illustrious grandparents, the Emperor Eduarde Redlyon and Duke Diana Hartsrider. She studied the most famous warrior women: Boudicca, the British matriarch who fought so fiercely against the Romans; Alys Ladyeknight, called the Last Holy Roman Emperor though her rightful legacy was never acknowledged by the Pope, for Sallic Law did not permit the title to descend through the female line; Elizabeth, the first Empress to rule both Angeland and France. Mara’s father had instructed her tutors, the Brothers at Belminstre Abbey, to frame her lessons in terms which encompassed her interests. She learned Latin to read Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul. Her mathematics excelled when she calculated the trajectories of rocks thrown from catapults, and she gave her most careful attention to budgets when she was asked to estimate the expense required to feed and equip armies of varying sizes. Heraldry taught her to recognize the arms of every noble line in Europe and the civilized parts of Atlantea.
Her knowledge of modern languages, however, was never more than rudimentary and she could never take an interest in law. Once she became Duke, she would have councilors and ministers to see to such dull things as trade agreements and civil contracts. Ambris, she trusted, would be as valued an advisor to her as he was to their father.
At sixteen, she entered the service of an ancient pensioned knight who held a small fief outside Pendaunzel. As squire, she learned to care for horses and gear and heard exhilarating stories of her master’s campaigns with Eduarde Redlyon in the Northlands marches.
At eighteen, she entered the Shieldmaids. This elite regiment had been created in the sixteenth century by the Emperor Mildred Shieldmaid, who led a company of noblewomen on Crusade. Since that time, female Emperors and Princes traditionally appointed Shieldmaids to their personal honor guard, and young women of the royal family with an interest in the military invariably trained with them. Today, the Shieldmaids were a small force which conducted itself as a semi-religious order; their warrior spirituality fostered Mara’s own.
On Mara’s first day at the isolated woodland camp, the Captain told the new recruits: “Learn this, cadets—we do not train you as men. Do not compare yourselves with male warriors. Few women possess great strength in their arms as men do, and the rest of us can only feel ourselves weak and inadequate if we seek to compete on that masculine basis.” Mara, accustomed from childhood to wield a sword, had well-developed arms and shoulders, but many of the girls with her were more sparely muscled. The Captain herself was slight and wiry. “You are women. Your strengths are elsewhere. Not upon the chest and arms, but in the leg. You have abilities men do not: your sense of balance is better, your endurance in physical hardships is greater, your reactions are quicker. These are the advantages you will learn to exploit to become the warrior-maids which are the pride of the Norman Empire.”
The Shieldmaids taught young women defensive styles of hand-to-hand combat which emphasized strategy and ruthlessness before brute force. Even the most slender girls learned to use an opponent’s own weight as a counterbalance and throw persons much larger than themselves over their shoulders, to escape a hold by breaking the grasping fingers or dislocating the restraining arm, to deliver powerful kicks. They learned to dodge and parry in dancing swordplay and to wield their blades with deadly dexterity. Some of the cadets had to overcome a certain squeamishness in carrying out violent assaults, but Mara did not.
In addition to these skills, the cadets learned medicine to employ emergency aid in dressing wounds and to locate the most vulnerable areas on an enemy body, pharmacology to recognize the plants and herbs which dulled pain or extended the stamina past the end of human endurance, metallurgy to recognize the qualities of the best swords and daggers.
The young Prince thrived under such rigorous training. Cadets spent long hours riding, tumbling, fencing, perfecting their archery, and more hours maintaining their equipment. No sword must become dull nor rusty, no leather gauntlet or hauberk stiff for lack of oiling, no bowstring frayed nor arrow unfletched. Every Shieldmaid bore this duty. The warriors, their horses, their gear must always be kept in peak condition; less was a disgrace upon the entire corps. Food was plain and filling and the cadets slept in cots placed row upon row in one long, low hall above the armory. They retired early and rose at dawn for prayers before their morning exercise. All the girls wore simple woolen garb which made their ranks indistinguishable.
It wasn’t remarkable for a Prince, female or male, to receive intense military instruction; for most, it was the usual course. Mara had always expected to become a warrior, but the cadets she trained with—noble, merchant, and common-born—were for the most part misfits and outcasts. Muscular, vigorous, unusually tall or aggressive, many were considered too unattractive to marry well or too wild to take a productive place in their own social ranks. Norman citizens honored their warrior caste, but few wanted their daughters to join it. For many noble-born and merchant damosels, athletic interests were boyish and unseemly. For farm maids, physical strength was valued, but the peasant girls who came to the Shieldmaids were disinclined to spend all their energies working one plot of land for the rest of their lives. They were maids like Mara, but brought up to think differently of themselves and their prospects. They heard the call to arms too. They had their dreams of glory. They were a rowdy lot, freed for the first time in their lives from conventions and expectations which had repressed their natural spirits. They were full of noise and pranks and quarrels, but somehow the officers of the camp managed to guide that energy into useful channels. The officers understood; they had once been wild young girls themselves. Daughters of shopkeepers, millers, and rustic aristocrats, these incorrigible young hoydens became disciplined soldiers.
Shieldmaids were traditionally true maidens; the regiment had once demanded a vow of chastity throughout the years of service. These days, however, while cadets were cloistered as carefully as novice Sisters, older women were permitted to marry or to take lovers in discretion. Unlike the other maids, Mara meant to marry once a suitable bridegroom was discovered. That was also a Prince’s duty.
It was unspoken regimental policy that a royal daughter rose to command eventually, but Mara needed no favoritism. She gave her training the same singlemindedness she’d given her schooling and her fellow Shieldmaids admired her greatly for her zeal and perseverance. Her superiors praised her. She rose through the ranks rapidly, from guardsmaid to captain to commander in three years. Any company she led was eager to follow her. Her cousin Kat had been among the first troop under her command.
Her reputation was born then; before she came of age, it was said that the Duke’s daughter was a most remarkable young maid. Even now, the friendships and loyalties she’d formed with her sister-Shieldmaids were maintained. The small honor guard of Shieldmaids Mara kept at the Palace was led by one of her old companions, Captain Belinde of Storm Port. Even when Mara was not dressed for sparring or in the company of her guard, she wore the four long braids of a Shieldmaid with pride.
She was knighted at Belminstre on her twenty-first birthday. After she had confessed and received communion from the Archbishop himself, she’d spent the night in vigil in the Duke’s Chapel at the cathedral, kneeling on the cold stones before the altar in a plain shift. A single candle glowed in the darkness. She’d expected to receive a vision from St. Mykhael the sword-bearer, patron of knights, or from St. Parsyfal, patron of the Holy Cause; they would sanction her knighthood by sending her a sign. This sign, the image of her talisman beast, would provide her with spiritual guidance. She would take it for a battle-name and bear its image on her personal arms.
Knees aching against the stone, fingers clumsy with cold as she told her rosary beads, she recited Aves through the night. She said the prayer of St. Mykhael, the prayer of the Sangrael, prayers that were vows of her devotion, prayers for the blessings of her namesakes Margueryt and Sebastian and for the blessing of St. Othelie, patron of the Northlands. She prayed for her mother, who had died that spring. She prayed for the intercession of her conquering ancestors who had surely gone to Heaven and she prayed for the souls of warriors who had died in righteous causes. She prayed that she would be made one of their worthy company, a true knight before the eyes of God. She thought once or twice that she dozed, but she received no vision.
At the time, girlish guilt had overwhelmed her. In spite of her efforts, had she been deemed unworthy? Was her knighting not blessed? Was she too base and vile in her sins to receive the most holy sanction? Her prayers became more simple and urgent: O Lord, make me a knight. Grant me a holy cause in Your Service. She considered casting aside all worldly titles and possessions and joining the sisterhood of some strict and secluded order, or perhaps taking a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem.
She had since learned that many knights received no vision on that night of vigil. The sign only came to them after they proved themselves in battle.
In the morning, her attendants entered the chapel. A cloak was thrown about her shoulders and she was led into a small private chamber where a copper tub was filled and waiting. Mara bathed, the warm water easing her stiff limbs and soothing her chilled skin, then she was dressed in robes of white samite spun with gold. She met her father in the nave of the cathedral. There, before a crowd of courtiers, clerics, and other witnesses, she vowed her undying loyalty to Christ and to her liege-lord and her vigilant service against the enemies of both. She promised unceasing generosity to the poor, protection of the weak and defenseless, a readiness to fight for justice whenever she might be called by any petitioner, noble or common, as befit the honor and dignity of her place as a knight. The famous Dentelyon, sword of her grandfather Redlyon, was laid upon one shoulder, then the other, and she rose Chevalier Layn Margueryt, Order of St Mykhael. The emblem of her order, a tiny sword, gold hilt studded with jewel chips, blade twisted like a flame and enameled red, was worn on her tunic breast.
As a Norman Prince, Mara believed she had a special relationship with God and her patron saints. By the divine right of royal birth, she was obliged to fulfill certain responsibilities. She was to govern the lands bestowed upon her—now the province of Gossunge, later the Dukedom and perhaps more—and to provide for and protect all citizens subject to her. From childhood, the duties of a prince were impressed upon her. There were things she must and mustn’t do, things she must know, skills she must master in order to fulfill the obligations of her place. But, beyond these responsibilities of any other prince, she believed that she was also born to a solemn and holy purpose bestowed upon herself alone. She had a personal mission which would be gloriously revealed to her one day.
All her life had been spent in preparation for this purpose, yet Mara had never once seen a battle.
The Norman kingdoms had known peace for nearly sixty years. The Redlyon’s sons, Kharles IV and Dafythe of the Northlands, had established boundaries, alliances, trade agreements and safe routes, and lived on terms of truce and mutual respect with all nations since the old warrior had put up his sword. In Norman lands, a generation of citizens had been born and grown to maturity without knowing the threat of invasion, the destruction of a city, the famine of a burnt land, the bloodshed and sorrow and death which are inescapable in times of war.
In such moderate times, Mara had no hope of waging war, no matter how just and holy she considered her cause. Yet she was not the only one to yearn for the historic days of battle. The Empire was built on conquest. Angeland, Gallys, France, Skotsland, Eireland, the Northlands and Burgundy—each in turn had been overtaken by the noble family which had first called themselves Princes of Normandy. Through the intermarriage of royal houses and a series of bloody campaigns, the Norman Empire had grown to become the largest and most prosperous in the world. Its citizens took pride in their history. Elders recalled the days of Eduarde Redlyon with nostalgic fondness. Every little child could tell the sad tale of how Prince Denys, the Redlyon’s brother, had been cut down so cruelly at Princemarch. Modern times were unexciting in comparison: people looked to the young Emperor Kharles V, the expatriate Irish Prince Kat, and especially the promising Mara for a return to the exciting days of old. She was the Empire’s hope.