Sonnedragon Serialization, Part 23

Front pages: maps, illustrations, family trees, etc.

The War in the Marches

1954

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“It’s her! That’s the Prince!”

The crowd in the Huitelm murmured excitedly as Mara and her Shieldmaid companions descended into the cool relief of the basement tavern. They’d been eagerly awaiting their first glimpse of her for days, since the first soldiers’ encampments had appeared in the fallow fields, pastures, and woodlands beyond the city walls. Thousands of soldiers were camped around the city now, for Mara’s army had increased three-fold since they’d begun the long march from Pendaunzel. Though they were prepared to march again at a day’s notice, they waited here for the Guylleshire troops to join them before they continued their journey south.

The Prince had arrived at Storm Port that morning. Alyx, Captain of the Storm Port garrison, had gone out to greet her sister-Shieldmaids and escort Mara, Bel, and Kat into her city.

Though they were not in full armor, they were a stunning quartet: long braids bound in bronze, brief soldiers’ kirtles covered by studded leather tuilles, boots tall and swords agirt. To the common folk of Storm Port who had awaited Mara’s coming, they seemed more than mortal women. History walked before them. These were warriors out of legend—Mildred and the first band of Shieldmaidens, Hippolyta’s Amazons, Brunhilde’s Valkyrie—or at least their daughters incarnate.

This meeting was meant to be a reunion as much as a council, for these women were Mara’s dearest friends: dependable Bel, wry and wiry Alyx, and pensive Sataumie who traveled with the Guylleshires and would join them shortly. They were more than sisters of her order—hundreds among her troops and officers might make that claim—but the women she had trained with. If Mara had met them in other circumstances, she would’ve considered them her natural inferiors and treated them with the courteous grace a Prince must use toward her subjects. But because they’d been Shieldmaids with her, they were her intimates. Their bond was so close as true kinswomen. They were nearly so beloved as Kat.

With the exception of Kat, they had all begun as cadets together. As young girls, they’d suffered pangs of homesickness from adjoining cots. They’d wept in frustration and exhaustion at the seemingly impossible drills their demanding captain had set for them, and had celebrated when these difficult exercises were mastered. They had conspired in a dozen childish pranks, and suffered the punishment for one and all rather than lay blame on each other. They had developed their sword skills against each other’s blades, suffered bruises in mock combat, crawled through mud and underbrush in battle-games—and together they had captured more enemy flags than any other squadron in the camp’s history. When Mara received her first command, Alyx had been her lieutenant. Long ago, they had learned to act as a unit.

It might seem like favoritism that the Prince appointed her old friends to her personal entourage, but it was not unexpected. She knew how to rely on their particular strengths. She knew their abilities. She knew their loyalty; she trusted them more than she trusted anyone. It was fitting that they should be at Mara’s side for this magnificent adventure.

The tavern patrons made way for them. As the Prince and her companions took their seats at an open table, a little alemaid approached.

“Rennie, honeymead, for us all,” Alyx ordered. Then she turned to business: “I received a message from Sataumie this morning. She is our liaison to Commander Arnauld Hardmarch in command of the Guylleshire legions. They will reach Storm Port tomorrow.”

“The Guylleshires must be traveling swiftly,” said Bel. “If our information is correct, Old Arnauld left Guylliamesburghe only two days before we rode from Pendaunzel. `Tis twice the distance.”

“Commander Arnauld is famous for his swift marches,” Mara answered. “When he commanded the Border Guard under the old Marchion, it was said he could run fresh recruits from Dennefort to the Jamesmarch in a fortnight and have seasoned guards at the end of it.”

“Besides,” Alyx added, “it’s a safe wager he’s anxious to prove he’s as fit to serve the Redlyon’s granddaughter in his aging years as he was to serve the Redlyon himself as a boy. `Tis a shame he never saw battle in his prime.”

“That might be said of many,” said Kat.

“I thank the Almighty that it won’t be said of us,” Bel replied. Ren, the alemaid, returned with their mead. “Oh, Mara, remember when we were girls at the camp? We were to be your honor guard and ride at your side into the heart of a dozen glorious battles. None would stand against us. We knew we would see days such as Diana’s riders knew in her company.”

“The finest Shields to ride in any Layn Prince’s name,” said Alyx, raising her mug. “I pity those who are not able to join us. Your sister, My Lady Laurel—I’m sorry she didn’t come with you. I’ve long wanted to meet this swordsmaster magician who served in the New-York guard.”

“It wasn’t possible,” Mara answered. “Laurel has a little child and she expects another this summer. I would not ask a trained Shieldmaid to march under such circumstances.”

“We could use a wizard. What about Lord Redmantyl? After such storms as he conjured here last summer, Terrojos would surrender at the first threat of a dark cloud.”

“He might be prevailed upon to aid us if Father requests it as his liege—but Father won’t.”

“It’d take all the fun out of this war to have it won with bolts of lightning,” Bel said peevishly. “If we can send a wizard to do our fighting for us, why go ourselves? What glory is there in a battle gained by magic?”

“It would give us a strategic advantage to have a magician in our company,” Kat answered. “But there simply aren’t enough to go around these days.”

“Who commands the other legions?” asked Alyx. “Arnauld, My Layn Lieutenant Uismarde, my commander Tortos of the Oerykeshires if the Earl doesn’t take command himself…”

“Urthor is in command of the Maudeslande Guards,” Mara supplied the rest of the names. “The Earl Brachise has the Eadeshire and Frankeshire garrisons. They will both join us between New York and the Northlands border. The Marchion Frederik commands the Border Guard himself.”

“What do you know of Frederik?” asked Alyx.

“He is young,” the Prince answered. “He came to his title a few years ago upon the death of his mother, and he was commander of the Guard under her. He has the reputation of a capable military leader. We’ve corresponded these past weeks. He writes that he looks forward to welcoming us to Dennefort. Courtesy demands he say such things, but I believe he means it.”

“He is great-grandson to that Khrystophania of legend,” Kat added.

“Khrystophania’s heir,” Alyx began tentatively. “I have sometimes wondered. `Tis said the first Marchion’s son was born before her marriage, and not so many months after the death of Prince Denys.”

“Hush,” said Bel, with a glance toward the Princes.

“No, she may wonder,” Mara answered. “We wonder too.”

“Of course, it isn’t fit to discuss in public,” Kat said, “but we are among friends here.” She looked at the others about the table, and continued in a voice barely above a whisper. “Are the descendants of Marchion Khrystophania our cousins? Norman Emperors have always taken an interest in the family at Dennefort as if they were a cadet branch of the imperial house.”

“But they aren’t a cadet line if they are akin,” said Alyx, also in low voice. “Prince Denys–”

“True,” Mara admitted. “`Tis why we don’t speak of them.” She was aware of the common-folk seated so near them. It wasn’t fit to speak of this matter here, even among her friends.

Ren returned to their table to refill Alyx’s mug. The alemaid served Bel, then Kat, then paused when she came to Mara. “More ale, My Prince?”

“No, gramercies. Not yet.”

But the girl remained beside her chair until Alyx waved her away. “Rennie, leave us.”

“Will there be sufficient quarters for all the troops?” Kat changed the subject, seeing that her cousin was uncomfortable. “The legions will number twelve thousand by the time we reach Dennefort. `Tis more than twice the normal complement of the Border Guard in Eduardesmarch now.”

“The Marchion promises that there will be. Dennefort, fortress and town, is set on uncluttered land and there is plenty of room for our encampments. I’ve been thinking of settling our troops in over the course of several days to avoid unnecessary complication. This march will be difficult enough before we reach the end of it.”

“I can’t wait `til we reach the frontier,” said Bel. “This campaign is going to be wonderful. Just like the Redlyon and Denys and Diane.”

“We’ve waited so long,” Alyx agreed. “Everyone.” She gestured at the tavern patrons, who were keeping a respectful distance, but most eyes were on the Prince’s table. “This war has made every one of us heroes and we haven’t yet faced the Spanish. My popularity has increased enormously—not simply because I’m taking the garrison to the frontier, but because I am your friend, Mara. They ask me—’Captain, when will the Prince come? When will Prince Margueryt be here?’ Your mother, Bel, stopped me in the street last week. No, truly, she did! Dame Prenelda, who hasn’t spoken two courteous words to me in my life. She asked after you. ‘Have you news of my daughter, the Prince’s captain?’ she said.”

Bel laughed. “For once, she is proud of me. What a turn-about! When I left for the camp, Mama told me that daughters of the great merchant-houses had no place playing at soldiers. Nobles were meant to lead and commoners to march, but I would only expose myself to contempt and ridicule if I were foolish enough to join the Shieldmaids. And yet where would I be without the Shieldmaids?”

“No doubt you would have the life set out for Damosel Belinde Chisdaughter,” Alyx told her.

“I used to see Alyx about the city,” Bel announced. “Mama wouldn’t allow me to associate with the common children, but I knew who you were, Alyx, and I envied that you played on the wharfs and spoke with the garrison guards.”

“I served them in my mother’s inn,” Alyx answered. She looked to the little alemaid who was busy with customers at another table. “Not so enviable a task.” Ren glanced their way, met the Captain’s eyes, and smiled shyly before a shout from another table drew her away.

“Yes, but you befriended them. While you were squire to Captain Kerrith, I sat in the parlor in velvet skirts and silk ribbons, waiting for suitors. From my sixteenth birthday, my family planned my marriage as if they were a little kingdom seeking alliance with another nation. Yet my sisters and brothers and all my girlhood friends seemed to think this matchmaking perfectly appropriate. They all married happily. Until I went to the Shieldmaid camp, I was made to feel that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t share their ambitions.”

Alyx replied softly: “We are not ordinary women, nor are we meant to be. That which contents lesser folk drives us mad.” This quotation was attributed to the founder of their order. Its authenticity was questioned, but they all took its essential truth to heart.

Bel patted her comrade’s arm. “Precisely so, Alyx. We aren’t suited to the ordinary ways at all.”

“My Layn Prince?”

“What is it, Maiden?” Mara looked up at the little alemaid who stood again beside the table.

“My Prince, I have a boon to beg of you.”

This was not unusual. Mara didn’t have the authority to grant most requests asked of her: in Gossunge, she had the magisterial power to dispense pardons for minor transgressions, and of course she gifted those who asked for trinkets or small amounts of money, but long-standing tradition obliged her to hear all petitions no matter how unreasonable. What sort of noblewoman held herself unapproachable to her subjects?

“Speak,” she responded. “If it is in my power, I shall grant it.”

Encouraged, Ren blurted her request: “My Layn, may I come with you?”

Around the table, the Shieldmaids chuckled. Mara ignored them. “What can you do in my service, little maid?” she asked with gentle courtesy. This tiny chit—smaller even than Bel, dark hair tucked modestly beneath a servant’s kerchief, large brown eyes full of hope beyond reason, slender arms that could never lift a sword—truly, it was absurd that she should make such a request, but Mara couldn’t laugh. The desire to follow one’s liege into battle was in the heart of all good Norman citizens. It would be cruel to mock a child who shared that sensibility but didn’t have the physical strength to fulfill it.

“I’ll do whatever you will, My Prince,” the girl promised earnestly. “I can sew. I can polish. I do all the pewter work here.”

“Yes, it’s very nice.” Mara turned the mug in her hand to examine it.

“I can polish armor as well. I can care for your clothes and such.”

“A gentyl-maid in a soldier’s camp!” said Kat, grinning.

“Please, My Layn?” Ren pursued. “I’ve always wished to see a battle. I’ll do whatever you ask if you let me go with you.”

“It shows proper virtue that you choose to go among Shieldmaids,” said Mara. “But you know you are no soldier yourself, Lass.”

“I can learn. Orlan once told me he would speak to you, Captain Alyx, and I might be your squire.”

“And who is this Orlan?” asked Bel. “A sweetheart?”

The little maid touched the tarnished gilt pomander tied to her skirt. “A nobleman. He is called Orlan Lightesblood.”

Kat burst into fresh laughter. “Lord Redmantyl’s son?”

Ren nodded.

“How in seven raging hells does a child like you know Redmantyl’s son?”

“The tavern keeper, her mother, was once My Lord Redmantyl’s chatelaine,” Alyx explained. “At any rate, `twas impossible to miss Chyelde Orlan’s antics here last summer.”

“But this lass is barely sixteen,” Kat frowned. “Do you suggest–?”

“Oh, hush. You’ll make the poor little thing blush more than her blood can bear,” Bel said in a motherly manner. “She’s not used to the rough jests of coarse soldiers. Mara, if you can’t make them conduct themselves like well-born women in a tavern, we’ll all soon have the reputation of marauding crusaders.”

But Mara was staring at the little alemaid. Ren blushed at the teasing, but her eyes remained hopefully on her Prince as if Mara were the only one who truly mattered to her. A small maid, dark and common-born, not sixteen—or just upon it. Was this Ren the fulfillment of Magician Peter’s vision? She fit his description perfectly. Was she the one?

Mara rose from the table. “Lass, I shall speak to your mother.”

Kat made a surprised sound. “Oh, Mara, `tis only in jest! I never meant a thing. What, will you have the good alekeep take a horsewhip to me for questioning her daughter’s virtue?”

“Don’t be stupid. The girl’s coming with us.”

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