The Marchion’s frontier manners were more direct than Mara and Kat were used to, but neither took the young man for an ill-bred rustic. Mara quickly grew to like him; the fact that he was a cousin, though this could not be acknowledged, gave him a higher standing in her eyes. It was impossible to think the great-grandson of Denys any less refined than his venerated ancestor. Frederik was open, affable, eager to please. His unguarded remarks were refreshingly different from the obsequies of the men they knew at court. Frederik was no flatterer. He recognized their superior rank and extended the requisite courtesies, but he wasn’t afraid of them. He meant to be friends and, receiving no immediate rebuff, assumed that they were.
He was not the image of Denys, Mara decided. No, he was more like her father had been in his youth. She’d seen portraits of Dafythe in his twenties and thirties; Frederik might easily be taken for a son of that young Duke. He might be taken for her own younger brother. Though Frederik didn’t possess Dafythe’s courtly sophistication, he had the same affection, sense of responsibility, and concern for his subjects’ well-being that Mara had only recently learned to appreciate in her father. He carried himself with the graciousness of one well-born and the confidence of one brought up to command and defend. He was as much the proud master of Dennefort as Dafythe was master of Pendaunzel.
She was impressed by his competence. He did know his marches, more well than she knew Gossunge. He spoke in friendly terms with every guard they met on their way, and the guards, in turn, seemed fond of him. They responded to his familiar jests with equal retorts. None seemed awed or intimidated by their commander, nor were they contemptuous at his informality. Mara had this sort of friendship with her Shieldmaids, but she was surprised to see it shared between a noble lord and common soldiers. The Dennefort guards considered Frederik one of them. He had served in the patrols; he knew their business as well as they did, and they respected him all the more for it.
Kat was clearly amused by his enthusiasm, Mara observed, yet she saw nothing condescending in her cousin’s banter. For Kat, too, Frederik’s provincial charm was a delightful change from the polished manners of the Pendaunzel courtiers, and she responded to him playfully.
At the end of the tour, they visited the chapel. The tombs of Denys and his youngest brother Margad were not gravesites in the chapel grounds, as Mara had always imagined, but elevated mausoleums of native stone at the mouth of the family crypt; Frederik explained that the earth beneath the chapel was too rocky for burial. Each tomb was topped by an effigy of the dead Prince within—the knight and his squire, both clad in armor, their stone faces solemn and sleeping. The image of Denys held a sword to its breast; Margad embraced a shield. In the excavated crypt beyond them, Frederik’s ancestors lay in sealed vaults.
Here, Frederik’s mood changed. He grew more sober as he genuflected at the crucifix above the doorway, then approached Denys’s tomb.
“Mother brought me here too,” he told them. “She never fought a battle in her life, but she meant me to know that war was no thing of play. Even the boldest and bravest warriors can fall. Her grandmother–” he paused. “The first Marchion. She told her that fortunes might be changed in one night.”
He knew; Mara was certain. It was the one point on which his frankness failed.
Kat, on the other side of Denys’s tomb, smiled softly. “One might be nearly Empress, and then as abruptly left alone on the battlefield,” she said.
Frederik blinked at this allusion, more bold than he would dare to make himself. “I didn’t wish to be pushing, Prince Katheryne.”
“You aren’t. Did you think we hadn’t guessed for ourselves? `Tis nothing to be ashamed of, Cousin.” She reached across the effigy to take his hand. “Rather, be proud.”
The armies of the Northlands were still moving into campsites about Dennefort that Sunday, but Mara and Kat were well settled by then. They had located their friends and, on Sunday afternoon, they gathered to spar on the jousting yards by the barracks. Frederik had been most generous, reserving one field exclusively for their use and providing a private room where the Shieldmaids could store their armor and weaponry. Off-duty Border Guards watched the fencing match from the edge of the yard, but none interrupted the Princes’ exercise.
Since there were five of them, they exercised in the interchange formation they had learned as cadets: Mara sparred with Alyx, Bel with Sataumie; Kat assumed the role of swordsmaster and circled the matched pairs, pointing out flaws in their form. Partners changed frequently. When Mara’s saber tip darted under Alyx’s shield to prick her unguarded flank, Kat took the Captain’s place. Alyx soon replaced Bel, and Bel rejoined the action when Kat tagged Mara. They spun in a furious minuet, flailing extravagantly to drive each other back, leaping boldly into an undefended spot. The dance was intense, but lively, and playful taunts and shrieking laughter rose above the rhythmic clash of steel. Their swords never struck except to graze mail or leather lightly. Yet their grace and merriment barely disguised the ferocity of their game. In a few weeks, they would meet other swordsmasters with deadly intent and today’s practice made them all the more eager for it.
After an hour or so, all were bright with perspiration and their strikes and steps grew more slow. There were fewer bold leaps and dramatic flails. The steps of the dance became more deliberate.
“Stop,” Mara commanded. “Taumie’s holding her point low and you’re too weary, Alyx, to take advantage of it. Besides, we’ve only got an hour before Evensong and I’d like to bathe and have dinner before Mass.”
They went to the wardroom, where Ren sat with the two young girls who served as squires to Bel and Alyx; the little maids had been watching the swordplay wistfully.
“Where’s Arthur?” asked Kat as she tossed her gauntlets on the bench inside the door.
“M’Layn, with his brother Chevalier Eadrik.”
“And left knowing we were out on the playing field, careless brat! Rennie, can you serve as squire?”
“If you like, My Prince,” Ren answered tentatively. “I haven’t learnt how to care for soldiers’ gear.”
“`Tisn’t difficult,” Mara assured her. “We all began our careers in such service. First, take this–” she handed the girl her scabbard. “Hang it on the rack in the wall behind you. Kat’s goes below it. Place the shields against the wall beneath. Watch Marisel and Tenna and do as they do. Now for my gloves…” She extended her hands for the girl to pull off the leather fencing gauntlets.
As the Shieldmaids shed their battle gear, Ren received each piece and stored it with great care. Mara offered directions whenever the girl hesitated and Bel’s and Alyx’s squires made helpful suggestions. While the officers bathed, the girl turned to the more comfortable chores of a gentyl-maid and laid out fresh linen shirts, silk hose to replace the discarded woolens, and tunics and kirtles appropriate for Mass.
“Shall I carry your arms, My Prince?” Ren offered once Mara had dressed. “Chyelde Arthur would.”
“Arthur can carry my gear with ease,” Mara answered. “It’s too heavy for you.” But at the girl’s crestfallen expression, she reconsidered. “Very well, take the shield. Leave the armor here, and I’ll take my fencing saber.”
The sword Dentelyon hung above the rest of the gear. On an impulse, she took it down as well. An idea had come to her. Why shouldn’t she teach Ren something of the Shieldmaid arts? The girl took such interest in the equipment and practices of battle-play that it seemed a shame not to teach her a little.
“Rennie, have you ever handled a sword?”
“No, Prince Mara.”
“Would you like to?”
The girl’s eyes shone at the suggestion. “May I?”
Mara unsheathed Dentelyon. Gold-hilted and more than a yard long, the sword was too heavy for ordinary use; Mara felt the weight of it at her hip when she wore it. She didn’t fence with it, but saved it for the saddle, when it was more easily handled.
She gave it to the girl; Ren took the hilt in both hands and the point dropped instantly. Kat and the Shieldmaids ducked their heads to conceal their amusement. One of the squires giggled.
“Give it up, Mara,” Bel said. “That’s too much for her.”
“No, I can–” Ren insisted, though she obviously struggled to keep her balance.
“Nonsense. You’re too small.”
“You’re not so much larger than she is, Bel,” Mara answered.
“True,” said Sataumie, “but Bel didn’t begin to train with a sword made for a grown man.”
“I doubt even the Redlyon could lift that when he was a lad her age,” Bel added. “It’s easier for you big women. You’ve got shoulders like a man, Mara. The Shieldmaids taught us to use our skills as women, but the truth of it is that you could fight as well on masculine terms. I couldn’t. I don’t have the arms for it. Oh, you might make a swordsmaid out of that little girl if she trained long enough, but she’ll never be able to wield that thing any more than I can.”
Reluctantly, Mara returned Dentelyon to its place and followed her Shieldmaids out, the disappointed Ren bearing her shield. The Prince could never surrender anything easily.
She stopped on the field. “Then we’ll have to start with something lighter. Here,” she held out her free hand. The Shieldmaids were always ready to obey her commands; Alyx drew her fencing saber, a foot shorter than the famous broadsword, and gave it to her. Alyx received Mara’s shield and Mara gave the saber to Ren.
She took the girl’s arm gently between her hands and steadied her grip. “The wrist must be straight, Rennie. Not so rigid that it cannot bear a blow, but firm. Move by bending the elbow. Gauntlets will brace your wrists, but `tis best to strengthen the muscles.
“Now–” Mara stepped back and drew her own saber. “The object of swordplay is simple: never let your opponent’s sword touch you. In fencing, this means the game is lost. In battle, it may be your death.” Ambris had taught her this when she was six, and she repeated it to every squire and cadet she ever instructed. “Keep your eyes upon your foe’s swordpoint.”
Ren did so with unwavering intensity.
“To deflect the blade, you block and parry. Block–” She demonstrated by lifting her sword against Ren’s unsteady blade, “And parry.” With a smooth, slow, downward motion, she swept the blade aside. “Do you see?”
Ren nodded, her eyes still on the tip of Mara’s sword.
“When your opponent is unguarded, you make your own strike.” Gently, she extended the saber to touch the breast of Ren’s jerkin; the girl recoiled. “Good! Will you try?” Mara brought her sword up again. “Block, Ren.”
The girl danced back and knocked the sword aside with a jerk.
Ren leaned into the swing, Mara noted, throwing herself off balance and leaving her lower body vulnerable, but Mara spoke encouragingly, “Not too badly done. Your stance can be improved. You must learn to brace yourself for the counterstroke. Even in a friendly match, the blows will be hard. You can be knocked off your feet. Place one leg behind the other–”
“Mara,” Alyx reminded her. “Mass? Dinner? It will not be seemly if My Layn Prince’s entourage is tardy.”
She was right, of course. Mara sheathed her sword. “We’ll continue your lessons later, Rennie.”
They walked toward the fortress, Shieldmaids ahead and squires behind. Kat whispered to her cousin: “The girl can’t become your squire, Mara. You promised her mother.”
“I promised that Ren wouldn’t see battle and she shan’t. The maid is small, but that’s all the more reason for her to learn to defend herself.”
“I don’t understand why you’ve taken her on,” said Kat. “She’s a well-behaved child, but there must be hundreds of little alemaids exactly like her. Why pick her out?”
“Because she asked.”
“And will you grant that same boon to all who ask? Mara, I know how you return their affection, but you cannot take every subject into your personal protection.”
“No, this is different. I knew there would be a little maid. Magician Peter saw her. She is going to be important to me somehow.”
“`Tisn’t like you to be so superstitious.”
“It’s not superstition. Our Heavenly Father bestows the gift of foresight to magicians. He gave these visions to Peter for a reason. Peter saw this war, Kat, and here we are! He saw our victory celebration at the Palace.”
“The Emperor’s men,” said Kat, who had heard all of this many times before.
“But do you understand what this means? Peter saw three things—the battle, the young maid not sixteen, and our victory. If he has been right twice, then his visions are true and divinely inspired. Victory too will come to pass!”
It was difficult for Kat to remain skeptical before the force of her cousin’s conviction. Indeed, it was difficult for her to doubt any cause of Mara’s for very long. “It may be so,” she conceded, and glanced over her shoulder at the determined girl who bore Mara’s shield even though it was too heavy for her. “But how do you know that she’s the right one?”
“She suits Peter’s description,” Mara answered, “and she’s the only one who’s come to me with a request to enter my personal service.” They stopped at the gate. “Ren, is that too much for you? I can take it–”
“No, My Layn!”
As they entered Dennefort, the little maid trailing after them, Kat looked up at the fortress and said, “Wasn’t there a fourth vision? I recall you mentioned it once. Peter spoke of a sword.”
“A broken sword,” Mara answered, and followed her cousin’s gaze up to the tower-tops. Each bore the pennant of the Marchion’s family. “The broken sword.”
“You may be right, Mara. There may be something to this.” Kat was smiling. “Look, there’s Frederik!”