Six weeks later, the armies of the Northlands began to cross the Shieldwall. They had mobilized with astonishing swiftness; Mara had deployed cohorts of one hundred each at intervals along the border with Arnauld commanding a legion at Delta fortress on the coast and Brachis in command of another in the western mountains, but the main Northlands’ force crossed at the vulnerable point where the Shieldwall was narrowest. Spainfort lay directly south. The invasion of Terrojos would commence at dawn.
So enormous an undertaking was impossible to overlook. Spanish troops had taken up defensive positions along the southern boundary of the Shieldwall; flickering orange pinpoints of campfires were visible in the darkness. Messages had thrice been sent to Spainfort, demanding surrender and promising peaceable passage to any who disdained Norman rule. This gesture was required by long-established codes of conduct between civilized nations, but it was understood that Spanish honor would never allow these terms to be accepted. Terrojos meant to hold back the invasion for as long as they were able. Their numbers were much smaller than the combined might of the Normans but, while they couldn’t hope to prevent the onslaught, they could hinder the progress of the invading army. Crags and outcroppings in the river-cut hills provided a hundred strong strategic points for barricades and ambushes. The most recent intelligence reports revealed that reinforcements had been sent for from Spain and would reach Terrojos within the week. Mara knew that she must strike now.
In preparation for the coming battle, she had spent the afternoon in prayer. Her chaplain heard her confession and she received communion. Then, her soul in order, she had attended to certain practical matters which must be addressed. Though she would rather not think of them, she knew they were necessary.
She made out her will. She had also written a letter to her father, to be delivered only if she died; in it, she told him of her love, apologized for any act he might disapprove of, and urged him to consider naming Eadrik his heir-apparent—or, if Eadrik died too, Ambris’s second son Eduarde. In a similar letter to the Emperor, she wrote that she was proud to give her life in his cause. These personal papers would go in Ren’s care when the little maid and the other non-combatants retreated to the safety of Dennefort.
In addition, Mara had issued general instructions regarding ransom for herself as well as her cousin and Shieldmaids in the contingency of capture by the Spanish. She demanded retribution against every Spaniard if she or any of her companions were treated brutally while in captivity. Mara hoped it wouldn’t come to that; the threat of bloody revenge was meant to be preventative, not punitive. She would rather keep her person safe than see any mistreatment avenged by the wholesale slaughter and mutilation of Spanish prisoners, but she had this means to protect herself. Spainfort had likewise received word of her orders. In kind, she also forbade atrocities against the enemy. Offenses committed by any of her soldiers would be punished as if they were crimes committed on Norman soil against Norman citizens. Cruelty to the captured and fallen was not only abhorrent to Mara’s own principles; she also hoped that mercy to the conquered Terrojos natives would facilitate their subjugation and she wished to impress her father with her civilized conduct. This battle would not become an excuse for barbarian bloodletting.
Some soldiers slept that night. Others were worried and restless. Knowing her own uneasiness, the Prince called her friends together. After this afternoon’s grim business, she needed light-hearted company. While her Shieldmaids gathered about the campfire, their squires sat drowsily in attendance and Arthur sprawled on the grass nearby. Bard Delphyn told heart-stirring tales and sang the odd conceits of The Hart and the Lion:
The swift hart of the Northlands,
Its brow bears the star.
Its horns sharp as green-thorn,
Let none dare it spar!
The lion of Skotsland,
Fierce lord of the wood.
Its roar foments terror,
Its mane red as blood.
The hart and the lion
O how can it be?
What strange love lies between
The hart and the lion
O how can it be?
Can the fallow lie down
With the king of all beasts?
“I never understood that,” said Bel as she tossed a handful of popcorn kernels onto the hot, flat rocks surrounding the fire. “Why an Emperor married a Duke of the Northlands. Do you know, when I was a little girl and first learnt my histories, I was forever baffled by the Redlyon’s Princes. Who was meant by Gossunge? It ought to have been the Duke’s firstborn.”
“No,” Mara answered. “Father was Prince of Gossunge, and Skotsland too.”
“Old Kharles couldn’t have been heir to the Empire and Dukedom both, Bel,” Alyx added. “The Northlands is meant to be autonomous, not an imperial fief like the European kingdoms. The title of Gossunge, and afterwards, Duke of the Northlands, was given My Lord Dafythe so that the Northland’s line remained separate from the imperial house. Didn’t your history lessons teach you that?”
“But that’s my point exactly!” Bel insisted. “Why create so much confusion between which of two sons was heir to what, when more prudent matches might’ve avoided the problem from the start? What if the marriage had produced only one child? I wonder that it was ever allowed.”
“They weren’t Emperor and Duke when they met,” Sataumie reminded her. “No one could’ve known that Prince Denys would die young. If he’d lived, the Redlyon would’ve been Diane’s consort.”
Bel laughed. “Imagine the Redlyon as a mere consort! He was hardly the sort to stand in support of another.”
“He stood in support of Denys,” said Alyx. “He was his brother’s left-arm ward, remember. If you can’t trust the soldier who shields your weaker side, who on this earth can you trust?” The kernels of popcorn began to burst. Some leapt into the fire; others scattered across the hot rocks and the Shieldmaids and squires scrambled to catch them before they burned. “Eduarde and Diane—” Alyx continued once she had gathered her handful. “Did they have visions?”
“Of course,” Mara answered. “The Redlyon and the Hart.”
“But did they truly see their talisman-beasts? They aren’t visionary—rather, prosaic. Redlyon is an obvious battle-name for a red-haired prince, especially so for a Prince of Skots. Skotsland’s crest has been a lion on field gules for centuries. And the hart has been the crest of the Northlands for nearly as long.”
“Visions are a divine grant,” Mara insisted. “If they saw the lion and the hart, it merely confirmed their right to rule under those ancient and traditional devices. Delphyn,” she appealed to the minstrel, “is it not so?”
“Captain Alyx is right, My Prince,” Delphyn answered apologetically. “Many tales speak of Eduarde’s glory in battle, but none describe a vision of a lion, red or otherwise.”
Martine of Senneoke, who was a dark-skinned, black-haired woman with the strong-boned features of an aboriginal Atlantean, asked, “Have any of you received your vision yet?”
Bel shook her head slightly and Alyx said, “Surely you have, Mara.”
Mara looked around at the faces bright in the firelight and noted immediately that one familiar face was missing. “No, I haven’t,” she answered. “Not at my knighting nor in the ten years since.”
“It’ll come,” Alyx assured her, “once you dispatch your first Spaniard.”
“I’ve had a vision,” Sataumie said quietly, and found herself the focus of attention.
“Well?” Bel demanded.
“It’s your turn to tell a tale, Shieldmaid,” Delphyn prompted.
With these appeals, Sataumie consented reluctantly. “It happened before I took my assignment at the Ystelake camp,” she began. “I went back to my home village in the Allegheny hills. `Tis a peaceful place. I wondered if I should stay. For the first time, I doubted my chosen path. I mean no slight to you, Mara, but I didn’t believe I would ever use my battle-skills. It seemed hopeless. I had worked so hard and dreamed so of being a Shieldmaid in battle at my Prince’s side, and it might come to nothing. I thought: was it better that I stay with my family and return to their way of life even though I didn’t choose that same way in the beginning? Its people live by customs so old that even the village elders cannot tell you their true meanings. Most of the people there are content with the old ways.”
“And you received your vision then?” Martine urged.
Sataumie nodded. “On the night before I meant to go to Ystelake, I walked up into the hills above the village. I went to the top of the Mystery Hill. You may have heard of it or another place like it, for such hills are common in the Northlander wilderness where the Old Folk lived. It is an ancient, holy place—they say ceremonies were held there long before the first Normans set foot on this land. There is a ring of standing stones, each no more than a yard high and some of them fallen. A little chapel of St. Othelie stands at the edge of the glade with a stone angel at the door. I didn’t pray in the old way or the new, but lay down at the center of the ring and watched the moon rise over the trees. I lay there all night. In the late hours, I sensed something near me. I opened my eyes, but didn’t move, for I thought it must be a deer or fox and I didn’t wish to frighten it away.”
“Was it a fox?” asked Ren in a hushed voice.
“No,” Sataumie answered, “a wolf. A bitch, I think. Its fur was gray and white—in the moonlight, it looked silver. Its eyes caught the moon and shone like embers. Now, I had never seen a wild wolf before and I thought suddenly that I had done a very foolish thing to come into the woods at night alone. No one knew where I was. I had no weapon with me but a little knife. Yet the she-wolf did not pounce. It sat beneath the wide wings of Othelie’s angel and stared at me with its gleaming eyes. My heart was pounding and the palm of my hand was slick with moisture as I gripped my little knife. I was ready to defend myself against this beast, and yet when our eyes met I was taken by a strange calm. I saw how my truest nature had urged me to lay hands on a weapon rather than shriek and flee as another might’ve done. I had met a great danger boldly. I felt my own bravery and I knew certainly that I was a warrior born. I had chosen my right course.
“The wolf rose and bowed its head as if to acknowledge the truth of this discovery. Then it vanished. It was no dream, for I saw the clearing and the chapel, the angel and the wolf, so clearly as I see you all about this fire tonight. I tell you the wolf dissolved like so much mist. I knew then that I’d seen my talisman beast.”
Alyx smiled. “You haven’t taken it for a battle-name.”
Sataumie grinned in return. “The silver she-wolf beneath the angel’s wings in the moonlight? If I should declare myself by that name tomorrow on the battlefield, my foes would have plenty of time to flee. Yet I do bear it as my sign.” She reached into her jerkin and brought out a small silver amulet on a leather tether. She held it up for her friends to see: a wolfs-head with tiny chips of red stone set for eyes between a spreading pair of white feathers to represent wings; a sliver of crescent-shaped moonstone hung a half-inch above. “This was made for me at Guylliamesburghe.”
The other Shieldmaids were awed, and a little envious, of their friend’s good fortune. Sataumie’s certainty was something every warrior desired. Because one of their number had received this holy sign, they all had reason to hope that their purpose here was sanctioned too.
“What of Prince Denys?” Bel wondered. “Did he have his vision?”
“Surely he–” Martine began, then paused. “I’ve never heard such a tale. Did he?”
“Where’s Kat got to?” Alyx asked suddenly, breaking Mara from thoughts that had little to do with visions. She had barely listened to Sataumie’s tale.
“I don’t know,” Bel looked around. “She was here when we met, but I don’t think I’ve seen her since before Taumie told us about her wolf.”
“Mara, did you send her off on an errand?” Alyx pursued. “I don’t mean to pry if you did—only that we are so near the Spanish and she is a prime target for their malice. Anything might happen to her alone in the night.”
“I know,” Mara answered. “I haven’t sent her anywhere.”
“Perhaps she accompanied Khrystophania to the Marchion’s camp?” Sataumie suggested.
“No, I’m here,” said a quiet voice from the darkness. Khrystophania served as a liaison between Mara and her brother. She had spent a great deal of her time with the Prince and her friends these past weeks, but was too overwhelmed by them to join in their conversations and was sometimes forgotten.
“She seems taken with him,” said Bel, smiling.
Alyx turned to her. “Marchion Frederik?”
“I wouldn’t mind being `taken’ with him myself,” Martine chuckled. “My Lord Marchion’s quite fancied by many of the Border Guardswomen—by your pardon, Damosel,” she bowed her head to the Marchion’s sister. “He is the sort of man we most admire.”
Khrystophania nodded shyly. “You are noble-born yourself, Patrol Leader,” she answered. “But `tisn’t respectful for the common soldiers in my brother’s command to look on him so. I’m sure he means nothing more than friendliness towards them.”
“As do I, Damosel,” Martine replied. “But it does My Lord Marchion no harm. It’s not as if he’d notice one of our lot—I include myself, for the Emperor’s own man is too far above the youngest daughter of a backwoods Earl’s vassal for me to have a hope of catching his eye. Now, Prince Kat…”
“Kat? She’s been positively kittenish,” Bel laughed.
“Enough,” Mara cut this giggling conversation short. She couldn’t bear another word. “You sound like gossipy old merchant-dames at a bathhouse. I regret I called you here tonight. I would’ve been better left alone!”
Her companions were stunned by this outburst. Martine blinked in astonishment; Bel was abashed and Khrysta looked as if she had been slapped. Even little Ren, who hadn’t spoken once, sat open-mouthed.
“I apologize if we’ve offended you or your kinswoman,” Alyx ventured into the silence. “`Twas only meant in jest.”
“I know,” Mara answered, ashamed of herself. “I’m not offended. I’m simply too wrought up to listen to such nonsense tonight.”
Her Shieldmaids nodded; they thought they understood.
“Perhaps we ought to go now,” said Sataumie. “You may find more comfort in peace.”
With some murmurs of farewell and further apologies, the Shieldmaids gathered their belongings and respective squires and slipped quietly back to their own camps.
“Arthur, gather up the rest of the popcorn. We’ll have it cold as we march tomorrow. Delphyn, you may return to Dennefort,” Mara dismissed the minstrel who remained by the fire. “Rennie, you too. You’ll be protected there. Khrysta, I pray you accompany them.” As Alyx had suggested, Spanish spies might plan to assassinate or kidnap one of her retinue. Even her minstrel and her gentyl-maid were not safe. Khrysta would provide Delphyn and Ren with safe escort to the Marchion’s manor within the fortress, where they would wait out the battle as Frederik’s guests.
Mara wasn’t worried for Kat’s safety, however. She knew no such danger had befallen her cousin.