Mara lay awake through the night, furious and heartsick. The words she and Kat had spoken to each other tumbled thorough her head. She reviewed them countless times. Where had her arguments failed? What might’ve been said instead to sway Kat? Could she still turn her cousin from this folly even now?
As the sky grew grey in the hour before daybreak, she rose to put on her battle-gear. Kat awoke and, untangling herself from the cloak she had wrapped around her in the night, rose too. Side by side, they armored themselves. The breach between them wasn’t healed, but had instead grown during the hours of silence. Neither was yet willing to break it. Both were cool, formal, and distant. This coming battle with the Spanish took precedence over the argument between them; private differences must be suppressed. And what could be said before Arthur? The sleepy squire assisted with the most difficult straps, catches, and buckles, but even after he left them to fit up the horses, they didn’t speak.
Mara imagined bitter and spiteful retorts she might say, but she knew that insults would accomplish nothing. She saw no point in reproaching Kat for her unchaste behavior. Kat was no frivolous wanton and, with regards to Frederik, was impervious to shame. Kat believed that she’d done nothing wrong, but she was certain to remember any harsh words whether they were deserved or not. Nor could Mara claim that Frederik had wooed her cousin with mercenary aims, hoping to wed his way into the imperial legitimate line. She didn’t believe it herself, and Kat would never forgive the insinuation.
As much as she wanted to place Kat and Frederik under guard far apart from each other, Mara couldn’t afford to alienate two of her most important aides. The Border Guard would take it ill to see their Marchion insulted, and Mara knew that their loyalties lay with Frederik more than herself. Rage as she might, it wasn’t in her power to stop this folly.
She told herself that it wasn’t her concern if Kat and Frederik chose to make fools of themselves. Whatever promises they made to each other, they must face Dafythe and the Emperor—and see what their respective liege lords thought of this self-made match!
“Aunt Mara?” Arthur asked as he struggled to fasten the girth of her horse’s saddle beneath the heavy mailcoat which covered the animal from breastbone to tail and hung to its knees. “Which sword will you carry?”
“Grandfather’s,” she answered. Dentelyon’s scabbard was already belted at her side. “The saber can go on the saddle, beside the flails.”
Arthur strapped the smaller scabbard to the forepart of the saddle, so that it dangled at the horse’s mail-draped right shoulder. Her shield hung on the left side.
“And bring my daggers!” Mara called to the boy. She glanced at Kat. “Have you got one?”
Kat patted the sheathed dirk at her belt. “I’ve carried it with me since we left Dennefort,” she answered impersonally.
“Take another,” Mara said in the same frosty tone. Arthur unrolled the soft cloth parcel marked with Mara’s crest. The daggers were a matched set, a gift from Ambris on her knighting; the blades were from four to seven inches long and each hilt was topped with a garnet, her birthstone. Mara selected two for herself and tucked one into each boot. The hilts glinted at her knees, ready to hand while she rode. She chose a third for Kat, who received it wordlessly and tucked it into her own boot-top. A fourth, Mara tucked into Arthur’s belt.
“You may have need of it, Nephew.” Her squire would remain here until he was called to join them once Spainfort was secured, but who could say what tricks Fate might play before this victory was obtained? The Spanish might creep so far north.
In the campsites all around them, soldiers were also arming themselves. As the Princes ate a quick, light breakfast in the waning darkness, Bel, Sataumie, and Alyx arrived. All three were clad in similar mailshirts and armor, their forebraids tucked into their tunic collars.
“Good morrow, Princes!” Bel greeted them cheerfully as she climbed down from her horse. “We couldn’t have wished for a clearer day—not a rain cloud in the sky and barely a hint of mist.”
“That’ll burn off once the sun touches it,” Sataumie added.
“We’ll see the bastard Spaniards coming from miles away!”
“I’m glad to see you are unharmed, Kat,” said Alyx. “We missed you last night.”
“We also missed our assignments,” Sataumie reminded Mara gently.
Mara felt the reproach. She’d meant to do this before they’d parted last night, but her worry over Kat had driven her plans from her mind and she’d sent her companions away in anger. It was beneath her dignity to apologize; instead, she amended the error by giving her assignments immediately. “Martine leads her old patrol. She’s rejoined Marchion Frederik’s troops and I do not command her. Bel, you’ll captain the archers.”
“On foot?” the captain asked, reluctant to leave her horse behind.
“You won’t be so tempting a target,” laughed Alyx.
“You may ride to lead the archers to battle, but I expect you’ll wish to drop from the saddle when the arrows begin to fly,” said Mara. “You’re the best of the lot.” Bel’s dead-on accuracy had guaranteed her position at the head of the archers.
“Diane’s riders could shoot longbows from the saddle,” Bel said wistfully. “`Tis a shame the skill hasn’t survived.”
“The archers will advance first on my mark and lay out a thick spread of arrows once we sight the Spanish. You’ll shoot from the higher and lower phalanx at once.” It was said that bowmaids couldn’t shoot so far as their men-fellows, but their aim was more true. Mara saw no difference—the best always struck their mark—but she used the traditional formation: tall, standing archers, mostly male, shot high and long into the air, and smaller, kneeling archers, usually female, aimed at closer targets. “Cry clear when you’ve spread your cover, and hold your fire. The footsoldiers will come behind and make short work of whatever’s been missed. Lieutenant Uismarde leads the infantry. She is with a squad of Shieldmaids just down the hill, there. Sataumie, you will march with them. The knights, I have divided into companies. The Chevalier Lord Khrespian of Frankeshire has command of the cavalry to our north—Eadrik is with him. Marchion Frederik rides with his knights of the borderlands south of us. The knights here shall ride in two flanks, one to each side of the archers. The smaller company to the left acts as vanguard. The larger, to the right, supports the footsoldiers. I’ll lead this second group. Alyx, you’ll be my left-arm ward.”
There followed an awkward silence. Even Alyx, who was gratified by this unexpected honor, knew that at Mara’s side was where Kat ought to be.
“Do I ride with you, Cousin?” Kat asked coolly.
“I thought you meant to relinquish your place at my left and ride in another company.”
Kat bit her lip, stung at the deliberate insult. The Shieldmaids glanced from one to the other, wondering at Mara’s strange mood.
“You may captain the vanguard if you like, Cousin,” Mara offered.
“As you will it, My Prince.” Kat rose to help Arthur, who had apparently caught her horse’s mail on the woolen pad beneath and was in danger of dragging both from the animal’s back in his effort to detach them. All the camp was active now. Captains gathered their troops; sergeants shouted orders to assemble. Gear was gathered and campfires were kicked out. Thousands of shadow-shapes moved through the faint light, hurrying to complete their tasks.
Bel and Sataumie dispersed to attend to their duties—one to convey instructions to her archers, the other down the hillside to find Lieutenant Uismarde’s camp. Alyx, who had no obligations save to remain at Mara’s side, loitered nearby; as she casually inspected her gear and tugged to test the straps and buckles on her horse’s fittings, she glanced now and again at Mara, who sat brooding by the fire. She was one of Mara’s closest friends, trusted and beloved even among the Shieldmaids, but she was close enough to know that Kat was dearer still. This was a dangerous ground to tread upon uninvited. All she could do was wait until Mara desired to confide in her, but her Prince only tossed the crusts and rinds of breakfast into the fire and put away the kits.
Sataumie returned from her conference with Uismarde and joined Alyx; Mara heard them whispering together.
“I’ve never seen her so before, Taumie. She won’t speak.”
“You know what it is.”
“I can guess. I dare not ask, not after last night. And now this unlooked-for honor. You know I expected to lead the vanguard myself, or perhaps have your place among Uismarde’s Shields. Never left-arm ward!”
“`Tis unconventional, certainly, to place one hart-shield against another before the enemy.”
“It’s done to spite Kat.”