Mara’s three friends bore the Northlands hartshead freshly painted on their shields. They were meant to act as decoys to baffle the foe on the field, though Mara thought it unlikely that any but the most near-sighted Spaniard could be deceived by the ruse. None were physically like her: petite, curly-headed Bel, lean and fair-haired Alyx, black-haired, lithe Sataumie. Yet it was the traditional role of a Shieldmaid; when the first of their order had numbered less than one dozen, all had bravely borne the arms of their royal founder. Today, lesser Shieldmaids bore the devices of their squadrons and a few carried the arms of the noblewomen they served—Khrystophania’s honor guard bore the broken sword of the Marchion’s family. These three alone were chosen for the proud office of standing in place of the Prince. Kat, who did look like her, bore the Irish harp. No one would stand in her place.
“If Kat has,” Sataumie whispered, “it’s not so unpardonable a crime that she must be set aside. Shieldmaids aren’t bound by the old vows these days.”
“But she’s a Prince,” Alyx hissed back. “Their cares are different from yours and mine.”
“Even a Prince may take the opportunity for love, especially when she rides to battle the next day.”
I may die this day. A casual remark, spoken to defend an impulsive, foolish act—but Mara now recalled Kat’s words with superstitious dread. She knew Kat’s fey spirit. Was it a premonition? Peter’s vision had placed Kat in battle about a burning city, but that omen of fortune might not be the end of the tale. Kat might be killed today, and Mara found that more difficult to bear than the possibility of her own death. The sensation of pending danger was impossible to disregard.
She was suddenly contrite. Kat’s behavior didn’t excuse her own. Though Alyx and Sataumie were impertinent to discuss her private business, their opinions were justified: casting her cousin from her side was petty; her words were spiteful and her sulkiness was unseemly. While Mara believed she had good reasons to be angry, her actions were beneath her dignity as General of these armies. They marred the solemnity of this great day. In a moment, once the troops were in order, she would offer the ritual prayer for victory. How could she ask God’s favor with such errors fresh on her soul? The presumption was almost blasphemous. Kat might be struck down, if not for her own sins, then for Mara’s. She could not in her conscience let her cousin ride to battle unreconciled.
She turned to find Kat, face stony and eyes flashing, holding her horse’s bridle while Arthur fixed the tester over its head. “Kat–”
The sound of two more horses approaching stopped her.
“Who is it?” Sataumie called as the dark shapes rode toward them through the camp, silhouettes among the bustling soldiers.
The horses pulled up near the fire. The riders were Frederik and Khrystophania, in mail covered by tunics of natural buckskin. Frederik had two thin stripes of blue diagonally down his left cheek. His sister bore a single stripe and a penny-sized circle at her temple.
“Warriors’ paint?” asked Alyx.
“It is our custom, to bring luck in battle,” the younger Shieldmaid explained.
“It is a custom in the north as well,” said Sataumie, “but not `til you’ve shed the blood of your foe and can rightly be called a warrior.”
“And so none of you wear it?” Frederik grinned.
“No, My Lord, but we hope to after this day.”
“My Lord Marchion,” Mara asked, rising. “What brings you here?”
“Our troops are assembled, Prince Margueryt. We’ve come to ask if there are any last orders before we march.”
Mara found this explanation implausible. All her plans had been discussed thoroughly in the past weeks at Dennefort. From the commander of the Montegnecrest fortress that guarded the mountain passes to Arnault who awaited the Spanish reinforcements at the coast, her generals knew their business—and Frederik especially so, for he’d been her chief source of information and advice as she formed her strategies. No, there was only one reason for this visit: he wanted to see Kat once again.
Frederik ducked his head at her cutting stare, nonplussed that his motives should be so easily exposed, and by one who clearly disapproved. It was obvious to Mara that he believed Kat had confided in her. But when Kat stepped forward, smiling, he forgot his embarrassment. Before his beloved, the young Marchion sat taller in his saddle. His heart could be read plainly in his expression: the feelings Kat had described last night were completely mutual. The intimacy revealed in that brief moment when their eyes met was nearly indecent. When Frederik turned back to Mara, he no longer looked abashed. He regretted that his love must displease her, but he was no more willing to retract than Kat was.
“Last orders, Marchion? There is nothing new,” Mara answered tersely. “We march as soon as the sun rises—My troops here first, and the flanks to follow in spearhead formation. We aim at the Spainfort gate. Once the Shieldwall is breached, all will converge upon that point.”
“We were about to pray Our Highest Lord’s blessing,” Kat added. “Will you join us?” The invitation sounded like simple courtesy, but Mara saw it as an act of mischief. Kat knew perfectly well that she couldn’t turn anyone away from this Christian service.
She shot a furious look at Kat, who continued to smile in guileless welcome to her lover. “Will you?” Mara offered grudgingly.
Frederik swung down from his horse and offered a hand to help Khrystophania. “Prince Margueryt, we are delighted.”
Mara stuck Dentelyon’s point into the earth. Her captains knelt in a semi-circle about this impromptu cross; beyond them, the assembled soldiers bowed their heads. The chaplain had returned to Dennefort with the other non-combatants. Mara spoke a prayer of her own composition, a variation of the traditional plea for divine intercession:
“O Heavenly Father, grant Thy humble servants victory this day,
As our venerable ancestors were blessed in Thy sight
And did service against Thine enemies on this same field.
We pray this same boon from Thy Divine Grace,
For our cause is just and our faith in Thy Will strong.
O Lord, guide us to victory in Thy name,
Else receive our souls in Heaven if we should fall.”
“Grant us victory, O Lord,” the captains murmured as they crossed themselves; the response rippled through the crowd. “Soothly.”
As the company rose, Frederik took Kat by the arm and drew her close for a quick, whispered conference. Mara didn’t hear most of what was said, but Kat’s last words—”It doesn’t matter”—were quite clear, for her cousin glanced at her as she spoke. They kissed once, quickly. The Shieldmaids averted their gaze. Mara turned her back to them and plucked up Dentelyon.
This was intolerable. By making a public show of her affection, Kat flaunted all propriety. Forcing Mara to acknowledge her lover was plainly contentious. Mara had meant to apologize for her conduct, if not her opinion; evidently, no such consciousness of error occurred to Kat. She deliberately provoked further dissention, and took perverse delight in doing so. It doesn’t matter. The words burned in Mara’s mind; they’d been meant for her to hear. What didn’t matter? Her presence? Her disapproval? How dare they dismiss her! The brazenness of it was infuriating, and unforgivable. She couldn’t think of reconciliation.
At any rate, it was too late now. The sky was light with the approach of dawn. She must march with this rage as a blot upon her soul, and hope that God might forgive it in the greater justice of her cause.
“Be ready!” she shouted. “Captains, to your places! Frederik, Khrysta, I bid you go and godspeed you in your errand.” The eastern horizon glowed red. The light was yet dim, but the landscape lay clear before them. The low mist that curled through the clefts and valleys did not obscure their way.
She mounted her horse and rode out ahead of the first line of archers, then turned. “On my mark!”
As she raised her sword, the upper rim of the rising sun appeared above the eastward hills. The first rays caught the flat of the blade and the steel flashed, casting brilliant, blinding glints of orange and gold as if by divine portent. A thrill ran through the waiting soldiers.
The first charge marched down, knights riding on either side and infantry behind. Some gave battle-cry; a few were laughing with eagerness; others were grim. Once they reached the southern border of the Shieldwall, all the Spanish troops that had gathered since the Normans began their journey from Dennefort awaited them—not enough to deflect the force of Mara’s army, but enough to be a difficulty. It was to be expected that the majority defended the border, but advance troops might hide themselves anywhere behind the hills, in the wooded dells or creek-cut ravines. This route was most perilous. The main gate in the southern wall lay on the road between Dennefort and Spainfort. The road had been frequently traveled in more peaceful days and the gate was designed for times of peace; it was no wider than necessary to admit a cart or a few travelers walking abreast. Yet it was the vulnerable point. The Norman army had entered the Shieldwall through its northern counterpart and now followed the road. Though they moved more swiftly in a straight line, they kept this thin, dusty-grey trace winding through the green hills in sight. Their primary goal was to breach the gate. Once that was accomplished, they would storm the mountains and lay siege upon Spainfort.
Spainfort, the Eyes of the Mountains. Twenty miles away, it was the most prominent feature in the range of mountains ahead, a great stone bastion wedged into its pass like an enormous boulder amid the green peaks.
The vanguard, a dozen of Mara’s best knights, spread out ahead of the archers. At Kat’s command, they divided into four trios: one to guard the road, two to explore the clefts and copses the army must pass, and the last to race on and spy out what lay beyond the next hill. A warning yip went up when the first Spaniards were spotted. Advance troops had come out to meet them and make a stand at a deep gully below the road. It was the first time the Normans faced their enemy, but they were well drilled and prepared for this moment.
“Second phalanx down!” Bel dropped from her saddle, bow drawn and quiver at hand, as the front line of archers knelt. “Ready on my mark!” The Spanish marched toward them. The swift knights darted out of the way before the arrows began to fly. “Fire!” A rain of arrows fell, thick and fast. The archers fired in swift rotation, shooting and drawing fresh arrows in turn, so that there should be no cease to the onslaught until Bel cried, “Hold!” The Spanish were greatly outnumbered and devastated by the first volleys. Scores lay pierced even before the Norman knights thundered in among them. The skirmish concluded swiftly. In accordance with Mara’s directives, mercy was shown to the wounded and to those who surrendered. The rest were cut down. Prisoners were relieved of all weapons; Spanish knights and captains were separated from the rank and file and held under guard by a small company left behind. A second advance, which surprised them in a wooded gully, was dispatched as easily.
Casualties were light in these first encounters; none were killed and the injured were able to retreat with their wounds. The Norman ranks closed swiftly to fill the gaps and they marched on without breaking formation.
As the sun climbed into the clear sky, spirits were high. Bel led her archers in a merry battle song from the days of the Redlyon. The tune soon spread through the ranks:
We’ll spear `em right through to the liver,
Then toss `em clear up to the sky!
Let bloody Spain run to the Devil
When they hear us make this cry:
One Norman’s worth ten of the others, my lad!
O, one Norman’s worth ten of the others!
They shouted the grisly chorus gleefully as they marched. Mara, though she had yet had little taste of battle herself, exulted in these early triumphs. Worse lay ahead, to be sure, but she was eager to meet it. Her troops had proved themselves. She never doubted her eventual victory, but now it was surely in her grasp. The Spanish dare not stand before them.
On the slope below the Terrojos wall, the orderly progression burst apart. As the first archers approached the wall, scores of arrows showered down upon them from the other side. The Spanish archers shot high and blind; their arrows fell amid the advancing army but were aimed at no precise target. None struck true, but their purpose was accomplished. With no one to return volleys against, the Norman archers were forced to scatter.
As they sought cover, a multitude of Spanish footsoldiers appeared and charged down toward the baffled Normans below. The archers directed their attention to this oncoming assault. Bows twanged and arrows hissed; Spaniards fell, but more poured down into the dell. There were too many, too close for the archers to wield their best weapon. Then the Spaniards were upon them. Each archer carried a short sword or dagger for hand-to-hand combat. Blades were drawn as the two forces clashed. The footsoldiers at the eastern end of the dell charged down to join the fight. Shrieks rose from both sides, shouts of command and curses in both Norman and Spanish. Horses screamed. All was turmoil.
Mara’s knights had stopped on a rise above the battle.
“Hundreds of them!” Alyx shouted to her. “It must be their main force. Christ’s mercy, Mara, Bel’s down there.” They had looked after Bel since their cadet days. In spite of the hundreds in danger now, it was impossible not to think foremost of their friend.
Mara was about to give the command to send her knights down, when Kat came tearing at them over the hills. She had ridden off to scout the area with a trio of her knights just before the Spanish assault. She sped back now, bursting through the company and forcing them to scatter, then pulled her horse up abruptly before she ran onto the downward slope.
“The gate is atop the next hill,” she reported, breathless from her hard ride. “There, where the bastards burst forth. Nobody defends it now. A few score knights. Pike squares.” She spoke in short bursts, with no tone of sarcasm nor bitterness. In the crisis, all conflict was laid aside; she was a captain in the service of her prince, no more.
“`Tis impossible to break a pike square from horseback,” Mara answered, “but they move so slowly. A rider might sweep around them while the rest of our knights keep theirs from the gate. Their knights are no match for ours!” The knights gathered about this conference heartily shouted agreement. “Did you sight Khrespian’s company?”
“They aren’t very far north, beyond the next ridge and riding in this direction.”
“Send a messenger to call them to the gate. Our company will meet him there.” Mara glanced anxiously at the conflict below.
“Shall I lead the charge?” Kat offered.
Mara nodded. “Take these knights, all who will go. The rest may ride with me to the aid of my archers. Godspeed you in your errand, Cousin.”
Kat smiled. “And you, My Prince.” She wheeled her horse around and shouted commands. Alyx remained at Mara’s side, eyes on the battle.
“Can you see Bel?” asked Mara.
“I lost sight of her shield when the arrows began to fly. That’s her horse, without rider.”
“She’s such a little thing. Perhaps they’ve missed her.” Mara tried to smile, but she was worried too. “Let’s go.” Dentelyon upraised, Mara spurred her horse and rode down into the melee, Alyx beside her. The knights who hadn’t followed Kat charged after them.