Footsoldiers yielded before the oncoming riders; they must, or be trampled. The ones who weren’t quick enough were knocked down. Mara herself rode over the shield of one luckless man—whether he was her own soldier or a Spaniard, she didn’t know. In the gory mix of blood and mud amidst this screaming confusion, it was difficult to distinguish between the two. Uniforms were ragged, shields spattered, and faces stained. The Spanish helms were shaped differently, with pointed crests rather than the rounded tops of her own troops, and they wore molded bronze cuirasses rather than the circular breastplates favored by the Normans, but these distinctions were difficult to perceive accurately from the back of a charging horse. Soldiers rolled in the crushed grass, wrestling with their foes. Even the archers fought hand to hand. The battle resembled nothing so much as a deadly alehouse brawl.
She spotted a small woman very like Bel fighting viciously in the underbrush and shouted to Alyx. They spurred their horses in that direction.
A hearty cheer went up as Mara rode past. The Normans were heartened by her appearance. The Spanish, too, knew who she was. “La Infanta!” Their name for a female prince was murmured with an excitement Mara could not misinterpret. A captured general was a magnificent prize.
One eager Spaniard reached for her; her sword darted out and struck his shoulder. He fell away and she rode on without pausing to see how deeply she had cut. They would drag her down from her saddle if they were able to lay hands on her—she mustn’t allow that! A second stepped into her path, then faltered to one side when he saw she didn’t intend to stop. Alyx cut down a third who came at her from the left. Another leapt out to grasp her reins. Mara swung at his exposed neck, feeling the hitch and hesitation as her sword met bone. Blood sprayed over her leg, up to her knee. Dentelyon was nearly torn from her hand.
She put her foot on the armor-plated chest to kick the dying man away and, inadvertently, looked into his face. It was said to be dangerous to gaze into the eyes of the dead, especially of those you had killed. Your soul would be drawn down with theirs. The Spaniard’s eyes were wide and black like a rabbit’s freshly strung in a hunting snare. She recoiled in revulsion, and kicked as hard as she could. The blade pulled free, but she was thrown off her balance and forced to jump from her saddle to avoid falling more dangerously. Fatal folly to break a leg or accidentally impale herself!
She landed on her knees. With zealous cries, a score of Spaniards flew at her. Mara swung her sword, slicing back the pressing mob, and regained her feet as they retreated. The horse nickered and tossed its head, but it stood its ground at her back. Her own soldiers rushed to her aid. They’d seen her fall and the idea of the filthy Spaniards daring to touch their Prince was more than the most loyal could bear. With a low, growling sound of outrage, they pushed forward to seize their foe. Their brutality was astonishing: punches were aimed at kidneys; ears were boxed; knees thrust up into groins. Three and four set themselves against one. Some clubbed their opponents with branches torn from the trees. A bowmaid yanked one Spaniard backwards by the shoulder and drove her helmed brow into his face. Mara had expected these sorts of dirty tricks from the Spanish, but it was a surprise to see them employed so effectively by her own troops. She wasn’t certain she liked to see them abandon the codes of civilized conduct in warfare but, since they acted for her deliverance, she couldn’t complain.
Though this battle raged at the same intensity through the length of the dell and on the hills above, it seemed to Mara as if everyone had converged upon this spot before her. All around were glinting steel, thrashing, leather-clad arms and legs, and more blood than she had ever seen. The grass was red with it. Half a dozen Spaniards were stabbed through the back; Mara cut down another three while they were distracted by Norman arms about their throats. The fight was reflex—strike and strike again, then dodge the counterstrike. She was at her best when she let her instincts guide her and didn’t trouble herself with thoughts of death and pain. Later, there would be time to reflect on the first foes to die at her hands. Now, she simply fought. She didn’t act with deliberate cruelty; this was a matter of killing those she faced before they killed her. It was what she’d trained for, what she was prepared to do to accomplish her victory. In this, her first battle, she acquitted herself bravely. She gave a clean death wherever she could.
Her blade clove deep beneath an upraised arm, and the Spanish soldier fell at her feet with Dentelyon wedged into the earth under him. If she stooped to retrieve it, they would be on her like ravenous wolves. She drew the dagger from her right boot. The short blade wasn’t as effective as Dentelyon for keeping her foes at a distance, but it was sufficient to hold them back while she reached up with her left hand, groped along the rim of the saddle behind her head, and found the flails. She snatched one down to crack a few helms. The dagger flashed in, finding vulnerable points. A Spanish soldier swung at her head; she ducked as if flinching from the blow, then stabbed upward under his cuirass. The soldier stepped back, clutching his chest, and fell, the blade still in him. Mara tossed her flail to her right hand, and drew the second dagger with her left. She hadn’t meant to use them at all—at least, not under such conditions. But Dentelyon lay trapped, its hilt just visible beneath the body at her feet, and her fencing saber was out of reach behind her. She would have to turn her back to her foes to extract it from the scabbard. Until she was given that opportunity, she must do her best with the weapons at hand.
Alyx had ridden around from Mara’s left and fought to reach her. Her horse reared up, unable to ride through the swarms of footsoldiers. She was beset on all sides, slashing left and right and kicking angrily at any who tried to lay hands on her. Blood spattered over her from head to horse’s hooves. There was now some confusion among the Spanish. Mara didn’t know their language, but she understood their bafflement: this terrifying warrior-maid who bore the Northlands’ arms, screamed like a Valkyrie, and dripped blood from her sword and her blonde braids—Was she the fearsome granddaughter of the Redlyon? Had they sought the wrong prize?
“Mara!” Alyx shouted. “Do you hear it?”
Yes, there was a strange sound, faint amid the uproar—a distant chant, one word repeated that she couldn’t quite discern. A triumphal cry? Spanish or Norman? Had her knights taken the gate?
As she strained to make sense of the repeated word, she left herself unguarded for an instant. A body struck her. She fell back against the curtain of the horse’s mail, raked against it, and crashed to the ground beneath the animal. The blade of a dagger grazed the skin beneath her ear. A red garnet flashed at the corner of her eye—her own dagger! The bastard must have plucked it from the corpse of his comrade! This was more outrageous than the assault.
She clouted the side of her opponent’s head with her flail and shoved him back. His head struck the horse’s belly. The horse danced fretfully—its hind hooves stamped dangerously near Mara’s head and the heavy mail-curtain swung to knock the Spanish soldier down upon her—then it bolted, leaving her exposed in the midst of chaos and wrestling with a man who meant to kill her.
A second stab. Pain shot from her right shoulder. Mara shrieked, more in rage than pain, and grabbed his wrist. She yanked his hand away from her, but the dagger remained wedged in the rings of her mailshirt.
Fury gave her strength. Mindless of her injury, she pulled the dagger free and thrust upward viciously. Her first strike drove deep into the Spaniard’s throat; his hands went to her upraised arm, but the struggle was short. Mara twisted the blade sharply, slicing back to his ear.
The eyes of the dead still looked surprised.
The body fell forward on top of her. She lay beneath it, breathing hard through clenched teeth. Her white tunic was now stained deepest red—and not all the blood was Spanish. Her own blood soaked the leather lining beneath the mail and seeped through the metal rings. Her left arm was pinned across her breast beneath her shield. Her right arm was on fire. The dagger slipped from her fingers. If she must die, she thought, at least she had brought her murderer to the Afterlife with her. He wouldn’t be able to boast of how he’d killed a Norman Prince.
Someone screamed her name. Alyx, probably. Or perhaps one of the soldiers who fought to reach her. How distant they all seemed now! She could barely hear the roar of the battle. Yet one thing emerged quite clearly: far away, the chant of a single word rose exuberantly to the heavens.
“Kat! Kat! Kat!”
Kat? Then everything faded.