She woke to great pain. Her fingertips throbbed with her heartbeat. Her chest ached when she drew deep breath. The wound in her shoulder had grown to a blazing mountain. Impossible to get around, impossible to ignore, it loomed over her consciousness. She turned restlessly beneath it. Yet she must have slept; each time she opened her eyes the scene was changed. She lay on a stretcher in an open field, then on a cot in a wardroom; later, it was a strange, large bed with a feather mattress and netted curtains. The orange light of late afternoon became midnight in a blink, and then bold sunlight shot in through the small panes of a window on the wall above her. A cup was pressed to her lips and she drank cool water. Damp cloths bathed her brow and strips of bandages were wrapped about her shoulder. She thought Sataumie tended her—all Shieldmaids were trained in field medicine—but when she cried out Sataumie’s name, Alyx was there. She heard Spanish spoken and wondered if she’d only dreamed that her friends were with her. Was she a prisoner? Once, Kat knelt beside her, weeping. She looked more angry than sorrowful and Mara felt immense sympathy for her. She wanted to tell her cousin not to worry, that everything would be fine, but as she lifted her hand to Kat’s tear-streaked cheek, Kat disappeared.
The dragon was always nearby. It hadn’t abandoned her to her torment; its shadow lurked at the edge of her sight. Its rumbling purr sounded like distant thunder. It flew through the night skies, a dark shape with wings that blotted the stars. Its long flexible talons, iron claws, scraped stone. Scales scraped stone as it wound its way through corridors. A wooden door splintered. It pressed its muzzle against barrels and crates. With a blast of its hot breath, sparks flew. She felt the heat of its breath upon her—too hot now and she demanded cool water to soothe her scorched flesh.
Her whispering attendants took no notice of the huge creature. Did they not see it? Was the dragon visible only to her, or did those who nursed her accept that this remarkable beast belonged here at her side? Mara wondered if she ought to warn them of the dragon’s indiscriminate appetite; it had feasted well at the battle, but a beast so large must surely hunger again before long. It seemed cruelly unjust that her friends and servants be placed in such danger unawares.
Then she woke. Her head was clear and the pain in her shoulder abated. She lay in a large bed canopied with gauzy mosquito nets in a strange, richly furnished room. Kat sat in a chair at her side.
“Did we win?” she asked.
Kat looked plainly relieved at this simple question. “Of course.”
“What is this place?”
“The bedchamber of Don Miguel D’Andaluz, Teniente of Spainfort. We sent him to less well-appointed apartments for your sake, so you needn’t lie at hospital with the rest of the wounded. A victorious general deserves better.” She smiled. “How do you feel?”
Kat filled a cup with water from a pitcher on a small table beside the bed and offered it to her. Mara took the cup in her left hand, surprised at how heavy it felt. Her fingers slipped uncertainly over the curved porcelain, as if they were unused to handling such a familiar object. She must be very weak.
“Spainfort,” Mara looked about the chamber as she sipped. “How long have I slept?”
“It’s been five days since the battle.” Kat took the empty cup. “Your wound is not so bad. The lung was not pierced, nor the bone.” Mara tugged open the lacings of her nightshirt to bare her wounded shoulder; a thick pad of faintly stained dressing was bound over it by thin linen strips tied about her upper arm and across her chest and back. “There was some infection. You’ve been in a fever since we brought you here. The healer applied a poultice and it seems to have performed marvels.”
“A Spanish healer?” asked Mara, thinking of the Spanish she had heard spoken during her illness.
Kat nodded. “She was the only one available. Don Miguel brought her in. We didn’t trust her, but we put her under threat of sword and I think she did her best for you. We’ve taken turns sitting up with you ourselves, Alyx most often, for she doesn’t have so much to do as the rest of us. You couldn’t have chosen a better left-arm ward, Mara. You must tell her so when she comes in, for I think she blames herself for losing you in the battle. She fought to draw them from you, you know, and tried to reach you `til she fell herself.”
“Is she badly injured?”
“She took a blow on her shield arm, but it isn’t broken. Her thigh was cut and her face, here–” Kat drew a finger along the edge of her chin. “Yet Sataumie says that when she found her, Alyx was still on her feet, wandering about in search of you. She wouldn’t rest `til you were found and brought to the field hospital.”
“She deserves commendation,” said Mara, touched by this show of loyalty, though it was no more than she expected of her companions. “What of Bel?” she asked.
“Bel is unharmed,” Kat assured her. “She led the archers through the gate herself to have revenge on the Spanish bows. Sataumie is also well.”
“I’m not injured, ” Kat said quietly.
“Not a bruise!” Mara said with appreciation. “Tell me of the battle, how it ended.”
“We met Khrespian’s knights at the rise at the western end of the dell,” Kat began after a moment. “At the spot where the Spanish foot-soldiers first lay in wait for us. The pikers stood three squares in a row before the gate and the Spanish knights behind them. I gave Khrespian command of the main flank and I led the other, six of our most swift knights. We swept wide around the pike squares from either side and charged the gate. The Spanish knights rode to block us, but Khrespian engaged them and they were forced to defend themselves rather than chase after my little band. They numbered less than one hundred and we had thrice that. It was nothing to breach the gate. It was a single wooden door exactly like the gate we entered the Shieldwall through. Only one knight could pass at a time. I went in first. Archers waited within. They fired on us as we came through the little door, but I couldn’t think of retreat, not with the pikes at our backs. We couldn’t go back and we couldn’t ride around. So we advanced.”
Mara chuckled at the familiar tactic. “You rode through them?”
“I rode straight at the archers as fast as I could,” Kat answered as if it were a sensible thing to do. “They weren’t expecting that. Their arrows glanced off my armor and stuck in the mail so thick I felt like a hedgehog, but I didn’t stop. My company rode after me, hooting and shouting for blood. `Twas terrifying to hear. I wouldn’t have been a Spaniard to see a band of Norman knights flying at me giving such fierce battle-cry.”
“I heard them shout your name.”
“The Spaniards mistook me for you, but our knights would have none of it. They must let it be known that I was the hero of the Shieldwall. I’m sure they meant no disrespect.”
“Of course not,” Mara answered. Such petty jealousy was beneath her. Kat’s actions had been marvelously brave and, so she inferred from this room at captured Spainfort, extremely successful. “The honor is yours, and fairly won. What happened after you rode into the Spanish archers?”
“We were among them,” her cousin said. “Khrespian’s knights began to come through. They all screamed my name as if they fought for my sake. Then someone shouted ‘Clear the field!’ just as Bel had when we first engaged the Spanish vanguard. It was Bel, of course. Frederik,” Kat paused. “I learned later that Frederik’s guards had come to the aid of our soldiers in the dell and made short work of the Spaniards. Even before the battle ended, Bel gathered together all the archers who were able to fight and came up to the gate. You know how Bel can be when her blood’s up. She told me afterwards—she was furious that she’d led her bowmen and maids into such a scurvy trap. She saw you fall from your horse and she was afraid you were killed. She wanted the Spanish archers to have a taste of Norman arrows. She meant to kill every one of them she caught in her sites. When she gave the cry to clear, I called the knights to stand away, and the arrows began to fly. The battle in the dell had ended and more of our soldiers pushed through the gate every minute. They knocked the door off its hinges and tore down the posts. They battered at the stones to widen the way. God Alone knows what they did with the pikes. We cut the archers to ribbons.”