Her eyes were glittering and there was a slight tremor to her voice as she recalled her first slaughter. Mara did not press her. Kat had always been sensitive, and the brutality of battle must have disturbed her deeply. It was a shock to drive your sword into human flesh for the first time, to see your comrades fall, to stand covered in blood and know what barbaric acts you were capable of committing; Mara had learned this for herself, and she knew these same grisly experiences would have a profound effect on Kat. In the small hesitations between Kat’s slightly disjointed sentences, Mara heard all that her cousin remembered but wasn’t willing to speak of.
“We held council at the guardhouse,” Kat continued. “There were a dozen reports that you had fallen. No one could say you were dead, but you were missing and we must go on. Frederik said I was the one to take command of the armies. Lieutenant Uismarde would support me. The soldiers were for it. After the Shieldwall had broken, they were ready to follow me. It is–” Kat paused. “`Tis a fearful responsibility to have thousands of soldiers cry out for you to lead them—but you know that, Mara. I couldn’t think what to do. I wasn’t prepared to take your place, but I did my best, as I imagined you would’ve done. I decided we must move swiftly into the mountains before the enemy had time to regroup. We all agreed that you would wish us to carry on and seize the fortress.”
“Yes,” Mara agreed.
“I sent Sataumie with a squadron of Shieldmaids to search for you and Alyx, and we set up a field hospital for the wounded. Those of us who were fit for the march advanced up the mountain road. Sataumie rode up after us with the news that you were found alive and had been taken to the hospital. It heartened us all. We marched through the night and surrounded Spainfort at dawn. We demanded their surrender. The Teniente refused us, but that was expected. They were prepared for a siege. They had stores inside to last `til the autumn if necessary. There were cannons on the rampart below the curtain wall and more of their bloody archers. They need only wait `til reinforcements arrived.”
“And how did you take them?” asked Mara, growing more proud of her cousin as Kat’s tale unfolded.
“It wasn’t my doing,” Kat replied. “Rather, God’s Grace. They held us at bay for two days. Our armies crowded the pass. We battered the gates to no avail. They are barred with iron poles. Our one hope of ending the siege was to break through the curtain wall. This fortress is built into a cleft in the mountainside above the pass—impregnable on three sides. The wall protected the forward side. Frederik sent Khrysta to fetch the catapults from Dennefort. Then it began to rain and the road was slick and muddy. Our supplies were slow in coming. It might be a full sennight or more before the catapults reached us. I was in despair. The troops’ spirits were still high from our first victory, but that wouldn’t last long if they were wet and miserable and on short rations for many more days. I prayed to Heaven for aid.
“Then there came an explosion like a thunderclap. The ground shook with it. The poor soldiers were howling in terror. Some threw themselves flat to the ground. I covered my ears against the noise. Black smoke blasted from Spainfort, and when it cleared there was a huge gap in the curtain wall and rubble piled beneath.”
Mara laughed in surprise. “They brought down their own wall?”
“Was it the cannon?”
“I thought so. They’d touched them off once or twice to frighten us. We stood amazed at our luck. `Twas very early in the morning and none of us were prepared to lead an assault, but this was too much like a divine grant to spurn the opportunity. I jumped up and rallied the troops. We took what arms were at hand and charged in over the ruined rampart. There was a fire in the yard below. It wasn’t the cannon that had exploded, but that Devil’s own black powder they use to fire them. They had stored the barrels in a little shack beneath the wall, and there’d been some horrible accident. One of the towers had fallen through the armory roof.”
Mara started upright at this description, despite a sudden twinge of pain. She had heard this before. “Just as Peter saw it, Kat—the breached wall, the burning city, the fallen tower. He saw your triumph at Spainfort months ago! He knew that I wouldn’t be there.”
The corners of Kat’s mouth twitched slightly. “Peter’s visions.”
“Do you refuse to credit the truth of these portents?” asked Mara.
“No, I believe they are true. `Tis pity the magician couldn’t foresee something more important.”
Mara didn’t know how to answer this last, bitter remark.
Kat went on as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “The Spainfort guard was all in confusion when we came upon them. We captured them with ease. Don Miguel ordered his guards to be peaceable and he surrendered Spainfort to me. He is well behaved for a hostage. You will find him a nobleman of honor—certainly, more courteous than I expected him to be. He was quite generous with these rooms when you were brought up yesterday morning. He recommended the healer. And he brought you these.” Mara’s shield and Dentelyon sheathed lay against the wall behind her.
“I thought the sword was lost.”
“It was retrieved when the Spanish cleared their dead away for burial. We recovered one of your daggers too. The other wasn’t found, I’m afraid.”
Mara was baffled. Kat remained remote. Though she spoke freely, her tale of the battle sounded impersonal; it was the detailed account of a conscientious officer reporting to her superior, and not an adventure in which she had played the hero. It might have happened to someone else. Was Kat so horrified at the bloodletting? Had the burden of command been too heavy? No, Mara knew her cousin; Kat, although gentle and unassuming, was the daughter of conquerors. They were not a fragile race; they didn’t break easily. Kat had the strength to endure whatever hardship she faced.
What was wrong then? Mara had never seen her cousin so cold. Kat was glad to see her recovered—Mara couldn’t mistake that—but the affectionate, impulsive cousin she’d known from childhood wouldn’t be so restrained. That familiar Kat would have thanked the Heavens aloud and thrown herself on the bed to take Mara in a hearty embrace. She would’ve grasped Mara’s hands and wept. She would have told her tale, the good and the ill, as if it were a secret to share between them. They would’ve laughed together and made light of Kat’s difficulties at the siege of Spainfort. And, in turn, Mara would’ve spoken of the Sonnedragon—but how could she reveal that wondrous vision to this detached and ironic young woman?
She thought of the images she’d seen in her delirium: the dragon’s lithe and scaly body slipping through narrow corridors, its sharp claws scraping rock, its muzzle snuffling at the crates and barrels. She had imagined the dragon sought her in this Spanish fortress, but what if it had been seeking something else? The Spanish storage room? The volatile cannon-powder? But that was impossible. The dragon was only a creature of vision. It could guide her, but it couldn’t work miracles for her.
She and Kat had always understood each other perfectly. Grown together as sisters, born of the same ancient blood, their minds traveled the same paths and arrived at same destinations. Their opinions so often coincided that each knew what the other thought without the necessity of speech. That intimacy was missing now. For the first time, Mara didn’t know what Kat was thinking: all her playful feints, her laughing questions, her enthusiasm met with strange, unexpected, and disheartening responses. She couldn’t reach Kat. The barrier remained between them.
Was Kat still angry? Mara couldn’t believe that, not after all that had passed since their quarrel. If Kat was not warm, neither was she defiant, nor sullen, nor spiteful. Kat had wept in outrage at her injury. Mara’s memories of the past days were muddled, but that had been no illusion. Kat had tended her through her fever, in spite of her pressing duties as provisional general of the armies and commander of this captured fortress. She’d been here when Mara awoke; indeed, she must have sat for hours, waiting. These were acts of devotion. Injury and illness had made her forget her anger.
But they hadn’t made her forget Frederik. With this sudden realization, Mara’s mind leapt on toward understanding. Yes, Kat had had time to regret her behavior before the battle, but she wasn’t sorry for her love. Her worry for Mara hadn’t displaced her determination to marry Frederik. Was she afraid too? Their argument had been set aside by necessity during the fighting and through the days of her fever, but now that these emergencies had passed, they might easily find themselves in exactly the same situation they’d been on that night if both refused to yield. Surely, Kat recalled every harsh word Mara had spoken and she expected more of the same. Unwilling to retreat, she steeled herself for fresh battle and guarded her heart against further insult.
Well, Kat might be ready to continue the fight, but Mara was determined not to reenact that ugly scene. She disapproved Kat’s choice of Frederik. She thought her cousin foolish and obstinate and she was heartsick at the shameless way Kat had abandoned all moral sense for passion’s sake. But, in spite of this, she loved Kat dearly and this chilly reserve was more than she could bear. She wanted her old, familiar Kat restored to her. If they were ever to be reconciled, she must concede.
“You’re not angry with me, are you, Cos?” she began. “Very well, if it must be said, I shall say it: Marry Frederik if you will. I wish you all happiness. I’ll offer my blessing to you both if he’s here.” She struggled to sit up, but stopped suddenly at her cousin’s expression. She’d seen it before: Kat had looked so as she’d knelt beside her weeping. It had moved her to pity—that face stricken by inconceivable tragedy, heartbroken, tear-streaked but enraged. Her indomitable Kat, who had the strength to survive any disaster. Mara understood at last. Kat had wept, but not for her. “Oh, Kat. Frederik?”
Kat answered dispassionately, “Frederik is dead,” and she rose abruptly and left the room.