The Sonnedragon rose, displayed, vert figured in gules on field d’or. Nothing like the passant herald of Gallys, nor after the style of the writhing Cathay beasts—the dragon revealed itself in its fearsome glory as Mara had first beheld it, snakelike head thrown back against the rays of the sun, great jaws open, wings spread wide. With painstaking care, she mixed the colors—gold, green, red—and cut the tufts of stiff horsehair for her brushes. She painted over the battered hartshead and drew her outlines on the fresh, pale yellow surface. Even if a professional limner could’ve been summoned from Dennefort, Mara would have done this herself. Her sign must be made by her own hand.
These alterations to her arms drew considerable attention. As she worked in the late mornings, when the sunlight fell on her terrace, the officers who came out to receive her orders observed her progress with increasing curiosity.
“What’s it meant to be?” Bel asked, viewing the freshly painted wings and head. “A phoenix?”
“In green?” said Alyx. “It’s a dragon, simpleton.”
“The Sonnedragon,” Mara corrected her. “It is my talisman.”
“You had your vision?” Bel exclaimed. “Mara! You never said a thing!”
“I meant to reveal this new shield in our forthcoming battle. Alyx, what news from Uismarde’s scouts? How far off are the Spanish now?”
“At last report, approximately one hundred and fifty miles to the southeast.”
“Within the week, then. When I ride at the front of the armies to meet them, I shall bear this device before me.” This had been her resolve from the first, but as she spoke, she doubted. Although the image of the dragon remained vivid in her mind, the figure created by her brushstrokes was an unimpressive copy. The shape was right, but it didn’t inspire awe. The Sonnedragon had promised to strike fear in the hearts of her foes. What faint-hearted Spaniard would be fearstruck at the sight of this feeble beast? Indeed, Don Miguel had been here with her half the morning—although he’d retreated to the far balustrade at the arrival of her companions—and while he expressed an interest in her talisman, the dragon was obviously no object of terror to him.
“You’ll both have to alter your own arms in its likeness. God pray your skill with a limner’s brush is better than mine. I’ve no talent for this, I’m afraid.” She sat back to examine her work. “My hartshead was much easier. That, I simply copied from one of the Northlander coats of arms about the Palace. Here, I must work from memory.”
“But you never spoke a word of it!” Bel persisted in her amazement. “Mara, when did this revelation occur? Was it during your illness?”
“No, before that,” Mara answered. “The dragon appeared to me on the battlefield as I lay wounded.”
Alyx was likewise surprised. “All the days you and I sat out here and spoke of nothing! If I’d been blessed to receive a sign from my talisman beast, I would’ve introduced the topic to our conversations at some point.”
“There isn’t much to tell. As I lay wounded after the battle, the dragon flew out of the sun and landed on the hill—as you see it here. Then it came down to me.”
Like the half-finished portrait before her, any attempt at a more detailed description would be a faint imitation of a most remarkable experience. She had never mentioned it to her friends for the same reason she’d never told Kat: there were so many peculiar points to her story that she knew they wouldn’t believe her. Alyx, Bel—What did these clear-headed women know of visions? Even Sataumie, who had joined them to hear the end of her brief account, had seen nothing so strange as the revealed Sonnedragon. Could she tell them of the ancient wisdom in those amber eyes? Could she tell them she had received the creature’s blood in a sort of communion? They wouldn’t understand. Could she tell them that the dragon had kept vigil at her bedside during her days of illness? They would call it fever-dream. She couldn’t think of saying that she believed the dragon had caused the explosion which brought the curtain wall down. They would think her mad. Indeed, she wasn’t entirely certain that they would be wrong to think such things. She often wondered about it herself.
A few drops of red darkened the remaining yellow to golden-orange. With this, she painted a series of rays emanating from the dragon to the border of the shield to create an en soliel effect. “It wasn’t at all as I imagined. Tell me, Sataumie—did your wolf speak to you?”
“The dragon spoke,” Mara explained. “At least, I think it was the dragon. I heard the voice in my head. It sounded dragonish—deep, ages old, melodious, and so wise.” The green paint was drying. Carefully, with her finest brush, she picked out the eye and serpent-tongue in thin crimson lines.
“Well, what did it say?” Bel pressed.
“Strange words: the dragon is the eldest of all beasts. A talisman of kings.” There was a wicked curve to the upper rim of the eye; it gave the beast a menacing expression. “It said all would know me by the name of Sonnedragon. It spoke of the virtues of its flesh. It offered me gifts.”
“Is that usual?” Bel looked to Sataumie, as if her one vision were the pattern for all.
“Beasts who proclaim great fortunes and victories often appear to heroes,” said Sataumie. “Think of the unicorn who bowed before Elfgifu. Or the white hart which Pwyll chased through many days and promised that he would become king of Gallys. Even Jack’s cat-in-boots. Bard Delphyn could tell a dozen such tales.”
“No, not foretellings. The dragon promised me gifts,” Mara answered. “It offered its scales as a shield.”
“What can it mean?” Alyx wondered aloud. “Are you to wear a dragon’s hide as armor? `Tisn’t sensible.”
“I wasn’t sensible at the time. I simply tell you what I heard.” As she formed rows of tiny red v‘s across the green breast to represent these same scales, Mara continued, “No weapon can breach a dragon’s hide. Its blood heals all wounds. It spoke of the surpassing sharpness of a dragon’s tooth.”
“Dragonsfang?” asked Bel, and Mara looked up quickly.
“Denys’s sword.” She hadn’t thought of this before. “The dragon’s tooth is sharper than the lion’s,” she repeated the words she’d heard in her vision. She had pondered over them in many quiet moments. Did the gifts refer to material objects to be bestowed upon her, or did these tokens signify qualities that she bore with the Sonnedragon? “Do you think that’s what it means? Am I meant to take up Dragonsfang?”
“If it is so,” said Sataumie, “then the other gifts may be real as well. The blood, an elixir. The scales, a suit of armor. Perhaps you’ll find them here, in Spainfort’s treasury.”
Miguel, who’d been listening to the conversation, drew nearer at this point as if he meant to speak. A fierce look from Bel stopped him.
Miguel and his officers remained here as hostages to bargain with if the fortress were besieged. Because of his place as former commander of Spainfort and his noble rank, Miguel was permitted more liberty than most, but Mara liked to keep him under her eyes. This wasn’t because she would have liked to meet with similar courtesy if she’d been taken prisoner, nor because she’d grown rather fond of the young man—though both were true. No, she kept watch over him because she had promised his safety. Kat had departed Spainfort two weeks ago, but the rancor of her Shieldmaids toward him for his suspected tale-bearing had not abated.
They had all changed since the beginning of this campaign. The girls’ games of sword and bow had ended; they were true warriors now. They had killed and they’d seen comrades fall around them.
Sataumie, always the most thoughtful and clear-headed one among them, was also the most unassuming. She had become Kat’s aide-de-camp when all other suitable officers had been injured or otherwise occupied and in Kat’s absence, she was given command—a promotion she hadn’t expected. She doubted her capabilities, but that same careful thought which made her a trusted advisor to her quick-tempered friends also made her an excellent manager. Mara did not regret the appointment; Sataumie had grown to fill it. Alyx too, beneath that urban cynicism, had been uncertain of herself. Street-spawned wharf brat—What right had she to ride in the company of princes? At the Shieldwall, she had proved herself fit to be there. She bore proud scars in defense of her liege. There was a subtle difference in her bearing, a new surety, but Mara had noticed it. Again, she didn’t regret that she had chosen this woman not once, but twice, to serve as her left-arm ward.
These hard weeks had brought out the best in them. Bel, on the other hand, had disclosed a part of her personality better left hidden. The petite captain had always been assertive; now, that pugnacity had a keener edge. Her eagerness to have revenge on the Spanish archers was, like Kat’s madness at Frederik’s death, something Mara could understand and sympathize with, but the depth of brutality revealed in both was disconcerting. This hatred of all things Spanish surpassed her own casual contempt. More chilling, it hadn’t been put away with the last battle. Mara truly feared for Miguel’s safety.
And herself? The Sonnedragon had changed her too, though she couldn’t say precisely how. Had her vision made her more sure of her purpose? She had never doubted. Had it given her courage? She had been born with that. Did it confirm Magician Peter’s forescrying? She’d believed in it from the first. These things had not altered; nevertheless, she felt different.
If anything, the Sonnedragon had focused her mind to her mission. The taking of Terrojos had been her goal in sweeping terms. She was a woman of grand and broad-ranged plans, settling the particulars only when faced with them. Now, she saw clearly all that must be done to defeat the Spanish. She knew each step in the path from here to the Ciudadela de Tolo Invencible. Even if it were not the Gobernador’s seat, this citadel raised by the legendary Spanish hero was sufficient challenge, and more-than-sufficient prize. Its capture was the final step in her victory. The first was this shield bearing the dragon.
As she added the last touches, curved scarlet claws on the upraised forelimbs, she thought that her efforts were not so bad after all. It was a pale reflection of the true Sonnedragon, but rather fearsome. It would serve.