Sonnedragon Serialization, Part 38

Front pages: maps, illustrations, family trees, etc.

Three days later, the Spanish advance troops rode into the foothills and Mara charged down to meet them, freshly painted shield before her and five thousand soldiers at her back. The first battle was won with astonishing swiftness. In the next fortnight, the armies of the Northlands and Marches drove back wave upon wave of Spanish reinforcements as they pressed southward and cut deeply into Terrojos. They spread through the hills, knocking out strongholds as if they were wasps’ nests and suffering barely a sting.

Though she was always at the fore of her troops, Mara did not suffer another injury. Luck was always with her. Wherever she marched, bizarre mishaps plagued her foes: a captain’s blade flew free from the hilt as he brandished his sword, beheading one of his own soldiers and impaling another. A charging knight tumbled from his mount and accidentally stabbed himself. The fortress of Riovista suffered an incapacitating attack of food poisoning just as Mara’s armies lay siege. Spanish archers secure in the hills above the Norman encampments were forced to abandon their strong tactical position when unexpected heavy rains caused the very earth to slide out from beneath them. The supplementary forces called to relieve the garrison at Dolorosa were mysteriously delayed. Such instances of ill fortune were too numerous to overlook.

Mara was never certain what had happened at Con Permiso. She had targeted this fortified town—chartered “with the generous permission of the King”—as a place where her troops might quarter and replenish their supplies before they advanced on to the greater prize of Alcazar Norte. Intelligence reports indicated that the expected reinforcements were still several days away when they charged through the valley and met the knights and pikes who defended the town. Alyx’s horse caught a pikestaff in the foreleg and she was knocked from her saddle; Mara swung down to her defense. They took the double-faced position, back to back, shields upraised and blades flying.

In the midst of the battle, she heard a screech like a giant bird. Alyx, still at her back, said, “Christ’s blood, what was that?” but Mara didn’t stop to answer nor look about. At that moment, she was in a contest with a Spanish knight and to give way to distraction was to leave herself open to death.

Some minutes later, after she had brought her opponent down and driven Dentelyon through his ribs, she became aware that the Con Permiso guard was in retreat. She and Alyx were no longer encircled. She heard shouts from the Spanish captains, but there was too much confusion on the muddy field to make sense of their commands. Once the last Spaniard had fled, Mara advanced to a small rise above the town where she could watch her Norman soldiers in eager pursuit of the retreating lines of Spanish pikes.

Alyx embraced her, delighted that they were both still alive. “But what do you think happened? They’re running like rabbits.”

“I don’t know.”

They flagged down a young knight and sent him ahead to discover what news.

“I think we’ve won,” Mara told her friend, “but I’d like to hear them say it.”

She located her horse and found another for Alyx after they put the broken-legged animal out of its pain. This horse had been Alyx’s own since she’d received her commission at Storm Port; she grieved as Mara cut its throat.

As they rode to the town gates, they met the young knight again. “The Spanish have put down their arms,” he explained. “They await you, My Prince. They plead for your mercy.”

A battered Spanish captain met them at the town gate to offer terms for surrender. He claimed he spoke in place of the Teniente, now dead.

“Was he killed on the field?” Mara inquired.

“No, Fearsome Prince.” And the captain crossed himself.

She never did learn what exactly had happened to Con Permiso’s Teniente. The Spanish prisoners whispered of it, but some of their stories were so strange and fabulous she could only attribute these wild rumors to the ignorance and superstition of the rabble or the poisonous deceit of the more sophisticated. The most plausible tale Mara heard was that the Teniente had been mauled by some sort of beast. There were lions in these mountains, she knew; one had perhaps been flushed from its cover by the fury of the battle and in its panic attacked the first luckless person it met. But this didn’t explain why the Spanish prisoners held her responsible for the man’s death. Whatever evil had befallen the Teniente, they blamed her for it. They feared and despised her as the captives at Spainfort never had.

The image of the Sonnedragon did strike fear. Mara’s device was ever-present now: her Shieldmaids displayed its likeness. Young Arthur bore it on her standard. Flags bearing the green dragon flew over every captured town and fortress. The Spanish knew her by it and they cursed the sight of it. They called her a bloodlusty conqueror who cut down her foes without mercy. Tales of her cruelty in battle preceded her on her march to the heart of Terrojos. She heard the furtive murmurings of the captured; their name for her, Destazadora, had an ugly sound to it.

Well, she was ferocious on the battlefield. Alyx called her fighting style “a blind rage,” but Mara knew that it wasn’t rage that drove her. Rather, she felt as if her moving body were a separate thing from her essential self, as if her consciousness had risen to some more abstract level where she observed her own actions with dispassionate interest. She saw what she had to do to defeat her opponents and she did it swiftly. Neither fear nor anger nor doubt influenced her; nothing caused her to hesitate. She might have been mowing grain in a field.

The sun was bright as she cut down the onslaught of foes. All her attention was focused on the flashing metal before her. She fought, action and reaction. Swing, duck, charge. She didn’t pause until the last Spaniard fell before her, or Alyx gripped her shield-arm elbow and said, “Mara, for the love of God, stop!”

But she wasn’t merciless. She gave a quick and clean death whenever she could and she withheld her sword when her foes cried for quarter. She acted without malice; now that she had met the Spanish, she didn’t hate them—not as many of her company did. She was as adamant as ever against the mistreatment of prisoners and the civilian population. No brutalities were committed in her name. If she was harsh on the battlefield, she was equally harsh in punishing her own soldiers when they transgressed against her laws. And they adored her for it. For them, the Sonnedragon was an object of veneration. Her troops roared in admiration at the sight of her shield.

She thought that her good fortune must be the Sonnedragon’s doing. What else could she think, when victory after victory was so easily obtained? She was a good general and her troops well-seasoned by the end of the summer, but this streak of peculiar luck could only be attributed to divine intervention. Mara gave ardent prayers of thankfulness after each successful battle.

Her prayers were heard; Mara was certain of it. Surely, God had turned His favor from the Spaniards. They were Christian too, and they must pray for victory as she did, but nothing seemed to go well for them. Mishap followed mysterious misfortune. The portent was clear: God had bestowed His highest blessings on her enterprise.

In these weeks of battle, she learned a great deal about the nature of the God she served. This wasn’t the Heavenly Father of her childhood, but a more ancient aspect of the Deity. This was the jealous, lightning-bolt hurling Jehovah, the vengeful Wuldorfaeder of her Anglo-Saxon ancestors, the Crusaders’ Lord. This was the God of War in Righteous Cause. His enemies were hers. Blood was His worship.

Daily, she was anointed. This was the sacrifice demanded—the price of her service to Higher Powers. Blood splashed into her face, trickling hot down her cheeks beneath her faceguard. Her war-paint, a green device upon her brow like the dragon’s wings, was obscured by it. Her braids were stiff with it. The leather lining of her mailshirt was soaked and even the linen beneath was stained. Her boots were caked thick with red. Mara didn’t notice while she fought, but in the evenings she was always astonished at how quickly the water turned red when she bathed. It disturbed her to think of how many she must have killed to drench herself so, and it disturbed her more that she couldn’t recall them. Her memory of the battle was a confusion of flailing arms and glinting mail and steel.

At the end of October, they stormed the Ciudadela de Tolo Invencible and the Gobernador Francisco formally surrendered Terrojos. Mara intended to rename it Kharlesmarch in honor of the Emperor who had given her this glorious opportunity. She called it by this name in her first dispatches. Yet it remained the Redlands on the lips of the common soldiers—the Redlyon’s old name for the conquered territory, a simple translation from the Spanish. And so it became.

Spain demanded Naufarre as recompense for the captured march, but Kharles replied that they had first broken the treaty and all rights to the land were forfeit. Spain would have Naufarre only if they could take it from him. It was possible that they might do so; the war there was not going well.

In the newly-named Redlands, there were spoils and riches for all. The wealth of the city treasuries was distributed among the soldiers as pay. Spanish citizens and peons paid tribute and were allowed an unmolested retreat to Iardinez. Captive officers and the Gobernador himself were ransomed. Don Miguel’s family paid handsomely for his release and he too departed under safe escort—and with great relief, Mara imagined.

Before Miguel left Spainfort, he presented her with a gift.

“I thank you for your kindness to myself and my officers,” the young nobleman said during the inventory of the chapel treasures—this had been delayed until after the chaplain was ransomed. “You have sheltered us with your gracious protection when your own officers might have cut our throats. You sent your own kinswoman away when you learned how she had conducted herself in the capture of this fortress. I call you most civilized, Dread Prince.”

Mara smiled. Miguel didn’t know the full story of Kat’s dismissal, but it was natural for him to assume that she’d done it for his sake, after their confidential conversation, and be grateful. “I might say the same of you, Don Teniente.”

“The chaplain showed me this hidden treasure when I first took command of Los Ojos.” Miguel went to the crucifix behind the chapel altar. Reaching above the stripped tabernacle, he removed the metal rods which pinned the bleeding hands of the Christ to the cross, and to the wall. The crucifix swung to one side. Miguel extracted a small, polished wooden box from a niche behind the feet. “Such a prize ought not be divided with the common spoils. It belongs to you alone.” He offered it to her with a slight, ceremonial flourish. “Prince Margueryt, I give you the gem missing from the famous Prince Denys’s swordhilt.”

“The Black Ruby?” Brief examination revealed that it was neither a true ruby nor black, but an inferior gem the dull color of dried blood with a dark flaw at its heart, refracted through its multiple facts. “This can’t be it.”

“My Prince, I assure you it is. It has been kept in the care of the chaplains for many years.”

Mara unfolded the parchment square tucked into the bottom of the box beneath the silk wrappings. “Can you read this? It’s in Spanish.”

“Certainly.” Don Miguel came to her aid. “It is a verification written in the hand of a Padre of this chapel many years ago. The first line reads: Herein lies the red stone taken from the sword of Prince Denys.

Mara studied the incomprehensible lines of faded script. She had picked up a useful phrase or two of Spanish in her contact with Miguel and other prisoners, but not enough to make sense of this. Strung through the el‘s and de la‘s were words she recognized: Denys was there, unmistakable. The name wasn’t used by the Spaniards; it could only refer to the one Norman Prince of that name who was well-known in this part of the world. Infant was Prince. Roja was red. Espada was sword. She knew that much. Joya might be jewel or gemstone. Miguel’s translation seemed to be accurate. Could this truly be the famed, long-missing hiltstone?

“And what’s the rest of this? There is more written here.”

“The good Padre tells the tale of how the gem came to be in the possession of Los Ojos. I thought of it when I heard of your vision, Prince Mara. The stone from the sword named Dragonsfang is the Dragon’s Eye. Therefore, it is yours.”

“If it belongs to anyone rightfully, it is Marchion Khrystophania,” answered Mara. “It ought to be restored to her.”

She meant to return the stone to Khrystophania, but somehow it didn’t seem worth the trouble. Legends had built the Black Ruby into a magnificent stone, and this lackluster gem would be a disappointment if she were to present it to Denys’s one living descendant. Besides, she began to think that Miguel had been right to give it to her. Was not the dragon’s eye one of her promised gifts? If any true object was represented by that name, this must be it.

In the end, Mara kept the gemstone. The pressing matters of warfare occupied her for many weeks and after that, she was engaged in the important business of governing the Redlands in her Emperor’s name until Kharles could give his attention to the land she had conquered.

In mid-November, Lieutenant Uismarde was appointed Provisional Governor of the Redlands. A residual force was left in her command while the remainder of the Northlander troops withdrew and disbanded to their homes and city garrisons.

Mara returned home by Christmas.

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