“Peter, I think I am accursed.”
Peter Scholar, the court magician, looked up at Mara in the doorway of his private chambers, startled by her presence as much as by this strange announcement. “You, My Prince? You’ve never been more victorious.”
“But that’s exactly why. I think the Spanish have put a curse upon me in revenge.”
Since her return to Pendaunzel two months ago, she had been plagued by dreams. Night after night, the Sonnedragon wove its way through her sleep, manipulating the circumstances of her triumph: its serpentine length slithered soundlessly between the kegs of cannon powder at Spainfort and exploded them with a gentle blast of fiery breath. The beat of its vast wings drove the rainclouds into the hills where the Spanish archers hid. A taloned claw swept down, disemboweling the Con Permiso commander. When she awoke, her heart pounded, her nightshirt was soaked with chilling perspiration and she was a-tremble, but not with fear.
What she felt was exaltation. The Sonnedragon rampaged through her blood. It thrilled to the fight. It desired more. It urged her to repeat her past glories and promised even greater victories. Mara had imagined that once she attained her goal in Terrojos, this craving for activity would be sated. And yet she was restless. Throughout the winter, she felt the beast pace within her; she couldn’t endure to sit still at Pendaunzel.
She sought the Duke’s physician, Dr. Dimitrios, first. He found no sign of illness. Her wound had healed beautifully. Her health was excellent. He suggested more exercise. After her campaigns last summer, she was strained by the idleness of courtly life. On his advice, Mara sparred with any available partner. She rode with the Pendaunzel courtiers on the Christmas hunt; the gallop through the snowy hills in pursuit of deer had quieted her. After the holidays, she rode out on her own, at first with a falcon or dogs but more often unaccompanied. She brought down rabbits and turkeys; her skill as a bowswoman seemed much better than it had ever been before. On mild nights, when there was little snow and the wind wasn’t strong enough to cut through her woolen hose, she roasted her day’s kill over a campfire and bedded in the wildwood above the city. She slept better in her impromptu camps than in her own bed and she returned to Pendaunzel rested, certain there would be no further trouble. Until she dreamed again.
Ordinary medicine had no power to aid her. What she needed was the advice of an experienced magician. Although she didn’t often speak to Peter, he was in her father’s service and obliged to serve her as well. She didn’t doubt he would be willing to do as she asked.
She unknotted the leather tether about her neck and held out the red stone. “Do you know what this is?”
“No,” Peter answered as he took the stone dangling before his eyes. “A charm?”
“It was once called the Black Ruby. It belonged to Prince Denys. The Spanish took it as a prize at his death and it’s been in their hands these one hundred and twenty years—or so I was informed by the Spaniard who gave it me.” Miguel had been meek and well-mannered, but he had also been a prisoner in fear of his life. She would never know what he truly thought of her. Was his gift a parting shot of revenge? “This was in the box with it.” She had brought the parchment square with her, and gave this to Peter too. “Can you read Spanish?”
“Not well, but there are many people in the Palace who do.” Peter tucked the parchment into the breast pocket of his loose-fitting robe.
“My Spaniard claimed that the stone was rightfully mine, that it betokened my talisman beast. It may be true—who can say? I only know I haven’t worn it with comfort since I came home. I think I have been ensorcelled.”
“Your pardon, My Prince, but I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve never heard of such a spell save in a fairytale. Such magic is a thing of superstition, I assure you.”
Mara wasn’t convinced. Peter hadn’t been witness to the bizarre streak of good fortune she had enjoyed since the gemstone had been given to her. He couldn’t know how the Sonnedragon raged within her even now. “You once told me that you had the power to divine the secrets of an object in your clasp. Peter, will you do it now for me? Can you receive any impressions from this?”
“I shall try.”
Peter rose to poke up the dying embers of his sitting-room fire, then sat down on the hearthrug with his legs folded beneath him, leaving his one comfortable chair to his guest. Mara sat and watched the magician bow his head as if he were at prayer and press the stone between his palms.
“Two brothers,” he said softly after a moment. “One red-haired, armed for battle, red with gore. The lion on a field red. Red as blood. The other is fair. Handsome. Honey-colored hair. His gear is also blood-stained. Red. He bears the fleur-de-lys.”
“Eduarde and Denys,” said Mara. “It must be.”
“A treasure-room,” said Peter. “They’ve kicked in the door. A holy Brother. The red-haired brother falls upon the sealed caskets. He breaks the locks with his swordhilt. Treasures spill on the floor. Colors in the light. Gemstones. Gold cups. Silver crucifixes and ivory beads. Rosaries. Holy artifacts. Saints’ blood and bone. He plays with them. The fair one wades through his brother’s toys. He looks– He sees something else. A box? A long box. Polished. Bright wood. A golden lock, a seal. A castle keep.
“Goode Brother, what’s in here?”
Mara started at the abrupt change in Peter’s voice. These last words were not spoken in the magician’s normal accent of an educated Anglo-Saxon, hard on consonants, clipped on vowels, but in the more flowing accents of an old-fashioned imperial courtier. The r‘s were trilled and there was a soft slur at the ends of the words, turning brother to brothah, here to heah. It might’ve been called effete if not for the steel-edged hint of authority underlying the simple question. Though the voice was pleasant, it demanded an answer.
“`Tis no treasure, My Lord. ” Now, Peter sounded tremulous, halting, as if he were foreign-born and had difficulty with the Norman tongue. Mara had heard more than enough Spanish-speaking people in this past year to recognize the accent. Was this meant to be the voice of the monk? “Tis not worthy of your notice, when there is so much greater wealth that is yours to take. ” Peter gestured as if gems and holy relics were scattered on the floor before him.
“Then why do you keep it here among your treasures? It bears the crest of the house of Castile. Surely it must be worth something. ” This was the courtly Norman’s voice again. Denys? The tone was amused, yet doubting. He didn’t believe the monk but he was willing to wheedle the truth from him.
“We preserve,” the monk-voice struggled with this word. “It is our grave office. Dread Prince, I pray you do not look upon it.”
“Does he open the box?” asked Mara. If she were in this situation, her curiosity would only be increased by such hesitant warnings. “What’s in it?”
“A sword! ” the voice of Denys cried. “Eddie, we have an accursed sword! ” Peter moved his arms as if he unwrapped the sword from its wadding cloths and held it up to examine the blade.
“What curse lies upon it? ” This was a new voice, similar to Denys’s but a half-tone deeper. Gruff while Denys laughed. The young Redlyon?
“It gives great triumph to he who bears it, Lord Prince, ” the Spanish voice explained. “It makes great temptations. Our kings bore this sword in days long past, `til the sainted Ignatius brought it to our care. It is no thing of God’s design. Only a warrior of the purest heart may be so bold to wield it and not be swayed by its corruption. ”
This vision enacted by Peter confirmed what Mara had already guessed. Miguel had not lied; this unimpressive little gem was truly the famed Black Ruby stolen from Prince Denys’s swordhilt. All she had heard seemed to fit the known history of Dragonsfang: the sword had been part of the spoils of a monastery, won by Denys in his first campaigns at Madehef.
“A sword,” said Peter, “Silver spells engraved at the blade’s edge. Spells on its hilt. Bind it to the steel. A worthy vessel. The sword, O Prince, is so sharp as the dragon’s fang.
“Put the accursed thing away! Let it never see daylight nor touch another human soul. Unclean thing!
“It is no thing of evil. It is only the instrument.
“The sword on the sand, its blade red. A sealed box, a holy place. We preserve.
“I want it.”
Then Peter laughed. “Didn’t you hear, Eddie? Only the pure of heart may wield this sword. Little brother, that certainly isn’t you. ”
Mara tried to follow this babble. The voices of Eduarde and Denys were easily distinguishable from Peter’s own trance-whisper, but there were other voices she didn’t recognize. Someone had called the sword accursed, just as she thought the stone must be. Was this meant to be the voice of the sainted King Ignatius?
She wished she knew more of Ignatius’s reign. All she could recall from her schooling was that he had been an extremely pious king who had ruled Spain more than a century before Denys’s first African campaign. Long before that, hadn’t Spain been ruled by generations of powerful kings and queens? There were legends of their might, centuries past now. Mara wished, again, that she’d paid more attention to her Spanish history. Until now, she had scorned it. What patriotic Norman cared to hear of the glorious achievements of their most hated enemy? She recalled that the kingdoms of Andaluz, Castile, Leon, and Aragon had united after the Moors had been driven from their lands. She knew that Spain had captured Naufarre in those long-ago days, and Portugal too, and then they had sent their ships to conquer the New World. Even today, Spanish colonies occupied more of the Atlantean continent than either the Norman or Scandinavian domains. But the names of the conquerors, the details of their victories, were not remembered. Had there been tales of a fabulous sword which belonged to these victorious Spaniards? Mara thought she’d once heard something like this, but her memory of it was vague and the fragments she did recall were so fantastic that the tale seemed more likely to refer to mythic Excalibur than to the early history of Dragonsfang.
Peter spoke suddenly in a hissing whisper: “You are his squire, Margad. You can take it. One sword is like another to a warrior such as our brother. Put another in its place and bring Dragonsfang to me. He won’t notice the substitution. ”
Mara drew a sharp intake of breath. This was the Redlyon’s voice.
“Spaniards!” Peter yelped. “The camp invaded. Where is it? Margad, my sword! There are too many! Oh, he is lost!”
Mara sat silently, watching Peter yet not seeing him. She was stunned. Could this be true? Could such treachery lay at the heart of the most famous tale in modern Norman history? Mara had too much faith in the powers of magic to mistrust Peter’s visions, but the scene he had just described was too appalling to accept without question.
Could it be true? Eduarde had envied his brother’s success. No, that was no surprise. He had attributed Denys’s inexorable progress to his bespelled sword. Again, this wasn’t so strange a thing. But could he have stolen it? And, more disturbing still, had both Denys and Margad died because of this theft? This was more than Mara could bear to consider. Her heroic grandfather a thief and betrayer! The murder of the Princes had been the great tragedy of the pre-Eduardian era. Indeed, it had been the making of the Eduardian era, for the Redlyon had waged every war against the Spanish with his brothers’ names as his battle-cry. How could Eduarde have brought it about?
Jealous, the young Redlyon might have been, but Mara believed he had truly loved and admired Denys. Even if he envied his elder brother’s glory enough to think of stealing it, he could never have wished to see the Bright Prince dead. The results of his treachery—if there had truly been treachery—must have horrified him. His guilt must have been unassuageable.
“The broken sword,” said Peter, as he emerged from his trance.
The broken sword. The device of the Dennefort family.
Eduarde had not kept Dragonsfang. He had left the sword to the first Khrystophania. She might have been Empress; he had made her Marchion. Had he sacrificed the prize he’d betrayed his brother to gain as an act of atonement? Had Eduarde, in taking what he desired, discovered he couldn’t live with it?
Perhaps, thought Mara, Peter did not speak of the symbolic shattered blade of Dennefort, but of a sword with its hilt damaged, with a stone torn from its setting. Dragonsfang. The broken sword. The Black Ruby had been stolen.
Another thought more sinister occurred to her: perhaps Eduarde hadn’t surrendered his prize out of repentance. Had he left Dragonsfang to the Dennefort family because he thought it wasn’t worth keeping? His wars against Spain—Were they fought to seek revenge for Denys’s murder, or did Eduarde attempt to recapture something he thought the Spanish had taken from him? Did he believe what Mara now suspected, that the famous sword was not the true source of Denys’s uncanny success?
Mara had negotiated to have Dragonsfang herself during her brief stop at Dennefort on her way home, but Khrystophania, still mourning her brother, wasn’t willing to surrender it. Mara might have taken it by force, but even if she considered herself its rightful owner, she felt it indecent to insult her allies by snatching the sword from the possession of the grief-stricken Marchion. It was then, when Dragonsfang had not fallen into her hands, that she’d begun to doubt that she was meant to have it. Her literal interpretation of the Sonnedragon’s promise must be wrong.
Peter blinked, dazed. Perspiration beaded his ginger mustache and pale brow. He was obviously shaken by the intensity of his scrying. The stone dropped from his fingers.
Mara hunted about the room until she found a nearly full decanter of pinkish wine on a sideboard and poured out a tumbler. “Peter, drink.” As she knelt to offer the wine, she scooped up the fallen stone. “Are you well?”
The magician lifted his head from his hands to sip. He breathed in and out slowly, sipped again, then nodded. “I’ve never seen so vividly before,” he told her with an apologetic smile.
“But you’ve given me my answer. The stone is the talisman, not the sword.” She squeezed it in her fist. “My little gem gave Denys his victory. Its bearer cannot lose.”
Miguel couldn’t have known of the stone’s power; he would never have given it to her if he had, but kept it for himself. The siege at Spainfort, the conquest of Terrojos, might have gone very differently if Miguel had possessed the gemstone. But he had given it away, to a Norman Prince. Perhaps he thought it cursed. Perhaps he thought it worthless. Obviously, it hadn’t aided the Spanish while sealed in its box in the chapel. It must be possessed by one master. Mara could only think that this was truly a piece of the Sonnedragon’s promised legacy; it was meant to belong to her.
“You said you thought it was accursed,” said Peter.
“I did,” Mara agreed. “I know better now. Perhaps the gem is a blight to one whose heart is tainted. Eduarde–” She hesitated to allude to this betrayal. Her grandfather had always been a hero to her. “The Redlyon sought to take it by dishonest means, and so it leapt from its setting—or else Margad knocked it out by an accident of fate—and no good came of his treachery. But Denys…”
Mara thought of the laughing voice she had heard Peter imitate. Truly, it belonged to a noble Prince, for it was so like the handsome, fair image of Denys she’d seen all her life. No, nothing evil had ever touched that brave heart.
“If the Spanish legend is true, the thing is dangerous. A great wizard must have impressed it with remarkable magics—though I have no idea how. There are no marks of spellcraft upon it.” Peter’s fingers brushed the hearthrug and he discovered that Mara had taken the gem. “It may be nothing but a flawed gemstone and the legends no more than fancy tales. May I keep the script you found with it for further study, Prince Mara?”
“Yes, of course,” Mara answered absently; her mind was already racing on. Whatever uncanny power the stone retained, it was not cursed. The possessor brought his own influence to it, for good or ill. She had taken it honestly. She bore no taint. She wouldn’t be corrupted. With this talisman, she might ride to any battle of her choosing and she would never be defeated. Her restless desire for warfare might be sated. The Sonnedragon had promised as much and she’d seen enough to believe that such promises could be fulfilled.
She tossed the gemstone up into the air and caught it again.