Iagoburso sat high atop its massive platform of craggy and wind-sculpted rock above the curve of a wide green-grey river, which was called Rio Amarillo by the Spanish; a lesser river, called d’Iago Pescador, flowed into the greater just below the rocks. All was exactly as Mara had seen it in her vision last spring. When she’d first set her eyes upon the fortress at the end of the long march westward, it had seemed like a dream. Now, after nearly three months encamped on the river’s opposite shore, she had not only grown accustomed to the sight, but was weary of it.
It had taken eight months for her army to assemble at Guylliamesburghe and make the journey downriver to Jamesfort, a frontier town on the western banks of the vast Michelne and on the eastern border of the Jamesmarch. From there, they had crossed the Jamesmarch on foot and on horseback, and settled here in their present camp in the midst of a sweltering June. And here they had remained through a blazing July and August. It was early September now. Cooler nights were beginning to promise some relief from the heat, though they couldn’t expect the temperate autumn of their homeland in this desert. Many hoped that they would not still be sitting here when winter came.
When Mara’s army had first made camp beside the Amarillo, Bard Delphyn had frequently sung that ballad featuring Duke Maud’s siege upon this same fortress, with the arch implication that Mara’s venture would be more successful than her famed ancestor. But Delphyn hadn’t sung of Maud’s failure in weeks.
Iagoburso was not hers to take. That might describe Mara as well as Maud.
Her vision of Iagoburso and the Sonnedragon’s foretelling that it would be hers sustained Mara’s hope and gave her the will to persevere. She had no inspiring visions now; the clarity of purpose that had led through the conquest of the Redlands was no longer there to guide her during this campaign. The restless rage in her blood had quieted. Had her Dragon abandoned her?
She saw that her troops were growing restless and even her most loyal followers were beginning to wonder what they were doing here. This sparse land wasn’t hospitable to Northlanders. Most of them had grown up amid green hills, forests, and farms, and they yearned for their verdant homeland as they camped day after day by the banks of the glittering yellow river under the merciless summer sun.
At least, they hadn’t been sitting idle all this time. Several expeditions had ventured across the river to scout the Spanish territory on the other side. Raiding parties had also crossed, finding little to raid. Santiago, they reported to their Prince, looked to be nothing more than empty grasslands, inhabited by spike-horned antelopes, huge, shaggy bison that ran in thunderous herds, and smaller beasts such as wild fowl, hares, and burrowing rodents colored the same shades of dusty brown and yellow as the tall prairie grasses in which they hid. The Northlanders hunted these animals to supplement their regular food supplies with fresh meat. Most of their supplies were sent to them in barges down the Michelne River and brought across the Jamesmarch in carts.
The scouting expeditions had discovered a number of farms on the Spanish side of the Amarillo, chiefly along the banks of the smaller river, but these had been abandoned and the crops harvested some time before the Normans reached them. Nothing remained but fields of stubble and the occasional stray cow. The farmers had presumably retreated into the fortress for safety and taken their harvest with them. Also along the d’Iago Pescador about ten miles west of the fortress was a tiny anchorite monastery within a cave in a less imposing rock face. This had been left empty for years, with only a stone crucifix above the entrance, some religious carvings on the walls and the remains of an altar and cells for no more than half a dozen monks to indicate what it had been.
The scouts reported sighting a few native tribesmen on horseback in the wilderness, but hadn’t confronted them. The Norman quarrel was with the Spaniards, not the aboriginals; Mara had given orders that her soldiers were not to do battle with the natives unless they were first attacked.
She might have sent more troops across the river to establish permanent encampments, but Mara realized that she couldn’t overrun and lay claim to Santiago until the fortress was taken. As long as the Spaniards held it, her occupation of Santiago would not be secured. The fortress stood like a single sentinel guarding Spanish interests, a sentinel that couldn’t be budged by all her efforts.
There had been one or two small skirmishes when they’d first arrived. Spanish soldiers had emerged from their fortress to meet the Northlander troops. Mara’s captains had not only driven these forays back, but found the passages up the cliff face by which they had come down onto the prairie-land. These paths were too well defended for Mara’s troops to breach them, but they had set their own guards at the foot of the cliffs to prevent further assaults. Since then, they’d seen no Spaniards. Rocks were occasionally flung at them from catapults fixed on the fortress battlements to keep them on their own side of the river, but even these defensive measures had recently ceased. It was assumed that the Spanish garrison had run out of rocks.
Mara had sent Alyx with messages to Luiz, the Conde of Santiago at Iagoburso, to request that he surrender the fortress peaceably. Mara’s first requests were polite, promising that all inhabitants of the fortress, soldiers as well as non-combatants, would be allowed safe passage out of Santiago if they offered no resistance. When these first requests were refused, subsequent messages were sent in more threatening terms. Mara stopped sending her emissary altogether once it became clear that she had no means to carry out her threats. No army could scale those sheer walls of rock—and her army had tried. The winding paths carved into the cliff face were too narrow to allow more than one person to pass at once; the Spaniards could easily waylay her soldiers by shooting arrows, dropping rocks, or pouring hot oil down on them from strategic positions above. The Northlanders had no catapults of their own that could reach the fortress walls. There was no means by which she could oust the Spaniards and claim the fortress for her own.
“If we can’t get up into their fortress, at least we’ve assured that they can’t come down,” Alyx consoled Mara during one of their strategic meetings. Alyx had been placed in command of the troops guarding the foot of the rock, but every evening she crossed the river to return to the Northlander encampment to report on their present state of affairs and have dinner in the Prince’s pavilion, which was merely a roof of canvas on tall poles, providing shade and leaving all sides open in hopes of catching any breeze. Because of the heat, the Prince and her companions wore their lightest white linen garments and dined on cold roast game and beer that had been stored in jugs in the river to keep it cool. The meal had now ended and they sat gazing out at their goal as the sun set behind it in a blaze of red-streaked clouds. This too had become part of their daily routine.
“It’s only a matter of waiting them out,” Mara agreed confidently. “Iagoburso must eventually be starved into surrendering. Once their store of food is depleted, they’ll have to agree to our terms. Their last harvest can’t sustain them very much longer.”
“Their supplies must be scarce,” Alyx answered, “but I believe that Conde Luiz will hold out `til the last stale crust of bread is eaten and his people are skin and bone.”
“Is he so stubborn?” asked Mara.
“It’s more than stubbornness. You haven’t met him, Prince Mara, but you’ve heard my reports of how he received me to hear your demands.”
“You said that the Conde wasn’t a nobleman.”
Alyx nodded. “Merchant-born, I’d say, or even a peasant. He has the hard look of a man who’s fought his way up through the ranks. If we learned one thing in the Redlands, it’s that Spanish peasants keep the most unaccountable, old-fashioned prejudices. Conde Luiz was always courteous when we met, but I could see he didn’t know quite what to make of me. He has women under his command, but none of my rank. That I was the representative of a woman of far greater rank—a female Prince—astounded him.”
“`Tis odd,” said Kat. “Spanish queens of old rode to battle against the Moors long before Norman noblewomen did.”
“Queens ‘of old’,” Mara repeated, emphasizing this last, key phrase. “Ambris told me those same tales too, of Ysabella, Juana, and Katerina. But it’s been hundreds of years since a queen ruled Spain or led their armies to war. We must seem to Don Luiz like figures out of a history book or legends of long ago rather than like people who live today.’
“Conde Luiz had heard of you, of course, My Prince,” Alyx told Mara, “but I don’t think he truly credited the tales of you leading a victorious army in the Redlands. I’m not certain he credits it even now.”
“Is that why he stands against us?” asked Bel. “He thinks he can defeat our armies in the end?”
“No, I don’t imagine he hopes to win, but he can’t allow himself to lose. I believe it would shame him to surrender to a woman.”
Mara and her companions laughed incredulously at this strange attitude, though they’d encountered it among the Spanish they’d done battle with before. “It’s fortunate then that so many of the commanders in the Redlands were nobles of the highest birth,” said Mara. “They know how to surrender with dignity and grace, like sensible men.”
“Could he be waiting for relief troops?” Kat wondered. “He might’ve sent messengers to seek aid when he saw our army coming, and he expects them to arrive any day.”
“It’s possible, of course,” Alyx answered. “They had enough forewarning of our coming to bring even the farm-folk into their fortress. Conde Luiz must’ve had time to send out a rider or two, or to launch a boat downstream. Someone might even have stolen out through one of their hidden passages before we found and blocked them all. But no one’s come to their aid yet. The scouts Sataumie has taken to the south report no Spanish armies approaching. They’ve sighted nothing at all.”
“Well, where could they go for aid in this godforsaken waste?” said Bel as she finished her beer. “The nearest fortified towns with Spanish garrisons lie along the coast of the Tenochitland Sea, hundreds of miles away. A messenger on horseback would take a week or more to reach them, if they survived so long a ride through these desert lands. It’d take weeks more for the Spanish to assemble troops and march here. I say there’s little hope of an army coming our way.”
“Little hope?” Kat repeated this phrase with a small smile. “You hope for a Spanish army then, Captain?”
“Don’t you, Prince Kat? I pray nightly for Spanish relief troops to appear,” answered Bel. “They’d give us a good battle, instead of all this waiting upon those cowards hiding up on their rock.”
“That’s so. At least, a battle would give us some reason for being here,” Kat said.
Mara didn’t like her cousin’s tone. “All of us would like to see some sort of activity, even if it means fierce battle,” she said. “I don’t blame my captains for their impatience. I feel the same myself. Rather than wait for that stubborn commander to be starved out of his fortress, I’d prefer to knock down the walls of Iagoburso somehow and make our way in, but it’s impossible. Our catapults can’t strike high enough. If Conde Luiz doubts the might of our forces now, he’d laugh to see us flinging rocks against the cliffs and never coming near him! I don’t like this sitting any better than you do, but what else can we do? If Conde Luiz refuses to surrender now, then we must abide ’til he has no other choice. The day must come. You’ll have your chance at the Spaniards before we leave this place, Bel. I promise you that.”
“Oh, I believe that, My Prince,” Bel responded with simple and unwavering faith. “I only hope it will be sooner rather than later.”