This wasn’t the first time that Kat had alluded to the pointlessness of their campaign, but Mara grew more concerned at each disparaging remark. While all the Northlanders were impatient at their weeks of inactivity, it had become obvious that her cousin’s forthright opinions were the greatest threat to their eventual success. Her soldiers might grumble privately, but as long she had their loyalty, they would obey orders and follow wherever she led them. It was the same with her commanders; if Bel, Alyx, or Sataumie wondered why she had brought them here, they kept their questions to themselves. Kat alone felt free to speak her mind and, as Mara’s kinswoman and a Norman Prince herself, her words had weight. If she continued to do so, discontent might spread among the others and destroy their morale. Once the troops lost faith, this venture could only end in disaster. Kat must therefore be stopped.
Mara could guess why her cousin was speaking against her. There had been a tacit reconciliation between them once Kat had agreed to join her on this campaign, and no discussion of their private differences while they made their plans and embarked on the long journey westward, but those differences remained. Mara would like nothing better than to mend the breach and have Kat as her trusted friend again—and not merely because she wished to have her cousin’s mouth shut—but that meant that they both must speak of things they’d avoided discussing for a very long time.
After they’d bid goodnight to Alyx and Bel and seen the former on her way back across the river, the pair walked together around the perimeter of the camp as an informal review of the troops to confirm that all was well, but also as a chance for a private conversation. There were few opportunities for them to speak without others overhearing their words. It was a windless night with a sliver of moon high in the sky overhead as they went along the well-trodden path on the river’s eastern bank. The lights of campfires dotted the darkness, and voices raised in shouts, laughter, and song could be heard. These boisterous sounds diminished to murmurs when the soldiers caught sight of the two white-clad figures moving past their rows of tents. The occasional guard standing watch saluted them. On the opposite side of the river, pinpoints of flickering yellow light from torches and candles could be seen high atop Iagoburso.
“Are you still angry with me, Cos?” Mara asked.
Kat stopped walking and turned to her. “No, Mara.”
“You disagree with me at our council meetings. You think we’ve come here to no purpose.”
“I wonder what purpose brings us here. That isn’t exactly the same,” Kat answered. “I trust you have good reasons of your own for making us all sit around that stump of a rock these long weeks, but I’m afraid you’ll look a fool whether we take it or not. I’m not the only one to wonder if it’s worth the trouble we’re giving it. The others mayn’t say so to you, but you know how they feel about it.”
“So I do, but I can’t stop anyone thinking what they like. Your speaking aloud what others only think is worse. Say what you like to me in private, Kat, but I can’t have you scorn my hopes of seizing Iagoburso when there are others around to hear. It creates ill feeling.”
Very humbly, Kat apologized for her disrespect and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. Mara accepted this graciously.
“You don’t want to be here—so much is plain,” she said after they’d walked a little farther along the path. “Do you wish to go home?”
“I think often of home,” Kat admitted. “In this– what did Bel call it? This ‘godforsaken’ place, I can’t help remembering what it’s like to live where it’s cool and green. I dream sometimes that it’s raining, and I wake up disappointed to see that there’s no rain and the land is as parched as ever. I miss my baby, but I know that Ambris is looking after her, as he looks after everything else. But I won’t go home. I’ll stay as long as you do, Mara, ’til whatever you brought us here to do is finished, or ’til you give up this idea of capturing Iagoburso.”
“I can’t give it up. It was promised to me.”
Kat chuckled. “Then we may be here `til the end of time.”
They continued to walk until the path turned away from the river and led around the northern end of the camp. Scrub oak and twisted, dwarf pine trees grew here on the rising ground. The path would eventually take them southward again, toward their own tents. “You never used to doubt me, Kat,” Mara said once she was sure they wouldn’t be overheard. “I once could rely on you beyond all others.”
“It’s not that I think it impossible,” her cousin conceded. “I wouldn’t have come so far with you if I didn’t think you might have some chance of taking that blasted fortress. We’ve had remarkable successes before. You haven’t forgotten the curtain wall at Spainfort. Who knows how long we might’ve sat and waited there if that hadn’t fallen on its own?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten what happened that day,” said Mara, “any more than you have.” She felt as if they were approaching the heart of the matter and plunged on toward it boldly. “It’s where this all began, when Frederik was killed. Everything went wrong between us then. You never forgave me for disapproving of how you behaved with him—but I never wanted him dead! You can’t blame me for that.”
“I never blamed you for that,” Kat told her. “That was a Spanish archer, and I served him and as many of his fellows out for it as I could. I’d do the same for you, if it came to it. It’s not poor Frederik’s dying—it’s what happened afterwards I find hard to forgive.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you? You took the command of Spainfort away from me to punish me over Frederik, and because I was having his baby. I turned to you in a time of need, and instead of comfort I faced a tribunal and banishment. You turned my victory there against me, suggested I was unfit to fight and might go chopping up Spaniards indiscriminately—as if you and Bel and others wouldn’t do just the same!”
Mara was astonished at this accusation. Was this the grudge Kat had been nursing against her for so many months? “I did no such thing!” she protested. “I meant to help you.”
“I would rather you’d sat and wept with me awhile instead up jumping straight up and calling for your captains.”
“What good would that have done? Women who sit and weep are soon run down.” Mara made a gesture of impatience. “Your problem required swift action. It wasn’t meant for a punishment, Kat. I thought only of your safety and the baby’s. A woman with child has no business in battle.” Kat, who was walking swiftly a little ahead of her, made a scoffing noise. “Is this the reason why you betrayed me?”
Kat stopped again. “Betrayed you—how?” she demanded.
“You told Father, didn’t you?” Mara made her own accusation in turn. “I took you into my confidence about my plans for this campaign even after he forbade it, and you told him. You can confess to it now. It doesn’t matter, but I want to know.”
Her cousin shook her head. “Uncle Dafythe didn’t need to be told by me, Cos. He knew you well enough to guess what you were up to by himself. If you must know the truth, he asked me about you once. ‘She doesn’t intend to give up these wild plans of hers, does she?’ That’s just what he said. How was I to answer? Was I to lie for you and tell him No, or betray you and say it was true? As it happened, I was called to say neither. He saw it all without my saying a word. Poor Uncle Dafythe was never a fool when he was in his right senses. `Twas lucky for you he lost them in the end so you can have your own way. You always do. I suppose this campaign will turn out well for you too, though God alone—and perhaps that dragon of yours—can imagine how.”
With that, Kat turned and followed the path into the trees. She hadn’t gone far, however, before Mara heard her cry out.
“Kat!” They might be in the midst of a quarrel, but that didn’t matter now. Mara dashed after her cousin, ducking to avoid the clutching branches of the trees on either side of the path as it led down from the top of the ridge into a slight dip. She had to slow her pace when she stepped into a slick, wet patch like a mud-puddle and felt her boots slip beneath her. As she put out one hand to save herself from falling, she saw that Kat stood just ahead of her, eyes wide and glinting in the faint light and lips moving soundlessly. She stared at something in the underbrush to Mara’s right. Hand at her sword’s hilt, Mara turned to see what it was.
Half-hidden by the underbrush, a corpse sat propped against the trunk of a tree. The hot, metallic, familiar smell of blood suddenly rose to her nostrils, and it occurred to her that the puddle she was standing in was probably not mud. She stepped back quickly onto dry ground.
“Is it one of our men?” Kat asked in a hoarse whisper.
“I think it is.” Mara delicately pushed aside the underbrush with the tip of her sword. “He’s got on a sergeant’s uniform, what’s left of one.” She was accustomed to the sight of mutilated bodies on battlefields, but this was more disturbing somehow. The man’s head was thrown back, and beneath was a dark mess; he had been torn open from throat to abdomen. It wasn’t a sword wound, Mara’s professional eye perceived immediately, nor a wound from any weapon she was familiar with. It looked more as if a great claw had swept down through the body to eviscerate it. “He wasn’t murdered by the Spaniards, at least.”
“No,” Kat agreed. “What could’ve done this? A bear?”
“It must be, or some other beast like it.” They hadn’t seen any bears since they’d arrived in this desert land, but that didn’t mean one couldn’t be lurking and waiting to prey upon them. “It couldn’t have happened very long ago. The blood is still fresh.”
“It’s a wonder we didn’t hear him cry out. Someone must have.”
The light of many campfires were visible through the trees. In the darkness, they seemed very far away, but it was in reality only a short distance; a few minutes’ walk would have brought the luckless sergeant from the nearest fires to this point. If he had screamed, surely one of his fellows would have heard him and come to his aid? But the soldiers were all sitting peacefully, undisturbed. Whatever had happened therefore must have occurred so swiftly that the man had had no time to call for help once he was attacked. Nor had he had time to attempt to defend himself. His sword was still in its scabbard at his side.
“We’ll have to puzzle it out by the morning’s light,” Mara decided. “Will you go down and fetch up some of the footsoldiers there to carry him into camp?”