In the morning, they held a brief investigation. The sergeant had last been seen alive by his company at dusk, less than an hour before his body had been discovered. He had left the gathering around the campfire, presumably to relieve himself in the privacy offered by the trees. No one among the troops at the northern end of the camp reported hearing a scream or sounds of a struggle. It was assumed that the unfortunate man had been surprised by some sort of wild beast while in a vulnerable position and unable to defend himself. A bear was the best guess by general consensus, in agreement with Mara’s initial opinion, but some also spoke of lions and the smaller, wolf-like creatures they had occasionally seen in the area. The peculiar but similar death of the commander of Con Permiso was also remembered by those who had been with Mara on that campaign.
The sergeant’s body was buried that afternoon with appropriate rites performed by the Princes’ own chaplain. Mara ordered more guards to patrol on night duty around the camp’s perimeter, all within sight of each other, to prevent the beast from preying on her soldiers. The matter was then considered settled, until a second body, one of the posted guards, was found at the river’s edge four days later. This one hadn’t been mauled. In fact, there was no obvious injury to be found.
Thereafter, bodies of Northlander soldiers were discovered at the edges of the camp frequently, every two or three days, and none of them disemboweled as the first had been. They were all given respectful burial in the ever-growing graveyard. Mara issued orders for everyone to keep themselves armed and remain alert whenever they were separated from their fellows even for a few minutes, but these measures seemed inadequate. With each new death, unrest among the troops increased and Mara and her commanders were afraid there would soon be a panic. The soldiers were already beginning to make up stories to explain these strange deaths.
“They say it’s a vampyr, My Prince,” Ren reported to Mara one evening as she performed her nightly task of aiding the Princes in preparing for bed.
“Don’t talk such nonsense, girl,” Mara scoffed at the idea.
Ren ducked her head, “`Tis what they say, Prince Margueryt.”
“You can’t blame the poor child for simply repeating what she hears,” Kat pointed out from her seat on her cot as she stripped off her own hose. “It’s important we know what the company is thinking. You say so often yourself, Mara.”
Mara acknowledged this. “But it’s an absurd notion, Kat. There’s no such thing as vampyrs. Shapeshifters, ghouls, and such-like only exist in tales nursery-maids tell to frighten little children.” She handed the garments she shed one by one to Ren. “It’s a sign of how frightened they are that they make up so ridiculous an explanation for these deaths. Besides, not one of the dead soldiers was bitten. We must look for a more reasonable cause: a poisonous snake or spider, or even scorpions in the brush.”
“Bel would be happy to believe that the Spaniards are behind it,” Kat said, smiling.
“So would I, but we’ve seen no sign that points to them. Conde Luiz and his people are still besieged within their fortress and can’t possibly get out with our knowledge. They couldn’t cross the river without being observed. No one in the companies stationed with Alyx on the Spanish side of the river has yet fallen victim, and it would be more reasonable for the Spanish to strike at them first if they were responsible.”
“It’s odd that we weren’t troubled by scorpions or spiders when we first came here, but that they’ve struck so often recently. We never saw that beast that killed poor Sergeant Gilamus either,” Kat mused once Ren had put away Mara’s clothes and gone to her own bed in a smaller, adjoining tent. They hadn’t continued the conversation that had been interrupted when they’d discovered the sergeant’s body, but both were a little more at ease with each other now when they were alone. Mara hadn’t spoken again of sending Kat back to Pendaunzel. “You don’t think it could be something… else, do you?”
“Of course not! What else could it be?”
“Odd things have happened during our campaigns before, Mara, some much odder than this.”
“And there’s always been a reasonable explanation for them.” Mara insisted. “Wild tales and old superstitions won’t solve this problem, Cos. That sort of talk only feeds the troops’ worst fears.” While these losses were far fewer than those they would normally expect in a battle, their inexplicable nature made them more distressing than the easily understood deaths in combat, as well as more damaging to the troops’ morale. Mara was aware that her soldiers were beginning to feel as if they were sitting prey for whatever was stealthily working to diminish their numbers. They yearned for action, but this attack by an unseen foe who struck at them one by one in the darkness was not the sort of combat they desired to face. “It’s snakes or scorpions we must battle, not vampyrs.”
“How shall we defend ourselves against snakes and scorpions? Have the soldiers wear good, solid leather boots whenever they go out of their tents? And see that they give them a good shaking out before they put them on to be certain nothing’s hiding within?” Though she’d taken off her boots a few minutes earlier, Kat picked one up by the heel and turned it upside-down, shaking it to demonstrate. Mara smiled in spite of herself.
“That would be a suitable measure,” she agreed. “I’ll issue a general order to all the troops to that effect first thing tomorrow.”
Did Kat guess that she was lying? Mara lay awake in the darkness long after they’d both gone to bed. While she was certain that vampyrs didn’t exist, she wasn’t as sure that some small, poisonous desert creature was the true cause of these odd deaths.
Kat was right; this wasn’t the first odd occurrence to happen during their campaigns. There were always reasonable explanations, but she’d never entirely believed in them, preferring to attribute these occurrences to the magical power that aided her. Until now, however, such inexplicable events and strange disasters had always happened to her advantage. Where was the advantage in these deaths among her own troops? For the first time since the battle of the Shieldwall, she felt as if Fate was not favoring her. Was there some ultimate purpose here she didn’t yet perceive? Or was the Dragonseye turning its power against her? Was this why St. Ignatius and Uncle Kharles had given it up rather than wield it?
She hadn’t forgotten what Laurel had said about the gemstone, though she tried. She had thrust the warning aside as soon as she’d heard it, for Laurel’s words terrified her. She didn’t want to consider that her talisman might be a thing of evil when she needed its powers most. But a dreadful fear that Laurel was right had remained at the back of her mind all these months. She couldn’t help thinking of it now, as women and men under her command mysteriously died.
The next morning, the day of All Hallows, Mara went out to review the troops under a sun that had already baked away the night’s cooler air even though it was barely above the horizon. As she issued her orders about boots and avoiding poisonous vermin, she could see that the soldiers looked relieved. They might still have their fears about some monster, natural or supernatural, preying upon them, but this common-sense approach to the problem was reassuring. It gave them a measure of defense against the unseen.
As the troops dispersed to go about their daily routines and duties and Mara walked away in the direction of the pavilion to join her commanders for breakfast, a small, dark girl in a common guard’s uniform appeared and follower her shyly.
Mara turned and saw the girl for the first time. “Yes, what it is?”
The girl bowed her head humbly. “A word with you please, Prince Margueryt.”
“A word, no more,” Mara granted this request graciously. “I have my duties to attend, as you must also.”
“None so important as this, My Prince.”
Kat, who accompanied Mara on the review of the troops, had gone on a few steps more after Mara had stopped walking. She paused now and looked back over her shoulder at her cousin with a puzzled expression; Mara waved for Kat to go on, and turned her attention to the girl who stood so timidly before her. Mara didn’t know what to make of her. This little maiden was smaller than Ren and looked even younger. She couldn’t possibly be a full guardswoman, in spite of the uniform. Was she someone’s squire? The child was all thin arms and legs and looked barely old enough even for that service. After all these weeks among so small a company, Mara knew all her officers, their squires and attendants. She didn’t recall seeing this girl before. “What is it?” she repeated her question.
“It’s the fortress across the river, My Prince,” the girl answered without lifting her eyes from the ground. “I know you want to break its walls down so you can capture it.”
This was no secret; everyone in the camp was well aware of their Prince’s objective. It was why they remained here. Mara acknowledged it was so.
“I can do it.”
“Give the fortress to you, and without breaking the walls down. I can remove the Spaniards from it.”
Mara couldn’t help laughing aloud in astonishment. Whoever she was, the child must be mad. “It would take a greater army than ours, or most powerful magic to do that, my lass. You’re no magician.”
“No, but I can do it, if you wish me to, My Prince.”
“Of course I’d like it if you could do it,” Mara answered, still smiling in disbelief. “I would be grateful to anyone who could perform such a service on my behalf. Who are you, lass? If you are to have my gratitude for this remarkable feat, I’d like to know your name.”
“Alys, My Layn Prince.” The girl bobbed in a curtsey. “Alys of Lyngreen.”
“Lyngreen? Where is that?” The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Mara couldn’t quite place it.
“`Twas a village in Oerykeshire, My Prince. It’s gone now. It burnt to the ground.”
“Then you are in an Oerykeshire company? Who is your commander?”
“Captain Silban was, My Prince, `til he died two days ago. I was in service to Sergeant Gilamus, but he’s dead too.”
This struck Mara as strange; traditionally, body-servants were the same sex as the officers they served, and sergeants weren’t allowed to keep servants at all. If Alys were a little more mature, Mara might suspect the dead sergeant of smuggling the girl out here to live with him as a doxy. Could she have been his daughter? Not very many camp-followers or soldiers’ families had accompanied the army out into this unwelcoming land, but Mara was unofficially aware that there were a few. It would explain why she’d never seen the girl before, but it didn’t explain the child’s uniform. “You’re very young to be a guardswoman,” she said. “Are you rightly one, Alys? Or does that uniform you wear belong to someone else?”
“`Twas given me by one of the guardswomen, Prince Margueryt, so that I might stay with the company,” Alys explained. “They lost so many.”
This sounded plausible. Since it would be extremely difficult for the girl to be sent home now, with or without an escort, the company had obviously adopted her as a sort of mascot. Understandable, but it wasn’t the way Mara liked to see her troops manage themselves. Boys and girls who worked as servants to officers frequently joined the regular troops when they were of an age, but Alys could hardly be old enough yet. She must certainly lack training in the soldierly arts—no thin little maid like this should face the possibility of battle without at least learning how to wield a sword! In addition, Alys’s outlandish claim that she could bring about the fall of Iagoburso suggested that the poor girl’s mind must be unhinged. She needed to be looked after, not pressed into service and asked to take up duties she wasn’t yet able to assume. Mara thought that she’d speak to the late Captain Silban’s lieutenant about the girl as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
She dismissed Alys and headed for the pavilion. On her way, she turned back once and saw that Alys was no longer in sight.
“Lyngreen?” Captain Alyx said that evening when Mara told her friends about this strange encounter. “I remember it—it wasn’t very far south of Storm Port. There was a great fire that consumed the whole village in one night, and everyone who lived in it.”
“Except for this one child,” Kat pointed out.
“Except this child. She must’ve been very young,” said Alyx. “Lyngreen was destroyed ten years ago. If she’s not yet sixteen now, she couldn’t have been more than five at the time. A toddling little thing. It’s a wonder she survived when no one else was so fortunate.”
“I wonder how she made her way at so early an age,” Kat replied. “If her family was killed, who looked after her? How did she feed and clothe herself? Such a tragedy so young must surely have disturbed her mind. Then having her sergeant torn apart so brutally! I couldn’t fault her for going mad. You said you thought she might be mad, Mara, after talking with her.”
“So I did,” Mara answered. “I still do. But I haven’t told you the strangest part of the tale yet. I asked Lieutenant Kesandra about her—she’s never heard of the girl. She says she’s never seen such a little maid among the company, nor heard any gossip that Sergeant Gilamus was keeping a maidservant. It’s against regulations, after all.”
“The company’s been hiding the girl and keeping her secret from their officers,” Bel offered the obvious explanation.
“If that’s so,” said Kat, “then what’s more peculiar still is their letting the poor, mad child come and speak to you, Mara, and give herself away.”
Mara agreed. “She must’ve slipped past them, believing she could do me a service.”
“By knocking the Spaniards out of Iagoburso and off their tower of rock,” Alyx laughed. “If it comes about, Mara, you’ll know who to credit.”
Mara was immediately on her feet, alert and alarmed. She looked all around for the boy who had shouted her name. Three of her nephews had accompanied her on this campaign: Arthur, her former squire; Eduarde, Lord Laufegcrike, Ambris’s second son, who had been knighted last Christmas; and Bertrande, who was Eduarde’s squire. The voice sounded like Eduarde’s, though Mara knew that he ought to be on a scouting patrol in the south of Santiago.
She spotted him as he emerged from the shadowy twilight, scrambling up the path from the landing point on the river and headed toward the pavilion. Now in the torchlight, she could see that his normally tanned face was chalky-white, and his eyes were large and glinting with tears.
Kat was also on her feet and spoke first. “Eddy, what is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s Bertie,” the young knight answered. “He’s dead.”
All the women made shocked and dismayed sounds at this terrible news; Bel cursed the “bastard Spaniards!”
“No, Captain, it wasn’t the Spanish,” Eduarde told her, then reported to Mara. “No one can say what happened to him. I don’t know. Aunt Mara, Captain Sataumie bids you come right away.”