She rode as fast as she could until she had left Kat far behind, then slowed to an easier pace as she headed for Alyx’s camp. The hour was late, but the captain had waited for her return; after she had left her horse to be watered and tended, Mara told Alyx briefly about Bertrande’s death and asked her to send a small honor guard at daybreak to bear his body back for burial.
“And where is Prince Kat?” Alyx asked her. “Will she be returning from Sataumie’s outpost tonight?”
“She was riding after me,” Mara answered. “She should arrive here within the hour. Tell her I’ve crossed the river.” She had no desire to see her cousin right now, not after that terrible confession of feelings better left unspoken.
“Shall I wake the boatman to row you over?”
“Not yet. I’d like to stretch my legs first.” The rock upon which the fortress of Iagoburso was set towered above them, enormous in the darkness, blocking the stars and even the setting moon. She’d seen it in a vision last winter, and had viewed it for months from the other side of the river, but had never been so near it before. Already, she was taking the first steps to draw closer. “You needn’t accompany me, Alyx. I won’t be gone long.”
She strode quickly through the sleeping camp and within minutes was close enough to place one hand on the surface of the rock face. It was warm to the touch, still holding the sun’s heat from yesterday. From a distance, the face of the rock appeared solid, but now that she stood before it, Mara could see that there were innumerable deep crags and vertical crevices. Some of these, Mara recalled from Alyx’s reports, concealed the entrances to secret tunnels that led up into the fortress. They had blocked all the tunnels they’d found and guards were placed to keep watch over them. Mara glimpsed some of these guards as she walked around the base of the rock; they regarded her with surprise, jolting themselves to attention and saluting or bowing as she passed. The foot of the open pathway that wound up around the rock was also under guard.
Though she hadn’t originally intended to go all the way around the enormous rock base, Mara was still troubled by her conversation with Kat. In her efforts to dispel it from her mind, she walked rapidly with one hand outstretched so that her fingertips brushed the rough surface. Before she knew it, she had gone out of sight of Alyx’s camp and circled to the moonlit side of the rock. Although she’d passed the last guards mere minutes ago, Mara felt as if she were entirely alone in this still and silent landscape. Then she heard a movement close behind her.
Several soldiers were emerging from one of the deep crevices. They weren’t her men—she saw that at a glance. There were Northlanders as black-haired and bronze-skinned, but the uniforms worn by these men bore the device of a large bird of prey with its wings spread, perched on a tall rock like the one that currently towered above them. So, in spite of their searches, Alyx hadn’t found all the secret tunnels and entrances to the fortress; at least one remained that the Spanish could still use to come and go as they chose.
For a moment, they seemed as astonished to see her as she’d been to see them. Then one of the soldiers stepped toward her, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “You wear the golden lions,” he spoke in heavily accented Norman. “If you are not the Infanta of the Drakon, then you are one of her ladies—a most important person.”
Mara didn’t respond to this. It was more prudent to keep the Spanish uncertain of whom precisely they had discovered. She wouldn’t give them her name.
“At last, we have gained a great prize,” the same Spaniard spoke again, and gestured to bring his companions forward. “It would give us great pleasure, Lady, if you would come with us. The Conde will be delighted to meet you.”
If she’d believed that she was in physical danger, Mara would’ve tried to fight them, to flee or call for help, but she was still in her dinner robes with neither mail nor armor for protection, and no weapon but a light sabre. She didn’t think they would harm her. She was too great a prize. If they’d wanted to kill her, they could have easily struck her down before she had seen them. As they had stricken so many of her people—including her own nephew? The answer to that remained to be seen. Surrendering quietly would also gain her the one thing she’d sought for weeks: entrance to Iagoburso.
She let them take her into the cleft in the rock.
The crevice went deep into the heart of the rock, a passage so narrow at first that they must turn sideways to squeeze through, then widening into a cave where more soldiers were waiting with torches. A conversation in Spanish followed. Mara had learned a little of the language during her Redlands campaigns, but this flow of words was too rapid for her to make sense of. Even the words she recognized didn’t help her to understand more than she already anticipated. One of the soldiers took her arm, firmly but not roughly, and escorted her toward a stair cut upwards into the walls of a long shaft.
Up and up they went. The stairs were uneven in both height and width, and so steep at points that they were often forced to use their hands to climb. A single torch carried by one Spanish soldier going ahead of the others lighted their way; another torch was carried by the last person in the procession. Mara was kept carefully in the middle of the group.
At last, they reached the top of the stair and arrived at a thick, wooden door. This door was unbarred and opened for them when the first soldier pounded on it. There was another rapid exchange in Spanish between this soldier and the doorkeeper, and the latter darted away down a level corridor. Mara was taken down this same corridor, then up more stairs inside a stone tower to a round chamber. They must now be at the very top of Iagoburso. The room appeared to be a council chamber or dining hall, for there were many chairs around a rectangular table at its center. A large book that looked like some sort of journal lay open at one end of the table, a bottle of ink and a quill beside it. There were several cluttered shelves against the outer walls. The setting moon shone brightly through the windows on one side, and Mara could glimpse the silvery course of the river from another beyond the fortress battlements. Atop a shelf just below this window sat the long tube of a scrying-glass.
The soldiers who had brought her here remained with her until a man in an officer’s uniform finally came up the stairs and entered the room. He was large and heavy-set—not fat, but a certain slackness in his cheeks and jowls suggested that he had once been, and might be so again if he had regular, hearty meals. He must be suffering from short rations during this siege as much as any of the men he commanded. His hair was dark and pulled back tightly, but several loose strands straggled free, and he was unshaven. Mara felt certain that he had been awakened for this meeting at such a late hour of the night. Given the obeisance and apologetic tone of the words the soldiers offered him, plus the use of the word Conde in all the conversations she had so far overheard, Mara had no difficulty in identifying him.
“You are the commander of this fortress, Conde Luiz,” she said in common Norman; she knew from Alyx’s reports that he was fluent in her own language.
“At your service,” he replied with a bow. “You are the Infanta Margueryt. They call you the Infanta of the Drakon. I welcome you to Iagoburso. It is a great honor for us to welcome a lady of the highest birth as our unexpected guest. Pray be seated, Infanta. Make yourself comfortable.”
Once again, Mara refused to acknowledge her own identity. “You don’t know that I am the Prince,” she answered as she sat down in one of the chairs around the table.
“I think I am right in calling you so. You see, I know the Infanta and her ladies. I’ve watched them many times from here. I have an eye-glass—como se dice?—a spying glass.” He indicated the long tube on the shelf behind him. “I cannot come out of my fortress, but I see what goes on around it. The tall, fierce capitan with long hair the color of wheat who keeps watch upon me I know well. I have met with her in this same room. Capitan Alyx, she is called. Peasant-born, like myself, yet she is the friend and companion of an Emperor’s granddaughter! The one with the black hair, who rides in on her horse from the south, I also see often though I have not the honor of her acquaintance. It is not so easy to see so far across the Amarillo, but I sometimes see the little one with her hair in curls. I should like very much to see her more closely, for she looks as if she might be pretty and I see few pretty women here. But she is no more an Infanta than the other two. No, there are two Norman Infantas I have seen. They dress in white robes. They look much alike, but I am told that the taller of the two—but not so tall as Capitan Alyx—with shoulders so broad as a man, is the daughter of the Northlands Duq, the Infanta of the Drakon. You must be she.”
It was difficult to continue to deny who she was after hearing these descriptions of herself and her closest companions. Mara simply chose not to say anything.
“May I have your sword please, Infanta?” Conde Luiz requested.
Mara drew her saber from its scabbard and formally handed it to him, hilt first. Conde Luiz took it, holding it horizontally in both his hands as he examined it.
“This is not the Lions-tooth,” he observed. “The famous sword of the Redlyon.”
“Of course not,” said Mara. “That’s much too heavy to be carried around every day. The Redlyon’s sword is to be saved for special occasions.”
“I am surprised that any woman, even the Redlyon’s own granddaughter, has the strength to wield such a manly sword, but I have heard many times that you do. You are as feared and famous as he in parts of the Empire. They say none can defeat the Infanta del Drakon.”
“You may see the truth of that for yourself, Conde, if you will come out and meet our armies in battle.”
“Come out?” Conde Luiz looked astonished that she should suggest such a thing. “Come to meet an army far greater than ours and be slaughtered on the open lands where there is no shelter? I haven’t arisen so far from my most humble beginning as a common footsoldier by making so foolish an error.”
“Have you come no closer to spy upon us?” Mara asked him. “Your people still seem free to come and go as they please.”
“Not so free as that! There is nowhere to go in this desert. Sometimes, I send out those who speak your Norman tongue to learn what news they can from those who live below us. This night was such a time. I saw that there was some disorder among your people this evening, and wondered what had occurred.”
“Haven’t you heard? A young prince of the Northlands has died,” Mara told him. “He was Bertrande of Eadeshire, a son of Lord Ambris. You know who he is?”
“Lord Ambris? Of course,” Conde Luiz answered. “I know much of your family, Infanta. Your brother is known the world over as a man of great learning and judgment. He is half of Spanish blood himself—a Spanish peasant’s blood.” This might’ve been meant an insult, but it didn’t sound like one to Mara; as Luiz freely acknowledged, he was from the Spanish peasantry and he seemed to hold Ambris in higher esteem because of this common bond. “I sorrow to hear of the death of his son.”
“You had nothing to do with it?” Mara demanded.
“I was not aware of the young prince’s presence in Santiago.”
“He may have been bitten by some poisonous desert animal,” Mara persisted. “A snake or a scorpion. Many of our people have died in this same way, but no bites have been discovered on any of them. It’s very strange. I wondered if there might be some other poison at work—a poison not from by the bite of an animal.” Mara watched Conde Luiz closely to see how he responded to this implicit accusation, but the Conde received it with equanimity. “You haven’t suffered the same among your own people?”
“Such creatures are common in this land,” Conde Luiz answered. “I have lost men to them, but we are above such dangers here in the fortress. It is one additional protection we have by staying here.”
“You were given the opportunity to leave Iagoburso peaceably,” Mara reminded him. “Captain Alyx has brought you the Prince’s terms for surrender.”
“Yes, I have spoken with her many times. All the same, we choose to stay where we are safest.”
“But are you safe? Your supplies here must be very short. You can’t provide for your people for much longer without relief. What is it you’re waiting for, Conde?” Mara asked him bluntly. “Are more troops expected from the south?”
Conde Luiz shook his head. “No. I have known for a long time that we can expect no aid. I was sent here to oversee this blighted desert because no other commander would have it. It is an exile. I would be pleased to be in any other part of the Empire, but is my sworn duty before the Lord God and in the Emperor’s name to defend Santiago from invasion. I have long doubted that even the maddest of Normans would desire to invade such a worthless place—but you and your army are here and I have my duty. I have done my best to protect this land without hope of aid, and we here are prepared to die to the last man before we surrender to you. No, it is not more armies from the south I have waited and prayed so long for. I’ve waited for the opportunity I knew must come to save us. You have at last given it to me. Tonight, you’ve given us what we most needed—a hostage to bargain with. If you are not the great Infanta after all, then I have no use for you.” For the first time, he sounded menacing.
“You’ll get nothing by keeping me prisoner,” said Mara. “The Northlanders are instructed not to pay ransom for any captured officers, even their Prince. If I am she, then you must surely know that my capture will only anger them and drive them to fight all the more furiously on my behalf.”
“They will fight, yes, but they haven’t taken my fortress for all their efforts,” Conde Luiz replied composedly. “They can merely batter themselves against the mesa for so long, as they have done. They will not reach us. Eventually, they must wear themselves out and will agree to hear my demands. I have been patient so long. I can wait a little longer.” Two of the soldiers who had brought Mara into the room had remained during this interview; Conde Luiz now turned to them and gave an elaborate order in Spanish before he told Mara, “Will you please to go with these guards, Infanta Margueryt? They will take you to a room, where you will wait as well. The accommodations are the most comfortable I have to offer. I regret I have no gentlewomen such as you are used to, but I will send a woman to attend to your needs while you are my guest.” He turned to look out of the window behind him: the sky to the east was growing pink with the approach of dawn. “Your people must by this time see that you are missing. When the sun has arisen, I will send a messenger down to Capitan Alyx to inform her that you are here with us and have not been harmed, but I will also tell her what she must do to see you returned to your own people.”