The room was not very comfortable, but it wasn’t a dungeon. Conde Luiz had placed her in what appeared to be empty quarters for a low-ranked officer in a lower level of the main tower. There was one narrow bed and a narrow window high on one wall. After sleeping in a tent for so many weeks, Mara found it adequate. A guard was placed outside the door. When she climbed up to stand on the bed and look out of the window, she found no means of escaping by that route; even if she managed to squeeze herself through the tall, thin slit, a sheer drop hundreds of feet down the outer wall of the fortress and the rock it was built upon awaited her. She wasn’t certain that she wanted to escape yet. She wasn’t afraid for her life or person. Conde Luiz had only threatened her with harm if she wasn’t the Prince. While she hadn’t yet acknowledged that she was indeed Margueryt, she saw that there might come a time when it would be more advantageous to admit it. For the present, she could only wait and see how her friends and her armies responded to the news of her capture. Alyx was sure to arrive before long. Would her captain inadvertently reveal her identity?
Mara had spent a sleepless night, much of it on horseback, and while she sat on the bed and waited, she soon dozed. She woke abruptly, startled by the sound of the door opening, but it was only the guard, admitting a woman in peasant garb, bringing her breakfast. Since it was now long after her usual breakfast hour, Mara accepted this food: a clay pitcher of yeasty water, or perhaps extremely watered-down beer, and a crumbling piece of dry, unsalted blue-grey bread made from ground maize. Mara assumed this was the same diet that the Spanish inhabitants of Iagoburso were living on but, when she asked, she found that the woman didn’t understand a word of Norman and looked bewildered at the question. Mara thought the woman was also a little frightened of her even though she was captive, and dismissed her with a “gracias” as soon as she had finished her sparse meal.
The sun had climbed high, out of the range of her narrow window, when at last Mara heard the sound of boots in the corridor outside. The guards who had come for her spoke little Norman, but enough that Mara understood she was to be brought to Conde Luiz.
The Conde was in his tower room where Mara had left him, but a visitor had joined him. Alyx stood in the middle of the room, flanked by the two Spanish guards who had escorted her up through the fortress.
When Mara was brought in, Alyx bowed her head respectfully, but didn’t salute nor address her commander with the usual obeisance given to the Prince. Mara took note of this, and only said, “It’s good to see you, Alyx.”
“And you. We were frantic with worry when we realized you hadn’t gone back to the camp,” Alyx told her. “I was almost relieved when I received Conde Luiz’s message. I was afraid something much worse had happened to you.”
“You see that your Infanta is unharmed,” said Conde Luiz. “She will tell you herself that she has been treated well.” Mara confirmed that this was so. “If you will agree to my terms, Capitan, then there is no reason why she cannot be returned to you.”
“What are your terms, Conde?” Alyx requested. “I am commissioned to hear them, and I may accept or refuse them as seems fit to me.”
“They are simple, Capitan, and may easily be complied with. I wish no ransom. It is not wealth I seek, merely the continued safety of my people, as you surely wish for the safety of your Infanta. To ensure this safety, you will withdraw all Northland troops from Santiago immediately. This must be done today. When I see that all your men and women, including those riders to the south, have returned to the other side of the river, I will know that this much has been fulfilled. You will then remove your encampment from the eastern bank of the Rio Amarillo and cease all threats to Iagoburso and claims to Santiago. This must be done in seven days. I must have your word of honor on this—both yours, Capitan Alys, and the Infanta’s. When I see that you are breaking your camp and have begun to move, Infanta Margueryt will be set free to join you. Do you agree to this?” He looked from one woman to the other. “Do I have your word?”
Alyx gave Mara a quick glance that warned her something was afoot. The Prince was therefore not surprised when Alyx replied in respectful terms, “I’m sorry to say, Conde Luiz, that we cannot accede to your demands. What you ask is impossible.”
The Conde was surprised by this blunt refusal. “I think you speak in haste, and will repent of it,” he responded with a note of asperity. “You are foolish and prideful—it is often the way of women who do not wish to lose a quarrel, but there is more than an argument here to be lost. You may expect to hope that because I am a man of honor, I will not kill a defenseless woman, but desperation will often lead one to act against the codes of chivalry. If you are truly soldiers, you know this is so. I pray you believe that we in Iagoburso are desperate. If you do not withdraw your armies, then it is with the greatest regret that I must execute your Infanta.”
“I believe you, Conde Luiz, and I will be grieved if you should execute this woman—as will many in our company,” said Alyx. “Nevertheless, I cannot agree to your terms. My Prince will not allow it, even to save one who is nearly a sister to her. She is that firm in her resolve to take Iagoburso.”
Conde Luiz looked utterly bewildered, as if his understanding of Norman weren’t sufficient to take in this strange speech. “Your pardon—you say your Prince…?
Alyx nodded. “Believe me, Conde Luiz, when I tell you that you are mistaken. You have not captured the prize you imagined. This woman is not Prince Margueryt. Our Prince stands upon your battlements even now, prepared to avenge her cousin.”
Conde Luiz was skeptical of this announcement; Alyx moved toward the window overlooking the courtyard before the fortress’s main gates.
“Will you come and see?” she invited him.
She opened the casement, and as if in response to this signal, a voice cried out in badly accented Spanish:
“Yo soy Infanta del Drakon!”
The Conde rose from his seat and went to the window. Mara joined him.
A woman stood atop the wall above the barred but conspicuously unattended main gate. Over her mailcoat, she wore a princely white tunic and a banner with golden lions across her breast. The gold circlet of a battle crown upon her helm shone brightly in the late morning sun. In one hand she held the Redlyon’s famous sword; the other arm was guarded by a shield bearing a dragon—the very shield Mara herself had painted.
Luiz turned to regard his prisoner in renewed confusion.
“I’m not Prince Margueryt,” Mara told him. “I’m her kinswoman, Katheryne of Eireland.”
The four guards who had escorted Mara and Alyx were likewise confused, for they had also believed that they were holding the Northlands Prince hostage. The sight of the Sonnedragon upon the shield was enough to strike a chord of fear among them, but the woman who stood on the wall appeared to be alone. Then two other women and one young man armed for battle clambered up to stand beside her. No Spanish soldiers were in the courtyard below—a fact that seemed as unexpected to the rescue party as to Conde Luiz. The Conde, however, recovered swiftly from his momentary surprise and gave terse commands to send the guards in the room down to confront the invaders.
As the proclaimed “Infanta del Drakon” and her companions climbed down from the wall to meet the Spanish guards in the courtyard, they passed out of view of the window. Mara, Alyx, and Conde Luiz could hear voices shouting in Norman and Spanish and the sounds of clashing metal. There was a scream or two. Then there was silence. A strange silence. Not only had the sounds of fighting completely ceased, but they heard no voices or other sounds of people in motion.
“What’s happened?” Mara wondered. Had Kat and the others been ambushed? The absence of soldiers in the courtyard suggested that some sort of trap had been laid for any Northlanders who had followed Alyx up to the fortress. But if that were so, then the trap hadn’t been of Conde Luiz’s devising, for he seemed as uncertain as she about the outcome of the battle.
“Shall I go and see?” Alyx offered. “Conde Luiz will keep you good company while I am gone.” She bowed and went out.
They listened to her boot heels on the stairway beyond the closed door, until this sound receded and they were left again with a silence that became more disturbing as it continued.
At last, Conde Luiz met his prisoner’s eyes. “Your pardon, Infanta Kateryne,” he said. “I must see for myself. If your kinswoman has triumphed, it is my duty to receive her. If my men have won this fight, then I may have more prisoners to welcome.”
He didn’t invite Mara to accompany him. In another moment, the Conde too was gone and she was alone in the tower room. Who would he find at the bottom of the stair, Mara wondered. Her rescuers, or dead Normans and triumphant Spaniards?
Conde Luiz had locked the door behind him. Mara immediately confirmed this by trying the latch and peeking through the large keyhole to be sure that the key hadn’t been left in the lock. No, the Conde had taken it with him. In spite of this, Mara believed she might be able to escape. She had to try. It was impossible for her to sit here, patiently waiting, while a battle was going on somewhere in the fortress below. She had to join the fight. Her friends might have need of her. The saber she’d surrendered to Conde Luiz was still lying on the table at the center of the room, and surely there was something—a slender-bladed knife, perhaps—that she could use to open the lock.
She was searching the shelves for some such tool when she heard someone calling out from the corridor at the foot of the stair.
“Where is she?” It was Bel’s voice. “My Prince! Prince Mara! Can you hear me?”
“I’m here!” Mara shouted, rushing to the door and thumping her hands on the wooden surface. “Up here, Bel! The door at the very top. I can’t get out.”
“Wait! I have just the thing.” After a moment, Mara heard her friend running up the stair, then the rattling of a ring of keys and the click of the lock. The door opened.
Bel stood on the small landing beyond the door and looked Mara over anxiously from head to foot. “You’re all right, My Prince?” she asked. “They haven’t harmed you?”
“Not in the least,” Mara assured her, and took up her sabre from the table. “Let’s go. Where are the others? Have you seen Alyx?”
Bel shook her head. “Not since she left with the Spanish messenger and came up the path ahead of us. The rest of our party separated to search for you once we’d taken care of the guards at the gate—a poor showing, I thought,” she spoke as she went down the stairs ahead of Mara. “Only four men to match the four of us. They’ve left their fortress sadly undefended. I’ve scarcely seen another Spaniard since Prince Kat sent me up this way, only one oily-looking bastard who tried to stand in my way.”
In the corridor near the foot of the stairs lay Conde Luiz. His eyes were wide open, but unseeing. A stain of fresh blood spread across the front of his tunic from a wound in his chest.
“Wouldn’t he tell you where I was?” Mara asked, recalling the first words she’d heard Bel speak.
“I didn’t wait for his answer. He stood there, blocking my way and grinning at me like a lecherous fool. Once you called out my name, I had no further reason to seek his cooperation.”
“You didn’t need to kill him, Bel. He wouldn’t have murdered a woman, save out of desperation. He said so himself and I believed him.”
“He was a Spaniard,” Bel replied. “He might’ve stabbed you in the back at any moment, and smiled all the while.” She stepped easily over the body to lead the way down the corridor. “I’d stab a thousand Spaniards for you, My Prince, if I were given the chance.”
Although she’d only known the Conde a very short time and he had threatened her life, she couldn’t help feeling pity for him now that he had paid with his own life. He had indeed been a desperate man, acting for what he’d believed was the best defense of his people, his fortress, and the land he’d been given to govern. She could respect that desire to protect what was his, even as she wished he’d been more reasonable about surrendering the fortress and the land on her terms. It shouldn’t have come to this bloody ending.
“What’s happened?” Mara asked as she followed her companion. “Why is it so quiet? Have we taken the fortress?”
“It’s ours,” the captain assured her, “though I can’t say how it came to be. We were expecting that we’d have to face a terrible fight to free you. There were only a pair of guards stationed outside the gate—we dispatched them easily enough, but we thought there’d be a dozen more inside. Prince Kat climbed up onto the wall, posing as you and hoping the sight of the Sonnedragon upon your shield would strike fear into their Spanish hearts, but no one was there to be frightened! Once we were over the wall, we met with a few more soldiers, as I’ve told you, but they gave us little trouble. I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to cutting some of their throats.”
“Where are they?” Mara knew that at least two hundred soldiers were stationed at Iagoburso—she’d seen at least twenty herself since she’d been captured this morning—plus an untold number of peasant farmers who had taken shelter inside the fortress.
“I don’t know, My Prince. They must’ve hidden themselves before we arrived, but we haven’t yet discovered where.”
“Then it’s best we be ready for a fight when we do find them.”
Swords drawn in case the Spanish soldiers should suddenly emerge from hiding to attack them, Mara and Bel cautiously made their way down through the great tower. At the foot of the tower, they looked into the armory and found it unattended, then went out into the courtyard where the rescue party had met and defeated the Spanish guards. Here, blood had also been spilt. Three of the four Spanish guards Conde Luiz had sent were dead; the other was wounded and held at swordspoint by Eduarde. The young knight looked relieved and overjoyed to see his aunt. Captain Alyx, he informed her, had gone for reinforcements. And where was Kat? In answer to this question, Eduarde pointed across the courtyard to a large portal, its wooden doors open. “After she sent Captain Belynde into the tower, she went to search for you there.”
Mara ordered her nephew to keep watch over his prisoner and ensure his safety until her return, then went after Kat. Bel accompanied her.
Once they had gone through the portal, Mara and Bel walked down a broad, cobblestone path and into a less well-kept yard than the one just within the front gate. The lower parts of the fortress appeared to be used as a stable and farmyard, for loose straw was scattered across the stones, and there were empty pens stinking of animal droppings along the walls. A bony, short-haired dog came out to bark at them, then retreated timidly as the pair continued toward it. There were no people in sight.
“Where could all they be?” Mara wondered again. “They couldn’t have fled, not without being seen by Alyx’s guards below.”
“They had horses,” said Bel, indicating the stable. “They might’ve gone in the night, though how they could take the beasts up and down that narrow path along the cliff-edge is beyond my understanding.” She peeked into the stable and reported that there were indeed several starved-looking horses and donkeys within. “They didn’t ride out.”
“They must still be here somewhere. If Kat’s found–” Mara began, when a high-pitched wail stopped her. For a horrified moment, she thought that Kat was screaming, then quickly realized that it was the cry of a child. With one hand on the hilt of her sabre, she ventured toward the sound, hoping to trace it to its source.
It was then they found the first bodies, a group of soldiers lying in a passageway leading away from the stable yard. Could this be Kat’s work? Even though she was armed with Dentelyon, it seemed a mighty task for one woman alone against so many. But Mara and Bel saw no blood, nor any sign that the men had been engaged in battle at the moment of their deaths. Most looked as if they’d simply fallen in mid-step. They were all facing the same direction, as if they’d been headed together toward some destination farther along the passage.
Ahead of them along this same passage, rose a cluster of round buildings that looked to be storage chambers. The child was still wailing.
As Mara and Bel went on, they discovered more dead Spanish soldiers, their skin still warm to the touch. Though the sun was now high overhead, baking the exposed stone and clay of the fortress walls, even those bodies in the shade retained some natural warmth of life.
“What could’ve done this? Is it a plague?” Mara wondered. Whatever had stricken them down, it must have occurred immediately before the Northlanders had arrived. She would’ve liked to question Luiz about the condition of his people, but he was dead now too.
The storage chambers at the end of the passage had been used as housing for the Santiago farmers who sought shelter from the Normans during the siege. They too were all dead. As they ventured within, passing through a series of semi-circular rooms against the outer walls, they found a dozen families huddled among their belongings, lying on makeshift beds or gathered around meager, half-finished breakfasts. They had obviously died some time before the soldiers outside, but not more than a few hours ago. The prevailing smell within the close rooms was a mixture of cooked food, unwashed bodies, mildew and middens, but not the stench of the dead. Clouds of black flies swarmed everywhere, more flies than Mara had ever seen at once; she could hear them buzzing even before she and Bel had gone inside, and their noise once they were disturbed nearly drowned out the sound of the crying child. Mara was accustomed to the sight of corpses in far worse condition, but this inexplicable disaster made her feel sick.
They found the single survivor, a little girl of about three or four, in one of the inner chambers, among a group of farm-folk who must have been her family. In the single shaft of light that shone down from a hole in the ceiling, she seemed nothing more than thin, pale arms and legs, a tangle of black curls, and a pair of enormous black eyes. Her howls grew even louder when she saw the two women with swords.
Mara had no great affection for small children, but she knew better than to give the care of a Spaniard, even one so young, to Bel. She handed her sabre to the captain before she stepped closer and said, “Hush, little one. We mean no harm to you.”
The child couldn’t possibly understand her, but her tone was gentle and reassuring; the little girl ceased to scream, but it took more soothing-sounding words before she let herself be taken up.
“She doesn’t look as if she’s suffering from more than fear and a lack of good food,” Mara said once she held the child in her arms. “If only she were a few years older! She surely saw what happened here. Well, where there is one alive, there might be others who are able to tell us more.”
“Hush,” Bel spoke suddenly in a hissing whisper. “Someone’s outside, and they may not like to answer our questions.”
Mara also heard the sound of heavy boots treading slowly through the interconnecting chambers of the storage building, moving carefully past the same groups of bodies they had discovered. A long shadow was cast from one of the slits of a window high overhead on an outer wall, and it grew longer and larger as it approached.
Bel brandished the sabre and positioned herself beside the open doorway, ready to defend Mara from whatever danger threatened. “Who’s there?” she demanded. “Identify yourself!”
The shadow shape stopped. “Bel?” came the surprised response. “Is that you? How came you here? Is Mara with you?”
“I’m here, Kat!” Mara called out.
Her cousin appeared in the doorway. Mara could scarcely recall that awkward scene that had sent her flying from Kat; that was mere hours ago, though it seemed ages. So much had happened since then, and all she could feel in this moment was delight. If it weren’t for the little girl she was still holding, she would’ve embraced her cousin.
Kat looked ready to embrace her as well. “It’s good to see you alive,” she said, lowering the heavy Dentelyon as Bel likewise lowered the sabre. “There aren’t many here who are.”
“Are all the Spaniards dead, like these poor folk?” Mara asked. “Is there no one left alive?”
“None that I’ve seen, `til now.” Kat glanced at the child in Mara’s arms. “I’ve been all around this part of the fortress. The soldiers’ quarters are here, and they’re all just the same—in the refectory, in their beds, or lying out and about, as if they were all struck dead at once by the Hand of God.”
“It wasn’t God who struck them down,” said Mara. “We must look about, and find the others living, if they are any. Will you set our people to the task, Cousin? Bel, I leave you to lead the search. I must go down to our camp below and show myself, so that everyone can see I’m alive and unhurt. I’ll bring the child with me. I’ll have Eduarde take his prisoner down, and you must send down any other Spaniards you find alive. I want them to stay alive. We must see them fed and cared for. If any speak Norman, I wish to question them. Someone must tell us how this came about.”
With the little girl clinging to her, Mara made her way out of the storage chambers and lower part of the fortress. As she passed through the courtyard, more Norman soldiers were coming up through the front gate and the tunnels that had long been guarded at both ends. She spoke briefly to Eduarde and Alyx, giving each her orders, then she left Iagoburso. It was hers at last, but she wanted nothing more than to be far away from it.