By the late afternoon, Mara had returned to the eastern side of the river and her camp in the Jamesmarch. She would occupy Iagoburso eventually, once the scores of bodies had been cleared away and decently buried. Whole squads were assigned to this task. Other Northland troops were spreading through Santiago unhindered, taking official possession of the captured territory. Once she had issued her orders, however, Mara had left the management of these tasks to Kat and her captains. Bertrande’s body had been brought to the camp at dawn and she felt that the burial of her young nephew, and the letter she had planned to write to his father, took precedence over all other concerns.
The troops in the Jamesmarch were relieved at their Prince’s safe return and delighted at the news that Iagoburso had at last been taken, but their joy at these events was oddly subdued. Already, they whispered that the Prince and her cousin Kat were somehow responsible for the deaths of all the Spaniards; Mara’s capture and rescue had only been a ploy to gain access to the fortress so that they could enact their bloody plan. While Mara was pleased to let her soldiers think that she’d been that clever rather than careless, the indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatants also attributed to her wasn’t as gratifying.
The lone surviving Iagoburso guard could provide no explanation for the deaths of the other Spanish inhabitants of the fortress; he insisted that they were not afflicted with disease. His fellow soldiers and the officers had all been alive and well the last time he’d seen them that morning, less than an hour before he’d escorted Captain Alyx up from the front gate to the Conde’s room in the tower. He hadn’t seen the farm families since the night before, when their rations had been doled out. They complained of the small amounts of food they received, but there was no sign that they were ill in great numbers.
The only other living witness to the disaster spoke no word of Norman, nor even enough of her own language to describe what she had seen. The little girl could only repeat her universally understood cry for “Mama!”—a cry that would never be answered.
“What will happen to her?” Kat asked when she met her cousin in their tent that evening. She was still dressed in Mara’s battle gear and bore the Sonnedragon arms, for she’d been too busy overseeing the occupation of Santiago all day to return and change her clothing before this.
“I’ll see that she’s cared for,” Mara promised. “Delphyn is looking after her now. She’s been fed and bathed, and she seems to be thriving. Since she has no living family here, and we’ve no means of finding out if she has other relations elsewhere, I’ll see that she’s provided for as my ward once we are home. An Abbey will be the best place for her. The Sisters at Samandra Abbey are accustomed to take orphans in.”
“And our other prisoner?”
“Keep him away from our troops, save the guards who must watch over him. If he shows no signs of falling prey to the illness that struck his fellows down, then we will set him at liberty in three days’ time. I have no use for prisoners. See that he is equipped with a horse and sufficient supplies to carry him safely to the Spanish lands to the south. He may bear my message to the Conde there that Santiago is now mine. I doubt they’ll contest my claim. If they meant to fight, they would’ve done so long before this instead of leaving Conde Luiz to fend for himself.” She regarded her cousin in her clothes. “Was that ruse your idea, Kat?”
“That I should bear your arms?” Kat indicated the shield painted with the image of the Sonnedragon, which she had set down by the entrance to their tent. “Yes, that much was. When I came back here to arm myself, I saw how I might cast the Spaniards into confusion about who their prisoner was. But I can’t claim the rest of the plan as my own. It was Alyx who said we ought to follow her up to the gate once the guards accompanied her—she knew she couldn’t have stopped Bel from doing so if she had her held at swordspoint. I felt the same myself. We couldn’t sit by and leave you at that Conde’s mercy. Who knew what he might do? Oh, Mara, you don’t know how I blamed myself when we found you were missing. We searched all around the base of the rock, where Alyx said you’d gone. I was afraid to imagine the worst. I knew how it was all my fault. If I hadn’t said what I did and set you riding off alone–”
Mara didn’t want to talk about that. She would prefer to pretend that it had never happened; that was the only way she could continue to treat her cousin as she always had. “We must see to occupying Santiago—and rechristen it with some more suitable, Norman name as well. I’ve been thinking of calling it Bertrandesmarch, in memory of poor Bertie. When the fortress is made ready, we’ll take up residence. I’ll station a garrison to remain there with us.”
“If they dare live in that place after what’s happened!” Kat exclaimed. “I don’t know if I’m brave enough to lay my head to rest in one of those Spaniards’ beds after what I saw there today. Those poor dead peasants will haunt my dreams for nights to come.”
“Civilians are often killed in battle,” said Mara, as much to herself as to Kat. “It is a fact of war. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. We’ve seen old men and women, even children, dead in Spanish towns before this. These are no different, though I would almost rather we’d cut them down quickly instead of letting them die in so slow and terrible a way. We besieged their fortress, and left them prey to starvation and disease.”
“They looked as if they were going hungry, but I don’t believe they starved to death,” Kat replied. “They were very short of food, `tis true. They’d eaten all their livestock except for the horses. We found all sorts of bones piled in the rubbish—cows and pigs, goats, chickens, and even what looked like rats, though none that were human, please God! But they had grain enough to last them another week or two on small rations. If they had starved, they wouldn’t have all died at once as they did. I doubt even plague would take so many in an instant.” She lowered her voice, though no one but Ren could overhear their conversation. “You know what it looked like, Mara. They were struck down just as our own people have been, but by the score rather than one at a time. No spider or scorpion, nor even a thousand of them, could’ve done such terrible work.”