Before she met with her captains at dinner to hear their reports of the day, Mara walked the path by the river’s edge. Kat, nervous at letting her cousin go on another walk by herself, had offered to accompany her, but Mara insisted on going alone.
It was now dusk, and torches blazing atop the fortress across the river showed her that Northland soldiers were still at work within. Would she dare to reside at Iagoburso when the time came? Kat had claimed to doubt her own bravery to do so—words spoken partially in jest, but Mara felt a slight shiver run up her spine at the idea of quartering troops in same barracks where so many had died, or sleeping in the same bedchamber that had so recently belonged to the late Conde Luiz. At this moment, she hated the sight of the place. She wouldn’t mind seeing the whole edifice crumbling into dust so that she could rebuild it anew from untainted stone.
The mysterious deaths of the Spanish was in itself disturbing, but Mara felt a deeper dread at what these deaths portended. She had wanted them to leave Iagoburso so that she might occupy it, and they were now gone. Once again, she’d gained her victory, though at a grotesque and appalling price.
“It is thine, O Prince.”
The words of the Sonnedragon had repeated often in her head for many months, but it wasn’t the Sonnedragon that spoke to her now. This was a woman’s voice—a voice she had heard before. Who could know the words of the Sonnedragon’s promise, words she alone had heard? And did she detect a hint of mockery behind them?
As Mara whirled to locate the person who had spoken, a small figure stepped from the long evening shadows to reveal itself: Alys, the mad little serving-maid dressed in the uniform of a guardswoman.
“It is done, Prince Margueryt,” the girl said. “The fortress is yours.”
Once recovered from her initial startlement, Mara had to smile. “Do you claim responsibility for it, Maiden?”
“I’ve done what I said I would,” Alys stated simply. “There are no longer any Spaniards in Iagoburso. It is as you wished.”
The girl’s strange jest, which was not very amusing in the first place, seemed less so with every word she spoke. “The Spaniards are all dead,” said Mara. “You believe this is your doing?”
Alys smiled as she replied, “You have far more deaths to your name than I, Dread Prince. Why should these matter more than any others? You have what you desired. `Tis better not to ask how it came about. You called upon me, and I came to do your bidding. That must be enough.”
This sounded like madness, but an uneasy feeling crept through Mara as she regarded the tiny young maiden standing before her. It might be no more than coincidence that Alys should repeat the Sonnedragon’s words, and yet there was something very odd about the girl. Alys tonight was different. There was nothing timid nor deferential in her demeanor. She was bold and unafraid, as if she approached an equal and not a Prince. When her eyes met Mara’s, something more disturbing than madness could be seen in them.
“I never summoned you,” Mara answered. “I don’t even know who you are. I never saw you before yesterday.”
“You’ve enlisted the aid of my masters, many times. You called out to them to see you win this last venture, and they sent me. You know that you aren’t the first great Prince to bear the talisman. Others greater than you have employed it to their own ends, or refused to.”
Mara’s hand went to the stone on its tether around her neck. “You refer to the Dragonseye?”
Alys nodded her head, dipping her chin once while her eyes remained on Mara’s. “It’s been called by many names. It is but a small relic left from an earlier era of magical warfare before the modern rules of magic were laid down upon this world. They do not apply to this.”
Mara didn’t understand this further preposterous claim. A wizard might. Nevertheless, it disturbed her to hear that Alys not only knew about the gem, but knew something of its history and seemed to know what it meant to her. It was as if the peculiar little creature had peeked into her thoughts and seen her secrets. She was afraid that she was faced with a lunatic… and more terrified that she was not. “What is it you want of me?”
“Only that you continue as you have done, O Prince. It’s all that can be expected of anyone, and all that my masters require of you. They tell me you will not disappoint.”
This answer was even less comprehensible than the last. “Who are you?” Mara demanded. Whatever she might be, Alys was certainly no ordinary young maid.
“Alys of Lyngreen, at your service.” The girl curtseyed, just as she’d done the day before. But in this, as in all her words and actions, there was now a trace of mockery. “You know who I am. I’ve been with you, Prince Margueryt, from the beginning. When you first fell in battle at the Shieldwall, I gave you the power to rise again. You drank my blood. You received my gifts. Since that day, you’ve borne my name and my image upon your shield, and I’ve led you from victory to victory. So long as I serve you, you must triumph.” That smile flashed again. “I am the Dragon.”
“That can’t be true!” Mara protested.
“But it is true, My Prince. You know in your heart that it is.” Alys laughed and, as she took a step backward into the deepening shadows, it seemed to Mara that she vanished. But her laughter could still be heard.
It wasn’t possible, Mara told herself after Alys had gone. It couldn’t be. Neither Alys nor her “masters” had played a part in the remarkable events that had occurred during this campaign. Alys’s masters did not exist; they were demons conjured up by the imagination of a mad young girl. Alys was surely mad. She possessed a talent for making acute guesses about other people’s secrets, and the conviction of insanity made her astounding claims seem believable while she was speaking. That was all.
In fact, all of it from first to last was entirely the delusion of a madwoman. Not Alys, Herself. A bear had attacked Sergeant Gilamus, just some beast had killed the Con Permiso commander. Poisonous snakes or scorpions had bitten the hapless soldiers among her troops, including her nephew Bertrande. Plague of some unknown kind, aggravated by the conditions of close quarters and privations during the siege, had ravaged Iagoburso. To attribute these strange events to the influence of supernatural agencies was plainly madness.
What more had she imagined? That the Dragonseye was something more than a stone of minor historical interest and that it held ancient magical powers. That she’d won her victories because she wielded these powers, and not because she was a capable general and favored with good fortune. That her vision of the Sonnedragon had been as real as flesh and blood, and not the delirium of a wounded soldier lying dazzled by the hot sun on the battlefield.
There was no Sonnedragon. The only bloodthirst that coursed through her veins was her own.
Mara repeated these thoughts to herself, but in her heart she didn’t believe a word of it. Alys had spoken the truth. In using the Dragonseye, she had unwittingly called upon powerful and malign forces she didn’t understand, and now she was bound to them. How was she to free herself from this Devil’s bargain?
In the moments after Alys had vanished, Mara had uttered a prayer for God’s protection, but she knew that more was required before she could truly feel she’d been redeemed. Continue as she had been doing? No. If Alys and her masters desired these campaigns of hers against the Spanish to continue, then they certainly must cease. Her friends and followers wouldn’t understand why she had so abruptly changed her mind, but this was a sacrifice that must be made if she were to save herself. She would leave Santiago in the command of a capable and trusted captain, and travel homewards as soon as she was able. She must then do penance, confess herself and pray for forgiveness.
There was also another, more practical action she could take right away. Seizing the stone dangling from its tether, she pulled it free and flung it into the river. It would eventually be carried down to the sea and out of human hands forever.
She’d seen the lanterns on the boat crossing the river several minutes earlier, and knew that Alyx, Bel, and Sautamie had returned from the fortress. They would be waiting for her. Turning away from the dark water, she hastened back up the path the way she had come, heading toward the lights of the pavilion. Her friends were standing beneath the foremost part of the canopy with worried faces, until they saw Mara coming up the bank from the river’s edge.
“You shouldn’t go about alone, My Prince,” Alyx scolded her. “Prince Kat and your guard here shouldn’t have let you. When she told us that she’d left you to walk by the river by yourself, it recalled me to last night.”
“No harm came to me,” Mara assured her friends. “There are no more Spaniards to threaten us even in solitude. I am as safe tonight as any mortal Christian soul may be. I’ve been thinking about my plans for Santiago. Know first that I intend to leave this place as soon as possible….”