A memorial service was held for Bertrande the next morning in the burial ground in Jamesmarch, and another later that week for the Spaniards buried in a common grave in the shadow of the fortress which had already been renamed Marasfort by the Norman soldiers. Although Mara hadn’t authorized this or any other changes of place names, the Northlanders were quick to replace Spanish words with one from their own common tongue: Rio Amarillo was now the Yellow River, and d’Iago Pescador had become Fisherman’s Creek.
By the end of the week, the fortress was fit to be occupied. The assigned garrison moved into the barracks, but Mara didn’t take up residence in the quarters that had once belonged to Conde Luiz. She offered these instead to her cousin, whom she appointed as commander of the new territory. Mara hoped that this gesture would make up for Kat’s removal from the command of Spainfort and heal that old breach between them. It was also a way to keep Kat far from her until she could overcome her discomfort at being in close company with her cousin.
In spite of her intention to depart immediately, Mara had duties to her army and officers; she couldn’t simply abandon them at a few day’s notice. There was much to do in the preparation for the decampment of the army in the Jamesmarch, as well the deployment of the forces that would remain behind under her cousin’s command.
While Kat oversaw the occupation of the Bertrandesmarch with Alyx’s and Sataumie’s assistance, Mara continued to sleep in her tent on the other side of the river. Messages were sent to Pendaunzel bearing news of her success and announcing her imminent return. When the single surviving Spanish guard didn’t fall ill, he was set free to bear his message south. Though Delphyn had been given the care of the younger survivor of Iagoburso, it was Kat, missing her own daughter, who spent the most time looking after the little girl. In spite of frequent coaxing in the few words of Spanish Kat possessed, she could never learn the child’s true name and instead called her Perdita. When Kat took up her quarters in the fortress, Delphyn and the little girl went with her. No illness nor mishap befell those who dwelt within the fortress.
No more Northlander soldiers in either the Bertrandesmarch or Jamesmarch were found mysteriously dead. Mara hadn’t seen the strange creature that called itself Alys of Lyngreen since she’d cast the Dragonseye away. She hoped that that abomination was forever banished. As the days passed, her encounter with Alys seemed less and less real. Had that scene by the river’s edge truly happened?
November ended and the bleak desolation of the prairie winter was upon them—a winter without snow nor rain, but grey skies replaced the merciless summer sun. Northlands troops were well established throughout the Bertrandesmarch by this time and were ready to defend the conquered territory if the Spanish should attempt to challenge them. Things were well in hand, and Mara hoped to be away before the year’s end.
Mara was writing another letter to Ambris to this effect when a messenger who had arrived at the camp was brought to her in her tent. He wore the Duke’s livery, a blue and gold costume very like the garb of Dafythe’s heralds, but this was no boy; he was a grown man, dusty and weary after long days of riding. Mara offered him some warmed, spiced brandywine to drink before he conveyed his message to her.
“Gramercies, My Gracious Layn,” the messenger replied as he accepted the drink brought to him by Ren.
As he spoke the words, “My Gracious Layn,” Mara realized what news had brought him so far. “When did my father die?” she asked.
“Nearly six weeks past.” The messenger dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “I beg your pardon, My Layn Duke, for bearing such sad tidings so clumsily. My Lord Ambris had writ a letter I was to give you along with this packet.” He produced these items from a flat leather pouch he wore strapped around his waist beneath his livery coat. “He would write more gracefully than I can speak.”
“I would rather hear such news spoken than read it.” Mara held out her hands to receive the packet, which contained her father’s ring and seal of office. They were hers now. “Tell me: how did it happen?”
“He died peacefully abed,” the messenger assured her. “When Lord Ambris went to the late Duke’s apartments, as was always his custom in the evenings, he found My Lord Dafythe—God rest him—at the chair in his private closet with one of his histories in his lap. He thought him asleep at first, and only sent for the physician when he couldn’t rouse him. They brought Lord Dafythe to his bed, where he lay for some days in a state between wake and sleep. He suffered no pain, Duke Margueryt, and at times would speak. He made such farewells as he was able to to those who were near to him in the Palace. He asked for you, and for the Irish Prince. At the end, he fell to sleep and didn’t wake again. Your brother Lord Ambris stayed by his side until the last.”
Mara didn’t know whether or not to be comforted by this information. It sounded like a peaceable way for an aged man to end his life, but she’d seen many younger men and women die lately. Was it God’s choice to take Dafythe now, or was this more malignant work from that creature who called herself Alys? Dafythe’s death had occurred after the last of the strange deaths here, after Alys had been banished. “Did he receive last rights?” she asked.
“Yes, My Layn. The ceremony was performed before his last breath departed his body. Lord Ambris bids you not to fret. Lord Dafythe had made his peace with a Greater Lord in these past months, and a soul such as his must surely see Heaven.”
“Certainly,” Mara agreed, and crossed herself. Her father’s soul, at least, was safe. But it was odd to think that, when she returned home to Pendaunzel, Dafythe would no longer be there.
She wouldn’t weep for him—not now, when others might see. Her grief as a daughter was a private matter. She would spend her tears later.
She’d been brought up to become Duke of the Northlands one day. That day had arrived. Mara suddenly felt the weight of her new responsibilities pressing down upon her. There was so much that must be done. Her coronation must be planned. Members of her cabinet must be appointed. She wouldn’t arrive home in time for her father’s funeral, but she must commission memorial masses for his soul in churches throughout the dukedom. She must gift those who had been loyal to Dafythe. There were a multitude of ceremonies, small and great, to mark the transition of power and policy; Ambris would surely take care of many of these in her absence, but others required her presence. The entire Empire, if not the whole of the civilized world, would go into mourning. Everyone would look to her to lead them. Ambris and Kat would aid her, of course, but the duty was chiefly hers.
What must she attend to first?
The messenger had taken out Ambris’s letter, and was reading from it. “My Lord your brother also sends to inform you that he maintains his position as Regent in your absence at the request of the Council. Lord Dafythe lies in state in the Hartshall. Lord Ambris will delay the funeral `til you and Prince Katheryne are able to attend, but he desires your return to Pendaunzel as soon as you may travel.”
“Yes, of course. We’ll come at once.” Kat would have to accompany her home; Alyx would be given command of the new march in her stead. Mara must be the one to tell Kat about Dafythe’s death, for Dafythe had been like a father to the Irish Prince as well.
“My cousin Kat is across the river at the fortress,” she informed the guards who had escorted the messenger to her. “Go and tell her I wish her to come to me here immediately. I also bid you find my nephews Eduarde and Arthur and have them brought to me. Do not tell them what you’ve heard spoken of here. I shall tell them of Lord Dafythe’s passing myself. Then send for my captains. After I’ve spoken to them privately, you may announce my father’s death to the troops and declare most solemn mourning for the Duke of the Northlands.” She turned to Ren, who had heard the news as well. Tears flowed down the little maid’s cheeks. “Rennie, pack a light traveling bag for me and one for yourself. We must travel ahead of the troops, and the rest of our belongings must follow with them. We’ll ride with my cousin and nephews at daybreak tomorrow to reach Jamesfort as soon as we can.”
The girl curtseyed. “Yes, Prince Mar– I mean, yes, My Layn Duke.”