Mara and the Dragon

by Kathryn L. Ramage

This excerpt is from an unfinished fantasy novel, "Mara Sonnedragon," set on an alternate-history medieval Earth. Mara is the only daughter and heir of the Grand Duke of Noreland, and therefore titled Prince in spite of her gender. She is also the leader of the Shieldmaids, a quasi-religious group of women warriors, but unlike many of her fellow Shieldmaids, has not yet received a vision of the talisman beast that will serve as her battle symbol and personal spirit-guide.

The following scene takes place immediately after Maraís and her Shieldmaidsí first battle with the Spanish in a disputed territory on Norelandís southern borders; she has quarreled with her cousin and dearest friend, Kat, the night before, because Kat has fallen in love with Frederic, the captain of the border guard. At last, Mara has her vision of a dragonÖ but is it entirely in her imagination?

Red.

All was a haze of red. Red enshrouded her. Red filled her. She swam in it.

Was this death?

There was no pain. Silence pressed against her, pinned her. Yet she was calm. Comfortable. She ought to worry for her friends. She ought to wonder who had won the battle. But these questions did not interest her. She ought to care. She did not. Once through the veil, red mists of blood, all earthly matters were forgotten.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner, now, at the hour of death.

A light shone through the bloody mist. White light. A blazing disk.

She was unafraid. She had made her last confession and offered prayers for divine intercession on behalf of her soul before the battle. If she and Kat were not reconciled before they marched, then surely they had come to some sort of unspoken understanding while they fought. She did not feel that blot upon her now. Her life had not been stainless, but she had lived it as a proper Christian--honest, just, chaste, faithful. She departed in a state of Grace.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner, now, at the hour of death.

A dark shape passed before the light.

This was not Heaven.

The sun blazed into her eyes, dappled her vision with red. Hundreds of fallen soldiers, Norman and Spanish, some dead and others dying, lay around her. The battlefield was quiet except for the buzz of the flies. Gnats swarmed like small patches of haze. The stink of the bodies in the heat was overpowering. The grass was torn and red with blood. Her tunic was dark and stiff with blood. Not all her own. A great weight pinned her legs. The assassin lay across her. The face pressed against her shield had become blotched and purple.

She was alive.

She moved her free arm slightly; little jolts of pain shot from her shoulder.

It was not over. She might yet die here.

Holy Mary, Mother of God...

Her arm throbbed dully now. She would have made the sign of the cross, but more blood had begun to seep through her mail.

A dark shape crossed the bright disk of the sun. Carrion crow. Or, so high up, perhaps a hawk or eagle. Were buzzards found so far south? Winged creature. Swooping. No, not a crow. The neck was too long. A crane? A wild swan?

What was it? Mara squinted to focus through the lurid, burnt-blind spots dappling her sight. What was it? Its movements were wonderfully graceful. It swooped and darted so high that her dazzled eyes lost it. Aimless flight. Flight simply for the joy of it. A dance in the sunlight.

The jointure of the wings was wrong. The forewing bent toward the head rather than back against the lithesome body. Did light shine through? The tail was whip-thin--a few long feathers?--then its flexibility made her doubt that it had plumage at all. It glittered. Scales?

This was no bird.

No, not a bird.

Sweet Jesus, could it be? It couldnít be! If such a creature had ever existed, the last had died centuries ago. Yet there it was. Diving from its dance to land on the hilltop, enormous, terrible, glorious in the sunlight-

the dragon-

landed.

It stretched and coiled, delighted in the warmth with delicious abandon like a huge, dazzling lizard basking. Iridescent scales glittered like a million beetlesí wings. Wings spread. The delicate, thin-as-vellum web covered the sun. The light behind made them bright with myriad colors like the stained glass of cathedral windows--ten times larger than any window. Colors played on the grass. It threw back its head and let out a screeching cry that made the earth tremble. Uncoiling itself, it descended into the dell.

Mara watched, horrified, fascinated as it picked its way through the fallen. Gently, it prodded corpses with its blunt muzzle. Long claws sifted through the bodies. Now and again, it paused to turn one face-up with exquisite care. It snuffled at them; its red-ribbon tongue, forked like a serpentís, darted out to taste the bloody limbs. It ate a few. Mara could not guess how it chose its meal: human, animal, Norman, Spanish, dead, sometimes living--she heard a few faint cries and saw arms and legs twitch feebly in the reptilian grasp. It tossed its selections up and devoured them with a snap of its vast jaws. Discarded helms and weapons fell clattering to the earth. Armor crunched between its teeth.

Was this a prelude to Divine Judgment? A gathering up of the wicked? What more fitting end for the Devilís own than the belly of the Beast! No. That wasnít right. Mara could conceive malignant souls among her own troops as well as the Spanish, but- Evil horses? Did mute beats have souls? Nothing in Christian theology allowed for that absurdity.

The dragon had another purpose as it moved through the field, snapping trees effortlessly, rumbling its thunderous purr, examining corpses with careful deliberation. It searched, she realized, for one particular person.

It found her.

The long neck bent in a sinuous curve. Hot breath blasted upon her. The tips of fangs protruded from the long slit of a mouth; it might swallow her in one bite.

Mara pushed up against her shield as hard as she could with the arm trapped beneath and shoved the body of her attempted assassin with her free hand. Her shoulder flared with pain and her head spun sickeningly. It was useless. Even if she freed herself, where would she run to? How could she fight? She didnít have a sword. The dagger that lay near her right hand was no weapon to wield against this fabulous monster.

Three wickedly clawed fingers--each as thick as a childís arm--slipped about the body that pinned her and moved it aside. The ribbon of tongue shot out to caress her bloodied tunic front. Mara held her breath. She was prepared to die, but not to be eaten alive. Ignoring the stabs of pain, she sought the dagger. It would give the dragon no more than a pin-prick, she knew, but at least she would not go down its gullet helplessly. She would stab its innards.

Then ancient eyes gazed deeply into hers.

Fear not, O Prince.

The dragon spoke. Or, rather, as she looked into those dark gold, black-streaked eyes, wise beyond mortal knowing, she heard a deep, melodious voice. It spoke the language of Old High Norman. Such polite, second-person pronouns and archaic verb tenses were reserved today for the highest of antique ceremonies and most formal modes of address, but Mara found them appropriate for this beast. This seemed the proper tone for a dragon to take.

Thou shalt not die here, brave Prince. Such courage and fortitude as art thine will be rewarded tenfold. Thou shalt receive a sign of thy fortune, a talisman of kings. See it here revealed unto thee. The dragon betokens thy royal lineage, older than the lion, the hart, the unicorn, and the eagle, for the dragon is eldest of all beasts that walketh the Earth or spanneth the Heavens. Its body possesseth great magics: The Dragonís Tooth is a weapon surpassing all others, even the tooth of the lion. The Dragonís Eye is prized beyond all gems. No steel may pierce the scales of its hide. No terror may quail the courage of its heart. Its blood healeth all wounds.

The dragon lifted one talon to its mouth and, with the same deliberate precision it had shown in all its motions, punctured one finger with a tooth in its lower jaw. A single droplet of blood, bright as a ruby, suspended from the tip of an arced claw like a polished steel hook.

Receivest thou these gifts, O Prince, for thy power lieth in their virtues. This token shalt thou bear upon thy shield. Thy foes shall flee in terror at its sight. All shall honor thy name, which hereafter shall be known as Sonnedragon. Takest thou the might of the dragon. It is thine.

The droplet fell.

Mara drank. The ichor coursed down her throat, hot, sweet, exhilarating as the finest spiced wine. A flush of warmth ran through her. She felt strong again--indeed, stronger than she had ever felt before. She might take on an army single-handed. Such was the power of the Sonnedragon.

This was her vision, all she had hoped for, more than she had imagined. Sonnedragon. What better talisman for a warrior-prince? It stood as her guardian and guide. It offered its healing blood. She received the sacrament. Here was the most holy communion.

The warm breath and rumbling purr were comforting. All would be well. Mara shut her eyes.

Some time later, she heard a voice speaking above her: "Here she is! Alyx, Iíve found her! Merciful Christ, sheís alive!"

She woke to great pain. Her fingertips throbbed with her heartbeat. Her chest ached when she drew deep breath. The wound in her shoulder had grown to a blazing mountain. Impossible to get around, impossible to ignore, it loomed over her consciousness. She turned restlessly beneath it. Yet she must have slept; each time she opened her eyes the scene was changed. She lay on a stretcher in an open field, then on a cot in a wardroom; later, it was a strange, large bed with a feather mattress and netted curtains. The orange light of late afternoon became midnight in a blink, and then bold sunlight shot in through the small panes of a window on the wall above her. A cup was pressed to her lips and she drank cool water. Damp cloths bathed her brow and strips of bandages were wrapped about her shoulder. She thought Sataumie tended her--all Shieldmaids were trained in field medicine--but when she cried out Sataumieís name, Alyx was there. She heard Spanish spoken and wondered if she had only dreamed that her friends were with her. Was she a prisoner?

Once, Kat knelt beside her, weeping. She looked more angry than sorrowful and Mara felt immense sympathy for her. She wanted to tell her cousin not to worry, that everything would be fine, but as she lifted her hand to Katís tear-streaked cheek, Kat disappeared.

The dragon was always nearby. It had not abandoned her to her torment; its shadow lurked at the edge of her sight. Its rumbling purr sounded like distant thunder. It flew through the night skies, a dark shape with wings that blotted the stars. Its long flexible talons, iron claws, scraped stone. Scales scraped stone as its wound its way through corridors. A wooden door splintered. It pressed its muzzle against barrels and creates. With a blast of its hot breath, sparks flew. She felt heat of its breath upon her--too hot now and she demanded cool water to soothe her scorched flesh.

Her whispering attendants took no notice of the huge creature. Did they not see it? Was the dragon visible only to her, or did those who nursed her accept that this remarkable beast belonged here at her side? Mara wondered if she ought to warn them of the dragonís indiscriminate appetite; it had feasted well at the battle, but a beast so large must surely hunger again before long. It seemed cruelly unjust that her friends and servants be placed in such danger unawares.

Then she woke. Her head was clear and the pain in her shoulder abated. She lay in a large bed canopied with gauzy mosquito nets in a strange, richly furnished room. Kat sat in a chair at her side.

"Did we win?" she asked.

Kat looked plainly relieved at this simple question. "Of course."

"Where is this?"

"The bedchamber of Don Miguel DíAndaluz, Teniente of Spainfort. We sent him to less well-appointed apartments for your sake, so you need not lie at hospital with the rest of the wounded. A victorious general deserves better." She smiled. "How do you feel?"

"Thirsty."

Kat filled a cup with water from a pitcher on a small table beside the bed and offered it to her. Mara took the cup in her left hand, surprised at how heavy it felt. Her fingers slipped uncertainly over the curved porcelain, as if they were unused to handling such a familiar object. She must be very weak.

"Spainfort," Mara looked about the chamber as she sipped. "How long have I slept?"

"Itís been five days since the battle." Kat took the empty cup. "Your wound is not so bad. The lung was not pierced, nor the bone." Mara tugged open the lacings of her nightshirt to bare her wounded shoulder; a thick pad of faintly yellow-stained dressing was bound over it by thin linen strips tied about her upper arm and across her chest and back. "There was some infection. Youíve been in a fever since we brought you here. The healer applied a poultice and it seems to have performed marvels."

"A Spanish healer?" asked Mara, thinking of the Spanish she had heard spoken during her illness.

Kat nodded. "She was the only one available. Don Miguel brought her in. We couldnít trust her, but we put her under threat of sword and I think she did her best for you. Weíve taken turns sitting up with you ourselves, Alyx most often, for she doesnít have so much to do as the rest of us.

"You couldnít have chosen a better left-arm ward, Mara. You must tell her so when she comes in, for I think she blames herself for losing you in the battle. She fought to draw them from you, you know, and tried to reach you `til she fell herself."

"Is she badly injured?"

"She took a blow on her shield-arm--but it is not broken. Her thigh was cut and her face, here-" Kat drew a finger along the edge of her chin. "Yet Sataumie says that when she found her, Alyx was still on her feet, wandering about in search of you. She would not rest `til you were found and brought to the field hospital."

"She deserves commendation," said Mara, touched by this show of loyalty, though it was no more than she expected of her companions. "What of Bel?" she asked.

"Bel is unharmed," Kat assured her. "She led the archers through the gate herself to have revenge on the Spanish bows. Sataumie is also well."

"And you?"

"Iím not injured, " Kat said quietly.

"Not a bruise!" Mara said with appreciation. "Tell me of the battle, how it ended."

"We met the knights at the rise at the western end of the dell," Kat began after a moment. "At the spot where the Spanish foot-soldiers first lay in wait for us. The pikers stood three squares in a row before the gate and the Spanish knights behind them. We swept wide around the pike squares from either side and charged the gate. The Spanish knights rode to block us, but our main force engaged them and they were forced to defend themselves rather than chase after my little band of six knights. It was nothing to breach the gate. It was a single wooden door exactly like the gate we entered the Shieldwall through. Only one rider could pass at a time. I went in first. Archers waited within. They fired on us as we came through the little door, but I couldnít think of retreat, not with the pikes at our backs. We couldnít go back and we couldnít ride around. So we advanced."

Mara chuckled at the familiar Kat-like tactic. "You rode through them?"

"I rode straight at the archers as fast as I could," Kat answered as if it were a sensible thing to do. "They werenít expecting that. Their arrows glanced off my armor and stuck in the mail so thick I felt like a hedgehog, but I didnít stop. My company rode after me, hooting and shouting for blood. `Twas terrifying to hear--I would not have been a Spaniard to see a band of Norman knights flying at me giving such fierce battle-cry."

"I heard them shout your name."

"The Spaniards mistook me for you, but our knights would have none of it. They must let it be known that I was the hero of the Shieldwall. Iím sure they meant no disrespect."

"Of course not," Mara answered. Such petty jealousy was beneath her. Katís actions had been marvelously brave and, so she inferred from this room at captured Spainfort, extremely successful. "The honor is yours, and fairly won. What happened after you rode into the Spanish archers?"

"We were among them," her cousin said, "The rest of our knights began to come through. They all screamed my name as if they fought for my sake. And then someone shouted `Clear the field!í just as Bel had when we first engaged the Spanish vanguard. It was Bel, of course. Frederik," Kat paused. "I learned later that Frederikís Guards had come to the aid of our soldiers fighting in the dell and made short work of the Spaniards. Even before the battle ended, Bel had gathered together all the archers who were able to fight and came up to the gate. You know how Bel can be when her bloodís up. She told me afterwards--she was furious that she had led her bowmen and maids into such a scurvy trap. She saw you fall from your horse and she was afraid you were killed. She wanted the Spanish archers to have a taste of Norman arrows. She meant to kill every one of them she caught in her sites. When she gave the cry to clear, I called the knights to stand away, and the arrows began to fly. The battle in the dell had ended and more of our soldiers pushed through the gate every minute. They knocked the door off its hinges and tore down the posts. They battered away at the stones to widen the way. God Alone knows what they did with the pikes. We cut the archers to ribbons."

Her eyes were glittering and there was a slight tremor to her voice as she recalled her first slaughter.

"We held council at the guardhouse," Kat continued. "There were a dozen reports that you had fallen. No one could say you were dead, but you were missing and we must go on. Frederik said I was the one to take command of the armies. The soldiers were for it. After the Shieldwall had broken, they were ready to follow me. It is-" Kat paused. "`Tis a fearful responsibility to have thousands of soldiers cry out for you to lead them--but you know that, Mara. I couldnít think what to do. I wasnít prepared to take your place, but I did my best, as I imagined you would have done. I decided we must move swiftly into the mountains before the enemy had time to regroup. We all agreed that you would wish us to carry on and seize the fortress."

"Yes," Mara agreed.

"I sent Sataumie with a squadron of Shieldmaids to search for you and Alyx, and we set up a field hospital for the wounded. Those of us who were fit for the march advanced up the mountain road. Sataumie rode up after us with the news that you were found alive and had been taken to the hospital. It heartened us all. We marched through the night and surrounded Spainfort at dawn. We demanded their surrender.

"The Teniente refused us, but that was expected. They were prepared for a siege. They had stores inside to last `til the autumn if necessary. There were cannons on the rampart below the curtain wall and more of their bloody archers. They need only wait `til reinforcements arrived."

"And how did you take them?" asked Mara, growing more proud of her cousin as Katís tale unfolded.

"It was not my doing," Kat replied. "Rather, Godís Grace. They held us at bay for two days. Our armies crowded the pass. We battered the gates to no avail. They are barred with iron poles. Our one hope of ending the siege was to break through the curtain wall. This fortress is built into a cleft in the mountainside above the pass--impregnable on three sides. The wall protected the forward side. Frederik sent men to fetch the catapults from Dennefort. Then it began to rain and the road was slick and muddy. Our supplies were slow in coming. It might be a full sennight or more before the catapults reached us. I was in despair. The troopsí spirits were still high from our first victory, but that would not last long if they were wet and miserable and on short rations for many more days. I prayed to Heaven for aid.

"Then there came an explosion like a thunderclap. The ground shook with it. The poor soldiers were howling in terror. Some threw themselves flat to the ground. I covered my ears against the noise. Black smoke blasted from Spainfort, and when it cleared there was a huge gap in the curtain wall and rubble piled beneath."

Mara laughed in surprise. "They brought down their own wall?"

Kat nodded.

"Was it the cannon?"

"I thought so. They had touched them off once or twice before this to frighten us. We stood amazed at our luck. `Twas very early in the morning and none of us were prepared to lead an assault, but this was too much like a divine grant to spurn the opportunity. I jumped up on my horse and rallied the troops. We took what arms were at hand and charged in over the ruined rampart. There was a fire in the yard below. It wasnít the cannon that had exploded, but that Devilís own black powder they use to fire them. They had stored the barrels in a little shack beneath the wall, and there had been some horrible accident. One of the towers had fallen through the armory roof."

Mara started upright at this description, despite a sudden twinge of pain. She had heard this before. "Just as Mage Peter saw it, Kat--The breached wall, the burning city, the fallen tower. He saw your triumph at Spainfort months ago! He knew that I would not be there."

The corners of Katís mouth twitched slightly. "Peterís visions."

"Do you refuse to credit the truth of these portents?" asked Mara.

"No, I believe they are true. `Tis pity the magician could not foresee something more important."

Mara did not know how to answer this last, bitter remark.

Kat went on as if she had not been interrupted. "The Spainfort guard was all in confusion when we came upon them. We captured them with ease. Don Miguel ordered his guards to be peaceable and he surrendered Spainfort to me. He is well-behaved for a hostage. You will find him a nobleman of honor--certainly, more courteous than I expected a Spaniard to be. He was quite generous with these rooms when you were brought up yesterday morning. He recommended the healer. And he brought you these." Maraís shield and Dentelyon sheathed lay against the wall behind her.

"I thought the sword was lost."

"It was retrieved when the Spanish cleared their dead away for burial. We recovered one of your daggers too. The other was not found, Iím afraid."

Mara was baffled. Despite her encouragement, Kat remained remote. Though she spoke freely, her tale of the battle sounded impersonal; it was the detailed account of a conscientious officer reporting to her superior, and not an adventure in which she played the hero. It might have happened to someone else. Was Kat so horrified at the bloodletting? Had the burden of command been too heavy? No, Mara knew her cousin; Kat, although gentle and unassuming, was the daughter of conquerors. They were not a fragile race; they did not break easily. Kat had the strength to endure whatever hardship she faced.

What was wrong then? Mara had never seen her cousin so cold. Kat was glad to see her recovered--Mara could not mistake that--but the affectionate, impulsive cousin she had known from childhood would not have restrained her relief so. That Kat would have thanked the Heavens aloud and thrown herself on the bed to take Mara in a hearty embrace. She would have grasped Maraís hands and wept. She would have told her tale, the good and the ill, as if it were a secret to share between them. They would have laughed together and made light of Katís difficulties at the siege of Spainfort. And, in turn, Mara would have spoken of the dragon--but how could she reveal that wondrous vision to this detached and ironic young woman?

She thought of the images she had seen in her delirium: the dragonís lithe and scaly body slipping through narrow corridors, its sharp claws scraping rock, its muzzle snuffling at the crates and barrels. She had imagined the dragon sought her in this Spanish fortress, but what if had been seeking something else? The Spanish storage room? The volatile cannon-powder? But that was impossible. The dragon was only a creature of vision. It could guide her, but it could not work miracles for her.

She and Kat had always understood each other perfectly. Grown together as sisters, born of the same ancient blood, their minds traveled the same paths and arrived at same destinations. Their opinions so often coincided that each knew what the other thought without the necessity of speech. That intimacy was missing now. For the first time, Mara did not know what Kat was thinking: all her playful feints, her laughing questions, her enthusiasm met with strange, unexpected, and disheartening responses. She could not reach Kat. The barrier remained between them.

Could Kat still be angry? Mara could not believe that, not after all that had passed since their quarrel. If Kat was not warm, neither was she defiant, nor sullen, nor spiteful. Kat had wept in outrage at her injury. Maraís memories of the past days were muddled, but that had been no illusion. Kat had tended her through her fever, in spite of her pressing duties as provisional general of the armies and commander of this captured fortress. She had been here when Mara awoke; indeed, she must have sat for hours, waiting. These were acts of devotion. Injury and illness had made her forget her anger.

But they had not made her forget Frederik. With this sudden realization, Maraís mind leapt on toward understanding. Yes, Kat had had time to regret her behavior before the battle, but she was not sorry for her love. Her worry for Mara had not displaced her determination to marry Frederik. And was she afraid too? Mara wondered. Their argument had been set aside by necessity during the fighting and through the days of her fever, but now that these emergencies had passed, they might easily find themselves in exactly the same situation they had been that night if both refused to yield. Surely, Kat recalled every harsh word Mara had spoken and she expected more of the same. Unwilling to retreat, she steeled herself for fresh battle and guarded her heart against further insult.

Well, Kat might be ready to continue the fight, but Mara was determined not to reenact that ugly scene. She disapproved Katís choice of Frederik. She thought her cousin foolish and obstinate and she was still heartsick at the shameless way Kat had abandoned all moral sense for passionís sake. But, in spite of this, she loved Kat dearly and this chilly reserve was more than she could bear. She wanted her old, familiar Kat restored to her. If they were ever to be reconciled, she must concede.

"Youíre not angry with me, are you, Cos?" she began meekly. "Very well, if it must be said, I shall say it: Marry Frederik if you will. I wish you all happiness. Iíll offer my blessing to you both if heís here." She struggled to sit up, but stopped suddenly at her cousinís expression. She had seen it before: Kat had looked so as she knelt beside her weeping. It had moved her to pity--that face stricken by inconceivable tragedy, heartbroken, tear-streaked but enraged. Her indomitable Kat, who had the strength to survive any disaster. Mara understood at last. Kat had wept, but not for her. "Oh, Kat. Frederik?"

Kat answered dispassionately, "Frederik is dead," and she rose abruptly and left the room.

Kathryn L. Ramage lives in Maryland with her cats, Austen and Lucia..

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