VICTORY AND CAPTURE
Marja clutched her small jewelled dagger with white knuckled fingers. She crouched in the corner, pressed tightly behind the door of the privy, willing herself invisible. The rough wood at her back pricked her through the light linen of her gown, and the muscles in her legs threatened to cramp from holding herself rigid. Her heart raced with terror. She knew if they found her she was dead, or even worse. She had heard what soldiers did to women, especially young, comely ones. Her beauty would not serve her now, nor would her rank as daughter of the ruling house. She gripped the dagger tighter. They will not take me. I will not suffer that. I cannot.
She suppressed the impulse to gag from the reek of burnt buildings and charred flesh. Even the usual stench of the privy was preferable to this. She tried in vain to blink away the smoke that filled every space and burned her eyes. Her nose tickled, and she fought the urge to sneeze or cough. Any noise might give her away.
Mercifully, she no longer heard the screams of the women and children. The last span or so had gone quiet except for the muffled sounds of men putting out fires. She could make out only the occasional shouted order from a soldier. She hoped to Earth that meant it was over. Perhaps she would escape after all…if she could stay hidden until dark. She knew a back way out but could not safely get to it. They might see her crossing the hall if she left her hiding place now. Too many enemy soldiers still moved about. Keep still. Do not give yourself away. Wait, she repeated to herself, over and over, like a hypnotic chant.
Marja’s body jerked in a spasmodic shudder as she recalled again the chaos that had wakened her at dawn. The Bargian army was well trained and well armed. They had successfully taken her father’s army by surprise, by hiding in the forest only half a day’s ride away and slipping close under cover of darkness. Had her father not scorned the advice of his advisors to guard the city more vigilantly, his people might not now be paying the price of his madness. The thought filled Marja with a moment of fury. Why had he not listened?
Marja wondered how Cataniast’s informants had convinced him that the rumours of a planned invasion were false. Somehow they had persuaded the suspicious autocrat that the Bargians wanted to finish spring planting before coming to take Catania. Who had managed this clever misdirection? Had the Bargians bought off her father’s informants?
Marja knew that many in Catania would be pleased to see the House of Cataniast fall. A pall of fear, suspicion, and secrecy had hung over his court for years. She had watched many merchants and shop keepers flee Catania, and she could not blame them. Some had gone to Bargia, the enemy who now bore responsibility for their defeat.
Only spans earlier, a servant had come running to Marja, crying, “Flee, my Lady. We must go now!” Marja had refused. At the girl’s tearful request for permission to go, Marja had given it freely. She saw no purpose in keeping the terrified maid with her.
How could things have come to this so quickly? She had heard the North Gate fall before midday. The sounds of clashing swords, the shouting of soldiers, and the cries of men dying had reached her even where she hid deep within the castle.
Marja knew that her father had fought at the North Gate, and had heard from the frantic shouts of the retreating men, that he had been slain. After that the invaders soon breached the East and South Gates and overran the city. Those who had not been killed had fled. Now she waited alone for the death that surely awaited her.
When she could remain still no longer, Marja decided to venture into the main hall. If she could make her way to the hidden passage across the balcony it could lead her to freedom. She had just emerged from her hiding place when she heard the trudge of boots on stone and froze again.
“Looks clear. Klast, you take that side and I will check this one.”
The words drifted up to where Marja stood rooted to the floor. Heart pounding, she found her feet and quickly shrank back into her corner. Here they come, she thought. I waited too long.
Marja made herself as small as she could as she listened to the man climb the stairs and check the room beside hers. Then his steps became louder as he entered her chamber. She held her breath as the steps went silent for a moment, then resumed in the direction of her privy. Her eyes went to the dagger still clenched in white knuckled fingers. She could not have pried her hand open even if she had wanted to. Her fingers seemed welded shut. Do I have the courage to do it? I must! I will not let them use me. I cannot.
Suddenly, the door swung out and he stood before her.