There was a scream, and then the loud roar of fire enveloping silken hangings, then a mounting crescendo of shouts of panic that spread and spread from one tent to another as the flames ran too, leaping from one silk standard to another, running up guy ropes and bursting through muslin doors. Then the horses were neighing in terror and men shouting to calm them, but the terror in their own voices made it worse, until the whole plain was alight with a thousand raging blazes, and the night swirled with smoke and rang with shouts and screams.
The little girl, starting up out of her bed in her fear, cried out in Spanish for her mother and screamed: "The Moors? Are the Moors coming for us?"
"Dear God, save us, they are firing the camp!" her nurse gasped. "Mother of God, they will rape me and spit you on their sickle blades."
"Mother!" cried the child, struggling from her bed. "Where is my mother?"
She dashed outside, her nightgown flapping at her legs, the hangings of her tent now alight and blazing up behind her in an inferno of panic. All the thousand, thousand tents in the camp were ablaze, sparks pouring up into the dark night sky like fiery fountains, blowing like a swarm of fireflies to carry the disaster onwards.
"Mother!" She screamed for help.
Out of the flames came two huge, dark horses, like great, mythical beasts moving as one, jet black against the brightness of the fire. High up, higher than one could dream, the child's mother bent down to speak to her daughter who was trembling, her head no higher than the horse's shoulder. "Stay with your nurse and be a good girl," the woman commanded, no trace of fear in her voice. "Your father and I have to ride out and show ourselves."
"Let me come with you! Mother! I shall be burned. Let me come! The Moors will get me!" The little girl reached her arms up to her mother.
The firelight glinted weirdly off the mother's breastplate, off the embossed greaves of her legs, as if she were a metal woman, a woman of silver and gilt, as she leaned forwards to command. "If the men don't see me, then they will desert," she said sternly. "You don't want that."
"I don't care!" the child wailed in her panic. "I don't care about anything but you! Lift me up!"
"The army comes first," the woman mounted high on the black horse ruled. "I have to ride out."
She turned her horse's head from her panic-stricken daughter. "I will come back for you," she said over her shoulder. "Wait there. I have to do this now."
Helpless, the child watched her mother and father ride away. "Madre!" she whimpered. "Madre! Please!" but the woman did not turn.
"We will be burned alive!" Madilla, her servant, screamed behind her. "Run! Run and hide!"
"You can be quiet." The child rounded on her with sudden angry spite. "If I, the Princess of Wales herself, can be left in a burning campsite, then you, who are nothing but a Morisco anyway, can certainly endure it."
She watched the two horses go to and fro among the burning tents. Everywhere they went the screams were stilled and some discipline returned to the terrified camp. The men formed lines, passing buckets all the way to the irrigation channel, coming out of terror back into order. Desperately, their general ran among his men, beating them with the side of his sword into a scratch battalion from those who had been fleeing only a moment before, and arrayed them in defense formation on the plain, in case the Moors had seen the pillar of fire from their dark battlements and sallied out to attack and catch the camp in chaos. But no Moors came that night: they stayed behind the high walls of their castle and wondered what fresh devilry the mad Christians were creating in the darkness, too fearful to come out to the inferno that the Christians had made, suspecting that it must be some infidel trap.
Copyright © 2005 by Philippa Gregory Limited. Reproduced by permission of Simon & Schuster Publishing.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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