“Oh, will you please shut up!” said Tostig for the millionth time.
Mary was annoying. Very, very annoying.
They’d sold on Gunnhild’s land to a quiet little Greenlochite. Mary had taken the name Edith Longstride (Tostig had made mention that her surname was stupid), and she’d sold the land under that name, telling the man that she was Gunnhild’s “second cousin, twice removed”. The man had been plenty confused, but he didn’t press for answers and took the land happily. Tostig, begrudgingly, took only half the sum of gold coins while Mary kept the rest for ‘emergencies’.
They’d moved out of Greenloch quickly, to avoid the suspicion of the delirious Lady Mercia (who was hunting for Mariqah up and down her land) and had traversed to the neighbouring rival kingdom of Battersea. Lady Flaed, apparently, was still waiting for Mariqah.
Though there was a lot of land, Mary noticed that majority of it was submerged in water. It was beautiful – like an elvish Venice. The afternoon sun was at its peak, caressing the shimmering water with warm rays of light. Houses were scarcely spaced, standing on tall, sturdy stilts. People watched from their doors and windows as boats traversed on the watery main-road. Tostig and Mary had purchased a boat, but only he was doing the rowing. Mary was too busy being annoying.
“Seriously? You can’t, like, command animals or ride dragons and stuff?” Mary asked.
Tostig rowed on, regretting (not for the first time) his decision in accompanying Mary, “No. Dragons are long extinct. And we’re all very glad they are. Can humans command a horde of trees?”
“See,” said Mary, “I thought elves could do that. Ents and such.”
“Ents? What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
“You know…” Mary hesitated, sensing (finally) Tostig’s irritation, “tree-shepherds…”
Tostig burst out laughing, throwing aside the oars and holding his side – as if this was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard, “The last thing that needs shepherding, Mary,” he said, calming down and taking up the oars once more, “is a tree. They don’t go anywhere.”
“What about orcs?”
“What are those? Warrior flowers?”
“No, they’re… elves, but, like, resurrected by a necromancer, or something.”
“Well, yes. I think.”
“Seriously, stop it. It’s becoming offensive now.”
“Sorry… It’s just…” Mary paused, “I’ve paid a lot of attention to what elves are like in the human world, and… they’re different.”
“I didn’t know there were elves in the Earth-realm.”
“They’re aren’t… Just fictional ones. Like Legolas.”
Tostig scoffed, “Who?”
Mary scowled, “Never mind.”
“That’s the most stupid name I’ve ever heard.”
“Oh, shut up, Tostig.”
“The only human-forged fictional elves I’ve heard of belongs to some old man in red who lives in your North Pole, or something.”
“Something like that. Father Chris.”
“It’s Father Christmas. He doesn’t really exist. Or so, my aunt tells me.”
“Oh,” said Tostig, rolling his eyes, “Anyway, about Battersea. I can’t go into the palace.”
“Sure you can.”
“Fine. I won’t go into the palace.”
“But nobody knows you. You’ll be fine. Just make up a name.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t take risks like that. Somebody might recognise me, and then where would I be?”
Mary paused, “Dead?”
Tostig glowered at her, “Thank you for stating the obvious.”
“But it’s hardly a problem for you, Tostig. Your smart, right? You could just cover up for a bit and then take the person who recognised you, kill him, and dump him in one of these lakes or streams or rivers or whatever else Battersea has.”
“And here I thought I was the one with loose morals,” he replied, “I don’t kill people for free. Not if I can help it.”
“Just, come on,” said Mary, “I have to see Lady Flaed.”
“Why would you need to see her? And why would I have to come with you?”
“Because she might know who would want my aunt imprisoned. And you’re accompanying me, so it’s only right you should be there.”
“I’m more than happy to sit outside while you waste your time. I know who’s holding your aunt.”
“And that irritates me to no end, Tostig! You could just tell me, and we could have avoided all of this.”
“You seem to be under the impression that I can tell you.”
“You can talk perfectly fine, Tostig! Is robbing me of my aunt really justifiable when it comes to your ‘business’? I wouldn’t even tell anyone!”
Tostig muttered something inaudible and rowed on.
“Really? You’re not going to respond to that?”
Tostig scowled at her and didn’t say anything.
“Fine,” said Mary, pouting, “then it’s clear that a change in subject is due. How many kingdoms are there around here?”
“Too many,” said Tostig, visibly relaxing, “There are four major kingdoms, and innumerable scattered ones. Greenloch, Battersea, Eversby and Brimone are the major kingdoms.”
“So…” Mary said, “Lady Mercia rules Greenloch. Lady Flaed rules Battersea. What about the other two?”
Tostig shook his head, “Lady Flaed and Lord Baldwin rule Battersea. Lord Baldwin governs exclusively domestic affairs though, so Flaed is more than responsible for all the wars that they fall into. There was a Lord of Greenloch too, but I killed him some years ago. Eversby is ruled by Lord Ragnarr and Lady Etain. Brimone is ruled solely by Lord Grumm. They’re all in a constant state of war, alliances, and betrayal. I suppose that’s what happens when you have four different superpowers. They all want domination.”
Mary waited for Tostig to look up, “Which one do you belong to?”
Tostig paused, sucking in his cheeks, “None of those. I come from a much smaller kingdom called, Skye.”
“No. Sky-e. Double syllable.”
“Who governs it?”
Tostig paused again, uneasiness settling on his face, “It was governed by a useless weed called Ethelred up until recently. Then there was revolt and it now has a new ruler. Some say she’s a half-elf. Others say she’s entirely human. But most don’t know.”
“Yes,” Tostig hesitated, “they call her the Witch-Queen.”