It was well-known to her group that Mariqah didn’t do anything without a reason. It was well-known to Tostig also. But he was still baffled by the way she sat around a camp-fire with all the ex-prisoners and encouraged them to sing at the top of their voices, and clap and dance and stamp their feet to their hearts’ content. They were still on Brimonian land, and the Brimonian Watch was still looking for them… They shouldn’t be so free and out in the open. They should be hiding, slinking around in the dark, not wasting the effort they had made to escape.
Clearly, Mariqah didn’t think so.
In her good humour, Mariqah caught his eye. Her face became serious. Tostig panicked.
Come, she told him, You don’t need to hide.
He hesitated, but stepped out of the bushes he was hiding in.
There was abrupt silence as all stared at him. They looked like they were going to pummel him into the ground – he had captured and delivered them all to the Witch-Queen after all – but they paused and looked back at Mariqah.
He has my protection, he heard her say to them, He is not to be harmed. You’d’ve done the same in his position.
The ex-prisoners regarded her and then sat back down and continued the way they had been before – happy and care-free. The smell of meat and good wine wafted through the air. Mariqah nodded at Tostig and patted the seat next to her.
Mariqah looked different. She was wearing a dark vest, and a sleeveless leather jacket. She had the hood up. She also wore loose dark trousers and heavy boots. There was a thin sword at her side and a few of a shorter, thicker variety slung over her back, kept on brown sheathes and grey belts. Mariqah looked very… herself. There wasn’t any other way to describe it. To Tostig, military soldiering required uniform and rigid discipline, a bold outward image that put fear and pride into the people it represented. Freelance killing required but a strict caution, blending in with a people and cleaning your tracks as you walked. Mariqah defied and agreed with both.
She was something, entirely, else.
Imposing, but friendly. Intimidating, but considerate. Rough, but just.
Neither friend nor foe.
Prepared to look stupid in order to get a job done – and a job done cunningly well.
As Tostig sat down, she handed him a notepad with the words:
What luck that I find a tailor and a cordwainer among our detainees, eh?
He raised a brow at her and then she opened her empty mouth and he understood.
“That’s why you haven’t been saying much?” he asked.
She slapped him, hard, across the face. Mariqah took back her notebook and flicked through the pages, before landing on:
No (sarcasm) – it read.
Despite himself, Tostig laughed, rubbing the side of his face, “Hard that one pre-written, eh?”
She laughed with him.
“Trying not to overuse magic, I take it?”
She nodded and wrote, Magic can be bad for someone like me. I’m too young to get corrupted.
Tostig paused, looking around, “What are you doing? All this pandemonium will draw attention to you.”
Mariqah raised a finger for pause and scribbled, I just flattened out an arena. If Lord Grumm has any kind of intelligence, this pandemonium should keep him away.
“You’re relying on your reputation and confidence to save you?”
Do you doubt them? Mariqah wrote, raising a brow.
“I’d be an idiot to. Lord Grumm might not be as smart, though.”
Mariqah shrugged, That’s his problem. He wants an early death – I’m more than willing to hand it to him.
“So, you want to ask me about Mary?”
You’re still standing, so I’m unconcerned. A little ill-at-ease, but not too worried.
“Why have you invited me here then?”
Mariqah looked deep into his eyes and touched his left shoulder. He flinched at her touch.
I know a cure for your… disease, she wrote.
Tostig stared at her, “You… Really?”
Mariqah nodded, You won’t like it, though.
She brought the notepad in front of her and jotted down a few words. She tore out the page, folded it, and handed it to Tostig.
He was about to read it, but she put a hand on his arm.
Only read it if you think you can manage a huge sacrifice, she thought.
There’s a reason why she put the mark up here, she pointed to his shoulder, rather than here, she pointed to his wrist.
Mariqah got up and left him there with the folded page. She strode her way to the small cab where a few ex-prisoners were resting. She found one of the girls that had danced with her and smiled. The girl glowered at her.
“You made me pass out,” she said sourly.
Mariqah nodded and flicked through her book and showed her a page that said, Sorry.
“Right,” the girl rolled her eyes and turned away.
Mariqah glared at her and turned her back around before scribbling a fresh note, You’re alive, aren’t you?
“You didn’t have to make me pass out.”
Yes, actually, I did. It takes a lot of magic to knock out a big crowd.
“You stole my magic?”
Only as much as you’d absorbed from the witch.
“Well, that’s a comfort!”
Oh, shut up. I need you to do something for me.
“You? You’re asking me for favours? After what you did?”
I saved your life, girl. Be grateful.
The girl furrowed her brows, scowling, “What do you want?”
They told me that you’re a witch. You are, right? The Witch-Queen put a regeneration spell on me. Get rid of it, Mariqah paused and added as an afterthought, please.
The girl paused, “That’s a hard thing to remove…” she scratched her head and chewed on her nails, “Theoretically, I should be able to do it, but… I’m not that powerful, like. Not half as powerful as the Witch-Queen.”
Nonetheless, Mariqah was stripping off her jacket and vest. She showed the girl the large, black marking on her back. It was a large circle, intersected by four straight lines – Two stemming from her shoulders and ending at her hips, one coming down from her neck and trailing down her spine, and the final cutting through the centre on a horizontal. Another, smaller circle joined were the four lines met.
The mark looked like the steering-wheel on a ship.
The girl examined it, but hesitated, “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Mariqah raised her hands and looked at the girl questioningly.
The girl sighed, “I just… I can’t. All the things the Witch-Queen did to you… well, obviously they could kill you. The spell is keeping you together. I can remove the spell, but… you’d just… sort of… well…”
Mariqah huffed impatiently, “Wha’?”
“You’d fall apart. And die, presumably. I know of some people who’d be able to remove the spell and keep you together, but I am not one of those people.”
Mariqah put her hands to her head and looked around, irritated, then picked up her book and pen.
Corruption by magic? she wrote.
“I just suppose you’ll have to manage without getting hurt. Stay out of trouble and out of battle,” said the girl.
Mariqah snorted and wrote, You remember who you’re talking to?
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
Mariqah pouted, sighing, but nodded and pulled her clothes back on.
“A ship, Mariqah!” she heard Ead call, “A ship is coming!”