Watching someone scream and cry is never a pleasant sight.
It’s expected from a baby.
It’s understandable from a child.
It’s excusable from a hormonal teenager.
It’s perhaps even… foreseeable for a fully-grown woman.
But when a grown man screams and cries – one never forgets it.
Mary would never forget it.
The howling and screaming and writhing agony that she had witnessed several nights before was seared into her mind and would cower in the corner of her memory forever – blotting out the images of the hot, red blade; the blistering cauterised wound and the impassive resolve on her aunt’s face. Mary hadn’t seen Mariqah for nearly fifteen days – the full length of her spirit-guard.
She had been nursing Tostig.
Mariqah stepped out of the room for a moment and smiled a little as Mary approached.
How have you been? she asked her niece.
Mariqah had a saucer of milk in her hands and laid it down by the door. Several stray cats had taken up residence in the hospice that Tostig was resting in. It had largely been through the strange increase of milk donations left outside certain doors. The mice and rats had all mysteriously disappeared also. The trend was increasing in and around the Guild, the vermin population being frightened into a decline.
A tomcat appeared at the other end of the corridor and stroked its whiskers before daintily making its way to the saucer. Mariqah stroked its head and itched behind its ears as it lapped at the milk.
“Kind of freaked-out by… you know,” Mary said. Her aunt nodded grimly, “But alright otherwise.”
Tostig will appreciate a visit from you, Mariqah told her, He’s been in and out of a doze for a while now… but a good sleeping pattern seems to be forming. I think he’ll be good in a few weeks time.
“Why…? Why did you do that? Why had he agreed to it?”
Mariqah paused, straightening, Did you ever wonder why he wouldn’t tell you about my whereabouts?
“No… not really. He always said it was bad for business.”
Consider the idea that he simply couldn’t tell you, Mary.
Mary raised a brow, but Mariqah was already walking back into the room.
A few other cats came up to the saucer, and Mary sat against a wall and stroked one idly.
“Mind if I join you?”
Mary looked up and saw the untrustworthy face that hung about Mariqah a lot, of late – Ead. He was a short elf, narrow and a little starved of sunlight. Gaunt, was the word. Ead was exceedingly gaunt – with his lank, dark hair and his darting blue eyes. His face was lined with the kind of grime that could never be washed away.
Mary nodded and Ead sat down next to her, “Your aunt’s on a war path,” he said.
“Always has been, for as long as I’ve known her,” mumbled Mary.
“What do you have to do, eh?” he replied, “What has to happen to you and what do you have to do – to become so hateful and yet so caring? I watched that woman suffer in prison. I shared that cell with her. She would cry. She would howl. She would curse. Bleed and writhe and scream: ‘Why me?’. But then it would be over and she’d smile. She’d laugh and say ‘Ah! Ead, how’re ye, laddie?’ – and I would look at her as if she was about to murder me with nothing but her fingernails…”
Mary snorted a laugh, “I don’t know her past, inside-out – but my aunt is near sixty years old. I think fifty-eight, but she’s probably lost count.”
“Sixty? You’re aunt is… old.”
Mary smiled, “She doesn’t look it, does she? But every time I ask her about it, she’d say: Strangeness does you curses and blessing alike, Mary. I never knew what that meant. I guess I understand it… a little bit, now. That Witch-Queen… she made her young again. I don’t know if my aunt feels it on the inside, though. Sometimes she’ll say something and look so old – like she could just die then and there, out of fatigue, weariness and terrible memories. But then something else will happen and it’s as if Time turns itself back, and she’d be young and spritely again.”
“Mmm, Mariqah’s seen too much. She’s long gone past her days of naivety… if she ever was an idiot.”
Mary scoffed, “My aunt assures me she was, once.”
“Well, I think everybody short of a moron would.”
Mary laughed but heard voices, “Tostig’s up,” she said, going to the door. She paused, her hand hesitating above the doorknob.
Sobbing. Tostig was sobbing.
Mary bent down and looked through the keyhole.
“What are you doing?” said Ead, disapprovingly.
“Shh!” said Mary.
Tostig was lying in bed, looking at his left side and probing the stump where once an arm had been. He yelped, trying to keep his cries in, clamping his hand over his mouth. Mariqah came into view and sat on the three-legged stool in front of his bed – dabbing a rag in warm water and placing it gently on his forehead. Mary couldn’t see her face, but she knew Mariqah was crying for him too. She helped him sit up and Tostig gasped sharply as his lacking shoulder hit the bedpost.
Mariqah embraced him and stroked the back of his head, All you’ve ever had is yourself, Tostig, Mary heard her tell him, There’s no shame in self-pity for you.
“You… You don’t need to do that,” said Tostig, sniffing.
I lost my tongue a while back. I would have killed a man for a hug when that happened, Mariqah pulled away, but if you don’t want, I’m not going to press. I’ll go get you some food, yes?
“Food…” Tostig nodded slowly, “I’d like some food, yes. Fruit, please?”
Tostig looked away, “I don’t know what I’m blubbering about,” he said, loudly, “I’m not cursed anymore by that damn Witch! I should be happy!”
The heart wants what the heart wants. And if the heart wants to cry, because it no longer possesses a left arm, I wouldn’t blame it.
Tostig nodded, but didn’t say anything. He rubbed his eyes with his hand.
Mary’s here to see you, by the way. If you want to see her?
“I wouldn’t mind company. Maybe I need it.”
By the way, Mariqah drew her sword and Tostig visibly flinched at seeing it. She pulled a small blue diamond out of the hilt and tossed the stone to him. It landed in his lap, Thank you for looking out for Mary. Break the stone. Your oath has been kept and your words hold great value to me.
“It…” Tostig held the stone between forefinger and thumb, crushing it easily, “It was no trouble.”
Mary pulled away from the door quickly and tripped over a cat as her aunt made for the door. There were some angry yelps from the disrupted felines and Ead laughed as they all leapt on Mary.
The door opened and Mariqah raised her brows.
Eavesdropping, Mary? she folded her arms
Mary gave her a sheepish grin, “Um… kind of?”
Mariqah shook her head, Tostig would like to see you. He doesn’t like cats, so give yourself a pat down… And I think the one on your head may have pissed on you.
Mary scowled as her aunt nodded a greeting at Ead and walked off. She pulled the cats off of her person and got up, brushing off the fur and shivering in revulsion at the sharp stench of urine. It would have to be dealt with later, though. She had come to see Tostig and she was going to – smelling fresh or not.
Tostig looked up as she entered, “Hi,” she said simply.
“Goodness, you stink,” Tostig frowned.
Mary scowled, “Stupid cats,” she muttered, “Anyway, how are you feeling?”
“In a word: Miserable,” he sagged a little.
“Well, that much was obvious,” Mary sat down on the stool, “I… I didn’t know you were cursed, though.”
“Nobody knew. Nobody was meant to know, either. It… hurt me, every time I even thought about it too much. Mariqah must have seen the mark when I’d captured her,” Tostig held his left shoulder, “I’m glad it’s gone but…”
Mary nodded, “I’m sorry, about…”
“How can you be sorry? You’ve no idea what this… any of this is,” said Tostig, “It’s not your fault. But about… the person who wanted your aunt. It was the Witch-Queen of Skye. Britney FeCamp is her real name. She must be related to you in some way, as far as human surnames go?”
So it was true. Mariqah had been tortured by Mary’s mother.
Mary nodded, grimly, “She… she’s my mother.”
Tostig looked surprised, “You found out then?”
“Ethelbald mentioned that the Witch-Queen of Skye was Britney FeCamp, but I wasn’t sure that she was the one who’d taken Aunt Mariqah… Thank you, though, for clearing that up for me.”
“Are you going to talk to your aunt about this?”
“I think she might already know.”
“Of course she knows, Mary, but…”
“No, Tostig,” said Mary, “I’m not going to talk about this. At least… not now.”
“Mary, your aunt is… a vengeful woman.”
“I know that.”
“I think you should talk to her.”
“I think you should stay out of it.”
Tostig pouted, “Fine. Whatever you want.”
Mariqah walked in with a platter of fruit, Everything alright in here?
Tostig nodded. Mary didn’t say anything.
Mary looked up at her aunt, a panic spreading through her, “Yeah?”
Go take a wash. You stink.
Mary glowered and her aunt laughed at her reaction.
Why so grim, people? The worst has passed. I’ve called Khadir, by the way.
“Uncle Khadir is coming?” Mary’s eyes widened.
Yes, Mariqah put down the platter next to Tostig, Is that a– Hey!
Tostig’s eyes glowed white as he placed a hand on Mariqah’s chest. A light spread through his limb and glowed on Mariqah for a moment before fading.
What the hell? Mariqah glared at him and pushed him away, I know I broke your curse, but that was largely ungentlemanly of you!
“Your spirit-guard is spent,” said Tostig, “My Ide just returned to me.”
“Ide?” asked Mary.
“It’s what guards us elves from corruption by magic,” explained Tostig, before turning back to Mariqah, “You’ll need it more than me now, so I’ve given it to you. It will protect you and I’m yours to command until you’ve done with it. But I fear the… implications of its return to me.”
What do you mean, Tostig?
“When an elf is cursed, his Ide is taken forcefully by the one who curses him. And it doesn’t just return to him simply because the curse is broken. Which means the Witch-Queen has either died – which I doubt – or…”
Mariqah regarded Tostig, …Or?
“She’s cursed someone else.”