Khadir was a man that had always terrified Mary.
He was old, some five or six years older that Mariqah, and Mary had seen him rarely within the fortress at Normandy – but, even in retirement, Khadir ibn Haytham Al-Assadi was Mariqah’s most trusted lieutenant in all her years as a mercenary, and she loved the lion-faced man as she would a close and dear brother.
If only he wasn’t so very, very terrifying, thought Mary as she watched him walk the length of the beach towards the hospice where she and Mariqah were waiting for him.
The other mercenaries (some five-hundred humans in total) stayed back, unloading Ethelbald’s newly-acquired man-o’-war The Mary and his favoured brig Evenstar.
Khadir was an enormous man, more a giant than a human-being, who had been raised with his several siblings in the middle of a Syrian desert as a Bedouin. His face was a permanent assault on the sight – though he wasn’t ugly as such, one would think twice about offending Khadir even if he was in a good mood. His hair – now laced with white – was tied in braids and his beard was well-kept.
He smiled at Mariqah when he saw her (a look that was so out of place, Mary had to bite down on her tongue so that she didn’t mention it), “I was wondering when you’d come knocking again,” he had a very strong Arab accent – mispronouncing p’s as b’s.
Well, you know me, brother. I’m nothing if not a strong irritant to you, Mariqah shrugged and embraced him against his will.
“Why are you doing that?” said Khadir, holding his head.
Alas, I’ve lost my tongue.
Khadir paused, frowning, “I told you–”
Don’t you start on your ‘I told you so’ rant, mister, Mariqah laughed, I may be speaking through my mind, but my attention span will always be too short for that.
Khadir sighed and rolled his eyes, “Whoever it is that did this, they did it to torture me.”
About that… I’ll need to discuss it at length with you, Khadir. But you should probably meet with my elvish lot first, Mariqah smiled, You won’t like them.
“You seem to find pleasure in that, Mariqah.”
Nothing is more pleasing than watching you try and fail to instruct a very… unlikely bunch, Mariqah nudged Mary, Why haven’t you said hi?
Khadir regarded Mary impassively, folding his arms.
“Um…” Mary suddenly felt very small, “Hello… sir?”
Khadir laughed, “You always said ‘they grow up too fast’, Mariqah! What is this shivering little child I see then?”
Mary fixed a glare at Khadir, but it vanished as soon as he looked at her again.
Mariqah shook her head, You’re pretty scary, Khadir, to look at.
“My wife would disagree.”
Your wife is scary to look at too. There’s a reason why I introduced you to her, you know.
Khadir glowered at Mariqah. Mary wondered if Khadir had ever raised a finger to Mariqah. He looked like he would now.
“Do not talk like that,” said Khadir.
Sorry, I forgot banter doesn’t sit well with you.
“That wasn’t harmless banter, that was plain offensive.”
Was it? I’m just being honest, Khadir. Not everyone can judge a book by its cover, but in the case of you and Ramla – you’re a match made in a very big, scary Heaven.
Khadir put a hand to his forehead, “I’ve just arrived and already I’ve had enough of you. Can we please get to business?”
Oh, please. There’s plenty of me to spare! I’ve missed you, brother, and I intend to get enough words in so that I’ll be a presence in all your waking days until you see me again–
“God so help me through that…”
–But since you’re dying to know details, come. We’ve much to discuss.
Khadir walked into the hospice. Mariqah turned to Mary and raised a brow.
Mary shrugged, “You know Uncle Khadir’s always creeped me out,” she said, simply.
Have any plans for today?
“Couldn’t I just… hang out with you?”
“Can’t he wait?”
Mariqah tipped her head to a side.
Mary sighed, “Fine. I’ll go see if Matthew’s come.”
Don’t be around that boy too long. He smells bad and drinks too much, Mariqah turned on her heel and went to find Khadir.
As soon as Mariqah had gone out of sight, Mary went into the hospice – stalking after her aunt. She watched from corners and kept her distance. As soon as Mariqah entered the room where she was supposed to meet Khadir, Mary crouched by the door, looking through the keyhole (and hoping for all Heaven’s sake, that Mariqah couldn’t sense her). The room was bare, with only two chairs – on which Ead and Ethelbald were seated – and a table. Khadir stood at the table and examined whatever was placed on it. Mary assumed it was a map. She withdrew for a moment, as they all introduced each other – and looked around the corridor. It was empty. Hopefully, it would stay that way. She sighed and looked through the hole once more, straining to hear the conversation.
“So, why did you send for five-hundred mercenaries and myself to come into the Grey Havens,” said Khadir, “while you left your new lieutenant, Irwin, standing watch at the Gateway with four-hundred additional soldiers?”
First, tell me that you alerted Myra to my activities, said Mariqah, placing her hands on the table.
“I have,” said Khadir.
And what has Her Majesty told her husband, Emperor Seth?
“I didn’t receive a detailed reply. Only, Myra said that he’ll send reinforcements if they’re absolutely necessary.”
That’s good enough for me, knowing Seth, Mariqah shifted. Mary could see the grim, uncomfortable look on her face, It’s been eighteen years since we killed Richard at Masyaf, Khadir. Eighteen years of relative peace in our anarchy.
Khadir waited for her to continue patiently.
It’s also been eighteen years since we let his consort run away. I couldn’t imagine her running away from Earth entirely, to come here.
Khadir straightened, “FeCamp is here?”
Ethelbald nodded and straightened, “And she’s quite powerful too. She’s taken o’er a small kingdom. We spoke wi’ an elf that had been possessed by her until recently. She’s allied wi’ Lady Flaed and Lord Grumm – for what reason, we’re not yet sure – but Flaed had Gunnhild killed for treason – p’raps in a bid t’show that she was goin’ t’war wi’ Lady Mercia and Greenloch. Grumm has a substantial grudge against our Mariqah, but no such feelin’ lies wi’ Flaed concernin’ our mercenary… This elf, he’d captured Mariqah for Britney and she were tortured by the Witch in her prisons for a while. That’s… all we know.”
Khadir paused and looked at Mariqah, “I told you we should have hunted that bitch down after Richard’s fall,” he said bitterly, a scowl in his voice, “So… that’s all you know. But what is it you suspect?”
Mariqah regarded Khadir, I suspect nothing at present, Khadir.
“Your actions speak otherwise.”
My actions are merely precautions, should the lot seek to do the unthinkable. But, hopefully, they aren’t that stupid. Nonetheless, if we rid ourselves of the Witch-Queen of Skye, we’ll have much less to worry about.
“You suspect that there planning an assault on Earth?” asked Khadir.
It’s a little far-fetched, but yes.
“So your plan is…?”
Ead sat forward, “We lay siege on Skye,” he pointed at something on the table, “We kill that Witch-Queen and be rid of her. I and all those in my profession know every crag and every crevice of that land. We’ll be able to get in.”
…What about the remaining prisoners? Not all of us were transported to Brimone.
“They can be spared… I suppose. We’ll send a rescue party in.”
No… Mariqah tapped a finger to her chin, sucking in her cheeks, I have an idea, but we’ll discuss that in a minute. Ethelbald, you’ve agreed to supply us and the Guild with sufficient weaponry and fodder. I’m not a fan of horses in battle, but it’ll be a long journey on foot. If we can get horses, there’ll be one less problem to worry about. Khadir, I need you to discern which of our elvish volunteers are capable as soldiers, and which can go around doing medicines and ammo rounds, and those who are just simply unfit. Ead… Mariqah paused and laid out another sheet of paper on the table, Mark all the entrances – known and unknown to Britney – into Skye. Any other concerns?
“Britney’s whelp,” grunted Khadir, “What are you going to do about her?”
What are you talking about, Khadir?
“You know full well what I’m talking about. That’s a big flaw, right there.”
Mary’s loyalties lie with me.
“There’s no way you can know that. And… loyalty to blood can go far. You and I both know that. And well.”
Mary panicked as she heard Mariqah approach the door. She turned tail and ran, finding a familiar stinging sensation burning her eyes, as her aunt called after her…