The night was cold, the sky – a piece of black velvet punctured to allow the white constellations shine down on Earth.
The clash of swords rang around the turrets atop a fortress in Normandy – the silhouettes of two women like shadows dancing in the moonlight. The steady, rhythmic ringing was punctuated by the shouts of a young woman and the grunts of a much older one. The young woman lashed out viciously from the left, but the older woman caught the blow almost lazily and the swing went wide. The younger woman panted and raised a hand, wanting a pause.
“Getting tired, Mary?” asked the older woman, smiling.
“A little bit, Aunt,” the younger woman replied and sat down on the cold stone ground, throwing the sword away and then collapsing, her red hair spreading out across the floor. Her brown eyes rolled up and she laughed in exhaustion, her full lips crinkling her pale skin.
“There’s no need to be a drama queen about it,” muttered Mary’s aunt. She was a very old woman who looked and acted like a very young one. She had dark hair that was beginning to grey – but only ever so slightly. The only wrinkles in her face were around her mouth, from laughing so much at just about anything. There was a thin white scar on her bottom lip – the story of which Mary had not yet been told. Mary’s aunt stood straight, despite her age, and she liked carry a heavy sword in her belt. She was all but in love with that sword, and called it the Damascus.
Mary giggled and yawned, “Can I go to bed now?”
Mary’s aunt rolled her eyes and leaned against the wall, “You’re not a little girl anymore, Mary.”
Mary groaned and covered her face with her arm, “I’ve heard this lecture before. It’s a long, boring one.”
“Sometimes I really wish I had allowed your Uncle Darim to put you into a single-sex boarding school – where they learn table manners and wear pretty dresses.”
“Well, you didn’t – so that sucks for you.”
Mary’s aunt turned her head to a side, “Are you still mad at me, Mary?”
Mary sat up a little and said, “I… I wasn’t mad at you, Aunt Mariqah, I just think that you shouldn’t have kept it from me for so long,” she leaned against the wall and hugged her knees, “I really wish you’d told me earlier.”
“I wanted to tell you earlier,” Aunt Mariqah sat down next to her, “but I suppose… I was a little scared to.”
“Scared? Of what?”
Aunt Mariqah snorted, “Are you kidding? I’ve made a little psychopath out of you. Plenty of things to be scared about there.”
Mary gave her aunt a look.
“Of losing you, Mary,” conceded Aunt Mariqah, “I didn’t want to lose you. But it would have been unfair – never to tell you about your own parents.”
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t just make me call you ‘mum’ and Uncle Darim ‘dad’,” said Mary.
“Oh, your Uncle Darim would have loved that!” Aunt Mariqah laughed, reminiscing the thought of her deceased husband fondly, “he always wanted kids… But, by the time we got married, I was too old for that,” she sighed sadly, “I miss him… But, anyway, I didn’t because I wasn’t your mum and Darim wasn’t your dad. Lineage is very important.”
Aunt Mariqah paused, “Oh, I don’t know: your mental health? Your self-esteem? Your social standing in some places?”
Mary made a face, “How is any of that bolstered by the fact that my father was a traitor and my mother was an abbess that broke her vows?”
“Erm…” Aunt Mariqah sucked her cheeks in and said slowly, “they were questions. Not statements.”
Mary laughed at her aunt’s expression, “Will you never grow up, Aunt?”
“How about honesty? I wanted you to know the truth of your lineage. That’s all.”
“As for growing up: I’ve never been very good at it,” her aunt smiled, “One of the few things I’ll never achieve I suppose. Not that it’s a big loss.”
“So… my mum just left me?”
“She was trying to save her own life. It’s understandable.”
“Would you leave your child to save your own skin?”
“Well, now… all people are different–”
“Hell, Aunt Mariqah, you don’t leave your mercenaries alone! You take supervision to a senile level.”
“They are my children.”
“Not really. And imagine you had real children! You’d be carrying them around on your back until they turned forty.”
“Good thing I never had any then,” Aunt Mariqah muttered.
“And my dad…? He was killed?”
“Was he your brother?”
“God, no. I’m in no way related to your mother or your father.”
“Did you kill him?”
“No. At the time I was mortally wounded.”
“Did you have a paper-cut?”
“What? No, I got stabbed in the–”
“Matthew calls a paper-cut a mortal wound.”
“That’s because Matthew is a pillock. I told you to stop hanging around with him.”
“But he lives one door away from me. And it’s not like you have anything to worry about, he’s like in his thirties! An eighteen-year-old like me would never go after a guy that old.”
“Well, that’s highly subjective.”
“Only because you married a man who was fifteen years older than you!”
“Mary, you’re giving me a headache.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, shut up!”
“Am I disrupting a wonderful family moment?” called a new voice.
“If this is a wonderful family moment, Amaal,” said Aunt Mariqah, “Please kill me now.”
“Oh, there’s no need to be a drama queen about it,” Amaal said, and stood before the pair of scatter-brains.
Mary had never known what Amaal was for. She came in and out and looked more like a Mamluk pirate than a “messenger” as Aunt Mariqah had always described her. She wore a bright green turban, her short choppy hair sticking out through the folds, and a tight blouse and loose trousers of a deeper green. A cutlass hung from her belt and two pistols in holsters around her hips.
Aunt Mariqah got up and cracked her neck from side to side, “What news?” she asked.
“War, between Greenloch and Battersea, it seems.”
“I’m not going to the Havens,” Aunt Mariqah spat, “I have responsibilities, Amaal, on Earth.”
Mary looked from one woman to the next, confused but not asking any questions yet.
“Yes, but Flaed, Lady of Battersea, only requires your presence. She didn’t ask for a mercenary horde.”
“The mercenary horde bit is usually implied. I’m not going.”
“What’s this about?” asked Mary.
“Another dimension,” Aunt Mariqah muttered.
Mary snorted, “Was that a joke?”
Her aunt gave her a look, “No. It wasn’t.”
“Wait… There’s an actual, real, different dimension?”
Aunt Mariqah spoke slower, “Y-e-e-e-e-s. It’s run by elves.”
Mary smiled, “Santa’s elves?”
“Santa doesn’t exist.”
“Well, to you he doesn’t. You’re too grumpy for him.”
“I don’t think any measure of happiness will make him exist, but back on topic...” Aunt Mariqah returned her attention to Amaal, “This audience… could I send a representative?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Amaal, looking amused and folding her arms, “It’s your usual way of avoiding tedium.”
“That it is…” Aunt Mariqah smiled, “Take Mary.”
“What?” said Mary.
“What?” scoffed Amaal.
“I trust her and it’ll be a nice place to go for a break.”
“You’re going to send me to Santa’s Workshop?”
Aunt Mariqah laughed, “I promise, Mary, it’s a lot more interesting than that.”