Mary watched as the mercenaries climbed off the decks of the Mary and the Evenstar. She had been watching the tide since she got word from Khadir that the siege on Skye had been successful, and they’d be returning to the Guild.
What surprised Mary was that so many of the Skyeans returned with the mercenaries. Didn’t they plan on staying in their homeland and fixing it up now that the Witch-Queen no longer reigned?
And the silence.
Where there was supposed to be cheer and celebration, there was an eerie silence from the mouths of the soldiers.
Tostig, who was sitting beside her, said, “Something’s not right,” he sighed, “Perhaps there was heavy losses?”
“There was,” said Mary, pointing at the columns of soldiers, “You can tell by the large shields they’re hauling on their shoulders. It means their carrying the dead or the dying. But they don’t look all too many…”
Then she heard it. A voice so distanced, it sounded a whisper on the wind, an echo that originated from far off:
Cleanse me in a bath of flame, shroud me in the garbs of coarse silk, and lay me in a bed of thorns and roses – for that is how I have lived my life: Most peaceful in my pain, most serene in my suffering…
* * * * *
Mariqah closed her eyes as Cyne put a hand to her forehead, to remove the blue mark. She was lying on a bed, trying not to move as he did his work – hands clasped on her abdomen. When he’d finished, Cyne nodded a farewell and got up to leave. Mariqah grabbed his arm weakly.
Don’t leave, she thought, You’re the only one who can read my thoughts. Mary and Khadir will want to see me. I’d rather… Please, stay? Tell them what I want them to hear.
Cyne hesitated, “Mariqah… I’ve been inside your head. I’ve seen what it’s like in there.”
Your point being?
“I… The mind is a delicate thing. Being inside yours… it could destroy mine. It’s Hell in your head.”
I promise I won’t exert you. All calm thoughts and final confessions.
“Final… final confessions?”
Don’t kid yourself. I know what’s going on with me. It’s not the kind of thing anyone can come back from.
“Have… have you spoken to Gwyn?”
I have. She said there’s a cure, but nothing short of a human-sacrifice. I think I’ve spent my life killing enough people.
“I’m… I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mariqah grinned slightly, Why do you say that?
“You freed our home, Mariqah. Thank you,” Cyne sat back down, “And if you seek for me to help you converse, I’d be glad to,” he put a hand back on her head.
Mariqah almost jumped at the sound of her own voice. She looked over at Cyne, he had his eyes closed, “How…?” she watched as his lips moved to her thoughts, “My God… This could be good fun,” she watched as he laughed her laugh and sing in her voice, “A poor old man came riding by–”
Cyne let go abruptly and passed a stern look at Mariqah.
Sorry, she grinned sheepishly, I’ve missed the sound of my voice.
“Why am I not surprised to hear that? But please: your mind is a torrent of things. Please, please don’t stress mine?” said Cyne.
Mariqah nodded and he placed his hand back on her forehead.
The door creaked open and Mary, Khadir and Tostig stepped in. Mary sat worriedly to Mariqah’s side, staring at the bone-dry skin. It was… different. The skin was smooth and radiant, and it looked as if it was stretched – the lines and wrinkles smoothed-out. But tiny fractures broke the skin. It reminded Mary of the cracked, dry earth that belonged in deserts. Tostig remained standing. Khadir sat to her other side, looking sternly at Cyne.
“Unhand my sister,” he said gruffly.
“Peace, Khadir,” Cyne spoke but with a different voice. A voice too rough to be a woman’s, and yet – too soft to be a man’s. Mary found the sound of it was oddly comforting.
Khadir said nothing and put a hand to Mariqah’s, finding it unnaturally warm and limp.
“Tostig…” Mariqah spoke, imploring the elf with her eyes, “I had you fulfil half of Gunnhild’s bidding, I shall request the other half now. Avenge her for me, good friend. Kill Lady Flaed,” he inclined his head, said nothing. But as he turned to go, “And… and tell Ead that I’m sorry.”
“Of course, but what should I say you’re sorry for?” asked Tostig.
Mariqah paused, “You don’t. He’ll know.”
Tostig left, his one hand on his sword as he did.
“And Khadir...” Mariqah turned her eyes to her lieutenant and brother-in-arms, “You’ve ever been at my side, in everything. There’s no following me here. I’ve lived a vengeful woman. I’ll not die one. Forget the campaign against Britney. Skye is safe. Just take Mary home.”
Mary gaped in astonishment, “But… but she’s done this to you!” she cried.
Khadir raised a hand to silence her, “Mary…”
“No!” Mary barked, “We shouldn’t just leave this! We should find my mother and demand a cure!”
“There is no cure!” Cyne gasped as Mariqah’s voice yelled through his throat, “I’m sorry, Cyne. There is no cure, Mary. And you’re mother’s ambition is broken enough. With Flaed’s death, she’ll have one less ally and little to work with.”
“There are a hundred things I could ask of you, Mary,” there was sadness in Mariqah’s eyes, “A hundred things and more. But… I could never ask you to kill your mother for me.”
“You look at me queerly, Mary,” Mariqah said, as Mary bowed her head. The older woman’s breathing was becoming more laboured and something like tears were pricking her eyes. Mariqah knew she had no more tears left, “As if I should impart some great wisdom onto you now that I am dying... I too witnessed the death of my mother – although you and I know full well that I am not yours – I wonder if you feel as I felt then. This… selfish wishing that you weren't watching... but you cannot tear your gaze away and bring yourself to leave out of… out of a sense of loyalty. I know that feeling... People often comfort the dying. But the dying need no comforting, Mary...” Mariqah shut her eyes tight and turned her head a little, as though something was disturbing her, making her uncomfortable, “The fate of the dead is long decided. The road ahead is clear and unchanging. But the living... the living remain uncertain of the way to carry forward. The Living have to live with the death of the Dead. Sometimes… it’s scarier to continue living than to proceed in dying."
“Don’t… don’t leave,” Mary sobbed.
“How I wish I could, Mary. How I wish I could overcome this and… live until the day that you find yourself in the throes of death, so I might comfort you then – as we pass over into the next life together...”
Mary looked up, putting her hands to her face and sniffing, “Where have I heard that before?”
Despite everything, Mariqah smiled at that, “Have you forgotten already? Is three years so long a time that the memory of your uncle has absconded your thoughts? He said those words to me, before he went... I see him now. He's smiling at me. Beckoning me...” she gestured ahead of her with her eyes, “Oh dear. William is there also. That might cause him a few problems. Don’t hit him too hard, Darim… And Avery, and Noel, and Callum – all my dead comrades,” Mariqah scoffed, “I’m flattered that they’re waiting for me.”
Mary longed to ask about all these people, but she kept silent. She looked up at Khadir, the gruff old man who terrified her, and saw water in his eyes but none on his face. For a flickering moment, Mary wondered how hard this was for him to watch. Then she resumed worrying about herself and what she was going to do without her Aunt Mariqah.
“All my life I have heralded my own death, asking the Heavens again and again why they seem so determined to punish me. And now... Now it comes to me and I... I am afraid, in its grasp,” Cyne laughed Mariqah’s laugh, humourlessly, “Now, I fear for myself in a way... I've never done before. How ironic that is - to live fearlessly but to die: petrified. What Hell is waiting for me...? What debts have I left unpaid...? How many sacrifices and prayers have I forsaken...?”
“I’m surprised someone as cynical as you would even think about prayers… About a god.”
“Are you kidding, Mary?” said Mariqah, “If I didn’t believe in God, I would have killed myself long before I met you, long before I met Khadir. It’s because of Him that I’m dying now, instead of then.”
“Don’t be worried. You’re a good person, Aunt Mariqah.”
“Who has committed a great many terrible things, Mary.”
Mary cried, “Stop it!”
“Mary…” Mariqah said sadly, “You’ve known me fewer years than anyone else.”
“You always did the right thing! In all the years that I knew you!” Mary grasped Mariqah’s arm. Mary gagged as the arm felt soft in her grasp and crumbled. Mary’s body shuddered at the dust between her fingers and the bone within her fist.
“Aye, Mary, I tried. I had my moments,” Mariqah continued, ignoring the condition of her arm, “But there are many severe crimes that I have committed. I’ll not dispel them now, but… in any kingdom, treason is the worst of all crimes. And in God's Kingdom, I have committed a treason in not paying Him His dues… It does me little benefit to remember this now. My… time is up.”
“Mary...” Mariqah turned her head slightly to look at Mary. Drops of blood formed at the corner of her eyes and dripped down the side of her face, before a sizzling sound dried them onto her skin, “You are not my child, but I love you. And I know you are distressed at my passing. Don’t be. I’m a person who’s been late for my own funeral time and time again. Though, that probably does you no comfort… Nothing can and nothing will. Death humbles us all...” Mariqah paused and took a deep breath, her clothing becoming loose and shapeless as her body lost form, “Mary, there are things in the world that people ignore. Don't be those people. Make a distinction between what is a dream and what is a reality, because dreams are not worth living for and they aren't worth fighting for. Freedom is a dream. Peace is a dream. But justice... Justice is a reality. Fight and live for justice – and make that fight and life worthwhile. Because no matter how you play life – no matter what you do and how you do it, Mary, in the end the greatest reality is:” Mariqah gasped, a light flooding behind her eyes, “All... are to dust...” Mary watched in horror as the woman’s face collapsed into grains of sand and, in its place, a skull remained…