The fire burned for days in what used to be Brimone's stronghold. The clouds of smoke billowed consistently from the walls. The dead had yet to be counted and buried.
Ah, the aftermath of war.
It wasn't a thing that Mary enjoyed, but it was a sight to behold all the same. She remembered that Mariqah hated aftermaths. She had never seen a time that her aunt had indulged in smoke - usually something more intoxicating than tobacco. Funerals were not something Mariqah could manage - a little ironic, given that she was a war-monger.
But Mary could see why.
This way - this business of living in the service of killing others - it had a method of destroying you.
When Mary was hacking and slicing her way through her opponents on the battlefield, the adrenaline and the determination had prevented her from feeling remorse and pity. Now, however, as she looked upon the rotting bodies being picked and pecked at by scavengers - she couldn't help but wonder who this man loved, or how many children that man had, or how long did the other man had hoped to live.
Mary sighed into her arms and closed her eyes.
Mariqah had told her that it was a good thing, to reflect - that such actions should never be taken lightly and that all life was sacred, no matter how corrupt. That all life should go on living, unless a life made living unbearable, impossible. Mary felt the sword at her side. She had taken it as an item of comfort. How ironic that it should be the source of fear to so many others.
Mary looked up, “Tostig,” she managed to smile a little, “sick of sitting around then?”
He made a face, irritated, before taking a seat next to her and saying, “Answer my question.”
“I'm... reflecting over things. Not feeling great about myself, I guess.”
Tostig didn't say anything. He took a moment to stare out at the carnage pensively, “No-one with a heart would. Not after this.”
“Why does it happen then? Why do people blow their brains out over petty little things? Land. Money. A couple of shiny stones. Why don't they just remove the borders, use carrots for currency and put whatever pebble they can find in the metal they wear around their necks? Is that really worth sacrificing peace, harmony and the promise of better tomorrows?”
Tostig scoffed, “You say this as though to seperate yourself from people. You are one of them, you know.”
“That wasn't my point. Why are we fighting?”
“Because there's something to fight about.”
“And that's all the reason in the world to just go stabbing everyone; left, right and centre?”
“Well, no. But it's reason enough.”
Mary sighed in frustration.
“It's nature, Mary. It might look all petals and soft fur, but it's as much tooth and claw. There's no such thing as peace. Not in the sense we're talking about, anyway. It's only a perception of what life would be like without fighting - the perception of a life that has never existed and probably will never exist.”
“You seem to have given this a lot of thought...”
Tostig shrugged, “The notion offered me a source of comfort when the Witch-Queen sent me to run her errands.”
“That it was normal for you to go around killing people?”
“No,” Tostig said, “that I could do it, because the people I was killing deserved no less. Your aunt gave me the greatest sense of comfort, though.”
“She said that I was only a weapon. She said it only in passing, of course - she was actually talking about avenging Gunnhild. But she said that she wouldn't kill me, that I was only a means to an end, that the person who hired me was truly responsible. Do you punish the knife for murder, after all, or the man that used the knife?”
Mary laughed to herself and whispered, “God, I miss her so much...” she bowed her head.
Tostig said nothing, but put his arm around her shoulder.
Mary sniffed after a while, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, and said, “I just hope all this is worth it in the end. That my vengeance was what she really wanted.”
“I'm sure it will be.”
* * * * *
Mary strode her way towards Lord Ragnarr's tent, her boots crunching on the ashened gravel.
“This is it, then!”
Mary paused on hearing Ead's angry voice. She heard Lord Ragnarr mumble something and then, “That's it! Got your land and your victory - and we just forget everything else!”
“Ah, shut your gob, Ead! Know your place!” Ethelbald intervened.
Mary pushed her way through the flap of the tent and found all three men red-faced in fury.
“What's going on?” she asked.
“This tosspot's fumin' o'er a technicality,” said Ethelbald, “Nothin' ye need t'concern yourself with, Mary.”
“Oh, a technicality? That's what we're calling it now?” Ead said. He turned to Mary sharply, “They're leaving. They have no interest in pursuing your mother. They've filled their coffers and are walking their way o' way.”
“But we had a deal,” said Mary, looking bitterly at the Lord of Eversby, “We agreed that you'd put a stop to the Witch-Queen of Skye.”
“Aye, and we have,” said Ethelbald, “How far d'ye think she'll get wi'out an army t'back her? Brimone has fallen, she's no support - the Witch-Queen is done.”
“But not dead!” said Mary.
“Your world is safe, Mary. Don't ye think-”
“My aunt was right about all of you!” Mary snapped, “All of the bleeding leadership is corrupt, untrustworthy and wretched! Good God! The least you could do was kill my mother! The least! And here you are - your pockets fattened - making excuses!”
“Now, Mary, I think you misjudge-” Lord Ragnarr began.
“Shut up!” Mary yelled, “Shut u-p! You goddamn turncoat! I came here thinking you were the best of the lot, but I was wrong! At least the other scum-fucks announced themselves as evil or are paying with damnation for it - but you!” she pointed a finger at Lord Ragnarr, “You! You are the kind that says one thing and does another! You are the kind that causes the greatest deal of trouble!” Mary ruptured in anger for a moment, “I've helped you this time round, but mark me - if and when I set foot in this world again, there will be no friendships between us!” she rounded on Ethelbald, “And you! Dare you talk of Owayn's treachery! You told me my aunt saved your goddamn life-”
“And I saved hers!” Ethelbald protested.
“You transported her from one end of this world to another - that's not the same thing!” Mary barked, knocking him down with a solid right hook. She spat on him, “I respected you, but you're no better than any of them!” with that, Mary stomped out of the tent.
She found Tostig waiting outside - staring at her like he had seen a ghost.
“Woah...” was all he could say.
“Oh shut up,” Mary spat.
“Mary,” said Ead, putting a hand to her shoulder.
She shrugged him off aggressively, “What do you want?”
“We will ride for the Gateway,” he said, “The spoils I have gathered should be enough for the trip. I have horses waiting.”
Mary paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Thank you. Although, I think we might need to sail part of the way.”
“We will we able to pay for transportation when we reach the ports. Not a worry.”
Mary turned to Tostig, “Will you be coming with us?”
“Will you hit me if I don't?” he asked.
Mary fumed, “The hell I will!”
Tostig raised his hands, and said sheepishly, “Then, yes. I will join you.”
“Good!” said Mary.
“And, Mary?” said Ead.
“Good show,” he laughed.