“Is everything in place?” Mary asked. Matthew nodded, “Everything's set. Just as you asked, Mary. Them soldiers won't know what hit 'em.”
“Good,” she turned to Tostig and Ead, “Will you two help the others or will you be accompanying me?”
“You're the boss, Mary,” said Tostig.
“In that case, Tostig, I want you to join Matthew and the others. Ead - I want you to act as my back-up, in case mother-dearest pulls something I'm not ready for.”
Ead and Tostig nodded.
“With everything in place, let's not waste any more time, eh?” Mary said, “Let's end this as soon as possible.”
* * * * *
The Brimonian soldiers stood watch outside the Witch-Queen's tent. There were exactly twenty-six of them, and thirteen of them were currently resting. After Lord Grumm's death - which had been mourned for in an incredibly marginal sense - an elf named Sveyn was put in charge (appointed, of course, by the Witch-Queen herself).
Sveyn watched as the sun began setting on the horizon, casting a plume of red into the sky and darkening the tall grass that surrounded the area. The Witch-Queen had told them all that Brimone had been destroyed and that she would lead them to another kingdom, which they would conquer and reign in time. It sounded promising to Sveyn and the others, so they hadn't questioned her. Also, the Witch-Queen gave them all the creeps.
Now, however, Sveyn's interest was peaked as he squinted at the horizon and saw something very curious.
He called the solider closest to him and gestured to a rising grey smudge, “Do you see that?” Sveyn said.
“Aye, sir,” said the soldier, “It seems there's someone camped over there.”
“Take one of those off-duty and scout that camp,” Sveyn ordered, “Make sure they aren't hostile, whoever they are.”
The soldier inclined his head, called on a companion and left, cutting through the grass with their boots instead of using the cobbled path.
Sveyn waited some time for the pair of soldiers to return, and was about to send another to go an fetch them: when he spotted another plume of smoke, perhaps a few meters away from the first. Again, he sent out a pair to scout the area. Sveyn continued to watch, ignoring the eerie absence of his scouts. The first fire seemed to have been dowsed, the smoke thinning and dying away, but the second remained and a third plume of smoke rose.
He was sensing a pattern.
But before he could warn the Witch-Queen, he heard a low whistle coming from the tall grass. Against his better judgement, Sveyn stepped into the grass to get a better look. The whistling continued, becoming louder as he searched. He only had time to grunt when a forced pulled him down and ended his life with a sharp stab through his throat.
Mary pulled her blade free and wiped it on the grass. She considered, for a moment, taking the uniform of the guard and entering Britney's campsite in disguise, but the uniform was too large and the soldiers were probably more alert. Ead squatted beside her, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand as the pollen irritated him.
“The second fire's been snuffed,” he said, “but the third fire is still burning. What now?”
“We wait,” Mary said, “See if they notice their missing companions and see what they do. If they do nothing, we'll lure more of them here. Five down, but twenty-one to go - we can't hope to contend with that, just the two of us.”
“Fair enough,” said Ead with a shrug.
So they continued to watch from their positions.
Sure enough, the disappearances were being noticed by the other soldiers, and they were pointing at the plume of smoke in the distance.
Just then, a woman burst out of her tent, flustered and angry at having been disturbed, “What's the meaning of this?” she demanded, looking around, “Where's Sveyn?”
“Is that...?” Mary whispered to Ead, “Would that be...?”
“The Witch-Queen, your mother, yes,” Ead replied.
They watched as a soldier tried to explain as best as he could, stuttering and mumbling and pointing at the smoke.
“You're not having second thoughts are you?” Ead asked calmly.
“I...” Mary said. Honesty was the best policy, Mariqah had taught her, and admitting a problem was the first step in solving it, “I think so.”
“Would you like to leave? I will see this job done for you.”
Mary paused - watching as her mother paced the ground, scowling and sending four soldiers to check the smoke.
Mary began to wonder on Mariqah's words - would she regret this? There were a number of regrets Mary already had, but would this one stand out?
“Mary?” Ead pressed.
“No. At least, not yet,” Mary replied.
“Before you commit the deed, you must be sure. The time to strike is near. I don't mean to pressure you, but make a decision quickly,” Ead moved off to perform another whistle-and-kill.
Mary regarded her mother again. This woman had killed Mariqah. Mary had felt a desire, a need to kill her before.
Now having seen her...
Mary was no longer sure she could do it. There was resemblance, between her and her mother.
“Oh, why, oh, why did I have to resemble her?” Mary mumbled to herself, “Maybe if I looked more like someone else, this would have been easier.”
She crept through the brush, checking the smoke signals. A fourth fire had been lit, the third gone.
When Mary reached Ead, she said, “I'm not sure I can do this, Ead.”
He gazed at her, “Yet, you remain. Why?”
“Because I thought I could. Part of me still wants to. But... I'm confused. I think,” Mary struggled for the right words, “What should I do?”
“I would say that you go back to the others.”
“I'm not going to do that.”
Ead paused, considering his options. In the near distance, Britney was sending out more soldiers.
“Let me lead the attack. If you think you can manage it, follow after me when you're ready.”
Mary nodded, “Okay.”
Ead crept through the grass, closer and closer to the campsite.
“Wait, we're starting now?” Mary hissed.
Ead pressed a finger to his lips and nodded in her direction. He drew his rapier, watching the alert soldiers of the campsite in silence for a moment, just before her leapt out and killed two before they new what had happened. Ead kicked up one of the fallen soldier's swords so he had two weapons to parry blows from the other surprised sentries. Mary watched as he blocked swiftly and cut through coat and armour, spilling gore in all directions. His grace and finesse impressed her. Britney was stunned for a second, but as soon as she regained her wits - the Witch-Queen raised her skeletal hand in Ead's direction.
He cried out, his body convulsing as he dropped his weapons and fell to his knees.
“Ead!” Mary roared, running out of her hiding place and collapsing beside him. The pain seemed to have stopped, “Ead, Ead, talk to me!”
“Mary, you bloody fool,” he muttered, “On your feet!”
She looked around, and rose slowly. There were only one or two soldiers left and they were as shocked as the Witch-Queen had been. Looking poorly and fatigued, Britney FeCamp regarded her long-lost daughter with surprise.
“Mary...?” she whispered, with genuine tears in her eyes, “Is that you? Are you even called that now?” Britney moved towards Mary, but the girl took a step back.
Mary drew the Damascus.
Britney's face became impassive. She gazed warily at that sword as she would the tail on a scorpion, “Is this what Mariqah meant by her niece?” she asked bitterly, “What has she told you of me that would have you draw a sword on me, Mary? I am your mother.”
“I don't need telling!” Mary snapped, “I know who you are, what you've done, how you did it,” Ead stood up beside her, swords in hand once more, but Mary raised a hand, calling for pause, “Aunt Mariqah made a point of telling me about you and father. How you left me in Masyaf.”
“Your father died protecting you!” Britney protested.
“I...” Britney sighed, frowning deeply, “He sent me away, on that day, Mary. He told me he would get you and find me. I...”
“You begged him to come with you! To leave me behind! Because I was a baby and they wouldn't hurt me!” Mary barked.
“How would you know? You weren't there!” Britney protested. She stamped her foot and raised a hand. Ead pulled Mary out of the way as a black tendril sliced at the air.
“You abandoned me then?” Mary cried.
“I hadn't meant to, Mary!” Britney said, cursing at her sudden burst of rage and putting down her hand, “It's just the way things happened! Would you have looked on me more kindly if I had died trying to recover you?”
“Yes!” Mary shouted. Tears were streaming down her face, “If you had died then, Aunt Mariqah would still be alive now!” she charged at Britney, who raised a magical shield in time to throw of Mary's sword strike.
“Oh, it's about her, is it?” said Britney, rolling to a side as Mary swung a second time with the Damascus, “You might think I'm evil, Mary - with all the lies that you've most likely been told - but Mariqah was more of a monster than I could ever be!”
Mary drew the Dagger and pinned the hem of Britney's dress to the ground with it. Britney stumbled and fell, but her focus was not lost and so still held her shield. Mary raised her blade and bore down on Britney's shield, “Shut. Up,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Oh, how very astute. You would believe everything she said about me, but you won't hear a thing I have to say about her,” Britney returned, “She was a childish belligerent. A selfish person who enjoyed hurting people for her own gain. Isn't that what a mercenary is, hmm? Someone who fights for want of wealth?” Britney could see that the shield was over-powering Mary. She pushed forward and dislodged the Dagger from her dress, watching as sweat poured from Mary's forehead, “How fitting it is that she should send you to kill me, Mary. Did you know she killed her mother as well?”
Mary stumbled back, holding the Damascus for support. She panted heavily.
Mary heard Ead charge at the Witch-Queen, but she swatted him away with a black tendril that emerged from her hand.
“And then ran away from home. Joined the army, then ran from there too. Romantically mingled with a pirate - one of those sailors she claimed to dislike so much. Then she met Khadir,” Britney took slow, profound steps towards Mary, casting the Dagger aside, “Whom I'm sure she consorted with too, even though she always denied it. How else would that man love her so much? She must have tugged at his heart-strings, right? But she became a mercenary and at the same time: oh so important to your father! I wonder if there ever was a thing between them,” Britney scoffed, raising her hand. It turned a deadly black, and a swarming dark mist built around it, “She seemed very disappointed with him when he got that pirate killed. Then she dissented against us. All of us. She's the reason why your father is dead, Mary. The reason why you never had a proper family. And you would blame me for killing her? Has the world really lost so much, with one less beast in it?”
“E-nou-gh!” Mary howled, knocking the pommel of the sword into Britney's knee. The Witch-Queen howled as she went down, the magic in her skeletal hand dissipating. Mary kicked the older woman in the stomach sharply, before standing over her, the Damascus pointed to Britney's throat.
“Aunt Mariqah never called herself an angel, never gave herself quarter and always reminded me of how evil she had been,” Mary said, her voice shaking, “She tried her best not villainise you when she told me about what happened, either. She told me not to judge you, that I wasn't there, that I couldn't know how you felt and why you did the things you did,” Mary breathed loudly, her nostrils flared in anger, “But now I know. Now I know what you are. You would kill me to save yourself, just as you left me in the hands of your enemy all those years ago. Aunt Mariqah might have done those things, but she's spent more of her life making up for them and never thinking her redemptions enough. You, on the other hand - well...”
Britney scoffed, “You will regret this day, Mary-”
Mary kicked Britney in the mouth and stepped on her face, “Yes. But I'd regret the day I let you go: more.”