The servant’s uniform he wore under his cloak was uncomfortable, but as he sat upon his high perch, hidden in the shadows, he smiled with satisfaction as Gunnhild died.
One mission completed.
The fact that Mariqah de Saint-Omer had arrived and was holding her – coupled with the look of shock on the heavily made-up face of Lady Mercia as she stood by her throne – came as an added bonus.
Still… he had met with his second contractor, and his instructions were what they were: Mariqah was to be taken and delivered to a location, alive. Which meant – as Lady Mercia’s horrified face entailed – she could not be killed.
Tostig shifted to a more comfortable position and watched as Mariqah lowered a dead Gunnhild’s head onto the floor and closed her eyes. Those gorgeous, gorgeous dead eyes.
She stood up, composing herself, and inclined her head saying, “Lady Mercia.”
Lady Mercia’s pale face didn’t change, “What are you doing here? Flaed sent me word that you would be serving her!”
“I serve no-one. We all know that.”
“Is that it? The reason why you killed Gunnhild? To take her place?”
Mariqah kept her face calm, “This is a misunderstanding. Gunnhild has been poisoned. She was killed by someone else.”
“I do not believe you.”
“Did you hear scuffling from us? Fighting? Bickering?”
“I do not pay heed to the conversations of brutes!”
“Then you can hardly lay blame on me,” said Mariqah, pausing, “Her blood runs the colour of Mithrim poisoning. How would a human, such as myself, gain possession of a poison so rare, even in elvish lands?”
“You are the expert killer, not me,” said Lady Mercia, her mouth a firm line, “Guards!” she shrieked.
Oh goody, thought Tostig.
The guards emerged as if they had come out of the woodwork, their steps simultaneous and well-ordered, the clanking of their armour halting as they surrounded Mariqah and the confused-looking girl at her side.
Mariqah regarded the Captain Guard, “Burgred,” she said, raising her hands slowly, speaking with a taut voice, “you saw everything that happened here. Explain to your… mistress that this all a misunderstanding.”
The Captain Guard said nothing.
“Take her to the dungeons,” Lady Mercia commanded.
Before the guards could move, Mariqah said, “I will not be imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. You only seek to subdue me so that I do not get to Lady Flaed.”
“So you are working with her!”
“Or visiting her. I have not made any decisions.”
Lady Mercia, clearly feeling more safe with her guards in close proximity, stepped down from the platform. Her long, flowing robes of rich fabrics trailing behind her as she addressed Mariqah, “Your decision to kill Gunnhild is the cause for your imprisonment.”
“I,” said Mariqah, slowly, “did not. Kill. Gunnhild.”
“A likely story.”
“A true story.”
Lady Mercia eyed the girl, “Pray tell me, Ms de Saint-Omer, who is this young woman?”
“My niece, Mary.”
“Ah-ha, an accomplice in crime!”
“Good grief, this is ridiculous…” Mariqah muttered, “Are you still upset about that one time…?”
“You tried to kill me? Yes.”
“I was working for an opposition, it doesn’t count,” she nodded at Burgred, “I’ve worked with your Captain Guard to try and kill more reputable Ladies and Lords. Tell her, Burgred.”
The Captain Guard still said nothing.
“I do not like you, Ms de Saint-Omer.”
“Well, I can’t really say I’m absolutely thrilled to see you, but I came here to–”
“And for the very fact that you killed Gunnhild–”
“I saw her die, that’s not the same thing.”
Lady Mercia ignored her and continued, “–almost killed me the last time you were here, and mock me in my own palace, I think it only apt that I end your existence.”
The guards drew their swords and held them ready.
Mariqah narrowed her eyes and put down her hands, “You’ll regret this, Mercia,” she looked at Burgred, “You too.”
The swords simultaneously moved forward, just as Mariqah pulled Mary down and lay on the floor. There were several sharp gasps as angry blades pierced fellow armour. Mariqah drew her sword and sliced through the exposed ankles of several guards. They fell back like dominoes. She got up quickly, Mary following her aunt’s lead. Both stood back-to-back, swords drawn.
“This is not how this is supposed to go, right?” asked Mary, who was clearly tense.
Mariqah scowled, “Can we save stupid questions for later?”
She blocked the blow of recovering guard and threw him off, took the head of another and stabbed a third though his gut. Mary’s attacks were less showy and more practical.
Lady Mercia was backing away from the bloodbath, escaping from the mess while she could. She disappeared behind her throne.
This is where I should step in, thought Tostig, taking an three arrows from his quiver and notching them in his bow.
He let loose and three guards fell, crawling back on the gore-splattered floor.
Mariqah, her body streaked with blood, looked around – her face anything but grateful.
Tostig pulled up his hood and dropped down from his position in front of the mercenary.
“You,” she said, almost smiling, “I didn’t know you were still in business.”
Tostig smirked, drawing his long curved blade, “Well, sometimes it’s hard to believe I still am in business, but then – some elf always wants some other elf killed. Of course, no-one would hire the pathetic bunch you and I just murdered, so: maybe it’s not too hard to believe that I’m still around.”
Mariqah glanced at Mary and said to Tostig, “Excuse me for a second.”
Tostig gestured with his hand, “By all means.”
Mariqah grasped Mary’s shoulder and said, “Leave. Get back to The In-Betweener – it should be easy enough to find. Ask for directions if you need to. Get Aesc to call Amaal and go back home.”
Mary looked at Tostig, “Who’s…?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll explain later.”
“I’ll join you soon. Go. Before Mercia calls in reinforcements.”
Mary paused but nodded and swerved around Tostig as she left the room.
Mariqah faced Tostig once more, watching as Mary departed, “What do you want?”
Tostig shrugged, “Well, I initially came to kill just Gunnhild, but then you arrived and it appears that someone wants you too.”
“Me? I doubt anyone, save our Lady Mercia, wants me dead around here. And I can completely understand that,” she leapt at him, her sword clashing against his, “I’m simply a delight to have around.”
“Ah, well, you see – nobody wants you dead,” he threw her off and slashed at her head. She ducked and rolled as Tostig came slashing down. His sword hit the floor and stuck, jarring his arm momentarily. She crunched the pommel of her sword into his shoulder and he stumbled, leaving his blade stuck in the floor. She wrenched the blade free, as he regained his balance, “I’m supposed to take you alive,” he said, brushing himself off, “Now, this is a little unfair, don’t you think? I know I’m here to, well, kidnap you – but I know you’re all about levelling the playing-field. So, how about you throw me back my sword and we can–”
He yelped and jumped to a side as his blade came spiralling at him. He turned to see it firmly lodged into a wall, still vibrating.
“Well, that was rather– Argh!” his head rocked sideways and stars exploded before his eyes.
“You’re losing your touch,” said Mariqah, edging towards him.
Tostig touched the side of his face, “Come on. Show some mercy, woman, I helped you just moments ago.”
She laughed, “Mercy? I’m going easy on you. I get anymore merciful, and people might just stop hiring me.”
“I’m sorry, but this conversation is tiring me out,” he drew a dagger from his boot, “Please: Don’t make me hurt you more than I have to.”
“Please: Don’t make me laugh.”
“Oh? Is it funny that Captain of the Guard, Burgred, is rising up behind you?”
Like an idiot, Mariqah fell for it. Tostig took his chance to smack the hilt of his dagger on the top of her head. She crumpled, biting her tongue and tasting blood, but kicked Tostig’s face. He snarled, but didn’t fall. He anticipated a second kick, and grabbed Mariqah’s leg and bent it backwards.
Mariqah cried out and struck with her other leg, finding his stomach. He grunted, keeping his balance, but pulled off her boot and jammed something into her calf.
Slowly, slowly – the world dimmed and faded around her…