For someone who was a known sore-loser – Mariqah was taking everything really well.
Tostig sighed as he trudged back to camp, shaking the beads of sweat from his unkempt, blonde hair; the limp bodies of rabbits heavy in his hands.
His final act which had subdued Mariqah in Lady Mercia’s palace was to inject some sleeping-draught into her bloodstream. It wasn’t advisable and he didn’t like using it – but in Tostig’s line of work, failure simply wasn’t an option.
Mariqah was leaning against a tree, waiting for him – her face calm as he approached. Tostig’s cloak lay across her lap and her hands were bound by cuffs. She seemed intrigued by the mechanism. The cuffs were such that, if no manner of violence or escape was intended, she could move her hands freely and the cuffs wouldn’t restrain her. But as soon as she did intend violence or escape, the cuffs on both hands would immediately stick together until the moment had passed.
Tostig marvelled at how childish such an old woman could be.
“Escape!” click, “Need to eat,” snick, “Want to punch him!” click, “Oh, look a flower,” snick.
Tostig didn’t bother telling her to stop. He just sighed and sat opposite to her and skinned his kills.
“That’s very irritating,” he mumbled, after about a half-hour of hearing Mariqah play with the cuffs.
Mariqah looked up at him, a brow raised, “This, coming from an assassin who kidnapped me?”
He started took two pieces of flint and started a fire. He shrugged, passing a palm over the small flames, “You’re a very interesting person.”
“You’re too kind.”
“How are you not panicking right now?”
“Well, for one thing – panicking is a waste of time and energy.”
“And for the second thing – I’m curious as to who sent you to get me.”
“If you’re looking for me to give you a name–”
“Oh, no, no – I understand confidentiality policies. It’s what makes us good at our jobs.”
He looked at her irritably, poking a stick through the cleaned flesh of a rabbit. He held the soon-to-be meal over the fire, “You seem to put us both in the same category.”
“That’s because we belong in the same category.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, you kill people for money, I kill people for money…”
Tostig looked offended, “My job has skill and finesse. You’re just a clumsy brute.”
It was Mariqah’s turn to look offended, “Oh, I’m sorry. I suppose throwing your own sword at you so that you yelped and jumped, has upset you. Deepest of apologies.”
He glowered at her, “And secondly,” he said, turning the meat over, “putting us both in the same category implies that we owe some… loyalty to each other.”
“Rogues owe loyalty to no-one. I understand that, and mutual loyalty was not implied. Respect, perhaps. But not loyalty. I can hardly be expected to be loyal to you, for instance, after you killed a fellow mercenary and have successfully kidnapped me. When did that become part of an assassin’s job, by the way?”
Tostig scowled to himself, “Business has been… slow.”
“Hmm… You should come over to Earth. Wars have mellowed, but plenty of foul-play about.”
Tostig raised his brows, “I’ll… consider it.”
“Everyone has to have a hobby,” Mariqah shrugged, “Also, what’s your name?”
He passed the cooked rabbit over to Mariqah, “That thing you said about confidentiality…”
She took the meat in both hands and ate, chewing thoughtfully as she said, “Well, unless you want me to call you Joe-Bob as we go along. I mean, I don’t mind. But, as for yourself, well…”
“I’m really beginning to dislike you,” Tostig said.
“Well, Joe-Bob, I’m afraid that doesn’t go away.”
“Tostig. My name is Tostig.”
“Ah, right,” she said, as if everything made sense, “yes, I’ve heard of you.”
“An associate of mine hired you once. He said you always got the job done, but you’ve never really had a thing for stealth when killing.”
“I like giving my targets a fighting chance,” Tostig said defensively, skewering another rabbit and holding it over the fire.
“You mean, before you inject them with Sleep?”
Tostig scowled, “You were a special case.”
“Well, I’m flattered.”
“You really are one for conversation.”
“I really am.”
“I usually don’t like talking to, well, anyone.”
“You’re enjoying a conversation with your victim?”
“Well, when you say it like that…”
“I don’t suppose you have many people to have the odd chat with.”
“No… Just one idiot at The In-Betweener, that’s–” Tostig clamped his mouth shut.
“I’ve said too much.”
“Oh, please, I’m as good as dead meat, by now. Exceptionally brilliant dead meat, but still.”
“Fair enough,” she paused and ate quietly. Tostig cooked the second rabbit and began eating it.
“Since you’re doing the odd side-job, could I ask a favour?”
“How exactly will you pay me?”
“Through my niece. You said your familiar with The In-Betweener. You’ll find her there.”
“We are not friends.”
“I never said anything about friendship.”
“Just making it clear.”
“Right,” she said, sitting up slightly, “Before she died, and you’re probably familiar with this, Gunnhild asked me a few favours. Find Mary and tell her to sell Gunnhild’s land back to Greenloch. The proceedings should be easy enough, given that Gunnhild is an outcast and has no next of kin.”
Tostig nodded, “I can do that. But I also remember her telling you to avenge her. Do you also want me to kill myself?”
“Oh, no. I don’t blame you for her death. You were just a means, like a weapon. I blame the person who hired you. But don’t worry about that. I’ll wring the neck of my friend’s murderer myself, if I survive… whatever this is,” Mariqah paused and added, “So, are we agreed?”
Tostig considered the offer, “Fine. I’ll sell Gunnhild’s land for you, through your niece. I’ll ask for my payment on completion?”
“Sounds wise,” Mariqah said, “And… one other thing.”
“Please – do not hurt her.”
Tostig furrowed his brows at Mariqah, “I’m sorry?”
“Do not hurt my niece. Ever. Under any circumstances.”
“Suppose I get a job to kill her. What then?”
“You turn it down.”
Tostig scoffed, “That’s a little too much to ask, I’m afraid. If someone wants her dead, I will kill her. For your sake, I’ll make it quick, should it happen.”
“Dandelions,” Mariqah muttered, her lips curled and her hands apart.
“I’m…” Tostig stared at her, “What?”
He anticipated Mariqah’s next moved and moved his head to a side as her foot flew up into view. She dropped the kick hard onto his neck and pinned his head to the floor, using her other foot to sharply kick him in the groin. A brazen howl escaped his mouth, his hands going between his legs to try and dampen the pain.
“Say you’ll leave her alone!” she said, the cuffs sticking her hands together.
“You know I can’t do that!” he barked, scowling at her, “Stop this now!”
“Isn’t this place beautiful, Tostig?” she said through bared teeth, her hands coming apart and clenching into fists.
Tostig stared at the cuffs, his eyes wide, “How are you doing that?”
“Isn’t this place just,” her fist smacked into his face, rocking his head back, “beautiful? Look, dandelions!” smack, “Butterflies!” crunch, crack, “Pixies!” click. Mariqah stared as her hands stuck together, “Really? Pixies are considered dangerous around here?” snick, “Rainbows! Unicorns!” she punched him again and again.
“Stop, look, just– Stop!” he bellowed.
Mariqah leg continued to hold Tostig’s head down, “I will kill you, Tostig. You want to know what’s the worst way to die?” click, her hands stuck together, “It’s getting beaten to death. You will get beaten to death. Do you want that?”
He sighed, “No. No, I don’t.”
“Then swear on my sword that you won’t harm my niece, Mary FeCamp, under any circumstance! And you’ll protect her if needs be. Say those exact words.”
“I can’t do that.”
Snick. Mariqah picked up a stone, “Dandelions…” she said threateningly.
“Fine! Fine! I swear on your damn sword that I won’t harm your niece, Mary FeCamp, under any circumstance; and I’ll protect her if needs be.”
Mariqah took a few deep breaths, eyeing the assassin, then sat back, hands clicking together as she drew her sword and threw it to him.
Now released, Tostig rose and scrambled back, taking the sword.
“I could have lied, you know,” he said, spitting blood.
Mariqah swallowed calmly, “You see that stone in the hilt of my sword,” she saw him look at the small blue crystal in the sword’s hilt, “That’s an Oath Stone. It was awarded to me last time I came here. You just swore on that stone. And if you harm Mary or if she dies while you are careless – that sword will come for you. No matter how far you throw it, or how deep you bury it – it’ll come for you. And when it does, it won’t be pretty.”
Tostig looked around, flustered, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“You had the misfortune of making my acquaintance,” she turned away slightly, “But my assault is finished, you can sit down now. I’ve done what needs to be done.”
Tostig stepped towards her warily, before sitting down at a relatively safe distance. His face and groin hurt.
“How… how did you get free of the cuffs?”
“You ought to know, elf,” she scoffed, “On Earth, we have machines. In the Grey Havens, you have magic. But unlike machinery, magic has sentience. Or level of it, anyway. That means that it holds the potential to get bored, or become stupid.”
Tostig looked dumbfounded, “That’s what you were doing? Tricking my cuffs?”
Mariqah laughed, “I played with them so much, your stupid cuffs started taking my word for it. There’s nothing violent or sinister about ‘dandelions’,” she looked at him, “When you see Mary, give her my sword. It will show she can trust you.”
“And can she?”
“You don’t have a choice but to be trustworthy, Tostig.”
Tostig paused, putting a hand to his aching face, “You really aren’t someone to toy with.”
“I really am not. It’s what you get for calling me a clumsy brute.”