I never knew my mother or father.
They were always obscurities to me. The only things I knew of my parents in my childhood was brief remarks about them. There were no tales or daring deeds spoke of them. Just small remarks, and such remarks were a scarcity. Indeed, I barely heard them referred to by their first names. In their place, however, were my two adoptive carers. Both soldiers to the bone, but one certainly more hellish than the other.
My 'father' was Uncle Darim.
Oh, sweet Uncle Darim... He was the most wonderful person in the entire world. He'd buy me pretty dresses, tart confectionary and anything I wanted really - and he'd be able to tell that I'd wanted it from a mile away. I loved him so dearly. And I always felt he wanted me the same. If I had never been told that I wasn't his daughter, I would have believed for all my existence that I was.
Then there was my 'mother'.
Heaven have mercy.
She always insisted, however, that I was never to refer to her as 'mother'. So instead, I grew used to calling her my Aunt Mariqah. I admit that she did have her moments of juvenile behaviour and sincere affection - but this was a drop of honey in a bucket of the bitter water that was her discipline. Rules and codes and laws and restrictions that had no loopholes. Ever. The woman would give no-one a break. Not the mercenaries, not her friends, not Uncle Darim, not me, sometimes not even herself.
There were times when I would see her relaxing by a fire and telling stories - often myths and legends of semi-real heroes from dark empires and forgotten ages - with a pipe of tobacco in her hands or flagon of pomegranate juice to her lips.
Her stories were what enchanted me the most.
But they were always lessons. I never forgot that. Every story she told was a lesson, and it needed to be learned, and it needed to be understood, and it needed to be implemented. If these conditions were not met, we'd feel her wrath - one way or another.
('We' being every single person she told the story to.)
I remember one time, Aunt Mariqah had sentenced me to be clapped in the stockade. Uncle Darim was bewildered. He was furious to a point that I believed that he might strike his wife.
"On what charge are you punishing our child?" he demanded, the lines of his fury crumpling the skin of his large forehead and furrowing his thick brows.
Aunt Mariqah scoffed as if he was telling a joke.
"What is so funny?" Uncle Darim demanded.
I remember Aunt Mariqah giving him a look. I would say it was a look of surprise, but it was something more. She looked at her hurband in such a way that it showed how typical his reaction was. It was a bored surprise.
"Oh," she muttered, "you were being serious."
"You really find putting Mary in stocks funny?" he asked.
Aunt Mariqah, contrary to what one might expect, was not offended by this at all, "What makes you think I do this for my own pleasure?" she replied.
"If it's not for a laugh, then why? Why put a ten-year-old child in stocks, Mariqah?"
Aunt Mariqah cast an indignant eye on Uncle Darim before she said, "Mary broke into the room of a fellow soldier and stole an item of value," she turned to me, "Didn't you, Mary?"
Before I could respond, Uncle Darim huffed, "What nonsense! What item of value?" he barked, "and since when did such harsh punishment apply to a child, hmm?"
Aunt Mariqah continue to give Uncle Darim that bored look of wonder and then turned again to me, "Mary?"
"Yes, Aunt Mariqah," I replied, "I took a bag of gold coins."
Uncle Darim objected, addressing his wife, "To play with, you know that!" he held his head and growled, "For a woman who has no respect for neither king nor country - you are a harsh dictator!"
Aunt Mariqah laughed, and shook her head, "Mary, do you remember the stories I told you of the Spartans?"
"Which story, Aunt Mariqah?" I asked her.
She crouched down and smiled at me, touching my cheek, "The story of how Spartan children where raised."
"I do remember, Aunt Mariqah," I replied.
"What happened to Spartan children who were caught stealing, Mary?"
"They were punished, Aunt Mariqah."
"But why were they punished, Mary?" she asked me, "Is it because stealing is wrong?"
I shook my head, "They were punished because they were caught," I replied.
I didn't fully understand the lesson all those years ago. What difference did it make, after all? To be punished, is to be punished. To be put in stocks, is to be put in stocks. Is it not? But now, more than ever, I understand what Mariqah tried to teach me.