Female mercenary leader, Mariqah, puts faith in an organisation of rebellious world changers in an alternate history where the British colonialism still exists. These world changers seek to abolish all form of imperialism. Mariqah is in tw minds however, as she has friends in both camps. Things go horribly wrong when she sets foot into Bengal which is torn by civil war - where there seems to be deceptive conflict between factions.


22. 18

Dhanbad literally meant "paddy land" (though, ironically, it was a city best known for coal-mining) - which would indicate that perhaps it was idyllic to look at. But after a few months of war, the land had been shredded and chewed apart to a smoking wasteland. Originally, it had not been a part of Bengal, but the rebels had managed to press out this far west. And now, it seemed, the British were throwing everything they could to reclaim it.
 Mariqah followed at a slow pace on horseback behind Reynold, the fatigued animal yewling in complaint beneath her. The roads were in disrepair, the greenery had become too liberal in its growth and so the path was cracked and difficult to discern. Mariqah saw people with bent backs, roaming around aimlessly, probably looking for a place to sleep. Livestock was remarkably scarce.
“What did you do to this place?” she muttered.
“Aye,” Reynold said, grimly, “Britannia's biggest asset, Mariqah. The beast, Britannia, doesn't like to have a single coin on her bed of gold go missing.”
 “I was of the impression that you loved Britain,” Mariqah commented, sceptically.
“It's my home and I love it, yes,” Reynold said, slowing so that Mariqah's mount rode alongside his. He looked at her, “But that does not mean I approve of everything she does.”
 “You don't exactly fight against it, though.”
 “I guess not.”

 “We should take a break,” Mariqah said, clicking her tongue and reigning her horse in, “my mount is getting cranky,” she got off, and patted the horse's muzzle. The horse nodded its head and snorted. Reynold climbed down from his mount, and they led their animals to a group of trees, where they bound them and sat.
 A sharp crackle of thunder broke the sky, the dark clouds above relieving themselves of they're burden.
 Ah, rain.
 Mariqah stared up, a smile on her face, as she felt the heavenly drops wash over her.
 The one thing she missed the most in Masyaf was rain. Bengal was supposed to be in its monsoon months. The rain was supposed to be heavier. Mariqah sighed, content, resting her head against the rough trunk of a coconut tree.
 Reynold took something out of his saddle bag and tore it in half, passing one half to Mariqah.
 Some flat naan. Mariqah took it, sitting up a little straighter and ate it quietly.
“Did you really think it through?” Reynold asked all of sudden.
 Mariqah paused, “Think what through?”
Reynold laughed, shrugging off his red coat and passing it over Mariqah's head, “The stupid yellow coat?”
Mariqah scoffed, taking the Reynold's coat, but wearing it roughly around her shoulders, like a cape, “I over-thought that one, I think.”
Reynold smiled and then asked, “Are you alright?”
Mariqah nodded.
“I'm... surprised you haven't killed me, thus far.”
The repetition of the subject made Mariqah smile, “I couldn't kill you if I wanted to, Reynold,” she said, “I need you.”
 “Of course,” Mariqah said, “How else am I going to get close to Brammer?”
Reynold blinked, “Oh.”
 “And,” Mariqah said, with a light laugh, “I daresay, you're my oldest friend. And... you've proved your loyalty to me more times than you've betrayed me. And, I know that you've caused me no small amount of heartache, but... it's hard. To keep hating you.”
 “Are you saying what I think you're saying?”
Mariqah raised a brow, “What do you think I'm saying?”
Reynold swallowed, “Firdous, I am a married man!” he said loudly.
 Mariqah stared at him for a moment. Then giggled slowly. Then laughed. Then began to guffaw like she was being tickled constantly - kicking out and holding her side, “I'm s-sorry,” she snorted, “but,” she laughed, “are you serious? You thought-”
Reynold's face blanched, blinking unamused, “It's not that funny.”
Mariqah wiped her eyes, “Get your head out of your arse, Evans.”
 “Well, what did you mean then?”
 “That you're just a person I can't hate for too long. You're just that kind of person, I guess.”
Reynold looked at her for a moment and then nodded slightly to himself.

“Are... you alright, Reynold?” Mariqah asked.
“Fine. Just... fine,” he mumbled. Then he sighed deeply.
“You know,” Mariqah said, examining his demeanour, “of the two of us, I'm the one who hasn't tried to kill the other. You can trust me.”
 “It's... one of those things, Mariqah,” Reynold sighed, “One of those things you push away and never want to deal with.”
 “Been there.”
 “I don't know... if I should express it.”
 “How do you deal with things you bottle up?”
 “Not well,” he took out a flask of water and took a swig. Reynold wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and passed the flask to Mariqah, “You?”
 “Same,” she shrugged, taking a few gulps of water.
“Do you think it might hinder us, in the things to come?”
 “In murdering three elites? If it's brought up.”
 “I don't know how you want to play it, Mariqah, but I feel I should... come to terms with my problem. I'm not sure how, though.”
Mariqah straightened, the rainwater plastering her hair to her forehead, “What happened?”

Reynold looked at her sadly, taking off his hat and allowing water to dampen his head and drip down his face, “My son... died this year,” Reynold said slowly, his lips barely moving to the words.

 Mariqah raised her brows, but didn't say anything.
“I never even got to see him,” he shook his head, “The last time I was home... was years ago and my wife realised her pregnancy shortly after I left. She wrote to me often, about our two sons - born of the same hour,” his voice cracked and he sniffed, “and now one is dead. One is dead and...” he sighed.
 He couldn't complete the sentence. He didn't need to. All his regrets were left to hang by that unfinished verse.
“I'm sorry,” Mariqah mumbled, looking away, “that's tragic news. How... how did he die?”
 “I don't know, I... I never asked for details.”
Mariqah grasped his shoulder lightly, “You need to go home,” she said.
“Do I? How can I face her? I don't even know how to reply to her letters anymore.”
 “She needs you. And you need her. Promise me you'll go home as soon as all this... madness is at an end.”
 “You really think...?”
 “Reynold, you're married to that beautiful woman and she's married to you. And from where I'm sitting, you're crazy about each other,” Mariqah said softly, “Go home to your wife as soon as you can, okay? You need to see her and your son. You need to be with them for a while. You need each other.”
Reynold didn't reply. He sat there with his head bent and his brows furrowed, like he was considering all his options.
“Did that help at all?” Mariqah asked.
“That detail was like a bolt fastened to my chest. I'm glad that I cut it loose,” he sniffed, “What about you?”

 “I don't know if you want me to get into it, Reynold,” Mariqah said, twisting the hem of her shirt, “I'm going to cry. A lot.”
 “It's not something I haven't seen before.”
Mariqah looked at Reynold. He watched her face change, distort, her brows and pressed lips quiver, her eyes become watery.
 Tears pricked his own eyes just watching her.
 She sighed a little and looked away, “I never... thought it would happen... again...” she said shakily and pressed her knuckles to her nose, “I never thought... men could be so cruel. He could have punished me in so many ways, tortured me in so many circumstances. I once heard of a man who's flesh was shorn off by a burning comb,” she put her head in one hand and sobbed, “That would have been easier for me.”
Reynold had no words. He just watched her cry. This had happened because of him. There was nothing he could say to make it better.
 Reynold touched her shoulder and she leaned against him, sniffling miserably.
“Mariqah...” he whispered slowly.
“Don't,” was all Mariqah said.
“We'll get him,” Reynold said, “We'll get Brammer, I promise.”

* * * * *

Mariqah woke late in the morning. The smell of wet soil was pungent and the horses snorted as they picked at the small patches of grass around them. Her own mount nuzzled the crook of her neck and she patted the animal's face. The horse sniffed her coat - probably looking for treats - but found nothing and quickly lost interest. Mariqah took the red coat from her shoulders (the hem of which was caked with mud) and looked for Reynold. She saw him squatting by a small fire - his clothes sticking to him - stroking the flames with a long stick.
“When...” she yawned, “when did you wake up?” she asked rubbing her eyes.
“Good morning, Mariqah,” Reynold said, smiling a little, “I'm sorry to say I ate breakfast without you.”
 “I'll manage,” Mariqah mumbled, getting up - the weight of her damp and filthy clothes pulling at her - and sat next to him.
“How are you feeling?”
Mariqah thought for a moment, “Tired.”
Reynold regarded her, “Not too tired, I hope.”
Mariqah shook her head, staring intently at the fire, as if deep in thought, “Just... just a little sick and a little tired,” she looked at Reynold, “My eyes feel puffy. Are they puffy?”
Reynold nodded, “You look like you haven't slept in years.”
Mariqah sighed.
“Do you want breakfast? I can make you some.”
 “I'm not hungry,” Mariqah said, accepting the flask of water that Reynold passed her. She took a long drink, “Reynold?”

 “We're close to the frontier, right?”
 “Very close. It's just a stretch from here.”
Mariqah paused, considering her options, “I have a plan.”
 “Oh? Do tell.”
Mariqah passed back Reynold's flask, “I'm going to need you to hand me in to Brammer.”
Reynold regarded her, “What?” he asked incredulously.
“I need to get into his prison cell and you need to re-establish a connection with the man.”
 “But why?”
 “Because I'd most likely be put into the same compound as my men. And if he learns to trust you - or at least undermine you - you can free me and I can free what's left of my army there.”
 “Wouldn't it just be easier to back the rebel forces?”
 “Would it? When all the men in power over at the rebel base are just men working for the British?” Mariqah said, “They aren't supposed to win. They're just supposed to be a big show for the masses, to show them where their rebellion gets them. That's the point.”
 “I just thought maybe you'd... want to back them.”
Mariqah sighed, “Reality is too toxic for that kind of desire,” she straightened, “I need you to do this. And it has to be convincing.”
Reynold shook his head, “Mariqah, I have already hurt you so much, I-”
 “That's not important right now. I need to be put in a cell and I need you to wind up elsewhere. That's the only way this is going to work.”

* * * * *

The Regulars were posted on the higher ground, on a part of the city which still belonged to Britain. It was the more tactical position, to be able to see your enemies approach from below. Most of Bengal was flat land, some of a marshy quality and water was abundant. The Redcoats would never win a war in Bengal's original territory, not if it was carried out properly and fairly.
 But from the hill in Dhanbad, a soldier standing guard of the encampment could spy a distant speck nearing them. He took out his spyglass and saw a red-coated rider on horseback, dragging something along with him.
 The soldier hoped it was supplies.
 The hundred prisoners that Brammer was keeping 'needed' to be fed and 'needed' to be healed of the 'wounds' each of them had sustained. It was a load of poppycock to the simple soldier, a waste of food and medicine, but he knew better than to question Brammer.
 The rider came closer and closer, until the soldier decided to go and meet with the man. He climbed down the hill in a half-march, half-jog until the rider pulled his reins and removed his dirty black hat.
 The rider looked as if he hadn't shaved in weeks and his red coat was covered with dried mud, as was his stockings and breeches. He climbed down from the horse and looked at the soldier.
“Well! Don't just stand there, take me to your general!” the rider said, getting around the horse to untie his prisoner, “I have a special delivery for him.”
The prisoner was bound by the hands and had clearly been dragged the whole way from God knows where. Her breeches were in tatters, her greying tunic sticking to her and her hair in disarray, her knees scraped raw and bleeding.
“Who are you, sir?” the soldier asked, standing a little straighter.
“Captain Evans. Please, show me the way,” Reynold gestured forward and the unsuspecting soldier led him towards the encampment.

 Reynold tried to pull Mariqah along gently, but she seemed to intentionally resist. Or maybe she was hurting from all the tumbling she had just gone through.
 Reynold stopped walking immediately.
 Mariqah looked at him, the whole encampment around them had there eyes trained on rider and prisoner.
“The fuck are you doing?” she hissed through her teeth.
 Reynold blinked, sighing frustratedly under his breath and continued to lead her forward.
 Brammer exited from one of the larger tents, spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture, “Reynold! It's been some time,” he beamed.
 Reynold bit down profanity.
 The man who had hurt Mariqah to no comparable degree, the man that wanted him dead.
 It took all of Reynold's willpower to keep his face removed of emotion.
“General Brammer,” he said simply, with an inclination of his head. He pulled the rope tied to Mariqah and she fell forward in a graceless heap.
 Brammer gaze fell on Mariqah, “Ah, brought the bitch back to her kennel, I see!” he came closer and Mariqah flinched away from him as he knelt in front of her and touched her face, “Isn't this a surprise?” he got up and looked at Reynold, “I thought you were friends.”
Reynold found it hard to be intimidated by Brammer. Reynold was at least a head taller, “My loyalties have never changed,” he said, hoping that Brammer would mistake the hated in his eyes for envy or disgust.
 Brammer scoffed, smiling and peering at Reynold face with good humour, “Britain: Blood in, blood out - eh? Good to know. I always wondered why you'd give all that information about her so freely,” he sneered at Mariqah, “You alright there, love?”

Mariqah heard a distant, “Leave her be!” and an insistent rattling that followed. Gibbets. Her mercenaries in gibbets.
 Mariqah glowered at Brammer, “Fuck. You.”
Brammer laughed, “Plenty of time for that later.”
Mariqah tried to leap on him, but Reynold pulled her away with the rope binding her hands and slapped her. The side of her face burned, and for a moment she felt that the hit had been sincere, that Reynold was no longer pretending. But when she looked up and saw his face, she felt relieved inside. It was Reynold, and he regretted it. Still she took the opportunity to bite his leg and he jerked back in pain and howled.
 Encouragement rang around her, and soldiers left their posts to calm down their prisoners.
 Reynold eventually kicked her away and Mariqah spat, “Bastard!” showing bloody teeth.
 Brammer grabbed her by her arm and hoisted her up, “Got more fight than the last time, that's good. Better than a stationary target,” he jeered, squeezing both her arms.
“Hey, arsehole, you've got something on your face,” she said to him.
“What are you-?”
Mariqah spat blood in his eyes, and rammed her forehead into his nose. She was satisfied by the crunch that sounded. Before he could wail or attack, she bit into his shoulder and tripped him over. She stomped on the back of his neck.
“Give it to him!” someone cried out.
 Arms grabbed her from behind, pinning her back.
“Is it better, general?” she screamed, struggling against the grip of many soldiers, “I hope you're prepared! Because I fully intend to break every fucking bone in your body, and then tear all your fucking organs out and throw 'em to the tigers up in the Sunderbans!”
Brammer got up slowly and wiped the dirt and blood from his face with the back of his sleeve, his nose angled in a strange position. Reynold was staring at her wide-eyed.
“Secure her in my tent,” Brammer told the soldiers, “and give her the odd lick.”
 “Oh, there's a man speaking!” Mariqah barked as she was led away, “Fucker wants a bunch of men to pummel a woman. Aye, there's definitely something hanging between his thighs!”
The mercenaries laughed.
 A fist connected with the side of her head and she lost her balance - but it wasn't long enough to stop her from biting down on a wrist and kneeing a soldier in the groin. She elbowed another and brought up her hands to strangle a man with the rope tied between them.
 The mercenaries rattled their chains and chanted like a pack of dogs.
 The soldier's fingers clawed at the rope, his throat closing up immediately with the pressure that Mariqah was applying to it.
“I will kill all of you and water every tree in Bengal with your blood!” she screamed, letting the now-dead man drop to the floor.
 The mercenaries cheered.
 She didn't get to see their reactions as someone hit her in the back of the head with something hard. She swayed slightly, her gaze focussing on Reynold for just a moment, before she dropped senseless.
 The mercenaries went crazy and soldiers scurried from their tents and posts to try and regain control and quiet.

“I'll deal with it,” Reynold said, making his way to Mariqah's unconscious body.
“I think-” Brammer began, still in quite the shock from what he had seen.
“Your men's incompetence has led to a fatality,” Reynold said, “I am more than capable of delivering this woman to your chambers, you should probably attend to the apparent mess that she has made,” he picked up Mariqah's body and moved her to Brammer's tent without another word.
 He placed her down on the ground gently, touching the red hand-shaped mark on the side of her face, guilt spreading across his chest. He looked at the rope around her wrists, undid them and then re-tied them in a looser knot.
“What now?” Reynold murmured to her.

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