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.


6. 4

The night air was cold in the desert, the black sheet of the sky punctured with a pattern of white stars - scattered in a design only an astrologer or a skill navigator might understand. A thin sickle of a moon hung there, shining brightly against the darkness - saved for the moving shreds of torn clouds that would pass it by.

Mariqah watched from her place, crouched behind a large stone, one hand feeling the sand between her fingers as British soldiers closed the gates of Masyaf. It clattered and clanged until it hit the ground with a dull thud. A figure crept up beside her and observed the fortress walls above, sentries with plumed helmets patrolling them, muskets in arm.
“Our best chance is to climb those walls, I think,” said Zhou Fa, stating the obvious just to break the silence, “What's the plan?”
“We'll go in, ten-by-ten,” Mariqah said, “Else someone might notice us. I estimate there's about a hundred soldiers within the walls, maybe a few more... I and the first ten will clear the sentries on the turrets. You stand here, by this rock and I'll give you the signal to send the next ten,” she paused to look at Zhou, “Khadir should be on his way, so you and the last five men lead him and the rest of the army in. Got that?”
“Understood, madam,” he said, with a sight nod.
“After we clear the upper-level, I will head straight to Shankar's quarters, by an indirect route. Hans Drexler and John Barrett accompanied me on the day I spoke to the General, they'll know the place. After you're done capturing and subduing the soldiers within - and, note, that no-one should be killed if it can be helped - I want you, Khadir, Drexler and Barrett to make your way there.”
Zhou nodded and they both looked up at the fortress one last time before slinking back to the village to get Mariqah's group of ten.
“Good fortune to you, Mr Fa,” she said to Zhou after informing her ten of the plan and instructing them of their positions. She looked at the other men, “If we time this right, lads, we can catch them all unawares. Let's hope that unawares is how we catch them.”

Mariqah paused for a cloud to pass over the moon before she scuttled her way to the fortress walls. The villagers had told her of the small tyrannies the British had indulged in - even though they only recently occupied the fortress - slaughtering domestic livestock and kidnapping young women. It was for these reasons that the villagers had agreed to hide Mariqah and half her army.
People. Throw them enough carrots and you'll buy they're loyalty.
Mariqah looked at the old stone bricks, placing a hand on it before she took off her boots and leather socks, and secured them in one of the belts on her back. She took a deep breath before hooking her fingers into the withering crags of the building and boosting herself up. Finding hand-holds and foot-holds, Mariqah climbed - almost as if the only thing that existed in that moment was her and that wall, above and below. Nothing more. For that time, she forgot about the Redcoats, about Shankar and his idiot ways, about everything.
It sounded ridiculous, even stupid - but it happened every time she found herself climbing. It took all Mariqah's focus and attention. Even the exertion in her muscles was dulled and ignored.
Mariqah could never tell if it was thrill or fear that caused this.
She climbed around balconies and windows, paying little or no heed as to whether there was someone looking out. But as she neared the turrets, she became aware of the steady tmp-tmp-tmp of a soldier's boots marching above. Mariqah closed her eyes, her heart freezing in her chest.

Fear. It was definitely fear.

The numbness this caused helped to block out the pain in her arms as she clung to a turret - two shallow crevices being the only thing keeping her bare feet in place - and waited for an unsuspecting soldier to pass her. When she heard him coming, she gave a sharp whistle. She couldn't see him, but judging from the sudden stop of his footsteps, he'd paused and come near the turret. Mariqah peered to a side, watching him approach. Once he was close enough, she reached for his proud, red coat and pulled him over the side - using the momentum to throw herself onto the roof. As he screamed his way down, Mariqah crouched by the wall to catch her breath, panting heavily all of a sudden. She looked over the precipice, seeing the broken body of the soldier she'd thrown over the edge splattered on the barren ground below.
God, it was a long way down.
Mariqah sighed, aware that someone might have heard, and pulled out her sword - a broad, heavy thing she named the Damascus; a gift from her tutor Haytham (ibn Harith) Al-Assadi, Khadir's father. It was more than a weapon to her, more than an item of sentiment. It was to her as a sting to a wasp, a thorn to a rose. Should fate ever tear them apart, nature itself was sure to destroy her.
The polished blade shone slightly in the pale moonlight as she crept along, peeking behind outhouses and crouching behind barrels. There were still a few sentries patrolling the area, but she caught sight of one of the mercenaries, and then another next to him, squatting behind a stack of crates. She gave a low and, recognising the simple two-note call, the mercenaries turned sharply to her. She heard a few other whistles in the same tune - mercenaries that had arrived but she could not see.

Mariqah went two of them and knelt behind the crates beside them - pulling her socks and boots back on - and they raised their fingers to their lips, listening to what the British soldiers were talking about.
“You get an odd feelin'?” one of them said.
“What you talkin' about?” said his friend.
They both sounded a little tipsy.
“Like someone's watchin' us?” said the first.
“You touched in the head?” the second laughed.
“It ain't funny, Bill!”
“What you buggerin' about, Alfie? Ain't nothin' around to scare you, so don't get your knickers in a bunch.”
“It's that mercenary woman - wotshername? - she gave me the bleedin' creeps. 'Specially on that day we counted the money.”
“You scared of a damsel in armour?”
“Well, I guess I ought to. A million pound in all, Bill! How many wars d'you have to fight to get shacked up with that kinda coin? And what kinda wars?”
“S'all charity, if you ask me: old men who see her and think 'might as well give the poor little bitch some'ut to be happy about'. That, or she's been fiddlin' in the beds of rich and powerful men,” Bill chuckled, “besides, she's gone now. We all saw her and her 'army' leave.”
“But the threats...”
“Oh, come on, Alfie! Words are words.”

“Indeed they are,” Mariqah said, coming out of hiding. The two soldiers jumped up, startled and turned to face her, hefting their bayonets in front of them defensively. Ten mercenaries in their black uniforms came out and drew their swords. The remaining guards, five or six, looked around and hesitated - feeling the eyes of the mercenaries watch their every move. Mariqah regarded Bill and Alfie, cocking her head to a side, teasing the tip of her sword with her fore-finger.
“Perhaps Bill would like to test my mettle,” she said, “Which one of you is that, by the way?”
The two soldiers looked each other, before one pointed to the other and said, “It's him.”
Then the other pushed his friend and cried out angrily, “He's lying! It's him!”
“Who's afraid of the damsel in armour now?” Mariqah said, she turned to the mercenaries, “Aren't you boys glad you joined the right army?” she smiled, and turned back to Bill and Alfie, “I was really looking for Alfie. Said he'd been there at the counting today?” Mariqah stood on the back-foot and raised her sword, “I promised to make those men regret it, you might recall. And since you're both not-Bill...” she shrugged, “As for the rest of you,” Mariqah addressed the other British soldiers, “lay down your arms and you'll be spared. Play a stupid hero and you'll pay in the same way your friends will.”

Muskets and swords clattered on the ground in surrender, as Mariqah lunged at the two soldiers, her sword whistling passed their heads. They raised their bayonets to throw off Mariqah's offensive, stepping backwards as she pushed them back. The smarter of the two moved sideways, until he was behind her. Mariqah drew a dagger from her belt and used it to shield herself from his attacks. Using the hilt of her blade, Mariqah pushed and threw the soldier in front of her down, before turning to the other and knocking his gun to a side. She stabbed her boot into his knee and he cried out. Mariqah heard a musket click, so she pulled the soldier towards her and used him as a shield as his friend fired. With a bang, a shudder and a wisp of smoke, the body went limp in her arms before she threw it to a side and leapt on the remaining soldier. To his credit he charged at her, bewildered by the death of his friend. Steel rung as their blades met, but Mariqah knocked the soldier's steel upwards before sweeping his legs from under him and stabbing him through the arm so that he released his weapon. Mariqah kicked the man in the throat before he could howl and scream. The soldier choked and spluttered.
Mariqah squatted over him, hand on the hilt of the Damascus pinned into his arm, “Tell me honestly: is your general even remotely expecting us?”
The soldier whimpered something unintelligible with a look of contempt. Mariqah imagined it was a noble and stupid sentiment.
“If you prove difficult, there are methods to make this encounter much more uncomfortable for you, sir,” she said.
The soldier's mouth pressed into a thin line for a moment, before he shook his head slowly.
“You'd best be telling the truth,” Mariqah warned, picking up his musket, and slamming the butt into his forehead.

Mariqah stood up and pulled her sword free of bone and flesh, wiping the blood on the soldier's red clothes. She regarded the others still standing around.
“On your knees,” she said, “Hands behind your backs,” she then instructed the mercenaries to gag and bind them - hands to feet, like animals for slaughter.
When they were done, Mariqah walked around the wall, looking for the stone: for Zhou. She caught sight of him and raised her sword, reflecting the light of the moon: the signal. Mariqah saw him depart, to get the next ten. The shadow on the horizon was darkening, she noticed, and she smiled to herself.
Khadir was coming.
She touched the shoulder of one of the mercenaries, “Sam Golding, isn't it?”
“Yes, ma'am,” he replied.
“I'm leaving you in-charge. Watch the stairs, take care of anyone who comes up here. Avoid killing them, if you can. Don't advance below until your brothers come up,” Mariqah instructed.
Sam inclined his head.
She looked at the faces of the other mercenaries. She could put a name - at times, even a nickname - to each of them. Mariqah wondered briefly how many would fall today. She sighed.
“Be careful,” she said, “Each of you. Money can be retrieved, buildings can be rebuilt - but limbs cannot be regrown and corpses cannot be reanimated. But, I swear't, there's a share in that million pound for each of you. Good luck and stay safe.”

They expressed similar sentiments as Mariqah left, sheathing the Damascus and descending down a flight of steps. When she reached the lower levels, she extinguished the flames burning in brackets on the walls as she crept through corridors. Guards were patrolling down here too, bayonets in arm. She kept her dagger handy as she watched them march around the same area. Standing behind the bend, Mariqah waited for one to approach, before lashing out, pulling him around and knocking the butt of her dagger into his head. The soldier went limp in her arms and she dragged him into a broom closet, and bound him there. The next soldier Mariqah came across she had to kill, but she hid him in bedroom - placing him beneath the sheets of a bed as if he were asleep.
Mariqah sighed to herself and stepped back out, dagger in hand. She heard voices and slipped back into the bedroom keeping the door wide open as she stood behind it and listened.
“I don't get it,” said one Redcoat, “Why does he get the prettiest one?”
“Oh, quit complainin'! He's the general. You know what he's like. Besides - least you got one,” said his friend.
“Still, I took the pretty one. I don't understand why he can just pick her out of the pile and leave some other mare for me.”
His friend chuckled, “How do you see the difference between 'em? They all look the same to me.”
“That's 'cause all you're lookin' at are tits and cunts.”
Mariqah stifled a growl, as the second sentry said, “That's all they are, though.”

Mariqah waited for them to pass by, and stepped out. So General Shankar was occupied, raping some poor innocent girl from the village. Mariqah wondered how he could be so careless. He really, really didn't take her seriously, then.
Let men think their in-charge. Let them play lord and leader. Let them underestimate a female equal.
And when they fall on their faces at the feet of that female equal, then they can feel her boot on the back of their heads.
Mariqah made her way to Shankar's quarters - knocking out guards where she could and killing them when she had to. She found one sentry standing at the door, who yawned widely as he stood there, plain in sight.
Mariqah paused a while and then went back to one of the broom closets. She unbound the soldier and stripped him of his clothes. She used her sword to cut her hair short and tied it up high on her head. She put on the soldier's uniform, placing his black tricorne tilted low on her head so that a shadow fell over her face. She took some dust from the ground and rubbed it over her cheeks and raised the black scarf up to her chin so that her neck was hidden. The shoes were too big, so she kept her own boots on. It shouldn't cause too many problems.
Sheathing the Damascus at her side, Mariqah made her way to the soldier guarding Shankar's door.
“You look tired, soldier,” she said, deepening her voice, “I'll take your shift.”
Mariqah heard a cry go up, and she looked above at the ceiling. The mercenaries must have been noticed by now.
“What was that?” the sentry asked, becoming immediately alert.
“Sounds like trouble,” Mariqah put fear in her deepened voice.
“I'm sure it's nothing,” he said reassuringly, and placed a hand on Mariqah's shoulder, “You watch the door for me. The General is not to be disturbed.”
Mariqah nodded once, before the sentry went off to join a group of soldiers that were heading up.

She opened the door as soon as they were gone, and stepped into the passage that led to the study. She opened the door and heard a woman screaming. Mariqah saw another door, opened a crack, which must have been a bedroom. She unsheathed the Damascus and threw the door open. The woman screamed again and Shankar - only half-clothed - shot up like a startled hare.
“What is the meaning of this!” he demanded angrily.
Mariqah took off her hat and placed it on a chest next to the door. She said nothing.
Shankar stared at her for a while - his expression changing so much, it was hard to read it.
“I knew you'd change your mind on my offer,” he said, with a (slightly nervous) smirk.
Mariqah looked at the bewildered woman and said, “Put your clothes on and stand in that corner,” in Arabic and gestured to a side. The woman did as she asked, sniffing and rubbing her eyes as she picked up her torn clothes and moved off, mumbling a grateful “ Shukran...” as she went.
“Firstly,” Mariqah said, “I've travelled the world with the better half of two-hundred men for about five years now: I've walked in on better often and worse rarely,” she heard shouts and screams from outside, along with gunfire and the clash of swords, and a clicketty-clank of the gate being opened, “and secondly: I told you so.”
“You can't get away with this. Do you know who I am?”
“Oh, but I can,” Mariqah said. She heard footsteps and the door to the study being ripped open.
“If she's dead, British scum!” she heard Khadir bark, “If! If she is dead, I will torture each of you in so many ways, your mothers will feel it in their wombs!”
“You sighed a document and put King Stephen's name to it,” Mariqah said, as Khadir barged into the room and threw Reynold to the ground. Khadir visibly relaxed when he saw Mariqah, but the anger in his face did not depart.
Mariqah ignored his looks of disapproval and continued, “I offered you a deal even the King himself wouldn't refuse. This stronghold isn't worth twenty-thousand bits, but I paid you a million - to avoid,” she gestured around her, “this.”
Shankar looked at her curtly, “It's rich coming from you. You who fight for no king and for no country - only for wealth!”
“Yes. But I choose my battles as well as I choose my strongholds - and this one is mine,” she took out her dagger and stepped towards Shankar. She heard more footsteps and Zhou, Barrett and Drexler stepped in with their hostages.
Mariqah pulled Shankar up into a standing position, “And I take what's mine,” she looked up at Shankar, “I made you a promise, one I intend to keep,” the General gasped and moaned as she stabbed him below the abdomen. Once she'd separated her promised from him, she threw him back and turned to look at the paled faces of the other men.
“Keep him alive, if you can,” she told Zhou.

Mariqah rested Shankar's loins in the hat she'd left on the crate, as Zhou rushed to stop the blood flowing from Shankar.
Then Khadir rounded on her, “Why would you do that to me!”
“Why would I do what to you?” Mariqah asked.
“You said you'd send for me!” Khadir shouted.
Mariqah shrugged, “I say a lot of things.”
Khadir's face went red.
“Okay, no need to hard-boil your brain,” Mariqah sighed, “I need your brain. Your brain is highly essential for the way my brain works. Seriously, stop it - you're scaring everyone,” when Khadir continued to glower at her, Mariqah said, “I'm sorry I didn't send for you, okay? I'm sorry I worried you, and I'm sorry you're an over-protective psychopath.”
“You're insufferable,” Khadir said through clenched teeth.
“You're adorable,” Mariqah said, “But, to business - I want all the British soldiers unbound and given rooms, to be locked on the outside. They're to be given food and water, and a decent toilet should they need it. Reynold Evans is to be given the freedom to roam. I want the dead washed and buried before the sun comes up,” she looked at the frightened woman crying in the corner, “I want someone to escort her back to the village. Shares, rooms and anything else will be discussed in the morning. For now, I want half the army on watch. The rest of us have some serious washing and digging to do. Khadir, you should lie down or eat some ice.”
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