A continuation of William’s adventures with Black Hearted Mardie and the Mongoose Company.
The camp of Black Hearted Mardie was well hidden among the forest. Mardia Baine, despite her extravagant personality, proved a tactful woman. She maintained bounties on her head from those she double and triple crossed, but maintained a clean nose from the law. The Red and Black banner acted as a risky gamble. Those that commit to her services had no peace that she would honor her word… but shen she did, they had the best.
William rolled his hands in one another as they broke through the line of trees to the camp. Most of Marida’s mercenaries were men and all of them stared at William with clear disdain. She settled to a stop in the middle of the camp, planted a hands on her hips and raised a hand.
The mercenaries mustered around, some of the most dangerous men William had ever read about. Two eyed Garus, Named after the gold preserved cyclops eyes that adored his armor, settled in first, planted a fearsome looking maul in the soil before him. Jules the Tickler, a jaunty looking man well known for his accuracy with his throwing daggers, settled in place with a bright grin on his face. Harold the Hammer, names for his… big hammer, stared vacantly as he tapped his name sake on his shoulder. Yemen the Sage, a cruel alchemist known for his poisons and curses, continued to pour foul chemicals as he walked.
Several others approached, some of which William vaguely recognized while others were a complete mystery. The two other women in Mardia’s company could not hold a candle to her beauty, but were every bit as dangerous looking. William forced himself to snap his eyes downward at the soil.
“Ladies, Gentlemen, this is William Gotleg. He’s going to be acting as our new scholar.” Mardia gave him an idle shake. “And he’ll be spending the next four nights in my quarters. I don’t want any disruptions.”
Her words did not sink in immediately but the implications of them did. William stiffened his when attention shifted to him. Silence hung about him like a thick cloud and allowed him to consider exactly what she meant.
William raised his hands to his nose and stymied the flow of blood just in time. The thin air of the cave and the glimpse of excitement had been enough to do him in. His mind raced to think of a logical explanation and push away forming images of Mardia wearing less than her armor.
Laughter exploded around him. The piercing noise gave him the clarity he needed. Of course. I’m her scholar. She’ll be working with me in the evenings to get information from me.
William frowned against Mardia’s touch at his arm. She wore a sedated, mischievous smile. He held no doubts that her choice of words were deliberate. He cleared his throat and spoke. “It is customary for Scholars to have their knowledge tested and verified.”
The laughter did not stop.
Gods. I made it worse.
“Exactly.” Mardia widened her grin. “The first infraction will be the loss of a finger. The second… something else.”
The black haired women in her company raised a hand, stiling her laughter to speak. “What if we lack the something else, Mardia? I’m good to lose a finger for a peek.”
“I’ll improvise.” Mardia chuckled. “Come on then handsome, let me show you my books.”
“I’ll take care of everything for the day.” Garus said with a grunt. “You play library with the new meat and I’ll make sure we’re ready to march tomorrow.
“March? On what?”
“Oh didn’t I tell you? We’re working. I made some arrangements. Shortly before meeting up with you. It’s related to why I ended up saving you actually… you should be thankful.” Mardia led him deeper into the camp.
“No you certainly did not.” William ground to a halt. “You can’t expect me to be around you while you kill people and…”
“Easy there. I’m a mercenary. This is my company.” She gestured to the gathering of men behind them. “These are professionals, not killers. We’re merely holding to our contracts. I didn’t think you’d oppose since we’re being hired to find and save someone.”
“I suppose that’s different then.” William frowned. “Who are you supposed to be saving?”
“Some royal. I don’t really care about the details. It pays well though.” Mardia urged him forward. A large tent stood before them, ramshackle as it was it looked sturdier than most houses. She waved him in.
The inside of the tent was nothing short of luxurious. Fine furs, gold chains, and fine tapestries lined the walls of the tent. It seemed elaborate for a temporary base.
William paced around the tent and eyed every item closely. Some of them he had heard stories of; A golden sword owned by a desert king, a chalice said to give eternal life, and a tome of spells thought lost to time: the Book of Titus.
“This book… you…” William drew a hand close. The tome was the pipedream of any magician. A catalogue of every spell scribed by the ancients. It proved much smaller than he expected, no larger than a journal or a hand compendium.
“It’s yours,” Mardia said, “consider it a part of your advance payment.”
“I couldn’t…” William touched it tentatively and picked it up. He opened it and flipped through it. The ancient script was not something he felt fluent in. He would need a reference and hours. “Wait… this… this is what you meant. It would take me about four days to work through this with…”
Mardia held out a second book. This one massive and intimidating. It would be exactly what he would need to work with the Book of Titus. He took in and winced from its weight. He bursquely abandoned it atop a nearby crate.
“You can and will,” Mardia said, “it’s your job.”
Mardia began to remove her armor and pushed aside her hair to fold it back to a ponytail.
William blushed but stayed calm. Armor was not robes, she was merely getting comfortable. He fixed his gaze on her eye patch. He hadn’t noticed it before.
“How did you lose your eye…?” William closed the Book of Titus quietly.
“Oh this?” Mardia plucked off the eye-patch calmly. Her eye was intact underneath. “I didn’t lose it, I’m just nearsighted in that eye. Useless in a fight really.”
She drew close and placed as finger under her right eye.
“Oh. You have a cataract.” William squinted at her. “It’s fairly common. You could wear a lens and…”
“No. What sort of mercenary legend wears glasses?” Mardia shoved him. “I’d rather wear the eye patch.”
“And get killed when someone attacks your blind side?” William snapped at her. “I’ll fashion up something for you to use.”
“I don’t need it.” Mardia scoffed. “I can kill most men with a blindfold on me.”
“No! You mustn’t be cocky on this. Look… here. It’s even in here.” William set aside the book of Titus and pulled open the giant tome. He flipped to the books middle and leafed through to a passage. “Gigor the grand, died by arrow to the left temple. He fashioned a mighty helmet to cover his bad eye, and was feared as dangerous as a Cyclops. But he underestimated the power of a good arrow head. Had he left it uncovered or placed a lens his instinct could have saved him.
“What do you expect them? I change my name to Four-Eyed Mardie?”
“Forget about it for now.” William turned his gaze to the tome. I’ll get to work on this… I can’t wait to see what this book holds.
“Figured you’d be excited.” Mardia laughed. She carried over a pair of stools.
“Ah… but… You said you were going to be in here with me for four days? I should be fine alone.” William settled onto the stool.
“Nonsense. You’re going to teach me the ropes. That’s why I’m here.” Mardia sat next to him and peered into the book.
“What? I’m not a teacher. And showing you would make this take twice as… no three times as long! Four nights is not enough.” William scoffed. “…and you’ll just pressure me.”
“Exactly. Though I like to use the word motivate.” Mardia grinned.
William winced. Things shifted from bad to worse.
“I’m not an idiot. I’m a fast learner. Besides I’m really only looking for one particular detail. Once I get that you can do whatever you want with that dusty old book. You can even keep it when your contract runs out.
“Really? You’d give me the Book of Titus…?” William’s eyes grew wide.
“You’d probably stick it in some library.” Mardia shook her head. “I only ask that you keep it. I don’t care what you do with it otherwise. Oh and if you rule the world with it, I get to be queen.”
“Ha ha…” William halved his eyes. “Legend says it has the capacity, but only in the hands of an equally terrifying magician. I’m just a parlor mage at best.”
“Well you have time to practice. Yemen can whip you up some liquid confidence if you want.” Mardia rocked in her seat. “So, teacher, what’s the first thing to learn?”
* * *
Mardia slept quietly in her chair. A small mystery she could do it sitting up. Shortly after the sun had set her eyes had grown heavy and slipped into comfortable slumber. She had been a decent student, albeit a stubborn one.
The Book of Tidus sat closed atop the great tome she had provided.
William fiddled Mardia’s eye patch instead. He acted on little sleep well, especially if he sat in one place for a time. Reading books in a trance was good enough to count as sleep as long as he slept a few hours proper. Mardia’s room had no shortage of what he needed for the tinker-work.
Black glass, a reading lens along with having a chance to see her eye first hand. William had been blessed with a near photographic memory. He held the patch to his eye and winced. With his perfect vision it made his head swim. It worked though. The world was three shades darker, but there would be no impediment to her vision.
He yawned and gave the mercenary woman a nudge. She woke quickly and brushed away a small tendril of drool at her lip.
“Wha…? Yoi the wise… born year…” She muttered, shook her head and snapped alert. “Oh. I fell asleep.”
“Here.” William placed the eye-patch in her hand. “Reading the histories made me realize your point. This will let your enemies think you have a weakness that doesn’t exist… rather than you needing to adjust to it.”
“Black glass…? ” Mardia glanced down at the patch, felt the difference in weight. She placed on the eyepatch and blinked at him startled.
“So how is it?” William said stifling a yawn.
“Clear as the day I was born. William, this is proper work it is.” Mardia grinned. “I could kiss you for this.”
“You don’t need to… I was just seeing to the well being of my employer.” Though if you insist I certainly won’t complain.
“Right then. I won’t.” Mardia gave him a swat to the gut. “I’m off to bed. Do what you will.”
“I’ll just keep at this then.” William gave the books a pat.
“Pity. I was hoping you’d join me.” She winked and slipped into her bedroll.
She’s kidding. William flushed and went back to his book, conscious of her watching his back before she drifted off.
William looked back at her sleeping face. She dozed off with her hand propping her up at the cheek and her black glass eye-patch/lens. William wondered what exactly she could want from a centuries old book… and the identity of the person she should have saved besides him.