Marissa twirled the ring on her finger thoughtfully. Rome was far behind now; the frigid Northern Lands getting nearer every day. What awaited her there?
Declan watched the girl from his perch up in the rigging. She was a strange one. The day before cast off, she had come aboard while they were loading, and demanded passage to Norway. Not begged or pleaded, but demanded. Her manner was authoritative, and her blue, fur-lined cloak showed she was no peasant. Why then did she choose to travel on a cargo ship?
As they sailed farther north, Declan was amused to see that the young lady never spoke to any of the crew, keeping always to herself. Yet she was always there, listening, whenever the men were gathered. After one such time, a game of dice, Declan noticed her lingering after the men had dispersed. Strolling up to her, he introduced himself amiably.
“Declan; able seaman. Going to Norway for the holidays?”
“Got family up there?”
Pause. Then, “Yes.”
“I hope you enjoyed your stay in Italy. Just visiting there, were you?”
“Got plans to return?”
He took the hint. “It was a pleasure meeting you, ma’am.” With a courteous bow, he returned to his work.
He made a point of speaking with this strange girl as often as possible. It relieved the monotony of the voyage, and she intrigued him. He discovered that her name was Marissa, but little else. She avoided him as much as possible, and was very evasive when they did speak. Something seemed to be constantly on her mind.
Marissa was not pleased that this sailor kept engaging her in conversation. She had given him every indication that she was not interested, yet he continued to plague her with his sociability. Perhaps he needed to be gotten out of the way.
Declan stood watch near the stern of the ship, the moon shining brightly near the western horizon. He loved the night watch, when the stars were out, and everything was quiet. Hearing boards creak behind him, he turned slowly. A figure stood wrapped in a blue cloak at the port bow. They waited silently for a few minutes, watching the vessel sway gently, anchored near the narrowest part of the fjord. Declan turned his back and pretended not to have noticed, curious to see the outcome. The moon slowly dimmed, as a passing cloud blotted out its light. As everything grew dark, he heard a quiet splash. Whirling around, he ran to the far side of the ship, and glanced over the edge. Dark in the water below, he could see someone making swiftly for land. On the verge of shouting for help, he caught sight of the blue cloak, and something stopped him. He silently watched her reach the shore and head inland. He marked in his head the direction she took: toward the frozen northern fjords.
Reaching their destination, Declan helped unload, received his pay, and left the ship with his few belongings, heading north. He was grateful that, after that first day, the missing passenger incident had not been mentioned. He had merely been notified that he would be free to go where he would once the ship reached shore. Nothing more had been said.
At the first tavern he came to, the Snowy Elk, he discovered that a young woman in a light blue cloak had passed that way. She was, in fact, a frequent customer. He decided to stay.
Declan set his whiskey bottle on the counter with a bang. The Snowy Elk was loosing its charm. He had been waiting for Marissa for days. Still no sign of her. Asking around had produced no better results. He was beginning to think she was gone for good.
The room grew suddenly quiet. Turning, he looked toward the door. He immediately recognized the figure in the familiar blue cloak. As her gaze swept the room, it quickly emptied, until Declan was the only customer remaining. Marissa strode to the bar, and seated herself. She glared at Declan. He chugged more whiskey.
“I drink alone.” Her voiced was silky, but the menace in the blatant hint could not be completely concealed. Grumbling, Declan removed himself to a table.
“Completely alone.” There was no hinting this time. The light glinted off her knife as she pointed it meaningly at the door. Declan slammed the bottle down, payed for his drink, and stalked out of the bar, cursing.
Once outside, he found an adjacent stable, nothing but a thin wall dividing it from the tavern. Several knots were missing, through which he could easily see, and hear, into the back room.
Marissa slid a few coins across the counter to the bartender. “Describe them.”
The girl slipped the money in her pocket and began relaying everything she knew about the various patrons. Declan was shocked by the things she knew about him. Very detailed descriptions, from height, to eye color, to favorite drinks. The description of a dark-skinned man with a hooked nose especially grabbed his attention. He had noticed that man, a frequent customer of the Snowy Elk, always buying drinks for other patrons and making himself quite agreeable to everyone. He was not surprised when Marissa singled him out. “He’s the one. Notify me when he returns.” More coins changed hands, then she made her way back out into the snow.
It was not even a day before Declan again saw the hook-nosed stranger. He seated himself at the bar, and ordered a drink for Declan. They were engaged in friendly conversation when Declan suddenly noticed the absence of the bartender. Looking around, he could see her talking earnestly to a young boy, then sending him out of doors. After a time, the stranger seemed uneasy, and kept glancing toward the door. Then he stood up abruptly and took his leave of Declan.
Also rising, Declan again saw the blue-cloaked figure in the doorway. She glanced hurriedly about the room, caught sight of the receding form of the man, and quickly followed suit, back out into the falling snow. Declan joined her in this pursuit of the man with the hooked nose.
Crunch, crunch. Marissa hated how loud her boots sounded in the deep snow. Crunch, crunch. The echo of boots behind, always following. She sighed, thoroughly annoyed. “You know, this much snow makes it hard to be stealthy!”
The voice came cheerfully from behind, between gasps from struggling through the mounds of snow. “You’re making enough noise up there for both of us. I don’t need to be stealthy.”
“Well, some of us do, and the snow doesn’t exactly make it easy.”
“Are you saying it’s unfair for me to be following you, because of the snow?”
“‘All’s fair in love and war’.”
“So which is this?”
“That is entirely your decision.”
“Indeed! How so?”
“I would love it if you vanished off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. But, trust me, it will be war if you continue your incessant haunting.” She slipped into a small shed, and emerged with a prancing bay. Swinging up, she prayed fervently that she would be able to lose this menace, and track down the hook-nosed man.
The man fingered the talisman around his neck and sent up a prayer to his deity. His horse stamped, matching his impatience and unease. He felt his horse tense beneath him, suddenly still. Glancing through the thickness of the woods, he could see the rider approach. She cantered past on the bay, her blue cloak fluttering. Wheeling his horse, he followed closely behind her.
At a disadvantage, being only on foot, Declan had to content himself with following Marissa’s tracks. He patiently followed the hoof marks, until they were joined by another set of hooves. Curious, he paused to examine them more closely. A piercing pain in the side of his back caused him to jerk upright. Spinning, he caught his assailant a swift punch to the gut. Doubled over, the man again attempted to stab him. This time, Declan grabbed the knife, twisted it, and brought it swiftly down in his attacker’s abdomen. Wiping it clean, he slid it into his belt and again went on his way, slowly and painfully.
Seeing the stranger gaining on her, Marissa urged her tired horse to an even greater speed. The fresh horse behind crept closer. Seeing an abandoned barn ahead, Marissa turned her horse toward it. Riding into the safety of the barn, she dismounted and crouched behind some hay. Cocking her pistol, she waited for the man to enter.
A hand from behind wrapped around her neck, jerking her to her feet. The other one reached for her gun. “Now I will fulfill my mission!” Pressed against the hay, she watched helplessly as the man drew his gleaming, curved knife. Raising it high, he shot a glance behind him, where Marissa’s horse pawed at the hay. Seizing this chance, Marissa kicked her would-be murderer squarely in the chest. Sprawling backwards, he lost his grip on the weapons. Scooping her six-shooter up off the floor, Marissa fired a bullet into his chest.
Hearing a gunshot up ahead, Declan forced his tired and bleeding body into a sprint. He jogged into the barn, and nearly tripped over someone lying prostrate on the floor. Kneeling down, he rolled the man over, onto his back, bringing his face into a ray of the setting sun. It was the man from the tavern. Pulling his hand away, he felt something warm and moist. Blood. Jerking his head up quickly, he heard the metallic click of a gun being cocked. He peering intently into the darkness, barely making out a figure behind the hay. A voice spoke. “Stand up slowly, your hands where I can see ’em. I’ve still got five shots, and I ain’t afraid to use ’em.”
He rose slowly, as directed. “Marissa. Would you kindly explain what is going on here?”
“You walked in at the wrong time, laddie. I wasn’t finished cleaning up.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m an assassin. Or was.”
“Aha. Everything just got so clear! But why did you kill that man? Certainly he was innocent?”
“That man was of my order, sent here to kill me for deserting.”
“You left your order? No wonder they’re trying to kill you!” Declan’s face clearly displayed his shock.
“Indeed. However, I was finished with it; I just wanted to be done, to be free.” Marissa sighed. “You, however, are a witness, and assassins cannot leave live witnesses.” She raised her pistol and pointed it at his head.
Declan was startled and turned to made a quick move toward the door. Feeling suddenly weak and lightheaded, he grasped at the hay in front of him. His vision clouded over.
Marissa reached out to catch him, and he collapsed unconscious into her arms. Laying him gently on the hay, she peeled away his outer coat, revealing his crusted, blood-stained shirt. She carefully cut the fabric away with her dagger, sponging the area gently. She bandaged it with a clean cloth. Laying his head on her lap, she stroked his hair until he woke.
His vision returned slowly. He could make out a figure above him. His side felt warm and dry, his head was comfortable. He then recognized Marissa above him, and struggled to get up.
“Sshh,” she murmured. “Lie still.”
“Why did you help me? I thought you were going to kill me.”
Her next words shocked him. “I love you, Declan. I’ve loved you since that night on the ship, when you let me escape. I’ve tried not to, but I couldn’t help it.”
“I love you too. Will you spend this Christmas with me?”
“Anything, with you!”
Declan led her into the small cabin, warmly lit by firelight and candles. The guests were milling about, their laughter filling the home with cheer. Marissa glanced around nervously. “You’re sure I’m welcome here?”
“Of course!” he assured her. “Just try not to get in trouble, ok?” He smiled at her, and squeezed her hand.
Then someone struck the keys of the piano, playing the old Scottish tune of friendship.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes
An pou’d the gowans fine
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fitt
Sin’ auld lang syne.”
Declan reached for her hand. She squeezed his, and smiled up at him.
“And ther’s a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
We’ll tak’ a right good willie-waught,,
For auld lang syne.“