A rare night breeze wafts through the open window and without thinking Merreth raises her head to let it cool her neck. Her hand slips and the quill leaves a splotchy ink trail across the paper, obscuring the words she’s written. Damn! She balls up the page in frustration and tosses it into the corner. Bloody pointless effort with only a single candle for light. She’s not even sure why she’s trying to write to her sister. No. That’s not true. She’s bored. This is her second night in the cabin and there’s not a damned thing to do.
What the blazes do I say to Ammantha anyway?
You will be pleased to know that I have been branded a criminal, after having beaten bloody a ranking Red Hand noble before hundreds of witnesses, including High Mistress Rehkhell. After that, I contrived to have myself banished to the far side of the Saskanna River to keep company with commoner rogues, thieves, brigands, and cutthroats. This for a period of not less than two years, assuming I am not killed in the little war the Watch is waging against the clans. While here, I thought our House interests could best be served by insulting and threatening the Temple, handing my House whip to a commoner, and embarrassing the entire Watch nobility in front of an armed mob. At the moment I am imprisoned in a cabin not much bigger than a privy shed. It’s been a busy first week.
I hope you are well.
No. That wouldn’t do. Still, Ammantha will find out anyway. There’ll be no lack of people willing to inform her of Merreth’s slide into ruin. Merreth sighs as she loosens the ties on her breeches. Her sister will be so proud. She places the quill back on the table and caps the ink bottle. With a quick pinch the candle is snuffed dark. She takes a sip of water and runs a hand through her sweat-tangled hair before settling on the cot, her back resting against the wall, boots off, feet drawn up, eyes unfocused. The barest hint of purple shows through the window. Dawn nears.
Her ‘quarters’ contain a cot, a table, and a bureau. There are two windows that are covered with grime, while the table and chair wear a light coat of dust. There are no curtains, knick-knacks, books, tools, cutlery, or clothing. Nothing, save for a shallow wash basin and water jug sitting on the table, to indicate anyone had actually used the cabin before Charadell decided to turn it into a prison.
The table wobbles. The washbasin is cracked.
I’m a rat in a box, she thinks.
There is one thing. Her lips curl into a smile as she glances at the corner where the privy bucket sits. She’d taken her first meal from the guard with one hand and given him the bucket for emptying with the other. “Dump it. I’ll wait.”
That had been her most diverting moment until late that afternoon when the entire encampment had exploded into activity. A cacophony of sounds, shouts, and orders crashed through the still air. Her two windows face away from the encampment and Charadell’s guard had refused to open the door. Merreth had cursed with frustration at being unable to see.
The camp was being made ready. Charadell had to be moving against the clans. Nothing else could explain the controlled pandemonium taking place. Would she succeed? How much of a price would Totlenn and his men pay for that success? Probably no one gave a damn.
Do I? she asks herself now. She doesn’t know. Everyone here – everyone noble – is so damn quick to throw away commoner lives. When they aren’t busy make those lives miserable. Merreth remembers Tiandraa backhanding Brinnt. She remembers Tiandraa’s promise to her.
I’m going to have to kill her. Merreth closes her eyes and rolls the words around in her mind. No fear, no anguish, no despair. The thought lies in her mind like a corpse in a grave. I’m going to have to kill her.
She wakes with a start. A key turns in the door lock with a scraping protest. Breakfast. Damn it! Her neck is stiff from sleeping sitting up…
The door flies open and a crossbow quarrel thuds into her pillow. The figure in the doorway is short, barrel-chested, wearing a rough tunic and breeches, with cold eyes above crooked teeth. He throws the weapon down and reaches for a belt knife.
Merreth hurls the wash basin but he bats it away to fall on the floor with a thud. She flings the water jug, spraying its contents across the room and into her attacker’s face. He jerks back and blinks the water away.
She swings the chair at him, one of its legs striking his knife arm. “Come on, come on! Worthless vermin,” she screams. In a rage she uses the chair as a shield, legs pointed at his head.
He’s on her in heartbeat, sweeping the knife around to get at her side. A chair leg catches him in the face. He staggers backwards with a sharp grunt, steps in the washbasin and topples to the floor.
“Bastard!” Merreth slams the chair into his chest, the blow cracking it in two. She throws the pieces at his face, then kicks savagely at his groin. “Shit!” She hops backwards, her foot a throbbing mass of pain from his cod piece.
He sits up, lips skinned back in a snarl, knife clenched in a white-knuckled fist. “Yer outta tricks now, bitch.” He begins to rise.
Merreth backs up against the table, flailing behind her for something, anything to use as a weapon.
He’s taken but one step toward her when she smashes a candleholder into his face, crushing bone and shattering teeth. His scream rips through the cabin and the knife clatters to floor. She scoops it up and pounds it through his ribs, over and over. “Fucker! Trying to kill me!” Merreth grunts as he sags to the floor. She squats over him and drives the blade two-handed into his eye. “BASTARD!”
She staggers back, her leathers slick with blood. “Bastard,” she gasps, hugging herself.
After a moment Merreth balls up the bed sheet and wipes as much of the blood from her leathers as she can. She does the same with her feet, pulls on her boots, and grabs her hat. After wrenching the knife free she takes a cautious step out the door.
Frantic activity fills the encampment. The constables shoulder their gear, check their weapons, and move to form up in a column by the road. Clots of mounted nobles gather to confer. The air hums with anticipation, excitement, fear.
No wonder no one heard the screams, Merreth thinks. She leans against the cabin doorway for a moment before noticing her guard propped up against the outside wall, tunic soaked in drying blood, a crimson gash drawn across his throat.
Arric and one of his men run up and come to a halt.
The constable sergeant takes in Merreth’s appearance, his eyes wide. “Lady Merreth! Good Goddess!”
Arric’s companion straightens up from squatting over the guard. “Dead, Sergeant.” He glances at the knife in Merreth’s hand.
Merreth jerks her head towards the cabin interior. “Inside.”
Arric disappears through the doorway. After a moment he comes out, grim-faced. “Who the blazes is that, and what happened?”
I’ve killed someone, thinks Merreth. I’ve taken a life and I feel … nothing. Empty. Mostly. There’s a small dark part of her that feels glorious satisfaction. “An errand boy,” she says. “I didn’t like what he brought for breakfast.”
They make their way through the bustling camp. “I think you should give me the knife, Lady Merreth,” Arric says, raising his voice to be heard over the tumult of sound. “I can’t have you appear before the Domina while armed.”
“I’m not giving you the knife.”
“It will look … questionable. There’s blood smeared over your leathers.”
“None of it mine, and I’ll keep the blade to help ensure that remains so,” says Merreth. “Your damned guard couldn’t keep me safe. He was too busy getting his throat cut.”
“Wylenn was my friend,” says the other constable. “He’s good – was good. There must have been more than one of the arseholes.”
“We’ll figure that out later, Davven,” says Arric. An edge creeps into his voice. “I need the knife, Lady Merreth.”
She makes the decision on instinct, halting so abruptly the two constables take a couple steps before turning around.
“Lady Merreth,” says Arric.
This should be Ammantha, thinks Merreth. She is so much better at this sort of thing than I am. With a flick of her wrist she reverses the blade and holds it out to Davven, hilt first. “Take it, and keep it. The pig in the cabin probably used it to end Wylenn, and I used it to end him. You lost a friend so I think you’ve more right to it than anyone else.”
Davven takes the knife and nods.
“Happy now?” Merreth asks Arric.
He studies Davven before answering. “I’m not sure.”
Excited noblewomen gather by the Domina’s pavilion. One grabs a pennant staff and pumps it into the air. Through the gathering, grim-faced, constables Merreth catches a glimpse of a groom leading several mounts towards the pavilion. “Come on,” she says. “Looks like Charadell’s going to war soon.”
“We’re all going to war soon,” says Davven.
Several small parties of mounted nobles pass by. Only a handful are men. Merreth draws long stares and more than a few scowls from all.
Samretta is outside the pavilion handing the reins of her horse to a groom. Her leathers are coated with dust and grime, and Merreth can see dark half-circles under the woman’s eyes. There’s a sheen of sweat on her face. She grimaces when she sees Merreth. “You’re covered in blood.”
“Sharp eye,” says Merreth. “You should be a scout.”
“I am a scout,” snaps Samretta.
“No doubt everyone rests easier for that.”
“Why are you here, Merreth?” Samretta strips off her gloves. “The Domina ordered you under guard yesterday.”
“Ask the corpse in my cabin. Why are you here?” Merreth doesn’t wait for answer, instead brushing past Samretta into the pavilion. She hears Arric follow close behind her, cursing under his breath.
Inside, Charadell studies a map on her desk. “Lady Sam …” she breaks off as she looks up.
Tiandraa shoots to her feet, her hand going to her belt dirk. “Merreth!”
Charadell’s eyes narrow. Her glance lingers on Merreth’s blood-streaked leathers for a moment, then flits to Arric. “Speak. What happened?”
“I killed a rat,” says Merreth. “Big one.”
“Lady Merreth was attacked, Domina,” says Arric. “I went to check on her and found her standing outside her … quarters, much as you see her,” he nods at Merreth, “with a knife.”
Tiandraa’s hand tightens around the hilt of her belt dirk and she glares are Merreth. “Lying little weasel, held something back did you? Domina, you asked for her blades. She was to be disarmed!”
Merreth’s temper flares. “The assassin had a key and knife. Killed Wylenn, then tried for me. Now the bastard’s dead.” She glances at Tiandraa. “Very, very dead.”
Charadell frowns. “Wylenn was her guard?”
Arric nods. “Throat slit. He was propped up against the cabin, like he was taking a rest. Might’ve been more than one assassin. Wylenn wasn’t the careless type.”
“In my camp? Blood and hounds! Arric, you’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Of course, Domina.”
“So some commoner swine tried to get at her,” says Tiandraa. “Hardly surprising, they hold no love for us.” She crosses her arms and scowls at Merreth. “And her death would attract the least response. Lock her up again and be done with it, is what I’d suggest.”
“It wasn’t a marked man,” says Arric. “I checked.”
“Odd, that,” says Merreth. “Who else, not noble nor constable, could wander about the camp?”
Samretta pushes the tent flap aside. “Domina, we’re ready.”
Charadell folds up her map and tucks it into a small bag. “We’ll sort this out when I return. In the meantime you can stay here, Merreth. Arric, you and a couple of your men keep her company.”
“Domina Charadell,” says Tiandraa, “I don’t presume …”
“First time for everything,” says Merreth.
Tiandraa purses her lips and continues. “I don’t presume to advise you in this matter, but leaving an admitted criminal in your pavilion seems unwise. Her weapons are here, for one thing. She could arm herself. For another, who knows what she’ll root through while you’re absent?”
“All of the other criminals are armed today,” snaps Charadell. “I see no reason why Merreth shouldn’t be as well, particularly in light of what occurred. As for your other concern, there’s nothing left for her to ‘root through’ as you put it. Everything was packed away last night. Finally, Lady Tiandraa, I will thank you to keep your opinions of my decisions to yourself.”
Silence descends in the tent, broken only by the muffled sounds of activity outside.
Charadell clears her throat. “Your pardon, Lady Tiandraa, my niece’s death has dealt me a harsh blow. We’re ready you say, Lady Samretta?”
“Bonswenn’s dead?” The words are out of Merreth’s mouth before she can think. “How?”
“The clans,” says Samretta. She avoids Merreth’s eyes. “Domina, again, I strongly advise taking Totlenn’s men if we’re to move quickly. The other camps won’t be assembled and on the march for more several hours.”
Charadell shakes her head. “No. We’ve been over this. We have the horse and the constable troops. The other camps can catch us up.” Her voice fills with venom. “The savages are not expecting us to ride out after them, and they’re few in number, you said. I want the best chance of catching those murderous scum and making them pay for Bonswenn. By the Goddess, we’ll soak the plains with their blood!”
“We’ll cut them to pieces,” says Samretta. “Take the Clan standard with you. If they see it with you they’ll try to close so there’ll be no need to chase the vermin down.”
“I’ll not befoul Watch banners by carrying that ragged collection of horsehair in their company, Lady Samretta.”
“But – ”
“I’ve made my decision.” Charadell slings her sword scabbard over her shoulder. “I would appreciate your presence when we ride, Lady Tiandraa. When your contingent arrives in a couple of days you’ll be better able to acquaint them with what lies on this side of the river, having seen the clans first hand.”
Tiandraa shrugs. “I’m not versed in combat, Domina. You know that. I’d only blunder about and get in the way. Besides, I told you yesterday that I have preparations to attend to if the Red Hand is going to materially support the Watch. ”
“Disappointing,” says Charadell. She wrinkles her nose and frowns at Merreth. Arric, find something to clean her up with.” Without another word she strides out of the pavilion.
Merreth puts her hands on her hips. “Do you find yourself short a courier today, Tiandraa?”
Tiandraa’s face darkens and her lips compress into a razor thin line. “Leave us, Arric,” she says as one hand goes to her belt dirk. “Go find something with which to wipe Merreth clean, if that’s possible.”
“Lady Merreth?” asks Arric.
“I’ll be fine, Arric,” she says. “Nothing is going to happen, is it Tiandraa?” . She’s conscious of her dirks lying atop Charadell’s desk. How fast can I get them into my hands should I need to, she asks herself.
Arric studies the two women for a moment, then nods and scoops up Merreth’s dirks. “The Domina did say you were to be armed.” He hands the blades to her, hilts first. “I’ll be back in five minutes, Ladies, with Davven and a few of the lads.” With a last glance at the nobles, he leaves the tent.
Merreth sheaths one dirk in her boot. The other she keeps in her hand. “No stomach to carry out the task yourself eh, Tiandraa?”
“How could your sister be cunning enough to send someone here, and stupid enough to send you?” Tiandraa asks. “Quite an idea, having her debauched sister branded a criminal and sent to this side of the river. Of course, that’s nothing less than the truth, isn’t it, Merreth? You are debauched, and you’re certainly a criminal. Was your consort a planned act, or just a happy coincidence?”
An odd thing to say, thinks Merreth. She’s baiting me, hoping I’ll lose my temper. Swallowing her loathing, she sheaths the blade she’s been holding and crosses her arms. “I’m tempted to write a letter to my sister right now. In your blood, using one of your splintered ribs for a quill. I have some experience in the matter of blood and splintered ribs.” Merreth bares her teeth. “After all, I am a debauched criminal.”
Tiandraa’s face tightens. “Remember what I said when you went into the cabin. I meant every words of it.”
“Get out of my sight, Tiandraa. You’ll remain whole and breathing longer.”
Tiandraa turns and on her way out the pavilion nearly collides with. “Oaf! Watch out for you betters!”
Arric sets a jug, wash basin, and several towels on Charadell’s desk. “Lady Tiandraa seems a bit out of sorts,” he says.
“Lady Tiandraa called me a criminal.” Merreth picks up a towel. “My agreement unsettled her.”
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
About the Artist
“Mylochka” is another artist I ran into on the DeviantArt website. She’s located in the US and does a lot of 3D work and loves Star Trek — or at least she does a lot of artwork with that theme. She entered both of the Lady Merreth contests I ran on DeviantArt and I have included one of her entries in this chapter, even though it does not quite fit with what’s going on. Check out her work.