The morning sun beats down as four hundred mounted nobles of the Domina’s column canter down the road. The clank of sword and lance overlay the steady drumbeat of hooves on packed dirt. Dust, oiled steel, and leather smells fill the air. Samretta hears the snap of Watch banners in the breeze and her heart cannot help but be moved. The Watch is going to war.
And I’m going to help them lose. She shakes her head. I’m saving the Watch, and by extension, the entire Matriarchy. But at such a price!
Domina Charadell eases her mount closer. “Something wrong, Lady Samretta? Something I should know about?”
Samretta’s hands tighten around her reins. “No, Domina. I’m just thinking of the cost.”
Charadell’s expression clouds. “There is always a cost, Samretta. Our task is to make certain those vermin pay the bulk of it.”
A young blonde noble, of no more than sixteen summers, her face flush with excitement, rides up beside them. “Domina! The constables can’t keep up.” She jerks a thumb back over her shoulder. “They’re a good twenty minutes march farther back.”
Samretta twists in her saddle. Behind her the column’s rear fades into a dusty haze kicked up by hundreds of hooves.
“Lady Samretta, you’re certain of the numbers we will face?” asks Charadell.
Samretta studies the Domina’s hard brown eyes. You’ve grown more cautious, more cunning in the last two years. We should slow down and let the constables catch up. But fury drives you now, and you’re looking for a reason to press on, to take chances you otherwise wouldn’t. “As sure as I can be, Domina,” she says. “No more than two hundred.”
“Excellent!” Charadell addresses the messenger. “Tell the constables to make the best speed they can without wearing themselves out. They know where we’re going.”
The messenger spurs away and the two women ride on, flanked on either side by the Domina’s banner party.
“When we get back,” says Charadell, “I want you to investigate the attack on Lady Merreth.”
Samretta frowns. “Me? Of course, Domina. Why, though? You ordered the constable sergeant, Arric, to do so.”
“Arric is competent, but he’s also a commoner.” The Domina pauses and glances around before lowering her voice. “Some questions may require a noble presence if they are to be asked, and answered.”
Dear Goddess! She must be alluding to Tiandraa, thinks Samretta. Does she want me to corner a Red Hand noble and ask her if she arranged the attempted murder of a lady of Sable House? Tiandraa would not be so foolish as to plan such a thing, nor admit to it if she had. Samretta’s eyes narrow. “Why me, Domina?”
“You’re my best scout. You see what others don’t, and you’re better at observing things and drawing the right conclusions, no matter how unpleasant. And you don’t dabble in politics. That may be important.”
Samretta’s mouth goes dry. You are so right, and so very wrong. She takes a pull from her water skin before replying: “May I inquire what you think of Lady Merreth?”
Charadell doesn’t hesitate. “Dangerous.” Her hand tightens around her saddle pommel. “Dangerous, and a lost opportunity. I was furious after that bit of theatre she put on in front of Totlenn’s crew.”
Samretta nods. “It came very close to blood. Not what we need.”
“That’s not what I mean. I was furious at myself. Totlenn needed to be taken down a notch.” She frowns. “Still needs to be, but the whole affair left a bad taste in my mouth. I forced the issue. The pretext was flimsy at best. Last time I listen to Lady Tiandraa about matters of discipline. How do you think the commoners regard Lady Merreth?”
Samretta blinks. What an odd question. “I’d not thought too much of it, Domina.”
“But you’ve thought some?”
The banner party has widened the circle around the two of them sensing, perhaps, they didn’t wish to be overheard. “I think it’s too soon to say. She’s been here less than a week.” Her face tightens. “She actually handed her House whip to a commoner. At the least I’m sure they drew some satisfaction at her rough handling of Lady Tiandraa. I’d guess they’ve never seen a noble like Merreth before.”
“None of us have,” says Charadell. “Do you think the commoners respect us?”
Samretta is caught off guard. “Ah, that’s a complicated question.”
Charadell snorts. “No, it’s not. It’s a very simple question. I’ll thank you to speak your mind, Lady Samretta. Don’t dance around uncomfortable answers like those scribes infesting the High Mistress’s court. I’d say they do not. Do you agree?”
“I’d say they hate us.” How could they not, thinks Samretta. We hang them or brand them and throw them across the river, expect them to fight for us, and keep from them the arms they need to be truly effective at it. She reminds herself that commoner hatred is useful to her purpose, one more argument to convince the Watch to pull back over the river after this morning’s coming disaster. “The constable units like as not don’t hold us in high regard either.”
“She knew his name,” says Charadell.
“Domina?” asks Samretta.
“It struck me, Lady Samretta, that Lady Merreth had troubled herself to learn the name of her slain guard. I believe she asked. It feels like something she would do. She could have been of enormous help, had she agreed to lead Totlenn’s group and gain their trust. Things would be very much better for us. I would have been prepared to grant her a lot in return for that.”
Assuming, thinks Samretta, that Totlenn and his crew would go along. “And Lady Tiandraa?” she asks. “What of the crimes Merreth has committed against the Red Hand?”
“Been accused of committing.”
Samretta chews the inside of her lip. Charadell is becoming much too flexible in her outlook. Too pragmatic. “She took the mark. It’s an admission of guilt.”
“Is it now?”
“You could extend your offer to her again,” says Samretta. And if you say you will, it’s one more reason why this day must go poorly for you.
“No. I said I wouldn’t make the offer twice, and I won’t. Had Merreth agreed, I could have used her to help lessen the commoner’s ill regard for us. She didn’t though, and that confirms a decision I’ve made.” Charadell nudges her mount close to Samretta, their boots almost rubbing against each other. “I’m going to recommend to the High Mistress that the Watch pull back across the river.”
Samretta stiffens. Withdraw? “Domina?”
“We need time the build an army – a proper one – able to crush the clans once and for all. We can’t do that here while trying to protect the commoners on this side of the river.”
“We’re to abandon them?” asks Samretta, her eyes wide with disbelief.
“No. We’ll move them back over the river too. Costly, but it can be done.” Charadell sighs. “Besides there are far fewer now than two years ago.”
“But then, why … this?” Samretta sweeps her arm out at the column. “Surely this is not necessary if we’re to withdraw?”
“A victory will help make an unpleasant decision more palatable for the High Mistress,” says Charadell.
Samretta slumps in her saddle. With the Watch back on the Saskanna’s eastern bank, any number of reasons could be contrived to delay and eventually prevent its return to this side of the river. Blood on my hands – on my soul – with more to come and there was no need. No damn need!
“I know. The idea sticks in my craw as well,” says Charadell. “But it would be only temporary. I’ve given this a great deal of thought.” Her face hardens into a mask of stone. “And I want those bastards who killed Bonswenn. I want them very badly. Should the opportunity arise, Lady Samretta, I don’t suppose that you could recognize the cur who killed my niece, could you?”
Samretta swallows. “No, Domina. I’m afraid not.” Not even when I look in a mirror.
Ostinik sits cross-legged, eyes just level with the tips of breeze-rustled grass stalks. Gytega had done well, hiding one hundred mounted clan within the wooden dirt-scratcher barns and sheds. There’d been some grumbling as the warriors packed themselves into structures whose very existence was nothing less than an insult to Mother-Earth. Ostinik nods to himself before rising to his feet and brushing the dirt from his legs. The plan will work.
“Resting were you, old man?” Gytega’s grin strips the sting from his words. “Mother-Earth called you to sleep?”
“If she did, she could have provided softer bedding,” says Ostinik. He points at the hamlet sheltering the clan warriors. “We drove the dirt-scratchers from this dried scab once. I’d thought we’d not foul our feet here again.”
“It won’t be for long. The dirt-scratchers rarely stray from their roads. Three lead into the plains from the river. Only this one passes through one of their settlements, and this was the path travelled by our little dirt-scratcher weasel.” Gytega’s eyes grow hard and he stares eastward. “But we have bait on all three. They’ll come. Today. Within hours.”
Ostinik taps his finger bone bracelet while studying Gytega. “And our song-birds?”
“Well enough, and right where we left them. They’ll not be touched and be ready when needed.”
Ostinik sucks on a blade of grass while he surveys the grassland around the settlement. Hundreds more warriors lay in wait, their mounts on their sides in the grass. Best be soon, he thinks. Water skins will empty quickly in this heat. Thank the Sky-Father they’d not fouled the wells when they’d run the dirt-scratchers out. He glances at Gytega. Did you foresee our later need of them?
Gytega runs his hand through his hair and flicks sweat-soaked fingers. “Tewkinn is unhappy with the task I’ve given him.
“Guarding clan families, yurts, and herds is important,” says Ostinik. He casts the grass stalk away and scratches at an itch. “Besides, he has command of well over a full tumen of warriors. There’s no insult in that.”
“He doesn’t see it that way.”
“Then he doesn’t see enough to be here with you.”
A crow flaps down onto a patch of dirt. It ruffles its wings, cocks its head, and stares sideways at the two clansmen. After a few pecks at the ground, it utters a single harsh caw and flaps away.
Gytega watches it rise into the sky before turning to Ostinik. “You’ll help him see more, should the need arise.” He walks back to his mount without waiting for an answer.
Ostinik frowns and rolls his bone bracelet back and forth over his wrist. He searches for the crow. It’s vanished.
“I should be out in front, Domina,” says Samretta. “We could spot the clan party at any time now.”
Charadell shields her eyes and peers westward through the column’s leading riders . “No,” she says. “I would like the benefit of your counsel this time, Lady Samretta. I was without it during our previous meetings with the clans. Things went less well than I’d hoped then. Perhaps timely advice from you will help things proceed more agreeably this time.”
If I stay with you, Samretta thinks, I will likely wind up dead. “Your advisors and under-captions are much better positioned than I am to advise you on tactics.”
“They would be, were I seeking advice on tactics. I will be asking your opinion of the clan when we catch them. What they’re doing, what they could do. I doubt they’re grazing their mounts just waiting for us to appear.”
Samretta’s gaze flits over the plains before them. Probably they were doing exactly that. “They’re likely testing us. The clan has attacked and withdrawn into the plains in the past. They’re leaving small groups closer to us to see if we allow it.”
“They’ll need a water source,” says Charadell. “Teron would provide that, as long as the savages didn’t foul the wells.”
How fortunate I had the presence of mind to murder Bonswenn in that area, thinks Samretta. She hadn’t needed to lie the location. That truth will result in more deaths today. A lot more when the clan chief can’t see the horse tail standard the commoners are supposed to be carrying. A cold bleakness seeps through her as she thinks about the two Watch nobles he’d likely release. I’ll have to kill them too. Black anger surges up from within her. She hates the plains, the clans, and how they’ve sculpted her, pounded her into a new shape, into something she loathes. Overhead a crow circles the column, cawing.
Agaric stands in his stirrups, shades his eyes and peers eastwards. They’d spotted the dust cloud a short time ago and watched it slowly grow closer. He settles into his saddle and grins, working his tongue around the gaps in his lower teeth. Gytega was right. The dirt-scratchers stick to their roads like moles to their tunnels. He has twenty hands of warriors with him, basking in the sun, waiting for the dirt-scratchers. With a sun-bronzed arm he caresses his bow case and frowns. No arrows, said Gytega. Just flee. Lure the dirt-scratchers back past their abandoned hovels. Agaric smiles and tests his blade against a calloused thumb. There would be women. Gytega had said that too.
Garst studies Agaric through slitted eyes. Twenty summers, one battle – against dirt-scratchers no less – and the whelp thinks he can fight anyone at any odds and win. He, Garst, should be leader here. Does his skin paint not shout his valour to all who are not blind? He has ten summers more than Agaric and a hand of battles – real battles – against other clans. These kit’s brawls with the dirt-scratchers are beneath notice. That Agaric is Tewkinn’s friend weighs more heavily though, despite the fact he’s a head-strong fool. Garst watches the growing dust cloud. Fortunately, they face even bigger fools now. He rubs the patch over his empty eye-socket. Still, even fools can be dangerous. Or lucky. Gytega said no bows. That suits him just fine. He hefts his axe and glares eastward. Close work tastes so much better.
They’re glorious! Since the clan took their first captives, Uhan has been entranced by the dirt-scratcher women, their hair, their dress, even their scent! He stands on his saddle, shifting his weight to keep his balance as he studies the oncoming column. He’s farther forward than the rest of the clan group. His youth, sharp eyes, and slight build have won him the honour of watching for the clan’s enemies. Speed is his weapon and his mount carries neither bow nor blade, only a light saddle, and a single water skin.
The dirt-scratchers are close enough for him to make out their banners – scraps of brown hung from tiny sticks in the distance. A dull glow shows now and then from within the dust cloud – the sun catching their polished leathers. He – well, everyone – has been promised women. Let his brothers scoff at his youth: eighteen summers is old enough to claim a prize, and a wife. His mind fills a vision of sun-kissed hair lying on a pillow in his yurt.
“Shouldn’t at least one of the other columns have joined us by now?” asks Samretta. They’re ten minutes at most from Teron and she suspects that’s where the Domina will encounter the clan. The clan chief would be foolish to allow the Watch column to use Serron’s wells to refresh their mounts and fill their water skins.
“Yes,” says Charadell. “They should have.” She waves over a waiting messenger. “Detail a pair of scouts. Have them ride a quarter hour towards Mistress Janna’s column. Report back with what they find. Send another to determine how far behind us the constable column has fallen.” The messenger gallops away and Charadell signals another. “Column to slow to a walk.”
We should use horns, thinks Samretta. Horns or trumpets, or something. This business of sending messengers back and forth to give orders is slow and confusing. The clan uses horns. She watches the messenger ride down the column. Those closest to the banner party naturally receive word first and slow, causing the ones behind to bunch up.
Charadell is groping her way towards creating an army, a task made more difficult because of the lack of written materials on how to proceed. A lack, Samretta knows, that had been arranged. Only a few old scrolls and aged manuscripts remained from before the revolt. Most had been lost through indifference. After all, why keep manuals on how to prosecute a brutal, savage, male, enterprise? What few survived in the Watch had been hidden from Charadell, by hands other than Samretta’s. Bloody hands nonetheless. She doubted the Goddess would draw fine distinctions when they were all called to answer for their actions.
“Domina,” says Samretta. “I really should be out in front of the column.”
“We have other scouts.” Charadell turns in her saddle to watch the column jostle to a walk.
“They’re not – ”
“They are sufficient to my purpose,” snaps the Domina. She lowers her voice. “You are our best scout, Lady Samretta, and one reason for your success is your mount. It’s among the fastest on this side of the Saskanna.” She places a hand on Samretta’s arm. “We – I – may have need of that speed if things drop into the pot today.”
“What? Why would you need that, Domina?”
A pair of scouts comes galloping towards the banner party. “The clan!”
“Let’s hope you need not find out the answer to that, Lady Samretta,” says Charadell. “Now, stay close to me.”
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
About the Artist
S. Yoshiko hails from California’s Bay Area but moved to the country at a young age. She took a lot of inspiration from animals and nature, mixed with her interest in fantasy. The medium has changed over the years but the idea of her art and interests remains mostly the same: representational with a mix of dark and light themes, real and fantasy. She does a lot of portraits.
S. Yoshiko has done many depictions of Lady Merreth, as well as various scenes from her adventures. More of her work, along with contact information, can be found here.
The image for this chapter is one where Merreth and Samretta lead a charge of Watch nobles. As with Chapter 14, this one doesn’t really fit the chapter, but it comes closest out of the images I have to capturing the feel of Chapter 15.