“They’re just standing around basking in the sun?” asks Charadell. “How many?”
The scout, young and blonde, sits on her horse and shrugs. “About sixty, Domina, and yes, that’s exactly what they seem to be doing. There’s one in advance of the others and he’s watching us. Probably has been for a while.” She takes her hat off and wipes her brow.
“Lady Samretta?” asks Charadell, “what do you make of this?”
“They’re keeping an eye on us, seeing what we’ll do.”
“I just said that.” The scout frowns.
Samretta studies her. Khalnny, barely into her twentieth summer, has been a scout for the last year. She’s daring, headstrong, and a little too quick-witted for Samretta’s taste at the moment. It’s unfortunate that she’s one of the Domina’s eyes today. “You’re certain the group in front is all there are of them?”
“Of course I’m certain,” says Khalnny.
You’re wrong. There are more, thinks Samretta. Just like the last time I was out here.
“How far behind are the constables?” Charadell asks an aide.
“An hour at least,” comes the response. “And they’ll be exhausted if they get here that fast, marching under this sun.”
No word yet from the two other noble columns either, thinks Samretta. The messengers Charadell had detailed earlier hadn’t returned. That could mean nothing, or it could mean they’ll never be coming back. She glances at the Domina. Don’t you sense a trap? Can’t you smell it?
“Not the best of situations,” says Charadell. “What say you, Lady Samretta?”
You should wait for the other columns, thinks Samretta. “I think you’ve caught them alone, Domina.” She feels a bleakness come over her. How easily my lies come now, she thinks.
“Very well,” says Charadell. “We’ll take them.” She stands in her stirrups and studies the clan warriors, mere dots in the distance at this point. “Not all of us, though. I’ll hold back half our strength, in case all is not as it seems.”
“Domina?” asks Khalnny. “May I ride in the attack?”
Well, that saves me suggesting it, thinks Samretta. Not that one less dead soul on my hands will make any difference now.
Charadell nods, and begins snapping out orders.
“There they are! After them!”
At the shouted command Rosull – tall, thin, and trembling with excitement – crouches over his saddle horn and spurs his mount into a gallop. Watch brothers and sisters thunder down the dirt road, spilling off into the high grass on either side as they spread out, riding towards the clan. Rosull pulls ahead of the others, his horse has always been fast, and he’s young and light. The wind whips his mount’s main into face, bent so low is he.
He ignores the sweat, the grit blown into his eyes and concentrates on the backs of the fleeing clansmen.
His pounding heart feels like it will burst right through his ribs and his thighs ache from a morning spent in the saddle, but nothing matters except the cowardly savages before him. Nothing matters except putting down as many of the vermin as possible. He hears the gleeful shouts from the other nobles. Everyone has heard about Lady Bonswenn and they’re here to make the bastards pay.
None of the clan’s cursed arrows, thank the Goddess! The bastards love their bows and they’re bloody good with them. Not today though. The Watch has finally caught the buggers before they can put so much as a single shaft into the air.
He reaches back, ready to yank his sword free from its scabbard. Not yet. Not close enough.
The clan riders spread out, those on the road pulling ahead of the handful who urge their mounts into the grass.
Rosull’s lips peel back into a snarl and he spurs his mount onwards. A pair of noble sisters catch up, riding on either side of him. The three pound down the road after the clansmen, leaving a spray of dirt and dust in their wake.
Something snaps by his head and he jerks the reins to the right in panic. An arrow? No! Someone fool behind him has loosed a crossbow at the retreating clansmen. They’ve hit nothing, damned near killed him, and worst of all, slowed him down!
Faster! His gaze locks on the clansman he’s chosen, the one he’d strike down first. Black hair flying in the wind, naked from the waist up with skin swirled in blue paint, bow case and saddlebags bouncing wildly. The savage looks over his shoulder, no doubt feeling Rosull’s cold hatred at his back.
“Come on Watch, at’em!” he shouts. He’s out in front by himself, flying towards the clansmen. A quick look behind to see who else is close and then eyes back to the one he’s chasing.
That can’t be right. The savage is facing him. Rosull has just enough time to see the bow before he pitches off his mount. The world spins – brown earth, blue sky, brown earth, and … nothing.
Agaric twists around in his saddle, reins in one hand, bow in the other. He grins as he spurs his horse. First blood to him! Gytega had said no arrows, but the dirt-scratchers needed something to make them forget caution.
They’re close to the wooden wound on Mother-earth the dirt-scratchers had so loved to build. Agaric sheaths his bow in its case, bends down low over his mount, and nudges it left, down a branch in the road leading straight through the center of the little huddle of buildings. Several hands of warriors follow him, breaking away from the others.
Fencing passes in a blur as Agaric leads the warriors along the road. Another check over his shoulder. He smiles. The dirt scratchers have split into two groups as well; one is hard on his heels, led by a pair of riders with their swords out.
Fools. They accomplish nothing by waving steel around except to tire themselves. Agaric and his men gallop past wooden walls, doors, and fencing, racing for the open fields beyond.
At the first screams he and his warriors swing their mounts around.
Clan bowmen hidden in the buildings cut down rider after rider, the screaming dirt-scratchers tumbling from their saddles like roots from an overturned basket.
Agaric and those with him knee their horses back towards the panicked mass of riders and mounts, nocking arrows as they do so. There is work to be done.
“Fuck!” Khalnny rolls away from thrashing hooves. Her horse is down with arrows in its flank and head, its bellowing raising the hairs on the back of her neck. She should run, get out of the street, away from the shafts hissing through the air and punching into soft flesh. Instead she jerks her belt dirk free and dispatches her horse. “Sorry, friend,” she mutters.
Just beyond her dead mount one of her Watch brothers makes an odd hooting sound as he claws at an arrow buried in his side. All around, nobles shout and saw at their reins to bring their horses under control. A noblewoman, her brown leathers turned wet crimson, sprawls in front of her and lies twitching. Bodies are strewn everywhere, blood soaking into the thirsty street.
And still the arrows fly from doorways, windows, from around corners turning the street into a butchery.
Khalny slices her crossbow free of its lashing and eyes a nearby cottage. That one. The heat, the dust, and the cloying smell of shit and blood make it hard to think. Are the fucking clanners in there too? No way of knowing, but anywhere is better than here in the street.
Movement flickers to her right. She throws herself to the ground as a Watch noble rides by, eyes wild with fear, slashing at her with a sword. A heartbeat later the woman goes down like a brained cow, hat pinned to the side of her head by an arrow.
Damn thing came from the cottage she’s planning to hide in! No choice, no time to think. She spits dirt from her mouth, levers herself off the ground, and sprints across the street, sword scabbard rattling and bouncing off her back as she runs between two cottages. It feels like it takes forever and her back twitches at the arrow she’s sure will be bury itself there at any moment.
She lurches against a rough wooden wall, chest heaving, sweat-slicked, gloved hands clutching the crossbow. Her blonde hair, normally balled up under her hat, is loose, plastered across her face and wrapped about her neck.
Clan warriors on horseback roam the street, and there are fewer screams. Most of us killed or run off, Khalny thinks. Eyes on the street, she inches down the wall until her hand comes across a door sill.
“Shit,” she whispers. The door is ajar. A clansman could pop his head out and she’d be dead. Being dead meant no consort, no wine, no good food. She didn’t want to be dead. Not at sixty summers, never mind twenty.
What to do? She has a crossbow, her sword, a dirk, and not much else. Her quarrel pouch is gone, so after she looses the crossbow she’s left holding a very awkward club.
Hiding is the best idea, but where? All the good places are already taken by the clan. Under a building and wait for the savages to leave? Best to make up her mind quickly as the clash and thud of fighting is dying off.
From the street a moan quickly rises into a shriek. Those are my friends! Khalnny blinks away sweat, tastes it as it runs down her lips. Maybe she tastes tears.
She can’t do anything back there. Flattening herself against the wall, she inches closer to the doorway, her scabbard scraping over the wood. Goddess, it’s so loud! A quick dash and she’ll be past the door. Nothing to it.
A deep breath, she steels herself … and looks up into a clanner face staring back. Long braids of greasy black hair swing down past his chin, a broken nose and yellow teeth are under eyes wide at the sight of her.
She squeezes the crossbow tiller without thinking. The bolt punches through his jaw, burying three-quarters of its length in his head. He topples out the door and collapses at her feet.
Oh shit. Dry mouth, heart hammering in her chest, she stands over the corpse. His friends will come. Shit, shit, shit! She drops the crossbow and draws her sword. They know someone is out here! They must! She can’t go back to the street, but if she runs past the door she’ll be seen for certain.
Or she could go through the door, not past it.
Now, while they might still be wondering what’s happened to their friend. Now, while she still has the advantage of surprise.
“Dear Goddess,” she whispers, “I could really use your help.”
She hefts the sword and charges through the doorway.
Ostinik strokes his jaw, his gaze following the clan riders as they whip their mounts and ‘flee’ before the dirt-scratchers. At this distance he can’t make out details, but he sees the warriors split into two groups, one heading for the dirt-scratcher buildings sheltering the bowmen and the other charging past the abandoned settlement.
Beside him Gytega sits on his mount, shielding his eyes. “The Sky-father smiles upon us,” he says dryly. “Agaric’s done what he’s been told.”
Ostinik frowns at the clan chief. Gytega holds the Gods in a little less reverence than the clan shamans would like. He believes in making his own fortune, thinks Ostinik.
Across the grasslands, away from the charging dirt-scratchers, a moving speck catches his attention. It grows closer and resolves itself into a clan warrior riding hard through the waist-high grass. Moments later the young warrior brings his lathered mount to halt in front of Gytega. Sweat runs down his face and he trembles with excitement.
Ostinik sighs. When they look at war, the young see too much glory and not enough pain.
“Our standard?” asks Gytega.
The warrior shakes his head. “Not yet, Clan-Father. I see only women on horseback and they don’t carry the horsetail.”
“Those on foot would be behind, perhaps some distance,” says Ostinik. The ones carrying the horsetail would be a ragged bunch, soft, unable to match the clan’s speed even when warriors were off their mounts. His lip curls. They’re whelps of some simpering woman-god, not children of the Sky-father.
“You’ve done well,” Gytega tells the scout. “Rest your mount, I may have need of you again.”
“He’s young,” says Ostinik as the warrior swing off his horse and leads it away. “He could be mistaken. Perhaps he didn’t ride far enough, anxious to get back here and take a prize.” “It doesn’t matter.” Gytega gestures towards the dirt-scratchers riding towards them, chasing the clan riders who draw them onwards. “Their leader is with this group. You can see her standards. I’ve decided we’ll take them all. Not some of them. All of them.”
In the distance the clan warriors hiding in the tall grass rise.
About sixty clan warriors lay in wait astride the road to Teron. They’d been like rocks under the sun until half the watch column had shaken itself out into a ragged line and charged. Then the clansmen exploded into movement, swinging their mounts around and riding as if chased by the Goddess herself. They split in two groups, one headed for Teron, the other bypassing it. The nobles had split up as well. Samretta can just make out the two shimmering dust clouds moving away from each other.
“Damn it, no!” Charadell stands in her stirrups and shades her eyes. “Stay together!” She sits down and calls over a messenger. “Ride hard, catch up to those who’ve chased the clan towards Teron. Call them back to here. You speak with my voice. Now go!”
It’s happening, thinks Samretta. She’ll be able to watch it all, and it will be bad. Very bad.
“I want every crossbow loaded,” Charadell tells an aide.
The banner party pulls out their weapons. Word passes down the line and a chorus of metallic clicks carry through the air as bowstrings are drawn taut and latched into place.
Samretta studies the dust clouds marking the Watch charge. She wonders if the Domina’s messenger will be able to retrieve those who’ve made for Teron.
Suddenly scores of small figures rise from the plain. Dismounted clan warriors, each armed with his cursed bow handy. “Domina!” She points westward. “In the grass!”
“Bugger it!” says Charadell. “A damned trap!” She calls to a pair of scouts. “You, ride closer to get a better look and then get back here.”
The scouts spur away without a backward glance as murmurs sweep through the banner party.
“Quiet!” snaps Charadell. “Lady Samretta? What are we facing? Your thoughts, if you please.”
My thoughts? thinks Samretta. A giddy fit threatens to seize her and she fights the urge to giggle. Most of us are going to die. Those are my thoughts.
“Sooner is better than later, Lady Samretta,” says Charadell. She leans closer. “How many do you think there are?”
How deep is the pit I’ve dug for you? Very deep. “Enough to bloody our noses at the very least, Domina,” says Samretta. “I really don’t know. I didn’t see that many when I and Bonswenn,” she hesitates, “well, a few days ago.”
One of the scouts rides back. “Domina, scores of clanners in the grass, all on foot!”
A feral smile creeps over Charadell’s lips. “We can win this. A gamble, but we can. We’ll crush the vermin in the grass, then ride to support our brothers and sisters in Teron.”
“You suspect trouble there, as well?” asks Samretta.
“It’s where I would make trouble for us, that’s why I want our people out of there,” says Charadell. She turns away and begins shouting orders.
Garst commands scarcely four hands of warriors. Five times that number pound down the road after them. They’re fast, the dirt-scratchers, their damned horses carry them like the wind.
He flattens himself against his mount and hopes the dirt-scratchers have no luck with their cursed crossbows. They emptied three saddles in as many seconds early in the chase. Three fools who thought to display their disdain for these women who try to be warriors. Bah! The clan’s better off without those who don’t appreciate that even dirt-scratchers can sting them.
He grimaces. Of course Agaric would choose the easiest task: A short trot through the huddle of wooden dirt scratcher yurts to where hidden warriors waited with bow and blade. Little risk or glory in that, though Agaric would weave a different tale around the cook fires later. The little fool should be here, if he’s so intent to prove his bravery and prowess! Garst would not weep were one of the dirt-scratcher crossbows to find him!
His mount stumbles and staggers to the left, whinnying in pain. Garst saws back on the reins, fighting for control as his horse sinks to his knees. He jumps off into the grass, collecting a nose-full of dirt. Other warriors, then the leading dirt-scratchers, thunder by him, some so close he could slap their hooves.
His horse struggles to its feet, a crossbow bolt buried in its hind quarters and flees carrying off his bow and quiver. Sunlight glints off his steel-headed axe, lying in the grass a few feet away. How to get to it while lying still and playing dead, and what good will it do if the dirt-scratchers are not yet in the trap?
Bow strings thrumming in the air is his answer. He lunges for his axe and rises to behold his clan brethren standing the grass. Their arrows plunge into the dirt-scratchers riding by.
A black dirt-scratcher mount crashes to the ground, spraying him with grass and pebbles, throwing its rider clear. She tumbles to the ground and lies still. There would be women, Gytega had said.
More horses go down, shedding dead or wounded riders. The baking air stinks of blood, shit, and fear. Screams – both human and horse – tear at his ears. He skips back from one mount and hammers his axe into the face of dirt scratcher as she falls from the saddle. It nearly cleaves her skull with a meaty thunk. A boot on her neck and a quick tug. The axe comes free, dripping blood. Later there will be time enough to strip the dead of anything useful. Now is the time to make more corpses.
A huge brute of a dirt-scratcher, sword out, aims his horse at Garst, yelling something in his tongue. Brave, but foolish. At the last second, Garst aside and swings his axe two-handed into the horse’s mouth. It rears, screaming with pain, and throws its rider. Garst smashes his axe into the dirt-scratcher’s face and watches the man collapse, then crushes the dirt-scratcher’s neck with his boot.
A nearby woman rises to her feet. She spots him and slides her sword out of her scabbard and holds it two-handed, the tip quivering. Tired are you, Garst thinks. You’ll be sleeping forever soon. He closes the distance in two running strides and rips the sword from her hands with one blow of his axe.
There’s a thud and a crossbow bolt is sticking out of his tunic. He sways on his feet and tries to snarl his defiance only to produce a strangled cough and a spray of blood and bile. He drops to his knees as the woman advances. “Gytega said there would be women,” he grunts. The last thing he sees is a blurry sweep of steel coming at his head.
Uhan nocks an arrow with shaking hands. He steadies his mount, draws a breath and aims his bow. “Sky-Father,” he whispers, “how could you send a warrior like Garst back to Mother-Earth?” A slow exhale and he puts a shaft into the woman standing over Garst with bloody steel in her hands. “How could you choose a woman to start him on his journey there?”
There’s an angry hum from a crossbow bolt flitting past his head. Eyes wide, he stares at a dirt-scratcher a score of paces beyond the one he’s just sent back to Mother-Earth. Hair the colour of autumn leaves in the great southern forests, he thinks. And she’s trying to kill him! She pulls another bolt from a bag around her shoulder and cocks the weapon.
The woman pitches forward, a pair of arrows sticking out from her chest.
A clan brother trots up, bow in hand. “Stop staring, Uhan! Do you want to join Garst on his way back to Mother-Earth?”
Uhan shakes his head, and wipes down his sweat-slicked bow. He pulls another arrow from his quiver, but there’s not much to do now that the trap’s been sprung. Most of the enemy around him are unhorsed. The dead and injured lay strewn through the grass, clouds of flies settling on their bodies. Those still able to wield a blade or crossbow are cut down by arrow or axe. The dirt-scratchers still on horseback are backing away up the road. They won’t get far. Warriors in the distant grass are mounting their horses. The dirt-scratchers have started their journey back to Mother-Earth; they just don’t know their feet are on the path.
Uhan walks his horse over to the woman he killed. She lies sprawled on her back, unseeing blue eyes facing the sky. He stares at her hair and sighs. Her sun-kissed hair.
Khalnny trips when she goes through the door.
That saves her. She staggers forward, bent low, sword outstretched. An axe whispers through the air where her head would have been as her blade thrusts into a clansman’s gut. The two crash to the floor. She pushes herself up, his blood covering her chest and arms.
A clansman by the window drops his bow and lunges for his war axe lying across a stool.
Khalnny twists her sword out. The warrior groans as gore spills from the wound. She holds the hilt two-handed and swings at the savaging brandishing his axe. Her sword slips though her blood-slicked fingers and clatters across the floor.
Shit! Khalnny’s gaze locks on the warrior’s axe. He slaps his palm across the haft of his weapon. Smack … smack … smack. The sound seems to echo across the small room and savage just smiles, confident she can do nothing, his eyes like cold stone chips.
No! I’ll not die this way, Khalnny thinks, her fingers inching towards her boot dirk.
The savage laughs, a harsh barking sound that fills the room. He lunges for her as she jerks her blade free. As his axe streaks towards her in a scything blow, his boot slips in a puddle of blood and offal. He lands on the back, his axe flying from his hand, feet spraying her with crimson droplets.
Khalnny has no tactic or strategy other than to drive down with her knife, burying it up to the hilt just above his groin.
His eyes bulge, the painted designs on his face seeming to ripple. He is actually trying to get up! To Khalnny’s horror the clansman gains his knees, the dirk hilt protruding like some obscene parody of a cock, blood dripping of it onto the floor.
She casts about and her hand close around the warrior’s axe. She heaves it up and brings it down again, right into his chest. There’s a sickening crunch and his grunts subside into blood-flecked burbles. Another blow and the sounds stop.
Khalnny collapses onto the stool, chest thudding, vision blurred with sweat, leathers soaked in blood.
On the floor the clansman she gutted with her sword lies on his side, eyes open, looking at her.
Through an open window Khalnny hears only the occasional shout and sword clash. The clan’s in the street and she needs a place to hide.
First things first, she thinks. She leans over and throws up.
A young member of the banner party grows an arrow shaft out of her eye and topples from of her saddle. “Damn,” says Charadell. “Jeynna was my best aide.” She hefts her crossbow, tracks a warrior waving his bow at what’s left of the banner party and drops him from his mount. “One less to worry about, eh Lady Samretta?” She shouts to make herself heard over the battle.
Samretta reins her horse close and marvels at the Domina. Charadell methodically cocks her crossbow, her face placid, though her eyes have a hawk-like intensity as she surveys and directs the shrinking number of Watch nobles under her command.
“Should we not withdraw, Domina?”
“Nonsense,” Charadell grunts. “Are you not having fun?”
“No.” Cowardly of me perhaps, thinks Samretta. But I’d rather not see any more of the disaster I’ve helped wrought. She shudders. That so much blood is being shed – needlessly – to safeguard the Watch. And her hands red with it.
Charadell commands a dozen riders, their faces strained with fear, to wheel in aid of the left flank. “I don’t blame you. Besides, we can’t withdraw. Not now.” She gestures to her right. “We’re being flanked. The clan horses are fresh, ours our not. And I do believe we may be somewhat out-numbered.”
The plains are crawling with clansmen where a scant ten minutes earlier there was only empty steppe! The messenger sent to retrieve the hundred or so Watch riders who chased the clan into Teron has not returned. Only a dozen from the other group fought their way back to the Domina’s standard. Half the column gone in less than ten minutes.
I need to leave soon, Samretta thinks. No sense in being both a traitor and dead. The former is quite sufficient. Yet she can’t bring herself to break away, however easy it may be in the chaos and tumult. House loyalty still has a strong grip on her and she remains by the Domina’s side, crossbow in hand.
“You need to leave, Lady Samretta,” says Charadell. She plucks another quarrel from her pouch and cocks her weapon. “It’s likely to go badly here in the next few minutes.”
“You have the fastest mount. The clan may send a few after you, but the constables should slow them down. Get back to the encampment, tell them to prepare to receive ‘guests’. I imagine the other two columns are pressed just as heavily as we are, so those left won’t have much in the way of horse. Tell them to move back to the river bank and make their stand amongst the buildings.”
“Who shall I tell?” asks Samretta. “Lady Tiandraa is the ranking noble, and I believe she’s on the other side of the Saskanna.”
“Oh my no,” says Charadell. “Lady Merreth is the Heir Primary to her House. She’s the ranking noble.”
“But she’s not Western Watch,” sputters Samretta. “She’s been here less than a week. She’s a criminal!”
“Do you think any of that really matters at this point? Besides, there’s really no one else.” Charadell takes aim and looses a quarrel. Another clansman pitches off his mount. “One more thing, Lady Samretta. Please convey my apology for today’s little mess to the High Mistress. I fear I won’t be able to deliver my regrets personally.”
“But Domina…Charadell, you must – ”
“Go, now, Samretta. Go!”
More Lady Merreth
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