Her eyes closed, Merreth lets the water run down her face and listens to it drip back into the wash basin on Charadell’s desk. She splashes her cheeks again and rubs her nose. I’m still dirty, and smell like a barn, she thinks. And she used to tease Ammantha about taking a bath every day. She’s having a hard time remembering how it felt to be clean. She opens hers eyes and her hair falls forward in oily strands, brushing the water in the basin. A rippled rogue stares back at her.
“Lady Merreth?” Constable-sergeant Arric stands at the pavilion entrance. “Do you require anything else?”
Merreth prides herself on her independence, on how little need she has for the attention of servants, maids, footmen. Now, here, the question reminds her of just how much she’s lost, of how far she’s fallen. She straightens up and settles her hat on her head, tugging the brim down. “Where can I get something to eat?”
“Right then, lunch,” says Arric. “It’s a bit late but I’ll have the lads prepare something for you and bring it by.”
I’ll not be waited on, she thinks. “No, I’ll go get it. No need for you to bring it to me.”
“Ah, well,” Arric frowns, rubbing his chin. “I’m not certain where you’d be getting it from, or eating it, actually. Fires are out, and I’ll have to round up the cooks. Best to let me bring you something when I can.”
Obstinacy. Much easier to deal with than kindness. “You’re in the habit of serving criminals are you?” she asks with an edge in her voice.
Arric’s expression cloud with, with what? Dismay? Uncertainty? “As you wish. I’ll send someone by to let you know,” he says. The tent flap falls closed.
Damn it! Why does she keep stepping on people who show her courtesy? Good Goddess, it’s not as if she’s been showered with deference over the last several days. She sighs and settles into a chair. I need to find someplace safe to get some more sleep, she thinks. Likely Totlenn’s camp. She grimaces at the thought of an hour’s hike to a place that less than a week ago she would have characterized as anything except ‘safe’.
There’s a rustle at the pavilion entrance and she speaks without glancing up. “Arric, I want to …”
“Alas,” says Eenid, stepping through the entrance, “the good constable-sergeant is on some errand.” The Templeman glances around the pavilion before continuing. “He seemed most dejected. I now see why, he’s just finished speaking with you.”
She rises, hand resting on her belt dirk. “You loathsome little toad.”
Eenid produces an embroidered handkerchief from a small shoulder bag, mops his brow and puts it away. “And good morning to you too, Merreth. Tell me, are the guards out front to keep people out, or to keep you in? It’s frightfully warm today.” He nods at the decanter and glasses beside the wash basin.. “A drink of water perhaps? I was polite enough to extend the offer to you the last time we shared each other’s company.”
Merreth shoulders her scabbard.
“Oh my, I don’t mean to chase you out.” Eenid smiles. “I could almost believe you don’t find my company pleasant.”
“The first time we met, Eenid, you delighted in telling me that you could have me killed like that”. Merreth snaps her fingers.
“’Eenid’, is it? So much more congenial than ‘loathsome little toad’”.
“The second time you tried to convince me to aid in punishing an innocent man. I feel dirty just being around you.”
“I imagine you feel soiled around just about everyone, Merreth.” Eenid sniffs and rubs his mustache. “And not just because of your current unwashed state.”
Merreth works her gloves on. “I’m finished speaking with you, toad.”
Eenid sighs. “Very well, I shan’t be here long anyway. As it happens I’m here to see Domina Charadell’s second.” He cocks his head, his gaze shifting from the wash basin to the soiled towels, to her leathers. “Though I am curious as to why you’re here, of all places, alone.”
“You’ve heaved your bulk into a wagon for a long journey to a vast disappointment. She’s not here.” The Domina’s second, thinks Merreth? Who the blazes is that?
Muffled conversation draws their attention towards the pavilion entrance.
A short, solid-looking woman in Western Watch leather pushes the tent flap open and limps into the pavilion, closely followed by Arric. Short wavy brown hair, streaked with gray, frames a face lined with wrinkles. Piercing blue eyes take in Merreth and Eenid with a hard, flinty stare. The woman purses her lips and moves to the Domina’s chair.
“Ah, Lady Ashttia,” says Eenid, rising. “It is good to see you again. I hoped you would return early, as I’ve something I would like to discuss.”
Now why, Merreth thinks, would that slug ooze his way down here on the mere chance he could see the Domina’s second?
“No doubt, Templeman Eenidd, no doubt. I’ve been besieged by supplicants since setting foot back on this side of the river.” Ashttia lowers herself into the chair. “What’s all this, Arric?” She gestures at the towels and hand basin. “The Domina’s ridden to battle and the first thing you do is turn her pavilion into a bath-house?”
“Of course not, Lady Ashttia.” Arric draws himself up straight. The friendly tone he’d come to adopt when speaking with Merreth is gone, replaced by a clipped formality. “I brought the items here for Lady Merreth’s use at the Domina’s specific request.”
“Here? She had you bring them here?” Ashttia frowns. “The Domina’s war against the savages seems to leave her scant time to observe the proprieties.” She folds her hands on the desk and scowls at her audience. “That’s why she appointed me, of course, to rectify the appalling lack of decorum displayed on this side of the river. A stern hand is necessary to stop it, Arric, a stern hand.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” says Arric. “A stern hand.”
“I’ll start with you,” Ashttia says, studying Merreth. “The High Mistress told me of your circumstances. Horrid. Absolutely horrid. A daughter of Sable House – the Heir Primary, Goddess preserve us – and here you are, a common cutthroat. Why are you in the Domina’s pavilion?”
“The Domina …” Arric begins.
“Be silent constable-sergeant. I asked Merreth to explain her presence.”
Merreth’s fingers close into a fist and she works to uncurl them. “I came to report a killing to the Domina.”
“What? You thought some commoner brawl worthy of the Domina’s attention? ”
“I killed someone.”
“Really?” asks Eenid, eyes glittering with interest. “Who was he?”
Ashttia blinks. “Foul murder laid atop all your other misdeeds and depravities? And you freely admit it? Arric, why is she armed?”
Merreth interrupts. “Some bastard tried to kill me while I was the Domina’s guest. It didn’t end well for him.” She cocks her head at the Templeman. “How did you know it was a man, Eenid? Lucky guess?”
“It’s true, I saw the body,” says Arric. “As to why Lady Merreth is carrying her blades, the Domina ordered her weapons be returned to her. The Domina was quite direct about it.”
“I see.” Asttia forces a smile onto her lips and fixes Merreth with a hard look. “I’m sure she had her reasons for such an unusual decision. Still, until the Domina’s return I’ll make the decisions. You’ll not be armed in my presence. Remove your weapons.”
You pompous windbag, thinks Merreth. She has no intention of surrendering her weapons. “I’ll leave then, I need to get some damned sleep anyway.”
“Back to the hovel you’ve made for yourself with Totlenn’s crew, then?” asks Eenid. “Quite courageous of you. He can’t be happy that you’ve taken his place.”
Merreth’s eyes narrow. Does he really think I took the Domina up on her offer? How the blazes did he know about it in the first place? Shrewd guess or prior knowledge? “Your concern for my safety would be touching were it not so patently counterfeit.”
“You lead Totlenn’s rabble?” asks Ashttia. “I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. Criminal or not, you are noble. Blood will tell.” She gazes out a window flap for a moment then turns a sour face back to Merreth. “Stay, then. I need to speak with you.”
What could it hurt, Merreth asks herself. She may learn something interesting. Any information on this side of the river would likely serve her well. She sighs. No sleep yet. Still … “I’m not giving up my blades.”
“If I may, Lady Merreth,” says Arric. “Your sword like as not, hasn’t had a good edge put on it for at least a couple of days. I can have the armourer see to that. I’d offer the same for your dirks as well, but that would leave you unarmed.” He clears his throat. “And the Domina did say clearly you were to be armed at all times.”
Ashttia gives Arric a searching look. “At all times, you say.”
“Indeed, Ma’am.” He holds his hand out to Merreth. “If I may, Lady Merreth. I imagine the job should take no longer than your business with Lady Ashttia.”
Merreth un-slings her scabbard and passes it to Arric. Her eyes widen. Did he just wink at her?
“Excuse me, something in my eye,” he says. “Lady Ashttia,” he inclines his head, turns, and vanishes out of the pavilion.
“A most useful commoner,” says Eenid. He clasps his hands behind his back and begins pacing. “Lady Ashttia, I would like passage to the far bank for myself and my fellow Templemen this afternoon.”
“You’re abandoning your responsibility for running the camps?” asks Merreth. “The one you graciously consented to take on from the Watch?”
“You’re hardly in a position to remind anyone of their responsibilities, ” snorts Eenid.
“I’ll ask the questions, Merreth. You, you just sit down,” says Ashttia, waving a hand at one of the seats. “Now, Eenid, why is this necessary?”
“The Western Watch Prefect will be in Westhold proper tomorrow. I received word of this late yesterday. She wishes to speak to all of the Templemen serving on this side of the river.”
“Hmmm,” Ashttia leans back in her chair. “It strikes me that it’s easier to have one person cross the river than what, sixteen?”
“Twenty, actually,” says Eenid, “and I agree. However,” he shrugs, “my brethren and I answer to her. It will only be for a day or two, and my camp scribes and secretaries can oversee things during that time.”
“Where will you all stay? Surely nothing suitable for your needs will have been arranged on such short notice,” says Ashttia.
“Lady Tiandraa has graciously consented to accommodate us for the time required. The High Mistress, you recall, granted her the use of a rather large estate just outside of Westhold.”
“And you just learned of all this less than a day ago,” says Merreth. “Whatever could be so important as to require the Temple servants to absent themselves from this side of the river? All of them. This afternoon.”
“Nothing that wouldn’t be beyond your grasp, Merreth.” Eenid, glares at her. “You’ve provided ample evidence that your understanding of the Temple, its teachings, and its principles has long since escaped you, if indeed you possessed it in the first place.”
“Decorum!” Ashttia slaps her hand down on the travel desk, rattling the wash basin. “I’ll not have you two snapping at each other like mongrel dogs out back of some country-inn kitchen! This behaviour is exactly what I was speaking of earlier.” She takes a breath and places her hands flat on the desk. “Now, Eenid, I’m afraid I can’t let you go. There’s a task to which I must set both you and Merreth.”
Eenid’s brows knit together in a frown. “What task? Whatever it is, surely it can wait. Not just any Temple priestess, Lady Ashttia, but the Prefect herself has commanded my presence! The other Templemen are already on their way here, many have probably arrived.”
“You seem quite sure that I would grant your request,” says Ashttia. “While I would not, of course, seek to inconvenience the Temple in the prosecution of its duties, my responsibilities also must be seen to. Eenid, you and the Templemen who assist you at Totlenn’s camp will stay. I’ll arrange passage for the rest to go see the Prefect. They can report back to you.”
“What?” Eenid’s face is rigid with shock. “I must go! I must!” He walks over to the Domina’s desk, stops and looks down upon Ashttia. “My request was more one of courtesy. With respect, Lady Ashttia, you don’t control the comings and goings of Temple servants.”
“No. But I do control the ferries and I can direct you in the responsibilities willingly assumed by the Temple.”
Eenid’s mouth works for a few seconds without issuing any sounds. Ashttia waves away a fly that’s made its way through one of the window flaps.
Seeing Eenid discomfited is worth a couple of hours of sleep, Merreth decides. “What is this task you have in mind, Ashttia?”
“I have a title, Merreth, use it from now on.”
“As do I.”
“Yes, ‘criminal’.” Ashttia nods at Eenid. “Please sit down Templeman Eenid. I have seven hundred Watch horse on the other side of the river. Or rather they will be there late this afternoon. They’ll be ferried over here as soon as they arrive. Later, I’m given to understand, one hundred Red Hand will join them.”
“Seven hundred? Where do you intend to put them?” asks Merreth. “From what I can see there isn’t a square yard of free space within three miles.”
“Actually, there is.” Ashttia, steeples her fingers. “We’re moving Totlenn’s camp to make room for the additional Watch horse.”
“Moving them?” Merreth, frowns at Ashttia. “To where? There must be over a thousand people in that camp, including women and children.”
“Excellent,” says Ashttia, “you grasp the extent of the task before you. As to where they will go, determining that is one of the things you two will need to do.”
“But there’s no time,” says Eenid. “Even were I and my staff available to assist in such an endeavour, it would take days, perhaps weeks to plan, let alone implement. Digging new latrine pits alone would consume most of a day. And all of this is supposed to happen within the next six or seven hours? Besides, most of Totlenn’s men are on field duty in the local farms and not due back until sunset.”
“He’s right.” Merreth can’t keep from grimacing as she agrees with Eenid. “It can’t be done.”
“Time is short,” says Ashttia. “I had hoped to provide you with at least two days notice, but both the High Mistress and the Red Hand were able to assemble these new contingents somewhat more quickly than I had expected. And Eenid, you and your staff are available. That subject is closed.”
“Even if it were possible,” says Merreth. “the camp is going to be furious. Have you told your new ‘contingents’ the first thing they’ll be doing is putting down a riot?”
Ashttia stares down her nose at Merreth. “Rioting is something you’re going to prevent. You will be held accountable for any destruction or bloodshed.”
“Do you really think my word carries any weight with Totlenn’s lot? Why should they listen to me?” Merreth’s temper slips its leash for a moment. “Go talk to Totlenn about moving his people. I’m not in charge of the camp, you damn fool!”
“What!” Ashttia sits up in her chair. “You said …”
“I said nothing,” snaps Merreth. “You just assumed something convenient to your purpose. You want to start that fire? Fine, you can burn in it.”
Arric’s head appears in the pavilion entrance. “Lady Ashttia, are you and Lady Merreth finished? There’s something …”
Merreth, brushes past him and steps into stifling heat, her boots crunching on dead brown grass. No clouds mar the sky. Heat shimmers on the road leading to Totlenn’s camp. There’s no breeze from the river and the air smells faintly of cook fires long extinguished. Merreth takes her hat off and rakes her through her hair, sweat popping off her brow. Still, while the air is furnace hot, she thinks, at least it’s not thick with vanity and stupidity.
The encampment is not quite empty. Several couriers lounge under canvas tarps set up near a small group of trees, their mounts standing in the shade, tails flicking at flies. Small knots of constables go about tasks she can’t begin to guess at. Some are injured, their arms in slings, or their legs bandaged. Those lightly wounded, Merreth guesses, from earlier encounters with the clan. She resigns herself to a long walk back to Totlenn’s camp.
Arric pushes the tent flap aside and follows her out of the pavilion. “Lady Merreth?”
She sighs. “What is it, Arric?”
“Here.” He holds out a water skin.
She takes long swallow and hands it back. “Thank you. I don’t suppose you’ve another of those? It’s a long walk back to Totlenn’s camp.”
“I can find one, but there are couple other things.” Arric runs a hand through his black hair which is matted with sweat. He studies the ground for a moment then meets her eyes. “Firstly, Lady Ashttia has ordered me to keep you under guard.”
“But I’m armed, right now.”
“I know that.”
“And you are going to return my sword.”
He nods. “I know that too.”
Good Goddess, thinks Merreth. He sounds embarrassed. “Did she say for how long? Are you supposed to follow me around for the rest of the day?”
Arric draws himself up to attention and stares at a point somewhere in the distance. “It’s not for a base commoner such as I to question the complex and nuanced decisions of some of my betters. I merely set my shoulder to the task of making their wishes reality,” he pauses, “however fanciful those decisions may be.”
Merreth’s mouth twitches into a smile. “The Domina finds you quite useful, doesn’t she, Arric?”
“I believe she sees some value in my humble efforts, Lady Merreth.”
“You said there were a couple of things. What else?”
“It’s the man back in the cabin. The one you killed.”
“He’s still dead I hope.”
“More so than ever,” says Arric. “The part that’s left.”
“What the blazes do you mean by that?”
“He’s lost his head.”
The cloying stink of dried blood, piss and shit wafts out the open door of the cabin. Flies swarm in a buzzing, frenzied cloud. It’s worse inside. They’re almost thick enough to block the light streaming through the windows.
Neither Davven nor Arric seem bothered by either the smell or the insects. Merreth checks the urge to cover her nose with her glove. I should get used to this, she thinks, there’s likely to be a lot of it over the next two years.
Davven is crouched down beside the body which, less its head, has been flipped over on to its stomach. “Butcher of a job,” he says indicating with his knife the hacked and torn flesh. The yellow-white spine, smeared with blood, protrudes from the neck like some grotesque snake poking out of a hole.
“Better swift than neat,” says Arric. “Either way this piece of shit wasn’t going to complain.”
“Why take the head?” asks Merreth., working to get the words out without gagging.
“Moving a body tends to draw attention and takes more people. A man carrying a head in a sack is just a man carrying a sack,” says Davven. He runs his hands through the corpse’s clothing. “Nothing. Didn’t expect much, but you always check.”
“So, what did he look like?” asks Arric.
Merreth shakes her head. “I was busy trying to stay alive. No beard, I think. Yellow teeth. Why?”
“Because, Lady Merreth,” says Davven, “it’s now a lot harder to figure out who this is, or was. And someone really doesn’t want him recognized.”
Arric nods. “This wasn’t some angry thug who happened to wander through four hundred constables, find your cabin, and have a go at you. He was able to get to you without attracting attention. I’d guess that anyone seeing him would recognize him and not think him out of place in the Domina’s camp.”
Merreth steps over the body and searches the cot. “The bolt’s gone,” she says. “Bastard tried to pin me with a crossbow. He missed.”
“Costly mistake,” says Arric.
“No crossbow in here,” says Davven, “we searched the cabin and couldn’t find anything.”
“You’ve done this sort of thing before.” Merreth gestures to the body and around the room. “Looking over dead bodies, trying to reason things out.”
Arric chuckles, a dry rough sound in the buzzing air. “Davven and I were constables before we were constable-soldiers, Lady Merreth. And I liked my old job better than the one I have now.”
“So what happens next?”
“I’ll get some of the lads to bury the body,” says Arric. “You and I have to go see Lady Ashttia.” His face loses expression and his eyes go hard. “Someone is hunting you.”
Merreth knows that already, but her stomach grows a cold knot. She puts a smile on her lips. “Well then, it’s a very good thing that I’m under your guard, Constable-sergeant.”
“What the blazes is that all about?” asks Merreth as Davven closes the cabin door behind them.
Across the encampment, a small crowd clusters about the Domina’s pavilion. From this distance they appear to be farmers and townspeople. Templeman stand a little apart from the group, their off white tunics and tan breeches make them easy to pick out.
A half-dozen constables block the pavilion entrance. Raised voices, some fearful, others angry drift across the encampment.
“Not sure,” says Arric. “At a guess the local townsfolk have heard about the Domina’s departure and want to be re-assured.”
“About what?” asks Merreth, skirting a fire pit.
“That the criminals aren’t going to pillage the local farms and Westhold this side of the river. The last three times the Domina rode out she took Totlenn’s lot with her. This time she left them here and only took the constables. The locals are probably concerned about that.”
“Bloody worried more like,” says Davven.
“Totlenn’s not stupid,” says Merreth. “He knows that however much looting and destruction he and his men could get away with in the short run, sooner or later, they’d pay. At either the end of a sword or the end of a rope.”
“I agree.” Arric gestures at the crowd. “They don’t.”
“Totlenn’s men are scattered over the fields today, according to Templeman Eenid. They won’t be pillaging anything today,” says Merreth. She stops so quickly she almost stumbles, several things she’s heard over the last several days falling into place.
Merreth grabs his arm. “How many constables and nobles are left around here now that the Domina has marched off to meet the clan?”
“Not many, really. Perhaps thirty to forty Watch nobles, a little over a hundred constables, and a half-dozen couriers. Why?”
“Look!” Davven points down the road where a Watch noble gallops towards them. “It’s Lady Samretta. Wonder what she’s doing back?”
Samretta reins up just short of the crowd, her mount nearly lame, flanks heaving, mouth flecked with foam. She’s missing her hat and her right arm has a blood soaked rag tied around it above the elbow. After dismounting she shoves her way through crowd and disappears inside the pavilion.
“Oh Dear Goddess,” Merreth whispers.
More Lady Merreth
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Chapter 18 — Coming soon!