Gytega sits back in his saddle, bow in one hand, water skin in the other. He raises his chin, closes his eyes against the merciless sun, and takes a small sip. Not enough to replace what he’s sweated off, but water is precious. What they carry must last until they gain the river. He ties off the water skin and studies the fighting in front of him.
Clan warriors circle the defiant dirt-scratchers who crouch in the grass. Shaft after shaft hammer into shields, rip into soft flesh. The clan’s keening war-cry fills the air. Their enemy possesses no mounts, no bows, nothing of value to Gytega. At least nothing that can’t be taken from a corpse. This fight only ends when the last one falls.
Agaric and a hand of warriors gallop past, eager to spill more blood. They’re furious that they were duped. His warriors, drunk with victory, had pounded down the road, hard on the hooves of the scouts. Three dozen had fallen from their saddles in a sleet of crossbow bolts from the grass on either side of the road.
It’s no surprise Agaric and Tewkinn are close enough to be blood brothers, thinks Gytega. Both are bold to the point of rashness, trusting the Sky-Father to right their errors in judgment. Usually He does, but not before teaching a lesson.
A trio of dirt-scratchers collapse, arrows buried in their chests. They’re not dying fast enough! Too few shafts find their way past those damnable shields, and the men holding them are not without sting. A rider-less horse bolts off across the plains, away from the blood and bodies. Gytega clenches his fists. Every heartbeat here seems to lose the clan another warrior. He glares at Agaric, now on the far side of the defenders. Your foolishness, your disdain for these dirt-scratchers costs us blood and time, and we have little enough of either!
Ostinik reins up beside him. “The women are under guard.”
“Are they safe?” Gytega asks. Beatings could not be undone.
“Yes. Agaric is with us, after all.” Ostinik spits into the grass. “We’ve gathered all their mounts as well.”
“We did not find our standard.”
Gytega gives a curt nod, his eyes on the shrinking circle of enemy shields. He estimates there’s just over half left – two hundred, perhaps three – but none looks ready to set his feet on the path back to Mother-Earth. Of course they’ve little choice, there’s nowhere to run, and Gytega is not taking prisoners. He could order his warriors onward, but that would leave a threat in his rear. Suppose these men took their crossbows and marched to aid the women he’s just spent blood to capture? He measures the shadows that spring from the hooves of his mount. “We squander time with this,” he gestures at the clot of blood, bodies, and determined steel surrounded by clan riders.
“It will be over soon,” says Ostinik. “It was the right decision.”
Gytega’s thoughts turn to the dirt-scratcher leader, that woman with her pretty banners. Four times the clan has clashed with her and each is a little more costly than the last. Even now, with her firmly in his fist, she still manages to shed clan blood and rob him of time! “We push on,” he snaps. “We leave enough to put down these dogs, and strike for the river with the rest. When those here are done, they can join us.”
“He can finish here.”
Merreth threads her way past the cold fire pits dotting the empty encampment, cursing a blister rubbing raw inside her boot. In the heat sweat flies from her face. She’s panting when she reaches the crowd.
The cluster of farmers and townspeople grows by the minute, jostling against the half-dozen constables holding them back from the pavilion. The murmur of unease and confusion forms a back drop to their shouted questions.
“Where’re the constables?” A stocky man wearing a blacksmith’s apron waves a hammer over his head. “The damned criminals are all out in the fields and the constables are gone! Who’s to protect us?”
“What news of the Domina?” asks a farmer.
“We’ve heard nothing of her!” shouts another.
. Merreth skirts the edge of the crowd, working closer to the pavilion entrance, Arric and Davven right beside her.
“Davven,” says Arric, “round up a few of the lads and see if you can find Under-Captain Lassk.”
“M’Lady, M’Lady!” A woman, face creased with worry, holds her small daughter close by her side. Her husband, dressed as a shop-keep, has his arm around her. “What’s happened? We all saw the messenger! Is there going to be trouble?”
Probably, thinks Merreth, but that’s not something to be said at the moment. “I don’t know,” she mutters, pulling away from the woman. It embarrasses her to be seen as a comforting presence. At the pavilion entrance a guard attempts to bar her path. She slaps the lance out of her way and yanks the tent flap aside, leaving Arric to deal with the surprised constables.
“ … Teron likely a slaughter house,” Samretta is saying, pacing back and forth.
Eenid sits back in his chair, face grey, arms folded, his tunic now stained with sweat.
“Merreth! What the blazes are you doing back here?” Ashttia demands.
The question halts Merreth in her tracks. What am I doing here? The riddle of her assailant’s missing head seems a petty concern given what she’s just overheard from Samretta.
Samretta’ eyes narrow. “Merreth should stay.” She touches the rag tied around her arm and winces. “Some of this concerns her.”
“Good Goddess, what does that mean?” asks Ashttia. “Somehow this disaster concerns …” she jabs a finger in Merreth’s direction, “this criminal? I’ll not hear of it!” She rummages through the travel desk’s drawers. “Prepare, we must prepare, things must be done if we – if anything – is to be saved from this debacle!”
“Lady Ashttia,” says Eenid, “perhaps a calmer discussion of a course of action is prudent.” He glances at the tent flap. “If we can hear the crowd outside, surely they can hear us.”
“What happened?” asks Merreth.
“It went poorly,” says Eenid.
“And why does some of it concern me?”
“Poorly?” Samretta laughs, then sobers. “Such a little word to hide so much pain and death. The Domina’s column – the noble horse – has been ambushed, slaughtered, wiped out by the clan!”
“And the Domina?”
“Dead, or worse, captured along with most of her banner party.” Samretta voice cracks. “She told me, ordered me, to leave. I should have stayed. I wanted to stay!”
Eenid focusses on the pavilion ceiling while Ashttia’s fingers tighten around the quill she holds.
Merreth eyes the floor, taken aback at Samretta’s tears. As much as she doesn’t care for the scout, Merreth doesn’t think her a coward.
“It’s a bloody good thing you didn’t.” Ashttia pulls out an ink bottle and places it on the desk beside the paper. “Else we’d be taken completely unawares.”
“So the clan is on its way here,” says Merreth.
“Probably,” Samretta runs a hand through her hair. “The constables were several miles behind us when the clan attacked. When I … left the Domina I happened upon them and told them about the ambush. Captain Ittle agreed to hold the clan as long as he could if they came this way.”
“Brave man,” says Ashttia.
“No choice but to be brave,” says Merreth. “The constables are on foot. They’d only be ridden down if they tried to flee. The clan will have to kill them. They can’t leave armed men behind them, even if they’re on foot.”
“Truth,” says Samretta. “Your blood really does run cold doesn’t it, Merreth?”
Merreth scowls at Samretta, nettled by the implication she doesn’t care. “It’s not callous to state the facts. What do you plan to do about the clans?” she asks Ashttia.
“I need not explain,” says Ashttia. “You and the rest of your ilk will find out when I deem it appropriate.”
“We should be asking you, Merreth,” says Samretta. “The Domina said you were to be in charge.”
Without thinking Merreth takes a step back. Dear Goddess, no! I want no part of this! “Not me. She can’t have meant me. I’m not Western Watch. Someone else can wear the responsibility for the …” she thinks of the child outside, clinging to her mother’s hand, “for the slaughter that will follow the clans here.” She spits the words out quickly, not liking their taste. You’re running, needles a small voice within her. Again.
“I can’t believe it,” says Eenidd. He gets out of his chair, reminding Merreth of a sow rolling to its feet out of a mud bath. “If it was the Domina’s decision it would pile catastrophe upon disaster! Goddess knows what rash blunders Merreth would commit to get us all killed. Better a commoner in command than her.”
“Three of us in agreement. A rare thing, I should think,” says Ashttia. “To place a murderous, honourless butcher – here less than a week, over me?” She shakes her head. “It makes no sense. None!”
Samretta sighs, a sad sound that seems to age her ten years. “It does make sense. The Domina didn’t know you would return early, Lady Ashttia. That would leave Lady Merreth the ranking noble on this side of the river.” She shrugs. “She’s not Western Watch, but she’s Heir Primary to her House. Domina Charadell likely thought that trumped even the crimes of which Merreth stands accused.”
“Has as much as admitted to,” says Eenidd.
Ashttia uncaps the ink bottle and dips the quill. “Lady Samretta, assuming the clan is on its way, how long until they arrive?”
Samretta takes a deep breath. “If they defeat Captain Ittle swiftly, follow the Serron road to the river and turn north, three hours; four at the most. There will be at least a thousand, possibly double that.”
Ashttia nods. “No time to waste. Eenid, you and all of your Templemen will be able to keep your appointment with the Prefect after all. The northern ferry is on this side of the river. It can accommodate you all.” She pauses and drums her fingers on the desk. “Runners to assemble the remaining nobles and couriers within half an hour. Some can take the northern ferry. The remainder can board the central ferry due within the hour. It will be a tight fit, but we should be able to manage it. No room for mounts though, other than mine of course. We can’t use the southern ferry, more’s the pity; too far from here. Still, it isn’t necessary.”
“And?” ask Merreth.
“And what, Merreth?” asks Ashttia as she writes. She looks up and purses her lips. “Don’t worry, we’ll find some space for you as well. Only because it would be unpleasant explaining your death to the High Mistress when it was within my power to prevent it.” She starts writing again. “Be grateful for that.”
I’ll be gone from this dusty, deadly furnace of a land, Merreth thinks. I’ll be safe. I’ll be … she closes her eyes … running. Again. First from the ban, then from Tiandraa, and here, now, from the clans. When I’m back across the river, where will I run then? She hears her mother’s voice: ‘The best decision, Merreth – the right decision – usually turns out to be the most difficult or unpleasant’. She opens her eyes and stares at Ashttia. “That’s not what I meant,” she says.
“Eh?” Ashttia looks up from her papers. “What was that?”
“What about the farmers, the local townspeople, the families, their children and the commoner criminals? What about them?” Merreth jerks a thumb at the pavilion entrance.
“What? The commoners?” asks Ashttia.
“She has a point,” says Eenid. “There will be panic, particularly at the dockside. If I may, Lady Ashttia, I would suggest the remaining constables be marshalled to cover the ferry departures. They’ll need to ensure only those authorized can board.”
Merreth glances at Samretta. “You’ve seen the clans. Once they’re here, it will be butchery, won’t it?”
“Yes,” says Samretta. “They’ll kill everything they can, burn anything they can. This will be no raid, they’ll be here, waiting for us if we ever come back over the river.”
“You would have the constables cut down families, children even, as they try to get to safety aboard the ferries?” asks Merreth. “How do you think Totlenn will feel about being left behind? I think he’ll be willing to face down the constables.” Merreth smiles. “After all, he is a criminal.”
“It won’t come to that. Commoners will never try to push their way past armed constables,” says Ashttia.
“Commoners around here have never had clan warriors killing their wives, husbands, children!”
Ashttia places the quill on the table, picks up the papers, and rises to leave. “Totlenn’s men are in the fields today. They won’t know until it’s too late. The other camps don’t know anything and are too far away to trouble us.”
“The constables can be told there are other ferries coming for them,” says Eenidd.
“You see, Merreth?” Ashttia waves her hand. “These problems are solved, immediately and efficiently. This kind of thinking is what separates you from us.”
Eenid smiles hard at Merreth. “This is the frontier, criminal. There are no guarantees of safety over here, there never were! Those commoners all knew that when they chose to cross the river, or at least their parents did. The constables are paid to fight and die if necessary, and no one gives a damn about the scum wearing the same brand you do. “ He twists his smile into a sneer. “You ran from your house lands, you ran from Tiandraa in Westhold, and you will run, gladly, with us from the clan. And you have the gall to accuse me of cowardice?”
Merreth’s left hand grabs a handful of Eenid’s tunic and twists it tight, drawing the Templeman toward her. With her other hand she jerks her belt dirk from its sheath. It would be so easy, Merreth thinks, to slit …
“Good Goddess, Merreth,” shouts Samretta, “let go of him!”
“No.” Merreth slides the dirk back into its sheath and shoves Eenid away from her. She turns to Ashttia. “No more running.”
Arric pushes aside the tent flap and steps into the pavilion. He takes in the scene before him and raises an eyebrow. “Lady Ashttia? We have a problem outside.”
“What is it, Constable-sergeant? We’re busy here.”
“Of course, M’Lady, but you should know that about three hundred of Totlenn’s men are marching here. One of the nobles spotted them, and rode back here to relay the news.”
“But they’re supposed to be in the fields!” says Eenid. “What are they doing marching here?”
“I imagine Totlenn will tell use when he arrives,” says Merreth.
“Assemble your men, Arric, and prepare to meet those scum with steel,” says Ashttia. She slips her papers into her vest. “We’ll be out presently.”
“Very good, Lady Ashttia,” says Arric. “However, my men will be outnumbered, and there’s all those townsfolk and farmers about. What shall I do about them?”
“Tell them to go back to their homes,” says Ashttia. “Lady Samretta, go round up as many nobles as you can in the next few minutes. There won’t be many, but even a few on horseback will give those vermin pause.”
Outside the half dozen constables Merreth saw earlier are holding back crowd, which has now doubled in size. More people run to join it, fear washing through the jostling throng.
“The criminals are on the march! They’ll be here in minutes!” someone pointing down the road shouts.
“Where’re the constables? Where’s the Domina?” screams another.
“What of our homes, our children, our shops? Who’s to protect them?”
Davven hurries over as Arric leaves the pavilion. A dozen constables trail behind him, struggling with swords, tunics, and belts. Some still wear bandages. One has a limp. They take their place between the crowd and the pavilion.
“Under-captain Lassk?” asks Arric.
“He won’t be much use today. He’s in his cups already.”
“Damn it.” Arric rubs his jaw and studies the crowd. “Alright, send some runners to shake out the rest of the constables, Davven. Tell them not to make a fuss about it, but they’re to get everyone who can walk, or crawl for that matter.”
“What are you going to do with them?” asks Merreth.
“It depends, Lady Merreth, on what you’d like me to do with them.”
“Me? Lady Ashttia …”
“I heard what Lady Samretta said inside.”
“You were eaves-dropping on the Domina’s pavilion?”
“‘An ugly charge,” Arric squints up at the sky. “Ugly but true.”
“Then you heard I’m not here to give any orders, Arric. I wouldn’t know where start. And Eenid is right about one thing – I probably would wind up getting us all killed.”
“Thank you for not making a mess of him. Damned hard to find clean towels.” Arric pauses for a moment. “So why are you here, Lady Merreth?””
“I’m going to find out what Totlenn wants.” Merreth strides past crowd towards the couriers tending their horses.
A hand brushes her leg. It’s the child she saw earlier, her other hand still clutched her mother’s. A score of angry, fearful faces in the crowd turn towards her.
“M’Lady, your pardon,” says the woman’s husband; his voice is strong, but he averts his eyes when speaking to her. “We’ve heard nothing of the Domina, the constables are gone, and messengers and coming and going from the pavilion. Something is wrong, isn’t?”
“And what about the criminals the Domina left behind?” asks another man, a stable hand by the look and smell of him. “She always took them with her before. Why not now? What’ll they do when they get here?”
“Totlenn’s men aren’t going hurt anyone,” says Merreth. She realizes at the confused muttering that none know who Totlenn is. “The criminals,” she raises her voice, “are not going rob or attack you!”
The girl tugs at Merreth’s breeches. “How do you know?”
Her mother pulls the child back. “Melikka, don’t be rude. That’s a noble!” She bobs her head at Merreth. “Your pardon, M’Lady, she’s just frightened.”
Merreth squats down and does her best to smile. “I know.”
Merreth holds out her wrist and pulls her glove away from the brand. “Because I’m one of them.”
The girl’s mother gasps. “A criminal! You’ve got the mark! But you’re noble!”
Behind the woman Merreth can hear the word being passed through the crowd.
“One of them!”
“Has the mark!”
“Maybe she’s their leader!”
The ones closest to Merreth back away, shoving and pushing those behind. “She’ll bring them here!” From the edge of the crowd closest to the road comes a shout, “Something on the road, it’s them!”
A dust cloud rising from down the road could be anything, thinks Merreth, but she can only watch as the panicked commoners turn to flee from the pavilion. “Oh bugger.”
More Lady Merreth
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