Two scribes occupy desks in Mistress Rehkhell’s white-plastered antechamber. Duggel, Senior Scribe to Mistress Rehkhell Lyatir, places his elbows on his desk. He has seen at least fifty summers. Tall, thin and balding, with a nose like a beak, Duggel wears a simple russet tunic belted at the waist with a length of rich brown leather. Circling his neck is a mahogany-coloured service collar, prominently inscribed with High Mistress Rehkhell’s House symbol.
Rehkhell’s door is ajar. Open doors allow infrequent breezes off the Saskanna River to waft through Westhold’s adobe-bricked and oak-timbered buildings. Here on the uppermost floor of the Watch’s temporary provincial hall, such breezes are the only relief from the summer heat. Along with the breezes come strong words passionately delivered.
“I don’t give a damn for your petty political concerns, Rehkhell! That unwashed, swaggering barbarian insulted me. His mere presence is an insult to all of us!”
Across the room, Sarrit, the junior clerk, gapes at the door. He drops his quill on the parchments in front of him and runs a hand through his sandy blonde hair. An off white cotton tunic and breeches, emblematic of his lower status, covers a frame that is shorter and wider than Duggel’s. He starts to say something but Duggel waves him into silence.
“You are not in Red Hand Province, Tiandraa,” Rehkhell retorts. “Things are different here. You can’t order Hanahk to obey like one of your stable boys. He’s leader of the Saskanna River Clan.”
“No honorific,” says Duggel. “The High Mistress is angry.”
“Different? Disgusting you mean!” Tiandraa snaps.
Duggel’s eyebrows rise.
“In our province …”
“This is not your province, Tiandraa,” says Rehkhell. “The Red Hand’s writ doesn’t run here. Mine does. You’ve been here almost four weeks. Look out that window. What do you see?”
“What do you think? Nothing but a hovel for a town and a sewer for a river. A fitting hold for a feeble house.”
A chair is pushed back, banging into a wall. “Shut up, you blind fool!”
“That river carries trade from Suthgat to Baltoni. If you spent more time speaking to the scribes I’ve lent you and less time chastising them for every imagined slight, you’d know that.”
“You can’t –”
“And,” Rehkhell grinds through Tiandraa’s protest, “if you’d spent even a minute of the two hours you were actually on the far bank speaking with your observers, never mind Domina Charadell, you’d know that river is the only thing between us and the steppe clans. Those clans grow stronger every year, burning our homesteads, plundering our crops, and killing our people!”
“Your degenerate sisters are getting themselves killed by venturing across the river in the first place! And if you’re so worried about the clans, why do they walk your very streets?”
“Hanahk’s people are the only clan friendly to us, you fool! And you’ve managed to give him offense!”
“This ‘Hanahk’ refused to surrender his weapons to me. To me!”
“Surrender his weapons?” Rehkhell says, “You’re bloody lucky you didn’t surrender your head! By the Goddess, Tiandraa! Are you here to help us or bury us? At times I swear it’s damned difficult to tell the difference!”
Sarrit winces as the argument escalates. He picks up his quill and tries to busy himself with a bill of lading. Why doesn’t the High Mistress at least close her office door? Perhaps she doesn’t know it’s open? He worries his lower lip when he notices Duggel nodding after each one of Tiandraa’s outbursts.
“We know of your letters to the Matriarch, begging for money and arms,” says Tiandraa. “Your House is weak and corrupt. Armed barbarians fill your streets and your menfolk are un-collared. Everything I see here is a disgrace. Only your Senior Scribe, Duggel, observes proper protocol.”
Duggel fingers his collar, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards.
“You’ve heard nothing from the Whip, Rehkhell. You need the Red Hand,” says Tiandraa, her voice rising. “Keep that in mind as you watch your homesteads burn!” The last words are shouted, and followed by a heavy thud, like a fist pounding into a table.
The door is flung open and Mistress Tiandraa storms out, slamming it behind her. Shoulder-length black hair, damp with sweat, hangs lank about her head. It frames a long face red with anger. In the heat her maroon House leathers are plastered to her thin figure. Her customary heavy vest is discarded and she makes do with a simple riding breast band. Her white knuckled fist is wrapped around the hilt of a ceremonial dagger thrust into her belt.
She stops in front of Sarrit’s desk, jaw working. “After the evening meal you will attend to me at the villa. I have letters that need drafting. You will observe protocol and be properly attired.” She leaves the antechamber without a further word, her riding boots treading heavily on the wooden floor.
“You’d best do as she says,” Duggel sniffs. “I’ll inform the High Mistress you’ll be unavailable this evening. He clasps his hands in front of him, long bony fingers folding in on each other like spiders embracing. “Given your position, Sarrit, you should be properly attired at all times.”
The younger man rubs his neck. “Mistress Rehkhell doesn’t require it,” he grumbles. “It’s tight.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem if you hadn’t gained so much weight,” says Duggel. “Too much time spent in the tavern. Wine will do that as well as make your mornings disagreeable.” He shuffles the papers on his desk. “Your behavior hardly enhances the honor of the High Mistress. Why she tolerates you I’ll never know. In the capital you’d be chastised severely. Not respectful, your behaviour. No, not at all.” He peers more closely at one particular document, picks up his quill, and makes a few quick notations.
“Does she require anything of me this evening?” Sarrit asks.
“Just the usual requisitions and orders to be drafted and delivered,” says Duggel. “You can come in early in the morning to …”
Duggel breaks off. Sarrit turns to follow his stare.
She is tall for a Wechtan woman. Her skin is a light olive shade and a wide-brimmed, black hat hides her eyes. Curly dark brown hair hangs down past her shoulders. Covered in grime and layered in sweat, the woman has to be slowly roasting in her attire – thigh boots, breeches, vest, and gloves, all of them are black leather. A noble daughter of the Sable House.
Duggel rises from his seat. “Mistress, your appearance is …” He searches for the correct turn of phrase, conscious of the sword slung over her shoulder and the dirk stuffed into the top of her right boot. “… less than that required for an audience with the High Mistress.”
Her head turns in his direction.
“I must ask you to –” continues Duggel.
“You ask nothing. You sit down and you answer. Quickly. Completely. Respectfully. Is that clear, clerk?”
Duggel’s eyes widen. Never in his thirty years of service to the ‘Watch had he been spoken to like that. “Now, Mistress,” he begins again in a more fawning tone.
In two quick strides she crosses to his desk. Her left hand clamps around his collar. She jerks him downwards, Duggel landing on his chair with a thump. Wrenching him towards her, she twists her grip so that he has stare up at her.
“My title is ‘Lady’, not ‘Mistress’. I am here to see High Mistress Rehkhell. You will announce me. Now. You will be respectful. Always. You will make demands of me. Never. Do you understand?”
Duggel nods as best he can. The visitor holds him a moment longer, then releases her grip. He slides back across his desk into his chair, papers scattering.
“Now, perhaps?” asks the woman, placing her hands behind her back and cocking her head.
“Of course, Mis – of course, M’Lady.” Duggel slowly rises to his feet. “And whom shall I announce to the High Mistress?”
“Lady Merreth, Daughter of the Sable House.”
“At once.” Duggel knocks on the door, waits for a moment then enters, closing the door behind him.
Sarrit swallows as Merreth glances his direction. Her brown eyes, as cold and hard as oak in winter, examine him before her gaze settles on his bare neck.
“And you are?” she asks.
“Scribe Sarrit, Lady Merreth.” The words tumble out of his mouth. He has no wish to be dragged across his desk.
“Are you in noble service?”
Sarrit’s hand goes to his throat. “I am. The High Mistress doesn’t require that I wear a collar in summer. Too hot. It chafes.”
Merreth eyes the documents strewn about Duggel’s desk. “Are all scribes in the ‘Watch as rude as he?” She fixes her gaze on Sarrit again. “Or as casual towards protocol as you?”
“No, M’Lady, not all…that is to say we aren’t casual in the ‘Watch. Or rude. What I mean to say…is…well…no,” he finishes.
Merreth folds her arms. “I should hope not, Sarrit. She shakes her head. “I wonder …”
Rehkhell’s door opens and Duggel reappears. “The High Mistress would be delighted to see you, Lady Merreth,” he says. “Please go right in.”
Merreth does. The door closes.
Duggel sits down and allows his expression to twist with resentment. “Nothing! High Mistress Rehkhell said nothing when I told her what happened when that…woman arrived. She just waved away my concern.” He bends over and begins retrieving his quills and papers from the floor, muttering. “Violation of protocol, ill-behaved like a commoner …”
Sarrit glances at Rehkhell’s door. “Did you see her whip?” he asks in a low voice.
Duggel straightens up. “A whip? No, I didn’t. Why, she must be an heir to her House! Secondary at least. Possibly primary! What is she doing here?”
“You didn’t know she was coming?” Sarrit asks, surprised.
Duggel shakes his head. “Nothing by mail or courier,” he says in a sour voice. He handled all of High Mistress Rehkkell’s correspondence. A visiting noble of Lady Merreth’s rank would precede her arrival with a formal letter. If Duggel hadn’t seen such a letter, then none had been sent.
“It’s interesting she made such a fuss over her title,” he says, tapping a finger on his desk and staring at the far wall. “She should be ‘Mistress’, not ‘Lady’. The nobility are quite particular about titles and rank back east you know.” Duggel had served for a time in the Wechtan capital of Strowa, returning with a near fanatical admiration of eastern protocol. He stares at Sarrit intently. “Did she say anything to you?”
“She made it clear she appreciates proper behavior.”
“Yes, quite.” Duggel wrinkles his nose. “It’s obvious she came directly from the stables. “The dirt, the dust, the smell! What could be so important that she would ride for over a week to come unannounced to the High Mistress? I think it would be best if a bit more were known about Lady Merreth.”
Sarrit shrugs. The noblewoman had smelled, though only of fresh sweat and leather. He didn’t find it unpleasant and didn’t care. Of more concern was Duggel’s calculated obsession with noble affairs, both within the Watch and in the rest of the Matriarchy. It made Sarrit uneasy, though the lack of a formal letter announcing Lady Merreth’s arrival had piqued his interest as well. He picks up a quill and spins it between his fingers. “Did the High Mistress say anything about her?”
“Nothing I can discuss,” says Duggel. Sarrit nods, knowing Duggel hoarded information, sharing it only when profitable.
Duggel settles himself, adjusting his seat, smoothing his tunic and arranging his papers. He glowers at the door to Rhekhell’s office before snatching up a quill to resume work.
Minutes crawl by, marked by ticks from the wall-mounted clock, seemingly slowed by the suffocating heat. Sarrit reaches for his water skin and uncorks it.
High Mistress Rehkhell stands in the doorway. Her short blonde hair tops a face tanned and lined from years spent in the saddle under a merciless sun. She wears a knee-length chestnut brown tunic, loosely belted at the waist and leather sandals with leggings circling her calves.
“Yes, High Mistress?”
“A moment of your time, if you would, Sarrit.” She beckons and Sarrit hurries past Duggel’s questioning stare into her office.
Merreth’s face is impassive as she brushes by Duggel. She has to keep her bloody temper on a leash! A long hot ride, leathers that feel baked to her skin — how little it takes to make her act just like the Red Hand. She dismisses the unsettling thought as she closes the door behind her. Better to concentrate on what she would tell High Mistress Rhekhell. Despite a week to think about it, she doesn’t know what she will say.
“Please, be seated, Mistress Merreth,” says Rhekhell.
The High Mistress is spare woman in her early fifties sitting behind a simple wooden desk. Blonde hair painted with streaks of gray falls to her shoulders. Lines around her eyes and mouth. Tanned, wind roughened skin. Too many days of sun and saddle. She wears a simple brown tunic fashioned from what looks like cotton. No rings, no bracelets. Nothing to indicate rank or status. Had Merreth seen her on the street she wouldn’t have spared the woman a second glance.
Her office is nothing to speak of, certainly nothing like Ammantha’s back at Sable Provincial Hall. Rhekhell’s desk would be fit for a scribe and in fact looks smaller than Duggel’s. There’s nothing on it except a blotter, ink bottle and several quills. A few wooden chairs, a set of of shelves, and a small chest are all there is in the way of furnishings. Simple charcoal sketches hang from one wall while an elaborate tapestry depicting the western plains hangs from another. Several tall windows, framed in dark stained pine, are open with their shutters thrown back. Through them Merreth can see Westhold’s red-tiled roofs spreading down the slope to the Saskanna River.
“Thank you, High Mistress.” Merreth settles herself in a chair, removes her hat, and places it on her lap. She sighs as a small breeze tickles through her hair. What to say? How to convince Rhekhell to let her slip from sight? Two weeks, maybe three, and Ammantha will have ended this nightmare. You hope. That last dark thought darts through her mind, too quick to crush.
“I’ve been expecting you,” says Rhekhell. She steeples her fingers. “You crossed the Watch border two days ago, alone. That single fact tells me why you’re here.”
Merreth’s heart lurches. Her gaze flicks to the door. How fast could she get to it, get out of the building, and get on her horse?
Rhekhell smiles. “You needn’t worry. You kept to the less travel roads and moved at night, so few saw you arrive and most will assume they observed an eccentric Watch noble.” The smile fades a bit. “Very eccentric.”
So no guards, sword catchers drawn, thundering up the stairs to arrest her? Why not? “What do you want, High Mistress?” asks Merreth.
“We both know what, Mistress Merreth,” says Rhekhell. “I want …”
“‘Lady’,” interrupts Merreth. Anything to gain a few more seconds to think. “Lady Merreth.”
Rhekhell’s eyebrows knit together. “Duggel mentioned that you insisted on ‘Lady’”. She glances down at Merreth’s hip. “Heir Primary by the whip at your side.” There’s the slightest hesitation. “The rank is ‘Mistress’.”
“I’m more comfortable with ‘Lady’,” says Merreth. She rakes her hand through her hair. Good Goddess it’s hot!
Rhekhell sits back in her chair, eyes narrowed. She nods. “I think I understand, Lady Merreth, and it’s to your credit that you do too.” She rises and strolls to the windows, hands clasped behind her back. “Appropriate that it was you who came. It’s time to balance the scales, is it not? The Watch did Sable House a very great favour some years ago.” Rhekhell glances back over her shoulder at Merreth. “Almost three decades, in fact. It makes sense your sister, and her mother before her, would wait until your — her — House could provide a boon of equal weight in return.”
The anxiety gnawing at Merreth — rat like — lessens a bit. Rhekhell doesn’t know after all, else there’d be no talk of Sable House granting boons. What, then? Careful, careful. “It seemed appropriate that I come to the Watch at this time,” she says. True enough, though not for whatever reason is running through Rhekhell’s head.
“Indeed. With no letters preceding your arrival.” Rhekhell turns and smiles. “Your sister is an intelligent woman, very much her mother’s daughter. Unlike the Red Hand, you’re here without all of the usual noble trappings, couriers, pleasuremen, wagons of baggage. Travel light, travel fast, isn’t that it?”
“The Red Hand is here, in Westhold?” is all Merreth can blurt out. The rat is back, this time tearing at her knotted stomach. “What are they …” she stops and takes a breath. “What are they doing here?” she asks.
“Why, the same thing as you, Lady Merreth,” says Rhekhell, “though Lady Tiandraa has only been across the river once in the three weeks since she and her party arrived.” Her face hardens momentarily. “She can be difficult, at times.” Rhekhell studies Merreth. “You know her?”
“Yes.” Oh, yes, Merreth knows Tiandraa, only too well. The Red Hand noblewoman had opposed her marriage to Bayllos with a feral intensity. Shouldn’t be a problem anymore. She catches the thought before it can bubble up and escape as a black chuckle.
“I take it Sable House and the Red Hand still have much upon which they disagree, despite your impending marriage,” says Rhekhell.
“More than most would imagine,” says Merreth.
“I hope those differences will pale with the Matriarchy’s western border under threat. All the Houses must stand as one.” Rhekhell moves to the bookcase, pulls out a small folder and leafs through it. “I’ve prepared a list of what’s required from Sable House, Lady Merreth.” She places it in front of Merreth before resuming her seat. “It’s quite complete. I’ve had a long time to assemble it, though it is mostly the Domina Charadell’s work.”
Merreth glances down at the half dozen sheets of paper. They’re filled with lines of small, neat script. Help. She wants our help! Did Ammantha know about this? What does she say now? She can’t say Ammantha sent her, but how can she possibly avoid that? Possible replies cascade through Merreth’s mind, each more idiotic than the last. Rhekhell’s expecting an answer. Say something!
Rhekhell cocks her head. “You wish to make your own assessment, don’t you?”
Yes! Merreth nods.
“How long do you think you will need in the Watch, Lady Merreth?”
At last, something Merreth can answer honestly. “Three weeks,” she says. “Four at the most.” More than enough time for Ammantha to clear her name. She could surely put off making whatever commitments Rhekehll might expect for that long.
“I had hoped things would move more quickly.” Rhekhell taps a finger on her desk. “I’ll have you settled at one of my estates. It will be necessary to arrange some meetings with some a few of the local nobility, the visiting Red Hand of course, a small, formal dinner, perhaps two …”
Merreth’s eyes widen. “No!”
“No?” The frown is back on Rhekhell’s face. “Why ‘no’?”
“It would be best,” Merreth struggles for words, the right words. Damn it, she should have worked out all this before hand. “It would be best to minimize my presence. Word will get out, true, but it would be better,” she pauses, then gambles, “for both our Houses that it come out as a trickle out, and not as a flood. Any meetings, or even being quartered at your estate will work against that.”
“Where will you stay, then, Lady Merreth, if not with me?” asks Rhekhell.
“A merchant inn. I’ve done it before,” says Merreth.
Rhekhell’s gaze travels up and down Merreth. “Yes, I suppose that is fitting.”
Thank the Goddess! Merreth glances at the door, a way out of the building and out of Rhekhell’s grasp. She should be able to stay somewhat out of sight for at least a couple of weeks. “Good,” she says, adjusting her hat. “I’ll send word when I’ve completed my assessment, High Mistress.”
“No need, Lady Merreth,” says Rhekhell. “I’ll assign you a squire. He’ll act as a guide, messenger, and servant, seeing as you’ve brought none of your own and,” she smiles, “he’ll ease your way in Westhold, help you keep out of sight as much as possible. I may even have him accompany you when you cross the river.”
Squire? River? Merreth jerks a smile onto her face. No slipping out of sight after all, it seems.
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About the Artist
“MashyTayTew” is student of digital art living in the United Kingdom. Her image “Now, perhaps?” (above) is an entry into my second Lady Merreth contest held on Deviantart. You can see more of Mashy’s work on her Deviantart page.