“Well, get yer ass up on the roof if you’re so damned set on getting it shot off.” Droellen resumes shoving a ramrod down the matchlock barrel, grunting as he pushes the wadding home, muscles rippling across his bare shoulders.
“None of those horse-fuckers in sight,” calls Kasspar. He stands on an old wooden ladder, his head and shoulders poking out a trap door in the bakery roof. Shoulder-length grimy blonde hair falls about his young face as he pulls his head back inside. “Crossbow, Prett.”
“No clanners, no crossbow,” says a tall, thin man counting quarrels out on a table. He squints up at Kasspar with one eye. A black patch hides the ruins of the other. “Likely you’d bloody waste our quarrels shooting at fucking squirrels.”
“Prett, shut up.” Droellen stands the now-loaded matchlock up against the wall and peers out the window. “Just give the kid a crossbow.”
“Let me up too,” says a bald, buck-toothed man picking crumbs out of a whispy grey beard. “Anything to get out of this fucking heat. I’m dyin’ in here.”
“If yer dyin’ it’s sure not ‘cause yer starvin’, Bhenny” says Droellen. He sights a cocked crossbow down the road leading south out of Little Westhold. Nothing to aim at except dust, grass stubble, and a withered tree-stump about thirty yards away. “Get your fuckin’ paws out of the bread.”
“It’s a bakery. I’m hungry.”
“It’s a bakery, not a cargo pallet down the Baltoni dockside. Don’t bloody lift anything,” says Droellen. He puts down the crossbow, gets to his feet and glares at Bhenny. “Gave our word we’d touch nothing. I don’t care if this place is the fucking Red Hag’s personal treasure box. Leave everything be and start layin’ out the powder charges like I told ya.”
“Hey Droellen,” Kasspar calls down from the ladder. “There’s a few cottages between us and the river and more towards the skins’ camp, but nothing south except some trees and the road. We’re gonna be a bloody rock in a river when those savages ride through.”
“Arsehole Totlenn,” says Bhenny. He picks his way around heaped flour sacks and grabs a small cask of gunpowder. “What’d we ever do to him?”
“Us? Nothing,” says Prett. They have exactly ninety-two quarrels. After counting twice, he’s sure. He picks up his sword and runs a calloused thumb down the edge. “You? You probably nicked his dinner sometime.”
“Ah, spoken like a true man of letters.” A short, barrel-chested man holding a double brace of water-skins comes through the bakery’s back door and closes it behind him. He lays the water-skins on the floor by the wall. “That’s all we got, for now anyway, so don’t swill it all down like it’s wine.”
“’Bout time, Narrius,” says Droellen. “What about that big wagon out back? Anything in it we can use?”
“Couple of pieces of siding, a few sacks of flour, that’s it,” says Narrius.
“Oh good, more flour,” says Prett, shoving a couple of small bags aside, “you know, in case we run short.”
Narrius, wipes his brow, grabs a chair and sits down. “Everyone’s all snug in their houses, far as I can see. I hope the clan shows up before we all, err,” he glances at the huge stone oven making up one of the walls, “bake to death, so to speak.”
“You’re too damned stupid to know what to hope for,” says Bhenny. “Gonna hope for something make it good food, better wine, and the best women.” His gaze slides over to a small canvas sack lying by Droellen’s pair of matchlocks. Merreth’s whip is tucked inside. “Think your woman’s coming back?”
The bakery becomes very still.
“Not my woman,” says Droellen. “’lot safer fer all of you not to be jesting like that. Too easy to let it slip out of your damn-fool mouths.”
“You got her whip,” says Prett. “Her House whip. ‘Case you didn’t notice Skins are pretty touchy about who gets to lay hands on one of those. It’s a short list and we ain’t on it.” He puts his sword down and reaches for a bow. “Must mean something.”
“Means nothing. I was just in the wrong place. Could ‘o been any one of you. Givin’ the cursed thing back to her when she shows up.”
“If she shows up,” says Bhenny as he measures out a powder charge. “She’s probably dead or worse. Damned idiot riding off down the road the way she did.”
“Lady Merreth can handle herself,” says Droellen. “You saw what she did to the Red Hag.” He lays his crossbow on the window sill, pointing south.
“’Lady Merreth’ is it?” asks Prett. “When’s the last time you called a damned Skin by name, Droellen?”
Droellen doesn’t bother to turn around. “Prett, shut up.” He pulls a chair over to the window and settles into it, resting the crossbow across his knees.
He listens with only half an ear to the argument behind him.
“… doesn’t mean a damned thing, Skins hate other Skins too, you know…”
“… got a spine in ‘er, faced down Totlenn, Brinnt, the whole lot o’ us …
A bead of sweat runs down Droellen’s forehead and into his eye. He wipes it away and peers south. Nothing on the road, nothing but dust and … a dust cloud. A dust cloud! “There’s horses on the road,” he mutters. Then, louder, “Horses on the road! Shift yerselves, ya lazy fucks!”
Merreth risks a quick glance, sweating whipping off her face. How many clansmen behind her? A dozen? Two dozen? They’re at least three hundred yards away, yet it seems like they could reach out and grab her mount by the tail. She sees bared teeth, furious eyes, and hungry weapons. She’d long ago pitched the clan standard point down into the road, hoping it would slow them at bit. They’d only spurred their horses. Bastards.
She rides low in the saddle, head bowed, presenting as little wind resistance as possible and making her a smaller target. Why aren’t they trying to put arrows into her back? Punch enough shafts into the air and surely to Goddess one or two would find her.
Trees snap by along with fencing, fields, and the odd farm building, clan screams chasing after her. The road that seemed so short a couple of hours ago now stretches on forever. A quarter mile further? Less? Merreth presses down on her mount’s neck, the scent of horse-sweat, leather, and dust filling her nose. She’s been running it at a flat out gallop for the last mile and the strain’s starting to show. “Just a little longer, boy,” she says as she pats her mount’s sweat-damp hair. “I promise you can rest then.” Come on, she thinks. Show me those hard-scrabble huts, those rude wooden cottages, stuffed with Arric’s men and Totlenn’s crew. Come on, come on, come on!
Her mount heaves her almost out of her saddle with a cough, its barrel rib cage shoving her legs out sideways. “Oh shit!” The wind in her face rips away the words. The horse is exhausted. I can’t slow down! I can’t! She gulps sun-baked air, heart pounding, her legs trembling with strain.
The clan bastards are closer now. Just one arrow… No! Don’t think like that. Dust flies into her eye. She tries to blink it out. Where’re the damned cottages? There, the first one! A house or shop, or something. She’s close!
Another cough and her mount’s head dips. Oh fuck! Merreth slacks the reins as she can and hopes the horse recovers. A trip now would be the very last one she’d ever experience. The horse’s head comes back up.
She steals another glance over her shoulder. Though the leading warriors haven’t closed the distance as much as she’d feared, she hears triumphant cries and they have their bows out.
The building grows closer. There’s someone inside, she sees the sun winking off steel in the window. Less than forty feet away! She can make it!
Her horse screams. Nearly pitched to the ground, Merreth makes an awkward dismount that almost throws her off her feet and the horse bolts, an arrow buried in its rump.
The door’s right in front of her, latch locked tight. She rattles it, claws at it, shouts at it. An arrow hammers into the wood, inches from her hand. I’m not going to die like this! she thinks and turns, reaching for her sword.
The door jerks open just wide enough for a hand to snake out and yank her inside. it slams shut and she tumbles to the floor. She shakes her head and looks up at a tall brown-haired man wearing an eye-patch.
“Come for your whip, have you?” he asks.
A thunderous crash rocks the room and Merreth flattens herself against the floor. No else seems the least bit concerned as grey acrid smoke drifts around them.
“Prett!” roars a voice, “get yer ass over here and load the matchlock. The lady brought all kinds of friends and they’re mad as rabid dogs.”
Merreth scrambles to her feet, her throat scratchy from the foul-smelling fumes. She sees at the window a great brute of a man sliding a second matchlock over the sill. Was that Droellen? From the other day at Totlenn’s camp? “They’re not my bloody friends,” she says.
“Ah, still alive, M’Lady?” Droellen squints down the barrel and the weapon roars, spitting a gout of fire and smoke at the clan warriors outside.
“I said I’d get her inside,” says Prett. He shoulders a crossbow and aims at a pair of charging, dismounted warrior, toppling one with a quarrel drives through his throat. “And I got her inside.” He turns to Merreth. “Didn’t I get you inside? When Prett says he’ll do something, M’Lady, he’s as good as his word he is.”
Good Goddess, thinks Merreth. He sounds offended.
“Less talking, more killing,” says an older, bald convict with yellow buck teeth. He leans across a wooden table and hands a crossbow to Prett. “Gimme the spent one.”
Prett tosses the empty weapon onto the table, hefts the loaded one, and draws bead through the window. “Another Bhenny,” he says as he squeezes the tiller. “And move the fuck over, you’re asking for …”
A clutch of arrows streak through the window and bury themselves the back wall. One ruffles Bhenny’s hair flitting past him. He shrugs and steps aside.
“Where’s my fuckin’ loader?” Droellen waves an empty matchlock in his massive arm. “I am not using this thing for a club. Narrius, get your ass up here and feed me, damn it!”
I should help, thinks Merreth. She reaches for Droelln’s matchlock but a short, black-haired man built like a tree-stump seizes the weapon. “Not your damn serving boy, Droellen,” he says. He slams the matchlock down on its stock, takes a small clay bottle and taps some powder down the barrel.
Prett grabs a bow off the table. “What was that about less talking more killing?” He nocks an arrow and puts a shaft into a dark-skinned clansman running towards the window. Two more shafts follow.
“Sooner is better than later,” says Droellen. “Lot’s of shouting out there and I can’t see shit through this smoke.”
“You could use a bow, you know,” says Prett. He looses another arrow, then one more out the window. “I bloody love my crossbow, but I’ll pick up a stick ‘n string if I have to.”
“He likes his new toys,” says Bhenny. He places the glowing string well away from Narrius, cocks a crossbow and hands it Prett.
A clansman, eyes wild and an axe in each hand pops up at another window.
“Damn it,” Droellen roars, shoving a matchlock barrel forward. “There’s no match in this fucking thing!”
The clansman seizes the barrel with one hand and chops at Droellen through the window with his axe.
“I’m not letting those arseholes have my …” Thirty inches of steel flash by Droelln’s face and rip open the clansman’s cheek.
The warrior falls away, howling in agony and clutching the bloody ruins of his face while Merreth sweeps her blade to the left. Another clansman comes out the haze. Her blade clangs off his axe blade, slides down the shaft, and slices through his fingers. The axe tumbles to the floor, an inch from her boot. She punches her sword into the warrior’s screaming mouth and jerks it back, splattering her and Droellen with blood. The man sags out of sight. “Bastard,” says Merreth. “I like my boots.”
She backs up. “Always have a bow handy when you’re waiting for that toy you’re so proud of,” she snaps at Droellen. “And you,” she says to Narrius. “Make certain the bloody thing’s going to work when you give it to him. We’ll all live longer that way.”
Droellen watches for another rush of warriors. “If yer gonna give orders, you should look the part.” He picks up a small canvas sack and tosses it to Prett, who hands it to Merreth.
“What’s this?” Merreth takes it and sheathes her sword. She opens the sack and draws out her whip. Since she’d handed it to Droellen, the leather has been cleaned and oiled. As she ties it to her hip Narrius puts two arrows into a pair of unwary clansmen and Prett takes down another. “Prett, stand closer to the side of the window, unless you want to catch a shaft,” Merreth says. “Up-end the table and turn it on its side. Better cover.”
The bakery feels like a smithy, hot and harsh with smoke from Droellen’s matchlocks. Merreth’s thirsty, and chafes in places she doesn’t care to think about. Dried blood mars her leathers, and she feels it streaked over her face.
Outside are hundreds of clanners who very much want to kill her. Inside are a four brigands who have little reason to like her. Would like her even less if they knew it was her idea to barricade everyone inside Little Westhold. She shrugs, fatigue taking the edge off her worry. Totlenn had said she’d need friends this side of the river. She’d have to make do with these. “Doesn’t seem so bad,” she says.
Droellen chuckles. “It’s not even the beginnin’. Clanners come at us in twos and threes so their friends can see they’ve got fruits swinging between their legs. This is all show. Wait till they decide to get serious.”
“Hey it’s the Skin! Wondered if you’d make it back.”
A young, upside down face sticks out of a trap door in the roof. Make that five brigands. Blonde hair hangs down around it and Merreth can’t be sure, but she thinks the face is smiling.
“Droellen,” he continues, “something happening outside. The horse-fucks are drawing back, at least from our little place.” The smile disappears. “And there are more of them. A lot more.”
“They don’t like it,” says Ostinik. He sits mounted, reins in one hand and bow in the other. “It shows cowardice to run from a square heap of wood and stone.”
He and Gytega, along with a small guard of the most experienced warriors, watch the clan withdraw. Numerous cold fire pits and a large, empty yurt speak of mounts and men long departed. Likely dead by our hand, thinks Ostinik. They face east, safely out of bowshot of the dirt-scratchers huddled in the score or more of wood and stone yurts that squat by the river. Clouds of grey-white smoke shield of many of the yurts, spat there by dirt-scratcher fire-poles. There’s no wind to clear away the rank, sharp smell, to cool the skin, or to keep at bay the gathering flies.
“Let them dislike it, it means they’re still here and not walking the path back to Mother Earth,” says Gytega. He raises his voice to be heard over battle-cries and pounding hooves as warriors race to cut off the dirt-scratchers from any possible aid. “No one doubts their courage.”
Ostinik nods. Gytega speaks the truth, yet they have known only triumph when clashing with the dirt-scratchers. To pull back from even a one of their stone and wood yurts now is galling, especially as the Sky-Father smiles upon them.
“Besides, it is the only such stone in our path,” says Gytega, “and we’ll crack it apart.”
They’d chased the black-clad woman into the closest hole she could find when they could have filled her back with arrows at any time. She’d pitched the clan standard point down into the earth. The gravest of insults, offered only to signal a clan death-feud; clearly this woman knows the clan’s ways. Ostinik tightens his grip on his bow. She would answer for much when they rip her out of her hiding place.
Gytega waves over a waiting warrior. The two confer, Gytega sweeping his arm around, pointing north. The warrior nods and spurs off to where Gytega had pointed. “Our fist is not as strong as I would like,” he says.
Ostinik nods. “Agaric will join us soon,” he says.
“Until then I would know who lurks in the surrounding lands while we deal with the vermin who’ve crawled into these rocks.” He purses his lips as another of the dirt-scratcher’s cursed fire-poles belches fire and smoke. A warrior on foot snaps backward, half his head carried away by the weapon. “And I’ll not have us waste any more clan lives on that,” he points to where the black-clad woman has found refuge, “when I have a better way.”
“We take the fight to other of their yurts,” says Ostinik. “We lose warriors there too.” He is Gytega’s Shield Arm and one of his tasks is to be the voice of caution, the prudent hare – always watchful, wary – rather than the quick-taloned hawk.
“Truth,” says Gytega. “We need to win this quickly. The Sky Father begins to think of his slumber, and I’ll not end this day with our warriors’ bodies heaped in front of these piles of wood and stone.”
“Clan death-feud,” murmurs Ostinik. The opposing Clan-Fathers could halt it but almost always it continued, sometimes for years, until only one clan survived. This feud would be no different. It would end with the land soaked in dirt-scratcher blood and groaning under the weight of their dead.
Warriors on foot gather about the mounted party. Angry curses fill the air as the warriors study the closest stone structure.
“We’ll dig the woman out of her hole, then deal with the rest of them,” says Gytega. “I’ve sent men to drive for the river bank and look for where those on the other side may come across.” He smiles at Ostinik. “We’re weaker than I’d like, but Agaric will join us soon. No one will be joining the dirt-scratchers. When we’ve dragged her from her lair, we’ll let her friends see what happens to those who insult the clan.”
“We need to get her into our hands first, Clan-Father,” says Ostinik.
Gytega motions a few warriors forward. They hold burning torches. “If we cannot go in,” he says, “we’ll burn them out.”
More Lady Merreth
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