Agaric wrenches the sword from the dirt-scratcher’s throat and the man spasms one last time.
Pain-filled gurgles, and the slick crunch of steel hacking through bone fills his ears as his warriors dispatch the last of the armoured men who surprised them, then took so cursed long to die. Copper-thick blood scent lingers in the still air.
He tosses the weapon aside. Better to use their steel than dirty his own providing a merciful death. His warriors argue for leaving the wounded enemy to the sun, the vultures, and later the slinking coyotes. Time would be lost in joining the Clan-Father at what would surely be their greatest victory yet if they were to end every dirt-scratcher life here. Tempting, but Agaric decides against it. Word would get back to the old Shield-Arm and he’d have to put up with yet another story about Clan honor and all its different forms. Better to leave only dead behind them. Things would be different when Tewkinn carried the Clan-Father’s axe.
Lifeless arms and legs sprout red-slicked arrows and contort like gnarled branches grown out of broken stumps. Agaric kicks aside a hand here, steps over a body there, until he once more strides through clean, dry grass. “Mount,” he shouts.
A handler brings forward his horse. Agaric swings into the saddle, settles himself, and checks his bow, axe, and arrows. He frowns at the last. Not as many as he’d like, and no time to retrieve them from the fallen. Little enough time to lay out their own dead before they rode on for that matter.
Warriors gather about him, horses snorting and pawing the ground. Agaric smiles. He is making a fist here. His fist. A dangerous thought, never to be revealed, but who knew what paths the Sky-Father might place before him? He snaps his arm forward. The warriors gather into a trot and chase their shadows eastward.
Though the Clan-Father has already trod this ground, double the usual number of scouts ride ahead.
“Get that damned cart-horse out of the way!” A Red Hand noble saws back on her reins and stands in her stirrups. “Western peasant!” She keeps up a stream of invective as a hapless Watch ostler backs a horse off the southern ferry pier.
“Hey, hey!” A sandy-haired Watch noblewoman shoulders her way through the chaotic throng of horseflesh and nobles. “That’s my horse, you witless fool!”
“Fool is it? Bah! You’re as unmannered as a commoner,” says the Red Hand woman, waving her away.
“Courtesy to those who deserve it, low-born lout!”
Samretta sighs as she studies Red Hand nobles streaming down the road toward the ferry. Each new arrival sparks another argument, adding to those already bubbling around the crowded pier. Instead of resting their mounts and slaking their thirst, the Red Hand are here at the ferry with little idea of why. There’s no room, no order, no plan, and, Samretta shakes her head – Dear Goddess – the bulk of the Watch nobles had yet to appear. This is turning into a bloody disaster, she thinks, even without my ‘help’.
“Lady Samretta! Attend me at once!”
Ashttia beckons her over to where their replacement mounts are hitched. She skirts the crowd, dodging horses, sullen Red Hand nobles, and a sprinkling of dorrymen trying to prevent anyone being pushed onto the ferry, or worse, off the pier.
“This is unacceptable, Lady Samretta,” says Ashttia. “Just look at this mob.” She waves her hand. “Red Hand nobles mixed in with what few of our Watch are here, and a couple of doddering old constables all shouting, cursing, and displaying damnably poor manners. Bad as commoners on a market day after harvest.”
“Predictable,” says Samretta. “They didn’t know what we’d planned and the couriers met the lead Red Hand column and led them directly here. We’ve blessed few dorrymen, and why should there be any younger constables? They’re all over on the west bank.” She removes her hat and runs her fingers through her hair. “Dead, as I recall.”
“Protocol, Lady Samretta, at least we can observe proper protocol ourselves, eh?”
“Of course. Dead, as I recall, Lady Ashttia.”
A sour-faced Tiandraa halts her horse a few feet away and glares down at them. “Lady Ashttia, your couriers have directed my column here, away from their bivouac under orders, supposedly, of the High Mistress. I will have the reason why.”
“I speak for the High Mistress in all matters related to the west bank of the Saskanna, Lady Tiandraa,” snaps Ashttia, “and I’ll not be addressed so rudely. Dismount, and we can discuss your questions.”
“We’re not on the west bank, Lady Ashttia, and what of the Domina? She’s in command.”
“The Domina’s dead,” says Samretta, “if she’s lucky.”
Tiandraa stares at Samretta. “Dead?”
“Dead,” says Ashttia, “would that your hearing matched your arrogance.”
Tiandraa cocks her head. “What’s that noise?” asks Tiandraa. “Coming from the far bank?”
Samretta strains to listen. It’s difficult to hear over the cacophony of shouts and sounds about the pier, but she can just make out faint crackling and popping sounds coming over the river from Little Westhold. “Matchlocks, I would say.”
Tiandraa dismounts and faces Ashttia, reins gripped in her fist. “The Domina prohibited those brutish weapons. Just what the blazes is going on over there?”
“About now,” says Samretta, “I would say a rather vicious battle is going on. The clan is attempting to over-run Little Westhold.” She catches the flicker of surprise in Tiandraa’s eyes. You should be happy, she thinks, keeping her face blank. You’re damned close to getting what you want, you cold-hearted snake. If you do, if the west bank will wind up soaked in yet more blood, but at least my family will be free of you.
“If the Domina’s dead, and you’re over here, who’s fighting the clan? Who’s in command?” Tiandraa’s face tightens. “And why are those weapons being used?”
“About eight hundred commoners and constables,” says Samretta. “The Watch sisters encamped with the Domina died with her. I can’t speak for the other encampments except to say they didn’t arrive when she expected. The constables were caught in the open and run down. No horse left to support them, you see.” She glances across the river at the smears of dirty white smoke drifting over the treeline. “I imagine Merreth thought the matchlocks would be useful, and ordered them put into commoner hands.”
“Merreth?” Tiandraa spits out the name. “You put that debauched criminal in charge? She’s a rabid dog and should have been put down a week ago!”
“With mostly commoners left, she seemed the best choice,” says Samretta. She’s no longer amazed or even disheartened at her ability to utter falsehoods. You taught me that lying is a very useful skill, Tiandraa, she thinks. Look how well I’ve learned.
“She’s brutal, direct, and,” growls Ashttia, “willing to do whatever is necessary to win.”
“You can speak to that from personal experience, Lady Tiandraa, isn’t that right?” Samretta asks. It’s small and petty, but it feels deliciously good to remind Tiandraa of her humiliation at Merreth’s hands.
“She fights like a cornered rat, if that’s what you mean.”
“That brings us to your other question, Lady Tiandraa,” says Ashttia. “We’re here because we’re going back over the river to take the bastards from behind.”
“No.” Tiandraa crosses her arms. “This whole venture was ill-advised from the start. You hope a mob of criminals led by a lunatic can right things even as your last toehold on the west bank burns. Merreth may enjoy the carnage, but she doesn’t give a damn about anything we hold dear. That she’s ordered the use of those matchlocks only provides more proof – as if any is needed – of her utter lack of regard for tradition or honour. You may wish to see the Watch consumed across the river; the Red Hand will not join you.”
“Lady Tiandraa, is it your belief the Watch has deliberately violated an agreement reached in good faith with the Red Hand?” asks Ashttia.
“Those weapons were prohibited at the insistence of the Red Hand,” says Tiandraa. “At my insistence. It was one of the conditions under which the Red Hand would provide aid to the Watch. And that condition has been violated.”
“By a criminal – you did call her that.”
“Ashttia, I know you well,” says Tiandraa. You’re old. You cling to protocol and form because that’s all you have. The Domina put you in charge of provisions because that’s all you’re capable of. You’re a clerk, a scribe, and nothing more than that.” She places a foot into her mount’s stirrup and swings up into the saddle. “The Red Hand will not help you.”
“We’ll give you Merreth,” says Ashttia.
“What?” Samretta nearly chokes on the word.
Tiandraa says nothing, studying Ashttia with a gaze reminding Samretta of an eager weasel. “One more time, Ashttia. What are you offering?”
Ashttia holds Tiandraa’s gaze for a few heartbeats before looking away. “After we crush the Clan, the area will be chaotic with celebration. A lot can happen in the tumult.” Ashttia trails off with a disgusted sigh then shrugs. “We can’t keep track of each and every convict. Too much trouble. The Watch will have more immediate priorities.”
“Good Goddess, Lady Ashttia!” says Samretta. “We can’t just bargain away a noble’s life …”
Tiandraa stops her with a raised hand. “You’re not bargaining away anything, Lady Samretta. Lady Ashttia is.” She smiles. “No further need for you to worry about noble blood spilling over your hands.”
“Lady Ashttia!” A constable limps over. “Begging your pardon, M’ Lady, but the Watch column is starting to arrive and we’ve not got the current … confusion by the pier sorted.”
“Have the Watch assemble along the side roads until needed,” Tiandraa orders. “The Red Hand will take the first ferry over the river.”
The constable runs his hand over a stubbled chin.
“No,” says Ashttia. Her voice is far firmer than a few seconds earlier. “The Watch will take the first ferries across. The Red Hand will assemble on the side roads. Lady Tiandraa will be along shortly to issue the appropriate orders.”
“Very good, M’ Lady.” The constable nods and shuffles off towards the pier.
“And why will the Watch be first across?” asks Tiandraa, fuming. “That will give Merreth time to jack-rabbit away.”
“That is exactly what she’ll do if Red Hand riders suddenly appear in strength on the far bank,” says Samretta, hatred for Tiandraa and contempt for Ashttia coursing through her. “She’s not stupid. If she sees your lot about, she’ll vanish.”
“Better the Watch appear in numbers first,” says Ashttia. “She’ll be expecting that. Best though that Merreth be approached by someone she knows, who can keep her close to Little Westhold and away from the commoners. I think, Samretta, that is a task for you.”
I’ll not do this, I can’t do this, Samretta thinks. Is there no way to avoid yet another death on my conscience? “Merreth despises me. She’s made that clear several times. I doubt she’ll be inclined to spend any time in my company. In fact, she’ll likely be wary. I would be.”
Tiandraa studies Samretta, eyes cold. “You’re a scout, Samretta. Subterfuge, stealth, and guile – particularly guile – these qualities serve you well. They can serve me, and the Watch, in this affair.” With a flick of her reins, she turns her horse around and trots off towards the constables.
Samretta wipes the seat from her face. She wants to backhand Ashttia for her grovelling submission to Tiandraa. “How could you toss Merreth into the claws of that vulture?”
“Protocol, Lady Samretta,” says Ashttia in a tone she might use while commenting on the weather. “We spoke of this earlier.”
“Fuck your damn protocol!” Samretta pivots on her heel to storm off.
Asttia clamps her hand around Samretta’s arm, jerks her off balance and drags her over to the horses. “Listen to me, you impudent child. You of all people should know that sometimes hard choices need to be made.”
“Yes, hard choices,” says Ashttia. “My first responsibility is to ensure the Watch defeats the clan. The High Mistress gave that task to Domina Charadell, Now that she’s gone, that task falls to me. I am honour bound – you understand that? – honour bound to do everything I can to make certain we grind those barbarians into the dirt and secure our lands across the river. I need the Red Hand to do that. Sometimes,” she tightens her grip and leans in close, “tasks become burdens.”
“No burden for you, coward! I’m the one who must lie to Merreth, and keep her close so she can be scooped up by the Red Hand!”
“Why do you care?” asks Ashttia. “If Merreth dies over there, your delicate feelings are spared. If she loses and survives, she’s for the gallows anyway.”
“And if she wins? We’ll hand her over to be killed by Red Hand? They hate her. There’ll be no trial, no judicature. They’ll just cut her throat, if she’s fortunate. You know that! A fine reward for accomplishing something no-one else, not even the Domina, could do!”
“You think Merreth would really prefer to be stripped of all she’s ever had – her titles, her weapons, her place in the nobility, her leathers and the right to wear them – all of it – and have to cast her lot in with the gutter sweepings over the river?”
“Yes, if it’s that or be given over to the Red Hand.”
A small smile flits across Ashttia’s face and her eyes glint as she lets go of Samretta. “So we’ll just have to make certain the Red Hand doesn’t find her then, won’t we?”
“I – what did you say?”
“Merreth answers to the Watch for anything she’s done, not to that slavering jackal in red leather. Further,” Ashttia’s tone grows clipped, “I would never put you in a position where you had to betray someone, not even Merreth.”
Too late, thinks Samretta. I was in that position the moment I stepped foot on the Saskanna’s west bank. “So what do you intend to do?”
“We’ll land and take the bastards in the backside. You’ll find Merreth and get her out of Little Westhold, if she’s still alive. I don’t care how you do it, reason with her or club her senseless and drag her out, but just do it.”
Samretta reflects on the likely success of attempting to club Merreth senseless. “What will you tell Tiandraa?”
“That we couldn’t find Merreth. She was lost in the chaos, likely dead somewhere. You won’t need to hide her for long, I’ll get the Red Hand out of Little Westhold soon enough.” Ashttia purses her lips. “However unpleasant to hear, which I said earlier was necessary. You’re the Watch’s best scout, Samretta. I know I can trust you in this.”
Trust, thinks Samretta. Why would anyone trust me? She jerks her head in a nod. “We’d better get over the river soon,” she says, “I’d guess there’s probably no one guarding the ferry pier on the far side of the river. The clan could find it any time.”
“You’d best be on your way, then.” Ashttia watches Samretta disappear into the jostling crowd of nobles and horseflesh. Over the tumult she hears Tiandraa shouting orders, marshalling the Red Hand riders. “I cling to protocol do I? I’m a clerk am I?” Ashttia snorts. “I was swimming in House politics when you were still learning how to wipe shit from your bottom without smearing it all over your fingers. Bitch.”
The ride is glorious! Clan hooves thunder down the road, spilling out on either side of it, and pound through crop fields. The sun is warm on warrior backs; weapons slick in warriror hands as the Clan pours through the dirt-scratcher farms.
Despite their speed, they are careful. Agaric vows not to be surprised again by skulking men on foot wielding crossbows. His cheeks still burn with humiliation from when the Clan-Father forbade him a place in the lead, forcing him to stay and dispatch the armoured men.
Those foolish enough to defend their pretty rows of plants have paid for his shame. Behind his warriors the land lies clotted with bodies in red heaps. Men, women, children, it matters not. The warriors stop just long enough to drag them screaming from their hiding places and cut them down.
Agaric sneers as his mount gallops down the road. Again he is left to put down vermin the Clan-Father cannot be bothered with. We need a new leader, he thinks. Again he beseeches the Sky-Father to cast down Gytega and Ostinik, and raise up in their place Tewkinn and himself.
“Agaric!” Beside him a warrior points off to the right. In the distance a grey building squats on the land. It is much larger than any of the wooden yurts they’ve left soaked in blood.
Agaric reins up and signals the warriors to slow to a canter. A square stone hill, he thinks. It reminds him of the walls far to the south, thrown up by the cities to keep out the clans. Here though, there is no wall, no city, just this building beside the road.
“Shall I ride to call back the scouts?” asks a warrior at his side.
“We won’t be here long, Cohawhk,” says Agaric. He frowns. Stone sides. Small windows. Not one of their pitiful farm yurts, and it seems untouched with no bodies sprawled around it. Perhaps it’s something special, something of value the Clan-Father overlooked in his haste for glory? He nods towards it. Cohawhk and a dozen warriors cover the fifty yards in seconds.
At the entrance Cohawhk dismounts and disappears inside with several warriors. Seconds later he runs back shouting “Weapons! Axes, bows, arrows! The fools have gathered them all here and left them for us! More arrows than we could count in a day, knives, swords, everything! Shall we burn them?”
Agaric shakes his head. “Gather the arrows.” They’re not Clan-work but they will do for putting down vermin. He smiles. How he will savour the Clan-Father’s expression when he accepts new arrows from Agaric’s hand.
“It will be done!” cries Cohawhk. “It’s dark inside, but we’ve lit the torches they’ve left by the door. The fools make it too easy!”
Agaric’s eyes narrow. Too easy? Before he can speak the roar of a hundred thunder-storms convulses the building, fire and smoke belching from every opening.
More Lady Merreth
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