Western Watch — Chapter 23

“Fire!” Bhenny ducks as a collection of flaming branches spins through the window and hits the floor, throwing up sparks.  He tries to stomp it out, sending flecks of glowing wood skittering across the room.

            Narrius kicks a small cask of gunpowder away from the embers. “Don’t step on it!  You’ll spread it all over the place, you damn fool.” 

           “What am I supposed to use?” Bhenny coughs on the harsh grey smoke drifting through the air as he bangs his boot on the flames.

           “This,” Prett tosses him a small flour sack and then knocks another arrow.

           Inside the bakery the air is a gauzy sulphurous haze.  Merreth’s eyes water as she fights the choking cough burning up through her throat.  She hefts her sword, now slick with blood, and waits for the next clan attack.   

           An arm snakes through the window holding another torch. 

“Get that,” shouts Droellen, the guttering bundle falling at his feet.  He kicks it aside and takes the arm off at the elbow with a single blow. 

            “Did you have to stop here?” Prett asks Merreth. He ducks under the window, grabs the torch, and pitches it outside.  “Not that we’re ungrateful, you understand.”

            “I didn’t have time to be choosy.” Merreth tears her gaze from the severed limb to Bhenny plucking a dagger from his belt and slitting open the flour sack.  Something tugs at her.  Something she’s seen when she visited a flour mill with her mother … “No!”  With the flat of her sword she knocks the sack out of Bhenny’s hands.

            “What’d you do that for?”  Bhenny takes a step backwards, wary eyes locked on her blade.

            “Dangerous,” Merreth drops her sword point.  “Just use your foot. Gently. Don’t spread the embers around.”

            Kasspar pokes his head through the trap door in the roof.   “Hey Droellen!  I think we’d better leave.  There’s an awful lot of pony boys out here. And they’re tryin’ to fire the roof.”

            “Only way is out back,” says Merreth.  “Bhenny, anyone in the street behind us?”

            A trio of flaming arrows streak through the window and hammer into the back wall one after the other.

            “That’s new.”  Narrius picks up a baker’s apron and smothers the flames.  “Pretty soon they’re gonna figure out that if they keep doing that it, we can’t fight back.”

            Bhenny peers out through the back door. “No smoke, no clan.  Street’s clear …”. An arrow thuds into the door just above his head. 

            He slams the door and backs away.  “They’re shooting at us!”

            Narrius goes pale. “If they’re out back, we’re fucked.”

            “Not the clan,” says Bhenny. “Arrow came from the house across the street.”

            “Then why …” Narrius glares at Bhenny. “Aw shit!  Is there anyone in camp you haven’t stolen from, Bhenny?”

             “I don’t steal.  I merely borrow things that aren’t being used.”

            “They’re putting shafts in our way out because your borrowing,” snaps Merreth. She pushes Bhenny aside and yanks the door open.

            There’s a high-side wagon hard by the door.  Across the packed earth street is a small wooden cottage, one in a ragged row stretching north along the treeline, paralleling the river.  In the other direction the road ends in a shamble of brush and trees.  A clan body lies tangled in the bushes.  Merreth frowns.  Only a matter of time before they try again to get around the south side of the bakery.

            The cottage door opens and a head sticks out.

            Merreth waves her sword.  “Would you please stop shooting at us?” she yells.

            “Hey!  It’s the Skin!  Tell Bhenny we want our shit back. Gotta a score to settle with the thievin’ bastard!”

            “You really think now’s the best time?  Isn’t killing the clan a little more important right now?”

            The man nods his head.  “’Course it is!  Just want to remind’im we’ll come lookin’ for ’im after this is all over.”  He points over Merreth’s head.  “You know yer roof’s got smoke comin’ off it?  I’d leave soon, Skin, if I were you.  Best bet be down the street.  Ponyboys are tryin’ to sneak through the bush.  We can keep them off yer arse, but not for long.  Gotta get outta here ourselves in a bit.”

            As he speaks several arrows fly out the cottage window and topple a pair of warriors crouching in the brush. 

            Dear Goddess, Merreth thinks. I didn’t even see them.   She steps back into the bakery and closes the door.

            “What’d they say?” asks Narrius.

            “They’re confident we’ll win.”

             Droellen looks over his shoulder.  “Are we clear?”

            “For the moment.”  The wagon outside has given Merreth an idea.  “Kasspar!  I need you!”

            “Ma’am?”  Kasspar’s head appears through the trap door.

             She sheaths her sword.  “Catch.” She tosses him several small flour sacks. “Slit these wide open. Throw them down over the side into the trees and bush.  Toss a few more into the street.  We want lots of flour in the air.  Droellen,  Close the window shutters.  Narrius, put out that slow match or whatever you call it.”

             Merreth heaves a couple of large flour sacks onto the floor, grabs her dirk and slits them open. 

            “What are you doing?” asks Bhenny.  “Thought you said that was dangerous.”

            “It is.”

             Shadows spring up through the room as Droellen slams the shutters.  “Hope you know what you’re doin’,” he says, tying them off.

             “Prett,” says Merreth, “you and Narrius start throwing flour all over the place.  We want it thick enough to choke on.”

             The two exchange glances.

             “Get to it, arseholes!” roars Droellen.  He digs his hands into a sack and starts flinging flour into the air.

             Clan arrows rattle the shutters. Two punch through and thunk into a chair.  “Don’t make shutters like they used to,” grunts Prett.  “Damn poor carpentry if you ask me.  No pride in workmanship these days.”

            The bakery interior seems caught in blizzard.  “Weapons,” says Merreth. “everybody carries something,”

            “Carries something where?” Prett slings an arrow quiver over his shoulder.

            “Out the back.” Merreth jerks her head towards the back door.  “We get to the next cottage. There’s a wagon. We push it down the street.  Keep it between us and clan as we move between buildings.”

            Narrius picks up his bow. “What happens when the clan spills around the bakery and fills us full of arrows?” 

            The shutters rattle and Merreth sees movement through cracks in the wood.  “That’s what the flour’s for outside.  Won’t hide us, but might distract them for a moment. Bhenny’s friends said they’ll watch our back.  If we move now.” She grabs Prett’s arm and shoves him towards the back door.  “Come on, the lot of you!”

            “That’s your plan?  It’s …” demands Bhenny. 

            “It’s as good as we’re going to come up with,” says Droellen, “so get to it.”

            “Everyone get on the other side of the wagon and start pushing it down the street,” says Merreth.  “Whoever’s out last close the door. Same with the trap door in the roof.”  She glances back over her shoulder.  “I mean that.  It’s important.”  “Come on!” She pulls the door open and darts around the side of the wagon, her back tingling.  

            Prett joins her and bangs his fist against the wagon, shaking a board on loose nails.  “Well, shit.  Might stop rocks thrown at us.”

            “You know it’s supposed to be drawn by a pair of horses, right?” asks Narrius.

            “Go find some, then,” says Merreth.  “Now push, damn it!”

            The wagon creaks and inches forward, then rolls back.

            “The damn brake’s still on!”  Prett grabs the lever and yanks it back.

            “Where the blazes is Kasspar?” asks Merreth.  She looks back at the bakery.  “The bloody door’s closed!”

            “You said to close it,” said Droellen.  “Come on, move!” He heaves the wagon forward.

            “Not with him inside, damn it!”

            Kasspar jumps from the roof into the wagon, rattling the sideboards when he lands.  “You’re a lot more fun than the Domina, Ma’am,” he grins.  “Did what ya said. What’s the flour inside for?”

            “It’s a bakery.” says Merreth.  “I’m baking the clan a cake.  Just need them to light the oven.”

            At the end of the street faint wisps of flour dust hanging in the air are flicked away by a rare breeze off the river.   Clan warriors spill out of the bush, axes in hand.

            “We’re dead!” screams Bhenny.  He brings up his bow as an arrow snaps by Merreth’s head. 

            More clansmen erupt from the scrub at the end of the road.  Others are in the trees and bush.  They raise war axes and charge forward with chilling screams.     

            He’s right, Merreth thinks.  We’re dead, and I’ve killed us with my stupid id…

            A roaring blast rips the bakery’s walls into ragged pieces, raking the clan warriors. Gouts of flame chase burning chunks of roof skyward and a roiling cloud of thick, choking gray smoke rolls out and swallows the clansmen   What’s left of the bakery collapses with a splintering crash, leaving only the massive stone oven standing.

            Merreth rubs her eyes.  “It worked!  By the Goddess, it actually worked!”

            Droellen turns an ash-blackened face to Merreth.  “Why aren’t we dead?”

            Merreth barely makes out his voice through the ringing in her ears. “Oven shielded us,” she shouts.  “Time to go!   Get the wagon moving!  Push, push, push!”

            With the six of them, they lurch the wagon forward, muscles taught, fighting to keep it rolling in a straight line. “Kasspar, watch our rear,” say Merreth. 

            Kasspar nods, takes position at the wagon’s end, and scans the churning clouds of smoke and dust.

            Narrius jerks his head down the street where, above the smoke, flames dance in the tree branches.  “Ponyboys are busy makin’ sure they’re all in one piece.  That and getting’ out of the fire. Should buy us a bit of time.” 

            The wagon suddenly shakes and bangs with arrow strikes.

            “Come on,” yells Droellen, “keep this bitch moving!”

            Twenty feet of open ground before they can scurry behind the next cottage.  “Almost there,” says Merreth. Then the wagon shudders to a stop, its wheel stuck in a pot hole.  Bhenny and Narrius stumble into Merreth.  She pushes them off her, breath rasping in her throat.  “Damn it. Wagon’s stuck fast.  We’ll have to leave it.” 

            “Are you kidding?” asks Bhenny.  “With no cover?  We’ll be dead before we take a step!”

            “We can’t stay here,” says Kasspar.  “They’re startin’ to come around the bakery again!”

            “One at a time,” says Droellen.  “If we go in a group, we’re a nice big target.  Bhenny, you first.”

            “Me?”  Beads of sweat pop off Bhenny’s bald head.

            “Yeah,” says Droellen.  “Yer safest ‘cause yer first.  Surprise.  They won’t be expecting you.”  He peeks around the wagon. “Besides, they’re not that close, they’re all lookin’ at the fire, and there’s a lot smoke hangin’ in the air.”

            “No.”

            “Now, Bhenny,” snaps Merreth, “or go last when all the bastards are watching.”

            Bhenny pounds down the street towards the cottage, making it without attracting a single clan shaft.

            “You next, M’ Lady,” says Droellen.

             Merreth shakes her head.  “I got us out here, I go last.”

             Droellen studies her, then nods.  He claps Narrius on the shoulder.  “Go!”

            One after another, Narrius, Prett, and Droellen sprint to the cottage.  An arrow nicks Droellen’s leg, but otherwise all are unhurt.

           “We ain’t going to be so lucky,” says Kasspar.  “Buggers damn near filled the air with shafts when Droellen went.  They know we’re here, and they know what we’re gonna do.”

            Merreth glances back down the street.  The smoke’s lifting, but shafts continue to sleet into the clan warriors from the cottage across from the bakery.   “We need a shield,” says Merreth.  She takes hold of the wagon siding. “Help me with this.” 

            Kasspar grabs the board and the two yank it free with a savage tug.  “Now what?”

            Merreth stands the siding on end and ties her whip around it.  Less than three feet wide.  It’s going to be a tight fit.  “We keep this between us and the clan and walk over to Droellen and the others.”

            Kasspar’s gaze flits over the board and to Merreth.

            “What?” she asks.  “What’s wrong now?” 

             “I can’t stand that close, M’Lady, I’d be touchin’ you.  Not respectful.”

            Merreth seizes Kasspar’s tunic with her free hand and hauls him close.  “Being respectful is doing what I say. Help me hold this thing up, and start walking. It’s not far, and we’ll be fine.”

            Each step feels slow, awkward and clumsy.  Her sword scabbard thumps on her back.  Kasspar’s head brushes her nose.  His crossbow, slung over his back, pokes and jabs her chest. Arrows thud into the makeshift shield.  One punches almost right through, spraying splinters into her cheek, and stopping with six inches of shaft sticking through at eye level. Kasspar stiffens.

            Shafts whip down the street, Bhenny and Narrius putting as many in the air as they can.

            Merreth sucks in her breath. “Keep moving.  Almost there.”

            “Longest twenty feet of my life,” says Kasspar when they reach the back of the cottage and set the wagon siding down.

            “No time for rest. Who’s inside?” asks Merreth in a low voice.

            “Doesn’t matter,” says Droellen. “Inside is better than outside.”

            Narrius and Prett draw their bows and stand on either side of the door.  Kasspar raises his crossbow while Bhenny pulls out a pair of daggers.  Merreth unsheathes her sword.

            Droellen nudges the door with his foot. It swings inward an inch.  Voices come from within, rough and guttural.  “Clanners,” he whispers.  

            “How many?” asks Merreth.

            The door’s flung back and an arrow punches into Narrius’s eye as another tears through Merreth’s hair.

            “Shit!” Droellen looses his crossbow, taking a warrior in the throat, and charges through the door.

            “In, in, in!” screams Bhenny as he snakes his way inside, burying his daggers in a warrior’s chest.   Sword out, Merreth follows, clearing the doorway just as an axe clangs off her blade.

            She flinches back, wild eyes glaring at her as an arrow comes from behind, taking the warrior in the shoulder. 

            The clansman staggers back, blood welling from his wound.   His raises his axe again as Merreth puts her sword into his belly.  Bluish rope-like guts seep through his fingers as he falls to his knees.

            Droellen brains a bearded warrior with his unloaded crossbow and has it snapped in two by an axe.   He back peddles and throws the crossbow in the clansman’s face.

            “I got ya, Droellen!” yells Kasspar.

            The clansman’s head snaps back, a quarrel buried in his eye socket.  His axe clatters on top of a soot-blackened stove.

            “Stop showing off, Kasspar,” shouts Merreth.  “Shoot them in the chest.”

            “One lookin’ to leave,” yells Prett from the back doorway.  He draws his bow and puts a shaft into a warrior by the front door.  The man collapses with a grunt, the arrow buried in his chest snapping off as he hits the floor.

            Merreth skirts a table, kicks away a clanner hand that paws at her ankle and rips her sword tip across a swarthy, painted face.  The man backs away, shrieking.  She guts him, then throws her shoulder against the front door, slamming it shut.

            Silence fills the cottage, save for the sound of laboured breathing. Smashed chairs, ripped clothing, and a splintered chest are strewn about the cottage.  The floor is blood-slicked and heaped with both clan and constable bodies.  A couple of warriors shift weakly.  Bhenny slides his dirk into each one’s neck.

            Prett lays his bow on the table and starts winding some cloth around a cut in his arm.  His fingers come away spotted with blood and dust.  Kasspar cocks his crossbow.

            “Droellen,” says Merreth.  “Help Kasspar pile a couple of those clan bodies to block the front door.”  She sheaths her sword and wipes sweat from her face. “No more guests until we’ve made the place presentable.  Prett, watch the back.”

            “Mind telling us what you put in yer cakes, Lady Merreth?” asks Droellen.

            “Set a flame to a room filled with flour dust and it explodes.  Saw that raze a mill when I was young.  Nothing left except broken bodies and burning timber.”  She closes her eyes for a moment, remembering her fascination with the miller’s charred remains.  “Just had to wait for the clan to light it up.”  She can see the clan gathered in the encampment through broken shutters.  “Bastards seem pretty excited by the bakery. At least they’re not paying us any attention for the moment.”  She rubs her arms, feeling cold, and frowns as she begins to shiver.

            “I’ve seen that before,” says Bhenny.  “Lots of the lads fight like wolves when we’re in the thick of it.  After, when it’s quiet, they get the shakes real bad.   Like they figure they had time be scared only when all the killin’s been done.”

            Merreth rubs her shoulders, squeezes her hands to together to ease the trembling. “Is that what happens to you?” she asks.

            “No.”  Bhenny fishes in his pocket and pulls out a hunk of bread.  “I usually piss myself.”  He takes a bite and thrusts the bread in Merreth’s direction.  “Hungry?”


More Lady Merreth

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