Tiandraa shifts in her saddle. Stone-faced Red Hand nobles stare hard at Merreth, pausing while reaching for sword or crossbow. A mount snorts, bends its neck, begins cropping the dried scrub grass along the roadside. The breeze off the river carries crowd whispers and the rustle of tree-branches.
Good Goddess, this bloody thing is heavy, thinks Merreth. She keeps the bolt centred on Tiandraa’s chest. It’s a larger target, and the red hag would be just as dead should Merreth squeeze the tiller.
“Well, Merreth?” asks Tiandraa. “What will it be?” The smile is back on her lips. “If you’re going to shoot, then shoot and be killed. Otherwise,” she stretches her arms above her head and yawns, “put the damn thing down.”
Shit, thinks Merreth. Too fucking tired. Kill Tiandraa and be cut down trying to escape, or don’t and be taken, later beaten, then killed certain as sunrise. Maybe She could punch quarrel right through Tiandraa’s heart and escape in the confusion. She tries to ignore the slight tremble in her arms. There’re no bows unlimbered, no crossbows trained on her, maybe She could do it. Only a chance, but better that than capture. Decide now. This damn thing weighs more by the second.
She takes a breath and steadies the weapon.
Tiandraa narrows her eyes.
“Lady Merreth! What the blazes are you doing?” Ashttia limps through the path opened in the crowd by two Watch noblemen. “Put that bloody thing down right now! Unless you’re going to kill Lady Tiandraa, right here, in front of scores of witnesses?”
“That’s the idea.”
Tiandraa twists in her saddle. “Ashttia …”
Ashttia pauses beside Tiandraa’s hose and fixes the Read Hand noblewoman with a withering scowl. “My title is ‘Lady’. You can at least address me as such while I attempt to keep Lady Merreth from putting a bolt through you. Decorum, Lady Tiandraa, always decorum.”
Ashttia resumes limping towards Merreth, flanked by her noblemen. The crowd presses closer, and Red Hand nobles nudge their horses to spread out. At the pier more boats tie up. Watch nobles climb out and retrieve the horses left behind when Ashttia and the others first fled.
Merreth’s small chance of escape has vanished. Her arms ache. She’s having trouble keeping the crossbow centered on Tiandraa.
“Squeeze that tiller and you will regret it,” says Ashttia. She comes to Merreth’s side, neither she nor the noblemen making any attempt to block Merreth’s view of Tiandraa. “Whatever satisfaction you gain will be extremely short lived. You will be killed on the spot.”
Merreth never takes her eyes off Tiandraa. “She’s threatened my House, Ashttia, my reputation, and my life, tried to kill me in that honor bout farce, sent an assassin against me while I was the Domina’s ‘guest’, and made it clear I would meet a very unpleasant end should I go back across the river with her.”
“‘Lady Ashttia’, if you please, Lady Merreth Our agreement still stands and happily for you, it’s in both our interest that you continue to live. I will do my best to keep it that way.” Ashttia lowers her voice. “I heard what you said earlier to Lady Tiandraa. I will order the children and the wounded back across the river, both commoner and criminal. Two Watch nobles will go with them to secure food, water, healers, and whatever temporary accommodation may be had. My sister nobles won’t like it, won’t understand why I’ve ordered it, but they will do it.”
Fatigue and stress tangle themselves around Merreth’s thoughts. No good choices this side of the river. Ever. Just bad and worse. She’ll take bad. She nods, lowers the crossbow, and squeezes the tiller.
Tiandraa flinches as the bolt splashes up dust and dirt in front of her horse.
“Keep her away from me, Lady Ashttia. I’ll cut her throat if she so much as looks at me the wrong way.” Merreth sniffs the air for smoke, listens to clashing steel, crackling matchlock fire and hoarse shouting in the distance. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, we do,” says Ashttia. “Take her.”
Hands grasp Merreth. She jerks free, twists, and grabs at her boot. Her dirk is half unsheathed when she is seized from behind. “Ashttia,” she grunts, “you lying maggot.”
“Dignity, Lady Merreth,” says Ashttia. “Please don’t writhe about. You look like a wounded snake in front of these … people.”
Merreth’s arms are clamped to her sides by Watch noblemen. “What about our bargain? Can’t wait, is that it?”
Some commoners watch the spectacle, the rest drift back to the serious business of pain and fear. Droellen and his crew are nowhere in sight. Not surprising, but their absence nettles Merreth.
“I can, but you have to be alive and I have larger concerns. The best way to help ensure you and Lady Tiandraa don’t kill each other is to take you into custody, at least temporarily.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t kill her, not without cause.” Tiandraa says. She dismounts and strolls to Ashttia’s side, then backhands Merreth. The blow snaps Merreth’s chin over her shoulder and send her hat spinning to the ground. “Which I have.”
“Lady Tiandraa!” says Ashttia, “There is no …”
“Ashttia, you need the Red Hand. Our help in securing your collection of burning hovels is worth a little humiliation for Merreth.” Tiandraa gestures at the stone-faced men holding Merreth. “Try to be more like those two when dealing with rogues.”
Something deep, and black, and ugly awakens within Merreth, struggling at the end of its leash. “I will end you,” she snarls, seeing only Tiandraa’s mocking smile. “I will soak my hands in your blood and enjoy it.”
Tiandraa’s smile widens. She places her boot on Merreth’s hat and slowly grinds it into the dirt before turning to walk back to her horse. “Disarm that criminal,” she calls over her shoulder, “or the next time I see her I will cut her into pieces.”
This is a bad idea, thinks Totlenn. And I know something about bad ideas. Had enough of them myself to see’em now before they even poke their noses over the horizon. This one is so close I can fuckin’ touch it. He sucks some dirt out from under his thumbnail and spits it on the floor. “Don’t think we should.”
Scattered about the main room of the merchant’s house a half dozen other men glance his way and nod, then resume cleaning blades, re-stringing bows, or loading the two matchlocks they’d somehow managed to keep as the Clan pushed them from one bolt hole to the next. Constable-Sergeant Arric keeps his face blank.
The problem is not Arric, thinks Totlenn.
“Not for a bloody thief and bully-boy to decide,” snaps a young constable, blonde and red-eyed sitting across the room. He holds an unbloodied sword in one hand and a wine-skin in the other. His tunic and breastplate are clean, his boots un-scuffed.
No, the problem is Under-Captain Glassko. “Yer going to get yerself killed out there,” says Totlenn. He jerks a thumb towards the window. Now that the smoke’s clearing, they have a good view of what was the Domina’s encampment. They’re the only ones left in Little Westhold who do. All the other cottages and shops along the road the Clan have taken or burned.
Totlenn runs his hand over the stone wall. He doesn’t have much use for merchants. Their money? Now, that’s a different story. But this one had built his house from stone and roofed it with slate. Proof against fire, with stout doors proof against the Clan. Bastard probably feared those he cheated.
“We’ve bloodied their noses, let’s see what those little pony boys have to say,” says Glassko. “They’re scared now that we’ve not run, I’ll wager.”
The problem is not even Glassko, actually. It’s that Constable-Sergeant Arric bloody well has to listen to Glassko.
“Those little ‘pony boys’ have kicked us out of half of Little Westhold,” says Arric. The Constable-Sergeant adjusts a stained rag tied around his left forearm. He takes a sip of water from a cup sitting on the remains of a splintered table, waving away the wineskin Glassko thrusts at him.
“Yes, but not all of it,” says Glassko. He holds up a hand. “Listen. The fighting has stopped.” Glassko takes another pull from his wineskin. “We’ve over-awed them. That’s why they’re not attacking anymore. My – our – constables have put a healthy fear into those plains vermin!”
“There’s eight of us,” says Totlenn, letting a little steel slide into his tone, “to every one o’ your lot.”
“Of course you … crim … commoners helped,” says Glassko. “Of course you did.” He squints through the window, shielding his eyes against the sunlight. “Just one of them out there standing on the road.”
“There’s more than one,” grunts Tottlen. “The rest are in Little Westhold, like maggots on a carcass. ‘Cept those holdin’ the horses. Probably a lot more just south of us too. Just ‘cause you can’t see’em don’t mean they ain’t there. Which is why this is a bad idea.”
“And if they do want to talk, it’s not up us to go meet them,” says Arric.
“Then who?” Glassko heaves himself to his feet. “That blackguard of a Mistress, Merreth?”
“Likes to be called ‘Lady’, she does,” says Totlenn. “Wouldn’t be callin’ her Mistress to her face.”
“I’ll call her anything I like,” Glassko, slams his palm down on the table. “She’s a criminal of the foulest sort by her own admission, no better than…” Glassko trails off as everyone in the room turns to him. “Them,” he finishes. “Those savages out there! And who told you Lady Ashttia left her in command? Merreth herself?” He snorts. “Nothing but a lie, I’ll wager. Besides, where is she? I’ve not seen her at all.”
Good question, that, thinks Totlenn. Dead, be his guess, along with Droellen and his crew. He and Arric saw her make it into the bakery. Didn’t see anyone make it out after it blew apart. He’s not going to say that, though. He likes the way Merreth gets up Glassko’s nose without even being in the room. “She was at the bakery.”
“Then she’s dead, and it’s settled who tells us what to do.”
“Wouldn’t count her out,” say Arric. “The lady seems damn tough. Even if she is dead, Under-captain, I think Totlenn’s right. Going out to talk is a good way of getting you right where they can kill you. Then who will lead us?”
“That won’t happen, Constable-Sergeant,” says Glassko. “If they want to talk, they’re weak. If they’re weak, they’ll not try treachery. They fear us. Remember that.”
Totlenn rolls his eyes. The stupid git has it exactly backwards. Half of Little Westhold in Clan hands, the other half burning; the skins run off across the river to safety, the only one with any spine likely a charred corpse somewhere. That puffed-up drunk bastard Glassko gettin’ in their way while he and Arric try their best to hold things together. Little food, almost no matchlock powder left, everyone dog-tired and shit-scared. They don’t fear us. We fear them.
“Come along, Constable-Sergeant,” says Glassko, “let’s go see what they’ve got to say.” He sheaths his sword, straightens his breastplate and strides to the door.
Arric shrugs and follows Glassko. His sword is not sheathed.
Totlenn sighs. “Here’s an even worse idea, least for me.” He grabs a loaded crossbow and shoves it at the man nearest the window. “I’m gonna go make sure Glassko don’t say somethin’ stupid. That areshole out there even twitches, put him down.”
Totlenn pauses, rubbing his jaw. “Not Glassko.”
“Come on, come on! Hurry up!” The Watch nobleman makes no attempt to help move the injured onto the ferry, and his exhortations do little except annoy Merreth. She kneels down over a wounded criminal with a face swaddled in bandages. He groans when she touches him.
“Come on, M’Lady,” says Bahko’s mother. “Let’s git’em on the ferry. Lots more after ‘im.”
“As many as we can, anyway …” Merreth pauses. “I don’t know your name.”
“Nejjan, M’Lady.” She smiles. “First time any skin ever asked.”
Merreth and Nejjan take the man’s arms and legs. His slight frame they can both move without too much trouble. They place him at the far end of the ferry. Merreth straightens up and stretches. They’ve been at this for about ten minutes and the ferry is filling up. Commoners help. Nobles don’t. The few around watch her.
“Bastards have probably never shifted anything in their lives,” Merreth says. “Pleasuremen or servants to do everything for them.”
“They don’t like you much, either. Least not the Red Hag.”
“What?” Merreth frowns at the man she and Nejjan have just moved.
The ‘wounded’ criminal pushes the bandages away from his face and grins. “Hi M’Lady.”
“Should’ve punched her out of her saddle when you had the chance. Nothin’ good comes from the Hag.”
“What are you doing here? You’re not wounded! If you’re trying to save your sorry arse by … “
“Your sorry arse, M’Lady.”
He pulls from his tunic a pair of dirks. Her dirks. “Droellen thought you’d better have these back.”
“Where did you get these …?” Merreth scoops the dirks out of his hand and shoves them down her boot top. “You stole them from Lady Ashttia?”
“Naw. The Red Hag had’em. Nicked’em from her.”
She seizes his tunic with both hands. “Are you insane?” she whispers.
“Help me up please, M’Lady,” says Bhenny. “I’m about to have a miraculous recovery. Praise the Goddess!” He levers himself to his knees and throws his arm around Merreth’s neck.
She wrinkles her nose. Good Goddess the man stank.
He sniffs. “If you don’t mind me sayin’ M’Lady, you could use a bath.”
She starts walking Bhenny off the ferry. He pretends to limp, forcing her to half-drag, half-carry him.
He motions to a nearby tree. “Now, if I could just be put down in the shade, that would be lovely. Droellen and the others are around, I think. Tough to keep track of ’em when you’re covered in bandages.”
The worst of the wounded are now aboard, a carpet of suffering laid out on the deck. Mounted Watch and Red Hand nobles, about fifty all told, are gathered flanking the road, the commoners keeping well clear. Ashttia and Tiandraa stand, deep in conversation. Merreth shrugs and calls to a pair of nobles assigned to watch her. “Let’s see Lady Ashttia.”.
“Finished wasting time have you?” asks Tiandraa as Merreth approaches. “The ferry would be across the river by now, but for your concern for this rabble.”
It would be so easy for Merreth to pluck a dirk from her boot top and bury it in Tiandraa’s throat. So very easy. “What have you decided?” she asks Ashttia.
“It’s grown quiet, so I’ve sent some commoners down the road scout” says Ashttia.
“What they found is none of your concern,” says Tiandraa.
Ashttia raises an eyebrow. “Your personal feelings aside, Lady Merreth knows better than most what’s going on over here. Unless you’d prefer to take council from commoners, or criminals?”
“Merreth is a criminal,” says Tiandraa.
“Horses, scores of them, in the Domina’s encampment,” says Ashttia, “held by only a few handlers. Their riders couldn’t be seen.”
“Their riders are fighting and looting in Little Westhold,” says Merreth, “or trying to burn it down. Horses would only get in their way amongst the buildings. What else?”
“A small group, a half dozen at most, mounted Clansmen in the encampment. The commoners think they might be some of the Clan leaders.”
“They don’t know? Why did you send commoners in the first place, why not a scout? Why didn’t you send Samretta? Isn’t she here?”
The news shakes Merreth. She didn’t much like the Watch Scout, but at least the woman had courage, and a good idea what was facing them.
Tiandraa jabs a finger at Merreth. “Your wise council. Your plan to beat the Clan. Samretta and our Watch sisters, cut down crossing the river on the south ferry. Those plains scum were hiding around the pier and slaughtered everyone. Dozens of corpses floating down the river, because of you!”
The Red Hand noblewomen exchange looks, a couple cross their arms and let their gaze travel up and down Merreth. The Watch noblewomen edge closer to Ashttia away from Merreth.
“The Clan cut the ferry rope for good measure,” adds Ashttia. “When we left the dorrymen were towing the ferry to the east bank.”
“Nothing to say, criminal?” snaps Tiandraa. “People are dead. You killed them, just as sure as if you used your own sword!” She takes a cocked crossbow from a Red Hand noblewoman behind her and hefts it. “Do you recognize this? You should, you pointed it at me not very long ago.”
Where the blazes did Tiandraa get that, Merreth asks herself. And where’s Kasspar?
Tiandraa swings the crossbow up and points it at Merreth’s stomach. “Would you like to know where I got it? I know you’re busy making friends over here. I’m smart enough to find those friends. I know where you got this crossbow, and I know how you managed to get your dirks back.”
“My dirks?” asks Merreth, her heart races. Oh, dear Goddess, no!
“Oh yes, tucked down there in your right boot, shoved farther in than you usually wear them. I bet those blades are cutting up your skin something just awful.”
“Is that true, Merreth?” asks Ashttia. “Are you armed?”
Merreth should be plucking her dirks from her boot; she can see where things are heading. “And you’re supposed to keep me alive, remember?” she says to Ashttia.
“I can’t help you,” Ashttia replies, looking away.
“Bring him out,” Tiandraa calls over her shoulder.
Two Red Hand noblemen, lips tight in blank faces push their way forward with Kasspar. Gagged and with his hands bound, his blue eyes dart here and there. Merreth can see tears welling out of the corners.
Tiandraa gently strokes Kasspar’s cheek. “This boy gave Merreth his crossbow, which she used to threaten me. The penalty for that is death. That was a very brave thing you did, Kasspar. So very brave of you. Something you’d do for a friend, someone you trust, right? Do you trust her? Do you trust Merreth?”
Kasspar begins to cry, his chest heaving, his sobs muffled by the gag.
“Stop it, Tiandraa!” Merreth starts forward, halts when crossbows brush her chest. “He did nothing. I took the crossbow from him. I threatened him!”
“Shh, shh,” says Tiandraa, ignoring Merreth. “Do you trust Merreth? Nod if you do. Nothing will happen to you.”
Kasspar’s chin jerks up and down.
“Let’s see if Merreth is worth trusting.” Tiandraa steps back from Kasspar and centers the crossbow on Merreth’s face. “I’ll give you a choice. Come with me, tonight. Back across the river to Red Hand Hold. You’ll be held, then executed, and your death will be very long, and extremely painful. But the boy lives.”
“Or, the Red Hand will leave you alone on this side of the river for the next two years. You’ll still have to survive the Clan, but for that time you need not worry about answering to us for what you’ve done. For that, all you have to do is take your dirk and cut Kasparr’s throat in front us.”
“Lady Ashttia,” says Merreth, “put a stop to this…please.”
“Tut, tut, Merreth. Why do you think I’m here with my sisters at all?” asks Tiandraa. “Wait! Don’t guess. Let me tell you. Another bargain! I help Ashttia recover from the disaster you created. What do you think she gave me in return?”
Again, Ashttia refuses to meet Merreth’s eyes.
Tiandraa raises her eyebrows. “What? Suddenly squeamish? Let me help you. Just nod and I’ll put this crossbow bolt right through the boy’s head. It should be an easy choice. Just nod. His death will be quick and you’re free of the Red Hand until your sentence is done.” Tiandraa smiles.
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
Chapter 27 coming soon!