The surrounding nobles are silent, fidgeting, fingering weapons, and exchanging glances. The commoners say nothing. Only Kasspar’s snuffles break the silence. He holds his chin up, his red-rimmed eyes downcast off the end of the crossbow.
Merreth wants so badly to dig her fingers into Tiandraa’s throat, to have the bitch die clawing for air while Merreth spits in her face. She draws a ragged breath. “Let him go, Tiandraa. He’s just a boy.”
“No. I won’t let him go, Merreth, and we’re all waiting. What’s it to be? His life for two years free of the Red Hand?” Tiandraa smiles. “A pittance to pay, really.”
You cold, soulless snake! Merreth wonders if she could knock the weapon away from Kasspar. Probably not. Never any good choices. Just bad and worse. “I’ll go with you,” she says.
“What’s that?” asks Tiandraa. “I couldn’t quite hear you, Merreth. And it’s ‘Lady Tiandraa’.” She nods towards Ashttia. “Protocol is important.”
“I said that I will go with you, Lady Tiandraa,” says Merreth. “Across the river. Tonight, and back to Red Hand Hold.” She chokes out the words, her anger twisting them into a snarl. Which choice did she make? Bad or worse? Does it matter? Every decision leads to disaster. It’s almost a relief that the whole thing is over with, at least for her. She’ll feel differently come the night, but for now she’s close to just not giving a damn. Shame washes through her at the thought.
“Excellent,” says Tiandraa. She lowers her crossbow and swings it back to point at Merreth. “Still, it won’t due to have this criminal or his friends think they can attempt murder and not be held to account.”
“I said I would go,” says Merreth. “There’s no need for any more … torment for Kasspar.”
“Don’t fret, Merreth.” Tiandraa chuckles. “I wasn’t lying. He will die at some point. It won’t be by my hand though, not right now.” Her voice hardens. “But I will enjoy correcting his error later.” She shoves Kasspar towards a pair of Red Hand nobles. “Keep him bound, make certain he’s ready when I want him.”
Merreth lets out a gulp. Dear Goddess, thank you for that great mercy. Tiandraa could have killed the boy outright even after Merreth had given in. Kasspar’s wide, staring eyes lock on hers as he’s dragged away. Maybe, though, there’d been no mercy granted. She knows how inventive the Red Hand can be in ‘correcting errors’.
Ashttia clears her throat. “You’ve made your point, Lady Tiandraa. Now to our more pressing concern. We must wrest Little Westhold from those savages.”
Merreth notes the tired lines carved into the Ashttia’s face, the hand clenched too tightly around the hilt of her belt dirk, the way she still refuses to meet Merreth’s eyes. Good Goddess, you’re bloody scared to death, aren’t you, Ashttia? You have no idea what to do, and Tiandraa has usurped your authority in front of your sisters. Just how much will that bargain wind up costing you? Merreth would laugh were her own situation not so dire.
“I think that can wait a bit,” says Tiandraa. “We need greater strength. Any attempt before more of our sisters join us will end badly. Besides, we’re not quite finished here, and we have some time before the next ferry arrives.” She hefts the crossbow. “Your blades, Merreth. Slowly, hilt first, then drop them on the ground.”
Merreth ignores her. She’s thinking of something that may let her slip free. Something Tiandraa said about that bloody bargain. “You’re going to fail,” she says to Ashttia.
“Fail?” Ashttia glares. “No, I – we’re not going to fail, Merreth. Now throw your dirks to the ground.”
“Yes, you’re going to fail.” Sweat trickles down Merreth’s face. From the heat, only from the heat.
She raises her voice, pitching it to carry to the surrounding nobles. For what she has in mind they need to hear. She lets her voice grow harsh in both tone and word. “I’ve fought the Clan all fucking day. I know them better than any of you. You may wait. They won’t.”
“Be silent, Merreth,” snaps Tiandraa.
Merreth crosses her arms. “Tiandraa gives orders for the Watch now, does she, Ashttia? If you delay, you will lose and we will all die. The Clan isn’t pushing forward now because they’re talking with the convicts. You said so yourself. If the convicts surrender – and why should they fight and die for any of you? – the Clan will ride you down and chop you all into pieces.”
The lines on Ashttia’s face deepen. “How would you know if they’re surrendering … going to surrender?”
“She doesn’t,” Tiandraa snorts.
“Oh yes, yes I do.” Merreth has their attention now. All of the nobles, both Watch and Red Hand are listening. More commoners drift back over. “I’m one of them, remember?” She pulls off her glove and thrusts her fist upwards, displaying the mark on her forearm.
Whispers begin amongst the nobles and grow into mutters.
Merreth lowers her arm. “You’ve made a very bad bargain, Ashttia. It suits Tiandraa to delay. Besides, she already has what she wants. You have nothing. Waiting just puts your head in a noose. The longer you wait, the tighter it gets.”
“Rubbish! I’ve heard enough of this,” says Tiandraa. “You’ve had your little speech, Merreth. Very dramatic. Be silent or I’ll have you gagged. Take her,” she says to the noblemen flanking her. “Disarm her. bind her, and if she won’t bloody shut up, stuff a rag down her throat.”
The two noblemen flanking Tiandraa step forward and reach for Merreth.
Shit! Merreth swallows. A Red Hand noblewoman darts forward and pulls Merreth’s dirks from her boot.
“Hold,” says Ashttia.
Tiandraa hands off her crossbow and takes the dirks.
“I said, ‘Hold!” Ashttia shouts. “What should we do, if not wait?” she asks Merreth.
“We’re going to drive out the Clan with fifty noble sisters and brothers? Insanity.” Ashttia shakes her head. “Tiandraa’s right.”
“We just have to kill the Clan leader,” says Merreth. The words spill out of her in a rush. “It will rip the heart out of them. They’ll leave on their own after that. Samretta was the Domina’s best scout. She knew how the Clan acts, what they do when their leader dies.” Merreth has no idea if Samretta knew the Clan at all. She loathes dishonesty, but lies are the only tool ready to hand.
Ashttia rubs her hip and glances down the road. “And just where do we find the leader? Do we just whistle and have him trot over so we can put a sword through him?”
“He’s at the Domina’s encampment – you said earlier someone saw him – in the middle of a lot of horses with empty saddles. We strike at him, cut him down, and get back here.” The Goddess only knew who was in the middle of the encampment. But that doesn’t matter, not to Merreth. What matters is getting astride a horse with steel in hand.
“Merreth, you’ve spun enough lies”, says Tiandraa. “You’ll say anything to slither away from what’s coming to you.”
Merreth forces a scornful laugh. “Tiandraa, you mewling little weasel. You were a coward in the honour bout, a coward yesterday in front of the convicts, and a coward today. You said you’d help Ashttia clean up the mess I’d created. Well, here’s a chance for you to keep your word and you’re balking.”
Tiandraa’s cheeks flush. “I will …”
“Do nothing. You’ll do nothing at all, Tiandraa.” Merreth must keep girding Tiandraa. She’s taking terrible risks for a slim chance. But a slim chance is better than none. I can do it. She turns away from Tiandraa and faces Ashttia. “We must attack, and we must attack now.”
“I …” Ashttia frowns.
“You?” snarls Tiandraa. “Why you? Why not Ashttia? Or me?”
Merreth keeps a stone face, smothering a sigh of relief. Thank you, you stupid bitch. If you’re arguing over which of us leads, then attack is almost a certainty.
“Because Lady Ashttia can’t ride as well as you or I with her leg, and you’ll want to stay behind me so you can more easily put a blade in my back.” Merreth pauses and examines her gloves. “You’ve already proven you can’t put one in my front.” The commoners chuckle, some of the Watch nobles hide smiles.
“We have so much to talk about later on, Merreth,” says Tiandraa. “And we’ll spend a long time talking.”
Her back tingling, Merreth imagines Tiandraa grabbing a crossbow. She leans close to Ashttia. “I’m the only one who’s seen the Clan out there, and the only one who’s fought them. If you want the Clan gone, it has to be me. You’re the Domina’s second, Lady Ashttia. Show some damn resolve.”
“There’s no need for crudity, Lady Merreth,” says Ashttia. “Decorum …”
Merreth smiles. “Fuck decorum. Let’s go kill a Clan chief.” And if I get a chance, she thinks, the Red Hag as well.
This is how it should always be! Agaric’s grin is savage as his warriors thunder north on the dirt-scratcher road, bent low over their mounts, urging them on, hooves kicking up clouds of dust. Water-skins jostle and thud against his legs – he is not above the simple tasks needed to sustain the Clan! The Sky-Father is now well on his way to his slumber and they must hurry.
Abandoned dirt-scratcher huts flash by. Agaric curls his lip. The Clan-Father fails in both large and small tasks. The wooden yurts should have been fired; there is no time to stop and do what should have been done earlier.
Agaric’s resolve is iron-hard. He thrums with exhilaration now that he has made his decision. Everything is clearer, sharper than it has ever been. Surely the Sky-Father has placed him on this path!
Gytega must be removed as Clan-Father and sent back to Mother-Earth, along with his weak-willed Shield Arm. Then the Tewkinn can lead us! Then the Clan will be strong! But how? The smile stretching across his face disappears and he hunches low in the saddle. It must be before the Clan returns to the plains. Here, with us pressing the dirt-scratchers, will offer the best chance if only he can recognize and seize it. His first test from the Sky-Father!
Dirty smoke hangs in the air ahead. But Agarics hears no shouts, no triumphant cries, and no terrified screams. Perhaps nothing can be heard over the thunder of their hooves. Fences, fields, and huts flit by, closer together, as if huddled in fear of he and his warriors. Any who see them will quake and scuttle to hide.
At his side the blonde dirt-scratcher woman rides. Agaric’s thoughts darken. One not borne of the plains should not sit so easily in the saddle, should not be able to keep pace so well with her hands bound. Still, her skill is useful; she does not slow them down. She gives no sign that she cares that she rides to her end.
Agaric’s smile returns. The Sky-Father is generous. He has given the betrayer into his hands, surely as a weapon to be used to bring down the Clan-Father, to bring the Clan on to the right path. I will know how to use her when the time comes. One last swing of the weapon before it is broken and buried forever.
Ostinik stands, feet apart, caressing his bone bracelet. A breeze lifts some of the sweat from his skin. The sounds of fighting have died away, Gytega having sent runners to the warriors scattered about the collection of stone and wood yurts rooted to the earth here, the Clan lowering their axes, casing their bows and waiting.
Gytega is convinced this show of forbearance will result in the dirt-scratchers poking their heads out of their bolt-holes and hiding places. When they see Ostinik standing alone and unarmed on their road, they will come to speak. Ostinik winces, thinking how many of the Clan would call this idea weakness. Still, Gytega made a point of leaving the most-hotheaded warriors with Agaric so there shouldn’t be too much grumbling and far fewer sour faces.
Ostinik brushes a strand of grey hair from his cheek. If the Clan-Father is wrong about these dirt-scratchers, he will be the first to know. He is not concerned. His life has been long, and the Clan-Father has been right more often than wrong.
Smoke from the dirt-scratcher fire-poles drifts away on the breeze. The Sky-Father is thinking of his slumber, casting lengthening shadows across the ground. Clouds gathering in the east hint at his annoyance with something. If he becomes angry perhaps there will be rain and thunder later.
Ostinik smells the river, the stench of blood and charred wood. Much quieter now, he hears horses behind him snort and crop the grass. Men – both Clan and dirt-scratcher – move amongst the ruined buildings, and tree branches rustling in the breeze. It is the most peace he has known in the last day.
Out of the large stone yurt along the road come three men. A thin blonde in the sort of armour the iron men wore earlier that day strides towards him. There’s a sheathed sword on his back and a dagger stuck into the top of one of his brown boots. His tunic, armour, breeches and boots are free of dirt and blood. His smile is a tight slash.
Hard on the blonde’s heels is a watchful, careful man, one hand resting on a dagger hilt. He too has a sword slung over his back. He is attired like the blonde, a rough bandage tied above his left elbow, his blood-stained armour scratched and battered. Ostinik is certain this man wears the death of many Clan warriors.
The third man stays behind the first two, moving with sure-footed ease, his dark wolfish eyes locked on Ostinik. He wears a tunic, trousers, and short boots smeared with dirt and blood. Two knives shoved into belt sheaths, more no doubt secreted about his body.
A fool leads a warrior and a wolf. Why? And where is the black-skinned woman? Gytega had hoped she would be present. Perhaps she suspects a trap and chooses to stay hidden.
The three men stop in front of the Shield-Arm.
The blonde peers past Ostinik to the encampment. “Is that their bloody leader, then, sitting on the horse there?” he asks the others with him. “Well then,” he says to Ostinik. “Who are you? You speak our tongue?” He frowns at the man beside him, the ‘warrior’. “He’d better, bloody waste of time if we can’t understand them, eh?”
“I speak your tongue.” Ostinik addresses the man in the bloodied armour, not the blonde fool. “We’ve taken many of your people over the years. A few are able teachers.”
“Good,” says the blonde. “I mean good that you understand us. We’ve given you lot a damned good thrashing. Leave now, before we decide to finish the job!”
The ‘warrrior’ clears his throat. “Under-Captain, we’d best hear what the fellow has to say, don’t you think?”
“You have run out of women to do your fighting for you.” Ostinik watches closely for any sign of outrage at what would be a cutting insult within the Clan. The blonde frowns, while the other two men exchange glances. Ostinik smiles. “They are now all in our hands.”
The wolf draws one of his blades and runs a thumb along the blade. “What the fuck do you want, pony-boy?”
“I ask the questions, Totlenn,” says the blonde. “Keep silent.”
‘Totlenn’ – is familiar. Ostinik casts his mind over the past days and weeks. Yes, it is he who seized our standard on the plains! He keeps his face impassive, though anger stirs in his heart. He is here to carry out the Clan-Father’s wishes, not take vengeance on this … mud man. “We want the black-skinned woman. When you have given her to us, we will leave.”
The blonde snorts. “What? Just like that? We’re to believe that you’d leave and not come back?”
Seconds earlier the man had demanded the Clan leave; now he asks if they would. Did the fool give any thought to the words spilling off his tongue?
Totlenn tosses his blade up and catches it without looking. “Fuck off, pony-boy, we don’t give up our own.”
The blonde glares at Tottlen, “I told you, I ask the questions.”
Ostinik caresses his finger bracelet. “We will be back. You will have time to prepare, though. That is what the black-skinned woman will gain you.” He smiles. “That, and perhaps some of those we have taken from you. If you do not agree, we’ll burn you out of the rest of your huts. None of you will live to see the morning.”
The ‘warrior’s’ gaze slides past the Shield-Arm to the encampment. He shakes his head. “No, if you could do that, you wouldn’t be out here. I think you’re worried.”
“Think what you like, but decide now.”
“She’s dead,” Totlenn snarls.
“We don’t know that,” says the blonde. “How do we know you’d leave once you had her?” he asks Ostinik. “What’s this about returning the all others you’ve taken?”
“You do not know. You must trust the Clan-Father, and I said ‘some’ not ‘all’.”
“What the fuck are you on about, Glassko?” asks Totlenn. “Even if she’s alive we’re not going to turn her over to this,” he jabs a finger at Ostinik’s chest, “bastard.”
Ah, the fool has a name. “She is not your own,” says Ostinik. “These women who fight, do they not spit upon you, Totlenn? Those ones we hold in our hands tell us of how they keep you apart from the others, force you to fight against your will because of what they say you have done.” Ostinik watches for any reaction, any sign of anger. He cannot understand why the dirt-scratchers would collect together thieves, liars, and thugs. Such in the Clan would be killed immediately or driven out to die on the plains. Even if he cannot fathom the reasons behind such a practice, he can still make use of it. “Give her to us.”
“We’ll need time to find her,” says Glassko. “If she’s not dead, she’s hiding somewhere.” He straightens up, throws his shoulders back, and glares. “We’d want all of the captives returned.”
“Under-Captain,” says the ‘warrior’, “you can’t be … ”
“Fuck!” Totlenn points south, along the dirt-scratcher road. “Horses, lot’s of ‘em! We gotta go, now!”
More Lady Merreth
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