Western Watch — Chapter 28

By popular demand (Hi Mom!), Chapter 28.

Ostinik watches the trio of fools scatter to the stone yurt like terrified mice.   The riders flying up the road hold no fear for him, though he twists his lips in a sour grimace.  Agaric could not have arrived at a worse time.  The dirt-scratchers had been snared rabbits.  He felt it!  The metal-plated fool was going to give her up.  Ostinik doesn’t believe the black-skinned woman is dead.  She’s no under-world demon, and too tough, too cunning to let herself be killed in the ruins of this dirt-scratcher settlement.  Ah, well.  No matter.  At least he has cast doubt amongst some of the Clan’s foe, and with the strength of Agaric’s men, she can be pried out of her lair. 

          Agaric leads the galloping cloud of horseflesh and dust up the road to towards Ostinik.  Accompanying him is the Betrayer, hands tied to her saddle.   Despite being bound it’s clear she had little difficulty keeping up with Agaric.  That must have rubbed his pride raw.  Where did she come from, though? 

          Agaric slows his mount to a walk, stands in the stirrups and thrusts his axe skyward as his warriors flood past him.  He gives no thought to the foe hiding amongst the charred and smoking structures.  Were it not for the truce he would be toppling from his saddle, his body torn apart by those accursed fire-poles.   Ostinik shakes his head.

          “Ho! Old man!”  Agaric lowers himself into his saddle and guides his horse over to Ostinik.  “Your wits grow dull.  Any fool in the path of Clan warriors should flee for safety!”

          Ostinik works up some phlegm and spits it into the dirt.  “I trust the sense of the warriors with you.  Those ruins hold many dirt-scratchers,” he says while studying the Betrayer.  “A fine target you provide standing in your stirrups, waving your axe about. So, who is the real fool?”

          “There is no danger, old man.  Were it not so, you would be far from here.”

          Ostinik keeps his anger under rigid control.   Agaric has always been brash, arrogant – a wolf’s pride leashed by a child’s judgment.  Now is not the time to cuff this cub back to its den, as more and more warriors spill into the cleared area in front of the dirt-scratcher settlement, Instead he shows open contempt for the Betrayer.  “Why does she ride with you?”

          “The Clan-Father’s plan has rotted, like meat left too long under the Sky-Father.” Agaric shouts.  “He couldn’t finish the iron men!  Couldn’t warn us about the stone that spewed thunder and death; couldn’t burn the dirt-scratcher hovels, couldn’t guard the river against her!”  Agaric thrusts his axe towards the Betrayer.  “She and dozens more crossed the river.  They were behind you and the Clan-Father!”   He shoves his axe into its sheath.  “Did the Clan-Father truly believe she would only betray her own kind?”

          This is too much.  Ostinik’s hands clamp into fists.  “And you stopped her, did you?”

          “Yes, and had I not, she would have fallen on your rear like a wolf on a calf.” Agaric waves toward the blackened ruins.  “Why does the Clan not attack? Their wooden yurts burn; their dead all around.  Why does the Clan-Father not press to the river?”

          The thought of Agaric saving the Clan from his folly burns at Ostinik.  My folly, not Gytega’s.  I failed to advise him, to council caution in the rush to uproot the dirt-scratchers.  “We have a parley with the dirt-scratchers.”

          “For what purpose?” the Betrayer asks, leaning forward, eyes hard.

          Agaric nudges his horse over and cuffs her across the mouth. The blow rocks her backwards.   Only her bound hands keep her in the saddle.  “Now, old man, why does the Clan-Father treat with the dirt-scratchers, again?”

          Enough.  Enough of his arrogance.  Enough of his insults.  Enough of Agaric!  Ostinik signals for a horse.  “He may trade some answers in return for the Betrayer. Agaric, bring her and follow.” He swings up into the saddle and urges his mount into a trot without looking back. 

 

The Sky Father surely guides me on this chosen path.  This could not be better! Hiding a savage grin, Agaric follows the Shield Arm through a swirling tumult of eager Clan warriors.   With a curt gesture he makes certain the Betrayer rides beside him.  She will pay for speaking when he’d commanded her silence.  He can use her arrogance though. 

          Arriving warriors fill the clearing, though many horses are with empty saddles.  This time Agaric does not hide his smile.   They must belong to those who lay scattered or dead amongst the burning yurts.  Those who went ahead with the Clan Father while Agaric was forced to put down the iron men.  There are fewer now in the Clan Father’s company, and when the time came the clearing will be filled with the men of Agaric’s Fist.

          Three mounted warriors ride with the Clan-Father as the Shield-Arm draws up.  Hard men and brave warriors.  Agaric commands his heart as if to be made of stone.  I am better than these brothers, he thinks, because the Sky-Father’s spirit carries me! He grabs the reins of the Betrayer’s horse and shakes them in his fist.  “Your plan has failed, Clan-Father.”

          The Shield Arm leans close to the Clan Father and whispers.  The Clan-Father nods.  “Leave us,” he says to the warriors.  They exchange glances and move off.  The Clan-Father turns his grey eyes to Agaric.  “You do not know my thoughts. Success or failure is not yours to judge.”

          “I know you didn’t leave warning of the great stone yurt. It spit flame, thunder, and death like the smoking mountain far to the south!”

          The Clan-Father frowns. “What were you doing at a stone yurt?  Finish the iron men and ride to me.  That’s what you were told.”

          Agaric feels his cheeks flush. This is not going as he planned.  It is the Clan-Father who should be sullen and embarrassed, not Agaric!  “It is good for the Clan that I sought the river instead.  I filled many empty water skins. And, I found her,” he flings the Betrayer’s reins in her face, “we waited until she and those with her were almost across, then slaughtered them on their raft.”

          “What were you doing, Betrayer?” asks the Clan-Father. 

          Her eyes meet the Clan-Father’s but she remains silent.

          “She was doing what she does best.”  Agaric spits out the title like an insult.   “She betrayed her people, and she has betrayed us. Your trust in her was foolish, and you don’t want anyone to know.  That is why moments ago you sent your warriors away, so that our words – my words – would not fall on their ears!”

          “I sent them away so you would not dishonor yourself by insulting me before them.”

          “The truth is never an insult,” says Agaric. “I know …”

          “Nothing! You do not know …”  The Clan-Father breaks off at the sound of galloping horses.  “Those come from the river, not up from the south!”

          The Shield-Arm stands in his stirrups and peers eastward.  “Two score, possibly three.   Dirt-scratcher women and a few of their men.  Brown and red leather.”  The sound of clashing steel rings out over the milling Clansmen.   War chants and shrill horse cries fill the air as the dirt-scratchers hammer into the first warriors. 

          “My warriors outnumber them!  We will soak the ground with their blood!”  Agaric grabs his axe.  “Then we will finish this,” he says to the Clan-Father.

          “They chose their moment well,” says the Clan-Father.  “They strike in a tight group; our warriors are surprised, and tired.   Mounts hobbled by the Clan brothers sent to attack the settlement are panicked.  It is difficult for us to bring our strength to bear.”  He glares at Agaric.  “You are witless, Agaric, and those warriors are not yours.  They never were.”

          The Shield Arm rubs his eyes. “The Sky-Father is generous!  She leads them!  She rides straight to us!” 

          Agaric climbs onto his saddle, searching the maelstrom of horse, leather, and steel coming towards them.  There are fewer than three-score now, and each second sees another brown or red blur pitch from a saddle, taken by axe, dagger or even bare hands.  But still they come, carving a screaming, crimson path through the warriors before them.  Leading them – a woman in black wielding a red sword.  “Black! She wears black, like a demon from below.”

          “She is a demon,” says the Betrayer, watching Agaric.

          “She is no demon from the underworld!” says Ostinik.  “Skilled with a blade, quick, cunning, yes, but …”

          “Then why, how has she fought through so many?” Agaric asks.  There are demons, but surely they would not take the form of a dirt-scratcher woman? 

          “Think, you young fool,” says the Clan-Father.  “She wears black; she rides towards dozens of our Clan brothers without concern or hesitation.”

          “Formidable allies are at her side – our warriors’ fear, fatigue, and doubt – and those allies grow stronger with each Clan brother she cuts from his saddle,” says the Shield Arm.  He pulls his axe from its sheath and smiles thinly.  “Even the brave Agaric would face her with caution.”

          Agaric ignores him, stupefied by an idea taking shape in his mind. 

          “You worry too much, old friend,” says the Clan-Father.  “Should she push through to us, she’ll be exhausted, alone, and easily killed.  We’ll have her as we wanted, if not as we planned.”

          Agaric’s heart leaps!  The Sky-Father must be speaking to him!  The black woman is no demon as skilled as she appears.  Should she break through, she will be easily cut down, but not by the Clan-Father.  No!  It will be Agaric’s axe that drinks in her life.

          But she will die only after Agaric ends the Clan-Father.  Taking the Clan-Father’s life comes to him as a vision – his axe to the Clan-Father’s side, the Shield-Arm’s frozen horror as Agaric next cuts him from the saddle.  Then he will deal with the black woman, and finally the Betrayer.

          And it all depends on her winning through to …

          “Merreth!” screams the Betrayer.

          Even the Betrayer bends to the Sky-Father’s plan!  She must be urging the black one onward.  Agaric smiles.  His heart is iron. 

          How easy this will be!  Agaric grabs a second axe from his saddle bag and knees his horse closer to the Clan-Father.  See, Clan-Father?  Agaric is here.  Agaric will stand between you and the danger.  Agaric forces himself to appear grim, determined, and ready.  It is not that difficult.

          Fifty paces ahead there’s a flash of steel as the black woman slices through another warrior.  She’s here!  The woman wears red over much of her black leather. It ranges from wet crimson to dried dark brown.  Her sword is held straight ahead and behind it an implacable face spattered in blood, eyes bright with savage joy.

          For the barest instant unease brushes Agaric’s heart.  Then he remembers the Sky-Father’s vision.   As Clan-Father reaches for his axe, Agaric plunges his own into the man’s ribs.

 

Seconds ago Merreth had been laughing, actually laughing as she reached up, grabbed the Red Hand noble by the wrist and pulled her from the saddle.  She’d swung on to the horse, looked over her shoulder and shouted that the cowards could stay behind.  Her horse bolted forward when she dug in her heels, whatever response there might have been lost.

          Now, she stays low in the saddle, clutching a Red Hand sword in her right hand, reigns in her left.  She pounds down the road away from the ferry pier towards Goddess knew what in the Domina’s encampment ahead.  Trees, bushes, cottages whip by.  The wind tugs at her hair which snaps and flails behind her.  She rounds the final bend, less than a minute after she first spurred her horse forward and …

          Oh shit.  Scores of mounts mill about the encampment and not with empty saddles. Clan warriors gawp in surprise as Merreth charges towards them. They’re everywhere!   She’s in amongst the first of the Clansmen before she can even think. 

          She swings here sword, slices through an arm, spraying red, tears open a face, the Clansman falling screeching from his saddle.  Merreth cuts at horses.  She hates doing it, but the more panic and confusion, the longer she lives. The pain maddened animals bucking and rearing, pitching their riders to the ground.   The longer reach gives her an advantage over the Clansmen.  They’re too close to use their bows.  Something whispers through the air behind her head.  A clansman is unhorsed, the axe meant for her buried in his side.  She brings her sword down on the leg of the thrower, the blade cuts through his thigh, biting deep into the bone, nearly wrenching it from her hand as she passes.    

          Chaos swirls around her.  A quick look behind and she sees a bloody collage of Watch brown, Red Hand maroon, and warrior blue skin paint. Dear Goddess, they actually followed her! Straight into nothing but fear, pain and death.  One Red Hand noblewoman – Tiandraa?  No, not her – goes down with an axe to her shoulder, her horse colliding with another mount. An axe slices air inches from Merreth’s nose.   Blood sings in her ears. She’s excited, exhilarated!  Everything is so sharp, so clear!  She smells the coppery blood running down her sword, counts the hairs on a chin she’s smashes into pulp, hears every cry of rage and fear.  There’s no going back, little chance of living out the next few minutes, and she just doesn’t care!

          Forward! Clan warriors move their horses to bar her from a small knot of riders farther back.  One of them must be the Clan Chief!  She knocks aside another axe held by a warrior with long black braids.  As he tries to bring his axe back up Merreth carves a slash from elbow to wrist, and leaves him behind, holding his arm together, staring at his blood pouring out over his legs and saddle.

          Her blade is soaked with gore, her leathers more slick wet-red than Sable House black.  She wonders how many who followed her are still in their saddles.  Her mount is tiring and becoming difficult to control; it knows it’s surrounded by death.  

          “Merreth!”

          Was that her name?  Did it come from behind or in front?  There is no fear in the eyes of those who block her path.  Her lips skin back in a feral smile.   She spurs her mount straight ahead, sword extended, crimson droplets flicking off the tip. 

          Merreth blocks an axe blade with her sword, the impact leaving her arm thrumming, and smashes her sword hilt into the Clansman’s mouth, leaving a spray of blood and broken teeth behind her.  There’s a dark blur of motion on her left.  Watch? Red Hand?  A Clan warrior, all barred teeth and smeared blue paint, close enough to blow his breath in her face, chops an awkward blow at her.  The reins fall from her hand and she grabs his axe, just under the head, drives her heels into her mount’s flanks and yanks the weapon from the warrior’s hand. 

          “Merreth!”

          This time she’s sure her name is being called.  A woman’s voice, up ahead.

          “Hold this!”  She hefts the axe, slams it into the side of a warrior, scoops up her reins with her now free hand, and turns, sword up, to the woman’s voice.  Why the remaining Clansmen shy away from her she has no idea, but the gaps in their ragged ranks are an opportunity to be seized.  She’s through them and …

          Good Goddess!  It’s Samretta!  Dirty, disheveled, blonde hair matted about her head, astride a horse, surrounded by a trio of mounted clansmen.   Her hands are bound to her saddle and she’s staring right at Merreth, again shouting, “Merreth!”

          One clansman holds two axes, another holds a single, the third appears unarmed.  The odds will never better.

          Sword out, bent low, Merreth steers her mount towards them, urging it on.

          She’s closes a third of the distance in a heartbeat, then half, then …

          The doubly-armed clansman draws back and plunges an axe straight into the chest of the armed warrior.  The man tumbles to the ground, the axe buried in his chest. 

          Merreth blinks the sweat from her eyes.  For whatever reason, the bastard has thinned her enemies.

          She raises her sword; the axe-holder is the immediate threat.

           He raises his other axe. The unarmed warrior, his long grey hair whipping about, shakes his head and shouts something, then backs his and Samretta’s  mounts away.  

          Merreth drives into them, bringing her sword down, chopping for the arm holding the axe.   The warrior jerks back and her sword hammers down on his axe blade, ripping the weapon from his grasp.  She saws back on her reins, desperate to check her momentum.  Clansmen gather, many with bow in hand, arrows nocked.   Merreth swings her horse about. She is alone. No one else has made it this far.  I can cut down the ones with Samretta, she thinks, but neither of us is leaving the Domina’s encampment.  There’s too many of the bastards. 

          Her horse stumbles and screams,  a pair of arrows buried in its neck.  It lurches, then falls to its knees, tumbling Merreth out of her saddle.  She lands face in the dirt, wind knocked out of her, sword flung from her hand.  Around her a babble of clan shouting, horses stamping and snorting, and … Samretta yelling at her.

          “Merreth, if you want to live, stay down!” 

          Merreth levers herself on to her hands and knees, her gaze darting over the ground.  Where the blazes is that sword?  Be damned if I die without a weapon in hand!

          Samretta is yelling in Clan tongue at the grey-haired warrior.   She bends close to the old man, says something, and jerks her head in Merreth’s direction.   The warrior who lost his axe to Merreth’s sword glares at her from a few yards away, eyes bright with hatred.   At her back and to either side Merreth hears the creak of bow-strings drawn taught. 

          Merreth struggles to her feet.  She grabs her hat, turns to the warrior and forces a smile onto her face.  “Yeah, fuck you, too.


More Lady Merreth

Want to know more about Lady Merreth?  Check out her character description.

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