Merreth stalks down the hallway, anger, thick and dark, rising within her. Stupid! How could she have been so stupid? Bullying one of High Mistress Rehkhell’s scribes and snapping at the other. She’d breached a half dozen unwritten protocols and had enjoyed it. A week’s hard ride to the Watch border, avoiding roads, shunning people like some desperate rogue, had left her worn out and short-tempered. A poor excuse; she’s better than that.
Quarters first, then a visit to the High Mistress, that’s what she should have done. It would have given her temper time to cool. Of course Rehkhell would offer hospitality, Merreth is Heir Primary to Sable House. She’d refused and thought she’d been oh-so-clever in doing so. Instead she’d been assigned a keeper — a constant reminder of the ‘favour’ owed to the Watch, whatever the blazes that meant. On top of all that, she hadn’t been successful in fleeing the Red Hand, in fact she’d run right to them.
Merreth passes two doorways on her way to the stairwell, both curtained off and framed in dark, richly finished wood. Feet scuttle away from them. Clerks who’d eavesdropped on her earlier and had no wish to meet her now. Footsteps follow her as well. Sarrit.
“Lady Merreth?” he asks in a soft voice.
She stops. Her leathers, baked to her skin by the heat, chafe in several places. She twitches her shoulders, hoping to shift her scabbard and relieve a maddening itch in the small of her back. Her legs still ache dully from her ride. She flexes her hands several times, fingers slipping inside her sweat-slicked gloves. “What?”
Merreth turns, ready to snap at him. Sarrit fidgets, one hand twisting his tunic between his fingers. He avoids her eyes. Behind him and down the hall, Duggel sits at his desk in Rhekhell’s outer office. He shuffles parchments and studies Merreth furtively. Oily little rat.
Merreth forces a smile onto her lips. “Yes, Sarrit, what is it?”
“Do you have an idea where you’d like to be quartered?”
Her smile vanishes. Such a bloody stupid question! “Of course not! I’ve only just …” Sarrit flinches. She breaks off. Damn it! Merreth rubs the back of her neck and starts again. “No, I don’t, Sarrit.” She should apologize for snapping at him, yet can’t bring herself to utter the words. Some darker part of her enjoys unsettling the scribe. “Isn’t that your task? To find me suitable quarters?”
Sarrit nods. “I thought perhaps you knew of lodgings that you considered suitable, that you’d seen on your way here…” Sarrit’s voice falters as he glances at Merreth’s chin.
A rivulet of sweat hangs there, then drops to the floor. She closes her eyes and exhales.
“I’ll find something,” he says.
“Good.” Merreth opens her eyes. “Sarrit, look at me when we speak.”
Sarrit’s gaze meets hers. He has green eyes, she notices. His boots scuff the floor as he shifts his weight, one hand still twisting his tunic. “As you wish, Lady Merreth.”
Merreth sighs. Just bloody wonderful. He’s terrified of me. She shakes her head, turns, and strides to the stairs, her boots kicking dust into the sunlight streaming down through windows set high in the walls. As she takes the steps two at time she worries about her behaviour with Duggel. She browbeat Rehkhell’s Chief Scribe for nothing more than carrying out his duties. And Rehkhell said not a damned thing about it. It was vicious, uncalled for, and … gratifying. That troubles her. An image of Bayllos’s red-soaked ruin of a chest flashes in her mind. She stumbles on the stairs.
“Are you all right, Lady Merreth?” Sarrit asks.
Good question. “Finding lodging for me should be your concern, Sarrit, not my well-being.” Again, her words are sharper than she likes. A pair of attentive clerks on the spacious second floor landing nod as Merreth strides past them to the next flight of stairs. The stairway overlooks a large common room. At the bottom stand the same two guards she passed on her way up. Short, compact, and powerfully built, they wear simple, loose white tunics. Each holds a polished ash wood staff, the ends resting on the floor.
Merreth halts and quickly scans the room. Like most of the buildings she’s seen in Westhold, Watch Hall is built out clay, brick, and timber. Oak panels carved with depictions of Watch history adorn the white plaster walls. Large windows flank the main door, their curtains drawn back, sunlight flooding through. At parchment laden desks minor scribes deal with the daily minutia necessary to govern the Watch while clerks, merchants, and other assorted townsfolk come and go. A trio of Royal Postal Riders rest in a corner, their packs bulging and their clothes dust-covered. The air, noticeably warmer than when Merreth had arrived, is suffused with the scent of sweat, leather, and ink.
Sarrit comes down the stairs, careful not to crowd her. He studies the milling crowd. “Where’s your party, Lady Merreth?”
“There’s no one with me.” Her gaze is drawn to the Postal Riders. What news do they carry? She worries her lower lip, notices and stops. They’re not here for me, she tells herself; there hasn’t been time. Her hands grip the wooden rail of the staircase. She forces her fingers to uncurl.
A dark patch in the tans and browns of the commoners and the more vibrant blues and greens of the merchants catches her attention. Off in the corner, their backs towards her, two noblewomen gesture dramatically. The taller one, clearly the leader, berates a helpless scribe. Their house leathers are the color of dried blood.
Merreth’s chest tightens. “Red Hand,” she whispers.
“Lady Tiandraa Garand and Lady Lyadkell Shulwar,” says Sarrit. “Lady Tiandraa is the taller one.”
“I know who they are,” says Merreth. Her lip curls. She remembers Tiandraa’s venom when the betrothal was announced. Rot in the House is not repaired by inviting vermin to guest with you! Tiandraa and Lyadkell appear in full cry; snatches of their tirade rise above the general cacophony of conversation. Others in the room begin to move away, except for the postal riders, who watch with interest.
Merreth frowns as she studies the two Red Hand noblewomen. Bullies. That’s all most of them are. She glances at Sarrit, recalls snapping at him and abusing Duggel. She feels uncomfortable, even embarrassed.
Sarrit starts down the stairs.
“Wait.” Merreth seizes the back of his tunic, jerking him to a halt. Her eyes never leave the noblewomen across the room. Leave, damn you! Now!
A clerk bustles through crowd and attempts to placate the nobles. The hapless scribe eases away while the two women confront the clerk. More finger pointing and gestures but the clerk remains calm. He even dares to make eye contact. Tiandraa and Lyadkell turn on their heels and stalk out the door.
Merreth counts to twenty while she watches the entrance. “Let’s go,” she says. She makes her way down the stairs, brushing past the two guards, Sarrit following. What the blazes is the Red Hand doing out here? The same thing as her, according to Rhekhell. Was it really that it or were they here because they thought she would be here, sooner or later?
Merreth grimaces at the thought. She could chase that worry around until it wore a hole in her head. No, her concern now is staying out of Tiandraa’s and Lyadkell’s sight for as long as possible. They’d find out she was in the Watch sooner or later; she prefers later.
She threads her way through the crowd towards the main entrance. As she reaches for the handle the doors are flung open and one hammers her in the face. Merreth stumbles backwards, arms flailing, then regains her balance. She runs a hand across her lips and looks at the wet smear of blood on her gloved fingers.
“Good Goddess, it’s a Little Whip!” Tiandraa steps though the doorway, Lyadkell right behind her.
Tiandraa is just as Merreth remembers. Wetter, though. Her black hair hangs in loose sweat-sculpted licks. Above the waist she wears only a riding breast band, its mud-red fabric blotched and darkened from perspiration. Her breeches are similarly mottled. Large eyes in a long face are set above a wedge-like nose.
“More than that,” says Lyadkell. “It’s Merreth.” Lyadkell is younger than Merreth, short and fleshy, has close-cropped red hair, green eyes and thin lips. Her skin, pock-marked from some past illness, is red and peeling from the sun. Despite the growing heat she wears her riding vest. She cocks her head. “What are you doing in Westhold? I thought you were getting ready to corrupt our bloodlines.”
Eyes in the room turn toward them. Merreth wants to leave but the casual, cavalier insult in front of dozens of commoners roots her to the spot. Their silence closes in as she struggles to frame a reply.
“Lady Tiandraa,” says Sarrit, horrified. “Lady Merreth is …”
“Lady Merreth?” Tiandraa frowns. “You seem to have lost your wits, Sarrit. This is Mistress Merreth, Heir Primary to Sable House.”
“Mistress Merreth?” He looks at Merreth, eyebrows rising.
“I’m not surprised she eschews the title”, says Lyadkell. “I’d scarcely be proud of it either.”
Merreth’s temper is brewing but she keeps her voice low and even. “Let’s go, Sarrit. Quarters.”
“Quarters?” asks Lyadkell. “Rehkhell refused to have you, did she?”
“Just a minute. Sarrit,” Tiandraa grips his arm. “You’re to attend to me tonight. Remember that. If you haven’t found a place for Merreth to stay by then, leave her in the nearest stable and be on your way.”
Merreth shoves Tiandraa’s hand from Sarrit and steps between them. “He attends to me, Tiandraa.” The surrounding townsfolk edge away from the women. Disputes between nobles are interesting, but only from a distance. “You’re in front of commoners,” says Merreth. “Stop behaving like one.”
“Blunt as always, that’s Merreth,” Lyadkell says in a lilting, mocking voice. “She speaks like those whose attention so worries her. Difficult to believe she’s had the benefit of the best tutors.”
Merreth doesn’t spare Lyadkell a glance. “Be silent, you bloated, sweaty little tick,” Her tone is dark as midnight. “You owe me an apology, Tiandraa, for barging through that door like some witless scullery oaf.”
“Careless of you, being on the other side like that,” says Tiandraa. She wipes her forehead, glances at the sweat beads on her fingers, and flicks her hand, not quite in Merreth’s direction. “You have my apology.” She reaches out and taps Sarrit on his chest. “Tonight.”
“That’s would run counter to Mistress Rehkhell’s instructions to me, Lady Tiandraa.” Sarrit’s voice is firm. “I can certainly arrange for someone equally as skilled in the literary arts to see to your needs.”
“What would run counter, the attending part, or the bit about leaving Merreth in the nearest stable?” asks Tiandraa.
Tiandraa’s head snaps to the right. The blow rocks her on her heels and she takes a step back to steady herself. An angry hand print blazes on her right cheek. “I accept your apology, Tiandraa.” Merreth glares at gape-jawed Lyadkell. “Was that blunt-spoken enough for you?”
Clerks, merchants, and townsfolk, their respective affairs and concerns forgotten, stare at the group.
Tiandraa rubs her cheek. She smiles, a thin, humourless line slashed across her face. “Thank you, Merreth.”
“Go play with goats.”
“My second will seek you out later today. She should have no trouble finding you. After all, how many black asses can there be running about in Westhold?” Tiandraa produces a cloth and wipes her fingers. “I have things to which to attend this afternoon, so my satisfaction must wait until tomorrow. Come, Lyadkell. This place is suddenly tiresome.”
“But Tiandraa, Merreth struck you, in full view of these,” Lyadkell sweeps her hand around at the crowd, “these … people.”
A malevolent gleam dances in Tiandraa’s eyes. She turns and strides out the still open doors, followed closely by Lyadkell.
Merreth clenches her fists in anger and frustration. Damn it! What the blazes is wrong with her? Didn’t she just plan to stay as far away from the Red Hand as she could? Not ten minutes later and she’s caused a major confrontation with them. But it had felt so good to slap away Tiandraa’s mocking smile. And at the same time, though, prove to every commoner in the room she’s no better than those red-leathered hags. Behavior hardly befitting an Heir Primary. Still, something inside her, slick, cold and dark, enjoyed the moment immensely.
“What was that about a second?” she asks Sarrit.
“Lady Tiandraa will send her second to speak to you,” he says. He’s twisting the edge of his tunic again. “To make arrangements for your honour match.”
Merreth seizes his arm. “Good Goddess! She wants me to fight a duel?”
“Ah, good,” says Sarrit with obvious relief. “So you know what’s required.”
“No, I don’t!”
Sarrit gathers himself. “Mistress Merreth,” he begins.
“Lady. Lady Merreth.”
“But I thought …”
“Forget the title,” says Merreth. “This is preposterous! There hasn’t been a duel in Wechta for over fifty years!”
“Maybe not in the east, Lady Merreth” says Sarrit. “In the Watch, duels are still fought to settle matters of honor.” He brightens a bit. “Not to the death though. That’s barbaric!”
To the death or not, the custom was coarse, vulgar, and dirty, and more suited to the brutish tastes of men. Duels had fallen completely out of favour in the east decades before Merreht’s birth. She snorts. “And what does Tiandraa know of dueling?”
Sarrit lowers his voice. “Lady Tiandraa has been here over four weeks. She learned of honor duels from Lady Urnna.”
Merreth frowns. “Has she fought any?”
“Several,” says Sarrit in a worried voice. “She contrives to find insult whenever she can.”
“Is she any good?”
“Lady Urnna thinks so. She’s lost every practice bout she’s had with Lady Tiandraa.”
“And who is this Lady Urnna?”
“The City Armourer and the best swordswoman in Westhold.”
More Lady Merreth
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About the Artist
S. Yoshiko hails from California’s Bay Area but moved to the country at a young age. She took a lot of inspiration from animals and nature, mixed with her interest in fantasy. The medium has changed over the years but the idea of her art and interests remains mostly the same: representational with a mix of dark and light themes, real and fantasy. She does a lot of portraits.
S. Yoshiko has done many depictions of Lady Merreth, as well as various scenes from her adventures. More of her work, along with contact information, can be found here.