Merreth emerges into the sunshine, Totlenn behind her. Dorran and Temm flank them. They wear sullen, wary expressions, their demeanor turned grim.
Seven horses bearing six men and one woman stand a few yards from the armoury entrance. With them is a wagon drawn by a brace of draft horses carrying a further two men. Commoners, Merreth thinks.
The mounted men are Western Watch nobles. They wear chestnut-coloured vests over loose white shirts and heavy brown breeches tucked into knee length boots of smooth leather. Narrow-brimmed hats shield their eyes from the sun. All have swords slung over their shoulders and short daggers on waist belts. One holds a cocked crossbow with a quarrel pouch within quick reach. They are young yet sit it in their saddles with the easy, arrogant superiority of noble sons, men not bound by the rules yoking their commoner brothers.
Merreth feels their shadowed eyes studying her. Nothing is said. There is no sound but that of horsetails swishing away the buzzing flies.
“Half a dozen all for me?” Totlenn scratches his beard and eyes something between his thumb and forefinger before flicking it away. “Sure that’s enough?”
Stupid ass, thinks Merreth. He just can’t help stirring the pot.
Merreth studies the mounted woman. She’s short and willow-slender. Blonde hair falls to her shoulders framing an attractive, though worn, heart-shaped face. Forty summers, Merreth guesses. Her mahogany leather vest leaves her arms bare. Matching riding breeches disappear into over-the-knee boots. She carries no sword, but sports a dagger strapped to her thigh. Unlike the men, she doesn’t wear a hat.
“Who the blazes are you?” asks Merreth.
One of the men starts to speak but the woman silences him with a curt gesture. She knees her mount forward. “You’re Merreth,” she says, bemused. “Good Goddess, I could scarcely credit the stories!”
“Lady Merreth. And you haven’t answered my question.”
One of the men jumps off the wagon and wanders over towards them. Merreth’s eyes narrow as she recognizes Jatt.
“Lady Samretta Lyem, of the Western Watch.” She leans over and peers at Merreth’s whip. “Blood and hounds, the Heir Primary of Sable House,” she says as she straightens up. “You have no idea of the rumours flying around about you. Shouldn’t it be Mistress Merreth? Not that it matters with the mark you wear.”
The comment reminds Merreth of what she’s given up – or thrown away – with her decision to take the mark. Fear and bravado have proved costly. “I’ll call myself whatever I please. I don’t give a damn what you call me. What do you want with Totlenn?”
“That’s not your concern, Lady Merreth,” says Totlenn. He hawks a wad of phlegm into the dirt.
Samretta frowns. “Must you do that? It’s so …”
Sweat trickles down Merreth’s back. Her leathers are soaking up the heat like a hearth stone and thirst is further abrading her mood. She glares at Samretta. “Are you deaf? What do you want with him?”
“An attempt was made on a noble’s life last night, even if it was your life,” says Samretta, her eyes never leaving Totlenn.
“Absurd. Totlenn didn’t do a damned thing,” says Merreth. She glances at Jatt. “Others though …”
“Of course I didn’t. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead,” says Totlenn.
“You cocky little bastard,” snarls Merreth. “Threatening a Mistress is a hanging offense for a commoner. Shut your bloody mouth!” I may thrash you to death myself, she thinks, but you won’t hang for a lie built around me.
Samretta stands in her stirrups. “Be silent, the both of you!” The nobles shift in their saddles. A horse snorts and paws the ground. Samretta wipes sweat from her brow. “We’re here to arrest you, Totlenn, and take you to the pavillion, not bear witness to your petty squabbling.”
“On what evidence?” says Merreth. “I was with him the whole damned night.”
The crossbowman brays with laughter while the other noblemen exchange amused glances.
“That’s not what I meant!” Merreth says.
“He threatened you, Merreth. You yourself said that’s a hanging offense,” says Samretta.
Jatt squats down by Merreth’s blades. He picks up one of the dirks and turns it around in his hands, peering at the steel, feeling its heft.
“Put it down, or I will put it through your throat.”
Jatt tests the point with his thumb. “Are your promises worth more now that you’re a Mistress?”
“She’s not,” says Samretta, “at least not anymore are you, Merreth? No horse, no weapons, a whip you really have no right to bear.”
Merreth walks over to Jatt. Her pace is measured and unhurried. As he starts to rise her brutal kick catches him just above his waist. He sprawls backwards and lands in a patch of gravel, sending pebbles skittering across the ground in every direction.
“Merreth, stop! Stop immediately!” snaps Samretta.
A small distant voice urges, demands caution. She’s on foot, outnumbered, and here she is provoking a fight like some drunken bravo. The brew of excitement and fear is just too intoxicating. Blood pounds in her ears, her stomach knots with anticipation, her smile is a feral gash. The crossbow is the only threat, and Samretta is between it and Merreth. She swings her scabbard over her shoulder just as Jatt shakes his head and gains his feet. Merreth kicks his legs out from under him. She sheaths her dirks and strides to the crossbowman.
“Give me that,” she says, reaching for his weapon with her left hand.
The crossbowman frowns and jerks the crossbow up to keep it out of her grasp.
Merreth seizes the stirrup with both hands and heaves with all her strength. The weapon spins out his hand as he topples off his horse and lands with a thud. It bangs against the horse’s flank and hangs there from its lanyard. Merreth grabs it after swinging herself into the saddle. “I have weapons. I have a horse, and if you would like to try to relieve me of my whip, Samretta, you are welcome to try.” She brings the crossbow up and centers it on the noblewoman’s chest.
Samretta’s glance slides past Merreth to the noblemen.
“What about it, pretty boys?” Merreth calls, swinging the crossbow around. “Flinch and I’ll punch one of you right out the saddle.”
“Put the weapon down, Lady Merreth,” says Samretta. “No one is going to do any dying today.”
“Oh, so it’s Lady Merreth now, is it?” asks Merreth. Sweat runs down her forehead and into her eye. She’s made a fool of Samretta in front of both the noblemen and commoners and the woman’s face is tight with anger. It’s time to go.
“Up in the cart, Totlenn,” she Merreth says. “Let’s go see who’s lying about you.”
“No horse for me?” he asks.
“No.” She motions towards the wagon with her weapon. “Just for me.” Merreth smiles at the former crossbowman, who has now picked himself up and stands beside his fellows, glowering at her. “Ride in the wagon with Totlenn. You all stand together, right? United against the clans? No reason why you can’t sit together as well.”
“Jatt!” Samretta jerks her head towards Totlenn. “Bind his hands.”
“No,” says Merreth. “Totlenn’s accused, not convicted, and he’s unarmed. Where is he going to run?” She shifts the crossbow to point at Totlenn, “And if he does run, I’ll ride him down myself. Besides, your bootlick can barely stand.”
Totlenn bursts into rough laughter and climbs into the back of the wagon. “Making friends where ever she goes,” he says.
It is a tense ride along the road. The wagon is led by Samretta and flanked by the Watch noblemen. Merreth brings up the rear. Totlenn sits at the back of the wagon, legs dangling. He idly chews on a stalk of grass, as if he had not a care in the world, and grins at Merreth from time to time. But on two occasions, she sees him become alert, his eyes narrowing: when Samretta calls a nobleman to her side, exchanging a few words and dispatching him at a gallop ahead of them; and when fifty mounted Watch nobles, men and women both, ride by in a column of twos. As they disappear down the road Totlenn turns and mouths something at Merreth. It looks very much like ‘trouble coming’.
They turn at a crossroad marked only by a worn sign post beside an even more worn tavern. The road heads north, passing on one side the odd farmhouse and small fields, some worked, some not, and on the other a thin collection of cottages huddling close to the Saskanna. Couriers ride by in both directions with a sense of urgency. Merreth watches them whip their horses and, frowning, she rub her mount’s neck.
As they pass a small group of tents a courier rides up and halts in front of Samretta. They confer for a moment, then the courier leaves and Samretta turns in her saddle. “Lady Merreth, come here!”
Merreth rests her hand on the crossbow.
“Lady Merreth, please.” The last word sounds like it was barbed and dragged backwards out of Samretta’s mouth.
Merreth pointedly ignores the woman a bit longer, then knees her mount around the wagon. “We can’t have arrived,” she says. “This hardly looks like a pavilion.”
“You’ve arrived,” says Samretta. “The rest of us will proceed without you.” She holds up a hand. “Calm yourself, Merreth. Nothing is going to happen to Totlenn, while you’re conferring.”
“Wear a hat when out in the sun, Samretta. You’re not making any sense.”
The noblewoman leans towards Merreth. “Listen to me. The only reason you’re here is that you’ve impressed me with your ability to be difficult.”
“That’s not a compliment. We’d like to avoid difficulties right now. So I’ve arranged to have someone appeal to your … instincts. In the tent, Merreth. You can leave the horse when you’re done. ” Samretta spurs her mount forward. The wagon and its escort follow.
Merreth watches the wagon rumble past. A group of noblemen canter up. There are two crossbows and several swords amongst them. All drawn. Goddess, she thinks. Is this what the next two years are to be? Dust, dirt, her condescending noble sisters, their jumped-up brothers rattling their swords at every opportunity, arrogant commoners? Her headache is back. She swallows. It’s like forcing a wad of cotton down her throat.
The lead noble points to the tent with his sword.
Merreth swings down from her saddle, leads her horse to the noble and tosses him the reigns. She pulls back the heavy tent flap. A sweet scent wafts outward and her eyes narrow. A single small candle sits on a travel desk with a small chair in front. Behind the desk, swathed in a flowing white tunic, sits Eenidd.
Her gaze flicks left and right. Eenidd is along. In a heartbeat her sword point hovers an inch from his throat. “Fat little toad, I should take your head off right now.”
“A sword, Lady Merreth? Please, put it away. I’m hardly a threat to you.” says Eenidd. “Of course, if it makes you feel safe, by all means keep it drawn.”
He isn’t a threat, but sheath her sword and she looks obedient; keep it out and she looks foolish. Merreth opts to slap the blade down on the desk, rattling the candle holder and keeping the hilt within easy reach. “You appeal to only one of my instincts,” she says, sitting down.
Eenidd uses a single finger to push the sword point out of the way. He leans forward, the faint shadows flicker over his round face, lending it a shifting, furtive slyness. “I won’t drape my words with flowers,” he says. “You appreciate plain speaking. Last night an attempt was made on your life. It was not successful and resulted in nine dead.”
Eenidd frowns. “Nine, Lady Merreth. I’m quite sure of it.”
“Jatt’s dead. He just doesn’t know it yet. It could easily be eleven. Remember, I’m a ‘heat addled noblewoman, baked in her ridiculous leathers’.”
Eenidd purses his lips. “Totlenn runs that rabble. Nothing happens in the camp without his permission. He is ruthless and sly, but has finally over-reached himself.”
“Totlenn did nothing. Jatt tried to kill me and Jatt answers to you.” And you answer to Tiandraa, Merreth thinks.
Eenidd watches Merreth’s finger tapping the hilt of her sword. “However I feel about you Lady Merreth, I am a Temple Brother and the Temple does not countenance murder. Besides, it would be unwise of me to contrive your death. Others have reserved that pleasure for themselves. If Jatt tried to kill you, he did so at Totlenn’s behest. They’re both fools in that regard.”
“Of course, Jatt-the-Templeman is at Totlenn-the-convict’s beck and call,” snorts Merreth.
“For sufficient coin. Totlenn steals from his own you know.”
“I saw the provosts,” says Merreth. “Some sort of test. He gives back what he takes.” She tries to appear certain.
Eenidd giggles. “Is that what he told you? Then how could he possibly afford to pay Jatt?”
“Dismiss Jatt then,” says Merreth. “Send him away, or have him…” She bites down on the last idea. She’s been too free with that particular piece of advice as of late.
“Have him killed?” asks Eenidd. “Why ever would I want to do that? I’d just have to spend time ferreting out whoever Totlenn suborned next. No. No! Much easier to keep Jatt where he is. Domina Charadell agrees.”
“Domina? They’ve blown the dust off the old titles have they?” asks Merreth. “If she’s the one in charge, I should be talking to her unless she, too, has no issue with weaving lies around a man’s neck?”
Eenidd bends down and retrieves a water skin. He pulls the stopper free and takes a long swallow, then holds it out to her. “Drink? You must be thirsty. Hot sun, black leather, walking most of the time.”
She eyes the water skin. A trickle of sweat rolls down her neck. “No.”
Eenidd replaces the stopper and lays the water skin beside Merreth’s sword. “In case you change your mind. The Domina wishes to make an example of Totlenn. He’s not one of our kind, and there are others like him in the camps. The Domina believes he arranged the fire last night, and Jatt’s role as well.”
“Charadell has evidence of that?” asks Merreth.
“Domina Charadell. No direct evidence. Not so his witnessed threat against your person at the armoury. How fortuitous your presence there.”
“That didn’t take long. She’s known about it for less than hour, I’d guess.” Merreth rises and grabs her sword. “She has nothing, then. Tell her to find another reason if she needs to justify beating Totlenn. I chose to ignore what came out his mouth.”
“The Domina has already decided to merely have him flogged. Severely.”
“Good bye, little toad.” Merreth turns and grabs the tent flap.
“Writing to your sister any time soon, Lady Merreth?”
Merreth stops. “What did you say?”
“Tell her you’re safe. Tired, filthy, thirsty, hot, and hungry too. On your guard, always, with no friends and a growing list of enemies. Short tempered from lack of sleep.” Eenidd peers at her. “How well did you sleep last night, Lady Merreth? How many more nights like the last do you think there will be?”
Eenidd stands, licks his fingers and snuffs out the candle flame. He places the candle holder and candle into a small leather bag and pulls the drawstrings taught. “Despite your crime, the Domina harbours a sense of obligation to a sister in … distress. Things could get better for you.” He tucks the bag under his arm and struts past her. “Let Totlenn be dealt with. All you have to do is nothing.” The tent flap falls closed behind him.
Merreth stands still, turning his words over in her mind, her thoughts tumbling over the week’s events, rushing forward to what lies ahead of her, the next day, the next month, the next year. She sheaths her sword with a slow, deliberate movement and reaches for the water skin.
More Lady Merreth
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About the Artist
Ivanna Matilla is in her mid 30s and is located in Argentina. She does amazing work and I recommend her to anyone who wishes to have their character depicted.
The illustration above is of Lady Merreth though it’s not a scene from the chapter.
Ivanna has done two depictions of Lady Merreth. You can find more of her work here.