Chaos swirls around Agaric and his warriors as they bring their mounts under control. The frightened horses scream, buck, and try to flee, only to be brought up short by jerked reins.
Smoke and an acrid burning stench fill the air, stinging Agaric’s eyes. He clenches his horse’s mane and rasps at the nearest warrior, “Away from this cursed fire pit!”
The warrior tries to blow the proper signal on his horn. It comes out as a halting ‘blat’, ending with a heaving dry cough.
It is enough.
Agaric forces himself to be still while the warriors ride back up the road. To be the first to leave the drifting grey haze would speak of cowardice. He sees several bodies lying crumpled on the ground. Some won’t be leaving at all.
The warriors wait for him. He doesn’t hurry, as much as he wants to spur away from the crackling, shattered ruin belching smoke behind him. Let the others scuttle away so that they may see Agaric keep a contemptuous back to the disaster that has swept away both men and horses. “How many?” he asks when he reaches the nearest group.
The clansmen, many flecked with blood, are settling their spooked mounts. Several meet his gaze, but most stare into the fire and drifting smoke, tight fists strangling reins or locked on their saddles.
“How many, damn you!” roars Agaric. He stands in his stirrups. “This was nothing. Nothing!” He sweeps his hand behind him. “Are you such children that you cower against a little smoke, some flame? We have seen feast fires bigger than this!” He sits down and glares at the warriors, fighting to slow his own racing heart.
“A hand,” says one, “maybe two in the stone yurt. Another two outside.”
Twenty warriors, thinks Agaric. Those not dead may as well be, for all the good they would be to him now. He swallows an oath. He’s lost men, he’s lost time, and he’s lost any hope of looting arrows for clan bows. There will be no triumphant meeting with Gytega now, with a gift of shafts to sustain the clan’s attack against the dirt-scratchers. Instead he will arrive bloodied and suffer the silent contempt of the Clan-Father and his old woman of a Shield-Arm.
A clan brother staggers towards him, arm outstretched, blood welling out from under a red-soaked hand clapped to his side. Agaric mutters a prayer. Sun flashes from his dagger as he reaches down and opens the warrior’s throat. He collapses, his feet already on the path back to Mother Earth. Agaric wipes his blade and waves at the bodies around the stone building. “Don’t sit like stumps rooted in the ground! See to our injured brothers. Gather their shafts. Help them on their way to Mother Earth if they can’t sit on their horses.”
The warriors shift in their saddles.
“Do it now! We’ll have our vengeance. We’ll wring blood from the vermin who did this. Every last one of them!” The warriors draw their knives. Even, Agaric thinks, if the last one sits high on a clan mount.
“More horses! Why aren’t you taking more horses?” Tiandraa shouts to be heard over the cacophony of mounts, nobles, and constables. She jabs a finger at Ashttia. “You’re going to chase the clan on foot? Little wonder you’ve done so poorly against those savages.”
“If I may, Lady Tiandraa,” says Ashttia, “I will finish with the loading details. Once done, I will be happy to address your concerns.”
Stevedore work, thinks Samretta. Well below Ashttia’s rank, or even notice, though far more pleasant than dealing with that red canker. The lines around Ashttia’s eyes have spread and deepened over the last few hours. Her face is worn like old leather, her brow knitted by a constant frown.
Samretta pushes her hat back and rubs her forehead. We all look like that now. At least those of who’ve fled the west bank. We’re all tired and on edge, especially after that great thundering explosion a few minutes ago. Probably the armoury. Gone, and with it most of the weapons that so incense Tiandraa.
Tired and on edge. Samretta studies Tiandraa, who sits high in her saddle, one hand on the pommel, the other perched on her hip. Except you, she thinks. You’re not tired. Anything but. Excited. Like a cat scenting the mouse. Samretta turns to watch the loading.
Ostlers and dorrymen struggle to bring a half-dozen skittish horses onto the ferry. Their owners shout, cajole and do their best to help, yet only get in the way. There’s room for another four. Ashttia ordered ten with riders, and another twenty nobles on foot with sword and crossbow.
“They’ll be packed like rats in a barrel,” says Ashttia.
“We’ll be packed like rats in a barrel,” says Samretta. “I’ll be on the same crossing.”
Ashttia scratches her neck. “Yes, Lady Samretta. I hadn’t forgotten.” She sees Tiandraa and moves closer. “You’ll find her, of course.”
“Of course.” Finding Merreth isn’t the problem. Cross the river on an open ferry, with the sun in their eyes? Hold the western pier outnumbered against clan bow and axe? Mere irritants. No, the problems will begin after she finds Merreth.
Beside the pier a trio of skiffs take on a handful of nobles each. Samretta worries her lip. Not enough, she thinks. Not enough boats, not enough blades, not enough time.
Ashttia nods at the young Watch nobles clustering by the ferry. “Keep them safe, will you?”
Keep them safe, thinks Samretta. I am the very last person you should be asking to do that! “That’s impossible. And I still say I’m not the right person to lead them. I …”
“You’ve ridden against the clan, alone and with the Domina. You’re experienced and respected. That makes you exactly the right person.” Ashttia lowers her voice. “And you’re the only choice. The Watch sisters who came with us from the west bank are out of the question; too dispirited. I’ll not have their attitude spread to those on the ferry.”
A great cracking sound, like a dozen tree trunks snapping, rolls over the water. A gout of orange-tinged smoke billows up from Little Westhold. Murmurs run through the crowd like fire on tinder. Fingers point across the river while constables herd the commoners away from the docks.
“Good Goddess, what was that?” asks Ashttia
“I don’t know,” says Samretta. “It came from Little Westhold and we have – had – only one armoury.” She can just make out dorrymen moving about the pier on the far bank. Still ours, but for how long, she wonders. And how desperate are we that we’re contemplating crossing the river on an open ferry without knowing the answer? “Whatever it was, let’s hope it keeps the attention of anyone unpleasant on the other side.” Let Merreth do what’s she’s promised. That my family depends on that blackguard soaking the ground with even more blood …
Ashttia nods. “Bit of a calculated risk, this. The sooner we get our people across the better.”
The last horses and riders are now on the ferry. Nobles on foot carry swords and crossbows aboard, accompanied by dorrymen. Two of the skiffs have pushed off, bows westward, oars biting into the water.
“Sooner is now,” says Samretta. She holds a fist up to the western horizon and squints. “Just as well, we’ve less than four hours of sun left.” ‘Without another word she trots down to the ferry pier.
An ostler brings a last mount aboard and gives the reigns to Samretta. It’s white and brown dappled mare. “No pure-breds for the traitor,” she mutters, running a hand down the animal’s flank.
“Pardon, Ma’am?” asks the ostler.
Samretta goes still at the thought that he might have heard her. She forces a smile onto her face. “Nothing.” My consort’s your age, she thinks. Was your age. “You’d better be off to the pier.” She gestures at the dorryman hauling back on the traveler winch. “We’re about ready to leave.”
The ostler studies the far bank. “Don’t see very many of us over there, Ma’am.”
“No. That’s a good sign.” A lie. They come without thinking now.
“As you say, Ma’am. Folks this side, they’re worried. Smoke, fire comin’ from little Westhold, them Red Hand – all saddles and swords. Pushin’ our people arou …” he chops off the last word and looks away.
Damned brazen for a commoner, thinks Samretta. Two years ago I’d have cuffed him for his words. Two years, a consort, and rivers of blood ago. When I wore a cleaner soul. “Were I you,” she says, “I’d keep my tongue still.”
“Of course, Ma’am, I’ll do … hey!” He points across the river at a small stone tower beside the pier. “They’re winching the ferry cable tight.” With a quick wave to Samretta he leaves the ferry for the pier.
The ferry cable, a tar slicked rope as thicker than Samretta’s forearm, draws taught. Some of the tension runs out of her. Thank the Goddess that the Watch still controls the far bank, or at least the ferry pier. That’s all we need: the far landing and about an hour of time.
Iron pulleys squeal as the dorrymen adjust the traveller ropes binding the ferry to the overhead cable. The signal to cast off is given. Ropes thud on to the deck. The ferry moves away from the pier, the current pushing it down river until the traveller ropes bring it to a gentle halt. The dorrymen, muttering a string of oaths, adjust the line length and lock the rudder lever. The ferry begins crawling across the river.
Five minutes isn’t a long time, thinks Samretta, as she makes her way to the front of the ferry, unless you’re not sure what’s waiting at the end of the ride. Her fellow nobles murmur excitedly. Samretta’s gaze flits from face to face. They’re the best we can do. Good Goddess! Do we actually think this crew of … children will be able to do anything except stop clan arrows? Of course we do. Tiandraa’s right. We’re fools at war, fools to be across the river, fools to …
“Ma’am? We’re too few to go after the clan, right?” says a blonde, leathers buffed and gleaming. “So what do we do when we get there?”
To find Merreth, and then get her son back from Tiandraa, Samretta depends on the next hour going well. She pitches her voice to carry. “You know what we’re to do. Hold the pier while the ferry fetches more of our sisters. No brave acts, no valorous, thundering rides off after the clan. We stay quiet, we stay hidden, and we stay still.”
“No.” Samretta shakes her head. All eager for glory and not one of them had the merest notion of how to swing steel outside their practice bouts. Meet the clan too soon and they’ll likely be very brave and quickly dead – if the Goddess is merciful. “We’ll send a couple of scouts a down the pier road. They’ll give a single low whistle if they spot the clan. Two whistles if the clan is coming towards the pier.”
“Excuse me, Ma’am?” asks the blonde. “What if the clan spots them first? What then?”
The nobles are impatient, excited, their hands gripping sword hilts or fingering quarrel shafts while the river sloshes past the ferry.
“Then there’ll be no whistles,” Samretta answers.
Not so bad, thinks Agaric as he races down the dirt-scratcher road, his mount hammering dust into the air. Thirteen brothers dead, four more helped back to Mother Earth, three geldings put out of their screaming agony. Unfortunately, no vengeance, no fresh dirt-scratcher blood slaking the ground’s thirst, just more empty wooden huts squatting by dull square fields. And now this …
Agaric reins up at the crossroads, the clansmen stopping. Riders look to him, but he ignores them, choosing instead to speak with one of the waiting scouts. “How many?”
“Two hands, no more. They carry no bows, and few swords.” The scout unstops his water skin and takes a short pull.
Agaric nods in approval. Thirst is becoming a problem. A short drink shows discipline. He looks down the road leading into the trees and towards the river. They’re close enough to smell the water. The road also branches both north and south to parallel the river. Gytega turned north not an hour ago. That was obvious to even a blind man. “They’re not some of the dirt-scratcher iron men?”
“No. They slink about, close to their little stone tower and wood building at the river bank, fearing we will find them.” His smile is wolfish.
Agaric scratches his chin. It would cost little time. Few dirt-scratchers and none of the iron men who’d taken so long to die earlier. The river to quench the thirst of his men and horses. Dirt-scratcher blood to wet clan war-axes. Even if they’d heard the Clan, it wouldn’t help them. He pumps his fist and points towards the river.
The young nobles face the pier, now only fifty yards away. A few watch Samretta as she tries to exude an air of easy confidence. A skiff paces them on the left, a double pair of oars flashing up and down. The dorrymen pull for all they’re worth and Samretta swears she sees sweat flicking from their brows as they lean forward an pull back, lean forward and pull back and … pitch forward, the oars clattering over the side and splashing into the water.
The screaming horses snap her attention back to the ferry. A big mare rears, arrows buried deep in its chest, front legs thrashing wildly. A flailing hoof smashes the face of a noble who tumbles over the ferry’s side.
The call goes out, “The clan! The clan has the pier!” A tall, whip-thin noble raises her sword at the west bank and staggers backward as arrows punch through her vest.
“Get down!” Samretta grabs the nearest noble and tries to shove her to the ferry deck. Too late. An arrow hammers into the woman’s eye. She spins away, spraying blood, hands clawing at her face.
Panicked and wounded horses trample the women, crushing feet, kicking in ribs, shattering legs and arms. Some leap into the water but find no safety there; floating bodies stain the water red.
A horse collapses on top of a noble staring dumbly at a clan shaft through her arm. Samretta watches, horrified, as a boot protruding from under the dead animal drums frantically on the deck before becoming still.
She hunkers down behind the horse in a pool of blood as screams and the thud of arrows into wood and flesh fill the air. She peeks over the animal’s side. The blonde with whom she’d spoken earlier ignores the chaos and raises her crossbow. The girl widens her stance, chooses a target, and looses. A warrior pitches backward off the pier. She’s reaching for another quarrel when a pain-maddened horse slams into her side. A second later clan shafts take her.
There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and the ferry continues to slop its way closer to the pier. A dorryman crawls towards the rudder gear box. He gets to his knees, seizes the lever with both hands and pulls back, muscles straining. It’s a two-man task, but the other dorryman lies draped over the guard-rail, blood dripping onto the deck.
Dear Goddess, give him strength, thinks Samretta. She should move, she should help! Her legs refuse to work, her resolve weak. She gets one hand forward, then her knee. Then an arrow punches through the dorryman’s tunic. He falls forward with an odd squealing sigh and catches a second shaft through his throat.
Samretta closes her eyes and hugs the deck as the ferry thumps the pier, groaning, cracking, and splintering, the current scraping it along the pilings before the traveller ropes jerk it to a halt. Dead horses and women have voided themselves leaving puddles of urine mixed with dung. The cloying stench of blood and shit hangs over the ferry in the baking heat. Wet red slicks stain the deck, drawing clouds of buzzing flies. Someone is vomiting between sobs.
The sound of boots thudding onto the ferry deck as warriors jump aboard.
Samretta swallows. Everything’s done. Everything’s finished. She won’t find Merreth. She won’t save her son. She won’t live. Not for much longer. There’s only three nobles standing at the rear of the ferry rear, wide-eyed and shaking. They have their swords up. They’re crying. Dear Goddess, they’ll be cut down, Samretta thinks. Slaughtered like the rest, or maybe worse if left alive.
“Drop your swords,” she calls to them. She rises slowly. Maybe she can save something yet, save their lives, though for what, so they can be abused sold as slaves to the southern cities?
An advance party of warriors stand on the ferry, with a score more on the pier and amongst the trees. A warrior on the pier, his chest covered with the blue clan tattoos she’s come to hate, flips his black hair over his shoulder. He plucks an arrow from his quiver, nocks it, and raises his bow.
“No! Stop!” Samretta shouts in the clan tongue.
Everyone freezes, their gaze snaps to Samretta. On the pier the blue tattooed warrior lowers his bow and smiles.
Samretta raises her hands and steps around a dead horse. “You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to kill them.” Please dear Goddess, let me save something from this floating butcher’s block!
The warrior sheaths his bow. He signals the other warriors lower their weapons. His smile broadens. “I know of you, dirt-scratcher.” “I show mercy because you are useful to me.”
Samretta lets out a sigh. She turns to the trio behind her, to tell them they’d not end their lives here.
“But they are not.”
Clan arrows take the nobles just under their chins. They collapse, coughing blood.
It’s all Samretta can do to scream.
More Lady Merreth
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