Agaric runs a hand over his face. It comes away slippery with sweat. He frowns at the faint blue tinge on his fingers. The Shaman’s mark is rubbing off. The chests and faces of his warriors also show their wards against evil smearing and running. A bad omen, but there is less grumbling than he expects. Catching the dirt-scratchers on their raft has wiped away memory of death at the large stone yurt.
For him, though, it’s only for the moment. He flattens his lips into a thin line and remembers the warriors lost because of the Clan Father. His fists tighten on his reins, knuckles whitening. The Clan Father knew. He must have! And he left Agaric to stumble into the dirt-scratcher’s dishonourable trap. While he and his old woman of a Shield Arm rode on to sweep away the dirt-scratcher settlement on the river.
“Something troubles you?”
Agaric turns and glares at the blonde-haired woman beside him. She sits easily in her saddle and holds his gaze without blinking or lowering her eyes. Her expression is flat as the plains and cold as winter wind. He narrows his eyes. How quickly you have shed your fear, he thinks. Like a dog shaking water from its coat. Nothing left to lose, perhaps? He flicks his finger and two mounted warriors move to either side of the woman. One binds her hands to the saddle.
Another warrior rides over to Agaric, sweat glistening on his brow. “The water skins are full. We even found a few on the raft.”
“Good.” If not fresh shafts, his men will bring full skins. Warriors with the Clan Father will have dry throats; they carried more arrows than water. Yet another foolish decision of the Clan Father. Agaric would have taken extra horses carrying nothing but full skins. The Clan Father had not thought to do so. He pulls the reins taught between his fists. How much of our brothers’ blood will settle the dust today because of the Clan Father?
His men – his ‘fist’ – are almost ready. Almost, almost! He glances westward. They have no time! This day is dying. Already the Sky Father’s thoughts turn to sleep. Yet the warriors are skittish after the thunder and flame of the stone yurt; they seek to linger here, where they’ve had their vengeance against this trudging, brown-clad, woman-led people.
They should be eager; instead caution hobbles them. Agaric can see it clutching at their feet. His lips jerk into a grimace as he remembers the Clan Father’s command – his insult – to Agaric, holding him back to finish the iron men. That addled choice has slowed us, made us weak! Tewkin would not have been so stupid. He would have seen the need to ride to the river with all their strength. Agaric shakes his head. Why had the Earth Mother seen fit to birth Gytega and Tewkin from the same womb? And why had she decided Tewkin should be the younger son?
Best the Clan wins here against the these dirt-scratchers, Agaric thinks, and if the Sky Father demands Gytega and Ostinik fall in return, it would be a fair bargain. Of course the Clan would have to leave the river and gather to select a new Clan Father, as custom demanded. Give up all that they’d won so far. We would be back soon enough though, and led by Tewkin. He stares northward. Far better for the Clan that Tewkin be not just the younger son, but the only son.
Ostinik takes a small sip from the water skin. He musters his will not to sluice it all down his throat. Water is precious. He replaces the stopper. The Clan has carried twice what they would normally have with them, but there are more empty skins than full. He peers eastward through the drifting smoke. The dirt-scratchers clinging to their burning yurts have all the water they need from the river at their backs. The Clan is using the river too, but they’re sending more and more men on a longer trip to fill skins.
“Give me your thoughts, old man,” says the Clan Father.
“We should not be doing this. This is not our way of war.” Ostinik knees his horse closer to Gytega. “We are swift arrows forced to act as bludgeons against,” he waves his hand towards the smoking, charred, and still burning dirt-scratcher settlement, “that. They bleed, but so do we.” He lowers his voice. “There are whispers about the black-skinned woman.”
Gytega glances down the south road. “We press them. Half their yurts are in our hands or are burning.”
Ostinik cocks his head; something in Gytega’s voice catches his attention. Doubt? Uncertainty? “Give me your thoughts, Clan Father.”
“You see things as a hawk does, my friend. We can yet stamp our boot on the throat of these miserable women. It could be done now, and will be done when Agaric joins us.”
“We bleed more than I’d like. Even with the strength of Agaric’s men, we’ll leave much of our blood on the ground here. Perhaps too much.”
Ostinik runs a tongue over his lips and worries at the gap left by a missing tooth. “The men with Agaric will add to our strength, but the dirt-scratchers can add to theirs from across the river.”
Gytega shakes his head. “No, were they coming across the river they’d be here by now, carrying the fight to us; instead they skulk about their burning homes.” He pauses, eyes searching the smoke before them. “The black-skinned woman is something else, though. We failed to snare her and the stone yurt where she hid flung many of our warriors down the path to Mother Earth.” He shrugs. “I know our warriors grumble. They wonder if she really is from the under-world, here to mock and destroy us. We know she is not, yet she eats away at Clan courage. Her hand is seen in every death, every wound, every drop of our blood that falls to the earth. That is what worries me, old man.”
“We should withdraw?” asks Ostinik. A hard question. Yet it is his role to ask the hard questions, to probe, to push, to force the Clan Father to consider everything before acting. Ostinik can see only two choices. Continue to attack, or withdraw. If the Clan-Father is hesitant to attack, that left only withdrawal. “There could be trouble, particularly from Agaric. He would see it as cowardice. Others will see it as defeat. ”
“Agaric is a head-strong fool,” snaps Gytega. “He can speak his counsel to goats.”
“He has the ear of many of the younger men,” says Ostinik. “and that of Tewkin. Words from his mouth are like hot coals on summer grass – likely to start a fire.”
“If we take the black-skinned woman from them and prove she is no demon, it will quiet any fearful mutterings of the under-world.”
“She out-rode our warriors when she was easiest to catch,” says Ostinik. “She could be anywhere inside those yurts. How could she come into our possession?”
“They will give her to us.”
Ostinik blinks and opens his mouth to chuckle. The sound dies on his lips, killed by the dreadful intensity in Gytega’s eyes.
Gytega motions to one of the horse handlers. “Gather those we’ve swept up. Bring them here.”
The man nods and departs at a trot.
Ostinik narrows his eyes. Men and women would have been killed immediately. The Clan Father could only mean those few dirt-scratcher children they’d flushed out. “What would we do with those whelps?” he asks.
“Calm yourself, my friend,” says Gytega. “They’ll not be killed. We will offer them to trade them for the woman. If they refuse we’ll take them with us and raise them as our own, or sell them to the southern stone cities.” His mouth twists into a wolfish smile. “A worse fate, in their eyes, I would think. Even if they refuse, doubts will grow like weeds among them. That can only aid us.”
Ostinik shrugs. “That won’t satisfy Agaric. He and his men haven’t seen the black woman; her capture won’t impress them. Only victory will do that.”
“We will have victory.”
“Difficult to claim such when we ride away and let the dirt-scratchers up from under our boots.”
“We will not ride away. Once we have the woman, we show she is no demon and renew our attack. Our warriors would have no further cause to worry about the under-world and they would be strengthened by Agaric’s men.”
Ostinik strokes his bone bracelet. “And how will we show she is no demon?”
There is very little screaming.
Probably, thinks Merreth, because there are no clanners in sight, though they couldn’t be more than four or five hundred yards away. Shouts, cries, and the clash of battle carry all the way to the river. The wounded gathered around the ferry pier groan, gibber, or hiss with pain. Bandages – what few can be seen – are blood-soaked and dirt-smeared. Good Goddess, there must be at least two dozen of the miserable wretches on the pier itself.
The heavy smell of fear and pain fills the air. Blood, vomit, and shit soak the ground under and around bodies scattered along the road leading up to the ferry. Some move weakly and cry out for water. Most don’t move at all.
Scattered throughout the surrounding trees is a score or more of Watch horse. Merreth’s lips thin. Load the ferry with horses or nobles? It must have been an easy choice when Ashttia fled.
“Nothing to be done,” says Droellen as he straightens up and wipes the blood off one of his blades. “At least for this one, poor bastard.” A constable’s body, now still, lies at his feet red blue coils of gut slopping out his slashed belly. “Wonder how he managed to get this far.”
Nothing to be done for a lot of them, thinks Merreth, though a few women and children, along with some of the more lightly wounded are trying. Children! Merreth frowns. What the blazes were children doing in this nightmare? She told them to move north. North, damn it, along the river to get away from this!
“No place for children,” says Bhenny. “Thought they and their kin would’ve cleared out long ago.”
“No room on the ferry,” says Merreth.
“’Reason for that’s no mystery,” says Narrius, eyes hard on Merreth. “Your sisters and those fat Temple ticks took up every last inch of room, no doubt.”
“I told them to go north along the river. Better there than back here.”
“Some of them didn’t listen,” says Prett. He rubs at his eye patch. “Damned mess here,” he says. “Gettin’ worse ‘n worse, too.” He points back towards what can be seen of Little Westhold through the smoke. Ghost-like figures walk or stagger towards the pier. Some are helped by comrades, others struggle forward on their own. “Probably think this is the safest place to be.”
“It is,” says Merreth, “but for not much longer unless we do something.” Dear Goddess, what if the Clan were to strike down the road to the pier in force? They’d tried once already, leaving broken bodies and piteously screaming horses behind when crossbow and sword had proved too much for them. That was earlier, though, when we were stronger. Now? Now another attempt would mean nothing less than a slaughter here.
“You!” A man, sitting against a tree by the pier heaves himself to his feet. A make-shift breast plate hangs from a single shoulder strap and his left arm is wrapped in cloth stained dirty-red. He picks his way a few feet forwards and stabs his arm at Merreth. “Led them here! I saw you!”
People shift or turn their heads and settle their gaze on her.
“You fucking bitch! You led them here and we’re dying. Look around you, Mistress. Those horsed bastards are burning down our homes and killing us!” He pauses, closer now, and spits on the ground. “We’ve all heard about you. Been here less than a week and you’ve turned our lives to shit!” He turns to face the wounded by the pier. “She led death and disaster right to us … and …” His shoulders heave and tears stream down his cheeks.
“And now you hate me,” says Merreth. Her voice carries through the murmurs and grumbling that bubble up from all around. She walks over to her accuser, slowly, with her hands kept away from her weapons. Her heart hammers in her chest as she picks out all the bared steel lying around or held in hand. It wouldn’t take much to cut her down. “And you’re frightened.” She halts in front of the man. “There’s no shame in that.”
“She’s here to help us,” calls Kasparr.
“Shut up, Kasparr,” snaps Merreth. Damn it, I have to fix this by myself.
“No!” The man glares at Merreth, eyes red, jaw working, any thought of protocol or fear of its breach long since having fled. “No, she’s here to help herself. She doesn’t give a damn about us, none of them do! But she’s too late.” The man waves his good hand at the pier. “The ferry’s left! The boats are gone! You spineless cow, you’re stuck here with us!”
“I’m not the one shitting myself back here while others fight those clan bastards,” snaps Merreth. The words are out of her mouth before she can think, and she can feel the situation begin to spiral out of control. Damn it! The mood has shifted, the crowd’s fear and hopelessness has found a focus in her. And her temper is stirring. Do something, demands a voice within her. Something, anything, before they decide to cut you down!
She feels the heavy stares of everyone around her, and shakes her head. She’d been so sure, so certain that she could help when the rest of the Watch left for the east bank’s safety. She’s hot, thirsty, dirty and tired to the bone. Her sword, boots, and dirks weigh her down. It seems everything in her body aches, itches, or throbs. “I’m frightened too. Just like you.” She sweeps the crowd with her gaze, letting it linger here and there, meeting the frightened, hating eyes of some of the tougher looking men. “Frightened to death.” Dear Goddess, she thinks, please let me be saying the right words!
“Empty words, bitch! You lot always have empty words,” he says. He rubs his jaw, wincing as his good arm brushes his wounded hand. “You’ll say anything because you never have to stand behind your lies.”
Those words didn’t work, she thinks. Let’s try others.
Merreth’s backhand rocks the man back on his heels. She grabs him by his tunic and pulls him close, her temper bubbling and churning, fighting to work itself free. “You’re right,” she says. She lets go of the man and steps back. “He’s right,” she says, raising her voice. “Everything he said is true. I brought the clan here. This, all this,” she gestures at the dead and wounded, the drawn, fearful faces. “It was because of my plan, my idea. I did this, no one else.”
Silence greets her words, broken only by laboured breathing and low moans from a few of the wounded.
She has their attention, now how to best make use of it? “Command as if none will question your authority,” her mother had once told her. “And how do I do that?” she had asked. Her mother smiled. “Why, that’s easy, Merreth. You simply never give a command you know won’t be obeyed.”
Easy for mother, maybe, thinks Merreth. She looks around and sees a woman who looks familiar. It takes Merreth a moment to place her, then ah, woman she met at the head of the commoners outside Little Westhold. Bahko’s mother. Her face clouds as she remembers the tent fire where she and the boy had barely escaped.
Merreth walks over to the woman. “Help me move some of the wounded into the shade,” she says. Without waiting for an answer she squats down to examine a young commoner. She sucks in her breath at twisted shape of his arm. His eyes are closed and his chest rises and falls in shallow fits and starts.
“Take his feet, ma’am,” says Bahko’s mother. She grasps the man’s tunic. “Pay no mind to the rest. Like you said, they’s scared.”
Relief floods courses through Merreth at words. A command obeyed. The two lift the man, then put him down almost immediately. “Heavy bastard,” mutters Bahko’s mother.
“Let me help, there.”
Merreth looks up in surprise at Bhenny’s voice. The three move the man up against a tree away from the pier and settle him.
“Bhenny, have a look at his arm see what you can do,” says Merreth.
“But Mistre – Lady Merreth,” says Bhenny in a low voice, “I don’t know nothing about healin’ someone.”
“You did earlier.”
“That was my first time, M’Lady!” Bhenny’s voice comes out as whine.
“You know what comes after your first time?” asks Merreth. “Your second time.” She turns her attention to the rest of those around the pier. “Well come, there’s work to be done!” she calls. “We need to carry the wounded away from the pier and into the shade.”
“Why?” shouts a voice. “What’s the point?”
“Because,” Merreth glances out over the river and stops. Oh dear Goddess, yes! Yes! “Because help is coming!” she points over the river. “We have to clear the pier and get the wounded ready to be taken back across the river.”
“She’s right! There’s a ferry coming across,” says a woman tending a wounded commoner. “And boats, too!”
Merreth allows herself a smile. “Finally,” she murmurs. “Something breaks our way.”
“Lots of red in the leathers on that ferry,” says Droellen, joining her. He produces a rag and buffs one of his daggers. “Not much brown that I can see.”
Merreth’s smile fades. Droellen is right.
“Yeah, not many friends in the Red Hand,” he says. He glances at her. “For any of us, eh? Not after that bit at the camp yesterday.”
Merreth swallows, her dry mouth making it feel like she’s forcing a wad of cloth down her throat. “My affair,” she says. “It doesn’t concern you. We still need to clear the pier, get ready for their horses to come ashore, and prepare to load the worst wounded on the ferry.”
“Why?” asks Droellen.
“Why? What do you mean, why? So we can get them to safety!” She searches Droellen’s eyes, looking for anger or belligerence in them. She finds only curiosity.
Droellen slides his knife under his tunic and pulls out another. “No one on the far side of the river gives a damn about commoners, let alone criminals.” He snorts. “Even if they let us load the ferry with the wounded, they’d likely just dump ’em in some alley on the other side. Those that’ll get better will do it here, those that won’t, will die here.” He nods at the ferry, now less than a hundred yards from the pier. “No one’s going back over the river. Yer not like any noble I’ve ever met, M’Lady. Doesn’t mean you ain’t dumb as a post about some things.”
“You always speak to your betters like that?” she asks, scratching under her arm.
“Nope. Usually I lie to ’em. And yer not my better. You got the mark, just like the rest of us.” He puts the second blade away and strolls over to help move the wounded from the pier.
Merreth counts roughly twenty horses on the ferry, their riders standing by their sides, reins in hand. She studies the group as they approach, searching for any Watch brown amongst the Red Hand nobles. None that she can see. There, in front, one woman mounts her horse though the ferry is still a good twenty yards from the pier. Merreth frowns. Something about that lean frame and … oh, shit. Tiandraa sits stiff in her saddle, eyes sweeping those on the river bank.
There are no dorrymen waiting tie off the ferry when it nudges up against the landing. Instead a couple of Watch constables hop over the guard rail, grab the ropes and make them fast. One opens the ferry gate and steps aside.
Tiandraa spurs her horse forward. She is first onto the pier, yet makes no effort to ride forward. Instead she studies the crowd.
There are no cheers, no shouted questions, no happy, relieved burble of conversation now that help has arrived. Only silence. Behind her on the ferry the other Red hand nobles mount their horses. Merreth can see a few of their men as well, standing well back with swords in hand.
“I saw what happened yesterday,” says Kasspar. “Not a friend of yours, eh, M’Lady?”
“No.” The two of them are off to the side of the road, back from the pier. Not hiding. I am not hiding, Merreth thinks. “How did you load your crossbow?” she asks.
“Got Prett to do it for me,” says Kasparr. “Don’t you worry, Ma’am. Even with my arm buggered up, I can still hit a squirrel at a hundred paces.”
Really? she thinks. Then something much, much larger should be no problem at all. Even for me. “Give me your crossbow, Kasspar.”
“Merreth!” Tiandraa’s voice rings out over the crowd.
“Now, Kasspar,” says Merreth, her heart thudding in her chest.
Tiandraa urges her horse closer. “Ashttia said you you’d be here. I didn’t believe her.” She smiles and works one of her gloves off her hand. “Yet you stand before me.”
Behind her Merreth can see the rest of the Red Hand moving off the ferry, leading or riding their mounts. Further off, the boats pulling for the pier are closing. She can’t make out who is carried within them. Around them the crowd shifts and fidgets. No one speaks. Kasspar is still by her side, and she sees Bhenny kneeling beside some commoner. Droellen and the rest are out of sight.
“Of course, this is hardly what I would call preparing for a last stand,” Tiandraa glances around. “Unless these miserable wretches are more formidable than they appear, and I doubt that. No. This is a gathering of the weak, the foolish, and the cowardly.” She smiles at Merreth. “At last, a place where you truly do fit in.”
“They’re not, and we’re wasting time,” says Merreth. She tries to put the authority that always came so easily to her mother into her tone. “These injured need to be taken to the other side of the river. We still hold some of Little Westhold, and more horse and sword is welcome to help kick out those clan bastards.” Even Red Hand horse and sword, she adds silently. A half dozen boats tie off to the ferry and spill more nobles onto the pier. At least a few are Watch nobles.
“These wretches and criminals aren’t going across the river, Merreth,” says Tiandraa.
“Told you,” comes a shout. “I told you all!” It’s the commoner who confronted Merreth earlier. “Nothing but lies from her!”
“But you are.” Tiandraa snaps her fingers, then drops her hand to her sword hilt.
A trio of Red Hand nobles flick their reins and move their horses to surround Merreth.
Merreth goes cold, her hands slick inside her gloves, a shiver brushing over her skin. When I’m on that ferry, who’s to say what will happen? To Arric? To Totlenn? To Droellen and his crew of ragged, disrespectful rogues? Is anyone else even coming? Or is Tiandraa here just for me? Her lips thin. I know what she plans for me.
“We’re going on that journey, after all. It’s been arranged,” says Tiandraa. “We’ll have much to talk about along the way.” Her blue eyes are cold, her face still save for the small smile that still plays on her lips.
“No, we won’t.” Merreth brings Kasparr’s crossbow up and sights it directly on Tiandraa’s head. Good Goddess, the damn thing is awkward. “I’m staying right here.” And, she thinks, while I’m threatening your life in front of a hundred noble and commoner witnesses, I should make it bloody worthwhile. “And the wounded will be going back over the river.”
Tiandraa’s face remains still, save for a single twitch under her eye. “Lower your crossbow, Merreth. You’ll die, and we both know cowards prefer to put that off for as long as possible.”
Merreth’s temper, black and ugly, brushes aside her fear. She widens her stance and tightens her grip on the crossbow, gloved fingers caressing the tiller. “You die first. Your sisters may cut me down, but not before I turn your head into a fucking weather vane. Do you understand me, Tiandraa?”
More Lady Merreth
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