Sit up. Pull boots on. Collect whip, dirks, sword.
Merreth shoves her tent flap aside and steps into the noonday sun. She is about a hundred yards from Totlenn’s camp, moved there by Brinnt after she’d returned yesterday. Attitudes towards her had slid from wary to hostile in the time it had taken to notice Totlenn was missing. Brinnt had provided a tent and no guards. Just as well, she thinks. They’d likely be incompetent, untrustworthy, or both.
Her nostrils twitch at the fragrance of dust and withered flowers. Sun-yellowed grass stands dead-still in arid heat. The land feels harsh and desolate, as if life on this side of the river has had everything good leached out of it. It’ll leach everything – anything – good out of me too, Merreth thinks. Brinnt approaches, dirty, unshaven, nothing clean about him, nothing clean about his probable fate. Dread knots her stomach. That will be me. Sooner or later, that will be me.
Merreth pulls her hat down to shield her eyes from the sun. Goddess, it’s hot, and we’re still ten days away from the solstice. “When does this farce get started?” she asks.
“The Domina will be here shortly,” says Brinnt.
Brinnt strides along beside Merreth. “You didn’t say much yesterday,” he says.
The tall dry grass slaps against Merreth’s boots. “No.” Not after a two hour walk that ended with an ash-dry throat, aching feet, sweat-slicked leathers, and suspicious, angry scowls from Brinnt’s men. Merreth yanks on her gloves. I don’t owe him a damned thing anyway, she thinks. I don’t owe anyone.
She halts atop a small rise. The camp sprawls before them, the western plains shimmering in the distance. Commoners in their hundreds mill around two sides of the now empty dirt square, mostly men, but a few women as well. A double line of constables armed with quarterstaffs hold them back. A slight breeze carries a sour sweat odor and sullen murmurs.
Merreth imagines the squalor hiding behind the crowd. The patchwork tents, rude huts, simmering anger and despair that cling to the camp like shit to a boot heel. The petty grievances and imagined slights settled in beatings and blood. All overlaid with constant dread at being forced out to face the clans. Goddess help me, she thinks. This is where I’ll be for the next two years! She takes a deep, steadying breath. No. Her fingers curl into a fist. Somehow … no.
Armed constables stand just down the gentle slope, their backs to Merreth and Brinnt. All bear small round shields and swords. A few have crossbows slung across their backs. The camp administration building sits opposite, hard by the road leading back to Domina Charadell’s pavilion. More constables stand in front of it.
“Everyones’s in an ugly mood,” says Brinnt.
“I’m not blind,” says Merreth, “and I don’t have much patience.”
“If there’s anything else that you know …”
“If there is, then what?” she asks, her irritation flaring. “What could I possibly tell you that would change what’s going to happen?” She knows he really means, ‘if there is anything she could do’. She can’t do anything. There are no good choices, either for her or for Totlenn. Reject the Domina’s bargain, throw in her lot with the commoners – assuming they’d have her – and have every noble hand this side of the Saskanna raised against her. Accept the bargain, condemn an innocent man, and hide behind the Domina’s favour. Or run; how far would she get? Besides, there’s nowhere to run.
A dust shrouded horse column approaches from the road. Hooves rumble as the column turns towards the square. Merreth recognizes the pennants of the Western Watch. And the Red Hand. Her lips thin. A bound figure sits in an open wagon. Totlenn. A familiar noble paces alongside the wagon on her horse. “Well, we aren’t conferring anymore, are we, Samretta,” Merreth mutters. She starts down the slope.
“What was that, Merreth?” asks Brinnt as he follows her.
“Samretta,” grunts Merreth. “Over there, beside Totlenn.”
“You’ve met her? She there when they took Totlenn?” Brinnt’s expression thoughtful as he studies the nobles.
“She took him,” says Merreth. “Her and half a dozen of her puffed up noble brothers.” She grabs Brinnt’s shoulder. “And it’s ‘Lady’ Merreth. I’m with you. I’m not of you.”
He bridles at her words. “Talk like us, curse like us, marked like us. Strip those leathers from you and you are us.”
Merreth inches her hand towards her dirk. Your answer to everything, eh? She hears Totlenn’s mocking words in her head and stills her arm. “I’m not. I’m really not,” she growls.
Brinnt lowers his eyes. “Was Lady Samretta the ranking noble, Lady Merreth?”
“What of it?” Merreth resumes walking. The horse column shakes itself into line in front of the Temple building, facing into the square.
“The Domina sends her when she wants to scold us,” he says. “Better than most, I suppose. At least she’s got courage enough to face us. Yells at Totlenn loud enough for half the camp to hear.”
“I thought that was Eenidd’s task,” says Merreth. Several of the constables glance at Brinnt and Merreth before continuing to observe the commoners. Trusting lot, Merreth thinks.
Brinnt hesitates when he sees that Merreth means to cut right through the constable ranks. “I’ll leave you now, Lady Merreth. I should be with the rest of the men for this,” he says, edging away and gesturing towards the milling crowd.
What has you so nervous now, Merreth wonders. “No. You’re close to Totlenn. You stay with me.”
She watches him weigh the consequences of disobeying her; she has the mark, and is out of favour, but she is still noble, Heir Primary to a House.
“Why?” he asks.
Because, Merreth thinks, I’m nervous too. “Come on,” she commands. How long before his respect – or fear – is stripped away? She reaches the line and pushes past a constable. He turns, confused to see a ranking noble, and not one of his fellows. “Your pardon, Mistress.”
Ignoring him, Merreth passes through the front rank, the grass turning to dust and packed earth beneath her boots. Brinnt follows close behind her, hesitant and agitated. They hear the muffled clip-clop of approaching hooves.
Samretta reigns in her mount. “Hello, Merreth. I wondered if you would show yourself today. And Totlenn’s second, Brinnt. Merreth’s told you what’s to happen has she?”
Merreth’s eyes narrow with pure, venomous hatred for Samretta. The noble is fresh and clean, her leathers gleaming as if buffed. Merreth’s are scuffed and dusty, her boots are smudged with grime, her hair is greasy and she knows she stinks of three day’s worth of dried sweat.
Samretta studies them a moment, frowning. “Come along, the both of you. I’ve been told to make sure you have a good view.” She leads the way to a break in the line of horses. Eenidd stands there in a new tunic and trousers, clean of dust, dirt, or sweat. He fans himself with a small cloth and manages to appear grim and smug at the same time. Several other Templemen are with him.
In the centre of the square a group of constables assemble a collection of metal rods into a tripod about six feet tall. They secure its base to a series of stakes driven into the ground and then trot back to the ranks.
Merreth hasn’t seen a flogging stand used in over fifteen years. Long, too long ago. The thought slips by before she can kill it. She wrenches her gaze away, keeping her face blank.
“Squeamish?” asks Eenidd. “You?”
Merreth gives him a thin, jagged smile and her eyes harden. “Not that. Never that.”
Eenidd sniffs and turns his attention back to the square, but his round face has grown pale.
She studies the flogging stand and a long suppressed craving leaks past her will like oil from a cracked jar. Slick, inky excitement spreads through her. When were they going to drag out Totlenn? Lash him to the triangle, tie his wrists, cut away his tunic …
“The Domina! Domina Charadell comes!”
The cry comes from out by the road. Heads turn.
A party of a dozen mounts canters down the road, the lead rider steadying an upright lance from which the rich, chestnut-coloured Western Watch standard flies. Behind her, a Red Hand noblewoman holds her lance with rigid pride, her House standard, stained a deep, bloody maroon, snapping in the breeze. She’s contrived to hold her lance so the two pennants are at equal heights. Merreth snorts at the sight. The Red Hand is never subtle.
The rest of the group follows in a tight knot. There’s a mix of both Western Watch and Red Hand leather. Samretta walks her mount out into the square and hails the oncoming riders as they come to a halt.
“Well met, Lady Samretta,” says an older woman in Watch leathers. The breeze flicks at her blonde hair which has faded to gray around a broad, weathered face. Her blue eyes are sunk deep. Fifty summers, guesses Merreth. She switches her attention to the tall, maroon-clad figure who rides behind the Domina.
Large eyes in a face split by a long nose study Merreth with icy contempt. Black hair hangs straight to the shoulder. Splotchy yellow bruising blooms on her left cheek. “Domina Charadell,” says Lady Tiandraa, “why is this criminal here with us, and not over there with the rest of the rabble?”
The Domina guides her mount past Samretta. Two of her companions start to follow. She halts them with a small gesture. “You’re Merreth,” she says, leaning on her saddle horn.
“Lady Merreth, Heir Primary of Sable House,” says Merreth. She works to keep her voice even. Every eye is upon her.
“No!” Charadell makes a slashing motion with her hand. “No, you’re not. You wiped all that away with your … atrocity.”
“A private one,” says Merreth. She glances at the flogging stand. “Unlike yours.”
The Watch nobles stare with wide open mouths, the Red Hand with stony-faced anger, their eyes locked on Merreth. The whole party shifts in their saddles, leather creaking.
Charadell frowns. “Lady Tiandraa has a point, but you’ll serve a greater purpose today. Safer for you to be over here.”
Merreth’s eyes narrow. “What did Eenidd say to you?”
“Lady Samretta!” calls Charadell. “Bring out the prisoner and let’s be done. I won’t accord this matter any more time than I must. We all have too much to do.”
Totlenn appears from the horses, hands bound in front of him, head high. A quartet of truncheon-armed constables march him towards the stand, the crowd’s sullen murmurs growing louder.
Brinnt moves behind Merreth. “Greater purpose? What does that mean?” he asks.
“Wait!” Tiandraa knees her mount forward and points at Brinnt. “You there, move out from behind Merreth.”
“What have you done?” whispers Brinnt as he takes a jerky step sideways.
Tiandraa dismounts and strides over. “Brinnt.” She studies him for a few seconds, her gaze moving up and down his body. Then she backhands him, heedless of those watching. “You ran! You ran and you let her think you were dead!”
Merreth grabs Tiandraa’s arm.
Tiandrra yanks loose. “Don’t touch me, butcher!” She signals behind her. Two mounted Red Hand nobles unsling crossbows and level them at Merreth. “This doesn’t concern you, Merreth,” she snaps, “and its beyond your understanding.” She turns back to Brinnt. “It’s been two years,. You haven’t thought of her once, have you?”
Brinnt gathers himself and glares at Tiandraa, then looks away. “No, not once,” he says softly. “Just countless times every day.”
“You would’ve been her consort! She still cries over you, Goddess knows why. Dirt-poor, no breeding, and too pig-stupid to see what you could have had.”
Brinnt rubs his face. “You can’t take me back. The Red Hand doesn’t rule this side of the river. Here to put a blade through me instead?”
Tiandraa studies him a moment. “I already have.” She turns and stalks back to her horse.
“Hear me! Hear me,” bellows a constable who walks into the centre of the square. The crowd’s muttering subsides. “The Domina commands your ears.”
Charadell spurs her horse forward. “Men of the Western Watch! Your crimes have been forgiven in return for your service against the clans.” She points to Totlenn. “However, this man has threatened and plotted against a noble.” Her hand sweeps back towards Merreth. “Though little different from you, it grieves me to say.”
“You lying bitch,” whispers Merreth.
The crowd erupts in confused shouting. Charadell waits for it to die off. “Therefore the sentence of death is commuted to fifty lashes.” She spurs her mount back to formation.
Brutal, but not fatal. Usually. Merreth listens to the angry rumbling of the crowd. There’s little appreciation of the Domina’s leniency, she thinks. The rumbling builds to a furious roar. Holding their quarterstaffs as a barrier, the constables struggle to keep the crowd in place. They’re dead, crushed underfoot, if the commoners surge forward.
Brinnt abruptly turns and dashes crazily towards the constable line through which he and Merreth had passed earlier.
“Stop him!” Tiandraa orders. A brace of constables draw their swords, halt Brinnt. and force him to his to his knees.
“Lady Tiandraa! Protocol!” says the Domina. “Pursue your petty revenge later.” She waves her hand. “Carry out sentence.”
Samretta dismounts and takes a vicious stock whip from a nearby Templeman. She hefts it several times, then glances at Totlenn.
Merreth licks her lips, tasting coppery excitement, and imagines what’s to come.
“Samretta, I’ve changed my mind,” says the Domina suddenly. “Lady Tiandraa will carry out the discipline.”
Samretta stares at Charadell. “But why? She’s not Western Watch! The Red Hand doesn’t ride with us.”
Tiandraa smiles. “We may yet,” she says as she swings down off her horse. “And we would not shirk from any of the attendant responsibilities, however distasteful.”
Samretta glances over her shoulder at the tripod. To Merreth, a quick, subtle, and worried movement. An instant later her face is blank and she walks over to Tiandraa and offers up the stock whip.
“Fitting, for cattle,” says Tiandraa. She hefts the whip and cracks it a couple of times.
Brinnt flinches. Even the two constables guarding him tense. A stock whip is a vicious implement. And I should know, Merreth thinks.
“Lady Tiandraa,” says Charadell, “now, if you please.”
Tiandraa nods and strolls out to the triangle. She waves at the sullen, muttering commoners. Merreth’s sucks in her breath and her heart speeds up. The fool is deliberately baiting the crowd. Tiandraa tosses the whip from one hand to the other and flourishes it before stopping behind Totlenn.
“Lady Samretta, keep the count,” says Charadell.
Tiandraa’s arm snaps out and the whip lands a cruel blow across Totlenn’s shoulder. He doesn’t move.
The next nine land in quick succession, crimson lines biting into Totlenn’s skin. Samretta’s count runs out of her mouth as a slur of words. The crowd falls silent.
Five more strikes and Samretta gives up trying to count. Tiandraa varies her tempo, conserving her strength and keeping Totlenn from anticipating the next strike.
“Domina,” says Samretta, “Lady Tiandraa is …”
“I know,” says Charadell; her gloved hands hold the reins in a tight bunch.
Merreth tries to keep her own excitement in check as Tiandraa goes after the same spot on Totlenn’s shoulder. He had to be in agony. Good Goddess, she’ll lay open the bone soon!
The nobles murmur and point. The commoners sense something wrong as well. They can see what Tiandraa is doing. Word is passed back to the rest of the crowd. They surge against the constables, threatening to overwhelm them while Tiandraa continues to wield the lash.
Merreth frowns at Charadell. You can’t call her off, can you, she thinks. That would be an intolerable loss of face. So you’re going to let her goad the crowd into a frenzy and just hope for the best. If they break past the those quarterstaffs, they’ll overrun the square. Too many constables holding too much sharp steel for it to end in any way other than with a lot of commoner blood soaking the ground. And in all the confusion there’s no telling from where a blade could come. She glances at the Red Hand nobles. Most are watching the square, but several are eying Merreth. Or where a blade could end up.
No good choices. Just bad and worse.
Merreth breaks into a run, pounding across the packed dirt towards Tiandraa. Her hat flying off, her hair whipping across her face, she slams into the Red Hand noble.
They tumble over and land face down in a spray of dust and dirt. Merreth gets to her feet, seizes Tiandraa, and hauls her up to her knees. “Bloody, stupid bitch! You’re inciting a damn riot!”
Sun flashes off a blade Tiandraa grabs from her belt. She lurches forward, sweeping her dagger towards Merreth’s midriff. “And when the fools riot, the Domina will blame you,” she snaps as Merreth twists away. “You’re finished, Merreth. It’s just a question of who gets to you first! The rabble or …”
Merreth kicks the blade from her hand. “Don’t you ever shut up?” She pulls her sword and keeps it pointed at Tiandraa while drawing her belt dirk. A deft flick of her wrist and Totlenn’s hands are free.
Totlenn sags against the tripod. He turns, blinking, and stares at the two noblewomen. “Merreth,” he gasps, “Thought I heard yer voice. What are you doing here?”
“Finding my way, Totlenn. You said you wanted to watch.”
“She’s going to kill him!” Tiandraa points at Merreth then turns and retreats towards the mounted nobles.
The crowd pushes the constables backward. One loses his footing and goes down. Then another. The line dissolves and a sea of angry men sweeps over the square towards Merreth and Totlenn.
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
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.
This image is one of the very first that S.Yoshiko did for me. Merreth’s look has since evolved, and she wound up carrying a different sword in the story than the one depicted here. Nonetheless, I think it’s a great image.