“Shit!” Totlenn glares at Merreth. “Cut me loose and get behind me. Their blood’s up and like as not they want you!”
“Tiandraa used the damned whip,” says Merreth as she slices through the ropes.
“Don’t think they care. One leather shit sack’s as good as another. And don’t show steel. They’ll think you’re going to kill me.”
Totlenn strides forward and raises his arms. Red rivulets course down from his shoulder, soaking his trousers and spattering onto the thirsty ground. His entire back must be a sea of fire, but Merreth sees only the occasional flinch. She shoves her dirk into her boot top, hand itching to wrap itself around her sword hilt.
Swords flash in the sun as the Watch nobles draw their weapons. The Red Hand already has steel in hand. No crossbows though, or none that Merreth can see. Still, the spot between her shoulder blades tingles. Anger, fear, excitement flood through her as the crowd closes the distance.
“Hold up, you bastards!” bellows Totlenn.
They slow, but still stumble forward, pushed by those behind.
“STOP NOW, DAMN YOU!”
The commoners lurch to a halt, jostling and craning their necks for a better view. Arms jab in Tiandraa’s direction. “It’s Brinnt,” someone calls. Another points at Merreth. “She gave ’em Brinnt! Brought ’im with her and gave ’im over to the red hag!”
Totlenn puts his hands on his hips. “You think this helps? Running all over like a bunch of fuckin’ clanners?”
A welter of furious shouts erupts from the crowd.
“Why you stickin’ up for her, Totlenn?”
“They want you dead! She’s part of it!”
“Bloody black skin is a lyin’ snake, makin’ like she’s one of us!”
Behind her Merreth hears the noble mounts snort and stamp the ground, along with the outraged oaths of their riders. “Damn rabble! Domina, let’s whip the curs back to their hovels!” She sees Tiandraa force Brinnt to his knees and run a gloved hand through his hair. The noble lifts her eyes to Merreth, smiles, and backhands Brinnt, snapping his head back so violently he almost topples over.
“Vicious little weasel,” mutters Merreth, “you want to stir the pot, don’t you?”
The sun winks off a sprinkling of previously hidden blades within the crowd. A shower of pebbles and fist-sized rocks hurtle towards the nobles, and a few towards Tiandraa.
“Make ready!” bawls a constable commander.
We’ll be swimming in blood, thinks Merreth, some of it mine unless something is done. She retrieves her hat, tugging the brim down to shade her eyes as she walks towards the raucous, milling commoners. “Please, let this work,” she whispers.
Totlenn stares after her. “What are you doing, Merreth? Are you mad?”
Merreth’s pace is slow, deliberate, calculated to draw every eye her way. So all can watch me being beaten to a bloody pulp, if this doesn’t go well, she thinks grimly. She settles on a large slab of a man with black, greasy hair over a craggy face, his lips skinned back over his teeth while shouting, wearing a tunic that looks stretched over rock.
The crowd quiets as Merreth draws near. She hopes the constables keep their crossbows and swords lowered.
“Merreth,” yells Charadell. “Merreth, come back here, at once!”
“Yer mother’s calling,” sneers the black-haired brute. “Time to scurry away.”
Merreth wrinkles her nose at his rank odour. I probably don’t smell any better, she thinks. She tries not to feel weighed down by the countless stares. “What’s your name?”
He crosses arms thick as fence posts. “Droellan.”
Droellan’s eyebrows come together in a frown. “What?”
“Your blade. Don’t tell me you don’t have one.” Merreth holds out her hand, palm up. “Now, show me.”
Droellan reaches down and plucks a bone-handled four inch steel sliver from his boot and slaps it into Merreth’s hand. She draws her own dirk and holds it out hilt first. “Only fair,” she says. He hesitates a moment before one of his massive hands closes around it.
She eyes the wicked little thing in her palm. “You’ve another on you, I’ll warrant.”
“Three, isn’t it?”
“Smarter than most o’ your lot,” he says as he squints at her dirk. “How many do you carry?”
Merreth smiles. So bloody much depends on this going exactly right. “Enough. Tell me something, if I’m smarter than most of them, why I would give Brinnt over to her,” Merreth jerks a thumb over her shoulder “and then stand before you now?”
“Smarter than most o’ your lot ain’t saying much,” says Droellan.
“And when I stopped the red hag from laying open Totlenn’s shoulder?” She smiles inwardly. ‘Red hag’ sounds exactly right.
“Couple ‘o dogs fightin’ over a piece of meat.”
Merreth’s gut lurches. Not the answer she was hoping for.
“You should go, Merreth,” says Totlenn. He touches his shoulder and grimaces, fingers coming away like bloody sausages. “The lads aren’t in a friendly mood right about now.”
Merreth produces a coin and flips it to Droellen. “For your tunic,” she says. “Take it off.”
“Now, please,” says Merreth. “Totlenn’s losing blood, and I think we should stop that.”
“Hardly a scratch,” says Totlenn. He winces as he moves. “But do as she asks.”
Droellen strips off his tunic and hands it over, his eyes never leaving Merreth. He watches her take his knife and slice the material into strips.
“What, yours too good for cutting up commoner dressings?”
“No. Not good enough. Better edge on yours.”
It’s short work to cut the tunic into strips. Merreth holds up several to a stout plug of a man with hard eyes beside Droellen. “What do you think?” she asks.
“Bit wide,” he grunts.
“Not a lot of practice,” says Merreth.
“Could change, around here.”
The commoners shift, murmuring amongst themselves. The sun glints here and there where fingers tickle half hidden steel. Expressions have softened into wary curiosity. They may have no love of the nobility, Merreth thinks, but they’ve never seen anything like this. As long as they’re watching, they’re not being cut to pieces by the constables. She holds out the bandages and takes a step towards Totlenn. “Come here …”
“Don’t touch him, bitch!”
A man erupts from the line, sword in hand, and charges towards Merreth. She backs up, his blade skinning by her, missing by the merest inch. Her attacker lumbers to a halt, turns, and thrusts, gripping the sword hilt two-handed. Merreth skips back. She plucks her belt dagger and blocks a clumsy charge. Her blade rasps down the sword length until he’s close enough to trip, then her boot sends him sprawling, his sword tumbling into the dirt. A kick sends it skittering out of reach.
Fear chases anger from his eyes. Merreth’s sword point floats so close to the man’s throat he’d knick himself if he swallowed. She is well within her rights to kill him and he knows it. Merreth parts her lips and savours the thought: I could really do it.
A wet stain spreads out from between his legs.
I’m a bully. The thought shakes her.
She snaps her sword back into its scabbard and reaches down. “Give me your hand.” He throws up his arm as if to shield himself from her and Merreth yanks him forward. A second later a crossbow bolt slams into the dirt where his head had been. “Get going!” She pushes the man back towards the rest of the commoners and turns.
Tiandraa lowers a crossbow and glares.
Merreth goes cold. Who was the bolt meant for? She works to keep her hands from trembling as she picks the bandages off the ground and shakes them out. The commoners are hostile again, no longer bothering to hide their weapons. A single loosed crossbow has undone almost everything. Merreth’s fingers curl around her whip in frustration. In front of her is a mob that’s lost its fear of nobles; behind her those same nobles some of whom want her dead. That bastard Eenidd is right, she thinks, all I’ve done for the last two days is collect enemies. She takes a breath to steady herself. But I can still fix this.
Droellan looks even larger than he did a few moments earlier. Merreth locks her eyes on his while her fingers untie her whip. “You want Brinnt, back?” she asks. “I’ll get him. Here,” she thrusts her coiled whip at him.
Merreth is aware of those jostling each other for a better look, but ignores them. She fights the urge to snatch the whip back away from him. A House whip, symbol of noble rank, is never to touch commoner hands. Not that I have rank anymore, she thinks. “Take it.”
Droellan stares that the whip. His hand, big as a slab of wood, comes up hesitantly. “Why?” he asks. His gaze flicks up past Merreth’s shoulder and back to her.
Merreth drapes the coils over his outstretched hand and closes his fingers around it. “It’s my promise.”
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
Merreth turns to see Tiandraa striding towards her, accompanied by a dozen constables and several horrified Red Hand nobles. All have swords drawn. They move to flank Merreth, the nobles seizing her arms before she can draw her sword.
Tiandraa’s face is tight, her lips pulled back in a snarl. “You miserable excuse for a Wetchtan! Murderous, vile, traitor to your sisters.” Her fist snaps Merreth’s head to the left and leaves the side of her face a throbbing mass of pain. “Is there nothing you will not defile?”
The commoners murmur, shift, and press forward a bit.
Tiandaa snaps her sword up. “What? You’re going die for her,” she asks icily. “Rush us will you? Anyone steps forward and Merreth’s dead. And then you’re dead. All of you, starting with Totlenn. There’s enough blades and bolts for everyone.”
“Might be as you’d be dead too,” rumbles Droellen.
“We all die sometime,” says Tiandraa. “Will that be today?”
Merreth twists her head around to see a lot more steel and a few crossbows in commoner hands. “Don’t …” she starts. A hand grabs her hair and gives it a savage jerk. “Eyes forward and head down before your betters,” says one of the nobles holding her.
“No, not today,” says Totlenn. He grinds the words out like wheat between millstones.
“I thought not,” says Tiandraa. Merreth hears her turn and move closer. “I would love to make you crawl, Merreth, but I haven’t the time, so instead …” Tiandraa hammers the flat of her sword across Merreth’s backside. “Walk.”
They halt before what seems like a wall of horseflesh topped by angry faces. Fear wraps a cold hand around Merreth. Would they beat her, or just kill her outright as an example to the commoners? The Domina looms over Merreth, her mount snorting and shaking its head. “You gave your House whip to a commoner.”
Merreth works to swallow. Goddess she could use some water. “It bought your lives, for the moment.” Her voice is a shadowy rasp.
“Bought our lives …” begins the Domina.
“You were going to get a lot of people killed here, Charadell,” interrupts Merreth, forcing some snap into her voice.
“Be silent!” A short, blonde-haired noble beside Charadell shakes with outrage. “You dare address the Domina …”
Charadell cuts her off with a wave of her hand.
Not death, then, at least not yet, thinks Merreth. “You’re wasting time.” She shrugs as best she can with her arms being held. “You’ll die, certainly, and you, you, and quite likely you.” She nods at four different members of Charadell’s entourage. “And, of course, Domina, you.”
The mounted nobles stiffen, several reaching for their daggers.
Charadell leans forward. “I can have you cut down right where you stand, Merreth.”
“And be dead on the ground a heartbeat later.”
“Threatening the Domina,” says Tiandraa. “You’ll be dead by her hand before I can flay you alive.”
“You? Your idiocy got us where we are,” says Merreth. “Your botched discipline and that bolt you’ve loosed have put a sword to all our throats.”
“I was saving your worthless life,” snaps Tiandraa. “We can’t try a corpse.”
“You lie about as well as you flog.” Merreth holds the Domina’s gaze. “There’s at least ten crossbows in the crowd behind us. And all of you, sitting still on your mounts, are very big targets.” She eyes Tiandraa. “You’re probably safe. Not worth a bolt.”
“My constables would chop them to pieces,” says Charadell, in a tone better suited to discussing the weather.
“Doubtless,” says Merreth. “They wouldn’t have it all their own way, but in the end they would cover this ground with a carpet of bodies. They’d also bury your hope victory over the clans.”
“You know nothing of the clans, nor of our struggle, blackguard,” says one of Watch nobles. “Three days here and all you’ve done is grub about in the dirt with the likes of him.” She jabs a finger at Totlenn across the square.
“You fought the clans three times in the past year,” says Merreth. “Twice you come away the worst of it. The third time you did better, but only because of the commoners across the square, the ones Tiandraa has managed to rouse to fury.” She works some saliva into her mouth and swallows. “Tell me, Domina, after the constables have killed everyone here, how loyal will the other six commoner camps be? The next time the Watch rides out on the plains, will the constables point their swords at the commoners or the clans?”
“My men would,” begins Charadell.
“Uh, uh,” interrupts Merreth. “Not your men anymore. You’re dead, remember?”
Charadell studies Merreth through narrowed eyes. She glances at the milling commoners and shifting, uneasy constable ranks. Her lips thin. “I will tell them to go back. They will leave this ground at once and go back to their camp.”
“This is their camp, Domina,” says Merreth. “You can tell them, but I wouldn’t wager they’ll go. Their blood’s up. No telling what they’ll do. So, what will you do, Charadell?” asks Merreth. Her mouth and throat feel coated in sand and she badly wants some water. “We’re all here because of a lie, and lot of people can still die for that same lie.”
“Lie? There was no lie!” says Tiandraa. “Lady Samretta…”
“Be silent, Lady Tiandraa!” snaps Charadell. She confers briefly with her attending nobles before continuing. “Lady Samretta was … mistaken.”
Merreth exhales, feeling some surprise she’d been holding her breath. She wonders what tipped the balance in Charadell’s mind. Constables and commoners out on the plains, that had to be it. She’s proud, not stupid.
“Even if she was, so what?” demands Tiandraa. She stabs a finger at Merreth. “This walking insult to the nobility assaulted me! In front of everyone! That bastard Totlenn can rot for all I care. What are you going to do about her?”
“Enough! In due time, Tiandraa. There are things more important than your wounded pride to think of at the moment,” says Charadell.
“They want Brinnt back,” says Merreth.
“They want what?” asks Tiandraa. “I don’t give a damn what they want! He’s mine, he ran from us, breached our protocols, and ground our traditions into the ground with every step he took on his way here!” Her face is white with fury. “He has much to answer for and it’s none of your concern, criminal.”
“It would go a long way to quiet the commoners, Domina,” says Merreth. “And he’s taken the mark. All is forgiven during and after the time he serves on this side of the river. That is Western Watch law, your law, is it not, Charadell? Give him back,” says Merreth.
“Release him, Tiandraa,” says Charadell.
“Release him now!”
Tiandraa turns, strides to Brinnt and shoves him out towards the commoners who erupt into roaring cheers.
“I believe we’re finished here,” says Charadell. “Tell the herald to dismiss the commoners. Tell them,” she pauses, considering, “tell them the charge of assaulting a noble has been withdrawn and will no longer be pursued.” “Lady Merreth, please come with me.” Charadell turns her mount around, seconds later the other nobles do the same.
Merreth walks along side of the Domina’s horse. Her head throbs, her legs, slick with sweat in her boots, seem like they’re made of lead. Her confidence leaks away as the tension drains from her, replaced by growing anxiety. “I’ll need to borrow a horse.” The words come out with an effort.
“I think not,” says Charadell. “We all know how you came to acquire your last mount. You’ll walk.”
Merreth halts. “I’ll decline,” she says as she turns.
At Charadell’s gesture several nobles close around Merreth. “You’ll walk, Merreth, until you fall on your knees and crawl,” she says. “And when you can’t crawl, I’ll have you thrown into a wagon and let Lady Tiandraa look after you.”
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.
The image for this chapter is an early one I commissioned from S. Yoshiko. From left to right it depicts Lady Merreth, Lady Samretta, Domina Charadell, Lady Ashttia (not yet introduced to the story), and Lady Tiandraa.