It had taken Charadell only minutes to realize she’d made a mistake. With Merreth on foot, the entire column had slowed to pace her. She’d been in the front, flanked by Charadell and the Watch pennant bearer. With no wind the dust kicked up by the lead mounts made a choking cloud that enveloped those behind. The sun hammered down, promising a long ride, short tempers, and parched throats. The Domina could leave Merreth behind along with a contingent to guard her, or endure a plodding journey at the head of grumbling collection of nobles
Instead, she ordered Merreth into the wagon.
The Domina’s compound is a jumble of tents: brown, green, and grey, covering the ground all the way to the river tree line, a couple of bow shots away. Small stone or wooden out buildings stand like islands in a sea of canvas. The stench of horse dung, sweat, and cook fires hangs over everything, the slight breeze from the river merely stirring the odours around, rather than clearing them away.
In the center, at the end of a rutted stubbled path through the compound, stands Charadell’s pavilion, a large triple-poled tent of light brown canvas with an awning-shaded entrance. In front, Watch pennants hang from a pair of staffs driven into the ground. Constables stand on either side of the entrance, shields by their feet, tunics loosened against the heat.
The wagon lurches to a halt. Merreth hops off and winces, her feet throbbing inside her boots. I have to get these damned boots off soon, she thinks. You’d think the things would be broken in by now. She sees one of the pavilion guards pull the tent flap aside for Charadell. The Domina pauses, catches Merreth’s eye, and jerks her head towards the entrance.
“Here.” Samretta tosses a water skin to Merreth and swings down off her mount.
Merreth pulls out the stopper and drinks greedily, the warm water tasting better than iced wine.
“Under this sun if you’re not drinking, you’re not drinking enough,” says Samretta.
Merreth wipes her mouth and hands back the water skin. “Thanks.”
“No one wants you passed out in front of Domina.”
“I do.” Tiandraa dismounts and tosses her reins to a groom. “I’d enjoy seeing you disgrace yourself further, though that might not be possible.”
“No one cares what you think about while pleasuring yourself, Tiandraa,” says Merreth as she heads for the pavilion entrance.
Samretta hurries beside her. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to find out what Charadell wants. I don’t think she invited you.”
Inside, two shallow steps lead up to a low wooden floor. Tied to the center tent pole is a long spear with three horsetails fixed to the shaft. A side table hold goblets and decanters. Woven murals hand from the canvas walls. Open window flaps coax in whatever breeze might come off the river. A collared pleasureman in a loose, unbuttoned tunic waves a large cooling fan. Charadell sits behind a small travel desk that commands the center of the tent. She glances up and opens her mouth to speak …
“Auntie?” A second tent flap, to Merreth’s right, is pushed back and a short woman in Watch leathers steps into the view. Unruly blonde curls spring forth from under her small topper, framing a round face. Her nose is a small pert island in a sea of freckles. “The guards tried to stop me, again! They should know me by …” her gaze falls on Merreth. “Oh, Auntie,” the woman’s head turns from Merreth to the Domina and back again. “Is this her? Merreth I mean. I mean Mistress … Lady Merreth!”
Charadell rubs her forehead. “Bonswenn …”
Bonswenn skirts the pleasureman and stands by Charadell’s desk. She leans forward and peers at Merreth. “She looks dangerous.”
“She is.” Charadell removes her hat, strips off her gloves and slams them down on the table. “A fire, nine deaths, disruption of a sanctioned chastisement, public and unprovoked assault on a Red Hand noble, and the loss of House prestige in front of the commoners. All in less than three days!”
“You’ve been busy, Lady Merreth!”
“Bonswenn! Be silent or be gone,” says Charadell.
Bonswenn moves to an empty travel chair and arranges herself in it, her eyes never leaving Merreth. “Deucedly uncomfortable, these things,” she mutters.
“My neice, Lady Merreth.” Charadell glances at Bonswenn. “Here to be acquainted with the west bank and all that it has to offer.”
Merreth cocks her head and studies Bonswenn. “We’ve something in common, it seems.”
“The only thing,” snaps Charadell. “Lady Tiandraa …”
“She was going to cripple him,” Merreth interrupts, peeling off her gloves.
“So what if she was? Those commoners, those men, they’re criminals! Until they serve their time a death sentence hangs over their heads, to be carried out either by me or by some damned clans savage.”
“You were punishing an innocent man, because of a lie,” says Merreth. She should be more careful, more circumspect here, but her temper is short and her feet sore.
“Of course it was a lie,” says Charadell. “Totlenn no longer knows his damned place anymore and he’s too canny to give me a reason to slap him down. Too cocky, too arrogant, too …”
“Successful?” Merreth settles herself into a chair and points at the horsetail pennant. “He and his men took that from the clans, didn’t they?”
“He told you that?”
“Those ‘criminals’ won the only Watch victory so far. Is that why you took away their matchlocks, Charadell?”
Charadell’s hand tightens into a fist. Her face darkens. “Those scum ripped that clan standard from the dying hands of one of our sisters, then left her and her comrades to be torn apart by those plains savages! The bastards fled while our sisters screamed their last breaths.”
Bonswenn’s eyes are wide. “You saw this, Auntie?”
“Those weapons are un-Wechtan and shall remain locked up,” says Charadell. “If the commoners must carry weapons, they will be sword, spear, or bow. We’ll beat the clans without the wares of those damnable Baltoni traders.”
The tent flap is yanked aside and Tiandraa takes the stairs in a single stride. She jerks to a stop, eyes narrowing when she sees Merreth. “Why is she still armed?”
“Lady Tiandraa, you’ve developed a disturbing habit of barging into my pavilion unannounced and uninvited,” says Charadell. “I would be pleased if you would break that habit, immediately. Lady Merreth is a noble and Heir Primary of Sable House. That is why she is still armed.”
“She’s a criminal, the get of a bad bloodline, heir to a degenerate House that spits on Wechtan traditions,” says Tiandraa. “She wears leather – for now – but she’s cast her lot with the low born. More than that, she’s a savage.”
“A dangerous savage,” murmurs Bonswenn.
“What is she doing here?” asks Tiandraa jerks her head at Bonswenn without looking at her.
“Becoming acquainted with the west bank and all it has to offer,” says Merreth. “As for being a savage, you were the one happily crippling an innocent man.”
“Enough! All of you! Sit down, Tiandraa.” Charadell steeples her fingers and studies Merreth. “You are a problem, and an unprecedented one at that. Consorting with the worst sort – footpads, cutthroats, thieves, murderers. An Heir Primary as an admitted criminal of the most vile kind. It beggars the imagination.”
“I admitted nothing.”
“You took the mark,” snaps Tiandraa.
Merreth stops herself from touching her forearm. “What do you want, Charadell?”
“What I want is to never have had you set foot on this side of the river, Lady Merreth. But since you are here, I would like you to be of some use. We’ll be moving against the clans very shortly.” Charadell studies a paper on her desk. “They have done … things … that we cannot let stand.”
“The smoke I saw on the horizon a couple of days ago.”
Charadell nods. “Farmers, rooted to their land. Now they’ll be buried in it. You’ll be with Totlenn’s group. When we catch those clan scum the commoners will be hard used, I think. They’re a prickly lot at best, and their ardour may be lacking.”
“You mean they don’t trust you now.”
“Just so, Lady Merreth, which is why you’re here,” says Charadell. “You seem to have developed some sort of bond with the rogues. With you in their ranks, they may be less inclined to believe we’ll spend their lives like water.”
“Would that be true?” asks Merreth. A battle. She pictures herself dead on the plains, some rough barbarian picking over her body, her sister alone, their House weakened. Her mouth goes dry.
“Does it matter?”
“The constables will keep the rabble from running,” says Tiandraa “It’ll be an ugly affair, blood, severed limbs, arrows sticking out all manner of soft places, people screaming. You should love it, Merreth.”
Merreth places her hat back on her head. “This is a waste of time. You needn’t have brought me all the way here to tell me I’d be with Totlenn’s men.”
“You assaulted Lady Tiandraa in front of over a thousand witnesses. How would it look if I let you walk back to your tent, or wherever it is you spend your days,” says Charadell. “There’s more. You won’t be on foot. You’ll have a mount.”
“What?” Tiandraa stiffens. “You cannot be serious, Domina. You saw what she did! She gave up her whip, she actually handed her whip to a bloody commoner! Now you want to provide her a mount, as if nothing has happened, as if she was one of us?”
“Do not raise your voice to me, Lady Tiandraa. I read the accounts of your honor duel with Lady Merreth. You’re not so different. As for the accusations leveled by your House, they mean nothing on this side of the river.” Charadell glances at Merreth. “A mount will provide you some measure of dignity and greater speed, should you need it.”
“Should I flee you mean,” says Merreth. She wonders if Charadell’s decided that Totlenn’s group isn’t likely to survive the next battle; perhaps even planned for it. “What makes you think I could stiffen their spines when it all drops into the pot?”
“There’s a chance.” Charadell shrugs. “I take every advantage I can, however slight. You might provide me with such, if you agree. In return there would be … considerations. You are, after all, a noble.”
“Eenidd said as much yesterday,” says Merreth. “I didn’t agree then, and I don’t agree now. I’ll take my chances on foot.” Her stomach twists at the thought. The heat’s bleeding her anger out of her, uncertainty and doubt seeping in.
“I won’t make this offer again.”
“Excellent, then you won’t be wasting your breath.” Merreth rises to her feet.
“Hasty decisions are rarely wise. I have a cottage at my disposal, Lady Merreth, and would have you stay there for the next several days. You can think it over.” Charadell opens a drawer, pulls out a tiny bell and places it upon the desk.
“Thank you, but no.” Merreth glances at Tiandraa. “Suddenly I feel much more comfortable with the commoners.”
“No doubt.” Charadell’s lip twitches. “You did hand one of them your House whip. Nonetheless, I can’t really risk the Heir Primary of Sable House. There are political concerns. Too easy for you to die.”
“I don’t plan to die.”
“No one ever does, Lady Merreth,” says Charadell, “but it’s possible if you should remain on foot with the Totlenn’s rogues.” She picks up the bell and rings it.
The tent flap is pulled back and a brown-haired constable sticks his head in. “Domina?”
“Would you kindly relieve Lady Merreth of her blades, Arric?” asks Charadell. “Then please escort her to the cottage by the stables. She’ll be staying there awhile.”
Merreth’s hand drops to her belt dirk. “I’ll keep my steel, Charadell, and I’ll find my own place to stay. Thank you for your offer of hospitality.”
Arric steps inside the tent as he asks, his eyes never leaving Merreth. “Am I to take the Lady’s weapons by force? It could get messy, and I’ll likely need help.”
No deference, no hint of apology or embarrassment; the constable’s steady gaze sizes up Merreth as merely a problem to be solved in the most efficient way possible. She finds the attitude unsettling. Her fingers tighten around the hilt of her dirk.
Tiandraa smiles and touches the bruise on her cheek. “I’m happy to provide it, constable.”
“You won’t,” says Charadell. “Not in my pavilion, nor anywhere this side of the river for that matter. I do not wish to explain to the High Mistress how it was that Lady Merreth suffered injury at your hands within my jurisdiction.” She sighs and steeples her fingers again. “Lady Merreth, you can save us a lot of trouble by willingly surrendering your arms now. Should you kill or injure anyone it will go poorly for you. High Mistress Rhekhell, and the Red Hand will come for you and being on this side to the river won’t save you.”
A second constable pushes back the tent flap and steps into the pavilion.
Hard eyes are on Merreth. Her stomach knots. What is she going to do, fight everyone until put down without hesitation, deference to nobility be damned?
Bonswenn clears her throat. “Your weapons will be safe with my Aunt.” A quick glance at Tiandraa. “Nothing will happen to them.”
“So speaks the babe,” snorts Tiandraa. “Merreth’s weapons should be …”
“Lady Tiandraa,” says Charadell. “Leave. Now. Arric, you and your constable can wait outside for Lady Merreth.”
After the others have left, Merreth nods and turns over her blades to Charadell. She can’t believe how heavy each one feels as she places them on the desk.
Merreth steps into the sunlight, scowling. No blades, no whip, I feel bloody naked, she thinks, focusing on her anger to keep the humiliation at bay.
Tiandraa and Samretta stand with Arric and three other constables. Tiandraa runs a finger along the blade of a dirk and smiles.
“Put the damned thing away,” Samretta tells Tiandraa. “If you’re thinking of waving it in Merreth’s face, I’ve heard the last time you tried it did not go as well as you might have hoped.”
“Lady Merreth, if you would be good enough to come with me,” says Arric. His tone is polite and deferential. He turns and leads the way through the compound, Samretta and Tiandraa falling into step on either side of Merreth, the constables bringing up the rear.
They pick their way carefully towards the barns Merreth had seen earlier, along a series of narrow paths that wind amongst tents positioned with no apparent thought. Men – constables Merreth assumes – look up from mending garments, sharpening weapons, smoking sweet grass, or just dozing in the sun.
“Where are the nobles?” Merreth waves the smoke from a cook fire away from her face.
“They camp close to the river,” says Samretta. “It’s cooler there.”
“Stupid question,” says Tiandraa. “You don’t think they’d mix with this lot, do you?”
“I think,” Merreth glances at Tiandraa, “that I’d watch what comes out of my mouth when in the midst of ‘this lot’”.
“These constables understand the natural order of things,” says Tiandraa. “The criminals you consort with don’t. Every one killed by the clans makes the Matriarchy stronger.” She smiles at Merreth. “If we’re fortunate, you’ll add to that strength, Merreth.”
“Good Goddess, Tiandraa, we need the constables,” Samretta sweeps her arm in the direction of Totlenn’s camp, “and the commoners, to win.”
“If you’re here to win,” says Tiandraa, “you’ll need a lot more than that ragged bunch of gutter scum and the others like them.”
“Is that why I’m to be Charadell’s guest?” asks Merreth. “She doesn’t want to risk my sister’s favour?”
“Domina Charadell. Use her title, Merreth.” Samretta shrugs. “It’s no secret. The Watch needs money, arms, commoners, and nobles. That’s why Tiandraa’s here. That’s why the Domina’s decided to keep you safe. Can’t risk turning the Little Whips against us. What you’ve been accused of doesn’t matter a damn, would be my guess.”
“What she did, not what she’s accused of,” snaps Tiandraa, “and Sable House is small, weak, and perverted. Just look at their Heir Primary. The Western Watch is better off without their aid.”
“That’s a decision for the Domina to make, the Domina and the High Mistress. Not anyone else,” says Samretta.
They come to a small building beside one of the barns. Charadell had called it a cottage. Shack is a better term, thinks Merreth. One door, one window that she can see, weather-beaten wood and a roof sagging in the middle.
Arric opens the door. “Please go inside, Lady Merreth. Two of my men will be close by to fetch you anything you need.”
“And to keep me from going anywhere?” she asks as she peers through the doorway.
Arric nods. “That was the Domina’s intent, Lady Merreth.”
“Move off now,” says Tiandraa to Arric. “I would speak to Merreth.” She looks at Samretta. “Privately, if you please.”
Merreth folds her arms and waits for the constables and Samretta to move away. She notes the constables all keep her in sight. “You’re a lying, sadistic, murderous thug, Tiandraa. What could you possibly have to say that would be worth hearing?” she asks in a voice of chipped granite.
Tiandraa stands, hands on hips. Her hair is tied back in a tight bun, droplets of sweat glistening here and there. “Charadell should just have you killed, and damn the politics.”
“Clearly, she’s not nearly as stupid as you,” says Merreth. “How loyal do you think the commoners will be after I’m dead?”
“You think those rogues and brigands care one whit about you?”
“They’re not fools. If Charadell executes a noble for no reason, how little will she care for their lives? And Charadell’s worried about politics. If I turn up dead, my sister won’t favour any Watch requests for aid.”
Tiandraa leans forward and lowers her voice. “There’ll be no execution. A blade in the back while no one’s looking would suffice. Totlenn could even be blamed for your death and the Domina would have the reason she needs to rid herself of that little problem. And when you’re gone, Merreth, we’ll paint your death in the blackest way possible. We’ll poison your reputation and your memory. You’ll be remembered as a coward, a blackguard, a gleefully murderous savage. Everything you’ve done has handed us a gift beyond measure, and it will be used to break you, your sister, your House and I will enjoy every sweet minute of it.” Tiandraa wipes some sweat from her face and flicks it at Merreth. “Was that worth hearing, Merreth?” Tiandraa calls as she walks away.
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
About the Artist
I don’t know too much about Yacermino. He’s a Belgian artist (I believe) and has been active on the deviant art site for almost a decade. His work has a distinctly fetish feel to it, though that is not all he draws. I was honored in that he approached me and asked permission to do some Lady Merreth sketches. This post depicts Lady Tiandraa, though it is not from this chapter.
More of Yacermino’s work, along with contact information, can be found here.