If you dread doing something, best do it quickly.
Lady Samretta Lyem takes the lead line from the groom, a young boy of no more than sixteen summers. “Thank you.” It costs nothing to be polite. Some of the nobility, such as the Red Hand, would object but time spent on this side of the Saskanna wears away class protocol, she thinks. One more reason to get this affair with the clans finished as fast as possible.
The groom bows before disappearing back into the stable.
No doubt he has other mounts to tend, thinks Samretta as she leads Wildfire out beyond the gate. She watches a dozen horses jostling each other in the corral. They’re going to need more stables soon, now that Watch nobles were leaving their mounts on this side of the river instead of ferrying them back and forth each day. She smiles grimly. They’ve realized this is not some afternoon adventure.
She gives Wildfire a couple of small carrots before putting her arm around his neck and pulling the halter over his nose. The groom has saddled him, but she always puts the bridle on herself.
“Lady Samretta!” Bonswenn waves as she picks her way through grass stubble and piles of horse dung.
Samretta sighs before answering. “Lady Bonswenn, you look well rested and set to go this morning.” In fact Lady Bonswenn looks like she’d slept in the barn. Her boots are unpolished and her Watch leathers appear as if they’d been stuffed under a rock for the last week. Errant blonde curls spring out from under her topper, itself festooned with bits of straw.
“You’re too kind, Lady Samretta. I must look a mess, but I just couldn’t sleep! Please call me Bonny; everyone else does around Auntie’s pavilion. This is frightfully exciting, going scouting with you. Auntie says you’re the best!”
Samretta forces a smile. I hate you so much right now, Charadell, she thinks. And I have only myself to blame. I told you – assured you – that this ride would be short and uneventful. I said I’d not be going anywhere near the Clans. That earned me a morning with Bonswenn. Part of learning about the west bank and all that it has to offer, Charadell had said. “Well, we best be going then. Where’s your mount?”
“What?” Lady Bonswenn spins about. “Where is that groom? He was to have Abby ready for me! The commoners on this side of the river, how ever do you make allowances for them, Lady Samretta?”
“I don’t see your sword, either.”
“My sword?” Bonswenn’s brows furrow in confusion. Her face brightens. “I have this.” She pulls out a three-inch knife from a small belt sheath and brandishes it. “But Auntie said there’d be no need for arms because we’re not going anywhere dangerous.”
“The plains are always dangerous,” says Samretta. “Put it away. I promise you won’t get an opportunity to use it. Besides, my crossbow would be more useful.”
The groom reappears with a saddled mount. Lady Bonswenn whirls to face him. “There you are! About time. Abby had better be groomed to my satisfaction!” She snatches the reins from the groom and climbs into the saddle. “I’m ready!”
No, you’re not, but there’s little to be done about that, thinks Samretta.
Samretta studies the terrain as she and Lady Bonswenn ride abreast. They’re still well inside Watch controlled territory, surrounded by farms worked rather than burned out. She knows every building, tree, and rock for miles, but her gaze is intense. It never profits one to take unnecessary chances.
Small parties of mounted nobles, both women and men, trot along the road. Commoners dot the fields. Their shouts and the odd curse carry through the already baking air. Keeping watch against the clans, thinks Samretta, though Goddess knew what they’d thought they do if those savages came thundering down upon them.
“What is Lady Merreth like, Lady Samretta?” asks Bonswenn.
Samretta grimaces. Time spent with Bonswenn promised to pass slowly. “Unpleasant and formidable.”
Bonswenn guides Abby closer and leans towards Samretta. She drops her voice to a whisper. “I heard Merreth gave Lady Tiandraa a frightful beating, once on the other side of the river, and again over here just yesterday. Is that true?”
“Lady Merreth. She’s Heir Primary to her House.” says Samretta. “Remember that. Why don’t you ask Lady Tiandraa?”
“I did,” says Bonswenn. “Her faced pinched up like an old dried apple and she walked away without answering.”
“You actually asked her if Lady Merreth had thrashed her?” Samretta cocks her head and studies Bonswenn.
Bonswenn straightens up in her saddle and pulls her hat brim down against the sun. “They say Lady Merreth acts just like a commoner.”
“The Domina seems to have a practical attitude about commoners,” An edge is creeps into Samretta’s voice. “We’ll need them if we’re going to end the Clans’ threat.”
“I think she should just use up the commoners,” says Bonswenn. “They’re criminals after all, or they wouldn’t be here. The wretches are going to be back on our side of the Saskanna at some point, and the fewer the better.” She wrinkles her nose. “I don’t see why Auntie worries about them so much. She’s decided to delay the attack just because of them, you know.”
“I thought both sides of the Saskanna were ‘ours’,” Samretta snaps her head around to stare at Bonswenn. “What was that last bit?”
“I was in the pavilion with Auntie and a few of her advisors, and she said she was going to wait until more nobles joined us in a few days. Watch nobles mostly, but there’s going to be some Red Hand.” Bonswenn sniffs. “That should make Lady Tiandraa happy. She’ll have lots of people to guard her against Lady Merreth.”
“How many?” asks Samretta. The Domina must have reached her decision very quickly. Charadell had not mentioned the possibility of reinforcements over the past few days.
Bonswenn shrugs. “I’m not sure. Seven hundred Watch, maybe? And I think she said a hundred Red Hand.”
Dear Goddess, thinks Samretta, add to those already here, half of the entire Watch nobility will have been sucked across the river!
“Anyway,” says Bonswenn, “Auntie says the extra swords will help make sure no more commoners are killed than what’s she planned for. And that she’ll be able to give the clans a bloody good thrashing.” Bonswenn smiles. “Those were her words: ‘a bloody good thrashing.’”
What she’s planned for? Charadell’s becoming more calculating, more ruthless, thinks Samretta. With the extra horse, there’s a good chance she’ll be able to do exactly what she wants. “See that?” She points to a blackened, scorched skeleton of a building slouching in a circle of ash by the roadside. “Clan work. Be silent and watchful from now on.”
“I must see the land,” says Clan Chief Gytega. He opens his sinewy bronzed arms and raises his eyes to the sky. “The hawk sees all, yet takes its prey from only a single, small patch of earth.” His arms drop back to his sides and he strokes his mount’s mane.
Ostinik spurs his horse over beside Gytega. “You are standing on the only hill for miles around, not sailing through the air,” his voice low and raspy. “This is folly. To be so close to the dirt-scratchers with less than three hands of warriors is foolish beyond description!”
Gytega smiles. “You see ghosts in daylight, old man.”
“I am your Shield Arm,” says Ostinik. “I protect and warn. Sometimes the ghosts are real. At the very least we should conceal ourselves.”
“As you wish.”
The two dismount and hand their reins to one of the dozen clansmen with them. Gytega nods and the clansmen disappear down behind the hill. They make no sound save for the whisper of hooves through the grass.
Ostinik plays with his finger bone bracelet. Caught here, they’d be cut down like so much wheat. The dirt-scratcher’s mounts were larger and faster than the Clan’s hardy steppe ponies. Thank the Sky-Father the dirt-scratchers used those mounts so poorly.
“You should lie in the grass, old man,” says Gytega, “not paint yourself against the sky.”
“Sound advice,” Ostinik grunts as he lies down beside Gytega. He peers east into the distance. “For once following it does not threaten to turn more of my hair grey.”
“This must work,” says Gytega plucking a stalk of grass, “else the fate of our clan is thus.” He snaps the stalk in two.
Ostinik shoos away a fly and squints at the vast plain. Time has begun to dull his sharp eyes. “I don’t like it.”
“I’ll not be the one who leads the Opensaw clan into the earth,” snaps Gytega. He falls silent, then sighs. “Sorry old friend, these are difficult times, and they require new ways of thinking.”
“Your brother thinks we should just take both tumens and attack.” Ostinik snorts. “Tewkinn’s a fool. There’s more to war than a mad charge. Do you know how much water two tumens drink each day?”
“Down to the last skin”, says Gytega, “as do you. Tewkinn doesn’t. He believes wells, streams, and even rivers will appear where he finds it convenient!”
“Still, Tewkinn is young,” says Ostinik.
“He lost his tumen’s banner!” Gytega pounds his fist into the ground. “And when the Sky-Father granted the chance to get it back he lost that too! Had he waited for those damnable women to move away from the dirt-scratchers with their cursed fire-poles …” He shakes his head.
“He’ll learn,” says Ostinik. “Sky-Father forbid it any time soon, but when you go back to the earth, he’ll be chief.”
“At least the women will be of some use,” Gytega mutters. “We’ll add a few to the ones we’ve taken before and sell the rest to the Southern Cities.”
“If we can,” says Ostinik. “They don’t break easily and most of those who do are nothing but whimpering kits. No spirit.” He spits on the grass. “I do not understand them. They try to make warriors out of women and while their men trudge the earth.”
“Even kits have their uses,” Gytega says, pushing himself up on his elbows. “Now, what is this?”
They are a half day out from the Saskanna, well past the farms and into ranching country. Not that there are any ranches left, Samretta thinks. An hour earlier they’d passed the abandoned hamlet of Teron, a dozen buildings huddled close against the empty steppe, their window shutters creaking in the breeze. Bonswenn had fallen silent and the two had ridden on for another thirty minutes, with only the sound of hooves on earth filling the air.
“We’ll make for that hill,” Samretta says. “Look around, then head back.”
“Will I see anything exciting?”
“Not if you’re lucky. Keep close to me.”
“Why didn’t the clans fire the hamlet?” Bonswenn asks.
Probably they plan to use it themselves, Samretta thinks. Three good wells, stables, and who knew what manner of useful items left behind. No reason to alarm Bonswenn, though. Samretta shrugs “Who can say? The Clans are very different.”
Bonswenn gasps and brings her mount to a halt. “Lady Samretta! Look!” She points to the hill top where two figures stand in the grass.
“I see them,” Samretta says. She unlimbers her crossbow and settles the stock against her shoulder.
Bonswenn jerks her reins to the left to turn Abby around. “They’re on foot, but there could be others!” Her eyes are wide with panic. “We must flee!”
The bolt takes her squarely in the forehead. Samretta lowers the crossbow as Bonswenn topples out of her saddle. “There are others,” she says softly. She dismounts, ties the weapon to her pack, and walks over to Bonswenn. A sharp tug fails to dislodge the bolt and Samretta turns away, fighting waves of nausea and shame.
Dear Goddess, how far I’ve fallen in my service to the Watch. Samretta places her boot on Bonswenn’s head and pulls. The bolt comes free with a slick sucking sound, the shaft dripping with gore. She wipes it on the grass and puts it into her saddlebag.
More clansmen appear on the hill top. Samretta counts six. She takes hold of Wildfire’s reins and walks towards the hill, leaving Abby snuffling Bonswenn’s corpse. “Over earth and under sky,” she calls, pumping her fist in the air twice.
“Do not twist your serpent’s tongue around our greetings, dirt-scratcher!” says an older clansman. Grey hair falls down past his shoulders. Hard eyes stare out from over a hawk nose. His garb is simple: rough leather vest and trousers and short boots. A pair wicked looking knives are thrust into his belt. He plays with his bone bracelet, never taking his eyes from Samretta.
Ostinik, thinks Samretta. She tries not to imagine where those bones might have come from. “Tell Gytega I’m here as agreed.”
“He is not blind.” Ostinik points towards Bonswenn’s body. “A gesture of your good faith?”
No, proof that I’m willing to sacrifice anything, Samretta thinks. “If you take it as such.” She adjusts her hat and wipes a bead of sweat from her cheek, keeping her movements slow, conscious that two clansmen have un-slung their bows. “It will help get what we both want.”
Gytega and Ostinik converse in the clan tongue, Gytega punctuating his words with sharp gestures and occasional glances at Samretta. Ostinik turns to look down at Samretta. “Chief Gytega says he has little trust in one who would cut down her own. Why should he believe any of your words are true?”
Samretta snorts. “Because he has no choice,” she says. If he did have a choice, I’d be dead along side of Bonsw … her.” Samretta jerks a thumb over her shoulder. “He has no choice because he has no water. Or at least not enough water to do what he wants without our help.” I hope, she thinks.
“You willingly plot to deliver your people into our hands…”
“No!” Samretta shouts.
Ostinik cocks his head and peers at her with interest. The rest of the clansmen stiffen, reach for their weapons. At Gytega’s curt gesture, they lower their bows.
“No,” repeats Samretta. “Not all, not even most. But some, yes.” There’s a bitter, cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. “It is necessary to … cull some.”
“And which of them shall we cull, dirt-scratcher?” asks Ostinik. “Who will you point to and say ‘die’?”
“The dirt-walkers.” There’s steel back in Samretta’s voice. “The ragged dirty walkers, those without shield or helmet. Beat them, bloody them,” she takes a breath, “kill them. Then leave, return to the plain.”
Ostinik says something to Gytega. They chuckle for a moment then Ostinik’s face darkens. “You think the clan can be called back, be told who to kill and who to spare? No! Some of your pretty riders will be taken as well.”
“You’ll leave then.” Samretta loathes how she feels. I’m bargaining away commoner and nobles with a plains savage, she thinks. “We’ll be gone back over the river within the month.”
“Make certain they carry our standard with them.”
Samretta blinks. “Who?”
“The dirt-walkers. They must carry our standard. We’ll take it back, and soak the ground with their blood. That should give you reason enough to leave.”
Samretta nods. “They’ll have it. We’re finished here.” She swings up into Wildfire’s saddle and turns him around, shoulders twitching. It would so easy for them to put an arrow into her back. They won’t. They need this, need me, she tells herself.
Samretta looks back over her shoulder.
Ostinik points to a couple of clansmen. Both reach down into the grass and pull a struggling, bound, and disheveled figure to their feet. The colour drains from Samretta’s face. “Dear Goddess, Watch sisters,” she whispers. Even from this distance Samretta can see their wild eyes. Everything, she thinks. They saw everything!
“If things do not go as you say,” calls Ostinik, “Gytega will order these to be given mounts and sent east. They’ll not be harmed by us and I’m sure they’ll have much to tell about what they’ve seen here today.”
Samretta nods, then spurs her horse towards the distant Saskanna.
“Take them back,” Gytega orders the clansmen holding the prisoners. “And take care with them! If we need to use them, I want them fit to ride.”
“If we need to use them,” says Ostinik, “we will have already lost.”
“Not so, old friend,” Gytega says. “We can use them in even in victory.”
Ostinik stares into his chief’s cold grey eyes. “You plan to reach the river.”
“The dirt-scratcher has counselled her sisters to flee.” Gytega snorts. “The hawk does not leave a wounded rat in the field.”
“We can take but a fraction of our strength. Our victory depends on a dirt-scratcher’s treachery.” Ostinik takes a bracelet bone between his fingers and rolls it back and forth.
“It’s risk we must take,” says Gytega. “Time grows short,” says Gytega. “The other clans press us. We must win this land.” His eyes narrow as he gazes east. “We’ll take our standard, find their leaders and fall upon them. It will be easy, they ride around in a group with all their pretty banners. With their leaders dead by our hand, the rest will scatter like mice from a fire.”
Gytega is right, thinks Ostinik. He picks a bit of dried flesh from one of the finger bones and shrugs. Women led the dirt-scratchers. We’ve beaten them twice before. It’s not as if the underworld is going to vomit up one of its black-skinned demons to stand in the clan’s way.
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 one where Merreth confronts the clan. It doesn’t really fit with the chapter but it is a beautiful colour image and I thought I would include it here as it does show the various clansmen