Merreth’s mount stamps its foot and snorts. She leans forward and rubs its neck. A bead of sweat rolls down her cheek, drips onto the saddle horn, and vanishes. It’s is well past mid-afternoon and the air is stone still and hearth hot. She’s loosened the stitching on her breeches and shaken out her hair several times. The water skin hanging from the saddle begs her to take a drink.
Three hundred, maybe more, rough, ragged, flint-eyed convicts spill off either side of the road in front of her. Tanned, dust-covered faces are streaked with sweat, and calloused hands grip spears, swords, and crossbows, tickle half-sheathed steel. These are Totlenn’s hard men. Brinnt and Totlenn stand in front, their faces wearing expressions cut from rock.
Behind the mob, wagons packed with women and children creak and sway.
“Hello, Totlenn,” says Merreth. “How’s your back?”
“Well enough.” Totlenn scratches his beard, and flicks something out of his fingers. “Got yerself a horse now, eh?”
“Borrowed it from a courier. He’ll probably want it back, when he comes to.”
“Still making friends, sounds like.”
“Do I have any friends here?”
“Don’t have any enemies. Could change, depending on why you’re here.”
Merreth swings down off her horse. “Eenidd says you’re supposed to be in the fields all day.”
Brinnt and the men near him tense. One spits into the dust. Totlenn’s face clouds. “Taken’ in with him have you?”
“No.” She gestures back towards Charadell’s encampment. “People are frightened.”
“You mean the Little Westhold cottagers and them that’s left of the farmers around here.”
“And you too, by the looks of it.”
“They should be scared,” says Totlenn. “The Domina marches out with her skins and constables. Her best scout comes back wounded, her horse run damn near to death. She’s dead, be my guess, and those clan bastards are on their way. Me ‘n the lads don’t fancy being cut down like wheat.”
“Still doesn’t tell me why you’re here.” Merreth lifts her gaze to the wagons further back. “Why all of you are on this road, right now.”
“Clanners don’t like fightin’ around buildings,” says Brinnt. “Learned that when they ran us out of Teron a week or so back. Lots of homes and shops and such around here. More than around the south ferry pier. Lot of them built from good, solid stone too.”
“The owners won’t like being pushed out of their homes by a group of …” Merreth hesitates.
“Thugs like us? Killers … like you?”
“I’m not you.”
A harsh chuckle rumbles through the front ranks. Totlenn smiles. “Sure you are. Heard about it this morning. I said it before: lose those skins, take away the whip and you’re one of us. Whip’s gone, a man’s dead by your hand, so you’re almost there.”
Plainly stated, thinks Merreth. Wrong, but the longer I’m here, the thinner the difference between us. I’ve blood on my hands and, at the end, I enjoyed soaking them in it. She forces the thought from her head. “You should fight with the constables.”
Iron silence is the response.
“Well, why not?” she demands, cursing herself for sounding so plaintive.. “You’re both on the same side!”
“No!” snaps Brinnt. “Soon as Eenidd and his weasels whistle them up they’re on our backside. The Domina uses them to keep us in line and puts them behind us when she goes out to fight the clan. Supposed to keep us from running. Damned skin thinks we’d be stupid enough to try to out run horses and arrows.”
“The Domina’s dead. Eenidd and his Templemen are leaving for the east bank.”
“Not many constables left anyway,” says Totlenn. He glares at Merreth. “Eighty? Hundred? Not more than that, I’d bet. And who’s to lead’em with the Domina gone? That drunken sot Lassk?”
“You start tossing people out of their homes and shops, they’ll stop you,” says Merreth. Her stomach twists at the thought. Good Goddess, that’s all we need, Totlenn and Arric’s bunch going at it dagger and sword when the clan rides up.
“They can try. They’ll be dead, pretty damn quick. You gonna be with’em?”
Time to run toward something, Merreth thinks. “Yes.”
“Don’t see a sword on your shoulder, M’Lady he says. “You’ve got stones. I’ll give you that. Still haven’t found your way though, have you?”
“Shut up Totlenn!” A woman jumps down off the nearest wagon and shoves her way through the throng of men and weapons. Her clothes are sweat stained and grimy, her brown hair tied is tied back in a loose horsetail. Her face is lined and her eyes are fierce. She stabs at Totlenn with her finger. “We stick with our own and she’s one of us. Saved my son. Pulled him from the burning tent two nights back. Saved your life in front of everyone.” She nods at Merreth. “Talks to you, not at you; doesn’t bloody order you.” She faces the crowd. “When was the last time any of those noble daughters did anything except sit their asses on a horse and hold their nose at us? And she has the mark!” She holds out her hand to Merreth. “Come on, M’Lady. Show’em. Everyone knows you got one. But they need to see it.”
Those fierce eyes hold Merreth’s. Save for the burning intensity they could belong to the shop-keep from whom her mother bought Merreth sweets, the cook’s assistant, that farmer’s wife at market, any of the countless commoner women Merreth had seen when she could steal away from Sable House.
Do it. It’s the same feeling as when she decided to give Davven the blade she’d used to end the assassin earlier. She pushes her glove down her wrist, wincing as it rides over the puckered, angry brand.
The woman’s hand darts forward, closing around Merreth’s forearm. “Look!” She pulls Merreth’s arm up, turning it to expose the mark. “She has it, same as us. She’s the same as us!” “You come round and see me later, M’Lady, she says softly. “Let me look at that brand, make sure it heals up right.” The woman glowers at Totlenn then pushes her way back through the crowd.
Merreth rolls her glove back over her brand. “You had homes once,” she says. “The farmers, the shop keeps, the cottagers, they’ll fight if you try to toss them out of their homes. Just like you would. The constables will help them. When they get here the clan will laugh themselves silly at you doing their work for them.”
“So what, then?” says Totlenn. “Buttoning up tight in those houses is still our best chance.”
Merreth desperately wants a drink from her water skin. How did her mother make leadership look so easy, so natural? She swallows and tugs her hat brim down. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Mind telling us what that is?”
“Later.” When I’ve actually got one, she thinks.
“No. Absolutely not,” says Ashttia. “Where did you get such an idea?” She puts her hands behind her back and scowls at Merreth.
Since entering the pavilion Ashttia, Samretta, and Eenid have all but ignored her. Through with being ignored, Merreth brings her hand down on the Domina’s desk with a resounding crack. “Listen, all of you. I’ve already told Totlenn’s men to get started. I’m not asking for advice, permission, or your blessings. There’s no going back now.”
Eenidd’s mouth hands open in surprise.
Samretta is startled.
Ashttia is annoyed. “By what authority?” she snaps. “You’ve no right, and you’re not in charge of Totlenn’s men. You said so yourself.”
“The Domina’s, and I’ve changed my mind. The constables are helping.” I hope, thinks Merreth. She feels as if she’s stumbled. It’s run to regain her balance or go sprawling.
“She’s right.” Eenid pulls his head in from the tent flap. “Groups of constables and criminals are moving into Little Westhold.”
“Are they fighting?” asks Ashttia.
“They don’t appear to be,” says Eenid. He stares at Merreth, eyes narrowed.
“Don’t worry, Eenid, you’ll be leaving,” says Merreth. “In fact, go now and take your Templemen with you to the north ferry. Right now.”
“Lady Ashttia?” he asks.
“Now!” Merreth flips her belt dirk into her hand. “Lest I make room for one more on the ferry.” She studies the Templeman for a moment. “Possibly two.”
“Go, Eenid,” says Ashttia.
The corpulent Templeman scuttles from the pavilion without another word.
“I can scarcely credit it,” mutters Ashttia. “Heir Primary to your House and you’re acting no better than a criminal.”
“I am a criminal,” says Merreth. “One of the few things everyone agrees upon.”
“And one that everyone seems to forget,” Ashttia says. “The Domina should have slapped you down as soon as you attacked Lady Tiandraa in front of the convicts.”
Ashttia’s scorn eats at Merreth. It would be so easy flick her blade out and … she clamps down on the thought, frightened at how easily it came to her. “When we’ve beaten the clan I want Totlenn’s men to be given the weapons they’ve been denied. Those matchlocks, as they call them. And Eenid won’t sending any of them out to work the fields like slaves. We’ll pay them.”
“With what?” demands Ashttia. “Are you really that stupid? Why do you think we have the Temple run the camps? There’s no money! We’ve trouble enough keeping the constables paid! She snatches a glass off the desk, fills it from the decanter and takes a long swallow. “Alright, it’s time for you to listen to me, you arrogant, ignorant, ass! Should the Goddess deign to grant you success in this child’s dream you call an idea, when we next meet you’ll turn over your whip, your weapons, and your leathers. You’ll eat, dress, and live with those scum whose welfare concerns you so. If, as I expect, your plan reaps catastrophe and you’re unfortunate enough to live through it, you’ll still turn over your whip, weapons, and leathers and await execution for leading an insurrection.”
“Good Goddess, Lady Ashttia,” says Samretta, “She’s Heir Primary to her House. That’s beyond your power, even to threaten.”
Ashttia places the glass down on the desk, her gaze never leaving Merreth, “Those are my terms. They are the only terms on offer, and you will accept them if you want my cooperation!”
Oh shit. Merreth feels out-foxed, boxed in, and hamstrung. Ashttia had just proved that Charadell hadn’t appointed an idiot for her second. But she has no choice. “I accept,” she bites out the words.
“Do you think it will work?” asks Samretta. She and Ashttia ride in shadows through the tree line towards the northern ferry pier. The remaining Watch nobles, thirty-one in all, are strung out along the road. The mounts are uneasy, picking up the nervous fidgeting of their riders. Samretta frowns at the sight of two couriers doubled up on a single horse.
Small groups of convicts on either side of the road move from cottage to cottage. Each group includes at least one woman and is accompanied by one or two constables.
“If it does, it will be more luck than planning,” says Ashttia. “What does she know, that posturing rogue? Good Goddess, what has she come to? She’s more commoner than noble.”
A shouting match develops in front of a wooden-roofed, stone-walled blacksmith’s shop between a pair of smiths who jab the air with tongs and a determined black-haired woman in patckwork clothing. A trio of armed convicts and a constable watch nearby.
Samretta and Ashttia ride on. “It’s a good idea,” Samretta says, “having the commoners move north along the river. They’ll not want for water and the trees will provide shade.”
“Very little food, though,” says Ashttia.
“They won’t have time to get hungry. Victory will come swiftly or not at all.” At least the infants and youngest toddlers are getting on the ferries, thinks Samretta. She doubts a ‘posturing rogue’ would have insisted on that, or to have a woman lead each of the parties urging people to leave their homes.
“They won’t have much to come back to even if the Goddess grants her success.”
“Better that than dead at the feet of some savage,” says Samretta. It’s an effort to get her next words out. “Would you… would you really execute Merreth?”
Ashttia sighs and slumps in her saddle. “It’s a task I wouldn’t relish. If she hadn’t ordered Totlenn’s rogues into Little Westhold, I could argue that it wasn’t insurrection.”
“But the Domina put her in charge. She can hardly be accused of raising an insurrection if she’s supposed to be giving orders.”
Ashttia shakes her head. “People will say the Domina wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. They’ll point out, rightly so, that a criminal could never be allowed to be placed over me. Totlenn and several of his men are for the gallows of course, and I’ll have to do something about Sergeant-constable Arric’s collusion. He’ll probably swing as well. Dear Goddess, what a mess she’s made.”
Samretta chews her lip. She hadn’t given the constables even a passing thought. They’ll suffer for Merreth. Even if she’s trying to do the right thing. No. Not the right thing. The right thing would be to get the Watch back over to the Saskanna’s eastern bank, where it belonged and let the clans have this wretched sun-baked plain right up to the water. It’s brought nothing but pain, death and hard choices no one should have to face. Even if we – Merreth – wins today, the problems won’t end. “Merreth might win, Lady Ashttia. She managed to get the constables and convicts working together.”
“And promptly raised an insurrection. Goddess grant that she wins for her sake. If she does, I can probably save her from the gallows. Victory forgives much.” Ashttia’s voice hardens. “I’ll still strip of her everything she should hold dear though, save her life.”
“Let’s hope victory can forgive Arric and his constables.”
“Unlikely. Examples will need to be made, sharp lessons delivered. Arric will suffer a penalty more properly levied against a foolish, head-strong noble. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
They emerge from the last row of low stone cottages, the pier in view. Dorrymen hold fast the low, black-timbered ferry-barge. Templemen mill about in their white tunics like a bobbing flock of geese. A group of armed constables and convicts shepherd frightened children and women onto the ferry, crowding them up against the guard rails in order to make more room for others waiting to board.
Ashttia holds up her hand, halting the column . “Dismount!” She turns back in her saddle. “Tie your horses to any available hitching posts, or trees if you have to, then board.”
The column murmurs, confused, then angry as her words sink in.
“Do it!” Ashttia swings off her horse with some difficulty, leads it to a hitching post in the shade and ties off the reins. “There’s still time for one more ferry,” she calls. “Your mounts will be collected then.” She waits for Samretta to join her before she limps towards the pier.
“If there’s a second ferry,” says Samretta, “it’ll be loaded with more children and mothers.” She nods at the constables and convicts clustered at the pier. “I’d bet a hundred crowns Merreth’s given that lot orders to that effect.”
Ashttia nods, “I expect you’re right. Putting commoners before noble concerns.” She rubs her leg. “Merreth’s dangerous, for a lot of reasons.”
“She’s given this some thought, though,” says Samretta. More than that, she thinks. Merreth’s trying to right the Domina’s disaster and she isn’t afraid to lay her hands on whatever tools might be applied to the task. Did Charadell see something in Merreth, that day out at Totlenn’s camp? Some spark, some steel lacking in everyone else who might succeed her?
“What about you, Lady Samretta,” asks Ashttia. “What do you think? If I do as she asks, will Merreth succeed?”
It’s a simple plan and Samretta has already thought of several subtle ways she can ensure that it ends in nothing but disaster. A failed or, even better, dead Merreth couldn’t impede the Watch’s permanent withdrawal across the river.
Ahead a red-haired convict – what is his name? Brinnt, that’s it – lifts a snuffling youngster into the air and twirls him about. The child cries out in delight. Brinnt sets him down and shoos him onto the ferry. The scene reminds her of her own son, and the price of his safety – the things she’s been forced to do – threatens to overwhelm her. “I don’t know,” she says softly.
“Just kill them,” snaps Gytega. He scowls at the dirt-scratcher sprawled on the ground, an arrow buried in his heaving chest. Blood bubbles up out of his mouth, more than the frantic efforts of his woman can wipe away. A few feet away lies a scythe the old fool had brandished at the warriors who’d poured over his fencing like water over a fall.
Ostinik rides up in time to see a warrior put an axe into the woman’s head. “They should have run. They’d still have their lives, at least for a little while longer.”
“Would you run?” asks Gytega. He sips from his water skin and waves his hand at the bodies. “This is a waste.”
Ostinik stands in his stirrups, counting warriors. They’d left a third of their number with Agaric and swept towards the river with the remaining thousand. Eight hundred, possibly nine hundred cover the fields he can see. The others are no doubt strung out along the road behind them while the scouts push ahead. He settles himself down in his saddle. “Why?”
“What happens after we chase the dirt-scratchers back over the river?” asks Gytega. “How will we keep them from returning?”
“They don’t want to,” says Ostinik. He studies the road leading towards the river. In the distance he can just make out the trees lining its banks. “Or so she said.”
“I place little trust in someone willing to betray her own. Besides, not all think as she does, else there be nothing but unscarred plain all the way to the river.” Gytega shakes his head. “We’ll have to stay here, some of the clan anyway, lest the dirt-scratchers creep back like moss on a tree.”
“What? Root ourselves to a patch of earth like a tangle of weeds?”
“The weeds are already here, we just need to thin them.”
Ostinik can scarcely credit his ears. “Gytega! You would turn the clan into slavers, make us no better than the southern cities?”
“I would have our people live! The Kulon Clan is triple our size and you know they press us relentlessly! Here, with the river to guard us on one side, and the dry badlands on the other, we can be safe.” He spits into the grass. “Besides, we’re slavers already, old friend. Are we not planning to trade the women to those southern vermin?”
Ostinik sighs. This will bring trouble, more surely than the winter brings rains, he thinks. Nothing to be done about it now though. “Shall we strike north or south when we reach the river?” he asks.
Gytega gazes eastward, stroking his mount. “South, probably. We’ll hear what the scouts have to tell us, then decide.”
Merreth’s hands lie flat on the table, on either side of her hat. Through the window she sees a pair of crows cawing, hopping about the ground and pecking in the dirt for whatever they can find to eat. Totlenn and Arric sit at the same table arguing – yelling – at each other but their voices seem distant. Her stomach is cold and heavy. Despite their shouts, the tumult outside the cottage in which the three sit, and the anxious certainty the clan is coming, her mid is on her bargain and its consequences.
Dear Goddess, she thinks, if they hang me, what will they do to Totlenn’s men? They pushed people out of their homes to make room for themselves and their weapons. Despite her putting women in front of each convict group, many of the cottagers left only under threat, and some not even then, choosing instead to stay and fight the clan. And what of Arric? He ordered his constables to help convicts seize the homes of innocent people. Cast in that light, they’re little better than brigands themselves. I’ve managed to set them all on the path to the gallows!
“I dunno,” says Totlenn. “Maybe … Lady Merreth? Are you listening?”
She focuses on Totlenn’s scowl. “I was thinking of … what will happen after the clan.”
Arric pulls out a dagger and checks the blade. “Best to worry about that later. We have more immediate problems. Turns out Totlenn couldn’t thieve enough of his fire sticks …”
“Matchlocks out the armoury. Clan doesn’t like ’em so of course we don’t have enough to around.”
“They’re fucking heavy and we were in a hurry, you ass.”
Merreth sighs. “How many do we have?”
“We parcelled out a couple to the men in each of the shops and cottages,” says Totlenn. “Call it a hundred. Not a lot of powder and shot though. Fixed pretty good for crossbows and quarrels. Fair number of bows, swords, and spears.” His hand hammers down, killing a fly investigating a drop of sweat, startling Merreth. He peers at her. “What’s the matter with you, anyway? You been funny-quiet since you came out of her high and mighty’s tent …” He trails off, his eyes narrowing. “What happened in there?”
“Nothing you need be concerned about,” she says. “We’ve more important things to deal with, remember?” I’ll find a way to fix this, thinks Merreth. She takes a deep breath and clenches her fists. I will find a way.
Arric and Totlenn exchange glances.
Totlenn starts to say something, thinks better of it and studies the table in front him.
Arric sheaths his dagger. “How do we gut the clan?”
“Brinnt said it earlier,” says Merreth. “We get them here and cut them down like pigs in a pen when they try to dig us out. It’s a good plan.” She tries to sound confident. She has no idea if the plan is good or the height of folly. At least it’s simple.
“It’s the only plan we’ve got,” says Totlenn. “But to make it work, those arseholes have to come north along the river. They could just turn the other way and follow the road past the southern ferry. Then what?”
“I can get the clan here,” says Merreth. She’s on her feet and opening the door when Totlenn calls out, “How? And why you?”
Merreth puts her hat on and pulls the brim down. “I’m going to wave something they want right in their faces. As to why, we’ve only a single horse ready to hand and I’m the only one who can ride it.” She closes the door behind her before they can say anything, and before she can lose her nerve.
More Lady Merreth
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