The heat hits her like a hammer. Watch Hall had been oppressively warm, yet cool compared to being outside. Even shaded by an awning, Merreth feels like she’s inside a smithy. She stands on the wooden boardwalk that runs down the eastern side of Ridge Way, Westhold’s main street. The wide ribbon of worn cobblestones tops a long low hill paralleling the Saskanna River for several miles.
White plastered buildings, some three stories high, jostle each other shoulder to shoulder on either side of the street. Brightly coloured awnings festoon many doors and windows. Streets and alleys branch off at regular intervals, running west down to the riverside warehouse district and east out through a growing jumble of well-kept cottages towards old, established farmland.
Labourers, clerks, tradesmen, and others Merreth cannot identify scurry along the boardwalk. Those on the street weave amongst sweating, cursing drivers steering horse-drawn carts and wagons. On outside verandas well-dressed women and the odd dandified man sit talking, gesturing, and eating. Members of the rising gentry class, thinks Merreth.
A cacophony of sounds fills the air: fragments of passerby conversation, enthusiastic market place entreaties, the distant clanging of metal work, of saws ripping through wood and hammers banging. The smell of fresh timber, clay, dust, and horse dung fills the air. A cloudless azure sky crowns the bustling town that seems to be growing before Merreth’s eyes.
Merreth searches up and down the street and sees no sign of Tiandraa and Lyadkell. Good, she thinks. She strips off her gloves and loosens her vest. Trickles of sweat sneak down her back. Sarrit joins her on the boardwalk. A slight breeze plucks his tunic and for a moment she envies him; he can bear the heat much more easily than she. She strides over to Winddancer, tethered to a hitching post.
“Back to the stables, Lady Merreth?” asks Sarrit.
Merreth checks her saddlebags and bedroll then places a foot in the stirrup and mounts in one fluid motion. “Why?”
“Your pack horses? Surely you have pack horses to carry your essentials?”
Merreth smiles, a sketchy crooked thing that vanishes immediately. “I don’t have any.” She watches Sarrit’s eyebrows rise in surprise. Red Hand nobles would possess at least half a dozen each, those that didn’t make use of carriages. Pack horses would have only slowed Merreth down. She has saddlebags and a bedroll. A bedroll! What must he think of that? She spurs Winddancer out onto the street. “Quarters now, Sarrit,” she calls over her shoulder.
He hurries after her. Even amid the riot of sounds filling the street she hears his sandals slap against the cobblestones. “What did you think of it? The hall?” he asks as he draws up beside her.
“Mmmmm?” Merreth isn’t really listening, her mind still on Tiandraa and Lyadkell. Where are they? What will they do when they learn of Bayllos? What will Rehkhell say? She reviews the morning, the last day, the last week, her mind racing back to Bayllos like water over a chasm, back to her horror. The sun seems to go cold; she rubs her arms, shivering at the bloody red images in her mind, and at the excited tingle she quickly suppresses. She feels nauseous, soiled. “Not like them,” she mutters. “I’m not like them.”
“You don’t like the inn?”
Merreth wrenches her mind back to the present. “I said it looks like an inn.”
She glances down at Sarrit. “Hardly fitting.”
“Well,” says Sarrit, “until last year the High Mistress governed from her estate but then the clans grew bolder. She wants to be closer to the west bank.”
“So she governs from an inn?”
“Many of the rooms have been converted to offices. Temporary of course, until the new hall is finished.”
“That all the banging I hear?”
“Yes,” Sarrit frowns. “It’s one of the few things being built lately.”
Merreth studies the people on the street, driving the wagons, moving in and out of the shops, offices, and eateries. There’s something odd…she can’t quite put her finger on it until…
“Sarrit, where are all the young men?”
Sarrit squints up at Merreth, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Across the Saskanna. Over the past two years most have gone to help with the troubles. At least those fromWesthold and the immediate area.”
The Troubles, thinks Merreth. She can almost hear the capital letters. “Most?”
“Well, most between sixteen and forty-five summers,” says Sarrit, “less those in the constabulary and some others needed for tasks like building, moving the up-mountaintrade onto the barges, and administrative duties.”
Merreth’s gaze falls on two men propped up against a wall just inside a branching alley. They are clothed in tattered tunics and breeches, are caked with grime, and wear battered sandals on their feet. One’s left arm ends in a bandaged stump. The other’s thin greasy hair is plastered to his lolling head. A small clay bowl rests in front of them. Townsfolk sometimes ignore them, sometimes throw coins into the bowl. All hurry past the two.
“And those who’ve returned, of course,” says Sarrit in a low voice.
“Administrative duties, eh?” says Merreth. “Lucky you.”
Sarrit bristles. “I asked the High Mistress if I could cross the river. Twice.” He strides alongside of Winddancer, thin arms swinging, sweat springing from his forehead.
Merreth purses her lips.
“The clans press us,” Sarrit continues, worry in his voice. “Harder than last year. Much harder. The outlying ranches are lost to us. Some of the nearer farms too. Good folk burned out, chased out, or worse. Raids are more frequent. We’re hated by all but one of the clans, which is too weak and too wary to help, except to teach our scouts clan-tongue.”
“Things aren’t going well,” says Merreth, thinking of the two broken men they’d passed.
Sarrit, shakes his head. “The High Mistress has written to the Matriarch, and to some sister Houses, requesting aid several times over the past two years, but …”
“But you’ve received nothing from the Matriarch.” Merreth removes her hat and runs her hand through her hair, trying to shake the heat and the sweat out of it. She wonders if Rehkhell had written to Ammantha. Her sister had not spoken of any such request.
“The Red Hand has offered Mistress Rehkhell substantial loans and access to their House constables,” says Sarrit.
“Is that why the Red Hand is here?”
Sarrit hesitates for a moment. “Yes,” he says, shrugging. “The Red Hand is concerned about the clans as well. They’ve been here for two months.”
“Concerned?” snorts Merreth. “I’ll bet they are. Best your High Mistress doesn’t accept their constables,” she says in a flat voice.
“M’Lady?” asks Sarrit, his brows furrowing.
“They’ll offer to keep order on this side of the river while you bleed yourself white on the other. You’ll never be rid of them. They’ll be too few to help, but more than enough to place a hand around your throat.”
“Duggel thinks we should accept their offer.”
“Then Duggel’s a fool!” snaps Merreth. She jerks back on the reins, surprised at the anger in her voice. Was it really only a week ago that she was prepared to marry into the Red Hand? To willingly blind herself to the Red Hand’s arrogance, its pride, its slinking, feral ambition? She shakes her head.
Hooves clatter on the cobblestones. Two well-lathered horses gallop past, ridden by men wearing the Red Hand’s smartly cut maroon livery. They spare not a glance for Merreth and Sarrit, nor for anyone in the street. People scatter as they fly towards Watch Hall. There they dismount, tie their horses and rush inside.
“Red Hand couriers,” says Sarrit. “Why the hurry, I wonder?”
Not for me, thinks Merreth. Not yet. There hasn’t been enough time. They’ll know soon, though. All of them. And then what? “Quarters, Sarrit.”
“Well,” says Sarrit, “if you are not to stay on Mistress Rehkhell’s estates, perhaps a merchant’s inn? I know of two richly appointed establishments catering to the Suthgat magnates. No doubt the proprietors would be honored to see to your every comfort. If … ” he casts an uncertain eye on her saddlebags and bedroll, “that’s what you would desire, Lady Merreth.”
“No,” says Merreth. She wants something less visible, less likely to be stumbled across by Tiandraa and Lyadkell. “Something more … common, I think.”
“Are you certain about this, Lady Merreth?” asks Sarrit. He glances around at the passersby, who are all of a rougher cut than those on Ridge Way.
“For the second time, Sarrit, yes, I am,” says Merreth. Since starting down the slope she’s felt surer of her impulsive decision to head for the river. She is uneasy though, half expecting to hear shouts and hooves thundering up from behind as Watch nobles come to apprehend her. Far from Sable House, Ammantha’s assurances seem tissue-thin.
The street they’re on began cobbled but now is hard-packed dirt and crushed gravel. Winddancer’s hooves and Sarrit’s sandals kick up small dust clouds that hang in the air. The fine inns, shops, and eateries of Westhold’s main street have become rough taverns, rooming houses, and open air markets. In the distance, the Saskanna flows north to Baltoni, the sun dancing off its rippled surface. The view is obscured by warehouses and other riverside buildings. On the far bank a scattering of cottages and stores houses are visible through the tree line.
“As you wish, Lady Merreth,” says Sarrit, his tone still questioning. “The inn on the river’s edge …”
“What’s that?” Merreth interrupts him. She halts Winddancer and stands in her stirrups. There’s a dark smudge in the distance across the river. Smoke, a lot of it. A gray-black bruise on the clear sky.
“It’s the clans. An inner farm no doubt. One less now.”
“This close?” asks Merreth. “What about all the men you said were on the far bank?” She sits back down. “They’re armed aren’t they?”
“Lady Merreth, that’s Watch land on the other side of the Saskanna! Men can’t go about armed!”
Despite her unease, Merreth can’t help but smile. Sarrit’s words are uttered as a formality, not as a heartfelt protest. “Has anyone told the clans that?” she asks, leaning down. “Sarrit, I’m not an idiot. How many times have you made that little declaration?”
He sighs. “Visiting nobility have been … rigid in their interpretation of the Matriarchy’s traditions.”
“Yet the most rigid of all, the Red Hand, knows, and they’re still here and still offering aid,” says Merreth. What are they up to, she wonders. “Why haven’t the armed men been able to stop the clans from running wild?”
“The raiders are a horse people,” says Sarrit as he paces alongside of Merreth. “Men on foot can only catch the clans when they want to be caught. That’s happened three times. Twice, the results were … unpleasant. The third time we won, or at least didn’t lose as badly.”
“And Western Watch doesn’t have enough noble sons and daughters to mount and send after the bastards?”
Sarrit doesn’t answer immediately and it seems to Merreth as if he is choosing his words carefully. “The Clans have been warring for generations; the Watch for less than two years. So, no, we don’t have enough. Not anymore.”
Old and weathered, the Saskanna Inn is a former two-storey warehouse. It slouches by the river’s edge as if shouldering the weight of the grunting, sweaty waterfront community crowding back up the slope to the finery of upper Westhold.
A line of barges is tied off to several long piers on the river bank near the inn. Stevedores haul and load lumber, crates, and barrels in a steady stream, directed by shouting foremen. Twin brick towers, one on each bank, suspend a ferry rope thirty feet above the water. From across the river a breeze rustles through the tree line and pushes at Merreth’s hat. Merreth watches a ferry trawling across the river for a moment before swinging off Winddancer. She ties him to a hitch and pulls open one of the inn’s large double doors. “Come on, Sarrit.”
Despite the early hour barge-men, labourers, dockworkers and even a few merchants crowd the tavern that comprises the inn’s ground floor. Serving boys deftly thread their way among the tables, thumping down flagons of ale and thrusting steaming plates of food into waiting hands. Clouds of sweet-grass pipe smoke wafts towards wide-open river facing windows, spurred by loud conversation and purposeful gestures.
Merreth smiles. It’s perfect, she thinks. There’s no chance in the world she’ll be bothered here by Tiandraa, Lyadkell or likely any noble for that matter.
Sarrit spies an empty table at the back wall and weaves his way through the crowd towards it with Merreth following. Despite her attire she draws fewer stares than she expects. It seems the tavern has seen many things far stranger than a slumming noblewoman.
As Merreth settles herself back to the wall, a small wiry serving boy appears. Blue eyes peek out from under disheveled black hair. “Mistress!” he exclaims, taking a step back and bowing.
“It’s Lady, not Mistress,” says Merreth. She takes off her hat, lays it on the table, and shakes out her hair. “Fetch me a drink, please. Ale is fine. A mug.”
A great shout goes up from across the room, by the windows. A small, black-haired plug of a man in a dark green tunic drunkenly struggles up onto his table. His companions cheer him on with ragged, slurred chanting.
“Markers,” says the boy. “They’ve been here all morning. Like as not the constables will be along to collect them soon.” He vanishes into the crowd.
Merreth peels off her gloves and places them under her hat. “Markers?” she asks.
“There has been a shortage of freemen willing to fight across the Saskanna,” says Sarrit. “Not everyone agrees we should be on the far bank.”
Merreth nods. “So who are they, and why ‘markers’?”
“Criminals,” says Sarrit, “convicted or even just accused. If they take the mark and agree to serve for two years, they’re pardoned. The mark is a date branded onto the forearm. If they’re caught on this side of the river before their two years are up, they’re killed, no matter their original offense.”
“They don’t seem too unhappy about the prospect,” says Merreth.
“Partly because they’re drinking away their small signing bonus,” says Sarrit, “partly because they’re happy at having cheated the jailer, the executioner or both. The policy has scooped up footpads, cutpurses, bullyboys, cutthroats, and worse.” He pauses as another chorus, more ragged than the last, rises and dies from across the room. “It seems the Matriarchy has an inexhaustible supply of those eager to avoid the consequences of their actions.”
Even over the crowd Merreth can hear the scribe’s sour tone. “You disapprove,” she says.
“It’s not my place to question Watch policy, Lady Merreth.” He shrugs. “The practice works, after a fashion. A blanket pardon for any crime is a powerful lure. But I can’t help wondering what happens when their two years are up, and they,” he glances over at the ‘markers’, “are able to legally return. Those who come back will be very hard men who are very good at killing.”
The boy reappears. He places a mug of ale in front of Merreth and another into Sarrit’s out-stretched hand. “My apologies. I assumed you would have the same as her Ladyship.” He bows to Merreth then is off into the crowd.
Merreth takes a long swallow. “Quite good, actually,” she says, setting the mug down and wiping her lips with the back of her hand.
Sarrit pauses while lifting his mug, eyes peeking over the rim.
“Don’t look so surprised, Sarrit,” says Merreth. “I’ve been in taverns before — in quite a few places actually — where hand cloths aren’t provided.” Ammantha may rule Sable House, she thinks, but I’m the one who actually spends any time in it.
Sarrit nods. “As you say, Lady Merreth.” He purses his lips, glances down at the table and gathers himself. “Do you … do you have a second, Lady Merreth?”
The duel, she thinks. I’ve really put my boot in it with that one. Ammantha would be so proud: not half a day in Westhold and already dueling with the Red Hand. Goddess keep me from committing any further idiocy. “I’ll not dance like a puppet for Tiandraa,” she says, dropping the honorific. It wasn’t as if Sarrit thought she brimmed over with respect for the Red Hand.
“I’m not sure what you mean, Lady Merreth,” says Sarrit. “A challenge has been issued for, ah, demonstrably just cause.” He frowns and draws back, as if he’s afraid Merreth would strike him too.
Merreth raises an eyebrow. “I’ll not participate in some archaic ritual just because Tiandraa demands it. I’m not accustomed to taking Red Hand bleating seriously.” Not anymore, she thinks.
Sarrit takes a breath, opens his mouth, closes it, and exhales.
“Out with it,” she says, her tone edgy. “I’m probably not going to like it, but out with it anyway.”
“You have to fight her, Lady Merreth.”
“I don’t have to do anything, Sarrit!” She glares at him, her temper rising.
Sarrit’s head jerks up and down in a shaky nod. “I should apologize, Lady Merreth. You haven’t had time to learn our traditions. The High Mistress takes them very seriously. All of them, including this one. Once a challenge has been issued and accepted an honor duel must be fought.”
“I don’t remember accepting any bloody challenge.”
“You did not apologize to Lady Tiandraa. That constitutes acceptance. Duels can only be called off if both parties agree. They take immediate precedence over any other disputes or obligations of either party. That’s why Lady Tiandraa said her second would be around to see you today, to make the arrangements.”
Merreth takes another swallow of ale, places the mug back on the table and cocks her head at Sarrit. “And if I just don’t appear at the appointed time and place?”
Sarrit gasps. His eyes widen and he swallows before answering. “High Mistress Rehkhell would demand you leave the Western Watch immediately. Three weeks ago she expelled Lady Kelnna of the Sea Watch for refusing to participate in a duel.”
“With Tiandraa, no doubt.”
Sarrit nods. “Everyone knew there was little provocation for the challenge, but that mattered little.”
Merreth’s eyes narrow. Her gaze is drawn over Sarrit’s shoulder. The jovial roar of conversation drops like a stone from a pier. Sarrit puts down his mug and slowly turns to see a half dozen swarthy men clothed in heavy, dark gray tunics and trousers standing in the doorway. Truncheons swing from their belts and they quickly survey the tavern.
“All right you lot! Down the mugs and on your feet,” one shouts at the markers. It isn’t a harsh command, but the tone leaves little room for argument.
“Constables,” whispers Sarrit, “The markers will be across the river in a couple of hours.”
“I thought they willingly took the mark,” says Merreth. “Why the constables?”
“Keeps things orderly,” says Sarrit. “Wine can blur the details of any agreement.”
The head constable is staring hard in their direction. Merreth notices that while most of his men are rounding up the markers two have remained at his side.
“What are they interested in?” Sarrit asks. “Sword-catchers! Good Goddess, what are they carrying those for?”
Me, thinks Merreth. Hilts jut up from behind the shoulders of the three men. Not swords, but sword catchers, the only weapon a man is allowed to raise against a noble. It resembles a long, two-tined fork and is meant to catch and trap a sword. She sets down her mug and works on her gloves. “I think the constables want to speak with me, Sarrit.”
Sarrit whips his head back to face Merreth. “With you, Lady Merreth? Whatever for?”
“Ask them,” says Merreth.
The lead constable stops a pace away from their table and bows. “Lady Merreth?”
Merreth notices his voice is less certain than when he’d ordered the markers. Not used to this. She nods.
Sarrit comes to his feet. “Constable, what is your concern here? Lady Merreth has just arrived from Sable House. I’m helping her in acquiring quarters.”
The constable eyes Sarrit. “You’re Sarrit. The High Mistress said you’d be with Lady Merreth.” His gaze flickers over the now quiet tavern before returning to Sarrit. “You’re helping the Heir Primary to Sable House find quarters? Here?”
“Your interest in me, Constable?” asks Merreth.
“The High Mistress has asked that you attend her immediately, M’Lady.”
Merreth sets her hat on her head, pulling the brim down over her eyes. “And it requires three of you to deliver the message? With sword-catchers?” She keeps her voice steady even as her pulse quickens.
“If you would, please, Lady Merreth?” He gestures towards the doors. “Before more people notice?”
At least he has the grace to look embarrassed, she thinks as she gets to her feet. Leaving a few coins on the table, she allows the constables to lead her towards the doors.
“We can’t keep the High Mistress waiting, Sarrit,” she says.
Outside the markers are climbing into a wagon, still singing in ragged fashion. The driver, another constable, rolls his eyes and takes a long pull from a water skin.
Nearby Tiandraa, Lyadkell, and the Red Hand couriers wait on their mounts. Tiandraa wears a face of stone, Lyadkell’s is red with fury.
Merreth’s heart lurches. Tiandraa and Lyadkell? Constables with sword catchers? They know!
“On your nag, Merreth,” Lyadkell snaps. “We’ve a few things to attend to before we take you on a little journey.”
“No, we don’t” says Merreth as she unhitches Winddancer. Still, she thinks, they can’t force me out of the Watch. Not yet. She places a foot in the stirrup and swings into her saddle. “I’m not going on any journey. Least of all with you.”
“Yes, you are. Today,” says Tiandraa. “We have a summons for you.”
More Lady Merreth
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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. I will post more of his work in the future.
More of his work, along with contact information, can be found here.