Merreth touches her left forearm and suppresses a wince. Under the bandage a puckered, angry brand indicates the month and year her service to the Western Watch ends. It shows at a glance if she’s on the wrong side of the Saskanna. Except that no matter which, I’ll always be on the wrong side, she thinks. Rhekhell’s had a lie seared into her arm.
She gazes at the Saskanna, watching the rising sun slide long shadows over the brown-green water. Not many people up at this time of morning. Just me, she thinks, glancing at the small knot of men standing nearby, and them. From young and pink cheeked to old and grey-whiskered, they’re dressed in cheap tunics, sandals or short boots, and worn trousers, their belongings in sacks at their feet. They smoke sweet grass, chew hard bread, stretch, yawn, scratch, pick at the bandages on their arms, and peer at the far river bank, all under the watchful eye of a half dozen constables.
Of course, she thinks, I warrant my personal set of keepers. Two constables stand away from their comrades and much closer to her, their gaze never meeting her eyes, but never straying too far from her direction. Though her weapons lie bundled in cloth at their feet, they wear sword catchers in addition to their truncheons.
Merreth flexes her arm. She and the others had been marked yesterday evening, long after the crowds had dispersed. Rehkhell had watched, pursed lips set in a granite face. Duggel and Sarrit too, the former arguing passionately that Merreth take the mark in front of the rest of the men, Rehkhell silencing him with a curt gesture. Tiandraa glowered in silence, her face darkened by bruising and malice.
They’d gathered in the armoury’s smithy, the heat suffocating as the blacksmith worked over the brazier, heating the brand to a sullen orange colour. Only the rustle of iron on coals and the occasional anguished cry from where the men were being branded broke the silence. Tiandraa had smiled at both.
“Ready,” the blacksmith grunted. “Best it’s done quickly, High Mistress.”
Rehkhell barely nodded. “Now, Merreth.”
Merreth forced her arm toward the glowing brand. It will be quick, she had told herself; it’s not meant to injure. Agony lanced into her arm, shot up to her shoulder, stabbed into her head.. Her skin sizzled as the sickly-sweet stench of her burning flesh filled the air. She grit her teeth as her eyes watered from the smell and the pain.
“You’re no better than them,” said Tiandraa. “And now the proof’s there for all to see.”
“Still better than you,” Merreth had whispered.
Am I though? Merreth remembers savaging Tiandraa in the circle, her fist pummeling the woman’s face. I enjoyed it, she thinks. She smothers the tingling memory, the hungry whispers teasing her from the back of her mind.
Movement off of the wharf distracts her. A long weathered longboat with four oarsmen eases out from around a small jetty a little way up river. The rowers ship oars and let the current carry them down to where Merreth and the others wait.
A constable catches a tossed rope and makes it fast. “All right, you lot.” He points to the convicts. “In you go. One at a time and try not to tip the bloody thing over.”
The men climb into the boat. Several are nervous and stay as far as possible from the gunwales. Merreth grabs her pack and bedroll.
“Mistress? We’ll board you last,” says one of her constables. He picks up her weapons and holds them under his arm. “We’re to give you these on the other side,” he says in a clipped, uncomfortable tone.
“Lady,” she says.
“Your pardon, Mistress?” The constable glances at the coiled whip on her side.
Is he surprised at her words, her carrying her own pack, the fact that she’s even here, or all three? “‘Lady’, or just ‘Merreth’ will be fine,” she says, brushing by him. “Careful with my blades,” she says without looking back. Just go, she tells herself. Quickly. Quickly off this wharf and into the boat. Quickly, so you don’t have time to think, to doubt, to regret. Just go.
By the time they reach the far bank the sun’s rays are lighting the tree line, the temperature already rising, even by the water. The boat bumps against one of several small jetties and two of the oarsmen hop out carrying lines.
More constables wait on the jetty. Accompanying them is a half-dozen men. They’re a scruffy, wolfish lot, some wearing breast plates of boiled leather, others with arm or shin greaves. All wear belts sporting truncheons and have a dark brown band tied around their upper left arm.
An oarsman scowls at the convicts. “Get out of the damned boat! We’re not here all morning!”
A man of about forty summers, short and wiry with a scraggly black beard and fierce eyes pushes his way through the waiting men. He frowns at one of the constables on the jetty. “Small catch today, eh Jarrick?” His appraising gaze sweeps over the convicts as they climb out of the longboat.
“Always more where they came from; you know that, Totlenn,” says Jarrick as the newly arrived convicts are shepherded back from the water.
Merreth hefts her kit and steps out of the boat. Her bundled weapons land with a thud at her feet. She kneels, flicks open the cloth and sheaths her dirks, keeping her eyes on Totlenn’s men. Commoners of course, but who are they? Dock wardens? Part of the force fighting on this side of the Saskanna? She can see some brands. Are they convicts? They hustle the newcomers off the jetty. Merreth’s lips thin. Something’s not right.
“All right,” says Totlenn. “What do you got for us?” His men surround the new arrivals. “Drop those sacks and open ’em.”
Merreth straightens up, sword in hand as confused mutters break out.
“Come on, you bastards! Yer not deaf!” Totlenn slaps his hand with his truncheon. All of his men produce theirs.
An older convict with hair the colour of dirty straw and a mouth missing most of its teeth spits out a wad of phlegm. “Who the fuck …” the question ends in a gasp as Totlenn punches his truncheon into the man’s gut.
Merreth sheaths her sword, grabs Jarrick and hauls him close. “What the blazes is going on here? Who are those men?” She jerks her head at Totlenn’s men as they rummage through the bags lying on the wharf, hauling out frayed pouches, thread-bare clothes, sweet grass pipes, wine skins and a couple of small purses.
“They’re provosts, and it’s the way things are over here, Mistress,” says Jarrick. His tone is both deferential and sullen. His eyes widen at the bandage wrapping her forearm. “Been going on for years. You all know …” he stops to correct himself. “They all know about it.”
“They’ve little enough to start with,” she says. “Who’s this bastard to take it away?”
Jarrick shakes off her grip, his eyebrows rising at her language. With a last look at her arm, he shrugs and ambles away towards his fellows, now indifferent to whatever Merreth thinks of the situation. Totlenn and his crew have finished emptying sacks and pawing through contents. The pick of the lot is in a small pile at his feet. He plucks a small purse from his belt, drops a few coins into it and tosses it to Jarrick.
Merreth slides her tongue over her dry lips. Totlenn and his confederates are rogues, bullies, and probably worse. The victims are likely no better. The constables are corrupt and so sure of themselves they openly take bribes on this side of the river. So she’s without aid, marked and alone. Best to leave things be until she knows more. Still though …
“What the fuck are you doing?” Her obscenity cuts through the jumble of conversation. Heads jerk around.
“Oh come now, Lady …” Totlenn says, annoyed, then he stops and squints at her. “You’re not from the Watch.” His mistake is an easy one to make. With the rising sun at Merreth’s back, her black leathers could be taken for the Western Watch’s rich mahogany.
“Answer me,” says Merreth.
Totlenn doesn’t and Merreth can guess what he’s thinking: She’s high ranked. She’s armed. But she’s alone, without a retinue of scribes, retainers, pleasuremen. Her arm is bandaged, right where the mark would be. A coincidental injury, or is something much bigger going on?
Everyone is silent, watching them. There’s no sound save for the wind rustling through the trees and the soft bumping of the boat against the pier. Merreth folds her arms and waits.
“Mistress, forgive me,” Totlenn says, hanging his truncheon back on his belt. “The lads and I …”
Merreth cuts him off, “… were demonstrating precisely why you’re on this side of the river. Yes, I saw that.”
“We’re provosts. New men give part of what they have to a central pot. Everyone in their crew gets an equal share. No one’s treated different. Like as not, they’ll have a turn as provosts themselves at some point.”
Merreth smiles. “No one treated differently, eh?” She picks up her kit, walks over and drops it at Totlenn’s feet. “Open it.”
Totlenn glares at her.
“Go on. Open my pack, paw through it, and take something.”
Low murmurs break out amongst the constables and the provosts. Totlenn ignores them. “You hurt yourself there, Mistress?” he asks, pointing to her arm.
Merreth’s hand snaps out and grabs his beard. “It’s ‘Lady’, and you’re wasting my time.” She likes what she sees in his eyes. Uncertainty, unease, and a bit of fear. A dark little shiver runs through her. One sharp twist of her wrist and she could rip some of his beard right off his chin. She settles for a small tug. “Do it.”
Totlenn’s gaze narrows. “Yes, M’Lady,” comes out like he’s chewing glass. He squats at Merreth’s feet and plucks at her bag.
Merreth grabs his hair and shoves his head down. “Look harder.” A small voice in her head urges caution, she’s humiliating Totlenn in front of the constables, his provosts, and their victims. She ignores it; the feeling coursing through her is just too good to give up so soon. Besides, the little bastard deserves it. “Find anything?”
“No,” comes the grunted reply.
Merreth releases him. “Really? Nothing you want?”
“Nothing,” says Totlenn as he straightens up.
“Then you can give back everything you took from those men. Everyone treated the same. That’s what you said wasn’t it?”
He stares at Merreth. Fury has chased away the fear in his eyes. He turns around. “All right, pick up your shit and get going.” He pushes his way through the men and heads down off the jetty. The provosts and the remaining constables herd their charges after Totlenn. Merreth attracts a few sidelong glances, though nothing is said. She shrugs, retrieves her kit and bedroll and follows everyone else.
A well-kept, hard-packed road meets the pier and leads past the tree line and through a small village. Thatched cottages are clustered with store houses, a smithy, a few shops, and even an alehouse. Further down the river are a few larger buildings, warehouses perhaps. Some of the shops and cottages are in disrepair and there is an air of unease, as if the structures strung out along the river are huddled close to the water and as far from the plains as possible.
The road begins to fill with people. Labourers armed with shovels, workmen toting bags, food mongers pushing carts, and the occasional old horse-drawn wagon loaded with bundles, bags, and people. Dirty children scamper along the roadside. Everyone seems as worn and haggard as the buildings.
Nobody pays attention to Totlenn, his provosts, or those they escort, but Merreth draws more than a few surprised looks from passersby.
Before long she and the group move into open country. Farm fields roll westward, separated by irrigation ditches and dotted with stone lodgings. Merreth searches for the source of the smoke she saw days ago but sees nothing: no charred farmhouse, no smoldering ruins.
They pass some small cottage farms with untended gardens hard against overgrown fields. There’s a collection of rude wooden buildings by the road and gangs of men, some under provost watch, plodding along in unkempt formations. In a fenced area beyond are cook fires, tents, and hundreds of tired, ragged men. Merreth is surprised to see commoner women as well, cooking, washing, and carrying bundles of Goddess knew what.
As they approach the wind carries snatches of conversation, shouts, laughter, and oaths from men and women alike. The wind also brings a sun-baked stench of sour sweat, half-burned meat, leather, dust, and horse dung that nearly gags Merreth. Totlenn angles off towards a large, two-storey barn-like structure facing the road.
Merreth threads her way through her fellow convicts, the younger ones showing her a shy smile. She feels good about that, that she has been able to save them the humiliating theft of the pitiful belongings they’d brought with them. Bu her leathers are growing uncomfortably warm. A blister on her toe has burst and rubbed raw. After shouldering her way past the provosts, she is beside Totlenn. “Where are we going?”
“No idea where you’re going.” He doesn’t move his head. “Maybe you’ll ride off to keep company with the rest of my betters?”
“You see a horse?”
“Not sure what I see, Mistress.”
“Whip says different.”
“You say too little and then too much,” Merreth snaps.
Totlenn shrugs. “So what? I’m already on the wrong side of the river.” He turns his head and his gaze takes in her bandaged arm. “You might be too.”
“Well then, where are you going?”
Totlenn jerks his head towards the men trudging behind them, surrounded by the provosts. “You really think you helped them?”
“You and your bloody bravos were robbing those men.” Merreth shifts her kit to her left shoulder, leaving her right arm free. “Dress up theft however you like, it’s still theft.”
“We call’em rabbits when they first get here. They’re dumb, likely to run, and easily killed.”
Totlenn smiles. “Not by me, Mistress. The clans. Or your noble sisters. Not much of a difference, as far as I can see. I want’em alive for as long as I can keep’em that way.” He runs his hand through his hair and flicks sweat into the grass. “And you’ve nicely fucked that up. Mistress.” The last word is greased with contempt.
Merreth’s face flushes. Her hand drops to the hilt of her dirk.
Totlenn snorts. “Cut my throat, is that it?” Casually he waves to another group of constables and convicts ambling down the road. “Within sight of several dozen of my friends who have no love for your lot. Not very smart, if you don’t mind me saying so,” he pauses and smiles. “Mistress.”
Merreth’s fingers curl and flex, almost of their own accord. A warm, eager darkness wells inside her, tickles her, baits her, and draws her towards an act of immense satisfaction and severe repercussions. She forces her hand away from her weapon. “And how have I fucked things up?” she asks, her voice rasping.
Totlenn stops and calls behind him. “Brinnt! Take the rabbits through to the tents. Get’em settled. You know what’s needed.” He faces Merreth, his gaze sliding down to her dirk. “Wanted to, didn’t you? You thought you were helping them back on the pier. Maybe you meant well, maybe you just like pissing on men like me. You wouldn’t be the first. No one here,” he jerks his head towards the sprawling encampment behind the buildings, “likes nobles very much.”
“You said as much already.”
“You’re listening,” says Totlenn. “Makes you different. That and yer skin. Sun’s been on you. Makes yer sisters look dipped in goat’s milk.”
Merreth’s jaw works as she fights to bring her temper under control. She’s always considered herself a friend of commoners, but the scorn in Totlenn’s voice, his contemptuous glare and surly manner makes her want to back hand him. “You lowborn piece of shit, I’m…”
“I know what you are,” he cuts her off. “Sable House.” He gestures at her whip. “Almost top the heap. But with no mount, no crowd of lackeys, bootlickers, or cretins, and a long way from home.” He spits on the ground and crosses his arms. “And, Mistress, if you want to win a pissing match with me, you’ll need to do better than ‘lowborn piece of shit’.” A pack of rough-looking men, scarred and shaggy, watch with feral interest. With a small wave from Totlenn they drift away.
Merreth takes a deep breath. “I asked you, how have I ‘fucked things up’?”
Totlenn jerks a thumb at the group slowly dispersing, “those men can’t get at you, or the rest of thick-headed nobles over here who’ve ill-used them. But they can make life miserable for noble pets. And that’s what you’ve turned those rabbits into. Pets. They’ll talk. Even if they don’t word’ll get out about the high ranked, black-leathered Mistress who stopped ‘em from being robbed. And they’ll suffer for it. Maybe get killed for it. For what you did.”
Merreth stares at him, her face a mask of stone. Despite the heat, a chill creeps under her leathers. But I wanted to help! She knows that’s not all of it, though. She had wanted to put Totlenn in his place.
Totlenn studies the bandage on her arm. “Real enough. Wasn’t sure at first. Watched you fuss with it when you thought no one was looking. Saw the mark. Thought I’d seen everything over here.” He chuckles and walks away. After a few steps he turns and walks backwards, spreading his arms. “So, Mistress,” he calls, “I have no idea where you’re going. I really don’t. But I’m going to have a lot of fun watching you try to find your 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.