The guards at the top of the steps nod, puzzled expressions on their faces as Merreth mounts the stairs. One pulls open the door for her and she enters the room. Wooden chairs clatter across the floor, knocked askew by clerks scrambling to their feet. One loses his footing, claws at a table and winds up sprawled in a heap, papers drifting down around him.
It’s a big room, cramped with tables, chairs, and cabinets. A threadbare tapestry adorns one wall. Oil portraits of the Matriarch and High Mistress Rehkhell gaze down with haughty stoicism. A sprawl of tents and shacks is visible out the dust-streaked back window and open door. The air is still, sullen, and cotton-thick.
At a desk directly in front of Merreth a small plump man of perhaps fifty summers makes quick, deft notes with a quill. A fringe of blonde hair rings his bald head and a narrow, neatly trimmed mustache perches above thin lips. His white tunic, unmarred by dirt, dust, or sweat, drapes over his body like a tent. A wide, white Temple collar circles his neck. By his left hand an incense candle burns and a large crystal decanter of water with matching glass sits within easy reach.
Merreth frowns. A Temple Brother, the last thing she expects.
“Back to work, everyone,” he says without looking up. “Nothing is accomplished when you stop to gawk at criminals.”
A young man wearing a narrow Templeman’s collar and a worried face scurries up to the desk. “Brother Eenidd, a Mistress …”
“Do you seek to describe the obvious, Anggo?” The quill comes to the end of a line and whips back to the other side of the page.
“No. Of course not, Brother, not at all.” Anggo backs away, head bowed. Behind him the other clerks gather papers from the floor and resume their duties while casting curious glances at Merreth. They too wear Templeman collars.
“I am aware of who stands before me,” says Eenidd as he studies his work. He glances at the decanter and frowns before placing his quill on the table and shooing away several flies. After filling the glass he takes a sip, his small pink tongue flicking over his lower lip when he finishes.
The scene conjures the image of an overweight garden snake in Merreth’s mind.
Eenidd raises his head. “Good morning, Mistress Merreth,” he says, eyes glinting.
A fanged garden snake.
“Lady Merreth. Who are you?” She drops her kit on the floor and folds her arms.
“Mmmm, yes.” Eenidd opens a folder by his elbow. “That’s here; your curious affectation of a title beneath your own.” He taps a finger on the table. “Why do you do that, I wonder? One would think you’d want every bit of influence and power you could muster given your current … situation.”
Merreth watches a drop of water inch its way down the side of the decanter. Unease whispers through her at his lack of respect. She shakes it off and walks up to the desk. What else about her lay in that folder and where the blazes had he come by it? She snuffs out the candle flame with her fingers. “I asked, who are you?”
Eenidd glances at the smoke curling up from the candle wick, and purses his lips.
Behind Eenidd, Anggo clears his throat. “Uh, this is Brother Eenidd, Mistress Merreth, he …”
“Be silent, Anggo,” says Eenidd.
Anggo’s mouth snaps shut.
“I am Brother Eenidd, of the Temple Order.” Eenidd’s fingers brush his collar with reverence. “And the administrator of this camp.” He gestures behind him.
Merreth raises an eyebrow. “The Temple is running the — ” Merreth searches for the correct word, “ — army camp? What about the Western Watch?”
“Camps,” says Eenidd. “This is only one of several, though ‘army’ is a rather grand term for a mob of brigands, footpads, cutthroats and, well, you’ll find out soon enough.” He sighs. “Not at all like the constable units or the noble horse. We don’t run the camps as such, we merely administer the allocation of food, supplies, pay, weapons, that sort of thing. We also help the sisters minister to the men’s spiritual needs.”
In other words, you run the camps, thinks Merreth.
Eenidd rises to his feet and pushes his chair back in one smooth motion. He strolls over to the Rehkhell’s portrait and studies it. “The Western Watch considers managing the day to day affairs of a rabble beneath them. Quite rightly. The Temple has volunteered to shoulder the burden.”
Merreth glances at his sandals. They’re un-scuffed and free of dirt. “You seem to be bearing up well enough.”
“Rough surroundings are no excuse for a slovenly appearance.” He wrinkles his nose at Merreth. “Well, no excuse for some of us. Dirt on your boots, grime on your leathers, sweating noticeably. Not here even half a day and you’re well on your way to fitting in with the rabble out back.”
“I need a place to stay.”
A bearded Templeman at a back table looks up from his work and grins. “With the rabble out back.”
Anggo frowns. “What Templeman Jatt means is …”
“What Jatt means,” Eenidd interrupts, “is that we have no accommodations of the standard to which you’ve no doubt become accustomed, Lady Merreth. Arrangements will be somewhat crude, I’m afraid, rather like yourself from what I’ve heard.” Eenidd’s voice is friendly, his eyes hard.
Unease seeps back and settles in the bottom of Merreth’s stomach, this time looking to stay. Contempt from Tiandraa and her ilk is familiar, expected even; the same from commoners or the Temple is something she’s never experienced. Her forearm throbs. She swallows. What has she gotten herself into?
“Truly, Lady Merreth, what did you expect? A billet with bed and bath? Your own quarters, breakfast delivered each morning?” Eenidd shakes his head. “I think not. You’re a criminal, no better than any of the others out back, and the mark is proof for all to see.”
Merreth’s jaw tightens at Eenidd’s mocking tone. His words are almost precisely those of Tiandraa back in the armoury. “You’re of no use to me.”
“Of course I’m not, but why should I be? You brutally murdered one of your own and cheated another to win an honor duel.” Eenidd smiles. “Oh yes, Lady Merreth, we know all about that.”
Merreth glances at the folder on Eenidd’s desk. Tiandraa’s reach is long, she thinks, picking up her kit.
“I’m not finished with you.” Eenidd’s voice rises to a squeak.
The Templeman grabs a small crossbow and levels it at Merreth. His expression is lean and predatory. Eenidd brushes a speck of dust from his tunic. “Now that I again have your attention.”
“You smug little bastard, threatening a noble!”
“A convict you mean, Lady Merreth. You have the mark. And I don’t make threats.” He shrugs and walks back to his desk. “You’re only an oddity here. I can have you killed like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “There would be no questions – none – about a heat-addled noblewoman, baked in her ridiculous leathers, having to be put down like a dog.” He picks up his quill and spins it between his fingers. “I personally interview convicts who stand out from the rest. Usually that means they are more loathsome or thuggish than others of their ilk. I impress upon them the grave nature of their situation. In your case though, I merely convey a message.”
Merreth studies the crossbow leveled at her chest, her temper threatening to break free. Her gaze slides over to Eenidd’s soft pink face. “What does the red sow have to say?” she asks. When Eenidd blinks, a grim smile ghosts over her lips.
He draws himself up, reminding Merreth of one those balloons she saw at a fair, ““Lady Tiandraa asks that I remind you that you are not beyond her reach…”
“I’ll cut her bloody arm off if she reaches for me.” Merreth glares at Jatt. “Loose or get out of my way.” She’s across the room in four strides, heart pounding all the way. The crossbow in Jatt’s hands wavers, then drops. Merreth in front of him. “The next time you threaten me, you’re dead.” She taps his crotch with her dirk. “I promise.”
She’s out the back door and down the steps in a flash. Her boots hit ground and her legs promptly turn to rubber. Her breath rasps in her throat, as if she’d just been running for her life. Her anger is replaced by fatigue, and anxiety is back gnawing at her guts. I am so damned stupid, she thinks. Suppose he’d actually used that damned thing? I’d be dead on the floor with that little pig chortling over me. A chill runs through her. She sheaths her dirk with a trembling hand, wipes her brow and settles her hat back on her head, pulling the brim down against the sun.
“That went well, did it?” A lanky man with a thatch of red hair, wearing a simple tunic and trousers, leans against the stairs with his back to her. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone tell Eenidd to ‘piss off’, at least not to his face.” He turns and regards her with brown eyes set in a stubbled, sun-beaten face. “Of course, you’re not just anyone, are you?”
“Brinnt, isn’t it?” Though he’s no longer wearing the arm band, Merreth remembers him as one of Tottlen’s provosts from earlier in the morning. “Done all your bullying for the day?”
He laughs. “Might have looked like that. Doesn’t mean that’s what it was.”
“Where can I get a drink?” she asks. He couldn’t have seen more than thirty summers. Except for the eyes. They’re much older.
Brinnt cocks his head and grins. “Could probably scare up some goddess-awful ale or some wine that’s not much better.”
“Water, you idiot.” Worry flits through her. She probably shouldn’t be insulting one of Totlenn’s provosts; no point inviting more trouble, she had enough already. “My apologies, that was uncalled for,” she says after a moment.
Brinnt’s grin grows wider. “Good Goddess, I think you actually mean it. That alone is worth a drink. Come with me, please.”
“Why should I do that?” Mostly, she thinks, because there isn’t anything better to do.
“You’ve got something better to do?” asks Brinnt.
“You’re bloody forward with a noble.”
He shrugs. “I’m already on the …”
“Wrong side of the river. Yes, I’ve heard that.”
The encampment is more organized than her earlier glimpses had led her to believe. There’s a central square about a hundred yards wide, packed with dirt and gravel bounded on three sides by tents and crude, but sturdy-looking huts. Off to one side are a couple of wells surrounded by low brick walls.
The square is dotted with knots of men, and some women, talking, laughing, and eating around cook fires. More pass Merreth and Brinnt as they walk towards the nearest well. A few wave at him, all stare openly at her, many frown or glare.
“There’s not a lot of love for anyone like you around here,” says Brinnt in a cheery voice.
“There’s no one like me around here,” she says.
Brinnt reaches for the well’s crank handle. “Nobility I mean, though you’re different. I’ll give you that. ” He shakes his head as he fills a water skin from the bucket and hands it to her. “You swear like you were born in the streets and apologize like you mean it.”
“That why you were waiting for me back by the stairs?” She takes a long pull and revels in the feeling of ice cold water coursing down her throat. “To make sure no one expresses their lack of love more tangibly?” She hands the water skin back.
Brinnt frowns. “Tangibly?”
“To make sure no one tries to gut me like a pig?”
He brightens. “No, no one would do that in broad daylight. The old man asked me to keep an eye on you, at least until he figures out what to do with you.”
Merreth doesn’t care for the sound of that. “Who’s the old man?”
Brinnt smiles and shrugs.
Merreth sighs. “Fine. Now what?”
Merreth has no idea where to go or what to do with herself in the camp. Brinnt shows her around and seems to enjoy himself doing so. She’s on display, like a country-fair oddity. Whether with sidelong glances, amazed stares, or bold glowers, every eye in the camp follows her. Even children tag along behind them, giggling and pointing.“Their mothers are here, so they’re here too,” says Brinnt when she asks.
“Their mothers?” The question sounds idiotic even as she utters it. She’d seen the women; it was inevitable that there’d be children.
“Wives. Some followed their men across the river, others were here already, some are …”
“Some are trollops,” Merreth says, watching Brinnt’s face turn red. She’s pleased to see someone besides herself discomfited.
“Yes. I’ll show you where to get some food.”
He also shows her where she can sleep, which turns out to be a tent as large as a pavalion set up for the women who haven’t yet chosen a man. Or at least a particular man. Merreth cuts off Brinnt with a wave of her hand when he begins stammering over that point. Why wouldn’t the women choose whom they wished? The commoners had that, at least, in common with the nobility.
At least a dozen women and several children are in the tent with her. Some of the women give her fearful looks and a wide berth. The children are more curious, but their mothers shoo them away, which suits Merreth. A few women are drunk; she hears them laughing and arguing as she opens her kit and rolls out a thin blanket. Ignoring them all, Merreth sits with her arms folded around her knees, gazing out of the tent without seeing.
When night falls her fears close in. She squeezes her eyes shut as she lies back on her blanket. Dear Goddess, she thinks. What have I done? Run. She ran away. She fled her House, her sister, and the Red Hand instead of facing down both her enemies and her doubts. Good Goddess, she savaged Tiandraa — beat her senseless — just to keep running. Because she might have done all she’s accused of. Because she’s too frightened to find out and face the truth. And now there’s nowhere left to run. Nothing left to do except stay quiet, stay out of the way, and stay alive. But for what? A good question with no good answer. She rubs her eyes and finally falls asleep, listening to the snores of other women and the breeze rustling the tent canvas.
Merreth wakes coughing, her eyes burning and stinging from thickening smoke. Women are shouting; they’re dark shadows in an acrid, choking haze. It’s still night though Merreth can see a dull orange glow through the smoke. Dear Goddess, she thinks. The whole bloody tent is on fire!
Women charge past her out of the tent, one with a dark huddled form close to her chest. Merreth rolls up into a sitting position, grabs her hat, boots, sword, and stumbles out into the darkness. As she tugs on her boots Merreth sees more women are chased out by the flames, some dragging crying children along by the hand. One woman spins around, her face full of anguish. “My son,” she screams. “Where is he? Bahkko? Bahkko!”
Greedy flames lick the tent. A small girl staggers out of the entrance and collapses. Merreth grabs the girl by the arms and drags her away from the billowing smoke.
“We have to go back in,” shouts a man with a bandanna covering his face from the bridge of his nose down past his chin. “Some of the damn fools are probably passed out drunk! Here!” He shoves another bandanna into Merreth’s hands. “Put it on! Helps keep out the smoke.”
“But, I …” But what, she asks herself. I don’t know them? They don’t mean anything to me? They’re not worth risking my life for?
“What’s the matter?” snaps the man. “They’re not worth the effort? Get inside or get out of the way.”
Another figure also wearing a bandanna runs up to them, carrying a bucket. He looks at Merreth. She nods to the two men and follows the first back into the tent; the other comes behind her.
Inside, she can barely see. Grey, choking smoke fills her nose and makes her eyes water. She tries to remember the interior, where the women lay, where their belongings sit, where the tent poles stand. Flickering red streaks run above their heads. They shout to whoever’s left inside. Merreth’s foot hits something and she sprawls forward, her shoulder cracking into a chest. She cries out. A heartbeat later someone lands on top of her.
“Get off me!” She tries to heave herself up, expecting whoever’s on top of her to roll off. Instead an arm snakes around her throat and tightens.
“What are you doing?” Merreth’s shouted question ends in a wracking cough from the smoke. Trying to kill you! screams a dark voice in the back of her mind. Merreth snaps her head back. It cracks into something – a nose? – and the grip on her throat slackens.
“Bitch,” comes a grunt.
She sees a blade reflect dull orange. Merreth screams, grabs the dirk in her boot top and stabs wildly at the arm. She carves through cloth, skin, and down to the bone. Her attacker howls with pain as she throws him off. She lurches onto her hands and knees, heart hammering in her chest, lungs threatening to burst.
Above her comes a wracking cough, followed by “Damn it, Sepp! Stop yer whining. I can’t see shit! Where is she?”
A boot steps in front of her face. Right here, she thinks. She drives her dirk into an ankle and wrenches it free, her blade and hand slick with blood. There’s a snapping crash as her assailant falls over a chair, cursing and moaning.
Merreth struggles to her feet. Out! Get out now! The air is scorching hot on her bare skin. She clasps the bandanna to her face and peers out through stinging, slitted eyes.
She can’t see a bloody thing. Any direction will do, she thinks, feeling her way through the thick, billowing haze. Cut my way out, she thinks. She’s almost blind and holds her dirk out in front of her with one hand, the other keeping the bandanna in place. It’s almost useless now, she’s constantly coughing.
The dirk stabs something with a bit of give. The canvas! She thrusts her blade forward and pulls down. The fabric is tough. She hacks at it with short frantic thrusts. It gives way. Almost there, she thinks her, head spinning.
Hands catch hold of her thigh and pull.
“Bastard,” she growls, pulling the dirk out the canvas. She draws her arm back.
“Mamma,” comes a choking cough.
Merreth checks her swing, horrified at almost gutting a child. Whipping the blade forward, she saws through the last of the canvas. Air rushes through the gap, the fire behind her roaring. She grabs the child by the hair and hauls him outside.
She staggers forward and falls to her knees, retching, the child collapsing beside her. Strong hands seize and drag them away as the tent folds in on itself.
Merreth focuses on the face in front of her. Cold, hard eyes over a beard. Her eyes widen as she recognizes Jatt.
He drops her arms and produces a small knife. “Your promise is worth shit. And now you’re dead.”
Jatt palms his blade and steps back as Brinnt and Tottlen appear carrying buckets.
“Why are you out here, lapdog?” says Brinnt. “Shouldn’t you be back inside licking Eenidd’s hand?”
“I just pulled your pet noble from the tent. Be grateful. I could have left her to roast.” Jatt spits and lands a wad of phlegm by Merreth’s knee. “This whole camp a damn fire trap. Those flames could have spread all over your little pig sty.” He glances at Merreth, now on her feet.
Brinnt kneels beside the boy and splashes water on his face. “Bahkko?”
The boy stirs and opens his eyes.
“His mother’s been wailing for the last ten minutes.” Totlenn squints at Merreth, studying her face. “Saved him, did you?”
“Told you she’s odd,” says Brinnt.
Jatt turns on his heel. “You better get this shit cleaned up,” he says. “Brother Eenidd will expect it gone by tomorrow night.” He trots off without waiting for an answer.
“Brinnt,” says Tottlen, “take the boy to his mother.” He waits for the two to leave before turning to Merreth. “I think, Lady Merreth, that finding your way could go hard on a lot of people.” He glances at a charred body being dragged away. “A lot more people. Someone set that fire. We found a couple of empty lamps outside of the tent and the whole mess stinks of burning oil.”
“The ‘old man’ might want to think about posting guards,” says Merreth.
“I did. They’re dead too. Counting the six we think are still in the tent, that makes nine dead altogether, and you’ve been here for just one day.”
Slow start, thinks Merreth, but I’ll do better. “You’re the ‘old man’?” she asks. “You’re in charge?”
“Yes. And no. That bloated white tick runs the camp.” Tottlen lifts his head and studies the stars while his jaw works. Trying to come to some sort of a decision, Merreth guesses.
Tottlen drops his gaze after a moment. “I can find another tent for you tonight. Tomorrow you can see if anything of yours is left in the ashes. Then we talk.”
“Ten.” Merreth settles her hat on her head.
Tottlen frowns. “Nine by my count.”
“Ten, after I keep a promise.”
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
About the Artist
Poetic Dragon is an artist on Deviantart who entered one of my Lady Merreth drawing contests. She lives in the US and is both a writer and graphic designer. She works a lot in 3D.
Sadly, I do not have an image that fits chapter 7, so I thought I would showcase one of Poetic Dragon’s pieces. She’s done a few others of Lady Merreth as well. You can find out more about her here.