Merreth and Totlenn walk along a dirt road no wider than a farm wagon. They’re heading back the way they’d come the previous day. “Where are we going?” she asks.
The early morning sun is pleasant on her skin, but Merreth knows that will soon change. Her back itches in anticipation of the coming heat and sticky sweat. She’s tired, grumpy, in need of a bath, and feeling somewhat queasy from the thin porridge that had passed for breakfast.
“How did you sleep?” asks Totlenn. “I had a few men watch your tent.”
“A great comfort, given how effective your other guards were.” Totlenn’s face darkens but she doesn’t give a damn for his feelings. His wretched incompetence damned near got her killed last night. It did get nine others killed. And I thought of myself first, she thinks, frowning. The others? An afterthought. How noble of me. “I slept poorly,” she says. “And you didn’t answer my question.”
“I want to show you something.”
Merreth wrinkles her nose as they pass a small cottage and barn. Horses neigh and whinny inside and the smell of hay and dung is heavy in the air. There’s blood too, likely a pig slaughtered. Her nostrils flair at the thick, sultry odor and she sees her betrothed laid in front her. She licks her lips and swallows before her thoughts wrench back to the present. She feels shaken.
A group of about a dozen convicts work in the field they’re passing. “Who are those men?” asks Merreth.
Totlenn doesn’t spare them a glance. “They’re from the camp,” he says. “Eenidd lends them out to the local farms to work the fields.”
“I thought they were here to fight the clans.”
Totlenn chuckles, an ugly, ragged sound. “When we’re not fighting – and dying – for the Watch we’re to earn our keep. We’re to be grateful for the chance to help the Watch even when we’re not shedding our blood. It’s expensive running an army. Eenidd tells us that every chance he gets.”
“He doesn’t think you’re an army.”
Totlenn stops and jabs a finger at Merreth. “We are, or we’ve the makings of one, if that fat tick and the noble leather bitches he serves would let us.” He hawks a wad of phlegm into the grass. “You’ll see.”
“I did see,” says Merreth. “Yesterday you and your bravos were going to rob those men. You don’t run an army on theft and threats.” In truth Merreth has no idea how an army is run. Her knowledge of such things is limited to the cursory and disparaging review of history provided by her Temple tutors. However, her remark nettles Totlenn, which is the important thing. She’s in a sour mood and quite willing to share it around.
“Arrogant, leather-sheathed sack of shit,” says Totlenn. He glares at her, lip curling. “Been here a day and you think you know everything.”
Merreth moves away, watching Totlenn’s eyes, her heart thudding. Her hand settles her belt, fingers curling around her dirk, caressing it.
“Your answer to everything, eh?” says Totlenn.
“Bullying and bluster are yours. So very much better.” You’ll tell me what you’d love to say to the Watch, Merreth thinks, struggling to keep from baiting him further. It’s a bad idea. With her life under threat, she doesn’t need another enemy. Still, part of her wants to provoke him, make him the focus of her fears and frustrations. With effort, she jerks her hand away from her dirk and folds her arms.
“It’s hard out here, Lady Merreth.” Totlenn swats at a fly. “We get swords and pikes shoved in our hands and we’re told to follow the constable units and noble horse out after the clans. What we’re not told is how to use the bloody things. We bleed while we learn, and I’ve learned a frightened man can kill a lot of people just by running at the wrong time. I need to know who’s got iron in’em, and who’s got tin.”
“You’re not shown how to fight?” How the blazes did Rehkhell expect to win against the clans? Merreth doesn’t know the first thing about the way men settled their differences with blood on the field before the Matriarchy, but she’s certain there’s more to it than arming a mob and pointing them at the enemy.
“They expect us to die, keeping the clans busy while the constables fight,” Totlenn says. “I’m trying to change that, and I need good lads to do it. Lads with fight in them. That’s why the provosts smack the rabbits around when they get here. The one’s that take it without a word? No spirit. No guts. They’ll be useless when it comes to spilling blood. Them’s that push back, argue, fight even, those’ll be the ones with a chance against the clans.”
“And then you rob them blind. How damned stupid do you think I am, Totlenn?” She frowns. It’s the first time she’s used his name to his face.
“Half-witted sheep could ask better questions. We later give back what we take.”
She watches his eyes, searching his face for any hint of a lie. It could be true. It also could be that Totlenn and his provosts just sized up every new group to see who the troublesome ones would be, so their throats could be cut later.
Totlenn starts down the road, his boots kicking up dust that hangs in the still air. “Come on,” he calls. “I still want to show you something.”
She catches up, doesn’t want to be seen as trailing behind him. “We’re being followed.”
“You just figured that out? Gonna have to do better than that if you want to stay alive, M’Lady.” He glances over his shoulder at a distant figure. “One of Eenidd’s lapdogs. He sets one on me whenever I leave the camp. Wants to know what I want with you. Bet that’s eating him up.”
“Do something about it,” Merreth says. “You’ve got knives, and I’ve seen a few swords. Gut him and be done with it.” She blinks at her words. She’s just casually counseled murder, and worse, she doesn’t really care, not after last night.
“Suppose we do,” says Totlenn. “Suppose we kill him. Suppose we gut Eenidd and every other little jumped up camp lord. Better yet, just for shits and giggles, suppose we march over to the our noble leaders’ camp and slaughter every last bitch we found.” He cocks his head at Merreth. “Then what? We can’t cross the river, boats and ferries are guarded and kept on the far bank at night. Take the locals hostage? Hardly any left and they’re worth nothing to nobles.” He shakes his head. “There’s only one way any of us are going home.”
Merreth glances behind her. She sees the same figure she spotted a few minutes earlier duck down a side road. He’s either very stupid or very sure of himself, she thinks. “What makes you so special that Eenidd has you followed?” she asks.
“I keep more of my men alive fighting the clan than any of the other five camps this side of the river. Don’t think he likes that very much, probably because yer Watch sisters don’t.”
They’re not my sisters, thinks Merreth. Not anymore.
There’s more people on the road now: cottagers, peddlers, and farmers. Three teams of draft horses pull wagons laden with barrels, wooden boxes, and sacks. Merreth and Totlenn step off to the side so it can pass. It rumbles by, its cargo jostling and creaking. “Camp supplies,” says Totlenn.
A few children tag along beside them, shouting and laughing. Probably from the cottages Merreth sees in the distance. “So that would be good, I think, that you know how to fight,” she says as a small, wide-eyed boy stares at her. Her shoulders twitch. She’s never been comfortable with children, particularly boys. “The better you are, the better for the Watch.”
Totlenn grunts. “You’d think. Maybe you can ask’em about it.” He points to a long, two-story stone structure. Shuttered windows are cut into both stories as well as through the angled, slate roof. Behind it, as if huddled there for protection, are a half dozen small stone sheds. “That’s what I want you to see.”
“What is it?”
“An armoury. Filled with nasty weapons, that we’re forbidden to use.”
A pair of guards at the armoury entrance wear boiled leather breastplates, heavy trousers and short, laced boots. Both hold lances and wear a dagger on their belt. Sword hilts poke up from behind their right shoulders. They stand on either side of a stout wooden door. Their bored expressions follow Tottlen and Merreth as they approach.
“Temm,” Totlenn nods to the one on the left. “Dorran.”
“Tottlen,” says Dorran. Their eyes never leave Merreth.
“Mistress,” says Temm. At the site of Merreth’s bandaged arm a small frown flits across his face.
“It’s Lady, actually. Lady Merreth of Sable House,” says Totlenn. He reaches into his pocket and flips a small copper coin to each. Grins split their faces. The door is unlocked and pushed open.
Totlenn hands over a thin-bladed dagger to the guards. He then lifts each of his boots and brushes the soles with his hands.
“What are you doing?” asks Merreth.
“Give the lads your weapons please, Lady Merreth,” Totlenn says.
She suspects a trap, then again had he wanted her dead, she wouldn’t have survived the chaos roiling through the camp last night. Still, she remembers what Brinnt had said the previous day. ‘There’s not lot of love for anyone like you around here.’ “I will not,” she says.
Totlenn exchanges glances with the two guards. “Don’t be bloody stupid, Lady Merreth,” he says. “Those Red Hand bitches would be damned unhappy if anyone kills you before they have a chance to slide a blade through your ribs.”
“What do you know of the Red Hand?” Merreth asks, trying to watch three sets of hands at once.
“I know you beat Tiandraa bloody in front of half of WestHold a couple of days ago.” He omits the honorific, Merreth notices without surprise. Totlenn scratches his beard. “And there’s rumours of other … doin’s as well.”
Other doin’s, she thinks. What a completely bland way of referring to carving her betrothed up like a lamb for a feasting day. “Why then, should I disarm myself?”
“We just need to get rid of anything that might cause a spark. You want a weapon? Dorran, give the lady that cudgel you keep handy.”
Dorran reaches behind him and produces what looks like a small mace completely wrapped in leather. “Here you are, M’Lady.” He tosses it at her feet. “That make you feel better?”
Merreth says nothing and snatches up the mace under the amused gaze of the three men. She pulls out a small cloth, lays it on the ground and places her dirks on it. Then, with one eye on Totlenn and the guards she swings her scabbard off her back and lays it down beside her dirks.
“Proper care of good steel there, M’Lady,” says Totlenn. “All set then?” Without waiting for a reply he strolls through the doorway. Merreth waits until Dorran and Temm roll their eyes and move away.
Merreth hurries in. Behind her she hears muffled laughter.
She finds herself inside a small alcove curtained on three sides with heavy brown leather, weighted at the bottom with lead slugs. Instead of a stone or wooden floor, she stands on fine dry sand. Very curious.
Totlenn pokes his head around one of the curtains. “Well come on. There’s nothing much to see where you are.” He disappears.
She steps past the curtain and peers into the gloom. As her eyes adjust she makes out racks of weapons against the far wall. Swords, unstrung bows, arrow quivers, axes, maces, and crossbows. And six foot spears, and much longer and heavier ones, twelve feet at least. Knee-high wood barrels lay in rows running the length of the building.
Light streams through the shutters. There’s no second floor; instead an inner balcony runs around the single large room that makes up the building. Staircases up to the balcony are at either end. There are no lamps anywhere. How did anyone see in here at night? The air seems to greedily suck up what moisture it can, Merreth’s mouth and nose are bone dry.
Totlenn stands in an aisle running between the barrels.
“Nothing that will cause a spark?” asks Merreth. “Those swords are made of wood are they, the axes from clay?” She tosses the cudgel on top of a barrel where it lands with a thud.
“They’re old, here long before these arrived.” He nods at the barrel where Merreth had thrown her cudgel. “The barrels have to be kept from spark or worse, open flame. That’s why there aren’t any lamps in here. Too bloody dangerous.”
“What are you talking about?” asks Merreth. Curiosity wars with annoyance as she follows Totlenn deeper into the armoury.
“This!” Totlenn gestures towards a small pile of crates.
Each crate is about five feet long and a couple feet deep. A black stamp on each indicates their origin in the coastal city of Baltoni.
“That? A wooden box?” asks Merreth.
Totlenn frowns. “Not the box, what’s inside the box.” Using a shim and Merreth’s discarded weapon he levers open the lid from the nearest crate. With grunt he pulls out something. It appears to be a crossbow missing stave and stirrup, yet with a long metal tube that runs up the stock.
“Some sort of half-built crossbow?”
Totlenn runs a hand down the metal tube, caressing it. He smiles in the dim light showing yellow teeth. “No, not a crossbow. It’s a matchlock.” He plays with a small S-shaped metal piece bolted to the stock. “It uses gunpowder.”
Merreth cocks her head. That term tugs at her memory, something about … “You mean like in fireworks on feast days at a fair?”
“Yes.” Totlenn’s eyes glow. “But with this, a pinch in the barrel, a lead slug, some wading, and a match,” his smile is feral now, “you can make bloody great holes in people.”
Merreth moves closer and peers at the weapon. It’s an ugly misshapen club, yet lithe and serpentine at the same time. “They sound just as dangerous to you as to anyone you point them at. If the Watch forbids their use how do you know they work?”
“Because we used them once. Not well, true enough. But well enough to blow a lot of clan bastards out of their saddles when they got too close.” He slams a fist into one of the crates in frustration. “We even took one of their horse tail standards! Us! Bloody scum convicts. How they wanted it back! Lost a dozen men to their fucking arrows, but we dragged it away from them and carried it off.” He places the weapon back in the crate and glowers. “That’s when the Watch took ‘em from us. The whole lot were put in here, along with all the powder and shot.”
“If you’re forbidden their use, why can you just stroll in here whenever you like?”
Totlenn laughs. “They don’t care. I’ll just be hung if I or any or my men try to take anything out. Temm and Dorran are outside only to keep any curious locals away.” Totlenn’s gaze bores into her. “But if you were to take them out …”
“Me! Why the blazes would I want to do that?”
“Because they’ll help keep you breathing. Our only road back across the river runs right through the clans. That includes you, Lady Merreth.” He pats the crate. “These’ll take us down that road very nicely.”
I need you, thinks Merreth, not your cunning little schemes. Too dangerous to get caught up in them. “In case you’re blind, I’m one of those, what did you call them ‘noble leather bitches’.” Merreth thrusts her forearm out and strips of the bandage, exposing the raw puckered brand. “But they think I’m no better than you.”
“No, you’re just a bitch who happens to wear leather. You don’t bloody act like a noble or talk like one.” He points to her whip. “Take off the skins, get rid of that and yer just like us.”
I’m nothing like you, she thinks. Unshaven, dirty, unkempt, likely lice in your beard, thieving from the weak, using people as tools, plus the Goddess knows what you’ve done to wind up here in the first place. No, you’re nothing like him, says a tiny, sly voice. You just turned your intended into little red gobbets. Much better. The memory of her blood-slicked hands fills her mind. She swallows and distracts herself with a question. “Why did they’d take your toys away anyway?”
“Only time we won we used the matchlocks.”
“They forbid the weapons because you won with them?” Merreth can’t believe this. “There must be more to it than that,” she snaps.
“No, there isn’t,” says Totlenn. “We’re not supposed to win. We’re supposed to die. We’re used as bait, torn apart while the nobles play being soldiers, always with a constable unit or two at our back to make sure we do as we’re told.” He clenches his fists and his voice rises. “And when we’re not dying like cattle in a pen, Eenidd and his ilk have us working the fields. We’re nothing more than bait and strong backs. That lying bitch Rhekhell isn’t going to give up either.” He steps closer and holds his arm up. “Look! Look, damn your eyes! I was to be back over the river a year ago!”
“Better for everyone then that we’re over here instead,” says Merreth, her temper straining its leash like a wolf, jaws snapping. “Bastard! I’m not some tool that can use to pry what you want from the Watch.”
“So it’s ‘no’ then, is it?” Totlenn asks. He slams his fist into the side of crate. “I hope you like it over here, Lady Merreth. You’ll be here a lot longer than two years, unless the clans, or the Red Hand, or even the Watch gets you. And remember, you need friends on the plains. Can’t see where you’re going to find any of those.”
“I won’t find any in your lot,” Merreth snarls. She whirls and storms towards the entrance, silently cursing both Totlenn and her temper.
She’s halfway there when the armoury door opens, hinges squealing. Dorran pokes his head through the curtains, face creased with worry. “Trouble, Totlenn. A lot of skins on horseback, There’s a wagon with a couple of Eenidd’s jackals in it. Plenty of steel showing, and they’ve ringed the armoury. They want you outside, now. They’ve got shackles for you.” He glances at Merreth. “They say you had a hand in trying to murder Lady Merreth last night.”
More Lady Merreth
Want to know more about Lady Merreth? Check out her character description.
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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.
The illustration above is of Lady Samretta, though it’s not a scene from the chapter.
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.