A Matter of Faith
“I have you to thank,” she says. Mistress Merreth does not turn around as I
sit down a few feet from her. She looks
out over the Milderdort harbour. The small Temple plaza is perched on a hill and affords
her an excellent view. The day is unseasonably warm; dories and skiffs and
yachts scuttle across the bay like excited water beetles.
“Yes.” I am polite. I am also nervous, like a guilty child before a stern parent. A breeze rustles through the bushes surrounding the plaza, chilling me more than it should. “How did you know?”
“Footsteps, their weight and cadence, told me you’re a man. Likely only one man would come see me this morning.” Her voice is flat, leaden, the words dropping like stones into mud.
“Mistress Merreth, why were you, ah, where you were last night?” I ask the question as carefully, as I can. Priestess Wrenn should be asking this question, and whatever ones might follow. I think my station is too humble to be making impertinent inquiries of my betters, but the Priestess thinks otherwise in this case.
“Lady!” she snaps, then, more quietly, “Lady Merreth.”
My gaze drifts to the coiled whip at her hip. It marks her. Heir Primary to her House. Mistress Merreth. But I do not argue.
“Getting drunk,” she says.
She leaves out much. Another few seconds and the tavern would have looked like a slaughterhouse. Three, possibly four, fishermen dead or severely maimed. Goddess knows how that mess would have been dealt with. The constables subdued her with more luck than skill. A quick rap on the head from behind – something that everyone in the tavern pretended not to see – and Lady Merreth collapsed. My mouth goes dry. Assaulting a noble ...
She turns to face me, one hand rubbing the back of her head. “You brought me to the Temple?” The breeze flicks strands of rich mahogany coloured hair around her face. Light olive skin, brown eyes, a mouth long out of the practice of smiling. I nod. Her scent carries to my nose. Musky, sweaty, earthy. I hear the creak of her leathers as she moves. Vest, breeches, boots, gloves, all black. Stitched, scuffed, worn; these aren’t a noble’s finery.
Her sword and scabbard lie on the Temple bench beside her. The sight jars me. Nobles don’t go armed in Milderdort. Her other weapon is close at hand as well, leaning against the bench. I’m not sure what it is. I’ve seen matchlocks in Freeport. Heavy, club-like things. Merreth’s weapon is smaller, serpentine, sinister. Its stock is scuffed, her sword hilt worn. Her tools see use.
“You had passed out,” I say. This sounds better than ‘were clubbed senseless’. Likely safer too.
“You don’t lie very well, Templeman.”
Her eyes hold mine. Fox and rabbit. And I can’t drop my gaze, can’t look away from her. My heart thuds in my chest. “I’ve not had much practice. It’s not a skill the Temple encourages.”
“You might be surprised.” She looks away, back over the water.
The implied criticism of the Temple unsettles me, but I let pass. “Why did you want to get drunk?”
“Why does anyone? Haven’t you?”
I haven’t. My mother and father gave me into Temple service to avoid just that sort of corruption. I’ve been schooled in wine tasting so as to suggest suitable vintages for meals, but nothing more. “No.”
“Fortunately you were there, precisely when I,” she pauses, “passed out.” She places a slight emphasis on the last two words. “I might be having some regrets right now. Isn’t that right, Templeman?” Her head tilts back as she watches a seagull soar overhead.
“Yes, Lady Merreth.”
She turns back to me. My heart drops like a stone. I’ve as much as admitted to arranging for her to ‘pass out’. We’re no longer fox and rabbit; more wolf and rabbit. The corner of her mouth quirks upward but I see lips skinning back over fangs. “To forget,” she says.
I blink. “Your pardon?”
“You asked me why I drank. I owe you an answer, or something, for last night.” Her tone is cryptic. It does nothing to calm me. “To forget,” she repeats.
The wind picks up. A shiver runs down my spine like a pack of light-footed mice. Her words are a door slightly ajar. It wouldn’t take much to push that door open.
I decide to give it a nudge. “What do you want to forget?”
Lady Merreth smiles for the first time, and I am no longer nervous. I am frightened.
Her smile fades like a shadow running from the dawn. “I’ve seen things that you wouldn’t believe.”
She talks, words running out of her mouth like wine from an overturned bottle. I listen, and I can smell the burning fields she describes, feel dirt caked to my clothes, sweat rolling down my face, heat through my boots from walking through smoking ruins that used to be family dwellings.
A sun half eaten by the horizon washes red-orange light over the still smoldering field. Blackened stubble crunches beneath her boots. Her blood slicked hands place the last severed head atop the grisly pyramid. There are precisely thirty-eight. She counted as she hacked each one free of a body. It took her three hours. The air is thick with flies, the dry ash scent of charred crops, the cloying stench of drying blood. The wind lifts cinders into the air, fanning the now faintly glowing embers across the field.
The others in the rescue party watch. No one speaks. Horses snort and stamp restlessly. Leather creaks, reins jangle as riders shift in their saddles. No one helps. She does the things they will not, the cold things, the brutal things, the necessary things. Some feel shame at that, most feel relief.
Merreth takes a clansman lance and upends it. She drives the point deep into the ground, burying its horse-tail banner. An expression of utter contempt for the clans. After the rescue party leaves, the clan scouts will come creeping back. They’ll find the bodies, the heads, and the lance. They will know it was Merreth. The clans hate her, despise her and now, after two years of war in all but name, they fear her.
Merreth walks back to her horse. No one meets her eyes.
“Fire the bodies. Leave the heads.”
“Horrible,” I say softly. The scene is vivid and difficult to shake, clinging to me like cobwebs in my hair. I still see blood-flecked bone poking out of severed necks. My stomach knots.
“I’m good at it.” She shrugs. “Killing, I mean. Better at hurting though.”
“Hurting who?” I ask. I already know who she kills, or at least some of them.
“Anyone. Everyone, it seems.”
“Is that why you were,” I pause. She lifts her eyebrow. “Is that what you try to forget?”
“No. Not that. Not that at all.”
Holding a noble’s gaze is not proscribed for Templemen, but I flinch from her eyes nonetheless.
“Don’t do that, ever, with me,” she says. “It reminds me of those miserable wretches in service to the Red Hand. Always skittish, uneasy, nervous. She pauses and cocks her head, studying me. “Do I make you nervous, Templeman?”
“No, Lady Merreth.” Yes, Lady Merreth.
“Really.” She stretches out the word. Her smile is back and just as un-nerving as the first time. “How old are you?”
What an unexpected question! “I have seen nineteen summers.”
“Hmmm...what were you doing three years ago?”
“Preparing to take my vows, at this very Temple.” My brow knits into a furrow. Why would Lady Merreth would wish to know any details of my past?
“I was ... doing something rather different.”
Her gaze loses focus. It seems to linger over my shoulder and I wonder what she sees. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” she asks. “You’re probably too young,” she muses, “or else you’d likely have the Temple Priestess with you. Can’t have me butchering any of the local boys, now can we?” Her words are harsh, clipped, bitter.
At the mention of butchery, something tugs at my memory. As a child I’d heard little of noble affairs, as an Initiate even less. My determination to make my parents proud left little time for idle gossip. Yet now, with Lady Merreth right in front of me, a half remembered rumour struggles to take form. Some horrid scandal involving – my eyes go wide. Her age. Her leathers, her black leathers. Sable House.
“It seems you might know who I am after all,” says Lady Merreth dryly.
Rustling leaves, gull cries, distant cart wheels clattering over cobbled streets, all these sounds fade as I stare at her. I swallow, cross and uncross my feet, clasp my hands together. They are damp with sweat. I wipe them down on my tunic.
“Sit still, damn it. I’m not going to hurt you!” Lady Merreth sighs and shakes her head. “If anything I’d wind up keeping others from hurting you.”
I obey, but uncertainly over what to say next nags me. Temple scripture and my lessons are clear about darkened souls; souls in need, and Lady Merreth is that. Everything about her shouts it. But Templemen do not comfort or guide the nobility. Men lack the insight and are more susceptible to the darker lures than our sisters, are more prone to the corruption. Priestess Wrenn should be summoned. Yet ... “You haven’t told me yet what it is you are trying to forget.”
“Are you sure you want to know, boy? Really sure?”
I bristle at her mocking tone, her use of the derisive title. She is baiting me. But I am impetuous. “Yes, I’m sure.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think. I prepare myself. Whatever she tells is likely to be unpleasant if her first tale is anything to go by.
“Do you know what flensing knives can do to a man? I do.”
I am wrong. ‘Unpleasant’ is far too mild a term.
“It’s better when they trust you,” she says, looking away. “And he trusted me with his life.”
Her right hand worries a fold in her breeches. I stare at her arm, fascinated by the corded muscle that ripples just under the skin when she moves.
“And why not?” she says quietly.
I find myself leaning forward, curious despite growing unease. “And why not?” I repeat, impatient and fearful of the answer.
“Because he,” her eyes narrow. “Never mind why not!” The words are grim. She looks at me stone-faced, her gaze as cold as winter wind howling up from the sea. “They told me later the carpet they found him on was red. It was white when I started.”
My mind instantly paints all the details, drawing vile inspiration from her sheer brevity. I reel at the implications. Confession to murder? To me? This can’t be right. I glance at her weapons. Expressing open disbelief does not seem wise.
“Or so I’m told.”
“You don’t know?” I have to force the words out.
“I don’t remember.” There is anger in her answer, and something more, there’s frustration. “The Under-Priestess and her Templemen told everyone what they found and what they say happened. And their word is beyond reproach now, isn’t it?”
There it is again, a subtle mockery of the Temple and its servants. Again, I ignore the question. “How did you gain such ... trust from an enemy?”
“I never said he was an enemy.”
“Then who?” I feel a growing, horrid fascination with every word she utters.
The two words ring in my ears. Her consort! Brutal murder and politics! The conversation has become far too treacherous for me to navigate safely. The Priestess must be summoned immediately! I lurch to my feet, heart racing, my palms damp again. “Lady Merreth, this is not for me to hear. I will have Priestess Wrenn come speak with you, at once.”
“Sit. Down. Now.”
She hasn’t moved, remains still as a statue, yet I feel an aura of palpable menace radiating from her. I sit down.
“You wanted to know,” she says.
I did at first. But now, I fear I will learn of things too dangerous to know, or rather more things. I can’t leave and we can scarcely sit here in silence all afternoon. So I ask “What happened?”
“They buried him, all the bits they could find, anyway. And I left.”
“You left? Just like that?” I blurt the words out. They are impertinent and possibly accusatory. I regret them immediately and wish desperately for a water-skin to slake my sudden thirst.
“No, not ‘just like that’. It was ... costly. I went west.” She glances down towards the road leading out to Baltoni and sighs. The movement makes her seem smaller, less formidable.
“The Goddess took you there for a purpose.” I wince even before I finish speaking. My intent was to offer some small solace without violating my vows. But the words sound pious and somehow patronizing.
“If she did, her purpose is soaked in blood. She must delight in death. There’s certainly been enough of it.”
“But...” I stop. I have no words. I’ve been told that men in the deepest despair, when they’ve experienced one too many personal misfortunes, will sometimes curse the Goddess. But for a noblewoman to do so, to hear our Goddess described as some callous bloodthirsty fiend shakes me.
“Do I shock you, Templeman? Not used to hearing such from the nobility?” She peels her gloves off and flexes her fingers, her eyes never leaving mine.
“Why would you say such a thing, Lady Merreth?” I work hard to keep the quaver out of my voice. She is like no noble I’ve ever met. Others posture and bluster, but they are as mewling pups to a wolf.
She leans forward and drops her voice. “Because, Templeman, it's true. I went west. I found a war. One being lost as it happens. I won it, or at least stopped it. But the Goddess, the one you worship in that Temple,” she jerks her head towards the main doorway, “demanded a very high price in return.”
“What price?” I ask. “I’ve heard of the troubles in the Western Watch, beyond the Saskanna River. We prayed every day that the Watch would know peace.”
“Well, your prayers were answered, but only after hundreds, thousands lay dead. Farms destroyed, homes razed, families killed,” she coughs and lowers her head, “children slaughtered.” She wipes a hand over her face and looks back at me. She’s rubbed her eyes so hard they’re red. “So many children. I buried dozens, dug their graves, laid them down, and covered them over. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t be everywhere at once. I couldn’t save them all. There were never enough of us. So I took the war to the clans. They burn a farm; we fire a dozen yurts. They ambush a patrol; we butcher a dozen scouts. They slay a child; we slaughter ten families. I wanted to make war against the Western Watch so terrible it would be unthinkable. After two years, I had. Me. No one else wanted to do what needed to be done. No one else was nearly as good at it. And all it cost me was everything I had ever been, or ever wanted to be.”
“But surely more were saved in the long run by your efforts,” I say.
“Only your Goddess can answer that.”
“She’s your Goddess too, Lady Merreth.”
She shakes her head. “No. She’s not. But I am her instrument. Now.” She works her gloves over her hands. They are tight enough to be a second skin. After finishing, she stands and hangs the sword and scabbard off her hip. The sinister matchlock-like weapon is slung over her shoulder in one fluid motion. “To answer your question, Templeman, I don’t drink to forget what I’ve become. I drink to forget what I was, and what I could have been.”
Her gaze is drawn to something behind me. I turn to see Priestess Wrenn coming out the Temple door, robes swirling around her. She walks towards us.
“You have your answer,” Lady Merreth tells me. "I’m going now.”
I look up at her. “Those things you’ve done. Aren’t you afraid that you’ve grown to enjoy them?”
For the third time Lady Merreth smiles. Sadly. “No. I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop enjoying them.”