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The University Tales Part I

Author's Commentary
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This is the story (chapter or part, really) that introduces Evvern and Lady Simma.  These two characters are destined to play a large role in Lady Merreth's life, whether she wants them to or not.  And initially, it is very definately "not".   As with all of my first drafts, this one is quite rough, though I do think there are some solid pieces of writing here.   Unfortunately there are some repeated phrases, and one or two "howlers" that need to be fixed.  In addition, although the "University Tales" take place after Western Watch I actually wrote them before I did much of the work on Western Watch.  Consequently in the second draft of the University Tales I need to refine Merreth's personality a bit. 

However, I am happy with the pacing, the story in general, and the way the characters interact.  

Enjoy.   And check out :iconsyoshiko:'s picture "Lady Merreth:  We need to talk".  It's where Merreth and Evvern may wind up.  If she doesn't kill him first.  :)
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Merreth pushes the door open and steps inside. The eatery stinks of sweet grass, fresh cut timber, and roasting meat.  The place looks started and finished that morning.  Damp cool air seeps past rudely fashioned windows set in wooden walls so new they bleed sap.  Rain water patters off her as she wipes her boots, shucks her travel cape, and strips off sodden gloves.  Boisterous conversation drops to a murmur as assorted commoners turn to look her over. Labourers mostly, in sweat stained spun cotton tunics, plain boots, and simple coats.  One or two petty merchants as well, marked by their finer linen and more elaborate travel cloaks.  They sit at rough tables still shedding wood chips and sawdust.   Talk resumes hurriedly when they see her whip, her sword, her expression.

      There’s an open door to the kitchen at the back. Beside it a small empty table beckons.  Nearby a cheerful little hearth fire pops and
crackles, gamely trying to banish the dampness in the air.  Merreth unbuckles her sword belt and sits with her back to the wall.  It’s a habit
now. She reaches inside her vest and pulls out the letter. 

      After unfolding it she reads it for the fifth time, hoping the words have changed.   They haven’t.  Why not!?  It’s been three
years!  I want to come home!

      Her fingers snap together into a fist, crushing the letter into a jagged paper ball. 

      A serving lad bustles out from the kitchen burdened with a bowl of stew in one hand and several mugs of ale in the other. He drops
them at a table and hurries over, wiping his hands on his apron.  “Your pleasure, Ma’am?  Miserable out, isn’t it? Most postal couriers
like a hot mug of mulled wine on a day like today.”

      She doesn’t look at him.     “I’m not a courier.”

      “Then who – my pardon, Mistress!” He steps back and stands twisting a rag in his hands.   Water runs off her forehead and drips onto the table. “We have some towels,” he says. “Not very clean, though.”

      Now she looks at him.  “I’m not a Mistress, either.”

      Young, not more than fourteen summers, she guesses.  All arms, legs, and anxious uncertainty, topped with blonde hair that looks combed with a branch.  He can see her whip and her leathers, so she must be noble.  But she is alone and so drenched her hair looks like a wet mop.  And what is she doing here? 

       “Archonn!” A voice like a kettle drum booms the name from inside the kitchen. “Stop dawdling, damn it!  Get in here and grab these plates!”

      Merreth’s arms and legs are heavy, aching after a long ride, her leathers coldly slick on her skin; black anger flirts with depression.  She is willing to share these feelings. 

      The boy stands, torn between duties elsewhere and the noble who’s yet to dismiss him. Pettily, vindictively she draws out the silence, letting the boy’s indecision blossom into worry.  She’s miserable, why shouldn’t someone else be?

      “Have, have I done something that displeases you, Ma’am?”

      His question, plaintive, tremulous in tone, shames Merreth and she relents. “Tea, strong and hot,” she says gruffly.  Three years in the west. Long enough to despise her old attitudes.  Too short to lose them entirely.

      “At once, Ma’am.”

      Merreth watches him vanish into the kitchen before frowning at the crumpled letter.  I’m running out of places to go, she thinks. To run to, corrects a nasty inner voice. She smoothes out the creases as best she can and tucks it back into her vest, checking to make certain it can’t fall out.    

      The front door opens with a bang. A squat, sharp nosed man draped in a working man’s frock enters.  Two sapling thin companions slip around either side of him. Rain-wet air billows in from behind them, raising goose bumps on Merreth’s bare arms.   Heads turn toward the newcomers and muttered protests grow.  The man sweeps the room with a hard gaze, silencing those who catch his eye.  He glances at Merreth and nods slightly.  A nudge from one of his friends draws his attention to a solitary figure spooning stew from a bowl.  The three slide into seats at his table.

      She’s seen them before.  Not them specifically, but their kind. Out west and again in Baltoni’s foundry district.  A fat badger and a couple of weasels, come nosing around for easy scraps.

      The serving lad reappears with a steaming mug of tea and sets it on the table in front of her.  “There you are, Ma’am.  Strong and
hot, just as you asked.” 

      A coin from her pocket goes into his hand and she wraps her fingers around the mug.   She sighs as the first sip of hot fragrant liquid trickles down her throat.   The warmth spreads out through her chest. She remembers comforting nights at home around the fire when she was young.  Her chest tightens and her eyes close.  She pushes the memories away.  It hurts to taste them, to want them back
again.

      When her eyes open again she watches the three arrivals over the brim of her mug.  They’re crowding the young man at his table. Thin, bespectacled. A merchant or possibly a prosperous shop-keep.   Merreth frowns as she sees him edge away. He can’t go far. They have him hemmed in against the wall.  She takes another sip and tries to hear what’s being said.

      “...game’s all, Evvern. We thought ...”

      Spectacles frowns. He doesn’t care for them, she thinks. Neither do I.

      “Grateful for the offer gentle ...”

      The badger sits with his back to Merreth.  His shoulders tense, bunching the frock around his neck like ripples around a boulder in a stream.

      “Come on now, a friendly game like.”   Spectacles looks around the room.  Merreth does the same. The other patrons are not watching, are making a point of not watching.

      Gaming dice fall from a weasel’s hand and skitter across the table.  They bounce to a stop in front of Spectacles.  His mouth jerks
into a smile and he slides them over to their owner.  A knife slides the dice back.   The weasel cleans his nails with the blade.

      Merreth glances at the other patrons.  Her mouth tightens.  Fine, I’ll do it, she thinks.

      She puts her tea down carefully and slides out of her chair.  Four steps forward and she’s standing behind one of the weasels.  “He
said he didn’t want to play.”

      Spectacles looks up at her and blinks.  The others keep their eyes on him.

      “No business of yours, courier.”

      Merreth grabs a shoulder and jerks her hand back, pulling the man off his chair.  He topples backwards and cracks his head against an empty bench.  She is already reaching to pluck the knife from its owner’s hand.  The blade hammers down and bites into the table between the badger’s fingers.  A heartbeat later Merreth slowly unwraps her hand from the hilt.

      “I’m not a bloody courier.”

      Spectacles finds his voice. “Clearly not, Ma’am, but I – .”

      Merreth cuts him off.  “Leave. Now,” she says to the badger. 

      The man looks at the knife between his fingers and turns to Merreth.  His sees the whip and smiles.  “Didn’t know you’d been
collared, Evvern.  Pleasureman, eh?”

      “What? I, no!  Most certainly not!”

      Badger snorts.  Merreth stands aside, fuming at the lack of deference, as he and his friend help their companion stagger to the door. 
He turns and waves at Spectacles. “We’ll see you later.  We can haveour game then.”

      Merreth watches the door close.  She turns to the small wiry figure left sitting at the table, his bowl of cold stew forgotten in front of him.  About thirty summers. Dark brown hair, no beard.  Right handed from the position of the spoon in the bowl.  Light brown tunic
of good quality linen.  A prosperous shop-keep, and he’s kept a little more of his prosperity because of her.  He’s staring at her.

      “You could thank me,” she says.

      “Thank you?  Thankyou! For what?  You’ve just made my life measurably more difficult!” 

      “What? You ungrateful, miserable little money counter! Those three are –.”

      “I know what they are!”  He waves his arm around.  “Everyone here knows what they are, what they do!”  He pushes the bowl away and stands.  “I could have dealt with them.  I was managing them, until your grand gesture.”  His tone is biting. Murmurs and chuckles break out around the room. He reaches behind for his coat.

      Merreth can scarcely believe her ears.  She’s not used this. He is actually furious!  With her! Her jaw tightens.  She can feel eyes on her.  He and Merreth have captured the room’s attention. Her stomache knots and she feels her cheeks grow warm.  She forces herself to relax.  I’m noble, damn it!  I will not argue with a petty shop-keep in a room filled with boors and churls!  “Stay put!”  She retrieves her sword and gloves, cursing the wasted tea, the smirking commoners, and most particularly the bespectacled peddler.  She looks up to
see him disappearing out the entrance.

      Damn him!

      Quick strides to the door, hating herself for trying to make it look like she was not running after him.  She grabs her travel cape, wrenches the door open, and steps outside.  Muted laughter follows her.

      He stands to one side of the eatery’s small wooden stoop looking out over the road. Foot traffic, wagons, and horses plod, rattle, and splash their way through muddy puddles to and from Freeport University.  Arms wrapped around himself against the chill. Fists clenched.  His shoulders rise and falls as he pants, small puffs of breath misting out in front of him. A small pack sits by his feet.

      Merreth reaches over, grabs his ear and twists sharply.

      “Ouch!  What the – that HURTS!”

      She walks him backwards until he thuds against the wall.

      “Listen, clerk!” She has to look down at him.  He’s at least an inch shorter. “They are weasels. You are a mouse. Weasels eat mice. 
Always.  Mice do not ‘manage’ weasels.  Do I make myself clear?”

      “Yes!”

      “Good.  Now, stop squirming.”

      “Then let go of me, arrogant, insufferable, posturing thug!”

      She does let go, steps back and ... CRACK!

      Her backhand snaps his head to one side.  When he turns back, he drops his eyes, but not before she sees shock and uncertainty in them.  She grabs his chin and pulls his head up.

      “I am not a thug,” she says slowly, as if to a dimwitted child.  “I do not hurt people for money.  I hurt people because I enjoy it.  And I’m good at it.  Little boy.” 

      “You must be very proud.” 

      The insolent little shit!  She should chastise him.  Right there in the street, and she’d be within her rights!  Part of her wanted to, needed to desperately.  She could, and she’d look utterly ridiculous doing so or worse, utterly like one of those Red Hand bitches.  Instead she crushes the desire with effort and smiles thinly.  “Yes, I am.”

      “Thank you.”

      “What?” 

      “Back inside. You said I should thank you.  I have.  May I go now, Mistress?”

      There is the barest hint of emphasis on the title.  She looks at him closely. Is he mocking her? No.  He wouldn’t be that foolish.  She lets go of his chin. “Lady, not Mistress. In a moment. You said I had made your life more difficult.  How?”

      “Measurably more difficult is what I said.”  He steps around Merreth and grabs his pack.  “It’s very simple.  Jarll and his friends –.”

      “You know them?”

      “Not by choice. Jarll and his friends live around here.  They haunt all of the new establishments being built along the university road. You, I’ve never seenbefore.  Likely you’ll be gone soon, but they will not, and I will not.   They’ll wait until you’re left and come after me again. They’ll be less pleasant than usual, and that’s saying something.”

      She’s annoyed now. At him for being right, and at herself for having him explain it to her.  Stupid.  She’d spent enough time on the gritty side of life, the side her noble sisters rarely saw, to know how things worked.  “What about the constables?”

      He laughs. “The constables?  You really aren’t from around here, are you?”  We’re three miles outside of Freeport.  The university is another two miles up the road. Both think the other should keep order here. So no one does.”

      The urge to chastise him returns.  This time she gives it a little more thought before again rejecting the idea.  “What are you doing here?  Is your shop somewhere nearby?”

      He cocks his head at her. “No.  My shop is back is back in Freeport. I’m on my way to the university.  I have an appointment there. And I’m likely to be late if I don’t get started now.”

      Again there is the slightest emphasis on a word – this time ‘shop’.  Merreth wonders what that means. It occurs to her that he’s never once dropped his eyes from hers.  She’s used to telling the men she speaks with to not avert their eyes but here, now, his failure to do so irks her.  “I haven’t said you can go yet.”

      He stops and looks at her, waiting politely.

      Merreth says nothing.  She stands wearing a slight frown, lips compressed.    Wagon wheels crunch on wet gravel, reigns jangle, snatches of a dozen different conversations drift by. The smell of drenched evergreens, soaked clothing, damp leather, and wet horseflesh fills the air.  If I let him go now, she thinks, he’s made me look petty.  Damn it!  

      “Is there something else?”

      No.  Yes!  She feels both relief and irritation when she spots Jarll and his two friends across the road.  They’re speaking with another man.  The four turn in their direction.  “Jarll and his pets are across the road.  Where’s your...” she stops.

      “Horse? Carriage? Coach?  I don’t have any.  I walk.”

      An ornate coach is jostling and splashing through the mud and puddles.  Noble possibly, she thinks, judging by its sprung suspension, rich wooden panelling with inlaid designs, and brass-spoked wheels. Probably that of one of the more wealthy local merchants.  Perfect.

      “You have one now.” Merreth brushes past him and jumps to the ground.  Muddy water cascades up from her boots over the steps.  Two fingers in her mouth and a piercing whistle.  A useful skill learned out west, one of many that would shock most of her sister nobles.   

     The coach slows but does not stop.  One of the horses plants a foot squarely in a puddle, showering Merreth with grey-brown
water.  She curses and trots alongside the lead horse until she can grab its bridle.

      The coachman reigns back and stares down at Merreth. “You there, what are you doing?  Let go at once!  This coach is in the service of the Red hand!” 

      “Bugger off.”  Merreth walks down past the horse team to the carriage door.  “Shop-keep!  Grab your pack and get down here!”

      “My name is Evvern.”  He steps down from the stoop and gingerly picks his way forward through wagon ruts and puddles.  “And I’m not a shop-keep!”

      A curtain is drawn back and a face appears briefly in the coach window.  The door it flies open and rattles against the side of the coach.  A long tangle of curly, carrot-red hair thrusts outward.  It frames a plump face with green eyes set over an upturned nose.  “Just who the blazes do you think you are?  This is a Red Hand coach!  You’re a bloody courier!  What is the meaning of this?”

      “Ah, the Red Hand. Foul tempered and blind.” answers Merreth.  “Typical. Open your eyes.  I’m not a courier.  How much room is in this thing?”  She raps her knuckles on the side of the carriage for emphasis.

      “Not a courier?”  The green eyed gaze travels down from Merreth’s face to the sword on one hip and across to the whip hanging from the other. “Noble!”  A moment’s silence and the harangue resumes.   “You’re a disgrace to your sisters! Soaking wet, boots covered in mud!  A drowned rat!  Leathers so filthy they look positively black! Where’s your pride?”

      She is youthful, probably around twenty-five summers or so.  She wears a rust coloured velvet blouse under a tight-fitting vest. Vest, breeches, and boots are all in the Red Hand’s blood-red house colour. 

      Merreth reaches up, grabs a handful of velvet and pulls forward sharply.  The movement sloshes water off the coach roof down over the woman. She hangs half out of the carriage, her face inches from Merreth, hair dripping wet.

      “My leathers are black,” says Merreth.

      The eyes go wide. “Sable House?  Merreth?! You bitch, I’m soaked!  Let go of me, you lunatic!”

      She is tempted to do just that, and let the Red Hand brat fall face first into the road. Instead Merreth shoves her backward into the carriage.  “Evvern, get over here.”

      Evvern hesitates.

      “Well come on!” Drops of rain start falling again. I really hate this weather, thinks Merreth. 

      “Uh, Lady Merreth, I’d really rather walk.”

      The brat thrusts her head out of the carriage again.  “Evvern?  Is that you?”

      “You know her?”  Merreth jerks a thumb at the red-head.

      “Of course he knows me, not that it’s any of your concern!”

      “Yes.”  Evvern mutters something under his breath. Merreth can’t quite make it out but it sounds like ‘not by choice’.

      “Evvern, come inside here, now!  I’ll not have you wet, cold, and in the company of, of,” the red-head glances at Merreth, “this uncouth, ill-mannered lout.  What would your mother say if she knew you were out here like this?  You’ll catch your death!”  She motions to him in a gesture half command and half request.

      “Hello, Lady Simma,” says Evvern.  His tone is non-committal.

      “Evvern, you’re off to the University are you?  Excellent. You’ll ride with me, warm, dry, and out of Lady Merreth’s ... reach.”  Simma resumes her seat inside the carriage.  “Come on, now!  I have someone to see and I’ll not be late!”

      Evvern sighs and places one hand on the open door.  He looks at Merreth and shakes his head before hoisting himself inside.

      Now what? thinks Merreth.  He gets a ride and he’s away from Jarll and his friends, at least temporarily.  Of course, he will be with Lady Simma, but she’s hardly going to forcibly collar him.  He’s likely not so sure of that, but if he finds the trip unpleasant, so what? Insolent bastard.

      Simma leans out the door again and glares at Merreth.  “I hope you come down with a cold and die gagging on your own snot.”

      “Always a pleasure speaking with the Red Hand.”  Merreth reaches over and slams the coach door, narrowly missing Simma’s head.  She
walks up to the horse team so she can see the coachman.  “Get going.”

      The coach moves off, leaving both her, and across the street Jarll, looking at it. He and his friends glance in her direction.  She ignores them, unhitches Winddancer and swings up into the saddle.  Jarll flags down a passing wagon and clambers aboard.  It too moves off towards the university.  She frowns, remembering what Evvern said and spurs Winddancer up the road after Simma’s coach.

      Sigh.  I’m a damn courier after all.





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littlegoblet's avatar
this was a sweet read buddy.  I love the banter between lady Merreth and Lady Simma.  I don't know much about Lady Simma but for some reason I find myself liking her and would like to know more about her.  So is Merreth in fact a courier like an unwilling courier due to unfortunate circumstances or is it by choice?  I am learning more and more about the world in which she lives in which is also quite interesting and at times funny.   well done :)