literature

Western Watch, Chapter 1, First Draft

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Literature Text

“I don’t like this,” says Merreth as she and Ammantha walk down a hallway cloaked in shadow.  It’s just before dawn. Heavy velvet curtains drawn across tall windows keep out any early light.  Large, stern portraits march along the opposite wall.  Soft pools of yellow thrown by oil lamps set between the paintings are the only illumination.  A distant clock strikes the quarter hour. 

            “We should hurry,” says Ammantha, “the footmen will be by to the check the lamps soon.”

            “I know when they make their rounds,” says Merreth.  “I used to try to sneak up on them when I was a child, remember?”  She works short tight gloves over her fingers.  They are fashioned from black leather, as are her boots, breeches, and riding vest.  A coiled, ten foot whip hangs from her belt.  A dirk’s hilt protrudes from the top of her right boot.  The gloom darkens her olive skin and turns her mahogany-coloured hair black.

            “Yes,” says Ammantha, frowning, “I do.  Everyone worried about you.  Ten years old and running around at four in the morning. If you’d hurt yourself with that silly wooden sword of yours, the footmen would have paid for it.”  Ammantha is Mistress of Sable House, Protector of the Temple Way, Guardian of Sable province, and sworn vassal of the Wechtan Matriarch.    She has pale skin, a heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and is svelte and graceful in her tunic, knee length skirt, and boots.   Her ash-blonde hair turns golden as the two pass each lamp. She always makes Merreth feel tall, gangly, and awkward.  Ammantha is procedure, protocol, and ceremony.  She is also Merreth’s sister, older by a year. 

            “Father didn’t seem to mind,” says Merreth. 

            “Father is dead, and mother did mind,” says Ammantha.    

            “Mother’s dead as well.”  Merreth swallows to get rid of the lump in her throat. 

            “That has nothing to do with, with,” Ammantha hesitates, her lips pressed into a thin line. “what has to be done now to keep our House safe.  To keep you safe.”

            House first, me second, thinks Merreth.  “It has everything to do with it,” she says.  Her voice is edged, raw, and harsh.  Her anger is misplaced, but she needs it.  The alternative is a ink-black pit, with her fears baying and snapping at her from the bottom.  “Most loyal to the Matriarch! That’s us, that’s our House, thanks to mother, and her mother before her.  Now you’re House Mistress, Ammantha.  That loyalty must count for something!  You can end this farce with a single letter to the Whip!”  Pleasant memories of playing hide and seek with the footmen have rotted into an image of her hands bound to her saddle pommel, her mount surrounded by Red Hand House guards.  Vicious little thugs.    

            “No I can’t, Merreth,” Ammantha snaps. “The Matriarch will have to consider the charge and the evidence provided by the Red Hand and, for the love of the Goddess, by you!”  Ammantha seizes Merreth’s arms. “The blood,” she looks up and down the hallway and lowers her voice.  “You said the blood was up to your elbows, your arms soaked in the stuff!” 

             Merreth squeezes her eyes shut, her heart hammers in her chest like a caged hare desperate to escape.  She opens them after a moment and glares at her sister. “I told you I don’t remember what happened! It wasn’t real, it was a damned nightmare!”  But I do remember, she thinks.

             She’d struggled into a sitting position and shook her head to clear the groggy, gauzy feeling.  Her hands and arms felt wet.  She studied them, blinking until her four arms merged back into two and steadied. They were slick with deep-red blood. She held her hands up and watched in fascination as it had rolled down her arms, slid off her elbows, drip by drip, and been swallowed by the greedy carpet. An excited, coppery taste flooded her mouth.  Drynndin lay on his back in front of her, eyes open.  Her eyes widened at the row of small, jagged, bloody-white sticks poking up from his chest and her body tingled at the sight. Then her screams filled up the room. 

            Her grandmother’s portrait stares down from the wall.  Merreth was never her favourite, and now the oiled rendering seems to glare at her over Ammantha’s shoulder.

            “Nightmare?”  Ammantha’s face is made dark by shadow.  And doubt.

             Merreth pulls free of her sister’s grasp.  “You don’t believe me.”

            “Merreth, he wasn’t just some pleasureman –.”

            Her sister’s words are sparks to tinder.  “Shut. Up,” Merreth says in a low flat voice.  “Never say that!  Never even imply that I’m like any of those vultures. I’m no butcher.” Something worse, maybe.

            “You were going to marry one of those ‘vultures’, Merreth.”

            “Yes, I was.”  A Sable House Mistress and a Red Hand consort.  A good political match, ending years – decades – of suspicion, rivalry, and intrigue all in one ceremony.  Good for Sable House, good for the Red Hand, good for the Wechtan Matriarchy, however personally distasteful it might be. Except it wasn’t distasteful, not after a while.  “Drynndin came from a minor branch of the Red Hand.  He wasn’t tainted, poisoned by the rest of them.” 

            “And your own ... interests are ... congruent,” says Ammnantha

            There are a hundred more things Merreth wants to say about that, but the image of Drynndin lying before her is too raw; he’s been ripped from her life and she’s close to weeping. Later, she thinks, I’ll grieve.  Grieve, weep, cry, rage.  Where no one can see me.  “I’m better than that now,” she says.

            Ammantha doesn’t nod, doesn’t agree, and doesn’t smile.  She purses her lips, takes Merreth’s arm starts walking towards the doorway at the end of the hall.  “I don’t know why they ...”

            “Why they would lie?” asks Merreth.  “Because that’s what they do.”

            “No, Merreth.”  Ammantha sighs. “I don’t know why they sent you back here, even under the ban.  The letter is quite explicit.  It certainly inventoried sufficient evidence to petition for a formal judicature.  They could have held you there, at Red Hand Hold.”  Her tone is cool, detached. 

             The same question asked a dozen times since the Red Hand escort delivered Merreth back to Sable House Hold a scant day earlier.  There was no answer then, and there’s no answer now. And you still haven’t said that you believe me, thinks Merreth.  “Nothing but lies in pretty script.  Probably got one of those temple hags to write them up.  They have nothing, they’re,” she trails off, balling her fists. Black anger, bitterly spiced and leavened with despair rises in her stomache.  “They’re fucking bi –.”

             “Merreth!”  Ammantha halts and glares at Merreth. She despises profanity. 

             Merreth holds her gaze, jaw working.  The two stand silent until Merreth lets her gaze slide away.  She unclenches her fists. 

             “Better you’re free than penned up here like a goose waiting for slaughter,” says Ammantha. “It’s only been a couple of days.  Ride to the Western Watch. You’re fast on a horse.  You’ll arrive before couriers bearing news of the ban.”

             “The couriers will arrive eventually.”

             “They can’t pry you out of there without a summons and they won’t have one.  Why would they?  The Red Hand thinks you’re here.  When they find out differently, it will take time to produce a summons; the proper forms must be followed. I’ll insist on it. I can use the delay to halt this affair, completely and permanently.”

             The hall ends in a tall set of double wooden doors, inlaid with intricate carved floral patterns.  Beyond them lay the back veranda, the stables, the estate gardens, and dozens of acres of forest. Beyond that, the farms and villages of Sable province scattered over the land like an errant child’s blocks.  Merreth stops her sister as she reaches for the door handles.  Her anger is gone, cold ashes on a stone; replaced by doubt and unease.  She struggles to keep her voice even. “You can do all that while I’m here, Ammantha.” 

            “I can’t keep you safe, Merreth.”  Ammantha’s voice is matter-of-fact.  “It’s as simple as that.  Unless you want to hide in your bedchamber with watchmen standing guard at the doors and windows.  Even then, I can’t guarantee an assassin won’t slip or carve their way through to you.  The ‘Blood Years’ are a century past.”  She glances back at the brooding portraits.  “We’ve grown lax.”

            “They can do the same thing there, as here.”

            “Yes and they’ll invite Western Watch anger as a result.”  She stares coldly into Merreth’s eyes.  “The very nature of the crime they accuse you of all but ensures the Red Hand would be held culpable.  They won’t want that.”

            “I’ll still be dead if they do.”

            “Yes.” Ammantha grasps the door handle and gently pushes.  On the other side a pair of unseen watchmen pull the doors open.  Ammantha nods to them as she walks out onto the veranda with Merreth a pace behind her. 

             Scents of honeysuckle and pine carry on the morning breeze to tickle Merreth’s nose.  She brushes a strand of hair away from her eyes.  One of the watchmen closes the doors while the other approaches with a lamp.  It won’t be necessary for much longer.  Merreth can see dawn starting to bleed over the eastern tree line. 

             Her eyes are drawn to a small break in the trees, a black sliver in the deep green. Right about ... there, was where she had disappeared into the woods on her first solitary overnight camping trip.  Forbidden of course, and hence secret.  Fourteen year old Heir Secondaries did not go anywhere unattended.  They certainly didn’t sleep alone in the woods like commoner bandits and footpads.  She’d been scared to death but absolutely determined, even as night had closed in on her small sputtering campfire, to prove she could do it.   Her escape from servants, and studies, and suffocating noble obligations, however brief.

             Mother had been furious when she’d returned home from inspecting the House manorial estates.   How could she have been so selfish? mother had demanded.  Merreth sighs.  Not stupid, not careless, but selfish.  Merreth was Heir Secondary, only a heartbeat away from being Heir Primary.  She’d risked a twenty generation bloodline to go pick flowers in the moonlight.  Goddess forbid that anything happen to her sister Ammantha, but if it did, Merreth would eventually become Mistress of Sable House.  And that couldn’t happen if Merreth were dead, now could it?

             Only one of her father’s rare interventions had saved her from a sound thrashing.   She’d found out later that he’d seen through her laughable attempts at secrecy and had arranged for the senior gamekeeper to keep watch over her during the clandestine outing.   No farther than twenty yards from her the entire night and she’d never known it.

             Fourteen years.  Half my lifetime ago.  And I’m still making trouble for our house. Thank the Goddess mother and father are dead these past two years.

             A lantern approaches from the stables.  As it bobs closer she hears Winddancer’s hooves clip-clopping on the stone path leading to the veranda.  He’s led by Symmens, head groom for as long as Merreth can remember.  She joins Ammantha at the top of the veranda steps.

             “Mistress Ammantha, Mistress Merreth.”  Symmens is tall, perpetually gaunt, and bald as a boot-toe.   He bows to the two women then meets their eyes. 

              No averted gaze or service collar for him, thinks Merreth, or for any man in Sable province for that matter.  Mother had hammered a stake through the heart of that dying custom. “Respect is earned, Merreth.  Not demanded, coerced, purchased, or inherited”.  That idea had been impressed upon first the household, and then the entire province. And mother led by example. Merreth approved.  A man’s easier to read when you can see his eyes. 

            Ammantha goes down the steps and walks around Winddancer.  She has always liked Merreth’s mount.  Her hand slides over saddlebags, bedroll, coiled rope, and water skins. “Do you have everything, Merreth?” 

             Merreth nods.  “Yes, I think so.”  And I lose everything when I ride out the gate.   “What makes you think the Western Watch will...”  Ammantha waves her into silence and motions Symmens and the two watchmen away.  Merreth steps closer to Ammantha and takes Winddancer’s reins.  “What makes you think the Western Watch will,” she pauses, grasping for the correct phrase.  Accept me?  Take me in?  Shelter me?  None fit; all make her sound less a noble in the Wechtan Matriarchy and more a street urchin, begging for sufferance.

            “They’ll help,” says Ammantha.  “Grandmother was held in great regard by the Western Watch. Mother too.  And you know the trouble the ‘Watch is having with the steppe clans.   They’ve been seeking support.”

            In other words they’re desperate, thinks Merreth, and they don’t know what I’ve done.  What I’m accused of doing, she corrects herself.   “So they need more cutthroats out west, or am I to be one half of a trade, the price they’ll pay in return for our support?”

            Ammantha says nothing. 

            So like you, thinks Merreth, to coldly assess that possibility.  Does our favour really weigh that heavily in the balance?  The reigns tighten in her grip.  “I’d best be on my way then.”

            The veranda doors open again and small, rotund figure hurries towards them.  It’s Hannserd, the House Steward. 

            “Not yet,” says Ammantha. 

             Despite the early hour Hannsered is turned out in his best shirt, waistcoat, and breeches.  The lamp light dances off his polished, buckled shoes.  He advances towards the two women in short, precise strides, carrying a long cloth-swaddled bundle and what looks to be a hat box.  “Good morning, Mistress Ammantha, Mistress Merreth.”  In lieu of a bow he inclines his head.

             A cold, wet cloak wraps itself around Merreth’s heart.  Hannserd is jovial, almost jolly in the execution of his duties and irreverent to a fault.  To hear him now, precise and proper as a Temple priestess, shakes her, saddens her.  This is happening; it’s real, she thinks, not some waking nightmare.  “I think it’s anything but good,” she says. 

            “I have something for you,” says Ammantha.  She takes the box from Hannserd, opens it, and takes out a wide-brimmed hat, black, fashioned from leather.  “Here,” she hands it to Merreth.  “I was saving this for your birth day celebration, but thought you might have need of it sooner.”

            Merreth settles it on her head, adjusts the draw string, and pulls the brim down a bit in front.  “It’s beautiful.”  Beyond that Merreth is at a loss for words.  Ammantha is sparing in her displays of familial affection.  As Mistress of Sable House, she’s become more distant, more reserved. Merreth doesn’t like the change. So this hat, she runs a gloved finger along the brim, is more than a gift, much more.

           “It’s hotter out in the west,” says Ammantha.  “Since you insist on wearing your leathers, I should at least provide something that will prevent your brain from baking.”

           “Quite a rakish look, Mistress Merreth,” says Hannserd.  She can see a smile on his face.  A sad one, but a smile nonetheless. 

            Dawn is coming up fast, washing everything in soft grays.  Ammantha’s face is flat, her lips thinned like a crack in granite. “Certainly no one will mistake you for anything other than a Mistress of Sable House,” she says.  Ammantha gestures at cloth-swaddled bundle in Hannserd’s arms.  “There’s something else.”

            I know what that is, Merreth thinks.  She studies the cloth wrapped shape for a moment, unwilling to reach for it.  Hannserd says nothing, but a slight tremor runs down his outstretched arms.  Merreth sighs and takes it from him.  “Your mother’s,” he says.

            Merreth nods while she pulls back the wrapping.  The cloth slips off an ebony and brass scabbard.  A simple wire-wrapped hilt juts from the end.  “This belongs to you, Ammantha,” she says.

            “Your need will be practical, mine would be purely ceremonial,” says Ammantha.  “I think yours weighs more heavily in the balance.”  She smiles, or tries to.  “Besides, you were always the one rushing around with wooden swords, begging to go on hunts with father and mother, and giving the kitchen hands a fright when you tried to juggle their knives.  You’re better at ...” she trails off.

            Blood, thinks Merreth.  I’m better at blood, isn’t that what people will think? What you think?   Her gloved fingers wrap around the hilt. The hilt settles into her palm like it’s come home.  To stay.  She draws the blade from its scabbard.  The motion is smooth, almost slick.  A thought, dark and eager, slips around the edges of her mind.  If I’d had this earlier ...

            The blow split her lower lip and rocked her back in her saddle.  Her wrists, ceremonially bound to her pommel, are the only thing that keeps her upright on Winddancer. Beside her Lady Syltannya glares, lips drawn back in a snarl of hate.   “Fucking, sadistic, bitch! He was helpless and you cracked him open like a crab in a cook-pot!”

            Did I? She’s fighting tears.   Mounted Red Hand couriers trot on either side of them, truncheons swinging from their belts, sword catchers slung over their backs.   Pain, fear, humiliation, loss, a toxic pool threatens to drown her.  She’s desperate for anything to grab on to.  Something to drag herself out of it, however loathsome, poisonous, and costly it might later prove.  And something crawled up from deep within her to present itself. 

            Blood pools in her mouth.  She leans over and spits.  It spatters over Syltannya’s cheek and slides down her neck.  “Hit me again, and when I’m free I will take your blade,” Merreth nods at the dagger clipped to Syltannya’s thigh and smiles.  “Then I’ll take your arm.  At the elbow.” 

            The sword thuds into the ground, raising a small puff of dust quickly whisked away by the breeze.  “I don’t want that in my hand,” says Merreth. 

            “Mistress Merreth,” says Hannserd.

            “Don’t ... call me that.”  Merreth shifts in her saddle and focuses on the tree break where she’d disappeared fourteen years earlier.  “Not anymore.  A Sable House Mistress has never run.  I won’t be the first.” 

            “As you wish, Mis –,” Hannserd glances at Ammantha and back at Merreth.  “What should I call you?”

             “’Lady’ will do.”

            “Merreth, don’t be stupid,” says Ammantha.  “Take the sword as a mark of rank, if nothing else.” 

            “I said I didn’t want that thing in my hand.  I have my whip.  That should be sufficient.”  Her hand drops to the coiled whip hanging at her thigh.  Ten feet of intricately hand-braided leather tapering to a hair-thin point, her whip is the ultimate symbol of rank in Wechtan noble houses.  Only Mistresses and their direct heirs are permitted to wear them.

             “That won’t keep you safe, Merreth,” says Ammantha.  “It doesn’t matter how good you are with the damned thing.  Take the sword.”  She bends down and picks it up, carefully wipes the blade, and holds it out.

            Guilt blooms in Merreth’s heart at the sight.  The sword had been her mother’s, a venerated symbol of her house’s power and status. And she had dropped it in the dirt like a discarded kitchen ladle.  A small, petulant act.  Merreth feels her cheeks redden at the thought.  She takes the sword from Ammantha and sheaths it as quickly as possible.  After slinging the scabbard on to her back she looks at Ammantha.  “I still don’t want it.”

            “But you will take it,” says Ammantha.

            The watchmen put out the lamps.  Early morning songbirds were beginning to fill the air with chirps and warbles.   Merreth puts her foot in the stirrup and pauses, fighting a queasy, excited feeling churning in her stomach.  She shakes her head and pulls herself into the saddle.    Something in her is looking ahead, not behind. 

            “You can draw funds as you need them from one of the local counting houses,” says Ammantha.  “You know which ones.”

            The sun crests the far tree line.   The queasy, excited feeling is stronger now, building.  Some part of her is trying to break free. “I’d better go,” says Merreth.  She doesn’t know what else to say.  There should be more words, but no one seems to have any.

Comments27
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TheDivineMissM-94's avatar
This is wonderful!
The way you set the scene is intoxicating, I love your descriptive style. The present tense also does nicely to completely envelope us into the story.
Fantastic work!
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Well, you certainly know how to make me blush.  :)  Thank you so much for your kind words.  This is a first draft of the novel, which is now complete and I have just started on the second draft.  I will be interested in hearing what you think of the remaining chapters I have posted if you are so inclined to read them.

I found your story on Wattcom and I will be giving it a read.  :)  Again, thank you!
TheDivineMissM-94's avatar
You're very welcome! Congratulations on finishing the first draft! I'm very close to finishing the first draft on my own, it's so exciting. I will definitely be taking a gander at the rest of the chapters, I like your writing style and I'm very intrigued by Merreth (:

Oh dear, I have a lot of old embarrassing stories on that site! xD If you do happen to read my newest one, it was mostly written through NaNoWriMo last year, so it's pretty messy. Microsoft Word also had a habit of autocorrecting certain words into the wrong ones... I just felt like I should warn you xD
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Thank you.  The second draft is, believe it or not, more daunting than the first.    You get to fix ALL of things you made a note of in the first draft that you would "fix later".  Now it's "later".  I'm glad you like my writing style, and thank you for your expression of support.  Don't worry about embarrassing stories on this site.  Every writer as them, and we all had to start somewhere.  And yeah, Word has some ... idiosyncrasies that make me want to pull my hair out.  Have you tried Scrivener? I'm just experimenting with it now.
TheDivineMissM-94's avatar
Ah no I completely understand that! I just finished my first draft on the 30th, and as it was a NaNo novel for two years, and the total word count is 150k, I am really not looking forward to starting the editing process...
I normally edit as I write, that's the way I've always worked, so this will be a new challenge for me.
I haven't tried Scrivener yet, no. I've been thinking about giving the trial a go now that NaNo is over. What do you think of it so far?
littlegoblet's avatar
Hey buddy this was an interesting read. I learned alot more about Merreth and the world in which she lives in. she doesn't follow tradition as easily as her sister I take it. But that might be what sets her apart in this story. I guess time will tell.
I really enjoyed this line. “Respect is earned, Merreth. Not demanded, coerced, purchased, or inherited”. it is always great to be able to look up to a person that earned respect then some brat that demands it because they were born into a world of privileged etc.
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Why, thank you for the comments! I enjoyed penning that line, though it took a while to come up with it. Yes, Merreth is not quite as traditional as her sister. More pragmatic. I am happy you enjoyed the Chapter. Of course for Merreth, things rapidly go down hill from there. Which is half the fun. :)
littlegoblet's avatar
oh yes we love putting the ones we love through their paces hee hee. I shall keep my eyes peeled for any more writing you post on her story that is for sure :)
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Thank you! I will be dropping by your page from time to time to check out your animations!
littlegoblet's avatar
thanxies buddy I appreciate that :hug:
IngvildJornsdottir's avatar
I loved it! I love how easily you showed the society rules in this chapter and Merreth's personality as well. I like Merreth, she is strong and I bet the problems may maybe not fade away but she will cope with them as no one before.

Ammantha is very reasonable and I bet Merreth always was happy to have such sister ;)
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
I am pleased you liked it. It is very much a first draft, and we don't see Ammantha again for a long time. A few more people who have a direct implact on Merreth's life are introducted in chapters 2 and 3 of Western Watch. As for Merreth coping with the problems she runs into -- well, she makes a few mistakes here and there. :)
XullraeZauviir's avatar
So, Merreth the troublemaker. :giggle:

Are Ammantha and her full blooded sisters? I know it is addressed that mother and father as if they are but their looks make me think otherwise. As different as night and day they are regardless. :nod:

Good descriptions over all, especially on the flashbacks and the emotional output. :love:
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Why thank you for reading an commenting. I modestly submit that as a first draft there are some things that need to be edited, but I think Merreth is off to a good start. As to the fact that Merreth and her sister look rather different -- I make no comment. And neither did Merreth's parents. :)
XullraeZauviir's avatar
Very good start, yes. :XD: Fair enough on the sisters, I'll let my imagination fill in the gaps. :plotting:
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
I will be interested in what you have to say about chapter II. :)
Dramira-Official's avatar
I'm hooked. :)
I love how you presented the world and characters in this first chapter. I'm already getting into it and wanting to know more. Love the matriarchy thing you have going on, it makes this a lot of fun and very unique. I feel like I really got to know Merreth already. She's a refreshing character since the one tough girl I write about is absolutely insane. Merreth has her sanity and her mind is a place full of emotion and all sorts of normal stuff. Anyway, I can tell I like this world already. Great work!
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
Why thank you! I have to admit that now I have a lot more writing experience under my belt I look back at it and wince a bit. I think there is a lot of good stuff there, but it needs better structure and flow. Still, I do like Merreth on a page, and I am glad you do too. Chapter 2 beckons. As for Dramira -- insane yes, but still compelling. :)
Dramira-Official's avatar
Whatever. There's always room for improvement no matter what, so. I think it's really good.
Yeah, Dramira's just a different kind of woman with blood on her hands. It's just nice to read someone more down to earth, sometimes. :P
Chapter 2 does beckon!
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
True, there is always room for improvement. Qaulity is a moving target driven by increasing skill. :) I'm quite tickled you like it.
Dramira-Official's avatar
I also fucking love Westerns, so it gets brownie points for that, hot chicks in leather and all the other good stuff.
Imapervert.
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
My writers' group had to point out to me that the story was developing into a Western. I did not originally intend that, but there is enough of a twist such that it's an orginal western I think. :)
Dramira-Official's avatar
It has that sort of "feel", if the story itself is or not. I mean, whatever it is, I can tell I like it.
LadyMerrethsAuthor's avatar
That's all that counts. :)
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