Inside The Septa's House
(Continued from Outside the Septa’s House)
“I am Mariam,” said the tall woman, nodding to the guards to take the Septa inside. “And I can see that your Septa has already benefited from your training - that would is very neatly dressed. But I shall need to remove it to examine the wound.”
By now they were inside the cottage, Gwendla and Ranulf following. The cottage was a small one; two rooms, with a loft above, and stone-flagged. The Septa must sleep above, for there was no bed in the small living room, although some form of bed had been made on a broad settle, tand it was here that the guards were required to set the Septa.
The Septa turned to Gwendla. “Go and fetch a bowl of water. You’ll find bowls in the back, and a well in the garden. It’s fed by a spring and will be good for her wound. And I have herbs prepared for the cleansing.”
She indicated a small pile of herbs set on a dresser.
“Tell me,” she said to Aerin, “how she came by this wound. Might it be poisoned?”
“It might,” Aerin was forced to concede. She moved to stand near the Septa, looking down at her fevered form. “We were attacked by brigands. Men for hire. Or men looking to get a price on a bounty. They attacked us. I don’t know if they meant to hurt the Septa. More I think they meant to cause confusion. The Septa was in the middle of the camp when they fired at us.”
Mariam winced but said nothing as she settled the Septa and arranged her carefully so that she could remove the bandage. Before she did so, she glanced up at Aerin.
“This … may not be pleasant. You can go and help your friend if you prefer.”
“I’ll stay,” Aerin said without hesitation. “I’ve helped with training injuries. I’ve even helped sew skin up. I won’t be sick,” she told the Septa.
Aerin looked to Ranulf. “You don’t have to stay. I can stay,” she offered the boy.
Ranulf gave a relieved nod, and hurried out of the cottage’s front room.
Carefully, Mariam began to lift the dressing on the wound. The Septa was still dazed to the point of iunconsciousness … but the others could smell the wound before they even saw it.
“Poison,” said Mariam tightly. “Let us hope we are in time.”
Aerin stared at the wound in horror. Why would they have poisoned their arrows just for a distraction? It made no sense.
She knelt down next to the Septa, on the other side of Mariam. “Can you tell what type of poison it was?” she asked quietly.
“I can make a few guesses from the appearance of the wound, and the smell,” said Mariam grimly, but before she could say more, the door opened and the tall rangy huntress woman walked in, a boy about Aerin’s age at her side, looking uneasy (and possibly accompanied by Hex).
Catriona walked over to the cottage, one hand on Callon’s shoulder to help propel him forward. She opened the cottage door, waited for Callon and Hex to step inside, then followed along behind them.
Once inside, she waited until Mariam acknowledged their presence. “Master Hex and the Steward have a proposition for you. I’ll let Hex explain.”
“In a moment,” said Mariam, looking up from the Septa. “The wound is poisoned, sister.”
Catriona nodded at Mariam’s request to wait, a frown subsequently crossing her face at the news of the poison.
“I apologize for the interruption, madam,” Hex interjected. “But I fear time is short. Thelbane and his cohorts approach and their interruption would likely be more permanent. Gwendla and I had discussed attracting the attention of the Marshed constabulary as a way to rid ourselves of our escort. With Steward Thorne’s assistance, we may be better to try that here. Thorne will arrest me for my forcing myself upon you during our trip North. One hopes that Thelbane will continue on to Marshed rather than risk further attention by the authorities.”
The dornish removed a few lenghts of rope from a pouch at his belt. “I told you a noose has many purposes. I would suggest you pull these tight around my wrists, wrap the tail around the noose to look like a knot. It will bear a casual inspection, and I can readily loose myself if things go sour.”
Hex turned and brought his hands together behind his back, then added. “And for appearances, one of you should strike me in the face a few times. Hard enough to bleed or leave a mark. But, if you will indulge me, don’t get too close to my eyes. I’ll need clear vision when I ride back for Gwendla’s father.”
Aerin glared at Hex, his words barely registering with her. Her Septa was poisoned and he was going on about having himself tied up?
Catriona took the noose from Hex, and arranged it around his hands as suggested. She also took the obvious weapons from his belt, and handed them to Gwendla. “My apologies, but this will also be necessary for the ruse.”
And the Shade started to growl, his attention obviously outside.
Aerin looked at Shade for a moment, then moved to her things and pulled out her short sword. “Septa Mariam? Please continue to work on my Septa,” she said as she pulled the short blade from its sheath with her good hand.
Catriona’s fist was half-raised to strike Hex when Shade growled. She quickly lowered her hand to Callon’s shoulder. “Callon. Eyes to the window upstairs. Tell us what you see…quietly.”
She then pulled free her bow, strung it in one smooth, fluid motion, and nocked an arrow to the string before moving quickly to a position from which she could cover both the front door and the window.
Callon sped up the stairs silently.
Shade paced over to the window, growling still, but quietly. There seemed to be some restless movement in the bushes on the edge of the garden …
Her attention drawn by Shade’s pacing, Catriona caught the movement at the garden’s edge out of the corner of her eye. She tried to see if she could make out any shapes in the bushes.
“There’s someone coming towards the house!” called Callon in a low voice, sufficient to reach those downstairs. “No - two guards have stopped him! And the man who gave the orders outside - there’s a cart by the gate, and he’s speaking to a man riding beside it!”
Gwendla gave a shiver and shrank closer to Hex.
“The guards are bringing the man to the back door!” Callon reported.
“Good work, Callon,” Catriona murmured. “Keep up the report.”
Catriona glanced at Aerin, holding the girl’s gaze for a moment. She gave a cool nod of acknowledgement towards the girl’s drawn short sword. “Be ready.”
The hunter stepped through the inner doorway into the kitchen, her arrow now trained on the back door. She had lost the ability to easily cover the front room’s window by her move, but if need be she could still pivot and redirect her shot towards the front door.
“Fall back to the Septa’s room if things go badly,” Hex said quietly to Gwendla. “The archer will want to protect her sister, and the others their own Septa. There’s a knife in my boot, it will be more use to you than me. Just drop the whip and the shield, unless you’ve trained on them.” He paused and then added with a grin. “It stikes me suddenly that I should have asked before now if you have a hand for weapons.”
Gwendla smiled. “I can use a dagger and a sling. I can bring down a hare at fifty paces - it was not a skill I thought I should show before your companions.”
“If you can, keep my bow and quiver with you. The woman will be able to make use of them if I cannot.” The dornish tried to stand so as to have a view of the area fronting the cottage while presenting as small a target as possible. “Keep an eye on the noble girl, if you keep her safe the rest may yet feel obligated to save your father.”
Gwendla nodded, her grey eyes going to watch Aerin.
Suddenly there was a clattering sound from the kitchen, followed by a nervous young voice.
“Can I come back now? Has the Septa finished?”
Mariam still seemed too intent on her work to answer.
At the sound of the voice coming from somewhere inside, Catriona froze and quickly scanned the kitchen with her eyes. The source of the voice appeared to be coming from behind a small door on the far side of the stove. It was partially open, and through the crack she could spot some shelves holding jars and other foodstuffs, although the speaker was still hidden from view.
She thought for a moment, trying to place the young voice. She had not heard it before, but who among the Clearwater party had she not seen in the front room? The boy, the voice must be his, and the larder was a likely place for a young boy to sneak. She hadn’t paid much attention to the lad when he was whisked into the cottage, and hadn’t even caught his name.
“She’s still helping your Septa,” Catriona replied in a quiet voice. “You can either stay here and help me guard the kitchen, or you can rejoin your friends in the front room.”
A small dark head peeked round the corner of the larder door at her.
“I think I’ll guard here, thank you,” the boy said politely, staying firmly within the larder. He had an oddly deep, slightly gravelly voice - the voice of a child who has often been ill. “Where’s Aerin? And Shade?”
“In the front room with the Septa,” Catriona replied quietly. “Shade was growling by the window when I came back here.” She paused, listening for any sound of movement by the back door.
“This,” she nodded at her bow, “isn’t for dark-haired boys investigating the Septa’s larder. It’s to keep whoever’s out there in line.” The last was said with an inclination of her head towards the back door.
The boy grinned at her, clearly relaxing a little. Clearly he had seen arrows fired in anger recently, but her words reassured him.
There was a knock on the door, followed by the clear sound of Keary’s voice.
Catriona froze for a moment, recognizing the voice, then exhaled a long, slow breath. She released the tension on her arrow, and shifted her grip so that her left hand grasped both bow and arrow at her side. She murmured over her shoulder into the front room, “Friend at the back.”
She then moved to the back door, and muttered to the boy in the larder. “This one’s friendly.”
As she lifted the bar, she replied in a clear voice that would carry through the back door. “Mariam’s a little busy, but you can come inside to wait for her if you wish.”
When she swung the door open, she gave Keary a tired smile, but her eyes quickly shifted to scan the guards who accompanied him, and the surroundings. “He’s all right,” she told the guards with a thumb towards Keary. “Warn us if anyone else approaches.”
The guards nodded and - casting a last suspicious look at Keary - withdrew.
She held the door open just long enough for Keary to enter if he chose.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes as well,” Keary said, and made a head jerk back towards the outside. “I’m back with Niko and his friend. And Davin. And there’s some four-legged friends just out of sight, but not earshot.”
A rising growl from the next room suggested they weren’t out of nose-shot either. Or perhaps it was the smell of wolf on Keary’s clothes …
“That’s Shade,” Catriona replied with a motion towards the front room. “Thinks he owns the place already.”
She ensured that the back door was securely barred again, then nodded towards the larder, from which the dark-haired boy peeked out. “And this is the new Master of the Larder, Supreme Guardian…” She caught sight of a pastry in the lad’s hand, and some telltale crumbs around his mouth. “And Taster of Mariam’s Foodstuffs.” In a low voice only audible to Keary she mumbled, “Too blasted many new names for me to remember his.”
She waved towards the front room and added in a droll voice, “Mariam and the rest of the entourage auditioning for the Giants of Pentos await us. Come meet the one-armed swordsgirl, the prisoner who isn’t, a mystery woman, and yet another Septa, this one badly wounded. Oh, and my lookout upstairs.”
She pointed towards the window. “And let’s not forget the fun festival outside. Clearwater Keep South is camping on Mariam’s lawn, and dallying with the Mummer Merchant. Try not to trip over the bandit graves if you wander about in the dark without a guide.” She paused, then added, “And if from somewhere out there a voice breaks into song, it’s probably just the errant minstrel.”
Keary’s jaw had progressively dropped as Catriona made introductions, finally clicking shut with a snap. The ‘have you lost your senses?’ look remained, until he heard other noises from the other room.
“My day was much less exciting,” he said. “Oh- you’re dead, by the way. At least the town will think so. Unless,” he waved an arm to indicate the rest of the house, “word gets out. Er, your friend Niko seemed to think that an attack was imminent. That’s why I brought the reserves.” He paused just a second. “In the house? You have the shadowcat actually in the house?”
“Shade followed his mistress - the girl - inside,” Catriona replied with a shrug. “And at least in here he’s not yet tangling with our furry friends.”
“And the way the past day has gone,” she added, “I fully expect the unexpected. Thanks for bringing the reinforcements. I’m sure they’ll be put to good use before too long.”
She stepped towards the front room. “C’mon, you can see the wonder of an inside shadowcat for yourself. And my good sister,” she placed a slight emphasis on that word, “Mariam will be delighted to see that you’re here. Once she’s done healing her latest patient, that is.”
From outside, the Steward’s voice called. “Gwendla! Could you step out here for just a moment, please?”
Inside the house, Gwendla looked at Hex.
“What shall I do?” she asked worriedly. She looked anxiously across at Aerin, as if concerned she might be in danger too.
“Aerin,” said the Septa, “can you get me some more clean cloths from the kitchen?”
Without looking toward Hex or Gwendla Aerin nodded to the Septa. She turned, and sword in hand moved into the kitchen to get the needed cloths.
“Stick to the noble girl like a thistle to a pelt,” Hex answered Gwendla quietly. “And for the Maiden’s mercy keep the two of you inside the cottage, there’s no sense having gone through all this just to return you to Thelbane’s blade with a noble hostage added to the balance. And leave my weapons and shield somewhere near the window, if you can keep yourself concealed. If they come in, remember that you’re afraid of me and, perhaps, too upset to speak of my base actions.”
Hex dropped his voice to a whisper before saying. “Though if it comes to you or the noble girl telling the tale, try to struggle through it. For a treacherous people, these northerners seem to have little individual talent for deception. How they managed regicide I’ll not ever understand.”
Gwendla smiled but - at his words, relaxed a little, staying close to his side.
Catriona’s progress towards the front room stopped abruptly as the girl with the injured shoulder stepped into the kitchen, her blade in hand. “Shade belongs to…Aerin, is it?” she said by way of introduction. She nodded towards Keary. “He’s a good friend of Mariam and me.”
Aerin looked at Catriona, and then Keary. Between her arm in a sling, her clothes still smeared with dried mud, and the blade in her hand she looked as if she’d seen some action in spite of her youngish age.
“Shade stays with me. He isn’t mine,” she announced suddenly. “And he’s on edge today. Probably because of the bandits who attacked us yesterday. And Hex. He doesn’t like Hex.”
Keary nodded towards Aerin. “Charmed,” he said. “Ah… I should mention that there are now two direwolves circling the house. And I probably smell like one of them, ‘cause I can’t stop a direwolf from licking my face if she really wants to.”
Aerin blinked, blinked again at Keary and his words. She finally turned back to Catriona. “The Septa needs more clean cloths for my Septa. And the wagons have arrived and they’re calling for Gwendla to go out,” she stated as if giving a report.
Then she looked at Keary. “If you have fish or meat Shade will like you better,” she offered.
Keary smiled and pulled up a pants leg to expose his calf. “This one’s off limits.”
Aerin looked down at his calf, then smirked slightly. “That won’t stop Shade,” she said smugly.
“Thank you, Aerin,” Catriona replied. She stepped over to the table, upon which Mariam had left a pile of clean cloths. As she handed them to the girl, she met her gaze. “I won’t let them hurt you anymore. Any of you.”
Aerin accepted the cloths from Catriona. “You can try, but only the nine can say if they will hurt us or not again,” she said with a fatalistic shrug.
“But I will try to kill them if they hurt my Septa again,” she told Catriona with perfect seriousness.
“As well you should,” Catriona replied.
She glanced at Keary then. “The brutes who burned down your inn and killed Yuanna were somehow connected to the Mummers.” She paused, then added, “I’m inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.”
The smile became predatory. “Finally, a chance to swing a sword in the right direction. But I don’t want to have this house burnt down in the process. Could be we may not have a choice.”
Aerin nodded at Keary’s words. “Just don’t hurt the men from Clearwater. They’re my people, and mean you no harm. They’re the one’s guarding the house,” she added as she passed through the door to the other room.
“Except for Niko, whose attire is a bit more unique, the Clearwater men all bear similar livery,” Catriona added. “The Mummers we know about are the three men at the second wagon. The Clearwater steward is currently talking with their leader.”
“Can’t be just three,” Keary said. “We’ve got to assume they’ll have more coming any moment.”
“Undoubtedly,” Catriona agreed. “Hopefully our outliers will notice them before we’re ambushed.”
She stepped into the front room, moving to keep herself and Keary out of a line of sight from the gate. Keeping her voice pitched low, she introduced Keary. “He’s my friend, with reinforcements nearby.” She indicated Gwendla and Hex. “These two have more knowledge of the Mummers than they want. They hold her father somewhere.”
In a quiet voice, she asked Hex and Gwendla, “There is more muddying the waters of Marshend than you know. Thelbane has dragged you to the North and still wants you with him. Why?”
“He’s been sent to find a woman with a direwolf,” said Gwendla.
Just then there came a shout from outside.
“Gwendla! I promise everything is okay. You’re safe now. I just need you to tell me something. Please!”
Gwendla looked worriedly at Hex. “That’s the Steward.”
Hex slipped the noose from around his “bound” wrists. Keeping his eyes towards the yard outside, he asked Gwendla. “How much do you trust the Steward? He seems to have some sort of plan, but…”
The dornishman picked up his bow and slipped the quiver over his shoulder. “Bringing Thelbane in, without escort, would have been my preference. But I can give you cover from the window, if Thelbane makes a move towards you I can add a few arrows to his throat before he’s gone three steps.”
Hex notched an arrow to the string and put some tension on the line. “Not much help to Thorne, Thelbane might get a knife out before I can loose. But if you go out and keep outside a direct line between this window and the wagon … maybe stay close to that Niko fellow and well back from the wagon.”
“It’s your decision, Gwendla,” Hex finished. “I can’t go out with you, makes no sense to have my victim as my escort.”
“Lady Hunter,” Hex asked Catriona. “Your eyes upstairs, do they carry a bow? If not, do the windows offer a view of each quandrant around the cottage?”
“No, Callon unfortunately doesn’t know how to use a bow,” she replied. “The windows offer a better view than the first floor, although it’s not perfect.”
She called softly upstairs to the lookout. “Callon, keep alert. Warn us of any others approaching. And you may have some friendly company upstairs soon.”
She looked at those assembled in the room. “If violence erupts, I’d prefer to take Thelbane alive if we can. Keary and I have a few questions for him.”
Catriona looked at Gwendla. “If you want to go outside, I’ll come out with you. We haven’t officially met yet. My name is Catriona.” She drew a dagger from her boot, and handed it hilt first to the woman.
Gwendla took it a little gingerly.
The hunter then glanced at Keary, a faint smile on her face. “Having me nearby will help, er, direct our reinforcements if we need them.” Her grin widened then. “And today is as good day a day as any to die.”
“Hey, speak for yourself,” Keary said. “I intend to die of a heart attack. In bed. After strenuous exercise. With company. With my boots on. Or something like that…”
Catriona’s smile spread further as she laughed softly in response.
“I trust not to die,” said Gwendla, sliding the dagger into her sleeve. “But I’d welcome your company outside.”
She waited for the others to get into position - and then made her way to the door.
Catriona tucked her arrow and bow back into place, then paused briefly. “One moment,” she said as she grabbed one of the bloodied rags that Mariam had discarded from her tending of the injured Septa. With her other hand she drew her long knife, then went over to the doorway.
“Ready when you are,” she murmured to Gwendla.
When all was set, Catriona stepped outside with Gwendla, cleaning the knife blade with the bloody rag as she did so. “Sorry, Steward,” she called. “We had a bit of trouble with the prisoner.”
(Continued in Battle at the Septa’s House)