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Evening in the Marshes - Catriona

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(Events continued from Back from the Marshes)

Keary and Davin departed with profuse consolations. Once Catriona had bathed (or rather been bathed by the Septa), it was easy for her to fall asleep on the makeshift bed. When she awoke, it was quite dark - but she could make out the sight of Mariam standing to one side off the small cottage window, looking out into the garden beyond.

Somehow she seemed to know that Catriona was awake, because she said in a low voice, without looking round, "Someone is coming."

Catriona pulled her knife free of its sheath, then lay flat once more. She gripped her weapon so that her right forearm would conceal most of its blade from casual view as she gently folded her arms across her chest.

"Pull the sheet to cover me," she whispered softly. "I'll be as the dead until we see if friend or foe approaches."

Mariam did not speak, but she moved silently forward and drew the sheet over Catriona.

Now Catriona lay in total darkness, and her hearing sharpened. There was the sound of stealthy steps - one man; two. More perhaps - moving towards the little cottage on two sides.

Within her cocoon, Catriona closed her eyes and cast a silent prayer to the old gods for forgiveness for dyeing her hair. She forced herself to slow her breathing, and concentrated on what her sightless senses told her of the interlopers and their next actions.

They seemed to be talking in low voices ... close to where Mariam was standing ...

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the cover was pulled away with a jerk.

"They mean to burn me out," said Mariam grimly, "and I'm not inclined to let them. Are you strong enough to fight?"

Catriona thrust her knife back into its sheath, and swung her legs over the edge of the makeshift bed. "Aye," she whispered, her jaw clenched. She slung her bow and quiver over her shoulder and reached for her sword. As she stood, she tested the feel of her injured leg. "I'll go out the back, and circle around," she added very softly.

Mariam looked at her worriedly. "That might be too much," she said in a voice lower than a whisper. "What about using a bow in the darkness? Could you do that?"

"Aye, if you can get me to where I can have a good enough vantage point," Catriona replied as she resheathed her sword and readied her bow.

It was not easy - Mariam was determined that Catriona should not risk opening her wound by putting too much weight on it. It would have been better, perhaps, to shoot from an upper window too - but Mariam wouldn't allow Catriona to attempt the steep steps to the loft.

"Even if we could get you up there," she said softly, "if the house was set alight, it would be hard for you to escape."

Catriona kept her thoughts to herself that should this fight go badly, the least of her worries would be her injury's reopening.

Instead Mariam settled Catriona in an alcove that overlooked the garden and - at an angle - the door to the kitchen.

After the Septa positioned her, Catriona said very quietly. "If you want to confront them first to learn who threatens your house, do so. I'll fire at the first sign of trouble either way."

Catriona nocked an arrow to her bow, and allowed her eyes and ears to adjust to their new position. She took aim at the most threatening of the men, and waited a few moments to hear if the Septa was going to call out...or if the interlopers were going to act first.

The night outside was cool, quite - but Catriona's ears soon heard the sound of low voices - people moving round the side of the cottage to the back.

Suddenly, shockingly, there was a pounding on the front door.

Mariam let a few moments passed before calling out, "Who is it? Who's there?"

"Travellers," shouted a voice in reply. "We have one injured."

Even in the darkness, it was possible for Catriona to see Mariam look across at her for advice.

Catriona frowned and shook her head. She pointed to Mariam, then her own eyes, then upstairs. She then pivoted her position slightly so that her bow was more directly targeting the kitchen door.

Mariam nodded with sudden understanding and slipped upstairs. She was not gone long, but even as she was slipping back down the stairs, the hammering came again.

"Open up! We've a man dying here!"

"Coming! Coming!" called the Septa, but instead she shot across the room to Catriona.

"Three," she breathed, "and one does look to be seriously wounded. How many around the back?"

"From the sounds, at least 2," Catriona murmured in an undertone. "I trust this not."

Her gaze flickered over to the front door, which was, for the moment, reassuringly barred. She then resettled her eyes on the kitchen door, and kept her bow aimed towards it.

She nodded towards the kitchen door. "Open it. And stand clear."

Mariam nodded in response, then slipped into the kitchen and opened the door, springing back to stand clear. A man was framed in the doorway against the moonlight, but he hesitated before stepping in.

"Healer?" he said.

Catriona took in the man's moonlight-silhouette in a single glance, noting the outline of a sword at his belt and his apparently empty hands. She adjusted the angle of her shot just slightly, let the arrow fly, and reached to nock a second arrow to her bowstring. As the arrow thudded into the doorframe just above the man's head, she spoke, "One false move and the next adorns your throat."

The man swore, and then said, "I came to warn the healer ... there are armed men at the front. Are you the healer? You seem more of a warrior maid."

Mariam spoke from behind the door. "I am the healer. My ... sister is defending us. Who are you?"

"A minstrel," said the man, not moving from the doorway. "I've been fleeing these men - with my companion. One I wounded - they want my blood now - but they also need your help."

Indeed, the door was being pounded again.

"Hurry! Hurry!"

Mariam looked helplessly across to Catriona - the huntress could see her pale face in the moonlight.

Catriona let loose a string of flavorful curses under her breath, most of which were thankfully unintelligible to the Septa's ears. "Others, eels, and travelling fools, what a bloody mess of a day."

Keeping her arrow pointed at the man in the doorway, she addressed the man. "Remove your swordbelt and leave your weapons outside. The same for your companion. Then step inside the kitchen."

"Septa, offer them something to eat and drink," she added quickly. "And do the same for the interlopers at the front. Once they are within, and accept your hospitality, guest right applies to all here."

The minstrel had unfastened his sword belt and propped the blade beside the door. He stepped in, cautiously, and was followed by a younger man - a boy, really, slender and dark eyed, who set a pair of daggers down beside the sword.

The minstrel himself was a young man, tall and fair, with a lock of golden hair falling into his eyes. He was dressed in the simple homespun any smallfolk might wear for travelling, but the pack on his back had the end of a lute visible at the top.

As Mariam moved, Catriona called out loud enough so that the men at the front could hear. "This is a place of healing and peace. The door will be opened. Remove your weapons, and leave them outside. You will be offered food and drink. If you accept, guest right is in effect. If you don't, you will not be allowed entry, and you must leave your injured companion for the Septa to tend alone."

Catriona raised her voice higher. "And any who violate the sanctity of guest right within these walls will be cursed by the Old Gods." A sheepish look crossed her face as she realized in whose house she spoke. "And the Seven."

The hunter kept her arrow trained on the alleged minstrel until she was certain of his acceptance of guest right. She then turned her guard to the front door until she saw how the other group would react.

The minstrel nodded slowly, raising his hands to signify his intent was peaceful. The boy beside him glanced at him, then raised his hands too.

At the front door, a voice shouted, "What foolishness is this? Open at once - before we burn the door down and drag you out to do your holy duty!"

"Gods-fearing men, assuredly," said the minstrel, an incongruous note of amusement in in his voice.

"I begin to see why you injured one of them," Catriona replied in a low dry tone. She gestured towards the chairs in the Septa's kitchen. "Have a seat there for the moment."

Her arrow nocked and aimed at the front doorway, she looked at Mariam. "Go ahead, open it...and stand back."

As the front door swung open, Catriona called out, "The Septa's holy duty is to heal. My duty is to protect her. Leave your weapons outside this house."

As the door swung open, she saw a plump man almost filling the doorway, his face white with fear. He was struggling to push back - and the reason was clear; the other two who stood there were using him as a shield as they began to push forward into the room.

No matter how plump, one struggling fat man couldn't fully shield two bodies pushing into a room and still fit through the doorway. Catriona loosed her arrow at the exposed legs of one of the interlopers. As soon as her arrow flew free, she reached for another and prepared to fire at the next threat, whether it was one of the others at the front door, or the misbehaving minstrel and his companion.

A yell told her she had been successful, but those without merely realigned the plump man - whose eyes were bulging with terror - in an attempt to make him a broader target.

"Sweet lady," said the minstrel from behind her, "if you'll permit, I'll get my sword and aid you. It goes against the grain with me to keep my seat when a fair lady is in danger."

Catriona had a fleeting thought that either this minstrel was the most courteous scoundrel she'd met or else his tale was true. "Please do," she replied, her words belying the levity of her tone.

"Good sir," the hunter called out, "Yes, you, plump sir, the one blocking the door. What's your name?" Another arrow streaked from her bow towards whatever unshielded flesh Catriona could spot behind the terrified man. "If I accidentally kill you with an errant shot, I need to find your next of kin."

Her fingers nocked another arrow as she took aim once again. Should the fat man react in any way to her words, she was prepared to take advantage of any opportunity. If a man that large fainted, the sudden burden of his weight should strain his supporters one way or another.

Right on cue, the large man gave a moan at Catriona's words and sagged in their arms, exposing two disgruntled faces behind him as they fought to keep him upright.

Catriona's arrow flew towards the closest exposed face. As soon as it left her bowstring, she was rapidly reloading another arrow. She looked beyond the collapsing plump man to see if any other threats came into view, and also used her peripheral vision to ensure no news surprises neared from the kitchen.

The hunter planned to fire next at whatever target presented itself as the greatest danger. If the weight of the large man temporarily pinned the second man trying to prop him up, Catriona would hold her shot...temporarily...provided there were no other immediate threats to lance.

The first man dropped with a cry, the second staggered under the weight of the heavy man alone and fell back; seeing his opportunity, the minstrel ran forward and stabbed down at the brigand.

Mariam, unarmed, remained where she was behind the door she had opened, but she was white and shaking. Catriona could not see the boy, who remained behind her.

The minstrel looked up at Catriona, pulling his sword from the main he had killed.

"There may be more in the garden beyond," he said softly.

"Aye," she murmured in a voice just as quiet. She took one look at the unsettled Septa and the large obstruction in the doorway, and made a snap decision. "Minstrel, slide the plump man inside out of the doorway, where the Septa can tend him." And so that I can get closer to the door without having to jump over him, she thought to herself. "And 'ware of anyone creeping up on us from the back."

The hunter glanced back at the minstrel's boy. In a low voice, she urged, "Dart upstairs, quick, and peer out the window. If you see others moving towards the house, taunt them loudly. If they are just idly standing by, come back downstairs to tell us what you see more quietly." Her teeth flashed in the reflected moonlight. "Just be wary of arrows."

The boy looked at her, his eyes wide with alarm. Then he gave a quick nod and hurried away up the steep steps to the upper level. Catriona could hear him moving about, even as the minstrel, having slid the big man inside, made his way to the back door. Mariam bent over him to check for injuries, but looked up at Catriona as she moved towards the door.

"Be careful," she breathed.

Moving slowly and carefully, both for stealth and to avoid unduly aggravating her injured leg, Catriona crept toward the doorway at an angle, her bow readied. She planned to look out cautiously to see what awaited them, and to see if she could get any shots off before they closed to melee range.

The garden was dark - it seemed to be deserted. Certainly there was no sign of attack ...

By the gate, Catriona could make out two horses, peacefully cropping the grass.

Catriona kept off to one side of the doorway, her bow still ready. She glanced down at the two fallen brigands, checking to see if either of them had evidence of a leg injury from one of her earlier arrows.

Not seeing anything that drew her immediate attention in front, she allowed herself to look briefly towards the kitchen to ensure that the minstrel wasn't in any trouble.

He was stationed by the backdoor, unruffled. As though aware that she had turned to look at him, he looked back at her and gave a nod, accompanied by an affirmative gesture: all is well.

She signalled for the minstrel to close the back door, and to join her. As she waited for his report and that of the boy from upstairs, she then turned her attention back to the garden, looking out for any unexpected movement or shapes.

"Septa?" she whispered softly. "Do you recognize any of these men? And is the plump man the one you thought was injured, or is there another out there?"

"It's Fat Jack the peddler," said Mariam. "He goes around all the lakeside villages - they've beaten him, but he'll take no lasting harm."

Once the minstrel had drawn close enough for a low voice to reach him, Catriona said softly, "Only 2 horses in front. How many pursued you?"

"Three," said the minstrel with certainty. "Perhaps Callon has spotted the other."

The boy's voice, light and soft, floated down the stairs.

"He's under the oak, I think. In the deep shadow there."

Catriona peered around until she found the oak, then cursed silently. The tree fell in the shadow of the house, making it virtually impossible for her to see anything or anyone hidden beneath it. She thought for a moment, then spoke softly. "Callon, keep watch from where you are. If anything moves, tell us."

She then murmured softly to the minstrel. "Could you approach that tree from the back of the house? I'll attract attention here."

She then breathed to the Septa. "For what follows, do as I do, not as I say."

The Septa nodded, her face pale.

As the ministrel got into position, Catriona spoke up in a loud voice from her position off to one side of the doorway. "Well, dear Septa, I think we're safe. There are two horses outside, and there are 2 brigands before us. We should clear away the dead before they start to stink too much. We'll need to get rid of our barricade first."

She then grabbed the edge of a small end table that was nearby, and slid it noisily.

Mariam, getting the idea, grabbed a stool and started to drag that too - in the night air, their actions sounded louder than they really were.

The minstrel had slipped out of the back door; Callon, upstairs, was still silent - so presumably the man was still under the tree.

"What now?" whispered Mariam.

"He's moving," called a low voice from the upper story. "He's not leaving the shadows - but I saw a bush move; I think he wants to see what you're doing."

Catriona's leg was starting to throb.

Blasted eel bite, Catriona thought to herself. Must be a sign from the gods.

"Whew, we really did pile these things up, didn't we?" she called out. "Let me have that stool. I need to set a bit and rest my bum leg before we move those heavy bodies."

As the Septa pushed the stool towards her, Catriona manuevered it a little off to one side of the doorway. She sat down on it with a loud grunt. If she estimated properly, her position should be such that she was mostly still shielded from view, unless the lurker in the bush came around to be directly in her line of sight.

"Whew, that's better," Catriona called. "Septa? Perhaps a good cool drink is in order for us. I'll just rest here a spell."

As she spoke, she adjusted her bow so that she would be ready to launch another arrow if the lurker in the bushes turned out to be a threat.

"And maybe a bite of cheese and bread, too. This is hard work," Catriona continued to chatter. As is rambling on about nothing while waiting for that minstrel to make his move, she added to herself.

There was a sudden crash in the bushes, even as she was thinking this. She saw the leaves and bushes shake violently - and there was a cry from upstairs.

"He's moving, he's coming!"

But Catriona could already see that dark shadow streaking for the gate of the garden and escape.

Catriona took aim at the running shadow, and loosed her arrow. She would prefer to have an injured prisoner than another dead man, but a dead man would be better than someone who fled to bring more trouble down upon the Septa's beleagured house. The hunter prepared another arrow for firing, anticipating that should her shot miss, the man would likely try to grab one of the horses to facilitate his escape.

And that seemed to be the gesture he was fleeing - at a rather staggering pace (which suggested her first arrow had wounded him in the leg). Callon was shouting directions but Catriona, her eyes growing accustomed to the dark, could see him for herself.

Catriona let her next arrow fly towards the fleeing man, targetting his torso, the broadest target she had in the darkness. Since this man had not the good sense to surrender, the time had come to stop him. If she killed him, so be it. If she managed to wound him enough to stop his flight, then he would live...for the moment.

As she fired, she let out an eerie imitation of a wolf howl. Both to spook the horses before the man reached them...and to see if Keir and Mist were near enough to answer.

"Minstrel?" she called out as she nocked another arrow to her bow. "Block his access to the horses if you can."

There was a distant answering howl ...

"He's down!" shouted Callon from overhead.

"You have him!" the minstrel called - his voice powerful and carrying on the night air. "Not quite dead ... shall I bring him to you?"

"Aye, if you can," she replied.

Mariam looked up at Catriona, her face worried.

"You should rest," she said.

"That would be wise, as soon as I can," Catriona flashed the Septa a wan smile, and slumped back down upon the stool. Now that her battle energy was fading, she was beginning to feel the excess fatigue from the eel poison's after-effects.

"Callon," she called to the boy upstairs. "Any other signs of trouble approaching from your vantage? If not, you can rejoin us down here."

As she waited for the boy and the ministrel, she redirected her gaze to the supine plump man. "How fares Fat Jack?"

"He'll live," said Mariam, "and he'll come to his senses so enough. Catriona - I think it best he doesn't see you when he awakens. The fewer people who know you are here, the better. We can say it was the minstrel who helped drive the brigands off. Fat Jack's a gossip - if he sees you, the tale will be all over the valley."

"A wise precaution," Catriona replied. "In case he wakes before I can move too far, block his view if you can."

The ministrel came up to the door with an unconscious injured brigand in tow at around the same time Callon arrived from upstairs. "Time for names and questions later." Catriona helped truss the brigand's hands, then lurched to her feet a tad unsteadily.

She nodded to where her bow and quiver now leaned against the wall. "As far as he's concerned," she pointed to Fat Jack, "you're an amazing archer for a ministrel."

"Callon? Help me to the kitchen if you will." Catriona used Callon's shoulder as a crutch to help her limp her way along. She glanced at the Septa and the ministrel briefly. "We'll stay out of sight until you get Fat Jack along his way. Then we can talk more."

Once in the kitchen, Callon closed the door to shield them from the rest of the house. Catriona settled herself into a chair, and gratefully rested her injured leg upon another chair that the boy pulled near. As Callon seated himself upon a third chair, Catriona murmured softly. "My thanks. For this...and for your bravery in keeping watch upstairs." The dim light made it easy for her to ignore the faint flush that spread across the lad's face in response to her words.

As they sat in silence, she hoped that Fat Jack would be awake and gone before too long.

The boy seemed awkward at finding himself in the kitchen, alone with Catriona. He shifted uncomfortably, the colour rising once more in his face.

He was a pretty thing, despite the crude way his hair had been lopped short. And his vigil at the window proved he was not without courage ...

Groans in the main room suggested Jack was reviving - but it seemed to Catriona that she and Callon would be able to converse in low tones without being heard.

She debated briefly concealing her real name, but then realized that the boy, at least, had heard the Septa use it already. "I'm Catriona. And you're Callon." She looked directly at the boy as she spoke in a tone too low to carry beyond the kitchen door.

At his nod of affirmation, she continued.

"Ever shoot a bow, Callon?"

He shuffled uneasily, not looking at her. "N ... no. I ... I use a dagger, though."

She motioned to just inside the doorway, where Callon's daggers were laid earlier, before the fight. "Sorry about asking you to remove those. Never can tell who can be trusted when trouble comes knocking at both doors in the middle of the night."

He rose with evident relief and moved to collect them and return them to their sheathes - one in his boot, another at his wrist - and several more at his waist.

"Anything particular that you're good at doing? As you may have guessed, I hunt, tho' usually my prey has four legs." She nodded towards the front of the house, a flash of white from her smile. "Although I suppose from their actions those men might count as beasts."

Callon nodded - but did not answer her question immediately.

Almost absently, Catriona took the moment to readjust her injured leg upon the chair. Her eyes drifted from the lad's face and back again in the process.

"I can play," he said at last. "I can play the pipes."

The hunter smiled. "That's more than I can say. Pipes are hard to come by in the woods.... I'm not from Marshend, either. Where are you from?"

"The South," he said. "K... King's Landing." His accent certainly suggested the South, although his voice was light and high.

Catriona noted the slight pause, but showed no reaction. As they spoke, she kept looking towards the lad's face, studying him quietly with her peripheral vision. Voice yet unchanged, no sign of shaving, very slender. Maybe fourteen? Fifteen? Not much older than that.

She nodded towards the front room. "The ministrel, what's his name?"

Callon shrugged. "He uses different names. Most call him just Minstrel - He told me to call him Tasso once when I asked, but when I did, he looked at me as though I were mad. I think he'd forgotten."

"Have you been with him long?"

"I dunno," said Callon. "I ... I met him at the Reach - travelled north with him from there."

Another hesitation, Catriona thought. What a merry web of secrets lurks at the Septa's tonight. She suppressed the urge to smile at her own private joke, and continued to converse in a low tone. She studied the fingernails of her left hand for a moment as she added idly, "What brought you from King's Landing to the Reach?"

"He said I could make a singer," said Callon shyly. "Or play the pipes or the fiddle while he sang."

Which he would that be, Catriona wondered to herself. The which case Callon didn't meet him at the Reach...or another? She let the question go for another time. Now was not the time to burst the fragile trust that had built.

"Why were those men pursuing you? Are there more of them?" she added.

Callon shot a look at her and then shook his head. If he knew, he wasn't saying.

Catriona kept her eyes focused on Callon as she spoke. Her peripheral gaze took in something odd, even in an immature youth. His neck was so smooth. So very, very smooth. In the back of her mind, she let the details percolate together.

"Where were you headed before you first encountered those men?" the hunter changed the direction of her questions slightly, keeping her suspicions to herself for now.

"Place called Clearwater. Minstrel said we'd be safe there."

From the outer room, came the sound of shuffling feet, and the voices seemed to be moving a little further away. Catriona shifted in her chair to straighten up. "The North can be a harsh mistress. But 'tis true enough that the larger towns are safer for many."

A "Fare thee well, Fat Jack," in the Septa's clear voice echoed to the back room, followed by the solid shutting of the front door.

"Callon, if there are more who may come later," Catriona added gently, "it would be best if you warned me of what you can. I keep my own counsel, but I can only shield you as far as I know you need protection."

A set of footsteps approached the kitchen, and the door swung open.

"All clear?" the hunter inquired, still keeping her voice pitched low. "Did the peddler buy the tale?"

"No," said the minstrel, smiling. "But he bought a glass of wine to ease his aching head. And after two he agreed that he might have mistaken my voice for a woman's."

He looked at her with concern. "Should you not be resting?"

"Aye," said Mariam with a sigh. "Indeed she should. But I doubt whether she'll consent to it until we've found out why you came here - and why those men came here too."

She looked at Catriona.

Catriona laughed softly. "Ah, you know me too well. Perhaps a soothing tea for the tale would do us all good."

No doubt intent upon putting something a little stronger in Catriona's tea, the Septa quickly got some water heating while she prepared some herbs.

"So, what should I call you, minstrel?" the hunter began. "I am Catriona."

"You can call me Tomkin," said the minstrel easily.

Behind him, Callon rolled his eyes.

"Both your and Callon's help tonight has been much appreciated, but I do wonder what brings you to Marshend in the first place," she continued. "What can you tell us of yourselves, and of those brigands?"

"We were taken prisoner," said the minstrel sombrely. "They wished to use me to capture their prey ... and they threatened to kill Callon if I did not help them. But I managed to escape and, while they were distracted, Callon and I escaped."

"Who were these men? Where and how did they trap you? And what prey were they trying to capture?" Catriona inquired. "How were they distracted so that you could escape?"

"As to who they were, I don't know," said the minstrel. "They shared our road from North of the Reach. They had some tale that they were looking for someone - a young woman with a fierce companion. Well ... we found her."

"A fierce companion," Catriona snorted derisively. "What poor young woman did they seek and why?" The hunter's gaze bored into the minstrel like one of her arrows.

"And for that matter, what sort of shape was this young woman in when you left?" Her voice acquired a dangerous edge. "I doubt those brigands had good intentions. Was her companion 'fierce' enough to protect her?"

"They thought it was going to be a wolf," said the minstrel. "That's what they told me. In fact, it was a Shadowcat. I fancy they had more than they bargained for when they tried to steal her away."

"A Shadowcat?" the hunter laughed softly. "They confused a Shadowcat and a wolf?" She accepted the steaming mug that the Septa placed in her hands, allowing it to warm them. "Mind you, I'd not care to tangle with either, but there's a fair bit of difference between the two."

A few more chuckles escaped her as she raised her mug. She blew gently across its surface, then sipped some tea.

"Speaking of those men," Catriona interjected, "what of the one you say you injured? Is he lying somewhere outside the house, or at their camp? And is the one who tried to flee likely to awaken anytime soon?"

"The one outside I killed," said the minstrel bluntly. "You need no more than one to question."

Catriona nodded, then glanced at the Septa. "And the captive one, is he in any shape to question now?"

"In a little while," said the minstrel. "When he has had time to become worried, I think."

"Oh, I think he will become very worried indeed," Catriona replied in a deadly tone. "I don't take kindly to men who prey on young girls."

The minstrel grinned. Callon suddenly looked very nervous.

Catriona lifted her mug again in salute to the ministrel's grin. As she took another drink of tea, her eyes met Callon's briefly. She held the boy's gaze perhaps a moment longer than necessary, then smoothly looked over to the Septa as she lowered her arm again. "This should help fortify me for what must come, Mariam."

Settling her mug upon the table, she raised her hand as if to ward off the Septa's protests. "I know, I know. You want me to rest. But I can't protect you without knowing more."

The hunter pulled a whetsone from a belt pouch, and drew her long knife. She pulled the blade back and forth along the stone to sharpen its edge. "You might object to what we may need to do, dear Septa. You have no need to be party to it."

Mariam looked troubled. "Is there no other way?" she asked. "I could make a posset that should loosen his tongue after a while ... "

"There are times your way is preferred, but not tonight. Not for this man," Catriona declared.

She inclined her head towards Callon. "Nor does the boy." As Callon shifted in response to her words, she added grimly, "I've no idea what life's dealt you so far, but there's no need to rush you into all the grisliness of manhood."

Callon looked at the minstrel as though for confirmation; he gave a swift nod.

Catriona tested the edge of her blade against her thumb. Finding it satisfactory, she resheathed it, and stored her whetstone away once more. Her eyes met those of the ministrel. "It's Thomas, right?"

The minstrel smiled, a hint of irony. "It will do as well as another."

With the slightest of pauses for the ministrel to acknowledge her inquiry, she continued. "Care to aid me in the questioning of our prisoner?"

He nodded, the smile broadening. "Oh yes," he said softly. "I have a debt to pay ... "

Catriona gave a nod, and rose to her feet. "Let's get on with this, then." Relying on the ministrel for some extra support, she did her best to keep too much pressure off her injured leg as they made their way through the Septa's small house.

Once outside the front door, she leaned against the doorframe while Tomkins, or Thomas, or whatever his name really was, dragged a stool outside for her, then closed the front door to shield the Septa and Callon. She studied the form of the prisoner as she waited. From her arrows, and what looked to be an extra drubbing by the ministrel, he looked unlikely to survive the night.

The minstrel positioned the stool in a spot close to the prisoner, but not so near that he would be able to lash out and knock it over easily. Catriona rested upon it while the ministrel roughly propped the injured brigand to rest against a nearby tree trunk, facing the hunter.

He then stood behind the prisoner's left side, just where the man wouldn't be able to see him without swiveling his head.

Catriona stared long and hard at the bandit, saying nothing for some time. A bead of sweat trickled down the man's forehead, and he gulped behind his gag.

"You have two options," she began in a deceptively conversational tone. "We can do this the easy way or the hard." She shrugged her shoulders, then glanced at the ministrel over the brigand's shoulder. "It's all the same to us. Doesn't hurt us one way or the other."

The hunter pulled out her knife, twirling it between her fingertips. "You, on the other hand. You'll notice." A feral grin creased her face as she leaned forward slightly. She jabbed the knife towards the man, allowing it to flit against the shaft of the arrow that had pierced the man's abdomen. "You've already tasted some of my handiwork."

He moaned with terror behind the gag.

Her other hand reached out to grasp the broken shaft lodged in the man's thigh. "Refuse to tell us what you know...and the pain you feel now is only just the beginning," she added, emphasizing her words with a twist of the shaft.

This time, the sound was more akin to a muffled scream.

She suddenly released the pressure, and leaned back on the stool. "Or tell us the truth, and the pain will cease. The choice is yours."

At her nod, the ministrel loosened the bandit's gag.

"Who are you?" she barked. Her questions came in rapid fire, pressuring the man to respond without giving him enough time to think of a lie. "Who are the dead men around you?" "Why are you here?"

He shook his head, his eyes wide with pain and fear, bent on denying everything. The minstrel bent forward and twisted the arrow in his leg - hard - and the unfortunate man let out a howl of pain.

"I'll do that to the one in your belly if you don't answer the lady," he said. "And that won't feel good at all."

The man was sobbing now - she heard it in his voice as the first answers came out. "I'm Bresson, one of Black Roger's men. They're ... all Black Roger's men here. We tried ... we tried to capture a woman ... a girl. But she ... she had friends ... a Shadowcat. He told us it was a wolf!"

The last was a howl again - more anguish at their betrayal rather than pain.

Catriona raised her hand slightly to signal to the ministrel to hold for the moment. "Who told you it was a wolf?" she inquired. "And who and where is Black Roger? Why does he want this girl?"

"Black Roger ... up in the hills there. The best bandity band in the Lakeland Mountains ... We were. And he went off ... a meeting ... He came back, speaking of the girl ... "

As he paused, the minstrel twisted the knife again, not waiting for any orders from Catriona. The unfortunate prisoner screamed again.

The hunter suspected that the brigand knew little more than he had already revealed about the plans to capture the woman. She raised her hand again to stay the ministrel's coercion.

"Why did you try to force your way into the Septa's house?" she switched lines of questioning. "What were you going to do with her?"

"We sought healing," said the man desperately. "Healing, that was all ... healing!"

Catriona gave the prisoner a long, searching look. The silence was punctuated by another wolf howl in the distance. "And the question remains as to what we should do with you. I know what my sentence for you would be, but this is not my house."

"Septa?" Catriona called out more loudly. "If you could join us, please."

In the silence that followed her words, though, Catriona could hear another sound. The faint sound of bells ... bridle bells. And then the sound of horses ... moving to a gallop ... towards them.

"Sweet Maiden!" said the minstrel. "There's more of them!"

He looked at Catriona in horror.

"Inside, now," she urged. As she spoke she rose to her feet, and motioned to the brigand with her knife. "Bring him. Gagged." Grimacing at the pain in her leg, she limped as quickly as she could towards the door.

"Change of plans, Septa," Catriona called as the door swung open. "Trouble. Horsemen."

"Callon, eyes upstairs," she requested.

The hunter hoped there would be enough time to get inside and the door barred again before the unknown horsemen were upon them. She reached for the bow and quiver that were still perched in the front room.

The minstrel followed her in - but he came alone. His face was white as he shoved the door to.

"No time," he said. "This man ... a boy ... but Dothraki. I saw him - last night! He'll know me ... if he sees me, he'll kill me!"

Catriona frowned at the minstrel as he appeared without the prisoner. Then her expression changed to confusion as he began babbling. "What's Duth-ruk-ee?" Catriona looked perplexed. "He's a bandit?"

At the ministrel's wide-eyed shake of his head no, the hunter muttered, "Then why does he want to kill you?"

Before the ministrel could add details, the murmur of voices could be heard just outside. Catriona held up a hand to warn him to silence. She then nocked an arrow to her bow, and leaned against the wall in a spot from which she could get a view of both the front door and the window.

The horses seemed to be behind the house now, where the unfortunate brigand was tied to the tree.

From the rhythm of the murmuring and a rare intelligible word, Catriona surmised that there were two or more men outside engaged in a discussion. About what was not clear, although given the circumstances she could guess that the trussed brigand was at least part of it.

Finally one of those outside spoke more clearly. "Hello," he said. Not loudly, but loud enough in the still night. "We mean no harm, just to help. And seek help."

(Continued in The Septa's House)

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Page last modified on October 02, 2006, at 02:27 AM