Outside The Septa's House After The Battle
(Continued from Battle at the Septa's House)
After the runner was felled by one of the Clearwater men, Catriona called Keir off and signalled for the direwolf to join her. As far as she could tell from her vantage, no new threats had yet arisen on the horizon. Both of the outriders were dead, and Niko seemed to have the wagon's former driver almost under control. There was a bloody tug-of-Thelbane, although it appeared to have reached something of a stalemate. Nearby, the poorly-trained disaster known as Shade was enjoying horse tartare.
Catriona moved further away from the cottage so that she was no longer close enough to Aerin to worry the horse-eating shadowcat. As she moved, she glanced back at the house and called out, "Callon? Keary? Any sign of new trouble approaching?"
"No!" Callon shouted back - and Catriona, in the silence that had followed the battle (broken still by some rather unpleasant chomping sounds), Catriona could hear heavier feet than Callon's coming down the stairs.
Shortly after Callon answered, Keir loped to the hunter's side, exchanging a warning snarl with the shadowcat in the process. Catriona laid a hand lightly on the black direwolf's head, murmuring softly, then gave Keir an affectionate scratch behind the ears before she returned her bow to her back.
She then drew her longsword, flashed a hand signal at Keir, and stepped slightly closer to the Steward. Keir's shoulders tensed, but he stayed put...for the moment...as Catriona had indicated. She prodded her sword tip against Thelbane's chest. "I heard you wanted to see me," she said in a flat voice devoid of all inflection, her eyes cold. Behind her, Keir began to growl....
Thelbane flinched, hut he glared at Catriona.
"So," he said. "You were the prize. Kill me, lady, and you'll never know why."
Derron made no reply. He glanced at Catriona for her reaction.
Catriona suddenly flicked her sword tip upwards to catch against Thelbane's neck. "Wrong answer. I'm no lady," she snorted derisively.
She pressed the blade forward against his Adam's apple, drawing a drop of blood. "You're no different than the rest of the louts. You die, more Southron pukes will be sent in your place." She shrugged her shoulders. "The ones before you died. As will the ones who come after you."
She dug the sword a little harder against his neck. "Your choice, Thelbane," she added. "I can kill you the fast way or the slow way."
"I doubt you or your thugs know your arses from a hole in the ground, let alone something worth knowing," she yawned disdainfully.
"Amuse me with your alleged knowledge, and I'll dispatch you as fast as Merco died. Play me a false tale, or none at all, and you and I will go into the Ghost Fens." Behind her Keir loomed a little closer and growled a little louder. "I'll walk. Keir will drag you. With a gut wound. And you'll be the bait for my next hunt." She paused, a cruel smile spreading across her face. "I'll probably wait until my prey finish feeding on you before I kill them."
Thelbane opened his eyes and gazed at her, eyes dark with malice. "Kill me slow or quick," he said, "it won't make any of you any safer. You need my help, not my death."
Catriona laughed. "Oh, that's where you're wrong, Thelbane. My world will be a better place with you dead."
She kept her sword at Thelbane's neck, her gaze not wavering from his eyes.
Niko knew that even taken, Thelbane would probably be difficult to make talk. One of his men, though...
"Help me with him," Niko asked one of the guards that had run up to help in the fight. Between the two of them, they secured the hapless guard and moved with their burden towards where the others were.
"This one might be a bit more willing to talk," he said as they drew closer.
Derron nodded and said, "Maybe. But I doubt he knows everything. Thelbane wouldn't trust his men with everything. He might know if Gwendla's father is even alive at this point. And where the rest of the unit is hiding."
The guard shrank back. He was clearly terrified by the sudden and unexpected turn of events.
"Steward Thorne?" Catriona asked, her guard still on Thelbane. "What do you need from this living dead man?"
Derron turned his head to Catriona, then back once more to consider Thelbane. "Me? I need nothing from this man. It is Gwendla and Hex who need information from him. I have no doubt more of his company prowl these parts,and it would be nice to know how many, and where. But he'll never give up that information, short of being put to the question." He paused, then said, "Who is this Merco you speak of?"
"He and others in his band murdered an innocent woman in Marshend and burned down the Song and Sheep," Catriona replied matter-of-factly, her gaze tracking Thelbane's every twitch. "From their banter among themselves when they thought they were unobserved, they either were part of Thelbane's group or were working alongside his scum."
Catriona called out in a voice that would carry to the cottage. "Gwendla? Hex? Keary?" Once they drew closer, she spoke in a more normal tone. "What do you need from him? His every breath is borrowed time."
Hex could feel Gwendla tense beside him as he answered. "The woman would know if her father is safe, but I'd need time to test his answers. Time better spent riding back to where we left the crannog." The dornish dropped to his haunches, still outside the reach of the prostrate Thelbane. Keeping his eyes on Thorne, he continued. "I'd ask the boon of two swift horses, three if you can spare your man Niko for a mission of mercy. While we ride, I'd say bind and gag Thelbane, put a bag over his head. You shaouldn't trust anything he volunteers. A cornered man seeks only to seed confusion. Let him stew until I return."
"In the meantime, Steward, you have your hammer? Put an iron in the fire, and lady hunter strope a skinning knife." Looking to the prostrate Thelbane as a maester might look to an interesting insect, Hex spoke directly to the former Brave Companion for the first time. "Something dull. Something sharp. Something hot. Everybody talks, eh, Thelbane? Just a matter of time, and how much they want to have left when it's over."
Glancing back at the steward, Hex continued. "You can ask him the same thing a hundred times, and you'll find a new lie every time."
Looking back to Thelbane, Hex let the beast loose in his eyes and said. "I'll only ask him twice. Once before I start, and once when it's over. And then we'll have all the truth he knows."
Gwendla shrank back, her eyes dark with horror.
Thelbane turn his head slightly, and smiled - a terrible, rictus grin that conveyed a wealth of memories to Hex - of Thelbane's owm amusements in days gone by.
Derron shook his head. "Much as I'd like to put him to the question, I will not do so without Lord Draupaud's permission. And neither will you. Either we let him live, or he dies now for his crimes. You and Gwendla have said enough to convict him and have him hanged. I'd just as soon turn him over to the people of Marshend. It's their town that's been attacked." He faced Thelbane once more. "So as I see it, you can either bargain for your life, here and now, or throw yourself on their mercy. Which'll it be?"
Derron also looked to Hex and said, "Until I am sure that Thelbane's men aren't simply hiding nearby, having already killed their prisoner, I am not sparing any men or horses. Once I am satisfied, then we can discuss it."
Catriona leaned a little more weight into her sword, its tip pushing a little harder at Thelbane's throat. "Keary?" she called out, not looking away from Thelbane. "You've lost more than anyone else in Marshend to the acts of Thelbane's ill-begotten brethen."
"Most of the town doesn't even know what's coming," Keary said. "Just the first taste of it. And I doubt he has any clue just how much he's cost me, the last few nights. Far as I'm concerned, we should just open him up and leave him for the eels. Let the rest of the Mummers trickle in, looking for him, so I can let them disappear in the Fens."
He glanced at Hex, then Gwendla, then back to the Thelbane. "Too bad," he said. "Should have said something of value, not vague promises. Shouldn't have burned the inn. Shouldn't have become a thorn in my side. You'll never know how far it will spread, now that I know who to kill. Nice knowing you."
Catriona still kept her gaze on Thelbane, watching for any sign of a reaction from him. Nearby, a dark shape flitted into view, landing on a tree branch near Shade's horse feast. The crow let out a "Caw!", eager to join in the bounty of blood. Keir ignored the bird, staring even more intently at Thelbane than Catriona did.
"Hex?" she interjected for a moment. "There are two horses in the barn that you can use to reach Gwendla's father. In the first two stalls on the left, with their tack nearby. They belonged to the dearly departed brigands who thought assaulting Mariam's in the dead of night was a good idea." She paused, then added, "I don't know how fast they are, though, but they don't belong to Clearwater, and you're welcome to use them."
"My thanks, Catriona. We'll try to bring them back no worse for wear. And if it takes a bit longer to return, " Hex said. "All the more time for your prisoner to wonder how much of a coincidence it truly was that he found me at that inn so willing to travel with him."
"With your pardon, Master Steward, we'll take our leave." Hex waited for any response before gesturing to Gwendla to join him at the stables.
Derron nodded, though surprised at being asked permission for the errand.
(Hex's thread continued in Marshend - Preparing to Ride: Hex and Niko)
"This is probably a waste of my time," Catriona grumbled, "but roll over, Thelbane." She moved her sword only just far enough that the man could comply. She nodded to a nearby guard. "Disarm him. And truss him tightly with his arms behind his back and his ankles tied together. And keep the end long." Once Thelbane was tied, she moved closer to inspect his bonds himself. She looped the extra rope in a noose around Thelbane's neck, which attached to the man's bound arms and legs. If Thelbane tried to move too much, he would strangle himself.
Once she was satisfied, she stuffed an empty grain sack over Thelbane's head as a hood, then proceeded to search Thelbane herself for any extra hidden weapons, lockpicks, items that might be used as improvised weapons, or other objects of interest. Keir kept close watch for any sign of mischief on Thelbane's part.
The mention of putting Thelbane to the question and the Steward's initial reluctance reminded her of a conversation the prior night, when she had needed to question the captured brigand. "Mariam's a little busy now, but I know she has something to make the uncooperative more talkative. Would that be allowed without Draupaud's permission, Steward?"
Derron thought a moment before replying, "Aye, I think that can be allowed."
"As for Thelbane's partner-in-arms..." Catriona mused. "Niko, is your prisoner more talkative, or does he long to share the fate of his master?" She shrugged her shoulders. "Otherwise, I know the eels in the Fens are hungry, and they won't disdain a two-course meal."
"Him?" Niko said, looking down at the tied up form near his feet. "I think I hit him too hard- I was trying to kill him, not capture him. He won't wake up," Niko finished with a shrug, kicking him once to show what he meant. "Sorry."
"Oh... he still breathing though," Niko added almost as an afterthought, "and the blood still pulses at his neck, so he is alive, for whatever that is worth. I guess we could try water if there is any to spare somewhere, but I have always found a kick works just as good as water, and kicks are more plentiful..."
Derron said, "Wake him if you can. There's another prisoner yonder." He called out, "Binnder, go ahead and truss that one up, then search him. And search the other bodies, too." He eyed the bloody remains of the direwolves' handywork. "Even that mess."
Derron's instructions in mind, Niko knelt first to thump the man's eye. That usually aroused some response, in his experience, but this time, nothing. It was then that he noticed a spot of blood at the man's scalpline. Feeling that, he shook his head.
"This brigand has his head cracked," Niko said, still crouching. "Not too many men wake up from that, in my experience," he said, which in any other man his age would have been an idle statement. "Should I dispatch him?"
Derron said, "No. Until we know if this man gave orders, leave him be. If he dies, so be it. If he survives, he may yet prove useful."
Niko called for two of the guards. "Take this man to the stables- follow the merchant. He is heading in that direction. Just find a good out-of-the-way place to put him, but leave him trussed." He looked towards Derron to see if he would countermand the orders, then if he didn't, watched them leave.
Keary and Catriona, for the first time in the confusion, found themselves a little apart together and able to exchange a few words.
(Keary and Catriona's thread continued in After the Struggle: Keary and Catriona)
Derron called out, "Binnder! After that last man's secure, and you've searched everything, set the watch again. I don't want trouble finding us unprepared." Derron then looked at Niko, then towards the stable where Hex and Gwendla had gone. He looked back at Niko and said, "If I send you to scout with them, can I rely on your wisdom for once? If the numbers are against you, you return without engaging?"
He waited for Niko's response.
Niko looked surprised at the request. Then said, "Of course, Steward." He bowed slightly.
"If the numbers are against me, I will return without engaging," Niko said, sincerely meaning every word. Of course numbers are a sticky thing...
Derron sighed and added, "You'd best return with a good report, lad. By the by, did it ever occur to you to let me know the minstrel was here last night?"
"No?" Niko responded, flushing slightly, the action making him appear more youthful. "In the excitement, I forgot. I suppose. I am sorry. Yes, I will."
With that, he mounted, looking back to the cottage one final time. There were enough men to take care of Ranulf, and Aerin... well, she had Shade.
"I will be back as soon as possible," he said. Then he turned away to gallop towards the stables.
(Niko's thread continued in Marshend - Preparing to Ride: Hex and Niko)
(Derron's thread continued in Marshend - After the Struggle: Derron and Mariam)