The Septa's House: New Arrivals
Niko had been riding steadily at the front, and now found himself at the crest on the road, looking down over a small sheltered valley, including two or three whitewashed cottages. In the distance, and slightly to his right, he could see a line of blue that sparkled in the morning sinlight - the Long Lake. Near to that, a smudge of smoke rose in the air - too much to be the product of a single cottage fire. Marshend, then.
But the nearest cottage, nestling on the green hill, was undoubtedly the one he had visited the night before - the Septa's cottage.
Even as he distinguished this, he heard the sound of hooves on the road behind him.
Since the hooves didn't appear to be coming fast and furious, Niko's reaction to the sound was merely to slow at the crest and glance over his shoulder. Seeing Binnder there, he threw a half wave, and stopped looking down into the village.
"Ho, Binnder," he said as the man drew close. "What brings you here? We should be at the cottage in a matter of moments."
Binnder - for it was indeed he - drew up beside Niko.
"Those bodyguards the wine merchant has - they're Bloody Mummers. Steward says we're to be cautious, but to cause no trouble, and just carry on to the cottage."
As Niko saw the person hail him from outside of the Septa's cottage, he looked closer and realized it was the ranger. He raised his hand in response, in greeting to her, before turning back to Binnder.
"Thank you for the warning - and tell the Steward that I have ridden ahead. I can not in good conscience submit them to this possible danger without at least a warning. If the merchant is close - merely tell him that I have gone ahead to prepare the Septa a place. And inform the other forward outriders if you would."
He waited a moment to make sure that Binnder understood the message, then turning back towards the Septa's house, he began to gallop faster than a regular approach would merit, directly towards the woman.
Catriona leaned back against the fence as she awaited Niko's arrival. When he came within earshot, she addressed him. "Good day, Niko! Does the sound of the wagon that I heard mean that your injured Septa draws near?"
She inclined her head towards the kitchen window. "Mariam is finishing up her preparations so that she will be able to help as soon as your Septa arrives. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Good day to you also," Niko returned. "Indeed it does- she should be here shortly." In the meantime, he had drawn closer so he could talk in lower tones.
"We had trouble crossing a stream, and were overtaken by a merchant and his bodyguards," he said, his expression now urgent. "This one travelled ahead to not only inform you of her arrival, but theirs- it appears that the merchant has contracted with the Bloody Mummers for his entourage," he said gravely. "I did not want them to come upon you unawares."
Catriona stilled, her eyes narrowing. In a low edged tone she answered, "The Bloody Mummers."
There was a pause before she continued with a somber nod of appreciation towards the mounted man. "Many thanks for the warning, Niko." Her face was grim. "Marshend's people do not deserve their brutality."
Quietly she continued, her emerald eyes locking directly on Niko's gaze. "How many of them travel with the merchant? Do they wear any common sigil? Or is there another way we might distinguish them from your men?"
"Three in addition to the leader," Niko said immediately, his mood matching her intensity. "But he could have someone in reserve, as this one did not personally observe them after they crossed the stream. And there is the merchant and his woman," Niko added. "Unfortunatly, they are dressed common, so there is no real way to distinguish them. I would see no tactical advantage to doing anything openly, with so few numbers."
Catriona drummed her fingers on the fence railing, lost in thought for a moment. Then she laughed softly. "Ah, that weasel of a ministrel has given us an opportunity."
Niko cocked his head curiously, looking at her askance.
A smile flashed across her face as she explained. "Mariam asked the ministrel to fetch milk and cheese from a nearby farm this morning so we would have more for your party. He never came back, and probably ran off instead."
She motioned towards the kitchen, from which the sounds of Mariam's last minute preparations could still be heard. "The supplies would be useful. And Marshend could be warned." There was another pause. "Can you or one of your men ride into town? I can tell you whom to seek."
"I am sure that it could be arranged once I speak to the steward," he answered without hesitation. "Whom should I tell the person to seek?"
"Gabriel," she replied. "He's the innkeep of the Song and Sheep. He can spread the word, and direct your rider to someone who can provide fresh milk and cheese."
Niko nodded his understanding a wan smile touching his grim features momentarily. "Hopefully, one day soon, I can arrive here without the threat of imminent violence along for the ride."
Catriona's fleeting smile matched Niko's. "Aye, that would be welcome."
He raised his hand in farewell, then turned his horse and galloped back towards the approaching party.
He did not have far now to ride - for the wagon was nearly at the brow of the hill, with Hex and Derron rising beside it.
The hunter watched Niko's departure, then moved to the kitchen window. "Mariam?" she called softly. "More trouble is brewing. The injured Septa's party has encounted a merchant with the Bloody Mummers as bodyguards. They haven't caused trouble yet, but be ready for anything."
There was a crash as a little stone jug fell from Mariam's hand as her face whitened.
"The Bloody Mummers? Here? We should run - now ... "
She looked in consternation at Catriona's injured leg.
"Don't panic yet," Catriona smiled grimly. "Running will exite the predators, and might draw their attention to us prematurely."
She glanced up towards the road, where she could now see a wagon cresting the hill. Niko's horse appeared to be slowing as he neared it.
"I asked Niko to send a rider to town to raise the alarm, and to fetch that milk and cheese that the ministrel didn't get," she continued.
She looked directly at Mariam as she added quietly. "Lock and bar the back door so that the only access is from the front."
"Just tend to the injured Septa as best you can, Mariam," Catriona replied. "I'll worry about the rest."
"Very well," said Mariam. "But ... what about the sword? Will it be safe here?"
A half-audible oath was Catriona's initial response as a series of bloody images flickered through her mind in the blink of an eye. The Septa had no reason to have a hidden scabbard, and if her house was searched, questions would emerge. And the Septa did not deserve the way those would be delivered by the wrong hands.
Catriona, on the other hand, had ample reason to be lugging around a broken sword for repair. If she lived, no one would get the scabbard from her while breath still remained in her lungs. And if she died, well, her new purpose in death would be to haunt whoever had had the bad taste to kill her before her tasks were done.
"Go -- get the sword and meet me in the front room," Cationa replied.
The hunter glanced up towards the road again, where the wagon was starting to roll slowly down the hill. The horsemen were still alongside, although as she moved towards the front door, it looked as if Niko and another were starting to pull away.
Catriona opened the Septa's front door, then stepped inside, closing the door partially behind her to shield the view. When Mariam came downstairs, she accepted the scabbard. She checked that the broken sword pieces were inside, then stuffed a cloth just inside the top of the scabbard to keep the pieces from sliding free too quickly.
She then buckled the broken sword's scabbard about her so that it hung on her opposite side of her good sword. From its positioning an observer would probably assume that she sometimes fought with a sword in each hand. And, if necessary, she could explain to the more curious that she sought a blacksmith to fix her broken second blade.
Once the second scabbard was safely secured, she opened the front door once more. "Anything else we need to do, Mariam?"
"No," said Mariam. "Do ... do you want to greet them?"
She sounded understandably nervous.
"Aye," Catriona replied. She flashed a smile at the Septa as she stepped outside. "Your Seven will guide you, Mariam. Just focus on the healing."
She pulled the door shut behind her, then walked into the garden. She propped herself against the fence and awaited the arrival of the wagon.
"Steward," Niko hailed Derron as he approached, "the Septa is expecting us - and knows of the additional people that have followed along - but has had a problem with some basic stock deliveries. I figured the least I could do was offer to ride to the village to retrieve them for her. But I wanted to check in with you first."
Derron mulled it over for only a moment before answering, "Aye, a good idea. As we will be imposing upon her, bringing her supplies will be a good gesture. And as we will also want the goodwill of the folk of Marshend, alerting them to their visitors might also be called for. Take one other with you to help with the supplies, and make sure you get word to the town elders that some of the Mummers will soon be paying them a call." He then realized that Niko had not mentioned the Mummers by name, probably due to Hex's presence. He added, "Hex here had their company offered to him, whether he wanted it or not. He is no more happy about them than we are."
Niko froze at the mention of the Mummers - but at Derron's explanation, ducked his head once in acceptance, then after a look askance at Hex, nodded his understanding.
"I'll take Grenn - Tyek and Eron would probably be best left here," Niko said. "And I'll be back as soon as I can."
As the wagon started down the hill, therefore, Niko rode ahead with Grenn, taking the quiet lane that led, after three of so miles, to Marshend.
(Niko's thread split into A Mummer's Herald)
Hex watched Niko and the other man ride off. Without turning back to Derron, he said. "Sending the captain of your guard and another armed man to pick up some flour and eggs, Steward? An odd tactical decision, unless there is more going on than meets the eye."
"I appreciate your courtesy, and offer of aid, but I would not move Gwendla from Thelbane's fry pan only to throw her on your fire. What exactly is it that awaits us at that cabin?"
Derron shrugged. "By all accounts there is a Septa who may help heal our own Septa. And I always assume there is more than meets the eye. Unfortunately I'm rarely clever enough to guess what it is, so I simply deal with what I know, what I can see. But if you wish to continue on with Master Thelbane and his merry band of cutthroats, I will not stop you."
As they came down the hill, they saw someone in the garden of the cottage.
The tall brown-haired figure was leaning against a fence railing, and raised a hand in greeting as the wagon continued down the hill.
As the wagon drew closer, it became apparent that the stranger was a woman with her hair tied back in a braid. She was dressed in a light brown shirt, dark brown leggings, black boots, and a gray cloak, all of a rustic, sturdy cut. A scabbard hung from each hip, although only her left bore a sword hilt. The tip of a longbow and quiver could be barely seen jutting from her back.
Her lean form straightened up from the fencepost when the wagon pulled into the garden. As she strode confidently towards the newcomers, she called out, "Mariam, our guests are here."
When she reached the first cart horse, she paused to grab its bridle. She gently stroked its neck as she addressed the visitors. "Welcome to my sister's house. I am Catriona." Her emerald green eyes calmly surveyed the new arrivals. "Mariam is inside completing her preparations for the healing."
Derron grinned briefly and nodded at the words of welcome. "I am Derron Thorne, Steward of Clearwater."
"Greetings, Steward Thorne," Catriona replied.
A look of concern wrinkled her freckled nose as she added, "How fares the injured Septa?"
"She is gravely wounded," he said as he swung down from his saddle. "Would your sister care to see her before we move her? I fear that each time we remove her from the wagon, or put her back, we may cause her more harm." He made no mention of her weapons, though it was obvious from his eyes he had taken note of them.
"We'll have to ask her what she prefers," Catriona replied. "She's the skilled healer. Me, I'm better at breaking things."
She glanced towards the kitchen window, where she spotted the Septa's face peering out. "Do you want to see your patient out here, Mariam, or should they bring her inside?"
"I'll come out," said Mariam. She moved out of the cottage, her nervousness at these armed men apparent. "How was she injured?" she asked, even as she made her way to the wagon.
Derron walked with the Septa and said, "We were attacked by bandits, and she took an arrow to her chest." He held the door of the wagon open for her and said, "Aerin, Ranulf, step out and let this woman see to our Septa." He saw Gwendla and said, "Oh yes, and this woman has some knowledge of healing as well, though we've only just met."
(Events inside the wagon split into In the Wagon)
Catriona affectionately stroked the wagon horse's neck as Derron and Mariam approached the wagon. She appraised the assorted travelers as she waited, and gave a nod of acknowledgement to the two men that she recognized from Niko's visit the prior night.
After Derron had finished helping Mariam into the wagon, Catriona inquired nonchalantly. "Is this all of you, or should we prepare for more hungry mouths?" She glanced up the road, then back at the Steward. "Our apologies, but we had some trouble with bandits last night ourselves. Our supplies are a bit low until a delivery arrives."
Derron replied, "Well, Master Hextall there has a wagon of wine that's being driven by a few members of the Bloody Mummers. I'm hoping they continue on to Marshend. And once I feel things here are settled, some of the men with me will also head for town. I sent Niko and one other to get your supplies."
At Derron's mention of the Bloody Mummers, Catriona's hand froze in mid-stroke upon the horse's neck, and she released her other hand from the bridle. She gave Hex an inscrutable look as the steward continued speaking. "Our thanks to you for that kindness, Steward Thorne."
She studied Hex with cool green eyes for a moment longer. "From all I've heard, the Brave Companions have little love for those who nickname them to their faces." Her eyes flickered to the steward, then back at the merchant. "You haven't gutted him yet. I take it that you are not one of them, merely someone with a truly unfortunate taste in teamsters?"
Derron paused, then added, "Did you have any help when you dealt with the bandits? Or did your sword and bow drive them off? I ask because those that escaped from us were heading in this general direction. If they're still a problem, I'd be more than willing to help find them. I have a score to settle with them. Perhaps Lancer can help track them." He looked over towards the wagon. When he had told Aerin and Ranulf to get out, Lancer had also clambered down, then stretched himself. Currently the large hound sat in the sunlight by the wagon, but his ears were up and he was sniffing the air. There was something that had caught his attention, but not something he feared.
Catriona followed Derron's glance over towards the wagon. A broad smile spread across her face as she spotted the hound. She took a few steps further away from the horses, then crouched down. She whistled, then called out, "Here boy." As Lancer tentatively got up to approach her, she held out her hand in welcome. "What a fine old dog you are." After the dog sniffed her hand, she started to scratch him behind his ears. "I'm sure you're an excellent tracker."
The hunter rose back up to her feet with a half-apologetic grin, her one hand still stroking Lancer's head. Her face grew more somber as she continued, "About those bandits.... That particular group of them aren't going to bother you anymore. They're all dead."
"I shot most of them, but had some help," she explained matter-of-factly. "A wandering ministrel showed up at about the same time as the brigands. He was a far cry from a bladesman, but he knew where to stick the sharp end of his sword."
At the mention of the minstrel, Derron's eyebrows shot up.
"The ministrel took off this morning, supposedly to get our milk and cheese," Catriona shrugged her shoulders. "But I guess he just scampered off instead." Grudingly she added, "Even so, I have to admit that he made himself quite useful last night." She pointed towards the field, where some recently upturned dirt could be seen. "He even helped us bury the bodies."
She added, "By the way, if those bandits stole anything from you, we have their gear stacked up. You're welcome to search through it if you're looking for anything in particular."
She motioned towards the water trough. "And if your horses need watering, I just freshened that trough before you came. There's also a barrel with more water just around the side of the house, with a bucket nearby if we need to fill it again."
Derron said, "Fortunately the bandits did not get what they were after. Not that we had it at any rate. But that bloody minstrel, who we thought was helping us, took off with my sword. I forged it myself and would dearly love to get it back." He paused then asked, "Did he leave something Lancer could use to get a scent?"
"Not in the house as far as I know," Catriona replied, "although perhaps Mariam noticed something. Maybe in whatever pile of hay he spent the night...."
Derron glanced towards the barn, considering taking Lancer into it.
She paused as Derron's words sunk in. "He stole your sword? One you forged yourself." A tone of wonder entered her voice. "No wonder you want it back."
Her head tilted slightly to one side, a loose lock of hair drifting across her forehead. "Do you do that often? Blacksmithing, I mean. I thought you were the Steward."
"Not often as I'd like. I was the smith at Clearwater for some years. Then our Steward turned out to be a drunk and a cheat. Lord Draupaud decided to name me Steward. If I can find someone able to take my place, I can return to my forge. I dream of the day." Derron suddenly flushed and looked at his feet. "But that's neither here nor there. For now I mostly try to run the household, and work the forge when I can." He shook his head. "But I rue the day I made that bargain." For a brief moment he envisioned the land that Lord Draupaud had promised him, but quickly dismissed the fantasy. There were still too many obstacles to overcome before he reached that promised land.
"Their leader, Thelbane, was a Mummer when I last saw him four or five years ago, mi'lady." Hex interjected as Thorne paused. "Of his five men, perhaps one or two served with him at that time. They wear a new sigil now, not one that I recognize."
"Can you describe this sigil they wear?" Catriona inquired. "Or what this Thelbane looks like, so that I can forego the pleasure of his company should I spot him from afar?"
Hex provided the woman with a brief description of Thelbane, including the clothes he was wearing when Hex rode ahead. Having no particular skill at heraldry, the dornish described the sigils as best he could.
"As to gutting, you seem better equipped than I." Hex's eyes took in the two swords at the woman's waist, the long knife at her belt, and bow and quiver slung over her shoulders. "And from the graves it would seem more inclined as well."
"My gutting is usually limited to dressing the yield of my hunt," she answered, her teeth flashing in a feral smile. "I only dull my blades on men when pushed to it, ser."
"And when that happens, sometimes even the best blade breaks." She tapped the scabbard on her right, from which no hilt protruded. "Steward Thorne, should you someday return to that forge, I might have need of your skills."
Derron eyed the scabbard and said, "We could easily sell you one of the swords we took from our attackers. The money will go to the families of those we lost. If you wish a new blade, they take time and money. Does Marshend have a regular smith?"
“Aye, although ‘regular’ would be an exalted description of his skills,” Catriona replied with a grimace.
"As to teamsters, I like to think I have a fair eye for talent." Hex continued. "But sadly, one has little choice when it comes to captors else I would have selected a handul of infants or withered old men for my gaolers instead of those cut throats."
Hex dismounted and held out a hand in greeting to the woman. "Alexander Hextall, mi'lady, wine merchant."
The hunter grasped Hex's hand in a firm grip of welcome. "I am Catriona." She held the merchant's gaze. "Do you wish to be extracted from your captivity?"
In a quieter voice she added, "And do you think it likely that this Thelbane will leave my sister in peace, or is he likely to torment her on a whim?"
"Does your sister wait in the cottage?" Hex asked Catriona. "Thelbane is a man given to cruel whimsy, there is no doubt as to that. During the months long ride north I stayed not more than an arm's length from Gwendla out of my concern over that very quality. At least.until I left the wagon to assist your man Niko with Aerin. I was away perhaps a turn of the glass, but long enough for Darcy to strike her."
“Nay, my sister is in the…” Catriona paused as she saw the Septa exiting the wagon. She gestured towards Mariam. “She’s right there. She’s the healer, the Septa Mariam.”
"I am not as hopeful as Master Thorne that Thelbane will ride ahead alone to Marshend. If it is not too bold to suggest, you might be wise to direct your sister to a hiding place until we are certain Thelbane is well on his way. The barn, perhaps, or a root cellar she can secure from the inside."
Derron frowned and said, "I simply hope he has bigger fish to fry. If he wishes to make more trouble, he will find quite a bit from us. And while I've no doubt he is cruel, he is probably practical enough not to bite off so much that even if he can win he loses enough that his return trip south would be lonely." He turned to Binnder. "Set up camp here. The men can bed down in strategic points, near the doors to the house. As long as the Septa is here, we all remain."
Some of the tension in Catriona’s shoulders eased as Derron declared that the party from Clearwater would be camping outside Mariam’s house. However confident she was in her own skills, she was only one woman. Extra eyes and ears on guard would not go amiss.
“Thank you for that, Steward Thorne,” Catriona said. “Mariam will rest much easier knowing that she has more protection than just myself.” She smiled slightly. “That is, she’ll be at ease once I tell her that you aren’t the Bloody Mummers. Please excuse me for a moment, sers.”
The hunter walked over towards Mariam, who had been followed from the wagon by two men carrying an injured woman between them. Clambering from the wagon behind them came an oddly dressed woman with green eyes and a young boy. “Mariam, these men aren’t the men we feared. And they plan to keep watch while you are helping their Septa.”
Mariam nodded tightly. "I must get her inside swiftly," she said. "The other women are injured too - but not as badly as this. Be careful, Ca ... my sister. I fear men who bring three injured women to my door."
(Continued in Outside the Septa's House)