A Forest of Gods and Shadow
For many, the Godswood could be an intimidating place. The thick grove could be unnerving even during the daytime; weak sunlight trickling through the gnarled branches of the God-trees. At night, however, the broad faces, their eyes so terribly aware, took on a terrifying aspect. When one walked here amongst the dead leaves and tall grass, one walked with gods and ghosts.
But Corryn walked with ghosts regularly and had grown accustomed to their presence. The Gods rarely paid him heed, so they did not intimidate the old wolf. For him, the Godswood was an escape, a comforting womb of darkness. He tread here without fear, only with respect.
The Matron stood before him, her motherly gaze falling upon him appraisingly. He ran his smooth hand over her thick, ashen bark, gently outlining her motherly face. It felt warm to him like human skin. A faint shudder passed through her branches, a whisper of movement. Some would have thought it the wind, but he knew otherwise.
"I brought you lilies, dearheart" he told the ghost. He placed the dried flowers upon the black soil at the tree's thick roots. "I'm so sorry I haven't brought you more of late. I never had the chance to explain myself during my last visit. But I'm sure you understood. You were always patient with me."
Corryn found a place to lie down, resting the back of his head against a root. Despite its solidity, he could not help but imagine his head was resting against the taut ball of Morna's belly. He stared up into the dark branches and sighed, feeling truly at peace for the first time in many years. The shadows slipped their ethereal arms around him and held him tenderly as he talked aloud.
His voice ached with pain, but he remained in control of his emotions. "I married finally," he said. "But you already knew that, I think. Not a wedding worthy of song, to be certain, unless one happened to be a mummer of peculiar melancholy. I wish I could have given her a life, rather than an empty death.
"So now, I have a daughter and a son, but no wife. How apropos, don't you think? Do you think the Maiden is trying to tell me something?"
The leaves above trembled with a suppressed violence. Corryn chuckled, "I know. I know. I'm moping, aren't I? I shall endeavor to smile and be more pleasant company."
He wet his lips and sighed, "I know we talked about this before I left you, but I need your advice upon a serious matter. I think I have held onto you far too long. I think it may be time to move on. My heart is yearning again after all these years. But I am lost. So terribly lost. Limosa stirred something in me I'd forgotten. And Syndra, well... we won't even go into that awkwardness.
"And then seeing Odette again. The one I almost married before..."
Corryn shook his head, trying to forget the blood and sorrows of two years before.
He sat up, leaning into the bark for support, his head slumped forward. "I think I should marry. For love. And for my children. They need a mother as much as I need someone to share my life with. You will always be my heartwife, but until we are together again, I think I shall go mad if I am alone any longer. What good is a life, if one cannot share it?"
Corryn gazed back into the branches, "What do you think, my dear? Is this old wolf still worthy of love?"
"You loved her very much," said a quiet voice. "As she loved you."
It was Sewell, standing against one of the trees, his aged hand resting on the bark as he watched Corryn with dark, inscrutable eyes.
Of all the men the gods could have sent him, Sewell would have been last on Corryn's list. For years, he had plotted the man's death. Indeed, Syndra's beloved Rhys had narrowly escaped having an unfortunate 'accident.' With no son to steal from Sewell, a nephew would have been the next logical choice. He wanted the maester to suffer for his failure, for taking Morna and his son from him. But, instead, Corryn had chosen the higher path. Morna would have wanted it that way. Most days, he did not regret the decision. Today was not one of those days.
"Maester Sewell," he said standing up. "So good of you to interrupt me. And how is it you can see into my heart with such certainty, if I might ask?"
"I cannot see your heart," said Sewell. "But I saw the lilies. And ... she spoke of you to me. At the last ... when all pain had passed, and she was slipping away."
Corryn flinched as if burned. He'd always suspected Sewell would have been there in the final moments. But to hear it confirmed made his heart ache. Still, Morna had always sworn she would not reveal their secrets. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously, stepping closer to the old man.
"Morna would never have spoken of me, even if in pain," he stated, then realized the very words undermined his denial. He paused, passing his hand over his stubbled hair. As much as he desired to be away from this conversation, he had to know. Dreams and ghosts could not soothe the emptiness of not knowing about her last moments, of the painful questions that still haunted him.
"What… what did she say?" He hated how desperate he sounded.
"You must forgive her," said Sewell gently. "The fever was very bad for a time - and she found it hard to separate reality from what she longed for. She believed you were there, with her - and her heart was torn between her joy that you were with her - and fear that you might be discovered."
The ground became unsteady and Corryn found himself slumping back against the Mother tree. Tears filled his eyes, a mixture of joy and sorrow. He'd always dreamt that Morna had thought of him in her last moments. To hear it confirmed overwhelmed him with mixed emotion. He realized he was now sitting on the ground, the lilies at his side.
He stared up at the maester, brittle and lost. "How could I ever disapprove of her wishing me there? There is nothing to forgive."
Corryn wiped his wet cheeks and sighed. "Did she suffer much? Did the child…" He shook his head, grinding a palm into his forehead. He wanted to know and yet feared the truth more than anything.
Sewell hesitated but then said, "It was not easy. But then, it is never easy for a woman to bear a child. And for Lady Morna ... I had warned her, after the last ... another would be dangerous for her. I warned Ser Godfrey too."
Corryn glanced away, feeling a stab of guilt puncture his heart. He picked up the lilies and turned them over in his trembling fingers. He pulled his knees up, resting his elbows on them as if to shield himself. "She never told me… I would have stopped her. Why didn't she tell me?"
He arched his head back, tears now flowing freely. "I knew she was hiding something. Damn her stubbornness. I would have begged her not to go through with it."
He slumped forward, burying his face in his hands. The scent of lilies filled his nose. It reminded him of her standing in the window on that last morning. They'd said their final goodbyes the night before, but her scent lingered on his skin. Lilies and tears. She'd been so beautiful that morning, her hands resting proudly over her swollen belly. They'd wanted that child so very much. It had been a symbol of their love; a love that could never be fully realized. They had chosen to walk separate paths, content that their child would forever connect them. That had been enough to sustain their hearts.
But that symbol had stolen her from him. He'd waited too long to let her go. Had he simply said goodbye before their love manifested into physical form then she would still be alive. Perhaps it was poetic justice met out by the gods; the symbol of their love destroying their lives.
"I am to blame," he said weakly. "I'd always known that. But now, at least, I know it to be the truth. And now I have an answer to my question." He gave a resolute nod, accepting this judgment.
Corryn looked up at Sewell, "Why haven't you told anyone this until now?"
"Who was there to tell?" said Sewell. "Ser Godfrey had the guilt of it to bear - would it have comforted him to know that she loved another man, even as she died bearing his child? How are you to blame for that, Ser?"
'His' child? Lords, the maester didn't know that the child wasn't Godfrey's. Morna had kept that secret even in her last moments. Oh his sweet, heartwife. Why had he doubted her strength? Corryn's entire body deflated as a relieved breath escaped him. He gave a faint nod and stood up. "You're correct, of course," he said.
"Maester, I know that you have never trusted me," Corryn said, unapologetic. "However, beneath the eyes of the Gods, I beg you tell me everything she said. But please, be quick about it. The Bolton's child will be here shortly."
He sighed again, "I must further damn myself to protect my friend and his daughter. But before I tarnish my soul, I must know what she said. She is and was the only thing truly good in my life."
Sewell looked at him gravely.
"Her last words were for her Lord," he said, "and for her children. It was earlier that she spoke of you - and how she loved you. That you were not to mind her going, for she had known happiness in your love. But that you were to go now, before you were taken. She slept then, and when she awoke, as I said, she began to speak of Ser Godfrey and their plans for the child. She knew then, I think, that she would not live to see her babe."
Corryn nodded, his heart in his throat. "I wish she could have seen the child. She wanted it so much. So much. She wanted another daughter, but she would have loved another son all the same." He shook his head to clear it and gave a tired shrug. There was no sense in dwelling on this further. He had what he needed to know; for the most part, anyway. Other questions could wait for later.
"Thank you for telling me this, Maester Sewell. I'm in your debt."
He cocked his head, regarding the old man curiously. "May I ask why you chose to tell me this now?"
"The lilies," said Sewell. "I saw you remembered ... and that you cared."
"She is not easily forgotten," Corryn said, nodding to Sewell's words. "And I cannot stop loving her. She was… everything to me."
He let out another loud breath and shook his head. "If you cared for her, you won't discuss this with anyone else. Let her be at peace and the living ignorant." His eyes flickered in the shadows. "You haven't told anyone have you?"
"No," said Sewell. "But there were others present. Her Septa. And the old Septon who died five winters back. I don't know how much they heard - I was not present all the time. When the baby was born ... I tried so hard to save it."
Corryn nodded. He already knew Morna's Septa would have been aware; in many ways, truth be told. But as much as he wanted to feel empathy for the man, he couldn't summon the strength. He had hated Sewell far too long to feel anything beyond spite. To hear the pain in the old man's voice should have stirred something. Anything. There was only ice and shadow inside his heart.
Even still, he owed the man something for this revelation.
"Fate can be cruel," Corryn said. "Sometimes it can be heartless. The Stranger will take what is his, and there is nothing we can do to prevent him from doing so."
He stepped closer to the maester, staring into the old man's pained face…
The stiletto moved quick and vicious, cutting into Sewell's belly with surprising ease. Corryn smiled as he watched the old man's expression transform from sadness to confusion. It reminded him of two years ago; his attacker's eyes staring up at him questioningly as his guts slid from their moorings. In that instant, the old man saw his death, even though he hadn't recognized its face until now.
Blood, hot and sticky, flooded over Corryn's hands in a soothing torrent. Like the warm waters of the Summer Isles, it purified him in a wash of scarlet. Never before had he felt such relief as he did seeing the life ebb from Sewell's eyes. Those eyes had watched Morna die. Now they would see no more. Sewell gripped his shoulder and tried to pull away, as if denying this reality. So, the old wolf twisted the blade and stole the maester's last breath. "Thank you for telling me, Sewell," he whispered. "But I can never forgive what you took from me. Never."
… at least, that was how Corryn pictured it in his head. He yearned for it, wished for it, and had done so for many years. But no. He found he couldn't bring himself to take this old man's life. Not now. Not ever. Sewell obviously felt pain for his failure; a cancerous guilt that consumed him. He could hear it in the old man's voice, see it in his eyes. A true mercy would have been to let him die, so he might find solace and forgiveness in the next world. Perhaps in death, Sewell could finally find some peace.
But Corryn was not merciful. The old man would live for a long time yet.
He placed his hand on Sewell's shoulder and nodded. "Thank you again for telling me this. I can tell you cared for her too."
"I cared for them all," said Sewell. "From when Ser Godfrey and his Lady were first married - he so young and ardent, she so gentle and loving. He has borne the grief and guilt of her loss for so long, I know."
His voice suddenly sharpened. "Who's there?"
"I," came the reply - and Eryk Bolton stepped fully into the clearing. "I camt to ... to pay my respects."
He did not look at Corryn as he spoke.
Corryn felt a sense of relief seeing the boy. He wouldn't have to continue this awkward conversation with a man he hated so deeply. And yet, the Old Wolf was human. A flicker of sympathy had stirred in his heart for Sewell. They had a common bond. They cared for a gentle woman taken far too soon. And both of them were responsible for that; a camaraderie of failure. He patted Sewell on the shoulder and nodded.
"He came at my behest," he said. "I needed to speak to him where we would not be disturbed and the Gods would be watching. Maester Sewell, perhaps we can talk more in the morning? Please, come to my tent. I would ask your advice on my daughter's condition."
Corryn went to join Eryk, but turned at the last moment. His hazel eyes glimmered with wetness. "And thank you for your words tonight. I needed to hear them, I think." Sewell bowed gravely, without speaking further, and left the grove.
And then with a sad shrug, the Old Wolf returned and swept away the emotions. His eyes fell on Eryk. "You and I have much to talk about, I think. And let us speak the truth. The Gods are watching us and shall know if we lie, Eryk."
"Firstly, I need to know why your father is so intent on marrying a Snow to the Hardys?"
Eryk Bolton drew a breath.
"There are truths known to the gods, and truths that can be told to men, Ser Corryn Manderley. And the latter generally come with a price to bargain for. I am willing to share the truth - if my price is met."
Corryn gestured for Eryk to follow him and then placed his hands behind his back. He led them toward the Father tree, walking through the shadows with a comfortable familiarity. "I shall speak frankly then. As Syndra's guardian, I agree with her father in that she will not marry a Bolton. Nor do I wish my lands or daughter to be under their sway. As such, allow me to offer to you the arrangement your father shunned in your stead.
"However, I do believe my family and yours could benefit from a marriage. Beforehand, there had not been a Bolton of your easy manner. As such, if you assist me in matters here, I can arrange for a marriage between you and one of my cousins, both of whom are comely and well-off. You would be given lands on the eastern coast, which are known for being adequately profitable. Your true allegiance would be to House Manderly, but I suspect you wish to be away from the Flayed Men anyhow. Am I correct in this assumption, Eryk?"
They reached the Father tree; its cold, impartial face staring down at them. Corryn studied the boy's face as he answered, searching it for secrets.
Eryk's face was calm - a little pale perhaps, but inscrutable. Of course. As Ser Herys Bolton's son, doubtless he had early learned the virtue of hiding his feelings behind a politely impassive mask.
"Ser Corryn," he said, with politeness, "I am honoured that you would wish to make me such an offer. But ... forgive me ... I think my business should rather be with Syndra's father than with you, don't you?"
Corryn turned his hazel eyes on the boy and smiled wolfishly. "Eryk, don't play coy with me. You know as well as I that this marriage will never go through. Nor will the Hardys allow you to stay here, as you've requested. After tomorrow, you'll be in a very tenuous position. And Ser Godfrey is the last person you'll wish to deal with. His hatred of the Boltons runs even more deeply than that of his daughter."
He gazed up into the branches of the Father; the smile bleeding away. "The question is this Eryk~E Do you want to be away from your father or not?" He cocked his head, hazel eyes flashing as they regarded Eryk. "I can arrange that. You will not get the same offer from Ser Godfrey."
"No," said Eryk. "But whatever Ser Godfrey offers, he'll hold fast to his honour and deliver."
Dark eyes were lifted to Corryn's, measuringly. "He has that reputation."
Corryn snorted and gave Eryk a wry grin. "That is true. He's honorable to a fault. However, it is also well-known that when I make a promise, I always live up to the letter of my words. A trader knight would go broke rather promptly otherwise. And my Lord Cousin did not name me Guardian of White Harbor because of my dishonesty. I may be a scoundrel, but I do have my honor. Do you think Ser Godfrey would trust me with his daughter's safety otherwise?"
"Has he?" said Eryk. He sounded genuinely surprised.
"I've been a part of her life almost since she was born," Corryn admitted. "I'm more a brother to him than his own blood."
He leaned against the tree, crossing his arms. "So, you can risk being thrown out on your ear and returned to the Dreadfort, or we can negotiate for the betterment of your future. No one else here can promise you that but me. Or shall I make other arrangements?"
Eryk smiled slightly. "I'd be interested to hear what other arrangements you have. If you're willing to make a deal with me, it suggests your efforts with my father have been less than successful. And if you're thinking of talking to my brother, then I'd say you were getting desperate. Other measure ... well, the Starks may look kindly on you, but if your actions go awry and you start a war between the Dreadfort and Holdfast, I imagine your popularity would slide rather quickly. And my Uncle Lord Bolton would just love a legitimate excuse to grab some of the Holdfast lands. So you're fortunate, really, that I am willing to make a deal with you. Under certain conditions."
Corryn nodded, his expression remaining composed. "You've a perceptive mind, Eryk. I like that in a future cousin-politique. Your brother might be useful as a scapegoat, but little else. Your father is a fool, blinded by lust and greed. And Roose~E well, as much as my elder cousins would love an opportunity to come to Holdfast's aid and subsume Bolton holdings, I agree with you that a war isn't in our best interests."
"However, because the Starks favor me for the moment, that does give you and I some leverage over my elder cousins. A marriage between the Manderlys and Boltons will strength our interests on the Eastern coast. A mind as sharp as yours happens to be is just what we require. So name your conditions, and I shall name mine. And then we can drink to our mutual and bountiful futures."
"They're simple," said Eryk. "I want my brother's life spared - at the Wall. And I want Ser Godfrey to witness our oaths. He'll ensure you keep your word or - if you fail, he'll be my debtor."
Corryn straightened up and gave a harsh laugh. "Well, having Ser Godfrey witness our oath is simple enough. But why not ask me to pull down the stars in the other matter? I gave your brother ample opportunity to escape death at the trial. He rebuffed my offer in no uncertain terms. How can one help those who refuse it? The Hardys will carry out the trial by combat. Their bloody honor dictates it. Don't think I tried to convince Godfrey otherwise.
"And your father~E well, if he hired me to murder Evan, I'm certain he would rather not see the young man escape 'justice.' Simply sending him to the Wall will only prolong his end."
Seeing the seriousness in Eryk's features, Corryn's humor ebbed. He held up his hands apologetically. "I would help him if I could. But he has dug his own grave, Eryk. Not even Ned Stark is as pigheaded as that man. What would you have me do?"
Eryk turned away toward the tree, lifting one arm up to rest his forehead against. When he spoke, his voice was muffled.
"I ... I have tried to do all that I could. To try to make up for what my father forced upon me. But ... what can I do? If he will not be saved ... what can I do?" His voice broke in anguish on the last.
Corryn regarded the boy skeptically for a moment, wondering if the child was trying to play on his emotions. Perhaps it was the sorrow in his heart from speaking with Sewell, but he could not help but take pity on the boy. He stepped over and placed a gentle hand on Eryk's shoulder. "Eryk. What exactly happened with your brother? His actions~E baffle me. I cannot help you unless I know the entire story.
Perhaps there is something you've missed that I can see from an
He squeezed the boy's shoulder in a fatherly manner. "It is time to trust someone with the story. I realize I may appear to be a poor confidant, but I swear your words will remain between us."
Eryk turned and looked at him, his eyes bright with the tears he had not shed.
"I can tell you," he said slowly, "if you swear never to tell another living soul."
Corryn nodded respectfully. He stepped back and then placed his hand on the cool bark of the Father. "I, Corryn Manderly, swear to you that I shall never reveal what you are about to impart to anything living soul. May the Father judge me harshly and turn his back upon me if I do." It was a binding oath of silence; one only a true blackguard would break. The Gods were hardly a forgiving lot and easily offended.
The Old Wolf gestured for Eryk to sit, and then did so himself; leaning against the attentive Godtree.