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A Prayer and a Meeting

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After leaving Kenrith, Rhys also left Holdfast and took a walk in the woods to the west. This was familiar ground to him, and his feet followed the animal track through the trees without thought, leaving his mind free to dwell on the happenings of the last few days.

His destination was a small creek about a quarter hour's walk away. Once he found the creek, he followed it upstream about two stone's throws until he came to the wide, quiet pool it ran through before burbling on the rocks downstream by the path. Moss-covered boulders hunkered patiently in the water here and it was upon one of these rocks that Rhys sat down to stare contemplatively into the still, cold waters.

Rhys had never been much of one for formalized religion. The rote prayers and songs seemed foolish to him--why would one of the Seven want to hear the same things, over and over?--and it seemed to him it was more likely a way to keep the commonfolk from thinking critically about any of it than it was to appease the Gods. Light sparkling through crystals was pretty, but so was the dappled light shining down through the leaves. Bells were melodious, but Rhys preferred the sound of birdsong. Those attitudes in mind, Rhys rarely entered septs, preferring to commune with his Gods in the forest or in the fields, privately, and on his own terms.

Fallen leaves floated lazily along here, their golds and reds bright against the dark water. Rhys picked up ones of the same shape and color and arranged them on his boulder in the shape of a seven-petaled flower. Finished, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then as Kenrith prayed in his grove, Rhys prayed here in the forest by the pool.

Touching the topmost leaf with his forefinger, Rhys prayed to the Mother for mercy for his great-uncle. He touched the next leaf and continued his prayer to the Father for the protection of Holdfast and those that dwelled there. He skipped the next three leaves and touched the sixth. To the Smith he asked that he'd heal the broken relationships and mend the supernatural breach his uncle had caused. And last of all, his finger on the seventh leaf, Rhys prayed to the Crone for wisdom in this matter, both for himself and Kenrith, and asked that the Gods plainly make their will known to Kenrith as he considers all sides of the current matter.

His prayers concerning his uncle accomplished, Rhys added a short prayer for Syndra's safety in her travels, then sighed deeply and rubbed at his eyes. He felt tired and drained and wanted nothing more than for things to go back to the way they were two months ago, when he first came to Holdfast from the Citadel, before Boltons and Sacrilege and Murders and Tournaments...

Lost in his thoughts, he was not at first aware of the quiet footfall in the clearing. It was only when he looked up that he saw the wilding boy, his face pale and strained, the bow held ready in his hands, but the arrow pointing at the ground, not yet at Rhys.

Rhys froze on his rock as he stared at the boy--there wasn't a lot else he could do. The water was quiet enough here that if he tried to hide he'd make noise enough for the boy to hear. And even if he did manage to be quiet enough, the boy would surely notice the movement.

The boy swallowed - the movement of his throat was evident.

"My mother ... and my brother and sister. Where are they?" he said.

Rhys could see in his rapid eye blinks that he was terrified - but determined.

"If they're the same Wildings that Ser Kenrith found two days ago, then he let them leave his presence alive. Where they went after that, I don't know," Rhys answered gently, his gaze still very much on the boy and the nocked arrow. "Is that who you're referring to?"

"Perhaps," said the boy. He had not raised the bow yet. "H ... how did he describe them?"

Rhys shrugged. "As a brother and sister and grandmother," he replied, narrowing his eyes. "Are you all right? What is your name?"

"You can call me Tree," said the Wilding. As Rhys listed the three, he seemed to have relaxed a little. "You're a Maester, are you? Do you know the Maester from Clearwater?"

"I do," Rhys replied, worry in his tone. "Merivel is his name. Have you seen him? He disappeared from his travels home under dire circumstances and we feared for his safety."

"We traveled together," said Tree simply. "He was in danger here, and I gave him protection." His gaze at Rhys was suddenly very direct. "Is your loyalty to Holdfast paramount? Or are you loyal to your Order?"

Rhys paused and blinked. "I would rather not be put in a position where one is tried against the other. Why?"

"Because your fellow Maester was placed in grave danger," said Tree gravely. "And we both of us believed it was caused by Holdfast. For it was Holdfast guards who tried to kill him."

The maester nodded. "We know about this. One of the guards sent with Merivel was not corrupted and made his way back to inform us."

Rhys's expression changed. "The guard in the clearing... He was hanging from the tree, and he'd been mutilated before he died. Were you...responsible?"

The boy frowned. "I was with... " he began - and then suddenly he started, staring hard at one of the paths.

Rhys had heard no more than a twig snap; the path itself seemed empty.

But when he looked back at Tree, he discovered he was alsone in the grove - but he could hear someone moving along the path.

After a moment, Kenrith came into view.

Rhys hadn't moved and was still sitting on the same mossy boulder when Kenrith came upon him. He'd been watching the path intently and nodded to Kenrith as soon as he saw him.

"It would seem our prayers have been answered, and the gods feel I've been too harsh by more than half... I'm sorry Rhys," he said as he finished closing the distance and passed the other man a white cloth folded in from the corners, containing something light.

Rhys unwrapped the cloth and poked briefly at the leaves to confirm the substance in them. He looked up at Kenrith and tried to keep his composure calm and unemotional, but failed--he grinned. "This mean he can partake of the sap?" he asked.

"Yes... if it is freely given," Kenrith said softly, his voice heavy with reverence.

Rhys caught the emotion in Kenrith's voice and nodded solemnly. "I understand, and I can't ask for anything more than that. Thank you."

He refolded the cloth and stood. "I'd like to get back to Holdfast--my uncle will need this as quickly as possible," he said, then lowered his voice to a whisper. "A Wilding--a boy with a bow--is in the area."

"You should get back then," Kenrith said. "I'll want to speak with your uncle when he is strong enough," he added, then motioned for him to be on his way.

Rhys hesitated and gave Kenrith a warning look that said "don't do something that's going to get you shot," then turned and left to walk back down the stream toward the path. Kenrith knew that if he didn't show up at Holdfast in a reasonable amount of time, Rhys would send people out looking for him.

(Exit Rhys into Rhys Returns to Holdfast with Alacrity)

After Rhys had had a chance to walk sufficiently far away that he wouldn't be a bow target, Kenrith said in a voice which carried without being a yell, "I thought we had discussed this, cousin." Though his hand wasn't on his sword, Kenrith looked out over the branches and allowed his muscles to relax. If the wilding fired, he intended to dive and roll.

There was a long silence - and then a voice spoke from among the trees.

"I have discussed nothing with you, stranger who calls himself my cousin."

Although the pitch and tone of the voice was like that of the Wildings he had met, the voice itself was unfamiliar.

Another pause ... and then, with an attempt to repress eagerness ...

"Have you seen my brother?"

"Yes. Come out where I can see you, and I'll tell you more... pepper me with arrows, and I'll be unable, won't I?" he said dryly, once again fully behind his mask, his hand still a good distance from his sword's hilt.

Another long pause - and then someone stepped into the clearing, a bow drawn with arrow nocked, but pointing down at his side. A young man, with dark red hair - and a clear resemblance in his face to the other Wildings Kenrith had seen.

"You saw my brother?" he pressed. "Were any others with him?"

"From the look of you, yes. You both have the family look, which I take it you get from your grandmother. Your sister, or cousin perhaps, was with her. They're fine, as far as I know. For the sake of the Maester, and to avoid spilling family blood, and for other reasons, I spared them. It may be my head..." Kenrith said before shaking his head slowly.

"Things are very bad for my family right now... please, tell me truly... are you four the only wildings in this wood? Are there encamped troops near here, and if so, whose colors do they fly? And... did you see that thrice-accurs'd steward?" Kenrith asked.

"The only four," said the other, looking at him warily. "But where are the others?"

And then he made an impatient gesture with one hand, as though accepting that he needed to yield more information before he could expect an answer from Kenrith.

"There's no troops - apart from a troop of Nightwatch moving south to Winterfell. And the steward - how would I know him? There've been those I took for traders on the Kingsroad."

"If you'd gotten ahold of him, I'm sure he'd have tried... never mind. As I said, I met your kin in the woods. You, or they, killed men from Holdfast when I rode to learn what had become of the Maester, so I rode out the next day... there are, or were, men in those walls who I rightly mistrusted, and it was partly to get them beyond the walls that I returned. We found them about the spring, though I didn't expect to take them bathing. I'm sorry for their embarassment, but I saw to it that they were untouched," Kenrith said as for the first time he absently brushed his sword hilt, then removed his hand and stuck his thumb through his belt loop on the far side once he realised what he was doing.

"I gave your grandmother my cloak, and your sister that of the Bolton I decapitated for suggesting..." again Kenrith shook his head, his jaw setting harder. "Your brother has a mouth on him, and thinking he was dead anyway, said some very unwise things... I recognized my father in... I'm guessing your grandmother is my father's sister, but I don't know the exact relation," Kenrith said as he paused to draw a calming breath.

"I spoke with her privately, and learned the truth of things about Merivel and the attack the day before-- one interpretation of Merivel's capture was that -you- had killed our guards and taken him, though I don't doubt her version. Someone bought off two of our men, and they murdered one of their fellows... I told her the other half of the story, and asked her some questions which let her prove she was a daughter of Holdfast."

"We drew on the Bolton men with us, arrested them, and on my authority I released your kin... I won't be a kinslayer before the Old Gods... unless sorely pressed," he added as he gave the other man's bow a hard look.

"Your mother passed by the West wall of the castle two days ago, to return the cloak I'd left her. She at least led me to believe she'd be heading North. I'm most like going to the block for your sakes... don't hurt anybody else on my lands without good cause, and get your unbending knees back on the right side of the Wall. I thank you for helping the Maester back to Clearwater," Kenrith said solemnly.

Tree listened to all this, his eyes widening. "You'd best sit down with me," he said finally, "and I'll share my tale."

He did, taking a seat on a log, and motioned for the other man to continue.

Tree took a seat a little way across from him.

"You know, then, who my grandmother was - and is. Did she tell you that she wished us to see her birthplace, regardless of the danger, so that we should understand our joint stock?"

Kenrith simply nodded.

"Anyway, that part went off well - we saw Holdfast, and were unobserved - we thought we were leaving in complete safety.

"Then on the road, we saw a Maester and his guards. Except - all but one guard had left him - and then he was attacked. By two travellers on the road, and by two of the guards - who killed the one whop had stayed by him. It seemed to be a plot to make away with him. I ... well, my sister and I ... we decided he should not die so, alone, unaided. He was fighting back - and fighting well, for a Maester. But he was wounded, and would have been overcome. So ... we intervened. And we killed a man of Holdfast - but, you might say, to preserve the honour of Holdfast."

He sighed. "As soon as the Maester could travel, I took him off through the forest. The others stayed behind - to cover our tacks and to discourage pursuit."

He looked directly at Kenrith. "None of us had any way of knowing how many of Holdfast desired the Maester's death. Indeed, in telling you this, I might have earned my own death for helping the Maester escape."

Kenrith again nodded slowly.

"You'll be happy to know, I hope, that you haven't... We Hold Fast, and I've already decided to let the rest of you go on your way... but I do not disagree with my lord Stark's ruling that wildings are to be killed on pain of death. I pray I can convince him to let me take the Wall in my brother's place, and if he should, never forget that I will then be sworn to another Brotherhood. If not, he'll be within his right to have my head," Kenrith said as if the prospect of decapatation was little more than an inconvenience.

"Either way, now that you've seen what you came here to see, it would be best if you returned to your world. You'll cover more ground than your grandmother, and must know which way she meaned to cross back over the Wall..." he said, not sure what else to say, perhaps expecting the other man had more to say.

Tree hesitated and then said, "I think you should know about the man secretly buried on the borders of your land - for I judge him to be a man of importance."

"Yes, I do as well..." Kenrith said, expecting his distant cousin would take this as sufficient prompting.

"We were taking an old skyway," said Tree. "I daresay you've heard tell of those. One of the routes that we have inherited from ... from those who dwelled here long ago. The Maester was injured and needed to rest often. At one point I left him ... and went forward to explore ... "

He began to tell his tale ...

(see Merivel After The Nightmare from 'The rope bridge swayed even more than Merivel had thought' to '"Let's go." Merivel finished, looking back at Tree.')

Kenrith listened with his practiced stoicism, though his nostrils did flare from time to time, and not neccesarily where Tree might have expected.

"You say the maester guessed the Lord of Leaning Tower had done some heinous crime to earn his treatment... I will not say that what was done to him was justice, but if not, it was a near thing. Still, he was right on something else as well-- too much has gone wrong in too short a time. You keep to the old Gods, cousin?" Kenrith asked.

"Aye," said Tree. "And will swear by them should you wish it."

Kenrith shook his head. "I don't need your word... if you should make it home, I'm hoping you'll think of us in your prayers. But, if you have nothing more to say... you really need to get out of here. I really hope you won't think I'm starting at snarks and grumpkins," Kenrith said as he pinched his nose and glanced at his boots. "... But I've heard things are strange beyond the wall. I think a man was possessed the other day. Get your family out of here, so if the worst happens... I'll know some Hardy blood still quickens."

Tree nodded. "Now I know they left here safely, I'll set out after them. So my thanks for that ... " He hesitated. "You have your duties here, I know. And my life will lie far from here. But if ever I may serve you ..."

Kenrith shook his head. "You helped save Merivel, who it was our duty to protect. So long as you try to obey the law on your return, which seems prudent in any event, we're even. Hold Fast, cousin," Kenrith said as he clapped the other man on the shoulder.

Tree smiled. "Hold fast," he echoed. "Words my grandmother taught me when I was a babe. It was to teach me the meaning of those words that she brought me here, she said. But it is you who have shown me that those words still have meaning for my Hardy kin. And I honour you for it. May honour attend you in turn."

And then he turned to leave.

Page last modified on August 10, 2007, at 07:34 PM