A Prelude to Tears
The scent of summer rain still hung in the air when Morna emerged into the courtyard. Storms, even brief ones such as this had been, were a welcome relief these days. The grass was still cool and wet, while fat droplets fell from the trees that dominated the shady courtyard. Squirrels chattered in the trees, reinvigorated and boisterous. Wrens and sparrows bathed in the numerous puddles that had formed on the worn flagstones. Life, it would seem, had returned to Holdfast after weeks of oppressive heat.
She heard a soft humming tune coming from near the castle’s pond, accompanied by the occasional splash. This took her by surprise, as few of the staff ever came here. And they would certainly not be playing in the pond. The humming stopped momentarily when another large splash echoed throughout the courtyard.
"The little scamps," Morna chuckled as she turned toward the pond. The boys must be playing there. Kenrith was big enough, but the pond was too deep for Godwyn and Gavrin. It was unusual for them to be so quiet, but not unheard of if they were trying to be sneaky. There would be no drownings today if she could help it.
After following the stone pathway, she was greeted by another surprise. A shirt and britches lay folded in a neat pile on the stone bench that overlooked the pond. Beneath them was a pair of leather boots, one lying on its side.
The pond, she knew, had been a feature of the castle since its original founding. It was quite deep and populated heavily with water lilies and reeds. Ripples played across its murky water, but she could not determine their source at first. And then she saw it, a large dark shape moving just beneath the waves. It came towards the north edge of the pond with otter-like grace and then broke the surface with an ecstatic whoop.
Corryn Manderly. She’d received him in the great hall a few days previous. A merchant knight, he had gone to Storm’s End with her husband only two years ago. She’d marveled at the wondrous items he’d brought from the Free Cities and Seven Kingdoms. That first night she had found him to gracious and charming, if somewhat boyish in nature. But, more importantly, he had also been clothed that first night. Not so now.
He shook out his hair like an otter drying its fur. Wiping the water from his eyes, he stared up directly at her. The contented grin on his face immediately turned into a frown, his hazel-green eyes going wide with horror. It last but a moment before the grin returned, albeit nervous and bemused.
Morna had meant to creep away behind the rhodedendron hedge and leave the man to his bath, but he spotted her first. She covered her mouth with her hands in embarrassment, but couldn't suppress a bubbly giggle at the horror-struck look on poor Ser Corryn's face. Above her long, slender fingers, her eyes glimmered mirthfully.
“Lady Hardy!” he chimed. “It is so good to see you again on this fine afternoon. I would stand up as a proper knight should, but I suspect that might be rather awkward for both of us at this given moment.”
The giggle turned to genuine laughter, as sweet and clear as the sparkling mountain streams that fed the White Knife. "To be sure, Ser Corryn," she laughed. "I never thought to find a merman in my frog pond."
His jaw hung open for a moment as he listened to her laugh. Corryn had only met the woman before him briefly, but in those scant moments he’d found himself intoxicated by her. To hear her laugh so freely though, to see the color of her cheeks and the sparkle of her eyes, stole his breath and made his pulse race. He secretly thanked the gods that the water’s murkiness obfuscated a reaction best left private. He wiped his face and chastised himself. This was Godfrey’s wife for Stranger’s sake!
Once he’d regained his composure (well, as much as any man could in such a situation), Corryn pushed back from the bank to sink into cloudier waters, his feet thankfully kicking up more sediment. “Mermen are far too noble of nature, Lady Hardy. A kelpie, perhaps, is more appropriate,” he quipped. “Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to sully your pond. But I’ve been away from the river so long and then the rain stirred me from my room and well… I do appear to be babbling.”
She smiled amiably. "I wouldn't worry about sullying the pond if I were you. The gods only know what the children do in there," she cautioned. "And they've been in a lot with the heat wave. That's who I thought was here when I heard the splashing."
“I think I’m more worried about turtles at this time. They have a tendency to nip,” he said, gazing into the water just in case. Then he smiled winningly up at her, “It appears I am safe for the moment. But it may not be wise to tarry much longer.”
Morna's dainty eyebrows rose ever so slightly.
Corryn watched her quietly. It was not because he was lost for words, even though he found them difficult in coming right then. Instead, he feared words would disrupt the moment. He sensed its delicacy, its tender beauty. One poor wording, one misstep, and it would end, as all dreams regretfully do. But he could not allow it to end, refused to.
Life was risk, he knew. So he risked all and slid closer to her, cutting through the water with hardly a ripple.
Morna took a step backward as Corryn approached and her deep brown eyes were wide as a doe's just before it leaps out of sight. "I...I should let you get on with your bath. I'll just..." she stammered and started to turn away but...
“Do you know the story of the Maid and the Fish, m’lady?” he said softly, looking up at Morna as if she were the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes upon. Perhaps she was.
Morna stopped and regarded him warily, her head cocked and her lips slightly parted. She was ready to bolt if the water receded past his breastbone. In fact, she wondered to herself why she hadn't already bolted. She should have.
Instead, she answered him. "No. I don't," she said curiously.
Corryn floated with liquid grace in such a fashion as to maintain a sense of propriety. His smile widened when Morna decided to stay and listen to his story. Eyes sparkling with mischief, he began to relay the legend.
“Many years ago, when the Red Keep cats were suckling their first litter, there lived three sisters, Dragons all. Rhaenyra was the eldest, and Visenya the second by scarcely a year. Myriah, the third, joined the world a year later and as such was destined to suffer for it, as all third-born are.
“Rhaenyra and Visenya were twins in every fashion, despite their birth order. Myriah, Mother bless her, was their mirror opposite. Where they were haughty, she was meek. Where they were cruel, she was gentle. Where they were summer fire, she was winter rain. But more importantly, where they were unsightly, she was beautiful. And they hated her for this above all else and made their feelings known whenever they could.”
Corryn drifted back slightly, lost in the moment. “The girls summered along the Trident to avoid the stifling heat and smell of King’ Landing. The keep was a simple one from the time of Nymeria, the Warrior Queen. Tranquil and bereft of courtly concerns, the tiny keep was a hellish prison for Rhaenyra and Visenya. They relieved their boredom with falconry and hunting, for like most Dragon, blood cooled their fiery souls.
“For Myriah, however, summers were a joyous time. She spent most of her days exploring the keep’s impressive library, painting, or walking along the river and enjoying the peace of simply living. Many a day, she would return from her rides, her silver hair tangled and her cloak torn by burrs. Her sisters would torment her for this wild streak, but she didn’t care. The keep was her sanctuary.
“Now, the one thing the trio did agree upon was the pond that lay just below the keep’s northern wall. It was not much unlike this one, shaded by willows and firs, and filled with frogs and lilies. They would swim in its cool dark waters or picnic along its gentle shore. Normally, the bottom was hidden and unknowable. But on occasion, the girls would see flickers of gold just beneath the surface. They marveled over this strange phenomenon, making up stories about what it might be.”
Corryn spun around slowly, slithering through the water like a snake. Morna caught a glimpse of his lower back before he came to rest in the center of the pond. “Then one day, when the girls had become young woman of age, Rhaenyra went to the pond alone to sew. She had hardly woven a stitch when the waters of the pond rippled and bulged as a golden fin broke the surface. An instant later, a hideously fat and ugly fish floated there before her, its two wide, milky eyes staring at her sadly. Its slimy bulk was covered in golden scales, but even their brilliance could not detract from the fish’s repugnant face.
“Rhaenyra leapt up, and despite her Dragon’s blood, turned to flee. And then, much to her surprise, the fish spoke in a haunted voice. ‘Oh beautiful Dragon, tarry awhile and hear my tale.’ Rhaenyra, for obvious reasons was dubious of the fish’s true intentions, but her curiosity made her stay. The fish explained, ‘I was once but a brave hedge knight that came south to seek his fortune. When there was none to be had, I begged the help of a Reed Witch, one of the secretive Cranngowomen. She gave me a gold ring and told me that until a woman of noble birth took it from me freely, that I would carry a fortune of gold upon my back. Blinded by greed, I accepted her so called blessing. And thusly, I became the fish you now see before you.’
“Rhaenyra snorted, amused by the fish’s anguish. ‘And what does this have to do with me?’ she asked. The fish replied, ‘Oh Beautiful Dragon, please take my ring and marry me. Although we will be poor in gold, you will never want for love.’ Rhaenyra laughed cruelly and turned her back on the fish. ‘Love is for fools and poets. Begone with you.’ And so the fish sank back into the pond.”
Corryn sank down beneath the brackish water, bubbles marking his passage. A long moment later, he resurfaced, now a little closer to shore. “The next morning Visenya went down to the pond to investigate her sister’s wild claims from the night before. Sure enough the fish was waiting there for her in all its golden hideousness. And so it told her its tragic tale of greed and curses, begging her to take its ring and marry it. But like her sister before her, Visenya refused the fish’s plea. ‘Love does not build castles or buy fine things. Begone with you!’ And so the fish sank back into the pond.”
Once more Corryn sank beneath the waters, only to reappear mere feet from the edge. His long otter-like back was plain to see, a hint of his firm hips and buttock almost visible in the shadowy water. “Amused by the fish’s agony, Rhaenyra and Visenya coaxed Myriah to go down to the pond the following morning. They knew her gentle heart might be swayed by the fish’s plea, so they hid in the bracken and waited for her arrival. They intended to push her in. Maybe the fish’s curse would become hers, and they would be finally rid of her. Myriah came down to the pond, and sure enough, the fish floated to the surface. The young girl was startled by its appearance, but dutifully listened to its story. Its sad words moved her and she knelt down at the shore to listen to its plea for help.
“‘Oh Beautiful Dragon, please take my ring and marry me. Although we will be poor in gold, you will never want for love.’ Myriah paused for a moment, looking upon the fish’s ugly face. For all she knew, this was a trick of some sort. But finally, she nodded. ‘A woman that never wants for love is a rich woman indeed,’ she said. ‘I shall marry you.’ The fish opened its wide, toothy maw and there on its slimy tongue sat a gold ring. With a little trepidation, Myriah reached in and took the ring. But before she could remove it, the fish snapped its mouth shut on her hand. She yelped in surprise and pulled back in fear. The fish held on, but Myriah felt no pain, only warmth. There was a shimmering of gold as the fish’s scales tumbled into the water like Lannister coins. And just as quickly, a handsome man with a gentle smile stood before her, dressed only in a sheen of water. ‘Thank you, my wife,’ he said and kissed her tenderly.
“Myriah and her knight were shocked when Rhaenyra and Visenya came rushing out of the bushes and drove into the pond. They had seen the gold scales falling away and wanted the fortune for themselves. But they never resurfaced and the pond has held their fate a guarded secret since that time. Yet on certain days, if you look close enough, you can see two fat golden fish swimming about that pond, searching for something they can never find.”
Corryn chuckled softly, pushing back from the bank again and gently drifting. “The knight took Myriah north to White Harbor. And although they lived humbly, he was true to his word and loved her without boundaries until the day they died in each others arms after many, many peaceful years together.
Throughout his tale, Corryn could see a sentimental smile blossoming on Morna's lips, marking her as a lady more akin to Myriah than her sisters.
“And that, m’lady, is how my great-great-grandmother became a Manderly,” he winked playfully. And in that instant, she caught a glimmer of Dragon’s violet in his eyes.
At that, a chuckle of amused skepticism erased the sentiment. "Ser Corryn, are you trying to tell me you have the Dragon's blood now? I would've instead taken you for kin to an otter," she chided amiably.
The River Wolf smiled broadly, “Oh I have dragon and otter in my veins, m’lady. And don’t forget, the Dragons were born of the sea. I suspect I was doomed to live in the water one way or another.”
He coiled around again, turning onto his back without realizing what he’d done, having grown comfortable with this exchange and forgotten where he was. Fortunately, he was too far out for anything to be seen. “I can prove it to you, if you wish, m’lady.” His grin was mischievous.
When Corryn flipped over, Morna hastily turned her eyes to the ground. In a moment, though, she raised her head just enough to peek furtively out from under long lashes. Deciding there was nothing inappropriate to see, she lifted her head once again. "I'm not sure if I dare, Ser," she grinned, daring him.
“Life is too precious not to dare or reach for dreams, m’lady,” Corryn said softly. He wriggled his eyebrows, almost enjoying being the source of her blushing discomfort. “I shall show you the truth behind the story. We Manderlys still carry the knight’s curse with us. We are all still part fish until someone frees us.”
And with that, he slipped beneath the water, leaving only a ripple behind. A few bubbles disturbed the surface, but these faded shortly. Stillness descended over the pond and nothing could be seen within its murky depths. A minute passed. Then two. And still Corryn did not emerge. It was as if he too had taken the form of a fish and disappeared into the darkness.
Morna waited patiently for him to surface, shaking her head. Boys will be boys. Her nephews and son did this all the time. But not usually for so long. After about a minute, she stood on her tiptoes, craning her graceful neck to see if he had come up somewhere in the reeds. At two minutes, she called out, "Ser Corryn?" When there was no answer, she stepped closer to the pond, but not too close. She didn't want to be soaked when he did come up. "Ser Corryn?" she called again, louder and more anxiously, when he still didn't surface.
As time stretched out, the black waters remained glassy and still. Not a bubble broke the surface, not so much as a ripple. Two minutes became three, and the apparent silence promised more.
But then with a dramatic sloth, Morna noticed something stir in the silt only a few feet away. There was a glint of gold and then Corryn’s head broke the surface with a playful whoosh of spray that wet her feet and ankles. He shook his head like a happy otter, sending cool droplets everywhere. His bottom settled on the pond’s shallow edge, the dark water scarcely obscuring his back from shoulder to ankle.
And then, staring up at her coyly, Corryn’s lips pulled back in a wide, lupine grin. There between his teeth, large as day was a gold ring. A wet eyebrow rose mischievously, as he spoke; his words slightly slurred from holding the ring. “Oh beautiful Wolf, take this ring and become my dearest friend. And you shall never want for laughter again.”
Morna laughed at his mischief, then her smile faded and she gnawed at her lip. Her thoughts were as clear to Corryn as if she had spoken them. She was wed to another man. A good man. She shouldn't be tarrying here, and she certainly shouldn't be enjoying Ser Corryn's attentions. Yet she was. She knew she should leave, but she simply did not want to.
With a small, anxious smile, she accepted the ring and quickly pulled her hand back. "Only friends. And only to free you from your curse," she reasoned, as if the justification made it all right.
“Indeed,” Corryn said softly, staring up at her with those deep hazel eyes and knowing smile. “You’ve saved me, m’lady, and with that liberation I shall reward thee with the deepest bonds of friendship."
She rose swiftly then, turned and walked briskly back toward the hedge. Before she was out of sight, she smiled at him over her shoulder. "I hope to see you at table tonight," she called back. Then she was gone.
He watched Morna go without word, studying the way her gown flowed over her, the way her back arched so perfectly when she was nervous. He called after her, “I would be rather neglecting to not join you for dinner. I shall attend you tonight. Until then…” But she was gone, although the echo of her voice remained, ethereal and alluring.
Corryn floated onto his back and rested his hands upon his taunt belly, as any river wolf would when in thought. What in the Crone’s name was he doing? She was married. To a friend, no less! He took a mouthful of water and spurted it into the air. Forget her, he chided himself. Lose yourself in the bed of that laundry girl and never consider these thoughts again.
But as he stared up at the infinitely blue sky and let the water cradle him soothingly, Corryn knew he was doomed. He needed to hear her laugh again, to feel her breath against his neck as she slept. Silently, he resolved to leave the following morning before these feelings muddled his reason. One more night, he thought. What harm could come from it?