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(Continued from Gathering at Marshend and Wolf at the Gate)

Derron had been about to ask Mariam what she preferred, but since the rider had come close enough for Catriona and Keary to speak with him, he waited. When the huntress called out he paused, then shrugged to himself. "Bring him around, if you please." He then knocked softly on the cottage door. "Mariam, we have another rider coming in. Listen in as we speak, and call out if you have anything to add."

Mariam nodded her agreement but said nothing.

Merivel just stayed in place in quiet, discerning observation of the approaching rider.

"After you, Ser," Catriona gestured with one hand, indicating which way around the cottage Corryn should head. She then flashed Keir a hand signal. As she fell into step behind the newcomer, Keir followed at her heels. Just before rounding the corner into view of the Boltons, Catriona gave the direwolf another signal. Keir stopped in her tracks, at attention and on guard from the set of her ears, but out of the line of sight of the Bolton entourage. Keary stood a moment, glancing in the direction of the other group. His frown grew deeper. He looked back towards where Corryn and Catriona had gone, then back towards the Bolton men.

Then, he looked towards the marsh, and the mists. His stance indicated that he would like nothing more than to be away from this place, but instead he placed a hand on his direwolf's head.

"Stay here, Mist," he said. "Stay with Keir." And with that, he strode around to join the group in the house.

Mariam looked at him worriedly. He was her oldest acquantance (if not outright friend) among the group there. She gave him a small, tight nod, and moved closer to Eddin.

He gave her a weak smile in return, one that was more concerned than confident.

Merivel moved to join the group with Mariam and Eddin, regarding the man on the horse. A very slight, bemused smile, crossed his face.

Derron looked up at the man on the horse. From his clothing and equipment, this was a man of means. Obviously he also had been riding hard. It seemed a logical deduction.

"Good morning, sir," he said with a nod. "Do I have the privilege of addressing the River Wolf?"

"Well, I'm not entirely certain that it's a privilege," Corryn said, "But that I am. Ser Corryn Manderly at your service." He bowed his head; hazel eyes scanning the faces of those assembled. A strange gathering, indeed.

"I fear I'm still at a loss for names," he added. "But none the less, I suspect you're the people I seek. May we parley?"

Mariam glanced at Derron, but said nothing.

"I reckon we had better," Keary said, "before someone else shows up."

"That'd probably be prudent," Corryn agreed.

"Derron?" Merivel said in a mildly questioning tone, clearly looking to him to make the decision on the matter. He turned before Derron could answer and bowed his head slightly to Manderly. "Ser".

Corryn smiled pleasantly, "Good day to you, maester."

Niko regarded the three - Eddin, Corwyn, and Derron- with a mix of measuring and something else. Then he merely shook his head, the bells in his hair jingling slightly, wanting nothing more than to be away from this mess- which is what he feared it would become once Manderly learned that no woman was here. But he stood in silence, his hands never moving far from his swords as he watched.

Corryn raised an eyebrow as he heard the familiar jingle of bells. This must be the Dothraki the dwarf had mentioned. Direwolves, forest maidens, traders, and Dothraki… a strange motley of characters, indeed. Seeing Niko's hand near his swords, he made certain his own hand remained in plain sight. He bowed his head slightly, "Sain bainuu."

Two things were obvious as he looked at the Dothraki. The first was that tanned as he may be, he was not of the Dothraki stock, and the second was that he was not a man full grown yet, which made the number of bells in his hair the more impressive. He raised one eyebrow in surprise before squashing even that response as he inclined his head towards the stranger.

Catriona coughed softly to attract Derron's attention. "I'll go ensure no one else approaches us unawares." And with that, she stepped back away from the gathering and walked back around the corner to rejoin the direwolves.

(Catriona's tale continues in A Wolf Meets a Cat)

Hex kept himself positioned as before, using the horse to shield his nocked bow, shifting slightly to keep himself at the head of a triangle between the Riverwolf and the soldier.

Derron nodded. "Aye. Step down, if you've a mind to. Or stay atop your horse. But I should warn you, if what we've been told is true, the woman you seek is not here. One of the men you've followed carried logs on his horse, to give the impression of extra weight. If that's true, I am sorry, but your lady is not here."

Corryn flinched, as if he'd been struck. He steadied himself in his saddle and fought back the scream rising to his lips. With a trembling hand, he climbed down off of Valarr. "I should have known," he said, his voice rich with sorrows. "I keep…failing her. I should have known."

He lifted his head and shook off the disappointment; yet the hollowness in his eyes remained. "I would speak with the Boltons then. They must know where the Bastard took her. Please?"

Derron shrugged. "I cannot force them to speak with you. But neither will I stop you asking." He paused, then added, "If I can persuade their man to drop his arms for a parley, would you do the same?"

"Aye," Corryn said. "I have no quarrel with the men. Just their master. You can bind me for all I care, as long as it helps get my daughter back."

He nodded his intentions to Niko, who could probably kill him before he blinked, and began to unbuckle his sword.

Niko watched impassively, glad that he had taken the news as well as he had, but still alert for any untoward movements from either side.

Derron turned and walked towards Eddin. "Ser Corryn wishes to parley with you. He is removing all arms. I ask that you do the same." Before waiting for a reply he said softly, "You did not say the man claims the woman as his daughter. Is she a Hardy?" That would be all he needed, a blood feud between Hardy and Bolton, with his people caught in the middle.

Eddin shook his head. "No. She's the daughter and heiress of Ser Cerwyn of Leaning Stone, and betrothed to Ser Herys Bolton, Lord Bolton's brother. Ser Corryn has abducted her - you know his reputation with women. She was young, Sir, and a mute - she would have been able to speak no protest.

"I'll disarm, Sir Steward, and place myself in Draupaud protection for this parlay, if you'll consent."

Merivel continued to gaze at Corryn. He had just missed Corryn Manderly in his departure from Holdfast. He had thoughts, questions and concerned, but the errand Corryn was on precluded Merivel asking about any of them--at the moment.

Derron shook his head slightly. "I think in the end this will all have to be sorted out among the nobility, probably with Lord Stark ruling. But for the immediate issues, you are under the full protection of House Draupaud. Thank you." As the man removed his weapons, Derron stepped back to about halfway between Eddin and Ser Corryn. Once both men appeared unarmed, and Derron even motioned for Eddin to remove his small belt knife, he waved them together.

Eddin removed it at once, and handed it to Derron.

As they arrived and faced one another, Derron said, "If you both wish privacy, I will step back. But if you prefer a witness, I will do so."

"A witness," said Eddin at once. "My master distrust this man, who stole his father's bride."

Keary -did- step back himself, his eyes narrowed. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for the briefest moment he looked far more than a simple marsh guide on the outskirts of a lords' parley. But then he looked back to wink at Mariam, and his expression returned to that of a simple man who was barely understanding the goings-on.

Niko didn't have to pretend- the owning of lands and the people thereon was a thing that he had laid behind thankfully when he went across the seas- though such things existed, it was of a different sort than in the seven kingdoms. He barely restrained a sigh, stood resolute waiting for the Stewards orders.

Eddin faced Corryn, tense and wary.

From the porch of the cottage, Merivel watched the scene between the two nobles unfolding, with the stout Derron Thorne between them. The prospect of debate and parley had a different effect on the Maester than it did on the others there. He took a half step forward and tried to catch the eye of Derron and gave him a nod.

The Steward had things in hand between the wary pair, at the moment, but Derron knew Merivel well enough to know that he would aid, if the situation changed, and the Steward needed it.

Corryn nodded to those gathered to pay witness, and the bowed his head respectfully to Eddin His body may have been relaxed, his hazel eyes betraying nothing as he spoke. "By rights of parley, I state my grievance, but first I wish you to know that I have no quarrel with you or your true lord, Ser Roose Bolton. I hope we can resolve this issue as quickly as possible, so that there may be peace between our Houses."

He rubbed his arm as he spoke, feeling it twinge. "As you've probably surmised, I'm looking for my daughter, Limosa Manderly. The Bastard Eyrk kidnapped her when the Boltons under Ser Herys' order broke Guest-right and attacked the Hardys and their good folk. I say kidnapped, because the previous contract between Ser Herys and the former Ser Cerywn has been null and void, by law, for almost a week now. And with both men dead, I'm pretty certain neither is about to contest my claim on my own daughter."

Corryn let that hang for half a second before continuing. "I say the 'former' Ser Cerwyn because he gave up his lands to me and declared his children bastards, thus negating any claim they had through him. I have this in writing, witnessed by Cerwyn's own maester. My step-uncle, Killian Sand, later challenged Cerwyn to duel, as was his right, for the torture and eventual death of his half-sister, the Lady Lilith Cerwyn. He will be tried by his peers in due order, but once the gruesome circumstances are heard, I am confident any rational man will understand his motives."

Sorry, uncle, Corryn thought. But I need Cerwyn officially out of the picture to assure my claim on the family. Otherwise, all this could be for naught. A sacrifice must be made and I'm sure you'll understand it was well worth it.

"It was apparent Lady Lilith would die from her injuries and prolonged starvation at the hands of her former husband. So, I married her before she died, with the agreement that I would claim her daughter and son as my own. So, you see, Limosa is indeed my daughter, by writ, by blood, and by marriage. And I want her back unharmed. She is a Manderly and will receive the protection and rights of her House."

Derron's face had been neutral when Ser Corryn had begun his speech. But as he continued his face expressed skepticism, surprise, and finally exasperation. He silently cursed first himself, for having stepped deep into trouble, without a shovel to be had. Second he cursed the so-called Riverwolf for obviously allowing himself to be drawn into a situation that probaby did not warrant his action. Third, he cursed Ser Corryn again for acting so rashly instead of seeking justice from the appropriate nobles. If this Cerwyn had indeed been so brutal, he probably deserved his fate. But it should have been handed out by those with the rights, rather than the flimsy legal standing Ser Corryn had concocted. Fourth, he cursed the Boltons for the usual reasons one cursed them but added the additional reasons of also not seeking proper redress for their grievances, and finally for bringing the decoy here, rather than the prize herself.

But for the moment he did not comment, though his face betrayed his thoughts. He turned and looked expectantly at Eddin. He wanted to hear Eddin's reply before he made a comment. Right now he felt he had been lied to by both men before him. If the woman, or girl as she might be described, was indeed with Eddin and his men, Derron would have declared that the woman was to stay at the cottage until representatives of the Starks could be brought to rule on the matter, for he felt they needed to hear all this. If for no other reason than to prevent a clan war upon their lands if possible. But she wasn't, and he simply needed to keep everyone from killing one another.

Eddin listened to all this, his face set. Then he said quietly, "Ser Cerwyn was murdered, and probably Lady Lilith too. Those lands were not his to give away - they had already been pledge to Ser Herys Bolton, along with his daughter's hand, to repay his debts to the Boltons. Either he was tricked out of his lands by trhe Riverwolf, or he was murdered. At all events, Ser Corryn has no claim to the land, either by murder or trickery. What has been pledged or sold or given away once cannot be pledged or sold or given away a second time. Ser Herys and his heirs have prior claim - which the Riverwolf would deny. And to achieve his ends, he seduced a helpless young woman."

Merivel's eyes widened at hearing Eddin's counterargument upon his mention of the fate of Cerwyn, and he flexed his fingers in obvious discomfort. He fought down the emotions but looked away from the two men for a moment.

Derron looked to Ser Corryn, awaiting his response to Eddin's version of events.

Corryn's fist balled up and a cloud of rage passed over his face at the accusation. He pushed it back down and shook his head. "A fanciful, if insulting, version of events," he said, "But utterly lacking in any form of truth. I did not seduce the girl and I certainly did not murder her mother. She was my step-aunt. I would never harm a family member; unlike Herys Bolton, who demonstrated that publicly by trying to murder his own true son. To cover up a false marriage, I might add. Lady Lilith died because of ill treatment at the hands of her former husband. And the girl herself is mute because of the torture she endured at his hands.

"And all the people of Leaning Stone can state the validity of my claims."

He rubbed his arm again, "However, to resolve this peacefully, I am willing to pay the twelve hundred Dragons Cerwyn owed your lord. A debt, I discovered only after he'd fled Leaning Stone. In addition, he and I can negotiation a mutually beneficial agreement over the lands. Considering the trouble Ser Herys has caused by breaking Guest Right, murdering innocent people, and possibly be involved in the assassination of a local maester, I think Ser Bolton would want as few problems as possible right now. And I doubt he cares to suffer further difficulties because of a wretched bastard not even his own.

"All I want is the girl returned to me, safe and untouched. The rest I care little for."

Niko frowned. Both stories seemed to ring false to some extent, but the logs in the bag still bothered him. Though he planned to be close only for the case that Derron needed him, his mouth ran before his mind, as it sometimes did when things troubled him. "Are you alone, Ser Corryn?" he asked.

Corryn turned to Niko and bowed his head respectfully. "Aye. I left my men in Marshend to help repair the damage caused by the Bloody Mummers. As well as to defend the town should they return. I rode on in hopes of finding my daughter."

"So you rode on, expecting to find the girl in the company of a host of armed men..." Niko mused. After Derron didn't intervene at his question, Niko continued, "How many men were with you before you split up, Ser Eddin?"

"There were ten of us," said Eddin at once. "But Ser Herys's son went to some pains to disguise or number and our route."

He indicated the logs that now rested on the path.

"He knew we'd be no match for the numbers sent to follow us."

"So you," he said, pointing to Ser Eddin, "expected an armed force, and an armed response. But even though Winterfell was closer than Dreadfort, and were so in the right that Lord Stark would have to rule in your favour, chose instead to run, and use subterfuge in order to disguise what you were really doing."

"And you," he said, turning to Ser Corryn, "Left your men in Marshend, and followed an armed force alone to do what, pray tell?"

Corryn nodded lightly, finding he liked this straight-forward man more with each passing moment. "I had hoped to negotiation for Limosa's release. To maybe talk some sense into Eryk. Or the men he was with, at the very least. At the very least, I may have been able to rescue her and get her to Winterfell. Ned would know what to do."

His hazel eyes clouded for a moment, his voice growing heavy with misery. "But frankly, I knew I was probably riding to my death. It's why I made the arrangements I did before I left Marshend. I couldn't bring my men with me though. The common folk needed help and if the Bloody Mummers returned, they'd lose more than their daughters. They've suffered enough."

Corryn straightened up, taking a deep breath. "Limosa is my responsibility. I had to try to find her. No matter the cost to myself. She is very…dear to me. I know that sounds foolish. To give up my life for a mute girl not truly my own. But blood or no, she is now my child. And what is more important than that?"

Merivel listened carefully, his eyes flickering from Eddin and his admittance of duplicitous actions, and turned to listen as Corryn spoke his straightforward, passionate and reckless actions. He gave a short graze of the head at Corryn's point about his child and the care he felt for her, even if it wasn't a child of her blood. The passion of a parent for a child was evident all the same, and in full force, and Merivel could not help but recognize it.

Derron was doing his best to suppress his emotions at this time. He had made a promise to prevent more bloodshed if at all possible. Niko, perhaps without meaning to, was stirring the pot. Worst of all, he was taking sides. Derron needed to say something, hopefully to calm the situation. The youngster had some fair points, but Derron questioned the judgement he showed by asking them so openly.

He cleared his throat and said, "You both paint yourselves as the aggrieved party, which is expected. Ser Corryn, you say you would be satisfied with Lord Stark sorting the situation out. If the girl in question were here I would suggest we allow that. However due to the ruse Eddin's master has worked, we do not have that luxury. It sounds as if you and Eddin will not reach any agreement at this time, despite your offer to pay the debt owed. Unless Eddin agrees to lead a large party to his master, so as to continue negotiation, I do not think there is much more to be said at this time."

He paused then decided to take one small chance. "Unless, Eddin, you have some form of counteroffer to make to Ser Corryn. I doubt it, as of course you know that once Lord Stark gets involved, he may write off any transgression of yours as simply obeying your master's orders. I would hope that he doesn't punish you as much as your master. He is Ser Corryn's ally, and liable to side with him. If so, he will certainly punish your master. Would he also punish you? Maybe. Maybe not. After all, at this point, your master is still running free, while you languish here with spent horses. I doubt Lord Stark would vent his anger at you and your men."

He suddenly put a meaty hand on Eddin's shoulder and leaned in close, his voice so soft only Eddin and Ser Corryn could hear him. "Ser Corryn has said he is willing to pay twelve hundred Dragons for his daughter." With a meaningful glance at Ser Corryn he said, "I'm sure he would pay a few more Dragons for useful information leading to her location."

If Eddin or Corryn spared Merivel a glance, they would see the Maester take a quarter step in Derron's direction in support of him and his decision. A quick and precise nod of the head added to it, that, without words, that Merivel agreed with the Steward's judgement to a very difficult matter.

Niko started at that last. He'd had another question to ask, but stopped as soon as Derron started talking. He supposed that now they would learn if Ser Eddin was as honorable as the Septa Miriam had said he was.

Keary merely stood on the sidelines, arms folded, watching silently.

Hex had continued to watch the parley, but as the parties moved together had eased the tension on his bow. The odds of hitting something increased dramatically when firing into a group, but the odds of hitting the right something decreased in almost the same ratio.

As Catriona split off, the dornish returned his arrow to the quiver and slipped the bow over his shoulder. If the conversation turned to combat Hex had every confidence in Niko and his men to quickly put things right. He moved to the other side of the horse and retrieved his shield, returning the various trinkets and coins to a pouch at his waist.

The crannogs had remained more or less in place while the various riders arrived at the cottage. Speaking to Gwendla, Hex gestured to the departing huntress and said. "Best not to split our forces too fine, I'll see if she'll accept some assistance. You two may be best in the cottage, I've lost track of the last time we slept and had a full meal. You'd do well to take advantage of this lull."

Gwendla nodded. "Perhaps I might speak to the Septa, and the Maester here," she suggested. "I may be able to help her, by way of thanks."

The dornish paused for a second to secure his hair in a tight knot at the nape of his neck, hesitated for a second and then left his helmet secured at his waist. Hex set off at a quick march after Catriona. As he passed the group parley, he raised a hand to Keary tapping two fingers to his own chest and then gestured in the direction of the departing woman.

Keary looked at him, then in the direction of Catriona, and nodded in response.

(Hex's thread continued in Wolves and Cats and Hunters, Oh My! Catriona, Hex, and Aerin)

Eddin was still for a long minute, and then he turned towards Derron Thorne and smiled a little.

"I will not betray a son of Bolton for money, Sir. But all his measures were taken to prevent this man finding him and taking an innocent young girl who is under the protection of the Dreadfort. He speaks so warmly of his affection for her. But he has stolen her lands and her name by his own account and left her dependent on his mercy. The Dreadfort would restore her to both.

"Eryk Bolton has acted honourably. And I can prove this to you, but I will not do so before him." His hand jerked out, pointing towards Corryn. "For he is not to be trusted."

He looked again at Derron. "If we might speak in private," he said, "and you will give your word not to divulge what I might say, I shall explain."

Corryn's temper flared, "Honorably?! The little brat asked me to murder his own father. And when I didn't, he kidnapped my daughter out of spite. That's his honor for you. Not to mention he isn't even a Bolton. Evan is Herys true son, disowned because he disobeyed his father's wishes."

Corryn reigned in his venom and looked at Derron. "The Boltons tried to marry Eryk off to Syndra Hardy. But it came out that he was a bastard and ended any chance of gaining Hardy lands. Now he's trying to make up for his loss by stealing my daughter. The Dreadfort will do nothing to help her. Eryk will cast her aside, just as he's done before. The man seduced and abandoned a girl just because she had eyes for his half-brother. He told me so before the Godswood at Holdfast. If there is a man that cannot be trusted, it is he."

He turned to Ser Eddin. "All I want is her. I don't care about the lands. Take them. Just tell me where she is, Ser. Please. I beg of you. She's all that matters."

The way this was developing, Niko was wondering if he had come back to the Seven Kingdoms at all- it was more the sordid type of tale he would have thought the Free Cities capable of. Yet another illusion shattered. But none of this crossed his face as he stood, forcing himself not to look from one party to the other as they volleyed insults and accusations back and forth. Eddin shook his head, his face tense and set.

"I'll tell you," he said to Derron. "No-one else - upon your oath."

It was one of the older Bolton men with him who stepped forward.

"I'll take the gold," he said. "If it's on offer. No sense in it going to waste - and the Riverwolf will learn the truth soon enough."

He looked expectantly at Corryn.

"No!" shouted Eddin, clearly outraged by this betrayal.

Corryn turned and blinked, staring at the 'helpful' man for a moment as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. He nodded a moment later; a smile of genuine relief shining on his face. But before he could speak, they were interrupted.

Derron stepped forward planting himself between Ser Corryn and Eddin, but he kept his hand on Eddin's shoulder. If the man tried to attack his own soldier, Derron would pull him back. "Enough!" he barked. His voice was back to normal as he said, "If you tell me, I would have no choice but to reveal what you say simply to explain matters to Lord Draupaud. I can promise not to tell Ser Corryn more than necessary. If, as this man of yours claims, that he will know the truth soon enough, what harm will it do? Unless the man who has the girl is in the process of performing some form of legal stratagem to counter Ser Corryn's claim that could yet be interrupted. Here, step with me to one side, tell me and let me evaluate your tale. Either that, or lead me to the girl so I may take her into the care of House Draupaud until Lord Stark makes a ruling. Doesn't that sound fair?"

In truth, Derron had no desire to get his lord any deeper into this quagmire, but his first objective at this time was to prevent bloodshed. Maybe this would do the trick.

"I would be willing to aid you in such an evaluation, Steward." Merivel finally spoke aloud. "Impartiality and fairness need to win out here, or else honor and hurt parties may lead to regrettable actions, on any and all sides."

As the other spoke, Corryn drew close to the other Bolton. "Yes, I'll pay," he said in a low voice. "I'll give you five gold dragons for the information. And another twenty five if you'll ride with me to confirm what you say is true. That should be more than enough to help you begin a new life." His eyes drifted over to Eddin and the others for a moment and then back again.

"Because if you tell me, I don't know if you'd be welcomed back at the Dreadfort. I'd rather not cost someone their life, sir. And despite what has been said about me today, I never shirk on a promise or a deal."

And there was yet another interruption, movement in the distance, apparently another rider from the direction of Marshend.

Don't!" said Eddin sharply.

The other wouldn't meet his eyes, looking away as he said, "Where's the harm, Eddin? The Master will be a good way off by now - a day between him and the Riverwolf. And it will set his mind at ease to tell him. For 'tis what he said he wanted himself."

By this time the horse was close enough for them all to see that a boy was riding it and waving his hat wildly.

Derron sighed at yet another impending interruption. He turned and called, "Binnder! See what the boy wants!" He then turned to Eddin and said, "It sounds as if the time has come to explain yourself. And if you'd rather tell me alone, these men WILL step back. But I will not promise to keep it fropm them. Your safety is still assured, regardless." Derron knew that by emphasizing the word, "WILL," he risked incurring the wrath of Ser Corryn, but while the man seemed slightly desperate, he also seemed to be letting his mind guide him, rather than his emotions. It was another reason Derron would have given more weight to Ser Corryn's argument than Eddin's, but he had to do his best not to show that on his face.

Corryn did indeed appear to be ruled by his mind at the moment, his emotions being reined in tight. His hazel eyes drifted between the helpful Bolton and young Eddin. He scratched his stubbled head, considering what had just been said… and more importantly, what /hadn't/. Pieces began to finally come together, nagging suspicions he'd ignored for the last few hours now resurfacing. "Bollocks and damnation," he said, cursing himself. "I gave the boy too much credit. I've been a complete fool."

A laugh escaped him. He held up his hand respectfully to Derron, a strange smile on his face. "If you wish me to step back, I shall. As I said, I have no quarrel with the young Ser or his men. My thanks for your patience."

Corryn turned to the man standing beside him, "I think I know what you're about to say, good man. But if you confirm it, I'll pay you anyway. But let's make it ten Dragons shall we? Your cool head and understanding should be rewarded."

The man licked his lips, avoiding Eddin's hard stare. "And the protection? I'll need that ... "

"Aye," said Eddin. "Aye, you will. For betraying your banner lord's representative."

There was no threat in his voice, only the bleakness of a young officer whose trust in his men is betrayed.

The man licked his lips, avoiding Eddin's hard stare. "And the protection? I'll need that ... "

"Aye," said Eddin. "Aye, you will. For betraying your banner lord's representative."

There was no threat in his voice, only the bleakness of a young officer whose trust in his men is betrayed.

Corryn nodded immediately, "Of course, sir. You shall have it and more, if you are true." He glanced over at Eddin. "It isn't a betrayal, sir. Just the actions of a true gentleman. But I can understand your disappointment; as misguided as it is. Eryk has duped you. Just as he did me back at Holdfast."

The Riverwolf turned his head so he could watch both men's reactions. "So tell me… Did Eryk go to Winterfell? And if he did, it surprises me. He should have known the Hardys would send ravens immediately after the kidnapping. But the way you speak… it makes me wonder. Or am I mistaken?"

Derron said nothing, hoping that things were going to resolve themselves without trouble. He kept an eye on as many of the potential combatants as he could, only slightly comforted by the reassuring weight of his hammer tucked into his belt.

"He went to Winterfell," said the older man. Then he ran his tongue over his dry lips. "Only ... he freed the ravens before we left. We saw them ... in the sky ...when the duel was at its height."

Corryn covered his face and growled, "Bollocks and damnation. I should have checked first. But with all that was going on…" He shrugged his thick shoulders and brushed off the bad news as best he could. "Thank you, sir. You'll have everything I promised. But might I know your name first. I don't ride with a man unless I know his name."

Derron frowned but said nothing. This Bolton, whoever he really was, was clever. At a minimum he hoped to present his case to the Starks first. And with his ruse with the logs, plus setting the ravens of Holdfast free, he probably would. Derron figured Ser Corryn had two options. First, he could concede his claim, but Derron did not think Ser Corryn the sort to do that. His other option was to ride his horse, or even horses, to near-death, hoping to arrive as soon as possible after his quarry. If he was even very lucky, the fellow's horse might have thrown a shoe, or pulled up lame, giving Ser Corryn a slim chance to actually catch him. Ignoring his own responsibilities he thought about how long it would take the man to reach Winterfell, how long it would take Ser Corryn to get himself and Merivel to Marshend, and finally a raven to get from Marshend to Winterfell.

"Well," Corryn said to no one in particular. "There's no helping it."

He turned to Derron, "I'll have to catch up to them, obviously. I'm not terribly worried. Lady Stark isn't a fool and she'll see through Eyrk's little ruse. At least, when it comes to my daughter. That is, if Limosa hasn't cut his scrawny throat by now. Mute she may be, but she speaks well enough with a knife. I Hope not. For her sake.

"Now, however, I'm more worried how he'll portray that Hardys and the events of that blasted trial."

Derron nodded but said nothing. He was tempted to relax, but still mindful of potential trouble.

Binnder wasn't the only one heading towards the new rider; Keary was striding in that direction, with a foul expression on his face. As for the rider, it was a boy hardly in his teens, angling now towards the marsh ranger, and the mount's saddle and blanket bore the colors and mark of the now-ruined Song and Sheep.

Merivel tensed a little nervously at the new rider, but he kept his attention firmly on the principals in front of him. He remained a quiet witness.

Mariam, at his side, was twisting her hands together uneasily.

Patis reined up in front of Keary and the stocky man from Hardy. He glanced, uncomfortably, from one to the other. "Keary," he said, "they need Gabriel in Marshend."

"Gabriel left," Keary said. "Remember?"

"He better not have," Patis said. "There's a Hardy in the village with a bunch of soldiers, asking questions and talking about protection."

"What?" Keary said, a little too loud. "Now?"

"Yeah," Patis said. "So... where's Gabe?"

Keary made a sound between a sigh and a growl. "I'll find him."

"Hop on, then," Patis said, and extended a hand.

Binnder, who had puffed his way over, halted as Keary began to mount - and looked back at Derron, as though expecting further orders.

Derron stepped away from the others and called out, "Keary, do you need anything? Some help, perhaps?"

Keary took the offered hand, swung up on the horse behind Patis, then shook his head at Derron. "I just have to get back to Marshend," he called back. "I'll find out what happened later, I suppose." He waved to Derron, and then in the direction of the house and Mariam, then turned the horse back towards Marshend.

Merivel's thoughts were hidden behind the mask of a Maester's training, but he folded his fingers together in a cage like fashion. Derron, at least, if he looked might recognize the look of studied concentration and pondering on the part of the Maester. Did he have thoughts similar to Derron on the logistics and dilemma of Corryn's plight. Merivel, although young, was keeping his thoughts tightly wound.

Corryn rummaged through his riding bag and removed a handful of coins. Ten gold Dragons went to his new 'associate' and then he jangled the others between his fingers. He walked over to Merivel, as Derron appeared occupied with the new arrival. "Do you know the woman with the wolf, maester?" he said. "She seemed to be a woods woman of some skill. Might she know a path to Winterfell, so that we can travel as the crow flies? In addition to saving my girl, I can have Lady Stark send help to Marshend.

"A handful of my men and a head-strong boy aren't going to last long if the Bloody Mummers return. So expedience is of the essence."

"I've only just met her." Merivel said to Corryn. "However, from what I've seen and observed of her, she does seem well acquainted, with considerable practical experience, of the North."

"Thank you, sir," Corryn said. "I should speak to her then."

Eddin had turned to rest his stern young gaze on Corryn.

Corryn appeared unaffected by the boy's gaze, meeting it with one of his own; cold hazel eyes narrowing. And then his wide smile returned. "I don't fault you for being so protective of him. He was rather convincing in his lies. I fell for a few of them myself."

He turned to the mistress of the cottage. "Madame. Might my horse drink from your water for the moment? I'll pay, of course. And if you refuse, I'll understand."

She regarded him steadily, a calm, measuring gaze. "I have no reason to wish your horse to suffer," she said levelly. "You may water him without payment. And then you will leave my lands before you break more lives here today by twisting men's hearts."

Derron nodded. He finally thought the initial danger of trouble breaking out was over. He simply said, "I wish you luck in your search. And if you wish me to repeat what I have heard here today in front of the Starks, I will do so. Now if you will excuse me, I have much to do." After all, if the camp was finally secure, they needed to set a watch and hopefully even send out a scout or two every now and then.

"I thank you both," Corryn said, bowing his head. "However, Ser Derron, there is one other matter I should tell you before I go. It's important, as it involves House Draupaud. A maester, named Merivel, had been staying at Holdfast for some time just before I arrived there. During that time, apparently, he saw something. Exactly what, I have no idea. But as far as we can tell it involved the Tollets and the Boltons; although the latter's involvement remains sketchy at best. However, whatever he saw inspired someone to try and dispose of the good maester on his way back to Clearwater Manor."

He frowned and held his arm, which had begun to throb. "The Hardys believe he escaped the men that tried to kill Merivel. The woods were filled with Wyldings, but hopefully, Merivel survived them as well. So, if you see him, the Hardys must speak with him and get to the bottom of this. On neutral ground, of course."

"One of my men was killed during the search for Merivel—an attack by Wyldlings. So, I'd like to know he didn't die in vain. If you hear of anything, please forward it to Winterfell and Holdfast?"

Derron quickly said, "First I must correct a misunderstanding we've had. My name is Derron Thorne, and my titles are Steward and Smith. But I am no Ser. Second, I can assure you that any information regarding our Maester while under the protection of the Hardy family will be relayed to Winterfell-" but it was too late. Merivel spoke up.

"C...Corryn." Merivel stuttered in surprise at his words.

"*I* am Merivel Belmore."

"Bollocks and damnation," Corryn laughed. "Isn't that the sweetest morsel I've heard all day? We were right worried about you, maester. Pretty slippery of you to get away from those hired swords. And those Wyldlings. But it's good to see you hale and trim. Godfrey and the others will be glad to hear you made it this far."

He scratched his chin. "I'd suggest you ride with me to Winterfell with me, but my being a villain and all, it might not be for the best." He smiled mischievously. "Still, I'd like to know what it was you saw during your stay at Holdfast that would put your life in question."

Derron cursed softly and glared at Merivel. This man could very easily be part of those who tried to kill Merivel, but the young man revealed himself anyway. He sighed and said, "Fine. Go ahead. Do you know why they tried to kill you?"

Mariam glanced at Merivel - and then again to Corryn. She said nothing, however.

Merivel caught the reproachful glare from the Steward and and inwardly winced. Derromn was was right, he thought. He had revealed himself too easily, too abruptly and too stupidly. Careless. Idiotic.

"Just like now." Merivel said. "I think I was careless with my tongue."

Corryn nodded, pretending not to notice the look between the two men. "That can be fatal condition in these parts, I fear, Maester. Just know that it is the Tollets that most likely wish you harm. Not the Hardys. Certainly not Ser Godfrey. I can vouch for him. As for the Boltons…"

Eddin turned his head slightly and glowered at Corryn.

Corryn shrugged, casting a glance at the remaining members of the aforementioned House. "I wouldn't go on any hunting trips with them any time soon, if I were you. Best you get to Clearwater until this is all sorted out. And, if you and the steward prefer, I can keep your good health a secret for the time being."

Corryn let his horse of its lead, so it could go get a much needed drink. "Unless you have anything you'd prefer to say before I left."

"I would prefer that, and I think Derron would agree that keeping my survival quiet would be best." Merivel replied, looking at Derron briefly before looking back at Corryn. "Some day, perhaps, you will visit Clearwater, or we will meet otherwise, and I will be free to tell the tale of how I managed to get here. But not today, I fear."

Derron nodded. "Aye, that would be best, if you would be so kind, Ser Corryn." He paused, obviously thinking how far he could push things then added, "Maybe you can use this knowledge to learn more about why he was attacked. Claim you found Maestre Merivel's remains. Someone might let something slip. Any information that helps us out would be seen in a favorable light, and I am sure would make Lord Draupaud more kindly disposed towards you and your claim."

Merivel nodded in agreement at Derron's suggestion.

Eddin looked now at Derron, his expression thunderstruck. Even Mariam looked a little startled.

Corryn looked between the men, considering their words. Finally, he gave them a polite nod. "Aye," he said. "I agree that tongues might be loosened if the good maester appeared to have expired. As much as it grieves me to lie to the Hardys, it might be best in everyone's best interest to do so until this is resolved. It would either prove their innocence or guilt in this grim matter. And although I'll do so for my friends' sake, I'm glad it will assist your House as well."

He reached out to shake Merival's hand firmly. "Don't get killed in the meantime, maester. I want to hear that tale of yours. Once things settle at Leaning Stone, you are most welcome by our fire."

Merivel shook Corryn's hand, wincing afterwards.

Corryn turned to Derron, offering to shake his hand. "And you as well, ser. I realize how difficult a situation I put you in today. Thank you for your patience and guidance. Please give my regards to Lord Draupaud. And remind him that he has a fine steward."

"Wait," said Eddin. His voice sounded a little high-pitched, with strain perhaps.

"I have stood here and heard my House abused, and our honour insulted. The Boltons are true men of the North, true bannerlords of Stark. Either, Ser Corryn, you will take back your words - or you will give me the satisfaction that the honour of my House demands."

Corryn turned on Eddin, his hazel eyes narrowing. "You seemed perfectly willing to call me a liar, a thief, and the seducer of innocent, young women, Ser Eddin. Had I been one of my cousins, your head would have been dipped in tar and mounted on the nearest pike by now…"

He made a half pause and then held up his hand in placation. "I am not, however, one of my cousins. Just as you and your men are not Ser Herys or his sons. Indeed, you are a perfect reflection of the Bolton name. Stalwart, loyal, and above all else; honorable. So, to you and your men, I apologize for having misspoken."

Corryn dipped his head in regret, but his words remained steady and calm. "In the last week, I have seen the depths that men—and women—will stoop to, in order to further their own designs. It has sickened me to my core and infused me with great passion. Unfortunately, I have not slept well either, so am not entirely the master of my own emotions. Those passions, I fear, have gotten the best of me today. I can only judge a man by his actions. I should not have shamed you or your House on the actions of only a few. My deepest apologies."

At Ser Corryn's surprising apology, Niko's hands once again relaxed by his sides, dropping from where they had crept up to his blade. The muscles around his eyes relaxed - but not fully, for there was still Eddin's reply to be heard. But what could he do now, other than show himself not to be honorable- and he didn't think that was an act.

He nodded at Ser Corryn's words, adding verbally, "Well said, this one thinks," even as he looked towards Ser Eddin.

Merivel, still wincing from his old injury, turned to regard Eddin expectantly.

Derron nodded in approval as well. "Well said indeed." He glanced at Eddin and added, "Don't worry, lad. Lord Draupaud will be fair, regardless. He has no dogs in this hunt, but he will certainly give a fair hearing to a man who has helped him sort out trouble." He turned back to Ser Corryn. "I will convey your regards to His Lordship, but I always eave it up to him as to my performance. Truth be told, I long for the day I return to my forge for good. Being Steward brings me into too much trouble."

Eddin's stiff back relaxed a fraction, but when he spoke it was with quiet determination. "I accept your apology to me and to my men, and I will withdrew my challenge. But know this - if you go from here and abuse my House to the next people you meet, and again, and again, then you are without honour - for your apology here will mean nothing if you speak it only to my face, and not heed it when I am not by.

"But you may ride unimpeded by my challenge - and seek your daughter - and the Starks."

Niko tried to hold his tongue. Really he did. But hypocrisy had always struck him ill, and being a teenaged boy, when things struck him, he had a tendency to strike back. "It seems that determined you can be when your own name is taken in vain, but the same courtesies can you not give. This one knows not the truth of either of your statements- both leave so many holes that truth and lie cannot be discerned. But what that one," he said nodding to Ser Corryn, "said was true. To us you came with wild accusations of lies, seduction, and thievery, and none of these claims have you proven true. Yet when apologize he does, you cannot accept it in the spirit given, and offer one of your own."

He paused, his gaze raking Eddin. "Though glad this one is not to have to rule on this case, if had to I did, this alone would place more credence with his claim. 'Ser' you claim to be, but when honor is all you have left, it seems that you abandon it wantonly mistaking it instead for pride."

Derron barked, "That's enough, Niko!" In a slightly softer tone he said, "It's up to Ser Corryn to decide if he wants to press it further. Not your decision, or mine."

Niko started, but did not look away. He did lapse into silence though, and nodded once to acknowledge Derron's words. He respected the gruff steward, even as he knew what he did was incorrect. But he didn't think it wrong.

Corryn straightened up as Niko defended him; a proud, almost fatherly, smile rising to his lips. He allowed the boy to speak his mind, knowing to interupt him would not be only disrespectful, but insulting. I must have taken him great courage to speak in a stranger's defense and he would not shame that. However, when Derron reacted, he knew he had to intervene, lest the young man lose face with the Steward. He crossed over to Niko and bowed his head politely.

"Bairlal-a, mini Anda. Buu ayurlaytun." he said with a thick southern Accent. "Your words are spoken well and with great passion. They make my heart very proud. The apology was given freely and without expectation of one in return. And I shall choose my words more carefully in the future as I have been asked. Just as I am certain that Ser Eddin will also act accordingly and in kind."

Niko had heard Corryn speak a few words of greeting earlier, but had no thought for him being actually fluent in the tongue that he had not heard for many moons. He nodded- a slight bobbing of his head that turned into a partial bow as he looked at the man in front of him.

Merivel pricked up his ears at the unfamiliar language that Corryn spoke. Although he was not the subject of the words, he listened as intently as if Corryn was speaking to him.

He glanced over at Eddin for a moment, hazel eyes flashing a warning. His gaze returned to Niko a moment later, deep respect filling his voice. "Bairlal-a, Niko, for saying what I could not, but should be said nonetheless."

Again he nodded without speaking. But there was gratitude in his eyes as he looked at the older man. He would not soon forget this incident.

Corryn turned back to Eddin and nodded, "And my thanks to you, Ser Eddin. I hope when we next meet it shall be under more pleasant and less confusing circumstances."

Merivel relaxed and nodded his head as Corryn addressed Eddin.

Eddin flushed. "If my words gave offense to Ser Corryn's House, then I apologise," he said, his voice a little tight. "But I levelled my charages at the man himself in good faith, from what I have been told - and from what I have seen." He looked directly at Corryn. "Like you, I will trust to Lord Stark to unravel this coil.

"But my route now lies in a different direction. Therefore let us allow each other to pass unhindered about our work."

Corryn nodded. "Aye. Let the parting of ways be on good terms," he said. "I wish this could have been different. Travel well, Ser Eddin."

"And you, Ser," said Eddin formally.

Corryn turned away from Eddin and addressed the others. "I think my horse has rested enough. And I'd best find the tracked before she disappears. Thank you again for all you've done for me today. It will not be forgotten." His eyes settled on Niko at this, his head bowing respectfully.

Derron nodded at Niko and at Eddin. "Well, I am glad this is ending without anyone more bloody or bruised than it began. If the rest of the day will go this well, I might make it back to Clearwater before the end of the week yet. Ser Corryn, Eddin, I will warn you once more that many sellswords roam these parts, so take caution. Though I doubt Ser Corryn will heed me. You seem like a man to throw caution to the winds when in hot pursuit. I wish you luck."

"And, as Corryn said, there are Wildings and other dangers in the North with which to contend." Merivel added seriously. "Any journey of length should be taken with care."

"Aye, I shall. I've been lucky thus far," Corryn said. "I'll try to stick to the back roads when I can. I'm hoping the Mummers will be behind me, rather than in front. And when I get to Winterfell, I'll have them send extra troops to Marshend. You lot stay safe, yourselves, until then. Particularly you, maester Merival. Although you must have better luck than I if you walked through the Wolfswood with hardly a scratch."

Merivel shook his head. "I have an injury on my shoulder. And I nearly was devoured by the excessively large eels that inhabit the waters of the marsh. In balance, I suppose I am lucky to be alive, but it has not been without discomfort."

Corryn smiled good-naturedly. "Ah yes? And you call yourself a maester? My good friend, you are supposed to eat the eel… not the other way around. In a nice tomato and wine sauce, usually. Best remember that for next time. Come to White Harbour and I'll show you.

"Either way. I am glad you survived your culinary mistake. Blessings to you, maester."

After fetching his horse, he led it over to his new 'companion.' "Well, sir," he said to the ex-Bolton. "If we're to travel together, I best know your name. And would you prefer to ride with me or to head to Leaning Stone or White Harbor, instead?"

"With you," said the man. "They'll take it better if when I ride to White Harbour, you're there to vouch for me."

Eddin and his men, meanwhile, were watering their horses.

Corryn mounted up after the last goodbyes and began heading off to the south. He hoped to encounter the beautiful tracker with the wolf, but he didn't tarry long. As they rode, he engaged his new man-at-arms, trying to discover the man's name.

(Corryn's thread continues in A Wolf Leaves the Cottage, while the rest continue in Left at the Cottage)

Page last modified on July 15, 2007, at 03:24 AM