Arrival at Winterfell - Corryn
The men who had come with Corryn, including Volf, were already beginning to unload their horses and tend to them.
Corryn fell into the calming familiarity of directing the men and going about his duties. He called for the Captain of the Guard and made the proper arrangements for lodgings. He also made certain to have Syndra's things taken to whatever accommodations she'd be given. The rote actions and quiet camaraderie helped him banish the demons nattering inside his skull. Limosa waited for him somewhere in this edifice of stone, undoubtedly terrified and possibly injured. He yearned to hold her again and dispel her terrors; woes he'd brought down upon her, inadvertently or not.
And then there was the matter of Syndra. So much had changed in a matter of days and his Little Bear was no exception.
He glanced over at Volf and gestured for the boy to follow him. "Volf. Grab your things. You'll be with me. Best you meet the Starks now, rather than later."
Corryn nodded to the remaining men, focusing on Mal. "Mal, is it? Take the others and settle in. Take advantage of their hospitality. There's no telling how long it might last. And keep an eye open. There'll be Boltons about, I suspect. No telling what they might do if you run into them."
Mal nodded, and signalled to the others.
"There are Boltons with us, too," he pointed out.
"Aye," Corryn said. "It takes time for one's blood to change colors. But I owe that one a debt and he's got honor. I'll leave it to you to learn that and decide for yourself." He nodded his head. "Thank you, Mal."
He grabbed his gear and led Volf to their rooms in one of the many towers. Once out of earshot, he turned his hazel eyes on the boy at his side. "Rough fortnight for you, eh? Riding to battle, being accused of murder, being run down by Boltons. And yet, one would think for all that suffering, what wounded you the deepest was the way Lady Syndra and I were laughing together. Don't deny it, son. I saw your eyes. I know the look.
"Too bloody well, in fact."
Corryn let out a faint sigh. "We need to talk about that, you and I. Don't you agree?"
Volf shrugged a little awkwardly, his gear still in his arms. "There's nothing to talk about, Ser. She's above me ... and her father has planned a match for her. She told me so herself."
"Let me guess. Was the man's name, Ryswell? Is Godfrey still considering that gobshite? I have had blisters with more substance to them." Corryn rolled his eyes and shook his head with frustration. "A good knight, aye. But dull as whitewash. Which is, undoubtedly, why my friend is considering him. Godfrey, Warrior bless him, is a slave to predictability."
Volf shot him a look, and then bit his lip. He said nothing.
He turned the last corner and found the proper door to their assigned lodgings. He knocked twice to confirm the room was unoccupied before entering. The chamber beyond emulated the essence of Winterfell, being grand in size and austere in condition. A stain-glass window and a small fire in the hearth provided the only light. Even so, it did little to push back the murkiness of the room; colored as it was in the grays and blacks common to the Starks. However, the rushes were fresh and some wild flowers had been set in a bowl on the mantel place. The beds were large and looked soft enough. After weeks of sleeping on the cold ground, the room appeared positively heavenly to Corryn.
The Old Wolf placed his tackle beside one of the beds and waited for Volf to do the same. He moved to the grand fireplace and warmed himself. "She isn't above you, Volf," he said. "Not for long anyhow. You're about to become a knight in a powerful house with lands of your own. I've already seen to it. So do not think yourself lesser. I don't. And neither does Syndra."
He turned his head and offered the boy a faint smile. "You are my son, Volf. You may have come to me a starving little pup, but you are my son. And I love you as such. So, for that reason, above all others, I shall do what I can to give you the happiness I could never have. That is what a father does, isn't it? To give their child what they couldn't obtain?"
Volf nodded, slowly. "But I don't understand ... " he began.
Corryn gazed into the fire, a hollow breath escaping him. "You love her," he stated. "Love her as no man will. You see her for the woman she is. And that makes you love her all the more doesn't it?
"I know the pain in your heart. I've shared it. It is written on the parchment of my soul. And that pain did not die when my Heart did, my secret love; the woman I could never have. I am devoted to her still. I will love her always. I know that pain. Of being with her and still being alone. Of standing so close that you can touch her, yet knowing you never can. Surrounded by her, knowing she belongs to another that cannot possibly love her with the same breadth of your heart. I see that same pain in your eyes, Volf."
He turned his head and stared at the young man. "And I shall spare you from it. I love you, son. I can't allow you to go through what I did. Nor can I allow Syndra's heart to be placed in calloused hands. She needs a man that will place her above himself. That will love her above all else.
"If you can tell me true that you shall be that man, I will speak to Godfrey on your behalf. I can't let either of you... go through what we did."
Volf gazed back at him - he seemed bewildered. "But all this you're telling me, Ser ... all this you're promising me ... how can it be? How can I be a knight in a powerful house? I'm just a squire ... a sellsword squire. What can make me other than that?"
Corryn chuckled, "I swear, Volf. I sometimes wonder if sparrows would nest between those ears of yours if you stood still too long."
Volf winced slightly.
He reached over and gripped Volf's shoulder, "You'll be knighted into my House. You're like my son. Warrior's Balls, with my past, you might actually be so. Either way, you should have the same rights as my son. And all that comes with that title. I'll knight you into House Manderly when next we arrive in White Harbour. I've already discussed it with my father and cousins. No sense in holding off on it."
Corryn smirked, "That is, unless you'd rather join another household."
Volf swallowed. "No Ser - you know what an honour it is you're offering me!" Then he hesitated. "But ... that baby ... back at Leaning Tower. Is he not your son too now?"
"Yes. Yes he is. And Limosa is my daughter," Corryn agreed. "And they will receive their lands, as is their right. But you forget, my boy, I have holdings spread all around White Harbour. Modest ones, mind you, but more than enough to impress Godfrey. By bonding Manderly and Hardy together, it will form an impressive union. And in light of recent events, they will need a strong ally.
Volf frowned. Perhaps belatedly, Corryn must recognise that, as his Squire, Volf pretty much knew the value of what Corryn was describing as his 'holdings'.
Corryn sighed. "A good name and some gold go a lot father than a kick in the arse with a frozen boot, Volf. Not to mention the debt Godfrey now owes me. It's not like my cousins lent their men to me for free."
"Besides, Godfrey has a manor not far from Holdfast. I'm sure you and Syndra could settle there and make a life. Raise a family. You'd only have to travel to White Harbour during the spring to make sure things are running smoothly."
He moved to sit, pulling out a chair and setting it beside the fire. "I'll be forced to stay at Leaning Stone from this point forward. So, I'll need someone I trust to be close by. And Syndra cares for you. And you love her. That means more to me than anything. I want her to be happy. To be safe."
"She doesn't love me though," said Volf, turning to look at him. "She said as much. And I know that love cannot be forced ... and should not be forced, Ser."
Corryn laughed and then immediately stopped himself. He held up his hand in deference and offered the boy a fatherly smile before he could take offense. "And do you think for one moment she'll love Ryswell?" he said. "She's never even met the fool. She likes you. And knows you. Love will follow. It isn't as if my Lady loved me right away. It took time. And it certainly wasn't forced."
He scratched his chin and smirked. "True. Women can rarely resist my devilish charms. But we can't all be as lucky as me, I suppose."
Volf looked at him, hope warring with resignation. "Do ... do you really think so? That she'll love me? Despite everything?"
Corryn grew serious and nodded. "Son," he said. "If you earn her love, you shall have it. You have already earned her trust. And that is more important than any flowery words could hope to be. But more importantly, you are a warrior with honor. And she is a Hardy. Honor is in her blood. She will search it out as sure as a moth seeks the flame. She may have the dreams of youth right now, but she will see what she has in you in time. A husband worthy of her. A husband that cherishes her and will protect her. Love will be an inescapable conclusion."
He stood up once more and gripped Volf's shoulders. "I know you have questioned yourself of late. But you are a good and honest man, Volf. She sees that, as I do. Just let things progress naturally."
Volf looked immeasurably cheered ...
A horn sounded, loud and clear from the gate.
"Lord Stark," guessed Volf. "Returned home for his supper."
Corryn went to the narrow window to get a better look. "Thank the Father," he said, resting his hand on the cold stone. "Maybe now they will allow me to see Limosa; Mother protect her. This waiting is intolerable. Gods. That girl is wrapped around my heart, Volf. Maybe if I do good by herů then maybe, I can finally do some good in this accursed world."
He turned around, hiding his emotions. "We'd best get ready and wash some of the road off of us. Ned will be touchy enough without us smelling like the business end of a mule."
Corryn spent the rest of the time scrubbing away the dirt and sweat of the hard ride. It felt good to soak in hot water again; too good, in fact. He found himself wanting the pain and guilt of the last fortnight to dissolve into nothingness, washed away as easily as the grime coating his skin. His head slipped below the surface, warm silence filling his ears. A sensual numbness filled his chest, so alluring in its tender offers of oblivion. He'd tasted this Welcome Death before and it comforted him like a lover. Below the water, he could hide his shame and dismiss his worries. He could finally sleep and forget.
The familiar burn eventually ignited in his lungs. Just as he'd done dozens of times in the White Knife, he allowed the burn to consume him, reaching for the blackness beyond it. He could almost taste Morna's lips upon his. He simply needed to open his mouth and let the warm water in and he would be with her as they should be.
But that would have been the easy way out. He'd gained that wisdom from dying a dozen times over. And just as he'd done so many times before, the Riverwolf refused to surrender to that effortless path.
His head slipped back above the water, the cool air greeting him. He held his breath a moment more before allowing the air into his burning lungs, lest he dismiss Morna's touch too soon.
Having tasted the Welcome Death, Corryn felt clean once more; his soul renewed in a fashion perhaps only the Drowned Men understood. His exhaustion now forgotten, he climbed out of the tub and prepared himself for the struggles to come. He'd have his Death eventually, but for now others still depended on him. And that was enough.
Sartorially inclined, Corryn had packed a suitable dinner outfit before leaving Holdfast in pursuit of Eryk. True, he'd been riding into combat, but the Riverwolf would rather be dead than be caught out of fashion, even on the battlefield. His attire consisted of a black britches and drop yoke shirt, along with a hunter green tabard. An elegantly tailored Captain's coat and hat tied it all together. Volf, in complimenting fashion, wore his simple, but stylish, yeoman's uniform. He'd also spent the time to clean and polish their boots back to life. So, when they finally reached the Grand Hall, the pair of them appeared to have just stepped off a spice ship from the Seven Cities, rather than having emerged from the Wolfswood of the North.
Corryn smiled at his fidgety companion, "Don't worry, Volf. It's just our lives on the line tonight. Nothing to worry about, eh?"
"No, Ser," said Volf. And he swallowed.