Arrivals at Holdfast
It had been a hard three weeks.
Lord Hardy had been taken to his room and was still there, with the three Maesters to attend him. His fit - only Maester Sewell called it a stroke - had, it seemed, paralysed him down one side of his body, rendering him helpless and virtually unable to speak - although he seemed to recognise Sewell and even Rhys. He did not know Merivel, although he acknowledged his status by struggling to obey the Clearwater Maester's injunctions. But even the simplest of tasks was enough to exhaust him.
His words were more a groaning drone than clearly articulated speech. But by question and answer they established what he wanted. Most usually it was for his wife, who came at once at his summons and would sit for long hours beside his bedside, holding his hand. But several times it was for his eldest son - and he seemed a little relieved, but still anxious, when they told him Kenrith was coming. A couple of times he asked for his brother - and once for Ser Anders Tollet, although this visit did more harm than good, for Lord Oswain desperately tried to ask questions and discover information - but lacked the words to do it, until at last he lay in exhausted despair, still, slow tears oozing from his half-shut eyes.
He never asked for Godwyn, no matter how many hours his younger son patiently waited outside his door, going without food and sleep. (OOC - Up to Godwyn how many hours that is). Indeed, when Maester Sewell mentioned his name, Lord Oswain turned his head away.
Nor did he see his younger children. When Maester Sewell broached the idea, Lady Celia returned a firm negative. It would distress Jonas and little Katina, she said firmly, to see their father in this condition - which was undeniably true.
Syndra tried to visit with her uncle occasionally, but mostly she went up to talk to Godwyn - to bring him dinner or try to get him to leave his father's door for a time.
Godwyn spent almost his every waking moment in the hallway outside the door, other than a bare minimum amount of time to wash and change clothing once a day, relying on servants and his cousin to bring him food. When he did have to give in to his need for sleep he would snatch a few hours of rest in an empty room in the same corridor as his father's room.
As he explained to Syndra once when she was trying to talk him into leaving his post, "What if he decided he wanted to see me, and called for me, and I was not here? And by the time I was found he had passed?" He shook his head. "I shall stay."
The easiest lot was probably that of Syndra and Edlyn. They were both worried about the Lord of Holdfast, but in organising rooms and other arrangements for guests, they did at least have tasks to perform that occupied their hands, even if they frequently thought and spoke of Lord Hardy.
"I expect Kenrith will turn us all out when his father dies," Edlyn said once in her most matter-of-fact way. "Poor Mother - she can hardly claim the first flush of youth with two marriages and a daughter who's already flowered behind her. I doubt she'll make another good marriage. And Grandfather Tollet will scarcely be enthused to see her and Uncle Anders home again. Let alone me. Perhaps I'll have to become a Silent Sister. Or a whore."
"That's nonsense," Syndra dismissed the thought. "Kenrith's not cruel. Of course, you'll have a home here. And Jonas and Katina are his brother and sister. He won't turn them out. And besides, you're highborn. I'd be surprised if they haven't arranged a marriage for you already."
"Hmmm," said Edlyn, considering her reflection in the silvered looking glass and finding it good. "No dowry, of course - apart from what Lord Hardy chooses to give me. And a poor knight for a father ... you'll do better than me, Syndra. You have the name and the dowry. And you have a sweet face too.
Syndra didn't seem excited about the prospect of marriage. "I hope Father chooses carefully," she said as she smoothed the wrinkles out of a coverlet.
"As for marrying me off ... I am sure Mother is torn between having my presence here to demonstrate how old she must be with such a lump of a daughter, and the fact that once married I'll probably whelp and make her a grandmother - which is even more aging."
Syndra giggled evilly. "All the more reason to whelp," she grinned.
It was early afternoon when they heard the gates draw open to admit a small party of riders. Lady Celia, who had left her Lord to sleep, summoned Syndra and Edlyn to attend her in the Hall to greet the arrivals and - as an afterthought, Godwyn too.
Godwyn reluctantly left his post outside his father's door to greet the guests.
Maester Sewell too was in attendance, his face grave.
The party was led by Ser Godfrey. He bowed low over his sister-in-law's hand, as was proper - and then took Syndra in a crushing hug - which was far from proper, but his usual greeting for his beloved daughter.
"You grow more like her every year," he whispered as he concluded the hug with a kiss.
Syndra hugged her father fiercely, her face lighting up with pure joy. "And more like you as well," she answered back with her return kiss on his cheek.
His greeting of Edlyn was stiff - he had not seen Lady Celia's daughter before, and clearly mistrusted her fair Tollet beauty. Edlyn, for her part, was as meek and demure as usual in her mother's presence, forbearing to cast even the faintest languishing look.
But then Ser Godfrey asked to be taken to see his brother - and, dismissing Jonas and Katina to the Septa, Lady Celia took him off - something which, perhaps, she would not have done had she realised ...
And Godwyn followed behind Lady Celia and Ser Godfrey, even though he knew he would not be allowed past the door.
Maester Sewell hesitated, and then followed.
It was Ser Anders who entered the Hall not a minute after Lady Celia left it.
"Where is my sister?" he demanded. "Her guests have arrived - they should be welcomed."
"Kenrith and his party?" asked Sewell.
"They would hardly be guests," said Ser Anders. "No. Ser Herys Bolton and his son Eryk are here."
Syndra stiffened and her expression turned icy. But then she looked around her and noticed that she was the only Hardy in attendance. Her chin set as she realized what that meant. It had become her duty to welcome to Holdfast the man who had killed her family.
"Send them in, Ser Anders," Syndra ordered. "Hold fast," she whispered to herself as she valiantly tried to pull on the pleasant court face. It had never been so difficult.
Edlyn, who of course knew the whole history of the fever (from Septa Annice, where Syndra and Godwyn had been reticent; Edlyn always had her own ways of finding out, as well as the tact not to press where her questions were unwelcome), shot a startled look at Syndra and then muttered under her breat, "Oh - =trust= Mother!" Then she moved to stand supportively beside Syndra.
The doors opened, and two figures entered. One was a figure from Syndra's nightmares; not because of his appearance, but because of the memories he called up. Tall and dark with harsh features, the last time she had seen him, he was striking the page who had subsequently been discovered to be his second son, the boy who had brought the summer fever to Holdfast, and subsequently died.
Syndra shuddered at the sight of him. She hoped it was not obvious.
Now Ser Herys' eyes raked her and Edlyn with a kind of cold calculation - before he bowed formally.
Syndra nodded formally, but did not bow.
The young man at his side bowed too. Dark, like his father, but with curls, he had a large, light hazel eyes and a gypsyish beauty. His bow was everything it shound have been, but when he straightened, the look in his eyes was less appraising than his father's and more admiring.
The way the Boltons looked her over like a brood mare made Syndra's skin crawl and forced her spine even straighter, if that was possible.
"Ser Anders. Lady Syndra," said Ser Herys, looking from one to the other of the two girls. Edlyn retreated a step.
"Ser Herys. Master Eryk. I am Lady Syndra. This is my cousin, Lady Edlyn Martyn," she indicated Edlyn with a gracefully outstretched hand.
Edlyn dropped into her graceful curtsey which Eryk Bolton responded to with a sweeping bow. Ser Herys, however, ignored her, his eyes steady on Syndra.
Stifling a twitch, Syndra addressed them politely, but coolly. "We welcome you to Holdfast. I must apologize that my Lord Uncle Oswain and Lady Aunt Celia are not able to greet you in person. He has, of late, been ill and she is attending him at present, along with my father."
She glanced at Anders, then turned back to the Boltons. "My lady aunt unfortunately neglected to inform me of the nature of your visit. However, we have prepared rooms for yourselves and your party. We hope you will make yourselves... comfortable until she can attend you."
"Perhaps," said Ser Anders, "you would escort them to the rooms you have prepared."
"Certainly, Ser," Syndra replied.
Edlyn moved to Syndra's side.
"There's no need for you both to go!" said Ser Anders sharply. "Lady Syndra does not need your assistance to perform a simple task, Edlyn!"
Edlyn hesitated, and then cast a slightly helpless look at Syndra.
Syndra glared at Anders, then turned to smile at Edlyn. "Thank you for offering, Edlyn. Perhaps we can all meet again later to entertain our guests." The smile remained on her lips, but faded from her eyes, as she turned to the guests.
"If it would not be too much trouble, Lady Syndra," said Eryk Bolton. His voice, warm and rich, was as unlike his father's as could be imagined, and he smiled at her as he spoke, a slightly wistful smile.
She offered him a small, pacifying smile. "Of course not, Master Eryk. If you would follow me," and she led him out of the room, listening for any snippets of conversation that might begin before they left.
But Ser Anders seemed to be making polite enquiries into the journey, nothing more. The advantage of leaving Edlyn behind was that doubtless she would reprt on anything of interest later.
Syndra walked Eryk to his rooms, pointing out areas of interest throughout the castle, like the dutiful little hostess she was expected to be, all the while wishing she had a knife in her bodice, just in case. As part of the appropriate small talk, she asked, "So what brings you all to Holdfast, sir?"
"My father says it's in payment of an old debt," he said.
He laid a hand on her arm - gentle, not constraining, but urging her to turn towards him.
She tensed at his touch, but did not pull away as she looked up at him.
"Sweet lady ... I know, your loss was double mine." His hazel eyes reagrded her steadily. "And for your pain, I grieve. Because I share it. Like you, I loved my brother."
Syndra had not anticipated his frankness and it hit her like a punch in the gut. It took her a moment to respond to him. "It was more than double, sir," she said levelly as she gently pulled her arm away. "I blame the fever for my mother and baby brother's deaths as well. It weakened her, or the babe - or both - to the point where she died bringing him forth." She looked Eryk in the eye without flinching. "The summer fever destroyed my family, Eryk. And your father brought it here. That I cannot forgive."
Eryk stared at her for a moment, his eyes searching her face. Then his hand dropped from her arm, and he turned away, murnuring something. Perhaps it was an apology - but the words she thought she heard were, "No more could I."
A pause, and then he turned back to her, trying to smile. "Our rooms?" he said. "Doubtless my father will want all his gear stowed properly in the dresser before supper - he holds to high standards."
"Of course," Syndra responded coolly and began to lead the way once more. As they walked in silence, she glanced over at the young man following uncomfortably beside her. He was nice enough, and he genuinely seemed sorry about the trouble his father had caused all those years ago. He had suffered losses as well. Syndra began to regret being so blunt with him.
When they reached the wing in which the guests were to stay, Syndra politely indicated the rooms where they should deposit their belongings. Before she left, she smiled at Eryk apologetically. "Master Eryk, I'm sorry for snapping at you before. You are not responsible for your father's actions and I should not have taken my anger out on you."
He shook his head. "Lady Syndra, I find your feelings understandable. My father ... is a hard man. And you, I think, saw the worst of him. Will you believe me when I say that I believe his remorse for your brothers' deaths was genuine? Of course, Devlin's death played a part in that too."
He turned away from her, walking through the room.
"Your arrangements for our comfort are excellent ... you even have glass in our windows!"
Syndra smiled, amused. "I wasn't aware that was unusual," she said.
"It is at the Dreadfort!" he responded.
He turned back to her and smiled. "It would be too much to hope that we might be friends but ... perhaps we might not be enemies?"
Syndra turned her gaze to the floor, a thoughtful look crossing her features before she looked back up at him and smiled wryly. "I suppose that's possible. I mean, it's not like we're to be married or anything." She looked him directly in the eye as she said it.
But he was looking not at her, but beyond her, and had stiffened. Then he gave a slight bow, even as she felt a warm breath of the back of her neck.
"Father," said Eryk - and it sounded as much a warning to Syndra as a greeting to his father.
In one fluid motion, Syndra turned and stepped away from source of the breath at the same time. "Ser Herys," she greeted him with a formal nod and a pasted smile. "I trust you will find your rooms satisfactory."
"I'm sure we shall," said Ser Herys.
Perhaps it was an unfortunate manner, but there seemed to be a threat lurking beneath his words, as though his displeasure, once roused, would be a hard thing to endure. He jerked his head at Eryk.
"See if they've unloaded the baggage yet."
"Yes, Father," said Eryk.
Ser Herys frowned, as though even this acquiesence had displeased him for some reason, and then gave a curt nod as Eryk bowed again and moved from the room, with a half-smile at Syndra.
Then she found herself alone with the man she blamed for her family's deaths.
"Well Ser, I shall leave you to your rest. I am sure you have had a long journey," she said, trying to sound nonchalant despite her trepidation, as she took a step toward the door.
"It takes more than a long journey to tire a Bolton," he said. He made no attempt to move and - where he stood, he was blocking her exit from the room and watching her with cold, dead eyes.
"So," he said suddenly. "Has the boy charmed you with his pretty ways?"
There was no mistaking the scorn in his voice.
"Was that the task he was set to, Ser?" Syndra replied coldly. She didn't know where such a retort came from. It certainly didn't fit her role as gracious hostess, but a slow burn of hatred was welling up inside her. With her exit blocked, it was either stand or cower, and she refused to roll over before this monster like some frightened puppy.
Ser Herys laughed. "A spirited response. I was thinking you were a meek little mouse like that brat downstairs." He took a step towards her. "I gave the boy no orders, but he knows that the debt must be paid."
Another step towards her, and he was smiling.
[After leaving Kenrith, Rhys] retrieved the needed herbs without difficulty but as soon as he entered the kitchen, a babble of voices rose up.
"How is his Lordship?"
"Has he spoken?"
"Is he moving?"
"Does he know Ser Herys Bolton is come?"
"I need hot water to steep tea," he said, getting the request in before answering questions.
The cook nodded, and a couple of maid scurried off.
"Lord Hardy is not much improved but still stable for now. No, he hasn't really spoken but can still respond to yes and no questions. No, he's not moving. No, he doesn't know Boltons are here." Rhys paused, then asked, "Why _are_ they here, anyway? Does anyone know?"
"No, Maester," said the understeward. "But we were thinking that they must be the guests Lady Hardy was expecting - the ones the rooms have been prepared for."
Clearly this had been a topic for some discussion.
He waited for answers while the hot water was being fetched, then dropped the big piece of juicy news. "Kenrith is back. He just arrived in the courtyard."
At once a babble of excited voices rose up again - but the crowd noticeably thinned as anyone who could find business to take them to the courtyard, decided that they must go there immediately.
Rhys chuckled to himself.
One of the maids returned, carefully holding a flagon that steamed, with a think cloth wrapped around the handle.
"Your hot water, Maester," she informed him.
"Thank you," Rhys smiled at her, then left with the hot water to make his way back to Lord Hardy's rooms.
From the kitchen, the quickest route took him past the rooms where Syndra and Edlyn had been preparing for the arrival of guests. And, from inside one of these rooms, he heard voices.
A man's voice ... "I gave the boy no orders, but he knows that the debt must be paid."
Then Syndra, and there was a tension in her voice. "To what debt are you referring, Ser?"
Rhys paused when he heard Syndra's voice and the strain in it. Torn between continuing his errand and investigating Syndra's situation, Syndra won out. He felt uncomfortable leaving her alone with a man whose voice he didn't recognize.
He sidled up to the doorway, ears pricking.
"Five inches of steel in his stomach will make any man pause," Wolf had told Syndra on her tenth name day, when he'd given her the stilleto - in secret, of course. Since her mother's death, Corryn had been protective of Syndra. Her father taught her the ways of the forest and practiced archery and swords with her. But it was Corryn that taught her the down-and-dirty business of self-defense. Unfortunately, the knife was back in her room. She had always felt safe at Holdfast; there was no need to wear it within the castle, she had thought. She cursed her complacency now.
Syndra stood her ground, watching Bolton's approach warily. "Know your exits," was another of Wolf's lessons. Syndra calculated whether there would be room to duck around Bolton if he moved away from the door during his approach. Probably not. She would have to go wide and the dresser was in the way. So if he grabbed her, it was nails, knees and teeth. Lovely.
"To what debt are you referring, Ser?" she demanded. Under her skirts, she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet.
"The debt," said Ser Herys, "that my family owes the Hardys - for bringing the summer fever to Holdfast."
"And how do you propose to pay such a debt, Ser?" she asked warily.
"Do you know," said Ser Herys, "I'm thinking of renegotiating the debt, here and now. You're a spirited little thing, and I can appreciate that. And I'd suspect you'd hold your own too ... "
He moved forward fast, a trained fighter but now reaching out to draw her into his arms.
Syndra turned sideways and ducked, throwing a lanky elbow hard toward his gut as she attempted to bolt under his outstretched arm.
Ser Herys grunted, falling back, but his hand shot out to bury itself in Syndra's long hair, yanking her head back.
Syndra shrieked in pain.
Rhys knocked loudly on the doorframe with the hand not holding the hot water. "Oh, Syndra, there you are!" he said pleasantly, as if he'd just arrived. He pretended not to notice their altercation. "Your father is looking for you and asked me to escort you to him."
Ser Herys dropped her hair, frowning at the Maester.
As soon as he released her, Syndra ducked around behind Rhys.
Rhys smiled back amicably, gritting his teeth all the while.
"We shall speak later," [Bolton] said to Syndra.
Rhys could feel Syndra's hands trembling on either side of his waist. At Bolton's last comment, an evil shiver shot up her spine. The fight was over. It was time for flight. She ducked into the hallway and ran.
"Syndra...!" Rhys called after her, but she was gone. He turned back to Ser Herys, giving him a look that conveyed he knew exactly what had happened here, then turned and continued down the hallway to Lord Hardy's chambers.
He walked a few steps, then broke out into a dead run, wanting to discharge his duty to Lady Celia and Lord Hardy as quickly as possible so he could find Syndra.
Rhys caught up with her just short of the hallway outside Lord Oswain's rooms. She was standing in a window alcove staring out, her hands over her mouth in an almost prayerful gesture. Her breath was ragged and silent, frightened tears rolled down her cheeks.
He set down the hot water and approached her. "Syndra?" he said softly, letting her know he was there so she didn't startle.
Syndra looked up at him and relief filled her eyes. She threw her arms around him tightly and buried her face in his chest. She was still trembling.
Rhys encircled her in his arms and held her just as tight, surprised by his sudden, strong feelings of anger and protectiveness. After a moment he said, "Sh, Little One. You're safe now. He didn't...touch you, did he?"
She hesitated, then shook her head. She loosened her grip enough to look up. "No. He tried to, but... no."
He gently drew her arms from around his waist and held her out a bit, hands firmly on her shoulders, looking her up and down for signs of injury.
Syndra did not appear to be hurt, just very frightened.
Rhys exhaled, relieved. He brushed away a tear on her cheek with his thumb.
Her spirit was beginning to return, however. "He's HATEFUL," she spat. "He wouldn't say why he's here. Just 'to settle an old debt'. Parading that son of his around the way he was, though, I can guess." She looked disgusted at the thought.
He smiled wryly. "He's assuming that it's a privilege to be married into his family." He didn't voice the rest of his thought: And Lady Celia would be happy to see you go away.
Continued in A Cause to Champion