Being of Sound Mind and Body
After leaving Edlyn in the antechamber, Syndra and her father crossed the courtyard toward the Laughing Knives camp. The men there were beginning to prepare dinner, though they looked somewhat ragged, as if they had all hastily changed their clothes recently. In their midst was Corryn, arguing with the towering Phalan. The pair appeared oblivious to the people approaching. Syndra could see the exchanged whispers as his men alerted the Riverwolf to the approach of Ser Godfrey and his daughter.
As they drew closer, it became apparent that Corryn was heavily involved in a negotiation over property. "Phalan, you lost your small clothes fair and square," he said. "I think that a copper should cover the debt, don't you? Oh don't bloody start… you're the one that taught her cards."
The huge man finally threw up his hands, "Aye. A copper it is, then. But I intend to win it back, that young scamp. She's worse than you. Are you sure you weren't diddling around and she's actually yours?" He quickly added a "Ser."
Corryn gave him a decidedly obscene gesture. "Just go give it to her, fishguts."
Phalan stormed off, apparently defeated. "Volf," he cried, "Get your frilly arse over here…" Apparently, Volf had become the recipient of the Knives' frustration. The young man was quickly running around the camp in a summer frock of obnoxious coloration.
A subtle cough from Kolya alerted Corryn to his approaching guests. He turned and smiled brightly, his eyes immediately going to Syndra. The affection there was unmistakable. And without Limosa about to pout, he made now qualms in hiding it. "Welcome, you two!" he said, extending his hand and moving to receive them. "We were supposed to have dinner together, weren't we? Well, my daughter has gone off again. She should return… eventually."
Syndra grinned warmly and gave him a quick, affectionate squeeze. "We were?" she asked pleasantly, looking between Corryn and her father. "How lovely!"
She looked about to be sure Limosa was not returning, then said more seriously, "It's probably just as well she's not here for the moment. I thought perhaps you and Father should discuss more formally the... um, arrangement... I mentioned to you back in the hall." She glanced up at her father apologetically, knowing he would've preferred to reveal his plans to Corryn himself.
Ser Godfrey nodded. "Can we go somewhere a little more ... private?" he asked.
"Of course," Corryn said. "I'd like to stay around the camp, if possible. The Stranger only knows what Limosa is up to. However, my tent is right over here and set up for company. We can sit and have some wine in private. We can have Volf serve us, so we aren't disturbed."
He offered his arm to Syndra, "M'lady." He smiled gently as she slipped her delicate arm into his. He laid his hand upon hers as they walked through the camp. "You have grown far too fast," he chuckled.
"Even faster than I realized, judging by events," she smiled, laying her own free hand on top of his. "It's been too long. Sorry I didn't write. I never thanked you for the perfumes." She grinned up at him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, my dear," Corryn said. He returned her smile, his hazel eyes rarely leaving hers. "And not to worry. What missives you sent sustained me quite adequately."
Syndra looked relieved. "Good. I'm glad."
Corryn opened the tent flap for them, holding it as they went inside. He had traveled so frequently, the Riverwolf made sure he had all the comforts of a home in his tent. Their was a divan and chairs set up around a low table. Wine for one had already been poured, but other goblets were available. There was also a small bowl of fruit, already missing several items.
As his guests sat, he poured them a drink. "So, Syndra mentioned something this afternoon, but so much has happened since then. How may I serve you, my friends?"
Syndra took the offered goblet and sipped, deferring the explanation to her father.
He began abruptly. "You know I will be fighting this challenge - tomorrow. Before I do so, I want to take heed for Syndra's protection. If anything were to happen to me ... I won't leave her as a pawn for my Lady Hardy to push about the game board to gain her own best vantage. It hurts me to leave Syndra as a ward of any House but my own but ... would you stand in my stead as her guardian? I know I can trust you, for Morna's sake as well as mine, to find a husband worthy of her, should the worst happen to me."
Syndra looked from Godfrey to Corryn, her emotions firmly in check. This was the business of war - the disposition of survivors and property - and she was a warrior's daughter and heir. She listened to the conversation intently.
Corryn paused briefly and then gave a faint nod. Even his deftness at obscuring emotions could not hide how deeply this request touched him. Syndra could sense more lurking beneath the surface, but it never truly revealed itself. He sat down across from Godfrey, his goblet resting between his hands.
"I would be honored and most happy to do so, my friend," Corryn said. He held up his hand to prevent any thanks. "That is if you'll forgive me for already mingling in the affairs of your House and your daughter's future. I cannot explain much, but I believe I have found a way to prevent the wedding. I'll be damned for it, but I care little of such things."
This caught Syndra's attention. She looked over at him, intrigued, but said nothing.
He straightened up, his face pained. "I made a similar promise to Little Bear after Morna's funeral."
Syndra expression softened and she smiled knowingly at Corryn, the memory of a pledge made in an old oak tree still as fresh as the day it was sworn.
"And I do not shirk from promises I've made to those I love. So, I promise you both that I shall do whatever I can to assure that Syndra's future is one worthy of her."
Syndra reached over and touched his arm gently in thanks. She had known he would say that, and she loved him for it.
Corryn lightly put his hand upon hers, enjoying the connection with Syndra. He let out a faint sigh, contented and wistful at the same time. He'd forgotten how much her presence soothed him. So much like another woman she reminded him of.
Corryn's smile returned and he gave a faint chuckle. "After all, you're being a tad presumptuous about facing Evan tomorrow."
Syndra cocked her head, a little surprised that Wolf mentioned that. She had been thinking along similar lines. To Godfrey, she said, "Father, you are the judge, not the victim. Wouldn't it be more proper for someone closer to the deceased, such as Ser Herys, to stand as his champion? The judge should be impartial in the matter of determining guilt or innocence, not a player in it. He merely serves justice once that matter is decided." Godfrey could tell by her calm demeanor that she was not trying to contradict him, merely to have his position explained. It had been common for the two of them to talk at length whenever he was home. However, he was not accustomed to his little girl sounding so... grown up.
Corryn jumped on this quickly, adding to Syndra's words. "Your daughter sees the truth of it, Godfrey. Herys wants a champion to represent him in this trial. And you, are not his choice. I know your honor may have been offended by this tragedy, but the true offense lies squarely on the Boltons' shoulders. If you rob them of their honor, they will be offended. And then there is no telling what fate will await our Syndra. Or Holdfast for that matter."
He stared at his friend, quite serious now. "For once, focus on what is truly precious to you, old friend. And let someone else do what must be done."
Ser Godfrey smiled, a little bleakly.
"A man is found murdered, on Manderly land. Do you ride as champion of Manderly, to stand up against the wrong - or do you shove the task off onto a guest?
"No, my friend. Use all the sophistry at your command - but this man was murdered on Hardy land, and Hardy guestright was outraged. What would the smallfolk think of me if I passed the honour of my House to a Bolton? What would you think of me yourself? What would I think of myself?
"While I was presiding as Judge in the trial, so I did. But now the trial is abandoned. Might must determine right - and Hardy might must be mine."
Syndra sighed in discouragement and passed a hand over her face resignedly. Like moving the bailey with your bare hands, Mama had always said of trying to sway Papa. If she thought crying would help, Syndra would've cried a river just then, but he'd likely just tell her to buck up, hold fast, and remember her place. Besides, she was not a weak little girl anymore.
She stood and began to pace.
Corryn had been about to retort when Syndra stood up. He could see the anguish and determination in her eyes, the frustration knotting her shoulders. He allowed her to speak, simply smiling up at her in support and nodding to her words.
"All right, then, Papa. If you insist on this, we must be prepared to deal with the rest of it," Syndra said brusquely. "You're good, but you can be beaten. Anyone can. That means death in a trial by combat. You've arranged for my welfare, but what of Holdfast? Your death leaves Lady Celia in charge. Alone. With the entire guard under her sole command. Ser Anders will follow her orders. Where does that leave Godwyn? And Kenrith? And anyone else who dares to cross her?
"And where does that leave me?" she continued, on a roll now. "I assume I am to inherit the manor, but you know as well as I that it's indefensible without the backing of Holdfast. Do you seriously think she'll allow me to keep it? After I stand your vigil and bury you next to Mama, I'll never be able to return here without a full army at my back. You do realize that, I hope. Never. Yes, Wolf can keep me safe in White Harbor, Papa, but it's not home. It's not here."
Despite her best efforts, Syndra's eyes grew bright with angry tears. "And Celia will have the manor and every scrap of Mama's things that I can't carry on my back. All her tapestries. All the memories. Whatever you saved from her dowry. There will be nothing left of Mama. Nothing of the boys. Or of you. Nothing. Just cold stones in the lichyard."
Syndra took a deep breath, refusing to let herself cry. She stopped pacing and turned to Godfrey. "If this is your wish, Papa, then let us prepare for it now. Let us look hard at what this trial could bring to Holdfast and to everything, living or dead, that you hold dear." She glared at her father, blue eyes flashing and fists clenched angrily at her sides, daring him to argue.
Her father simply gazed back at her, with infinite sadness.
Corryn leaned forward and took one of Syndra's fists, covering it in his large, soft hand. And then he turned his hazel eyes on Godfrey. A cold, disapproving look his old friend had not seen for many years.
Corryn's sympathetic touch made it harder to hold back the tears. The struggle now showed as Syndra clenched her jaw tightly, but she remained successful.
"I swear that if you do not listen to your daughter's words now, then all your bloody honor is for naught, Godfrey. For she speaks the truth of it."
He did not break his gaze as he spoke. "You haven't killed a man in years, Godfrey. And this matter is one of blood. Evan has nothing to lose. You have everything to lose, damn you. If you're so bloody set on proving your point, then Anders should ride against Evan. But know this. The small people would rather have their lord alive than bleeding to death at the end of a lance. And I'm quite sure Syndra could do without that memory. She's lost enough people in her life. And I can never replace you.
"Nor could I stop Celia from bleeding your resources dry. I'd have to marry Syndra to prevent that. And eight year old proposals won't do much."
Corryn leaned back and sighed. "You ask me if I would shove off that duty to another. If I had Syndra as a daughter, the answer would most certainly be, 'yes.' And considering the things I've done in the last few hours to assure she will never marry a Bolton… it makes me wonder if maybe she actually should be my daughter rather than you. I have done questionable things, Godfrey. Questionable things. But I don't care how they reflect upon me, as long as this young woman is safe."
Syndra cast an uneasy glance at Corryn, but remained silent. Her hand in his tensed slightly.
"You underestimate me," said Godfrey quietly. "I have killed men since the Iron Islands rebellion, Old Wolf. I do not boast of my deeds, but the North has never been easy, and the bannerknights live and fight hard. I believe I'd be a match for Evan Tamm - and I'm the best match Holdfast has. Think of it - if I step aside, who will be left to uphold Holdfast's honour? Godwyn's a boy, Corryn - but he would be the one to take my place, for Anders would not.
"I can fight him, Godfrey," Corryn said. "Herys wants me to fight as his squire. In exchange for killing his son, Syndra's and Limosa's marriages will be considered null and void. But now you've tied my hands, old friend. If you are to be Holdfast's champion, I cannot ride against you for the final honor. I promised…"
His throat caught and his fingers tightened around Syndra's small hand. "I promised Morna I would never ride against you, Godfrey. And I will not break a promise to her. Not to her."
Corryn slumped forward as if a heavy weight had been placed upon his back. He could hardly raise his head as the conversation continued.
Syndra startled at the news of Corryn's deal with Herys, and her fears now turned to Wolf. Though she had more faith that he could be just as underhanded as Evan Tamm, she still didn't like the idea of him riding into danger any more than her father or Godwyn. She moved closer to him, holding his hand in both of hers. Talking about her mother had upset him, as it always did, and he seemed to need her support.
"This will be no tournament, with eliminations," said Ser Godfrey. "This afternoon, I'll break a launch with Godwyn to determine which of us will ride. But then ... no."
"If aught happens to me, take Syndra to Winterfell, under your protection. The Starks will give their blessing - and with that to help her, Lady Celia's hands are tied. Do you doubt the Stark honour and faith?"
Syndra glanced up at Corryn.
Corryn shook his head and let out a mournful breath. "No, I do not. Ned's honor is as unflinching as your own. It's what always maddened me about you two. But to steal Syndra from what is rightfully her home? It isn't fair to her."
"It's the way of the world," said Godfrey. "Would you have Syndra sit in Holdfast all her life? My manor is a dowry for her - but she may choose a husband who dwells far from here." He smiled at his daughter. "I had hoped to take her back with me to Winterfell for the court of the North there. But it will be many months now before we can think of that."
A meek smile crossed Syndra's face. In days past, the prospect of joining Godfrey at Winterfell would've thrilled her beyond words. Now, she just wished to get through the next couple of days with the remains of her family intact.
Godfrey smiled suddenly. "And here you are, my dearest daughter and my dearest friend, talking as though I was certain to lose the fight and my life together. Do you really think so poorly of me? Do you not believe I can handle my lance and my sword as well as any in Winterfell?"
Syndra returned his smile remorsefully. "Of course not, Papa," she said sincerely, releasing Corryn's hand as she reached out to touch her father's arm. "I don't doubt your abilities at all. You bested all but the finalists at Harrenhal and you've only improved with experience. If you best Evan as well, I'll welcome every 'I told you so' jape that you can throw at me," she grinned.
"But I remember your battle advice. Do you?" She looked up into his eyes, becoming serious once again. "Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. That's what you always told me. And Papa, I have to plan now, because if the worst happens..." Syndra's voice cracked on the last word. She took another steadying breath and pushed on. "...I'll be in no condition to plan for it then."
Corryn leaned back and balled his fists. He let Syndra speak, but the anger was boiling up inside his heart. Only through pure force of will could he contain it. But when he spoke, his rage's venomous taint lingered within his words.
"I do not doubt your skills, old friend," he said. "Nor would I ever think poorly of you. But this is not a tournament joust. This is to the death. The death, Godfrey. And if you think for one moment that your honor will protect you during this tilt, you are sorely mistaken. That boy killed another man with one strike. He isn't about to play by the rules now. What happens when he kills your horse and then lops your head off as you lay broken beneath your mount? What then? No, Godfrey. Your honor will get you killed. Remember, I fought alongside you once. I know your foibles as well as I know your strengths."
He reached out for Godfrey's hand, "Please brother. I beg of you. Rethink your course of action. But if you are steadfast in this decision, then I shall support you."
"Thank you," said Ser Godfrey, and he reached out to clasp Corryn's hand. "Doubtless I shall have time enough to reflect."
"At the very least," Corryn said, "Name me as your Second. I can watch your back in case Herys has second thoughts about his son. And I shall light a candle for you tonight, old sod. Now go, before I break your shin and prevent you from riding."
Godfrey rose to his feet. "I should see Oswain," he said. "I've neglected him too long this day. Syndra, will you come with me, or stay with your friends here?"
"I'll stay here for a bit," she smiled. "It's been some time since Wolf visited and I'd like to catch up." She turned to Corryn. "If that's all right with you?"
Corryn scratched his chin and appeared deep in thought. "Hrm, would I want to spend time with my favorite lady in all creation? Tough question that."
He chuckled brightly, "You haven't even to ask, Little Bear. This is your second home and you are more than welcome."
Syndra gave her father an affectionate squeeze on his way out. "I'll see you at dinner, Papa. And remember - spiced wine afterward?" she reminded him.
He smiled at her. "For a certainty," he said - and then he held her tightly to him for a moment, before releasing her, planting a gentle kiss on her brow and walking away.
Corryn let them say goodbye and gathered together some fruit and cold meat for them to snack upon. He cast a sad glance toward Godfrey, as if looking upon his friend for the last time. No, he thought. It will not be the last. Not if I can do anything about it.
Syndra held open the tent flap and watched her father walk back to the keep. From where Corryn stood, he could see the gentle smile on her face fade into sadness as Godfrey walked away.
Corryn's heart ached for the girl, but he hid it behind a tender smile. He wanted to tell her that things would end well, but he had promised her he would never lie. Why break that promise now when she wouldn't believe it to begin with?
When he'd gone, Corryn smiled over at the young girl who had brought him here, albeit unknowingly.
"So…" he said, smiling as best he could.
"So?" she repeated sadly as she closed the tent flap. "So what am I gonna do with him. Besides bury him," she said with resignation. She shook her head and sighed deeply, sinking to the floor and reaching for a piece of fruit to nibble. The tears she had refused to shed in front of her father began to roll unbidden down her cheeks, though she still did not sob.
"I don't know, Wolf," she mused, picking at the grapes in her hand. "What scares me the most is that, talking to him since he arrived, it almost seems like he wants to die. The way he talks about Mama..." She sighed again. "It's almost like he'd welcome it."
Corryn sat down behind her and slipped his arm around her waist, unbidden. With his other hand, he gently guided her head to his chest.
Syndra allowed him to guide her, resting her hand over his arm around her waist. She leaned her head back against him limply, defeated, and stared at the side of the tent, just breathing. It felt good to be held. She was so used to taking care of everyone else that she forgot that sometimes. Wolf had always been good about reminding her.
He stroked her hair lightly and held her in his arm, just as he had almost a decade ago. Words stuck in his throat like sharp burrs, holding tight and refusing to dislodge themselves. He fought the pain for her and tore them free.
"Love can do that to a person, Little Bear," he said quietly. "People miss someone so terribly that they forget those around them, those important to them. I wish I could say your father felt otherwise, but I'd be lying. But even with that loss weighing heavy upon our shoulders, we hold on to life in order to honor the dead. Your father is no different." Although he hid it well, Corryn sounded as if he were talking about someone other the Godfrey.
Syndra looked for a moment as if she was about to say something, but instead simply sighed, letting his comfort revive her.
He cupped her chin, so he might brush her tears with his thumb and gaze into her eyes. "You will not need to bury him, my dearest. He will go on for many years still, driving us mad with his stubbornness. You'll see."
Syndra giggled through her tears, much as she had done all those years ago when Wolf promised her a pirate ship after her mother died. "May the old gods bless us with patience," she said, wishing for Corryn's words to be true.
Corryn grinned brightly and touched her cheek, "There you go. I haven't heard enough of that laugh." He wiped away her tears and hugged her gently. "You have no idea how much I've missed you, Little Bear. Two years is far too long a time to be away from you."
She grinned and nodded in complete agreement. "And you. Your wolf still sits on my windowsill, you know. He howled at the moon last night when he heard you were on your way." She might have been teasing.
"He always did know when I was about," Corryn chuckled. "I think he called to me as well, you know. I told him that whenever you were in trouble to howl for me. He's a tough little pup, but he needs an old wolf's help now and again." He leaned into her again, hugging warmly. "I just wish I could have come sooner and saved you all this pain, my dear."
She melted into his hug with a contented little sigh. "I'm just glad you came when you did," she assured him.
He leaned back and paused for a moment, his smile quirking slightly as he looked into her eyes. He brushed her cheek again and let out a long sigh. "So, before my wildling daughter comes back, tell me what you've been doing all this time? We need to catch up, if I'm going to be living nearby."
Syndra had started to answer his question, but his last words completely derailed her. Her eyes went wide with surprise. "Living nearby?! Where?!" Her grin widened. "Did you buy the manse on the river? The one we talked about when I was little?" she asked eagerly.
"And you have to tell me about your wildling daughter. That's far more exciting than anything that's happened around here the last two years," she added. "Well, until yesterday, anyway," she qualified with a distasteful scrunch of her nose.
He laughed happily at her enthusiasm. "Oh, I wish it had been the one by the river. But no. I am now the Lord of Leaning Stone. It is half a day's ride from Winterfell. Frankly, the place is a ruin and smells like a pigsty, but with a little work I shall make it into a pleasant home for my children and the Knives. How it came into my possession, however, is a story for another night. I would not wish to sadden you further." The pain in his eyes spoke for him; hinting that it may have been one of those 'questionable' things he mentioned previously.
"Leaning Stone? That's Lord Cerwyn's place, isn't it?" she asked, her eyes narrowed in thought. Godwyn would've known for sure. He knew all the holdings of the Northern lords.
"It was his, actually," Corryn said. "He sold it to me a few days ago. Not that I gave him much of a choice in the matter. He was not a man of character. And the things he did to my cousin…"
He sighed softly, "As I said, it is a sad story."
"And Limosa, well, she is a part of that tale. Despite the tragic circumstances in which she became my daughter, I could not be happier. I haven't felt this elated since you came into my life. I only pray you two can get along. After all, both of you are sisters in spirit. The Boltons want her as well. Herys, in fact, believes he is engaged to her."
Syndra grinned to see him so happy, but her face clouded at the mention of getting along with Limosa. It turned positively stormy when Herys's name came up.
"Yes, I understand he likes women with 'spirit'," Syndra seethed bitterly.
Corryn's face darkened and she could see the Wolf in his eyes. The switch from joy to hate in such a short time could frighten a soul to the core. But she had seen him this way before. Corryn would not flinch away from this challenge or from protecting her.
"I doubt he will have much interest in any woman once I've finished with him." And that explained it all.
He shuddered at the thought. "No matter what happens, I shall make certain neither of you ever has to spend a moment longer with that filth. I promise you, Syndra." He touched her face and smiled lovingly. "Do you believe me?"
"I do, Wolf," she said, returning his smile. She knew she shouldn't, but Wolf always seemed to have a way of pulling off miracles. She had faith in him.
"As for Limosa, if there's anything I can do to keep her out of Herys's grasp, short of marrying him myself, I'll do it. I don't know if she'll have me for a sister, though, even if only in spirit. I didn't start off very well with her," Syndra winced apologetically.
"She can be a little difficult at times," Corryn said. "But if you knew the hell she came from, you would understand. All I ask is patience. I love her. I know that sounds ridiculous considering the circumstances. But I believe she is the daughter I was supposed to have." He smiled wistfully, blushing.
And then the grin returned and he lightly ruffled her hair. "Other than you, of course. You are so intrinsic to my life, I could not dream of one without you in it. And now that I am free once again, I shall make sure we are rarely apart."
Corryn paused and smirked, "If you don't tire of my aggravating presence, that is."
"Never," she grinned, shoving him in the shoulder playfully. Her expression grew more thoughtful then. "There is something I wanted to talk to you about, though, and it concerns Limosa." She took a deep breath and forced herself into what might be a difficult subject. "And I'm only saying this because I love you and don't want to see you hurt.
"Um... when you arrived, I noticed the way you..." she began to blush, "um... looked at her and held her hand. It... almost seemed like the way you used to look at... Odette. And the way she got so upset when you hugged me in the hall..." She winced uncomfortably and pressed on. "Are you certain your feelings for Limosa are purely, um... fatherly?" Corryn remembered that Syndra had always been blunt, but he had rarely seen her act so embarrassed about it.
He gazed at her for a moment, his mouth hanging open slightly. And then just when she thought she'd offended him, Corryn let out a loud laugh. He hugged her once more, kissing her brow. "Gods, I had forgotten how refreshing your frankness is. After twisting words and dancing around the truth, you are like a new spring."
Rumpled from his sudden embrace, Syndra merely grinned and shrugged. Frankness was a Hardy trait.
Corryn brushed his hand over his head, considering his next words. He shrugged, "The girl reminds me of what I have been missing. But then again, so do you quite frankly, Syndra." He blushed brightly, but he wasn't about to lie to her.
She glanced downward shyly, even redder now than when she asked her question.
He glanced away, "I've been alone so long, sometimes I forget myself. And Limosa, well… I wonder about her feelings as well. It's very confusing to be true. But as foolish a man as I am, I shall overcome my confusion. What else can I do?"
Corryn looked into her eyes and smiled shyly. For the first time, perhaps, she could see the young man he'd been. All those years of loneliness were now being relived. He wouldn't have shown this vulnerability to anyone else, but with Syndra his soul was laid bare.
Syndra cocked her head, seeing a side of Wolf that she hadn't seen since she was a little girl, before her mother died. She rose and knelt before him, lithe legs tucked up under her gown, and took both his hands in hers. After looking into his hazel eyes for a moment, she said softly, "It wouldn't be wrong, you know. She's not your blood, and she might be attracted to you as well. She's... um," she glanced away bashfully, "she's of an age where girls start to, um... think about... such things." Corryn got the feeling that his Little Bear was speaking from experience.
Blue eyes glanced up at him furtively, then lowered again. "The thing is... you have to decide which it's going to be - father or otherwise. And once you decide, you have to stick with it. Because it can't be both," she said, shaking her head vehemently. "That would only confuse her, and from what you've said, she doesn't need any more confusion." She smiled softly - the trusted smile of a confidante. "Neither do you."
Corryn squeezed her hands and held them fondly. Here and there, he began to open his mouth to respond, but then thought better of it. Instead, he continued to listen with an affable expression. In her typical fashion, Syndra spoke his feelings and thoughts for him. How could she know him so terribly well? Not even her mother shared such an uncanny familiarity with his hidden feelings. But in many ways, they shared this inexplicable perception and he took note of what she revealed about herself as well.
In the end, he met her smile with a touch of ambivalence. "Syndra, I rescued the girl from an abusive father and helped her bury her mother not three days ago. I am probably the only one to have shown her any form of kindness for much of her life. No. I suspect she is simply reacting to that kindness. So, I shall be the father she should have had. No matter how tempting the other consideration may be."
The tension released from Syndra's shoulders and she smiled at him with relief. "Good. As long as you see it. I swore once to protect you and I take that task seriously," she said, squeezing his hands tenderly.
"Even from myself, I know," Corryn chuckled. "I feel comforted for it, Syndra. To know you are watching out for me, even as I watch out for you. Such a pair we make, eh?"
"The Wolf and the Bear," Syndra proclaimed, grinning broadly. For half a second, Corryn could see the eight-year-old on his shoulders, tipping his head backwards to flash that same grin at him upside-down. How lovely the child had grown in the years since.
His eyes drifted to the door of the tent and then back to the lady before him. With a harsh chuckle, he added, "I suspect I should have been a Whitecloak for all the luck I have had in love. Always together, but forever apart for those I dream of. Someday, bards will sing of the lone Wolf known as Corryn Manderly."
She smiled reassuringly. "It'll happen, Wolf. Take heart. Who could resist you?"
"You could, I'm sure," he half-joked.
Her bashful smile indicated that that might not be true if he wasn't already her favorite "uncle" and best friend.
"No, my confidence isn't as strong as it once was. After all, my first wife was a dying woman that barely knew I was there. Not a great way to be initiated into the world of matrimony. And the three women I would consider courting, I can't for various reasons."
For a moment, it appeared he would allow his emotions to get the best of him. But just as quickly, he changed the subject with a mercurial grin. "So when did you become so perspective about the matters of the heart? What's his name?"
Syndra looked up quickly with wide eyes and a guilty blush.
A coy smile suddenly lit his features. "Oh, it wouldn't be 'him' would it? Maiden preserve me, I actually feel a hint of jealousy." From the way his cheeks reddened, this wasn't entirely false.
"Him? Who?" she squeaked, her fingers twitching in his hands.
Corryn laughed softly and brushed her cheek with his hand. "The young maester you were beaming at during the trial. Reese, is it? Oh, I'm familiar with those involuntary reactions, those smiles, those furtive glances. There was a time I…" he paused, blushing guiltily. With a dismissive shrug, he simply said, "It reminded me of myself, and let us leave it at that."
He cocked his head, his thumb lifting her chin. "So, is it him?"
The fact that she didn't look him in the eye and deny it told Corryn he'd spoken true. For a moment, she seemed to weigh how much she should say, then she pulled away gently and sat beside him with her legs tucked up under her gown. Corryn recognized it as a comfort position; one she assumed when getting ready to talk.
"It is," Syndra admitted softly, then added with a dejected chuckle, "and it isn't. There's really nothing there, Wolf. I like Rhys. He's smart, and he's kind, and he's..." The longing little sigh took the place of something she could maybe say to Edlyn, but not to Wolf. Then she shook her head and shrugged. "But he's going to be a maester and it... it couldn't happen. Especially not now." There was bitterness in her last words and a frown creased her brow as she looked up at him. "Did Father tell you what Herys did to him?"
"Aye," Corryn said, offering her a sympathetic smile. He brushed back her hair, "Actually your father prevented me from killing Herys there and then. I shall owe Rhys a great debt for the rest of my life, even though he may never know the reason why. He saved the most important thing in my life."
Syndra smiled up at him bashfully.
Corryn reached over to the table and refilled their goblets with wine. He placed a cup in her hand and lightly touched its rim with his own. "He is handsome, yes. I can see the favor you have for him. And the favor he has for you. Oh, don't be too surprised. As I said, I am wholly familiar with impossible loves." He sighed deeply, his hazel eyes brimming with remembrance. An abrupt shrug dispelled the melancholy and he took a sip from his goblet.
Syndra cocked her head, studying him as she sipped from her goblet. He had spoken of his impossible loves for years. It had become a part of his mystique. As a child, she had taken the references as just one of the things that made him larger than life. Now, on the cusp of adulthood, Syndra saw the man anew and wondered at that part of his life that sparked his melancholy moods. She longed for things to have been different. If she could have changed one thing in his life, it would be for him to have won that mysterious woman she never knew, the one who broke his heart.
He idly swirled the wine, as if trying to set the lees. The minute sediments, however, were not the source of the bitterness in his voice. "Take my advice, Syndra. If it is truly love, let nothing stand between you and him. Chains can be broken, scandals are forgotten. What is important is that you have one another in the end. Regrets will never warm your heart."
She touched his knee supportively.
Corryn smiled in thanks at her touch. It obviously comforted him more than he could express.
A sour chuckle escaped him. "And if it doesn't end well, you'll always have me.
"That is if Lady Celia doesn't force me to marry her daughter. Or worse."
"I could live with having you, if it came to that," Syndra said optimistically, "and Edlyn isn't really as bad as you thought she was, once you get to know her."
"Well, I'm sure she wouldn't be overjoyed at the prospect," Corryn chuckled. "Besides, Edlyn is too… well, I know she's your friend, but I doubt I could ever be the shining knight she wants."
"And thank you," he said, blushing until his ears turned red. It became apparent he'd been half-joking with her at first. But now, the idea began to set in his mind with true appeal. "I'd be blessed to have you as my spouse. No one, and I do mean no one, has ever known me as you do, Syndra." He paused, wishing to say more, but lacking the courage at the moment. Instead, he took another sip and watched her with bashful eyes.
She smiled shyly behind her goblet. "One never knows," she said evasively. With everything so uncertain, what more could she say?
"One never does," Corryn said softly, watching her over his goblet.
Her face clouded then, and she looked down at her hands, picking at the hem of her dress. "So you think she's involved in this too, don't you. Celia. Otherwise, you wouldn't have told Father you'd have to marry me to protect me from her," she said soberly.
This question sobered him quickly. "Aye. Although, I wished to save more than you from her machinations. She has agreed to assist me in breaking your marriage contract if…" He sighed and tightened his grip on his goblet. "If I assist her in establishing her son as the heir to Holdfast."
Syndra looked up, wide-eyed. "But Kenrith..." she started to say, then stopped to let him finish.
Corryn wetted his lips. "And this is where I am in a conundrum. I could marry you and steal her leverage over myself and your father. But then I anger Herys, who controls the rights to Leaning Stone and my daughter. I need to break those two apart and save both you and Limosa from a fate I would not even utter. In the end, I think there will be blood."
Syndra rubbed her temples wearily. "There will be blood either way, Wolf, because the next time Herys comes near me, I won't go quietly," she warned.
"Do not fret, Little Bear," he said, lightly touching her cheek. "He'll never get the chance if I have anything to say about it."
Syndra sighed and leaned on her hands, folded now almost prayerfully in front of her face. She stared at the roof of the tent, her eyes narrowed in thought. "So, what becomes of a marriage contract when a bride's guardian, the one who made the contract, passes?" she asked, thinking out loud. "Does it terminate? Does it survive? Take Limosa, for example. If both her parents are dead, how do we know the terms of her contract if all we have is Herys's word, which I wouldn't trust as far as I could spit. What happens if you marry her to someone else? And is there anyone else you would marry her to?" She looked up at him, inviting his thoughts.
"By law, the contract becomes null," Corryn said. "However, things are decidedly complicated. As that bastard Cerwyn sold her home and rights from under her, there may be a power struggle, with her in the middle. Herys will undoubtedly claim liege 'rights' to her, contract or no. That will not happen; no matter the cost to myself." His voice turned into a growl near the end of this statement.
He sighed faintly, his voice drifting from anger to sorrow. "I had hoped to give her the chance to recover. I wanted her to choose her own path in time. She is so… special, I only want what's best for her." He smiled weakly at Syndra. "You were right about my affections for her. Limosa touches something in me, I'd forgotten. I had considered that she might come to love me in time. It's rarely been from my mind. I don't think that's an option though.
"So, if I had to choose another? Godwyn would definitely come to mind. A more honest soul, I doubt I've known. She also appeared taken with Kenrith. Heh. I actually got jealous of him for a moment."
And then he heard Phalan's voice outside. A look of dread came over his face as he heard the name 'Godwyn' said aloud. His voice lowered, "I think we may have guests." He set the goblet down and went to the tent flap.
Syndra had been listening so intently that she hadn't noticed the activity outside until she heard Phalan's deep voice. She wrinkled her nose in disappointment at the interruption, but since it was Godwyn, she really didn't mind so much. She rose and followed Corryn dutifully out of the tent.