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Candid Conversations

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When Syndra entered the Laughing Knives' camp, the men looked up with pleased smiles. Syndra was a general favourite - although they had been protective of Limosa the previous day, they had clearly concluded that Syndra was not to blame. She was received with friendliness and offered the opportunity to share their early meal.

Syndra accepted their hospitality with grateful smiles and greetings all around. When she received her meal, she tucked into it like a true member of the band, prompting comparisons to their other Lady.

Volf was hovering nearby, still in his finery.

"Might I speak to you, Mistress?" he whispered, at the first possible opportunity.

She looked up curiously. "Certainly, Volf," she answered softly.

When she finished her meal, thanked her hosts and complimented the cook, she stepped away to talk to Volf. "What is it, Volf?" she asked him quietly. "Is something wrong?" It had occurred to her that she hadn't yet seen Corryn or Limosa. She hoped everything was all right.

"Well, yes," said Volf. "But ... you're a lady aren't you? I mean ... you know woman's things?"

"Uh, yes..." she replied tentatively, wondering where this was leading.

He hesitated, and then drew a deep breath.

"Mistress Syndra ... can you sew?"

Syndra choked back a laugh and valiantly kept an almost-straight face. She didn't want to hurt her friend's feelings. "Yes, Volf. I can sew. What do you need?" she asked, smiling reassuringly.

Volf plucked at his slightly bedraggled skirts.

"I've heard tales about men in the Summer Isles who fight in skirts - but I'll warrant they aren't skirts like this," he said. "I was wondering if you could ... change it. So it was still a dress but more ... more soldierly."

He looked at Syndra hopefully.

"After all," he added ingenuously, "it's not courteous to women, dressing me like this to shame me. Like it was shameful to wear skirts. Like it meant - women couldn't fight."

Syndra looked him up and down critically. "Yes, I could probably do something with it." She put a finger to her lips in thought. "Lose some of the lace, tack it up there. And there." She gestured vaguely with her finger.

"But you know, Volf, it might serve you well to keep some of the look as it is. Master Godwyn and I were speaking about this just this morning." She lowered her voice, letting him in on a secret. "People will underestimate your fighting skills dressed as you are. They'll take you for a fool, to their sorrow. Regardless of what happened at the Goose and Gander, I know you'd be deadly in a fight." She paused, looking into his eyes seriously. "In fact, I'd like to ask Ser Corryn to let me take your parole to be my personal bodyguard. In case things get ugly with the Boltons."

Volf slowly coloured to the very tips of his ears. "You'd ask for me?" he said incredulously. After what I been n' gone n' done?"

In his surprised, the broader accent of his childhood came out in his voice.

Syndra grinned at him. "You made a mistake, Volf," she stated simply. "It happens. But I've known you since I was a child. I've seen you fight. If someone tried to harm me, I'd be confident that you'd guard me with every ounce of strength you possessed."

Her smile softened. "Words are not your strong points, Volf," she said gently. "Your axe and your blade are. And I fear I may need them before this day is through."

Volf nodded, a shy but proud grin on his face. "Then it's more important you help me, Mistree Syndra," he said. "I can abide the frills ... but I need to be able to take proper strides, not little woman's steps."

He looked up suddenly. "My Lord's coming."

And indeed he was - with Limosa on his arm and Rhys walking beside him - the two men in deep conversation.

As they approached the camp, Corryn held Limosa's hand protectively. He turned his gaze to Rhys, "I wouldn't take it personally, Maester Rhys," he said in an honest tone. "Tamm is a blackheart and a scoundrel. He enjoys nothing more than belittling his peers. After all, considered the rancor he must hold for being tossed out on his ear. From the Bolton family, no less."

"Tamm does freely employ the use of his tongue," Rhys agreed, his normal calm demeanor returning. He examined the bowl as they walked, sniffing at it and then frowning.

It was not hard for his trained nostrils to detect the whiff of corruption in the bowl, even though to a hungry man it might have been masked by the rich venison stew.

"I don't take it personally. Have you noticed that the majority of the scathing statements coming out of his mouth have little to no basis in fact?" Rhys continued, still puzzling over the bowl. "He spouts them to get his listeners angry so they'll react emotionally, not rationally. I have to admit that I don't understand the man's current motivations. A lot of the trouble he's in right now could've been avoided had he made better choices.

"At the Citadel we learned about certain emotional patterns of behavior that some people express due to particular emotional hurts, much like the physical body expressing distress due to a physical hurt."

Rhys paused to gauge by the expression on Corryn's face whether he was still following him.

Corryn nodded lightly, "I was supposed to be a maester, so I know some of which you speak. Please continue." From the expression on his tired face, he apparently grasped Rhys' train of thought. But his hazel eyes remained like cold gems; unreadable and without secrets.

"What I see in Tamm from the brief time I've had to observe him is a pattern of behavior consistent with having been treated as worthless by those he considered important in his life. In some cases, he even goads with his remarks those around him into taking physical actions against him, thus making the worthlessness self-fulfilling. Although occasional in grown men, it was noted that this behavior was most often observed in young women.

"Yes, Tamm annoys me. But understanding that this is his intent, I can separate myself from it, as I did at the trial. What the guard did last night was inexcusable and a separate issue."

Corryn shrugged, "True. But only to an extent. I doubt any of the men here would have wept if Evan had expired from his ailment. Godfrey is still beloved here and even the chance of him dying at the hands of Evan Tamm offends them. I would have strangled the bastard last night had I the opportunity. But Godfrey would never have forgiven me. My brother would have seen it as an offense to his Hardy honor." He sighed deeply, lowering his head in worry.

When they reached a private spot, he paused for a moment. Corryn turned to gaze directly and coldly in Rhys' eyes. "Before we return to camp and break bread together, I must ask you a question, Maester Rhys. I suggest you respond with the utmost truth and honesty. And frankly, I care not it the question is inappropriate or not, I will gain the answer to it."

Rhys turned and raised a surprised eyebrow at Corryn.

His hand lightly touched his left wrist, straightening the cuff. "What are your true intentions toward Lady Syndra?"

Rhys smiled slightly. "She said you'd noticed certain looks passing between us yesterday. I thought that very...intuitive of you. My intentions are to seek her hand in marriage. If we can gain the permission of Ser Godfrey, I will renounce my maester vows. In the meantime, my vows still hold, and I intend to honor them--and her."

Corryn shrugged and looked away. "Let us just say that I am well acquainted with the subtle language of impossible loves," he admitted. He let out another breath, a mixture of melancholy and regret, but for what in particular was known only to him.

Rhys watched Corryn intently, relieved that his hand dropped from left sleeve and curious as to the story of the woman who caused such emotion in him. But it was not his place to ask about it--and certainly not the time.

"Is she aware of your intentions?" he asked, regarding Rhys curiously. "And do you truly wish to give up your vocation for her? This isn't some fancy that will end the moment you must toss your chain in the dirt?

"This is, of course, paying no heed to the fact that you are low-born."

"Syndra is aware of my intentions and the feelings we have for each other are mutual. This is not a whim, Ser Corryn. I have given much thought to the matter and I would indeed give up my maester's links for her."

A pause, and then Rhys continued, "We're also aware of the obstacles in our path. It will not be easy to gain Ser Godfrey's permission, but we must try."

Corryn's brow raised and eyes widened, "She's aware of this? And agreed?" His voice could not contain his shock.

Rhys blinked at the outburst. "Yes. I wouldn't be pursuing it otherwise."

Corryn sighed again, shaking his head. "Just my bloody luck she'd take my advice. Fourteen years that girl has known me and she picks last night to finally listen to me? Bollocks and damnation! Why now?!"

He growled ferally, "You should learn to keep my mouth shut, old wolf. Pah!"

Corryn regarded Limosa sadly, "Your father's a bloody idiot, did you know that my dear? Of course, you did."

He studied Rhys' eyes carefully, a predatory look passing over his rugged features.

Rhys kept his ground and stared back warily. His face held no guile, only bemusement.

Finally, Corryn gave a nod of acquiescence. "Gods, you really do love her, don't you?" An angry gaff escaped his lips. "The Maiden is a bloody sadistic bitch, I'll tell you that much. It just had to be Sewell's lad."

Corryn brushed off his long coat and nodded once more, as if accepting this revelation. "Fine then. The Maiden can kiss my balls for all I give a damn. We'll make sure Godfrey gives you two his permission, right? I could take you into my household for starters. Give you a proper title worthy of a lady of noble birth. Oh, I'll bet that'll put a big, old smile on the Maiden's face, eh?"

The old man did not look at Rhys when he spoke his next words. He didn't have to. The warning in them was darker than his angry eyes. "I'll help you Rhys. For her sake. But I swear to the Gods, if you break that girl's heart… I'll have yours. Preferably in a pickle jar. Is that in any way unclear?" He cocked his head, regarding the lad coldly.

"Why are you so angry about this?" Rhys asked. "If you disapproved that greatly of me, you'd not be helping us, yet here you are offering me a title without us even asking."

Corryn snorted and shook his head, "For all your training in the human heart, you really aren't that observant are you, Rhys?" His hazel eyes brimmed with loss for a moment and he looked away.

Rhys narrowed his eyes. He was observant enough. His current problem was not being brave enough to ask Corryn the right question.

He shrugged and took Limosa's hand, as if seeking solace in the contact. "I'm doing it for Syndra, Maester Rhys. And, perhaps, this is also the Maiden's way of healing this hatred inside me. Whether I want to or not. It's time the past was forgotten and sins forgiven."

At Volf's warning, Syndra smiled and turned to greet Corryn. Her smile faded, however, when she saw who he was with and how intently they were talking. She forced it back on, but the new smile was tinged with anxiety. "Good morning," she greeted the two of them. Her eyes widened a bit when she noticed the wooden bowl in Rhys's hand, but then she looked back up at them, albeit a little nervously.

The angry wolf glanced up and muttered foully, "Oh this morning just gets better and better, don't it?" He regained his composure immediately and offered her a disarming smile. "Good morning, my dear."

His smile did not fool Syndra. Wolf's hidden anger contributed to her nerves. Any words she meant to say to him withered on her lips.

The look of distress didn't escape him. He knew Syndra's face better than his own. He followed her eyes to the bowl in Rhys' hands and then back to her. And then, much to even his surprise, he let out a deep laugh.

Rhys didn't miss Syndra's expression, either--nor her discreet glance at the wooden bowl. He looked in surprise at Corryn laughing, then the pieces fell together with an almost audible click. "Syndra...did you feed Tamm the rotten meat?" he asked slowly.

"Me?!" she protested, unconsciously taking a half-step back toward Volf while gazing from one to the other with innocent doe eyes. "Why would you think I did anything? It probably just sat in the sun too long."

"It was his supper so it was dark outside. No sun," Rhys pointed out, watching her reaction with dismay. "Syndra, look me in the eye and tell us the truth--did you give Tamm rotten meat?"

Syndra looked him in the eye, but stubbornly remained silent.

Corryn laughter ebbed and he gave Rhys an annoyed look. "Rhys, if you're going to marry the girl, the first thing you should learn is not to admonish or accuse your lady in public. A husband and wife are of one mind, one spirit."

Syndra's eyes went wide and her mouth opened incredulously as her gaze shifted between the two men.

He gestured towards his tent, "Let's all go sit down in the privacy of my tent shall we?" It wasn't a question, it was an order. He guided Limosa with him, pausing to speak to Volf. "Son, can you bring us some breakfast? I think food and some fresh water will help ease our collective constitutions. Thank you."

"Thank you, but no, I should go relieve my great-uncle at Lord Hardy's bedside so he can break his own fast. Please excuse me," Rhys said in a flat tone. He nodded coolly to Ser Corryn, avoided looking at Syndra, then turned and left the way he came.

Syndra stared after him, her shoulders sagging. She glanced up at Corryn almost desperately, then over to Limosa and back at Corryn. Finally, she hung her head shamefully and walked toward the tent as if headed for the gallows.

"Maester Rhys," Corryn said, his voice raising hardly an octave, but the menace and authority contained within made heads turn around the camp. "Your uncle can wait a few moments. If you'll please join us?"

He stepped toward Rhys, moving with a feral grace that betrayed the barely contained anger within. Corryn closed the distance in a few strides, coming alongside the young maester. He spoke in a low voice, without emotion. "Do not make me regret helping you, boy. This, whatever it may be, gets resolved now. Not later. If you allow your self-importance and anger to take you from this place, I will make certain Godfrey knows your true character. That you'd abandon his daughter the instant she doesn't meet your grand expectations."

Corryn's hand gripped Rhys' arm, "So, which will it be? A polite conversation now? Or a conversation of an entirely different sort later on?"

Rhys stopped and glared at Corryn. "And you accuse me of not being observant?" he hissed. "Yes, I am disappointed in Syndra's actions. My retreat, however, has less to do with her and more to do with you. Before you make sure Ser Godfrey knows my true character, perhaps you should explain yours to him."

Syndra stopped at the flap of the tent and glared at them. "Stop it! Both of you!" she snarled. "Stay or go, Rhys. It's your choice. I don't care."

Corryn, however, had gone past the point of hearing. His eyes narrowed, his hand falling away to curl into a fist.

"He knows my character, boy. For good and for ill. And we still consider one another brothers. I have bled for him. I have killed for him. I have done things that make my stomach churn with bile for him and his daughter. And I will do so again, without question, without hesitation.

"That is love, boy. THAT is devotion. So if you ever question my love for my friends again, the only… and I do mean the only… thing that will keep me from gutting you on the spot is that girl over there."

He turned Rhys around and pointed to Limosa, "And if you wish to questions my methods, I want you to look at my daughter. If I embraced the precious honor everyone in this bloody castle holds so dear, she would be still being beaten and tortured by her father. That beautiful, intelligent girl, who had to watch her mother starve to death because her true father was too drunk to give a damn. And what would she have waiting for her great reward? To be bedded by that bastard Herys and to be kept like some pet for his amusement."

Corryn's lip curled back into a snarl, tears streaming down his face. "And I want you to hold that image in that precious mind of yours; so full of imagination and knowledge that it is. I want you to picture your precious Syndra beneath Herys, as he slacks his lust on her as well. Because that's exactly what he intends to do. When he tires of his new silent wife, he'll take his sons'. Can you hear the screams, Rhys? Can you hear her lovely voice begging for the pain to stop? CAN YOU?! Because I can. I know the 'honor' of 'noble' men. I have seen it so often my soul rots with the images."

His grip tightened, his voice turning to a hiss. "So when I kill that son of a bitch today and probably die in the process, you ask yourself again if my 'character' should be explained."

"Stop it, I said! STOP IT!" Syndra screeched, tears now streaming down her cheeks, her hands over her ears as if in great pain. "Please...," she pleaded and dove into the tent, sobbing hysterically.

Corryn pushed Rhys away violently and stalked towards his tent. He didn't wipe his tears away, suddenly too tired to even raise his hand. He paused at the entrance and then looked back at Limosa. "Your father's a fool," he said, his voice like broken glass.

Limosa was watching him, her dark eyes wide - her cheek flaming with colour - as they had been since he described her situation so graphically to Rhys.

Corryn said nothing more and pulled back the flap of the tent. The darkness of his sanctuary wasn't as inviting as it had been a moment before. For a moment, he thought to turn and walk away. But, instead, the old wolf slipped inside in the off-chance he might mend the harm he'd caused.

He only wished he possessed as much talent in healing as he had in wounding those he cared for.

Limosa remained outside, staring after him.

Rhys stood quite still, thoughts racing, his suspicions further confirmed by Corryn's response to his accusation. As a healer not just of body, but mind as well, it struck him to see Corryn brought down like that. Though Corryn defended his own character vehemently, Rhys could see the guilt still present and how it gnawed at Corryn's soul. He was a healer--he needed to help.

He took one step toward the tent, then stopped and closed his eyes.

Syndra. The thought of her face when she turned away to run into the tent brought tears to his eyes. Gods, he'd ruined his chances to marry her. Corryn would never help convince Godfrey now, not after the things Rhys had said. Why couldn't he have checked his tongue? How did things like this happen, so certain one moment and gone the next?

Rhys shook his head. His presence would make the situation worse right now, not better. He turned and walked away.

"Little Bear?" Corryn said softly. The tent was drowning in shadows, but he noticed a shape near his couch.

Syndra was kneeling on the dirt floor of the tent, leaning forward onto the couch. She had ripped the comfrey blossom out of her hair, but now clutched it under her nose with white knuckles. Her breathing was ragged and rough, alternating sobs and gasps. Her hair and eyes were wild, and she was trembling violently, uncontrollably. Corryn had never seen her this way, not even in those dark, horrible days when he first returned to Holdfast after the summer fever.

"I did it, Wolf. It was me," she sobbed in a voice that seemed somehow not her own. It was shrill, fast, on the verge of hysteria. "I chopped up the rancid venison and put it in the stew then dressed in Mama's clothes and got Garyn to give it to him. I didn't want to kill him just make him sick so he wouldn't ride well it's not poisoning if you just make him sick don't tell Father - I'm not a criminal. HE'S the criminal he killed that guard and he'll kill Father and he'll kill us all if he has the chance. And... and... Herys will help him. I won't let them, Wolf. I won't. I'll kill them all. They killed Mama and Trey and Dylon." Her shaking increased, as did her sobs. "They... killed... Gavrin. They WON'T kill Father they WON'T kill you. I won't let them, Wolf. I WON'T! I'll run away I'll be a silent sister I don't care they won't take any more of us. I'll kill them all!"

Corryn approached her, as he would a wounded animal. He'd gained some skill in that during the last few days with Limosa. Drawing on that experience, he sat down on the floor across from her. The fight outside was forgotten immediately as he gazed into her wild eyes; like burning embers in the dark tent.

He spoke in a cool, calm voice; no betrayal of the sorrow aching inside him at seeing her this way. "Syndra," he said, "I want you to take a deep breath and calm down. Calm down. And listen to me. Just listen to my voice, yes?"

She didn't look at him. She just stared at the shadows on the tent wall and clutched the flower tightly. Corryn knew she was listening, though, because she breathed. It was shaky, but she tried.

Knitting his fingers, he let out a tired sigh. "I know things may appear bleak to you. They appear so to me too, even. And as dangerous and foolish as what you did last night happens to be, you did a good thing. You did it out of love for your father. And I can understand that. You're not a criminal. That is my domain, Little Bear. Not yours."

Syndra's lips twitched, as if in better times that might have made her smile.

"I won't tell your father. And if Rhys tries to, I'll say it was my fault. Let him hate me before he is ever disappointed in you. After all, I wanted to do that and more to Evan last night. And it will be forgotten soon enough. So, before you go running off to the Silent Sisters, perhaps we can talk this through rationally, yes?"

The mention of her father threw another waver into Syndra's raspy breath, but otherwise, when Corryn finished speaking, she showed no response. Breathing and staring, breathing and staring. Finally, she whispered, "I just want them gone. I just want them to go away and leave us alone."

"Soon enough, my dearheart," Corryn said softly, reaching into his left coat pocket and producing a set of worn keys. He offered her an apologetic smile. "Very soon, I shall give everyone what they want. And the Boltons will finally know what true loss is."

The clink of the keys as Corryn drew them out piqued Syndra's natural curiosity. She shifted her gaze and watched him blankly as he rose.

He stood and crossed the tent to his chest. From it, he removed a grey, nondescript handkerchief. After reconfirming that it held no markings of any sort, he entwined and wrapped the keys in it to muffle any sound they might make when moved. "Your father is going to be fine, Little Bear. I'll see to it. And your little impersonation of Viserys the Second has indeed helped me somewhat. Very devious that. Edlyn's idea?"

This did draw a little smile from Syndra as she continued to watch his every move. "Sort of. I said it in jest, but she convinced me to do it," Syndra admitted, then reconsidered. "Or rather, I allowed her to convince me. It didn't take much. Everything that man said about us struck me to the bone. And then to hear Herys was going to help him..."

Corryn glanced over and raised a brow. He hid nothing from her as he worked, revealing his total trust with every motion. After all, the keys appeared very familiar; standard issue for the guards of Holdfast. "Herys," he said softly. "My skin crawls when I'm around him. He thinks he can force me to murder Evan. And yes, the thought has certainly crossed my mind. But to do anything that man asks of me…" His voice dropped off as he completed wrapping the keys and setting them into one of his hidden pockets.

Syndra's brow knitted in confusion. "But Wolf, that's not what I heard Herys say. He wanted Eryk to help his brother win, not have him murdered," she said worriedly as she wiped her wet face with the back of her hand.

Corryn chuckled harshly, "I suspected as much." He gave her a wan smile. "Herys wants me to attempt to kill his son. If I do so, it will provide him enough reason to call the truce null and void and then take the castle by force. It would also stain my less than stellar reputation with the Starks. He's a clever one, I'll give him that. I never did believe he'd want his son dead for such a small transgression."

He immediately held up his hand to stop the question to follow. "I cannot say, so don't ask. As much as it pains me, an oath of silence, even to a Bolton is still an oath." His face twisted with the want of the telling, but he held his tongue. "You'll know in time," he amended.

Syndra nodded and sat on the ground, pulling her legs up under her and looking troubled. "It appears I sent the stew to the wrong Bolton," she muttered wryly.

She pondered in silence for a moment. "I should never have let it go," she said finally, looking up at him. "He tried to touch me, Wolf, and he grabbed me by the hair when I tried to get away. I knew what he wanted, but later I said I wasn't certain because I was scared. I was scared of Father fighting him. So I lied."

Her chin set in determination. "Even if Evan dies, Herys Bolton hasn't paid a high enough price for what he's done to this family. And for what he wants to do." Her eyes smouldered and Corryn could tell by the way she looked at him that she was thinking about his earlier comments about Bolton's intentions.

"He will never do it," Corryn whispered, crossing the distance between them. He did not apologize for his previous words. The truth, after all, should be known and remembered. There would no longer be illusions of the price of failure. To think otherwise was insulting.

Corryn leaned down and sighed, touching her cheek. "Now that I've lost…" he began in a hushed voice. And then stopped, shaking his head. No illusions today, but perhaps lies were in order. "Now that you're to be married to the man you love, don't you know that I'll do everything to make sure it happens?"

Syndra's gaze dropped suddenly to the comfrey blossom she still held in her fingers. She shook her head sadly, twirling the battered flower by its stem between her thumb and forefinger. "Don't," she replied quietly. "It can't happen. I was a fool to even think about it."

She looked up at her dearest friend and tried to smile, though silent tears had started anew. "When we put aside all the obstacles, then yes, it was a lovely life we had planned. But it was a dream, Wolf. Nothing but a pleasant dream. We can't avoid the obstacles." She lowered her gaze again and a tear fell onto the flower. "They're just too big. And they're even bigger now," she whispered.

"No obstacle is insurmountable," Corryn said without much conviction. "And I am prone to dreams, so I should know."

He knelt closer, cupping her chin. "And no tears, angel. You'll get me crying too. I've had enough tears for a lifetime."

Syndra looked up at him knowingly, remembering the reason she believed he had shed those tears. She sniffled unglamourously, trying to comply.

Corryn brushed the tears away and sighed softly. He leaned in, touching his forehead to hers. "My Little Bear," he whispered. "You shouldn't have to be suffering this way. I wish I could steal you away from all of this. I wish I could make it all right for you. For Limosa. For your father. But you most of all."

Syndra sighed longingly and closed her eyes, taking comfort in his simple touch. "That's a dream too, Wolf. But it's a lovely one." She leaned back and looked up into his hazel eyes, still so close to her. "Someday...," she began, though she didn't quite know why.

It was the not-knowing that brought her back to her senses. As she stared into his eyes, another thought crept into her mind - one that didn't belong here, yet could not be ignored. She pulled back further and studied him, cocking her head in that way that she did when she was curious.

"Wolf?" she ventured, very softly so as not to be overheard, "You loved her, didn't you? Mama. Tell me." Her voice held no judgment. It was the calm, familiar voice of his trusted confidante, now grown enough to truly understand what she was asking.

Corryn's mouth opened soundlessly, his eyes glimmering in the faint light. He leaned back and looked at the tent flap, as if seeking to escape. But there was no escape. The girl already knew the answer. To deny it further would be an insult. Morna would surely understand. Wouldn't she?

His head slumped forward into a jerky nod.

"Yes," he said in a half whisper. "I loved her more than life itself."

He turned his head to gaze at her, his guilt radiating from him like a contagion. "Don't blame your mother. The fault lies solely with me. My foolish heart has always sought comfort from those I cannot be with. Your mother.


Syndra's eyes widened in surprise. That he loved her mother, she had expected. That he loved her... She gulped and looked away uncertainly.

Corryn laughed harshly, beginning to rise. "At least I am consistent in my stupidity."

Syndra's hand shot out to grab his wrist. "No. We're not finished here," she said, sounding much like Ser Godfrey on the battlefield. When he looked back at her, she continued more gently but still firmly, "You can't just say something like that and run away, Wolf. Sit down." She pointed to a spot on the ground in front of her.

Corryn did so without protest, sitting down glumly. He never could resist an order from a Hardy woman. He glanced at her hand upon his wrist and shrugged. "No, I guess I can't run from this any longer. But please, don't ask me much regarding your mother, Syndra. I promised Morna I would never talk about my love for her. And I've promised you to always tell the truth if asked. So, in short, I am over a barrel at the moment."

Surprisingly, Syndra chuckled. "Don't worry. I won't. Your secret's safe."

She settled her hands in her lap, getting comfortable. "You know, Edlyn hit it on the head two years ago, but I was too blind to see it then," she confessed. "I told her that you were a close friend of Mama's and how hard you took her death and she asked me if you might have been in love with her." Syndra giggled. "I thought she was mad, but then she told me how in the Vale, sometimes young knights would fall in love with married women, even though they could hope for no more than a smile or a favor. She thought this might have been the same - all very chaste, of course. She wasn't about to insult me by implying Mama would've done anything about it. She'd just met me, after all."

Corryn chuckled faintly. "Edlyn," he said, as if this explained everything. "I should have known. That girl is a bloody wonder sometimes. I know she despises me, but I do like her mind. Her father must have been a proud man. She'll make someone a great wife someday. I pray Celia will realize what she has in her daughter before choosing." He blushed softly as he noticed Syndra's eyeing him, as he politely tried to dodge the subject.

He glanced back toward the tent flap as if hoping to be interrupted. But his luck, as always, did not save him. His tired shoulders shrugged. "We were both very young, Syndra. Although I was rather fond of the ladies, I envied your father for his family. And when I met your mother, I mean truly met her that day by the pond… I was lost. I knew it was wrong. But love is seldom about correctness."

He gave her a playful smile; the wolf returning. "But you know that, don't you?"

Syndra smiled faintly and looked away. Now that she had her confirmation, she suddenly didn't want to talk about it anymore. The conversation had the potential to go places she didn't care to go. Besides, they were likely to be interrupted soon and there was one other touchy subject to be dispatched before that happened.

"What did you mean a moment ago when you said I was one of the ones you sought comfort from? One of the ones you couldn't have?" She raised her head slightly and peered at him sideways, as if a little frightened of his answer.

Strangely, this change in conversation appeared to relieve him. The past, thankfully, would remain just that. For now. He knew eventually she would ask that one unanswerable question: Was your love reciprocated? The very look on his face, Corryn realized, would speak for him and any denial after that would ring hollow.

He sighed deeply, "You are the only person that's truly known me, Syndra. That's accepted me. You are my closest friend and have been for years. For the longest time, that was enough. I never thought of it beyond that. But when I saw you last…"

Corryn rested his face in his hands, stretching out his brow in frustration. "I saw possibilities I shouldn't have. I started thinking in ways that were impossible. I dreamt. I dreamt of the woman you'd become. And I wondered what place I might hold in that future."

Syndra chewed her lip, but continued to watch him.

He laughed sadly, "Why do you think I didn't marry when I was in White Harbor?"

Not letting her answer, he returned his hazel eyes to meet hers. "I thought I could ignore these feelings. But when I saw you again…" Corryn waved his hand dismissively, growing suddenly angry with himself. "Forgive me. I'm a stupid old, fool. And very tired. This is the last thing you need to hear."

"No. You're no... well, maybe a little," she smiled affectionately, reaching out to give his hand a little squeeze.

Corryn let out a laugh and nodded. At first, he resisted the touch, but relented in short order. Indeed, his fingers interlaced with hers; an old habit of theirs now taking on a new meaning perhaps.

Then Syndra looked away again, growing more serious. Twice she looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. Finally, she sighed. "I have to ask," she said very quietly, unable to look at him. "It's not because... um... because I'm a little like... her. Is it?"

He studied her troubled expression, curious but patient. And then his eyes went wide as she finally asked the question hovering on her beautiful lips.

He shook his head adamantly. "No, Syndra," he said tenderly. Corryn raised her her chin and gazed into her eyes. "I am in love with you because of who you are. And no one else." There was a faint nod of assent, "Yes, you do look like her a little. Enough to scare the life out of me last night. But…"

At that, she smiled apologetically.

His thumb brushed along her cheekbone, "You are so different from her. There is so much fire in you. A fire that always warms me. You are not a memory, Syndra. You are beautiful woman. Your own woman."

Syndra was suddenly speechless. The words "in love with you" had caused a flutter in her stomach, though whether it was from love or fear she could not be certain. She stared into his eyes, her mouth open, searching for words and finding none. Inside her head, her thoughts roiled and crashed like a waterfall ~ I can't... but maybe... no, he's like my uncle... but he'd never harm me... and he loves me... and he's noble. But it's Rhys that I... but Rhys walked away... And Father? Father would never... but he might... I love Wolf but... like THAT? Could it ever be? And would I hurt him? ~

Syndra rose to her knees and clutched his hand more tightly as if for support. She gazed into his eyes, seeing him for the first time not as her life-long friend, but as a man. The thought made her shiver.

He stared back at her, pensive and equally nervous. What he'd said had been true. He no longer saw the ghost in Syndra's eyes. All he saw was her. And that could never change now, even if he wanted it too.

In all his life, he had never been this open, this honest. But, also for the first time, Corryn never felt so relieved. No matter what was said now, he could accept it and live with the consequences. That alone was worth the risk he'd taken in revealing his feelings.

"I don't want you hurt, Wolf. I don't know... what can happen here. With... this. If anything can happen with..., I mean," she stammered. She knew she wasn't making sense. She was frightened and uncertain and overwhelmed at the strength of feelings that she couldn't exactly identify. She shook her head, trying to clear it, to no avail. "And what you said about fighting Herys... all I know is I don't want you hurt. Why do you need to fight him? The trial - it's... Evan. Not Herys."

He let out a faint chuckle, "If my plan goes well, I will not have to kill him. Even though he certainly deserves to die. Nor will there be a trial. As I said, everyone will get exactly what they desire in their hearts."

Corryn cocked his head to one side, smiling tenderly as he brushed back a loose bang of her hair. "And don't fret Little Bear," he said in a calm voice; a stillness unlike she'd seen in her friend now shone in his eyes. "You love another. I won't stand in your way. You… and only you are what is important now. So, you can't hurt me, no matter what happens. I want you to believe that."

As Syndra gazed at him, a look of pure wonder slowly spread across her face. She could see the peace in his eyes, hear it in his voice, feel it even in his posture and touch. She had never in her life seen him so calm, so serene. Her smile began to glow and for half a moment, Corryn could see Morna's approval, her joy, at seeing her love finally happy. Then it was gone and it was only Syndra again, grinning with delight not for herself, but for him.

She threw her arms around his neck and embraced him tightly. "I love you, Wolf," she whispered next to his ear. "Whether I become your lady wife or someone else's, I will always love you."

"Thank you," Corryn whispered, hugging her tightly to him. He sighed softly, the tension melting away like rain water into a brook. He swallowed her in the comfort of his arms, his lips so close to her ear she could feel the warmth of his breath against her neck. "I could not ask for more, Syndra. You make me a very happy man. I love you so much. So much."

Finally, with some reluctance, he leaned back and then lightly kissed her cheek. She could feel him tremble beneath her arms, as if he wanted to do more, to hold her longer. But for now, in this place and this time, that was all he could hope for.

Syndra smiled knowingly and squeezed his forearms as she released him, as though bolstering him to continue on his own.

"Now, I need something from you," he said, growing serious. "Find Volf and Limosa. The three of you must remain together from this point forward. Wherever you go, do not leave one another's side. Promise me this, because I need to know that you are both safe. Between the three of you, I pity any fool that has harmful intent."

Syndra giggled as she rose to her feet in one fluid motion. "Funny, the reason I came here in the first place was to ask you if I could borrow Volf as a bodyguard. I guess that's a 'yes'." She nodded more seriously. "I'll find Limosa too. Don't worry. We'll be fine."

"Truly?" Corryn said. "Heh. Why am I not surprised our minds think so alike? And thank you. I know Limosa can be troublesome, but she's a wonderful girl. I love her dearly. I just wish she wasn't so jealous of you. She needs me as her father and I'm not sure she likes to share. But I can understand considering what she has been through."

Syndra nodded sympathetically.

As he walked toward the tent flap, Corryn chuckled softly. "Volf will be pleased to watch over his Lady Syndra. He needs a confidence boost. I hope this will provide him one."

"I, on the other hand, need to visit Herys and his other son."

A flash of concern crossed Syndra's face. "But why... ah. Yes. I understand," she nodded sagely, and Corryn knew that indeed she did. "Just be careful," she warned him as she picked up the comfrey blossom and straightened her skirts.

Corryn snorted, "When have I not been careful?"

Syndra merely smirked at him as she started to leave.

Corryn's smile broadened for a moment, studying Syndra. "Seriously," he said. "I'll be careful, as long as you keep out of trouble yourself. No more stews and pretending to be ghosts, yes?" He didn't need an answer; he already knew he could trust her to be safe in the coming hours.

At the tent flap, Syndra turned back. "And Wolf? You don't have to take the blame for me anymore," she said, suddenly looking more like a noble lady than a little girl. She gave him a confident little smile. "I can do it now."

He paused for a moment and then chuckled, "Of that I have no doubt, Lady Syndra." In naming her thusly, she knew that in his eyes she was no longer just his Little Bear. She was not just Morna's daughter, she was no longer just the little girl jumping on his broken ribs or plunging headlong into the White Knife to tease him. She was Lady Syndra Hardy and all that came with that title. In mere moments, with the stains of a few tears and the touch of a few truths, she'd grown up.

They both had.

Page last modified on October 09, 2006, at 02:21 AM