[OOC - This thread takes place several months after the polio epidemic.]
The burial ground of Holdfast Castle was at the southern edge of the great godswood, where it might be kissed by the weak Northern sunshine. The monuments would have been considered austere by the more ostentatious lords of the South. Here in the North, however, the simple granite headstones were not unusual. Even the stones for the Hardy lords merely bore a name, title and age at death, topped with the Hardy sigil. However, an aboveground tablet might be added to a lord's grave to mark its importance.
Lichen and moss adorned most of the stones in this ancient cemetery. However, at the western edge, three crisp, clean headstones sprouted from newly-grown grass. Corryn found them easily. The grass path leading there was well-trodden. The largest of the three was inscribed "LADY MORNA, lady wife of Ser Godfrey Hardy, aged 25 years." Below Morna's name was the inscription "Infant Hardy, stillborn son of Ser Godfrey and Lady Morna."
Corryn moved like shadow through the moldering stones. His was not a presence welcome here or easily explained. He’d waited for the mourners to depart and the tears to dry before braving this sanctuary. For her sake, he’d played the role written by fate for him and contained the anguish inside. Yet each day had cut his heart like knives, every night seared his thoughts like a brand. After all, how could he have justified the sorrow that brought him to near despondency? Only one person would understand and now she was gone forever. But this evening, he would no longer be denied. He had to say goodbye to Morna one last time or he would go mad for the wanting of her.
The water lilies in his hand had come from the White Knife. Corryn had traveled several days without rest to retrieve them and return before they wilted. But, Morna had always smiled when he told her tales of his adventures there; some of which had even been true. Anything that made her smile was worth whatever effort it required.
He stopped in front of the stone bearing her name. His stomach churned as the emotion welled up inside. After years of traveling and seeing many rites of the dead, Corryn felt disgusted by burial. Morna did not deserve to be locked away in the cold darkness. Nor did thier… his throat caught and he turned away from the grave, tears threatening.
As Corryn stood over the stone, a small sound broke the peaceful silence. Corryn wasn't exactly sure what it was - a cat's hiss, a child's sniffle or some kind of bird call. Whatever it was, it came from the lower branches of a nearby oak tree.
He paused, caught off-guard by the sound. Wiping a tear away, Corryn gazed up into the oak tree. There, amongst the branches and leaves, he noticed a familiar shape. His voice sounded broken when he spoke, “Little Bear?”
Syndra did indeed look like a little bear as she clung to the branches and peered out at him through the leaves. Her face was blotchy and her eyes wet and red with tears. She sniffled again, wet and loud. In a little voice, she asked, "'Dja come to see my Mama?" She did not seem inclined to come down out of her tree.
Seeing his precious Syndra thusly nearly undid Corryn to the quick. But he could ill-afford to come apart in front of the girl. She had witnessed enough sorrows in her life. For her, he would be strong. And for Morna. He might have failed her, but he would not fail her daughter.
“Aye, that I did,” he confessed, suddenly embarrassed. He offered the girl a sad smile and then turned to lay the lilies on the grave. Somehow, the small gesture brought reality crashing in. She was gone. And, to some extent, her passing was his fault. He hated himself for that, for allowing her to slip away. He refused to cry now, but whispered to her instead. “I’m sorry.”
Corryn dried his wet cheeks and sat beneath Syndra’s tree. He made no attempt to coax her down. People dealt with grief in their own fashion and he would not interfere with the girl’s. Instead, he simply gazed back up at her and smiled again; a tired, yet hopeful expression. Words at this point felt contrite, so he allowed the silence to speak for him. In this place of loss and memories, the quiet spoke volumes.
She smiled back down at him. His presence made her feel better, like that brightening in the western sky when the storm is almost over. The clouds were still overhead, but something about having the Corn Wolf nearby (for that's what she called him sometimes), made the rain let up.
"I was wondering when you'd come," Syndra said at last. Her voice was steadier now. "I knew you would."
Corryn raised an eyebrow to that and hrumphed, obviously impressed with the girl’s candor and intelligence. “You did?” he said.
She nodded emphatically.
“Well, you are a very perceptive girl, Syndra. Honestly, though, I’m glad you’re here too.”
He stood up and brushed away the leaves. In truth, he didn’t know quite what to do. His skin felt tight and ill-fitting, his head swam from lack of sleep. Beneath Syndra’s gaze, he couldn’t help wonder exactly what the girl saw and knew.
He rummaged through his long coat and retrieved a small, delicately wrapped package. “I’d brought this for you, but…” he sighs weakly, “I never got the chance.” He stretched to hand it to her.
She reached down and took the package from his hand. Before she opened it though, she offered, "Y'know, you can come up." Her gaze was hopeful as she added, "No one climbs with me anymore since--" She cut her words off sharply and focused on ripping open the package, determined not to cry again.
From the package came a sweet smell that grew stronger as Syndra tore away the wrapping. Inside was an amber-colored sphere that could fit in the palm of her hand. It was sticky to the touch, but quite hard. It smelled like honey and spices. “Sun candy from Dorne,” Corryn explained.
Syndra cupped it in her hands and sniffed deeply. "Ooh, it even smells like the sun," she breathed. "Thank you, Ser," she remembered her courtesies as she popped it into her mouth.
“If you like it, I have more. Just don’t bite it, my dearheart. You’ll surely break your teeth if you do.”
She nodded her acknowledgement, not wanting to talk with her mouth full.
With surprisingly nimbleness, he climbed up into the tree and found a thick branch upon which to perch. He smiled tenderly to her, nodding with approval. “Yes. This is much better. A wise choice, m'lady.”
Syndra smiled back at him and repositioned her legs to lean back against the trunk. She shifted the candy inside her cheek so she could talk. "Yeah. I come here a lot now," she replied. The statement was almost unnecessary. From his perch, Corryn could see the tree bark was nearly worn smooth where she sat.
As Syndra stared out through the branches and sucked on her treat, Corryn noticed other things as well. Her hair was pulled up into a pony-tail behind her. She wore a soft, doeskin jerkin over a tunic and breeches; quite a departure from the pretty frocks in which her mother used to dress her when she wasn't rough-housing with her brothers.
But Syndra's attire was not the biggest change. The sunny, blue-eyed bundle of energy he remembered had been replaced by a cautious, pensive, forlorn little girl. Her eyes now looked haunted. It was a look he'd seen in the eyes of battle-weary knights many a time, but had never imagined he'd ever see in his Little Bear.
Out of the long silence, she finally spoke. "My septa says time heals. D'ya think that's for true?" she asked without looking at him.
“I hope so, Little Bear,” Corryn said quietly, “I certainly hope so.”
"Me too," she agreed.
There really was no sense in coddling the girl or telling her that life was fair and pain was fleeting. Such concepts were mere illusions, words spoken but never meant. He could not deny the ragged hole in his heart where Morna had been. He couldn’t ignore the sorrow that weighed heavily upon him. No words of comfort or denial could change these things. And Corryn knew that even young as she was, Syndra sensed the same underlying truth.
Corryn pulled a leaf from its branch and slowly twirled it between his fingers. He couldn’t meet her eyes as he talked. “It will be hard, Syndra,” he said. “One of the hardest things you will ever suffer. But you must find a balance, a strength within yourself. Cry for her, yes. But you cannot allow her loss to overcome you, no matter…” his throat caught again, tears returning.
Steeling himself, Corryn finished. “No matter how much you hurt inside.”
This time, he did look into her eyes. His smile was tender, revealing the bond between them, the shared suffering. “Your mother would want you and I to go on, Syndra. You will never lose her, as long as you hold onto her memory. You have her strength and her heart, Little Bear. She lives in you. Never forget that.”
Upon seeing him choke, Syndra rose from her seat, grasped an overhead branch, and lithely swung over to share his larger limb.
Her proximity appeared to calm the old wolf, his smile to her gentle and appreciative. He adjusted his weight, so they could share the branch together freely and without worry of it breaking beneath them.
She looked up into his eyes and smiled with childlike trust. When her tears started to well again, though, she looked down, but placed a small hand on her Corn Wolf's thigh tenderly. "She liked you, y'know. You made her laugh," Corryn could hear the sad smile in the little girl's voice.
Corryn had to look away upon hearing this revelation. His breathing became ragged and he was forced to wipe away the persistent tears that would surface. “Her laugh was like the river,” he admitted. “Unrepentant and free, so soothing one could forget the world at the sound of it.” He wiped his cheek on the back of his sleeve and finally regained his composure.
"You make me laugh, too," she added softly. With a bashful glance up at him, she shared a secret. "Right after, it was hard. I tried to think of other things, but everything made me think of it. Sewing made me miss Mama. Playing reminded me of...." she couldn't even say her brothers' names. "I just wanted to go far away, but the only place I've ever been is our manor and when I thought of that, it made me think of *everyone*."
She paused again, as if she wasn't sure she should be telling him this, but she overcame her reluctance and continued. "So I went down the White Knife. I rode all the rapids, dozens of times, and escaped the bears on the shore. Or I sailed to Braavos and crossed swords with the Water-Walkers. Sometimes I fought pirates on the way to Lys. Or...or sailed all the way to Dorne and brought back oranges and lemons for Septa Annice..." She trailed off and shrugged, embarrassed.
Corryn nodded, smiling proudly. “It sounds like my Little Bear has been busy.” He hooked one of his feet beneath a lower branch for support and then shifted until his back was against the solid trunk. Confident that he was secure, he scooped Syndra into his muscular arms and let her use him as more comfortable place to rest. His chest was warm as he held her, lightly brushing her hair with a broad hand. His fatherly manner rang of a dual need; that to comfort and be comforted. And yet, Syndra knew she could pull away or remain there as long as she wished it.
It only took two strokes of his gentle hand in her hair. Syndra crumbled. Her shoulders shook as the sobs took hold of her. She buried her face deep in his shirt, soaking it right down the middle with huge tears that she could no longer hold in.
Corryn held her tightly, allowing her to cry without comment or judgment. He knew too well that tears were rarely accepted by nobles. Children were chastised or condescended to for any sign of emotion. When his mother died, there was no one to hold him, to let him grieve. He would never allow Syndra to share the same cruel fate. He would die before he allowed the light inside this girl to be extinguished. He knew these things as if he was born to them.
“It’s okay, dearheart,” he whispered, stroking her hair. “I’m here and I’m not going away.”
“Whenever you wish it,” he said, “I will take you to the secret parts of the river. There are places you can only dream of. Places of such striking beauty that you’d believe yourself lost in a dream. And they are just on the river. The sea is so much more. But you know this.” He chuckles, “After all, you are the Little Bear. Scourge of Bay of Seals, the lady piratess that strikes fear in all who have evil in your heart.”
His jest made her giggle through her tears.
“There’s that laugh I love so dearly,” he grinned. He brushed the tears from her cheek, and then kissed her brow. “Nothing in the world can compare.”
Corryn checked the thickness of her arm, “Have you been practicing with the sword I gave you?” The sword, in question, was a wooden blade he’d given her a year before. It was their secret and he trained her whenever she asked.
With a big sniffle, she flexed the arm for him to better feel her muscles. At his question, though, she shook her head sheepishly. "It took a while to get over the sickness," she apologized.
Corryn squeezed her arm again and nodded respectfully. “I’m sure it did, Little Bear. You still have some strength left in you though. We’ll have to put it to good use while I’m here. No slacking for you, my poppet. I’ll make a pirate out of you yet. Someday, I must take you to White Harbor. You can pick out your own boat, and name her as you wish. You would make a wonderful captain, Little Bear.”
She straightened herself up to attention at his commanding tone and grinned widely at the thought of having her own pirate ship.
He lightly patted her chest, directly over her heart. “You are strong in here…” Then he tapped her brow, “And wise in here, beyond your years. Never let go of that. Promise me?”
"I promise, Ser Corn Wolf," Syndra replied with a solemn nod. Her expression turned absolutely serious. "I can train with you now, but I'll have to wait 'til I'm a woman grown to go to White Harbor. Papa needs me here. Mama always said that it's the men that need looking after most, and boy, was she right." She shook her head like a little mother-hen.
Corryn chortled at the mentioning of his “name,” still as pleased with the sound of it now as much as the first time hearing it said thusly. He ruffled her hair playfully and hugged her to him again.
She wrapped her arms around him and returned a hug worthy of a little bear.
Her new seriousness and sense of responsibility impressed him deeply. But it also gnawed at his heart to hear her talk this way. Cruel fate had decided to force her to mature far too quickly. Still, he smiled and nodded in agreement. “Aye, that we do,” he chuckled. “For all our bluster and bravado, it is our women that make us strong. They are our conscience and our comfort. They are our hearts and we are the better for having them in our lives.”
His smile faded at that. Corryn had lost his heart, and doubted he would find it until he was with Morna again. He would have followed her into the dark and had considered doing so many a night since she had left him. But, for her daughter, he would remain. Perhaps, in time, he would discover other reasons as well.
Syndra cocked her head thoughtfully as she saw the cloud cross Corryn's face. He was Mama's friend. Of course he missed her too. She took his large hand in both of hers. "I can look after you, too, if you like," she offered kindly. "At least I can when you're here. You're easy," she added with a grin. He was, after all, her friend too. It would be her pleasure.
Corryn’s breath left as surely as if he’d been struck. His eyes filled with tears and all the stones he’d built up around his heart turned to dust. She was her mother’s daughter, without question. He pulled Syndra tight to his chest, kissing her head again and again, repeating her name in a tired whisper.
His extreme reaction took Syndra by surprise, but she recovered quickly. She rubbed his back and comforted him as he had so recently done for her. "It's all right, Ser Cor'n. I'm here. I won't leave. I miss her too," she soothed.
It took him a few moments to steady his hands, to stem his tears. He sniffed and blushed, finally laughing at his own emotional display.
She leaned back and patiently gave him a moment to compose himself.
“Lords above, girl,” he said. “You never cease to amaze me. A more gentle soul I could never find in a thousand summers.” He touched her cheek, smiling sadly. “How about we take care of one another, yes? That’s what best friends are for, don’t you agree?”
She nodded, smiling back at him. "I like that idea," she agreed wholeheartedly.
“Then it is agreed,” Corryn said. He took her hand and gently placed it over his heart, “I, Ser Corryn Manderly, swear to forever watch over my dearheart and friend, Lady Syndra, above all others. She will never know pain or sorrow if I may prevent it. This I swear.” A faint breeze chilled him as his words were uttered. In that moment, he knew that his oath had been heard by forces beyond his reckoning, and they would hold him to task.
Syndra's eyes shone with awe as he spoke the oath. "Whoa," she breathed, looking up into the oak leaves when the breeze sealed the pact.
More solemn than any eight-year-old had a right to be, she reverently took his hand and placed it over her own heart. "I, Lady Syndra of House Hardy, swear to forever look after my brave and valiant knight and best friend, Ser Cor'n Manderly Wolf. He will never know pain or sorrow if I may prevent it. This I swear before the old gods and with the blood of the First Men." If the leaves even fluttered or a cricket chirped, she took it as a sign that the gods had heard.
Syndra turned to look toward the castle through the leaves. She had lost track of the time and suddenly noticed how dark the evening sky had become. "It's gettin' dark. You wanna walk me back?" Corryn could tell by the apprehensive waver in her voice that the question was really more of a request. She obviously disliked being this close to the godswood, and the cemetery, in the dark.
Corryn smiled tenderly, “It would be my honor, m’lady. All I ask is that you wait but a moment.” He gestured for Syndra to remain on the branch as he climbed down. He turned his back to her and chuckled, “Climb upon my shoulders and I will bare thee home, m’lady. The darkness holds no mystery or peril for an old wolf like me. But an extra set of eyes is always a blessing.”
Syndra giggled. She gripped a branch in front of her and swung gracefully down onto his shoulders, waiting until he grasped her ankles before she let go. As he struck off toward the castle, she giggled again and said, "The bear looks out for the wolf and the wolf looks out for the bear." Her small hands tipped his head back so she could look into his eyes. "That just works, doesn't it," she said with certainty.