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Diplomacy of Wolves

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"I'll try not to," Corryn remembered saying, but at the time he'd been touched by his father's fumbling attempt at affection. He'd left the old man in the south tower to try to piece his life back together. With luck, by their return, Marlon would be his brutish and demanding self once more.

That had been over a week ago. Since that morning, Corryn's life had focused down to the daunting task of keeping thirty-odd men alive as they sped up the White Knife at a treacherous pace. The river was ornery at this time of year and although idyllic for much of the trip, several rapids were unforgiving. Unlike the ocean, to which they were accustomed, the river hid its dangers around every bend and just beneath its dark surface. Rocks and fallen logs could easily gut a heavily laden barge. The rapids could cause supplies to shift and turn the boat over. And animals; well that was something else entirely. Corryn hated most horses. They were stupid and skittish and certainly didn't enjoy being set afloat. They could kick a man or bolt over the side and drown. Fortunately, the men adapted well to their new environment and followed Corryn's instructions dutifully.

So, it was a minor miracle that they were short only two men by the time they reached Winterfell. The first, one of Phalan's kin, had taken ill after falling into the river. They left him at the Fork before he died of pneumonia. The warm comforts of the ladies there would bring him back to life in short order. Milton, the second man, had not been so fortunate. During a run down the northern rapids, he'd panicked and went over the side. Immediately he'd been pulled beneath the waves by the undercurrent and never surfaced. They searched for his body all day, but had found nothing but his tunic several miles down river. The Laughing Knives were accustomed to death, but to lose one so foolishly put them in dour spirits for days.

Their spirits had lightened away from the river, though. They'd abandoned their barges and begun the quick march to Winterfell. Most had never seen the sprawling edifice during their lifetimes and were excited to see the heart of the North. Corryn was not so easily impressed by the Stark's holding. The grim castle felt oppressive to him, nothing more than a grandiose cairn built to honor forgotten men. Nor did he entirely like its lord and keeper. Eddard had always been too honorable. Stubborn in youth, he'd only grown more unyielding with age. He was also Robert's closest friend and that, in of itself, was reason enough not to like the man.

His wife wasn't much better, in truth. Beautiful, yes, but her personality had always set Corryn's teeth on edge. Her laugh and smile rang false with him, as if her mind was always somewhere else. Perhaps it was the Manderly in him. Tullys had never been friends. No matter. The pair seemed matched for one another. They managed to whelp tolerable children.

In the distance, the grey and white banners of the Wolves came into view. Corryn turned to Phalan, who rode beside him. "Send word through the ranks to form up, if you would. No sense in looking like an invading force as we knock on the Stark's front door."

"Aye, ser," Phalan said, taking on his knightly persona. His boisterous voice rang out over the masses and they leapt to in short order. Gorne Umber joined him in barking orders in a nasally tone that could etch glass. Once they were satisfied the company appeared worthy of White Harbor, they joined Corryn at the front of the column. Killian came up beside them and raised the Manderly flag to announce their colors. The four knights remained silent as they rode down the last hill to Winterfell's imposing front gate.

Although they would not admit it, they secretly knew their adventure could end here. They might be here to answer Godfrey's call, but in the end they lived and fought by the Stark's good graces. Corryn would not anger the Wolves by marching into Holdfast without seeking Eddard approval. With luck, the man's love for Godfrey would melt the icicle lodged up his righteous arse.

If not, this could be a very grim day indeed.

The guards at the gate received them, and showed the men at arms to the quarters that Manderly men usually occupied on visits to the Castle. Lord Eddard was from home, Corryn was informed, with his two eldest sons, but Lady Catelyn would recieve Ser Corryn and Killian Snow.

When they had settled the men and accepted an escort of Stark guards to the main part of the Castle, Lady Catelyn received them in the White Tower. Her eldest daughter was with her, already bidding fair to become a beauty. She smiled shyly at Corryn, an echo of the lovely smile that Lady Catelyn gave - a gracious hostess and worthy of her Lord.

"You are welcome to Winterfell, Ser Corryn, Killian Snow," she said. "Although one might wonder why you need to take so formidable a band deep into lands that do not look to Manderly."

"Firstly, I wish to thank you for your hospitality Lady Stark," Corryn said, bowing respectfully. "My men and I have traveled hard to reach this point in our journey and a warm bed and food are most welcome gifts."

He nodded to Killian who carried a satchel, holding it to his chest reverently. "Speaking of which, I have also brought you and your family several items I hope you will enjoy. It is a way of showing my gratitude and that of White Harbor. But if I may, we can distribute them later? I am certain you are more curious as to the purpose behind our arrival."

"Indeed," said Lady Catelyn, her eyes intent. She was not the woman to be distracted with a silken gown or a string of pretty beads.

Corryn crossed the room and placed Godfrey's letter into Catelyn's hand. He met her eyes and smiled warmly before stepping back to a respectful distance. As she read the letter, his eyes drifted to the shy girl. He tried to recall her name. Arya was it? No, this was Sansa. He remembered her now; a timid but gracious girl that begged him for tales of chivalrous knights and gentle maidens whenever he came to Winterfell. She had grown this one and would outshine her mother soon enough. He winked at her playfully and gave her a bright smile.

She wriggled her shoulders a little and smiled back. The movement attracted her mother's attention; she lifted her eyes from the letter and directed a long look at Sansa who blushed and looked down at the sampler in her lap once more.

Corryn fought back his satisfied grin. Despite her mother's admonishing stare, he knew he'd won an ally in the girl. He could give her dreams a plenty with hardly a smile. She might be of use to him later, and she was pretty as well. The Riverwolf had returned and it felt good to be back in his old fur. Let Lady Stark worry more about preserving her daughter's virtue rather than his true intentions.

"As you can see, m'lady, I am here on the behest of Godfrey Hardy," Corryn said, returning his gaze to Lady Stark. He wanted for her to give him permission to sit. "May speak plainly?"

She gestured, inviting both of them to sit as she did herself, taking her husband's chair behind the great oaken desk.

"Please do, Ser Corryn," she said. "I will confess - I find your news disturbing."

Corryn brushed his leggings and nodded resolutely. "The Tollets have long regarded Holdfast with envious eyes. And they are wont to do whatever they can to maintain their grip on that power. Forgive my frankness, but Lady Celia, in particular, could teach the Lannisters a few things about deception and greed. At the moment, they are in the perfect position to seize the Hardy's holdings, perhaps even by force if they so choose. Ser Anders controls their garrison and they are all loyal to him. Whatever my history with him, you know as well as I that he is a man of questionable character. There is no telling what he might do to the Hardys or Lady Syndra."

He leaned forward and smiled sadly at Lady Stark. "Godfrey knows this as well. Too long has he been away serving Eddard. His influence in this region is based almost solely on his name alone. He would have little power to stop the Tollets taking his birthright or that of his nephews.

"And that is why he has contacted me. White Harbor has been an ally of the Hardys even before my time. He trusts me because I have served his family, just as he, Eddard, and I served together during the war. In many ways, he is like a brother to me. I would not see his family suffer."

Corryn touched his fingertips together, almost as if in prayer. "This is why I ask you to allow me to help him protect his family and the Hardy name. I swear, I shall do everything in my power to prevent bloodshed. It is my honest hope that the mere presence of the Laughing Knives and the Manderly banner will give the Tollets pause."

He leaned back, sizing up Lady Stark's reactions. The woman understood honor as much as her husband. So, in conclusion, he added, "Godfrey has been a dutiful servant of Winterfell. I know you would not turn your back on him and his family in this time of need."

Catelyn nodded. "My Lord values Ser Godfrey highly - as I do myself. And he has served Stark well. I remember his wife too - a lovely woman. I think Ser Godfrey has never truly recovered from that bitter loss - his wife and his boys, in one fell swoop. It was cruel, Ser Corryn." She gave a little sigh, then shook her head. "Ser Godfrey knows we will support him - and I am sure the Tollets must realise it too. But we do not need a war on our doorstep. Our trust is that the matter can be settled by other means."

Corryn shifted uncomfortably at the mention of his lost love. Yes, he knew exactly how cruel that time was. A lover, a child, and friends gone. He tried to hide the twinge of pain and memory before it revealed too much. But at the very least, her emotions would work to his advantage. He had her.

"Neither do I, Lady Stark," Corryn said. "We do not intend to fight unless forced to. I simply wish to lend my support to Ser Godfrey and make certain his rights and that of his daughter are upheld during the transition of power to Oswain's rightful heir. I believe the boy is of age now. Unfortunately, Godfrey would not have summoned me unless he thought the Tollets had other plans.

He stood and took her hand, kissing her sigil ring to mark his oath. "You have my word that this will be a bloodless affair if I can help it. And you know a Manderly always keeps his word."

Lady Catelyn smiled. "I think, Ser Corryn, that the saying is - A Manderly always keeps his word ... eventually."

Corryn smirked and nodded. "Indeed, Lady Stark. We move slowly in all things. I attribute it to our expansive waist lines. But I can assure you, we are an honorable folk. Even me." He chuckled at that.

Then she frowned, glancing over at her daughter. "Sansa, please take Killian Snow to the Head Steward, to arrange that he and Ser Corryn have good rooms provided, and that they join us for supper tonight."

Sansa's lovely little face lit up. "Yes, Mother!" she said eagerly, and she ran to Killian Snow, caught his hand and led him from the room, leaving Ser Corryn and Lady Catelyn together - alone.

"Ser Corryn," she said, "have you, in your travels, seen Kenrith Hardy?"

Corryn moved his chair closer to the table in order to maintain the sense of intimacy and candor between himself and his liege lord. She would not have separated them unless her inquiry held a great weight. He ran his fingers through his stubble hair and appeared to carefully about his words. In truth, he was watching her eyes and lips, looking for signs of her true intent.

"The elder son? I met him but briefly when he was very young. Just before he left to his stewardship at Riverrun, in fact. That's some seven, eight years ago? He is strong-willed and extremely driven. I suspect this is because of the difficulty with his arm. Unfortunately, I can not say what type of man he has become. My travels rarely took me to Riverrun. In truth, I know more about his younger brother, Godwyn."

He shifted in his chair, resting his chin on his fingers. "You're curious if he will make a suitable lord?"

Lady Catelyn folded her hands together and regarded him levelly, bur with a faint hint of amusement. "I would be a poor Lady Stark if I were not curious, wouldn't I, Ser Corryn?

"And, indeed, you would be false to your House, your Lord and your ancient realm if you were happy to see Holdfast fall to one unworthy to hold it."

"M'lady," Corryn said, smiling gently, "I doubt you would ever make for a poor Lady Stark. You may have been born of the river, but it is the wolf's blood that runs in your veins. And as you say, I would be false to you and mine were I to let the wrong fingers hold the Hardy's oaken bough."

She bowed her head at the compliment, a faint smile on her lips, but did not unbend at all. Perhaps there was icy steel in there with the wolf's blood.

Perhaps he had misjudged this woman. Little wonder Eddard had left her in charge of the realm. He had begun to enjoy her company and the exchange of words. But their meaning had not gone unnoticed. The Game was always at the heart of the matter. And they both knew it.

Corryn scratched the shadow of stubble on his cheek. "Lady Stark, if we are speaking plainly, may I call you Catelyn. Please call me Corryn. I am not one for using titles when speaking with frankness and honesty." He waited for her approval before continuing.

"It is not a term that I would encourage you to use in public," she said drily. "But yes. You may."

"I thank you, Catelyn," he said honestly. "And I would not think to be so familiar in public. On that you can be assured."

"Perhaps until the youth has proven his worth it would be best to have Godfrey oversee the Hardy holdings," Corryn said. "He has been trained in the matters of the northern court, where the boy has not. He is known amongst the nobles, where the boy is known only by name. And my friend's loyalty to you and your husband is without measure. Grant him regency over Holdfast until the boy's nineteenth birthday. In that manner, he can test the boy's character and suitability for lordship. Two years time is more than enough time for such matters.

"As I have discovered for myself," he said coolly.

"Yes," she said - and for the first time a softer note crept into her voice. "I remember Ciara - and how she danced the last time she was at Winterfell. I think half my husband's knights fell a little in love with her that night - which might have caused jealousy had not the ladies already loved her for her frank and generous spirit. I wrote to her, while she was ill - although it was hard to say, and I have written again to your father since ... since. His loss and yours is great indeed."

"She was…" his throat caught, the wound still open and sore. "She was like no other. I will miss her. Ciara greatly appreciated your correspondence, as has father. Your gentle spirit and kindness has touched my family and will not be forgotten." He shifted in his chair, but did not hide his emotion. Lady Stark deserved no less that his complete honesty. A rarity, indeed, for him.

She was silent for a moment, but then continued more briskly, "I believe what happens at Holdfast will, to some extent, depend upon the health of Lord Hardy. If he dies, then some such arrangement as you suggest would undoubtedly be a solution. However, he may attain a measure of recovery and put his own plans in place. That is in the lap of the Gods. But in one thing you are right - there are few men in whom we would place a greater trust than Ser Godfrey Hardy."

"I pray to the Seven he will recover his faculties and this issue will be for naught," Corryn said. "However, should the Stranger not be so kind, do I have Winterfell's blessing to back Lord Godfrey's regency? I would not speak for the Starks freely, but your official support would go a long way to settling matters promptly and peacefully. A writ naming me as your 'impartial' representative during the negotiations, perhaps? Godfrey and I would assure that Winterfell's best interests were realized."

"I pray to the Seven he will recover his faculties and this issue will be for naught," Corryn said. "However, should the Stranger not be so kind, do I have Winterfell's blessing to back Lord Godfrey's regency? I would not speak for the Starks freely, but your official support would go a long way to settling matters promptly and peacefully. A writ naming me as your 'impartial' representative during the negotiations, perhaps? Godfrey and I would assure that Winterfell's best interests were realized."

Catelyn was silent for a moment.

That caught the Riverwolf's attention. She was weighing her words with him. Something deeper is at work here, he thought.

"My husband spoke long with Ser Godfrey before he left," she said at last. "I believe they made plans together which I would not contradict by giving you other instructions. But I believe he will welcome your support, and perhaps have need of it in ways that he may not have appreciated when he left. He set out to see how his brother was. I suspect he might find himself in a position of responsibility that he has theoretical support for from Lord Stark, but no power to maintain if he faces opposition."

"Lady Stark…Catelyn," he corrected, a subtle yet purposeful slip to keep her on a personal level. "Is there is more to this situation than you have yet to discuss? In what manner might Godfrey appreciate my help that he was previously ignorant to? Is there another player in this little game I am unaware of? Something happened after he left, am I correct? I cannot help him unless I am fully aware of what I may be marching into."

"When Ser Godfrey left," she said, "we thought .... we all hoped that the illness would be a short affair and Ser Godfrey would soon be riding back. But clearly he has learned something - on the road or at Holdfast - that has caused him to send a message to you at White Harbour. Other than that ... you know as much as I."

It was clear that she spoke with full sincerity - Lady Catelyn was direct, famed for it.

Corryn nodded to her, offering her an appreciative smile. "Thank you, m'lady," he said. "Forgive me if my tone appeared rude in any fashion. I am worried for my friend and his daughter, and the road here has been a difficult one. But that is no excuse to question you as I did. Unless you have further need of me, perhaps I should freshen up before dinner? I am rather looking forward to dining with you and your children. It has been too long since I had a proper family about me.

"Ser Killian will appreciate it as well, I'm certain. Are there any stories you would like us to tell tonight? The very least we can do in exchange for your hospitality is entertain you and your little ones."

She laughed suddenly. "Tell them about the Whale of White Harbour, Ser Corryn. My children all delight in tales about monsters." And then the laughter faded from her eyes. "Yet I fear they will encounter monsters of a more human size soon enough."

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Page last modified on March 20, 2006, at 10:13 PM