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There was one inn in Holdfast - a large one, and the Ox rumbled with pleasure at the sight of it. A venerable building with warm light glowing from every window - it did not look as though they'd find themselves deprived of soft beds and warm mead after all. The inn sign proclaimed it was the Goose and Gander, and a young man was in the innyard, ready to take their horses, regarding them with a broad grin.

"Take your horses, sirrah?" he called out. "Arney'll take good care of them, don't you fret none."

"Moon-kissed," muttered Donnell, preparing to dismount. "Still, if the beer is good ... "

"Oh, it sure be good, sirrah," Arney said cheerfully, leading the horses away. "Goose'n'Gander's the best inn in Holdfast!" Donnell sighed and winced, but followed Ox in through the door.

Stavro drew his hood back from his bald head, the heavy gold loop in his ear drawing several curious stares. "And how long will we be staying here, are you thinking?" he said, looking directly at Evan with searching eyes.

Evan turned and looked back up at the high turrets of Holdfast castle, looking just as they had in the crow dream. "A little while," he said at length. "Make yourself comfortable." /You're a coward, Evan Tamm,/ he added to himself.

The inn was not too crowded at this time of day when smallfolk were, by and large, still at work. A thin girl all in brown was polishing tankards; at the sight of so many armed men entering she fled, calling out, "Mistress Odette! Mistress Odette!"

A pause and then someone who must be Mistress Odette sailed into the bar. A magnificent woman, large and comely, with an abundance of red-gold hair and a splendid bosom, well displayed by a rich red gown, she surveyed the newcomers with the eye of someone well practised in discerning people's intentions. C;ear;y she decided these were good, for she smiled in welcome.

"Good day, Sirs. And what might I do for you?"

"Beer," said Donnell.

"And food," added the Ox.

The woman nodded. "Certainly, Sirs. What say you to wild boar, taken in the forest and roasted over my own kitchen fire? And we have best summer ale, rich and malty, to wash it down."

"Aye, that sounds very fine indeed," Ox agreed heartily, nodding. "Unless Ser Killjoy there decides that hard bread and ditchwater would be better."

Mistress Odette looked a little disconcerted. "You'll get none of that here, Sirs."

Both he and Donnell turned evil glances at Evan, who had just walked in. He ignored those glances with an ease born of long practice, and bowed his head slightly to Mistress Odette. "We've come a long way, Mistress," he said, crossing the floor to her with long strides. "We'll be wanting food, drink, and board for five." He pressed a silver into her hand. "Just run a tab for now, if it please you, Mistress."

She looked doubtful for a moment, and then nodded. "Very good, Sir."

Evan leaned over the table where Ox and Donnell had already ensconced themselves. "Enjoy," he said shortly. "I'm - going to take a look around the town. I'll be around if you want to find me." They grunted noncommittally at him, and Evan ducked out the door without another word.

Donnell's lip curled in a sneer. "What's gotten into him?" Ox merely shrugged.

Stavro's gaze was more thoughtful as he took his seat, looking at the still-swinging door. "He has been here before, I am thinking," he said quietly.

Mistress Odette's eyes looked towards the door.

"Not to my recollection, Sirs," she said.

Outside, Arney greeted Evan enthusiastically.

"Get your horse, Sir?"

Evan shook his head. "I'll walk, I think." He didn't even look at the stablehand as he passed by, his brow furrowed, but Arney didn't seem to notice, the happy grin never leaving his face.

"Suit yourself, ser," he said, waving as Evan headed off down the muddy road.

He was unarmoured and unarmed, and so the smallfolk paid him little heed; just another ordinarily dressed stranger wandering the town on a day when many strangers had arrived. Holdfast seemed strangely tense to him, and he wondered if it was all due to the fact that their Lord had suddenly been taken ill, or if there was another reason. He caught sight of the Hardy emblem on a shield on the side of a wagon, and though he stared at it a long while, it remained an oaken staff, and did not become a blazing black sword like he half expected it to.

The wagon in question was bogged in the mud - evidently there had been some rain over the past few days, and the drivers were out and trying to help their straining oxen. Evan bent a shoulder to help, and with a few grunts, the wagon was freed.

"Many thanks, sirrah," one driver said, his face beet-red from both his exertions and his considerable paunch. He grinned, showing a missing front tooth, and stuck out one meaty hand.

"Quite a heavy load there," Evan observed, taking the hand.

"Aye - all for the castle. Pennons, lances, lists, shields - they say there'll be a tourney, or at least I'm hoping. M'boy here and I plan on making us some money from it, at least." His son was a towheaded youth, younger than Evan, and already starting to take on his father's proportions.

"Tourney, you say." Evan looked up at the castle again. "And here I thought his Lordship had been taken ill. Seems a strange time for such entertainment."

The driver shrugged. "Just what I hear, sirrah. Who can say what reasons the noblefolk have for celebration."

At this end of town, there was a small sept and, beyond it, a gate that led into the forest. From the well-trod path, it was not hard to guess that this was the path to the godswood, favoured by those who followed the old gods. And beyond that was the route back to the Castle.

Evan took a deep breath. It had been a long time since he had been in a godswood - such things were few and far between south of the Neck, and unheard of in many of the places he had been these past years. Slowly, he took a step through the gate, and at his footfall, he thought he heard the forest stir. Was it a welcoming gesture, he thought, or one of warning?

Chewing the inside of his lip, he made another step, then another, and before long he found himself inside the depths of the godswood, the ancient trees towering high overhead and the leafy needles crunching softly under his feet. Here and there, small offerings rested on broken tree stumps or around the roots of a particularly large tree, the townsfolks' tribute to the nameless gods of the North. Slowly, Evan circled the trees, sometimes letting one hand trail over their rough bark, listening to the soft, susurrant murmurs of the wind in the branches. When he was young, he used to imagine that they were the whispers of the old gods in their sleep, dreaming of the seemingly random activities of men. He closed his eyes, wondering if he could hear them now as clearly as his childish imagination had then.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw the ghostly white of the weirwood through the trees ahead. Evan approached slowly, and he did not reach his hand out to this sacred tree as he had the others. Instead, he circled round it till the blind, wooden face of the weirwood was looking back at him. He cocked his head and looked at it more closely. When the Andals had destroyed the weirwoods, had they seen the same face the followers of the old gods saw? Or had they simply seen the tree as some sort of misshapen freak that the primitives had worshipped? He shrugged - all he knew for sure was that he was a child of the North, and here at the heart of the godswood, the old gods saw him clearly. Evan lowered his eyes and inclined his head, reverently bowing to the weirwood.

For a long time all was still ... it seemed that even the quiet sounds of the forests had stilled. And then ... he began to hear they again. The call of a bird. Another. The sough of wind in the treetops. Movement in the undergrowth, far off.

And then, closer, the sound of someone coming quietly through the trees - from the direction of the castle.

Evan gave a little sigh, and smiled ruefully to himself. Nodding again to the weirwood, he turned and stepped away through the trees.

As he turned, he saw the glint of pale hair through the branches - the same colour as he had seen on one of the young women in his dream.

He stopped and waited.

It was a young woman, he guessed, although it was hard to tell from her shape, as she was enveloped in a large heavy cloak. But the way she moved suggested her youth and her sex.

She moved a little hesitantly through the grove and stopped, facing the heart tree. For a long moment she was still, and silent, and then she put back her hood, and he saw the face of the fair young woman in his dream.

"Very well," she said - and he could hear a certain nervous tension that underlay her voice. "Very well. Clearly to to the Seven is not going to help, and talking to Kenrith is going to be even worse - did the fever addle his wits as well as crippling his arm? So. Let us see if the Old Gods will give me guidance."

She knelt before the weirwood then, her eyes closed and her head bowed, and though Evan knew it was rude to eavesdrop, particularly on someone's private religious communion, he couldn't help but stare. She did look just like the girl he had seen in the crow dream, even if she did not quite glow as she had then, and the look of tense concern cast a gloom over her otherwise radiant features.

He stood where he was for a long while, as her lips moved silently in a private conversation with the weirwood. Evan watched intently, and then suddenly shook his head, as if awakening, as he realised that lurking in the godswood and watching young women at prayer was not something he probably wanted to be caught doing. He turned away then, and made to leave, but his first step was cut abruptly short when his forehead collided with a low branch, bringing a shower of pine needles down upon him.

He caught himself halfway through a loud invective, stepping out from the undergrowth and rubbing his forehead furiously with one hand, the other brushing pine needles off his clothing and picking them out of his hair. After a moment, he looked up to see the girl staring at him.

"Ah, excuse me, miss," he said abashedly, trying to bow his head and rub it at the same time. "Don't mind me, I was just - out for a walk in the godswood." He managed a somewhat sheepish grin. "Seem to have - well - hit my head." A needle hung in front of his face, and he blew it away with a surreptitious twist of his lip.

"You're bleeding," she observed in a cool, practical voice. "You'd better sit down, and I'll see it all those tedious lessons in healing are good for anything at all."

It was a jarring moment - the vision of his dream taking on such a very human and down-to-earth form.

"You shouldn't worry about the pine," she added, moving towards him. "The oil is quite a powerful healer for wounds. Of course that's in a diluted form. I think." She frowned, as though trying to remember. "Perhaps we should go back to the castle - Syndra will know. Or Maester Rhys - although he's in the sickroom quite a lot. Or Godwyn ... after all, it looks like a battlefield wound, and he knows all about those. But I could clean it first. I have a kerchief. Or there's moss."

She looked down at the mossy mould that they were standing on. "Of course," she said thoughtfully, "it has to be the right sort of moss."

She looked back up at him again. "Are you in the Boltons' train? I've not seen you in Holdfast, I think."

Evan chuckled a little at that, turning his eyes aside and sitting down carefully on the moss. "No, I'm not staying in the castle. I'm - from the town." He pointed back the way he had come. "And really, I'm fine, but many thanks for your concern, miss." He dabbed at the spot of blood with his fingers, looking at the red smear ruefully.

"Not of the town though," she said. "You're a soldier of some sort, aren't you? And Godwyn knows every man who as ever so much as fought with a =stick= in Holdfast, and will talk about their abilities in tedious detail if we let him. So I'd know if you were Wet Wills or Simkin the Hardback or any of those."

He tried not to keep staring at her face, because it would sound silly to have to say that he was comparing it to a half-remembered, drug-induced dream. Instead, he dabbed at his forehead again. "Really, it's nothing. Sorry to have disturbed you."

"I'm not leaving you," she said. "Not while you're all dazed and your eyes are sort of vague. And as I really don't want to stay in this wood a moment longer with gods who don't answer one's pra .... Oh."

Suddenly, she was looking at him a little doubtfully.

"Well," she said. "I suppose you might be what they sent."

That was enough to startle him back to reality, like a cold splash of water in the face. He tried to keep a horrified expression off his face as he looked up at her. "I wouldn't go thinking like that, miss," Evan said slowly. "I'm not sent by the gods to do anything - I just got here. Whatever it is you wanted help with, I'm sure I'm not the one you want. The old gods have a dark sense of humour, but even they would have sent someone more qualified. You don't even know who I am. I could be an escaped criminal, deserter, or the local village idiot."

"Well," said Edlyn thoughtfully, "if you were an escaped criminal or a deserter, I think you might have tried to kill me." She took a hasty step backwards in case he chose to repair the omission. And if you were the village idiot," she continued, from a more prudent distance, "you wouldn't have the wits to tell me that you might be."

He started looking around for an exit. "Thank you for your concern, miss, but really, I'll be fine. I wouldn't worry about the vague looks - I'm told I often look like that."

Edlyn giggled.

"Well," she said, "you're not a criminal or a deserter, or an idiot ... but you're not a knight either - or you wouldn't be spurning the opportunity of aiding a lady in distress."

Evan shrugged, rising carefully to his feet. "Well, that much is true, miss - I'm no knight." At his full height, he towered over her, but even so, he felt like she was well and truly running things here, and he the one trying to beat a hasty retreat.

She looked up at him, impressed.

She had the demeanour of someone used to being in charge, he observed. "And I don't mind helping out a lady in distress, but I doubt that your problem is one I can help with. After all, I have no idea who you are, and despite the fact that you think I'm some saviour from the gods, I'm actually just a simple man out for a little walk. Surely you're not in the habit of accosting all strangers to assist you in castle matters?" He waved a hand distractedly at the walls of Holdfast, barely visible through the trees.

"Not usually," she agreed. "Most of my life I've had to live off my wits. So I thought I'd see what appealing to the gods would do. After all, it's not even for me."

With that she rose to her own feet - a dainty height. "But clearly the gods aren't going to work either," she said. "So it's back to wits again, I suppose."

"Least likely to steer you wrong," Evan agreed, nodding. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, and he glanced up towards the silent face of the weirwood, as if expecting it to add something to the conversation.

It simply looked knowing.

"Well," he added slowly, rubbing the back of his neck, "sorry I couldn't be of help." He tried to give what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but he realised it was making him look more like a grinning idiot, so he stopped. "Before you go - um - I don't believe I got your name. They call me Evan Tamm."

"I'm Edlyn Martin," she said. "My mother is Lady Hardy - or did you know that already?"

She was pulling the hood of her cloak up again, hiding those golden curls.

"Oh." Evan looked surprised, and took half a step back. "Er, no, I had no idea." He wasn't sure whether to bow, retreat or something else. "So you're - Ser Kenrith's sister then?"

She smiled ruefully. "He would not thank you for making that connection, Sir. No, my father was Ser Martin, a knight of the Vale, and Ser Kenrith is Lord Hardy's son by his first marriage. But you're of the North, yes?"

Evan frowned, trying to make the connections in his mind. "Er, yes," he said distractedly, then returned his full attention to her. "I mean, yes. I - went away for a while, and only just returned." He looked up at the godswood around, a distant expression in his eyes. "It's nice to be back."

"Really?" said Edlyn doubtfully, looking around the godswood. "I'm from the Vale myself, and I still miss the warmth." She gave a little shiver. "They say it's still summer ... and that winter is coming."

His expression turned grim at that, and Evan looked around in his turn, as if he expected a sudden snowstorm to start at any second. "Winter is coming, lady, no doubt of that," and he looked down, immediately regretting his sudden loss of humour. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be keeping you from the castle so long. Ser Kenrith is back, and no doubt you all have feasts to plan and so forth. It must be a very happy occasion." He started to back away, and she gave him a curious little look, as if she had somehow tricked him into revealing that he knew Kenrith had returned. Evan tried not to visibly bite his tongue.

Edlyn sighed. "The feasts aren't going to be very happy if they're because Syndra is forced to marry Eryk Bolton. I hope your head feels better soon, Evan Tamm."

She turned to make her own way back to the castle.

"I hope so too," he muttered under his breath as she left, though in truth, it was only starting to hurt more. There were too many names to try and absorb in such a short time, and he hated being confused. Who were these people?

He looked up, but she was already retreating through the trees. "Wait," he said, running after her, "wait just a moment. I - I don't know who you're talking about. Is this the problem you had?"

Edlyn looked startled as he caught up with her, and a little alarmed although - as his intention still seemed friendly - she relaxed a little. "It's not easy to explain. Lady Syndra Hardy is even less of a relation to me than Ser Kenrith - she is his cousin by birth. Her brothers died in the summer fever - that's why she hates Ser Herys Bolton, because his son brought the fever to the castle. But now ... he's here again, and he's brought another son called Eryk, and I'm afraid they mean to marry her off, and she would hate that."

"That's insane," Evan breathed, his thick black brows furrowed. When he caught sight of her expression, he added, "Well, I mean, it sounds like an insane situation. Why would a family marry off a daughter to a sworn enemy? That doesn't seem to make much sense. What sort of people are these Hardys? It sounds crazy." He gave a half-smile, though his eyes still frowned. "Almost as crazy as your notion that a chance-met stranger in the wood might somehow be able to help you with this problem."

"I'd just been praying for help and guidance," Edlyn pointed out calmly. "Then you crashed into a tree. There was the possibility that it might be a Sign. It was certainly worth asking, I thought.

"But it might not be the Hardies who have made the marriage. My mother is insanely ambitious. If she thought she could gain by the marriage, she'd just go ahead with it, without thinking of anyone's feelings. And she might prefer to have Syndra married off so that she doesn't have competition for me. Syndra's pretty, you see - and she has a dowry and a good family name. I'm just pretty and only have whatever bride gift Mother can persude Lord Hardy to give with me. It's really not enough. But if Syndra was married ... "

"... then she'd be going to the same fate that noble daughters everywhere go to," Evan finished for her. "I mean, don't knights and lords marry off their children to whomever they please all the time? To forge alliances, make peace, end feuds and wars?" His eyes were harder now, but he was looking at the tree over her shoulder, not at her directly. "Even great kings marry their children to the same family they've just been fighting years of war with, to seal a peace. It is the way of things. And feelings," he weighted the word specifically, "don't come into it. Am I right?"

"You are right," said Edlyn. "They say that even the King would have preferred to have married his lost love, and only wed the Queen because he needed her father's support. And Lady Stark married Lord Stark when his older brother was killed ... And then there are people like Godwyn who knows he must go to the Wall ... Feelings don't come into it at all. One does what one must and then has babies or takes lovers and just tries to make the best of it. But Syndra's parents loved each other, you see, very much, and so I think she has always hoped she would at least like the person she marries, and perhaps could come to love him in time."

"Perhaps she will," he shrugged. "She's never met this Eryk Bolton, after all. Or perhaps she won't and she'll just end up taking a lover who meets all her chivalric fantasies." Evan started to turn away. "In any case, fretting about it makes little difference. Arranged is arranged, and I never heard yet of lords and ladies who cancelled a years-old contract because their children objected."

"Well," said Edlyn, aggrieved, "why do you think I was invoking gods I don't even believe in? I wanted a miracle - and what they've given me is some stupid sellsword who tells me what will be, will be." She paused, considering this. "Although," she added, with the air of one wishing to be fair, "I suppose that it a perfectly good answer for the gods to send. I mean, there is no reason why their answer must be a rescue. It could just be ... 'Endure. It's your human lot.' Pretty much in keeping with the North too, I'd say.

"But you'll be all right. Ser Herys and Eryk Bolton will want a tournament, I'm sure - they both look the type - and you'll be able to fight and win some money."

At that, Evan smiled, but there was no humour in it. "Tournaments are how noble warriors play at fighting - I'd rather be far away from such games." He looked down then, thoughtful for a second, and when he looked her in the eyes again, it was with a much more serious mien. "Perhaps your friend will worry less once she meets her husband-to-be. There are worse matches her parents could have made. Who knows - 'rescue' her and she may find herself in a far less likeable situation."

"Oh," Evan added with a little smile as he turned to go, "if I were you, I'd keep quiet about not believing in the old gods while in the godswood. They do listen, you know."

Edlyn cast a suddenly nervous look around - and then looked back to Evan.

"Well," she said, "perhaps I do believe." She looked round again, at the great looming trees, at the strange godswood.

"Here, in the forest, may the old gods watch over me," she murmured - and then she set off through the trees, back towards the castle.

Evan's own expression was decidedly more grim as he made his way back towards Holdfast. Part of him wanted to just burst back into the Goose and Gander, declare that they were moving out, and make for the Wall. Another part wondered if bursting back into the Goose and Gander and just getting roaringly drunk wasn't what he was really going to do instead. Suddenly, the godswood seemed confining, and he wanted to just turn and strike out in a random direction, alone, on foot, and just walk until his feet could carry him no more.

As he reached the limits of Holdfast town, he looked up again at the grey castle walls, his lips setting into a thin line. There was still a little unfinished business with Ser Kenrith, he thought to himself. After that, I can be on my way.

He saw a man, lounging at the Castle gate. Dressed in Bolton livery, he was notable for his long chin and remarkably small, narrow eyes. But they were sharp enough. They fastened on Evan - and small as his eyes were, it was not hard to mistake the light of malice in them.

Evan ignored him, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. Just before the Goose and Gander, he stopped, wincing at the thought of Arney's cheery inanities, and went around the back of the buildings that lined Holdfast's main street.

He paused. From here, they all looked the same. He took an educated guess, and tried a door, only to be confronted by a chubby shopkeeper squatting over a privy. They both looked at each other in horror, before Evan composed himself and glared angrily at the portly man, his black brows knitting together in feigned anger. "Who are you and what in blazes do you think you're doing squatting in the back of the Goose and Gander? Why, if this were my establishment, I'd have you mucking out the stables, you filthy..."

The shopkeeper blanched, and pointed with one trembling, sausage-like finger behind him. "Goose and Gander's next building along, ser," he mumbled, staring at Evan in shock.

Evan didn't miss a beat, forcing himself to continue the bluster to hide his embarrassment. "Next door, is it? Right then. Carry on. And I'd better not catch you in here again." Quickly, he shut the door, trying not to slap himself in frustration, and made a more orderly entrance into Mistress Odette's establishment.

He dropped down next to Donnell and Ox, who were already on their third or fourth, from the looks of things. They gave him questioning looks, and he leaned in conspiratorially. "There's a fellow by the gate, sharp face, livery of the Flayed Man. I think he looks like the type who might love a game of dice or something. And I definitely think he looks like the type who might cheat at it." A nasty little glint came into Donnell's eye, and he scratched at one of his scars, while Ox nodded knowingly.

Odette was standing behind the long wooden bar, watching these new guests - her expression friendly, but her eyes sharp enough.

"Not here, perhaps," said Stavros, scratching at his chin. "If we could lure him to the woods instead ... we don't want too many questions being asked of mine hostess. Do you have a plan?"

He looked at Evan expectantly.

Evan gave a tight little smile, but his eyes were as hard as two glinting shards of dragonglass. "You heard my first one," he murmured. He glanced over at Mistress Odette, who was watching him with a pleasant smile on her face, but eyes that were no less calculating than his. "But maybe you're right. No other place to stay in this town, after all. Woods it is." He rose from the table with a decisive air. "Ox, Stavro, with me - we'll wait along the road into Holdfast. Donnell, go steal something from him. We'll meet you along the road."

Donnell looked up in surprise. "Me? Why me?"

"Because, ugly as you are, you're still the least distinctive," Evan said matter-of-factly. "Roll in some dung first - nobody looks too closely at someone who stinks of horseshit."

A look of defiance crossed Donnell's face. "If you think I'm gonna go roll in some..."

Ox clapped him on the shoulder. "Do I have to roll ya myself then?" Grumbling, Donnell led the way out.

Grunther was not a happy man.

It was bad enough that they'd left the Dreadfort and come all this way across the North into the blasted wood (Grunther didn't care for trees), to arrange this confounded wedding (Grunther didn't care for weddings), but their reception at Holdfast had been somewhat less warm than you might give to a mangy dog. Well, he supposed he should have expected it. Last time Ser Herys had come, he'd been held responsible for the death or maiming of most of the young nobles. It stood to reason that they wouldn't welcome him back for a second visit. And Gruther's attempt to buy beer in the small town suggested that Boltons were no more welcome there than they were in the Castle.

So now they were stuck here in this castle, while Ser Herys laid his plots far from the Dreadfort. And to make matters worse, that pretty little maid he'd stopped on her way back from the godswood had turned out to be the daughter of Lady Hardy herself. At least, so she said. And if she was, Grunther foresaw more trouble.

He sighed as he watched the set up of the tourney. What a pit this whole place was. It even stank of dung ...

It was then, to make a wonderful day complete, that he felt a clumsy hand attempting to pick his pocket.

He grabbed at it, and found himself looking straight into the pockmarked, scarred features of a man in shabby, dung-smeared clothing, with an unkempt tangle of dark hair and beady, angry eyes. For a moment, Grunther wasn't sure whether to retch or strike him, and in that brief moment of indecision, the clumsy pickpocket spat a foul-smelling gobbet of spittle right in his eye.

With a roar of anger, Grunther wiped at his face and swung wildly with his other hand, but the would-be thief was gone, and racing off between two of Holdfast's simple huts. Almost incoherent with rage, Grunther shouted after him, and while the nearby townsfolk noticed, they were either too confused to do anything, or quietly amused at the discomfort of a man with the Flayed Man on his chest. His teeth grinding together, Grunther gave chase, leaping over fences, livestock, and trash heaps as he ran through Holdfast's houses after the man.

The Others could take this miserable dungpile of a town, he thought to himself as he ran. Not only were the locals surly and slow-witted, but thieves as well. And once he got his hands on this particular local, they were going to be short one thief. He flexed his fingers experimentally, imagining them breaking the thief's filthy little neck.

They were out of the town limits now, and the man was out of sight, but Grunther continued on regardless - he could hear crashing in the undergrowth ahead, and the scent of dung still lingered on the air in his passing. Grunther knew he was gaining, and gave himself a gap-toothed grin as he ran up the hill that bordered the main Holdfast road, excited at the prospect of taking out a little petty revenge on at least one of these Holdfasters.

He burst out of the trees onto the road then, and saw the thief standing in plain sight in the middle of the road, removing his stinking shirt and cursing to himself. Between them, two other men stood, one huge and broad with a bushy yellow beard and hair, and the other slender and dark, with piercing black eyes and trimmed, curly hair. Grunther was instantly aware that something was wrong, and turned to run, but about ten yards away, another man rose out of the roadside ditch, an arrow nocked and aimed. This newcomer was swarthy and bald-headed, some kind of southron. Grunther didn't care for southrons.

He turned around again, and the dark-haired man with those hawklike eyes was now right in front of him, mere inches away. He was half a head taller again, and Grunther found himself staring right at a pair of well-shaped lips, pressed together in a grim line. He looked up, straight into the man's eyes.

"Oh, s'you," he grunted, then his eyes widened, and his breath left him in a explosive, hoarse gasp, as he felt a sharp blade slide between his ribs. His pierced heart gave a sudden stutter, and stopped for good. His eyes glazing, Grunther started to slide slowly the ground.

"That's right," Evan said quietly, letting the knife go. "Nothing personal, you understand."

Odette, good-humoured landlady of the Goose and Gander, was setting wooden trenchers out for dinner when they returned. She grreeted them with a cheery smile.

"There's some venison patties for supper, if you wish, sirs," she said. "Did you have a good walk?"

"Sure did," Ox said cheerily, plonking himself down heavily on a bench and looking expectantly at the trencher in front of him. The bench jumped a little, and Garyn, at the other end, looked up from the hunk of bread he had already started on.

"Air oo abeen?" he mumbled, crumbs falling from his mouth. He swallowed with some discomfort, and tried again. "Where have you been? Ser Kenrith went straight to his father's bedside, and dismissed me and the other men straight away."

Ox slapped him on the shoulder again, causing Garyn to choke a little, and chortled. "Out for a walk, boy - you heard the nice lady." Donnell said nothing, and sat down across the table - Grunther's shirt didn't fit him very well, but it was clean, and the rest of the guests in the Goose and Gander were thankful for that. "Not having supper, Evan?" Ox added, looking over his shoulder

Evan had kept going, past the table, barely seeing them as he walked towards the back stairs. He stopped, and half turned, his voice very quiet when he spoke. "I'm not hungry," he said. "I think I'll be in bed."

"Suit yerself," Ox said good-naturedly, and Evan vanished up the stairs.

"Is your friend not well?" Mistress Odette asked, the note of concern in her voice perfectly pitched.

"Perhaps not," Stavro mused, half to himself.

"Oh, he's fine," Ox laughed. "Now, venison patties, you said?"

"Indeed I did," said Odette, and she bustled around, serving the men with plenty of good, heartening food. "Do you think your knight will want some taken up to his room?" she asked. "I could send Arney ... "

Ox made a face. "I'm sure he'd rather you brought it to him yourself, girlie," he chuckled, despite the fact that comely as she was, nobody could really mistake Mistress Odette for a 'girlie'. "Better yet," Ox continued, regardless, "come and feed them to me instead. No sense in wasting warm women on the chilly." He made a halfhearted playful grab, which the landlady avoided with an expert swish and a carefully scornful glare.

"He's no knight," Donnell pointed out, between mouthfuls. "Just a sellsword like the rest of us, but with a few more airs and graces." He made a fancy, foppish hand motion in the air, but seemed much more interested in supper than insults.

"Hey," Garyn cut in, changing the subject, "did you see there's going to be a tournament?"

The common room was mostly empty at this hour, as the guests settled down in the taproom for supper. Evan and a lone, snoring traveller in the corner cot were the only two in the room, and only Evan couldn't sleep. He stood by the window and watched the orange orb of the sun fall below the horizon, and the first stars start to twinkle in the blackening sky. He'd forgotten how fast darkness fell this far north, but for now he was thankful for it - it suited his mood.

Continued from Kenrith Receiving Alarming News

The way was quiet, lonely. The good folk of Holdfast retired early, it seemed - or perhaps they all retired to the Goose and Gander, for the lights seemed to be blazing there now as Evan approached.

As Evan approached, he was aware of someone else coming out of the darkness of the stables. A man much of his years, with aquiline features, fair hair tied back in a clout and, visible in the light from the tavern, ice blue eyes. He was wearing the sigil of House Manderley and approaching the tavern as though he knew it well.

/Remarkably thin for a Manderly,/ Evan thought dryly. He shook his head, and a fine spray of water fell from his black hair - he'd had a quick dunk from the well to wash off most of the stench, but he wrinkled his nose, making a mental note to wash up much more thoroughly in the morning. /Right before I head for the Wall,/ he added, more grimly. He let the Manderly go in, and the blaze of light that came through the inn door when it opened made him look away a moment. After it closed, he went around the back, re-entering the way he'd come.

Inside, the common room was much as he'd left it, with the quietly snoring man huddled under his blankets in the corner. Sighing to himself, Evan took the other corner cot and stretched out on it, though he knew sleep would be a long time coming.

Sleep was not helped by what seemed to be a noisy drinking, gambling (and, presumably, boasting session going on downstairs. He could make out the rumble of the Ox holding his own - Garyn's high pitched laughter. Stavros was quieter still unsurprisingly, but Donnell's silence was more unuaul. Perhaps he was still under some pump, washing away the lingering odour of horse manure.

(ooc: Logger note: this may not be in proper order...)

Page last modified on April 01, 2006, at 02:08 AM