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[Godwyn] turned then to the thatcher and barked out, "I want every man, woman and child who's seen these sellswords gathered together. We need all the information we can get. All your marshrunners and woodsmen as well, we're going to want to have scouts out watching for their return. Move it, man."

He looked up at the dwarf on the wall. "And you, Ser Davit, did you call yourself? What is that knighthood worth? What skills have you that we can use to protect these people?"

"Davin. You may call me Davin," returned the dwarf. "The knighthood was worth a jest of a side of roasted ox. I forget the jest now, but I remember the ox - it was a remarkably fine one.And my chief skill will lie in giving you wise advice. The first pice is - hold your meeting in the tavern that still stands. My second is ... make this company opf sellswords look as harmless as possible. The townspeople have already faced danger - and worse - at the hands of men like these."

Godwyn nodded at the dwarf's words, his eyes following Corryn's departure. Then he turned back. "A tavern. Wise, that, I recall that when my father needed to speak with men in the village he would meet them in the tavern. It is a place they are accustomed to, where they meet to discuss the matters of import to them. Aye, I shall do so. As for making the men look harmless..." he frowned.

"Well, we would not wish them to look so harmless that the smallfolk fear they can't defend them, now, would we? How to make them look friendly, without looking as though they cannot fight." Godwyn looked at Phelan. "Ser Corryn is a trader knight. He must have given you orders from time to time on how to look friendly to folks you are trading with?"

"Buy things from them and drink with them," said Phelan obligingly. "Shame of it is, we don't have much money. And drinking without paying doesn't tend to make a man popular." He looked hopefully at Godwyn.

Godwyn chuckled. "Are nobles anything other to you than handy places to get coin?" he asked. He fished a thin purse from his clothing and tossed it to Phelan. "It's not much," he said, "But it should be enough to buy friends in a small place such as this. Help the locals with clearing up the damage the bandits did, as well. And tell the men to keep their ears open and ask questions, the smallfolk may well say things to you that they wouldn't say to me."

He looked back to the dwarf. "Show me to this tavern," he said. "And tell me what you know of these sellswords. Have they given any reason for why they attacked this place?"

"I think," said Davin, as he led Godwyn towards the meagre turf tavern that was Marshend's other (and mercifully unburned) inn, "they were not seeking to attack the village - that was only by way of a sideshow when they couldn't come at the main attraction. But the marshes hold secrets, sirrah, and the Ghost Fens more." He turned his head and squinted up at Godwyn. "It could be that some of those secrets have come to the ears of the great and mighty, and they've decided to investigate this place. And, not being familiar with the ways of the North, they've gone about it clumsily."

"Secrets," Godwyn muttered. "Secrets lead to lies, and lies lead to evil."

Davin gave a twisted grin. "And good business for some of you, Master. Don't forget that."

Godwyn looked at him curiously, but didn't pursue the topic.

He pushed open the tavern door, and then found themselves in a small and grubby space which seemed to be undergoing a thoroughh scrubbing and painting even (in bright, even gaudy colours) by a motley collection of people whose dress suggested the minstrel.

"Behold," proclaimed Davin, in his magnificent voice, "The Giants of Pentos!"

Godwyn blinked and stared around.

A particularly lovely dark gypsy beauty (slightly reminescent of Limosa, but all tranquility where Limosa was all fire) smiled at them from where she sat behind the bar.

"And who is this Lord you have brought?" she asked, tilting her head a little on one side.

"Umm..." Godwyn said. He stared at her for a moment, then recovered himself and smiled. "I am Godwyn Hardy," he answered then. "We were travelling through, and Davin here told us of your troubles."

"Not our troubles," she said, although Davin commands we share those of the good people here." There was no anger in her tone, though, and the smile she gave Davin was indulgent. "When we came here, we had had a bad coming of it, and I was injured. The people here looked kindly on us, and for all folks say of minstrels, it was not in our hearts to run away when trouble came."

Godwyn smiled at her and nodded approvingly.

"That's all very well," said Davin, "but have you succeeded in making the beer taste less sour yet, my Anniketta?"

She laughed. "We found some barrels hidden away - perhaps you both will taste their fruits and tell me if we've succeeded."

"Thank you, Anniketta," Godwyn said. He looked around the inn. "We won't fit all the townsfolk in here. If we leave the doors open, do you think the ones outside will be able to hear? They're all going to want to know what's going on."

"We have a stage," said Anniketta. A low one - we set that up sometimes in the innyard. The people could gather and all see you clearly - and we could serve them with beer if you were wishful, Master."

Davin smiled. "Shall we turn innkeeps and respectable, my Anniketta?"

"The road will call us soon enough," said Anniketta. "Away from the Marshes and the troubles of the Snow ... "

"A taste of beer would be good for them," Godwyn agreed with a nod. "'Twill set them more at ease, and perhaps incline them to speak freer. Smallfolk will not always speak truth to a noble."

Then he blinked, and turned to stare at Anniketta. "Snow?" he asked.

"Aye," said Anniketta, smiling. "Forgive me, my lord. I do not speak of the coming Winter - I know you Northerners little like to jest on such matters. This was a person, not the season. The poor innkeep of the tavern that was burned, and one who was a good friend to us."

"What?" Godwyn exclaimed. "Yet another Bolton [email protected]? Can't that family keep it in their pants?" Then he frowned. "Or it could be the old Lord Draupaud. Not this new fellow, the real one. Hmmm." He grew throughtful. "Either way, it's odd he's an innkeeper. I would have expected his family to do more for him."

"I don't think he's a Bolton," said Anniketta. "I didn't know the old Lord Draupaud but if you asked me, I'd say he had more of a look of y... you Northern folk."

"Huh," Godwyn replied. He thought about this for a minute. "And you say they burned down his inn? Anone know why, or was it just because they wanted to burn some place and his was as good as any?"

Anniketta exchanged a glance with Davin. He shrugged and said, "At first we thought they were after Anniketta. Now ... It seems they were looking for a woman with a direwolf. Gabriel had a direwolf - and so they burned him out. Just in case, I'm guessing. They killed his wench - perhaps they thought she was the owner of the direwolf ... There aren't too many of the beasts around."

"Direwolves? This far south before winter comes? That bodes ill indeed." Godwyn shook his head. "Well, if you see this innkeeper around, I'd like to talk with him. A man who can tame a direwolf is worth speaking with. Now, though, I should talk to the folk of the village, and start setting defenses against these sellswords who dare such brazen attacks." He looked from Anniketta to Davin and back again. "Unless there's anything else you think I should hear first?"

"The taxes," said Anniketta. "Soimeone should explain to you about the taxes."

"Before they start throwing rotten eggs," muttered Davin.

Godwyn blinked. "What?" he asked, looking confused.

During the conversation, a boy sidled closer to Aniketta. He seemed to be in his early teens, somewhat underfed, with wide green eyes- well, one eye, since the other one was covered in a cloth bandage that wrapped around his head. The other eye fixed on Godwyn as if entranced.

"This land is on your borders, I believe," said Davin. "You may not know the people are being taxed twice - by Holdfast, and by the Draupauds, who have long claimed sovereignty here. Actually, you'll find the people are rather resigned to that. Better a double burden of tax than a war fought over their lands, they think.

"But what they do object to is the fact that the Hardies have raised their taxes - to three times what they were not ten years ago."

Anniketta gestured to the boy. "Patis here will tell you."

The boy nodded, still wide-eyed. It's true my... my Lord. Things was bad enough before, people scraping by. It's like they just kept going to see how much we could take."

An angry expression crossed Godwyn's face. "I didn't know about that," he said. "How long has this been going on? And who from Holdfast has been here to collect the taxes?"

Patis glanced at Aniketta before speaking. "Long as I can remember, my Lord," he said. Given his age, that might not have been all that many years. "People's been waiting, really, for the other shoe to drop, for Draupaud to do the same. As for who, it's been different men, but they all claimed revenue in Lord Hardy's name. Some was pretty mad, they said that the ones that went before never came back." He paused. Swallowed. "Maybe they ran with the money. Or maybe they was stupid, begging your Lord's pardon, maybe they crossed the Fens going back."

Davin looked at Godwyn with interest. "Have you been losing tax collectors, Master Hardy? Or has your Steward been employing other men?"

Godwyn scowled. "If we'd been having men going missing I would have heard of it. So either someone has been taking taxes falsely in our name, or else they've been sending sellswords or some such scum to collect the money. My father's been ill these past few years, and my elder brother was fostered away, so things have perhaps not been watched as close as they should have been. My brother's back now, and it looks that we have more things to set right than just this business with the Boltons." He forced his anger away, and nodded to Patis. "Thanks for telling me this, lad. I need to let my brother know about it. Once we've taken care of these sellswords."

Patis's head bobbed in agreement. "Yes, my Lord," he said immediately, though there was a singularly 'unconvinced' look on his face.

"Shall we set out our stage, then?" said Davin. "And call in the villagers?"

"Aye," Godwyn answered. "The sooner we're done with the talking the less chance these sellswords will be back while we're still gabbing about what to do about them."

"I'll spread the word!" Patis said to Aniketta, with a look that approximated hero-worship. "Unless there's something else you need me to do..."

"Go," said Anniketta, amused. "Unless the Master here has some special task for you?"

She glanced enquiringly at Godwyn.

"Huh?" Godwyn asked. "Oh, yes. That's the best thing you can do for us right now, lad. Let everyone know that I want to hear everything they can tell me about these sellswords. The more we know, the better prepared we'll be to rid you of them."

The minstrels were experienced in setting up a stage in an inn courtyard - and it was under an hour later that they invited Godwyn to come and take his place on the stage and assemble the audience that Patis had managed to gather.

It was impressive. The Marshenders might resent the taxes that Holdfast had forced them to pay but now, they clearly felt, it was time to get their money's worth from Godwyn and the Laughing Knives.

Godwyn mounted the stage and looked out over the assembled villagers, waiting for them to fall silent before he began to speak. He remembered the many times he had watched his father hold court, and in more recent years the ways that Lady Celia and Ser Anders had done the same task. He schooled his face, striving for the noble's mask that he had seen them wear so often.

"I am Godwyn Hardy," he said, his voice strong. "Second son of Lord Hardy. I have heard of the crimes commited against you by these sellswords, who by their actions have made themselves outlaw. I am here with men at arms who serve Ser Corryn Manderly, good friend and long ally to Holdfast. I have called you here to tell me of the crimes committed against you, and to learn everything you know of these men. Their numbers, their arms and tactics, their purpose. Whatever you can tell will aid me in defending you against them, and in punishing them for their crimes."

He walked to the table he had ordered set up on the stage, and continued to speak.

"All who wish to speak will be allowed to so so. I wish this to be orderly, however, so first I ask that you select one man from among you, the man you hold in highest regard. He will call forth those who wish to speak, in the order and manner he chooses."

He sat behind the table and looked out over the crowd. "Who will you select for this task?" he asked.

Several heads looked around.

"Where's Gabriel?" a large man asked, one with the look of a smith.

"Maybe at the Septa's," Patis said. "He was leaving, Humble, remember?"

"Go get him," the man responded.

Patis stared at him, exasperated.

"There's a horse tethered at the smithy. I just fixed the shoes. Take him out and test my work," Humble said. "Hurry." And Patis was off like a shot.

Anniketta turned to Godwyn almost apologetically as the villagers, seemingly resigned to waiting for their spokesman, broke up into little huuddles of twos and threes.

"Gabriel is the innkeeper whose inn was burned. The people here see him as their leader. And he is certainly more ... articulate." She smiled faintly.

"It will take an hour or so before he's here," said Davin. "We could probably arrange some sort of feeding ... especially if your men can help out with rations. That should foster some goodwill."

"Aye, I'll tell them to do it. And the time will give me a chance to walk about and see the layout of the village, see how it can be defended." Godwyn frowned. "This Gabriel, then, he's the Snow you were speaking of, isn't he?"

Humble's hand clenched into a fist. Where was everyone? Who would speak? Were they all sheep, without Gabriel to help them out of their troubles? And Gabriel might well be gone...

"Why should we believe you?" he said, stepping forward. For a moment, he looked as suprised as the others. "After all, your Lord Father hasn't done right by us. All I see are more Hardy soldiers."

Godwyn blinked and turned towards the man, suprise evident on his face. He looked as though a hound had just stood on its hind legs and questioned his orders. "Who are you?" he asked. His voice wasn't angry, merely curious.

"I'm called Humble, Lord," he said. "I worked the Song and Sheep, til it was burned."

"You're a brave man, Humble," Godwyn said approvingly. "Not many would dare speak so to a lord's son, particularly if they really thought he had no desire to help them." He looked around at the villagers who were watching the exchange with varying degrees of anxiety and concern. "My father has been ill for a long time. The rumors of his illness have no doubt spread, some of you may have heard of it. I do not deny that the Hardys have been too long absent from your lives, wrappd up in our own concerns."

He turned back to Humble. "Why should you believe me? Because I am a Hardy. We can be a stubborn folk, and we can be hard. We can be cruel, even, when we think we have cause." He fell silent for a moment, as though considering a memory, then shrugged it away.

"But we do not lie, Humble. You should know that. I understand your anger, and I understand your concern. But do not make the mistake of calling me a liar. You should know the Hardys better than that."

He stopped then, and looked over the assembled smallfolk, judging their reactions.

"Hardy true!" a voice called out. A murmur went around the crowd in response, but it seemed amiable. The reminder that Hardy was famed for blunt honesty had not come amiss.

Godwyn smiled at the call and the answering murmur, and then he clapped a hand on Humble's shoulder. "Come, Humble," he said to the man. "I want to see the village, to see how we can best defend it. Walk with me, and tell me of your home. I was here once or twice as a very small boy, but I remember more about catching frogs and falling in the mud while racing my cousin than I do about the buildings."

Humble looked shocked. "You have? I mean, my Lord... I didn't know." They walk a small distance before he indicates the village with a sweep of his arm. "You'd find that very little has changed, I think. We're small. We make do with trade along the road and from the lake. But we're wide open... it's how this place was built. Only thing keeping us from being overrun with riffraff already is that the marsh has probably swallowed up half of 'em. No... we keep our heads down and we pay off who we have to, and up to now we've been left alone."

Godwyn chuckled. "Being left alone, it's all we Northerners really want, isn't it? To have people just mind their own business and leave us to ours." His chuckle died as he considered the open expanse of the marsh, and the simple buildings of the village. "Hard to defend. But equally hard to sneak up on, we have that on our side. We'll see them coming well before they're here, especially if we put spotters out to report back."

He looked at the outlying buildings, then said, "I'd like to look inside some of the houses, if the owners don't mind. It might be wise to put some of our men in them. They can wait until the sellswords are in the middle of the village, then attack from the rear while the rest of the our men take them from the front and side."

"Talk is that you'd be doing that anyway," Humble said. "You wouldn't make a camp with a village here. And with the Song and Sheep gone, there's not enough rooms for all your people. That we'd have to take soldiers into our homes. Not a matter of tactics. A matter of necessity."

Godwyn nodded. "Aye," he said. "Well, it will give you folks a chance to get to know the men. They're a good lot, if a bit rough." He glanced at Humble as they walked and added, "Come to me if there are any problems. There shouldn't be, but..." he shrugged. "You folks have had a rough time of it, and that can lead to tempers flaring, even against people who are trying to help, is what our maester always told me. And Ser Corryn's men have had one of their number killed by a Wilder just recently, another gone missing, and their leader is off on his own trying to find his daughter, who was kidnapped by a Bolton [email protected]" He bit his lip. "All in all, it's going to mean everyone is on edge. So I'm hoping we get a chance at these sellswords soon. I feel a powerful need to hurt someone that deserves it."

Humble nods, gives Godwyn a sideways look. "More than you might think... my Lord. There's a lot of resentment here. Years of it. People here's been taxed to death. Better that than a fight for control between your House and Draupaud, but still, it's been a... miracle... that nobody's lost their homes and lands. The sellswords have just brought things to a head. You'll be sitting in the middle of a simmering cauldron, here."

Godwyn blew air out through his lips in a disgusted sound. "That is wonderful," he said sourly. "Do you think you can help folks remember that antagonizing armed men who've spent their lives fighting is a bad idea? Especially when they're looking to help? I'll do what I can to keep Corryn's men on a tight leash."

"I can but ask, my Lord," Humble said. "My hope is that things will stay quiet... as long as nothing happens to set them off."

He shook his head. "It's all turning into politics," he said mournfully. "I hate politics. My brother should be here, he'd be able to handle this. Or Uncle Godfrey."

His shoulders slumped. "If Uncle Godfrey is even still alive. Herys Bolton's son killed his horse in a joust, then ran him down. I had to leave with Ser Corryn before I could find out how he's doing."

"I am sorry," Humble said, then frowned. "Herys Bolton's son?"

"Aye," Godwyn answered. "It gets complicated. Bolton was negotiating to marry off his son, Eryk, to my cousin, Syndra. Then a sellsword named Evan Tamm shows up at Holdfast and kills one of Bolton's men. And then we find out that this Evan Tamm is the true Eryk Bolton, who was disowned years before for some fight with his father. And the boy Herys was calling Eryk was really a [email protected] son of his, that he was trying to foist off on us under false pretenses." He shook his head. "Evan-Eryk cheats in a trial by combat against my uncle and rides him down, while [email protected] steals Corryn's daughter and rides off with her. I don't envy Lord Stark in trying to make sense of all this when he finally hears of it. I was in the midst of it, and I'm still confused."

"Stark," Humble said. "It's been so long since we've heard that name around here... at least, in the sense of a liege lord." He frowned. "Will there be war in the north, then, my Lord? Between Hardy and Bolton?"

Godwyn sighed. "I hope not, Humble. Herys broke guest right, interfered in a trial by combat after the gods had given judgement, and tried to marry off a by-blow as a legitmate son. Stark is a fair man. He'll understand that we couldn't stand by in the face of all this."

"Couldn't... as in the past tense, my Lord?" Humble asked. "Begging your pardon, of course, Lord, it's much better to hear the true story than get some wild concocted fantasy from a trader three months hence..." He pointed. "There's the cross-roads, and there's the boat landing, of course, and there's the road towards the Marsh, you probably wouldn't have to worry defending -that-."

"Huh,"Godwyn said thoughtully. "Might actually be a good idea for us to leave the Marsh road undefended, to give the sellswords a way to flee when the fighting starts. Then we can chase them, and hopefully drive them into the swamp. Let it take care of the survivors for us."

He turned back to Humble. "After Evan-Eryk rode my uncle down, my uncle was just concious enough to surrender. Evan-Eryk was proclaimed the victor, and thus judged not guilty in the murder of Herys' man." Godwyn shrugged. "I'm still certain he killed him, mind, but the Old Gods have a different idea of guilt, and they may have judged that the man deserved to die. Be that as it may, Herys was furious. He ordered his men to kill Evan-Eryk, and since my uncle was still lying on the field at the feet of his opponent's horse, and my cousin had just run out on the field to her father, they would have died as well.

 My father's second wife, Lady Celia, she rose against Herys at that,

and he struck her."

"It all became a general melee, then. A lot of Bolton's men were killed, and he himself may well die from his wounds. If not, he has struck a Hardy woman, blasphemed against the Old Gods, and broken guest right. Enough cause to execute him."

Godwyn nodded, then. "You're right, it's best the truth be known. Too much evil is done when men keep secrets."

Humble's lips pressed together, and he was silent for a few moments. "Indeed, my Lord," he finally said. "This all sounds... incredible. The kind of thing that Houses will remember for centuries. If I might ask, was there always this kind of tension between Hardy and Bolton?"

Godwyn laughed, an honest and open laugh as if at the funniest jest he had ever heard. "Oh, this is nothing," he said. "Not compared to the old days, before the Starks ever became kings of the north. Back when both the Boltons and the Hardys were kings in their own right. The Boltons wore our skins in those days, when they could, and hated us when they weren't able to. And we killed them on sight." He sighed, a nostalgic sound. "Nothing but legends, now. But Hardys don't forget. We are true to our oaths to Stark, and we won't start a fight with the Boltons, as the Starks forbid it. But we won't back down from them either. Hardys don't retreat."

Humble shook his head, slowly, as if he had received confirmation that the doings of nobility were completely beyond his understanding. "Yes, my Lord... I suppose this is why I like having Gabriel around. He has a better head for these kinds of things."

"Everyone keeps telling me Gabriel is the man I should talk to," Godwyn said thoughtfully. "And he was the man whose inn the sellswords burned down. It makes me wonder if they were after him all along, or after something he knows."

And, almost right on cue, Patis reappeared with a strange man on horseback. The man was dressed as a reasonably well-to-do merchant, and looked clean and freshly-shaven. They looked as though they were bound for the tavern.

"And that's him," Humble said, suprised, and waved his arms to draw their attention. Gabriel jerked on the reins and turned the horse towards the pair.

Godwyn turned to consider the man approaching them, his eyes running appraisingly over both horse and rider. He waited for Humble to perform the introduction.

Gabriel dismounted, and Humble said, "My Lord, this is Gabriel... Snow." Gabriel winced slightly. "Former owner of the Song and Sheep. Gabriel, this is Lord Godwyn Hardy."

Gabriel glanced at Godwyn, then in the direction of some of the Laughing Knives, and bowed. "M'Lord Hardy. A pleasure to see you. All of you. I wondered who would make it here first."

Godwyn blinked at him. "Huh?" he said. "You expected us? We didn't even know we were coming here, we were following the Bolton [email protected]" he stopped then, and blinked again. "That is, we were, uh, following Herys Bolton's, uh..." he stopped again, and appeared to be thinking.

"We were following Bolton's son, who's actually a Snow, and the trail led us through here. He took Ser Corryn's daughter. We didn't know anything about, um," he gestured around. "About all this."

"Ah," Gabriel said. "Well, then, there's my answer. No word of all these attacks reached Hardy? I wonder if our messages were stopped getting to Draupaud, as well. You just happened to come here, for your own personal business." He glanced away. "How fortunate for us, m'Lord."

Godwyn nodded. "It is," he answered. "And it's to our shame that Holdfast has not been keeping better track of what has been going on here. As I told Humble, here, we've been involved with troubles of our own, and distracted from our duties. That's not an excuse, Gabriel, just an explanation. My brother is back from the South now, though, and he'll see to it that things are set right. For now, I'm here, with Ser Corryn's men, and we'll see to these sellswords."

~He chose to answer literally,~ Gabriel thought. ~He has little guile, this one.~

"Fortunate by two, m'Lord," he ventured. "We can also ask about the taxes. Begging your pardon, but they've become somewhat... difficult..." He paused. "Even if the attacks are handled, it may be that no one can afford to stay and enjoy the relative peace."

Humble's eyes widened.

"I heard about that," Godwyn said, nodding his head. "And I also heard that some of the tax collectors apparently didn't make it back to Holdfast. But we haven't lost any Holdfast men that I know of. And I would know of that, even if I don't know everything that's going on. So there's something strange going on with the tax collection. Which is something else I need to talk to my brother about."

At this point, the door of the inn opened, and Davin emerged, wearing a barkeep's apron around his waste and carrying a tray with mugs of ale. He nodded companionably at Gabriel, as though it was the most natural thing in the world that he should apparently be in the employ of the rival inn to Gabriel's own, before starting to distribute the ale to some of the Knives and villagers.

Seeing the lack of suprise on Godwyn's part, Gabriel said, "I take it that you've met the Giants of Pentos," he said.

Godwyn nodded, grinning at Davin. "Yes, I've met Ser Davin," he said, clearly enjoying using the title. "He and his people are very, uh, festive."

Davin came across, carrying the tankards.

"Anniketta says you're welcome to come in and have some of the soup she's making - it's hearty enough." His remark was addressed, it seemed, to Gabriel, but his glance took in Godwyn.

"We took over the tavern for the nonce," he added. "The previous owner left ... unexpectedly."

Gabriel blinked and did a double take. "They did what?"

Davin drew a deep breath, the professional storyteller asked to ply his trade.

"Um, I'm not sure we have the time," Godwyn said. "I don't want us to be caught inside eating if these sellswords come back. Maybe we can eat up at the table," he pointed to the stage the Giants had set up. "And we can have people start telling me their stories while we eat. I want to know what I can about these outlaws. Knowledge is the Key to Victory." That last sounded as if he were quoting someone.

"Aye," said Davin. "But you need good men to draw back the bolts."

A wink to Gabriel and he was off to carry the remaining tankards to thirsty Knives and grateful villagers (who approached the brew with some caution until they had determined that the Giants were serving 'the good stuff'.

"That sounds like my cue," Gabriel said to Godwyn. "I should check up on Aniketta. Not that she needs checking up, but... well. I can bring food for you if you want to mingle now, or we can both go to see her." His expression didn't exactly fall at the second suggestion, but he let the question hang.

"She seemed quite well when I spoke to her," Godwyn answered absently. "Don't take too long, if you please. I want to get things started as fast as may be. I'll let people know you're here, and they should start assembling to tell their stories."

(Gabriel's thread continues in Gabriel in the Tavern with Anniketta)

He nodded a dismisal to Gabriel, then began moving among the Knives and villagers, informing them quietly that the innkeeper they had chosen as their spokesman had returned, and that their tales of the sellswords would be wanted momentarily.

The townspeople were beginning to drift back in anticipation of Gabriel being there to act as their spokesman once more. Godwyn noticed one young boy, hanging back a little - not the boy who had dashed off to find Gabriel, but a rather more wizened individual with a cast in one eye.

Godwyn moved through the crowd, talking briefly to the villagers, clasping Corryn's men on the shoulders and telling them what a fine job they were doing, until he came to the young boy. "What about you lad?" he asked. "Did you see the sellswords. If so, we'll want you to speak."

The boy twisted around in one place. "I see'd 'em," he admitted. "But it were old Jenny ... she told me what it means."

He looked up at Godwyn, frowning a little. "Are you the Snow Hardy?" he demanded at last.

"Huh?' Godwyn stared at the boy for a moment, then grinned. "No, boy," he said. "I am a true Hardy. There are no Hardy Snows." Then honesty compelled him to say, "Well, none I know of. My older uncle, when he was a young man, well..." he shrugged. "Who knows?" he finished.

"Old Jenny says the Snow Hardy comes when things look blackest," said the boy. "But she never says if he makes 'em better or worse." He gave Godwyn a considering look. "Maybe that's why you're here - to get a Snow."

Godwyn blinked at this, then shook his head. "Oh," he said. "Not a Hardy Snow, a ... a Snow Hardy. Some kind of legend. I've not heard this before." He looked around at the villagers, then back at the boy. "Is Old Jenny here?" he asked. "I'd like to hear more about this story."

"Snow Hardy ... Hardy Snow," said the boy, with a shrug. "Only Jenny lives hard by the Sept - they say she was a witch when she was younger but she's asked the gods to forgive her now." He shot a look at Godwyn. "I could take you there ... " His voice trailed off suggestively.

"A witch?" Godwyn's eyes widened. "I've never met a real witch," he said. He took a step forward, then paused, and looked around. "Uh, I really need to see to protecting the village..."

"Ummm..." he bit his lower lip, then asked the boy, "How far away is she? Right here in the village?"

The boy nodded. "By the Septon's house. You want me to take you?" He swallowed, looking at the villagers drinking ale.

"Thing is," he said, in a lower tone, "Jenny talks more easily if she's had a drop inside ... "

"Well, that's easily remedied," Godwyn answered. He took a few steps over to where one of the Giants was passing out ales and relieved him of two of them. "If, uh, Cambriel, is that his name? If he comes out and is ready before I get back just send someone over to Old Jenny's cottage to get me, right?"

The Giant looked a little startled, looked at the boy, and then nodded reluctantly.

Then he turned back to the boy. "Lead on," he told him.

The boy took him towards where the seven small domes of the shabby Sept marked the sky - but he turned off at the last minute into a narrow ally - a kennel, really, of rotting vegetable and animal matter, made slick underfoot by the rains andthe waster air of the marshes. The smell was pretty appalling, even to one used to castle and village smells.

The boy stopped half way down the gunnel outside a low turf-roofed hut, the door masked with filthy sacking. "She's in there," he said, and looked at Godwyn expectantly.

"Hello?" Godwyn called questioningly. "Mistress Jenny, are you in there?" He thought for a second, then added, in the voice he used to encourage a relucatant hound, "I have ale."

"Who is it?" A harsh voice, and then the sacking was jerked aside.

The woman was not necessarily old, but she was aged, and she regarded Godwyn with suspicion. Then her eyes widened - they must have been very blue once, for all they were faded now.

"Hardy," she said, and gave a bitter laugh. "Hardy. Why have you come back, eh?"

"Uhhh..." Godwyn stared at her for a second, then thrust a mug toward her. "I brought you ale," he said.

The woman glowered back.

"Ale? Ale? Do you think that repayment for what you did to my daughter?"

"Daughter?" Godwyn blinked at her, still holding out the mug. "Umm." He desperately tried to think of what he might have done to upset the woman, then settled for asking, "Huh?"

"No," said the old woman bitterly. "You just went off to make your fine marriage, didn't you? And never a thought for what you left behind. And my poor girl ... longing and hoping ...

"But you never came back."

She snatched at the ale and downed it in one steady pull. In other circumstances, it would have been rather impressive.

Godwyn opened his mouth, then shut it again. He took a sip from his own ale. Then he took a longer drink.

Finally he said, "I'm not married."

She threw the mug back towards him.

Godwyn dodged reflexively, letting the empy mug fly past him.

"And well I knows it. Died in the bed a-borning you a son, didn't she - just like my Rose-a'thorn. Sweet Rose ... sweet sweet Rose ... " She stared at him blindly at then said, "T'other one. Give me t'other one."

"The ale," said the lurking urchin helpfully. "She wants the other mug."

"Oh," Godwyn said. He held the other mug out to her dubiously. "I think mayhap she's confusing me with someone else," he told the boy.

The boy nodded sagely, even as the old woman grabbed and downed the other cup.

"She's like that," he said. "She wanders in the past. Sometimes she thinks I'm me father. An' she talks of her daughter ... what the marshes took long ago." He ended with a slight ghoulish satisfaction in his voice.

"Ah," Godwyn answered. "Aye, I've heard old ones can get like that." He leaned closer to the woman and raised his voice, speaking slowly and distinctly. "Mistress," he said. "Can. You. Tell. Me. This. Story. Of. The. Snow. Hardy?"

"Should have died," the old woman muttered. "Should have died along with my Rose-a'thorn. Staring at me with those great eyes. Hardy eyes. Not my fault if he dinna die. Fever should have carried him off but he were strong. Gave him to the Sept - they could care for the brat. They never knew - though some guessed."

The boy who had brought Godwyn was listening open-mouthed.

"Wait," said Godwyn, holding up a hand. "Wait, wait, wait. You mean to say that there was real babe? This is not just some folk tale? There was a babe born, a son, of the Hardy line? To your daughter?"

Old Jenny's face was deep in the ale mug now, and she was making gulping, slurping sounds. The boy shook his head.

"You won't get no sense out of her after that much ale. More than she's drunk in a year ir two, I'll be bound. Gabe will never give her any - and t'other - he always made her pay."

And, indeed, when she finally raised her head, she did look distinctly ... bleary.

Godwyn shifted his weight from one foot to the other, frustrated, and stared at the woman. "Have you ever heard of this daughter of hers, Rose?" he asked the boy.

The boy nodded. "Rosathorn," he said. "Folks say she went mad years ago and drowned herself in the marshes. Never heard tell about no babbie, though." He was still regarding old Jenny with considerable curiousity. The old woman, the ale now finished, was rocking backwards and forward on her stool, and singing faintly - some sword of great antiquity and almost equal obscenity.

Godwyn blushed. He didn't mind such songs in a tavern, but it seemed wrong to him to listen to an old woman singing something like that.

"Let's go," he told the boy. "This was all just a drunk old woman's fantasy. There isn't any Hardy Snow." He tried to sound certain as he said that, and only glanced back at old Jenny twice as he walked away from her hut, and back towards the waiting villagers.

There was no sign of the innkeeper, Gabriel, but one of the locals indicated that he was in the tavern, talking with the woman who was keeping the bar (and much better than the last unfortunate innkeep, as several people assured Godwyn).

(Continued in Gabriel in the Tavern with Anniketta)

Page last modified on May 10, 2007, at 03:42 AM