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(Continued from Left at the Cottage)

Inside, there was the sound of feet on the stairs, and Ranulf appeared, looking apprehensive.

"The Septa is asking for you, Maester Merivel," he said.

"Already?" Merivel asked, himself, quietly. And then he spoke louder and regarded Ranulf.

"Thank you, Ranulf." He gave a nod of his head to him. "Lead me to her, please."

Ranulf, silent and intimidated again in Merivel's presence, led the way up the stairs to the small room where the Septa had been placed to rest. But she had pulled herself half up in her bed and was staring fixedly out of the window that looked across the hills.

"I saw something," she said. "Like ... light ... flashing."

Merivel moved to the window briskly as the Septa spoke, and arranged himself so that he was not blocking her view.

"Ranulf, a light, if you please," he said to him.

He spent a few moments at the window peering out to see if he could see the light, before going back to where the Septa was sitting. He put a physician's hand on her shoulder.

"Aerin very recently reported seeing something like that." Merivel explained. "Two are going to investigate the meaning and provenance of this strange apparition." He then looked tenderly at her.

She nodded, trying to smile at him. But the lines on her face seemed etched with pin. She looked old, and terribly tired.

"In the meantime, you need your rest. Lie back, and allow me to see how my patient is doing." Merivel said, taking back his role as a healer.

"Very well, Maester," she said obediently. lying back. This in itself was unusual. In days gone by, the Septa would have scoffed at any suggestion that she needed the attentions of a Maester.

"Good" Merivel added, mustering as much brightness as he could in his tone, given the turbulence that surrounded himself, the Septa's House, Marshend, and seemingly, the entire North itself.

"Ranulf." he called to him. "Watch the window, and let us know if you see something other than the flashes that disturbed the Septa.

Merivel then returned to examining his patient.

The treatment she had received from Mariam seemed good, but he was conscious that there seemed to be a deeper-seated malaise, one that was as much a problem of the spirit as of the body. He had seen this before, in people who were stricken by grief.

Merivel steeled his emotions as he studied and examined the Septa. The spirit problem was more difficult to treat than maladies of the body. Worse, such maladies could make healing of the body difficult, if not possible.

"You're troubled." Merivel said softly, soothingly to the Septa as he finished, really, his physical examination of her. He kept going through the motions, fussing and examining her state even if he was pretty certain of it by now. He didn't want to sound like a priest; the Septa might take it better from a healing point of view. "Your burdens weigh upon you." he said, striking a compassionate tone.

Every so often, his eyes flickered to Ranulf and the window, and whatever might be outside but he kept his main attention on the Septa.

"I miss her!" The words burst from the Septa suddenly. "Oh my lady, my sweet lady ... why did she suffer so much?"

Ranulf, by the window, was visibly trembling.

Merivel got a chill down his back, not quite sure whom the Septa was referring to, but having a sinking feeling that he really did know.

He pressed a cool hand over her forehead. "Shhhh." he said in a compassionate, tender whisper. "Take it easy on yourself." He bent over her, with wide eyes that tried to show his caring and concern for her and her plight.

She stared up at him blankly. Then she said slowly, "I tried to help the boy, you see. Because ... he was all that was left. Afterwards."

"Because he was the only one left." Merivel repeated. He removed the hand and pressed it again. "I don't know the whole story." he said. "Perhaps it would do good for you to tell it all to me, to let it out, where it coils around your heart like a too-tight belt."

She turned her head towards the window where Ranulf still stood, shoulders hunched - and then turned her head to look back pleadingly at Merivel. Her message was clear ... send the boy away.

"Ranulf." Merivel's voice rang like a bell.

"Could you check on the other windows of the house for a short while, please?" he asked. "The Septa and I need to speak without other ears present."

"Thank you," he added.

The boy turned and looked at him, his young face bleak with a pain that seemed beyond his years. He gave a curt nod of the head and headed rapidly towards the stairs. Merivel heard him stumble down them.

"I will make it up to him later." Merivel said to the Septa once Ranulf was out of earshot.

He then turned toward the Septa. "All right, what you have to say is for only the ears of you and I."

The Septa turned to face him, and he saw the pain in her face, deeper than the years.

"What I tell you, Maester," she said, "you must swear it goes no further ... ever! By the most sacred vows of your order!"

"I have so sworn before, and not divulged what was said and done, then." Merivel said seriously. "And so I will swear now, on the vows of my order, that what you reveal to me here shall not be told to another, save by your consent."

She nodded then, slowly.

For a long moment she was silent, so long she might almost have fallen asleep. But then, finally, she said, "Ranulf was not the first child my lady bore."

Merivel's eyes widened, but only a fraction, and difficult to sense in the dimness of the room. But he gave a grazing nod of his head in recognition.

"Who?" he asked the Septa, after a moment.

"She was very young," said the Septa. "Very young and very foolish. And he ... such charm he had! Even though he was pledged to another!

"And that night, after the tournament ... she told me that although he concealed it, for it was the king's own son who wronged him, inside he hurt at the insult, and wept at it ... and so she offered him what comfort she had. 'Poor comfort', she called it - and yet it proved so for her."

Merivel listened carefully as the Septa danced around the name. A chill ran down Merivel's spine as she told the story. He closed his eyes briefly, nodded and then opened them again and regarded the Septa.

"And so she became gravid with child from the experience." Merivel filled in. "What happened to the child after birth?" Merivel asked.

Her hand clutched at his. "Many things happened before, Maester. For that was not the only time. They met in secret ...

"She had not yet begun to show when ... when war came to the Seven Kingdoms. She was with Princess Elia ... "

"Forgive me." Merivel said once the Septa corrected him. "I did not mean to shorten your story unduly. Please, continue, in your own way."

"She was with the Princess," said the Septa. "She was with the Princess when ... they came. They killed the children ... they raped the Princess and ... killed her. And ... and her ladies were given over to the Lannister soldiers."

Her eyes were full on his face.

Merivel's lips were slightly parted, his eyes wide with shock, horror and revulsion.

"Twyin Lannister's forces." He said, trying to fight down his bile by recalling the details of the history that he knew himself, and connecting it to the secret history the Septa was revealing. His efforts were in vain, his Valeish distaste for the Lannister evident.

"Even though she was with child," said the Septa. "Even though she begged them ... and I begged them too - she was not spared. We told them ... We even named him. But it did not stop them."

The full realization of the horror of it all continued to poleax Merivel across his eyes. The years of the Lady's nature was now laid bare and all so clear. So very clear. Was it no wonder that she sought a dark surcease from the pain and trauma of what the soldiers did. Surely it was no wonder at all. Events he had only learned about as chronicle took a new and dark face with this personal view of them.

"A mad, feral thing to do to her, and to you." Merivel added, putting a hand on her shoulder. The Septa was speaking only of the Lady's pain and suffering, but it was certain she had suffered, almost if not as much as the Lady of Clearwater. "Such things men do when there is War and destruction, and that only explains it; it does not excuse it."

"There is no excuse," she agreed. Her voice sounded exhausted, as though recalling the horror of that time drained all her remaining energy.

Finding he could say nothing already said for the moment, Merivel leaned over and gently gave the Septa a half embrace in her bed-seated position. After a moment, after he released the embrace, he finally nodded.

"The Lord doesn't know any of this, does he?" Merivel said. "He doesn't even suspect it."

"Some of it he suspected," said the Septa, "ven if we never spoke of it openly. What happened in the sack ...

"But he knew nothing of the child."

"No, he wouldn't have. The Lady would not have breathed a word to him, even if it ate her up inside."

"Now." Merivel continued. "What became of the child. A boy or a girl?"

"It was taken from her," said the Septa. "At birth. She was half-crazed, and they said she was in no state to care for it. But she calmed, and she wanted it back again. She begged for it ... but they said it had died. And then I thought she would run mad indeed."

Merivel considered this for a few moments and nodded. "A wound to her mind and her heart that could never heal." he agreed in a somber tone of voice. He paused and then added. "and perhaps didn't until..." He closed his eyes and then said it, as if reluctant to speak of it again. "she died."

"It was wrong of the boy," said the Septa, "but it was a release, Maester. She longed so much for the kiss of the Stranger - and not of any living man."

"No, after what happened, now that becomes clear, Septa." Merivel said gravely. "Two years or so ago." Merivel said. "The Lady fled Clearwater, into the Wilderness. What you have confided in me makes so much clear now."

Page last modified on May 25, 2007, at 01:12 AM