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Into the Lion's Mouth

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A little before mid-day, Corryn discovered Limosa standing in the courtyard. She was considerably cleaner, with her long dark hair washed and brushed to sleekness, and drawn back from her face in a long braid. She was dressed in what seemed to be another of her mother's gowns, a more practical one, and bearing the signs of having been hastily adapted to fit her slighter form. She was, however, barefoot, and held a pair of leather shoes in her hand. It appeared that this was all the luggage that she intended to bring to Holdfast.

Seeing her this way took Corryn by surprise. In the midday light, she resembled Ciara so closely he thought he was seeing things. He rubbed the ghosts from his eyes and approached her. A warm smile rose to his lips as he looked over her again. She was frighteningly beautiful now that he could truly see her face. In another situation, she would have stolen his heart in a far different way. But, now Limosa was truly a daughter to be proud of.

"Limosa, my dear," he said, approaching her. "Are you ready to go? I have the wagon ready for you. I've even made up a small bed for you in the back. That way you can have some privacy on the trip."

He took her hands, if permitted and kissed her knuckles chastely. "You look so beautiful, my dear. A positive vision. However, you may want to put on your shoes. The mud is thick this morning. We don't want your feet all dirty and cold."

She frowned slightly. Clearly, she had walked through cold mud barefoot before now.

Slipping her arm into his, he escorted her down the winding steps to the bailey. "So, we will be on the road for about two days. I'm not sure how long we'll be at Holdfast, though. My friend, Ser Godfrey, has some troubles there. His brother is dying and there is some debate over who should rule the household. I have to negotiate between Godfrey, a Hardy, and his sister-in-law, Celia Tollet."

He continued to explain things to her as they reached the bottom of the motte. He paused only to help her on with her shoes to avoid the mire of mud and other unpleasant materials. "Now, Lady Tollet is not a woman of character. She is greedy, cunning, and dishonest. Do not be swayed by her pleasant manner, Limosa. There is a good chance she may react poorly to our presence. But she is not the worst, by far."

Corryn stood up and touched her shoulders, staring into her eyes with a seriousness she had not seen in him. "Celia has a brother. Ser Anders. He is a handsome man, but dangerous. You must swear to me that you will not go near him unless I or one of my men is with you. I will protect you from him, but if he learns you are my daughter…" He bit his lip as his eyes brimmed with the memory of Alys. Her hands, so tiny and pale, beating against Anders' chest; her cry of terror stifled by a forced kiss.

"Avoid him at all costs, Limosa," he finally said. "Do you understand?"

She nodded solemnly. Her eyes seemed oddly dark - perhaps she was thinking of other men that she had learned it was better to avoid.

He touched her cheek and sighed, "It won't come to that. You will have a wonderful time and see things you have only heard about. I am so happy you're coming."

The covered wagon had been hitched up and was waiting for them in the main bailey. Killian, Cameron, and Fortune were waiting beside the wagon to see them off. Corryn had already assigned five men-at-arms to assist Killian in overseeing Leaning Stone in his absence. They, along with Fortune, had been given the blood money retrieved off Cerwyn's body; a hundred Dragons. Although it was certain not enough to fix everything, it could easily pay for lost wages, as well as set the reconstruction effort into motion. The trained men-at-arms would also whip the guardsmen into shape and spot those miscreants that would serve better on the Wall than under the Manderly banner.

The Laughing Knives, Phalan at their lead, were eager to be away from the stink and cold. The nights had been restless and difficult in the squalid buildings that made up the lower castle. Some still nursed bruises from fights or hangovers from the ghastly potato-wine that the guardsmen had developed. With luck, their headaches would be gone before they reached Holdfast. Even their horses were eager to get out onto the road, much whinnying and pawing rippled through their ranks.

Although he would have felt better having all of the Knives with him, he felt confident that a trio of knights and twenty-two men-at-arms would be more than enough to give the Tollets pause. If not, he could call on Winterfell, and that above all else would be the deciding factor in the days to come.

Corryn helped Limosa up onto the cushioned bench and climbed up beside her to take the reins. He grinned over at her and said, "You have but to say the word and we are off, my dear."

Limosa turned and looked at him - a world of hurt in her eyes. Then she looked away, clearly thinking he had been making fun of her silence. She reached down and pulled the leather shoes from off her feet, and her saw the redness where what was soft leather had chafed her skin. She must have gone barefoot for years ... living worse than the meanest smallfolk who looked to Manderly.

He blinked at the look in her eye, staring back as if he'd been slapped. At first he didn't realize how he'd hurt her. Finally he realized how his words could have been taken, especially by someone that was constantly tormented. "Oh," he exclaimed. "No, no. I just meant a nod or a signal, my dear. I wasn't joking with you. Frankly, I enjoy your silence. It's very refreshing. I just hope I don't prattle on too much for you."

A shy, tentative smile was the response.

"I'll take that as a positive sign," he chuckled happily. "I am renowned for enjoying the sound of my own voice. It warms me that you don't mind my chatter. We shall be perfect company, I suspect." He gave her a playful wink.

Corryn motioned for the military train to begin moving and then gave the horses a good giddy up. The wagon pulled into motion, cutting through the mud toward the main gate.

He noticed her feet and sighed. "We're going to have to find you something more comfortable, Limosa. A young lady shouldn't run around in barefeet. Not when there's company, anyway." He winked at her conspiratorially.

There was something in the set of her jaw that suggested that this would not be the easiest fight Corryn had ever undertaken.

"Maybe some soft felt slippers," he mused. "I used to wear them when I was a boy. I hated shoes too."

She looked at him to see if he was jesting, and then down at his feet, consideringly. She stretched out her leg and positioned her foot next to his - it was small and almost delicate despite the years of rough tretatment it had endured. She appeared to be comparing the two feet together - and then she shook her head. Corryn, it seemed, had to her mind gained no advantage from wearing slippers.

Corryn nodded lightly and slipped his boot off, wiggling his rather large toes. His foot remained relatively smooth thanks to several years of soaking in salt water. However, the joints were obviously loose as a result of climbing ropes and wet planks. It gave him a surprising sense of balance when on the waves. Still, the foot dwarfed Limosa's and did have noticeable calluses from his boots.

"Okay," he conceded, tapping his foot to hers. "Point taken. I'll make you deal. You get to walk barefoot whenever we aren't entertaining nobility, yes? And when we are, you can wear soft slippers. No sense in ruining your beautiful toes."

She frowned, considering this. Then she sighed and gave a brief nod, clearly deciding this was the best concession she could gain.

The line of horses and the wagon finally exited the gate and entered the world beyond the walls of Leaning Stone. "Welcome to the world, daughter," he said, patting her knee.

She looked around with interest - but it seemed that she knew the immediate environs of the castle. Indeed, the disreputable appearance of the first village they came to, and its air of long neglect, strongly gave the impression that this was a part of the land attached to the castle. Hearing the rare sound of the armed party, several villagers came out to stare. Limosa was recognised; the villagers might have thought she was being abducted from the scowls directed at Corryn, but in the face of armed men they made no attempt to rescue her.

Corryn quickly took notice of the hostility growing amongst the smallfolk. Of course, news of his recent 'appointment' would not have reached them. He waved to them and smiled politely to them as he passed by. "You are beloved by the people, I think," he said to Limosa. "And with no small reason." His smile to her was filled with fatherly pride.

Finally, after the waving and pleasantries did little to change the scowls, Corryn called a halt to the march. He stood up and beckoned to those that would dare approach or listen. Once he had a sizable enough crowd, he called to them.

"Well met. I am Ser Corryn Manderly, the new lord of Leaning Stone. And this is my daughter, Lady Limosa. We would like to call upon any craftspeople or tradesmen that might be seeking work. We shall be reconstructing Leaning Stone and its surroundings. So, strong backs and skilled hands will be well rewarded. If you are such a person, you can speak to Ser Killian at the castle."

He hoped the promise of money and work might help ease the animosity that so obviously prevailed in the community. Smallfolk rarely cared who ruled them as long as they had food in their bellies and a fire in their hearth.

They still watched with that same sullen stare, but he did notice that one or two were startiung to whisper, thinking themselves unobserved. It was, at all events, a start, and Holdfast was waiting.

It was another five miles down the road that he realised Limosa was shivering uncontrollably.

Corryn felt a rush of fear, as memories of the summer fever came rushing back to him. Memories of silent tombstones where his lover and child now rested filled his head and muddled his thoughts. He refused to lose this girl now. She had become his daughter, not only by name, but in spirit. He touched Limosa's brow, praying to the Mother to protect her.

And then he realized a simple, dark truth. In the last few hours, Limosa's entire world had transformed. Her mother was dead, her father murdered (and rightly so). She'd been orphaned and claimed, and then taken from the only home she knew.

The girl was probably in shock. He'd seen it before during battle. He'd suffered it himself when he lost Morna. Damn him, why hadn't he been paying closer attention to her? She had just acted so resiliently, it never crossed his mind.

Quickly, he set the reins aside and let the horses guide the cart down the straight road. Corryn removed his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, pulling her to him. "Shhhhh," he whispered. "Everything will be okay." He checked her cheeks for the telltale paleness, hoping he'd find it. Shock would fade. Fever would not.

Her face was indeed pale - no, white - and her skin felt cold and clammy to his touch, while her eyes were wide and more than a little wild.

Cool determination settled over Corryn, pushing back fear and panic. He called to Kolya, one of his footmen, summoning him over. "Kolya," he said hastily, "Take the reins and keep her as steady as you can. My daughter has taken a turn." As the man climbed into the driver's seat, Corryn scooped Limosa into his arms and held her to his chest.

Carefully, fighting the sway and buck of the wagon, he carried her into the back of the cart. He'd spent much of the morning converting the wagon's interior into a small bedroom of sorts. In one small corner, he'd covered a bedroll with some blankets. He laid her upon them now, covering her up and tucking her in. Then he lay down beside her, taking her hand.

"Limosa," he said softly, "I need you to look into my eyes. Here… here…that's right." He caressed her cheek and smiled at her. "You're going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. I'm here for you now and I always will be. This I swear."

He held her to him, stroking her hair and fighting his own tears. She didn't need to see his sorrow now. She needed support and comfort. "Take my strength," he whispered. "It is yours and freely given."

She looked up at him - and for a long moment he was sure that she could not see him. Then suddenly she twisted on the bed ... and then her arms were around him and she was crying - great tearing sobs that sounded as though they would tear the heart out of her. And she clung to him as she sobbed, lost and helpless in this big new frightening world.

He wrapped her up in his arms and held her to him. She felt so light in his arms, as if he were holding a paper doll. He kissed her brow and then her tears. "There you go," he whispered to her, stroking her hair. "Let it out. All of it. I'm here and I'm not letting go."

Corryn held her through the torrent of woes, the river of tears. He refused to let go or acknowledge the world even when Kolya called to him to see if they were okay. His world became her world, and together they confronted the darkness therein. For a moment, he was back in an old tree, cast in the shadows of a dying summer. It felt familiar and welcome, comforting even in the face of such sorrow. He had been there for a lost little girl. And together, they had saved one another.

Just as Limosa and he would save each other now.

He kissed his daughter's head lightly and held her all the tighter. Their tears soon mixed as they cried for those now gone and never to return. But tears, like rain, fell only once and cleansed all they touched.

In the end, that knowledge would hopefully save them both.

Her sobs finally stilled, and she rested in his arms, her dark head against his shoulder. It was a little while before he realised that - exhausted with emotion - she had fallen asleep in his arms.

Corryn sighed with relief once Limosa nodded off. She needed the rest, but instinctually he knew she would also need to have him there when she finally woke up. Tenderly, he let her curl up on the bedroll and covered her so as to not disturb her.

Silently, he pulled back the cover flap and nodded to Kolya. The man appeared concerned, but said nothing when he saw the girl asleep in Corryn's arms.

"Kolya," he said in a hushed tone, "Keep us going to until near dusk. I'll leave it to Phalan to choose a camp for us. I'll be with the girl. She's had a bad turn and I want to make sure she gets through it. Unless we're under attack by the Others, I don't wish to be disturbed."

Kolya nodded, casting a look at the slumbering child. "Of course, ser. It will be done."

Corryn closed the flap and returned to Limosa's side. He pulled her into his arms and smiled lightly as she conformed to his chest, clutching to him even in her slumber. He brushed her hair with his hand and began to talk to her in a hushed whisper. He recounted the same stories he once whispered to the child in Morna's belly. He told her stories of romance and adventure, of good overcoming evil, and of the light pushing away the darkness. He told her of dreams and joyousness, of hopes and desires fulfilled.

He told these tales as if he believed every word.

And after awhile, he almost believed them himself.


But today, 'almost' was better than nothing.

Evening came and the wagon drew to a halt. All around, Corryn could hear the quiet sounds of the camp being established, the laughter and conversation of the men ...

And still Limosa slept.

The smell of an evening stew was coming to the wagon where Corryn sat with his sleeping daughter, tempting him to feed his hungry belly.

But then he saw two eyes, gleaming in the darkness, and heard the frightened intake of breath.

Corryn also started, having been half-asleep himself. The fear in her eyes shocked him, but then he remembered how this must have been for her. "Shhhh," he quickly said, "It's just me. Corryn. You're safe. Perfectly safe, my love."

He took her hand and squeezed it gently. "I'll open the flap, shall I? Give you some light."

He saw the movement of her eyes as she nodded slowly in the darkness.

Corryn slipped from her arms and let her retreat into her bed and covers.

A rustle told him that she had taken the opportunity to dive beneath the covers.

He smiled in the darkness and opened the wagon flap. The light from the campfires bled into the dark interior, casting everything in a ruddy glow. He sat at the end of the wagon, watching her in the flickering light.

She was watching him too, safely ensconced in the improvised bed. Her dark hair had escaped from its braid, and he realised that in her movement, the sleeve of her dress had slipped a little, and he could clearly see one bare pale shoulder, a silken gleam in the light that spilled into the wagon, starlight and fire together, falling on her face, her shoulder ...

Corryn's breath caught in his throat as he saw her in the delicate light. For a moment, he stared at her, lost in her intoxicating beauty. With her face softened by shadow, Limosa seemed much older and more womanly. Although she was definitely on the thin side, he could not deny his attraction to her. In another time, another world, he would have pursued her affections. He'd forgotten what it felt like to hold a woman. To just hold her and listen to her breathe in the darkness. The scent of her washed hair still lingered on his shirt.

Lords, man, she's your daughter! Corryn reminded himself. And yet that wasn't entirely true. They certainly weren't related by blood.

And I'm sure that would make all the difference to her dead mother, your good wife, he thought.

That quickly quashed any ardor rising within him. But it did little to soothe his racing pulse and flushed cheeks.

"Are you hungry?" he said. "I'll fetch you some food, if you like. You can watch me from here. That way you don't have to go out amongst the men. And then we can eat together. Like a family."

She nodded at the mention of food, clearly hungry, but she seemed nonplussed by the idea of eating together. Or was it the concept of a family who ate together that she found so strange?

Relieved by the temporary dismissal, Corryn exited the wagon in a hurry. The cool air of the outdoors welcomed him and he was grateful for its soothing touch. He rubbed his eyes and chuckled to himself admonishingly. You seriously need a woman, he chided himself. One with big hips and pleasant grin. As he wandered into the camp, he wondered how Odette had been the last two years. A gentle night with her could erase any woe from the troubled mind.

He happily lost himself in the camaraderie of his men, patting shoulders and trading jokes. As he filled two plates, he inquired as to the progress of the march from his captains.

They were making good progress, he was informed. If they pressed on early, they could reach Holdfast by the middle of the next day.

"There's a stream close by too," said the grizzled Phalan. "Sweet water - we can bathe away the grime of ... of your new home, Ser."

He sounded as though he would be relieved.

"Arrive looking something like respectable," he added.

"And here I thought the perfume of pig-filth was all the rage in the northern courts," Corryn snorted with grin. "Take shifts getting cleaned up if you haven't already. The least we can do is look halfway decent when we arrive. Considering the hornet's nest we're sticking our heads into, I suspect a little dishevelment will be the least of our worries."

He sat down beside his captain, "We'll be marching straight to the castle. I'd rather make a show of force rather than camp out in the middle of Hardy territory. Fly both our House banner along with the Stark's colors. Even Anders wouldn't be stupid enough to ignore our Lady's blessing, eh?"

Corryn grabbed two tin plates and filled them with rabbit stew. "As for my new home," he added, "it will be a fine place eventually. Certainly nothing my father will be proud of, but I could be the King's Hand and he'd frown upon it."

A sudden silence around the camp alerted him first. Then the fact that his men were all staring in one direction.

Doubtless hungry, Limosa had pushed aside the covering of the wagon and was looking out for him around the fire. And his earlier suspicion in the wagon was confirmed - under the filth and rags, his dark-haired daughter was a beautiful woman.

She seemed unconscious of the effect she was causing - doubtless so many years of being overlooked in her father's castle had had this effect on her.

The effect on the twenty virile men who made up the present company of Laughing Knives was quite different.

Corryn immediately felt a rush of fatherly protectiveness as he watched the reaction amongst the Laughing Knives. They were noblemen all, in spirit and honor, if not by blood. They would never harm a woman or take advantage of one. But still, the Riverwolf did not appreciate the stares being directed at his daughter.

He slid his dagger from its wrist sheath, spinning it in his fingers to attract some attention. With a sharp downward thrust he speared one of the large sausages currently cooking in the fire. He lifted the impaled meat up and held it there for emphasis, narrowing his eyes in silent warning.

And then he smirked softly, shaking his head. "Why didn't anyone warn me this is what being a father was like, eh?"

Phalan snorted and then laughed deeply, slapping Corryn on the back. His mirth was contagious and spread quickly through the men. They taunted and teased him as he made his way back to the wagon. Corryn accepted their gipes in good humor, knowing he'd hopefully adverted misplaced longings.

He paused in front of Limosa and smiled gently at her. He knew trouble would follow this girl. She was simply too beautiful to be ignored. Beautiful and fragile. How could he ever trust a man not to hurt her? How could he even trust himself?

"Your dinner is served, m'lady," he said with a bow. "Would you like to eat inside or shall we go down to the stream and eat there?"

She looked at him for a moment, as though he had set her some sort of test. Then she smiled and pointed towards the stream. This, it appeared, would be her choice.

Once they reached there, however, Corryn found he practically had to order her to eat. The stream was, in reality, a small river - and she had clearly never seen such a thing before. Several times he looked up from his own meal to see her staring at the water, transfixed. Once she was watching a kingfisher, but another time she was just delighting in the braid and unbraiding of the water as it raced over rocks.

Corryn smiled happily and encouraged Limosa's fascination with the river. How could he not? Indeed, having been away from it for two years, he felt as if he was returning to an old friend. Experiencing it again through her eyes, however, only deepened the experience that much further. He handed her a plate and couldn't help his childlike grin from widening.

"That's a belted kingfisher," he said, pointing to the bird. "And it's a she. You can tell by the plumage. Females are always more brightly colored than the males. You don't see that often in birds. It's usually the other way around. I've always thought they are spirits blessed by the Maiden because of their independent nature. See how she hovers before going in for a fish? She can do that for hours, if she needs to."

She nodded. Her silence was an advantage here; she watched wide eyed, looking obediently where he pointed, her pleasure in the moment showing only in little gasps and silent laughter.

Corryn felt true elation as he watched her joyful reactions. He could hardly take his eyes off her. In that gentle moment, he wanted to scoop up the world in his arms and give every last bit of its beauty to her. He hadn't felt like this for as long as he could recall. And he didn't want to lose it, not even for a second.

Perhaps it was fate, perhaps blind luck, that Corryn caught a glimpse of a sleek, dark shape near the rocks of the opposite bank. The animal moved like shadow through the water, its five-foot length hardly disturbing the surface. He patted Limosa's knee and pointed toward it. A moment later, a hairy nose pad broke the surface, revealing the giant otter's pale throat markings. It let out a musical chirp before diving back under in the search for crayfish.

"And that, my dear, is a riverwolf. My namesake," Corryn said, grinning from ear to ear. "They call me that because I swim like one. Here…watch."

He carved off a piece of the sausage and then tossed it toward the shallow pool the riverwolf was scouting around in. The splash made the creature jump, but it quickly recognized food. The animal grabbed the chunk of meat in its webbed front paws and began to float on its back. Happily chewing and eating, the riverwolf floated lazily in the tidal pool like a large, furry log.

Now she was laughing - and looking with amusement from the floating dog otter to Ser Corryn himself. She pointed to him and to the otter again - and her question was clear - did he comport himself like that in the water?

"Verily," he chuckled with a nod. "Ever since I could walk, I've rarely been out of the water. I learned in the ocean. My father taught me on one of the rare occasions he'd tolerate my existence. I'd let the waves roll over me and run around the beach, squealing like some mad seabird.

"But my father had me foster in Winterfell after my mother died. That gave me a chance to fall in love with the White Knife, a river of beauty beyond measure. I'd spend hours floating on my back or swimming as deep as I could go, while the other boys could hardly stay in for more than a few minutes. So they gave me the name, Riverwolf. And I've had it ever since."

He threw another slice of sausage into the water, attracting his furry counterpart's attention. The sleek animal stole the floating morsel and then disappeared beneath the reflective surface. As he didn't return, it became obvious the animal had retreated to its mud burrow to eat and rest.

"We'll have to teach you how to swim like that, if you like," he said, smiling over at her. "You probably haven't even felt running water on your toes, have you?"

Corryn's question came out with a lilt of sadness, as he wondered how anyone could have survived the captivity she must have experienced.

At once her pleasure seemed to fade, like an afternoon shadow across the sun. She looked down at the half-eaten sausage in her hand. Then, abruptly, she was rising to her feet, pointing back to the camp. She wanted to go, it seemed.

Corryn stood up and frowned. For a moment, he nearly gave in to her. But then, he shook his head and set down his plate on the grass. "No," he said lightly. "I'm not going to lose that laugh so easily. You're radiant when you laugh, Limosa. There will be no more frowns or disappointments for you."

He kicked off his boots and peeled away his socks. As she watched, he wrinkled his toes and smirked. His feet were huge and, in many ways, resembled a riverwolf's; if slightly better tended. "See? I can take my boots off too."

Corryn removed his overshirt and belt, as well, until he was far more comfortable. Nonchalantly, he walked over to the sandy river's edge and walked into the water. The slow current still retained the sun's warmth, making the river pleasant on the skin. Phalan had been right about its quality too, so he didn't fear leeches or other nasties to be lurking in the silken sand.

He turned to Limosa once the water reached his knees. He beckoned her to him, "Come. I'll teach you how to float like an otter." His smile was reassuring. "I'll hold you the entire time. You'll be perfectly safe. I swear it."

She looked at him as though doubting his words, and then down at her dress. It was clear she did not want to damage the finest dress she had ever worn. For a moment she hesitated, and then, resolutely, she unfastened her belt. Next she lifted her kirtle and pulled it over her head, followed soon afterwards by her shift, and in the fading light of the riverbank, Corryn was confronted by the truth that perhaps he should have guessed earlier, when her dress had slipped and he saw her bare shoulder.

Fortune had avoided fights with Limosa over the wearing of undergarments by the simple expedient of not making her wear any at all.

Corryn stood stock still as the dress fell away, his eyebrow quirking. He tilted his head, his jaw hanging open slightly. He blinked dumbly. His head tilted slightly more. Another dumb blink.

"Huh," he quipped. In truth, he meant to say, 'This can't end well.'

As he stood there, uncomfortable and knowing how terribly wrong this was, Corryn could help remembering a certain frog pond on a certain day, so many years ago. Only then it had be he without clothing, not the other way around. That awkward situation hadn't ended well either, as he recalled. But the years following that occasion had certainly been memorable ones.

Corryn realized he'd been staring for far too long and straightened up. He hoped the dying light hid the blush rising in his cheeks; amongst other things. "We'll have to get you a swimming outfit, I see," he said, his voice a few octaves too high.

She nodded, and indicated - would it mean breeches like his own to cover her long slender legs?

"Ummm… more than that, I fear," he said, patting his top, trying not to stare. "Ladies usually don't go around so… umm… exposed. Not unless they're guaranteed to be alone. Or in the privacy with their husbands, I suppose."

For a second she looked worried - and then she gave a little shake of her head. Time enough to worry about that later, her expression seemed to suggest.

He couldn't turn back now even if he wanted too. She'd shown her trust in him and to refuse her now would be ill received. At least, he told himself that to ease his discomfort.

"Just come to me," he said, holding his hands out, trying to look at her eyes. Yes, her eyes, he told himself. Focus on her eyes. Just her eyes. Oh bollocks. Like /that's/ going to happen. Dead mother, dead mother, dead mother.

With a shy confidence, she stepped forward. One step ... then another, till she was on the bank. Delicately she extended her slender foot into the water - she could have been a water sprite, so delicate and graceful.

Corryn tried to think of battle and taxes and generally anything that had nothing to do with how beautiful Limosa was. He didn't think of her legs or wrists or tummy or breasts or lips or hair. These things simply didn't enter his mind. Definitely no. Never. Farthest thing from. After all, she was too thin for him. Yes. Too thin. Far too thin to kiss.

Poor Morna. He wondered if this was how she had felt when he played the fool at Holdfast that summer.

And then it all went so horribly wrong.

Her foot skidded and she swung her arms wide to support herself. But it was too late and she slid further forward, faster, her arms wheeling ever wilder until she landed with a crash in the water, sending up a plume that soaked Corryn. The water was not deep - no higher than shoulder height here - but the angle of her descent meant that she vanished from view.

Corryn cursed loudly and moved forward. The splash of water in his eyes blinded him temporarily, but he knew where she was. Instinctively, he plunged forward and felt her body beneath the water; her lanky arms thrashing. He took a solid fist to the ear, but was able to scoop her up into his arms and stand. She broke the surface with a gasping sputter, still wriggling in his arms like a silverfish.

"Limosa," he said decisively, trying to cut through her panic. "You're okay. You're fine. I have you. See? You're floating. You're safe." His voice remained soothing and calming. Fear for her dulled any thoughts of how warm she felt in his arms.

"You did so well. I'm very proud of you. You're so brave. That was the river blessing you. If you don't learn to respect her, she can sweep you away. But you passed her test with a brave heart. Now she'll accept you freely. See how you're floating now?"

Corryn stared down into her frightened eyes, smiling tenderly. He continued to support her in his arms, even though she could easily step down to the soft sand. He let her float against him in the hopes she would realize he would be there for her.

But her eyes were not frightened. They were alight with pleasure. She moved in his arms, exploring this new medium that caressed her skin, and even leaned her head back in the water so that her dark hair floated around her face like a softened cloud.

Corryn breathed a sigh of relief and chuckled. "I should have known you'd be alright," he said, almost apologetically. "You startle me with your resilience." He held Limosa out from his body and sank a little so that the water began to support more of her weight. He couldn't help but be entranced by her smile, the glitter in her eyes. Vivid memories of his first experiences with the river's peaceful embrace returned to him. He could almost see the same reaction in her expression. Bliss and wonderment.

Then she stood up - and the water came to just below her shoulders. She took a step away from him, then glanced over her shoulder as though inviting him to follow as she glided through this strange new medium, the river lights giving her skin the faintest green hue.

He blinked for a moment, hesitant to follow. Seeing her thusly, he wondered if he'd been bewitched by a river spirit taken human form. But there were no phantasms, no illusions. This night felt very real. And he sensed the encroaching implications it might hold.

But Corryn followed her anyway, drifting through the water with graceful ease. He could not have done otherwise. Not now.

The night became insubstantial, as if Corryn had stumbled into a dream. He followed Limosa into the dying light and slipped beneath the cool waters. Limosa surprised him with her natural skill for the water and soon she was dog-paddling and drifting around him like a playful otter. She soon took to splashing him, which in turn descended into playful sport; seeing who could soak the other more thoroughly. Before they knew it, they were in deeper water and she curled against him for support, letting him hold her as she floated on her back.

Limosa's euphoria was contagious and Corryn found himself infected with her joyousness. For a night, he escaped himself, escaped the wounds that would never heal. In her eyes, her laugh, her joy, he found a peace he had long forgotten. Beneath the lengthening shadows, he rediscovered the simple pleasures of just being. In her eyes, he remembered what it felt like to be alive again.

As the hunter's moon began to paint the river with silver, the playfulness ebbed away into gentle embrace. He held her close and together they watched the stars take shape in the darkened sky. She smiled up at him, those dark eyes filled with an odd wonderment. It wasn't romantic, it wasn't desire, it simply… was. Corryn realized that like him this silent beauty had discovered a sense of peace, unfamiliar but certainly accepted.

He could have held her the entire night, but soon she yawned and began fighting to keep her eyes open. The exhaustion of the day had settled into his every nerve, weighing him down as well. So, he lightly kissed her brow and then carried her out of the water and onto the shore. The cold air woke her up quickly, so he gave her his overshirt as a towel. She sat on a rock and dried her hair, staring back at the river with a longing Corryn knew only too well.

"We'll come back soon, my dear," he said, getting on his boots. "And then we can spend the whole day playing and swimming if you like."

She didn't respond, having nodded off. Corryn chuckled and wrapped her up in his cloak. With her dress over his shoulder, he carried her in his arms back to the camp. She nuzzled against his chest, restless but too tired to open her eyes. The gentle warmth of her against him made his heart ache. It reaffirmed the wonderment that she inspired in him.

After putting her in bed and covering her, Corryn leaned back and watched sleep overtake her. The pain and worry drained from her innocent face, giving him a glimpse of what she would have been were the world not heartless. He brushed her hair back and sighed to himself. He was lost to her now. He simply didn't know it yet.

That night he slept beneath the wagon, listening to the camp sleep. Beneath the sounds of night, the sounds of snoring, the sound of the embers cracking, Corryn could hear Limosa's faint snore. It sounded like a cat's purr. It sounded like the gentle surf. It sounded like home.

Categories: WinterChills, WinterChillsGameLogs

Page last modified on April 12, 2006, at 02:08 AM