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Another guard was on duty in the cells, and looked at the party with some surprise.

"If he's challenged to fight, he shouldn't be kept here. He should be in the tournament field, where he might prepare."

One of the guards was moved to protest. "How can we watch him there?"

The dungeon guard shrugged. "How should I know? Have the blacksmith make him a collar and chain and stake him like a dog for all I care. Or keep him in the guardhouse. But one would think if he's noble enough to claim right of challenge, he can pledge his oath not to escape."

The guard looked at Evan doubtfully. "Take his oath?"

"Apparently I'm not to fight till tomorrow," Evan ventured mildly. "Are you going to keep me staked out in the field till then?"

"Well, if'n you'll give yer oath as a noble not to escape, we could just put you under watch or something, like," the guard replied, scratching the back of his neck.

Evan sighed. "Apparently, you have me mistaken for someone else."

The guards grinned at each other, their smiles yellowed and gap-toothed. "Right then," one said, turning their prisoner around and pushing him back up the stairs. "It's the stocks for you. Everyone can have a good look at you there."

"The courtyard stocks?" said the turnkey. "You'd best see them ready then. You can leave him here while you wait."

The other guards clattered away in good humour, leaving Evan with the turnkey.

Evan watched the knife flick, again and again, between the man's yellowed teeth, his dark eyes almost unfocused, but following the flash of the blade nonetheless. The turnkey noticed him watching, and continued almost insolently, exaggerating each flick of the point and spreading his lips to reveal a jaundiced grin. With the slightest of swaggers, he rose slowly to his feet, putting his knife away and sauntering over to where Evan sat against the wall. Unhurriedly, he paced a few times directly in front of Evan, scuffing his boots so close that puffs of straw blew up onto the seated prisoner. "So," the turnkey drawled. "Kill someone, did you?" When Evan did not reply, he bent down towards his face, and Evan caught the whiff of last night's ale. "Good thing for you you picked a combat, you know," the turnkey grinned. "Be over nice and quick. They could have left you here in the dungeons to rot, and forgot about you. You look young, boy. You got no idea how long you'd rot down here." The man gave a moist chuckle.

"Six and a half minutes," Evan whispered, staring straight ahead. The turnkey frowned.


"Fifteen seconds to kick your feet out from under you, wrap these chains around your throat, and crush your windpipe," Evan said, very softly, as if he was talking to himself. "Three minutes waiting for you to die. Two minutes to find the right key to these chains from the ring at your belt and unlock my manacles. Add on another minute in case you can hold your breath longer than I think you can, and another fifteen seconds in case you fall awkwardly and I have to hit you a couple of times before choking you." He looked up directly into the gaoler's eyes. "That should just about cover it."

The stunned look on the turnkey's face melted away slowly, replaced by a nasty sneer. He pulled out his knife again, and rested the point of it just under Evan's eye, making a little sinkhole in his cheek where it pressed into him. "You talk real big for a dead man."

Evan did not flinch, and stared into the gaoler's eyes with a gaze that was very calm, and almost terrifyingly sane. "And that's exactly what I'd be if I tried to fight my way out of Holdfast's dungeons with nothing more than your knife," he said. "Which is why I'm still sitting here, and you're standing there." Evan still seemed totally relaxed, his shoulders not even tense. "Now put that away or I'll take it away from you."

They stood frozen like that for a long moment, and then the turnkey's throat bobbed as he swallowed, and he stood back, sheathing his knife. He took a deep breath as he walked away, before taking a long pull from his wineskin. Glancing back in the prisoner's direction, he saw that Evan was already staring at his hands again, unmoving.

It was a long few minutes before the other guards returned.

They were preceded, however, by Kenrith Hardy.

"I know you lads have work to do... but I will speak with him alone," Kenrith said as he indicated the prisoner with the tips of his fingers, his open palm facing the ceiling.

They grumbled and nodded, but then returned up the steps. Between the trial and now, Kenrith had acquired a sword, but it wasn't the same blade he had carried north from Riverrun. He sat on the keyturn's wooden stool and wrapped his arm across his chest, a posture Evan had seen him assume before.

"Garryn spoke with me. He said you refused his offer to squire for you. Do you hate lords and knights that much, that you'd refuse him a chance to show his loyalty by acting as a squire, because it might make you look like one?"

Evan raised an eyebrow, but there was no hint of anything else in his expression. "Not at all," he said calmly. "Rather, I'd refuse him a chance to show a loyalty that would get him beaten or worse. It was a mistake to bring him north, and I wish he wouldn't keep trying to compound the error and just go south and find himself a nice girl somewhere. And as for mistaking me for a knight, I very much doubt that's going to happen. Even the potboy is going to be able to recognise that the filthy man they unshackle and toss into a ring with a sword isn't the knight, but the armoured fellow that kills him will be."

"A tilt, actually... it will be a joust, which may continue on foot. As for Garryn, I will see to it that he is not harmed if you allow him to help. If I thought Holdfast would remain safe for him, I'd offer him a place here... but Riverrun or the Wall are more likely. I hope to persuade him to head south before he sees what Autumn is like in the north, with Mal and Jayne perhaps. Unlike your fa... that man, I take my oaths seriously. Accept him, or not... but he'll scream his loyalty out either way, and I'll look after him as I'm able either way."

"As for this business at the trial about the Hardies being a load of Bolton-lovers..." Kenrith said as his face flushed. His tone was still calm, but his face had grown stiff.

"They are here... to pay their blood price. Many years ago, before I was sent south to Riverrun, there was to be a tourney at Holdfast. We all had gone down to see the horses at the tourney grounds. A small squire was setting up a tent by himself, but he was having trouble... As it turned out, his limbs weren't working quite right. Godwyn, Rhys, Syndra, and her brother went over and offered to help. This, however, was too much for Ser Herys. With a gauntleted fist, he struck his own son so hard he was two paces through the air before he hit the ground... and after he landed he couldn't get up, but Herys just walked off. He threw up when I picked him up. Ser Ryswell helped me carry him back to the castle. If he hadn't been struck in the head, I believe our Maester would have been able to cure him. As it was, he worked to save him in the tower for days. The rest of us were quarentined in the tower, and slowly fell ill. Syndra's mother was pregnant. The squire, Syndra's mother, the baby, both of her brothers... very nearly I... and many others in the town... died because of Ser Herys Bolton. So... don't tell me we are Bolton-lovers. There is literally not another human on this earth whose retainer could be a guest in this castle and whose party we wouldn't protect with guest right. We do our duty to the point of death... be it dragon's fire, or winter's chill on the wall," Kenrith said with a certain angry cadence which wouldn't be interrupted.

"But... apart from telling you how a certain squire died, and why I hate Herys Bolton so much... I have one more reason for telling you all of this. Should there come a time in your joust when you have my uncle, or my brother on the ground with a sword at their throat and have a choice between letting them yield and running them through... and you let them live... I will see you safely to the Wall, if it cost me my own life," Kenrith said quietly, but without looking away from Evan's eyes.

"Demand your fair lot... a chance to walk and stretch before the trial by combat, the opportunity to inspect your mount and select a squire amongst those available and willing... and as long as there are no more slanders against our beloved dead children by calling us Bolton-lovers, you will have it. If not from me, from Ser Anders or Ser Godfrey... but not if you insist on spitting in our faces every chance you get."

"As for all these blasted Boltons around... you ought to know better than I what kind of trouble we are in for, if not today then some day soon. For what it is worth... I hope you, as well as my family, are still alive when I get back. Let this all end in blood some other day, when it will be more of Herys' men who pay for it," Kenrith said grimly.

Where he had worn a carefully schooled and blank expression throughout most of his trial, Evan now listened with a furrowed brow. There was something in the way he drummed his fingertips together lightly that almost gave the impression of a maester listening to an essay, an impression only partially diminished by his ragged appearance and the manacles around his wrists. He let silence hang for a long while in the dungeon after Kenrith was done, before clearing his throat to reply. "I must admit, Ser Kenrith, I am slightly confused," he said slowly, a frown still creasing his features. "Did you come down here to tell me that you hate the Boltons as much as I do? Or to tell me that I should stop being offensive to your family and accept my fate quietly, but in the unlikely event that I do win my freedom, you then wish me to forfeit that freedom and let your man live?"

Kenrith frowned in reply. "I came down here to, One," he said as he ticked off one finger with his thumb, "convince you to accept Garryn as a squire for your duel and to tell you he is under my protection in either event. Two," again with a ticked finger by his thumb, "to inform you of the circumstances of your duel and to urge you to take it seriously... as I believe you will be fairly treated should you do so." Another finger ticked off "Three, to inform you that it is in your best interests to be merciful in battle should you gain the upper hand." A final finger, with just the thumb outstanding, "Four, to tell you how Herys brought the summer fever to Holdfast... and ask you... Five," he said as he closed his hand, then let it drop to his side with deliberate effort, "to ask you if you think he infected your brother on purpose to do it," he said with a face like stone.

Evan let out his breath explosively, and chewed the inside of his cheek for a long moment before replying. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, a deep frown indicating how hard he was thinking of the right words to say. "I called your family a lot of things up there," he began, carefully. "I called them liars and cheats. I said they were so lacking in justice they were willing to let a killer walk free because he happened to be a friend. Yet I find it very telling, Ser Kenrith, that out of all of that, the thing that most offends you is that I suggested you might feel favourable towards another certain noble family."

"If you thought to come down here and suggest that we had a mutual enemy in a man who maliciously killed our families, you have sadly mistaken me," he went on. "Blind, self-obsessed hatred is your lot, not mine. I have no particular ill-will towards the Boltons at all. And until now, I didn't hold any particular bad feeling towards you Hardys either, despite what I said up in the Great Hall. I did think you were amazingly self-absorbed, but I must admit, you have exceeded even my expectations."

Evan's dark eyes glittered like dragonglass, and he pressed his lips into a thin line before continuing. "There are so many good reasons to hate my father. He is, among other things, a bully, a thug, and without a compassionate bone in his body. Any redeeming features he has are so few and far between they pale like mist before the dawn. His life has been an unending series of cruel and malicious acts. Yet you hate him for the one evil thing he did in his life that he didn't mean to do. Amazing." Evan shook his head in wonderment. "You hate the man with such blind, consuming passion because his son had the audacity to die in your castle. Some might see an indiscriminate plague as a tragedy. Only you Hardys would see it as an affront to your honour. And only you Hardys would cling to such raging hatred over a tragic accident."

Evan shrugged. "But, I must admit, I thought that was the extent of it. I thought you were merely misguided, and so torn with grief over your losses that you could not forget such an unfortunate episode. I now see there is no limit to your arrogance. You actually think a man hated you so much that he was prepared to infect his eldest son with a plague, and bring him here on the chance that he might cause your family some grief. Unbelievable. It's a thought so egotistical it's quite breathtaking. You are a family so self-obsessed you think everyone is similarly obsessed with you - that your enemies are so fixated on you that nothing else in their life matters. And I must admit, I barely know what to say in the face of that. I've never quite seen anything like it."

He leant forward then, and his voice was icy calm. "I will say this, though, Ser Kenrith. My father is not a subtle man. He's barely literate. If he actually ever spared a malicious thought for your family, he would have struck one of you, or taken it out on one of you on the tourney field. And incredible as this may be for you to believe, even among the Boltons, we value eldest sons. Unbelievable as this may sound, the Boltons actually value eldest sons more than they despise you. Despite the narcissistic fantasy you have conjured, your arm is an unfortunate accident - nobody hated you so much that they sacrificed their eldest child in the hope that they might cripple you." Evan ground his teeth as he sat back against the wall. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"I am not disapointed... about that. I needed a second opinion, and I have it, and I will correct my... preconceptions. As you say, there are many reasons to hate the man, and if it was not craft which brought this on," Kenrith said as he touched his covered arm, "then it was his stupidity in not recognising his son's illness and seeking help. I am glad he does not have that much guile. As for calling my family a nest of liars and cheats... you are mistaken, but if you think it so there is no point in my saying otherwise again. Thank you for your answer. Please... consider the rest of what I said, even if you don't give a damn about the rest," Kenrith said before standing.

He rattled the iron gate, at which sound the jailers returned down the stairs, and left swiftly but not at a run.

The guards returned, moving respectfully past Kenrith, and then regarding Evan Tamm with calm, level expressions. There was no animopusity there, it seemed, just a detached determination to deal with the problem he caused in the way that would cause the least irritation to him.

The main gaoler maintained an uneasy distance.

Page last modified on July 13, 2006, at 06:21 PM