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It was near dark when he had returned to the camp, and it had grown fully into night while he spoke with first the Steward, and then Lady Celia. He had hoped to speak with Ser Corryn before he learned his men had been killed while Kenrith was in command of them... but such was not to be.

He schooled the shame from his face, and replaced it with his usual neutral expresion as he approached where Ser Corryn's men were watching vigil over the men. His eyes, perhaps, betrayed his sadness.

As he neared the perimeter, he glanced about to see if Ser Corryn was about. Though he was puzzled at his absense, he simply asked one of his older men "May I have your leave to stand vigil with you?"

The question was asked quietly, with a hint of deference which added "Or am I not wanted?" without presuming his own right to stand vigil with the slain man's brothers?

The older man glanced up from his seat by fire. A scar bisected much of his already grim face, erasing one of his eyes. The other eye glittered with a feline glow in the firelight as he studied the young Hardy. "Ye should be askin the sergeant that question I suspect, but he's tending to the master."

A younger man standing near him turned at the voices. Immediately his young face twisted with spite and it had little to do with the wrapped wound on his arm. "Varick," he snapped. "That's the one, that is."

Varick did not turn his gaze from Kenrith. "I knows who it is, Kolin. I ain't blind."

"It aint' right him being here. It ain't right."

Now Varick did turn. His voice dropped to a hiss as he stood up. "Shut yer yap. He's a lord he is. And no matter what he done, ye treats him with respect. Now go fetch some wood unless that scratch on yer arm is still givin ye fits."

The young boy cowered off, nursing his arm. He cast a hateful glare over his shoulder before disappearing behind a tent. The other men briefly took notice, but otherwise remained focused on their various tasks.

Varick turned around, "My apologies, Ser Hardy. But with Phalan gone and the master recouping, ye'll be at the mercy of that sort of welcome."

"I'm sorry to hear that Ser Corryn is indisposed, I had hoped to offer my condolences to him tonight. You have them as well, and may accept them or not as you will," he said seriously followed by a sigh.

"The only true ammends that I can make will be made on the morrow. Until then, which do you think would cause less pain among your comrades... should I offer them my condolences, or leave them be?" he asked Varick as he silently evaluated his own options. If he left without expressing his sorrow at what had happened, their ire might well fester... but he could make the situation worse simply by being here.

Varick grunted lightly and politely escorted Kenrith back out amongst the tents. "Best ye just let me pass yer condolences along, lad. We've lost a few too many along the way getting here and te have Indigo die so~E well, best ye just trust me on this.

"Ye can, however, have some spiced wine with me beside the fire in Indigo's honor. And then ye might help me with something."

Ser Kenrith nodded and followed.

He sat down beside one of the dying fires and ladled two mugs of hot wine. The scents were sharp and peculiar, speaking of herbs and spices the North had never seen. The old man wet his lips and then cradled the mug between his thick, callused hands. For a moment, he simply stared into the embers, silent and still.

"I've followed Ser Corryn nigh on twenty years now. I was there at Dragonstone with him. Dat's where I got te be so pretty. He's a right mad bastard, but a cunning one as well. So I can tell when he ain't himself. And ser, ever since he got yer uncle's missive, he ain't be right at all."

He took another swig from the steaming mug. "We came here te help ye lot. But ye seem to be hanging yerselves with a pretty thick noose, if I may say so, ser. So, cin I ask ye this? When me master may die tomorrow, is he doing it fer the right reasons?"

"I do not pretend to know the depths of his mind... but I believe he is doing it out of love for his friend Ser Godfrey, as much as anything else," Kenrith said as he looked over the fire at the other man and took a small sip of the spiced wine.

"He also has no small love for this place, or so I'm told... so doesn't wish to see me here if I am unfit. It is not a unique opinion here, or, I think, anywhere where an heir apparent returns from a long fostering. He may have other reasons as well," he said as he shrugged in a lopsided fashion, "but I am no maester, to peer into men's eyes and see the workings within."

Varick set his mug down as Kenrith talked and then pulled a pipe from the folds of his uniform. He continued to listen as he filled it with a sweet smelling tobacco. A burning branch lit it easily, filling the air with a bluish smoke. He puffed twice, and then nodded to Kenrith's final words.

Kenrith sniffed at the smoke, and thought of Riverrun as he smiled faintly. Tobacco grew in the south, and so was more frequently smoked in Riverrun than Holdfast.

"Oh, it be out of love, I reckon, but nah solely fer his old friend," the old man chuckled faintly. "He might fool himself, but we all know how much he loves that girl. I remember the way he watched the ocean from sunrise to set, as if it might carry a letter from her on the next wave."

Kenrith schooled his face, and made no reply. He was surprised, but there was no need to show it. He should have guessed, but hadn't. He had been away for far too long.

His eye narrowed, staring across the field with deep spite. "He means te ride against Herys on the morrow. And I don't think that will end in a handshake. But he hasn't ridden in two years. It's a lot different from swingin an axe, as ye know. Phalan and the Lady are up to something te stop it I think. I hope. But he loves Lady Syndra. He'll die fer her."

Kenrith nodded solemnly as this piece fell into place.

He cocked his head, the wizened eye drifting to Kenrith's arm and then back. "What we're wondering, I suppose, is why the rest of ye Hardys are so chummy with the Boltons? Honor is one thing my boy, but taking an enemy to your bosom is another."

Varick took another puff on the pipe, blowing the sweet smoke through his twisted nose. "And aye... the Lord is under instruction te watch ye. I'll be frank, because all yer high-born yibber-yabber tires me and I ain't the tongue fer it. He'll do what's best fer Holdfast. It's his second home. Do ye think he can put his trust in ye?"

"Herys is a boar... I think Ser Corryn will do well, so long as he remembers how to hunt one. I pray he does. If I thought I had a chance of killing Herys in a joust, I would be up there instead... but..." Kenrith said as he touched his seemingly empty shoulder and frowned.

Varick nodded, gesturing to his eye with the bit of his pipe. "Aye, I'm sure ye would at that. I haven't entered the lists since Dragonstone. But if I could, I'd put that pig down and mayhaps let our pup try te have a life.

"And frankly, Herys should be yer or Ser Godfrey's kill~E no matter what me Lord lost."

"Celia is near panic that I'll have her out as soon as I'm made Lord, and is doubtlessly playing her own game out of desperation. I fear my father's illness dulled his edge in the negotiations for reparations for the blood debt, or else his recent bout prevented him from seeing it through."

"As for the rest of us... we are not as wealthy as Manderly. The only coin we have is honor. This is our home... Holdfast. Those are our words. Within these walls, guest right is law. If I could prove Herys had violated it, matters would be quite different. I cannot," he said with a hard smile which promised blood should he ever find the matter different.

"When Torrhen Stark's father fought the Targaryens at Glasstop Hill, Kennith Hardy was given command of the western flank, and told to hold it. Honor demanded he Hold Fast, no matter what happened. Even to this day, I'm told, at the crest of that hill along the western ridge, there is a metallic whirl from my namesake's armor and bones in the glass which gives the hill its name."

"While he held fast against dragon's flame, a Stark raiding party was able to circle around and cut the Targaryen supply lines down. It was a generation before they attacked the North again... but we Held Fast on that day," Kenrith said quietly as his eyes stared into the flames. His voice had a ritual quality to it, as if this were a tale he had heard over and over. It was one he had repeated to himself in those excrutiating days after the plague, and later in the first terrible days at Riverrun as he pushed himself to the brink of death each day in the hopes that his arm would heal.

"Do not mistake Ser Godfrey holding to the last inch of honor in these matters as ignorantly cosseting a serpent to his breast. He is not ignorant, and neither am I. Evan, or whatever name Herys gave the mad wretch, will have his trial... which is what Herys wants. Should he transgress an inch over the line, however... then he will taste the other side of honor," Kenrith said as he touched the pommel of the sword he still wore.

"As for whether I am fit, whether he can trust me... you can shove it. Celia will judge if I am fit, Ser Godfrey will judge if I am fit, Ser Corryn will judge for the Starks and for himself. Every Hardy man on those walls will make his own judgement, as will Ser Anders. I'm no southern clown for my years growing into a man with our Lords' inlaws. Nothing I can say will cause you to believe I am fit to be a Lord. Watch what I do, and have done, though, and you'll understand sooner than most," he said roughly.

"As for what happened today... I am sorry that your friend died on my watch. They knew we were coming, and aimed for the scouts. The trees were prepared, and they knew exactly where to place their ambush. I have been here days... but those wildings know my family's woods as if they have been here for years. Those woods... are our outermost curtain, a line of defense. I am sorry that your friend died... and I know it will not bring him back. I will mend this rot in the walls." Kenrith said sadly as he looked into the fire at all times except when he offered his apologies.

The smoke curled around Varick as he listened, solemn and stone-faced. That one eye hardly blinked as it studied the young man before him. What it saw could not be known; but study Kenrith he did, his face worn down like the bark of the Smith's God tree. Other than the occasional nod, he did not interrupt or respond in any fashion. Finally, he gave out a faint grunt of satisfaction.

"Well spoken, young ser," he said. "Well spoken, indeed."

He reached into uniform and drew out another pipe; smaller, but carved intricately into a series of crashing waves. He handed it and some tobacco to Kenrith, and then refilled his own pipe.

He extended his hand to accept it, and dexterously manuvered the tobacco into the pipe with the tips of his fingers and his tongue, after which he spat into the fire and smirked at his unlordlike behavior.

"We'll smoke together ye and I, ser," Varick announced. "And mend the way between us. We both have blood on our hands. And the years donna wash it away. Nor does it soothe the ire of others. That's the first thing ye learn when ye lead men, be in war or peace."

Kenrith nodded and held out the bowl of his pipe to be lit, as he could see Varick was preparing to relight his own.

He relit his pipe and then helped Kenrith light his. "Firstly, I'll say this. The Lord likes ye and our Lady showed ye her favor." He gestured towards Limosa's scarf. "If she likes ye, there must be something there worthy of it. That lass has seen the worse in men, so fer her te see the good, well, that speaks highly of ye already."

And then his eye narrowed, "But that won't go te helping many forgive yer costly foolishness. What ye did wasn't just reckless~E it was selfish."

Varick cocked his head, stabbing with the bit of his pipe as he talked. "Ye heard me. Selfish. Yer so busy tryin te prove yerself, ye walked right into a Wildling ambush. And ye cost me a friend. Ye should have been wary and respectful. Nah focusing on provin yer a man.

Kenrith drew air into his pipe to honor the spirit of Varick's offer, but though the smell of tobacco was familiar he was not a regular smoker. His eyes watered, and he coughed into his fist, but still kept his attention, and his eyes, on the other man as he spoke.

"But that's neither here nor there. Gripin about it won't bring me friend back. But I tell ye this. If ye donna learn from today, ye'll find out there still some fire in these old bones when I put me boot up yer arse." He nodded pronouncedly, as if this ended all matters with regard to Indigo's death.

Kenrith stiffened, then nodded. This was not his usual crisp bobbing almost-a-salute of agreement, but rather a slower nod of 'I acknowledge what you are saying.'

He took another puff on his pipe before continuing. " Ye speak of honor, and of ye possessing that quality I have no doubt, ser. The Hardys are solid folk, good folk. And ye proved yerself of that tonight. It took courage te come te stand vigil. But I have te ask ye this."

Varick's voice dropped slightly, "Lady Celia is yer stepmother and a viper at that, if ye beggin me pardon. Our lord walks a sword's edge every time he deals with her. But yer brother and sister share yer blood. Will ye be a tossin them inte the snows if ye gain yer birthright?"

"Celia has some right to demand her children follow her into exile, but I pray her bitterness will not extend that far. Edlyn, as well as my half-kin, will not suffer for any plots their mother may cook up if I can help it. Terrible things may happen in the next few days... but if they can be overcome, there will be much to decide," Kenrith said once again as his eyes were once again drawn to where the Bolton fire lay.

Varick gave Kenrith a nod of respect, apparently pleased by this admission. "A brother is always yer brother," he said. "No matter who bore him." He spoke with a hidden knowledge, as if somewhere deep in his past he faced a similar choice.

"Do you know who dices and plays at cards amongst Corryn's band, Varick?" Kenrith asked politely. He knew the answer was likely to be that they all gamed away their idle time, but for the sake of form he thought it best to ask in these terms.

Varick laughed loudly; a deep, throat croak of amusement. When he noticed the confusion on Kenrith's face, he offered his companion a rueful smile. "Most of us play, ser. And pretty well at that. But teday our missus stole pretty much everything but our socks, she did. Damn fast learner that one. And shrewd as a ferret te boot. Smith protect us if the Riverwolf teaches his pup the dice. We'll never see a day's pay again."

He took another puff and then tapped his chin with the bit, thoughtful. "Kolya though, aye. He's the one with the real skills. Ye cin always find him in a card game if there one te be found. And even if there isn't."

He drew another mouthful of smoke, and half laughed at his own coughing.

Varick chuckled, grinning with Kenrith. "Take it slow, young ser. That's tobacco from the Summer Isles. Takes some getting used te. But it'll put hair on yer narbles and yer chin, I guarantee."

"I'm interested to know... how well the Boltons have been gaming," he said with a deadly glint in his eye.

"Pah," Varick snorted. "Ye'd think with the time they have on their hands, that lot would be better at it. But Kolya made a pretty penny tonight, so I'm told. We cut the game short on account of~E" He gestured toward the vigil tent.

His good eye missed little and took note of Kenrith's interest. "Why do ye ask? I cin tell there's more te it than looking fer a simple game."

Kenrith nodded somberly at Varick's gesture, and again at his question. "I'm told that one of the Hardy men, Cleeve, was also something of a gambler. I won't say how good of one," Kenrith said. From his tone, it was clear he didn't wish to impugne the dead, but that Cleeve was not a very good one.

"Cleeve was one of the Maester's guards this morning," Kenrith added in case Varick wasn't aware. "If he'd been racking up debts..." Kenrith said before shrugging away the rest in his own lopsided way.

Varick's eye widened at that. "I hadn't heard that, ser. But ye know..." He took another draw from his pipe, as if to gain some insight from the sweet smelling smoke. Apparently, this action had some success because he began to nod eagerly.

"Ye may have heard Ser Corryn just became the Lord of Leaning Stone," he said. "Cerwyn, the former lord, couldn't pay his gambling debts. Not only did he let the place fall te squalor, but he let his wife, Corryn's cousin-in-law, starve te death. Those debts, so I'm told, were te the Boltons. That's the other reason why the Riverwolf wants te kill Herys. Limosa was..."

Kenrith cocked his head as Varick paused, and set aside his own pipe on a nearby stone as he listened.

His fist clenched tight, "That bastard sold his own daughter. Like she were some mare or a good huntin dog."

Varick gazed over at the Bolton camp, "So aye, I think there is little the Boltons wouldn't do te make sure their debts are paid. Ye think they had yer man kill this maester you were lookin fer?"

If Kenrith had still been holding the intricately carved pipe in his hand, he surely would have snapped it in half as he clenched his fist. As it was, the bones made a series of popping motions.

"It would be best, perhaps, if you did not make too much of Cleeve's indiscretions. I don't believe he could have been persuaded to kill the Maester for mere coin... but he might have looked the other way. In any event, he is in Wilding hands now, anyway."

"This is not a rumor I would have spread... but if your friend happened to have been at a particular card game and mentions something, I would not see Holdfast become another Leaning Stone. I am heartened to hear Leaning Stone has a new lord," Kenrith said as the fire reflected in his eyes.

He touched Limosa's favor, and drew a meditative breath as he calmed himself.

"Aye," Varick said. "It heartened more than few folks. Lord Corryn's learned much during his guardianship of White Harbor. That boy has finally growed up. Heh."

He extended his wrinkled hand to Kenrith, "No word of this will pass beyond us and me lord, ser. That I swear. We Knives are family. And now ye have bled with us, so are ye. Like it er not. And Holdfast and the Hardys are me lord's charge. That means they are our charge, as well.

Kenrith nodded that he understood, and concluded with his bob of affirmation.

"Remember that should things get confusin. He's a shrewd one, Ser Corryn. He'll do whatever it takes te gain victory. Some of it won't be pretty. But he'll never abandon his friends, even if it appears otherwise. Remember that well, young ser." He gave another nod and fell silent, watching the embers glow and flames dances.

"I'll remember... honorable men need clever friends," Kenrith said with a lopsided grin.

After awhile, he turned to Kenrith. "Well, these old bones have seen enough of this day, ser. If ye wish te remain, Vold will fetch ye a wineskin and some soup. But if I were ye, best te get some rest. Tomorrow will come soon enough."

"Thank you, but no... it would be best if I got some rest. Tomorrow will be an ugly business," he said as he nodded slowly.

He stood up slowly, his back creaking like old planks. "May the Seven watch over ye, young ser."

"And the old gods you, Varick" Kenrith said before he returned the stem of the pipe to his mouth to clasp the other man's hand, then returned it.

Page last modified on September 16, 2006, at 05:55 PM