It was a very short ride from the tourney field to the keep, but for Evan, it seemed a lot longer. His pulse still pounded from the adrenaline of battle, and the stink of blood and sweat lingered in his nostrils no matter how much he shook his head to try to clear them. His mind whirled - so much was changing so quickly, and he would have dearly loved to sit down quietly in a corner and reflect on it all for a while. He half smiled to himself - so long with nothing to do but sit around and reflect, and now that he was actually able to act, he wanted to go straight back to sitting around. And then the gate of the keep was before him, and it was time to act again.
The young guard at the gate already looked tense from the pealing of the alarum bell, and a heavily armed man riding up did nothing to ease that tension. Evan reined in right in front of him, staring down at him hard. "The Boltons," he said firmly. "Where are they quartered?"
The boy stammered a moment, unsure what to say and his eyes darted around, towards the bell tower, towards one of the barracks buildings, and finally resting on the gory mace Evan still held. Evan cleared his throat, and moved the mace out of sight behind his leg with what he hoped was a discreet manoeuvre. Again, the guard hesitated. "Are - aren't you the..."
"Not any more," Evan said grimly. "Look, I'm not here to cause any trouble. I just want to know where the rest of the Boltons are quartered. There's more than enough bloodshed down at the field. Let's not have more trouble here." His words were conciliatory, but the way he leant forward in the saddle indicated that there was little room for negotiation.
The look on the young guard's face indicated he would dearly love to be anywhere but here. "I - I really don't think I should - "
"Fine," Evan sighed, and nudged his horse through the gate at a sharp trot. "I'll tell people you tried to stop me when they ask."
He took an educated guess, and headed across the courtyard for the barracks building the guard had glanced at. The keep was mostly empty; any who hadn't gone down to the field for the morning's entertainment were frantically looking that way now, with the ringing of the bell. Dismounting before the door, he didn't bother to knock before striding inside.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but he could see movement among the cots. "Stand to," Evan barked, squinting as he counted. "Your stay at Holdfast is over, and if you want to leave this place with your skins, you'll listen to what I have to say."
There were only two of them; he'd expected more. One large man was slowly easing himself out of his cot with a groan, and the other, an old fellow with one eye and not many more teeth, edged forward towards Evan suspiciously. "We hear the bells, ser," he said raspily, with an accent that owed something to a heritage in the Iron Isles, and something more to many long nights with pipe tobacco. "Do ye come with orders from Ser Herys?"
"Ser Herys is dead," Evan said crisply, and the words came out easier than he'd thought they would. "As are the rest of your party. The Hardys have slaughtered them all. Get up and make ready; you have little time."
They froze at his words, but the old man still obviously had some of his wits. "Ye be the killer from yesterday," he said slowly, peering at Evan out of that one eye. "The one who killed Grunther."
"What matters right now," Evan said firmly, "is that I am Ser Herys' only remaining son, and a scion of Bolton. And that the Hardys have given me my freedom, while your companions were butchered like hogs as they tried to surrender. Run if you like; see how far you get. Or you can answer my questions and follow me as you did my father, and I'll do my best to make sure we all walk out of Holdfast alive."
The two men gave each other a long look, and it was the second man who spoke. He was a tubby fellow, with a thick, bulbous nose and the florid complexion of a drunkard who'd only just managed to drag himself awake. "What questions?"
Evan squinted again as he looked around the barracks. "Where are the rest of you? I thought there were at least a dozen more, after counting the dead at the field. And where is the wretch who calls himself Eryk Bolton?"
"Some went off with Ser Kenrith to hunt Wildings in the woods," said the tubby man. "And the others ... " He broke off, frowning at Evan.
It was the weaselly old man who answered, "They're with the young Master. He's awa' on a errand from his feyther."
The tubby man glowered at him as though warning him not to say too much in front of Gruther's murderer.
"Off in the woods with Ser Kenrith..." Evan frowned. Had the Hardys planned this all along? "Nothing can be done for them now. Come - we need to find the others, the ones who went with the Bastard."
He stepped back out the door and took up the reins again, but when he looked back, the two men hadn't moved an inch. They were still staring at him through the doorway with expressions of great suspicion. He rolled his eyes and gave a little sigh.
"Look," he said, patiently as he could, "I sympathise with your situation. You've been brought here as part of a fraud. The 'young master', as you call him, is an impostor and a thief. He is not Eryk Bolton. I am. And now Ser Herys and all the rest of the men you came with are dead at the hands of the Hardys." He swung himself easily back onto the horse. "Now, I am going to try to tie up some loose ends, and then I intend to leave this godforsaken hellhole. If you wish to continue your service to the Dreadfort, you should come with me. If not, feel free to throw yourselves on the mercy of the Hardys." He shrugged. "Perhaps they'll kill you quickly."
The two men gaped at him in shock, and then looked at each other.
"We're with you, sir," the older of the two assured him. His companion nodded vigorously.
"But if they've killed all the others, you don't want to go stirring up more trouble. The Young Mas ... the Bas ... the other one - he had the men meet him near the godswood, with fresh horses for them all and a spare one too. They're riding for the Kingsroad, sir, as fast as they can."
"That's the most important loose end," Evan said grimly, with a nod. "Go - quickly now. Reclaim any Bolton horses you need for yourselves in the stables, and another for me - my father's will do. He won't be needing it. Do not be aggressive if you are challenged. Just say you are under orders, and are leaving Holdfast. If they will not let you collect what is yours, come find me. I will be in the courtyard over yonder."
They nodded again, and hurried away. Privately, Evan wondered if the fat one would even be able to mount a horse unaided. As they scurried off, he frowned, and raised a hand. "Wait." They were unquestionably his father's men; they stopped dead in their tracks, like hounds conditioned to accept every command without question. "I should know your names. You are my men now; I should start acting like it."
They looked at each other quizzically, and Evan realised with a sense of weariness that they were going to do that a lot whenever he said something unexpected. "I be Harald," the old, one-eyed man volunteered, "and this be Fat Will here. Sir."
"Big Will," the fat one corrected. "Sir." Evan nodded, and jerked his head meaningfully. They understood instinctively - there must have been something of Ser Herys in the movement - and dashed off towards the stables.
Evan turned the horse back towards the main gate of Holdfast, lost in thought. Sounds of the commotion down at the tourney field still drifted on the wind, but it was a nearby encounter that caught his eye. Before the Maester's Tower, Ser Corryn and Maester Sewell were talking urgently over Lady Celia's prone form. Evan cocked his head curiously and nudged the horse over towards them.
"How does she fare?" he asked as he approached. "And Ser Godfrey?"
Had Celia's head been removable, it was likely that Corryn would have utilized it as a handy bludgeoning device when he heard that accursed voice. Instead, he focused his eyes on her bruised forehead; not daring to look up least he lose what little control he had remaining. "What do you care, pig?" he said coldly. "Or have you simply come to gloat over your and your father's handiwork? Do you wish to entertain us with another of your delightful witticisms, perhaps? A final barb or two before you leave this place?"
Sewell continued to tend Lady Celia on the ground, without looking up.
Evan raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "That is unbecoming, Ser Corryn," he said mildly. "What happened to Lady Celia was a terrible act of rage on the part of my father, an evil for which he has now paid with his life. For my part, I wish her a full and speedy recovery."
"And as for your anger," he added, his voice calm, "it is ill-conceived. Ser Godfrey's blood is on your hands, not mine. I tried to give both you and Lady Syndra the chance to avert this fight, but she was too proud to speak to me, and you chose not to take action for whatever reason. So be it. I told you I didn't want this fight, and I meant it - the whole episode has been regrettable. But you left me little choice."
"You. Arrogant. Ass," Corryn hissed; finally looking up at Evan, green hate burning in his eyes. "I provided you ample opportunities to leave this place. If you had only listened. If you'd only swallowed that accursed pride of yours. But you chose not to. The reason to which, I care not.
"And I may remind you, it was not I or my friend that murdered that footman. It was not our hand on the knife. You did that. All that has transpired here these last days is because you murdered a man to protect your worthless hide. The blood is on your hands. Grunther's. Godfrey's. Celia's. The men and women lying dead in the tournament field.
And then he smiled, but there was no mirth in the expression. "But I will have blood on my hands soon enough. Of that, you can be certain."
He turned away, addressing Sewell. "What say you, Maester Sewell?"
"She needs to be taken to her bed," said Sewell, looking up. "The airs and noises of the courtyard are doing her no good whatsoever."
Edlyn, still stationed to one side, gave a little whimper.
"Then let us get her there, shall we?" Corryn said. "There's nothing more important than that."
He gently, gingerly scooped her back into his arms; supporting her head with his shoulder and neck. He cast a smile to Edlyn. "Edlyn, dear. When we get your mother to her bed, I want you to take her hand and talk to her. Tell her everything will be fine. If I talk to her, I'm sure she'll become more ill out of simple spite."
Without another word, he followed Sewell toward Celia's chambers.
Edlyn, however, remained where she was, looking at Evan Tamm.
"You know something," she said, almost accusingly. "What is it?"
He had been watching Corryn and Sewell depart across the courtyard, but now Evan turned back to look down at her with one eyebrow slightly raised. "I'm not sure what you mean, Lady Edlyn," he said with a shrug. "I know a few things. But there's much more I don't know." He plucked at his beard idly. "I'm sorry about your mother. She has my best wishes for a quick recovery. And you've been just about the only person in Holdfast who's spoken to me rationally, so my best wishes to you as well. Hopefully you will not be trapped here overlong."
He glanced across the beaten earth of the courtyard in the direction of the stables, hoping those two wouldn't be much longer. "As for me, I must go, as soon as my men hurry up and get here. If you have something specific you wanted to ask me, feel free - I can't promise I know the answer, though."
"Limosa," she said at once. "You must ... I think you can guess what's happened to her. Tell me!"
Evan only blinked, a little surprised. "Lady Edlyn," he said as gently as he could, "I don't even know who you're talking about."
"Ser Corryn's daughter," she blurted out, hobbling a step closer. "The Boltons have her."
"Do they now?" Evan raised an eyebrow. "I think that unlikely. If you mean the mute girl, then I only saw her briefly this morning. And it sounds to me like you already have an idea what happened to her." He looked up a moment, chewing the inside of his cheek. "Then again..." He broke off, and glanced across the courtyard to where Harald and Fat Will were approaching. "I must go, Lady Edlyn. There's no time to waste."
She clutched at his stirrups, insistent now. "You have to tell me! You can't just ride off if you know something."
The horse whickered impatiently, mirroring its rider. Evan ground his teeth, but pulled hard on the reins, and the beast stamped in place, kicking up little puffs of dust. "Fine then," he said, a little more snappishly than he intended. "You first. I have a couple of questions of my own. Firstly, which of the Hardys had me poisoned last night? And secondly, just out of interest, who exactly did that squire kill that makes the Hardys so intent on covering it up?"
Edlyn looked at him, her face suddenly pale and a little shiny with the sheen of fear.
"I can answer your first question," she said, and then drew a deep breath. "It wasn't a Hardy. It was me. I did it. I did it because I love Syndra, and I didn't want her to have to see her father killed by a Bolton too."
Evan's eyes turned hard, and he swung abruptly off the horse, snatching the reins of his father's angry black beast from Fat Will. He remounted, and the horse snapped at his leg as he went, earning a swift clout around the ear for its pains. From its back, Evan glared down, first at Fat Will, as he struggled mightily to remount, and then at Edlyn.
"You disappoint me, Lady Edlyn," he said coldly. "I have dealt with you fairly and well and now you lie to me. Yesterday you couldn't even walk. Even now you can barely hobble. Garyn is not the most perceptive among us, but even he would have found it strange enough to comment that a crippled, limping girl gave him the poisoned food." He beckoned to Harald and Fat Will, who had finally clambered, red-faced, back ahorse. "I have no more time for this. Follow my lead." Swiftly, they thundered through the gates of the Keep and down through Holdfast town, leaving Edlyn behind in a small cloud of dust.
Edlyn stared after him for a long minute - and then turned and hobbled back into the castle.
Evan rode some distance along the track with the two silent Bolton guards either side of him. The dirt was churned from all the activity that had happened the previous day and - if any cared to examine it, from where Kenrith and his men had ridden too.
It was some miles beyond where that party had turned off that Fat Will suddenly shouted a warning to Evan.
"There's someone behind us on the road - trying to catch up!" he yelled.
Evan didn't hear him the first time, his brow knitted in a frown as he tried to project the path the fleeing men would be taking. Unable to catch up to make himself heard, Fat Will called out again, almost desperately, and Evan raised his head and reined his horse in.
"Let them come," he said simply. "If they are Holdfasters, ignore them and ride on."
But when the horsemen came into view, they proved to be no Holdfasters; it was Stavro and Ox, both mounted on their own horses. Stavro nodded.
"Reckoned you'd get away. Where're Donnell and the boy? Leaving them behind, are we?"
Evan cracked a genuine smile for the first time in days. "Well met to the both of you," he said with an emphatic thump of his fist on the saddlehorn. "I almost thought you'd be halfway to Dorne by now." He rode back a short way to meet them, before becoming aware that the two Bolton men were still watching them warily. "Make your own introductions when you can," Evan continued, becoming businesslike again. "We should hurry on. The men we are pursuing are a larger group, but they have about an hour on us."
Stavro raised an eyebrow, the only hair on his shaven head. "Donnell and the boy?" he repeated.
"Donnell and Garyn have chosen to take the Hardys at their word," Evan said shortly. "Garyn for service, and Donnell to try to buy his skin." He shrugged. "I'd expect any of us to do the same, but he's made his bed, and only the gods can save him from the Hardys now." He started down the road, and Harald and Fat Will fell in alongside, but after a few strides, he glanced back to see that Ox and Stavro had not moved an inch. One of their horses was quietly grazing.
Evan pressed his lips into a line and rode back to them. They simply stared at him. "Chasing men, ye say," Ox rumbled finally. "From the looks of it, ye aren't aiming for a few pleasantries."
Evan nodded slowly. He didn't have the time now for an explanation that these men deserved, but he knew he had to try. "We - I - am hunting a thief and a fraud, who has been trying to pass himself off with a noble name and title that aren't his. That's how this whole mess in Holdfast started - with a fraud, and the troubles and hatred it has stirred up have since erupted in a massacre, which he is fleeing for all he's worth. Now what began as the wedding Holdfast demanded has resulted in the slaughter of a Bolton knight and his entire retinue, and there will be a reckoning to come, from the Dreadfort and probably Winterfell itself." He tightened his grip on the reins. "There's so much to explain I don't know where to start. But the first order of business is to attack the infection where it started, and hunt down this traitorous little impostor and stop him causing any more trouble with his stolen name." He took a deep breath. "My name." Evan pointed down the road. "They have an hour on us - a party of about ten or so. Mostly inexperienced and poor warriors, but ahorse. And I have to go after them, and now. This is not your fight, but I would welcome your swordarms. And your company."
Ox picked at his beard, the way he always did when he was thinking, which wasn't all that often. "I don't quite understand," he drawled. "Ye say this worm's been pretending to be a nobleman, but why would he want to pretend he's you then?" Stavro lifted his eyes heavenward with a look of exasperation, and Evan started to explain further, but then Ox laughed heartily, slapping his ample belly. "Oh wait! I get it! He's been trying to pretend he be a noble, but now has to run cause he were pretending to be ye by mistake!" He guffawed loudly for a few moments, before the laughter died on his lips as he looked around, noticing that nobody else was laughing. Rather, they were all staring at him.
"I was born a son of Bolton, Ox," Evan explained in the silence that followed. "Now someone is pretending to be me, and all manner of strife has resulted from it. I will explain later, but for now, I have to catch him and stop him. Are you with me?"
"Course I am," Ox chuckled, slapping Evan on one armoured shoulder as he rode past. "Ye be aiming to bust some skulls, and liable to get yerself killed unless I be there to watch out for ye." Evan sighed in relief, partly at the affirmation and partly because he didn't have to try to explain again, and the five of them fell in as they started down the road from Holdfast.
Stavro hurried up beside him, silent as a ghost. "So how should we call you then? Ser? Milord?"
"Evan, as you always have," he said grimly. "I can't go using my name when someone else is borrowing it."
The road through the forest continued on its way - and the tracks of a group of men fleeing were clearly visible to them all - not just to Stavro.
They splashed through one stream, and were riding full tilt towards another when, almost parallel with the stream, Evan saw a flash of movement away in the forest to his left, and then Fat Will's horse, which had been a little ahead, crashed screaming to the ground - and then they could all see the twisted vine rope that had been jerked taut across the road at the height of a horse's chest. Fat Will was struggling free, cursing; the horse was writhing on the ground, screaming its agony, one leg clearly broken.
Evan ground his teeth, and nodded in Stavro's direction. "Find a safe place for Will here," he said, while adding a discreet circling gesture with his finger, held out of sight at waist level. Ropes did not just sit taut across the road for long periods of time - someone off the road had pulled this one tight at the last second. Stavro glanced quickly down, and caught his meaning; the Pentoshi nodded once, and moved quietly off the road.
Fat Will laboured to his feet, and Evan looked down at him appraisingly even as Ox dismounted and cut short the horse's screaming with one ugly, bloody swing of his axe. "You are too heavy for one of us to carry you as well and still move fast," Evan said curtly. "You will have to find a place to hole up here, and we will return for you as soon as possible."
Fat Will looked appalled.
"But what about the Hardies?" he protested. "They'll be coming after you!"
"Well, they'll be coming after someone," Evan agreed. "And they'll be feeling even more murderous than normal towards anyone in a Bolton uniform, that's for certain." Will gulped, most of the colour draining from his perpetually florid face, and Evan scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Perhaps..."
At this moment, Stavro returned. He was, a little unexpectedly, dragging a small, undersized youth in Bolton uniform, who was looking worried.
Fat Will, seeing the one responsible for his unhorsing, let out a roar and made a dive towards him. The Ox hauled him back with one hand.
"Tell him," said Stavro, jerking a thumb towards Evan, "what you told me."
The boy gulped.
"Torrent's horse went lame. The young Lord said to give Torrent mine - that I was to try and stop the ones following - and then hide in the woods - deep in the woods. He said it wouldn't be long - he said there'd be men from the Dreadfort here soon enough."
"He lied," Evan said simply, not bothering to couch his words carefully. "He is an impostor and a traitor, and commands the forces of the Dreadfort no more than you do. Nobody is coming - he left you here to be captured and killed because you were the smallest and least able to help him get away." The boy blanched even more at those words, and seemed to be struggling between the desire to proclaim them false and the reality of Stavro's grip on his collar. "He isn't even who he says he is. He is not Eryk Bolton. I am. And your companions here - " he indicated Harald and Fat Will - "have chosen to follow me to chase him down and bring him to justice for his crimes. If you are wise, you will do the same - you are obviously loyal to the Flayed Man, and this side of the Kingsroad, that is me."
Fat Will, who had been expecting to be abandoned, looked at Evan with sudden cunning. "Aye," that's right," he said. "We follow him and ... he looks after us too."
The boy looked like he might faint. "Wh-what about Ser Herys? Forgot about him?" There was a note of desperate bravado in his words.
"Dead," Evan said plainly. "He and all the rest of the men you came with were massacred by the Hardys not an hour ago. We will not kill you, boy - whatever you say to us here, you will be given the choice of entering my service or making your own way. You may even let the Hardys decide your fate if you want." He leant down in the saddle. "But now what I need to know is this. How many of you went with the traitor you thought was Eryk Bolton? And what did he tell you you were leaving Holdfast to do?" Whatever it was, it would have had to be convincing, Evan though to himself - racing away so secretly and precipitously would have been so unusual, it would have had to arouse some suspicion in the men.
"He said ... he said he had orders from Ser Herys," said the boy. "He showed us the paper where they was wrote - he said it was a message for Lord Bolton at the Dreadfort - about how the Hardies was betraying him - with this false tale of ... of ... " He broke off, looking nervously at Evan and swallowed. "Anyway, he said the Hardies and the Riverwolf between them meant to trick the Boltons out of their lawful land of Leaning Tower, and we was to ride and make all right.
"And there was seven of us," he added. "Including the young Lor ... well. And the girl too - but he had her bound over the front of his saddle, for she fought like a wild thing and scratched his face bad like."
"And, of course, since none of you can read, he could have showed you a laundry list and it would have made perfect sense," Evan muttered, half to himself. "A girl, you say? Hmm." He smiled wryly. "Seems the Hardys weren't just making that up."
"Very well then," Evan continued, making up his mind. "This is what we will do. We must continue on and catch these fugitives, and we must ride as hard as they, which means we must part ways temporarily. The lamed horse - I presume it can still walk, yes? You didn't kill it out of hand?" He pointed at Fat Will and the boy. "You two will take the horse and make your way to a village between here and the Dreadfort - it is well marked, and easy to find. Go to Marshend, and ask to speak to the Septa there. She is my friend, and you are to do exactly what she says until I get there. If all goes to plan, we will be there perhaps even before you, so do not worry. You should, however, stay off the road till nightfall - the Hardys will be along soon, and it will be your death if they find you."
"Yes Sir!" gasped the boy. Fat Will looked morose. Journeying to Marshend through the woods would be no easy task.
Evan stretched out a hand. "And give me your surcoat - my story is too complicated to keep telling it to everyone we meet." He shrugged into the livery of the Flayed Man without hesitation, but a cold shiver ran down his spine as the surcoat rested on it. Maybe Winter was coming faster than expected. "As I said, stay off the road till nightfall. After that, you should be able to travel more comfortably, though you should still avoid Hardy men whenever you can, and hide your colours till you are out of enemy territory. When you reach Marshend, if we are not there already, tell the Septa that Evan Tamm sent you, and show her the Bolton colours. She will know what that means."
He turned back to those still on horseback. "As for the rest of us, we should move on. They will be making for the Kingsroad with all haste, and once there, their tracks will become impossible to follow."
"We should move on," said Stavro. "But I say we leave the rope in place to delay the Hardies. And we'll need to be wary. I'm reckoning that's not the last of your brother's tricks to throw off persuit. We can't afford to lose any more mounts."
Evan nodded. "No, we cannot, but there's no point leaving this rope here. The steaming horse carcass will make them stop long before they run into it, and we're not stopping to move it. We ride on."
Stavro nodded. Fat Will and the boy were looking worried but, with a definite plan, they seemed resigned to being left on foot.
"I hope you're not expecting me or the Ox to wear livery," said Stavro, frowning, even as he mounted again.
"Were I a Lord, you and Ox would have livery of your own, and more - just being willing to follow me on this errand speaks more than you know. But I am not a Lord, just a forgotten son with nothing more than a name. So I will have to simply owe you, for now." They thundered off down the road, leaving Fat Will and the boy in the dust.
The flies were already gathering at the corpse of the fallen horse. Fat Will sighed, and scratched his chin. "Best be going," he muttered. "Lame horse, you say?"
"Too lame to carry you," the boy remarked, moving discreetly out of reach.
"Shame that," Will sighed again. "Wonder if it'll make good eating?"