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"Maester! Maester!" The voice was urgent, and so was the hand shaking him.

Merivel stirred reluctantly from the nightmare that had consumed him until this moment. The lack of volition, the disturbing images and events washed over him like a tide as he rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on the person trying to awaken him.

"Yes, what?" he asked, stirring from his tree-top slumber but trying not to roll off of the platform in the process.

"You were shouting out," said Tree. "'Bury it ... bury it deep!' I feared you were feverish. I have some of my grandmother's healing draugght. It will be cold now, but it holds some virtue still."

He was looking anxiously at Merivel, peeriong through the darkness.

"A dream, a nightmare." Merivel muttered, lowering his voice. "A very vivid and disturbing one, at that. I do not wish to speak of it, but I will take a little of the draught." Merivel said.

Tree handed it to him, still looking worried.

"You were right," he said quietly. "There were people seeking you in the forest - Leaf came to tell me. She and Glade and Bough held them off, but they suggest we should take the skyway for a while as soon as you are feeling stronger."

"And you don't know if they are my friends or foes." Merivel said, a little glumly, taking a sip of the healing draught. "There's no route in the skyways that might bring us close, so that I might see them without them seeing me?"

"They left before nightfall," said Tree, "or so said Leaf. Wildings and darkness together was too great a challenge, and be tomorrow's dawn, if you are strong enough to travel, we shall be well towards the forest edge, and safe."

He looked anxiously at Merivel.

Merivel stretched experimentally. "I am feeling much better than in many other circumstances that I have any right to be." he said, trying a half smile. "I feel strong enough to travel and should like to travel the skyway."

"Thank you again, Tree." Merivel added, rising to his feet and getting ready to follow him.

Tree simply smiled at him.

"Now," he said, "it would be best for us to be roped together this first time, lest you should slip and fall."

He pointed along a narrow rope bridge that stretched between the platform they were on and another tall tree, some fifty yards distant.

"I'm afraid," he said apologetically, "you must forget everything you know about walking on the ground. Here nothing will be stable - but you must still move with confidence ... "

Merivel looked at the rope bridge ahead of them. He swallowed slightly, and nodded. "It seems like walking on the deck of a ship, but even worse." Merivel said. "More like walking on the railing of a ship, with the sea ready to catch and drown me if I should fall."

"I'll catch you if you fall," said Tree. "And I've never seen the sea, but from the tales I've heard, I think I'm safer to catch you."

Merivel grinned slightly in response.

"All right. Let's begin." Merivel said, trying to sound more confident than he really was.

The rope bridge swayed even more than Merivel had thought. It was a question of keeping your balance, Tree had told him, but it was hard to establish balance when the ground swayed so wildly and dramatically under the slender strands of rope. But, as they moved onwards (and, stomach-churningly, over open space), it was possible to sense a kind of rhythm and sway to movements. But it was hard - and exhausting.

"We'll rest a little here," said Tree, when they reached the next platform. "You'll find it gets easier as you become accustomed."

"I do hope at that." Merivel said, reaching for the nearby tree to place his hand against, to stabilize himself further. Merivel used the other hand to wipe a few beats of sweat from his slightly clammy skin. "Sorry." Merivel mumbled in a slightly unclear voice. "It must be the aftereffects of the wound." He turned his head to regard Tree. "I am all right, and after we rest a bit, I will be ready to continue."

Tree helped him to sit down. There was a platform here too, but it was far narrower than the one where they had slept.

"Drink some of the cordial," said Tree. "Then we'll see if you're ready to move on. I'll go ahead - see what the skyway is like."

Merivel nodded, taking a few sips as he watched Tree move ahead of him into the Skyway.

With a smile, he slid round the tree and was gone. For a long time, it seemed, Merivel was alone in the quietness of the forest. He could hear the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the call of birds - and even the quiet scuttling of some small animal on the forest floor.

Then he heard the sound of Tree coming back over the skyway.

When the boy appeared, his expression was troubled.

"Maester," he said, "there's something ... " He swallowed. "I think perhaps you should see."

"All right. It will be all right." Merivel assured him, rising to his feet. "Let's go, carefully, see what you found."

Merivel carefully began to follow Tree.

It meant another skyway crossing, but at the end, Tree indicated they should climb down, and assisted Merivel.

Merivel climbed down as carefully as did the ascent yesterday.

They were almost at the base when Merivel saw the severed hand. And then he realised that the rust-reddened colour of the leaves was not wholly natural.

Merivel blinked in surprise as he saw the severed hand. As a healer, he had seen disease and injury before, and so he did not vomit the cordial. Instead, almost wearily, he gave a nod. "He's under the leaves," whispered Tree, as though afraid to disturb ... something. "At least, most of him is. Do you want to see?"

"At least the head and face, to see who he was." Merivel said grimly., bending over to start to clear the leaves from what he thought would be the head end.

"It's bad," Tree warned him.

It was. It was hard to identify the man from his face, so badly had it been mutilated. Her eyes seemed to have been gouged out - and the slab of flesh lying to one side suggested that his tobgue had been ripped out too.

"It's his clothes," said Tree worriedly. "Fine linen, Maester - at least they were once."

Merivel turned away from the sight for a moment and coughed as he looked at the ground. Despite his bravado, and his prior experience, the sight of the mutilated face severely tested Merivel's resolve. After a few moments, and with wet eyes he returned to look at the tableau.

"Someone of wealth. I cannot tell who it is from the appearance. However..." Merivel began uncovering the rest of the body. Perhaps the clothes' held colors or a badge or some other sign of who the person in the fine linen foully murdered might be.

There was an insignia there - the symbol of a tower at an angle some ten degrees short of the true.

This murdered man was the erstwhile Lord of Leaning Tower.

Merivel backed away a few feet from the body, as if he had been stung by an asp or a poisonous insect. He didn't cry out, but the surprise as to who was the victim was clear on his face.

"Who is it?" demanded Tree. "Do you know him?"

He sounded fearful.

"I know of him, by reputation, by the symbol he bears, the clothes he wears." Merivel said quietly. He moved to a haunched position, regarding the body. "This is...was the Lord of Leaning Stone, Ser Cerwyn."

Tree swallowed, audibly.

"They'll blame us," he said. "If they find him, they'll blame his death on Wildings!"

He looked up at Merivel, and Merivel could see how very young he was - and how very scared.

"What shall we do?"

Merivel got to his feet and put a hand on Tree. "And yet this is a crime that cannot be forever concealed. Although I do not know, besides my fellow Maesters, I would trust with this horrible knowledge.

He looked at Tree. "You don't have any digging tools hidden somewhere in the Skyway, do you? Or is there a lake or other body of water nearby to which he might be interned?"

"No lakes closer than the Long Lake, Maester," said Tree. "And if we're caught burying him ... it would proclaim our guilt all the louder. Well, Wilding guilt - for you could claim I forced you to help."

He swallowed. "But - if you really believe it best - I can fashion tools we can use."

"I wonder if my dream last night was a prophecy of finding his body." Merivel mused aloud. "Certainly, to find him here, mutilated, is an evil, no matter who did it."

He looked at Tree. "Yes. It would be better if he were buried."

"Very well, Maester," said Tree, and he moved away towards some nearby bushes. Soon he could be heard slashed at something, presumably fashioning suitable implements.

Merivel had a little while to examine the body, if he wished.

Merivel stood over the body for a few moments before he crouched down again. This time he uncovered the entire body, to try and find clues as to who had done this horrific deed upon the late Lord. He tried not to retch as he studied the mutilated face, the body in its linen clothes from head to toe, trying to clinically examine and establish the details of his death.

The mutilations to his face were not the only ones the unfortunate man had endured, as Merivel saw clearly when he tore back the covering. Other parts had been removed in addition to the tongue - it suggested that some bloody lesson was being taught here. And a lesson the man had been left to learn at his dying leisure - it appeared he had died of blood loss and shock. How long he had survived the savage murtilations was hard to guess - but the amount of blood suggested death had not come too rapidly.

"He suffered." Merivel said softly, to himself, to the leaves, to the wind, and to the victim that lay before him. "He suffered." he repeated the phrase. He bent down a little more, as if to address Ser Cerwyn. "Unless you are guilty of a horrible crime, you deserved better. Far better." Merivel looked up, waiting for Tree to return.

He saw him before he heard him, so quietly did the wilding youth move through the forest. He had fashioned digging sticks and some crude shovels using branches and flat slate-like stones, bound tightly together with vines.

"These should do," he said. "Do you want to buty him under this tree?"

"The tree will serve as a cenotaph." Merivel agreed, as he turned to look at the shovels and digging sticks. He swallowed, a little thickly. "Well, if hard work is the best cure for illness, then I am going to be as fit as a horse, after this."

"Let's get busy, Tree." Merivel added, reaching for one of the primitive shovels.

"I'll dig," said Tree firmly. "You can keep guard. I just reckoned I'd need more than one spade to complete the job." He smiled at Merivel and then started to dig.

"I will take a look around, then." Merivel agreed after a few moments thought. "If you need any help, though, let me know.' Merivel set down the shovel he had picked up and instead began making a short circular survey of the area around the tree.

As he did so, Merivel kept on the lookout for the marks that he had seen earlier in relation to the skyway, as well as his position relative to Tree and his efforts. Getting lost was not an option.

It was about twenty minutes before he heard the sound of voices. Someone was coming towards the wood, in their direction.

Merivel froze in place as he heard the voices. He slowed and quieted his movements, and headed back toward Tree, giving glances over his shoulder in the direction of the voices now and again. Merivel took a jinking, dodging course, continually winding his way through trees until he could reach the location of the burial, and the Wildling.

Tree had dug the hole and was dragging the corpse into it when Merivel came back to the clearing. He looked up, startled, when he saw Merivel.

"There are others in the woods." Merivel said briskly, moving to where Tree waited. "We should hurry our actions." "Is your arm all right to help?" asked Tree in a low voice, hastily beginning to shovel earth back over the corpse in the shallow grave.

"It's well enough to help." Merivel replied, looking at his wounded arm. If he was doubtful about how it felt, he didn't let it be known. Instead, he reached for one of the extra primitive shovels and stood on the far side of the grave from Tree, shoving earth as best he could, murmuring words of prayer as he did so.

When the hole was roughly filled, Tree hastily scattered leaves over it, then grabbed the digging imp[lements and ran to the nearest tree. He looked doubtfully at Merivel, who had been too weak to climb much the previous day.

"Wait," he said. "I'll lower a rope."

And he disappeared up into the foliage.

Now Merivel could hear the sound of the voices approaching the grove - even as a long vine with a noose at the end suddenly dopped in front of him.

Merivel turned around to look in the direction of the voices, just for one moment of curiosity. And then he grasped the loop and gave the rope a tug for Tree to raise him up to the safety of the world in the forest canopy above.

He rose swiftly - and found himself rapidly raised to a height of some fifteen feet, well-shaded with foliage.

"No sense in trying to climb higher yet," Tree whispered to him. "They'd only spot us ... we'll be safer here."

He lay flat along the broad branch, and nodded to Merivel to do the same.

Merivel did so quietly, listening. It was another two of three minutes before they heard the sound of people walking into the clearing.

"Well," said a voice, almost from below them, "where is he? According to the [email protected]@rd, he can't have gone far."

"I need to see who that is." Merivel hissed quietly to Tree. "Friend or foe, I need to know."

Merivel strained to try and recognize the voice and moved slightly so that just the top of his head and his eyes could look down at the world below, and the men searching for him.

He could look down and, from this elevated angle, see the tops of heads. Men ... armed men. Three of them. None looked familiar.

"He should be dead by now," said one, irritated. "He can't have crawled far, not injured as he was."

None of the men looked familiar ...

"We should have brought dogs," said another. "He must have bled ... "

He saw now the insignia they were wearing ... that of the Laughing Knives, the well-known mercenary band who looked to Manderley.

Merivel inwardly winced at the sight of the sellswords. His curiosity finished, he slowly eased back until he was lying against the branch as Tree had earlier instructed him to do so. Merivel kept as quiet as possible, listening and straining to hear what the probable killers of the Lord of the Leaning Tower were doing and saying.

"There's blood here!" said one of them. "Look - over by these leaves!"

"Let's have a look," growled the one who had spoken first.

A long pause - the sounds of leaves being shifted and moved.

"Someone's found him," said the first speaker.

"Found him?"

"Well you don't think he dug his own grave and dragged in the earth himself, do you?" demanded the first speaker.

There was a pause, and then he spoke again. "We'd best report back to the [email protected]@rd."

There was the sound of them moving away through the woods.

"Maester," whispered Tree, "what should we do?"

Merivel considered this for a few moments, until he was sure that the men were completely out of earshot. Even then, he spoke in a low voice.

"With the body? Nothing. I believe that the Wildings are off the hook--why would you think to bury a body you came upon. And we've sown confusion among the laughing knives as to who did it. I need to get a message to Rhys and Sewell, or get to them myself, though. My kidnapping, this murder...evil things are being done, Tree and I cannot stand idly by." Tree looked at him in horror. "But ... we are nearly at the edge of the forest! To travel bback now ... it would be even more dangerous!" Merivel considered this somberly for a few moments, his gaze never leaving Tree as he did so. Finally, he nodded in ascent.

"Perhaps you are right. We will continue the way we have been going. I will find a way to send a message later."

Merivel looked from Tree and glanced down below at the place the Laughing Knives had been, where they had discovered the moving of the body of the man that, if they had not killed themselves, certainly knew exactly who did.

"Let's go." Merivel finished, looking back at Tree.

Tree pointed back silently to the skyway. He was willing to help Merivel ascend back into the trees, and then to climb once more back to the level where they would find the network of rope bridges that would carry them through the forest - but also willing to allow Merivel to negotiate more on his own, if he were gaining in confidence.

Merivel slowly took more on his own as he followed Tree back into the forest, attempting to rely on Tree less and less for navigating the slightly perilous rope bridges. At a couple of points, he did ask Tree for help, but with each successive bridge, the Maester made a conscious effort to ask for less and less.

The trees were thining now - and the skyway becoming less direct as it clung to the treeline. At last Tree said, "We need to climb down here and carry on afoot. Leaning Stone is to the north, some two miles. The King's road crosses our path - If we follow it a mile south, there's a track that leads through the woods to Marshend. I don't know the skyways there, but I daresay I could find them."

Merivel stopped and regarded the world below. "I was almost getting used to travelling exclusively by tree." he said wryly, with a smile. "I hope that we've gotten out of the way of those Laughing Knives goons. If they come after us, Tree, flight is probably our best option. Fight from ambush if we must."

He looked at him levelly. "I've killed a man, as you know, but mercenaries such as these would likely kill us both easily in a straight up fight."

"You first." he gestured for Tree to proceed him down back toward the ground.

Tree swung down easily, and then waited to support Merivel if he needed it.

"Do you want to report what we've found at Leaning Stone?" he asked. "Or head for Marshend now?"

Merivel came down, less casually than Tree, but he waved off any help from the Wilding and finally found himself standing on the ground once more. He placed a hand against the tree as Tree spoke and studied it, taking the opportunity to look for and confirm that he could find the mark that he had learned earlier.

It took a little while, for it was nearly overgrown with moss, but he found it eventually.

Finally, he turned and faced Tree and shook his head. "No, I don't know precisely who to trust in this matter, given the precarious nature of my own status, too. We'll go on to Marshend and I will decide where to go once you leave me and discharge your much-thanked duty."

Tree nodded. "We'll make for Marshend then, and the Song and Sheep. A good inn, Maester. And there are ditches beside the road where we can hide at need."

He pointed the way to the King's Road.

Page last modified on September 13, 2006, at 01:26 AM