Old Debts And Bad Blood
After Volf had ridden on ahead, the Laughing Knives maintained their speed all day. That night they reached a traveller's inn, thoughtfully set one day's easy journey from Winterfell - although rather too small to accommodate all their numbers as overnight guests - although food and ale were available.
"The holdfast's about three hours ride beyond here," said Killian. "I'm of a mind you and I should ride out there tomorrow, alone."
That following morning, Corryn left Phalan in charge of the company. He instructed the knight to move a quarter mile from the King's Road and set up a temporary camp. Killian and he would meet them promptly or call for them if needed. But for the most part, they were to maintain a low profile.
The grass was still wet with dew when the pair rode off toward the Leaning Stone, part of House Cerwyn's lands. Unlike Castle Cerwyn, the Leaning Stone was little more than a motte & bailey that served as a watchpost for the castle proper. Corryn had ridden past it once while escorting a trade caravan to Deepwood Motte. It wasn't a memorable place. He felt a tinge of sadness for Lilith. A Dornish princess trapped in the bitter north would suffer terribly. Snow was hardly a substitute for sand.
Killian and he remained strangely silent throughout their three hour ride, drinking in the stark wonders of the north. When they turned a bend in the road, the Leaning Stone came into view. The ringworks were impressively tall, surrounded by a brackish quagmire. The roofs of several buildings peeked above the bailey walls. The motte itself was what gave the castle its name. The stone building had sunken slightly to one side during one of the heavy melts. This gave the towers a noticeable lean.
Men-at-arms were waiting for the men at the front gate, crossing their halberds and asking their business.
"We're here to see the Lady of the House," said Killian, displaying the Manderly sigil.
"The lady?" responded one of the men at arms with a snigger, but the older one cuffed him. "Let them pass."
Aned so they did, into a small square courtyard, with animal pens - neglected, half-empty pens - on one side, and low ugly huddled houses against the other wall. A couple seemed to be mean little shops, without much to sell. A few pigs were rooting around in the mud, and a small band of children were playing a game that seemed to involve slapping each other with muddy sticks and screaming with laughter. The Keep was beyond this - it wore the same depressed, shabby air of all else around.
"Come on," said Killian grimly.
In their fine riding coats and oiled armor, Corryn and Killian appeared positively regal compared to their drab surroundings. They made several heads turn, as if the pair of them were a company of White Cloaks riding through the center of town. Their years of wandering the fish markets of Spear Docks at high summer had hardened their sense of smell and steadied their stomachs. Even so, this filth was almost too much to bear.
They squelched through foul mud to the entrance to the Keep.
Inside, they found themselves in the great hall - although it seemed absurd to apply the word 'great' to something so mean and squalid. The rushes on the floor reeked as though they had not been changed for many days - or even weeks. A drudge was on the floor, gathering them up listlessly. Great mastiff hounds wandered to and fro - it seemed their offerings added to the stench of the place. The only other person present was a stout, red-faced man who was snoring in a carven oak chair that creaked beneath his weight.
Corryn's patience had been pressed far enough. The decay that had settled into this once respected keep disgusted him. The stink clouded his head and darkened his mood. To think that a princess of Dorne was forced to live in such squalor was too much for him to accept or bear. There had to be an answer this and he sought it with cruel intent. Unfortunately for the sleeping man, he was the closest thing to relieve his anger. With predatory intent, Corryn brushed by his companion. Even the mastiffs sensed his displeasure and shied away as he descended on the man.
He lashed out with his foot, snapping the already straining leg of the chair in two. Gravity and corpulence took over from there, spilling the man to the floor with a resounding crash. It took all his effort not to kick the man in the stomach. Instead, he settled for giving him a swift kick in the arse.
The man collapsed on the ground with a yell that started off as surprise, but which quickly changed to pain.
"By the Smith's balls," he growled, "What is the meaning of this?" He gestured to the destitution. "And where is Lady Lilith?"
Killian drew his blade and leaned over the prone man, glowering. The drudge on the floor cowered away in fear from the sudden influx of fierce angry men, peering up at them through ragged, lanky hair. Her face was reddened, swollen from a beating - but the eyes staring at Corryn in terror were all too familiar ... he had seen them before, many times; Ciara's eyes, Killian's eyes.
"Bollocks and damnation!" Corryn hissed and yanked Killian back by the scruff of the neck. "You can't simply kill the fool. Not yet anyway." His eyes burned into the man on the floor. He meant his words. Now might not be the time for murder, but that time would come in short order. He released Killian just as quickly. "Just watch over him. If he moves, cutting off something he won't need. The thing between his legs should suffice."
His heart chilled as he approached the drudge, lowering himself to her level; as if approaching a frightened animal, with slow, cautious movements. "Sweet Mother preserve us," he whispered to himself as he recognized the eyes. His voice cracked as he addressed her, forcing him to repeat himself. When he did so, it was in a fatherly voice, much like the one he used to talk to his child as it grew in Morna's belly. "Aunt Lilith? I am your nephew. Ciara's boy. Corryn. We've come for you. You're safe now. Safe."
Corryn opened his arms to her, but did not force the issue. "You're safe," he repeated. "We've come to take you home."
She looked up at him, bewildered, as though his words had no meaning - and he realised that beneath the dirt and grime and rags, she was younger than he had taken her for - perhaps no older than Syndra.
The revelation undid him. He shirked back as if struck, his breath leaving him. No one should be treated thusly, especially a child. His heart sank further. He felt the sudden need to ride to Holdfast. This encounter was a portent and it was not lost on him.
The man on the floor started to roar, blustering threats and curses.
Killian straightened, his sword still at the man's throat.
"You cannot take her home," he said. "This is her home. She's Lilith's daughter."
"Wildlings keep better homes, ser," Corryn hissed, turning to the man. "My good friend here is Ser Killian Snow. Lady Lilith's brother. I might remind you, we did not ride in here under a flag of parley. Were he to take your head from your shoulders, it would in his power and right to do so."
The man looked up at Killian, his eyes bulging with sudden terror. Killian smiled grimly.
He stacked over and planted his boot square in the man's chest, letting the filth from the outside stain the man's clothing. "You're Ser Cerwyn, I assume. I want you to listen very careful to my words, ser. They may be the last you ever hear. I am Ser Corryn Manderly. The Riverwolf. And not a man to be trifled with, as you undoubtedly know. I am here to see Lady Lilith and I shall see her now."
Corryn put a little more pressure on the man's sternum with his boot tip. "And once that is done, I am buying this pile of night soil. Whether or not I feed you to the pigs afterwards rests on your compliance. Your family would probably thank me for removing the stain you've cast upon their good name."
"Where is she?" demanded Killian, the blade pricking Ser Cerwyn's throat.
Ser Cerwyn cast a panicked look off to the side - a low doorway where the entrance to the Keep tower stood.
"You'll have to bring him," said Killian to Corryn, sheathing his sword. Clearly, Killian intended to be the one to find his sister.
And then he strode off towards the tower. The girl - Lilith's daughter, had crawled under a table in some vain hope of shelter and was shaking uncontrollably, like a dog.
Corryn snaked his fingers into the man's greasy hair and yanked him to his feet. He cast a sad look toward the girl beneath the table. There was no helping it now. While Killian's blood remained up, he would have to keep a close eye on the man. Until then, even the little girl would have to wait. He pushed Ser Cerwyn toward the tower door.
"How did you come to this, man?" he growled.
The man was too dazed by what had happened to respond at first - it took another shake from Corryn to startle him into speech.
"I ... we had the blight on our fields. I got into debt. And the cards ... they fell against me. Every time. And she ... all she gave me was dead babies apart from that one useless girl. No-one to carry on the line. I would have been all right if she'd given me a son. But she had to deny me that, with her stuck up ways and her dead babies ... "
By now they had reached the first floor of the tower and entered what mmight - once - have been a gracious lady's solar. Now it lacked all amenities save a bed. Killian was sitting on this, a woman supported in his arms. Gaunt and haggard, she might have been any age between twenty-five and seventy. Her dark hair was thin and greying, and her eyes were sunken, the skin stretched taut over her bones. Corryn had seen the signs too many times to be mistaken. Lady Lilith was dying.
There was a shabby wooden crib beside the bed, and from this a thin, high wail issued.
"Just like her," muttered Ser Cerwyn. "Just like her to give me a living son at last, when it's too late."
Five inches of steel in the belly will put any man down, Corryn instinctively thought. But in the lung or the center of the back, well that killed you too... eventually. He wanted this man to die and slowly. Very slowly. It gave a man more than enough time to reflect upon his failings, his regrets. Each blistering pulse of pain counted down to the inevitable, where only one's hell awaited them in the darkness.
In thirteen years, Corryn had never forgotten that lonely room in Dragonstone. The stink of death hung heavily that night, a mixture of desperation and spilled blood. A hundred candles could not push back the shadows. But Queen Rhaella's dead eyes had been so terrible bright, as if formed from glass. That empty stare, that accusing stare, had come to live in his nightmares. She had been a casualty of war, Morna constantly told him. It was not his fault.
But to think that this man~E no, this animal, had left his wife rot and die in such destitution, such anguish, was unforgivable. He had done so willingly and without remorse. And why? Because of her haughtiness. A lady's honor was everything to a knight. There could only be one punishment for such degenerate behavior. That Cerwyn had made light of his foul deed only sealed his fate irrevocably.
But Corryn was a patient man. Death, when it came, should be poetic and just. Not forgiving and easy.
He pulled Cerwyn back into the corridor to give his nuncle and aunt some peace. "You left her to starve up here, didn't you? /Didn't/ you?" his voice never rose above a whisper, but the venom within could chill blood into ice.
"It's a woman's time!" Cerwyn protested. "A man has no place there! The women take care of ... " He looked around vacantly, as though expecting a troop of maids to appear with all the comforts that should attend a woman's lying in.
"The girl," he said. "She brought her mother food!"
And as if to underscore the fact, he pointed in triumph to a wooden plate beside the bed, with contained a chunk of dry bread.
The woman in Killian's arms gave a moan and stirred a little.
"Killian?" He voice was paper thin.
"There, you see!" said Cerwyn in triumph. "She's fine. She's alwats weak after rthe babbies are born, but she's up within two days ... and back to her duties."
Lilith reached up a claw of a hand to caress her brother's cheek.
"I'm here, Lilith," Killian said reassuringly.
"The children," she said. "Take care ... of ... "
I shall not cut off his eyelids here and now, Corryn instructed himself. Later, perhaps, but not now. The screams would wake the babe. And with no milk to give the child, it was better to let the boy rest for the time being.
Besides, he silently noted, the kill isn't mine to have.
Instead, Corryn put his arm around Ser Cerwyn and smiled brightly, as friendly as if they had been milk brothers. "Well, isn't that a relief then. All is well in the world," he chimed. "I'm certain I've misjudged you and your efforts. It's just that hard times can get so confusing, correct?"
He gestured back down the hall, leading the man away from the smell of death. Corryn's voice was melodic as he spoke, soothing and familial. "Now, I am of the understanding that you have been in financial difficulties. As you mentioned, cards and droughts and whatnot. And your lord is not indebted to help you, now is he? No, no, no. They never are. Not even family. Too busy counting their own coins and tending their own fields, I'll wager. So here you are; left all alone with your wife to fend for yourselves. I can see the pickle you're in, my good ser. I understand your pain and your frustration. And that is why I am here to relieve you of this burden.
"Do you have a septon about? Of course you do; of course you do. Let us fetch him, shall we? And then you, he, and I will draft up a proper transferal of legitimacy of Leaning Stone and its surrounding lands to me. No, no, don't thank me, Ser. I know the situation you're in. A son that won't last the week. A wife who won't live even that long. An addled daughter. And an estate you cannot possibly hope to revive."
Corryn led the man into the main hall and sat him down at the head table, pulling out his chair as politely as you please. With his typical flourish and spin of his own chair, he sat down and continued. "I know what you're thinking. Why would I give up this cess pit and all my woes for several hundred Dragons?" He gestured to the squalor around them as if it were the Red Keep at Spring Festival. "Well, let me give you this comfort in reaching this decision."
Still smiling pleasantly, Corryn's hand shot out and wrapped around Ser Cerwyn's throat. His lupine grin widened. "In roughly thirty minutes, perhaps less, my nuncle will be coming down those stairs for you. Dornish pride demands he kill you. And he'll do so, without pause or remorse. And he'll undoubtedly use one of his poisoned weapons to do so. Have you ever seen what their poisons can do to a man? Ghastly stuff. Why once, I watched a man shit out his insides. Oh yes. Black as tar they were when they came out too. And not just from his arse, mind you. There wasn't a crevice on his body not bleeding or leaking bile. Shall I tell you how long it took the man to die? No, no, I thought not. We understand each other perfectly."
He released the man and leaned back with a playful wave of his hands. "However, if you sign your holdings over to me, as his regent, I can prevent him from killing you. Indeed, you shall be safe as houses beneath my roof. And you'll have plenty of coin to spend on cards or whores or whatever you desire. You can put all this unpleasantness behind you. As if it never happened."
Corryn chuckled happily, "What do you say, my friend?"
The man swallowed, his bulging eyes never leaving Corryn's face. As he finished, he managed to say hoarsely, "How many Dragons?"
It was as though he placed the thought of the money above the fact of a terrible death ...
Corryn smiled to himself as the fish took the bait. "I can provide you with 100 now," Corryn said, "And provide you with a writ for 1,400 more, to be provided to you from my banker in White Harbor. You simply have to travel to White Harbor to collect. An easy enough task considering the purse you'll have. I have a small host of men nearby.
One of my scouts can escort you. With that amount of money, you can
buy yourself a small home in Rivertown and live out the rest of your life in relative luxury. Since you will be associated with our House, you can come to me if you require any further assistance."
He cocked his head and smiled sympathetically, "Do we have a deal, Ser?"
Cerwyn swallowed - he looked almost green. "I need ... two thousand," he said, and shot a swift, furtive look at Corryn. "Two thousand," he said, almost aggressively. "Then you''ll have a deal."
That would be a fabboulous sum for a dsecent holdfast of the size of this one. For the ruin they were currently standing in ... it was outrageous. "Were you born blue, Ser?" Corryn snorted. "I will spend almost a thousand repairing this dung hill. Or are you trying to insult me? I wouldn't think a man in your current situation would be foolish enough to insult those trying to help him."
Corryn leaned back and scratched at the stubble on his chin, pensive and thoughtful. In truth, he was wondering what he was going to eat that night. The accomidations were abysmal. But Cerwyn didn't need to know that. After a moment, he nodded lightly.
"One hundred now and another sixteen hundred and fifty when you get to White Harbor. I can introduce you to the right people so that you might make up the difference you so desperately require. My final offer, Ser. I suggest you take it before Killian interrupts us and ventilates something vital on your person."
Cerwyn hesitated, and then nodded. "I'll take it. I'll ... "
He broke off and rose to his feet, backing away across the room nervously.
Killian Snow was standing in the open doorway, and there was murder - bloody murder in his eyes, and on the tip of the blade he was pointing at Cerwyn.
"Lilith is dead," he said. "Stand aside, Corryn."
Corryn was on his feet and put himself in Killian's path. "Put your weapon down, Ser" he barked. His hand went to his hilt, but did not draw the weapon forth. "I grieve with you nuncle. Believe me I do. But you cannot harm this man. He has given Leaning Stone over to me. I will not have further bloodshed beneath this roof. If you harm this knight in any fashion, I will be forced to put you to justice."
"So lower your sword," he said sternly. With his back to Cerwyn, only Killian could see the expression on his face as he spoke. "This man is protected while he is under my roof. Do you understand?" His lips moved silently, Under my roof. He cocked his head, smiling darkly; hoping Killian would understand the depth of his words.
"Fetch the septon, Killian, so Ser Cerwyn and I can conclude our business and he can be on his way."
Killian's nod was almost imperceptible. Slowly he sheathed his sword, his eyes never leaving Cerwyn's.
"Go and find the septon for yourself, nephew. I'll ... look after your companion until you return." His lips curled back from his teeth in a ghastly parody of a smile.
Cerwynn cowered back. "Don't leave me with him!" he implored Corryn.
Killian's smile widened. "I have given my word."
Corryn nodded lightly, "You'll be fine, Ser Cerwyn. A Dornishman's word is his bond. Just as it is a Manderly's. Besides, he wouldn't kill you in front of his niece, now would he?"
He gestured toward the child still cowering beneath the table. "There's been enough death for now. I'll fetch the septon and we can put an end to this." He put his hand on Killian's shoulder, squeezing it firmly. His eyes burned with the same hatred in Killian's heart. There would be blood to be certain. "Watch over the girl too," he said quietly.
And with that, he headed toward the small temple he'd seen on the way in. Once outside, the stink hit him again, making his stomach roll. He covered his mouth and made his way down to the grime-encrusted temple. It had not been visited much of late. Even the destitute had abandoned their gods for the time being. That would change as well, Corryn noted. If he could keep White Harbor in order, this place shouldn't hold too many overwhelming obstacles.
He pushed open the temple door, and called into the darkened interior. "My lord? My lady? Is any one here?" He did not know if he would be greeted by a septon or septa. Either way, they would be of service to him.
There was silence - and then a high quavering voice called, "Who calls?"
A figure shuffled into the light from the door - an old, old man, with a milky film over his eyes.
"Who's there?" he quavered again.
Even the gods' representative is falling into degeneracy, Corryn grumbled inwardly. When this is over, I may throw Killian in a crow cage for bring me up here. No. It's not his fault is it, now? He sighed faintly and stepped through the threshold.
"I am Ser Corryn Manderly, Lord Septon," Corryn said in a calm and friendly voice. "I am currently closing some business with your liege. However, I require your supervision to make certain the deal is properly notarized. Would you be able to attend us? It shouldn't take long."
"Eh?" said the old man. "You want Lord Cerwyn?"
It was clear the septon was well nigh deaf, as well as more than half-blind.
Mother, steady my hand so I might not throttle one of your own, Corryn silently prayed. He went closer to the old man. "I am Ser Corryn Manderly," he said again louder. For the next few agonizing moments, he recited his request to the septon. He had to repeat himself constantly, which tried his patience to no end. After all, the longer he tarried here with this lost member of the First Men, the more likely Cerwyn would be twitching in a pool of his own blood by the time they got back.
He helped the septon into his cloak. "Time is short, I fear, good father. I would not normally be so rude, but the matters of today are grave and important. I said GRAVE and IMPORTANT." He shook his head and prayed to the Mother once more for deliverance.
The dofddering Septon allowed himself to be escorted back to the hall where Killian still stood guard over Ser Cerwyn. Killian did not appear to have moved one iota since Corryn left, but Ser Cerwyn was crouched and cowering in a corner of the room, and the stain on his breeches and the smell suggested he had piddled himself from fear.
"Do this," growled Killian. "Now!"
"Is that Ser Cerwyn?" asked the Septon, seeming to spy the broken wreck in the corner. "I don't like Ser Cerwyn. He desecrated the Sept."
Well, at least the bastard is still alive, Corryn considered. Killian is more loyal than even I thought. "Well done, ser," was all he could manage. For the most part, he ignored Cerwyn and focused on the task at hand.
"He has done a great many things, old father," Corryn said through clenched teeth. "But that will change soon enough. With your help, we will be getting rid of him today. The first thing we do afterwards is repair the Sept. I simply need you to oversee this transference of power and all will be put to right."
He sat the old man down and then placed some ink and paper they'd retrieved from the Sept's poor stock. While Killian oversaw to Cerwyn's complicity, Corryn and the old man drafted two rather elegant and diplomatic writs that transferred the legitimacy of Leaning Stone to him in exchange for 1,650 Dragons to Cerwyn; payable once he arrived in White Harbor, of course. To prevent any contestation later on, he carefully included a clause that the children were to be declared Snows and given into his and Killian's custody. Whatever inheritance they gained would be judged solely by the two of them.
Corryn turned the papers around on the table, "Get up, Ser. It is time we conclude this. And quickly. You're beginning to stink as much as the rest of this place. As you'll see, once you sign, you can put everything behind you. No children coming to steal what you've earned. You will forever be your own man. Now sign it!" His last words were a hissing command, not a request.
Ser Cerwyn signed with a hand that shook. Then he pushed the paper towards the Septon.
"Watch while he gives me my money," he commanded. And then witness it."
The girl under the table was whimpering. Ser Cerwyn reached out to kick her; she dodged with practised ease, but her whimpering ceased.
Corryn glowered as Cerwyn tried to kick the girl. No matter. He would feel the sting of such things soon enough. He went into his saddlebag and counted out the hundred coins as agreed upon. He swore Cerwyn was positively drooling at the sight of four piles of coins. The other monies inside attracted the man's attention, but one cold look from Corryn made him think twice before speaking. "One hundred. It's all there," he said quietly. "I'm sure you can find an appropriate place to put it, yes?"
He nodded to the Septon then. "If you would please witness this transaction, good sir? From this point forward, Leaning Stone and its lands are mine. You and I will have to make the proper arrangements with Winterfell, but as for Ser Cerwyn, his duty here is done."
Once the old man had signed the document, Corryn stood up. He nonchalantly dusted himself off and smiled at Killian, nodding that the time was well at hand. "Septon? Lady Lilith has passed on. Could you please attend to her? I will be up shortly to assist you."
Patting Cerwyn on the back, he chuckled happily. "I suspect you'll wanting to be away from this terrible place. There's certainly no time like the present. Winterfell is within a few hours of here. I'm sure you can re-provision there." He walked outside, guiding the man toward the main gate. Killian was not far behind.
While Killian helped Cerwyn fetch his horse, Corryn gathered the men at the front gate together and requested that one of them find the captain of the guard. He was quiet, but pleasant with each of them as he explained the change of affairs. But for the most part he waited until Killian and Cerwyn returned to the gate. Cerwyn was sweating and looking nervous atop his lame mount. Killian, it appeared had mounted up himself.
"Killian, fetch the troops here," Corryn said, as if to reassure Cerwyn. "We will set up camp within the tower."
"Ser Cerwyn, it has been a pleasure dealing with you. Good luck in all your future endeavors. I will send a raven to White Harbor, so they might expect you."
Once the man rode out of the main gate, Corryn nodded to Killian and said loud enough for all to hear. "Ride him down, but be quick about it," he said plainly, as if asking for someone to pass the salt. "And bring me back my gold, would you?"
He turned his attention to those assembled, "Now… shall we discuss your increase in wages?"
There were a minute's silence. The men seemed to be contemplating possibilities.
"We could take him," said a voice at the back. "Take him and take the Keep. We're close to the road here - we could get rich."
Corryn smiled politely as they discussed this, appearing decidedly nonplused by the subject of the conversation. One or two of the men, however, did catch the dark glint in his eye. He was studying the faces and privately noting which ones spoke of dissension and which others spoke in his favor. The meaning behind this look was unmistakable; the formers' fate would not be… favorable.
"Aye," said a deeper, older voice - also near the back. "And bring the Starks down on us."
"Boltons first," said another man, nearer the front, his nose bulbous and warty. "I'd rather it were Starks."
That caught Corryn's attention. If the Boltons had claims in the area, that could complicate matters considerably. He would have to make certain that the Starks or other Cerwyns were more sympathetic to his current situation.
"Wages," said another, a young man with a squint. "We've not been paid in months."
There was a murmur of agreement at this. Raiding might be all very well, but sure to bring trouble. A lord, however, who paid your wages ... who talked of increasing your wages ... that was perhaps a better possibility.
"That will be rectified soon enough," Corryn announced to the crowd. "Each man will be paid 5 silver stags to make up for lost wages once my men arrive. After that, we will discuss a lengthier contract."
There was distinct interest at this. Clearly they were coming round to his side.
"What about the bairns?" asked Warty-Nose, looking at Corryn. "You kill 'em?"
Corryn regarded the man coldly, "No. I am Ser Corryn Manderly. The Riverwolf. I may be many things, but a child killer, I am not. Besides, it wasn't necessary. Ser Cerwyn has disavowed them as Snows, and thusly they have no legitimacy. They will not be harmed and I would look unsympathetically upon anyone that did.
"Indeed, I'll be requiring a wet nurse for the babe. Considering the conditions of this place, I'd say that at least one or more of the women here have whelped. What else is there to do, eh?"
"Grissen's wench has whelped," said Warty-Nose. "She can feed two."
A young guard with sandy hair that was already thinning and a very prominent Adam's apple, nodded vigorously at this. "Specially if he gets paid," he said hopefully.
"Of course, she'll be paid for her services," Corryn said. "Does she have any domestic skills as well? From the condition of the keep, I suspect it hasn't felt a woman's touch in months. I suspect the servants ran off some time ago. I'll be requiring a temporary staff. Those that prove their worth will be given permanent positions. I'd rather have local help than bring them up from White Harbor."
Warty-Nose appeared to have more of a head on his shoulders; for the time being, anyway. Corryn nodded to the man respectfully. "I have a host of thirty men about arrive by nightfall. They will require accommodations. Half the bailey appears deserted, so I'm sure they can utilize some of the houses."
"That's true enough," agreed Warty-nose. He addressed the rest. "Look sharp, you lot! See what you can do to make the place hospitable afore Ser Corryn's men come!"
The guards, muttering, shambled off, some with more reluctance than others. Warty-Nose watched them go, then spat in the mouldy straw that was blowing in the courtyard.
"A bad master makes bad men. And he was a bad master right enough. His Lady did what she could to hold the place together but ... what the bairns didn't take out of her, his fists did."
Corryn frowned and his eyes darkened. "He'll pay for that in short order. And not in gold, I assure you. If someone inquires, and I doubt they will, he left in perfect health. After that, he was not our responsibility, correct? Frankly any man of character that harms his wife should suffer for it."
He gestured for Warty-Nose to walk with him, heading toward the keep. "I run a tight ship, captain. I assume you are the captain of the guard. I do not tolerate disloyalty or disobedience. One of the men that greeted me found Lady Lilith's condition rather amusing. He'll be departing us shortly for the Wall. If you believe there are members of your garrison that would be better off leaving with him, tell me now. I will not have poison tongues under my roof.
"I reward loyalty with generosity, comradeship with consideration. There is a reason the Laughing Knives have been with me for some twenty years. As will you, I suspect.
"How many men do you have here in total?" Corryn inquired. "And tell me about the place, if you can."
"There's about twenty here now," said Warty-Nose. "There was more, but they all shogged off when Ser Cerwyn swore allegiance to Lord Bolton for more dragons to waste. Happen they'll come back if you're here now. But you'll have to take fief from Lord Bolton too. This is his land now."
And there was a poisoned pill if he'd ever heard one. He doubted the Boltons would give a damn about Killian hanging Cerwyn from a tree by his… well, best not think of that. No worries in that regard. But the Boltons were as pleasant as rabid ferrets and half as trustworthy.
"The Seven preserve us," he muttered. "The man fell that far? I doubt even Ser Killian possesses the creativity to make him suffer enough."
"Very well, I will pay the proper respects to Lord Bolton. I pray you mean Roose Bolton. And how do the men feel about this particular allegiance? Speak your mind freely. I am a man that respects honesty."
"They were not happy. And less happy when they learned none of the dragons would be coming their way in the form of stags. That made as many shog off as the allegiance, I'm reckoning."
Warty-Nose broke off, and Corryn saw he was staring towards the doorway to the Keep. When Corryn swung round, he saw her too.
It was the first time he had seen her standing, not scrabbling on the floor or crouched beneath a table. She was taller than he had realised, and, thus, older too. Not a child, but a young woman - perhaps as old as Syndra. She was staring at him across the courtyard, more ragged than the majority of smallfolk he saw, barefoot and filthy, her dark hair matted and begrimed. But there was no disguising the beauty of those eyes, Ciara's eyes.
"She don't talk," said Warty-Nose. "When she was a littl'un, she talked well enough. Then one night, he beat her for disturbing him with her prattle, and beat Lady Lilith too when she tried to stop him. Never spoken a word since, she hasn't."
And today she had lost both her parents - though her father was no loss - and been proclaimed illegitimate.
Corryn sighed weakly and for the first time emotion began to break down the walls he'd put up. "I've upturned her entire life, and I don't even know her name," he said quietly, almost embarrassed. "Mother forgive me."
He turned to Warty-Nose, "I will attend to her. In the meantime, I will need you to handle a few things. Firstly, send me Grissen's woman. The babe will need food and soon. Second, make sure my men will have at least livable conditions when they arrive. During that time, if you can develop that list of men we no longer require, I would be grateful. I'm certain several will be talking sedition now that they are required to work again.
"Thank you for your candor, Cameron," he said, reaching into his purse. He placed seven silver stags in the man's hand. "I believe my captain deserves a decent wage, don't you? Attend me when you are finished and we shall talk more. There is much to discuss."
Corryn left the man to his duties and headed up the crooked stones to the keep. As he did so, he could not help but stare at the girl; her eyes in particular. Ghosts again. They seemed to plague him. From Rhaella to Morna to Ciara. Always ghosts. But he would not shirk away from them. Morna had taught him that.
He approached the girl slowly, inwardly shocked by her actual height. He smiled softly at her, bowing his head respectfully. "My name is Corryn. I am your second cousin on your mother's side. Whatever has happened before, you must know one thing. That you are safe now. And I swear that I will protect you and your brother from this day forward."
It was then that he realized that he'd shed actual tears as he spoke. He wiped them away guiltily and met her eyes with his own gaze; hazel pain and compassion. "Shall we get you cleaned up, m'lady?" he said offering her his hand.
She shrank back, staring at his hand suspiciously, then lifted her eyes to his face. She seemed puzzled by what she saw there and hesitated.
"I won't hurt you," he said, "Not ever. You can trust me." He smiled at her again, but didn't press the issue. After years of abuse, a man was undoubtedly the last person she would befriend quickly.
Then, abruptly, she turned and was running through the forlorn Keep, her bare feet making almost no sound on the floor. But her direction was all to clear.
She was running towards her mother's chamber.
"Bollocks and damnation," Corryn cursed and sprinted after the girl. The last thing she needed right now was to see her mother; a hollow shell curled up in pain. He called after her, but his unfamiliarity with the keep and its dim interior made it difficult for him to keep up.
"Please come back," he called again.
He caught up with her at the door of the chamber - but only because she had frozen there, staring at the broken figure on the bed. From the crib, a thin, high wailing rose up, relentless in its misery.
Corryn could feel his heart breaking from the horrible sight. Too much tragedy had befallen this place in such a short time. He recalled the sad figure of his mother, her body finally having surrendered to the pain. It was from that he drew his strength. The wet nurse would attend to the babe promptly and make sure it was safe. It would forget this day. The girl would not, and so it was upon her he focused.
Lightly, carefully, he placed his hand on the girl's shoulder. "She died in her brother's arms," he said. "So she wasn't alone. And neither are you. It may not seem so, but I know exactly how you feel. I am here for you."
She backed a little away from him, looking at him wide eyed as though trying to test the validity of his words. Then she stepped forward and laid her hand, small and grimy against his chest. Next she turned and pointed to her mother.
The question was plain. "You are her brother?"
He touched her hand lightly, holding it over his heart. "Me? No. The man that was with me is her brother; Killian. I am her step-nephew; Corryn. Ciara's boy." Corryn offered her an apologetic smile, even though no apology could soothe her pain now. All he wanted to do was hold her and tell her it would be okay. But he would not lie to her.
Then she turned away, moving to a broken dresser that stood on one side of it, with a heavy stone basin on it. She tilted it to show him the dirty, rusty water within - and then pointed once more to her mother.
She wanted to wash the body - a silent daughter to preform the actions that the Silent Sisters would not be there to do.
There was a strange dignity about her movements, and a determination too that reminded him of another lovely, willful Dornish woman ... Ciara.
The Dayne blood ran strongly in her, there was no doubt. Despite the grim sorrow in her eyes, Corryn finally saw what his father must have when Ciara was young. Silently, he swore an oath that this child would never know pain again if he could help it. She would not become another of his ghosts.
"Of course," he said, "Lilith deserves fresh water. I'll fetch some for you. I noticed some sand on the way into the castle. I'll bring that as well. I think she would rest easier if her feet touched the essence of her homeland again. I'll be right back. Don't fear."
He went out to retrieve the items he'd mentioned, feeling decidedly guilty at leaving her. Along the way, he encountered Fortune; the aforementioned wet nurse he'd been promised. The auburn-haired woman was hippy, buxom, and had most of her teeth. She prattled as she helped Corryn draw some fresh water from the well, but it was hard not to like her. Fortunately, she had been a domestic prior to the fall of Leaning Stone and seemed quite happy to lend a hand. She was even happier when Corryn announced her wages.
The pair returned to the dank bedroom, but Corryn remained at the door. "Fortune, if you could watch her and feed the babe, I'd be forever grateful. I will remain outside, as is custom. If either of you need me, I'm right here." He gazed at the young girl and smiled once more, before closing the door to give her and her mother privacy. As promised, he remained right outside the door, waiting to be called.
It was a long time before Fortune slipped out, and she looked tired when she did. "We're done," she said simply. "She wants to hold vigil for her mother this night. She has the babe with her - I'll go and get some food myself, and then I'll come back to put it to bed."
"Thank you, Fortune," he said softly. "I'm not sure if you would prefer to have a room in the castle or in the bailey. Whichever is easiest on you, madam. I'm sure there is enough space in this edifice. When you return, could you bring something for the girl and I? I don't think she's eaten in days. Weeks."
He balled his fist unconsciously, the anger at the girl's rough treatment surfacing like poison escaping a fever victim. Just as quickly, he sighed and relaxed. "Thank you again," he said and went inside.
In the room, Lilith lay white and straight beneath the sheet that covered the bed, only her folded hands and her face visible, for otherwise linen bandaged swaddled her head.
The girl was sitting beside the bed, the baby in her lap. She had made an effort to clean herself too, Corryn could see, and she was wearing a proper dress. By the way it hung loosely around her scrawny form, Corryn guessed it must be one of her mother's.
Her dark hair was still lank and greasy, but she had tied it back from her face, and he could see the sharp cheekbones clearly.
She looked across the room at him, and then gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. Then she went back to watching her mother's still form on the bed and she held her orphaned brother in her arms.
Corryn nodded in return, studying this strange girl. It warmed him that she was regaining some of her confidence and so quickly. For a moment, he imagined her voice. It came out as Ciara's, probably because of the resemblance. But somehow, he suspected it would sound like forest shadows, soft and hypnotic.
He took the only other chair in the room and set it down beside her. He sat without speaking, resting his hands on his knees. He turned the hand closest to her over, inviting her to human contact but without prompting her further. Time and silence blanketed them. Corryn had sat with the dead so many times, he dreaded to count. But she needed someone. Anyone. And he would help her.
She shrank away a little from his outstretched hand, concentrating instead on the baby on her lap. It was some hours before Fortune returned, but when she did so, Lilith's daughter seemed happy to hand him over and allow Fortune to take him away to her own room. She watched them go almost wistfully, and then returned to her vigil.
The room grew dark and cold, but the girl was motionless. Perhaps she felt it was respectful - or perhaps she was so used to appalling conditions that this meant little.
But when the moon rose, some time in the early hours of the day, it shone on the slow silent tears trickling down her cheeks.
Corryn remained with her throughout the night. He had sat vigil many times before and was familiar with the grim affair. Years of night watches allowed him to remain awake despite the long day. He remained silent, but ever sympathetic. When the tears began to fall, however, he could no longer hide his own.
Carefully, he touched her shoulder in support, offering a empathic smile. He pressed nothing, expected little, but simply let her know she wasn't alone in the shadows.