Pre-dawn at Holdfast
It was that clear, still light that comes before the sun rises, when the world smells fresh, and new - and yet breathes chill on cheeks. The sounds seemed oddly clear and yet distant as the horses were led out in their tack and made ready for the departure.
A tall, thin youth strode into the stableyard from the armory. The lad wore a loose homespun tunic over grey, somewhat baggy trousers which were tucked into knee-high riding boots. A leather jerkin covered the shirt. A short sword hung at his left hip and a small dagger dangled from his right. He carried a traveling pack in one hand and a bow with a large quiver of arrows in the other.
As the boy approached Lady Syndra's horse and cooed a greeting to it, the stablehands realized that this new arrival was in fact not a boy at all. The hands shuffled uncomfortably, uncertain about the reason for their lady's sudden transformation. Syndra, noticing their unease, smiled around at them pleasantly. "Makes me less of a target, don't you think?" she said brightly.
Syndra herself was eager to go. She had not slept well, but even so, she showed no sign of fatigue. She was running on adrenaline at this point. She had stopped by the infirmary before she left the castle, but her father was still sleeping, having been given a fresh dose of poppy during the night. As much as she had wanted to say goodbye, she had to admit that his slumber was probably for the best. She had simply kissed his brow and said she loved him. On her way out, the maids who were helping as nurses heard her murmur, "Be with him, Mama."
After settling the stablehands, Syndra began strapping her gear onto her saddle, looking around occasionally for the other members of her party, or anyone else who might arrive to see her off.
Kenrith was fighting to hide signs of the fatigue which was beginning to wear on him. "I bid you the best of luck, cousin. Here is the message... I've sealed it just a few minutes ago with father's ring, and you still have my signet. Remember what I said... Stark must have the truth from your lips. I swear to you on my soul that what I've written here is true as I understand it, though there may be parts I haven't told you yet. Leave it for Stark to unseal, so you may give your strongest oath that you haven't tampered with it... Hold Fast," he said sternly. Syndra was close enough to see a look of grave worry pass over him when he mentioned 'things he hadn't told her.'
Syndra nodded solemnly through his instructions. Her eyes widened in alarm about the things he hadn't told her and she wondered if any of those things, whatever they might be, were her fault, but she remained silent. "And you, Kenrith," she answered when he finished. She gave in to her urge to embrace him tightly, but just as quickly let him go. Kenrith had never been known for being demonstrative.
Rhys appeared, walking across the open toward them, carrying a caged raven. He paused, seeing Kenrith and Syndra talking close, and politely stopped a few paces away. The raven cawed indignantly and Rhys shushed it, bringing the cage up to his face to whisper to the bird.
Syndra smiled at Rhys, inviting him to join them, then turned back to her cousin. "I hope you and Ser Anders have chosen good riders for this party. I intend to ride hard to make Winterfell as quickly as possible." If the riding skills Syndra had had before Kenrith left for Riverrun had grown with her, he knew she could do just that.
Rhys stepped forward and presented the raven to Syndra. "To take with you. His name is Valerian. In case of...in case you want to send a message home." He smiled reassuringly, but it was forced.
Kenrith was murmuring something to Mal and Jayne. "Riverrun" was mentioned once or twice.
Syndra smiled back at Rhys, but her smile was simply weary, not forced. "Thank you, Rhys. I'll be careful and I'll send word to... back to Holdfast when I arrive safely." There was no 'if' in her statement. She gazed up into his eyes for a moment, wishing she could say more, or reach out to embrace him like she had Kenrith, but that was not possible in the middle of the increasingly busy stableyard.
Then her eyes lit up as she remembered something. "Oh! Do you have those letters Ser Corryn had me write? And a... a..." she blushed, trying not to grimace as she finished bashfully, "a comfrey blossom?" She looked up at him hopefully.
Rhys nodded and put the raven down next to Syndra. He reached into his satchel and retrieved the messages Syndra had penned the day before, still folded and tied up, and handed them to her.
He paused and glanced surreptitiously at Kenrith talking to Mal and Jayne, then reached into his robes and pulled out a fresh sprig of comfrey, the blossoms flushed pink and lavender. "Take care, Little Bird," he said softly as he pressed the sprig into Syndra's hand, his fingers brushing against her palm before he dropped his own hand and stood back.
Syndra closed her hand, allowing his fingers to slip through hers gently as he pulled away. "And you, Rhys. And take care of my father," she requested, her regrets about having to leave him evident in her voice.
At the last second, Kenrith might have glanced in Rhys' direction and frowned fractionally as the flower was passed. If he had, his eyes had returned to Mal by the time Rhys looked up from Syndra's hands.
Syndra placed the letters and flower into a pouch at her belt along with Kenrith's letter and started to pick up the raven cage.
"What's happening?" A fresh voice broke in on them, clear in the chill of the morning air. "Syndra ... what are you doing? Your clothes ... your hair!"
It was Edlyn, standing in the entrance of the stableyard. Edlyn, normally so neat and precise, was unkempt and untidy, her fair hair escaping to fall in loose curls around her face, and her eyes were red-rimmed with lack of sleep.
She swayed a little as she stood, and her voice was panicked. "Syndra - what's happening? Where's Godwyn? Why did no-one come?"
"Edlyn!" Syndra gasped. The raven cage was forgotten as she ran to embrace her friend. "Oh Edlyn, I'm so sorry," she apologized sincerely, holding the girl close. "Everything happened so fast yesterday and I never even had time to breathe."
Her explanations tumbled out like a mountain stream in flood. "I cut the hair off. It was full of all manner of horrid things after the melee and I didn't have time to wash it. And I thought since my hair was short, I might as well dress as a boy so anyone seeing our party won't think me an easy hostage. We're going to Winterfell to get help. Me and some guards. Godwyn is with Ser Corryn trying to find Limosa. I spent yesterday tending the wounded. There were so many.
"And your mother? How's your mother? I prayed for her last night. And for you. To the Mother. I hope it came out all right." She finally released Edlyn so the poor girl could speak, but continued to hold her friend's arms for support.
Kenrith moved to his stepsister's bad side and offered his arm and shoulder.
She leaned back against him, and despite her dishevelled state, he realised her hair smelled faintly of flowers.
Kenrith, despite his fatigue, tried to think about anything other than what she smelled like. There was enough in what he had written the night before to serve adequately.
"She's opened her eyes," she said drearily. "She looked at me - but it was as though she didn't know me ... didn't know anytthing. Where's Maester Sewell? I thought he would come back to her."
She reached up to brush tears away with the back of her hand. "Who's going to Winterfell? And where are Ser Corryn and Godwyn?"
"Oh, dearheart, I'm so sorry," Syndra sympathized, squeezing her arms gently. She glanced back at Rhys. "Maester Rhys will come see her. Maester Sewell took sick. He's in the infirmary. Rhys will know just what to do for your mother. Trust me.
Rhys blinked at Edlyn, taking in what she'd said about Lady Celia. He turned without another word and headed briskly for her rooms.
Kenrith nodded his thanks to Rhys' back.
"As for the rest," she continued, "I'm going to Winterfell with a party of guards. And Corryn and Godwyn have ridden off to find Limosa. Eryk Bolton took her, remember? Yesterday?" Syndra looked into Edlyn's eyes worriedly. She had just told her where Godwyn was, after all. "They'll be back as soon as they find her. Quickly, I hope."
"They've ridden off?" faltered Edlyn. "but ... who's left ... here?"
"Kenrith will be here. And Ser Anders and most of Holdfast's forces," Syndra explained. "Father still lives and though he can't fight, he can help Kenrith keep the castle running. The Boltons are either dead or captured and should trouble us no longer. And once I get to Winterfell, I'm certain Lord Stark will help us. It'll be all right." Syndra knew the situation was far more dire than she made it sound, but did not wish to alarm Edlyn when she already had so much to worry about.
She grasped her friend's hands firmly and looked her directly in the eyes. "You must remember, Edlyn, that you are a Hardy now. I know you can hold fast as well as Godwyn or I. And you must. Your mother and Kenrith will need your help. And your brother and sister will need you to be strong for them." Her words carried an intensity that Edlyn usually only heard when Syndra was about to become very, very stubborn. Or determined.
Kenrith nodded. "Come... you look as though you haven't eaten," he added as he gently tugged her in the correct direction.
For a few steps she came with him.
But then suddenly she stopped dead, turned around, and ran back to Syndra, throwing her arms around her and holding her tightly.
"Be safe," she whispered. "And I'll hold fast - I promise."
Syndra embraced her fiercely. "I know you will. My sister could do no different," she whispered back hoarsely.
Then Edlyn released and stood watching as Syndra mounted.
Syndra was all business as she mounted her horse, holding all fear, sorrow and regrets deep inside. "Let us be off," she said to the men who accompanied her. With one last look down at Kenrith and Edlyn, she said, "Take care. I'll send word as soon as I arrive." Without waiting for a reply, she urged her horse forward.
Edlyn watched her ride ... staring after her until the great forest swallowed the whole party up. Even then she stood, gazing out after her, seemingly unaware of anything nearer at hand.
Kenrith saw that she wished to watch Syndra leave, and spoke with the watch captain for a short time in preparation for the day's events.
He returned to her side, scuffing his feet a bit so she wasn't startled as he called her name and touched her shoulder. "Edlyn... it is time to eat."
He led her to her place above the salt in the hall, watching the feet of the posts as he passed for the mark his presumed great aunt had spoken of.
"I'm sorry so much of the hardness of the North has been visited on you so swiftly," Kenrith said to her sympathetically as he worked to tear a hunk of bread free with his one hand.
Kenrith was still tired from his late night the previous evening, but he tried to reasure Edlyn as best he could while working to eat and appear confident in front of the castle staff.
After the meal, he was unsure if he'd done Edlyn any good, but certain he had to go about his day. There was much to do today... many things to do before Stark came to pass judgement, or sent for him for the same.
"Hold Fast, stepsister," Kenrith said before giving her hand a reassuring squeeze and rising to his feet.
They carried him from breakfast straight into the dungeons.
Where he found a small group of the guards standing around the central area in a small, worried huddle. They started when they saw him - and seemed reluctant to speak first.
Kenrith picked the man who might have been senior-most, and said "Report."
The leading guard drew a deep breath. "It's like this, Ser. When we came down this morning to see to the prisoners ... things having been so confused that no-one took thought to them yesterday ... we found Ser Herys ... mutilated. And he claims as how your brother did it."
Kenrith considered the matter stoically for a few moments, and when he did speak, he clearly knew what he was going to say.
"I trust we have no need to credit the word of a 'knight' who struck an unarmed noblewoman and ordered his men into a suicidal attack in a fit of rage over justice not to his liking. I accept full responsibility, and we shall leave my brother out of this... yes?"
Kenrith waited for their response, and studied their faces as well while they gave it.
They nodded, relieved. It was clear that Godwyn was well-liked by the men and stood on easy terms with them; it was also clear that these men were worried about the repercussions of his actions. Letting someone else take the responsibility (and blame) came as a relief to them.
"Was you wishful to see the man hisself?" asked the leading guard.
"He struck Lady Celia in front of a hundred witnesses... I'm going to behead him in the courtyard in a few minutes. Should anyone ask about what he was shouting, I'm not asking you to lie... but you are of course free to say that you credit my word over his in this," Kenrith said before taking a deep, bracing breadth. "Shall we haul him forth and be done with it?"
The guards looked startled.
"But ... But he's a nobleman!" said the youngest. "Lord Bolton's full brother! If you kill him without a trial ... "
One of the older guards was shaking his head slowly. "I saw him strike the Lady. 'Twas more to set her aside than to do her harm, I am thinking. Must a man die for that?"
The oldest spoke up, his voice a low rumble. "Better he die for that than live to bear tales against what happened here."
Kenrith nodded as the oldest spoke, and replied with quiet gravity. "I've written to Stark. It is not the truth I fear, or justice, but more lies from Herys. Gods willing, he'll let me take the Wall. If not... as I said, it is on my head."
"Begging your pardon, Ser," said the second man, "it could be on all our heads if the Boltons demand blood vengeance. Who then shall stand between the wind and its prey if you're awa' to the Wall with your brother?"
"Stark has always valued Hardy's loyalty, and it may be that I can take my brother's place. Syndra, Edlyn, and Godwyn will still be there for you if all goes well... my other siblings as well, in time," Kenrith replied.
It was clear that the guards were not happy with this (for Godwyn, they had alweays believed, was pledged to the Wall, and Syndra, although of the Blood, was a mere giirl, while Edlyn had no claim by blood or gender). Nevertheless, they stood aside so that Kenrith could approach the cell that held Ser Herys.
He was lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood and other wastes, for he had been helpless to help himself. He lifted his head a little at Kenrith's approach, but it was clear he was alsmost beyond consciousness, for he croaked out, "Eryk? Eryk - is that you, my boy?"
"No, it isn't," Kenrith said as he looked on. At first, it was not immediately apparent what was wrong with Herys-- then he saw what had been cut. His jaw set, and he looked about the rest of the room, taking sight of the other Bolton prisoners.
"Someone will bring you food and water later," he said calmly.
Kenrith turned to one guard in particular, and said, "Be sure to have someone bring food and water to the other Bolton prisoners."
Over his shoulder, back to the guards, he said "fetch water and a brush-- we'll clean Herys."
The gurds hastened to obey his bidding - but once they had brought the gear, they hung back - there seemed a strange reluctance among them to touch the mutilated man that had nothing to do with squeamishness, for all were inured to the harshness of life.
Holding brush and bucket in one hand, he motioned with his head for someone to open the gate and so on. He would wash Herys himself-- mindful that the man still had his teeth and legs, and that he had brought disease on Holdfast before.
But Herys showed no inclibation to bite or kick. His treatment seemed to have resulted in a fever, and he was delirious. He tried to tell Kenrith something about his youth ... his first joust. Several times he called weakly for his son, Eryk.
Once, he wept.
Kenrith simply frowned and scrubbed. Once he was satisfied that the other man was as clean as he was likely to get, he dropped the brush and attempted to help lift him by the back of his shirt. "Stand..." was all he said, although all could see Kenrith was clenching his jaw before and after. Whether his anger was at Herys, Godwyn, or the situation was unclear.
Then, he brought him forth into the courtyard.