Preparing To Ride
Godwyn was running by the time he left the tower and entered the courtyard. "My horse!" he shouted to a groom. "Stock the saddlebags as well, I may be gone a while!"
He looked around for Corryn's men, then headed for them. "Prepare to ride," he ordered. "As soon as Ser Corryn is here we ride after Limosa. She's been taken by the bastard who called himself Eryk."
There was angry murmuring, and most of the Knives hurried away to begin preparing their horses. But Phalan, the oldest, hesitated and then said to Godwyn, "You're sure of this, are you? My money would have been on the other one, had he been free ... "
Godwyn nodded grimly. "There's nothing to choose from, among them," he said, "The Bolton blood runs true, lawful son or bastard. But Hairy Bolton was sure the younger one was the one who had taken her, and Corryn agrees. He gave the order for you to be ready to ride. He thinks the bastard wants to find a septon and wed the girl legally, to give himself a claim to Leaning Stone."
There was a muttering from amongst the gathered men.
"We'll catch up with them, Master," said one of the younger ones, and there were several nods.
Phalan looked towards the castle.
"Where's Ser Corryn? If it's as you say, they've two hours start on us, maybe more."
Godwyn looked back at Sewell's tower. "He's going to have one of the maester's see to his wounds, well enou that he can ride. I don't know how bad he was hurt, but he's planning on riding as soon as he is patched. That's why he wants us all ready to go. There's to be no delay once he's here."
Phalan nodded grimly and set to work hurrying the others.
A lone figure emerged from the keep and crossed the ruined tournament grounds toward the camp. Even at a distance, they could tell Corryn by his purposeful stride. One arm was slung to his chest and his color off-grey. The closer he got, the worse he appeared. That he intended to ride in this weakened condition spoke to the true depths of his desperation.
"You mangy lot ready yet?" he called as he drew within earshot. "We're taking the Twisted Road and riding hard. With luck, we should be able to get ahead of them or at least close the distance between us."
Corryn came up and clamped his hand on Godwyn's shoulder. "Good to have you with us, my boy. Your sword is definitely welcome."
"Aye," Godwyn said, nodding grimly. "We will find them, Corryn, and we'll treat with them just as we did with Herys and his men."
The men were ready - and then Corryn spotted Odette hurrying towards him from the tournament field. The fact that her apron was liberally bedaubed with blood suggested that she had been engaged in tending the wounded when summoned by his message.
All around him, his men were horsed and, with Godwyn, ready to ride.
And then Godwyn saw a movement - at the edge of the forest. Someone - or something, creeping low and close to the ground.
Godwyn spurred his horse, and rode quickly towards the motion. He drew his sword as he rode, prepared equally to rescue a wounded Hardy man trying to make his way to safety or to ride down and slay a treacherous Bolton assassin looking to cause more chaos for Holdfast.
It was neither.
It was a hound - one of his favourites - Darkeye, the mate to the b!tch that had some befriended Limosa, and the father of her pups. He was crawling out of the forest, leaving a bloody trail behind him. One rear leg seemed to be broken, but a quick glance told Godwyn there were worse injuries than that. He was whimpering with pain; when he saw Godwyn - or perhaps scented him, he tried to raise his wise head and whined.
Godwyn pulled the horse to a sudden stop and slid off. He fell to his knees, running his eyes and hands along the injured hound, but trying to be careful not to cause him any more pain. "Good boy," he murmured. "Such a good boy. It's all right, fellow, you're home now. You're home."
Darkeye whimpered again, and licked his hand, then gazed up at him trustingly. The injuries, even a cursory inspection told Godwyn, were bad. Either the dog had been attacked or possibly ridden down. He would have given a good account of himself, Godwyn knew that. That he had been so injured suggested the brave dog had faced great odds ...
"Good fellow," Godwyn said again. He shook his head. "Tam wouldn't have let you crawl home like this, not if he was alive. They killed him and Volf, didn't they, boy? That [email protected] killed them."
He slipped his arms under the injured hound and rose slowly. Darkeye whimpered in pain. "Shhh," Godwyn said comfortingly. "It's all right, lad. It's all right."
He began walking back towards Corryn his men, carrying the great dog, ignoring the blood that was mixing with the blood of Herys and Godwyn himself on his clothing.
The dog whimpered at every uneven jerk, but he also delivered a long lick to Godwyn's jaw, the only part of him he could reach.
Still on foot, Corryn leapt out of the way as Godwyn rode off suddenly. Sensing something out of the ordinary, he moved to Odette with haste. A mixture of emotions drifted over his features as he reached her side. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Godwyn had things in hand before return his gaze to Odette. Even bloody and haggard, she remained as beautiful as the day he'd unceremoniously left her, two years ago.
"This wasn't how I planned our reunion, my love," he said. "I pictured more smiles and less blood."
Odette ran a weary hand over her face. "You saw me in the Court," she reminded him, "though I do not hold you at fault for thinking more of young Volf than me."
"Oh, I recall," Corryn said softly. "And I have certainly thought of thee a great deal. Just as I did back in White Harbour. You received the missives and gifts, I hope."
She hesitated, and then smiled, sadly. "You are well come back to Holdfast, Ser," she said. "Although I see you mean to depart even now."
"My adoptive daughter was taken by the Boltons," he explained. "But once I rescue her, I shall return. Indeed, I shall be much closer from this day forward. Which is why..."
Corryn paused, smiling faintly as he looked upon Odette's face. Even beneath the blood and filth, she was as beautiful as ever. "Which is why I called for you, that we might..."
"Corryn!" Godwyn called. He was walking towards them from the edge of the woods, a bleeding mastif cradled in his arms. His horse followed a dozen paces behind.
Corryn cringed, balling his fists tight. "Bollocks and damnation. The Maiden spits in my face at every turn." He sighed inwardly, "The fates conspire against us again, my dear~E come with me?"
He touched her arm and then walked hurriedly back to Godwyn.
"Look what they did!" Godwyn exclaimed as Corryn reached him. "Tam and Volf must have found them. He came back home. Tam wouldn't have left him, not hurt like this. They must have found them, and then been caught. He left a trail of blood, crawling. Look how bad he's hurt." There were tears in Godwyn's eyes, and the hound whimpered again, licking the young man's face.
"Come," Corryn said, trying to steady his voice. As tragic as the dog's injuries were, he was more concerned that Tam and Vold were still missing. "Let's get him beside the fire and lay him down. We'll clean him up, Godwyn. You'll see."
He nodded to Jinx; a whippet lean fellow with a cocked eye. "Go fetch some water from the well would you, Jinx?" he said. "Thank you, lad."
Corryn cleared a spot beside the fire and helped Godwyn set the wounded animal down. "How long ago did you and Syndra send them out hunting, Godwyn?" he said, trying not to sound indifferent to the dog's, and thus the boy's, misery.
"It was just before the joust," Godwyn said. He laid the dog down, making a soothing sound as the wounded mastiff whimpered once more. "Syndra had already sent them out when she told me about it, I don't know how long before. Not long, I don't think." He looked at Corryn, while continuing to lightly stroke the dog. "I know we can't stay for him," he said, "We've got to get on after Limosa now, there's no time to waste." He frowned. "He was bleeding a lot, we can backtrack to where this happened, if you think maybe we could learn anything." He bit his lower lip. "Perhaps..." he began.
He broke off, then continued, "Might it be that Tam or Volf might still be alive? Hurt bad, but not dead? Do we have time to find out, or do we ride after Limosa right away? I don't know what we should do, Corryn. I don't know."
"Well,," said Odette, in her most comfortable tones, "uyou can leave your dog - what is his name, young Master? - in my hands. And I'll see as he receives as good care as he would if he were one of my own potboys. And for the rest, Ser Corryn will now what to do."
Corryn touched her shoulder, "You've done so much already, Odette. Thank you." His hand lingered and his eyes said that he wish more from their contact. But for now, it was enough.
Odette reached up and patted his hand. Then she moved away, still holding the mastiff - although not for very long as two of her sturdy ostlers swiftly moved to assist her.
Godwyn watched them depart, then turned resolutely back to Corryn.
"We'll follow the trail back to where this happened," he said to Godwyn. "Limosa is our priority, but Volf is like my son. He and Tam may be injured and need our more immediate assistance. It will also be a perfect place to start our search from. I have several of her things for our dogs to follow. We can go from... where this poor animal encountered our quarry. Good thinking, my boy."
"It should be an easy trail to follow," Godwyn said. He mounted, then turned his steed towards the forest edge.
Corryn pulled himself up into his saddle, letting out a hiss of pain as the exertion pulled on the wound. He gulped for air, steadying himself on his mount. After a moment, he gave a nod. "Let's follow the trail first. You can lead us Godwyn. You probably know the woods around Holdfast better than I. It will give me the time I need to reacquaint myself with the area."
He cast one final look back at the castle. "Why is it that every time I leave this place, I leave someone I love behind for someone I love in peril? Heh. I have to stop visiting so often, I suppose."
Corryn gave Godwyn a playful wink and nodded for the boy to lead the way into the woods.
"Oh, no," Godwyn said with a frown. "You mustn't do that." He gave his horse a touch with his heels, and began riding for the spot where he had found Darkeyes.
It was not far, and once reached, the trail was, sadly, all to evident, for the poor dog had left traces of his injuries as he crawled through the undergrowth. And perhaps everyone (except Godwyn) was amazed at how far the poor beast had travelled ...
They were half a mile or so into the forest, following an old trail that ran roughly parallel to the road, when there was a sudden bark ahead.
Someone, it seemed, had spotted their coming.
"Whiteface!" Godwyn shouted. He spurred his mount, and charged recklessly forward.
"Dammit all!" Corryn growled as his impetuous companion rode off. He turned to Phalan, "Keep an eye out, old friend. We've lost enough men to this accursed forest of late. And there's no telling who might still be about."
He spurred his horse to speed and followed Godwyn toward the sound.
Half hiudden in a bush, Godwyn found Tamlin. He had clearly dragged himself there - blood traces suggested that. His arm seemed broken - in addition he bore the marks of a whip laid across his face, and there were also signs of an even harsher beating too.
Whiteface was standing guard over him - and the faithful hound also bore the signs of having received a hard kick from man or horse. He allowed his old friend Godwyn to approach, but growled at Corryn.
Tamlin was unconscious. Of Volf there was no sign.
Godwyn slid off his horse. "Easy, girl," he said to Whiteface. "We're here to help." He knelt by Tam and examined him anxiously.
The injuries were those that Godwyn had perceived - but then, he had been trained by Sewell to assess battlefield wounds both swiftly and accurately.
As Godwyn examined him more closely, he gave a low moan. Whiteface whimpered and tried to push past Godwyn to lick his face.
At the touch of the familiar tongue, Tam's hand lifted, almost of its own accord, to touch the faithful dog. Then Tam frowned and blinked his eyes open. For a moment he was frowning still at Godwyn - and then hisface cleared.
"Master Godwyn," he said. "What's to do?"
As Godwyn tended to the fallen man, Corryn motioned to the others. "Spread out and search for Volf a hundred paces in each direction. Go now." The other men headed off, obviously sharing their lord's distress over the missing boy.
Corryn steadied his horse. "How bad is he, Godwyn? I'd get down, but I'm not sure if your furred companion would let me."
"He's been beaten," Godwyn answered. "Badly. They broke his arm, and his face is going to be scarred. He should live, though, if the wounds do not take bad, and if the broken bone is not splintered worse than I think."
He leaned down to Tam. "What happened, Tam?" he asked. "Tell me what happened, so that we may know what to do."
Tam shook his head slowly, as though trying to clear it. Then he spoke, slowly, with many pauses.
"Mistress Limosa - he had her with him. When she saw me, she tried to come to me ... she pulled against him and he called one of the men to hold her. They tried to hold us off while he had her tied on a horse ... she couldnae speak a word, but she was like there was a fire burning in her when she looked at me. I tried to come at her, but that yon whelp of Ser Herys, he struck me with his whip, then rode me down. Whiteface went for him - aye, and Darkeyes too, even though I shouted for them to stay back, for I knew there was no pity in the Boltons - and the dogs would be more use after. They tried to ride them down - Whiteface was hurt - Darkeyes, I'm sorry, Master Godwyn - he was hurt real badly. I reckon as he crawled off to die. Volf - he weren't hurt too bad. A whipcut to his face. I told him to go - to take the dogs and follow them. But he's not a man for the hounds. He'll do his best ... but ... "
He broke off, his hands clutching at Godwyn.
"I tried, Master," he said simply. "But I've failed you - and her, both."
Corryn's men were scattered through the bushes now, looking for signs of the path the riders had taken.
While the wounded man talked, Corryn managed to dismount without tearing his stitches. The pain flared through his arm and remained a smoldering ember as he joined Godwyn. He could not help but breath a sigh of relief to hear that Volf remained alive. That boy had the luck of a salt-cat and just as many lives.
"No, Tam," Gowyn said. "You didn't. Darkeyes made it back to Holdfast. We followed his trail, and you were waiting here to tell us what happened." He laid a hand gently on his friend's shoulder. "We'll follow their trail, and we'll find her," he said. "We will."
He stood, and turned to look up at Corryn. "He needs that arm set, and soon," he said. "Else he'll never use it again. And someone needs to stay and get him back to Holdfast. He won't last the night out here, he needs care, and to be indoors."
"I'll have Phalan take him back," Corryn said. "Don't you fret. I'll go fetch Varick. He might seem as brittle as kindling, but that old codger can set a bone just by looking at it." He knelt down and patted Tam's good shoulder gingerly. "Well done, my boy. I am in your debt for everything you've done for my daughter and I. I won't forget it. Rest now and we'll get you fixed right as rain, eh?"
Corryn stood again and nodded to Godwyn, "Ask him how many men were with him and how they looked. And their mounts. Were they lame or overburdened? Anything he can recall will help us." With that, he went to call the Knives back to the clearing.
"Aye," Godwyn answered. And he knelt by Tamlyn again, and began questioning him about the [email protected] and his men.
"There were six men altogether, or thereabouts," said Tam. His voice was becoming weaker. "And that Eryk Bolton. They had fine mounts, and they were travelling light - but well armed. I'd say they meant to ride fast and far. After they rode off - I'd say they were cutting through the woods, fast as they could, to join the main track to the King's Road."
Corryn and Phalan returned in time to overhear this. They glanced at one another for a moment and nodded faintly to one another. "There might be hope yet, ser," Phalan said. "Ye know most of the hidden paths between here and White Harbour. The path to the King's Road, in particular."
Varick joined them a moment later and moved to help the fallen boy. "All-rot now, young lad. Let's see dat arm den, eh?"
Corryn motioned for Godwyn to join him. He knelt down and used a stick to draw a quick sketch of the land in the dirt. "I'm sure the tracks will tell us this, but they'll be making for the Dreadfort no doubt. Eryk will want his uncle's support. They'll have two choices in that regard. They can rejoin the main track to the King's Road by heading south. But that will take them past Leaning Stone eventually. I'm not sure if Eryk would risk that. It's also close to Winterfell. And they'd support the Hardys before his lot.
"Eryk might, however, take a wiser course and head due east. That'd put him on the road to Marshend and then a quick skip across the river into Bolton territory. Considering his propensity to chose self-preservation over all else, I think he's more likely to head that course."
Godwyn nodded. "Marshend should be Hardy land," he said, reliving an old grievance. "It was Hardy land before it was Draupaud's. And when Steffan Dustin got made Draupaud he had no real right to Marshend. Stark gave it him as sop to the Boltons. He was raised at the Dreadfort, you know. "
Corryn raised an eyebrow, "No. I never knew that. I've traded with the folk of Long Lake, but never got to know them as I have the Hardys. They're a prickly lot. That explains a few things to be sure. And makes it more imperative for us to cut them off as soon as we can. Otherwise, the Marshends are likely to protect them. And the fewer families we bring into this conflict, the better."
He moved the stick slightly and offered Godwyn an apologetic smile. "Now, there's a smuggler's road about here. Don't ask how I know. But if we used that, we could make up the time we've lost and hopefully beat them to the King's Road/Marshend crossing. The key is we know this land. He doesn't. And if he's crossing the Wolfwoods, he'll likely get lost once or twice."
"Aye," Godwyn said. He frowned. "What about Volf?" he asked. "He's trying to follow Eryk. A man on foot can travel as fast as a party on horse in the woods, over the long run. Think he's good enough to stay on them without being caught?"
"If he follows their path, we should come up on him before we need to turn off for the smuggler's path," Corryn said, motioning with the stick. "We'll need his sword, as much as we'll need his information. Don't worry. The boy is my first adopted son. I'll not leave him on his own. And knowing him, he'll not stop until he drops."
He turned to look over at Varick and Tam, "How is he, Var? Will Phalan be able to get him back or will we need another man with him?"
It seemed as though, for safety, Tam would need at least two men to carry him back - and more if they decided someone should go as bodyguard.
"Phalan, Varick," Corryn said, "You'll take the boy back to Holdfast. We'll go on ahead. Keep an eye out though. I doubt Eryk would double back, but that Evan wanker might try to keep raising trouble out of sheer spite."
He glanced over at Godwyn, "Is that acceptable, Godwyn?"
"Aye,"Godwyn answered. He made a face. "I can't keep them straight any longer," he complained. "Evan is really Eryk, and Eryk is some nameless Snow. The sooner they're all dead and nameless, the better."
"That piece of filth will always be Evan to me," Corryn said coldly. Remember, we can't kill him if he is still on Hardy land. Your brother would be most displeased if we did. As for the others~E" He let the remaining words hang silently; their meaning clear enough.
Godwyn shrugged. "The gods found him not liable for the death of Bolton's man," he said. "And I cannot kill him for what he did to my uncle during the combat. But we can order him off Hardy land, and if he does not go we can kill him for that. And if he, or his men, commit any more offenses, he is liable for that as well."
"You'll be all right, Tam," he told his friend. "We're off to bring back Lady Limosa now."
He returned to his horse and mounted, ready to ride.
After seeing the trio off, Corryn fought his way into the saddle. He addressed the others, "We move as fast as we can, but I want one man ahead of us at all time. There are more than Boltons in these woods and the last thing we wish to ride into a flock of Wildlings. And keep an eye out for Volf. He should be an hour ahead of us. Now ride!"
He gave his horse a touch of stirrup and headed deeper into the Wolfswood.
Godwyn rode alongside him.