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After stalking from the room, Niko was at a loss. Memories, old, but powerful, tearing the ragged scars of badly healed wounds had been opened by the Septa's seeming betrayal. Realizing that Ranulf was in as much, or more, pain than he, Niko forced himself to put his thoughts aside, taking Ranulf in tow to the free-standing structure that had come to be his home.

The space was spartan. No longer bare, but only if you were inclined towards meanness in your own living could you tell the difference. But a difference there was, at least to Niko. There was little furniture beyond what had been there when he moved in- only the table and chairs around it had been added to the bed that had already been there, with it's small bedside table. The middle of the floor was completely empty, other than a roughspun rug that took up the whole center of the room. As one grew closer, they could see that it was a rug only in name- a thick thing, it was plush, but not comfortable to the feet when one stepped on it. One other addition decorated the space next to the door- a small weapons rack, with a couple of practice blades and Niko's own blades, spear, and shield hung thereon.

"Take a seat," he said to the young lord, pointing to the table.

Ranulf sat cautiously on the edge of the table and looked nevously at Niko.

"What will happen to her?" he burst out suddenly.

Niko studied Ranulf for a long moment. "What would you think should happen to her," he queried, looking at the young lord askance.

"I want Father to forgive her!" he said, and his face was screwing up as he fought to keep back tears. "She's my Septa - she looks after me more than my mother does! My mother hates me - whenever she sees me she tries to push me away ... "

The tears were flowing freely now.

Niko crouched down, and not uncaringly lifted the boy's chin with one finger. "A Lord has to be just and merciful. I am not privy to all that goes on around here, but I do know that your mother was sick. One of the things a Septa does is look after those who are sick- she does not end their lives." He paused. "I am more than sure if your mother was not ill, those things that you talk about would never have occurred. But they did. And now everyone pays."

Niko frowned, as something tickled the back of his mind. He couldn't quite grasp it, but there was something ... else.

"Does your mother not deserve justice?"

Ranulf looked up at Niko, his underlip quivering.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, she did."

Niko paused. Then tentatively, he queried. "Did?"

"She is dead now," said Ranulf. "But my Septa is alive. And I love her."

Niko placed his hand on Ranulf's shoulder. "Some things transcend death. Or love. These things are hard to discern, and hard to place a value on. But they are things that a lord must know. One of those things is justice." He paused, shaking his head. "The Septa did something wrong. The reasons do not matter. It was still wrong- staggeringly so."

He stood up, looking down on the young boy, his mouth set in a hard line. "And so, she must pay for it."

Ranulf's lip trembled again.

"What must happen?" he half-whispered.

"Well, I..." Niko stopped, considering Ranulf's expression. Then after a moment, he looked away, almost guiltily. "... do not know." It was painfully obvious there was something he wasn't saying... Something he was glossing over.

"Will they kill her?" persisted the boy. He seemed to have a horrified fascination with the thought.

A pained expression crossed Niko's face. "You must understand- for all of your mother's faults, she was a noble. And noble blood counts for much. In the case of a noble taking the life of another, there can be some clemency." He shook his head sadly. "But your Septa is no noble. I do not see how your father can spare her."

Ranulf's face crumpled again. "I don't want her to die!" he wailed. "I don't want her to die too!"

The expression on Niko's face grew even more grave. "I know," he said sadly. "I know. But perhaps your father can think of another solution where I could not."

Ranulf nodded, his tears slowing a little.

"They say he is very wise," he said dolefully. "Cruel in battle, but he rewards those who are loyal."

He might have been talking about a character in a fairytale rather than his own father.

"They say?" Niko asked, his voice still quiet. "What do you say? What does," he looked intently at Ranulf, "his son, say?"

"I'd say the same," said Ranulf. "But ... but ... "

He looked up at Niko. "He hates me!" he burst out. "He thinks ... he thinks I did something to Mama! To make her ... like she was. Like the servants said ... wandering in her wits. He thinks ... he thinks it was my fault! And I thought ... if she was gone, perhaps he ... he wouldn't think that any more."

Niko looked at Ranulf, eyes wide for a long moment, as he breathed in a hissed breath between his teeth. He had suspected something, but nothing like this. It was hard for him to even get his mind around the concept.

"Ranulf, what *exactly* happened?"

Suddenly, Niko saw fear in the boy's face. "If I tell you," he said, "what will you do to me?"

"Nothing," Niko said truthfully. For in truth, there was nothing he could do to the boy. "However, you say you love your Septa, and she is in dire trouble because of your actions, I would think that there is something that you need to do, no?"

"I saw her," the boy whispered. "I was outside the window - I can climb down, you know. I'm very good at climbing. I looked through the window and I saw her."

His eyes were still wide and frightened as he looked at Niko.

"Go on," Niko prompted, not harshly, but not gently either. "You will feel much better once you do not have this on your conscience," he added.

"I saw her give Mama a drink!" Ranulf said, almost desperately. I saw her making the drink ... and she put something from a little flask in it ... and ... and then she gave it to Mama - and Mama smiled! AS though she knew!"

Niko's eyes softened with this last admission. "And you did not tell because of how you felt, and what you saw, is that it?"

Ranulf lowered his head and gave a quick nod. "Yes, that's it, Niko. That's it exactly!"

Niko was not afraid to admit to himself that he was confused. This lad had lost his mother, and his caretaker had apparently performed the deed. He was near to losing her also, and he could tell that distressed the boy. But for some reason, he was unable to muster the empathy that should be there. He was unable to feel sorry for the boy. Why?

He regarded Ranulf seriously, still thinking. There was something else. But what? He had one thought, but he didn't even want to give voice to it.

"Come," he said at last, holding out his hand. "Let us go find the steward and see if affairs have been taken care of."

Ranulf looked at him and - for just a second - there was something old and wise and knowing in that look. Niko had seen it before, one faces of old warriors of the Dothraki - those who weighed and judged men. Then, as though it was no more than a trick of the light, it was just the face of a scared small boy again.

"Yes, Niko," he said, and slid his hand into Niko's trustingly.

As they made their way back through the castle, they were conspicuous, even while everyone tried not to pay attention to them. But Niko heard the whispers, and he was sure Ranulf did also. Niko figured going to the Septa's room was pretty pointless, and so headed towards the Steward's office.

The Office, however, contained only Linnel, trhe Steward's second, who was drawing up fineral plans which he hastily hid when he saw Ranulf with Niko.

Niko hadn't had much contact with Linnel, though he knew that Derron swore by the man. "Oh. Excuse us - we are looking for the Steward. Would you know where he currently is?"

"I believe he went to the kitchen," said Linnel, who had a good ear for rumour. He looked warily at Ranulf. "Master Ranulf ... I am sorry that your mother ... "

Ranulf nodded without speaking, and clung the harder to Niko's hand. Linnel's eyes met Niko's and he gave a little shrug as thought to say, 'What can one say, to a child?'

But Niko's eyes remained carefully veiled, revealing nothing of the thoughts swirling in his head currently. "My thanks," he said, glad of the words to fill the silence. Then nodding his head slightly, he turned, walking with Ranulf in tow towards the kitchens to find the steward.

[Continued in The Search and After ]

Page last modified on May 09, 2006, at 08:30 PM