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After a brief discussion after breakfast, Kenrith agreed he and Rhys would meet in the grove before lunch. He was there early, and murmured respectful words to the trees while he waited for Rhys.

Rhys showed closer to the midday hour. He walked quietly into the grove, his demeanor subdued and tense, and nodded to Kenrith.

The grove was a lot less intimidating during midday than in the cold of night.

Sunlight filtering down softly through green leaves spoke to Rhys of growth and renewal, and though there was not the presence of the usual noises he associated with these northern woods--squirrels busy in the underbrush, birds singing in the branches, water burbling nearby--the almost unnatural quiet brought forth a reverence he rarely felt in the man-made chapel he frequented while he trained at the Citadel.

Rhys didn't have long to wait for Kenrith to fully open his eyes and raise from his kneeling position. The crunching of the leaves and twigs had alerted him to the other man's arrival, and he somehow knew it was Rhys.

"Where is the damage?" Rhys asked.

Kenrith turned and pointed to the heart tree with two fingers. Rhys could see where the wound had been plastered over, but the tree itself seemed healthy enough for its trauma. If he forgot for the moment the materials used, he might fancy he was seeing a well-tended giant man rather than a human-shaped bit of tree trunk.

The usual malevolent regard Rhys felt from the heart tree was still present, though greatly dimmed by the presence of sunlight and the muted noises of Holdfast workers in the distance, almost like a nightmare mostly forgotten with the arrival of the day.

Rhys touched the plaster with his fingers and let them pass over the rough bark of the tree.

As Rhys drew closer to the tree, Kenrith moved as well. When Rhys reached out to the plaster, he did nothing, but before his hand brushed across the bark Kenrith caught ahold of his sleeve. "Please don't touch the tree," he said quietly. He was not holding on tightly, certainly not so hard he was in danger of tearing fabric or bruising his arm.

"Sometimes I receive...impressions...about things by touching them. If you'd rather I didn't, then I won't." Rhys dropped his arm.

"Perhaps later, then... but remember, you are in a holy place. You would no more reach out to touch the carvings of the Maiden's mask, simply to admire the carving, than you ought..." and here words escaped Kenrith, and he gestured with his hand.

Rhys saw no problem with the touch. It was through touch that he healed, and it was through touch that the gods talked to him. Rhys wanted that connection between supernatural and natural, wanted to feel and know the Seven were an everday part of his life. Up here in the North, however, it seemed to Rhys they instead wanted to increase that gulf between god and mortal.

He lowered his head and turned away, lest Kenrith see the expression of frustration there.

As he came closer to the tree he could see another thing - the wooden face had been slashed, as though someone had laid open the face - and it was weeping sap as though its lifeblood was spilling out.

Rhys gazed at the phenomenon, both fascinated and disturbed, then pulled his eyes away to study the tree from the roots up to about man-height and all the way around. He took his time, looking for any signs that the tree had been cut before and the mark disguised.

There were faint marks - not on the face but at the side, where the neck would be - small holes like the pitted marks left by a pox.

Rhys squinted at them, cocking his head. He pointed at the holes for Kenrith's benefit, making sure not to touch the tree. "What do you make of that?" he asked.

Kenrith moved closer to the tree, until his eyes were just a handspan from the holes. He looked at the edges, and tried to judge if they were freshly carved or a part of the tree.

'Carved' was perhaps too elebaorate a term. These holes were more ... piercings.

Some seemed older, by virtue of the fact that they were stained dark with old sap. Others seemed newer - narrower. One still appeared to be weeping a little sap.

Rhys straightened. This didn't bode well for anyone, his uncle especially under Kenrith's suspicions. He turned away to gaze at the rest of the grove.

"You'll agree that some of these holes look fresh, Maester, and others old... as if someone has been sapping the heart tree for some time?" Kenrith said with deliberation.

"Yes," Rhys said carefully. He turned back to Kenrith. "Do you trust me?"

Kenrith thought for a minute, straightened up from the position where he'd been examining the holes, then nodded.

"Then I request to question my uncle about this situation alone. There's a good chance that he will open up to me in a way that he will not with others in the room."

Kenrith studied Rhys' face carefully. "And if he admits to drilling these holes, to draw out a bit of sap for study, or medicinal uses?"

"I will tell you," the young maester replied solemnly.

Kenrith nodded. "As much as anything," Kenrith started to say, then shook his head.

"Just because the Old Gods aren't your faith, or aren't your uncle's faith, doesn't mean that this is something which can be toyed with. The Hardy family has been here for over seven thousand years... the septons not nearly so long. Perhaps it is something we can speak more of, later... but there isn't the time now. We need to find out who is involved in this, and how deeply, and rectify the matter-- or I fear there will not be a Hardy alive in seventy years," Kenith said with a shake of his head.

Rhys bristled. "And when have I demonstrated otherwise? I was raised in Dorne where the Seven are worshiped and transplanted here in the North, yet I have given your religion and customs the respect I would my own. You say you trust me, then in the next breath imply I would lie for my uncle. And what do you mean there is no time? Do you think I am doing anything else out here besides trying to find clues as to what happened, to find out who is involved, to serve Hardys and Holdfast to the best of my ability?"

Rhys swallowed his next words, afraid he'd already said too much, and turned to leave.

"I didn't say you had shown disloyalty... but you can't respect customs you don't understand, through no fault of your own. As I said... something to rectify later. But I appreciate the strain divided loyalties place one under. If your uncle has... erred... on the side of inquiry over respect," Kenrith said before drawing a slow breath. Presumably, he had almost put things a bit more bluntly. "... then you are clearly being pulled from many directions. I wished to remind you of the gravity of the situation... not accuse you of premeditated disloyalty to me and mine. Even if you come to me in a few hours, and say your Uncle has confessed to all... I would still give him a hearing to explain himself, if I could."

"If there was more, speak freely," he added a moment later.

Rhys looked at Kenrith over his shoulder. "I am sorry if I misunderstood you. We...need to talk. Not here, but...sometime. As friend to friend, not lord to maester." He paused, then finished, "I have patients I should attend to now."

It was a request for dismissal.

Kenrith simply nodded. He almost chuckled and smiled at the suggestion he was a lord, and Rhys a maester, but the ironic subtleties there would be so easily misconstrued given what had so recently passed, or almost passed. Stifling signs of joy were easier than those of sadness, and it was not hard for him to simply wear the mask of lord.

"I'll see you this evening, if not sooner. Perhaps we should chat after Anders has the guard?" he suggested.

It was Rhys's turn to nod. He left the way he came in, and didn't look back.

Kenrith remained in the grove for some time, completing his prayers. If the trees had any wisdom on how to resolve the matter of men drilling into the trunk, he was listening. Whomever had made the careful holes hadn't wished to get caught, and whomever made the large slash had-- that there was more than one person cutting his family's heart tree... that was a very disturbing thought.

Edlyn was not in the clinic that Rhys had established - nor had anyone seen her since the previous evening. The nursery, when Rhys went there, was empty of his younger brother and sister.

Next, Kenrith checked her mother's room, where she was recuperating. If that struck out, it wasn't far from his father's room.

There was no sign of Edlyn or his half siblings with their mother, or with his father. The old Nurse sitting with his father told him that the children's Septa had been laid low with a bad headache - she was prone to them, it seemed, and at such times Edlyn took charge of the children. But she thought the woman might have some idea of where the three of them had gone.

Kenrith nodded and asked where she might be found.

He was directed to the room where she slept with various other of the servants. But at this time of day, the room was deserted - except for the prostrate figure of the Septa on her cot.

Kenrith started to softly say, "Excuse me, Septa" from about five paces away. He didn't know how bad her headache was, but wished to know what he wished to know. He repeated himself until she acknowledged him, at which point he asked where she thought Edlyn and the children were.

The Septa was clearly in great pain - but she managed to answer his question.

"Such a good girl, Edlyn. Very early, she told me she was going to take the children to the godswood."

"My thanks. Rest well Septa," he said softly as he withdrew.

Kenrith made the rounds of the castle gates and walls, and asked if they'd seen Edlyn et al. today (and if so what direction they'd gone in.)

Several of the guards had seen them taking a path that could lead to the godswood. One remembered Edlyn, still limping, was carrying a large basket, as though she intended to make an offering.

"Or perhaps she was taking comforts to the town," said one of the guards. "She and Mistress Syndra do that, for time to time."

Kenrith nodded and thanked the guards. Reasoning that she shouldn't try to walk back on that ankle on her own, he obtained a horse and broadsword, then set out along the path to the town.

The road to town was quiet - with no disturbances. As he approached the first outlying houses, people looked up from their work and saluted him - with a certain diffidence.

He'll ask people who look like they've been in place for a while (people working in their turnip patch by the side of the road, rather than travellers heading in the opposite direction) whether they've seen a young woman with a bit of a limp heading this way.

They stared at him, open-mouthed in some cases. Finally, he found a couple who said they hgad seen not only Edlyn, but also his young half-siblings. Edlyn, despite limping, had been carrying the girl; the boy was clearly tired.

"That's why they'll have borrowed the cart," said one comfortable matron who was washing a quiverful of children in a big wooden tub set up in the frony strip of garden of her house.

He nodded. "She shouldn't be walking so far on an ankle so recently injured... did she say where she was going?" (if not, he'll ask which direction they left in.)

"Back to the castle," said the woman, as though this was the most natural thing in the world - as of course it was.

But Kenrith knew they had never arrived.

Kenrith considered the map in his mind.

There are several wagon tracks leading out of the village. People do come and go ... But probably no more than three - one to the castle; a second (enquiries will tell you) was bound for a forester's cottage to collect charcoal, and the third was the one borrowed by Edlyn.)

Thoughts ran through Kenrith's mind about Herys' curious curse, Edlyn's mother's convenient insensate behavior, the things his father hadn't said to him long ago, the oathes he'd sworn. The foolishness of Edlyn's behavior... It didn't make any sense, unless... and then he thought he saw it.

As soon as he was out of sight of the villagers, he broke into a gallop after Edlyn.

(Continued in Things go from Bad to Worse)

Page last modified on May 18, 2007, at 12:35 AM