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Rhys walked along with Ser Anders, a step or two back from him as was proper. Around them the night in Holdfast had quieted with a watchful, expectant tension that did nothing to quell the knot of apprehension growing in Rhys's belly.

He'd handled dead bodies before. They didn't frighten him. The anxiety came from a different source.

Ser Herys would be there, but Rhys wasn't overly concerned about that. He would be protected by the presence of Godfrey and Anders and the worst he'd have to endure from Herys would be a pointed stare and perhaps a rude remark or two. He'd learned at the Citadel the value of an impassive face and had cultivated the skill to adopt one instantly as needed for the occasion. He suspected one such occasion was shortly forthcoming.

No, it was the godswood itself that alarmed Rhys. He'd not been in it since the night with Kenrith, all those years ago. At the time he was sure he was there to watch Kenrith die. Instead, things strange and unsettling occurred: an anomalous warmth that spread through his body on that very cold night, a sudden supernatural knowledge of what Kenrith needed to do to live, and a disquieting presence in the godswood that was all Hardy and testimony to the fact that he was very much a stranger there, a child reared in lands that worshiped the Seven.

Rhys didn't relish encountering that brooding presence again, and hence had avoided that grove and that particular tree with the haunting face carved into it since returning from the Citadel. Avoided until tonight.

Doing his best to ignore the disquieting fluttering of his insides, Rhys followed along behind Ser Anders, his hands full with knife and bloody shirt, and strived to refocus his thoughts instead on the riddle of the murdered man.

They walked along the path that Rhys thought he had forgotten - and now discovered he remembered all too vividly.

Soon enough, the path opened into a clearing. Here they had brought Kenrith to die, here was the strange heartwood tree with its mysterious face - so wise, and yet so strange.

Rhys avoided looking at the face directly. It was unsettling enough just to know it was there staring at him.

There seemed to be a low bier in the clearing, and on this the murdered man was lying. Two Silent Sisters were removing his remaining clothing, to wash him clean of the clay he had been buried in. Ser Godfrey and Ser Herys were standing at a little distance, talking, byut when Rhys followed Ser Anders into the clearing, Ser Herys's head lifted, and he shot Rhys a look of malevolence.

"Steady," said Ser Anders quietly.

"I'm fine," Rhys replied mildly. His face carefully bland but his eyes intent, Rhys raised his head and met Hery's stare. After the space of a few heartbeats, Rhys turned his regard to Ser Godwyn. "Ser, please forgive our intrusion. We have apprehended three men at the Goose and Gander, two of which we believe were involved in the murder."

Rhys held up the bloody shirt and knife. "We believe this is the shirt the Bolton man was wearing and the weapon used when he was stabbed. I wondered if I might compare the location of the wound to the location of the stain and rip in the shirt, and the width of the wound to the knife. If they match, it will more fully implicate the two men currently in custody in your dungeon."

"I released Maester Rhys from his Tower because I believed he could help me identify the murderer," said Ser Anders. "And we need his help now in proving the case against one or more of these men. If you prefer, I could return him to his Tower ... but we might lose the chance to discover who murdered your servant."

His tone was carefully bland.

"Indeed," said Ser Godfrey, "is it not possible, Ser Herys, that you were mistaken in what you saw? The news of her betrothal has come as something of a surprise to my daughter and naturally she feels some maidenly alarm. Who should she turn to other than the Maester who, I am sure, she sees as omeone who can be entrusted with her girlish concerns?"

Rhys gazed at Ser Godfrey in consternation. His hands holding the bloody shirt and knife dropped down to his sides, temporarily forgotten.

Ser Herys was breathing through his nostrils, frowning at Rhys.

"Is that it?" he said harshly. "Is that what happened?"

Ser Anders was now standing a little behind Rhys, and his hand tightened warningly on his shoulder.

Rhys swallowed.

Accepting the generously poffered lie was a reasonable solution to the current problem, and that it was also a bloodless one held immense appeal for Rhys. No Hardys would get killed challenging Herys to an honor duel and Rhys would get to keep all his body parts.

His only hesitation lay in his regret was that it would be at Syndra's expense. It wasn't a question of whether or not they believed her--everyone knew the truth of the matter--but Herys would not be punished for his advances and he might even try to take it out on her later should she indeed end up marrying the Bolton boy.

On the other hand, Rhys didn't believe Godfrey would intentionally place his daughter into danger for the sake of a maester. Would he? Surely not. He must have some way of protecting Syndra from Herys, otherwise he would not have offered the lie in the first place.

"Yes, that is what happened," Rhys said, his eyes flitting from Godfrey to Herys. Despite believing this was the best solution currently available, he still felt his belly sink.

Ser Godfrey nodded once, his face grave. The hand on Rhys's shoulder relaxed, and Ser Anders said, "I believe it would help, Ser Herys, if Maester Rhys were to examine the body before the Silent Sisters prepare it."

A twist of Ser Herys's face suggested that while he did not mind preparing bodies for burial in the most fundamental way (by ensuring their departure from the earth), he had a certain repugnance for the notion of what occurred after death. But then he gave a curt nod and stepped aside, indicating that Rhys was free to proceed.

"Thank you," Rhys murmured as he avoided looking directly at Herys. He wasn't surprised at Herys's reaction. There were many common superstitions associated with the deceased, especially the recently departed, but at the Citadel he quickly learned that a dead body was nothing more than that: dead. Unanimated muscle and bone and fluids, it held no supernatural characteristics, whatever spark or spirit or quality that quickened the flesh long gone.

Rhys nodded at the Silent Sisters. They bowed and backed soundlessly away, faces hidden in their cowls, their worldly presence almost as insubstantial as the corpse's. In their wake he strode forward to the bier and used those five steps to try to refocus his attention from the drama around himself and Ser Herys to the unsolved mystery of the man's murder.

Before messing with the shirt and knife, Rhys gazed down at the body a moment, looking for anything unusual, anything other than the obvious knife wound to the heart. Any blows to the face or head, any bruising to the arms or torso?

There were marks on the arms - the livid bruising caused by fingers gripping the upper arms. But the way that the bruising had not fully developed suggested that it might have been inflicted very soon after death - by the dragging on the body, for example, as it was man-handled off the road and into its quiet grave in the woods.

He hesitated before touching the dead man--normally he received no impressions from those not living but who knew what could happen in the godswood?--then mentally shrugged and grasped the man's shoulder so he could roll him over partway and look at his back. If the wound had gone all the way through, it would not match the shirt.

But the wound have not gone one the way through - which suggested something about the length of the knife, just as the positioning of the wound suggested that whoever had struck knew full well how to deliver such a killing blow.

Rhys let go of the man's shoulder and the corpse fell back. He felt the face, noting that the rigor found in the recently deceased had started. The eyelids, jaw, and neck were already immobile. His fingers were less so, and the wrist and elbow and hip were just starting to stiffen.

"I'm estimating that his death was three to six hours ago, based on his rigidity," Rhys commented. "This fits within the timeframe of when the sellswords arrived at Holdfast."

Ser Godfrey nodded, watching closely, Ser Anders not far behind. Ser Herys, surprisingly squeamish, had moved to the far side of the grove while Rhys did what was necessary.

He motioned for more light and a Silent Sister handed him a lamp. Even under the dim light of the small flame Rhys saw the expected dull red patches from the pooled blood that would eventually deepen in color and coalesce to form an extensive area of reddish-purple color. That they were still patches also fit the timeframe established with the rigor. Nothing unusual here so far.

Putrefaction had not started--no bloating or greenish color--but that wasn't surprising given how recent the murder took place and the cold outside temperature.

Rhys picked up the shirt and laid it on the dead man's chest to determine if the rip and bloodstain matched the knife wound.

They matched perfectly.

Ser Anders let his breath out through his pursed lips with a hiss.

"Where did you get the shirt?" asked Ser Godfrey.

"One of the men from Riverrun was wearing it," Rhys answered. "He's currently one of the three prisoners in the Holdfast dungeons. He claims it got bloody from skinning a rabbit this morning."

Rhys draped the shirt over the dead man's legs and took a closer look at the injury to his chest. He gave the lamp to a Silent Sister to hold and carefully probed the wound with a thin piece of wood he pulled from a pocket. "The thrust is straight in and angled up to the heart, which implies to me that the killer is right-handed," he said. "If left-handed, he would have had to stab cross-body and the angle would have been more oblique. I can't tell if this knife was the murder weapon or not... The skin will stretch and then retract back into shape once the blade is removed. It could be...but it's by no means conclusive."

Ser Godwyn nodded thoughtfully. "But that's not something that's common knowledge, is it? I mean, I always assumed that the knife would fit the wound it once made. Unless our murderer has made a very exact study of dead bodies, I'm guessing that he will too.

"But you're saying that it is possible that this knife could have made this wound. And that's a start." He smiled suddenly. "Not that we're lacking in implements of death."

"The Castle must be adequately defended, Ser," said Ser Anders neutrally.

Ser Godfrey nodded. "Anything else you need to discover here, Maester Rhys?" he asked. "We should begin our vigil soon - and the Silent Sisters still have to prepare him."

Rhys shook his head as he wiped his hands on the shirt. "Just a caution on an earlier statement. Because the knife went straight in I believe it's likely the killer is right-handed. However, it is possible the killer, rather than facing him straight on, was staggered a bit to the right so that his left hand could also have a straight stab. Just something to keep in mind. Right-handed is likely but again, not conclusive."

The young man paused, then looked up at the Sers. " I free now?" he asked in a low voice. "Or do I go back to the tower?"

Ser Godfrey smiled, a little bleakly. "You heard Ser Herys. He's admitted before two of his knightly brothers that he was mistaken in what he 'saw'. You are a free man again, Maester Rhys, to go where you list - which will no doubt relieve Maester Sewell. And it remains for me to protect my daughter as best I can."

If there was a declarartion of intent in those final words, there was also a warning to Rhys.

"Thank you, Ser," Rhys said solemnly. "I am grateful for what you've done. I'll...avoid your daughter."

"I'm sorry, Maester," said Ser Godfrey. "I recognise that you had no ... "

"Is he finished yet?" demanded Ser Herys, striding back across the grove. He glowered at Rhys. "Well, Maester? What are your conclusions?"

Rhys pursed his mouth at the rude interruption, then replied, "The man was killed in my best estimation between three and six hours ago. The rip and stain on the shirt match the knife wound exactly. It's likely the attacker was right-handed."

"Then you think it was the sellswords?" demanded Ser Herys.

"Yes," said Ser Anders. "All the evidence points to them."

"But they would not have acted alone!" said Ser Herys, almost angrily.

"No," said Ser Anders. "No, that would be unlikley."

He glanced at Ser Godfrey, who was looking troubled.

Ser Anders sighed. "It is possible," he said, "that Ser Kenrith bears a grudge for the injury that was inflicted long ago ... "

"Certainly possible," Rhys replied, striving to stay objective. "However, if Ser Kenrith was looking for revenge, why strike at an underling when the object of his grievance is in attendance?" He looked guilelessly at Ser Herys.

"An underhand way of gaining revenge," said Ser Herys. "Perhaps the cripple feared to strike me. - and feared his sellswords might balk at the task."

"We'll know more when we question them," said Ser Godfrey.

"Aye," said Ser Herys. "If the boy doesn't teach them which song to sing."

Ser Anders smiled. "In a conflict between loyalty to his House and loyalty to his brother, I suspect I know which way the boy would jump, painful though it may be. What say you, Maester Rhys?"

"Godwyn is Hardy through and through. He'll stay loyal to his House," Rhys replied without hesitation as he laid the bloody knife down on top of the shirt. "If you'll excuse me now, Sers, I have other duties."

Rhys bowed to the assemblage and left, heading into the castle proper to look for Kenrith.

He did not have to go far - as soon as he entered the courtyard, he saw Kenrith is conversation with a sellsword.

[Rhys continues in Kenrith In The Solar and Afterwards]

Page last modified on April 06, 2006, at 07:55 PM