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Riding Into the Sunrise


Syndra's party went through Holdfast town at a fast walk, their hoofbeats louder than normal in the chilly quiet of the pre-dawn. As much as Syndra wanted to run all the way to Winterfell, it would not do to rouse the smallfolk when everyone was still recovering from the previous day. Besides, seeing a party of Holdfast guards tearing away from the castle was likely to cause distress.

Besides Mal and Jayne, the two sellswords who had accompanied Kenrith from Riverrun and were anxious to head back there, Syndra's party included a carefully chosen contingent of three loyal guards: Becken, a lanky dark-haired sharpshooter with a tendency to squint; Nik, a quiet man with deep, dark eyes who was an effective swordsman and tracker, and Gerant, who was barely a man grown and simply adequate with blade and bow. He was, however, an experienced horseman and talented forester and was chosen for the party in case Syndra needed to make a hasty escape.

The travelers spoke very little on their way through town, each lost in his or her own thoughts. When they reached the trail beyond the last cottage, they broke into a canter. The men took up a formation of a 5-pointed star around Syndra: Nik in the front to scan the terrain for signs of ambush or other trouble, Mal and Gerant to Syndra's left and right, respectively, and Jayne and Becken, with bow at the ready, bringing up the rear.

The main track trhrough the forest was quiet. Around noon, when the light through the trees suggested that the sun was directly overhead, they stopped to eat. All was quiet, and the woods seemed no more threatening than usual (although Jayne, perhaps understandably, was very jumpy).

Syndra was familiar with the spot where they stopped; one of the streams that flowed down from the mountains leveled off here, creating pools where the horses now drank their fill after the hard morning's ride. She remembered stopping here when she was little and Father took the family to the Harvest Festival at Winterfell. It had been late afternoon and they had decided to camp here. She had swum in the pools with Gavrin and Father had joined in, rolling up his trousers to splash around with his children.

Syndra smiled at the memory as she sat eating an apple. They had made good time this morning to be at this spot by midday. Perhaps they should slow a bit and let the horses rest for the afternoon's journey. They could pick up the pace again in the morning. As much as Syndra wished to run all the way there, it would be too hard on their mounts. Her desire for speed was far stronger than their horses' ability to deliver it.

When she finished her lunch, Syndra walked over to her horse and began checking her hooves for stones and debris. Gerant smiled at her, pleased to see a noble who took good care of her animal. He himself had already checked his own mount over and was working on Jayne's. Jayne had petulantly made it clear that he was far too injured to handle such tasks himself. Syndra decided that she did not like the man in the least. Riverrun could have him, the sooner the better.

It was late afternoon and they were still on the forest road, when Syndra heard a familiar sound - the belling of hounds.

"Nik! Hold!" Syndra called to the group leader. When everyone stopped, she signaled for quiet and listened, trying to determine where the sound of the dogs was coming from. "Nik. Gerant. That's Whiteface, isn't it? Could we have caught up with Tamlin?" she asked softly. All the guards had spent years around Holdfast's hounds, as had Syndra, and Gerant in particular was friendly with Tamlin, Whiteface's handler. Syndra felt certain these dogs belonged to Holdfast, but the woods could be playing tricks.

Gerant was frowning. "Not Whiteface," he said. "Brighteyes, Whiteface's son by your cousin's dog Longtail." Gerant's knowledge of hounds was, like Tamlin's, little short of encyclopedic. "He scents us," he added.

And after a moment, Brighteyes came crashing out of the wood towards them, clearly delighted to see friends. He was followed by three of the other hounds - and then by Volf, who stopped short and gazed with wide-eyed astonishment at Syndra.

"My Lady!" he gasped. "What are you doing here?"

"Volf!" exclaimed Syndra as she slid off her horse and ran to him. She took in the slash across his face and his bedraggled appearance. "What happened to you? Where's Tamlin?"

"We were attacked by that Evan Bolton," he said rapidly. "Mistress Limosa - he had her with him. When she saw me and Tamlin ... she tried to get to Tamlin. She pulled against the Bolton, and he called one of the men to hold her. They tried to hold us off while he had her tied on a horse ... Tamlin tried to come at her, but that Bolton struck him with his whip, then rode him down. Then two of the dogs went for him - one of thenn the one with aa white face. They tried to ride them down - and the one of them was hurt badly. The other ... stayed with Tam. Tam was hurt badly - but he sent me off with the other dogs ... I tried my best.

"But then this morning ... I saw that other one." He spat the name out as though it blistered his mouth. "Evan Tamm."

Syndra cupped her hands over her mouth in horror as Volf told the tale. When he finished, she shook her head. "Volf, I'm so sorry. I should never have sent you two ahead without help."

She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose, thinking. Tamlin could still be in the forest somewhere, dead or dying. The thought of his broken body brought to mind the image of her father. And Lady Celia. But she could not risk going back. She had a job to do. Syndra shuddered. _Hold fast_ she told herself. _Hold Fast!_

She sighed heavily. "There's naught to be done for it now," she said firmly. "Volf, you're with us. There's no way you'll catch them on foot. Ser Corryn rode out yesterday to look for Limosa. He's long past you by now.

"We're riding for Winterfell. The tournament went badly. Tamm cheated and rode Father down," she spat the words out. "It turned into a melee and most of the Boltons have either been killed or captured. I must report to my Lord Stark immediately."

Volf gazed at her in horror, blinking a little as he took all this in. Then he dropped to one knee at her feet.

"Command me, my lady," he said hoarsely. "Tell me what you'd have me do."

Syndra smiled in spite of herself. Good old Volf. She indicated he should stand. "Ride with us. We may need your sword. You can use my horse."

She turned to the rest of her guard. "Gerant, you're the lightest. I'll double with you. We'll move to the middle and put Volf on the right. He's good with a blade. The dogs can run along behind us. Between you and I, we should be able to control them."

Syndra looked to the sky. "We still have some time before dark. Becken? You know this road. Where's the best place to camp within the daylight we have left?"

"About three leagues further one," said Breckon. "There a stream just off the road. We've camped there before, and the traders often use it."

"We'll camp there then. Tell us when we approach it," Syndra replied.

When they arrived, Syndra deferred to the more experienced warriors - Becken, Nik, Mal and Volf - to determine the camp's layout and whether or not there should be a fire. She did not, however, sit prettily and let the men handle all the preparations. Unlike the typical noble lady, she fetched water and helped Gerant groom the horses. She prepared the meal and tended the fire, if one was permitted. Being busy helped her not to think about the gravity of the situation at Holdfast. It helped her not to worry.

But at last all the tasks of the day were done ... the meal was eaten and the gurads looked to Syndra to organise the watch before they settled down to sleep.

Syndra thought about it. They would likely be on the road for several days and there were enough of them that not everyone needed to take a watch every night. There were six men, so two on first watch, two on second, and two sleeping through. She would rotate them the next night, and she herself would remain on call at all times. She doubted she would be sleeping well anyway. For this first night, she posted Becken and Mal on first watch and Nik and Gerant on second. She allowed Volf and Jayne to sleep through - Volf because he had not slept the previous night and Jayne simply because she was tired of listening to him.

And they also had the dogs. With Gerant's help, she posted the dogs around the perimeter of the camp. Hopefully, with their keen ears and noses, they would alert the party to approaching trouble well before it arrived.

Syndra rolled out her bedroll between Volf and Mal, with Becken not far away. She knew Volf would melt into a quivering puddle before he dared touch her, and Mal so far had seemed an honorable sort. This was another reason why she had set up the watches as she had. There would be at least one Holdfast warrior or Volf awake at all times. She felt quite safe from any unwanted attentions.

As the camp settled down, Syndra laid on her back with her head resting on her pack. Her eyes, however, were wide open. There was too much to think about to sleep. She was lonely and frightened, but she could not show it, for she had to be the strong, noble leader. She wished with all her heart that Kenrith or Corryn were here to lead this party. She wished her father had not been injured and she could've made this trip with him under happier circumstances, as they had discussed over spiced wine that last night. She wished that Evan Tamm had died in the summer fever and Gavrin had lived. If only, if only...

Page last modified on April 18, 2007, at 09:08 PM