Perhaps there was some deep irony that tears and blood appeared identical under moonlight. After all, both came from the heart.
Corryn had shed both in the last three months because of her; the tears had been his, the blood usually someone else's. Tonight, however, they were all his and under the silvered moon they were as black as his mood.
The knife cut another shallow nick in his forearm. Merciful pain washed away Corryn's thoughts of the woman now sleeping hardly a stone's throw from him. A bead of shining black fell into the luminous water at his feet, the moon-painted river carrying it away without care, without judgment. It had swallowed his tears tonight, as well as many others nights before this. For a time, he believed the river could dull his sorrow and for a time it almost had. But currents of fate conspired against him and brought her back into his life.
Corryn dared not gaze at her tent lest his beset will falter. He would remember her gentle face under moonlight, peaceful and still. He would remember the sound of her snore, a soothing rumble that spoke of pure contentment. He would remember the perfume of her skin on his body, the taste of her musk on his lips. He would remember the hours he spent watching her sleep and dream and praying to the Seven that the night would never end. He would remember. And memory carried with it exquisite suffering.
Damn you, Godfrey, he thought. The raven had come for him at Torrhen's Square, where Corryn had been trading with the Tallharts. Godfrey had been called from Winterfell and would his old friend be ever so kind and escort his wife and children back to Holdfast for him? As much as he wished to answer no, Corryn could not deny that he would be traveling back that way. It would have been odd to refuse the request. It had been a sign of trust that he could not rebuff. And so, he had met them two days ago to begin the slow journey back home. Their home, he reminded himself.
A flicker of electric blue caused Corryn to raise his head. He sniffed the air and caught the cold scent of an approaching storm on the lazy breeze. Bollocks and damnation, he grumbled silently. All he needed now was a storm. It would cost them days travel along the river. Although calm during this time of year, runoff from the numerous tributaries could turn the White Knife savage and unforgiving. He could not risk the rapids with the children onboard. They would be stuck at this camp until the water level dropped. And that meant he would be stuck avoiding her.
He thought back to the promise he'd made her the night Godfrey returned. Things had been so simple then and the words easily spoken. But now, after months of solitude, Corryn could no longer deny the gnawing guilt that vexed him. She was another man's. Morna could never be his. Even if she voided her marriage contract, she would lose the children and that they could not allow. They were her heart, as much as she was his. What fool would ask a mother to abandon her children? Not he, not ever. He would suffer a thousand-fold before causing her such pain. Perhaps it was best that he left the promise die, so she might live.
The barge shifted slightly with the weight of another person. Corryn glanced back, recognizing the bearish figure in the moonlight. He nodded in welcome and returned to staring out at the river.
"You look as low as the teats on a King's Landing whore," Phalan Mormont snorted, sitting down beside him. He tried to hand Corryn a carved horn, the sweet smell of mead coming up from its depths. Corryn shook his head, so Phalan took his draft in his stead. They sat silently for a time, much as they always did when they traveled together. Phalan quaffed his drink, wiping the mead from his bushy beard with the back of his think arm.
A cloud passed over them, cloaking the world in shadow. "It's about her isn't it?" Phalan said frankly. Corryn loved the man for his bluntness. They were brothers in spirit and he was thankful for the man's company despite his melancholy. More importantly, they held each other's secrets to heart and did not question each other's ways.
"Yes," Corryn admitted.
"Married ain't she?"
Corryn nodded sadly.
"Then you have a problem, old salt," Phalan snorted. "That's why you need to marry a wildling girl. Or three. They'll keep you too busy to mope, eh?" He made a rather obscene thrusting gesture that made the barge rock.
Corryn smirked despite himself. "How many wives have you got again?"
"Five," Phalan said. "Six, if you count that lass down in Gull town."
Corryn regarded him for a moment. "Do you love them?"
Phalan thought on this briefly and then shrugged his thick shoulders. "A couple of them to be sure, aye."
"But is there one that rules your heart? One that you cannot live without?"
Phalan wiped his beard clean again. "You mean, do I love one above all else?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
"Aye," Phalan admitted. "Verna. She's a girl from Ramsgate. The gods blessed me just to touch her cheek, that one. I would die for her if she asked it of me."
Phalan cocked his head and squeezed Corryn's shoulder. "This one you love so. Would you die for her?"
"Yes," Corryn said without hesitation, without regret. The intensity of his voice shocked him, but he could no longer deny the simple truth. He loved Morna beyond measure and always would.
Phalan leaned over and kissed his brow. "Then die well, my brother."
The man stood and drifted back to the camp without another word; none were needed.
Through the crack in the tent flap, Morna watched the bear-like Phalan pass. This night was just like the last. She was so tired after the day on the river that she fell into her bedroll as soon as the children drifted off to sleep. In the middle of the night, however, she woke, tossing and restless. Why him? Why now?
Winterfell had been wonderful. The Harvest Festival had been grander than she ever imagined. Feasting, music, dancing and merriment for days. Her brothers, Helman and Leobald Tallhart, had been there with their own families. Morna hadn't seen them since leaving Torrhen's Square after her wedding. She wept at their arrival. The children were in heaven, playing with their new cousins and the other children and marveling at the magnificent colors, scents and sounds.
And Godfrey, her dear husband, was with them, playing with the children during the day and spinning his wife on the dance floor in the evenings. It was magical. It strengthened Morna's resolve. She could forget Corryn Manderly. It wouldn't be as hard as she thought. She could block out that last kiss and those glorious hazel eyes. She could put aside the way he touched her in the moonlight and his firelit smile just before... She could forget. And during her stay at Winterfell, she did. Almost.
But festivals end, and with them goes the magic. Lady Catelyn graciously allowed the Hardys to stay on a bit longer, but finally, the family made ready to return to Holdfast. In the midst of the preparations, Lord Stark called for Ser Godfrey. Godfrey returned disappointed. He was to leave for King's Landing at sunrise, he told her. Lord Stark needed him, but not to worry, he had already sent a raven to make arrangements for an alternate escort. Ser Corryn. Morna silently cursed the old gods and the new behind her tight, loyal smile. Why him? Why now? Damn Godfrey and his blasted reliability. Damn them both!
Morna peered out through the tent flap again. He was there as he had been last night, silouetted by the moon on his river, his strong shoulders sagging in his misery. It was a feeling she knew all too well.
The days hadn't been bad. Holdfast was upriver from Winterfell, so Corryn and Phalan had to pole the barge against the current. It was brutal, back-breaking work that did not allow time for opening old wounds. The Gods were merciful in that, at least. Morna herself was kept on her toes trying to keep three small children occupied. Gavrin, her eldest, was cautious by nature and so was no trouble at all. At five years old, he insisted he was almost a man grown and could help. The River Wolf put him to work watching for rocks, tending the rudder, or fishing for trout off the back of the barge.
Syndra, on the other hand, was nothing but trouble. She got underfoot, untied lines, trolled every possible appendage in the water, and fell in at least three times in two days. By the third time, Corryn barely broke stride as he reached down to grasp her by the shoulder and pull her back aboard. Morna was unable to help with the rescues, as she did not dare let go of Trey. The baby was now crawling and unlike his older brother and sister, could not even dogpaddle. She feared to let him out of arm's reach.
No, the days presented no temptation at all, until this afternoon when it got hot and the men, including Gavrin, shed their shirts. She happened to be looking up at Corryn as he yanked his shirt over his head. Morna's breath caught in her throat. All her efforts to forget their time together faded away like the distant buzzing of a cicada. And when they stopped to camp and went for a swim, Morna instead picked the blueberries that hung out over the riverbank, her back firmly turned against the memory of that first day in the frog pond.
The nights were the hardest. When she couldn't sleep for thinking about him, knowing he was so close by. Like now. She gazed out longingly once again. She could hear Phalan snoring in his own bedroll outside and she gnawed at her lip. Her children were all snuggled together like puppies, soundly sleeping. She smiled at them and eased out of the bedroll. She needed a little air to help her sleep, she told herself, and the river was so beautiful in the moonlight. She would not be long.
Morna crept out of the tent quietly and tiptoed over to the barge. She stepped onto it carefully and paused for a moment as the Wolf turned toward the movement. She looked at him without expression, her head slightly lowered, as one might approach an unfamiliar dog, then strode businesslike to a cleared spot at the front of the barge. She sat cross-legged on the deck and pulled her cloak around her tightly, though the night wasn't that cold.
"Did I see lightning?" she asked softly, looking away to the northwest.
Corryn folded his legs under him, resting his arms on his knees. For a torturous moment, it appeared as if he would not speak. He sat there, unnervingly still and silent. The river whispered around them, the only sound until somewhere in the darkness a loon called mournfully to its mate. The haunting plea stirred him to speech, although he refused to meet her eyes.
"Aye," he said in a voice as empty as flayed skin.
"The storm is some leagues off still, but heading this way. We should hear the thunder soon enough. I hope it will not frighten the children. Syndra has had enough scares for one trip, I think."
His comment prompted a rueful chuckle. "Oh, I don't think she was as frightened as she seemed. That last fall looked to me to be on purpose," she smiled knowingly, watching him.
For a moment, a smile formed at the corner of his mouth. “I suspected as much,” he said. “She’s got the river in her blood, that one.”
Corryn carefully set his knife down on the side away from her. He'd forgotten to hide it, as Phalan would never have asked about its purpose. The motion exposed his wrist to moonlight. Even from where she sat, Morna could make out the seven scars that latticed his forearm, ghostly white against his tanned skin. A thread of purest black ebbed from the fourth, its sluggish course ending at his fingertips. It formed into a dark bead before silently falling into the water below. He paid the scars no mind, as if they didn't even exist.
Morna's eyes were drawn to the scars on his wrist and the fresh blood that oozed there. Her chin set disapprovingly and she shivered, pulling the cloak even tighter.
He turned to look at her, his eyes wet and hollow. His lips, which had touched hers so many times before, moved but could not form a sound. Frustration painted his tired features and he turned away to gaze back at the approaching storm. "We'll need to remain here for a few days," he finally managed.
"I'm sorry." His apology sounded pained, as if it encompassed far more than its original intent. Far, far more.
Morna nodded, gazing at his moonlit profile as he watched the clouds begin to roll in. Another distant blue flash lit the sky around them, highlighting purple flecks in his eyes for just an instant. "You're the captain, and you know the river," Morna concurred. After a pause, she added softly, "I trust you. I always have."
She pointed at his damaged wrist then. "But that has to stop," she chided, gently but firmly.
Corryn stared up into her eyes and then down at his wrist. A sigh escaped him like an admission of guilt. “Forgive me,” he conceded in a half-whisper. He leaned forward and over the dark edge to dip his arm in the water. The dark current wash his arm clean, leaving behind only a faint line, much like its companions. He shook off the water and sat back, slumping forward with defeat.
Morna pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. Though it seemed a closed position, Corryn recognized it as one Morna used when she was listening.
“I thought,” he began, before his voice cracked with misery. His head went down for a moment and silence returned. But he recovered quickly and met Morna’s gaze this time. Moonlight reflected off the wetness of his cheeks. “Ever since that night, I have prayed to the Seven that I could stop thinking of you, dreaming of you. I gave an offering of blood to each one for that blessed forgetfulness.”
Morna winced, but did not turn away.
He tapped each scar, one by one, naming them as he went. “The Mother, the Father, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Crone, the Smith.” He chuckled darkly, looking up into the sky with defeat burning in his eyes. His finger lay upon the fresh cut, barely a hair’s breath in size. “Not even the Stranger would listen to my plea. All the Seven could offer me was a painful kiss to soothe the agony in here.” Corryn’s hand went to his heart, clutching at cloth with feral intensity.
Another empty laugh escaped him, this time directed at himself. “But I was a fool to think they could help me, Morna. They are simply gods. Their power is but a dying ember compared to the love burning inside me. How could they possibly extinguish what I feel for you? And if it is beyond them, then it is beyond an ordinary man.”
Morna smiled faintly. "Gods," she mused up at the stars, now fading behind high clouds. "In the North, the old gods reside in the weirwood, giving us the strength to face our fates. In the South, they are the Seven, the seven faces of a single god, the septons claim. In the Free Cities, they are more and different, each claiming to be the one that's right and true."
She sighed heavily, hugging her knees and turning her gaze across the rippling water. "What's right, Corryn?" she asked thoughtfully. "I was married at fifteen to a man of my parents' choosing. I had to learn to love him, though I'll admit it wasn't hard. But with you, there was no learning involved. It just happened. And try as I might, I can't make it unhappen." Silent tears started down her cheeks as she continued to stare at the river's distant shore.
Corryn watched her in silence, daring not to speak. For three months, he had wondered if their bond had been nothing more than a welcome dream. But to hear her words, to see her tears, he finally knew that there had been an inescapable truth to their feelings. Denial would never unravel that connection. They were irrevocably tied to one another, their hearts echoing one another. He nodded lightly, unable to turn away from her. All he wanted to do was kiss away her tears and tell her that this love was right, this was love was pure. But the fragility of the moment prevented him from doing so.
She sighed again deeply. "I just don't know anymore. Is it more right to feel honorable... or to feel alive?" She rested her chin on her knees and stared out over water that had no answers. Or did it?
The loon’s mate answered nearby, making Corryn turn his gaze back to the river. Oddly, the sound made him smile. His body sagged with a contentment that had been absent in him since they were reunited. “I’ve missed you,” he said.
Morna gazed at Corryn fully for the first time since she started speaking. She smiled shyly and her eyes sparkled with more than just tears. "And I you, my wolf," she answered softly. Her position had not changed, but with those words, she visibly relaxed.
Corryn smiled in return and matched her gaze, hazel eyes filled with longing. He sighed with relief and spread his arms, arching his head back. A somber howl built in his chest and then escaped his lips, reaching out over the river. Almost immediately, the loons answered his call in return and added their voices to his haunting song.
Morna giggled. "Shhhh! You'll wake the children!" she whispered urgently. Despite the giggle, she remembered the harsh result of the last time that happened.
A flicker of electric-blue illuminated the darkness, outlining Corryn and softening his features. As darkness returned, so too did the quiet.
He stood up, a chuckle in his throat. She knew the sound well, a loving laugh he made when at peace. “They mate for life, you know,” he said, gesturing toward the dark water. “In a manner of speaking, anyhow. Although they separate during the winter, loons reunite each summer, as if they had never been apart. They court each other just as they had the first time they fell in love. They may have walked different paths, lived different lives, but they always return to one another. Their love is instinctive, ingrained into their very being. They don’t question the rightness of their love.”
With nimble grace, he crossed the distance between them and knelt before her. “If they do not question their love, should we?” he said quietly, taking her hand in his. “Before I met you, my love, I didn’t know I was dead inside. Now that I have tasted life, how could I return to the coldness of the grave? No matter what paths we walk, our souls were met to be as one. And they always shall be.”
Corryn kissed her fingertips and wet her palm with the tears on his cheek. “I chose life. How can that be wrong?” he whispered. He laid his head against her knees like a child, defenseless and lost. His mask of denial fell away like autumn leaves, never to return. Laid bare, he waited for her to save him or destroy him.
Morna ran her long, graceful fingers through his dark hair gently, comforting him. She shifted then, moving closer to him and guiding his head to rest on her shoulder, much as she might do for Gavrin if he skinned his knee. She brushed a tear from his cheek and rested her own cheek against his hair. For a long time, she did not speak, savoring his warmth and nearness and wondering how to say what she knew she should.
Corryn sighed tenderly at her touch, the tension in his lean frame ebbing away with every caress. When she brushed his tears, he closed his eyes tightly. Resting against her as he was, the comforting beat of her heart filled him and washed away the anguish in soothing waves of sound. His hand slid over her belly and came to rest there, fingers making lazy circles. He opened his eyes once more, staring into the night without fear.
Somewhere, a singular hoot cut through the darkness; a soft, intimate sound that resonated in the heart even after it had faded from audibility. Despite distance and time, the loons had somehow found each another once more.
Out of the quiet, Morna said haltingly, "Corryn? I... I can't leave, you know. It can never be complete. The children... I couldn't..." He could feel her tears in his hair as her voice began to break. "How could I ask you to..." She shook her head, unable to finish.
He sat up and touched her face, his thumbs brushing the tears away as they fell. Now it was his turn to comfort her and he did so readily. An adoring smile played across his lips, so tender and understanding. His mouth touched her as softly as a breath and then lighted upon her brow. “Shhhh,” he whispered. “I know.”
Corryn guided her head into the crook of his shoulder, wrapping his arms around her protectively and all-encompassing. His chin brushed against her hair as he spoke, his fingers sliding into hers. “Morna,” he said, “I would never ask that of you. They are your soul and I would not diminish that. I love them as I would my own.”
Morna pulled her head back to look up at him, but held tight to his hand, as if afraid to let him go.
He brushed her hair back, gazing into her eyes. “I ask you only that you allow me to be your paramour. Let me make you smile. Let me kiss away your tears. Let me be your dream, your comfort. Let me share but a sliver of your life, and I shall forever know peace. I love you without measure, dearheart, and am a better man for knowing you.”
Gratitude filled her deep brown eyes as they searched his own, not quite willing to believe what she was hearing. She opened her mouth to protest, to ask if he was certain, to explain once more the limitations attached to loving her. But she found she didn't need to. The love in his eyes said everything.
Corryn’s heart skipped as he gazed into her brown eyes, oceans of comforting darkness he wished he could plunge into and be forever lost. Perhaps he already was. He sensed the questions within her. All he could do was share his assurance in their love with her. He touched her lips with his to quiet her doubt. “Shhhh,” he whispered.
Corryn's eyes glimmered in another flash of lightning. "Please, don't let us end here."
Overcome with emotion, she sprang to her knees and threw her arms over his shoulders tightly, nearly knocking him off balance with her weight against his chest. She buried her face in his neck, her tears tickling his skin as they rolled under his collar. "I don't want it to end," she breathed. "Not here. Not ever. I love you, Corryn. Gods be good, I love you. But... can it truly be enough?"
He steadied them before they both went over the side of the barge, a surprised chuckle in his throat. Holding her around the waist in one arm, he brushed her hair with the other. Soft kisses crowned her brow as she spoke. When she asked her question, he leaned back and cupped her face in his hands. His thumbs brushed the tears away and his mouth found hers, passionate and longing, kissing her again and again.
She kissed him longingly, the fire rising in her as it always had when their lips met. Her arms tightened around his neck as her body yearned to be nearer to his.
Finally, he pulled her back into his arms as if holding on to life itself. After all, they were one and the same. “I have your love, Morna. I could die at this very moment and know that I had everything I ever wished for. How could I ask for more than that? Is it enough? A love such as this is a thousand-fold more than I could have ever dreamed for. So yes. It is enough. You’ve made me very happy.”
Her response was a contented sigh as she savored his warm embrace. A sudden gust of wind blew a lock of her hair across her face, obscuring her broad grin.
The night gave a sinister growl of thunder. Corryn looked up and sighed faintly. “The storm will be upon us soon,” he said. His kissed her cheek and smiled tenderly. “The children will worry if you are not with them when the storm arrives. Shall I take you to them?”
Her disappointment was plain when she gazed up at him. In truth, she wanted nothing more than to spend the night in his arms, as close to him as she could possibly be, but Corryn was right. The storm would likely wake the children and she knew from experience how unpleasant such interruptions could be. There would be time. The storm would probably strand them here for several days, he'd said. And nights. They had plenty of time.
On considering this, her disappointed look turned mischievous. "I thank you for your kindness, sir," she grinned, accepting his offer.
Corryn linked his fingers with hers and lead her off the barge. His body remained close, shoulder to shoulder, as they walked over the shore’s soft grass. The only sound coming from the camp came from the sleepers; Phalan’s guttural snore, in particular. The fire had grown low, providing the lovers with copious shadows, so that they might hold onto one another without being seen even if someone were to awake prematurely. Morna could make out his grin in the darkness though, bright and wild.
As they reached her tent, Corryn simply squeezed her hand and gave her a lupine smirk. When he released her hand and stepped away, she briefly thought he wasn’t going to kiss her goodnight. But with silent grace, Corryn moved behind Morna and pulled her back in tight to his chest. Warm lips and wicked teeth captured her earlobe, tugging it softly. One large hand came around and gently supported her breast, while the other coyly slid over her belly and waist. It moved lower until Morna felt his strong but tender fingers tease her through the cloth of her dress. Lips brushed over her neck, his warm tongue flickering against her racing pulse.
“Meet me in your dreams, my love,” he growled melodically. “I shall be waiting for you there.”
And then almost wraithlike, he was gone.