Still Riding into the Sunrise
A hand was shaking her shoulder - and then Syndra realised that Volf was staring down into her face.
"Mistress, wake up," he said. "It's morning - and I've found a stream for you to use."
"Wha'?" Syndra sat straight up, startled and disoriented. She didn't realize she had fallen asleep and she had certainly never expected to sleep through the night. After her first alarmed moments, the guilt took over. She should not have slept longer than her party.
She rose immediately. "Stream? Me? Why... oh. Um, of course," she said, blushing. "Thank you, Volf."
Bathing. Syndra had not considered the difficulties of bathing amid a group of men. She pulled a cloth and soap from her pack and sheepishly made her way in the direction Volf had indicated, checking on her party's progress as she passed.
It was not just a stream. It was a place where the stream curved and formed a deep little pool. The water was chill, but soon her skin had grown to tolerate it - and even enjoy it. The washball, with its scent of flowers gathered from the Castle herb garden, was delightful too. In fact, she could have almost enjoyed the experience - at least until she saw the footprint.
A delicate, naked footprint, in a place where she had not trodden - too slender to be that of a man. And perhaps no more than two, maybe three hours old, for there had been no dew to soften its outline.
Syndra scrambled out of the water, carefully avoiding the area where the print was located. She pulled on the clothes she had worn the previous day, having packed very lightly to ease her horse's load for the swift ride. After yanking on her boots, she trotted back to the camp.
"Gerant, bring the dogs. Nik, you come too. The rest of you, finish packing the camp. We'll ride as soon as we check something out," Syndra ordered.
As Gerant and Nik followed her, Syndra explained what she had seen. "I wonder if it could've been Limosa. It had to be either a woman or a child," she speculated. She stopped well short of the footprint and pointed, not wishing to mar the scent for the dogs or any other prints for Nik.
The dogs, put to the footpront, sniffed at it and the surrounding ground enthusiastically. Then they started off on what was clearly a trail with great enthusiasm ...
Only to sit down in the shade of a great oak tree looking, it seemed, a little baffled. Only Brighteyes moved to the tree itself and stood in his hind legs, his forepaws resting on the bark as he stared upwards. Then he threw back his head and howled.
Since no offensive action had been taken against the dogs yet, coupled with the fact that nothing had happened in the whole time Syndra was bathing, she didn't call an attack. She did, however, silently motion for Nik to ready his bow.
Syndra slowly moved closer, taking shelter behind trees as she tried to get a look upwards. As she neared the oak tree, she called out in a calm, reassuring voice, "You in the tree. We don't want to hurt you and we'll leave you be if you wish. We're from Holdfast. Just passing through. We've been looking for a girl. Limosa Manderly. Her father, Ser Corryn, is desperate to find her. Has she passed this way?" Syndra hoped that if this was indeed Limosa, that mention of Corryn would persuade the girl to show herself.
There was no answer.
Limosa, of course, was mute - but surely she would have made some sign?
There was no answer, but no attack either, Syndra noted to herself, and it was also unlikely that the dogs would've let a threatening presence approach so closely during the night. She blew out a breath and stepped forward, her hands in plain sight. "If I die here, Gav, you'd better come meet me," she muttered under her breath before looking up into the tree to see the dogs' quarry.
There was no sign of any person at all, nothing but the ...
And then Syndra saw it - something that looked like a vine, which moved awkwardly in the breeze.
Up she gazed, slack-jawed. "Bollocks and damnation," she muttered in frustration. She didn't have time for mysteries now.
Syndra considered the situation for a moment, then glanced down at the dogs. The dogs had liked Limosa. If it had indeed been she, they would be more excited, with happy barks and tails wagging. However, if they felt a threat, they would be more aggressive, leaping at the tree and snarling. Instead, they just appeared baffled. Like she was. The dogs made her decision.
"We don't have time for this," she announced, turning on her heel and striding back to Gerant and Nik. She whistled for the dogs to follow. On the way back to the camp, she explained what she had seen. "We'll report when we get to Winterfell. Whoever it was didn't seem hostile. Kenrith mentioned an encounter with wildlings, but we don't have the time or the manpower for a scouting party. We'll leave them be and move on."
The men nodded their agreement - although Jane scowled darkly upwards, no doubt remembering his wounding, and several of the others looked a little apprehensive. After all, it was only a day ago that riders from Holdfast had been attacked and killed.
That fact was not lost on Syndra. In fact, the sight of the vines in the trees had made the hairs on her neck prickle, but she could not let on that she was nervous. She did, however, hasten their preparations for leaving the campsite.
She also rearranged the guard, moving Jayne up to the right side and Volf back with Becken, thus strengthening the rear guard. She kept Nik in the front as he was the best tracker, save for perhaps Volf, and therefore would be the most likely to spot a possible ambush.
It was with some relief that they rode on, it seemed.
They rode at a fast canter, and Syndra gave orders that if indeed there was an ambush, particularly from behind, they were to try to outrun the attackers. She reminded them all that their orders were to take word of the Holdfast debacle to Lord Stark, not to rid the woods of wildlings. That task could wait until they had reinforcements.
There was no attack, however, and they continued to ride through the woods, stopping briefly for a meal at mid-day in a small clearing just off the forest track.
As the shadows were starting to lengthen, they reached the junction with the Kingsroad.
Syndra called the party to a halt. "We'll rest the horses for a short while then continue on. We have a little more time until dark so we'll use it to make as much distance as we can," she said. She instructed Nik and Volf to investigate the area for the passage of recent parties. Even though the Kingsroad was hard-packed and difficult to track on, there might be other signs, such as a recent campsite or tracks in the woods leading to or from the road. And she watched the dogs for signs of interest.
"Many people have ridden it today," Nik reported finally. "Most tracks lead south, but some have taken the road eastwards - to the Long Lake."
That way lay Marshend, which the Hardies claimed, Clearwater and ... the Dreadfort.
Syndra snorted self-effacingly and gazed down the road to the south. "I don't know why I would've thought different." She turned to gaze off along the eastern track and sighed, a strange mix of loathing and longing in her features. "Boltons probably. Most likely whisking Limosa off to a hasty marriage at the Dreadfort. I hope Wolf and Godwyn caught the trail," she observed, almost to herself.
With another resigned sigh, she turned back to where Gerant was bringing up their horse. "All right, men," she called out wearily. "We ride until the sun sets completely. The road's clear and wide and campsites plentiful. And the moon's good tonight. We shouldn't have any trouble camping in the half-light."
They were able to ride some two hours more before weariness and the darkness proved too much.
"We shouldn't camp to close to the road," said Volf. "We'd be best off a way back in the forest."
"Not too far though. I want to know who passes on the road," Syndra objected. "Perhaps we can find a knoll or rock outcrop that we can camp behind. This area's loaded with hills and crags. We could set one of our watches at the top where he could see us and at least hear any passing riders at the same time. If we go without a fire tonight, it should work. Becken, you know this area the best. Is there someplace that fits that description?"
"We're on the edge of my ken," said Becken, frowning. "There is a place, I think, just off the road to the east side. It might be too boggy, though - the marshes of the Long Lake reach almost to the road around here."
Syndra scrunched her nose, obviously not keen on the idea of accidentally wading into a bog at night. "I think I'd rather stay to the west if we have the choice. If I remember Father's descriptions correctly, the Kingsroad follows the edge of the ridge that marks the end of the Wolfswood. It stays wooded longer on the west than it does to the east. We might lose our cover if we go toward the bogs. Let's just take it at a slow walk and cut off the next time we cross a brook. We can follow it upstream to the west and likely find a decent spot," she recommended.
The men agreed -and Mal set off with Becken to find the spot. Syndra waited with the others in the darkness ... and slowly became aware of an uncomfortabble feeling ... that she was not alone.
The dogs growled, a low, rumbling sound in the darkness. When Syndra looked down, she could see the hackles standing up on the backs of their necks. They did not appear to be certain of the direction of the threat, however. The breeze that had blown for much of the day had calmed at dusk and the air was now relatively still.
Syndra's hands tightened around Gerant as he calmed his skittish horse. "Circle up, everyone. Now," she ordered in a voice barely above a whisper. She adjusted her seat, holding the horse with her knees and touched her fingers to her left wrist, ready to pull her knife if it became necessary.
There was a long silence - Syndra fancied that she heard a rustling in the forest. Another silence.
And then a male voice called out, a little shakily, "Hello the riders! May we draw near? There's two of us - one hurt."
"Nik. Bow," Syndra muttered under her breath as Holdfast's silent hunter turned toward the voice. The warning was unnecessary. He was nocking an arrow even as she spoke. Volf had drawn his sword and Syndra pulled her knife, but slowly, avoiding any sudden movement. She hoped Jayne was cooperating as well.
She looked her warriors back, holding them with a glance, much as her father might have done. From the back of Gerant's horse, she called out to the voice, "Come out, but slowly. Keep your hands where we can see them."
Two figures emerged into the light of the nearly full moon - close enough for Syndra to see that one was rather stout, and the other was young, and weedy. A few steps closer, and they could see the insignia on their livery - the Flayed Man.
But at that instant, the Boltons clearly saw the Hardy insignia and - perhaps - the weapons - for the fat man let out a yell.
And both of them took to their heels back into the night, showing a fine turn of speed.
"Wait! I..." Syndra's shoulders sagged disheartedly as she listened to them crash through the underbrush in their haste to escape. The men's reaction saddened her deeply. She had always considered her family to be strong and just. Respected. The idea that they would now be feared by men other than bandits left her feeling hollow inside.
"Do we follow, Mistress?" Gerant asked half-heartedly.
Syndra shook her head. "No. Let them go." In a louder voice, to the remaining party she added, "Be wary on the watches tonight. I've heard tell an injured man's more dangerous than a healthy one." She turned her gaze on the trail, waiting even more anxiously now for Becken and Mal to return for them.
Mal came sauntering towards them a few minutes later. "We found a place," he said laconically. "Becken stayed - so we won't miss it in the dark. Who were the visitors?"
"Boltons," said Jayne.
Mal raised an eyebrow. "Anyone kill 'em?"
"No. There's been enough of that," Syndra stated with finality. "Take us to the campsite."
Once at the site, Syndra ordered that there be no campfire. The cold and darkness only added to her already foul mood. After seeing the horses attended to and the camp set up, the group settled down with cold venison jerky and crusty bread. Over the meal, Syndra laid out her orders. "I estimate we're within a day of Winterfell. If we ride hard again tomorrow, we'll likely make it by nightfall. Now that we're on the Kingsroad, we can make good time.
"As we came in, I saw a stand of soldier pines over there," she pointed to the hillside to the south, "and an outcrop of rocks at the top of the hill there," and now she pointed to a spot just northeast of the camp. "We should be able to see the road and the camp from both places. I want each lookout to take one dog with him. I'll roam between the posts. I want to know about any activity on the road. We can let them pass, but I want to know who's passing."
Syndra rubbed the bridge of her nose before she spoke again. This time her voice was less commanding and more weary. "And about those Boltons. If they don't bother us, we don't bother them. Our orders are to alert Lord Stark. Period. We have neither the time nor the manpower to be picking fights. If they start something, we defend ourselves, but that's the end of it. Understood?"
The men nodded their agreement, and settled down for the night.
"I don't think it advisable for you to roam alone," Mal said quietly to Syndra.
"I should be in sight of either the camp or the sentries at all times," Syndra assured him softly. "Why though? Did you see something?"
Mal shook his head. "No," he said. "But we've seen Boltons on the road and evidence of Wildings in the trees. You're good, lady, I'll grant you that. But you still shouldn't walk around here alone."
Mal's compliment cut through Syndra's sour mood and she smiled. "All right. You have a point," she conceded. "I'll go on watch with Volf and move only when he does. Jayne can signal us somehow if he sees anything from the southern post." She touched his elbow in dismissal. "Thank you, Mal. Go get some rest. You and Becken have second watch."
As Mal settled in, Syndra gathered her bow and checked her gear and weapons. She gave Jayne his orders ("Throw a rock in our direction if you see riders but DON'T SHOOT!") and sent him on his way to the soldier pines. She then met up with Volf as he was climbing up to the granite outcrop. "I'm with you tonight, Volf," she told him. "You watch the road and I'll watch our backs."
Volf gave her a slightly (and unexpectedly) shy smile. Jayne snickered. Mal rolled his eyes. The Holdfast men suddenly became very involved in their tasks in preparing the camp and their evening meal, such as it was.
Syndra smiled back at Volf, but then the rest of her party caught her eye. "What?" she asked, gazing around at the hidden snickers and knowing looks with the feeling that there was some mysterious 'man-thing' going on. "I'm just going on watch."
With a final exasperated scowl, she stalked off toward the rocky hill, grabbed a sapling and swung her way up over the first boulder. "Get your minds out of your trousers," she grumbled.
Volf ran hastily after her, mindful of his duties. Syndra was probably imagining the stifled guffaw that followed her up the hill.
It was too dark to see the colour of Volf's cheeks when they reached the top.
Syndra plunked herself down at the crest of the hill and ripped her bow off her shoulder, blushing furiously, though thankfully, it was too dark to see it. Her silence when Volf arrived was deafening. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, turned toward the woods and drew, testing the tautness of her bowstring. She did not release it but instead lowered the bow, keeping the arrow nearby, and stared out over the camp, her arms hugging her drawn-up knees. The air virtually crackled with tension.
Volf cleared his throat nervously, as though about to say something.
Then he cleared it again.
Syndra was starting to feel a little bad about being rude to Volf. After all, her mood was not really his fault. But her pride would not let her relent. Not yet.
"What," she growled, still looking out over the camp.
"Nothing," said Volf hastily. "That is .. I mean ... nothing, Mistress Syndra."
He was silent for a long minute.
Then he sighed.
The sigh cracked Syndra's resolve. She began to feel guilty. "I'm sorry, Volf. I shouldn't take this out on you," she apologized quietly, still not looking at him. "Too much has happened in too few days. I'm a little overwhelmed."
She turned to look at him over her shoulder. "We've known each other a long time. You can speak freely. What's on your mind?"
She felt rather than saw his face turn towards her in the darkness.
"Are you angry with me, Mistress? We used to be ... friends."
Syndra held back a reflexive grimace as her guilt crashed over her like a tidal wave. "Oh Volf, we still are friends. And I'm not angry with you. You don't know how relieved I was to find you safe and have you join this party."
She sighed and looked back out over the camp. "It's just..." She shook her head and growled in frustration. "Why can't they just... I mean... I'm trying to be in command. I'm trying to do what I think is right... but... I'm just... It's... Why do they have to think something's going to happen up here?" It was quite obvious from her tone what kind of "happening" she knew the men below were expecting.
A long silence.
Then Volf said quietly, "Perhaps it's because they guess the way I feel about you, Mistress."
Syndra's eyes widened. She had always known how he felt, but it used to be something of a game. They had both been children and she had always seen Volf's affections as nothing more than a sweet childhood crush. But if Syndra had learned anything these last few days, it was that she was no longer a child. That realization was both exciting and frightening. Now was one of the latter moments.
She opened her mouth to speak, closed it and bit her lip. "Volf, I..." she began again, then sighed. "You're very dear to me, Volf. Any maid in Westeros would be proud to have you as a lord husband. Me included. But I... I think my father has already made other arrangements for my hand. We talked about it the night before the trial," she explained, trying not to hurt his feelings.
"I know, Mistress," said Volf. "I wondered if ... if it might be Ser Corryn. I love him as my father, you know. But if he married you ... I don't know how I'd bear it."
"Corryn?!" Syndra squeaked in astonishment, then winced as she realized how loudly she had done so. "No! Certainly not..." She paused uncomfortably as she remembered that conversation in the tent when Wolf had revealed his feelings to her. She could feel the blush coloring her face and was thankful it was nighttime.
She shuddered and shook her head to clear the conflicting thoughts from her mind. "No, Volf. My father spoke with Ser Corryn to ask him to be my guardian if anything happened to him. Nothing more," she explained quietly. "The man he had in mind for my hand was someone he knew from Winterfell. Not Ser Corryn. He'd never allow that. No." She dragged her words to a halt.
"Oh," said Volf. Another long silence, and then, audible in the darkness, she heard him swallow awkwardly.
"This other man, Mistress. Do you know who it is to be?"
"Um... he spoke of Ser Deryll Ryswell, but I don't think anything's been finalized yet," Syndra explained uncomfortably. "Father had wanted to have me meet him before he made any arrangements." She turned back to face the camp as the mention of her father twisted her stomach with a pang of anxiety and homesickness.
"Can you see the road well from your side of the hill, Volf?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Yes," said Volf. A pause. "This Ser Deryll, do you know much of him, Mistress?"
Syndra sighed, still staring down at the camp. "A little. Not much," she began, resigning herself to the fact that he would not let this drop. "He accompanied Father to Holdfast after the summer fever. I met him. The night of the funeral. That was the only time."
Her voice became misty with memory. "He was kind to me. I was so little... he seemed so much older. Father told me he'd lost kin to the summer fever too, and he had a sister who was crippled by it. So he understands...
"You do too though," she continued after a pause, turning back to face him and smiling gently, her eyes a little brighter in the moonlight than they had been a few moments before. "You should talk to my father if you're truly serious about this, Volf. Your prospects for my hand are as good as any and better than some," she advised, her voice sounding weary. "I trust his judgment in this." In truth, right now she trusted her father's judgment better than her own, as comfrey blossoms, howling wolves and laughing knives competed in her head for her affections.
"Not as good as Ser Deryll's," he said glumly. "I know him, Mistress. He's good in the lists, and noble in bearing besides. Everything a Knight should be. *He* wouldn't run away because he was afraid. It's said Lord Stark favours him above other knights."
Syndra snorted. "If he's so good, he might not even be interested in me now. The daughter of a third son, one who might not even be able to serve his lord now that he's..." She bit back the bitterness that crept into her voice.
She turned back to face Volf. "And about being afraid. You made a mistake. One mistake," she consoled gently. "I'm certain you wouldn't do it again. More important, you told the truth. You were honorable. Unlike some."
Volf nodded glumly. This, it seemed, was little compensation.
"You have land, though," he pointed out. "Land from your father. And whether he can fight or not, your father has the favour of the Lord of the North."
"I reckon," Syndra replied half-heartedly. None of that mattered now. Not to her. She resumed her watch over the camp, her arms wrapped around drawn-up knees. After a few moments of quiet, she asked, "So what have you done over the last couple of years, Volf? While Ser Corryn was off sailing the Narrow Sea?"
He began to tell her, speaking slowly at first, and then, as he moved into his tale, with growing confidence. He had served with Corryn in his years in White Harbour - and it was clear he had relished the work and the responsibility. But, above all, he had fallen in love with the sea ...
And like the sea, his voice rose and fell in gentle cadences ...
They had a peaceful night.