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The News of My Demise has been Greatly Exaggerated

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The Captain of the Guard stalked into the inn, and stood for a second in the flagged stone hall, before he roared out: "Innkeep!"

A tall, gangling youth appeared. He had a thick thatch of dark, curly hair, a prominent Adam's apple and a certain vacant look.

"Mistress is upstairs," he said. "Giving orders for the bodies."

"Bodies?" said Ser Anders sharply.

The potboy nodded. "The hedge knight, and the one Ser Corryn killed."

Ser Anders stared at the boy for a long minute, before he seemed able to ask, "And where is Ser Corryn's body now?"

"In the tap room, drinking a toast to his well-being," said the boy.

Ser Anders shot a glance in the general direction of the tap room, and then gave a nod. "Take me to the innkeep," he ordered the boy, who started to lead the way upstairs.

Godwyn watched Ser Anders head upstairs, and tried to figure out this latest change in the fox's trail he was trying to follow. Then he walked into the tap room.

His arrival was largely unnoticed.

It was early - but that rarely made any difference to the drinkers in the Goose and Gander. They needed no excitement as a rule to excite their thirst, but if some gratuitously presented itself, they were more than happy to take advantage of it. And here was excitement a-plenty.

A murder was not unknown in the inn, but usually the killings were more of a cheery late night quality - occasioned by some ill-timed jest or drunken bragging. Knives were drawn, blows followed words, and someone ended up in the prison while someone else ended up in the grave. Those who did the killing in such circumstances were rarely hanged - more often they were given a chance to join the ranks of the guards.

But a murder of someone asleep in his bed - let alone the murder of such a notorious (and popular) figure as Ser Corryn Manderly - now, that was worth a pint. Or two, even.

And when the victim proved to be not Ser Corryn but some unknown bedraggled hedge knight - well, that was worth a drink or two more. And another when Ser Corryn came down the stairs and into the main taproom - just to show him that there were no hard feelings about his iunexpected return to life but that, on the contrary, they were extremely - even roisterously - pleased to see him alive after all.

So Godwyn walked into an impromptu celebration of thanksgiving for the life of Ser Corryn Manderly, which had all the enthiusiasm of a Riverlands wake, with the added bonus of the corpse being alive and present to partake.

Corryn stood upon the taproom bar like a cock about to greet the dawn. He bowed to those assembled with a flourish, nearly spilling his pint on a flaxen-haired drunkard. Even over the boisterous racket, his pleasant voice rang out for all to hear. “Good ladies and men, I greet thee and implore you for one moment’s grace.”

It took a moment for the voices and hollers to lower to a tolerable clamor. Corryn stood up straight, smiling for all to see. “I would appear Lady Fortune has smiled upon me thrice this morning. Twice she saved me from an untimely end at the hands of another, but more important, for allowing me to be amongst my friends on the day of my death. A man could not be luckier than to have you, my kin, at his side on such a dark day. For that, I thank you all. Drinks are on the corpse!”

He raised his mug in a toast, and than drained half the tankard as the room went mad with hollers and salutes. Corryn used his hand to calm them down once more; a sizable effort now that the ale was truly flowing. His jovial manner ebbed momentarily, his playful smile turning grim. Emotion filled his voice this time.

“This is a happy time for me, aye. But let us not forget, that blood was spilled last night and a good man died in my stead. So please, I beg thee, raise you mugs with me and give honor to Ser Fouchon; a knight and a friend.”

The crowd responded with cheers and pounding of empty pewter beer mugs (which the potboys and maids hastening to refill. Their success was marked by the cries of "Ser Fuchon!" which went up from various parts of the bar. Apparently Ser Fuchon commanded far more respect and affection after leaving life than he ever had while living - and not uncommon arrangement.

Godwyn pushed his way through the crowd towards the River Wolf, trying to catch his eye.

A low murmur went through some of the crowd ... "Hardy ... younger ... Hardy."

The whispered name above all else caught Corryn’s ear. He gazed down into the crowd and immediately noticed the young noble vying for his attention. Amongst the rabble of the Goose and Gander, Godwyn stood out like a cow in a summer frock. His grin was large and friendly when he hopped down from the bar. “Even the Hardys have come to my wake,” he laughed. “I must be more charming than I think.”

He nodded to his companions to make room for the youth, patting the bench beside him. “Well met, young Hardy. You’re…” he scratched his stubble for a moment. “Godwyn, aye? You’ve definitely sprung up since last I saw you.”

As Godwyn moved out of the crowd the fresh wound in his left thigh became obvious. "It seems the day for knifings," the young man said with a grin. But the smile didn't reach his eyes. He sat on the bench with a pained sigh, and said to the crowd, "Someone bring me some water, and some clean rags, to bind this, if you'd be so kind."

Corryn raised an eyebrow and knelt to examine the wound. "Well, that'll teach you not to play with sharp objects, I suspect. Definitely worth a scar."

He stood and turned to Serath, the buxom maid in attendance of the patrons of the taproom. "We'll need something a tad stronger than water as well, my love. That bottle of Dornish you've been saving for me will do the trick. I'll cover the expense."

Serath straightened her apron and smiled weakly. She'd seen enough blood for one day, to be certain. It took her a moment to return from the back with a burgundy colored bottle. Corryn used the edge of his knife to peel the waxed top away. "Not to worry, young Hardy," he laughed.. "This will ease all your pains in short order."

Once open, the bottle exuded a sharp, acidic smell. Even getting it close to the nose caused one's eyes to water. "Drink part of this, but save some for the leg. We don't want it to turn, now do we?"

Arney, the potboy, was gawking - until one of the patrons gave him a shove in the direction of the kitchen. After a few moments he returned with a wooden pail of steaming water and some reasonably clean rags. But it was clear he had little idea of what to do with them.

Corryn laughed and squeezed Godwyn's shoulder reassuringly. "Fear not. Arney here is a consummate chirurgeon, a maester in the making. Why he helped Short Vic over there just last year." His smile curls up playfully. Short Vic, after all, was named such because he'd lost both his feet to the Green Rot just last spring.

Godwyn grinned. "That's reassuring," he said. "Here, Arney, you need to dip one of the rags in the water and clean the wound first. Don't worry about causing me pain, if you do I'll just cut your head off."

“He’s fooling with you, Arney. Not to worry,” Corryn said before the dimwitted boy took their jests seriously. He sat down beside Godwyn and helped out in whatever way he could.

[Godwyn] looked around. "Bandits," he explained to the room at large. "They had a camp in the woods and I was unlucky enough to ride right into it." He looked at Corryn. "I heard up at the castle that you were dead."

[Corryn] shook his head at the mention of bandits. “And where was your escort, my young lord? Shouldn’t Ser Toilet… Tollet have been with you?” he quickly corrected himself; the nickname almost an unconscious thing now. “They could have gutted you like a spring hare and never blinked an eye.”

Corryn shrugged at Godwyn’s question, sighing audibly. “I should have been, I suspect. Twice, in fact. An assassin crept into my room last night. Fortunate for me, I was in the arms of a lovely woman. Unfortunately, a fellow knight had chosen to use my empty bed. He never stood a chance. Everyone mistook him for me, and I’m not surprised considering the amount of blood.

“When I investigated this morning, the assassin was still there. Nearly finished the job too.”

His eyes drifted toward the stairwell to the upper floor. “I fear your uncle will try to cast the blame on me.”

"I cannot say that he won't," Godwyn allowed. "I will speak for you to Father, if it comes to that." He met Corryn's eyes again. "We should talk in privy, as soon as we are able," he said.

Corryn smiled with genuine affection, “I thank thee for that, good ser. I’ve always liked you Hardys. A solid lot you are. I can see your father’s strength in you.” And then he took note of the young man’s concern and pensiveness. Not the norm for this one.

He picked up their tankards, nodding toward a booth in the shadows. “My booth should be private enough, my young friend. And if not, I do not fear our words shall be shared with anyone we do not wish them to be. That, Godwyn, is the benefit of rubbing shoulders with rogues. We keep our own council and guard each others secrets well.”

Upon seeing Corryn approach, the rugged looking brutes sitting in the booth nodded and gave up their seats. In return, the River Wolf gave them a wink and a silver to make sure the pair would not be disturbed.

Godwyn made sure the bandage around his thigh was tied, then rose and followed Corryn. As they sat he cast a glance around to be certain that they were not being overheard, then leaned forward and said in a low voice, "My cousin and I overheard Ser Anders and his sister discussing you last night. They were most annoyed that father was going to receive you. That woman said they would do something about it. We heard nothing more, but when I heard this morning that you had been slain..." he shrugs, the conclusion obvious to him.

Corryn sighed and nodded knowingly. "I'd suspected as much. Anders has never been the forgiving sort," he said. "Though I never thought he'd turn to murdering me in my bed." He took a deep swallow of beer and stared into space, considering these words thoughtfully.

Then he looked Godwyn in the eye, "But why tell me, young Hardy? Lady Hardy is still a member of your family, as is Anders by default. You risk much by telling me this. And, I assume, by your cousin you mean Little Bear?" 'Little Bear' was Corryn's childhood nickname for Syndra, stemming from her chubby cheeks, stubbornness, and propensity for climbing anything in sight. She might have grown out of the cheeks, but she'd always be his Little Bear.

He leaned forward, deadly serious. "You mustn't speak of this to anyone else, Godwyn. I don't want the two of you getting into trouble on my account. And the Tollets have always been trouble, my lad."

Godwyn shook his head stubbornly. "She's no Hardy. She'd make Holdfast a Tollet holding if she had her way, and be rid of me, my brother, and my cousin all. And I cannot sit by and see them do evil and not oppose it." He sighed. "You are right, though, that I cannot speak to anyone else on this. Not even my father, I fear, without hard proof. If Kenrith were here things would be different...."

Corryn patted the boy's shoulder, and then squeezed it firmly. "Not to worry, lad. You have a fine head on your shoulders and a fearless heart. I could ask for no better advocate right now. I am in your debt."

He leaned back in his chair, knitting his fingers together before him on the table. "We must tread with caution. Celia's a shrewd one. Makes up for her brother's pig-headness. If they were behind this, we must prove their wrongs irrefutably, lest they wriggle out of them."

His grin broadened, "It'll be interesting to see their reaction to my unwillingness to die."

Godwyn snapped his fingers. "Damn!" he said. "I didn't tell you. Ser Anders is here. He looked like someone had poleaxed him when the boy told him you were alive. And he demanded to be taken to Mistress Odette."

"Bollocks and damnation," Corryn muttered. "My sweet Odette is in the hands of that villain? Considering his present temperament, he's likely to..."

He let the words fall; a low growl rumbling in his chest. For a moment, his eyes caught the light just right and glimmered with an angry canine glow. Added to the feral snarl on his lips, it was little wonder where the man got his moniker. "I swear this," he said coldly, "If he touches her, we'll be burying two knights today, instead of one. Thank you for telling me, Godwyn. We'd best talk to him, before he does something I will not forgive."

Corryn patted the boy's arm and was about to rise when...

Across the room, Syndra entered the tap room. Despite, or maybe because of, the eyes on her, she held her chin up with Hardy pride and strode toward the familiar-looking knee she saw in the enclosed booth.

"Ser Corryn," she called out past the burly, mean-looking men nearby. "A word, if you please." Her tone was authoritative, but in the back of her mind, she desperately hoped she had the right booth, and knee.

Upon seeing Syndra, the predatory aura around the River Wolf immediately softened. "Little Bear!" he shouted and swept her up in his arms.

Syndra squealed gleefully, her tight braid flying out behind her as he lifted her off her feet.

Holding her tight, he kissed her on the nose and then hugged her again. In that brief moment, the tension of nearly being killed bled out and his emotions were plain to all. Finally, almost reluctantly, he let her down and offered her his chair.

"'A word, if you please,'" Corryn mimicked. "You've been hanging around that aunt of yours too long."

Syndra grinned widely and nodded at his large hired men. "I thought I might need it to get past these two," she explained in a voice that was all her own.

Corryn laughed loudly, squeezing her hand. “Aye, lass. You did well. These two can be a tad grumpy at times.” His ‘companions’ chuckled to themselves, equally impressed with the young girl’s spirit.

Syndra had grown quite tall since the last time Corryn saw her. Though not quite a teenager, she had outgrown the chubby bear cheeks and entered the gawky stage of being all arms and legs. Corryn could see that, though her face still resembled her father, she was developing the long, willowy build of her late mother.

Corryn’s heart stuck in his throat as remembrance washed over him. She had Morna’s eyes and look to be sure. How long had it been since he’d last seen them? Far too long. A life or two ago, to be sure. He smiled and hugged her again for reasons he kept to himself. “It’s good to see you again,” he admitted. “Now, pray tell me why you’d brave the Goose & Gander on a day such as this. Your father will have my hide if he discovers you’re in here.”

She grew serious. "I thought you ought to know. Ser Tollet's upstairs going through your things. I heard him outside." She glanced at Godwyn to include him as well.

“Stranger’s Balls and damned that man!” Corryn barked before he remembered the company he shared. His ears and cheeks turned four colors of autumn before he regained his composure. “My apologies, Syndra. My manner is unruly.”

Syndra merely smirked.

"I'm with you, whatever you need to do," Godwyn said to Corryn, with all the sincerity of a 14-year-old who considered himself a man grown.

The River Wolf nodded with genuine respect, “Good lad. It appears our paths lead us into a confrontation with Ser Toilet once more. I have gifts for both of you in that pack. I will not have him ruining your surprises.”

He helped Godwyn steady himself, and addressed him as he would one of his men. “Watch my back, Godwyn. I’m counting on you. But if things turn ugly, I need you to get Odette and Syndra out of harm’s way. There is no greater honor than that.” He winked at Syndra, “Not that you need protecting, I suspect. Come now. Let us get this unpleasantness over with.”

Syndra fell in beside, but slightly behind, Godwyn, on the same side as his injured leg. She watched him closely as they followed her old Wolf, ready to assist if his wound caused him to stumble.

Godwyn's lips compressed with the effort of walking without limping or showing pain as he followed. He asked Syndra quietly, "What about the guards, are they still outside with that woman's daughter?"

She nodded. "Yes," she whispered.

The stink of death and spilled blood still lingered as they reached the second floor. Corryn paused only to check on Godwyn, hoping that the bindings had survived the climb up the treacherous stairwell. He smiled at them both, but they could tell he was worried. His fists clenched and body tensed in anticipation of the conflict that would undoubtedly ensue between himself and Anders.

It wasn’t too difficult to track Anders down. He and Odette could be heard arguing, even over the raucous din filtering up from below. Corryn strode into the room defiantly, but kept himself protectively in front of Godwyn and Syndra.

As the door opened, the two occupants turned.

The two bodies were still in the room, as well as Ser Anders and Odette. There was alos a large pack which had been slashed open with a knife, so that its good spilled out carelessly onto the floor - one length of white silk was even trailing in blood. And as if this was not enough, the contents of the pack had clearly been pul;led out and deliberately scattered in the so-called 'search'.

Wanton destruction ...

But not of Ser Corryn's pack. No, these were good of poor quality, goods that looked flashy but were really cheap and shoddy - and Corryn had never seen them before in his life.

Corryn raised a curious eyebrow; a subtle motion that only those who truly knew him would have noticed. Odette had been busy, it would appear. If he had doubted his true feelings for her before, they were solidified now. She was without question, one of the finest women he’d encountered.

Before anyone could say anything, Odette burst out. "Ser - he insisted on searching your pack!" Then she spotted the two children - Hardy blood - and bobbed a respectful curtsey.

Godwyn glowered at Ser Anders from the door.

Corryn raised his hand to calm her, “It’s perfectly alright, my dear lady. I am well-acquainted with how ‘persuasive’ Ser Anders can be with the fairer sex. You’re not hurt in any fashion, I pray.” He stepped over to her, lightly cupping her chin to raise her head. It was as much an act of kindness, as it was to check her for bruises.

She smiled tremulously back at him. Her face was unmarked; he could gather from the expression in her eyes that she had not be physically struck but she was, nonetheless, afraid of Ser Anders.

Corryn squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and smiled. He was thankful she hadn’t been harmed. He placed a protective arm around her ample waist, but kept his sword hand free just in case Anders decided to be stupid.

His eyes turned to Anders, smoldering like hot coals. “The body is barely cold, and already you’re rooting through his things? I hope his possessions are all there when all is said and done, Ser.”

Godwyn's glower changed to a look of bafflement as Corryn spoke, and he looked from the contents of the pack to the River Wolf, obviously confused by what was happening.

"His possessions were meagre enough," said Ser Anders contemptuously, indicating the mall pack tossed carelessly to one side. "Yours, however ..."

He indicated the goods spread around. "I didn't realise you'd fallen on such hard times, RiverRat, to be reduced to selling this."

Odette clung to Corryn. The look in her eyes told him that it was she who had substituted an inferior pack for his own - that his own goods were still safe.

Corryn smiled to himself, pleased his little quip had distracted Anders long enough to believe the lie Odette had prepared. Smugness and arrogance were so delightfully easy to play with, and Anders reeked of both. He threw the man yet another bone just to whet his appetite. “Life is filled with uncertainly, Ser. Sometimes we must make do with what little we have. Could you handle that with some care? There are people still willing to buy that.”

From beside Godwyn, Syndra tried to catch Odette's eye when Corryn released her chin. The goal was to get her into the hallway and out of Anders' reach so the Wolf was clear to do as he would.

Odette, looking away from Ser Corryn, gave Syndra a tiny nod, and moved a couple of steps closer to her.

"I think," said Ser Anders, "the best thing would be for youu to come to the Castle and answer a few questions about this. Both of you."

His bright blue eyes were intent on Ser Corryn's face. "Now, will you come with me quietly, or must it be under restraint?"

Corryn brushed his vest idly, appearing nonplussed. He would have found a palsied muskrat would have been more intimidating than the man before him now. “And why wouldn’t I come quietly?” he inquired. “I was going to the castle this morning anyway. The road is safe now, I assume, what with the current banditry going on.”

He straightened up and placed his hand on Godwyn’s shoulder. “It does strike me odd though that you’d be more concerned about the contents of my pack than the fact that Lord Hardy’s son was nearly murdered on the road this morning. Oswain should have his Captain of the Guard look into that right away, don’t you suppose?”

Before Anders ccould respond, Corryn added, “Oh wait a moment! Forgive my forgetfulness. That would be you, wouldn’t it, Ser Toilet? Perhaps the bandits are hiding in my bag?!”

Corryn smirked broadly; his inflection with the word ‘toilet’ so close to Tollet, it made it hard to determine which he actually said.

Syndra clenched her jaw in an effort remain serious and not match Corryn's smirk. She remembered once again why she'd always liked him.

Godwyn didn’t even try to disguise his guffaw. He leaned against the doorway and grinned at Ser Tollet.

Ser Anders looked at Godwyn. "Perhaps, before laughing at others, you'll remember how you came by that wound," he said savagely, "and how close you came to getting not only yourself but also your cousin and your step-sister killed."

The smile dropped from Godwyn's face, and it looked as though he was about to answer hotly, when a voice interrupted him.

Corryn turned his gaze toward Godwyn, almost sternly. "You and I will discuss that later, Godwyn," he said flatly. "I owe your father that." Then he winked, to let him know that he was still on the boy's side. Then he turned back to Anders, ~"That doesn't change the fact you should have been at their side Ser Anders.

"Indeed?" sneered Ser Anders. "Lord Hardy has me as the Captain of the Guard - not nursemaid for a pack of wayward children."

"But this is neither here nor there. A knight was murdered in his bed. I apologize that it wasn't me, as I know how much it disappoints you, Anders, but that is how the Stranger wanted things it would appear." Corryn turned at the sound of a new person in the room.

"He's not my step-brother," said Edlyn from the doorway.

She was standing there in a shaft of sunlight, her hair lit like a halo around her lovely face. Her riding habit was still bedraggled and had mud-stains, but she wore it as though mud was the latest fashion in King's Landing. Her eyes swept the room, even as she said plaintively, "Is no-one going to get me a mug of cider when I am so parched?"

Syndra gave her a long-suffering sigh. "Edlyn, you just passed through the taproom. You should've asked for one there."

Edlyn's eyes widened with unfeigned horror. "Ask one of those horrible coarse men down there?"

Then she saw Ser Corryn, and her eyes widened slightly. "You must be the Riverwolf," she said. "I've heard so much about you."

"With luck, half of it was flattering,"Corryn said mildly, and then gave the young woman a grin. He recognized the Tollet nose immediately; so too the ears and mouth. The brood did have a comely way to them, without doubt. This one would blossom into a beautiful flower. But exterior beauty meant little. Even the shiniest fruit could be riddled with worms.

Nonetheless, he crossed the room, took Edlyn's hand and lightly kissed it. "A pleasure, m'lady," he said. His fingers lingered on her for a moment; just long enough to have Anders' blood boiling and the girl's heart racing.

Edlyn inclined her head gracefully in response and peeped up through her long lashes at him. Almost perfectly demure - but there was mischief in the flash of those blue eyes too, and she shifted his stance slightly so that Sir Anders might have an even better view of the exchange.

As he turned from her, he caught Syndra's eye. The way he smiled sadly, almost apologetically, showed his true feelings on the matter.

Syndra turned toward Godwyn and rolled her eyes at Edlyn's unabashed flirting.

Godwyn grinned. "I'd be happy to get you one, Edlyn," he said. "Perhaps Mistress Odette will lead us back downstairs. It rather smells up here."

"Certainly, young Master," said Odette, clearly relieved. "I daresay we should all have a drink before we go to the castle."

It did not seem that the prospect of the journey was pleasing her as she bustled out of the room, leaving them to follow her down to the taproom.

"Madame Odette," Corryn said softly, "Put everything on my bill. And make sure these young nobles are well-fed as well. They'll need something on their bellies, I'm sure. I'm sure the last thing we need is for the lot of us to be drunk before we return to the castle. Clear heads will lead to clear hearts."

Odette nodded, and managed a smile at him - but he could see she was not enamoured by the prospect of the visit to the castle that lay ahead.

[Corryn] stared at Odette for a moment, wanting to touch her if only for a moment. But in the end, he swallowed his emotions before Anders caught on to him. He refused to allow her to suffer for his past. And with that, he turned to face his accuser.

"So," said Ser Anders. "Perhaps you would care to explain what happened here last night?"

Corryn nodded, "Of course. I have nothing to hide, after all."

He righted the sole chair in the room, and spun it about in his typical fashion before sitting. It was doubtful Anders would try anything, but after the last few hours Corryn refused to take further risks. Satisfied he could defend himself, he smiled up at Anders as if they were the closest friends.

"I met Ser Fouchon last evening not long after I arrived," he said. "He'd been waiting for me, as he knew of my reputation as a traveler. Fouchon wanted to head down the Knife for reasons he did not care to convey. I did not press the issue, as his silver was good and his manner pleasant enough. We parted company early in the evening with the agreement that I would escort him down river.

"I spent that night in the comforting arms of a woman. Mistress Odette can confirm such. When I awoke, it was to the declaration that I had been murdered in my bed. I chose not to dissuade people from that belief, in case the murder or murderers remained hidden amongst the inn's patrons. My assumption was correct."

"When I returned to my room to investigate, the other gentleman attacked me from behind. He had been hiding in the chimney."

Corryn pointed to the corpse on the floor, "Note the soot on his clothing and in his hair? He was waiting for me to return. I suspect he realized his mistake when he pulled the covers back and remained behind to finish the job."

He shrugged faintly and continued. "We struggled and, in the end, he encountered the pointy end of my knife. He did not react too kindly to that and decided to expire, despite my efforts to keep him alive. No matter what, the man murdered a knight of the realm. He should have been hung for his actions."

Corryn leaned back in the chair, regarding Anders with cold eyes. "You wouldn't happen to know why there would be a man hiding in my chimney that first evening I arrive in your protectorate, now would you? It strikes me as odd that I would nearly be murdered in my bed, while Lord Oswain's son barely escapes death not a few hours later. Perhaps the whispers I've heard of late ring of truth?"

He cocked his head slightly and his smile revealed too much white; a predatory gesture that was unmistakable.

"If Oswain's son had been obeying orders, he wouldn't have been riding in the woods anyway!" snarled Ser Anders. "As for you .... "

"Well, he'll have me to contend with," Corryn said frankly. "He endangered himself and, more importantly, the girls. That rashness needs to be eliminated immediately."

From the covert glance he shot at the River Wolf, Corryn could see that Ser Anders was, in fact, surprised by his story - and reluctant to betray that surprise.

Corryn's eyes narrowed perceptibly. Let the man sweat. He was not his sister, to be certain. That wentch could charm the scales off a snake. This one, however, had the wit of the southern end of a pig. The truth would come soon enough. But for now, he let Anders keep his secrets.

"You make enemies wherever you go, Manderley," he said with a sneer. "Are you sure the man you killed wasn't some husband you've wronged by over-indulgence with his pretty wife?"

"Oh, he was far more than a simple cuckold trying to remove that which offended him, but delighted others," Corryn smirked. He shook his head, "And I doubt this man was a brigand either. He did little in the way of robbing my friend. And the good Ser did have some coin on him."

He stood up and covered his mouth to stifle a yawn. "If you are done here, Anders, perhaps we should partake of a drink before we ride to the castle? Maybe then you could tell me how you got here so quickly. News of my demise must have traveled quickly. I thought it might."

Ser Anders gave a curt nod.

"Very well," he said. "My sis ... Lord Holdfast will want to hear more of this." He stood up. "One of the grooms brought the news along with the morning milk. How it reached the farm ... Another soul is search of milk with a tale to tell. Word spread, Manderley. You've used that for your advantage before - it may be that you did so this time, as well."

"People speak and act more freely around the dead," Corryn smiled. "You'd be amazed what secrets the dead can learn."

Corryn opened the door for him, holding it as polite as he could be. "I will report to the Lord and Lady, as you request. Although it's a pity your sister's items were damaged during the scuffle." His grin is wide and knowing. "Better we tell her that, don't you think? Blood is desperately hard to remove from silk."

Ser Anders snorted. "If that was the quality of your best wares these days, I've spared her the trouble of refusing you."

"Perhaps," Corryn said. "Your sister does have refined tastes. A little too refined for the north, I think. Fortunately, I still have my charming personality to win her over, yes?" He smirked broadly and batted his eyelashes.

[Anders] headed for the door to the room, then paused. "A man may be killed for other things besides gold. Did he give you any reason why he sought protection travelling down the Knife?"

"The man was sick," Corryn said without hesitation. "I doubt he would have survived the trip on his own. And my wayward reputation aside, I do know the river and all her secrets. Few could have ferried him as expediently or safely as myself. Better he reach whatever it was he sought than die in the cold wilderness."

He sighed faintly, walking beside Anders. "It is why he will get a decent and proper burial. It is the very least I can do for him."

Ser Anders shot a thoughtful look at him. "Something important, it must have been, to undertake a dangerous journey on the point of death. Did you not think so, River Wolf?"

"Of course, it was important. Any fool would know that," Corryn said frankly. "But I am paid not to inquire into such matters. Wagging tongues are more treacherous than any river or sword. My patrons rely on my discretion, Anders. Not my winning smile."

"And once your patrons have been murdered and the lives of others threatened - you hold your peace then?" countered Ser Anders. "You're meant to hold young Syndra in affection - she could have been killed this morning through her disobedience; she could be killed yet. Do you want her death on your conscience, because you did not speak out when you could?"

Corryn paused on the stair. His expression turned glacial, his eyes flashing like corpselight in the shadows. Ser Anders was a knight and trained in the arts of war. In that second, even one as oblivious as he could realize the Wolf was measuring the striking distance between the blade at his side and Anders’ exposed throat.

His lips curled in a manner very familiar to Anders. He’d seen it once just before his eyes swelled shut from the beating. Corryn’s voice became a feral growl. “Do not confuse my jollity for weakness, Tollet. Question my loyalty to Syndra again, and the next time you see daylight will be as you emerge from the sphincters of Madame Odette’s pigs. There is not a man under this roof that would stop me. Most consider your hand behind the grave matters here. To them, it would be justice.”

And just as suddenly as his anger possessed him, Corryn was peaceful again. “I suggest you weigh the import of your next words, Anders. Remember, it will not be I that your sister blames for her daughter’s near rape and murder. As deeply as you hate me, Celia loves that girl. So how understanding do you think she’ll be when she discovers you left her undefended on the road?

There was a sudden narrowing of Ser Anders eyes. He did not seem to be contemplating the truth of what Ser Corryn was staying - instead he seemed engaged on some calculation of his own.

“No, rather than dual with words, you and I should make certain that this incident is forgotten by all. For both our sakes. You and I are both guilty today. Now shall we compound our mistakes further or act with some civility?”

"We will discuss this further at the Castle," said Ser Anders abruptly, and he moved down the last few stairs and into the taproom.

Something Corryn had said was making the Holdfast Captain of the Guard think - but in a way the River Wolf could not read.

At the foot of the stairs they could see, through the half-open door of the private taproom, the three young people making a hearty meal on cold meats, cheese and pickles, while Odette stood by. She looked up anxiously as she heard the men approach.

(continued below)

Syndra hesitated as she shot one last worried glance toward Ser Corryn, but then she reluctantly followed Odette. In the hallway, though, she chuckled at herself. She was doing it again. She really must stop being so over-protective. The Wolf had taken Tollet before; he could do it again. They'd all serve him better by getting out of his way.

Godwyn waited until he was certain both the girls were going to follow Odette, and then with a last smile at the two knights he turned and brought up the rear.

At the foot of the stairs [Odette] hesitated, then went not into the main taproom, but the smaller private room used for more select visitors to her establishment.

Syndra smiled at Odette shyly as she followed her into the room.

As they entered the room Godwyn said quietly to Edlyn, "I have not had a chance to thank you yet. Allow me to do so."

Edlyn's chin lifted slightly. She seemed surprised by the thanks, and not sure whether she should take it seriously. "For what?" she asked, a little warily.

"Oh, that," said Edlyn airily - and then she smiled wickedly. "Well, I knew he couldn't yell at you with me saying it was all my fault. And he'll have to tell Mother later. And maybe she'll send me back to the Vale."

But Edlyn didn't sound too hopeful.

"I expect I'll have to do lots of worse things before she'll do that," she said. "Does Uncle Anders really hate the RiverWolf?"

"Now, my dears," said Odette, "will you try our cider or some of the Old Peculiar ale?"

Syndra cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the description of the ale and decided to pass. "The cider sounds delicious. Thank you," she answered Odette politely.

"Cider would be good," Godwyn agreed. "Edlyn, would you like cider?"

Edlyn nodded. "In the Vale," she said, "we mostly had wine. But cider sounds delicious."

She smiled warmly at Odette who returned the smile and busied herself in drawing three mugs of the sharp, tart foaming beverage.

"It's good!" announced Edlyn, very nearly keeping the surprise out of her voice that the North could produce something she liked.

Syndra sipped and nodded, then turned to Odette. "Mistress Odette, what happened here? At the castle, we heard the River Wolf was dead." she asked.

Odette pursed her lips. "We had a hedge knight staying here last night," she said. "Ser Fuchon, his name. It was he who was killed - but in Ser Corryn's room. Whether they came for Ser Corryn and found him instead, or whether he knew he was their target and sought refuge in Ser Corryn's room ...

"At all events, he was there and was killed, and Ser Corryn was elsewhere and saved, so foolish folk thought the dead man in his room must be Ser Corryn."

Her colour was a little raised.

"Now - can I get you some nice sharp cheese? We killed a boar the other week, so there's good ham too if you'd like."

"Cheese and ham would be wonderful," Godwyn said enthusiastically. "I haven't eaten in hours!"

Syndra nodded as well.

Then [Godwyn] frowned. "So does anyone have any thoughts about who might have done it? I wonder if it was those bandits in the woods. It's a great coincidence that they are here just when someone is murdered, don't you think?"

"You'll need to ask Ser Corryn about that," said Odette. Then she lowered her voice confidentially. "He killed the man he found hiding in his room."

A nod to confirm her words, and then she was bustling off to the kitchen.

Syndra's eyes widened and she glanced involuntarily back toward the stairs.

"My word," said Edlyn a little faintly. "Are trips to the town always as exciting as this?"

"Not hardly," Syndra answered uneasily as she sipped her cider.

"I think it's your influence, Edlyn," Godwyn said. "Everyone is doing their best to try to impress you with how wild the North is."

It was all Syndra could do not to spit her cider as she snorted in amusement. At least it helped to break her tension.

Edlyn giggled. "I think everyone is succeeding!" she said.

At this moment, Odette returned with large platters holding thicking slices of ham, the sharp hard cheese favoured by the folk of Hardwind (I'm seeing showing like a crumbly Cheshire here), a loaf of good bread and three large jars of special pickles which the Goose and Gander was famed for.

Godwyn fell upon the food with the ravenous hunger of a 14-year-old boy, making appreciative but largely unintelligible sounds in between bites.

Syndra attacked the food with only slightly less gusto, but much less noise, than her cousin. She also remembered to thank their hostess and compliment her on the meal. As they ate, she kept an ear out for the activity up the stairs.

Edlyn had mastered the difficult art of appearing to pick daintily at her food while actually making a substantial meal.

"This is lovely," she said to Odette. "I don't think I've had anything finer than this bloomberry pickle anywhere in the vale."

Odette beamed. "Not everyone has quite the way with it," she agreed - and then she looked up sharply, hearing feet on the stairs.

(rejoined from above)

At the foot of the stairs [they] could see, through the half-open door of the private taproom, the three young people making a hearty meal on cold meats, cheese and pickles, while Odette stood by. She looked up anxiously as she heard the men approach.

"Ladies," Corryn exclaimed happily. He floated across the taproom floor with garish exuberance. Like a summer storm, he descended upon the group and planted a kiss on each of the girl's cheeks (although Syndra got the better of the embraces). "You are well fed and rested, I hope. Mistress Odette is the finest cook I've known and delightful company." He winked at the innkeeper and took her hand empathically. "She does have a bad tendency of worrying too much though. And for no reason. Smile, my angel. We're all friends here."

Syndra couldn't suppress her grin. Sometimes the Wolf just had that effect on her.

Finally, he turned to Godwyn and grew slightly serious. "How is the leg faring, young prince?"

Edlyn, who had coloured prettily under Ser Corryn's attention (and then cast a speculative look at Syndra as she witnessed that rather more enthusiastic embrace), turned and looked at Godwyn - and suddenly smiled.

"Well," she said demurely, "it hasn't affected his appetite at all." But then she added, with more warmth, "But you should have someone look at it before you try to ride back. Think how humiliating it would be if you collapsed and had to be conveyed back to the Castle in a litter!"

Syndra shrugged, albeit a little smugly, at Edlyn's reaction to the inequity of embraces. Edlyn's comments to Godwyn, though, prompted a frown. "She's right, you know, Godwyn. I could have a look at it. I'm no maester myself, but I've learned a few things from Maester Sewell," she offered.

"It's fine," Godwyn assured Ser Corryn. But then he grinned at Edlyn and Syndra, "You're both right, though. I've been foolish enough for one day. I need to save up some foolishness for tomorrow." He moved on the chair so that they could see the bloody bandage tied around his thigh.

"Oh, ick," said Edlyn with a shudder. "Should we wash it with hot wine? And then sew it? I've been practising that on shaved rabbit skin. But they were always dead, so there was never so much blood."

She pulled a face, ready for the task but making no pretence that she would enjoy it.

Godwyn’s grin grew wider.

"It's all right. I can do it," Syndra said to Edlyn as she walked around her and knelt next to Godwyn to examine the wound.

Ser Anders frowned. "It should be treated before we return to the Castle or the boy could end up with a leg as useless as his brother's arm."

And then Godwyn’s face went hard and closed.

Syndra shot a dagger-filled look at Tollet, but held her tongue. "Mistress Odette, we'll need the hot wine, as hot as you can make it. Boiling water as well. And some clean cloths and a strong needle and thread, if you please," she requested.

Corryn, who had been quietly thinking until this point, snorted faintly. Offhandedly, he mentioned, “You may wish to bring extra thread, Odette. Better we stitch Ser Tollet’s mouth shut for the betterment of all. A fouler wound I have never witnessed.” He nodded to Godwyn, while dismissing Anders entirely.

Ser Anders frowned, but said nothing.

Syndra had hunted enough with her father that blood didn't make her squeamish. She had also spent enough time in the Maester's tower to see him sew up an injured squire or two. She felt confident that she could patch her cousin up well enough for him to ride home.

She used a table knife to cut the trousers away from the wound. It was long, but thankfully only deep where the knife had first entered. It would still need a lot of stitches, though, and the care of a real maester.

Odette returned with a large mug of hot wine and a bowl of hot water, fragrant with antisceptic herbs like lavender. The stout darning needle and thick thread were also on the tray, as were the cloths.

Edlyn looked at the array and then at Godwyn a little doubtfully.

"Do you think you should get very, very drunk so you don't feel the pain?" she asked. "Or is that only if they're going to cut your leg off?"

"There'll be no need for that, Mistress!" said Odette, much shocked. "A nice, clean wound that one is."

Corryn laughed softly, touching Edlyn’s shoulder, “I believe one of your smiles should bring him through the experience intact, m’lady. You may take his heart, but let’s leave him the leg shall we?”

Syndra soaked one of the cloths, wiped her hands with it, then set it aside. She then soaked another one and began washing the wound. As she worked, she quipped, "I'll leave you to the task of getting him drunk, Edlyn. Just remember to keep him sober enough to sit his horse for the ride home."

"Very well," said Edlyn. She proffered the wine to Godwyn a little nervously. "Do you think you should drink this?" she asked.

"Drink up, boy!" said Ser Anders suddenly, and with surprising heartiness.

Godwyn looked at Ser Anders suspiciously.

Corryn regarded Anders for a moment. Whenever the man was in high-spirits trouble was soon to follow. He made a mental note to watch Anders from this point forward, but provided an appearance of disinterest. Perhaps he could make good on his promise in the stairwell while the children were distracted. He couldn't suppress a smile at that. But alas, he needed Anders for his future plans. More's the pity.

“Get him as drunk as he needs, Lady Edlyn,” he said. “Godwyn may ride with Madame Odette and myself in my cart. It is better he be resting on the trip back. There’s room enough for the ladies as well, if riding would be burdensome.”

"Riding's never burdensome," Syndra replied without looking up.

"I need not be drunk," Godwyn said stoically. "It is mere stitching. A Hardy can bear with pain."

Syndra smiled with understanding. Hold fast. She, her cousins, her uncles, her father - they all lived by the Hardy words.

Syndra threaded the needle and soaked them in the boiling water. When she started stitching, she concentrated on the wound. She did not look at Godwyn's face at all. She could do the job as long as she didn't see his pain.

Edlyn winced.

"I think," she said, a little uncertainly, "that I might drink some of this wine myself."

She took a good swig, and then gave a little nod, before kneeling beside Syndra to watch what she was doing, rather pale but determined.

Syndra glanced at Edlyn with a slight smile. She was gaining a little respect for the girl she had initially considered too prissy for words. She shifted her position so that Edlyn could see what she was doing and quietly explained to her each step in the process.

Edlyn made a sterling effort to watch and learn. Unfortunately, there were some moments when her feelings overcame her and she was forced to look away - and sometimes to take another sip of hot wine.

And perhaps it was unfortunate too that when she looked away it was generally to look up at Godwyn and ask solicititously, "Does it hurt =very= much? I think you are so brave!"

The first time she did this Godwyn made an effort to smile, and said, "Not much." The second time he just grunted. After that, he ignored her comments.

Ser Anders had gone - and could be heard issuing curt orders to the troops outside. Odette moved closer to Ser Corryn so that she could speak to him without being overheard.

"Will Ser Anders use this to make trouble for you, do you think?" she asked quietly. "What should I say when they question me?"

“Undoubtedly,” Corryn said. He glanced over to the young nobles, focusing on Syndra. His brow furrowed with worry. “He has already blamed me indirectly for the children nearly being killed on the road. By the end of this, I suspect he will have me in league with the Others.”

He took her hand and kissed her knuckles tenderly. “I will do whatever it takes to keep you as far from this as possible. I will not let you suffer for my past dealings with the Tollets. I care for you too deeply.”

Still holding her hand, he sighed. “Simply tell the truth, Odette. [Lord] Oswain is old, but he has eyes like a hawk. He will know if you are lying. With luck, he will wish to speak to us alone. Do not fear Ser Anders, dearheart. I will pull him screaming into the dark before I allow him to hurt you.”

Corryn smiled and kissed her rounded cheek. “Now let us see if the girls have sewn poor Godwyn’s leg, shall we?”

Syndra, it seemed, had done at the very least a competent job, and one that seemed likely to pass the Maester's standard of approval. Odette nodded.

"I wouldn't put too much weight on it yet," she said to Godwyn, "but it shouldn't do any more damage to ride."

And riding, it seemed, was in store for them all - there was even the fat, ambling palfrey that Odette used for her trips to see her sister-in-law on her farm.

Corryn retrieved Meraxes from the stables and prepared his saddle and gear. The horse, a creature of northern stock, matched its namesake in size and temperament. A warhorse bred, Meraxes had seen its rider through several tournaments and battles. Corryn fed the animal an apple and patted his shoulder. He tied the horse to a post and went to help the others prepare for the trip.

Godwyn leaned most of his weight on his horse as he mounted, trying not to wince.

Syndra at least held his horse steady, since Godwyn seemed to want no help.

She then slipped up beside Corryn, poked him in the ribs affectionately and said with a mischievous smirk, "Y'know, Edlyn's going to need help mounting her horse." With a giggle, she trotted off to mount her own.

“Little scamp,” Corryn laughed, watching her scurry off. He shook his head, hoping the color in his cheeks wasn’t too obvious. With a pleasant grin, he approached Edlyn and bowed. “With your permission, m’lady,” he said, placing his hands around her waist. With surprising ease, he lifted her up and into her saddle. His grin warmed as he gazed up at the girl. She was pretty, he had to admit. “Comfortable, m’lady?” he asked, a hand still resting softly on her knee. Let Syndra squirm a little; after all, two could play this game.

She looked down at him, her colour a little raised, but her lips were quivering into a smile. "Surely it would be a great disappointment to you, Ser Corryn, if you left me feeling wholly comfortable?"

Corryn offered the young woman a wicked smile. “You wound me, m’lady,” he said in jest, clutching his heart. “I think of nothing other than your comfort and pleasure. If I displease you such regards, then I beg your forgiveness.” His long fingers softly brushed across her inner wrist as he released her hand, teasing her pulse to quicken. Bemused, he made certain she was steady in her saddle and then attended to his own mount.

His eyes caught Syndra’s for a moment, regarding her with a wolfish smirk. If she wanted games today, she would have them in legions.

As they all mounted in the innyard, Edlyn said, "Do you think the bandits might attack us again? On the way back to the Castle?"

Odette looked worried. Clearly she was not going to be galloping out of trouble, if trouble they encountered.

"Not with your uncle and all the guards around," Syndra answered Edlyn. "They're probably long gone by now."

Corryn pulled himself up onto Meraxes and shook his head. “Fear not, Edlyn,” he announced with a new familiarity. “Lady Syndra is undoubtedly correct. And they are less likely to attack a larger group such as this. However, if there is trouble, ride for the castle and don’t look back. Godwyn, that goes for you as well. Watch over the women and keep them safe. I will make sure you are not followed. I am still a Knight of Realm, after all.” He tapped his sword and made a solemn nod.

Ser Ander smiled. "A trader knight, whose chief trade is upon the Manderley good name? But Ser Corryn is right that you need not worry. We travel under the protection of Holdfast here, and will not be attacked so close to our own Castle."

He spoke with the confidence of one who knew his own troops, and more than one of those smiled in appreciation - he was regarded by those who served under him as a good leader of men, and moreover a good fighter - no matter what Godwyn and Syndra thought.

Corryn didn’t rise to the challenge. He didn’t have to after all. He had served his House on several occasions, leading men into battle when necessary. True, his methods and leadership style could be deemed unorthodox, but in no way tarnished his victories. So he let the Tollet strut about like a cock on a dung hill. No matter the volume of Ander’s crowing, in the end he stood upon a pile of crap.

He brought his horse in along side Edlyn. They talked and joked casually, as if old friends rejoined. He dutifully answered her questions and flirted in kind. Gracious to the last, he made sure the girl’s trip was a pleasant and memorable one.

Edlyn was more than willing to indulge in the game of flirtation, and undertook it with an enthusiasm and skill that suggested the game was not entirely new to her. She took the time to cast one or two speculative looks at her uncle and then at Godwyn, as though to see how they were reacting to this ... but after the first couple of glances at Godwyn, her next look seemed to suggest a concern that his wound might be paining him.

Syndra merely shook her head in amusement at Ser Corryn's blatant flirtations over Edlyn. Boys could be so stupid, no matter how old they were. She fell in beside Odette. The Wolf might be stupid, but she'd still promised to watch out for him. It was her duty to check out his new lady.

Their journey back to the Castle was uneventful.

Syndra rode beside Odette for most of the trip, chatting pleasantly and politely, asking about her family, the inn, how long she had known the River Wolf and general small talk. She periodically looked over at Godwyn and Edlyn to check their progress.

Godwyn rode silently the whole way back, his lips clenched tightly to control any signs of pain from his wound.

When they arrived at Holdfast, grooms came hurrying out from the stables to take their horses; by the time they had all dismounted, a message came from the upper reaches of the castle:

"Lord Hardy is unwell, but Lady Hardy will see you all in the Great Hall."

Syndra kept to Godwyn's side, with an uneasy glance at the mention of Lady Hardy.

Godwyn couldn't keep the frown off his face at this news.

Corryn nodded and slung his saddle bag over his shoulder. “We would be honored by her presence,” he said without pause. “Please send my regards to His Lordship. If he is well enough later, I have several missives for his review.”

He fell in along side Syndra and Odette, smiling to them as if all was right in the world. “I wonder if we’ll be dining with Her Ladyship this afternoon.”

"You may be," said Odette. "I will be below the salt though - and happy enough to be out of sight and mind as far as the great ones are concerned."

She was still looking a little anxious about the forthcoming interview.

Edlyn, meanwhile, had gone straight to Godwyn once she had dismounted.

"How bad is your leg?" she asked in an undertone. "And don't do all that noble manly stuff either - tell me the truth!"

She looked mulishly determined - but it was still a very pretty mule.

Godwyn shrugged. "It hurts," he admitted. "But it's mere pain. The wound is not deep. A few days and I will be as good as new."

Syndra stood nearby, listening to the exchange and glancing idly around the room. She smiled uneasily at Corryn and Odette when her glance met theirs and she fidgeted, her long, slender fingers drumming on her thigh as she waited for Lady Hardy's appearance. It wasn't that she cared about getting in trouble; she just preferred to get it over with.

The door opened, and Lady Celia Hardy entered, dressed in a gown of warm deep blue velvet, trimmed with white snowmarten fur. Two deep blue sapphires hung from her ears, a wedding gift from her Lord, the exact shade of her great eyes. Her fair hair was gathered into its normal elaborate braids, perfectly organised so not a strand of hair was out of place, her face still and perfect - as ever Two maids attended her - wives to the leading officers in the guards, as grateful for their places in her service as their husbands had been for their own promotions.

She looked around the room, cool, collected and commanding - even though the swell of her belly showed that she was some way gone with child - a little brother or sister that would join young Jonas and Katina in the Holdfast nursery.

"Well?" she said coldly. "What has happened?"

Syndra decided to leave the talking to the man who liked to hear himself do so. She glanced at Ser Corryn expectantly.

Godwyn also remained silent. This would be a contest between Ser Anders and Ser Corryn, he knew, with a judge who would do everything in her power to twist things to find fault for the River Wolf. He knew better than to interrupt at this point, there was nothing he could say that That Woman would care to hear.

Corryn tilted his head appreciatively as Celia entered the room. His eyes followed her across the room, never leaving her. He couldn't help it. She was gorgeous, even more so now that pregnancy had given her that lovely flush to her cheeks and beautiful, taunt ball of a belly. Had he not known she probably carried a nest of vipers within her head, Celia may have stirred some passion in him. So, he simply bowed courteously and smiled as he always did.

"Right to business, m'lady," he chimed. "As you have undoubtedly heard, there was a murder at the inn. A friend and patron of mine. I believe, however, the intended target was yours truly." He grinned brightly, almost with pride.

"As to why someone would want to try to kill a humble Manderly, I do not know," he smiled darkly, eyes drifting toward Ser Anders. "But I assure you, my House will be looking further into the matter."

"In the end, however, the only reason I escaped from the assassin's blade was that I spent the evening with Madame Odette. My patron, a hedge knight by the name of Fouchon, must have realized my bed was empty and used it himself. The assassin mistook him for me and butchered him as he slept."

By now the wolf was pacing, his hands moving as if painting the story in the air. "I suspected once the assassin learned of his mistake, he would make a second attempt. I maintained the appearance of my death to cover my investigation. When I returned to my room to search for clues, the assassin was still waiting for me. I dispatched him after a brief struggle."

It was at this point his grin became impish. A coin appeared in his palm, and he flipped it nonchalantly. Its gold surface caught the light with every spinning arch. "I am fairly certain that the man intended me for his victim. For one, he waited for my return, despite the risk to himself. As for the second reason, I will discuss that with his Lordship." He smiled apologetically, "No offense intended, Lady Celia."

During the Wolf's explanation, Syndra watched Lady Celia and Ser Anders, hawk-like. By the time Ser Corryn finished setting the scene, Syndra knew what she had to say. She stepped forward purposefully and said in a firm, clear court voice, "And as to why the rest of us were there, Lady Aunt, it was my fault."

She continued before the others could argue. "Ser Corryn has been a dear friend to my family since my childhood. If he had indeed been murdered, it was my duty to see that his body was properly looked after until it could be returned to his House. Godwyn and Edlyn offered to go with me. I thought with three of us, we would be safe." She bowed her head in apology. "I was mistaken."

Syndra raised her head proudly. Her eyes made contact with no one but her aunt. If there was to be punishment, she would take it like the Hardy she was.

Corryn shivered despite the oppressive warmth of the room. For a moment, it felt as if Morna had entered the room and possessed Syndra’s body. That same dignity, that same honor, radiated from the girl like foxfire. In that instant, he had a glimpse of what his love must have been like as a child. He rubbed his shoulder and shivered once more. There were too many ghosts here for his liking. But he could not help but smile at Syndra with a deep sense of pride. He almost pitied Celia for when Syndra grew older, and thus no longer under her control. Almost.

"I see," said Lady Celia icily. "And this news made you so far forget all decorum that you went dashing off to Holdfast town like a hoyden instead of dispatching a reliable messenger - such as your cousin."

Her blue eyes rested on Godwyn for a moment, perhaps with a hint of mockery.

"Or perhaps you decided, Syndra, that your cousin could not be trusted even with so simple a task and that you must do it yourself. Well. If you are young enough to play these tricks, you are young enough to be whipped. Go to your room. Edlyn, you will accompany her."

Syndra's eyes narrowed icily and her voice dripped with contempt. "The duty was mine, m'lady, not his. I do not pass my responsibilities off onto others. Regardless of your consequences." She turned to leave, her braid flying out behind her. She paused, however, when she saw Edlyn had not budged.

Corryn nodded to Syndra, offering her a confident and respectful grin. He shook his head, not in admonishment, but as an oath that he would protect her no matter what. While tempers were high, he could do little. But his charm might reduce the sentence to a mere trip to the kitchens for cleaning duty. He’d rather die before seeing her harmed thusly.

Syndra's eyes touched Corryn's for a split second and warmed almost imperceptibly. Then the stone-faced mask returned.

"It was my fault that we were attacked," said Edlyn. "I wanted to ride through the woods. Godwyn and Syndra wanted to keep to the road."

"Then you shall be whipped too," said her mother coldly. "Go with Syndra. And you, Godwyn, go to the Maester and have him treat you, rather than stand there bleeding like a stuck pig."

With one last frosty glance at Lady Celia, Syndra stalked toward the door to her tower.

Edlyn followed close behind, her lips set into a firm, straight line.

Continued in: Awaiting the Axe

Godwyn waited a long moment, almost as though he had not heard Lady Celia speaking. Then he looked to Ser Corryn and asked, "Would you have me remain, Ser, or is your meeting better conducted in privacy?"

Corryn remained stoic and serious. In a paternal voice, he said, “Good Ser, such things are not for me to say. This is not my House, my place. I am a guest here. But I shall remind you that as the eldest male Hardy present, with your father being indisposed, it falls upon you to oversee family matters.” The word “male” dripped from his tongue like poison, and yet Corryn still made it sound sweet. “These were grave and serious matters that occurred within the Hardy fiefdom, and as such it would be prudent for the true Hardy to oversee them.”

Godwyn nodded, his face grave. This was just what he'd been hoping to hear, a reason to stay without putting himself into direct conflict with That Woman and Ser Anders.

The smiled returned. “And your stepmother is of delicate condition. It is your duty to assist her no matter the cost to yourself.”

Godwyn's expression indicated that he didn't necessarily agree with that reasoning, but he didn't say anything.

Then [Celia] moved her hand, a gesture to one of her maid.

"A chair," she said. "A chair for me and the goodwife. Neither of us should be kept standing." And she bowed her head towards Odette, who dropped a hasty curtsey, her rounded cheeks glowing pink.

If the gentlemen wanted to sit, it was clear they would need to fetch their own chairs ...

Corryn frowned at himself and waved off the maid. “Forgive me, Lady Hardy,” he said. “Months of traveling the wilderness have dulled my manners. Allow me to help you.” He bowed and promptly fetched a chair for her. Gently, almost tenderly, he took her hand and helped her sit down. His smile was respectful as he kissed her knuckles, “I wish we could have met again under better circumstances, Celia. You look positively radiant. Pregnancy suits you. Once we are done here, I'm certain you'll wish to look at the new dress I brought you.”

Godwyn looked disgusted at this fawning over his father's wife, but again he maintained his silence.

He helped Odette sit as well, touching her shoulder softly. “Could someone please fetch the ladies some sweetwater, please? Lady Hardy appears flushed.”

"Not flushed," corrected Lady Celia. "Perhaps a little surprised that you are so willing to see Lord Hardy's boy stand by when he is injured. Are we to hold you responsible for encouraging him to stay here and risk infection rather than having his wound treated by the Maester?"

"There is some truth to your word, m'lady," Corryn said politely. "Perhaps the boy's strength has made me forget the danger he is currently in."

One exquisite dark eyebrow arched in interrogation. "Surely you have his interests more at heart than that?"

Corryn bowed his head in resignation, "As much as I'm certain it will pain you Godwyn, her Ladyship is correct. You've been riding and the day is warm. There is little doubt an infection is pending. You should be attended to immediately, lest you be bedridden for weeks. Or worse yet."

He left the other possibilities hang in the air, not needing to explain further. "I attend you once our business is complete here. I have caused enough worry for one day. There will be no further complicity of woes."

"Aye, then," Godwyn answered with a frown. "If you think it best." Mindful of the proprieties, he nodded his head in the general direction of Ser Anders. "Ser," he said. And then with a nod only vaguely in the direction of Lady Celia. "Madame."

He turned and left the chamber, and went in search of the maester.

She tilted her head a little to one side and smiled. "As for the new dress ... I must hope it accommodates the two of us."

She ran her hand over her gown, over her belly, smoothing the material. It was almost a voluptuous gesture; Lady Hardy, usually so cool and patrician, had acquired a rich sensuality in her gravid condition. Her brother, who had moved to the carved sideboard and was pouring the sweetwater, turned at her words and looked at her, a sudden gleam in his eyes that flared and died.

Corryn couldn't take his eyes off her; he simply couldn't help it. Personality-wise, Celia possessed all the sensual appeal of an advanced case of crotch rot. But, try as he may, Corryn could not deny her matronly beauty at that moment. The gesture made his imagination and pulse race with carnal imagery. In that moment, her soft body obfuscated the hard soul lurking beneath. Fortunately, his highly attuned instinct for self-preservation cleared his thoughts before he succumbed to her feminine wiles. Realizing his hand had tarried too long, he released her fingers and politely backed away.

"I had heard of your condition while in White Harbor, m'lady," Corryn admitted. "As such I obtained a Dornish maternity gown. They're extremely stylish and tailored to accentuate the maternal allure. You will look like a queen in silks and silver."

She smiled at him, a contented cat smile, a cat who knows that it is right and proper it should be admired for its beauty, but revelling in the attention just the same.

He ignored Anders, who was probably beginning to realize the deception that had been played upon him. He joined Odette after providing her with a goblet of sweetwater. Then his smile faded slightly, as he addressed Celia once again. "However, we must first conclude our discussion on this regrettable incident. I had no idea rumors of my supposed demise would spread as quickly as they did. Wishful thinking, I assume. But I was rather shocked to have Godwyn and the girls arrive at the inn. Your daughter is a joy, by the way. Very dutiful and attractive girl. Not surprising really.

A faint shadow crossed her face. Perhaps the Lady was not yet accustomed to hearing her daughter's beauty praised, and was not entirely pleased with the compliment.

"I was then informed that Ser Anders was searching my room," He reached over and took Odette's hand. "Madame Odette attended to the children while I attended to him. Godwyn's excellent condition considering his wound is much to do in part to this lady's assistance. Meanwhile, I answered your brother's questions, and then accompanied him back here to you."

"I am grateful to Madame Odette, and am sure that my Lord will be too," said Lady Hardy graciously. "But your tale concerns me ...

"How came Godwyn by his injury? Surely not in fighting your attacker?"

Corryn shrugged his shoulders, “Honestly, m’lady, I have little information regarding his actual injury. The first I knew of their arrival was when Godwyn approached me at the Goose & Gander, and by then he had already been injured. I believe he was struck with a spear, if I’m not mistaken.

“From what he and the girls later told me, they were attacked in the woods by a group of bandits. I never got the full details from them because I became involved with your brother and his search of my things. I suspect the children noticed Ser Anders and the Guard leaving Holdfast and decided to follow covertly, hense their poor choice to enter the woods. Unprotected as they were, we are lucky nothing worse happened to them.”

[Corryn's] eyes went to Odette and he smiled tenderly. “Did the children mention anything while I was upstairs, perhaps?”

Odette shook her head. "They were more concerned with binding the wounds that discussing the cause, my Lady," she replied, giving a nervous look at Lady Hardy. Then she managed a slight smile back at Ser Corryn - one which showed just how nervous her present company made her.

"The boy spoke of bandits in the wood," said Ser Anders. "Of disturbing a group of them, dressed in black. I sent men back to check, but they found nothing."

Lady Celia nodded slowly. "One must wonder whether these were random bandits, or if they were in some way connected with your attacker, Ser Corryn."

“I do not believe in coincidences, m’lady,” Corryn said flatly. “These darkly dressed individuals may have been his associates. Murdering a knight in his bed is not taken to well, so he would have required an escape plan and protection. The assassin was definitely well paid for his services, as well. As you can see.”

He leaned forward and placed the gold coin in Lady Celia’s hand. “I retrieved this off the man’s body. Fortunately, it was I that found it, and not someone else.” His eyes flashed to Anders and then back. “The scandal could have led to regrettable circumstances.”

The coin Celia now held bore the sigil of House Tollet. Corryn’s eyes betrayed nothing as she examined it. He simply nodded, “The petty quarrel between your brother and I has borne many rumors and stoked the flames of old grudges. But until now, it has been simply that, a disagreement. A matter of personal honor. This goes far beyond that and people are whispering. Confirmation of those whispers... well, I know you are a wise woman.”

He shook his head disappointedly. “I love you and Ser Oswain like family, Celia. Your generosity in the past has not gone unappreciated. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, I will not reveal what I discovered. Whether the source of that coin is true or not, my uncle is narrow of mind as he is wide of body. He would take the death of his favorite nephew poorly. Perhaps that was their intention to begin with.”

"A Tollet coin," said the Lady flatly. "A plot against us, perhaps. I thank you, Ser Corryn, for bringing this wicked deception to our notice. A coin, of course, in itself will prove nothing - he might well have carried it deliberately to divert suspicion to us, so that none should know where it truly lay. But what is a coin? When you leave here, you will doubtless be carrying others - and some of those will carry the Tollet sigil.

Corryn nodded to her, smiling in agreement. “Your summation is undoubtedly correct, m’lady. Our true enemy has yet to reveal their face. I intend, however, to unmask them once our dealings here are concluded. These ‘bandits’ will be a good place to start. I will endeavor to keep you apprised of my findings, since it shall affect both our Houses. Do you have any suspicions on who might wish our Houses to feud?”

"Like you, Ser Corryn," said Lady Hardy slowly, "I am not without enemies."

She hesitated, as though she would say more and then, instead, she folded her arms across herswelling belly in a simple gesture of protection, looking up at him. There was, for a second, a vulnerability in her eyes, as though she saw the future ... and feared it.

Corryn’s eyes drifted from her to Anders and back. A tinge of empathy for the woman grew in him. Perhaps his hatred for Celia’s brother clouded his judgment of her. Maybe she was worthy of friendship and respect. More likely it was old ghosts playing tricks on him. Memories stirred in the oppressive shadows. For a brief moment, he saw Morna before him; pregnant and beautiful, but with helplessness darkening her smile. He sighed inwardly and found himself nodding.

“Celia,” he said gently. “If you have enemies, then they are mine as well. You have but to ask and I will help you in whatever manner I can.”

Corryn regretted the words even as he spoke them. His love of women, all women, would surely be the death of him. And yet, he could not deny them.

She looked up at him, startled, and then smiled - a sweet, somewhat sad smile.

"Thank you," she said simply.

Her surprise was not lost on Corryn. His kindness had loosened her mask. And in that minute gesture, he saw Celia; the true Celia. Beneath the cold facade lay sensitive woman with a heart full of fear and yearning. Life could not be easy for her, being the center of hate and mistrust. Was it any wonder she’d built up a wall of icy malice to shelter her spirit?

“You’re welcome, Celia,” he said honesty. And yet, despite this revelation, he still intended to recount his remaining fingers every time they shook hands.

"Did you find anything else that might distinguish him?"

“I fear not,” Corryn said. “Nor did he reveal much when I gave him a ‘tickle.’ His accent was northern, however. He may be of local stock. But whatever secrets he held, if any, the man took them into the darkness.”

Odette was shaking her head. "He was a stranger, my Lady. I'd not seen him in The Goose before - and I always remember a face. And his was a face you would remember - not for any good reasons, either." She was silent for a moment, thinking. "He came in last night," shesaid. "About half an hour by the clock after the hedge kni ... begging your padon, my Lady - Ser Fuchon, I meant to say. And that was an hour before Ser Corryn came in - perhaps longer." She frowned again, as though she remembered something.

"What is it?" asked Lady Celia sharply.

"I was wondering if Arney might have spoken to him, my Lady," she said. "Our potboy ... but he's half-mazed. Precious little sense to be had out of him."

Ser Corryn might feel she was rather over-stating the case.

Corryn nodded with Odette’s assessment. “If you don’t mind, Lady Hardy, it would probably be best if Odette and I spoke with the boy regarding this. If he knows anything, which is highly unlikely, it would be best for people he knows to talk to him. Addled as he is, the boy frightens easily and would make little sense to anyone else. We’ll keep you apprised of anything he has to say, of course. Although I gravely doubt he’ll have anything to contribute.”

He reached over to squeeze Odette’s hand and smiled at Celia, “Unless you have anything further, I should conclude my official business and then escort Odette back home. And I still have a funeral to arrange for Ser Fouchon.”

"Very well," said Lady Celia, beginning to rise somewhat stiffly. "And I have two wayward girls to scold ... How should I impress on them the dangers of careering through the woods? The delicacy of their position as young unmarried girls past flowering and not yet wed?"

Corryn was up and to her side before even he realized what he was doing. He leant Celia his strength as she stood and righted herself. He smiled kindly to her and then stepped back. “I would not presume to answer that question in regard to your daughter, m’lady. You know her better than I. But Syndra. She has been like a daughter to me for most of her life.

“I call her ‘Little Bear,’ not simply for her climbing skill, but also for her stubbornness. You can whip her until your arm is jelly and she will never relent. And even if she does publicly, inside her resolve to do exactly the opposite will only be strengthened. Take the word of an errant child on this, for you can see how I turned out.”

He touched her shoulder and grinned warmly, “If you wish it, I could speak with her. I know her mind and how to reach her. She will listen to me. My Little Bear is precious to me, so I am as eager as you are to impress these dangers upon her. I can also speak to Edlyn at the same time if you want. I am at your command.”

"Very well," said Lady Celia. "I shall deal with my own daughter as I think best - but Syndra ... I shall leave to you. However, I think her Septa should act as chaperone. Syndra is reaching an age where she should not be alone with men ... even so old a friend as yourself, Ser Corryn." She smiled at him warmly.

Corryn nodded, feeling a little color in his cheeks. “Indeed, I agree that would be for the best. Sometimes I forget Syndra’s age. She will always be my Little Bear, not a young woman.”

He collected his things, “Thank you again, m’lady. I will attend to Syndra promptly. But first…” He opened his riding pack and withdrew a long, flowing dress of sandsilk. It was a forest green with silver knotwork intricately woven along the hem and sleeves. The gown also appeared full enough to easily accommodate Celia’s round belly, if not accentuate it. The sheerness of the fabric would provide her with an added hint of sensuality as well. “A gift,” he said, putting it into the arm of Celia’s handmaiden. “For all the trouble I’ve caused today.”

"Perhaps," she added, to Odette, "you would care for some refreshments in the kitchen before you return?"

Odette, who had risen along with the Lady (but without Ser Corryn's assistance) bobbed a curtsey. "You are very kind, my Lady."

“I will return shortly, dear Odette,” he said, touching her arm before she left. His eyes touched hers for a moment, a wistful smile playing across his lips. He wanted nothing more than to kiss her right then, but instead gave her a chaste peek on the cheek. In a low whisper, he said, “I’m very proud of you.” And with that, he went to seek out Syndra’s septa.

Categories: WinterChillsGameLogs, CastleHoldfast

Page last modified on March 12, 2006, at 12:02 PM