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Syndra sat in stunned silence as her father left with her cousins. She clenched her jaw hard, trying desperately to stop the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. It didn't matter now whether Evan was Staven or Eryk or the man in the moon. She'd marry Herys Bolton himself to keep her father from fighting Evan. After all, she could always kill him in his sleep, if need be.

It wasn't that Syndra lacked confidence in her father's abilities. Far from it. He was a shrewd and strong fighter, wiry and quick. But he was getting older, and Evan was young and judging by his build, very likely skillful. The fight would be too close for Syndra's comfort. And there was no hope of talking Godfrey out of it, either. Honorable man that he was, once the challenge was accepted, there was no turning back.

Edlyn was looking at her worriedly, but someone else was approaching her - Eryk Bolton.

"Mistress Edlyn," he said. "Edlyn ... I must talk to you ... "

Syndra glared up at him, jaw still clenched, ready to tell him to take a flying leap into the seven hells. Then she decided she should not presume. He was talking to Edlyn, not her.

She turned to her friend. "What are your wishes, Edlyn?" she asked.

"Please," said Eryk. "I need to know what passed between my brother and you." He looked up at Syndra. "Both of you. It might help in making sure it's my father who faces him on the tourney field and not yours."

Syndra looked up at Eryk suspiciously, but then sighed heavily. It certainly couldn't make things much worse. "Edlyn saw him first. In the godswood, wasn't it, Edlyn?" she said as she turned to her friend, inviting her to tell the story.

"Lady Edlyn," a voice interrupted. The trio turned to find Corryn standing nearby, his hands politely placed behind his back. How long he'd been standing there, they could not tell. Indeed, his unreadable expression gave them no indication that he'd been listening in on their talk thus far.

He nodded cordially to Syndra, but paid hardly a notice to the Bolton boy. Instead, he knelt down in front of Edlyn. "My apologies for including you in today's proceedings. I could tell you knew the man and worried for your well-being. You appeared so… uncomfortable. Such a delicate flower to be forced to grow in rocky soil. You deserve better than this. Again, forgive me. Is there anything I might do for you? Fetch you some sweet water or wine, perhaps? That is if Maester Rhys hasn't said otherwise."

Syndra returned Corryn's smile and seemed to relax a bit in his presence, though he could tell she was still worried about her father. A bit of the alert canniness returned to her eyes and she studied the interchange between Edlyn and Corryn. She had a feeling he was fishing.

Edlyn looked startled - and then looked from Corryn to Eryk. Her expression suggested that she trusted neither of them overmuch.

"Some wine please," she said. "The Maester said nothing against it - just to rest my ankle."

"I met Evan Tamm in the godswood," she said. "I had been praying to the old gods. I thought they might help ... "

And then she coloured suddenly, hesitated and said, "And then Evan Tamm walked into a tree and hurt his forehead and I must admit, I did wonder if he came in answer to my prayers. Although I think it was a funny way for the gods to answer - if they did."

Corryn gestured to a servant and waved her over. He smiled politely to the woman, a slender woman roughly his age with sable hair and green eyes. Teagan was her name? It had been too long for him to recall. "Wine for the four of us, if you would, my dear lady," he said. "Thank you ever so much."

Once she'd departed, he sat down beside Edlyn and listened to her story with a sympathetic expression. "The gods do have their odd jests from time to time, that is true. Evan didn't tell me all the details of your meeting, but with what you've said, I can see it now. And that explains the cut. I am much relieved that you were unharmed." He smiled softly, gesturing to her ankle. "At least in that encounter."

When the wine arrived, Corryn thanked the servant and then poured for everyone; Eryk's glass being the last he served. "If I may be so bold, Edlyn, what troubled you so to seek the gods? Is there anything I might do? I must repay you for all the kindness you've shown my Little Bear over the last two years." He patted Syndra's knee and smiled tenderly. His eyes remained on her as he spoke to Edlyn. "She spoke very highly of you in her letters."

Syndra smiled coyly. "It's true. She =has= been kind to me," she said, glancing at Edlyn. "In fact, it was for me that she went to the godswood - to pray to the old gods for a way out of this marriage contract." Syndra met Corryn's gaze fully, her face a mask of innocence behind blue eyes. She dared not to look at either Edlyn or Eryk. She felt bad about revealing Edlyn's secret, but not a bit guilty for hurting Eryk's feelings. Sometimes the truth hurt.

Corryn smirked at Syndra's brazen honesty. Good for her. Let Eryk suffer a little for all the heartache he and his had caused here. "Then perhaps I owe you more than ever, Edlyn," he chuckled enigmatically.

He gave a conspiratorial wink to Syndra. Something in Corryn's expression said that her concerns had been answered. But he did not elaborate at that moment.

She nodded slightly.

Eryk straightened.

"I had not realised that my presence was so offensive as to require an invocation to the gods," he said quietly. "I'll take no more of your time. Doubtless you will have your own ways of saving your father."

"Guilt by association, my boy," Corryn quipped. And then he smiled softly, not a friendly expression, but predatory. "Of course, the depth of that association does appear to be in question now. That may actually be to your benefit."

Eryk turned and walked away, back to where Ser Herys was leaving the room.

Edlyn looked after him, frowning slightly. "I wasn't going to tell him that," she said. "I thought it would be a good idea to have one friend among the Boltons ... not another enemy."

How come Edlyn was suddenly so much better at strategy? She was right. Syndra should've used Eryk instead of throwing him back to the Boltons. Keep to the first problem, Syndra told herself. We'll work out the next one later.

Swallowing her pride, Syndra stood and called out, "Eryk, wait! Come back. You didn't hear the whole story," she said with the most apologetic look she could muster.

He turned, his eyebrows lifting in a faint question. Then he moved back towards the group, his expression still guarded.

As Syndra tried to get Eryk to return, Corryn smiled at Edlyn. When he spoke, the compliment was genuine. "It would also appear you've learned one of your mother's finer qualities; tact. Poor Syndra is about as subtle as a piece of mortar through a stained glass window, much of the time. Still there may be hope for her yet.

"I owe you a debt for watching over her, Edlyn. Thank you for that."

Edlyn regarded him with something of the expression of a thoughtful kitten.

He folded his arms and watched Little Bear's valiant attempt at retroactive diplomacy.

When he returned, Syndra put on a small smile. "I'm sorry about that. I never asked her to pray for me. And this all happened before we spoke so pleasantly at dinner. Things might have changed since then," she said sweetly.

"In a manner of speaking," Corryn muttered to Edlyn in a smarmy tone. Still, he had a dreadful feeling inside. The fop, for all his faults, did have the truth of it. Godfrey's blasted stubbornness might be trouble in the very near future.

Eryk glanced at Corryn - it appeared his ears were sharp enough to have overheard.

But rather than respond to the Riverwolf, he managed a bow over Syndra's hand, which he raised gracefully to his lips.

Syndra allowed him to do so without flinching.

"As you say, things might have changed since then," he said. "And you have spoken not only with me, but also, it appears, with my brother. Perhaps, my lady, we should confine ourselves to mere pleasantries and not speak of deeper matters."

Syndra smiled tightly and tried to keep her voice even. "My father's about to fight a man half his age. You'll forgive me if I'm not in the mood for pleasantries at the moment. You asked what transpired in the conversation with Evan. Do you still wish to know?" she asked.

He gave a slight shrug. "It matters little now. He is unwilling to accept my offer to do all I can to save him. But, yes. You have whetted my curiousity. He claimed to be me, I gather, from your words in court?"

"Yes. He did," she said simply. "If it's true, of course, it voids the contract." She paused, to let that sink in. "I'm not certain I believe it, however. He has been shown to have lied about other things. But... his explanation was plausible."

She looked into his eyes unflinchingly. "Eryk, he's your brother. What do you know about him? What would he stand to gain from this murder? Or from carrying this trial by combat through to the end? If he was so willing to lie, he could've just claimed it was self-defense and gone to the Wall. Supposedly, he was going there anyway, if rumor has it correctly."

Eryk parted his lips to answer but ...

"Politics," Corryn added darkly, his wolf's eyes regarding Eryk like his next kill. Perhaps he would be. But not yet. There wasn't a convenient well handy to toss him down. Instead, he touched Syndra's shoulder from behind. His smile was for her and her alone. She would need it for what he had to say.

"Why do you think this one pushed the trial by combat so readily? And Herys for that matter. If your father faces Evan, there is a very good chance he will be hurt." He meant to say 'killed,' but couldn't form the words. The meaning was clear enough in his tone, however.

"The Boltons wish this arrangement to go through no matter what. Obviously both for their own reasons. If your father is unable to question the contract's validity, then it can proceed unhindered. You have no ward at the moment other than Oswain. And your uncle is unlikely to remember the accursed thing, let alone break it. We need your father with us if we are to dispose of this obscenity."

Syndra turned her back on Eryk, her attention fully on Corryn. "No," she said, her face set and determined. "I DO have another guardian. You." She paused, but her eyes did not leave Corryn's face. "Father told me that this morning, just before we came down. I shall never again be Uncle Oswain's ward. If anything happens to him, Father wants my guardian to be you."

Corryn sat back in his chair as if struck. If Godfrey had been making arrangements such as these, well that meant… No. He would not travel down that path just yet, even though he could see it from where he stood. Before Syndra misread his expression, he gave her a tender smile. His arm went around her waist, pulling her close to him. He placed a light kiss upon her temple and exhaled softly.

"Then so you shall be," he said. "I swear to you Little Bear that I, Ser Corryn Manderly, will fulfill this duty to last drop of my blood, to the final breath from my lungs. Your will is my will, your need is my responsibility. And low to any that shall stand in the way of my fulfilling that duty."

He brushed her hair back and smiled at her. "Your father will be fine, Syndra. And so shall you. Do you believe me in this?"

Syndra hesitated, then nodded unconvincingly.

And then with a pitying look, he nodded to Eryk. "No offense. After all, you didn't choose your parentage. But at least half of you is Bolton and that half offends me to the bone."

Corryn began to rise, squeezing Syndra's shoulder. "Now if you'll excuse me, Eryk, I have to give your father some bad news about your new mother-to-be. Syndra, I will be right over there. If you or Edlyn need me for any reason, call me back."

Syndra gave Corryn a confused look, but didn't stop him as he moved away. One worry at a time. She turned back to Eryk and Edlyn to gauge their reaction to what just occurred.

"Your protector asked," said Eryk quietly, "why I urged on this combat. You must remember, if you have a father to be concerned for, then I have a brother. Even if he seems determined to feel the headsman's axe on his neck, I would see him 'scape death if I can. It may not raise me high in your good graces, Madame, but suitor as I am, there are other ties that I will respect. And loyalty to my brother is among them.

Syndra nodded somberly. "I understand."

"Now, if you have no further insults to direct at me or my House, I shall leave you."

He bowed slightly and turned to leave again.

"Eryk..." Syndra called to him gently. When he turned around, she gave him a sad, weary smile. "When all is said and done, one of us will rue this trial and the other will rejoice. Whatever the outcome, it can only deepen the rift that exists between our houses," she said sadly.

She shook her head with a sigh of resignation. "It's unfortunate. Because you seem a decent man. In other circumstances... it might have worked."

He bowed again, and left her.

She turned away then, and sat down next to Edlyn, staring somberly at the floor.

"Well," said Edlyn, a little crossly. "I don't think you should have let him go away without hearing his idea for making Ser Herys fight Evan Tamm instead of your father. Syndra ... do you have a plan to stop it?"

"I don't need a lecture, Edlyn," Syndra said, running her long fingers through her hair from temple to crown, completely drained. "And I'm all out of plans." She leaned her elbows on her knees and steepled her fingers against her nose, almost as if in a final prayer.

"I don't know that it would've made any difference. You heard him. He wants his brother to live. My father's life is worth nothing to him," she said sorrowfully.

"No," said Edlyn. "And why should it be? Oh, perhaps a little, to win favour with you. But he must realise how very unlikely that is. But if your father were dead, you would be in possession of his lands, and Lord Hardy would be your guardian - unless your father really has made a lawyers' contract with Ser Corryn. One would think that would be a reason for Eryk wishing your father dead. But he offered to help see that it was his father who faced Evan Tamm. Now - why would he want to do that?"

Syndra forced down her emotions and focused on Edlyn's words. She was not in a position to think clearly now and she knew it. Best to let Edlyn do the thinking for a while. "Because he hates his father," Syndra responded blankly. "He wants him dead."

Edlyn nodded. "And while we don't know his reasons for that, we need to be able to answer this ... Syndra, is it what you want too?"

Syndra looked up, her brow knotted in confusion. "What? Do I want Herys dead, you mean?" she asked softly. "More than anything." She shook her head. "But Eryk won't talk to me now. I blew it," she scowled, disgusted with herself.

Edlyn shook her head. "For now perhaps. But not ... for ever. He'll be angry for the moment. But he has an eye to the future, that one. He wants his father dead and the Dreadfort behind him. Don't pretend with him, make him an honest bargain, and he'll come round. He needs you, Syndra - or he thinks he does. That's your strength." Edlyn gave a little laugh. "I know ... I don't usually talk about these things. But I know ... people. I've had to - to get what I want. And I know that Eryk Bolton is like me." Her smile twisted. "That's all."

"But what do I have to offer him, Edlyn? Besides myself, and that puts us right back where we started," she said, discouraged. She looked at Edlyn then with a little distasteful scrunch of her nose. "Unless you're offering," she said dubiously.

"I would," said Edlyn with at least equal doubt. "But I can't see Mother consenting, can you? Not to my marrying a penniless younger son of a younger son. And I can't see Herys Bolton accepting the daughter of a dead landless knight."

Syndra sighed and shook her head. "No, I guess not," she agreed glumly. In her opinion, it was grossly unfair. Edlyn would be a better noble wife than almost anyone she knew. Though Ser Herys looked down his nose at her, Syndra knew Edlyn was far too good for his son, trueborn or otherwise. It was too bad that no one else, except maybe Godwyn, seemed to see that.

Edlyn glanced up at the sudden increase in noise. "I think they're coming back."

Syndra turned to watch the proceedings, an apprehensive shadow crossing her features.

Page last modified on June 22, 2006, at 08:46 PM