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"Must we stay here?" he asked.

"No, there is no need," Niko said turning to Ranulf. "You did well; your actions speak to the fact that you are already growing into your role. As long as you need me, I will be here," Niko said.

"Where did you want to go? Back to your rooms?"

Ranulf nodded - and then looked at them both a little questioningly. "Unless ... you would teach me to fight? I mean ... " he hesitated and then said, without looking at either of them, "If someone killed Mother ... p'rhaps they will kill me next."

Niko shook his head. "The best way to defend against this is to know those around you. To be perceptive," he said. "While it is true that learning to fight will defend against some things, there are people who would take the fight to other fields of combat."

He looked at Ranulf assessingly. Finally, he said, "Come. Both of you. We must leave word," he said, looking at Aerin. "It would not do to have those that care looking around in vain for us."

As they left the tower, Niko gave word to one of the guards where they would be, then made his way wordlessly through the castle, stopping only once to scrawl a not to be taken to Aerin's father. Their final destination proved to be one of the smaller dining rooms.

"Have a seat, both of you," Niko said as he turned to face them.

Aerin took a seat. She'd been silent, letting Ranulf do what was needed.

But now she wanted more answers.

She waited for Niko to tell them what he knew, her dark eyes showing concern.

Ranulf took a seat too, folding his heands gravely on the table in front of him and fastening his eyes on Niko.

"It would not do to have you operating on half-heard conversations, and half-truths," Niko began, his attention shifting between the two of them. "First, let me know what you know, and I will try as best as I can to fill in the rest of the information."

Aerin looked at the boy next to her, waiting for Ranulf to speak first apparently.

"It was in the meadow," said Ranulf in his most precise voice. "We were hiding in the tree ... Aerin and me. And we heard the Steward tell my Lord Father that Mother was dead. Then he told Father he thought she'd been murdered, and told him all sorts of things about poison and stuff. I don't remember that. Just that Mother is dead ... poisoned."

Niko nodded gravely, listening closely to Ranulf's recount. After the boy was finished, silence hung in the room as Niko continued to regard the young Lord. He sighed, then looked to Aerin. "And you, Aerin? What do you remember?"

Aerin looked up from Ranulf, gving Niko an odd look. "We'd heard Derron tell Lord Draupaud what you'd found. About the Lady found dead, apparently with poison on her lips, and the guard needing to go to the privy."

"Wouldn't that mean whoever gave the Lady the poison would have to have had a key then?" she asked.

"But who had a key to Mother's room?" asked Ranulf.

"Remember what I told you before," Niko answered. "It will do you no good to operate based on half-heard conversations and half-truths."

"First, young Lord, we know that your mother is dead," Niko said. "That much is obvious. But we still do not *know* that she was murdered for a fact." He looked to both of them, giving them time to process what he had said, his face grave and still. "Assumptions, in anything are your worst enemy."

"Remember, Aerin, what I said your primary weapon is," Niko continued. "And this is your first lesson also," he said, looking to Ranulf. "Your mind. All battles are fought first in your mind. This is just a different battlefield than most. And as such, you need to make sure that your mind is clear."

"Though the Silent Sisters had already visited the towers, there were no signs of struggle present, and Lady Draupaud was in a state of repose, as if she had fallen asleep." Though Niko paid attention to Aerin, his primary concern was the Young Lord. He knew the lad wanted- no needed- information, but he could not readily assess the level of information the boy was ready for.

"What does this tell you?"

"That she took the poison herself and was glad to do so," said Ranulf, and then his underlip quivered.

"Ah, you are assuming too much, again," Niko countered. He tried to keep his tone light, even with the subject they were discussing. He didn't want to push the boy too far, too fast. But he also didn't want him jumping at shadows, afraid to function, either.

"Though the steward said that she had taken poison, without the Maester here, I am loath to say so for certain," he said. "Two, if poison were taken, she may not have known that she was doing so."

Ranulf nodded slowly.

"All we can say for sure was that she was at peace- whether she knew who administered the agent to her, or did so herself," He said, not ungently. "Therefore, though you should always be alert, I think that you are not in harm's way," he finished.

For a second, Ranulf's expression was almost adult - he looked sceptical.

Though Niko didn't address Ranulf's expression, he did note it with some concern.

"The steward is being quite thorough with his investigation, as well he should be. Make sure that you always have competent and conscientious people at your side, is what I was always told. Then, most importantly, remove yourself from the equation, and let those people do their work."

"I will agree that you do need to be trained," he said, nodding. "But not out of fear, but because of the fact that it will make you stronger, and more self-reliant. Two things the next Lord Draupaud will need to be."

"Yes," breathed Ranulf, seemingly latching on to this. "So you will train me? To defend myself, if anyone should try to attack me?"

Niko crouched before him, capturing the young boy's eyes with his own. "Ranulf, I will not lie, nor prevaricate with you. In my opinion, you are in no immediate danger. It is important for you to understand why."

Aerin didn't move from where she sat. Instead she continued to watch them, listening carefully.

"The first thing you must ask yourself in any situation such as this, is 'Who would stand to gain?', followed closely by 'What would they stand to gain?' There is no malign gain from your mother's death. She died apparently without pain, and is now at more peace than I am given to believe that she has been in a long while. With that in mind, do I make my judgement of your safety."

He was quiet, searching Ranulf's face for understanding, or any reaction.

Ranulf nodded slowly. "You yhink ... her death was not wholly a bad thing? That ... if she was killed, p'rhaps it was what she wanted?"

Aerin looked away. Toward the window in the room and out at the blue sky beyond it.

"No," Niko said immediately. "No. There should always be another way. But we do not live in a perfect world, and so imperfect people make imperfect decisions," he continued. "That is why the Steward will find who did it, and they will be punished for their crime."

Ranulf nodded, his face intent.

After a long moment, he stood again. "That being said, I would train you. As I said, I will give you only the truth, no matter how hard it is. This training will be difficult. You will not see any immediate gain. But practice and diligence will pay off in the end- you will just have to follow my instruction. Are you willing to give yourself over to that instruction?"

Ranulf looked at him, and there was something of his austere, proud father in that look. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I will do that - if you will pledge me your loyalty."

"First you have to give Niko your word that you will do as he instructs," Aerin said, continuing to look out the window with an almost distant gaze.

Ranulf looked at her with a certain curiosity as if wondering if she, too, had undertaken this.

Aerin gave no indication. But it was known that Niko was Aerin's instructor. And she'd not given him reason to discipline her too often.

"But this isn't the time for oath givings," she continued. "This is a time for mourning," she announced. She turned her head slowly, looking back at Ranulf and Niko, her eyes almost unfocused. "We need to mourn the Lady tonight."

Niko nodded. "Aerin is of course correct," he said. Though he had been forced to grow up quickly, sometimes he was just as impetuous as his age suggested. "And we will need to talk to your father, of course."

"But, this- this is a time for mourning," he said at the last.

Ranulf was silent for a moment, staring down at the table. Then he looked up - very young and lost.

"What must I do?" he asked.

Aerin frowned. "I was too young when my mother died," she said softly. "I don't know what you should do. Maybe... you should pray in the Godswood," she suggested.

Ranulf looked worried. "How do I do that?" he asked. "Shouldn't I be praying to the barrowlords to guard her safe?"

Niko frowned. He would take Ranulf to Lord Draupaud- but that seemed like a bad idea. He began to be disturbed by the fact that the boy had noone...

"The Septa," he said at last. "She was closest to your mother, and would know what she would like."

He nodded. "Yes, the Septa. Shall we go to see if we can locate her?"

They found her in her own rooms. She was folding clothes and putting them away - folding them with lavendar in fact, as she might do if setting them aside for a season. She looked at them in some surprise, and then smiled at Ranulf.

"What is it, my pet?"

Before he could answer, there was the sound of booted feet on the stone floor, and Lord Draupaud came into view, escorted by Derron Thorne and two men at arms.

[continued in The Search and After]

Page last modified on April 22, 2006, at 04:03 PM