Things go from Bad to Worse
Past the castle ... the road led into the darkness of the forest. How far ahead were they? Two hours ... perhaps three. But they would be travelling in a horse and cart, whereas he was riding a swift stallion ...
The way through the forest was cool and dark, even though he knew that, far ahead, the sun was shining.
Here and there the road was bissected by streams. The first of these he forded ...
It was as Kenrith came within sight of the second that he saw the cart drawn up at the side of the road.
He slowed his horse to cross the ford, and kept his eyes open as he approached the cart. Threats could come from the trees, from the cart, from the roadside... and if he heard the now-familiar sound of a bowstring he would roll off his horse to the right.
The only sound he heard was laughter - children's laughter. And splashing.
Kenrith dismounted and tossed his reins around a young tree beside a patch of grass growing by the roadside. He would continue on foot, until he reached the source of the laughter, still cautious.
As he approached he saw his two youngest siblings, their stockings off, paddling their feet in the stream and laughing. Half turned away from him, Edlyn was tending the carthorse and she let it drink from the stream, checking the harness with sure, experienced hands. She was humming a little under her breath; he had never seen her like this, relaxed and confident in her gestures. Even when he had made an effort to befriend her, she had seemed stiff and frozen, at best elusively shy. But now he was seeing a different Edlyn.
Unless, of course, she saw him.
Kenrith stood there a moment, considering what to do. Perhaps he should pick up a dry stick and break it... she'd no doubt respond better to a stranger than to the certainty of Ser Kenrith.
Still, a moment later, and it wouldn't have mattered. She'd look up like a startled doe, then her face would go dead like a porcaline doll from the South.
"Edlyn, I had hoped to talk with you in private... but I had expected it to be in the grove," he said with a faint note of irony in his voice. He was still bitterly angry at her for betraying the castle and stealing away her siblings, but the irony was still there. There was no one else here but the trees... and perhaps his aunt, ready to put an arrow through his heart for threatening her children.
At the sound of his voice, Edlyn started and looked up at him, her fingers clinging to the harness of the horse as though for support. Likewise his young brother and sister looked up, and moved together defensively.
"Stay away from us," said Edlyn, but there was a quaver in her voice. "We're going home ... "
"I sent Syndra with several guardians, and still worry I was too stingy, to send her as far as Winterfell. Once she reaches Winterfell, Stark or his representative will set out for Holdfast. If, in a week, you still wish to leave Holdfast you can take it up with him. As I recall, Lady Stark's sister is wife to Lord Arryn... but I hope I can convince you, by then, Holdfast is safer than the journey you propose," Kenrith said calmly.
She swallowed, faced him. Her arms had gone out towards the younger children, and she drew them to her sides.
"What about the children?" she demanded. "Will they come too?"
"Edlyn..." he said before taking a deep breath to calm his rising anger.
"If you expect me to be sympathetic to the notion of two of my siblings crossing leagues and leagues to a 'home' and family they've never seen, under dangerous circumstances no less, you are quite mistaken. I did not wish to speak of this in front of them, but there is more I intended to tell you... will you step a short distance away with me, so that I can explain -why- Stark is coming?" Kenrith asked through his lordface mask.
She glanced around worriedly, and then gave a small nod of her fair head. "Somewher close," she said firmly.
Kenrith nodded. "Jonas, I haven't forgotten my earlier offer to explain to you why I spoke to father harshly... I'm sorry I haven't had a chance since then, but I haven't forgotten. Please look after your little sister, we won't be long," he said.
Jonas looked at him for a long minute, and then gave a sudden nod of his head, which was oddly familiar, and yet long unseen.
He did not lead Edlyn far away, and both could see the wagon and children clearly. It was far enough, though, that if they kept their voices down they wouldn't be overheard.
"Edlyn... I'm uncertain of your motivation in trying to take the children away from Holdfast. In fact, you've stirred grave concerns in me... but I'll first explain what I said I was going to. Godwyn tortured Herys nearly to the point of death. For his sake, which I pray you hold in your heart, never contradict that he did so on my instructions..." he said with a look on his face which suggested he'd done nothing of the kind.
Edlyn's eyes had widened with horror at his words, but she said nothing. In fact, from the way her lips set, Kenrith could sense in her a determination to say nothing that could suggest Godwyn might have acted in any way rashly.
"There is also the larger matter of the bloody tournament, the arrest of the Boltons I took with me into the woods, and the release of several wildings rather than their execution when I learned they were close kin to my own person. I've confessed all of these things, and obliquely mentioned a certain food poisoning of a captive, such that all the blame will fall on my shoulders. Stark will come, he will pass judgement, and if he has me slain or at the Wall in Godwyn's place... I pray he'll allow me the Wall so Holdfast may retain my brother. He will be oblidged, and will feel oblidged, to look over Hardy.
"Most likely, I'll be given time to put into order what I can before I go... but we must present a united front to Stark when he comes. The truth, the whole truth, with me as the sole responsible party, if he asks... and I must know as much of that truth when the time comes, so that I may keep my oath to Father to protect you, and Jonas, and the rest of our family. We have a millenial pact of loyalty with Winterfell, and I do not mean to see it fall apart in my lifetime," Kenrith explained, his face serious but his eyes begging her to understand.
Edlyn's own eyes had dropped to the ground while he spoke, and it seemed she was retreating into the colourless miss that was her protective mask. But then she raised her head and looked at him, sudden and direct.
"You scare me," she said. "No, that's wrong. You scare the children. You terrify me - because I believe there is nothing you would not do if you believed it right for Hardy - even if it meant killing all three of us, even if it meant breaking your oath to your father and taking his curse on your shoulders. I know Godwyn - I know what he is capable of. But I know he will listen ... even if sometimes you have to shout very loudly. But you ... you will act by what you believe is right, and will listen to no-one, except perhaps your gods."
"If I'd let you go, most like you'd be the one to kill all three of you... unless you haven't told me something I never had the chance to listen to. As for me causing you any harm... except perhaps, in the most contrived of situations, to protect your siblings. I've risked my life to spare Godwyn and a distant aunt, I don't mean to do less for the three of you. If you have to be terrified of me, have to hate me, that is fine... so long as you are safe. It isn't a question of Hardy or you... you are Hardy," he said.
She hesitated - and then frowned a little. "What aunt?" she asked.
"A sister, or perhaps cousin, of my father. She and her grandchildren have the family look," he said with a shrug.
"Is she at the Castle now?" asked Edlyn - and the note of hope in her voice was palpable.
Perhaps that was in part her fear - with her mother incapacitated, she was now the only woman of noble birth in a hold filled with fighting men.
"Is that what has you doubly upset-- that there are no women around to talk with?" he asked with a look of mild confusion.
"Yes," she said baldy.
Kenrith literally bit his lip rather than respond with 'but I thought your mother was faking it'.
Instead, he said "Syndra may return with Stark, as soon as in 3 or 4 days. If she doesn't, after you've spoken with Stark or their representative, I'll be able to send you to Winterfell with a proper escort... unless Stark immediately orders me to use those troops in some other fashion. You may talk with me... although I can tell that is hardly what you had in mind."
Edlyn sighed. "You would probably be worst of all," she said. "Because you are young and a warrior. But I do understand that your offer is well meant, and you are my sort of brother, although it is hard to think of you like Godwyn." She sighed again. "I suppose we must return now."
Kenrith nodded and led the way back to the wagon.
The rest of their journey was in the silence that Edlyn seemed to prefer over conversation with Kenrith.