Through The Wolfswood
It was shortly after dawn the next morning when Corryn, Godwyn and the Laughing Knives came out from the smugglers' road onto the Kingsroad, opposite the track that led to Marshend. It seemed that some horses had taken that route, and recently. The King's Road, however, was pave at this point to allow carriages to move over the boggy ground - it was hard to tell if any horses had recently taken that route.
Godwyn pulled up and looked to Corryn expectantly. "Which way?" he asked.
Corryn glanced about, still groggy from the hard ride. "Let's give the dogs a moment to get a good sniff. Stretch your legs everyone. Five minutes and then we move on."
He climbed down from his saddle, finding the task easier than the day before. Rhys' handwork appeared to be holding up to the strain and for that he was thankful. The Wolf began walking along the Marshend trail, examining the path and its markings. He tried to count the number of horses, as well as determine their direction of travel. Amongst the tracks, he sought one in particular. With Limosa tied to her horse, the animal's canter would be broken and staggered as it tried to compensate for her weight shifting awkwardly on its back. If he found a strange track, chances were they'd passed this way.
He also checked the depth of the tracks and if water had collected in them. With luck, he could tell how far behind the Boltons they actually were.
The mud on the road suggested they were perhaps an hour ahead.
There was no track with a broken gait, but there was one that was considerably heavier on the road - as though the horse had borne a double burden.
While Corryn was examining the tracks, Godwyn became aware of the sound of hooves. A party of horses was approaching from the north, and soon would be in view. The sound suggested to Godwyn that there were, perhaps, five or six men.
"Corryn!" Godwyn said urgently. "Riders to the north! They're coming fast, a half dozen or so!"
Corryn nodded without looking away from the prints. He stood up and returned to the group in an almost casual manner. "Godwyn, take the men and your horses to the woods on that side of the road," he said, gesturing to the southwest. "Ready your bows, but don't fire unless it is necessary. And if it is necessary, shoot the men in the rear of the column first to stop them from fleeing."
"Aye!" Godwyn answered. "Come on, you lot, you heard the Ser," he said, leading the way off the road.
He climbed up out his mount, "Gorne, you're with me." He led his horse into the intersection, effectively blocking either path.
Gorne Umber joined him a moment later. "You'd be sure aboot this, squire?" he said, his nasally tones betraying his nervousness.
"Nope," Corryn said. "But then again, when have I ever been sure about anything?"
His good hand went to his sword, unlashing the hilt. The cool steel felt soothing in his fingers and he couldn't help but wonder if the blade would taste warm blood today. If it would, he silently prayed it would be the Bastard's.
In the woods the men prepared themselves.
The figures came into view - half a dozen, as Godwyn had heard. A dark company in the light of early morn - and as they came closer, the reason was clear ...
There were wearing the black of the Night's Watch, with a tall, grim-faced rider at their head. As they saw Corryn and his men drawn across the road, they drew to a halt - but they did not looked particularly pleased.
A younger man, with fair hair, who rode at the shoulder and to the right of their leader, called out, "Who impedes the Night's Watch as they ride?"
"Ser Corryn Manderly of Leaning Stone," Corryn announced, removing his hand from his sword. "Forgive us, ser. We mistook you for another group. My men and I are in pursuit of a band of Boltons who have kidnapped my daughter. We'll make way for you."
He turned his horse and yelled to the woods. "Stay your hand, boys. It's the Night's Watch!"
"But don't relax too much," Godwyn said softly, so that only the men near him could hear it. "Men have disguised themselves as the Watch before."
Corryn returned his attention to the leader, "What brings you south and you haven't seen a group of six of seven men in Bolton livery have you?"
The leader leaned forward in his saddle, looking closely at Corryn.
"We made camp a little way up the King's Road - too far into the forest to have observed riders, although more than one group passed. And what is this tale of a kidnapped daughter? How old is the child? Does the authority of the Starks hold no more in the North that a noble's child might be stolen away?"
"The Starks are unaware unless the ravens we sent have arrived," Corryn said, steadying his mount. "The girl is five and teen. My fair Limosa. She was taken from Holdfast, where we we'd traveled at Ser Godfrey's request. The Boltons there turned on us and during the struggle, my daughter was kidnapped by Eryk Bolton."
He gestures toward the Marshend road, "We thought that your party might be them. We suspect they're making their way to Marshend as we speak. The Boltons have allies there. And if we don't stop them, my daughter is lost. I wish we had the time to tell the entire tale, but time is a commodity I am sorely in lack of."
Corryn sighed, "There are two groups we suspect. One led by Eryk Bolton; the other by Evan Bolton. If two groups have passed you, that must be them."
"Limosa," said the leader thoughtfully. "An unusual name ... and one I think has been coupled with that of the Boltons before. Last time we were at Winterfell, I believe. Some talk of a Limosa affianced to a Bolton ... but surely not your daughter, Ser Corryn? And if so, why would the Boltons need to kidnap her?"
Corryn nodded, "It is a most complex story revolving around events hardly a week's past. In short, Cerwyn, the former master of Leaning Stone is Limosa's father by blood. However, his dogs were treated better. He sold his estates to me to pay for his debts, renouncing all claims to family and inheritance. As I refused to see the girl and her brother be disowned, I took them as my own. And before she died from her... Cerwyn's ill-treatment, I married Lady Lilith, Limosa's mother; thus sealing the bonds of family."
"While Lord Cerwyn was still alive?" burst from the young lieutenant of the band. His leader waved him silent.
"He forsook that title," Corryn said coolly. "But he was no lord even before that. As far as I know he is on his way to the Nine Cities. And blessed be the Mother for that."
"I think," said the Leader, "my companion is less interested in his title than in his being alive when you married his wife. But that, I am sure, is a minor detail ... "
Corryn shifted uncomfortably. "What I had not known is that Cerwyn had already made arrangements to sell his daughter to Ser Herys Bolton. Of course, that agreement ended the moment he gave up his daughter. However, the Boltons have gone against the rule of law and seek to marry her by force. As far as I know Herys is now dead after attacking the Hardys only a day ago. But his sons... well, those apples did not fall too far from the tree."
The timbre of Corryn's voice betrayed the worry and anguish ruling his heart. "I must save her, good ser. I promised her mother I would protect her. Please, will you help us make this right? I understand if you must continue on your way.
"If you must continue south, please feel free to rest at Leaning Stone. It is still in shambles, but the roof is intact and far warmer than the Wall, I'll wager."
The dark haired leader was silent for a moment, frowning.
"We of the Night's Watch do not involve ourselves in the quarrels between Houses. We are not sworn, like the knights, to protect the weak and helpless. We have a wider duty, and a harsher one. If you seek resolution of this matter, I suggest you lay it at the feet of Lord Stark."
Godwyn nodded to himself, he had expected the Watch to take this view.
"But this I will say. From your own tale, it appears the girl was pre-contracted to Ser Herys Bolton before Lord Cerwyn sold her to you. It could be said that the one who has stolen her is not the Boltons but you, in depriving them of their contracted bride. I suggest you have a more convincing case to set to Lord Stark. And he will doubtless want to hear of this attack by Ser Herys on the House of Hardy."
Godwyn continued to watch silently from the woods. He looked over the men of the Watch, searching for familiar faces.
And he saw one, towards the back of the troop. Not his uncle, but Jeb Farrow, who had been sent to the Wall not three years back for killing a man in a drunken brawl. Then he had been a boy blubbering in the back of a cart as he was driven away from all he knew. Now he was a man, austere and stern in his black. But undoubtedly the same Jeb Farrow.
Godwyn relaxed a bit at this evidence that it truly was the Watch, and not bandits wearing their colour. Not a whole lot, it wasn't as though dealing with the real Watch was an easy thing. They were hard men, and his uncle had often told him that he should never forget when talking to them that they were killers, each and every one. But they were killers who defended the North against what lay beyond the Wall, and that gave them their old cold and hard honour.
He watched them now for a different purpose, not so much to watch for treachery, as to see a glimpse of his own future.
Corryn shrugged, hiding the fire raging in his belly. "I shall discuss the matter with him then," he said. "He is a close friend. And at least he knows what it means to have a child and family to care for."
"Indeed," agreed the dark haired man evenly.
Corryn turned away dismissively, "We'll hinder you no further, Watchman."
"There would be little purpose in it," agreed the other.
They were stern men, dour at first sight. Then one turned in his saddle and said something, and those closest to him laughed. And suddenly they were alien no more; they were a body of men such as Godwyn had grown up among - a brotherhood of fighting men. Just the same as Holdfast - if you overlooked the fact that their cloaks were so black.
Black as a raven's wing.
Black as Limosa's hair where it curled against the whiteness of her neck as she sat on the haybale with puppies in her lap ...
Godwyn shook his head suddenly, angry with himself for allowing his mind to wander. "Come on," he told the men around him. "Weapons down, let's stop skulking like Boltons in the woods, while true men talk."
He walked out of the woods, quietly but making it obvious he was not trying to hide. His sword was safely in its sheath, and he no longer rested his hand upon the hilt.
Corryn guided his horse to the other side of the road. "Godwyn," he yelled to be heard. "Mount up. We've wasted enough time here."
The leader gave a signal and his troop rode forward, heading south along the King's Road. Most simply ignored Godwyn and his men as they came to the side of the road, but Jeb Farrow started slightly, and then gave him a nod, of recognition. There was no deference in it, though - the Nightwatch were the equals of any in the land (even if the land was reluctant to recognise that).
Godwyn watched them go by, his expression hard to read. It was probable he himself wasn't sure what it was he was feeling.
Nevertheless, Jeb looked friendly enough if Godwyn wanted to call a question...
Godwyn returned the nod, then called out, "What of my Uncle Mallador, Jeb? How fares he?"
Jeb grinned. "He's well enough, Sir. Of an age where his joints stiffen so he's not so nimble at getting about the forests as he used to be, and he prefers a warm fire in the Keep to standing watches on the wall. But he's a fine trainer of recruits ... and we hope to have many more to offer him after this journey!"
"I wish you well in that, Jeb. People forget about the Wall in a long Summer like this one. Getting on, is he? I'll need to head there soon, then. There's alwasy been a Hardy on the Wall."
Corryn gathered his men together as Godwyn conversed with the Watchman. "We can't delay any longer," he explained to them. "They must be an hour ahead of us. If we push hard enough, we can catch them. But if your mounts begin to waver, tell me immediately. We'll be of no use to Limosa if we kill our horses before we find her. Only kill the men you need to. That bastard crow did have some truth in his words. Friend or no, Ned sticks to the word of Law like a fly in amber. The less explaining we need to do to Roose, the better."
They nodded in agreement. Knobby glanced back at Godwyn and the other boy. "What aboot him, squire?"
Corryn sighed, "Stay with him and catch up with the rest of us as soon as you can. You'll ride faster as two anyway. Give the boy a moment to see his fate. Maybe it will take some of the bite out of it. Or turn his stomach enough for him to change his mind.
"Now let us be about it, eh?"
He gave his horse some spur and galloped farther down the road to Marshend.
Godwyn walked along the side of the road, leading his horse, as they talked. He briefly thought of sending his uncle information on the family via Jeb, there was so much to tell. But then he shook his head. Men of the Watch forswore family concerns, it would do no good to worry the old man about his brothers' problems, when he could do nothing about it.
"Aye, there has," said Jeb. He hesitated, as though he would say more, but instead gave his head a little shake and said, "And shall I take your greetings to Ser Godfrey at Winterfell?"
Godwyn shook his head. "My uncle is back at Holdfast," he said. "My father grows old. Kenrith is back, as well. Ser Kenrith, now, he took the vows. But he's no less a man of the North for that." He shook his head again. "And I'm off to aid Ser Corryn, on my brother's orders. I should be off..."
Then he stopped, as his brain caught up with what Jeb had said. "You're going straight to Winterfell?" he asked.
Jeb nodded, and grinned. "Never thought in my life I'd travel so far, Master Godwyn! But we're heading further than that. Across the Neck and down to Kings Landing, some of us, to clear out the jails there. We'll spend a few nights at Winterfell first though, so the First Ranger might see his family. He'll be riding back from Winterfell - he's needed too bad to be spared longer."
He grew more sober. "I grieve to hear your news about Lord Hardy." He glanced to left and right, and then added in a lower tone, "Will you take my love to my mother? Tell her ... tell her the life's none so bad when you're used. And the cold's not so bitter, really." A longer hesitation. "And Sukie Smith's daughter ... if she's still not wed ... tell her to forget me, along as I were cold and dead in the ground. For I'll come back no more to Holdfast."
"She hasn't wed yet, Jeb, though she's had no shortage of lads asking."
It was hard to read Jeb's expression - whether he was gratified by the pretty Sukie's continued service of the Maiden, or deeply regretting what might have been.
"I'll tell her what you said, aye, and tell your mother what you said, too. So that's Benjen Stark, is it? I think I need to speak with him." He mounted quickly. "Fare you well, Jeb. When I make it up there, you can show me how things are done at the Wall, hey?"
Again there was that strange hesitation before Jeb nodded.
"Ay, Master Godwyn. That I'll do - and gladly."
Godwyn spurred his horse then, and rode forward until he was near the leader of the men. "First Ranger?" he called. "May I speak with you?"
Benjen Stark was giving orders to one of his men, but at Godwyn's words he turned and looked at him - a hard, clear-eyed gaze with no pity, it seemed.
"What?" he said.
"I am Godwyn Hardy, First Ranger. We've sent ravens to Winterfell about what has happened at Holdfast, but it would be better if Lord Stark knew more of it than could be sent via raven. It is not your duty, I know, but could I ask you to carry word to Lord Stark. Holdfast may be at risk."
Benjen Stark lifted a dark eyebrow. "Because some girl he claims as daughter runs from the Riverwolf? Surely it would take more than that to disturb the deep-rooted foundations of Holdfast."
Godwyn shook his head. "More to it than that. Much more. And it's all complicated." He made a face.
"Right then, here's the important parts of what's happened that Lord Stark should know about. My father, Lord Hardy, he's had a bad attack, the same thing he's been suffering from for years. He's like to die from it. Can barely talk, can't walk, usually doesn't recognize people. He ordered that his wife and Ser Godfrey jointly rule in his stead. Meanwhile Herys Bolton shows up for this wedding, that no one but Lady Celia knew anything about. Brought along a boy he claimed was Eryk Bolton, his son, who's the one they're going to marry my cousin Syndra to. Syndra's father, Ser Godfrey, this is the first he hears of this marriage. And he and Celia don't get along too well, and my father can't say anything, so there's some question here about the marriage already."
"You doubted Lady Celia's word on this?" asked the Ranger. One of the men behind him stirred in his saddle.
Godwyn frowned. "It's not been easy for her," he said. "She prefers the South to life in the North. But she's a Hardy woman now, and I'll not speak ill of her, nor hear any other do so."
"Now, my brother, Ser Kenrith, he's been fostered down at Riverrun. My uncle sends him a message telling him how my father isn't doing well, so he comes up north. The lord there sends him with a couple of his men, and a group of sellswords who were heading north anyway, 'cause their leader, who called himself Evan Tamm, said he was planning on going to the Wall."
Godwyn sighed. "Here's where it starts getting complicated," he said.
"Turns out Evan Tamm is really Eryk Bolton, Hery's son, who was disinherited. The boy Herys is calling Eryk is some [email protected] of his, who he's told everyone is really Eryk, and he's planning on marrying the [email protected] to Syndra without anyone the wiser."
"Only one of Bolton's men recognized Evan as being Eryk, so he kills him, and then the Boltons demand we find the murderer, and we do, only when Herys sees who it is he's worried about his whole plot being found out and wants him dead right away, only Eryk, that is the [email protected], who's real name we still don't know, he tells us that the fellow we think is Evan is the real [email protected], and is his brother, so when Evan demands trial by combat we are honour-bound to give it him, even though this is really all a Bolton matter, and Herys tries a couple of different things to get Evan killed, which don't work, and then there's the combat and Evan spears my uncle's horse then rides him down."
Godwyn paused at this point, his face working in fury, and then shook himself, obviously trying to calm down so he could complete his story.
Benjen had listened to this all in unoved silence.
"How did you decide," he said finally, "which was the [email protected], and which the true-born son?"
Godwyn forced himself to calm down. "Aye," he said, "There was the problem. Well, let me finish, for I've not told the worst of it yet. Some of Herys' men had been seen in the stables before the combat, and when we checked there we found they'd cut partway through the strap on the horse Evan was to ride. It was all of a piece with what was going on. Oh! And we'd sent a maester back to Clearwater, he'd been visiting, and he was attacked by Wildings, or someone pretending to be Wildings. Which drew come of our men off during the combat. Ser Godfrey, my brother, and Ser Anders, he's Celia's brother and the Captain of our Guard, they all agreed that we should be on our guard in case this was all a plot of Herys' to get us off our guard."
"Right, then. So, where was I? Oh, right, Evan, ot Eryk, or whoever, he rode down my uncle with his horse. It's dishonourable, but we'd not argue that he didn't win, and the Gods had given their ruling. But Herys, he wanted the man dead, and he stood and shouted for his men to kill him. They charged out onto the field, at Tamm, my uncle, and my cousin Syndra and our maester, who had gone out to see to my uncle. Then Herys struck Lady Celia and knocked her onto the stands. The maester says she may die from the blow." His face grew dark. "No one strikes a woman of Holdfast."
He shrugged. "It turned into a general melee, then. Those of Bolton's men as wasn't killed, we've taken prisoner, until we can sort this all out. Herys we questioned, and he admitted then that Evan was his true son, and the one he called Eryk was the [email protected] One of them has taken Corryn's daugther, and we're following them. As I said, we've sent ravens to Stark, but you can't get all this on a raven."
"No," said Benjen. "Not without weighing it to the ground with your news. Tell me, though, what became of the Maester from Clearwater? And why was Ser Herys suddenly so willing to tell you about his sons?"
"We don't know what happened to the maester," Godwyn confessed. "Our people who were escorting him were killed, and whoever killed them took the maester. When my brother tried to track him, they were attacked, and he lost another man. Again, it was either Wildings or someone doing a good job of acting like them."
His face grew cold. "As for Herys, he took advantage of guest right, and betrayed us. We Hardys take that serious. I persuaded him to tell me the truth. I don't like lies."
His face lost the coldness, and he looked young once more. "We still don't know if this was all part of a plot with Lord Bolton, though. There might be more Boltons on their way to Holdfast even now. That's another reason I was hoping you could tell all this to Lord Stark."
"I'll convey your news to Lord Stark," said Benjen Stark.
He nodded curtly at Godwyn, and then gave the signal to his men to advance once more down the road.
Godwyn returned the nod with a nod of respect.
Within five minutes, they turned a corner between the dense trees and were lost to sight - even their hoofbeats faded.
Godwyn turned his horse's head to follow the trail left by Corryn and his men, and spurred his horse onward.
And saw him just a little way down the road to Marshend.
Godwyn rode quickly to join up with Corryn. "That was Lord Stark's brother, the First Ranger," he said. "He'll carry the news of what happened to Winterfell."
Corryn stared at Godwyn for a moment, then glanced back down the road they'd come. A hollow chuckle escaped him and he shook his head. "I should have recognized that old @astard," he said. "Never liked him. Now I remember why."
He smiled warmly at Godwyn, "Thank you for being more diplomatic than I, my boy. You impress me more every day."
Godwyn blinked. Then he looked pleased, but slightly confused.
As they rode, Corryn kept stride with the young Hardy. "So, tell me, Godwyn. Are you still intent on going to the Wall?"
"It's my duty," he answered simply. "The Hardys have always sent someone to the Wall. My uncle is there now, but he's old."
"But is it what you want, Godwyn?" Corryn said in a fatherly tone. "Duty is one thing, but desire is another. After the last few days, you can see how dramatically they can diverge. As well as the depths of their consequence. You have two brothers, either of who could go in your place. If you wish to carry on that tradition at all.
"The Hardys need sons now more than ever. Not men freezing on some Wall."
Godwyn shook his head stubbornly. "The Wall guards all the North," he said. "We cannot ask others to serve on it, if we are not willing to do so ourselves. And I will not have another carry out my duty, when I am fit to serve."
Some of the other men laughed good-naturedly amongst themselves. Corryn chuckled loudly and shook his head. "Hardys. Stubborn as oak. But in this land of crooked words and false hearts, you certainly are a refreshing change from the norm."
He reached over and patted Godwyn's shoulder. "Good on you, boy. I hope my son grows up with the breadth of your conviction. You make your family proud."
Godwyn blushed. "You praise me too highly," he said, ducking his head. "But I do hope to make them proud."
The road ran through the forest to begin with - then through its fringes - and then across the water meadows to Marshend itself at the foot of the Long Lake.
Corryn called for a brief halt to the ride to take the time to better evaluate the situation. Considering the increased number of options left to someone being chased, he wanted to make sure that the Boltons hadn't left the road. He scanned the horizon for signs of dust or disturbance. On a warm day such as this, horses would be kicking up a cloud.
"See anything, Godwyn?" he asked the young man. "And has anything changed since I was here two years ago? New road or paths?"
Godwyn looked around, searching for anything that looked different or strange. Then he leaned over to search for signs of the trail of the horsemen they were following - and for any sign of a man on foot following them with hounds.
There definitely seemed to be the marks on the ground ahead of them ... a number of horses - those not as many as ten - perhaps half that number. At lease one seemed to be carrying at least double weight, for the traces left behind.
No sign of a man with hounds, however.
Corryn shivered noticeably when they could not find any footprints. Volf either remained behind them somewhere in the Wolfswood orů
He couldn't bear to think of the other possibility. He'd lost one son to the Boltons; to lose another. His fingers tightened on the reins, turning his knuckles white. "I'll bleed them slow, if they hurt him," he muttered to himself.
"He's on foot, in lands he doesn't know well," Godwyn said. "It's likely we've just come in ahead of him."
"Gods, I hope so," Corryn said without much hope. "That boy has suffered enough on this journey. His mother will have my hide if he's come to harm; and I'm likely to give it to her."
The only good news to be had was the freshness of the tracks. "We're only an hour behind them. If we push a little harder, we'll have them before nightfall."
Corryn spoke aloud to the group, but he looked at Godwyn as he did so, "They're getting close to friendly territory. When we catch them, the men-at-arms are to be given quarter if they lay down their arms. We have enough to explain to the Starks after the Red Tournament. He'll look very poorly on us for slaughtering Boltons on their own land.
"It's not Bolton land," Godwyn muttered. Then, somehat louder, "But, aye, any of them as surrender, I say we give quarter."
"It matters not if it is truly their land, Godwyn," Corryn pressed. "We killed Roose's brother. He'll take Holdfast in revenge, not to mention Leaning Stone, which he probably believes is his to begin with. We need to show some sign of good faith with him, if both our families are to see the year out. I'm sure you understand that."
He kicked his horse into motion, following the tracks. "But for Eyrk, that vile cuckoo, his next roost is in a crow cage."
Godwyn open his mouth as though to say something, but then shook his head, closed his mouth, and followed Corryn silently.
Corryn smiled faintly, having noticed the motion. "Godwyn. If you're going to ride with the Knives, you have to remember to speak your mind. Trust me. No of the others hold back their thoughts."
A general snicker passed through the group. "Yer a horse's arse, Corryn. Ser," a flaxen-haired Knife said, spawning a bout of laughter.
"See?" Corryn laughed. "So, if there's something on your mind, Godwyn, be out with it."
"Well," Godwyn said. "Umm. I can't rightly say as to whether Herys is dead or no. I didn't know if it might be that Kenrith or you might want to question him, so I left him alive. Might have bled to death by now if no one saw to him, though."
Corryn's smile disappeared immediately. He considered this for a moment. The day previous had been hectic in so many ways. Herys might well be dead and stinking up some closet in Holdfast for all he knew. Best not to dwell on it, however.
"For the time being, let us pretend he's still alive and speak no further of it," Corryn said. "He can always still die of his wounds if it's necessary."
By now they were beginning to see a few signs of habitation on the plain as they left the woods behind them. Small, miserable turf cottages were dotted randomly on the landscape, each holding enough, presumably, to scratch a bare living from the soil.
Corryn paused long enough to scan the horizon for any signs of their quarry. With fewer trees to block his gaze, he hoped he could see them. Being only an hour ahead, they might still be in sight.
But there was no sign at all ...
Unless it was the little cloud of dust away in the distance, moving over the hills beyond the town of Marshend itself.
Godwyn waited silently for Corryn to make the decision of where to ride.
"Bollocks and damnation," Corryn muttered. "I do despise people that don't stop when you want them to. We stick to the road and talk to the town's folk. We can't risk chasing a cloud over rough terrain. And at the very least, someone can tell us if they've seen them. I still have a few friends there."
He kicked the horse into a gallop and rode full bore towards Marshend.
Godwyn was right by his side.