Tracking in the Woods
Ser Anders led his part along the path that it seemed the wounded man and the Holdfast soldier had taken. It took them along narrow trails through the wood, snaking to and fro. Here and there it was wide enough that two could ride abreast, but Ser Anders seemed into on the task before them and did not address Rhys.
Of course, it was possible that he was annoyed about the aspiration of his men that Rhys had made.
Rhys happily gave Anders his distance, lost in his own thoughts. If it wasn't for the seriousness of the task before them, he could find himself enjoying being out here in the woods, deep among the trees and plants.
They had been riding for about an hour, often at walking pace, when Ser Anders drew rein at the edge of a clearing.
"Well," he said quietly.
Beside him, one of the men was noisily sick into a bush.
A man in Holdfast uniform was swinging from the branch of a tree. His body had been mutilated - perhaps before death - his hands lay beneath him on the ground, as did a pile of other things, which presumably included his tongue and his eyes, as both were missing. A crow, which had perched on the dead man's shoulder the better to feed on his cheek, cawed at them before flying off with slow, steady strokes, apparently well satisfied with its meal.
To Rhys, the amount of blood suggested the mutilations had been inflicted before death.
"Cleeve," said Ser Anders, as still as a statue on his horse, gazing at the dead man. "Clearly they had no further use for him, and the confidence to amuse themselves a little before leaving."
Rhys calmed his horse, who was shying at the strong smell of blood and entrails. He dismounted, tied the reins securely to a tree limb, covered his mouth and nose with piece of cloth, and advanced to inspect the body more closely. Flies buzzed loudly in the clearing.
"If it's of intereset, I think the mutilations were done while Cleeve was alive, judging by the amount of blood," Rhys said. He took a closer look at the pile of body parts.
There seemed to be no ritual in it, nor any sport. This was meant to stand as a warning, and a grim one, against pursuit.
"Cut him down," said Ser Anders. "We'll bury him here - taking him back would cause more distress to any who might have cared for him than a quiet grave here. The Old Gods bless all trees, 'tis said, and the Stranger can find him as well here as in the graveyard."
He glanced at Rhys. "Will you be ready then to ride on, or shall we turn back?"
Rhys took a good hard look at Cleeve--or what remained of him--and stepped back. He addressed Anders. "I want nothing more right now than to sit in front of a fire with a mug of mulled wine and forget about the events of this day. The thought that whoever did this to him would do this to us terrifies me.
"Regardless, I want to find Merivel, even if it leads me straight into their midst. I won't leave him out here alone."
He remounted his horse.
Ser Anders nodded. "We'll ride on, then, but I'm starting to suspect that it's Kenrith's group who are on the trail of Merivel and his captors."
It took a little while for Cleeve to be buried, and Ser Anders had the guards mark the spot.
"We'll have the Septon come out and say a few prayers," he said. "As soon as things look safe."
Then he kicked his horse into a trot again.
They rode on, following the same track. Those they were pursuing were mounted too, it seemed, and not making particularly good time. For an hour or so they rode, up and down steeply wooded hills, once dismounting entirely so they could continue the pursuit on foot across a swift-flowing steam. After an hour, they found themselves back on the road.
Ser Anders swore. "This has been a diversion," he said. "Or an escape."
The dogs seemed more interested in the road leading back towards Holdfast than the one that led to the Kingsroad.
"Are we heading back, then?" Rhys asked. "I hope Kenrith had better luck."
Ser Anders nodded. "This seems to be the road they took," he agreed. He did not look pleased by the thought.
"And it will probably be better," he said. "I'd not like to wager on finding Ser Kenrith in the woods before it gets dark. And the Wildings will claim the night for their own."
Rhys nodded, waiting for Anders to give the order to return to Holdfast.
Ser Anders signalled to them to move forward.
"We'll take it at a steady pace," he said to Rhys. "I want to give the dogs their heads. It may be that our quarry turned aside at some point ... if they were Wildings ... "
He was silent for a moment - and then sighed. "You don't think they were Wildings," he said flatly. "Do you?"
"I don't think Holdfast men did _that_," Rhys replied carefully, gesturing with his head behind them.
Ser Anders drew rein and moved his horse, blocking Rhys's road back to Holdfast. The guards came to an uneasy halt, moving back slightly from the two of them at a signal from Anders.
"But you think Holdfast guards did do *something* that you don't approve of," he said. "Let's have it out - now, rather than these hints and insinuations. What do you think my guards - three of whom are now dead, by the way, actually did?"
Rhys paused a moment, looking down at his hands holding his reins, and considered things. He had three options here that he saw: answer Anders honestly, lie and answer Anders with what he wanted to hear, or don't answer at all. He didn't think Anders would settle for the last, and he didn't think he could stomach the second.
That left answering honestly. In response to this Anders would either accept what Rhys said or not. If Anders didn't accept it and decided to take insult, Rhys could find himself in a very vulnerable position--there was no one here who would defend him, flight would be futile, and a convenient accident would be easy to arrange.
Perhaps option number two wasn't so bad after all.
Rhys looked up and met Ser Ander's eyes. This was the man who, when arresting him on Herys's false charges, sent him to the Tower instead of the dungeons. This was the man who valued his opinion enough to call him out of the Tower to aid in the murder investigation--Anders called _him_, not his great-uncle. This was the man who, when he heard the news about the raven returning, said it touched on his honor and offered to lead the search party immediately while his sister downplayed the whole event.
Rhys sighed and made his decision, for good or for ill. "Ser, I will tell you what I honestly think, but I request we talk in private."
Ser Anders nodded slowly, his expression still grim.
"Very well then," he said, and moved his horse aside. "When we get back to the castle."
The ride back was accomplished in near silence. The dogs did not dveiate from the road at all - until they came to the track that led to the cottage where the inhabitants had - according to Dobbin - been murdered on the way out.
"We should examine this," said Ser Anders. "I suspect this is a cold trail now, but Dobbin says the bodies were just left here. They might tell you something - and we should bury them too."
At the cottage, they found things as Dobbin had clumsily described. The two inhabitants (an elderly man and his equally aged wife) were dead - killed with swords. There were signs that their bodies had been dumped in the stream near the cottage but had dragged clear after death - by Dobbin and Cleeve, according to Dobbin.
Rhys looked around the cottage for anything that might give a clue to the identity of the murderers or their motivation.
There was nothing to suggest this was a robbery - although the ale barrel had been tapped. Five wooden mugs were tumbled on the floor - although that did not necessarily reflect the number of people drinking.
The blood seemed to have come solely from the old people, who were slain near where they had been found in the stream (or so the blood would suggest).
The dogs seemed to scent trails around the cottage but - as Ser Anders said with a sigh - without the aid of a woodsman of the calibre of Tamlin, it was impossible to say whether the trail was old or new - it was possible they might just travel in a circle.
"And it draws towards night," he added. "We can do no good here - we'll head for the Castle."
"Aye," Rhys replies, discouraged.
Ser Anders set the men to burying the bodies, and then drew mugs of ale for himself and Rhys.
"The men can have their share later," he said. "For now, I think we need this."
Rhys accepted the mug and gulped it. "What do you know of Wildings?" he asked Anders.
Ser Anders shrugged. "Little enough. They dwell beyond the Wall, most of them, but they raid south - sometimes far south if it suits them. If we catch any, they're killed. They're cruel and primitive, killers and thieves and slavers . It's said they have no laws. but steal endlessly from each other, and have little interest in marriage." He glanced at Rhys. "And not for the reasons you have foresworn it. They have lovers enough, for a season. And then ... next season ... " He shrugged again. "They follow the old gods.
"You suspect they might not have killed Cleeve," he said. "But I'll tell you this - it's said that men of the Night's Watch who have the misfortune to be captured rather than killed in battle tend to be killed slowly."
Rhys nodded. He paused a moment, then offered quietly, "Does it makes sense to you that Wildings this far south would announce their presence so...dramatically?"
"No," agreed Anders. "But then, they are wildings."
He lifted his head, looking towards the dogs. "Someone comes," he said softly.
A signal to his men sent them from the graves they had nearly completed, and taking shelter under the trees. Anders drew Rhys back into the cottage, drawing his sword too.
Rhys followed Anders and crouched inside the cottage, his hand on the knife in his boot.