Waking in the Woods
The sounds of the camp stirring should have awakened him. But when he did wake, it was the creaking of the wagon over his head, and he realised with shock that the sun was already up, his men were stirring, and he could smell bacon cooking over the fire.
"Bollocks and damnation," he muttered, closing his eyes tightly. Someone had obviously been striking him upside his temple with a flail. The pounding agony dulled any desire to climb out of his knotted blanket. But he knew he'd have to eventually. Better sooner than later.
He rose from his bed and waved at the men currently pulling down the camp and readying breakfast. Normally, he would have walked amongst them, visiting and checking on how they'd passed the night. He enjoyed the camaraderie, as well as found it an instinctual and useful leadership tool. Considering the forced march he'd put them through, the Laughing Knives deserved his attentions for awhile.
But circumstances had changed since Limosa. He had to see how she was doing first. A friendly face might ease the day for her.
So he rapped on the end of the wagon, "Darling? It's Corryn. If you're up, come to the flap, will you?"
The flap was lifted and he saw that she had braided back her hair neatly.
The rest of her dress was less conventional. She was wearing breeches, a man's shirt and a loose jacket. The provenance of the breeches he couldn't begin to guess, but the jacket he suspected belonged to Kolin, the youngest of the Laughing Knifes, while the shirt was Corryn's own. Her feet were bare.
He quirked an eyebrow at her appearance. Not that it wasn't befitting his daughter; it certainly was that. He simply wondered how she'd gotten a hold of Kolin's jacket. A tinge of jealousy passed over him and he made a note to make sure the young man hadn't been too familiar with Limosa. He doubted anything beyond the innocent had happened, but it didn't hurt to check. Besides, he could thank the boy for his wherewithal.
"You look like a ranger born, my dear," he grinning up at her. "Definitely, my daughter."
He gestured to the camp and the cooking fires, "Breakfast in bed? Or would you like to sit outside today? We'll probably be on our way in an hour or so. That means no time for the river, I fear."
Corryn took her hands, kissing her knuckles. "What shall it be today, my Water Sprite?"
Her nose twitched a little, and then she pointed firmly in the direction of the fire. Clearly, whatever else her future contained, she was determined that, in the near future, it should hold bacon.
Then she sprang down light from the wagon, and turned to smile at him. It was apparant that she filled her borrowed garments well. A little too well, to judge from the drop-jawed stares of the more impressionable Laughing Knives - before they became hastily involved in other important tasks before Corryn could glower at them.
Corryn couldn't really berate the men, no matter if he wanted to. After all, he had been overcome by the same intoxicating aura Limosa possessed. He doubted she realized the effect she had on men, and was secretly thankful for that. Rather than perpetuate a stand-offish attitude, he decided that bringing her into the ranks would be the best approach. If they all considered her like a sister-at-arms, then they'd be more likely to protect her virtue. And considering her fiery spirit, she definitely could have been a Laughing Knife. She certainly looked like one.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said, patting shoulders and grinning to his friends. He kept Limosa close beside him, guiding her to a spot beside the fire.
"Have we forgotten our manners, boys?" he joked to Bardon and Frey, nodding for them to make some room. They happily did, stuttering and nearly falling over themselves to give Limosa a place to sit. Before he could stop them, three mugs of tea were poured in the girl's honor. This quickly descended into a silent war of scowls and grunts to determine whose tea was befitting the silent princess.
He smiled at Limosa reassuringly. It might take some time for her to recognize her beauty. Until then, he'd make sure that at the very least, she knew she was loved and protected.
She smiled back at him, accepted the first mug of tea and drained it, then reached for the second. With the other hand she grabbed at the bacon and started to stuff it into her pretty little rosebud of a mouth. The Laughing Knives watched, fascinated, clearly bemused by the contrast between the delicate beauty and the grossness of her table manners. It seemed as though Corryn might need to train her in more than the need to wear shoes before they arrived at Holdfast.
"Lady Hardy is going to have a stroke," he muttered, as he watched her atrocious table manners. "Not that this is a particularly bad thing."
He cast a glance at the others, smirking faintly. "What? Haven't you seen a woman with an appetite before?"
Corryn sighed knowing that he had to deal with this behavior quickly. Limosa obviously had to unlearn her bad habits. She was a lady now. And a Manderly at that. Yes, his family did have a love for food, but they at least ate with some decorum. His aunt would never let him hear the end of it. Dead wife aside, he was going to have enough trouble explaining away his new son and daughter. It would go better if the girl didn't act like she'd just hopped over the Wall. But how did a person unlearn being an animal when that's all they were treated as such?
He touched her hand as she reached for the food. In a slightly stern voice, he said, "Limosa. No. Ladies don't eat like that. Don't scrunch your nose. This is important. Please?"
She looked at him, with the wide-eyed interest of a small wild creature - a squirrel perhaps.
Immediately realizing this would be a battle of epic wills, he gestured for his fellow knights to join him. "Watch Phalan and I," he said. And then he paused, regarding the bear-like man across from him. Phalan currently had half a side of pork and a loaf of bread scattered within his beard.
"On second thought… watch me," he corrected.
She nodded and focused her attention on him.
He went through the motions of eating in a polite fashion, using utensils, a plate, and a cloth to wipe the grease from his fingers and mouth. "See? This is how ladies and gentlemen eat. Proper and polite. You are a Lady now, Limosa. You must try to act as one. Your mother will be very proud if you do. As will I."
Her lips had started to twitch a little somewhere near the start of his mime. She had watched carefully, the interest giving way to amusement - although she had lifted one hand to cover her mouth.
He regarded her pleadingly.
For a brief moment, he thought he'd succeeded in his attempt. Unfortunately, he couldn't have been further from the truth.
Unable to disguise it anymore, she gave a veritable wail of laughter. And then peal after peal escaped her, her mirth so great that she slid off the log she was sitting on - but that served only to make her laugh the harder.
And her laughter was very infectuous. First his men started to grin, and then they lived up to their names and laughed aloud, so that Corryn was asurrponded by a glade of merriment.
But he had heard his daughter's voice raised in laughter. And it was beautiful.
Corryn sat there for a moment, sighing to himself as the waves of hilarity began to fill his reddening ears. He tapped his foot, appearing indignant and put-out. He looked from face to laughing face and glowered without a great deal of success.
"Oh yes. Very droll," he quipped. "It pleases me greatly to know that I amuse you all."
His lips quivered. Bollocks and damnation, he would not laugh. "Sod it, this is serious!"
Corryn may as well have thrown a pyromancer's entire stock on the fire for the little good it did him. The snickers and hoots only intensified tenfold. And finally, the quiver of his lip became a chuckle. That, in turn, became the howling laugh he was so infamous for.
He just shook his head, bemoaning his treatment with a delicate turn of his nose. "Sod all of you," he announced in a feminine voice; one distinctly like Lady Celia Hardy.
"I think I make a very delightful lady of the courts. So, would you all be so kind and kiss my dainty arse." He stood up and began to walk primly to the tea cauldron, making sure his butt was stuck out and his chest held high. He gave a little wiggle as he poured himself a cup.
There was another wail of laughter from the men. Several were nudging each other as they took in the accuracy of his mimicry.
But all the while, he kept an eye on Limosa. It was her laughter that he delighted in. It made him smile so hard it hurt. And that was an exquisite pain he missed so terribly much. To have it back in his life was a blessing he would not deny or quash.
And she was laughing as hard as any of the men. When she made a move to stand up, and Bardon extended a hand to help her, Corryn realised that something else had happened too. Bardon's gesture was no longer that of a man bewitched by a beautiful young woman - it was the friendly hand he would extend to a comrade. In that gale of laughter, Limosa's position had shifted within the Laughing Knifes. She had become one of them; a privileged member of the band as their leader's daughter, admittedly. They would fight for her, die for her, defend her name and her beauty. But they would no longer see her as an object for their lust.
Corryn could not have been more thrilled by this development if he tried. He had always stressed the familial element with his men. It was why they were so close, so devoted and willing to shed blood for the man beside them. To bring Limosa into his true family meant more to him than he could express. It also put him more at ease for her well-being. She now had thirty big brothers watching over her. Thirty very well armed brothers. He smiled to himself, watching her and his men with deep pride.
She walked across the clearing to him now, grinning broadly, and then threw her arms around him for a big hug, and the men roared their approval.
Corryn chuckled in surprise and held her in his arms, hugging her fiercely. "You make me so happy, Limosa," he whispered in her ear. "Well done, my dear."
He hugged her again and then let her go. He nodded to Phalan and laughed, "When you're ready, we should get this lot moving. Lady Celia will be having high tea soon…"
His voice shifted back to the feminine. "And you know how I love my tea, darlings."
Corryn laughed loudly and winked to his Second. The uproarious response he got would keep the men's spirits up through the tedium of breaking camp. It felt wonderful to be in the field again with them, joking with them. The stuffy halls of White Harbor had made him forget his former life. But hearing Limosa's sweet laugh only made the day that much sweeter.
He took her hand gently, "May I escort you to your wagon, m'lady?"
She nodded to him cheerfully, and then he saw her looking wistfully at Kolin who was preparing - jacketless - to mount his horse. One of the youngest Knives, it was Kolin's jacket that Limosa was wearing ...
Then he realised - she wasn't looking wistfully at the young man, but at his horse.
Corryn followed her gaze and then smiled lightly. She certainly did have spirit, this young woman. He chuckled to himself and squeezed her hand. "Come with me," he said. He briefly paused to grab some carrots from the cook.
He led her to the spotted horse tied to a tree near the wagon. It lifted its head and gave him a welcoming snort and shake of its brown head. Corryn ran his hand along the side of its neck, and touched his head to its blunt nose. "Hello again, my friend," he said to the horse. It pawed the ground lightly until he fed it a carrot.
He handed a carrot to Limosa, "His name is Valarr. I haven't had him for very long. So, if he takes a shine to you and you promise to care for him… you can ride him until we find you a horse of your own."
She looked at him in delight - and then at the horse. Cautiously, she extended the carrot and then laughed as he took it, looking in delight at Corryn. Then she moved forward and was caressing the pony, caressing the soft velvet nose.
Lords, he thought, what am I doing? She's going to ride him and break her neck. And then… he dared not think it. Less than a week and he could not see the future without Limosa in it. He turned his head away before he became too emotional. Stupid, stupid, he chided.
When he looked back, the sight was even more enticing. She had one arm around Valarr's neck, while the horse was nuzzling between her breasts as though hoping to find carrots there. She smiled at Corryn, and pushed Valarr away, so that she could move to his side and look to Corryn to boost her into the saddle.
Lords, Corryn thought, even the damned horse can't get enough of her. He tried not to look as the horse pushed her shirt a little too far, feeling a twinge of jealousy. Still, to hear that laugh, to see that smile, he would have wrestled the moon from the sky.
Regaining his composure, he nodded to her. "Of course," he said. "But I'm letting you ride him on one condition. I lead him. Just get used to the saddle. Get used to the way he moves and let him get used to you. But I'll hold the reins. I'm not letting him run away with you."
He touched her cheek, blushing softly as his voice revealed his worry. "I can't let you get hurt, Limosa."
And with that, Corryn put his hands around her waist and boosted her into the saddle. He offered a silent prayer that she would sit side-saddle like a regular lady. Somehow he doubted that was going to happen. But it felt nice to have her close again. He couldn't help remember the pervious night. Holding her just felt…right.
Of course, to ride sidesaddle, it would help to have a side-saddle. It might also have helped if Limosa had ever seen a woman ride. As neither of these conditions applied, she sat as she had seen the Laughing Knives sit on their saddles - firmly astride. But she was biddable about letting Corryn lead her. He could see that she had a good seat, and her hands were light and sure on the reins. She seemed content to be kept to a walk around the camp as the rest of the Laughing Knives finished packing up ... although he might wonder how long that would last ...
I am irrevocably doomed, Corryn thought as he watched her ride with a natural skill. He would have to guide her passions and wildness before it became a problem. As she went in a lazy circle, it struck him that she resembled his good mother at a far younger age. Such a revelation did not warm his heart though. Two years it had taken her to die after her fall from a horse. A fall that could have been prevented had she shown more caution.
Love, however, made you do stupid things. So did fearlessness. And Limosa was certainly becoming fearless.
He bit his bottom lip and sighed. I will not end up like my father, he lied to himself. But he knew himself far too well. For almost a decade he'd pined for Morna after her death, to the detriment of his life without question. If he lost this young woman who'd made him smile like he once had…
No, he inwardly growled. I will not think this way. By now Morna would be slapping his ear or drilling her elbow into his side. She didn't tolerate his moods. No sense in returning to them over nothing. Limosa was riding a bloody horse for the first time. He should be savoring the moment rather than dreading it.
He smiled up at her proudly and nodded. "You'll be a fine rider one day, my love. Princess Nymeria reborn."
She smiled, tilting her head a little on one side - a bird-like gesture that seemed to be her way of asking a question. Here it seemed to be an invitation to tell her a story - and Corryn remembered Fortune's words ... "Poor girl ... Ever since she was seven or so, her mother has been too ill to pay heed to her - although they spent long hours together, with her lying on her mother's bed, and listening to the old tales."
It must have been the only pleasure Limosa had had in her former life.
Phalan came up to him. "Sir, the camp's packed and we're ready to move. Are we ready to start?"
Corryn nodded to him, "Aye. Begin the march. Have Ferret guide the wagon, will you. I noticed he was limping yesterday. He could use the rest. I'll walk with my daughter for the time being."
He leaned in close to Phalan, touching the man's shoulder for emphasis. "Send out a couple of scouts and have them report in constantly. Also, put up our banner and the Starks as well. We're here on official business, so best let those watching from the trees know it. If there is any trouble, I am charging you with getting Limosa to safety. I don't need to tell you how important she is to me. But I trust no one else to get it done and my place is with the men."
He patted Phalan's shoulder, stepping back. "Not that it will come to such, I'm sure. Let's keep it a loose formation. No sense in gathering up along this road, eh?"
When Phalan had gone to get the column moving, Corryn looked up at Limosa and grinned. He gave the horse a tug and began leading it down the road at a lazy pace. "So, you wish a story about Nymeria do you? Well then, a story you shall have." He lightly touched her knee, as if to comfort her. He was a pale shadow to her mother, but he would attempt to supply her some joy.
"Thousands of leagues to the south of here lays the realm of Dorne. Your mother came from this wind-swept place, as did both of mine. It is a place of exotic beauty, of sand and mountains. Dorne is nothing like this place, neither in attitudes nor convictions. And much of that has to do with Queen Nymeria, whose presence is still felt amongst your people today.
"Nymeria, like you, was a beautiful woman. She had smooth skin like olives, hair like midnight, and eyes like lavender. And she was a Salt, so she was lithe and nimble and a creature of the sea. But as beautiful as she was, it was her spirit that made her a true Queen. She possessed an inextinguishable flame burning within her enormous heart. When she was born a thousand years ago, along the river Rhoyne, her people knew this girl was special. They would not be disappointed."
As they rounded a corner in the road, they passed a patch of dog violets. Corryn paused briefly to fetch one for her, smiling loving up at her as he put it into her hand. He held her hand for a moment, staring into her dark eyes.
She smiled at him, her smile as bright and fresh as the flowers he had gathered.
For a moment, he thought himself back in Holdfast, telling his love about the three dragons. He sighed softly and continued to lead her horse.
Unseen by him, Limosa began to wind the flowers in her long dark hair as though they were jewels and she a court lady.
"Now, unlike in the Seven Kingdoms, the Rhoynar believe that both genders are considered equals in the rites of ascension. Nymeria was the eldest child, and despite her numerous younger brothers, entitled to her family's fortune and leadership. However, she was betrayed by her brothers and cast out. What followed was a civil war the likes of which have never been seen in our age. But that is a story for another time. What you should know, however, is that during that time Nymeria collected the noblest women from the greatest families along the Rhoyne into her army. And when they could not take what was rightfully theirs in their homelands, she decided to create her own realm in a new land.
"In ten thousand ships, she and her people sailed across the Narrow Sea and landed on the west coast of Dorne. The warrior Queen then began carving out a new land, bringing tribe after clan to their knees. None could stand before her might and skill. But Dorne is a vast place and even one as powerful as she could not hope to rule it all alone. So she had to seek out a husband worthy of her. She found him in Mors Martell.
"Mors was of the stone, living in the mountains near the Broken Arm. He was tall, handsome, and his tanned skin was freckled from the sun. Nymeria found him entrancing the moment she met him. They became lovers not long after that in a romance that is still sung to warm the heart in Dorne. In short, the pair married and together they created the united land of Dorne. Their blood runs deep in the Dornish people and the Great Houses. Their fire, their prowess, their love for life. That blood runs in your veins Limosa, just as it runs in mine.
"You are a child of the Daynes, one of the direct descendants of Nymeria. Your true home is Starfall on the Summer Sea. That was the last place Queen Nymeria fought to bring peace to her country. It was also one of her most prized homes. She would spend countless hours staring out at the sea from the parapets of Starfall. It is said that the ancestral sword Dawn was actually hers and that the blade turned pale once she had no more use of it.
"But that too, is another story," he chuckled softly, winking up at her.
She smiled down at him, the rich flowers now mingling with her dark hair and enhancing her eyes.
Then she made an imperious little gesture that he should continue. Whether she meant he was to continue to lead the horse, or to continue the tale was unclear. She probably meant both.
Corryn snorted playfully, raising an eyebrow to her little motion. "I see the lady is getting into the role of nobility," he joked. "Let us hope it means she'll wear her shoes to dinner."
Limosa pouted and wriggled her bare feet.
Corryn smirked and grabbed her toes, tickling them lightly. "I know they're beautiful… but nobility are a stuffy lot."
He could not take his eyes off her. Sitting atop her mount, flowers in her hair, the up-turned nose and questing eyes, Limosa did look every bit the Dornish princess. And he should know having courted several in his time. Or better put, he'd been the target of their affections. One did not court a Dornish woman so much as be chosen by her. They were a haughty lot, to be sure. But with that came an unquenchable passion for life. They fought hard and loved even harder. They were, in a word, intoxicating.
Before she grew impatient, he chuckled to himself. "But the princess demands and so the princess shall have. But what story did you want? The civil war, the blade of Dawn, ot how she fell in love with Mors Martell?"
She seemed to hesitate ... her interest clearly balanced between the last two. Then suddenly she clasped one hand over her heart and gave him a mock sorrowful look - clearly she thought this apposite for love. But she marred it by giving a wicked giggle immediately afterwards.
Still, her decision had clearly been in favour of the love story.
Corryn nodded to her, secretly glad she'd chosen the love story. He was in the mood for romance. She stirred it in him, lightening his heart of its many burdens. And for once, this love story ended well. He patted her knee and smiled.
"Several years after Nymeria's fleet landed on the Broken Arm, the success of her empire-building began to lag. This really had nothing to do with her prowess or cunning, for she was a brilliant strategist. Perhaps one of the greatest the Seven Kingdoms has even known. However, the Dornish are a prickly lot. Despite their unwavering belief in personal freedom, they also have a desire to be led. They needed a royal family to support, a true cause to belong to, if you will. Sunspear needed a future and that would require a true queen.
"So, even as Nymeria conquered tribe after tribe, dissensions began to enflame old grudges and ignite revolts within her realm. For every step forward she made, Nymeria needed to return to put out the fires within her own ranks. She realized, like it or not, she would soon have to take a husband and begin a true Dornish legacy."
He sighed faintly, his smile souring for a moment. "Love, like memory, is a cunning hunter. You can never be sure if it is stalking you and what face it will wear when it comes. But once its talons sink into your heart, you cannot escape its grasp. You will do foolish things for love and never question why. And love was stalking Nymeria. And when it pounced, she was completely at its mercy."
Corryn swatted a horsefly away and continued, "Between the Greenblood River and the Sea of Dorne there is a range of mountains. They have many names, but those that live in their rugged shadows call them the Wolf's Teeth for the red wolves that stalk them. But not all wolves walk on four legs.
"One such wolf was Mors Martell. The dark-haired warrior had been a thorn in Nymeria's side for almost a year. His raids came like lightning, rushing out of the north only to fade back into the crags and valleys of the Teeth. She may as well have been fighting a sandstorm. But fight she did. It became a game for them, one outmaneuvering the other, ruse within ruse, feint following feint. It was like a dance, a subtle type of foreplay, if you will. Two minds, two wills entwined. But finally, Nymeria's cunning won out. She lured Mors from the protection of his valleys with a caravan rich with oils and gold. While he attacked it, she closed his escape route and waited for his inevitable return, which was much slowed due to his ill-gotten gains. Seeing he had been outmaneuvered, Mors agreed to parley rather than waste lives senselessly. Or so it would appear."
Corryn winked up at Limosa, hiding his knowing smile poorly. "Nymeria and Mors met on a rocky hill that overlooked the valley. She was dressed in her traditional Rhoynar dress of flowing red and gold silks. It is said she appeared like the setting sun as she climbed the hill to the parley tent, delicate fire taken human form. No man could have resisted her beauty and that was her intent. Wars were won in the heart. But she did not know that two hearts would be lost that day.
"As she walked into the tent, Nymeria found Mors waiting for her. She could never have imagined the man standing before her now. She had thought he would be some savage mountain man, a rogue, a thief, a barbarian. Mors was none of these things. He was dressed in the finest Rhoynar clothing, imported from across the Narrow Sea; blues and black with silver embroidery. His black-hair had been pulled back and braided in the Dornish tradition. But it was his hazel eyes, so deep and knowing, that drew her to him. He was the night to her day, the shadow to her light. Here stood a nobleman, a prince. A man to be respected. Before he uttered a single word, Nymeria wanted this man for her own."
Corryn grinned broadly up at Limosa, making sure she noticed the hazel in his eyes. With a playful wink, he continued on, drifting between voices as if he were summoning the very spirits of Nymeria and Mors.
"Mors bowed to Nymeria, offering her ice wine and dolma so they might sit and speak over dinner. She accepted, allowing him to hold her chair as she sat. He served her and then smiled strangely from across the table. His hazel eyes sparkled. 'Princess Nymeria. Long have we quarreled needlessly. Today, I wish there to be only peace between us for this moment forward. So, will you surrender your army to me?'
"Nymeria nearly choked on the dolma she'd just put to her perfect lips. 'Surrender to you?' she balked. 'Dear sir, I think the sun has muddled your senses. It is you that will surrender to me.' Mors simply smiled and took her hand in his. His fingers were gentle and warm, a noble's hands. Like gossamer, Nymeria felt herself float alongside him as Mors took her outside. She was drunk on his touch, his smell, his presence.
"And then, he lifted his arm, pointing to the opposite hill. 'Watch' he whispered into her ear, suddenly close. Nymeria did so and as the sun finally died, she noticed the red rocks along the hilltop… move. They stood up; hundreds of them, slipping off their painted skins. What she had thought were stones were actually men and women in camouflage. From their position, they could rain down arrows and spears upon her army with little fear of a counter-attack. For the first time in her life, she had been outmaneuvered.
"Mors lifted her hand and kissed her fingers, those hazel eyes dragging her down into their depths. 'I have never met one such as you, Princess,' he said. 'You nearly had me with your trap. Were it not for my spies, this dance would have ended differently.' Nymeria turned to him, narrowing her eyes, 'What will you have me do, ser?' Mors only smiled. 'Dine with me tonight.' 'Dine with you?' she said skeptically. 'Simply dine with me, my Princess.' She felt a blush rise to her cheeks. 'But what of our armies?' she said. 'I will send my troops back into the hills. None will know what might have happened, but us. You have shown me you are more than a match for me in the field. I have never met one like you. A she-wolf of beauty and cunning. I would like to know the woman that I dreamt of the last year.'
"And so they dined, talked, and played (chess) into the night. It had been years since a man could make Nymeria laugh, but laugh she did. And so too did Mors. He became intoxicated with her stories of another land and her adventures there. He shared her dream of a unified Dorne under one banner. And moment by moment, word by word, touch by touch, they fell hopelessly in love with each other.
"When the dawn came, they walked out of the tent, hand in hand to greet it. And there they shared their first kiss. A tender embrace shared by familiar souls. Mors held Nymeria as the dawn grew into day. He whispered, 'I pledge myself to you. My equal, my superior, my friend, my queen. I will be at your side forever and beyond.' And he was."
Corryn smiled up at Limosa, his hazel eyes catching the morning light. "It is said, when they finally married, Mors gave Nymeria a blade of Valyrian steel. He called it Dawn, in memory of that first kiss. It would become a symbol of their marriage and their rulership. A symbol of the indomitable will to accomplish in impossible. A symbol of their people, forged in battle and fire. But mostly, it was an eternal reminder of a man and woman in love."
He fell quiet then, staring down the road. Corryn sighed inwardly, unable to look up at her. He savored the silence, but yearned to hear a voice.
Unfortunately, the voice he heard was not the voice he wanted. It was the flat, rather nasal tones of Ferret who he had appointed to tend the wagon.
"Ser? Ser?" The man was hurrying up towards Corryn where he stood with his hand on Limosa's bridle. "We have a problem, Ser."
"Bollocks and damnation," Corryn muttered. "It isn't serious is it, Ferret? Has someone taken a fall?"
He smiled apologetically at Limosa and led her horse in the direction Ferret pointed. He made sure to keep a steady hand on the horse's bridle. The last thing he needed was for Limosa or someone else to startle the horse and have it take off.
Limosa, however was riding most docilely, content to be led.
"The traces snapped on the wagon," said Ferret lugubriously. "Take the best part of the morning to fix 'em, it will. We'll be lucky to get there afore night fall."
"Bollocks and damnation!" Corryn growled. "We've already tarried enough on this fool's errand. And a band of armed men marching in at night is not a sight most people wish to see."
He waved his hand dismissively, "It's not your fault, sorry. Just make sure we get through this as soon as possible. If you need any help, don't be afraid to get me."
Corryn patted the man's back and sent him on his way. He waved Phalan over, shaking his head and half-laughing. "We are destined to suffer, my friend. Have the men take a rest, but keep them watching the trees. Oversee the wagon's repair, would you? And if I can do anything to speed it up, come get me."
Phalan nodded. "I'm thinking we'd best be prepared for a second night in the woods," he said seriously before he headed off.
"And thank you for that kick in the sack," Corryn grumbled. "Push it if we can. If not, so be it."
He clenched his fist and let out a blistering stream of swears under his breath. Fortunately, years of being around children had taught him how to vent his frustrations without much sound. Satisfied that somewhere dogs were curling their ears in pain from the inaudible curses, Corryn sighed and let it pass.
Smiling apologetically, he looked up at Limosa. "Well, my dear, we are stuck for the moment. Perhaps you should come down and stretch your legs for awhile. Give your horse a chance to rest."
He offered her his arms to help her down.
The start of her descent was easy and elegant enough - Limosa had clearly been used to scrambling around Leaning Tower. But when her feet touched the ground her expression changed and she let out a sound between a gasp and a groan as the under-exercised muscles took their revenge for her having ridden for so long, and she collapsed forward into Corryn's arms, unable to stand upright.
Corryn had Limosa around the waist and caught her weight before she could stumble. He pulled her to him, his face being buried in her sweet-smelling hair. As her legs continued to give out beneath her, he lifted her up into his arms. "Put your arm around my neck," he said softly. "We'd better get you sitting before the cramps begin. I'm sorry, my dear. I should have known this would happen."
He carried her off the road and away from the others. He found a small clearing of soft moss and wild flowers, bathed in the afternoon light. For a moment, he didn't wish to let her go. The weight and warmth of her body against him felt too familiar, too agreeable. He wanted nothing more than to cradle her against him and savor the quiet together. But that would be selfish of him.
Corryn set her down on a soft patch of moss and knelt in front of her. "I'm sorry, Limosa. I forgot that your legs might not have been up to a long ride. I need to massage the muscles before they lock up. This may hurt a little, so if you need me to stop, just smack me or something."
With his long fingers, he began to massage her left ankle, seeking out the knots that were forming. He couldn't really look at her as he did so. She might see the confusion in his eyes.
At first she was startled, and pulled her foot back. But, as he persisted, she relaxed and stretched her foot this way and that, clearly enjoying the unaccustomed sensation. She took to massage, it seemed, rather like a cat to stroking, revelling in the sensuous pleasure of it, for it was possible that, for many, many years her mother's feeble hands had been the only touch she had enjoyed.
Corryn couldn't help but smile as she began to relax. He worked the knots out of her leg, moving up as far as would seem appropriate and civil. He also noted that she would need to definitely gain some weight and muscle. Years of being malnourished had certainly taken their toll on the poor thing.
He moved to the other leg and smiled up at her. "You seem to be enjoying yourself far too much," he chuckled. He wiggled her big toe and then the next, making it into a game. This playfulness relaxed him as well, so he began to massage her feet, even though she likely didn't need the attention. A coy smile grew as he used his thumbs to tease the soft pad and in-step.
Somewhere in the back of his head, Corryn could hear a tiny voice admonishing him for this. After all, in his past, such massages had led to far more than simple foot care. You are truly a cad, he thought. But the thought certainly didn't outweigh watching her feline contentment.
His own conscience might have prepared to allow him to take this innocent foot massage further.
A disapproving cough behind him suggested that others might not be so willing.
Phalan was standing behind him, watching his leader with disapproval. Corryn had realised that the Laughing Knives had decided to protect his daughter, Limosa Manderly. What he had failed to appreciate was that - if they thought it necessary - they would protect her from Corryn.
Corryn chuckled with bemusement and patted Limosa on the knee. "That should help, my dear. Take it slow getting up this time."
She rose with a wince but - as it was accompanied by a rueful smile - it seemed that she was a little recovered from her injuries.
He glanced over at his shoulder and narrowed his eyes slightly. To be chastised by a man with six wives did seem a tad discourteous, if not hypocritical. And yet he was glad for the interruption. The girl was beautiful, true. He'd easily fall in love with her, also true. But would he? Doubtful. He knew it could never be. And this time, he would side on propriety rather than emotion.
He stood up and brushed moss and leaves from his knees. "You have good news, I hope," he said flatly.
"Well," said Phalan, with a hesitation that Corryn knew only too well. "Good, that is, and bad. In a manner of speaking."
He rushed on. "The bad's that Bardon doesn't think the trace will be reapired before the sun is well past the zenith. And the good - Kolin's scouted ahead and found a fine camping place - not three leagues from Holdfast, he reckons."
"The Freys moved more quickly," he muttered angrily. Exhaustion and frustration were mixing into deadly venom in his blood. "Fine. We'll set up camp where Kolin suggests, but I don't like it. Godfrey would have expected me days ago. And Volf is probably on the verge of panic by now. Considering Syndra's propensity for dramatics and his adoration for her, only the Stranger knows what trouble the boy has gotten into by now. Bollocks and damnation, why am I thusly cursed?"
He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingertips. He knew exactly why, after all. He had seduced another man's wife. Although it was true love, it was still a sin. And he seemed destined to pay for it.
"Phalan," he said, "Take Limosa back to the camp, would you please. I need to be alone for awhile."
And with that, he stalked off.
For Corryn, the day was one of self-reflection. He spent his time wandering through the trees and shadows, trying to still the rage in his heart. He did not even truly understand what had spawned this seething anger; not at first. The delay had nothing to do with these feelings, not truly anyhow. The wagon had only been an excuse, a trigger, a focus for his spite.
But the truth was far subtler. Too much had happened in the last few days that had been out of his control. Too much in his life, if he was honest with himself. And now long dead emotions were returning. Emotions he thought had been buried away, never to return.
Fate played cruel hands. One could no more avoid that fact than dance on a cloud. You couldn't control what came your way. But one should be able to control their emotions. They needed to be tamed, corralled… stifled. And some more than others. Emotions, especially love, led down a dangerous road; one he refused to travel again. And yet, here he stood at the road's beginning once more. Limosa had reawakened something in him best left cold and lifeless; an emotion that should have remained with his heart-wife and child. And as perilous as that road was, as wrong as it was, Corryn found himself considering walking it.
"You are a weak, old man," he muttered to the empty forest. And finally, he understood the true heart of his anger. It was himself. After all these years, Corryn thought he would have learned by now. Worse yet, he could not escape himself.
He sat on a rock and stared into the summer sky. Had he wings, he would have fallen into it and let himself be swallowed by a sea of blue and white. But he had no wings, only memories and sorrows. So he wrapped his heart in them to dampen the flame that should not be there, that could not be there. And by the time that flame had died out, so too had the light.
When he returned in the cool dark of evening, it was to be challenged by two of his men. The camp had been made and - it appeared, supper had been cooked. The aroma of meat hung heavy in the air - but it was not this which was most unusual.
As he walked closer, he heard the sound of singing, quiet singing of several male voices and, accompanying this, the breathy note of pipes.
Corryn smiled faintly at the guards, acknowledging their dutiful nature. He paused to talk with them briefly before moving into the camp. Hunger drove him now. With luck, he could find a meal and then return to his place beneath Limosa's wagon. As much as he didn't wish to see her right now, he would not shirk his responsibilities to her any longer.
The singing warmed him more than the fires and a smile crept to his face despite himself. But the pipes caught his attention almost immediately. He did not recall the sound from previous nights. So, curious, he sought their source amongst the faces of the Laughing Knives.
And then he saw her, sitting close to the fire. The Knives had covered a fallen trunk with rugs and she sat on it as if it was a throne. Kolin was lying stretched out at her feet like an overgrown puppy; Phalan stood against a tree nearby, smiling benevolently.
And it was Limosa who was playing the wooden pipes, coaxing a warm, breathy sound from them, as mellow as her voice might be, should she ever regain the power of speech.
The Maiden wishes to play me like a puppet, Corryn thought bitterly. A dancing toy for her amusement. And dance I shall, it would appear.
He watched the young woman delight the men with her skill and beauty. The Fey blood surely ran in Limosa's veins. She may as well have been a woodland nymph, a dryad, a siren. Men were drawn to her ethereal grace and feral power. And he was no exception. Here was a woman he could marry and never regret doing so. Worse yet, he suspected Morna would be happy at the match. It felt like a cold knife in his stomach, twisting around. Why did love have to be so painful?
There could have been only one person who taught her the skill; only one person she could have played for - her mother.
But now she played old beloved melodies that many of the Laughing Knives had probably not heard since they too were children. And they sang quietly, or hummed along, and gazed into the embers, and remembered.
Then she looked up and saw him, and her face lit up.
Corryn smiled proudly to her, hoping she wouldn't notice the tears brimming in his eyes. Remembrance had struck him to the quick. Limosa had chosen one of the tunes he had sung to soothe his child in order to give Morna some rest from the incessant kicking. Not that it had really worked, mind you. She'd always burst out laughing at his poor rendition and mocked him throughout. He had been forced to kiss her to silence her, which had probably been her intention all along.
Damn you, Maiden, he grumbled. When will you give me peace?
Corryn straightened up and began to clap. "Bravo," he called. "Encore, we beg of you, m'lady!"
With luck, the encouragement would inspire her to continuing playing. That would grant him a few moments reprieve. But luck rarely favored him these days.
She took the pipe from her lips to look up at him - and for a moment it seemed that she would break off now he was here. But there she nodded, put the pipe back to her lips, and began to play again - a dance tune so infectious that several of the younger Knives showed every inclination to get up and dance on the spot.
Corryn felt the music overcome him and steal his reason. Before he knew it, he was amongst the men, dancing a jig with the best of them. He couldn't remember the last time he'd reveled in the simple pleasures, but they returned to him like an old friend. He linked arms with Jeffery and spun around in a wild display of skill and laughter.
The night was drawing in and the shadows lengthening. When Limosa set down her pipe to eat, Corryn saw that she was covertly watching him and imitating his actions. Although she had laughed at his jesting the day before, she had also understood the lesson, it seemed.
Corryn smiled softly to himself, trying not to let her catch on to his observations. Secretly, he was deeply pleased that she was beginning to emulate him. He could not have hoped for more. With time and her dogged persistence, Limosa would undoubtedly become a true lady of the courts. One step at a time, though. And each step gave him consummate joy.
With Holdfast so close now, and ready to be gained on the morrow, no-one wished to linger too much longer after supper. It was not long before the Laughing Knives set about retiring for the night.
He offered her his arm after saying his goodnights and thanks to the men. She slipped in beside him as if they'd walked together for a thousand summer nights. It felt wonderful beyond words, so he savored the silence until they were away from the fires and almost to the wagon. Finally, he squeezed her fingers warmly and smiled.
"Thank you for tonight, my dear," he said honestly. "You really have lightened our spirits and renewed our strength." She could easily tell he was speaking more for himself than the others. As he stared into her eyes, all he wished to do was kiss her. It was an overpowering need, but a foolish one. Logic, fortunately, won out.
"Tomorrow, I would like for you to wear your fine dress. We need to make an impression as we enter the halls of Holdfast. People will be looking to you, especially Lady Hardy. I know you will make me proud."
Her expression did not suggest that making him proud was high among her desires at the moment, for she cast a decidedly wistful glance downwards at the breeches she was wearing.
He touched her cheek, grinning with enormous respect. "You make me proud with every moment, Limosa."
Corryn lightly kissed her on the spot his finger had touched and then pulled away. "Good night," he whispered, moving to crawl beneath the wagon.