(122-04-06) Hijinx in the Hills

Hunter's home is a fort in the hill Country in the land that was long ago in dispute between the Red King and the Marsh King. The Fort itself has been held by several Houses over the Millenia, but is currently in the hands of the Moustons, who are Bolton Bannermen. There castle has been damaged and rebuild any number of times over the centuries, rock from older incarnations used to build latter towers and battlements. The patchwork of styles and stones gives it an odd look close up, but with the moss grown over sections, it blends rather well with the surrounding hills. The Fort itself is build on the edge of a cliff with a winding path rising in a spiral to give defenders plenty of time to see approaching forces and perhaps toss boulders down at intervals. There is a village at the foot of the hill with carefully tended gardens and apiaries. The hills, including the castle hill are peopled by sheep and goats and the occasional shepherd, while the men and a number of women can be seen out tending the fields in the valley. I looks peaceful enough at the moment. Heads do come up to see the Stark and his entourage, but there is no sign of alarm amoung the small folk. In the village, a woman is setting out benches for serving ale when folk come in to the field, while many other women are tending gardens or spinning in the good afternoon light.

Carolis sent word ahead to the fort that he is coming. He will leave his men in the village and go alone. He still has faith in the laws of hospitality, but if there is treachery, his brother's loyal men won't die for it. Carolis stops where the woman is setting out benches. "Goodwoman, Have you lodgings for my men? We would compensate you for your trouble." He glances toward the fort. He'll find out if Hunter has received his message. And if he intends to see him in one piece.

As it turns out, the woman finished brewing the ale that day and she can promise to find the men places to sleep about the village. "I can take one myself and I'm sure the Rob Baker and Craig Miller can each take two. When they come in from the fields I'll see who else has hearth space." She is a heavy built woman of middle years with impressively strong arms and nearly as impressive bosom. There are several small children in evidence, and she has a proper house with a widow's loft and everything. She gives the men a stern look, tells them they will have no monkey business and tries to get them lifting the cauldron for her and the like in exchange for fresh ale with their suppers. She has the mother of eight death glare and can hit hard with that big stirring spoon.

It is quite a walk up to the Castle gate, the last eighty yards right up against the cliff. Heads can be seen poking over the top, but no arrows or large stones rain down and the gate is open. A harried looking man in Mouston colors with a very long mustache is waiting at the gate, looking rather red faced and sweaty.

Carolis glances to the men, and as he dismounts, he hands Midnight off to the one who will be staying at the stable. At least the man has heavy leather gloves Midnight hasn't managed to bite through. Yet. He doesn't have to tell them he expects their best behavior. They know full well what Lord Carolis expects. They will be courteous, they will be virtuous, and they will render assistance if it is needed — yes, on top of Lord Carolis leaving each boarder coin to cover costs and then some. Cregan's battlefield is out there against armored men with swords and bows. Carolis' is in alehouses and great halls. Leaving his men to one, he makes his way to the other. The Cat is watchful as he goes. He keeps an eye on those sheer walls from which boulders have been known to 'accidentally' fall.

Luckily the Miller does have a stable for his mules, which he is willing to empty to make space for the horses. There is pasturage and a boy can keep an eye on the beasts. The man sqints at the lone man approaching, "Lord Carolis Stark? My Lady bids you welcome, and will great you shortly. Do you thirst? It's cooler within."

Carolis wishes Midnight on no smallfolk, lucky for the boy. Unlucky for his man, guess who gets to keep an eye on the gorgeous nightmare? That's right. Lord Carolis pauses before the gate. He may be a slender shadow of his brother, but when he approaches the man, his stride is sure, and his bearing is that of a man who has used that sword on his hip a time or two. Tall, pale, with a stern brow and watchful eye. They jokingly call this one the Blue Winter Rose? What kind of roses do they grow in Winterfell? "I won't trouble your servants," he says with a small smile. "There will be plenty of time to drink when we've broken bread."

The man is a full head shorter than Lord Carolis and grey of hair. He does have an old warrior's way of moving, with a slight limp on the left and a stiffness about the way he holds his shield arm, but he seems spry enough for all that. He nods warily, "Food is being readied. We noticed your approach. Would you like to wash up or ought else?" He does lead the way through the narrow corridor between gates, where archers peer down at them through the slits. The force that got this far would have had to brave arrows, rocks and boiling oil while trying to batter down that gate, then knocked down the second with yet more arrows raining down. The Moustons take the defence of hunter's home seriously, it seems. The second gate is also open, and no death rains down on the Blue Winter Rose. There is a small courtyard on the other side with stables, aviary, and kennel. There is a Large door on the side away from the cliff leading to what looks like the great hall, from the bustle going on within. The man leads the Stark towards another door at the far side on the rectangular courtyard. In a real siege, this two would be another kill box, with archers shooting down from the crenelated Great hall Roof, the Guard Tower, and the arrow slits of the keep. The man is noticeable nervous as he limps towards that far door.

"I wouldn't object to an opportunity to wash," Carolis says. He follows, looking around with polite interest (and taking in every defensible position and weak point). "Your Lady has a fine house," he mentions. As the man becomes more nervous, Carolis takes a keener look along the walls of the killbox. Where is the archer? Where would *he* be if he were going to murder a man standing where the limping old soldier is leading him? Assuming the archer shoots with a normal man's dominant hand, where would he have the best cover?

The man explains, "The Lord is away with his sons…. It is an old redoubt, but we are proud of it. Not fashionable like you are used to in the South, I expect…" Oh there are archers. There are two in the guard towers the Lord and the Guard Captain just passed between, one in each. There are at least two, possibly more on the Great hall's roof, and from a glint here or there at least two straight ahead in the bit of keep that sticks out all the way to the wall. No hounds bark or howl in the kennel. The stable is quiet, though it has an inhabited feel. The court is clean swept and the sun beats down, bright enough to make the keep door ahead a pool of perfect black. Anyone could be there waiting.

Carolis doesn't bother concealing his glances. Let the archers know they've been made. Lord Carolis is quick on his feet and he's got a human shield walking just ahead of him. "Fashion is a convention of people with more money than sense," Carolis says. "The houses in the South are too open, with broad windows and open archways. It is always nice to see a real home." One with a kill box. He holds his chin high as he continues into the trap he knows is coming. Yes, he sees you rascals. Take it as one will that he continues forth without so much as flinching anyway.

No arrows rain down, though both gates clang shut behind. The Guard Captain tries and fails to conceal his jump in response. He steps into the dark first, and though surely he is temporarily blinded moves forward into shadow.

Carolis, once his glances are given, shades his eyes with his hand as they close the distance, and in the last few paces, he closes his eyes and follows the guard's footsteps. He promptly opens them with the shadows fall over him. He may not be able to prevent being blinded at first, but the sooner his eyes can adjust, the better.

The guard standing there in a space perfectly designed for a surprise throat slitting doesn't. Instead he falls into step beside Lord Carolis. The Guard Captain goes left into a quite nice audience hall with a set of arches dividing the larger space with the far end with festively painted pillars in a style popular twelve hundred years ago. The vestibule was shaded by an over hanging balcony, but here there are high large windows, using the cliff as a better defense than arrow slits could. Until the dragons came, no enemy could possibly use these against the defenders, though there are heavy shudders thrown against a future Winter folded back. A refreshing breeze blows in from the gorge and it really is pleasant in here. Folk needing light for fine work are here, the benches not having been cleared for formal audience. On the other side of the arches sit three women working on a tapestry and some younger ones doing simpler needlework. The three women range from a curvy woman of about twenty with thick curly hair attempting to escape braid rolls, a rather Hellan looking woman, sharp of eye with most of her chestnut hair up in a snood, and a rosy cheeked woman with hair as white as the Wall and vivid blue eyes. The folk look up from their tasks and hurry to bow or curtsey. The three with the tapestry take a long moment to study the stranger Lord. The older two do it as a man might look at a horse of dubious provenance offered up for sale. The youngest looks him over and gives a rather amused pout. There is no door at all on the great hall side, though a fireplace is set in that wall. Stairs in a defensive spiral rise on the cliff side behind the slight dais on which the tapestry women sit with their work spread between them. The Guard Captain does not relax at all.

Carolis doesn't relax as such; that would imply he was tense in the first place. As is, he merely permits himself to dial back the vigilance a notch. But only a notch. He has a warm smile on his lips when he spies the women. He inclines his head to them with genteel respect to ladies of their station. The pale-haired one merits a peripheral study. Targaryen? Her pout gets a slight broadening of his smile. "A pleasant day to you ladies," he says, regarding them each as a fine jewel in a crown he does not intend to wear. He looks to the Captain of the Guard and arches a brow a the man quizzically. Well, man? He is here, alone and defenseless. Do introduce him to his doom.

The Guard Captain clears his throat and announces, "Lord Carolis Stark, heir to Winterfell." A more serious, less light dazzled inspection will show the pale haired one has many fine wrinkles and her hands show significant aging. The high neck of her gown helps to hide her age by hiding her neck. If she were wearing gloves, it would be hard to place her age at all, as she is either very well preserved or started out blonde and went white young. More likely a bit of both. Which doesn't rule out Valyrian blood. Certainly, she holds herself like a Queen, though her accent suggests the Vale rather than Dragonstone or Kingsport. She has an air of command about her, an expectation of strict obedience. "Come closer so we might see you better." She does not say "Lad," though her tone implies it. The dark one has taken a rather obvious interest in either the cut of Lord Carolis doublet or his person. It is hard to tell which. The chestnut is impassive. The Guard continues, "Lord Carolis, this is the Dowager Lady Quinna. Lady Mouston, and her daughter Lady Lylla." The man standing behind Lord Carolis shifts uneasily and the Guard Captain is still sweating despite the refreshing breeze.

Carolis cannot wait until Cregan has a son. Whenever he hears himself called the Heir to Winterfell, it makes him wince a little inside. Not that he would ever show it. The Lady's ruse gets a boyish smile from him, and he steps forward to offer her a deeper bow, one more suited to her station. And to Lady Mouston in turn. These men are terrified. Carolis has to admit he's impressed. "It is an honor and a privilege, Ladies." He never thought he would feel such gratitude having spent time among Targaryens, but doing so has rather given him a callous over the part of his soul that fears their madness.

The Dowager gives Lord Carolis a smile that likely had men throwing themselves at her feet in her youth, and still could make a man's heart beat faster. "Surely you must be thirsty, Lord Carolis. May I offer you ale? Cider? We have a cool tisane sweetened with honey as well if that is more pleasing." The Lady of the Fort gives him a grim little smile, "There are amusements planned for you later. I fear they will not be as grand as you are used to." She does not quite conceal her contempt, letting just enough show to convey her feelings without being broad enough that one could point directly at it. The dark haired daughter rises. She must have her father's lips as they are full and plump and bright, while her mother's lips are rather thinner and paler. The Folk that were working in the larger portion of the room are still standing, heads lowered, not a one scratching at fleas or fidgeting.

Carolis certainly isn't blind to the beauty of a silver fox, and the smile he gives her in return, under the pretense of serene amiability, has made lord and lady alike catch their breath. It's the small glint that does it, in those clear blue eyes. The one that says 'whatever you're thinking, the answer might well be yes.' "To stand in your presence at all is as grand as I could ask, Lady Quinna. Truly, I am honored that you have received me. I would break bread and raise a cup with you gladly. Ale sounds fine, indeed."

Lady Quinna's smile has a hint of amusement to it. Something in her eyes says she knows exactly what Lord Carolis is doing, but is more amused by it than not. The Dark haired Lady plays cup bearer, pouring a cup for Lord Carolis from a ewer. It is pewter, but well worked with a spiral design for decoration at lip and base. The ale is likely yesterday's, but is surprisingly cool. She is curvy, with a flirtatious sway to her hips. Her eyelids lower, long black lashes shielding her eyes. Lady Quinna lifts a cup of her own in matching style and Lady Mouston does the same. The Dowager says, "To our fine young guest. May he find must pleasure between our walls."

There is nothing obviously off about the smell or look of the ale, though ale colour and smell can vary widely. They have not offered bread and salt. This House is sworn to Bolton, but have ties further South in the Marshes, but neither the Dowager nor Lady Mouton are native to the North from their accents, the one being of the Vale and the other likely being from the Northern bit of the Riverlands. Who knows where their allegiances are and with the men gone…. Outright obvious murder is unlikely unless Lord carolis does something really foolish, but with all the unrest in the north just now, they could sell the Winterfell heir to a larger house with a bigger stake. Ransoming him directly to his brother would make little sense, though if they believe the Heir is raising an army to take Winterfell for himself, they might take the rebel prisoner on his brother's behalf. Assuming they are loyal to Lord Stark, that is. There are so many unknowns here, and the house was chosen for this visit based on the politics of the menfolk.

But of course, Lady. It is of course a touch suspicious that the bread for breaking is absent. It would not be untoward for a man of Carolis' standing to demand it be brought forth before any further words be spoken. Those quick eyes notice the ewer, and that he's not seen the women pour from it. One brow arches, and it could be the most innocent of quirks. He raises the cup, and he says, "To our lovely and gracious hostess. May I prove worthy of such pleasure." He takes a drink. They aren't going to kill him, and if the lady is acting against the will of the menfolk, she'll play her hand close to her chest for now. He's banking on that rumor of an army being a possible point of interest. It's why he took the risk coming here. That, and a hunch. He's not the tactician his brother is, but he knows people. He knows Bolton would have taken far more advantage of this House than he has. Mind, he doesn't drink deeply. He rarely does. A swallow taken quickly in the mouth and slowly down the throat. He's brave. He's curious. But he's not stupid.

Both older women drink with Lord Carolis, Lady Quinna with an amused smile, Lady Mouston with a quirk of her brow and a hind of approval. Lady Mouton gestures to one of the women folk and she scurries out through a doorway in the recess with the stairs. Clearly there must be a door hidden behind the dais wall. She returns quickly with good brown bread on a platter and a dish of salt. Lady Quinna breaks off a piece, sprinkles the tiniest portion of salt possible and eats. The Lady Mouston does likewise. The Lady Lylla breaks a portion off, sprinkles it in that same careful way, salt being expensive inland, and offers it to Lord Carolis, with a blush.

The ale is dark and bitter and strong, with a touch of heather to it. It is cool in a way that suggests they must have an ice cellar somewhere.

When the bread comes out, Lord Carolis takes his portion and, mindful of the North's scarcity, wastes not a single grain of salt as he sprinkles sparingly. Then he eats. and he's got enough class he doesn't even visibly relax. It's not like he's *entirely* surprised he's still conscious. It was definitely a possible outcome. Though he also muses on the finer points of the laws of hospitality, one being that anything that happens prior to breaking bread doesn't count. The ale could be drugged, but the swallow he takes right now? That's covered under the 'don't poison me and I won't stab you' rule. And it *is* good ale, especially after a long walk. "I say again you're too kind, Lady Quinna. It's a fair walk from the village, and nothing makes a man feel at ease like a cup of good Northron ale at the end of it."

No one snatches the cup from his hand to prevent further harm, so likely the ale is fine. Lady Lylla watches Lord Carolis' mouth as he eats and his neck as he swallows. She is only a head shorter than the Stark. her eyes are large and dark. Lady Quinna smiles again with eyes that suggest she has a good idea what he is musing about, "Would you like to wash up before dinner, Lord Carolis?" Lady Moulton has an expression of a darker sort of amusement, but that hint of approval is there as well. Lord Carolis seems to have passed the test. The Guard Captain does look less tense than he was heretofore.

Carolis drains the cup in another few swallows, and then he says, "Please, milady, if it's no trouble." Oh, he *likes* these three, and the thrill of the game is bright in his eyes. He only hopes the menfolk appreciate what they've got here. He has brought tokens of his appreciation, of course, meager though they may be. But first the washing. Polite, and with a youth's own innocence, he says, "If one could but direct me."

Lady Lylla ducks her head and puts an arm on his elbow, "It is this way, My Lord." Her accent is mostly of the Hill Country, but one can hear a hint of the accents of the other two strong women in her own. Her voice is alto, and a little husky, but musical. There is humor in her own voice and mischief in her eyes. She seems to be leading him back towards the stairs. Light comes from the cliff side mostly, and the stairs hug that wall. There are two doors in the recessed area, one in the Great hall side, and one straight back. Kitchen type sounds can be faintly heard through the latter and a muffled clatter through the former. The girl has a dark blue under dress and a kelly green surcoat with embroidered bits of animals and leaves done in a rather whimsical style in the trim. The Surcoat is rather modest by Southern standards, though the underdress clings in such away that it shows off her womanly curves.

Carolis has learned one of the most important things a man ever can while he's been in Oldtown: how to check out a lady without it being obvious. Those curves do not go unnoticed, and if this girl be half the woman her grandmother is, Carolis would be tempted to strongly reconsider his stance on marriage. When they pass the sound of clattering kitchen things, he says, "I do look forward to dining with you this evening, milady. It's a long road from Oldtown, and while my men are the finest you'd ever meet, I fear they are not known for being conversational." He would look innocent if not for that small smile. As though he could not, for the life of him, understand why Stark men would be taciturn.

The Lady gives him a smile so like her grandmother's that there is no question of who's she is despite the differences in their colouring. Then she is lightly stepping upstairs ahead of him in a way that is particularly attractive from behind, glancing over her shoulder as she talks, "We are not so isolated as one might think, nor at a loss for entertainment. We treat musicians and such well, so as to encourage them to make the trip though we be a bit out of the way.

Carolis does so appreciate the view. Politely. Looking is free if one is discreet, and he knows full well she's not exactly discouraging his notice. "As an amateur music maker, that is most definitely encouraging to hear, milady. Were I a minstrel, I would quite happily play within these walls for hours."

She gives him another of those dazzling smiles, "I would love to here you play, Lord Carolis. I do a bit of singing myself and play the harp." The chamber is small with a sturdy door barrable from within an a breathtaking view of the ravine. No hip tub here, alas, but there is a basin of cool clean water with some sprigs of mint floating in it for freshness. "Is there ought else I might offer you Lord Carolis?"

Carolis's smile is a dazzler as he says, near breathlessly, "I would love to hear you sing, milady, and to hear you play. If you would indulge me tonight at dinner with a song, I could repay the favor. I'm afraid I didn't bring an instrument, but we Starks manage to make do." He winks at her, like he's sharing some private joke. "I will not keep you from your duties, milady, but I do look forward to tonight."

Her smile is softer this time, yet warm and a little shy, "I would love to, My Lord. What… What instrument do you favour? I could see if we might supply you for the evening?"

Carolis tilts his head, and he might just be genuinely charmed. "I've been told I'm a dab hand at the violin, though I find the harp transcendent." He bows to her with utmost respect and says, "Truly Lady, whatever you lay before me, I will play for you. Your whim is my delight."

She gives him a shy but playful smile, "I shall set my own harp in your hands, My Lord and would be honored every after." she has dimples. Who knew?

Those dimples! Carolis knows well the peril they present. He has his own, see, and he deploys them without mercy. "I shall choose a song worthy of your honor. Until then, Lady," he says. "I wait with bated breath." Goodness, but she is lovely. At least he's matured beyond blushing when a beautiful woman notices him.

She blushes prettily, ad ducking her head darts off. The room is very clean, the linens fresh set. The tapestry is of a band of hunts riding over hills. A sharp eye might note that pikes are sticking up just over the rise. The shutters are open and the breeze carries in the country scents: wild flowers and growing things and a hint of goat.

Carolis takes particular notice of the pikes. Then his first order of business is the washing up. He wants to be presentable. There is no need to go to dinner in full armor. He'll wear the sword; a lord must be prepared to defend the ladies in his company. But the armor, the dense leather riding gear, the cloak… No. He prepares to come to dinner dressed in charcoal grey, a doublet influenced by Southron styles, yet distinctly Northern in color and the main cut. And, lest anyone forget just where he comes from, the pin he wears is a wolf's head old enough to predate the coming of the Andals. Back when the Starks were kings. Pretty little trinket, that.

Whatever lady sewed it had a dark sense of humor. There are all sorts of little touches like that once one looks. There is a wolf amoung the rearmost hounds. One of the hunters is slipping something into another's drinking horn. The eyes of the fox are disturbingly human. That sort of thing. As the sun begins to set, there is a light knock on the door. A servant girl, as it turns out, her clothes simple but neat, her braid tight to the back of her head, face fresh scrubbed and eyes down cast.

Carolis towers over the poor girl, and even with the crag factor dialed down, he still has the Stark eyebrows. His features do soften when he smiles, though. "Is it time?" he says. He doesn't check himself one last time. He knows how he looks. He does give the room one last glance, though. He knows exactly where he put everything, and he didn't bring anything with him that would incriminate anyone if it fell into unfriendly hands. He gathers up a few small parcels, guest gifts, and he tells the girl, "I'm ready." He'll follow her and try not to loom too much.

She curtsies, "I'm to escort you to My Lady first, if you will, My Lord."

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