|In the Eye of a Silver Direwolf|
|Summary:||… Lady Hellan Stark finds a difficult truth.|
|Related:||Kingsroad Crossroads, Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth, The Reason Why Not, The Wisdom of the Ancients, The Seventh Order, The Wolf in the Moonlight.|
Late upon the fourteenth day of the tenth month a group of riders from the north, universally well-mounted and every man among them with a hand near his sword or his bow, comes up Old Street to the Weirwood Manse.
In the very middle of their tight formation is what the untutored might take for a family. An older man, with a small boy riding in front of him; an older woman, dressed in a man's brigandine and leather; and two girls of an age to be married, their prettiness muted by long faces and sober dark gowns (one blue, one green) from which they've cut off the ribbons and the lace.
They were expected at some time this week; they are greeted and made acquainted with the ground floor of the premises with the minimum of fuss so beloved of northern hearts; the manse's skeleton staff of servants, the few left behind to tend Lady Hellan Stark when her kin left her all alone within these walls, seem temporarily unequal to the influx, but the newcomers would rather see to their own mounts anyway. They're a cagey lot, even within the strong walls of the Starks' Oldtown stronghold. They're reluctant even to entrust the girls' bundles of belongings to unknown hands. And the older woman, who names herself Eddara Ryswell of the Rills, insists before she has even got down from her bay courser's back that she must see Lady Hellan immediately. No, she won't wash up first. No, she won't have the lady called down to her.
On her own feet she limps heavily across the flagstones, leaning with each step upon a walking stick of dark ash with a copper knob burnished by her touch. She is weighted down on the other side by a heavy bag of waterproofed leather, from which emanates an unpleasant scent of decay. The girl in green hangs back, taking the little boy's hand to comfort him in this separation from his mother: the girl in blue follows Lady Ryswell, uncertainly, and so do half a dozen men with the horse's head sigil of her house tooled into their leathers.
She stops at the foot of the staircase of blackened wood which will lead her up to the first floor, and the library. She looks up it with an expression of dogged resentment, and mutters, "Wyll?" The men have halted just behind her; one, a greybeard whose solid figure is all muscle and whose eyes gleam with intelligence, takes a smart step forward. He is entrusted with the bag.
Step by step, holding tight to the bannister with one hand and her leg with the other, Lady Ryswell ascends the stairs. She doesn't say a word, or make a sound. Her lips are pressed together against the pain in a leg grown weaker and more treacherous than it has been in many years. The others follow, at a decorous distance, careful not to crowd her though one at least has his hands subtly lifted ready to catch her— but the precaution proves unnecessary. She surmounts this challenge. It's nothing compared with what must follow.
A servant announces her to Lady Hellan. She squares her shoulders and her jaw, and goes in. Her daughter follows, and Wyll with the odiferous bag held respectfully before him in both hands. The other men of the Rills form an honour guard at either side of the library door, and wait.
The Lady of the Rills is not an inconspicuous figure. Five feet and ten inches high, clad in dark brigandine over chainmail, her brigandine greaves steel-plated and her tasses steel-kneecapped, a longsword on her back and matched daggers at her belt, she exudes quiet, confident menace — the mingled scents of steel and sweat and horseflesh — and, in this present moment, a gravity fit to soak up what little light is in this shuttered chamber. She stops several paces away from Lady Hellan, facing her, and bows her head.
"My lady," she says quietly.
Behind her Ser Wyll bows deep; and Lady Bethany curtseys deeper.
The woman's voice that greets them is deep and resonant, and can hardly be said to be a greeting at all.
"Oh, you're here."
Dark and gloom seeps into every corner of the Weirwood's old library. Rather than make use of the best window in the manse, the daylight has been shuttered out but for a few sharp slivers of rich sunset, striking across the floor like wounds. Two candles, one brand new and one more than half-melted, struggle to cast a glow to a single side-table and the heavy armchair beside it. A stack of books, each older than the last, would block out the effort altogether if it was taller by one more tome; a tome which sits on a wooden writing board across the lap of Lady Hellan Stark. She sits stiff-backed in a posture made more rigid by the squared shoulders of her dress — cleanly made and Northern, its exact hue is lost to the shadows — and her head down as if she didn't hear the approach of the visitors. The many feet, some more certain than others, the creak and clank of armament and weaponry, the gait and tap of Eddara's walking stick ahead of them all. The servant who announced them hadn't even been glanced at.
She makes for an austere figure, this woman who can't even be bothered to look up, the former Battle-Axe of Bear Island: her paleness is a shock against the dimness of the room and the untamed, jet black hair that falls on either side of her chiseled face. There is an ashen undertone to her skin, a better match to the growing streaks of silver in her hair than the flush of blood and health that would be there in a more hale woman … but even as she is, there is an aura of unapproachable strength around her that has little to do with the physical.
Her gaze remains upon the pages of the open book — if she can even see it. The text is small, faded, and stained by water damage and simply the passage of time. She has been copying the text onto comparatively, though ink-smudged, pieces of parchment. Twice: once in the original Old Tongue, once in Common. She roves her gaze up slowly to Eddara and the others as if wondering, in irritation, why they're all lingering… or perhaps investigating at the scent that seems to follow the lot of them that differentiates itself so familiarly from horseflesh. Death. She replaces her quill in the inkpot, slowly and begrudgingly, which is also exactly how she says, "Lady Ryswell. I'm sure your daughter can be shown to her room…"
Lady Ryswell lifts her head only when she's spoken to, an unusual courtesy from a woman who has long been accustomed to the need to defend her prerogatives. She looks at Lady Hellan for a long moment, taking in the woman's thinness and her poor colour, and how far her hair has changed since last they met. Her eyes are sharp, concerned, inevitably full of foreboding. "My daughter," she explains gently, "has something to say to you also." She pauses. "Have you a friend or a kinsman in the manse, whom we might call to you?"
Hellan leans forward, her hands on either side of the wooden board, and the candlelight warms her face with yellow and hollows out eyes already etched deep in their sockets by exhaustion. She looks as though she hasn't slept for days, at the least. She hefts the board; the ink-pot and an empty cup rattle and jolt before she sets it on the side-table. With that out of the way, she's free to stare unblinking and demanding at Eddara, her dark brows tensing in. "No." Even for a Stark manse in a Southern city, Weirwood is uncommonly desolate; even if it were full to the brim with kinsmen, however, Hellan's dismissive answer would be the same. She rises, steady in absolute spite of her ill appearance, without breaking her gaze on Eddara. Lady Ryswell, who is acting distinctly aberrant. At first Hellan would not look up; now she will not look anywhere else. Not even at Bethany, who might as well not exist until she speaks. "And I don't know why you would, so you'd better out with it now."
'Out with it' is very much Lady Ryswell's own style. And so, looking into the eyes of the weakened but still fierce Mormont woman before her, implicitly accepting that Lady Hellan's own strength will be sufficient to the moment, she speaks. "Two nights past my camp was attacked by mercenaries of the Seventh Order, who call themselves the Dancing Men," she states, clearly and without faltering. "Your daughter Lady Genevra was among those slain. And by the old gods of the north I pledge to you my sword and the men at my command, to complete your vengeance upon her murderers."
Nothing. Hellan's only response is the twinge of her eyes at the corners, just so, pinning Eddara sharply. The other northwoman's pledge falls on deaf ears. It would only be necessary if her words were true, and they cannot be true — not to Hellan, whose stare grows with staid calculating mistrust and disbelief. "What is this?" she commands, voice low yet pitched to cut. "You speak nonsense. Genevra is in Winterfell."
Dark eyes narrow in Eddara Ryswell's broad, suntanned face. She stands propped up by her stick and sweating with the southern heat and the constant pain in her leg; she has one hand free, with which she unbuttons a pouch at her belt and removes from it some softly clinking metal object wrapped in a clean handkerchief. She offers it to Lady Hellan, without another word. She was prepared for this moment. She wouldn't have wanted to believe it either.
Inside the handkerchief is a silver direwolf necklace.
"… She saved my life," Lady Bethany suddenly bursts out, "twice." An anguished word, from a girl whose swollen eyes are hidden in shadow.
Hellan's gaze jumps to Bethany and regards her as though she is a strange, foreign creature saying strange, foreign things … and yet she can hear the truth in the girl's words, knowing her own daughter. Her disbelief falters but does not crumble; it only grows sharper edges. "Genevra is in Winterfell," she repeats to Eddara slowly and firmly as she reaches to take the handkerchief. "She wouldn't leave Winterfell to go south." The silver eye of the Stark direwolf looks back at her as she thumbs aside the delicate fabric. Further words seize in her throat.
Lady Ryswell turns: "Door," she says laconically to Ser Wyll, who deposits his bag on a broad table and proceeds with great stealth to the door to check whether the servant who showed them in is still lurking nearby.
"You," he says, pointing at the man. "Go." And, exchanging looks with the Ryswell men on guard, he draws the door firmly shut again. They will not be overheard, or disturbed, by anyone in Stark pay… or anyone else's.
"Listen to me, Lady Hellan," the Lady of the Rills goes on, quietly, gently, steadily, looking into the other woman's eyes and waiting for her to look back again. "If you didn't know she was coming south with me, or why — my conjecture is that someone in this manse is working for your enemies and mine, and was placed here to interfere with your correspondence on the assumption that distance between Oldtown and the north was so great that nobody would trouble to verify the details with you face-to-face… That," and she lets out a quiet huff of displeasure, "is why I proposed the journey and came in person. I believed that if I brought her to you she could not be married meanwhile, and that what was amiss, we could mend better with speech than with letters. I bear," and she looks as though it's bloody heavy, "the responsibility for the news I bring you. I shall not rest until she is avenged."
There are still far too many questions. The pieces don't fit together, and trying to make them fit is keeping Hellan away from truly seeing the reality at the center. Genevra. And so she barrels toward the truth, her every expression severe beneath the hard, angry press of her brows. Instead of asking the dozen urgent questions that spring to her tongue, she bites down, bearing in toward Eddara. "Tell me how it happened."
Lady Ryswell stands firm where she is — she doubts whether she could take another step, right now, without falling down. Better to stand. "It seems Lady Genevra could not sleep," she begins slowly, "and she was wandering the camp late in the evening, when they came upon us. She saw a man carrying my daughter away, and…" She looks to Lady Bethany, who has been standing awkwardly out of the way with her hands clasped tight in front of her waist.
"She jumped on his back," the girl puts in, eager now to expiate her pettiness during Lady Genevra's last days by speaking well of her after her death, "and she kept hitting him and hitting him till… till he dropped me," she swallows hard, "and then Aron attacked him and we both ran away through the tent."
Lady Ryswell picks up the narrative. "Lady Genevra gathered the young people together and told them what to do and where to go," a very nice way of saying she told them to run; "and they had almost found a way past the fighting when another of the bastards caught sight of Bethany and pulled her up onto her horse — Lady Genevra's horse he was, loosed with the others from the horse lines." She flicks a glance toward her daughter, to gauge how she's handling herself and her memories — she looks pale, and she's started wringing her hands again — her mother goes on in her stead. "Your daughter," she explains to Lady Hellan, "had her crossbow at hand, and she shot that man clear off her horse. My daughter is standing here now because of her courage and her true aim, the gifts of your Mormont blood in her veins. His brother saw what happened, and came for her. Very quick," she says sincerely, her gaze locked with Lady Hellan's, "and I believe she didn't see it coming."
Hellan's fist closes hard around the silver direwolf as she listens. The anger fades from her brow, her chin lifts higher, and her head straighter with an increment of pride followed by a series of thoughtful nods in approval when she hears the manner in which Genevra handled herself when it came time to fight.
And then the tale is over, and at the end of it, Genevra is dead.
Genevra is dead.
Nothing. Again, her reaction to the news that her daughter — her only daughter, her youngest child — has been murdered is to not react at all. For a long spell, her face seems made of stone and her eyes made of ice. Even in the dimness, they're light. Cold ice grey where Genevra's were dark grey and full of life. Though she stares at the bearer of her bad news, she no longer looks at Eddara; and it is there, in those notoriously unshakeable eyes of ice, a fissure can be glimpsed. Something in the deep, dark recesses of Hellan Stark's heart, already desecrate and hardened, breaks.
She turns her back and moves toward the chair she left. Her feet are firm but her steps uneven. The side-table is just tall enough and her arms just long enough that the ink-stained fingertips of one hand graze the wood surface while her knuckles turn whiter around the necklace. "Tell me how," she demands, hoarse, ferocious. "I want to picture it."
Lady Ryswell left that part out on purpose: when asked, however, she doesn't demur. "Sword to the throat. A single stroke, very quick," she repeats. And then, her voice thickening: "I saw it, but I was still too far away."
"He came out of nowhere," Lady Bethany interjects anxiously, as though to excuse her mother — one would hardly think it of her, "and I didn't see him at all, not till she was… her blood was…" Her voice rises, growing shrill.
"Shh, chicken," Lady Ryswell says to her daughter, turning and making as though to take a step toward her. But then her left leg buckles under her and she'd be measuring her length on the library floor if the man who came in with her holding the bag, who has been waiting unobtrusively in a shadow, didn't leap forward to catch her with an arm under her back and prop her back up on her feet. She grimaces, but allows it. This is what she brought him for, after all.
Eddara is spared the floor; the same cannot be said for the entire contents of the table in front of Hellan. With a sudden, ferocious explosion of energy — proving there is still power left in her — she swipes her arm across the surface, sending every item flying. The quill and inkpot strikes a far shelf, spattering book-spines and the floor alike with black. Books and parchment thud and scatter along the floor, the wood board, cup and candles on top of them. The flames drown in wax before anything catches afire. "Get out," Hellan says in a somber voice, quiet escalating to shattering in less than a breath. "LEAVE!"
Lady Bethany flinches back, halfway out the door whilst Lady Hellan's words are still echoing about the library. She leaves it open behind her.
Exchanging a glance with Ser Wyll at her side, Lady Ryswell speaks again in the same calm, steady manner she has maintained throughout this difficult interview. She answers the next two questions as she understands them: "We burned her before the sun came up, upon a separate pyre. I said the words." The northern way, simple and swift. "In the bag on the table you will find the heads of three of the last seven members of the Seventh Order. Two others are in my custody, one of them the man who struck the blow. When I've finished interrogating them I will find the others, and bring them to you as well."
With this promise she shifts the stick in her hand and begins to turn around and go, her knight supporting her slow and difficult steps.
It's nigh on impossible to tell if Hellan nods her head in solemn gratitude or if it simply hangs, too weighty to hold up any longer. She's clutched the edge of the small table and braced her arm with her other hand, still squeezing the silver direwolf. "I would also have words with them," she tells Eddara in slow, grit-and-vengeance-filled words once the other woman has made her way to the library door. She shoves away from the table; it shudders on its sturdy legs. Sapped of stamina, lets herself collapse sideways into the chair, still turned away from the departing Lady Ryswell and Ser Wyll, determined — for all that she can think to be determined — to be alone. With the severed heads.
The sheer grit which brought Eddara Ryswell this far seems to be running out, and with it her equanimity. With each step her stick comes down hard on the library's dark wooden floor and she lets out a huff of effort; bandaged and shoved uncomfortably into a boot which will have to be cut off it, her left leg swells and burns. She has to stop where she is, a few paces shy of the door, in sight of her men waiting beyond, to speak in full sentences.
"When they've finished singing for me," she pledges in a quiet, grim voice, "they're yours. My word on it. Don't speak of this to anyone, till we've spoken." Her stick thumps again. "There's no one to trust, here."