(123-10-15) Cooler Heads Will Prevail
Cooler Heads Will Prevail
Summary: Lady Hellan Stark receives a second time Lady Eddara Ryswell in her role as a bearer of bad news. (Thanks to the anonymous donor of a rude word in the right place.)
Date: 21-24/10/2016
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, In the Eye of a Silver Direwolf.

Every servant has been sent out of the Weirwood Manse. Some question whether they're even meant to return.

No northmen lurk in the old halls.

Only Lady Bethany and Aryana are tucked away in the upstairs rooms, and Lady Hellan has not made for good company.

Outside, two Stark men-at-arms — one who accompanied Genevra south, who now has a patch over his eye and a heavy heart, and one who accompanied Hellan south, those years ago — stand near the stables. They're under instructions to only let a select few inside, should they come knocking. They don't have it in them to converse, yet they're of one mind in these dark days. They stare morosely at the cobblestones under the overcast sky.

Inside, every ounce of damp chill — which can sometimes cling to the walls and floor after the rains despite the warmth outside — has been obliterated by a roaring fire in the ground floor hearth. One of the leather-covered chairs has been pushed closer to the flames, and it is there that Hellan sits, wielding a poker that she every so often shoves, utilitarian, into the fire. She's clad herself in a dark gown that hasn't seen the light of day since Winterfell; it's plain, but for rigid shoulders and dagged sleeves. It's not quite black. In better light, it might be brown. It doesn't suit her.

The entire room smells like decay, burning, and cooked flesh.

Two of the few people who can count on admittance to the age-worn manse of House Stark are Lady Eddara Ryswell and the grizzled and watchful Ser Wyll of the Rills, who has been sticking more closely to her than ever these past days. The other Ryswell men who come through the city with them wait in the stables, tending Rills coursers in the sweet hay-smelling warmth, whilst the lady and her knight variously limp and stalk into the great hall.

The stench hits Lady Ryswell's nose with her first step over the threshold and she knows at once why the fire has been built so high in summer. The skulls won't burn away in there — but what's a skull, really? It has no name, no face. It could be an old family memento, in a manse such as this.

She aims for the chair nearest Lady Hellan's. She's in the same brigandine and spurred riding boots as yesterday, but she's at least had a wash. Her scent is now mostly horse, with less blood and sweat and death.

Without needing to be told Ser Wyll takes up a stance halfway across the cavernous hall, his back to the two women, facing out to guard approaches from staircase or stable alike. His lady attains the chair and sinks into it with a sound more akin to a grunt than a sigh. She hasn't spoken. She waits.

It is much like the first time Eddara approached Hellan in the manse. The Stark lady doesn't acknowledge the Ryswell's presence. She hardly seems to notice she's there. She leans forward to once again prod the contents of the fire. Through a ferocious burst of sparks, the hollow eye-socket of a skull stares at Eddara and Hellan. It's been burning so long that flesh has been rended from bone. It's impossible to tell who it used to be.

Hellan's eyes are similarly hollow, especially in the strong play of light and shadow created by the nearby fire. As she sits up, out of the glow, the pallor of her face is clearer. Her eyelids are alternating shades of purple and red, particularly at the rims. There must be a world of tumultuous thought going on in her head — she just lost her daughter — but her eyes are lifeless, glassy. The skull has a more vivid gaze than her.

She jams the heated point of the poker against the floor. On the side of the chair closest to the hearth, the bag brought the day before still has girth and weight to it and smells worse of rotting. "I dreamt of her," she says dully. "A couple of nights past. I woke and have not slept since." Said as though it's little more than a meaningless thought not worth bringing up, only spoken to break the silence. She only looks at the fire. "But I can't remember it." There's the barest twitch about her grey eyes. "You'd think… it would be… important."

Eddara Ryswell sits looking straight at Hellan Stark's face and her grief-bruised eyes. Her own are merely shadowed, not swollen. Sleep has been hard to come by of late, for northwomen in Oldtown.

She begins unhurriedly unbuckling and stripping off her brigandine gauntlets. Three buckles per forearm. It takes a while. "I believe," she says cautiously, "she had begun to look forward to seeing you again." It's not quite a falsehood, either — or the scrupulously truthful Lady of the Rills could not have spoken it. She jerks her head toward the grinning skull. "Which one?"

Hellan glances at Eddara only long enough to give her a bitterly incredulous grimace. She leans back in the chair, one arm on either side, leaning the poker temporarily against the furniture. It's far from a comfortable pose; she sits stiffly, for she can do nothing else. Rather than sink into the leather-bound cushioning, she appears more apt to be repelled from it. "The ugly one."

Lady Ryswell's eyes are waiting for her old comrade's, wide and dark and kind, sincere despite the unlikelihood of her words. She sucks in a breath through her teeth and shakes her head once. The wind loosened a couple of wisps of greying brown hair from the tail at the back of her neck, during the ride. They waft about gently in the warm air of the great hall. "… Spoiled for choice," she states, getting on with her gauntlets. "The one with the tattoos is the gift of a couple of my lads. The one with fair hair, he's the one your daughter shot off his horse. The one with half his head caved in, is the one I rode down trying to get to the girls. Still not sure I shouldn't've gone round."

With this quietly weighty admission her second gauntlet joins the first in her lap, and her callused, short-nailed hands move to the buckles on her jerkin.

"You should have gone round," Hellan states. An accusation. Or it would be, if it had any force behind it. Any life at all, really. "Or not." She leans away from the cushions that were doing her no real favours anyway. "Maybe you would have just been slaughtered too." Or not. With a low grunt, Hellan leans to the side and reaches into the bag, getting a grasp on sandy hair. Knowing what she knows now, she wants to look in the face of the man her daughter felled. The first and only.

"I should have gone round," agrees Lady Ryswell, accepting it. She adds with well-studied unconcern, "Something filthy he had on his blade. I'd have missed that, and perhaps been in time." But both these women know too well the fruitlessness of fighting old battles over again; and she leaves it there, in the past, at least until the next time she's lying awake trying to sleep.

"His brother," she nods to the unhealthy-looking fellow in Lady Hellan's grasp, politely making no remark about the smell, "has been downright forthcoming with me, I'm pleased to say." She reaches inside her half-unbuckled jerkin and pulls out an oilcloth cylinder tied with a thong wrapped twice round it. A case for important documents, or correspondence. She sits with her feet solidly planted and her forearms leaning on her brigandine'd thighs, holding that case and the papers within it in her left hand, waiting without hurrying Lady Hellan till she's had enough of looking into dead eyes as glassy as her own.

Unfazed by the decay and the fact that it is a dead man's head in her hands, Hellan holds the thing in front of her, looking into the man's unseeing eyes. His severed neck has given up dripping, but she doesn't bother to look before holding it aloft high above the skirt of her brown dress. She takes the measure what's left of the man — this enemy bested by Genevra, gleaning what she can from his contorted visage. Her eyes sharpen. Not young, not old, his face bears a few small scars through her intense inspection. Enough to know he's seen battle; that he would have been a formidable foe, up close. She nods through her stern consideration. "Good. Good," she says solemnly under her breath. A commendation Genevra will never hear.

Without pomp, Hellan tosses the head in the fire. It collides with wood and bone and sends scattered ash from the hearth. It doesn't take long for the scent of burning hair to scorch the air anew. Only then does she regard Eddara's oilcloth case, briefly furrowing her brow as if not realizing where it came from, having been paying no attention at all to the woman's gauntlets. She waits expectantly for the explanation.

The Lady of the Rills makes no remark about the ash, the sparks, or the scent. Rather than shrink away she shifts onto the edge of her chair, proffering the oilcloth case over the distance between her and Lady Hellan — she doesn't get up, though, for the usual reason. If Lady Hellan reaches out she can take it.

"I've had more letters from you this year," she explains, "than I believe you sent me. They came from Oldtown and the hand looks like enough to what I remember of yours," it's been a long while since she had a genuine letter from the Battle-Axe of Bear Island, "but I imagine every keep in the north contains samples of your writing…" Shrug. "There's one in there signed with your husband's name," she adds, significantly, "near the bottom."

"A fair assessment, given that I didn't send you any letters," Hellan answers with dull-edged sarcasm, leaning ahead with some reluctance to do so — that is, to lean, not to take the documents. She is so accustomed to covering her pain, however, that it registers as nothing more than slowness. Her face could not be harder-edged than it already is. She shuffles the letters out of the case and goes through them one by one. She assesses them quickly. "Marriage to Lord Rodrik?" The letters penned in her name cause an irate line to form between her dark brows, but she outright snorts when she arrives at the one purportedly signed by Gidion. "That is not Gidion's hand," she dismisses, insulting what she deems a forgery. "Gidion hardly has a hand for letters. He does little more than sign his name, and this isn't what it looks like when he does. It's better than his."

Lady Ryswell sits back again and relaxes into her chair, waiting whilst Lady Hellan makes her way through the sheaf of forgeries. She's got used to the smell, by now, and the heat from the fire feels damned good soaking into her tired bones. She almost drifts away into thought… But, when spoken to, she's there again, eyes sharply intelligent as she meets the other woman's gaze and nods. "I'd heard it said, once," she explains shortly, avoiding the name of Maq Ryswell, "that your husband didn't write. Once I had that letter I took a long, hard look at the rest… The shading's off on the capital stems, and the voice didn't sound much like you either," she points out. "Too polite." A beat. "The contract for the betrothal was already signed between House Ryswell and House Stark, but I put off the marriage itself; I thought to bring your daughter to you, to keep her fate in your hands and no one else's." The irony of it twists her lips, and taints the tone of her low, gruff northern voice.

She clears her throat, and goes on. "The Seventh Order was hired in the north and came part of the way by sea, to arrive in the south ahead of me and intercept my party. It was my children they meant to take, and me they meant to kill if they could. Lady Hellan, I don't know what to say to you but that I will not rest." Her words of yesterday afternoon, repeated with deceptively quiet emphasis.

“Genevra and a Ryswell…” Hellan contemplates out loud, her voice largely inscrutable until she becomes almost reluctant to admit, “It would have made sense.” And so it would not have seemed unusual for her to offer her agreement toward the betrothal, were it not for Lady Ryswell’s suspicions. The more she contemplates, the narrower her eyes become, her gaze seeming to darken, and her thoughts steering her clear of any more questions toward the motives behind the forgeries. For she recalls the rest of Eddara’s words. About the Seventh Order. About their motives. The words settle over her pale skin like ash and heat and sear like the sparks jumping off of the hearth’s meal of burning flesh. “Do you mean to tell me…” Hellan’s deep voice becomes deeper still when it lowers dangerously. The parchments rattle in her tightening grip; her other hand instinctively finds its way back to the poker. “My daughter was nothing more than in the way? On their way to you?

One of those broad, strong, suntanned hands with clean short nails and all manner of useful calluses, lifts discreetly and finds the copper knob at the end of the walking stick propped against the arm of Lady Ryswell's chair. She shifts forward in her chair. The omens suggest she's proposing to stand up. But then she seems to think the better of it, and merely retains her casual grip upon her stick for as long as Hellan Stark has a poker in her grasp.

"She was already involved."

Lady Ryswell says it quietly, with her gaze upon the hearth and the skull grinning back at her, and Lady Hellan just visible out of the corner of her eye. Then she lifts her head purposefully and looks into the bereaved woman's eyes, facing down all that grief and anger and reproach.

"If you want to scream at me for a while," she offers tiredly, "if it will give you any relief or release in this moment, go ahead. Empty your lungs. I'll wait and I'll listen as long as you wish me to. I'll draw a line at the poker, though, and I think you know I can." She scrubs a hand over her face and sighs.

"Or," she drawls, and her tone implies that this is the preferable alternative of the two by only the slightest margin, "we could discuss the likelihood that I have two different enemies who decided to fuck with my succession at the same time for unrelated reasons. A false betrothal between your daughter and my cousin, and an attack on me and mine in the south whilst my seventeen-year-old son's at home, unsuspecting, with a new bride who hasn't yet borne a child." She shakes her head. "It's all a piece, Lady Hellan. And from the moment those letters began to pass back and forth, coupling her name with mine, your daughter was a part of it, and she was in danger. I didn't see it in time. I didn't put it together. I'm guilty of that — you can't accuse me any more strongly than I do myself. I became so used to thinking only of threats without, I was no longer on my guard against threats within."

The quiet tactic taken by the Lady of the Rills almost settles Hellan out of spite, but the anger of the She-Bear runs cold; it does not melt easily once it's begun. It travels a well-worn path; anger and vengeance are quicker to rise in her veins than sorrow and heartache. She stares coldly at Eddara, determining whether or not she is not only the bearer of bad news, but the enemy by association. By cruel happenstance. By simple unawareness. "Your blindness cost me my daughter's life, Eddara," she indeed accuses powerfully, ice in her voice as well as her veins. "You know I will not soon forget it." Never, for as long as she lives. She rises with remarkable swiftness regardless of the pain that slowed her moments ago — in spite of it — and the poker takes on the familiar grip of a weapon.

Hellan's pale, square jaw strains through a silent grind of her teeth, biting a rush of frustration. She thrusts the collection of letters, crinkled by the force of her fingertips, into the air. They scatter in different directions above and around Eddara, one swooping perilously close to the flames. Rage-filled purpose lifts the point of the poker.

She turns on a single stomp and jams the fireplace poker into the satchel. There's a quick sickening crack and squelch before the point of it collides with the floor. The force of it resounds up her back and down her arm as though she struck metal to metal, leaving a harsh trail of tension in her muscles. "But it is not you whose limbs I wish to rend." She lifts the poker and the decapitated head with it. The gaunt, lifeless face, crushed through the temple, slides off the end once she turns back around. She jams it back in and leans on it across from the handsomer walking cane of Lady Ryswell. "Yet," she adds humourlessly. Low, grit, she says, "We will unravel it from the beginning."

Inferring plotting and deceit from a single brief letter written by a man she's met once or twice in her life, counts now as blindness. Eddara Ryswell doesn't argue. She meant what she said. She'll stay and she'll listen, her solid and battle-hardened figure taking these verbal punches with the same stoicism with which she has lived twenty-odd years in constant physical pain.

When she's certain the Stark lady has finished speaking, she lifts her bold dark eyebrows and drawls, sounding tired still but sardonic with it: "Now that wounds me to the core, considering what good friends we've always been, Hellan." A beat. "I didn't come to you for forgiveness nor forgetting," she states with bald sincerity, "but to pay off some part of my debt in the only coin which remains. Three of my men died that night — and a girl who might have been my kin, had she lived. I'm the only one," she reminds Lady Hellan, "who hates these shitstains the way you do, and I'm the only one who has the men and the knowledge to pursue their remnants in your name as well as my own before they vanish to Essos. Deal with me on those terms and you'll never have to see me again. I would offer you better if I had it."

Hellan turns her head toward the hearth and bows it, a rigid, stoic nod of understanding and the unspoken kinship of loss. Anger may fester like a wound … but logic prevails, and so does vengeance. Terms, accepted. No matter how tightly her hands grip the poker. "The man Genevra was to wed, according to these forgeries…" she prompts. "Your cousin."

Lady Hellan has begun to think, as well as just feel. Good.

"I've sent a raven with instructions to take him into custody," the Lady of the Rills explains simply. "The other night smacked of unreadiness. If the bastards were obliged to bring up their timetable, it may be received soon enough."

She gives that a moment to sink in, then goes on. She's only two or three years older than Lady Hellan, but it looks like more, these last days. Her voice is level only because she vented her own rage in private, before. "Having known him all his life I cannot imagine he is acting other than under advice. It's been a minor shambles," she judges, "but if he were laying out the strategy it would be a much bigger one. He never thought it was right that my father chose a daughter over a nephew — someone unknown, or someones, is playing upon his ambition, I can only presume to a broader purpose in which he will be expected to play his part in return for a title, lands, and a Stark bride. Your house," she says blandly, "has been co-opted into legitimising the overthrow of mine. I don't doubt the idea has a certain appeal to you at present, but I hope for the sake of the northwest you'll reconsider. My cousin Roddy," she bares her teeth in a humourless grin, "is a strong sword-arm with an empty helmet."

Hellan grimaces outright. "They don't want a woman at the helm and then wonder why it's all turned to shit without our guidance." Spoken like a true Mormont. "Even if Genevra's death was not part of the plan," a fact that almost grates her more than if it had been, "What has been done—" She kicks at parchment under her boot. "It is a slight against the Starks. A single Ryswell wouldn't risk it. Not on their own." They're in agreement. Her eyes narrow, tugging wrinkles with them. "So it goes deeper." She pulls the poker from the wayward head and kicks the thing toward the hearth. It doesn't quite make it all the way. She can't be bothered. She sits back down with a tired sigh. "I don't trust the ravens. Not under these circumstances. Ravens can be shot."

"Anyone," agrees Lady Ryswell in that same bland tone, "can be shot. Still worth trying to get word to my people faster than a horse can take it." Because of course she has horses, and she has riders. "I sent two of my lads, good boys, sons of one of my local poachers. They know the country as well as I do and they've a good chance, if the castle isn't already in the hands of a new Lord Ryswell when they get there. But that," and she sighs, and lays her walking stick across her knees as she sits back again, "won't be for a month or so yet." Weeks either way, for ravens or riders, and weeks back to her before she'll be certain of her son's fate. She has considered the alternatives, and by that grim and brooding look on her face she's considering them again. "… Should've taken more of 'em alive," she muses. "The leader may have known more. Still," that grin returns, "five down means two to go."

The leader. Hellan glances to the head not quite all the way in the hearth, a few strands of greasy hair pitifully struggling to catch afire. Is that him? She gives Eddara a vague nod of agreement without looking at her. "I will consider what to send to Winterfell." She presses her knuckles to her chin; they slide into the hollow of her cheek as she considers. Nearly all the northmen in the manse and our ridiculous Stormlander besides have gone on away on some foolish errand." What timing. She shakes her head as though she considers them all to be idiot boys. No matter. "But there are few men-at-arms and loyal men of the North in the city. If they and yours cannot hunt down who's left among this Seventh Order," another glance to the grinning skulls; she continues bitterly, "I will ride out myself."

Lady Ryswell squints at the other woman, but doesn't voice her doubts. "I haven't written to Winterfell," she admits; "I thought that would come better from you." She lacks friends among the new generation of Starks, the Young Pup of Winterfell and the Winter Rose his brother, and the men gathered round them. She's not abundantly blessed with friends amongst their elders, either. "You would do well to prove your letter's origin by writing what only Hellan Stark would know, as well as sending it by a hand they'll find familiar. I didn't want to look as though I was trying to back out of a betrothal negotiated in the main out of Winterfell," she says frankly, "by suggesting bad faith on the other side, in any way, but if they've had false letters from you as well as genuine there's no telling what they may not believe, or suspect. If you wish, I'll put my name and seal on it well. They know I'm here by now. I like to think," she drawls, "it would be more difficult to counterfeit us both."

"It has been some time since I sent anything to Winterfell." Presumably, even to her son who presently resides all those many miles away. "My hand is…" Hellan looks to the scattered letters, focusing on an upturned page just past the toe of her boot. The likeness of her writing stares back at her as if from the past and not a falsehood. Elbow jammed sturdily against the arm of the chair, her knuckles curl so firmly against her face that it cannot possibly be comfortable. "Your seal, then," she says only, gruff, distracted. A slight glassiness overtakes her eyes once again, threatening the thoughts she'd sharpened.

Which request doesn't go down altogether well with Lady Ryswell. She purses her lips and breathes out and then murmurs, "I had rather not let it out of my sight at the moment." She shrugs. "You understand. I'll leave you if you wish: when would you have me return to seal the letter?"

Did she request something? Hellan looks up irate and querying, as though she isn't sure what Eddara is talking about and can't be bothered. It takes a moment. Then: "When I write it." She goes silent, and that would be the sum of it— until she thinks to say, "Where are you staying? In the midst of your horses, I expect." Now that she's given it any thought at all. "I'll send someone to you." She devolves into mumbling to add, "Someone I can halfway trust." In other words, not one of the servants she sent out of the manse while she's having a skull roast. Chances are, they didn't want to be around anyway, even besides the smell. Lady Hellan can be trying to be nearly alone in the manse with at the best of times … and this is the closer to the worst of times.

A brief nod from the Lady of the Rills, whose horse's head banner has never been more apropos than in the present generation. "The horses," she sounds as wry as she looks, "and I are up at Redwood Farm. Not too far up the Roseroad. My daughter's here with you," a true gesture of trust, in the present climate and with another daughter's death lying between these two women, "and my younger son is at the Citadel." Three Ryswells sleeping in three different places, inside and outside Oldtown's walls. Eddara Ryswell chooses caution over maternal sentiment. "If you'd rather keep your swords at home I can come back late tonight or in the morning, as you wish. I have other business in the city as well." She's willing, but not by any stretch of the imagination enthusiastic. "And I may have more to tell you."

"If you do, come; if you don't, I will spare someone," Hellan states concisely, wrangling her own wry note when it comes to the notion of sparing a sword-hand. She has no qualms. She lets her hand fall to the arm of the chair with a dull thud. "Either way… we will be seeing a lot of each other. Until we see this through." And who would have thought, after all these years, and this way; but she puts no such thoughts to voice, only looks soberly — in all senses of the word, one more unfortunate, in her terms, than the other — into the flame. Her ambition for words has grown thin.

The interview is at an end for lack of more to say.

Lady Ryswell buckles her brigandine jerkin with quick, efficient hands; then, with her gauntlets held in a hand braced against the arm of her chair, and the other hand wrapped tight round that knob of copper which fits it so well, she levers herself up onto her feet. The breath which leaves her lungs in the process is heavy, just this side of an involuntary moan. She was already perspiring in the great hall's appalling southron warmth; now a fresh sheen breaks out over her creased forehead and high, strong cheekbones.

"I haven't slept either," she says quietly, in the special voice she keeps for reassuring young soldiers, horses, and Ryswells who've got the wind up or are otherwise failing to perform for her, and impressing them with her wisdom and infallibility; "since it happened. Perhaps I'm no one to talk. But this war's not over yet and until it is, we can neither of us afford to indulge our sentiments or our weaknesses. You can let yourself go in grief as much as you please when you have seven heads at your feet and the name of the author of these events — but right now you serve your daughter's memory by seeing that you're at your strongest and your sharpest in opposing those who encompassed her death. They deserve to face the Battle-Axe of Bear Island in prime condition, wouldn't you agree? … You know what that means for you, better than anyone else. You know what you have to do. I trust you'll do it."

She nods once more, firmly, and takes her first painful and lopsided step towards Ser Wyll, her horse, and the next unpleasant duty on her list.

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