|In the Ashes|
|Summary:||Bryce Stark receives the dark news of the day from Hellan.|
|Date:||November 17, 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, Cooler Heads Will Prevail|
Weirwood Manse - Old Street
This is one of the oldest houses in the city, a large square structure of pale grey-brown stone, squat and heavy. On its facade is a mosaic of small, thick, white and red bricks, set deep into the stone facade of the rowhouse. They form a mosaic image beside its door — a weirwood tree with its white trunk and branches and its red leaves. The image doesn't have a face, but from time to time someone will paint one on, and someone else will scrub it off. Like most houses in Oldtown, there are few windows on the street level, only small high ones to let in a little light. The upper stories have unevenly sized and spaced windows that from the outside appear to be caught in the weirwood's branches.
The living space in the ground floor consists only of a single large hall, with a massive hearth, a long plank trestle-table, and a group of leather-covered chairs set off to one side. There's a spot on the back wall where there used to be a door but it's been filled in with stone blocks, probably when the garden became the jumble of buildings that stand there now. The rest of the bottom floor is taken up by a smallish kitchen and a large private stable that one can access from outside or from a narrow door beside the stairs. The staircase is wide, made of blackened wood that's aged hard as stone but bears dips in the treads from centuries of feet.
There has been less hustle and bustle around the manse since most of the men went away. There are fewer errands to run. Fewer needs to attend to. Less need of the servants and all of a sudden, there isn't a single one around, not even clanging in the kitchen. This, in odd contrast to the fact that new visitors arrived recently: a young lady and her maid who have never before stepped foot in the manse, to anyone's memory, now occupy a room after a brief visit by the Ryswells. The number of guards outside has doubled, and gained at least one new face, straight from Winterfell.
As if overnight — perhaps, in fact, literally overnight — there has been something of a paradigm shift within Weirwood. It can almost be felt in the air … or perhaps that's the thick, acrid scent of burning decay drifting into every corner from the hearth in the main hall. So it has been for some time, into the evening, when Lady Hellan Stark rises from the well-worn, padded leather chair by the now dwindling fire. She moves slowly — tiredly — to face the hearth, caught in shadow and the glow of flickering embers, yet strikes an imposing figure all the same. Her dress is the simple Northern make it always is, but dark brown and morose. Her black hair, silvering, is slightly wild; square-shouldered, her straight-backed stance hearkens back to her long-gone days as a leader of battles. The Battle-Ax of Bear Island. Now it's a fireplace poker she holds in one hand, and something misshapen and slick in the other. It has teeth.
A skull without a lower jaw sits on the mantle, half-scorched with bits of cooked flesh still clinging to it.
Bryce has had his own business in Oldtown. The coming and going of those in the Manse really hasn't caught his interest much. The increased guard he had noticed, but honestly hadn't thought much of. It was not as though he was unaccustomed to guard. He kept plenty of his own, and his wife did as well. Besides, he'd always been… A little odd. Better with animals than people, and too courtly for the North, but too gruff for the South. The fact he didn't keep a pulse on the goings on here, not too surprising.
Today, though, the Stark had been out riding. Giving Sentinel a chance to stretch his legs. When they are on the way home, however, Sentinel's hackles raise. He smells it before Bryce does. The Lord's brow knits, and he looks down to the wolf. For just a moment he goes glassy eyed, before shaking it off and frowning. "Sentinel, stay." The wolf sits, and then lays, obeying but not looking pleased.
Still in his riding clothes, Bryce enters the Manse with a stern look setting lines in a face that is honestly still too young for them. Turning a corner, he catches sight of Hellan, and the fire, and the skull on the mantle. Words fail him. So as he stands there, blue eyes going hard, he just clears his throat and shifts his weight.
Hellan's gaze wrenches quickly from the fire and Bryce soon finds her ice grey eyes upon him. She looks at him with a strange combination of annoyance and relief. Irritated to be interrupted; thankful, in some way, that it was at least by a Stark. It is not uncommon for the woman's eyes to be lined with the shade of exhaustion, but tonight the darkness beneath them has almost reached the colour of a bruise. The rims of her eyes are red. It only serves to make her appearance all the more severe. She turns all the way around, the tip of the poker scraping on the floorboards. "So one Stark still bothers to come around, does he," she says in her deep voice, indulging strongly in unapologetic cynicism. Behind her, the fire pops and crackles. It still feeds on something. "Where's your furry friend? I hope he's hungry."
Her censure does not seem to bother him. Bryce stays where he is standing, meeting Hellan's gaze, back straight and countenance stern. "I do." Comes his answer, though not without a touch of confusion to his tone, "And Sentinel is outside. But I do not feed him the flesh of men. You will have to find someone else to clean up scraps." Then his gaze moves, flickering the fire behind her and his head canting slightly to one side. "Tell me, sister, what has you in such a rage?" You would think someone might be more disturbed. Or would be asking who these parts belonged to. Not Bryce. He married a Targaryen for a reason.
Even in the absence of the direwolf, Hellan throws the jawbone on the floor. It goes skittering toward Bryce. It's askew at one end, ravaged by a blade mark and splintered by the fire. Cooked flesh falls off as though from a well-roasted pig. She whips around, jabbing the poker into the hearth. As the fire grows low, the shape of more skulls are laid bare. She manages to thrust one out onto the floor, and then another, with a burst of ash and sparks. The ash decorates the hem of her gown. "These men attacked one of our own," she declares, whirling about once more. Her steps are unsteady; her voice is not. It's cold. Vengeful.
"I see." It's cold and even. Painfully even. Like effort is being put into it. Blue eyes track the movement of the jawbone, settling on it to observe almost passively. "I had… Somehow failed to hear of this." He says quietly, gaze flicking to each skull as it is pulled from the fire. "Who? When did this happen?" Bryce shifts his weight, turning his gaze up to his sister in law once more.
Hellan only meets the gaze of her husband's brother for a second before she's on the hunt for the cup of wine she left on the table beside the chair. It's empty. As punishment for its uselessness — and perhaps in some part because she sent the servants who would refill it away — she throws it heedlessly into the fire. "Only days past on the road. In the company of Lady Ryswell." The latter fact causes a scornful thickness in her voice. Before she bothers to tell Bryce the details, the Mormont-turned-Stark stalks away from him into the kitchens to immediately rummage through cupboards.
The shattering glass gets a glance, but Bryce offers no words against it. He frowns, watching her move about the room. But as she slips into the kitchen to rummage through cupboards, he leans against the nearest wall, staring at the fire. Thinking. "Well, at least they've seen what happens when they make a poor choice. Was this all of them?" He calls, loud enough to be heard though he's not expecting an immediate answer.
The only immediate answer he gets is the banging of cupboards. With no concern for putting things back where she found them after shoving them out of her way, Hellan searches the kitchen storage on a rampage until she manages to pull a dusty bottle from the back of a shelf she's just tall enough to reach. "No," she states acidly as she eventually stalks back into the hall, bottle in one hand and a single cup in the other. She goes as far as the communal trestle-table and slams the cup down. It might crack in as many pieces as the one sacrificed to the fire if this one weren't forged of metal. "I'm told there are seven in all. Sellswords. But I mean to kill the rest myself. The murderer first and slowest." Leaning into the table, she opens the bottle with a harsh pop and pours liquid more potent — and less cultured — than wine. Her squared jaw tenses as she does so. "He'll pay for killing a Stark," she says with too quiet rage as the alcohol fills the cup. "And so will those that hired him. All signs point to Rodrik Ryswell, for a start. That spineless bastard. It's treason."
For all that Hellan is a cupboard upheaving, cup abusing, wine pouring font of justified rage, Bryce is a cliff against the sea. Steady and sure, patient, watching his sister in law intently. "And who, sister, did they kill?" This question has more bite to it. There's rage under there, but it is cold, and it is unmoving. A hunter's tension, used only when it is applicable and needed. All of this information is filed away, but he need not speak on it just yet. There are more pieces he needs first.
"Genevra." Genevra, only four-and-ten years. Genevra, Bryce's niece. Genevra, who was supposed to be safe at home in Winterfell. Genevra, whose name Hellan speaks as though she were an anger-worthy fact but not her daughter. She sits down at the head of the table, where Cregan or Carolis might sit if such formalities were warranted, and takes a quick, unflinching drink.
Suddenly, this all falls into place. Terribly, awfully into place and Bryce's stomach churns in a way that the smell hadn't quite made him yet. There were a lot of things Bryce could put up with. The death of little girls? No, that's one he can't stomach. But rather than pale, or retch, or turn, Bryce growls. It's a low, dark, dangerous thing, much more suited to coming from a wolf than a man. Young lords died in Westeros all the time. Sometimes, banner Houses even made stupid decisions against their Lieges. But his niece, not even a woman grown… No, that was… But Hellan has said she wishes to kill them herself. So he makes no move. He stays against that wall, growling until words tumble dark from his lips, "If you need any assistance." A promise, an offer, given unflinchingly.
Hellan's gaze jolts up from the cup to Bryce, and there it stays, recognizing that primal sound. Her gaze is held wide open with rage rather than closed shut in grief. "Two of them escaped." And thus, will need finding. "The remainder are in the custody of Lady Ryswell outside of town, including the…" Her jaw tenses. Her hand grips the stem of the cup more tightly. But she does not flinch. "Killer. Until they spill their guts figuratively, they will not do so otherwise." She takes a more measured sip.
"It was not meant to be Genevra," she says after a pause. "She was… a mistake." She grimaces at the thought. Its inelegance as well as its unjustness. "They were meant to take her, not … but," another sip, "It seems there was a plot to marry her to Rodrik. Gidion and I's consent had been forged in a series of letters." Wrinkles form around her eyes in thought. "I cannot imagine one Ryswell would pull all of this off alone, quietly pitting himself against the Starks without backing. Trust no one you do not have absolute reason to," she advises— or commands, more like. "And inquire among those you do."
This whole explanation just elicits another low growl from Bryce. "One moment." And he's turning from the room. Up the stairs, to his room, where a bottle is found. Opened. And back down he comes, drinking directly from the bottle with little care for table manners. Then, though, he finally sits, a few chairs down from Hellan, staring at the hard wood of the table. "Treason and cowardice and perversion all wrapped into one. How charming." That is definitely sarcasm. "I will see what I can find. For now, that list is short. If you keep me abreast, however, I will offer you what aid I can."
When the reason for Bryce's brief absence is revealed to be a bottle, Hellan smiles. A flicker at one corner of her lips, absent any warmth. Reminded — not that she needs to be — she drinks from her cup. Its contents are rapidly diminishing. She nods, slow and reasonable through the distasteful sneer that forms for the accurate depiction by Bryce. "I will," she replies steadfastly. "We are so few, stuck in the South. If you wish to coordinate with Lady Ryswell and her men…" She waves a hand vaguely, shifting in her seat. She'd rather be out there searching with them, riding around the countryside. She amends her surge of restlessness with another drink.
"I have made terrible obligation in Highgarden." Bryce says, shaking his head, "But the days that I am here before my leaving, and upon my return if it is not settled by then, I will be sure to do so." And he's drinking too. It's too late in his day, and he's too tired from the ride he's already had, to be of much use this night. But soon. "There are too few of us. Though, I have received word from Ansa, that her daughter is coming to Oldtown. Asked me to watch after her. So there will be another, at least." There's a flicker of a smile then, but it's bitter and does not last, colored too much by worry.
"The peculiar blind one?" Hellan retorts gracelessly, unimpressed by the news, but unconcerned as well; she waves her hand again, shaking her head. "Do what you will in Highgarden," she says, as though she has the power to give Bryce leave or not. "We will find them. They'll be dead before then." Spoken with confidence born of necessity, seeing no other outcome in front of her. If the rest of the sellswords aren't found soon, well— there will be a whole new hell to pay. It is perhaps with this thought that she rises suddenly, catching the edge of the table after the fact to steady herself. "It grows late," she announces too casually for the circumstance, grabbing her bottle and leaving the cup and simply drifting toward the stairs.