A Journey to Holdfast
It had been a hard journey.
After the Neck, the way had become colder. One night, after they had passed Winterfell, there had been a fall of snow.
“But it’s summer!” protested Garyn.
“Northern summer,” growled Donnell, and he spat.
Garyn rode on more thoughtfully.
“Winter Kills…” Kenrith muttered under his breath. Not his words, certainly… but a northern lesson none the less.
They had all been quieter since they left the marshes, although the Ox and Jayne had struck up something that came halfway between friendship and rivalry, which could occasionally become rowdy. Winterfell had received them kindly, with Lord and Lady Stark professing their dismay at the illness that had overtaken Lord Hardy, and sending the party on their way with good wishes and warmer gear than all except Kenrith and Evan had brought from the South.
There was a double tie between Kenrith and the Starks, for not only did Holdfast look to House Stark, but his mother’s family looked to Tully, and as Kenrith had been raised at Lady Catelyn’s childhood home of Riverrun, she was eager to hear his news of her family.
Kenrith would have loved to have rushed ahead as soon as their mounts had a chance to rest, as the call of home was all the stronger the closer he got, but he would not cast aside what manners he had learned in the south. He answered Lady Tully’s questions as best he could, but she may have learned more about her father’s health from what he did not say than from what he did. That he was as hale as he had been for years was not good news, but that he had (yet) to worsten was perhaps hopeful.
ooc: at this point, he was clearly well enough to knight Kenrith, but within a year he’ll be sick enough that his eldest son is almost running the show… so…
Eddard Stark clearly saw the urgency beneath Kenrith’s surface, and when Kenrith found preparations had already been made for the rest of his parties continued health as they resumed their journey Kenrith’s thanks was heartfelt. Although he did not say it in words, he wished it to be clear to his banner holder that as Lord, Kenrith would Hold Fast to the ancient bonds with the Starks.
Ser Godfrey Hardy, anxious about his brother’s health, had proceeded them, it appeared - but if they rode hard and fast, Lady Stark believed they would overtake him on the road, although Lord Eddard, looking a little doubtfully at Garyn, would only allow it was possible.
Lord Stark and his two eldest sons, trueborn and bastard, rode out with them a little along the Kingsroad. Robb was eager to hear all about Kenrith’s knighting at Riverrun; Jon Snow rode next to Evan Tamm, quieter than his half-brother, but still asking questions about the South and the fighting Evan had seen.
“My father says you are going to the Wall,” Jon Snow said, breaking the silence. He and Evan rode to the back of the group, and till now, they had both been content to say nothing, simply listening to the voices of Robb and the others, their excited chatter drifting back on the light wind.
Evan nodded. “I am. Eventually.” He paused. “I must go to Holdfast first. With Ser Kenrith.”
Jon turned to look at him, his eyes curious, and piercing. Evan tried not to meet them - they reminded him of the look the crannogwoman, Wendla, had given him, and he had been even more taciturn since that encounter in the marshes of the Neck, refusing to answer any questions about the encounter in more than superficial terms. “My uncle Benjen chose to go to the Wall too,” was all Jon said, however - there was no question, no wondering why someone would choose such a life voluntarily. Despite his name, Jon Snow was a Stark - the Starks knew why a man might choose the Wall.
They said nothing else for a short time, before Jon asked another question. “You were a sellsword in the South,” he said. “Where did you fight?”
Evan thought for a second - there were so many names, so many places, yet they all seemed to blur into a miasma of tense waiting, flurries of blood and death, and the almost crazed relief of the survivors. “All sorts of places, Jon,” Evan answered at last. “There is never a shortage of work for fighting men in the south.” He paused, a wry smile twisting his lips. “The summerlanders fight at almost any excuse - honour, gold, pride, greed, land, vengeance. Sometimes they fight just because their families have always fought, and they see no reason to stop now.”
Any other boy of twelve might have not understood, but the look Jon gave him indicated that he understood perfectly what Evan meant. “Is that why you are going to the Wall, then? To fight for a better reason?”
Evan’s smile did not fade, though as usual, he did not smile with his eyes. “I was a boy as young as you when I left the North, Jon Snow. But I was stupid, where you are not. I have learned a few things while away, though, and one of those is that all fighting is the same. No matter the reason.”
The night and day that were Jon and Robb made Kenrith mindful of his own brother. That the two, Kenrith and Godwyn, could not be doubted… but Kenrith had always been reflective where Godwyn had been brash. Surely, Kenrith thought, Jon would make Robb a fine Master of Arms some day. He did not say as much, but he was happy to speak with all three. Apart from Ser Grell, and lately Evan, he had wanted for northern company for many years.
After half a day’s journey, Lord Stark and his sons turned back, and the Holdfast party went on alone.
At last they turned off from the Kingsroad to take the road through the forest, the great Wolfswood, and for the first time, the Southerners experienced the eeriness of the woods. When they stopped at night, they had huddled around their fire and listened to the wolves howl. Over the crackle and roar of the logs in the fire, there had been other strange creaks and groans in the forest too … and gruntings too. “Boar,” said the Ox, who was perhaps the most nonchalant of them. “ Pity we don’t have time to hunt.”
Kenrith muttered “Sometimes you get the Boar… sometimes the Boar gets you…” to himself at this remark. It was just loud enough for Evan to hear, although it was quite unlikely Ox would overhear.
Garyn did not seem to think it a pity. He huddled deeper into his furred cloak and muttered prayers to the Seven to protect them.
Kenrith simply rested his palm against the oak against which he leaned, and thought of the old gods. Perhaps they were heard softly in the south, and he was no mystic to claim he could hear them speaking to him in the chitter of the squirels and the blow of the wind through the leaves, but he knew to whom to pray for protection in his own homeland. Pray he did, for his father and brother, but he did not fear what he could hear in the woods. If he were alone, perhaps, he would be praying for safety… but so long as they kept their blades close at hand and stayed to the trail, they would be fine. He was coming home at last…
All the next morning they followed the narrow track between the dense trees. Holdfast was said to be easily defensible - an army must march down a track little wider than a wagon width. And overhead, stretching high, that oppressive dark green canopy of the trees.
It was late afternoon before Mal, riding as look-out, gave a shout. The tallest turrets of Holdfast could be seen above the trees.
“We made it,” Donnell growled. He sounded surprised, and surly about it to boot.
Evan said nothing, but reined in for a moment, taking a long look at the staff of the Hardys flying high above Holdfast. He chewed the inside of his lip a moment, then fell in behind Kenrith.
At this call, Kenrith urged his horse forwards. This was the last leg of his journey home, even if it was not Evan’s final destination. The journey had been long… and if his father was sick, he did not wish to waste any time. Still, a reckless gallop through the woods was foolhardy, and he would not drive his mount to its death this day.
The trees were thinning out and parting, and they were coming to small buildings - shabby and mean at first, just hovels. This was the small town of Holdfast that clung to the Castle Walls, where lived the smallfolk who tended the few fields cleared in the forest, and pursued other forest-based occupations. As they rode further into the town, the houses became more substantial - an indication that the little town was prosperous.
Kenrith reined in his horse as he neared the town. He was eager to move to the front of the precession, but did not want it to look as if he were fleeing form his own escort. Around the edges, he could see the changes which had transpired in the small town, but on average it was just as he had left it.
Everything was made out of wood. There was no stone - apart from the Castle iself, nor any sign of adobe, or even the wattle and daub that had been common in some of the lands they had traversed. No - it was all wood. There were small boys to one side, drilling with sticks in pretend combat. They looked up curiously as the party rode past - and then fell silent to stare, looking a Kenrith in particular, riding one-handed … and then they started to whisper. Alerted by some mysterious means, the townspeople began to come out too, all staring silently as they passed - an unnerving greeting for the returning heir.
His armor was not adorned with scrollwork or delicate flame gilded patterns in gold and silver. His house was only indicated by the tabard he wore, as his saddle carried no shield. It was, however, unique. The breastplate bore a diagonal raised area from the left shoulder to the middle of the abdomen near his belly button to acomondate his folded, shrunken left arm. From the left side of the armor, there was no arm at all… indeed, the left pauldron had been sloped to deflect blows, and was not articulated. Below the pauldron, the breast plate was closed entirely. Normally the underside of the arm was one of the weakest parts of armor, but this was not the case for Kenrith’s suit. Still, this efficient adaption professed to the world that this was the one armed knight… or as Evan’s band liked to call him, Ser Lackshield.
He rode with his hand on the reins, his visor up, as he watched as the townsfolk gathered. Although they knew him straight away, it was an effort to put names to some of these faces. He smiled genuinely as he saw the people coming out to greet his arrival, but found it faltering as he saw the looks on their faces and the whispers behind hands. He still smiled as this set in, but now it was more of a mask. His gaze rose, and took in the path ahead to his ancestral home.
“Well, they look very happy to see him, don’t they?” Ox mumbled out of the side of his mouth, one hand dropping surreptitiously to the hilt of his sword, an unconscious reflex in a naturally suspicious mercenary.
Kenrith noticed, but chose not to say anything. His own sword was strapped beside him on his horse, and he made no move to bring his hand closer to it.
“Positively ecstatic,” Evan concurred, looking around carefully at the furtive faces of the townsfolk.
“I told ya not to do that,” Ox growled, frustrated. “Every time you use big words like that, I have to ask you what you mean, and then I look even more stupid.”
The corner of Evan’s mouth twitched in a smile. “My apologies.” Ox fell into a fresh bout of muttered curses, but Evan ignored him and nudged forward to ride beside Kenrith.
“Surely they recognise, you, Ser,” he said by way of introduction. “Is there something wrong at the castle? Where are your brother and sister to greet you? Or your father?”
“When I was a boy… I didn’t know what ‘going south’ meant. All they know of me is that I was raised in the south, that I am my father’s heir… and that I have one arm. No northerner wants to be ruled by a soft man from the south… but I am not soft, I have Held Fast,” he said with the customary weight he gave those words on the few occasions when he spoke them. Evan had heard him say that perhaps once, and if he hadn’t known them to be the Hardy words before this journey he certainly did now.
“As for my father, I am returning on account of his illness. My brother and cousin are no doubt attending him, although I expect Godwyn will ride out as soon as he hears I’ve arrived if he can. Still, even with father sick, it looks as if something else is going on,” Kenrith said.
And the churned up ground as they approached the castle definitely seemed to herald the arrival of some party or another - and quite recently arrived at that, for the castle gates were still open. Seeing the armed group who were approaching, the guards sprang forward to defend the castle but then, seeing Kenrith and the Holdfast pennant, they fell back to allow him to pass. One grizzled veteran called out, “Welcome home, Sir!” It was the first friendly greeting Kenrith had had since Winterfell.
Kenrith skillfully dismounted and clasped the familiar guard’s hand with his own mailed fist. “Ser it is, now, Crastow. It is good to see you. This is Evan, and he can introduce you to the rest of his companions later. They are travelling further north, and were gracious enough to escort me along with Mal and Jayne” Kenrith said with meaning.
There were only a few places he could mean… and the Wall was high on the list.
Moments later, however, his smile faded as his eyes took in the disturbed earth. “How fares my father, Sergeant? Who else has arrived before me… certainly Ser Godfrey did not travel with so many…”
Then they were into the courtyard, and able to see horses being led away for stabling, and a large covered wagon being divested of a variety of goods, including tourney armour. And there was a pennant too - a bloody hand on a dark field. The sigil of Ser Herys Bolton.
Evan could hear the sound of squeaking leather as Kenrith’s fist tightened at his side the moment he saw the banner. He stood in place for three breaths, and his horse, which was at the other end of the reins he gripped so tightly as he stood beside his mount, shuffled its feet uneasily until he passed them to Rhik.
Evan kept his eyes on Ser Kenrith’s face for a moment, watching his reaction studiously and silently. After a moment, he spoke, without turning away. “I will go down into the town and arrange for quarters,” he said. “Garyn, you will stay with Ser Kenrith until he has been received by the Hardys and dismisses you.”
“Then you will rejoin us in the town.” Evan ran roughshod over any objection Garyn might have raised, and bowed his head to Kenrith. “With your leave, Ser.”
Kenrith turned to look towards Evan for the first time since he’d introduced him at the gate. It took him a moment to recall what Evan had just said, but he eventually snapped back to the here and now. “Yes, of course.”
Evan was probably planning on doing his own poking around… that was the most likely reason for why he’d pawn Garyn off on him. Either that, or the man meant to ditch him and ride off for the wall straight away… In either case, if he’d meant to have someone along to observe Kenrith’s greeting, he would have chosen Donnell.
“Welcome home, Sir,” said Rhik to Kenrith. “I think your family are in the Great Hall … if you would like to join them.”
Mal looked questioningly at Kenrith to see if he wished a larger escort - either for protection, or as befitting his dignity when he saw his family again.
Kenrith nodded. He was not used to having men answer to him, or to be responsible for their care. Jayne was already making sure his own horse was seen to properly, and had Mal’s mount by the reins as well.
“There’s no need to head for the town,” Rhik said to Evan. “We’ve plenty of room here for travellers.” His widespread arm indicated the full spread of the castle. “Our Lord would be angry if we turned honest folk away when they’d travelled north with our young Master.”
Kenrith nodded, and was about to say something as well, when someone else caught his eye.
Evan regarded him for a moment. “I will make my apologies to your lord myself,” he said at last, turning his horse to go. “My men are hardened and dangerous men, though, who scoff at the thought of soft beds and warm mead before bedtime. As it is, I will have to find the leakiest, shoddiest inn in the town just to keep them from going and sleeping in the woods.” He inclined his head towards Rhik, ignoring the glares from Ox and Donnell.
Turning to Kenrith, he nodded again. “My lord, with your leave. I will make my apologies to your lord father later in the day.” As he rode out of Holdfast’s gate, the others followed along sullenly, leaving Garyn looking after them with a bemused expression on his face.
The townsfolk continued to whisper as they passed, but by and large, Holdfast continued going about its business, the brief diversion of their arrival already nothing more than a talking point for dinner. Ox growled grumpily from behind him. “Want to tell me what that was all about?”
“Not really,” Evan said quietly.
Donnell cut in, glaring angrily at a group of passing children. “‘Scoff at the thought of soft beds and warm mead’?”
“Shut up,” Evan sighed.
Rhys left Lord Hardy’s sickroom relieved that his great-uncle and Merivel were still there to attend to the ill man’s needs. He didn’t completely trust Lady Celia to have Lord Hardy’s interests above her own.
He turned down the hallway that led to the outside door. It would be faster to go through the courtyard to get to the Maester’s Tower than staying inside.
And there he became aware that more people had arrived. There was a carriage, and guards wearing the livery of a bloody hand on a dark background - Ser Herys Bolton.
Rhys paused, staring at the bloody hand, his thoughts returning to a certain Summer Festival seven years ago. He frowned and turned his eyes away from the Bolton banner to the rest of the entourage in the courtyard.
There too was another party, an armoured man who stood beside his horse, talking to Rhik. His armour seemed a little strange - and then Rhys realized - he had only one arm. As he turned his head to look at the trappings of the Boltons, Rhys saw it was Kenrith, accompanied by a group of armed men, the apparent leader of whom was being addressed by Rhik.
Rhys broke out into a grin, the first in several days. He jogged across the courtyard toward him, abandoning his quest for herbs briefly in order to greet Lord Hardy’s heir and a friend he hadn’t seen in close to six years.
At this point, they became aware of a tall, goodlooking man in maester’s robes, moving swiftly across the courtyard towards them with a broad grin on his face. To Evan he seemed to have a Dornish cast of features and coloring, but Kenrith saw at once it was his old friend, Rhys.
“Rhys! It is good to see you…” Kenrith said as he swiftly crossed the distance between them with his long metal-clad legs. “Tell me, please, how… how fares my father?”
Rhys clasped Kenrith’s shoulder, still grinning. “Kenrith! It _is_ good to see you!” Then the easygong smile faded, replaced by a more somber expression. “Not good,” he answered, lowering his voice and looking into Kenrith’s eyes. “He suffered a stroke—a fit of sorts—and I fear he will not recover from it. He cannot talk nor move well. Professionally, I think the end is near. Kenrith, he’s been asking for you.”
Kenrith clasped the other man’s shoulder in turn, remaining mindful that Rhys’ robe would turn aside neither a sword nor an incautious grip from his own gauntlet. He managed a firm clasp without incident. Kenrith took in Rhys’ response, and his face took on a grave look. At the mention of asking for him, Kenrith nodded and released Rhys’ arm as he shifted his weight.
Before Kenrith could go tearing off, Rhys tightened his grip on his shoulder and lowered his voice still further. “Lady Celia and Ser Godfrey are with him as we speak, in his chambers. They asked myself and a visiting maester and Septon Abert to be witnesses. To exactly what, I don’t know, but you as heir need to be there now. To speculate further would be indiscrete of me, and I fear I’ve already crossed that line and forgotten my place. Forgive me for that.”
“I haven’t forgotten the need for frank council while I’ve been away, Rhys. There is no need for forgiveness,” he said. Had he not been mindful of his words, he would have said ‘while I was in the south,’ but he had not forgotten Rhys’ own origins.
“Kenrith, you already have much to bear, but one thing further. Look to Godwyn, for he has been neglected throughout this. Lord Hardy has not called for him once, only you, and I’m concerned about him.”
At this, Kenrith frowned outright. “I will delay you no longer… my thanks, Rhys.” There was more he wished to ask the young scholar, but it did not seem like there was time for that now.
Kenrith removed his helm entirely, and with it under his arm he moved at a hustle, if not a run, towards his father’s chamber.
Rhys watched Kenrith leave. He turned briefly to look again at the Bolton standard, then frowned and continued on to the Maester’s Tower to retrieve the black tea, rosemary, and lavendar.
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