Stone. Cold, grey stone. The stone of mountains. Of cliffs. The stone that puts the tumble in mountain streams. Stone. Unmoving. Static. Still. Dead.
No, not dead. To be dead, you had to have been alive. Papa had explained that once, when Syndra had asked. That was why trees could be dead. Because they could be alive.
Stone like gravestones. It was fitting that they made gravestones out of something that could not die. All the better for them to stand forever. As people could not.
These were the thoughts occupying Syndra’s mind as she stood in the early morning mist with her father. The fog that lingered over the lichyard promised another warm, humid day once the sun rose higher. For now, though, it was grey. Like stone. Like her father. Like her.
She heard the weeping and the sobs, but they were not hers. Lady Celia was caterwauling and carrying on, clutching Uncle Oswain’s arm as he tried in vain to comfort her. Or was he merely trying to keep her quiet?
Septa Annice wept too, but her tears were mercifully silent. Syndra felt bad for her. She had been Mama’s septa; had raised Morna Hardy from infancy through girlhood to marriage and childbirth. And now Mama was gone.
Rhys was here, too, his head hung low with respect. He stood beside Maester Sewell, who looked older than Syndra had ever seen him. He was drawn and gaunt and appeared as if he had not slept in days. That was probably the case.
Of her cousins, there was no sign. Kenrith was still to ill to attend and Godwyn, ever loyal, had insisted on staying with his brother. In hindsight, it was probably a wise decision. He would never have put up with That Woman’s excessive hysterics.
Father’s hands on her shoulders never moved as the septon droned on about life and death, the Mother and the Stranger. He stood behind her, solid and still as stone. Never moving. Never speaking. At one point, she looked up and found his face was as craggy and worn as mountain granite, but still he did not weep.
Nor did his daughter. To those looking on, Syndra Hardy was undoubtedly her father’s little girl. Her blue eyes seemed not even to blink. She stood straight and tall as a statue beneath Godfrey’s strong, steady hands. Servants and guests alike would later remark upon the strength of this pair – the living embodiment of those staunch Hardy words – “We Hold Fast.”
In truth, for Syndra and her father, holding fast was all that was left for them to do. Neither had a tear left to shed. The grief had taken hold and squeezed them numb, wringing out any feeling left within them. Syndra’s mind felt like stone – cold and grey and, yes, dead.
She forced it so. Dead was better than living. Better than thinking. Thinking meant remembering and remembering meant missing – or worse. Remembering meant seeing her brother smiling through blue, cold lips. Remembering meant seeing Mama and the babe, waxy and still on the biers in the sept. Remembering meant hearing Trey’s last raspy breath. Syndra didn’t want to remember. Stone. Like stone. Be like stone.
Stones in the river. The river. Wet, wild, ever moving, ever changing. Cold. Cold, but good cold. Living cold. Happy cold. Plunging, deep, deep. Hold your breath – no! Breathe! Yes! Fish breathe the water – be a fish! Flip, flap, push yourself upstream. Like the salmon – LEAP! Over the falls, nothing to stop you. Ever forward, up, up. Watch out for those bears!
Bear. Little Bear. That’s me. I’m a bear. Climbing – no, fishing. Today I’m fishing. Catch those salmon. Rip them, shred them, devour them. Never hungry. Never wanting. I’m a bear, but a big bear now. A little bear would need its mama and I don’t – NO! Don’t think! I’m a BIG bear. Or an eagle…
Yes, an eagle. I’ll fly away. Far away. To Winterfell. No, farther – FARTHER! To White Harbor. Fly down the Reach to the sea. All the way to the sea. The Summer Isles. Dorne! Rhys is from Dorne. Wolf’s been to Dorne! Dorne, Dorne, Dorne, Dorne… Land of sand. That rhymes! Land of sand. And sandsnakes. Girls can swing swords and ride bareback and be queens. There’s everything – flowers and fruit. I’ll bring back lemons and oranges for Septa Annice. It’s red and gold in Dorne. Never grey, always red… Sun. No fog – sun! Warm sun, golden sun…
Sun, sun – Done?!
“Sweet one, we must begin…”
Godfrey had gently nudged Syndra forward, out of her daydream. She didn’t know why. She walked next to her father, his hand still on her shoulder, toward the open graves.
NO!! Her mind screamed, though she didn’t make a sound. Her feet moved slower. She tried to keep them moving, but they felt like stone. Papa felt her hesitation. “Come, sweetling, it’s all right,” he encouraged her. He held her hand tightly and with his free hand, scooped a fistful of earth and tossed it into her mother’s grave. The hollow sound of dirt on coffin wrenched Syndra’s stomach.
“Syndra, your turn now,” he said gently but firmly, a commander accustomed to being obeyed, no matter how difficult the order. In slow motion, never releasing his hand, Syndra scooped a handful of soft brown dirt and threw it into the hole, missing the coffin on purpose. She repeated the procedure at Trey’s grave.
At Gavrin’s grave, however, she choked. She couldn’t do it. Her mind frantically scrambled for a handhold – something to keep her from falling, happy thoughts – happy, good, cold, wet… NO! NO! He’s not gone! He can’t be gone! He’s not in there! That’s not him! Her hand froze as her mind slid, screamed, pleaded, begged for relief and found none.
She began to hyperventilate, sobs without tears – a ragged, tearing sound as her knuckles went white around her father’s hand. Godfrey looked down at her, then quickly picked up a second handful of dirt to throw on his son’s grave for his daughter. Duty done, he scooped Syndra into his arms and whisked her away. Away from the holes in the ground, from death, from sadness, from stone.
Syndra held onto her father desperately, eyes wild and unfocussed. She didn’t know where they were going. She didn’t care. Castle walls sped past Godfrey’s shoulder where she clung tenaciously. By now the sobbing had stopped, but Syndra had begun to tremble – a deep, constant, uncontrolled shudder that would not stop no matter how tightly Godfrey held her or how soothingly he spoke.
Syndra had no idea how long or how far they walked. When her father finally set her down in the damp grass beside him, they rested at the edge of the frog pond. She looked around dumbly, but her shaking began to subside. A big bull frog croaked in the reeds off to her right. Crickets chirped in the tall grass near the old tower. A red-winged blackbird chirped its “oh-de-leeee” call from atop the cat-o-nine tails.
Her father sat next to her, his arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees, looking down worriedly as Syndra, here in the presence of living things, slowly came back to life. For a long time, they spoke no words, but simply sat, looking out over the muddy frog pond as the fog burned off around them and the sun began to shine.
Finally, Syndra rose and walked to the edge of the pond. After searching for a time, she found a rock, a flat chip of granite. As Godfrey watched, she turned it in her small hand, then chucked it out with a clumsy sidearm throw. Plop! It sank, with only a single ring to show for her efforts. Syndra’s shoulders sagged in disappointment.
A wry smile came over Godfrey’s face and he rose to join his daughter at the pond’s edge. “If we go around to the other side, there are more flat ones,” he suggested, taking her small hand in his large one and leading the way.
“How do you know?” Syndra asked.
“I put them there,” he smiled mysteriously.
She looked up at him curiously and picked up her pace. On the other side of the pond, Godfrey led Syndra away from the shore toward the decrepit old tower. She furrowed her brow, confused, but continued to follow. At a cavity in the wall, Godfrey crouched down and pulled away the tall grass.
“Aha,” he said triumphantly. “Still here.”
At the foot of the wall was a pile of relatively flat granite chips, carefully cut from stones that had fallen from the old unused tower centuries before.
“How did you know they were here?” Syndra asked, awed at seeing so many flat stones in one place.
“When I was young, I had a lot of time on my hands,” her father explained. “Oswain and Mallador were so much older than I was, so I spent a lot of time on my own. And there aren’t near enough flat rocks by the pond to learn to skip them properly.” He smiled down at her mischievously. “So I made some.”
Syndra beamed up at him with the wide, toothy grin of a seven-year-old. She was very impressed with her father’s childhood cleverness.
Godfrey scooped up an armful of stones and encouraged Syndra to do the same. They brought them to the pond and for the next couple of hours, they skipped. And skipped some more. Godfrey patiently helped his daughter, adjusting her grip and showing her the proper flick of the wrist. Syndra had never seen such a good rock-skipper. Papa’s stones were flying almost across the whole pond. He could’ve challenged even Wolf. She was very proud.
Stone after stone after stone. By the time the bell rang for the midday watch, Syndra’s stones were hopping four or five times before sinking to the murky bottom. Stone after stone after stone. And not once did either of them mention the fever. Or funerals. Or death. Because stones can’t be dead.
But on that afternoon, they certainly came alive.