A dapple of shadows fell over a portion of the road. The dark veil sported a multitude of holes through, the spears of sunlight forcing the shade away, yet not powerful enough to vanquish its foes. Leaves rustled ahead and above, their dance waning and picking up upon the direction of a lively breeze. It was not very cold, but the morning air remain brisk; the perfect weather for riding.
That thought prompted Jon to turns his head towards the lumbering wheelhouse. Crammed together within its confines, his sisters and younger brothers were certain to be a tad uncomfortable. Mother had refused to allow Cassana to ride, claiming she was needed to look after her siblings. Jon had declined to intervene even at his sister’s plea, leaving him with Maekar for company. His brother remained yet in low spirits thought, so he could not be counted upon to alleviate the monotony of the journey.
“You were born here, you know?” he prodded his sibling gently, hoping to get something out of the boy. It seemed unnatural, to say the least, for him to remain quiet for so long a stretch of time. “And I was the first to hold you. After mother, of course.”
Maekar gave him a long look, then turned away. The sound of rustling paused. Plunged into uneasy silence, Jon experienced a moment of discomfiture; should he have taken the chance?
“Cassana says she was first.” The bubble around them broke with nearly audible intensity, forcing him into releasing a breath he did not know he’d been holding. Maekar’s eyes returned to watching him. “It cannot be that both of you were first.”
“You were the first babe she held, to be certain, but she was not the first to hold you.” Might be she had simply expressed herself poorly, he considered as explanations for his sister’s claim rose to mind. “You were so tiny; tiniest I’d ever remembered seeing.”
“Don’t turn all maudlin on me,” Maekar warned, a comforting edge to his voice. It sounded more and more like his brother with each passing moment. “Tiny; what rot.”
“You can ask mother; although I doubt she recalls much of it.” They did not speak of it much, but for some reason mother had always experienced a trifle more trouble delivering sons than she had delivering daughters. With the exception of Steffon, who for some reason saw fit to hurry his entrance into the world, announcing such with a cry loud enough to wake the dead, all of them stubbornly held onto their safe and comfortable position. As mother liked to tell it, if she put together all the hours she laboured with the lot of them it would make a whole year.
“I doubt she would be willing to recount it even if she did.” His brother pulled a face and tugged on his gelding’s reins. “Although it does seem strange to me that you should say so. Why would she not recall it?”
“Milk of the poppy. The maesters always had some at the ready. You know how mother gets when drinking that stuff,” Suffice to say that holding the babe and peering down into the tiny face was about all she managed to do after. Once the potion took hold, she would fall into a dreamless slumber, more than once passing away a couple of days in such a state. That Jon remembered clearly.
Just as clearly he recalled having asked once, of his father, whether she would wake from her slumber. His young mind had not been able to comprehend the exhaustion his poor mother faced. Robert had, predictably, laughed his feared away. The one who had explained to him, sometime later, that his mother required silence and respite had been the King. A more precocious child might have understood the oddness of such an occurrence and entertained some suspicions as to the presence of the King at the bedside of his mother, all when he had not seen the man come in. Jon had simply taken the comfort which was being given. He sighed to himself and pushed the memory away. For the time being he did not have to worry about the King.
His primary concern was Storm’s End. His father had visited twice in as long as Jon could recall. Neither time did he take any of his children with him, not even his wife. What he did carry with him each time, though, was a natural born child. On both occasions his return was marked by several uncomplimentary assessments of his brother.
Jon did not recall much of Uncle Stannis. The man had never been particularly warm to him and Jon had never paid him much mind as a consequence. And once father obtained a position at court, he’d not had to deal with the man, leaving him behind to mind the keep. While a formal correspondence had been entertained, as was customary of the seneschal and the lord of the keep to do, he’d never once read the letters and his father most likely fed them to the flames crackling merrily whenever he chanced upon them. From what he had managed to gather though, most of it at his mother’s knee, no less, of the finances, was that with careful handling he might well be able to live in comfort for the rest of his life. It had certainly helped that the King saw fit to bestow some advantages upon them as well.
His worry remained with his uncle, bleeding into what might have been a trusting relationship otherwise. Much of his father’s remarks about the man, as well as mother’s blatant disregard had cemented a coolness towards his kin that Jon much doubted he’d be able to shake off. Might be that was not the point though; he disliked half the court and distrusted the other half. He need not feel closeness to this man either. Finding out what his weakness was, though, would not be amiss. That ought to be the first matter he concerned himself with as far as the inhabitants of the keep went.
The single tower of the keep trusted its weight towards the skies, the spikes cutting through a line of thin fog, its form slowly appearing from behind largest hump of the road, bearing itself as proud as any peacock. Jon smiled at the sight, a feeling of nostalgia creeping upon him. “Nearly there.”#
“Not nearly near enough,” Maekar commented, pointing towards the snaking road. “It will still take us hours to clear the distance. Best you save your excitement for when we’ve arrived.”
“At least one of us should show some excitement when faced with the prospect of seeing home once more.” His brother frowned. Jon cocked his head to the side, holding onto his expectation that Maekar would, at some point, give him some manner of response.
His sibling did not disappoint. “Not my home, Jon. I might have been born to this pile of rocks, but it has never been my home. Besides which, too many cooks stirring the same pot never did end well.”
“As though you’d be stirring any pots,” Jon retaliated. “Stirring trouble in the stables is more like it.” He urged his horse to a swifter pace and gave a low whistle. Maekar groaned, but he heard the boy send his own horse into a gallop. “By the by, this is your home, as long as there is breath in my body” he called out over his shoulder.
“That can be arranged,” the other yelled back.
Before long they were riding shoulder to shoulder, dust rising up behind them in a thick curtain. Might be it was just as well that Cassana had not been allowed without the wheelhouse. Maekar drove his horse towards Jon’s causing the other beast to serve to the side. One of the horse’s legs bent in the midst of an awkward move, but his brother retreated just in time to avoid upsetting the beast’s balance beyond redemption and sending Jon hurtling to the ground.
In retaliation, he sped ahead, sending a spatter of tiny pebbles and a shower of dust into his brother’s face. At the very least, they were more in charity with a tad of competition. “That is not fair, brother!”
“Seems fair enough to me.” Which was precisely the thing to say if he wished to provoke Maekar. Which Jon was actively trying to do. It worked marvellously well, in that his kin saw fit to push himself even further.
Jon allowed the boy his victory after a time, having exhausted both of them and their horses. With hours of journey yet to go, it would not be very smart to press further. “You know, if you truly want to do some stirring in the pot, I can find one for you. You needn’t be put out on my account.”
“Pots require care,” Maekar pointed out, “you always tell me that.”
“And I trust you would do well with some polish to your skill. If you wished it.” The boy shrugged, leaving Jon to ponder the thought on his own.
He glanced over his shoulder, searching for the structure they’d left behind. The wheelhouse had advanced some during their conversation. At the speed they were going at, it was possible they would reach Storm’s End before sundown. With a bit of will though, he was more than willing to bet they could reach it even earlier. “Maekar, go and tell them to harness another team.”
“But there are only Cassana’s and mother’s horses. You know those two, Force them to bear the weight of a yoke and we shall have more than two angry mares to deal with.”
“We would have an extra pair pulling that damned wheelhouse and hopefully we shall be reaching our destination before father’s bones are nothing but dust. I want that team harnessed.”
“Just as long as you know not to turn to me when the womenfolk find out.” His brother rode off to do his bidding. Jon, meantime, turned his attention to the single tower standing proud in the distance. Did Cassana remember some of it? She must, they had both toddled along its corridors for long enough that Storm’s End was a friend rather than a stranger.
In some ways it was worrisome to hear Maekar speak as though the keep meant naught to him. War, famine, death; they could come at any time, rip away any one of them. And not a single one of those thoughts would help make the rest of the journey any more comfortable. Jon forced them aside and returned to his family. The wheelhouse had been stopped in the middle of the wide road. Two men worked to bring the mares forth while a third held onto the gear. By the protests of the two it would not be long before the wheelhouse was emptied.
True to form, his kin proved his point by filing out of the wheeled structure in disorderly fashion. The twins were pulling Ned along and Cassana carried Steffon. Mother came last, eyes surveying the scene playing out before her. Her expression froze in a tight mask of displeasure when she finally saw her mare. Jon dismounted and walked over, fully expecting to have his ears ringing in short order.
“We will move faster if we harness them as well, lady mother. I thought that might be welcome news.” She blinked up at him, keeping silent for enough time that he laughed in further explanation, “It would be wiser not to remain on the road come nightfall; this will ensure we are not in danger from that corner.”
“If you think it best.” It was his turn to freeze. She was simply accepting his decision. Questions crawled up his throat. Mother pursed her lips. “Well, do not just stand there. We have to make good time.”
“You would simply–“
An annoyed glare silenced him. “You are the head of the household now. If I have complaints I will be certain to address them to you, but I will no longer hold your hand. You are a man now.” He certainly hoped his uncle would have a like opinion, elsewise they would find themselves with a battle on their hands. The matriarch, however, was already walking away.
Before he could enjoy the minor victory to the fullest, his sister approached him. “If she comes to any harm, you will regret it.”
Unable to help himself, he rewarded her threat with feigned ignorance. “Dear sister, I confess I am at a loss.”
“My mare, and quit being difficult. I have had enough of it from mother.” Steffon chose that precise moment to grab onto his sister’s hair, apparently unable to keep from marvelling at the texture. He tugged, causing her to throw her head back. “And from Steffon.”
“Mother I can see setting out to make matters difficult for you, but I doubt poor Steffon has acquired the necessary skills to plot against you,” he offered in that supercilious tone of voice he knew she loathed. Pressing a hand to the small of her back, he guided her towards the door. “Shall I help you uop?”
“I can climb without your aid,” Cassana snapped and, as good, as her word, disappeared into the wheelhouse. She slammed the door in her wake. Having not been latched, it foiled her efforts at a dramatic exit by gaping open the next moment.
“You could assist us,” Jocelyn said, tugging on his arm. Jon glanced down. Mylenda was holding Ned upright in the meantime.
“Of course, my fair lady.” He handed her up fist, since she had done the asking and then took Ned from Mylenda. The boy seemed somewhat disgruntled, but that might have been due to a lack of sleep. Jocelyn was waiting for her sister when he pressed the boy in her hold. “And you, would you like me to help you as well?”
“Aye.” She held her arms out, tapping one foot impatiently. Jon hurried to do his duty. “Took you long enough,, brother.”
“A rose with thorns, I see,” he muttered to himself. The words, not unexpectedly, flew over his sister’s head. She was just pleased to be in the wheelhouse once more. “Cass, latch the door, will you?” He pulled the very same door closed before she could give him a reply. What a withering reply it might have been had he given her half the chance. To his great luck, he did not have to engage in that war.
Finally returned to his brother’s side, Jon grimaced at the satisfied and slightly unkind undertones of the stare he received. “She would have flayed you. You know it.”
“She hasn’t won any of our skirmishes for years.” Though she came on strongly at first, which had intimidated him during his early years, he’d learned. She had not. “And she will never win one again. Do not despair though, brother, she can easily flay you.”
They rode further, the distance between them and the tower, he could scarcely make out, shrinking as it gaining in heights and width, turrets sharpened in anticipations of company. Before that milestone could be reached, however, there was a village sprawling out before them. A few of the older structures were familiar to him. The proud sept, for example, still retained its wooden turrets, mounted upon the humble earthen walls of a much older place of worship. The Storm’s End maester had once told him that a long time ago people left gifts upon its altar to the first mistress of the keep. Elenei, by all accounts a minor deity in her own right, had wedded Durran Godsgrief and, presumably, with the aid of Brandon the Builder raised a keep to withstand all storms.
He had been inside a few times. It resembled a hut, much like the ones the smallfolk inhabited, but there were objects of worship strewn about, paintings of the Seven and a number of relics the septon had never been able to explain the use of.
There were some changes though. As all things were wont to do, the small community had expanded and with it the number of constructions. And the number of mishaps had as well; that was the thought running about in Jon’s head as he saw a couple of lads, possibly Maekar’s age, running out into the road with frankly terrified expressions. He tugged upon his horse’s reins.
“here now, what is this all about?” he demanded of the two. Maekar reached them. The boys looked from one to the other. “Speak without fear.”
“There’s been an accident,” one of them finally revealed, his voice loud and squeaky almost as though he expected to be chastised for his daring. “A few men were felling trees and one of them got caught under a falling trunk.”
Meantime, the wheelhouse released one of its captives, Cassana appeared as though out of thin air, hands on her hips. “Why are we stopping again?” A quick explanation had her lips open in a slack oval. “That is horrible, but what could any of you possibly do?”
“Aid,” Jon answered, dismounting. “Maekar, ride ahead and have the maester brought down. You,” he pointed to one of the boys, “do you ride?”
“Enough to keep myself in the saddle,” the fellow replied, looking with some uncertainty towards the horses.
“Good, go with my brother here and explain to the maester what awaits him. He will want to be prepared.” Turning, he caught sight of Casssana, who was hanging back for once. “As for you, mother will not wish to wait. Go now and tell her I will return in my own time.”
“Maekar can tell her,” she protested. He was about to argue, but she pulled a pleading face. “I have been stuck in that wheelhouse long enough. I won’t get in your way and I shan’t cause any trouble. Upon my honour.”
Arguments would not best serve his interests at the moment. Jon nodded. “Very well then. Maekar, explain to mother as briefly as you can, but do not delay long.” And with that, he saw his confrontation with his uncle stalled and his attention diverted towards a new problem.
Their guide saw them towards a meadow in which a group of men and women had gathered. The women were secluded in the far left corner, clustering around a small banked fire upon which sat a cauldron, presumably half-forgotten. One of them, Jon observed, was weeping, hiding her face away. She remained audible nevertheless.
The men, on the other hand, were loading severed trees trunks in a cart, a rudimentary thing, with one wheel half sunken into a muddy pit. Upon their arrival, one of the men broke away. Tall enough to tower over Jon, he approached with a sure step, as were the steps of smallfolk when in their element. “Gwydo, you’ve brought help.” However, once he glanced over him and his sister something changed in his face. “Beggin’ pardon, I sent the boy for help, not to bother good folk.”
“No need, my good man,” he answered in as decisive a voice as he could produce. That attracted more than just a pair of eyes upon him. “I have sent for the maester of the keep. Now take me to this injured man so we might see what can be done.”
“The maester?” a feminine voice cut in. “You should not have, the master of the keep shan’t like it one whit.”
He blinked, lips pursing as annoyance rose to the surface. He did not turn when replying. “I am the master of the keep, good woman.” The collectible gasp was more than enough to make him wince. Before he could say anything else, fearful faces regarded him with open distrust. “We’ve an injured man, I understand. If you would be so good as to take me to him.”
Mumbles bubbled over. A few grumbles followed. Nevertheless, the sea of men parted and one, Jon presumed he was the aforementioned Gwydo’s father, motioned him over his a movement of the head. Cassana’s sharp intake of breath momentarily transferred his attention to her. “You can stay here.”
“I would rather go with.” And she did so, not even complaining at the steep path they set upon in their descent. He, nonetheless, took her by the hand and ensured that she would not come to a bad end. Some of the branches could cut her skirts and send her tumbling to a brutal, short death. Her neck would surely break.
They reached a nadir of sorts upon whose floor the body of a fallen giant trapped beneath its heavy mass the smaller, much frailer frame of a labourer. Cassana gasped, her hold tightening on his hand. “There’s a branch stabbing through him. Jon, he’ll bleed out long before the maester reaches us.”
“If we could pull the branch out and tie the wound.” Still, he could see little chance of achieving that. There was some space between the branches, but not enough that someone his size could fit through. A child would be put at too much risk and he did not see how a man bigger than him would achieve the goal.
“What if I try?” his sister offered after a few moments of silence. “I could use the sash to tie the wound.”
He eyed her with some interest. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that she might wish to do so; and that she was small enough to fit through the branches. “Are you certain? Might be one of the other women,” he trailed off.
“I doubt there is one with my figure among them,” she snorted, vanity rearing its head. “Here, hold this,” she said while her fingers worked on loosening the sash gathering her kirtle about her. She pressed the strip of material in his hand. “You, man, turn around!” Gwydo’s parent did so. “Mother will kill me if I ruin this one.” And with those words for explanation, she heaped her kirtle in his arms, leaving a sturdy chemise in its stead, of an appropriately dark colour. Only Cassana would waste good money on such fripperies.
What she did not waste was time, though. Once her precious kirtle was safely deposited away from gore and muck, she approached the fallen tree, kneeling to peer better at the path she considered takin. Thereafter she slipped into the tall grass stalks and dragged herself under the weighty wood. For a brief moment Jon thought she might be stuck when she came to a complete halt. His standing position, however, gave him an advantage. As he peered over the mass of branches, he could make out some of his sister’s form, writhing, seemingly helplessly. Only that she was not helpless at all and her wiggling eventually saw her whole length passing through.
Reaching the man proved to be a challenge though, even with her diminutive form. Thin branches barred her way, scratching ruthlessly against uncovered skin and he imagined her knees would be bruised. But Cassana did not let up. Once she got something in her head, stopping her would be a miracle unto itself. Thus, after several attempts she did manage to somehow grab onto the man. “He is unconscious,” she called out, managing to clear enough of a space that her form was not unduly impaired in its movement.
“Can you get that branch out?” he called back, walking around the crown of the tree, sash balled into one fist. Her kirtle was draped over his arm. He could juts about make out her hands grabbing onto the rod impaling the man’s shoulder. “You’ll have to pull hard. The flesh might not give way.”
“I’ve pulled splinters out before. It cannot be that different.” In the same way mules and horses were no different. Still, Jon did not make the retort. No use in discouraging her. Fingers gripped the piece of wood steadily. Her whole fist moved heavenwards, tugging .
Even unconscious, the poor victim managed a cry. Might be she had been wrong and he still lingered among them. Nevertheless, Cassana continued with the tugging until she was satisfied that the rod budged. She pulled and pulled, lifting it until barely the tip remained within. “I will need that sash.”
He threw it. His aim had always been a decent thing and Jon begged the gods that it not disappoint him at such a moment. To his great relief, it did not.
The bit of cloth caught upon a branch, close enough that Cassaan could easily reach it, which she did just before pulling the rod free in truth and pressing the sash hurriedly to the wound. A graon followed her efforts.
“What is it?”
“This is much too thin. It will not work as a bandage. Not unless layered over the wound and tied with something.”
That did not leave them with much choice. “You will have to stay there until the maester arrives.” He did not need to look to know she nodded. “I will see what can be done about removing some of the branches.”
“Just hurry, Jon. Hurry.”
His hurrying was not the issue. “I will try.” Returning to the side of the man still maintaining his back turned, he asked, “How many axes do you have?”
“Enough to clear the branches away now that Fiach won’t be bleeding his last over the forest floor, m’lord.” Despite the outward compliance, Jon felt the inward coolness seep into his bones and settle unpleasantly. He did not have time to challenge every man’s views though.
“Good. Call your men and let us see what we can do before the maester’s arrival.”
Only that there seemed to be some shared thoughts among these folk as he could already see a smattering of humanity approaching. There were axes too, as the man had promised, enough that Jon took one up himself, after he had put Cassana’s possessions away, and went to work on the outward side of the crown. This was not his craft, but he instructed great care, nevertheless, “You man won’t be served if my sister is injured.” Although he doubted any of the men wished her injured. Some, the younger ones, looked positively awed.
They toiled hard. Sweat broke out across his back and over his brow, his breath drew in short. Jon barely had time to wipe away the saltwater. Not even rigour training had prepared him for such a feat. And it showed. Some of the men were nearing the couple trapped in a prison of branches. For them it proved easy enough work to get their companion untangled.
Cassana, though, snarled when one touched her shoulder. “I can move on my own.” And she did, positioning herself at the injured man’s side. “If one of you would be so kind as to take my place.” For all the earlier enthusiasm, her mood soured fairly quick.
Not even that was enough to quell the admiration he saw in the eyes of some of the smallfolk.
With a jolt, he realised that not only his sister benefitted from their silent admiration. But by the look of Gwydo’s face, he too was to derive a like reward.
At about the same time arrived the maester. The man had not changed so very much that he was unrecognisable. Jon lifted a hand, motioning the old man over. His eyes lit upon him, recognition sparking to life. “My lord, forgive this old man his slowness.”
“Never you mind that, good maester. Come here and have a look at this injured man. Forsooth, he’s more need of you.” Complying, the maester knelt at the ailing’s side and moved away the thin covering the sash provided. Blood bubbled from the open wound. “Well?”
“Bring me some water. I must see this well cleansed.”
Cassana, meantime, had moved to Maekar’s side. It probably had to do with him handing her his cloak. She glowered his way, but Jon simply pointed over to where he had deposited her clothing. “Maekar, make certain she has some privacy, will you?”
“Aye, brother. Come, Cass. I will be your stalwart wall.”
“Would that you were my sharp hunting dagger.”
“Bloodthirsty little thing.”