The small pavilion crowned the tallest hill to be found this side of the northern Reach, a modest thing with three sides to it and a rough wooden table in the middle, only one simple camp chair assigned to it. A scattering of locked trunks lined the walls, and a few stuck outside on a wagon that rested next to it. Two Knights wearing the Golden Rose of House Tyrell stood sentinel outside the entrance. The only noise was the song of a camp, and the mixed voices of men and children a heavy stone’s throw from the pavilion.
Lady Vittoria Tyrell’s eyes glazed over as she set the quill down, her left hand gripping the wrist of her right, as the fingers of her right hand curled and stretched, curled and stretched, and curled and stretched. Sudden as a snake, her right wrist flicked—once, twice, and then thrice. She had read and written more letters than was proper, and her eyes, nevermind her poor hand, required reprieve.
She found it with a soft sigh as she stood, straightening out the green boiled leather armor with gold enameled plate at shoulders and chest, worn over a simple green dress, black leather riding boots, well made but simple, on her small feet. Her long auburn hair was dark without exposure to the sun, yet she brushed it away from the armor with a single brush of her left hand a backward dip of her head as she passed the sentries. There, in the early afternoon light, she watched Lady Mina and Lord Garrett drill with Knights of the Order.
No sooner did she smile at the sight than her smile was dashed as another sight caught the corner of her hair: Lord and Ser, Dennet Tarly of Horn Hill, approached with haste upon her position on his dirty brown courser. She waited until he was close enough hear her, his dark features and intense eyes flashing at her immediately.
“What is it, Den?”
His throat cleared as he swung off his horse and approached her, nodding a greeting to his brothers of the Order standing sentry outside their Lord Commander’s pavilion. “You ordered us to include your sellswords into our outriders—”
“—to get them acquainted with us, and us acquainted with them, yes.”
He grunted at that, but just moved on, “Well, they found something. A lordling with two men-at-arms for escort. The escorts are dead. They were searching the lordling when your sellsword captain and some of his men came upon them. They tried to make for the nearest treeline, but…”
Her smile returned. Say it, Den,
she thought, as she tried to hide just how pleased she was, waiting for him to say it.
“…well, their horseback archers did their job.”Oh? What was that you said?
Instead, she hid her smirk from the large, sweaty, broad-chested son of Savage Sam Tarly that she had known since the Vulture Hunt. She turned to one of the sentries, “My palfrey, please, Ser Ronnet.”
The sentry moved with quickness, as Den turned his head in response, and unleashed the thunder of his booming voice to the group taking time with Lady Mina and Lord Garrett:
“WE’RE MOVING. SMALL ESCORT FOR THE LORD COMMANDER.” Den’s dark brown eyes smoldered in intensity even as his voice lowered and quieted to match the reduced distance between he and the other sentry, “You too. Mount.”
Most of them immediately moved for weapons and horses, while a half dozen from a nearby campfire moved for the same. She only sighed. It was enough to make Den snort. “Yes, M’Lady, we are.”
She walked close enough to the small opening and the two men left tending to Mina and Garrett, holding up a left hand, palm out, to her siblings, “I’ll be back soon. It’s nothing to worry about.” Then she turned back to Den, to the smoke gray palfrey that was brought up for her. Once out of camp, she instructed them to make a line, and encircle once they got closer, with their fourteen horses, including her.
Light clouds interspaced between pale blue sky in the early afternoon sky of the northern Reach, low hills rolling between vast plains of grass and wild flower, straps of wooded area surrounding the numerous creeks that woven in and out of the area. They had been headed south to Oldtown when they stopped for the night, before it was decided by Ren they would send outriders during their trip south, despite them being in the Reach with no known threat or conflicts to worry them. There was, she knew, too much energy in them since they had taken their vow as Knights of the Golden Rose just two nights before.
It also gave her an excuse to start incorporating the sellswords she was paying for. And that, she liked quite a bit. That it was Garin and his men that had found the highwayman at work only pleased her all the more. Eyes were on them as the sound of their procession announced their presence. The line breaking out in alternation behind Ren and she, making a loose encirclement around the dead men, and the living lordling.
She expected, given the term lordling, a little lord. What she found was a thin, pale, grown man on a thick, modified saddle. Crippled,
she thought, immediately, knowing the handiwork of a Maester of the Citadel to accommodate a broken lord when she saw it. She and Ren stopped some ten long paces from Garin and his men. Ren stayed, and she slowly approached on her palfrey to come up next to Garin, her eyes on the dead, their horses, and then the mysterious broken Lord.
She looked off, to the tree line, and found two highwaymen held at sword point by Garin’s men, horses dead. Their horses were a rounsey and a dray. Finally, she looked back to the broken Lord, and saw no obvious heraldry. Her face was blank, her pretty green eyes narrowed. It matched well-enough the expression of her escort: stern, but otherwise detached.
Like Watchman coming upon criminals bungling a crime scene. Finally, she turned to Garin, and her expression changed in an instant. Her eyes warmed, drinking in the scattered sunlight of the valley, her pink lips breezed into an easy smile. “Well done, Captain. What do we have here?”
“Instead of asking your captain, who I assume he is, why not ask the one who happened to witness the matter?” The voice was dry and languid. The ‘lordling’ folded long pale hands over the pommel over the saddle, his pony looking grey about the muzzle and was missing half of it’s teeth. A beast merely to see him to the Citadel and then be sold along with the saddle per his grandfather’s orders. Of course, Lord Lucas had not expected his eldest grandson to be set upon by brigands, nor this rescue. “Though why a woman is leading a host…” Elmo mused and his thoughts flickered through that very short list as well as the heraldry he could see.
His two guards had been slain quickly as they had tried to run, there was no point in protecting a crippled son after all, and Elmo had better sense than running as the men had. In fact he was more than willing to go along and be ‘ransomed’. His grandfather would probably not have paid it but there would have been a rescue mounted by his father and uncles, perhaps there was some luck to be rescued by this woman. It was some how less humiliating. Still Elmo Harroway sat in his black tunic and leggings, looking like a crow if not for the trim of gold and silver that hemmed his clothes. The subtle keys and links of chain his mother had made for luck at the Citadel. The color did nothing to offset his pale skin or hair, making him appear all the more sickly. The choice of clothing had been his own and black suited his mood, it also made people pause and think him perhaps the Stranger, giving the young man some amusement.
Bowing slightly in his saddle lashed in as he was, Elmo arched a brow. “I presume I address the Lady Vittoria Tyrell? I can think of no other maiden with your colors and a company of… men.” His tone turning ‘men’ into something close to brigands, or the way some said Dorne.
Garin’s studiously blank expression remained unchanged. Beneath the silk-wrapped steel of his spired helm, his gray eyes were as cold and as dead as something from the depths of the roiling seas. He raised an eyebrow and turned to his new employer.
He had played this game before, many times in Essos. Whether you were a captain or some new addition to the company, a noble was much like any other, no matter where you went. Nobles could be an source of money or a foe, or both as was so often the case across the sea.
Vittoria’s smile stayed right where it was on her lips, as a tiny laugh of amusement escaped her. “The end of royal lines to the left of us, rebellion and bandits to the right, dragons over us, and women leading hosts about us…strange times, no, Lord…?”
“I would hardly call it strange. Rebellion and bandits are as common as rivers in the Riverlands.” Elmo intoned in his dry voice, sounding rather irritated at the fact. “Nor would I call myself ‘Lord’. Elmo of House Harroway, and as of current- sent off to study at the Citadel. As you seem not of the type of woman to simper or flutter about pathetically, I am sure you can see why.”
“Ah, well, welcome to the Reach, Lord Elmo of House Harroway. You will find a noticeable lack of bandits in this country.” She said as matter of fact, her head turned back to the bandits, then back to Garin.
“Please, Captain, have your men lead them just down the road. I’m thinking they stalked Lord Elmo and his escort for some time before striking.”
It was all done in handful of heartbeats. Garin stood in his stirrups, turning the small black mare he rode with a slight touch of his knee. The little sand steed turned in place as her master lifted the recurved bow he held lightly in his left hand. His standard bearer lifted the crimson banner high and waved in a circle three times. Five men in plated mail and orange silks turned and rode towards the captain at a steady canter, each gripped a heavy bow like that of Garin’s and had a quiver full of javelins hanging from their flat, high-stirruped saddles.
All rode in a loose line, their eyes constantly scanning over the rolling fields and the wood-shrouded patches of land around them. Vittoria smiled, these men seemed quiet, capable the sort who carry out a task with a minimum of fuss. So far her investment had proved well worth it. She turned back to Lord Elmo, her smile gone, her tone having changed to something with less mirth, a stricter thing. “You will provide the names of your escort. I will conduct the letters to their families. You will be coming with us. Do you have any weapons or correspondence on you, Lord Elmo?”
“Do I look like I have weapons? Unless you mean to take my mind, and I do wish you luck with that, there is a distinct lack.” Elmo drawled, his green eyes cast up the wide sky. “May the Seven save me from suspicious women with fluff between their ears.” He muttered in a undertone to himself, more than anyone else. In truth, the only weapon Elmo had was a dagger and eating knife. Neither he would be useful with in a fight. “My Lady,” His voice more audible. “I am tied to the saddle of a horse that would see it’s better days roasted on a spit. Do you think that I, even if I did may the Seven forbid, have weapons that I would have the ability to use them?” The disapproval in his tone could have drowned the God’s Eye.
“More to the point. No, I do not know which men were sent with me. I hardly saw a reason to care. Guards against my return I would think. The names I did catch were something along the lines of Royce and Sherd. My book,” His green eyes flicked to a book, now trample into the mud of the road by the bandits and horses, “, was far more appealing than conversation with men who rattled when they thought.” Perhaps he could be more polite, but Elmo was a realistic sort of man. He was a cripple and, more to the point, one who had been put under guards to go to the Citadel. Politeness was pointless in the general sense since the world was constantly going to dismiss him out of hand for a lame leg and a bad arm. As it was, he had been forced to squint as Vittoria approached to see her symbol. Yes, the manners of the gentle lords and ladies and their quibbling games could go and rot in the deserts of Dorne for all Elmo cared.
“Discipline and training are important things to an effective fighting force, Lord Elmo. These Knights would look for weapons and correspondence on any man of suspicion they came across. How do these men know what man may hold some choice scroll with valuable information? Daggers, knives can be used to cut more than flesh. They can be poisoned. Unlikely as it is, I do grant you, ‘fluff between my ears’ aside, I do expect my men to do what they are disciplined and trained to do. You can cooperate with me, or they can conduct their business in a much rougher style. I have spent quite a lot of time at the Citadel; I assure you they are even less patient of such a disposition as I am being.”
She looked to the dead escort, and heard herself sigh, a genuine sadness fresh on her face as she looked back to Elmo. “Truly, I am sorrowful for the traumas of the day that have befallen you and your escort. You are angry, resentful. Let us not make it worse. Declare what you have, you will be searched when we reach our camp, either way…Den?”
She said, turned in the saddle, twisted to look at him.
The large Knight of Horn Hill pointed to the two Knights closest to the dead men. “Take only their weapons and anything that might explain them better. Take them to the village down the creek, bury them there.”
“Here,” Vittoria said to get the attention of the two Knights, removing the purse from her belt and throwing it to the nearest of the two. The catch was far superior to the throw, but it made it into the Knight’s hands, just the same. “For their eyes. Get yourselves food and drink, there’s a small inn in that village.”
“Yes, Lord Commander.”
Elmo watched as the men were searched and then carried off, coins given by the noble lady for their eyes in a proper burial. A grudging respect was granted to the Ardent Maiden for the act. Even for her words and she was right to demand to know or else, to search, him. Relenting, Elmo’s expression was still cross as he sighed. “I contain several vials of willow bark and sourleaf, in my bags on this flea bag is a flask of milk of the poppy. On my belt is a dagger and my eating knife. I only carry a correspondence of my father and grandfather for the Citadel to admit myself.” Ruefully, he hesitated before adding in a more quiet voice. “I also have a vial of concentrated sweetsleep in my boot.” He did not wish to admit that, but it would be better to say such lest they think him some kind of assassin upon discovering it later. As the Lady Vittoria had said, it was a troubling time in their land. Chances were better not taken. He gaze was steady on her own, his hand twitching as he wished to rub at the ache in his leg. “Need I tell you of the cane, you can see strapped behind me?” It was a handsome thing of carved wood and ivory, brought from Essos by his Uncle Damon.
Her eyes had narrowed, again. This time, however, it was the intensity of trying to see what was not plain just to the eyes. The escort to guard against his return. The surly nature. Admittance to the Citadel to be presented on arrival. The sad horse in which he sat…
Just then, her head tilted, as curiosity hit her, her eyes returning to their normal gaze.
He was being discarded.
“Do you wish to be a Maester, Lord Elmo? Truly?”
There was a bitter laugh from the man. “Truely? I wish for their books and knowledge. I have no wish to be locked away in a tower playing politics with slackgraced men who comb their beards and lose their wits.” He admitted, leaning back in his saddle and studying her over the flopping ears of his mount. “The answer you seek is not so straight forward. I would willingly wear a chain, but chains tend to bind and are quite heavy.”
There was nothing on her face in terms of reaction. Only a quick nod, as her mind moved onto the next thing: “Lord Dennet Tarly of Horn Hill will see you to our camp, Lord Elmo.” She didn’t, this time, turn around in the saddle to look at him, instead tilting her head back, and in a far more casual manner than had been thusly observed, simply threw her voice behind her, “Please be accommodating, Den.”
Den smiled, big, and sarcastic. “Northeast, Lord Elmo,” he said, pointing ‘that way’ with his thick gloved finger so the direction could not be mistaken, “after you.” Den’s eyes looked around once more, before turning his horse after Elmo once he passed by.
“As you say, Lady Ardent.” Was the ever dry and languid reply. His head inclining to Lady and Lord as he gave a sharp whack to his horse’s rear with his reins. The beast slowly plodding off as Elmo grimaced as his leg was wrenched by the movements. After passing the Tarly of Horn Hill and being sure the woman had turned away the man reached into his tunic, a small glass vial being pulled out. Wedging the cork in his mouth, Elmo pulled the stopped out then spat it into the grass off the road. Corks were easy enough to make. Pulling out the willow bark he slipped the now empty and drained vial into this tunic, chewing at the bark. “How long?” He asked the man shortly. His green eyes sharp as he grunted around the mouthful.
She could feel the pleasure in the man that she hadn’t had anyone else go with him and Lord Elmo. He wanted the escort to stay with her. All of them, now that two had been assigned away to burial duty. It irritated her, but she refused to let him sense that. Now, however, her attention was back on Garin. “Captain, ride with me. Let us go speak to those bandits.”
Garin bowed slightly in the saddle. “As you say, Lady Vittoria.”
He turned his little mare again and rode ahead with his standard bearer and two horsemen in tow. He held out a hand. “Squire, attend me.” The youth was big for his age and his dark skin and hair were reminiscent of a Dothraki. He lifted the polished steel of a great helm from his saddle and took his master’s lighter casque. Garin, his helm under his left arm, his bow sheathed in its case and with the plain hilt of his longsword hanging from his saddle, suddenly looked less like some foreign mercenary and more like the epitome of chivalric arrogance.
He gazed down at the beaten and filthy brigands, one hand on the pommel of his sword. “My Lady, in . . . my own land,” he refrained from mentioning Dorne at the last moment, “we’ve dealt with many bandits.
“If you like, we could hang them upside down from one of these trees. A man will tell you everything he’s ever done wrong in his life, it doesn’t even take a day.” He gazed down at the prisoners.
Garin’s words were as cold and empty of life as the winds beyond the wall. “I am knight milady. High justice, middle justice and low justice sleep in my scabbard. Say the word as these dogs will trouble you no longer.”
Though such a thing was cruel, even to think, much less say, it was all calculated. Garin had no real desire to kill them. Truth be told, he felt a certain pity for them. The difference between a loyal soldier and a bandit was often a matter of the last time a man had eaten. But on the other hand, a terrified brigand would happily turn on his compatriots if they thought it might mean a chance of mercy.
Once they came to a stop near the brigands, Lady Vittoria Tyrell just stared at them. They were dirty. Their clothing and armor, such as it was, amounted to little more than riding leathers. Their heads were bowed as Garin’s men hovered over them. After a rather brief, but intense, study of the two her eyes flickered back to the Captain speaking to her.
If any of what he said surprised or disturbed or pleased her, it would have been easier to read the future than read her face. In the end she, actually, softly, smiled at him. “These are hard times, Captain, I thank you for your capabilities in the unpleasant.”
Her head turned back to one near dozen knights of her escort. One had slowly gotten closer than the rest—as if this wasn’t the first time, and he knew what came next. When she nodded at him, he made up the ground between himself and the Lord Commander quickly, dismounting as she did.
He handed her the blood red leather pouch, cinched tightly. She spent a moment loosening it, her slightly longer fingernails making the task a little easier. The bag inside that was a brighter, blood red, dye in appearance.
From there, she walked to within five paces of the two men, the Knight wearing mail and leather, his blade at his hip, his half-helm kept on, became her steel shadow. His voice was no thunderous boom like Den’s, but it was deeper than her own. “Look up at her.”
They did, and she watched the eyes of one, before watching the eyes of the other. The younger, skinnier of the two was first. He simply spat in her direction, and had he not undoubtedly been dry of mouth, he might have reached his target. His hair was short, cut rough, like with a dagger. The other’s hair was longer, black, his pale skin reddened by exposure, his small eyes hardened, but not lost.
Her eyes stayed on the one with black hair.
“Do you know who I am?”
He looked first at the mercenary closest to him, then to the Knight that was her shadow, and then, finally, to her. A long look, before his head simply shook. “No, m’La—”
“—it’s Lord Commander,” she said, her voice trampling his own like a war horse on a charge. His eyes took new life as they stared at her, realization dawning upon him, the other, the spitter, suddenly snapped his head up and stared, too.
“…yes, you chased us across the bloody Riverlands, like the Stranger himself. Led the Hand straight at us.”Ah, Harren the Red men.
“Take that one to the camp,” she nodded to the spitter, before her eyes returned to the other one for good. “Tell Maester Etarin to begin his work with him,” she said it to the men around, even as she stared into the eyes of the other, older, brigand. She waited until two of her escort took the man away. A prolonged pause that seemed to stretch on and on as they grabbed the spitter up, slammed a mailed fist into his skull to leave him without consciousness, and tossed him over the back of one of their horses before taking off.
It was code. Maester Etarin was not fond of torture, and she did not relish forcing an ugly business on the Maester. She meant simply take the man out of sight and execute him. There were times she did not want it done in front of another prisoner, there were times she wanted the other man to imagine what Etarin might do. Death from a Knight? Known, expected, easily imagined. Death from a Maester? Unknown, and nothing scared men like the unknown. Their imaginations ran wild.
When they were clear, Vittoria knelt, and presented herself closer to eye level with the man. “Do you have a family?”
The longest stare she had encountered in a long while was stuck upon her by the brigand. Finally, he nodded, “Boy. His mum and her family. They live in a village near the God’s Eye, small farm.”
As he answered, she had opened the red dyed pouch, and retrieved from within it the small glass vial manufactured by Etarin. When he stopped speaking, her eyes flashed from the pouch and vial to his eyes once more, “What is your name?”
Was he lying? She thought not, but it could be hard to tell in such moments. “Do you know what Sweetsleep is, Karl?”
He shook his head, his eyes on the vial, and her. As if he had completely forgotten the near two dozen men around them. When her big, bright, brown eyes kept staring, he gave a quick nervous stutter, realizing his mistake, before correcting it, “No.”
“You drink, you go to sleep. It’s peaceful, it’s fast, and you dream of the things you love on your way out. Do you believe in the Seven?”
It took him a few, long, beats to fully understand what she had just said. She could tell, as pure truth came from him on the question of his belief: men distracted by the former usually gave instinctive, honest, answers on the latter. It was a technique she had picked up from a book the Archmaester of Higher Mysteries lent to her.
“..I don’t believe in anything anymore.”
She nodded, smiling, and smoothed her skirts as she re-settled to sit upon the grass with her legs tucked neatly under her. “Do you know your son’s name, Karl?”
“Was he born from love, Karl?”
“No,” his eyes drifted away from her. Skyward, this time, instead of downward to the grass. He sniffed, before going on just when she thought he might not, “just youth and wine.”
“Drink this, Karl,” she said, staring at his face, “Since you do not believe I will spare you prayers, instead I will sit with you and talk.” Though her tone had grown warm and her eyes were bright, she was intently studying what happened next. If he looked around, if he looked for the prospect of hope, it would be telling. But if he simply took the vial and drank, it would be all the more telling.
After a few dramatic, loud, beats of her heart, the man took the vial, sniffed again as emotion threatened to take hold of him, and threw his head back to empty the contents. The vial and cork dropped to the grass as he simply let go, and relaxed his body back.This man has lost all hope in the world.
“Tell me about Thom?”
When he looked back at her, his eyes had become glassy. The absolute certainty of death now working on the man much harder, much faster, than a rope and a tree. He spoke of Thom, he spoke of the boy’s mother, Hella. He gave unimportant details that seemed to mean something to him. He spoke of his parents. He spoke of hard times, harder times. He asked her about her youth, he asked her about Highgarden. He had wanted to see it, one day, he said. So she described it for him as he cried.
His name was really Lyam, he revealed, with his first big yawn. They spoke of the days he spent with Harren the Red, war stories between veterans of the same campaign. They shared laughter at how Harren the Red cursed the ‘damnable girl’ during her chase of him across the Riverlands. She had them all scared, he admitted. Her men were everywhere they tried to go. No village or farm would willingly help them, always her men had been their first, with kindness and gold, while the Hand’s men had always just demanded and threatened.
It wasn’t much longer before he was laid down, curled up, asleep on the grass. He fell asleep talking of Thom, and his father, and asking her to look after the boy. When it was over, she straightened her body so she stood straight on her knees, pressed her hands together, bowed her head, and gave him prayer to the Father, the Mother, and the Stranger. She prayed to them for forgiveness for Lyam. She prayed for his soul. She prayed for Thom.
“Goodnight, Lyam,” she whispered, as she climbed up to her feet and walked back to her horse and Captain Garin. This time she accepted her steel shadow’s hand when it came time to remount her palfrey, looking at Garin with a side glance.
“Do you disapprove, Captain?”
The big mercenary shrugged his mailed shoulders with a metallic rustle of riveted links. In truth, the fate of the brigands was far kinder one than anything he or his men would have done to them. Especially if they had been given over to the handful of Dothraki he had under his banner.
“I once saw a man spitted on a spear near Slaver’s Bay and turned over a fire like he was a boar hog. You wouldn’t believe how long it took him to die, Lord Commander.” He said.
Garin’s tone was even, polite, as if he’d been discussing the weather with an acquaintance. But as he glanced down at the dead mercenary, something like pity shone in his eyes for a moment.
“In all honesty, I’ve seen far worse than you . . . and I took their money just the same.
“So I suppose, it doesn’t really matter what I think. Great lords and ladies can do as they wish. That’s the power of coin. It’s just a matter of how much you have.”
He turned his little mare, his eyes roving over their surroundings and nodded approvingly as his scouts continued to patrol around their position. Like any knight, he relished the chance for great deeds that storming a citadel or a massed charged afforded a man. But light cavalry allowed a commander to dictate the terms of a battle and set the stage for those great deeds.
“Signal them push further out, but not so far they can’t return by dusk.” He said to his standard bearer.
Signals were relayed and soldiers turned and moved off the rolling hills or down the narrow paths through the clustered stands of woodland that broke up the grassy land.
“The rest of you, fan out and set up a screen, but stay within sight.” He said to the soldiers who’d ridden with him. The largest among them, a scowling Dothraki nodded, barked out a single command and rode past with an arrow nocked on his great bow.
Her eyes never moved from their forward facing position. But her time changed dramatically; it became softer, tired. As if, in an instant, the Lord Commander was gone and the girl of Highgarden who spent most of her life on the road was all that remained. “It matters, Garin. Either that matters, most, or none of it matters at all. The war table will meet shortly after sundown at my tent to discuss tomorrow.”
The palfrey took off, the Knights of her escort picking up their pace to try to match her, at a distance. They were learning when it best to give her space.