The dawn light trickled through the cracks in the shutters that kept the night out and the noise of the waking sprawl of village houses, and the man looked sadly down at the woman who lay staring up at him. Rosy was as beautiful as she had ever been when he returned after his mother’s death. Her face was speckled with freckles and her hair cascaded down her in dark waves that matched her dark eyes. A raven of his own heart, but the knife twisted as she smiled that sad smile up at the young knight. The Young Steward heard her smile and laugh as she had called him that when she hailed his return from Raventree Hall. A return from the seat of his family, Robert wanted to sigh. It should not have been like that, had he his way Rosy would have been crying her joy from the airy solar. The golden light from the glass dappled her dressed in silks and delicate furs to protect her from the winter chill.
A slim hand, roughened from work, caressed his cheek and the stubble that formed a small beard. “Don’t, Robert.” The voice was soft and firm, if he had not known better he would not suspect Rosy of pleading softly with him to leave the question unasked. His eyes shut as he leaned down and press his face into the woman’s shoulder, letting his lover hold him as he felt the pang of rejection cut through him again.
“Will you never admit what we both know?” He whispered, knowing his agony was shared by her. That it was inflicted by her. That she would never agree for her reasons. Reasons he had no wish to pry from her, the one time he had she had wept and refused to see him for nearly half a year. Oh, how he had felt like such a monster for inflicting that upon her! “Rosy-”
Her fingers pressed against his lips as she moved and pressed her forehead against his. “No, love.” Her eyes, dark as pools of night, were glistened with tears of stars Robert thought. “We love each other and we’ve had fine children. Yet, if we were to wed. Robert, I do not want a life of worry and fear for my children. I’ve seen your great games between houses.” She had never explained that and Robert had not asked. He knew she had seen some horrible things, heard worse perhaps. Never mind how he had protested that as a second son he would not likely inherit with Bennifer young and strong and his wife having given birth to a son. Yet there was a nagging thought in his mind. How simple life seemed and yet how easily could the Stranger pluck away the lives of those about him! Robert knew that he could be heir to Raventree Hall and called to make a marriageable alliance. Rosy knew it as well and did not want her children forced into marriages and used as pawns.
“They would not.” He didn’t add what they would not. The list was too great and to speak of the worries aloud would leave things between them that were best unspoken. Kissing her fingers, he wrapped his arms around her and knew she was right. Just as he knew that he would not press the matter with her. Roland had been furious when he had returned from being a ward of the Freys, a shield all new upon his arm, and himself in fury at finding his brother in the bed of a harlot with a gaggle of children that could only be his. By Roland’s morals the proper thing would have never bedded the woman at all, the next thing was to marry her despite her wishes. That Robert had done neither? It was an affront to his younger brother and it was blind luck that Bennifer had been riding through as well. Had he not? Blood would have been drawn that day. “I’m to go to the tournament at Summerhall. Let me take Gran as a squire, the boy is old enough to begin learning. Being a knight is an honest trade.” It would also allow him to keep the boy close as he grew and even arrange a proper marriage for the son he could not acknowledge.
“Robert.” He heard the refusal in her voice, the fear. “The Brackens will be there if the Blackwoods are and how simple would it be for them to start trouble with a bastard boy?” She was right and Robert pressed a kiss to her shoulder as he gave a small groan of protest. “Let Gran go to the maesters as you did. He is bookish enough and has learned to read. Let him go to them in another few years.”
It was true the eldest of his sons was a clever boy, but he was also tall and strong. It would be a waste as a maester, but Rosy wanted her son away from fighting and Robert could not precisely disagree with his lover. Knowing she would ask for his word, the man sighed and nodded. “I will, Rosy. My solemn word upon it, but fair lady? Give me your favor for when I joust?” There was a laugh as the woman twisted about to give him her favor. A sound that was sweeter than any bard he had heard.
“We will be fine,” Melissa leaned against the horse and smiled up at the giant of a man who cradled the small form of his infant son. As Benjicott was handed down to his great aunt, Bennifer gave a dubious look towards Raventreehall. The tall roof spreads its protective eaves over the family’s ancestral home. The poisoned weirwood tree, dead and roost to a host of ravens, reaching its white branches over the wall. It had stood for centuries and would stand for more, yet he still felt unease at leaving his wife and son to go off to Summerhall. His father had sent for his sister, a mother to three herself, to help make sure his son was assured that all would be well and Bennifer knew his presence was needed.
“If you say so, aunt.” His words were dubious as he turned back to his father, a looking being cast over the large knight’s shoulder as he gazed at the bundle that was Benjicot Blackwood. Melissa smiled in amusement. Soon the knights and their entourage were out of sight and the woman mounted the stairs up into Raventree hall. All would be well, of that she had no doubt.
The woman draped in a chair was dark of hair and tall stature, though still a head shorter than her husband. Olyria Blackwood, formerly a Frey, smiled at her caretaker and sighed as her robust son was returned to her arms, the needlework set aside. “He is a good husband. A better father to be so worried about so healthy a son.” The husky tone was soft as the woman sighed. “Though I do hope they will not run into trouble at the tournament.”
“They will, but they shall be able to deal with it.” Melissa pointed out reasonably and settled herself in another chair under the vaulted ceiling, the hearth before them crackling away in merriment. “Roger and Roland would be to the two to worry about.” The former lover of King Aegon IV admitted and pressed a finger to her lips. “Roger is expected but Roland’s…”
“He has a lance up his arse and frankly getting it dislodged would be a healthy outcome.” The tart reply from Olyria, but it was within reason. Roland had been a ward of her father and she well knew the man’s ramrod stiffness with the rules and his honor.
Pouring some of the wine into a goblet, Melissa watched her great-nephew play with his mother’s hair and smiled. “I would not put it so blandly, but true. Something which causes endless problems if he decides one way is right against another.”
“The old rumors?” The newborn’s mother sighed as she waved away the offer to refill her goblet with less than wine. “King Daeron, long may he reign, has done well bringing Dorne into the realm. Yet, I cannot fault that I too harbor some dismay that he may not be the King’s trueborn son, the trouble those mere thoughts- With Blackfyre granted to a bastard over the heir? Either way, I would rather not have another war to drive brother against brother setting my husband into danger.”
Melissa tilted her wine goblet and studied the gilded ravens about the cup’s rim. “You speak far too openly, but with the honesty of a wife and mother.” She admonished the wife of her nephew, though she could not fault the woman. She had seen the trouble brewing over the past twenty years and heard her father speak in muted tones of the great Dance of Dragons. The horror that had gripped the realm. Thankfully there were no dragons to score armies by the hundreds. The swords in hands of warriors did enough of that. Yet, she leaned back and sighed. “I do not fault you, Olyria, but do not speak of such things.” She warned the woman, her fingers stroking the fur of a doe Quentyn had gifted her.
The mother nodded and seemed lost over the marvel of her new babe. Taking a sip from the glass, Melissa stared into the low flames and considered the whispers she had heard. They would not do to speak of. Not unless she wished to lay trouble upon an already troubled mind. “Ah, Bennifer will be well. His only worry will be his own for you. A good marriage.”
“A match of necessity, not love. But he is a good man.” She agreed with a small, fond smile. “He worries more for the child I think. Five years married and this is our first, and a son.” Melissa was not so sure Bennifer felt the same, but there was no fighting the constructs of their noble rank. Love, lust, wealth, power, and all of it wrapped up to further the ends of those who said to jump. Some were good men, good women. They cared for the happiness of the people under them, not the overwhelming power they could grip. Happiness is so rare a thing. Contentment was more often found.
Melissa heard Olyria keep talking, now about the tournament and her regret about not going. It wasn’t possible of course, Olyria was still weak from childbirth, and traveling with a newborn was hardly a wise thing. The septa and maester would be having apoplexy over the mere thought had it been suggested so it had not been.
Her thoughts turned and as they did she looked through the years of her life and remembered Raventree Hall as it had been in her father's day. The tapestries lustrous and the place was full of laughter and delight. Calera had been as a sister then, eager to join Melissa in any adventure the two saw fit to embark on with Quentyn undoubtedly returning them to the good graces of her parents. Soft spring days of their life before the game of thrones had taken her up as a mistress to the king and before Calera's horrid first marriage. She felt some benefit that the man would not cause another woman the same worrying agony that had been inflicted on Calera and had been a worry of hers unto her final child.
Melissa kept her face a mask of polite interest, not wanting to spoil Olyria's mood or explain the troubles of their family. Troubles best left in the grave. Calera had always feared childbirth, or rather the pain and possible death that would come with it. Her marriage to Manfryd had been a good union and having twins seemed to have cured the woman of that fear, but Melissa could still recall that final letter from Calera, just weeks before her death, worrying that this time felt different. That she did not feel as ready for the child, though she was pleased and eager for a second son. Two daughters already had been born to their union and a second son would cement Manfryd's line with heir and spare. Melissa smiled sadly as she heard Benjicot laugh in delightful innocence. His hands tangled in his mother's gown as he played with the light that reflected off her jewelry.
Innocence. So pure and sweet and it never lasted long enough. Privately she turned the worrying matter of Manfryd Iverson in her mind. She had no love of the Lord of Harrenhal and the man was nothing but a brewing cauldron of trouble. No, what worried her were the two daughters of her childhood best friend. Danelle had become surrounded by rumors and cold and Melissa was worried that the cold fingers of Jeyne Lothston were pulling strings. She had known Jeyne from the woman’s time at court with her mother and had seen the flirting favor with which Aegon had set eyes upon her. Manfryd had his reasons to dislike the Targaryen King, though the Lord had taken it too far perhaps. Having to watch one's sister and mother become favored playthings of a king then be dismissed and find yourself mocked and out of favor? It was a bitter pill. Worse for Jeyne whoever had born the bulk of Manfryd's shame and had been pawned off.
Perhaps there would be luck, Quentyn had two sons who would take a wife gladly. Perhaps one would agree to marry Danelle or sweet Elayne. There was little hope Manfryd would find a son of a notable noble to take Danelle and the Lothston name, but perhaps a cousin with ties at court would suffice? Roland was as firm in doing the right thing as any other man. Perhaps he would not do for Danelle, but if she were to set up the betrothal in favor for Calera it would be to pair the third of Quentyn's sons to Elayne. A man to do the right thing would find a soft-spoken and gentle wife easy to live with. Roger and Danelle however would prove to be more of a… struggle. The boy was as arrogant and sure as any young knight and desperate to prove himself, not material she would put as the Lord of Harrenhal. Yet for Danelle to marry Roland? There was a match to make the North seem as warm as Dorne. Chuckling softly, she took the offered child as Olyria stood and slipped from the room to attend to her needs and crooned at the little lad.
There was always time to ponder but she would not play games except if she could forge some decent marriages for Calera's two surviving daughters.
Perhaps even three. She had her suspicions that Alysanne was not at the bottom of the God's Eye as many suspected or in some ghostly brew in Harrenhal. The girl had vanished all too cleanly. Too practiced, planned, and carefully enacted. She had heard little of the twins or Danelle before Calera's death but the woman always seemed to dote on them. After her death, all Melissa had heard had come from Quentyn in letters from Danelle and softer ones from Elayne. Each seeming to have a shadow over them, which could be expected from Calera's death and the disaster that was Manfryd's second marriage. Still, there was something not right about it and daughters did not just up and disappear from nobles houses.
A gurgle and horrible smell from Benjicot distracted her.
Bennifer sighed and leaned on the sword that was braced against the dirt of the practice ring. Practice, the big man, decided was something which was more amusing when you were being watched by my ladies, wed and unwed alike, and happily married. There was a certain lack of worry that one may wish to tarry into your father’s tent and suggest a betrothal you were not all that interested in while you were tarrying in the tent of another maid. That being said, according to his father, he was to be keeping Roger from doing just that. With more success than how Elayne’s situation was turning out.
A pang of guilt went through the knight at the thought of his younger cousin but he had heard of no lechery done by Prince Aelor, and it would be good for the tiny little flower to get out of the shadow of Harrenhal. Privately Bennifer did not know why his father bothered to hear Danelle out. The woman gave him chills along his spine, it was like walking through those haunted halls. Having paused by the castle when he had traveled into the Vale for other tournaments, Bennifer could not help but feel the smallfolk had some truth in the idea that those ruined halls were haunted.
“Will you stand around all day or fight!” The challenge rang across the practice field and Roger glared at his brother. Dark of eye and light of hair, Roger was drawing just as many stares though his form was less tall and leaner than Bennifer’s bulk. Taking the silence of Bennifer’s slow thought for an answer, the young knight charged and was knocked aside with ease as Bennifer swung his sword like a hammer to knock the shield aside and then sent a kick into his brother’s stomach.
Walking over to the gasping lad, the man rested his sword on a shoulder and smirked. “I will get around to it.” His voice was a deep and slow rumble as he offered a hand to the younger Blackwood.
Roger grasped it and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Still wheezing. “You mean to take me from the lists lest you joust against me!” He accused his brother with some heat in his arrogant jest. The answer was a peal of deep belly laughter from the man that boomed like thunder.
“Your arrogance does you no favors.” That voice, the very definition of detachment, flickered through the practice ring the Blackwoods had taken and dispelled the laughter of their eldest brother. Roland was a beautiful singer and poet but he always left the words with a sense of longing. As though there was a great sadness or righteous fury that could only lead to doom. The youngest of the brother glared and would have whirled to challenge him had not Bennifer’s grip turned to iron.
Among other things, Bennifer had been chosen to keep the two from fighting. The big man sighed and gave Roger a disapproving look. “Why not go change and see what enjoyment can be found at the Redwyne tent? They are said to have brought a fair bit of drink.” The scroll on Roland’s fair and lean face gave truth to what the man thought of that. Bennifer always thought that Roland looked a fair bit like their grandfather Benjicot. His hair ranged between a dark blonde to black and framed a face set above a form that was lean and ready with sword and shield.
“You encourage him to drink and sin.” Pious is a good word for the boy. Bennifer felt his feet move and soon the two sons of Lord of Blackwood were circling each other like cats.
Shrugging his large shoulders, Bennifer knew he should end this soon so he could catch up with Roger before the boy got himself into trouble with the Redwyne daughters. Though a betrothal to that House would be as good as anything, he did not want it with a Redwyne with a bastard in her belly for Roger. A wife to tame him would do the lad good, but a child? That would drive Roger into taking the Black if they were lucky. To Essos if they were not! “We all drink, Roland. We all take our pleasures. Shall you go to Old Town and become a Septon?” He had thought their father might insist upon it when Roland had first returned with his shield, three white weirwood trees. Oddly enough when asked, Quentyn had said no. Bennifer had not understood why until his father had opened his eldest son’s eyes to the potential war that brewing. Wars brought death with them and there would be a desperate need for knights if things boiled over.
“Septons may speak from the book, but men fear a sword and will heed their betters through it.” Harsh words, though not untrue. “Lawless brigands are not brought to heel by the Book of the Seven.” The Blackwoods had kept the Old Gods and Bennifer felt a twinge of dislike at recalling that Roland had taken up worship of the Seven. There was no real reason for it, but it irked the large man that his brother could be so callous towards their family. Noting that Roland had lowered his weapons, the big man did the same and chuckled to break the tension.
“Not going to fight?”
“I’ve no need. We shall prove our skill later in this tournament.” Ah, so there was the ire. Roland did not enjoy his skill for show but to be of use. This tournament irked the man and Bennifer had overheard their father order Roland to participate. Shaking his head, the large Blackwood turned away and sheathed the sword at his waist. Giving a wink and a wave to a few ladies that were watching while he retreated to his own tent for a better tunic and then…
Then he was going to get wonderfully drunk while keeping Roger in line and out of bed with noble ladies.