|Summary:||At the point of the Frey knight's sudden departure from Highfield, Maldred and Ceinlys take each other's measure.|
|Related Logs:||Hawks and Hoods|
|Stables, Tanglewood Manor|
|The stables of Highfield Keep, it seems, spare no expense when it comes to the comfort of their horses. Roomy stalls are kept with mangers always full and fresh pails of water at the ready. The wide hallway leaves ample space to lead even the most vast of destriers. At the far end of the building, a tidy tack room is lined with rows of gleaming saddles and bridles. An innocuous door occupies one corner of the chamber, nearly obscured by hanging blankets from above.|
|7th November, 289|
Among many a high-blooded and glossy animal in the stables of Highfield, one pale destrier is not the least fine, but still, unaccustomed to the other steeds' company, perhaps, objecting to some practice of the grooms, or viscerally uncertain of the air, it pounds its hooves on dirt and rush, with finnicky unease. Its rough whinnies, though, slow to a calmer tempo when a figure who looks a little like its human equivalent nears it. He, too, is fair and pallid; he, too, glances about him and swings his long limbs with the suspicious readiness of a fighter on enemy territory.
They know each other, Graymalkin and his rider, Ser Maldred Rivers, late of the Twins; and Maldred half-growls, half-coos, quite the words to reassure the beast. "Won't have to put up with 'em much long, 'Malkin, I vow you that. No reason to stay now, and plenty, as it happens, to skit. We're on the move."
This knight, who employs no squire and rides out of preference as well as practicality generally in his own lone company, is cradling in his stringy arms the saddle and gear with which to ready the destrier for a good long way.
From somewhere outside, a spill of mauve light reveals a fresh, harsh hour not so far past daybreak.
Perhaps it's the rosy-hued hour or so in which certain members of a household find themselves a little respite. But still, it's a scarcer few who would choose to venture out to the paddock and stables, while the morning air yet clings to the breath of dawn-chill. The sounds of another approaching likely wouldn't startle the bastard knight, particularly as the steps make no effort to muffle their approach. Several equine heads turn, chewing their hay contentedly in contrast to Greymalkin's restless grouching, and idly gaze over their doors to ascertain just who is paying a visit. Hopefully one of the grooms with the morning feed?
No such luck, alas, as a decidedly feminine figure hauls the main door ajar, just enough to slip through. Deep sighs and tail swishing subtly imply the general consensus of disappointment from the horses as they return to their mangers, but one pretty golden palfrey whickers softly and makes the slow turn in her stall in order to greet the newcomer. A hushed murmur of affectionate greeting purrs from the woman's lips as she approaches the mare's door, a small handful of barley offered to the large creature in an open palm. Well, who would have thought it. The Lady Ceinlys does have a heart. Just more often for her mount than for people.
Not immediately noticing Maldred's presence, the ebon-haired young lady smiles as her horse snuffles the treat from her hand, the other rising to rub affectionately beneath that long creamy forelock. It's only with a start that those vivid blue eyes suddenly swing round, catching movement further down the corridor and levelling a surprised look upon the other who has risen so early.
The 'foreign' Frey steed's temper seems to steady rapidly upon taking in the saddle and its significance - freedom! adventure! battle! - with its fiery, rolling wall-eye. Maldred is as it happens no born equestrian, is as happy, or happier creeping through a bog as speeding over a dale, but this horse, he has an accommodation with, and he doesn't hesitate to gratify it by beginning to buckle on its gear.
The saddle is attached and adjusted by the time of the newcomer's incursion. The bastard wrests about to follow the sound and sight with fleet acuteness, and for a moment, the sweep of a noblewoman's dark hair seems to relax his gait, to lend his cold eyes an amused chink and his thin, chapped lips a knife's-curve smile. There is a family resemblance, after all, so either he mistook the Steward of Highfield for someone else…or she just made him think of someone else. Either way, it does not last long.
Maldred seems to relish the moments when he is perusing her in turn unaware of him, and when she takes him in at last it will be to see that grin returned in a wider but less pleasant incarnation, the savour of an advantage. He presses that perceived gain by breaking protocol to speak first. "My lady steward. Why, my lady cousin, too. So many of those I possess. How danced, may I ask, the pretty lords and ladies, at this fine wedlock lately fastened?"
Having been caught practically staring, the young woman now turns her head with that practiced air of haughty, yet polite, indifference, looking back up at her mare as the palomino nudges at her shoulder and cheek with a velvet muzzle, none-too-subtly requesting further treats, if you please. "Ser Maldred." Her reply is as cool as silk, and her eyes do not, as yet, return to him. No, her attention settles upon the tiniest of tangles in her palfreys draping silver mane, which she sets to teasing at gently with her newly-freed fingertips.
Maintaining that unperturbed appearance, despite the metaphorical hackles most certainly being warily raised at the back of her neck, the Steward continues in a pleasant, almost conversational manner, when prompted. "Indeed, you are most fortunate in your bonds of claimed kinship. But even the finest mold can produce items ever so slightly varied in cast, can it not?" A wolfish curve plays across her lips as she dares a sidelong glance toward the man, as if for all the world she could take or leave the pleasure of toying with him. In truth, she has been caught off-guard, albeit momentarily. It's a thankful blessing, the solid presence and warmth of her mounts muscular neck by her shoulder.
"As for the dancing, Ser.. as fine a display as one would expect. Some stumble, some move with a grace borne of careful practice. I always find it difficult to decide which is more entertaining to observe."
"Don't artisans like a spot of variety, m'lady," Maldred enquires, his voice detached from the conversation's official matter, and his accent dipping speculatively down the chain of feudal decorum. The bastard can grunt and swear as fluent as an ostler, but there's a false note, a little too much confidence in his low voice quite as much as in his flights of courtly expression - too much awareness of the difference, of the rules of the game. "Makes the stock stronger, some craftsman told me once. Boastful man, homestead two and a half miles as the raven flew from the North Twin. Didn't know he'd been rooked in as a handler of fenced goods. Spent a long time a-hanging…" There is little of the bully or the sadist's lingering pleasure over this irrelevant recollection; Maldred tells it straight, a sharp, slightly sad observer of existence's black comedy. "Sure he knew his business, though," he concludes the story.
Graymalkin is now bridled too, and seems to pace about with perceptible pride. Maldred smirks, almost fondly, in the war-horse's direction, "Was that Camden bride half so glad of her new gown and her second groom's cloak as this creature is of his harness, my lady? Both of them will have far to go yet."
In spite of herself, Ceinlys has to smirk at the carefully gilded words, comparing a courtly occasion to the breeding practices of horsemen, regrettably, really isn't too far from the truth. "Does that imply that you yourself are stronger, then, Ser?" she counters, though without venom. Absently rubbing at her palfrey's large ear, lulling the animal to a state of contented, nose-drooping dozing, the woman keeps her eyes, guarded and assessing in conflict with that quirked half-smile of hers, upon the bastard knight. For all his chivalric posturing, he's not to be trusted. But she's damned if she's going to reveal a trace of unease, in his presence. Ceinlys holds her position for that very quality of being nigh-impossible to ruffle.
"The Lady Tiaryn.." she replies, archly making use of the new brides actual name, "..seemed most content with her nuptials. And why should she not? The Ashwoods are a fine family. Loyal to their liege and hardly lacking in the qualities required for affluence." Her palm now skims in a light stroke down Sweetling's roman nose, the touch feather-light and evidently a habitual, fond gesture. The horse doesn't stir. "There is no shame in a second cloak, either." That remark needs no elaboration, the young Haigh herself having been a widow for some years now. "You are moving on?" A slight nod indicates the readied destrier, with the arch of one brow. Isn't she doing well to contain her despair at the thought? "To greater and grander things, I do hope."
The Frey knight seems genuinely surprised to have got a smile out of the Steward with his observation about Lady Tiaryn’s congruence with his horse. Maybe it wasn’t intended as a sly dig, but merely as an abstract thought. Maybe. As for Lady Ceinlys’s next question, its challenging implication not far from its polite exterior, he responds, in turn, innocent-soundingly enough.
“Me? Stronger? Not proven, I’m afraid, my lady. But I act always in the hope that…fulfilment of my lord’s will…will leave my House a degree more…robust. We of the Twins may have occasional, notional differences of opinion,” he jibes mildly, “from our troutly liege, but none can deny the excellence of their words. Especially the first. Family, Family, Family, that’s what I stand for, Lady Ceinlys. I’m sure you agree!” But, he needs hardly add, which family does Ceinlys own as hers?
Maldred’s hand rests now at his high saddle crup, straying about it this way and that with long fingers, as he, but hardly, alters the subject. “Talking of family…and indeed, what I am less fitted to know of, weddings…it seems to me that the gain in this pretty recloaking lies with the groom and his House, not your Lady…of Camden.” He’s not going to be seen to struggle to recall the names right now, that determined tone insists. “An heiress to these lands’ former lords is a fine catch, and a rare one…an admirable insurance, in case certain…more novel proclamations become…warped aside. Yet she weds this Ser Sae…”, Maldred throws up his right hand in mock-despair, “…a cadet, at any rate, not the, ah, Lord of Highfield, so there is no appearance of open insecurity or unconfidence in…Ashwood’s right. Most ingenious. This Sae…the groom, must be very handsome, to have convinced Lady…the Flint widow to collude with such a convenient scheme!”
But all good sports – even disparaging one’s host’s motives to his favoured functionary – have their day and their limits, and Maldred lets off with regret, leading Graymalkin out of his stall. He answers Ceinlys’s concluding query, though, with all the more implacable good humour. “Grander than a barracks? Perhaps. But I’m sure the conversation won’t approach yours for entertainment, my lady.” Gallant to the spurs, eh?
Stepping slightly to one side of her palfreys door, the young Steward of Highfield folds her arms comfortably, if a touch protectively, about her waist, ignoring the trailing length of her riding skirts across the stone floor. True enough is his insinuation, only scantly veiled by that polite veneer - she has three familes which she might consider herself a part of. But those things have been cast into question for so long now that she doesn't bother to verify which truly holds her loyalty. Not to him, at any rate. Ignoring Sweetling as the golden animal lightly butts with a soft nose between her bare shoulderblades, Ceinlys studies the bastard knight with undisguised scrutiny, even as that half-smile clings about the corners of her mouth. "Family is, indeed, where one's loyalties ought to lie, Ser. And I can see full well that your own bonds, however questionable they may be to some, are steadfast. That is as it should be. But it does not guarantee that those who bear a different name are to be discounted, in the grander scheme of things." There's a subtlety to her words that could be taken one of several ways; the most obvious either a warning (but against who?) or a genuine assurance of the motivations of certain vassals. Regardless, either one seems inherent with a particular phrase of advice. Don't write me off so easily as you would others.
"For her part, I imagine the Lady Tiaryn is pleased to remain within the embrace of these lands.. and become part of a House that offers dutiful remembrance to the same. Their name, after all, is derived from the sad fate of the Camdens." And likely serves as a reminder of other things, too. But that goes unsaid, for now. Eyeing the destrier as he's led out, with a gaze that belies perhaps unusual interest and skill in regarding the outline and quality of such animals, the young woman tilts her head a little askance, azure eyes flitting back to Maldred after a pause. "Saethwyr seems a fine sort.. though I confess, he is likely the family member I know the least of. As for Lord Aleister.. it will take a very specific sort of woman to balance him and bring anything of worth, in his eyes. Beyond a sizeable dowry, of course." With the loss of Charlton backing, certainly, the Ashwood line is decidedly less wealthy and grandiose. Not that it's apparent, at a glance. But Lady Ceinlys is hardly one to miss such details. The rumors abounding of her possible selection for that role show no signs of abating.. but does the interest of she, or indeed her House, wane? It's impossible to say. But the scales have certainly evened out in her favour.
"I expect you will find plenty of colourful conversation, wherever your destination." she continues, pleasantly enough on the surface. "But I expect the Lady Lyanna may miss your presence." She's probably the only one, of course. "I trust you have everything you hoped for, from your little visit with us..?" The twitch of a smirk tugs at her lips, rendering the enquiry rather less innocent than her soft-spoken tone might have sought for.
Framed now in the stables’ threshold, Ser Maldred swings up with the characteristic, deceptively cheerful jingle of the mounted, mailed fighter. He appears to be letting most, or much, of what the Steward said stand, and the look he throws back in her direction, is hardly inquisitive, nor valedictory, …just appraising, quite as much as she; reminiscent perhaps of when he first studied her at her Lord’s side, just within the manor gates. “She’ll be all right, my lady. I trust you implicitly,” he adds genially enough, “to look after her. As for me, I, ah, I beg you, worry even less. My hopes were hardly as high as your lord’s famous field, but I think, m’lady, you may, just about, have outstripped them.” And that is it, with only dust and hoofbeats to seal the leave-taking.