It is a cool, clear day when the company sets out from King’s Landing and approaches the Kingswood. Twelve armored men-at-arms, pennants streaming and flapping from the tips of their spears, make up the rear of the party. Six of them fly the sigil of house Darklyn: fusily black and gold with white escutcheons, indicating the worthies of their house who have served in the Kingsguard, upon a red tierce. The other six men sit their horses with the cool confidence of veterans. For these are men of the Crackclaw Company, who whetted their blades upon rebellious lords and murderous pirates. But they do not fly the flags of the Wardenry, nor even the sigil of the Iron Serpent. No, the pennants that fly bear the personal sign of Ammon Blackhand: the triple spirals of house Massey, red, green, and blue, upon a black, three fingered hand.
Ser Ammon Massey rides at their head, dressed in his cracked, worn riding leathers. He does not sit his horse with the easy grace of a champion jouster, but it is better than it once was for those that have known him. With each step of his horse, his leathers creak. With each jostle in the saddle, his sword’s scabbard slaps against his thigh. He seems free outside the confines of the keep, as if a great weight is lifted from his shoulders.
And then the host passes beneath the red, gold and orange leaves of the encroaching trees; the day’s brisk coolness becomes a coldness with no sun to warm them. But Massey does not pull his cloak about him. He simply rides on.
For her part, Elrone Darklyn does feel the chill, and shows it in pulling her cloak tighter about herself. She sits her horse comfortably, though not as well as most of the men in the company. Her eyes, however, belie a nervousness as they flick back and forth over the hardened men of the Crackclaw Company. Stray hairs flutter about her as a chill wind blows past, and she speeds her horse to reach Ammon’s side. She glances at him a moment, searching his face for… something, before she turns her eyes back to the path ahead. “It is a cold day for exercise… have you a destination in mind?”
“No, my lady,” says Ammon amiably. He meets her glance with one of his own and a smile: a weak smile, but a smile nonetheless. And a genuine one, it would seem. “I had a mind to stop smelling shi—get out of the city for a time. Neither the horses nor the boys mind the cold and we best get used to it. What is it the Starks say?”
Elrone smiles back at Ammon, a little of the nerves fading from her eyes. “Winter is coming, I believe. And so it is.” She adjusts her cloak to cover her even more. “I wonder if there is already snow in the North.” She glances behind toward her curmudgeonly Septa, who appears to have obtained the ear of a haggard looking Darklyn man, as the Septa extolls on the virtues of the Warrior and how to find a proper maiden. A greater slant touches the corner of her lip at that, and she turns back to Ammon. “I am glad to be outside the Keep as well. I have not had a proper ride in some time.”
“Ah, yes. That was it,” says Ammon. “Those Starks: always so dour!” He chuckles at some secret jest. “I’ve never been to the north, lady Elrone, but I hear they have snow even in summer.” At Elrone’s mention of a ‘proper ride’ he looks at her with a raised brow. “Well then,” he says. “Let’s.” Ammon puts his spurs to his horse’s flanks to turn their walk into a trot….
Except nothing happens save for a whicker. And one of the Crackclaw men laughs. Ammon sighs and rolls his eyes. “She does this on purpose,” he says.
And it is -then- that the horse spurs on.
A raised hand over her mouth quickly muffles any possible giggle that may have escaped Elrone, and she spurs on her own better behaved horse to follow Ammon. There is more light in her eyes now, any trace of nerves fully diminished, and she leans forward to whisper to her mare as she increases her speed to catch up to Ammon, smiling widely. “I think your men have the measure of your horse, Ammon.”
“Better than I, my lady,” Ammon says. “Cuddlepoof doesn’t believe I’d do anything to hurt her; she’s a clever beast.” And he spurs his horse again. They ride for some time, the trees swallowing the sounds of the hooves and of the city which falls away behind them. The knight manages the horse well enough, though he is no expert. And when they slow back to a trot, and then to a walk, their guardsmen some short way behind them, the heaviness that usually rests upon him seems even further relieved.
“And how did you find the tourney? A pity Lannister didn’t enter the lists; I’d have surely enjoyed seeing him beaten.”
An eyebrow raises at this last. “I found it quite enjoyable. I thought Ser Galan intended to enter…” Elrone watches Ammon’s face for a reaction. “I nearly thought you would enter just to face him. There seemed to be some of that going around…” She delicately smooths her hair down, buy herself a momentary pause for thought. “It was suggested that Ser Anton may have fallen just to face Ser Ethos.” She looks away from Ammon toward the path ahead. “But all comers did well, by my eye. Ser Brynden in particular was quite noble in his victory.”
“I am no tourney knight, lady,” says Ammon. “I leave the honors and accolades to others. But would that I could face Galan the Gallant with naked steel—No. That is not just. I don’t wish the man dead, truly, but he infuriates me so.” Massey offers another soft chuckle. “As you witnessed.
“Ser Anton’s hatred of Mertyns is well known, but I doubt the man’s honor would let him lose willingly. I had heard he wore your favor, lady. Mertyns, that is.”
The arch in Elrone eyebrow narrows, and she pointedly continues to study the nearby foliage. “Yes, he credits me with bringing him enough luck to secure several good loots. Including Ser Anton’s horse.” She flicks her eye toward Ammon, very briefly, before returning her focus to the trees. And- is that a blush? “It was but a small token.” She pauses, risking another brief glance toward Ammon. “Why does Ser Galan say such things to you? His behavior was hardly gentlemanly.”
Ammon meets both of her glances in silence. There is no outward signs of judgement on his face, merely a quirked brow. He pauses a moment to think before he answers her question. The jangle of harnesses and the clank of armor grow louder as the rest of the host catches up to them. Aside from this, the forest is silent.
“There is bad blood between the lion and I, lady. He says what he says because he believes his words are true, and I hate him for that; but I hate myself because I -know- they are true. It is not a happy sto….”
Ammon cuts off quickly, holding one hand up. The column halts behind them.
With Ammon’s signal, Elrone halts her own mare, looking at him with some surprise. She opens her mouth as if she would speak, but closes it again as she looks about the wood, growing, if it is possible, a touch paler than her already ivory skin. Finding nothing on her own survey, she looks again to Ammon with some concern, tilting her head with an unspoken question and awaiting direction from him, as she retightens her cloak about herself.
Ammon slowly lowers his arm, putting one raised finger in front of his lips as he looks to Elrone. The look lasts but a heartbeat; Ammon’s eyes begin to scan the surrounding woods. He fidgets in his saddle, his horse whickering softly—but she knows better than to be a nuisance now, it seems. Slowly, ever so slowly, Ammon reaches down to his sword, loosening it in his scabbard. Behind the pair, his men do likewise. Sweat beads upon Massey’s brow; begins to run down the side of his face. His eyes flicker this way and that; he holds his breath. The forest is completely silent: there are no bird calls or any other sounds of life save for the few men about them.
And then, in the brush to the side of the path: a rustling. Something large is moving.
Elrone obeys Ammon’s silent order, clenching her jaw tightly. She slowly turns her head to exchange looks with her Septa, still a few men back from her. The Septa only shrugs, and makes a silent sign to the Seven. As the sound of the rustle, she turns quickly to face the brush, her lips tacitly forming the words, “Please be a deer…” though no sound actually comes out, at least not that anyone else can hear. She looks again to Ammon, tensing her legs to move quickly if needed.
But it is no deer: words carry through the stillness:
“Oh, have you seen my boy, good ser,
His hair is chestnut brown…”
It is a song, sung with a voice cracked with strain and heartache: a woman’s voice. Further along the path, a ragged form emerges from the wood. Her skin is cracked and dessicated; the clothes she once wore little more than rags. Her hair is tangled with twigs and leaves; dirt streaks her face and arms. Her stink is palpable, even from a distance.
And there is a bundle of rags cradled in her arms, clutched to her breast.
“He promised he’d come back to me
Our home’s in….”
She cuts off, her eyes falling upon the group. “Milady….” she says. “Milord….” and she begins to cry.
Elrone’s jaw drops as the woman approaches. She swallows, nervously, and shifts her mount closer to Ammon, whispering, “Is she one… forced from the city?” Her hand rises to her mouth and nose as the woman approaches, though whether it is from the smell or pity is hard to say. Elrone’s own eyes gain liquid as the woman starts to cry, staring at the bundle in the woman’s arms. “Goodwoman,” she quietly begins, “What has happened?”
Ammon looks to his men as the woman emerges. The force splits: three moving into the forest at one side of the path, three to the other. Like Elrone, he watches the woman, wary still—but his eyes also flick to the forest on either side. “I don’t know, Elrone,” he says, pleasantries forgotten. “I know as much as you.” His speaks softly, his voice catching in his throat.
“‘e won’t take no suck, milady. ‘e won’t eat.” She clutches the rags—the babe?—even tighter. “‘is Grace turned us out: that King Baelor, milady. ‘e said we ain’t to entice no men to sin no more. But I ain’t never tried to entice no man never! I only tried t’ earn a copper or two. Honest work, milady!”
Elrone turns and waves her Septa closer. The Septa approaches and looks with steady grace upon the beggar, proclaiming with a wise air, “If you trust your soul to the Mother the babe will suck. But if the Seven have laid claim to you child, you must trust that he will be well looked after.”
Elrone bites her lip, glancing from the beggar to Ammon. She leans nearer to Ammon again, and whispers, “Do your men carry extra food for these excursions? Some hunk of bread we could give to her?”
Massey speaks softly to Elrone, answering her first. “I had not planned to be gone for more than a few hours. We will give what we have of course, though it will count for little, I think. And water, too: all we have.” Ammon’s hand reaches to his belt. “And coin, for what good it will do.” And then his voice drops and he says for Elrone alone: “That babe will suck no more.”
The woman begins to cry at the Septa’s approach and at her haughty words. “I pray to the Mother every night!” she wails.
Ammon raises his voice to be heard above the sobs. “Your words bring scant comfort, Septa,” says Ammon with sadness in his red-rimmed eyes.
With Ammon’s censure the Septa keeps her peace, though her lips remain judgmentally pursed. Elrone reaches for her own small purse, though there is little in it, and fingers the scant coin. She turns to Ammon, opening her hand, her words soft though her voice sounds strained. “I can give her the coin.”
“No, lady,” says Ammon. “I will pay.” He leans close to Elrone, whispering softly. “The babe is not breathing, do you see?” And then he stretches out his arms to the woman. “Give the babe to me, goodwoman,” he says, stretching out his arms. “We will look after him.”
But whatever effect he thought his words would have, he is resigned to the hysterics.
The woman screams. “No! Not me boy! Don’t take me boy!” She begins to back up quickly, her eyes wide.
Elrone leans forward on her horse. “Oh- no, goodwoman.” She removes an apple from the pack on her saddle that had been meant for her horse. It is bruised, and closer to rot that useful in a kitchen, but it is still food nonetheless. Elrone swings a leg over her saddle and gently drops to the ground on the opposite side of her horse from Ammon. She is not particularly graceful about it.
“Goodwoman” she takes a few steps toward the beggar, her voice soothing. “If your child is sick, he will not last out here. Will you not let us take him to a Maester, so he can get some care? We can reach a Maester so much faster by horse.” She takes another tentative step. “And you will be sick as well if you do not eat. Here-” she extends the apple, as one might to a wild doe. “You will feel much better for it. Let me see your child.”
“Elrone,” warns Ammon as the lady dismounts. But she won’t listen and so there’s nothing for it: Ammon dismounts as well, adding his voice to Elrone’s.
But the woman will have none of it. “No! No, milady! Milord!” She backpedals, but Elrone is close; they are -almost- touching. And it is at this point that Ammon’s men emerge from the brush. The woman startles; she shrieks; she drops the babe!
And there, rolling away from the rags that covered it, is the hacked off end of a tree branch.
“Well bugger me!” remarks the woman, just as she turns tail to run.
Elrone stands perfectly still for a moment, and then she curls the hand with the apple back in to her bosom. She chews her lip, and then turns to Ammon. “Does this happen often?” There is an edge in her voice, possibly sadness, possibly frustration, or more likely the anger of realizing she has been duped. Her eyes still bear liquid, the edges a bit red, though her brow grants her a harder aspect.
Ammon watches the retreating form for a moment, before moving to the lady’s side. He sighs. “At times, Elrone. My lady.” He reaches one hand out to her, as if for comfort—but in the end he drops it to his side. “These are hard times: autumn is here, winter is following and His Grace has forced many women out of the city. Likely, she has been out here a month. Thirsty. Starving. Desperate. And along we came. It’s fortunate that was not a baby for true: it would have been long dead, no doubt.”
“I’ll have her ridden down and brought back, if you wish.”
“No.” Elrone shakes her head. “She has had punishment enough.” She turns, and paces back toward her horse, gently stroking the line of the animal’s neck. She touches her head the the warm chestnut mare and sighs, her eyes closed. She rests there a moment, before turning to face Ammon again. “I wish she had taken the apple. Then she would have something.” She thinks for a moment, stroking her horse, then walks to the side of the path and places the apple on the ground. “Maybe she will come back for it.”
“Perhaps,” Amon says as he, too, returns to his horse. “Come, let’s return to the city.”
The company mounts once more and begins to move out down the path, back towards the city. But Ammon stays behind for a moment. He watches the host move out, turns to watch the empty path behind them. “Perhaps,” he mutters again. Then a hunk of bread joins the apple on the ground. A full skin of wine. And finally, two coins, gleaming golden.
And when Ammon Massey, called Ammon Blackhand by some, puts his spurs to his horse’s flank, the beast offers no argument.