The snow fell softly over the Haunted Forest, adding another layer of white to the perpetually frosted bark of the trees. Well beyond sight of the Wall, two trailing impressions in the snow wound around the trees and finally came to a stop at a pair of clothed legs that were never to stand on their own again. A figure dressed whiter than the snow itself released his hold on the dead man's black hood. The slightly frozen body made a solid thump as torso met ground and the man in white scowled at the intruder's corpse. The man was not the first to die by his sword, but he had done so rather messily, which displeased him.
Too bad, the figure mused. You are not the man I wanted.
He walked away, almost lazily, leaving the body for the wildlings to find. A sudden howl of wind carried a flurry of white to cover the tracks and by sunrise, only a fresh blanket of snow remained.
"I don't understand why you need a horse in the first place."
Matthew looked at his companion, confused at his statement. The ride through the forest had been fairly silent. Their destination close at hand; Winterfell was in sight and the lengthy journey had already exhausted all plausible topics of conversation. Or so he'd thought.
"I mean... you have him," Lukas nodded at the hulking animal trailing behind them. "He's bigger than a horse. And no doubt our brothers at the Wall could use the extra resources."
Said possible horse-substitute lumbered on, climbing over fallen trees and rounded rocks. Thick, white fur looked horribly out of place in the green and brown shaded landscape they passed through. Twelve years of summer had changed even the woods around Winterfell. The typical frost and snow were gone and instead the forest was alive with the colours of the Southern lands. It was hard to believe that a place like the Wall, so frozen and desolate could exist within a month's ride from here.
"What, use Kumajirou?" Matthew laughed. "He would never let me, for one. There's no teaching him, he'd likely forget I was on his back, bound off and dunk me into the river in his attempts to catch jumping fish. No, he's a good bear but he'd make an awful horse."
Matthew had met Kumajirou on his first ranging, shortly after he had taken the Black. Standing higher than any man on his hind legs, the polar bear had been hunting - a fearsome sight, especially for a young boy travelling beyond the Wall for the first time. Returning to four legs, its blood-soaked muzzle prodded at the shocked boy - surely he was going to die - and with a growl and a soft bite of his black armour, the bear roared and reared again, bringing his forepaws down on Matthew's shoulders and effectively toppling him to the ground. The bear had looked Matthew straight in the eyes and for a brief moment Matthew felt the name 'Kumajirou' reverberate through him. Matthew repeated the name aloud in an awed voice and the bear gave him a small, approving nod before snapping playfully at his hand.
And that was how his ranging company had found him: wrestling and laughing with the beast. Matthew greeted them cheerfully, introduced them to Kumajirou and when he regaled his comrades with the story, he conveniently left out how he had screamed in terror.
The Night's Watch decided the bear was a descendant of the polar bear warriors of legend - the likes of which have not been seen since dragons lived on the land. It seemed another reminder that anything was possible north of the wall. The mysterious friendship between the ex-lordling and the bear still unsettled Matthew's sworn brothers but they were not fool enough to turn away allies, human or otherwise. Kumajirou has followed him ever since.
Travelling for weeks took its toll on his armour, a light-weight yet firm material that was reasonably pliable and not as overwhelmingly heavy and stiff as the knights wore. The material was, as their station entailed, completely dark. Two years ago, the armour was ill-fit, but eventually Matthew had grown taller and his shoulders had widened. Muscles developed and toned after his constant training. His blond hair grew out in soft waves, just barely long enough to tie back. His eyes, an uncommon violet, now observed his surroundings with more solemnity than was expected of a man so young. All in all, had there been any maidens allowed on the Wall, he surely would have been a favourite.
The next week would be Matthew's eighteenth nameday and he was travelling south to the castle of Winterfell at his brother's invitation. The thought of his brother made the corners of Matthew's mouth curve into a gentle smile.
His twin brother Alfred - blue-eyed, golden-haired Alfred. Lord of Winterfell these past two years, older by two minutes and the reason Matthew had sworn his life away to the Night's Watch.
The visit would be something of a family reunion. Coming all the way from King's Landing, their older brother Arthur, the Great King of the Realm, would also be in attendance. Naturally, Queen Marianne would accompany him, and no king would travel without at least two hundred of his own men and staff.
When the invitation had been sent, Berwald, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch had not wished to grant Matthew leave but Matthew had argued that someone must go and warn the kingdom, and at the same time convince the Lords and His Majesty to provide more men to guard the Wall.
"Who better to ask than the King's baby brother?" Matthew had insisted. Lukas had then been charged to assist with the mission and bring word further south, through the Riverlands.
The parchment felt strangely fragile in his pocket considering its troubling contents. Things in the north had taken a turn for the worse. Men left for rangings, never returned and their bodies never found. A few men who did return had gone mad, raving about "White Walkers" and within days, deserted. Omen after bad omen left the brotherhood uneasy.
He heard that it had been Alfred who caught the deserters as they fled south and in turn, Alfred was the one obligated to behead them. A grim task for his brother, but deserting the Night's Watch earned capital punishment in the Realm.
We swore an oath, Matthew thought, recalling the words. Our job is to protect the Kingdom from what's beyond the Wall. We take no wives, father no children, hold no land... and get no thanks.
When Matthew had first uttered the words, he had hated them, let them fall like poison from his lips. But there was something about sacred vows that settled and took hold of you and after getting to know his fellows each day, Matthew felt himself believe in the cause - their cause - more and more. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. "Realms of men" that included Alfred - and with that thought he breathed truth into them, morphing the oath into a more intimate promise with his determination to protect his brother.
Alfred had wanted so much as they grew up - to be a dragon, a king, a knight. He'd tell Matthew all this with a grin that made everything seem possible. And Matthew had lived for his smile, that joy, but Alfred hadn't been smiling the day Matthew left for the Wall to pledge his life away - no. Matthew stopped himself. Those were memories he didn't want to touch on, he had to focus on the mission at hand.
I'm sorry I could not protect you from this, brother.
The gates of Winterfell met them at the top of the slope. Even in the warmth of summer, the castle looked dreary and misshapen and restorations were obviously still being done in certain parts of the keep. Nevertheless, a flag bearing the sigil of the House Kirkland flew high and majestic over the palisades. Matthew was comforted by the familiar sight of the crowned lion. Out of all the great Houses, his family's was his favourite. The men paused outside, dismounted and led the horses toward the stables where a group of young stable boys stood, gawking at the new arrivals.
"Well? Come here and tend to my horse you lot!" Lukas barked. No one moved.
He puzzled as to their expressions - we don't look that awful do we? - but a growl from behind them brought Matthew to realization.
"Oh! Don't be frightened of Kuma. He's a special bear, he won't hurt you - will you Kumajirou?"
Matthew turned only to see Kumajirou stride past him and toward the boys who, cowered in fear, along with some of the horses nearby. Kumajirou didn't even stop to consider them as he claimed one of the empty stalls and went to sleep.
Lukas smirked. "Bunch of craven brats you are! Hurry it up now."
They left the boys with special instructions for the care of their animals, Matthew and Lukas set off across the courtyard toward the large wooden doors. Light danced and shone through the windows of the Dining Hall and faint bursts of hearty laughter drifted towards them. It seemed the feast had already begun. They nodded at the attendants who were to announce their arrival.
The doors swung open slowly, groaning under the weight.
"Matthew Kirkland of the Night's Watch. Lukas Laatsarus of the Night's Watch."
And there was no silence, no awe-struck turn of the crowd, the drunken fat man in the corner continued to sing his bawdy song and the knights didn't pause in their passes at the young maidens across the table.
But it still took less than a second for winter violet eyes to meet summer blue.
A resounding slap brought the company to a sudden hush, heads turned and upon finding the source, burst into laughter and the collective roar of the party continued once more. The drunken Ser stumbled away from the affronted woman, only to fall on his face. Alfred observed the man with amusement from his place at the head table. The hall was filled with banter, singing and the clatter of silverware. Three long tables that spanned the length of the dining hall had been set out for his brother's men and that had not nearly been enough.
The King forgone the armour he wore earlier and instead wore an auburn tunic over his chainmail, displaying the Kirkland sigil of the golden crowned lion across his chest. A simpler version of his crown sat atop his choppy, blond hair. Her Majesty chose a flattering red gown for the occasion with gold laces crossing across her chest, the elegant sleeves flaring gracefully from her elbows. The servants had styled her wavy brown hair into an intricate bun, with a few strands coming down to frame her face.
It looked to be an uncharacteristically serious conversation for the pair. Arthur was frowning deeply while he spoke and Marianne leaned towards him and listened to his hushed words intently. When Arthur finished his piece, Marianne surveyed his upset face and after a brief pause of contemplation, smiled mischievously. Before he could stop her, Marianne pulled Arthur's face towards hers and placed kisses on both of her husband's prominent eyebrows, reducing the King to a spluttering, blushing mess. Even after all these years, she was the only one who could elicit that reaction out of Alfred's uptight, stern older brother. For now, it seems she achieved her goal of distracting him from his troubles, better to enjoy the feast at hand.
"Quiet, you! Such an inappropriate display of - ! Alfred!" Arthur noticed Alfred looking and turned away from his snickering Queen to round on the Winter Lord. Alfred could see the residual blush on his face.
"When are we to expect Matthew's arrival?"
Alfred felt a rather unmanly flutter at the name. He berated himself, such a lord was he!
"He was supposed to arrive shortly before yourself, Your Grace." His voice strong and certain, even though he felt anything but. His anxiety was starting to grow.
Arthur gave another frown and nodded curtly, returning to his meal and gestured at the servants to pour him more wine. As the wine glasses were being refilled, Alfred lost himself in thoughts of nervousness and worry - feelings he'd been trying to avoid all day. Luckily, it's not difficult to keep busy when your keep's population doubles in size overnight. There was much to prepare for. However, thoughts of his twin brother snuck up on him when he found sort moments of reprieve from his duties. And the Old Gods knew how he plagued him in his dreams.
The Hall doors opened.
The din of the feast was too loud to hear the announcement of the new arrivals but Alfred caught his brother's eye easily.
Two years apart and their gaze still gravitated to each other.
Alfred stood up to receive his new guest and saw a taller man following Matthew closely. This stranger was also clad in black with a distinctive ashen blond hairstyle that stood almost upright atop his head.
What in the name of the Conqueror did Matthew bring someone else for?
Ignoring the other man, Alfred approached Matthew smiling and embraced his brother in welcome. Or at least, tried to.
"Matthew - !"
"Alfred," Matthew said promptly, leaning away from the hug and immediately gestured to the other man. "This is my friend Lukas, also a man of the black. Lukas, this is my twin brother, Lord Alfred Kirkland of Winterfell."
"My lord. I've heard much about you, and you have my compliments as Winterfell is a great castle indeed."
Alfred, not letting go of his brother, nodded in acknowledgement and grudgingly replied "Men of the Night's Watch are always welcome here. Please help yourself and the servants will make the necessary arrangements for your stay."
Lukas thanked him, told Matthew he'd see him later and joined the nearest long table, goblet of wine and wing of roasted duck already in hand.
"What does he mean he'll meet up with you later?" Alfred demanded. They were walking back to the head table and Alfred still had his arms around Matthew. Apparently, he did not notice people starting to stare - they made a scandalous sight.
"He means that he will see me after the feast, I suppose. Alfred please release my arms, I should greet the King and Queen properly." Matthew removed himself from his brother's grasp and sparing Alfred a pleading look, walked past him and up to the table.
Alfred followed and watched as Matthew bowed low in his black armour. The way the Matthew had grown had not escaped Alfred's notice and the graceful curve of his spine as he bent forward made Alfred's mouth go dry.
"It's good to see you lad." Arthur said carefully, but the affection was still there. However, Alfred could still see the guilt on his face.
The Queen, who had jumped up and exclaimed her delight at the sight of Matthew, worked her way around the table to hug the boy. She had always favoured Matthew as he had admired and studied the old language of the River people as a child, a language that was close to her family's history. She fawned over his appearance, running her hands shamelessly over his arms, and his face - so tall, so manly and oh, his lovely hair! while the men stood around embarrassed and unsure of what to say. Marianne seemed immune to the social awkwardness that plagued the Kirklands.
Alfred and Arthur could only watch as Matthew blushed and returned the appropriate compliments.
"I'm so glad to see you are all well," Matthew said to the others, looking a little overwhelmed. "I... I beg you excuse me, the journey has made me hungry." He made a move as to sit at the common tables - which prompted his family to protest. Surprisingly it was Arthur who settled the issue.
"Nonsense Matthew. You are still a Kirkland. Regardless of which armour you wear."
"Thank you, Your Grace." Matthew said quietly, though not meeting his brother's eyes. With that, Alfred waved at the servants to set a place beside his own seat but he noticed that Matthew did not seem convinced that he was being welcomed back so warmly - but he could not go against the wishes of the King. He sat down, and began placing food onto his plate. He kept his head lowered and looked heavily pre-occupied.
Alfred wanted to reach out and smooth the lines from his brother's face and make him smile at him like he used to. He felt so guarded. Didn't Matthew miss them? Didn't he miss Alfred?
Out of the corner of his eye he hears Matthew sigh and glance nervously about the room, only to stare dismayed at the common tables. Alfred follows his line of sight and sees several men and women glancing at the two of them and whispering to their neighbours.
The Others take those damned gossipers! Alfred thought angrily.
Alfred makes a not to deal with his servants and staff in the morning but unfortunately, there is nothing he can do about the King's party.
"Let them talk," he says aloud, startling his brother.
"Let them talk," Alfred repeated. "That way, when I accidentally overhear them bad-mouthing us, I can skewer them on behalf of the Kirkland family." Alfred's grin returned, only slightly evil.
Matthew laughed at that, and it was the most wonderful sound Alfred had ever heard.
The tension between them lessened after that. As twins were wont to do, they fell into easy conversation remarking the newly developed differences in the other. Alfred thought the longer hair suited his brother and glowed when Matthew praised him on his improved stature and impressive leadership.
"Ser Ludwig's been training me. That man is relentless, but the training is paying off," Alfred said, flexing. "I could probably take on half the King's Guard now."
Matthew only looks amused as he shook his head.
The feast was dwindling as soldiers and servants gradually made their ways down to their rooms or over to the courtyard tents. He could tell Matthew was starting to feel the brunt of his journey and drowsy from the amount of food they served. The King and Queen had excused themselves ten minutes prior and Marianne had allowed Arthur a total of fifteen awkward seconds to attempt to bid Matthew goodnight before leading him away to their designated accommodations.
"I'm afraid he doesn't get better over time, sweetlings," she informed them in a teasing manner that made Arthur protest, but the Queen only sighed dramatically and gave Matthew another hug. She spoke more quietly into his ear so that Alfred did not catch the words, but Matthew turned a slight red and nodded when Marianne pulled away.
"We should go too," Alfred suggested. "You must be in need of sleep."
Matthew conceded this to be a good idea, but to Alfred's irritation, Matthew stopped to speak to Lukas on their way past the dining tables.
"Lukas," Matthew said. "Will you be staying?"
By now Lukas looked to have managed to drink a large amount and befriended half the court while he was at it but the tall man staggered to his feet all the same.
"Might as well turn in! This lot couldn't hold their liquor if they tried." Lukas swayed slightly and looked to Alfred. "Did you have any rooms to spare my lord?"
Alfred gave him a reluctant glance but remembering propriety replied, "The servants should have made up a room for you in the lower castle upon your arrival. We can guide you."
They waited for Lukas to make his excuses to his tablemates and to join them outside the Dining Hall.
Alfred still had so many questions he wanted to ask Matthew, things he had not wanted to discuss in a room full of people. Frustrated, he grit his teeth, for the presence of the other man prevented their talking freely.
After consulting with a servant, he led them around Winterfell to Lukas' room, in the lower chambers. The stone halls were only lit by the occasional torch and the night was cool, but thanks to the hot spring water that flowed through the pipes in the walls, the castle constantly stayed warm. He explained as much to his companions.
Upon reaching his chamber, Lukas bade them goodnight and stepped across the threshold. Matthew took steps to follow him when Alfred grabbed his arm in an alarmed manner, causing Lukas to stop as well.
"Where are you going?" Alfred asked.
Matthew as perplexed. "To sleep, dear brother."
"Yes... where else - ?" Matthew realized what Alfred was asking and wisely backtracked. "I apologize, had you prepared a different room for me?"
"I have actually," Alfred said in a hurt tone. How could he think I would consign my own brother to the lower barracks?
"Matthew?" Lukas had his hand on the edge of the door and was waiting for them. Matthew seemed torn and anxious.
"It's alright Lukas, Alfred was kind enough to give me my own room. I will see you in the morning to discuss the message. Sleep well, brother."
After Lukas had shut the door and Alfred had led him out of that hall, he rounded on Matthew.
"Brother? You call him brother now?" That's what we are. That's ours.
"All the men of the Night's Watch are my brothers now," Matthew explained, a little uncomfortable. "I'm sorry for the confusion, we share barracks back at the Wall you know. We don't always have the luxury of a room to ourselves."
"Though there have been more empty beds lately," Matthew added, troubled. "In any case, Lukas is a good friend of mine, he has helped me many times on the wall."
Matthew did not elaborate on that subject so Alfred said nothing. He hated this. This feeling of disconnect with his own twin brother. He knew the vows his brother took, he knew that his brother played a different role in this world now. Yet he had at least expected everything to stay the same between the two of them. He still expected to have Matthew.
While he was being taught how to be a proper Lord over the last two years, he imagined Matthew on that Gods-forsaken Wall of ice, imagined Matthew huddled against the cold wind and just as miserable as he was. It was selfish thinking, in all actuality he was afraid that Matthew would like it there and replace Alfred with his oath-brothers and then never look back to the land that had sent him away. Matthew - kind, loving Matthew never deserved to be there in the first place. It was because of those damned Counsellors (because of him) that Matthew was sent away.
He remembered how he had laughed cold and hard in Arthur's court over the decision - because it seemed like a ridiculous joke. Matthew would go to the Wall and Alfred would be given Winterfell. His arm tensed at the memory. Winterfell was banishment disguised as honour. A method of getting him out of King's Landing and away from the cold scorn of his royal brother's subjects. For the good of the people, Arthur's advisors had declared. And Arthur, torn between duty and family had been ready to overturn their ruling when he had suddenly changed his mind the next day - readily denouncing Matthew in front of the court and effectively casting out and separating the twins.
Alfred still had no idea what caused Arthur to betray his own blood like that and knows that Arthur still suffered from bouts of guilt - the messages the ravens had delivered to Winterfell had told him as much. Alfred never replied.
They reached the higher chambers in silence and Alfred pulled open the heavy wooden door that led to Matthew's room. There was a simple bed with white sheets and a dresser in the corner. Still quiet, Matthew opened the window that overlooked the dark courtyard and the sound of the jesting and songs of some soldiers floated in through the window. Matthew turned around to face him.
"Thank you Alfred," he anxiously wrung his hands and Alfred fought the urge to take them within his own. Suddenly, he is caught in a tight hug and Matthew is mumbling into his shoulder.
"I missed you." The words washed over him and all he felt was sweet relief and joy and Alfred only wished he could get lost in the warmth of his brother's body, to memorize the press of his form and never be parted from him again.
"I missed you too," he spoke into the other's wavy hair, relieved breath puffed at the curls and before he could reach up and capture a golden strand between his fingers, Matthew pulled away and sat on the bed.
"It's nice," he admitted quietly, "to be away from the Wall. It's always so cold there, the wind barely lets up, and the Watches are long and often. Too often. Rangings are more interesting. Lord Commander Berwald - that's his first name, hardly anyone calls him Oxenstierna - he barely speaks but he is one of the best men the Night's Watch has ever had. He's in need of a steward so I was hoping he would take me on..."
His brother was rambling but Alfred listened, and felt a stab of guilt when Matthew confirmed his unhappiness on the Wall. Alfred's expression must have shown his misery because Matthew stops speaking of the Watch.
"You should smile more, the family is together again! Even if it is just for a short while. I have much to tell everyone," Matthew's expression grew worried. "Ah but that can wait. And a Lord needs his sleep right? You should go rest."
"Wait, Matthew - can't we - " Alfred faltered over his words and Matthew only looked at him expectantly, waiting for Alfred to go. He clearly did not want to speak further. He had hoped that Matthew would change his mind - that he would invite him to stay. Matthew seemed to sense what he wanted and shook his head.
"Tomorrow, I promise," Matthew said firmly, and "Goodnight Alfred" is all that is offered before the door is shut. Alfred could only curl his fingers uselessly on the solid surface - his hand half-closed in the form of a knock before it returned to his side, clenched into a fist.
"Night," he finally said and he proceeded down the dark, empty corridor to his own chambers, alone and conflicted.