The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a bitter draft that chased away any thoughts of sleep in Tyrion’s head. He had arrived late the night before, well after the Starks had retired to their beds, and on the heels of a messenger from some small holdfast in the hills. The men would leave at daybreak to see the king’s justice done. Tyrion would ride out with them, eager to witness one of the barbaric rights of the North with his own eyes.
When he was younger, Tyrion had wanted to see the world. He had considered the free cities a good place to begin, and certainly warmer than Winterfell. But he was strangely happy to be traveling in the North in spite of the cold winds. There was much to see in a kingdom that was as big as the other six combined, and many fair maidens to meet. Not to mention even more less than fair maidens.
Tyrion grinned as he pictured all the high-born girls he had met in the past few months. He never approached their parents directly, of course, but only told them he was on a quest for a bride, possibly the next Lady of Casterly Rock. He let them think he was searching on behalf of his brother, or perhaps his father, always keeping the bride groom’s identity a bit of a mystery. He found the reception was much warmer that way.
It was too late last night to mention anything about his business to Lord Stark. Tyrion was grateful that the messenger bore the weight of having disturbed the Lord’s sleep. Tyrion wondered if the disruption would influence the Lord’s judgment in the case at hand. Perhaps it would be best to be caught at a more convenient time of day, say the mid-day meal, if one were a criminal and hoped to keep one’s head?
He rode near the rear of the party next to Winterfell’s maester, listening as the younger boys chattered between themselves. There was eager excitement in the young voices as they talked of wildings and a King-beyond-the-Wall. It all sounded a bit like crib tales to Tyrion, yet the maester was whispering to him as they rode, lending credence to the words.
Maester Luwin was kind enough to point out who was who as they rode. There was Lord Stark, the one Tyrion would have been able to identify by his position, but he was grateful to the maester for sorting out the boys and men who rode with them. The further north he rode, the harder it was to tell noble from peasant only by the clothes they wore.
The oldest boy was not in fact the heir to Winterfell as Tyrion had been speculating, but Theon Greyjoy, a hostage from what Tyrion had heard about the rebellion. But this young man from the Iron Islands didn’t look that much different from the Starks, and was joking with Robb, the Lord’s oldest true born son as if they were brothers. In truth, the heir looked more like a Tully than a Stark and less like a Stark than the iron born boy.
The most like his father though was a boy who proved to be his bastard. And again, riding along next to the true born sons, advising the youngest, a boy by the name of Bran, as if he were a trusted member of the family. These northerners were strange folk indeed.
Tyrion had spent the last nine years overseeing the drains of Casterly Rock, a less than desirable task that kept him busy and out of sight. That was how his father saw fit to treat his true born son, and his heir, just because he had been born a dwarf. Tyrion could only imagine how his father would treat a hostage or an actual bastard. Not as a member of the family, certainly. It was rumored that her sister had one of Robert's bastards killed for the sin of being born at Casterly Rock. Tyrion suspected she would gladly have had the rest of them killed as well, if they had been born somewhere she had enough influence.
The North was a pleasant change. In fact, if it wasn’t so cold he would be tempted to stay there. There was a likely maid at Castle Cerwyn, several years older than himself and a bit plump for his tastes, but not entirely unwilling. It was too bad he wasn’t the sort of son-in-law that some Lord would want to marry to his only child so that he could inherit a keep of his own. However, sooner or later, the Lords would suspect he was interested in their daughters personally. And then the rumors would rise from the dust and suddenly he would hear whispers about tails and horns and other deformities. Once or twice he even though he overheard something about marrying a whore.
Lies, all of them. He never had a tail, nor horns, nor wings, nor any of the other extra parts the stories would have given him. It was unfortunate, if he had, he might have won a few points with the more curious girls by showing them. Unfortunately, all his real deformities were too easily seen even with his clothes on. And he had been avoiding the brothels on the way north as well, hoping to put a damper on the other rumors which were, of course, well grounded in fact.
He did enjoy the company of women. And paying them good gold was the only way he had discovered to encourage them to enjoy his company too.
Tyrion was feeling quite sorry for himself by the time they reached the holdfast and found the man, bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall. He was old and scrawny, taller only than himself and the boy, Bran. Dressed all in black rags, he was missing both ears and a finger.
“Frostbite,” the maester whispered when he notice Tyrion looking.
“A wilding?” asked Tyrion.
“From the black clothes, I’d guess a deserter,” returned the maester.
Ah, a potential brother then, if his quest failed. Tyrion looked a the man closer, wondering if he wouldn’t prefer Fat Walda. Her father only wanted her weight in gold in return for giving her a chance to become the Lady of Casterly Rock. And Tyrion suspected the old weasel knew exactly who the future husband was likely to be. His father would not be pleased, of course, but it was perhaps better than joining a brotherhood that made men as sorry as this one run away.
Lord Stark cut the man down and questions were asked. It was hard to follow his answers as he raved about wildings and Others and blue-eyed brothers of the watch. In the end, it seemed the man was, by his own confession, a member of the night’s watch.
None of the northmen seemed to believe the tales of the Others. Not that Tyrion thought the Others were real, but it seemed an unlikely story to tell when one was facing a death sentence. Why not claim his brothers in black had turned on him and tried to kill him. He was defending himself. Maybe that he was chasing some wildings who crossed the wall, but had only just lost them as he was captured?
Tyrion could think of a number of more believable stories that might sway the northmen to spare his life, even if it meant being sent back to the Wall.
In the end, all the talk did not seem to impress Lord Stark one way or the other. His face was impassive as he sat on his horse and listened to the ravings of the deserter. In the end, it all came down to a confession and finally the command was given and the man dragged to an ironwood stump in the center of the square.
Lord Stark dismounted then and the iron born hostage brought him his sword. Some hostage, it was a wicked blade as long as a normal man was tall, and with the look of Valyrian steel. He doubted his father would arm a hostage like that. Tyrion could not help but imagine his own head on that stump as the sword came down and took the man’s head in a single swift stroke.
Blood sprayed out across the snow and Tyrion considered his future. He wondered if they also beheaded the men who visited that brothel up near the wall. He hoped not. They couldn’t. How would they have anyone left to guard the wall if they did? Some vows simply weren’t meant to be kept.
The snows were soaking up the blood when the laughing hostage kicked the head like he thought it was amusing.
“Ass,” muttered the bastard just loud enough for Tyrion to overhear. Indeed, Tyrion found himself taking a dislike to the young man at that moment, still imagining the head his own. He shuddered. The north was a cruel place, no doubt.
The ride back to Winterfell was colder than the ride out. The sun was high in the air, but it did little to warm the day. The maester had run out of helpful introductions as well, so Tyrion rode closer to the Starks, trying to overhear their conversation.
Robb, the heir, claimed the man had died bravely, but the bastard disagreed saying the man was dead of fear. They appeared to be about the same age, but Robb was thick and sturdy with his Tully coloring while Jon Snow was taller and leaner with more of a Stark look.
It amused Tyrion to see them disagree. And no one told the bastard to keep his thoughts to himself or raised an objection when he challenged his half-brother to a race. Tyrion imagined how this day would have gone if his father had been the Lord serving justice and he and his brother Jaime the ones arguing.
Not everything in the north was cruel.
With the older boys galloping off ahead, Lord Stark turned to his younger son and asked his opinion, “What do you think, Bran?”
“Is it possible to be brave if you’re afraid?” the lad asked.
“It’s the only time a man can be brave.”
Tyrion stifled a laugh. Even a dwarf could be brave if that was true.
“Do you understand why I did it?” Lord Stark asked.
“He was a wilding,” Bran said. “They carry off women and sell them to the Others.”
The Others again. Tyrion had heard the stories when he was young, once or twice. He supposed that living nearer the wall the stories would be more common. Something useful to frighten children into behaving. At the Rock, the stories had been about raiders from the Iron Islands and various sea creatures from mermaids to krakens.
Lord Stark was explaining why deserters were so dangerous. Tyrion thought the logic flawed. Was it the deserter who was dangerous, or the law that said the penalty was death that made them so desperate?
“But you mistake me. The question was not why the man had to die, but why I must do it.”
“The king uses a headsman, as did the Targaryens before him.” Tyrion interrupted, without thinking. He had been wondering why the Lord dirtied his hands that way, and forgot he was trying to remain unobtrusive.
The Lord shot him a look that clearly indicated he was not intended to be part of this conversation, but included him in the answer anyway.
“Our way is the old way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”
Tyrion pondered those words while Lord Stark tutored his son on the duties of a Lord. It was not the way his father saw things.
That was the best part of his journey so far. There were so many people in the world, and so many opinions. It was refreshing to find so many people who did not see the world in quite the same light as Tywin Lannister.
Each little insight made Tyrion a little happier.