The morning air was crisp and clear, with a sharpness to it that marked the end of summer. They left Winterfell at dawn to see the man beheaded, twenty men all in their party. Bran rode with them, nervous and excited. Though he was only seven, his lord father had deemed him old enough to see the king's justice take place.
Men had taken the deserter captive outside a small holdfast in the Rills, Lord Rodrik wrote. Torrhen thought him to be a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-The-Wall. Goose pimples rose up and down his arms when he thought about it.
He still remembered Old Nan's stories. The wildling were a cruel and savage people she said, rapers and raiders and slavers. They drank with demons and devils, stole girls in the night from their beds, and drank blood from polished horns of human bones. Their women laid with the Others to sire terrible half-human children.
But the man he saw bound from hand to foot was old and scrawny, not much taller than his brother. Two ears and a finger were lost to frostbite. He was dressed in all black, the same black as the Night's Watch of his uncle, but instead of jeweled scabbards and sable furs, his clothing was tattered and greasy.
Their breaths let out steam in the cold morning air as his father ordered the man cut down and brought before them. Torrhen and Jonos were on their horses on both sides of him, Bran in the middle on his pony, trying to seem older than what he was. Torrhen's long dark brown hair blowed smoothly in the wind, his ice-blue eyes seeing everything and nothing as he looked down. Jonos held a large staff in his hand, the banner rippling in the wind: a grey wolf running across a field of ice-white.
His father sat on his horse, black hair stirring in the wind, grey eyes cold and harsh. His shortly cropped beard was pure onyx, making him seem younger than his thirty seven years. His face was not the same as the one who sang softly in the hall as they broke their fast, or that cheered when Bran sparred in the yard, or when he learned to ride his pony. He has taken off his father's face, and donned the skin of the Lord of Winterfell. Father had been left to do this duty more oft than not, especially since grandfather became sick.
Father asked questions, and the man answered, but after they were done Bran could scarce remember what had been said. Finally father spoke a word, and two guardsmen dragged the limp man to an ironwood stump in the center of the field.
They forced his head down into the wood, but he gave little protest. Lord Brandon Stark dismounted and his ward Theon Greyjoy brought the sword to him, Ice it was called. Wide as a man's hand and taller than Torrhen, the blade was spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian Steel.
Father took off his black leather gloves and handed them to Martyn Cassel, the captain of their household guards. He took his greatsword in hand and said, ''In the name of Rhaegar of the House Targaryen, First of his name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by word of Brandon of the House Stark heir to Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do hereby sentence you to die.'' The words came harsh and bitter out of his father's mouth, especially when he spoke the king's title.
His bastard brother moved closer, placing his free hand on his shoulder. ''Keep the pony in hand,'' he whispered, ''and don't look away, father will know if you do.''
Bran kept the pony under control and didn't look away. His father took the man's head in a single stroke,and one of the horses reared away from the blood. Bran found himself unable to look away, the red substance soaking up the snow.
The head bounced off and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy's feet. Theon was a tall, dark, handsome youth who found everything amusing. He laughed and kicked the head away.
''Ass,'' Jonos muttered, thankfully Theon didn't hear him. Jon put a hand on his shoulder, and Bran looked over to his brother, grey eyes solem and so different from his own.
''You did well Bran,'' He said, ''Father will be proud.'' That made him feel less on edge at least.
The ride back to Winterfell was less cold than the one to the field, Bran observed. The sun was high in the sky and shining bright, the sky a clear blue. He rode with his brothers, trying to keep up as the raced on their horses farther and farther from the main party.
''The man died bravely,'' cousin Torrhen said, he was big and broad and growing every day. He had his father's brown hair and mother watery blue eyes. Even though they looked different, he reminded Bran of his eldest brother, Rickard.
''He had the courage at least,'' he went on.
''No,'' Jon Snow said quietly, ''that was fear, not bravery. He was terrified, you could see it in his eyes, Stark.''
''Others take his eyes,'' Torrhen said, ''race you to the bridge?''
''Done,'' his brother said with ease, kicking his horse forward. Torrhen followed him, shouting hooting as snow lept up from where their horses raced. Bran didn't bother following, he'd never be able to keep up on his pony. His mind went back to the man, he remembered his eyes, dead and cold as the guards dragged him to the stump. Suddenly the woods felt cold.
He was so deep into his thoughts that he didn't notice the party catched up with him until his father spoke. His father was tall and handsome, with laughing lines around his eyes and mouth. Grey eyes stared into blue.
''Are you well, Brandon?'' He asked, concern in his voice.
''Yes father,'' Bran told him,his father was clad in chocolate-brown velvet jerkin over black leather doublet, with heavy fur cloak tied to his bofice with black leather cross straps along with an ermine collar. When he looked down, he seemed like a giant.
''Torrhen said the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.'' His father considered that for a moment.
''What do you think?'' Bran thought hard.
''Can a man still be brave when he's afraid?'' He asked.
''That's the only time a man can be brave, Bran.'' father told him, ''you understand why I did it, yes?''
''He was a wildling, they carry off women and sell them to the Others,'' he said, thoughs of Old Nan's stories once again entered his mind. But his father was smiling.
''Old Nan has been telling you stories. In truth, he was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night's Watch who managed to get past your uncle Benjen.'' Then the smile died from his face.
''No man is more dangerous than that, Bran. The deserter know his life is in forfeit when he leaves, so he will flinch away from no crime, no matter how sinister. But you mistake me, the question was not why he had to die, but why I had to do it.''
''King Rhaegar has a headsmen,'' he said warily, the Targaryen’s were a sore topic for his father. ''And I heard they give men over to their dragons when they please,'' Father frowned.
''He does,'' he said, voice hard. ''As did his ancestors before him, yet our way is the old way. The blood of the First Men flows through the veins of the Starks, as it does all Northmen, and we hold the belief that the man who passes the sentence must swing the sword. Do you know why?'' Bran shook his head.
''If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look him in the eyes and hear his final words. If you cannot bear to do that, perhaps he does not deserve to die.'' Then his father placed a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder.
''One day you will be Rickard's bannerman, holding a castle of your own in the name of your brother and king. Justice will surely fall to you, and when it comes you musn't look away. You shall take no pleasure in it, but cannot cower away in fear either. A man who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.''
Then Jon came over the hill, shouting and waving his hand frantically, ''Father, Bran, come see what Torrhen found!'' Then he wheeled his horse around and galloping back over the ridge.
Jory, the son of Martyn, their master-at-arms, rode up beside them, his father just behind. ''Trouble, my lord?'' He asked.
''Of course,'' father deadpanned. ''Come, let's see what my son and nephew have rooted out now.'' he spurred his horse forward, Bran and the others following closely.
They found Torrhen on the riverbank north of the bridge, Jon still a horse beside him. Summer snows had been heavy of late, and many in Winterfell had taken that to mean a harsh winter. The Godswood was filled with men and women, praying for a short winter. His mother had taken their resolve as well, but since she still worshiped the Seven gods of the south, she and Serene went into the Sept for their prayers.
His cousin stood knee deep in white, hooded cloak pulled back to the sun reflected off his brown hair. He was cradling something in his arms and talked to Jon in a hushed voice.
The men walked their horses warily, trying to find solid ground on the uneven earth. Jory Cassel and Theon Greyjoy were the first to reach them. Theon was laughing and jesting with Jory was he rode, Bran heard a gasp from him.
''Gods!'' he exclaimed, trying to keep his horse from throwing him as he reached for his sword. Martyn Cassel dismounted and ran to his son's side, both of their swords out.
''Torrhen get away from it!'' Jory shouted.
Torrhen grinned and stood, ''she can't hurt me,'' he proclaimed, ''just look, she's dead, Jory.''
Bran could not keep his curiosity checked by then, climbing stiffly off his horse, he waded through the snow before reaching his brother. Jory and Theon had dismounted as well.
''Seven hells is it?'' Theon demanded.
''A wolf,'' Torrhen said proudly, ''our sigil.''
''A freak,'' Theon responded, ''look at the size of her.''
His heart was racing with excitement as he went to his cousins side. Buried in the snow save for his head and chest, the huge figure slumped limply on the bank. Shards of ice had formed in its mottled fur, and corruption clung to the corpse like a woman's perfume. Bran saw maggots crawling in its eyes, flies buzzing around the body, and a wide mouth full of yellow teeth.
The size made him stare in wonder, it was bigger than his pony, and twice the size of the kennel's largest hound.
''It's no freak,'' Jonos defended, ''it's a direwolf, they grow larger than any other kind.''
Theon replied, ''there's not been a direwolf seen south of the Wall in two hundred years.''
''Then what am I seeing now?'' Jon asked.
Bran looked away from the beast. He then noticed what was in Torrhen's arms. He gave a cry of delight and moved closer. The pup was a tiny ball of grey-black fur, eyes still closed. It nuzzled against Torrhen's chest as he cradled it, searching for a nipple amongst his velvet doublet. Bran reached out hesitantly.
''Go on, you can touch it.'' Bran gave a quick stroke, still nervous. When he turned around Jon had a second pup in his arms.
''Here you go,'' he said as he placed him in his arms.
''There are six of them.'' Someone whispered, he sat down in the snow and cradled it in his arms.
''Direwolves south of the Wall after so many years, I like it not.'' Hullen, master of horse said.
''It's a sign,'' said Torrhen excitedly, Father frowned.
''It is a dead animal, Tor.'' Yet he seemed troubled in his face. Snow crunched as he moved around, ''do we know what killed her?''
''Something in its throat,'' Jon said, ''there just under the jaw,'' Father knelt and groped under the beasts head and pulled hard. A foot of an antler snapped off, wet and sticky with blood.
Silence fell over them, though he did not understand why. His father tossed the antler and wiped his hands in the snow, ''I'm surprised she lived long enough to whelp,'' he said, his voice broke the silence.
''Maybe she didn't,'' Jory said nervously, ''I've heard tales, maybe she was dead when the pups came.''
''Born with the dead,'' Martyn grunted, ''worse luck.''
''No matter,'' Hullen spoke confidently, ''soon they'll be dead too.'' Bran cried out in horror.
''The sooner the better,'' Theon said, drawing his dagger.
''Give it here, Bran.'' The pup squirmed against him.
''No!'' He shouted at them, ''it's mine!''
''Put away your blade, Greyjoy!'' Torrhen said angrily.
''I take orders from your uncle, not you!'' Theon shot back.
''It'd be a mercy,'' Hullen soothed. Bran shook his head stubbornly. He looked to his father, but only received a frown.
''Hullen speaks truly, it's better than a death of cold and starvation.''
''No!'' He said, turning away, he refused to cry in front of the men.
''Lord Stark,'' Jon said suddenly, it was strange to hear him use such formal words. ''There are six pups, three male, three female.''
''What of it, Jon?''
''You have five trueborn children, plus Torrhen as your nephew.'' He said, ''the direwolf is the sigil of your house. They were meant to have these pups.''
Bran loved his brother with all his heart just then. He knew what he had just done for him. He acknowledge Torrhen as a trueborn Stark, but committed himself since he was a bastard, a Snow. Cursed with the name that marked him for what he was. Father regarded him.
''You want no pup for yourself?'' he asked.
''I'm no Stark.'' Jon said plainly, Bran rushed to the front.
''I'll nurse him myself!'' He vowed, Torrhen was beside him.
''Me as well! I'll give a towel soaked in warm milk for him to suck on!''
''Easy to say, harder to do. I will not have you wasting the servants' time with this nonsense. If you want them you will train them yourselves, you will feed them yourselves, and if they die, you will bury them yourselves. Old gods save us if you mistreat them, they are not dogs, I warn you, they are beasts capable of ripping a man's throat out of his neck.'' None of what his father had said discouraged him.
When they got back onto the road, Bran allowed himself to gloat on his victory. The pup squirmed against him. I'm going to take good care of you, he swore. He needed to think of a name for him. It was when they were halfway across the bridge than Jon suddenly stopped.
''What is it?'' Torrhen asked.
''Can't you hear it?'' Jon said.
Bran could hear the leaves rustling in the wind, the water streaming in the river, and the snorts of his horse. But his brother was clearly listening to something else.
''There,'' Jon said, he then turned his horse around and galloped back, Bran saw him dismount near the dead direwolf and kneel. Half a second later he re-mounted and rode back to them smiling.
''He must have crawled away,'' he said. Jon's beast was most curious, his fur was white, where the others were grey, and his eyes were red. Bran's mind drifted to the man his father beheaded, blood red as summer wine drinking up the white snow. Bran thought it queer, that he could see when the other were blind.
''An albino,'' Theon said with amusement. ''That one will die quicker than the others,'' Jon looked up, eyes frosty.
''I think not, Greyjoy. This one's mine.''