In midst of war it is hard to recall past hardships, what went before and what indeed may come after. The present often engulfs and consumes, with steel and with blood, with ash and with smoke. Forward we press on, forward, the crush of bodies in the shield wall, forward, the stamp of running feet. Yet sometimes it is necessary to look back, to see where we truly are and to try to make sense of it.
For Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the year 289 can be remembered for more than just the Greyjoy Rebellion. This was a year that shaped his life more than any other, seeing the end of one way of living and the beginning of another. He was the son of Uhtred, who was the son of another Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. And so it had always been for as long as anyone can remember. For almost as long as there have been Starks in Winterfell, there has nearly always been an Uhtred Bebban, Lord of Bebbanburg and of Sea Dragon Point, descendant of the First Men and keeper of the Old Gods. The lawful and sole owner of lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by weirwoods and by ash trees, by marsh and by sea. Lands that our present Uhtred often dreamed of: wave-beaten and wild beneath the wind-driven sky. He dreamed of this land, and knew that one day he would reclaim it from those who had unlawfully stolen it from him.
Before 289, however, he was not Uhtred, but Osbert, for he was his father’s second son and it was the eldest who took the name Uhtred. His brother was seventeen then, tall and well built, with their family’s fair hair and their father’s morose face. Their father, Lord Bebban, was lord of everything to the west of the Wolfswood, extending northwards, separating the Bay of Ice to the east from the Sunset Sea in the west. He was a man of strong and imposing character, expecting much and demanding more so. Yet it was the strength of his convictions and his unfailing honour that made men follow him. He was a leader by nature, scowling fiercely if any man deigned dictate orders to him. However, to his liege lord, a man he had followed into war and back, he did not hesitate to lay down his pride, when once he would have raged against him, calling up old grievances. He was Lord Stark’s staunchest Northern ally and friend, excepting perhaps the little crannogman, Howland Reed. Indeed, at a moment’s notice Uhtred the Elder could lead two hundred and fifty men to war, all well armed, and given a month he could swell that force to over a thousand foemen.
Uhtred the Younger, then still Osbert, had first seen the Ironborn while riding along the seashore with his father, his uncle, his brother and a dozen retainers. They had hawks on their wrists that day. The sea cliffs were thick with the growth of summer; there were seals on the rocks, and a host of seabirds wheeling and shrieking, too many to let the hawks off their leashes. Uhtred would remember that day as beautiful and perhaps it was. The sun shone, the seas were low, the breakers gentle, and the world happy. The Targaryens and their mad king were several years gone, a Baratheon was king and the Starks still ruled in Winterfell. And yet there was uneasiness in the North’s western coast because Baldon Greyjoy had recently declared himself king of the Iron Islands. Uhtred could remember his hawk’s claws gripping his wrist through his leather sleeve, her hooded head twitching because she could hear the cries of the white birds. They had not ridden that day to hunt, but rather so that his father could make up his mind. He was always in need of making up his mind about one thing or another.
It was on that particular day that he saw them. Three ships. In Uhtred’s memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is often a faulty thing and his other rememberings of that day were of a clear, cloudless sky. So perhaps there was no mist, but it seemed to him that one moment the sea was empty and then next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things, appearing weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and young Uhtred, then still Osbert, had stared entranced.
“And may the sea swallow them,” his uncle cursed. His name was Ælfric and he was a slender man, sly, dark and secretive. Both Bebban brothers had tempers, but Ælfric did not rage like Uhtred’s father, but instead quietly seethed.
The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when the Bebban men turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that their horses’ manes tossed like windblown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with them. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf they rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there they galloped along the coastal path to their castle. To Bebbanburg.
Bebba had been a queen in their land many, many years before and she had given her name to their house and to their home. She had ruled this land long before the Age of Heroes when Brandon the Builder had ended the rule of the Warg King, stealing his daughters and killing all his sons, bar one. Uneasiness had lingered between the houses of Stark and Bebban for many years thereafter. The Kings of Winter had granted them one mercy, the life of the Warg King’s infant son, fostered amongst the Starks and made to obey them.
Once a castle to kings, Bebbanburg is the dearest place in all the world to those who live there. A mighty fortress that stands on a high rock that curls out to sea. Where waves beat on the western shore and break white on the rock’s northern point, and a shallow sea lake ripples along the western side between the fortress and the land. To reach Bebbanburg, you must take the causeway to the south, a low strip of rock and sand that is guarded by a great wooden tower, the Low Gate, which is built on top of an earthen wall.
That fateful day the Bebbans thundered through the tower’s arch, their horses white with sweat, and rode past the granaries, the smithy, the mews, and the stables, all wooden and stone buildings well thatched with rye straw, and so up to the inner path to the High Gate, which protected the peak of the rock that was surrounded by a stone rampart encircling the Great Hall. There they dismounted, letting servants take their horses and hawks. The Bebban men then ran to the western rampart and from there they gazed out to sea. They watched the three ships, and Lady Bebban, alarmed by the sound of hooves, came from the hall to join them.
“The Seven preserve us,” Lady Gytha said, squeezing her hands so tight they turned white. Young Uhtred had never known his real mother, for Lady Gytha was his stepmother. His mother, who had been his father’s second wife had, like his first, died in childbirth, so both him and his brother, who were really half brothers, had no mother. Though, in a way, he thought of Gytha as his mother and, on the whole, she was kind to him, kinder indeed than his father, who did not much like children. Gytha wanted him to go to Oldtown to become a maester, saying that his elder brother would inherit the land and lordship so he must find another life path. She had given his father two sons and a daughter, but none had lived beyond a year.
The three ships were coming close now. It seemed they had come to inspect Bebbanburg, which did not worry them for the castle was reckoned impregnable, and so the Ironborn could stare all they wanted.
“They could be Balon’s men or just traders looking for a fight,” his father said, and the Ironborn on the three ships were indeed challenging them by clashing their spears and swords against their painted shields, but there was little they could do against Bebbanburg and nothing the Bebbans could do to hurt them, though his father ordered their banner raised. The flag showed a snarling silver and emerald sea serpent, circling round to bite its own tail against a sea of cobalt blue. This was the sigil of House Bebban, but there was no wind and so the banner hung limp and its defiance was lost on the Ironborn who, after a while, became bored with taunting them, settled their thwarts, and rowed off to the south.
“We must pray,” spoke Uhtred’s stepmother. Lady Gytha was much younger than his father. She was a small, delicate woman, not from the North, with a mass of fair hair and a great reverence for the Seven.
“We must act,” her husband snarled. Lord Bebban turned away from the battlements. “You,” he said to his eldest son. “Take a dozen men, ride south. Watch the Ironborn, but nothing more, you understand? If they land their ships on my ground I want to know where.”
“But don’t fight them,” he ordered. “Just watch the bastards and be back here by nightfall.”
By the morrow’s dusk Lord Bebban expected to have close to three hundred men, some armed with axes, spears, or reaping hooks, while his retainers, those men who lived with them in Bebbanburg, would be equipped with well-made swords and hefty shields. “If the Ironborn are outnumbered,” he told his younger son that night, “they won’t fight. They’re like dogs. Cowards at heart, but they’re given courage by being in a pack.” It was dark and his elder brother had not returned, but no one seemed unduly anxious. This Uhtred was capable, if sometimes reckless, and doubtless he would arrive in the small hours and so their father had ordered a beacon lit in the iron becket on top of the High Gate to guide him home.
That evening the remaining Bebbans sat quietly around the hearth-fire in one of the smaller, more intimate halls of the castle. Woden’s Hall it was called, a later addition to the keep and supposedly named for one of their ancestors. A great hero from the Age of Heroes, Woden the Wise could throw a war spear clear around the moon, his shield could darken the midsummer sky and with his great sword he could reap all the corn in the world with one stroke. It made young Uhtred proud to have such an ancestor.
“Should we not send a raven to Winterfell?” Lady Gytha asked timidly.
“Not yet,” replied her husband, staring deeply into the flames.
“They are sent by the Gods to punish us.”
“Punish us for what?” Lord Bebban demanded savagely, meeting his wife’s eye with a scowl.
“For our sins.”
“Our sins be damned,” he snarled. Lord Bebban was often irritated by his wife’s piety, so at odds with his own allegiance to the Gods of the North.
They fell into silence, continuing to wait in Woden’s Hall. There was no feast that night, just a simple supper of bread, stew and ale. They continued to wait for the eldest son’s return and after a time Lord Bebban wondered aloud if the Ironborn were restless once more, wanting to begin again their raiding of the western coast.
“You think they want to raid Bebbanburg?” Uhtred asked.
“They’ll take anything they can get their hands on,” he replied irritably. Lord Bebban was always irritated by his youngest son’s questions, but that night he was worried and so he talked on. “Our ancestors took this land. They took it and made it and held it. We do not give up what our ancestors gave us. They fought here, and they built here and they’re buried here. This is our land, mixed with our blood, strengthened with our bone. Ours.” He was angry, but then he was often angry. He glowered at his youngest, as if wondering whether he was strong enough to hold this land that their ancestors had won with sword and spear and blood and slaughter.
The family slept after a while, or at least young Uhtred slept. He remembered thinking his father must have paced the ramparts, but by dawn Lord Bebban was back in the Great Hall and it was his youngest son who was woken by the horn at the High Gate and he had stumbled out of his chambers and out into the morning’s first light. He saw his father running down to the Low Gate and he followed him until he could wriggle his way through the men who were crowding onto the earthen rampart to stare along the causeway.
Horsemen were coming from the south. There were a dozen of them, their horses’ hooves sparkling with the morning dew. His brother’s horse was in the lead. It was a brindled stallion, wild-eyed and with a curious gait. It threw its forelegs out as it cantered and no one could mistake that horse, but it was not his brother who rode it. The man astride the saddle wore mail, had a flapping scabbard at his side and an axe slung across one shoulder. Blazoned across his breastplate was the golden kraken of House Greyjoy. His companions were in leather or wool and as they neared the fortress their Greyjoy leader signalled that they should curb their horses as he rode ahead alone. He came within bowshot, though none of the Bebban men on the rampart put an arrow on the string, then he pulled the horse to a stop and looked up at the gate. He stared all along the line of men, a mocking expression on his hard face; he then bowed, threw something on the path, and wheeled the horse away. He kicked his heels and the horse sped back and his ragged men joined him to gallop south.
What he had thrown onto the path was the severed head of Lord Bebban’s eldest son and heir. No one said a word, the shock of it so deep. His head was promptly cleaned, wrapped and prepared for barrow burial. But before that, it was brought to Lord Bebban who stared at it for a long time, but betrayed no feelings. He did not cry, he did not grimace, he did not scowl, he just looked at his eldest son’s head and then he looked at his remaining son, Osbert. “From this day on,” he said, “your name is Uhtred.” And so he has been Uhtred ever since.
It was insisted upon that the new heir be taken to the Godswood immediately. Once there, he was to stand before the heart tree so that his new name could be declared before the Old Gods, or else they would not know who he was when he entered the afterlife with the name Uhtred. After the ceremony was done, Lady Gytha took him in her arms and wept for him, though he did not know why. She might have done better to weep for his brother. For it was not long before they found out the truth of what had happened.
Three Ironborn ships had put into the mouth of one of the many hidden coves surrounding Sea Dragon Point where there was a small settlement of fishermen and their families. Those folk had prudently fled inland, though a handful stayed and watched the mouth of the cove from the woods on higher ground and they said that Uhtred’s brother had come at nightfall and seen the Ironborn ransacking and torching their houses. There had seemed very few of them in the settlement, most were on their ships and his brother decided to ride down to the cottages and kill those few, but of course it was a trap. The Ironborn had seen his horsemen coming and had hidden a ship’s crew north of the village, and those forty men closed behind his brother’s party and killed them all. His father claimed his eldest son’s death must have been quick, which was a consolation to him, but of course it was not a quick death for he lived long enough for the Ironborn to discover who he was, or else why would they have brought his head back to Bebbanburg? The fishermen said they tried to warn his brother, but Uhtred doubted they did. Men say such things so that they are not blamed for disaster, but whether his brother was warned or not, he still died and the Ironborn took thirteen fine swords, thirteen good horses, a coat of mail, a helmet, and Osbert’s name.
But that was not the end of it, but a week after Uhtred’s brother’s death the Bebbans heard that a the band of Ironborn had set fire to the Lannister fleet at anchor in Lannisport. Pockets of raiders began terrorising and pillaging all along the western coast, thus coming ever closer to Sea Dragon Point and to Bebbanburg. They had scouted their location. So they would surely come. Ravens were sent back and forth between Bebbanburg and Winterfell, condolences offered and swiftly accepted, until the summons came from Lord Stark that he would be marching south and would require Lord Bebban’s men in the battle that would surely come. A rising taste for bloodshed was blustered by news of a defeat for the rebels at Seagard, with Lord Greyjoy’s heir being killed in the Ironborn’s failed assault. Uhtred remembered his father’s words that the Ironborn took their courage from numbers, numbers that were swiftly dwindling under the might of the Iron Throne. When word came that King Robert and his warden of the North planned to siege the Iron Islands, to his joy, Uhtred’s father decreed that he would sail south with him.
“He is too young,” Lady Gytha protested.
“He is almost eleven,” his father said, “and he must learn to fight.”
“He would be better served by continuing his lessons.”
“A dead reader is no use to Bebbanburg,” was his father’s thunderous reply, “and Uhtred is now the heir so he must learn to fight.”
Lord Stannis, the King’s brother and Master of Ships, would sail his fleet north along the Sunset Sea, with the aim of smashing the Iron Fleet led by Victarion Greyjoy. The Bebban fleet would thus sail south, delivering the Northern force to the island of Pyke to lay siege to the Greyjoy stronghold. King Robert and Lord Stark would be coming to Bebbanburg to join forces and strong up their numbers, gaining Tallhart and Glover men as they journeyed west from Winterfell. The night before their expected arrival, Lord Bebban dictated to their maester, a studious man named Beocca, a new will in which he said that if he died then Bebbanburg would belong to his son Uhtred, and that he would be lord, and all the folk west of the Wolfwood to the summit of Sea Dragon Point would swear allegiance to him. “We were kings here once,” his father told him amidst the flickering candles of his solar. Lord Bebban then pressed his seal into the red wax of the parchment, leaving the circular impression of a writhing sea serpent.
“We should be kings again,” Ælfric, his uncle, said.
“Aye, kings like Balon Greyjoy wishes to be king?” he gave his brother a dismissive scowl. “It doesn’t matter what they call us,” Uhtred’s father continued curtly, “so long as they obey us.” Then he made his brother swear that he would respect the new will and acknowledge his remaining son as Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Ælfric did so swear. “But it won’t happen,” Lord Bebban said. “We shall slaughter these Ironborn like sheep in a fold, and I shall ride back here in victory and honour.”
Ælfric and a sizeable guard would stay at Bebbanburg to protect the fortress, as well as the merchants and fisherfolk of the neighbouring settlements and port town of Whale’s Way, from incoming raiders. Ælfric gave Uhtred gifts that night; a leather coat that would protect against a sword cut and, best of all, a helmet around which the castle’s smith had fashioned a band of gilt bronze. “So they will know you are a prince,” his uncle said.
“He’s not a prince,” his father interjected harshly, “but a lord’s heir.” Yet he was pleased with his brother’s gifts to Uhtred and added two of his own, a short sword and a horse. The sword was an old blade, cut down, with a leather scabbard lined with fleece. It had a chunky hilt, was clumsy, yet that night Uhtred slept with the blade beneath his pillow.
The next morning, as his stepmother wept on the ramparts of the Low Gate, under a blue, clean sky, they made for war, loading themselves onto ships, ready to set sail for Pyke, beneath the banners of snarling wolves, fearsome sea serpents and raging stags. That was the year 289, and it was the first time Uhtred ever went to war. And not the last.
“You will not fight in the shield wall,” his father said to him as they stood together upon the prow of Lord Bebban’s flagship, Black Bebba.
“Only men can stand in the shield wall,” he said, “but you will watch, you will learn, and you will discover that the most dangerous stroke is not the sword or axe that you can see, but the one you cannot see, the blade that comes beneath the shields to bite at your ankles.”
His father grudgingly gave him many other words of advice as they sailed south. Maester Beocca also sailed with them. His father did not much like the man, but nevertheless valued his wisdom and role as his son’s caretaker. Indeed, Beocca was very clever and kind to him, though Uhtred did not appreciate these qualities then, instead resenting that he gave him lessons. But Beocca was ever patient, even though his charge was an unfailingly restless child, resisting his education, preferring to play with battle armour or the harp.
One night, within the finest quarters of the ship where the King and his chief advisors’ supper had been held, Lord Bebban had stared balefully across the long table where the men were drinking, to stare at his son who that night had been permitted to join them. “Do you know who wins battles, boy?”
“We do, Father.”
King Robert laughed uproariously at that and slammed down a meaty fist hard upon the table in agreement, disturbing nearby tankards that subsequently sloshed and spilled their ale. The other lords and soldiers of higher rank did not pay their king or his father any mind and continued on drinking. But Lord Stark, who had been mostly silent throughout the night, turned to better regard Lord Bebban’s young son. Uhtred knew the Lord of Winterfell disapproved of his presence, not just at the King’s table, but also in the war in general. Uhtred was small and stealthy and so could creep up upon a conversation unnoticed, and this he would often do just as a form of amusement to while away the time spent of upon choppy waves before the battle truly began. It was during one of these instances of eavesdropping that he overheard Lord Stark questioning his father’s decision to bring him south: “He is just a boy, my friend. A child,” the Quiet Wolf had said. Lord Stark did not laugh and nor did he down more ale like his king, instead he just looked at Uhtred with that long and sombre face, grey eyes turning suddenly sad.
“The side that is least drunk,” came his father’s eventual reply, and then, after a pause, “but it helps to be drunk.”
“Because a shield wall is an awful place.” He gazed into his tankard. “I have been in my fair share of shield walls,” he went on, “and prayed every time it would be the last. Your brother, now, he was a man who might have loved the shield wall. He had courage.” He fell silent, thinking, then scowled. “The man who brought his head. I want his head. I want to spit into his dead eyes, then put his skull on a pole upon the Low Gate for all to see.”
“You will have it,” Uhtred said earnestly.
His father sneered at that. “What do you know? I brought you, boy, because you must see battle. Because our men must see that you are here. But you will not fight. You’re like a young dog who watches the old dogs kill the boar, but doesn’t bite. Watch and learn, watch and learn and maybe one day you’ll be useful. But for now you’re nothing but a pup.” He dismissed his son with a wave.
Uhtred felt the sting of shameful tears prick his eyes. He could not please his father; every word he uttered seemed destined to be poorly chosen. He was not his brother, he had his name but that was all. Conversation and drinking continued on around him, but Uhtred stayed rooted to his seat, unsure whether to leave as perhaps his father wished, or to stay and defy him, for if he went surely all would know him for what he was: a weeping child. He could have borne his father’s berating better had they been alone, though at least he could take comfort in the fact that King Robert had been too in his cups to really take notice. But Lord Stark had heard. Lord Stark with his disapproving, pitying looks. Uhtred stared at the wooden table, traced its grain with his fingertip until he felt a hand fall upon his shoulder.
“I am in need of a walk on deck, will you come?” murmured Lord Stark, his voice barely audible above the din of clanking tankards and battle boasting. Uhtred nodded and rose from his seat to follow, intrigued by his liege lord’s request. He did not look back at his father as they left the dining quarters, but he felt the glare of his eyes on him nonetheless.
A few lanterns cast fiery light across the ship’s deck, mingling with the softer glow of the moonlight shining out from a cloudless sky of starry black. Uhtred walked behind Lord Stark, staring up at the long line of his back, up to his dark head of mid-length hair that was partially tied up with a thin leather cord. Lord Stark seemed to him stoic and calm where his father was erratic and tempestuous, yet both men had a certain quiet wildness about them, something of the North deep within their bones that made the defence of that land not just a duty but also an honour.
“Come, walk beside me, Uhtred,” he said, turning slightly to look at him over his shoulder. They were not quite alone, as several men stood on lookout, their faces half in shadow, half illuminated by the light of the lanterns. He joined Lord Stark’s side and the older man’s grey eyes glanced at him briefly, though he kept his head mostly forward facing. “Uhtred, son of Uhtred,” he said softly, mouth twitching up into a slight, wry smile. “Your father is a hard man, but I believe he is a good one.”
“I know it, Lord.”
“My father was also a hard man,” he gave Uhtred that sad, knowing look again; the one he always seemed to wear. “Ambitious in many ways, and I know that in my brother, Brandon, he saw the perfect heir.” They had walked now to the prow of the ship, the stationed soldiers they passed bowing their heads in respect to Lord Stark as they passed. “I never expected to be lord, as I am sure you did not.” He turned to face his young companion. “At times you may feel ill prepared for the duties you must face, but it is often the weight of a man’s doubts that forces him strive for better. To be better. Do you understand?”
“I understand, Lord.”
“Aye, there’s a good lad,” he said, as his hand came down to pat Uhtred’s shoulder. Then his sombre mood seemed to lift and he grinned down at him. “You’ll be as tall as your father one day I’ll bet.”
“I hope so, Lord.”
“Lord,” he said the word derisively, with a shake of his head. “I’d rather you call me Ned, though I suppose there’s no escaping Lord Stark when your father and the King are about.” The older man stared out across the Sunset Sea, lost in thought for a moment before glancing back at the wide-eyed boy before him. “You know you have a friend in me, don’t you lad?”
“Yes.” Uhtred smiled warmly. “Thank you, Lord, I—I mean, Ned.”
Ned laughed, his hand squeezing Uhtred’s shoulder fondly. “Winterfell is not so very far from Bebbanburg, you know, and I have two boys, younger than you, but good lads.”
“What are their names?”
“Not Ned, son of Ned, I’m afraid. Jon and Robb. I’ve a daughter too, Sansa, and another babe on the way.”
“I had two other brothers once, Alred and Symeon, and a sister, Fina, but none of them lived long. They died as babies.”
“I am sorry. Truly. Your stepmother is a gentle lady, it must have been very hard on her.”
They fell into silence, with only the sound of the sea lapping at the side of the ship to fill the emptiness. Ned’s hand felt heavy on his shoulder, but he did not wish for him to remove it just yet. He couldn’t remember the last time his own father had shown him such simple affection.
“Come now, where’s that maester of yours?” Ned spoke after a while, “I saw him emptying his stomach for the umpteenth time earlier, poor man.”
“Beocca does not care for the sea,” Uhtred replied with a yawn as Ned steered him by the shoulder towards the doors leading to the hull of the ship and the finer quarters. Ned hummed in agreement, still close by his side.
“I must return to the King and your father.”
The boy nodded.
“Uhtred…if anything happens,” he was being deliberately vague, “know that you are always welcome at Winterfell.” And then he left him, calling over his shoulder as he went, to “go find Beocca.” And so Uhtred did.