Actions

Work Header

The Return of the King

Chapter Text

The Kingsmen

The man on the roof was the first to die. He was crouched down by the chimney two hundred yards away, no more than a vague shadow in the evening gloom, but as the sky began to darken he stirred, stretched, and stood. Anguy's arrow took him in the chest. He tumbled bonelessly down the steep slate pitch, and fell in front of the wooden door of the holdfast.

The dragon guards had posted two guards there, but their torch left them night blind, and they had crept in close in the blanket of night. Kyle and Notch let fly together. One man went down with an arrow through his throat, the other through his belly. The second man dropped the torch, and the flames licked up at him. He screamed as his clothes took fire, and that was the end of stealth. Thoros gave a shout, and the brotherhood attacked in earnest.

Edric watched everything from his horse beside Lord Beric, from the crest of the wooded ridge that overlooked the wooden holdfast, mill, bakery, and stables and the desolation of weeds, burnt trees, and mud that surrounded them. The trees were mostly bare now, and the few withered brown leaves that still clung to the branches did little to obstruct his view. Lord Beric had left Beardless Dick and Mudge to guard their back and Edric saw their rear guard getting ready for battle behind them swords in the air.

The western horizon glowed gold and pink, and overhead a half moon peeked out through low scuttling clouds. The wind blew cold, and Edric could hear the rush of water and the creak of the mill's great wooden water wheel through the raging battle. There was a smell of rain in the dawn air, but no drops were falling yet. Flaming arrows flew through the evening mists, trailing pale ribbons of fire, and thudded into the wooden walls of the holdfast. A few smashed through shuttered windows, and soon enough thin tendrils of smoke were rising between the broken shutters.

Two guardsmen came bursting from the holdfast side by side, axes in their hands. Anguy and the other archers were waiting from them in the trees. One axeman died at once. The other managed to duck, so the shaft ripped through his shoulder. He staggered on, till two more arrows found him, so quickly it was hard to say which had struck first. The long shafts punched through his breastplate as if it had been made of silk instead of steel. He fell heavily. Anguy had arrows tipped with bodkins as well as broadheads. A bodkin could pierce even heavy plate. Edric was a decent marksman though compared to Anguy it was like comparing a dwarf to the giant. It had been the sword he favored like all the other knights of his House.

Flames were creeping up the west wall of the holdfast, and thick smoke poured through a broken window. A black cloaked crossbowman poked his head out a different window, got off a bolt, and ducked down to rewind. He could hear fighting from the stables as well, shouts well mingled with the screams of horses and the clang of steel. We have to kill them all, he thought fiercely. Kill every single one. Avenge the Starfall massacre, avenge his aunt, avenge his uncles, kill everyone to avenge them.

The crossbowman appeared again, but no sooner had he loosed than three arrows hissed past his head. One rattled off his helm. He vanished, bow and all. He could see flames in several of the second-story windows. Between the smoke and the mists, the air was a haze of blowing black and white. Anguy and the other bowmen were creeping closer, the better to find targets.

Then the holdfast erupted, the Targaryen guards boiling out like angry ants. Two men rushed through the door with the three headed dragon shields held high before them, and behind them came a knight in full armor with a greatsword and a shield with two great curved fangs painted upon it in black, and behind him three more guards came covered in black chainmail. Others were climbing out windows and leaping to the ground. Edric saw a man take an arrow through the chest with one leg across a windowsill, and heard his scream as he fell. The smoke was thickening. Quarrels and arrows sped back and forth. Watty fell with a grunt, his bow slipping from his hand. Kyle was trying to nock another shaft to his string when a man in black mail flung a spear through his belly. "The time has come," Lord Beric shouted to the men behind him. "Now." 

He charged his horse through the trees. Edric and the others followed him out of the ditches and trees. When the rest of their band came pouring, steel in hand Edric knew that the Crownlanders were overwhelmed. Lem's bright yellow cloak flapped behind him as he rode down the man who'd killed Kyle. Edric followed Lord Beric closely. Thoros and Lord Beric circled around the holdfast, their swords swirling fire. The red priest hacked at a hide shield until it flew to pieces, while his horse kicked the man in the face. Edric slashed his sword at a man in chainmail and found his sword crunching the ribs of the man through the chainmail. The knight with the fangs in his shield charged the lightning lord, and the flaming sword leapt out to meet his greatsword. The blades kissed and spun and kissed again. Lord Beric knocked the knight off of his saddle. His white shield was burning, the white paint turning dark as the fangs in it. Lord Beric stopped his horse and went to meet him on foot. Edric ran his horse through a man who was coming for the Lightning Lord and cut him down. The knight dropped his burning shield and raised his sword in the air with both hands. He charged at Lord Beric. Edric went to meet him with his horse but Thoros stopped him with a hand on his reins. The red priest smirked at the and halted him to see the fight. 

The knight was swinging his greatsword at Lord Beric savagely but lord Beric kept his cuts at bay with his flaming sword. He stopped a brutal backhand swing to his head and punched the knight's helmet with his mailed fist. The knight's helmet flew off and it only made him madder. His sandy brown hair was matted with blood and sweat. 

"Darkfang," Thoros muttered beside him. Darkfang slashed at Lord Beric's head, chest and eye and managed to scrape his breastplate and helmet. His thrust at Lord Beric's eye was so strong that it would've buried the entire greatsword in his skull if Lord Beric had not moved aside in time. Darkfang was a skilled fighter, Edric could see that in the way he fought. He was cunning and cruel. Lord Beric stayed away from Darkfang's greatsword and hit his flaming sword at the knight whenever he can. With every hit of the flaming sword Darkfang lost his cool and rushed for Lord Beric. The lightning lord parried a swing at his neck and a slash at his abdomen and when Darkfang brought him greatsword in a massive swing at his head, Lord Beric ducked under his sword and rolled through to stuck his flaming sword in Darkfang's thigh right above the knee through opening in the plate on his thigh and his greeves. Darkfang dropped his sword and fell to his knee as Lord Beric stood up.

The battle did not last very long after that. The dark cloaks still on their feet soon died, or threw down their swords. Two of the guardsmen managed to regain their horses and flee, but only because Lord Beric let them go. "Let them carry the word back to Winterfell," he said, with flaming sword in hand. "It will give the boy prince and his dragon band a few more sleepless nights. If anything the boy might do something stupid and rush straight into our trap."

Jack-Be-Lucky, Harwin, and Merrit o' Moontown braved the burning holdfast to search for captives. They emerged from the smoke and flames a few moments later with eight smallfolk, and a child with a broken limb so bad that Merrit had to carry him across a shoulder. There were four men and four women. Only two men and two women were the adults and the rest were only boys and girls.

"You foul band of rougues," said Darkfang from his knees, coughing up blood. "King Rhaegar will hear of it. That will be the end of you."

Thoros smiled at him. "And this is yours Darkfang."

Darkfang spat. "Do you think I fear death?" he asked. "Go on, kill me and you'll find your answer."

"You'll die if that's what you wish," said Lord Beric. "But not before a trial."

Lord Beric slammed his sword into its scabbard, quenching the flames. "Give the dying the gift of mercy and bind the others hand and foot for trial," he commanded, and it was done.

The trials went swiftly. All of the smallfolk there came forward to tell of things the Targaryen men had done; towns and villages sacked, crops burned, women raped and murdered, men maimed and tortured. There were many villagers hiding in the houses around the holdfast and all of them came as they saw the holdfast burning.

The offenders soon dangled beneath a tall oak, swinging slowly by the neck. One by one all of them were hanged except for Darkfang. A few fought, kicking and struggling as the noose was tightened round their throats. One of the crossbowmen kept shouting, "I was just a soldier following orders." Another offered to lead them to gold; a third told them what a good outlaw he would make. Each was bound and hanged in turn. Tom Sevenstrings played a dirge for them on his woodharp, and Thoros implored the Lord of Light to roast their souls until the end of time.

A dead tree, Edric thought as he watched them dangle, their faces turned purple. Already the crows were coming, appearing out of nowhere. He heard them croaking and cackling at one another, and wondered what they were saying. It almost made him happy to see some dark cloaks dangling from the tree. Aunt Ashara and King Eddard would be avenged soon.

The holdfast soon collapsed in a roar of smoke and flame, its walls no longer able to support the weight of its heavy slate roof. The smallfolk watched with a hint of happiness in their face. "When King Eddard ruled here, this was a prosperous place. We had a dozen milk cows and a bull, a bakery and a mill. But when the dragons came through they killed our lord took all our wine and milk and honey, slaughtered the cows, and put our bakery to the torch. After that . . . our numbers were only reducing."

"How did the eight of you survive in that holdfast?" asked Anguy the Archer.

"They needed someone to do their works," one of the men said. "Someone to cook their foods and clean their things."

They sheltered that night in the mill beside the little river. Their enemies had a fresh supply of food brought from the Crownlands, so they shared a good supper; fresh bread, onions, oaten biscuits and a fine soup with chunks of meat in it. Lord Beric slipped a piece of meat into Edric's bowl. When Edric looked at him the lightning lord was continuing with his soup as if nothing had happened. He put the meat in his mouth and bit into it. It crunched and was rich in the flavor of the soup. 

The smallfolk never asked their names. Everyone in the north knew them, Edric thought. How could they not? Lord Beric wore the lightning bolt on breastplate, shield, and cloak, and Thoros his red robes, or what remained of them. The Wolfswood Brotherhood, a ragged band of rogues of the Outlaw King. But it was the Kingsmen they called themselves, fighting for the good and justice in their King's name.

Lord Beric did not eat his bread and oaten biscuits. He never ate anything more often but only took a cup of wine or ale or a good hot bowl of soup. He was still clad in his ratty black cloak and dented breastplate with its chipped enamel lightning. He even slept in that breastplate. A thick woolen scarf was wound up around his neck concealing the dark ring about his throat. A black patch always covered his missing eye.

Of all of the Kingsmen it was Lord Beric everyone in the north seemed to fear the most. He had defied death more than once. Arrow through the eye, Bolton's noose around his neck and everytime he defied death again and again.

Once Edric had been afraid for him. The man was betrothed to his aunt Allyria and took him as his squire. But ever after they came to the north all he had ever done was cheating death with the help of Thoros. The red priest was a fabulous healer. There was no better healer.

Edric had been fighting with them for six years now. When his father died with full of guilt for what happened to his sister and her family, Edric had followed Lord Beric to the north to wipe up all the blood which stained the pale marble walls of Starfall. Never once had he regretted the life he chose. He will do his duty as the Lord of Starfall when the time comes for it until then he is a Kingsman.

It was raining when Lem returned to the mill, muttering curses as water ran off his yellow cloak to puddle on the floor. Lord Beric had chained Darkfang to the oak from where his men hung and Lem was the first one to take guard. Anguy and Jack-Be-Lucky sat by the door rolling dice, but no matter which game they played one-eyed Jack had no luck at all. Tom Sevenstrings replaced a string on his woodharp, and sang "The Mother's Tears," "When Willum's Wife Was Wet," "Lord Harte Rode Out on a Rainy Day," and then "The Rains of Castamere."

And who are you, the proud lord said,

that I must bow so low?

Only a cat of a different coat,

that's all the truth I know

In a coat of gold or a coat of red,

a lion still has claws,

And mine are long and sharp, my lord,

as long and sharp as yours.

And so he spoke, and so he spoke,

that lord of Castamere,

But now the rains weep o'er his hall,

with no one there to hear.

Yes now the rains weep o'er his hall,

and not a soul to hear.

Finally Tom ran out of rain songs and put away his harp. Then there was only the sound of the rain itself beating down on the slate roof of the mill. The dice game ended, and Edric went to sleep. 

It was Thoros who woke him up in the morning. They had planned to set back at first light. Wyatt and Merrit were putting a bounded Darkfang onto a horse as he came out. When everyone arrived and mounted their horses, Lord Beric gave the command for them to go. Lem and Pate were tasked to keep watch on Darkfang. They rode beside Darkfang on either side and the others fell in before and after them. 

They came to their secret base before midday. A huge firepit had been dug in the center of the earthen floor, and its flames rose swirling and crackling toward the smoke-stained ceiling. The walls were equal parts of stone and soil. People were coming from between the stones; edging out from the shadows for a look at the captive, stepping from the mouths of pitch-black tunnels, popping out of crannies and crevices on all sides.

This has been their hideout for years now. An old place, deep and secret. A refuge where no one came to find. Lem and Greenbeard came in with Darkfang, shoving their captive down into the light of the fire.

They had bound Darkfang's wrists with hempen rope, strung a noose around his neck, and pulled a sack down over his head, but even so there was danger in the man.

Thoros turned to the prisoner and yanked his hood off. "Welcome to our humble hall, Darkfang."

Darkfang's mouth twitched. "This is where you lot have been hiding," he said to Thoros. "It is only a matter of time before they find it and burn this place to ash. And you and your silly company will burn along with it priest."

"These are my brothers," Thoros said simply. "And I've seen much and more in my flames and I saw no one burning."

"How long have you been hiding in this hole?" Darkfang asked. "Does the Prince know you're here? I hope not. But soon he will though and when he does he will come here with his dragon. That's why you've been hiding here, aren't you?"

Anguy bristled at the suggestion of cowardice. "Ask your Prince if we've hidden, Darkfang. Ask the lord of leeches. We've bloodied them all."

"You lot? Don't make me laugh. You look more swineherds than soldiers."

"Some of us was swineherds," said Pate. "And some was tanners or singers or masons. But that was before the war came."

"When we left our old life we were men of Winterfell and men of Marches and men of Blackhaven, Stark men and Dondarrion men. We were knights and squires and men-at-arms, lords and commoners, bound together only by our purpose." The voice came from the Wanderer seated amongst the nest of roots halfway up the wall. "Justice and righteousness are hard to find in this world right now." He was descending the tangle of steps toward the floor. "Someone has to fight for them else they will be completely wiped off from the face of this world." A scarecrow of a man, he wore a ragged white cloak sporting a dirty grey wolf of the Starks. A thicket of grey hair peppered with white covered his long face lined with age. "And we will fight for them as long as we live to keep justice and right in the memory of men. We fight on as best we can, for Eddard and the realm."

"Rodrik," Darkfang said in a unbelievable tone.

The Wandering wolf paid him no mind. "You will die soon enough, Darkfang," he promised, "but it shan't be murder, only justice."

"Aye," said Greenbeard, "and a kinder fate than you deserve for all your kind have done. We know what you do to people who don't bend to you, people who defy you. At Torrhen's Square and Stoney Shore, girls of six and seven years were raped, and babes still on the breast were cut in two while their mothers watched. And none has forgotten what happened at Starfall."

"There has been a good number of mistakes you've done, Darkfang," Lord Beric said. "The crimes of you and your kind have commited are uncountable." 

Rodrik Stark turned back to Darkfang. "You stand accused of murder and torturing of the smallfolk, Derek Darkfang. In the name of King Eddard of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and King in the North, I, Rodrik Stark sentence you to die."

They hanged the man far away from Ghosthall to lead the men away from their hideout. Worrick and Jenton took Darkfang away to do the execution.

"The others?" Rodrik Stark asked when Darkfang was gone.

"Tried and executed," Lord Beric replied. "We've taken their food and loot and weapons they brought from King's Landing."

"Good," the Wandering Wolf said. "Keep harassing their supplies and men, Dondarrion. The boy might rush out in a made rage and fall in our trap. With the dragon gone we can easily rouse up the north to fight in Eddard's name. It shouldn't take long. Winter is coming"

Chapter Text

Andrew

He woke up when the sun was well up in the sky. Andrew had spent most of his time in the Fair Maiden by sleeping. His meals would come to him in his cabin, some bread and curry or a broth of some kind. Sometimes he went to the deck to speak with the captain or anyone from the crew. He helped them to tie lines and change sails but he saw Joy in everything he did. 

He saw her sweet smile and her beauty. I loved a maid as fair as summer, with sunlight in her hair. Even sleeping had done him no good. He saw her in his dreams along with mother and father. 

The captain had provided him with the finest cabin and all sorts of luxuries. A feather bed for him to sleep, the finest of his foods and wine and even a supply of clean water. Atleast he provided enough for the silver Andrew had given him. He washed away the sleep from his face with a bucket of clear cold water. 

His blades were there were he had left them before he had gone to sleep. Frost and the bracers were on the table of his room. Andrew had no use for them in the ship, he had learned that as soon as he got onto it. Everyone in the Fair Maiden had been warm to him. From the captain to the scrubber on the decks. He learned new methods to tie easy knots and to raise sails from the crew, taught them the methods he knew. At night the sailors would have some sort of gathering on the deck and sing songs from lands far away. Andrew would join them in the deck some nights but he would leave to his cabin before everyone else does. 

When they had reached the Bite, Captain Moreo Tumites had commanded his men to be alert all the time and be ready for all dangers. Andrew knew that the waters of the Bite was infested with pirates and there were ships taken by the pirates in the Bite. The pirates were only the start of it. The Bite can be dangerous at every seasons around. There were scores of ships which lost in the raging waters never to be seen again. He had worn Frost along his back till the Fair Maiden crossed the Bite. It took a minor hit from the sea and the storms but the ship managed to cross it without any casualties. 

He left Frost on the table but took his bracer in his hand. It was a deadly little thing. No one knew that a common bracer could bring death so swift and sudden. But his bracers had a concealable weapon that was composed of a narrow blade set into a channel on the underside of the bracers below the straps. Controlled by spring-loaded mechanism, the blade can spontaneously extend and retract from its position. He had put on a pressure switch inside the bracers so that he could easily trigger the blade with a flex of his wrist. The blades could be launched with the flex of his wrist and could be retracted with the release of it. Andrew had designed the blades himself along with the help of a master armorer from Braavos. 

He had mostly used them for the means of enacting assassinations rather than for straight up combat. Consisting of a blade that can be discreetly extended or retracted from his bracer, the Hidden Blade's portability and concealability complemented his affinity for stealth and freerunning. It allowed him to eliminate a target while drawing virtually no attention to him, and the techniques developed for its use often ensure near instantaneous death.

He had killed many men with just the help of the blades. He had never seen a weapon more lethal than his hidden blades. There has been times where he had scaled the palaces of Braavos to take out murderers in their beds and there were times where he had opened the throats of monsters in the center of a market amidst a large crowd of people with none seeing him or his victim until the man dropped dead on the floor with the use of his hidden blades. 

It has been long since he had used those deadly blades. He had not used them nor had planned to use them after he met Joy. It hurt to think about her. The wound was still so fresh to forget it soon. He doubted if he could ever forget it or feel love in his life again. All his loved ones from his life had left from this word, leaving him alone. His father had always said that, When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. For once Andrew found that even his father could be wrong at times. He was wrong in it. He had said that the pack survives and the lone wolf dies yet it was the pack which died when the hardest time came and he, the lone wolf somehow managed to live through all the hardships. 

Andrew strapped the bracers on with the hidden blades facing the inside of his forearm and pulled on his jacket to conceal it under his sleeves. He left Frost on the table and went to the deck. They should reach White Harbor soon enough. 

When he came up to the deck, the crew was busy, running around with ropes and other things in hand. "Snow," Captain Moreo called for him from the prow. "We're approaching White Harbor." 

Andrew walked over to him and joined him at the prow. The bronze figurehead at the bow of the Fair Maiden sent up wings of salt spray as it cut the waves. He leaned his weight against the rail, grateful for its support.

As he listened to the slashing of the sea water, the thrum of the sail, and the rhythmic swish and creak of the oars, he thought back to his younger days, when he had seen a ship for the first time. He had been no more than five then, when he visited White Harbor with his father and mother. Lord Manderly had proudly shown them the fleet he had made for his father. The Lady of Stars was the first ship he had ever stepped on, a huge galley with a gilded head of a beautiful woman with amethysts for her eyes at the bow. It had been named for his mother. The Quiet Wolf, another huge galley that had been named for his father. He wondered what had happened to them. Has the Targaryens burned them with their dragons?

He had never known why the ships were made for then. That little boy had thought ships were used only to run around the seas. He had never known that they were war galleys built to keep their seas safe from the enemy fleet. If Rhaegar was any wise he would have taken the galleys and the fleet for himself. Even though Andrew knew nothing of the galleys when the time he saw them, he remembered them as huge and formidable vessels that could cast fear to the hearts of the hardest of the sailors.

Captain Moreo had told him some of the things he knew about Westeros, and his crew had known many rumors of that as well. The trade from the north had been stopped by the current lord of Winterfell, Jaehaerys Targaryen. Andrew had been shocked to hear about that first. It was foolish of Rhaegar to send his son to the north. When his father had ruled from Winterfell none from the south dared to enter the north through any means but for the king's oldest friends and the queen's family. Rhaegar and his family had stayed in their Red Keep and never even crossed past the borders of the Reach. Thrice the dragon king tried to invade the north and everytime his father had chased him back to his castle. He was shocked to hear that Rhaegar sent his son to the north but then it made sense. His cousin had brought a dragon with him to Winterfell to show fear in the minds of the people. 

Fear, that was what the technique the Targaryens used to keep the people in check. But it was not the way he was raised. Eddard Stark had been the king in the north not the king of the north. His father had told him that it is the people of the north which comes before the place itself. The north is not just a place, it's the people, his father had told him as he was telling him some war story. His mother had given him the same lesson. "No king is made with a crown upon his head, Andrew," she had told him the day they had visited the Winter Town. "If you want to rule them, if you want their help, you have to make them love you." And no one in the north was much loved  by the smallfolk than Queen Ashara. 

Even his uncle Arthur had used the same method to subdue the Kingswood Brotherhood. Andrew had heard that story a hundred times before from his uncle. He paid the smallfolk for the food they had eaten, learned their grievances and helped them, expanded the grazing lands around their villages, won them the right to cut down a certain number of trees each and even got them hunting permits to hunt in the woods. The forest folk had looked to Toyne to defend them but his uncle had done more for them that the Brotherhood could ever hope to do and won them to his side. The story was one of his favorites that he remembered it even now. 

"These are harsh times in Westeros," the captain told him. "There's been talk of war in the air always."

"Why would you risk your ship to get caught in the midst of a war then?" Andrew asked him.

"Damn me and my arrogance, Andrew," Moreo shook his head. "I got an offer no one can deny. But I hope to return back before anything happen, as soon as I finish my work."

"Trading?" asked Andrew, looking at the vastness of the sea.

"Aye," the stout man said. "Speaking of which, why do you want to go to Westeros?"

Andrew had many answers for that question but was not so sure as to which is the right one. Vengeance? Anger? Rage? Justice? Right? He could answer more but none felt correct. "I have an unfinished business left in Westeros," he answered at last.

"Hmm. If I were you I would finish my business and leave as soon as I can." The captain laughed. "These are not good times for trading, I must admit. You should've come here in its glory when the Stark king ruled from his throne. White Harbor was the center of the trade in the northern part of the world. The one who rules now has stopped every trade, doubled the taxes and blocked the ships."

"You knew King Eddard?"

Moreo gave Andrew a sharp look. "Aye. Him and his queen. I've seen the prince too. Though he was only a babe at the queen's teat when I saw him." He has seen me but can't recognize me? He would've probably seen a child wrapped in swaddling clothes in his mother's arms, there is no way he could recognize me. "I brought panes of glass from Myr to Winterfell once. Good people, both of them. Received me and my crew to the halls and feasted us amongst them."

It put a smile on his face to learn that they were not forgotten. Maybe the northern lords and people would remember them too.

"Here," Moreo said looking straight. "We're arriving." He turned to face his crew on the deck. "Prepare to shortern the sails, we're arriving." 

It was the Seal Rock he saw first. The sea stone dominated the approaches to the outer harbor, a massive grey-green upthrust looming fifty feet above the waters. Its top was crowned with a circle of weathered stones, a ringfort of the First Men that had stood desolate and abandoned for hundreds of years. His father had fortified it when he became the Lord of Winterfell. Andrew could see scorpions and spitfires behind the standing stones, and crossbowmen peering between them. It must be cold up there, and wet. His father had said that seals could be seen basking on the broken rocks below. That's why it was named as the Seal Rock. But there were no seals to been seen now. There was smoke rising from Seal Rock as well. He wondered if the Targaryens had occupied it as well and the men were all Targaryen men.

The Fair Maiden stole into White Harbor on the evening tide, her dyed sails rippling with every gust of wind. The Fair Maiden was well known in White Harbor. For years she had plied a humble trade between there and the Free Cities. Andrew was relieved that no one would give a second thought on the ship or who it brought.

It was wise that he keep a low profile when he get into the city. He never knew if there was a Targaryen garrison left in the port. Knowing that how important White Harbor was to the north he strongly believed that there would be one. Until he knew how matters stood here, it was more prudent to play the common traveller.

White Harbor's walls of whitewashed stone rose before them, on the eastern shore where the White Knife plunged into the firth. The city's defenses had been strengthened under his father's command. There were not many differences from the last time he visited it with his parents. The jetty that divided the inner and outer harbors had been fortified with a long stone wall, thirty feet tall and almost a mile long, with towers every hundred yards. 

Andrew never had any fond memories about this city. He was but a boy clutching at his mother's skirts the last time he came here. It was the only city he had ever been to. The little boy had awed at the size of it the first time he came to the city. His mother had told him that it was small compared to Oldtown and King's Landing but was clean and well-ordered. His mother had been to both Oldtown and King's Landing. Oldtown was his grandmother's home and King's Landing was where mother lived before she met father. All he remembered of White Harbor is that it had wide straight cobbled streets that made it easy for a man to find his way. And the houses were built of whitewashed stone, with steeply pitched roofs of dark grey slate.

The air was sharp and salty and smelled of sea, but he could smell the peat smoke drifting off Seal Rock too. He wondered if he should go up to the castle and reveal himself to Lord Wyman. Lord Wyman had always been warm to him and always laughing whenever he had seen him. What would he say to him? That he is his rightful king. The son of his king who came back from the dead. Would he even get a chance to speak? Or was Lord Wyman hosting a Targaryen army in his Merman's Court even now? It is wise to stay away from every castles until he reach Winterfell. 

That jetty wall concealed the inner harbor, he saw, as the Fair Maiden was pulling down her sail. The outer harbor was larger, but the inner harbor was sheltered by the city wall on one side and the looming mass of the Wolf's Den on another, and the jetty wall as well. The whole northern fleet was stationed at White Harbor the last time Andrew came here. He wondered if the ships are concealed behind those walls, or have they already been put to torch.

Behind the city's thick white walls, the New Castle rose proud and pale upon its hill. Andrew could see the domed roof of the Sept of the Snows as well, surmounted by tall statues of the Seven. He knew his father's bannermen from his princeling lessons at Winterfell. His father would always tell him that a king should always know his men if he is to lead them one day. The Manderlys had brought the Faith north with them when they were driven from the Reach. White Harbor had its godswood too, a brooding tangle of root and branch and stone locked away behind the crumbling black walls of the Wolf's Den, an ancient fortress that served only as a prison now. But unlike the other castles of the north, the septons ruled here for the most part.

The merman of House Manderly was everywhere in evidence, flying from the towers of the New Castle, above the Seal Gate, and along the city walls. His hopes were undermined when he saw no sign of the direwolf of Stark. Luckily there were no dragons either.

The dockside wharves were swarming. A clutter of small boats were tied up along the fish market, off-loading their catches. He saw three river runners too, long lean boats built tough to brave the swift currents and rocky shoots of the White Knife. But it was his father's fleet he was searching for and he found nothing but a pair of carracks, drab and tattered, sauntering in the waves, a trading galley Storm Dancer, the cogs Brave Magister and Horn of Plenty, a galleas from Braavos marked by her purple hull and sails but there were no warships to be seen, not even the Quiet Wolf and the Lady of Stars. He had wished to see them there but they were not there.

The Fair Maid tied up to the end of a weathered wooden pier in the outer harbor, well away from inside. No doubt Moreo wished to leave soon. As her crew made her fast to the pilings and lowered a gangplank, her captain sauntered up to Andrew.

"This is where I leave you, Andrew Snow," Moreo said, extending Frost to him. "Good luck in your business."

Luck, Andrew thought, I might need it now. He wished for his father and mother and Joy. He wondered if they were with him now. He had seen them the day he met Joy, injured and halfdead. He sighed believing that they were with him.

"Thank you," Andrew told him as he took Frost in his hand.

A pair of customs men were clambering aboard as he went down the gangplank, but neither gave him so much as a glance. They were there to see the captain and inspect the hold; common seamen did not concern them. He kept his face down and moved through the crowd, blending in with them as much as he can. It only took a look for Slynt to tell him he was Eddard Stark's son, claiming as far as that he has his mother's hair. He didn't want to cause a scene like that again.

He made his way along the wharf and through the fish market. The Brave Magister was taking on some mead. The casks stood four high along the pier. Behind one stack he glimpsed three sailors throwing dice. Farther on the fishwives were crying the day's catch, and a boy was beating time on a drum as a shabby old bear danced in a circle for a ring of river runners. Two spearmen had been posted at the Seal Gate, with the badge of House Manderly upon their breasts, but they were too intent on flirting with a dockside whore to pay Andrew any mind. The gate was open, the portcullis raised. He joined the traffic passing through.

Inside was a cobbled square with a fountain at its center. A stone merman rose from its waters, twenty feet tall from tail to crown. His curly beard was green and white with lichen, and one of the prongs of his trident had broken off before Andrew had been born, yet somehow he still managed to impress as he had impressed him years before. Old Fishfoot was what the locals called him. Lord Wyman had told his father that the square was named for some dead lord, but Andrew cannot remember the name. Not that it mattered though, no one ever called it anything but Fishfoot Yard.

The Yard was teeming this afternoon. Beneath the arches of the peddler's colonnade the scribes and money changers had set up for business, along with a hedge wizard, an herb woman, and a very bad juggler. A man was selling apples from a barrow, and a woman was offering herring with chopped onions. Chickens and children were everywhere underfoot. The huge oak-and-iron doors of the Old Mint had been closed when Andrew had seen it the last time, but today they stood open. Inside he glimpsed hundreds of women, children, and old men, huddled on the floor on piles of furs. Some had little cookfires going.

Andrew stopped beneath the colonnade and traded a halfpenny for an apple. "Are people living in the Old Mint?" he asked the apple seller.

"Them as have no other place to live. Smallfolk from up the White Knife, most o' them. Hornwood's people too. With that dragons running loose, they all want to be inside the walls. I don't know what his lordship means to do with all o' them. Most turned up with no more'n the rags on their backs."

Andrew felt a hint of anger in him. They were his people and the Targaryens chase them off from their own place. "How do they eat?"

The apple seller shrugged. "Some beg. Some steal. Lots o' young girls taking up the trade, the way girls always do when it's all they got to sell. Any boy stands five feet tall can find a place in his lordship's barracks, long as he can hold a spear."

Atleast Lord Manderly was doing something. I need a horse, he thought. The sooner he could reach Winterfell, the sooner it would end.

"Where can I buy a horse?"

"Do you see the alley down Old Fishfoot's trident?" Andrew looked the way he pointed and nodded. "There's a stable down that alley past a brothel."

Andrew toosed the half eaten apple away and walked to the alley the man showed. He made his way around Old Fishfoot, past where a young girl was selling cups of fresh milk from her nanny goat.

He strolled across the yard and down a flight of steps. The stables stood well away from the city near to the exit. The floor was covered with straw and there were only the three horses to be seen. It was easy for Andrew to choose one among them, a white palfrey. The other two were in the worst conditions possible with one of them likely blind and the other likely to break a leg in a hard gallop. 

When he gave a gold piece for the horse, the old man in the stables took it from his palm and bit it. "Hm. Real enough, I'd say," he said as Andrew took the reins in his hands. 

He saw a little boy cornered by two big men when he came out. The boy was crying as he backed against a wall until there was no place to back up further. Andrew led the horse to him. 

"Leave him alone," he told the men. 

"Mind yer business, ya bastard," one of them said. "You've no reason to be 'ere." 

"Oh, but I do." When he took Frost from its sheath the men ran away. 

He walked to the boy and knelt beside him. He was clutching a pouch of coppers against his chest. "Th... Thank you," he whispered when he saw Andrew. 

"Are you alright?" He helped the boy to get up from the ground. 

"I am." 

"What is your name?" 

"Gared," the boy answered. He was still wary of him. Andrew could see that in the way he held his pouch. His pouch was not a heavy and bulky thing. It was thin as the boy himself. He took three gold dragons from his pouch and offered it to the boy. He looked at him with wide eyes. 

"Go on, Gared," Andrew told him. "Give it to your mum." 

"My mum is not here," he told him as he took the gold pieces from his hand. "She sent me away from Waterspring."

"Waterspring?" He knew the castle. It was more of a wooden keep than a castle located right where the White Knife broke a tributary to run through south of Winterfell, which began in the southeastern stretch of the Wolfswood and flows southeast to meet the White Knife west of the Sheapshead hills. His father would use Waterspring as a reserves for the fleet. Lord Payton Clearwater had been the Lord of Waterspring the last he knew. 

"Yes," Gared told him. "My dada is there as well. They sent me away when the dark cloaks came." 

The Targaryens. "What of Lord Clearwater?" Andrew asked him. 

"He is dead," Gared told him. "Lady Waterspring and her children are held hostages."

"Didn't Lord Manderly do anything about it?" Waterspring owed its allegiance to White Harbor and to House Manderly as its overlord. It came under Lord Manderly to protect his vassals.

"Ser Wylis is their hostage as well," Gared said. "They have many ships blocking the river." 

It was a sound plan. Taking all the ships and blocking the river with them, cutting down all the transport through the river and keeping the fleet in check. They could move easily to Winterfell through the river if it was needed which could bring in reinforcements too easily. That would do no good. If his plans to take back Winterfell failed the reinforcements would arrive more quickly than he could make a next move. He need to liberate Waterspring from the hands of the Targaryens and its people as well. Lady Clearwater and her children, Ser Wylis and all the others. Winterfell can wait for a few more days but the folks of Waterspring cannot. 

He looked down at Gared. Somehow the boy reminded Andrew of himself. Chased away from parents and home, none should feel the pain of it. "Go home, Gared," Andrew told the boy. "You'll meet your mother and father tomorrow morning at Waterspring."

He got onto his horse and followed along the White Knife up north. Andrew was no stranger to horse riding. He has had many ridings with his parents and his uncles. He kept a fast pace never once slowing down. His palfrey proved itself worthy enough for a gold dragon. It kept on its pace never once stopping or lagging behind. He had hoped to reach Waterspring before nightfall and the sun was still half visible in the western sky when he finally reached it. 

The entire northern fleet was docked at Waterspring all along the White Knife for a good distance. Andrew saw both the Quiet Wolf and the Lady of Stars in them. The huge war galleys were docked near the gates of the castle away from the other ships. It was a sweet sight. There were two guards by the gate, guarding the ships. Four men walked the walls, always circling in a way that each one faced one of the four sides for every rotation. There were no one else to be seen other than them. 

He hoped that the castle won't host too big a garrison. Waterspring was a small castle. It wouldn't hold a big number of men. If he could infiltrate the castle and take the men down the northern fleet will be free and the reinforcements would be done for good. 

The walls of Waterspring were no more than twenty feet high. It shouldn't be too hard to scale them. He took the grappling hook and threw it over the western wall when the guard was a few feet away from the side after a rotation. He tugged it thrice with all his strength to check if the grip was strong. When he was glad with the grip it had on the wall, Andrew climbed up by pulling the rope. He planted his legs firmly in the wood and climbed up. His boots never slipped in the wood and he moved up and up until he reached the top. He waited for the next guard to get to the place where he was. When the guard came near him, suspicious of the hook, Andrew flexed his wrist and thrust the extended blade in his throat. Death came for him swift and smooth and sudden. He pulled the guard from the wall and dropped him down. He heard the soft thud of the body crashing against the ground as he climbed onto the wall. In the cover of the night he hid behind the merlons and approached the next one and the next one and the next one until all four faced the four directions from the ground with their dead eyes. 

There was a commotion going on in the yard when Andrew looked down from the walls. The chained big man with the merman sigil on his surcoat could only be Ser Wylis Manderly. Everyone in Waterspring had gathered in the yard and the remaining Targaryen guards as well. Seven they were, with one of them dressed in the rich garbs of a lordling. Andrew dropped down to the biggest building near the wall and crossed two more stout structures and leaped over to the roof of the armory. He had a good look at all of them from there. Ser Wylis was engaged in a heated argument with them. Andrew waited no more time as he jumped for the commander. He pushed the man down to the ground and buried the hidden blade right through the back of his neck. 

Someone screamed from the crowd and Ser Wylis stumbled upon the ground losing his balance. Andrew unsheathed Frost and attacked the remaining guards before the regained from the shock. He slashed the throat of one and cracked the skull of another. The third guard raised his sword in time to block a swing at his head but he was not so fast to stop the next one which opened his chest. Andrew blocked the overhead swing of the next guard and drove Frost through his eye and left it there as the spearmen at the gate came against him at once. He kicked a spearman away and stepped aside from a thrust and caught the spear. He punched the man's nose and kicked him away from the spear to twirl the weapon in his arm so that the tip was faced at its previous owner and thrust it at his belly. The last guard had taken his sword out of his sheath from the ground but when he saw that the others were dead, he dropped it. 

Andrew dropped the spear at his feet and left him there for the people to decide with his life. Ser Wylis looked up at him from the ground and the smallfolk all looked at him as if they had seen a ghost. Andrew pulled Frost away from the dead man and walked away. 

"King." He heard someone whisper from the crowd.

"Eddard." Someone else said followed by a distant and uncertain, "Stark".

Let them talk, Andrew thought as he walked away. Let them know that the Starks are not gone.

Chapter Text

Rhaegar

They supped alone. It has been weeks since Rhaegar shared a meal with his wife or a talk for that matter.

"The mutton is overcooked," he complained trying to start a conversation.

"Any displeasure I'm feeling has naught to do with mutton," Lyanna told him. She has always been a wild and willful woman but never has he seen her so distraught. The things that happened lately has changed a lot in her, Rhaegar could see it.

A lot of it has displeased the king himself the primary thing being the Dornish. He had settled Prince Oberyn and his lords in a cornerfort facing the city, as far from the Tyrells as he could put them without evicting them from the Red Keep entirely. It was not nearly far enough. Already there had been a brawl in a Flea Bottom pot-shop that left one Tyrell man-at-arms dead and two of Lord Gargalen's scalded, and an ugly confrontation in the yard when Mace Tyrell's wizened little mother called Ellaria Sand "the serpent's whore." Every time he chanced to see Oberyn Martell the prince asked when the justice would be served. Overcooked mutton was the least of Rhaegar's troubles, but he saw no point in burdening his wife with any of that. Lyanna had enough griefs and displeasures of her own.

"Are you alright?" he asked her softly, placing his palm on her hand. "Aegon told me that you didn't eat for days."

"I'm alright, your grace," was her only reply.

"It's okay, Lya, you can tell it to me."

She looked at her plate in silence. Rhaegar could see that something was different about her. He knew that it started with Viserys' untimely and mysterious death and the assassination attempt on him in Braavos did not help either. He wondered what happened to Slynt and his men. There was nothing to be heard from them after they had left for Braavos. He had ordered the man to finish his work and send the word of it at once but there was nothing from him. Even Varys has nothing to say about them. Rhaegar hoped that the idiot would finish it soon enough. The sooner the loose ends are tied up he could turn his concerns to Robert and Lord Jon.

The supper ended in a strained silence. He did not want to trouble her more. If she did not want to talk so be it once she sees Aegon's marriage everything will return to normal. Afterward, as the servants were removing the cups and platters, Lyanna asked Rhaegar for leave to visit the godswood.

"As you wish." He had become accustomed to his wife's nightly devotions. Rhaegar found all this piety excessive, if truth be told, but if she wants the help of the gods she is welcome to it. "Perhaps someday I could even accompany you," he said, trying to be pleasant.

The sound of rustling leaves might be a pleasant change from some septon droning on about the seven aspects of grace. Rhaegar waved her off. "Dress warmly, my lady, the wind is brisk out there." He was tempted to ask what she prayed for, but he knew he would only get silence as a reply. It's better to leave her to her ways. 

He went back to work after she left, trying to track some of the things he would want to do before his son's marriage. It was a tiresome job to do everything by himself. Lyanna was not likely to plan and prepare them for the upcoming marriage. He would want get some golden dragons through the labyrinth of Littlefinger's ledgers. Petyr Baelish does not believes in letting gold sit about and grow dusty. It was all very well to talk of breeding dragons instead of locking them up in the treasury, but some of these late ventures smelled worse than week-old fish. The royal coffers was filled and was in the best shape but with a war looming in the horizon it is wise to spend each pieces wisely.

When his head ached with the sight of the accounts he summoned for his small council. Jon Connington was the first one to arrive other than Ser Gerold. Grand Maester Pylos came in quick in his feet with some scrolls and books. Varys came quiet as a shadow, powered in lavender and clothed in purple robes. Mace Tyrell looked as if he was annoyed to be kept away from his bed. Baelish came in stroking his pointed beard with a sly smile which Rhaegar mistrusted at every turn. Aurane Waters was the last one to come in, the replacement to the king's brother. Rhaegar was wary of his smug face but the Bastard of Driftmark proved himself useful. 

"My lords," Rhaegar told them when they sat. "Sorry to call all of you in such a late hour but there are matters to be discussed. Any word from the Stormlands or the Vale?"

"Nothing as of important, your grace," Varys said so softly that anyone would have thought he whispered. "Robert Baratheon has returned to Storm's End and Jon Arryn to the Vale. With this newfound marriage with Gendry Baratheon and Alyssa Arryn there's been whispers that they are preparing for war."

First Stark and now his friends. Rhaegar thought of Eddard Stark and his rebellion which resulted in the loss of half his kingdom. This time though it will destroy his entire kingdom. He wondered if he should've made an alliance with his foes as well. Robert has a daughter, a lovely maid, the fairest of them all. The girl was betrothed to Stark's son. Now that he is gone Rhaegar could ask her hand in a marriage for a southern prince in exchange of the northern prince she was promised to. Jaehaerys was still available and Argella would still rule the north, only, she will be a princess and not the Queen. The offer was sound and it is a good match for either of them but Rhaegar knew that Robert would likely spit in his face rather than to offer his daughter's hand in marriage for his son.

"So long as they are away from each other it is good for us," Mace Tyrell said with all the confidence of a proven warrior who has won a hundred wars. The bloody Tyrell was likely to run away the moment he sees foes in the field the same way he ran away from Ned Stark. Rhaegar remembered that day as if it happened only yesterday. Tyrell had ran back the moment the wolves came howling through the night. It had left his left flank vulnerable which was then smashed by the King in the North himself. If it wasn't for Lord Randyll Tarly it would've been a red butchery in the Wolfswood that day. 

"For a man who don't know what happens in his own kingdom everything is good," Aurane Waters chuckled.

"What did you say?" Mace Tyrell grew red and puffy with anger.

"The truth," Aurane said with a chuckle. "One hears strange things from Oldtown. News about magic and other dark things. Do you know what Lord Leyton Hightower is doing?"

Rhaegar himself was confused of all the thoughts regarding Hightower. The visions he saw in Bezzaro's fire still occupied his mind. To have open enemies in the field is one thing but to have traitors in his own household is entirely different. It would be a disaster.

"Lord Leyton is a loyal lord and my own goodfather," Tyrell argued.

"So he was to Lord Dayne," Aurane told him. "And King Eddard was married to his granddaughter. He has locked himself in his High Tower for eight years. Right from the time his granddaughter and her family was killed. That doesn't sound like a coincidence to me."

Mace Tyrell gaped like a puff fish outside of the water. When he didn't have any answer all the eyes turned to Ser Gerold.

"Ser Gerold, do you know what Lord Leyton is doing?" Rhaegar asked the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard.

Ser Gerold had a firm look about him. "I don't, your grace," he said. "If I ever hear anything, I'll make sure that your grace hears it."

"If I may, your grace," Varys spoke again, "I bring some other tidings as well. Important ones from the north." 

The north. Nothing from the north brought good news to the king's ears for many years. He wished this time it would change with his son in Winterfell. 

Rhaegar turned at once to Varys. "You have reports?"

The eunuch drew a parchment from his sleeve. "There's been trouble in the north." He said quietly. "An outlaw band is troubling our lands and people in the way of their Outlaw King. The Wolfswood Brotherhood, they are called and they are harassing our lines and castles. People are disappearing every day and they are found days after hanging from the trees."

Another band of outlaws in the woods. Rhaegar thought about the Kingswood Brotherhood which once terrorised his father's rule. His father had tasked Arthur Dayne to deal with them and the Sword of the Morning had brought them to an end where most had failed before him. Alas, he did not have Arthur to deal with these new outlaws now. "Darkfang is in the north," he said. "Send word for him to deal with them."

"Our brave Ser Darkfang has taken it upon himself and left Waterspring to hunt them down. But there has been nothing heard from him."

"Waterspring," Mace Tyrell vented his obvious displeasure, "the northern fleet is anchored there. What madness led Ser Derek to leave it unguarded?"

He is a dozen times wiser than you, you fat fool. As far as Waterspring stands the fleet will make no threat. Derek held Manderly's son as his hostage. As far as he stays there Lord Wyman will never send any of his forces to Waterspring. Not even these small attacks of the outlaws could give courage to the northmen to rise against a dragon.

"Send a raven to Lord Tywin," Rhaegar told them. "Ask him to send Ser Gregor Clegane to deal with this rogue threat." 

"You grace," Jon said. "Is it wise? Wouldn't it be good to deal with this ourselves. Lord Tywin is Robert Baratheon's goodfather and Ser Gregor is-" 

"Is the man I knighted," Rhaegar finished before him. "And I mean to see if Lord Tywin is being loyal to his king. He is sworn to me as the others and hence he is in right to obey my command. I want Lord Tywin away from his mad dog as far as I can get him. Without the Mountain he will not take any quick decisions."

And he meant to mine the Mountain for every last nugget of ore before turning him over to Dornish justice. It would serve to quiet Oberyn. Oberyn knows nothing of what happened that day. He has heard tales. Stable gossip and kitchen calumnies. He has no crumb of proof. No one knows the truth except for Bezzaro and Jaime Lannister. Ser Jaime took the secret with him to his grave and Bezzaro is certainly not about to confess to him. Denying the promised justice might offend the Martells and giving them Gregor Clegane would appease the Martells as well as take Lord Tywin's mad dog away from him.

It is justice in a way too. It was the Mountain who brought them to him that day.

Lord Tywin had come late to his cause. It was expected of him to demonstrate his loyalty. When he sent the Mountain in his place to act in his stead King's Landing no one could say that the Old Lion supported him rather than his father. Rhaegar had always suspected it was done to make his daughter Cersei as his queen. He would casually tell Oberyn that Gregor murdered Elia and the children in hope of gaining favor from him. And if Oberyn wants to chase from where the orders came, he can go chasing Lord Tywin. They can fight and bleed and die for all they want. As far as he is concerned it meant less enemies. 

Prince Oberyn's presence here was unfortunate. Doran Martell was a cautious man, a reasoned man, subtle, deliberate, even indolent to a degree. He was a man who weighs the consequences of every word and every action. Rhaegar would have had a good time treating with him. But Oberyn has always been half-mad. It is wise to quiet him first before something big happens.

“We might move on to the wedding,” Rhaegar said.

Jon spoke of the preparations being made at the Great Sept of Baelor. They would want to feed a thousand in the throne room, but many more outside in the yards. The outer and middle wards would be tented in silk, with tables of food and casks of ale for all those who could not be accommodated within the hall.

"Your Grace," said Grand Maester Pylos, "in regard to the number of guests... we have had a raven from Sunspear. Three hundred more Dornishmen are riding toward King's Landing as we speak, and hope to arrive before the wedding. They are coming to attend their princess' wedding."

"How do they come?" asked Mace Tyrell gruffly. "They have not asked leave to cross my lands." His thick neck had turned a dark red, Rhaegar noted. Dornishmen and Highgardeners had never had great love for one another; over the centuries, they had fought border wars beyond count, and raided back and forth across mountains and marches even when at peace. The enmity had waned a bit after Dorne had become part of the Seven Kingdoms... until Oberyn had crippled the young heir of Highgarden in a tourney. This could be ticklish, the king thought. Oberyn already has a good number of men with him in King's Landing. What is he hoping to achieve by bringing in more men.

"When my sister is wed to your son and Aegon to Princess Arianne, we shall all be one great House," Rhaegar reminded Mace Tyrell. "The enmities of the past should remain there, would you not agree, my lord?"

"I have no quarrel with Doran Martell," insisted Lord Tyrell, though his tone was more than a little grudging. "If they wishes to cross the Reach in peace, he need only ask my leave."

Small chance of that, thought Rhaegar. Oberyn had climbed the Boneway, turn east near Summerhall, and come up the kingsroad and his men would do the same. With a war already brewing Rhaegar did not want to see his noble allies at each others' throats.

"If that is all," Rhaegar said and his council members got up at once. "We'll end it here. Maester send a raven to Winterfell and ask my son to come to King's Landing as soon as this trouble with outlaws is over." 

When they left the king mused how fine everything was going on. Only one thing can make this  sweeter all the more, a letter from Janos with the news of a certain death. 

Chapter Text

Andrew

The ridge slanted sharply from the earth, a long fold of stone and soil shaped like a claw. Trees clung to its lower slopes, pines and hawthorn and ash, but higher up the ground was bare, the ridgeline stark against the cloudy night sky.

He ran up back to the mountains, his paws sunk deep in a drift of snow as he stood upon the edge of a great precipice. Before him the Wolfswood opened up into a vast and cold empire of trees. The smell of earth and trees was heavy in his nose. He could make out the scents of pine needles and acorns and half a dozen other earthy scents. Had his sense of scent always been this good?

He could feel the high stone calling him. Up he went, loping easy at first, then faster and higher, his strong legs eating up the incline. It felt different now than when he ran with two legs. He had been fast then, climbing and leaping and vaulting across buildings, running along narrow beams and above sloping stone roofs but now he was faster. A silent wind passed through the branches as he raced by, making the leaves rustle in a sweet melody. He could hear the wind sighing up amongst the leaves, the squirrels chittering to one another, even the sound a pinecone made as it tumbled to the forest floor. The smells were a song around him, a song that filled the good green world.

Gravel flew from beneath his paws as he gained the last few feet to stand upon the crest. The moon hung above the tall pines pale and round, and below him the trees and hills went on and on as far as he could see or smell.

He was strong and swift and fierce, quiet as a ghost and quick as a lightning bolt, and all that lived in the good green world went in fear of him.

Far below, at the base of the woods, something moved amongst the trees. A flash of grey, quick-glimpsed and gone again, but it was enough to make his ears prick up. Down there beside a swift green brook, another form slipped by, running. Wolves, he knew. His little cousins, chasing down some prey. Now he could see more of them, shadows on fleet grey paws. A pack.

He had a pack as well, once. He felt a deep ache of emptiness, a sense of incompleteness. He sat on his haunches and lifted his head to the darkening sky, and his cry echoed through the forest, a long lonely mournful sound. As it died away, he pricked up his ears, listening for an answer, but the only sound was the sigh of blowing snow.

These woods belonged to him, the snowy slopes and stony hills, the great green pines and the golden leaf oaks, the rushing streams and blue lakes fringed with fingers of white frost. A grey stone hall had been his home once when he was with other half, the man half but the forest is his home now.

The wind shifted suddenly.

Deer, and fear, and blood. The scent of prey woke the hunger in him. He sniffed the air again, turning, and then he was off, bounding along the ridgetop with jaws half-parted. The far side of the ridge was steeper than the one he'd come up, but he flew surefoot over stones and roots and rotting leaves, down the slope and through the trees, long strides eating up the ground. The scent pulled him onward, ever faster.

The woods were darkening all about him and then he heard the sound.

Stark

The call came from behind him, softer than a whisper, but strong too. Can a shout be silent? He turned his head, searching for the voice, for a glimpse of the human intruder, but there was nothing, only...

A weirwood.

It seemed to sprout from solid rock, its pale roots twisting up forming a vast wide net of weirwood roots. The tree was big compared to other weirwoods he had seen, bigger than the one in Winterfell and Starfall, and it was growing still as he watched, its limbs thickening as they reached for the sky. Wary, he circled the smooth white trunk until he came to the face. A red eye looked at him. A white root was in the place where the other eye should have been.

He sniffed at the bark, smelled wolf and tree and man, but behind that there were other scents, the rich brown smell of warm earth and the hard grey smell of stone and something else, something terrible. Death, he knew. He was smelling death. He cringed back, his hair bristling, and bared his fangs.

The old powers are waking, the weirwood said. The giants have woken up from the depths of earth and the songs of wargs fill the cold air. The old powers are waking. Dead men walk and the trees have eyes again. Remember who you are. Remember.

Suddenly he was surrounded by darkness. He heard a woman's scream in the distance. 

Andrew opened his eyes at once, sitting up.

Another dream, Andrew thought feebly. It felt as if he would never get free of them. And coming to Westeros had only made it worse. This one was much different than the others he had. He was a wolf in his dream and there was a weirwood with some man's face. It had said something about giants and wargs and trees.

Warg? Did he mean me? Andrew wondered. Skinchangers and wargs belonged in Old Nan's stories, not in the world he had lived in all his life. So were direwolves and dragons yet they roamed around the world and Andrew himself had seen a direwolf. He had a pup when he was a boy at Winterfell. A quiet pup with fur the color of pure snow and eyes the color of blood. Andrew had nursed the pup back to its health with the help of his mother after the pup's mother had died saving him and his mother. He had named it Ghost for the white wolf had never made any sound. He weaned back to health quite soon and used to follow him wherever he went.

A part of him yearned to see the wolf. The boy in him wished that the wolf was his, but something else said that the Targaryens would have killed it the moment Winterfell fell. 

And the tree told him to remember, to remember who he was. He didn't know what he meant by that. His mother had said the same to him once, the day she sacrificed herself to save him. Who am I? Andrew wondered. He is not a prince now, not an assassin or an innkeep, he never knew who he is anymore. What did his mother tell him? You're Andrew Stark, hailed from the line of Gods and Kings. He had forgotten that once but he would never forget that again. 

From the way the light had shifted, Andrew judged that he had been asleep for four or five hours. The woods and wolves were gone. Andrew was back again, down in the damp vault of some ancient watchtower that must have been abandoned thousands of years before. It wasn't much of a tower now. Even the tumbled stones were so overgrown with moss and ivy that you could hardly see them until you were right on top of them.

The Sword of the Morning still hung in the south, the bright white star in its hilt blazing like a diamond in the dawn. The fire he had put up last night had died out. Andrew stroked the fire back and put the remaining catch of the last night over the fire, two rabbits and a pair of small silvery trouts. 

The Tower was a good place for him. No villages near, the woods are full of game, there's fish in the streams and lakes and rabbits in the woods and no one is ever going to find him there. It served best to stay hidden until he reached Winterfell and the tower was near the castle but well surrounded by trees.

There are people in the woods, foresters, hunters and wood cutters but none troubled him here though. The Glovers are mostly on the other end of the wolfswood, but they used Wolfswood for hunting and timber and other things. Then there are Wulls in west of the mountains along the Bay of Ice, Harclays back in the edge of the hills, and Knotts and Liddles and Norreys and even some Flints up there in the high places all along the mountains. His father's mother's mother had been a Flint of the mountains. Once they had gone up the mountains to visit her family.

Standing from a peak of the mountains, his father picked him up in his arms and showed the wide vast lands of the north. "Look at that, Andrew," he had said, showing him around. "Home. Not just Winterfell, whatever path you take from here, north, south, east or west every road leads to home."

When his father had held him in his hands, Andrew had felt all of it as home but without him and mother it didn't feel like home.

Perhaps the mountain clans could be of help. His great grandfather had married a Flint and they are family to him. Theo Wull was one of his father's friends. Buckets, they used to call him and he was always friendly. Buckets was their sigil, Andrew knew. Three brown buckets on a blue field, with a border of white and grey checks. Lord Wull came to Winterfell once, to do his fealty and talk with his Father. And there's the Knott and the Norrey and the Liddle too. All of them were trusted men of his father. Trusted men of your father, he thought then, not you.

Even the Boltons used to roam the woods freely. Bolton hunters and other troubles. So far Andrew had managed to stay hidden away from everyone. No one knew he was there and if they did they never bothered him. Only once did he encounter any of the northern people in the woods, when a sudden burst of freezing rain sent him looking for shelter. It was then Andrew had found the tower there. When he entered it, Andrew saw the orange glow of fire farther back and realized he was not alone. "Come in and warm yourself," a man's voice called out. "There's stone enough to keep the rain off both our heads."

He offered him oatcakes and blood sausage and a swallow of ale from a skin he carried, but never his name; nor did he ask theirs. Andrew figured him for a Liddle. The clasp that fastened his squirrelskin cloak was gold and bronze and wrought in the shape of a pinecone, and the Liddles bore pinecones on the white half of their green-and-white shields.

The Liddle took out a knife and whittled at a stick. "When there was a Stark in Winterfell, a maiden girl could walk the kingsroad in her name-day gown and still go unmolested, and travelers could find fire, bread, and salt at many an inn and holdfast. But the nights are colder now, and doors are closed. There's dragons in the wolfswood, and flayed men ride the kingsroad asking after strangers."

That was a surprise for Andrew. "Boltons?" he asked the Liddle.

"The Bastard's boys, aye. The bastard is trying to prove himself to his father to be his trueborn heir by trying to hunt the brotherhood. And I heard some talks of a certain dead man freeing an entire castle." He looked at Andrew and at Frost along his back. "As to Winterfell," the man went on, "it's not a place that anyone would be going. The Dragon Prince rules there. Hardly does a good word ever come out of the castle." He poked at the fire with his stick. "It was different when there was a Stark in Winterfell. But the wolf king's dead with his queen and pup, and all that's left us is the ghosts."

"The wolves will come again," Andrew said solemnly.

"And how would you be knowing, boy?"

"Just a feeling."

"I never knew the king myself," the man said, "but he was a good man, everyone knows it. All that's left of him are some good words and his ghost."

It warmed his heart to know that his father and mother are remembered in the north. I am left of him, Andrew wanted to tell him. I am his son, his own blood. The Starks are not dead, I'm here. Me, Andrew Stark, I'm still here. 

They spent that night together in the tower, for the rain did not let up till well past dark. When the fire had burned down to embers, Andrew let himself to sleep.

When he woke the next morning, the fire had gone out and the Liddle was gone, but he’d left a sausage for him, and four oatcakes folded up neatly in a green and white cloth. Two of the cakes had pinenuts baked in them and two had blackberries. Andrew ate one of each, and still did not know which sort he liked the best. When the Starks are back in Winterfell again, he told himself, he’d send for the Liddles and pay them back a hundredfold for every nut and berry they fed him with.

He left the tower by noon when the sun came breaking through the clouds. Andrew knew that he was only a day's ride away from Winterfell. He had seen and known enough about the castle and now the only thing remained was to take it back.

He chewed of the cooked rabbit strip as he rode. The meat was not cooked perfectly but it served enough.

The last ray of sun vanished behind the top of the trees. Twilight filled the woods. It seemed to grow colder almost at once. Andrew slowed his palfrey to a walk. By then both he and the horse were damp with sweat. He dismounted, shivering, tugging his jacket close. A bank of melting snow lay under the trees, bright in the twilight, water trickling off to form small shallow pools. Andrew went to one knee and brought his hands together, cupping the runoff between his fingers. The snowmelt was icy cold. He drank, and splashed some on his face, until his cheeks tingled.

The horse was well lathered, so Andrew tied her to a nearby tree and decided to walk the rest of the way.

Off in the trees, the distant scream of some frightened animal made him look up. Some predator had found some prey. Andrew looked around, searching for any predator be it man or beast. The woods stayed silent and the only sound was a rush of wings behind him as an owl took flight.

He was away from his horse when he heard the sounds: horses, and coming towards Winterfell from the north. It only meant one thing, men from Winterfell. He thought to run back to his palfrey. Could he outrun them? No, they were too close, they’d hear him for a certainty, and will catch him before he reach his mount.

He moved behind a thick stand of grey-green sentinels. He listened to the sound of hooves growing steadily louder as they trotted briskly down the kingsroad. From the sound, there were five or six of them at the least. Their voices drifted through the trees.

”Look at here.” The horses surrounded him. Six they were and each rider with the black and red cloaks.

“Who are you?” One of them asked. "What are you doing here?"

All of them were mounted. It was not easy to fight multiple mounted men at once. “I'm a humble merchant from the sea, men,” Andrew told them. "I mean no harm."

“Merchant from the sea?” the one behind him took Frost from him and threw it to the first one. "What business does a seafarer has in the land? What kind of humble merchant wears a sword."

The one who held Frost unsheathed the blade and held it in his hand. The blue blade glinted in the twilight.

"A fine sword," he said and touched it. He touched the blade and took his hand back as if he had touched fire. "Shit, it's freezing." He threw Frost down and drew his own sword from the sheath and the sounds of five other swords scraping against the scabbard echoed it.

“You're from the Brotherhood, aren't you?”

Andrew looked at all of them surrounding him. He still had his hidden blades on but he could only take out three of them before they could strike back. And if they did he could not fight them in an open combat with his hidden blades. Without Frost he could not hope to defeat three mounted men.

It is wise to play the innocent now. Andrew raised his arms above his head. “I'm not who you think me to be,” he told them. "I'm just a merchant and that sword is for Lord Bolton. I was ordered to get it from an armorer in volantis. I'm just doing my job."

“Gods be good,” another voice broke in. “I know you. Seven hells! You're alive. How is that even possible? You're supposed to be dead.”

“What is it?”

“It's Stark's son. It's him”

All the eyes were on him again, this time with a complete look of surprise.

"He's dead. You've just gone mad with fear of Eddard Stark's ghost."

“I know a face when I see one," he pointed his finger at his face, "and I've seen it before I tell you.”

"Aye," another croaked a laugh. "Next time tell me that the ghost of the King in the North is here." They all laughed at that.

"Quiet," the one who threw Frost down said. "We'll bring him to the Prince and let him decide what must be done to him."

It was then he knew that this was going to end ugly. He was about to drive his hidden blade to the one near him when he saw the movement out of the corner of his eye.

He glimpsed a pale shadow moving through the trees. Leaves rustled, and the shadow came bounding out of the dark, so suddenly that all the horses startled and gave a whinny.

The white shadow leapt. Man and wolf went down together with only the man's scream and no snarl or growl of the wolf, rolling, smashing into the ground. Two of the horses reared and fell down before their riders could regain control of them, trapping both the men under them. Andrew flexed his wrist and drove the hidden blade to the knee of the man near him and then his throat in quick succession. Of the remaining two, one came for him and the other went for the wolf.

Andrew ducked and rolled through the charge of the man and picked up Frost from the ground. When the rider wheeled his horse around and came for the next pass, he was ready. He leapt away from the sword and slashed Frost at the rider's throat. The horse ran for a distance and stopped as the rider slowly fell from the saddle to the ground with a lazy thud. 

The direwolf was already on the other man, bearing him down. He fell back on the snow with a lazy thud and a shout, flailing wildly with his sword. The direwolf darted in after him, and the white snow turned red where he had fallen.

The sixth man removed himself from below his horse and ran from the carnage . . . but not far. As he went scrambling up towards the trees, the white wolf bounded after the running man, hamstringing him with a single snap of his teeth, and going for the throat as the screaming man went quiet.

And then there was no one left but the wolf and him. His white muzzle was wet and red, but his eyes burned a bright red, the color of blood which was spilt all around.

Andrew breathing grew harder and his heart beat faster. The wolf bounded towards him slowly. "Ghost?" He turned toward the wolf, and dropped his sword. The direwolf came, padding silently out of the green dusk, the breath coming warm and white from his open jaws. The direwolf broke into a run. He was a lot bigger than he had been when he last saw him as a pup, and the only sound he made was the soft crunch of dead leaves beneath his paws. He never makes a sound, Andrew remembered. Silent as a ghost he came and Andrew waited for him wondering whether he should be afraid or happy about seeing him. When he reached Andrew he leapt, and they wrestled amidst brown grass and long shadows as the stars came out above them. “You are alive and you remember me,” Andrew said when Ghost stopped worrying at his forearm. The direwolf had no answer, but he licked Andrew’s face with a tongue like a wet rasp, and his eyes caught the last light and shone like two great red suns.

He had never thought to feel happiness in his life after Joy died but he was more than happy to see this old friend of his. "Ghost. I missed you, pal."

Chapter Text

When he heard the order, Will packed up his saddle and got ready for another ranging into the forest beyond the Wall.

“They are more close to us than I would've liked,” Lord Commander Mormont told them. “More than once our men spotted them so close to the Wall that it does not feel right.”

“Right," cried Mormont's raven. "Right, right, right."

The Old Bear extended some corn in his palm and the bird started to eat from his hand. “I fear that they are trying to climb the Wall and get into the realm. We can't let them pass. Go, chase them into those dark woods. Find our foes and kill them if need be. The First Ranger himself picked you for this ranging. All of you are skilled with a blade and good men, the brothers of the Night's Watch. Now go and do your duty to the realm.”

Ser Waymar touched the hilt of his longsword. “I'll not fail you, my lord.”

“Good," Mormont said. "Will and Gared will be with you. Both are seasoned rangers.”

The lordling gave a disinterested look at Will and Gared. Will did not like it one bit but Ser Waymar was still his brother and his commander in his ranging. It was his first command and Royce was doubtlessly proud at that.

It was no easy thing to go ranging into the wild, because the chances were good that they might never return. The haunted forest had swallowed up many seasoned men without a trace. Still, they all were eager for the duty, even the new Ser Waymar Royce. 

They led their horses through the cold tunnel under the Wall. Gared went first with a torch in hand. Then it was young Ser Waymar and Will came last with another torch in his hand. When they emerged on the other side of the tunnel the world changed before them. The familiarity of warmth and safety on the other side of Wall was gone and it was replaced with the cold, dark dangerous forest which lay ahead of them. 

They rode hard and fast for the entire day, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of wildling raiders. The cold was rising for the every foot they moved away from the Wall. By evening it turned to be the worst of it. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something was watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander.

Especially not a commander like this one.

Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient noble house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of twenty, graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least in so far as his wardrobe was concerned.

When there was no sight of the wildlings for the entire day, his commander split the group and sent them hunting for the wildling in different directions, all alone, so that they could cover more ground. They had agreed to join again by nightfall in the base of the ironwood tree from where they split. 

He was only half a league away from the tree when he saw the smoke coming from behind a broken tree. 

Will pulled his garron over beneath an ancient gnarled ironwood and dismounted.

It was best to go rest of the way on foot. That way he could stay unseen and unheard by the wildlings. Will had been a hunter before he joined the Night’s Watch. Well, a poacher in truth. Mallister freeriders had caught him red-handed in the Mallisters’ own woods, skinning one of the Mallisters’ own bucks, and it had been a choice of putting on the black or losing a hand. No one could move through the woods as silent as Will, and it had not taken the black brothers long to discover his talent.

Will threaded his way through a thicket, then started up the slope to the low ridge where he had found his vantage point under a sentinel tree. Under the thin crust of snow, the ground was damp and muddy, slick footing, with rocks and hidden roots to trip you up. Will made no sound as he climbed.

His heart leapt in fear as he reached the top. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the fire pit, fresh fallen snow covered the great rock, the little half-frozen stream... And corpses or what was left of them. Whoever did this thing was stone of heart. The dead bodies were all ripped and the parts of their bodies were arranged in a weird pattern. 

Will got back up in fear and turned to face a child impaled to a tree, dead and frozen. He rushed back to his horse and raced back to the tree to meet his brothers. Luckily, they were already back when he came back. 

Will told his brothers of what he saw. They never interrupted him and heard the entire thing in silence. 

" What do you expect?" Ser Waymar told him when he was finished. "They're savages. One lot steal a goat from another lot and before you know it they're ripping each other to pieces." 

"I've never seen Wildlings do a thing like this," Will said. "I've never seen a thing like this, not ever in my life."

"How close did you get?" Royce asked him. 

"Close as any man could." 

“We should head back to the Wall,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He had seen the lordlings come and go. “Our orders were to track the Wildlings. We tracked them,” he said. “They won't trouble us no more.”

"You don't think they'll ask us how they died?" the commander said. "Get back on your horse."

Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent many years in the Night’s Watch, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.

Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness the southron called the Haunted Forest had no more terrors for him.

Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise.

"Whatever did this to them could do the same to us," Will tried to argue.  

The lordling seemed not to hear him. He studied the deepening twilight in that half-bored, half-distracted way he had. Will had ridden with the knight long enough to understand that it was best not to interrupt him when he looked like that.

The young knight turned back to his grizzled man-at-arms. Frost fallen leaves whispered past them, and Royce’s destrier moved restlessly. “What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually. He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.

“It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy. Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. It steals up on you quieter than Will, and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end. First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk. Peaceful, like.”

“Such eloquence, Gared,” Ser Waymar observed. “I never suspected you had it in you.”

“Have you drawn any watches this past week, Will?”

“Yes, m’lord,” There never was a week when he did not draw a dozen bloody watches. What was the man driving at?

“And how did you find the Wall?”

“Weeping,” Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now that the lordling had pointed it out. “They couldn’t have froze. Not if the Wall was weeping. It wasn’t cold enough.”

Royce nodded. “Bright lad. We’ve had a few light frosts this past week, and a quick flurry of snow now and then, but surely no cold fierce enough to kill grown men. Men clad in fur and leather, let me remind you, with shelter near at hand, and the means of making fire.” The knight’s smile was cocksure. “Will, lead us there. I would see these dead men for myself.”

And then there was nothing to be done for it. The order had been given, and honour bound them to obey.

Will went in front, his shaggy little garron picking the way carefully through the undergrowth. A light snow had fallen the night before, and there were stones and roots and hidden sinks lying just under its crust, waiting for the careless and the unwary. Ser Waymar Royce came next, his great black destrier snorting impatiently. The warhorse was the wrong mount for ranging, but try and tell that to the lordling. Gared brought up the rear. The old man-at-arms muttered to himself as he rode.

Twilight deepened. The cloudless sky turned a deep purple, the colour of an old bruise, then faded to black. The stars began to come out. A half-moon rose. Will was grateful for the light.

Somewhere off in the wood a wolf howled.

Will led his garron to the ironwood and dismounted. "It's best to walk from here, m'lord. It’s just over that ridge.”

Royce slid gracefully from his saddle. He tied the destrier securely to a low-hanging limb, well away from the other horses, and drew his longsword from its sheath. Jewels glittered in its hilt, and the moonlight ran down the shining steel. It was a splendid weapon, castle-forged, and new-made from the look of it. Will doubted it had ever been swung in anger.

Ser Waymar led the way and Will and Gared followed him. When they came up the ridge Will’s heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight lit the snow in a silver glint, the ashes were still in the fire pit which was smoking, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.

They were gone. All the bodies were gone.

Royce looked down at the empty clearing. “Your dead men seem to have moved camp, Will.”

Will’s voice abandoned him. He groped for words that did not come. It was not possible. His eyes swept back and forth over the abandoned campsite. "They were right here."

Ser Waymar looked him over with open disapproval. “I am not going back to Castle Black a failure on my first ranging. We will find these men. Gared go back and bring the horses.”

Will turned away, wordless. There was no use to argue. The wind was moving. It cut right through him. He saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers. Will opened his mouth to call down a warning, and the words seemed to freeze in his throat. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all?

Ser Waymar was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. It was cold.

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood behind Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armour seemed to change colour as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.

The wind had stopped. It was very cold.

It slid forward on silent feet. Its eyes blue, deeper and bluer than any human eye, a blue that burned like ice.

Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss. “Come no farther,” the lordling warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands. The wind had stopped. It was very cold.

The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.

Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. 

The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope.

They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them . . . four . . . five . . . Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hid behind the ridge, and kept the silence.

The pale sword came shivering through the air.

Ser Waymar met it with steel. When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal; only a high, thin sound at the edge of hearing, like an animal screaming in pain. Royce checked a second blow, and a third, then fell back a step. Another flurry of blows, and he fell back again.

Behind him, to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. Yet they made no move to interfere.

Again and again the swords met, until Will wanted to cover his ears against the strange anguished keening of their clash. Ser Waymar was panting from the effort now, his breath steaming in the moonlight. His blade was white with frost; the Other’s danced with pale blue light.

The Other said something in a language that Will did not know, his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.

Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. "For the Watch," he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy.

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.

The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery. The pale blades sliced through ringmail as if it were silk. Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles.

When he found the courage to look again, a long time had passed, and below the ridge the camp was empty.

He stayed there, scarce daring to breathe, while the moon crept slowly across the black sky. Finally, after a long time he climbed down.

Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof. Gared would know what to make of it, and if not him, then surely that old bear Mormont or Maester Aemon. Would Gared still be waiting with the horses? He had to hurry.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye.

The right eye was open. It burned blue and it saw. 

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. 

Chapter Text

Tyrion

They reached King's Landing by the morning and the first things to do in Tyrion's mind was to get a feather bed and a nice hot meal and a whore to warm his bed. He has been riding for so long that his legs ached and cramped so badly. He could seldom walk with his legs. Tyrion was very much fed up with the swaying of the horse beneath him that he came to believe that his time in Casterly Rock spend with his father was much more entertaining than this. He missed the softness of his feather bed beneath him and the nice hot meal to fill his belly and the ache between his legs of staying so far away from a woman. He missed all of it so much that he meant to have all three at once. His father and the other tidings can wait. Woe to anyone who would keep him away from his bed. 

Tyrion rode through the gate of gods with Bronn beside him. His escort of twenty redcloaks following behind him under the command Tregar. The paintings on the gate seemed to follow him as he passed through the portcullis. He did not like it one bit.

He could smell the stench of the city the moment he entered it. The stench of piss and shit and people. The moment he entered the city he found that it was well crowded. 

The inn beneath the sign of the broken anvil stood within sight of those walls, near the Gate of the Gods where they had entered. As they rode into its courtyard, a boy ran out to help Tyrion down from his horse.

"What are you going to do here?" Bronn asked as Tyrion dismounted from his horse.

"Quite easy, if you think," Tyrion said. "A room with a featherbed, a meal and a flagon of wine and a good wench to warm me up completely."

"Innkeep," Tyrion called out as he entered the inn, "we have horses that want stabling, and me and my men require refreshments and room and a hot bath."

The innkeep bowed and smiled a hideous smile when she saw the Lannister lion upon his jerkin and his men coming up behind him. "I'm glad to host you my lord of Lannister. We'll find enough rooms and care for your men and horses."

Tyrion pulled a coin from his purse and flicked it up over his head, caught it, tossed it again. The wink of gold was unmistakable even in the candlelight.

He sent the coin spinning across the room to Bronn and the sellsword snatched it from the air. "Pay them for their services, will you Bronn?" He turned back to the innkeep. "You will be able to manage food, I trust?"

"Anything you like, m'lord, anything at all," the innkeep promised.

Tyrion glanced at the nearest tables and found that most of them were have a good gracious meal. He might very well have the taste of foods he's been wanting to taste for many days. "My men will have whatever you're serving these people. Double portions, we've had a long hard ride. I'll take a roast fowl—chicken, duck, pigeon, it makes no matter. And send up a flagon of your best wine."

"Aye, m'lord, It will be done," the innkeep said.

The bed and food were arranged. Now it is time for the whore. Tyrion faced Bronn. "Eat or drink whatever you want, Bronn," he said. "By the time I come back from my meal, I mean to see a pretty sight in my bed. Make it happen, will you?"

"I would prefer one who is reasonably young, with as pretty a face as you can find," he said. "If she has washed sometime this year, I shall be glad. If she hasn't, wash her. Be certain that you tell her who I am, and warn her of what I am. " Jyck had not always troubled to do that. There was a look the girls got in their eyes sometimes when they first beheld the lordling they'd been hired to pleasure . . . a look that Tyrion Lannister did not ever care to see again.

Tyrion waddled up the stairs to his room, saddlesore, and sour, all too vividly aware of how amusing he must look as he climbed up the stairs. He might get quite drunk tonight. Nothing made the day better than wine or a whore.

The innkeep kept her promise well enough. Two servants came with his rich meal: a huge duck, skin seared and crackling, cooked so fine in a nice golden color. The smell made his mouth water.

His wine came next, a large flagon of fine vintage to wash down the meat.

He filled his wine cup and watched a serving man carve into the duck. The crisp skin crackled under his knife, and hot juice ran from the meat. It was the loveliest sight Tyrion had seen in ages.

When the wings and legs were all separated from the body, Tyrion sent them away and tried to have a quiet meal, thinking about why he was here. His father told him to attend the prince's wedding in his stead but Tyrion knew better. 

Either his lord father had a new respect for Tyrion so much so as to act in his stead in the very place he once ruled, or he'd decided to rid himself of his embarrassing get for good. Tyrion had the gloomy feeling he knew which.

He had waddled around in the lion's den when he was at Casterly Rock and now he found himself in this nest of adders they called King's Landing. At least in Casterly Rock he could see the lion and knew what he did and his brother Jaime had been with him. But now he was all alone in Kin'g Landing and never knew what hidden daggers the city had for him. Daggers like the one Ned Stark faced.

Thinking about that alone made his hunger fly away. Half of the duck was left on the plate and Tyrion took a long drink of his wine. He took the flagon and went back to his room.

Inside he found Bronn drinking from a skin of wine lying in the bed. A girl was with him; slim, dark-haired, no more than twenty by the look of her. Tyrion studied her face for a moment, before he spied bones in the table. "What did you eat?"

"Chicken," Bronn grinned. "I should say this to you dwarf, you do have a brain for choosing places to stay. The food and wine are fine here."

Chicken, he thought of the half eaten duck he had sent back. Damn my father. He stared mournfully at the bones, his belly rumbling.

Tyrion turned his attention back to the girl. "Is this her?" he asked Bronn.

She rose gracefully and looked down at him from the lofty height of five feet or more. "It is, m'lord, and she can speak for herself, if it please you. "

He cocked his head to one side. "I am Tyrion, of House Lannister. Men call me the Imp. "

"My mother named me Shae. Men call me . . . often. "

Bronn laughed, and Tyrion had to smile. "Into the bed chambers, Shae, if you would be so kind." He opened the door and held it for her. Inside, he knelt to light a candle.

Perhaps his life was not so bad or evil as his father thinks to be. Even he had some sort of tricks up his sleeve to get what he wanted. Where in the other places they would kill a dwarf at the first sight the gods were so good to see him born as a Lannister. Had he been born a peasant, they might have left him out to die, or sold him to some slaver's grotesquerie. But here he was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock, son of Lord Tywin Lannister and he got to enjoy his own privileges that came with that name. His brother Jaime had always been able to make men follow him eagerly, and die for him if need be. Tyrion lacked that gift. He bought loyalty with gold, and compelled obedience with his name. Yet, valour and bravery did little good for Jaime with the assassin and Tyrion meant to correct that in his life.

He lifted the candle and looked her over. Bronn had done well enough; she was doe-eyed and slim, with small firm breasts and a smile that was by turns shy, insolent, and wicked. He liked that. "Shall I take my gown off, m'lord?" she asked.

"In good time. Are you a maiden, Shae?"

"If it please you, m'lord," she said demurely.

"What would please me would be the truth of you, girl. "

"Aye, but that will cost you double. "

Tyrion decided they would get along splendidly. "I am a Lannister. Gold I have in plenty, and you'll find me generous . . . but I'll want more from you than what you've got between your legs, though I'll want that too. You'll share my bed, pour my wine, laugh at my jests, serve me when I ask of you . . . and whether I keep you a day or a year, for so long as we are together you will take no other men into your bed. "

"Fair enough. " She reached down to the hem of her thin roughspun gown and pulled it up over her head in one smooth motion, tossing it aside. There was nothing underneath but the naked body of the girl. "If he don't put down that candle, m'lord will burn his fingers. "

Tyrion put down the candle, took her hand in his, and pulled her gently to him. She bent to kiss him. Her mouth tasted of honey and cloves, and her fingers were deft and practiced as they found the fastenings of his clothes.

When he entered her, she welcomed him with whispered endearments and small, shuddering gasps of pleasure. Tyrion suspected her delight was feigned, but she did it so well that it did not matter. That much truth he did not crave.

He had needed her, Tyrion realized afterward, as she lay quietly in his arms. Her or someone like her. It had been a long time since he'd lain with a woman, since before he had set out for Riverrun to attend his nephew's wedding. His nephew was younger than this girl and he was already married. All the things happening recently meant only one thing, war and Tyrion would happily die thinking of wine and Shae rather than blood and sword. 

He could feel the softness of her breasts pressed against his arm as she lay beside him. That was a good feeling. A song filled his head. Softly, quietly, he began to whistle.

"What's that, m'lord?" Shae murmured against him.

"Nothing," he told her. "A song I learned as a boy, that's all. Go to sleep, sweetling. "

When her eyes were closed and her breathing deep and steady, Tyrion slid out from beneath her, gently, so as not to disturb her sleep. 

Down in the common room Bronn was seated alone in a table, near the brazier. He was honing the edge of his sword, wide awake; the sellsword did not seem to sleep like other men. "Where did you find her?" Tyrion asked him as he sat beside him.

"I took her from a knight, a pretty one. The man was loath to give her up, but a broken nose changed his thinking somewhat . . . and he didn't look so pretty with a broken nose."

"Splendid," Tyrion said dryly. "I seem to recall saying find me a whore, not make me an enemy. I have enough to think about in King's Landing and some unnamed knight is not a welcome addition."

"The pretty ones were all claimed," Bronn said. "I'll be pleased to take her back if you'd prefer a toothless drab. "

"My lord father would call that insolence, and send you to the mines for impertinence. "

"Good for me you're not your father," Bronn replied. "I saw one with boils all over her nose. Would you like her?"

"What, and break your heart?" Tyrion shot back. "I shall keep Shae. Did you at least know the name of this knight so I shall stay away from him in my time here."

Bronn rose, cat-quick and cat-graceful, turning his sword in his hand. "You'll have me beside you in your time here, dwarf. "

Tyrion nodded. The fire from the brazier was warm on his bare skin. "See that I survive this place, and you can name your reward. "

Bronn tossed the longsword from his right hand to his left. "Who'd want to kill you here?" he asked. "We're here for a wedding." 

"You're too smart to believe that," Tyrion told him. "We're in a dragon's lair and which place of the dragon's lair is safe, I ask you. Even the feast there is only for the dragon, not for us. A king once learned that in a feast well enough and who are we compared to a king. I'm not about to do the same mistake he did."

Chapter Text

Andrew

He found Ghost atop the hill, as he thought he might. The white wolf never howled, yet something drew him to the heights all the same, and he would squat there on his hindquarters, hot breath rising in a white mist as his red eyes drank the stars.

"Are you watching the stars again?" Andrew asked, as he went to one knee beside the direwolf and scratched the thick white fur on his neck. He pointed to his family looking down upon them from the night sky. "You see that? There's father and mother and we both are there." Ghost licked his face, his rough wet tongue rasping against the his cheeks where Joy had once kissed everyday. What would've she said if he'd shown her Ghost? he wondered. She would've loved him, he thought. It was not in Joy to hate anyone, even those who hate her. "Ghost," he said quietly, "It's time. It's time to get our justice for mother and father and Joy. There's no steps here, no cage-and-crane, no way for me to get you to the other side. We have to part. Do you understand?"

In the dark, the direwolf's red eyes looked black. He nuzzled at Andrew's neck, silent as ever, his breath a hot mist. Old Nan might've called Andrew Stark a warg, but if so he was a poor one. He did not know how to put on a wolf skin, the way men in her stories had with the birds of the sky and creatures of the deep. Once Andrew had dreamed that he was Ghost, looking down upon the Wolfswood and hunting alone, and that dream had turned out to be true. But he was not dreaming now, and that left him only words.

"You cannot come with me," Andrew said, cupping the wolf's head in his hands and looking deep into those eyes. "Stay close to Winterfell. Do you understand? Winterfell. Once I'm inside and had my chance I'll open the gates for you. I will meet you again at Winterfell, but you have to get there by yourself. We must each hunt alone for a time. Alone."

The direwolf twisted free of Andrew's grasp, his ears pricked up. And suddenly he was bounding away. He loped through a tangle of brush, leapt a deadfall, and raced down the hillside, a pale streak among the trees. Off to Winterfell? Andrew wondered. Or off after a hare? He wished he knew. He feared he might prove just as poor a warg as a son and a lover.

A wind sighed through the trees, rich with the smell of pine needles, tugging at his white jacket. Andrew could see the grey walls of Winterfell looming high and dark to the south, a great shadow blocking out the stars. The rough hilly ground made him think he must be somewhere between the Great keep and armoury, and likely closer to the fight. For days they had been wending their way around Winterfell, hiding between trees and fresh fallen snows that covered the forest floors, while flint ridges and pine-clad hills jostled against one another to either side. Such ground made for slow riding, but offered easy concealment for those wishing to approach Winterfell unseen.

Beyond those grey walls lay Winterfell, and everything he had held dear once. He had been born the firstborn and only son of King Eddard Stark and Queen Ashara Dayne, had grown up as their son until Rhaegar Targaryen took them away from him, and by rights he should be up there fighting for it against those who sullied his home. He should be raising the banners of the north to rouse his people to arms. He might go to them, castle after castle, to the Umbers, the Karstarks, the Manderlys calling them to fight, but what would that accomplish? No one would hear him. They might laugh straight to his face at that. His father had once said that every road in the north will lead to home. That had been true once, when his father and mother was still alive. Then every place they went there had been people to offer their homes and hospitality. It had felt home. But without father and mother even the familiar Wolfswood did not feel so familiar now. He felt as if he did not belong here even in the north where his father once ruled, as if he did not belong anywhere.

I should have killed Rhaegar Targaryen in Braavos, even if it meant my life. That was what father would have done. But Andrew had ran for his life that day, and the chance passed. And what did you get for such a bold act? The death of Joy, the woman you loved. He told himself that he was only biding his time, that when the moment came he would raise the north in his father's name. The moment never came. 

The mouth of the cave where he camped for the night was a cleft in the rock barely wide enough for a horse, half concealed behind a soldier pine. It opened to the north, so the glows of the fires within would not be visible from the walls of Winterfell. Even if by some mischance a patrol should happen to pass atop the outer wall tonight, they would see nothing but hills and pines and the icy sheen of starlight on a half-frozen brook. Andrew had planned the entire thing in a careful way. He did not come all the way to Westeros only to see Winterfell.

Andrew collected Frost and his blades from the cave. The night's cookfire burned amongst the column, the smoke rising to blacken the stony ceiling. He put out the fire and walked back to his horse.

It was about the hour of wolf. There will be patrols on the high walls of Winterfell. There must be and the men in those patrols will be able men as well not sickly or spare ones. He knew that better than anyone. "No wall can keep you safe," his father had told him once, as they walked the walls of Winterfell. Andrew could not have been older than five that his father had to hold his hand as they walked, but he had been very eager to learn new things. "A wall is only as strong as the men who defend it."

A strong castle like Winterfell will have strong men to defend it. The guards at the walls will be the ones to fall first before they could alert the others. Winterfell itself was a huge castle complex spanning several acres, defended by two massive walls of grey granite with a wide moat between them. The outer wall is eighty feet high and the inner wall is higher even than the outer one almost reaching one hundred feet high, with a wide moat between them. His father would have both the walls manned all time. Even at night there would be enough men at the walls to watch all sides of the castle and to hold any surprise attacks. There were guard turrets on the outer wall and more than thirty watch turrets on the crenelated inner walls all filled with archers and watchers during the time of his father.

Entering the castle through the main gates was almost impossible if he wished to stay hidden. Stealth was his primary weapon now and Andrew didn't want to throw up his cover. The great main gates had a gatehouse made of two huge crenelated bulwarks which flanked the arched gate and a drawbridge that opens into the market square of the winter town. The main gates would be heavily guarded that it was hard even for him to enter the castle through there even with the cover of night. The other three gates were his options. There was a crack once near the Hunter's Gate from where Andrew would play climbing when he was little. When his mother found about it she had father send some men and seal the crack so that no one could climb there anymore. 

He might want to find a new place to climb now. 

As the moon reigned supreme in the black sky, the grey walls of Winterfell appeared before him, rising above the trees and the morning mists. Moonlight glimmered against the dark towers and walls black as shadow. He led the horse to a nearby elm and tied it to a low branch. Before him Winterfell rose up, stone towers and all.

He could see the distant fires on top of the wall. From the ground he could not tell if there were sentries walking the wall eighty feet above. Climbing this wall will be a challenge. Despite the challenge, the exhaustion, Joy, his parents, justice, Rhaegar and the dragon, despite it all, Andrew smiled. It was good to be back. To see his home, where he was born and lived happily with his parents. 

For years he had dreamed of taking his home back from the Targaryens. That somehow he would find the courage to get the northern people fight for him and take back Winterfell and will finally make his father and mother proud. And right now he was right at the doorstep of the castle. It would only take a few steps to do all that. He could get to see Winterfell again and the people. Ser Rodrick Cassel, the master at arms. Ser Old-knight he had called him when he was little and Ser Rodrick will always laugh at that. Jory Cassel and Desmond, Harwin who led his ponies when he had learnt to sit a horse for the first time, Ser Walys with his big chain and various little things, Old Nan with her thousand stories, happy stories, sad stories, funny stories, bad stories and scary stories, she knew them all. Lynora his mother's handmaid, Gage the Cook with his endless treats, Mikken in his forge, Farlen and his puppies, Hodor, the man in the glass gardens who gave him a blackberry whenever Andrew comes to visit, Fat Tom who would chase him through the snows after Andrew hits him with some snowball. He was big and slow which had made him an easy target and an easy escape for him. Hullen, Alyn, Porther he remembered everyone of them. Every single person in Winterfell had been so good to him and he knew them all. And his great-grandfather Rodrick who had carried him on his back even in that old age. He wondered what happened to him, what happened to all of them. His father had left the castle to his great grandfather when they had left for the south and the next time Andrew had heard about Winterfell, it had fallen to the hands of the Targaryens. He could only wish that his great-grandfather was alive even when something else in his heart said otherwise. He was only an old man and posed no threat to the Targaryens. 

He pulled away the grappling claws and ropes. The outer wall rose up high before him, a large thrust of grey granite. After the bright moonlight, its shadow was so black that it felt like stepping into a cave. He tied one end of his rope around his waist, the other end around the thick branch of a sentinal near the wall. Throwing a grappling hook eighty feet above was impossible for any normal man. Andrew leapt over the lowest branch of the sentinel and pulled himself up. From there he moved higher and higher, vaulting over one branch and another.

When he reached the top of the tree, throwing the hook over the wall didn't seem so impossible then. When the hook was secure over the wall, Andrew secured the rope around him and started to climb. He had never climbed so high before and was almost afraid about it. Don’t look down. Keep your weight above your feet. Don’t look down. Look at the wall in front of you. There’s a good handhold, yes. Don’t look down. I did not come all the way here to fall to my death. Never look down.

Once his foot slipped as he put his weight on it and his heart stopped in his chest, but the gods were good and he did not fall. He could feel the cold seeping off the wall into his fingers. His burned hand was stiffening up on him, and soon it began to ache.

Up he went, and up, and up, a white shadow creeping across the moonlit wall. Anyone down on the floor could have seen him easily, but there was no one to see him there. He was close now, though. Andrew could sense it. Even so, he did not think of the foes who were waiting for him, all unknowing, but of his father and mother who loved him and saved him. 

When he reached to the top of the outer wall, Andrew saw that there was no light in half of the guard turrets. Those towers always held men during the time of his father. But he was relieved that was not the case now. Less men meant less kills or less chance of being seen. His first kill came out of nowhere. Silent and swift as a shadowcat Andrew moved over to his enemy and buried his hidden blade right to the back of his neck. When he threw the body over the wall into the moat, three of his companions nearby came to look out for the reason for the splash of water. Andrew cracked the skull of one with Frost from behind him and cut down the other while simultaneously killing the last one by driving his left hidden blade through his eye. One of the deads had lowered the drawbridge which connected the inner wall and the outer wall over the moat. He saw three more men in the inner wall, all huddled up in their cloaks and furs, fast asleep. For a moment he thought to quiet them in their sleep but they might prove helpful if they are alive. He climbed to the nearest watch turret and looked down at his home.

From where he stood, Winterfell was a grey stone labyrinth of walls and towers and courtyards and tunnels spreading out in all directions. In the older parts of the castle, the halls slanted up and down so that you couldn’t even be sure what floor you were on. The place had grown over the centuries like some monstrous stone tree, Maester Walys told him once, and its branches were gnarled and thick and twisted, its roots sunk deep into the earth.

When he got up from under the turret and scrambled up near the sky, Andrew could see all of Winterfell in a glance. He liked the way it looked, spread out beneath him. Watching the castle from up top, he could only think of how much he had missed it.

He could see almost everything around him in the starlight. It had not changed much from the last time he'd seen it. He could see the Great Keep and the Godswood, the Broken Tower and the First Keep, the Glass Gardens and Maester Walys' turret, the Bell Tower and even the bridge connecting the Great Keep and the armory. 

He even remembered some of the secrets about Winterfell by seeing it. The builders had not even leveled the earth; there were hills and valleys behind the walls of Winterfell. There was a covered bridge that went from the fourth floor of the bell tower across to the second floor of the rookery. Andrew knew about that. And he knew you could get inside the inner wall by the south gate, climb three floors and run all the way around Winterfell through a narrow tunnel in the stone, and then come out on ground level at the north gate, with a hundred feet of wall looming over you. Most of them didn’t know that, Andrew was convinced, and certainly not these new southerners.

He might stay there for a while until he could reach the dragon unseen. He looked everywhere for that thing but it could be seen nowhere. Andrew had wanted to eliminate the dragon before he could liberate the castle because killing that beast was the only way to liberate the castle. 

He was searching for the dragon when he saw a man pushing and wrestling with a woman near the armory. She seemed to be trying to get away from his grasp but was failing in it. Andrew watched it from the top. His plan would have him stay hidden and leave it be and for a heartbeat he thought of doing so. But then he remembered the wrongings done to the people and what good he is than the Targaryens if he let them happen. 

Andrew climbed down the turret and entered the inner tunnel of the inner wall and moved swiftly always searching for any guards. He came out to the ground by the north gate and crossed the yard to the armory in the cover of night. 

The man was pushing the woman against the wall of the armory. He had a dark cloak hanging from his shoulders, another one of the Targaryen men. 

"Hey," Andrew called, walking over to him. "Showing the strength to a woman now, are we?" 

The man took a look at him and then turned again to the woman. "Mind yer business." 

Andrew put his hand at the guard's shoulder to turn him back to him. Irritated, the guard swung his hand to hit his head. Andrew ducked under his hand and punched at his ribs with his left hand, connected his right fist at his jaw and then again punched his left jaw with his left. He grasped the guard's head and smashed it against the wall, once, twice, thrice and then pushed his limp body to the ground. 

"Are you alright?" he asked the woman on the ground. Her clothes were torn, lips broken and bleeding. There was a deep purple bruise on her cheek where the guard had hit her. 

She looked up at him from the ground, holding her torn clothes over her breast. "Yes," she said looking at him and Andrew saw her eyes growing wide in shock and surprise. She got up at once and Andrew could see her face now. 

"Your grace," Lynora said going to one knee. 

Andrew lifted her back up. "Get up. Do you still remember me?"

His mother's handmaid threw her arms around him and hugged him. "Of course, I do," she said. "How could I not? It's just there in the face but your hair, it's your-"

"My mother's," Andrew finished for her with a smile. 

"But how did you... We thought you were dead." 

"Long story," Andrew told her. "Now is not the right time."

"Right," Lynora nodded. 

"I need your help," he told Lynora. 

"Whatever you want, your grace."

"Wake maester Walys and our men, tell them what happened here. I will need all the help I could get to do this." 

"At once, your grace." His mother's handmaid bowed and left him there in the dark. 

It felt strange to hear her call him 'Your Grace.' He had heard her call Queen Ashara and King Eddard as 'Your Graces' when he was a prince. Everyone in the north had called his mother and father as 'Your Grace' but it was new to him. 

He was waiting by the armory when Lynora brought a handful of men. He had thought to see them all groggy from sleep but none of them had a hint of sleep in their face. They seemed so eager to meet this self-proclaimed son of King Eddard and Queen Ashara but Andrew was hesitant to show himself out to them. He did not know how they would react to him. But then again all of them were here atleast to see that if he is true when he is known to be dead to this world. He had thought them to send Lynora back telling her that their prince is dead with their king and queen. That much was good enough for him to step out from the dark and into the light. 

They all looked at him for a quiet few seconds, so intently that Andrew feared that they might not believe or accept him. If they are not going to believe me, I'll make them believe me. He was about to tell them of what happened that day at Starfall when one by one all went down to one knee. Everyone from Maester Walys to Jory and Ser Rodrik to Mikken and Farlen to Desmond and Fat Tom, all went down to one knee with a single word from their mouths.  

"Your Grace."

"Get up," Andrew told them. "You don't have to do that." 

His men stayed on one knee, their heads bowed down. Andrew picked up Maester Walys and Ser Rodrik and the others followed. 

"We never thought to see you alive and well," Maester Walys said. 

"How did you escape?" Ser Rodrik asked. "We heard that you were killed, my king."

"Mother saved me," Andrew told them. "And I'm here now to get justice for mother and father and everyone who died that day. For that I need your help." 

"Give us the command, sire," Farlen said. "We'll do anything for you." 

He could almost sense the work half done at that. "Mikken, I need one of your best spears," he told the armorer. "Maester Walys, bring me the deadliest poisons from your stores." 

He could see that everyone was confused at that. 

"What are you going to do, your grace?" Ser Rodrik asked. 

"I'm going to kill a dragon."

Chapter Text

Jaehaerys

One moment he was asleep; the next, awake.

It was the black of night. The bedchamber was dark and still.

What is it? Did I hear something? Someone?

Wind sighed faintly against the shutters. Somewhere, far off, he heard the hoot of an owl in the dark. Nothing else. Sleep, he told himself. The castle is quiet, and you have guards posted. At your door, at the gates, on the armory.

He might have put it down to a bad dream, but he did not remember dreaming. The day had worn him out. He ought to be back at King's Landing for his brother's marriage, leaving this cold place for good. But this new found trouble of outlaws in the wolfswood has kept him here. He would not go back to his father as a failure. It is time he proved himself to his father, to prove that he is capable of ruling a kingdom. Jaehaerys had sent Ser Derek hunting after them but there has been no more words from him. Nothing from Waterspring too, other than some stupid talk of the common folk. To speak of ghosts and grumkins, Jaehaerys had already heard them in the stories of his wetnurses. He had never been afraid of them then, why should he fear them now?

He slid out from his bed and got to his feet. A few embers still smoldered in the hearth. Nothing moved. Jaehaerys crossed to the window and threw open the shutters. Night touched him with cold fingers, and gooseprickles rose on his bare skin. He leaned against the stone sill and looked out on dark towers, empty yards, black sky, and more stars than a man could ever count if he lived to be a hundred. A half-moon floated above the Bell Tower and cast its reflection on the roof of the glass gardens. He heard no alarums, no voices, not so much as a footfall.

All's well, Jae. Hear the quiet? You ought to be drunk with joy. You are the Lord of Winterfell. The boy who took the castle from the King in the North, a feat to sing of. He started back to bed. But something about the quiet unnerved him.

He stopped. He had grown so used to the different sounds in Winterfell that he scarcely heard it anymore... but some part of him, some hunter's instinct, heard its absence.

Kent stood outside his door, a tall and lean man with a round shield slung over his back. "The castle is so quiet," Jaehaerys told him. "Go to the Walls and see if anything is wrong, and come straight back." The thought of the outlaws inside his walls gave him a queasy feeling. It was a tricksy thought of ruling Winterfell and at the same time of being in enemy territory. The northerners could easily overpower him and his men here and Jaehaerys had no doubt that they would if it was not for Viserion.

Quade was sleeping on the floor, huddled up in his cloak. When Jaehaerys prodded him with the toe of his boot, Quade sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Make certain Walys Flowers and Ser Rodrik are in their beds, and be quick about it."

Of all the people in Winterfell, Jaehaerys distrusted the maester and the knight more than anyone. He had stripped the old knight's post as the master-at-arms of Winterfell and replaced him with Quade, a loyal man of his. If only Jaehaerys had the possibility of changing the maester, he would've done it at once.

Jaehaerys poured himself a cup of wine and drank it down as he waited. All the time he was listening, hoping to hear a sound. Too few men, he thought sourly. I have too few men if the north chooses to rise up for a ghost. His only thought was on Viserion. He might need him now.

Quade returned the quickest, shaking his head side to side. Cursing, Jaehaerys found his tunic and breeches on the floor where he had dropped them in his haste to get to his sleep. Over the tunic he donned a jerkin of iron-studded leather, and he belted a longsword and dagger at his waist. His hair was wild as the wood, but he had larger concerns.

By then Kent was back. "The men at the outer walls are gone."

Jaehaerys told himself he must be as brave and feared as a dragon. "Rouse the castle," he said. "Herd them out into the yard, everyone, we'll see who's missing. And have Jyke make a round of the gates. Quade, with me."

He wondered if Ser Derek had dealt with the outlaws yet. The man was the best fighter he had to offer — and the one people feared the most. For a moment he wondered if he made a mistake by sending Darkfang away. He might have been so useful right now. Moreover Darkfang took most of his men from Waterspring in his pursuit of the Lightning Lord and the Brotherhood.

Maester Walys's turret was empty, as was Rodrik Cassel's bedchamber near the armoury. Jaehaerys cursed himself. He should have kept a guard on them, but he'd trusted the men enough to keep quiet and go on with their life.

Outside he heard sobbing as the castle folk were pulled from their beds and driven into the yard. I'll give them reason to sob. I've used them gently, and this is how they repay me. He'd even had kept some of Eddard Stark's loyal men alive only to show them he meant to be good to them. He never allowed his men to even touch the handmaid Lynora, to mean that they were safe in his rule. They still blame me for the deaths, though. Deaths that were caused even before he arrived here. He deemed that unfair. Hullen, the old master of horse, Vayon Poole who was Stark's steward and others who got themselves killed because they stood up for their dead king and his lost cause, just as the old man Stark had. He wondered how many of them were part of this new plot against him.

Kent returned with Jyke. "The Hunter's Gate," Jyke said. "Best come see."

The Hunter's Gate was conveniently sited close to the kennels and kitchens. It opened directly on fields and forests, allowing riders to come and go without first passing through the winter town, and so was favored by hunting parties. "Who had the guard here?" Jaehaerys demanded.

"Vaith and Tris."

"If they've let anyone inside the walls in their want for rest, I'll have their eyelids off so that they won't find the need to sleep again, I swear it."

"No need for that," Jyke said curtly.

Nor was there. They found Tris floating facedown in the moat, along with three other men. Jaehaerys found one to be Jofer and the others to be Grent and Selth. Vaith lay near the gatehouse, in the snug room where the drawbridge was worked. Half of his face had been bloodied and bashed. A ragged tunic concealed his torso, but his breeches was unlaced. His sword and dagger were hanging from his belt lying near the door. Blades still in their sheath, Jaehaerys observed.

"Tris was up on the wallwalk, no?"

"Aye," said Jyke.

"The other three were up on the outer walls," Jaehaerys picked up Vaith's belt from the ground. "I'd say someone climbed inside the castle and threw them down. Someone find a pike and fish the other fools out of the moat."

The other fools were in a deal worse shape than Vaith. When Jyke drew them out of the water, they saw that all were killed by the use of blades unlike Vaith.

"The outlaws," Jaehaerys said. "Walys and Rodrik helped them into the castle, at a guess." Disgusted, he walked back to the drawbridge. Winterfell was encircled by two massive granite walls, with a wide moat between them. The outer wall stood eighty feet high, the inner more than a hundred. When Ser Derek took men in his pursuit after the brotherhood, Jaehaerys had only put four men to hold the outer walls and and post most of his guards along the higher inner walls. He dared not risk having them on the wrong side of the moat should the castle rise against him.

There had to be someone who lent help from the inside, he decided.

Jaehaerys called for a torch and led them up the steps to the wallwalk. He swept the flame low before him, looking for... there. On the inside of the rampart and in the wide crenel between two upthrust merlons. "Blood," he announced, "At a guess, someone killed the first one and pushed him into the moat. The others heard the splash of water, came to have a look, and followed him into the moat. They threw the corpses into the moat so they wouldn't be found by another sentry."

Kent peered along the walls. "The other watch turrets are not far. I see torches burning—"

"Torches, but no guards," Jaehaerys said testily. "Winterfell has more turrets than I have men."

"Four guards walked the outer walls," said Kent, "The others, the best number of them occupied the inner walls."

Hogan said, "If someone had sounded his horn—"

I am served by fools. "Try and imagine it was you up here, Hogan. It's dark and cold. You have been walking sentry for hours, looking forward to the end of your watch. Then you hear a noise and move up the wall, and suddenly someone fall upon you. Or men you thought to be as friends suddenly turn upon you. What would you do?" He gave Hogan a hard shove. "Tell me, at what moment during all of this do you stop to blow your fucking horn?"

"Whom do you think to have climbed into the castle?" Kent asked.

"Who else," Jaehaerys told him. "The brotherhood, of course."

He could see that Kent did not believe him. The statement was written well upon his face.

"Don't you think it was the outlaws then?" Jaehaerys asked him.

Kent looked straight at him. "We have always had a small defense in the outer walls, my prince but in all our years here we've never had an outsider infiltrating the castle."

"Who do you think did this then?" Jaehaerys asked. "The maester or the old knight?"

"Neither," Kent said. "There's been talks from Waterspring, my prince."

Not this thing again, thought Jaehaerys. He has important things to do other that to worry about ghosts. "So you think my uncle's ghost killed them all?"

"There's been talks of people seeing him, my prince."

"That is exactly what it is," Jaehaerys told him. "Some stupid talk of the smallfolk. If Eddard Stark's ghost is really here, I'll be the first one he'll try to kill. I sit in his throne, I eat from his plate, drink from his cup, sleep in his bed where he fucked his queen Ashara. He has no reason to kill the guards. Now, are you stupid to believe these stupid talks?" 

"Have you called in the household?"

"They are herded in the yard," Quade said.

"Good," said Jaehaerys. "I had best go speak with my loyal subjects."

Down in the yard, an uneasy crowd of men, women, and children had been pushed up against the wall. Most of them covered themselves with woolen blankets, or huddled under cloaks or bedrobes. Two dozen guards hemmed them in, torches in one hand and weapons in the other. The wind was gusting, and the flickering orange light reflected dully off steel helms, thick beards, and unsmiling eyes.

Jaehaerys walked up and down before the prisoners, studying the faces. They all looked guilty to him. "How many are missing?"

"Eight." Quade stepped up behind him, his long hair moving in the wind. "Both the maester and Rodrik Cassel, the armourer and Farlen and the other guards of Stark."

I should have put them to death so they can serve their king from their graves.

"Has anyone had a look at the stables?"

"Aggar says no horses are missing."

So they are either in the castle or they're afoot, then. That was the best news he'd heard since he woke. He would need to sort out the traitors from this lot first. Or maybe investigate as to if they were still inside. "Someone has killed my men in my castle," he told the castle folk, watching their eyes. "Who knows about the murderers?" No one answered. "They could not have done this without help," Jaehaerys went on. He had locked away every sword and axe in Winterfell, but no doubt some had been hidden from him. "I'll have the names of all those who aided them. All those who turned a blind eye." The only sound was the wind. "Come first light, I mean to bring them to justice." He hooked his thumbs through his swordbelt. "I need huntsmen. And a loyal man to say who did this?" None had anything to say now. Jaehaerys walked back the way he had come, searching their faces for the least sign of guilty knowledge. "I might have killed every man of you and given your women to my soldiers for their pleasure, but instead I protected you. Is this the thanks you offer?" Joseth who'd groomed the horses, Murch, Garris — not one of them would meet his eyes. They hate me, he realized.

Quade stepped close. "Take captives of them, my prince," he urged. "If sweet words won't loose their tongue, a pair of hot pincers ought too."

His grandfather might have done that for sure or bathe all of them in his precious wildfire.

"There will be no means of such punishment in the north so long as I rule in Winterfell," Jaehaerys said loudly. I am your only protection against the likes of him, he wanted to scream. He could not be that blatant, but perhaps some were clever enough to take the lesson.

The sky was greying over the castle walls. Dawn could not be far off. "I'll give you this one last chance to show your loyalty." He looked at them silently.

"Very well-," Jaehaerys was saying when a couple of shadows came out from the broken tower in the the early morning gloom. They were followed by a few more men, all with steel in hand except for the maester of course. 

"Good," Jaehaerys told them. "Now that all of you are here, we might talk about the penalty for your treason and murders."

"Murder," Desmond spat from Ser Rodrik's side.

Maester Walys walked to him. "My lord prince," he said, "you must yield."

Jaehaerys stared at him with wide eyes. How dare he? If the old man thinks he might frighten me with a little resistance he is mistaken. "There will be no yielding. Now tell me, did you help any outlaws in? Where are they hiding?"

"Funny how your father called His Grace as an Outlaw," Ser Rodrik said. "And now you should call him by the same name."

"Enough," Jaehaerys snapped. He was done with these sly talks. "I will have order."

"We will never get that in your father's rule."

"So this is it," Jaehaerys said. "You would sooner die in some dead man's name rather than live." When no one moved he continued. "If it is war you want then so be it." Jaehaerys turned to Quade. "Bring me my mail and armour, Quade."

He looked at all the people in the yard, outnumbering him and his men by a good number. All of them looking at him with blank, accusing faces, the people who were his own people once. He knew that they would turn on him as soon as the fight began. Murch, Garris and Poxy Tyn had already joined the resistance. The others would do that as well, he knew. But the prince of Winterfell had other ideas. "Men," he shouted to his own guards. "Prepare for battle."

As his shout echoed through the morning wind, Jaehaerys heard a faint flap of wings in the distance. A faint smile graced his lips as he saw the fear and doubts in the faces of the small folk.  

That's good. Mercy was for this morning,  thought Jaehaerys. It is better to be feared than laughed at. Mercy was before they made me angry.

Chapter Text

Andrew

When Andrew got the poisons from Maester Walys and fresh made castle forged spear from Mikken he knew that it was time. His chosen lair was the broken tower. Once it had been a watchtower, the tallest in Winterfell. A long time ago, a hundred years before even his father had been born, a lightning strike had set it afire. The top third of the structure had collapsed inward, and the tower had never been rebuilt. Sometimes his father sent ratters into the base of the tower, to clean out the nests they always found among the jumble of fallen stones and charred and rotten beams. But no one ever got up to the jagged top of the structure now except for the crows stayed there.

He observed two ways to get up there. You could climb straight up the side of the tower itself, but the stones were loose, the mortar that held them together long gone to ash, and Andrew was not ready to put his full weight on them.

The other and the best way was to start from the godswood, shinny up the tall sentinel, and cross over the armory and the guards hall, leaping roof to roof, quietly so the guards wouldn't hear you overhead. That will bring you up to the blind side of the First Keep, the oldest part of the castle, a squat round fortress that was taller than it looked. Only rats and spiders lived there now but the old stones still made for good climbing. You could go straight up to where the gargoyles leaned out blindly over empty space, and swing from gargoyle to gargoyle, hand over hand, around to the north side. From there, if you really stretched, you could reach out and pull yourself over to the broken tower where it leaned close. The last part was the scramble up the blackened stones to the eyrie, no more than ten feet, and then the crows would come round to see if you'd brought any corn.

He crossed the godswood, coming at the base of the sentinel tree near the armory wall. Andrew jumped, grabbed a low branch, and pulled himself up. He was halfway up the tree, moving easily from limb to limb. Somewhere behind him an owl hooted blindly in the dark. The godswood was still as a stone and even the trees did not seem to sway. The silence might have scared him once but he almost welcomed it now. 

He climbed to the top and jumped off onto the armory roof and out of sight.

For an assassin the rooftops were his second home. He spent most of his time following or stalking someone from above and even brought death to people from air. Most of the time they never saw him there anyway. People never looked up. That was another thing he liked about being in the rooftops; it was almost like being invisible. His mother often said to Andrew that he could be whoever he wants to be. Will she be happy to know that he is an assassin? Will his father be happy about it? Will the honourable King Eddard be proud to know that his son is an assassin? Somehow he dreaded the answer. He could only hope that they understand him. That he did not choose this path he was walking but instead this path chose him.

As a boy, Winterfell had always awed him with it's massive walls and towers. The place was so big that Andrew had played the lazy boy with his mother just so she would carry him and he would be spared of walking. His father would urge him to walk all his way when he turned four but even he can be swayed in his decisions and none knew the way to sway the King in the North as good as his wife and young son. Being big had its advantages too. It made a great place for exploring for young children. None knew the castle well and full which had left it with many hidden places amongst the ruins.

He moved from gargoyle to gargoyle with the ease of long practice. When he reached the tower near the First Keep Andrew looked down. There was a narrow ledge beneath the window, only a few inches wide. He tried to lower himself toward it. Too far. He would never reach.

He studied the ledge. He could drop down. It was too narrow to land on, but if he could catch hold as he fell past, pull himself up. That might work or he could fall to his death. Yet it was the only way to get there. Andrew closed his eyes, took a deeb breath and let go of his grip from the gargoyle. He shot out a hand as he fell, grabbed for the ledge, lost it, caught it again with his other hand. He swung against the building, hard. The impact took the breath out of him. Andrew dangled, one-handed, panting.

He looked down where the courtyard swam dizzily below him, its stones still wet with melted snow visible only by the light of the moon. Andrew lifted the sack over his back with his free hand and threw it inside the room through the window. He threw up his other hand and grabbed onto the ledge and pulled himself up. He came up to view inside the room and climbed inside. 

A flock of crows took flight as he stepped in, their black wings beating against the night air, flying so close and fast that he heard their flapping near his ears. Andrew shielded himself from the dust which swirled around in their wake. For a moment he feared if the tower might collapse all the way to the ground burying him in a rubble of stones. But the moment passed and nothing happened. The tower stood still. 

Above him, all the world had gone black, and he could see the faint light of distant stars. The moon was still high in the sky. It is still the hour of wolf Andrew figured by the look of it. Dawn is still a bit away. Below his men would be carrying on the orders he had given them. Andrew was surprised to see them remember him with just a look of him. It only took a look for them to remember him as their prince. The north remembers, he heard his father's voice say somewhere. Or was it in my heart. . . he never knew the answer. 

He had told them to put the dead in the places where the Targaryen prince could find them. He will want to find the killers for sure when he finds that it is not a safe place for him anymore. Any luck he might bring his dragon to the ground too trying to squeeze the answer out from the people through fear. 

And that might be his chance. Foolish that it may be, it is the only way to root out the Targaryen power from the north. It was no easy thing to slay a dragon, but it can be done. Throughhout history there has been legends of heroes and knights slaying dragons from all times.

Ser Galladon of Morne, the Perfect Knight once slew a dragon with his enchanted sword The Just Maid. Then there was Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, a legendary hero from the Age of Heroes. Andrew had his father tell him tales of Serywn when he was a little boy. The greatest accomplishment of Serywn was slaying Urrax, the largest dragon that ever lived. He approached the dragon behind his shield. Urrax saw only his own reflection until Serwyn had plunged his spear through his eye. There had been a knight who'd tried the same thing with another dragon once. He had heard that story too. He had forgotten the knight's name who had tried to kill Vhagar or was it Syrax. . . it was hard to remember. It had happened hundreds of years ago, when brother fought sister in the war the singers called the Dance of the Dragons. The knight had tried the same ploy that Serwyn had used to slay Urrax thousands of years ago. But unlike Serwyn the poor knight was roasted for his trouble. 

The Dornish had killed a dragon during Aegon's conquest. Meraxes, Queen Rhaenys' dragon fell to an iron bolt as it went through her eye. And some tales claim dragons  once roosted on Battle Isle until the first Hightower put an end to them. His mother had heard the tales from her mother who was a Hightower so Andrew believed them to be true. 

Whatever the tales said, the men who slew dragons were loved and clebrated by the smallfolk. There were songs sung of the valor of Ser Galladon and Serwyn and they remained the favorites of the smallfolk. 

Will they sing songs about me? Andrew wondered. Will they call him Andrew Dragonsbane, Andrew the Dragonslayer or will it be Andrew the Absurd? They are welcome to write whatever they want about him and if he should fail let it be known that Andrew Stark went down fighting for his right and family.

But he had his last and best option to slay the beast. He looked behind him and saw Frost on the floor. The crystal on the end of the pommel glimmered blue in the moonlight. From the moment Andrew laid eyes on the sword he knew that Frost was different, even different from the other valyrian steel swords he had seen. His father's sword had been valyrian steel, spell-forged. Andrew had held it more than once when he had been a little boy with the help of his father. But Ice had been dark, a dark smokey grey that the blade seemed black in certain light. His uncle's sword was the exact opposite of his father's Ice. His mother had told him various stories of how the sword was made. Dawn had been forged from the heart of the fallen star by the God of Skies and Thunder whom legends claim as the founder of House Dayne. Though Dawn was different from valyrian steel by no means it was any less impressive than valyrian steel. Dawn was pale as the moon itself and the blade had always awed Andrew as it seemed to have contained the entire power and light of the sun. Every time he held Dawn in his hands he saw that the blade was alive with light. He wondered what happened to both the swords and where they were now? 

Frost was different from them as well. Blue and grey the ripples ran, deep within the blue steel. Near the bronze crossguard there were ancient runes engraved into the blade. There were times Andrew could swear that he saw the sword glowing in a frozen blue glow. And it did not stop at that. The blade was so cold that one could barely touch it when it glows. It was a sword fit for a hero. When he was small, his mother and Old Nan had filled his ears with tales of valor, regaling him with the noble exploits of Ser Galladon of Morne, Florian the Fool, Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, and other champions. His father and uncle had earned their places in that company and each man bore a famous sword, and surely Frost belonged in their company, right beside Ice and Dawn even if Andrew did not belong with King Eddard and Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning.

In the sack he had the things he got from the maester and the armorer. When he had asked for poisons, maester Walys came back from his workroom with his ointments, potions, and medicines which had stood neatly on a little wooden box. Andrew had visited the Maester's turret more than once when he was a child to feed the ravens. Maester Walys' workroom in his chambers had been filled with various medicines and potions and other shiny vials which the maester taught him as poisons. From the wooden box with dozens of blocks all filled with different vials and jars Andrew took a vial of indigo glass, no larger than his little finger, behind a row of salves in squat clay jars. It rattled when he shook it. He blew away a layer of dust. Andrew pulled the stopper and spilled out the vial's contents. A dozen crystals, no larger than seeds, rattled across his hand. They shone like jewels in the candlelight, so purple that he found himself thinking about the amethysts in his mother's jewels and clothes.

He touched one of the crystals lightly with the tip of his little finger. 

"Such a small thing to hold the power of life and death," Maester Walys had told him when he gave him the poisons. "It was made from a certain plant that grew only on the islands of the Jade Sea, half a world away. The leaves had to be aged, and soaked in a wash of limes and sugar water and certain rare spices from the Summer Isles. Afterward they could be discarded, but the potion must be thickened with ash and allowed to crystallize. The process was slow and difficult, the necessaries costly and hard to acquire. The alchemists of Lys knew the way of it, though, and the Faceless Men of Braavos... and the maesters of Citadels as well, though it was not something talked about beyond the walls of the Citadel. All the world knew that a maester forged his silver link when he learned the art of healing — but the world preferred to forget that men who knew how to heal also knew how to kill."

Andrew had looked at the maester with wide eyes. He had never imagined that calm and brilliant maester Walys was capable of taking people's lives.

He never knew the name the Asshai'i gave the leaf, or the Lysene poisoners the crystal. Maester Walys had simply called It as the strangler. Dissolved in wine, it would make the muscles of a man's throat clench tighter than any fist, shutting off his windpipe. They said a victim's face turned as purple as the little crystal seed from which his death was grown, but so too did a man choking on a morsel of food.

It may not be of help right now. He dropped the crystals back Into the vial and kept it back in its place. He skipped past the next two rows and took a red vial with a lid fashioned in the shape of a manticore head. Of all the jars and vials before him Andrew was wary of the manticore venom the most. Where the other poisons came were all prepared by the use of natural means the manticore venom was prepared by means of darker stuff. 

The venom was extracted from manticore but it was thickened with sorcery and spells to work against different creatures even magical ones. 

When Andrew heard that Maester Walys knew to use spells, he had never believed him at first. 

The thin maester had regarded him with cool grey eyes. "A maester forges his chain in the Citadel of Oldtown. It's a chain because you swear to serve, and it's made of different metals because you serve the realm and the realm has different sorts of people. Every time you learn something you get another link. Black iron is for ravenry, silver for healing, gold for sums and numbers. I don't remember them all."

Walys slid a finger up under his collar and began to turn it, inch by inch. He had a thick robe for a small man, and the chain was tight, but a few pulls had it all the way around. "This is Valyrian steel," he said when the link of dark grey metal lay against his chest. "Only one maester in a hundred wears such a link. This signifies that I have studied what the Citadel calls the higher mysteries—magic, for want of a better word. A fascinating pursuit, but of small use, which is why so few maesters trouble themselves with it.

"All those who study the higher mysteries try their own hand at spells, soon or late. I yielded to the temptation too, I must confess it. Well, I was a boy, and what boy does not secretly wish to find hidden powers in himself? I got no more for my efforts than a thousand boys before me and thousand since. But the old powers are waking now, my king."

Andrew wondered if his father ever knew that maester Walys knew spells. He would have known, he decided then. His father had known the maester as a boy even before he became king. He should've known.

He sat down with his back against the wall and waited for dawn. As he waited, he sharpened the spearhead with a piece of stone, taking a queer comfort from the scrape of steel on stone. He removed the lid from the vial containing the manticore venom and spilled the venom carefully over the spearhead and coating the steel with it. He kept the spear point facing away from him knowing that a single cut could lead to a slow and agonizing death.

He slept for a while and woke up to the dreams of blood and death. Andrew took his waterskin out and had a large drink from It. He was washing his face when he heard a faint whisper of voices in the air. Andrew pushed himself up and walked to the window and peered down. The yard was filled with the castle's household, all huddled in their cloaks. From the top they looked like gargoyles standing in the dark. But gargoyles did not talk nor did they weep. He wondered how many of the innocents were standing there fearing the punishment. 

He had asked his men to show themselves out as the murderers so that the innocent people won't be punished. But even that meant bad for the ones who took the blame. They are innocents too and they might very well be put to death for his actions if he fails. 

Andrew looked up to the skies and searched desperately for the dragon. The sky was still grey and clear as a silent pool. There was no sign of the beast. He stood by the window and watched everything happening beneath his tower. He would have liked to hear what the Targaryen prince was saying but he was too far away from him. 

He knew that trouble was brewing below when Ser Rodrik and the others came out from their hideout. Andrew saw them walk to the prince, steel in hand. He unsheathed Frost. If it came to fight the Targaryens outnumbered his men. He would not stand aside and watch them get slaughtered for his actions. 

He was about to vault out of the window when a shadow rippled across his face.

Too big to be an eagle's or a raven's. In the yard the voices stilled. Every eye turned skyward. A warm wind brushed Andrew's cheeks, and above the beating of his heart he heard the sound of wings. The people below dashed for shelter. Andrew saw the Targaryen prince stand still where he stood.

Above them all the dragon turned, pale against the gloomy dawn. His scales were cream, his eyes and horns and spinal plates gold. Of all the creatures Andrew Stark had seen in his life he had never seen a larger or more magnificent one. His wings stretched twenty feet from tip to tip, pale as skin. The dragon flapped them once as he swept back above the fresh fallen snow, and the sound was like a clap of thunder. The dragon raised his head and roared, filling the morning air in terror.

Andrew leaned against the wall, hiding in the shadows. He could hear the shouts and screams from below. The spear was on the other side of the room. He rolled over to the spear and clutched it in his hand, tightly. 

Andrew stayed in the shadows and looked down to see where the dragon was. The dragon was snapping at his men. How long would it take for that thing to lay waste to Winterfell, he wondered. I have to kill it before it does that. 

He saw his men surrounding the dragon, raising their swords and spears above to fight. For a moment he it felt as if the dragon did not want to fight but it bared it black teeth all the same. Everyone in the yard was so occupied with the creature that none noticed him there. 

The dragon was only some ten feet away from where he was. His men were doing a good job of keeping it distracted. I could make the throw right now. He gripped the spear hard and willed himself to move . . . but his legs won't. He was scared. Scared like a little boy upon seeing the dragon. 

I cannot let him see my fear. If I let him see me scared, I'm good as dead. Ser Rodrik saw him from the ground when he somehow made himself to look at them again. He had a chance to thrust the poisoned spear at the dragon's neck when his long serpentine neck bent like an archer's bow. But he waited for a little too late and the moment passed. He looked at Ser Rodrik and his men again, fighting against the monster believing in their king and felt ashamed.

Ser Rodrik gazed up at him with a fond look. With that the old knight raised his spear and darted forward towards the dragon.

No, Andrew thought. I only told you to lure him towards me.

"For Winterfell," Ser Rodrik shouted and leapt onto his back and drove the iron spearpoint down at the base of the dragon's long scaled neck. He leaned into his spear, using his weight to twist the point in deeper. The dragon arched upward with a hiss of pain. His tail lashed sideways. Andrew watched his head crane around at the end of that long serpentine neck, saw his white wings unfold. Ser Rodrik lost his footing and went tumbling to the sand. He was trying to struggle back to his feet when the dragon's teeth closed hard around his forearm. He opened his mouth and a stream of pale golden fire with streaks of red engulfed Ser Rodrik. 

"No" was all that he had time to shout. A dozen other women and men alike screamed as they saw the burning body of Ser Rodrik Cassel.

Ser Rodrik's spear remained in the dragon's back, wobbling as the dragon beat his wings. Smoke rose from the wound. As the other spears closed in, the dragon spat fire, bathing two of the runners in pale flame. His tail lashed sideways and caught Fat Tom creeping up behind him, breaking him in two.

The world seemed to slow as Andrew watched everything happen from atop his tower. He had asked those men to fight for him. He came all this way to . . . not to stand idle while others died for him. Andrew did not knew what he was afraid of. He never feared the dragon the whole time he stayed here.

I planned to kill the thing and I'm going to kill it. And if I'm wrong, if I die here, then . . . what more could I lose. He had nothing else to lose in this world other than his life. He would sooner throw the thing away to be with his father and mother and Joy. In the ground he saw Desmond shouting, "Me! Try me. Over here. Me!"

The dragon roared and the sound filled Winterfell. His head turned. Andrew saw that his time had come. All the training and hours spent in the yard was right for this moment. He held the spear over his shoulder and threw it at the dragon with all his might. The spear rushed past in the blink of an eye. For a moment he thought, he missed and then he heard the shrill cry rippling across the world trying to crack the earth. The beast's dying scream sounded almost human. Smoke rose from his wounded eye. His blood was smoking too, where it dripped upon the ground. He beat his wings again, sending up a choking storm of white snow. The dragon tried to claw his way up the air.

He is trying to escape, Andrew figured. He unsheathed Frost and leapt out the window and into the air. In his haste to get away from death, the dragon showed him it's most vulnerable parts, his gullet and belly where the scales were not so thick as the ones upon his body.

Andrew buried Frost right at the dragon's long throat. His heart stopped for a sudden moment as he hung there, dangling from the hilt of his sword buried deep in the dragon's throat.

His roar was full of fear and fury, full of pain. He lashed his neck right and left and spat pale fire around him. The beast gripped the tower with his black claws and inched up higher. Andrew yanked Frost down, putting all his weight at the hilt. The blade did not budge. He tried again and again and again. Frost cut through the dragon's hide halfway on his fifth try. It startled him as much as it should've done the dragon. The sword cut through the scaled neck as if it was a cheesecloth. Andrew felt the ground approaching quickly and jumped away from the dragon, twenty feet from the ground. He landed first, on a patch of old snow followed by the huge crash of the dragon behind him. His wings beat once, twice...

... and folded. The dragon gave one last hiss and stretched out flat upon his belly, dying. Gold and red the blood was flowing from the wound where Frost had opened it's gullet and half the belly, steaming where it dripped onto the snow.

The spear pressed in its neck wrenched free and fell on the ground in the crash. The point was half-melted, the iron red-hot, glowing. The air was thick with snow and ash. 

When he stood up, he glimpsed the northerners and the southerners alike had gone pale and looked at him with eyes blown big and wide.

He was used to those looks so much that he did not trouble himself with it now. Desmond and the others who survived the bloody thing looked relieved that it is dead now. There was a sharp pain at his waist where he had collided with the dragon.

"Who are you?" the Targaryen prince asked looking at his dead dragon.

Andrew straightened himself, a hand clutching at his waist. "The Prince of Winterfell."

There was a sudden gasp in the croud. "It's Prince Andrew," someone whispered from the crowd. "It's His Grace," someone else said. There was a sudden shift in the crowd as they moved to his side.

His violet eyes snapped back from the dragon to gaze at him. "It's not possible."

"Dead men walk the earth now, haven't you heard?"

"It is you who killed my men?"

"Aye," Andrew told him.  

It was not done yet. Jaehaerys Targaryen has more men than him. The dragon had killed four of his best men and would've killed more give more time.His body ached terribly where he slammed into the dragon and he would not fare well in another fight. He will need the help of  Ghost. Andrew hoped that the white wolf was somewhere near. He came for his aid once when he needed him the most and the need has arisen again. 

"Desmond," Andrew called his guard. 

"Yes, Your Grace?" the man went down to one knee. 

"Open the gates." 

"At once, Your Grace." He did just as he said. The gates of Winterfell were soon opened and Andrew waited for Ghost. 

A Targaryen guard approached his prince. "Should we fight them, my prince?"

Jaehaerys Targaryen eyed his band with a sharp look. "Take the pretender as a prisoner. Father will deal with him." He looked at the people who were once his own. "As for the others who joined him, well, they can answer for their treasons with their lives."

The people behind him all took the weapons they could get and got ready to fight. Even with all of them it was still not enough to fight trained soldiers. He cannot hope to with this fight without Ghost. 

The Targaryen guards approached him hesitantly. Before they could come half the way, a blur of white fur rushed to his side. The white wolf never made any sound and no one saw him there until he showed himself to Andrew. 

Ghost circled him and put himself between Andrew and the dark cloaks. The direwolf bared his white teeth in a silent snarl and the guards stopped in their tracks when they saw Ghost before him. 

"Needing the help of a wolf, Stark?" his cousin asked. 

"That's gall," Andrew told him, "coming from the guy who brings in a dragon to burn innocents." 

At least he had the grace to be ashamed of that. Jaehaerys looked at him again, his defeat written clear upon his face. None of his guards were brave enough to come against Ghost and none tried to check their risk. 

"Now," Andrew said to his cousin. "You have nothing to worry about. I have no qualms with you. It is your father I seek. You can go back to King's Landing in peace and tell him that Eddard Stark's son is coming for him." 

"Screw that," Jaehaerys told him. "The dragon does not bow before a wolf. We could end this right here and right now. Call back your wolf and let us settle this in the old way. You fight for the Starks, I fight for the Targaryens and let's end this here and now in single combat."

"I'm offering you to go back in peace even after all this." 

"What's the matter Stark?" Jaehaerys asked him. "Afraid to fight your own battles? Didn't Ned Stark teach you how to duel? Didn't Ashara Dayne teach you manners? Huh, didn't mum teach you proper manners, Stark? Yeah, she was dead before you could wipe the drool off your chin." 

Andrew fisted his hand, trying to contain his anger. "I'll tell you one last time. Run back to your father. I don't have any problem with you." 

"My prince," a guard called his cousin. "I request you to see reason. We're lost. We can't win this fight."

"Shut up, Gwanye," Jaehaerys snapped at him. "I'll not run back to my father as a failure. Get my sword and shield." 

"Yes, my prince," the guard hurried away. 

Andrew turned back to the dead dragon. If he wants to have a fight, he shall have it. He found Frost still buried in the dragon's belly. When he removed the sword he saw that the sword was untouched by the heat of the dragon. Where the spears had melted off, Frost was unaffected from it. 

"Do you want a shield, Your Grace?" Desmond asked him. 

"No." He had never used a shield before. Using one now will probably get him killed. 

His waist was still hurting whenever he moved. He would want to make this as quick as he can. 

Jaehaerys Targaryen was clad in a cloth of mail and a black shield with a red dragon painted upon it. He was eager for the fight. Perhaps he sought to avenge his dragon by killing him or to earn the approval of his father.

The prince was fast, blazing fast, as quick as any man Andrew had ever fought. In those hands, the longsword became a whistling blur, a steel storm that seemed to come at him from three directions at once. Most of the cuts were aimed at his head. Jaehaerys was no fool. Without a helm and armor, Andrew was less guarded.

He blocked the blows calmly, Frost meeting each slash and turning it aside. The blades rang and rang again.Andrew retreated. On the edge of his vision, he saw the people watching with eyes as big and white as chicken eggs. Jaehaerys cursed and turned a high cut into a low one. Andrew found the cut at last moment and parried it away. Andrew's answering slash found the prince's left shoulder, moving past the mail to bite the flesh beneath. If there was blood it was hidden in the black tunic.

Jaehaerys was losing his temper as Frost slipped past his sword continuously to bleed him. Andrew could see it in his eyes: doubt, confusion, the beginnings of fear. The Targaryen prince came on again, screaming this time, as if sound could slay his foe where steel could not. The longsword slashed low, high, low again.

Andrew blocked the cuts without much trouble. When the Targaryen prince lunged so close to slash at his throat, Andrew darted below his sword and slashed at his calf as he emerged on the other side. Jaehaerys dropped to one knee but still slashed his blade wildly at his face. Andrew grasped his hand and slammed his elbow in his nose and pulled the blade away from his grasp. When Gwayne rushed forward coming to the aid of his prince, Ghost blocked him by putting himself between. When the loyal guard saw the direwolf he found the reason to back off.

He threw the sword away and watched the man kneeling before him, a boy. A boy, nothing more than his own sixteen years. Vengeance would've had him cut down but he had turned from that path a while ago. 

"Desmond," Andrew called. 

"Your Grace."

"Put him in irons," Andrew commanded. "We'll decide what to do with him after."

When the Targaryen prince and his men were bound and taken, it was Maester Walys to come before him and kneel at first. As he stood there, sword in hand with Ghost beside him, one by one the entire household of Winterfell dropped down to one knee and bowed their heads. Andrew looked over to the walls. The dragon banners of the Targaryens were pulled down and in their places the Stark direwolf once again flapped proudly. The wolves are back again, Andrew Stark thought and there was only one shout from the throats of all the people there, which seemsd to tremble the entire castle. "Stark, Stark, Stark."

Chapter Text

Andrew

Winterfell was full of ghosts for Andrew Stark.

This was not the castle he remembered from the summer of his youth. This place was scarred and broken, more pain than comfort, a haunt of crows and mists. The great double curtain wall and the castle inside the walls still stood, but there was something missing from it. Something which had been there once but not now. Andrew knew exactly what it was. For years he had dreamed about taking Winterfell back and standing in his home once again, but now that he is here he doesn't want to walk in. Too much pain. He has not even visited his parents' room. When he was a little boy he had loved to stay in that room and go to sleep with his parents, listening to his mother's song. Without them even that room is not so fond for him anymore. 

A few towers in the first keep had collapsed in his battle with the dragon. The thatch and timber had been consumed by dragonfire, in whole or in part. Under the glass panes of the Glass Garden his mother's roses had frozen and withered, the fruits and vegetables that would have fed the castle during the winter were dead and black. Andrew wondered what did he miss the most? The people who died, the unbroken towers, granite untouched by dragonfire. . . mother's love and father's care? It was them he missed the most, Eddard Stark and Ashara Dayne. He would've happily lived anywhere with his father and mother but without them even Winterfell felt like a ruin.

Plumes of grey smoke snaked up from the rebuilt kitchens and reroofed barracks keep. The battlements and crenellations were crowned with snow. All the color had been leached from Winterfell until only grey and white remained. The Stark colors. Andrew did not know whether he ought to find that ominous or reassuring. Even the sky was grey. Grey and grey and greyer. The whole world grey, everywhere you look.

All about the yard, Winterfell was crawling with people doing dozens of works. None was standing idle except for Andrew Stark. Everytime they chance to see him they bowed and muttered a happy 'Your Grace.'

They had raised the Stark direwolf above the walls of Winterfell as the wind came howling from the north. It was a comforting sight to see the Stark banner flapping in the wind. It had taken the lives of many good men to get that banner to stream proudly from the top again. Ser Rodrik and the others, he had them buried in the old licheyard where they might rest peacefully. 

The corpse of the dragon had been burned and the bones all collected in a sack. He would return them to Jaehaerys, the prince had earned them at least. He had cut off the head, that  might serve him though. I made myself the Dragonslayer, he thought, and from that came all of this. He might even have made himself a kinslayer but for her.

Andrew kept his eyes downcast as he crossed the yard, weaving between the people. I played in this yard, learned to swing a sword in this yard, he thought, remembering warm summer days playing with his father and mother, sparring under the watchful eyes of old Ser Rodrik. That was back when he was whole, when he still knew how to laugh and smile.

As he passed beneath the gatehouse portcullis, Andrew put two fingers into his mouth and whistled. Ghost came loping across the yard. He felt warm and happy in the presence of the white wolf. It comforted him to think that part of his family was still with him in the form of Ghost.

It was warmer in the godswood. Andrew Stark was no stranger to this godswood. He had played here as a boy, skipping stones across the cold black pool beneath the weirwood, hiding his treasures in the bole of an ancient oak, climbing up the great weirwood in the center. Once he learned to swim, he had bathed in the hot springs after many a days playing in the yard. In amongst these chestnuts and elms and soldier pines he had found secret places where he could hide. The first prayer he ever said had been here, before the brooding face of the weirwood. His parents used to spend many nights here and he would accompany them whenever he could.

Andrew made his way through the dense stands of oak and ironwood and sentinels, to the still pool beside the heart tree. He stopped under the thick white branches of the weirwood and its red leaves. A faint breeze blew past him, the dark red leaves brushing against his face.

Across the godswood, beneath the windows of the Guest House, an underground hot spring fed three small ponds. Steam rose from the water day and night, and the wall that loomed above was thick with moss. Andrew had soaked in the pools for hours long and loved the bubbles which rose from the murky green depths to break upon the surface. Today he did not find that interest though. 

Ghost lapped at the water and settled down at Andrew's side. He rubbed the wolf under the jaw, and for a moment him and the wolf both felt at peace. Andrew had always liked the godswood,  Even the heart tree and the quietness no longer scared him the way it used to the littlee boy. The deep red eyes carved into the pale trunk still watched him, yet somehow he took comfort from that now. The gods were looking over him, he told himself; the old gods, gods of the Starks and the First Men and the children of the forest, his father's gods. He felt safe in their sight, and the deep silence of the trees helped him think. 

Andrew found himself wondering if he should say a prayer. Will the old gods hear me if I do? They were his father's gods. Once they were his gods too but he had lost his faith in gods ever since that day at Starfall. And that night in Braavos didn't help as well. I loved a maid sweet as summer but Winter is coming. 

"Andrew," a voice seemed to whisper.

His head snapped up. "Father. Are you here?" All he could see were the trees and the fog that covered them. The voice had been as faint as rustling leaves, as stron as steel. A god's voice, or a ghost's.

Suddenly he did not want to be here.

Once outside the godswood the cold descended on him like a ravening wolf and caught him in its teeth. He lowered his head into the wind and made for the Great Hall, and then he remembered one more place he wished to see. A Stark place.

He crossed the Guest House and reached the Glass Gardens. When his father ruled Winterfell, the Glass Gardens had been the loveliest place in the entire castle. Queen Ashara herself took care of the garden and there were a dozen colors of roses stretched out to the ends. Andrew would come here with his mother everyday to pluck roses for her. Vynce the man at the gardens would give him berries everytime he visits. It was only a ruin now. There were no roses or flowers to light up the garden. 

Vynce was fitting some of the removed glass panes back in its place. "Your Grace," he bowed his head when he saw Andrew. "I would give you berries if only we had some."

Andrew chuckled. "I need some flowers. Roses would be the best."

"Of course, Your Grace," Vynce said and moved to the left corner where some plants were still alive, half concealed from the sun. The twilight blooms, the rarest of all the flowers, had been Queen Ashara Dayne's favorite. The rare violet rose blooms only in the twilight and would glow in twilight. It had a sweet fruity scent which would swoon a maiden's mind in a sniff. He had thought to take some of the roses but there were no twilight blooms to be seen. There were some winter roses though. That would do. His mother loved roses no matter what color they were.

"We've not used the gardens for years now, Your Grace," Vynce said as he plucked the roses, "but I've been taking care of these flowers in honor of your mother. Brilliant woman she was. Had a mind for gardening and everything else, of course." 

Andrew touched one blue petal of the rose. That was true, he thought. The north had thrived under his mother as the Queen in the North. She ruled the north as much as his father did. Queen Ashara the Benevolent, she was called by the people of the north and she deserved that name to the very end. 

"We never got your... their bones from the south, my lord," Vynce said. "The dragons forbid us to speak the Stark name. But the north remembers, Your Grace. We remember the Stark name." 

He picked up more roses and secured them gingerly in his other hand. When Vynce had removed half of the flowers from the plants, he bound them with a plume of pale blue silk and gave it to him. "Here you go, Your Grace."

"Thank you," Andrew said. He got the winter roses in hand and walked out of the gardens. Ghost followed him out silently. 

The door to the crypts was frozen shut. He had to pull it open, hinges screaming, to reveal stone steps spiraling down into darkness.

He got a torch and stepped down the spiral steps to the cold vault under the earth. Ghost followed behind him red eyes shining in the dark.

Andrew could not recall the last time he had been in the crypts. It had been before, for certain. When he was little, he used to come down here with father to meet grandfather and uncle.

Then the vault always seemed so dark and scary. Now it didn't scare him so. Ghost stalked out in the echoing gloom, then stopped, lifted his head, and sniffed the chill dead air. He bared his teeth and crept backward, eyes glowing red in the light of his torch. It's just death, Andrew thought. I've seen more of them in my life. 

He could feel the stone kings staring down at him with their stone eyes, stone fingers curled around the hilts of rusted longswords.

They were the Kings of Winter and the Kings in the North for thousands of years, all the grim folk who sat here. Andrew lifted the torch high so the light shone on the stone faces. Some were hairy and bearded, shaggy men fierce as the wolves that crouched by their feet. Others were shaved clean, their features gaunt and sharp-edged as the iron longswords across their laps. He strode briskly down the vault, past the procession of stone pillars and the endless carved figures. A tongue of flame trailed back from the upraised torch as he went.

The vault was cavernous, longer than Winterfell itself, and his mother had told him once that there were other levels underneath, vaults even deeper and darker where the older kings were buried. It would not do to lose the light. Ghost followed him hesitantly from the steps, always stopping and sniffing the air for any future dangers.

He looked at the passing faces and the tales came back to him. The maester had told him the stories, and Old Nan had made them come alive. He remembered Jon Stark. When the sea raiders landed in the east, he had driven them out and built the castle at White Harbor. Jon's son was Rickard Stark, not his father's father but another Rickard who took the Neck away from the Marsh King and married his daughter. He found Theon Stark by the thin look and the long hair and skinny beard. People called him the 'Hungry Wolf,' because he was always at war. The tall one with the dreamy face was a Brandon... Brandon the Shipwright. He had loved the sea. His tomb was only an empty hole because he had sailed beyond the Sunset Sea and his body was lost to the sea. Andrew wondered if his father's tomb is as empty as Brandon's. He hoped not. His son's tomb stood next. Brandon the Burner, he had put the torch to all his father's ships in grief. There stood King Edrick Snowbeard, who had ruled the north for a hundred years. There's Rodrik Stark, who had won Bear Island in a wrestling match and gave it to the Mormonts. And then there was Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt. He had been the last King in the North and the first Lord of Winterfell, after he yielded to Aegon the Conqueror, until his father declared independence from the Targaryens. He was almost at the end now, and Andrew felt a sadness creeping over him. In the end far away from the ancient kings sat his grandfather, Lord Rickard, who was burned by Mad King Aerys. His uncle Brandon stood in a tomb beside him. He was not supposed to have statue. Statues had been only for the lords and the kings, but his father had loved his brother so much that he had it done.

Next to them, two tombs were closely grouped together as if they were trying to stay together all the way to eternity. That was where he halted. He put the torch in a sconce mounted up on the wall. The statues loomed above him. He remembered them well enough to make out at every features. His father was to his left- long-faced, bearded, solemn. He had the same stone eyes as the rest, but his looked sad. A stone likeness of his bronze and iron crown was set atop his brow.

His mother stood beside him as she had always been. Even in stone her features were smooth and lively. She was lovely even in this cold, dark place. He brushed the back of his hand against her cheek, tenderly as if it was flesh and not stone.

Andrew placed the pale blue roses at her feet. He gazed up at them in silence not knowing what to say or do. Memories came back to him sweet as mother's milk. He remembered the good days from the past where he ran around happily with them. It made him happy to think about and then sad. 

Andrew sank against them, tears running past his cheeks. "I miss you both," he whispered to them. He saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Andrew brushed of the tears in his sleeve and stepped back from the statues. Had he heard a noise? Was there someone here? Ghost came shooting from the dimness behind him. He bared his white teeth, blood red eyes watching the blackness of the vault.

"Who goes there?" Andrew called.

"It's me, my lord," Maester Walys stepped in the light of his torch, breathless and panting for air. "Lost the light on the way."

"Maester Walys?" Andrew asked.

"I knew you would be here, Your Grace," the grey man said. "I had to see you."

Andrew turned back to his parents.

"We never got their bones, Your Grace," the maester told him, "but we had their statues set up here anyway. You were supposed to be with them but we never had the chance to do it after Jaehaerys came. I suppose that's good now that you're here. . . alive." He took out something from the sleeves of his robes. It took some time for Andrew to see it in the flickering light. 

In his hands was a crown, a bronze circlet ringed by iron swords. Andrew knew it at once he saw it. "Father's crown?"

"Yes," Walys told him. "Your father gave it to me when you went south. He told me that it has no reason to be in the south. Ever since then I've kept it safe waiting for someone to wear it. Now it is yours, Your Grace." Andrew took the crown in his hands, his fingers stroking the blades testing their sharpness. They were still very sharp. His father had the right of it. It was the crown of the north and it belonged in the north. 

It was the crown of the Stark kings of old; an open circlet of hammered bronze incised with the runes of the First Men, surmounted by nine black iron spikes wrought in the shape of longswords. Bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.

Andrew gazed at the crown in his hands in silence. He had seen the crown on his father's head many times before. It had made a glorified sight. He did not know if he was fit to wear the crown after all he had done. 

"You should come see the castle, my lord," Maester Walys said breaking the silence of the crypts. "We've prepared your father's chambers for you."

They belong to my father, not to me, he wanted to say. "I'll be there," he said instead.

There was one thing he had to do before visiting his parents' room. 

He had given his chief captive a large room in Winterfell to act as his cell. The first thing Andrew had done after claiming Winterfell was to remove the Targaryen prince from the chambers of his father. He had not entered the room himself but has ordered the men to clear Jaehaerys' things from there. Wick and Denton stood guard at the door where his cousin was locked away. Andrew asked Wick to open the door. When the door opened with an audible creak, Andrew slipped inside and asked Wick to close the door behind him. A half eaten black bread and crumbs of often biscuits were still left on the plate given to him. A skin of wine lay uncorked on the table beside his bed. The faint odor of wine greeted him.

In one corner of the room a heap of furs was piled up against the makeshift bed.

The furs stirred as the door was closed behind him. Some of the furs had gone ragged and patched together. An arm emerged, then a face—pale silver hair, tangled and matted and browned with dirt, two fierce eyes, a nose, a mouth. Dirt caked the prisoner's hair, wet with sweat. "Stark." His voice croaked, echoing around them in the closed room. "Have you come to kill me?"

Is that why I came here? he wondered. Somehow he think not.

"You are my prisoner. My father never condoned the murders of prisoners unlike yours." Andrew let that hang for a moment, then said, "I came here to see you."

Jaehaerys Targaryen's lips skinned back from his teeth. "Why did you want to see me?" Though he was only a boy, he had been a strong prince when he went into the captivity. Andrew hoped that his time in the cell would've changed him a bit.

Andrew sat himself on the chair near the table. "I'm sending you to the Wall."

His cousin looked as if he did not believe it. "You can't. My father is king."

"Not for long."

Jaehaerys pushed himself to his feet and kicked aside the furs clinging to his ankles. "You're a fool to believe it. You can't face the might of House Targaryen."

"Say that to your dragon," Andrew told him.

Jaehaerys's hands closed into fists. There was a sudden uncertainty in the dragon prince's face then.

When he was silent, Andrew continued. "Everyday you are here it is dangerous for you," he told Jaehaerys. "The people expect me to cut off your head and send it to your father. There were complains of some nasty business with dragons. I can't allow you to walk away just like that after this."

"So you are sending me to the Wall," Jaehaerys said. "To join the Night's Watch."

"It is a better offer than the one your father gave mine," he said.

Jaehaerys slumped his shoulders in defeat. The prince didn't even try to look at his face.

Andrew took the wooden wolf toy from his jacket and threw it at Jaehaerys' foot. The toy landed with a thump and came to rest hitting Jaehaerys' foot. The prince eyed at the wolf and then looked up to face him.

"That is the first toy I ever remember holding." he told Jaehaerys. "It was a gift from my uncle Arthur. He brought it for me the second time he visited me. Eight years have passed since I left it here and now, this is the only thing left in this castle that belonged to me eight years ago. You can't even stand any presence that reminds me now, can you?"

Jaehaerys did not dare to look up from the wolf, lying abandoned near his legs. He wondered what the prince was thinking. It had been hard for him to fight against his own family, to fight against the ones whom he believed as family once. He wondered if it had been hard for his cousin as well or if Jaehaerys Targaryen was still thinking for a way to kill him.

"Once I may have even thought of you as brothers," Andrew continued. "Now I realise how stupid I had been to even think that." 

"Why did you leave my alive?"Jaehaerys asked after a paused silence. 

It was hard to think about it. To think about her and everything. Was this how hard for my father when he was forced to fight his sister's family? It only made him sad to dwell in the past. He straightened himself. "Trust me, had I been the boy I was I would've loped off your head the first moment I got," Andrew said to him. "But someone once told me that, killing is not always the only solution. And you're only alive because of her."

He doubted if he had made the right decision by sparing him. Perhaps I should make his head a gift for Rhaegar and Lyanna as the others say and be done with it, Andrew thought, but something inside told him otherwise. He is only a boy and had nothing to do with the sins of his father. Andrew wondered what his father would do, how his mother would handle this, how his uncle might deal with this. But Eddard Stark and Ashara Dayne were dead, so was Uncle Arthur and the others.

"Anyway enough of that," Andrew said. "When a man takes the black, his crimes are wiped away. Take the black and join the Night's Watch and none could call you guilty."

Jaehaerys thought about it for a moment and looked up at him. " What about my men?"

"They will be given the freedom to choose their fate," said Andrew. "They can either go with you to the Wall or they can go back to your father."

"When do I leave?"

"Today," he told Jaehaerys. "The northern lords will be coming here soon enough. It is not good for you if you're still here when they come. Gather your belongings as soon as you can, come to the yard."

He got up from the chair and turned to leave.  "Andrew." Andrew was at the door when Jaehaerys called him, by his name. He looked over his shoulder to see him standing beside the wolf. "My father will never go down without a fight." 

Andrew looked at him quietly. "I don't want him to," he said after a moment. 

By evening the yard was packed to see the Targaryen prince leave. Andrew stood with Maester Walys and Desmond. Jaehaerys was flanked by his remaining men, all huddled up waiting for judgement. 

"Jaehaerys Targaryen," Andrew called, "for the crimes you've committed against House Stark and the north, I'm sending you to the Wall."

There was a sudden murmur in the crowd. Andrew ignored it and looked to the Targaryen guards. "You all can join your prince to serve with him in the Wall or you can go back to King's Landing." 

The dark cloaks looked at each other's faces and stood quietly. After a deep quietness has passed through the yard, one of the guards stepped forward. "Your Grace," the man went to one knee before him. "I wish to join my prince to take the black."

"You would do no such thing, Gwayne," Jaehaerys told the man from behind. "This is my sword to bear, my cup to drink from. You'll take the others and leave." 

Gwayne looked back at his prince. "The men know there way back as well as I do, my prince."

"Go back, Gwayne. Its an order." 

"For once I wish to see how it is to disobey your order, my prince," Gwayne said. 

"Is there anything I can say to change your mind?" Jaehaerys asked his loyal man. 

"I don't think so." 

With that he knew Gwayne would join Jaehaerys wherever he went. He was astonished by the loyalty of the man. Not everyone would join the Night's Watch and share the black cloak for another man's sentence. "Very well then," Andrew looked at his cousin. "I believe I have something of yours." 

Wick rolled a wooden cart to Jaehaerys. The cart was nearly filled with the bones of the dragon. The bones rattled when the cart came to rest. The black bones were dark and shining in the evening light. Jaehaerys' hand ghosted over the bones as if he was imagining touching his dragon, alive and well. He gave one last wistful look at them black bones and turned to his men. 

"Gerrick, take them back to Dragonstone, will you?" When Gerrick nodded he could see a faint smile dancing at the lips of his cousin. "If that's all we are ready to leave." Jaehaerys looked at him waiting for his orders. 

Andrew nodded and the gates were opened for them. Two parties parted to the opposite ways as they passed through the gates, one turning south and the other, small party, turned north. 

Andrew watched them go from  the top of the gatehouse. The Stark direwolf flapped very much near him that he could hear the sound of the banner swaying from the pole. In the crenellations, they had raised a pike for a good twenty feet above the surface. Even from down here he could make out the long, sharp teeth and the hole where an eye of the dragon had been once. 

He stood there with the dragon head, gazing into the air for a long time after both the parties have vanished from sight. He had sent his own men with letters bearing his own seal and sign to escort them safely to their destinations. Andrew hoped that they come back safe. 

As the stars started to light up the sky, Andrew Stark walked down the steps and made for the Great Keep. The day has already given too much of the painful memories and he was ready to face the last of it. 

The lord's chambers had been completely changed by the Targaryens. He did not remember the room as it had been in his father's days. All the furnishings were new, brought up from the south. The canopy bed had a feather mattress and drapes of blood-red velvet instead of the old grey. Andrew pulled the red clothes down and replaced them with the grey he got from Poole. 

His father's chair was still there though, carved of black oak with a grey leather seat. The table he once remembered seeing had been filled with papers but now the only things it held were plates and flagons of wine. There was nothing in this castle which belonged from his childhood. There was nothing left there that had belonged to his parents. 

He found an old dusty chest in one corner of the room. Andrew crossed the room and wiped the dust off the chest. The box was stoutly made and bound with iron, and it had no lock.

Inside, Andrew found the paintings of his father and mother done by a myrish painter when he was still a baby. The painting were dusted, seemingly forgotten for years but they were not marred by time. Beneath the paintings, a fur-trimmed cloak and a lilac velvet gown were bundled up together. 

He draped the cloak over his shoulders. The cloak fit him perfectly. Andrew found the presence of the cloak soothing. He pressed the gown against his chest. The smell of roses was still heavy in it. The velvet fabric was warm, as warm as his mother's kisses. He felt loved and happy with his father's cloak and his mother's gown around him. 

 

Andrew hung both the paintings behind his bed and stood back. Both Eddard Stark and Ashara Dayne were happy in the paintings. He wished they were happy even now. He pushed back the sheets covering his bed and draped his father's cloak and mother's gown over them. When he finally slipped into them, he fell asleep with the fragrance and warmth of his mother and the comfort of his father around him, with them watching over him as he had once gone to sleep eight years before.

Chapter Text

Edric

The Boltons were spreading out to encircle the castle Hornwood. It was hard to judge their numbers. A five hundred at least; perhaps twice that many. Against their own three hundred Hornwood men. They'd brought catapults and scorpions. He saw no siege towers rolling towards the castle though. There will be no seige, Edric knew that, the bastard of Bolton will have war. 'Lord Ramsay will come for war,' the bastard's pet had told them before he was hanged. Somehow Edric believed him. 

He studied their banners from the walls of Hornwood. The flayed man of the Dreadfort flapped bravely wherever he looked, all naked and bloody. Their own army was massing inside the castle, proud northerners wearing the bull moose of the Hornwoods proudly. It felt almost queer to fight under the arms of a house after fighting without a banner for years. They were waiting for the sun to set to begin their assault on Ramsay Snow. 

The bastard has long since threatened to claim the Hornwood land to his own. When Lord Halys came for the help of Lord Beric, the lightning lord had chosen to aid them and keep the king's justice. The Wanderer himself had deemed the bastard of Bolton unworthy to live after hearing his slyness and cruelty. By dawn, Ramsay Snow would be brought to justice and if the leech lord has something to say about it he is very much likely to follow his bastard to grave. 

Lord Beric, Rodrick and Thoros had gone out to join Lord Manderly's force in Sheepshead Hill. He hoped that they made it to them alive. Without the Manderly soldiers, they would very likely get overwhelmed by the Bolton numbers. Ramsay Snow had at least twice the numbers they had inside the castle. They might hold them off for sometime but once the walls were breached the tide might turn against them. 

Edric should've gone with Lord Beric himself but the Lightning lord had tasked him to stay with the Hornwoods. They were to lead the army outside to meet the Boltons once Lord Beric comes with the Manderly knights. Edric was to lead the eastern column himself but they have to survive till Lord Beric arrives with his men. 

Tom was with him along with Lem and Anguy. The singer was perched upon the guard tower on the walls, pulling the strings of his woodharp he cradled against his jerkin, as a mother might cradle a babe. A small man and fifty but Tom was still a dangerous man with his axe and throwing knives. He had a big mouth quite useful for singing, a sharp nose, and thinning brown hair. His song came drifting along the evening air from the little rise of the guard tower on the walls. "Off to Gulltown to see the fair maid, heigh-ho, heigh-ho..." He was already ready for fight. His faded greens were mended here and there with old leather patches, and he wore a brace of throwing knives on his hip and a woodman's axe slung across his back. Tom always like to sing before a fight. 'There are worse things than dying with a song on your lips' he had told him once when Edric asked about it. 

"Do you think Lord Beric has met with the Manderly knights?" Edric asked him. 

The singer idly plucked a string. "Lord Beric has found his way back from hells more than once. Surely a walk in the shadow of the hills is not so hard for him."

"He told he will be here by sundown." Edric looked to the west where the sky had already gone to the color of a bruise. 

"With or without the lightning lord we'll kill the bastard of Bolton," Lem said in the deep voice of his. 

Lem stood a good foot taller than Tom, and had the look of a soldier. A longsword and dirk hung from his studded leather belt, rows of overlapping steel rings were sewn onto his shirt, and his black iron halfhelm shaped like a cone was in his hands. He was picking his bad teeth with a thin straw. His bushy brown beard was shaggy, but it was his hooded yellow cloak that drew the eye of most men. Thick and heavy, stained here with grass and there with blood, frayed along the bottom and patched with deerskin on the right shoulder, the greatcloak gave the big man the look of some huge yellow bird. The cloak itself got him the name Lem Lemoncloak. 

Tom Sevenstrings strummed his harp. "We'll hold the castle," he said. "The bastard will rush and break his host against the walls. And our Archer here will make them bleed every time they come near." 

Anguy strummed the string of his longbow. "I might have found some decent archers in Lord Hornwood's host." He was as skinny as his longbow if not quite as tall and Edric was yet to see a better marksman than Anguy. He doubted if would ever see one though. Red-haired and freckled, he wore a studded brigantine, high boots, fingerless leather gloves, and a quiver on his back. His arrows were fletched with grey goose feathers, and six of them stood in the ground before him, like a little fence against the wall. "We might take a good number down if we had the light." 

"You will," Tom said and went to singing again. "I'll steal a sweet kiss with the point of my blade, heigh-ho, heigh-ho."

"What do you think the Wanderer will do after this?" Anguy asked.

"I think he'll go for Winterfell," Lem said. 

"Not before the dragon," Tom sang the words as if they were parts of the song. 

"The dragon will be a problem, I tell you," Lem said. 

"Not unlike anything we have seen before," said Anguy. "We'll have Thoros and the Lightning lord with us." 

Edric wondered if the red priest could take down the dragon. He could, maybe, after all he brings dead men to life. If Thoros could bring that dragon down they'll have an easy time capturing Winterfell. 

"Let's just think about what's at hand now, shall we?" Tom glanced toward the Bolton camp. "The bastard has done things bad if not worse as the Targaryens. He killed Old Pate just because the man wouldn't move his wagon quickly."

Edric had known Old Pate. The old man had been a good friend of their brotherhood ever since he knew him. 

"I buried Old Pate myself," Tom continued, "right there under that sentinal beside his house he very much loved to sit under." He drew a sad sound from his harp. "We've buried many a good man this past year, and I mean to stop Bolton's bastard before the dragon."

"Patience, Tom," Edric told him. "Besides if Ramsay Snow ever shows up I believe Anguy here will fill him with arrows before he could even draw his sword." 

The archer's hand moved quicker than Edric would have believed. His shaft went hissing past his head within an inch of his ear and buried itself in the wooden rail behind him. "It'll only take one," Anguy said as the arrow thrummed behind her like a bee.

Tom chuckled and went back to his song again. "I'll make her my love and we'll rest in the shade, heigh-ho, heigh-ho." As dusk began to settle over the world, the song swelled louder with every word.

As the sun moved, the shadow of the guard tower moved as well, gradually lengthening, a blackk arm reaching out for Edric Dayne. By the time the sun touched the wall, he was in its grasp. 

It was when the warhorn sounded. Harooooooh... The sound split through Tom's song. 

The Hornwood men on the castle walls blew their own horns, calling up the men for battle. 

"Shit," Lem said and donned his helm. 

Anguy picked up his arrows and secured them in his quiver. Tom dropped down from the tower already with his axe in hand. There was a little commotion down in the yard and a murmur amongst the men. 

"Prepare to defend the castle," Edric shouted to them.  

Lord Halys came forth dressed in mail and a tunic displaying his sigil over the mail. "Prepare to fight," he told his men. "The bastard of Bolton is coming to take our lands, our castle, our freedom. Nothing good is going to happen with him inside our walls. Fight with me and throw him away." 

A cheer went through the men which relieved Edric somewhat. He wondered when Lord Beric will come. He hoped it would be so soon. 

"Archers, with me," Anguy yelled and a group of guys followed him at once. He divided them and put half on one guard tower and took the rest with him to the other tower. 

Edric looked from the parapets. For a moment he thought the forest was full of lantern bugs. Then he realized they were men with torches.

A column of riders moved between the trees and tents toward the castle.

Firelight glittered off metal helms and spattered their mail and plate with orange and yellow highlights. One carried a banner on a tall lance. The flayed man of the Boltons flowing in the night air. Everything seemed red or black or orange.

Edric saw a tree consumed by fire, the flames creeping across its branches until it stood against the night in robes of living orange. Everyone was awake now, manning the catwalks or struggling with the frightened animals below. He could hear Lord Halys and his son shouting commands.

The riders reined up before the gates. "You in the holdfast!" shouted a man in dark armor. His rounded helm gleamed a sullen red, and a pale pink cloak streamed from his shoulders.. "Open, in the name of the king!"

"Aye, and which king is that?" Lem yelled back down.

Edric climbed the battlement beside the gate, his sword still in its sheath. "You men hold down here!" he shouted. "You have no reason to be here."

"And who are you, boy? One of Lord Beric's cravens?" called the man in red helm. "If that fool Thoros is in there, ask him how he likes these fires." The torchlight glittered off the chipped enamel of his visor. His helm and gorget were wrought in the shape of a man’s face and shoulders, skinless and bloody, mouth open in a silent howl of anguish.

"Lord Beric and Thoros are not here," Edric shouted back.

"Open the gates and give me my Reek back and I might leave you alone."

Lord Halys spat. "Come now, bastard. We'll send you to him."

"So be it. You chose to fight, and fight and die you shall."

"Let no one alive." Ramsay raised a languid fist, and his men drew sword all at once. Anguy and his archers attacked at once. Edric saw the arrows take down some of the men slow enough to block them with the shield.

"Storm the walls and kill them all," Ramsay said in a bored voice. More spears and arrows flew back and forth. From outside came the rattle of armor, the scrape of swords on scabbards, the banging of spears on shields, mingled with curses and the hoofbeats of racing horses. A torch sailed spinning above their heads, trailing fingers of fire as it thumped down in the dirt of the yard.

"Blades!" Edric shouted drawing his sword. "Spread apart, defend the wall wherever they hit. Lem take some men with you and hold the postern. Tom go to Lord Halys."

Edric stood his ground and waited. He saw a hand grasping the top of the parapet. He could see it by the light of the fires, so clear that it was as if time had stopped. The fingers were blunt, callused, wiry black hairs grew between the knuckles, there was dirt under the nail of the thumb. He waited, sword at the ready and the top of a pothelm loomed up behind the hand.

He slashed down hard, and the castle-forged steel bit in between the shoulder blades. Blood spurted, scream echoed, and the helmed face vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The second man was bearded and helmetless, his dirk between his teeth to leave both hands free for climbing. As he swung his leg over the parapet, he drove the point of his sword at his eyes. His sword pushed through his skull as if it was cheese; the man reeled backward and fell. Every next time someone tried to climb their part of the wall, Edric hacked at their hands and sent them back away the way they had come.

Ramsay had very few ladders, the fool had somehow thought that they would meet him in the field when the castle stood strong for their defense. But there seemed to be no end to the foes. For each one Edric cut or stabbed or shoved back, another was coming over the wall. Ramsay Snow reached the rampart. Edric picked up a spear from a fallen man, and forced the point of the spear through his armor while the man was hacking wildly at him. When four men assaulted the gate with axes, Anguy shot them down with arrows, one by one. Tom hacked off a man's hand off the walk, and threw a pair of throwing knives at two men, one after the other. Edric jumped over a dead boy no older than him, lying with his arm cut off. He didn't know if he had done it, but he wasn't sure. He saw a Hornwood man fall to Ramsay. Another had his face smashed in with a spiked mace. Everything smelled of blood and smoke and iron, but after a time it seemed like that was only one smell. He never saw how the skinny man got over the wall, but when he did he fell on him. He hacked at the man's scrawny neck and sent him away from the wall.

When the skinny man was dead, Edric leapt down into the yard to fight some more. He saw steel shadows running through the holdfast, firelight shining off mail and blades, and he knew that they'd gotten over the wall somewhere, or broken through at the postern. He could see Lem smashing a man's head with a rock. The night rang to the clash of steel and the cries of the wounded and dying. Death was all around him.

They were being overwhelmed. Somehow more and more of the Boltons found themselves inside the walls and more of their own men were dying. "Stick together," he yelled. "Don't let them break you. Move forward. Now!"

Ramsay and his riders were trying to bring down the front gate down. If they got the gates down, it is done. "Hold the gate!" he shouted. 

"Hold the gate," Lord Halys echoed. 

Anguy jumped down from the tower. He ran along the wall, loosing arrows bringing down two of the men ramming the gates. That provided them some time but it was not enough though. 

It was only then that he heard the riders pouring out the castle gate in a river of steel and fire, the thunder of their destriers crossing the forest ground louder than the sounds around. Men and mounts wore plate armor, and one in every ten carried a torch. The rest had axes, longaxes with spiked heads and heavy bone-crushing armor-smashing blades.

More and more riders were emerging from the forest, a column four wide with no end to it, knights and squires and freeriders, torches and longaxes.

When Edric looked around, he saw that the man at their head smashing through the Bolton army right up their back. His black cloak blended easily with the night but soon blood smeared on it as he killed men left and right. Lord Beric, Edric thought. He could recognise the man anywhere. Dark shapes moved in front of the flames, the steel of their armor shining orange from afar.

"Open the gates," Edric shouted. "We'll finish them off together."

Hinges creaked and chains rattled as the gate was opened. The Bolton men knew that they were done and some flew from the fight not so far though as their men rode them down. Edric saw Thoros knocking Ramsay off his horse with his flaming sword and it was then they knew that the day was theirs.

They slew all the foes there and took only Ramsay Snow as prisoner. By first light the fires were all died out and the wounded were taken inside to be treated. The crows had already started to arrive to feast on the dead. 

Lord Beric, Rodrik Stark, Thoros were talking to Lord Halys and when Ramsay was brought to them Edric knew it was for judgement. 

“Which one of you is Beric Dondarrion?” Ramsay said when he was dumped before them. "No Bolton would ever speak with outlaws."

“Why, that would be me,” said one-eyed Jack-Be-Lucky. "Since you're not a Bolton that would serve." 

“You’re a bloody liar, Jack,” said Lem. “It’s my turn to be Lord Beric.”

“Does that mean I have to be Thoros?” Tom Sevenstreams laughed. 

“I am Lord Beric Dondarrion," Lord Beric stepped forward as the men parted to make way for him and the Wanderer. "Speak now when you could else you'll never get your chance to speak again.”

Edric could see that the bastard was still lolking for a way to get away from them. If he had any fear he did not show it in his face. “You won but I don't care,” he said. “I came here for only my Reek and nothing else. Give me my Reek and I’ll be gone.” 

“He’s in the godswood,” said Lord Halys. “We’ll take you to him.”

Notch and Woth picked Ramsay Snow up to his feet and pushed him after Lord Hornwood. Edric followed closely with Lord Beric, Rodrik Stark and Thoros with the others following behind. 

Leaves crunched beneath their heels, and every step sent a spike of pain through Edric's knee where he had taken a wound. They walked in silence, the wind gusting around them. The first light of the rising sun was in his eyes as they clambered over the mossy rocks that were all that remained in the place. Behind was the godswood.

Ramsay Snow's pet was hanging from the limb of an oak, a noose tight around his long thin neck. His eyes bulged from a black face, staring down at the bastard of Bolton accusingly. “You killed him,” Ramsay croaked.

“Sharp as a blade, this one,” said one-eyed Jack.

A soft gust of wind was blowing from the north making Reek sway lightly from his rope. “Murder,” Ramsay told them. " You foul, reeking rogues."

“That was good of you,” said Tom amiably. “But we do not reek so bad as your lover here.”

Ramsay turned away from the corpse. For the first time Edric could see discomfort in the bastard's face. “You… you had no right.”

“We had a rope,” said Lem Lemoncloak. “That’s right enough.”

Woth and Notch seized Ramsay’s arms and pushed him to his knees. Edric saw that he was too deep in shock to struggle. 

“The crimes he did along with you are to be answered,” Rodrik Stark said. “Justice was served for your pet the same way we will sort it out to you.”

“Well,” said Tom o' Sevens, “you don't need a trial now, do you? After all your crimes and cruelty are quite infamous.”

Jack-Be-Lucky came forward with a long coil of hempen rope. He looped one end around Ramsay's neck, pulled it tight, and tied a hard knot under his ear. The other end he threw over the limb of the oak. Lem caught it on the other side.

“What are you doing?” Ramsay asked. Edric thought how stupid that sounded. “You’d never dare hang a Bolton.”

Lem Lemoncloak laughed. “Good to us that you're not a Bolton then,” he said. "Moreeover the Leech lord should thank us and pay us for hanging you. We're doing a great service for him by doing this." 

"Even if Lord Bolton has any qualms about it he can very well come and make it even with us," Jack-Be-Lucky said. 

“My father will pay you," Ramsay tried again. "I’m worth a good ransom, more than anyone you've ever ransomed, twice as much.”

Tom sighed. “Gold does not fix all the things you did to the innocents now, does it? Even if we asked Lord Bolton for a ransom, he’ll send a hundred swords instead of a hundred dragons, I fear.”

“He will!” Ramsay tried to sound stern, but his voice betrayed him. “He’ll send a thousand swords, and kill you all. Or I will.”

“First you have to get out of here though.” Tom glanced up at the bastard's pet. “And you can’t kill us twice if you are dead, now can you?” He drew a melancholy air from the strings of his woodharp.

Ramsay reached for the last line that might save him. “They say Lord Beric always gives a man a trial, that he won’t kill a man unless something’s proved against him. You can’t prove anything against me. I never did the things you accuse me of doing so … you have no witness.”

"I'll stop you right there," said the Wanderer. "Actually we have a witness." He raised his hand and two of the Hornwood men brought the girl Penny whom they had saved the day they caught Ramsay's pet. "Is this the man who raped you and tried to hunt you for sport, girl?" Rodrick Stark asked the girl. 

The girl eyed Ramsay with such hatred and nodded her head. Tom gave Ramsay Snow a helpless shrug and began to play, “The Day They Hanged Black Robin.”

"There is your trial," Rodrik Stark said and up went Ramsay Snow, choking, jerking, kicking and twisting, up and up and up and hung there until he stayed limp in the rope. 

They left him there hanging returned back the way they came. 

"What are you going to do now?" Rodrik asked Lord Hornwood as they entered the castle. 

"I think I will go to Winterfell." 

"Do you really think the Targaryen boy is going to give you any sort of justice?" 

"Not to the Targaryen," Halys Hornwood stopped in his tracks. He took a piece of parchment from his tunic and pressed it in the hands of the wandering wolf. "There was a raven last night, from Winterfell. The wolves are back it says. The direwolf banner streams atop Winterfell once again and there's news of a certain ghost supposedly coming back from the dead. I intend to see this ghost for myself to see if the tales are true and you're welcome to join me."

Chapter Text

Tyrion

In the Throne room of the Red Keep King Rhaegar took his morning meal with his son and chief knights and all his lords bannermen who had come to King's Landing for his son's wedding. He found the king having a good morning surrounded by his allies, the Iron throne loomed up behind him, the dragons watching from the red walls. 

Tyrion arrived late, saddlesore, and sour, all too vividly aware of how amusing he must look as he waddled up the grand room amidst the dragons. It was a long ride from the inn to the Red Keep. The skulls of dead dragons looked down from its walls. He could feel the empty eyes of the dragon skulls watching him as soon as he entered with Bronn and his men.

Right from the door they hung and reached to the other end of the room where the iron throne sat. The skull of Balerion, the Black Dread, the dragon's fire which forged the Iron Throne from the thousand swords of Aegon the Conqueror's fallen foes hung right next to the throne itself.

Tyrion always had a morbid fascination with dragons. When he had got his first chance to come to King's Landing by his father, he had made it a point to seek out the theree dragons Daenerys Targaryen had brought forth into this world. When he could not see any of them In the capital he had been disappointed. They again he could atleast see the dragon skulls that hanged on the walls of Targaryen's throne room. 

He had expected to find them impressive, perhaps even frightening. He had not thought to find them beautiful. Yet they were. As black as onyx, polished smooth, so the bone seemed to shimmer in the light of the torches on the wall. Dragonbone was black because of its high iron content, he had read that in a book once. It was strong as steel, yet lighter and far more flexible, and of course utterly impervious to fire. Dragonbone bows are greatly prized by the Dothraki, and small wonder. An archer so armed can outrange any wooden bow. 

They liked the fire, he sensed. Their mouth stayed open as if they were waiting to get anyone who is foolish enough to come near. The teeth were long, curving knives of black diamond. The flames of the torch were nothing to them; they had bathed in the heat of far greater fires.

There were nineteen skulls. The oldest was more than three thousand years old; the youngest a mere century and a half. The most recent were also the smallest; a matched pair no bigger than mastiff's skulls hung near the doors, and oddly misshapen, all that remained of the last two hatchlings born on Dragonstone. They were the last of the Targaryen dragons, perhaps the last dragons anywhere, and they had not lived very long.

From there the skulls ranged upward in size to the three great monsters of song and story, the dragons that Aegon Targaryen and his sisters had unleashed on the Seven Kingdoms of old. The singers had given them the names of gods: Balerion, Meraxes, Vhaghar. Tyrion watched their gaping jaws, wordless and awed. You could have ridden a horse down Vhaghar's gullet, although you would not have ridden it out again. Meraxes was even bigger. And the greatest of them, Balerion, the Black Dread, could have swallowed an aurochs whole, or even one of the hairy mammoths said to roam the cold wastes beyond the Port of Ibben.

He tried to grasp the size of the living animal, to imagine how it must have looked when it spread its great black wings and swept across the skies, breathing fire.

His own remote ancestor, King Loren of the Rock, had tried to stand against the fire when he joined with King Mern of the Reach to oppose the Targaryen conquest. That was close on three hundred years ago, when the Seven Kingdoms were kingdoms, and not mere provinces of a greater realm. Between them, the Two Kings had six hundred banners flying, five thousand mounted knights, and ten times as many freeriders and men-at-arms. Aegon Dragonlord had perhaps a fifth that number, the chroniclers said, and most of those were conscripts from the ranks of the last king he had slain, their loyalties uncertain.

The hosts met on the broad plains of the Reach, amidst golden fields of wheat ripe for harvest. When the Two Kings charged, the Targaryen army shivered and shattered and began to run. For a few moments, the chroniclers wrote, the conquest was at an end . . . but only for those few moments, before Aegon Targaryen and his sisters joined the battle.

It was the only time that Vhaghar, Meraxes, and Balerion were all unleashed at once. The singers called it the Field of Fire.

Near four thousand men had burned that day, among them King Mern of the Reach. King Loren had escaped, and lived long enough to surrender, pledge his fealty to the Targaryens, and beget a son, for which Tyrion was duly grateful.

The cooks were serving the meat course while he entered: five suckling pigs, skin seared and crackling, a different fruit in every mouth. The smell made his mouth water. The king watched him as he neverd the table. 

Rhaegar Targaryen was everything and more the singers praised him to be. His long silver hair flowing over his shoulder and a face fit to make maidens go mad, Tyrion could only see the proud dragonlord sitting before him. "My lord, Tyrion," he said when he saw him there. "We are surprised to see you here." Everyone in the room turned to look at him all wide-eyed in surprise. 

"My pardons, Your Grace," Tyrion began, bowing his head. "My lord father finds himself occupied with his health issues. So I'm here to congratulate the prince in his wedding, if it please you."

"Oh," the king said. "I'd thought of something better from the Westerlands, like a full man and not a half." A roar of laugher erupted in the room as he said that. "Come join us in our meal, my lord. I'm sure we could squeeze some place for you as, we all could see that you don't require a lot of space."

"Oh, surely you can save me a seat, your grace," Tyrion replied. "I'm grateful for that." He filled his wine cup and watched a serving man carve into the pig. The crisp skin crackled under his knife, and hot juice ran from the meat. It was the loveliest sight Tyrion had seen in ages.

"What ails your father, my lord?" Rhaegar asked as his trencher was filled with slices of pork. "I'm hoping that the gods grant him good strength."

You better not, Tyrion thought. He has every strength to do his dirty work from the shadows. "Ageing makes men restless," Tyrion said. "My father is not an expection."

"I never thought that age would bring down the great lion of Casterly Rock? I believe the news of your brother Jaime's death broke him down."

I hope it did. Nothing ever broke Lord Tywin, not even his son and heir's death. Tyrion wondered what his father would do if he died. He might even dance elated before his lords. Lord Tywin's bane and shame finally died out Tyrion could never think of a better news for his father. "Jaime's death broke us all, my king," he said. "And like as not a Lannister always pays his debt." 

He could see that Rhaegar did not like that tone of his. He ought to hold his tongue from here else he would soon end up as Ned Stark.

Lord Tyrell, the sour fat man who knows nothing about warfare, leaned forward. "You should be proud of your brother. Your father should be too. Ser Jaime was a good and honorable knight who died valiantly protecting his king."

Oh, he did that, my fat fool, Tyrion thought, but it was the king who ought to have died in his place. 

"Isn't that right?" Rhaegar said. He looked over to Ser Gerold Hightower behind him. "Ser Gerold please tell Lord Tyrion of how valiantly his brother died." 

The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard showed no emotion in his face. "Ser Jaime was a true true knight of the Kingsguard. He held to his vow till the end and defended his king with his dying breath." 

Was that supposed to make me feel better, your grace? You can play your great hero's facade to all your fools over here but you won't fool me. You can't fool me with your honey dripping voice and sweet words. 

"You can ask your father to rest easy now, Lord Tyrion," he said, "for Ser Jaime left no debt unsettled. I settled his debt for him in Braavos. Enjoy your stay here, my lord. You'll be given the high seat reserved for your father at my son's wedding." With that the king stood up and left with all his knights and lords trailing after him like obedient ants.

Tyrion sat there all alone for a while. He took one bite of pork, chewed a moment, and spit it out angrily. "I find I am not hungry after all," he said to the dragon skulls on the walls, climbing awkwardly off the bench. 

Outside, Bronn was waiting for him with the horses. Tyrion had never wanted anything more than to leave this place for now. 

"How did it go?" Bronn asked as he waddled past him, hurriedly. 

"As far away from good as it goes," Tyrion replied. 

Bronn chukled. "I've told this to you more than once, dwarf," he said smiling through the crooked teeth. "You should keep your mouth shut if you wish to live long." 

"Perhaps, you're right," he said walking across the yard. "Bronn, be a sweet and make sure to cut off my tongue the next time I say something that will have my head cut off." He could only muse about how vain and empty his threats in the throne room had been. Rhaegar had seen it for some empty boast and paid no mind to them, no more that he had minded Tyrion. Even with the might of the west looming behind Lord Tywin, it was no match for the might of three adult dragons. 

"I'll for sure."

Tyrion crossed the yard to the gate where Vylarr was waiting for him with the horses and his guards.

"Imp," he heard someone calling from behind. Tyrion turned to see and the sight was not the one he had been expecting. Out from the pan and into the brazier, gods, this day couldn't get any worse. 

Oberyn Nymeros Martell, Tyrion muttered under his breath as the man fell in beside him. The Red Viper of Dorne. And what in the seven hells am I supposed to do with him? 

"Prince Oberyn," he greeted warmly. He's made enough enemies for one day and this is one man whom no man ever wants as his enemy. 

"We have met before," the Dornish prince said lightly to Tyrion as they walked side by side to the gate. "I would not expect you to remember, though. You were even smaller than you are now." 

Tyrion misliked the tome of the Dornish prince but he held his tongue this time. "When did that happen, my prince?" he asked. 

"Oh, many years ago, when my mother ruled in Dorne and your lord father was Hand to a different king, the Mad King." 

"It was when I visited Casterly Rock with my mother, her consort, and my sister Elia. I was, oh, fourteen, fifteen, thereabouts, Elia a year older. Your brother and sister were eight or nine, as I recall, and you had just been born." 

A queer time to come visiting. His mother had died giving him birth, so the Martells would have found the Rock deep in mouming. His father especially. Lord Tywin seldom spoke of his wife, but Tyrion had heard his uncles talk of the love between them. In those days, his father had been Aerys's Hand, and many people said that Lord Tywin Lannister ruled the Seven Kingdoms, but Lady Joanna ruled Lord Tywin. "He was not the same man after she died, imp," his Uncle Gery told him once. "The best part of him died with her." Gerion had been the youngest of Lord Tytos Lannister's four sons, and the uncle Tyrion liked best. 

But he was gone now, lost beyond the seas, and Tyrion himself had put Lady Joanna in her grave. "Did you find Casterly Rock to your liking, my lord?" 

"Scarcely. Your father ignored us the whole time we were there, after commanding Ser Kevan to see to our entertainment. The cell they gave me had a featherbed to sleep in and Myrish carpets on the floor, but it was dark and windowless, much like a dungeon when you come down to it, as I told Elia at the time. Your skies were too grey, your wines too sweet, your women too chaste, your food too bland . . . and you yourself were the greatest disappointment of all." 

"I had just been born. What did you expect of me?" 

"Enormity," the black-haired prince replied. "You were small, but far-famed. We were in Oldtown at your birth, and all the city talked of was the monster that had been born to the King's Hand, and what such an omen might foretell for the realm." 

"Famine, plague, and war, no doubt." Tyrion gave a sour smile. "It's always famine, plague, and war. Oh, and winter, and the long night that never ends." 

"All that," said Prince Oberyn, "and your father's fall as well. Lord Tywin had made himself greater than King Aerys, I heard one begging brother preach, but only a god is meant to stand above a king. You were his curse, a punishment sent by the gods to teach him that he was no better than any other man." 

"I try, but he refuses to learn." Tyrion gave a sigh. "But do go on, I pray you. I love a good tale." 

"And well you might, since you were said to have one, a stiff curly tail like a swine's. Your head was monstrous huge, we heard, half again the size of your body, and you had been born with thick black hair and a beard besides, an evil eye, and lion's claws. Your teeth were so long you could not close your mouth, and between your legs were a girl's privates as well as a boy's." 

"Life would be much simpler if men could fuck themselves, don't you agree? And I can think of a few times when claws and teeth might have proved useful. Even so, I begin to see the nature of your complaint."

Bronn gave out with a chuckle, but Oberyn only smiled. "We might never have seen you at all but for your sweet sister. You were never seen at table or hall, though sometimes at night we could hear a baby howling down in the depths of the Rock. You did have a monstrous great voice, I must grant you that. You would wail for hours, and nothing would quiet you but a woman's teat." 

"Still true, as it happens." 

This time Prince Oberyn did laugh. "A taste we share. Lord Gargalen once told me he hoped to die with a sword in his hand, to which I replied that I would sooner go with a breast in mine." 

Tyrion had to grin. "You were speaking of my sister?" 

"Cersei promised Elia to show you to us. The day before we were to sail, whilst my mother and your father were closeted together, she and Jaime took us down to your nursery. Your wet nurse tried to send us off, but your sister was having none of that. 'He's mine', she said, 'and you're just a milk cow, you can't tell me what to do. Be quiet or I'll have my father cut your tongue out. A cow doesn't need a tongue, only udders.' " 

"My sister learned charm at an early age," said Tyrion, amused by the notion of his sister claiming him as hers. She's never been in any rush to claim me since, the gods know. 

"Cersei even undid your swaddling clothes to give us a better look," the Dornish prince continued. "You did have one evil eye, and some black fuzz on your scalp. Perhaps your head was larger than most . . . but there was no tail, no beard, neither teeth nor claws, and nothing between your legs but a tiny pink cock. After all the wonderful whispers, Lord Tywin's Doom turned out to be just a hideous red infant with stunted legs. Elia even made the noise that young girls make at the sight of infants, I'm sure you've heard it. The same noise they make over cute kittens and playful puppies. I believe she wanted to nurse you herself, ugly as you were. When I commented that you seemed a poor sort of monster, your sister said, 'He killed my mother', and twisted your little cock so hard I thought she was like to pull it off. You shrieked, but it was only when your brother Jaime said, 'Leave him be, you're hurting him', that Cersei let go of you. 'It doesn't matter', she told us. 'Everyone says he's like to die soon. He shouldn't even have lived this long.' " 

My sweet sister. Isn't it wonderful that I grew up to be a man, half or not, just to spite Cersei. He the Dornishman a taste of his "evil eye." Now why would he tell such a tale? Is he testing me, or simply twisting my cock as Cersei did, so he can hear me scream? "Be sure and tell that story to my father. It will delight him as much as it did me. The part about my tail, especially. I did have one, but he had it lopped off." 

Prince Oberyn had a chuckle. "You've grown more amusing since last we met." 

"Yes, but I meant to grow taller." 

"Speaking of amusement," Prince Oberyn inched closer to him, "I do hear some queer tales of your father and his pet Lorch, dwarf."

"My prince," Tyrion said. "I don't have any reason to imply-"

"Imp," the red viper seethed. "I care nothing for your reasons. I told this to Rhaegar and I'll say this to you. I care nothing but  justice for Elia. I'll have it sooner or later. One by one and I'll not stop until everyone who had a hand in it are dealt with. Tell your lord father that the viper is not a being to tread with."

"You talk as if you're bringing a huge host behind you, my prince," Tyrion turned to look only at Bronn following him, "but I could only see you."

The Red Viper laughed. "Do you think you frighten me with a couple of your father's sworn swords? I think not." 

When Tyrion heard his laughter, he knew he'd made a mistake. Guard your tongue, you little fool, before it digs your grave. Suddenly the last talk he'd had with his father came to his mind. Tyrion rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. He had nothing to lose by telling Oberyn the truth. But if there was a chance he might make his first friend in the capital today against all the other enemies. "Ser Amory Lorch is with my father but I believe he is not the man you want." 

"Is that so," said the Red Viper. "Do all dwarfs lie so badly, I wonder?" 

"I am not lying. Ser Amory may have brought Princess Rhaenys out from under her father's bed. He had some men-at-arms with him, but I do not know their names." He leaned forward. "But the one you should be seeking is the Mountain. It was Ser Gregor Clegane who brought Prince Aegon and your sister Elia to their fate, all beaten up badly." 

"Why should I believe you?" Prince Oberyn asked. "This could be another one of your Lannister lies."

"You don't have to believe me, my prince," Tyrion said. "But I could get you to Amory Lorch and Gregor Clegane so that you may ask them yourselves." He left the Prince of Dorne there in the yard to think about what he had said to him. 

He left the Red Keep and took the long route to the inn to keep no one from knowing where he stayed and with whom he stayed. They can't hurt me by hurting Shae if they never knew of the girl.

A gust of merriment greeted him as he shoved into the inn's common room. He recognized the throaty chuckle of a man and the lighter music of Shae's laughter. The girl was seated by the hearth, sipping wine at a round wooden table with three of his guards he'd left to guard her and a plump man whose back was to him. The innkeeper, he assumed... until Shae called Tyrion by name and the intruder rose. "My good lord, I am so pleased to see you," he gushed, a soft eunuch's smile on his powdered face.

Tyrion stumbled. "Lord Varys. I had not thought to see you here." The Others take him, how did he find them so quickly?

"Forgive me if I intrude," Varys said. "I was taken by a sudden urge to meet your young lady."

"Young lady," Shae repeated, savoring the words. "You're half right, m'lord. I'm young."

Eighteen, Tyrion thought. Eighteen, and a whore, but quick of wit, nimble as a cat between the sheets, with large dark eyes and fine black hair and a sweet, soft, hungry little mouth... and mine! Damn you, eunuch. "I fear I'm the intruder, Lord Varys," he said with forced courtesy. "When I came in, you were in the midst of some merriment."

"M'lord Varys complimented you in having a good time with the king," Shae explained. It grated on him to hear her call Varys m'lord in that tone; that was what she called him in their pillow play. "He told you were given a place in the high table of the prince's upcoming wedding feast."

"Did he now?" Tyrion asked. "I'm surprised to know of Lord Varys' sudden interest in spreading the tales of my honors."

Varys giggled. "Will you take some wine with us, my lord?"

"I'll take some wine." Tyrion seated himself beside Shae. He understood what was happening here, if Shae and the others did not. Varys was delivering a message. When he said, I was taken by a sudden urge to meet your young lady, what he meant was, You tried to hide her, but I knew where she was, and who she was, and here I am. He wondered who had betrayed him. The innkeeper, that boy in the stable, a guard on the gate... or one of his own?

"I always like to return to the city through the Gate of the Gods," Varys told Shae as he filled the wine cups. "The carvings on the gatehouse are exquisite, they make me weep each time I see them. The eyes... so expressive, don't you think? They almost seem to follow you as you ride beneath the portcullis."

"I never noticed, m'lord," Shae replied. "I'll look again on the morrow, if it please you."

Don't bother, sweetling, Tyrion thought, swirling the wine in the cup. He cares not a whit about carvings. The eyes he boasts of are his own. What he means is that he was watching, that he knew we were here the moment we passed through the gates.

"Do be careful, child," Varys urged. "King's Landing is not wholly safe these days. I know these streets well, and yet I almost feared to come today, alone and unarmed as I was. Lawless men are everywhere in this dark time, oh, yes. Men with cold steel and colder hearts." Where I can come alone and unarmed, others can come with swords in their fists, he was saying.

Shae only laughed. "If they try and bother me, m'lord Tyrion would send them running for their lives."

Varys hooted as if that was the funniest thing he had ever heard, but there was no laughter in his eyes when he turned them on Tyrion. "Your young lady has an amiable way to her. I should take very good care of her if I were you."

"I intend to. Any man who tries to harm her — will never find himself running again." Because you can't run if you're not alive now, can you? See? I speak the same tongue you do, eunuch. Hurt her, and I'll have your head.

"I will leave you." Varys rose. "I know how weary you must be. I only wished to welcome you, my lord, and tell you how very pleased I am by your arrival. We have dire need of you in the capital. Have you seen the comet?"

"I'm short, not blind," Tyrion said. Out on the kingsroad, it had seemed to cover half the sky, outshining the crescent moon.

"In the streets, they call it the Red Messenger," Varys said. "They say it comes as a herald before a king, to warn of fire and blood to follow. While others call it as the bleeding star. You do know the story of the star who bled don't you, my lord." I know everything I need to know about Ashara Dayne, eunuch and if you try to imply that Shae will follow on her tragedy to the depths of a watery grave then gods help you as I'll make sure that you follow her, with a stone strapped to your chest. The eunuch rubbed his powdered hands together. "May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?" He did not wait for an answer. "In a battlefield comes two men face to face, a dragonrider and a dragonslayer, one risking everything he has and the other with nothing left for him to risk. So tell me — who lives and who dies?"

"The dragonrider, of course," Shae said at once. "Dragons melt swords."

Tyrion sipped his wine, thoughtful. "Perhaps. Or not. It depends upon who is who."

"You're a smart man, Lord Tyrion," Varys said. Bowing deeply, the eunuch hurried from the common room on soft slippered feet. What is the truth behind the riddle, Spider? Tyrion thought as he watched him go.

Chapter Text

The lost friend

The day was hot and sticky, as all the days were in Essos. A ferocious southern sun beat down upon them, but heat was the last and least of Asher's concerns. The Company of the Rose was encamped three miles south of town, well north of where he had expected them. His home remained a world away, and so did his friend ... well, away from him and surrounded by enemies. If the gods were good, the rumors he'd heard would be very true, but Asher knew that it was more like Winterfell standing alone against the might of the dragons.

"Where is Hunt?" Asher asked Barton, a young man no older than twenty with red hair and a russet beard. "How long should it take to buy three horses?" He had known Barton for more than five years. They had grown up together in the company of men and women who had left their homes in order to stay free. They had fought together, bled together and learned together along with the other young men in the company.

Edgar shrugged from the top of the rock where he was perched upon. "Asher, is this a good idea? A safe one? We are not a part of the company anymore. You know that as well as I do."

"It may not be safer, yes," Asher told the heir of Barrowton. "But we still belong in the company." Unlike most of them here in the Company of the Rose, Edgar was born as the firstborn son and heir of Lord William Dustin and his lady wife Barbrey and stood to inherit Barrowton after his father but the boy had followed Asher into exile, both no older than thirteen in this new part of the world. Lord Dustin had sent his uncle Bill not to bring the boy back to him but to keep him safe away from Westeros.

Asher himself had been a reckless and a stupid boy who could not keep his mouth shut. He had been so worth the day Jon Connington came to Ironrath to hear his father swear fealty to the Targaryen king. Their true king and queen had been murdered through treachery and the dragon had the gall to come to them after that. Young and reckless as he was, Asher had shouted words which would've cost his head if not for his father. His father had sent him away with his uncle to Essos in an exile to keep him away from the Targaryens' grasp. He had lost them in the sea and ended up in Braavos all alone. It had taken four years for him to find them again but those years had made him harder, better and smarter. Those years had given him hope and a chance to see that there was hope after all. Not a day had passed without Asher wanting to fight for justice, for his friend and king. The day might come soon though, if everything he had planned for today came to fruition.

"We have gone to great lengths to get them to fight all these years," Owen reminded him. "This is not working, don't you see. That's why we came away from them remember?"

"True," Asher admitted. "But I have something worth fighting for this time. Something I did not have the last time or the time before that."

"And what is that?" Owen asked. "It has been two years since we last rode with the Company, and Redrain is dead. If it had been Rickard you would have an easy time convincing them to fight."

Redrain. Rickard Flint had been so full of life the last time Asher and his company of six had left him. He had been a good man, with a sure sword and an easy smile, it was hard to accept that he was gone. A true warrior at their head, Rickard had not gotten the name Redrain for no reason. Asher had tried his best to convince him to return to Westeros and fight for justice but Redrain had always denied him with a soft, sad smile. 'What reason is left there to fight for a lost cause?' he would say. If ony he was alive now, Asher could have given him the reason and made him set course to Westeros. He wondered who had taken the command of the company now. Bill Dustin seemed to be the perfect option. His prowess with his axe was famed all throughout Essos and the Free Cities together. Bill was a capable commander... and Edgar's uncle. He would have an easy time convincing him to turn home and to his friend.

Last night he'd dreamt of Braavos again. Alone, with another boy as the only company, younger than him but much nobler. They had run together, through the different streets, house to house, racing up stairs, leaping across canals and boats, played together, as his ears rang to the sound of distant drums. Deep harsh banging and the swish of oars on water, a maddening cacophony of noise that grew ever louder until it seemed as if his head would explode.

Four years had come and gone since the day he had lost his friend, yet the sound of drums booming still tied a knot in his guts. Others might claim that their war was lost when King Eddard was dead, but the wolf had left his pup in this world so that they could be avenged. Asher had not only lost his friend that day, he had lost the hope of the entire north. If only he had brought him to the Company of the Rose he had found in Essos, justice could've been won for the King and the Queen, for every true man and honest woman who had died that day in the name of King Eddard and Queen Ashara. 

"Even if we go there with this thing again, who knows if the new commander would be willing to fight," Barton was saying.

"They should. The men should yearn to return home."

"You could not expect that, Asher," Denys Snow said. "They have stayed here for years now."

"I have the reason to make them come home." Asher slapped the hilt of his long-sword with a gloved hand. "This isn't how it's supposed to end. You all followed me because everyone believed that I knew something, didn't you? And what I know is that this is going to work."

"Asher, " Edgar called loudly, above the rush of the water nearby. "It's Hunt and Roger."

So it was. Hunt looked hot and bedraggled as he made his way along the waterfront to the foot of the pier. Heat had left his face wet with sweat and red. He had the same sour look on his long face as at everytime he was sent venturing under the sun. Roger looked no better than him as well, but they were leading three horses, however, and that was all that mattered.

"Don't ever sending me out riding under the fucking Essosi sun," Ethan Hunt said, dismounting his horse briskly.

"Took you long enough," Asher asked them.

"Easy for you to say," Roger answered. "You were not the one out in the burning sun."

"Stop whining," Edgar dropped down from the rock. "As you can see we were out in the open too."

"Yeah, hear that," Barton said. "See any tent above our heads? It's just the same sun."

Hunt's horses did not please him. "Were these the best that you could find?" he complained to the knight. Ethan had been the second son of some knight in the south but that had been in the past though. They had three good horses won at pit fighting, all won from the dothraki screamers who had braids reaching their arse, but for the rest they had to turn to trade though.

"They were," said Hunt, in an irritated tone, "and you had best not ask what they cost us. Unless you wish to wait to find some dothraki for us to kill, this is what we got."

"My grandfather's guards have better horses than these," Edgar said inspecting the horses.

"That's because, Edgar," Roger said, "we are not in Westeros and no one in Essos knows how to breed fine horses like the Ryswells."

They would do, thought Asher. We're not riding into battle after all, just a ride to meet old friends. After Essos when he and his friends left the company to find Andrew, he had found it difficult to put the same trust in them as previously. If only he had brought him to them, this whole thing would've been done more quickly and easily. Almost all the men and women in the Company of the Rose knew King Eddard firsthand and likely not forget him till their end. It was during his days the Company of the Rose returned home to the north after nearly three hundred years of exile, ever since the days of King Torrhen Stark, the king who knelt, submitted his crown to Aegon the Conqueror. Only when King Eddard won the north's freedom from Rhaegar Targaryen, did the exiled northerners returned home to kneel again only to a King in the North. If only I had showed them what they were fighting for... If only I could convince them to turn west, I could get them to see it.

"They will do well enough, I suppose," he told Roger. "The camp is only three miles south."

"I still don't like the sound of this," Roger said. "But I think it's no high treason in trying it once more."

"Let's just hope this will be the last time," Asher replied. It might have been different if Redrain still commanded, but Rodrick Flint was four years dead, and he didn't knew whom he was dealing with this time. He would not say that to his friends, however.

He took a big grey gelding for himself, so pale that he was almost white. Edgar and Owen took the other two and all seven set forth together. The road ran south beneath the high white walls of Valaar Hargos for a good half mile. Then they left the town behind, following the winding course of the Rhoyne through willow groves and poppy fields and past a tall wooden windmill whose blades creaked like old bones as they turned. They found the Company of the Rose beside the river as the sun was lowering in the west. It was a camp that even Arthur Dayne might have approved of - compact, orderly, defensible. A deep ditch had been dug around it, with sharpened stakes inside. The tents stood in rows, with broad avenues between them. The latrines had been placed beside the river, so the current would wash away the wastes. The horse lines were to the north. Tall battle standards of white cloth with the violet rose in the middle flapped atop lofty poles along the perimeters of the camp. It had been a blue winter rose the sigil of the Company of Rose from the time of Brandon Snow but the company had taken the violet rose in respect for the new Queen, Ashara Dayne. Beneath them, armed and armored sentries walked their rounds with spears and crossbows, watching every approach. Asher had feared that the company might have grown lax after Redrain. Lack of leadership would make even a pride of lions turn into a fleet of sheep; but it would seem his worries had been misplaced. At the gate, Owen said something to the serjeant of guards, and a runner was sent off to find a captain. When he turned up, he was just as ugly as the last time Asher laid eyes on him. A long-limbed, lanky hunk of a man, the sellsword had a seamed face with a big old crude scar which started from the right eyebrow and ended at left chin. Whatever charms he might've had in the past were long gone with that hideous scar. "Have they made you a captain, Jon?" Asher asked. "I thought the Company of Rose had standards."

"It's worse than that, lucky charms," said Jon Locke. "You guys look surprisingly well enough, again." He clasped Asher by the forearm, pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. "When Bill said you'd be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Owen, you wench fucker, good to see you too. Still have that pretty face to hurt women." He turned to the others and greeted them all, one by one.

"I need to meet the captain-general."

"Aye. About that." Locke waved them through the gate. "Come with me. We don't have a captain is the truth of it. All the officers are in Redrain's tent. War council or another one of those voting ceremony. The bloody Volantenes are rattling their spears and demanding to know our intentions."

The men of the Company of Rose were outside their tents, dicing, drinking, and swatting away flies. Asher wondered how many of them knew who he was. There were new men and women who he did not know. Two years is a long time. Even the men who'd ridden with him might not easily recognize the smooth faced exile lordling Asher Forrester with the rough, light brown beard.

The captain-general's tent was made of white cloth and surrounded by a ring of pikes all bearing the violet roses of the queen.

"Wait here," Locke said. "I'll go tell them of your arrival."

He stood there watching the violet roses swaying in the wind. He could only wish that they still held queen Ashara in high esteem and not just bearing her roses in the banners

Jon stepped out of the tent. "Go on in."

The high officers of the Company of Rose rose from stools and camp chairs as they entered. Old friends and family greeted Asher and the others with smiles and embraces, the new men more formally.

Jon Locke did the introductions. Some of the sellsword captains bore bastard names, as Denys did: Snow, Rivers, Stone. Others claimed names that we're still very much respected in the Seven Kingdoms; Asher counted two Umbers, three Ryswells, a Mormont, a Manderly with his green beard, a pair of Norreys from the mountains. Not every captain was of Westerosi blood. Timoth, a beared norvoshi, sat with his big, long axe, as in Redrain's day. And there were fair share of others from other areas as well.

Ghosts and exiles, Asher thought, as he surveyed their faces. Like me. Descendants of people who had chosen exile in favor of freedom rather than submitting to a foreign king. This is my army. This is our best hope.

He turned to Bill Dustin who was surrounded by all the other captains of the company.

Even in the winter of his life, Bill 'Kill' Dustin looked everybit like the warrior he had been in his youth. Tall, with big wide chest, mild grey eyes, and uncombed long white beard, Bill sat in a camp chair straight as a spear. "Asher, you're back," he said by way of greeting. "I hope that you brought my grand nephew back safe."

"We are all here, my lord."

It's him I have to turn the mind of. No one would dare oppose 'Kill' Bill. Turn him around and the others would follow soon enough.

"I came here to discuss an important matter," Asher told them, "you all should hear it."

"Very well, then." Asher's uncle spoke. "Speak what you will. Do you need any refreshments? Wine, perhaps?"

"Thank you, Uncle, but no," said Asher. "Water will suffice."

"As you prefer." Malcolm Branfield smiled up at the him. "Are you here to talk about Westeros again, nephew?"

Does they already know of the rumors? Asher wondered. How much did they know? He had heard them well enough and it is possible that they had heard them too. But do they believe it as I do? Looking at them he could not help but think that they did not believe them even if they'd heard. He could not fault them for it though, they had not seen him as he had.

That time was done, though. "Yes and I mean it this time," Asher said. "My lords, the time for us to return home had come at last."

Silence greeted his announcement. Someone cleared his throat. One of the Umbers refilled his wine cup from the flagon. Manderly and Mormont exchanged a glance. They know, Asher realized then. They have always known that I'll be coming only for that. He turned to look at his uncle. "This is not our place, uncle."

His uncle scratched his chin. "You know that we can't go back there, Asher. They'll hunt you down for treason and all of us for being loyal to the Starks."

"We have turned away rich contracts in favor of your word, boy," Bill Dustin said, "We've melted off in this heat and our blades go to rust. You better have a good reason for having us do so."

"You will have work for your blades soon enough."

"Will we?" asked Reyna Longbraid, tugging her long brown braid with one hand and a throwing axe in her other. "I assume you know that the Targaryen has a newfound marriage alliance with Dorne."

"We heard that tale in Volantis."

"No tale. Simple truth. That's why it is harder to grasp," Finnick said, an orphan boy turned captain. "We can't stand against them, Asher. Rhaegar has the Tyrells, his master friends from east and now Dorne and what do we have, some eight thousand swords? The Fat flower of Highgarden himself out numbers us ten to one."

"And dragons," added Ragnar.

"It does no good to fight for a lost cause, Asher," his uncle said again. "Even Redrain knew the truth of it."

"We had a king and queen who brought us home to Westeros, but the Targaryen rules the north now along with his six other kingdoms," Bortrop Snow said. "We've been following Brandon Snow's ways and choose to be free rather than bending the knee to the dragon.

"Even if we manage to rouse up the north," Bill Dustin said, "how much will it avail us when all the six kingdoms close around us like a fist?"

Edgar stepped forward to face his great-uncle. "Not all of them are loyal to Rhaegar Targaryen. Surely King Eddard had friends in the south and is-"

"Dead," Kill Bill finished for him. "None of us are Ned Stark and not all of us could be."

"You're right," Asher spoke then. "Not all of us can be King Eddard," he said, "but I know someone who can."

"Who are you talking about?" his uncle asked.

"Someone who have the right blood, the right flesh and the right prowess that Ned Stark had," he insisted. "Someone with Ned Stark's own blood running through his veins. You asked me for a reason to fight for and a King, well, I have both of them for you now."

The captains looked as if someone had slapped their faces. "Has the sun curdled your brains, Asher?" Bill Dustin said. "Ned Stark is dead if you mean to fight for him. Unless you have some sort of dark magic to bring the dead back to life, it is never possible. And Ben Stark is at the Wall, a sworn brother of the Night's Watch. Do you mean to bring him back from the Wall and have him break all of his oaths and honor?"

"No, not Eddard or Benjen for that matter," Asher told them. "The Quiet Wolf may be dead with his she-wolf but not their pup. You asked me for a king and there is your king in Winterfell. Andrew Stark, the son and heir of King Eddard, your king, my king, our king. He is out there fighting for the north and his father's house all alone and honor would have us to fight along with him, isn't it?"

He turned around to look at all the faces in the tent. "Didn't you all swear fealty to King Eddard? Are we not wearing Queen Ashara's violet rose in our banners as a homage to the benevolent queen? Their own son is fighting a war on his own and every moment we stay here waiting for a reason is disgrace to the oaths we swore to Eddard Stark and a shame to Ashara Dayne's roses."

"Ned's son?" Bill Dustin asked surprised.

"The boy was said to be dead along with his parents," Reyna said. "How do you say that he is alive?"

"You don't have to take my word for it," Asher told them. "Come to Westeros and see him with your own eyes."

"He's not wrong," said his uncle. "By now the dragon would surely have the wolf's scent, but Rhaegar's attentions will be fixed upon his son's marriage and his alliance. He would not even remember a thing of our prince. Once we land and raise our banners, many and more will flock to join us. Baratheon, Arryn, Tully, His Grace had friends in the south."

"Might be," allowed Reyna, "or not. They were Ned Stark's friends. Who could say that they will fight for his son?"

"Why should we care about them?" asked Asher. "They might join us or not. Our King is fighting a war right now, isn't that alone enough for us to go help him. Look! Look around you," Asher pointed to the banners around them. "That purple rose is there for a reason. Our name, our oath, our honor is there for a reason. We chose to be free in exile rather than be a captive in home. We know no king but the King in the North whose name is a Stark. We didn't just go through everything we went through for no reason at all, to just have it end like this. There is a reason that we are here, and if that reason is to die for our king then we will do it with pride, fighting for him."

"I have had enough of balking plans and shadowy reasons," Bill Dustin said. "Eddard Stark won his freedom from the Targaryens without any help. If he can, why not his son."

"Even if we are wrong," his uncle said, "at least we won't die alone away from our home and our king."

"That's so," Gilden Norrey said, "Aye."

"Asher Forrester," said Kill Bill and laid his axe at his feat, "we are your men. Is this your wish, that we sail west to meet your Stark king?"

For a moment he could not believe what was happening. There were people in that tent who had been fighting in wars even before Asher had seen the light of the world, yet they all looked at him to lead them, including all those battle hardened men.

"It is," he said at last.

Almost everyone in the tent was smiling in approval. When all of them began to speak at once, Asher knew the tide had turned.

He had waited so long for this day, surely the gods would grant him another chance to meet his friend, another chance to help the boy he'd called as friend to get justice for his parents' murders, another chance to serve his king as his own father had served Andrew's father.

Chapter Text

Jaehaerys

The courtyard rang to the song of swords.

Under black wool, boiled leather, and mail, sweat trickled icily down Jaehaerys's chest as he pressed the attack. Quid stumbled backward, defending himself clumsily. When he raised his sword, Jaehaerys went underneath it with a sweeping blow that crunched against the back of the other boy's leg and sent him staggering. Jos' downcut was answered by an overhand that dented his helm. When Orten tried a sideswing from his left, Jaehaerys swept aside his blade and slammed a mailed forearm into his chest. Orten lost his footing and fell down hard in the snow. From the other side Quid rushed for him. Jaehaerys knocked his sword from his fingers and smashed his head right at the bigger boy's nose.

"Enough!" Ser Alliser Thorne had a voice with an edge like Valyrian steel.

Quid rubbed his nose gingerly. His fingers came away bloody. "He broke my nose."

"He hamstrung you, split your skull, and cut off your hand. Or would have, if these blades had an edge. It's fortunate for you that the Watch needs stableboys as well as rangers." Ser Alliser gestured at Geron and Lio. "Get the Otter on his feet, he has funeral arrangements to make."

Jaehaerys took off his helm as the other boys were pulling Orten to his feet. The frosty morning air felt good on his face. He leaned on his sword, drew a deep breath, and allowed himself a moment to savor the victory.

"That is a longsword, not an old man's cane," Ser Alliser said sharply. "Are your legs hurting, your grace? Shall I sent for a royal crew to take care of you?"

Jaehaerys hated his tone. A mockery tone that Ser Alliser had chosen for him the first day he came to practice. The man was sent to the Wall by his father to join the Night's Watch for siding with his grandfather Aerys in their struggle for King's Landing. By mocking him to the ground and belittling him at every turn Ser Alliser somehow thought that he was getting back at the king for the disgrace his father had placed upon him. Had he been in Andrew's place in having his vengeance against his father, his head would've been travelling to his father right now. Jaehaerys had no doubt of it. "No," he said, calmly.

Thorne strode toward him, crisp black leathers whispering faintly as he moved. He was a compact man of fifty years, spare and hard, with grey in his black hair and eyes like chips of onyx. "The truth now," he commanded.

"I'm tired," Jaehaerys admitted. His arm burned from the weight of the longsword, and he was starting to feel his bruises now that the fight was done.

"What you are is weak."

"I won."

"No. They lost."

One of the other boys sniggered. Jaehaerys knew better than to reply. He had beaten everyone that Ser Alliser had sent against him, yet it gained him nothing. He would gain nothing from the master-at-arms. Thorne hated him, Jaehaerys had decided; of course, he hated the other boys even worse. Atleast the man had the eyes to see skill. 

"That will be all," Thorne told them. "I can only stomach so much ineptitude in any one day. If the Others ever come for us, I pray they have archers, because you lot are fit for nothing more than arrow fodder."

Jaehaerys followed the rest back to the armory, walking with Gwayne. Both of them often walked together here, just the two of them together. There were almost twenty in the group he trained with, yet not one he could call a friend. Most were two or three years his senior, yet not one was half the fighter he had been at ten. Orten was quick but afraid of being hit. Kurt used his sword like a dagger, Geren was weak as a girl, Quid slow and clumsy. Harrion's blows were brutally hard but he ran right into your attacks. He'd tried to speak with them, tried to make some friends but the more time he spent with them in the yard, the more they despised him because he was better than them.

Inside, Jaehaerys hung sword and scabbard from a hook in the stone wall, ignoring the others around him. Methodically, he began to strip off his mail, leather, and sweat-soaked woolens. Chunks of coal burned in iron braziers at either end of the long room, but Jaehaerys found himself shivering. The chill was always with him here. In a few years he would forget what it felt like to be warm. He missed Viserion, never once stopped missing him but he missed him now more than ever. The Wall was cold, so bloody cold.

The weariness came on him suddenly, as he donned the roughspun blacks that were their everyday wear. He sat on a bench, his fingers fumbling with the fastenings on his cloak. So cold, he thought, remembering the warm halls of Winterfell, where the hot waters ran through the walls like blood through a man's body. There was scant warmth to be found in Castle Black; the walls were cold here, and the people colder.

No one had told him the Night's Watch would be like this. All he had heard of them in the south was that they protected the realm from the greater threats. None sung songs of the cold or the men that walked here. 

He had thought to get familiar with his family at least. But even they had abandoned him in this cold place at the end of the world. Benjen Stark he had not acted as if Jaehaerys was his nephew. The only thing he had cared was the reason to why he was here. Even that the First Ranger hadn't come to ask him face to face, he had sent Samwell Tarly to do his bidding.

The very day of their arrival, Jaehaerys had seen people look at him as if he was a ghost. The very sight of the silver hair and purple eyes had given start to the rumors of direwolves and dark hair and grey eyes. Benjen Stark had left three days ago to see his nephew without having a single talk with him in all the time he was here. The night the First Ranger left for Winterfell Jaehaerys had tried to sought out his Targaryen kin in the great timbered common hall. Even Maester Aemon had nothing for his great-great-grandnephew despite of their shared family name. He sat on the high table along with Lord Commander Mormont and the other officers of Castle Black and had his supper as if he did not even exist. He had thought the old man was tired and will come to talk with him the next day. 

He rose at dawn the next day only to go under the harshness of Ser Alliser. Aemon Targaryen had nothing to say to him that day or the days that followed it. 

Afterward he had given up the hope of having brothers in the Night's Watch. If he must be alone, he would make solitude his armor. He had Gwayne and he is content to have only him by his side.

He missed his true brother: Aegon, his rival and best friend and constant companion. He wondered what he was doing now. Had he already heard of my fate? Was he coming north on his dragon by now? He knew that Aegon would not stay quiet once he knew about him, no more than their father would be. There was no hope for peace anymore. Should I run away from here to help my true brother and my true family? He had not sworn his vows yet. He could do that and lose the last bit of honor he had left.

"Blasted mail," Gwayne said as he hung the mail and sat. "Can't get enough of it."

Jaehaerys chuckled. "Get used to it, Gwayne," he said. "We're still a bit away from passing."

"Aye," Gwayne agreed. "But that doesn't mean that I like it all around."

"Why do they have to keep testing us?" he asked. "We are the best swords they have, very much better than this lot in everything." He looked around at all his future brothers, brutes and bullies, eyes brimming with malice and hostility whenever they met him.

"It's the way of the Watch, my prince," Gwayne replied. "If they said that we are not ready, we should respect that."

Respect. The word turned to acid in his mouth. They never showed me any respect. No respect to their prince. For a moment he thought that if he had made a mistake by coming here. He should have fought to death like his father would have. That would have made him proud. Instead he had gone down meekly to his cousin's words and shamed his father. 'No Dragon would bow before the Wolf,' he could hear his father's voice somewhere in him. 

"Ready for the watch atop the Wall, my prince?" Gwayne asked. 

He was tired but Jaehaerys was not ready to show it to everyone there. "Aye," he said.

By the time they left the armory, it was almost midday. The sun had broken through the clouds. Jaehaerys turned his back on it and lifted his eyes to the Wall, blazing blue and crystalline in the sunlight. Even after all these weeks, the sight of it still gave him the shivers. Centuries of windblown dirt had pocked and scoured it, covering it like a film, and it often seemed a pale grey, the color of an overcast sky . . . but when the sun caught it fair on a bright day, it shone, alive with light, a colossal blue-white cliff that filled up half the sky.

The largest structure ever built by the hands of man, remembered his lessons when they had first caught sight of the Wall in the distance. You could see it from miles off, a pale blue line across the northern horizon, stretching away to the east and west and vanishing in the far distance, immense and unbroken. This is the end of the world, it seemed to say.

When they finally spied Castle Black, its timbered keeps and stone towers looked like nothing more than a handful of toy blocks scattered on the snow, beneath the vast wall of ice. The ancient stronghold of the black brothers was no Winterfell, no true castle at all. Lacking walls, it could not be defended, not from the south, or east, or west; but it was only the north that concerned the Night's Watch, and to the north loomed the Wall. Almost seven hundred feet high it stood, three times the height of the tallest tower in the stronghold it sheltered. Samwell Tarly had said the top was wide enough for a dozen armored knights to ride abreast. The gaunt outlines of huge catapults and monstrous wooden cranes stood sentry up there, like the skeletons of great birds, and among them walked men in black as small as ants.

As he stood outside the armory looking up, Jaehaerys felt almost as overwhelmed as he had that day on the kingsroad, when he'd seen it for the first time. The Wall was like that. Sometimes he could almost forget that it was there, the way you forgot about the sky or the earth underfoot, but there were other times when it seemed as if there was nothing else in the world. It was older than the Seven Kingdoms, and when he stood beneath it and looked up, it made him dizzy. He could feel the great weight of all that ice pressing down on him, as if it were about to topple, and somehow Jaehaerys knew that if it fell, the world fell with it.

They were raised up by the winch used to get people up the Wall. Above the men were already waiting for someone to come and relieve them of their duties. Jaehaerys and Gwayne got the pikes, twice as tall as they were and took their post for the watch.

Jaehaerys looked into the pale wildreness of the haunted forest and the lands of snow and ice lay beyond. The only lands which he will for the rest of his life. 

"Makes you wonder what lies beyond," Gwayne said.

Jaehaerys looked around. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Gwayne gestured up at the plain white vastness beyond the Wall with a his gloved hand. "Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what's on the other side? You do want to know what's on the other side, don't you my prince? The things we'll be protecting the realm from?"

"It's nothing special," Jaehaerys said. "The rangers say it's just woods and mountains and frozen lakes, with lots of snow and ice. Maybe a few wildlings here and there."

"And the grumkins and the snarks," Gwayne said. "Let us not forget them, or else what's this big thing for?"

Jaehaerys laughed. 

Their watch went on and on and on that Jaehaerys grew tired of it soon enough. He was tired and hungry and there was nothing to do up here but to watch the never ending north. He sat at the base of a catapult for a while, throwing some chinks of ice down to find how long it took for it to reach the bottom, but if it ever reached he never heard it. By the time the men came to relieve him of the watch, frost had settled on the fur lining of his cuffs and neck.

"I'm hungry," Jaehaerys told Gwayne. In all his life he did not remember a time being hungry, really hungry. Life as a prince had excluded him of that, but he was not a prince now.

"Me too," Gwayne replied. "Come now, my prince. They'll be serving some vile stew in the common hall by now, and I could do with a bowl of something hot."

Jaehaerys fell in beside him and walked with him to the common hall. The wind was rising, and they could hear the old wooden buildings creaking around them, and in the distance a heavy shutter banging, over and over, forgotten.

Inside, the hall was filled with men, men of the Night's Watch. There were crow nests in the timbers of its lofty ceiling like the ones in the broken tower of Winterfell. Jaehaerys heard their cries overhead as he accepted a bowl of stew and a heel of black bread from the day's cooks. Quid and Orten and some of the others were seated at the bench near the hearth, laughing and cursing each other in rough voices. Jaehaerys thought to go sit with them for a moment. Then he chose a spot at the far end of the hall, well away from the other diners.

Gwayne sat across from him, sniffing at the stew suspiciously. "Barley, onion, carrot," he muttered. "Someone should tell the cooks that turnip isn't a meat."

"Anything that'll fill my stomach is enough for me." Jaehaerys pulled off his gloves and warmed his hands in the steam rising from the bowl. The smell made his mouth water.

"Jae." A shaking sound came from behind him. Jaehaerys knew Samwell Tarly's shaking voice. When he turned around to see the fat boy, he bowed his head at once. "Apologies... My... my prince," he stammered.

"It is not necessary, Sam," Jaehaerys said. "You can call me by my name." That much he can allow the boy. Samwell Tarly was a newly made black brother just moons before Jaehaerys arrived here. The boy was an year older than him but was much afraid and uncomfortable in his presence. Despite being raised as a lord's son, Sam was not so brave even to look at a prince. They'll soon be brothers now and the title would no longer mean anything. Jaehaerys liked the boy and was happy to have him around as the only friend here. 

"Umm, okay," he said. "Maester Aemon wants to see you."

For a moment Jaehaerys was surprised. Why would he want to see him now? "Shall I finish my meal first?" he asked. "I'm hungry."

"Sure," Sam smiled.

He found Maester Aemon up in the rookery, feeding the ravens. Clydas was with him, carrying a bucket of chopped meat as they shuffled from cage to cage. "You wanted to see me, maester?"

The maester nodded. "I did indeed. Clydas, give Jaehaerys the bucket. Perhaps he will be kind enough to assist me." The hunched, pink-eyed brother handed Jaehaerys the bucket and scurried down the ladder. "Toss the meat into the cages," Aemon instructed him. "The birds will do the rest. "

Jaehaerys took the bucket in his right hand and thrust his left down into the bloody bits. The ravens began to scream noisily and fly at the bars, beating at the metal with night-black wings. The meat had been chopped into pieces no larger than a finger joint. He filled his fist and tossed the raw red morsels into the cage, and the squawking and squabbling grew hotter. Feathers flew as two of the larger birds fought over a choice piece. Quickly he grabbed a second handful and threw it in after the first. 

"Curious, aren't they," the maester said. "Most ravens will eat grain, but they prefer flesh. It makes them strong, and I fear they relish the taste of blood good. In that they are like men . . . and like men, not all ravens are alike."

Jaehaerys had nothing to say to that. He threw meat, wondering why he'd been summoned. No doubt the old man would tell him, in his own good time. Maester Aemon was not a man to be hurried. He had wanted to see him only weeks after his arrival. 

"Doves and pigeons can also be trained to carry messages," the maester went on, "though the raven is a stronger flyer, larger, bolder, far more clever, better able to defend itself against hawks . . . yet ravens are black, and they eat the dead, so some godly men abhor them. Baelor the Blessed tried to replace all the ravens with doves, did you know?" The maester turned his white eyes on Jaehaerys, smiling. "The Night's Watch prefers ravens."

Jae's fingers were in the bucket, blood up to the wrist. "Dywen says the wildlings call us crows," he said uncertainty.

"The crow is the raven's poor cousin. They are both beggars in black, hated and misunderstood."

Jae wished he understood what they were talking about, and why. What did he care about ravens and doves? If he had something to say to him, why couldn't he just say it?

 

 

"They tell me you show great promise with a sword?"

"Is that why you called me here?" Jae asked him. "To ask me about my swordsmanship?"

The old man smiled softly. "No, I called you here to ask about you. How you were and how-"

"I don't care," Jae cut him off. "I don't care about them and I don't care about you or this place or any of it. I hate it here. It's too . . . it's cold."

"Yes. Cold and hard and mean, that's the Wall, and the men who walk it. Not like the stories your wet nurse told you. It is your life now as It is mine and the others'."

"Life," Jae said bitterly. 

 

 

 

"Yes, life," Noye said. "A long life or a short one, it's up to you. The road you're walking, one of your brothers will slit your throat for you one night."

"They're not my brothers," Jae snapped. "They hate me because I'm better than they are."

"No. They hate you because you act like you're better than they are. They look at you and see a prince who thinks he owns the place. Let me say this to you, your Targaryen name will win you no favors in the Watch." Maester Aemon leaned close. "If you are any better than them, why are here in this place where the are and not in some castle? Didn't someone sent you here the same way someone else sent them?"

 

Jae had no answer for that.

"That's right," the old man said. "You're as same as they are."

"You think you had it worse because he sent you here?" Maester Aemon asked.

Jae shrugged. You did feel it though, a dark part of him whispered. 

The old man seemed to sense his guilt. "Your father killed his father under the cover of peace," the old man said, "Any other man in his place wouldn't have been so generous as that. Whatever reason your father had for doing it, will not make it right. My brother once sent our own blood to the Wall for slaying his foe under the peace banner, a foe who would've fought him for the throne. Yet he sent the man to the Wall because it was wrong."

The old man laid a withered, spotted hand on his shoulder. "It hurts, boy," he said softly. "Oh, yes. Choosing . . . it has always hurt. And always will. I know."

 

 

"I watched my family rip itself apart, I watched my brother's family fight with my mother's kin and the Gods have seen fit to test my vows more times than that. Had I not been a man of the Night's Watch, they still made it hard for me to choose. He is as much as my kin as you are. So I do know about choosing. But now you must make that choice yourself, and live with it all the rest of your days. As I have." His voice fell to a whisper. "As I have . . . "

Chapter Text

Andrew

The Hornwoods came in on a cold windy morning, bringing a hundred horsemen and near thousand foot from their castle at Hornwood. The steel points of their pikes winked in the pale sunlight as the column approached. A man went before them, pounding out a slow, deep-throated marching rhythm on a drum that was bigger than he was, boom, boom, boom.

Andrew watched them come from a guard turret atop the outer wall, standing vigil near the dragon's head. Lord Halys himself led them, his son Daryn riding beside him beneath orange banners sporting the black bull moose of their House.

They were the last, he knew. The other lords were already here, with their hosts. Once Andrew would have loved to ride out among them, to see the winter houses full to bursting, the jostling crowds in the market square every morning, the streets rutted and torn by wheel and hoof. Once when these men came under his father's command. They were his men now, not his father's and Andrew wasn't sure if he yearned to meet them as he once did. 

He had met all these lords with their banners before, when they had come to Winterfell to fight wars and meet father. Thrice his father had fought Rhaegar in war and thrice he defeated the dragon king in the wars between their kingdoms. Andrew remembered seeing them and their banners twice when they came to Winterfell to march for battle. He had only been a babe at his mother's breast the first time his father called his banners against the Targaryens but the next two times he remembered seeing all of them in the yard, once perched at his mother's hip and the last clutching at her skirts. It almost seemed strange seeing them here now coming under his call. He remembered the mailed fist of the Glovers, silver on scarlet; the black bear of the Mormonts; the hideous flayed man that went before Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort; the white ironwood with the black sword for the Forresters; a battle-axe for the Cerwyns; three sentinel trees for the Tallharts; and the fearsome sigil of House Umber, a roaring giant in shattered chains. All of them, his father's men and now his men.

A year ago, before, he would have gladly visited them in the yard and received them as his father would do. In those days he was not much aware of what he might say to them when he sees them. Now that the moment was very much nearing he dreaded the whole thing. They brought the armies with them though, that thought should comfort him the very least.

And soon enough he would see their faces again, when he would have to show himself for the lords and their sons and knights who had come to Winterfell to see him. He wondered if the Great Hall would be large enough to seat all of them at once. His father used to seat all the lords and their sons inside, that might do.

"How many is it now?" Andrew asked Maester Walys as Lord Hornwood and his son rode through the gates in the outer wall.

"Fourty thousand men, or near enough as makes no matter."

"They are all here?"

Without a doubt," the maester said with a hint of smile. "I remember the day they came to see you for the first time. Even that day I had not seen as many people as they have come to see you now. Your father and mother showed you to all the great houses of the north and everyone here have seen you before. No doubt you've grown up a little now but that would not cause any problems."

"Aye," sighed Andrew. "No longer a babe and no longer have my parents with me."

Maester Walys sighed. "My lord, it only took one look for the people to see you who you are. The north remembers. Your father and mother are remembered still, there is no doubt of that."

"Yeah, but do they remember me though?" Andrew asked thoughtfully. It was one thing to show himself to the castle folk who saw him everyday and an entirely different thing to come before the people who saw a babe in swaddled clothes. 

"They would remember you well enough to see you as Ned Stark's son," Maester Walys said. "You should meet them soon enough, your grace. The sooner the better."

"I'll be there today," he told the master. "I need to see them first." 

"As you wish," Maester Walys said. 

Andrew felt as miserable as he must have looked. The only family he had left remained in the cold halls of the crypts. He wanted to see them before he saddle the horse he meant to ride.

A series of chisel-cut handholds made a ladder in the granite of the tower's inner wall. Andrew went down in silence, hand under hand. Once he might have found another way down from the tower, a quicker way and more dangerous, but he was not an assassin anymore. He was expected to act the king. 

Even Winterfell itself was crowded. The yard rang to the sound of sword and axe, the rumble of wagons, and the barking of dogs. The armory doors were open, and Andrew glimpsed Mikken at his forge, his hammer ringing as sweat dripped off his bare chest. 

For near a full moonturn there had been so many comings and goings that he ordered both portcullises kept up and the drawbridge down between them, even in the dead of night. A long column of armored lancers was crossing the moat between the walls when he emerged from the tower; Hornwood men, following their lords into the castle. They wore black iron halfhelms and russet woolen cloaks patterned with the black moose head. Andrew slunk away from their sight and walked to the crypts in the shadows. 

Two stone wolves stood guard at the entrance to Winterfell's crypts. As he stepped inside the blinding darkness, Andrew put two fingers into his mouth and whistled. Ghost came loping out from the godswood. The presence of the white wolf near him gave him the strength and comfort he needed. 

He walked down a long dim hallway, Ghost padding easily beside him. The white wolf glanced up from time to time, eyes smoldering like bright burning embers. The hallway was lit with enough lanterns hanging from the walls on either side. Andrew walked past the stone kings on their thrones, eying him with their cold dead eyes as he passed. He hoisted the flowers in his hands when he reached his destination. The roses he had kept yesterday had already withered. He took them away and placed the fresh one in his mother's arms. 

He stayed there for a while. The crypts was an island of peace in the sea of chaos that Winterfell had become. He needed the peace, needed them more than that. 

Ghost nudged his head against his chest when he stood there forgotten of the time and his life. He rubbed the wolf under the jaw and made his way out, his shadow towering over the old kings of winter as he left them in their cold hall.

Beneath the shadow of the First Keep was an ancient lichyard, its headstones spotted with pale lichen, where the old Kings of Winter had laid their faithful servants. It was there they had buried his grandmother Lyarra. Next to her grave, he had buried the men who had died the day he took back Winterfell. He should do it atleast for them else their deaths would've been for nothing.

When the sun was right above his head, he left for his solar hiding away from all the stranger eyes in Winterfell. 

He would want to meet the lords today no matter how hard it is for him. That's why he had come back here. The sooner it is done the sooner he can march south to get justice for his father and mother and . . . her.

Besides, it was his duty as the son of King Eddard Stark and Queen Ashara Dayne. His father never once shrunk away from his duty, no matter how hard it was. Andrew had seen it with his own eyes. How hard it was for him to leave mother and go to war. He wished he was here now. I must be strong like him as well, especially now. 

He discarded his jacket and shirt and wore a brown coat befits a king. He would want to look kingly tonight before all those great lords. Once he laced his boots he turned around and looked at his father's crown on the table. Andrew ran his fingers gently over the circlet. The iron was engraved with ancient runes all over it. He wondered what they meant. Father would've known else he wouldn't have kept it. Maybe he should ask maester Walys about it. 

By the time he was dressed and done, Ghost was curled up asleep beside the door, but he lifted his head at the sound of Andrew's boots. The direwolf's red eyes were darker than blood and wiser than men. Andrew knelt, scratched his ear. "Come on, boy. It's time."

Ghost sniffed at his face and tried a lick. Andrew smiled. "You're the one deserves an honor to be the king," he told the wolf . . . and suddenly he found himself remembering how he'd found him, that day in the wolfswood. His mother had died protecting Andrew and his mother from wildlings. For the sake of his dead mother's sacrifice, Queen Ashara had convinced his father to let Andrew keep him. They had raised him together too, him and his mother. And Ghost has saved his life more times than he could count.

"I need you there with me, Ghost," he told the white wolf.

He was about to walk back to take the crown when a knock at the door came. 

Maester Walys' voice came through the door. "Your grace, you have a visitor."

"I told you I was coming down."

"Yes, sire. But you might want to meet him now."

"Very well. Send him in."

Andrew crossed the table and stood on the other side of the table. Vaguely he thought who would want to meet him now. Howland Reed, his father's friend, perhaps or jolly lord Manderly or . . . The door flew open and Andrew looked up.

His feet stuck to the floor and Andrew stared at him for some seconds. He could see utter amazement in the man's old and hardened face. Grey eyes watched him curiously and Andrew could not have felt more happier to see anyone else at that time. His white hair had grown past his shoulders and his snowy beard wild and unkempt, very much unlike the last he had seen him. Though older than any men Andrew had known in his life, he held himself atrongly as if to show that he had some years of life still left in him with his back straight as spear, the back where once he'd slung himself as the old man marched him around, both of them laughing.

He took a step forward and reached him to see if he was real, standing before him, and all of it was not a dream. He saw the old man's lips grow wide in a smile and Andrew could not help but return it. "My boy," his great-grandfather pulled him into a tight hug.

Andrew returned the embrace warmly and held onto the only family he had left. Rodrik Stark held him at arms length and looked at him from head to heel. "By the gods, you've grown."

"So are you," Andrew said with a smile.

"The others take me!" Rodrik Stark boomed when he looked him all around once again. "I cannot believe my eyes. You're here, alive and well."

"It's me, of course," Andrew told him, "at least as far as I know of it."

That made his great-grandfather grin. "They told me you were dead. How did you escape?"

"Mother saved me," Andrew said softly. "She gave herself to protect me." He then told the old man about Syrio and Illola and the girls patiently. He left Joy away from the story. She belonged in his heart and there she will stay until it stops so he could join her. He told him about Rhaegar and Braavos and how he reached here. 

"Well, that's good," Rodrik Stark said thoughtfully when he was done. "You're back now, that's all that matters now."

"How did you survive?" Andrew asked. "I thought Rhaegar left no one alive."

"I wouldn't have survived," Rodrik Stark said, "but for your father's southern friends. Dondarrion and the Red Priest. They are with me as well and your cousin too, your mother's kin."

Edric. It's been years since Andrew had seen his cousin. It warmed his heart to know that he had some of his family left.

His grandfather eyed the crown on the table. "I see that you're the one responsible for Waterspring and the dragon's death."

"Yeah. I had some help as well." Help of some good folks who gave their lives to protect mine.

"Quite a way to come back from hell, son." His grandfather sat in the chair. "The whole north speaks of you. They are very eager to meet you, very much like me."

"Well," Andrew sighed and walked over to the hearth. "I don't think they'll be much impressed with what they see."

"Impressed?" Rodrik Stark said grimly. "Which of these lords could claim that he's killed a dragon? Who can say that he fought to free Winterfell? If anyone has any qualms in seeing you as Ned's son they can very well come and settle it with me. Though seeing your wolf here, I hardly find any reason for it."

"That's reassuring."

Rodrik Stark came near him. " I know things have been difficult for you. I know what you're feeling. Ever since you were a little boy, you've been living with so many unresolved things. Well, take it from an old man, those things send us down a road. They make us who we are. And if anyone's destined for greatness, it's you, son. You owe the people your gifts. Like your father did when his time came." Andrew turned to look him in the eye. "I see so much of your father in you. And your mother. I know that they would be very proud of you."

Andrew was tired. I need sleep. He had been up half the night discussing with Maester Walys and pondering over things that would happen tonight. Even after stumbling into his bed, rest had not come easily. He knew what he would face today, and found himself wondering restlessly. He brooded on his great-grandfather's words for some time. 

"I'm ready," he said finally. 

Andrew fastened his coat and strode outside. He left the crown on the table. I'll go to them as Ned Stark's son, not as a self styled king. Ghost left his place by the hearth and bounded to him at once. He walked to the Great Hall where the lords of the north has gathered. Ghost padded before him. He stopped at the heavy doors to the Great Hall and looked back for him with blood red eyes. 

When the doors opened all eyes turned to him. They lords of the north were already at their places when Andrew walked in the centre, Ghost padding at his side. His great-grandfather followed him closely. He could hear people talking in low voices and all the eyes in the hall followed him as he passed. Two of lord Karstark's sons backed in their seat when they saw Ghost. He reached the high seat and allowed himself to sit in it proudly as his father had once sat. Ghost walked up to him and curled up around his feet, his red eyes scanning the room for any danger. Andrew saw Lord Beric and Thoros of Myr give him a smile as they came to his side beside Rodrik Stark. The boy at Lord Beric's side must be Edric. He was all grown up, not the little boy Andrew remembered. He had the Dayne coloring like aunt Allyria and uncle Aaron. Though his eyes were more indigo than the violet of his mother's. If that was not enough, the smile he gave when he saw Andrew told him enough. Andrew could feel the eyes of every man in the hall. Both people he had seen before and strangers alike. They were both afraid and amused to see him as they had been when they saw Ghost. It had grown quiet. "My lords," Poole announced, "His Grace, Andrew Stark, of Winterfell."

The Great Hall of Winterfell was filled with the lords of the north and their sons and their favored friends. Long trestle tables were arranged either side of the hall all occupied by men old and young alike. Andrew looked down at them from the high seat of the Starks, with Rodrik Stark at his side, and his father's bannermen arrayed to right and left and along the side tables. Word of the dragon's death and the victory at Winterfell had spread as far as to even reach the mountain clans, drawing them to Winterfell. Flint, Norrey, Liddle, Knott and dozen others. Andrew saw Buckets in the benches along with Howland Reed. Both Theo Wull and Lord Reed had been old friends of his father. Lord Wyman Manderly arrived from the White Harbor in barge and litter, his sons Ser Wylis and Ser Wendel accompanying him. 

The Greatjon had come from Last Hearth far up from the north to represent the Umbers, and then Galbart Glover from Deepwood Motte, Rickard Karstark and his sons from Karhold, Roose Bolton from Dreadfort, Lords Dustin and Ryswell, Tallhart and Hornwood and Cerwyn. Even Lady Mormont and her daughter had come from Bear Island. He spied Lord Forrester in the hall and thought of his childhood friend at Braavos wondering what had happened to him. 

The hall was very quiet for a moment. Andrew found the silence too much and started to talk. "My lords," he said, "I'm glad that you all came to Winterfell on my word. It's an honor to sit here in this seat where my father once sat, and receive you all to Winterfell." 

"We live to serve you, your grace," Lord Howland Reed said. "As we served your father."

"Let me stop you right there, Reed," Roose Bolton interrupted. "How would you even know that this is our prince. For all we know prince Andrew died with the king and queen and why not show himself out to us for all these years? Why now?" 

Ghost lifted his head up from his paws and glared Lord Bolton. For a moment Andrew could almost sense the rage of the direwolf.

"How do we know he is Ned's son?" Rodrik Stark boomed from his side. "Are you blind as a bat Bolton? Look at him, you've seen Ned before. And if that's not enough for you, see the direwolf at his feet. Andrew was the only one who had a wolf with him." 

"Lord Rodrik is right," Lord Hornwood said. "That's our prince. The gods have seen it fit to give him back to us now."

"Aye," boomed the Greatjon. "That's the King's son, our prince. I did see him with his wolf once."

"Are we crowning a king in the name of a wolf and the truth of an old man's word?" Rose Bolton argued. "It's not like Lord Rodrik is young and his eyesight is clear still. It's almost a decade since he last saw his great-grandson."

Rodrik Stark unsheathed his steel. "Are you telling me I can't identify my own great-grandson, Bolton?" Beside him Lord Beric's men had drawn their swords out as well when the Bolton men in the benches went for their steel. 

The arguing raged on late into the night. Each lord had a right to speak, and speak they did . . . and shout, and curse, and reason, and cajole, and jest, and bargain, and slam tankards on the table, and threaten, and walk out, and return sullen or smiling. Andrew sat and listened to it all. His father always used to listen to the lords before talking.

Many of the lords bannermen agreed him to be his father's son. Some voiced their doubts but it took a single look at Ghost and they grew quiet.

"You want to see that he is Ned's son, Bolton," asked the Greatjon. "Take your icy eyes out your arse and look at his face and the wolf beside him."

"I can assure for it, my lords," Maester Walys said. "I was there with the Queen the day he born. I still remember the prince having King Eddard's face and Queen Ashara's hair even as a little baby."

"You cannot mean that, maester," Roose Bolton said. "Half the whores in Westeros has dark hair, not just Queen Ashara."

Andrew could feel the edge of his tone grating on saying his mother as a whore. Rage bubbled up inside him. But then he chose to deal it with words rather than his sword as his father would have. "Tell me, Lord Bolton," Andrew said, "these whores you speak of, do their sons have any reason to jump inside a castle and battle a dragon to death?"

There was no answer to that. The hall seemed quiet after a series of sounds and voices.

"I know most of you could not believe a dead man standing before you," said Andrew, troubled. "Hell, I wouldn't believe it myself. You have the right to doubt it. You want to know how I escaped? To know how I watched my parents die? It was not just my family who died at Starfall. Lord Galbart, your kin Ethan Glover was in my father's personal guard and so was your son, Lord Rickard. Lady Mormont, you daughter Dacey was my mother's own sworn sword. Martyn Cassel, Mark Ryswell, James Norrey, Jon Locke, Gait Cerwyn all died to defend my family that day. And now I see all of you here, shouting and arguing and spitting over their names. You don't have to follow me or anyone, you can go back to your keep just as you came and I'll not hold it against you. I'm going to march south and bring Rhaegar to his knees to answer for his crimes with or without your help. I mean to see that justice is won for everyone who died at Starfall."

The hall was very quiet when he finished speaking.

"Everyone of you here fought with my father. People from the north, the south, great lords with ancient names, brave common folk, good men, loyal men all fought under my father's name. I'll not ask or demand that you do the same for me. My father used to say that we find our true friends on the battlefield. Yes, I liberated Winterfell and removed the Targaryen power from the north, but the war is not done with it. The man who is responsible for this sits high in the Red Keep of his. The war is not done for me until I see Rhaegar dies by my sword. I came here for justice for my family and my people and I will get it no matter what."

There were some mumblings after that but it subsided soon enough. Once that was settled they started to take the piss again.

"If you're intending to start a rebellion against the current king," said Roose Bolton, "there has to be a realistic strategy. Strategy requires proper education, in the art of war, diplomacy and chivalry. Surely your royal father must have taught it to you, your grace. He after all was well educated."

"Aye," said one of Bolton's bannerman. "Is it not true that his grace was raised in a brothel?"

An inn, and by people wiser than you, he might've said. But he knew that it'll change nothing. Inn or brothel, it changes nothing.

"I demand to be given the command of the army," Bolton asked brusquely.

Greatjon Umber scoffed. "And what's next?" he asked. "If you're so set at rooting out the Targaryens, you should've done it before the prince killed the dragon."

Again the shouting began. Andrew sat dreading what they would throw at him next. He had come all the way here only to see them wage over the good people who died that day. If they would not listen still, they can keep their ears closed. He watched and listened to the lords debate, frowning, troubled. 

Beside him, his great-grandfather tried his chance. "Your son was butchered at the Starfall massacre, Lord Karstark, yet you refused to lift a finger for it." He looked around the hall at all the lords. "Everyone here had lost their kin at Starfall but none said anything for it. You king and queen, the people whom you celebrated got murdered and you ignored it. The north remembers and Andrew remembered it. Andrew Stark avenged the Starfall massacre and everyone who died in the castle, people who were your own blood."

That seemed to quiet them a bit. Andrew was thinking of his parents and Joy, when the Greatjon lurched to his feet.

"MY LORDS!" he shouted, his voice booming off the rafters. "Didn't we all swear an oath to Ned Stark? Didn't we swear to protect his family and fight for him when we are called? Wasn't that what we told ourselves when we bowed to the dragons who murdered our king through treachery? We have waited eight years to get justice for our king and queen. Eight years we have waited for a way and we missed it every time we got it. The dragon might've kept us down, but the north remembers. We know no king but the king in the north whose name is a Stark." He reached back over his shoulder and drew his immense two-handed greatsword and pointed to Andrew with the blade. "There sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to," he thundered. "I don't care if he was raised in a brothel, I don't care if he is not so highly educated as you all are, Ned Stark's blood runs through his veins! He is my king from this day until his last day," he boomed. "The King in the North!"

And he knelt, and laid his sword at his feet.

"I'll have peace on those terms," Lord Karstark said. "My son died for your father. I didn't think we would find another king in my life time. I didn't fight for that because I didn't want more Karstarks dying for nothing. But I was wrong. You're very much your father's son, Ned Stark's son, my king's son. Andrew Stark avenged the massacre at Starfall, he is the White Wolf." He eased his longsword from its scabbard. "The King in the North!" he said, kneeling beside the Greatjon.

Galbart Glover rose up next. "I did not fight beside you on the field or in this hall, and I'll regret that until my dying day." His face grew soft in guilt. "A man can only admit when he was wrong and ask forgiveness."

"There is nothing to forgive, my lord," Andrew said.

Lord Glover looked at his fellow lords around him. "There will be more fights to come. House Glover will stand behind House Stark as we have for a thousand years and I will stand behind Andrew Stark." He unsheathed his sword, steel scraping on leather and pointed it to him. "The King in the North."

Lady Mormont stood. "The King of Winter!" she declared, and laid her spiked mace before him. And just like that the air was filled with the sounds of dozen swords drawn from their scabbard. The other lords were rising too, Manderly and Hornwood and Tallhart and Cerwyn and Dustin and Ryswell and Reed and Flint and Liddle and Norrey and Wull and Forrester and even Roose Bolton. Andrew watched them rise and draw their blades, bending their knees and shouting the old words that had not been heard in the realm for almost a decade, since his father died . . . yet now were heard again, ringing from the timbers of the great hall of Winterfell:

"The King in the North!"

"The King in the North!"

"THE KING IN THE NORTH!"

Chapter Text

Andrew

The white wolf raced through a black wood, beneath a pale cliff as tall as the sky. The moon ran with him, slipping through a tangle of bare branches overhead, across the starry sky.

"Andrew," the moon murmured in a strangely familier voice. The wolf made no answer. Snow crunched beneath his paws. The wind sighed through the trees.

Far off, he could hear his small grey cousins calling to him, but he ignored them. They were hunting too. The hills were warmer where they were, and full of food.

"Andrew," the moon called down again, gentle in his mother's voice now. The white wolf padded along the man trail beneath the icy cliff. The taste of blood was on his tongue, and his ears rang to the song of the hundred cousins. Once he had been with his mother, whimpering blind in the snow beside his dead mother, sucking cool milk from her hard dead nipples. But this one belonged to his other half, his human half.

"Andrew," the moon insisted.

The white wolf ran from it, racing toward the cave of night where the sun had hidden, his breath frosting in the air. On starless nights the great cliff was as black as stone, a darkness towering high above the wide world, but when the moon came out it shimmered pale and icy as a frozen stream. The wolf's pelt was thick and shaggy, but when the wind blew along the ice no fur could keep the chill out. The voice came from the other side where the wind was warmer, the wolf sensed. That was where the voice was, and the violet air smelled of roses.

An icicle tumbled from a branch. The white wolf turned and bared his teeth. His fur rose bristling, as the woods dissolved around him and Andrew Stark woke up upon his bed.

The room was dim, his bed soft. Grey light leaked through the shutters, showing that the day has broken just now. Andrew wriggled from under his blankets and moved to open the windows. Winterfell was calm and quiet even with all the men it hosted. Camps with different banners flying from the tents filled the outskirts of Winterfell. He could not see them all from the Great Keep but Andrew knew that it extended past Winter Town. He turned around to walk to the door just as Edric Dayne poked his head through the door. "Beg pardon," he said, "shall I fetch your grace some breakfast?"

So it is his day to wake me up today. "A bloody feast would do good," Andrew suggested. "And half a pint of ale." He was hungry for food. The dream of Ghost hunting and the taste of blood on his tongue awoke a new fit of hunger in him. Having a man fetch and serve for him still felt strange; back at Braavos, it would have been him serving food to the men at the inn when he was a young boy.

"Later, cousin," Andrew told him. "I will break my fast in the solar after meeting with the lords. And enough with this 'Your Grace' thing. We are family after all."

"Yes, my ki... Cousin," Edric said as he entered the room. "I'm glad to see you back again."

"See me alive you mean," Andrew chuckled.

"Alive," Edric said and they shared a laugh, "and good."

"You don't seem so bad yourself, coz." Andrew poured wine into two cups from his flagon on the table. "The last I saw you, I remember telling my mother that you were too little to play with."

"You wouldn't have found me so amusing then."

Andrew smiled and gave the cup of wine to his cousin. "As a babe, I never found any babes amusing besides myself. All they ever did was eat and sleep and I found it boring when I did them myself."

"It is hard to see yourself sleeping and getting annoyed because of it."

Andrew took a sip of his wine. "How is your father?"

Edric grew visibly upset at that. Andrew knew something was bad before even he spoke the words. "He is dead. The betrayal took all his strength away."

Another murder on Rhaegar's name. Andrew had always thought that Rhaegar Targaryen had scourged his entire family with fire and blood, but he had left some of them alive only to die in grief. Even if he didn't swing the sword, he was still responsible for his uncle Aaron's death. "What about Starfall?"

"Aunt Allyria rules in my stead," Edric said jovially. "No doubt she would love to see you again."

Aunt Allyria, sweet and gentle as a summer breeze. His mother had once told him that his aunt loved to hold him even more than her. She would have grown up now as well. "I thought to go to Starfall when I returned but I didn't want to go there without you all. Perhaps when the war is over we will go there together, cousin."

Edric nodded.

"I heard that you have been away from Starfall for a while, coz," Andrew continued. "If you want I can have a ship to take you back to Starfall." Edric was the Lord of Starfall, the only cousin he had, he will not put his life in danger for the sake of his war.

"Home is where heart is, your grace," Edric said. "And my heart lies with our family. With my father, your mother, our uncle and your father for whom I was named. I wish to ride with you, coz, and bring justice to those who wronged our family."

"Do you remember the tale of the last hero they tell us Daynes, Andrew?" Edric asked.

"How can I not?" Andrew said. He remembered every bit of the tale. It had been one of his favourites. His mother had told him of the story more times than he could remember. And Old Nan had a scary version of  it whenever mother and father were doing other royal things. Every time he would ask her for a scary story she would click her needles and tell him the story of the Last hero, of giants, wights and others.

"Fear? Oh, my sweet summer child," Old Nan would say quietly whenever he asks her for a scary story, "what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little prince, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods."

"You mean the Others," Andrew remembered asking her, curiously.

"The Others," Old Nan had agreed. "Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks." Her voice and her needles would fall silent, and she had glanced up at Andrew with pale, filmy eyes and asked, "So, child. This is the sort of story you like?"

"Well," Andrew had said reluctantly, "yes, only . . . "

Old Nan had noddedd and continued. "In that darkness, the Others came for the first time," she had said with her needles going click click click. "They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children."

Her voice would drop very low, almost to a whisper, and Andrew had to lean forward to listen.

"Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—"

He could not remember her words after that. But he knew that the last hero escaped from the ice spiders and the Others somehow and found the children of the Forest and gained their assistance. He forged a magic sword to fight the Others and the Night's Watch was then formed. His mother told him of how the last hero slayed the Others with his magic blade and together with the armies of men he defeated the Others and won the Battle for the Dawn. His victory ended the generation-long winter and sent the Others into retreat, to the Lands of Always Winter. 

Fallen and Reborn, the words associated with the last hero for he fell to the evil before he won became closely attached to the Daynes for their sword Dawn forged from the heart of a fallen star. The words became more important to his mother's house as important as their House words. 

"Fallen and Reborn," Andrew told his cousin. 

"Fallen and Reborn," Edric repeated. "We fell and I wish to rise up again from the ashes with you."

Andrew smiled. "If that is your wish, you shall ride with me to war, coz."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Edric knelt. 

Andrew lifted him up to his feet. "No need for that now, cousin." 

"I'll leave to get the lords for you." Edric stood up from his chair. He bowed his head and walked out the room.

Andrew thought about his dream when Edric left him. The wolf dreams had been growing stronger, and he found himself remembering them even when awake. Ghost knows things that men couldn't even understand. At the Wolfswood, he had come out of the darkness to save Andrew's life. When he took back Winterfell, Ghost arrived right when he needed the most. And he heard Joy's voice last night and then his mother's. He wondered if Ghost could sense them somehow.

He filled his basin from the flagon of water beside his bed, washed his face and hands, wore his white shirt and donned his long shearling trench coat. The brown trench coat detailed in soft leather finished with perfect stiching and a comfortable inner lining made of white wool to keep the cold away. The cuffs of the long sleeves and the high collar were also trimmed with soft white wool. He laced up his burgundy pants, and pulled on a pair of calf length boots. He set his father's crown atop his head after he was done with the clothing. When Andrew folded back the window with its thick diamond-shaped panes of yellow glass, the chill of the morning hit him in the face. He took a breath to clear away the cobwebs of the night.

Outside his bedchamber a flight of steps descended to his larger solar furnished with a brown ironwood table and a dozen and more oak-and-leather chairs. He might want to meet the lords bannermen in the solar to make the final plans for the long march to come. Meeting them in the Great Hall will take too much of time and will have too many ears to hear. 

For the past few days Andrew found himself changed from his old self, transformed, a lord in truth, a lord and a king. Even his father's bannermen seemed to sense it. None tried to test him after that day. All the testing were done with Roose Bolton on that day they crowned him king. The first thing he had done after he was crowned was to call Lord Liddle and his heir whose name was Morgan, who had fed him that rainy day in the woods. He kept his vow to Morgan and paid the Liddles back a hundredfold for every nut and berry he had fed him. The Liddles had been stunned to see him as they got the thousand gold pieces and thanked him gladly. That had been the easy part though that didn't mean that all the issues stopped there. Much to his dismay most of it came from being the king after that. There was no scarce for issues. Every lord or lady he meets with in his solar had something for him. Stout, grey-haired Maege Mormont, dressed in mail like a man, asked him for ships once the war was over to deal with the ironborn. Soft-spoken Lord Cerwyn asked his son to be named in his honor guard. Jovial Lord Hornwood brought gifts everytime he came, a horse one day, a haunch of venison the next, a silver-chased hunting horn the day after, and he asked nothing in return . . . nothing but a certain holdfast taken from his grandfather, and hunting rights north of a certain ridge, and leave to dam the White Knife, if it please the king.

Andrew answered each of them with cool courtesy, much as his Father might have, and somehow he bent them to his will.

Lord Greatjon Umber who stood as tall as Hodor and twice as wide, urged him to march south as fast as he can so that they could avenge his parents by cutting off some dragon heads. And pale eyed Roose Bolton urged him to take caution and not move until he finds a way to take out the remaining Targaryen dragon off the skies like he did with the one at Winterfell. The sons and heirs of the lords were all hungry for glory that half of them wanted to lead the vanguard themselves while the others wanted to be named in his honor guard.

But somehow after that day they started to listen and respect him for who they saw him as. The Greatjon became his right hand, his staunchest champion, loudly telling all and sundry that the Avenger of Starfall would lead them to glory, and they'd damn well better bend their knees if they didn't fancy having them chewed off.

Theo Wull and Howland Reed, old friends of his father both of them, took his side more often than him and gave him wise counsel. Roose Bolton had thought to unnerve him with those pale, cold eyes of his but Andrew has seen and fought a dragon before to make him look like a boy. His father had been wary of Lord Bolton and always kept him close enough where he could watch his every movement. Andrew wished his father was here. He would know what to do with Bolton and how to slay those dragons.  

He sat at a head of the ironwood table, in the ornate oaken chair, a pile of maps and papers in front of him, waiting for his bannermen. 

His grandfather was the first to arrive, with Lord Beric and Thoros of Myr. Lord Howland Reed followed them to pay his respects after that, kneeling before him. The Glovers followed, Galbart and Robett, and Greatjon Umber, and Roose Bolton and the rest, one by one. When all of the lords bannermen were there Andrew started. "My lords, the time has come," he said to them. "Time to match for justice."

"Have no fear on that count, Your Grace," the Greatjon told her in his bass rumble. "We'll shove our swords up Rhaegar Targaryen's bunghole soon enough to avenge for your father and mother."

"A question if it please you, Your Grace?" Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, said in a small voice.

"Do ask my lord Bolton," Andrew said.

"It is said that you were making plans to deal with the Targaryen dragons. Have you dealt with that? I believe, we would be at disadvantage should those dragons take air."

"Dragons or not," the Greatjon laughed. "We have the Dragonslayer with us. Why should we fear them?"

He knew Roose Bolton was right. The dragons of the Targaryens were bred for war and in war they died. But most of them had died fighting other dragons a couple centuries before when brother fought sister in their clash for the Iron Throne. Slaying dragons was a feat reserved only for songs and tales. Andrew had slain the beast mostly with the help of the vantage. From the ruined top of the Broken Tower even a dragon seemed climbable as easy as you would mount a stallion but he would find no tower at the battlefield. "We'll be bringing Mikken with us to make scorpion bolts strong enough to slay the beasts," Andrew told them. That was the only option he had to fell those dragons. It was the only way he had and he had to try it no matter what. 

There was a sudden murmur among the lords and they nodded. When they became silent again Andrew continued. "No doubt King's Landing would have heard of me by now. Rhaegar and his ilk will come forth to meet us at once."

"Will he come though, Your Grace?" asked Lord Ryswell. "With the wedding of his son and the Dornish alliance at stake?"

"He would not want another Ned Stark alive on his lands," Andrew replied. "He will ride forth to meet us or will send his dragons to deal with us once and for all." He took the wooden block carved in the likeness of a Tyrell rose and put it beside the dragon placed on the King's Landing indicated in the map on the table. Then the Dornish sun went to the dragon as well. 

"Dorne and Reach will fight for the dragon. The Tyrells are at King's Landing but Doran Martell sits at Sunspear. We will not reach King's Landing without fight."

"What of your father's southern friends?" Lord Rickard Karstark asked.

Robert Baratheon and Jon Arryn. Both men had loved his father as a brother and son respectively. Andrew remembered seeing them with his father and mother. Jon Arryn would bring gifts everytime and Lord Robert was always funny. He wondered if they might come to his aid if he called them. They would've come to his father's aid if he needed them but he is not Ned Stark.

"What of them?" asked Lord Robett Glover. "They would never join the dragon in the fight against us?"

"Should they join us, my king," said Lord Dustin, "we'll be three of the Seven Kingdoms together. Baratheon and Arryn in the field would mean the West and the Riverlands take up arms as well as they are all bound by marriage. That means five kingdoms against two."

"We don't need Tywin Lannister," the Greatjon said. "Ned hated him for sure."

His father had been wary of the Lannisters for sure that much was true. But Andrew wasn't sure if he should call for Lord Lannister's help or not. 

"We need to make common cause with the south, my lords," Lord Manderly said, "if we are to meet against the might of Highgarden with the dragons."

"Mace Tyrell is a craven," declared the Greatjon. "Ned defeated his host three times without any difficulty. Why shouldn't his son do that now?

"Mace Tyrell may be a craven," Theo Wull said, "but Randyll Tarly, Edgerran Oakheart and Tanton Fossoway are all brave men, able men. Even Ned would tell you so." 

The murmuring started again and shouts went back and forth. 

"My lords," Andrew calmed them a bit. "My father taught me that no battle is won by the numbers. Battles are won by the cause and determination of the men who fight. We fight for a just cause, my lords unlike the Targaryens or Tyrells or Martells and with the strength in our arms and the will in our hearts we will defeat them again as my father once did."

The Greatjon roared out, "King in the North!" and thrust a mailed fist into the air. The other lords echoed with their shouts of "King in the North!" The hall grew thunderous with pounding fists and stamping feet.

When Andrew raised his fist the hall quieted again. "My father and mother always told me that the north is not a place but the people," he told his bannermen. "I'll not leave my people defenceless in their own land. My lords of the Mountains, you are as much fierce and loyal as any other men here. I task you to defend our people and our land."

Lord Wull took a knee. "We live to serve you, my king." 

Torren Liddle and Morgan Liddle went down to one knee as welll, their clenched fists placed upon their chests. "It is an honor, sire." 

The other lords of the mountain clans all voiced their approval. 

"Your Grace," Theo Wull stood up. "Your father was liege and king to every man here and everyone loves him, there's no doubt in it. But he was my friend before everything else. Let me come and fight with you for my friend, your grace. If I should fall, let me fall fighting for my friend with his son."

"If that is your wish, you shall have it then," Andrew replied with a smile. He turned to his grandfather. "You and I both know that there must always be a Stark in Winterfell."

"Aye," Rodrik Stark said. 

"You were the Stark in Winterfell whenever my father left." 

"Only when you left with him as well, my king." 

"Well, I have to leave now," Andrew told him, "And I want you to take my place once more." 

His grandfather went down to one knee and bowed his head. "I'll not fail you as I had failed your father, your grace." 

Andrew helped him back to his feet. "I know you won't, grandfather." He returned the smile the old man gave him. 

He was at the point of telling their route when the door opened suddenly. "We'll march to Moat Cailin and..." 

Maester Walys entered the room and Ghost followed him into the room. Andrew smiled to see the white wolf again. The direwolf padded across the room to where he sat and rubbed his head against his leg. Andrew scratched the white wolf behind the ear. Ghost laid near the hearth beside his chair, red eyes looking at the lords carefully. 

"Your Grace," Maester Walys came in after Ghost. "Your uncle is here to see you." 

Which one? He might've asked but then remembered that he had only one left. "Uncle Benjen?"

"Yes, sire," Maester Walys replied. 

"Send him in," Andrew told him. It has been years since he had seen anyone and now that he has the chance to see them again he is not ready to miss it. 

Maester Walys left at once, bowing. 

The hall was quiet once again as he waited for his uncle to come. Andrew dismissed the lords and waited for some time for his uncle to arrive. When the doors opened again, it was his uncle who entered the room. As soon as he entered the room Benjen Stark gave Andrew a warm smile. The smile he remembered from his childhood. 

Ben Stark crossed the room and pulled Andrew into his arms. "It's good to see you home, Andrew," he said and held him at arms' length. "Gods help me, you look so much like your father."

"How did you know I was here?" Did that mean Jaehaerys is at the wall now or has he heard the tale from some other way? 

"The boy you sent to the Wall," his uncle said. "And I heard the tales of the Dragonslayer all along my way here." He smiled. "I knew it was you the moment I saw your quiet wolf in the woods." He looked to Ghost laying by the hearth. "I knew for sure then it has to be you."  

He looked so tired and worn out from riding. He must've been riding hard and fast to come and see him. "Shall I sent for some refreshments uncle?" Andrew asked. "You look so tired." 

"That might be good," Ben Stark said and sat down in one of the chairs.

"Wine and food to my solar," Andrew said to the guard outside and walked back to his seat. His uncle looked him from his crown to his boot. 

"I see that they've crowned you with your father's crown, " he asked pouring wine from the flagon into his cup. 

"Aye," Andrew replied. "It was with maester Walys."

"Good," Ben Stark said taking a bite of the bread placed on the table. "It suits you like it did for Ned."

He poured some more wine from the flagon and took a sip of it. "Summerwine," his uncle said after a taste. "Nothing so sweet. How many cups have you had, Andrew?"

Andrew smiled. "Not much."

Ben Stark laughed. "And your mother's words came true. So much like your father. Ah, well. I believe I know the first time he got truly and sincerely drunk." He snagged a roasted onion, dripping brown with gravy, from the nearby trencher and bit into it. It crunched. "He wouldn't admit it but he once told me that it was the best day of his life." His uncle sighed. "It was the day he met your mother."

Andrew could feel the sadness in his tone. His uncle was sharp-featured and gaunt as a mountain crag, but there was always a hint of laughter in his blue-grey eyes. He dressed in black, as befitted a man of the Night's Watch. Tonight it was a set of black woolens, with high leather boots, well worn and ragged. 

"I see that you are getting ready to march south." It was more statement than a question. 

Andrew nodded. "I should march now or I should never march at all. The time has come uncle."

Ben Stark sighed in acknowledgement. "Just remember that the Starks don't do well in the south, Andrew."

That was true, Andrew knew. His grandfather, old Lord Rickard, had gone as south, with his son Brandon, and two hundred of his best men. None had ever returned. And Father had gone south, with mother and Andrew and Martyn and Ethan and the rest, only he had ever returned back alive from the south.

"That might be true," Andrew agreed. "But I have the fire of the south in me as well, uncle. My mother was from the Lands of Always Summer, you know."

His uncle laughed. "Right," he said, laughing. "And keep your direwolf close. There are still direwolves beyond the Wall. We hear them on our rangings."

"Speaking of which, how fares the Watch?" His father had always held the Watch in a high manner. He did every help he could do to the betterment of the Night's Watch. Andrew wanted to know how it stood now.

Benjen Stark gave Andrew a long look. "Not good it is if I have to be honest with you," his uncle said. "We've been losing more men in rangings for the last couple of years. There are dire news from both Shadow Tower and Eastwatch-by-the-sea. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen. Cotter Pyke writes of vast herds of elk, streaming south and east toward the sea, and mammoths as well. He says one of his men discovered huge, misshapen footprints not three leagues from Eastwatch. Rangers from the Shadow Tower have found whole villages abandoned, and at night Ser Denys says they see fires in the mountains, huge blazes that burn from dusk till dawn. Quorin Halfhand took a captive in the depths of the Gorge, and the man swears that Mance Rayder is massing all his people in some new, secret stronghold he's found, to what end the gods only know."

"Mance Rayder?" Andrew asked confused. He's not heard of this Mance Rayder before. 

"A self styled King-beyond-the-Wall," his uncle answered. "Crowned himself as King few years after the death of your father. If Ned was here, I would not worry about any of this like I do now. Still the wildlings are the least of our worries. The cold winds are rising, Andrew. Winter is coming."

"Winter is coming," Andrew agreed. He could feel a sudden chill to the bones as he said his house words. 

"Will you stay here for a while, uncle?" he asked. 

"Can't do, Andrew," his uncle answered. "I am to lead a ranging soon. They will be expecting me. I wanted to see you and I've seen you. I've got no reason to be here now." 

"Atleast spend the night here," Andrew suggested. "You look like you could do good with a nice featherbed to sleep upon."

Benjen Stark thought about it for a moment. "Alright then," he said at last. "I'll stay for the night." 

They had a good talk for the rest of the day. Andrew told him about how his mother had saved him at Starfall, he told him about Braavos and the other things. He met with Rodrik and somehow all three Starks had a good time together before they seperate once again. 

When night came at last, to mark the last day he would spent at Winterfell, Andrew took his time with the paintings of his parents he'd hung on the wall behind his bed. He never knew how much time he'd stood there watching the but when Maester Walys came to him Winterfell had gone silent. 

The maester counseled him to remain at Winterfell. But Andrew denied him that. "I did not come all the way here to sit in some castle while my father's killer dance around," he told the maester. "I'll go forward no matter what it takes to cut off Rhaegar's head. I'll do whatever it takes to bring him to justice."

"I'm not asking you to stay here forever, my lord," he insisted. "But wait until some time so you could go to war in better terms."

"I have to go now," Andrew told him. "Rhaegar would've gotten my raven by now."

"I understand that, my lord," Walys said. "But there must be always a Stark in Winterfell. Without you-"

"Rodrik Stark is here," Andrew cut him off. "He is as much a Stark as me."

"Your father's grandfather," the maester argued. "An able man, no doubt but still an old man, your grace."

"My father always led his men to war. That didn't trouble him so."

"Your father had you," Maester Walys said. "No matter how hard the odds were stacked against him he never left you and your royal mother without proper protection. I'm telling you, my lord, your mother gave her life to protect yours. Do not throw that life away for nothing and make her sacrifice go in vain."

Andrew looked at his mother on the painting with his father. She looked so happy in the picture that it hurt him so much so he found it hard to retain his composure. "What is that you want me to do?"

"Marry, Your Grace," Walys said. "Mar-"

That was all he could hear before him stopped the maester again. No, this would never happen. Not after her, not after Joy. The wound was still too fresh that he found it hard to even think about it. "No," he said at once.

"Wed the Baratheon girl as your father promised your hand to. Get her with child and then go to your war."

"And what's after that?" Andrew asked him. "What if I should fall in the war? What of the girl then?"

"The Stark line will still continue, my king," answered Maester Walys. "Your cause will not die in one day. Think about it, my lord. Don't let all that's happened to go in vain."

Andrew thought about it for a moment. Forgive me, he thought at last. "Fine," he caved then. "Send your ravens. I'll meet them at Riverrun."

"Thank you, Your Grace." He bowed so low as he left. "Thank you."

When he left Andrew buried his face in the thick white fur of Ghost and went to sleep dreaming of a maid fair as summer with sunlight in her hair.

The next day, as the red dawn broke across the windswept sky, Andrew found himself in the yard beneath the gatehouse, leaving Winterfell once again, this time leading an army. He said his farewells to his uncle with a last tight hug.

"Be careful, Andrew," Ben Stark said as he mounted his own garron

"I will be," Andrew replied. But somehow he found himself concerned about his uncle more than he did for himself. "You too, uncle."

When his uncle smiled and ledt for the north, Andrew mounted his white stallion, Frost strapped across his back and his crown on his head and made for south.

He wheeled his courser around and trotted through the gates of Winterfell. Ghost followed, loping beside his warhorse, lean and swift. Hallis Mollen went before him through the gate, carrying the rippling white banner of House Stark atop a high standard of grey ash. Beric Dondarrion and the Greatjon fell in on either side of him, and their men formed up in a double column behind them, steel-tipped lances glinting in the sun.

As Andrew passed beyond the castle walls, a roar of sound went up. The foot soldiers and townsfolk cheered for him as he rode past; cheered for the King in the North, for the Lord of Winterfell on his great stallion, with his coat streaming and Ghost racing beside him. 

Chapter Text

Argella

The rain still fell, soft and steady. The sound of moisture dripping off the walls was all around her, and every ten feet away or so the music of another little waterfall would call to her flowing from the crenellations.

Argella notched the arrow to her bow, drew it back to her ear and waited and waited and waited for the wind to pass. When the thunder rumbled in the distance and the bright blue flash of the lightning lit the sky behind her, Argella Baratheon loosed her arrow. The arrow took flight, spearing through the storm and riding along with the wind as a falcon might soar up high in the sky. She was happy about the way it went racing until a particularly large gust of wind took the arrow away in its silvery fingers. 

"Stupid wind," she shouted when she saw her arrow scattering across the yard in the wind as an autumn leaf would be scattered in a gust. 

It was vexing her beyond any limits. For years Argella has been trying to brave the storm with her bow and arrow just as tonight and every time it had ended up the same. When she heard the distant roar of the thunder indicating the arrival of another storm, Ella had sneaked away from the dinner, got to her chambers swift as a deer, picked up her bows and arrows and stepped out onto the Drum tower of Storm's End to brave the storms as her ancestor had once done. But unlike Durran she has not had much luck in doing so. But only for now, she thought as she raised up her bow. Durran stole the daughters of two gods and then went on to defy both their might. Why shouldn't she do the same? 

The songs said that Storm's End had been raised in ancient days by Durran, the first Storm King, who had won the love of the fair Elenei, daughter of the sea god and the goddess of the wind. On the night of their wedding, Elenei had yielded her maidenhood to a mortal's love and thus doomed herself to a mortal's death, and her grieving parents had unleashed their wrath and sent the winds and waters to batter down Durran's hold. His friends and brothers and wedding guests were crushed beneath collapsing walls or blown out to sea, but Elenei sheltered Durran within her arms so he took no harm, and when the dawn came at last he declared war upon the gods and vowed to rebuild.

Five more castles he built, each larger and stronger than the last, only to see them smashed asunder when the gale winds came howling up Shipbreaker Bay, driving great walls of water before them. His lords pleaded with him to build inland; his priests told him he must placate the gods by giving Elenei back to the sea; even his smallfolk begged him to relent. Durran would have none of it. A seventh castle he raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build it, shaping the stones with magic; others claimed that a small boy told him what he must do, a boy who would grow to be Bran the Builder. No matter how the tale was told, the end was the same. Though the angry gods threw storm after storm against it, the seventh castle stood defiant, and Durran Godsgrief and fair Elenei dwelt there together until the end of their days.

Gods do not forget, and still the gales came raging up the narrow sea. Yet Storm's End endured, through centuries and tens of centuries, a castle like no other. Its great curtain wall was a hundred feet high, unbroken by arrow slit or postern, everywhere rounded, curving, smooth, its stones fit so cunningly together that nowhere was crevice nor angle nor gap by which the wind might enter. That wall was said to be forty feet thick at its narrowest, and near eighty on the seaward face, a double course of stones with an inner core of sand and rubble. Within that mighty bulwark, the kitchens and stables and yards sheltered safe from wind and wave. Of towers, there was but one, a colossal drum tower, windowless where it faced the sea, so large that it was granary and barracks and feast hall and lord's dwelling all in one, crowned by massive battlements that made it look from afar like a spiked fist atop an upthrust arm.

The storm was getting better of her. The seaward side of Storm's End was perched upon a pale white cliff, the chalky stone sloping up steeply to half again the height of the massive curtain wall. It brought all the storms from the sea to break upon the walls of Storm's End. No matter how hard the storms were Storm's End endured, as it had thousands of years before both from the storms of the gods and the storms of men. But no matter how hard she tried her arrows did not fare well against the wind.

She could best all of her father's and grandfather's archers alike in the yard whenever she could fool her mother to step into the yard with the men but even as a little girl who had held a bow for the first time in her hands, Ella's dream was to best the storms in her lands she so much loved. She had been so close to it until the squall blew away her dreams as it did her arrow. 

"Skipping dinner again now, are we?" The voice sounded over the raging storms outside the walls. Argella turned back to see her brother standing behind her, drenching in the rain. His face was hidden by the hood he was wearing but she could make out his face even in the dark. Looking at him suffering in the rain, it was then she wondered how drenched she was in the first place. She must have been out here in the open for some time now though she couldn't tell how much. Time and food meant nothing when she had her bow in her hand.

"You lied to me," Ella shouted back to her brother. Unlike her brother who inherited the commanding voice of their father, Ella had gotten the sweet voice of their mother.

"When did I ever do that?" Gendry asked her, confused.

Ella showed him the arrow. "You told me that these were strong enough to tear past any wind," she notched the arrow to her bowstring. "Look how it does that." She let go and the arrow got caught in the rough grasp of the gale.

"No arrow can push past a storm, Ella," Gendry told her. He took an arrow from her quiver and showed her the grey fletching done in duck feather. "These take the arrow through the wind. No matter how sharp I tip the steel your arrows would get lost in the storm because they are light."

"No," Ella said holding her chin up. "I can do it, you'll see." She too possessed every bit of the Baratheon stubbornness that her brother had If Gendry could smash three grown men in the yard with his war hammer at once she could very well get an arrow to rip through the air to the other side.

"Oh, I have no doubt of that." He chuckled.

A bolt of lightning flashed overhead lighting the stormy dark sky. The rumble of the thunder followed it after a few seconds. Gendry pulled his hood down over his head tightly and looked up at the stormy sky. Even Ella flinched a bit at the boom of the thunder.

"Anyway you shouldn't be out here, little sister," her brother said. "What would you do if a storm takes you away?"

"I'm not afraid of it," she replied. "They did nothing to Elenei, why should they bother me?"

"Right," Gendry laughed. "Perhaps we ought to find you a Durran who loves to brave the winds and tides with you."

Argella scowled. "Who needs a Durran when you can be a Durran yourself?"

"As you say," her brother said. "But can you just get back inside. Father wants to meet you and mother would just rip me apart if you hurt yourself." 

She would have toyed with him a bit if it were any other time but if her father chose to call her in such a late hour it might be important and she did not want to keep him waiting. There were many words she could describe her father with but patience was not one of them. Robert Baratheon had never been a patient man even as a boy growing up in the Eyrie. Lord Jon Arryn has told her more than once. 

They both stepped inside the drum tower safe from the rain and howling gales. The water ran down her gown and dripped onto the floor from her skirts into a puddle. "Do you know why he wants to meet me?" Argella asked pulling her hair free from her braid. Her long black locks hung wet and heavy past her waist and Ella wrung some of the water out of it.

"I don't know, Ella, but it sounded urgent," Gendry said as he shook his cloak to dry it. "There is a raven from the north."

"From the Eyrie?" Ella asked.

"No," Gendry said. "From the real north."

The north. No word ever came from the north, not after her father's friend was gone. As she climbed down the steps leading to her father's solar, Ella desperately wished that whatever it was it doesn't lead to her parents fight once again. She opened the door to his solar and saw exactly what she didn't want to see. Inside her father and mother were fighting once again.

Cersei Lannister was looking outside the window facing the other side of the sea while Lord Robert sat in his chair clutching a roll of parchment in his hand. Her mother turned away from the window, her skirts swirling around her slender hips. “How dare you try to ship our daughter off to some lowborn bastard!”

“How many times should I tell you Cersei,” her father was saying. "The northerners would never have crowned him if he was not Ned's son."

“You are blinded by your grief or love if you wish to call it.”

Her father was not amused. “Say what you will, we'll go north just to see if he is Ned's,” he said. "Jon has sent word too. He has called the banners already, as it happens."

“You can go anywhere you want but leave my daughter out of it.”

Both of them didn't even care that she was there and they went back and forth with words. “She is my daughter too.”

Her mother scoffed. “Good of you to claim her like that, but I would not allow you to sell her like a bag of oats”

“Damn you, woman," her father said. "She was betrothed to him even as a girl.”

“Betrothed to a prince. Did you truly imagine that I'll let you ship her off to some baseborn from the north?”

"Now, that's enough," her father slammed his clenched fist on the table. "We'll go north, that's it. You can come with us if you wish or you can bloody well stay here and be quiet."

Cersei Lannister paced away from him, restless as a lioness, skirts swirling. Before her mother could say something to enrage father further Argella let herself be known. "You wished to see me, father.

When Lord Robert saw her he sent his wine cup on the table. "Come here, Argella," he said, not unkindly. "Sit beside me." He set the flag on aside.

Her mother came to her at once and put her arms around her. "I want you to see reason, Robert," she said once again.

Her father ignored that. "You too, boy," he told Gendry. "Stay. I would like to talk to you as well." 

When her brother took his seat, their father continued. "I did not call you here to see your mother and me bicker as ever. You do know that you were betrothed to Andrew Stark, don't you?"

For a second Argella found herself too stunned for words. She knew that she was expected to marry but she did not envision it so soon. And her betrothed. The last thing she remembered of Andrew is the little boy who had played with her brother during his time at Storm's End before he went south with his father and mother. And the raven came back from the south did not bring any good news. There has been no talks of her betrothed Andrew in Storm's End after that but now that it was coming she could see that something was going on. And father's words about Ned's son and a crowned king . . . was the boy she remembered from her childhood really back from the dead?

"Is that true that he is alive father?" Gendry asked.

Argella raised her eyebrows at that. He seemed more interested in the man whom she was promised to than she ever was. True they were good friends while they were together but she did not expect her brother to be excited that much. She might have teased him about it if the room was not so tensed as it was right now. 

"The letter came in Ned's own seal," her father said at last. "I don't think we should take this lightly."

Robert Baratheon turned to his daughter. "I would never force you to do anything, Argella," he told her, "but I must tell you that you would never find a man better than Ned's son."

Argella thought about it for a moment. She could not even believe that her father had given the choice to her and she loved him for it. She felt a little insecure about marrying a man she only knew from her memories. Even those memories were not much to begin with. She had always known that no matter how much she wanted to be a free person, there will a day come when she would be expected to fulfil her duty to her family and House and the day has arrived. The call has come for her and now it is time for her to answer it whether she likes it or not. Ella sat straight with her head up. If she was to marry it will be on her terms. She would not weep and complain about it.

"I'll honour your word, father," she said at last. "I'll do my duty and marry if that's what you ask of me."

Father's mouth twitched with a tired smile. "I have no doubt that he will treat you well. It's Ned's son. He would never hurt you in any way."

Let's hope that it is true, father, Ella thought. But she kept silent. 

"Do you really want to do this?" her mother flared. "Robert, I swear. . ."

"It's alright, mother," Argella cut her off. "I remember my duty to our house and I'll do it without fail."

Her mother looked as if she wanted to say more but then stopped.

"Very well, then," her father said. "I'll call the banners and we'll march north as soon as we can." He touched her cheek, his thumb lightly tracing the line of a cheekbone. "You can go now, sweet," he said smiling.

By the time Argella returned to her chambers it was well deep into the night. But sleep has lost its savor with the knowledge of her wedding. She climbed up the stairs atop the Drum tower. The pouring rain and raging storm had quieted a bit.

As Argella looked at the quiet waters of the Shipbreaker bay which had seethed in fury a while before she wondered if this is what her own life is becoming. She had been wild and free and untamed like the sea and the storms of her lands and somehow it felt as if she couldn't be them anymore.

She thought about her husband to be. Andrew was already a hero king, a legend fit enough to be praised in songs and tales alike. Andrew the Dragonslayer, even that had a nice ring to it. And she will be there ruling beside him. But there will be no songs for her. No, she will have her husband's bed and his children. Songs and tales will be reserved for Andrew, him and her father and brother.

Argella thought about her own namesake, Queen Argella, the first and last Queen of Storms, of how she was brought to her marriage bed bound and gagged. While she will not go to her marriage bed crying and whimpering, the world will see that she is Argella Durrandon reborn. She is always said to be more of a Durrandon than a Baratheon though and her storm will never wither out. 

Chapter Text

Rhaegar

He killed a dragon," the king said.

"He did, my king." The messenger's voice was dulled by exhaustion. On the breast of his faded surcoat, the red three headed dragon of House Targaryen was half-obscured by dried mud and sweat.

"And my son?" Rhaegar asked. The messenger flinched for a moment. He looked down at his worn boots caked in dried mud. No wonder his son's men raced to him all their way from White Harbor.

"He sent Prince Jaehaerys to the Wall, Your Grace," the messenger said never looking up from his boots.

To the Wall. The king knew he should be happy that Jae was not sent to a block and an executioner but somehow he couldn't help to bring himself to it. He had sent enough men with his son to hold Winterfell and here they are with a sack of bones and some stupid legend of the Born King while his son is freezing in some frozen chamber of his. His scroll might tell him that they were destined for it but not like this, defeated and humiliated. 

His small council members had fallen very quiet as the courier told his tale. The only sound was the crackle and hiss of the log burning in the hearth at the end of the small council room. 

The moment they brought the messenger from the north in, Rhaegar knew that not even a single breath he had in his lungs meant good. He had put an end to the court and brought him to the small council chambers at once. It would do no good for the realm to hear this long dead legend once again. It will only stir up the chaos that's already made up for me. Derek's disappearance, his son's banishment to the Wall, the north is lost for sure now. The boy would be coming south by now if the messenger from Winterfell was anything to go by. Damn the north, damn them all.

Somehow the day he had been dreading all these years had come at last. So it had all been for nothing. The blood, the sweat, the battles, the bodies . . . all for naught. So that Stark's son could grow out from his grave to come and haunt me.

"How could this happen?" Mace Tyrell grew puffy and red. "How? The Stark line was ended that day, cut down to pieces . . . how could this boy have survived? There must've been a mistake."

That is why I told likewise to you, you fat fool, Rhaegar thought. One word of Stark and you'll tremble in fear. Mace Tyrell's only accomplishment was making the last stand against Ned Stark's forces to help them retreat in the Battle of Wolfswood and that too was done by Randyll Tarly.

"There is no mistake, my lord," the courier said. "We'd locked the castle and left no way for anyone to get in or our, yet it was not enough. No one was expecting an attack. Stark killed the men upon the walls during night to keep them from warning. The prince told us it had been the outlaws. Ser Derek had gone out to deal with them before . . . well, with what we thought was them. No one was expecting to see him there, your grace. The people started fighting the next day and he came out from his hiding when Prince Jaehaerys called in his dragon. And he . . ."

Killed it, that left unsaid.

"We all saw him, my lords," the messenger continued. "The people recognized him at once and he even had the wolf with him. The white one, big as a horse with eyes red as blood."

"What of Darkfang?" Jon Connington asked.

The bloodstained messenger shook his head. "He took the cream of our garrison to deal with the outlaws, my lord. But we've heard nothing else."

"You said he came out to slay the dragon," Jon Connington prompted.

The man gave a weary nod. "It's some dark sorcery, my lord. Andrew Stark might have wounded the beast but it was the weapons he used killed the dragon. Don't know what is that he used to coat on his spear but it was darker stuff even the dragon was afraid of it. And his sword . . . it didn't melt. We all felt the heat coming off the beast but it did nothing to the sword."

That is interesting. The insides of a dragon was always burning hotter than a thousand furnaces lit up all at once. He wondered even if valyrian steel could endure that much of heat. Somehow he think not. 

"And what were you doing during all of this?" Rhaegar asked. 

"The prince challenged him to a single combat, my king," the messenger said. "We tried to tell him that it's unwise after what had just happened but he insisted. The castle folk opened the gates to the direwolf too."

Smart boy, Rhaegar thought, swirling his cup and staring down into the winy depths. Using his wolf as an advantage to put fear in the minds of his enemies like they did with their dragons. He does have some brain. That didn't surprise him, given Andrew Stark was as much a son of Ashara Dayne as he was Ned Stark's. After all the last thing she ever did was to outwit him to save her son though.

"You were sent to Winterfell to guard the prince, weren't you?" Aurane Waters spoke up for the first time. "Yet here you stand and our prince is at the Wall with the Night's Watch."

"You don't know what it's like there, my lord," the messenger was saying. "You were not there. The beast was close to his side, as big as a horse. It wouldn't let anyone near him."

"Gods save us," Varys swore.

"The prince told us to take the bones back, my king," the messenger said. "Only a few of the men I brought from the north are still with me. The others quietly got away."

"Curse them all." the Hand of the King sounded more angry than surprised. "We need to get prince Jaehaerys back."

Rhaegar pressed his temple with his fingers. He need to bring Jaehaerys back from the Wall but not before this new Stark king is dealt with. The boy is posing a threat as much as his father did.

"Your work here is done," Rhaegar told the messenger. "I'll have the steward provide you meat and mead. You may leave."

The man looked up and bowed hesitantly and took his leave. 

There was a deep silence in the room after he left. 

"How could it happen?" Mace Tyrell asked again, breaking the silence. "Prince Jaehaerys gone, a dragon lost . . . this is a catastrophe!"

By then Rhaegar had enough of him. "I am sure we are all grateful to you for pointing out the obvious, Lord Tyrell," he said. "The question is, what shall we do about it?"

As always Tyrell had no answer to it. "Good," the king said, "I expected that."

"Beg your pardon, your grace," Grand Maester Pylos broke in. The young master was trembling, his face as pale as snow. "If I may, there was a raven earlier this day with this letter. See here." He took the rolled parchment and gave it to him.

Rhaegar examined the roll of parchment sealed with hard grey wax bearing the direwolf insignia. Stark, he knew at once. He crushed the seal open with his thumb and flattened the parchment and read.

To Rhaegar Targaryen

You killed my father and my mother and destroyed my family. You hurt my people did us harm although we had not done you any previous injury. You tried to eradicate my family and now I'm coming to get my justice for your crimes against mine.

You gave support to the tyrants who had done my people harm, and put my people to blade. You killed my father through treachery and took pleasure in it.

Know that any chance for peace my father wanted with you ended right in that moment you made your toast at Starfall. To get my justice for all your crimes, I am therefore leading an expedition against you, to pay this long lost debt.

Approach me therefore as the lord of the seven kingdoms to settle this once and for all. If you are afraid of suffering harm at my hands by coming in person, send some of your friends to do your fight for you. If you want to say anything to save yourself, let me know in proper terms or I shall take steps to deal with you as a criminal. On the other hand, if you wish to keep your throne, then stand and fight for it; but do not run away, for wherever you may hide yourself be sure I shall seek you out.

It was signed,

Andrew Stark,

Lord of Winterfell and King in the North.

For a moment Rhaegar's eyes fogged over the words and he saw the pair of grey eyes he had seen once in Braavos moonturns before. He could not say whether it was because of fear or of surprise. So Slynt is dead too. One less lackey for me to deal with. This is the one who had come so close to killing him at the gutters of Braavos. He could feel those cold eyes in these words.

"My lord?" Jon Connington called, when he had been staring at the letter for too long.

Rhaegar extended the letter to his Hand and bid him to read. Rhaegar did not miss Jon's eyes going wide open as the eyes of the lord hand skimmed over the contents of the letter.

"Do it," Rhaegar said calmly.

Jon Connington took a moment to catch his breath and then started reading. When he was done, Rhaegar looked around the table to see the faces of his council members. Everyone of them had gone pale. The eunuch hid his features nicely but the king saw the shock evident on his plump powdered face. He could see Littlefinger calculating at the very moment, no matter placing his bets. Even Ser Gerold showed a flicker of surprise. 

"These are the terms the boy king offers me," Rhaegar said after a while.

Littlefinger scoffed. "Stark has got some balls, no doubt of it," he said mockingly. "I bet he is all talk."

"He killed a dragon and sent my son to the Wall. Sure this is all talk for you," Rhaegar said acidly. "Damn him and damn me. I knew this day would come sooner or later. We hunted the pack but let the pup get away and now the pup has grown up into a wolf and is back to hunt us. I knew this would happen and that's why I asked Viserys to get the boy at all costs. Instead my brother was so interested in Ashara Dayne's cunt that he seemingly forgot her son and what I had asked him to do."

"If only Prince Viserys had caught him in the first place," Mace Tyrell spoke quietly.

Rhaegar snorted disdainfully. "If only Ned Stark hadn't bred Ashara Dayne in the first place," he said to his master of laws. "Can you go and stop Eddard Stark from fucking a babe into his wife, Lord Tyrell?"

Tyrell shook his head. Rhaegar continued, "Yes, I believed so. You can't stop it from happening no more than you can blame it on Viserys. The cow has been milked there is no way of squirting the milk back into its udders. No good ever comes from thinking about the past."

The king turned to his hand. "Jon you have the Stormlands with you, yes?" 

"Yes, your grace," Lord Connington bowed his head. "My cousin rules in my stead."

"Good," Rhaegar said. "Send a raven to him and ask him to call the banners. We cannot let Robert join with this boy."

He looked at Lord Tyrell. "Send a raven to your heir and get him to call your banners," Rhaegar commanded. "Send one of your sons to Highgarden and march your army back up north, my lord."

"At once, your grace," the lord of Highgarden said.

"If it is war he wants then he shall have war," Rhaegar told his council. "If he thinks himself to be the next Eddard Stark I'll show him how I killed the first one. We should march on Stark at once before he could join forces with Jon Arryn and Robert Baratheon."

"Pylos, send a raven to Sunspear and ask Doran Martell to call his spears. I've had enough of this Born King stupidity and I intend to make him a legend quickly. Now, leave me. All of you."

Ever the soul of obedience, his council members rose to depart, one by one, even Ser Gerold. "

Rhaegar eased himself back onto his chair. He poured the wine from the flagon into his cup and took a sip thoughtfully. The rich Arbor gold was cool in his mouth. 

A decade of peace and still Eddard Stark manages to trouble him from his grave. Curse him and his bones. Curse me for trusting Viserys and Slynt. All I have are lickspittles, lackeys and jackanaps. Even his own son had failed him. The dragon falling before a wolf. Madness. Absolute madness. Rhaegar wondered what his father would think of that. 

Stark is the true power threatening his realm, the same way his father once did. Taking him out will cripple the north once more. But he had to do it somehow. He reached for his wine, and considered for a moment as he sipped. It was the last thing Rhaegar Targaryen would ever have anticipated. But somehow the time for it had arrived.

He finished his wine and set the cup aside, thoughtful. A part of him was more pleased to end the boy than he cared to admit. Another part was remembering the battle in the north, and wondering if he was about to repeat it again.

Rhaegar stood abruptly, and made for the door. Outside the moon had already taken the place in the clear, starless sky. He took a long breath and climbed down the stairs leading to the lower floor. The king crossed the Traitor's Walk which led to the squat, half-round tower through where the dungeons could be accessed. The top floor of the tower held the cells for prisoners kept in a degree of comfort, to the knights and lordlings who might be ransomed. The entrance to the dungeons sat on the ground floor. Rhaegar made his descent down to the dungeons. It was not far away. Soon he came upon the hammered iron door which stood at the entrance of the dungeons.

Inside, the corridor was so poorly lit that Rhaegar took a torch from the sconce on the wall. He did not have to walk for long to reach his destination. Two men dressed in the dark attire of the Targaryen guards, their faces hidden behind their helms stood guard at the entrance of the dark, dank emptiness which stretched down. 

"Leave," the king told them. The men uttered no words and left at once. He lowered the torch and the light bathed the steps descending into the darkness.

Rhaegar stepped down the narrow stairs one at a time, his heels scraping against the rough stone as they descended. It was very cold within the stairwell, a damp bone-chilling cold that set him to shivering at once. It was always cold in here, he knew. Unlike most others he knew the history of this place. 

During the construction of the Red Keep, Maegor the Cruel had decreed four levels of dungeons for his castle. On the upper level, were the large cells where common criminals may be confined together. They had narrow windows set high in the walls. The second level had the smaller cells where highborn captives were held. They had no windows, but torches in the halls cast light through the bars. On the third level the cells were smaller and the doors were wood. The black cells, men call them. That was where the traitors and turncloaks were kept. But there was a level lower still. Once a man is taken down to the fourth level, he never sees the sun again, nor hears a human voice, nor breathes a breath free of agonizing pain. Maegor had the cells on the fourth level built for torment. It was there he had kept his most prized possession. He reached the bottom of the steps. An unlighted door opened before him.

For the sake of his own well being Rhaegar had keep the cell very near to the door. There were more sinister things in the deeper levels that no man would wish to see. He put the torch in it's sconce on the wall and shouldered aside the heavy wood-and-iron door and stepped into the darkness. The little light through the small openings on the door showed him his way but spared him the foul views farther. 

"Fancy another visit, my lord," he heard the voice before even seeing the person. Years spent in the dank cell hadn't taken away the sweetness it had. “I am not yet dead if that's what you'd wished to see.”

He heard the faint rattling of the chains as he stepped inside the cell. The plate of food left beside the door stayed untouched.

"I see you had no taste for the food I give you."

"I'm always wary of your fabulous generosity."

The king could hear the voice in the darkness, sweet as a hymn but he wanted to see. He crossed the cell gingerly and turned up the oil lamp hanging low from the ceiling. The lamp gave enough light to wash the dark cell in a lowlit gloom. It was then he saw her curled up in the corner with her arms around her knees, pulled up against her bosom and face buried in the white roughspun gown. When she felt the cell lit up she looked up. Her dark hair fell down her shoulders, tangled as if she had woken from a night's sleep. Her face was pale but the dark and cold had done nothing to fade the beauty. She stood up when she saw him there. Violet eyes sparkled in the orange glow of the lamp. Though garbed in peasant's clothes Ashara Dayne was more beautiful than any Queen or goddess adorned in all their royal finery. Even after a decade of life in darkness and chains, the beauty and grace of the woman is still apparent.

“You have not eaten for some days I suppose.”

“Spare me your false concerns, my lord,” the queen in the north seethed. "Do you think I fear death?

" On the contrary, yes, I think you do fear death, my lady," Rhaegar replied.

Ashara Dayne scoffed. "Bare your sword and put my head on the block. You'll see how afraid I am of death then."

"There is no need for that Lady Dayne," he told her. "I know you fear death by your own existence." He let the words hang in between them in silence. When she was quiet he continued. "I've seen men in the upper levels going mad, clawing their eyes out, begging to be given the mercy of death just for a glimpse of sun. Yet, you, staying in here where no one has ever been for centuries managed to desperately cling on to your life with every bit of your strength for god knows how long."

"You see my lady, such courage, resilience and desperation to live just makes a man wonder why is that?" 

Ashara gave a defiant look at his face, so sudden and surprised. 

Rhaegar smiled at her defiance. "In your place Lady Dayne anyone else would've sung sweetly for the Stranger to come and take her. You had nothing else in this world to live for. No husband, no brother, no crown but still you lived. That leaves us with . . . where is your son?"

Ashara gave a laugh, a wild, free laugh. "I did put Andrew in the river as I told you but not in the manner you thought. I put him on a boat and sent him away from your clutches," the woman growled at him. "I will fight your dragons tooth and nail before I'd let you harm my son."

"Sent him where?" Rhaegar asked. "Do you know that, my lady?" 

Ashara looked down at the floor, trying to hide her shame. But Rhaegar saw her guilt in the light of the lamp. A mother's heart, aching for sending her child away to be on his own. 

"Who would've thought of it, my lady," Rhaegar said to her, "that a five-year-old boy whose breath still smelled of his mother's milk would survive out in the wild and one day come so close to kill the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms?"

If the Queen in the north was not surprised before, she was certainly surprised now. 

"That's right, my lady. He survived. I once said that you had left very little of yourself in your son but I was wrong. Like his mother your son won't just die." Rhaegar took Andrew Stark's letter and threw it at his lady mother's face. "There, the letter your son sent to me." 

Ashara got the parchment in the air with her chained hands and read it. When she was done, she started laughing. 

"Funny, isn't it?" Rhaegar asked. 

"You are a cunning old bastard, Rhaegar, " Ashara said with a smirk, "but what you fail to understand is that your days are numbered, your grace. My son will finish what his father started." 

"Would he though?" he asked her. "Over his own mother? Why do you think I kept you alive all these years? I knew this would happen the moment you fooled Viserys and got your son away. I knew that when it happens it'll not be me who would stop it, it will be you. You were the queen in the north and your son and your people would back down the moment I show them that I have you. Queen Ashara the Benevolent is still remembered in the north, my lady." 

"Would you threaten my life, your grace?" Ashara Dayne asked. "Put a dagger at my neck and threaten to cut my throat? I'll do one up and cut my throat myself just to see you pay for your crimes." 

"Who said anything of killing you," the king replied. "It will be such a shame to finish it off so easily. I have thousands of men here in King's Landing, all of them would do anything to have a little taste of you. Deny my offer, my lady and I'll feast you for the entire city and make your son watch it."

Rhaegar left the words hang in the dark as he put off the light from the lamp. He shut the door behind him and walked outside the corridor. Perhaps that is for the best, he thought as he left her back alone in her dark cell. Wake up the dragon and burn them all as his father used to say. Burn them all.

Chapter Text

Asher

On the morning they reached the port city of White Harbor, Asher saw that a lot of things has changed in the place he has once called home. From the top of the ramparts and the city walls the grey direwolf of House Stark streamed atop the tall standards. The sight of the ice white banners flying proudly in place of the red and black of House Targaryen which had been there when he had left his home brought a thin smile to his lips.

"Steady lads," Bill Dustin shouted behind him. "We are approaching the port."

Asher looked at the gatehouse of the outer walls, draped with the white banners on either side. He noticed the harbor was busy acting as it was in the times of their true king. It had seemed as if it was a ruin when he had left his home years before, now people swarmed the docks and the pathways. Fishfoot square was teeming his sellers and buyers alike. The city seemed to have come to life, the people felt alive and there was hope and happiness in their faces which had not been then when he had left the north.

"What do you think, Asher?" Edgar asked. "Looks like all is fine out here."

"It must've been his work," Asher told him watching over the inner walls as they passed through it. "I told you so."

"That you did," said Bill Dustin clapping his back.

Asher looked to his left where the northern fleet had anchored in the deep waters near the inner wall. The galleys and dromonds were getting ready to set sail with men rushing over the decks with ropes and other things. Their ship docked in the inner harbor along with the other ones there.

He was happy that their ship brought them home in the morning tide. The gods had good to them, the sea calm during their journey and the winds good. Asher was glad that their sailing was peaceful all the way to home. He climbed down from the bow of the ship and took his swordbelt on the way down. 

"What do we do now?" his uncle asked as he came down to the deck.

"We need to know what's happening before we can move further." Asher cinched the swordbelt around his waist. He looked up to White Harbor in the distance . "Lord Manderly might give us the answers we seek."

"Is it wise, Asher?" asked Reyna Longbraid, her throwing axe clutched in one hand. "Especially since we don't know what's been going on."

"Its perfectly fine, Asher said," as he knelt down to lace up his boots. He pointed to the direwolf banner flowing from the top of White Harbor above the Merman of House Manderly. "If Lord Manderly is hosting Targaryen swords in his hall, he wouldn't be doing it with the Stark banner raised upon his castle."

"Give me some time to round up the men," Bill Dustin said.

"No," Asher replied. "We cannot waste any time. Gather the men and bring forth to White Harbor at your pace. I'll ride to White Harbor to let Lord Manderly know that we are back."

"You cannot go out there alone," his uncle said.

"I'll come with you," Edgar said from beside him.

"Me too," Ethan Hunt voiced as well and the others let it know that they'll accompany him to White Harbor as well. Owen, Roger, Denys and Barton, the company he had had with him throughout his life, his friends.

"Very well then," Dustin said and went along to the men, shouting commands.

"Be safe, nephew," his uncle said.

Seven of them set out together on seven strong war horses. A small party travels more swiftly than a large one, and this way Asher could hear all he want from Manderly so that they could join Andrew soon enough without wasting any time. 

They struck out south to White Harbor, the stronghold of House Manderly, upon crowded cobbled streets with little children and chickens running about everywhere. The news that had taken them across the Narrow Sea awaited them. Still Asher did not knew for certain what had happened in the north during his voyage. He hoped that Manderly would have some news for him that is the truth. They were lost in fog in their time at the sea, besieged by rumors, falsehoods, and traveler's tales. The tales varied from one man to another. Some said Andrew has raised an army of fallen heroes from the crypts of Winterfell to fight against King Rhaegar. Other claimed that Andrew turns himself into a giant wolf to battle and slay dragons. The fables had a sweet taste to it but not the truth and all Asher want is the truth.

Though he knew nothing for a certainity, Asher knew that something is happening. War is happening, thought Asher, and this time the Seven Kingdoms will not be spared. Doom and death are coming, there was truth in that. If the direwolf banner flows in the north it meant that the dragon in the north is dead and Rhaegar Targaryen will not let it go unanswered. And Andrew, the boy he had known in the childhood, the boy he had called a friend, he'll not stop with Winterfell when Rhaegar lives. Asher still remembered the boys they had been at Braavos. They both learned life in the hard way, Andrew more than him. At least he joined with his uncle soon enough, he had a family waiting for him back at Ironrath, while he had no one to go back to. 

They crossed the harbor shortly and made for the castle nearby. It was a short ride but it felt as if it was as long as it could be. He brought the men back here with a promise and he wished he was right in time for it. He knew that Andrew would have marched his army from Winterfell by now but he couldn't have gone far. There were talks of war in the air but there was no claims of fighting. Atleast, not for now. He hoped to join the fight as soon as he can. Asher wondered what his father would think of him if he saw him now. Will he approve this part of it atleast.

Asher missed his family. He missed his friend. He has returned home after many years yet it was not enough to go and see his family. He wished to see them. He wished to see his father's talks, strong and unyielding. He wished to see his mother laugh. He wished to spar with Rodrik, to listen to Mira's complaining, to meet the little twins and little Ryon. But it was not the right time now. The commander of the Company of the Rose could not leave his men to fight his battles while he goes to see his family. He had chosen this path just like he had chosen years before, but unlike then, now he had an army behind him, following him. Perhaps he would see his father and Rodrik in Andrew's host. They would've marched with him by now.

"If King Stark has raised his banners wouldn't the Manderlys be gone with him?" Ethan Hunt asked.

"See, that's where you are making the mistake," Roger grimaced. "He cannot ride with the army even if he wanted to. Lord Manderly is called Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-a-Horse for a reason."

His company laughed at that and even Asher let a chuckle out.

"Now that's a bit harsh, Roger," Denys Snow said, smiling at the jape. "Lord Wyman may be fat but his loyalty could never be questioned. Besides someone need to keep watch over the city of the north and Lord Wyman has done a pretty good job at it."

That Asher could agree. Lord Wyman has not been sitting idle certainly. The guards were poured in the walls and the harbor. 

"Perhaps he will provide a feast for us too," Roger said again. "That way he could feast more on our name."

"You talk as if you handle your horse better than everyone else, Roger," Owen said.

"Oh, but I can handle everything better than you do," Roger replied.

"Race you to the gates of White Harbor then?" Owen challenged.

"Agreed," Roger said. "The victor claims all the food Manderly gives us." He wheeled his big chestnut desterier around and put his heels into him, and the race was on, through the cobbled lanes of the city through to the castle, as chickens and people alike scrambled out of their path. Asher was three horse lengths behind by the time he got his stallion up to a gallop, but had closed to one halfway up a slope. Roger and Owen were side-by-side as they thundered towards the gatehouse and Asher crossed Denys and Barton and Ethan who followed them closely behind, but five yards from the gates when Asher was about to cross both of them to win the race, Edgar Dustin came flying from the cloud of dust behind them to rush past all of them on his black palfrey.

"Damn, I'm good," Dustin said, laughing, with only the gates before him. "Looks like I just earned all your dinner."

"Piss off, Edgar," Roger announced. "You know the drill. No one's taking anyone's food."

"Like as not," Edgar said, "the look on your face when you lose is all the prize I need."

"I'm pretty much sure its not as sour as Barton's face."

His friends lapsed into silence when they were at the journey's end. White Harbor loomed up before them in the morning sun, its white washed walls shining against the deep blue of the sea around it. From the square towers at the castle's corners flew the banners of House Manderly; the white merman with dark green hair, beard and tail, carrying a black trident, over a blue-green field. The direwolf of House Stark streamed atop the great central keep, grey and white, fierce.

"Speak up," the man in the gatehouse shouted. "Who are you and what is your business here?"

Asher led his horse forward and reigned up before his friends. "Asher Forrester, son of Lord Gregor Forrester," he said. "I'm here with the Company of the Rose to meet with Lord Wyman."

"The Company of the Rose?" the guard asked, doubtful.

"We heard of Andrew Stark and have come to join our strength to his."

"You claim to know about the King?" the man asked.

"Aye, we do." Asher replied.

The man disappeared from the gatehouse for a moment. He heard the rumbling of the doors opening after a pause and the gates of White Harbor opened before them. Asher entered through the gate, his friends following him closely. 

"Take the horses to bridle and water them," the man announced and half a dozen stable boys came forth to lead their horses to the stables.

The knight wore silver armor, his greaves and gauntlet inlaid with niello to suggest flowing fronds of seaweed. The helm beneath his arm was the head of the merling king, with a crown of mother-of-pearl and a jutting beard of jet and jade. His own beard was as grey as the winter sea.

“I'm Ser Marlon Manderly.” He was a head taller than Asher and three stones heavier, with slate-grey eyes and a haughty way of speaking. “I have the honor to be Lord Wyman’s cousin and commander of his garrison. I will take you to his lordship. Follow me.”

Asher nodded at his friends and followed Ser Marlon into the castle.

"Has the fighting started already?" he asked as they climbed up the stairs to the Great Hall.

The knight chuckled. "You should count yourselves lucky for you have not missed the action," he said. "His Grace is leading the host south from Winterfell."

"Lord Wyman?"

"King Andrew has asked his lordship to take care of the fleet," Ser Marlon said. "Most of the ships are ready to set sail but some of them has some repairs to be done. Ser Wendel is leading the Manderly knights in the King's host."

Lord Manderly’s household guard wore cloaks of blue-green wool and carried silver tridents in place of common spears. They stood firmly on either side of the corridor. They walked past the faded banners, broken shields, and rusted swords of a hundred ancient victories, and a score of wooden figures, cracked and worm-riddled, that could only have adorned the prows of ships.

Two marble mermen flanked his lordship’s court, Fishfoot’s smaller cousins. As the guards threw open the doors, a herald slammed the butt of his staff against an old plank floor. “My lord, visitors,” he called in a ringing voice.

As many times as he had visited White Harbor, Asher had never set foot inside the New Castle, much less the Merman’s Court. Its walls and floor and ceiling were made of wooden planks notched cunningly together and decorated with all the creatures of the sea. As they approached the dais, Asher trod on painted crabs and clams and starfish, half-hidden amongst twisting black fronds of seaweed and the bones of drowned sailors. On the walls to either side, pale sharks prowled painted blue-green depths, whilst eels and octopods slithered amongst rocks and sunken ships. Shoals of herring and great codfish swam between the tall arched windows. Higher up, near where the old fishing nets drooped down from the rafters, the surface of the sea had been depicted. To his right a war galley stroked serene against the rising sun; to his left, a battered old cog raced before a storm, her sails in rags. Behind the dais a kraken and grey leviathan were locked in battle beneath the painted waves.

They found Wyman Manderly holding court with his builders and shipwrights. All of them either had long grey beards or looked too young to shave. There were septons as well, and holy sisters in white robes and grey.

He could find the welcome in the pale blue eyes of Wyman Manderly. His lordship’s cushioned throne was wide enough to accommodate three men of common girth, yet Manderly threatened to overflow it. His lordship sagged into his seat, his shoulders slumped, his legs splayed, his hands resting on the arms of his throne as if the weight of them were too much to bear.

Left of the high seat stood a maester nigh as fat as the lord he served, a rosy-cheeked man with thick lips and a head of golden curls. Ser Marlon claimed the place of honor at Lord Wyman's right hand. On a cushioned stool at his feet perched a large man who looked to be Lord Wyman's son. Beside him stood a plump, handsome woman in a pink dress. Behind Lord Wyman stood two younger women, sisters by the look of them. The elder wore her brown hair bound in a long braid. The younger, no more than fifteen, had an even longer braid, dyed a garish green.

"Lord Asher," The maester was the first to speak. “You stand before Wyman Manderly, Lord of White Harbor and Warden of the White Knife, Shield of the Faith, Defender of the Dispossessed, Lord Marshal of the Mander, a Knight of the Order of the Green Hand,” he said.

"Asher Forrester," Wyman Manderly aknowledged. "You're Gregor's son, aren't you?"

“I am, my lord,” Asher replied. “Now I have come to as the Lord Commander of the Company of the Rose.”

“I saw your father at Winterfell,” Lord Wyman said. "He is marching with his grace. He is a good friend of mine."

"He spoke of you as well, my lord."

"Why have you come to my castle?" Lord Wyman asked.

"We have come to fight for the Starks once again."

"Then you ought to be going south," Wylis Manderly said. "His grace is going for Moat Cailin."

The Moat. That is good news. If they made enough pace in their journey they would make it to the Moat before Andrew's bigger host arrives.

"Thank you, my lord," Asher said. "If that's where the king is, we'll be leaving..."

"Nonsense," The Lord of White Harbor pushed himself to his feet. The effort brought a red flush to his neck. "I'm not sending any man to fight for His Grace without proper food. You and your friends can join us in my table."

By midday, when the others made it to the castle, Lord Manderly hosted him and the high officers of his company in his own table. He was happy to see old Bill Dustin and shared goblets of wine with him. Manderly provided them lamprey pies, crab cakes and varieties of other sea foods.

Halfway into the meal, Ethan Hunt moved closer to his ear. "Why do they have septons and a sept here?" he asked. "I never knew anyone from the north followed the Seven."

 “That's because we're from the south,” piped a girl’s voice, thin and high before Asher could answer him.

It belonged to the half-grown child with the blond eyebrows and the long green braid who had stood behind Lord Wyman at the court.

She continued. "A thousand years before the Conquest, a promise was made, and oaths were sworn in the Wolf’s Den before the old gods and the new. When we were sore beset and friendless, hounded from our homes and in peril of our lives, the wolves took us in and nourished us and protected us against our enemies. The city is built upon the land they gave us. In return we swore that we should always be their men. Stark men!

"That's my youngest granddaughter Wylla," Lord Wyman announced with a smile.

"The girl has a sharp ear," laughed Bill Dustin.

"And a sharp mouth as well," her grandfather added. 

By the time the plesantries and the time to rest were done the sun was almost down. They set forth from White Harbor at dusk with Lord Manderly wishing them luck and his granddaughter Wylla wishing them future victories. Asher looked down upon his men riding in long columns of four from a high mound. He could not wait to fight as he had promised to them, moreover, he could not wait to see his friend again.

 

Chapter Text

Jaehaerys

The courtyard had been arranged for the ceremony to take place. Lord Commander Mormont was passing new recruits, six of them, along with Jaehaerys and Gwayne. Two long wooden tables were arranged neatly before the raised wooden platform where he took his seat with his soon to be brothers. 

The high officers took their place in the raised platform; Lord Commander Mormont stood first in a blank wool doublet. Maester Aemon stood on his right side, fat Samwell Tarly by his side, Ser Alliser cold-eyed and grim took the left. Beside them were the senior members of the three orders: red-faced Bowen Marsh the Lord Steward, First Builder Othell Yarwyck, and Ser Jaremy Rykker, who commanded the rangers in the absence of Benjen Stark.

His uncle had left for a ranging with his rangers as soon as he came back from Winterfell and he has not returned since. None of the men he took with him has made it back to the Wall. Benjen Stark's disappearance was making everyone restless that Jaehaerys saw the truth of it in the faces of the black brothers. He has been away for too long, and there's been no words on him or the men he went in searching for. For days Jaehaerys waited for the return of his uncle, but days turned to weeks still Benjen Stark was nowhere to be found. He must feel nothing for the man, he knew that. Benjen Stark has been a complete stranger in all his life. Even when Jaehaerys was sent to the Wall, Benjen rode forth to Winterfell in a hurry to meet his long lost nephew while not even sparing a look at him. But somewhere in his heart, Jae couldn't help but to hope for his safe return. Most of the brothers of Night's Watch pretty much believed Benjen Stark to be dead but not Jaehaerys. 

Mormont stood before them on the platform, the Wall sparkling behind him. "You came to us outlaws," he began, "poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others have only bastards' names, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.

"At evenfall, as the sun sets and we face the gathering night, you shall take your vows. From that moment, you will be a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch. Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew.

"A man of the Night's Watch lives his life for the realm. Not for a king, nor a lord, nor the honor of this house or that house, neither for gold nor glory nor a woman's love, but for the realm, and all the people in it. A man of the Night's Watch takes no wife and fathers no sons. Our wife is duty. Our mistress is honor. And you are the only sons we shall ever know.

"You have learned the words of the vow. Think carefully before you say them, for once you have taken the black, there is no turning back. The penalty for desertion is death." The Old Bear paused for a moment before he said, "Are there any among you who wish to leave our company? If so, go now, and no one shall think the less of you."

No one moved. For a moment, Jaehaerys wanted to leave, leave and go be with his family. He felt the blind white eyes of Aemon on him and looked at the old man. Despite of all the others around him, Aemon's milky eyes were fixed on him. He looked back at the old man and stayed in his seat unmoved.

"Well and good," said Mormont. "You may take your vows here at evenfall, before Septon Celladar and the first of your order. Do any of you keep to the old gods?"

Jaehaerys stood. "I do, my lord. I may have born in the south but I grew up in the north."

"Very well then," Mormont said. "Castle Black has no need of a godswood. Beyond the Wall the haunted forest stands as it stood in the Dawn Age, long before the Andals brought the Seven across the narrow sea. You will find a grove of weirwoods half a league from this spot, and mayhap the gods you seek as well."

"My lord." Gwayne voiced beside him. "I wish to accompany the prince as well, to say my vows before the Hear tree."

"Do you follow the old gods as well, ser?" Mormont asked.

"No, my lord," Gwayne replied. "But I do follow the prince in whatever he does."

"As you wish then," Mormont said. Gwayne took his seat again, as did Jaehaerys. "We have placed each of you in an order, as befits our need and your own strengths and skills." Bowen Marsh stepped forward and handed him a paper. The Lord Commander unrolled it and began to read. "Lio, to the builders," he began. Lio gave a stiff nod of approval. "Quid, to the rangers. Jos, to the builders. Geren, to the rangers." Geren looked over at Jaehaerys and gave a smile which Jae returned. "Gwayne, to the rangers." Gwayne looked at him and gave a nod, and Jaehaerys waited for his chance. "Orten, to the rangers. Kurt, to the rangers. Jaehaerys, to the stewards."

The stewards? For a moment Jaehaerys could not believe what he had heard. Mormont must have read it wrong. He started to rise, to open his mouth, to tell them there had been a mistake . . . and then he saw Ser Alliser studying him, eyes shiny as two flakes of obsidian, and he knew. The whole thing had his name written onto it. 

The Old Bear rolled up the paper. "Your firsts will instruct you in your duties. May all the gods preserve you, brothers." The Lord Commander favored them with a half bow, and took his leave. Ser Alliser went with him, a thin smile on his face. Jae had never seen the master-at-arms look quite so happy. He should be happy now that he has condemned him to the life of a servant. And he managed to get him away from Gwayne. 

"Rangers with me," Ser Jaremy Rykker called when they were gone. Gwayne was staring at Jae as he got slowly to his feet. Quid, Geren, Kurt and Orten fell in beside him, and they followed Ser Jaremy from the sept.

"Builders," announced lantern-jawed Othell Yarwyck. Lio and Jos trailed out after him.

Jae looked around him in sick disbelief. Maester Aemon's blind eyes were raised toward the sun he could not see. Only he remained on the benches in the yard; him along with the fat boy Samwell and the blind maester.

Lord Steward Bowen Marsh rubbed his plump hands together. "Lord Commander Mormont has requested you for his personal steward, Jaehaerys. You'll sleep in a cell beneath his chambers, in the Lord Commander's tower."

And what will my duties be? Jae might've asked, but he will not give that satisfaction to Ser Alliser. He was a man of the Night's Watch now and he would not cry and weep like a girl about the duties that came with it.

They dismissed from the yard in silence. Outside, Jae looked up at the Wall shining in the sun, the melting ice creeping down its side in a hundred thin fingers. Jae's rage was such that he would have smashed it all in an instant, and the world be damned.

"Jaehaerys," Samwell Tarly said excitedly, following him. "Wait. Don't you see what they're doing?"

Jae turned on him, calmly. "I see Ser Alliser's bloody hand, that's all I see. He wanted to shame me, and he has."

"There is no shame in being a steward," Sam said.

"Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life washing an old man's smallclothes?"

"The old man is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch," Sam reminded him. "You'll be with him day and night. Yes, you'll pour his wine and see that his bed linen is fresh, but you'll also take his letters, attend him at meetings, squire for him in battle. You'll be as close to him as his shadow. You'll know everything, be a part of everything . . . and the Lord Steward said Mormont asked for you himself!

"When I was little, my father used to insist that I attend him in the audience chamber whenever he held court. When he rode to Highgarden to bend his knee to Lord Tyrell, he made me come. Later, though, he started to take Dickon and leave me at home, and he no longer cared whether I sat through his audiences, so long as Dickon was there. He wanted his heir at his side, don't you see? To watch and listen and learn from all he did. I'll wager that's why Lord Mormont requested you, Jae. What else could it be? He wants to groom you for command!"

Jaehaerys was taken aback. It was true, his father had often made Aegon part of his councils back at the Red Keep. Could Sam be right? Perhaps this is not a condemning after all.

"None of us are here for asking," Sam reminded him.

Jae let out a deep sigh. "You have the right of it. I was acting the boy like I was at Winterfell."

"Then you'll stay and say your words?"

"Of course, brother." He made himself smile.

They set out late that afternoon. The Wall had no gates as such, neither here at Castle Black nor anywhere along its three hundred miles. They led their horses down a narrow tunnel cut through the ice, cold dark walls pressing in around them as the passage twisted and turned. Three times their way was blocked by iron bars, and they had to stop while Bowen Marsh drew out his keys and unlocked the massive chains that secured them. Jae could sense the vast weight pressing down on him as he waited behind the Lord Steward. The air was colder than a tomb, and more still. He felt a strange relief when they reemerged into the afternoon light on the north side of the Wall.

Gwayne blinked at the sudden glare and looked around carefully. "What about the Wildlings?"

"They'd never dare come this close." the ranger accompanying them said. When Bowen Marsh and their ranger escort had mounted, they set off at once.

Once they had entered the forest, they were in a different world. Jae had often hunted with Gwayne and his men in the wolfswood. He knew the wolfswood around Winterfell as well as any man from the north and the Kingswood in King's Landing as well. The haunted forest was much the same, and yet the feel of it was very different.

Perhaps it was all in the knowing. They had ridden past the end of the world; somehow that changed everything. Every shadow seemed darker, every sound more ominous. The trees pressed close and shut out the light of the setting sun. A thin crust of snow cracked beneath the hooves of their horses, with a sound like breaking bones. When the wind set the leaves to rustling, it was like a chilly finger tracing a path up his spine. The Wall was at their backs, and only the gods knew what lay ahead.

The sun was sinking below the trees when they reached their destination, a small clearing in the deep of the wood where nine weirwoods grew in a rough circle. Jae drew in a breath, and he even saw Gwayne staring. Even in the wolfswood, you never found more than two or three of the white trees growing together; a grove of nine was unheard of. The forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves, bloodred on top, black rot beneath. The wide smooth trunks were bone pale, and nine faces stared inward. The dried sap that crusted in the eyes was red and hard as ruby. Bowen Marsh commanded them to leave their horses outside the circle. "This is a sacred place, we will not defile it."

When they entered the grove, Gwayne turned slowly looking at each face in turn. No two were quite alike. "This is it, my prince," he said.

"I know." Jae knelt, and Gwayne knelt beside him.

They said the words together, as the last light faded in the west and grey day became black night.

"Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow," they recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. "Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."

The woods fell silent. "You knelt as boys," Bowen Marsh intoned solemnly. "Rise now as men of the Night's Watch."

Jae and Gwayne stood up. He smiled at Gwayne and embraced him tightly.

The rangers gathered round to offer smiles and congratulations, all but the gnarled old forester Dywen. "Best we be starting back, m'lord," he said to Bowen Marsh. "Dark's falling, and there's something in the smell o' the night that I mislike."

They took a different route through the trees on their way back. It is then they came across the black bundles half frozen and abandoned amidst the forest.

 

Chapter Text

Andrew

They had stayed in a high ground dry enough for a camp. It was too far to make out the outriders clearly, but even through the drifting fog he could see their white banners, with the direwolf of Stark, grey upon its icy field. 

"Empty, your grace," said the knight with the Merman of House Manderly stitched upon his doublet. "The castle seems to be deserted."

Andrew nodded. "Let's get the castle back to life then." He turned back to look at the Greatjon. "Get the men ready to move."

Greatjon Umber left, bowing. He mounted his own white stallion when it was brought to him and behind him the lords bannermen fell in. Ghost bounded past before him crossing the muddy path with the ease of a direwolf.

The ground under their horses' hooves was soft and wet. It fell away slowly beneath them as they rode past bushels of reeds, patches of mud and sand, and here and there a small pond filled with mud brown water. He might want to place most of the wagons and horses around here. Even a fortress as big as Moat Cailin would not be able to hold all his men and supplies inside.

"Order the men to camp here with the supplies," Andrew told to Lord Beric Dondarrion. "Lord Halys, you have the command of our supply line."

"Aye, Your Grace," Lord Hornwood said. He wheeled his mount and rode towards the supply line trailing them with all the wagons heavy-laden with hardbread and salt beef pulled by horses.

Just beyond, through the mists, he glimpsed the walls and towers of Moat Cailin . . . or what remained of them. Immense blocks of black basalt, each as large as a crofter's cottage, lay scattered and tumbled like a child's wooden blocks, half-sunk in the soft boggy soil. Nothing else remained of a curtain wall that had once stood as high as Winterfell's. The wooden keep was gone entirely, burnt away in dragonflames, with not so much as a timber to mark where it had stood. All that was left of the great stronghold of the First Men were three towers . . . there had been five of them when his father ruled the north and in the tales of Old Nan it had twenty. Rhaegar Targaryen had left the stronghold to ruin and he could not fault him, the north needs no protection from the south when your son rules in in your stead. Moat Cailin was useless to him.

The Gatehouse Tower looked sound enough, and even boasted a few feet of standing wall to either side of it. The Drunkard's Tower, off in the bog where the south and west walls had once met, leaned like a man about to spew a bellyful of wine into the gutter. And the tall, slender Children's Tower, where legend said the children of the forest had once called upon their nameless gods to send the hammer of the waters, had lost half its crown. It looked as if some great beast had taken a bite out of the crenellations along the tower top, and spit the rubble across the bog. All three towers were green with moss. A tree was growing out between the stones on the north side of the Gatehouse Tower, its gnarled limbs festooned with ropy white blankets of ghostskin.

It looked no more than a ruin now. The last he had seen Moat Cailin, it had hundreds of men holding the castle in his father's name and the banners of House Stark flew from all the five towers. Even in such state Andrew knew that the ruin was more formidable than it seemed. The three surviving towers commanded a causeway from all sides, and any enemy must pass between them. The bogs surrounding the castle were impenetrable, full of quicksands and suckholes and teeming with snakes. To assault any of the towers, an army would need to wade through waist-deep black muck, cross a moat full of lizard-lions, and scale walls slimy with moss, all the while exposing themselves to fire from archers in the other towers. Even an assassin like him won't dare to face all that. And when night falls, there are said to be ghosts, cold vengeful spirits of the north who hunger for southron blood.

He should take command of one of the towers while the others should be given to his lords. Andrew looked at the three towers once again and saw that the Gatehouse Tower was in the best place to oversee everything happening around him. He moved his horse slowly across the green-and-black fields of mud to the yard.

"Halt," Andrew told the men as they found a solid ground beneath them. "Get the men settled in, the fires laid and the horses tended. Lord Umber take command of the Children's tower. Lord Rickard you have the Drunkard Tower." When dozens of orders sounded behind him, Andrew made for the Gatehouse Tower with his cousin, Lord Beric and his men.

Ghost had already taken his place in a drafty hall with a black and cold hearth. "Looks like we both picked the same place, eh?" Andrew smiled and scratched him under his jaw.

When dusk finally came over them and a fire was burning in the black hearth of his hall the lords came to him to discuss the future plans. His men had wrestled in a massive basalt slab for the table and Andrew took his seat at the head of it, a pile of maps and papers in front of him and the lords of the north all around him.

"Less than a fortnight past, the Tyrell army set forth from Highgarden," Andrew told them. "Mace Tyrell's son Garlan Tyrell leads them from the van. Tyrell has Tarly and Fossoway in his host and the others are rallying to him on the way. The Targaryen dragons have not yet taken flight and the fleet is anchored at Dragonstone. Doran Martell has called his spears but at the time he is not making any move. Sooner or later we will come to grips with Tyrell and possibly the other two dragons." 

"What about the Stormlands and the Vale?" Ser Wendel asked.

"I've received a raven from Lord Arryn," Andrew told him. "The Knights of the Vale will come to our help. Lord Jon is marching them down the mountain road as we speak now. The means Lord Hoster Tully will join us as well."

"Should we make our stand here, my lord?" Rickard Ryswell asked. "You are strongly placed here. The old Kings in the North could stand at Moat Cailin and throw back hosts ten times the size of their own."

"Yes, that is if the dragons come too far up north," Andrew said. "But there is little chance for that."

"Rhaegar Targaryen is too smart for that," Roose Bolton agreed. "He would never have forgotten what your father served him when he tried to invade the north once."

"Aye," Andrew said, "and the dragon will want vengeance once he knows that Lords Arryn and Tully joined us. He will turn towards our allies and burn them as he goes." He took the carved wooden block in the likeness of the Tyrell rose and positioned it near the borders of riverlands on the map before him, a ragged piece of old leather covered with lines of faded paint. "The Riverlands share borders with the Reach and the Stormlands. With the situation in the Stormlands unknown we cannot let them surrounded by enemies from either side. If we did the Targaryens will move quickly through the riverlands, castle by castle, burning them as they go.  We would lose an entire army in no time." 

"We should take the battle to Tyrell and sent him back running," the Greatjon said in a bass rumble. "The dragons can only burn cities and castles, you can't hold anything with dragons. Without Tyrell in the way we can march forth straight to the dragon's lair."

"We can't rush forth to meet the Tyrell bulk head on," Galbart Glover said. "Even with the strength of Jon Arryn and Hoster Tully with us, we cannot match it up with the power of Highgarden and the two dragons altogether."

"That is without taking the crownlands and Connington into account," Roose Bolton said. "The Lannisters can take us in the rear as well if we ventured too far into the south. Lord Tywin is a cunning man. He won't declare for us like Jon Arryn."

A chorus of consternation filled the hall, all of the lords telling their views. Andrew raised a hand and that stopped them.

"This is what we'll do," Andrew told them and looked over at the map. "We leave a good enough force here to hold Moat Cailin, archers mostly, and the rest of the army will march with me down the causeway," he said. "Lord Howland," Andrew looked to his father's old friend near him, "if the dragons come up the Neck, you and your crannogmen will bleed them every step of the way. You held the Moat for my father now I ask you to do the same for me. Do not let anyone inside our lands." 

Howland Reed bowed his head in respect. "I will not, Your Grace," he said.

Andrew continued when Lord Reed was done. "Once we're below the Neck, we will continue down the kingsroad and hold here at the Crossroads inn." He pointed. "Here we wait for Lord Jon and the Knights of the Vale to join us from the mountain road. Then together we cross the Trident at this ford and make for Riverrun to join our strength with Lord Hoster's men. Once we are at Riverrun we wait for the word on Lord Baratheon and then we make the final plans for the war." Andrew sat back, watching the map and the blocks on it. He was pleased with himself. The quick march had given him the time to meet up with his allies and gain some good ground before the Targaryens arrive. If things go by plan he might trap the whole Targaryen army right in the riverlands from north, south, east and west and destroy them in one single stroke. Then Rhaegar will be left all alone in King's Landing with no armies to defend him or his city. 

"Your Grace, autumn is almost upon us," William Dustin expressed his concerns. "The Trident will soon be flooded which will make it hard for us to cross the river."

"That may be so," Andrew told him, "but it is our only way to Riverrun. Unless," he looked over at the map and found the Twins up far north in the Green Fork marked by the twin towers in blue and grey, "we cross here at the Twins." Andrew thought back at his past lessons with Maester Walys. He had known the castle and the lord who held it. Was it Darry or Drey or Grey . . . ? Frey, it was Frey. He remembered now. House Frey held the Twins at the Crossing, and their coat of arms is the two blue towers, united by a bridge, on a silver-grey field. Andrew had crossed the Twins with his father once when they went south.

"Walder Frey is a treacherous bastard," the Greatjon said. "You must not treat with him, Your Grace."

"He is Lord Hoster's bannerman is he not?" Andrew asked. 

"Aye," Lord Beric agreed, "but he is a cold man, filled with low cunning. Kings and overlords mean little enough to him. He will leech you for favours to grant you safe passage." He pressed the word safe enough that Andrew understood what he meant. 

It would be very different from the last time he crossed the Twins with his father, he thought. Without his father, Walder Frey would not be so welcoming to him it seemed. Andrew scratched his beard and looked over at the map once again. Both the plans had their own virtues. Making it to the Crossroads inn will gain him grounds north of the Trident and a commanding position to control the river. But it will give time to the Targaryens and the Tyrells to muster up with their forces. Crossing through the Twins makes the journey and the crossing swift and easier but it will let any loyalists to take control of the Trident and cut off their armies from the Vale.

"From the way I see it, we have only two options," Andrew told them. "Both plans have virtues . . . If we make for the Crossroads inn, we'll join along with the Knights of the Vale and we can hold the Trident. If we crossed from the Twins it'll make our journey to Riverrun considerably quick and our crossing much safer without fearing the autumn floods. I Intend to . . . " He was saying and the call came drifting through the evening air. Andrew pushed himself from his seat, his hand reaching for Frost by force of habit as his men began to stir. Even Ghost was up and bounding for the door once he heard the horn. The horn came from the north, he thought then, not from the south. Who is coming for him from the north?

The long low note lingered at the edge of hearing. Outside the men threw their tankards and horns aside and reached for spears and swordbelts, moving from the peat fires at once. As the sound of the horn faded, even the wind ceased to blow. A horse whickered and was hushed by its rider. For a heartbeat it seemed as if the whole world was holding its breath.

When the silence had stretched unbearably long and the men knew at last that the horn would not wind again, they grinned at one another sheepishly, as if to deny that they had been anxious that it was not the warhorn of a foe.

A Hornwood rider rode down the log-and-plank road that had been laid across the green-and-black fields of mud to the yard below him. "Riders in the south, my lord," he shouted. "They say that they'll only talk to you."

"How many of them?"

"Five of them turned up at our camp," the man said. "There are more camped a short way away northeast from our position."

"Do they bear any standards?" Andrew asked. 

"Yes, Your Grace," the Hornwood rider agreed. "Their banners sport your mother's rose."

My mother's rose. He wondered whom they could be. The Company of the Rose once had the violet rose his mother had loved very much in their banners but what's left of the company was long gone from the north as far as he knew. If they were even around somewhere no one knew where they were or what they were doing. 

"Send them in, then," Andrew told him, "and keep watch on that camp."

"Aye, Your Grace." He wheeled his horse around and left. 

Could it really be them? Or is it another one of Rhaegar's treacherous plots? He would find it soon enough, he thought. He walked back to the hall with Ghost, his lords bannermen all following him. When he took his seat the direwolf laid by his side and rubbed his head against his leg.

The hall was restless as they waited for the strangers to finally arrive. When they finally came, Andrew saw that the Old Nan's myth about Moat Cailin came true only that the ghost he saw that night was not of the old northmen who died here but of a boy from his childhood in Braavos. 

"Asher," it was not him who said the words but Lord Gregor Forrester. "What are you doing here?"

Asher Forrester gave a stiff nod to his father. "Father," he said and turned to Andrew. His friend went down to one knee and the men accompanying him did likewise. "I've brought the Company of Rose for his grace and some old friends as well."

"Edgar," Lord Dustin said and rushed to a boy behind Asher. 

"Bill Fucking Dustin," the Greatjon announced with a laugh that filled the hall, "its so good to see that sour old face of yours once again before you die."

"I'm not biting the dust before you do, Umber," the old man said with a matching laugh and hugged the Greatjon.

Before him Asher was still on one knee. Andrew was too observed with seeing his old friend and everything that was happening around that he forgot him once again. "Get up," he said gently. 

"My men are yours to command, Your Grace," Asher said, "so is my sword. Forgive me for my informalities, but you do look like you father."

"You know King Andrew?" Lord Gregor asked his son.

"We know each other, my lord," Andrew told him. "It seems so long now but I'm happy to see you and your men. Come join us."

"Do you require any refreshments?" Andrew asked them as they took their seats.

"We do, my lord," Asher said. "We've been riding hard for days."

Andrew pushed the flagon of wine on the table to their side. The men with his friend looked well worn out tired and could do with some good sleep.

"You're coming from White Harbor, I believe?" Andrew asked.

"Aye, Your Grace," Asher replied. "Lord Wyman sent us here."

"And I suppose you know of the fight." It was more of a statement than a question.

"Yes, sire."

Andrew unrolled the map again and frowned at it. He pondered where the hammer would fall. Rhaegar will not wait for him to move now that he's lost a dragon and a son. The Riverlands and the Vale siding with him will only enrage him. The dragon will not take the news of betrayal lightly. The Riverlands will be the first to burn, he knew. He would not want Andrew to join with allies. The Eyrie and Winterfell sat well away from the men's grasp but even they were not so far away from a dragon's grasp. 

"We cannot let the river get in between us and our allies," Andrew said once they were all settled.

"What about Jon Arryn?" Rickard Karstark asked. "Arryn will come past the crossroads. He can hold the ford."

"Lord Arryn will not make it in time," Andrew said. "The army of the crownlands is much closer than they are. Should Rhaegar's men take the river while we swing past through the Twins and make it to Riverrun it will put a river in between us and the knights of the Vale. Should we risk moving for the ford we would leave Riverrun alone for the Reach and Connington. Either way we risk losing an army and splitting our army will leave us vulnerable."

"What about Harrenhal?" his cousin asked. 

 "Harrenhal is close to the ford," Lord Beric replied. "But with Oswell Whent in Kingsguard you can't be sure of their allegiance."

"Either way Harrenhal lacks the strength to hold the rivers," Robett Glover said. 

"I can win it for you," a familiar voice broke in.

Andrew looked at Asher. His friend stood up. "I have some eight thousand strong in my company," he said. "I can hold the river until Lord Arryn arrives from the East."

That would work. If Asher could hold the ford until the Knights of the Vale arrive from the mountain road, he could move to Riverrun through the Twins without splitting his army. There will not be a barrier between them should any of them find the need for help. 

"As you wish then," Andrew said. "Get your men ready to march once they get enough rest. Hold the crossroads and let no one from the crownlands into our domains."

"I will not fail you, Your Grace," his friend said.

Andrew smiled sadly at him. He wished for more time to spend with the friend he had once lost as a boy but no matter what his wish was he could not at least until this war was over. 

"Ron," Andrew called the boy Maester Walys had given him to take care of the ravens. "Send a raven to Lord Arryn telling him of our new position."

When the ravens were sent and all the plans were done in the night and all the waiting and rest had been taken in the following days, Andrew marched his army down the neck. At the Kingsroad his host split and he saw his friend getting away from him once again. He turned back to his course and led his army southwest along the Green Fork of the Trident towards the Twins.

 

 

Chapter Text

Robert

The trumpets made a brazen blare, and cut the still blue air of dusk. Gendry was on his feet at once, scrambling for his hammer and dagger. 

The boy has good instincts. Maybe he has not made a mistake by bringing him to war like he thought he was. His wife would tell him otherwise. The way she objected to his intent, he had thought that she was sure that he was taking the boy away from her to kill him. Even the boy's own wife hadn't objected as much. Jon's daughter sent Gendry away with a long hug and a longer kiss. "Enemies in cover don't blow trumpets to herald their arrival," Robert told him. "You don't need your weapon now. That'll be our allies" 

The riders were dismounting when he emerged from his tent; half a dozen knights, and twoscore mounted archers and men-at-arms. "Lord Robert," said a tall man clad in a blue mailcoat and a fox-fur cloak. "Hope we are not so late." 

"Not at all," Robert said. Lord Selwyn Tarth climbed down his horse and took off his helm. The tangled yellow thicket atop his head was matted down by the helm he was removing. His cheeks were smooth and clear, clean shaven like Robert had once been long before when Ned was still alive. Below the long, yellow eyebrows a pair of lively blue eyes as clear as sapphires watched the camp surrounding him closely. "Did you have any trouble on your way?" 

"Nothing but the usual." For a man who looked so tall and hard, Selwyn Tarth sounded oddly gentle. Even his gaze was gentle. "The sea was a bit rough as it is always in autumn." He handed his helm to a squire and pushed his fingers through his hair where the weight of the steel had crushed it down. "But nothing that we haven't seen before." He clasped Robert by the arms. Behind him was a knight is blue steel armor, a bit taller than Robert himself. His steel was a deep cobalt, his mount barded in the quartered sun-and-moon heraldry of House Tarth. The Evenstar took a step back and bid the knight come closer. "My lord, my daughter, Brienne."

The knight in the blue armor took her helm off and bowed her head. "Lord Robert," she said, her broad homely face showing no emotions.  The hair beneath the helm was a squirrel's nest of dirty straw. Robert nodded.  A big strong woman to look at her, dressed in mail and plate and wears longsword and dagger, he had not expected to see someone like her there. So this is the girl, Renly spoke so much of.  A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Back when Robert had been in the Eyrie with Jon and Ned, a singer had once told them that all maids looked lovely in silks. He pictured her in one of Cersei's silken gowns in place of her blue steel armor but somehow she looked awkward in that unlike the armor. The woman seemed more comfortable in her armor than he thought she would. Robert watched her eyes. Pretty eyes, he thought, and calm. He could hear the murmuring of the men all around him.

"Well met, Lady Brienne," he replied, his voice carrying over the camp. He could see that calling her a lady was making her uncomfortable. "My brother spoke of your skill and valor."

He never knew if what Renly spoke of her was true or not, but to wear a armor and carry a sword against men that act itself deserved respect. Looking at the woman, Robert idly remembered his own daughter. Argella might've worn a sword if Cersei was not so deadbeat on taking it away from her. But even as a girl his daughter preferred her bow over swords or other heavy weapon. He was sure that she would like this Lady Tarth without a doubt. Where other women might look down upon Brienne for her lack of beauty, Robert could not think of a reason why his daughter might do so. She might not, he thought, not his daughter, not the girl who begged him so hard to knight her and passed her knightly trials by clearing all the crabapples from the biggest tree in his woods with her arrows before any his harvesters could clear off the other smaller trees with each tree serviced by four of them. She is likely to ride with Brienne and take that road for her life. 

By then his lords had all come from their tents. All greeted Lord Selwyn with a smile but most of them only had scowls and glares for his daughter but none dared to say anything about the matter when their lord himself had welcomed her to their camp. "Lets go inside," he said. "We need to talk."

Inside the brazier was already lit and the cook was mulling wine for them, stirring the kettle with a spoon. "I need to know what I can expect to find at Griffin's Roost," Robert asked. 

Guyard Morrigan shrugged. It was him who held the command here before Robert relieved him of it. "Connington has sent the letters all throughout our lands. It is the Hand's doing. He hoped that we would answer his call to come against you. Our scouts say that Ronald sits inside the castle, probably has a good host around him." Robert seated himself upon a camp stool and his lords followed him. "He must have no idea that we've camped up here. If we attacked them by the night we can take them unawares." 

"Is that wine hot yet?" Robert asked the cook. 

"Yes, m'lord." The cook replied and served the wine on a golden platter, another one of Cersei's bloody things in my warcamp. Damn that woman. Robert pulled off his gloves and took a cup. The platter circled the tent and when everyone had taken one it returned back. Gendry denied his cup and the one was returned by the cook.

Robert lifted his own cup and took a swallow. The warmth spread through his chest. "And Jon Connington?" 

"The lord Hand is enjoying the privelages of being the Hand of the King more than he does as the Lord Paramount of the Stormlands," said Lord Ralph Buckler. "He is too busy doing his grace's work that he could not even come home to gather his army."

"More like he is afraid to do so," Bryce Caron replied. 

"Ronald is not as stern as Jon Connington," said Lord Fell. "Why don't we try to treat with him?"

"Ah, it'll be a waste of time," replied Lord Gulian Swann. "Ronald Connington has barred the gates ever since word from the north came to him. He'll not yield. He thinks the dragons will come to his rescue if we betrayed him."

"Have you tried to treat with him?" Robert asked.

"Lord Fell did. Rode up to the castle gates under the peace banner and your own standard," Bryce Caron said. "Ronnet Connington appeared on the ramparts long enough to say that he would not waste his words on lesser beings when he has dragons guarding his back." 

"Very well, then. I'll treat with them," said Robert. "If that doesn't goes to plan we storm the castle." If he could end this thing as quick as possible, he could march north soon enough.

"You are welcome to try, my lord, but I doubt that words will win the day," Caron said. "We need to storm the castle." 

There had been a time, not so long ago, when Robert would doubtless have urged the same course. But he knew he could not sit here for two years to starve the castle out. "Whatever we do needs to be done quickly," he told his lords. "The quicker Connington is dealt with the better so we can march north."

"I cannot waste any time," Robert said. "Tyrell is pushing his army forth to the Riverlands, if he should turn east and block the stormroad for us, we'll get stuck here. And I cannot march north leaving Connington unchecked in my rear. Griffin's Roost must be dealt with before we can march north and it must be done soon."

"Ronnet Connington is the true power holding the Connington army," said Lord Wylde. "We take him and his army down, Griffin's Roost is done with it." 

"But we try to take it down without a fight," Robert said. "If that doesn't work, then we'll storm the castle." That put an end to their war council. As soon as they were done with the council, Robert led his army south towards the ancestral seat of the Conningtons. 

The last part of their journey to Griffin's Roost was cold and gusty with the smell of rain in the air. The wind rattled amongst the branches in the wide green woods and let the soft murmur of the brooks here and there, clear as a crystal, rode forth along with it. It was late afternoon when they sighted Grifin's Roost. The castle rose from the shores of Cape Wrath, on a lofty crag of dark red stone surrounded on three sides by the surging waters of Shipbreaker Bay. Its only approach was defended by a gatehouse, behind which lay the long bare ridge the Conningtons called the griffin's throat. To force the throat could be a bloody business, since the ridge exposed the attackers to the spears, stones, and arrows of defenders in the two round towers that flanked the castle's main gates.

"Set camps surrounding the castle," Robert said. "No one is to leave." 

"Lord Selwyn," he called, "They will try to send out ravens," he told the Evenstar. "Watch the maester's tower. Here." He pointed to the tower on the castle. "Bring down every bird that leaves the castle."

"Aye, my lord," he said.

Their camps surrounded the castle from all three sides, only leaving the shores of Cape Wrath free for any man inside the castle to dare cross the treacherous waters of the narrow sea. Robert split his host into three great camps sealing the castle away from any help through the land.

"My lord," Newt asked, "where do you want your tent?" 

"There, upon that rise." He pointed with his right hand. "Baggage there, horse lines there. We'll use the land and woods to our advantage. Noye, inspect our perimeter with an eye for any weaknesses." Robert did not anticipate an attack, but he had not forgotten the dragons as well. 

Robert beckoned to Stefon Staedmon. "Shake out a peace banner and bear a message to the castle. Inform Ronald Connington that I would have words with him, as evening falls over his castle today. I will come to his gates and meet him on his gatehouse." 

At dusk, when there camp was set around, Silveraxe Fell blew the warhorn to announce their arrival to the castle folk. The sound of the warhorn brought a griffin to the gatehouse but it was not the one Robert has wanted to parley with. It was Ronnet Connington who came to the gatehouse to parley with him not his father Ronald.

His armor was red and polished to a high sheen that it shone in the dying evening light. Robert did not know if he was called as Red Ronnet because of the red armor or the equally bright red hair and beard. Over it he covered himself in a hooded red cloak as he waited in his gatehouse flanked by dozens of archers. 

Jon Connington had no love for Robert, he knew that. But this Ronnet or the father in whose place he was here were only holding the castle hoping that the dragons will come and save them. Robert himself brought only his son to treat with Connington while the bulk of the force stood yards behind waiting, knights in their shining armors and a dozen banners flapping hoping to tell Connington that there was no hope. 

He drew up a yard from the gatehouse, and looked up to Connington. "Lord Robert," said Red Ronnet. 

"Ser Ronnet," he responded politely. 

"I assume you have come to honor your duty to House Connington," Ronnet said. "As I recall, you and those men you've brought with you were the vassals of Griffin's Roost." 

"I hope not," Robert said. "Trust and oaths mean little more than shit to your king as he proved it in Starfall. Why should I honor them?"

"Pity. Do you wish to betray your king again, my lord? Have you forgotten what happened to your dear friend." 

Don't you bring him up, you bastard. "I have not forgotten it and never will I," Robert said. "I intent to say that to your king as well." 

"You best make it quick, my lord lest you never get your chance." 

Oh, I will get my chance or else I will make mine own. Don't you worry about it. "I came to speak of the loyalty of your castle and father, not of what is mine to the king." 

"Why then, you have wasted your time." Beneath his red brows, Connington's eyes were watching for any threats. "My father holds this castle for our cousin, the lord Hand Jon. Our fealties extend to our overlord and House Targaryen unlike those traitors who stand behind you." 

You are a bloody fool. The moment that I'm done with you here those dragons will not even pay you a second look. "We don't have to cause any more bloodshed in our own lands," Robert said. "We can prevent our men from dying . . ."

"If we yield our castle to you," Connington gave a sly smile, "if we turned traitors and oathbreakers like those lords who stand with you. If we became a rebel and an outlaw like you and your friend."

Robert did not allow himself to be provoked. "Rhaegar gave me no choice but to choose between a block or the black. I'm giving you a better bargain than you could have hoped for."

Ronnet Connington smiled a sly smile. "You do not lack for gall, my lord. You should have known better than to take up arms against the king if you do not wish to end up like your friend." 

I know what choice they gave for Ned, you stupid. "I don't want more bloodshed on my lands. Strike your banners and open your gates and I'll grant your men their lives. If you wish to remain at Griffin's Roost you may do so. I will not have you taking up arms against me or any of mine." 

Connington narrowed his eyes. "As much tempting as the offer is, I think I'll pass. When the dragons come sweeping over you, all that would be left of you are char and ash." 

Damn the bloody stupid. "There is a quicker way to decide the matter. A single combat. You against me but if you're not brave enough to cross paths with me send me your champion." 

"Why would I do that?" Red Ronnet laughed. "I'm here safe behind the walls of my castle. Why should I come out to face you when all I need is to wait for dragon to come and burn you all alive." 

"Oh, you don't have to wait that long," Robert reminded him. "If you will not yield the castle, I must storm it. Hundreds will die." 

"Hundreds of mine. Thousands of yours. Good luck trying to get past the Griffin's throat," Ronnet said. "You might have twenty times the men I have, my lord. But twenty times the men require twenty times the food. How well are you provisioned, my lord?" 

"Well enough to sit here till the end of days if need be, whilst you starve inside your walls." He told the lie as boldly as he could and hoped his face did not betray him. Let him think I'm going to sit here for a siege.

"As you say, my lord," replied Connington. "Our own supplies are ample, though I fear we did not leave much in the fields for visitors."

"So be it," Robert said. "When the sun sets, your castle shall fall." He did not wait for a reply and turned his horse's head about for the long ride back to his camp. 

"Should we prepare for the siege father?" asked his son. 

"No," Robert said. "I meant it. Griffin's Roost will fall this night and a siege is not going to do that. Assemble a war council. You should get your hammer now." 

They gathered quickly. Lord Fell and Grandison and Cafferan and Estermont and Errol and Wylde and Swann and Caron and Tarth and Staedmon and Selmy and Buckler and the others came to his tent at once. Even the lady Brienne accompanied her father in dressed in her blue steel armor. 

"Connington will not give up the castle," Robert said. "So we have a castle to win before we can march north. Connington believes that I will sit here forever in siege but I plan to storm the castle." 

"Storm the castle at once," urged Lord Bryce Caron. "That will teach him a lesson, it may move the garrison to yield." 

"We need some rams and other things." said his grandfather, old lord Estermont, the Lord of Greenstone. "Griffin's Roost is small, but strong."

Gulian Swann inclined his head to look at the map on the table. "We have to storm the walls before they could even know we're there. We have a ram to break the gate, some scaling ladders, take that gate down and Griffin's Roost is ours." 

"Storming the walls will be a bloody business," Robert said. "Especially when doing it through the Griffin's Throat. Surprise is our asset here. Connington thinks I'm going to sit and starve him out so he will not expect an attack coming. I will lead the attack. We take the ram, break the gates down, destroy Connington's army and take the castle." 

"But, my lord, the defenders from the throat," hesitated Lord Staedmon. 

"We'll use shields to cover our heads," Robert said. "The best of the archers from the marches and the Sapphire Isle will fall in with the main host. When the defenders stop to reload, we open our shields and make way for the archers to clear them. I want someone to take command of the ram, to keep it safe until its purpose is done."

"I will do it," Gendry said at once and all the eyes in the tent turned to look at his son.

"My lord, its too dangerous," said Gulian Swann. "Let me send one of my sons. It will. . ." 

"It will not make it any less dangerous," replied his son. He turned to him. "Let me take command of the ram, father." 

"I'll accompany Lord Gendry," Lady Brienne volunteered. 

"So will I," said Ser Balon Swann, the younger son of Lord Gulian.

Robert looked down at the map once again. "As you wish," he said at last. "Check your armor and weapons, you'll be meeting with resistance. We attack at night."

As the last light of the sun faded, Red Ronnet's men stared into the gathering darkness, clutching their spears and crossbows. Robert led the bulk of the forces towards the gatehouse, arranged five men for each row, each carrying a shield to protect themselves and the formation of their army from the defenders above. The sentries were the first to fall, his archers making quick work of them. Whatever bow the archers from the marches carried, all of them were sharp-eyed, as skilled using it as his daughter was. They proved it at Griffin's Roost. All the arrows that took flight from his men found a target at the men on the walls. 

The gatehouse where he had parleyed with Ser Ronnet earlier that day was the first to fall. And it fell within minutes. Before them went the rolling ram; a tree trunk with a fire-hardened point suspended on chains beneath a wooden roof. Robert could see his son flanked by Lady Brienne and Ser Balon Swann and his company of forty to guard the ram moving close with it. 

His men were halfway up the throat before a warhorn sounded the alarum from the castle proper.

The first raven took flight as their grapnels were arcing above the curtain wall and their ladders were taking stand all along the walls, the second a few moments later. Neither bird had flown a hundred yards before an arrow took it down. Soon guards emerged from both the towers flanking the main gate and then arrows and brick and all the other kind of things flew onto them.

"Shields up," Robert's voice carried through to the long column of his army.

Together as if it was one long arm, his men locked shields over their head. A dozen things thudded against their cover but none managed to penetrate. When he could feel nothing for a moment he saw that this was his chance. "Archers," he shouted and his men opened their shields to make way for the archers. Dozens of arrows took flight as one, their thrum echoed by the sound of men dying.

"Back to formation," Robert said again and their shields fell back to lock into the places. The main gate proved harder to break than the outer one. For a moment Robert thought to climb onto the walls through a ladder a open the gates from the inside. He might want to clear the towers though else that will leave his army exposed. Suddenly he saw Gendry climbing one of the ladders with Lady Brienne and Ser Balon following closely behind him. His men were putting up other ladders as well. Swords were soon ringing in half a dozen places along the battlements. The men of his son's company clambered through the merlons and raced along the wallwalks, shouting "Storm's End! Storm's End!" He spied Gendry knocking off a knight from the wall, though by the way his son's hammer caught the man's head Robert could swear that he died before his body touched the ground. Behind him, his company was overwhelming the Connington men-at-arms. Ser Balon's morningstar was finding enemies left at right. Lady Brienne for all her part was passing through grown men as if they were little children playing with sticks. 

That was not enough though, Robert knew. Connington must have a big host around him inside the walls. They cannot fight them with some forty men. Just like that, the gate gave way as his men inside unbarred it. The ram took one last swing, bigger than all the ones before and wood and iron alike splintered. 

"Ours is the fury," Robert roared and pushed forward. His men took up the cry and followed. He dropped the shield and took his hammer from his back. The first blow from his hammer sent a guardsman flying into the broken gate, though he could not say if he died after hitting the gate or if he died even before hitting the gate.

Inside the walls there was no end for foes. The night air was filled with the rattle of armor, the scrape of swords on scabbards, the banging of spears on shields, mingled with curses and the hoofbeats of racing horses. A torch sailed spinning above his head, trailing fingers of fire as it thumped down in the dirt of the yard. 

Shouts of Baratheon and Connington swept through the air.  When four men assaulted him at the gate with axes and swords, Robert fought them all at once. He smashed in the face of a man with his hammer, drove the spike through the skull of another. When the third one hacked his sword at his head, Robert blocked it haft of his hammer and kicked him hard, sending him back to the ground. He ducked beneath the axe of the other one and shattered his knee before killing him by cracking his skull. By the time he searched for the third man whom he had kicked he was lost to him in the commotion.

All around him, steel shadows were running through the castle, firelight shining off mail and blades but Robert only had eyes for Red Ronnet Connington on his horse in the far end of the yard fending of two men and running his horse through one. The night rang to the clash of steel and the cries of the wounded and dying. He knocked the helm off a knight before breaking his face with his hammer.

His men were overwhelming the defenders of Griffin's Roost. Robert pushed for Connington. His hammer broke bones and armor alike as he smashed his way through the Connington men. He found Red Ronnet still on his horse hacking his sword wildly at anyone who comes near him. Robert slung his hammer behind his back and drew the hunting knife Jon had given him as a boy. He charged into Connington's flank, stabbing his mount through the ribs into its lungs.

The horse gave a harsh whinny and reared sending Connington to the ground and dropped down dead on the ground. When Red Ronnet Connington looked up at him from the ground the battle was all done around them. What guards remained had thrown down their weapons. Red Ronnet gave one last try to slay him and raised his sword up. Robert brought his hammer in backhanded swing and sent the sword flying from his grasp. Connington fell down again, clutching his forearm to his chest. "I yield," he said, scared. "Mercy, my lord."

Robert brought the hammer down and the castle yard was filled with the victory cry of his men all around him. And quick as that, the day was theirs. 

"Ser Braendan," he said after the wounded were taken to the maester's tower and the dead were cleared, "go through the keep and kitchens and roust out everyone you find. Noye, do the same with the maester's tower and the armory. Ser Deacon, the stables, sept, and barracks. Bring them out into the yard, and try not to kill anyone who does not insist on dying. I will not have more blood shed in the stormlands."

"Consider it done, my lord," said Ser Braendan Wylde.

Robert watched them dash off, then beckoned to Rippert Errol. "Take charge of the rookery and the maester. I'll have messages to send out tonight."

He saw Gendry walking towards him with a man with the same red hair of Red Ronnet. The gold and black armor of his son was stained with blood. Brienne of Tarth and Balon Swann flanked him and the others followed. It looked as if he had not even lost a single man in the company he had taken inside the castle to open the gates for them. 

Even Robert himself was impressed by his victory. Ronnet Connington had promised that thousands of his men would die before taking Griffin's Roost but Robert had done it with the loss of less than thirty men. He had promised Connington that his castle will fall tonight and he was glad he kept his promise unlike Red Ronnet.

"Father," Gendry announced, "the castellan of Griffin's Roost."

"My lord," Ronald Connington fell to his knees. 

"Do you swear your fealty and sword to me now, my lord?" he asked.

"I do," Ronald said. "My lord."

"Get up," Robert said, "as lord of Griffin's Roost then. Jon Connington is nothing to me, no more than Rhaegar is. You are no longer the castellan but the lord of this castle. As a penalty for your defiance certain lands will be taken away from you. If you accept my proposal then we can enter the castle together as allies."

Ronald Connington looked confused for a moment. Then he took a step back. "Griffen's Roost is yours, my lord of Storm's End," he said at last. Robert smiled knowing that he had secured the Stormlands once and for all.