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A Place of No Return

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Had Hoster Tully himself not insisted on making the trip to the inn with him, Brandon would have left much farther in the day. It was only a few hours’ ride from Riverrun to the Crossroads, one he could finish in two, and it meant it would be late enough in the day to throw back some drinks before escorting that blasted wedding party back to Riverrun. Had his own father not been among the wedding party, Brandon may have slept the day in as the lesser men escorted themselves to Riverrun. Yet Lord Rickard himself had come, and among the band were a few lords, the most esteemed among them Elbert Arryn, various members of Winterfell’s guard, and of course, his fickle little sister.

He knew she only came along for the sake of adventure; she didn’t get out of Winterfell nearly as much as she liked, and he had blathered on about the Riverlands enough to pique her interest. No doubt she would pester him to show her around the very second they arrived in Riverrun, but Brandon didn’t mind being pestered by her. Soon enough she too would be married, and he wouldn’t be able to hear her chattering anymore. The honor will belong to Robert Baratheon, gods damn him.

This thought, as it often did, put him in a foul mood. He distracted himself by sharpening his blades out on the balcony of the room that had been provided for him. The air that passed over the riverbanks was pleasantly cool on his face and body, the latter still largely undressed, and the smell of muggy water was a refreshing change from the sharp tang of ice that often greeted him in mornings at Winterfell. Even so, Brandon was anxious to return north; it seemed no matter the scenery, Winterfell always found a way to call him home.

To avoid being fetched by a servant like a misguided child, Brandon donned his riding clothes and trudged down to the entrance of the castle to meet his chaperones. Lords Hoster Tully and Brynden Tully appeared poised to leave, a nearly identical flash of irritation passing over their faces upon catching sight of him. It was a wonder that they were able to stand so close when they had been quarreling like feral dogs just a day ago; Brynden had threatened to leave Riverrun before the wedding, but it seemed that something had happened to make him change his mind. Brandon wondered what it was like to have a brother that he disagreed with so intensely; both of his were quiet and soft-spoken. Even with Lyanna, their quarrels always stemmed from a light ribbing before descending into a madness that only transpired due to their headstrong natures. Yet everything between them was resolved within a day; the Tully brothers appear to hold onto grudges for much, much longer.

“Are you prepared to leave?” Hoster asked, shifting impatiently to his other foot. “The horses are saddled. It would be best to arrive early at the inn.”

“My lords, there is no reason for you two to accompany me,” Brandon insisted, trying once again to deter them from supervising him like wet-nurses who hovered over their charge. “The wedding party is not large enough to bother you both with it.”

“Aye, I suppose we can both sit on our arses and twiddle our thumbs before you came back,” Brynden Tully, the one they called Blackfish, replied with a half-smile. “We may not be as young as you, my lord, nor are we so old that we cannot spare time for a simple ride.”

“Let’s get on with it then, hm?” Hoster added hardly before his brother had finished his sentence. He was clearly both impatient and still cross with the Blackfish.

Swallowing another protest, Brandon resigned himself to his fate. His squire, Ethan Glover, was more enthusiastic about the situation, grinning as he greeted Brandon and set off to double check that the horses carried the essentials-- “the essentials” largely being enough skins of wine to make the conversation along the road more bearable.

He had made it out to the threshold, prepared to climb atop his horse when someone called his name: “Lord Brandon!” It was a high, feminine voice, and one that Brandon would need to get used to hearing for the rest of his life. He turned to see his caller.

“My lady,” he greeted Catelyn with a bow. “Have you come to see me off?”

Even now, dressed in a simple green gown, dark auburn hair in a plait down her back, his betrothed looked beautiful. Her wide blue eyes suited her fair, unblemished face, and her pretty head sat well on her rather shapely body. She had freckles that were visible on her collarbone and darted down in between her breasts. Brandon was always fond of freckles.

“I have, my lord,” she responded with a smile. “You have not left, and yet still I anxiously await your return.” Her voice was soft and lighter than Ashara’s sultry breaths or Barbrey’s low tones. It was the voice of a true southron lady, wrapped in sweetness and practiced courtesy.

There was only so much Brandon could do or say when Catelyn’s father and uncle stood by, watching and no doubt listening too. “I shall not be long, my lady,” he assured her with his easy smile, one a woman once described as devilish. “We will be wed on my return.” He closed that sentiment with a kiss upon her slim hand, and she accepted it with a pretty blush.

It seemed even the Lords of Tully approved of the exchange, as both were smiling atop their horses. Brandon climbed atop his own stallion and clicked his tongue twice, urging it into a trot. It was not long before Hoster pulled up beside him, poised to speak.

“When I go off, no matter how long that may be, I always find my Cat waiting for me at the gates, ready to leap into my arms,” the man recalled fondly, though Brandon had already begun to push his voice to the back of his mind, and the sound of his horse’s hooves to the front of it. “You’ll see when we return. She will run down and leap into my arms-- or your arms, perhaps. It is not entirely improper, as you two will be wed on the morrow…”

His horse huffed, and Brandon bit his tongue to keep from doing the same.

 


 

It was midday when Brandon’s party arrived at the Crossroads Inn. He had half expected to see the place fit to burst with his wedding guests, yet the main floor appeared to be surprisingly empty, missing even his sister, Lyanna. His father explained the marked absences briefly.

“Your sister demanded to see the Isle of Faces this morning,” Lord Rickard said gruffly, his displeasure made known by the way he referred to Lyanna as your sister. “She said she had come this far, and wished to make the pilgrimage. I sent a few men to escort her there, and they shall continue to Riverrun afterwards.”

“The Isle of Faces?” Brandon asked, furrowing his brows. “What would she want with that?”

“How should I know?” His father had answered abruptly.

Brandon chose to end the conversation at that; travelling clearly didn’t suit his father’s old bones, a fact proven further as the older men lagged behind on their horses, exchanging lordly conversation and gossip. Brandon led the group back toward Riverrun, with the amiable Elbert Arryn at his side. He was a young man, exceedingly plain of face with a head that had already begun to bald at the crown of it. He was also heir to the Vale, nephew to the much older Jon Arryn, whom Ned had been fostered under.

They had some things in common; both were the heirs to a kingdom, for one, though for Elbert it had been by chance, and for Brandon it was by destiny. Both enjoyed a good hunt. Both also drank a skin of wine each.

They spoke on and off about their respective homes (’Only an Arryn could love the Vale, I think,’ Elbert admitted), and Brandon laughed about his siblings while Elbert wondered how it might be to have siblings of his own, looking up to him and admiring him (’Admire? Ha! Most of the time, they throw me dirty looks while Lya whaps me on the shoulder’). On the topic of women, the lord fell rather silent (’What, have you no taste for cunt?’ ‘It’s not that, my lord, I just… Do not like to talk about it’), while Brandon was given time to internally reminisce on the lovely women he had known.

“You are much different than your brother,” Elbert had commented at one point along the ride. “Eddard is rather… quiet, I suppose.”

Brandon laughed at the familiar comment. Even Ashara had told him as much, the day after the night they spent together: Did you steal all the fire in your mother’s womb, and leave none for the brother who came after?

“Aye, so I’ve been told,” Brandon returned with a grin. “‘Tis his nature. Saved my father from a number of headaches.”

“As your sister contributed to them?” The young lord returned with a chuckle. “Lady Lyanna never seemed to be where Lord Stark wanted her to be.”

“Is there something wrong with that?” Brandon asked sharply, giving Elbert a warning look. The other man noticed, and shook his head quickly.

“Not at all-- It was rather endearing, in some respects. I’d imagine she’d need to be a little wild for her betrothed.” This second reminder of Robert Baratheon sinks his mood again. “Robert is certainly… a handful.”

Brandon ignored this, far from desirous of a conversation about the ill-reputed lord. It still grated on his nerves that his father would promise his sister to such a man; she surely deserved better than a whoring, reckless bull of a man that lived across the kingdom. Thinking on it only riled the rage inside him, while thinking of how she would no longer be a permanent figure at Winterfell saddened him greatly. He wished now that she hadn’t gone to the Isle, that he could be riding with her now, the two urging their horses on in a close race, her laugh carried by the wind.

Missing a meeting with her was an itch that Brandon could not scratch. Lyanna often liked to play at coldness and brevity, but their reunions were always warm. If Hoster had Catelyn to rush into his arms, as the man had recalled multiple times throughout the trip, then Brandon had Lyanna to wait at the gates of Winterfell and rain down kisses upon his face. He could not recall a single time that she did not greet him as such after an absence, and the thought sat as a thorn in his side.

More than anything, he wanted to tell her of the duel he had a fortnight past. The thought of it put a wicked smile on his face; that little man they called Petyr Baelish had been dressed in half a suit of armor and could hardly raise his sword above his waist which he challenged him for Catelyn’s hand. Brandon had taken his own armor off, pitying the boy enough to give him something of an advantage. Yet, it had still been far too easy-- the boy was stubborn, no doubt, and despite how much blood Brandon spilled, he had refused to yield. I should have killed him quickly, the thought greeted him now, as it did at the time. It would have been a mercy. Had it not been for his betrothed’s soft heart, he might have killed the boy and been done with it.

He nearly did-- in the thick of the fight, with the sight of red blood muddying the riverbanks, something in Brandon had broken free. The last blow he dealt the boy was meant to be fatal; he wanted to kill him, so badly that he could taste his blood in his mouth. Catelyn-- or some woman --had screamed, and pulled him from his bloodthirst. His blow fell short; it was deep, yes, deep enough to cut through his pathetic mail and nearly carve him open from chest to navel. A little deeper, and Brandon would have found his heart, followed by his entrails, and all would have spilled out into the riverbank.

I made her a promise, Brandon recalled bitterly. I promised Catelyn I would not kill him. Perhaps I should stop letting women get the better of me. Her silk favor of pale blue was still back in his rooms at Riverrun, useless and forgotten. I should have given it to the boy as a going away present. Something to remember me by.

The sound of a rider coming from behind at a quick gallop distracts Brandon from his thoughts. He pulls on the reins to bring his horse to a stop, turning to see who it was that came at them so quickly.

It was a man slumped over on his horse, clutching at his side. He had ridden straight to Rickard, and spoke to him now; the pain he was in was evident even from Brandon’s vantage point. He urges his horse over to where the man spoke to the other lords, and watched as other men descended to help the man.

“...They were six in total, but formidable warriors, m’lord. They had us overwhelmed and took us by surprise; we are not dead, but some are gravely injured. The others have tried to ride after them. I came to report this as soon as I could.” He coughed violently, and Brandon could see blood stain that hand that gripped his side. “Prince Rhaegar-- he and two knights of the Kingsguard left before the thick of the fighting. He took m’lady with him.”

“Lyanna?” Brandon asked, his heart stopping in his chest. “The prince took Lyanna?”

The man looked over with wide eyes, surprised to see him. He nodded slowly. “He pulled her atop his horse and his men attacked the rest of us.” The man cringed, and coughed again.

Words escaped Brandon; with their flight came a fire that stole through every inch of him. He gripped his reins hard enough for the leather to bite into his skin, ground his teeth until his jaw hurt. He could see the men around him speaking still, his father looking grave as he continued to ask questions, but Brandon could hear nothing. It was as if his head were plunged underwater, all noise muffled in his ears.

In his mind’s eye, he saw Lyanna. He saw her as a girl of two, running behind him in Winterfell, as fast as her short legs would carry her. He saw her as a girl of four, crying into their mother’s skirts the morning he left to be fostered in Barrowtown. Don’t cry, Lya, I’ll come and visit, I promise, he had reassured her as he wiped her tears away. He saw her as a girl of ten, grinning down at him as she rode circles around him. I may be little, but I’m a better rider than you, she had quipped, utterly proud of herself. He saw her as he had wanted to see her now, riding beside him, teasing him about his upcoming wedding as he teased her about hers. He also saw her as she might be, right now, that very minute: his sweet sister with her body pinned to the ground beneath Rhaegar Targaryen, crying and screaming with no savior in sight.

The sound comes back to his ears in a rush.

“I will kill him,” Brandon swore; every head turned to look at him. He jumped down from his horse, hands balled into fists. “I will kill the bloody prince with my own two hands. I’ll break his fucking neck-- Where did he go? I’ll ride him down now and kill him. Where did he go? Answer me! Where--”

“Brandon!” His father’s voice boomed. “We’ll not ride him down. You will not lay a finger on him. We must deal with this through--”

“He’s laying all ten of his fingers on my sister-- your daughter!” Brandon returned loudly, beginning to see red. The thought of it, accompanied by unpleasant images, made him feel as if he were being torn at the seams. “He could be hurting her right now. Not ten leagues from here, he could be raping her-- what else would he do with her? You would have me be meek as he puts his hands on her?”

“I would have you be rational!” His father shouted in return. “It is possible that the prince is heading for King’s Landing himself. If Lyanna is with him, then she will be there as well.”

“I too would say they are headed for King’s Landing, my lord,” the rider said, eyes flickering between father and son. “The men he had with him-- men of the Crownlands, all of them. They rode off in the direction of the Kingsroad.”

“Then you must ride to King’s Landing,” his father decided, looking to him with eyes hard and dark as flint. “Alert the king of the situation, but approach him carefully, Brandon--”

“Why don’t you ride to King’s Landing? I want nothing to do with the king-- it’s Rhaegar I want. He has Lyanna!” Lyanna, Lyanna, Lyanna. His sweet sister’s name was screaming in his head, and her voice soon followed.

“For once in your life, think, Brandon! You are the faster rider, and my heir. You will go in my place. You will bring the situation to the king’s attention. Mad as he is, he cannot deny us Lyanna.”

“You call him mad in one breath and ask me to cow at his feet in the next?”

“Brandon,” his father warned.

“Does your daughter’s honor mean nothing to you?” Brandon laughed mirthlessly at this dark joke. “Nay, it cannot, for you have promised her to a whoring, blustering, witless--”

“BRANDON!” His father’s thunderous voice rends the very air around them, sucking the breath out of Brandon’s words. “You will do as I say. You will ride to King’s Landing, notify the king of what has been taken from us, and wait for justice to run its course.”

But he can deny us justice, can’t he? Brandon fumed internally, begrudgingly accepting the task, but not the method. If Rhaegar was there, then Brandon had no intention of exchanging words when only blows would do. He would kill the prince in his own home, smile as his blood stained the walls of the Red Keep an even darker red. I will see to justice myself.

“Very well, father. I’ll ride to King’s Landing,” Brandon said through gritted teeth. “I’ll ride there, and bring her home.”

And while I’m there, I’ll smash Rhaegar’s pretty face in and make a crown out of his broken teeth.

“I’m glad to hear it,” his father returned gruffly, appearing only a little embarrassed at the row they had before all these other men. “You should take some men with you.”

“I will go, my lord,” Elbert Arryn said. “I will represent the Vale in this matter. My squire, Lord Kyle Royce, shall come along.”

“I too will accompany him,” Ethan announced. “I would follow my Lord Brandon into any dragon’s pit.”

“My lords, I think this is a rash action,” Lord Hoster spoke up, so far the only voice of dissent. “Come back to Riverrun. Let us discuss this matter when our heads are cooled; to rush this may be a great folly.”

“We’ve already wasted enough time,” Brandon shot back, uncaring of how harsh his tone was. “I will not see Riverrun again until my sister is safe again.” And Rhaegar’s head hanging from my saddlebags.

“I think you will be making a grave mistake, my lord,” Hoster returned cautiously, looking to Rickard. “There is no telling what young Lord Brandon may do, even with good intention.”

“Send one of your trusted men along with him then, Lord Hoster,” Rickard returned, unmoved. “Let him try to bring reason to the king, and to my son.”

The pair exchanged a heavy look before Hoster grimaced, and shook his head. “Very well.” He turned to his men. “Which of you would--”

“Just a moment, brother,” Blackfish spoke up. Brandon nearly had a mind to throttle him for making matters go on even longer. “I fought alongside our king when he was but a squire-- that was a long time ago. From what I hear, he has changed much since then. We cannot look at him as an ally. If his son has taken away the Lady Lyanna, then we must see the father as our enemy too.”

“Aerys has little love for his son,” Rickard pointed out gruffly. “Rhaegar has worked against him in private ever since he had married Elia Martell. He will not defend his son in this matter, especially when he has taken one of our own.”

“Aye, but he is mad, my lord, as you have said yourself,” Blackfish returned. “You do not know what kind of mood your son may find him in when he rides into King’s Landing. You do not know which of young Brandon’s words will rub him the wrong way; the boy is full of fire, and full of love for his sister. That much is clear to me. I do not think sending him as an envoy to King’s Landing is a solution.”

“It is my daughter’s honor at stake, and my son whom I send. I do not care to hear another solution.”

“Very well, my lord, go about it a woman’s way if you wish. Send men kneeling at his feet and flashing their pretty smiles to get a mad king to sway.” The Blackfish was mocking them, Brandon realized, and it grated on him almost as horribly as it grated on his father.

“A woman’s way?” Rickard shouted in return. “Diplomacy is not a woman’s tool. Negotiating is not a woman’s trade.”

“A man would ride to save his daughter, not beg a king to do it for him,” Brynden said before nodding his head in Brandon’s direction. “Your son has a man’s fire. He would rather ride down the one who took his sister than paw at the king’s robes. Let him.”

A tense silence passes over the men, one marked by the harsh set of his father’s jaw.

“I want to gut the bastard,” Brandon said aloud. He did not think of how treasonous his words were, how quickly they could earn him his death. He could only think of Lyanna. “What can I do to see that it is done, and quickly?”

“See, my lord. Your son cannot be sent to King’s Landing with his tongue so free,” Blackfish pointed out to his father. “I should like to insist on a different tactic.”

“Speak, then. Say it quickly,” his father returned, clearly displeased but seemingly convinced by Blackfish’s words.

“Lord Brandon is a good rider. I will take him myself, along with other men, to scout the area; if Prince Rhaegar is headed to King’s Landing, then we will track his movements and be sure of his course. We must entertain the idea that he may head elsewhere; if we keep him in our sights, it would make matters easier to bring him to justice in a swift manner, should the king be unsure of his son’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, you,” he nodded towards Rickard. “Shall ride to King’s Landing, but not before you remain in Riverrun a little longer. A slower pace may be a boon to our cause, before we learn of Rhaegar’s plans. Perhaps the matter can even be settled before we take it to the king.”

“I think my brother’s plan is sound,” Hoster said, though by the look on his face, it seemed to displease him that he found himself in agreement with him. “Though I question whether or not it is wise to send Lord Brandon as part of the scouting party.”

Brandon nearly snorted. “I am not an animal, to be spoken about in front of me like I cannot understand. I am a man, and better rider than all of you. I will search for my sister and bring her back, or I will die in the attempt.” 

“There will be no death, Brandon,” his father warned with dark eyes. “If you value your sister’s life, you will see to it that not a hair on Rhaegar’s head is harmed.”

Blood must have blood, Brandon mused, keeping this dark thought to himself. Blood on my sister’s thighs will mean blood on my sword, make no mistake.

Brandon smiled serenely. “As you say, father.”