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Robb Returns

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Just to clarify something - I post under the name The Dark Scribbler on FanFiction.net. On the AltHistory board I post under the name Cymraeg.

 

 

Ned

He hated the books. His father had made it look so easy, had made all the numbers dance, had been able to recall the most astonishing details of all the trade and administration of the North. But he was not his father and he hated the books, the ledgers, the endless administration. But it had to be done. The North wouldn’t run itself.

And besides you could tell what was happening when you looked at the ebb and flow of goods around the North. More trade going to Bear Island meant that the Mormonts were getting paranoid about the Ironborn again. More requests from the Wall for, well, everything, meant that the plight of the Night’s Watch was getting worse and he sighed and made another note to remind Robert that something had to be done to bolster the Wall before the Wildlings paid another visit. More complaints from the Dreadfort meant that Roose Bolton was getting worried about something. Yet more complaints from the Karstarks meant that they were getting ambitious again. Well, they all had their concerns. Winter was always coming.

Knuckles rapped on the door to his solar and he looked up. Luwin was standing in the doorway, clutching at his chain and looking concerned. “What is it Luwin?”

The older man walked in and closed the door behind him. “Your pardon for disturbing you my Lord, but I am getting very worried about Robb. Something is very wrong with him.”

Ned Stark put his quill down and straightened up from the books with a sigh. “I know, Cat and I were discussing it last night. Yet whenever I ask him what is amiss he just looks at me with that strained look and makes an excuse and hurries away, I know not where too.”

“I think I have an answer to that riddle, or at least a part of it. I just found him in the Weirwood, praying before the Heart Tree. He’s always been devout, but never have I seen him pray as fervently as I just now witnessed.”

Ned looked at him. “Did you hear his prayers?”

“A snatch of them. He was asking why he had been sent back and what he was to do now.”

“Sent back?” Ned frowned. “Sent back from where?”

“I know not. He must have heard me coming because he looked up, smiled a smile that was more a grimace and then left.” Luwin paused and then seemed to come to a decision. “I think that Robb is also the one who has been in the Library so much of late. I knew that someone was looking through the books a lot, but I did not know who until I overheard Robb muttering a piece of doggerel from the books about the Old Gods. And Old Nan told me that Robb has been pestering her for more of the old tales.”

This really took him aback. “The Old Gods? Why would he be seeking knowledge of the Old Gods?”

Luwin spread his hands in bafflement. “I know not my Lord. As I said, I am concerned.”

Ned stood and walked to the fire, where he warmed his slightly stiff hands. “Whatever is amiss with Robb, it started ten days ago. When he entered the Great Hall to break his fast.”

“I agree,” Luwin muttered. “But what could have happened?”

Ned thought back. He had been breaking his fast that morning with Cat and his family, along with Jon and Theon. Robb had been missing and he had been about to irritably order a servant to go and find his eldest son when all of a sudden he had arrived. He had looked as if he had dressed hurriedly and then run as fast as he could, because his chest was heaving. And his reaction on seeing Ned had been a strange one – he turned white as a sheet and then reeled. “Father.” He had said the word as if he had been stunned. And then looked around the table and staggered forwards to it. He had hugged Bran and Rickon (both of whom had wriggled and squirmed and protested), hugged Arya (who had gone bright red with fury) and Sansa (who had rolled her eyes) and then stood and stared again at Ned.

“Robb, are you quite well?” Cat had asked in some startlement.

“I am quite well Mother,” Robb had replied, still in that stunned tone of voice. “Father. It is good to see you again.”

Ned had frowned. “I was here last night,” he had said carefully. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

Robb paused, seemingly choked up about something and then had caught sight of Jon and Theon. A great smile had split his face at the first, followed by a murderous glare at the latter. “Theon.” He said the word in a low, equally murderous, tone that made the Greyjoy boy blink in bafflement.

Robb had then paused, collected himself visibly and then sank into his usual place, before eating quickly and as if his mind was on anything but the food. And then he had left, leaving everyone staring after him worriedly.

“Your children have been asking after him a lot, my Lord. He brushes them off, but they are as worried. He avoids Theon Greyjoy as if he is diseased. And Jory Cassel has told me that he found Robb staring from the outer wall of Winterfell in the direction of the Wolf’s Wood, muttering under his breath. And…” He broke off, obviously reluctant to speak.

“Go on Luwin,” Ned prompted. “Tell me.”

“Rodrik Cassel tells me that his fighting style has changed. He swings a sword with the eyes of a man who has fought in battle, Rodrik says, the eyes of man who has killed. And I do not doubt him. His eyes are different my Lord. He has the eyes of an older man.”

Ned Stark looked at his old friend and adviser. “I had thought that no-one else had noticed that. Had hoped it. What should I do? Every time I try to confront him he makes an excuse and leaves.”

Luwin nodded thoughtfully. “I had noticed that. I suggest that you talk to him in the Wierwood. He seeks solace there. Perhaps you can talk to him there.”

 


 

Robb

He didn’t know what to do. That was irony writ large that was. He had commanded thousands of men in battle, he had routed Lannister armies like chaff on the wind and now he was reduced to sitting in the Weirwood and thinking up mad desperate plan after mad desperate plan, only to abandon each one as impossible.

How had he gotten here? How had he gone from that cold, hard floor in Walder Frey’s banqueting chamber, feeling the life drain out of him from the various quarrels in him before the blade of Roose fucking Bolton had ended it all, to all the way back to Winterfell, before his father had gone South and died in the maze of corruption that was King’s Landing. How had it happened? Why had it happened?

It had taken a day to convince himself that he wasn’t dreaming, that this wasn’t some last mad fever-delerium before his death. That Father, and Bran and Rickon and Mother weren’t dead and Sansa a prisoner, that Arya wasn’t missing and that Jon wasn’t lost to the Wall. And as for Theon…

He scrubbed his hands through his hair roughly and forced himself to think. He had worked out that the date was about two months before the news had come of the death of Jon Arryn. There was still time to change things, if that was what he was there to do. He couldn’t imagine any other reason for whatever had happened to happen. And he had wasted ten days of precious time, one of which had been spent on the wall, trying to sense Grey Wind.

The problem was that he couldn’t think of any way to warn Father. Well, any way of warning Father that wouldn’t lead to him being confined under the tender mercies of Maester Luwin for a head injury that might explain his evident insanity in claiming to have been sent back from the future. Somehow ‘You’re going to have your head cut off by the violent little shit who thinks that he’s the son of King Robert, but who instead is the son of the Queen’s incestuous relationship with her own brother’ wouldn’t go down very well.

Very well then – a hint perhaps? Something about warning Jon Arryn that he was about to be poisoned, probably by the Lannisters? But what proof could he give, other than a tale that would make him seem insane? He didn’t know what he should do. If this was a military problem then he could think it over and come up with a solution in an instant. But it was not. This was politics – and he hated politics. It was his one weakness.

He looked at the Heart Tree. Why did he keep coming here? He had tried praying, to no avail. If the Old Gods spoke to him then he did not hear them. The books were next to useless, speaking of rumour and folk tales and old sayings. He could sense something in them though, hints left by men dead centuries ago. Tales of magic. Luwin would scorn them, but what else but magic could have brought him back? Old Nan’s tales had been no better, not really. Tales that had been told and retold down over the centuries had weakened them, drained the truth out of them. But again there were hints here and there. The Children of the Forest. The Others. Tales of dread and awe. Once they must have been words to hear and learn from. Now they were little more than empty ramblings.

Robb stood and walked to the Heart Tree. He knew, somehow, that it was important. He could feel it. Someone, something, had brought him back. Something linked to the Hearts Tree and the Old Gods. Something with power. And power needed strength. Not strength of arm, but strength of will perhaps. Belief. He needed to believe. Was that it? He knelt before the tree and then placed a hand on the bark. Who are you, he thought desperately, why have you done this? How can I persuade my family that I am not mad, that I have seen the future and how terrible it is? How can I protect my family from the storm that is coming. How can I protect the North?

Nothing happened and he faltered for a moment. And then he stopped and sent out his appeal again, from the bottom of his heart, with everything he could summon. Help me. I don’t know what to do. Help me.

The bark seemed to warm and then chill and then warm again under his hand and then something seemed to chime faintly deep within him, something that made him shiver for an instant. He closed his eyes and concentrated. I feel you. Who are you? What must I do? Tell me, please! I have to save Father! I have to protect the North!

The chiming seemed to arc upwards and he felt warm for a moment. For a dizzying instant he felt like a spark blown upwards from a fire. What was happening to him? Something seemed to be calling his name from the farthest possible distance, a thin sound right on the edge of his hearing. Who are you? Tell me how I can warn Father! Tell me what to do! Why was I sent back from the moment of my death?

And then a hand fell on his shoulder. He opened his eyes hurriedly and looked into the concerned face of his father. “Warn me about what Robb? And what’s this about your death?” He sounded horrified.

He thought desperately. That chiming was still resonating somewhere within him, less strongly now but it was still there. He had to keep it, he had to find out what had happened to him. The Heart Tree was important, he knew that now. “Father,” he said thickly, trying to make his mind work properly. He felt as if he was trying to do something impossibly difficult by instinct. “I must talk with the Old Gods. Something is trying… trying to talk to me.”

His father peered at him and then hissed in surprise. “Your eyes – there is red in them.”

Robb blinked and almost lost the chiming. No. No, he had to do this. He concentrated hard again. I am a Stark of Winterfell, he thought desperately, The blood of the First Men flows in my veins. Speak to me!

Father’s grip tightened and Robb could sense his worry, his panic. “Robb…”

“I must do this! I have to know! I need to know why I was sent back!” The chiming was stronger now, almost in time with the thundering of blood in his chest, vibrating within him.

“You’re trembling… Robb, what’s happening to you?” Father sounded out of his mind with worry now.

Show him. Robb didn’t know where the voice came from or who said the words. Instead he reached out with his free hand and took his father’s hand in a grip of iron. “Help me Father.”

And then blackness fell.

 


 

Ned

Ned found Robb in exactly the place he was hoping to – the Weirwood. His son was sitting on the ground and staring at the Heart Tree, muttering something just under his breath as he did, something that Ned just couldn’t quite make out.

He paused. He didn’t want his son to bolt again, he had to reassure him, to get him to talk. But then he watched as Robb stood and walked over to the tree and knelt before it, putting his bare hand on the bark. His lips moved as he said something under his breath. Ned took a step towards him and then he stopped. Robb had closed his eyes and was speaking again, this time a little louder. Perhaps he was unaware of the fact that he was speaking his thoughts aloud, so fierce was his face and his pose. And then Ned finally heard snatches of it as Robb raised his voice a little.

“Who are you? Tell me how I can warn Father! Tell me what to do! Why was I sent back from the moment of my death?”

Who was who? Warn him of what? And sent back from where? Death? Ned felt the blood drain from his face. This was madness. He strode over to his son, hesitated for a moment and then placed a hand on Robb’s shoulder. “Warn me about what Robb? And what’s this about your death?” He asked the questions quickly and seriously.

Robb looked up at him and Ned hissed in shock. The pupils of Robb’s eyes had taken on a strange red tint, not bloodshot but as if they had started to change to a different colour. Something sparked at the back of his head, some old tale that his great-grandfather had told him when he was just a small child. Something about the Old Gods. “Your eyes – there is red in them.”

His son seemed to return slightly but then frowned again in concentration. What was he trying to do? Well – enough he needed to call him back from wherever he was trying to go to. “Robb…”

But his son interrupted him. “I must do this! I have to know! I need to know why I was sent back!” And he was starting to shake, Ned could feel it, but if it was his muscles that were shaking or his very bones he could not tell.

“You’re trembling… Robb, what’s happening to you?”

Something happened then. The face of the Heart Tree seemed to come alive for a moment. And then Robb, in a voice that Ned had never heard from him before, grabbed his free hand and said: “Help me Father.”

Darkness appeared below him and he fell. They fell. He was too surprised to say a word and he felt something in his own bones now. Where they fell to or for how long he could never say afterwards, just that they fell. And as they fell he heard snatches of words, in the voices of Robb, Cat and others.

“Call the Banners.” “Good, that means you’re not stupid.” “Why? Why, Theon?” “We will kill them all.” “The King in the North! The King in the North!” “No. Not the Rains of Castamere.”

And then it stopped. He was in darkness, Robb was gone somewhere in that darkness and yet somehow he wasn’t afraid. And then suddenly he stood by a tree and watched as his son, dressed in plate armour as if for war, hacked at a group of tree, ruining his sword as the tears poured down his face. Ned wanted to go to him but could not – he was rooted in place as if he was a tree himself. Cat was walking towards Robb, tears on her own cheeks, but when she spoke to him Ned heard nothing. Instead he heard two voices, one old reedy and querulous and the other deep and low, like rocks grinding against each other.

“Why them? What have you done? There was a prophecy!” The first voice seemed agitated.

“It was necessary. Too much has gone wrong. Too many voices are stilled. Your plan was not enough. You have forgotten much.”

This seemed to annoy the first voice. “Forgotten what? Things were in place. The boy was finally with me! I had my replacement!”

Cat was no longer speaking to Robb, instead Robb was on horseback now, with GreatJon Umber and the pick of the North next to him. Their steeds were stamping in readiness and Ned saw Robb raise a steel gloved fist as he pointed forwards. Death and violence hung in the air and Ned could sense that men were about to die at the hand of his son. Where was this? What was this?

“Your replacement was just a part of the picture. You had forgotten that. We need the voices. We do not do this lightly. But it must be done. Otherwise the song will end and we will be no more. Prophecy can be re-written. You forgot that. And He is awake.”

The charging men on horseback passed from Ned’s sight and now he saw Robb on a field of battle, surveying the aftermath. He was pale and there were shadows in his eyes, the shadows that came from having led men into battle and seeing some of them die.

The first voice seemed to be shocked. “Impossible. I would have felt him wake.”

“He woke slowly. He was ever cunning. An animal, but even an animal can be cunning. Your ancestors lost a good man when he was… changed into what he now is. The decision has been made in any case. It was necessary. Your successor will still come to you.”

Another picture. A wedding? He could see faces that he recognised. Was that Brynden Tully? And Walder Frey, the old man who kept outliving everyone else. And Robb and Cat. Wait. Ned’s eyes widened as the first crossbow quarrel was shot into his son, who jerked wildly. No. No, this could not be.

“How long must I wait?” The first voice said the words bitterly.

“Not long.”

“Not long by your time or mine?”

“Yours.”

Another quarrel hit Robb as he tried to stand. Blood was flying everywhere now as a massacre started, as men knifed other men under the grinning gaze of the old man at the high table with the eyes of a lunatic. No. His son was dying. He had to do something to stop this.

“Very well. Who will tell them?”

“We have picked out someone.”

Another bolt. Ned wanted to scream his son’s name, wanted to get to him, wanted to upturn the tables and use them to protect him. And then he caught sight of a man standing up and walking calmly towards Robb. Roose Bolton. Ned sighed. Roose was a good man. He would save Robb. If only he would move faster. Wait – he had a knife in his hand? And his eyes… his eyes were alive in a strange mad way, with a glitter and a look that Ned had never seen before. No. No, he would not.

“Jaime Lannister sends his regards.” The knife went home. And blackness fell again.

When Ned opened his eyes again he was on his knees in a Weirwood of stone. Everything was stone, the trees, the moss, the ground. Overhead the sky was overcast. And there were statues of men everywhere, dressed in a variety of armour. Some wore skins like the hill tribes. Some wore crude armour. And some wore plate, but an ancient variety. All held grounded weapons, with their faces turned down to face the earth.

Ned stood shakily and then took an equally shaky step. “Where am I?” He might as well have asked the wind, which was present.

“In a place where words mean something,” said a voice and he turned to see an old man step out from the trees. He had to be the oldest man he had ever laid eyes on, dressed in robes like a Maester and with a simple belt around his waist. As he approached Ned swallowed. His eyes were the same colour as a Weirwood tree. “You are a Stark, are you not?”

“I am,” Ned said. “I am the Lord of Winterfell, Ned Stark.”

The old man looked him up and down and sniffed caustically. “So this is what my family has become. It is of no matter. You are a child and you have forgotten everything of consequence. A stone wolf indeed.”

Ned blinked. “You are a Stark?” he looked at the old man again. Yes, there were traces of the Stark features beneath all those wrinkles.

“One of the first,” the old man said firmly. “Words have meaning here. Names even more so. Stark. What does it mean?”

“It… it is our name,” Ned said, confused.

The old man rolled his eyes in disgust. “No. You do not see. Stark. It means plain, the plainest of possible views. We always strip things down to the basics, boy. We see things as they are. Winter is always coming. That is the strength of our house. You have let them weaken that view.”

“Them?” Ned asked, bewildered.

“The fools to the South, with their fripperies and their jealousies and their foolishness. Your eyes should be in the North. Winter is coming. And a mistake was made. Your son was not warned.”

“Robb. Where is he? I was with him in the Weirwood. What happened?”

The old man growled. “Listen to me you foolish boy! You child! Winter is coming. That is why the Old Gods brought your son back. Back from his useless death in the South, back from the foolishness that killed so many good men of the North. Death marches on the Wall. Death – and worse.”

Ned stared at the old man. Who was he? Bran the Builder? Garth Greenhand? Then he swallowed. “What could be worse than death?”

The old man smiled. “At last a good question. The Others are coming, boy. They are awake again. The North must be ready, but to do so the South must be at peace. Listen to your son and his tale of woe, listen to his tale of what went wrong. Prepare. You must be ready. They did this, they brought him back.”

Ned felt the hairs on the back of neck stand on end. He was being watched by a great number of eyes. He could sense them. “Who are ‘They’?”

The old man looked over his shoulder and then smiled. “See for yourself.” And then he faded from sight, like fog on a hot day. Ned paused for a moment, looking at the stone trees around him. And then he turned. The statues were all looking at him, their eyes filled with green fire. They were old, he could tell just by looking at them, eons old. The stone beneath him splintered and then cracked and he let out a wordless cry as he fell into the darkness again.

When he woke he was by the Heart Tree again, sprawled on the grass as if he had been sleeping. Robb was still kneeling next to him, one hand on the trunk, his eyes closed in exhaustion. Ned swallowed and then finally croaked: “Robb.”

His son jerked slightly and then opened his own eyes. “Fa-Father?”

He stood, slowly, feeling as if every muscle and bone in his body had been strained. “We must talk. Now. In my solar.”

 


 

Luwin

There was always something to be dealt with in a place like Winterfell. There were ravens to be fed, messages passed on, people’s illnesses treated and a hundred and one other things. And yet that didn’t make the worry about young Robb go away at all.

He turned a corner and then stopped dead in his tracks. Ned Stark was helping Robb down the corridor, or rather half-dragging him, with one of Robbs arms draped over his father’s shoulder. Robb’s head hung low and Luwin could not tell if he was awake or not. Judging by the stumbling feet he was suspended between awake and asleep. “My Lord!” Luwin exclaimed as he scurried over and supported Robb on his other side, draping the other arm over his own shoulders and supporting the exhausted youth. “What happened?”

“Found him in the Weirwood,” Ned gasped and Luwin looked at him sharply. The man looked as if he was exhausted himself and…

“My Lord, your eyes…”

“What of them?”

“There is a redness to them. In your pupils.”

Ned sighed. “I feared that. Hopefully it will fade. Robb will have it as well.” They reached the door to Ned’s solar, which Ned opened with one hand. They brought Robb inside, deposited him in one of the chairs and then Ned sank into his own chair with a groan. “You should see to Robb.”

Luwin was already doing that even as Ned spoke the words. He noted the weariness in his face and then gently forced one eye open. Yes, there was red in his pupil as well, but it was fading even as he looked at it. As for the rest of Robb, there were odd scratches on one hand and his knees were damp from dew. “He seems fine but totally exhausted my lord.” Then he looked at Ned. “As do you. The redness in your eyes is going, as it is in Robb’s. My Lord – what happened?”

The Lord of Winterfell passed a shaking hand over his beard and then smiled wryly before standing with a groan and crossing to the table in the corner, where he poured three goblets of wine. “Get that in him,” he commanded, “And then have some yourself. You’ll need it.” He handed the goblets over and then drank from his own.

Luwin placed the container to Robb’s lips. “Robb!” he barked. “You need to drink this. Robb! Open your eyes!”

The youth groaned like a sleepy child but then obediently opened his mouth and drank. There was more than a hint of splutter as he did so, but the wine seemed to refresh him a little. Luwin looked him over again and then sipped his own wine. “Why will I need this?”

“It isn’t every day that you hear that two people have talked with the Old Gods.” Ned said the words with the utmost seriousness as a deeply shocked Luwin stared at him.

“The Old Gods?”

Ned nodded sombrely and then looked at his son. “I found him where you suggested, Luwin, in the Weirwood. He was kneeling in front of the Heart Tree, asking it for answers. Asking how he could warn me. Asking why he was sent back from the moment…” he faltered, his voice cracking for an instant, “From the moment of his death. I thought his wits were addled Luwin. But then I saw his eyes.”

“The red was stronger?”

“Like the sap of the trees around us both in the Weirwood. And then he grabbed my hand and… I had a vision Luwin. I saw flashed of Robb in different places. In one he was leading a charge of Northern heavy cavalry, in another he was walking amidst the bodies from a battle.” Ned clenched his fists for a moment. “And I saw him die Luwin. I saw my own son die.” He choked each word out as if they hurt his mouth.

Luwin calmed his whirling thoughts with another sip of wine. “Pardon me for asking this my LOrd, but where did you see him die?”

Ned leant back in his chair and closed his eyes for a long moment. “It must have been at the Twins,” he said eventually. “I saw Walder Frey there. The filthy swine broke guests rights. He had his men murder Robb and his own men. Crossbows and knives. And…” He hesitated again. “I saw who wielded the knife for the killer blow. Roose Bolton.”

Luwin felt his eyebrows fly upwards. “Lord Bolton? The Lord of the Dreadfort? Why would he kill your son?”

“I know not,” Ned grated. “I know that he is loyal to me, but the Boltons used to fight the Starks for the right to lead the North in the Age of Heroes. And old dreams die hard. I heard voices as well, saying that things had changed, that things had gone wrong, that things needed to be changed, that too many voices had been stilled. That’s an old phrase Luwin, my grandfather used to use it. When voices are stilled people have died. And then…”

“And then?” Luwin prompted gently.

“And then I think I met one of my ancestors,” Ned said with a wry smile. “Mad as that sounds. He said that I was a child, that my eyes were in the South and not on the North, he said that the North needed to be strong – and that the Others have returned.”

A silence fell. Well, this was a strange tale indeed. “My Lord,” he said carefully, “You must admit that this is an outlandish tale. If anyone else had told me of what you have seen I would dismiss it as the ravings of a madman, especially as the Others have not been seen in thousands of years. Speaking as a Maester my training tells me that what you have said cannot be true. And yet I am of the North. And I witnessed the redness in your eyes.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I will send a raven to the Citadel at Oldtown, to ask if the glass candles are burning again.”

Ned looked at him carefully. “You have always said that magic is impossible now.”

“Not quite my Lord,” Luwin said with a wintery smile, “I just said that I cannot practice it as I have never seen it. And yet… something is changing. I can feel it in my bones. I have had the oddest feeling of being watched in the Weirwood. And your tale… disturbs me. If the Old Gods are taking an interest in the deeds of man again…”

Ned nodded. “Send a raven to Castle Black as well. I need to discuss this with Benjen.” He pulled a slight face. “That is if he won’t try and have me treated by you for madness. I need to find out what’s happening at the Wall. And then I need to talk to Robert to strengthen the Night’s Watch. Gods knows that it’s been neglected.”

“Father?”

They both turned to see Rob starting to stir. Luwin cast an eye over the young man. Yes, he was waking.


 

Robb

He remembered seeing his father at the Heart Tree. And then – the darkness and the visions. Flashes of his life – and his death. And then his father in a forest of stone trees, talking to an old man. And then darkness, with flashes of a sense that he was being dragged somewhere and told to drink something. When he woke again it was to the rumble of voices. Father. It was Father. And… Luwin? They were talking. About him. About the Old Gods. He made a monumental effort and finally opened his eyes. “Father?” That simple word seemed to take all his strength.

“Robb. Drink some of this,” Luwin said quietly as he handed over the third goblet. “How do you feel?”

“Tired, Luwin. Father – what happened?”

Father leant forwards. “The Old Gods, Robb. They spoke to me. What do you remember?”

He sipped the rich red wine slowly as he cast his mind back. “Parts of my life. The charge at the Battle of Oxcross. The day after The Crag. And…” he closed his eyes for a long moment. “The wedding at the Twins. Where…”

“Where you died, Robb. I saw it.” His father looked at him gravely. “The Old Gods have sent you back. And now I must ask – I saw you and your mother in those visions. But not myself. Where was I?”

Robb drank more wine and then scrubbed at his eyes. “You were dead Father,” he said hoarsely. “You were dead.”

Luwin and Father shared a long and horrified look. “How?” Father said quietly.

“It’s a long story,” Robb replied. He felt stronger now. “It will start soon. In about two months word will reach you that Jon Arryn is dead.”

And that shook Father, who blinked and then drank his own wine with a trembling hand. “What caused it?”

“Mother will get a letter from Aunt Lysa, claiming that it was poison.”

And now Father’s grief gave way to anger. “Poison?!? Who would poison him – and why?”

“Aunt Lysa said it was the Lannisters. Father – the King came North to name you his Hand. You agreed and went South to Kings Landing. And you never left there. There was a plot by the Lannisters, something we think that Jon Arryn must have discovered.” He looked over at the closed door and then leant forwards. “King Robert brought his children here. Including Joffrey, who is cruel and mad. And they’re all blonde, Father. Every one of them.”

Father frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“King Robert’s bastards are all black of hair. His brother Stannis sent word of this. Why should his bastards be black of hair and blue of eye, but his children blonde of hair and green of eye? Especially when every time a Baratheon has married a Lannister the Baratheon blood has won out?”

Father frowned at this, but it was Luwin who caught on first, sitting back as his eyebrows flew up to where his hairline used to be. “Oh,” he breathed. And then again: “Oh.”

Father looked at Luwin – and then made the connection in his own mind. “Oh Hell,” he muttered. “All of them are bastards? None of them are Robert’s get?”

“According to Stannis their real father is… well, the Kingslayer. Ser Jaime Lannister.”

This seemed to stun the other two men, who looked at each other and then seemed to communicate in the language of the eyebrow, as Bran had once named it, an age or more ago. “We tell no-one outside this room,” Father said eventually. “Not yet anyway. That is information worth killing for.”

“I know,” Robb said. “I think that Bran found out. There were two attempts on his life. The first was when he fell from one of the disused towers here. He lived but… he lost the use of his legs and he could not remember what happened. We realised later that he must have been pushed. The second was later, when a man with a dagger made of Valyrian steel tried to stab him in his bed. Mother and his direwolf Summer stopped him.”

Father had turned a nasty red colour now. “Someone,” he said in a voice of thunder and barely restrained violence, “Tried to kill my son? Tried to kill Bran? Jaime Lannister? That oath-breaking smirking murderer. I’ll kill him when I see him!!”

“Peace, my Lord, peace,” Luwin soothed with a raised hand. “You cannot kill a man for something he has not done yet. And Robb – what direwolf?”

He sighed and wished that Grey Wind was there with him right now. He had the oddest feeling that the direwolf wasn’t too far away now. “The day you heard that Jon Arryn was dead we witnessed your execution of a deserter from the Night’s Watch. On the way back, by the bridge, we found the body of a direwolf bitch who had whelped just after being gored by a stag in the neck. There were six pups – one for each of your children. You wanted to kill them but Jon pointed out that it was a sign from the Old Gods, the direwolf being on the banner of House Stark.” He smiled. “Mine is Grey Wind. Will be Grey Wind. This is confusing.”

“Obviously,” Father said with a small smile, having calmed down a bit. “So I went South to Kings Landing and discovered that the children of the king are all bastards. Yes, I can imagine that would be something to get anyone killed. Wasn’t I able to get word to Robert?”

“He died Father. There was a hunting accident. Apparently a boar charged him and he wasn’t able to get his spear down in time.”

“That doesn’t sound like Robert at all,” Father rumbled as he leant back in his chair.

“Well,” Robb said with a wince, “He’s not the man you knew Father. He’s changed. He’s, well, fat.”

Father stared at him. “Robert. Fat?

Robb nodded. “He drinks too much and he eats too much and he… well, when he came here he wore half the whores out and fathered at least one bastard amongst the women servants that Mother knew of.”

His father closed his eyes and passed a weary hand over his eyes. Then he paused. “Why only half the whores?”

“The Imp, Tyrion Lannister, took care of the other half. But – King Robert died and when you tried to pass the crown to Stannis the Lannisters conspired against you. You were arrested for treachery. And even after you agreed to take the Black after publically saying that the accusations of bastardy and incest were false – that little shit Joffrey broke his word and had you executed at Baelor’s Sept. In front of Sansa, who became a hostage instead of Joffrey’s prospective bride. And I – I called the banners father. The North rode to avenge you.” He looked at the ground and then closed his eyes. “They proclaimed me King in the North and we marched to save the Riverlands. I won every battle but I still fucked it up. I’m good at war Father, but not at politics.

“To get the army over the river at The Twins I had to agree to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. But after one of the battles I met… I met Jeyne Westerling. And married her. That lost me the Freys. And I made the mistake of sending Theon to Pyke to persuade his father to send his Ironborn against the Lannisters. He turned his cloak and obeyed his father’s orders to attack the North instead. Theon took Winterfell. Burnt it. And killed Bran and Rickon.”

An ugly silence fell. “I am starting to realise,” Luwin sighed, “Why the Old Gods sent you back. Your tale is all of woe for the North. And no My Lord, you cannot kill Theon either. He has not yet done what did in the future that Robb is from.”

“Did you ever meet Balon Greyjoy?” Father asked. Robb shook his head. “Ah, that was your mistake then. A dark and cruel man, Balon Greyjoy. Theon is a good lad, but there are times when I think that he wants to be Stark but then remembers that he is a Greyjoy. And he glorifies the Ironborn way without understanding it. No wonder he turned his cloak. The poor lad was probably overwhelmed.” He stood and then walked over to the window where he stared at the landscape.

“It seems that I have been neglecting your education my son,” Father said eventually. “You know how to lead an army it seems and to swing a sword. The politics of leading men and treating with the scum that exist out there – well that will be your next part of your education. I am only sorry that I did not do this before.”

He turned and sat down again. “So, the manner of your death becomes clearer. Lannister plots everywhere, Walder Frey annoyed with you breaking a contract of marriage, as he saw it, and parts of the North in the hands of the Ironborn. No wonder Roose Bolton conspired against you. You were the last male Stark and at last he had a chance to place House Bolton at the head of the North.”

He found tears coming to his eyes. “Father, I have missed you so much.”

His father smiled at him. “I am sorry that I was not there to help you. You must have had so many questions.” Then he leant back in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. “Well, I am weary, so you must be too. And I have a lot to think on. In a way the timing of the Old Gods is appropriate. In a week it will be the New Year, even if Summer continues. And as we know Winter is coming.”

The New Year was coming – he had forgotten that. And then something sparked in his mind. “Father, we must send word to the Dreadfort. I think I know how to gain the lasting loyalty of Roose Bolton. If we act quickly we might be in time to save the life of his son, Domeric.”

 


 

Theon

The arrow thunked into the centre of the target and Theon looked over at old Ser Rodrik, who was pursing his lips slightly in thought. Then the old man sniffed mightily and then nodded slightly. “Good enough,” he said gruffly, which coming from him was a compliment of the highest order. “Keep practicing, lad. Time might come when you’ll need that bow in anger.” And then he swept away to talk to Master Luwin, who was waiting with the blacksmith.

“I wish I could loose an arrow like that,” piped Bran next to him. The Pup’s latest efforts were still all over the place.

Theon looked down at him with a small smile, before relenting. “You’ll get better,” he admitted. “It took me time to get that good. Takes a lot of practice.”

Bran nodded mournfully, before looking back up. “Theon, what’s wrong with Robb?”

He snorted, plucked another arrow out of the quiver and then sent it into the target. “Don’t ask me, I’m just his friend, or at least I thought I was. You’re his brother – haven’t you talked him these past ten days? Because all he seems to do is prowl around and hide in the Godswood when he thinks that no-one else is in it.”

The boy wilted. “That’s what he does to everyone – Mother, Father, Jon, Sansa, Arya, even me. It’s like he’s hiding from us. Did something happen to him?”

Theon frowned. “No. That was the day after we got some ale from, erm, never mind that part, your mother wouldn’t like you to hear that part. I don’t remember him hitting his head or anything. And then the next morning he reels in like he was still drunk and… I don’t know Bran. I wish I could help, but he just won’t talk to me.”

“He’s talked to me.” Theon and Bran both whirled around to see Lord Stark approaching on quiet feet. “He’ll talk to you soon. He’s been… thinking through something very important. Robb’s a good lad – he takes things very seriously. And it seems that I’ve been neglecting part of his education. He’ll be spending less time here in the practice yard and more time with me in my solar, learning how to run the North.”

Bran perked up a little at this and then ran off to tell the watching Arya, who was sulking next to their mother, who was talking to one of the servants. Theon watched him go and then looked back at Lord Stark, who was inspecting the results of his archery practice. “Not bad at all. Tight grouping. We need to take you hunting again lad.” And then he looked at Theon and there was something about his gaze that made him feel a bit uneasy. “You’ve been here for eight years now Theon. Do mind if I ask you a question?”

“Of course not Lord Stark.”

“What do you remember of Pyke? Of your father?”

Theon blinked at the question. “I… remember it. Pyke that is. I remember… the smell of it.” Yes, that was hard to forget. “How tall the towers were. It was strong.” He said the last words with a hint of defiance.

Lord Stark’s gaze flickered to the towers of Winterfell. “Towers always are taller to young boys than to man,” he said enigmatically. “And your father?”

This was a darker subject and Theon looked at the flagstones under his feet for a long moment as he remembered the striding man who cursed at everyone and who never had time for a small boy. “He was… always busy,” he muttered. “He was fighting a war against you and… I seldom saw him.”

Lord Stark looked at him, a long and steady gaze that seemed to peer deeply into his very soul. He’d never been the subject of one of Lord Stark’s famous gazes, not really, and he quivered with uncertainty. And then the older man stirred and smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. “One day you will be ruler on Pyke. And when that day comes you’ll know what it’s like to made decisions that affect a great many people – and it’s hard. Any man who says it isn’t is a liar. It’s hard.

“Now, your father’s way of command is very different from mine. Ironborn traditions… are not of the North, and there was a reason for that war that your father fought. A reason why so many fought against him. You need to realise that last part. But times change and men change with them. Making that change happen is difficult. I hope that you’ll always be welcome here in Winterfell. Robb is learning to rule the North. If I can help you, if I can give you advice about what it will be like when you one day return to Pyke and step out of the shadow of your father, the way that Robb will one day have to step out of mine, then the door to my solar is always open to you.” He paused and then laid a hand on his shoulder again. “You have been like a son to me. You know that don’t you?”

Something eased within him, somewhere in his heart, a tension that he had not known was there. “Thank you Lord Stark,” he said thickly. “That means much to me.”

“Good. Now – back to your practice, or Ser Rodrik will chastise me for distracting you. Where’d Bran go?”

Theon turned and smiled. “Off to see Lady Stark.”

“Well, at least he’s not climbing the walls,” Lord Stark said with a frown. “Theon, if you see him climbing tell him, in my name, to climb back down and stay down will you?”

“I will, but I doubt it will stop him. He’s like a squirrel at times.”

“Even a squirrel can fall.” And with those worried words the Lord of Winterfell strode off. Theon watched him go with a look of total seriousness. There was a man to admire.

 


 

Domeric

He had been a league away from the Dreadfort when the messenger found him, a short man on a large horse who was quite skilled at tracking, damn his eyes.

“You are required back at the Dreadfort, young lord,” the messenger panted. “Lord Bolton wishes that you return at once.”

Domeric sighed and then turned a yearning gaze to the road that led to the Weeping Water and the brother that he had always wanted to have, especially after all the time that he had spent at the Redfort in the Vale. There he had had brothers in all but name. Here he had a brother of the blood. But Father had called him back and he would have to obey him, so he turned away from the road to the river and started riding back to the Dreadfort. He did not ask the reasons for his summons, Father would not have told the messenger and the messenger would not have dared to ask the Lord of the Dreadfort.

However, he suspected that this might be a ruse by Father, who seemed to disapprove of Domeric’s wish to visit his half-brother. Why he disapproved he did not know, but then Father could be secretive at times.

The towers of the Dreadfort appeared first on the horizon and he suppressed another sigh. He loved his home and he respected Father, but there were times when the shadow of his family’s past hung heavy on him. The banner especially. A flayed man, a symbol of the times when his family had had men flayed alive. The Starks had stopped that practice, but he sometimes wondered if his father ever thought about it. He certainly saw a great deal of importance in being respected, sometimes even feared. And the very name Dreadfort – it spoke of fear, not honour. Not that he would ever speak of such things to Father. One day he would be Lord of the Dreadfort and on that day he would build anew. Not before.

The small party clattered in through the gates, Domeric acknowledging the salute of the master-at-arms as he did so, and then he made for his stables, where he kept his horses. A boy came out to take the reins after he had dismounted, but Domeric took the time to check that the horse was sound in wind and limb – and especially in hoof. His time in the Vale had taught him that your steed could be as important as your sword and he thought fond thoughts about Lord Redfort and his lessons on horses as he tended to his mount.

He found his father in his solar, reading from a small stack of documents. He was dressed in his customary black jerkin and he looked up when he heard the sound of Domeric’s boots approaching. “There you are. You were heading towards the Weeping Water.” He did not say it as a question, but as a statement of fact.

He could not deny it. “Yes Father.”

“I told you not to contact your half-brother.”

“Yes Father. I am sorry – I was curious about him.”

Father carefully placed the document he had been reading down on the pile and sighed softly. “You should not be curious about him. One day I will tell you why. That day is not today.” He said the words in an even quieter voice than normal, as if he was trying to repress some strong feeling on something. Then he looked up. “You are summoned to Winterfell.”

Domeric blinked at his father. Of all the reasons for his recall to the Dreadfort, this one was the least likely he would have thought. The Boltons were the sworn banners of the Starks, but the two houses were not close. Too much blood had flown in the past for that, too much rivalry. “Why, Father?”

“Lord Stark would have you visit Winterfell it seems. And he desires that you bring much reading matter with you.” Father sat down and stroked his chin, the way that he did when he was thinking very, very hard.

This again threw Domeric’s wits a little. “Reading matter?”

“Books. Books on the Old Gods and the Others to be precise. A most… odd request.”

Domeric walked to a chair and, upon a wave of the fingers from his father, sat down. “I would have thought that Winterfell would have been the natural place for books on the Old Days and the Time of Heroes.”

A slight upturn of his father’s lips showed that he was amused. “Yes, but House Bolton has many old tomes as well. Many of them make little sense as they are so old, but we have always kept the records safe and dry and frequently copied them. It never hurts to keep knowledge. Even if it is little more than legends of things passed.”

“The Old Ones…” Domeric mused. “What could cause Lord Stark to require knowledge on things long dead?” he paused. “I would say long dead if they ever existed, but if they never existed what is the purpose of the Wall?”

Father looked at him with what seemed to be surprise and then no little thought. “An excellent point Domeric. All too often we forget the Wall.” He paused and then shrugged. “Well, no matter. I am having the required tomes assembled. You will leave as soon as possible. House Bolton will assist Lord Stark on this matter. And when you are at Winterfell you must ask what prompted this inspection of the past. You should take your smaller harp. They say that Sansa Stark is quite the beauty.”

He looked at his father affectionately but with a little wryness to his smile. “You would have me woo her, Father? A Bolton courting a Stark?”

Father looked back at him, his small eyes giving nothing away. “A Bolton always looks for any advantage. It is near time for you to marry anyway. You are my only trueborn son. The name of Bolton depends on you. I would have you happy, my son. At the very least see if Sansa Stark is worthy of a song.”

Domeric smiled and then stood, bowed to his father and then left. Well, he had many miles ahead of him. His brother would doubtless still be in the Weeping Water when he returned.

 


 

Ned

Cat was starting to suspect something. He knew it. She knew him far too well for him to hide it, and he wondered how she could have dealt with the news of his death, in that other world, in that future that he hoped so desperately to avoid. At some point he would have to tell her. something. He knew not what, but he had to allay her suspicions at some point.

Ned paced around his solar, like the Direwolf from his House Banner in too small a space. There was so much to try and avoid. It had taken three attempts to craft a letter to Jon Arryn that had not sounded as if he had become a fool afraid of his own shadow and finally he had taken refuge in a few half-truths and evasions, coupled with an offer that he had been considering even before Robb’s return from the moment of his death. That letter had made him feel dirty. But it had to be written.

A raven to Kings Landing had been out of the question – from the vague rumours that had reached Robb’s ears in the early days of the war it was more than possible that Pycelle was in the pay of the Lannisters, plus he had apparently told Cat in King’s Landing that Varys had eyes and ears everywhere – no, everyone had eyes and ears every everywhere in that fetid smelly cesspit of a city – and that the ravens were being watched. A letter openly telling even so powerful a man as the Hand of the King that there was a possible Lannister plot afoot to poison him would never reach him.

He hated this. He hated the machinations and double-dealing and the lack of trust. How Robert lived in that bloody city of traitors and self-serving men with no morals escaped him. But he had to try and save Jon.

And so Jory Cassel, a man that he trusted with his life, was on his way to White Harbour, escorted by a small group of men whose sole job was to get Cassel to Wyman Manderly and request the fastest possible ship down to King’s Landing. Hopefully Cassel would get to Jon in time with that all-important letter. He wished that Robb had been able to tell him his terrible secret earlier, but that was water under the bridge by now.

He paused and stared out of the window as he thought everything through yet again. If Cassel was too late to prevent Jon being poisoned then Robert would come North to offer him the position of Hand, a position that he had absolutely no intention of taking up. He knew Robert – he would press him hard to accept. And had a good reason to turn the offer down, a reason that required no mummer’s act or honourless lies. He was needed in the North because the Others had returned, a threat that he had barely the faintest idea how to deal with, other than reading every book, every fable, every legend and every song about how they could be defeated and then send as much as he could to the Wall. There could be no war. Instead the South needed to send what it could North.

And if Robert came North then they would come North too, the children who were not the blood of Robert Baratheon, as well as the Queen and the faithless shell of a Kingsguard who had now betrayed two kings. He had an idea of how to deal with them. It would break Robert’s heart, but it would have to be done. If they came North that is.

What if Cassel got there in time though and stopped Jon Arryn from dying? What had Jon’s plan been? How could he stop the war? Ned ran a hand over his eyes. He knew not. All he knew was that as long as Bran was protected then another thread from that future that could never be would be pulled. Bran would not be hurt, if his plan worked, so there would not be another attempt on his life, Cat would not go South to tell him about it and she would not encounter Tyrion Lannister and start the terrible chain of events that would see Tywin Lannister muster his forces and start to move East before anyone else had a chance to call a single banner.

If, if, if. That tiny but significant word. He and Luwin had questioned Rob b closely, asking about the smallest things. Robb had not known everything, or had sometimes heard something through a person who had heard it from somewhere else. Whispers in the wind – and he knew that such whispers could sometimes stray far from the truth.

Well. This much he knew – he had sent a raven to Castle Black requesting the immediate presence of Benjen. He had a lot to tell his brother. And then there was that other matter. It had been weighing on him over-much of late. In the future that Robb had come from he had never had the chance to tell young Jon the one thing that he had always wanted so desperately – who his mother had been. Yes, he had kept the promise, despite the hurt that it had caused Cat. It had had to be done. He turned and paced about again. This would have to be done… carefully. After much thought. And after a talk with Bran about the fact that he was now banned from climbing the walls of Winterfell.

He frowned. His son would not love him much for this. But it would have to be done. And as for Jon… well that would be a different kind of hurt.

Knuckles rapped on the door to his solar and he turned to it. “Yes?”

The door opened to reveal a messenger. “Your pardon my Lord, but the doorwardens have sent word – a party of horsemen approaches, coming from the East. They bear the banner of the Dreadfort, of House Bolton.”

Ned nodded. “They are expected. I will come down now.” As the man scurried away he felt his heart lift a little. Hopefully it was Domeric Bolton, who in the future that Robb had come from had died suddenly of an illness. If he still lived then maybe the future could be changed. If. Such a small word. But things could turn on it. He strode out of his solar.

 


 

Bran

At least Robb was back to his old self. More or less. For some reason he hated seeing him climbing on the walls and would either call him down or would hide his eyes as if the sight pained him. Which was odd. Robb had seen him climbing before and it wasn’t as if anything could happen to him, could it?

He sighed and then looked up at the skies. Far above him he could see an eagle soaring upwards. Oddly enough his dreams of flying had diminished recently. He wished that they hadn’t and that he could dream those dreams again. To soar like that eagle, to see things from the air that no-one else could.

The sound of a harp being plucked, the first notes singing sweetly in the air, caught his ear and he scrambled down the wall to the ground and then dashed around the corner. Domeric Bolton was there in the courtyard, his long black hair caught in a queue and his harp in his hand. In front of him were arrayed a number of people, mostly women, including Mother and Sansa. Not Arya though. He looked about and caught sight of an affronted figure stalking away with her eyes rolling. No, she’d probably end up watching Robb, Jon and Theon sparring.

To be honest Bran wasn’t sure what to make of Domeric Bolton and he watched the man carefully as he started singing. He was very good at the harp as well as the song. Should a knight sing though? Domeric had spent time at the Redfort, with one of the finest knights of the Vale, and that was a worthy thing to admire. However, Bran wasn’t sure about all this warbling.

He shrugged internally and then pricked up an ear. Metal clashing against metal. Yes, someone was sparring. He made sure that Mother wasn’t watching him and then sidled away before making a dash for the practice yard. There he found Robb and Jon and Theon, all stripped to the waist and all holding practice swords – ones that were weighted properly but blunt. And to his fascination Robb was instructing the other two, watched by Arya to one side and a very interested Rodrik Cassel to the other.

“Keep your weight more in balance as you strike,” Robb was telling Jon as they traded blows. “When you fight then your feet are important. If your opponent catches you off balance then-” he parried a blow, rolled his shoulders and then pushed Jon so hard that he lost his balance and fell over. “-You lose.”

Theon smirked at Jon, who was looking annoyed from his position on the ground, and then struck out at Robb, who dodged and then parried once, twice and then caught Theon a nasty slap on the ribs with the flat of his sword. “And watch your eyes! Too much movement betrays what you’re going to do next!”

“That bloody stung!” Theon groaned, before narrowing his eyes and attacking again. Robb met him blow for blow before turning inside Theon’s thrust and shoulder charging him the same way that he had Jon, who was now on his feet and ready for another go.

Not that he got very far. Jon swung up and over to his right, was parried, thrown off balance and then somehow ended up back on the ground again. “Damn it,” he cursed, “You don’t fight fair, Stark.”

Robb paused and then looked over at Rodrik, who was smiling sourly. “Is war fair Rodrik?”

The sour smile grew sourer. “Never. If it is then you’re doing something wrong. And he’s right lads. Watch your feet and don’t indicate where you’re going to attack next. You need more training.”

A hand fell on Bran’s shoulder and he jumped slightly, before looking up. Oh, it was Father. “I thought I’d find you here,” he said kindly. “Watch and learn my son. It’ll be you soon there.”

Bran thought about that and then swallowed nervously as he saw Theon and Robb joke about how many bruises they’d have in the morning. The three nodded respectfully at Father, who nodded back, but Bran thought that he saw an additional weight to the look that Father sent to Robb, some wordless message that he could not decipher. Oh not another one with the language of the eyebrow.

“I hear Domeric Bolton singing,” Father said jovially. “You do not want to hear?”

“He’s singing, Father,” said Bran as he tried not to roll his eyes. “And playing the harp. Haven’t seen him sparring yet.”

“You should see him ride a horse,” Father said seriously, which made Bran look at him quickly. “He’s a skilled rider Bran. He’s very, very, good. If you like I can ask him if he can pass on any lessons to you.”

He thought about this for a moment and then he nodded. “Thank you Father.”

Father smiled at him and then sighed. “I need to talk to you Brandon.”

Brandon. That was not a good sign at all. It meant that Father was being very serious. Even worse, Father then escorted him up to his solar, the place that was normally forbidden to anyone outside the circle of people that Father most relied upon these days.

Bran sat down in the chair that Father had indicated and then looked about nervously. Then Father sat down opposite him and gazed at him levelly. “Bran.”

“Yes Father?”

“I want you to stop climbing the walls of Winterfell. The towers too.”

He eyed Father for a long moment. “Alright.”

But Father was not satisfied with that. “I mean this, Bran. No empty promises. I want your word.”

He looked at father indignantly and then wilted slightly. “Alright.” He sounded a bit petulant in his own ears, but if he had to get this out of the way then he would.

But again Father was not satisfied, because he stood up and walked over to one side, before returning – Bran gulped – with Ice. “Bran,” Father said hoarsely, “Swear that you will not climb the walls and towers of Winterfell on Ice. The sword of your ancestors.”

He stared at it for a long moment, as tears gathered in his eyes. This was a promise that he had to keep, a promise that Father would not forget or forgive if he ever broke it. This was unfair of Father! And then he looked up and saw the sympathetic but implacable eyes of Father.

Bran reached out with a trembling hand and placed it on the hilt of Ice. After a moment Father’s hand covered it. “I swear that I will not climb the walls or towers of Winterfell,” he choked out.

Father smiled at him. “Thank you Bran.”

He nodded at the words, his vision blurred with tears – and then he ran out of the solar, sobbing with grief.

 


 

Catelyn

“Ben will be here in ten days,” Ned said as he entered the room and closed the door. He smothered a yawn with his hand. “It will be good to see him again.”

Cat smiled at him as she brushed her long red hair carefully. “It cannot be easy for him to visit often, being on the Wall.”

“Aye,” Ned replied as he stood by the fire and stared into the flames. “There is much I need to discuss with him.” He paused and then started to disrobe. When he looked up again his face was serious. “The news from the Wall worries me. More Wildling raids, more rumours of this King beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder, the weakness of the Night’s Watch… I’m worried Cat.”

She stopped and looked at him. She could see the worry in his eyes. “You are that worried about the Wall?”

Ned nodded sombrely as he slipped out of his breeches and folded everything carefully on top of the chest on his side of the bed. “Winter is coming. And this winter will be different I think. I sense it.”

There was a tone in his voice that alarmed her and she stared at him for a long moment. Ned was clenching and unclenching his hands as he stared into the fire again, which was a sign that he was brooding again, which was never a good sign. She finished brushing her hair and then disrobed as swiftly as she could. “Come to bed Ned.”

He turned and looked at her, smiling as he did. “Aye, I will.” As they slipped beneath the covers Cat remembered something. “I haven’t seen Bran climbing the walls once today. Do you think he finally listened?”

Ned sighed. “I made him promise not to again. Only this time I made him swear on Ice.”

She looked at him, startled. “That was overmuch was it not?”

“Nay,” Ned said with a grimace. “He’s naught but a boy. We’ve sought his promise not to climb again and again and he’s been tempted out of it again and again. Well, this time it must be different. He’s starting to learn what it is to fight and to be a man. He must take up a man’s responsibilities – and his word must stand for something. He’ll keep his promise this time. I think he hates me for it, but he’ll keep it.”

“Oh Ned,” she sighed as she put her arm around him and snuggled against him. “You’re his father. He loves you. He can never hate you.”

“He’s young. He’s resentful. He’ll learn.” Ned paused again. “Sansa seems very taken with young Domeric.”

Cat nodded slowly. “The lad is… not what I expected. He plays the harp very well indeed and he is soft-spoken and courteous. Not at all what I thought that the son of Roose Bolton would be like.”

“Aye, that was my thought too. He takes after his mother I think, in temperament at least. He is a fine horseman though. No – better than fine. Born in the saddle, as Jon Arryn would say.” And then he seemed to leave the room for a moment as his eyes stared at some spot on the ceiling.

“Ned. Ned?” She elbowed him gently in the ribs and he seemed to return from wherever his thoughts had taken him. “What were you thinking about?”

He smiled in a rather strained fashion. “Just hoping that an important message gets to him in King’s Landing. In the meantime, I think it is time that we reluctantly start to think about marriage alliances for Robb and Sansa. I don’t like to think about these things, as it reminds me of my father and his endless intrigues, but I think that it must be done.” His face set slightly. “Robb needs advice on who to marry I think. I’ve been neglecting his studies on treating with our friendly and not so friendly neighbours.” And now there was another note in his voice, one that she could not put her finger on.

“Marriage alliances?” Cat asked. “Don’t you think that it’s a little early to think of that?”

“No,” Ned sighed, “I don’t. What’s happening North of the Wall is worrying me. We might need help from the South. Well – Robert may be king, but his eyes are on all the threats that surround him. Dorne dislikes him, The Reach plots, the Stormlands still haven’t recovered from the war, your father is unwell in the Riverlands, the Ironborn sulk and the Vale is loyal to Jon Arryn, who is not a young man and whose heir is, from all accounts, well, smothered with too much attention by your sister, whom I am also worried about. And then there are the Lannisters. Who also plot.”

Cat stared at him in real shock. “You make it sound as if the Seven Kingdoms are on the brink of war!”

Ned stared back at her and she thought she saw, for a split second, something red in his eyes. And then it was gone as he smiled and held her close for a long moment. “Sorry Cat. Too much brooding and worrying. We do need to think about marriage alliances though. We should see how Domeric treats with Sansa. And as for Robb – well, I have been scratching my head about him.”

She settled against him again with a sigh. Perhaps he was right. “I will think about it. There are a few matches I can suggest. We have five children though – surely some at least can marry for love instead of need?”

He turned and held her in his arms. “Yes. Originally our marriage was politics, but then it turned to love.” He kissed her and she felt her heart swell. As did her favourite part of him. She responded with increasingly passionate kisses of her own. Mmm, tonight sleep would have to wait for a bit.

 

When she woke up again she didn’t know why for a long moment. She ached in all the right places and given the seeping warmth from between her legs Ned had delivered more than his customary ardour. She smiled sleepily. Ned had been very attentive recently. Perhaps a girl this time?

Ned moved slightly and muttered something in his sleep. He was restless. Perhaps that had woken her? She looked at him in the half-light of the fireplace, which was now little more than red-hot ashes. She was worried about him, still. Whatever had ailed Robb had also affected her husband. She still hadn’t been able to get a decent explanation out of him about the entire thing, which was aggravating. But then that was Ned sometimes. Him and his honour and his word and… his secrets. He still held them.

She sighed and closed her eyes – and then opened them again when Ned suddenly stiffened and choked out: “No!”

Cat sat up and looked at him. He was dreaming. No, not a dream – a nightmare. He was sweating and she would see his eyes moving under his eyelids. His fists were clenched – and then he started to tremble. “Not Robb,” he moaned in his sleep, “Not my son. Spare him…”

And now she stared at him in horror. What was he dreaming of? Robb in some kind of danger? Ned paused for a moment and then relaxed – only to redouble his trembling. “Ned,” she said quietly. “Ned! Wake up – you’re dreaming!”

“No,” he moaned again, “I can’t. I promised you. I promised…” He said the words as if he was in agony. “Promised… kept the secret. Didn’t tell. Protect him. Robert doesn’t know.” He said the last words with great intensity.

Cat frowned at him and then started to reach out to shake him awake. Whatever this nightmare was it was distressing him, because his face was drawn as if in pain. She was burning with curiosity about it, but she did not want him to suffer. Her hand never got there. Suddenly he was awake and upright in bed, shouting a single name: “LYANNA!!!”

Chapter Text

Ned

It was the first time he had the dream in years, the dream about the Tower of Joy. And before that he had relived the moment of Robb’s death. That was something he’d had nightmares about before. But added to the memory of the moment that Lyanna had died in his arms…

Well, now he had a problem. He was sitting in bed, shaking like a leaf and with a seriously worried wife next to him. Cat had heard him cry out Lyanna’s name. Had seen his sweaty, horrified face in the wake of the dream. And what else had she heard?

“Ned, what’s wrong? What did you dream about?”

He opened his mouth to tell her that it was nothing, but then he caught of her face. It was set in concerned but also implacable lines. He knew her too well to hope that she would give way in her need to find out what was wrong. Well. Perhaps it was time she found out.

“Cat, what I have to tell you is the truth. I will swear any oath you like on that. You will think it is madness, but Luwin and Robb will tell you otherwise. Robb, because this is his story. Luwin because he found me half-carrying Robb back from the Godswood, where I found him praying.”

“Half-carrying?” Cat asked in alarm.

“Cat – the Old Gods spoke to us both, there in the Godswood. They… showed me flashes of a future. A future that Robb remembers, right up until the moment of his death. The Old Gods said that things had gone wrong, that warnings had not been listened to, that… that The Others have returned. And because of that Robb was sent back to us, sent back in time. That morning when he burst in and looked so strange to us all – that was the day that he returned.”

She stared at him, her eyes intently studying his face as uncertainty roiled her own. “Sent… back?”

“Sent back with warnings. Warnings about my death. About the capture of Winterfell. About the death of Robert and the war that breaks out because of that.”

“Your death?” Her hands went to her mouth. “Ned, this is madness!”

“I said that you would see it as such. But I swear that it is all true.” And then he quietly explained everything that Robb had told him about that terrible future that he come from, going from the murder of Jon Arryn to the final moments at the wedding at The Twins. By the time he finished she was pale and trembling, her hands pressed to her stomach as she obviously tried to control her breathing and not panic.

“Walder Frey?” She almost spat the words. “Given…. Given how much grief he has given the Tullys over the years, over the most trivial of reasons, I should not be surprised that he would be willing to plot against our son.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks and then her eyes. “I have much to think on, Ned. Much to think on.”

“Cat, this future will not happen. We have already started to change it. Domeric Bolton, according to Robb, was supposed to be dead by now, slain by a stomach ailment. And yet he lives. We have changed things.”

This startled her and she looked at him for a long moment, before smiling slightly. “That is good. You are right – Sansa is greatly taken by him.”

He nodded absently, his mind on the other decision that he had to make. “There is something else, Cat. I dreamt about my sister, Lyanna. There is something that you deserve to know about that. A secret that I have kept, which I should have shared with you. The truth about what happened the last time I saw Lyanna.”

She looked at him and then took a deep breath of air. “Very well Ned.”

He sat next to her, his mind reaching back through the years. “Seven of us were there. Howland Reed, Willam Dustin, Ethan Glover, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and Mark Ryswell. And we were facing the last of the Mad King’s guards. Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent, and Gerold Hightower, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. We’d tracked them down, we knew that they were in the area and that they were obeying Rhaegar’s orders, that they were linked to Lyanna’s disappearance. We found them at the Tower of Joy, a strange name for a broken old watch tower in the Northern hills of Dorne. We found them and we called on them to yield, that their king was dead, their prince was dead and that the Realm had a new king.”

He shook his head as the memories crowded through his head, thick and fast. The smell of the hot earth. The bright sun that had made him squint. The dirt on those damn white cloaks of theirs. And the look in their eyes, that mixture of desperation, grief and worse yet dull acceptance. They knew that they were going to die – and yet they still fought.

“Those three died hard. They were good, Cat, they were very, very good.” The grunt of men parrying blows, the hisses and cries of pain as steel found flesh, the iron smell of blood, the way that the red drops spattered into the dust that lay thick over the old flagstones in the yard outside the entrance. “They struck down five of us before Howland and I killed the last of them. Ser Arthur Dayne. His sword Dawn gave me this-” Ned indicated at a pale scar at the top of his shoulder. “If I hadn’t dodged back at the last moment I would have lost my arm and then probably my life. But Howland got him in the leg and as he staggered I got him in the neck with Ice.”

He ran his hand over his chin. And now the memories that hurt and which would always hurt people around him. “Howland stayed to tend to the wounded – I hoped that Martyn would not die, but he bled to death. And I entered the Tower. The upper floors were too weak to stand on but I found Lyanna in a bed on the second floor. She was dying of fever. She thought that I was a shade from her dreams. First she thought that I was Father and then she thought that I was Brandon. When she realised that I was real she wept. Apologised. She was so thin, Cat, burning with fever. And they’d left her there, those three noble fools from the Kingsguard. Fools who’d soiled their cloaks. Soiled their honour.”

Ned took a deep breath of air. “They hadn’t thought to employ a midwife, otherwise she might have not gotten the birthing fever.”

His Lady wife stared at him, her eyes very wide. “Midwife? She had been pregnant?”

He nodded, suddenly so very tired. “Aye. He was sleeping in a cradle to one side. Not much of a cradle. More like a box lined with old sheets. She gestured at him. ‘My beautiful boy’ she called him. And then she seemed to come alive. She clawed at my arm, she begged me to give my word to protect him, to get him to the North, to Winterfell, where he’d be safe. She begged me to promise to keep her son safe.” He paused, his voice thick with grief. “I did. I swore an oath on the Godswood here in Winterfell that I’d keep him safe. And then she smiled and she fell back on the bed – quite dead. I cried over her, I prayed to the Old Gods to see her spirit safely back here and then I kissed her forehead and I picked up her son – and I have protected him ever since.”

A silence fell, a deep and heavy one. It was finally broken by Cat. “Jon is the son of Lyanna?”

“Yes.”

“He is your nephew, not your son?”

“Yes, he is my nephew.”

She flushed with anger. “Then why my lord have you dishonoured me all these long years by pretending to have a bastard son? Why did you let me hate him so much for fear that he would one day usurp Robb? And why would you hide his-” She stopped suddenly and he waited for her to work through the chain of thought. “By the Seven – his father… his father must then have been Rhaegar Targaryen!” She hissed the words as if they hurt her mouth.

“Yes,” he said gently. “And given how Robert had greeted the bodies of the murdered Targaryen children with a smile, you can see why I did not want to tell anyone about Jon’s lineage. He may be the son of Lyanna, but he is also the son of Rhaegar, and that last fact might doom him. Might still doom him. The only other person who knows is Howland Reed, who saw the whole thing from the doorway after Martyn Cassel died. And now you.”

He looked her straight in the eye. “I’m sorry for not telling you. At the start of our marriage I knew you not. I did not know of your strength, nor did I know that our love would strengthen to the point that I could trust you with anything. I held to a promise that I made to my sister that blinded me when it came to trusting anyone – and for that, Cat, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Cat sat there on the bed, her eyes on his face but searching for something within it. Finally she smiled slightly. “I wish that you had told me long ago Ned. So much of my… dislike for young Jon might have been avoided.” She looked at the bed. “I did not know. I thought that Jon might be a threat to Robb and above all I hated the woman I thought had stolen your heart before we were reunited after the War.”

She looked back up at him and then smiled bitterly. “He looks so much like you, Ned. There is nothing of the Targaryens in his looks.”

“That was a blessing,” he replied. “It helped to hide him. And there is nothing of his grandfather in him. His father was odd but brilliant. Aerys on the other hand was a monster. There is nothing of that within him.” He sighed. “I must tell him. It will break his heart, but I must tell him. And then – we must decide what to do with him. He has mentioned joining the Night’s Watch, and Robb said that that was he eventually decided to do in that dark future. He also said that in the last days of his life Robb heard that the Night’s Watch was making desperate appeals for help – which I think confirms that The Others have returned.”

“No Ned,” Cat said quietly. She had drawn her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on her knees in the way that she did when she was thinking very deeply. “Lyanna’s son must not go to the Wall. If there is one thing that your tale of woe from this future tells me, it is that we need more Starks here, to protect Winterfell.” She closed her eyes for a long moment before opening them again. “You must make him a Stark.”

 


 

Jory

King’s Landing stank, he thought as his ship nosed into Blackwater Bay. It stank of people crammed into too small a space, it stank of sewers that hadn’t been planned well and above all it stank of corruption. He winced slightly as a particularly foul whiff of air went past his nose and then put it from his mind. He’d smelt worse. Pyke came to mind. That had been a bad one.

The small cutter that the ship had launched after it had anchored approached the nearest jetty and he could see that very little attention was being paid to him. Well, that was as it should be. Lord Stark had stressed how important it was to be quiet and quick for this trip. It was too important to waste time.

He’d been lucky – it had been a fast trip South and he’d spent much of the trip watching the land go past. He’d always liked travelling by sea, even if he was always green on the first day or so. As the cutter came to a more or less gentle halt next to the jetty he reached for a rough wooden ladder and quickly climbed it, before looking around to orientate himself with where he was. Far above he could see the Red Keep.

An hour later he was sweaty, a little more used to the stink, but above all ready to cleave the head of the self-important idiot standing in front of him from his shoulders. “The Lord Hand does not see anyone who turns up at the gates to the Red Keep and says that he has a ‘message’. He is a very busy man. Give it to me and I will look into the matter.”

Jory fixed the man with a look. “I am come from Winterfell with a message from Lord Stark, the Lord Paramount of the North, to Lord Arryn, the Hand of the King. Lord Stark charged me himself with this task. This message is for the Hand of the King alone. Not…” he looked the man up and down. “A doorwarden.”

The man seemed to swell up like a toad. “Either hand over your message or leave at once before I have guards eject you!”

Jory set his jaw and then pulled out a silver pendant with a Direwolf emblazed on it. “This,” he said through gritted teeth, “Is the symbol of my authority. I am from Lord Stark. Stand aside and do not interfere with a messenger from the Lord Paramount of the North.”

The doorwarden looked at the pendant as if it meant nothing, but the older of the two guards (who had been watching the whole thing with a look of sardonic amusement) came to attention and slammed the butt of his spear on the flagstone beneath his feet, joined a moment later by the younger one. “Pass, messenger from the Lord Paramount of the North!” the first guard barked, with a surreptitious wink.

This seemed to floor the doorwarden, who then looked outraged when Jory shouldered past him. “How dare you! Guards – arrest that man!”

The guards stared at him. “Don’t be a fool man. He bears Lord Stark’s mark. I’ve seen it before. Want to get sent to the Black Cells by the King when he hears that you turned away a messenger from Lord Stark?” The doorwarden deflated completely and Jory passed on, with a smile and a nod at the veteran guard.

The smell was lessened up here, perhaps because the wind blew it away, he could not say. But perhaps he was already getting used to it. He asked directions quietly and soon found his way to the Tower of the Hand, where a sharp-eyed man dressed in the livery of House Arryn was guarding the door. “I am Jory Cassel of Winterfell, here with a letter from Lord Stark, the Lord Paramount of the North to Lord Arryn, the Hand of the King.” The words made him seem almost pompous, but they had to be said to gain admittance. This guard at least did not quibble, but instead nodded slightly and told to Jory to wait a moment before slipping inside the Tower, his place being taken at once by an equally sharp-eyed replacement. Lord Arryn, it seemed, was not a man who employed idiots.

Hearing the sound of boots he turned his head slightly. A blond man with a snowy white cape and a look of sardonic amusement was crossing the courtyard. Ser Jaime Lannister. The Kingsguard flickered a glance at him, dismissed him in an instant – and then paused.

“I know you, don’t I? I never forget a face,” Ser Jaime drawled as he turned to look at him. “You were at Pyke.”

“I was, Ser.” Jory said with a nod. “I was with you at the breach. We both watched Thoros of Myr go through with that flaming sword of his.”

The Kingsguard shot him a genuine smile, like a flash of light from out of the murk. “That I will remember until the day I die. That sword terrified the Ironborn scum. Damn near terrified me as well.” He shook his head at the memory. “That was a good war,” he said quietly. “A war that meant something. Your name?”

“Rory Cassel, Ser. Of Winterfell.”

Ser Jaime quirked an eyebrow at him. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Here to see the Hand of the King to deliver a message from Lord Stark.”

“Ah,” Ser Jaime said ironically, “We all have our duties. Be well Rory Cassel of Winterfell.” And then he sauntered off with a nod, the sardonic look swiftly reappearing on his face.

Jory watched him go with a slight frown. That was a man who was dangerous. The saunter disguised a man who seemed to always be on balance and ready to draw his sword.

“Cassel?” He turned to see the first man at the doorway. “The Hand will see you now.”

Lord Arryn, he could see at once, was a tired old man with more silver in his hair than grey anymore. There was something in his eyes, a strain perhaps at being Hand of the King for many years, since King Robert had taken the throne. But his back was still straight and he still moved briskly as he stood and greet him. “So you have a message from my good-brother Lord Stark?”

“I do my Lord,” Jory replied as he extracted the bloody thing from his jerkin. It was wrapped in a stitched leather wallet and he hadn’t let it out of his sight during the entire journey South. “Lord Stark also gave me a verbal message. He said that every word within is meant truly. And that I am to wait in King’s Landing until you have a reply for him.”

Lord Arryn frowned a little, inspected the wallet carefully with a raised eyebrow and then pulled out a small knife and opened it, before tugging out the letter. “Ned,” he muttered, “is being cautious.” And then he broke the seal and read it over. When he had finished it he re-read it and then placed it on his desk, before turning and walking to the window, which he stared out of for a good few minutes, obviously thinking deeply.

Just as Jory was starting to wonder if he had forgotten that he was there Lord Arryn turned back, smiled slightly and then looked at the door. “Quill!” A short man dressed in Arryn colours entered quickly. “This is Jory Cassel of Winterfell. He is to be housed in the Red Keep tonight – good quarters and good food. He’ll be on his way in the morning.” He turned back to Jory. “Jory Cassel, I will have a letter of my own for Lord Stark here first thing tomorrow, just before dawn. Lord Stark needs help for the Wall and I intend to help him. Thank you – you are dismissed.”

Jory nodded respectfully and then followed the man named Quill. He had the oddest feeling that Lord Arryn’s mind was on something else completely.


Jon Arryn

He went back to the window after Ned’s man had gone, staring with unseeing eyes at the Red Keep and the city and bay beyond it. Ned never ceased to surprise him. How had he known? Or rather, what did he know exactly? His warning had been as clear as day to Jon, but then it had been couched in the cautious language of Ned Stark when he had spoken to him with wagging ears present. ‘I have heard of great interest in the Westerlands of late concerning matters involving the payment of debts. Sadly I have also heard of accounts of poor seasoning from there and would advise you to be careful with regard to your meals.’

In other words Ned was saying that his life was in peril, possibly from the Lannisters. Which was interesting, because if what he feared was true, his life really would be in peril from the Lannisters.

He sighed and went back to the desk, where he picked up the letter from Ned, read it one last time to sear the words into his memory and then held it over a lit candle in one corner of the room, which kept lit for that very reason. Once the letter was well alight he dropped it into the grate and watched it burn as he thought very hard and very fast.

If Ned had somehow stumbled onto news of Lannister chicanery then he had less time than he had thought. He had hoped that he could deal with this horrible mess in less than a month, via some careful negotiating, subtle hinting and threats of outright force. Tywin Lannister would be furious, but would also be intensely angry with the Queen for placing herself in such an embarrassing position. The implications for House Lannister would be interesting, but that was not what he was concerned about.

No, he was worried about House Baratheon, which was suddenly balanced on a knife-edge, caught between disaster and destruction. To outsiders the Royal Family was strong, with two healthy sons and daughter. He knew the truth however – that those children were pure Lannister, without a drop of Baratheon blood in them. Which meant that if Robert died tomorrow and the truth came out, his heir would be Stannis – who had only a sickly girl cursed with greyscale for children. The next heir was Renly, who needed to stop whatever he was doing with Loras Tyrell and settle down and get married as soon as possible. House Baratheon might desperately need Renly to get a lot of children. It was that or legitimise one of Robert’s bastards, which would be dangerous enough as it was.

For a moment he wondered what it would have been like if it had been Ned on the Iron Throne and not Robert. He loved the man like a son, but Robert had not been a good king so far. He was a great war king, but in peacetime… he mentally shrugged and dismissed that thought. What was done was done. Robert was King and he would have to be protected from this hideous secret. He had little doubt what Robert’s first reaction would be – blind fury and a wish to bludgeon Cersei to death with his Warhammer, followed by the Kingslayer.

Tywin’s reaction would be war at once, a war that the Seven Kingdoms did not need, even though such a war would lead to eager Dornish participation, bringing them out of their prolonged silence and isolation.

The stakes could not therefore have been higher. Which brought him on to the other issue raised by Ned in his letter, which he pondered as he picked up a poker and used it to reduce the remains of the letter into a mound of ash. Good, there were no fragments. The Red Keep was a maze of passageways and blocked-off doorways and windows. He was pretty sure that Varys did not have any of his little birds in the Tower of the Hand, but he was not certain. So, important – and even non-important – letters were not read out loud, important documents were locked away and gossip was strongly discouraged. Not that that was a problem. His Valemen were loyal to him and Quill kept a close eye on them. There had been attempts to bribe Quill of course, but he had promptly reported them. The place was full of spies. Varys had his, Baelish had his own, even the Queen had some. They tended to be about as subtle as Robert’s Warhammer, but they were there. Oh and then there were his own spies, who watched for watchers.

He replaced the poker and then stared at the ashes. House Baratheon wasn’t the only great house that stood on a knife-edge. House Arryn was right there with it. He had one heir himself. No more, because the line would end with them if he wasn’t. Lysa had had too many miscarriages down the long years and now everything rested on a boy. A sickly boy who was cossetted by his mother to the point where he was now seriously worried about them both. His son would have to learn to walk on his own at some point. The question was, would Lysa allow it? Would Lysa even allow Robert to ride his first horse? He doubted it. One day that boy would be Defender of the Vale, leading its knights out to do battle.

So Neds’ offer to foster young Robert in the North was a welcome one. It would put his son in a place of safety with the one man that he trusted above all others apart from the King. It would also give him a chance to get to know his cousins and build up some valuable friends for the future. The concept of ‘friends’ was not something that Lysa seemed to approve of, and that was yet another reason send his son North. He pondered the matter a bit longer and then turned to the door. “Quill!”

The door opened after a moment. “My Lord?”

Jon beckoned him closer. “I have a task for you,” he said quietly. “A very discreet one – my wife is not to be told about this.”

Quill’s eyebrow flickered upwards slightly as he approached, a sign that he was surprised. “I am yours to command my Lord.”

“I am sending my son out of the city, to be fostered in the North. It’s time he knew his cousins. You are to tell no-one of this. You are to pack his things and then wake him in the pre-dawn hours, before taking him down to the docks with me. I will go there now to make arrangements. I needed to talk to Lord Stannis anyway.”

If any of this surprised Quill in any way he gave no sign of this. Instead he nodded seriously. “I will make the preparations tonight my Lord. Who will accompany him?”

“Two guards – men that you trust. Who amongst my wife’s assistants can be trusted with obeying my orders on this?”

The man thought for a long moment. “As for the guards, let me think on this my Lord. Perhaps Willets and Rikson. As for your wife’s assistants, Annah, my Lord. She has a good head on her shoulders. In fact the Lady Lysa has often scolded her for being too practical with regard to young Lord Robert.”

“Good – then wake her first, have her wake my son and then leave as quietly and as quickly as possible.”

Quill nodded and he could see that the man was bursting with suppressed questions. “Quill, my wife cossets the boy overmuch – I want to see how he does away from her for a time. And… I have been warned of a possible plot on my life.” He whispered those last words, which made Quill jerk slightly, his eyes widening. “I know not who, or how, or why, but Lord Stark warned me and it is to him that I am sending my son. Lord Stark is to be trusted on this matter should… anything happen.”

“I pray that it does not,” Quill muttered grimly. “It shall be as you command my Lord.”

“Good. Now-” He walked over to his table and wrote a rapid letter, one that had been in his mind for some days now. “Please also send a raven to Runestone with this.”

He found Stannis Baratheon in his office by the docks. It was not the splendid office that his predecessors had inhabited in the Red Keep, equipped with hot and cold running sycophants, but rather an old warehouse by the docks, guarded by grim-faced men in the livery of Dragonstone. It was there that Stannis could personally oversee to the ships of the Royal Fleet that were in Blackwater Bay, as well as to quickly respond to any threats to the Bay or warnings from Dragonstone.

Lord Baratheon was standing by his desk with a plan of some rigging rolled out, quietly talking to a heavy-set man with a greying beard and close-cropped brown hair, who was missing the first joints of the fingers on his left hand. Ah, Ser Davos Seaworth. Excellent. As Jon approached they both looked up from the plan. “My Lord Hand,” Stannis said curtly, with a nod. “How can I help you?”

“Your pardon my Lords, I will deal with this matter,” Ser Davos said quietly in a voice that came straight from Flea Bottom.

As he started to turn Jon raised a hand. “No, Ser Davos, I would have your council for a moment. Lord Baratheon I need some advice from you.”

Stannis eyed him carefully. “On what matter?”

“On the matter of who the two of you might recommend for an urgent mission for me. I need to get a message to White Harbour. A message that will not be… intercepted by the wrong people and which must therefore go by ship.” He sighed. “Along with a very important passenger. My son.”

Stannis frowned slightly. “I thought that we were discussing the fostering of your son at Dragonstone. Why does he need to go to White Harbour?”

“I will explain in but a moment. However – I need a ship captained by a skilled seaman who knows when not to talk about his cargo. One whom you trust absolutely. I place myself in your hands on this.”

There was the briefest sound of teeth grinding and then Stannis gestured at Ser Davos. “Then this is your man here. Ser Davos is absolutely trustworthy – I would place my life in his hands and I would not be wrong to do so.”

The former smuggler flushed slightly. “You do me much honour my Lord.”

“I simply state the truth,” Stannis replied. “Young Lord Robert will be in good hands.”

“When do you wish me to sail my Lord Hand?” Ser Davos asked.

“First thing in the morning. Can it be done?”

A frown crossed the face of the man that some called the Onion Knight. He was a good man, Jon knew, loyal and more than competent. Would that he had half a hundred of the man – the Red Keep would be all the better for it. “Then I will need to provision Black Betha at once my Lord. Luckily we have already watered her, as well as scrubbed her bottom. Low tide is… three hours before dawn, so we’ll need to warp her out of the bay, given the wind as she blows now, and then anchor. I can send a cutter for your son’s party to the second pier here. Will there be many?”

“My son, a nurse, perhaps two guards and one Jory Cassel, sent from Winterfell by Lord Stark. Plus my son’s clothing and medicines.”

Ser Davos thought for a moment and then nodded decisively. “That will be fine my Lord Hand. Once they are all on the ship we can be under way at once. Now – if that is all I must leave and arrange matters to our satisfaction.”

“Thank you Ser Davos,” Jon replied. “And my thanks to you.”

“You are most welcome my Lord Hand. My Lord – should I return here afterwards, or to Dragonstone?”

Stannis stroked his chin for a moment. “Dragonstone I think. There is much to be organised there.”

“Thank you my Lord,” Ser Davos replied, nodded at them both and then left.

“A good man,” Jon said with a smile. “And a loyal one you say?”

“There are none better,” Stannis replied with what might almost have been a smile. And then he jerked his head at the nearest window. “Perhaps we should talk on yonder empty pier.”

They did just that, striding out onto a pier that was in need of repair to make it safe for heavy cargo to be landed there. “I thought that we were reaching an understanding that your son was to be fostered at Dragonstone?” Stannis said through gritted teeth.

“I thought so too and I beg your pardon – certain matters have happened that you should be aware of. For one thing, I received a letter today from Ned Stark. It was couched in careful wording, but it warned me that my life is in danger, possibly from the Lannisters.”

Stannis looked at him sharply and then returned his gaze to the sea that lay beyond Blackwater Bay. “How could Ned Stark know anything about what we have been discussing?”

“I know not. But obviously I am taking it seriously. Whatever Ned knows, he thinks that I am in danger and that the Lannisters are involved. Whether or not he suspects the same thing that we do is… unknown. But he also offered to foster my son, and the more I think about it, the more I am inclined to agree with him. I mean no disrespect to you. But if things miscarry then my son will be safer in the North than at Dragonstone, because it is more remote. And we need the North. My son will also need to meet his cousins there anyway.”

A pause fell, followed by Stannis setting his jaw slightly and then nodding equally slightly. “Perhaps you are right about that. And… the safety of your son is paramount. Very well. Now, as to that other matter – the fleet is assembling at Dragonstone, with just enough ships here as to seem to be normal. I dislike this mummery and cant, but it must be done. What of the Goldcloaks?”

“They are led by a corrupt and venal idiot. I should have replaced Janos Slynt years ago with someone – anyone! – else a year or more ago. Sadly I did not. He is in the pay of someone that I have not yet worked out. So, we need to either bribe him into doing his duty, or replace him, or bring men in that we can trust absolutely.”

Stannis looked at him. “You know that this cannot end smoothly.”

He set his own chin. “I do.”

 


 

Jory

The quarters that he was taken to in the Red Keep were not large, but the bed was comfortable, there was access to a place where he could bathe (that was a mercy – the ship had allowed him just the option of having a bucket of seawater dunked over him every other day, something that had not been offered when they entered Blackwater Bay and the floating effluent that the tide was taking out) and above all he could relax and not worry about that damn letter anymore. And the food was good and the wine was even better. He preferred ale, but wine was the only option that night for some reason.

Men and women came and went from the rooms around him, mostly from the Lord Hand’s establishment, but occasionally from other places and he found a spot overlooking the main courtyard, paid for a small flagon of wine and indulged himself in his favourite practice of people watching. At one point he saw Lord Arryn from a distance, in conversation with a small sickly boy and a woman who had red hair the colour of Lady Stark and who had to be the Lady Arryn. But if Lady Stark was sleek, wry and friendly – and ruled with a rod of iron – Lady Arryn seemed to be overweight, fretful and to his mind over-possessive of her son.

Then there were the others. At one point a fat, totally bald, pale man in exotic robes pattered across the courtyard, his hands in his sleeves and his face blank of all emotion. Jory distrusted him on sight for some reason that he could not pin down. An hour later the man returned, this time in conversation with a slim short man with grey hair at his temples, a small goatee and a look that combined cunning with smugness. The two seemed to be trading barbs as they walked, like two man playing a game that only they knew the rules to, and he narrowed his eyes as he watched them pass through a doorway out of sight. Something was scratching at his senses, warning him that there was danger here.

And then there was the shock. At one point, just as he was mulling when to retire and sleep until the morning, there was a stir in one doorway and a pair of men dressed in armour with white cloaks stepped through, followed by a tall fat man with long black hair and a beard that had the odd streak of grey in it. Jory blinked at the sight of the man. That was… King Robert? He remembered him from Pyke, where he had been perhaps a little heavyset but not fat, not like that. The King had stomped heavily across the courtyard, looking like a man preoccupied with many cares and then vanished through another doorway. Jory blinked and then sighed. Lord Stark would want to hear about that. He’d asked Jory to gather his impressions of what King’s Landing was like these days. Yes, he would most likely want to hear everything about that.

Sleep had come easily but he still woke before dawn, alarmed by that mysterious internal notion that now was the right time to get up. As he pulled his jerkin on there was a soft knock on the door and he walked over and opened it. Quill was standing there dressed in dark clothing. “You are ready to leave?”

“I am,” Jory replied, as he picked up his small bag of possessions. “Lead on.”

Quill led him down the passage in total silence, their passage lit only by the light of a single lantern, then down a short flight of stairs, up a passage that seemed to be steeper than it looked and then up another flight of stairs. When they came out into the open air he saw a small group of people ahead of them. One was Lord Arryn, who was looking fondly at the face of a small sleepy child who was in the arms of a woman about Jory’s age. Wait. That was young Lord Robert.

Lord Arryn noticed his arrival and then strode over to him. “Jory Cassel,” he said quietly, “I have a task for you. Here is a letter for Lord Stark. You must deliver it to him with all despatch.” He handed it over, it being stitched into what seemed to be the same leather wallet as the one that he had brought South, or near enough.

“I shall deliver it, my Lord Hand,” Jory replied quietly. “This I swear.”

“Good. I have another request. This-” he gestured at the woman and the child, who had now fallen asleep, “Is my son, Robert Arryn. He is to be fostered at Winterfell, as Lord Stark requested. I would like you to take him there. He is to be attended by Annah, acting as his nursemaid, and these two men as his guards – Willets and Rikson. Both are loyal to House Arryn. Once they are at Winterfell Annah is to stay with my son and the guards are to be sent back here to me. Here is a small purse of Dragons so that you can keep my son and your party fed and watered along the way, as well as horsed.” The Hand passed over a small but heavy clanking pouch. “Now – ride down to the docks. There will be a boat waiting for you – Quill will escort you to the correct jetty, where the boat will be waiting. And – give Ned Stark my thanks.”

Jory looked into the face of the Hand of the King and then knelt formally. “I will bring your son to Winterfell my Lord Hand. This, too, I swear.”

The older man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you. Now – go.”

They mounted quickly and then passed down through the courtyards and the open gates, where blinking guards looked at them in some surprise, before passing down the winding road to the docks. As they rode the light strengthened and the guards who had been holding lighted torches threw them away, the burning brands sending showers of red and gold sparks across the flagstones for an instant before they guttered and disappeared.

Quill led them in the growing dawn light to a jetty, where five guards in Arryn colours awaited them, next to a man who nodded at Quill. “Ser Davos,” Lord Arryn’s man replied. “I bring the party from the Hand of the King and place them in your care. Safe journey.”

“I will do my best, I can do no more,” the other man said and Jory recalled that this must be the Knight of Onions. Whatever his title he quickly got the trunks and other baggage that they had brought into the boat, similar to the one that had rowed him into the docks the previous day, followed by the party.

As Ser Davos’s men rowed them out with quick clean strokes Jory looked back at King’s Landing, before gazing up at the Red Keep. Far above him a white-haired speck was watching their departure and he knew without doubt that it was Lord Arryn. Concern roiled for a moment within him. He had a great duty ahead of him. Very well. He looked ahead. The ship was close now. North again. Away from this stench.

 


 

Fillion

“This is the greatest waste of time since…” Maester Baldwin threw his hands in the air, almost grasping the air for inspiration as the puffed up the stairs to the Tower of the Mysteries. “Since….”

“Since that last project of yours, involving the birds in the giant cage on the scales that refused to work properly?” Fillion asked with a wry smile. This got him a glare from Baldwin.

“That would have worked. No, this is the greatest waste of time since…”

“That other project of yours to see if you could use giant mirrors to set fire to Ironborn ships?”

Another glare. “That would have worked as well if that test ship hadn’t moved with the wind a bit.” They continued up the stairs. “This is still a waste of time though.”

“Oh, I agree. However, when Arch-Maester Tudyk tells you to do something, what choice do you have?”

They continued upwards as the larger, more heavily bearded man mulled this point. “None,” he confessed eventually. “None whatsoever. That said, I still say that this is a fool’s errand. Luwin’s wits have been addled by all that ice up in Winterfell.”

They reached the top of the stairs and then looked at the short corridor ahead of them as they got their breath back. “I hate this place,” Baldwin said eventually. “It reminds me of all the hours I put in to prove that something doesn’t work. I hate that as well.”

The nearest door opened and a cautious head with dishevelled hair peered out carefully. “Oh,” said Maester Maher as he looked out. “What are you two doing up here?”

Fillion peered at Maher carefully. There was a note in his voice that he had never heard before. It was more than the usual querulousness about someone intruding his part of the Citadel, it was… fear? Something like that anyway.

“We’re here on a mission from Arch-Maester Tudyk,” Baldwin said with a snort. “A massive waste of time given the premise behind it, but we’re doing it anyway.”

Maher blinked at them both. “What is a waste of time? What mission?”

“Luwin sent a raven from Winterfell,” Fillion muttered as he advanced down the corridor towards the room that contained the glass candles. “Wants us to check on those wretched things. He had a theory, or heard a legend, or something like that. Waste of time, addled wits, and so on. Now if you’ll excuse us we have a short ceremony to complete, followed by the inevitable failure to light a glass candle and then a retreat down all those stairs back to more worthwhile pursuits. Plus dinner, wine and normal life.”

“You can’t!” Maher half-shouted as he darted in front of them with a speed that made Fillion and Baldwin both stop and blink. “I mean… those things should only ever be approached by a Maester as a part of his studies!”

Yes, there was definitely something in his voice, thought Fillion as he eyed the dishevelled man. Well, he’d always been untidy, but now that he came to inspect the man’s appearance he looked gaunter than before, pale and with lines of care on his face. “Arch-Maester Tudyk, the Arch-Maester of Magic, amongst other things, gave us leave to do this,” he said with a frown. “We have full permission. Now stand aside.”

Maher wavered, clasping his hands together and Fillion exchanged a worried gaze with Baldwin, who was frowning thunderously. “Maher,” the latter said with a growl. “What are you so worried about?”

The man looked at them worriedly. “Nothing,” he said in what had to be the worst attempt at lying that Fillion had ever seen in his life.

He stared at him and then made the connection. “By the Seven above us, you haven’t broken one of them, have you? I know of your fascination with them, your prodding and poking at them… Maher, if you’ve smashed one by mistake the Arch-Maesters will have your hide. Or worse still your chain.”

This flummoxed Maher, who blinked at tham both. “What? Broken one? NO! Never!” Fillion peered at him and then relaxed a little. Well, in this case he seemed to be telling the truth. Whatever was the matter the candles were intact.

“Well then, get out of our way,” Fillion muttered and opened the door. The chamber inside was a simple one. When an Acolyte was training, one of his tasks was a vigil within the room where he would try (and inevitably fail) to light any one of the three black candles. There they stood on the podium in the middle of the room, a testament to the fact that magic was gone from this world. “Right,” he muttered as he recalled the words to the old ritual that was said to light them. “Let’s get this over with.”

“You know,” said Maher in a strained voice, “I really don’t think that-”

“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Baldwin roared. “You’ve done nothing but whinge and whine since you saw us up here. You know, we are all Maesters here, don’t you? You might study lost arts that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, less still the stinking hides that you have stored up here, but this is not your private workshop!”

Fillion tuned the men behind him out mentally and concentrated on the ritual. There were three versions of it. The longest took the length of a candle, the middle one took half a candle and the shortest but a few minutes. As Maher started to yap something about the need for proper procedures Fillion clapped his hands loudly, shocking them into silence and then muttered the words quickly.

As he said the last syllable he stretched out a hand and gestured at the nearest glass candle. Nothing happened. No light, no spark, nothing. He smiled. Yes, a waste of time. Baldwin muttered what he was thinking behind him but then, as he was turning away, he saw it. A faint shimmer of light within the heart of the candle he had pointed at. He stared at it, deeply shocked. Hearing receding footsteps he turned. Baldwin was walking towards the door, with one hand clamped around Maher’s right shoulder in what looked like one of his friendly-yet-forceful grips of iron. “Maesters! Look!”

The two turned and then stared. Baldwin reacted first. “This is impossible,” he gasped. “Impossible. What trick is this? Where are the ordinary candles? Where are the mirrors?” He raged around the room, looking into all the corners and nooks and crannies. “This is not possible!”

Fillion waved a hand to quieten him down. Yes, there was light there. Not very bright light, but there was still light. His ritual had been said quickly and quietly and by no means with intent, and if he recalled correctly from his studies all three could be factors in magic. “I’m afraid my friend that this is possible. The candle is alight.” He bowed his head in thought and then with more intensity than the last time commenced the ritual again, this time looking at the glass candle next to the previous one. This time when he gestured at it the candle lit with more light than before. It was hardly a bright and shining light, but it was enough to be seen.

And then a light went on his own mind. He turned to Maher, who was wringing his hands in worry. “You knew that they would light, didn’t you?”

The man flinched from his gaze. “No! Well… no, I hoped that they would not. They are supposed to be dead! Magic is supposed to be gone. I read about it, I might have wished that it was otherwise and…” The man looked as if he was about to burst into tears.

Baldwin stamped over to him and glared at the wretched cringing little man. “How long have you known?” Each hissed word made Maher cringe.

“I… I was in here ten days ago, with the Fourth Fragment of the Book of Malys,” he stammered. “I thought that there was a way of pronouncing one of the words, based on a book I discovered on dialects of Old Valyrian and when I read out the words… the candles all woke. All three! Not very brightly, but… I thought that what I had done was dangerous! I’ve been trying to research it all, to find out what I did wrong, to make them go to sleep…”

Fillion looked at Baldwin, who subsided with a snort of disgust and then turned to look at the candles again. “Well,” said the larger man, “At least this was not a waste of time. I’ll go and get the Arch-Maester. Perhaps the snows of Winterfell have not yet addled Luwin’s mind.”

 


 

Mikon

Dragonstone lay far to the South-West and the ship was now beating up in the face of a nasty wind from the South-East that was threatening to push them a bit too far West. But Seaworth seemed to know what he was doing and the course he had set looked good.

Mikon sat with his back against the base of the foremast under the main deck and concentrated on carving a little wooden bird out of the piece of driftwood he’d snagged on the way in to the ship.

This was a rush job. He hated rush jobs. He hated the stress, he hated the uncertainty and above all he hated the back that he had no-one to guard his back. Especially as he was on a ship at sea. That cut down on ways to escape should things go wrong. He cursed the day that he’d started to work for that sly little bastard. Yes, he paid well, but there was something wrong with the man. He had the eyes of a snake at times, almost lifeless and unsettling.

Well, at least he could make a decent fist of being a seaman. He’d been on and off boats for years, in King’s Landing and other places. He’d never served on Seaworth’s ship before though and he thanked his lucky stars for that. Last thing he wanted was to have someone frown at him and wonder where he’d seen him before, especially as he’d been used on a number of little errands that usually resulted in someone being discovered with a knife in his side or in one entertaining case being found head-down in a privy. The thefts were almost as bad and the careful planting of objects could be a nightmare. Some people could be too damn observant.

He carved a flake of wood away from the wings and peered at it carefully as he assessed his options. His orders had been hurried but clear. Try and make sure that the ship docked somewhere near the Fingers and then try and cause enough chaos to get the child away from the guards. Heh. Easier said than done. This would not be easy. One of his favourite ruses was to use fire – plenty of smoke, plenty of confusion, plenty of ways to escape. Only an imbecile would try and use fire at sea though. Ships could be tinderboxes. A fire on board could lead to total chaos and then a fiery death, or even a wet death.

So he needed something else. Something serious but not too immediately dangerous. Something to force Seaworth to get to the nearest port. Damage, or perhaps an emergency that required a Maester? Hmmm, that had possibilities. He had to make sure that no-one suspected him and that would not be easy in such a cramped space, but he was sure that he could come up with something.

 


 

Benjen

It had taken longer than he had initially thought to get to Winterfell in response to Ned’s summons, and the man responsible for that delay was riding beside him now, their horses side by side, his wrinkled face with his sightless eyes set in a look of weary determination. Maester Aemon was making his first trip South of the Wall for many, many decades and his old age and blindness had made it a long and difficult trip.

The old man had insisted on joining him the moment that he had heard of Benjen’s summons to Winterfell with every piece of information that Castle Black had about The Others. “The books are old,” he had told Benjen and the Old Bear, “Luwin will need help deciphering them. And I have read them so many times myself that I am the only one that can do this. I may no longer be able to see but my memory is still an excellent one and I remember every page and every line. Besides, I have sworn to keep these books safe. With no offence meant to you First Ranger, they are more my territory than yours.”

He had exchanged a look with the Old Bear, who had shrugged and then allowed it. But he had the nagging feeling that there was something more than that about this trip for Maester Aemon. Something seemed to be driving him. He put up with the endless indignities of life on the road and somehow Benjen had been able to find them shelter of some sort every night on the long journey down. Partly that had been down to the extreme old age of the Maester of the Night’s Watch – many looked at him and felt awe at how such an old man was yet still alive.

The rising had been the hard part and he had had to get Aemon used to the art of riding a horse again. Much had been difficult for him and he must have been in extreme pain on many a night after a long day of riding. Benjen had had to find a rhythm to their riding together, to gazing at the road ahead and guiding them around the potholes before they reached them. The others in the party, the men with the packhorses and the three chests of books, had helped him and as they went further South they had found themselves moving a little faster every day. It had been the hardest thing that he had ever done, which was ironic, but they had done it.

The increasingly good road had helped. Benjen had noted the first work parties just North of the Long Lake – men with rough tools and bags of rocks chipped from the nearest outcrop, filling in the potholes, clearing the trees that crowded the sides of the King’s Road in places. Not many work parties, but they were enough to make a difference, and the wood was being used in some of the villages that existed here and there along the road, to shore up walls and make them thicker in places. Winter was coming.

Maester Aemon had noted those parties, had heard the sound of the work and asked Benjen soft, careful questions, before falling silent and thinking hard. Ned was up to something, he could tell that at once, but he did not know what.

And now the towers of his childhood home were visible on the horizon and he sighed slightly. “Maester Aemon – Winterfell is in sight.”

The old Maester smiled slightly. “Good. Thank you for your patience with this old man, First Ranger.”

He smiled back, even though he knew that the other man could not see it. “The honour has been all mine, Maester Aemon. You have been here before?”

“Many years ago. Many, many, years ago. I remember your grandfather, Edwyle Stark.” And then he sighed and fell silent for a moment. “And of course your father.”

Brandon nodded and then continued riding South West in silence. He knew every inch of the ground here and he knew of the old track that left the King’s Road well short of the old spur that led up to Winterfell from the South.

“What was that?” Master Aemon had jerked his head to the right and seemed to be looking at the woods on the horizon that lay to the West of Winterfell.

Benjen looked in the same direction. He saw nothing. “What was what?”

“I heard the sound of a wolf, howling. A long way away and muffled, as if in trees.”

He listened hard, but heard nothing, before looking back at the others, who greeted his gaze with shrugs. “I’m sorry Maester Aemon, I heard nothing.”

“Hmmph,” the old man replied before frowning. “There was something familiar about it. I have heard that sound before. Where though?” They kept riding down the track and had travelled about a mile before the old Maester looked up again sharply. “I hear it again. And I remember what it is. That is the sound of a direwolf.”

Benjen stared at the man and then at the woods again. Impossible. No direwolf had been seen South of the Wall since… “You are certain?”

“I am.”

“We must ride on.”

“Aye, we must. Signs and portents, First Ranger. Signs and portents.” And then the old man shivered and fell silent all the way until the guards at the North Gate of Winterfell demanded their names and business. But even though he was home, Benjen felt a chill.

 


 

Theon

He had to be the oldest man that there had ever been, Theon thought as he remembered the little party that had come through the North Gate not long before, and he shivered again at the memory of those sightless old eyes. The Master of Castle Black, along with Lord Stark’s brother, First Ranger Benjen Stark. It meant something, he knew that. A man as old as the Maester did not come all this way South for nothing. He had seen Lord Stark walk out to greet his brother with joy and then greet the old man with great shock. Something else had crossed his face then, something he had not seen before on the face of Lord Stark. And then he had ushered them all into the main keep and life in Winterfell had returned to normal – or as normal as things were at the moment.

He was now sitting at the top of the great steps that led to the main hall, to one side of the doors and with a mug of ale in one hand and a hunk of bread and cheese that he had charmed off Aliza, the older woman with the curves in all the right places and a bosom that could suffocate a man, and as he ate and drank he pondered.

Robb still worried him. Yes, he was almost his old self, but there was something there still, a distance between him and Theon. Between Robb and everyone actually. He was focussed on something, he was driven by something. When he was not training with Theon and Jon (who was as worried about Robb as he was, in his quiet way) he was studying with his father, studying about the various Houses of the North, as well as other places. Luwin was constantly providing him with books about this and that, about house sigils and who was tied by bonds of blood or loyalty to who.

He’d asked Robb about this and he’d got a tired smile and a quip about Father having set him more studies, but there was an intensity about him that had been missing before. It was as if he was waiting for something and trying to prepare for a task that he desperately wanted to avoid. Oh and he’d also caught Robb standing on the parapets again, staring at the woods and muttering something about echoes and heartbeats.

The studies about houses and sigils made him pause for a moment. He’d started his own research himself, not on the North but on the Iron Islands. If Robb was learning about how to rule the North then it was past time that he started relearning what he knew about Pyke and the other islands, about the Ironborn that he would one day rule after Father died. So far what he had learnt had left him… well, he wasn’t sure how to describe his feelings.

He’d always been proud of being Ironborn, proud of his blood, his family, his people and their history. That had been beaten into him as a child, sometimes by his father, who he remembered as a grim-faced man with long hair and strained look, especially as the war went badly. But… that history was based on reaving, salt wives and thralls. The Iron Price was the measure by which a man was weighed. This was something he vaguely remembered, but reading about it had been… well a shock. He looked about Winterfell for a moment and imagined for an instant what a reaving party might do to this place, only to shake his head in shock and puzzlement. What had brought that up?

Seeing movement to one side he turned his head and saw a raven watching him intently to one side. Normally ravens tilted their heads when they looked at men. This one did not. It cawed at him softly and then looked at something ahead of him. He turned his head again and watched as a drooping Bran walked up to the butts again with his bow and quiver. The lad had been depressed ever since Lord Stark had apparently made him swear an oath on Ice itself never to climb the walls of Winterfell again. It was a harsh thing to make the lad promise, but there had to be a reason.

Bran grounded his quiver rather ineptly and then inspected his bow. Theon winced. The lad needed a lot of training.

Boots scuffed to one side and then a quiet voice said: “Your pardon – I did not know that you were there.” He looked up and did his best not to scowl. Domeric fucking Bolton. The harp-playing song-singing horseriding prick who was the object of Sansa’s increasing attention.

He stilled his face. “Just taking my ease. And watching young Bran there.”

Bolton nodded, his eyes taking in the scene. Bran fitted one arrow to the bow and then visibly sighed and pulled the bow back. Theon winced slightly. His grip was all wrong, his balance was all wrong and where was Rodrik Cassel? “Young Bran is enthusiastic, but unskilled,” Bolton said, echoing his own thoughts. “Mayhaps he needs some tips?”

“Mayhaps he does,” Theon grunted as he finished off his meal and then drank the last of the ale. “Sadly Robb’s at his studies.”

“Lord Robb is most attentive to his father’s commands.” Bolton sighed slightly. “At least he has brothers - and sisters too. I do not. Well, apart from a half-brother who I have never met. My father says that I must avoid him.”

This darkened Theon’s mood a little. “I had brothers. King Robert had them killed. And I have a sister, who I know not.”

Bolton looked at him. “I have read of your brothers, and my father told me about them. Their acts… well, they were not knights. Not knightly.”

Theon bristled and then forced himself to relax. “They followed my father and the old ways.”

“Ah, the old ways.” Bolton smiled bitterly. “I know that curse too.”

Theon looked up at him, startled. “Curse?”

Bolton looked back at him and then pulled his cloak to one side to display the sigil of House Bolton. “Do you see that, Theon Greyjoy? The flayed man?” The cloak fell back to conceal it again. “My father sees no wrong in that banner, whilst I do. My ancestors flayed men alive. Made a habit of it. A skill. Can you imagine that?” He closed his eyes, his face twisted with revulsion for a moment. When they opened again he looked weary for a moment. “The old ways sometimes need to change and become the new ways. Tradition must give way to… better things if those traditions were twisted and bitter.”

Theon looked away and back down to Bran, who had just loosed an arrow into the ground in front of him and was looking baffled as to how such a thing could have happened. “You ask much then.”

“I would have House Bolton remembered for more than its past,” Bolton muttered. “And I envy you here.”

“Envy me?” He barked the words loud enough to make Bran turn and look at them both for a moment, before shrugging and turning back to his bow and quiver.

“I do. You have brothers here. Not of your blood, but of your heart. You were brought up here.” Bolton paused and then bowed to him slightly. “Your pardon again. I must go.” And then he turned and left.

Theon watched him go and then looked back at Bran. The little idiot would hurt someone at this rate. So after a long moment he stood and pattered down the stairs towards Bran. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he said as he approached. “Here – let me show you.”

Chapter Text

Ned

By the time that guest quarters had been found for Maester Aemon and he had supervised the unloading of the books and their safe delivery to a very respectful Luwin, before taking the time for a brief change of robes as well as a nap and some refreshment, Ned had finally been able to overcome his astonishment at the arrival of the old man. He had been considering seeking the counsel of the last of the old dynasty in Westeros, but had been planning to visit Castle Black. To have Aemon visit him instead was a very great shock.

And now he eased the old Maester into a chair in his solar and poured a goblet of wine for him, before guiding it into those old age-spotted hands.

“My thanks, Lord Stark,” the Maester said with a wry smile. “Your hospitality has been most generous.”

“Your presence is a great honour,” Ned replied as Benjen slipped in wearing clean cloths and with his hair slicked down. “Come in and take a seat Ben.”

“Thank you Ned,” his brother sighed as he poured himself some wine. “Luwin is as a small child on his naming day with all the books we have brought from Castle Black. He is reading, exclaiming and copying, along with his assistants. Now, I am sorry to be blunt, but what caused this summoning?”

“Yes, I too am most curious as to this sudden interest in The Others Lord Stark. As far as I was aware they have been gone from this world for many centuries.”

Ned paused and looked at them both, before rubbing a hand over his beard and then finally leaning forwards. But before he could open his mouth he was forestalled. “Lord Stark,” Aemon said with a sigh. “Your silence is telling. In fact your silence tells me more than your words will, given that you seem to be mulling over what to tell us. And that fills me with much foreboding.”

He looked at the old man and then sighed. Candour was the only choice open to him now. “I have requested as much information as possible on The Others because we have had… grave intelligence. But before I explain I must ask you a question – how stands the Night’s Watch at present?”

Aemon’s lips pursed and he looked in the direction of Benjen. “Tell him.”

“Ned, one of the reasons The Lord Commander allowed me to come South to Winterfell in answer to your summons is that the Night’s Watch is at the lowest ebb it has been in many, many years. Perhaps its lowest point ever. We are down to three castles on the Wall. Our new recruits barely keep pace with our losses. And what we are sent, as you know, are the dregs - the scum of the gaols and most desperate men in Westeros. We need help.” Benjen said the last words tiredly.

“He speaks the truth, Lord Stark. A decade ago I had three clerks who had their letters and numbers. Today I have one who still requires teaching and supervision. One of the reasons I came South is that I could not entrust the books that I have brought to his untender mercies. We need more men, we need better men and we need men who can write their own name and then read it – and that name must not be ‘X’.”

“And the Wildlings press us greatly, as I have written to you about,” Benjen said quietly. “We have a missing patrol at the moment and when we return to the wall I will scout out to try and find something of what happened.”

“The Wildlings press you in greater and greater numbers do they not? This Mance Rayder leads them and gives them a purpose. So tell me – why do they press South?”

Benjen frowned at him. “Because they suspect how weak we are.”

“That I do not doubt – Rayder is a former brother of yours is he not? But there is another reason. Rayder must know that if he presses too hard I will call the Banners and his Wildlings will be slaughtered. So he must be desperate. So - what is driving the Wildlings South?”

His brother sat up in his chair. “Driving the… Ned you cannot be serious!”

“I am deadly serious Ben. We have had intelligence that The Others have returned. From where I know not – I just know that they are back. And that is why the Wildlings flee before them. That explains their desperation.” He looked at Maester Aemon, who was sitting in his chair, his hands up his sleeves and his face a mystery as his sightless eyes flickered from side to side, as if he was watching something – or recalling something.

“And what,” the old Black Brother finally said, “Is the source of this intelligence?”

Ned took a deep breath. “The Old Gods. And before you call Luwin and ask him if I have hit my head on something, I have to say that he and my son Robb both know that the Old Gods have touched us. Robb first. They… they brought him back from a future that must not be, a future in which I went South to become Hand of the King and then died in an intrigue of the Lannisters, after which Westeros descended into war. And the North was ruined and the Wall was… neglected.”

The two men stared at him, or at least Benjen stared at him in horror and Aemon looked in his direction with that look of terrible intensity. Oddly enough Aemon was the first to speak. “Robb… first? Who was second?”

“I was. I found Robb in the Godswood, praying to the Old Gods for guidance before the Hearts Tree. When I confronted him he placed a hand on the tree and then he grabbed my arm and…” And then he told them everything, his vision, the full story of what Robb had seen in that terrible future. When he stopped speaking he found that his mouth was dry and he poured himself some wine and drank.

Benjen was in a state of shock, whether from the news that Ned had died in that future, or that he himself had vanished, or that Winterfell had been burned to the ground or, indeed a combination of everything.

Maester Aemon on the other hand had a look of determination that he had seen on few men before. “Then my fears are justified,” he said eventually. “Lord Stark, you of all people have little reason to love my family in the wake of what my mad nephew did to your lord father and your brother. But I beg of you that you listen to my counsel on this matter. You are right, death does indeed march on the Wall. I have not the foresight of my ancestor Daenys the Dreamer, but I do have a distant echo of what she had buried in my blood. And of late I have had dark dreams of a tide of ice coming from the far North, beyond the Wall. I had dismissed this as forebodings from the Wildling attacks, mere fancy on my part – but I do recall the last time I felt such a feeling of dread. T’was the day your father and brother died, as I found out later. And when your raven came telling us to send what information we had on The Others to Winterfell… I decided to come South and to urge you to send what strength you can to aid us on the Wall.”

“When the time comes I will call the Banners,” Ned said firmly. “I must first ensure that the South sees no war so that they can send their own strength to the Wall as well.”

Aemon nodded approvingly. “And I noted by the sounds of repairs to the road and the logging of trees that you have already started to make sure that such a march will be swift and then timber will be on hand to make shelters with – and to repair the castles that are unoccupied on the wall?”

The old man’s blindness had not dulled his wits. “You are quite right on all of those things Maester Aemon.”

“Then you have begun well,” Aemon said approvingly. “And I salute you for it. But much will yet remain to be done. There is the issue of finding better men for the Night’s Watch. We must have proof that The Others have returned, if we are to see men more freely volunteer for the Night’s Watch.”

“I had thought of that. Mention is made in the records here of things called ‘wights’,” Ned replied. “Dead men raised again by The Others, but raised only to kill the living. They must be burnt, as even their severed limbs alone try to kill.” He looked at his brother. “Ben. That is also why I have called you. It will be difficult and it will be dangerous. We need the hand of a wight.”

His brother, who had been staring at the far wall of the solar with a look of shock, seemed to shake himself as he returned from wherever his wits had strayed to. “You don’t want much, do you?” He said the words with a strained smile. “Might as well as me to catch that direwolf that Maester Aemon heard in the woods as we approached Winterfell.”

Ned stared at him. The direwolf was in the woods. Time had almost caught up with them. Every moment would soon be essential. “Ben I need you to get back to the Wall as soon as possible. We need that hand. And Maester Aemon – I need to speak with you on a matter of the utmost secrecy.”

 


 

Roose

The new iron mine was a success, Roose thought as he looked over the books that his steward had brought him. That was good, although he still needed to check on the building work on the settlement that would house the workmen once winter arrived. Skilled miners were a valuable commodity in the North.

Knuckles rapped on the door to his solar and he looked up. “Enter.”

The door opened to admit the Maester, old Quirrel, who strode in and then handed over a letter. “By raven from Winterfell my Lord.”

He took it with a nod and then dismissed the man. As the door closed he opened the letter and then smiled slightly. It was from Domeric. The boy was well, sent his respects, said that he was being well-treated by Lord Stark and his household and wished leave to stay at Winterfell another month. Excellent – he would not have asked for that time if his visit was not going well. A marriage of Stark and Bolton would cement the ties between the two Great Houses of the North. He was about to put the letter down when he saw the hasty postscript that had been added to it.

“I have late news – Benjen Stark has come to Winterfell with Maester Aemon of Castle Black, a most venerable man who had yet more books on The Others with him.”

He stood there for a moment, his mind working furiously. Maester Aemon of Castle Black? Impossible – the man had to be more than 90 years old! Moreover… yes, he was the Targeryan wasn’t he? The last of that name in Westeros, buried in his duties on the Wall, forgotten about by almost everyone.

This was… intriguing, and he walked over to his chair by the fireplace, where he sat quickly and thought things through. Now, why would the Maester of Castle Black, a man whose family had cut the head and main branch off House Stark go to Winterfell? Just to deliver books? He doubted that.

And then he paused and leant back, blinking rapidly in thought. No. No, that was impossible. But there could be no other explanation for it. He knew Ned Stark and respected him greatly for it. He was not the impulsive idiot that his brother had been and frankly he was twice the man that his father been in terms of giving careful thought to matters. No, for his mind Ned Stark was an excellent warrior because he judged matters on the battlefield until the time was just right and then attacked. He was not a man who did things on a whim.

So why the need for all this information on The Others? Some might see it as push so collect and save as much information as possible before winter arrived. But the arrival of one of the oldest and most knowledgeable men in Westeros to Winterfell, straight from the Wall… that placed a different slant on things. Why was Aemon there? Why was such an old man, no such a blind old man, in Winterfell? To discuss legends? No, something must have driven him there. Then perhaps…

A chill went through him for a moment. The legends, the stories of The Others, all spoke of terrible things, of dead men that walked, of creatures that could kill with a touch, wielding swords that shattered steel as if it was made from glass. Oh, he knew the legends. They were the stuff of old wives’ tales, along with never harm a Heart Tree, never let a black cat cross your path and never curse a raven. Why? Who knows? Tales and legends and the stuff spun out of rumour to explain facts that man had no answer for.

This was folly. He was worrying over a legend and a trip South by an old man who might have merely been visiting Winterfell to actually escort some old books and papers. He glared at the letter. This was folly, his worrying about something like this.

But. The word burrowed about in the back of his mind. Would Ned Stark normally bother with such ‘folly’? Why had he called to every holdfast in the North for information about a legend about things that were dead and buried. And then he remembered his talk with Domeric, the day that the call for documents about The Others had come in. Why did the Wall exist? Why had the Night’s Watch stuck to their vows for so long? Did they just defend against the Wildlings, or was there something else there, some old, old, foundation of fact?

His eyes flicked for a moment to the tapestry to one side. No, that would just be a waste of time. Surely it would. He stood and returned to the account books. But the figures seemed to dance in front of his eyes and he kept adding things up wrongly and as he cursed quietly and scratched through one number and then wrote the right one out next to it. He looked at the tapestry again and then laid his quill down and sighed. Well, if this was a day for legends and folly, then perhaps he should add to it.

Roose stood and locked the door to his solar, before walking over to the tapestry. Behind it was a door, old and battered by time. He pulled out a key from a pocket in his jerkin and paused for a moment and then inserted it and turned. The lock was old and stiff and he made a note to add a little oil to it, but the key turned and the door creaked open. He paused for a moment and then he reached out to one side, grabbed an unlit torch from the wall, lit it carefully from the small fire in the grate and then walked through the doorway.

The passageway was short but it changed from smooth stones to rough ones in a few yards and he had to watch his step. He remembered the first time that his father had brought him along this passageway and the uneasy feeling that it had given him – as if he was stepping back in time. At the end lay the other door, even older. Another key, another mental note to bring oil and then he was in the room.

It was pitch black in here, lit only by the wavering light of the torch. He looked at the alcoves in the walls and wondered, yet again, what the objects were and why his ancestors had brought them to this place and left them there in such reverence. So much had been lost, so much forgotten. There was the hilt and lower half of an old sword. The skull of a bear with green copper wire wrapped around its snout. A human skull, missing the jaw. A knife made of what looked like some kind of dark glass. An old wooden statue of something that had been worn by the passage of so many fingers and so many years that it was impossible to even start to guess what it had once been. A rough crystal in the shape of a hand. And then…. the little box. It was made from the wood of a Weirwood tree, bound together with wooden pegs.

He picked it up and then opened it carefully, taking out the little stones within, each no larger than his thumbnail, before kneeling on the rough flagstones and concentrating briefly. North was, yes, there. The white stone went down to mark North. The black stone marked South, the red one East and the green one west. The rest he arranged so that they all formed a circle. Then he said the words, the words passed down to his father by his ancestor and then on to him, the words that he would have to pass on one day to Domeric. When he said the last word he looked down at the stones. Nothing. He exhaled slowly. Yes, this had all been a folly. A waste of his- he froze in place and stared. The white stone had flickered in colour for a moment – and then brightened. Not by much but just enough to show more than whiteness. He reached down with a trembling hand and brushed the slight layer of dust off it and the light grew a little brighter.

“If the stones are lit, then danger, the danger from The Others, is in that direction, so beware,” he said quietly, speaking the words of his father. “Be watchful.” And then he froze. He suddenly had the strongest feeling that someone, somewhere was watching him, he knew not how as he knelt in that small dark room at the heart of the Dreadfort. And for the first time in many a long year he felt not just scared but terrified. He closed his eyes, sent out a prayer to the Old Gods and then quickly returned the stones to the box and then put it back in its place. As he did he stooped. For a second he could have sworn that he had seen a faint red light in the eye sockets of the human skull.

He strode out hurriedly, locking the first door and then the second door behind him and then, having made sure that the tapestry was in place, he poured himself a goblet of wine and drank it quickly. When he looked down at his free hand he could see that his fingers were trembling. Ned Stark was right to ask about The Others. They had returned.

After a long moment he willed his fingers to stop their movement and then walked to his desk, where he wrote a terse letter to Domeric. “Stay as long as you like. Find out why Lord Stark needs information on The Others. If your other matter bears fruit let me know. You may be called straight back to the Dreadfort however. Be well. Your lord father.”

Roose looked at it briefly, nodded, sanded it, and then rang the bell for his steward. A moment later someone knocked at the door and he stared at it, startled. It was too soon for the man to have obeyed his summons. He strode to the door and unlocked it, to see Quirrel. “My Lord,” the old man panted, “A message from House Warrick my Lord. They have most grave news from the Weeping Water.”

Something crawled up his back for an instant. He had a sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong.

 


 

Ramsay

He’d kill them all. He’d escape, he’d recover from the two arrows in him and what felt like a broken ankle and then he’d come back and he’d kill them all, very, very slowly, flaying them alive with the smallest possible knife. Perhaps he’d find some way of killing his pampered half-brother, so that he would be the heir to House Bolton and therefore untouchable when he returned, but he would return and he would kill them all.

He wiped the blood out of his eyes and then frantically crawled through the undergrowth, trying to ignore the agony from his ankle. Thorns scored his hands and burrs filled his hair. There seemed to be blood everywhere, in his eyes, in his mouth and in his boots. He scowled and then giggled to himself. Yes, blood. That was important. He could see something up ahead and he parted the bushes carefully. That was the old path. He knew where he was now. Somewhere on the other side lay the slope up to that outcrop and that spring. He needed water.

Grabbing a tree trunk he hauled himself to his feet and then quickly hopped across the path on his good leg, before collapsing into the undergrowth on the other side and listening carefully. No shouts, no calls. Perhaps he had outsmarted them and sent them the other way. And then he started his shuffling crawl again, trying not to cry out every time his ankle hit something.

They shouldn’t have been here. These were his woods! His! He snarled the word again and again as he crawled, lost in a rage. Those self-righteous pricks in their own livery and their servants and their arrogant belief that he was committing any kind of crime by hunting in his own woods! He had been about to corner his prey, who had led him a very pretty chase, the little slut. He loved the hunts now, they were the best idea he had ever had. Reek’s advice had been valuable. He had a habit of coming up with good advice every time that Ramsay got angry, which was often these days. He had heard that his brother wanted to meet him, and when that day came he’d kill him and take his place.

And then they had arrived. The two young Warricks and their sister. With their men. They’d taken one look at the naked slut and then at Ramsay and Reek and then it had all been up. Reek had gotten an arrow through one eye, so he’d been useless and it had been up to Ramsay to defend himself. He’d gotten one of the Warrick huntsmen with an arrow in the shoulder and then he’d run. Because then the arrows had come, and the pain and the screaming and the wild flight through the trees, until the fall down the small outcrop that had hurt his ankle. Kill his brother. Yes, kill that bastard.

He felt dizzy for a moment and a sickening feeling ripped through him and he stopped crawling to shake his head. He needed water. He needed that spring. He needed food. Rest. A chance to bind his foot and keep going. South perhaps? Kill Domeric.

The slope steepened suddenly and he slid down it, leaves and branches going with him, his hands going out to try and slow his slide. His broken ankle hit something and he yelped with pain and then gritted his teeth and rode it out. When he came to a halt he looked up. He was in a small dell. And there was the spring. He grinned wildly – and then he stopped moving and looked around. He was being watched, he could feel it. And then he saw the watcher and relaxed. A raven, on a rocky outcrop. Just a raven a stupid bird.

He crawled forwards slowly, his eyes on the spring – and then he looked back at the raven again. It was just sitting there and staring at him. Fixedly. That was not a normal stare for a bird. And then he heard the soft sound of dry leaves being trodden on. He looked over and then pulled his knife out and rolled onto his back, before pushing at the ground with his free hand and good foot until his back was to the outcrop. Who was there? The raven stared down at him. It was starting to annoy him.

Branches shifted and he looked over just in time to see a wolf stride into the dell and then sit down on its haunches. It too just stared at him. Ramsay licked his lips. This was not good. But he had his knife and he was at bay. Nothing could beat him. Nothing. And then raven cawed three times. The wolf got up off its haunches and stood. And then… it seemed to double in size, swelling to become a great direwolf, or what he presumed was a direwolf. He blinked hard and then shook his head in denial. When he looked back it was just an ordinary wolf again.

He swallowed convulsively. Something… something was very wrong here. Had he hit his head? Was the wolf real? And then it snarled at him and he gripped his knife firmly and prepared to defend himself. But as he did he felt a weight on his shoulder and he looked up as the raven alighted onto his shoulder – just in time to see its beak jab down into his eyeball, faster than any raven should be able to move.

Pain annihilated the world and he screamed in agony, flailing at the filthy creature and then falling to the ground, his hands around his eye and his knife in his lap. And then somehow through his screams he heard the growl and the thud of paws and then he felt the even more hideous pain in his neck.

In the last moment before the pain and the flood of blood into his lungs snuffed everything out he thought he heard an old and very creaky voice say: “A life brought back and a life ended.” And then nothing.

 


 

Aemon

The Maester of Winterfell knew his business, oh yes, Aemon thought as he sat in the study and listened to the crackling of the fire to his left. There was much to go through, much to collate and describe and pore over, but Luwin had made a good start on the documents that had been assembled so far.

It was night apparently but he had not yet retired to his bed. He had far too much to think on. His great-grand-nephew was in the keep. He was still stunned by that knowledge. He had thought the last of his direct kin to be across the Narrow Sea in Essos, in penurious exile, but instead he had a great-grand-nephew that he had not even known about.

He thought about the father of the child and repressed a snarl. Young fool. Aerys had been mad but Rhaegar… to have been obsessed by prophecy to the point of a different kind of madness, one that had led to the war that historians now called Robert’s Rebellion… More than a fool. And now his son was here in Winterfell.

Lord Eddard Stark was… a remarkable man. Many in the Night’s Watch who had heard of him spoke his name with praise. A man of honour. A good warrior and a cunning general. All traits that he admired. But there was something else. The man had deliberately made everyone think that Jon was his bastard son, a lie to protect him.

Because he knew that Lord Stark had spoken the truth when he said that had King Robert known of the boy’s existence he would have had him killed at once, as the son of the rapist Rhaegar Targaryen. As ‘dragonspawn’.

The boy would have to be protected. And he would eventually have to be told of his true heritage, as part Stark and part Targaryen. He nodded to himself. From what he had heard of him so far, and from what he had gleaned from quietly listening to him, Jon was a quiet, sensible young man who thought before he spoke. No wonder many thought of him as the son of Eddard Stark. He may have had the Stark looks – or so he was told – but he reminded him of his younger brother Aegon a little, gone these many years but still remembered so fondly by him.

He smiled slightly and then stilled that smile. Well now. The boy would have to learn a little of his real father as well as his family and in such a way that he would not panic at the very thought of being of the same blood as the ‘Mad King’. And that would take a little tact. Fortunately Lord Stark could point to him as being a reassuring presence, to remind him that not all Targaryen blood was tainted with madness.

He sighed and ran a suddenly weary hand over his face. This was yet another burden, to add to the many that he already bore. But it was one that he could not shrink from. The boy was family. And Ned Stark was right – he had to be protected. He was part Targaryen and part Stark. Especially because the Others were coming. As was winter. And if the Starks were right about that, what else could they be right about?

 


 

Mikon

He’d been weighing up what to do for some time now. He had to get the ship into the nearest port in The Fingers and he was running out of time with every mile that the ship ploughed its way northwards. He’d thought up and discarded a dozen plans. Was an emergency needed. Yes. What kind of emergency? Stab the Northman and make it seem an accident? Bludgeon him perhaps? No, he was too wary and observant. Stab the nurse? No, she was too close to the boy and he wanted to make sure that the brat didn’t scream at the sight of him. Poison the nurse? Same problem.

So instead he went for the most obvious solution – make Seaworth think that they had to get to a port at once. The first thing he’d done that night was to creep below and replace the chain for the pump – even a relatively new ship worked enough in open seas to let in a little water, forcing the crew to man the pump once or twice a day – with one that was old and worn and which would break easily. That was the first part. The second part of the plan was about to be carried out by him right now – sneaking into the bow and carefully arranging for the windlass for the starboard anchor to fail, making the ship lose the anchor itself. With a busted pump and only one anchor left, and with Seaworth being a good sailor, they’d have to find port quickly.

He was quite pleased with himself as he crept up to the windlass and inspected it. It was a cloudy night at the middle of the watch, so there was little if any chance of him being seen. He’d opened a small hatch to one side, which he’d slide into the moment that the windlass failed and the anchor-chain went roaring out of the side of the ship. It would be noisy to say the least.

Pulling out his knife he paused as he looked at the bloody thing. Now, how to do this? Perhaps… and then he felt a thin sharp blade being placed on the side of his neck. He froze.

“I’ve been sailing these many years,” a voice said from behind him in low tones that came straight from Flea Bottom. Fuck. Seaworth. “And I have sailed with a great many men. Some were scoundrels and some were good men. And I soon learnt to pick out the scoundrels by their eyes. The moment I saw you, I knew that I were looking at a scoundrel.”

Mikon was about to jerk away from the knife and use his own on the man when he saw the other shadows walking towards him. “Drop the knife. Or I’ll slice your throat clean open.” Steel glittered in the light of the moon, which chose that moment to break through the clouds and he sighed and then slowly threw the knife away.

“Now then,” Seaworth said as the others arrived and pulled his hands behind his back, “Let us talk of what you were trying to do – and in whose name you were doing it. And unless you want to swim from hereon, I would advise you to tell us all.”

 


 

Jory

He came awake the moment that someone knocked at the door to his small cabin, his hand reaching for the knife under the thin pillow in his bunk. He’d been on edge for the past day, he knew not why. Then he focussed his eyes. No danger nearby. “Come in,” he croaked.

The door creaked open and Ser Davos peered in. “Ah, good, you’re awake. May I come in?”

“Of course Ser Davos.” He sat up and blinked at him. Then he caught the look on the face of the other man. “What’s wrong?”

The older man grabbed a stool and jammed it against the wall behind him, before sitting. “We took on a few men at king’s Landing. After we set sail I realised that one of them was a bad ‘un. Something was wrong with him. And I was right. Tonight we found him creeping towards one of the anchors after disabling the chain pump. He gave up at once when my lads and I captured him.”

Jory frowned. “Have you questioned him?”

Ser Davos smirked slightly. “Oh yes. Man has a very active imagination, which helps when you can hold up a knife and then hint at things.” He held up his foreshortened hand and wiggled his fingers, before sobering. “His plan was to have the ship seek aid at the Fingers, where he was going to set fire to something, knife you and then escape with the little lordling.”

Jory stared at the other man in shock. “Who is this blackguard?”

“Name’s Mikon. He does a King’s Landing accent quite well, but there’s Vale in there and a bit of Riverlands as well. He comes over as a rogue and more than a blackguard, and I think that there’s a lot of blood on that knife of his. As for the question of who sent him, there we sail out into murky waters. Dangerous waters.”

There was a tone in his voice that made Jory deeply uneasy. He asked the question anyway: “Who sent him?”

Ser Davos scowled. “Lord Petyr Baelish. The Master of Coin on the Small Council. And a man that Lord Stannis trusts about as much as a rusty anchor chain.” The last sentence seemed to surprise him a little, as if he had said too much and he shook his head for a moment. “I’ll be taking this Mikon back to King’s Landing, or perhaps back to Dragonstone. Lord Stannis needs to know about this. In the meantime I’ve posted guards on your quarters as well as that of young Lord Robert. And when we get to White Harbour we should talk at once to Lord Wyman Manderly. I think that you might need a stronger escort on your road to Winterfell.”

He thought this through and then nodded. “Thank you Ser Davos, I agree with everything you have said. I gave my word to Lord Arryn that I would get his son to Winterfell and I will welcome any help that can be given.”

Ser Davos nodded and then stood. “I will let you know what-”

And then he was interrupted as the door banged open and a furious Annah barged in. “Ser Davos! There you are! Your guard is all elbows and knees, like a young colt! He came barging in to my quarters, asked a lot of questions about if I’d talked to a man called Mikon and then he knocked the jar with young Lord Robert’s medicine over. We’ve lost half of it – we’ll need more if we are to get to Winterfell!” After a moment she seemed to notice Jory and blushed slightly. “Your pardon Jory Cassel.”

Jory smiled awkwardly whilst Ser Davos sighed. “I am sorry for that Annah. I know of an apothecary in White Harbour who should be able to replenish your stock of medicine. Do you know what it is?”

“No,” she said thoughtfully, “Lady Arryn had it made up by someone in The Vale. But surely an apothecary will be able to work out what it is?”

“I am certain that the man I know in White Harbour will be able to ascertain it,” Ser Davos said confidently. “Now if you will pardon me I have go back on deck.” And he stamped out, a thoughtful look on his face.

Jory looked at Annah for a moment. She was plain but there was something about her that attracted him for some reason that he did not understand. She looked back at him and then she seemed to recall where she was, before curtseying slightly and then leaving.

As she left he sighed and then stood up to get dressed. He had no doubt that he had a lot to plan once they got to White Harbour. And plenty to worry about before they even got there.

 


 

Theon

He heard the sound of the rowers first as he awoke. Slow and steady. Then he felt the lurch. A boat. He was on a boat? He had to wake up. He needed to open his eyes. But doing so seemed to take an age, as each eyelid was heavy, so very heavy. When he finally opened his eyes he then almost wished that he had not.

He was slumped at the end of a longboat with a furled sail. In front of him cloaked and hooded figures were at the rowlocks, fifty or so of them, two to each oar and all rowing slowly but in perfect unison. Theon peered at them, but could see nothing under their hoods, the shadows being too deep. He looked around. There was a shore in the distance, but not one that he recognised. There were trees. Ahead the sun was setting, deepening the shadows and… there was an island ahead. But the more he looked at it the deeper his foreboding became. There was something wrong with that black shape, but he could not say why.

He shook his head slowly and then frowned. His limbs felt heavier than lead, his head seemed to be stuffed with wool. And then he saw that he was wearing armour. There was a kracken on his chest. He almost smiled for a moment – and then he frowned. There was something wrong with it. The limbs were too thin, the body too twisted. It looked like a mockery of a kracken.

And then he noticed the smell. A sickly stench of rot and death. He looked about wildly. Where was it coming from? The sea was too calm, there was no wind. What was giving off that stench? He looked ahead at the island again. It was closer and it still felt so terribly wrong.

Something creaked behind him and he turned. There was another figure at the tiller, hooded and cloaked like the others. As he watched the figure gazed at the course it was keeping the longboat on and then looked down at him. And it terrified him.

It took him two tries but eventually he unstuck his tongue from the roof of his very dry mouth and then looked ahead. The island was closer now – black and desolate, bereft of life. “Steer away from there,” he croaked. “Death lies on that island.” And the moment that the words left his mouth he knew that it was true.

But the rowers kept to their slow steady work and the figure on the tiller remained steady on the course. The smell of death was stronger now and he looked at the other coastline. Weirwood trees. He could see them clearly. “Steer for the coast. Away from that island!”

The rowers paused slightly before resuming their work. Theon turned back to the tiller. “Obey my orders! Steer away from the island!”

The hooded man looked at him. “Why?” The word was asked in a voice that sounded like rotted leather crumbling. There was something oddly familiar about it.

“Death is on that island! Turn the tiller! Make for the trees!”

The figure turned back to the view ahead. “No.”

Trembling in every limb Theon stood on shaking legs. “I am Theon Greyjoy, the son of Balon Greyjoy! You must obey me!”

The rowers finally paused – but to laugh. It was a noise that sounded like a cross between gurgling and wheezing and he looked at them in horror at the sound. The stench of death was growing and he had a sudden nasty feeling that some of it was coming from them. He turned back to the figure behind him and then noticed that one of its hands was visible. It was black with rot. And then as he watched that hand reached up and pulled its hood off. The face that emerged was a dead as the hand, black in places green in others. There was a terrible wound along one temple. Rodrik. It was Rodrik.

“But you’re dead.”

Theon whispered the words but the terrible figure in front of him simply smiled through a mouth of cracked and broken teeth. “What is dead may never die. And you cannot give me orders, little brother.”

“Nor me.” The new voice came from behind him and Theon stumbled around to see Maron sitting on the nearest bench. He too was a living corpse.

“I am dreaming,” Theon breathed as he looked around. And then the men at the benches resumed their rowing, the long oars going back and forwards as they cut through the still water.

“Are you sure?” Rodrik hissed at him. He seemed almost amused.

“I am!” Theon shouted. “You are dead and this is a dream!”

The black hand on the tiller swept around and hit him on the side of the face, broken nails scoring bloody lines. He reeled away, clutching at the wound. “Are you sure, little brother?”

He steeled himself and then turned back. Dream or not, there was danger here. He felt it deep within his heart. “Turn away from the island.”

“Why?”

“There is death there.”

A shrug. “Death is but a doorway. It holds no terrors for me.”

“I am not dead though. And I choose the other shore.”

Rodrik stared at him with what appeared to be total contempt. “The other shore? You speak like a Greenlander, all soft and wet. You are supposed to be Ironborn, like we are.”

Theon bristled. “I am Ironborn. And I chose that other shore.”

Another shrug. “Why?”

“I want to live.” Theon looked at the island again. It was still black and desolate, but he could see now that there was something on the nearest shore, something he could not see clearly yet. “And there is death on that island.”

“You are Ironborn, boy,” Maron shouted at him as he rowed. “Call yourself a Greyjoy? Father will never take you as an heir.”

“Turn to the shore!” Theon bellowed the words. Whatever was on the shore was closer and clearer now. Something on a mound? And then the boat lurched slightly. He looked at the water and then flinched. Corpses. They were rowing through corpses. Some naked, others dressed. Some in their smallclothes and some in armour. And all of their eyes were open and seemed to be looking at him.

“No,” said Rodrik, with deepening contempt. “I will not. This is the Old Way, boy. This is the way of the Drowned God.”

“This is nothing but death,” Theon croaked at he looked at the water again. “Just death.”

“Everything has a price,” shouted Maron. “And death is the best price of all.”

Something creaked and Theon looked about wildly. Was the longboat safe? And then he saw that Rodrik was staring at him oddly. “Why are you so intent on reaching that shore?” His dead brother asked the question in a low, vicious voice. “Why? There are Weirwood trees there.”

“Because the shore is safe!” Theon shouted desperately. He looked back at the island again. Yes, there was something on the mound. A throne? And a slumped figure on it?

“Safe? Why safe? Why the Weirwood? Are you that much of a Greenlander now?”

“Turn this boat to the shore!”

“I will not!” Rodrik roared at him, as his skin rippled and flaked. There was something under it, something foul and the smell increased to the point where Theon wanted to turn his head and void his guts, but he dared not. Rodrik glared at him – and then stared at the mast. “You!” he screamed the word out loud and Theon looked at him in bafflement. “No! What have you done?”

The mast rippled for a moment and then Theon gasped as it changed colour, turning as white as the trunk of a Weirwood tree. What had to be done, said a voice that was not a voice. Leave the boy alone.

“Weakling!” Rodrik screamed, but who Theon did not know.

Come to the Heart Tree, Theon Greyjoy, the voice breathed in his ear, and Theon turned and instinctively darted for the mast. He heard Rodrik scream again in rage, gabbling something about stopping the boy, and as he ran he saw rotted hands reaching for him. He kicked out and punched any that came near him, sending bits of bones and sinew and dead skin flying, before placing a hand in the mast. The wood rippled again and then a face appeared in it, the face of the Heart Tree at Winterfell. The eyes opened, displaying red orbs that seemed to bore into his very soul and then the mouth smiled at him. Welcome, Theon Greyjoy. We knew your ancestors.

Theon came awake in his bed at Winterfell, screaming. And when he felt the pain on his face and ran a hand on it he saw blood.

 


 

Jon Snow

There was something in the air when he broke his fast in the morning. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was a faint air of tension over Father, who tore his bread apart with a slight scowl on his face. Jon watched him carefully but then eventually shrugged internally and moved on to his own bread and honey, whilst he mulled over whether or not to have extra piece of black pudding. Rodrik Cassel would be talking to him about strategy today and he knew that his brain would need extra food.

And then Theon Greyjoy came in and everyone stared. He looked terrible, hollow-eyed and tired, as if he hadn’t had any sleep. And then there were the thin bloody lines down the right hand side of his face. Jon really stared at that. Had someone attacked him? Was that what had Father on edge? No – surely Father would have been far angrier if that had happened, and if Theon had attacked someone then he would have looked more hangdog. Instead he looked exhausted and faintly bewildered, as if he had been thinking very hard about something.

Father leant forwards. “Theon? What happened?”

The Greyjoy started slightly and then looked up from his perusal of his own piece of black pudding, like a man contemplating a dangerous risk. “What? Oh, my face. I don’t know Lord Stark. I woke up from… this terrible dream and my face was bloody.”

The various Starks along the table looked at each other, shrugged and then went back to eating. “Must have been quite some dream,” Robb joshed lightly, and then stopped when he saw the look on Theon’s face. “What did you dream of?”

“My brothers,” Theon said distractedly as he pushed at the black pudding with a knife and then frowned at it. “Only they were dead. I was in a boat filled with dead men rowing. I’ve never had a dream like that before. It was… terrible. There was danger ahead. Great danger. And the sea… was full of corpses.”

Jon looked up at that – and then stopped eating when he saw the look on the faces of Father and Robb, who had both gone very still in that uniquely Stark manner that came over them when absorbing news. Bad news at that. “Go on,” Robb said thickly. “What else?”

“I tried to give orders to change direction to the other shore, the safer shore, but Rodrik didn’t listen. He slashed my face.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Some dream – I must have clawed at my own face as I slept.” Then he paused. “The mast,” he said eventually. “It turned into a Hearts Tree. And the eyes opened. There was this… voice. It saved me from Rodrik and the others.” He shook his head like a dog shaking off water and then speared his piece of black pudding. “Your pardon. I’m rambling. Just a dream.”

Father and Robb had gone completely white now and Lady Catelyn had also turned pale. Sansa and Bran were frowning and even Arya had noticed that something seemed to be wrong. Rickon on the other hand was busy making his porridge wobble now that all the grown-ups were distracted.

Theon took a bite out of his black pudding and then realised that Father and Robb were staring at him. “What? It was just a dream.”

Father stood up, brushing the crumbs from his beard. “Theon, come to my solar at once. Robb, you too. Cat – can you join us there.”

“Of course Ned,” Lady Catelyn said distractedly, before noticing what Rickon was doing. “Sweetling, eat it, don’t play with it. You’ll make a mess.”

Rather bewildered Theon stood and joined Father and Robb as they strode out of the room. Jon watched them go with a frown. Something was very wrong.

 


 

Robb

After Theon finished telling of his dream, a silence filled Father’s solar. He welcomed that silence as it gave him a chance to reorder his scattered thoughts. By the look on his face Father was doing the same thing, whilst Mother was looking at Theon as if she had never seen him before. As for Theon he still looked bewildered.

After a moment Father stood up and then walked over to Theon and closely examined the thin bloody lines on his face. When he straightened up again his face was set. “Theon, I’d like you to see Maester Luwin today to have him look at that.”

“Lord Stark, I’m fine, I must have flailed in my sleep and-”

“I insist. That wound… it is not right Theon. Something jagged did that, and your nails are not torn.” Robb looked at Theon’s hand and then nodded to himself. Father was right. And Father now sat back and looked intently at Theon. After a while he sighed slightly.

“Theon, I’m guessing that you’ve never had a dream like that before, have you?”

The Heir to Pyke shook his head, looking increasingly troubled.

And then Father stood and poured some wine into a cup before giving it to Theon. “Drink this.”

Theon sniffed it appreciatively and then looked up with a frown. “It’s rather early Lord Stark and-”

“You’ve been touched by the Old Gods, young man. The Old Gods themselves. And that wound you bear – I think that was a parting gift from the Drowned God.”

There was a long moment of silence and then Theon drained the cup with a trembling hand before he could spill any. And then he coughed violently, perhaps from having breathed in at the wrong moment. When he stopped he looked back at Father in deep shock. “The… the Old Gods?”

“Aye,” Father said quietly. “Your ancestors worshipped them a long time ago, in the time of the First Men, before they crossed the sea to Pyke and the Iron Islands. Where the Drowned God came from is… well, that’s a tale I care not to know much about.”

There was another pause whilst Theon’s face ran through a range of emotions, starting with horror and ending with confusion. “Yes, but… the Old Gods… I thought that…”

“Theon,” Robb said gently, “I have been touched by them too. And Father. That’s a tale for another day – but you are not alone in this. Whatever this is.”

Theon Greyjoy looked at him in some shock. And then he frowned. “That was what was wrong with you that morning, wasn’t it?”

“Aye,” Robb said gently. “But as I said, that is a tale for another day. Because what I have seen is… darker than this day.”

This bought him a doubtful look from Theon, and a roll of the eyes. “Darker that a longboat full of dead men?” Theon asked with a slight smirk.

“Darker than that,” Robb said flatly and the smirk vanished from Theon’s face.

“A tale for later,” Mother said with a quaver in her voice. “Much later.”

Theon seemed to absorb this and then stood. “Then by your leave Lord Stark I must go and think on this.” he paused. “May I go to the Godswood?”

“You may,” Father sighed. “And if you have any further dreams, please let us know Theon. Especially of Heart Trees or the Old Gods. Much… much rides on this. More than you might think.”

Theon drew himself up and nodded formally to them all, before walking out, closing the door behind him.

“Well,” Father said eventually, “That was something of a shock was it not?”

“It was,” Robb replied thoughtfully. “In… my memories Theon never gave any signs of any such dream, nor was he marked like that. This is… well, new.”

“But is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Mother asked thoughtfully.

“Good!” Father said forcefully. “We are changing what happened. And in the case of Theon… well, the Old Gods have touched him. Changed him perhaps. We must see what happens with him. I do not yet trust him, but if the Old Gods have touched him… mmm, I must think on this.”

There was a knock on the door of the solar and Father looked over at it. “Enter.”

The door opened to reveal Maester Luwin, who was escorting the ancient Maester Aemon. “Ah,” Father said quietly. “Maesters. Thank you for coming. Robb, could you please find Jon and ask him to come here? We have… something to discuss with him.”

Chapter Text

Jon Snow

He liked sitting the Godswood in front of the Hearts Tree. It was… quiet. Peaceful. Still. He could pray in the morning and then return to think about life in general.

So he’d been rather surprised to discover Theon Greyjoy sitting in front of the Hearts Tree that morning. Very surprised indeed. The squid was just staring at the tree with a look that combined astonishment, confusion and deep uncertainty. They traded looks for a moment, before Greyjoy nodded slightly at him and then stood and wandered away.

Jon watched him go with a slight frown. Something was wrong with that squid, he didn’t know what it was but he was sure that Father and Robb knew what it was. He considered the matter from as many angles as possible for a moment and then he shrugged and bent his head in prayer.

When he lifted his head again he saw Robb standing quietly to one side. “Father needs to see you at once,” he said quietly. “In his Solar.”

Jon nodded silently and then walked off. He’d had a feeling that something was wrong for these past few days. Something had been hanging in the air, something had been unsaid by Father whenever they had met, he knew it.

When he got to Father’s Solar he was surprised though. Lady Catelyn was standing at the window and turned to give him a strained smile. And Maester Aemon was sitting by the side of Father’s desk, which was laden with books and papers about the Old Gods and The Others. As for Father himself, he was standing by the fireplace, his face sombre and his hands behind his back. There was a strained expression on his face, something that made Jon pause, before closing the door behind him.

All of a sudden he felt the tension in the air, thick and heavy. He just didn’t know why it was there. Was Father going to drop a hint about him joining the Night’s Watch? No – that would not have been like Father at all. Besides it would have been him hinting at it to Father rather than the other way around.

“Sit down please Jon,” Father said quietly. “I need to talk to you.”

Jon nodded and then sat, but then had to wait as Father frowned at the floor, the wall behind him, the door, Lady Catelyn, the floor again and finally at him. “Father,” Jon said quietly, “Have I done something wrong?”

A small snort escaped Father’s lips, whilst Maester Aemon smiled slightly and Lady Catelyn shook her head with a sigh. “No, Jon,” Father sighed eventually. “This is not about anything that you have done. This is about who you are.”

Jon looked at Father, confused. “Who I am? I’m sorry Father, what do you mean?”

Father looked at him somberly. “Jon, I am sorry. This is something that I have put off for far too long. But I was afraid. I was burdened with a secret and an oath I swore not long after you were born. The oath your mother made me swear.”

His… mother? Jon’s head swam for a moment. Father was talking about his mother? The mother that he had always wondered about, always worried about. Always feared that… she might be dead. Dread pooled at the bottom of his stomach, nauseating him for a long moment.

Father sighed and then stared him in the eye. “You have to understand something Jon. It has always been my intention to keep you safe. That was why I have never spoken of your mother before. Because – her identity had be a secret if you were to be kept safe.

“Jon – you are a Stark. No-one should ever doubt that. But – and I am sorry for this blow, as it must be a bitter one, but as I said I had to keep you safe – I am not your father.”

Jon stared at Father in shock as the ground seemed to fall to pieces beneath him and plunge him into an ocean of cold water that he never even suspected was there before. “I don’t…” he paused to try and clear his suddenly dry throat. “I don’t understand,” he finally croaked. “Please Father – I don’t understand. How can I be Stark if I am not your son?”

Father sighed yet again and then pulled his chair over and clasped Jon’s hand. “Because you are a Stark. You are my nephew Jon. I would be very proud to call you my son, but you are in fact my nephew.”

He looked at Father in confusion for a long moment, his brain racing. “Your… nephew? But… why would you want to keep me secret and safe…” Horror suddenly stole over him and he stared at Lady Catelyn. “I cannot be the son of Uncle Brandon can I?”

But Father shook his head. “No,” he said sadly. “You are not the son of Brandon.” He took a deep breath. “You are the son of my sister. Lyanna.”

An image flashed though his face, the image of Aunt Lyanna’s statue in the catacombs. He’d always been fascinated by that statue, by that face. The face of the woman whose abduction by Prince Rhaegar had started the War of Robert’s Rebellion. Had led to the downfall of the Targaryens. “You mean that… my mother has always been in the catacombs?” He croaked the question that was laden with shock and he saw Lady Catelyn look at him with shock of her own in her eyes – and then sudden tears.

Father leant forwards. “Yes, and I am so sorry Jon. But her last request to me – her dying request to me – was that I should keep you safe. That meant pretending that you were my son. There was no other way that I could honour your mother’s final request.” He released his hands then slumped back in his seat. “She was dying. Birth fever. At a place called the Tower of Joy, on the border between the Stormlands and Dorne. She was guarded by three members of the Kings Guard. There were seven of us. Seven fought against three. Only two survived. Myself and Howland Reed. I found you and your mother in one of the rooms in the tower. The fools hadn’t found a midwife for your mother. She might be alive if they had.”

Silence filled the room for a moment before Jon finally thought things through. “Wait – my Aunt Lyanna is – was – my mother, then who was my father?”

Lord Eddard Stark looked around the room and then looked back at Jon – who had finally made that final connection. “My father is…. Rhaegar Targaryen?” He blurted the words in utter horror. “The son of the Mad King?”

“Yes,” Father said sombrely. “He was. And… he was not his father. You have to understand that. His reasons were his own and we’ll never know why he did what he did, but he was not mad.”

“But you’re saying that I’m part Targaryen,” Jon mumbled in horror. “That my grandfather was… the Mad King!”

“Listen to me Jon Snow,” Maester Aemon said as he leant forwards slightly and held out a pointed finger in emphasis. “It is said that when a Targaryen is born the Gods flip a coin to decide if they be sane or not. That is a lie, but there is just enough truth attached to the edges of it to make it sound true. Yes, Aerys was mad. Driven mad by his burden, by his past, by his own throne. But not all Targaryens were – are – mad.” He sat back. “And old as I am, I should know.”

Jon stared at the old man. Yes, he knew the he was the Maester of Castle Black and that his name was Aemon, but there was something about the way that he had spoken that had gotten the hairs on the back of his neck on edge. “Who are you?”

A mirthless smile played about the lips of the old man for a moment. “My father was Maekar, the First of his Name. My brother Aegon reigned after him, when I had refused the throne, and he was eventually followed by his grandson Aerys, whom they called the Mad King.”

Jon swallowed. “You are Aemon Targaryen,” he said wonderingly. “You refused the Iron Throne and took the Black.”

“I did what I thought was right, just as your uncle has done the same to keep you safe. There are many men who would have killed you for your blood Jon Snow. Never forget that. And never forget that although you are half Stark you are also half Targaryen, and therefore my great-great-grandnephew. And that I have memories of my father and brother being good and just rulers.”

The old man smiled wearily. “I have listened carefully to you over these days that I have been here Jon Snow. And I have heard many good things about you. You remind me of my brother, Aegon. A quiet boy who wanted to help people. Do not fear your blood, Jon Snow. And do not blame Lord Stark for not telling you of your true origins.” The smile deepened. “As I said – he saved your life. And if he had not then I would not be sitting here and greeting one of my own blood.”

Jon sat there, his thoughts whirling about like a seed pod caught in a stream. “I… Father…. I mean Uncle… I have much to think about and…” He paused. “I think that I must start by continuing to call you Father, must I not?”

“It would be safer,” the Lord of Winterfell said with a sigh. And then he set his chin. “My wife has also given me some advice about you. I will write to the King and ask him to make you a Stark. It is what Lyanna would have wanted. It will protect you again, but it will also bind you closer to Winterfell – as if that was ever necessary.”

And this was something that shocked even more than the fact that he now knew that he was the grandson of the Mad King. To be a Stark in name instead of a Snow… and to owe it to Lady Catelyn, who he knew had never liked him… He opened his mouth, closed it again and then felt such a look of total confusion come over his face that actually sparked a laugh out of Lady Stark.

“You pardon Jon, but you reminded me of the look on my brother’s face the first time my sister hit him with a fish.” She sobered. “Jon, as a legalised bastard you would come after Rickon in the succession, or any other sons that Ned and I might have. You must realise that.”

“I would be happy just to be a Stark,” he said in a choked voice. “That would be all I would ever need. Not to be a… that word.” Tears blurred his vision and he wiped them angrily away. “Your pardon. Hay fever perhaps.”

“Mayhaps it is,” Father said with a cough and then a hasty smile. “Now – there is much I can tell you about your mother. And even some about your father.”

 


 

Jory

The day and a half that it took the Black Betha to get to White Harbour were bloody interminable, to use a word that he had once heard Old Luwin once use. The wind was brisk but there was only so much speed Ser Davos could get out of the ship. Jory spent the time watching the crew go about their business and worrying about his charge.

Fortunately he had Ser Davos himself to keep him company. The older man was quiet and calm and had a habit of speaking nothing but sense, leavened with a bit of good humour every now and then, as if he could sense just how tense Jory felt. Lord Baelish’s man Mikon seemed to be the only villain on the ship – which was not to say that the crew were made up of good men.

“Oh, some would slit your throat for the right price,” Ser Davos had told him the previous morning. “But they’re loyal to me. See, they know me. Sailed with me. Gods help them, they trust me. And for the most part they’re good lads. They’ll get us to White Harbour safe, believe me.”

And they had. Jory could see the white walls now in the distance as the ship cracked briskly along, with one of Ser Davos’s sons at the tiller as his father kept an eye on the sails. Little Robert Arryn was next to him, solemnly pointing out things like black-headed gulls and the odd strangely-shaped whitecap that reminded the boy of something funny.

That was the other thing. The boy had, well, not started the trip well. He had clung to Annah, the one person that he really knew on the ship and had spent a lot of time wailing for his mother and complaining about the smells. He’d also had one of his shaking fits, which Annah had dealt with matter-of-factly. And then Ser Davos had somehow worked his spell on the little boy. He’d been quiet and matter of fact – not gruff, just quietly informative. He’d told the little lordling what the new birds were, how the ship sailed, what at least some of the smells were (others had been glossed over), what some of the knots were called and above all some of the safer sea shanties. And young Robert Arryn had been coaxed a little out of his shell.

He looked to one side. Annah was watching Ser Davos and his stern little guest with a fond smile on her face and her arms crossed under that bosom of hers. He looked away. He had more important things than that to worry about. White Harbour awaited.

The moment that the ship tied up at the main wharf Ser Davos sent word to Lord Wyman Manderly about the identity of his passengers and within the hour an honour guard led by Ser Wendel Manderly, second son of Lord Manderly, was at the wharf, ready to escort them all to the New Castle. Ser Davos joined them for the ride up, which was fast and nervous on Jory’s part. He did not trust as easily as he had before and he knew it. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing. He needed to be alert and yet not a paranoid fool.

Lord Manderly was in the main hall and was still as huge as ever and as jolly – but Jory had always had a shrewd suspicion that there was something more to the man than just a fat jolly loyal man. And that suspicion was proved that day. Lord Manderly had welcomed the little lordling with just the right amount of deference mixed with joviality, quickly putting the tired little boy at his ease.

Whilst one of Lord Wyman’s grandchildren (the one with greenish hair for some reason) played with young Robert in the corner of the hall, Jory, Ser Davos and Annah all clustered around Lord Manderly. “Lord Stark sent word of your coming and I shall send ravens to Winterfell and King’s Landing to tell of your safe arrival,” he told them quietly. “But I was most alarmed to hear of the man on your ship Ser Davos. And you said that you had word on who this man worked for?”

Ser Davos coughed gently. “Lord Petyr Baelish,” he told the Lord of White Harbour quietly.

Lord Manderly absorbed this piece of information with a slightly raised eyebrow. “Interesting,” he said softly. “And most worrying.” He seemed to mull things over for a moment and then he nodded. “My son Ser Wendel will escort you to Winterfell with two dozen of my most trusted men. I doubt that Littlefinger has too many men here in the North but I am not going to take any chances. Not with the only heir of Lord Arryn in my hall.”

“Thank you my Lord,” Jory said, feeling a little of the worry leach away. “That would be right noble of you.”

“It would indeed Lord Manderly,” Ser Davos rumbled. “I must return to King’s Landing and report this all to Lord Stannis.”

“Please give him my regards,” Lord Manderly replied, still visibly thinking. “And tell him that I will do my duty to Lord Arryn by the escort to Winterfell. What will you do with Littlefinger’s man?”

“My sons Dale and Allard are watching over him. I trust my crew, but every port has factors and merchants and, erm-”

“Spies, Ser Davos. Spies and ne-er-do-wells. I admit that freely. Every port has them. And the Fingers are not too far away. I would be surprised if Littlefinger does not have anyone in this city in his pocket. And we shall not take that chance.”

“Your pardon my Lord,” Annah piped up, “But before we leave White Harbour we must visit an apothecary. Young Lord Robert’s medicine for his falling sickness was knocked over the voyage and half of it was lost.”

“I know of an apothecary here in White Harbour my Lord,” Ser Davos stated quietly. “I must sail on the next tide after we finish provisioning, so mayhaps we should do that at once.”

“Aye,” Lord Manderly said and then waved a hand at them. “Off with you then. Jory Cassel, please stay and guard the Young Eagle.”

Jory had little intention of letting young Robert Arryn out of his sight any time soon, but still nodded and said all the right words. He had given Lord Arryn his word that he would see his son safely to Winterfell and he would damn well keep that word. So he watched Ser Davos and Annah as they hurried out and then turned his attention back to the hall, where the little lordling was now listening sleepily to a gentle tale of boats on the sea, as told by Lord Manderly himself. He smiled as the boy slowly subsided onto his side and was then gently wrapped up in a blanket by the girl with the green hair, before Willets carefully took him to his room. Jory followed and then nodded at the man as he left, leaving him to guard the door.

He minded not the wait. He had stood guard before and he welcomed the time to think. The escort to Winterfell would be a good thing, but it would add to the complexities of the trip. Inns would have to be taken over, shelter found. The North was a hard land and any man who took travelling over it lightly was a fool. A dead fool. And so he stood and guarded and measured the distances and times that lay ahead of them with his mind.

It was just an hour or so later that he heard hurried steps to one side and he turned his head to see Willets again, with one of Lord Manderly’s men. “Lord Manderly requests your immediate presence in the hall,” the latter panted. “It is most urgent.”

Jory frowned, nodded at Willets, who assumed his place and then followed the man to the hall, where he found Ser Davos and Annah once again next to Lord Manderly. The Lord of White Harbour waved him over the moment that he noticed him. As he approached the trio he could feel the tension surrounding them. Ser Davos looked worried, Lord Manderly was scowling and Annah – well, she was straight of back, white of face and furious of countenance.

“Jory Cassel,” Lord Manderly barked as he approached, his chins wobbling, “Your counsel is needed.”

He frowned. “On what matter?”

“On… the matter of the medicine of young Robert Arryn,” Ser Davos said in a low voice. “When we reached the apothecary he said that he could discern what medicine it was with but a few sniffs. When he did so he frowned and then he sneezed and then, well, he blew his nose and accused us of some dissemblance. That the medicine was anything but.”

Jory felt his eyebrows fly up. “It is not medicine?”

“Nay,” Ser Davos said, still as quietly as before, “It is not. It is a combination of chalk and some metallic powder the name of which escapes me. The apothecary said that too much of it acts as a poison. And that over time it can provoke fits of fainting or shaking.”

Jory stared at the group in horror. His first reaction was to think that Baelish’s man Mikon had been able to replace the medicine with poison. And then his second reaction was to blink hard and then stare at Annah. “Over time it can provoke fits of fainting or shaking? Where did you get it from?”

“Lady Arryn.” Annah said the words in a cold fury. “Lady Arryn gave me the medicine. She said that it had been ‘recommended’ for her son. ‘Recommended’! I would like to meet the rogue who recommended that! Meet and geld the man!”

Jory rubbed his forehead in bewilderment. “This makes little if any sense,” he said with a groan. “Unless… someone wants Lord Arryn’s son to be dependent on that poison?”

The others looked at him and he knew that he had the right of it. “So we must stop giving him the medicine?”

“No,” said Annah with a sigh. “Apparently it is best that we diminish the dosage step by step. By the time that we reach Winterfell he should be free of it.”

“I will return to King’s Landing as soon as possible,” Ser Davos said between gritted teeth. “Lord Arryn must know of this.”

“And I will increase your escort to fifty men,” Lord Manderly said tersely. “Get that boy safe to Winterfell Jory Cassel. Get him safely there.”

 


 

Ned

His table in his solar was a mess by now. So many books and scraps of parchment, so many notes and scribbled bookmarks. So much rubbish, legends and fantasies, with facts scattered through them , or so he thought.

Luwin and Aemon also thought so however and Ned frowned thoughtfully as he looked at the great map of the North that hung on one wall. Some of the oldest references in the records referred to places that had subtly different names. And some of them referred to places that he had no idea about.

He looked at the table again and then back at the map. One of the oldest records was a fragment of a fragment of a copy of a transcription of a carving and it referred to a great siege. The Others had besieged a crag somewhere in the Western part of the North and the hints were maddening.

There was reference to ‘Ye Starke’ leading the men, to the ferocity of the fighting, to the fact that the men had to win there, and then the fact that the battle ended in the Others being utterly routed in one of the first big victories against them. Where was this place? It was just described as ‘Ye Glittering Crag’. But there was nothing in the North that had a name like that, or anything even close to it.

The nearest that he could think of was the place called ‘Stark’s Rock’, but that was nothing more than a slightly craggy hill about a day’s ride to the West. It did not look like a place where a battle could even happen, still less a siege. And why would the Others besiege a hill anyway? Luwin was still looking into it.

He sighed – and then he looked up as he heard footsteps at the doorway. Cat smiled at him as she came in, but it was not a smile that was truly happy. “Are you alright Cat?”

“Oh, I am fine,” she sighed as she sat down and then looked at the mound of papers and books on the desk. “I have just been… reflecting on things.”

He smiled slightly. “Oh,” he replied lightly, “We have had much to reflect on.”

“So I can see. Ned, this is a mess.” She drew her chair up to the table. “How can you ever find anything when it all looks like this?”

“I get by. I remember what the book looks like, or the colour of the parchment.” A sigh of his own escaped his lips. “Cat, so much has been lost. All we have are… fragments. Bits and pieces.” He leant over, picked up an old book and carefully opened it to one page. “I mean, according to this one of the first Starks in Winterfell was known as the Lawgiver and had something called ‘ye Fiste of Winter’. The writer must have known what that was, but I’ve never heard of it.”

“Nor have I,” Cat muttered as she looked at one of the open books. Then she paled slightly. “Tales of these… wights… are terrible. And yet you will have to fight them?”

“I will,” Ned replied grimly. “And win. I will have to Cat. The Others cannot be allowed South of the Wall. Nor can the Wildlings. But the issue of how to deal the Wildlings has been vexing me. They would make an excellent addition to the garrison of the Wall, but they have fought the Night’s Watch for so long that they cannot be allies. And besides – what would they ask of me? To settle in the Gift? Or the New Gift? The Lords in the North would set up a wail of horror that would strike ravens dead in the sky.”

Ned shook his head tiredly. “We have so much to do and so little time. So very little time. If Robb had returned a year ago then it would still not be enough time. I could have sent more help to the Wall. The Old Bear has already written to say that even just the small number of extra men and construction materials that I have sent to him has been enough to think about reopening Oakenshield. But they need more.

“We need the resources of the South. We need Lannister gold and wheat from the Reach. We need the knights of the vale and the infantry of the Stormlands and Dorne. Men, horses, steel, food, supplies of all sorts. Ships as well.”

Cat looked at him and then nodded slowly. And then she smiled slightly. “It sounds like you need King Robert and his Warhammer.”

“I know,” Ned said and then smiled suddenly. “I know exactly what he’d say about all this research though! Something like: ‘Ned just tell me what needs killing!’ And then he’d go and kill it.” He thought back to The Trident and Robert’s uncontrollable fury on seeing Rhaegar. “But how do we even kill one of the Others?”

“The books don’t say?”

“As I said, nothing but fragments and legends. How long has it been since they were last seen? How long has it been since one of them was killed?” He shrugged, feeling a bitter sense of despair wash over him.

Cat looked at him worriedly and then frowned slightly at the books and papers on the desk. “Ned, is any of this from the Mountain Clans?”

“Some of it. Nothing has arrived yet from the more Northerly clans.”

She nodded, still frowning slightly. “What of other Houses that are descended from the First Men? Ones in the South I mean?”

Startled he looked at her. “I never thought about the South. Bronze Yohn might have records in Runestone – that’s one of the oldest fortresses of the First Men. I’ll have Luwin send a raven at once.”

But as he turned to the door he was forestalled by the sudden arrival of Maester Luwin himself. “My Lord, I beg pardon for my intrusion. There is a party of horsemen approaching the gates. They bear the banners of the Last Hearth. The banners of Lord Umber – and he leads them himself.”

Ned frowned. The GreatJon? Here?

 


 

Theon

Once Robb and Jon were gone he went back to the Heart Tree. It fascinated him. And it also terrified him. The very thought that the Old Gods were… watching him, had touched him in some way was… well…

Theon shook his head in confusion. He was Ironborn. He was a Greyjoy of Pyke. He worshipped the Drowned God, even though doing so in Winterfell was difficult. But the Old Gods… Why had they touched him? “Welcome, Theon Greyjoy. We knew your ancestors.” Those words were now seared across his heart. He’d always known that he had First Men amongst his ancestors but he’d never really thought about which gods they had worshipped. The thought that they had worshipped the Old Gods was… a troubling one.

But that dream… he felt the marks on his face gingerly. And they really terrified him. He didn’t think that he had scratched himself in his sleep. Maester Luwin had peered at the lines with a puzzled expression and then picked something out of one of them. A fragment of fingernail he said.

Theon looked at his hands. His nails were short but intact. No, something else had left that mark. Something… dark. Something that he couldn’t understand.

He stared at the Heart Tree. The face on the mast in his dream had been just like this one and he reached out with a hesitant hand to trace the face. He didn’t know what to expect as his fingers touched the bark, but nothing happened. It was just a tree. There were no gods here. But he felt himself shiver for a moment, feeling cold for an instant. He looked at the face again and for a moment, just the faintest fleeting moment, he thought that he could see a flash of red from the mouth.

Theon backed away from the tree, shaking with fear. A gust of wind blew through the Godswood for a moment and as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end he took a step back. The wind almost sounded like a voice for a moment, a voice saying words that he couldn’t quite make out.

He was still trembling when he left the Godswood. He had the oddest feeling that he had been warned, that something had touched him for some reason that he did not understand. And he felt something else. Troubled. He was Ironborn. He belonged to the Drowned God. Didn’t he?

 


 

Ned

The party from Last Hearth consisted of twenty men and a waggon, all lead by a tall man on a large horse who was giving orders to his men in a loud booming voice. GreatJon Umber was a man who was larger than life in almost every way.

When he laid eyes on Ned he paused and then bowed formally. “Lord Stark.”

“Lord Umber,” Ned replied, feeling a little puzzled. This was oddly formal for the GreatJon.

But then the big man grinned. “That enough of the formal bit?”

Ned nodded and then GreatJon roared with laughter and enveloped him a bear hug. “Ned! Good to see you again!”

He laughed and slapped the big man on the back as he released him. “Good to see you GreatJon. What brings you to Winterfell though?”

The GreatJon let out an explosive sigh and then jerked a thumb at the waggon. “You asked for records on the Others. I’ve brought everything I could from the Last Hearth.” The normal jovial smile that was on his face was gone. “Ned I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

Ned looked at the huge man. Yes, this was important. When the Umbers were serious then something was deadly important. “Very well, let’s go to my solar. I’ll get Luwin to attend to the records you’ve brought. Aemon as well.”

“Maester Aemon?” the GreatJon replied, his bushy eyebrows flying upwards. “From the Wall?”

“Aye. He brought records from Castle Black.”

The GreatJon absorbed this and then frowned, before taking a saddlebag off the rear of his own horse carefully, as if it contained something precious. “We definitely need to talk then Ned.” He paused. “And do you have any ale?”

Ale was indeed available for the GreatJon and once he had quaffed his first mug of it he sat in Ned’s solar and peered at the desk in some bemusement whilst cradling his second one in his hands. The saddlebags were at his side. “That’s a lot of research Ned. Sorry that I’m adding to it.”

“Don’t be sorry. Now – what’s so urgent.”

The GreatJon sighed and then looked down at the floor of the solar for a long moment. When he looked up his voice was very quiet by his standards. “Ned, why are you asking about the Others?”

That was a good question and Ned sank into his own chair. “GreatJon, there is a long story attached to that question.”

“You think that they have returned, don’t you?”

Startled, Ned looked at his old friend, who stared levelly back at him. “I’m not a fool, Ned,” GreatJon rumbled with a slight smile that quickly vanished. “Wildling raids are worse than I’ve ever known them. And the Night’s Watch is weaker than it’s ever been. The Gift is all but abandoned and my men fend off raids by parties of wildlings almost every month. The prisoners say that death marches on the Wall. And the word from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea is that even the Skagosi are getting raided – and if even they’re getting visits from the Wildlings then they must be either mad or desperate. Something is pushing them South. Something terrible.”

Ned stared at the GreatJon for a long moment. No, he was no fool. But there was something else about the man. There was a look in his eyes that took him aback, something dark and haunted. “Yes,” he said eventually. “They have returned. And the tale of how I know is… a dark one.”

The GreatJon held up a hand. “You are the Stark in Winterfell,” he rumbled. “Of all the men in the North you are the one that would know if they had returned.” There was something in his voice that troubled Ned. A note of ironclad certainty. He was used to being trusted, but the GreatJon seemed to think that the Starks would have known at once about the return of the Others.

He was about to open his mouth and ask about that when the huge man straightened almost formally in his chair. “I need to do this properly, or my ancestors will kick my arse from here to the Wall when I die. Right. Lord Stark, I, Lord Umber of the Last Hearth, do hereby inform you that the Hearthstone has changed colour and that my watch over it has therefore ended.”

He looked at Ned. Ned looked back at him, baffled. “What?”

GreatJon looked troubled. “Did I say it wrong Ned?”

“Say what wrong?”

“About the Hearthstone!”

“GreatJon I have not the faintest bloody idea what you’re talking about. What’s the Hearthstone?”

Ned had seen a great many expressions on the face of GreatJon Umber before. Amusement. Shock. Blind rage. Puzzlement. But never had he ever seen such a look of utter shock from his old friend. “What?” The Lord of the Last Hearth asked the word in a very small and horrified voice. “You don’t know what… the Hearthstone is?”

“No,” Ned said through clenched teeth. “I do not. Damn it GreatJon, what is it?”

“I don’t understand. You’re the Stark in Winterfell! Your father would have told you! On the day you came of age!”

A horrible feeling came over Ned. “GreatJon,” he pointed out gently, “I came of age in the Vale, at the Eyrie. I was Ward to Jon Arryn. When I returned to Winterfell my father was dead.” A memory tickled the back of his mind. “Brandon. Brandon must have known. Lyanna wrote to me that our brother had been troubled the day after he came of age, that he had been here, in what was then Father’s solar, for most of the day.”

The GreatJon groaned and then threw most of the remaining ale straight down his throat. “Fuck me,” he said bitterly. “I never thought of that. I never bloody thought of that. My father told me on the day I came of age. I thought that your father had done too. Damn Aerys fucking Targaryen. Damn him to the lowest level of the darkest hell that exists.”

There was a depressed pause, before the Lord of the Last Hearth passed a hand over his face and then smoothed his beard. “Right then. Bugger it, I never thought I’d have to tell you all this, I thought that you’d have known about it, although what I know is bloody little. Right. Ned, there are three oaths that every Umber of the Last Hearth must swear on the day he comes of age. The first is loyalty to the Stark in Winterfell. The second is to protect the crag that the Last Hearth is built on, even at the cost of our own lives. And the third is to guard the Hearthstone. To watch over it, no matter what happens.” He shuddered and then looked around for the jug of ale that Ned had gotten for him.

“Bloody thing gives me the creeping horrors every time I look at it,” he muttered as he reached over and poured himself another mug. “All I know is that just before the Last Hearth was build one of your ancestors gave it to one of my ancestors and told him to protect it. To watch over it. To check on the bloody thing once a year, which is a duty that I’m bloody glad to be rid of. It’s not ours Ned, it’s yours.”

“What is this Hearthstone?” Ned asked thoughtfully, his mind whirling with questions about all the things that his close-mouthed father had never been able to tell him about.

The GreatJon peered owlishly at him and then reached down into the saddlebags, from which he pulled out a small bag, which in turn contained a small box made of… stone? It had a lid and it also had runes on the outside and the GreatJon was holding it as gingerly as if it was made of glass. Or as if it was a viper from Dorne.

“Every year I’ve opened this box and looked inside,” the GreatJon rumbled. “It’s always been black as coal. Blacker than…” he paused, visibly hunting for words. “Blacker than night. It was like there was a hole in the box. And then your raven arrived asking for information about the Others, and the news of the latest Wildling raid came in and… I thought about the Hearthstone. I don’t know what it is Ned, that’s been lost. I don’t know what it does, I don’t even know what it’s made from. All I know – all that was passed on from my forefathers – was that if it ever changed colour then we had to bring it to the Stark in Winterfell. As I have now done.”

Ned nodded slowly. “That’s all you know?”

“That’s all I bloody know Ned. My forefathers might have known more, but over the years that might have been stripped away by time and death.” He held put the box. “Please take it Ned. Every member of my family has always hated the fucking thing. We’ve always kept it at the lowest level of the Last Hearth, in the old tunnels. It belongs to the Starks, not to us. I have no idea why your ancestors told mine to look over it. Perhaps because we were loyal. Last loyal hearth before the wall, that’s what your ancestors named our hold. And that’s the name we took for it.”

Ned sighed and then reluctantly took it. The box was cold to the touch and there something about it that made the hairs on the back of his arm stand up. He opened the box carefully and then peered into it. Inside he could see a small round stone, the size of the last joint of his thumb. It looked worn and old, very old. There might have been a rune carved onto the top of it. And it was a murky green colour, not black at all.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

The GreatJon shifted uneasily. “When I saw that it had changed colour I… touched it. We’ve supposed to do that every year as well. Last time it gave me a hell of a bloody headache. My father told me that all he ever saw after touching it was black spots. But after it changed colour… Ned, I saw the Wall. And something else.” He swallowed. “The dead, Ned. Marching on the Wall. Almost pissed me breeches, seeing something like that.”

Ned looked at him sharply. “You had a vision of the Wall?”

“Aye,” the other man mumbled, taking another gulp of ale. Then he looked at Ned curiously. “You don’t seem that surprised by that, Ned.”

“I’ve had one myself. From the Old Gods.”

The GreatJon stared at him, this time in awe. “The Old Gods? Really Ned?”

“Aye, and I know what you mean about wanting to piss your breeches.” He peered back into the box and then took a deep breath and picked it up. It felt surprisingly warm in his hand and he weighed it in the palm of his hand. Nothing felt different at all.

“Anything?” The GreatJon asked with a hint of nervousness, almost hiding behind his mug of ale.

“Nothing,” Ned replied. And then he blinked. Something felt different somehow. He shook his head slightly.

Doom

Ned looked around the room. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

Doom

“That. That noise. Like someone in the crypts is beating on a drum.”

“Ned, I feel and hear nothing like that.”

Doom Doom

His palm quivered and Ned looked down at the Hearthstone in astonishment. It seemed to be, well, beating, like a heart. And the colour was lighter. “You don’t see that?”

“See wha – Ned. Your eyes, Ned.” The GreatJon was staring at him, looking at him with awe. “They’re green. And your pupils… are red.”

Doom Doom Doom

Ned’s throat was suddenly drier than the deserts of Dorne. The Hearthstone was beating more and more, he could feel the blood thundering in his veins, a mist seemed to be descending over his vision. He opened his mouth again but then he suddenly froze. The shade of his father seemed to be standing to one side of the GreatJon all of a sudden, staring at him intently. He was mouthing something, but he couldn’t make it out. And then Brandon appeared next to him and then his grandfather, and then ghostly shade after ghostly shade, crowding the room with what must be Stark after Stark.

Doom Doom Doom Doom

And then the wall at the back of the solar seemed to crumble and he seemed to swoop through it, like a raven on the fleetest of wings. North he flew, his mind stunned as he looked down at the lands of the North as they passed far beneath him. How was this possible? What was this? A vision. And what a vision.

The Wall appeared before him and he winced at the sight. He could see the abandoned castles, he could see the neglect in the Gift, he could see the small numbers of Night’s Watch, he could almost smell the despair.

And then the Wall was behind him and the land beyond it was stretching out in front of him. He could see the Wildlings beneath him, see the giants as they rumbled and stamped over the countryside, see the mammoths. He could feel despair there as well, and hate and desperation.

Doom Doom Doom Doom Doom

Something seemed to crystallise in the air around him and suddenly he felt cold. Not the cold of the hands or the face, but the cold of the heart that indicated more than despair - absolute hate. Absolute darkness. He seemed to be heading downwards, towards a low mountain ahead of him. He could see lines in the snow ahead of it, what looked like walls that had long ago crumbled into ruin. Age hung over it, age and death. There were things patrolling around it, things that he could not see clearly and he was somehow glad of that. Closer and closer to the mountain and then suddenly he was flying straight at the ground. He wanted to fling his arms up to stop but instead he slid through the snow and ice, the earth and stone. Down he went, bewildered, and then out into a great hall, where he finally slowed.

That hall was dark, lit only by shards of light coming from somewhere far above him. It was covered in ice and snow, a barren hall with only a dais towards one end, where a figure sat in a throne made from ice and bone. There were… things in the dark areas of the hall, things that might once have been human, but which were now not and as he looked at them they seemed to feel his gaze and mewl and wail and throw twisted arms out in an effort to hide their faces, as if they were ashamed at what they had become.

Ned drifted closer to the throne. Behind it there was a great dead tree, a mockery of a Heart Tree, with black bark and bare rotted branches, with a face carved into it that seemed to glow with a terrible blue light. And the figure on the throne… well it was human-shaped. Had been human once. Now its skin was blue and white and was dressed in old armour that seemed to almost shine dully. Its eyes were closed and a crown of horns seemed to be on its bald head and then Ned realised with a jolt of horror that the horns were growing out of its skin. He gazed at it, horrified. The face… the face almost had Stark features. The cheekbones especially. And then the figure opened its eyes.

Azure orbs they were. Bluer than the sky at midsummer. And colder than the heart of a glacier. The eyes went to him at once and he stared back, too afraid to move even if he had been able to. Bone and sinew creaked and then the figure on the throne stood and gazed at him. And then it smiled for a long moment and said something in a tongue that man had long forgotten. All he could sense was hate and cold and evil. The figure stopped talking and then smiled again – and then its hand shot out and its fingers clenched.

The air around Ned seemed to creak, but he sensed that the odd crystallising sensation he had felt earlier was protecting him, because the creaking stopped after a moment. The figure on the throne, the King of the Others, if a king he was, frowned at his hand and then clenched it again.

Once again the air creaked and groaned, but once again it seemed to meet resistance. The Other stared at him with bafflement – and then rage. It threw back its head and screamed, revealing white and fanged teeth, screamed a scream of rage and fury.

The ice in the hall shook with the sound, shards cracking and falling and some of the things in the shadows wailed and put their hands over their ears. The mockery of the Heart tree bent like it was caught in a storm, branches snapping off. The ground shook and the throne trembled and still Ned was unscathed.

And then the King of the Others ceased his scream and just looked at him, his finger coming up to point at him. The azure eyes narrowed and he peered at him as if he was committing his face to memory. And then the figure started to chant something, in a tongue that was even more alien, dark and twisted – and filled with power. Ned could feel it building – and then suddenly he was falling backwards, pulled by a wind that seemed to surround him, tumbling like a leaf caught in the wind.

On and on he flew, seeing snatches of things out of the corner of his eyes. The Wall. Castle Black. The Last Hearth. Winterfell. He was home. He wanted to be home.

He blinked and as his eyes opened again he was back in his solar, with the GreatJon still in front of him. Ned felt as weary as he ever had before and he was panting as if he had run a mile unshod. Every part of him seemed to hurt, even his hair for some reason.

“Ned!” the GreatJon was shouting at him, “Are you alright? Speak to me Ned!”

With a shaking hand he placed the Hearthstone back in the box. “They are coming for us,” he muttered through a mouth as dry as ashes. “The King of the Others is awake. They are coming.” And then he fell backwards in his chair and fainted dead away.

Chapter Text

Robb

There was so much to learn, Robb thought almost despairingly as he looked at the list of noble houses of the North. Yes, he already knew the names. But it was the complex web of details that was driving him raving mad, the links between major houses and minor houses, not to mention the histories of those houses. He knew about the revolts of the Boltons in far more detail now, but he had not known about the tensions that existed in some of the lands around them.

The knowledge had depressed him more than a bit. He knew now that he should never have trusted Roose Bolton, that the Roose Bolton’s main allegiance was to Roose Bolton first and then (perhaps) to Father, based on what they had been through in the War of Robert’s Rebellion. He, Robb, had not the same amount of loyalty owed to him.

He thought about all the dead men that he had led South of Moat Cailin, in that future that must never happen, the dead that had died for nothing. He had been The King in the North but he had not even been able to hold his own lands. Well – that would change. He had the North to protect now and he would do so to the last drop of blood in his veins.

He closed the book and massaged the bridge of his nose. He had a slight headache from his studies and he sighed and stood up from the bench in the courtyard where he had been studying. A cawing noise from one of the walls to one side caught his eye and he looked up in time to spot a flash of black. Just a crow. And then he saw the tower and he scowled. There it was. There was the tower where Bran had fallen. What had he seen there? He could guess. Oh, how knightly of that bastard Lannister, how brave, a man against a boy. He remembered the false sympathy on that bastard’s face and the honeyed words of the Queen, with their underlying drip of poison. And then after that the scars on the palms of his mother.

No. It would not happen again. He would swear any oath on that. He turned from the tower and strode across the courtyard, detailing all the things that he and Father would have to do. He wanted to look into the supplies for the Wall that afternoon. That and work out a way of sending more men. A hundred men sent now would be worth twice that number in a year and the more after that the better. He knew how hard it would be though. Winter was coming, men needed to fed, watered, paid, housed, mounted.

The sound of laughter broke him out of his grim reverie, laughter and then song. Oddly enough his heart lightened. Roose Bolton could not be trusted but Domeric Bolton was another matter. He was either the greatest dissembler ever, or he was a genuinely kind and courtly young man, skilled with a harp, skilled with a song and always ready with a smile.

He had already given young Bran a number of lessons on riding and he could tell that his younger brother already admired the heir to the Dreadfort. As did Sansa, who he could see with Domeric as he sang to her. Septa Mordane was sitting to one side, attending to her embroidery with a slight smile, and when she saw Robb she nodded respectfully to him and then quietly stole away.

Sansa and Domeric both saw him at the same time, the first with a smile and a frown and the second with a courteous nod as he continued his song. Robb smiled at them both and then politely listened. Yes, the man was skilled in music. He could certainly hold a note far better than he ever could.

When Domeric finished he bowed to Sansa as she applauded and then turned to Robb. “Your pardon Robb, but is your Lord father around?” He had turned slightly pink as he stole a look at Sansa, who was blushing suddenly and trying to look demure. “I would like to speak to him.”

Oho. He had an inkling that this might happen and he schooled his features to look grave and thoughtful. “I believe that he is in his solar,” he replied. “Allow me to take you there.”

“My thanks.” Domeric turned to Sansa and bowed again. “My lady.”

“Thank you Domeric,” she answered and then plucked a rose from the nearest bush, disguising the sudden wince from a thorn quite well. “Will you wear this for me?”

“I shall,” he replied with a smile, taking it from her and threading it through a buttonhole. “Lead on please Robb.”

They strode away across the courtyard, Robb leading with a slight smile. Oh, Sansa was taken with this one. And from what he had heard and seen, Domeric Bolton was not his father, was far better than his father and above all he was many, many leagues better than that little shit Joffrey. As they walked they talked about this and that, the hunting in the area, the signs that Winter was not yet here and how much Domeric had enjoyed his stay at Winterfell.

“I hear that a party from the Last Hearth arrived this morning,” Domeric told him and Robb frowned. He had missed that.

“I did not know that,” he replied as they passed through a doorway and then up the stairs that spiralled their way up. “Did you see them?”

“I certainly heard them,” Domeric quipped. “The man leading them was most loud. I believe that it was-”

“NED!” The voice boomed down the corridor. “Are you alright? Speak to me Ned!” It was coming from the solar and it was the voice of GreatJon bloody Umber and Robb’s heart leapt. The man had been his fiercest bannerman and loudest voice and he seemed to be worried about Father? He tore down the corridor, Domeric at his heels and burst into the solar.

Father was in his chair, shaking as if in the grip of a terrible palsy, panting as if he had run a race. He was holding something in his hand, which he now placed into a box and the GreatJon was staring at him as if he was terrified. And then he saw Father’s eyes. Green fire seemed to be in them, with red at the centre and when he heard Domeric gasp in astonishment he knew that the Heir to the Dreadfort had seen what he had seen as well.

“They are coming for us,” Father said in a voice like iron being beaten, “The King of the Others is awake. They are coming.”

And then his eyes closed and he collapsed in his chair. After a moment of horror Robb leapt for him. “Father!” he cried and he saw the GreatJon look at him. “GreatJon! What happened?”

The GreatJon stared at him, deeply confused. “Who are you again?”

“Robb Stark! What happened?”

“Gods boy, you look like a Tully. Oh – yes, I gave your lord Father the Hearthstone. It… was given to my ancestors from yours thousands of years ago, to be watched over, to be protected. It changed colour this year, so I brought it South to your father. And he held it and… he saw something. I know not what. But you heard him.” The GreatJon looked grimmer than he had ever seen him look. “The Others have returned.”

“Oh Gods,” Domeric choked as he crouched by Father and stared at him. “The Others?”

Robb shook his head. “What is this ‘Hearthstone’?”

“Something that we have kept watch over for many years,” The GreatJon rumbled. “We were closest to the Wall. I think that was why we were given it. I know not why else.” He peered at Father. “Perhaps we should give him some ale?”

And then Father came awake suddenly. His eyes were normal again but there was a look on his face of deep intent. He looked about wildly for a moment and then he looked at Robb. “Robb.”

“Father?”

“Search my solar. Search Winterfell. Look for anything my father might have left. Anything at all. Look for old rooms, old records. Search.” And then he collapsed again.

Robb stared at his father and then ran to the door and peered out. He could see Luwin hurrying down the corridor. “Come, Luwin! Quick!” And then he looked back at Domeric and the GreatJon. “We must search!”

 


 

Tyrion

Father was sitting in the smaller of the breakfast rooms that morning. Casterly Rock was a huge fortification with a huge number of rooms, but there was nothing like having breakfast with the sun on your face. Well, it was mid-morning at least. Ish.

Tyrion swung himself up onto the chair at the table and cast a careful eye over Father. He was sitting at the head of the table and was glowering at a piece of paper in front of him. It was not a nice glare. It was a glare that dared the small document not to burst into flames. He looked further down the table, where Uncle Kevan was busy tearing a small roll apart with his fingers and doing his best not to look worriedly at his brother. He then caught Tyrions eye and shook his head ever so slightly. No, asking Father what was wrong was not a good idea.

Instead Tyrion bowed to everyone from his seat, chose some bread and honey and then ate quietly as he ran through what he’d ate the previous night and if there had been any exotic cheese involved. He was pretty sure that there had not been, but that wine had dulled his recollections of the meal just a bit.

As he dabbed his mouth with his napkin and then thought about perhaps a honeycake or two, Father finally stood up with a growl, grabbed the piece of paper and stalked over to the window. “Are you well Tywin?” Uncle Kevan asked quietly.

“No,” grunted Father, before stalking back to the table and dropping the piece of paper in front of his brother. “I do not like things that I cannot explain. And the more I think about this, the less it makes sense.”

His uncle picked up the crumpled piece of paper, smoothed it out, read it – and then frowned at Father, before shoving it down the table at Tyrion. “Odd,” he said cautiously.

Tyrion reached out and picked it up and read it. Then he read it again and then a third time. Only then did he speak: “Eddard Stark is asking the Lord of the North for information – legends, stories and other information – about the Others?”

“It would seem so,” grumped Father as he stalked back to the window and glared out of it. “What do you make of it?”

Tyrion’s first thought was that perhaps Eddard Stark had contracted a sudden case of curiosity about the legends of the North, but then he had second, third and fourth thoughts about saying that. Father would not be behaving like this for an answer that simple, nor would he react well to such an answer.

Instead he leant back in his chair and thought deeply and swiftly. Yes, Father was right. This was odd. A Lord Paramount of Westeros, especially a Lord like Eddard Stark, who was said to be deeply serious, would not send out ravens to his main lords on a whim about a legend. This meant something.

After more thought he had to confess that if it did mean something then he knew not what. Which irritated him. “This makes no sense,” he said eventually.

This provoked a snarl from his Father. “I know that!”

“Stark merely wants information on the legendary Others,” Uncle Kevan muttered. “It’s odd, but am I missing something?”

“Uncle, from what I’ve heard of Ned Stark I do not think that he would send a raven lightly. But this seems so trivial that… I do not understand it.”

“I made the mistake of underestimating the North once,” Father muttered as he clasped his hands behind his back and glared harder at a hill in the distance. “After Ned Stark led the first Northern host to travel South of the Neck for hundreds of years and won at the Battle of the Bells and then at the Trident I swore that would never underestimate that man ever again.

“He holds his honour too high and the man would not last a month at Kings Landing, but he is not to be underestimated. And this, this message, means something. I just do not know what.”

He turned on his heel and glared at them both. “I have seen the Games of Thrones played by many men. I have seen it played by madmen and lost, like Aerys Targaryen. I have seen it won by savagery and brilliance, aided by luck, like Robert Baratheon. I have seen it bungled repeatedly by oafs like Mace Tyrell. And I have seen it apparently thrown away by dreamy fools like Rhaegar Targaryen. But this move by Eddard Stark… it does not fit into any stratagem that I can think of. It. Makes. No. Sense.” He bit the last four words out as if they pained him and then he turned and glowered again through the window.

Tyrion ran a number of possible answers to that through his head, decided that none of them were much good when Father was in this kind of mood and instead devoted himself to further thought, broken by a yawn. Yes, he really did have to ask what the cheese had been last night. Then he paused. “Could this be a coded message to his Banners? But what? And why? There is no reason for the North to plot at the moment, surely? Robert is a friend to the Starks, they grew up together.”

Father’s glance at him might possibly have held a smidgeon of slight approval. “Then you see the problem.”

“It could be something to do with the Wildlings,” Uncle Kevan mused. “I have heard that their raids get worse every year.”

“Yes, but the Others?” Tyrion shook his head. “Might as well ask about grumpkins and snarks. Why the Others?”

“I do not know,” Father said crossly. “And to make matters even more confusing word has reached me that the Maester of Castle Black is at Winterfell on this matter. Do you know his name, Tyrion?”

He thought quickly – and then paused. “Wait – isn’t the Maester of Castle Black Aemon Targaryen? The one who turned down the Iron Throne?”

“He still lives?” Uncle Kevan spluttered, having been surprised in the middle of drinking some weak ale.

“Oh, he still lives.” Father ground out. “Aerys was always looking over one shoulder at the Wall when he was at his most paranoid.”

Tyrion absorbed this and then pursed his lips slightly in thought. “We need answers then Father. Perhaps I should take a trip to Winterfell?”

Father swivelled an eye at him. “With what possible pretext?”

“Why I have always wished to visit the North. And to see the Wall! And should I happen to ask in Winterfell about the Others, who know what I might discover?”

There was a pause. Uncle Kevan looked at Tyrion worriedly, whilst Father looked out of the window musingly. “It might be dangerous,” Father said eventually. “But perhaps a dwarf like you might be able to find out a few things, instead of degrading this house with your drinking and whoring here – don’t think that I didn’t see you yawning. Yes. I think so. Travel north Tyrion. Go to Winterfell. Ask some questions. Don’t come back until you have answers.” And then Father swept out.

As Father’s footsteps receded down the corridor Uncle Kevan turned to him. “Are you sure about this Tyrion? It seems a risk.”

“Tis the least I can do. Why Uncle, I shall be asking questions about legends whilst I read! And the thought of sending me into a place like Winterfell almost brought a smile to Father’s face! Now – how often does that happen?”

Uncle Kevan winced. “Tyrion, this is…”

“This is a chance for me to see the North! The Wall! Why, I can take a piss off it and be the tallest Lannister ever!”

And this finally brought a smile to the face of Uncle Kevan. “Then I will help you plan this carefully Tyrion. And I hope to see you back here soon. Although - must you give your father so many arrows to send at you by whoring so much?”

He stared at his uncle. “I don’t know why Father said that. I didn’t visit any of the usual places at all last night. No the yawns have another cause. What was last night’s cheese again?”

 


 

Domeric

He vowed that he would remember the voice that Lord Stark had spoken with until the day that he died, whenever that might be. Surely the Old Gods had been speaking though the Lord of Winterfell. He had heard it and trembled like a leaf at the words. The Others had returned. And the King of the Others was awake.

And now, a day later he and Robb and the others were still searching the main keep of Winterfell, looking for anything that might have information about the deadly enemy North of the Wall. After giving the orders to search Lord Stark had collapsed again and had been ministered to at once, first by his frantic eldest son and then by good Maester Luwin and then finally by a frantic Lady Stark. Exhaustion had been the Maester’s conclusion and Domeric and Robb had helped Lord Umber to carry Lord Stark to his bed chambers to sleep.

Lord Umber had looked at him mostly strangely when he heard his name from Domeric and he had inwardly cursed his father’s reputation, as well as that of the family name. He would swear it again and again – the time would come when people would hear the name ‘Bolton’ and not quiver with fear and dread.

And now he, Robb, Jon Snow and the Greyjoy boy (who seemed to be always thinking about something these days) were all assembling in Lord Stark’s solar, where Lord Umber was pacing about like a bear with a thorn in his foot.

When they were all assembled Lord Umber raised an eyebrow at them. “Well?”

“I found an old store room at the bottom of the Broken Tower with six barrels containing a thousand old nails,” Jon said quietly. “But nothing else.”

“There is nowt in the First Keep that we could find,” sighed Robb as he gestured at Theon. “Save dust and dead spiders.”

“And I searched the Crypts,” Domeric said sombrely. “I found nothing.”

Jon Snow jerked his head slightly at the mention of the Crypts and then he scowled slightly. “We need to think about what we’re looking for,” he said musingly.

Lord Umber, who had been rubbing his hand over his beard and scowling, looked up at this. “What do you mean? Ned – I mean Lord Stark – told us to search for anything that his Lord father might have left behind for his sons about the Others, anything that would have been left behind by his ancestors.”

“Yes,” Jon replied, “But from what I have heard of him Grandfather would not have left any records or objects that were precious anywhere where they could have been damaged. The Broken Tower leaks when it rains. So does the First Keep. And the Crypts are below ground. Yes, the last two are old, but surely past Lords of Winterfell, not to mention the old Kings in the North would have found a safer, drier place for them?”

There was a silence whilst his words were weighed by the others. “By the Gods you speak sense boy,” Lord Umber rumbled. “Then we must search in the great Keep itself.”

“Is there any word of Father?” Robb asked worriedly. “He has slept for a day so far.”

Lord Umber smiled through his beard. “Your lord father awoke an hour ago, apparently hungrier than a Direwolf puppy and about as strong. He will join us soon.”

“I’ll join you now,” said a voice at the doorway and they all turned to see Lord Stark walk in. he looked tired and drawn, but there was a slight smile on his face. “GreatJon, thank you for taking charge of Winterfell whilst I slept.” He sank into his chair with a sigh and then looked at the little stone box on the table with an enigmatic look. “How goes your search?”

“Badly,” Lord Umber said. “Ned, your lord father must have had something passed down to him, some mention or hint or word. You said that Brandon was troubled for a day after he came of age. What could he have been told?”

“I know not,” Lord Stark sighed, before frowning and then looking about. “Wait. Could it be that simple?”

“What could?” Robb asked.

“This was my father’s solar before it was mine,” Lord Stark said sombrely. “I replaced the rug and added that bookcase in the corner, but I have not touched the rest. Have you searched here?”

The others all looked at each other – and then rather sheepish smiles emerged. “It would seem not,” Domeric said with a smile. “Lord Stark, with your permission?”

“Granted, Domeric, granted,” Lord Stark replied as he stood with a groan. “You’ll have to search without my help though as I feel as if every part of me is still tired.”

And so they started to search. Walls were tapped on, bookcases moved, rugs rolled up and stacked in a corner, until finally they faced the tapestries that were hung on two of the walls. One, showing a Godswood with Children of the Forest peering out shyly from behind the trunks and branches, revealed nothing more than a wall.

The second was different. It showed Bran the Builder at the Wall. And behind it there was a door. A locked door. Lord Stark stared at it, deeply shocked. “Why is it that I never knew that that was ever there?”

“Why would you have, Ned? Why would you have looked for it?” Lord Umber said sombrely. “Your father never had the chance to even tell you about it. This was all supposed to have been Brandon’s.”

A silence fell – a sombre one. Then Lord Stark stepped up to the door. “Well – I am here now.” He looked at the lock. “One thing that Father did leave was a set of keys, most of which looked as old as Winterfell. Robb – can you open the second drawer down on the left of the cupboard by the door? They should be there.” He frowned slightly. “I hope that one of them opens it. If Father took the key to this door South with him then… well, the wildfire would have melted it.”

A deeper, even more sombre silence, until Robb returned with the keys. And some of them did indeed look as old at Winterfell itself. But a few looked as if they had been used more recently than the others and Lord Stark fingered them thoughtfully and then tried them at the door. The first would not turn, nor would the second. But the third did, with a squeal of a protesting lock and as the door opened Robb Stark muttered about the need for a little oil in the lock.

There was a dark void behind the door, a passageway that Domeric knew that only the Stark in Winterfell should enter, but Lord Stark turned to them all. “We will need torches, no, lanterns,” he said huskily. “We will need light.”

Lanterns were brought and then Lord Stark stepped though the doorway, followed by Robb and Jon, then Lord Umber and then Theon and finally Domeric. There was much dust underfoot, but the air smelled dry and not damp. And after a few paces Lord Stark stopped to examine the wall. “The stones are different here,” he said musingly. “As if this part of the keep was built around another, older, building. A tower perhaps?”

Domeric thought about this. “Lord Stark,” he called out, “There are parts of the Dreadfort that are similarly built. Old parts build over and around. I wouldn’t want to guess what might be hidden there.”

“Given your family, lad, I really wouldn’t want to know what might be in those walls of yours,” Lord Umber rumbled and Domeric was glad of the near-dark, for he felt his cheeks grow hot with shame.

“GreatJon, go easy on the lad,” Lord Stark chided and then they passed on down the passageway until they stood in front of another door. This one was wood again, Weirwood perhaps, with a direwolf carved into it. Not the usual direwolf of the Stark banner, but something older and rougher.

A total silence fell and then they all watched as Lord Stark reached out and traced the outline of the direwolf with a finger that shook slightly. And then he pushed the door, which gave with a creak of hinges. The light from the lanterns caught the dust as it billowed slowly up.

There was a great stone slab in the little room, and alcoves in the walls around it. And they were all filled with… odd... things. There was a dull mirror of beaten bronze. A small leather bag that looked dried and rotted and by the edges that were peeping out contained what looked like arrow heads made from some kind of glittering rock. There was a skeletal hand in a small iron cage, with a dusty plaque under it and he watched as Lord Stark brushed the dust away to reveal what looked like runes of some kind. A tiny figure of a fat man with his legs crossed, made from some kind of green stone. And then there were the cylinders the length of his arm, with caps in the end about the width of a man’s fist, that were stacked in many places, as well as what remained of a great and very old book. It looked as if part had been burned at one point, and it lay on the stone slab, before a chest of very old and weathered wood.

By the Gods, this is old, Domeric thought with reverence. No, these are old. He looked around, seeing more things in various alcoves and as the hairs on the back of his neck rose up a feeling came over him that all of a sudden they were no longer alone, that the ghosts of past Starks had suddenly gathered to witness this discovery.

Lord Stark leaned over the bench and looked at the half-burnt book. “Even some records are better than no records at all,” he muttered.

Robb had reached for one of the cylinders and opened it and suddenly he looked up. “Father, this is full of paper! No – parchment!”

“This one has hide, I think,” Jon added, having opened one of his own.

“And that is no skull of anything that I have ever seen before,” Theon Greyjoy said with a slight quaver as he pointed at a something that had horns growing from it. “There is dust everywhere. When was that door last opened?”

“When my father was alive,” Lord Stark said with a sad smile. He held up a piece of paper that was also covered in dust. “This is a note from him. To remind him to tell Brandon about…” He squinted at the paper. “The… keys to this place. And to dust a little more often.”

“Ned, look at this,” Lord Umber said with excitement in his voice. Domeric looked over with the others at the alcove that Lord Umber was peering into. There was a little bowl there with a rune carved in the middle of it and a small depression at the bottom. “That’s the same rune as on the Hearthstone. As if it belongs in there.”

Lord Stark nodded. “Jon, will you go back to my solar and get that little stone box please? And do not, for the love of the Old Gods, touch what’s inside it?”

Jon Snow nodded and walked quickly out of the room. As he did Lord Stark turned to the chest and peered at the clasp. “Unlocked,” he said musingly and then opened it. The hinges on it also let out a squeal that made them all wince, before the lord of Winterfell let out a grunt of surprise. As they all watched he reached in and with a slight groan of effort picked up a huge mace, if such a word could describe the thing that he held. It was made of a dull metal of some sort that had not a touch of corrosion or rust. Old leather wrappings were wound around its handle, and its head… well it was a thing designed to crush and kill. And it had stones of some sort – almost like the arrow heads in the bag – embedded in its head. This was not a weapon of chivalry. This was a weapon of death.

“Robert would love this,” Lord Stark said with a slight smile. “This is a mace with but one purpose.”

Footsteps rang on stone and then Jon Snow was back with the little box, which he handed over to his father. Lord Stark took it with a word of thanks and then opened it, before taking a deep breath and pulling out a small worn stone. He weighed it in his hand for a long moment and then relaxed a little, before placing it into the little bowl. “A perfect fit,” he said. “I wonder what it does?”

And then the bowl flared with light, as if the Sun had briefly been within it, and Domeric heard a great voice in his head that drove him to his knees. “The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.”


 

 

Jon Arryn

He watched the sail on the horizon start to diminish and sighed, heavily. The day had been one of the most chaotic ones at King’s Landing that he could ever remember. He’d woken to discover that Robert had, for some reason that he still did not understand, decided that he had to visit Storm’s End at once.

He’d found the King standing in the main courtyard of the Red Keep, almost juddering with impatience as he bellowed orders at scurrying servants. “Ah. Jon,” Robert had barked at him. “I need to talk to you. Need to visit Storm’s End.”

“Why your Grace? Is there trouble in the Stormlands?”

And this had resulted in Robert staring around the courtyard for a long moment, visibly considering his words. “Don’t think I can explain it, Jon,” the King finally admitted, almost shamefaced. “Feel like I’m needed there. There and… elsewhere. I’ll be back as soon as I can. It’s just… I need to be in Storm’s End.” Robert had then stared North grimly for another long moment.

“Keep everything in place here, Jon. I’m sorry to leave so suddenly, but…” He ran his hand over his beard thoughtfully. “I need to get this cut,” he muttered before catching Jon’s eye again. “I can’t explain it Jon. I need to be there and not here and I know that this all makes no sense but…”

Robert held up his hands and clenched and unclenched them repeatedly. “I can’t put it into words. There’s something in the wind, Jon, something in the wind. There’s fighting up ahead. There’s a war coming. I don’t who we’ll be fighting or where or when, but I can feel it. It’s in my blood Jon. And I feel more alive now that I have since the Greyjoy revolt. Ah – Renly! Get your arse over here! We leave on the next tide!”

And so he had, with just a small retinue, including Renly and Ser Barristan Selmy. The former had had a word with Jon during one of the few moments of relative quiet. “I don’t suppose you know why my royal brother has decided to on this visit at such short notice, do you Jon?”

“None whatsoever, Lord Baratheon. The King seems to have decided on this trip today.”

Renly had scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Odd. Even odder, I found him sparring with the Master at Arms this morning, with his warhammer. It left him exhausted but happy.” They had both looked over at a corner of the courtyard, where Robert was getting his beard severely trimmed.

All of this had left Jon with a feeling of great and very deep foreboding. Robert had perhaps picked up something about the Great Matter? But if he had then why not stay and fight it out? And why go to the Stormlands? Why not confront the Queen? No, he must not have any idea about it all, otherwise Cersei would be in a cell, or be dead, and Robert would have confronted that traitorous bastard the Kingslayer already. So why Storm’s End? He’d thought about telling the King everything, but they needed more time to move their forces into King’s Landing without any of the other players around them knowing. Varys had to know. Whose side was he on, really? And what of Baelish? The more he learnt of him the more he distrusted him. His web of financial affairs was wide and seemed to be a little too opaque in places.

But there had been one good element to Robert’s departure. His talk with Renly had bourn some fruit. “Bring back a stronger entourage of guards from Storm’s End,” he’d advised the youngest Baratheon. “Men and lords you can trust.” Renly had stared at him, stared at him intently, before nodding slowly and saying that he understood.

And now Jon stood at the docks and watched as the ship vanished off to the West. He was still amazed that Robert had taken a ship instead of riding out, but ships did not tire, nor they have to sleep at night. He wanted to get every mile out of every hour and that worried him as well.

Footsteps sounded to one side and he looked over to see Stannis approach. “Lord Baratheon.”

“My Lord Hand.” Stannis looked out at the Western horizon. “The King’s trip puzzles me.”

“And me. But he felt that he had his reasons. We must await his return – and plan how we must tell him about this Great Matter.”

Stannis winced and then lowered his voice. “He will not take it well. We must be prepared for that. And we must strike hard when we announce it. The Lannisters in this city will not take this lightly. We must be careful.”

Jon nodded tiredly. “Gods but I hate this city,” he muttered. “A city full of liars and conspiracies.”

The Master of Ships smiled thinly. “I have always hated this place my Lord Hand. ‘Tis a place where men lie as easily as they breathe. But there are a few who can be depended on.” He handed over a small roll of paper. “Your son is safe at White Harbour. Ser Davos Seaworth sends word from there by raven of their safe arrival. Lord Manderly has ordered that your son and his party be escorted to Winterfell by some fifty men.”

Jon took the paper with a frown. “That’s a strong escort. Why so many?”

“Seaworth does not say. The handwriting is not his, he does not have his letters well, but I recognise Lord Manderly’s hand. But he does say that he returns at once to King’s Landing ‘with the utmost despatch’, which means that he will risk everything to get back here quickly. I know Ser Davos Seaworth. He would not be returning with such despatch, risking his ship, unless something was the matter. Add that to the strong escort for your son and I fear that he has news of some plot or other.”

Ice water seemed to flow through his veins for a moment, and then he shrugged it off. “We will see what Ser Davos has in the way of news,” he said eventually. “Let me know the moment he arrives.” He set his jaw. “We have much to prepare for. When Robert returns we must confront him with this Great Matter. Can you have his bastard son moved from the smithy to perhaps the docks? We will need to keep the lad safe to use him as proof of the Queen’s infidelity.”

“It can be arranged,” Stannis said curtly. “Leave it to me.” He nodded abruptly to Jon and then strode off.

As he returned his gaze to the Western horizon Jon sighed. He wished that his son was there so that he could hug the little boy. He suddenly had the strongest feeling that he might never see him again.

 


 

Jory

The further they went from White Harbour the easier his heart rested within him. It was easier to see danger on the road. Easier to see everything. And there was also the fact that with every day that passed the closer they got to Winterfell and home.

There were two other things. With every day that passed the little Lordling seemed to change right before his eyes. At the start of the voyage he had been a dull-eyed pale little wraith, afraid almost of everything and with a spiteful and slightly demented tone to his voice. Oh, and a little stupid.

And now… well, he was tanned from the Sun, he looked healthier, sounded cleverer and he was so curious about everything that there were times when Jory wished that he could shut up for five minutes. The ‘medicine’ was being reduced day by day and Annah had told him that it was almost all gone now, that the little boy would soon be free of whatever it was.

Which left the question of who had poisoned the boy and why. Annah, he knew, had her suspicions. “Everyone who ever asks about the medicine is dismissed by Lady Arryn,” she had told him. “Everyone. I wonder why. The medicine makes him dependent on her. But I do not serve her. I serve Lord Arryn.”

He stole a look at the woman from the Vale. The two of them had been dancing around each other for some time now and he wasn’t sure where this dance would end. He was hopeful of getting a better look at that chest of here for a start.

And there was the other matter. The pull to the North. He felt it more strongly the closer they got to Winterfell and he had no idea why. Manderly’s men felt it too. They were travelling in the right direction and they all knew it. He didn’t want to think about what the feeling might have been like if they were moving in the other direction.

What intrigued him was the fact that Annah felt it too. She had told him that her family claimed descent from the First Men, apparently through one of the old hill clans. There was more of a story there. He was going to enjoy getting it out of her. Oh and young Robert Arryn felt it too, not as strong, but enough for the little lordling to talk about it. It must have been the Tully blood.

Jory squinted at the hills off to one side and then nodded to himself. Three more days until they’d see the towers of Winterfell on the far horizon. Just three more days until he could put down this burden of his. He looked over at the lordling, who was babbling a series of questions about the birds at one of Manderly’s men, who was answering him with a tolerant smile.

Yes, the boy was different. And according to Annah he reminded her of Lord Arryn’s dead nephew Elbert, whom she had seen when she was herself just a girl. He sobered slightly, recalling that Lord Arryn had had a number of heirs, all of whom had died. Well, not this one. By the gods, not this one.

 


 

Ned

Luwin knocked briskly at the door and then bustled in with yet another fist full of messages from the ravens in his tower. “From Bear Island and the Last Hearth, my Lord,” he muttered deferentially as he handed them over. “And from the cawing I heard as I was bringing these to you more ravens are arriving.”

“Thank you Luwin,” Ned said as he received them and then watched the man leave quickly. A small smile played around his lips as soon as the Maester was gone. When he had seen the new records, and the objects, Luwin had been like a small child being given a honeyed spoon to lick clean. As had Maester Aemon, who had put off his return to Castle Black to help Luwin with the work of looking at everything. The old blind Maester had a deep knowledge of runes that had been a blessing.

He opened the first. Maege Mormont had written it herself: “The Long Night comes. House Mormont stands with the Stark in Winterfell. Command us.”

The second had been written by an unfamiliar hand. “The Others come. Last Hearth stands ready.” He handed that one over to the GreatJon, who read it with pleased grunt. “SmallJon’s hand. Good, my son doesn’t have cheese in his bloody ears.” He looked up. “Lord Stark, House Umber stands ready.” And then he leant back in his chair and took a gulp of ale, before looking intently at the little mound of stone arrowheads that they had taken from the rotted bag in the secret room.

“Why do those fascinate you so much?” Ned asked.

“Because they remind me of the Last Hearth. I used to pick up arrowheads like this as a lad when I was walking around the North walls – there’s a rocky patch there. And the lower tunnels still have areas where you can mine these things as well. Most odd.”

Ned went still as something that the GreatJon had said on his arrival suddenly returned to him. “GreatJon, you said that the Last Hearth was named by my ancestors and that it was built on a crag. Did that crag have a name?”

The big man frowned. “Aye,” he said thoughtfully. “T’was the Glittering Crag. Why?”

Ned closed his eyes for a moment and suppressed the need to swear. “Because the records we found there mentioned the Glittering Crag and said that there had been a great siege there, that led to the Others being routed. Do you know anything of that?”

“Oh, aye,” the GreatJon said with a sigh. “There was a great siege there and a lot of men died. There’s a place to the South called The Burning where the dead were said to have been cremated. And there are still barrows to the West that we were told never to disturb, not least because nothing grows on them. After the siege was broken it was then that your ancestor gave the crag to my ancestor and told him to build a fortress there and then to guard it at all costs.”

“Why?” Ned asked intently, “Why that place? At all costs?”

The GreatJon blinked at him. “I don’t rightly know Ned,” he replied. He then winced. “We’ve lost a lot, over the years. All I know was that every year we had to mine the lower crag for rocks to send to Winterfell. But we haven’t done that for years – centuries even.”

He nodded in reply and then frowned at the little mound of arrowheads. “Our forefathers must have thought those important. I wonder why?”

“I don’t know. Stone can be brittle.” The GreatJon shrugged again. “How are your children by the way? Robb and Jon were affected as badly as we were by that bloody stone.”

“They all heard it. So did Cat. But whereas she was frightened by it, Arya is still excited at the thought of magic, Bran wants to know more about everything, Sansa is still thinking about it all and Rickon seems to have taken it all for granted.” Ned shook his head. “The young adapt better than the old.”

Knuckles rapped again at the door and then turned to see old Mikken standing there, twisting his cap in his hands. “Your pardon my Lords. You asked me to look at the mace you found?”

“Ah, Mikken. Yes, here.” And Ned pulled out the huge mace and carried it over to the blacksmith. He had to admit that he liked the way that weapon felt in his hands. It was lighter than it looked somehow and was well balanced. Someone had crafted it most skilfully after much thought. He laid it on the table that had been brought in by the door. “What do you make of it?”

Mikken bent over and peered at it carefully – and then he blinked rapidly and took a longer look at it. “Interesting,” he breathed quietly as he traced a finger over it. “Very interesting. Can I ask where you found this my Lord?”

“In a hidden room. It belonged to my ancestors. Yet it is no steel that I have seen before.”

Mikken stroked his beard with one hand. “I think,” he said cautiously, “That this is not steel. I think that it is sky-metal.”

Ned looked at the GreatJon, who stared back in astonishment. “Sky-metal?”

“Aye, I’ve seen a few old pieces here and there. When stars fall from the sky as rocks then sometimes they contain metal. And sometimes that metal can be smelted and used. It… often looks different. This mace, as you can see my Lord, has no corrosion on it. Not a speck of rust.” He paused, as if measure his words. “The make of it, the… way it has been worked? It is ancient my Lord. Most ancient. This is the work of the First Men. No modern mace looks like this. And… well, there were tales of magic being used on such weapons. Magic in the forging.”

Mikken straightened up. He looked faintly ashamed. “We have lost the means to make a weapon like this my Lord. Aye, as I look at it the more I am convinced that magic was used to make it. I can think of no other way that it could be forged.” And then he hesitated and seemed to be struggling with something.

“What is it Mikken?”

“My Lord – every smith in Winterfell has always had tales passed down to him from his predecessor. And there is a dim and distant tale of a great mace that was in the possession of your lord ancestors until they acquired Ice. My Lord – this… this might be the Fist of Winter.”

Ned looked at the mace in some shock. “From the tales,” he muttered. “There were references there to it.” he paused. “Sky-metal? So this is like Dawn, the sword of the Daynes?”

Mikken shrugged. “I’ve never seen Dawn, my Lord. But sky-metal varies, depending on the colour and nature of the star. And what can be done with it also varies. Magic again. Or so the tales say.”

“What of the stones embedded in them?”

Mikken scratched his beard thoughtfully. “They look like nothing I have even seen, my lord. But then I am not a Maester.”

Ned nodded and then looked at Mikken. “Very well – my thanks Mikken.”

“Happy to oblige, my Lord,” the blacksmith rumbled and then strode out of the door.

“So that’s the Fist of Winter,” the GreatJon grunted. “Aye, I’ve heard the legends as well. That looks like it’s got a lot of weight behind it. A weight of history as well.”

“Aye,” Ned muttered as he sat again. And then he looked up at the doorway again, having heard footsteps. Luwin then emerged at the doorway puffing as if he had been running.

“My Lord,” the old Maester wheezed as he approached and held out two pieces of paper, “Messages.”

Taking them Ned unrolled the first. “’Skagos stands with the Stark in Winterfell’. This is from Skagos??”

“It is, my Lord,” Luwin said. “And such a thing is rare indeed. Ravens from Skagos are… like hen’s teeth.”

Ned nodded and then opened the second. “’House Reed stands with the Stark in Winterfell. Lord Reed rides to Winterfell with all despatch with news of-‘” He paused and then continued: “’Dreams of Greenseers’? Surely that cannot be?”

Luwin coughed. “There was a third raven my Lord. It was from the Citadel. The glass candles are relit. Magic has indeed returned to these lands.”

“Oh bugger,” GreatJon Umber sighed and then he gulped down yet more ale.

 


 

Brynden

He was on edge as he strode to the Bloody Gate, but he knew that he could not show it. The Knight of the Gate had to be calm and collected and not show nerves. That said, he knew that something, somewhere was very wrong.

For one thing it was far, far too quiet. Normally there was always rumbling in the hills and mountains. The Mountain Clans were seen moving in the high passes, raiding here, stealing there, murdering when the mood took them and taking away women that took their fancy. They were outlaws, raiders, murderer, rapists and overall scum. But right now they were quieter than he had ever known.

Oh there had still been reports. Something about horns being heard in the high passes. But otherwise it was as if they had vanished into thin air. It was totally unlike them and that worried him. Worried him a lot.

And then there was that other thing. The thing that was also pressing upon his mind.

The Bloody Gate loomed before him and he made a mental note not to pass on his worries to anyone. Then he saw Ser Donal in front of him and his heart sank a little, if for a different reason. The old veteran had that young puppy lordling behind him. The youngest son of Lord Waxley was an incompetent, wet-nosed, brainless little idiot who had a habit of hopping from leg to leg like a small boy in need of the privy in a hurry.

“Well?” Brynden growled.

“I talked to travellers on the High Road. They all reported a quiet journey. Not a sign of the Mountain Clans. I don’t like it Ser Brynden. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Young Waxley, who had been jiggling in place, finally opened his mouth. “But Sers, the answer is obvious! The scum have finally been scared away by our great prowess and show of arms!”

Brynden shared a long-suffering glance with Ser Donal. “Lad,” Brynden rumbled, “The Mountain Clans have been a pain in the arse of the Eyrie for centuries. I hardly think that they’ve been scared off by the sight of a new coat of arms on a shield. No – this is something else.”

But any further discussions was curtailed by the sound of a shout from the Gate itself, as a sentry at the tallest part waved at them. “Ser Brynden! Riders before the Gate! Mountain Clans!”

“I knew it,” Brynden sighed and then strode off quickly towards the gates, which were already being pulled closed by the men. They were good lads, he had trained them well. As the gates boomed closed he entered the side gate to one of the towers, followed by Ser Donal and the Waxley pup, and then ran up the spiral stairs.

As they emerged from the door on the ramparts he looked out at the road. Yes, they were there. A group of figures on those small horses of theirs. Well, all but one was mounted. The one that was not seemed to be too large for a horse. Yes, they were Mountain Clansmen. Ten of them to be precise. And they were all… just sitting there, on their horses. Not doing a damn thing. Out of range of any bowman. Sitting there with the mist roiling down the valley towards them.

“This is odd,” Ser Donal muttered. “What are they doing?”

And then one of them, who was holding a spear, got off his horse and started to walk towards the Bloody Gate. Halfway there he jammed the butt of the spear into the earth on the side of the road and then took ten measured paces – and then stopped walking.

This got the Waxley pup spluttering. “He challenges us! What impudence! Ser Brynden, I can get the rogue from here with my bow!”.

“No,” Brynden said with a frown. “That is not a challenge. That is a parley. I will treat with him.” And then he turned and went swiftly down the stairs to the gates, before borrowing a spear from one of the men at arms and then slipping through a small postern gate. Once out he walked along the road, counting, until he reached the spot he had measured with his eyes from the ramparts. There he thrust the butt of his own spear in the ground and then marched ten paces forwards, taking off his wrist bracers as he did and then pulling up the chainmail and leather on the forearm of his sleeve.

The Clansman, who was as grey as he was and dressed in the usual mismatched armour of the Mountain Clans, was also busy rolling back his sleeve. When he was done he nodded at Brynden and then strode forwards and clasped forearms with him, skin to skin. “No hidden arms,” said the Clansman.

“No hidden arms,” Brynden agreed, before they both stepped back and replaced their sleeves.

“You are the Blackfish,” the Clansman said almost cheerily. “It would be an honour to kill you. I am Rhys, son of Daner.”

“I am the Blackfish – and you are the Head of the Sons of the Tree,” Brynden said, feeling intrigued. What was he doing here? They normally ranged far to the North-West.

“I am that,” the Clansman stuck his thumbs in his belt and then looked at Brynden sombrely. “We come here to bear witness. To warn you.”

“Your clan?”

Rhys sighed and then jerked a thumb at the group behind him. “All the Clans. We lead them.”

Ice seemed to trickle up and down his spine for an instant. All the clans? They were all there? He peered at them. The large man had two axes strapped to his back and another at his belt. He seemed to like axes. And one… seemed to be a woman? Yes, they could well be the leaders of the Mountain Clans.

“To warn us about what?”

“Why, that we shall return! That in our absence you shall not think that you have won the Long War, or that you send men to drive out those that shall remain to guard our lands!”

Brynden ran his words through his head, wondered if he had gone mad and then asked the one question that the situation demanded: “What?”

Rhys ran a hand through his beard and sighed. When he looked up Brynden recognised the look in the eyes of the man. It was the look of a man who thought that he might die at some point. “We are summoned,” he said almost gently. “We have all felt the call. The Old Blood is strong in us and we heed what it tells us. So we come here with a summons and a warning. The summons is for us. We are needed in the North. The warning is for you. We will return. And when we do the Age of Heroes will return and we will have it all back, Blackfish. Tell the Arryn we will have it all again. It will be our payment.”

“Payment? And what do you mean, you are going to the North? Why?”

This bought him a pitying look. “Ah, you have rocks in your ears. You did not hear it.” Rhys smiled a strange and terrible smile. “The Others have returned, Blackfish. We have heard the call.”

Shock roiled through him. “What call is this?”

Rhys looked at him. “It came days ago. The Others Come. The Stark-”

Brynden Tully interrupted him. “-The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.”

The Clansman opened his eyes at that. And then he smiled hugely. “Sa ha! So – the Old Blood is strong in you too, Blackfish! You have heard the call as well, your ancestors must have been mighty indeed. Perhaps we will fight together on the Wall.” The smile faded. “Many of us will die. But it will be a good death. Many new songs will be sung about us. But it will be worth it. We remember, you see. We remember.” He said the words with a curious intensity. “’Tis a curse and a blessing.”

This was madness. But he remembered the voice he had heard, remembered the feeling that it had sparked within him. He swallowed thickly. “But… the Others have been gone for thousands of years.”

A shrug from the Clansman. “Seasons turn. Winter is coming. The Long Night returns and with it the dreams. In the stars the bottom of the Crook can be seen for the first time in memory, as it was foretold. They come, Blackfish. They come. We march. But tell the Arryn that we will be back.” And then he turned and strode off, wrenching the spear out of the ground as he left.

Brynden took a step towards him. “Wait! You go North? How?”

Rhys waved a hand over his shoulder as he walked away. “Secret ways, Blackfish,” he called over his shoulder, “Secret ways.” And then the mist rolled in and he was gone.

 


 

Jorah

He liked Myr, even though it was too hot for his blood. Everywhere in Essos was too hot. He was of the North, of Bear Island and as he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling he thought of home for a long moment, before closing his eyes in anguish for a moment.

The thought of the trees and the steep hills, the little villages on the coastline, the fog that wreathed the island… He thrust the memories away before they could choke him with grief yet again and then slipped out of bed, leaving the girl sleeping on her side of it.

What was her name again? Oh yes, Leera. A sweet girl with a warm smile and a liking for him, given by the number of times she was available for him. He smiled at her slumbering form for a moment and then walked quietly to the chair and threw on a robe, before crossing to the window.

Ah, Myr. The city that people – men and women – never really slept. There was always something being made somewhere, or planned, or even thought up and then discussed very, very, loudly. He often wondered if the Citadel at Oldtown was like this place. Possibly it was lousder when inspiration struck.

He grabbed a chair from one side and then carefully placed it so the noise did not wake Leera, before sitting in it and then running his hands through his hair. The letter from Varys had been clear, he was to go to Pentos and spy on the Beggar King there. Pentos. He loathed that place. In Myr there were at least ideas and a slightly frenetic optimism. Pentos? It was riddled with cynicism and ruthless ambition. Trade was everything. And anything could be traded there.

But why was the Beggar King there? For what purpose? Apparently he and his sister were in the house of one of the Magisters of the city, one Illyrio Mopatis. He’d asked about the man. He was extremely rich and powerful and apparently wasn’t a man who liked fools.

So why take in the Beggar King? Viserys Targaryen was penniless, proud, desperate and increasingly unstable. Given who his father had been, the instability wasn’t that surprising. In his case the apple had not only not fallen far from the tree, but had nestled against the trunk.

No, Varys was right, something was indeed going on there. So he would have to leave Myr and travel North, to that city filled with men with deep pockets and naught but greed in their eyes. His own eyes flickered to the North-West. The pull of home was strong today. It grew stronger with every day that passed now, ever since the night that he’d come awake with a shout, startling Leera. It had been an intense dream. That voice… He felt the call of home. And yet home was denied him.

He ran a hand over his chin and resolved to shave that day. He preferred to be clean shaven here. Beards could be too sweaty otherwise. He thought of his father and the old man’s great beard and then smiled slightly before the smile ebbed. Home.

“Jorah?”

He turned to the bed and smiled in reassurance. Leera was looking at him sleepily, hair tousled and one breast exposed. “I did not want to disturb you,” he said softly. “’Tis morning.”

She smiled at him and then pulled the sheet down to show the other breast. “Come back to bed.”

He smiled back and then obeyed her command. Pentos awaited. Perhaps she would come with him? But the North still called.

 


 

Asha

There was a dead man in the gibbet on the end of the breakwater at Lordsport. Asha stared at the corpse as the Black Wind passed it. Whoever he was, he had not died well. His arms were bound behind him and what appeared to be wooden stakes had been hammered into his eyes. He hadn’t been there when they’d left and her men did not like the way this greeted them on their return. Many turned their heads and spat to ward off evil.

As they made the ship fast to the pier Haken nudged her. “Look yonder.” She looked and then blinked. She knew that ship, and that flag.

“The Sea Song,” she breathed and then as soon as the ship was moored properly she leapt over the side. “Feed the men, I have to see my nuncle,” she called over her shoulder and then acknowledged Halen’s wave of acknowledgement with one of her own.

She had to admit that she was troubled as she strode over the stone quay and over to her Uncle Rodrik’s ship. Perhaps he would have sound counsel for her. But he was not there. Instead his sailing master Dale was standing by the gangplank, one hand on his sword and a deeply worried look on his face.

He brightened when he saw her though, enough to crack a smile and joke about her hair. But then he stared at the castle. “Your nuncle has gone to see your father,” he said grimly. “And Lord Harlaw is… well, troubled.”

Asha nodded – and then she noticed the air of tension about the crew. The Sea Song looked as if it was ready to sail at a moment’s notice. “Dale, what is wrong?”

But the man had never been a very eloquent or talkative man and all she got from him was some hemming and hawing, before an entreaty to go to the castle and see if Lord Harlaw was alright, that he had been gone for too long. And so Asha finally nodded and left for Pyke.

The wind was blowing hard by the time she made it into the tower where her father’s solar was situated and she stopped to sniff it. There was more rain in that wind, and it was veering to the South-East again. There might be a storm on the way. She shrugged and then opened the door and strode down the corridor.

And then she heard the voices. The guards outside the solar looked nervous and on edge and when she identified the voices she knew why. Uncle Rodrik and Father were both in there – as was Uncle Aeron. Damphair himself was in there and she shuddered a little. He had been a very different man since his near-drowning, colder than the sea and as devout as any Drowned Man could ever be – and sometimes even more so.

The guards saw her and nodded at her as she reached for the door – only to have it opened in front of her. Uncle Rodrik stormed out and very nearly collided with her, changing course at the last moment. He looked as angry as she had ever seen him and beneath that anger was worry. His eyes widened as he realised who he had nearly knocked over and then he strode away down the corridor, although not before whispering: “I sail on the tide. See me before.”

She watched him go with a frown of puzzlement and then she turned back to the solar, only to see Damphair stride out. He looked at her, narrowed his eyes slightly and then left down a different corridor and she stared after him. There had been something about him that set her teeth on edge. There had been a set to his shoulders and a glitter in his eyes, almost amounting to a look of ecstasy, that worried him.

Father was staring out of the window of his solar and only looked around when she closed the door. He looked preoccupied, with a scowl on his face. “Asha,” he said eventually. “You are back early.”

“I had to return,” she said. “I felt…”

Father forestalled her by scowling even more and holding up a hand. “Speak not of it. It was Greenlander mummery.”

Asha stared at her father in astonishment. “Father, we were at sea! Half my crew heard it and the other half felt it, or felt something at least!”

“Speak of it not!” Father roared at her and she took a step back before Father rubbed at his forehead and then waved a hand in a semi-apology. “I have had your uncle Rodrik in there from an early hour. The Reader… spoke nonsense. I fear he is addled in his head. Anyway – Aeron was here and he explained everything. ‘Twas naught but a Greenlander mummery, as the Drowned God denied this ‘call’ to the North. We are to pay it no mind.”

Asha opened her mouth to passionately argue against this, but then she caught the fire in Father’s eye. Now was not the time. Not with his memory so fresh with Uncle Rodrik’s sanity and Uncle Aeron’s madness. No, she had a good idea about what was going on here.

So she nodded sharply and then passed back out through the castle, noting absently that the storm was indeed building but that it might pass to the West. And then down to Lordsport, where she found her sane nuncle pacing about on the quay by his ship.

“Asha,” he greeted her. “Let me guess – your father claimed ‘mummery’ of some type?”

“He did. But I heard it nuncle. I heard it as clear as I hear you. The Others come. The Stark in Winterfell needs us.” She shook her head, bewildered. “How can Father deny it? My own crew feel it!”

“I know, little one,” he said, another sign that he was very worried, “I know. It was strong at Harlaw. But your father…” Uncle Rodrik looked about carefully and then lowered his voice. “Your Lord father hates the North and the Starks for their role in the suppression of his rebellion. For the death of your brothers. To admit that he has felt the call to aid them? He cannot do that. Even if the threat is from the Others. He simply claims that the Others are no threat to the Ironborn, even if the Others even still exist and are not some tale told by old women in the North.”

His face set slightly. “And then there is your uncle Aeron. Damphair will never admit to hearing that call. Never. To do so means admitting to the existence of the Old Gods and to acknowledging that we are linked to the First Men. Drowned Men claim that we were made by the Drowned God. To your father and your uncle, admitting that they heard the call to the North to aid the Stark means that the Old Way is weakened. And that is something that they cannot abide.”

Asha thought it through and then sighed. “So what shall we do?”

“We watch and we wait and we keep our mouths shut.” Uncle Rodrik gestured at the breakwater. “Do you see that man out there?”

“Aye.”

“He traded with the North a lot. He heard the call and talked about the Old Gods in earshot of Damphair. So your uncle had him bound and then hammered stakes whittled from Weirwood driftwood into his eyes until he died. Damphair will deny everything and kill anyone who contradicts him. So I will sail back to Harlaw and I will read my books and do my research – and protect my people. Because foul things are coming from the North, Asha, winter comes. And with it… death. Don’t be on Pyke when it comes, niece. Because the Drowned God…” he paused for a long moment and then sighed. “The call to Winterfell is louder.”

 


 

Oberyn

The Water Gardens were still as lovely as they had ever been, he thought as he strolled down the little path. There were flowering herb bushes to each side of him and as he passed down the path he could hear the contented buzzing from the bees as they harvested the pollen around them.

As he walked he thought, and as he thought he did his best not to frown too much. Life was always a series of challenges and tests. Although the past few days had been… confusing. He had always had an ear for gossip and news and other things. But recently… it had been odd – even by his definition of the word.

He found his brother sitting quietly in his wheeled chair overlooking the most beautiful part of the Water Gardens. “My Prince,” he said formally, before nodding at him. “How are you today, brother?”

Doran smiled slightly. “Tolerable,” he said quietly, which was as good as he ever admitted. “And you Oberyn?”

He sat on a nearby bench and clasped his hands for a moment as he thought through everything in his head.

“Brother,” Doran broke in, “You are troubled. I can see it. What is wrong?”

Oberyn winced a little. “Nothing I can put my finger on, brother. Just… oddness. There have been a few ravens with peculiar messages. Activity in the Citadel at Oldtown. Robert Baratheon vanishing from King’s Landing. And…” He sighed a little. “Apparently the Company of the Rose is acting oddly in Braavos.”

“The sellsword company?” Doran asked with a frown. “Oddly how?”

He leant back on the bench and scowled slightly. “Apparently they turned down a major contract to fight some lunatic bandits that were bothering some Braavosi merchants. And apparently they have been negotiating with shipping factors about a trip Westwards. I have not heard where too exactly yet. But I am… concerned.”

Doran looked at him. “Odd activity amongst sellswords. Does this threaten our… enterprise?”

He thought about it for a long moment. “It… might. Sellswords will be needed at some point. And I like sellswords to be predictable. When they are not... well, I will find out more.”

Doran nodded slowly as he looked out at the sea in the distance. “And this news of Baratheon vanishing?”

“Is also odd. He went to Storm’s End. There is no word yet on why.”

Another nod. A moment of silence fell as they both stared into the distance. And then Oberyn looked to one side as he heard the thump of boots. Areo Hotah was striding towards them, a slight frown on his face. He stopped not too far away and bowed formally. “My Prince,” he said quietly to Doran. “Prince Oberyn. I crave your pardon, but an unannounced visitor asks for an urgent meeting.”

He saw his brother sigh tiredly. He did not like people to see him in his wheelchair. The Prince of Dorne wanted to be in his palace in Sunspear, not being an invalid in the Water Gardens. “Who is it, Hotah?”

The big man coughed slightly. “Lord Alster Dayne, my Prince.”

Oberyn exchanged a startled look with his brother. “I thought that he was supposed to be dying at Starfall?”

“It would seem that he has roused himself from his deathbed brother,” Doran said, looking fascinated. “He would not have come unless it was for a very good reason. Very well, Hotah, let him through.”

The Captain of the Guard bowed and then swept away, before returning with a smaller man dressed in riding garb that looked as if it had taken a lot of usage recently. He bowed to them both and then swayed slightly.

“Lord Dayne, be seated,” Doran said, leaning forwards slightly in concern. Oberyn cast an eye over the man. He did not look well, with a face that was drawn and pale from more than just travel. His eyes seemed a little sunken and there was a look to him that told of weariness beyond words.

“Thank you my Prince,” Lord Dayne said hoarsely and Oberyn reached to one side and poured a cup of wine for the man from the table to one side. “And thank you, Prince Oberyn.” he muttered and drank without hesitation. Oberyn smirked slightly inside. Normally he would say that it was a brave man who took anything to eat or drink from the Red Viper of Dorne. In this case caution was not needed.

Once the Lord of Starfall had finished drinking he lowered the cup and smiled. “My apologies for my attire. I have been travelling in a hurry and will leave for Sunstone as soon as possible. But I had to see you first.”

“For what reason?” Doran asked the question with a slight frown on his face.

Lord Dayne’s face worked for a moment and then he sighed. “I am called North my Prince. It is hard to explain.”

Doran’s frown intensified. “You are called North? Where? Have you been summoned to King’s Landing?”

“No,” Dayne sighed. “I am not. I am called further North than that but… it is very hard to explain my Prince. It is… something that the Stony Dornish understand and are dealing with, without I think understanding it, because they do not remember, and….” He swayed slightly and Oberyn watched him in concern.

But then Lord Alster Dayne collected himself, took a deep breath and then looked up – and Oberyn saw something in those violet eyes that made him blink. There was an iron determination there, and a need to be somewhere else.

“Your pardon, my Prince, I have not been well of late. But then… my Prince, House Dayne is one of the oldest families in Dorne. We are of the First Men, their blood sings within us. And echoes of… older times. One such echo has awoken. As the head of House Dayne I am called to the North. To Winterfell.”

To Oberyn this was pure gibberish and he looked at the other man in some concern. “Lord Dayne,” he said, with a sideways glance at his frowning brother, “Have you seen a Maester of late?”

Dayne smiled mirthlessly. “I am quite sane Prince Oberyn. It is just that… you are familiar with the ancestral sword of my house, Dawn?”

He thought back to the last time he had seen the sword, borne in the hands of Arthur Dayne, the last Sword of the Morning that House Dayne had produced. Dead now these many years, killed by Ned Stark. He had always admired that sword. It had a sheen that was unlike anything he had ever seen. “I remember it,” he said. “What of it?”

“It is… restless.” Dayne said the last word with a strange intensity. “It pulls me North. And I must go. I am not a well man. This might be my last trip. But North I must go. I will send word to King’s Landing, where my…” He paused for a moment to drink some more wine. “My son Edric is, telling him to join me at Winterfell.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then Oberyn looked at his brother, before turning back to Dayne. “Lord Dayne,” he said delicately, “Swords are not usually described as being restless.”

The Stony Dornishman nodded. “I know Prince Oberyn. As I said, it is hard to understand. Perhaps if you observed it – I left it with your captain. If he could bring it forwards?”

This was something else that made Oberyn blink. “I thought that Dawn was to remain at Starfall, until another Sword of the Morning was selected?”

“This is too urgent. It cannot wait for that.” Dayne said the words grimly. “It travels North with me. Its pull takes me North.”

Oberyn looked over at his brother and was about to ask him to send this dying lunatic man away when he saw a look on Doran’s face that made him pause. “What, brother?”

“Something our father once told us, and which I will tell you later,” Doran muttered, before raising his voice. “Very well. Hotah!”

“My Prince?”

“Bring Dawn to us.”

The big man nodded and then walked off to one side. When he returned into view he looked… troubled. He was also carrying a great sword in a sheath bound with red leather. Oberyn nodded slightly as he looked at the hilt and the odd sheen. Yes, that was Dawn.

Hotah approached and then knelt before them. He seemed to be sweating a little. “Dawn, my prince,” he said hoarsely.

“Prince Oberyn,” Lord Dayne said quietly, “Please touch the hilt.”

Oberyn almost rolled his eyes at this, but he was still wondering why Hotah looked as if he had seen a ghost and he squinted carefully at the hilt (nothing looked suspicious there) before touching it with a languid hand. And then he leapt to his feet with a stifled oath. “By the Seven! It’s quivering!”

“Yes, Prince Oberyn,” Hotah said in a voice that said that he wanted to drop the damn thing and then have no more of it. “It is.”

Doran rubbed his chin for a moment and then reached out a single finger, which he placed on the hilt. When he lifted it again he was pale. “Indeed it does.” He looked back at Dayne. “Do you know what calls you North?”

Dayne looked at him. “I do,” he said in a grim voice. “I do not think that I will ever return, save to the crypt at Starfall. And even now I do not think that you would ever believe me when I say what is there. But there are dark things in the North. Things that… the South must be protected from. And so I go. Back to my kin in the North.”

The Lord of Starfall stood slowly and then looked about the Water Gardens. “A very beautiful place in the Sun,” he smiled. And then the smile faded. “Farewell my Prince.” He gently took the sword out of the hands of Hotah, who sighed in relief, and then Lord Dayne walked away tiredly.

“Brother,” Doran said slowly, “Can you please send a raven to the Citadel?”

“To ask if the glass candles can be lit? I will send that raven at once.” And then Oberyn ran.

 


 

Robert

There was a storm coming. There was always a bloody storm coming, that was why his ancestors had name the fucking place Storm’s End.

He looked out over the ramparts of the massive curtain wall at the horizon, before looking back at the Great Tower with a scowl. He hadn’t the faintest bloody idea why he was here, in this, the seat of his ancestors. All he knew was that he’d woken up in the middle of the night with a sudden need to head off to his family seat. And on the sea journey South that call had gotten worse and had then been joined by another call, this time to go off in the opposite direction.

He turned back to the sea and scowled again. What the hell was wrong with him? Why was he dithering around like an old woman? What was here to make him come in the first place? He didn’t know.

The first day had been bad enough. He and Renly had burst in on an astonished Ser Cortnay Penrose, the Castellan that his brother had appointed and whom Robert had to admit wasn’t doing a bad job. Robert had spent just long enough to bath and break his fast, before raging around the castle, inspecting it with his brother and Barristan Selmy right behind him, both a bit bewildered.

He knew that he was looking for something. The problem was that he hadn’t the faintest bloody idea what it was, where it was, or how to find it. He just knew that it was here somewhere.

The second day was worse, as he continued to rage around the castle, with many people doing their damnedest to avoid him, even young Edric who he had noticed peering around walls trying to catch a look at his father. He liked the boy, but he had no time for him just now, no time for anything. He had to work out why he was here.

And now it was the third day and he was still nowhere near working out why he was fucking here. He scratched at his beard again and then frowned. Sod the beard, he needed to get it shaved off completely. And then he looked at his belly in disgust. He was fat. When had he gotten fat? How had he gotten fat? Was it all that bloody city and that damn chair?

He set his chin. Right then. A shave and then a sparring session? With who? He needed to lose this damn fat. So he turned and clattered down the nearest steps off the wall and down to the green of the grassy expanse that lay to the West of the Great Tower. And then he paused and frowned. There was a little sapling growing out of the grass, its leaves poking up tentatively into the sky.

Robert walked up to it and then bent over to look at it. By the Seven, it was a Weirwood tree. He looked about the place. What the hell was a Weirwood tree doing growing here? And then he thought about it. His ancestor Durran had built this place, possibly with the help of Brann the Builder. So there must have been a Godswood here once. Hundreds of bloody years ago. Where the hell had this thing come from?

“Your Grace?” Selmy asked behind him and he pointed at the delicate little thing.

“A Weirwood sapling,” he muttered. “I don’t remember ever seeing any of those before?”

The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard looked over at it. “Perhaps it came from a seed dropped by a bird? Weirwood trees have small seeds.”

“Perhaps,” Robert mused. The little sapling reminded him of the North and of Lyanna. There were times when he could barely remember what she looked like and he made a vow to visit her grave soon. There would be a statue of her by it, a reminder of what she looked like. She wouldn’t have let him get fat, not his she-wolf.

“Oh,” said a fussy voice to one side and he looked up to see the Septon, a thin streak of piss whose name escaped him, bustling up to them and sneering at the sapling. “Another one of those things. If your Grace will allow me, I shall remove it.”

As he reached down Robert placed a large hand on his arm. “Wait. You said it was another one? There have been more of these?”

The Septon blinked at him. “Why, yes your Grace. There have been several of them. They started growing about ten days ago.”

Robert looked down at the sapling. That was about the time that he had left King’s Landing. “Odd,” he growled, before looking at the Septon. “Leave it. ‘Tis but a tree.”

This seemed to aggrieve the Septon, given the violence of the gabbling that followed. “But your Grace! It’s a pagan symbol! The Seven will frown on the presence of such a thing here!”

“Then why,” Robert said through gritted teeth, “Do the Seven still permit Weirwood trees in the North?”

The Septon seemed to do his best to look censorious. It was not a good look for a man who appeared to have no chin and a very large nose. “The pagans of the North, your Grace,” he started to say, “Are uncouth and-”

Given that the tale of how Robert had gained the throne must have been told in Storm’s End more times than he’d had whores, the man must have been mad. Robert grabbed by his robes and hoisted him into the air.

“My beloved Lyanna came from the North, you little piece of filth!” Robert roared at the man as he shook him like a rat. “And my friend Ned is the Warden of the North and the finest man I’ve ever known! Uncouth!?! I’ll uncouth you right in the face, you bastard!”

The Septon was squealing what appeared to be a combination of apology, cry for help and appeal to the Seven and Robert glared at him, before giving him one last shake and then dropping him on his arse – away from the sapling. The man cowered before him, before noticing that they had an audience, whereupon he shakily stood.

Robert loomed over him and narrowed his eyes. “If anything happens to that Weirwood plantling,” he ground out, “I will know exactly who to blame – you. And I will personally spread your nose clean over your face. Now bugger off.”

Visibly glad to still be alive the Septon gave a ghastly attempt at a grin and then vanished like the little fart that he was.

Robert watched him go and then stomped off back to the Great Keep, where he had that shave. And then, once his face was bare, he waved a hand at Renly. “Come on, grab some practice swords. I worry that all that time in the Reach is making you soft.”

“Robert,” his youngest brother said with a laugh, “I joust.”

“I know, but I worry that you forget that real war consists of men on foot clattering away at each other until one falls over and leaks his guts out. So – we will spar.”

And spar they did. Renly wasn’t as bad as he had feared, but not as good as he obviously thought he was and Robert beat him down twice before finally breaking his practice sword.

“You’re…. getting… soft,” Robert panted as he stood over his brother and then offered him his hand.

“Robert,” Renly replied as he pulled himself up, “What’s going on? Why are we here? What are we looking for? And what’s this talk of war?”

“You can’t feel it then?”

“Feel what?”

Robert clenched and unclenched his hand. “I don’t know. And that holds for all your questions. Something pulled me here, Renly. I don’t know what. And there is a war coming. I can feel it on my blood and in my bones. I just don’t know who we’ll be fighting. You really don’t feel it?”

Renly frowned and then pulled a face. “I have felt… restless this past ten days. As if I need to look over my shoulder.” Then he paused and nodded slightly. “We have an audience.”

He turned to look and then saw young Edric watching them, his mouth open with wonder. He was carrying… a little warhammer? He smiled slightly and then beckoned his bastard son over. “Come here and let me have a look at that boy.”

Edric approached, looking nervous. “I am sorry your Grace, but I saw you practicing and I-”

“You were curious, lad. Don’t worry, it’s in your blood.” He reached out and gently took up the little warhammer. “A good first weapon. Penrose training you with it?”

The boy nodded eagerly. “Ser Cortnay has been instructing me with it, your Grace.”

“I’m your father, lad, you can call me that instead of all this ‘your Grace’ stuff,” Robert rumbled, before handing it back. “Come on then. Let’s see you use it.”

And the boy did know how to use it. He had the makings of good warrior, blessed with good reflexes and a quick mind. He learnt fast, picking up Robert’s barked instructions and warnings and not having his head turned by any praise. They ended the session when Edric was dropping with exhaustion, as Robert nodded at Ser Cortnay as the yawning lad was led away by a smiling guard.

“You’ve done well,” he smiled. “He’s a good lad.”

“He is that, your Grace,” the red-bearded man said with a smile. “He’s clever and knows when to ask questions and when to stop and listen.”

“Looks like me too,” he said with a grin and then he paused as his stomach rumbled. “Supper calls. Ale too.”

He ate just enough and drank just enough that evening, because all of a sudden he was so tired that he almost fell asleep in his chair. It was a good tiredness, a tiredness in every limb that came from exercise and he fell into bed and was asleep in an instant.

The storm came that night, the kind of storm he remembered from his childhood. But the dreams had him first, the dreams that this time he remembered. He dreamt of Lyanna for the first time in years and this time she was just as he remembered her. She seemed to be trying to tell him something, shouting against a great wind that seemed to snatch her words away. She looked terrified, as if she was pleading him for something, but he couldn’t get close to make her words out. There were Weirwood trees there too, at first far behind them, but then suddenly they rushed towards them and then they were in them, the trunks around them. He lost her then, as if she had been snatched away and he screamed with frustration and ran through the ghostly wood around him. There was snow on the ground all of a sudden and his breath smoked as he panted. And then he entered a clearing and a… thing with white hair and bright blue eyes that shone like stars stared at him with some surprise.

He came awake with a shout and then blinked muzzily about him. And then there was a boom of thunder right above him and the room shook slightly. Yes, the storm had come. He lay back in bed, his chest heaving as he panted. What had that dream been about? What had she been trying to tell him? And what had been that thing?

More thunder and then a strange, irrational feeling came over him. Suddenly he was terrified for that little Weirwood sapling. There was thunder and lightning and torrential rain outside and would it survive?

So he stood and dressed hurriedly before darting out of his room and then out into the night. The rain was falling hard and yet more lightning cracked across the sky, followed by the boom of thunder. He hurried across the wet grass – and then he saw the other figure, the one cloaked and hooded from the rain and also heading towards the sapling. He eyed the figure and then he sped up. There was a horrible intent in the way that figure was stalking.

He was right. The figure ahead was peering at the ground – and then it stopped dead and tilted its head at something, before raising a foot. But Robert hurled himself forwards before the other man could get a chance to stamp on the sapling, grabbing the bastard and pulling him off to one side.

The other man left out a shout of shock and Robert snarled in fury as he recognised the voice. Sure enough the hood fell down to reveal the Septon, who snarled at him – and then recognised him and by the smell of it pissed himself in terror. Robert’s fist came back and down and he felt the Septon’s nose break with a wet crack as he smeared it across the other man’s face. Blood spurted all over the place and then as the other man squealed in anguish Robert brought his bloodied fist around again and caught him on the side of the head, knocking him senseless.

“You leave Lyanna’s fucking tree alone!” Robert screamed as the thunder boomed around them, in what he later admitted to himself was a deeply nonsensical statement.

And then he straightened up and searched the ground carefully. The last thing he wanted was to step on the thing. No, there it was, still upright. A bit bloody perhaps from the Septon’s nose, but intact and none the worse from the weather. He nodded and then knelt by it, before touching the little leaves gently and-

It was dark down here. No, black. Pitch black. Water was falling somewhere, dripping slowly down. Where was he? Underground. Yes. And… he was being watched. Who was there, in that darkness? That deep, smothering darkness? He quivered. It was here. What he sought was here and-

“Your Grace! Are you well?”

He looked up, startled. The rain was slowing and the Septon was stirring. Barristan Selmy was next to him, looking worried. “Selmy? What’s wrong?”

“I should say the same thing to you, your Grace. You were motionless. What happened?”

He could see Renly approaching and also Penrose and young Edric, the latter yawning as if he was about to fall asleep in an instant again. Robert looked down at the Septon. “I woke up – odd dreams,” he said thickly. “I was… worried for some reason. Came out and found this bastard about to stamp on the Weirwood tree. He was probably going to blame it on the storm. I got to him first and then swatted him. Penrose, get some guards to throw him in the nearest cell. Septon or not, I want him gone.”

“I never liked him,” Renly muttered. “Man always thought that the way to piety was to point out everyone else’s flaws.” They all watched as the guards arrived and dragged the suddenly awake and piteously squealing man away.

“Something… happened when I touched the Weirwood tree,” Robert said slowly. “I was underground suddenly.” Young Edric’s head whipped around as his son stared at him, his face very white.

Robert looked back at him. “Edric,” he said seriously, “Has that happened to you too?”

His bastard son nodded, slowly. “The first time I saw it. I touched the leaf and…. I was somewhere dark. There was water dripping. And… I did not imagine it, I swear, but I thought that I was being watched.”

He smiled. Yes, this lad was his son. Then he paused. “Penrose, bring me maps, plans, everything you have on the catacombs of Storm’s End. I have been searching for something. I think that it lies not up here but beneath us.”

An hour later if he had thought that he had known every inch of the tunnels beneath Storm’s End before he knew even more now. And there was indeed a tunnel that led in the direction of the where the old Godswood must have been – the Long Passage. But there was a problem.

“There’s nothing bloody down here,” he said disgustedly as he and Renly stood at the end of it and stared at a stone wall. “Although I remember a lot of crates of old pickled herring here once, when I hid as a child. Plus there are a lot fewer rats.”

“We ate most of them,” Renly muttered quietly. “Robert, during the siege Stannis had the entire castle searched from end to end for food. He found nothing down here.”

“Aye, but what’s the point of the Long Passage, anyway? It doesn’t lead anywhere! There are no side passages, or bricked up entrances to rooms… what was it for?”

This bought him a shrug from his brother. “Who knows? Perhaps it was stopped before it was completed.”

“No, there’s something down here, I know it.” Footsteps sound behind them and they turned to see Edric and Penrose coming towards them, the latter counting under his breath. When they reached them the Castellan looked at them both, his eyes shining. “Your Grace, I have paced it out – the end of this passage is not under the place where the tree grows, it is short of it by at least sixty feet.”

“I was right,” Robert cried, exulted. “There is something down here!” He turned to the wall. “It must be behind here.”

“Your Grace,” Edric piped up to one side. “The walls to each side are laid stone on stone. The wall at the end is laid stone on mortar on stone. They are similar stones but different build.”

He squinted at the wall. “Well spotted lad,” he said and ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately. “Need a knife. Let’s take a look.”

“Edric’s right,” Renly mused as he pulled a knife out and poked at the mortar. “And shoddy mortar at that. This was built in a hurry.”

“Then it can be demolished in a hurry,” Robert muttered as he grabbed a knife proffered by Penrose and started to scrape the mortar away. Although the Castellan offered to get men to do this Robert and his brother, the latter now at last filled with excitement, shrugged off the offer of help and instead worked on breaking down the wall. As the mortar was removed (and young Edric was also helping) the chance came for Robert to get a grip on one stone and pull as hard as he could.

Fat or not he still had some strength. He could feel the sinews strain and the muscles burn, but the first stone came out of the wall with a screeching groan and he tossed it to one side. And where that stone had been was a void, black as night.

“Wait, your Grace,” Selmy said urgently behind them. “Test the air first with a torch. It might be foul.”

That was good counsel and he nodded at the old Kingsguard respectfully before placing the proffered torch near the hole. It dipped and flickered for a moment and he nodded. “Let’s clear the rest of this thing carefully. Stone by stone.”

Men were called and he and Renley worked at taking the wall down and handing each stone back, so that they could be passed back down the corridor. By the time they were finished the wall was gone and in its place was the continuation of the corridor – albeit covered in dust.

Robert swallowed as he took a tentative step into it. Who knew who had last walked down there? Not he – nor any man alive, he would wager good coin on that. And then his eyes widened as he saw that the passageway ended in a great stone door, with a massive lintel over the top, etched with runes.

“Those are the runes of the First Men,” he breathed as he looked at them. “Fetch Maester Jurne.”

Maester Jurne was, it turned out, not far away as he had just awoken and was afire with curiosity at the new discovery. The man arrived almost at a dead run, and then stared up at the runes, his hands shaking as he held his torch up and traced the shapes out. When he was finished he stepped back, white as a sheet.

“Well?” Robert barked. “What do they say?”

“Your Grace,” the older man quavered, before he rallied. “Your Grace, your ancestors lie within. The inscription reads: ‘House Durrandon sleeps here, awaiting the call to fight the Long Night.’”

Robert looked at the stone door for a long moment. And then he walked up to it and with a trembling hand of his own he pushed at the right hand side of it. It resisted him at first and then he felt it give a little. So he pushed harder. Whoever had built it had done a bloody good job, because it pivoted slowly on the left hand side. Once it was open he retreated back into the corridor and then waved his torch at the entrance. Nothing happened to the flame, so he shrugged and then walked in slowly.

It was a great room, with a stone ceiling supported by great pillars cut from the living rock. He frowned at that and that stared at the walls. Sheer rock as well. “What is this place? How old is this place?” he muttered.

“Robert,” said a stunned Renly to one side. “Look.”

And then he saw the tombs. They were everywhere – cut into the sides of the walls with inscriptions saying who they were, some in stone coffins that marched in lines parallel to the walls and some even buried in slots cut in the floor.

“I always wondered where the Durrandons were buried,” he breathed as he looked about. Then he frowned. “But why were they hidden?”

“Edric, stay back,” Penrose called out, but as Robert looked he could see that the boy was walking forwards anyway. From the light of the torch he carried he could see that Edric’s face was blank of all thought. He passed down the line of tombs and then stood before an alcove that lay at the far end, dark and mysterious.

When the lad reached the alcove he turned and faced him. “Father,” he said in a strange voice, as if others were speaking through him, “It is here. This is the place you seek. The Old Gods are strong here. The dead have not forgotten them.” And then he quietly folded up and collapsed.

He darted forwards at the same time as Penrose and Renly, but being closer he got there first. His son was unhurt, but seemed to be asleep and he passed him gently to the Castellan. “Get my son to bed,” he told the man quietly. “He has had a long day already.”

And then he turned to the alcove. Silence fell after Penrose’s feet had passed away and he could hear the sound of water dripping somewhere. He shivered slightly. Yes, this was the place. He walked forwards slowly, Renly by him, and as they approached he could see the alcove better by their torchlight. There was a statue there, a man dressed in archaic armour with a huge greatsword of archaic design in his hands. More runes were carved into the wall by the statue. “Jurne!”

The Maester stumbled forwards, tongue-tied by everything around him and then he stopped and stared at the inscription. “Erm… oh. Your Grace. It says: ‘The Long Night will come again. The Durrandons must always stand against it. Ours is the fury, ours is the storm. Because the Others will come again.’”

“The House motto,” Robert muttered. “’Ours in the fury’. So this is where it comes from.” And then he paused. The statue and the sword seemed to be different.

“But the Others are a Northern myth,” Renly objected, although his voice wobbled up and down more than a bit.

“Are you sure about that brother?” Robert muttered. And then he passed his torch over. “Here, hold this.”

“Why?”

“That sword. It’s that sword.” He stepped forwards and then laid a reverent hand on the hilt where it met the hands of the statue. As he pulled it, it moved and he placed both hands around the grip. And then he felt a tremor run though him – and then the eyes of the statue seemed to open to reveal orbs of red fire, before a voice seemed to roar in his head: “Storm King!

He shook like a leaf but retained his grip. He sensed Renly stumbling backwards and Selmy letting out a cry of alarm and then darting forwards. “Hold,” he said thickly. “I am Robert, descendant of the Durrandons. I am king.”

The eyes looked at him. “Then go North Storm King! Go North!” The eyes closed, the sword fell into his hands and then he found himself falling backwards, to be caught by Jurne and Barristan Selmy. “Bugger me,” Robert said and then he passed out.

Chapter Text

Allara

She found him on the great rock at the Anvil, the northernmost point of the island. Her husband was staring North at the sea with an odd look on his face – the look of man undecided and uncertain. She ran a hand over her swollen stomach. She knew what kept him here, just as she also knew what was pulling him North. Things that she did not understand were in motion and she wanted to cry for a moment. Why couldn’t things be as they had been? Why did the world have to be the way that it was?

But then she calmed herself and took a deep breath. “Here you are,” she said. “I knew you’d be here.”

He turned as if he had known she was there and then gave her that dazzling smile that still made her stomach turn over. He was wearing his white eyepatch today, the one that hid most of the scar that split one eyebrow and then marked his cheek. “I was watching the waves,” he said teasingly. Then the smile slipped and his looked North again. “I am drawn away and I don’t really know why.”

“I have a suspicion,” she said quietly. “Mother sent a message. The Mirror is clearer. You know what that means. And - danger grows to the North.”

Her husband looked at him in some shock, before looking at the ground in contemplation. “I feared that,” he said hoarsely. “I am pulled there, Allara. I am pulled there.”

She strode to his side, placed her hands on both sides of his face and kissed him fiercely. “I know, I know. Just promise that you will come back.”

He kissed back passionately and then placed a hand on her belly. “Always,” he said intently. “Always.” And then he smirked slightly. “Besides, our hall is still half-built even now.”

She rolled her eyes at this. “You and your hall. It will never be big enough for you, will it?”

He ran a hand down the side of her face. “It is home,” he said simply. “It has you. And our children. And our children to be. So, yes, I may be pulled North, but I will always return to you. I love you.”

“And I you,” she said and kissed him again. When she reluctantly freed her lips from his she sighed. “Allarion needs to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“He feels the pull North too.”

And this drove the blood from his face. “No!”

“Yes,” she said gently. “He came to me this morning. And he is packing even as I speak. He insists on going with you.”

He pulled a face and then glared at the Northern sea. “My blood sings in his veins. I wish it did not.”

“Our son loves you very much,” she sighed. “Besides, he says that he might see the other half of the family there. He has always wondered.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I admit that I would love to see the face of my brother if he met my son! If he even still lives, the black-hearted scoundrel. Very well.”

They strode down the seashore for a longest time, unwilling to part from each other for as long as possible, until they finally turned and made it back to the hall that was still unfinished because of his always-changing plans.

Their children were waiting there. Little Darion, three years old now and starting to turn into as headstrong a boy as his twin sisters, Darsha and Ela, tall pale Tarsha and then Allarion himself. He was standing there, still, composed, his hands behind his back and his dark blond hair as messy as ever. He stood a little straighter the moment that he saw his father – and then she caught his eye and nodded slightly and something seemed to pierce that composure – relief.

Her husband looked at them all, placed a hand on Allarion’s shoulder and nodded at him before then kneeling before in front of the others. “I am called North, you know that don’t you?”

They nodded with various degrees of understanding. Darion nodded because the others did so as well. The girls looked at him sadly. And Allarion… well, he stood ready.

“I will return. I promise you that. I and your brother will return to mother and you and our home. You have my promise. And I always keep my promises.” And then their crying children hurled themselves at him and he hugged them long and hard.

Matters moved swiftly after that. Her husband liked to move quickly and pack lightly and besides, as he said with a smile, the Summer Isles lacked the kind of clothes that they would need in the North. In Westeros.

It was not until she saw him stand before the far wall of their bedroom and then slowly take down the cloth-wrapped shape that was on the shelf that she started to lose her composure. “Aye, I thought that you would take that.”

He turned to her and smiled hesitantly. “I paid a heavy price for it,” he said as a hand rose and then fell from his eyepatch. Then he hefted it. “But in the finding of it I also found you, so it reminds me both of the curse of duty and the joy of love. Besides… Allarion will need someone to teach him how to wield it one day.”

She nodded, the tears falling down her face and then he was with her, folding her into his embrace. “I will come back. You know that. I have given my promise to you. And I always keep my promises.” She cried as she hugged him back, hot and bitter tears, and he cried too. But when they broke their embrace he looked at her and then kissed her again. “Send word to me when the babe comes.”

“Babes,” she laughed. “They are twins, I feel it. They kick enough for it.”

He looked at her and then grinned, looking as roguish as ever. “Then send word to me when the babes come. I will go first to Dorne and then take ship to White Harbour. I will write as often as I can. Allarion too.” The grin faded a little. “The North calls me, wife. It sings in my blood. The Stark needs me in Winterfell. I wonder what my brother thinks of such a call, if he still lives. Probably such humiliation as I can ever imagine.”

They sailed on the next tide and she stood there and waved until her husband and son were no more than a dot on the horizon. Tarsha stood next to her, silent and red-eyed. “They will return, won’t they Mother?”

She placed a hand on her belly. “Never doubt that,” she said fiercely. “Your father made a promise. And he always keeps his promises. A bit like he pays his debts.”

 


 

Robb

As he walked down the corridor his mind was on other things. So very many other things. Things that he had done wrong the first time around and that if it came down to again he would differently. Not that much would, not this time. Things were so very different this time.

Theon was different for one thing. He seemed less boastful and more thoughtful than before and he had even seen him reading a few books, which was not very like the old Theon that he knew. Father had talked to him, he knew that, but about what exactly he knew not. What he did know was that Theon was different. For one thing he seemed to be spending some time in the Godswood. Not praying, not meeting anyone, just sitting and staring at the Heart Tree.

And then there was Jon. Who was not going to the Wall, not going to throw his life away in what might have been a futile attempt to defend the wall from the Others. No, this time it would be different. He would keep his brother close to him, as had always been the case in Winterfell. No matter what Mother said – although she had been a little more forgiving when it came to Jon these past few weeks. He frowned slightly. Why? Had Father said something to her?

He walked up a short flight of stairs and then knocked at the door. Hearing a command to enter he opened it. Inside he found Maesters Luwin and Aemon, sitting at a table that was now covered in books, documents, pieces of paper and above all the rolls of parchment and skin from the secret room.

“You wanted to see me, Maesters?”

“We did indeed, young Robb Stark,” Aemon said almost cheerily. “We have need of your young eyes for a start. Mine are quite inadequate as they no longer work and Luwin here is struggling a little.”

“Indeed I do, my eyes are not what they were,” Luwin sighed as he put down a piece of parchment. “Much of the ink has faded badly and your Lord father has ordered me to start making as many copies as possible. We cannot risk the loss of any other information.”

“Aye,” Aemon said grimly, “Too much has been lost already. And yet there is still so much that we do not understand. These parchments… some of them seem to be copies of records that have long been lost by Castle Black. Which disturbs me greatly. Where could they have gone to?”

There was a short silence. “Lost, I fear,” Luwin said sadly. “Who knows what was lost when so many of the castles on the Wall were abandoned? Who knows what might lay in the Nightfort? Rooms such as the one here in Winterfell… rooms with information. And things that are now no longer understood.”

Robb nodded. “Then let us look into what we have here Maesters. What do you want me to look at first?”

And so they started off on a voyage through time, looking through old parchments that looked as old as Winterfell in places. Robb found it more than a little eerie, to read the words of men long since dead and buried. More often than not the parchments mentioned deliveries to the Night’s Watch, or descriptions of things to be noted. Which of course brought up a few problems.

“We have no context for these documents,” Maester Aemon sighed. “All too often they refer to things that the Starks of old, or the Night’s Watch took for granted. That last document referred to the ‘usual delivery’ from the Last Hearth. They obviously knew what they were referring to. We, sadly, do not. This is most vexing. I feel as if we are viewing a map, but that we cannot read the names of the places on it.”

Something tickled at the back of Robb’s mind, but he put it to one side when he realised that he couldn’t quite place it. Instead he moved on to the next one, which was an old skin with the writing very faded indeed. Pulling it close he squinted at it and read it carefully. After a moment he frowned. “Maesters, listen to this. ‘Whyn yr Starke did arryve att Castell Black he did inspect ye armoury and rote wroth whyn he did view ye weapons, crying that they were of steel and nott glytterglass, as was told in ye rules handed down from ye Time of Heroes. But ye Lord Commander did say that ye Peoples North of ye Wall did vex them and that steel was needed.’”

He looked at them. “The old Night’s Watch didn’t use steel, they used this ‘Glytterglass’, whatever that is. Why would they do that? Unless… they needed it to fight the Others.”

Luwin nodded thoughtfully and then went scrabbling through the records. “Wait, there was another reference, here… ah, yes. ‘And whyn ye Lord Commander asked why there were shards of stone in ye armoury, he wast told that-’ And the rest of the record is too faded to see. Humph. Robb, can you look at this?”

Robb took it and then peered at it. Yes, it was very faded. “I take it that all these records will be copied out again?”

Both Maesters nodded and he quirked a smile before looking back at the piece of parchment. “wast told… that… they were… from… olden tymes, but… that… the armourer knew nott… why they… were there.”

There was a short silence. “Weapons to use against the Others is my guess,” Robb said slowly as he put the pieces together. Then he turned and looked at the little pile of arrowheads to one side, before picking one up. “This is stone – and it glitters. What is it made from?”

“Obsidian,” Luwin said slowly. “Which is also known as dragonglass. It can be found in old volcanoes.”

“It’s all over Dragonstone,” Aemon breathed. His sightless eyes were moving from side to side, as he was obviously in the grip of deep thought. “A stone born out of heat – and such a heat! Born from the bowels of the earth. Born from fire. And with the Others linked so closely to the far North and the ice there…”

“Fire beats ice. The stone affects the Others!” Robb blurted, suddenly excited. “The siege of the Glittering Crag, which became the Last Hearth – there are no volcanoes in the North that I know of, but if the place was an old volcano, like an older version of Dragonstone…”

“We have a weapon,” Maester Aemon said with a grim intensity. “We have something that can be used to fight the Others. And that, my friends is something that we must pass to Castle Black at once. We will need more obsidian and we will need to train the Night’s Watch in its use. And they will resist that.”

Robb and Luwin both stared at the old man. “Why?” Robb asked eventually.

“Why because they are used to their swords. Their steel swords. I cannot imagine Alliser Thorne, the master-at-arms at Castle Black taking well to being told that he needs to train the men to use stone weapons against the Others. He is a humourless man enough as it is. And besides, there is another problem. We have these arrowheads, but they are a drop in the ocean to what we need. Can you say that every arrow will find their mark? And if they work against the Others, do they also work against wights? The records say naught about that. Will we need steel against wights, but obsidian against the Others? Can we create obsidian daggers? Or swords? From I remember the stone is sharp but also can be brittle.” He smiled slightly. “We have made a good start, but we have far to go. Young Robb, you have a good head for war on your shoulders. You can see the difficulties, can you not?”

Robb thought the matter through. “I can,” he agreed. “Maesters, I must bring this to my Lord Father. And also Lord Umber. He will know what stones can be mined at the Last Hearth. And if need be Father can send a raven to Stannis Baratheon and ask for obsidian from Dragonstone.”

He stood and left quickly, striding down the corridor with urgent steps. And as he did he found himself looking in the direction of the woods yet again. The pull was growing stronger. The direwolf that would birth grey Wind was getting closer, he could feel it. And then he broke into a run. He had the feeling that they were starting to run out of time.

 


 

 

Jon Arryn

Lysa was still coldly furious with him. However, he cared not a whit. He had known, instinctively, that it had been the right thing to do, that sending his son away from King’s Landing was the only thing to do.

His wife had not taken it well, had cried and screamed and then shouted hysterically that without her young Sweetrobin would die, that only she could take care of her baby, that only she loved him. And there had been a look of such hatred on her face that he was quite taken aback and had ordered her confined to her rooms until she recovered her balance. Which had taken some time. Although she had finally warmed a little recently, after Baelish had begged to have a word with her.

Jon had breathed easier once word had arrived that young Robert had reached White Harbour, although he admitted that he would not truly relax until Ned sent word that the boy had arrived safe and sound at Winterfell. And why had Lord Manderly sent so large an escort with them?

He tapped a finger against the side of the window that he had been staring out for the past few minutes and then shrugged internally. He had no answers and besides he had a meeting of the Small Council to attend.

When he reached the room he was unsurprised to find Stannis Baratheon there. He was invariably early for such meetings, as if he had an internal sundial. Robert had once actually said that, only he had been far more… colourful in his terminology.

“My Lord Hand,” the Master of Ships said, standing and bowing slightly.

“Lord Baratheon,” Jon replied with a bow of his own. There was no-one else there, but Jon knew that it would not do to mention the Great Matter there. He had his suspicions about the place. Too many dark corners, too many corniches, too many fireplaces. Too many potential ears. And yet the great matters of the kingdom were discussed here. Who listened to what and reported to who? Oh, this terrible game they all played, this game of thrones.

Hearing feet he turned to the passageway to the right. Pycelle, unless he missed his guess, judging from the shuffling gait. And sure enough it was the old Grand Maester, clutching something in his hand. A message?

“My Lord Hand,” the older man puffed weakly, his wattles jiggling a little, “A message from His Grace the King. And a passing strange one too.”

Jon frowned and took the proffered piece of parchment. Well, it was certainly written in Robert’s hand. It was near-illegible, meaning that he had either been extremely drunk or incredibly excited when he had written it. ‘Staying at Storm’s end for a few more days. Have found lost Durrandon relic. Lost Durrandon tombs too. Robert, King of Westeros etc. etc. etc.’ Yes, ‘passing strange’ was one way to put it.

He handed it over to Stannis, who looked at it with a deepening scowl. “Lost Durrandon relic?” Stannis asked with as much incredulity as Jon thought he was capable of expressing. “What nonsense is this? Lost Durrandon tombs as well? Preposterous. I know that castle like the back of my hand. I grew up there and I was besieged there. There are no lost tombs there that I know of. Just the Baratheon ones.”

“And yet that is what His Grace claims. Well – we must wait for his return.”

The sound of slippered feet could be heard approaching and Varys appeared. A Varys who looked as puzzled as he ever appeared. Seeing the others he seemed to smooth his countenance and bowed slightly to them all. “My Lords, Grand Maester Pycelle, I trust that you are all well?”

Stannis, whom Jon knew loathed the Spider, nodded shortly before returning to his seat. “Well enough,” he grated. “Better once the King returns from Storm’s End.”

Varys nodded and then fluttered his hands a little as he himself sat at the same time as the others. “Has any word of His Grace arrived? His trip to his ancestral home was… somewhat precipitate.”

“Here,” grunted Stannis as he handed over the message. “See what you make of that.”

The Master of Whispers looked at the parchment, seemed to re-read it and then looked up, his brow furrowed. “Durrandon relic? Durrandon tombs? I was unaware that such things existed.”

“They don’t,” Stannis ground out as he looked at Varys. “We’ll have to wait and hear what he found, but I know nothing of any such things ever even being suspected there.”

There was a short pause whilst Varys seemed to absorb that information. “That would fit in with the odder snippets that my little birds have brought me on this day,” he muttered. “Which have been… odd indeed.”

“I see that this meeting of the smaller version of the Small Council has already started,” a voice said to one side and Petyr Baelish swept in to take his place at the table, placing his book of accounts down to one side. “What word of the King?”

Varys passed the parchment down, the Master of Coin squinted at it and then looked up. “Relic? Tombs? At Storm’s End?”

“I am sure that His Grace will enlighten us when he returns with Lord Renly,” Jon said, taking charge of the meeting. “Now, Varys – you said that you had odd information?”

The eunuch nodded. “Apparently there has been a great meeting between the Brackens and the Blackwoods at the Red Fork, fifty miles East of Riverrun.”

“Oho!” Baelish chuckled, “Another attempt at a truce? How many died this time? A dozen? A score? Those two families will hate each other until the end of time.”

But Varys greeted this with a slight clearing of the throat. “Actually, Lord Baelish, not one man died. They seem to have met and discussed most seriously an end to the enmity between the two houses. And then they, erm, swore a great oath to, erm, protect the land against…” He wound down.

“Against?” Jon prompted gently as they all stared at the eunuch.

“Against the Others,” Varys finally said, looking around the table. “My little birds were very exact on that term, because I questioned it.”

Oddly enough it was Pycelle who first spoke next. “Preposterous! The Others are but a Northern myth!”

“Ah, Lord Varys, I fear that your little birds have led you astray,” Baelish said with a slow shake of his head. “The Others? Rank madness.”

“Normally I would agree with you,” Varys said with more than a little hauteur, “If it were not for my other news. From Essos I hear that the sellsword company the Company of the Rose are seeking passage across the Narrow Sea. Apparently they claim that their time of exile is over.”

“Time of exile? They are hardly Westerosi anymore, they are the descendants of those that would not bend the knee to the Targaryens when they obtained the surrender of the North,” Stannis exclaimed. “Why would they want to return? Who is paying them?”

“Apparently no-one,” Varys said quietly. “It is most… confusing.”

“Then it is my turn to add to the confusion,” Jon broke in. “I have had word of two most peculiar things. The first is from the Vale. Apparently some days ago the leaders of the Mountain Clans appeared before the Bloody Gate. All ten of them.”

This seemed to stun Baelish, who as a Vale lord knew how bizarre this news was. “Impossible! All ten?”

“All ten, Lord Baelish – and you know how likely that is.”

“Not even a little,” Baelish muttered. Then he looked at him, his eyes narrowed. “What did they want?”

“Apparently to say that they will return. That the Eyrie should not think that their absence means that their battle for their old rights has been suspended.”

“Absence, my Lord Hand?” Varys asked, his eyebrows heading upwards again.

“According to the Blackfish, Ser Brynden Tully, who was at the Bloody Gate, the Mountain Clans said that they are going to the North. That the Others have returned, and that they are heeding some kind of call.” He looked at their faces. “Had this news come from anyone else than the Blackfish I would have thought them mad. However – he is reliable.”

Another silence. Pycelle broke it. “Preposterous!” But it sounded weak.

“Grand Maester Pycelle,” Jon said eventually. “Is it true that the Citadel at Oldtown has announced that the glass candles can now be relit?”

The joggle of the wattles gave them all their answer before the wretched man said another word. “I have sent a raven back to the Citadel,” he said eventually. “Asking them to confirm that message. As it is insane! Magic has gone from this world!”

Jon looked around the table. And then he saw that Varys was pale and trembling, his eyes on something that no-one else could see. “Lord Varys? Are you well?”

The others looked at the eunuch as well, who finally noticed that he was being stared at and offered them all a weak smile. “Your pardon my lords,” he said shakily. “Bad memories. Talk of magic… brings on bad memories.”

“Perhaps,” Pycelle wheezed, “You might need bloodletting my lord Varys! Yes, looking at you I can see that your humors are out of balance.”

The eunuch shot a dirty look at the Grand Maester. “My humors, Grand Maester, are exactly where they need to be and do not need correcting with a bloodletting.”

Pycelle leant back in his chair and humphed with disgust. “You know nothing about modern medicine,” he muttered. “Plus I have a new bloodletting device. With six blades!”

“If I may return to the purpose of this meeting,” Jon broke in, “Grand Maester, the messages about the glass candles have gone out to every major house in Westeros and even some of the Free Cities by now. I hardly think that it can be a mistake – not without having been corrected by now.”

Pycelle seemed to slump a little in his chair at this, whilst Varys closed his eyes for a long moment, but then reopened them as he seemed to rally. “What would you have us do, my Lord Hand?” The eunuch asked the question in a very steady voice.

“Something… bizarre is happening and we need to find out exactly what. And the King will soon be returning from Storm’s End, so that we can get to the bottom of what he found there. In the meantime we still have to ensure the smooth running of the Realm.”

And so they plunged back into the business of the Realm, Baelish with his woeful accounts, Pycelle with his expostulations about the health of the city and then Stannis with his growled update on the current state of the Royal Fleet. As he watched them all Jon wondered about them. Stannis was the one man he could trust. Pycelle seemed to have ties to the Queen – thank the Gods she was not present, although Pycelle would soon relay what they had discussed back to her – and Baelish… well, he was still having doubts about the man. Yes, he was very skilled at finding revenue in the most unlikely places, but he seemed to be, well, far too amused by things. As well as on no-one’s side but his own.

That said, something seemed to be worrying the smooth little man a little today. There were small, tiny indications – a tap of a finger on the table, a look at the window occasionally. What could be wrong? Jon shrugged a little internally. He knew not.

They ran through the meeting and then as they went their separate ways a man in Baratheon livery appeared out of a doorway to one side and then silently bowed to Stannis and passed on a piece of paper. Stannis took it silently, nodded and then looked around them. It was just Jon, Stannis Baratheon and the messenger.

“Ser Davos Seaworth has returned,” Stannis muttered quietly. “And he requests an urgent – and most secret – meeting with us both.”

 


 

 

Renly

He sat on the low wall and looked about Storm’s End. Robert was training Edric again on the grass sward, showing him the best way to keep his balance when he swung his Warhammer, how to move his feet, what to look for in the eyes of an opponent. The boy was drinking in every word with a slight frown of concentration. Now that Robert was clean-shaven again that day it was as if he was instructing a miniature version of himself.

Renly suppressed a slight wince. Oh, the boy was having an impact on his father. Hopefully Robert wouldn’t do something stupid and take him back to King’s Landing with him. Cersei would not like that at all. In fact the bitch-Queen of Casterly Rock might view the boy as a direct threat to Joffrey.

He thought about the other lad for a moment. Joffrey looked nothing like Edric. Come to that he looked nothing like Robert. But then he himself looked little enough like Stannis, so you could never tell with the way the family tree twisted its branches. That said, he almost wished that Edric was legitimate. He was a nice boy, far nicer than that little monster Joffrey.

Renly looked North for a moment and then scowled a little. Yes, he was feeling it too. It seemed to be stronger here in Storm’s End. What ‘it’ was, was of course another matter. He just felt this pressing need to be somewhere further North than he was at this time. Judging by the way that Robert and Edric would occasionally look North as well, they felt the same thing. He wondered if Stannis felt it and then dismissed the thought of their brother actually trusting in a non-rational instinct.

Hearing voices to one side he looked over to see the Castellan and the Maester stroll past, deep in conversation. Penrose had carefully searched the catacombs that no-one had even known even existed again and it looked Jurne had found something. He strolled over and as he approached the two saw him and bowed respectfully.

“So what’s the latest discovery?” Renly asked with a smile.

“My Lord.” Jurne replied, or rather gabbled a little from excitement, “I have found a reference in the archives. It seems that after word came of the Last Storm and the death of Argilac the Arrogant, there was a short pause before Orys Baratheon arrived here at Storm’s End, and whilst Argella waited for him in defiance, having proclaimed herself the Storm Queen, she gave orders that ‘her father’s things’ be put away safe for ‘another day’. Now, every thought that such words merely referred to her father’s personal possessions – but what if they did not?”

He thought this over and then nodded. “Yes – but wait. Didn’t her own garrison rebel against her and hand her over to Orys in chains?”

“Aye,” Penrose said quietly. “But what if that was all a mummer’s farce? To hide the relics and the tombs and anything else they made it look as if there had been a riot and a rebellion against Argella?”

Renley stroked his chin thoughtfully. “That would make sense,” he muttered. “Has anything else been found there?”

The other two men looked at each other, before the Maester nodded slowly. “I have translated the runes around the statue,” he said quietly. “The sword is Stormbreaker. The legendary sword of Durran Godsgrief, or so the legends say.”

The hairs on the back of his neck rose up and he shivered a little, before looking over at where the sword was resting, on a table, wrapped in a cloak, with Ser Barristan Selmy watching over it. The sword fascinated him. But then that was unsurprising, it fascinated everyone who saw it. That is, everyone that Robert allowed near it. His brother was as transfixed by their ancestral sword as anyone else.

And oddly enough it was Ser Barristan Selmy who seemed the most fascinated by the tombs of the Durrandons. Although the statue troubled him. He did not blame the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard – the statue troubled him too. The sight of those stone eyes burning red and that terrible voice speaking, telling Robert to go North…

“Thank you,” he said quietly, dismissing the two and then he strode over to the table and the old Kingsguard, who seemed to have one eye on the sword and the other on Robert. “Ser Barristan.”

“My Lord,” the older man said with a respectful nod. “His Grace seems to be enjoying his training session with his son.”

Renly looked over to the two, where Robert was now crouched at the same level as Edric, adjusting his stance a little. Both had almost identical brilliant smiles on their faces. “The art of the Warhammer, Ser Barristan. Naught else like it for my brother. Although I do think that he will soon be pressing to learn how to wield this weapon.”

“He already has,” Selmy said with a slight grimace. “Very early this morning I am told. I saw you talking with Ser Cortnay and Maester Jurne. Is there any further news about the catacombs?”

“Apparently the sword has a name. Stormbreaker.”

Selmy blinked hard at this. “Gods be good,” he breathed, “Do we really live in a time where legends come alive again? My ancestors fought for the Storm Kings and Stormbreaker was said to be a mighty weapon. No-one has seen it for many centuries though.”

“You saw the statue, Ser Barristan,” Renly said quietly. “You saw it.”

Selmy’s head dipped for a long moment. “I did,” he said softly. “And suddenly I have… doubts. About the Seven. Something calls to me my Lord. I… cannot say what. Some part of me that has the blood of the First Men, some part of me that wishes that there was a Godswood here. Strange to think that I should have such thoughts now.”

“Renly! Ser Barristan!” Robert was striding towards them now, as Edric continued to practice his swings. “What do you think of him?”

The Kingsguard cast an eye at the lad. “He swings it well your Grace. As if he was born to it.”

“Aye,” Robert said as he grabbed a mug of weak ale and then drank from it. “Gods I’ve got a thirst on me. And I ache like I have not for years! But… ‘tis good to be here again. And to spar properly.”

And it was true. Robert was still fat, but a little less than before and there was an energy to him, a life that fair crackled off him like lightning. “Robert, Jurne had news. The sword of the Durrandons… well, it has a name.”

His brother looked at him sharply. “What name?”

“Stormbreaker.”

Robert stared at them astonished. “He is sure?”

“He is sure.”

There was a long pause and then Robert’s face set in a look of implacable determination. “Very well then. Ser Barristan?”

“Your Grace?”

“It seems that I require training in the use of such a sword. You are the finest swordsman that I know of. Will you assist me?”

The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard blinked at his king for a moment and then he nodded. “With everything I have your Grace.”

“Good, because we have little time. I was right. War does march on the Seven Kingdoms. Why else would we find Stormbreaker now? What gods now control our destiny?” He looked over at Edric, who had stopped practicing and was now looking at them with concern. “My son, where does the wind call you?”

The boy looked confused for a moment – and then a look that seemed to mirror his father crossed his face. “North, father.”

“North indeed. Pack your things. I am sending you and Ser Cortnay to Winterfell. You’ll learn to fight there. And we-” Robert looked at Renly and Selmy, the latter looking as if he had heard the horns of war itself judging by the way that he was flaring his nostrils, “We are going back to King’s Landing. The Realm must be put in order.”

 


 

Jory

The moment that he caught sight of the Broken Tower he let out a deep sigh of relief that he hadn’t even known that he’d been holding in. Winterfell. They were within sight of Winterfell.

It wasn’t as if they had had a hard or difficult journey, the Kingsroad had been its usual self and had even been repaired in a few places, so they had made good progress. It had instead been the constant vigilance required the entire time, that need to eye any fellow travellers on the road (especially those on horseback) carefully and also keep an eye on the treeline whenever the road went through a wood. And with every league that passed he found himself marvelling over the difference in the little lordling.

When they had left White Harbour he’d been riding on Annah’s lap, bundled in furs and yet looking around him with an increasingly keen gaze. These past two days he’d been on a horse of his own, albeit one that was tied to that of one of Lord Manderly’s men. He wanted to learn how to ride. He wanted to learn how to use a bow. He wanted to learn how to use his dagger. He wanted so very many things! So no, he was not the same boy. Lord Arryn would likely not recognise him, without his pallor and the dark circles under his eyes. Instead he looked like a healthy little boy. He had not had a shaking fit for days now, and Jory stared at the trees fiercely in an effort to hide his glare of fury. How could someone do that to the child?

Hearing hooves to one side he looked back to see Duncan, the man in charge of Lord Manderly’s escort, approach. “Winterfell is ahead – we should prepare to enter the castle in a manner befitting the son of Lord Arryn.”

He nodded at that. “Aye, we should. Banners to the fore if you please.” He then waved at Willets and the Valeman trotted up. “Winterfell approaches. We need to announce the arrival of Robert Arryn.”

Willets, who was a terse man of few if any words, nodded shortly and then smiled crookedly. “We have a banner,” he said quietly, before nodding and then riding off to talk to Rikson, who fumbled in a saddlebag.

And so it was that some hours later the party clattered though the main gate of Winterfell, led by the sky-blue falcon soaring against a white moon, on a sky-blue field of House Arryn and the white merman with dark green hair, beard and tail, carrying a black trident, over a blue-green field of House Manderly. They had of course long been seen and noted and reported on and as they drew rein Jory could see the familiar figures of Lord and Lady Stark striding towards them.

He dismounted and bowed formally to them both as they drew up to him. “My Lord, my Lady. I brought Robert Arryn, the son of Lord Arryn, the Hand of the King, to you. I have fulfilled my oath to Lord Arryn that I would bring him here safe and sound.”

Lord Stark looked at him and then nodded. “You have done well Jory Cassel.” And then he smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Lord Manderly sent word of your departure. You have made good time.”

“And you must be Robert,” Lady Stark said with a reassuring smile at the now solemn little boy on his horse, which was now being held by the bridle by Willets. “I am Catelyn Stark, your aunt.”

“And I am Lord Eddard Stark, your uncle,” Lord Stark rumbled. “Welcome to Winterfell.”

The little lordling stiffened in the saddle a little and then nodded solemnly. “Aunt. Uncle. I am very pleased to see you.” And then he swallowed. “Lady Stark, your hair is like my... my mother’s and…” He stopped there, his face slightly twisted as he obviously tried to hold back his tears. The boy was young and tired and had been travelling for so very many days.

Lady Stark quickly smiled and reached out and gathered him into her arms as he slumped out of his saddle and then allowed her to take him away, followed by an anxious Annah. Willets and Rikson stamped, bowed and then followed them, leaving Jory and lord Stark with the rest of the men.

“You’ve done well,” Lord Stark said with a smile at the mounted men. “There is hot food and ale waiting for you in the barracks. Beds too and baths. My thanks to Lord Manderly will go to White Harbour today by raven, and I’ll make sure that he knows of your good service.”

The men nodded and bowed, well-pleased, and as they passed on to the barracks Lord Stark turned to Jory. “A powerful escort,” he said quietly. “Why such numbers?”

“I have much to tell you, my Lord. Lady Stark too. Perhaps we should talk in private? The nurse, Annah, will need to be there too.”

Lord Stark looked at him and then nodded. “Let us go to my solar then. Given that this is likely about my nephew, I will ask your uncle to be there too.”

“Maester Luwin too my Lord. There is something that he needs to see. Oh,” and he pulled out the sealed leather wallet. “I also have a letter from Lord Arryn my Lord.”

 


 

Ned

By the time that Cat and a grim-faced Annah entered the room Ned had read and re-read Jon’s letter. It worried him.

My dear Ned. “Thank you for your letter and your warning about bad products coming out of the West. You may be very sure that I will be keeping a close eye on the West indeed. I would like to know how you smelt the trouble on the wind, but that is a conversation that we must have face to face I think. I know how hard it is for you to come to Kings Landing, just as you know how hard it is for me to come to Winterfell, so perhaps a meeting in Riverrun instead? I will send word soon. “In the meantime I entrust the care of my son to you for fostering. It is time that he knew his family in the North. And from goodbrother to goodbrother I must tell you that he worries me. His mother smothers him with too much affection at times and because the child is sickly she often refuses to let him out of her sight. Hopefully by fostering him with you I can bring him out of her shadow and turn him into an Arryn of the Vale. I am sending his nurse Annah with him, who knows about his medicine, and also two of my men, Willets and Rikson. All have served me well over the years and should be trusted. “News might reach you soon about events here at King’s Landing. Your help might be required. I will write more soon. “Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, Lord of the Vale, etc, etc.”

So Jon knew something, as they had suspected. What exactly did he know though? How long had he known it? Who suspected that he knew it? Was the news from Lysa Arryn in that other future that the Lannisters had poisoned Jon accurate, given what that future Cat had told Robb about her sister’s near-madness? So many things to consider, so many things to worry about.

Luwin and Rodrik Cassel were quietly talking to Jory in the corner. He glanced at the group and then made a mental note that none of them would die in the future. Not if he could help it. And then Cat and Annah entered.

“Jory – your report please?”

“Lord Stark, we sailed North on a ship commanded by Ser Davos Seaworth, one of Lord Stannis Baratheon’s best men. And when we drew up to the East of the Fingers Ser Davos came to me with most worrying news. One of the men that joined the crew at King’s Landing was a ne’er-do-well, a man who was going to damage the ship enough to force it to seek harbour and once there he intended to set a fire, slip a knife in my ribs and vanish in the confusion with Lord Arryn’s son.”

Ned and others all stared at him, whilst Rodrik scowled and muttered something about never trusting a bloody sailor.

“Why would he kidnap my nephew?” Cat asked faintly, looking horrified. “For coin?”

“He had orders my Lady. Ser Davos questioned him most carefully and discovered the name of the man who had given him those orders. Lord Petyr Baelish.” Ned looked at Jory quickly. According to Robb, Littlefinger had promised him help in King’s Landing, but then either betrayed him or been outmanoeuvred. Either way he was not to be trusted. And then he looked at Cat. She had turned whiter than milk.

“You are sure about this, Jory Cassel?” Cat asked. “I know Lord Baelish. I grew up with him.”

Jory reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. “Ser Davos lacks his letters, my Lady, but this was written by Lord Manderly.”

She looked at Ned, received his nod and then took and opened it, after reading it quickly. “It is as he says,” she said in a voice filled with resigned shock. “Petyr Baelish is not the man I knew. He can no longer be trusted.”

She handed it over to Ned, who glanced at it quickly. Yes, it all was as Jory had said. “Thank you Jory,” Ned said quietly. “You have done good work.”

“My Lord,” Jory broke in, “There is more. When Ser Davos found out the plot he ordered that the guards on Lord Arryn’s son be doubled. One of the guards knocked over the medicine for Lord Arryn’s son, for his shaking fits. Ser Davos reassured us that he knew of an apothecary in White Harbour who could probably ascertain what the medicine was and then make up some more. But when Ser Davos and Annah went to the apothecary – well, Annah I had better let you tell the tale.”

Annah was a slightly hard-faced Valewoman about the same age as Jory, if Ned had to guess, and she stepped forwards and pulled out a stone jar from a pocket. “My Lord, my Lady, Ser Davos brought me to the apothecary – Barlan he was, by name – and we showed him the medicine that Lady Arryn had directed me to give young Robert Arryn. “But when Barlan inspected he frowned and sniffed it and then sneezed most violent and held it away from him. And then he asked us why we had brought him poison instead of medicine.”

Ned stared at her, as did all the others bar Jory, who was standing there with his hands behind his back, as grim-faced as his father had ever been. Cat looked openly horrified. “Poison? Surely not?”

“Poison my Lady,” Annah said in a voice like iron. “He was most clear. Said that it was a mixture of some kind of metal and powdered chalk.”

“My Lord, my Lady, Lord Manderly questioned the man and gave me this to give to you about what he said it was. Something from Essos I believe.” And Jory handed over a second letter bearing Manderly’s seal.

Ned took it opened it, with Cat suddenly standing next to him, and they both read it, finishing it at about the same time. When they finished it he met her appalled gaze. “Who,” she said with a note of horror in her voice as she sank into a chair, “Who… could have done this? Why would they do it?”

All of a sudden Ned had some horrible suspicions in his head, but he watched as an ashen-faced Luwin inspected the contents of the jar. “’Tis called Shadow Root my Lord. I have witnessed this once before. It is not common and it is used over time to weaken someone and give them fits.”

“Aye,” Annah said – and there was fury in her voice – “And we were told that we could not simply stop giving it to the little lordling, but instead diminish how much he got day by day, to wean him off it.”

“Exactly right,” Luwin said as he stoppered the jar and then brushed his hands clean. “People who have been poisoned by this noxious powder do best by being exposed to less and less of it as time goes on, until they are free of it.”

“We have done so,” Annah said quietly. “And Lord Arryn’s son is greatly changed as a result. He has not had a shaking fit in many days now and every day that passes he… changes, my Lord. He is a different boy from the one that left King’s Landing. He has come alive.”

“Aye, I can testify to that my Lord,” Jory said with a smile. “When I first met him, in King’s Landing, I thought – your pardon my Lady, I mean no offence – that the boy was a lackwit. But with every day that has passed since White Harbour he has indeed changed. Fair bombards you with questions about the world around him for a start.”

“My Lord,” Rodrik Cassel rumbled as he stood, “I must tell the guards to watch every visitor from the South. If there has been one attempt to seize the lad, along with an attempt at poisoning him, who knows what else will come to threaten him – and Winterfell?”

“Agreed,” Ned said after a moment of thought. “Warn the guards. Luwin – will you inspect the boy, once he awakes? I think that we would all feel happier once we knew that my nephew is free of this poison. Jory, my thanks again. And you too Annah. I have no doubt that Lord Arryn will also send his thanks once he knows of all of this.”

“He should know soon, my Lord,” Jory sighed. “Ser Davos sailed South with all the information we have just given you.”

Ned nodded. “Good. Thank you all.” And then he watched all but Cat file out of his solar. Once they were gone and the door was closed he turned to his wife. “Cat?”

She stood shakily. “He is but a boy! Why would someone poison him?”

He grimaced. “Robb said… that the other you, the you from the future, said that Lysa was, well, unstable. If not insane.” There. The word was out. It was brutal, but it was out. “She dotes on the boy, but she needs him to be dependent on her.”

There was a pause whilst Cat struggled to absorb this. “Ned, my sister…”

“Sat in the Eyrie and refused to lift a finger to help you, or our son during his war, according to Robb’s memories. And he said that you told him that Lysa was… wrong in the head. For such a person this might make sense. The ‘medicine’ would make him totally dependent on her. I like it not, but it is the only conclusion that I can come to. Where did she get this medicine, from whom and for what purpose?”

Cat looked at him desperately and then closed her eyes in defeat. “I do not know,” she whispered. “But we cannot allow her anywhere near him until we have more information.”

He nodded and then held her in his arms. “I know,” he whispered. “He’s just a boy. But that boy is the son of Jon Arryn, and I will protect him, no matter what it takes.”

 


 

Tyrion

He hated to admit it, but the records were absolutely fascinating, he thought as he lay on his bed in the ship and tried not to think about the motion from the sea. He never thought that he could ever say such a thing, but they really were fascinating. He had brought books of his own on this trip and he had actually finished one, a fascinating discourse on the possible cause of the cataclysm that had claimed Valyria.

But it had been the little book on the runes that could be found on certain lower levels of Casterly Rock that had attracted his attention. The book that some Maester called Hamil had written back in the days of his great-grandfather. The runes themselves could be found in an old storeroom to the North of the Rock and he remembered that room quite clearly. When he had been a child he’d once asked Jaime what they had meant – and had been answered with a shrug and a muttered comment about perhaps Uncle Gerion knowing.

Uncle Gerion had smiled and shrugged himself. “Perhaps they date back to Lann himself? Tyrion, we know very little about the early history of the Rock. Keep asking questions my boy! You have quite the enquiring mind! Just – don’t ask your father. He has a… set view of the history of our family.”

He had heeded that advice. And now he knew why Uncle Gerion had said what he had said. The runes were very old and dated back to the time of the First Men. To the time of Lann, allegedly. And the runes, whilst being unclear, at least hinted at Lann the Clever being purely of the First Men and not part Andal. Which Tyrion found fascinating. What had happened to the Casterlys? How had the Lannisters gotten hold of the Rock – really? Not the legends, not the tales, the truth?

And the other records held other accounts, other odd references. The sending of men North to the Wall. Why? Some kind of ceremony? It sounded like one, something that had long since been abandoned. And then… that reference to ‘iyf Glytterglass be founde then worde is to be sent to Ye Stark at once.’ Glytterglass? Was that a reference to obsidian? Perhaps it was. Fascinating. But why send word to ‘Ye Stark’? For what reason? He had to admit that Uncle Gerion had been right not to mention any of this to Father. For one thing it implied a greater degree of influence for the Starks of Winterfell. But again, why?

Thinking of Uncle Gerion made him pause for a long moment. Where was he? Could he really be dead, in that never-ending quest for Brightroar? He hated to think that that warm smile and that bright wit could ever be gone. The world would be diminished without that man. His world especially. Uncle Gerion was a good man. He still would not – could not – think of him in the past tense. Even is Father had written him off as dead, lost somewhere in the East.

He took a sip of wine and then stared at the wooden walls of his cabin, forcing his mind away from that fell subject. Perhaps this trip was not entirely without interest. And at least this part was not too onerous. By ship from Lannisport to Seaguard and then the ride Northwards. He wasn’t looking forwards to the Twins as from all accounts Lord Frey was an old and unpleasant man who liked to wring what he could out of guests. Well, he would pass through as quickly as possible, protected by his family name. His father had given him that at least. No Frey would ever think to get a thing out of a Lannister.

Then he sat up suddenly. Someone up on deck was shouting, quite loudly. He pulled his boots on quickly and then got down and waddled to the door as fast as possible, just in time to nearly get bumped in the face by the door as it was opened by young Jon, the cabin boy.

“Your pardon my lord! The captain’s compliments and would you please join him on deck?”

“Lead on,” Tyrion muttered and then watched as the boy vanished. He had his suspicions about the lad. He looked so much like Captain Harklin that he strongly suspected that the boy was his bastard son.

Reaching the deck he blinked as men ran past clutching various weapons, all looking either angry or as if they were about to piss themselves in terror. He watched them go by and then climbed the steps to the fore-whatever-it-was, where the captain was peering ahead at something. “Is there trouble ahead good captain?”

Captain Harklin (who had been carping these past few days at the lack of other ships) peered at him and pointed. “We have company. Mayhaps Ironborn, but ‘tis too soon to tell.”

Tyrion peered cautiously over the gunnel, or whatever it was called. Far ahead there was indeed a sail and it seemed to be heading towards them. “I thought that the Ironborn was supposed to be behaving themselves after the King’s noble quest to see how many of their heads he could squash with that Warhammer of his?”

“Oh they have been,” Captain Harklin muttered as he peered at the ship through his Myrish spyglass. “But I haven’t lived this long in these waters by trusting Ironborn scum as far as I can throw them. They might not reave any more at the moment, but the moment they think they can get away with it they’ll go back to their old ways. Wait… Aha! I know that ship. It’s old Fosswill’s ship, the Sea Bull!”

Blinking hard, Tyrion looked at the man. “I wasn’t aware that any such creature existed.”

“Oh it doesn’t. But he was drunk at the time and it was a better idea than the other ones that he came up with. He started off with Arsekicker and then moved on to Krackenwalloper and then Squidsquasher. A good man, but he lost a brother to the Ironborn and fought with Old Stoneface’s fleet at the siege of Pyke.”

“’Old Stoneface’?” Tyrion thought about this for a moment. “Do you mean Stannis Baratheon?”

“That’s the man. Your pardon – Jon! Fetch me my speaking trumpet! Bos’n prepare to spill the wind a little in the sails! We’ll need to lose some speed to speak with him. I like not the fact that we’ve barely seen an Ironborn ship these past three days.”

The ship seemed to come alive as men ran back for forth doing nautical things that involved pulling on ropes and then apparently releasing what looked like the same rope. It made Tyrion tired just watching them. If, the Gods forbid, he ever had to do anything naval he’d do it from the safety of a big chair on the quarterdeck. With a saucy wench in minimal clothing next to him, holding a bottle of wine no doubt.

He was distracted from this appealing thought by the sound of a hail from the other ship, which was also slowing. A man dressed in the same kind of clothes as the captain was standing at the pointy end and was holding a speaking trumpet. “Good Gods,” he called out, “Are you still sailing that deathtrap? Hasn’t her keel fallen off yet?”

“No better than that old scow you’re mishandling over there,” Harklin bellowed back through his own trumpet. “Where are you from and where are you bound?”

“Seaguard via Ten fucking Towers, heading to Lannisport. Avoid the Iron Islands my friend.”

Harklin frowned as he started to walk towards the blunt end, so as to keep pace with the other man. “Why?”

“They’re wailing about their religion again! Damphair’s gone mad and is killing people who mention the Old Gods.”

A number of crew started at this and muttered, whilst Tyrion looked at the other captain with narrowed eyes. The Old Gods again. Yes, something was most certainly up.

The problem was that he didn’t believe what seemed to be happening. Which was a little… inconvenient. Especially given his dreams of late. Those cold blue eyes that stared at him… and then the roar that seemed to split the heavens and shake the earth beneath his feet.

“What do they say?” Harklin shouted.

There was a pause as the other man seemed to think about what he should say. “Some feel the call North. And some heard it. ‘The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed’. The blood of the First Men my friend. May your winds be fair!”

And the other ship was past them, heading on that opposite course. Harklin stared after it and then as if in afterthought he shouted back: “May your winds be fair!” He seemed… stunned. As did more than a few others. And then as Tyrion watched he recovered his wits. “Bos’n, more sail! Take her North a point or two – closer to the wind. All hands, prepare to rig another sail!”

Tyrion watched as the organised chaos thundered past him, before walking slowly and thoughtfully back to his cabin, where he picked up the little book. He was about to plunge back into the joy of research when he heard a knock on the door and he looked up to see Harklin at the entrance.

“We’re putting on more sail, so as to get to Seaguard quicker. ‘Tis a little risky, but we need to get you to Seaguard as soon possible. If the winds were set right I’d actually pass through the Iron Islands, past Flint’s Finger and as far into Blazewater bay as possible, to get you to Moat Cailin, but we cannot do that just now. Besides, you need the Kingsroad and good steeds.” He smiled slightly. “I may sail from Lannisport now, but I was born in Ramsgate. I have seen many strange things and heard many strange tales, but right now I am of the North and as you have books and such about the Time of Heroes ‘tis my duty to get you to Winterfell at once.”

And that Tyrion could do was nod sombrely and say his thanks – and then return to his books.

 


 

 

Willas

He wanted to pace, but that would not have been a good idea. His leg would not allow for it – not at the rate at which he wanted to pace, anyway. He was still baffled as to what was going on. All he knew was that he needed to be both at Highgarden and somewhere North. It made no sense whatsoever and made him also fear that he was losing his mind.

Closing his eyes he leant back on the stone bench that he’d been perched on for the past ten minutes, after limping around the courtyard until his leg hurt too much to bear any more. Why here? What was it about this place? This small old courtyard with the weathered statue of Garth Greenhand, set next to the oldest part of Highgarden. And of course the Weirwood tree. The old tree, with the faded face carved into it.

Hearing the clack of a cane he looked up and then smiled slightly as his grandmother entered the courtyard. “I should have known that you’d be here,” she humphed after a long moment. “You feel it too, don’t you?”

He looked at her, slightly confused. “Feel what, Grandmother?”

The end of the stick was suddenly right under his nose for an instant. “Don’t you start sounding like your idiot of a father all of a sudden!” She glared at him before sitting on a bench by the Weirwood tree. When she spoke again, it was more softly. “You feel the need to be here, in this place, don’t you? And the pull North. Don’t deny it Willas, I see it in your face. I cannot explain it, other than it must be a remainder of the First Men blood that flows through us both. And last night I dreamt a dream – such a dream that I have never had before. Garth Greenhand himself was talking to me, but as if from far away. I could not hear a word, but his face…”

Willas stared at his grandmother in shock, as she visibly pulled herself together. “But what does this mean?”

She shrugged. “I know not. But I do know that something is happening. I can feel it in the air. So it seems can the Florents. Your fool of a father is complaining about them now. Something about sending a raven to Winterfell. And then there is the little matter of the raven from the Citadel, claiming that the glass candles can be relit. Your father laughed at the message. I did not.”

Willas thought this over for a long moment. “Magic has returned then,” he said musingly. “But why? And what must we do here?”

Another shrug. “What do you feel?”

“I need to walk,” he replied, bowed respectfully to her, which bought him a thoughtful nod of acknowledgement, and then he left. Down the Old Bower Path, around the corner to the Gate of Thorns. And then around again to the Oldgate. But the pull was taking him in the other direction now and he turned and retraced part of his path, before descending a short flight of ancient steps and walking past the Spring Wall. Legend had it that once there had been a little spring somewhere in the area and indeed there was an old and faded channel that issued from one ivy-clad wall, but that had not flowed in centuries.

And so, following his feet and his senses, he found himself back in the little courtyard. Grandmother was still there and she looked at him with narrowed eyes as he limped back in. He closed his eyes and concentrated. I am here. What must I do? He could not explain why he thought those words, or who he thought them to – he just thought them.

Something creaked to one side and he opened his eyes and looked at the Heartwood Tree. This had been a Godswood once, a long time ago. Obeying some feeling that he could not explain he reached out and placed a hand on the tree. Nothing. And then he placed it on the carving of the face.

Death. Fire. Blood. Despair.

He jerked back. The smell of char and destruction had filled his nose for a moment and then the scent of the trees and the flowers had driven it away.

“Willas?” His grandmother was on her feet and was staring at him. “What is it boy?”

“I… I am not sure.” And then he put his hand back to the same spot on the trunk.

No. No. This was a nightmare. The sky was filled with death. It was the dragons. Balerion the Black Dread was overhead, incinerating scores of his soldiers. There was fire everywhere, fire and death and scorched remains. His host was breaking, his sons were dead, the Lannisters were either dead or running. This was death and ruin. His sons were dead, oh why had he brought them to this terrible place? His pride, his foolish terrible pride.

He was going to die. He knew that now. The next pass would kill him. And so much would die with him. The knowledge of the Gardener Kings. The secrets passed down by his ancestors. Things that no-one else knew. He could hear the flap of those terrible wings and he instinctively reached for the little Weirwood pendant that his father had handed down to him. Gods of my ancestors, he thought, taking refuge in the old ways for the last moments of his life, the Old Gods, allow me one boon, one gift. Let one of my family know. Let the Garden bloom again. When the Starks sent the call, let the garden bloom again. What did the words mean? Explain to them. He pulled the pendant off his neck, snapping the chain and then he hurriedly stuffed it into the stone bottle of wine at his side, before hugging it close to him. Perhaps it might survive. And then the fire struck and he opened his mouth to scream for an instant before the darkness fell.

Willas fell to his knees and screamed. And then a mist seemed to fall over his eyes, a veil. He watched himself stand stiffly and then walk out of the courtyard, his leg suddenly obeying him. Grandmother was hobbling after him, calling out worried questions as others arrived, drawn by his scream, but he strode on without acknowledging them.

Down the path, down to the Spring Wall. There, where the old channel came out of the ivy-covered wall, he stopped. Drew a dagger. Cut the ivy. That was important, he had to cut it back. The stuff was old and thick, woody tendrils that snaked everywhere, but he hacked it back at the spot where the old channel met the wall. Others to each side helped him as a babble of baffled voices filled the air, but he ignored them all.

And then he saw the bricked up doorway. It was old, weathered, and scarred by the roots of the ivy. “It must be broken down.” He didn’t recognise his own voice. “Bring me a hammer.” The veil before his eyes deepened for an instant and he swayed slightly, and then a gardener was pressing a rough two-handed hammer into his hand. He hefted it for an instant and then he swung. The bricks splintered and then he swung again. And again. And again. Bricks shattered and fell down – and then he saw the blackness on the other side.

More hammers suddenly appeared as others helped to open the doorway. He swung once, twice, three times more and then the doorway was clear.

“Willas?” It was his grandmother. “You have brought us to this place. You must enter it.”

Still acting under this strange compulsion, with this veil over his mind, he stepped in. It was a room, about thirty feet deep and thirty across, with the channel ending at the base of the opposite wall. And there was a statue next to it, barely lit by the light coming through the doorway. He recognised it. Garth Greenhand, with one hand outstretched. At his feet was a shrivelled bunch of flowers and a small wooden pendant with a chain attached, and as he looked at it he remembered the battlefield that he had seen. And so he reached down and picked up the pendent, before placing it in the hand of the statue.

He could hear the voice of his father now, behind him, and his grandmother as she barked something acerbically at her son. The veil was fading fast now and he was starting to shake with tiredness. What was this? What was affecting him?

And then the hand of the statue seemed to close around the pendant, as stone eyes opened with red fire. Someone screamed behind him, and then three things happened. He heard a great voice shout: “Let the Garden bloom again! Send help to the Stark in Winterfell!” He heard the sudden gurgle as water suddenly started to flow from the spring that must have been behind the wall. And then he felt something happen to his leg as pieces seemed to realign.

He had just enough time to scream in agony before he blacked out from the pain.

Chapter Text

Jon Arryn

Stannis Baratheon had a remarkably fine Myrish spyglass and he was using it now in looking at the ships in Blackwater Bay. After a moment he grunted in surprise and then snapped it shut. “Aye, he has returned,” he muttered in a low voice that was barely loud enough to hear. “And he’s worried enough that he’s used smuggler’s tricks to make his ship look different. He’s stepped his topmasts a little differently and he’s using different colour sails. Looks more like an old scow from Braavos now.”

“Then he is worried about being recognised by someone in King’s Landing,” Jon muttered, before looking about carefully. That was the problem with the Red Keep, you never knew who was watching who. There might be half a dozen eyes on them right now. “Lead on.”

Stannis nodded shortly and then led him down a short path to a flight of stairs, where they found a small group of men in Baratheon livery, all of whom looked as if they had been through the school of hard knocks before going to sea a lot. By the fact that one of them bore a close resemblance to Seaworth, if far younger, he could guess that they in the presence of one of the Onion Knight’s sons.

“Where?” Stannis asked quietly.

“The Old Path,” the boy replied, before leading them off down another set of stairs that snaked downwards.

“Devan Seaworth,” Stannis muttered to Jon as they pattered down the stairs. “Squire to me.”

They kept heading downwards, by stairs and passageways that Jon had never seen before in his life. “Who found…. This passage?” he panted after a while, conscious that his legs were starting to complain.

“My father, my Lord Hand,” Devan Seaworth called up softly. “But I pray that you keep silent, if you please. There are other passageways and tunnels throughout this place and not all of them are known, by us at least. And we know that the Spider has his own paths though these places. ‘Tis best to pass through in silence, ‘lest we attract attention.”

This was a good point and he nodded in acknowledgement before concentrating on where to put his feet. Down and down they went, their way now lit by lanterns with cunning faces that revealed just a little light and which provoked a snort of amusement from Stannis. Smuggler’s lanterns unless he missed his guess.

Down again, until his feet wanted to fall off his legs and then, mercifully, a level section. And then suddenly he could see light ahead and smell the sea and hear waves. He walked forwards and then blinked as a little jetty came into view, cunningly hidden behind rocks at the entrance.

“My Lords, my father will be here soon. My men and I will guard the tunnels. Please do not raise your voices too loudly – we do not know who else has been here recently.” The young Seaworth held up a small piece of wood. “Something from a wooden chest, unless I miss my guess. Someone has been here in the past month. We will guard.”

As the men walked back to the tunnel Jon looked at Stannis. “You have good men in the Seaworths.”

“Aye,” Stannis replied as he stared at the entrance. “And I wish that I had more of such men.”

Jon sighed a little and then sat upon a handy rock. This was a secret place for secret deeds. He wondered how Seaworth had discovered it. And then he wondered who had built it. And of course who used it now. Varys? Probably. The Spider knew so very many things, secret things. Secret places.

And then he heard the sound of oars. No, wait, an oar. A shadow appeared on a rock and then a small dinghy waggled its way into view. A man in a cape and hood was sculling it into the cave with the swift sure strokes of a man who knew how to use an oar. As he entered the cave Jon placed a hand on his dagger, just in case – but then relaxed as the man in the boat pulled down his hood. Yes, Seaworth.

The former smuggler navigated his way to the jetty, moored the small craft quickly and then leapt ashore. “My Lord Hand,” he greeted Jon, before bowing to Stannis. “My Lord.”

“Welcome back Ser Davos,” Stannis said quietly. “We had word of your safe arrival in White Harbour. Why then this sudden need for secrecy?”

“Because of what happened on the voyage to White Harbour my Lord,” Ser Davos said just as quietly. “My Lord Hand – there was a failed attempt at abducting your son.”

Shock roiled through him. “What? By who?”

“A man named Mikon, who joined here in King’s Landing just before we left. My Lord Hand, we left under such conditions of secrecy that I would have thought that no-one could have learnt of the departure of your son. But someone indeed found out. Someone talked.”

And now shock was replaced with rage. “Indeed, and I will have their head!” He closed his eyes for a moment to repress the rage. The attempt had failed. Robert had made it to White Harbour and Lord Manderly had sent him North to Winterfell with a strong guard. Hopefully a raven was winging its way South from Ned to tell him of the successful arrival of the party. “Go on.”

“The man Mikon is on my ship, under close guard. And while he knows not how someone knew that your son was being taken North, he does know who gave him his orders.”

There was something in the voice of the Onion Knight. Something that made him pause for thought. “Who was it?”

“The Master of Coin. Lord Petyr Baelish.”

The shock was so great that he took an involuntary step back, his legs shaking. “What??”

“I am afraid that you heard me correctly, my Lord Hand. T’was Lord Petyr Baelish who gave this man the command. He disabled the chain pump and planned for the ship to lose an anchor, which would have forced me to seek the nearest port. Well, that would have been in The Fingers. Where he then planned to set a fire on the ship, to knife Lord Stark’s man and then escape in the confusion with your son.”

This made no sense. No sense at all. There had to be a mistake somewhere in that line of thinking. Surely such a thing could not be possible. “But… he is one of my bannerman! Not a major lord, but he is of The Vale! He has sworn allegiance to me!”

“And yet he spreads coin in this city, and buys influence, working towards something,” Stannis said heavily. “My Lord Hand, Baelish is a man who I have never trusted. There is much about him that is false. But still, this is… beyond belief. There must be a reason for this. We must question this Mikon.”

“My Lord, here is his full confession,” Seaworth said, holding out a letter. “As written down by Lord Manderly, who was most angry to hear of this plot, and witnessed by myself and Lord Manderly’s son. And as this Mikon pointed out to me, if he is placed in a black cell then he will die with a few hours. He said that Lord Baelish has eyes everywhere, paid with by good coin and soft threats.”

Jon felt his skin crawl for a long moment. “Perhaps then this Mikon must be kept somewhere safer. Dragonstone perhaps?”

“Aye,” Stannis said after a long moment. “I agree my Lord Hand. Ser Davos, do you need to provision your ship, or can you sail there on the tide?”

“We have enough to get there my Lord.”

“Good,” said Stannis – and then he frowned. “By the look on your face there is something else. What is it?”

Ser Davos cleared his throat slightly. “My Lords, there is indeed something else. Another plot, a murkier one, was discovered at White Harbour.”

Jon stared at the former smuggler again. “A plot against who?”

“Your son again. When we discovered the plan to abduct him I doubled the guards on your son onboard my ship. In the process some of his medicine was knocked over and ruined. When we got to White Harbour I took the rest, along with your son’s nurse, to an apothecary that I know there, one Barlan by name, so that we could obtain more. But when he examined it he said that it was not medicine, but instead a form of poison. Something to weaken the lad and make him dependent on it – and that it caused fits of shaking.”

So great was his horror that Jon’s legs nearly gave out beneath him and Stannis and Ser Davos had to escort him to a low rock to sit whilst he collected his scattered wits. “Poison?” He eventually gasped. “Someone has been poisoning my son? My heir? My little boy?”

“Aye my lord,” Ser Davos said gruffly. “I told Lord Manderly all – here is his letter.” And he handed over another letter. “He delivered it to me just before we sailed. A copy has also gone to Lord Stark in Winterfell. The good news is that my lessening the dosage of the powder every day it is possible to wean your son off it, and just such a process had started when I last saw him. By the time he gets to Winterfell, if he is not there already by now, he should be free of it.”

Jon opened the letter hurriedly, brought it close to his face and then read hurriedly. Yes. Yes, by all the gods, old and new, it was true. He saw how his hands shook as he lowered the letter and then saw the look of sympathy that both men were giving him, Ser Davos openly and Stannis in the form of various facial tics.

“My son will indeed recover,” he said weakly. And then the rage came back. “Who could have done such a thing?? To poison a child?”

“My Lord Hand,” Ser Davos said quietly. “Where did your lady wife get this medicine from?”

He opened his mouth to reply – and then he paused. “Lysa,” he said, after a long and stunned moment. “My Lady wife said that she was given it by a Maester that she consulted.”

“Did you ever talk to this Maester? What was his name?” Ser Davos asked shrewdly. “Speaking as a father myself, my Lord, I have every wish to help you to get to the bottom of this matter.”

He thought about it for a long moment, his wits all over the place. “Nay,” he said slowly. “Lysa never mentioned who he was. Just that the medicine would help.” And then various horrible suspicions raised themselves in his mind. “Wait… wait… Lysa knew Baelish. They were always close when they were children as he was brought up at Riverun – their fathers knew each other. What if she got it from him? What if this too is a part of whatever plan he has made?”

And then something truly terrible entered his mind. “She was frantic when I told her that young Robert was going to be fostered in Winterfell. Angry beyond belief. Almost mad with anger. But then she calmed down after I bade Baelish talk to her in an effort to calm her down. Why? What did he say to her? If he was plotting to abduct my son then… No. No, this cannot be!”

The other two men looked at each other and then fell silent As Jon put the pieces together in his head and came to a conclusion that he did not like. “It seems,” he said in a calm but brittle voice, “That I cannot trust my wife on this matter. Not until I have talked to her. As for Baelish… well, he belongs in a black cell, guarded by men that I trust absolutely. And then I can question him about what he knows. Ser Davos – you have my deepest gratitude in this. Your devotion to duty and your discretion are most appreciated. You will have a suitable reward.”

The former smuggler flushed slightly and then bobbed his head in salute. “I have but done my duty, my Lord Hand. I could do ‘naught else. Now, if you will excuse me my Lords, I must get back to my ship and make for Dragonstone.”

“Safe passage,” Stannis said, and then they both watched the man leave the way that he had arrived.

“Lord Baratheon,” Jon said heavily after a long moment. “Given the… great matter that we have been looking at, I have had an unpleasant thought. Should anything happen to me before it comes to a conclusion and before I can ascertain what has been happening within my own household, I think that I must need to place a codicil in my will. You are a man of some legal substance I am told. Will you witness it? I mean to place my son more fully in the hands of my goodbrother and his wife, should the worst happen. Until I know better, I cannot trust my wife.”

Stannis nodded shortly. “Aye, I will, my Lord Hand.”

Which just left the long trudge back up the stairs. Fortunately Devan Seaworth could see that he was tired and had them pause more frequently on the journey upwards, until they finally reached the Red Keep. Once the matter of the codicil was completed in a small side room, and Stannis Baratheon had left with his men, Jon walked tiredly back to the Tower of the Hand, where his men greeted him with concerned looks.

“Some food and wine,” he told Quill after the man had asked if he needed anything. He waited in the topmost room as he waited for it to be brought to him, his mind astir with worry and conjecture. So, he was dancing on the edge of a narrower blade than he could ever have imagined. Peril now lay to every side. But his son was safe. That much was certain.

Now – who could he trust? Truly trust? Because the stakes were now so very high. When Quill slipped in with a plate of roast chicken and a small flask of wine he nodded his thanks and then raised a finger for the man to pause.

After he had swallowed a bite of chicken and a gulp of wine he wiped his mouth and then beckoned for the man to approach. “I need the services of a man who can be devious and if need be very violent,” he whispered. “A man who when bought stays bought, by me at least. Someone intelligent, who knows that the Hand of the King can deliver far more than a man – no matter how rich – on the run. Do you know of any such man?”

Quill, who had raised his eyebrows briefly during this, showing how surprised he was, paused for a moment and then frowned. “I believe that I might just know of such a man,” he said eventually. “He is a sellsword and he has done some work for many people on many things, without saying much about it. Given a sufficient… incentive… he can be trusted. I like him not, but he has his talents.”

“Is he in King’s Landing?”

“Not too far from it. I believe that he has just finished a job killing bandits just to the South.”

“Excellent. Bring him to me. What is his name?”

“Bronn, my Lord Hand.”

 


 

Ned

“I bid thee farewell, Lord Stark. I will talk to the Lord Commander when I get back to Castle Black, especially about sending a party to the Nightfort, but above all I will send word about your brother’s quest North of the Wall. And of course of any other developments.” Maester Aemon then bowed stiffly in his saddle.

“Thank you Maester Aemon. I wish you a safe trip back to Castle Black. And I will send word of any other news that reaches us here. Winterfell stands with Castle Black. No – the North stands with Castle Black.”

The old man nodded. “And I believe that I shall be one of the first men of the Night’s Watch to witness the results of your new portage scheme up the Long Lake. It is an intriguing idea.”

Yes, it was an intriguing idea. And ironically it had come from something that Theon Greyjoy had said in passing to him. Assembling the boats would be the tricky bit, but once that was done they could start to send a lot more North without overtaxing the Kingsroad to the Wall, which was still being repaired in places. It wasn’t a complete solution – the Long Lake didn’t go all the way up to the Wall – but it meant that more supplies could be sent North in greater amounts.

Of course there was also the little question of getting the supplies further North from there, but, well, he had some good men working on it.

He turned his thoughts back to Maester Aemon, who seemed to be doing some thinking of his own. “I shall also send word from Castle Black as soon as I have talked to the Lord Commander,” the old man muttered, before smiling slightly. “Who would have thought that at my age I would witness such an adventure?”

Ned laughed softly at this and then sobered a little. “Give me your hand Maester Aemon.” The old man extended an age-spotted hand and Ned grasped it firmly. “May the Old Gods grant you safe and swift passage back to the Wall. You of all people know of the task that we face.”

“My thanks Lord Stark. May both the Old Gods and the New look over you here at Winterfell. There is so much at stake.”

And then he looked ahead of him. “Lead on,” he called, and then the line of men and horses started through the gates of Winterfell, heading North. The old Maester of Castle Black rode awkwardly but with a look of grim determination on his face.

As the last of them left and the gates closed Ned looked to one side, where Jon was standing, his face thoughtful. “Jon.”

“Father.” The young man who he had protected for so long smiled slightly. “Before you ask I said my farewells to Maester Aemon earlier. He promised to send word and asked that I do the same.”

“Aye, he’s a good man.”

Jon nodded, seemed about to say one thing and then seemed to switch to something else. “I still can’t believe that he’s a Targaryen. He goes against everything I heard about them.”

Ned eyed him carefully. “Never judge a family by a few members,” he pointed out. “Aerys… was not always the man that he ended up as.”

Boots scuffed to one side and they both looked over to see Domeric Bolton approaching them. The son of the Lord of the Dreadfort had been very quiet of late, obviously mulling what he had learnt. And now he looked as if that conversation that had been put off once before was about to finally happen.

“Lord Stark, may I speak with you in private?” The young Bolton looked distinctly young and awkward and pink-cheeked.

Ned looked at Jon for a moment, who was somehow both smiling and glowering at Bolton. “Of course Domeric – walk with me. Jon, you should return to your training.”

Jon stomped off muttering and Ned led Domeric towards the Godswood. “I suspect that I already know the answer to this question, but what would you like to talk about?”

Domeric paused for a moment, as he seemed to be having trouble with his breathing, before swallowing hugely and then opening his mouth. “Lord Stark, I would like to thank you for your hospitality over these many weeks. You have made me most welcome here at Winterfell.”

I was trying to keep you alive and away from your mad half-brother who is now thankfully very dead, Ned thought but did not say out loud. Instead he nodded. “Your help here has been invaluable,” he replied instead, which was perfectly true. “Things have… been interesting.”

“Aye,” Domeric muttered. “The Others… well, on behalf of my Father you know that House Bolton stands with you.” Then he coughed slightly. “I have enjoyed my time here and I have been much honoured at meeting your family. Lady Stark has been most appreciative and your son Robert is a good friend. But there is someone else in your household who has caught my respectful attention and with your permission I would like to speak of her to you.”

They had arrived by the Heart Tree by now and Ned looked at the young man in front of him. “You are referring to my daughter, Sansa.”

Domeric somehow went even paler and then looked even more resolute, as if such a thing was possible. “Aye, Lord Stark. I…. I would be honoured if I could be considered for the hand of your daughter Sansa.”

Ned looked at him through slightly narrowed eyes and did his best to mirror the look at his own father used to direct at people, the look that once caused one minor lord to actually piss himself. Judging by the way that Domeric swayed slightly and then somehow straightened even further, as if he had replaced his spine with a spear, he had at least the basics of the look.

“You think that you are worthy of my daughter?”

Domeric opened his mouth for a moment, flushed slightly and then rallied a little. “I would battle to be worthy of her,” he replied simply. “I would strive every day to be worthy of her.”

This was an answer that he had expected from a man who had been fostered at the Redfort and it was so unlike anything that Roose Bolton would have said that he nodded slightly. “Well said,” Ned muttered. “Well said. I must ask this of you though – does this come from you or your father?”

The young man swallowed jerkily. “My father urged me to press my suit, Lord Stark, but this request comes from me. I know that Starks and Boltons have not always been allies in the North, but given the threat to the Wall and the need for us to unite behind you against the Others, I think that closer ties between our houses would be a good idea.”

Ned clasped his hands behind his back and then stared at the Heart Tree. “I shall discuss this with Lady Stark and also with my daughter, Domeric. This is not a decision that can be made quickly.”

“Thank you Lord Stark, and I would heartily agree with you. I would not want this to be decided in haste.”

Another point in favour of the lad. “Very well. Thank you for your candour Domeric. I will consider it most carefully.”

Domeric nodded, turned to leave – and then suddenly turned back. “One last thing, if I may Lord Stark?”

Ned nodded slightly.

The Heir to the Dreadfort looked at him with eyes that burned with determination. “I am not my father Lord Stark. And I am most assuredly not the creature that I am told my half-brother was.”

Ned smiled slightly. “I know that Domeric. If you had been anything like the thing that Ramsey Snow was, you’d be on your way back to the Dreadfort by now. Perhaps even with your head still atop your shoulders. Thank you lad.”

Domeric nodded a little and then bowed respectfully, turned and left. Ned watched him go carefully. Yes, the name Bolton was one that had been feared once and he had his own quiet suspicions about Roose Bolton. Something still did not feel right about things around the Dreadfort. But his son was someone very different. Well, he had a lot to think about. Perhaps a chat with Cat, a word with Sansa and then a raven to the Dreadfort?

In the meantime the North had to be run and he strode off to his solar, with his usual list in his head. More ravens had arrived from remote areas of the North, promising aid and fealty to the Stark in Winterfell. Messages had even arrived from the Brackens and the Blackwoods and he winced at what his goodfather would probably have to say about two of his houses sending such a message to Winterfell.

As he strode down the corridor a throat cleared itself as he passed a side-passage and a voice called out: “Lord Stark I presume?” It was a Northern voice, a rough voice, but one with power in it.

“Aye, I am Lord Stark,” he replied and peered at the man who was walking slowly towards him. He was in dark robes that looked travelstained and had a long face framed by greying hair. He also looked familiar. “Wait – I know you don’t I?”

“We have met, long ago. I once rode as escort to Lord Commander Qorgyle when he came South to meet you.”

Ned looked long and hard at the man. And then something clicked in his mind. “You are Mance Rayder.”

“I am.”

“Why are you here?”

“I must talk to you about what’s happening North of the Wall. At once.”

He looked at the man who others called the King Beyond the Wall and then nodded. “Join me in my solar.”

 


 

Theon

He stared at the parchment and then wondered how he was going to ask his uncle all the questions that he dared to. It would not be easy, he felt as if someone had stuffed his head with straw at the moment. He was not sleeping well at all, he would wake at least once a night with a cry of fear from a nightmare. He could never remember the dreams, but he knew that they were related to that boat and his dead brothers. And that terrible shore. What had that figure been? Who had it been?

His eyes returned to the letter. All the news here in Winterfell was about the discoveries that had been made so far, all the old artefacts and documents – and all the holes that lay in them, sometimes literally. Lord Stark was doing his best to pull it all together but he did not envy the man. He admired him greatly now, but he would rather not be him. The Stark in Winterfell had so much weight on his shoulders.

Which was why he was writing to his uncle Rodrik. Rodrik the Reader was the only person he could think of in the Iron Islands with as open a mind as possible and who might – just might – have research as well that might help. He wished that he knew his uncle better, he wished that he knew how to best appeal to his uncle. Had his uncle heard the Voice?

His father… he had an instinctive feeling that if his father had heard the Voice, had heard the call to aid Winterfell, but that he would be doing his best to ignore it. The Old Way. His father was wedded to it. His father had made his stand on the Iron Islands based on it.

His father was a stubborn fool, he knew that now. The war had been a disaster.

As for Uncle Damphair…. No. He’d just get a curse back in return, if anything at all.

So here he was, writing a letter to an uncle he barely remembered, to help a people he barely remembered to help in turn Winterfell. He had to do this. He had to write it. He didn’t know why exactly, but the dreams were behind this. He knew that much. So he bent over the letter again and kept writing.

 


 

Ned

As he led the former Night’s Watch man into his solar and closed the door Ned found his mind racing at a great rate. Why was Mance Rayder here? If he meant him any ill-will surely he would have tried to stab him by now?

Instead he stood by the great table and stared at the huge amount of reading matter there with a frown on his face. “Your research on the Others?” Ned nodded. “Very impressive.”

Ned gestured to a chair to one side, before pausing and walking over to a side table. This was a gamble, but one that needed to be taken. He poured a glass of wine for himself and then one for Rayder, before tearing off a hunk of bread from the loaf that must have been brought to his room recently. Digging around at the back of the table he discovered some salt in a little stone jar and he then carried wine, bread and jar over to Rayder, before returning for his own wine.

As he sat in his own chair he watched as Rayder stared at the offering - before what must have been some carefully concealed tension leaked out of him. “My thanks,” said the King Beyond the Wall as he tore off some bread, sprinkled some salt on it and then bit a chunk off it, before sipping some wine.

“Given who you are and what it must have taken to get you here, I thought that an offering of Guest’s Rights was important.”

The other man smiled quickly and kept eating. As he did Ned sat back and studied him. Mance Rayder was no longer a young man, but whilst he had greying hair his eyes were still very lively and had a lot of laughter lines around them. He wore travelling clothes and riding boots, so he must have ridden South and Ned found himself wondering how he had gotten to Winterfell. As Rayder ate the last of the salted bread and then drank some wine he also leant back and regarded Ned carefully. “Well, Lord Stark, I will not waste your time by beating about the bush. The Others are coming. But then you know that, don’t you? I was coming South anyway, after hearing word that you were looking for evidence of the Others – and then I heard that damn voice in my head, saying that the Others come again and that the Stark in Winterfell needs help. Damn near wet meself. So I came South even faster. Because you know that the Others have returned.”

There was a certain amount of relief in his voice and Ned looked at him closely.

“I do. And your presence makes things easier for me. I was going to go to the Wall soon to try and get word of you. News that there is another King Beyond the Wall spread fast. As did word of your increasing raids.”

Rayder raised a languid hand. “I have sent word for them to stop at once. Of course I cannot say that they will all stop. The Free Folk are… well, free. You think of the title of ‘king’ and you think of your friend Robert Baratheon. I… merely have influence. They follow me because I have a plan. And because we are desperate.”

“When did the Others return?”

The other man shook his head. “That… is a very hard question to answer. Some of their creatures never left. And with the Free Folk so scattered… I will tell you what I know. You have a map of the North over there I see. We should look at it.”

Ned sipped at his own wine and then stood. As they walked over to the map, which was parchment tacked to a board, he could sense Rayder’s eyes looking over everything in the room. When they both stood before the map Rayder smiled slightly at the area North of the Wall.

“I see that your map is lacking in a few details,” he said in a grim but almost cheerful voice. “May I add to it?”

Ned nodded and Rayder looked about and then grabbed a quill and a little pot of ink. “This river here goes Northwards, into the Valley of the Thenn. What lies beyond the Frostfangs to the West is a mystery, but to the North of the Haunted Forest and the Then lies…” he sketched a number of lakes, and then a mountain range. “This.” The quill shook a little as he drew a long mountainous ridge that looked familiar.

“What’s that?” Ned asked slowly.

“It has many names,” Rayder said as he put the quill down and carefully stoppered the inkpot with hands that shook a little. “Some call it Deathridge. Others Winter’s Heart. Depends on the tribe you see. But most call it Hopemourne. There was a time, when I was a lad, when you could go North and see it. From a distance at least. These days if you go North to look upon it you don’t return. Don’t return alive that is.” His eyes seemed to go somewhere else for a moment and Ned recognised the look of a man viewing memories that he didn’t want. And then Rayder shook his head a little and smiled bleakly.

“We know nothing about where they come from, not originally. The Lands of Always Winter are harsh and terrible, even for the lands beyond the Wall. But Hopemourne is where they have always been associated with since the building of the Wall. And it has always been… guarded. There are ruins there they say. Who built them – no-one knows. We know that the First Men built the Fist of the First Men, sad ruin that it is now, but Hopemourne?” He shook his head. “Men always tended to vanish there if they strayed too close to it. An evil place.”

Ned swallowed thickly as he remembered the vision that he had had when the Hearthstone had been placed in his hand. “A long mountain, like a ridge, with ruins on it, and guardians that were not… not human.”

Rayder was looking at him oddly. “Aye. How can you know of it?”

Ned ran a trembling hand over his face for a moment. “A vision. From, I think the Old Gods. When the Hearthstone was returned here from the Last Hearth. I saw it then, Rayder. I saw the mountain. And the great hall within it. There was a mockery of a Heart Tree. And… things that had once been men to the sides. And a dais. And a throne. And a creature on that throne that had white skin and blue eyes like stars.”

The King Beyond the Wall went white as a sheet. “What was it?”

“From what I said after my vision brought me back here, it was the Night’s King. The real one – not the twisted thing that legend said once held power at the Nightfort. This was something else, something terrible, something evil beyond words.” He shook his head again. “So, yes. I know what we face. I might not have laid eyes on a wight, but I know the threat from the far North.”

Rayder looked at him for a long moment and then little more tension seemed to leave his face. “Good, you share the burden then,” he muttered, before turning back to the map. “The first villages vanished more than a year ago. Little places, far to the North. A handful of the Free Folk here, a handful more there.” His finger traced a rough line. “And then it got worse. Worse quickly. We of the Free Folk have always burnt our dead. Suddenly we needed to. Wights. Just a handful at first, to match the numbers of people vanishing, but then they started to grow. And then the sightings started.”

“Sightings?”

“The Others. White Walkers some call them. But – the Others. Places grow cold, quickly. The White Cold, they call it. And then they come. White hair. White-blue skin. Swords that will cut through any steel. Nothing kills them. Fire can drive them away.” Rayder’s finger traced a line down the map. “They have been coming South. We cannot stop them. We cannot touch them. We cannot kill them.”

Ned nodded slowly and then walked back to the table, where he poured more wine. “You mentioned that the Wildlings – the Free Folk you call them – followed you because you had a plan. What is it?”

There was a pause as Rayder rubbed a hand over his chin and then strode over to join him. “My plan died the moment that I heard the Voice announce that the Others had returned and that you needed help here,” he said slowly. “Which is why I hurried South. Lord Stark, what do you know of the early history of the Wall?”

“Just that it was built to stop the Others,” Ned said with a frown. “At the end of the Age of Heroes.”

“Ah,” Rayder said with an ironic smile. “How you of the South forget.” He paused, licked his lips and then looked at Ned. “The Free Folk remember what the Night’s Watch have forgotten. The Wall was built in the one place where it could both last the summers and also use the land the best – the shortest and most defensible stretch. It cut off many of the Free Folk, but that was alright. I think that there must have been a plan. The Free Folk were the scouts for the men manning the Wall. The Night’s Watch patrolled the wall, maintained it and acted as a defensive force. And when the Others came again the Stark in Winterfell would call the banners and lead the real force to defend the wall.

“But when the Others vanished it all went awry. The Night’s Watch changed. It had little to do, other then maintain the castles. Commanders died, other men came in, memories faded with time. The Watch started viewing the Free Folk as a threat. Of course it takes two to make a quarrel – it wouldn’t have taken too much to get the hotter heads amongst the Free Folk to bite back. And there you have it. Too much time with no threat from the Others, too much familiarity between Night’s Watch and Free Folk.”

Ned stared at the man wryly. “Do your people really have such long memories?”

A shrug. “In places. Tales get told and changed a little, but once you compare a dozen of them you can see a common thread. Besides, there are inscriptions in the lands beyond the Wall. Runes. The men of Thenn still speak the Old Tongue, the language of the First Men. Learn the tongue and you can read the runes. There’s a cave near the Fist of the First Men, Lord Stark. It’s a shame that you don’t know of it, because there’s an inscription on one wall that says: “Ys Agreement wytnessed by Ye Starke of Wynterfell.”

There was a short silence. “Agreement?”

“Something to do with the Wall. Part of it is lost.”

Ned sighed. “I know nothing of it. But then we are still going through the documents discovered here in Winterfell.” He caught sight of Rayder’s raised eyebrows and explained. “There is a room near here that I knew nothing of until recently. My father did though and possibly my brother. A room filled with documents about the old times, about the Others. A room that had… objects, one of which I used without knowing it to send the call to those who seem to have the blood of the First Men. And a room that contained… well, I shall mention it later.”

Rayder’s eyebrows remained raised. “You knew nothing of it at all?” He choked the words out and seemed to be having trouble breathing. “How could the Stark in Winterfell not - ” And then he sank back in the chair that he had half-risen from. “You were fostered in the Vale. And Aerys murdered your father and your brother when you were still young.”

No wonder he was King Beyond the Wall. Ned nodded sombrely before standing and walking to the great box. “This was also in it,” he said as he lifted the great mace within it. “The Fist of Winter.”

Rayder stood the moment that he saw the weapon, his face very pale again and his eyes glittering with what seemed like unshed tears. “You know, there’s a saying amongst the Thenn,” he said slowly. “Who call themselves the last of the First Men. They say that the only time they’ll ever leave their valley is when the Stark wields the Fist of Winter again. And the way they say it, it is as if they don’t believe it will ever happen. You asked about my plan Lord Stark. I need to bring the Free Folk South of the Wall. I feared that only we knew about the Others, that by the time that the Night’s Watch could be persuaded about the danger too many of the Free Folk would be dead, or worse. That I could somehow force a way South, settle the Gift and the New Gift and then persuade the stubborn fools in Castle Black that I could help defend the Wall.”

He looked at Ned and then at the mace again. “When the Call came I knew that I had to talk to you at once, that you knew that they were coming. That you could help us. Do you know how to kill them?”

Ned nodded at the table to one side with the obsidian arrowheads. “Obsidian. Or dragonglass as some call it.”

The unshed tears started to spill down Rayder’s face as he screwed his eyes shut for a long moment, before opening them again. “The Free Folk are so called because we did not bend the knee. Will not bend the knee. But I know when to ask for help and when to do what must be done.” Slowly, reluctantly, but determinedly he knelt. “Lord Stark, the Stark in Winterfell, help me save my people from what the night brings.”

“Stand,” Ned urged. “I would not have a proud man beg me to do what it right. Stand and help me. And tell me how I can help you.”

Rayder stood and then bowed his head in a slow salute. “Thank you Lord Stark, I will not forget your kindness,” he muttered. And then he laid a hand on the head of the mace. “I would swear an oath on this.”

And then they both heard the crash of thunder overhead.

 


 

Doran

His brother was standing there, staring at the message in his hand as if it represented a personal affront to him, and Doran sighed to himself a little as he brought his wheeled chair to a halt. Normally he would get someone to push him, preferably Oberyn when he was around, but only close family. He did so hate this weakness, this pain in his feet.

After a long moment Oberyn finally surfaced and noticed him. “Your pardon my brother,” he said in a distracted voice. “I was thinking about the message I have received from the Citadel. The news is true – the glass candles can be relit. Magic has returned to these lands.”

Doran nodded slowly. “And what are your thoughts about the impact of this?”

There was a pause as Oberyn sat on a nearby stone bench slowly, his face set in concentration. Doran liked watching his brother think. When he bothered to take his mind off drinking and fighting and fucking and brooding over their revenge Oberyn had a remarkable capacity for brilliant thought. He seemed to be exercising it now.

“This might change everything,” Oberyn said heavily. “There are the obvious things, the less obvious things and the things that terrify me.” This was enough to get Doran peering at his brother worriedly. “What terrifies you?”

Oberyn pulled a slight face. And then he paused. “First, brother, let me ask you a question. When Lord Dayne was here with Dawn you were troubled and you said that you had thought of something that Father told you. What was it?”

Ah. That. Doran leant back in his seat tiredly. “When I came of age,” he said quietly, “Mother told me many things about what it means to be a Martell of Sunspear. The need to lead, the men I should watch, the women I should watch even harder, the agreements that were in place between us and Kings Landing. And also the old agreements, the secret ones, within Dorne.”

Oberyn stared at him. “Within Dorne?”

“Agreements with the Stony Dornish. Some are old, Oberyn. Very old. And one dates back to the time of Nymeria. It is also… a kind of prophecy.”

Something flickered in Oberyn’s eyes at the very mention of the word ‘prophecy’, a combination of uncertainty and annoyance. “Prophecy, eh? You do know that half of them are total pigswill that can be bent like a serving girl into all manner of positions, whilst the other half are gibberish?”

He looked flintily back at his brother. “This one is different. It was very clear. The Daynes swore allegiance to our ancestors early on, with one condition. That nothing would ever stop them from going North with Dawn if ever ‘The Call’ came. It was important to them. And when Nymeria had a dream that led to her confirming this… well that set it in stone. Especially when she said that to stop the Daynes from going North with Dawn would result in the fall of Sunspear, and of Dorne… and of all men in Westeros.”

His brother raised both eyebrows at him. “So…” he said thoughtfully, “That was why you gave Lord Dayne permission to go North, despite the fact that he’s visibly dying?”

Doran nodded tiredly. “A prophecy, but a clear one, my brother. And one that I hoped I would never have to see. But it came anyway. And now we have the news of the return of magic. Surely there has to be a connection? So – what are your conclusions?”

“As magic has returned,” Oberyn said heavily, “We must view prophecy in a new light. A careful light, but we must view it again. I cannot imagine what this has done to the Citadel, but I imagine that every Maester who has ever studied magic will be looking at it again. There certain things that were alleged to be created by magic that might be affected. The Wall perhaps? Storm’s End? Anything at Sunspear? I know not.

“What worries me more are… well, dragons. The loss of the Targaryen dragons, as they shrunk in size with every generation… that showed that magic was leaking out of this world. Now that it is back… well, what if some fool decides to try and bring a dragon egg to life with another version of Summerhall? What will people do with their dragon eggs, or their alleged dragon eggs? I can see trouble ahead.”

Doran looked at his brother for a long moment. “And what of the thing that terrifies you?”

Oberyn raised his head a little and then grimaced. “I have heard of many odd things of late. Robert Baratheon visits Storm’s End for no reason, pulled by something. Rumour has it that he has discovered something. What? I do not yet know. Alster Dayne came here with a restless sword that drew a dying man North. Blackwoods swear great oaths with Brackens, ending centuries of hatred. Willas Tyrell is said to have stalked Highgarden like a man possessed by something or someone. The Mountain Clans of the Vale have vanished, apparently saying that they are going North. And… Stark is asking for information about the Others. Stark the pragmatist, Stark the practical, asks for information about a legend. And that, my brother, is what terrifies me. What if… in these times of magic… legends are real?

And then Doran shivered as if his bones had for a moment turned to ice.

 


 

Varys

He sat there in the silence of his room and stared at the map of Westeros that took up a part of one wall. He didn’t really need the map, he knew every location as if it was etched in his mind, but it served to focus his mind – and the Gods alone knew how much he needed that right now.

Speaking of focus – he lifted his right hand and then smiled slightly. The shaking had stopped. That was a good thing. Memories of… memories what had been done to him by that madman who thought that he could revive blood magic… well, such memories were bad ones. The pain, the blood, the need to move and scream when that was denied him… A finger twitched but he willed it to be still. Yes, that was better.

He returned his gaze to the map. Things were… changing. Altering. Moving out of his gaze. And he disliked all of those things. He preferred people to be, well, reliable. Reliable people could be predictable, could be controllable. Instead…

Robert Baratheon was in his own way deeply predictable. He could be relied upon to be headstrong, greedy, violent in his choice of actions and overall a bad king. But his recent decision to go to Storm’s End on a total whim was not predictable and was a mystery to Varys. Why had he gone? The one message that his little birds had been able to send him from that place had been a brief one, that the King had attacked a particularly foolish Septon and had then vanished underground in the tunnels. It was all most peculiar. And unpredictable.

Other events were also worrying him. Apparently it was quite true that Aemon Targaryen had left Castle Black and gone to Winterfell. Why? Something to do with all this talk about the Others. And apparently ravens were flying all over the North about the same things, as well as protestations of loyalty to ‘The Stark in Winterfell’. Ravens from South of The Neck as well apparently.

And then there was all this strange activity in Highgarden, with Willas Tyrell apparently demolishing parts of walls and then screaming a lot. The message had been very shaky and unclear, as if the little bird who had written it had been shaken by something. He needed to look into that. He needed his little birds to be reliable these days.

He didn’t like it. It was… chaos. Perhaps there was some kind of order behind it, some pattern that he had yet to discern, but if there was he couldn’t yet see what it was. Varys pursed his lips slightly. Perhaps a raven to Illyrio, to see what he had learnt about it? After all, his old friend had his finger on a surprisingly large number of pulses.

A small figure appeared in a doorway, approached carefully, deposited a small rolled up message and then vanished the way it had come. Varys picked it up and unrolled it quickly, before reading it. And then both eyebrows went up and then down and he lifted a plump hand to his mouth to swallow a chuckle. Oh dear. It seemed that a certain noble lord here in King’s Landing was about to have his day – no, his entire life – absolutely ruined.

Perhaps he should sell tickets?

 


 

Petyr

The warehouse smelt of many things. Rotten apples was the main odour, followed by old boxes, damp straw, mildew and rat droppings. Such a charming bouquet, one that was seeping into his clothes with every moment that had passed since he’d been forced to take refuge in here. And that was a lot of moments.

He closed his eyes for a long moment and successfully resisted the temptation to shout at himself. He’d been stupid. He’d been hasty, he’d been arrogant and he’d been stupid. Years of work, years of patience, years of careful manoeuvring, all ruined. Because he’d seen one of the pieces of the game move in a way that he hadn’t foreseen, or at least had moved before he had anticipated.

He’d always hoped that one day he might be able to manipulate dear sweet deluded Lysa in such a way that he could rise to power somewhere. There were so many intriguing possibilities, but Jon Arryn was an old man and his son was young and sickly – and the heir to the Vale. Possession of Robert Arryn was important.

So he’d gambled, in a hurry and without a decent plan. And he’d lost. Fortunately he’d had warning of the moment that he had lost, thanks to a hurried message from a Goldcloak with a gambling problem who had apparently heard the news that the Hand of the King had issued a warrant for his arrest not long after the fact.

Fortunately when he received the message he had not been in the Red Keep, but instead visiting one of the many brothels that he owned in King’s Landing and he’d been able to slip out of a side door down an alleyway and into this warehouse, that he also owned. Where he was now waiting for nightfall.

He looked at the upper storey for a moment and sighed. He’d been able to leave a sign for one of his emergency plans to be activated. It wasn’t a brilliant plan, it was dangerous, but at least it was better than sitting in a black cell awaiting a trial. He looked at the cloak and cowl, both made of rough and scratchy material that would be his disguise on the way to the meeting place. They’d better all be there. He had paid them well beforehand, with the promise of another payment once they got to the ship. And after that he would be well on his way to Braavos and the money that he’d been saving there for years. Well, diverting and then saving there.

Bells tolled in the distance and he looked up. Ah. Almost sundown. Well, at least the waiting was almost over. He ran a hand over his smooth face. Parting with his facial hair had been a wrench, but also a necessity. People on the streets would be looking for him. Risking discovery just because of his vanity was nonsensical.

As darkness finally started to fall he put on the cloak, draped the cowl around his face and then went out into the street. He faked a slight hitch in his gait, not enough to make people take notice of him, but just enough to make them think that here was an old man going home.

The streets were alive with people even as darkness fell – King’s Landing seldom slept – but he stayed away from the lamps and the largest concentrations of people. Better to be careful. But soon he was away from the busiest areas and in the more quiet streets. Of course there was danger here as well – a man on his own could easily fall victim to a footpad or three, and he clutched at the dagger up his sleeve every time someone walked past him.

But nothing happened and he passed on down the quiet streets until he reached an archway. Through he went, down a short dark alleyway and then he was in front of the gate. He looked to either side carefully and then pulled out his key and unlocked it. Once through he made for the lit courtyard beyond.

He could see a dark shape at a window above, with a crossbow on the window ledge. That was good. The four idiots sitting around a table in the courtyard with flagons of wine in front of them was bad. He huffed in fury as he pulled the cowl down and then shrugged off the cloak. “I thought that you’d be ready by now – we have to go.”

No response and he felt his hackles rise. Ah. By now news must have spread about the bounty on his head. He wondered what it was. Arryn must have promised quite a lot to whoever brought him in. Well, he had expected that. “Remember our bargain – and that I can pay you again in Braavos.”

More silence and he paused and then peered at the figures. They were all very still. Perhaps too still. Slowly he walked up to them – and then reeled back once he smelt the blood and the evidence that at least one of them had voided himself after dying. Dead. They were all dead.

Someone behind him took a step forwards, boots scuffing on stone, and he turned in a flash. A lean man with dark hair and stubble, dressed in dark leather armour was standing there, cleaning his sword on a piece of rag. He smiled cheerily at Petyr after a moment and then pointed at the dead men at the table with the hand holding the rag. “I don’t know exactly where you go them, but they were rubbish. Pay them much did you?”

Petyr narrowed his eyes. This man was new to him. “You killed them all?” Hopefully the man at the window would get this rogue with the crossbow. Why hadn’t he before though?

“Oh yes,” the man said with that same cheery smile. “Oh, if you’re wondering about your man up there with that crossbow, he’s dead too. First one I killed. Now he wasn’t bad – I think he spotted me and almost got a warning out. Not that it did much. You must be Petyr Baelish by the way. Lost the fuzz I see. Shame about the grey streaks in the hair. And everything else about you.”

The dagger was still up one sleeve and all he needed to do was get close. But perhaps there were other ways.

“You found me out. Clever of you.”

The man shrugged. “Nah, easy really. I know a lot of people here. More than a few thieves too. People like that tend to know where’s safe to steal from and where’s not. This is one of the places that has a warning outside. In thiefspeak of course. A lord like you wouldn’t be able to see it by the way. So I wondered who owned this place. Turned out it was you.”

Petyr’s tongue moistened suddenly very dry lips. “Very resourceful of you then. Tell me, what’s your name? I always need good men.”

“Bronn.”

Petyr sketched a salute. “Pleased to meet you friend Bronn. I see no House colours on you, so you cannot be from the Tower of the Hand.”

“Oh I’m not.” Bronn smiled that cheery smile again. “I’m just a sellsword. But Lord Arryn sent me after you. He seems a bit annoyed with you.”

Oh. Aha. A sellsword. He could work with this. “Whatever Jon Arryn is paying you, I’ll double it.”

The cheery smile again, but with something else behind the eyes. “Oh, he said that you’d say that. It was good of him to warn me. Very generous man Lord Arryn.”

This was not going as he had hoped. “Then I’ll triple it. As I said – I always need good men.”

Bronn pursed his lips slightly and then wiped his sword again. “I’m guessing you have a plan. Wait – let me guess. Get to the docks, get to a ship, get to Essos and then access money that you’ve been squirrelling away for an emergency?”

Petyr smiled a little. “An excellent guess.”

“Not a bad plan,” Bronn said as he stuffed the rag into a pouch and then looked at him. “Just a few problems with it.”

“Problems?”

“Well, firstly the Hand of the King said that you’d try and bribe me, or rather better his own offer. Nothing wrong with that, I’m a sellsword. But he also pointed out a few facts. First that every gate is watched, as is every wharf. Getting you away wouldn’t be as easy as you might think. I’m just the one man – I can’t fight my way through a gauntlet and protect you at the same time. Then there’s the fact that you’re offering money that you can only get in Essos. You can’t it here, not with everything you own being ransacked. And it is, right now. Lord Arryn’s got some mousy little fellow going through your books. And the secret books you had.”

Shock roiled through him. No. No, they were too well-hidden.

“I’ve known a lot of clever men. Odd how they always hide things in places that they think are hard to find – but aren’t.” Bronn looked at him with a wry smile. “There was a lot there. Every property, every bribe, every transaction. You’re a ruined man Lord Baelish. Lord Arryn can afford my fee and then pay me again several times over by the morning. You, on the other hand, are a bad investment.”

This was slipping away from him, too fast for comfort. “Do you have any idea what I could pay you in Braavos?”

Bronn pulled a thoughtful face and for a moment Petyr felt his heart rise in exultation. But then the sellsword shook his head. “No, I don’t. But then I’ll guess that you don’t either. The ravens are flying Lord Baelish. Lots of information in those books. Plus Lord, erm. What was his name, oh yes, Lord Varys turned up and said that he had details of your account in Braavos. Lord Arryn was very pleased with him.”

Horror stole over him. No. No, this was disaster. He had to get away. The dagger. He needed to get rid of this smirking man and get away from here. His hand flashed into his sleeve for the pommel of his knife, but as he reached for it he could see Bronn darting to one side. As the dagger emerged he saw movement to his right and he looked up just in time to see a fist crash into his temple and-

Everything went black.

 


 

Tywin

He went through the books quickly but carefully. There was a lot of information to take in and as always a lot of instructions to send out. He liked this time of the day. Just him and the books, with a pile of outgoing messages quickly piling up to one side. People to be paid. People who owed him money. People who needed to be encouraged to repay their debts. And others who needed an… abject reminder perhaps, if they were not already aware that it was dangerous to cross him, of what happened to people who got on his bad side.

Besides, it helped to take his mind off the nagging feeling that was still weighing him down. That pull North. That feeling that he needed to be elsewhere in Casterly Rock. That irrational, illogical, maddening pull.

It had to be ignored. That way madness lay.

He worked on, looking at the books, the accounts, the details that were so vital to the proper administration of the Westerlands. And then, finally he was finished. He locked the books away, picked up the messages that needed to be sent, deposited them in a box to one side for the Maester and then strode out. He needed a light lunch.

Instead he found his brother waiting for him outside. Kevan looked… disturbed. “Tywin-”

“Not now.”

“Yes, now. I must speak with you.”

“And I need to eat. So if you must speak then speak and walk.”

His brother rolled his eyes a little and then followed him. “We must speak about what is going on.”

“Mmm? And what is going on?”

Kevan scowled at him. “Why do you continue to ignore what has happened? Tywin, the ravens from Oldtown are clear. The glass candles can be relit. Magic has returned, Tywin, magic.”

He felt a muscle flutter in his cheek and he sternly willed his face to obey his instructions. “That has yet to be proved.”

“Yet to be… Tywin! My brother, why do you continue to deny this?”

“Because it has yet to be proved!” He snarled the words furiously before catching himself and taking a deep breath as they passed down a long corridor.

“The glass candles can be relit. And then there was that voice. That voice Tywin – do not deny that you did not hear it. The Others return – Stark needs our help.”

He stopped for an instant and then waved a finger under Kevan’s nose. “A mummer’s trick! Or something contrived by a Faceless Man from Essos, to panic us into… something that I cannot see.”

Kevan stared at him, with wide eyes. “Tywin… why can you not see clearly on this matter?”

Tywin worked his jaw for a moment and then resumed his walk towards lunch. “Because I remember Aerys and his madness. He mentioned dragons a great deal. There were times towards the end of my Handship when I wondered if the tragedy of Summerhall would be repeated under my nose. Talk of dragons, talk of magic.”

He waved a finger in the air. “Magic… is inconstant, from the tales. Unpredictable, despite what some people might claim. And it breeds madness. Summerhall again. How many dead, because of that? As magic dwindled so did the dragons of King’s Landing. Perhaps it was right that it did so. It left the Targaryens reliant on steel and blood and good counsel. When that good counsel was insufficient, when the steel broke, when the blood failed… well, that saw the end of the Targaryens.

“If magic has returned, then the rules of the Game of Thrones have changed, brother. Changed to a different level. A more unpredictable level. A return of dragons… would destabilise things a great deal. Obviously.”

They had reached the room where he had arranged to have lunch and he poured some wine and then nibbled on a piece of fresh bread. Kevan sat to one side and peered at him as if he was trying to discern him properly. “You are worried about dragons?” His brother said eventually.

“No, I am worried about fools who think that they can wake dragons, or rather their eggs. Once word gets out that magic has – apparently – returned, every idiot in the Seven Kingdoms will be dreaming up fanciful and dangerous schemes. Did you ever hear the tale of how Varys became a eunuch? You shouldn’t hear it when you have a full stomach, you’ll vomit every mouthful out. I have a very good source on that matter. No, if magic has returned we’ll get every kind of insanity.”

Kevan nodded slowly. “And dragons can be dealt with,” he muttered. “And Stark’s obsession in the North?”

Tywin felt an odd cross between a sneer and frown cross his face. It unsettled him. “I know not. I want to proclaim it madness, as the Others are no more than a myth, but I still cannot explain it. Perhaps Tyrion will find out something at Winterfell. If he can keep his nose out of a bottle, a book or a brothel that is.”

His brother winced. “You do him a disservice. He is your son and dwarf though he be, there is a fine head on his shoulders. He has an excellent mind, Tywin.”

Tywin paused to glower at Kevan. “He cavorts with whores, he drinks too much and above all he is a dwarf.”

“He is also your heir. Well, once you officially announce it.”

Tywin shook his head. “Jaime will be my heir. Once I get him out of that damn white cape that is. Tyrion? Never.”

Kevan sighed and then looked about for some food of his own. “Very well. And now a different issue. Perhaps two. The Voice? Can you explain that? Truly?”

“A mummer’s trick!” Tywin said in a voice that was part snarl and part sigh. “As I said.”

“I heard it. As did you. In different parts of Casterly Rock, Tywin. T’was no trick. Something has changed. Something has called us. The blood of the First Men is within us brother. It may be diluted by Andal blood, but it is still there and it cannot be denied.”

He ate slowly, the taste of the food and the wine almost dead in his mouth. “If so,” he said eventually, “It was a call from the dead to those who no longer care. The Others are a myth so therefore Ned Stark needs no help from us. Will get no help from us.”

This got his brother peering at him again, as something flickered in his eyes. “The North and the Westerlands used to be very close Tywin. What if this call is for the repayment of a debt?”

He stopped eating for a moment as his brain processed this. It was a good point. Then he shrugged. “All debts we owe the North have long since been paid. Now – your other point?”

“I want to reopen the North Passage. I… feel a need to go there.”

He regarded his brother with a steely glare. “No.” He grated the word out with great finality.

“Tywin-”

“I said no! We are to pay no mind to the fripperies and the fancies that our father held so dear.”

Kevan leant forwards. “Tywin, there must have been a reason why he liked that passage so much. And that room. The runes there-”

“Are meaningless! And besides, our father was a weak-minded fool! Now that is my final answer! Get out!”

His brother sighed again, directed a glare of his own at Tywin, but then obeyed his order. As he left Tywin gazed Northwards in the general direction of that damn passage. Then he set his jaw and looked away. No. It would not do. Besides – anything that fascinated his father had to be pure idiocy.

 


 

Daenerys

She stood on the balcony on the terrace and stared out at the sea. She was looking North, she could tell that. How exactly she knew that however was a different story and a harder one to explain. She felt this... pull. Which confused her. She’d never felt it before.

Viserys, she knew, felt it as well but he had his own theory about it. It was the pull of destiny, he said, the pull home to King’s Landing. Home. She often wondered where that was exactly. She had no memories of Dragonstone, where she had been born, and all she knew of King’s Landings were tales and drawings. Those were supposed to be the places where the Targaryens were supposed to be based, were supposed to call home.

She didn’t really know where home was. Or what home was like, other than the house with the red door in Braavos, from many years ago. She and her brother had gone from city to city, all over Essos it seemed, with their tiny retinue. Mother had died giving birth to her, Ser Willem, old dear kind Ser Willem, was dead. There was little gold and it seemed little support for her brother’s claim to the Iron Throne.

She worried about him. Viserys was a proud man but also increasingly bitter. He had great dreams, but lacked the means to do anything. She’d heard the reports of what the littlefolk called him. The Beggar King. She often wondered if he knew. She daren’t tell him. She was too afraid of angering him.

But now things were a little different. Here they were in Pentos, in a great manse that overlooked the sea, under the protection of Magister Illyrio Mopatis, a powerful and very rich merchant. And also a very fat man. He hadn’t always been so, because there was a statue of him in armour on the grounds, where he looked, well, almost handsome. Such days were long since passed.

Dany still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Illyrio Mopatis. Yes he was very generous and had taken them in and promised them his full support. But why now? Why not earlier? Had it been because Viserys had been so young at the beginning? Boy-kings, she knew, seldom prospered. But why not take them in from the start, until Viserys had grown up? Had it been the danger from the Usurper’s assassins? The manse was guarded by Unsullied, the almost emotionless eunuch-soldiers.

And there was the little matter of the man’s eyes. They seldom showed much emotion, no matter how much he smiled at her. She wasn’t sure how much she trusted him. But Viserys did trust him, so she remained quiet.

She sighed a little and then walked to the little grotto what she had discovered on her third day at the manse. It was quiet there, in that little shaded spot by the trees. Few people went there she knew now, although there was a path that snaked by it, heading down to the sea.

Sitting on the old stone bench she stared North again. She wished she knew why she felt this… pull. It was odd. She also wondered why Mopatis had been so bemused these past few days.

Hearing footsteps and voices she looked around. Someone was on the balcony and the wind was carrying a muttered conversation. Ah. It was the Magister.

“-must be patient,” she heard. “He has been patient all this time, he can be patient a little longer.”

“He will not like it, but I will tell him,” said a resigned and sibilant voice that had a peculiar accent to it. “When should he come?”

There was a brief silence. “In a month’s time,” Mopatis said eventually. “We should have more news by then. Our friend in King’s Landing will have sent more word about what in the name of the Seven Hells is going on. And we will have more news of the Dothraki and their sudden move East. I do not like this… this change. There is something in the wind that makes me uneasy.”

A gurgling laugh. Then the other voice: “Magic has returned, so you should be uneasy. We should all be uneasy. Word has come from Qarth that the House of the Undying… is no longer dying.” A pause. “It is a warm day, but I see you shiver. Are you suddenly cold?”

“You would shiver too, if you had ever seen that accursed place,” Mopatis growled. “Warlocks. Warlocks and mad men. Anyway – tell Connington to wait. Especially as the Company of the Rose are going home to Westeros. There are just enough men there who might recognise his face. They always were obsessed with the home that they exiled themselves from. More madness.”

Another pause, before the other voice spoke again, this time in a lower voice that Dany could barely hear. “And what of the Beggar King and his sister?”

“Not here,” Mopatis replied almost as quietly and then the two moved away, as she could tell by the sound of receding footsteps.

She sat there for a while, puzzling through what she had heard. She did not doubt that she had not been meant to hear it, the mention of the cruel nickname for her brother told her that at least. Connington… that name seemed familiar. And what was the House of the Undying? And what was this talk of magic?

Once she was sure that there was no-one on the balcony she walked up there and then looked at the Manse. Oh. Viserys was pacing about in front of it, deep in thought and with his hands behind his back. She approached him cautiously. “Are you well brother?”

Viserys started slightly and then stared at her. “Dany! There you are. Have you heard?”

This made her cautious. “Heard what?”

And now her brother’s eyes and face came alight with a strange and almost terrible glow. “Why – word has come from the Citadel! Magic has returned, Dany, magic! Do you know what that means?”

Bewildered at his vehemence she shook her head.

“Dragons, Dany, dragons. If magic has returned then so can dragons. And a Targaryen king needs Targaryen dragons. I will instruct Magister Mopatis to bring me the biggest dragon egg that he can find. Because I will be able to hatch it!”

She smiled at him weakly as her brother continued to babble, but all of a sudden she was deathly afraid of him. And she did not know why.

 


 

Tyrion

The Twins was… well, it wasn’t Casterly Rock. It was impressive in its own way, but the home of the Freys, vast family that they were, was basically not a patch on Harrenhall or Casterly Rock.

That said, as the only crossing point over the Green Fork for hundreds of miles it had a number of points top recommend it. Anyone trying to besiege it would be in trouble right from the start – you’d need to assault both ends at the same time to make an impact, plus you’d need to make river traffic untenable.

Tyrion peered at the place as his party approached the South end of the Twins. Oh, he could see why some regarded it as one of the strongest fortresses in Westeros. But then he could also see the weak points. Break the bridge connecting the Twins and you’d halve the job of taking it. Siege engines would work, from the right place. Plus there was a forest to the North. Lots of huge trees there. A few axes, get the trunks to the water - childs play.

He frowned to himself a little. Where had that come from? His thoughts had been decidedly martial of late. Perhaps it had been all the reading that he had done about the North. The links between Casterly Rock and Winterfell had once been far better than they were now. Well, Father had always been too busy rebuilding the respect owed to the Lannister name to really spend the time needed to butter up the other Lords Paramount. His comments about Mace Tyrell could best be described as derogatory and at worst woundingly accurate.

A small party of horsemen were waiting at the gateway and he lifted a hand in greeting at their leader, a youngish man with brown hair and a certain look about him that proclaimed him to be a Frey.

“I bid you welcome to the Twins. You are Tyrion Lannister?”

“I see that word of my approach has spread. Yes, I am Tyrion Lannister. My men and I are on our way to Winterfell, post-haste. I must therefore use your splendid bridge, with your permission, Ser…?”

“Ser Tytos Frey, at your service. Passage is not a problem, not for the son of Lord Lannister. However, my grandfather, Lord Frey, has expressed a desire to talk to you.”

Tyrion swapped a look with Emmon, the man that Captain Harklin had chosen to get him to Winterfell. And a damned good man he was too, one able to think on his feet and organise things in a trice. Emmon raised his eyebrows at him and he shook his head. “Get the men fed and watered. The day is only half done and we have a long way to go. I will talk to Lord Frey.” Then he turned to Ser Tytos – such an ironic name – and smiled. “Lead on Ser.”

The great hall at the Twins was… odd. There was a coldness to it that was not of temperature but rather of the soul. The main source of that coldness seemed to be Lord Walder Frey, an ancient man who sat on his great black chair, with his carved representation of the Twins on it, and stared at him over the table. There was the remains of lunch strewed about the table, and Lord Frey was busy slurping wine from a goblet.

The overall atmosphere was one of fear, namely fear of Lord Frey. Who had eyes that glittered with malice the moment that he caught sight of Tyrion. Malice and something else. Greed. So this was the infamous ‘late’ Lord Frey.

“So you’re the dwarf,” Lord Frey barked slightly wetly from his cup, before placing the goblet down and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. To one side a women looked at him timidly. She had long brown hair and a look of abject docility. “Lannister’s son. I thought that you were shorter.”

“Lord Frey,” Tyrion replied grandly. “Yes, I am indeed Tyrion Lannister, the son of Lord Lannister, the Lord Paramount of the Westerlands and the Warden of the West.”

Those greedy eyes stared at him. “Big titles,” he muttered. “Your father wasn’t a bad Hand. What did he do to get a son like you though?”

“Speaking for myself, he must have an uncommon amount of luck to get a son as intelligent as me. May I ask why you wanted to see me Lord Frey? Other than to exchange veiled insults that is?”

“Curb your tongue dwarf,” growled a man with a black beard to one side. “Show some respect.”

Walder Frey leant back in his chair and beamed at Tyrion. “My bastard son, Black Walder. He has a temper, little Lannister.”

Tyrion eyed the man scornfully. He seemed to be angry, foolish and prideful. What a combination. “I’m sure he does. Now – what do you wish to talk about my lord?”

“You seek passage over the river to get to Winterfell. Why?”

Tyrion looked at the men through slightly narrowed eyes. Something was going here, there was a current of something else at work. “House Stark seeks information about the Others. About… the past. House Lannister wishes to help. So my father has sent me, with many books and information. We are travelling fast. Is that what you require in terms of information?”

Lord Frey leant forwards again. “No. I like it not when ravens fly for no reason. Something is going on and I do not know what. The Brackens and the Blackwoods have stopped their great feud and sworn a great oath to protect the land against the Others. Which are a myth! There are reports that some great force of men have forded the Green Fork downstream. Which should be impossible. And now you arrive. Many mysteries Lannister. Many mysteries.”

He absorbed the information with a frown. “Blackwoods and Brackens united against a legend? Lord Frey, this is passing odd. I have been at sea these many days. I know little about what has happened of late. However, I can say this much – I am simply on my way to Winterfell with books about legends. No more and no less.”

The glittering eyes assessed him and as before found him wanting. “The smallfolk are abuzz,” Lord Frey grumbled. “Especially those with the blood of the First Men. A lot of idiots are babbling nonsense about the Stark in Winterfell. Brackens and Blackwoods making a pact? Absurd! And now you come. A Lannister. A tiny stunted thing, but still a Lannister. And now the Maesters say that the glass candles can be relit and that magic has returned. Superstitious balderdash.”

Excitement stirred in his mind as he thought about the implications. Magic? This was fascinating. What else had he missed during his travels? What else had happened?

Grumbling from the chair diverted his attention and then he realised that Lord Frey was looking at him. “I see plots, little Lannister. Plots and alarums. All around me. And I do not like it.”

“And yet,” Tyrion said as he clasped his hands behind his back and then sent a glare back at the revolting old man, “All I seek is passage to Winterfell. On a mission from my father. Lord Tywin Lannister.” He thought about adding the words “Who has a very long arm at times” but then decided not to deploy such a phrase.

Lord Frey glared at him again with hooded eyes, thought for a long, long, moment and then shrugged a little as he picked up his wine again and slurped noisily from the goblet. “Send word once you find out what’s going on. Are you married?”

Tyrion blinked at the sudden change of topic and then suppressed his bewilderment. “No, I am not married. Why do you wish to know?”

The Lord of the Twins gestured at the women at the table to his left. “I’ve got a lot of daughters. Always trying to get rid of them by marrying them off. Want to take a look and find yourself a Frey for a wife?”

The various women stirred briefly as a mixture of emotions ran visibly through them, only to meet Lord Frey’s glare and then go silent and still.

Tyrion resisted the temptation to grab a goblet and then drink a lot. “Sadly, and with all due respects to the lovely ladies of your house, I have to leave at once for Winterfell. And I must add that not to consult my father as to my choice of wife would be… unfortunate.” Tysha’s face came to mind for a moment and he suppressed it. However, something of that suppression must have shown in his face for a moment, because Lord Frey paled a little.

“Very well,” the old man grumbled. “Go, dwarf Lannister. Go on your trip to chase myths and legends in Winterfell.”

Tyrion bowed with just enough respect he felt the horrible creature in the chair deserved and then strode out in as fast but dignified a pace as he could manage. This was a place to avoid in the future.

Chapter Text

Theon

His dreams had been unsettled these past days and sleep often did not come easily. When he did sleep he often woke with a start, breathing hard and feeling oppressed and frightened, as if he was in danger. But he couldn’t remember his dreams, other than a general feeling that he was drowning, being pulled downwards by some savage weight.

He blinked at the book in front of him. There was another weight on him. He had been doing a lot more studying about the Iron Islands and he had come to a sudden and terrible conclusion: his father was an idiot.

He didn’t like that conclusion, in fact he hated it. He was Ironborn, a follower of the Drowned God, the only remaining son of Balon Greyjoy. But he had to admit that the Greyjoy Rebellion had been a total disaster from beginning to end. The timing had been more than poor, it had been stupid, it had united the rest of Westeros (except for Dorne) against the Ironborn and it had given King Robert a moment of glory.

All it had gotten the Ironborn had been death and destruction. If his father had wanted an independent Iron Islands again, why not convince old Quellon Greyjoy to declare independence during Robert’s Rebellion? It was senseless.

Theon closed the book slowly and then looked at the window. Something was happening. Lord Stark had been closeted in his solar for more than two days now, apparently talking to someone from the North. Who exactly that person was, well it was a mystery. Lord Umber was rattling around Winterfell being irritated, Robb was in the middle of his own studies and Snow… well, he’d found him in the catacombs the other day, in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark. He’d been crying.

Normally Theon would have smirked and done his best to say something rude about that sight. But he hadn’t had the heart to do so for some reason. Why? What was wrong with him of late? What was this feeling of pressure, of being pushed and then almost torn in two.

He yawned raggedly. He needed sleep. A lot of sleep. But first some food.

It was a quiet meal. Lady Stark sat next to Robb, due to Lord Stark still being locked in his solar, with Lord Umber next to Robb. He liked the GreatJon, whose booming laugh and quiet wisdom enlivened any room. To one side Bran and young Robert Arryn were busy asking Domeric Bolton a lot of questions (again) about being a knight, whilst Sansa watched them all with a smile. On the other side Arya was busy making faces at Rickon whenever Lady Stark wasn’t looking, making the little boy giggle until he got the hiccups. And then there was Jory Cassel on one of the other tables, making hesitant small talk with the Arryn boy’s nurse. Something was going on there.

After Theon thought about sneaking out and seeing a whore, but he was too tired. His mind was singing with tiredness by now and he waved goodbye to Robb and went to his room, where he undressed and then virtually fell into bed, remembering at the last moment to pull the sheets over him. And then he slept.

It was the smell that bothered him enough to crack an eye open. It was a smell of death, of putrefaction. It was a familiar smell and – he came bolt upright. He was sprawled in the broken remains of the boat from the dream that had left him with that odd wound. The ship had been run ashore – he could hear breakers to either side of him – and the oars were shattered and broken. Where were the rowers? He peered around and then almost voided his stomach. They were scraps of broken bones wrapped in tattered rags, strewn about the place.

The only thing that was intact was the mast and he looked at it fearfully before he climbed shakily to his feet and looked about. He was dressed in shabby, rusty armour, with an empty scabbard hanging to one side from a worn strap that attached it to his belt. Where was he?

And then he saw the shore. It was not sand, it was not rock, it was not earth. It was made from bones. Shattered bones. As far as the eye could see. He looked up. There was no sun, or if there was a sun it was hidden in the twilight all around. Tendrils of fog roiled about, making it hard to see what was there.

Suddenly a hand landed on his shoulder and he was violently thrown onto the shore. He landed in a spray of bone fragments that went everywhere and he cried out in revulsion, before somehow finding his feet shakily and looking about. When he saw the other figure he recoiled. It was Rodrik.

If his brother had looked bad before, he looked far, far, worse now. The black robes were grey and tattered, his skin was black and peeling enough that in places he could see white bone. One arm was a broken stump that ended at the elbow and there seemed to be something wrong with his neck, from the way that he peered at him.

“There… you are… little brother…” Rodrik’s voice was a tired wheeze, as if he was about to collapse. “Finding… you again… was… difficult. As you… can see.”

Theon stared at him in horror. “What are you? What are you really?”

A noise that might have been a lugh came in answer to his question. “Why, your… brother. And… a servant of… the Drowned God. What is.. dead can never… die.”

“Why have you brought me here?” Theon found himself shouting the words. He was angry and afraid and… he stopped breathing for a moment. The shore was familiar. “I told you that I did not want to come here! That I chose the other shore!”

Something that might have been disgust crossed the features that putrefaction had left of Rodrik’s face. “Your choice? It means… NOTHING boy! You are… Ironborn! A Greyjoy! You... must be brought back. It is… your destiny… There is… a fate… that awaits you… The… Drowned God… must have his due… So I… brought you here. Despite the… cost.”

Theon looked around them wildly. “Maron. Where is Maron?”

“Bone and… ash. Cost. As I… said.” The thing that had once been his brother pointed to a spot behind Theon. “Come. We have… someone to meet.”

Theon looked behind him and then felt the blood drain from his face as the fog blew aside just long enough to reveal a distant throne on what looked a mound of white rocks. Wait, no. They were not rocks. They were skulls. And on the throne there was a slumped figure. Who was slowly looking in his direction.

Terror stabbed into his heart and he looked back. “No. I will not.”

The rotted face leant forwards. “You are a… Greyjoy, boy! You serve… the Drowned God.”

A hundred, no a thousand thoughts went through his mind as he stared back at his dead brother. And then he heard the sound of someone far behind him walking on the shore of shattered bones. Walking slowly. Walking towards him.

Theon closed his eyes for a long moment. And then opened them again. And as he did he felt something in his hand. He did not look at it, he had no idea where it had come from, but suddenly he knew instinctively what it was. “No,” he said quietly, “I do not.”

Rodrik’s face twisted into a snarl as his remaining hand came around to slash at him, but before it could start its downwards leap Theon thrust the Weirwood stake that had somehow appeared in his hand into his brother’s chest. Black ichor burst from the wound and a foul stench filled the air, but Theon ignored it all and just pushed that stake all the way into the spot where Rodrik’s heart should have been.

The thing that had been his brother jerked and screamed – and then collapsed, as if all the tendons had been cut and as the body hit the ground it broke apart into a black smear of foul liquid and stained bones. Theon stared down, panting – and then he heard a scream of rage and the slow steps behind him speeded up.

I can’t look at it, I don’t want to look at it, he thought as he bunched his muscles and then ran for the beached boat. The mast. He had to get to the mast. It was important.

Rodrik had thrown him further than he had thought, as his feet slipped and slithered through the bones and the skulls underfoot. He fell not once but twice and he sobbed with terror as he heard the thing behind him start to catch up. And then he was at the boat, leaping over the sides and then hurling himself at the mast.

“Old Gods,” he shouted as he touched it. “Hear me! I choose you! I deny the Drowned God! Hearken to me!”

The mast shuddered as the face of the Heart Tree that he had seen before reappear. Are you sure Theon Greyjoy? This cannot be undone.

The boat rocked as something pulled at it, something with a hideous strength. The air was foul with a stink that he had never even dreamed could ever exist – and something was close enough that he could feel its fetid breath on the back of his neck. He knew that he should not look at it, not if he wanted to retain his sanity.

“I am sure! I choose the way of the Starks! I would lead my people away from death! I choose you! The Old Gods!

Light exploded from the mast, no – from the tree that was suddenly there. Light that drove out all the shadows, light that drove away the gibbering screams that he heard diminishing behind him.

Theon came awake with a scream – and when he ran his hands over his face the scab from the previous odd wound was gone. And around his neck there was a leather throng that had not been there before, with something metal. He peered at it as he panted. An image of a Heart Tree.

 


 

Robb

When the word finally came as they broke their fast that Father was out of his solar and wanted to speak to him, as well as the GreatJon, Domeric and Jon, Robb let out a sigh of relief. He had no idea what had been taking his father so long to plan. According to Mother and Luwin, Father was consulting with an important visitor from the North, or so Father had told them – without divulging a name.

And so he led the little party down the corridor, before pausing. Theon had appeared and was running towards him, looking as if he had either dressed in the dark or in a tearing hurry.

“Robb! I need to talk to your father at once,” Greyjoy panted. There was something different about him. He looked shaken and – wait.

“Your face – that mark from that dream has gone!”

“Aye,” Theon said in as serious a voice as he had ever heard from him. “T’was another dream about the Old Gods. And your father told me to tell him the moment that I had another one.”

“You’re in luck then lad,” GreatJon boomed, “Ned’s finally out of his solar and whatever the hell’s he’s been doing in there. Sent word for us to join him. You’d best come with us.”

“What’s that?” Jon pointed to a leather strap that could be just seen around Theon’s neck, part-hidden by the rumpled shirt he was wearing.

Theon paled a little. “I think that it was a gift from… from the Old Gods.”

Everyone stopped walking for a moment and then stared at Theon Greyjoy.

“The Old Gods?” The GreatJon asked in astonishment. “I thought that you Ironborn followed the Drowned God?”

Theon looked at the tall lord. “This Ironborn is a follower of the Old Gods now,” he said in a low voice. “I deny the Drowned God. His way is a way of death. Death and madness.”

They resumed their walk, only this time in silence and as they walked Robb thought about the change that had come over Theon since he had returned from death. Things were now very different. Was that difference for good or evil – his money was now on good. But the more things changed the less he recognised from the previous time he had lived these days.

One thing was for sure though – he was feeling a pull to the woods again. Stronger than he had felt it before. Something was there and in the next day or so he needed to go there. Go there urgently.

They reached the door to the solar and Robb knocked politely. When he heard the muttered “Come!” he opened the door.

Father was inside, seated at his desk, which was now piled even higher with papers and books. The great map to one side had been moved and was hanging in a different place – and there was something about it that caught his attention. There were marks on it, on places North of the Wall. Wait, in places that he had never seen before?

“Theon, your pardon but I did not summon you,” Father said, puzzledly.

“No, Lord Stark, you did not – but you did say that if I ever dreamt about the Old Gods again I was to come to you at once. Well – I have. Last night. I dreamt… that I was back on the same boat as before, but that it was wrecked upon an island – the island that I was trying to get my brothers to steer away from in the last dream. Lord Stark, it…” His face shuddered in horror. “It was a place built of bones. A place built of death.

“Rodrik was there again, but he was… changed. Rotted further. In tattered clothes. He said that I had been brought back, despite the cost – and then he tried to take me to see that figure on the throne that I told you about. I think it was the Drowned God. It smelt of… death. I fought my way out of it – I stabbed my brother with a piece of wood – Weirwood I think, although I don’t know where it came from – and then I ran to the boat, and to that mast.”

His face was haggard at the memory. “Something was following me, Lord Stark – the thing from the throne. I knew that if I looked at it, it would drive me mad. I knew it, Lord Stark. So… so I called to the Old Gods. And… I said that I chose them. I rejected the Drowned God.”

Tears were rolling down Theon’s face now and Robb reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, in an effort to comfort him. “You did the right thing,” Robb muttered quietly. “The right thing.”

And then Theon reached to his neck and pulled out a leather throng, with a silver disc attached to it. There was a Heart Tree engraved on it. “I woke up with this, Lord Stark.”

Father stood and peered at it, his face set in lines of shock. Then those lines relaxed a little. “You have been favoured by the Old Gods, Theon. Favoured indeed. Very well – you must stay here and listen. Afterwards you must go to the Godswood with Robb. Robb – you must tell him where you have come back from.”

“Father?” He said the word in shock.

“Theon is not what he was. You must tell him.” Father nodded once and then returned to his desk. “Now – I must introduce someone. A man from further North than we are familiar with.”

Footsteps scuffed in the corridor and then a man with greying hair and dark garments walked in. He looked at them all carefully and then nodded formally before closing the door behind him and then stalking over to a chair and sitting with a sigh.

Father then glared at them all, which was surprising. “This man, by the way, is here under my protection. And his name is Mance Rayder.”

There was a stunned pause – and then just as GreatJon Umber started to gather his legs under him and fumble at the dagger at his belt, Lord Eddard Stark stood abruptly. “Sit DOWN GreatJon! He’s here under guests rights – under my protection! You cannot harm a hair on his head!”

The room rang from the sound of Father’s shout, and GreatJon Umber, Lord of the Last Hearth and the bravest man Robb had ever met, actually quailed at the sound of Lord Stark’s anger. After a moment he tried to find his voice. “But-”

“Guests rights, GreatJon. You don’t harm a hair on his head.” Father glared at them all, before sitting with a sigh of his own and then passing a hand over his weary face. “And besides – he needs our help. His people need our help. Take a look at the map, all of you. Go on – now.”

Frowning, Robb stood up and then walked over to the map, followed by the others. As he approached it his eyes widened. The area North of the Wall had new markings on it, denoting settlements. A lot of markings. And names for entire areas. Thenn was a new one to him. As was Hopemourne.

“Father, what are these places?”

“Wildling settlements.” Father was watching them all carefully. “There are a lot more of them than we all might have thought.”

“How many of the buggers are there?” GreatJon burst out in puzzlement. “I’ve never heard of these places. Well – apart from Hardhome. That’s a place of dark memory according to the Night’s Watch. No-one ever worked out what happened there.”

Father looked at Rayder, who was sipping wine from a goblet and watching them with a wry look on his face. Noticing the sudden attention he placed the goblet on the nearby table and sighed. “I can call on a host of the Free Folk. And when I say ‘host’ I mean at least a hundred thousand people.”

All but Father stared at him as if he was mad and then GreatJon guffawed with laughter. “A hundred thousand people? North of the Wall. Don’t be daft man, that’s far more than live in that icy hell hole. Ned – he’s lying to you!”

But all this got him was a shake of the head. “GreatJon, what do we know of the lands beyond the Wall? Truly know? The Wildlings have been there a long time – since before the Wall was built. And they have long memories and presumably no small amount of skill at surviving in that area. So – no, I don’t think that he’s lying. And take careful note of what he said – that he could call upon a host of that number, not that such a number is the total number of people North of the Wall.”

“Lord Stark is right,” Rayder sighed. “I don’t know what the total number is there. Perhaps twice what I can call upon?”

GreatJon’s amused scorn seemed to be giving way to horror. “By the Gods,” he muttered. “So many…”

“Your pardon Lord Stark,” Domeric Bolton said suddenly, “This place, Hopemourne… why is it the Northernmost location? Is there a reason for that?”

And that seemed to buy him a smile of approval from Father. “A good question Domeric.” The smile fled his face. “That is the fortress of the Others, we think at least. That is where I saw the Night King, in my vision when the Heartstone was returned here by Lord Umber.”

They all stared at that point on the map in some dread. “So that’s where the bastards come from,” GreatJon breathed. “So far North.”

Robb turned and then stared at Rayder who smiled cheerily back at him. “You said you could call upon a host – for what purpose?”

“Is this your son Lord Stark?” Rayder smirked slightly at Father’s nod. “Smart lad. I was going to assemble a host, storm Castle Black, get my people through the wall at the tunnel there, settle the Gift and then knock the heads of the Black Crows together until they realised that the Free Folk would help defend the Wall against the Others.” He then sipped some more wine. “Because the Others are coming. And death marches with them.”

Robb turned to see the blood thunder into the face of GreatJon Umber, before grabbing his arm. “Guests rights GreatJon. Be calm.”

“Besides,” Father sighed. “He’s right. We need to get the Wildlings South of the Wall. It’s imperative.”

The group collectively stared at him.

“Oh, by the Old Gods…” Father stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Think about it for a moment. The Others are coming. The Wildlings know this, the Wildlings have seen them!”

“We have,” Rayder said sombrely. “They strike Southwards with every day that passes, killing the Free Folk and animating their bodies. We are running from them – and we have nowhere else to go but South of the Wall.”

“GreatJon, think about it. Every Wildling that dies to the Others becomes a wight. Every one of them. And if Rayder’s count of the numbers of Wildlings is correct…”

Father’s voice drifted into silence and Robb found himself experiencing the horrible feeling of all the blood apparently draining from his face. “By the Old Gods,” he choked out, “The Others would be able to send scores of thousands of wights South against the Wall, if not hundreds of thousands!”

A deadly silence filled the room for a long moment as each man in there thought about the prospect of such an event. And the face of GreatJon Umber was whiter than parchment as he sank into the nearest chair.

The silence was broken by Father as he stood up, his chair scraping the floor as he pushed it back. “Which is why I have been talking to Rayder. We have been discussing what needs to be done. Winter is indeed coming, a hard and terrible winter – I feel it in my very bones. Perhaps that is why the Others come. A long winter, a long night, a long, terrible, terrible night. We will need every source of strength as we fight that long night. Every sword and every shield.

“The Gift is almost deserted now, for many reasons. I would have it farmed, I would have it settled, I would have it feed the wall. The New Gift too. Winterfell has some measure of control over both and I was considering settling new lords and smallfolk there once the winter was over. But that was before I knew what comes. Before I knew the threat. Well, enough is enough. I will tell the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch that the Stark in Winterfell commands that the Wildlings be allowed South to settle in the abandoned areas of the Gift and New Gift. And I will not take no for an answer.”

There was a silence whilst they all absorbed that, and then a worried GreatJon leant forwards a little. “Ned – many of the other lords of the North won’t like it. Wildlings South of the Wall…”

“Are better than wighted Wildlings North of it, under the control of the Others! There’s a war coming. And they all know that the Others have returned. They have all sent pledges of allegiance and help, they all have the blood of the First Men in them and they all heard the call from the Hearthstone! I will write to them, telling them of my decision. We have a war to fight, a war that our ancestors started and which we very nearly failed to realise was still going on.”

“My father will understand,” Domeric said suddenly. He was still at the map, looking at all the new settlements that it now showed. “Father is… pragmatic.”

Oh, I know he is, Robb thought as he remembered the knife going in and Roose Bolton’s mutter that Jaime Lannister send his regards. But that was then. This is now.

Rayder was looking at Domeric in slight puzzlement, which brought a small guffaw to the lips of GreatJon. “Oh, his father’s a most pragmatic man. This is Domeric Bolton from the Dreadfort. You know, Roose Bolton’s son.”

Father looked over at Rayder, who was looking at Domeric with wide eyes. Oh, he knew of the Boltons alright. Not that Bolton, but he’d heard of the older one. “I am not saying that it will be easy,” Father said softly. “I am not saying that there won’t be a lot of difficulties in places. And I will say that the Wildlings – free folk as they are – will need to swear to stop the raids at once and settle down in the Gift for as long as the coming long winter lasts. No raids, Rayder. No trouble.”

“I cannot promise anything, but I will do my best,” Rayder said with a solemn nod. “The chiefs of the Free Folk know what awaits us if we stay North of the Wall.”

“Can’t you just command them?” Theon asked with a frown. “You are supposed to be the King Beyond The Wall.”

The Wildling who had once been of the Night’s Watch looked Theon up and down. “It’s not that easy lad,” he said eventually. “I am not, ah, a ‘king’ as you might know it. I lead because I am the only one with a plan to save our people from the Others. And once you’ve seen your first White Walker, and felt that chill as they approach, then you’ll understand why they follow me.”

Much to Robb’s surprise Theon did not bristle when he heard the word ‘lad’. Instead he frowned in thought before nodding.

Father looked around the room. “Much still needs to be discussed, so I will not keep you. GreatJon, please stay. We need to discuss matters with Rayder.”

Robb and the others nodded and then walked to the door. Opening it Robb caught Maester Luwin in mid-knock, and the older man jerked back in surprise. “Ah! Your pardon, Robb. Is Lord Stark free?”

“Come in Luwin – what is it?”

Luwin bustled in with what looked like a message. “A raven from Storm’s End, Lord Stark.”

Robb felt his ears prick and he turned back into the room. “From Renly Baratheon?” He asked the question at the same time as his father did.

Luwin’s eyes swivelled slightly and then twinkled a little with amusement, before he sobered. “No, my Lord. From His Grace King Robert.”

Robb looked at Father with a frown. “What’s he doing at Storm’s End?”

Father grasped the message and read it quickly. When he looked up he seemed… nonplussed. And then he looked at it again. “’His Grace King Robert Baratheon, king of the Andals and of the First Men, etc., etc. Ned – I write in haste as I must catch the tide back to King’s Landing. I came here on a whim and I found something long hidden. Stormbreaker has been found again. Ned, a war is coming. I need your counsel – I will write again from King’s Landing. And I am sending my bastard son Edric North to foster with you. Take care of the lad. He is young but I am proud of him. Be well my friend. Robert.’”

He raised both eyebrows. Life was definitely turning from the previous path. And then he wondered how Mother was going to take the arrival of King Robert’s bastard son. Hmmm. This would be something to watch.

 


 

Jon Arryn

Gods, but he felt every one of his years today. He paused for a moment and then looked about the Red Keep. He was starting to realise just how much he hated this place. And yet he had to do his duty. Because there was no-one else available.

Sighing, he strode down the stairs to the cells, doing his best to hide how weary he felt. Oh, he was tired. Lysa had reacted to the news of Baelish’s arrest with first shock and then an almost insane anger that had led to a tearful tirade that he was ruining her life by destroying – and then she’d broken off into incoherent mumbling and screeching and pulling at her hair. He’d had to call Pycelle in, who had promptly dosed her with some concoction that had left her grey-faced and asleep.

At some point he’d have to question her about Robert’s medicine. He wasn’t looking forwards to that. He was starting to suspect that the balance of her mind was gone.

Hearing the sound of low voices ahead he peered down the corridor. Bronn was talking to Quill and as he approached they both turned and bowed to him. He acknowledged their respect and then jerked a head at the cells. “He is secure then?”

Quill looked at Bronn, who nodded curtly. “He is, My Lord Hand. We cleared the others out of the cells around him and we’ve been making sure that the guards don’t go near him too often.”

“Oh? Why so?”

“Lord Baelish has been trying to bribe them with large sums of coin that he doesn’t actually have,” Bronn said dryly. “We’ve had to remind people about that point.”

“He keeps trying though, My Lord,” Quill said in an equally dry tone. “And he’s mentioned that he can call on gold from Pentos.”

“The man’s a thieving magpie,” Jon said with a frown. “I wonder what else he’s got hidden away in places… very well. Quill please go back to the Tower of the Hand and arrange to have a raven sent to Pentos.”

The man nodded tersely and then moved off down the corridor. Jon watched him go and then looked back at Bronn. The sellsword looked as serious as he ever had to his knowledge. “My Lord Hand, I need a word with you.”

“On what matter?”

“Baelish.” The sellsword sighed and then glared at the door to the cells. “When is his trial?”

“A good question,” Jon muttered. “Tomorrow. We have enough evidence to have him executed a dozen times over. The Iron Bank wants him dead as well.”

Bronn stared at him in shock. “He crossed the Iron Bank?”

“He, erm, apparently lied to the Iron Bank. And ‘diverted’ part of one of their loans. Which makes him either more stupid than he appears to be, or more arrogant to think that he could get away with it. That said, he was the Master of Coin and had access to all the records he alter. The real books in his possession were quite specific however, and the Iron Bank’s representative here in King’s Landing was most annoyed. He sent a raven to Braavos and I have little doubt that when a response comes it’ll be to demand Baelish’s head. If, that is, there isn’t another message heading to a Faceless Man somewhere in the area.”

Bronn’s eyes widened and then they hardened. “That should solve a few things then. Lord Arryn, that man’s a weasel. Worse, he’s a weasel with a long memory for grudges. Given that I’m the one who captured him I won’t rest easy until he’s dead, because he’ll want to settle accounts with me some day.”

“What kind of grudges?”

The sellsword sighed a little. “I talk to the smallfolk, my Lord. You’d be surprised what they know at times. People notice things around them – things that lords and ladies might ignore. Did you know that Baelish smirks a little whenever he passes the spot where Brandon Stark died in the throne room? He still remembers the man who wounded him and he still smirks at the thought of the way he died. And Brandon Stark died a horrible death.”

Jon thought of all the tales had heard of that terrible day in the throne room, the day that Ned’s father and brother had both died and in the doing had broken the realm by finally proving that Aerys Targaryen was insane beyond words. “And Baelish smirks, still?”

“When he thinks that people aren’t watching him.” Bronn shook his head. “No, to call him a weasel is to be cruel to weasels. Man’s a devious little shit and frankly my Lord Hand, the world will be a better place once Baelish is removed from it.”

Jon nodded shortly. “Keep a close eye out then Bronn. You will be well-rewarded for it.” He paused. “May I ask what your fondest ambition is in life?”

Bronn tilted his head and looked at him, obviously assessing his answer. “My own land,” he said eventually, his voice wistful. “A small place, perhaps a title, a wife, a son and no more sleeping in shithole taverns and risking my life.” Then he smiled bitterly. “Problem with that of course is that I tend to find trouble around every corner.”

Jon smiled back. “You should try being Hand of the King,” he replied in tones as dry as Dornish stone and then chuckled at Bronn’s exaggerated shudder. “It might be that I can help you with your own plot of land. A city filled with Goldcloaks and my own men all searching for Baelish, yet you were the one to find him in a place that no-one thought to look. And you found his books. Yes, you’ll be well-rewarded.”

Bronn nodded respectfully at him and then when Jon turned to the door he reached out and opened it. “Good luck against that one, my Lord.”

He nodded back and then walked through the door and grasped a torch from the wall next to the entrance. “If I need you I’ll call.”

The other cells were all empty. There had been two people in them, a thief who had thought that the Red Keep offered richer pickings than the city and a madman who claimed that the Seven Hells were about to open and then everyone was about to die, hence his need to get to the Iron Throne and then declaim from it. He’d been grabbed before he’d gotten anywhere near the main gates. Both were now in other cells. Petyr Baelish deserved to be alone. The man was also too damn dangerous to have others near him.

Alone, that is, apart from the smell. It was… a presence all of its own. It spoke of rot, of death and excrement. It was a smell that did not waft, it assaulted the nose.

Baelish heard him coming, because he was on his feet by the time that Jon approached the door to his cell and peered through the barred hatch.

“My Lord Hand! Welcome to my new… abode!” Baelish spread his hands to gesture at the expanse of the cell around him, as if he was welcoming him to some sumptuous new quarters. He looked terrible, dressed in rough clothing and with a bruise to the side of his head, but his eyes were still sharp. “What do I owe the pleasure of your company to?”

He looked the man up and down for a long moment, repressing the need to pull out his sword and then finish the job that Brandon Stark had begun. “Your trial will be tomorrow.”

“On what possible charges? Have I not been a loyal subject of good King Robert?” Baelish sounded wounded and almost exaggeratedly offended.

“You stole the King’s coin, you lied to all and sundry, you bought properties in this city and many others with your ill-gotten gains, and you betrayed me. And that,” Jon said between gritted teeth as he glared through the bars, “Is just the beginning of it! You tried to have my son kidnapped Baelish. I will not forget that easily.”

“You wound me, my Lord.” Baelish said the words so lightly, as if he was indeed innocent. “And the proof for all this?”

Ah. Jon narrowed his eyes and then studied the wretched little man. “We have your books.”

“Obviously planted by my enemies.”

“Written in your hand?”

“My enemies have many resources. Which obviously include forgers.”

“And presumably people who look just like you? We have uncovered your network.”

Ah, there it was. The slight uncertainty in the eyes, the quick lick of the lips. He was uncertain.

“Network?”

“From your books,” Jon said with a smile and with hate in his heart. “You should have chosen a better cypher for them. My man cracked them on the third try. We know exactly what you owned here in Kings Landing. And, of course, elsewhere. You don’t seem to have inspired much loyalty from your people. Once they knew that your supply of money was denied to them, they talked.”

And such people! He finally had what he needed to send Janos bloody Slynt to the Wall on charges of bribery, corruption and a host of other things.

“But these people are nothing more but liars, my Lord Hand! Debasing my good name.”

“Your name,” Jon said with a smile. “What name? That of a thief and a scoundrel. A man who owns whorehouses and who gets his whores from some very interesting places. A man who bribes Goldcloaks to look the other way again and again. Well – no more. Your filthy little network is no more.”

Baelish was staring at him now, staring at him as if he wasn’t sure what he was. Time to push one more knife in. “And we have the man you sent to kidnap my son. Mikon, by name.”

“And why,” Baelish said with a slight start, as if he was forcing himself into action, “Would I do that?”

“I don’t know,” Jon admitted. “Why would you? And why was it that my wife was so agitated when I sent young Robert away to Winterfell, but then calmed down after you talked to her? Did you tell her that you planned to snatch my boy? Did you, you whoreson???”

Baelish looked at him for a long moment and then he actually smirked for an instant. “Can I be faulted for wishing to reunite a devoted mother with her only child?”

Jon narrowed his eyes. “Don’t lie to me Baelish. You sent your man to try and get my son on the day that I sent him North. How did you know?”

This time the smirk was an open and wide one. “Why my Lord Hand, how very naïve of you. This is King’s Landing. Everyone can be bought here – for the right price of course. And you’d be surprised what you could find out. Some of the secrets out there are… deliciously surprising.”

A faint warning bell rang at the back of his mind and he looked at the wretched little man again. “Why did you poison my son?”

Something flickered in the eyes of Baelish. “Poison?”

“The medicine that my son had for his so-called shaking sickness. No medicine at all. A slow poison that made him shake more. Where did Lysa get it from?”

“Why, my Lord Hand, if you do not know then-”

“It was you wasn’t it? I know my wife, I know how she dotes on him, I know how she likes to nurse him. Did you recommend the apothecary? To have a hold on her?”

This time the emotion behind the eyes of the other man was more clear. Surprise. And a little fear. “Lady Arryn wanted me to recommend an apothecary. I did so.”

Jon stared at Baelish, who stared back defiantly. There was something about him, something defiant, something almost jubilant. As if Baelish knew something that he did not. “As I said, your trial will be in the morning,” he said eventually. “So I suggest you try and prepare what little defence you have. Oh – and you are no longer Lord of the smallest of the Fingers. You are attainted. You are a lord no more.”

This widened Baelish’s eyes and he took a step forwards with a hiss of hatred. “You cannot!”

“I can. You forget who you are taking to, Baelish. I am not just Hand of the King, but also Warden of the East and Lord Paramount of the Vale. I do not take kindly to being betrayed by one of my bannermen – even from such a pitifully small holdfast. What kind of message would it send if you still had your title at your trial?”

Baelish’s mouth worked for a moment – and then quick look of cunning came over him. “Such a petty revenge. And I wonder what might slip out of my mouth as a consequence during my trial?”

“Yes, I thought that you might play that card. I would advise against it.”

“Why? What if I mention the King’s Great Matter?”

Shock roiled though him and he stared for a moment at a suddenly openly smirking Baelish. “What do you know about that matter?”

“Ha!” Baelish wagged a finger at him. “Why everything, my Lord Hand. It was so amusing – and pitiful – to see you and Stannis Baratheon trying to make your way through the street of Kings Landing as you visited King Robert’s bastard children. All so black of hair, I note, and blue of eye. How odd that the King’s children look nothing like him. How stupid of you all to not see what I saw the moment I laid eyes on them. They are pure Lannister, every one of them.”

There was a gloating note to his voice and Jon thought very fast and very hard. Very well. Littlefinger knew, damn his heart. That was why he was so cheerful, that was why he looked so undefeated. Very well. Time to strike back.

“You will not mention the King’s Great Matter at your trial,” he said flatly. “Not if you wish to live to attend it.”

Baelish smirked slightly again. “Why my Lord Hand, is that a threat? Against a prisoner of the most noble Lord of the Vale?”

“We have your secret records. We have deciphered everything. You look doubtful – but we have even ascertained how you diverted money from the Iron Bank’s loan to the King into your purse. And we have informed a representative of the Iron Bank who happened to be here in King’s Landing. He was… displeased.”

There was just enough light to see the blood drain from the face of Petyr Baelish. “What?”

Now it was Jon’s turn to smile. “I believe that you heard my words correctly. The Iron Bank is – or soon will be, depending on how fast that raven gets there and back – most displeased with you. Whatever made you think that divert those funds and not be eventually found out? Ah… such arrogance Baelish.”

Baelish lunged suddenly for the bars and gripped them, his knuckles almost as white as his face. “You old fool – don’t you know what you’ve done?!? The Iron Bank doesn’t have people ‘passing through’ somewhere like King’s Landing on a whim! Like as not their man here has a Faceless Man somewhere nearby, or knows where one is!”

Jon smiled a small, chill, smile. “I know.”

There was a long pause as Baelish searched his face with wide and hunted eyes. After a long moment he stepped back from the door, his face ashen and suddenly drawn. “Oh, well played Arryn. Well played. Let me guess, you have me guarded by that bright sellsword of yours? And if I agree not to mention your Lannister problem I might just see another dawn and indeed my trial without dying a horrible death thanks to a Faceless Man?”

“I would take your word for it, but I know that to be worthless. So let me tell you this. I will see you tried fairly. I will even allow a trial by combat at the end of it. But one word, one solitary word about the King’s Great Matter and I will have you gagged by your guard and then left on your own in a cell by the quarters occupied by the Iron Bank’s man.”

Baelish nodded slightly. “You have already decided on my guilt.”

“Your guilt is undeniable,” Jon replied in a voice like stone. “But you will have your trial.”

And then he turned and made his way back out, eventually reaching the door where Bronn still was. The sellsword was sitting by the entrance, a pair of pliers in one hand and what appeared to be some nails in the other. He was twisting one against the other to make –

“Caltrops?”

Bronn looked up with the grim smile. “Oh aye. If I’m to keep yon weasel alive, against a possible Faceless Man, then I’ll need every advantage I can get in guarding him.”

“A good notion.” Jon sighed tiredly. “Keep him alive to see his trial. I would give you his holdfast and title as a reward for it, but the smallest of the Fingers of the Vale is… somewhat barren, apart from a crop of rock.”

“My thanks, my Lord Hand, but ‘tis also somewhat remote,” Bronn grinned as he continued to fashion caltrops. “Although ‘tis tempting.”

“I will see you rewarded, Bronn. Land and title. Just keep, ah, ‘yon weasel’, alive.”

The sellsword nodded sharply. “I shall my Lord Hand.”

Jon nodded at him before striding out. The sun was shining and after the darkness of the Black Cells, the contrast made his head hurt for a long moment. And then he saw Quill hurrying towards him. “Quill – what news?”

“His Grace the King is returning my Lord Hand. And the High Septon wishes to see you as soon as possible, at the Great Sept of Baelor. He says that it is very urgent.”

 


 

Theon

It took him a little time to pluck up the courage to go into the Godswood. He knew that he had to go there, Lord Stark had told him to. But he had a terrible feeling about what Robb was about to tell him. He had no idea why, he just had a feeling that it would be something terrible.

And so eventually he braced himself and strode into the Godswood. He found Robb there, sitting in front of the Heart Tree, staring at it with intent eyes in an expressionless face. He acknowledged Theon’s arrival with a nod.

“Father said that you need to know what else has happened,” Robb said in a voice that was slow and almost hesitant. “I do not know if you will like much of what I have to tell you. ‘Tis a terrible tale.”

He looked at his old friend for a long moment and then winced slightly. “Can it be any worse than dreaming of being chased by the Drowned God, who had been summoned by the rotting corpse of your own brother?”

Robb seemed to think about this for a long moment. “Yes.” He said the word hesitantly but with an underlying firmness. “Theon, what I have to tell you will… well, it will change you.”

He looked at him, confused. “Change me? Change me how?”

Once again Robb paused, seemingly to gather his thoughts. And then his head came up and he placed a hand on the Heart Tree. “I swear by the Old Gods that this tale is a true one, Theon. I swear it.”

Theon knew that this was not something that Robb would do unless he meant it in every way and he nodded slowly in acknowledgement. Unease roiled through him like a sickening wave.

“I… was touched by the Old Gods. They sent me back.”

“Back from where?” Theon asked blankly.

“Back from the moment… the moment of my death. I died Theon. I died.”

Theon stared at Robb. The heir to Winterfell was white-faced and strained, the skin stretched tightly over his features. He meant what he said. But what he had said was madness. “You… died?”

“I died. It was in the Twins, at the hands of Walder Frey and Roose Bolton.” The names were spat out angrily. But surely this was more madness.

“Why?” He croaked the word, unable to say anything else.

Robb closed his eyes for a long moment and then let out a puff of breath. “There was a war,” he said almost gently. “A very terrible war.”

The unease was joined by a terrible coldness in his guts. He had read so much about war of late. “We fought a war? Who attacked?”

“It’s… complicated,” Robb sighed. “A month or so from now we heard – in the old future that is my past – that Jon Arryn was dead. Aunt Lysa blamed the Lannisters, but, well, it was…”

“Complicated, you said that. What happened next?” Theon sat by the Heart Tree, his mind whirling like a sycamore seed in the wind. This was madness. Wasn’t it?

“The king came to Winterfell. With much of the Court, including the Queen and their children.” There was something odd about the way that Robb said that last word, as if something about it soured his mouth and Theon squinted curiously at him.

Robb caught the look. “I’ll explain in a bit. The king wanted Father to be his new hand. At first Father turned him down. But then Bran had an accident – he fell off a tower that broke his back, he could never walk again – and, well, Father changed his mind.”

Something clicked within Theon’s mind. “That’s why Lord Stark forbade Bran from climbing!”

“Yes. He had to. We never found out how Bran fell – he didn’t remember what happened – but it was odd at the time. I think that he saw something that he shouldn’t have. Anyway, Father agreed to become hand, pledged Sansa’s hand in marriage to Prince Joffrey – something that’ll never happen now, thanks the Gods – and then he, Sansa and Arya went South to King’s Landing.” A complicated look of many different emotions crossed his face, from fondness to fury to deep, deep, grief. “And we never saw them again.”

There was something in the way that he said those last words. Something that terrified Theon. “What… what happened?”

“There was an attempt on Bran’s life. Mother went South to warn Father and learnt that Father was investigating the death of John Arryn. We think that Father learnt the truth about the Queen’s children. Namely that they might the Queen’s children, but they’re not the King’s children.”

Theon stared at Robb as if he was raving mad. “The King’s children… aren’t the King’s?”

“No. That’s what Stannis Baratheon claimed.”

“Then who’s the real father?”

Robb’s face twisted a little. “Stannis Baratheon claims that it’s the Kingslayer. It explains why the children look nothing at all like the King, but instead appear to be all Lannister. Explains why Joffrey is the way that he is too. Too much in-breeding.”

This made no sense. “What’s wrong with Prince Joffrey?”

This time Robb’s face twisted into a snarl. “The boy’s mad. Cruel and mad. When the King was mortally wounded in a hunt by a boar Father was made regent, but after the King died the Queen ordered that Father be arrested and all his men killed. Sansa was made a prisoner and Arya… she vanished. We never found out what happened to her. Father apparently had found out the truth and was going to expose Joffrey for what he was – is. They were going to have Father take the Black and go to the Wall. Instead Joffrey had him beheaded in front of the Sept of Baelor.”

This time horror roiled through Theon and he came close to voiding his guts on the grass. Lord Stark? Dead? He couldn’t imagine that happening, not after everything that had happened in Winterfell the past month. Lord Stark dead? “What happened then?”

A bleak smile lit Robb’s face. “I refused to bend the knee to the little shit who killed my father and instead I called the Banners. And we rode South. With you at my side.”

Pride lifted his heart. Yes, that was something that he could see happening. Riding to war at the side of the man he would be proud to call a brother. “To the Twins then?”

“Eventually. It was… chaos. Stannis Baratheon claimed that he was king. So did his younger brother Renly, with the support of The Reach. My bannermen proclaimed me The King in the North. The Lannisters invaded the Riverlands so we went South to support Grandfather and Uncle Edmure. Aunt Lysa did nothing in the Vale. We fought three great battles. We smashed Lannister armies and captured the Kingslayer. And then…” His voice faded away as he screwed his eyes closed.

“And then?” Theon prompted gently. Was that when Robb died, at the Twins?

“And then you betrayed me.”

This time the horror felt like an almost physical blow as it smashed into him. No. No, it couldn’t be true. He didn’t say a word – he couldn’t – but his face worked as he tried to make his mouth work as his limbs shook.

Robb opened his eyes and then looked at him. “I sent you to broker an alliance with your father and attack the Lannisters,” he said almost gently as he caught sight of the expression on Theon’s face. “But something happened at Pyke. You never returned. Instead you joined your father in his mad plan to invade the North. You led a force that captured Winterfell, because no-one could believe that you would ever turn your back on us. But you did. You even captured Bran and Rickon. But when my men counter-attacked you burnt Winterfell and…. Well they say that you murdered them. You murdered a small boy and a boy who couldn’t even walk.”

The shaking feeling swept him up in a storm, horror and shame and shock roaring through him and he finally leant to one side and voided up his guts. Everything came up and even after there was nothing left he still kept heaving and gasping. No. It couldn’t be true. No. He’d never have done something like that. Kill children? Burn the place that had become his home? No. Never.

When he finally regained control of himself he wiped his mouth and then looked in shame at the pool of vomit next to him. And then he shakily stood and walked a few trembling steps to Robb’s side, before his legs refused to bear his weight again and he fell to the ground.

“Lord… Lord Stark knows this tale?” Robb nodded. “Why did he not kill me?”

“Because you have not done it yet. And Father thinks that you have changed. Changed enough that you will never do it.” Robb said the words almost gently.

Theon bowed his head at this and then the tears finally fell. They were many and he sobbed before the tree for what felt like an age and a half. And they finally ebbed as a fierce flame was kindled deep within him. It had two sources. The first was determination. The second was hate. His father. His fucking father had done this. The man who had done nothing right in his life had done something terribly wrong yet again.

“I will swear an oath to you,” Theon eventually choked out. “An oath to you, or to your father. I can do it now, before the Heart Tree. Here, now, in the place. I will never betray you Robb. Never. This place is my home. Pyke means nothing to me. I will swear to protect Winterfell.”

There was a long pause and then Robb nodded tightly before smiling at him slightly. It wasn’t much, but it raised his spirits for a moment. “Thank you Theon.”

“What happened after… after that?”

A sigh emerged from somewhere very deep in Robb. “I won battle after battle, but I was losing the war,” he said bitterly. “The Lannisters always had a new army somewhere. I promised Walder Frey that I would marry one of his daughters as the price of crossing at the Twins, but then I married someone else – don’t ask, that’s a long story. When we captured the Kingslayer he killed two of Lord Karstark’s sons and I wouldn’t let him take the Kingslayer’s head in revenge. And when you… when Winterfell fell I lost a lot of prestige.

“So Tywin Lannister must have plotted with the Freys and also with Roose Bolton. You know the history we have with them. He wanted to be Lord Paramount of the North. The last words I ever heard in that other future was Roose Bolton telling me that Jaime Lannister sent his regards. Then nothing – before I woke up back here in my bed. When I realised what had happened, that the Old Gods had sent me back – well, I ran straight to the dining hall. I almost cried when I saw Father and Sansa and everyone.”

Memory tickled at him. “I remember that morning! It was the day when you came in and looked as if you were ill. And that look you gave me…” He shivered. “So you died.”

“I died.”

“I wonder what happened to me then?” He caught the uncomfortable look that Robb sent his way. “Did I die too? In the North?”

Robb ran a hand over his chin. “No,” he said eventually. “But I do know that you were captured by the Boltons. In a sense.”

“I don’t understand.”

“In the future I remember Domeric was dead by now. I think that he was poisoned by his half-brother, Lord Bolton’s bastard son Ramsey Snow.”

“Who’s dead now himself. I heard about what happened. Lord Stark was furious.”

“Aye, Father wanted to take care of Ramsey Snow himself. In the future I saw… Ramsey Snow captured you after the burning of Winterfell. And… you know what the banner of House Bolton is.”

“The flayed man,” Theon whispered in horror. “Ramsey Snow flayed me?”

“On the day that I died Roose Bolton gave me a gift. We were at the Twins to witness Uncle Edmure marrying a Frey to make up for my mistake and before we entered, Lord Bolton gave me… well, he said that it was a piece of your skin. And said that you still lived.”

This time there was next to no warning and Theon leant over in an attempt to spew his guts again on the grass. There was nothing left to throw up by now though, so he dry-heaved for several minutes as the tears poured down his face. When he was finally as composed as he was ever going to be he turned back. “Sorry,” he said weakly. Then something occurred to him. “Wait… how could your Father go South to be Hand of the King if he knew that the Others were coming?”

“He didn’t,” Robb said grimly. “That has been a terrible change from my memories. Days after I came back he confronted me here, by the Heart Tree. We both placed a hand on the trunk and… had a vision. Father saw things about my life. And received a warning, from the Old Gods, about the Others. If he hadn’t had that warning then he would never have sent the ravens out asking for information about them, and GreatJon Umber would never have looked at the Hearthstone and then brought it here to Winterfell. We would have had no warning.”

He nodded in response and then ran a shaking hand through his hair. “This is a lot to take in, Robb.”

“I know.” He smiled slightly. “But at least I was able to return from that dark future. Some warning is better than no warning at all.”

Theon nodded slightly and then looked at the Heart Tree. “My father will be annoyed when he learns that I no longer follow the Drowned God. But I don’t give a damn what he thinks about anything.”

“You don’t?”

A bark of laughter forced its way out of him, surprising him a little in the process. “Robb, my father is a fool. So no, I don’t give a damn about him.” He looked at Robb. “I’ve studied the Greyjoy Rebellion. Only a fool willingly starts a war with Robert Baratheon, especially when he had the other six kingdoms united behind him. And from what you said he was an even bigger fool in that dark future that won’t happen. He had a chance to attack the Westerlands from what you said, with their armies in the Riverlands. My father, the man who would love to reave the Westerlands of every piece of gold it has, gave that up just to attack the North? For what? Some kind of revenge against a dead man?” He snorted with anger. “No, the man’s a fool.”

“A hateful fool,” Robb sighed after a long moment. “So – here we are.”

“Here we are.” A silence fell. “Things between us won’t be the same, will they?”

Robb sighed and then squinted at a passing cloud far above them. “No,” he said eventually. “I would like them to – but, no. I have too many dark memories.”

Theon sighed himself and then nodded. “Perhaps we can remake things, after time?”

After a long moment Robb smiled and then nodded. “I would like that. I missed you.”

“As far as I’m aware you were never away.” He paused. “This is very confusing.”

Robb nodded again. Then: “I think we need some ale.”

 


 

Jon Arryn

He squinted at the sun as we walked over the cobblestones. Some hours to go until the evening meal. And hours to go until night. He hoped that Bronn had his wits about him. It was going to be a long night, he could feel it. And there was a gnawing worm of unease in his midriff. Too much was happening. Too many things were distracting him. He could feel that his usual duties were being allowed to slip a little and he scowled.

“My Lord Hand,” said a voice to one side and he half-turned to see Stannis Baratheon walking towards him. He looked… well as much as he always did. He supressed the term that Robert often used about Stannis, about the poker up his… well, enough of that. “You look annoyed my Lord Hand.”

He looked about carefully for an instant and was gratified to see that Stannis did the same thing. “I am… worried about this trial tomorrow. Baelish is, in the words of one of my men, a weasel. I do not trust the man. His word is useless. And such a man is therefore undependable.”

Stannis Baratheon nodded shortly. “I was on my way to see you with word of Baelish’s further corruption. Inspection of his books has revealed that there were no fewer than a dozen pursers in the King’s Navy in his pay. A dozen!” The last word was almost spat out in the nearest that Stannis Baratheon ever came to an outright fury.

“This is ill news,” Jon sighed. “So many?”

“So many. All giving short rations or skimming off the top whenever they could when it came to provisions meant for the fleet.”

Something sparked in the back of his mind and he paused and rubbed his chin with a finger. “Could that be classed as treason then?”

Stannis sent a brief smile in his direction. “Aye. It might well. Which is why I wanted to tell you about it.”

“If you might explain as we walk – I have to go to the Sept of Baelor. The High Septon wishes to see me.”

The other man’s eyebrows went up. “About what?”

“He did not say, except that the matter was urgent.”

Stannis frowned for a moment. “Do you think that this relates to Baelish?”

That was a good point. “I know not.”

“Then I shall accompany you, if you do not mind.”

Jon thought about it for a moment as they walked and then nodded. “Please do.”

They found the High Septon waiting for them at the steps of the Great Sept itself and Jon narrowed his eyes a little as he looked at the man. He’d never liked the High Septon. The man was a large, sweaty, obsequious toadie, and that was on a good day. And judging by the way that the men was wringing his hands and shifting from side to side at the very sight of Jon and Stannis, today was not a good day.

“My Lord Hand. Lord Baratheon,” the High Septon said, almost knotting his fingers together. “Thank you for answering my call. There... there is something you need to see inside. Something… strange.”

Despite himself Jon found his eyebrows arcing upwards for a moment. Then he saw the Septons who were waiting at the doors, which were open a crack. The men looked… nervous. So did the Septas that he could see. “Then lead on, High Septon.”

The High Septon nodded jerkily and then led them into the Great Sept. As they all entered the doors boomed shut behind them. The sun was shining through the windows on the far side and as they walked deeper into the Sept Jon could see more and more nervous people watching him. Something was raising his hackles. He could sense fear.

And then they got to the main chamber of the Sept, where Jon and Stannis both stopped dead in shock. The statues. The statues of the Seven were… different. Previously they had been facing inwards in a circle, with the exception of The Stranger. Now they were all facing in the same direction. North? Were they facing North? And there was something else. The statues themselves looked as if some of them had changed. The Warrior now held a bared blade in one hand and held the other out with a palm held outwards in a gesture of warning. The Smith held his hammer in both hands. The Father now held a feather. The Crone’s lantern was now a brand. The Maiden and the Mother both held their hands outstretched in warning. And the Stranger… the stranger was hooded and seemed to have icicles hanging off his outstretched hand.

“What has… has happened here?” Jon stammered the words in shock. “Who has changed the statues of the seven? This… this is blasphemy, is it not?”

The High Septon wrung his hands again. “It… it is… a mystery my Lord Hand. A mystery.”

The air was filled by a snort from Stannis Baratheon, a man that Jon knew was not a particularly devout follower of the Seven. “Mummery! Cant! Someone must have changed them!” Then his eyes narrowed. “When did this happen?”

More hand-wringing. “It was discovered this morning my Lord Hand. At dawn.” And then he flinched violently as both Lords turned on him as one.

“Dawn?” Jon barked, just ahead of Stannis. “This happened at dawn and you have only just called it to my attention? High Septon, you should have told me hours ago!”

The wretched man looked as if he was about to either pass out or piss himself. “My, my Lord Hand, we had to… investigate. I had to inspect this all most closely.” His face was shining with sweat. “I did indeed also think that it was mummery at first, a, a, trick of some sort. But on closer inspection…”

Jon glared at him for a moment and then, with Stannis by his side, he strode over to the statues. The originals must have been replaced with something. Without anyone knowing? “Who guards the Great Sept at night?”

A grey-haired Septon stepped forwards. He appeared to be just as worldly as the High Septon but a lot more competent. “The doors are closed every night, my Lord Hand, and guards set. And there is always a Septon on hand to keep the candles lit.” He was glaring at the High Septon, who was doing his best not to look at him. “And last night a Septon was doing penance in the Great Sept. He… he saw something.”

“This is not right,” Stannis said to one side. “The base of this is… different.”

Everyone looked over at him. Stannis Baratheon was inspecting the base of the nearest statue closely. “I thought that someone had painted this, or wrapped canvas around it. Anything to make it look different. But this is stone. The same stone as the ground under us. And it grips the feet of the statues.” He looked genuinely stunned.

“My Lords,” the grey-haired Septon said quietly. “The statues have not been replaced. I have inspected them most carefully. There are various… marks on them that are the same. And then there is the tale of the Septon.”

“Where is this Septon?” Jon asked as he looked around the Sept and then back at the statues of the Seven.

The various Septons and Septas all stared at the High Septon, who twitched visibly at all the attention. “My Lords,” he said worriedly, “The man is… well, the man is unstable. There is a reason he was doing penance last night.”

“He does have rather… unorthodox beliefs,” the grey-haired Septon admitted. “About the issue of abstinence. Or rather abandoning it. But he was in the Sept. And he saw… something.”

“Where is he?”

The High Septon did his little side-to-side shuffle of nervous unease. It was the grey-haired Septon who nodded at a group of men to one side who nodded back and then vanished off into a side passage. A few moments later they reappeared with a short man with messy dark hair and a look of resigned befuddlement. When he saw everyone staring at him he straightened as much as he could and then shot a nervous look at the statues of the Seven.

“This is Septon Tofflin,” the High Septon said with a sigh. “Septon, this is the Hand of the King and Lord Baratheon. Tell him what you saw at dawn, at the end of your penance.”

Tofflin shot Jon a terrified look and then swallowed. “I… I was coming to the end of my… penance.” He seemed to pause before the last word, as if he was about to say something else but then changed his mind. “And dawn was breaking. I was looking at the Seven and then…” His mouth worked for a moment as if in terror and then he seemed to catch himself. “They woke up.”

A silence fell. The Septons and Septas must have heard this before, because the silence was then broken by muttering and what sounded like quiet prayers. Jon tilted his head from one side to the other, whilst Stannis directed his most piercing stare at the Septon. “What?” Jon said eventually.

Tofflin flailed a hand at the statues of the Seven. “They came awake my Lord! They opened their eyes!”

Jon stared at the statues. Their eyes seemed to be open already and they were all stone. His confusion must have shown in his face, because Tofflin once again flailed his arms in the direction of the Seven. “Their eyes blazed with light my Lord! And such a light! Like the sun at dawn!”

Something very cold and with many, many, legs seemed to slither up and down Jon’s spine for a moment. “Did they look at you?”

Tofflin screwed his eyes shut and then visibly shivered in terror. “Aye,” he said in a very faint voice. “Aye, they did. And then the Warrior seemed to, to shine and shimmer, like a Dornish mirage. And then he was he seems now. And then they all changed! Whilst I watched! And then…” He stumbled to a halt.

“And then? Speak up man!” Stannis barked.

“And then they spoke. As one. In a voice like the breaking of mountains. They told me to watch the North. That death and worse than death walks against the Wall. And then…” His face worked again. “They said that word should pass to watch the East. That the high towers, the five forts, should watch the Grey Wastes. And then… then they all turned to face… where they’re facing right now.”

Everyone turned to look at the statues again. The thing with the legs seemed to do its thing again on his spine.

“My Lord Hand,” the grey-haired Septon said in an urgent low voice. “We need to keep this quiet. Especially there are already… interpretations… of Tofflin’s tale flying around.”

“’Interpretations’?” Jon asked – and then he saw the flush on the face of the High Septon. Ah. This was the cause of the delay. The fools had been busy arguing over if this entire thing had happened and if it meant anything in particular. “What interpretations?”

Various Septons and Septas seemed to glare at others in the hall, many of whom glared back. The High Septon achieved a new colour in his complexion whilst the grey-haired Septon sighed and then winced. “There are those who seem to think that the Seven were warning about the North my Lord Hand. And those that worship the Old Gods.”

Jon stared at the man and then rubbed at his forehead in exasperation. This was why he hated priests. It always came down to one fool trying to reinterpret what someone else had said and in doing so trying to get more influence. And more influence meant more power. Especially with a High Septon as useless as the current one in office.

“I was not aware that the worshippers of the Old Gods in the North were also North of the Wall and that they were in fact ‘death and worse than death’, as Tofflin said.” Stannis pointed this out in a deadpan voice.

“I agree,” Jon said vehemently. Then he paused. No. That was mad. “North of the Wall… would the Seven be warning us about the Wildlings? Or… worse?”

“What could be worse than Wildlings?”

Jon had a sudden nasty feeling that he knew why Ned was asking so many questions about the Others. But that wasn’t possible. They were gone. Weren’t they? This time he ran a weary hand over his eyes. “I think that I must send a raven to Winterfell,” he said tiredly. “This is something that I must discuss with Lord Stark.”

Stannis nodded once and then directed a troubled gaze at the statues again. “And the Great Sept?”

“High Septon, I think that the Great Sept must be closed for what remains of today. We need to discuss how to handle this. If fools are already discussing interpretations that lead to slurs against the believers in the Old Gods of the North then prompt action must be taken against them.” Especially if those who spout such stupidity are secret supporters of the Faith Militant, whose return would be a disaster.

The High Septon nodded jerkily, followed by the grey-haired fellow. He needed to know who he was, the man seemed far better than the idiot in charge here. And all of this took him away from preparing for Baelish’s trial. Well, at least Stannis had given him more arrows to fire at the traitor.

And speaking of the trial… he paused and then gestured to one of his men. “Fetch Grand Maester Pycelle,” he instructed. “We need to find out exactly where these statues are now all facing.” Seeing Stannis raise an eyebrow at him he explained in a low voice: “The Grand Maester may be a fool, but he has one redeeming virtue. He is very good at determining such things.”

“He is?” Stannis said in great surprise.

“Oh yes. He hides such a talent.” He wondered for a moment what else he hid. Then he leant closer to Stannis. “And it will prevent him from attending the trial. You and I must talk about that. I have decided on a few things, so that matters do not become… complicated.”

Stannis nodded and then looked back at the statues of the Seven. “I like this not,” he muttered. “What can this portend? And why does it happen now? Have the Seven truly spoken to us?”

Jon joined him in looking at the silent figures on their pedestals. “I know not. Nor can I tell you what has changed and why. Just that it has. And that it is.”

 


 

Kevan

He waited until the bells marking midnight had long since faded before he finally moved. He had returned to his chambers after a cheerless supper with his brother, who either brooded in silence or snapped at servants for not moving fast enough.

And now here he was, dressed in a black robe with soft shoes, slipping through the tunnels and passageways of Casterly Rock as if he was an elderly and incompetent faceless man. Well. Perhaps not that elderly. But at least he was dressed in black.

Getting to the North Passage would not be a problem. He had grown up here at Casterly Rock and he knew every inch of it, every flagstone, every brick, every stone in the walls. And, of course, every secret by-way and abandoned passageway. Even a few secret ones. He was quite proud of how well he knew the Rock. He’d spent a lot of his childhood years with thoroughly scraped knees and elbows from his explorations. He smiled sadly for a moment. Those had been good days. They were too young then to realise the mess that Father was making of things. Too young to notice the gloating smiles on the faces of the Reynes. Well… Tywin was starting to notice.

And then there were his younger accomplices in their explorations. Tygett. Gone these many years. And Gerion. Who had vanished on yet another quest to find Brightroar. He sighed to himself. Where had Gerion died? Tywin had tracked his ship to Volantis, where he had apparently then been planning to sail into the Smoking Sea. If he had, then he had never sailed out of it again.

This would not do. He was wool-gathering again. No, it really would not do. He slipped around a corner and then squinted ahead. Yes, the room should be just down here. The door was closed, but it was never locked and always swung shut. He slipped in and then placed the lantern that he had brought onto one of the barrels in the room. Lighting it carefully he then lifted it into the air and looked at the far corner of the room. Yes, the old wooden chest was still there. He pulled it out carefully with the handle facing him, to reveal the hole in the wall behind it.

It took some wiggling and a fair bit of puffing – when had he last done this and when had he put so much weight on? – but he finally squeezed himself through the hole, going feet first and then bending to get rest of himself through, as well as the lantern. Heh, he remembered the first time that Gerion had found this place. He had been totally unable to keep the secret.

Kevan reached back through the hole, pulled the chest back to hide it, more out of habit than need and then turned and slid down the short passage that then led to a hole in a wall of another passage, this one being tall enough to walk along. He had often wondered who had made the hole, and why. Well, not much point worrying about it now.

He strode carefully down the passage, ignoring the dust by pressing his cloak against his nose and mouth. This place had long been deserted. It was arrow-straight and was well-constructed. He paused for a moment and then looked at the walls for the first time since… well, he couldn’t recall. They were smooth and well-carved. How odd. There were no chisel marks whatsoever.

This was interesting, but he had more important things to do and he strode on. Down the passageway, turning right into another, up a tight spiral of stairs and then up to the door. It opened with something of a groan but that didn’t matter. He was in the North Passage and the far end had been sealed by Tywin years ago, so no-one would hear the noise.

He set his shoulders and took a deep breath. Yes, the pull was still there. It was maddening, this vague indefinable sense that he had to be somewhere else. It was, if anything, stronger here. Near the room that had so fascinated his father. Poor, weak-willed Father. Always so ready to believe the best in everyone. Always so willing to believe promises made by people. And always so fascinated by this damn room. By the past.

He knew that the very memory of Tytos Lannister infuriated his brother. But he had been their father. He had been a good man. True, he had been a fool at times, but he had always been fascinated by the history of Casterly Rock. Of the Lannisters and where they had come from.

Once, when he had been far younger, he had asked Father why he was so fascinated by the North Passage. “Holes in our past,” Father had said. “The Lannister family history has too many gaps. I would fill them in! And those runes might just do that!”

And so Father had spent a little too much time trying to decipher them. Even though, as Father had said, along with various Maesters, the runes made no sense whatsoever. So why was he here? What in the name of whatever hells existed was he playing at?

He didn’t know. And that frightened him, in a deep part of his mind that he didn’t know even existed.

He sighed and then started up the passageway. And as he drew closer to the door he frowned. He could see light there. Yes, there was a bar of light under the bottom of the door. He slowed to a halt and then peered at it. Someone was in there. But who?

“I knew that you’d come.”

The voice made his heart stop for a second and he wheeled around, shining the thin beam from the lantern in all directions. Eventually he caught sight of his brother’s face, albeit at a place that was lower than he expected. Tywin Lannister was also dressed in black and was sitting with his back against the wall. He had a smear of dirt on one cheek and he looked… shaken. Well, as shaken as Tywin ever looked.

Various replies flitted through his mind, until he finally settled on one. “I had to come here.”

“Even though I had forbade it?”

“The pull was too strong.” He paused and decided to risk an impertinence. “I see that you felt it too.”

Tywin worked his lower jaw for a long moment as his eyes smouldered – and then ran a hand over his eyes. “I did. I tried to resist this… strange pull here. I could not even sleep a wink. So I came here.” A tiny, wintry, smile crossed his face. “Did you use that secret passage as well? The one that we discovered when we were children?”

Kevan nodded slowly. “I did. I take it that you did too?”

“I did.”

Another nod. Then he looked at his brother in puzzlement. “Why are you out here in the dark? Why did you leave your lantern inside the room?”

And then Tywin sighed. “I did not leave my lantern inside.” He reached down and then opened up the latch on the lantern that Kevan had not known was even there. He peered at it. It was surprisingly stealthy for the Lord of Casterly Rock. Then he looked back at the door. “Then who is in the room?”

“No-one.” Tywin almost whispered the word, and there was something in his voice that sent a shiver down Kevan’s back. “See for yourself.”

He went to the door slowly and then opened it. The light inside wasn’t coming from a lantern. Or a candle or anything like that. No, it was coming from the walls. From the runes themselves. They were shining, as bright as the sun at sunset. He… well, he gaped at the sight. Then he caught himself and snapped his jaws closed. He’d always known that there were runes here. They were faint in places, hard to make out. And impossible to read. Father had tried again and again, but apparently the runes had always been illegible. Now… well, he could see every stroke. Every rune.

Kevan backed slowly out of the room and then slowly closed the door. When he turned back to his brother he could see that Tywin was watching him with a certain amount of wintry amusement in his eyes. It was disconcerting. And then the amusement flickered and died as Tywin looked at the door again.

“We… we need to get the Maester. To read the runes.” Kevan stammered the words and then stopped when Tywin shook his head.

“No. There’s no need. I know what they say.” He caught Kevan’s incredulous gaze. “What, you didn’t think that I wasn’t interested in succeeding where our unlamented father failed? I taught myself when I was young. The room was still illegible to me, but it came in useful when I was Hand of the King to Aerys. All those compacts and contracts between the major families, especially those with the blood of the First Men, often recorded in some of the earliest records – and in runes of course.”

“But you can read them now?”

“As clear as day. Would that I could not.”

He waited for a moment. Finally Kevan prompted: “So? What do they say?”

“They tell of… of Lann the Clever. And they state a warning.”

“Lann the Clever?”

“Yes. You remember how Father always wondered how the Lannisters took Casterly Rock from the Casterlys?”

He nodded. “I’ve wondered that myself.”

“As have I on occasion. The answer is a simple one. He inherited it. He was a Casterly himself.”

Kevan stared at him again. “What? I thought that he was supposed to be an outsider who tricked his way into getting Casterly Rock from Lord Casterly? And you always tell me that you think he was an Andal who arrived centuries before the Andal invasion.”

“I was wrong,” Tywin said bleakly. “We were all wrong. And having read the runes I know why the family has tried to suppress the truth. Lann was the second son of Lord Casterly. When word went out from Winterfell, from the Stark in Winterfell, that help was needed in a campaign against the Others… well, Lord Casterly refused to go. He stayed on the Rock. Said that his men were needed here. His eldest son agreed.

“Only…. Lann disagreed. He went North with every man who would listen to him. He went North to Winterfell. To fight the Others! And grumpkins and snarks and everything else. He was a hero. And then when he returned to Casterly Rock his father ordered his execution, for disobeying him, for stripping men away from Casterly Rock and… for not being a coward, although he might not have put in those words. But not a man would draw a sword on Lann. Not on Lann the Clever. Not on Lann the Brave. Not on Lann the Loyal.”

Confused, Keven looked at him. “Loyal?” There had been something odd in the way that Tywin had said that last word.

“Loyal. Oh, not to his father. To the Stark in Winterfell. Who had saved Lann’s life in battle against the Others.”

Ah. That was it. A debt had been owed to the Starks. His brother disliked such a thing, even though it had been from so long ago. “And what happened?”

Tywin curled a lip. “Lann defied his father. And his brother. He took control of the Rock and he exiled them. And he refused to use his family name. Refused to be called a Casterly. After a time people simply called him The Lann. And then they’d point to him as the ‘Lann is there’. And so after time, and after his own son Lann was born, it became ‘Lannister’. So there you have it brother. The true history of our family. Courtesy of these Gods-bedamnned runes.”

They sat there in silence for a long time as Kevan absorbed the information and then pondered on his brother and his prickly honour. Tywin was always keen on making sure that people feared House Lannister. Feared and respected them. Well, Castamere had gone a long way towards that. What was he mulling over now? Did the story of Lann add much to the lustre of House Lannister? Yes – and no. A cowardly forebear who was replaced by a brave son. And that son had been called to Winterfell. Oh, Kevan could think of any number of reasons why Tywin would not want this news to be widespread.

“You mentioned a warning,” he said eventually. “What was it?”

Tywin stirred. “The runes themselves. The fact that they glow. They say that if they glow then… then the Others have returned. That Winterfell must be warned. That the call must go out.”

Once again Kevan found himself staring at his brother in some shock. The call? Did that mean that voice that had spoken to him? “The runes say that?”

“They do,” Tywin replied curtly. “And now…” His voice trailed off.

“And now?” Kevan prompted gently.

“And now I must confess that I know not what to do. The fact that the runes glow seems, well, to confirm what the Maesters say. That magic has indeed returned. I cannot explain it otherwise.”

Another silence fell. “Will you send word to Winterfell?” Kevan asked eventually.

“I do not know,” Tywin whispered. “This is… unexpected. I might send word to Tyrion, telling him to ask most closely about the Others and to send ravens at once with Stark’s replies. As for this room… well, I will transcribe the runes by myself, as I can read them. I do not trust anyone else.”

There was something else though, judging by his voice. Something that was still disturbing him. “Tywin – what are you not telling me?”

A flicker of the eyes in his direction, proof that Tywin Lannister was rattled. “Two other things. First that the runes say who carved them. ‘Twas Lann himself. Second that… that Lann said that should the call to Winterfell come and the men of Casterly Rock not heed it, that… that doom would follow.” And then he pulled a face of angry stubbornness.

 


 

Jon Arryn

Bronn’s eyes were like red coals in his face as he approached at the head of his men. The man looked as if he hadn’t slept even a wink. Good. This was a valuable man, a reliable man. As long as he was paid that is. And perhaps, once he had land and a title, that could be built upon? He needed to find somewhere in the Vale for Bronn. Some old holdfast that would suit him. He had a few ideas.

Jon nodded at the sellsword, who looked at him intently and then nodded back. “My Lord Hand.”

“Bronn. Please collect the prisoner and escort him to his trial.”

A small amount of tension seemed to leave Bronn and then he bowed slightly and vanished into the tunnel. A door creaked open, footsteps diminished, another door – and then a rumble of voices, more footsteps and then finally two figures emerged.

If Bronn had looked exhausted after being up all night guarding the prisoner then Baelish looked far, far worse. His eyes were red and flickered around them all, as if he was watching small flying things that no-one else could see. And the look on his face was… interesting. The man looked stressed beyond belief, like a veteran warrior pushed to the very edge of his sanity in battle. Only this was of course a different kind of battle. A mental one. And a terrible one.

“Come.” Jon snapped the word and then led them all down the corridor, along a passageway and then quickly across the courtyard. Dawn was breaking and he watched every shadow with care. He was getting paranoid. But then it could never hurt to be too careful.

When they got to the doorway he hurried everyone through and then nodded at Quill to close and lock the door. And then they all passed down the corridor to the main doors of the room that he had picked out for this moment. It was a room deep in the Red Keep, beneath the throne room. Small. Controllable. Perfect.

As they entered he saw that everything was ready. The table. The chairs. The evidence. And Stannis Baratheon. Bealish looked around in confusion for a moment and then Jon nodded to Bronn, who led him to the chair before the desk and then pulled him down onto it. He then nodded at Jon shortly and left, closing the heavy door behind him.

Baelish looked around the room again, before licking what looked like very dry lips. “So this is where we wait, ahead of my trial? How… cosy.” He sounded as if he was starting to regain his balance. Jon smiled thinly.

“No. This is your trial.”

Baelish stared at him. “What?”

“I am not in the habit of repeating myself.”

“But… I am a noble of Westeros. I am entitled to a public trial. In the Red Keep!”

“You are in the Red Keep, but you are no longer a noble. You are just a traitor and a thief. Besides the other members of the Small Council are not here. Pycelle is investigating another matter at the Great Sept of Baelor, Varys is trying to get more intelligence about matters in Essos and the King and Lord Renley are not yet back. It is just myself and Lord Stannis Baratheon. I promised you a trial, Baelish. I just did not promise you a public trial.”

Baelish went red. “Ah,” he spat. “The much-vaunted honour of the Arryns. And the Baratheons. I wish to be tried in front of my peers.”

“Sadly, weasels cannot speak and therefore cannot attend trials.” Jon stared at Stannis. A joke? No, a witticism? From Stannis Baratheon? Would wonders never cease? Then he thought about the statues in the Sept and his eyes hardened as he looked at Baelish.

The wretched man was looking about him intently and when he finished staring into the shadows in the corners of the room he smirked for a fraction of a second. “Ah,” he said with a smile. “Do you really think that we’re alone here? The Spider has eyes and ears everywhere. And I would bet my last and most tarnished copper coin that he knows all about the King’s Great Matter.”

“I did tell you what would happen if you mentioned that,” Jon scowled.

“I merely mentioned it. I didn’t say what it was. Even though we all know the truth.”

“Let us look at another truth,” Stannis barked out as he placed a hand on the mound of documents in front of him. “You are a thief. You have been stealing from the Realm for years.”

Baelish spread his hands expressively. “I have been managing its finances.”

“By stealing. From the Realm, from the Vale, from the Iron Bank… and also from the Free Cities, or at least those that trade with us. You have diverted taxes, paid bribes, subverted agents of the Crown and undermined the defence of the Realm.” Stannis was bellowing the words by the end, the veins standing out on his forehead and his neck. “The fleet is weaker because of you! The Realm is weaker because of you!”

“You spread your net very wide,” Jon said as he stared at him. “Properties all over the Seven Kingdoms. Bribes as well. We are still pulling the threads that lead from your books. The Realm is still in debt, but by no means by as much as you had told us. Why?”

Baelish smiled broadly. “Why what?”

“Why did you do it? Why steal so much? Why lie so much?”

The accused man leant back in his seat and curled his lip. “Why? Because I could. Because it was easy. You highborn Lords with your disdain for anyone beneath you. You take coin from merchants, but you act as if merely talking about their trade dirties you. You rule over smallfolk but you don’t understand their lives. Why should you? You’re nobles. You rule! Or rather – you misrule. You so-called honourable fools, with your battles within battles, your feuds and your stupidities.

“Look at you, Baratheon. I can hear your teeth grinding from here! The brother of our fool of a king, who spends his time drinking and eating and whoring! He gave you Dragonstone, the seat of the Targaryen heirs, made you Master of Ships! And all you ever do is complain and obsess about imagined slights! You place your pride first, before anyone and everything else. What’s worse – the fact that I stole from the Realm, or the fact that I bribed men in your fleet?”

And then he looked at Jon. “And you! The Hand of the King, who can’t even control him! This Great Matter you’re so worried about – it happened right under your nose. Doesn’t that make you proud? The Hand of the King is supposed to ferret out problems before they grow into crises. You failed in that matter, Lord Arryn. You failed utterly. Three children, all blonde and blue-eyed. And you never saw it. Never saw the threat.”

Baelish smiled at them both. It was more of a rictus than a real smile and his eyes were cold and distant, like a man who knew that the Stranger was in the room. Stannis glared at him with a gaze that would have reduced lesser man to puddles, whilst Jon himself glared at the prisoner with contempt. Oh what a foul little man.

“Then you have admitted to stealing from the Realm,” Jon forced himself to say. “And your guilt is proven. All of this – all of these documents – proclaim your guilt. It is undeniable. Not that you have even tried to deny it.”

“Why would I?” Baelish sounded broken and bitter now. This was the true man now, this was the man that existed beneath that smooth and suave exterior. “You have my ledgers. You have my records. I am a dead man who still walks. Tell me, has a raven arrived yet from Casterly Rock, demanding my head? I stole from the gold lent by Tywin Lannister as well. Not even he suspects a thing.” And as he spat that last sentence his eyes glittered maliciously again.

Jon looked at him. Time to bring this to an end. Baelish was dangerous. He did not care about what happened to him now and his ranks at Stannis and himself showed that he did not care about everything else. This was a man who would burn down the building around him if he could and then dance on the ashes.

He opened his mouth to proclaim sentence, but Baelish beat him to it. “You’ve been creeping about, trying to keep the King’s Great Matter secret. You can’t. It’s impossible. The truth will out. How many people know it already do you think? Do you really trust Varys? The man is an enigma. And – do you really think that Pycelle is the doddering old fool you believe him to be? You both disappoint me.”

Baelish flourished his hands in front of their faces. “Welcome to King’s Landing, my high-born and foolish friends! No-one here is as they seem! Everyone has a price. Everyone. There’s no such thing as a secret, not here. Truth will out. And plots are everywhere. Including things that are right under your noses! I took your wife’s maidenhood, Lord Arryn, did you know that? And that of her sister! Is your son really yours? Are you sure?

“And you, the high and mighty Lord Stannis Baratheon. Did you know that your wife has been toying with foolish religions from Essos? Did you? Of course not. You sleep with her once a year and yet you wonder why it is that you only have the one child? Did your Maester really not tell you where babies come from? Such a shame about your daughter and her greyscale. I met a man once who told me that the fabric that infected her came via Dorne.”

“ENOUGH!” Jon bellowed the word so loudly that the room rang with it, making Baelish rock back in his chair with a startled look. Gripping the pommel of his dagger in his right hand so hard that his fist hurt Jon stood and then peered at the former Master of Coin. “You are sentenced to trial by combat, as the law dictates in this circumstance. You will not be able to select a champion. You will fight a combatant of my choosing. And may the Seven be merciful on your shrivelled little soul.”

Baelish glared at him for a moment and as he did Jon wondered if the fool was going to spring up from his chair and try and attack him. The same thought occurred to Stannis, who stood up grimly with a hand on his own dagger. From the way that his eyes were glittering he wanted to speak more about Baelish’s words about his daughter.

His eyes still on Baelish, Jon walked to the door and then thumped three times with his fist. After a moment it opened to reveal Bronn. “Take him to his new cell. Gag him if he tries to say a word.”

The sellsword looked at Jon with narrowed eyes and then nodded and went over to Baelish, who stood up as if he was in charge and had been interrogating them. “Farewell my Lord Hand. Lord Baratheon. And Varys’s little birds of course.” Then he bowed mockingly and allowed himself to be led away.

After the door closed Jon returned to the table and sat. He felt old and drained. He had an unpleasant feeling that things were starting to spiral out of his control. How long at Baelish known about the truth about Cersei’s children? And who else knew?

“I’ll fight him myself!” Stannis finally ground out from between gritted teeth. “I’ll finish the job that Brandon Stark started so many years ago! I’ll gut him like the filthy fish that he is!”

“No,” said Jon wearily. “I have another in mind. A more… fitting opponent. Baelish must die though. He knows too much and he does not care who he tells. There are times when honour must give way to… expediency.”

Stannis looked mulish at this before – eventually – nodding. “Very well. I like it not, but very well.” He paused. “Do you believe what he said? About Shireen and the Dornish?”

Jon leant back. “I believe that Baelish can lie with every breath he takes. And that he mixes truth with lies, for maximum effect. He is a dangerous man, Stannis. He would set fire to the world, if it would advance him. And even for spite. I see that now. I should have seen it sooner. I wanted to believe otherwise.”

“He implied that your son… is not yours.” Stannis said the words heavily and reluctantly.

“He lied in that. Robert looks too much like an Arryn. He reminds me of Denys, when he was young. No, we must be careful with every word that Baelish says. We must sift what he says for truth and for lies.”

There was a rap on the door and as they both looked over Quill hurried in. “My Lord Hand, Lord Baratheon – a message from the Vale.”

Jon accepted the proffered piece of paper and then frowned. “Odd.”

“What is?” Stannis asked.

“The Blackfish, Ser Brynden Tully, has resigned as Knight of the Gate. He says that he is pulled West. Peculiar.”

Stannis snorted. “Peculiar indeed. Robert will be back in King’s Landing on the morning tide, two days from now. When will Baelish go to meet the Stranger?”

Jon smiled grimly. “Tomorrow morning. At high tide.”

Chapter Text

Tyrion

Not everyone woke up at dawn. Most of the dead were those who had been wounded. A few were those who had surrendered to despair after being… touched. He didn’t need to issue the order to burn them. The men knew what to do automatically now. They knew the dangers of not burning the dead.

Tyrion looked up at the dark and cloudy skies and then nodded. “Break the camp down. We march in an hour.” The assembled men nodded and then quickly started the process of packing up. It was faster than it had been a few months earlier. They knew how little time they had.

As Tyrion mounted he pulled out the map and peered down at it. South to the next waypoint and more supplies. Thank the Gods that Willas Tyrell was Lord of Highgarden now and not his fool of a father. A wry smile lifted his lips for a moment, before vanishing. Ah, the sins of their fathers.

A presence to one side caught his attention and he looked over to see Sandor Clegane approach on foot. “I’ve sent the boy on ahead with his nursemaids.”

“Good.” He winced a little at the thought of his nephew. “How is he this morning?”

“No change. Still as a statue and about as useful.”

Another wince. He had never liked the brat, but no-one deserved what had happened to him. “We do what we can for family, Clegane.”

A savage smile was sent his way. “Don’t I know it. Best day of my life when I burnt what was left of my brother’s body.”

The wind shifted briefly and Clegane sniffed – and then stiffened. “We need to get moving. They’re coming.”

“The colder it gets the bolder they become. The Gods alone know what it’s like in the North now.”

“They’ll hold out. The Stark’s are too fucking stubborn to give in.”

“Aye, well, the North has been outflanked well and truly.”

Clegane nodded reluctantly and then paused. “Riders coming up from the South.”

Tyrion looked over at the little body of mounted men approaching. They bore tattered banners, but he recognised the two leading them. Ah, the last Lords of the Iron Islands. Such irony. “Lord Greyjoy. Lord Harlaw. What news from the South?”

“Little and mixed,” Theon Greyjoy told him. “Lord Lannister. The wind is getting colder.”

“The wind is always getting colder. We will be on the road shortly. What news?”

“The fleet made it to Oldtown. The dead were all burnt.”

“Good. And the bad news?”

“No help will come from Dorne. The Bone Road is closed. Not a man will march to help us. And there is no word from the Crownlands or anywhere East. Not since the King vanished into the Riverlands, trying to break in to relieve the North.”

Tyrion shook his head. “King Robert continues to think of the Others as an enemy who responds to the usual threats and military conventions. They are not. If he keeps campaigning as normal then he will die. Along with all his men. Folly! Folly piled upon folly!”

“There’s been enough of that here to go around,” Theon Greyjoy muttered, his voice heavy with grief. “If only people had listened to the Starks.”

Tyrion fixed the young man with a gimlet eye. “If only your father had been less fixated by revenge and my own father less puffed up with pride to listen to the Starks you mean.” He sighed. Well, there was more than enough blame to go around. Father’s pride, Cersei’s stupidity, Jaime’s arrogance, Joffrey’s insanity…

The wind picked up again – and then he smelt it. Smelt them. “Set more fires. They march on us. We must run.”

“Aye,” said Lord Harlaw. “They march from the charnel house that was the Rock. We brought more dragonglass for your rearguard.”

“We will need it,” Clegane said stonily. “You were right - they are here.”

Tyrion turned to see the figures on the horizon and felt that now-familiar terror grip his heart. “Men of Westeros! We march!”

He came awake with a cry of alarm, the sheet partly entangled around him. His forehead was damp with sweat and he felt his heart pound under his ribs. Terror? From a dream? And what had that dream been about? He shivered a little at the fading memories that seemed to fade like smoke in the wind, before concentrating hard on them. What a dream. He had been… Lord of Casterly Rock? Father had died. Well, a dream where that happened had to be a good one. Cersei had died as well. Then he shivered again. Jaime had died, and Uncle Kevan.

Everyone had died. Apart from a few.

He looked down at the book that now lay on the floor. Aha. He’d been reading about the Others again and the tails of the North. No wonder he’d had that dream. Wincing slightly he scrubbed at his face with hands and then looked at the window. Dawn. He thought about snatching a tad more sleep but then shook his head. No, they had to get on the road as soon as possible. He had no idea why he felt that he needed to be in Winterfell as soon as possible, he just felt it. He’d been feeling this pull along the road for more than three days now.

As he dressed quickly he thought about it. Well, part of the pull had to be the need to get away from The Twins as soon as possible. Walder Frey’s poisonous resentment and anger at any perceived insult had unsettled him. But what else was it? What else could it be? And just what was going on?

Moat Cailin had been a shock. The fortress had obviously fallen on hard times, given the fact that the Starks were no longer the Kings of the North. He had seen at once that the fortress was not just manned but being slowly repaired, with large parts – the parts with the most easily repaired roofs and walls – being restored by a group of grim-faced men under a banner of a black lizard-lion on a green field. House Reed. It had been Lord Howland Reed who had sent them, the leader of the men had said. The fortress would be needed as a waypoint. And it had to be protected.

Protected from whom? Tyrion had asked. The man – Mat by name – had looked grim and then admitted that a great number of unknown people had passed through the Neck along an old, in fact ancient, way. “Old path,” Mat had grumbled. “Not used for many long years as we found newer, shorter paths. So how did they know? Lord Reed is worried – he left for Winterfell long before you arrived my Lord. And he left word to repair as much as we could with the tools we had available.”

They had left them there. Emmon and the others had picked up on his worry and had watched the sides of the road even harder than before. And the further North they came the more worried he became. People were clearing more land for planting than he thought possible. Copses and woods seemed to have a constant trickle of people going in and out with as much wood as possible. “Winters comes,” one man had called out to them. “The Long Winter.”

The crowd in the inn that they had stayed the night in had agreed. It was a sturdy place that was becoming sturdier apparently by the day. There had been much talk about how the Stark needed aid, about how the Stark had the right of things and that the Stark was due their loyalty. The parties of men working on the King’s Road confirmed that. The road, it was said, was in the best shape that it had ever been in since people could remember.

Tyrion gathered the last of his things and then stumped out of his room and down the stairs. The landlord was quietly talking to Emmon about the road ahead and they both paused and nodded respectfully at him as he approached. “Landlord, my thanks for the hot water for the bath last night. A little something extra for your trouble.” And he passed over a little pouch of silver.

The landlord beamed in delight and then nodded again. “My thanks, my Lord. I was telling your man here that the next inn is about a day’s ride from here and is about three days from Winterfell. Be warned though – I have heard that the inn has changed hands this past year and is now run by… well, ‘tis said that he’s something of a neer-do-well. Count the iron nails on the shoes of your horses before you get there.”

“We shall indeed,” smiled Tyrion and then he nodded and waddled out to where his men were making ready. Once Emmon joined them and they all mounted he looked about, saw the nods of acknowledgement and then raised a hand.

They made good time on that good road. That repaired road – it was obvious where the repairs had been made. That was something else that had struck him. Lord Stark knew about the importance of such things.

Tyrion nodded to himself as they rode on. He would send word to Father about this as soon as they reached Winterfell. If the North was starting to prepare now for not just winter but a long and terrible winter then the Westerlands needed to start to get ready as well.

They ate their luncheon – wine or beer from flasks, with whatever food the inn had provided them with – near a great crag and as he ate Tyrion looked at that crag with questioning eyes. At some point in the past someone had carved a path in the side of it, leading upwards. That path was shattered and worn in places, but he found himself wondering what it had been used for. He had seen a few other places like it since that they had passed North of the Neck, into the North itself. This was a place filled with many such old remnants. They all fascinated him. Many were in sight of each other and he wondered if perhaps they had once held signals or beacons, or just been a chain of… what?

It was an interesting thought and he looked forwards to looking through the books again when they reached the next inn. And when they did he remembered the words of the landlord of the last inn, because the man had been absolutely right. The place looked as if it had seen better days, not through ill-use but rather through incompetence and deliberate neglect. For one thing the sign with its name had fallen off and not been repaired.

The stable looked bad and Emmon took one look at it and promptly had the rest of the men start to clean out the section that the apathetic ostler had found for them. Fouled bedding was forked out, clean water was provided and the dung was shovelled out. In fact they actually shamed the ostler into action in the other areas, including the spot where a rather thin mare was stabled. Tyrion cast a pitying eye on her and then fed her a handful of oats, which she ate with gusto.

And the inside of the inn was just as bad. The landlord of this place was apparently named Edwyn Dickon. He was a large unshaven shambling man who exuded the smell of damp sweat and bad sanitation of his lower regions, not that Tyrion wanted to think about that.

The people within the inn looked like a combination of people who were merely passing though, as fast as they could, and the kind of scum that floated to the top of the waters of any sewer. The latter seemed to be mostly from the Riverlands, although there were a few Northmen there as well.

The place actually fell silent as Tyrion and his men strode in and he could see that the sluggish thoughts in the minds of the slowest men were dragging their way towards ‘japes’ about the evening’s juggling entertainment having arrived. The fact that Emmon placed a hand on his sword and glared around the room with the look of a homicidal maniac meant that no-one actually said a word.

Normally Tyrion would have smiled and made a few pleasant remarks, as he had in the last inn. This was not the place to do that. Instead he glared around himself, noted a free spot by the fire and then strode over to it, pulling off his gauntlets as he went. “Your best food and wine landlord. Fit for a Lannister.”

“A Lannister?” someone murmured and then there was a laugh – until Emmon glared around again.

“Tyrion Lannister, son of Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, etc, etc, etc. Heading to Winterfell in case anyone asks, to see Lord Stark.” As he said those last words Tyrion could see a figure in the shadows turn his head sharply to stare at him.

When the food eventually turned up he had to force it down. If this was the best that the inn could do then he would have hated to see its worst. The meat was possibly badly abused mutton. The stew that it sat in was fatty. And the wine was barely drinkable. From the grimace that came from Emmon and his men, the ale was just as bad.

“We are staying here for as little time as possible,” Tyrion muttered in Emmon’s ear. “If the food and drink are this bad I fear that the bedding will give us fleabites at the very least.”

“Aye, and I’ll set guards on the horses and the rooms we sleep in tonight,” Emmon replied. “Old Hackett was right at the Inn of the Red Fire – we should check the number of nails in the shoes of our horses when we leave.”

“An excellent point,” Tyrion replied, before encountering what felt like a piece of pure gristle in the stew. “Urgh.” He finished what he could and then pushed the plate away.

The light from the main fire was just enough to read by and he pulled out a small book and opened it, something that seemed to flabbergast many in the room. Oh look, illiterates. Sadly something all too common these days. Then he looked out of the corner of his eye. The figure that had been staring at him earlier was now staring even harder.

Grumbling a little the landlord – Dickon by name, which seemed to suit him down to the ground – put some more wood on the fire after someone complained and as the light penetrated the fug of a miasma of sweaty bodies and dripping noses he could see the person who was staring at him a little better.

Much to his surprise he was a she. She was a woman of about his age, maybe a little younger, wrapped in a cloak. She was thin, as if she had been ill and she was… well she was not ugly, but neither was she beautiful. She was, in a word, striking. Forceful even. She had a nose that was a little prominent and a chin that was square. And above all a look of angry despair.

This was interesting. As he read he heard Emmon quietly mutter instructions to the others about setting guards and about the fact they were amongst a pack of neer-do-wells, as they had been warned. Oh and no-one should even think about a woman here. There was probably pox all over the place. Which was sadly a good point and he resigned himself to a few more nights of celibacy. Winterfell would have some good places, of that he had been assured.

Some of the men left to take their places and as they did Tyrion became aware that the landlord was having some kind of gloating argument with the woman in the cloak, who was glaring at the fat oaf with enough hatred to have reduced a less observant man to a pile of smoking ash.

“Emmon,” he said quietly, “That woman has been staring at me. Would you be so kind as to find out, discreetly, why she is arguing with our greasy host?”

The man nodded shortly and then wandered over, clearing a way with his own magnificently contemptuous glare. He was gone for no small amount of time as he talked quietly to a few people and when he returned his face was grim.

“She is Dacey Surestone, only child of Lord Surestone, who was the lord of a keep about five days hard ride West of here, my lord.”

“Surestone… not a name I am familiar with.”

“They say that it’s an old house my Lord. Old, proud and poor – and distant cousins to the Starks. Anyway, Lord Surestone lost his wife many years ago – dead in childbirth with a son who died the same day – and never remarried, so he brought the girl up almost as his heir. Problem was that he had a male heir in the guise of a son of a cousin of his.”

“By what name?”

“Ser Willem Bootle.”

Bootle. What a wonderful name. Wait… I have heard of him. Isn’t he that idiot from the Riverlands who alienated all his neighbours?”

“Aye, that’s the man. But there may be more to him than that. He was visiting Surestone when the old lord died, sudden-like. He immediately dismissed the Maester, told everyone that he had sent a raven to Winterfell himself with the news of Lord Surestone’s death, effectively drove out the girl after she told him that she’d marry a sheep before she married him and then more or less looted the place before having it all locked up so that he could bugger off back to the Riverlands with his ‘inheritance’.”

Tyrion stared at Emmon and then back at the girl. This Dacey Surestone had now stopped arguing with whatisname and was now staring at the fire with what seemed like unshed tears in her eyes. “A sad tale. And a convenient death. So what’s she doing here?”

“Apparently she is desperate to get to Winterfell and talk to Lord Stark. But only her old nursemaid and one man at arms went with her from Surestone and they were both elderly. The one died before they reached here and then the other whilst she was here – and the road is no place for a sole woman. The bandits would take her and rape her at the very least. And… she is fast running out of coin. The landlord claims that medicine for her last servant was rare and costly and that she owes him for it.”

Tyrion experienced a sinking sensation. “Let me guess – the medicine was not expensive, the man died of neglect and Lardarse there seeks to gain a hold on her and use her as a whore?”

A sad smile answered his question. He sat there for a long moment and resisted the all too urgent temptation to think about Tysha. No-one deserved that. No-one. Taking a deep breath he squinted at the woman as she stared at the fire. And then he made a decision. “Emmon?”

“My Lord?”

“Find out – quietly – how much she owes the landlord here. What she really owes, not the inflated figure that that greedy idiot will pull out of the air and then probably double when he hears that the coin is coming from me. Then pay it. Tell me if you need more coin. And then ask Lady Surestone if I can talk to her.”

Emmon nodded and then looked to one side. “I can do the first easily my lord. I don’t need to do the second part because she is making her way over to you.” And then he stood and sidled off.

Much to his surprise Emmon was right. Lord Surestone’s daughter was slowly making her way over to his table, with many a suspicious look at everyone and everything, including him. When she eventually reached his table she fixed him with an even more suspicious look, as if that was even possible. “You are Lord Lannister?”

“I am the son of Lord Lannister. Tyrion Lannister, at your service. And you are?”

“Dacey Surestone, daughter to… to the late Lord Surestone. I overheard you say that you are going to Winterfell?” There was something in her voice, something that combined suspicion and hope.

“I am indeed. I have been tasked by my father with going to Winterfell with certain… objects.” Given by the number of faces that suddenly turned towards him that had been the wrong thing to say. “A number of books.” Aha. The clarification led to those same faces losing interest and turning away. Except for one.

“You are taking books to Winterfell?” There was a look on the face of Dacey Surestone that was different from her previous facial expression. Cautious excitement. She looked about her carefully but not overtly and then she leant forwards a little. “I too am seeking to travel to Winterfell with a book.”

And this pricked his interest enormously. He closed his book and then leant forwards a little himself. “What kind of book?”

Her eyes narrowed with suspicion again. “A book of history. It needs to be in the hands of Lord Stark. My distant cousin.”

He looked at her. “We bear many books to Winterfell. If yours is about the Others then you are welcome to join us, my Lady.”

Her gaze sharpened for a moment and then dropped to her lap. “I am no lady. I am just the only child of Lord Surestone.”

“I have heard. My condolences on the death of your father.”

She looked up again and something crackled deep within her eyes. Grief. And something more. Fury? Rage?

“I need to get to Winterfell – for many reasons.” Then she drew herself up proudly. “I can pay my way to Winterfell once I get there. I have some coin here but-”

“But you have been fleeced by the landlord here. I heard that too.”

The proud look weakened a little. “My old nursemaid and my old friend Will… they both died. And the landlord says I owe him coin and he hints and insinuates as to ways I can pay him back and-”

He forestalled the gathering angry tears in her eyes by raising his hand. “My lady – you can travel with us. I know that Lord Stark will pay me back. I have shall arrange matters, fear not. There is only one condition I would ask of you.”

She stared him with a complicated array of emotions flashing over her face. Shock. Surprise. Happiness. Suspicion. The last one was the greatest. “What condition?”

“Why, I would like to read your book when we reach Winterfell.”

She seemed to think hard – and then she nodded. At which point they both heard the sound of a fist hitting a jaw and breaking it in the process. Whereupon the inn descended rapidly into chaos.

 


 

Jorah

They had travelled a little further than he had hoped that day, Jorah mused as he looked into the crackling fire. He’d been lucky – there had been a party of merchants in Myr bound for Pentos that needed skilled warriors to guard it and he’d been able to join the party. Leera had indeed come with him and had revealed herself to be a surprising skilled cook, which had added to their popularity.

The surprise however had come when the leader of the guards, who had been off scouting ahead along the road, had rejoined them. The others had simply referred to him as ‘Ironhand’ and there had been something about the title that had tickled the back of his mind. Seeing the lanky man on the horse, with his reins partly held in an artificial right hand that was more of an iron hook than anything else had been a pleasant surprise. Loros himself.

The exiled Dothraki had greeted him with a smile and a left-handed wristclap, followed by a clap on the shoulder that made him hide a wince, but they had then fallen into a long conversation about what the road ahead was like and what the potential difficulties were. They hadn’t had a chance to talk about anything else that day.

Until now. A shape loomed out of the darkness, revealing itself to be Loros with a bowl of stew in his good hand and of all things a spoon now in place of the metal claw on his right hand. He smiled and then sat next to Jorah, before eating about half of the stew in a few swallows and slurps. Yes, he was still the same as ever.

“It’s good. Your woman’s a good cook,” Loros said through a full mouth. “You done that foolish ceremony with her yet?”

Foolish ceremony… ah. “We’re not married.”

An amused look, followed by more slurping as the rest of the stew vanished. “Ah, that’s was good. You will be. That one’s got her eye on you. I can tell. Better than that she-goat I last saw you with.”

He thought back. Oh. Her. “She had her advantages. Found herself a rich merchant eventually.”

“Don’t they all?” Loros quipped and then belched. Placing the bowl down he peered at the spoon attachment and then unhooked it, before fumbling in a pouch to one side and then pulling out a metal hand, which fitted onto his stump with a click.

“Where did you get your new hands from?”

“Heh. I saved a party of merchants from some bandits. Fools hadn’t scouted the road ahead properly, or given thought to the fact that not everyone uses the road. Bandits had cloth ears and never heard me and my men until we were on them, by which time it was all over. Leader of the merchants was most grateful – had a Maester in Myr fashion me a new hand with lots of attachments.”

Jorah nodded and then a companionable silence fell as they both digested their meals and stared into the fire. After a while Loros stirred slightly. “You look strained my old friend,” he said in Dothraki. Seeing Jorah’s look of surprise he smiled grimly. “I know that I am too. And I would have no-one else listen to us.”

“Exile… rests heavily on me at the moment,” Jorah replied in the same language. “And I know not why, but I am pulled home. Pulled North.”

Loros looked at him with a frown and then looked back at the fire for a long moment. “You too then? I am also pulled away. Pulled East. Pulled home.”

Jorah winced. “We both face the same fate if we return home, old friend. In my case a headsman’s axe. In your case…”

“In my case far worse than that if my dear brother gets hold of me. Fah. No-ones lives for ever my friend. And besides, the Sea is huge and I am but a speck in it.”

Jorah raised his eyebrows and then looked pointedly at the metal hand. “A speck with one hand, my friend. You are a distinctive speck.”

But Loros just smiled. “If I wish to ride by myself I can be a mote of dust on the wind. And besides – this pull is for a place further East than the Sea. Far further. The Grey Wastes call me. What calls you?”

Jorah looked back at the fire and then shivered a little. “The North. And the Wall. Not to serve there – not to take the Black. But to defend it. I feel it Loros. I feel that I have to be there. And I too cannot explain it.”

The other man nodded. And then he rubbed at his nose. “We are not the only ones my friend. Why do you think that the Dothraki are moving Eastwards? As I said, I would be a mote of dust within a cloud of dust. And then there are the… others.”

Jorah looked sharply at him. “Others?”

This got him a wry smile of apology. “Not the Others of which your legend speak! I mean… I met a man on the road three days ago. He said that the Company of the Rose are also heading to Pentos. They too are being called home.”

Shock roiled through him. And then a deep and bitter envy. “The Company of the Rose? But they exiled themselves. Swore a great oath on it too.”

“And now they go home. They’ll be in Pentos by the time we reach there. Perhaps you should ask them what would be greater than such an oath?”

The fire drew his gaze again. And then the sight of Leera going into their tent caught his eye. He sat there for a moment and then sighed. He could sit there and stare at the fire and feel angry and envious and baffled or he could try to kindle a flame inside him for a bit. To try and fend off the emptiness for a bit longer. So he nodded at Loros – who grinned at him once he also saw Leera – and then stood up and strode over to the tent. Because a little something was better than nothing.

Jory

The boy who was now asleep in the bed of the guest quarters of Winterfell was not the boy that he had first seen in the Red Keep. That boy had been pale, with dark shadows under his eyes. Not very bright either.

This boy was very different. He had grown in so many ways. He was a fount of questions about everything now, he read books voraciously and yet he also wanted to find out more and more about the kind of things that his mother prevented him from seeing – like anything to do with horses, dogs, trees, archery, sword-fighting and anything that any of the Starks – particularly Bran and Arya – were doing.

He smiled a little and then schooled his features as Annah emerged from the room and closed the door carefully. She turned to face the corridor – and then she stopped at the sight of him. “Jory Cassel,” she said with a slight smile. “How fare you?”

A wittier, brighter man might have made a quip then on the lines that his day was all the brighter for seeing her. But he knew that he was not such a man and so he merely nodded carefully. “Well. And you?”

She smoothed down the front of her dress a little as she walked up to draw level with him. “Tired. ‘Tis been a hectic day. Thank you for explaining to his young lordship about the making of arrows.”

He chuckled a little. “Think nothing of it. He asked the questions that I would have at his age. He’s a clever lad.”

“Aye,” she replied, smiling. Then her countenance shifted to a more hawkish aspect. “Aye – he is now.”

Jory looked at her, concerned. “You said earlier that the Maester had inspected him.”

“Indeed, Maester Luwin did. I like that man very much, he speaks nothing but sense. He said that he would tell Lord and Lady Stark that young Robert Arryn was now free of the poison. As we can both see with our own two eyes.”

There was something in her tone in those last words that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. The problem was that he had no idea why. He contented himself instead with escorting her down the corridor and then along to the next. Then he finally made a connection as a number of comments that she had said in the past suddenly seemed to make sense.

“You suspected that the medicine was bad for the boy, didn’t you?”

She shot him a quick look from suddenly narrowed eyes. After a long moment she finally nodded slightly. “I suspected. But that is not the same as knowing. I knew in White Harbour.”

“Did Ser Davos’s guard knock the jar over, or did you have a hand in it?”

This time the look had a little approval. “I might have had something of a hand in it. How did you know?”

“I suspected. But now I know.” He licked his lips nervously, before looking at her. “You are a remarkable woman Annah.” Damn it, he was making a mess of this.

Oddly enough she blushed a little at this. “I am just myself,” she said, knotting the fingers of both hands together just under her breasts. He forced himself not to look at them – both of them – but to look at her face instead.

“And yet you have… affected so much.” Damn it! It was all coming out wrong. “I am glad that you are here,” he gabbled. “To see what the lad is now. And… so I can show you my home.”

She looked at him again, with eyes that were suddenly so bright. “Your home is a wonderful place. There is so much here and…” She knotted her fingers again. “Lord and Lady Stark have been very kind to me and I-”

“I would like to show you so much more of the North.” He flushed. “Your pardon, I did not mean to speak over you, I am just keen to…” he stuttered to a pause as his mind went blank and ran out of words.

“Keen to…?” Annah prompted as she took a hesitant step forwards.

He wanted to take her in his arms and then kiss her thoroughly, even though it might get him slapped, but suddenly they both heard the sound of footsteps. Jory cursed internally as he saw a familiar figure appear at the end of the corridor, turn slowly in their direction and then walk towards them with slow and measured steps. Wait. T’was Lord Stark. Who was walking with his eyes closed?

“M’Lord?” Jory asked hesitantly. “Are you well?”

And then the world turned sideways and seemed to upend itself, because Lord Stark opened his eyes – which were orbs of red fire, or so it seemed. He stared in shock and no little horror, as Annah gasped. He looked at her quickly, but she rallied. She was made of strong stuff, the lady from the Vale.

Lord Stark seemed to stare that them both for a long moment and then directed that red gaze at him. “Jory Cassel.” His voice was odd, as if he was speaking at the mouth of a long passageway or tunnel, his words almost echoing. He sounded as if someone was speaking through him, if that was possible. “Saddle Lord Stark’s horse.”

He stared at the Lord of Winterfell, his mind filled with questions and then nodded abruptly. “Ah – aye my Lord.”

Lord Stark turned and then walked away. Jory stared after him and then looked at Annah, who had both hands over her mouth and was quivering with emotion. “I must see to his horse,” Jory said hoarsely. “Would you-”

“Fetch Lady Stark? Aye, I will – and right fast.” And then she gathered her skirts in one hand, lifted them a little and ran off, showing no small display of speed.

By the time that Jory had finished arranging for the saddling of Lord Stark’s horse – and several others, including his own to be on the safe side – Winterfell was starting to stir with urgent activity. Especially when Lord Stark emerged from a doorway from the crypts and startled the life out of anyone who caught sight of his eyes. Jory quickly strode over to join him. What was going on, what magic was at work here? “Your horse is saddled my Lord.”

Lord Stark nodded. Then he turned and strode over to the building that housed the kennels, with Jory nervously following. As they entered he noticed that every one of the dogs stared at Lord Stark as if he was the most important think in the world, bar none. The Houndsmaster merely stared at Lord Stark in what looked like awe and shocked fearfulness.

“The last pen is to be restored to how it once was,” Lord Stark boomed as he pointed at the pen facing the doors. “Tear down the wooden partitions. Bring in straw. This place was built to house larger creatures. It shall house them again.” And then he turned on his heel and left.

The Houndsmaster stared after him in bafflement. “They’ve always been t’same size. Same layout. Stone walls wi’ wooden partitions in them. Have been for as long as I can remember.”

Jory looked at the stalls thoughtfully. “Then why wooden partitions inside stone walls? M’Lord Stark is right. These were built for larger creatures. Bigger mastiffs perhaps? Anyway – do as his Lordship said.”

As he darted out to find Lord Stark he could see that the gathering crowd of man and woman had been joined by some important additions. Lady Stark looked as if she had hurriedly dressed and was standing there with her hands clutching each other under her breasts. Her hair was undone and she looked terrified. Next to her stood Annah, who looked at him with what looked like relief. And then to Lady Starks’ right was young Robb Stark. He looked as if he had dressed in a hurry and was watching his father with worry. Theon Greyjoy was to one side, as was Jon Snow and as Jory looked at them he could see Domeric Bolton and Maester Luwin join the party.

As for Lord Stark – well, he was just standing there, that strange red fire glowing in his eyes. As he seemed to catch sight of the others he turned to them. “Worry not,” he said in that strange voice. “We mean no harm. But the compact must be made again, the old alliance must be reforged. And you know naught about it.” Whereupon he strode to his horse and mounted it.

Jory ran to his own horse and clambered into the saddle. He could see his uncle striding towards him clutching a burning brand and he waved at him. “Uncle! Give me your brand!”

Ser Rodrik, who looked as if his sideburns were standing on end, nodded at him and then passed the brand over. “Jory, what in the name of the Old Gods is going on?”

“I think Ser Rodrik that the Old Gods are speaking through my father,” said a voice to one side and he both looked to see that Robb Stark had followed their lead and mounted a horse. “Brands! We need brands!”

As flaming brands were brought Jory looked over the group. Lord Stark was sitting there in his saddle, motionless. Robb Stark and Jon Snow were talking quietly to Theon Greyjoy, their horses close together and then Domeric Bolton danced his horse skilfully up to them and join the conversation. All nodded once and then took brands themselves, as did three guards.

Feeling a hand on his knee he looked down and to his right to see that Annah was there. “Jory Cassel, where are you going?”

“I must follow Lord Stark.”

“Then do so. But bring yourself back safely Jory Cassel.” She licked her lips nervously. “We have a conversation to complete.”

Jory looked at her and then nodded with a smile – and then he heard Lord Stark bellow a single word. “RIDE!” And then they were off, trotting through the gates and out into the dark.

The moon was starting to rise and that as well as their brands gave just enough light to ride by. Just. Jory squinted at the road ahead of them and then wondered what they were doing out here, in the dead of night.

To make matters worse after a while Lord Stark turned off the road and started riding towards the Wolfswood. He led them all and he had no brand at all – but he seemed to know exactly where they were going. How he was controlling his horse in such darkness Jory had not the least idea.

When they entered the trees he started to really worry. There were branches all over the place and all it would have taken would be one in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to hurt someone or even knock them out of their saddle. But Lord Stark seemed to know every twist and turn of their route, seemed to know exactly what was in front of them.

On they rode and after a while Jory started to notice something. They were riding on an old road. It was a badly overgrown one that had not seen a hoof for many a long century, but there was just enough light to see that it had been a road once. But to where?

He had his answer when eventually Lord Stark slowed and then raised a hand in the old gesture to stop. Jory thanked the Old Gods as he dismounted, before detailing two of the guards to hold the reins of the others as they also dismounted.

When he looked back at Lord Stark he could see that he was standing by his motionless horse. Young Lord Robb was worriedly staring at him and swapped a concerned look with Jory.

“It’s a Godswood!” The words came from Theon Greyjoy of all people, who was staring into the darkness ahead of them. He had extinguished his brand and was peering ahead at the dark void in front of them all.

Lord Stark walked forwards slowly into the clearing and as the others walked with him Jory saw that the Squidling was right. It was a Godswood. And unless he missed his guess an ancient one even by the standards of Winterfell. The Heart Tree was a huge and gnarled – not misshapen, just vast and strong. And there was a moss-covered boulder in front of it, about as high as his waist and two arm-lengths long, with what looked like something carved on its side.

“I’ve hunted in these woods all my life,” he heard Robb Stark say in a shocked voice. “But never have I ever seen any sign of this place.”

“You would not,” Lord Stark said, still in that terrible voice. “This place is a special one.” He walked towards the boulder and then stood between it and the Heart Tree, before turning and placing a hand on both. “We are Starks,” he said in a suddenly intent voice. “WE have come again. To honour the pact and forge it anew. Come. You are summoned.”

The words made him want to run in whatever direction Lord Stark commanded, to ride against whatever foes. He could see that the words had the same effect on the others. Young Lord Robb seemed to stand taller, with his hand on the pommel of his sword, as did Jon Snow and Domeric Bolton. Theon Greyjoy looked as if he was quivering with anticipation.

They stood there in the clearing for a long moment – and then he heard the sound of the undergrowth being pushed to one side and the whisper of old dead leaves being trodden on. What was coming?

After a moment he got his answer. A massive form emerged from the undergrowth, almost the size of a small pony but far more furry. A direwolf. It was a direwolf. Jory fought down the urge to piss himself in terror. But… this was a direwolf that just stood there and stared at Lord Stark for a long moment, before padding over to then stand by him. This was not what he had heard that they did. And there was something about the girth of the beast that puzzled him – until he realised that it was a bitch heavy with pups. This was a direwolf that would soon need a midwife, so to speak.

Lord Stark was staring at the direwolf, which was in turn staring back. And then he raised the hand that had been on the Heart Tree and placed it gently on the forehead of the direwolf. “The pact is renewed,” Lord Stark said in that intent voice again. “Protection for protection. As it was in the old days. Because of the old days. No Stark shall ever harm a direwolf. It is sworn.”

For a moment, a heartbeat, Jory could have sworn that red light flared between Lord Stark’s fingers, but then it was gone, if it had ever existed. And then he turned and faced his son. “Robert Stark – this must be done when the time is right. You will know. We must ride now. To Winterfell.”

As he strode off to his horse the direwolf followed him and much to Jory’s astonishment the horses did not instantly panic as the creature approached. As they mounted the direwolf moved to the side of Lord Stark’s horse and then as they trotted off back the way that they had came the creature stayed there, loping along by the side of the remarkably unconcerned horse.

By the time that they finally broke out of the forest and up towards the road that led back to Winterfell he could see the first tell-tale streaks of light that meant that dawn was not too far away and he stifled a yawn. And then a realisation struck him, not long before they reached the road.

“Lord Robb – permission to ride ahead and tell the guards not to loose arrows at the direwolf?”

There was a slightly startled pause and then a shouted response. “Do so, Jory – ride!”

He kicked at the ribs of his horse with both heels and then galloped ahead of the others, taking advantage of the growing light. Yes, dawn was coming and he could soon see the towers of Winterfell. As he approached the Westgate he heard the calls of the guards and he waved a hand at them as the gates groaned open.

“Lord Stark approaches,” he bellowed as he reined in his horse in the courtyard beyond the gates. “And his party includes a direwolf. Do not attack it! Send word to all the guards – do not attack the direwolf!”

Various confused mutterings greeted this, but men trotted off to the walls and into the gatehouse. Jory dismounted and then looked around. He could see Lady Stark and a group of others approaching him. Annah was one of them, along with a rather bleary-eyed young Bran Stark. Not far behind them was a scurrying and equally bleary-eyed Sansa Stark. And there was also the huge bulk of GreatJon Umber. who looked highly annoyed at not having gone along with them.

“Jory Cassel, where is my husband and my son?” Lady Stark called out with fear in her voice.

“They are all coming, M’Lady – I rode on ahead to tell the guards not to panic at the sight of their new companion.”

“What companion?” Bran Stark piped up, looking intrigued.

Jory hesitated and then said: “A direwolf M’Lady.”

Something happened to Lady Stark’s face at that word. Shock came first, and then fear, as if this was something that she knew might happen but had hoped would not. And then something else. Calculation.

Hearing the sound of horses they all turned to face the gateway and as Lord Stark rode through a great mutter went up from the assembled men and women as they saw the huge form of the direwolf. It wasn’t until the others also then rode through that Lady Stark’s face seemed to lose some of its rictus of fear.

“By all the Gods,” she muttered. “That animal is huge. Is it safe?”

Lord Stark seemed to hear and then turned his head towards her. “It is safe. It is protected here. The old alliance is renewed, the Pact reforged. There must always be a direwolf in the home of any Stark. You have forgotten much, all of you.”

Bran had turned white at the sight of the red fire in his father’s eyes, but then seemed to rally. He tilted his head to one side. “Who are you?”

Lord Stark regarded him gravely. “Your ancestor, boy. I was called Edric, in a time long past.”

“Where is Father?”

“He is here still. He did not know about this. The Old Gods woke me for this task and soon I will sleep again.” He turned to the direwolf and then gestured at the building that held the kennels. “Go. Sleep. Prepare.”

The direwolf huffed at this and then licked his extended hand, before turning and padding through the door. Gazing in Jory could see that it was circling about in the straw, pressing it down, before slumping down and then appearing to go to sleep.

Lord Stark seemed to look about Winterfell one more time and then he turned to Robb Stark. “The tower must be made ready,” he said. “They move in the North. All of them.” And then the red fire in his eyes went out, as if it had been snuffed out.

There was a pause whilst everyone stared at Lord Stark, who was rubbing at his eyes tiredly – and then he stopped and looked about, as startled as Jory had ever seen him look. “What are you all looking at?” Then he looked down at his clothes. “And how did I get here?”

Jory winced a little. This would take some explaining.

 


 

Petyr

They came for him at dawn. Not that he could tell what hour it was from his black cell. Instead he just saw the bright lights of the burning brands they bore.

He had not slept much the previous night. Part of that was down to the thought that there was every chance that he would die that day, which was not something that he had been planning at all. “Die” had not been on his schedule at all for the year. It was all most inconvenient and he giggled to himself a little as he thought of that. The anger was the other part of why he had not slept. Those sanctimonious, hypocritical bastards. High-born scum. What did they know of the world – the real world, the world that produced their food and their clothes and their coin? Nothing, that was what.

He stood as the guards approached and then unlocked the door. “Out,” the leading one grunted. “Move.” So he did, passing down the dark corridor and as he went he wondered what lay ahead of him.

He had to admit that there was a tiny part of him that still had hope. He had no intention of fighting like a knight or a lord. If he had to kick his opponent in the balls or throw his knife in in their eye to win then he would do so in a heartbeat. A fair fight was for fools and he was no fool. He was Petyr fucking Baelish and if he had to he’d beat a man to death with his own severed arm if it meant that he would live to see another day.

When they came out into the sunlight it was enough to almost blind him and he paused and put his hand over his eyes before squinting horribly through almost screwed-shut eyes. After a moment a barked “Move!” got him stumbling forwards again and as he walked he looked around a little. The courtyard was empty. Arryn and Baratheon were taking no chances. Was he really that dangerous? The thought brought a mirthless smile to his face.

They passed through a doorway and then down a staircase. Down eh? Where to? After a while they reached the bottom of the stairs and as they did another door creaked open in front of them. Oh. It was an armoury. Or at least a place that contained armour. No weapons. Or at leasr that was what they thought.

“Equip yourself,” the leading guard said and then strode out, leaving him alone in the room as the door slammed shut. Well now, that was a bad idea and he quickly looked about the place. No window, that was bad. There was the door he had entered by and another door opposite it. Locked, naturally. Anything else? Any crevices, old blocked-up doorways, stairs or holes? Damn it, nothing.

He looked at the armour. There was a good selection and he nodded. Right then. If he was going to do this then he needed every advantage. And so he collected the best selection he could find and then started to equip himself. Greaves for his legs. A breastplate – a good one too. The buckles were a little tricky to do on his own, but he managed it. Bracers for his forearms and then gauntlets for his hands. Oh and then there was the heavy buckler that he strapped onto his left arm. Excellent. This was a weapon. Smash someone in the face with it and then kick them while they were down. Finally he chose a helmet with a noseguard and cheekguards.

And then he waited. The room was lit by a lantern or three and he looked at them consideringly. One way to escape might be to set a fire. However, there was no guarantee that they’d rescue him and he had no intention of dying from a lungful of smoke whilst being cooked alive in his armour.

That thought made him shudder a little – and then he thought of the moment that he had read about the death of Brandon Stark and he felt a smirk creep over his face. That one had gotten what had been coming to him. It had been a shame that he had not been there, but he had gleaned every last detail about what had happened out of people. What the light had been like in the throne room. Even what the smell had been like.

The other opened suddenly and he looked up. The sellsword, Bronn, was standing there, a crossbow in his hands. “You done then?”

“The room lacks any weapons,” he replied dryly. “So I am armoured but not yet armed.”

“That’ll be provided. Off we go.” The sellsword sounded offensively bright and cheerful for someone who looked so tired and Petyr wondered what else had been happening. They passed down another corridor and then out a door and into a dark staircase lit only by the brands of the men behind him. It went down – a long way down and he felt his arm start to ache from the weight of the shield after a while. He thought about running for it a number of times, but given the darkness below that would be a bad idea. He didn’t want to trip and break his neck. No, he had to bide his time.

When they got to the bottom of the staircase a door creaked open in front of him and then they were out into the bright sunlight again and once more he screwed his eyes against the light. He could feel his feet crunch against sand on flagstones and he staggered a little as he walked forwards. But then his eyes adjusted and his stance changed a little and he kept walking. He could see wooden planks ahead now and then his feet boomed as he walked over the new surface.

He could see the sea to one side now and then the group of men ahead. Ah. Arryn. And Baratheon. And a few others. Guards. No crowd. Yes, he was indeed that dangerous to them. For a moment he wanted to weep – but then he pulled himself together and thought about the letter. Yes, that should have arrived by now. He had written it weeks ago and then placed it with a man who had been paid to send it on when he had word to. Well, he had sent word just before his attempted escape.

Arryn would pay for this. The letter would see to that.

As he approached Arryn he heard the guards halt behind him and he halted himself and glared into the eyes of Arryn, who was looking at him with hooded eyes. He had one hand on his own sword – and an axe in the other.

“Well now my Lord Hand,” Petyr said in poisonously sweet tones. “Here I am. Are you my opponent?”

Arryn’s eyes narrowed. There was something about the man that made him uneasy for once, as if the Hand of the King had something flickering behind his eyes. Hate perhaps? “No,” the old man said after a moment. “I am not your opponent. I have selected a worthy one for you though.” His eyes flickered over Petyr’s armour. “You seem very well equipped. Good heavy armour.” There was something in his voice that Petyr couldn’t put his finger on, a tone that sounded slightly gleeful, slightly guilty and slightly determined. It was an odd combination.

“I am fighting for my life Arryn,” he spat. “Of course I am. Will I be allowed to choose a weapon?”

“No,” said Arryn coldly and then he held the axe out, handle first. “You will use this.”

He reached out and took it, feeling the weight. A good heavy axe. He placed his hand inside the leather loops that were at the end of it, wrapped them around his wrist to get a good purchase and then hefted it again. “A weapon I am unfamiliar with. Well played my Lord Hand.”

Arryn stared at him for a long moment and then stepped back formally, three measured steps. “Petyr Baelish,” he said in a harsh voice, “You are sentenced to trial by combat. May the Seven have mercy on your soul.”

This was odd. He turned his head swiftly. Everyone was backing away from him. Where was his opponent? “Who do I fight? Who, damn you?”

“My champion,” Arryn said with a savage smile. “The sea.”

And with no other warning than that there was a creak and then the sound of wood moving fast and Petyr had just enough time to swear before a hatch beneath his feet opened and he plummeted down into the water below him.

The shock was horrible as he cleaved the water and he opened his mouth to scream, before closing it quickly. The water of Blackwater Bay thundered around him, filled with scraps of objects that had not been scoured out yet by the tide and down he plunged. When he hit the bottom, miraculously still upright, he could see his feet enter the sand. He flailed his hands and then tried to kick upwards – but he stayed exactly where he was.

The weight. He had to get rid of everything. He tore at his right hand and the axe eventually fell to the sand, and then after a long moment of struggle the shield joined it. His lungs were burning, but still he clawed at the armour. The helmet joined the weapons and then he kicked up again, only to sink down. The breastplate, he… needed to get… rid of… it and… his fingers spasmed and then he… pawed at the… buckles. It, it was… so dark… now and… his lungs were… fiery and…

 


 

Jon Arryn

When the last of the bubbles stopped rising to the surface of the water below him he leaned over a little. There was a dark and motionless shape in the water. After a long moment he became aware that Bronn was also peering into the water.

“You know, my Lord Hand,” the sellsword said musingly after another long moment, “He could be trying to lull us into a false sense of security.”

This was a good point and he nodded a little. “Very true, very true.” They waited a bit longer. “Perhaps we should drop something on his head and see if he reacts?”

“Good idea my Lord,” Bronn said brightly, as he removed the quarrel from the crossbow he was carrying and then gently relaxed the drawstring with a handy hook. “Give me a moment.”

The sellsword vanished off to one side, leaving him alone with Stannis Baratheon, who was staring at a sheaf of notes that he had pulled out of his pocket. After a moment he caught Jon’s eye. “I’m looking at replacements for the men that Baelish corrupted.”

Jon nodded sombrely and then looked back at the motionless shape under the water. After a moment Bronn reappeared clutching a piece of chain that looked extremely heavy. He raised an eyebrow at Jon and then, after receiving a nod, he leant over and dropped it straight at Baelish’s head. It vanished with a mighty splash and they watched it fall.

“My,” said Bronn as they watched the red cloud around the head of Petyr Baelish form and then disperse. “I think that he’s dead my Lord Hand.” And then something seemed to leave him, a tension that Jon knew that he felt.

“You too were keen to see him dead then?”

“My Lord Hand,” Bronn said seriously, “The man was a weasel, as I said. And a man who bore grudges. It was in my best interest to see him dead. If he had lived I have no doubt he’d want to see me dead, for catching him. Revenge is something he believed in a lot.”

“And now he’s dead.” Stannis said the words with great satisfaction – by his standards anyway. He looked at Jon. “When you are done here I must talk to you.” And then he walked off.

“What are your orders my Lord?” Bronn asked.

“Stay here until low tide and then retrieve the body. His head is to go on a spike over the main gate of the Red Keep. Quill will deal with that.”

Bronn nodded. “And the rest of him?”

“Quill has orders to send his bones back to his keep. He was a good man once Bronn. As was his father.” He looked at the sellsword. “Now, as to you – you will have your full payment for his capture and for your duties since then.”

“My thanks, my Lord Hand,” Bronn said, obviously highly pleased.

“And I have a proposal for you. You did not want Lord Baelish’s hold. ‘Tis somewhat barren, as you said. But have you heard of a place called Foxhold?”

Bronn frowned in thought for a long moment. “It’s in The Vale I think my Lord Hand. Near the High Road, due North of Saltpans in the Riverlands.”

“Aye. It’s not a large town, but it has a castle and a great deal of potential. Sadly old Lord Cawlish, who held it was… well, a traditional man, content to do things as his forefathers did. He died six months ago with no issue and no family to inherit. I have been trying to think of a suitable and trustworthy man to be lord of it. I would grant you the title. If you want it.”

Bronn had turned pale with emotion. “Why me?” he said faintly.

“You caught Baelish and you found his account books. The Realm owes you more than coin Bronn. At the very least I was going to have the King knight you.”

“Ser Bronn,” the sellsword said softly. “It does sound good.” Then he looked at Jon. “Why me? I’m just a sellsword.”

“You are more than that. You are a good fighter, you are cunning and you are intelligent. I need men like you. There are drawbacks of course. You would be a sworn bannerman to the Eyrie. If I call your swords, you must come. A sellsword no longer. You would be a lord, with land. And with land comes people and obligations to those people.”

Bronn’s eyes searched his face for a long moment – and then they dropped. “My Lord Hand, I am not nobly born and-”

“Piss on that.” Jon said the words roughly and felt a little surprised by his vehemence. “Baelish was right about one thing. I know nothing about what the smallfolk think. That is a mistake. I would have it corrected, I would have you tell me what people are thinking in The Vale. And every noble started out as a man who killed other men to control an area. Noble born… is not something that should count when a good man deserves a prize.”

“My Lord Hand,” Bronn said with an odd look on his face, “Having been a sellsword has made me a killer, a cynic, a thief at times and a man with no morals.”

“I know,” Jon replied, taking a roll of parchment out of a pouch in his belt. “But as a Lord you will learn other attributes. You see things clearly. And you learn equally quickly. It is yours for the taking.”

Bronn drew his brows down in thought for a long moment. And then he took a deep breath. “My Lord Hand,” he said in a voice that started shaky but became firmer with every word. “I will take it. I do not know what good I can do, but I will take it. And if you ever call your banners again, I will come. I swear it.” And then he took the parchment.

 


 

Ned

The direwolf was still asleep when he looked into the kennels. The other occupants were very quiet indeed – not cowed, more in awe of the giant creature. He looked at it in some bemusement. The previous night had been odd. He remembered it but vaguely, as if it had all been a dream. He had felt like a puppet, made to dance at the whim of another. Well, ‘whim’ was the wrong word. Intent was the right word. He had felt the grim intent behind the thoughts of the dead man who had possessed him. He just couldn’t work out what had triggered it. Had it been one of the artefacts in that maddeningly confusing secret room in his solar? Had it been something else? In which case what?

He sighed and then turned away. The arrival of the direwolf was a worrying sign. The fact that he had been possessed by one of his ancestors was even more worrying. Why had it happened? For what reason? Was it that the Old Gods were forcing matters somewhat? If so then why? He remembered that Robb had told him that originally the mother direwolf had been killed by a stag antler in the neck. The symbolism of that troubled him. Yet here she was, alive and unharmed. And dangerous. What would she be like when she woke up?

And despite that why was he not afraid of her? Because the fact was that he was not. Why? He did not know.

Hearing the sound of approaching feet – and heavy feet at that – he looked over. GreatJon Umber was approaching and he looked a little wary. Not that Ned could blame him. His old friend had been rather disturbed to see that red fire in his eyes. And also awed. Everyone in Winterfell who had laid eyes on him during his possession still looked at him with the same kind of awe.

It was all a bit much, frankly. Still, if the worst came to the worst and the Wall fell and he had to order his people North to meet the Others, he had little doubt that they would heed his call.

“Morning Ned,” the GreatJon boomed. “So, how is she?”

Ned quirked an eyebrow at the sleeping direwolf. “Asleep.”

The Lord of the Last Hearth peered at the creature. “I heard that someone was saying that your kennels were originally built to house direwolfs. They look big enough.”

“Aye,” Ned said thoughtfully. “Luwin’s very excited and is going through the records again. And Robb’s looking at the objects in my solar. I wonder when my ancestors lost the link to the animals?”

The GreatJon frowned in thought. “Maybe the same time that you forgot that that Godswood was in the Wolfswood. Maybe when direwolfs no longer came South of the Wall, or were hunted instead being tamed. Maybe someone died too young or too unexpectedly, before they could pass the secret on.” He winced a little. “I bloody near wet meself when I saw your eyes Ned.”

He eyed his old friend. “Glad you didn’t. Might have been messy.”

This got him a guffaw, which was interrupted by the sound of a horn being blown from outside the gate, answered by a horn from the gatehouse. They both turned to face in that direction and after a moment Rodrik Cassel puffed his way towards them. “Beg pardon my lords, but there is a party of men approaching. They bear the banner of House Reed.”

“Howland Reed, at last,” Ned grunted. “Admit them at once.” As the older Cassel walked off he stroked his chin and then looked at the GreatJon. “He said that he was on his way here, but I expected him a day or so earlier.”

The gates creaked open and a party of men rode through, with the leading pair of riders bearing the banner of House Reed, the black lizard-lion on a green field. Behind them rode a small man dressed in green clothing, who looked about the courtyard as soon as he entered. As soon as he caught sight of Ned he waved and then dismounted rapidly, before handing the reins to one of his men and then walking swiftly over to the Lord of Winterfell. He was followed by a boy and a girl, both in their teens with brown, almost red, hair and both also clad in green. He could tell at a glance that they were related to Howland.

The Lord of Greywater Watch strode up to Ned and the GreatJon and then, much to Ned’s surprise, he formally went to one knee, followed by the two children and then the rest of the Crannogmen behind us. “Lord Stark, the Stark in Winterfell, House Reed had obeyed your summons,” his old friend said in a formal voice. “Command us and we will obey.”

Ned looked down at Howland. “Stand, Howland, I would never have you kneel to me,” he protested. “And welcome to Winterfell, you and your men.”

Howland stood and then stepped to one side and gestured at the two children. “My son Jojen and my daughter Meera. Children – Lord Eddard Stark.”

The two stood and then bowed formally and Ned looked at them carefully. Meera was the elder and had what looked like a cheerful face that seemed to be unnaturally solemn at the moment. Jojen… well the boy looked as if he had once been blind but now could see for the first time, judging by the way that he was blinking at things.

“Ned,” Howland said quietly, “I must talk to you at once. The moment that I heard the call from Winterfell – a call that rang through Greywater Watch as nothing has for a thousand years – I knew that I had to see you. My children too. Especially Jojen – as he is a Greenseer.”

Ned stared at the boy, who shifted a little under his gaze and then looked back at Howland. “A… a Greenseer?”

“Aye,” Howland said quietly. “His dreams come true.”

“Although, Lord Stark – your pardon father – of late they have changed,” the boy piped up suddenly. And then he paled. “I see that you have Fr… your direwolf already.”

All three crannogmen were staring over his shoulder and Ned looked behind him. To his astonishment the direwolf was sitting at the entrance to the kennels and was looking at them all intently. When she saw him looking at her she tilted her head and then blinked and it was at that moment that he realised that the fur above her eyes had changed colour a little. It almost looked like the shape of a hand.

“’Tis a long story,” Ned said wryly. “Very well – let us go to my solar and discuss this.”

 


 

Robb

Grey Wind was in Winterfell. Well, he was in his mother, who was in Winterfell, but at least he was here. And he was safe. He thought about the day that he first met Grey Wind, the day that the Night’s Watch deserter had been executed. The day that they’d found the she-direwolf dead with a stag’s antlers in her throat. That had been a day of portents. Worse – clear portents.

How had they missed it at the time? How could they have failed to see the connection?

He sighed and then moved on from where he had been staring out at the Wolfswood. What else had been lost, or forgotten?

Sensing movement to one side he saw Maester Luwin walking towards him, or at least in his general direction as he had his nose in a large book. Walking and reading was not a good idea, as was proved when the Maester almost fell over the hem of his robes.

“Careful there, Maester Luwin!” Robb said with a smile as he reached out with a hand and steadied him.

The older man looked up. “Ah – Lord Robb! I’ve been going through the histories again and I think that I have found some references to the Godswood where your lord father met the direwolf!”

This was interesting. “What references?”

“See, here. The histories make a reference to ‘Yr place of ye Oaths’ and ‘ye olde Godswood.’ Now, I always thought that those were references to the Godswood here in Winterfell, but there are other references to ‘Yr Starke ryding to yr Oathplace’. And then apparently riding back with a wolf companion. It’s unclear why the link was broken though.”

Robb looked over the faded, spidery hand on the page and found himself nodding. “Perhaps someone died early, before the knowledge could be passed on. Or the direwolves stopped coming South of the Wall. That’s the first one that we’ve known of in years. There might be more information in the room in Father’s solar.”

“That was what I thought to. Your lord father is there now, talking to Lord Reed and his children though.”

Howland Reed, Jojen and Meera. That was another change from the past that he remembered. The Reed children had been sent to him to pledge the loyalty of their house after he was proclaimed the King in the North. But Lord Reed had stayed in the Neck, and he remembered that the GreatJon had told him that Howland Reed had not left the Neck since he returned from Robert’s Rebellion. There was a tale in there somewhere and he needed to talk to Father about it.

“Then we shall talk to Father about this when he is free.”

 


 

Dany

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining but it wasn’t too hot. Today the wind was blowing softly from the West, enough to cool and also to fill the air with the smell of the herbs that grew not too far away. She loved days like today. Well, she usually did.

She was starting to worry about her brother. Viserys had always worried her more than a bit – he always took things passionately, sometimes to the point of anger – or even fury. When ‘the dragon’ was roused then Viserys could be vicious – and violent. More violent of late than usual. Their descent in penury had come as a shock. Hearing Viserys being called ‘The Beggar King’ had been a shock. Seeing his reaction once he properly heard what was being called out – that still made her flinch.

And now he had his dragon egg. Magister Mopatis had given it to him two nights previously, a large egg that was so black that it seemed to be almost another colour. Viserys had been more than delighted, he had been enraptured and had instantly dismissed the Magister’s gift to her of three far smaller dragon eggs.

In fact he was still as enraptured now over his large egg as he had been before Possible even more. He spent hours every day stroking the egg and whispering to it.

“I shall call him Balerion the Greater Black Dread, because he will be greater and more dreadful than the dragon flown by our ancestors,” he had told her in a gloating voice. “And when has hatched and grown enough I shall fly him on black wings. First to Storm’s End and burn out the fortress of the Usurper. And then on to Casterley Rock, to find and eat the traitor Lannister. The Eyrie next, to snuff out the Arryns and then the hovel that is Winterfell, killing all the barbarian Starks. Only then shall I fly on wings of vengeance to Kings Landing – and then I’ll hunt the usurper through the halls of our ancestors and find him and have Balerion the Greater Black Dread eat him!”

She shivered a little at the memory of the sound of his voice. There had been something… wrong with the timbre of it. A sick fascination. Yes, she was worried about him.

Hearing voices to one side she pressed a little deeper into the alcove by the side of the balcony overlooking the main square of Pentos. She loved this view, but it could be infuriating to be so near but so far to the life and energy of the city.

Especially as she had heard so much about the newest people to enter the city. They were the Company of the Rose and they sounded, well, romantic to her when she had heard about them. The problem was that Viserys had also heard about them, but had had a different reaction. He had insisted that he lead a party down to the city to recruit them. “They claim to be of the North, from Westeros,” he had proclaimed self-importantly. “I am their rightful king, therefore they should be fighting for me. Especially as those Dothraki savages have all vanished Eastwards.”

That had not been a tactful thing to say to the Magister, although he had admittedly looked puzzled whenever any mention was made of the Dothraki, who behaviour had apparently baffled everyone. That said, his response to Viserys and his comments had been rather firm.

“That would not be a good idea my king. You must remember that this… rather bizarre company of sellswords are exiles from the North for a reason. They refused to bend the knee to your illustrious ancestor Aegon the Conqueror. And despite the fact that that was centuries ago they still, I am told, do not love Targaryens. They would not follow you my king. They might even wish you violence.”

Which had eventually – after some muttering – shut her brother up.

The sound of voices receded but then she heard the sound of horns in the distance and she craned her neck as she peered down. Far below she could see horsemen entering a square with what looked like furled banners. And then she wondered if she could get down there and see what was going on.

But perhaps she first needed to find a cloak and a cowl?

 


 

Ned

When they entered his solar Ned noticed that Howland stopped and stared the moment that he saw all the books – and then again at the map. He had ordered a new one to be drawn up, showing the settlements that he now knew existed North of the Wall, but for the meantime he had the old one, albeit annotated and in a more prominent position. And Howland stared at it in astonishment.

“What are those… places in the lands beyond the Wall Ned?”

“Wildling settlements,” Ned said tersely as he poured some wine for his friend and some watered wine for the Reed children. “Mance Rayder was here a matter of days ago.”

“The Wildling King Beyond the Wall?” And then Howland stared at his son, who looked a little startled. “The king with no crown who kneeled to the wolf?”

“Aye father,” Jojen Reed said in an emotion-choked voice. “As I described it.”

This made Ned stop and pause, before waving at them all to be seated. “You dreamt it?”

“I did Lord Stark.”

Ned stroked his chin and then looked at Howland. “The legends of the Greensight are true then. And if those are true I wonder what else is?”

“Your pardon Ned, but you do not seem too surprised by this.” Howland pointed this out with an odd, unreadable expression. “But then we did all hear the Call to Winterfell. It fair made Greywater Watch shake as nothing else has for a thousand years or more.”

“You sound as if you knew what it was.”

“Ned, we Crannogmen… we do not forget. We are of the North and we have never been conquered. And we remember the things that others might forget. There are tales of objects in Winterfell, things owned by your ancestors. Things made by your ancestors. You must have had good reason to send out that call.”

Ah. Time for a little candour. “Howland,” he said with more than a little weariness, “I did not know that I was doing it at that time. But it had to be done. The Others have returned, Howland. The Long Night comes. We must prepare. I thank the Old Gods that they allowed me to see what must be done, especially as I knew nothing of anything.”

Howland paled a little at this. “You… knew nothing of what?”

“Brandon was the heir. Father must have told him of what might happen if the Others came again. I knew not. I do not even know how much my father told Brandon. All I know is that… for various reasons that I shall you about later, GreatJon Umber came to Winterfell with the Hearthstone that his family have protected for many long years. And it gave me a vision.”

Ned stood and walked over to the map and then pointed at Hopemourne. And then, as he opened his mouth, Jojen Reed broke in. “The home of the enemy. The place that knows no hope. The long mountain with the old prison and the gate that was broken open.” The boy was white as a sheet and shaking. “I have seen it in my dreams Lord Stark. And other things.”

This was important, he could feel it and he sat quickly before the boy even as Howland pulled his own chair closer and Meera peered at him worriedly. “Go on lad. What else have you seen?”

“My dreams… have changed. I once dreamt that the sea came to Winterfell, drawn there by an empty man who belonged to both.” Theon, thought Ned with a shock. “But then that changed. The sea piled up into a great wave along the coasts of the North, but then it did not move – instead it froze. I could see men within that frozen wave, hammering at the ice. And then it went South. And as it moved a wolf made from seawater howled at it and snarled at it.”

Theon again? Ned thought, confused. But a different Theon perhaps? How much has he changed these past months? “What else?”

“A stag shed its horns as it found a great sword. Found a purpose too. I dreamt a small man became a great one, helped by a man who rose from the dead who had never been dead. And I dreamt of an empty lion with broken sword who stood on a precipice with death on one side and heroism on the other. And… last night I dreamt of a sword of light, from the stars. It drove back the shadows – but it wasn’t enough. It needed more.” He sank back in his seat and then rubbed at his forehead. “Your pardon Lord Stark. Father. Dark have been my dreams of late. And… I cannot see it anymore.”

Ned looked at the boy, confused. He noted that Howland looked shocked and Meera looked a little smug. “It?” He prompted.

The boy looked back at him levelly. “The moment of my death. I have known it for some time my Lord. Or I did. I cannot see it now.”

Ned leant back in his chair and then looked at all three of the Reeds in turn. “You children look tired – I think you should join my family as they break their fast. Jojen, should you see anything else, please let me know at once. Howland – please stay. I’ll have food brought up. There are things that you should know and other things that you need to see.”

When the children left Ned made sure that the door of his solar was locked before he turned back to his friend with a smile. “I thought that you would never leave the Neck again! ‘Tis good to see you old friend.”

“Aye, Ned, you too. But first you need to know something. I left Greywater Watch not just because of Jojen’s dreams. Something else has happened. We found signs that a great body of people had crossed into the North.”

He stared at Howland. “What? When?”

“We do not know exactly. They passed by an old path in the Neck. That’s what concerns me Ned. ‘Tis a very old path. Old enough that it is almost never used by Crannogmen these days. So whoever they are we don’t know exactly when they passed through the Neck. But not more than a month ago.”

He thought furiously for a long moment. No word had reached him yet about any violence from the area, so whoever they were they were keeping a low profile. But who were they?

“Any idea of their numbers?”

“Hard to tell due to the nature of the ground. At least a thousand though. As soon as I heard I ordered that Moat Cailin be reinforced at once, and restored as much as possible. I beg your pardon if I overstepped my bounds but-”

“Howland, you did the right thing, think nothing on it.” He paused. “I will send a raven to King’s Landing at once on this. Whoever these people are they must have come from somewhere.”

The Lord of Greywater Watch nodded shortly. Then he looked at Ned. “I stayed in the Neck to protect the secret. Does the boy know yet?”

“He does,” Ned said softly. “I had to tell him. Fortunately Maester Aemon was here at the time.”

Howland’s forehead wrinkled. “Maester Aemon? From Castle Black?”

“Aye. His nearest relative.”

The eyes of the Crannogman widened for a moment – and then narrowed a little. “Ah. Of course. I had forgot his full name. What will the boy do?”

“The world knows him as my son. I have written to Robert to ask him to legitimise him.” He pulled a slight face. “I did not think about the pain he feels when people call him a bastard, even though it is of no fault of his own. He will be a Stark and if need be he will have a hold of his own somewhere. And if, one day, it’s necessary for the truth to come out then… well, we shall deal with that path if and when we come to it. He’s all I have left of Lyanna. Would that she had never met… him.”

A short silence fell. Howland Reed finally broke it. “For what it’s worth, Ned, at Harrenhall, all those long years ago, I once saw a look on his face. It was just after the tourney. T’was the look of a doomed man. A trapped man. I know not what he was thinking. I just know that he did not look like a man who thought that he liked what he was doing.”

Harrenhall. The tourney there had been a lifetime ago. So much had changed since then. Brandon had been alive and was due to marry Cat, Father was still managing things from this very room and Lyanna had been her usual fiery self. Arya reminded him so much of his sister.

And then there had been the others. The Knight of the Laughing Tree, who had whipped the Mad King into a fever of paranoia. Robert, still young, still fit and still without the cares of the throne. Rhaegar, whose actions had started the landslide that had obliterated the Targaryens. And Ashara.

“Too many secrets,” he muttered. “Always too many secrets.” Then he stood and walked over to the tapestry, where he pulled it back to reveal the door to a surprised Howland. “This was my father’s secret. He told Brandon, we think, but not me. Come. I need to show you some things. If the Crannogmen remember then perhaps you know what some of the things within are.”

 


 

Tyrion

It was a glorious morning. Albeit a morning that had consisted of him sneezing a great deal early on due to the cloud of dust that was now rising from the inn, but a glorious morning nevertheless. He looked at the inn as it slowly receded into the distance and then looked ahead again and preened more than a little.

The inn was now under new management, although that wasn’t really his fault. No, it was instead the fault of the former landlord, a man who it seemed had been incapable of dealing honestly with anyone at all at any time. Short weight, bad food, non-payment… it was a long list.

And it had therefore been a bad idea to try and cheat one of the merchants who sold food to the inn, still less the formidable wife of that merchant. Especially to then double the folly by leering at her and then suggesting that he ‘comfort’ her.

The result had been her fist slamming into his jaw and breaking it, sending him insensible to the floor, his head entering the slops bucket as his body came to rest. The resulting fight with his people had been short and curtailed by Emmon, who arrived on the scene and knocked the landlord’s chief flunkey out with one punch of his own.

As things quietened down it was discovered that the landlord, full name one Edwyn Dickon, had his head in a full slops bucket and had apparently drowned. Which was such a tragedy. Well, everyone had had a moment of silence for him that might have been a heartbeat long, before proceeding to celebrate a great deal.

Anyway, given that the merchant and wife had been owed a great deal of coin by the late landlord, then that made them the new owners of the inn. Which they promptly took control of (as Tyrion and his party watched with great glee) and then started to clean up. Along the way, as things were cleaned, various things were discovered that showed that the late and increasingly unlamented landlord had also been a thief. In fact he had stolen quite a few things, given the cries of furious anger that had risen from various people.

Various other people had been grabbed and forcibly searched before being ejected – and yet more things had been found. Including some of the money that Dacey Surestone had brought.

Saying that she had been angry about this had been like saying that water was damp. A massive understatement. She had raged around the inn before vanishing. He eventually found her in the stables, feeding the thin mare that it turned out was hers.

“I can feed Wanderer more oats now,” she had grumped when she saw him. “I have the coin that that thieving bag of pus stole from me.”

He had winced a little at the description before bowing and leaving her to it. He had ordered fresh bedding for all his men and wonder of wonders he had not been bitten by anything when he woke up the next morning.

And now they were on their way again, on the road North to Winterfell. Dacey Surestone rode with them, clutching at what looking like a small chest covered in oilskin and glaring at anyone who got too close. Including him. So he had decided to charm her a little.

To tell the truth it was proving to be… interesting. She did not regard him as a freak at all. Instead she seemed to regard him as being something of a fellow scholar, to be regarded from a cautious distance due to academic rivalries. It was most odd.

It wasn’t until they stopped for some food at noon that he finally got a decent conversation out of her. Once again there had been a hill nearby with a ruin of some kind at the top and he had finally given in to his curiosity and stumped his way up to look at it.

It seemed to be the remains of a building of some kind, built in stone. He looked around it and then tried to imagine what it had been. It was then that he heard the sound of footsteps and he turned to see Dacey Surestone looking at the ruins. “I was wondering what this place was,” he called out to her. “I have seen many places like this on the road North.”

A small smile quirked her face for a moment. “’Tis a place for a signal fire Lord Lannister.”

“Call me Tyrion, please Lady Surestone. And Lord Lannister is my father.” He looked at the stones again. “A signal fire?”

“Lord Tyrion then,” she conceded. Then she gestured at the stones again. “We have not always had maesters and ravens here in the North, Lord Tyrion. There was once need for a chain of signal fires for ordinary messages. This would be…” She orientated herself as she looked at the horizon. “Red Hill. That’s Broken Crag to the North and Crow’s Claw to the South. And then… Surestone Peak beyond that.” Her voice wobbled as she said those last few words.

Tyrion did his best not to look at her, knowing that she would not like to be reminded of any such weakness. He could tell that she liked to think of herself as a strong Northern woman. Then he frowned a little. "But surely I have seen more crags and other places then would be needed for a signal network?"

She looked at him and then smiled a little. "Ah. The Elder Crags, as the histories call them. They are places best defensible against the Others. Before the Wall was built this was a place of war in Winter, Lord Tyrion. The First Men had to defend themselves. Many skirmishes were fought here in the Long Winters of old."

Ah. "The Others," he said carefully. "Surely they are naught but legends?"

This bought him a snort. "Then why build the Wall? To defend against Wildlings? I think not."

"But the Others have not been seen for thousands of years."

"Lord Tyrion," she said caustically, "Evidence of absence is not evidence of non-existence."

And this shook him. "You have read the works of Toron of Myr then?"

"Him and many others. My father would have been a Maester if he had not met my mother. He liked to read a lot. He taught me much." Her slight smile faded. "And who is to say that the Others have not returned? Not me. Nor anyone with the blood of the First Men in their veins. The Call has gone out Lord Tyrion. You will hear of it in Winterfell."

There was something about her voice that spoke to him of a terrible surety. An absolute certainty even. "The Call? And what was that you said about ordinary messages being sent? Have there ever been any extraordinary ones?"

She just looked at him, something burning in her gaze. "There have indeed. One was sent this past month. The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed." She spoke the words as if they were burnt into her heart.

And then he remembered that the same words had been spoken by that captain on the sea and that he had heard similar words said by others on the road. That the Stark called for aid. That the Others came. A river of frozen water slid up and down his back for a moment.

For a moment he recalled his dream. And also the moment that he had come awake in his bunk, at sea, at the start of this long journey of his. And the words... they blazed a trail in his mind. A trail of memory.

After a long moment he licked what were suddenly very dry lips. "My lady, will you ride with me? I feel the sudden need to hear more on this matter."

 


 

Ned

The selection of items in the secret room within his solar had long defeated him. So many odd things, little but every one of them had been of importance to his ancestors and therefore had to be of interest to him now.

He looked to one side and smiled a little. Howland Reed's reaction had been one of absolute shock at the sight of the room, followed by intense concentration. He had first looked at the little green figure, which he had then tilted his head at.

"I have heard of this," he said slowly, "I think that it is a key. But a key to what - I know not." Then he turned his attention to the bronze mirror. "And this... well, again, I have heard of things like these. Mirrors were said to be able to talk to one another. As long as you knew who held the other mirror you wished to talk to, that is. And when, that was another factor I believe. And I think that there are more of these around. But the strength depends on a few things - like the strength of magic."

That made him smile a little. "Luwin asked the Citadel about that. He was fascinated to learn that the glass candles can be relit. That magic has returned."

Howland nodded slowly at that. "I am not surprised at all by that. I did suspect it - especially after hearing the Call." And then he looked at the little cage with the hand - and he paled more than a little, before rallying. "We have one of these at Greywater Watch. But an empty one. Ned, do you know what you have there?"

"I have not the slightest idea."

"'Tis the hand of a wight. Well - a very dead hand."

Ned stared at the skeletal hand and then shuddered away from it. "Are you sure Howland?"

"Aye." He reached out and then brushed the dust from the front of the cage, revealing some writing in the form of runes. "See?"

Ned peered at the runes carefully. The runes were now clear and he frowned a little as he recalled his runelore. "Cage- erm, firm?"

His old friend smiled at him. "Almost. Cageproof. An old term. But one that is apt for this. The cage is said to slow down the process of rot. A part of a wight is placed in it, like a hand or a foot, and the cage's magic preserves it, so that it can be passed to the South, to prove that the Others have returned, that the wights exist."

Ned stared at the cage. His ancestors, he thought, were smarter than he had first thought. Then he set his face and pulled out his dagger and jabbed at the bones in the cage. They did not move at all. "Dead then. I will give orders to burn the bones."

"As you need to. The legends say that any part of a wight must always be burnt, even after it has rotted down into immobility. Or, in this case, bones."

He nodded. "A shame. I have sent Benjen North of the Wall to get the hand of a wight, so that proof could be obtained."

Howland stared at him in some surprise. "Surely Castle Black has one such cage, or knows of it?"

"Castle Black," he said sadly, "Has forgot many things, I fear.”

Another long stare from Howland. “Forgot such things as?”

“The reason why the Wildlings are as they are. I think that originally that acted as scouts for the Wall. But when the Others vanished then the Night’s Watch forgot the link. Perhaps the Wildlings did in part as well. And we know from some of the records that the Night’s Watch seems to have forgotten what kind of weapons were – are – needed to fight the Others. We know that obsidian, or dragonglass, is a weapon against them. And we need a weapon. Legends say that the weapons of the Others would shatter steel as if it was made of glass.”

Howland nodded slowly. “I see.” Then he paused. “I take it that fire would work against them then, as some of the legends say.”

“Aye,” Ned replied. He leant back in his chair again. “I have done much thinking about that. We know that the Others have returned, so at some point I will have to call the banners against them and help man the Wall. We will need all we have against the Others. Obsidian, fire…but what else? What else can we use? I have pondered much on this.”

A silence fell, as they both thought and then Howland broke it. “There is a reference in the records of Greywater Watch,” he said almost reluctantly, “A record that is a fragment of a fragment. And it mentions ‘swyrds mayde from ye fyre, ye fyre of heavens and of ye fire-wyrms’. I have no idea what that means. Yet it meant something to our ancestors and so it must have been important.”

Something tickled at the back of his brain and he pulled at his nose with his finger and thumb as he thought about it. But then it was gone. “Something to think about and to consider,” he said eventually. “In the meantime there is much for us to discuss. But perhaps later – you look about to drop old friend.”

Howland smiled tiredly. “I am a little weary,” he said in that flat voice that he could put on when he was dissembling a little. “Perhaps a little food as well?”

“I think that could be arranged,” Ned replied with a smile. “And you haven’t met Cat for a long time, still less some of my children. Come, let us eat.”

 


 

Jorah

The difference between the statue of a young Illyrio Mopatis and the man who now sat opposite him was quite astonishing, he thought as he sipped his wine politely. The wine was superb. The conversation was not. Mopatis was calm on the face of it, but he could tell that there was something else broiling below the surface. Worry? Anger? A combination of the two?

“Varys told me that you were coming to Pentos,” Mopatis said eventually, narrowing his eyes at him. “To follow the Targaryens I believe?”

Jorah sipped a little more of the wine and then nodded slightly. “The more information I send to Kings Landing of their movements, the greater the chance of my pardon.”

“Yes, I heard of your crime. You sold free men to slavers.” The words still made his stomach turn over, but he had long practice now in keeping his face still.

“Something that I have long regretted.”

“How is your wife?” More words that made him feel as if there was a cold knife in his guts.

“I have nothing more to do with her. She lives in Lys”

“Ah yes, the lover of Tregar Ormollen. I hear that she has expensive tastes. And that she is feared by his wife.”

The cold knife transformed itself into sour vinegar. “I no longer have anything to do with her. Now – may I ask what you need from me?”

The Magister leant back a little and looked at him through hooded eyes. “You have certain unique skills. You speak Dothraki and you have ridden with the savages. And you are of the North and for the most part understand their peculiar system of honour.”

It was the ‘for the most part’ that rankled, but he nodded slightly again. “What do you need those skills for?”

Mopatis narrowed his eyes again briefly and then ran a hand over his chin. “I require your assistance on two riddles. The first is to find out why the Dothraki are all moving East.”

This surprised him. “I thought that you had your own sources of information on the Dothraki.”

The fat man fidgeted in his seat a little. “I thought I had too,” he said eventually. “But it seems that my sources amidst the Dothraki were not sufficiently adequate to the task of finding out where they were going. And then I remembered that you have friends amongst the Dothraki. Including one Loros I believe?”

“Loros Onehand. Or perhaps Loros Silverhand as he will now call himself. A master in Myr made him an artificial hand with many implements. I met him on the road to Pentos.”

“I know that you did,” Mopatis grunted. “I would very much like to know if he told you anything about why the Dothraki are heading East.”

Jorah sipped his wine again as he thought very, very hard and very, very fast. The truth might well be the best way to play this. “They are not so much heading East as being drawn there, or so Loros told me,” he said eventually. “He said that he could not explain it, but that despite the threat of being executed if his brother found him, he was still pulled East.”

“To the Dothraki Sea? Vaes Dothrak?”

“Beyond that,” he said and he saw how Mopatis started a little in surprise at that. “To the Grey Waste.”

The Magister sipped some of his own wine as his forehead creased in thought. “The Grey Waste? That makes little sense. Horses die like flies there.”

He shrugged. “That was what Loros told me. He could not explain it. But he said that the Dothraki all feel what he felt.”

A short silence fell as Mopatis absorbed this. Finally he nodded sharply. “Very well. My thanks. There is something else that I want you to discover. The Company of the Rose is here in Pentos.”

“I had noticed,” Jorah replied dryly. “They seem to be trickling in.”

“They have arrived in groups,” Mopatis scowled. “And seek passage to White Harbour. They say that their time of exile is over. I would have you find out why. Why now and not when the Targaryens were killed or driven into exile? I want you to find out for me, Jorah Mormont. For me and for Varys – and your king.”

He mulled this for a long moment. “I shall,” he said eventually. “Payment must be progress towards my pardon. I too want to go home.” And with that he drained his goblet, nodded politely and took his leave.

A servant escorted him out and he noted that there seemed to be a guard – one of the Unsullied no less! – behind him at all times. He understood when he passed a window into a courtyard and spotted a young man with hair so blonde that it was silver sitting on a bench and crooning over something large and black on the bench next to him. It looked like a large stone, but any further perusal was cut short by the sound of the guard advancing menacingly – so he smiled and walked on.

Leera was waiting for him at the doors when he passed through them and she stopped looking worried the moment that she saw him.

“I was concerned about you,” she said quietly as they walked down the hill and into Pentos. “That man has a reputation. And an increasingly bad one. He likes to make men and women dance like puppets. And he likes being rich to the point where he will do anything to stay rich.”

That fitted in perfectly with his own impressions and he smiled at her. “Fear not. I already had part of what he wanted to know. The other half involves a talk with some people from the Company of the Rose. I need to ask some questions that I was already going to ask to be honest.”

She peered at him. “You want to know why they are going home?”

Slightly surprised he nodded.

“Jorah, you can be a very unsubtle man at times. You have been wondering the same thing yourself.”

He laughed softly and then they both wandered down the hill. As they walked he pondered. “Perhaps you could come with me? Four ears are always better then two.”

“She looked at him and then smiled. “Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

They heard the crowd long before they reached it. The square was largely taken up by a great assemblage of people and horses and as they passed along the edges of it Jorah felt a great pang of homesickness. It was soon evident that not only had the Company of the Rose kept as much as possible to the clothing of the North – adapted for warmer climes, obviously – but they had also kept their accents. He had no idea how they had managed that – perhaps persistent contact with the North in terms of messengers and merchants – but he was unprepared for how the sound of so many people speaking in the accent of home would affect him.

He came very close to crying at one point, but repressed it by blowing his nose and then pretending that the sun had been in his eyes. Not that he had fooled Leera, who had called his attention to a small plant growing out of a nearby wall that had also allowed him to turn away from everyone and pull himself together.

When he turned back he shot a wry smile at her and then they both moved on into the crowd. And as they went the more and more puzzled he became. The Company of the Rose was made up, it seemed, of very sensible people who knew that the North would be nothing like Essos. Far colder for a start. They did not seem to know where they would all live. Nor did they know how they would live, at first anyway.

But they were all sure that they had to go home. It was perplexing. They seemed to trust their leader however. The Stone, they called him. And some even extended that a little to call him Krats the Stone. Which confused him, because Krats was not a Northern name. There many in the crowd who had Northern names – Jory, Benjen, Brandon, Brann, Jeor, Domeric, Roose, Theon, Rodrik, Rickard, Torrhen – but Krats was an odd one. Perhaps something inspired by Essos? But that also made no sense. The Company of the Rose seemed to stick to the old ways and the old names. The Old Gods too, by the way that some of them spoke.

Naturally he got drawn into a few conversations here and there – his accent was enough to make people realise that he had been to the North recently – and he was able to pass on a few pieces of advice here and there. The weather. The feel of snow. How important it was to talk to people about when Winter arrived. The need for good salt in Winter. Little things, but cumulatively important.

And they all seemed to agree on one thing. That they were going home for a reason so obvious that they did not need to talk about it.

It was all most perplexing and even Leera, he could see, was doing her best not to show her puzzlement at the entire thing.

Eventually she wandered off to get some food for them both and as she did Jorah strode off to one side to view the entire assemblage. It wasn’t a company of the size of others. The Gold Company were far larger and also far richer. The Second Sons were less rich than the Gold Company and larger than the Company of the Rose again. They were also currently very badly led.

There could be no comparison with the Bloody Mummers as the latter were composed of the scum of the earth. Especially the number of women and children circulating the square. The Bloody Mummers’ attitude to women and children could be… vile.

Then he paused and stared a little harder at the square. Oh. The reports were true. There were women in mail in places and he could see two women mock-fighting with wooden swords. Interesting.

“You seem very interested in our company.” He looked over and saw a man dressed in brown breeches with a white shirt watching him. He had dark hair and grey eyes and he reminded him of someone that he could not put his finger on.

“I have never seen the Company of the Rose before. I have seen many other sellsword companies but never this one. Especially as I am from the North myself.”

The other man crossed his arms and stared at him. “I know that you are. You are Jorah Mormont. Once of Bear Island.”

A chill went through him for a moment. “You are very well informed.”

“I am the leader of the Company of the Rose. It is my business to be very well informed. The lives of the men and women in the Company depend on it.”

He eyed the other man carefully. “You are the Stone. Also known as the Krats.”

The other man pulled a slight face. “One is a name that became a title. The other… will soon be lost.”

This was odd and he must have shown this on his face, because the Stone laughed softly. “Everything will change when we go home.” He peered at Jorah again. “I have often wondered what to say if you had sought us out before this day. If you had asked to serve with us. Before our return I would have said no.”

For a moment Jorah felt that chill again. “For what reason?”

“Your crime. You sold free men of the North into slavery. I cannot even describe the magnitude of such a thing. As you know full well.”

He stared at the sea on the horizon bleakly. “Love makes sane men mad. I was in love. I was desperate. I was insane. I committed a terrible crime. I did not come to my senses until afterwards.” He remembered that day. Well, bits of it. He had gotten so drunk that Lynesse had been hysterical with fear that he was going to die.

The Stone narrowed his eyes. “You regret what you did then?”

“I do.” And that was true.

“Ah, but because it was wrong, or because you were discovered in your crime?”

That was good question and he looked at the Stone sadly. “Would it be wrong of me to say both?”

The other man looked at him closely and then smiled slightly. “It would be human of you. None of us are what might wish to be. And your actions since coming to Essos have shown your regret. You have not served with the more… revolting, to be honest, sellsword companies. Which would have been a problem for many here.”

Jorah suddenly felt as if he was walking on thin ice all of a sudden. “A problem?”

“Your cousins would have been very angry with you.”

And this baffled him. “Cousins?”

The Stone pointed at the two women who had been mock fighting earlier and who were now waving mugs of what looked like ale at the grinning children around them. “The Terrible Two. Lyra and Alyse Mormont.”

Tiny ants seemed to climb up and down his spine. “I have cousins here?”

The Stone seemed to find that very amusing, given his grin. “Oh yes. Most of the houses of the North have cousins here. Did you forget why we were founded?”

Why had his father not told him of this? “Which houses?”

The Stone stared out at the crowd. “House Mormont, as you know now. House Umber are the tall group over there. House Karstark. Somewhere in here is a thin-faced man who tells terrible jokes who is a cousin to that cold streak of piss Roose Bolton.”

Jorah stared at them all, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Two questions were on his mind. He voiced them both, the first one the most important. “Why are you going back to the North?”

“Because we have to. We are drawn there. Did you not hear the Call?”

“The Call?”

“Ah. The distance is great and some heard it louder than others. It woke me from my sleep and alarmed my wife and children in the process. Others… just felt the need to be elsewhere. In the North. It calls to us all. It overrides all other things, all other oaths.”

The tiny ants on his spine were suddenly joined by a great host. “The pull home. The need to be back in the North. I feel it too.”

“Ha. I did wonder. But you did not hear the words then?”

“Words?”

The other man leant forwards a little and his voice became urgent and fierce. “’The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.’

Shock roiled through him. The Others? Stark called for aid? “How is this possible?”

The other man shrugged. “He is the Stark in Winterfell. There must be ways of telling these things. It has been a long summer – a very long summer. Winter is coming.”

Jorah ran a hand over his chin and then finally asked the second question. “So what house are you?” And suddenly he feared the answer.

“The Stone is my title. My forefathers have led this Company from the start. We were the lodestone for the company. And that became shortened to just ‘The Stone’. And as for my name…” He looked at Jorah again, his eyes blazing. “My first name is Edric. My second name for the time being is Krats. When I return home everything will change back to what it was. Think on that for a moment.”

He did. And then he looked back at the man, his eyes very wide. “You are-”

And then Leera suddenly arrived, panting from running. “Jorah!” When she saw The Stone she paused, rocking on her feet. “Your pardon.” She strode up to Jorah and then hissed into his ear: “I think that Daenerys Targaryen is in the crowd – if she is discovered there will be trouble!”

Jorah sighed. Life had suddenly become a lot more complicated.

 


 

Jaime

Petyr Baelish looked… well, as if he was concentrating on something. His eyes were open and fixed on something. Jaime couldn’t tell what. Not that it mattered. The birds would soon take those eyes. He smirked a little. Baelish had always thought of himself as such a clever fellow. The fact that he had been outsmarted by the likes of Jon Arryn must have smarted a lot.

He rode down the hill towards the docks. His Fatness was coming back after his unexpected trip to Storm’s End. He’d asked Cersei why her husband had taken himself off there and he been answered with a baffled shrug. “He woke up shouting something. He was probably drunk.” And that had been it.

But there had been more to it, he could tell. He could feel something in the air, something that he did not understand and therefore did not like. The Small Council was busy with so many odd things, ranging from the bizarre (the disappearance of the Mountain Clans and the word that the Company of the Rose was returning from their long exile) to the amusing (the fall of Baelish).

It was good that Baelish was dead. Father would probably have had something unpleasant in mind for him had he lived. Trying to cheat a Lannister was unwise. Trying to cheat Father was a death sentence.

As he reached the docks he took a deep breath. Ah. Dead fish. And sweaty people. Oh, and sewage. The tide must not have turned yet. He sighed, dismounted and then looked about. He was here to check on the wharf where His Fatness was due to dock, whenever he turned up. Catching sight of the Royal Wharf – or whatever sufficed at the moment - he tied up his horse, gave it a mouthful of oats from a saddlebag and then wandered along the wooden planks. Yes, it was standing. Seemed serviceable. Didn’t appear to have been sabotaged. And wasn’t surrounded by a mob of neer-do-wells. Just sailors. Speaking of which – he narrowed his eyes a little and then smiled as he saw a familiar face talking to another man.

“Ah,” he called. “The most noble Knight of Onions! Diligent as ever I see!”

Davos Seaworth looked at him for a moment, before finishing his conversation and then turning to face him. “Ser Jaime.” He spoke flatly and Jaime had to admit that the man might be base-born but he did not seem to be overawed by nobility. He almost liked Seaworth. The man was disgustingly competent. Plus his father and Cersei both despised the man, showing that they didn’t know everything. “What brings you down here?”

“I am a Knight of the Kingsguard, Ser, and I never cease to worry about the safety of the king. I’m here to check on the dock where he will dock later. At some point. Whenever that is.”

Seaworth looked at the dock and then stamped on it. “Seems stable.”

“As I shall report.” Jaime smirked a little and then paused as a bell on the nearby headland clanged three times in the distance. When he looked at Seaworth again he could see that he was staring out to sea with a frown whilst gesturing to one side. “Devan – spyglass, as quick as you can!”

“Aye father,” the young man called as he scurried off, before returning with the device. “Here you are.”

“Something wrong?” Jaime asked. He could see a ship approaching in the distance. Was that the King already?

“Yon ship – the lookout signalled that it bears signal flags.” He focussed the spyglass. “And indeed it does, To dock immediately and that a Maester is needed.”

Unease prickled at his scalp for a moment. “The crew is ill?”

“Nay, the port orders are very clear on that. A yellow flag is to be flown for pestilence. That ship bears none such flag.” He peered again. “Hmph. ‘Tis a Dornishman.”

That intrigued him. “How can you tell?”

Seaworth handed over the spyglass. “The foremast is stepped more rakishly and the sails are a little differently rigged. ‘Tis as clear as day.”

Jaime peered through the spyglass and then handed it back with a grin. “I bow to your greater experience on such matters.” He thought about leaving but then decided to stay. This seemed intriguing.

“Lucky, too,” Seaworth muttered. “Wind is set just right for the ship to approach.” He paused and stared again. “And he’s in a right tearing hurry as well. Devan?”

“Father?”

“Get Maester Dyren. And then send word to the Harbour Master that I shall deal with this matter. My thumbs are pricking.”

Whoever was handling the ship seemed, in Jaimes’s admittedly limited experience, to know what they were doing, because the ship approached in a hurry and then slowed in an equal hurry, as the crew reefed various sails at just the right time and then relied on the impetus as well as a few smaller jib sails to carry them into the dock, where various lines were thrown.

“Well-handled, so very well-handled indeed – for a Dornishman,” Seaworth muttered, before he strode along the dock. Jaime followed him curiously.

There was a tall, dark-haired man on the quarterdeck who was staring out over King’s Landing. The moment he saw them he started a little and then picked up a speaking trumpet. “Ho there! Is that the cloak of a Kingsguard I see?” He sounded Dornish.

Seaworth glanced at Jaime a moment before filling his lungs and bellowing: “Yes, he is. Why?”

“Thank the Gods,” the man bellowed back, before turning to his men on the main deck. “Get that fucking gangplank rigged at once!” Then he turned back to them. “We need a Maester at once! There is a dying man on board!”

Seaworth pulled a slight face and then barked at his own men to assist the crew of the ship as a gangplank was hurriedly rigged to the now stationary ship, followed by a guide rail. “We have sent for one.” The captain, if a captain he was, was now on the main deck and there was no need to shout.

The dark haired man – a Dornishman in every appearance as Jaime saw him more closely – hurried down the wooden surface and then nodded at them both. “Myras, captain of the Seahorse.”

“I am Ser Davos Seaworth,” the Onion Knight said gruffly. “And this is Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard.”

“Sers,” the captain said quickly, “I need witnesses as well as a Maester, hence my relief at seeing you Ser Jaime. I have a dying man aboard who needs to see his son here at King’s Landing and who requires witnesses for the handing over of his ancestral sword.”

Jaime found his eyebrows arching upwards. This all sounded very bizarre. “Who is the man?”

The captain paused, licked his lips and then said: “Lord Alster Dayne.”

There was a short, incredulous, pause. “Lord Alster Dayne of Starfall?” Jaime said the words in some disbelief.

“Aye Ser.”

This was baffling. “I thought that he had confined himself to his castle, that he was in fact dying.”

“He is desperate to see his son. So he booked passage with us – but did not mention at that he was even ill.” The Dornishman looked as if he was about to weep. “His son is fostered here – his only child. Edric Dayne?”

Seaworth scowled a little. “Why didn’t you dock at Dragonstone, or anywhere closer that had a Maester?”

“I asked Lord Dayne, but he insisted that we press on to King’s Landing. Truly Sers, he was driven to come here.”

Seaworth and Jaime shared a troubled look. And then the Onion Knight nodded tersely and started to snap out orders that made Jaime wonder if Father had briefly possessed the man. A nearby inn had a bedroom requisitioned; men were to find a litter for Lord Dayne; word was to be passed at once to Lord Stannis Baratheon, who wasn’t too far away.

Seaworth then looked at the Red Keep and then back at Jaime. “Ser Jaime, where might Edric Dayne be found?”

He thought a moment. “He is squire to Lord Beric Dondarrion I believe. He can be found at the Red Keep.” He looked at the small crowd behind him that always seemed to grow from nothing at the drop of a gauntlet. And then he saw the familiar colours of a Lannister guardsman. “You! Do you recognise me?”

“You are Ser Jaime Lannister.” The guard looked a little bewildered but seemed to have a few wits about him.

“My horse is over yonder. Ride up to the Red Keep at once and find Edric Dayne, squire to Lord Dondarrion, the Lightning Lord. He is to come here immediately – his father, Lord Alster Dayne, is here and is very ill. Any questions?”

“None, Ser Jaime,” the guardsman said, looking a little pale. “I will go at once.” And off he went.

By the time that the litter arrived and Lord Dayne finally emerged from his cabin upon it the crowd was larger. And the moment that he saw Dayne’s face he knew that the captain had been right. The Lord of Starfall was pale, almost white. His cheeks were pinched and his eyes sunken. He seemed to be asleep, his chest barely rising and falling.

As the litter came down the gangplank Dayne stirred a little and opened his eyes. “Who is there?” His voice was thin and reedy.

“You are in King’s Landing, Lord Dayne,” Seaworth said quickly. “We are moving you to the shore. Worry not – your son has been sent for.”

“My… my thanks. Who are… you, ser?”

“Ser Davos Seaworth, Lord Dayne. I sail under Lord Stannis Baratheon, the Master of Ships. And this is Ser Jaime Lannister, of the Kingsguard.”

“I an honoured... to meet you both.” Then he paused and his face worked. “Dawn. Where is Dawn?”

Seaworth looked puzzled at this, but Jaime understood. And was also stunned. “The sword Dawn, Lord Dayne? You brought it with you?”

“I did. Where… is it? I must have it! It must be… passed to Edric!”

Jaime looked at Myras, who pointed at the ship. “It must be in his cabin Sers. He would not let anyone touch it on the voyage.”

Seaworth looked at Jaime, who nodded. “I will get it. I know what it looks like.” And he turned and trotted up the gangplank, turned to watch the little party move through the gathering crowd and into the inn, before entering the nearby cabin.

The cabin smelt musty, with a hint of herbs. He looked about – and then he saw the sword propped in the corner against a bulkhead. It was the same as he remembered it, when it had been carried by Ser Arthur Dayne. He had been a skilled swordsman, Ser Arthur. He had died in Dorne, at the Tower of Joy. That mysterious place that Ned Stark never talked about, other than to set his jaw and look even grimmer than usual.

He also remembered that Ser Arthur had been very particular – almost peculiar – about the sword. Only he could touch it. Not that it ever needed sharpening. He’s once asked Ser Arthur if it was Valyrian Steel – but he had just smiled slightly and shaken his head. “So very different,” he had said. “Dawn is… special.”

Jaime shrugged and then reached out to pick up the sword by its red leather scabbard. As he did his fingers touched the hilt – and the sword seemed to shudder and turn in his grip, as if it was a live snake. He dropped it with a stifled oath and then stared at the thing. What had that been? How could a sword shudder like that?

He took a deep and ragged breath and then looked about the cabin. He could see a cloak in the colours of House Dayne to one side and he grabbed it and then carefully wrapped the sword in it, being careful not to touch it with his bare hands. And then he picked it up and carried off the ship and into the inn.

As he entered he looked about and then noticed Devan Seaworth on the stairs, who caught his eye and then allowed him passage upwards. “I brought the Maester, Ser Jaime. He is with Lord Dayne now.”

He nodded and then saw the elder Seaworth standing by the door to a room. “You have it then?”

“I have it. May I enter?”

“Maester Dyren is in with him and-”

The door opened suddenly to reveal a short Maester with a grumpy expression. “Is that bloody sword here? Lord Dayne is restless without it.”

“I have it,” Jaime said, holding it up. “Shall I bring it in?”

“Please do so,” The Maester barked and then vanished within. Jaime crooked an eyebrow and then passed inside.

Lord Dayne was laid out on a bed his clothes rumpled and a look of stoic misery on his face as the Maester poked and prodded at him. He looked tiredly at Jaime, who unwrapped the sword and then laid it next to him.

“Dawn!” Lord Dayne cried weakly. “My thanks… Ser Jaime. Dawn has been… restless of late.”

The Maester looked up at this, his eyebrows waggling like caterpillars, before looking back down at his patient. As for Jaime, well he mumbled something polite and then fled the room, closing the door behind him. He hated seeing a man laid so low. And the sword disturbed him.

The two men waited outside the room for a short time, with Jaime trying to think of other things. And then the door opened and the Maester came out, his face set and grim. “A word Sers.” They both approached him and he jerked a thumb at the room. “He will not see the sun set. I am heartily sorry. But I am also astonished that he lasted as long as he has. A lesser man would be dead. He is a man driven.”

Seaworth pulled a face. “He is here to pass the sword on to his son. He thinks of it as his solemn duty. Apparently his son will be the new Sword of the Morning, whatever that means?”

Jaime stared at the open door, astonished. “’Tis a title borne by members of the Dayne family, those deemed worthy to wield Dawn. And those are few enough at times. The last Sword of the Morning was Ser Arthur Dayne. There has not been one since he died, at the end of the Rebellion.” A memory came to him, of the last time he had seen Ser Arthur Dayne. He had been riding in the retinue of Rhaegar Targaryen and had looked troubled, like a man with a great deal on his mind. And also on his conscience. He often thought about that moment. The Dornishman had seemed like a man repressing tears.

“Duty can be a terrible master at times,” Seaworth rumbled thoughtfully. “Lord Dayne needs to see his son very badly.”

Dyren grunted with agreement. “The mind, Sers, can be a strange and terrible thing. I think that you are right – his duty is keeping him alive. Once he passes his sword on I do not think that he will live long.”

Boots sounded on the stairs and Jaime looked over to see Stannis Baratheon arrive, with Lord Arryn behind him. He narrowed his eyes for a moment. Those two seemed to be as thick as thieves these days.

“Ser Davos,” Stannis the Brooding Baratheon acknowledged. “Ser Jaime. We received your message.”

“Is Lord Dayne really here?” The Hand of the King looked at them and then his eyebrows flew up at their nods. “Is he well?”

“He is dying my Lord,” The Maester said sadly but firmly. “He has a malady of the blood that is fatal. It cannot be treated. And as I told the good Sers here, I am amazed that Lord Dayne has lived as long as he has. He is driven my Lords, by his need to pass his sword on to his son.”

The Hand of the King’s eyes widened. “He brought Dawn here? To his son?” He ran a hand over his chin. “Then his son must be the new Sword of the Morning.”

“Perhaps so,” Jaime conceded before cocking an eyebrow at them. “He has requested witnesses.”

Arryn set his jaw and nodded. “Then we must honour his request.” He walked into the room, followed by the others and with Jaime bringing up the rear. Once inside he suspiciously eyed the sword that Lord Dayne was clutching. There was something about it that he almost feared.

“Who… is there?” Dayne had his eyes closed as if in pain. Slowly he opened them. “Ah. Lord…. Arryn. Lord Baratheon. I am sorry that…. I cannot stand to… greet you.”

Arryn smiled slightly and then gently clasped hands with the dying man. “’Tis no matter. Ser Davos and Ser Jaime said that you requested witnesses. We would be honoured to be amongst them.”

“My thanks,” Dayne said. His breathing seemed a little more laboured now. “Edric. Is he… here?”

“Not yet,” Stannis Baratheon said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “Word has been sent to him.”

Jaime tilted his head for a moment. He could hear the sound of a galloping horse outside, followed by shouts. After a moment more boots clattered on the stairs and Edric Dayne appeared at the doorway. He was a young man with pale blonde hair and eyes that were so blue that they were almost purple. Jaime did not know him well, but had heard that the boy was shy but clever. Brave too. He proved that now. He took in the sight of the men in the room and then bowed quickly.

“My Lord Hand. Lord Baratheon. Sers.” Then he darted forwards to stand by the bed. “Father.”

“Edric!” Dayne said with an attempt at a smile. “Thank the Gods you… are here. I am sorry… that I look so ill. You… must be… brave my boy. You will… soon be the Dayne in Starfall.”

The younger Dayne turned white with shock. “Father – no!”

He shook his head. “I am sorry… it cannot… be helped. But I… had to see you. To explain. And to… pass this to you.”

Only then did Edric Dayne seem to notice Dawn and to Jaime’s bemusement he seemed to go even paler, if such a thing was possible. “Is that… Dawn, father?”

“It is.” The elder Dayne seemed to rally for a moment. “My Lords – Sers. I ask you to… witness this moment. Who here will witness it?”

Arryn stepped forwards. “I, John Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie, Defender of the Vale, Warden of the East and Hand of the King do witness this.”

The grumpiest Baratheon cleared his throat. “As do I, Lord Stannis Baratheon, Lord of Dragonstone and Master of ships.”

Everyone looked at Jaime next and he stepped forwards. “I, Ser Jaime Lannister, Knight of the Kingsguard, do witness this.”

“And I, Ser Davos Seaworth, do also witness this.” Seaworth completed the quartet and Alster Dayne smiled a little.

“I, Lord Alster Dayne, do pass… on the sword Dawn to… you, Edric Dayne. This is the… sword from the stars, a star… that fell to earth. It was… found by your ancestors and forged… into a blade with one purpose – to fight back the night. To fight… the Others. This is… the sword of the First Men.” He reached out and grasped his son’s hand before placing it on the hilt.

Edric Dayne stood there, not moving an inch, his eyes very wide and then he slowly looked down at the sword. When he looked up again his eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I accept this sword,” he said in a low voice. “And the duty that comes with it.”

“Good,” said his father weakly. “You are… worthy of it. I know this. The previous… wielder, my own… brother, was not. Which is why… at the end… it failed him. You have… a great deal to do. But I… know that you… can do it. Ned – I am… so very proud of you. Always… remember that. But… there is… more. You… must go to a Godswood. This evening. At sunset. There is a pact. Must… be renewed.” His face worked and tears spilt down his face.

“It… isn’t fair. There is… so much I need to…. tell you. But I have… no time left.” He fumbled weakly in his coat pocket and pulled out a small leather-bound book and a key. “The key… is to my… solar. There are… things there… you will need. One day… at least. But the book… I have… written the most… important things down… for you. About Dawn. About… what needs to… be done. I cannot… see far. But the Call must… be answered. You must go… to Winterfell. At once. The Others… come.”

Everyone stared at the man. Was he raving? But he seemed to be very serious as he gripped his son’s arms with thin fingers. “Promise… me. You must… go to Winterfell.”

“I promise, Father. I promise. But why?”

“The Godswood. The book. And… the sword. They will… tell you.” He paused. “Does night… fall already? The shadows fall. I can… barely see you…”

The younger Dayne took his father’s hand gently as his own tears trickled down his face. “Night falls, father.”

“Then… there is the last thing. You must know this.” And then he pulled his son’s head down and he whispered into his ear. Jaime couldn’t hear what he said in that long, long minute, but he saw the impact it had on young Ned. He stared in utter shock at whatever it was and then almost jerked back from his father, only for the older man to take him in an iron grip and then complete whatever he was telling him. Only then did he relax that grip and release his son.

“I… am sorry… that I did… not tell… you… sooner.” He smiled weakly, his strength visibly ebbing from him. “I… failed you… in that. But… as I… said… I am so… very… proud of... you.” He peered around thorough dull eyes. “Is… Lord Dondarrion… here?”

“I am here,” said a sorrowful voice from the doorway and Jaime started a little as he realised that he had missed the arrival of the Stormlord. “Young Ned here galloped ahead of us.”

“Thank you… for your… letters… about Ned’s progress. And that… you feel he… has such… potential. Thank you… for training… him.”

“It has been a pleasure. And an honour to finally meet you,” Beric Dondarrion said gently. “Ned has come far and learnt much.”

“Will you… please… teach him… what else he… needs?”

“I shall. I do swear it.”

Alster Dayne smiled once more and then peered back at his son. “Ned? I can’t… see you.”

“I am here, Father.” Ned Dayne held his father’s hand. “I am here. And I am so proud to be your son.” He looked at his father and then raised his voice again. “Lord Arryn?”

“What do you need Edric Dayne?”

“My father has stood his watch as the Dayne of Starfall. Is he relieved?”

Arryn stepped forwards, formally. “He stands relieved. His duty is done.”

“Thank… you…” And with those words Alster Dayne sighed and then his chest stopped moving. After a long moment his son reached out and with a trembling hand closed the lifeless eyes.

Davos Seaworth cleared his throat and then jerked his head towards the door. “My Lords,” he said in a low voice, “We must give the lad a moment.”

The others nodded and they filed out as quietly as possible, leaving the boy alone in the room with his dead father.

Myras, who had been hovering in the background nodded at them all. “My Lords, good Sers, my thanks. Lord Dayne was a good man. Sunspear will mourn him. I shall take the news myself to Prince Doran.”

Arryn nodded in recognition and then scratched his head in thought. “Signs and portents,” he muttered after a long moment. “I like this not. What with everything else… I shall write to Ned about this.”

This surprised Jaime. “My Lord? Surely Lord Dayne was not… well… when he claimed that the Others had returned.” Raving mad with fever-dreams was the phrase that he wanted to use, but was not tactless enough to say.

The Hand of the King looked at him with tired eyes that seemed to burn for a moment. “Ser Jaime, things are happening elsewhere in Westeros that make me… worried.”

The old man was losing his mind as well. Ah well. And then Ned Dayne came out of the room, holding Dawn. Tears stained his cheeks but there was a look of such resolve on his face that Jaime straightened as he beheld it.

“Lord Dayne,” Arryn said gravely. “How can we help?”

“My…” His face worked for a moment and then he sighed and looked resolute again. “My father’s body must be returned to Starfall, to rest in the caves with his ancestors.”

“I am Myras, captain of the ship that brought your Lord father here,” the captain said quietly. “It will be my very great honour to take his bones home.”

“Thank you Captain Myras. Please do so, with my thanks.” He seemed to brace himself. “And I must go to Winterfell, as my father asked me to. Lord Dondarrion?”

“Yes, Lord Dayne?”

“I have learnt much. But as my father said there is more I need to know. Will you teach me a little longer?”

“As long as you need.”

“Thank you,” he said softly. Then he placed his hand on the hilt of Dawn again. “We are needed.”

Chapter Text

Arya

Something was going on with Jon, she could feel it. True, there were all the other things, like GreatJon Umber being in Winterfell, whom she liked very much, especially when he told rude jokes without thinking and made Mother close her eyes in despair whenever she saw Arya taking notes on them.

And then there had been Father the other night, who had apparently rode out in the middle of the night with his eyes on fire. When he had come back the next day his eyes then returned normal but there had been a direwolf by his side. A direwolf! It was all so exciting!

She paused as she crossed the courtyard that led to the crypts. No, Mother was nowhere to be seen, which was good. She didn’t want to be told how to embroider bits of cloth, she wanted to be out with Bran and Domeric, learning how to ride. A scowl crossed her face. She almost liked Domeric. He may be someone who played the harp a lot, but he was also someone who could ride a horse like a hero of legend and also use a sword.

No-one in sight, still, so she darted across the courtyard and into the doorway that led to the stairs down.

No, everyone was being odd these days. Everyone apart from her of course. And Rickon.

Robb spent half his time muttering over books and the other half drilling in fighting techniques like a veteran. Something had changed in him, he seemed harder in some ways. Theon was gaunt-eyed and seemed to have changed in other ways. He seemed less prickly and proud and more helpful. He certainly seemed to like helping with the archery lessons.

Sansa – she rolled her eyes and almost lost her footing as she went down the steps – well she was busy mooning over Domeric. And Bran was still sulking more than a bit over not being allowed to climb the wall of Winterfell. Father had made him swear not to. Had made him swear in Ice, which was odd.

And then there was Jon. Who seemed burdened by something, something that he wasn’t telling anyone. Not even her! And who often disappeared into the crypts when he thought that no-one was watching. Like now. She came to the end of the stairs, orientated herself and then padded along as quietly as she could. There were torches up ahead and she kept to the shadows.

There he was. He was placing flowers at the foot of one of the statues. And then he sat down and stared up at the face of the statue and she heard him mutter something too softly for her to make out. Wait, she knew that statue. It was Aunt Lyanna, who had died long before she’d been born.

She scowled again. Time for some answers. “Why are you here?”

Jon actually started with surprise and she smirked a little at her skills at creeping. “Arya?”

“Jon.” She walked up to him and then crossed her arms and directed her best glare at him. “In the crypts again, I see.”

He eyed her a little warily. “Very observant of you.”

“Why are you down here? What’s wrong?” She put all of her annoyance and frustration into her voice. “You’re not brooding again are you? I thought Mother was being nicer to you these days?”

He just looked at her and then smiled a little. “Brooding a little, perhaps.”

Horror roiled her. No. There could be only one reason for his brooding and Mother cheering up. “No,” she said fiercely, “You’re not going to! I say so, so there!”

He blinked at her. “Not going to what?”

“Leave Winterfell and join the Night’s Watch! I… I… forbid it!” And she stamped her foot to show her resolve.

When Jon just smiled at her this made her even more bewildered – and angry. “Jon Snow-”

“Peace!” Jon said as he threw up his hand in surrender. “I am not joining the Night’s Watch, I swear it on our ancestors.” And then something odd happened to his face, a mixture of emotions washing over it. “And soon my name will not be Jon Snow anymore.”

She stared at him as if he was mad. “What?”

He looked around and then finally back at her. “Keep this to yourself, Arya, but Father has written to King Robert about me.”

Puzzled she sat down by him and crossed her legs. “About what?”

“About my name,” Jon said gently. “Father has asked that I be legitimised.”

She stared at him, hope warring with bafflement. “You mean… you would be…”

“Jon Stark.” He said the words with a smile, but there was something in his eyes that she did not understand. “I will be a Stark of Winterfell.”

Arya rolled her eyes at him. “Silly. You’ve always been a Stark.”

That odd look came into his eyes again. “Some would disagree,” he said bitterly.

“Mother’s wrong about that,” she replied carefully. Then she scowled. “And about me and embroidery. Stupid thing. I’d much rather learn to ride with Bran and use the bow.”

“I know you would,” Jon said with a grin. “You’re a better archer than Bran is already.” He shook his head. “The Old Gods help the man you marry.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “Long time ahead of me before that,” she muttered. “And besides, who says that I have to marry?”

“You’re a Stark of Winterfell,” Jon reminded her gently. “Father might allow you to choose, but you will have to marry eventually.” And then he looked back at the statue of Aunt Lyanna. “Although Fate takes us along odd paths.”

She nodded a little and then frowned. “Why are you here again? And why the flowers?”

He gestured at the statue. “It’s her birthday,” he said quietly. “Did you know that?”

Arya looked at the statue to Father’s only and beloved sister. She’d heard the tales, listened to the stories, felt the sadness in Father’s voice when he spoke of his sister and his eldest brother and his own father, none of whom she had ever met. Heard the tale of the Great Rebellion that resulted from the actions of the Mad King and his mad son. And she knew that Father had loved Aunt Lyanna very much.

“I didn’t know that,” she told him with some sorrow in her voice. “I really didn’t.”

“I thought that someone should remember,” Jon replied. “Father comes here on the anniversary of when she died. But not, I think, on her birthday. I think that it pains him a great deal to think of her.”

They sat there in the crypts for a long moment, before Arya finally nodded and stood up. “I’m hungry, and it must be almost noon. You’ll come up, won’t you?”

“I will, little sister.”

She looked at him again, her head tilted slightly to one side. “You haven’t called me that in weeks.”

That thoughtful, almost booding look came and went on his face for a moment. “I had a lot on my mind.” And then he smiled a smile that didn’t completely reach his eyes.

She smiled back and then walked back towards the stairs. Her brother was keeping a secret. She liked a challenge.

But then, as she walked along she saw a door where there had never been one before. “Jon?”

“What is it?”

“Where does this door go? I’ve never seen it before.”

“What door?” He stood and paced over to her, before staring in bafflement at the door. It was made from stone, or so it looked like, and it was open the merest crack. Arya walked over to it hesitantly and then peered at the surface of it. Reaching out she brushed a thick layer of dust off it, to reveal a carving of a direwolf superimposed on a man’s face.

“We need to tell Father,” they both whispered at the same time in awe.

 


 

Daenerys

It was all so exciting. So many people who spoke as they did in Westeros! So many beautiful horses! So many women and children! She felt as if she was in a small corner of the land she was exiled from.

She didn’t remember Dragonstone, she’d been just a baby when she had been spirited away from the island with Viserys. But she remembered dear old Ser Willem Darry, with his accent. The men and women around her had a similar accent – not exactly the same, but like enough to make her think that if she closed her eyes a moment she might be back across the Narrow Sea. It was almost intoxicating.

She’d bound her hair back and found a cloak with a cowl. It was a bit too large for her and some might find it a bit too hot in the sun, but not her. She was too excited.

They were going home and she envied them a little. The more she thought about it the more she did not know – not truly know – where she would call home. She missed the house with the red door of her youth. Unlike Viserys she did not miss King’s Landing, because she had never been there.

Neither had most of the Company of the Rose – to Westeros that is – and yet they were so keen to go home. The more she thought about the less that she understand it. Mind you, she didn’t understand some of the food either. She was staring at some now. It looked like a cooked tube of pastry the length of her hand with minced pork and green flecks in it.

“It’s a sausage roll,” said a voice to one side and she looked over to see a tall man with thinning hair looking at her. He was dressed like many of the men around them, like a man of Westeros, but whereas there was excitement in their eyes there was a tiredness in his, leavened with a look of distracted thought. “They tend to vary in quality, but that one looks quite tasty.”

“Ah,” she said cautiously. Then she pointed at a different food, a pastry half-moon with the round edges crimped. “And that?”

“A pasty. It’s a Northern delicacy.”

“Why is one side crimped like that?”

“It was made for miners and those that work on buildings. They often had dirty hands and needed something that could eat that had a rim – they’d eat the main part but not the rim.”

“I see,” she said and then looked about the square again.

She could tell that the other man was looking at her carefully and had now joined her in looking about. A moment later she heard a woman’s voice call out gaily: “There you are!”, and then a woman with dark hair and laughing eyes, dressed like an Essosi, strode up to her with a basket filled with food. “I wondered where you had got to. You shouldn’t stray too far, the Maester said that you are still recovering! Now then, Ser Jorah and I will take you back up the hill to the Magister’s place. You’ve had quite the visit, little sister, we can’t risk you getting any sicker.”

She opened her mouth to protest that she had no idea what the woman was talking about, when all of a sudden the woman linked her arm through hers with a deft speed and then half-pulled, half-encouraged her along. As she did she babbled endlessly about the pretty dress that she had seen, about how the Company of the Rose was going home, about how pale she was after being so ill and how the Maester had said that her hair would soon return to its natural blonde colour. The man who had talked to her – Ser Jorah – walked next to them.

She could see that she was being led along the road that indeed led to the Magister’s mansion and she wanted to protest again that she did not know them, but some instinct was suddenly screaming in her ears that she should go with them, that she was not safe. Ser Jorah would occasionally make a comment and once said that he had spoken to Lord Krats and that the leader of the Company of the Rose had agreed that he should escort her back up the hill.

Only then did she see the men who stopped following them abruptly, hands on daggers and suspicion in their eyes. They all looked at one man, who shook his head, and then they dispersed.

Once they were far enough away from the square and the crowd only then did the woman gently unhook their arms and smile at her a little more coolly.

“That might have been eventful,” Ser Jorah rumbled as they strode up the hill. “Daenerys Targaryen I presume? You were being followed by men who suspected that you were not what you seemed.”

She looked at the two with some suspicion of her own. “How did you know who I am?”

“You should have tied your hair back with a better tie,” the woman said, and she realised that some of her hair had indeed escaped its bond and was peeking out from the hood. “And the cloak you are wearing is of very rich material. Too expensive for anyone but a noble. The more you walked about the more that you were suspected.”

She found herself drooping a little. “My thanks, I thought that I had been so careful. And you are?”

“Leera of Myr. This is Ser Jorah Mormont.”

“Mormont… you serve with the Company of the Rose?”

He smiled a little and then shook his head. “Nay. I am of the North but not of the Company there. I was trying to find out why they are being drawn home.”

“Why are they going home?”

He paused a moment. “’Tis a complicated story to explain. Let me just say that they have good reason. A call has gone out. The North pulls the First Men.”

She stared at him a moment. “A pull to the North? A slight tug?”

He looked at her oddly. “In my case a violent yank, but how should you… ah. Of course. You have Blackwood blood in you. You feel it a little.”

“Why did you go there?” Leera broke in. “That was dangerous for you!”

Dany shrugged a little. “I wanted to talk to people who were from Westeros. See what they sounded like, looked like. I know that that they are exiles, but so am I and I… don’t remember home.” She was babbling and then she straightened up. “I was not in any danger, not really.”

The other two stared at her and then at each other. “Lady Daenerys-”

Princess Daenerys.”

“…You were in danger. The men of the North – even those far removed from it – do not love Targaryens. The Company of the Rose came to Essos because they would not bend the knee to Aegon Targaryen. And these days they hate them even more. Especially since the Mad King killed the Starks in his throne room.”

She stared at him. “I do not know what you are talking about. What ‘Mad King’? Which Starks?”

This time the other two stopped in their tracks and stared at her, before exchanging a long gaze. “Does she jest?” Leera asked with what sounded like astonishment in her voice.

“Jest about what?” She was in danger of losing her temper. “Tell me – what ‘Mad King’?”

“Your father.” Ser Jorah said the words and as he did a chill of shock went through her. “In his last months all of Westeros called him the Mad King. For his crimes.”

“Even in Myr we heard about them.” Leera muttered, looking a little ill.

“My father was not mad!” Dany protested. “The people loved him! He was betrayed and murdered by the Usurper!”

“The people? The people called him King Scab at first. The Iron Throne was made from dragon-melted swords, but those swords are still sharp in places and your father kept nicking himself on them. King Scab – who saw traitors everywhere, and as the years passed then the more traitors he saw and the madder he became.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he raised a finger in the air and then pointed at her. “Do you know why the North rose as one man to follow Ned Stark, the second son of Lord Rickard Stark? Even though he was the second son?”

She shook her head, bewildered.

“Because your father killed his father and elder brother.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Why?”

Ser Jorah and Leera stared at her as if she was mad. “You do not know?”

“All I know is what my brother told me. That my father was let down by fools and weak-willed men on his council That he was betrayed. He, he mentioned once that Lord Stark – the elder Stark – had been a traitor, but he never mentioned him again.”

Ser Jorah was now pale with what seemed to be shock, whilst Leera was clutching at his arm. “What do you know of your brother, Rhaegar?” He asked the words thickly, as if he could not trust his mouth.

“That he was knightly and noble.”

“He kidnapped Lyanna Stark, the daughter of Lord Stark and the sister to Brandon and Eddard Stark. Willingly or not on her part, we do not know. But they both vanished and her brother, Brandon Stark, rode to King’s Landing to demand to know where they were. Your father did not like that. He threw Brandon Stark in a cell, calling him traitor. Then he wrote to Lord Rickard Stark, demanding ransom for his son and commanding him to come to King’s Landing as well.” He said the words stonily and dread flickered in her heart.

“What happened?”

“Your father announced that Rickard Stark was also a traitor. Lord Stark demanded a trial by combat. Your father granted his wish. When, fully armoured, he arrived in the throne room of the Red Keep your father announced that he had chosen a champion to fight him. Fire.”

She blinked. “I have never heard of a Lord Fyre. And I thought that all the Blackfyres were dead.”

There was pity in the look he now directed at her. “Not a man. Fire as in the element. Lord Stark was suspended in his armour from the rafters and Aerys had his pyromancers build a fire beneath him, which was then lit. And as Rickard Stark burnt to death Brandon Stark watched it all, with a sword just out of reach and a special collar around his neck. The more he struggled to reach the sword the more the collar tightened. Your father’s orders, all of it. And that is why the North will never follow a Targaryen. And that started the Rebellion.”

Dany’s stomach turned over and she felt her skin go cold and clammy. “No,” she choked eventually. “No.” Leera looked at her and gasped, but it was too late. She darted to one side of the road and then fell to her knees and voided her stomach. “No,” she said again when she was able to, through a burning throat and a haze of tears. “I… I don’t believe it. I can’t.”

The Northman was standing to one side and looking abashed. “I am sorry,” he said hesitantly. “I should have found a less blunt way to tell you. But you had to know. I am sure that your brother has his own version.”

Leera reached into her basket and pulled out a stone jar with a cork sealing it. She pulled it open and handed it to her. She took it with a shaking hand and drank from it. It was some kind of water flavoured with lemon and sugar and it was delicious. “Thank you,” she said huskily, before standing again. “And… and I do not believe you.”

Ser Jorah and Leera looked at her and then looked at each other, before shrugging. “Ask anyone you like about the events of the Rebellion.”

“Apart from your brother.” Leera said flatly.

They walked back the hill in silence, Dany on rather shaky legs. As they reached the mansion she could see that the doors were open and then Magister Mopatis was watching them. He had a look of carefully hidden irritation at her. “Princess,” he rumbled, “I was about to send people out to search for you. But I see that this good Ser has found you.”

“She was in the square where the Company of the Rose were assembled. Leera here saw her and also saw that there were some there who were viewing her with some suspicion. So we – with the approval of Lord Krats, the leader of the Company – got her out of there with a small stratagem. It worked.”

“My thanks.” The Magister said and then he looked at her more closely. “Princess, you seem…. Upset.”

“I…” Her thoughts were in a jumble. “I did not think that I was in any danger. I know that I was wrong now. Your pardon Magister. Ser Jorah, Leera… my thanks.” And then she walked to her room. She had a great deal to think about. And she wanted to be sick again, at the thought of her father and the… things that he had allegedly done.

 


 

Jorah

He watched the child go and mentally shook his head. The Targaryen girl had just had some of her illusions shattered and he had been the person to do it. Well, it had to be done. The Gods alone knew what other rubbish her brother had poured into her head.

Mopatis tilted his head at him. “Thank you for finding her.” Leera concealed a slight scowl at being ignored and then stepped back as the Magister gestured at Jorah to step closer. “You said that you spoke to Krats. What did he say?”

Jorah thought deeply for a long moment. “He said something most odd. That they were going back to the North because they had heard a message. A call. From the North.”

“What message? From whom?”

“Winterfell, or so Krats thought. As to how it was delivered – he said that he came awake in the middle of the night, with the words ringing though him.”

“Words?”

’The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.’

Mopatis stared at him as if he was mad. “The Others? They return because of a legend?”

“They seem certain of it. I shall return to talk to them again. They plan some ceremony this evening.” He paused, assessing his next words. “Coming after what I heard about the Dothraki…. Magister, something has changed in this world. The Company of the Rose feel a pull back to the North, a need to be there. And I also feel it. I have for many days now.”

The Magister’s stare changed slightly. It was still intent, but there was more considered thought behind it now. “Curious,” he muttered after a long moment. “Word has come from Oldtown. The glass candles can be relit.”

He heard a gasp from behind him and he turned to see that Leera had both hands over her mouth in shock. She noticed his look and then blushed a little and ducked her head in apology. Not that Mopatis seemed to notice. Instead he seemed to be so deep in thought that nothing could possibly make him notice anything. And then he seemed to return from wherever his mind had taken him.

“This changes everything,” he muttered. Then he paused. “If it’s all true that is. The Grey Waste means the Five Forts. And then…” He cut himself off, nodded at Jorah and then turned and walked back into his mansion, calling over his shoulder: “I will send word to Varys!”

Jorah watched him go and then turned to Leera. “Feel like another walk down the hill?”

“A little exercise never did anyone any harm,” she replied with a smile and then she linked arms with him and they walked back down the road.

“Where did you get the food?”

“I wanted to get something for supper. Good that I did.”

“Aye.” He frowned and then shook his head. “Her brother never told her. The swine.”

“He is a Targaryen, Jorah. The Dragons always held themselves to be above all overs.”

He remembered the aftermath of the Trident and then the Red Keep afterwards. The bodies being brought from the Black Cells. The tales of Aerys and his last days of insanity and barbarity, the burning alive of anyone who crossed him, the torture and the mindless cruelty. “We are well rid of them.”

She peered at him worriedly. And then they passed down the road to the square. There they found that the crowd was now quieter and also organised into groups that formed a great circle, each group having a furled flag. There was a tension in the air now, something that he could almost taste. Leera tightened her grip a little on his arm but stood next to him.

“Your cousins wish you two to stand with them,” said a voice to one side and he noticed that The Stone was standing to one side, leading a horse and holding a furled flag himself. Behind the horse stood a younger version of The Stone, along with a woman who looked like his wife and four other children of varying size. “When you are with them we shall begin.”

Jorah looked around in some confusion, but then walked with Leera over to where the women that The Stone had pointed out to him were waiting. They seemed to be amused, irked and expectant all at the same time.

“Cousin,” one of them – Lyra? – said. “Well met.” Then she frowned. “We have much to talk about. You resemble our grandfather by the way.”

She spoke with such an intensity and with a such a look of wry (and angry) humour that he was instantly reminded of Maege and all of a sudden he wanted to hug her and weep for what he had lost. However, she’d probably box his ears and tell him not to be a great dunderheaded fool, so he restrained himself and instead looked back to The Stone, who was walking with his horse and his family to the centre of the circle. There he took the furled flag from his son and grounded its spiked base next to his foot.

“We are the Company of the Rose!” The Stone cried in a loud voice. “With our kith and kin. We are the sons and daughters of those who did not bend the knee to the Dragons. We are those who remember the vow made by our ancestors. We remember. For many long years who have remained here in Essos, as was agreed.”

This was interesting, Jorah thought. Agreed by whom?

“But now everything has changed. We have heard the Call. The call home. The call from Winterfell. The Others come. We all know it. We all feel it.” The crowd rumbled in agreement and approval. “I know that we are bound by the Oath that our ancestors swore. But there is an older oath that we must obey, an older calling. We are of the North! We must always rally there when the call comes to fight the Long Night, to fight the oldest enemy of our people! How could we not? How could any man or woman of the North fail to rally against such a threat? Could I? No! Could you?”

“NO!” The crowd bellowed back and Jorah was startled to find that he had shouted too. Leera looked at him and then wiped the tears from his face with a quick finger and a fond smile.

“Then we must return home! Who will go with me? Who will heed the call? Which of the Houses who sent their exiles to the East will return?” He turned to face the various groups and then raised a hand to the one in front of him. “Will you?”

“House Bolton will!”

“House Cerwyn will!”

“House Glover will come!”

“House Karstak too!”

“And House Hornwood!”

“House Mormont will answer the call!” Alyse bellowed, leaving his ears ringing a bit and reminding him again of Maege.

“House Redstark will follow!” Jorah jerked his head at that. House Redstark??? Where had they come from?

“And House Ryder!” And that shook him like nothing else. Where had they been hiding? There hadn’t been a Ryder in the North since the arrival of the Targaryens, since… and then he started to wonder again about how this Company had been founded. Then he drew his attention back to the square. A few other houses had announced that they were going and then a tall man with three tall sons and two tall daughters stepped forwards.

“And House Umber! We too will answer the call!”

The Stone looked about the square and Jorah could see the shining tracks of tears on his face. “And my House too,” he rumbled, before raising his voice again. “We name ourselves true again. House Stark returns home!” And then he unfurled the banner and shook it a little so that the wind could catch the cloth. The Direwolf caught the breeze and boomed and snapped.

As did the other banners as the men and women bearing them lifted them in the air. There was a moment of silence and then the cheering started. Someone slapped Jorah on the back and he smiled as he wiped the tears from his cheeks. Why was he crying? Why did he feel so home with a group of strangers, even if some of them were kin? Was it the fact that he felt what they all did?

When he was finally able to, he turned to see Leera looking at him with a smile of her own and also eyes filled with tears. “You are going back with them, aren’t you?” Leera said in his ear.

He frowned and then nodded. “If I can get passage with them, yes.”

“Jorah, it will be dangerous!”

“I have to go. I am drawn there, drawn home, like they are. I will risk it.”

She peered at him, with large eyes. Then she nodded as if she had seen something in his face that made up her own mind. “Very well. I shall go with you, share your risk and face your fate with you.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she laid a finger over his lips. “This is not something we will debate. I have decided it.”

He looked at her for a long moment and then he pulled her to him and kissed her fiercely, hearing his cousins cheer him on with a number of rude comments. And he felt something that he had not sensed within him for some time.

Hope.

 


 

Arya

The brands guttered and flared as Father and the others approached the door. She had run to fetch Father as fast as her legs could take her, leaving Jon in the Crypt. When she returned – having run ahead of the others – Jon hadn’t moved a muscle, still staring at the door.

Father stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the door, forcing the others behind him to slow a little. When he started walking again he could see that he must have summoned a lot of people after she’d burst into his solar and gabbled that he had to come to the Crypts at once as she and Jon had found a door that they had never seen before, with a direwolf carving.

She could see Robb behind Father, and Mother. Maester Luwin was there, and Domeric, the GreatJon too. And then bringing up the rear was Theon and a bright-eyed and inquisitive Bran.

They all came to a halt before the door and stared at it. “I see that you were right,” Father said eventually, before smiling at them both wryly. “Well done.”

“Arya, why were you down here?” Mother asked with more than a little curiosity combined with exasperation.

She rolled her eyes for a moment. ‘Avoiding Septa Mordane’ would be the wrong thing to say, even if it was accurate. ‘Getting out of stupid embroidery’ was another accurate answer. “I was looking for Jon,” she said eventually. “I saw him come down here.”

Everyone looked at Jon, who looked back at Father evenly. “Today is… is Aunt Lyanna’s birthday, Father. I lit a candle in her name, in front of her statue.”

Father closed his eyes for a long moment. “Aye,” he said eventually in a thick and regretful voice. “I had forgot that.” He opened his eyes and there was approval in them now. “You did right by your aunt. Good lad.”

And then he shook himself a little and stepped closer to the door. “Now this is… interesting. I have never seen this here before. I wonder how long it has been open?”

Robb stepped forwards and joined their father as they examined. Then something seemed to strike him. “Father! The night of the direwolf – you vanished when you were possessed by our ancestor. When I saw you next you were coming up from the Crypts, from here. What if Edric Stark knew of this place and how to open the door?”

Father seemed to think about this for a moment and then nodded. “Ah, that might well be it.” Then he reached out and pulled on the door. It didn’t move. Frowning he handed his brand to Robb and pulled with both hands. It still didn’t move.

“Oh in the name of the Old Gods, Ned, give over. Let me have a go.” And the GreatJon stumped over, gave his brand to Arya with a smile and then braced himself and hauled on the door. Something groaned – either the GreatJon or the doorframe – and then there was a grating noise as the big man forced the door open. Once it was fully open he released it and then turned back to Father. “There you go Ned,” he panted. “Needs a little oil though.”

Father grinned at his old friend. And then he seemed to sober himself as he took back his brand from Robb, before stepping up to the doorway. And then he seemed to take a deep breath and stepped forwards into the dark room beyond.

As the others also followed him Arya squirmed with impatience, before finally squeezing in through the door at the same time as Bran, who protested vehemently. And then they both fell silent and still as they saw what was in front of them.

There were tombs lining the sides of the room. Pairs of tombs in fact. And statues too, also in pairs. Man and direwolf. Women too. Everyone stared around the dark, dusty room in some shock.

“By the Gods…” Theon said eventually. He was staring at one of the statues intently. Then he bent down and brushed the dust from a carving at the foot of the statue, before straightening and then stepping back in what looked like shock. “Lord Stark! This is… this is Edric Stark’s tomb. He and his direwolf, Thorn. He died… he died a thousand years ago.”

Father strode over and peered at the carvings. Then he looked around at the tombs and there was an odd look to his face. “Wargs,” he said eventually. “The legends were true. The Starks were wargs.”

“Aye father,” Robb said quietly. Then he looked at Father. “But are we still wargs?”

Arya felt her eyes widen. Wargs? Men – and women! – who could step into the minds of animals! And direwolves too! She shifted from foot to foot quickly and then she looked around the room. Robb looked almost wistful. Jon looked thoughtful, as did Bran. The GreatJon looked stunned, whilst Domeric… looked almost happy? Odd. Luwin’s face was a picture of concentration and Mother, well, she looked shocked and more than a little resigned. Also a little green for some reason.

She wondered why. And then she caught sight of a statue of a woman with a direwolf just to one side and darted over to it, rubbing on the inscription to read the name. “This one’s Dacey Stark! And her direwolf Huntress!” She looked about the room in delight – and then she paused. “Father – why did they hide this place?”

By the look on Father’s face he did not know. Yet.

 


 

Brynden

Anyone who had ever lived in the Riverlands or the Vale was well-acquainted with rain. But that didn’t mean that he had to like it. Brynden looked up at the sky sourly and then pulled the hood of his oiled campaign cloak a little further down so that the rain would hopefully stop dripping on his nose and not for the first time blessed old Ser Dalbert, the man who had given it to him so many years ago. A seemingly trivial thing, but he had cared for it over the long years and it had kept him dry. He thought back to the War of the Ninepenny Kings for a moment and then snorted a little. Had it really been so long ago?

The rain eased a little and he looked at the road ahead. Where was he going? West. Why was he going Southwest? He didn’t bloody know. He wondered how much of a mess his successor was making as the Knight of the Gate and shuddered a little. Hopefully Arryn had appointed someone competent.

Which brought the issue – again – of why he was going Southwest. He still didn’t know.

The road wound through a wood and he watched the trees cautiously. There was the occasional problem with idiots with blunt swords who thought that they could rob people. His brother tended to make object lessons of them.

Then he paused a moment. Speak of the devil. There were two bodies on the side of the road ahead, both with crude weapons next to them, or what remained of them. The old swords looked as if something had shattered them and the men looked as if what had shattered their swords had been a far better and sharper sword. He nodded in satisfaction. Good, clean strokes.

The rain lifted as he passed through the far end of the little wood and he peered at the horizon. The great bulk of Harrenhall was off to his right and he winced a little as he looked at it. He disliked that place, there was indeed something cursed about it.

He rode on, glancing up at the sky and assessing the sun. It was going down and at some point he’d have to think about where to sleep. The last inn was far behind him and he didn’t know where the next one was. This wasn’t a big road, nor a busy one. He’d normally make do with sleeping under a tree wrapped in his cloak, but judging by the cloud with a curtain of rain beneath it on the horizon that might not be a good idea tonight.

An hour later he was sure that he needed shelter. It was going to be a wild and wet night by the flash of lightning ahead. Longshanks was a pretty stoic horse, but he didn’t want him too spooked by the bad weather.

And then, as dusk started to fall, as well as a fine drizzle, he saw the great bulk of a crag to his right, and beneath that crag the light of what looked like a fire. He narrowed his eyes a little, remembering the bodies that lay far behind him and then shrugged a little. If they were willing to share the fire then he could bring food. If they were not, he could find another place. And if they eyed his possessions and then tried to rob him then he’d provide a messy object lesson.

As he approached the fire he dismounted and as he led Longshanks along he noticed a few things. The fire was in the mouth of what looked like a South-facing cave, one with enough of an overhang of rock over it that it was sheltered from the rain. And there was a figure there, standing behind the fire. A tall man, cloaked and hooded, but with one hand on the pommel of a longsword. He was peering at Brynden suspiciously.

He sighed and stopped, before raising his free hand. “Ho there! I saw your fire and with your leave would share it. ‘Tis a foul enough night and I have food I can share. Bread and salt for a start.”

The figure seemed to relax a hair at the mention of bread and salt and then nodded slowly. As Brynden approached he could see that the cave was a deep one and that there was a horse tethered at the far end, its nose in a nosebag.

“May I tether my horse at the back?” Brynden asked. The figure nodded again and he led Longshanks into the cave.

It was roomier than it first appeared and also drier. Someone had hammered spikes into the rock face at the back at some point and then attached metal rings to tether horses and he chose the one furthest away from the other horse. He unsaddled Longshanks and then pulled out a blanket and rubbed him down carefully, before hanging up the wet blanket over two of the rings on the wall. Then he pulled out the old familiar horse blanket, draped it over Longshanks, clinched it just tight enough, and then watered and fed him. And all the time he could feel the eyes of the other man on his back.

Finally finished he shouldered his saddlebags and then strode over to the fire, where he sat to one side of his suspicious fellow traveller. Reaching into one of his bags he pulled out a piece of clean cloth which was wrapped around the fresh bread that he’d bought that morning from the inn he’d stayed at. He pulled a piece off it, sprinkled some salt onto it from a little pouch that he always carried, broke the bread in half again and then handed it over to the other man. “Bread and salt,” he said, before eating it.

“Bread and salt,” said the other man and then ate his piece. There was something odd about his voice. The accent hinted at the Stormlands and the voice seemed growly, but as if it was being projected lower than was usual. “Thank you.” And then the other man turned to look at the fire. Brynden nodded slightly and then dug into his bag again, before finally pulling out a wrapped pack of cold but cooked sausages. He then pulled out his old campaign skewer, with its wooden handle, fastened a pair of sausages on the tines and then held the skewer just above the nearest flames.

The other figure watched in silence and then dug into the bag next to him and pulled out a small stone jar, which he opened and placed to one side. Brynden looked into it. Mustard. He nodded. “A trade then? A sausage for some mustard?”

The other man nodded and then sniffed as the smell of hot sausage started to grow. Brynden watched them critically and then pulled back the skewer before they had a chance to burn. The other man nodded and then teased one of them off with a small knife that he had pulled from the bag.

A little mustard was applied from the jar and then Brynden bit into his. Not bad. His flask contained some watered wine and he took a pull on it before placing another two sausages on the skewer and then putting the rest away. They’d last until tomorrow. Then he warmed the sausages whilst thinking about the other man.

Whoever he was he was not keen on showing his face. The cloak was good quality, the gloves too. From what he could see of the sword it too was well made. And the gelding back there was fit, well-cared for and might have had a splash of Dornish blood in it. But whoever he was he seemed keen to hide his face. Who was he?

The other two sausages were eaten and then he replaced everything in his bag. Thunder rumbled in the distance and he looked out at the night. “I’m glad I’m not out there tonight.”

There was a grunt in answer. There was also a whinny from the back of the cave and he sighed. If the storm got any closer then he’d have to see to Longshanks. That horse got skittish when it thundered too much and would need soothing.

He looked back at the fire and then thought. The question of where in the name of the Gods he was going was nagging at him again. Was this all a fool’s folly on his part? He had given up being Knight of the Gate – and for what? A fancy, a restlessness he could not explain, a need to be somewhere than he was right now.

The thunder growled again, louder and he sighed and then stood. “My horse hates thunder,” he muttered and then stalked back to Longshanks. The horse whickered at him and he stroked his nose and soothed him, as if he needed reminding that his master was still in the area. He’d be fine now.

He stalked back to the fire and sat. The rain was pounding down outside now. “Longshanks gets nervous at thunder. He’ll be fine now.”

The head of the figure jerked up at that. “Longshanks? Ah. I had thought I had seen you before once, from a distance. You are the Blackfish.” That voice was intriguing him now. It was low-pitched but was a little higher than before.

He peered at the figure. “I am Ser Brynden Tully.”

“The Knight of the Gate.” There was some admiration there. And then he had it. He was a she.

“I was. I am not now.”

She tilted her head and he saw a flash of bright blue eyes. “Why not?”

He stroked his beard carefully as he thought of his answer. “I was called away. Am still called away. By something I cannot explain. I am following a pull to the Southwest.” He smiled awkwardly. “That sounds foolish, I know. But it… nags at me. Especially the words from a dream.”

The woman had straightened as he had been speaking and she now pulled her hood down and stared at him in what looked like some astonishment. She was not a pretty and could be described as homely at best, with short, straw-coloured hair, a wide mouth and a nose that seemed to have been broken at least twice. But her eyes… Now there was something to behold. Large and blue and with something that seemed to blaze in them. She reminded him of someone, but he could not put his finger on who.

“You… are pulled Southwest? On this road? Since when?”

“A month at least since I heard the call.” He peered at her sharply. “You too?”

“Aye. T’was a dream in the night. I was travelling home from business for my Father in the Vale when I heard a whisper – and then a pull towards something that I cannot explain.”

“Southwest?”

“Aye.”

“Then perhaps we should travel together.” He paused. “I saw two dead bandits on the road some miles back there.”

She snorted. “Fools who saw a woman on a horse and did not think that I could defend myself. I corrected their mistake.”

“As was right.”

She eyed him again. “I will ride with you Blackfish. I am Brienne of Tarth.”

“Well met Brienne of Tarth.” He paused. “I have met your father, the Evenstar. A good man.”

“He is. Taught me all he knew.”

Brynden smiled and then nodded. “Do you want to take the first watch or the second?”

“The first.”

“Then good night and wake me for the second.” And then he wrapped himself in his cloak, laid his head on a saddlebag and fell asleep in an instant.

 


 

Jon Arryn

The figures were cold and bleak and they told a terrible story. And there were so many of them. He sighed at the thought of what they entailed and then rubbed at his forehead. He could feel a headache start to build. Ah well, he’d live. There was far, far too much to do.

Fingers drummed for a moment on the desk and he looked over to see that Stannis had finished his own perusal of the latest book that had emerged from the secret stash of such books in the possession of the late and thoroughly unlamented Petyr Baelish.

“Drowning was too good for him,” Stannis said in a voice that was tight with fury. “He deserved more than that.”

“I know,” Jon said with a sigh. “But he is dead enough. Now we must clear the rubble and build anew.” He stood with a slight wince as various bones protested and then walked to the nearest window and stared out at the morning sun.

A tap at the door and Quill poked his head in. “Your pardon my lords, but Janos Slynt is here as you ordered. And I have the forms that you also asked for.”

Excellent. “Thank you Quill. Please keep an ear out in case we need those forms.” Hopefully they wouldn’t. Slynt was a fool and a coward.

The man himself stamped in, looking as always like a plump fool who knew everything. Heh. Not today.

“Ah, Slynt,” Jon said as he returned to his desk and then looked at the commander of the Goldcloaks. “Are you well?”

Slynt, who looked rather more like a frog of late than before, blinked at him. He seemed a little nervous. “Ah, yes my Lord Hand.”

“You have seemed unsettled these past few days.”

Slynt swallowed convulsively. “I have? I mean – no, my Lord Hand.”

Jon leant back in his seat and looked at the commander of the City Watch again. He seemed to be sweating a little. Good. “A shame that your men were unable to find Baelish when I asked them to. As you know, I had to rely on my own man.”

“I am sure that we would have caught him, my Lord Hand,” Baelish mumbled as the sheen of sweat grew a little. “We searched most diligently.”

“Yes,” said Stannis darkly, “I am sure that you did.”

Slynt made a ghastly attempt at a smile and then, as a silence fell, he twitched a little. “Um – why did you summon me my Lord Hand?

Jon looked about the room as if he had forgotten – and then he leant forwards a little and pointed at the book in front of him, with all its damning numbers. “Do you know what this is, Slynt?”

“Um – no my Lord Hand.”

“It is one of the many secret account books owned by the thief and traitor Baelish. It is the one in which he recorded… certain payments.”

Slynt looked even sweatier than he had before. “Payments for what my Lord Hand?”

“Bribes.” Jon said the word in a voice as cold as he could make it. “Bribes to merchants. Bribes to officials. And bribes to members of the City Watch. Bribes to Goldcloaks.”

Slynt paled but then swallowed and objected. “Lies! Everything that Littlefinger wrote there is naught but lies! The man was notorious for his attempts to bribe my brave men and I but I took not a penny from him!” The words sounded brave but the sweat dripping off him told of fear.

Stannis gazed at him scornfully. “Have we mentioned you? Odd that the moment we mention bribes to Goldcloaks you immediately protest that you are innocent. Most odd that. Unless of course you have a guilty conscience.” He looked the man up and down and then sneered. “Or indeed that you even know what a conscience is.”

The commander of the Goldcloaks licked his lips nervously and then his eyes flickered from Jon to Stannis and then back to Jon. The words ‘I am trying to think of a plausible lie’ might have been written across his face. “I-”

But Jon cut him off. “Be silent! Your guilt is written here, plain to see for all! Bribe after bribe after bribe. Small ones at first, but then larger and larger as the years went by! And not just you – there is evidence here of a spreading web of corruption. The officers under you – how much did Baelish pay you to look the other way whilst you bribed them as well? And the others under them? How much coin have you been raking in from all over the place?”

His finger jabbed down. “Did you know that Baelish left notes about what he paid you for? No? How about this – ’50 dragons for Slynt on the matter of the son of Lord Tywald’. I remember that. The wretched little piece of filth raped three women here in Kings Landing and yet somehow none of them lived long enough to identify the boy in front of me. They all had their throats cut and I had to dismiss the matter, much to my anger. And now I find that you had a hand in it! I care not a jot that the boy later died when he was stabbed in the groin by another woman and in fact I would reward that woman if I knew who she was! You conspired with Baelish and Tywald to hide the truth!”

Slynt was as white as a sheet now, his fingers opening and closing convulsively at his sides. He was also shaking a little and there was a suspicion of something in the air that made Jon suspect that bladder control was becoming an issue for him.

“And the list continues! Not merely bribes, but crimes as well! Perjury! Murder in places!”

Slynt made a noise of protest but Jon again cut him off. “Yes, murder! Did you think that it can be seen in any other way? Men bribed to look the other way whilst innocent people were ‘disposed of’ by guilty men! Other men paid to lie to cover up the crimes of others! And all of this resulting in a steady stream of coin flowing in your direction, until it became a river!”

“Lies!” Squealed Slynt, very pale now. “All falsehoods and lies!”

“Liar!” Jon roared. “You didn’t even bother hiding the gold. And more than the gold! Baelish paid you in property as well! Three businesses that you had long coveted and which he was obliging enough to help drive out of business so you could ‘appropriate’ them! And you were too stupid to pass them on to anyone else, but instead you kept them for yourself!

“Thanks to you and Baelish the Goldcloaks are little more than another gang in this city. Goldcloaks? Middencloaks morelike! You’ve dragged your cloak through the filth and enough of it has finally stuck to you.”

He leant back and stared at Slynt. The wretched man had one hand on the pommel of his sword now and he looked as if he was a hairbreadth away from drawing it.

“If you draw that sword,” Stannis grunted, “You’ll be dead before the tips clears the scabbard. I promise you that, Slynt. I’ve killed a lot of men. Reachmen. Targaryen loyalists. Ironborn. Pirates. I’m not like the scum you confront. Whenever someone like you can be bothered to confront actual criminals. I can gut you like a fish where you stand. I promise it.”

Slynt eyed him like a cornered animal and then Stannis did something that unnerved the Goldcloak almost as much as it unnerved Jon. He smiled slightly at him. It looked a bit like a death-rictus, but it was a smile.

The Goldcloak made a whimpering noise and Jon made a note to get someone scrub the spot where he was standing. Yes, there was a small puddle there. And then Slynt lifted a shaking hand off the pommel and tried to say something. All that emerged was another whimper.

“Quill!” Jon shouted and the door flew open to reveal Quill and two other men in full armour and holding drawn swords.

“My Lord Hand?”

“This… man is under arrest, on charges of corruption. Strip of his weapons, his armour and above all the cloak that he has disgraced.”

“Aye my Lord Hand,” Quill said tersely as he removed Slynt’s sword and dagger, grimacing a little at the puddle. “And then?”

“The Black Cells. The King will work out what to do with him.”

Slynt made another noise of distress, but allowed himself to be led away by the grim faced guards. Jon watched them all go and then nodded as a servant darted in with a bucket to scrub the puddle away, before leaving, closing the door as he went.

“What will you do with the Goldcloaks now?” Stannis asked.

“I know not. Their upper ranks are as corrupt as Slynt. Takers of bribes – and that might be the least of their crimes.” He ran a hand over his face. “I think that the worst of them will have to go to the Wall. I can’t send them all though, that will leave the City in a parlous state.”

Stannis thought about this, looking about as grim as he could ever remember seeing him. “I see your point. Much as I would dismiss every guilty man, that would gut the City Watch almost completely. Winnow out the worst and then make the lower ones redeem themselves. Review them regularly. Who will you appoint in their place?”

“I know not that either. We need a man who can lead and not be corrupted. If he was not so vital to you I would suggest Ser Davos Seaworth as a temporary replacement. Or can you spare him?”

Stannis ground his teeth a little and then nodded. “He would do at a pinch. It would be a bad blow to lose him even for a month, but I could just spare him for a while.”

Jon sighed and then stepped closer to Stannis and lowered his voice down to a whisper. “We need more reliable men than we have. Especially as this business of the King’s Great Matter must be resolved and soon. The Queen has already sent me a list of men that she thinks would be suitable to be the new Master of Coin. Not one of them is acceptable to me.”

“Lannisters or men close to her father?”

“Both – and a number who would merely bind themselves closer to her in the hope of a future reward. I have no doubt that once she hears that the Goldcloaks need to be placed in order she will volunteer the services of a large number of Lannister guards – and then suggest some replacements for Slynt.”

“Then we shall have to pre-empt her. I can bring in men from Dragonstone, just as you can from The Vale. Reliable men. When we finally move, we need to control the City and the Goldcloaks are the key to it.” He looked annoyed. “This makes things… complicated.”

“Aye. We cannot move until the ground beneath our feet is certain again. And at the moment, what with Baelish and now Slynt… well, things are in flux.” He stared out of the window. “More in flux perhaps than I first thought. This business with the Great Sept and the tales of people looking to the North… Well, I need to send a raven to Winterfell to meet with Ned Stark as soon as possible.” He saw Stannis pull a face and he nodded. “I know, more delay. But something that I cannot explain is happening. In the meantime we must do what we can with the tools that we have. Send me Seaworth when you can spare him today. He’ll need to clean out the headquarters of the Goldcloaks with some reliable men as well.”

“I’ll send him when I can. Do you really mean to leave the decision of what to do with Slynt to Robert? I thought that you would send him to the Wall.”

Jon pulled a face of his own. “I do not think that my Goodbrother would thank me for sending the most corrupt man still remaining in King’s Landing to the Wall. For one thing he might try and sell it to the Wildlings. For another he might leave a trail of piss and slime all over it. I jest, but he’s a bad bargain even for the Wall.”

“True enough.”

There was a formal knock at the door and they both turned to face. “Enter.”

Quill entered. “My Lords, a signal from the harbour, from Ser Davos Seaworth. The King’s ship is in sight.”

 


 

Jaime

He was in a dark mood as he rode down to the docks behind the Hand and Old Stoneface. The encounter with Dawn the other day had stirred a lot of memories that he’d worked very hard to try and repress. Memories of his youth. Memories of his first days in the Kingsguard.

He’d worshipped some of those men at first. Arthur Dayne had been his ideal as a knight. What could be said about Barristan the Bold, except high praise? Jonothor Darry. Lewyn Martell. Names that had made him tongue-tied and nervous. And then of course old Gerold Hightower, the White Bull himself.

That admiration had died on the same day that the Starks had. Died in fire and blood and screaming, in a throne room filled with deathly silent men and woman, watching white-faced as a terrible crime was committed that eventually destroyed the Targaryen Dynasty.

“You swore a vow to guard the king, not to judge him.” Hightower’s words. Words he must have known were hollow and worthless. They had both known that Aerys was then far beyond mad. His cackling glee at the agonies of both Starks was more than proof of that.

But he was in the Kingsguard now. And effectively a hostage.

So he had turned his pride in his white cloak into something else. Duty. And then again into a careful watchfulness. Especially after the death of Elia and the children, after all he had done to save them.

And now here he was, Kingsguard to the Fat King, a man who had let himself go at such a pace that it still astonished him at times. He sometimes wondered why Robert Baratheon had wasted himself in the way that he had, before shrugging and deciding that he didn’t care anymore.

He shook himself slightly as they arrived at the docks and he repressed a more recent memory. The feel of Dawn twisting in his grip like a snake trying to get away. What had that been about? He had thought about approaching young Lord Dayne and asking him, before he and Dondarrion left for the North in a day or so, but for once in his life his nerve had failed him.

The sound of a growing crowd brought him back to where he was. Ah, the ship was approaching, slowly creeping next to the docks. It looked like all ships did to him, although if Seaworth was here he could probably tell him where it had come from.

He put on his best beaming smile for the crowd and dismounted. He filtered out what they were saying about him. He didn’t care.

And then he saw the king – and frowned. Robert Baratheon was prowling around the deck like a caged wolf, waiting for the ship to dock. When it did he stood by a stanchion and drummed his fingers on it as the gangplank was manoeuvred into place. And when it was, he at last stormed down it, with Barristan Selmy behind him and Renly Baratheon behind him in turn.

He did his best not to blink in surprise. The Fat King had… changed. He was still fat, but he was thinner than he had been when he had left. And there were other differences. He was clean-shaven now, with his hair also cut to half its length. And he blazed with energy, as if he had finally rediscovered some vital wellspring within himself. Oh and then there was the massive sword that was strapped to his back. It looked old and ancient – and dangerous in a way that he couldn’t put his finger on.

“Jon!” Baratheon shouted as he strode rapidly forwards, before clasping hands with a clearly startled Jon Arryn. “Good to see you again. Where’s my horse? That one? Right! The Red Keep and bloody fast. We have a lot to do.” And then he leapt on the proffered horse and spurred it into a fast trot up the hill, accelerating to a gallop in places as Selmy and Renly Baratheon took their places at his side.

Jaime and the other mounted as fast as they could and as Jaime galloped up the hill he wondered what in the name of the Seven Hells was going on.

In the end he did catch up with them. Sadly not through great horsemanship, but rather because they had stopped to stare at the head of the late Petyr Baelish. “Jon?” Robert Baratheon called out.

“Yes Your Grace?” Arryn panted as he reined in.

“Why is the head of my Master of Coin looking down at me from a spike?”

“He was stealing from you, Your Grace.”

A dark flush stole over the back of the big man’s neck and then he spurred his horse again, trotting quickly into the Red Keep. When they reached the main courtyard he dismounted. As Jaime also dismounted he got a better look at the sword. It was very old indeed. “I see that you have a new sword, Your Grace,” he called out. “Well, so to speak.”

Robert Baratheon turned on his heel and in doing so loomed over Jaime slightly and for a moment, just a moment, Jaime seemed to see the Demon of the Trident in front of him. And then Baratheon smiled and the spell was broken. He reached back and slapped the hilt of the sword.

“Found this at Storm’s End! The sword of my ancestors, the sword of the Durrandons! It was waiting for me in the Durrandon tombs there.”

There was a scoffing noise. “Durrandon Tombs? At Storm’s End? What nonsense is this?” Stannis Baratheon did not look as if he believed a word of what his brother had just said.

Oddly enough, instead of being angry at the scathing tone used by his younger brother, Robert just looked steadily at him. “It was at the end of the Long Passage brother, under where the Godswood used to be. It was young Edric who spotted that the stones at the end of the passage were mortared together, but the walls laid stone on stone. We took down the mortared stones and discovered that the passage led to the tombs.”

Stannis listened to this with a scowl and then what Jaime thought might have been the beginning a facial tic. “Truly?”

“Truly, Lord Stannis,” Barristan Selmy said gravely as he approached from one side. “I was there, along with Lord Renly. And within…” he seemed to shake his head in bewilderment.

“There was a statue,” the Fat King said solemnly. “And it was holding this sword here. I approached it and... the eyes opened. Magic, Stannis, it was magic! The eyes burned with red fire. ‘Storm King’, it called me and then it gave me the sword and told me to go North. Next bit’s a bit hazy as I think I fell over, but when I came to I was holding the sword. Jurne looked into the records and the inscriptions. Do you know what this is, Stannis, Jon? Stormbreaker!”

There was a long silence. It was broken by Robert Baratheon clapping his two hands together. “Right! Littlefinger’s dead, after stealing from me you say? So what else has happened?” And then they passed into the Red Keep as Arryn talked quietly to Baratheon. Jaime watched everyone go silently. He had the oddest feeling that the world was changing before his very eyes.

 


 

Robert

Much to his surprise Jon and Stannis did not take him to any room that he had seen before. Instead they seemed to wander until they found a smallish room without window and with a chimney that received a great deal of attention from the other two. Renly had wandered off somewhere and Selmy stood guard outside.

“I take it that I’m about to hear bad news for my ears only?” He saw Jon nod and he sighed. “Right then. If you’re both satisfied with this room, would you mind telling me why you’re so worried about eavesdroppers and then what the bloody hell happened with Baelish?”

“This place is a warren, Your Grace,” Jon admitted. “And there are far too many places for people to overhear things. I think that we never realised how paranoid the Dragons were. As for Baelish – he was indeed stealing from you. Stealing on a scale that still beggars belief. As Master of Coin he had every chance to divert coin. He even stole from loans made by Tywin Lannister. And also the Iron Bank.”

This rocked him back on his heels. “Oho! Ambitious of the bastard.” He thought about and then flushed a little. “Damn it! I always scorned counting coppers. I should have listened to you Jon. So – how bad is it?”

“Not as bad as I first feared. Ironically he was using the coin he stole to buy buildings and set up legal businesses. Because he often used further stolen coin to make improvements to those places, he increased their value. And because we found all of Baelish’s accounts and records we now own those properties and businesses.”

Robert stared at the man – and then threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Oh, very nice! Ironic! I take it we can sell them?”

“Aye, if need be. And we also found all the money he’d squirrelled away in Essos. The Iron Bank is happier with us now and Tywin Lannister is being sent the details of what Baelish owned in the Westerlands. ‘Tis a goodly amount.”

That was good. But then Robert stared at the other two. “There’s something else, isn’t there? What else was Baelish up to?”

Stannis stepped forwards. “Ser Davos Seaworth was taking young Robert Arryn North to White Harbour, so that he could travel to Winterfell and foster with Ned.”

“Aye, I remember talk of that. It’s a good idea – I’ve sent Edric there myself.”

“Well, one of the crew was a neer-do-well, hired by Baelish. His instructions were to kill Ned’s man Cassel, set a fire on the ship, and then flee with Robert Arryn.”

What? Kidnap your son? Why?”

“We do not yet know, not truly,” Jon broke in. “Some scheme of Baelish, from his twisted mind. And… there was another plot. It seems that someone has been poisoning young Robert. He is free of it now. But… there is some reason to belief that Baelish gave my wife the poison by pretending that it was some kind of medicine.”

Various tendons crackled as Robert clenched his fists. “Baelish was poisoning my young namesake!?! It’s a good thing you killed him before I arrived – I would have used Stormbreaker to chop his fucking head off!!” He glared at them both. “Right. Now – what else?”

“The Mountain Clans of the Vale have vanished.”

He stared at Jon as if he was raving mad. “What?”

“I’m afraid you heard me, Your Grace. They appeared before the Bloody Gate and told the Blackfish that they were going to fight the Others in the North. And then they vanished. No-one’s seen them since.”

“The Others. In the North?”

“Aye. And then the Blackwoods and the Brackens called a truce and have sworn a great oath to keep that truce as they need to… erm, fight the Others.”

He knew it. Something had indeed changed, war was indeed in the air. But – the Others? They were a legend! Weren’t they? Then a further thought struck him. Stormbreaker was a supposed to be a legend too, yet it was now at his back.

“What else?”

“The statues of the Seven in the Great Sept have all changed and are now pointing North. The Septons are in an uproar over this… apparent miracle. And things are… unsettled as a result. Different interpretations are flying around.”

He sat down at this. “Gods, but I hate religion,” he muttered, running a hand over his face. “Right. We need to see Ned as soon as possible and we also need to lance this religious boil.”

“For the first part I was going to call him South to Riverrun, or even Moat Cailin, to talk about all of this business about mention of the Others. For the second part, I do not know. There is a final thing Your Grace.”

“Go on.”

“Baelish was bribing the Goldcloaks. Janos Slynt was far more corrupt than we had ever feared. In fact the entire higher ranks of the Goldcloaks must be sent to the Wall. They have all failed spectacularly.”

He scowled. “Gods, I knew the man was bad – but truly that bad?”

“Worse if anything. We have all of Baelish’s secret account books. It’s all in black and white. Slynt was paid to look the other way in cases of assault, rape and even murder.”

Rage filled him. “He was, was he? Very well. Ned always says that the man who sets the punishment must also swing the sword. I shall damn well do so. Stormbreaker will taste blood again.” He paused. “And I need to spar, before and perhaps even after that. Got too much damn fat on me. If a war is coming, I’ll greet it as close as I can get to how I was at the Trident.”

The other two gaped at him a little and then they nodded. “Brother,” Stannis said after a long moment, “What happened to you?”

This was a good question and he paused at the door. “I have a purpose again.” And then he swept out down the corridor, Selmy at his side. He needed to spar. War was coming.

 


 

Ned

He ate his breakfast in his solar that morning. He had a lot to think about and as he ate he looked at the map as the plans and, well, he brooded.

There was so much to do and he was starting to wonder about how much time he had left to do it. The Others had to be aware that he knew that they had awoken, that the North and the First Men had become aware of the threat.

But there were still the other threats in the South and to the Southwest that had to be dealt with. The Ironborn concerned him. He had been quietly investigating what was going on down there and what he was starting to see was deeply worrying.

Balon Greyjoy had been rebuilding his fleet under his bloody nose. How? He had his suspicions. Too many parts of the Western shores of the North were barren and had few settlements, so it would have been easy to sneak their longships in and harvest timber without anyone knowing. He had thought that he had been keeping a good eye on them. He had been wrong.

At lease Howland had sent men to garrison Moat Cailin and to restore the more easily repaired parts. He had sent ravens to order more men and supplies there. At the very least it could be a waypoint for any forces coming from the South. At worst it could be held against the Ironborn should they be stupid enough to attack.

There were times, in his darker moments, when he wondered if Stannis Baratheon had been right about the Iron Islands. Balon Greyjoy should have been removed from power and his head placed upon a spike and someone better, someone smarter, placed in charge. The Reader perhaps, or even one of the lesser lords. It would have freed up Theon from the poisoned chalice that would one day await him as the Lord of the Iron Islands.

Theon… was a different man now. He wasn’t a boy. He was grave and thought a great deal before he spoke about weighty matters, and he prayed every day in the Godswood. And he was teaching Bran archery. The lad had a gift for teaching, something that he had shown no signs of before.

His gaze wandered South to the Westerlands and his lips tightened for a moment. The Old Lion was another threat. A proud man and a man who did not like to be proved wrong about anything. Did he suspect that his grandchildren were not the progeny of Robert Baratheon? If so, did he care? Or was he too set on having Joffrey take his seat on that damn Iron Throne?

And who to the South knew about the Others? Whose ears had heard the Call? He wondered. Word had come from Lord Manderly that a shipload of men and supplies had arrived from the Stormlands, bound for Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Volunteers for the Wall, they had told the rather startled lord of the city. Moreover, volunteers with swords, timber, food and coin. Did Renly Baratheon know about them? Did Robert? How far South had the Call gone?

The door creaked a little and he looked to see that Cat had entered and was looking at him fondly. “Good morning my love,” she said with a smile. “Breakfast in your Solar? Arya was asking after you.”

He smiled at her and then gestured at the map. “Too much thinking to do,” he sighed. “Too much needs to be done.”

She closed the door behind her and then walked over and sat in the chair next to him and looked at the map. “So much relies on us, doesn’t it?”

“Aye,” he said wryly. “So very much. We need to watch the North but also make sure that the things that happened in the South don’t vex us. What Robb saw is invaluable. We know that Balon Greyjoy is eyeing the North in revenge for his defeat now. We know that the Lannisters will fight to support Joffrey should he ever become King. And we know that Robert and Jon are in danger. Oh and we also know that Renly’s a fool.” He shook his head. “If only I’d known what I know now when I’d gone South to King’s Landing in that other future.”

Cat turned a little pale. “I do not like to think about that future,” she said faintly. “You dead, Robb trying his best to fight a war, Sansa a prisoner, Arya missing, Bran unable to walk, our home here lost…”

He was on his feet in an instant, crouching next to her. “It will not happen now, Cat. We’ve seen to that. The North is mobilising for the Long Night and the South is starting to respond. We need to talk to Robert, and right soon, but what happened in that other future will not happen again.” He smiled at her and then kissed her gently on the lips. “I swear it. It will not happen, that future saw.”

Cat smiled a little tremulously at him. Then she sighed. “Ned, the vault we found. Do you really think that they were Starks who were also wargs?”

“I do,” he said softly. “Luwin has been translating the runes on the tombs. They were wargs.”

“Then what are the chances that any of our children are wargs? Or you, or Benjen?”

Ah. And that was something that he was wondering himself. “Cat, I don’t know. I wish I could tell you that I knew, but that would be a lie. When the direwolves are born… well, we will have to see what happens. The fact that the mother is here and seems so… compliant… is, well, astonishing.

“Cat, I know that much of this must be alien to you and I am sorry. But this is something that is buried deep in the history of my family. I barely understand it myself, and I am supposed to be the Stark in Winterfell.” He shook his head. “But this is something that is a part of me – and our children. The Old Gods have spoken. I know that you worship the Seven, and they must their own role to play, but this is the North Cat. The Old Gods have given us a second chance and we must take it.”

She smiled at him again. “I know it. Ned… I saw Luwin this morning. I wanted him to confirm something. I am with child again.”

He stared at her, his heart soaring within him. “Truly?”

“Truly.”

He whooped with joy and hugged her, before fearing that he was being too rough with her. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, the baby-”

“Is not due for some time and I am not made from glass, Ned!” Cat’s eyes were warm and amused and also contained a challenge.

“Another child… yet another departure from the future that Robb saw. With every step away from that we tread a new path. And that both reassures me and frightens me Cat. We have gone from one war with rules that we understand to another war that was last fought by our ancestors – and with rules that are clouded by time.” He caught her look of sudden understanding. “We face an enemy that we have never fought before, with powers that we do not understand. An enemy that can make the dead walk.

“I have ordered the walls of Winterfell checked for any damage, I have ordered that the Broken Tower be inspected for repair – and I have a plan for that anyway.”

She looked at him sharply, but at that moment someone knocked at the door. “Who is it?” Ned called.

“Luwin, my Lord. I have messages.”

“Come in,” Ned sighed as he stood and watched as the Maester bustled in. “Who are they from?”

“A raven from Dragonstone first, my Lord,” Luwin said as he handed it over. “From his Grace the King.”

Neds felt his eyebrows fly upwards. “What was Robert doing in Dragonstone?” Then he looked at the message – and if his eyebrows could have gone up any further then they would have. “’Ned, am writing in haste from Dragonstone, travelling from Storm’s End to King’s Landing. Have found the sword of the Durrandons in Storm’s End. I’m sending my son Edric to foster with you at Winterfell. Treat him right, please, he’s a good lad. There’s a storm coming. Don’t know what or where, but stand ready. Robert, King, etc, etc.’”

He lowered the letter and felt a fierce exultation fill his heart. “Robert’s Durrandon blood sings true! Although where he found the sword of Durran Godsgrief is a mystery to me.” He paused. “And he’s sending his bastard son Edric here.”

“We will have to keep an eye on him,” Cat sighed. “And given what we know about Joffrey’s true parentage it will be more important than ever to keep him alive. Cersei Lannister will not take it kindly either.”

“I care not a whit for what Cersei Lannister thinks of us. I trust her about as much I trusted Aerys Targaryen – not at all. She is dangerous and false. The problem is that Robert is not aware of her true nature. We must deal with her at some point – and defang her brother and their father at the same time.” He looked up and saw that the other two were staring at him. “I have given this matter some thought. In the meantime – you have another message for me Luwin?”

“Aye my Lord,” the older man said with a slight shake of his shoulders as he seemed to settle himself. “From the Redfort, in reply from your message.” And he held out a thick package.

Ned took it and opened it. Inside was a sheath of papers, secured with a ribbon with a wax seal, with the personal seal of Lord Redfort pressed into it. “Ah. The answer to my letter. Thank you Luwin. Cat – we have some reading to do. We might soon know the answer to the question of if Domeric’s suit to marry our daughter can be granted or denied.”

 


 

Willas

He came awake slowly. He felt hungry, and so very, very, thirsty. He also felt weak, as if he had been ill. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He was… in his bed? How had he gotten there? Why was his head so fuzzy? Then he frowned. His leg didn’t hurt. How odd.

Licking his lips made him realise how dry and cracked they were and he sat up slowly.

As he did he realised that he was not alone. Margaery was asleep in a chair next to his bed and by the main window that looked out over Highgarden Grandmother was embroidering with a scowl on her face.

“What happened?” He croaked through a throat that seemed drier than the Bone Road.

Grandmother looked up from her embroidery. “Aha,” she said caustically. “The sleeper awakens!”

Margaery came awake abruptly. Her hair looked dishevelled and her eyes were red, making him think that she had been crying. “Willas! You’re awake!”

“I need a drink,” he croaked, looking around. Then he saw a goblet to one side and reached out with a shaking hand. He very nearly dropped it, but Margaery took it from him and then brought it to his lips. He wanted to scold her for treating him like a child but at the very sight of what looked like watered wine he desired nothing more than to drink every drop within. He almost choked on it at first, but by all the Gods it felt good to drink it. And he did drink every drop.

“Is there any food in here?” The question came out in an almost normal voice and at the very thought of food his stomach growled.

“Here,” Grandmother said as she crossed the room, clutching a plate of what looked like honeycakes in one hand whilst her cane clacked on the floor. “Eat these.” She placed the tray on the bed in front of him and then pulled up a chair as he grabbed one and ate it in two bites. “You seem yourself again. Good.”

Willas grabbed the second honeycake and then peered at her. “What do you mean?”

Grandmother leant back in her chair and then eyed him critically. “You’ve been asleep for some time, boy. And this has not been the first time that you’ve woken up since you found that room with the statue.”

The room with the statue… he cast his mind back. “Garth Greenhand!”

“Aye, Garth Greenhand. In a room that no-one had ever known of. But you found it.”

He frowned again and then ran a hand over his beard. “It all seems… fuzzy. Indistinct.” Then he frowned at her again. “What did you mean, that wasn’t the first time I’d been awake? The last thing I remember is being in that room.”

Grandmother swapped a look with Margaery. His sister looked worried. His grandmother looked slightly puzzled.

“Willas,” Margery said hesitantly, “Two days after you collapsed you woke up, shouting orders. Orders to men long dead.”

“You sounded as if you were ordering men whilst in battle,” Grandmother said quietly. “And the names you were shouting… well, they were to the sons of Mern the Ninth. You seemed to be on the Field of Fire. You seemed very distressed, shouted something about dragons, drank two cups of wine, ate a plate of food and then fell asleep again. Oh and you pinched the bottom of the maid who brought you your food.”

He stared at her, baffled. “I did?”

“Oh yes. With hindsight, it was all most amusing. And then seven days after that you awoke again, used the privy, dictated three letters to men long since dead, including Loren Lannister, about mobilising men against Aegon Targaryen, ate three honeycakes and drank a goblet of watered wine, pinched the bottom of the same maid and then collapsed.” She leant forwards. “So, as you can imagine I am very happy to see you in your right mind again.”

He eyed her bemusedly as he swallowed the last of the honeycakes. “I don’t understand.”

“Willas,” Margaery said tearfully, “We thought that you would never wake up again.”

He looked at her and smiled. “And yet I have.” He paused. “I feel as weak as a new-born kitten though.”

“You are awake at least, which is good. And apparently in your right mind. The Maester was worried. As was I.”

“I told you not to worry yourself, child,” Grandmother harrumphed. “I always thought that your brother would awake. That Maester is a ninnyhammer.”

Margaery looked at her. “Grandmother, you were worried too.”

“I was not. I never worry. I muse.”

His sister shot him an amused look and then reached out and grabbed Grandmother’s embroidery. “Then explain this.” She passed it over to Willas, who looked at it and then snorted with amusement. Grandmother had embroidered a picture of a man in Maester’s robes being chased by an angry thorn bush. “You were worried.”

Grandmother snatched it back. “I may have been slightly concerned. Now – how do you feel?”

Willas considered this question carefully. His stomach no longer felt as if it had a kitten loose in it. “Still weak, but no longer as hungry. And my leg no longer hurts.”

“Try standing.” It wasn’t a request from Grandmother, it was more like a command. He blinked at her and then moved to the end of the bed. Pulling the sheets aside he could see that he had been dressed in a robe (who by?) that preserved his modesty – and then he stared at his leg. His bad leg. Which no longer looked as if the bone had been broken and reset. It looked… fine. It didn’t hurt.

He slowly stood. Tested his weight a little and then took a cautious step forwards. He was weak and wobbly on his feet – but his leg didn’t hurt at all. “It doesn’t hurt,” he whispered. “It really doesn’t.” He looked around at the other two and saw their sudden smiles. Then he remembered the statue. “I need my clothes. I have to see what I discovered.”

“Good,” Grandmother muttered. “You can make better sense of it than your fat fool of a father.” She sounded even more acerbic than she usually did when talking about Father and Willas looked at Margaery, who pulled a slight face in response.

Grandmother, naturally, noticed this. “Oh stop that. I gave birth to him and I have every right to call him an idiot. How any child of mine could have the brains of piece of wood is beyond me. Your father has not reacted well to that room. He’s been going around telling people that he always suspected that there was something there in order to make himself appear less clueless. He’s almost ordered it bricked up three times.”

Willas frowned as he walked over to his dressing screen and then pulled off his robe. “Why?”

“Because he’s afraid of what it represents. It’s a symbol of the Gardener Kings – and your father never forgets that House Tyrell were merely the Stewards of Highgarden and not the kings of it. You have the blood of the Gardeners in your veins, children, but there are others who claim that their claim is stronger. The Florents, Rowans, and Oakhearts. And all have sent messages to your fool of a father in the wake of the finding of that statue. He thinks that this is all some new gambit of the Game of Thrones, or The Reach’s equivalent. Games that he is truly terrible at playing.” She paused. “Are you getting dressed boy?”

“I think,” He said deliberately after sniffing at himself, “That I need to bathe first. I smell.”

He did indeed and he put his robe back on and ordered a bath to be drawn at once, whilst a clearly much happier Margaery and Grandmother vanished outside. As he waited he drank another cup of watered wine and ate a plate of bread and ham that he ordered. He noticed that the maid who brought the food eyed him carefully with a suspicion of a blush and he wondered if that was the maid that Grandmother had mentioned. It seemed that even possessed he had good taste and he smiled warmly at her and saw the blush grow more than a little.

The bath did him a lot of good and he dressed quickly afterwards and strode out. It was odd to walk without a cane for the first time in years and he found the hand that usually grasped it feel oddly empty. Perhaps he should start wearing a sword again.

Grandmother was sitting on a bench outside, basking in the sun and as he approached she looked at him. “So,” She said eventually, “Want to see what mischief you have wrought?”

He looked at her. “Yes.” A simple, short answer, but all that needed to be said on this.

She looked at him almost approvingly. And then she took him to the room. There was the statue that he so dimly remembered, and the little stream that now bubbled cheerfully up and out of the room. Someone had left fresh flowers at the foot of the stone figure and he peered at the face of his distant ancestor. Garth Greenhand. There were other statues of him elsewhere in Highgarden, but this one seemed different. Clearer, somehow.

“’Make the Garden bloom again’… what does that mean?”

Grandmother shrugged. “I know not. But many want to talk to you about what it could mean. Your father wants to ignore the whole thing.”

“No,” Willas snapped abruptly. “We cannot. This means something. And… what help needs to be sent to Winterfell?”

“You remember that part do you? Good.” Grandmother most assuredly sounded approving now. “No cheese in your ears or in your brain, unlike your fool of a father.”

He thought hard. There was no shame in admitting that he needed more information. “We need to access the archives Grandmother, see what the Gardener Kings used to send North, if anything. We need more information than we have at the moment. And this is not a matter that can be dismissed. This is not a gambit in the Game of Thrones, nor a conspiracy by the other houses. This is a relic of the past with a message for us.”

“Your father will disagree and tell you that it’s all mummery.”

He felt his expression harden into something that looked rather like the look on Grandmother’s face at the moment. “Father is wrong.”

Grandmother smiled at him. “I taught you well.”

Chapter Text

Ned

He stared at the map again as he waited for Cat to bring Sansa to his solar. The letter from Lord Redfort lay on the table and he thought about that other message that lay with in it. ‘The Redfort prepares for war,’ Lord Redfort had written. ‘I am told Runestone does too. The Stark calls for aid. Command us.’

The call had indeed been heard South of the Neck and he needed to work out the implications now. The Redfort and Runestone owed their allegiance to Jon as the Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale. For them to send help to the North would mean that Jon would have to be told about what was going on. There were political implications now.

The sound of footsteps and the noise of the door opening dragged him away from his thoughts and he looked over to see Cat leading his oldest daughter into the room before closing the door very firmly behind them.

“Sansa, be seated. I hope that we didn’t tear you away from anything important?”

She shook her head, looking a little bewildered. “I was watching Domeric give cousin Robert a riding lesson on a pony. He seemed very intent.”

“Domeric or Robert?”

She smiled a little. “Both. Annah was watching intently on one side and Domeric was on the other telling Robert what to do and what to look for on the horse. Robert seemed very keen to learn.” She then frowned a little. “Cousin Robert seems sharper than he had been before, Father.”

“He is, I know,” Ned agreed, as he placed a chair to one side for Cat, fetched his own chair and then stared intently at her. “Sansa, we must talk about a very important subject. Did you know that Domeric Bolton had asked me for your hand in marriage?”

She turned a little pink and sat up straighter in her seat. “I… I did know. Domeric mentioned it to me. He was very respectful and considerate – knightly in fact.” Then she peered at them both. “You have thought about it for some time Father?”

He leant back in his seat. “I have. It is not a thing to be taken lightly, your future happiness. Especially as a marriage between a Stark and a Bolton would have… ramifications. You know the somewhat vexed history of our two houses, do you not?”

Sansa stared at him and then laughed nervously. “But Father – that is all ancient history.”

He stared back at her and then passed a weary hand over his eyes. “Oh, Gods,” he muttered, “It seems I neglected your training as well.” Then he looked at Cat. “What nonsense has that Septa been teaching her?”

“I will enquire,” Cat replied in a cold voice and with a long-suffering look at the ceiling. “And yes, we should have taught her otherwise.”

“Mother?” Sansa asked incredulously.

Ned cleared his throat. “Sansa – this is important. You might think that it is ancient history, but it is not. It still has relevance. I have an… understanding with Roose Bolton, as I know what kind of a man he is. He secretly yearns for the old days, when his family had certain… hobbies.” Sansa turned white – but less white than he might have thought. Interesting. Did she suspect?

“And if Roose Bolton was offered a chance at supplanting us, say if I died and Robb became Lord of Winterfell, then he might try, if the opportunity presented itself. He is a cautious man, but given sufficient incentive he might cast off the mask and reveal his true face. And given the monster that was his bastard son, we have to wonder how closely that particular apple fell to the tree it grew from. So you can see that I have concerns about Domeric.”

Sansa had grown even paler. “Father-”

“Did Domeric tell you about his half-brother?”

“He did. He said that if he had known half the things he now knows about him he would have ridden out and cut him down like the animal he was, even though he would have been labelled a kinslayer.”

Ah. That was a good point. She started to open her mouth again and he raised a hand in a gesture for her to be silent. “I have heard him say something similar. When I first heard that he was coming here I wanted a chance to observe him closely. Given who his father is and given what I later heard about his half-brother, I wanted to watch him very closely indeed.” He leant back in his chair again. “What I have seen of him has been good. He is courteous, well-read, behaves well around the other children and above all I have heard nothing bad about his behaviour from the standpoint of the smallfolk and the servants. That last point is important.”

Her face scrunched slightly as she thought about it, but he then ploughed on. “Part of the reason why I have waited for us to have this conversation is the fact that I wanted to observe him. The other reason is that I was waiting for a reply to a raven I sent to Lord Redfort in the Vale, where Domeric was fostered. He sent me this today.” He lifted the letter.

“Lord Redfort is very complimentary about Domeric,” Cat said softly. “And he has written a great deal about him. About how he learnt to ride and then passed on those lessons to others. About he treated the servants there fairly. And how none of the smallfolk made a single complaint against him.”

“Aye, the letter took us some time to read, but was very detailed.” He looked at his daughter. “Lord Redfort had also heard of Roose Bolton and wanted to keep an eye on him. It seems that there was no need. Domeric… is not like his father. In fact he absorbed a great deal from Lord Redfort and his sons about what it means to be knightly.”

Sansa smiled at that and sat even straighter. “Father,” she said hesitantly, “Domeric and I have… talked about his plans for his house. And he does have them. He told me that he will never follow the path that his ancestors followed and which he suspects that his father yearns for.”

And then his daughter took a deep breath. “He has asked my help for something Father. The design of a new banner for his house. He has told me that when he succeeds his father he will replace the banner of the Flayed Man with another one. We have been discussing what would be fit.”

Ned stared at her and then looked at Cat, who raised an eyebrow in surprise. “A new banner would fly over the Dreadfort?”

“Yes Father.”

That was… astonishing. Such a thing had not been heard of for many a long year in the North. The noble families had their banners and sigils and they stuck to those banners and sigils. For Domeric Bolton to discuss this with Sansa meant that he was more than serious, he was in deadly earnest.

He stroked the tip of his nose for a long moment and then he looked at Cat, who nodded the barest tilt of her head. “Sansa, should we agree to Domeric’s suit then you must understand something. Marriage can be an alliance between families – and more than that. It is not just a matter of providing heirs. When I married your mother I barely knew her, something I regret very much. But we forged a love that has withstood much and I rely on her for many things.

“Should you marry Domeric then there is something that you must hold to. As well as giving him children and helping to run the Dreadfort and the area around it, you must keep him to this path that he has outlined to you. Life here in the North is never easy and there is a Winter coming that will freeze many men and women down to their very bones. The Long Night comes, Sansa, you know it, as we all do. As does Domeric. He must never be allowed to go down the road that his father secretly yearns for. He must never produce a Ramsey Snow. Preventing that, keeping him the Domeric Bolton of the Redfort, will be one of your tasks, should you marry him. And it will be a hard task given the war that will come.”

Sansa was very pale as she stared at him. So, to that matter, was Cat. He knew that his wife knew very well what he was asking their daughter to do, how important it was. “Sansa, sweetling, we would have you happy,” Cat said after a moment. “But we would also have you open your eyes to what a marriage with Domeric Bolton would mean. As your father said, there is the Long Winter coming and a war with the Others. But you cannot let that distract you from your duty if you marry Domeric. Now – do you need time to think about this?”

Sansa sat very still for a long moment, her eyes far away as she thought things through. There was a struggle visible on her face, one that she had obviously not expected to ever have to confront. “No,” she said eventually. “I believe in Domeric. I have talked to him, considered his words. Given your views and those of Lord Redfort… I can only say again that I believe in him. Mother, Father – I love him.”

He looked at her gravely and then at Cat, who raised her eyebrows at him and then lowered them when he nodded seriously at her. “Very well,” he said with a slight smile, “I shall tell Domeric that we look favourably upon his suit. And then-” Ned felt the smile slip from his face. “Then I shall send a raven to Roose Bolton. He and I have much to discuss.”

 


 

Jory

The boy who had once been so pale and wrong in the head pulled on the reins and the little pony slowed to a halt, before turning in a careful walk at the gentle urgings of the boy. Only when the pony was facing the other way did he look up at the watchers.

“Good,” said Domeric Bolton, “Very good indeed Robert. You’ve done well.”

Robert Arryn beamed widely at them all, especially when Jory and Annah both smiled at him. “Domeric, can I ride him a little further tomorrow?”

The son of the Lord of the Dreadfort appeared to think about it, his hand rubbing at his nose – but Jory could see the small smile that he was concealing under his hand. “I think so. A little further every day. Your horse is important Robert. It’s getting used to you, just as you are getting used to it. You wouldn’t expect to suddenly be forced to walk for ten miles with a pack on your back, would you?”

Robert Arryn shook his head, his eyes suddenly very wide and thoughtful. Then he solemnly dismounted, held the reins in his hand and looked at Domeric. “I had not thought of that,” he said musingly and then looked at his horse. “I wish I’d had my own horse at King’s Landing. Mother never let me near one. How can I get one here?”

“You ask me or your Uncle Ned and we will get you one. Do you want that one?”

Jory started a little. Lady Stark could be very quiet sometimes. “My Lady,” he said formally. “Lord Robert has been practicing his riding skills.”

“So I see,” she said with a smile. “I watched for from afar.”

Robert Arryn beamed at her. “Aunt Catelyn! Were you really watching me?”

“I was - You are getting better and better!”

His smile got even wider, before he suddenly became more serious. “I like this pony very much, Aunt Catelyn. His name is Surefoot.”

“A good name for a horse,” she said and then looked at Jory and Domeric. “Who picked him out?”

“I did Lady Stark,” Domeric said quietly. “He seemed to have the best temperament for your nephew. He’s young as well. They seem a good match.” Something seemed to pass between them and Lady Stark nodded slightly before turning back to Robert.

“Well then, as you seem to like him, would you like Surefoot to be your horse?”

The little boy stared up at his aunt with very wide eyes. “He would be mine?”

Domeric squatted down to be on the same eye level as the boy. “He would be yours. But you would have to take care of him. A good knight takes care of his horse. He’ll rely on you for many things. Others will muck him out, but you must teach him more about riding and you must groom him. It’s a great responsibility, Robert.”

Robert Arryn looked from Domeric to Lady Stark and then back again. And then he set his chin in a manner that made him look very like his father. “Then I accept it.” He sounded older than his years for a moment. He nodded almost formally. “I shall lead him back to the stables.” The last was punctuated with a massive yawn that he tried desperately to suppress.

“Let us do that together, Lady Stark said with a smile. “And then perhaps a honeycake or two, a cup of milk and a story? You’ve had a long day, Robert.” She looked up. “Domeric, Lord Stark wishes to see you in his solar. I suspect that you know what it is about. Annah, I shall take care of young Robert.” She smiled rather enigmatically at Annah, who blushed for some reason and then she left with the boy and his new pony. Domeric Bolton was standing there, white as a sheet. After a moment he swallowed with a gulp, smiled wanly at Jory and Annah and then left.

“Lady Stark is taking her nephew to the stables. Lord Stark is in his solar. There is little chance, I hope that anyone with red eyes will wander past?” Annah sounded amused – and something else.

“No,” he said slowly as he took a cautious step towards her. “I think not.” He froze and then stared around them. “My apologies, I did not mean to tempt fate.”

She laughed softly and then sobered. “That night, before Lord Stark interrupted us with his eyes of red fire, what were you about to ask me?”

He looked at her and all of a sudden his heart was hammering in his chest as if he had run a mile. “I said that I was – and still am – looking forwards to showing you the North.”

“And I am keen to see it. I do not know how long I shall be here. I am just Lord Robert’s nursemaid. He will not always need me.”

“What will you do when he does not?”

“Go home.”

“And where is home?”

She smiled at him. “Wherever my heart is.”

“And where is your heart? Wait – I would tell you where mine is.”

She stepped a little closer to him. “And where is yours?” She was almost whispering now.

“With yours.” And with that he finally took her in his arms and kissed her. And judging by the way that she stepped into the embrace and then melted against him as she returned that kiss, he knew that she’d be staying in Winterfell for a while.

 


 

Domeric

He paused in from of the door, before taking a deep breath and then knocking. After what felt like an age he finally heard a voice call: “Come.”

He opened the door, stepped in and then closed it again. Lord Stark was standing by his desk. He was dressed in his usual leathers but there was a formality about him that made him stand a little straighter and taller. This was important.

And… the desk also held something else. The Fist of Winter. This was beyond important now. This was about the future of his very House. He felt his legs shake for a moment and then he stiffened them. He had to be strong for this moment.

“You asked to see me, Lord Stark.”

“I did indeed Domeric. Take a seat please.”

He sat carefully and then looked at Lord Stark, who looked back at him with his head tilted slightly to one side and his hand stroking his chin, which he did when he was thinking very hard. After a moment Lord Stark smiled slightly.

“Domeric, I have been considering your request to marry Sansa. Considering it mostly carefully indeed. I am sorry for the time that it has taken to give you an answer on this, but it was a matter of the greatest import for me. I even wrote to Lord Redfort to ask his opinion of you.”

Domeric felt his cheeks burn. Lord Redfort was a man whose good opinion he had always worked hard to earn. Very hard indeed. Lord Redfort was the man that he had secretly wished could have been his father. Just but fair. A true knight. “I respect Lord Redfort very much indeed, Lord Stark. May I ask what he said about me?”

Lord Stark leant back in his chair a little. “Nothing but good things. No complaints were ever made against you in your years at the Redfort – just the opposite in fact. He said that it was an honour to know the fine young man that you became.”

He felt his eyes moisten for a moment as he remembered his time at the Redfort. How he missed that place. “That was most kind of him.”

“It was. It also fitted in with my own observations of you. I have watched you most carefully, Domeric. We Starks pick our marriage alliances most carefully. For a Bolton to marry a Stark… well, there will be many who wonder the reason, given the history between our two families. Now I know what that reason is. I have talked to Sansa. You are in love.”

His cheeks reddened again. “I do not deny it, Lord Stark.” His voice seemed squeaky in his own ears and he cursed his reaction. “I do love Sansa.”

Lord Stark’s eyes narrowed a fraction as he looked at him. “She has also confided in me that you have plans for House Bolton. Plans that might include a new banner. Enlighten me if you can.”

He sat there for a long moment as he ran though his answers in his own mind. Finally he settled on the brutal truth. “The Flayed Man banner is a link to a past that I want no part of. I would never flay a man, the very thought is abhorrent to me. An upright red sword on a white background perhaps, or a sword over a cross of red on a white background. I have not yet decided – I gave Sansa my word that we would settle it together. But no more Flayed Man, or the colours thereof.”

There was a short silence as Lord Stark absorbed this. “Your father will not approve.”

“I do not care. I honour my father on many things. This is not one of those things. This is more important. I will be Lord of the Dreadfort one day. I would not have it feared. I would have it respected.”

Another short silence. And then Lord Stark stood. “Good. Then your suit to marry Sansa is approved. I will send a raven to the Dreadfort, summoning your father. He and I will talk – about many things. There is one last thing though. Marriages last for many years, the Old Gods providing. I would have my daughter Sansa happy throughout those years. And that is the greatest condition of all.”

Domeric fell to his knees and then placed a hand on the Fist of Winter. “Lord Stark, by the Old Gods, I, Domeric Bolton, do swear this oath of my own free will. Should I ever disappoint, betray or harm your daughter, Sansa Stark, I will take whatever punishment you deem necessary. Even death. This, I swear.”

Perhaps it was the moment, or perhaps it was his imagination, but he felt the floor shake just a fraction as he said those words.

“This oath I accept, as the Stark in Winterfell.”

Domeric looked up at the man who was going to become his Goodfather. And for a moment he fancied that he saw red fire in the eyes of Lord Stark.

 


 

Tyrion

Every time they stopped he’d find his eyes looking at the horizon, at the nearest crag or hill. He was looking for links. He was starting to think that he was finding them. He looked down at the map on the pommel of the saddle as they rode North. He was also taking notes as they went, because what he was seeing was both fascinating and deeply worrying.

The North was preparing. Preparing for two things in particular. The first, given by the amount of sowing and field clearance, was Winter. A long and, judging by the amount of repairwork being undertaken on homes and buildings, a terrible one. The second thing was war. Men were drilling when they weren’t working on the fields of chopping wood and storing it for drying out.

They stopped for lunch near another crag and as he dismounted he stole a look at Dacey Surestone. The closer that they got to Winterfell the quieter and more terse she became. He suspected that she would have some anguished words with Lord Stark as to why he had not acknowledged the news of the death of her beloved father.

He ate quickly and then stumped over to the crag, leaving the others behind him. They were used to this by now, so they no longer sent silly questions in his direction any more. Yes, this looked as if steps had been carved in the side of it, curving upwards. In some areas the stone looked almost blackened, as if great fires had been set repeatedly at the base of the steps.

Something cracked under his feet and he looked down. He was standing on loose shards of stone, but here and there, once in a while there were – yes. There. He bent down and picked up a shard of a particular shape and colour. It was an arrowhead, or at least part of one. Who knew how long it had been laying there? He peered at it closely. Dragonglass, or obsidian. Just like the other fragments had found scattered around the other crags he had seen. Now, to find such things at one crag would have been interesting, two a co-incidence – but five? No, that meant something.

He just had no idea what.

He pulled the little bag from his pouch, opened it, placed the partial arrowhead in with the others he had found, tugged it shut again and then walked back to the others. As he did he noticed another mound of earth about 100 yards to one side. The earth was bare and barren and not a thing grew on it. He shivered a little and then remounted.

They made good progress that day, better than he could have imagined just a fortnight before. The road was good – recently repaired. Which was a good thing, given the amount of traffic that seemed to be on it.

That night they stopped at one of the best inns that Tyrion had seen so far in the North, a formidable place that looked almost like a manor house. It had a bathhouse that was linked to a hot spring and Tyrion soaked away his aches and pains in some luxury, with a mug of cold ale in one hand and a scrubbing brush almost as long as himself in the other. The Inn of Sanctuary was its name and it also did a damn good supper, well-cooked venison. The girls looked clean and scrubbed, but he did not avail himself of one.

Instead he watched Dacey Surestone. She had used the baths in the woman’s section of the bathhouse, emerging scrubbed and clean but almost wan. She ate quietly and then had wandered outside. Tyrion viewed her passage, mulled things over, sighed and then drank the last of his wine, marked a place in his book and then strode over to the door.

Night had fallen and he had trouble at first working out where she was. Then he saw her. She was standing to one side, staring up at the stars. And the stars – what stars! The sky was clear of clouds and the stars blazed down. He could even see that great long ribbon of light that told of a huge belt of stars.

“A wondrous sight, the stars,” he said softly as he walked up to her. “I wish that I had studied them better.”

There was a long pause and then she finally spoke. “My father loved them. He taught me much about them. The Surestones have been watching the skies since time out of mind. They are beautiful. And I wish that I did not see the threat that hangs in them.”

He eyed her out of the corner of his eye. “Threat?”

“Do you see the Crook?”

He peered at the horizon. “Aye.” Then he paused. “Oh. I see the base of it as well. You can’t even see that in King’s Landing at this time of year. Or in the Stormlands.”

“It’s one of the things that we descendants of the First Men must look for. When the base of the Crook appears, when it starts to grow higher, it’s a sign.” She sounded… tired and almost defeated.

“A sign of what?”

“The Long Winter comes, Tyrion Lannister. It comes. As do the Others. And even Casterly Rock will shiver.” She looked at him and then smiled a smile of infinite tiredness. “The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. I am needed.” And then she sighed and walked back into the inn.

Tyrion stood there for a long, long, moment, staring up at the stars. And then he shivered, as if his spine had been brushed with ice, before going back inside as well. Winterfell tomorrow. And perhaps answers too.

 


 

Aemon

Castle Black was well astir by the time that he had finished feeding his ravens with the help of a young man. It was good to be back at his quarters. But there was a difference to the Castle Black that he had returned to. It felt... well, alive. He remembered what it had been like when he had first joined the Night’s Watch. It had been a different place to the one that he had left weeks ago for Winterfell. All those decades ago there had still been a sense of… vigour about the place. That had ebbed away over the long years.

Until now.

As he had approached Castle Black he had heard the sounds of hammering and the clink of trowels on stone. The noise of barrels being rolled over cobblestones. The clash of metal on metal, accompanied by the bellowed shouts from Alliser Thorne that he had seen small children fight harder. But there had been something in his voice that spoke of a grudging satisfaction. And there had been something else, in the background. Laughter.

Castle Black felt alive again. More voices, more work on its upkeep, more energy pounding through it. It made him feel years younger. Well… some years younger. He quirked his lips into a slight smile and then wiped it from his face. He needed to see the Lord Commander.

The young man assisted him to the quarters occupied by Jeor Mormont, who was talking to someone not too far away. Something about repairing the next castle down more. It made him feel… more than a bit stunned. The Night’s Watch itself seemed to be coming alive again.

Footsteps and then the scrape of a chair. “Maester Aemon.”

“Lord Commander.”

“I wish that the First Ranger had stopped for longer before he left. He seemed… determined.”

Aemon nodded thoughtfully. “He seemed very determined at Winterfell as well. Lord Stark tasked him with an important mission.”

“Aye,” the Lord Commander sighed. “Benjen Stark discussed it with me. The hand of a wight. If it wasn’t for hearing the Call, I would have told him not to be a fool.”

“How strongly was the Call heard here? I was in Winterfell when it was issued. I heard it all too well myself – my mother was a Dayne, you see, of the First Men.”

There was a pause and then a rasping noise as Jeor ran a hand over his beard. “It came during the evening meal. And everyone heard it, clear as a bell. Everyone within Castle Black. Same with the other two castles on the Wall. Everyone, no matter what their lineage, heard it.” Hmmm. Interesting. Some magic from the Wall perhaps?

“I was on the privy at the time and I damn near shat meself,” rumbled a new voice and Aemon realised with a start that he had been so intent on Jeor’s answer that he had failed to notice the arrival of Alliser Thorne. “I would never have believed it if I had not heard it.” The door closed and the other man took a seat. “What news from Winterfell then, Maester Aemon?”

“As you know, the Others come. There was more proof. Lord Stark was given a vision by the Old Gods. A most worrying sign indeed. And a room within Winterfell was discovered. A room containing objects known to past Starks. Records as well. Lord Stark did not know anything about them. His father did – but that knowledge died with him and Brandon Stark in King’s Landing, thanks to my fool of a Great-Nephew.” He found himself snarling the last five words and then caught himself as the other two coughed and probably looked embarrassed. Thorne had been a Targaryen loyalist.

“What kind of records?” Jeor asked after a moment.

“Copies of records to and from Castle Black, amongst other things. Which disturbs me greatly as no such records exist now, or none that I know of.”

“I thought that everything was in your offices?” Thorne asked. “How could Winterfell have such copies but we lack them?”

“I know not, but I would like to have the older part of Castle Black searched for any blocked off rooms. I have had the time to think much on this matter, and I cannot believe that the records were lost entirely. Some must still remain, somewhere.”

“A good point,” rumbled Jeor. “I shall order it so. We have more than enough men here now.”

“So I heard. When did they arrive?”

“Not long after the Call was heard,” Thorne said reluctantly. “Men wanting to help. Women too. They had heard the Call as well. They offered services, brought food, offered to repair the walls, cook. Food’s a damn sight better than it used to be.”

“How many then have taken the Black?”

“Of the men, one in three,” Jeor said quietly. “The rest wish to volunteer to help fight the Others. I’ve never heard of the like of it, but they insist. They want to help. Volunteers on the wall? Bloody odd. But they’ve changed this place. We’ve gone from quiet despair – do not pull that damn face, Thorne, you know it to be true! – to quiet hope.

“We have parties out now working on the next three castles, assessing what needs to be done and making repairs. Might be able to start sending out garrisons in a month or two, on a temporary basis at least. The same is happening with the Shadow Tower and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Of the latter, Cotter Pyke sends word that ships have been docking with more and volunteers there.”

Aemon nodded at this. “I think that a party must also be sent to the Nightfort. That place was the first to be built along the Wall and the greatest as well. It might well have records, or at least artefacts. And if the Others are indeed moving Southwards then the Black Gate must be secured.”

There was a silence. And then from both of the other men: “What Black Gate?”

He did his best not to roll his eyes in disgust. “Do you mean to say,” he barked, “That the Lord Commander and the Master-of-Arms have not consulted the Histories of the Wall?” The other two harrumphed and he waved a hand in apology. “Your pardon. I read of it long ago. There is a gate beneath the Nightfort that is sealed so that only a member of the Night’s Watch who speaks the words of the Vow can open it. The Others should not be able to access it. Nevertheless it must be secured.”

There was a creaking noise from the chair that Jeor Mormont was sitting in. “I did not know that. Very well. Who should lead that party?”

He thought deeply for a long moment. “I am not sure. Given the import of what might be found there – as well as the terrible legends that surround the place – we must choose wisely. In the meantime we must await the return of Benjen Stark. We must have proof of the Others and their wights.”

“Proof would be good,” Thorne said wryly. Then he seemed, from his next words, to sober a little. “The thought of fighting the dead terrifies me.”

“Aye, me too.” There was a different kind of creaking from Jeor Mormont’s chair, as if he was leaning forwards perhaps. “But we are of the Night’s Watch. And we do what must be done.”

“Aye,” Thorne said, before pushing his own chair back and standing. “Well said. I have much to think on. And some men to train that aren’t as bad as some of the scum we’ve had in the past.” And then he stamped out.

“Lord Commander,” Aemon said after a moment. “I understand that the Wildling raids have diminished?”

“More than diminished – ceased. It’s all most odd. But if indeed the Others have returned… well then they must be more informed than we are. Word came that Mance Rayder has been seen near the Wall. I’m not sure what worries me more – the Wildlings ceasing their raids or that Rayder has been sighted.”

Aemon nodded. “It might be that a common cause might be made between us?”

A rasp of hand over beard again. “Mayhaps. Mayhaps. Ned Stark has sent a raven saying that he need to talk to me face to face about matter regarding the Wildlings. That might be it. I also wonder how far the Call went.” That last sentence was said bleakly.

“To your son perhaps?” Aemon said the words gently. “Such a call would have gone far. And the…” He paused, thought about it and then went on. “Forgive me, but the crimes of our families cannot be forgotten. I should know. How we deal with those crimes defines us.”

There was another moment of silence. And then Jeor Mormont cleared his throat. “I know. I know. I just wish-” But he was interrupted by the sound of a horn being blown in the distance. “That’s from North of the Wall.”

There was a long pause and then shouting outside, before a rumble of feet on the corridor outside and then a knock on the door, before it creaked open after Jeor Mormont’s growled command to enter.

“Lord Commander! The two men that the First Ranger went beyond the Wall with have returned. One seems to be injured.”

“Is the First Ranger not with them?” Jeor growled.

“No, Lord Commander. One of the men shouted up that the First Ranger sent them back whilst he went on with his mission.”

Jeor sighed heavily. “Very well.” The door creaked closed again. “Bugger. Now I’m worried.”

“He knows the Haunted Forest well,” Aemon pointed out. “In fact far better than most.”

“Aye. But I’m still worried.” 

 


 

Jaime

Janos Slynt did not die well. He was in a bad enough way after just a day in a Black Cell – Robert Baratheon did at least look at the evidence against him and then immediately proclaimed that he and his three main lieutenants should be put to death – but when the moment came he rapidly fell to pieces.

When Jaime first caught sight of him the man was being half-dragged and half-carried by two guards in Baratheon liveries who did not look happy. As they approached Jaime realised why. Slynt was burbling a constant stream of piteous whimperings about how this was not justice, how he was innocent, about how unfair this all was, about how he had been betrayed.

When he saw the baying crowd, the headsman’s block and the motionless figure of Robert Baratheo holding Stormbreaker flat against his chest, point down, then… well, Slynt didn’t just lose control of his legs, but also his bladder and his bowels, given the curses from the guards and the revolting trail that the wretched man left.

He was finally deposited at the feet of the Fat King, who looked down at the former commander of the Goldcloaks with considerable disgust. “Gods, man, can’t you even die in a clean fashion?”

“Your Grace, blubbered Slynt wetly, with his neck on the block, “Mercy, please, I shall take the Black, I will go to the Wall, I confess it all, but spare me.”

The King laughed. “Send you to the Wall? Never – the Night’s Watch would think I scorned them for send such a man like you there.” Then he sobered and there might even have been a flash of sympathy. “Chin up. I’ll make it quick.”

Looking at the crowd Baratheon set his shoulders and then spoke. “I, Robert Baratheon, the First of my name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, do here and serve sentence of death on this man Janos Slynt. For the crime of corruption! Of taking bribes! Of malfeasance! And of murder! I have found him guilty – and I will swing the sword, as in the old days!”

Slynt screwed his eyes closed and therefore never saw the great blade come up and then flash down. His head bounced once, twice and then stopped. As the crowd cheered Jaime frowned a little. He thought he could hear thunder rumbling somewhere. He wasn’t the only one – Seaworth, who had been standing grim-faced at the head of a large group of pale-faced Goldcloaks, turned his head to seawards. “Odd,” Jaime heard him mutter. “I smell no storm coming.”

Jaime turned back to the spot where the Fat King was standing. Men in Baratheon livery ran out to pull the body away, take up the head to place it on a spike and (thank the gods on this warm day) to wash down the flagstones with buckets of water.

But as the next man was dragged out for execution Jaime was more fascinated by the sword. Stormbreaker was starting to puzzle him. It was the sword of the Durrandons – but the Durrandons had been of the First Men. The sword of Durran Godsgrief should have been bronze. But this was not. It reminded him of Dawn a little, by the sheen. Which might explain why Durran had been king. Then he frowned a little. The sword should have been bloody. It was not. Had Baratheon cleaned it quickly?

The next man did not disgrace himself as badly as Slynt. Instead he went to his death in silence, spitting at the ground in front of the crowd as they booed at him. His Fatness didn’t even bother with last words. He simply took his head from his shoulders with a single savage swipe that looked contemptuous. Jaime stared at the King of Westeros. Yes, the man looked alive again in some terrible way. But – there was no blood on the sword. Had he shaken it?

The third man was as bad as Slynt – a cowardly wreck who wailed at the sight of the block, and the sword, and everything about Robert Baratheon. Jaime averted his eyes for much of it, because it was frankly embarrassing.

And then the fourth man came forwards. He was a dark-haired man who strode to the block with a straight back and a face that showed deep shame. The crowd seemed to sense it and they booed him less than the others.

Baratheon looked him over and then nodded at him sombrely. “Kneel, lad.” And then, as the shame-faced man did so Baratheon said something that surprised Jaime. “I know why you took the coin,” he rumbled in a low voice. “Your wife and your son took sick. But even after they were better you kept taking it. That was not right.”

“I know, Your Grace, and I am ashamed of it,” the man replied, tears in his eyes. “My family-”

“Will have a pension. My word on that. But there’s a price.”

The Goldcloak nodded and then braced himself. “I will pay it.”

“Good lad.” The sword came up and then slashed down. The head thudded to the ground and the crowd cheered again. But Jaime’s eyes were on the sword. This time there was blood. How odd.

His Fatness stepped over the body and then looked at the assembled crowd – and the Goldcloaks who had watched the whole thing with such pale faces. “People of King’s Landing! These men did you most grievous wrong! These men betrayed your trust in taking bribes! And I will not have that! I will have justice in this city and not corruption! And trust instead of betrayal! You have my word on that!”

“Long live King Robert the Just!” The call came from a squinting little man not too far from Jaime and he peered languidly around as the crowd of smallfolk threw their sweaty caps in the air and about stank the place out with their stinking breath.

His Fatness beamed a little grimly at them, hefted Stormbreaker with one hand as if he was a little surprised about something and then sheathed it, before slinging it onto his back and then stomping towards his horse.

It was only then that Jaime caught sight of Joffrey, who was staring at the heads of the three Goldcloaks as they were being placed onto the pikes on the nearest gateway. There was an odd look on his face, like a combination of uncertainty, fascination and… excitement? And then he seemed to catch himself as the hulking and grim-faced form of Sandor Clegane brushed past him, before darting after His Fatness.

“Father,” he heard Joffrey smirk at Baratheon, “Can I practise with Stormbreaker?”

“Of course you can lad, but not just yet – you need to get some muscles on you first. ‘Tis a heavy sword. Lighter with use, but too heavy for you just yet. You need to practise with your own more first to build yourself up. Clegane!”

“Your Grace?” The scarred man stepped forwards.

“Train my son a bit harder will you?”

Clegane eyed Joffrey. “He’s lazy.”

“I am not!” Joffrey protested.

“Yes he is Your Grace.”

Baratheon stopped and turned on Joffrey, who blanched a bit. “Always train lad. There’s a war coming. There always is. There will be when you’re king eventually. So always train.” He pulled a face as if he was reminded of something. “And I must train now. I’m too damn fat, still. No longer.” He eyed the horse nearby. “Ser Barristan?”

“Your Grace?” The Lord Commander called from one side.

“I need to train. I also need to talk to someone with knowledge of sword making.”

Ser Barristan Selmy pursed his lips with thought for a moment. “For the former I think the Red Keep Your Grace. For the latter – I know of at least one place you can find experts on the Street of Steel.”

Baratheon nodded and then mounted. “Ser Barristan and I have some questions to ask then, on the Street of Steel. Kingslayer, Clegane, get my son back to the Red Keep.” He nodded at them and then rode off with the Lord Commander in a great clattering of hooves.

Jaime watched them go with a sardonic eye. And then, very far away, he seemed to hear the boom of distant thunder.

 


 

Melisandre

The servants built the fire quickly. She knew that they were deathly afraid of her, but she did not care. They were sworn to her service. Their lives were hers to do with as the red God commanded. Today they would build her a great fire, the greatest that they could. She needed to see the flames, to look into them and see the visions of the path she now had to tread.

She had to admit that she was getting impatient. Her visions had become clouded of late, for the first time that she could remember. Clouded by what though? She could not say. It was as if the eye of her mind was suddenly unfocussed, as if R’hllor had lifted his gaze from her. Which was, of course, impossible.

So much had happened to lead her to this place, this point. An island just to the West of Tyrosh. She had had her servants take her there by ship, with all the wood that they bring without sinking the ship. And now the great fire was complete.

“Go,” she said coldly to them. “Leave this place. What is to happened here is not for the likes of you. Go. Return in the morning for me.” They bowed and then they all but fled. They lacked her faith. Well – what did they know? What could they know? Nothing. Poor fools.

A walk around the fire revealed that even though they were fools they had done their job well. Wood piled upon wood, soaked in lamp oil. She nodded and then picked up a burning brand and thrust it into the kindling, before stepping back as it started to take.

The flames crackled at first and then started to roar. As the main section of the fire caught and the wood started to blacken the roar increased to almost a shriek. Yes, they had built it well. The heat roared off the great blaze and she felt her lips peel back in a smile of joy. R’hllor was with her, the Lord of Light was here. She undid her robes until they fell to the ground and stepped as close to the fire as she could, revelling in the heat on her naked body. The grass started to brown and curl between her toes. She minded it not.

The flames danced and sang to her and she stared into them. Yes, something was appearing. Visions of Tyrosh. Faces of men and women, young and old. Did they matter? It was a start at least. The vision was crisp and clear.

Where to turn her gaze next? Dragonstone? That had been where her feet had been taking her before this odd mist had descended. Not yet. East perhaps? She frowned a little Yes. Eastwards. The Five Forts appeared in the flames, a chain against the forces of the Great Other. Were they manned yet? They should be. Where were the Fortsmen? Coming? She frowned harder. Her Brother should have it in hand. She’d have his heart in a brazier if he did not.

Where next? South? She smiled a little – and then she frowned. Eyes flashed from bronze panels and she would tell that something had changed there, that something had awoken. What though? She had long suspected that something was hidden to the South. She did not know what.

She did not look to the South-East. That way madness still lay.

North now. Animals seemed to crowd the streets of Pentos, whilst… something seemed to be growing there. She stared into the flames. A… girl? There was too much confusion there. A horseman flickered in and out and then vanished. And then something – no, somethings – seemed to flash across the sky for a moment. And then, as she tried to look further North, there was something else. Something moving Westwards. She blinked and shook her head a moment. No. Nothing had wings of ice.

And now she took a deep breath and turned to look Westwards again. She had to see where he was, the Azor Ahai. Where had he been born, how was he to be forged by his trials anew into a weapon for the Lord of Light?

Dragonstone appeared in the flames… but there was some odd about it, something she had not seen before. Tendrils of light flowed North from it. What could they be? An old man’s face appeared, as he talked with a fond smile with a young girl with a shadow on her face that seemed to seethe and flex and then vanish.

Westwards again… and then the mist descended again. She wanted to scream in frustration. What was this? She sharpened her focus and stared more intently. For a moment a number of flashing images appeared. A man with a sword on his back and lightning bolts flashing around him, sloughing off old layers of himself. A… child? A child who commanded fire? Snakes that found purpose. A garden blooming mightily. A one-eyed lion with a sword of light. An empty man finding a purpose again. A man with the blood of a wolf and a sword that shone like a star. And men and women with the heads of wolves.

And then the mist slammed down and she could see nothing. Wait…. There was something appearing. A face. A white face of wood. A tree? Yes – a Weirwood tree. A… Hearts Tree? Was that the name? And then the eyes carved into the tree opened to reveal orbs of red fire. We are stronger now, she heard a great voice boom in her ear. We were weaker before. No longer. You are wrong about so many things, Red Priestess. Cast your eyes Eastwards. Your brother is not as strong as you are.

“Who are you?” She barked the question at the terrible face. “Are you a servant of the Great Other?”

The red orbs blazed harder. Foolish child! The enemy has many faces. Ours is not one of them. Your Red God was always a fool to think that only he could fight them. This is a greater fight than you think. Things have changed here. We are stronger. Things that were sleeping have awoken. Things that you cannot understand. Do not come here. You will only do harm. Events are in motion that must not be disturbed. The Others are awake. And old friends who thought each other dead are meeting again. Cast your eyes not again to the West. Now – go!

The face roiled and rippled and suddenly she found herself flying backwards, landing in a breathless and astonished heap. She looked at the roaring fire and then shook her head in confusion. As she looked part of the fire collapsed inwards as the wood was consumed and a great blaze of sparks flew upwards. And those sparks briefly formed the shape of a tree.

 


 

Tyrion

The moment he finally saw the gatehouse of Winterfell he sighed at the thought of what lay within. Good food. A bed. A bath. Oh and maidservants, preferably ones with large breasts and sultry smiles. He thought for a moment about sending everyone on ahead and finding a good brothel, but then changed his mind at once. No. He had his duty to do first.

As they rode to the gate he had Emmon shake out the banner that had been furled since The Twins, and he smiled a little as the red and gold cloth shook and boomed in the breeze from the West. He heard shouts from the gatehouse and then the gates opened.

As they entered he looked around with quick glances. The Wintertown outside the fortress had shown great signs of being worked on and renewed, rebuilt even in places. And Winterfell itself seemed to be a hive of activity, with men and women working on so many things. Blacksmiths were busy, as was a small brick kiln not too far away. All most interesting. Yes, they were preparing for something. War or winter? Or perhaps both?

He drew rein as he saw what looked like a Maester walking towards him, with a young man with the auburn hair of a Tully. And that young man stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Tyrion and his eyes widened as if he had not just recognised him but knew him somehow. And then he seemed to shake his head a little and strode ahead of the Maester.

“You are Tyrion Lannister.” The young Stark – who else could it be with hair that colour – sounded like a man trying to make a grim voice lighter and Tyrion blinked a little at the thought of it. What was going on here?

“I see that my fame has preceded me!” He smiled and then noted that whilst the Stark boy smiled for a moment with his mouth, he did not smile with his eyes. “I am indeed Tyrion Lannister.”

“Robb Stark. This is Maester Luwin. Word did not reach us of your coming.”

“It did not?” Oh. Damn Father. “Your pardon. Your father sent word to the major houses that they send any word back about the legend that is the Others. So I was sent by my father from Casterly Rock with what we had on this topic.” He heard the beginning of a throat being cleared behind him and then forestalled it. “And I have also had the high and signal honour of escorting the Lady-”

But he was interrupted by an astonished voice from one side. “Dacey? Cousin Dacey? What are you doing here?”

Everyone looked over to see an astonished-looking Lord Eddard Stark as he stared at Dacey Surestone. Then he beamed at her and hurried over. “I have not seen you for years! How is your father? Why did he send you here?”

Tyrion watched her closely and then winced as many emotions seemed to flash over her face. Anger, confusion, bemusement – and then astonishment and horror. He had heard her muttering a few times on the road to Winterfell, practising a great tirade against her cousin for abandoning her. And how it seems that he had forestalled her by being… well, oblivious to her recent ordeal.

“Lord Stark,” she said eventually in a shaking voice. “My father is dead.”

He went pale at that. “No – surely not! He was hale and hearty when I saw him last!”

“He may have been then, but he... he died. Many weeks ago. I was told that word had been sent to Winterfell on this. When I heard nothing back I thought… I thought that…” Her face crumpled with anguish for a moment and then in an instant Lord Stark was at the side of her horse.

“Oh by the Gods Dacey, I knew not a thing. No word of his passing came here, I swear it. I am so sorry. You must have thought that we had abandoned you, when nothing like that had happened.” And then he seemed to catch himself. “Lord Tyrion, please accept the hospitality of Winterfell, for you and your men. Quarters will be provided for them, and a meal and ale. Maester Luwin – please take charge of the books that Lord Tyrion has brought. Robb, can you go or send someone to your mother and have them tell her to meet us in my solar? Then join us too. You too Lord Tyrion.” Then he looked at his younger relative. “Dacey, welcome to Winterfell, cousin.”

As everyone dismounted and servants rushed about to collect horses and take down saddlebags Tyrion looked at Dacey Surestone worriedly. She seemed as if she was about to fly into a thousand jagged pieces – but then she seemed to rally herself, shaking her head a little and then dismounting herself.

Tyrion sighed and was in the process of dismounting himself when he froze. Over to one side there was what looked a building containing a set of kennels and in the doorway sat a giant wolf that was staring at him intently. He opened his mouth to say something but then discovered that a combination of terror and fascination had strangled his vocal chords. “…”

Lord Stark caught his look of shock and then looked at the kennels. “Mind her not. She’s interested in everything.”

Dacey Surestone had also frozen in place at the sight of the creature – and then a huge smile lit up her face, making her appear beautiful for a long moment. “Ned! You have a direwolf!”

“I have. It has been an… interesting few weeks.” Then he flushed a little. “Your pardon. You have lost your father. Come.”

Tyrion kept an eye on that direwolf as he walked towards the door of the keep. He still couldn’t believe that it was there. Weren’t direwolves supposed to be extinct South of the Wall? Then he pulled a slight face. Might as well add it to the list of odd things that had happened.

By the time that they reached Lord Stark’s study he was starting to wonder what else was going on. He’d counted men in the liveries of at least three of the important Houses of the North – Umber, Reed and Bolton. The latter had been confined to one young man with a harp who might have been Domeric Bolton – he’d seen him once from a distance at the Redfort when he had been there on a visit on behalf of Father.

And then when he got to the Solar he came damn near to tripping over his own feet. Parts of the room were covered in books and records, whilst one wall had a great map of the North that had very disturbing implications if it meant what he thought it did. Were there really that many settlements North of the Wall?

As they sat and Lord Stark passed him bread and salt – and more importantly a goblet of rather good wine – Tyrion watched as Dacey Surestone sat down and for the first time since he had met her she seemed to relax a little.

Boots rang in the corridor, along with softer feet, and Robb Stark entered with some who can only have been his mother. She was a Tully to her fingertips and from the way that she warmly embraced Dacey the two had met before. Then she turned to Tyrion and he noticed that there was something at the back of her eyes as she greeted him. There was caution there. And unease. What was going on? Why did they seem to dislike Lannisters so much?

“My thanks Lord Stark,” he said after another sip of wine, before noticing that an elderly balding man with the chains and robes of a Maester had also entered, closing the door him. “I should perhaps briefly mention my role in your cousin being here. I met the Lady Dacey in an inn about three days ride South of here. A badly run inn that had a thief and a scoundrel in charge of it. Food appalling, drink worse, filth everywhere. Things going missing. Coin especially. He was cheating your cousin and I suspect that he had designs on her.”

Dacey closed her eyes and nodded wordlessly, whilst Lord Stark stared at them both and then turned a very nasty shade of red. “Where is this piece of filth?” He asked the question in a commendably level voice.

“Dead,” Tyrion said with considerable satisfaction. “He made the mistake of trying to cheat a most formidable woman who was staying there with her merchant husband. A punch was thrown, knocking the landlord out and sadly it was later discovered that he fallen head-first into a full bucket and drowned. The inn has been taken over and improved enormously And I offered to escort the Lady Dacey here. To Winterfell.”

Lord Stark settled a little, the anger leaving his face. “Then you have my most grateful thanks Lord Tyrion. Dacey – how did you come to be there though?”

She sighed. “Father died during a visit by cousin Willem – Ser Willem Bootle. He was Father’s heir, although we he was there at the time still escapes me as-”

“One moment Dacey,” Lord Stark interrupted. “But I don’t understand. Bootle was not your father’s heir. Your father came to me a year ago and told me that in the event of his death, Ser Willem Bootle was not to be allowed anywhere near Surestone.”

“Word had reached us from the Riverlands, via my brother Edmure, that Ser Willem was a spendthrift, an idiot and a neer-do-well,” Lady Stark said with a frown. “We told your father this.”

Dacey looked at them both, obviously baffled. “He said nothing to me. When word came of Ser Willem’s visit he just looked grim and said that it would be an awkward time for us as he had bad news to pass on. But he never said… wait, if Bootle was not the heir to Surestone, who was?”

“You, Dacey,” Lord Stark said gently. “Your father came to me and said that Bootle would be removed from the succession as being unfit – and that he was always unfit as there should always be a Surestone in Surestone, as was the tradition. You should have inherited, as Maege Mormont did at Bear Island after her brother disgraced himself. Your father made that very clear to me and also left me a copy of his will and testament, signed in front of me and witnessed duly by me.”

“Why did he not tell me? And why did Bootle say otherwise?” Dacey Surestone sounded angry and confused.

Tyrion broke in, a horrible suspicion crystallising in his own mind. “What exactly happened when Bootle arrived?”

“Father took him to his solar and they spoke for a long time. I saw Bootle afterwards and he looked very angry. That night Father took ill.”

“And what was the nature of this illness?” Tyrion asked, feeling angry with himself for not asking this before.

“It took on the nature of an apoplexy. He could not speak and could barely open his eyes. He… he died the next day. And as he lay sick and dying Ser Willem Bootle announced that as the heir everyone had to obey his orders. And after Father was dead… Bootle said that he would send word to Winterfell, dismissed the Maester, all but looted my home and went off with it South.” There was a numb horror in her voice. Yes, she suspected too.

“Poison perhaps?” Tyrion said the words softly and grimly and the room went still as they all seemed to think the same dark thoughts. “Maester… Luwin, was it? Yes. Arrowbinder perhaps? Or Hearts Forlorn?”

The Maester pursed his lips a little in thought. “Either might bring on the appearance of an apoplexy before killing. And both are known in the Riverlands.” He shook his head a little. “And both are cruel ways to kill a man. The Maester at Surestone was… Grantle by name, I think? A very young man and also inexperienced.”

Oddly enough Dacey Surestone now looked very like a female version of Lord Stark, whilst Robb Stark was pale with fury. And equally oddly he exchanged a peculiar look with his father that ended with the younger Stark shaking his head a little in some kind of message.

“Maester Luwin,” Lord Stark said in a voice as implacable as the mountains of the North, “I need to send a raven to my Goodfather at Riverrun as soon as possible. I must demand the arrest and trial of Ser Willem Bootle on charges of murder and thievery. He robbed my cousin of her birthright!”

“I will prepare a raven at once My Lord,” Luwin said formally. “My swiftest one to Riverrun.”

“And I shall have some words to add to my father,” Lady Stark said, shaking her head. “This is terrible. My poor Dacey – we will get you back Surestone. And the things that this Bootle stole.”

 


 

Benjen

He was being watched. He’d know that for some time now, perhaps a day or so. The question was who was watching him? Wildlings? Perhaps not. He’d seen two groups in the past few days. Both had gone out of their way to avoid him – albeit with some hard stares and hands on sword pommels. But this new watcher was... different. More mysterious.

He gave a mental shrug as he rode Wanderer through the forest. Whoever they were he so far sensed no ill-will towards him. It was all most odd.

Wanderer plodded on and he looked about keenly. He almost liked the Haunted Forest, there was a refreshing simplicity about the place. It was… clean. He knew that he was foolish to go on alone though. However, Alek had fallen badly after his horse had shied at a raven that had flown almost straight at its head and he’d broken his arm badly. Too badly to continue and in fact too badly to get back to the Wall safely. He was a good man, Alek, a good woodsman, so he’d sent him back with Royce.

Royce worried him, and he knew that the man worried the Old Bear as well. He may have been a Royce of Runestone and therefore of the First Men, but he was too arrogant at times, to sure that he knew right and men of lower rank knew wrong. True, he had changed since he had heard the Call and apparently could sometimes he almost civil to the lower born Brothers of the Night’s Watch, but Benjen still worried about him. He needed to learn that The Wall demanded certain changes to his way of thinking.

He stopped at noon and kindled a small fire, using it to cook a haunch of the rabbit that he’d killed three days before and left to hang from the back of his saddle wrapped in an old piece of cloth. As he ate he plotted his course in his head. North, parallel with the river. He’d avoided Craster’s Keep – that man set his teeth on edge every time he saw him these days, there was something no right with him – and instead he wanted to head for the hills that led to the First of the First Men. A ranging patrol had vanished near there two months before. Perhaps they had been killed by wights?

The thought of wights and the Others made him shift uneasily for a moment. This seemed almost mad – but he had heard the Call so clearly on the way back to Castle Black. It had shaken him to realise that Ned was right.

As he finished the last of the rabbit and then carefully doused the fire he felt those watching eyes on him again. Yes, someone was there. Closer this time. Who were they? And were they living – or dead?

Straightening up he walked over to Wanderer and then mounted him. As he checked his reins and settled himself in the saddle he looked about of the corner of his eyes. No, nothing. No-one. Odd. Were they gone?

He clicked his tongue and rode on, still North. Every now and then he could see the hills ahead, with the Fist of the First Men somewhere amongst them. That place fascinated him. The name alone was a mystery. Why a fist? Why had it been so important to the First Men? He’s once heard an old Black Brother mention a rumour that the Fist had once been a very important place for the Rangers – but that he did not know why. Benjen had explored the place himself a number of times, but had never found anything of significance.

An hour or so later he pricked an ear. Someone or something had snorted off to his left, a long way away. After a few minutes he heard another snort, closer now. He paused and then drew his sword carefully. A bear perhaps? Or a direwolf? He could hear the sound of heavy paws crunching on wet snow and damp twigs. What was there?

And then he saw a figure looming out of the trees to one side and he stopped Wandered dead in his tracks and stared at him. It was a man. Mounted on an elk, with huge horns. Whoever he was, the man was dressed in black robes, with a hood over his face and scarf wrapped around it. A great bow was at his back, and a quiver filled with long arrows with white fletches at his hip. The moment that he laid eyes on Benjen he nudged the elk to a halt with his feet.

There was a long moment of silence as the figure stared at Benjen. Finally it spoke: “Brother.” Whoever he was, he spoke in a dry, unused voice that contained an odd note. “You are a Brother of the Rangers, I see. Well met.”

Benjen stared at him. Well, this was no wight. But then again – what was he? “Well met. I am Benjen, First Ranger, son of Rickard.”

The figure nodded in recognition. “There have been times when I have seen you at a distance. Well met, First Ranger. I am… I am called Coldhands.”

An odd name. Benjen frowned a little. Who was this man, and why had he called him ‘Brother’? “Are you linked to the Night’s Watch? You called me Brother.”

Coldhands sighed and then ran a hand over his breast for a moment. “I once served on the Wall. A long time ago. A long time indeed. I was… different then. Until I was sent on a greater mission. That… is a tale for another time. What brings a lone Ranger close to the old stronghold North of the Wall?”

Benjen stared at him and assessed. This was most peculiar. A Black Brother sent on a ‘greater mission’? When? And by who? He mulled it over for another moment and then decided that it was time to take a risk.

“The Others have returned. We need proof – of wights at least. I am hunting for proof of a wight.”

“Proof of a wight…” Coldhands mumbled. “They have indeed come. But how did you know?”

“A Call was issued. ‘The Others come. The Stark call for aid. You are needed.’”

Whoever this Coldhands fellow was, he seemed so shocked that he just stared at Benjen for a long moment, before raising a trembling black-gloved hand to the scarf around his mouth and muttering something that Benjen did not catch. And then he turned the elk and gestured to him to follow as he urged the elk to start walking again. “Come. Follow.”

Benjen watched him go for a moment in bewilderment and then kicked Wanderer into moving on again, to follow Coldhands. “Where? Where do we go to?”

“The Overlook. I was wondering when the Rangers would return to it.”

He frowned. “The Overlook?”

“The… place of watching. Do you not know of it?”

“No!”

“Then follow and learn!”

 


 

Asha

She was getting tired of seeing dead men in gibbets at the entrances to harbours. This one, however, was different. She knew the man for a start. And he was – or rather now had been – a Drowned Man. She stared at the corpse. Interesting. He’d just been hung. No stakes.

Looking around she could tell that the sight of the man had, in some odd manner, slightly relaxed her crew. With the exception of Alek, the man who had signed on at Pyke and who she suspected was some kind of informer for Damphair. Meh. Haken was keeping an eye on the little wet runt. If it meant that Alek suffered an ‘accident’ then he’d arrange it.

As they reached Long Stone Quay and tied up she looked up at the castle. She’d always loved Ten Towers. It was so very different to Pyke and its rope bridges and eternal dampness.

Dale was standing on the Quay, directing repairs to a longship that looked as if it had seen better days. He nodded to her as she approached. “Your nuncle sent word to send you to him when you arrived. He’s not at the castle today. He’s at High Harlaw.”

She stared at him. “He hates High Harlaw.”

“Yes, but that’s where he is. I must warn you – he’s in a foul mood.”

She sighed a little and then paused. “Who’s in the gibbet on the point?”

“A friend of your other nuncle. He started to be shouting a lot when he heard that Black Gregan was on his way to the Shadow Tower with a longship of supplies, men and weapons. It was annoying. So Lord Harlaw cut him short.” He smirked a little. “Got cheered for it too, by every man nearby.”

She smiled a little and then strode off to the stables, where she saddled one of the little shaggy ponies that the island was famous for, mounted and then rode out of the gates, down the road to the old holdfast of the Harlaws. As she did she looked about carefully. The people of Harlaw seemed to be preparing for Winter. Odd, that. She’d heard of some communities on Old Wyk were doing the same.

She also had an unpleasant feeling that the fight between those who claimed to have heard The Call and those who denied it, like Father and Damphair. Her religious nuncle was worrying her a great deal. He appeared to be increasingly angry, increasingly obsessed with punishing those that claimed that The Call had been real, that the Stark needed their help. More men were in gibbets at Lordsport. The lucky ones had died quickly.

And now her nuncle Rodrik was pushing back. This would not end well, she could tell that. The question was – how bad would it be?

When she finally arrived at High Harlaw she found her nuncle Rodrik scowling over a set of records that looked as if they had been locked in a box and then covered in dust for several decades at the very least. But judging from the severity of the scowl she guessed that he either wasn’t finding what he wanted or didn’t like what he had found.

“Useless,” he muttered as she slammed the topmost book closed. “All useless. Damn my ancestors. What were they so afraid of?” Then he looked up. “Asha. How is Pyke?”

“Parts are heated. Parts are fearful. And parts are dead. Damphair rules over Father at times. There are more gibbets at Lordsport.”

He nodded. “So I heard. We have one of our own here. We put fools who smell too much of Damphair’s madness in it. After we’ve shut them up that is.”

“Damphair will not like it. Neither will Father.”

“I care not. I am Lord of Harlaw. My word rules here, not Damphair’s. And if your father disagrees then we…” He set his jaw. “We will have words.”

Asha thought about the kind of words her nuncle was implying and hid a wince. “What are you looking for here?”

He directed an odd look in her direction. “Reasons.”

“Reasons for what?”

He sighed. “Reasons for why my – our! – ancestors were such damn fools and destroyed so much.”

She stared at him. “Destroyed what?”

Her nuncle ran a hand through his hair and then gave her another considering look. Then he crooked a finger. “I need to show you something.”

He led her down a long dark corridor and then handed her a burning brand, before starting down a long spiral staircase. It smelt damp down here and as they descended still further she could see moisture on the walls. The stonework was rougher down here too, older. How old was this place? Which of her ancestors had built it? Or had they built it on something else, something older? A strange feeling stole over her and she shuddered a little.

“Do you feel them too?”

She looked at her nuncle, who was still leading the way. “Feel what?”

“The ghosts. I shudder every time I come down here. I feel the spectre of the past most heavily here. This is the oldest part of High Harlaw. Should be the dampest too, but whoever built it knew his drains well.”

“How old is it?”

He paused for a moment and then laid a hand on the rough walls. “This stonework is that of the First Men. I have seen it in other places. Read of it too.” A ghost of a smile crossed his face and then he resumed downwards. Asha stared at the walls for an instant and then followed him hurriedly.

The stairs ended and a long corridor stretched ahead. There was a slight curve to it, a subtle one and Asha wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not. What she did see was the room that her nuncle led her too. Especially as she saw it from a distance. There was an… odd… dull light flickering it, like a guttering candle.

Her nuncle paused at the doorway, set his chin and then walked in. As she reached the doorway as well she stopped dead in her tracks. The walls of the room were covered in… something she couldn’t quite make out. She peered at the nearest wall. Runes, or the remains of what seemed to be runes. The carvings were glowing fitfully, like dying fireflies. And they had all been incised by lines, as if someone had been trying to destroy them. It was beyond eerie. It gave her the creeping horrors as she looked at the walls. “What… what is this place?”

“I do not know.” He said the words heavily, as if it pained him to say such a thing. “I wish that I did. All I know is that the Steward of High Harlaw was assessing stores not too far from here when he saw the light. It was the first that I ever knew of this place.”

She raised a hand in bafflement and pointed at the nearest rune. “Do you know what they say?”

“No. Whoever carved the lines through them did too good a job of it. And yes, I can read runes. The odd word here and there – in some of the darker corners – survive, but all they give are hints. Dark hints at that. ‘Blood tide’. ‘Outcast’. ‘Prophecy’.”

He fell silent and Asha stared at him. “What else nuncle? I see the battle in your face.”

“Words that make my heart sink. ‘Death cult’. ‘Lost God’. ‘Sea Wolf’. And – most ominously – ‘Beware the return of the Others’. It’s the longest fragment.”

She absorbed this and then looked about the room again. “The light… where does it come from?”

This question brought a sour smile to his face. “Oh, that? Simple – magic. Probably the magic used by the First Men. The thing that your father and Damphair deny even exists. Deny it to the point where they kill men.” He spat the words bitterly.

“Nuncle…” Asha started to say, before stopping as she struggled with the words. “Nuncle… what is going on?”

He surprised her by laughing softly for a moment, before spreading his hands. “I know not! And it’s not from lack of trying. There are no records of this room, no legends of it. Someone carved those runes and then someone else, afterwards, carved lines through them, weakening whatever magic was within them. And from the violence of some of the strokes – someone who hated whatever the runes said.”

There was a pause as her nuncle leant tiredly against the wall. “They call me The Reader, and they think that they insult me. No. It is a simple truth within a name. I read. I try to understand this world of ours. I try to see beyond the walls that your benighted father seeks to build around these islands. I would have a good future for Harlaw, a future where the sails of the Ironborn were not viewed with dread. And I seek to understand the threats that your father and his insane brother would deny even exist!”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Something comes, Asha! Something comes, something black and terrible, a storm like nothing that we have ever seen before. I smell it in the air. This room had a warning here once. A warning carved by the First Men. By… by my ancestors. There have been Harlaws here for hundreds of years, if not longer.” Grief rippled over his face for a moment. “Fair Isle changed me. When my sons died… well, it broke a part of me. Broke any faith I had in your father as well. Damn him.”

Asha winced a little. “Nuncle…”

“Oh don’t look like that Asha! Your wretched father is a fool. This notion that The Call was some kind of Greenlander mummery… do you know why your father supports his brother Aeron so much? Because he and his Drowned Men – still don’t call themselves as such openly – make up so much of his support for the Old Way. The Iron Price. That’s what he bases his power on, after the stupidity of his rebellion against Baratheon.” He spat to one side. “I have a done a lot of thinking of late,” he said bitterly. “And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if your Grandfather Quellon had the right of it. If only he’d lived longer. He might have beaten some sense into your father, instead of your father deciding to turn against what his father believed.”

This made her look around uneasily. Yes, Father’s adherence to the Old Way was… traditional. She understood that. And yet Father had, in his own way, also let her walk her own path, which was non-traditional. But he also demanded that the people around him charge the Iron Price. Follow the Old Way.

“Nuncle…”

“I am having the island searched for other such rooms. Any records at all. I am searching for answers, because my people are in danger and they need those answers. And if Damphair or even your father try and stop me from protecting my people I shall turn the waters around this island red with their blood. I will not ignore this Asha. I cannot. I heard The Call to Winterfell. That’s something else that I cannot ignore.” He shook his head. “So – now you know where I stand. I do not want you to make a choice as to where you stand yourself – but you must know the issues.”

She stared at him for what felt like a very long time. A hundred things or more flashed through her mind. The Call. The bodies in the gibbets. Damphair’s dangerous madness. Father’s comments about his plans for the North. He probably thought that his secret was unknown to her. If so he was wrong. She’d seen enough to put the pieces together. She wasn’t an idiot. She also knew that the very thought of attacking the North – of attacking Winterfell – now made her… uneasy. She made her choice.

“Nuncle, I cannot fight my father. But that does not mean that I will fight you. You have the right of it in this case.”

He nodded at her and then directed a brief wintery smile at her. “Keep your eyes on the horizon, Asha. Send word if you see or hear anything odd. And smell the wind, especially when it blows from the North. If you smell foul things, steer for Ten Towers.”

Riding back to the quay she was in a thoughtful – dark, even – mood. Her nuncle’s words had shaken her. Shaken her more than she could admit. Her nuncle was looking for answers… where could those answers be found? Wait… Old Gram. Where was she again?

When she reached the ship she found Haken sitting on a bollard and using a honing stone on his knife. “What news?”

“Alek’s gone.”

“Deserted?”

“Died.”

“What from?”

“Stupidity.”

“How so?”

“He thought that he was better at using a knife than me. And before that, that he could lecture me about taking orders from a woman. Oh and he also seemed to be a very religious man. All told – he died of stupidity.”

“Oh.” Then she shrugged. “Hire someone to replace him then. We stay the night here. Have the ship reprovisioned. We sail on the morning tide.”

“Where to?”

“Great Wyk. There’s someone there I need to talk to.”

 


 

Robert

The Street of Steel was the kind of place that made any man feel alive. So many people, so many horses, so much noise, the smoke and sparks, the pounding of metal on metal… Oh and now the cheers. Men and women cheered him as he rode down the street, with Ser Barristan by his side, with cries of ‘Long live Good King Robert!’ and ‘Long live the King!’.

He nodded genially at them and gave them his best flashing smile. It was good to be the king on a day like this.

Ser Barristan pointed to one side and he nodded. The shop that they stopped at was a large one – and a very well-appointed one. This was the workplace of a man who knew the value of good equipment – he could see that at one.

Dismounting he tied up his horse himself. “What’s the name of the merchant again, Ser Barristan?”

“Tobho Mott, Your Grace. He’s an Essosi – and a very skilled one.”

Nodding that this, he strode in. The workshop was very well-appointed indeed and he nodded at the workmanship on some of the weapons he could see on display. “Hello? Is Tobho Mott here?”

“Yes, yes, I’m coming,” a man called out tone side crossly. A door opened and a man entered. He was balding, with the shoulders of a smith. Not that he was using one of his arms at the moment – his right arm was in a sling. The moment he saw him he stopped dead – and then bowed deeply. “Your Grace. How may I help you?”

“I have a sword that I need you to have a look at,” Robert rumbled as he unslung Stormbreaker and then pulled it from its scabbard before placing it carefully on a workbench. “It’s my family sword – the sword of the Durrandons – and I’ve only recently rediscovered it. That said, it’s occurred to me that I know nothing about it. It never needs to be honed and the more I use it, the lighter it seems. Odd. So – I would know more about it.”

Mott stared at it and then nodded slowly. “I can do my best Your Grace. I might have to call on my apprentice – damn it, my ex-apprentice now, but he’s still here for a few days to help out – as I might need help because of my arm.”

“A bad injury?”

“Foolishness on my part.” He went slightly pink. “She was heavier than I thought,” he muttered quietly. “But worth it.” Then he stepped forwards and looked at the sword. After a moment he frowned. “The sword of Durran Godsgrief, yes? There are tales of this sword Your Grace. Odd ones.”

“Aye,” Ser Barristan Selmy said to one side. “It’s a sword that was said to turn aside lightning and embolden fainthearts. It’s even said that it gave warnings – but just how it did that is not said.”

Mott moved closer to the sword and then stared at the metal with a frown on his face that deepened by the moment. Then he straightened up and turned to the door. “GENDRY!”

“Master?”

“Get in here!”

“Can’t Master, this steel needs to be quenched properly. I’ll be there as soon as I finish it.”

There was something about the voice that rang a faint bell at the back of his head, but he shook it off as Mott stamped over to another workbench and then used his good hand to open a drawer, muttering as he did so. When he turned back he was holding a small round object, which he then put to his eye, scrunching his eyebrow and cheek up to hold it in place. It seemed to have some kind of lenses in it, because as he walked back to the sword Robert could see that his eye appeared to be massively enlarged. It was… unsettling.

“A payment from a Myrish merchant for some work I did on a sword for him,” Mott muttered. “It lets me see things close up.” Then he leant back over the sword and inspected it intently. Robert watched him. The man seemed to be increasingly puzzled by something. He was about to ask him what was wrong, when all of a sudden the smith straightened up. “Your Grace, may I use a tuning hammer on this sword? I want to hear what it sounds like when the metal rings.”

He stared at the man. “You want to sound the sword?”

“Aye.”

“Very well.”

Mott rummaged in a desk to one side and then pulled out a small hammer. As he did there was movement to one side and another man entered. He was well muscled and wore a blacksmithing apron. He also had a cloth over his head that seemed to be soaking up the sweat that was trickling down his face. “Master?”

“Lift the sword a little Gendry.”

“Yes Master.” The apprentice reached out and lifted the sword by the pommel. As the smith gently tapped the sword Robert heard a melodious chime from it that seemed to ripple through his very bones.

“Odd,” said the smith. “I have no idea what this metal is, Your Grace. None at all. It… it is a mystery to me. The First Men used bronze, the Andals steel. I know both metals well. The Valyrians invented their own way to forge steel, the secret of which is lost. It is the greatest mystery, for smiths, Maesters, all who work with metal. Some – myself included can rework Valyrian steel. But none can make it from new. And now, there is a new mystery. This. I truly do not know what this is made from. It is no metal that I am familiar with at all. I cannot even tell by the sound. That dull noise is odd as well.”

“Dull?” Robert asked, confused. “You’ve been by your forge for too long, man! It did not sound dull when you tapped it. It chimed!”

“Your Grace?” Mott and Ser Barristan both looked confused.

“It chimed!”

“I heard no chime,” Ser Barristan said with a frown. “Odd.”

“Your Grace,” the apprentice said hesitantly, “I heard it chime as well. Like… like a bell.”

“Not now Gendry,” Mott barked, but Robert was now intrigued.

“Take that sweatrag off your head lad. You’re the apprentice?”

“Former apprentice,” the lad said dully. “I’ve been told I’m to work by the docks now.” And then he pulled the cloth off his head. Robert openly stared at him. Blue eyes. Black hair. That Baratheon jaw. It was like looking at a younger version of himself. He could see that Ser Barristan saw it too. And Mott… well, he was looking a bit shifty.

Robert rubbed at his temple for a moment. Oh gods. “Gendry, is it?”

“Yes Your Grace.”

“You look familiar to me lad. Who was your mother?”

The lad stared at his feet. “Don’t rightly know, Your Grace. She died when I was very young. She worked at an alehouse.”

“And your father?” Robert prompted gently.

The apprentices shook his head. “Don’t know, Your Grace. That’s why I haven’t got a last name.”

“How long have you been working here?”

The lad looked deeply puzzled at the sudden change in the direction of the conversation. “Um… some years now Your Grace. A man brought me here. Can’t remember who he was now.”

Robert stared at him – and then he looked at Mott, whose shifty look intensified. “Who brought him here?”

The smith looked at him. “A man I’d never seen before, Your Grace. He paid me twice the normal fee for an apprentice. Not that he needed to. The lad had a knack with a hammer.” Oh, he knew. “He might have been an Essosi though. His accent was good, but I could tell he was once from Essos.”

Varys. It had to be him. He had seen to the matter of young Edric. How many more bastards did he have? It was an unsettling thought. Then he looked back at Gendry, who was staring at the sword. “Your mother – which alehouse? And can you remember anything at all about your mother?”

Gendry frowned in concentration. “Crossed Keys, I think. And… she had blonde hair, Your Grace.”

The Crossed Keys… he remembered that place. Oh, but remembered it. What had her name been again? Bessie? No, that was the one with the massive tits. Ah…. Oh. Alys. She’d had the most amazing smile. “Alys,” he said out loud. “Her name was Alys. She was from the Stormlands, originally. That’s why I remember her. You have a last name lad. Gendry Storm.”

The lad looked at him, and Robert could see what looked suspiciously like tears in his eyes – but that he was not going to cry. No, he wasn’t going to shed a tear. Had to be a man. “So you’re here for a few days? And then down the docks?” Robert asked, keen to move away. “I’ll talk to you again lad. And on the matter of your father – I need to talk to you about that. On another day perhaps. How good an apprentice is he, Master Mott?”

“Fair to middling. Needs to work at it. Can be a good one – if he applies himself.”

“Are you working on anything at the moment, lad?” Robert asked.

“Thought about making a helmet,” Gendry muttered. “The head of a bull.”

“Not a bad idea,” Robert said. “A challenge. Tell you what – once you make it, bring it to me. If it’s any good I’ll have you make one for me. Only in the shape of the head of a stag.”

Gendry gaped at him for a moment and then tugged his forelock. “Be honoured to do it, Your Grace.” Then he sniffed. “Master, I need to get back to the forge. Don’t like leaving it unattended. Dangerous. Your Grace. Ser Barristan.” And then, at their nods of dismissal, he left.

Robert watched him go and then looked at Mott again. “What’s he really like a smith?”

Mott smiled slightly. “If he applies himself – a very good one. He’s a steady one. A mite stubborn at times and if you throw too many things at him he can get a little confused. But he has a big heart – he’s a fierce friend. Loyal. He’s had a hard life, but he’s a good man.”

Sounds like Father, Robert thought with more than a little sadness. The poor lad. He needed to do something to help him along a little. Then something occurred to him. “Why is he going to the docks?”

“I was told that was because of Lord Stannis, Your Grace. He saw the lad once. With, erm, The Lord Hand. Lord Arryn.”

Gods, did everyone know about the lad? Did Renly know? Then he paled a little. Did Cersei? If the Scold knew about him then he might be in danger. Stannis had the right of it – the docks was a good idea. He’d talk to him.

Robert turned back to the sword. “Very well, let’s get back to the matter at hand – Stormbreaker. You don’t know what the metal is?”

“No, Your Grace. It is a mystery to me. Although… it might be a form of sky-metal. There are many kinds and I have not seen all of them.”

“Sky-metal?”

“Sometimes a star falls to earth, burning a great fiery trail as it descends. They are rare – and still rarer are the ones that are intact. And some – rare upon rare upon rare – contain a heart of iron, the kind of iron that is unlike any other. The First Men were very skilled in fashioning weapons from these things. Those that they did are famous amongst smiths. Legends in fact.”

This was intriguing. Robert shared a glance with Ser Barristan, who looked almost excited. “Such as?”

Mott stroked his chin. “The Gardener kings were said to have a great spear. The Casterlys an axe – Rocktooth by name, or so it is said. Twin daggers as well. Who knows what happened to them though? Oh and the Starks were said to have something called the Fist of Winter. A… mace I think, and a legendary one.”

Robert stroked his face. “You said that this is the work of the First Men.”

“Aye, Your Grace.”

“And possibly this, this, sky-metal.”

“Aye Your Grace. Oh, and there was another on the list. ‘Tis said that the Daynes of Starfall have a sword made from a fallen star. Dawn.”

“Dawn is the work of the First Men?” Ser Barristan asked. He looked at Robert. “’Tis very likely Your Grace. I knew Ser Arthur Dayne well. He said that Dawn was unique. And very old.” He looked ashamed for a moment. “I liked the man but… he was deep in Rhaegar Targaryen’s counsels.”

Robert felt his blood thunder in his ears at the mention of that bloody man, but kept his temper in check. “And Dawn was in this city recently, oddly enough.”

“I know,” said Mott wryly. “Half the smiths I know of – including me – were hoping to catch a glimpse of it. And that is a sword that has many, many odd legends attached to it. It’s said to be a blade that can only be borne by a Dayne. A blade made with magic. Rather like the Fist of Winter. And Stormbreaker. I think, Your Grace, that only you – and your blood can wield the blade properly.”

He considered this. Then he smiled. “Ironic. I love my Warhammer, but I now have Stormbreaker. Ned loves that sword of his, Ice, but his family once had a mace. I wonder what happened to it? Ned never mentioned any such weapon. I’ll write to him.” He stood up. “Master Mott – my thanks for your time. You do good work here, I can see it. You will receive commissions from the Red Keep, I swear it.”

“My thanks, Your Grace,” the smith said with a bow. “I should be fit again to swing a hammer in a week or so.”

Robert grabbed Stormbreaker, returned it to its scabbard and then secured it to his back again. “Good. Ser Barristan?”

“Training, Your Grace?”

“Aye.” As he strode back to his horse he sighed a little. Why was it that he got on better with his bastards than his trueborn? If only Joffrey wasn’t quite such a Lannister. He mounted with a grunt. Ah well.

Chapter Text

Tyrion

A positive flurry of ravens had been sent out in recent hours, and if words contained power then those ravens would be at Riverrun days early and with singed feathers.

He had checked that Emmon and the rest of his men – he had become accustomed to seeing them as his men by now – had been well taken care of. They had indeed. Stark’s hospitality was most generous. And the meal he had just eaten had been passing good as well.

So now he headed back to Lord Stark’s solar, a cup of rather good wine in one hand and with a head filled with questions. Arriving there he was relieved to see that the door was open. He knocked politely and then entered at the gruff ‘Come!’ from within.

Lord Stark was sitting at his desk, with books all around him and a look of fierce determination on his face. Oddly enough he did not look that surprised to see Tyrion walk in. Not even after he then closed the door.

“What can I help you with, Lord Tyrion?”

Tyrion walked to the map and stared up at it. “Your map of the North is a very good one, Lord Stark. Very detailed. Very impressive. Especially…” he waved a hand upwards. “The area North of the Wall. More detailed than any other map of the area that I have ever seen.”

Lord Stark leant back in his chair and then shot Tyrion a look that made him intensely uncomfortable. “I had information from a very… well-informed… source.”

“Really?” He found a chair and then sat, before frowning at the map. “There are far more settlements there than I had thought.”

“Aye.” Lord Stark’s eyes glittered. “Wildlings, Lord Tyrion. Thousands of them. Far more than we ever imagined. And the map shows where the northernmost villages used to be. No more. They’ve been abandoned. They’re moving South.”

He stroked his chin and then took another sip of wine. “Moving South. Interesting. Is it because they’ve heard The Call?”

Lord Stark’s look intensified still further, something that he hadn’t previously thought was possible. “Did you hear The Call?”

“No,” he conceded reluctantly. “But I felt… something. I think I was asleep when you sent out whatever it was. But I have talked to a lot of people who did hear it. Clearly enough to allow me to quote it to you now: ‘The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.’ Lord Stark, it was even heard in the Iron Islands. Where they are now killing each other, because of this Call.”

This startled the Lord of the North, who sat up a little. “Killing each other? We heard word of unrest in the islands… but why should they kill each other?”

“Apparently Damphair Greyjoy denies this Call and is killing those Ironbborn who speak about sending aid to Winterfell – and to the Wall. Odd, is it not?”

Lord Stark muttered something under his breath in a language that might have been the Old Tongue, before looking back at the desk. “More Greyjoy idiocy,” he finally muttered out loud. “And Balon allows this? His hatred for the North runs deeper than we knew.”

Tyrion took another sip of wine. Interesting. Perhaps it was time to be totally unlike Father. It would be refreshing to imagine his reaction.

“Lord Stark, do you know why my father sent me to Winterfell?”

Another intense look, followed by a wry smile. “You said that you were just delivering some books from Casterly Rock. Knowing your father though… there had to be something more. Let me guess – he thinks that all this talk of the Others is a new gambit in the Game of Thrones that he’s so obsessed with?”

He felt his eyebrows twitch upwards with surprise at Lord Starks’ astuteness. Father had always talked about Lord Stark with a certain degree of contempt. ‘The honourable Lord Stark, a man who put honour ahead of good sense,’ Father had once said of him. ‘Honourable idiot morelike.’ Hmmm. It seemed that there was more to Lord Stark than met the eye.

“Yes,” he admitted. “My father sent me to find out what you were up to. Then I heard talk of this Call. And then I saw preparation for war. Winter too. And then I noticed that this is not the last time that the North has prepared for – and fought – such a war. Lord Stark, I have seen the crags that litter the North – those that can be seen from the King’s Road at least. And the signs of the old signal network. Oh – and there were these.” He pulled out the little pouch and passed it over to Lord Stark, who opened it with a frown. The moment that the saw the obsidian arrowheads inside his face went blank.

“You’re a very observant man, Tyrion Lannister,” he said quietly as he replaced the contents carefully. Then he placed the bag to one side, before reaching out and taking a small leather pouch of his own from his desk, before tossing it over to Tyrion. “What do you observe from that?”

Tyrion opened it with a frown of his own. Oh look. “Obsidian arrowheads. You seem to know what these mean, then? Why use this stone? Does it have a special quality?”

“It does indeed. We think that it kills Others. The First Men called it ‘Glytterglass’ and it seems that they often sent it to Winterfell when it was discovered.”

Tyrion went very still. “Did you say ‘Glytterglass?”

“Aye. Obsidian – some call it Dragonglass too. But the old days it was known as Glytterglass.”

All of a sudden he wanted to close his eyes and place his head on the table. Oh, Father would not like this at all. Instead he smiled sardonically and sipped some more wine. “There is a room in Casterly Rock, Lord Stark. An old one, deep underground. It has runes carved on the walls. Most are illegible. But a few words can be read. One of them is ‘Glytterglass’.”

Mirth – and something more – sparkled in Lord Stark’s eyes. “Really?” He stood and poured a goblet of wine for himself, before topping up Tyrion’s own goblet. “Does your father know?”

“More than likely. Interesting. That means that the Casterlys were sending obsidian to Winterfell. I wonder how Father will fit that into his ponderings over your activities.”

Lord Stark shrugged. “Your father was Hand to the Mad King. It was his job to try and work out if people were playing their thrice-damned Game of Thrones. He had to work out if mere shadows were actual threats, and if apparent threats were mere shadows.”

He leant back in his chair again, until his own face was half in shadow. “The threat beyond The Wall is real however. We face an enemy that we have not fought for tens of centuries. An enemy that we know little of. I am told that you are a clever man, Tyrion Lannister. Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, sat where you sit now not too long ago and said that the Others were the reason why the Wildlings were fleeing South. South to the Wall. Did you know that he said that he can call on a hundred thousand Wildlings? I see you unconvinced, but look again at the map. All those villages. So, then. What is your initial impression of the situation we – all of Westeros – face?”

Tyrion stared at Lord Stark and then looked back at the map. Ah. His eyes swept across the map and then at the Wall. It was such a thin line. He really wished that he could see it right now. Measure its height. Its width. The measure of the men on the Wall. Their hearts. Their courage.

“If the Wildlings truly believe that the Others are coming, and if this Rayder fellow really does have 100,000 wildlings at his command then the Night’s Watch is in deep trouble.”

“It’s worse than that. With every Wildling that dies there’s a corpse left behind. And we know that the Others can raise the dead, which then become what we call wights.”

For a moment rotten smell seemed to pass under Tyrion’s nose as he remembered that damn dream. And the terror he’d felt in that dream. “The dead march on the North?”

“They do.”

Ice ran up and down his spine for a moment. Then he drained his cup. “You seem very convinced about this Lord Stark.”

“I have seen them. In a vision sent by the Old Gods.”

Tyrion peered at Lord Stark He seemed sane, but his words… “I beg your pardon?”

“Tyrion Lannister, what do you think was responsible for The Call? It was magic. Things have been unearthed here in Winterfell. One of them sent out the call when an artefact from Last Hearth was placed in it. We have been discovering… things. Things like that mace.”

He looked over to where Lord Stark was pointing. ‘That mace’ was a huge weapon that would no doubt gladden the heart of Robert Baratheon. It was also, by its appearance, a very old one. And a very odd one. It seemed to have bits of… obsidian in it. Ah. Connections clattered into place in his head and he pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly. Damn it. He hated it when he was right about things that Father would say were mad.

“Lord Stark, I am growing convinced on this matter, but then I have seen much to convince me. That said, my father is the man that must be convinced, out of all the Lannisters. He is the one who has the power to send the kind of help to the Wall that the Westerlands can provide. My father will require proof of the Others. Proof of wights.”

“I know,” said Lord Stark quietly. “My brother, the First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, is ranging North of the Wall now. He’s on a dangerous mission, a mission I could not ask of anyone else. He seeks to bring me the hand of a wight. Will that convince Tywin Lannister?”

He was impressed, he had to admit it. “That would indeed impress my father. That is, along as such a thing could still be moving and not rotted to pieces. You must know how much warmer the Westerlands are than the North.”

This brought another thin smile to the face of the Lord of Winterfell. He reached to one side and held up a small cage made of some metal. “The First Men, it seems, thought of that. A wight’s hand will be preserved in that. It will be proof to send to the South – and to Casterly Rock.”

Imaging Father’s reaction to the moving hand of a dead man brought an instant smirk to his face. “Yes, that should be a sight to see. The great Tywin Lannister will probably spit out any wine he might be drinking possibly even show some emotion.”

Lord Stark’s eyebrow flickered upwards at the bitterness that permeated Tyrion’s last words and he cursed internally. He shouldn’t show how much anger he felt at Father’s disdain and aloofness for him. Better to mask it with laughter than drown in bitterness.

Someone knocked on the door and they both looked at it. “Who is it?”

“Robb, Father. And Dacey. We need to talk to you.”

“Enter.”

The door opened to reveal Robb Stark, who escorted Dacey Surestone in. She had formality in her very stance and her every step. She also had a book in her hands. A very thick book. She looked at Tyrion for a moment, smiled slightly but then turned that very serious gaze onto her cousin, who stood as she approached.

“Lord Stark, the Surestone of Surestone is here to deliver the burden of knowledge to you. The Others return. The Stark has called for aid. Surestone has answered.” And with that she solemnly handed the book over.

Lord Stark took the book and stared at it. “Thank you,” he said with some emotion. Then he paused. “Dacey, what is this? My father had many secrets, ones that he told Brandon. But he did not tell me.”

Dacey Surestone went white as a sheet for a moment and then she nodded. “Father was always afraid of that. You hold his life’s work. He made a new copy of the old histories, transcribing every rune of the oldest ones and every description of things that are now lost. We Surestones have always been the archivists of the North.”

This seemed to astonish both the Starks, who swapped one of those odd, intense, looks again. What was it they were hiding?

“So this is…”

“A history of the First Men.”

The Starks stared at the book, as did Tyrion. Oh, he had to read that.

 


 

Jaime

He had to face facts. It was hard to admit this, as it flew in the face of years of silent contempt and quiet japes. But it had to be done. Robert Baratheon was starting to worry him.

The Fat King was sparring with Selmy at the moment, the first with Stormbreaker and the second with his own beloved sword. He could tell that Selmy wasn’t quite giving it his all – but then neither was he letting the Fat King up easy. Selmy was still as brilliant as ever, more than Jaime liked to admit. But Baratheon… well, he never made the same mistake twice. His normal weapon was the war hammer, a devastating weapon in its own right, but a different one from Stormbreaker. It needed a different grip, a different stance, a different way of controlling the impetus. And Baratheon was absorbing every lesson and learning.

Selmy won the bout, but only just and as the two men leant, panting, on their swords he explained to Baratheon just what exactly it was that he had done wrong in a low voice. The Fat King listened carefully, absorbing every word with a frown of concentration, his feet moving slightly as he seemed to relive what he had done – and what he had done wrong.

Jaime sighed slightly and then looked over his shoulder to the North. He wondered idly what young Dayne was doing now – and what he had done in that ‘Godswood’ that didn’t even contain a Weirwood tree. Word had it that he had left it pale and trembling. That said, word also had it that Petyr Baelish had faked his own death, that Robert Baratheon was the bastard son of Aerys Targaryen and that it was possible to balance an egg on its end on the equinox. Frankly you couldn’t really trust the word on the street at times.

“Selmy, you look done in,” Baratheon panted finally, before stretching and hefting that big damn sword of his. “And don’t deny that you have a cold. I can hear you sniffling.”

Ser Barristan smiled slightly. “I may not be entirely at my best, I must admit Your Grace. But you asked me to teach you, and teach you I shall.”

“Aye, but not at the expense of you falling over. KIngslayer! Can you take over from Ser Barristan?”

He smirked slightly as he stood. “But of course Your Grace. I shall endeavour to complete your education with the sword. Ser Barristan – where shall I start?”

“Footwork, Ser Jaime. His Grace needs to work on his footwork. And also his swing, but you know my mantra.”

The smirk grew a little. “Aye. ‘Place your feet right and you can slay giants’. Very well – Your Grace?”

The Fat King worked his shoulders up and down for a long moment and then sent a tight grin his way. “Very well then, Kingslayer. Let’s see what you’re made of then?”

More than you are, fatso, Jaime thought with a smirk, before drawing his sword and stepping forwards. There was a moment of silence and then he started to watch the King’s eyes. The key to any fight – even a mere sparring match like this, with both men pulling their strokes before any actual damage could be done – was the eyes. You watched the eyes of your opponent. They gave away the moment before they played a stroke.

He watched those blue eyes carefully. They were narrowed already, studying him back. And then Baratheon showed that he was truly formidable, because his eyes didn’t even flicker as he swung Stormbreaker. Jaime parried it with an internal curse. The bloody man knew all about that eye thing. Had probably used that against him.

Another parry, one that staggered him slightly – and then he swung against his King, forcing him back a step. There was a slightly feral grin on the face of Baratheon now, one that scared him just a little bit. The swords clashed again and he felt a frown steal over his face. His sword sounded wrong all of a sudden, as if it was balanced wrongly – which was insane. He could tell by the way that Ser Barristan had looked up suddenly to one side that he too had heard that discordant note of steel against whatever the Seven Hells Stormbreaker was made from.

Baratheon swung again, a blow over his shoulder and he swung his own sword up to meet it – and then the world twisted and turned around his head. As the two swords met Stormbreaker seemed to boom almost – and his own sword shattered like a piece of Myrish glass. Shards flew everywhere and one brushed his cheek, leaving first a cold feeling and then burning pain.

Both men staggered as their impetus took them away from each other, but Baratheon controlled his rush in time whilst Jaime did not. One of his feet seemed to get tangled with the other and to his humiliation he ended up sprawled on the floor, still clutching his broken sword.

There was a moment of shocked silence and then Baratheon turned to face him. “By all the Gods! Are you alright there Kingslayer?” He stepped forwards and reached out with one massive hand. Jaime took it and then was jerked to his feet in one powerful pull. “What happened?”

Jaime looked at his sword, or what was left of it. It had shattered at a point about a foot above the hilt. He’d never seen anything like it. “I don’t know,” he said dazedly. “It broke.”

“Well, you’re bleeding – someone fetch a Maester!” Baratheon shouted, and it was then that he felt the trickle of blood running down his face.

As someone placed a stool behind him and as he sank down onto it he looked at what remained of the sword. So much for best Westerlands steel. If Father heard about this then he’d probably kill the smith who had forged it.

“Well so much for your sword,” Baratheon rumbled. “That’s peculiar.”

“Most peculiar, Your Grace,” Ser Barristan said. “Most odd.” The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was squatting amidst the shards on the floor, his fingers running over the pieces carefully. He held one up. “Corrosion.”

Jaime took the proffered piece and stared at it. The inside of the blade was… rusted??? He gaped at it. “That… that isn’t possible. How can it be corroded from the inside? I inspected it once a day. Honed it too. I never saw any sign of corrosion.”

“I know you did,” Ser Barristan said, confusion in his own voice. “I watched you do it on so many days.”

“I would never have missed any such rust – and how could it only be on the inside?”

“I know not,” the Lord Commander rumbled. “And yet it happened. Passing odd indeed.”

More than passing odd, Jaime thought as a Maester hurried towards him with a clean cloth and a bowl of water. He might have a scar after this. What would Cersei say? And then he saw the thoughtful look in Ser Barristan’s eyes as he looked at the corroded inside of his sword. And for the briefest moment he felt some indefinable emotion.

 


 

Benjen

He’d been up by the Fist of the First Men before, but not that much in the hills to the North of it. He’d asked the enigmatic man leading him about just why it was called the Fist of the First Men, but all he’d gotten in reply had been that the place had seen battles – but that it was no longer safe. “The walls are weak and the caches are too well hidden,” Coldhands had told him. “And the Others know it too well. That’s the reason why Overlook was built.” And that had been all he’d say.

They were riding now along the bottom of a valley between two hills, and up ahead he could see a great cliff. He’d seen this valley before, but he’d never gone into it, as there was no way out of it if attacked. As he rode he frowned at the ground. There was what appeared to be a path here and there, but it looked long-neglected.

As they approached the cliff he looked at it, puzzled. There was no way through there, surely? And then Coldhands guided his elk around one crag and then another and then a crack in the cliff emerged, one wide enough to admit the antlers of the elk. As they passed into it and the light started to fade they turned a corner and suddenly they were in a cave, with old gates to one side with runes carved into them. Light was shining down from an opening far above them and he could see that one wall had iron rings hammered into the rock. It was a stable?

Coldhands tied his elk up and then pulled his saddlebags off and as Benjen did the same with Wanderer the other man used what looked like a very old and well-used tinderbox to light a pair of brands that had been one of many carefully piled up to one side.

“I always keep a supply ready,” Coldhands said quietly. “Just in case.” He waited until Benjen was finished with Wanderer and then he held one of the brands out. “Here.”

Benjen took it and then followed the other man as he walked over to an opening in the cave that turned out to be a roughly carved passage that curved leftwards and slightly upwards, until they came to an old stone door that was open. On the other side were stairs that spiralled upwards, carved out of the living rock.

“The Overlook,” Coldhands said as he entered. “Once a base of Rangers of the Night’s Watch.”

Benjen stared about him in bewilderment. He had never heard of this place at all. “This a goodly place to have North of the Wall. Why did it come to be abandoned?”

“I know not, Brother,” Coldhands muttered. “The last Ranger to come here spoke of pestilence among the Night’s Watch and fading memories of the things that were important. He died here. I burnt his body and his ashes wait to be taken back to the Wall. He was a Blackwood.”

He nodded. “I shall take them back with me.”

Silence fell as they passed on upwards and after a while Benjen realised that he had lost count of the number of steps they had taken. And then suddenly he saw light up ahead and then another doorway.

Beyond that was another cave – or was it? Three of the walls were carved stone but the other was a wall of well-worked stones, with holes at irregular intervals along it. Some kind of crystal, clear as glass in places, was in the holes. There were doorways off to one side and he could see what looked like stripped wooden cots in them. There was another room off to one side and he could see what seemed to be a great wooden desk, blackened with age. The place was warmer than he had first thought.

“There is a warm spring beneath. Another passage leads there. And the ‘windows’ overlook the approaches to the Fist of the First Men. I have seen the Others there sometimes of late. They know it too well. You must warn your Brothers on the Wall.”

He looked around again. “I wish I had known of this place before.”

“I come here sometimes to…. to remember.” Coldhands’ voice seemed to quaver for an instant. “Once this place was very different.”

Benjen looked at the other man, his mind filled with questions. Who was he? Come to that, what was he – how old could he be? He was about to ask one of many questions when Coldhands raised a hand. “You must wait here for a day. Let me scout the area out. If there are wights nearby then I shall find out where. You will need proof. And there are some means to provide it in the office of the First Ranger. There are cages for hands, forged by the First Men. I must go.” And with that he left.

Benjen listened to the receding footsteps and then sighed a little. Well now – he should probably look at this office. Office of the First Ranger, eh? When had that been? When had anyone been here from the Wall last, in years? Perhaps there would be records, or at least some mention.

But first he walked over to the wall and those openings. He could see clear across the valley, right to the foot of the Fist of the First Men. This was a valuable place, somewhere that the Rangers needed to use again. This was a place of deep history.

He turned back to the other room. He needed more answers.

 


 

Tormund

He wondered where the bloody hell Mance was and then dismissed it. The man would turn up eventually. He didn’t like the fact that he’d gone South so quickly, telling others that he had to talk to the Stark in Winterfell, but then he’d had trouble not following him after he had heard The Call. It had gone through the Free Folk camps like a bolt of lightning.

Oddly enough something had also gone through the Giants, all of whom seemed… shaken. “Old Ways awaken,” Wun Wun had told him in the Old Tongue not long afterwards. “Old things awaken. Good and bad. Magic comes.” And then the shaggy giant had shrugged and wandered off.

He ducked under the lintel of the hut and looked around the camp. It was a fine day, if a little colder than the day before. The camp had grown again overnight and the sentries had reported that a new group had come in an hour or so past dawn.

Sigorn, the son of the Magnar of Thenn, was standing off to one side, talking to a messenger on a shaggy little horse. As Tormund approached the rider nodded to Sigorn and then booted the horse into a walk and then a trot.

“Trouble?” Tormund asked.

“Ach, word from Thenn. My father wants me to go to the Wall and meet with the Stark. He’d better have that bloody Fist.”

He eyed the tattooed man worriedly. He had no idea what the bloody hell he was talking about. The Thenn kept mentioning some kind of Fist, but he had no idea what they were talking about, especially as they never explained.

Wun Wun wandered past at that point, clutching a tree trunk with a sharpened base in one hand and a rock in the other. “New hut,” he muttered. “Needs stick.”

Tormund nodded affably, as it seemed the only thing that he could do. “Rayder will be back in a few days, or so I am told,” he said to Sigorn. “And then we will bloody learn what he has been up to in the South. And-”

There was a thudding noise as Wun Wun suddenly dropped the rock he had been using to hammer the trunk into the ground. The giant was sniffing the air with deep snorts of air and what looked like a frown under all that hair. Alarm stirred in him. Was he smelling a threat? He knew that giants had poor sight but a bloody good sense of smell. And Wun Wun was smelling something now.

“What? What’s in the wind?” Tormund called.

If anything the giant seemed puzzled. “Riders come,” he said eventually. “Our kind. From West. Many. But… who?” He turned to look West, or rather to sniff to the West.

Tormund looked westwards – and then he saw the sentries start to wave and shout on the western edge of the encampment. And then he saw them. Huge figures in the distance. Giants on mammoths, at least a hundred of them. He stared. A hundred? That had to be half the number that still even bloody lived. And if Wun Wun didn’t know them…

The giant was striding towards the West now and he trotted to join him, Sigorn to one side. “Many of us,” Wun Wun said in astonishment as he kept sniffing. “You see?”

“A hundred I’d say. I sees them, Wun Wun. I sees them there.”

The giant looked at him in what he now knew was their look of astonishment and then he redoubled his speed. When they reached the edge of the encampment he stopped dead.

Someone in the approaching group must have seen or smelt Wun Wun, because all of a sudden a horn was sounded, loud and brassy. Wun Wun put his hands together and then roared a response back and Tormund could tell that it was a joyful one. The group started to slow, which was good as they were making the bloody ground shake, and then Wun Wun stiffened as he sniffed – and then he broke into a run. Tormund ran with him, baffled.

One of the mounted giants slithered off his mammoth and then ran towards Wun Wun and the two came together in a thud of chest against chest – and then a great roaring bearhug. The two giants seemed to be crying and wailing and laughing all at once. Thormund and Sigorn watched, bewildered.

“Brother!” Wun Wun cried eventually through snot and tears. “Brother! Thought dead!”

Tormund looked at Sigorn, who shrugged. “A reunion?”

He looked at the massed ranks of giants. “Didn’t think there were this number left in the West. Neither did Wun Wun.” By the way that the giant was crying, he was bloody right about that too. And then his brother rumbled something at him, and Wun Wun stiffened again, this time in total shock. He stared at his brother and then rumbled something back at him. There was a long moment of silence and then Wun Wun sniffed the air and then turned to them.

“Tormund-man?”

“Yes?”

“Brother brought… brought a Child.”

This was bloody odd. “A bairn? A young one? A young what?”

Wun Wun stared at him, puzzled. “Bairn?”

“What child?”

Wun Wun seemed confused and then talked to his brother again, who then waved his long arms at another giant, who was leading a mammoth. The ground shook a little as they approached and then the giant brought his steed to a halt and then reached up and pulled something down from the saddle. It was… a kind of nest almost of furs, almost half the height of a man, maybe smaller. The giant walked over to them and very gently laid it down.

Tormund peered at it, confused. And then deep within the nest something… stirred. A little hand with three fingers and thumb, all tipped with black nails, reached up and pulled one of the furs to one side. There was a face there. It was brown, almost black, and old. Very old. Like a crone. And then the eyes opened and he almost pissed himself in shock. The eyes were large and green and looked like those of a cat. They also seemed to be very interested in him.

“I know you…” The voice spoke the Old Tongue and was weak but seemed to have great intensity behind it. “I have seen… you before.”

“You have?” He paused. He had squeaked. He was Tormund bloody Giantsbane and he did not bloody squeak.

“In... a vision.” A sigh emerged from the little creature. “First Man, I am… Heartstring.”

“You are one of the Children of the Forest,” Sigorn whispered reverently and Tormund felt his own eyes widen in wonder. “But… you were said to have passed from this world. Not even the Thenn have seen any sign of your kind for many long years.”

The wizened little face smiled a smile of deep sadness. “We hid, First Man. We hid. We could not… hear the others and it took time… to realise why. We thought that we… were dying. And we were. I am the… last of my clan. There are other clans, but I am… the last of mine. I was protecting… my brothers and sisters here… in the mountains to the West, and before… that beyond.”

“Beyond the Frostfangs???” Tormund choked. “Truly?”

“Truly, First Man. Now… listen. I am dying.”

The nearby giants made snuffling noises of sadness and grief and Heartstring smiled sadly at them. “I have… lingered too long… already, my friends. But I had… to get you… to safety. To your friends.” The little creature looked back at Tormund and pierced him with a gaze that seemed to go right through him. “Where… is the one who… leads you? I must speak… with him.”

“Mance Rayder? He is-”

“Here,” said a low voice behind him and he turned in relief to see Mance striding up to them, his eyes wide with wonder of his own. “You are one of the Children of the Forest. I am Mance Rayder. I lead here.”

“Yes… I saw you too. In a… vision.” Another sad smile. “I am… Heartstring. I came to bring… these to you to protect. And I came to… warn you. The ancient enemy… comes. He gathers his… strength for a great… blow. You must flee South… to the Wall. And beyond it.”

Mance nodded sharply. “I know. I have spoken to the Stark in Winterfell. He will tell the Night’s Watch to allow us past the Wall and into the Gift.” He eyed Sigorn. “And he wields the Fist of Winter. I have seen it.” The man from Thenn stared at him in shock.

This seemed to bring Heartstring to life for a moment, because a wizened hand emerged and gripped Mance’s own hand tightly. “Truly? The Stark… holds The Fist?”

“Truly.” Mance smiled. “I have seen it.”

The little creature released its grip and then smiled. “Then the… First Men are… indeed awake. The giants… felt something. Magic stirs…” The eyes closed and then opened again. “My time… grows short. My kind have… long lives… but even we can die. Long… years lie on me. Much grief… and much joy.

“Listen to me Mance Rayder. You must… go to the Wall. To… the oldest place there. The place… that is cursed.”

“The Nightfort? Why there?”

“You and this… one, bright of hair, must… go. You will meet… others there. The man with… the golden mind and… the boy who died and fell… through time. The Old Gods… grow strong again. They will be… watching. They will… protect you. But you must go there.”

“Why? Why the Nightfort?”

“The hidden gate. It must… admit the man you find… North of the Wall there. He must be brought through. Only… then can he lay down his burden. Long… years he has borne it. At… a great cost. He stands… between life… and death. We saved him… long ago. He must… pass on what he bears. Only… then can he sleep.”

“I don’t understand,” Mance muttered. “What does he bear?”

Heartstring sighed bitterly and wearily. He – or was it a she? – seemed to be weakening again. “When the Wall… was built, it was by men…. And with our… help. But the men did… not understand the way… that our magic works… not truly. They erred. They cut the links… between here and… South of the Wall. They could still… see, but we… could not. Long years it took… before it was clear. And when it… was we thought we could… repair it. A great… magic was prepared. But the… man it was entrusted… to, he was found by the Ancient Enemy. They almost… killed him. We… saved him… so to speak. But he could not… pass the Wall. Pass on the… magic he holds. He waits still… driven by his duty. And those men… who knew of him… died. You have such short lives… you First Men. And… short memories. You will know him… when you see… him. And… his… successor.”

The Child of the Forest seemed to be sinking fast now. “I… die now… but you must… know something. The Ancient Enemy – his great… blow will come soon. By… the sea. Wights gather… South of the Frostfangs. I felt… it. Magic. Terrible magic… Be warned. Be… watchful… Warn… your people. Warn… The Stark. Watch… the… sea…” Another smile. “Scatter… my… ashes… at the… sacred… hill… place… in the… land… of… the… rivers…”

And with that the hand went limp and the eyes closed. Everyone watched, but the little figure was no longer breathing and after a long moment the giants threw their heads back and wailed at the skies in grief.

“I will build fire,” Wun Wun said eventually, wiping his face with his huge hands. “Burn Heartstring.”

“I will help,” Sigorn said quietly.

As giant and man started work Mance took Tormund to one side. “How many more have come in?”

“Ten more settlements. You really talked to Ned Stark?”

“I did. He knew that the Others have returned. He sent The Call out. The Night’s Watch are stirring again – they have volunteers flocking to the Wall. Things have changed, my original plan no longer stands. And yes the Stark said that we can pass South of the Wall.”

“What of the Black Crows?”

Mance rubbed at his face. He looked dead tired and more than a bit dirty. He’d been pushing himself hard, he could tell. “They have heard The Call too. And they rely on Ned Stark to call his banners when needed. He told me that he will call his banners against the Others and not on us. And he said that he will make the Night’s Watch see that.” He paused. “We’ve been lucky, Tormund. He didn’t know about The Call. His father did, and his older brother, but he knew nothing about the warning signs. There’s something else. He claims to have been granted a vision of Hopemourne by the Old Gods.”

Terror trickled its way up and down Tormund’s back. “Really?”

“Really. He described it to me. He described it true. He’s been given a warning from the Old Gods, so what he did not know before he knows now. And now, with this…” He gestured at the body of Heartstring. “We have been warned. We must run for the Wall.”

Sigorn broke off from building the pyre to join them. “I will send word to my father. The Thenn will march with you. The Fist of Winter and the Stark command us now.” He nodded shortly and then went back to the pyre.

“I’ll order everyone to prepare,” Tormund muttered. “The Wall it is then, and right fast.”

 


 

Robb

He found Father in his solar, hefting the Fist of Winter with a frown. The weapon must have been as heavy as it looked, judging by the way that Father’s tendons were straining. After a moment Father noticed him.

“Robert would laugh himself sick if he saw me holding this,” he said with a wry smile. Then the smile vanished. “I’m going to have to learn how to use this, Robb. This is important. There will be those who will say that the Stark in Winterfell must wield the Fist of Winter. And if this is… magic, or linked to magic, then I must truly know how to wield it.” He snorted. “Rodrik Cassel hasn’t taught me how to use a new weapon since… well, I was a boy. Before I was sent to foster at the Eyrie.”

Robb nodded and then sat. “So much has changed since I came back,” he mused thoughtfully. “I can scarce believe how much has changed. The Hearthstone, The Call, Domeric Bolton, the room by this Solar… so much else. Dacey especially.”

“There was never any word of her being on the road in that other time?”

“None whatsoever. Not before the King came, or afterwards, when I led the Banners South to try and free you.” He felt his voice quaver for a heartbeat and Father looked at him quickly.

“Do not regret it, not for one moment,” Father said softly. “Yes, in that other world you made mistakes. You were too young, too unprepared, you did not know so many things. You did not know of the madness of Balon Greyjoy, or of the ambition of Roose Bolton. You did not know how ruthless Tywin Lannister can make himself be. And you did not know that the Others were coming.”

He nodded again. “But now I know. Now we know.”

“Aye. And we are preparing. But we must tell Robert.” He sank into a chair. “And that is what worries me. He was a little heavier then I was used to when we smashed the Greyjoys, but from you told me of Robert’s visit here, along with Jory Cassel’s account of what he saw in the Red Keep… how could have sunk so low?”

“He was unhappy, Father,” Robb said gently. “The first thing he did when he came here was to ask you to show him Aunt Lyanna’s tomb. And his marriage to Cersei Lannister was… poisonous. I think he was deeply unhappy. But you said that his recent messages were different – a new sword? That was new. Mayhaps things are changing to the South as well. The Call.”

It was Father’s turn to nod, more thoughtfully. “Yes – and we need to think most carefully about that. The Blackwoods have sent me a raven. The Brackens too. The Call has made them set aside their ancient bloodfeud. The Redfort pledges their support… and then there’s this.” He handed over a message.

Robb took it and read it. And then he read it again, baffled. “’The Runes glow. The Others come. House Royce stands with the Stark in Winterfell. We are coming.’” He looked at Father. “What runes?”

Father drummed his fingers on the table and then shook his head. “I know not. Runestone is an odd place, Robb. House Royce is of the First Men, one of the few major houses in the Vale to keep to the old ways, but they are secretive. Jon Arryn once told me that there are places in the fortress that the Royces forbid people to see, places that are sealed off. Perhaps they have unsealed them? I’ll find out more. If Bronze Yohn Royce really is coming then that will be something that will shake the Vale.”

“So, more politics then? Lord Arryn will want to know.”

“Aye, more politics. I need to meet with Jon and Robert. Every time I pick up a quill to write a letter to them something seems to happen though. I just hope that I have done enough to warn Jon. From what you told me his death was the fault of the Lannisters.”

“Father,” Robb said slowly, “Two things worry me. First, how can you tell King Robert about his wife and her brother? How can you prove it?”

Oddly enough Father looked smug at this. “Don’t worry too much about that, Robb. I have a plan. The Old Keep will be repaired first, the Broken Tower last. Or so it will seem. I’ll show you later. What’s the other worry you have?”

He gestured at the Fist. “That… worries me. Is it magic? Does it contain magic? I mean, in the tales there are stories of weapons only responding to people of the right blood. We are Starks, Father, but you are not the King in the North. Not in this time. Does the Fist have magic that is activated by Stark blood, or because it’s wielded by the King in the North?”

There was a long moment of silence as Father looked at the mace and ran a thumb over his chin. “You raise a good point. One that occurred to me as well. Luwin is consulting the histories. I was wondering as well when the Fist was last seen in public. Torrhen Stark bore Ice when he knelt to Aegon, not the Fist. Who knows when it was hidden from plain sight? And why?”

“Perhaps he was afraid that Aegon would have taken it? Or that the dragons might have melted it?”

The long fingers of his father drummed on the table again. “Mayhaps he thought that. But the Fist fell out of history earlier than that. I do wonder why.” Father seemed to shake himself briefly, like a wolf awaking from a nap. “Anyway, this talk of Ice reminds me of something. There will be a formal ceremony later for this, but I want to tell you now, face to face.”

Robb sat up straighter. There was a weight to Father’s voice now, a depth of solemnity that only Father could convey.

“I will train with the Fist of Winter. It will be my burden, my duty, to carry it. I am the Stark in Winterfell. That leaves Ice. From this day forth it will be the weapon of the Heir to House Stark. It will be yours, Robb. Yours until you have a son of your own to pass it on to, so that you can wield the Fist when I am dead.”

He looked at Father and felt his throat close up for moment and he remembered the horrible tide of grief that had washed over him when he had heard of his death, betrayed and all but murdered in that shithole known as King’s Landing. “Thank you, Father,” he said hoarsely. “I will wield it with honour.”

“Be sure you do,” Father said gruffly. “As I said, there’ll be a ceremony later today. GreatJon put my mind to it.”

He made a note to thank GreatJon Umber, when something occurred to him. “Father,” he said cautiously, “What do you make of the arrival of Tyrion Lannister?”

His father leant back in his chair again. “Another change from the time that you returned from. He seems a smarter man than his reputation led me to believe. And as he has a reputation as a drunkard with a love of whores, then I wonder if he has been hiding his lantern under a bush. He saw the threat posed by the Wildlings in an instant.”

Robb nodded – and then pulled a slight face. “How has Mother taken his arrival?”

“Better than I had thought, given how in that other future she was convinced that he’d given orders that Bran be murdered in his sickbed.” Father sighed. “I think that she’s trying not to think too much about that, given that her actions started an eventual war. Besides, the more I think about it, the less I think that Tyrion Lannister sent the man with the dagger. The only reason we thought that was the dagger – and Peytr Baelish told us about that. Given his attempt to kidnap Robert Arryn… well let’s just say that we don’t trust him very much.

“No, we’ll trust Tyrion Lannister just enough to let him see that we face a war here. He might be able to convince his very sceptical father. It’s Tywin Lannister I’m worried about. The man’s a prickly, humourless, ruthless cyst on the backside of Westeros. Unfortunately he’s also powerful and rich and sees himself as a great military commander. We must be wary of him. He’ll need proof. And from what I have heard he does not like his own son.” He shook his head wearily.

Robb nodded and then was about to ask Father why Mother had suddenly started being so civil to Jon, when a fist hammered at the door to the Solar. “My Lord,” Maester Luwin shouted from the other side. “Ravens!”

“Come in Luwin,” Father said and they both stood as the older man hurried in. There was something in his eyes that told Robb that something had happened and the Maester held out two messages.

“From Kings Landing,” Luwin puffed. “I ran to bring these to you.”

Father’s eyebrows went up – and then he took the first and read it quickly. As he did his eyebrows went up even further. “Lord Petyr Baelish has been arrested and stripped of his titles and positions by order of the Hand of the King. He is accused of peculation and thievery of the King’s coin. He is to face immediate trial and all of the Lords of Westeros are to inspect their holdings to see if Baelish owned anything or was tied to anything in their holdings.” He looked at them. “Well,” he said brightly, “It seems that the problem of Littlefinger has been taken care of for the time being. Luwin, bring the account books. We must search for signs of Littlefinger – there’s a list of his false names in business dealings.”

“And the other letter?” Robb asked.

Father opened it – and then went quite still. “Baelish was tried by Jon Arryn and Stannis Baratheon. He was found guilty and then accorded a trial by combat. He lost. He’s dead.” He lowered the letter. “That was fast. It’s good that he is no longer a threat, but that was faster than I thought.”

“I think that the raven with the first letter was injured on the way North, My Lord. It seems to have a strained tendon on one wing.”

Father nodded absently. “The letter has more information about Littlefingers’ peculations. Names as well. Very well – Robb, you and Luwin go through the account books. We have properties and businesses to seize that are now our property. And I… I will tell my wife of this. She will not grieve for the man that he became, but she will weep for the boy she once knew.”

 


 

Tyrion

The direwolf fascinated him. And he seemed to fascinate her, judging by the way that she would look at him and then look at the other men and then tilt her head to one side. She probably thought that he was a child or something. Speaking of children she looked as if she was going to whelp any day now.

He turned and continued his walk around Winterfell. The place both intrigued and worried him. Oh, it was a place that was preparing for War alright. But it was looking North, to the Wall, not South. He wondered, not for the first time, how he was going to word his letter to Father. Carefully for one thing.

Hearing voices to one side he looked over to see a young Stark – Bran was it? – being patiently mentored by an older boy about the joys of archery. When he finally saw the sigil on the older boys cloak he repressed a scowl. A Greyjoy. Lovely. A squidling a long way from the sea. Probably better not to go anywhere near the lad, ‘lest Jaime hear about it and then complain that he stank by association.

So he turned to one side and wandered over to the trees he could see in one corner. A Godswood with actual weirwood trees, how novel. The one in Kings Landing didn’t have any. As he wandered through the trees he sniffed the air. The smells of a real godswood were... subtly different. There was a pool to one side, by a Heart Tree and he shuddered a little as he looked at the face carved into it and the red sap that looked like bloody tears. It looked… old. Old and yet there seemed to be something about it that looked vaguely familiar. He looked at the tree carefully. Odd – there was new growth here and there, as if it had started to grow again.

As he approached the carved face a breeze picked up and rustled the leaves and as it did he could almost imagine that he heard a voice whispering something just a fraction too low to make out. And then he froze. Someone was watching him, he was sure of it. He looked around carefully. No, there was no-one there. Imagination? Probably. He’d be imagining snarks and grumpkins next. He reached out and ran a hand gently over the white bark of the tree.

And then he heard the sounds of someone approaching. He turned and then saw a tall young man with distinctly Stark features wandering through the Godswood, apparently lost in his own thoughts. After a moment he caught sight of Tyrion and stopped with a slight frown. “Who are you?”

“Tyrion Lannister,” he replied, with a touch of Lannister hauteur. “Of – obviously! – Casterly Rock. And you are…”

“Jon Snow,” The young man replied, before seeming to catch himself. “Or rather Jon Stark. I think.”

“You think? You don’t know?”

“Father has written to the King, asking that I be made legitimate.”

Ah, so this was Stark’s bastard son. He certainly looked enough like Stark. Father had occasionally wondered about the identity of the boy’s mother, although he hadn’t wondered so hard that people went out and found out more about it. And now Stark was legitimising him? All very heartwarming, but why? And then a chill ran through him. Stark wanted as many Starks around him as possible. A wise move when faced with war. Father would probably do the same at Casterly Rock.

“A pleasure to meet you, Jon Stark. I was just looking at your godswood here and comparing it to the one in King’s Landing.”

The lad nodded absently. “Is there not one in Casterly Rock?”

This was a good question. “Yes,” he said with a frown of thought. “The Stone Garden, we call it. But it’s not like this. This is… very Northern.”

The Stark boy looked a bit confused at this. “Just a Godswood. You should see the one in the Wolfswood. Now that’s ancient.”

Tyrion looked at him. “I wasn’t aware that Winterfell had two Godswoods.”

Jon Snow/Stark nodded, a faraway look on his face. “We found it on the night that we found the Direwolf.” And then he shivered a little before looking at the Heart Tree. “Your pardon, but I need to pray.”

“Of course,” Tyrion said with a smile. He stepped to one side and then watched at the Stark boy knelt in front of the tree, bowed his head and closed his eyes. Tyrion looked around idly and then started to walk away in search of perhaps a cup of wine, when all of a sudden the boy spoke again.

“Tyrion Lannister.”

He stopped dead in his tracks. The boy had spoken in a voice unlike his previous one. Deeper for a start, with a hint of mountains collapsing in the far distance. “Erm, yes?”

The boy turned around and then opened his eyes and Tyrion found himself torn between running, pissing himself in terror and being absolutely fascinated. Jon Starks eyes were… they were… well, there was red fire in them. Or that was what it looked it.

“Descendent of Lann the Clever, Lann Casterly. Loyal to the Stark in Winterfell, unlike his faithless father.”

“What?” Tyrion squeaked and then wanted to curse. He sounded as if he had been kicked in the nether regions. “I mean – can I help you? Whoever you are?”

“You must go to the Nightfort, Tyrion Lannister. There you will find the answers that you seek. The Others come. Casterly Rock must be warned.” The red fires seemed to intensify in the eyes of the boy. “The lion must shed his pride.”

“Jon???” The name was cried by a horrified looking young girl with brown hair, grey eyes and the undoubted look of yet another bloody Stark. “Your eyes…”

Tyrion stepped towards her and held up a hand. “Do you know what this is?”

She stared at him, obviously confused, and then nodded hesitantly. “It… it happened to Father not long ago. On the night he found the Direwolf. It’s the Old Gods.”

Jon Stark peered at her. “Worry not, young warg. But Tyrion Lannister must be warned. The Nightfort, Tyrion Lannister. You must help the wandering man through the Gate. You will know when.” The eyes flared again and then the fire vanished as the grey eyes of the boy reappeared. A boy who blinked at them both, confused.

“Arya? When… when did you arrive? I… was kneeling by the Heart Tree. How did I get here?”

Tyrion took a deep breath. “Well, your eyes turned red for a start. Red fire. It was all most unnerving. Then you told me to go to the Nightfort at some unspecified time.”

The young man turned white. “Red fire?” he turned to the girl. “Arya? Did you see this?”

She nodded wordlessly and he sank onto his haunches and then ran his hands through his hair, disordering it. And then he stood. “We must see Father and tell him about this.”

“Oh and you said that I was a warg,” Arya Stark pointed out. She seemed positively gleeful about it. “Isn’t it exciting?!”

Her brother just looked at her for a long moment. “Father’s Solar,” he said firmly, “Now. You too if you please Lord Tyrion.”

He nodded and followed them. As they walked through the trees and back out into the main courtyard of Winterfell the wind rustled the leaves of the trees around them again and once again he seemed to hear a whisper of words too low to make out. He made up his mind there and then that he would return to this place. Something seemed to be calling him.

 


 

Robb

He peered at the ledger, running his finger down the carefully written entries. Then he paused, looked at the names on the letter from King’s Landing and then smiled tightly. “And there’s another. A warehouse company in White harbour. Apparently owned by a ‘Barrowman’ – another of Baelish’s false names. Fach, the man had his fingers everywhere!”

“Indeed, my Lord. And here is yet another, also in White Harbour. A victualling company in a shipyard. Lord Manderly will not be pleased, although he will be happy to own it.” Luwin leant back tiredly. “It seems that the late Lord Baelish will not be missed.”

“You speak truly Maester Luwin.” He paused. “Lord Bolton will also not be pleased. The Dreadfort has been dealing with a store company owned by a man called ‘Smallkeep’. Yet another false name belonging to Littlefinger.”

There was little warning other than the most cursory of knocks and then the door sprang open and Arya arrived. She had been running and she looked both excited and a little scared. “Arya? What’s wrong?”

She caught her breath. “Robb! Where’s… Father?”

“Talking to Mother. An old friend of hers has died. Well – was executed.”

She looked extremely interested in that and started to ask a question, before catching herself and then waving her hands about. “Never mind that… Jon was in the… Godswood and his eyes went… all fiery and the Old… Gods spoke through his mouth!”

Robb came to his feet in an instant, Luwin next to him. “What? What happened?”

She turned to the door and then bounced a little in anticipation, before they finally heard the hurried footsteps – and then in came Jon with – of all the people – Tyrion Lannister next to him. The latter looked shaken.

“Where’s Father?” Jon asked, looking about the Solar.

“Here,” said Father as he walked in with a red-eyed Mother. Then he froze. “What has happened?”

“I was going to pray in the Godswood with Jon, but I could see that he was talking to the Imp here-”

“Arya!” Mother said, scandalised. “Lord Tyrion is our guest! Apologise!”

“Sorry, Lord Tyrion, and then Jon knelt to pray and I was going to join him when all of a sudden he said “TYRION LANNISTER” in a voice like doom and then he turned around and his eyes were red! Red fire! Just like Father on the night that Edric Stark took him over and got the Direwolf! And then he said that the Imp-”

“ARYA!”

“Sorry, Lord Tyrion, was descended from Lann the Clever, son of the faithless Casterly, and that he had to go to the Nightfort to help a wandering man through a gate when the time was right and then his eyes went out, no, I mean the fire went out and he was Jon again!”

There was a short silence that was then broken by Tyrion Lannister: “I am most impressed, Lord Stark, by your daughter’s ability to say all that without apparently breathing in at any point.”

Robb shot an amused look at the little Lannister and then looked at Jon, who was blushing.

“Jon,” said Father intently, “Is this true?”

“I don’t know, Father,” Jon said with an uncomfortable look on his face. “One moment I was kneeling before the Heart Tree and the next I was on my feet and Arya and Lord Tyrion were staring at me.”

“Oh, it’s true, Lord Stark,” said Tyrion Lannister and he wandered over to a side table and then helped himself to a cup of wine. “Every word of it. Your Old Gods – or perhaps given the fact that they talked to me that should be our Old Gods – talked to me. Told me to go, indeed, to the Nightfort. Not entirely sure why, but they seemed very intent.” He hopped up into a chair, drank what looked like half the wine in one gulp and then looked at Father. “So – I gather that this has happened before?”

“The night of the Direwolf,” said Father reluctantly. “And I have no memories from that night either.”

Tyrion Lannister swirled the remaining wine in his cup around and then looked at Father with surprisingly keen eyes. “Your Old Gods said that Lann the Clever – Lann Casterly much to my surprise as the full name of Lann has long been a mystery – was faithful to the Stark in Winterfell. I am guessing that our two Houses were once much closer.”

“They were,” Luwin said softly. “The oldest of the records say that Casterly Rock would send dragonglass – obsidian – to Winterfell whenever it was found.”

“But no more.” Tyrion Lannister drank the rest of the wine. “Lord Stark, I was convinced before, somewhat reluctantly, that the Others had returned. I am now fully convinced. The Old Gods are speaking. Perhaps we should listen very carefully to what they are saying.”

Robb looked around the room. Arya was serious now, whilst Jon was pale – as were Father, Mother and Luwin. It was Robb who broke the silence. “Why the Nightfort?”

The short man spread his hands. “I am to help a wandering man through a gate there. At some unspecified time, although apparently I will know when.” He peered at the map. “Well, my plan was always to visit the Wall. Given how long the Nightfort has been abandoned, I am guessing that it won’t be as hospitable a place as Castle Black.”

“It’s the oldest of the castles,” Luwin muttered, “With a black reputation. Some say that it’s cursed.”

“Of course it’s cursed,” Tyrion Lannister sighed. “That’s my lot in life. Cursed with too big a brain, cursed with too short a pair of legs, cursed with too large a… erm, let me end that sentence there.”

He hopped down to pour himself more wine – and then he paused. “Five days ago I had a dream, Lord Stark. A passing odd one. I was leading men South, into The Reach. The Bone Road was closed, Dorne had abandoned us, King Robert was missing and no word had come from Winterfell in a long time. The dead were marching from Casterly Rock, which had fallen to them and the Iron Islands were also gone.” And then he turned white as a sheet. “There was a Lord Greyjoy there – an older version of the boy I saw training your son Bran! Older and far more tired! Why did I suddenly only remember that detail of the dream until now? Surely it was just a dream?”

“Theon Greyjoy can tell you something about dreams,” Father said grimly. “He was marked by a dream. That dream of yours could be important, Lord Tyrion. Try and remember as much of it as possible. The son of Lord Reed is here. He’s a Greenseer and might see something in you.”

The Lannister man stared oddly at Father and then finally poured himself more wine. “I think I also need to word a very careful letter to my father. He will not believe any of this, so I must till the grounds with just the right words.” He drank a little. “I genuinely don’t know what to say in that letter.”

 


 

Jaime

The garden of the Red Keep was a beautiful place, Jaime thought as he wandered through the rose beds with Cersei on his arm. There were times when he could almost imagine what things would be like in a perfect world.

“That fat fool could have killed you!” Cersei spat the words with a venom unique to her as her finger traced the line of the cut. A Maester had cleaned the wound carefully and then sewn it shut with as fine a needle and thread as possible. There would be a fine line for a while afterwards he had been told, but with luck no permanent scar.

He raised a languid eyebrow at his sister. The touch of her finger left him burning inside, but they were in a public place and there were certain niceties to be observed. “The fat king can be blamed for many things, my dear sister, but this was not his fault.” He pulled out the corroded cross section of sword that he had been keeping in his pocket. “See?”

She took it and transferred her glare to the piece of metal. After a moment she frowned. “Odd. It was rusty inside?”

“It seems so. Peculiar because I never even suspected it. Seven Hells, I killed a bandit three weeks ago on the road with it. Felt fine in my hands then. Sounded fine as well.” He shrugged. “I’ll get a new one from the Street of Steel.”

“I know you will,” she smirked at him. “But from the Red Keep. I have a master smith here ready for you. You’ll need to attend to give them your measurements for your height and reach, but it will be better than your old one. Less rusty. And every time you plunge it into someone, you’ll think of me.”

There was something hot and rough in her low voice and he quivered with need for her for a long moment. Then he rubbed a finger under his nose and under the cover of it whispered: “Tonight?”

“Tonight,” she whispered back. “The tower.”

He smiled at her and then pocketed the piece of sword as they sat on a bench. “Father will be angry with the man who wrought this,” he said wryly. “Most angry.” Then he sobered. “I still don’t understand it though.”

“Pay it no mind, it’s just a sword,” Cersei said with a shrug and he was about to tell her off for such words when a scream of utter horror pierced the air. It was long and horrible and filled with such an unutterable pain that Jaime came to his feet in a trice, his hand on the sword he’d borrowed from the armoury, looking for a threat.

Another scream, one that was somehow even louder and more heartbreaking, and then he heard booted feet running past. He peered over a rosebush and watched as a man in Arryn colours dashed past, panting. “You!” Jaime called. “What’s going on?”

The man skidded to a halt and looked back, obviously annoyed, only to swallow and nod respectfully as he saw Jaime. “Your pardon Ser Jaime. Lady Arryn has just caught sight of the head of the traitor Baelish on its spike. She did not know that he was dead apparently.” He nodded again and then ran on, leaving Jaime looking at his receding back with bemusement.

“Well,” he said to Cersei softly, “It seems that Lysa Arryn is rather behind the times. She didn’t know that Littlefinger was dead.”

“She had more than a soft spot for him in her heart,” Cersei smirked a little. “Such a shame.”

But Jaime frowned. “She mourns him. No-one else did.” Then he shook his head. Ah well. He eyed his sister. And then he hungered for night to fall.

 


 

Benjen

When morning came he rolled his blanket back up, covered it with the oilskin cloth and then put it back in his bag. Breakfast was a rather stale roll and a few dried currants that he’d soaked in water from the spring in the lower part of the Overlook. He was memorising as much as possible about the place for the future. This was a place that the Night’s Watch desperately needed. Why had it been forgotten about?

Perhaps there was a clue in the solar, or at least that was what he’d named it in his head. The place was cluttered and untidy and he’d only had time to look through it once the previous day before the light had faded – and with all that dust in there he didn’t want to walk in with a lighted brand and set fire to anything.

The chair looked as if it was about fall apart, but the desk itself was huge and old. It was also weirwood, which hardened with age. He leafed through everything slowly. There were two huge ledgers, closed and fastened with metal binders, and another book that looked badly battered by the years.

He started with the ledgers. The paper was very old and yellowed and he had to handle the pages with care, but he could see to his fascination that was a series of accounts of patrols and sightings. The ink was old and faded and in some places the entries were in the Old Tongue. As he went from entry to entry over the crackling pages a theme started to emerge; one of neglect. Fewer and fewer men were sent to Overlook, none seemed to know what the place was for, other than to be used to watch for Wildlings. One phrase stood out. “Ye traditional weapons.” What traditional weapons? Apparently a final set of caches had been buried at the Fist of the First Men. Where? It didn’t say.

Then there was the other phrase. The Wanderer – was that Coldhands? – had been seen here and there, The Wanderer had been given fresh supplies, The Wanderer had been asked about the disappearance of the Children of the Forest… wait, what? The Rangers had once had dealings with the Children? He pored over the book more carefully. From what he could tell there had been isolated sightings here and there until… he blanched. Four or five hundred years before the arrival of Aegon (how old was this book? Was it a copy of a copy of a copy?). But if The Wanderer was Coldhands… then how old was he? What was he?

The last entries in the book were in the thin, spidery scrawl of an old man – and they spoke of neglect and abandonment. Few rangers knew about the place, pestilence of some sort had broken out back at the Wall, supplies were few. The last entry read simply: “My watch is done.” He ran a finger over the words with sadness and then frowned.

He went back to his saddlebags and hunted through them for his own small bound book. He used it to record eventful happenings North of the Wall whenever he could and he had a metal quill that his father had bought him a long time ago and a pot of ink. Opening the latter he peered into it, grunted with satisfaction at the sight that it was still liquid and then returned to the book. Selecting a new page he carefully wrote out a new entry: “I, Benjen Stark, First Ranger of the Nights Watch, did restart the occupation and usage of Overlook, paying homage to the memories of those who came before me.” Then he carefully dated it. It felt right to have done it.

Closing the journal he looked about. The second book was one of more formal accounts and supplies and he closed that after a few moments of silent pondering. Then he turned to the third one.

This was very different. It looked as if it had been hastily assembled out of whatever paper and parchment was around and… the first pages made no sense. All that was on it was a set of smearing scrawls, like the first attempt of a child to write. It was in charcoal and whoever had written it had smeared the page badly. He kept turning the pages. More scrawls, but with a hint of actual letters here and there. He went on a few pages and then stopped and stared at the page in front of him. No. Impossible? He flipped to the last page with writing on it. By now it was clear. Just the same two lines, but this time it was readable.

Benjen closed the book and replaced it. “Ned needs to know about this,” he said quietly. “And soon.”

It was then that the little cages caught his eye. They were set into recesses on the stone wall to one side and there were five of them. Oh and there was a sixth, much larger one. He eyed them carefully. These must be the cages that Coldhands had mentioned and he pulled one out of its recess, and gently blew the dust off it, before clearing the more stubborn dust off the runes carved along one side of it. ‘Cageproof’, or possibly, ‘Cage certain,’ he wasn’t sure which. The wording was old and archaic.

Then he looked at the larger one. Ah. Big enough to contain a head. Yes, that might be one way to convince someone like Tywin bloody Lannister, although the thought of riding through the Seven Kingdoms with a severed head that appeared to be alive gave him a shudder of horror. He pulled the cages out and then lined them up along the desk. Very well then. He had the tools for the job. Now he just needed to find some wights.

He strode back into the larger room, replacing his things in his saddlebags and then meticulously readied himself. His sword was already sharp, but he carefully honed it again, just to make sure, along with the short sword that he also carried as a reserve. And then he thought carefully about every legend he’d ever heard about wights. Fire apparently killed them, as even if you sliced them into pieces those pieces would still move about. Which was the whole point of the cages.

Hearing footsteps he tensed a little and then relaxed as Coldhands appeared in the door to the stairs. The other man nodded. “Brother, I have found wights. Six of them. We must be wary.”

Benjen looked at him. “Three to one are poor odds.”

Coldhands shrugged. “I’ve fought at worse odds. Besides, we have weapons here.” He walked into one of the rooms off to one side and pulled out an ancient looking bag, from which he pulled out some clay bottles that had been stoppered. “Oil. Wights do not react well to fire.”

Benjen nodded and then shouldered his saddlebags. “Will we be returning here? The cages are on the desk.”

“We shall. One last thing. If, when we are fighting the wights, it gets even colder than it already is – run. The cold means that one of the Others is approaching and unless you have dragonglass on you then you will die if you try to fight it.” Coldhands said the last words with a terrible intensity and Benjen nodded carefully.

They trotted down the stairs to the cave that also served as a stable, where Wanderer whickered at him in greeting. He gave him a small handful of oats, checked that his steed didn’t need water and then quickly saddled him. As Coldhands led the way out of the cave on his elk he pointed at the gates. “These should be closed at night. No night patrols, Brother, not now. It’s too dangerous. When the doors are closed then this place is safe. It’s warded.”

“I understand,” Benjen said quietly. “No night patrols and the gates to be closed.” And then they were outside.

Coldhands led then on a wide, swinging path, first East and then straight dead North. At one point he slowed and seemed to sniff the air. “The Free People are moving South,” he said quietly. “The Giants too. Things are moving faster than I feared.”

Benjen looked sideways at him for a moment. “I read the ledgers,” he said carefully. “There was talk in them of the Children of the Forest. Are they all gone now?”

His question resulted in a long moment of silence from Coldhands, before a sigh emerged from the man. “I cannot tell you.” He shook his head. “There are things about which I cannot speak, Brother. The Three-Eyed Crow could tell you, but that is for another day.”

Benjen absorbed this in silence as they rode along, now travelling down a long wooded valley. Coldhands had not said that they were gone, just that he could not speak of them. Perhaps some still lived? That was less of a surprise than he would have thought just a few months ago. A flash of red to one side caught his eye and he looked over to see a Heart Tree to one side, a very old one. Who had carved the face on that one? When? Had it been done by one of the First Men or a Child?

As they rode out of the valley Coldhands raised a closed fist and brought his elk to a halt. “Tether your steed to a tree, Brother. We go on from here on foot. We want no warning to reach them.”

Benjen nodded again and then slipped off Wanderer, before leading the horse to the nearest tree that he could find with a low branch to tie the reins to. His heart was beating a little faster and he shifted his grip on his sword a little.

The other man tethered his elk and then pulled out the clay jars, along with an old cloak and a pair of brands, which he carefully lit. “I hope that you can throw,” he said as he handed over one of the brands and two of the jars. “I will call out when and where. Once you do I suggest you use your sword to sever hands and arms. Heads too if you can.”

“I shall,” he replied. “Lead on.”

Coldhands led him down a snowy way until a clump of trees appeared around a corner at the end of the valley. “There.”

Benjen peered at the trees. “I can’t see anyone.”

“They are on the ground, covered in snow. Be ready.” And with that Coldhands started to stamp on the ground heavily as they approached the trees.

Benjen was about to ask when he was doing, but then he caught sight of slight movement up ahead. A mound of snow was... stirring? Yes, there was someone there. Several others were also stirring and then snow cascaded down and six figures were suddenly emerging from the snow. He stared at them as they slowly turned to face them and then started to shuffle through the snow towards them. Three were not long dead – he could see blood and terrible wounds on them – and they were wildlings, a man, a woman and most heartbreakingly a child of about 10. All quite dead. Two others had been dead for longer, judging by the rags and the skeletal faces. And then there was the one in front. The one dressed in black. He had been a member of the Night’s Watch once. The colour of what remained of the hair and the sword that was strapped to his back… it was old Ser Willem Glover, who taken the Black ten years before – and then vanished without trace on a ranging three years ago.

“A Brother of ours,” Coldhands said sadly. “I will take care of him. Throw your jars at the older wights. We need the fresher ones. Better proof.” And with that he threw his first jar straight at the wight that had once been Willem Glover. It smashed at once and oil splashed all down the wight – and then the brand was thrown straight after the jar and dear old Ser Willem Glover, or the silent thing that had once been his sworn Brother, went up in flames.

The terrible thing was that a live man would have screamed, but instead the wight never made a sound as it kept on walking. The clothes burned, the hair burned, the face burned, but the wight didn’t make a sound as it kept walking forwards – right up until the moment it stopped walking and fell over. Benjen swallowed and then threw his own first jar. And missed.

He cursed and threw the second one against the leading one of the older wights. If he had been unlucky before then he got lucky with the second throw, because not only did he hit his target but he spattered both wights so that when he threw his own brand by some freakish chance they both caught fire.

It was the silence that once again struck him as, other than the roar of the flames, there wasn’t a sound in the valley. It wasn’t like any other fight he’d ever been in. No shouts of defiance, no bellows of pain – no, no screams of pain. As the two older wights staggered and then fell, Coldhands drew his own sword and then swept forwards towards the three surviving wights. Benjen also drew his sword and followed him, being careful to stay out of his sword reach.

The female wight came at him, arms out stretched, a crude metal dagger in one hand. That was the hand that he targeted and he chopped it off her hand at the wrist, and then severed her left arm at the shoulder. That jarred more than a bit – his sword was ordinary steel, not Valaryian steel like Ice – and he knew he’d feel it later, especially when he kicked the wight in the stomach, so that it staggered back, and then chopped her head clean off. To his horror the body still kept staggering forwards – until he severed a leg with a grunt.

It was then that he sensed the child wight, which was coming straight for him. A girl, she had once been, and a pretty one. Well, pretty no more. Her lower jaw was gone and her throat was a red ruin. He swallowed and then hardened his head. A roll of his wrists brought the sword around in a double-handed sweep and her head fell from her shoulders. He reversed the sweep and felt the blade crunch into her spine – and then stick. He cursed, tugged at it and then was lucky enough to free it. Another blow and the child wight lay in two more pieces in the snow.

Panting he looked around. Coldhands was watching him, with the severed pieces of the other wight on the ground around him. Seeing his look the other man nodded. “Well done, Brother. Never easy, to face your first wight. But you need to beware what they can do – see?” he pointed with his sword and Benjen looked down – and then cursed and jumped back. A hand was on the ground by his foot, reaching for something to grab. And the other pieces of the wights around him were still moving.

Coldhands spread out the old cloak and then started to wrap various pieces up. A hand here and there, the head of the female wight and then three more hands. And then he threw the remaining pieces onto the smouldering remains of the wights that had been killed with the oil, before throwing the other clay jars onto what was now a pyre.

“Farewell, Ser Willem Glover. And now your watch is done,” Benjen muttered as he looked at the burning remains of the wight that he had once knew. “I knew him, Coldhands. I knew him.”

“Then he has been avenged,” Coldhands replied, before looking around. “We must leave this place. If we tarry we will be in danger.”

His skin prickled with fear. “An Other?”

“Not close, but approaching. Back to the Overlook.”

Wanderer shifted uneasily as they approached, but the elk just looked at Coldhands and then submitted to being mounted. And then they were off again, at a quick trot, away from the smudge of dirty black smoke behind them in the sky. As they went Benjen considered what had just happened. He was the first member of the Night’s Watch to battle a wight and survive in… centuries at least. He had to get back to tell the rest of them at the Wall and pass on what he now knew, he just had to. Fire was the weapon of choice against them. What would dragonglass – sorry, obsidian – do? Perhaps fire arrows? Catapults on the wall? More oil – but that had its own dangers, both to the wall and in the handling of it. Where would they get the oil? Fish oil? Rendered fat? Arrows on their own would not work. And his Brothers in the Night’s Watch needed to know that.

Before he knew it they were back at the Overlook, and as they threaded their way down the valley he looked at the sun as it shone down through a murky sky. If he started back now, then he could make it to the Wall in a few days, riding hard and risking Wanderer.

Perhaps it would be worth it. On the other hand perhaps he should be more careful with his horse. If he exhausted Wanderer on his way South then this would all have been for nothing.

As they arrived back at the Overlook and dismounted Coldhands turned to him. “You should start for the Wall as soon as you can. The Other will not miss those wights, but he might think that Free Folk killed them and seek them out.”

Benjen nodded as he thought about it. “I’ll avoid Craster’s Keep then.”

Coldhands stared at him sharply. “He must be avoided at all costs. That place is no longer safe. He cannot be trusted. He worships the Others.”

His stomach turned over. “What?”

“He worships the Others, he is accursed. He gives his sons to the Others, so that they leave him alone.”

Oh, this was not good. Craster was friendly to the Night’s Watch and especially the Rangers. Damn it. “Then I shall pass word to avoid him,” he replied grimly. “Or kill him.”

Coldhands nodded and then led the way back up the stairs with the slightly squirming bundled cloak in his hands. When they reached the main room he looked at Benjen. “Bring the cages please. I will keep the… pieces… separate.”

He nodded and strode into the study, where he stacked up the various cages and then brought them through. He could see that Coldhands had started with the hands, which were clenching and unclenching in an effort to…. what? Get free? Crush something? Kill them?

Coldhands took one of the small cages from him and then opened it carefully at the top. To Benjen’s surprise the hinges did not squeal and he peered at the cage. What kind of metal was it? He couldn’t tell. Coldhands then dropped one of the hands into the cage and then closed it quickly, before moving on to the others. He finished with the head, something that made Benjen shudder. The eyes were open and glared at them both through cloudy films, whilst the mouth opened and closed.

“The cages will slow the rot to a crawl, but not stop it completely,” Coldhands said quietly as he then packed the cages into a saddlebag. “But they will convince any doubters.”

“Some will doubt the very idea, but aye, you are right,” he replied as he took the saddlebag from Coldhands. Then he paused. “My thanks for all your help.”

From the crinkling around the black eyes the other man smiled. “It was my pleasure to help a Brother of the Night’s Watch. Especially the First Ranger.” He paused. “Which reminds me.”

Benjen watched as Coldhands strode off into one of the rooms and then returned with a small wooden box. “The last ranger who was here. His name was Jojen Blackwood, son of Eddard Blackwood. He was a good man. Get him safely home please Brother.”

He felt his throat constrict in sorrow for a moment. “I shall.” And then it was his turn to pause. “I… I read the ledgers. Updated the book. Rangers will return here.”

This pleased Coldhands, who nodded with looked like every happiness. “Good. Good.”

“And… I read the other book.”

Coldhands bowed his head slightly. “Ah. The book. Writing it…. helped me to focus after…. After what was done to me to help me. Then you have questions.”

“Yes… but I know there is no time. I will say this. When first we met I told you that my name was Benjen, son of Rickard. I did not say of what house. My full name is Benjen Stark.”

Coldhand’s eyes widened and then went to his face. “Yes,” he said after a long moment. “I think I see it in your face. A long time has passed since I last met a Stark. Long indeed.” And then he rubbed his gauntleted hands together, as if he was nervous. “Tell me… does Winterfell still stand?”

“Aye, it does. Winterfell endures, as it always has.”

“Then the crypts are maintained?”

“Always.”

“Then when you return there, find out the tomb of Edwyle Stark and tell him that his son Rickon still holds his mission above all else. I…. have a duty, you see. I cannot say more, other than I have a mission that I must one day complete. A burden I must share with my successor. And then my watch will be done.”

There was a tone in his voice that made Benjen’s eyes mist up for a moment, a weariness but also an absolute determination. Whatever was keeping this man – and he was a man, he was no wight even if he should have been long dead by now – going, then it was important. He knew that.

Benjen drew himself up. “Farewell Rickon Stark. You have a namesake in Winterfell, my brother’s boy.”

“Farewell Benjen Stark. We will meet again, I sense it. Because you know, as well as I, that Winter is Coming.”

He nodded and then he turned and passed through the door to the stable. The Wall called him. And he needed to forget the desperate scrawl on the pages of that third book. It ended: “My name is Rickon Stark. My hands are cold, but my heart is still mine.” But it started: “Name Rickon Stark. Hands cold. Coldhands.”

Chapter Text

Oberyn

He found Doran sitting in his chair in the middle of the Water Gardens again, staring at the distant horizon with a thoughtful look on his face and a lap filled with at least seven pieces of paper. As he approached his brother caught sight of him and then smiled slightly. “Brother.”

“My Prince,” he said formally and then sat with a slight smile. “You are well?”

Doran pulled a slight face. “More letters have come. Oberyn, another nine houses of the Stony Dornish have written to me telling me that they are sending men and food and supplies and coin to the Wall. They do not ask, they tell me. The eyes of the Stony Dornish are not on Sunspear. They are on Castle Black. And Winterfell.”

He felt a wince cross his own face. “I thought that might happen. It’s happening elsewhere. It’s shaking The Reach as well.”

Doran’s eyes flickered at him. “How so?”

“My young friend Willas Tyrell wrote to me today from Highgarden. He can walk again without a cane, the rumours were true. He cannot explain it.”

“Magic then.” Doran said the words with a slightly pained look at his own legs. “I wish that I could say the same.”

“There are… certain other things he says, or rather does not say, in his letter. I seem to detect the influence of the Queen of Thorns on him at the moment. He hints that perhaps any meaningful correspondence between Dorne and The Reach should be directed to him and not his father. It is just a hint, just a suggestion, but to me it is clear.”

Doran looked at him in first surprise and then some satisfaction. “If true, that would be excellent. Dealing with Mace Tyrell is like talking to a child at times. The man’s a fool.”

“You know my views on the Fat Flower,” Oberyn replied with a sly smile. “Willas Tyrell on the other hand is very different.”

His brother snorted with contempt. “Good. It would be hard to think of a bigger idiot for a Lord Paramount than Mace Tyrell. If his son is seeking to quietly supplant him then the collective intelligence of the nobility of Westeros will take an upward leap. Watching Mace Tyrell play at the Game of Thrones is like watching a blind man try to be an archer.”

He laughed at that. “Apt, brother. Very apt.” Then he sobered. “We will need our friends. Another letter came, from an old friend of mine at the Citadel. A Maester called Garin. An odd fellow, one who would rather look at the stars than at his own feet, but a good man. And he says that the stars are shifting. The Starks are always eventually right. Winter is coming brother, and this one will be a long one. And a bad one – or so Garin thinks.”

Doran frowned at him. “Do you think he is right?”

“I shall observe the stars myself. But I have to tell you that if Garin states something about the stars, there is every chance that he is right.” He shifted a little in his seat, a sign of slight nervousness that his brother immediately noticed by his upraised eyebrow.

“What else do you need to talk to me about brother?”

“We need more information. I was thinking about sending someone I trust to Winterfell to ask questions. Lots of questions. Someone I trust absolutely.”

“Who?”

“Sarella.”

Doran’s eyebrows flew upwards for a moment – and then lowered in thought. “An interesting choice. Of all your Sand Snakes she is the most… curious. Why though?”

“A long winter might be coming, and a bad one. The Stony Dornish are worried enough to send help to their kin far to the North. To the Wall. This… call that has gone out – it reeks of magic. Old magic, brother, a very old magic. I sense that something has changed in this world. And that all our calculations, all our plans, need to be placed to one side.”

This made Doran’s eyes widen for a long moment. “You would give up our plan? And our vengeance against the Lannisters?”

“No!” He snapped the word hotly and then made himself calm down a little. “Just… postpone it a little.” He looked at the horizon for a moment. “We need information. Sarella can get it, as can I. But we need to find out what’s going on.”

The Prince of Dorne leant back in his wheeled chair and then steepled his fingers under his nose, something he did when he was thinking very hard. Then he looked up. “Very well. Send Sarella. By a fast ship. Use what money you need.”

Oberyn leant back. “Thank you brother.”

“Thank me not just yet. The more you look at the stars, the less time you’ll have with Ellaria.”

He smirked at his brother. “How little you know me at times.”

 


 

Brynden

Brienne of Tarth was quite an agreeable travelling companion, he thought as they trotted down the road. For one thing she didn’t feel the need to fill the air with meaningless babble about everything that they were passing. He remembered old Ser Robar Tilly and mentally winced. A good friend and a doughty warrior, but by all the gods a man who couldn’t keep his mouth shut whilst riding. Dead now of course. Killed at the Ruby Ford.

Brienne of Tarth on the other hand kept any conversation down to the bare bones, such as just about the direction they were taking. And they had a better idea of that now. They were heading straight to the God’s Eye.

He mulled things over as they went down the road. What was this pull? Why did they both feel it? Did others feel it too? Why? Was it the blood of the First Men? If so, again, why? What was driving them?

They’d taken a pair of rooms in a small tavern in a village the previous night, a place that looked reasonably clean. There had been a certain air of nervousness over the place though, something that had puzzled him – right up until the moment that they had seen the Septon as they had left the village that morning.

He had been a strange man, that one. Simply dressed with bare feet that had callouses on them, or what could be seen through the dirt. A crown of grey, almost white hair, a look of piety – and the eyes of a madman, or at least the eyes of man deep in denial.

“Greetings, sons of the Warrior,” he’d started off saying. “Have you come to join our noble cause?”

This had been the wrong thing to say, because Brienne had snorted in derision. “I am no son, I am a daughter!”

The Septon had peered at her in what the Blackfish had to admit was some understandable shock at seeing a woman in armour. His next words confirmed this: “A woman with a sword? In armour?”

Brienne of Tarth had answered this by gripping her sword with one hand and then leaning forwards in her saddle to direct a hard stare at the bloody man, who had then looked uncomfortable for a moment, before looking back at the Blackfish.

“We seek men – and women – of the Faith. Ours is a holy task.” And then the people who had started to collect around them all nodded. “Most holy!”

“And what would that task be then?”

A strange light had filled the Septon’s eyes. “Why, to rid the land of the last vestige of heresy! The last symbol of the old ways!”

“Burn the heretics!” The growing crowd had shouted. “Burn them!”

“What heretics? What symbol?”

The Septon had looked them up and down. “Where are you bound?”

He had stared back at the man. “Where we are bound for is our business. And, with all respect due to a Septon, none of your business. So we will wish you a pleasant day and ride along.” He eyed the crowd and then kicked Longshanks in the ribs and rode off, with Brienne of Tarth at his side.

After a few minutes he had held up a hand in warning. “Don’t look back.”

She had shot a curious look at him. “I was about to. Why should I not?”

“Because madness is festering behind us. Religious madness. I’ve seen it before. Don’t look back. Too many eyes are watching us. I feel it. They were about to ask us stupid questions about which gods we worshipped.”

She had mulled this over for a moment. “I was brought up worshipping the Seven.”

“As was I. I wonder which gods sent the Call though?” And then they had rode on in silence.

That had been in the morning. Now the sun had passed the noon mark and was sinking into the West as they came to a crest on the road then slowed to a half. Ahead lay God’s Eye – and the island.

“The Isle of Faces,” Brynden muttered. “Is it there? Is that where we are drawn?”

“I don’t know,” his companion replied. “But… I feel as if I am drawn there. It grows stronger as I look upon it.”

This was a good point. “Aye,” he said. “But if that is where we are bound, then how shall we get there? There must be a village by the shore. People with access to boats. I’m not leaving Longshanks tied to a tree and it’s a bit far to swim.”

Brienne of Tarth nodded seriously and then they both rode down the road. Fortunately there was indeed a village by the shore, a larger place than he might have thought. And the moment they reached it something set off an distant… alarm, no, faint warning… in his mind. It was the Sept that started it. It was freshly painted but the path leading to it seemed to be quite thin.

And then they reached the square in the middle of the village and drew rein. There was a group of people working on some boats by the jetty. And there was a man sharpening a sword to one side as he sat on a bench. A very familiar man. He was dark haired, although greying and broad shouldered and there was a paleness to his face that showed that he had shaved off a beard recently.

“You!” Brynden bellowed the word so loudly that birds flew up in the nearby fields. Then he dismounted, tossed the reins to a startled Brienne of Tarth and strode forwards towards the equally startled man – who then blanched with shock at the sight of him.

“Robar Glovett! Gods damn you man, where have you been?” He stamped to halt and then looked the man up and down. “What happened to you? I had permission from the King himself to knight you after Pyke. And then you vanished!”

The old soldier sighed. “Ser Brynden. I am heartily glad to see you.”

“Damn it man! Where have you been? You and I fought together in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, and the Rebellion and then against the Greyjoys.” He smiled at last. “I thought you were dead.”

His old friend smiled sadly. “After Pyke… I had enough, Ser Brynden. All that blood. All that killing. I thought I found a calling. I became a wandering Septon.”

Brynden stared at the man in shock. And yet… yes, he was not too surprised. A man could only take so much butchery before they cracked. Then he stared at the sword and raised a shaggy eyebrow.

Glovett sighed and then looked at him – before raising an eyebrow at Brienne of Tarth. “Things have changed. Times have changed. Old certainties have shifted. I have heard…”

“A Call? ‘The Others come. The Stark calls for aid. You are needed.’” He smiled briefly. “I have heard it too. So has my travelling companion. This is Brienne of Tarth. Brienne – this is Robar Glovett, old soldier, old friend and a good man.”

She nodded and then tilted her head to one side. “A man who sharpens a sword is a man who knows that he might need to use it.”

Glovett had been gaping at him, but then shook himself like a dog emerging from water. “Well, that’s a surprise. The blood of the First Men runs strongly in us all does it not? Ah – the sword. I am indeed needed.” He looked over his shoulder at the gathering men and women who had noticed the two new arrivals. “We must protect the Isle of Faces.”

Something cold settled over him. “We rode through a village to the North-East this morning, filled with religious imbeciles. I seemed to hear the ghost of the Faith Militant rising from the grave there.”

Glovett set his chin a little. “The ghost? Nay, it arises red in tooth and claw there. And in other places. Many deny the Call – deny it to the point where they claim that it’s all a lie. And they will burn alive those who say that they heard the Call. Along with the Isle of Faces. It’s one of the last Weirwoods South of the Neck. It’s a symbol. And symbols have power. The Septon who burns it to the ground will have great power amongst the Faith Militant.”

He rubbed his chin and then looked at Brienne of Tarth, who was pale with anger. “We need to get to the Isle. Don’t ask me why, because I couldn’t tell you. But we are not a threat to the Isle. We will not harm a single tree there. But… we are drawn there. We have heard the Call and we are drawn there.”

The old soldier stared at him a long while. Then he looked around at the silent crowd that had gathered around them. “This man is the uncle to Eddard Stark, the Stark in Winterfell! He is Ser Brynden Tully! He is a good man! He and his companion, Brienne of Tarth, have both heard the Call! Shall we help him?”

And with that the crowd bellowed one word: “YES!”

 


 

Tyrion

Lord Stark was still reading the history of the First Men that the Surestones had been working on for so long and as a result Tyrion was starting to get antsy. He was quite sure that if he had been given the book then he would have finished it by now, and made notes.

But instead he had to wait. So he found himself in the Library of Winterfell, surrounded by books that were almost – but not quite – as good. Some were brand new – copies of volumes that had been kept in some secret place by old Rickard Stark apparently. And they were mostly enlightening.

The Maester here, Luwin, was a very civil fellow who knew his business, oh yes. And he also knew a fellow book lover by sight, based on the way that he had looked at the pile of books next to Tyrion and then added a few himself silently.

The more he read the more he could confirm the threads already in place in his mind. The old Kings in the North had been powerful indeed – power that came from influence more than power that came from swords or fear. He wondered what his father would have made of that kind of power. Probably curled a lip at the idea of someone not using fear as a tool. Perhaps he was being harsh on Father. Perhaps not.

He made a careful note in the notebook to one side and then closed it. His stomach was grumbling, it just happened to be dinnertime and he needed a goblet of wine.

As he reached the Great Hall he could see other trickling in. And then he saw more people hurry in to one side. He frowned – and then he saw that Lord Stark was standing at his place at the great table, with his wife next to him and all his children. A pale Robb Stark was just to his left and a solemn Theon Greyjoy was to his right.

Once the Great Hall was filled then GreatJon Umber stood and stepped forwards. He was an imposing man, huge and raw-boned. Oddly enough it was the man next to him who impressed Tyrion more. Howland Reed was smaller than the GreatJon but seemed to be more intense. Now they stood before the table, and were joined by Domerick Bolton, a lad besotted – and she with him – with Sansa Stark.

“Hear now the words of Lord Stark, Warden of the North!” GreatJon bellowed. “The North stands witness!”

Lord Stark took a step forwards. “House Stark has held its vows for many years. And its honour. We have also held Ice, the Valyrian Steel sword. But the Long Night comes. Winter comes, as do the Others, and it is time for old things to be renewed. From this day forwards Ice will be held by the heir to House Stark. And I now give it to my oldest son, Robb.”

He turned to Greyjoy, who placed the great sword in his hands, before turning to Robb Stark, who looked at him with eyes that seemed far older than his face. Tyrion still had questions about that boy. There was something odd about him, something that just couldn’t put his finger on. “This sword has been a symbol of justice for the North. Wield it with honour.”

“I shall – this I swear.” Robb Stark said hoarsely and Tyrion wondered what was going through his mind. He tried to imagine Father giving him something like Brightroar – and found his mind failing to picture to it. Frankly he envied Robb Stark at that moment. He could see how proud his father was of him – how proud all of his family were of him. Lady Stark was beaming at him and all of his siblings were also smiling, with the exception of Rickon who was also trying to see if he could steal the piece of bread left on Arya’s plate.

Robb Stark stepped back and then Lord Stark turned to the hall again. “From this day forwards I will wield the ancient weapon of House Stark – the Fist of Winter.” Mutters filled the hall suddenly, the sound rising as Jory Cassel walked in with the mace in his hands. There was something… ancient about it, something that told of and Age of Man long past – one that just might be returning. Cassel bowed formally to Lord Stark and then passed the mace over, before walking over to one of the tables, where Annah, a woman who Tyrion could tell at a glance was passionately in love with the man, shot him a brilliant smile.

The big mace was raised in the air by Lord Stark. “Winter is coming!” Lord Stark barked the words with a grim intensity.

“WINTER IS COMING!” The crowd roared back.

Lord Stark nodded and then held up his free hand. “Before we eat there is another matter. Just before I came in I received a raven from Kings Landing. Jon, can you join me here please?”

Stark’s bastard son frowned to one side of Tyrion but then stood and joined his father, who smiled at him. “I have a message here from King Robert himself.” He shot a fierce look about the hall. “Jon Snow is hereby legitimised, by the order of the King himself. He is Jon Snow no longer. He is now Jon Stark.” He placed his hand on his son’s shoulder, which seemed to calm the boy a little, as he was pale-faced and fighting back tears. “Join the family at the head table lad.”

Cheers went up as the boy numbly walked over to the main table, where Robb Stark greeted him with a hug, followed by the others, young Arya Stark being the second most enthusiastic. Even Lady Stark kissed him on both cheeks and smiled at him. Given what he had heard about her previous attitude towards him, Tyrion found this interesting. What had changed?

As everyone started to take a seat and the food started to appear Tyrion smiled slightly. Yes, he needed food. Wine too. And perhaps a trip to the whorehouse later? He needed to make up his mind about that.

“You look serious.”

He started slightly and then looked up at the speaker. Oh. “Lady Surestone. I apologise, I did not see you approach.”

“Hardly a surprise, given the noise.” She sat next to him. “You had a most odd look on your face when Ned gave Robb that sword.”

A steaming platter of meat was placed in front of them and he snagged several choice pieces with his fork and then transferred them onto her plate. She smiled at him and then watched as he did the same for his own plate. It gave him a moment to reflect on what to say. He went with honesty. It seemed the best path with this oddly observant woman.

“I imagined my father giving me such a sword. Sadly my imagination was not up to the challenge.”

“Ah,” she said carefully, a tone to her voice that made him raise an eyebrow. She noticed it and then shrugged. “My father rode South with Ned during the Rebellion. He met your father in King’s Landing. He was… not impressed, for various reasons.”

“Ah,” he replied, with a slightly different tone to his use of the same word that she had used. “Father can be… difficult. In many ways.”

She took a bite of meat and then chewed carefully. “Father said that he was a prideful, ruthless, power-hungry man with insanely good luck.”

He considered this for a long moment. “You know, I really can’t fault that description of Father. Your father was a very perceptive fellow.”

“You aren’t offended then?”

“On one level - slightly. However, on my own personal level not at all.”

She nodded at that and then seemed to be relieved. He wondered why. He looked back at the head table. “I do envy their closeness.”

“The Starks?” She smiled at her cousins. “They are the best people I have ever known.”

“I meant how much they mean to each other. I had heard that Lady Stark did not like Jon Snow – I beg your pardon, Jon Stark. I do not see any sign of that now. They are not close, but there seems to be no dislike there.” He shrugged. “Meals at Casterly Rock tend to be dominated by silences from my father, who disapproves of a great number of things.” He paused and wondered why he was telling her these things. Another shrug. “Family is family.”

“I wouldn’t know much about that,” Dacey Surestone said levelly. “As I grew up family was Father and Mother – and Mother died some time ago. Plus the odd visit from Ned.”

“No uncles or aunts?”

She smiled sadly. “Dead young. There were more Surestones once. I am the last of them.”

He ate from his own plate. “I have lost uncles over the past years. Uncle Tygett died. Uncle Gerion – we have no idea where his bones lie. He went looking for Brightroar, the long lost Valyrian steel sword of the Lannisters. Father traced his ship as far as Volantis. Apparently he planned to sail into the Smoking Sea. If he did – he never sailed out again.”

She stared at him a long moment and then seemed to be about to say something when a door slammed open to one side and Maester Luwin scurried in. “My Lord Stark,” he cried as he approached the main table, “The Direwolf is whelping!”

 


 

Jon Arryn

Lysa was worrying him. So much so that he had agreed for her to be sent away from the Red Keep. Riverrun perhaps. Yes, that might settle her nerves. Then he paused. Wait, that might actually make her worse. She and Baelish had been brought up there. The Eyrie then. Yes – but under strict supervision.

He made a note, handed it to Quill, who nodded and slipped out and then he left the Tower of the Hand and strode over to the Red Keep. Gods but he was tired. He had a sense that a great crisis was approaching, a storm that he hadn’t previously ever suspected was there. One that a part of him did not believe could possibly exist – but it still did.

Turning a corner and acknowledging the nod of Barristan Selmy he entered the meeting room. As he expected Robert was waiting there. He seemed almost pensive. He also seemed to be a little thinner – again. How hard was he driving himself? Why? That sword was strapped to his back again. It seemed to represent kingship for Robert, he knew that much. The Storm Kings had been mighty monarchs.

“Jon, how are you this day?” Robert asked softly. “You look tired.”

“Lysa has been something of a trial,” he replied. “The death of Baelish upset her greatly. I… I am having her sent to The Eyrie to recover her spirits.”

Robert looked at him for a long moment and then nodded. “I did wonder what you might do with her. Her screams at seeing his head… well, it made my toes curl.”

“I did not know that you had heard it,” Jon sighed. “My apologies Your Grace.”

“Think nothing of it, Jon. The whole Red Keep heard it I think.” He shook his head.

“Aye,” Jon replied. “She complains about Robin being so far away from her and demands his return. I will not have her anywhere near him. A raven came from Winterfell this morning. My son is free from the poison and is growing like a weed, Ned said. He said that young Robert is constantly asking questions and is learning to ride his own horse!” He smiled fondly. “I wish that I could see him.”

“You soon will,” Robert said with a smile. “We are going to Winterfell. I made my mind up last night. We are reacting when we should be acting. This business with Baelish is all but complete now, as we sort out the finances. More word has come of unrest from this Call that has gone out. We need to talk to Ned and we need to do it face to face. He won’t come South, I can feel it. So we’ll go North. To Winterfell.”

He thought about this for a long moment and then he nodded. Yes. And Winterfell was perfect for other reasons. “You are moving the Court there temporarily?”

“Aye. I have a lot of catching up to do with Ned anyway, but we need answers, and quickly.” He smiled slightly sourly. “The Nag won’t like the fact that young Edric will be there before we get there, but I don’t give a damn, as long as she doesn’t have anything to do with him. Oh yes, I met another of my bastards the other day, in a smithy. Gendry by name. He’s a big lad – the spitting image of me when I was that age.” His eyes clouded over a moment. “You know, I often wondered what kind of children Lyanna and I would have had. Gendry made me think of her for some reason. I dreamt of her again last night. The oddest dream – she was trying to tell me something, but the wind was howling about my ears. She was just as I remember her.”

Gods, but he wanted to tell Robert the truth about his ‘trueborn’ children, but that would have to wait until Winterfell, a place where Cersei and Jaime Lannister could be isolated, contained and brought to justice. And Winterfell was nicely isolated from the Westerlands. Tywin Lannister’s reaction would be one of angry rejection of any claims of incest, followed by an icy demand to release his children and restore his grandchildren to the line of succession.

If they handled it right there just might not be a war. The problem would be Robert, who would probably fly into a rage and try and remove the heads of the incestuous couple with his sword.

He made himself smile at Robert and was about to say something about young Gendry when he heard the puffing noise that heralded the arrival of Pycelle, who was clutching a rolled up map under one arm and who looked as excited as he ever did.

“Your Grace! My Lord Hand! I have the answer!”

Jon stole a quick glance with Robert. “The answer to what, Grand Maester?”

Pycelle had reached the table and was busy pinning the map down with weights. Jon watched him through narrowed eyes. He had his suspicions about Pycelle. There were times when the doddering fool faded away and a dangerously competent man loyal to the Lannisters shone through. At the moment he simply seemed very excited.

“I took most careful sightings of the exact direction that the statues of the Seven in the Great Sept were all turned to. Then I extrapolated the exact direction from points outside the Great Sept.” He preened. “It was most difficult. However, I have no small amount of skill in this matter and I was able to project a line – thus.” He placed a finger on the map and t