The Stag was massive, but very dead. Long enough that rot had set in as had the maggots.
Still, what had killed her?
The trees rustled, giving way to two men in loose, comfortable clothing and closely cropped hair. Grips on swords were relaxed as the newcomers were recognized.
Ned nodded in greeting. “Derek. Samuel. You’re both a long way from Deepwood Motte.”
The darker haired man with a scarred face and hard eyes nodded in return. “We were out tracking, my lord.”
The man, Derek, nodded to the stag. “The wolf that did that.” He gestured back through the trees before turning to go back through them. Ned followed, his men behind him. They made their way to the corpse of a massive beast, the missing antler from the stag in its throat.
“It’s a freak!” Theon seemed awed by the creature and didn’t notice the arched looks of the men from Deepwood Motte. There were four of them in all, but Robb noticed only one.
“Jon!” The russet haired Stark navigated over to the dark haired man his age, his arms full of two wriggling pups.
Bran craned his neck to see. “Our brother Jon?” He forgot the dead wolf and made his way around the body to get closer to the dark haired young man who looked so much like their father. “Hello. I’m Bran!”
Jon Snow, still burdened with wolf cubs, blinked then smiled at the small boy before him. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Bran. Robb says you’re fearless and will climb anything no matter how tall. It’s good to finally meet you.”
Bran’s smile grew, happy that this half brother he’d only heard of knew him. “I’m glad to meet you, too. Father’s never let me come when he and Robb go to Deepwood Motte. Arya’s going to be jealous I got to meet you and she didn’t.”
That made both Jon and Robb chuckle. Jon shifted his wriggling bundles. “Do you want to hold one?” He deposited one of the Cubs into Bran’s arms. It was warm and soft. Bran felt the urge to hug it close as his father’s voice reached him.
“It’s a dire wolf, though they usually aren’t found south of the Wall.”
Jon handed one of the pups to Bran who seemed torn between the mass of warm fur and the bastard brother he’d only heard tell of. “Now there are five.”
“Six!” Derek reached down into a thicket and plucked out a sixth pup, solid white with red eyes. “No wonder she took on something so big. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Poor girl must have been desperate.” His voice was raspy and harsh, but he held the pup with tenderness.
Bran nuzzled the head of the pup in his arms. “What will happen to them without their mother?”
Ned sighed. “It would be kinder to make it quick.”
Theon nodded. “Right then. Give it here.” He pulled out his dagger as he took the pup from Bran.
Theon stopped at what sounded like growls. The sound was coming from the three men that weren’t Jon, but it was Jon who spoke with a voice that could freeze a man’s blood. “Give my brother back the cub.”
Theon glared. “I take my orders from Lord Stark, not you, bastard.”
Robb sensed the violence bubbling under the surface and stepped between Jon and Theon. “Father, the Dire Wolf is the sigil of our house. Killing them would bring ill fortune. There are six of them, one for each of your children. Perhaps the gods meant for us to have them.”
Ned Stark looked from Robb to Jon and the to Bran. “You’ll feed then yourselves. Train them yourselves. And if they die, you’ll bury them yourselves.”
The men from Deepwood Motte exchanged uncertain looks as Bran grinned brightly. He looked up to his father’s bastard, eyes bright. “Which one will you keep?”
Jon looked down at him with a barely there smile. “I’ll keep the white one. He’s the runt of the litter, so he’ll likely need more care than the others. I’ll have Andi look him over when we get back.”
Bran frowned. “Who’s Andi?”
“Lady Andrea,” corrected Robb as he took the other cub from Jon and accepted another from one of the other men. “She’s Lord Lennart’s sister and Jon’s foster sister. A skilled healer.”
Jon watched as Theon took up the last two cubs, then looked to Robb. “If they prove too much to handle...”
“They won’t!” Bran assured him even as he tried to keep hold of his own cub. “They won’t be too much to handle, I swear.”
“If they do...”
Robb nodded to Jon. “Then I will bring them to you myself.” He reset the cubs in his arms for a better hold. “It’s good to see you again, brother.”
“And you as well.”
Bran looked at Jon as Derek handed him the white cub. “You could come with us! Help us take them back to Winterfell. I know Arya wants to meet you. And Rickon, too. And San...well, I don’t know about Sansa. She’s never interested in anything fun.”
Jon glanced over Bran’s head towards their father, his eyes unreadable.”
“Jon’s home is at Deepwood Motte, Bran. The Lennarts will expect him back.”
The youngest Stark present screwed his brow in a frown. Well, then maybe I can go with you and Robb and you travel to see him?” He met his father’s eyes, pouring every bit of pleading he could into his face. It worked on the kitchen staff when he wanted extra sweets and sometimes on his mother, though not often.
It didn’t seem to work on Eddard Stark. “We’ll talk about it when you’re older. No more dawdling. I want to be back at Winterfell before night.”
Bran didn’t miss the look Father gave Jon over his head. He looked....sad.
Bran hurried after the other men, still not understanding why his other brother had to live away.
“Damn it all!”
“What?” Pat leaned up in her saddle, looking towards the castle. “What’s wrong?”
Andi scowled. “The King is at Winterfell.”
“How do you know?”
“The banners with a stag wearing a crown might be a clue.” Derek’s raspy, dry voice sounded amused.
He rolled his eyes. “So the last thing we need is to draw royal attention.” He scratched at the light stubble on his chin. He hadn’t bothered to shave when they broke camp. “That many men means at least Three supply wagons. You could make the trip in two or three weeks if you push your horse, but a wagons mean about two months. That’s no quick trip. If you take that long to get here, you’re gonna stay at least a few weeks. That’s a long time to be away from your throne.”
Andrea considered this. “If the king is much of a monarch you’d be right, but Robert isn’t known to give a damn. He’d have no problem leaving someone else to mind things while he’s gone.” She drew in a breath and let it out slowly, eyes narrowed in thought.
Something her sister noticed. “What now?”
Julie had pulled up during all of this, even now affixing a patch over her green eye to hide the glow of it. “She’s trying to decide if we should turn back or just send you and Jon back.”
That got Jon’s attention. “You said I needed to speak with Lord Stark.”
“And Mother said I could come.”
Andi said nothing, her fingers tapping rhythmically on her thigh as she thought things over. She felt Derek move his horse closer to hers. “The trade crew coming back from White Harbor said news was The Hand was dead.”
Derek nodded. “Yep.”
“And Lord Stark and King Robert we’re both fostered under Lord Arryn when they were boys.”
Andrea sighed. “There may not be an Eddard Stark in Winterfell much longer. Robert’s drug his ass up here to ask him to take the job.”
“What do you wanna do?”
Andrea scowled at the banners before looking over to where Jon and Pat sat watching her. It was her sister she focused on. “You, look at me.” She already was but Andi wanted her focused attention. “You will behave. If you set a single paw out of line I’ll make sure you’re stuck with the builders for a solid year!”
Pat looked thrilled. She nodded, her horse fidgeting under her in response to leg muscles tightening. Andi tilted her head in warning. “I will!” She narrowed her eyes in a manner that she was often told was eerily like Aunt Erratim’s. “I swear! I promise! I’ll be on my best behavior!”
“You’d better.” She turned her attention to Jon. There was only a month between he and Pat. He’d grown much from the small babe Lord Stark had put into her arms seventeen years before, and there was no denying the Stark blood in him. “Most of the King’s men likely follow the Seven. They have some backwards ideas about illegitimate children. Just...be humble. Don’t start any fights.”
“I never start fights.”
Derek snorted. “No, but you finish them when they start with you. These men aren’t Pack. The moves you use against someone like me could kill one of them. So watch yourself.”
Jon nodded in understanding as Pat continued to beam. Andrea rolled her eyes.
“Try to calm yourself. You’re seventeen, not seven.”
“I’ve never met a king before. I’ve never been around anyone different before, except when we get visitors. I want to meet new people.”
“Something tells me you’re about to get more than you’ve bargained for.” Andrea looked back behind her to the other six people with them and the three wagons, filled and covered. The rest knew well not to make spectacles of themselves. She didn’t have to remind them.
“Into to belly of the beast, everyone.” Chuckles answered her. “Let’s go pay our liege a call.”
“Brandon Stark! What is the meaning of this!”
He straightened, his breathing quick. “Riders and wagons from Deepwood Motte! They’re coming through the gate!”
Arya jumped from her chair, her poor attempt at needlework falling to the floor. “Julie, too?”
“Lady Julia,” Catelyn corrected out of habit, though the woman was a lady by virtue of her family only. There had been no raven, mainly because Deepwood Motte did not have a Maester, so there was never any warning when they might arrive. If Julia Gaunt was with them, there would be no controlling Arya. She idolized the petite but violent woman.
“And Jon! I saw him riding with them. He’s still got his wolf! It’s as big as ours and solid white!”
She froze, shock running through her. Why would the Lennarts send Jon Snow to Winterfell? She didn’t have time to process this, however, before Arya and Bran both fled from the room. “ARYA!”
Her cry fell on deaf ears. Mortified she turned to the Queen. “My deepest apologies, Your Grace. They’re excited. I assure you they meant no disrespect.”
Cersei arched a golden brow, her expression ever haughty. “Children are quite difficult when they’re young, and we adults are hardly interesting. Deepwood Motte. That is north of Winterfell, is it not?”
“North and west, Your Grace. On the other side of the Wolf Woods. About three hundred miles.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from there, though I believe they have a crew of workmen at King’s Landing. They are improving the sewers, I think.”
“They tend to keep to the North. They rarely cross the Neck.”
“I see.” The Queen set down her wine, something Catelyn would never start drinking this early in the day, and rose. “Then it seems past time that I make their acquaintance.”
Like a signal, the other ladies rose, setting down their sewing. Catelyn nodded and escorted the Queen from the room, the other ladies following as they made their way through the Great Keep out into the crisp air. “They will be coming through the North Gate, though they always move towards the grounds to the kitchens.”
Cersei raised a brow. “The kitchens?”
“The people of Deepwood Motte have...large appetites. Enough so that they bring their own supplies to offset the burden of hosting them. It took me by surprise when I first met them. I thought it was something that the Starks had asked of their people due to the harshness of Northern weather and how lean it can leave supplies, but I was told it is only them and they do it no matter where they travel.”
“How considerate.” It wasn’t the custom. A host was expected to see to all their guests’ needs. For guests to bring their own food could be seen as an insult to the quality of a house’s food or wealth.
“I admit I felt affronted until the first time I dined with them. I have never seen people eat so much at one meal, and they do so at every meal...” Her speech trailed off as they came into view.
She had not expected the sight of her husband’s bastard to hit her so strongly. It was like looking at Eddard when they first wed. He stood somewhat apart from the wagons as the other men with them busied themselves with unloading them. His hands held the reigns of three mounts, none of them apparently disturbed by the snow white dire wolf at his side who was currently enjoying Arya’s attentions as her daughter and young son were happily speaking with their half brother.
The resemblance was painfully obvious.
“Ah. I had heard that Lord Stark returned from war with a bastard son. I take it that is he?”
The smugness practically dripped from Cersei’s words. Catelyn stiffened her spine. “It is. My husband fostered him to House Lennart as soon as he came home.”
“A pretty boy. He looks much like his father.”
The Queen had little room to speak. None of her children looked like King Robert. The approach of a woman granted her reason not to reply. Catelyn looked towards Lady Andrea and felt another shock.
She had become accustomed to the apparent agelessness of Lady Julia and her husband, Derek. The pair came to Winterfell with the trade wagons two or three times a year. It was the shortest of their runs and the pair acted as liaisons between the Northern lords and Deepwood Motte. Though the traders rotated out for the other holds, Derek and Julia were the ones to deal with Winterfell. They still looked as young and strong as the first time she had met them nearly eighteen years before. It was seeing the same of Lady Andrea when this was the first time she’d laid eyes on the other woman since she had rode away with the bastard that made it all the more unsettling. The tall woman with skin the color of light bronze, a thick braid of golden hair and dark brown eyes still looked no more than five and twenty though she had to be more than forty.
She stopped before them and bowed. “Lady Stark, we certainly did not intend to overburden you. We had not expected you to have royal visitors. Our apologies.”
Catelyn summoned a smile. “You are no burden. We have plenty of room.” She turned slightly to indicate Cersei. “Your Grace, may I present Lady Andrea Lennart of House a Lennart.”
Andrea bowed again. “Your Grace. I apologize for our appearance. Had I known of your presence I would have dressed more appropriately.”
Cersei raised a disdainful brow at the woman in her loose fitting breeches and tunic. “You do not dress appropriately when visiting the Warden of the North and his household?”
“There has never been a need. The North has long since become used to our oddness.” She turned and motioned towards the other two women with her who came towards her. “Your Grace, allow me to introduce you to my elder sister Julia Gaunt,” a petite woman with pale blond hair and one dark brown eye, a patch covering her face where the other should be, bowed, “and our younger sister, Patrice Lennart.”
So this was the daughter born only a few weeks apart from Robb. She remembered Andrea speaking of the birth when she had come to Winterfell all those years ago. She had said her sister was a difficult birth and that her mother complained she was being too fussy over them both. She had ordered her daughter to travel with the trade wagons and await Lord Stark’s return from the war to see if any of his men needed her healing skills, mainly to get her overprotective daughter out of her hair. The girl was a contrast to her sisters. Instead of Julia’s ash blonde or Andrea’s golden locks, her hair was a deep, dark brown. Instead of brown eyes the girl’s were grey, almost the same shade as those of House Sta...
Catelyn crushed that poisonous thought before it could take root.
The younger girl smiled brightly and gave a bow. “An honor to meet you, Your Grace. I never thought I would be in a position to meet a queen.”
Cersei looked over the sisters. “Julia, Andrea and Patrice. Such interesting names.”
Andrea nodded. “Our family immigrated to Westeros nearly a century and a half ago. The names followed.”
Cat looked at the wagons. They usually brought more. “It’s early for another trade run, isn’t it? You were just here barely two moons ago.”
“Not a trade run, this time. We’ve come bearing gifts for House Stark.” They watched as the kitchen staff asked the men with them to haul the kegs and casks in one wagon directly to the great hall.
“Fortunate timing. I’m sure our other guests will enjoy the variety. But have I missed some date of importance?” It was rude to question but she didn’t like their sudden arrival. Especially not with Jon Snow in their party.
“I’ve been spent to speak with your husband. I’m afraid it may be an...uncomfortable conversation.”
Ah. So it likely involved the bastard. Had he done something egregious? No, not likely. There were no tense looks and he seemed quite comfortable with being there. “I’m afraid the Lord Stark is with the King at the moment. I will make sure that he knows you wish to speak with him. In the meantime, I will have rooms prepared for you.”
Andrea nodded deeply. “Thank you. Again, I apologize for the unexpected intrusion. If you will excuse us, we should help them finish the unloading.”
This was normal for the people of Deepwood Motte, but the Queen interrupted. “Isn’t that what your men are for?”
The youngest girl frowned, clearly confused. “The work will get done faster with all of us.” She forgot to add any honorific.
Cersei arched a brow. “It seems that not all Northerners observe proper decorum. You would never see a high born lady in the South stoop to such a task. You must be tired from your journey. Come and join us in the solar.”
She didn’t give them time to respond, but gathered her skirts and turned, her ladies following in her wake. Catelyn looked to Lady Andrea who gave a shrug before calling out to Derek to let them know where they were going.
His brother smiled as he was drug along by Arya as though at her command. He probably was. She pulled him past The Hound and Ser Rodrick towards Robb, Bran trotting along side them with a white dire wolf, now a healthy size compared to when he was just the runt. “Hello, Robb. I seem to have been taken captive.”
Robb’s face split into a wide smile. “I see that.” He stepped forward and pulled him into a hug.” It’s good to see you in Winterfell at last.” He stepped back, slapping one shoulder with an open hand before turning to their guests. “My Prince, allow me to introduce my brother, Jon Snow.”
Jeoffrey cocked a golden brow, his face set in what was likely a permanent sneer. “Jon Snow? You mean your bastard brother, then.”
Robb nodded in agreement as Jon bowed slightly. “It is an honor to meet you, Prince Jeoffrey. I hope you are enjoying your stay in the North.”
“Aside from the bleak landscape and the ever present cold, I suppose it’s fine enough. I can see why Northmen are so fierce. You have to be to keep from freezing your balls off.” He laughed at his own jab, some of the men with him from the capitol chuckling with him. Robb clenched his jaw but gave no other sign that it rankled him. He shared a glance with Jon. His brother might not have been raised at Winterfell, but he was still raised in the North and was a Northman. He didn’t care to have their home insulted either.
He almost missed it when Jon’s hand tightened down on Arya’s shoulder. “Arya, you said you were going to show me your skill with a bow.”
And just like that the temper flaring in their sister was derailed as her attention was brought back to Jon. She blinked, frowned briefly and caught on. She mustn’t hit the crown prince. She nodded and hurried to where Ser Rodrick kept the bows.
Joeffrey’s brow raised high. “You let your sister use weapons?”
Theon barked a laugh. “More like no one could stop her. Arya does as she wishes and Lord Stark allows it.”
Robb leaned over to whisper, “How did you know?”
“Living with Pat. I felt the change in her. If the rest of the royals are like him, we’re likely to have trouble.”
That made him pause. “Lady Patrice came with you?”
“Her I can see, but I’m surprised they let Patrice come.”
“Kate told Andi we had to bring her. She’s been getting restless, wanting to see something outside of Deepwood Motte and the Keep. Kate thought Winterfell would be a suitable first outing. We didn’t expect to find the King here.”
“Bad luck, that.” They both clapped as Arya sent three arrows straight into the center of the target. “Well done!”
Jon smiled. “Does she have her own bow?”
“Not yet. I think Father is trying not to upset Mother on that one. She also follows Lady Julia around whenever she and Derek are here. I caught her teaching her how to use those little axes of hers.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“Maybe not at Deepwood Motte, but other lords expect ladies to behave like ladies.”
“Andi and Julie can both be just as proper as your mother or any other high born girl. They just don’t usually bother. She can learn to fight and still put on a gown and pretty manners.”
“Yes, but Mother is having a terrible time teaching her that second part.”
“Shes young. She has time yet to grow up.”
“Part of me wishes she wouldn’t. Winterfell will feel empty and cold once she weds and leaves.” Robb clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, brother. Spar with me. Let’s let Ser Rodrick have a look at your sword work.”
Rodrick heard them. “Blunt blades only. No live steel.”
Jon nodded in agreement and unbuckled his sword belt, passing it to Bran to hold. He ruffled the boy’s hair before accepting a practice blade from Rodrick’s squire. Arya hurried to Bran’s side, both of them perching upon a rail to watch. Ghost sat down on his haunches, soon joined by Summer, Grey Wind and Nymeria.
Robb watched Jon give the practice blade a few swings. “Is that going to be too heavy for you? I know you prefer a lighter blade.” He also knew he was just as comfortable with a larger one. He’d sparred with his brother when visiting him.
Jon recognized the banter and gave a wolffish grin. “Worry about yourself, m’lord.”
They exchanged blows and parries, the steel singing with each strike. They moved back and forth as Robb waited for an entry, but when he saw it and struck, Jon suddenly wasn’t there. Robb had expected that and quickly moved to guard his flank. They squared off again to go through another head set, only to have Jon deftly avoid his attack when he found another opening. This time he wasn’t quick enough to avoid the counter strike and felt the blow of the blade against his side.
“He’s a quick one!” Theon exclaimed as Jon let him recover. Robb returned Jon’s grin.
“That’s because my brother is a pretty little dancer!” he jibed as he moved to strike again.
“A dancer?” Jeoffrey, sounding as snide and elitist as usual.
“All the children at Deepwood Motte are taught dancing when they’re young.” Derek’s raps reached his ears. The man once told him that his voice was permanently ruined because of severe damage he’d taken in a fight. It matched his scarred visage and hard eyes.
“Why bother with that?”
“When it started it was to keep them entertained and active while the adults worked. But it also builds strength, balance and endurance. It didn’t take long for our masters at arms to catch on that they could channel those things to combat maneuvers. Most of them quit their dancing lessons between ten and twelve, but the skills remain.”
“And interesting concept, Derek.” Robb spied Ser Rodrick from the periphery as he moved to stand closer to the other man. “I’d like to hear more about it.”
“I can tell you some, but Kate would be better qualified. She made Jon her personal project.”
The prince scoffed. “He was taught by a woman?”
Inspiration struck Robb. “Aye. His pretty face. His hair. His dancing. And he’s quite the bard as well! My brother will make someone a fine lady one day!”
Jon snarled and lunged. Robb laughed and dodged, then the chase was on. “KEEP IT IN THE YARD!” Ser Rodrick called to them as they moved across the ground. Sparring with Jon was always enjoyable, perhaps because he got to do it so rarely.
Theon hollered out, “HE’S YOUNGER! YOU CAN TAKE HIM!” Followed by Derek’s “GET HIM, JON!,”. Arya’s laughter rang out like bells next to Bran’s cheers. Even the prince egged them on as the pair of them proceeded to use every inch of the yard, spinning around one another between the clashing of steel. He made a sweep at Jon’s legs, but his brother dodged it by leaping onto a nearby hand cart, giving him the advantage of height. Robb kicked it and even he had pause and marvel as Jon not only didn’t crash to the ground but rolled into it to come back onto his feet with the grace of a cat. That brought a rousing cry of cheers from their gathering crowd and he thought he heard the King’s boom laugh over the top of them all. Jon took advantage of his distraction to make a jab at his midsection which he just barely moved quickly enough to parry.
Robb laughed and continued the fight, both of them churning the dry earth beneath their boots, blades singing out to the delight of their audience. He saw an opening and took it, stopping his blade at the side of Jon’s neck. “Dead!”
Jon gave him a slow smile as Ser Rodrick called out, “A draw! Look down.”
He did. If it had been a true fight, Jon’s blade would have sliced through his midsection in such a way as to cleave his liver and sever the major blood vessels in his stomach. He looked back at Jon in surprise as the crowd cheered.
Jon shrugged. “Anyone can kill anyone if he isn’t afraid of dying himself.”
Robb gave a single bark of laughter, then followed it with true laughter. He removed his blade as Jon removed his and pulled his brother in for a hug with his free arm. They hugged one another, still laughing. This was how it should have been. Had Jon been raised at Winterfell they would have grown up playing knights and reveling in the joy of being brothers.
“Well done!” Robb pulled away from Jon to see the King and their father approaching. Robert’s face was smiling from ear to ear. “Well done! Gods, Ned, were we ever that spry?”
“Not that I remember.” Father smiled at them both. His smiles were always slight but genuine. The pride was easy to recognize.
Robert looked at Jon. “You’d be the bastard, then.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“I’d never be able to enjoy a good sparring match with my brothers. Renly wouldn’t be interested and Stannis would be likely to kill me! Your father was my brother!” The king gripped them each by the upper arm. “Cherish what you have. Never let anyone or anything tear you apart and always have each other’s backs. Do that and the North will remain strong.”
That was...surprisingly wise for the Drunkard King. Both he and Jon made some polite response and were quickly forgotten in favor of Robert reminiscing with their father about their own youth. They surrendered their practice blades and Bran brought Jon his sword.
“That was amazing.” Arya’s eyes were bright as the smiled up at Jon. “Robb told us you were a good fighter, but I didn’t expect that.”
“Robb told you?”
“Sure. Every time he and Father came back from seeing you. Bran and me sneak into his room after Mother sends us all to bed and he tells us everything.”
Well, everything that he could. “Why don’t we give Jon a tour of Winterfell. We wouldn’t want him to get lost while he’s here.”
Bran grinned. “We should start at the kitchens!”
Robb laughed.”That is a fine idea.”
“Not at all, My Lady. We’ll be most comfortable.”
Andi saw that their bags had already been placed there, likely by Derek. Next to them she spied a familiar case she hadn’t realized had been brought along. The Queen had retired to her guest rooms shortly before to begin preparing for the night’s feast. There would likely be a grand meal of some kind every night while the King was here. She shuddered to think what this trip would cost Winterfell. Their unexpected gift of foodstuffs and spirits was likely welcomed.
“Lady Julia, you and your husband have the room next to this one.”
Julie smiled. “Thank you, My Lady. I’m sure we will quite comfortable as well.”
“I’ll leave you to your preparations, then.” She was about to leave when Pat spoke up.
“What about Jon?” She’d moved over to where the bags were and was trying to surreptitiously scoot the case under the bed. “Where is Jon to sleep?”
Catelyn Stark looked as though she’d bitten into something sour. “Jon Snow will be with the other guardsmen in the great hall. It has more than enough space.”
Pat looked shocked. “The great hall? On the floor!” She looked about ready to go off, but Julie cut through the oncoming rant.
“We do apologize for showing up atop your other guests. I can’t imagine how you manage to fit so many new people under one roof. We won’t be any trouble, I assure you.”
Pat took the hint. Mostly. Her expression changed to one that was warm and kind. “Lady Stark?” A soft lyrical quality had entered her voice. The whole room seemed to grow a shade brighter.
Catelyn looked at the youngest sister, her expression growing a bit slack. Her eyes darkened and she started to smile back.
Andi reached out and took her sister by the elbow, giving it a squeeze just right to tweak her ulnar nerve.
And just like that the feeling subsided.
Catelyn shook herself. Andi smiled, still holding Pat’s elbow. “Thank you for your hospitality, My Lady. If you will excuse us, we need to clean off the road before tonight’s meal.”
Lady Stark looked uncertain as to what had transpired. “Of course. I shall see you this evening.” She turned and left, Julie shutting the door behind her.
Andi looked at her little sister. “Behave.”
Pat pulled her arm free and gestured to the closed door. “SHE PUT...”
“Keep your voice down,” growled Julie from between her teeth.
Pat lowered her voice to a loud whisper. “She put Jon on the floor! Like some mutt!”
Andi shook her head as she walked over to the tub. “Samuel and the others are all on the floor as well. Are they mutts?” Actually, that might be a dangerous question.
“I don’t think any of them should have to sleep on the floor, but this Jon! He’s Lord Stark’s son!”
“Lady Catelyn isn’t his mother.”
“So? That’s not Jon’s fault! I bet if we took this to Lord Stark he’d find him a room.”
Julie sighed. “You’d lose that bet.”
Pat whirled on her. “He loves Jon!”
“Yes, he does.” Andi agreed as she started the taps. When they had introduced the idea of indoor plumbing to the North, the Lord Stark at the time had decided that every room that was a bed chamber should have its own plumbed tub and basin, rather than only a few having such with the others sharing a few common areas. It was a surprisingly extravagant move for a house known for its austerity. The hot springs already running through Winterfell via pipes had made it somewhat easier. Only the kitchens and the laundry needed boilers to heat the water further and the engineers had enjoyed the challenge of trying to work with the odd combination of magic and mundane that made up the existing plumbing. “Eddard Stark loves Jon, but he has to live with his wife. He will want peace in his house.”
“But it isn’t fair!”
“Life seldom is, Pat. I told you that they could have a backwards way of looking at bastards. To many, Jon is a walking sin. A stain on Lord Stark’s otherwise pristine honor. It isn’t fair that the children born out of wedlock bear the burden of something they had no say in but that is the way of things.”
“Well it’s stupid.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, but I’m not Lady Catelyn.” Her sister’s face screwed into a frown. “And you will be a polite and gracious guest while we are here. No starting arguments and no using your magic to influence people. Unless there’s a bloody brawl brewing you’re trying to stop, I don’t want to feel so much as a twinge from you.”
Pat scowled and sat down on the bed with a flounce. Typical teenager. She needed a change of thought.
“Is that your gurdy?”
She blinked, her foot moving to try and hide the spot where she had moved the case. “Uhm...maybe?”
“You don’t know?” The water seemed about right. Andi shut off the tap.
“Yes. I mean, it is.”
“Then why didn’t you just say it was your gurdy? Where was it anyway? I didn’t see it with our bags in the wagons.”
“I hid it under the sausages. I didn’t think you’d let me bring it.”
Andi arched a brow. “Why ever not?”
“When Mom said you had to let me come along you said I couldn’t make a spectacle of myself.”
Julie snickered. “That’s not what we meant and you know it. Actually it’s probably a good thing you brought it. You should bring it down at dinner. If you add some entertainment to the feast, maybe our crashing their royal visit won’t be so grating.”
Andi grinned along with Julie. “In the tub, brat. Time to scrub up and put on our pretty dresses.”
“I didn’t pack a dress.”
“Yes you did. It’s with mine.”
Pat started stripping. “You packed me a dress? Why?”
“Because we’re visiting high borns. You should always pack a dress or two in case you have to dress up for something fancy.”
“Yes I do. I may seldom have to wear it but I always have one.”
Pat rolled up her clothes neatly out of habit, frowning. She didn’t care for dressing up.
“You wanted to get out of the Keep and see other people,” Andi reminded her. “This is part of that. We put on our human manners, wear our human faces and we do nothing to make the North suspect there are monsters in their midsts. Remember the laws, smile prettily and you just might get through this. Now get in the tub.”
As much as she fussed about having to wear a gown, Patrice gave no push back at having her hair done. When she asked her sister what she wanted, Pat had said “Something fancy to go with my pretty dress.” Andi knew how to do fancy braids. Erratim, for all her gruff demeanor and snide remarks, doted on her grand nieces and often did their hair up in elaborate braids when they were younger. Andi had learned them from her.
Julie and Derek only gave their door a single knock before letting themselves in. They’d known they were there even before. They’d heard them leave their room and had smelled them outside. Derek had shaved and Julie had put on a gown of blue with green trim. They all wore those colors. Their mother’s colors. The colors of In Sharratum, the queen who did not rule.
“Awwww, I can tell you have a belly!” Pat put a hand against the gentle swell of Julie’s lower abdomen, patting it affectionately. The gown didn’t mask it like her usual clothes did.
“Don’t draw attention to it. Your sister will start hovering.”
“I don’t hover.”
Derek grinned. “You definitely hover.”
“I do not!”
“Then what do you call riding all the way to the Wall with her?”
Julie rolled her eyes. “Yeah,because it’s not like this is my third pregnancy or anything.”
“Pat was mom’s fourth, and she still had a hard time. Just because the boys were relatively easy doesn’t mean you won’t have trouble.”
“Dolittle has been a bad influence on you.”
Andi stuck her tongue out at her good brother. She didn’t ‘hover’. She was reasonably cautious. As a senior member of the hospital staff she had a responsibility to oversee the health and wellbeing of their people. It would help if she wasn’t working with a bunch of near homicidal maniacs under the delusion that they were indestructible. Her mentor called them ‘hard cases’, with her mother being the worst of them.
“Actually, I’m glad you’re coming with me. Can you fix cataracts?”
“They’re pretty easy for me. Why?”
“Maester Aemon. He’s pushing one hundred and he can no longer see because of them. Bad thing for a man who loves books the way he does. I thought you might could take a look at him while we’re there.”
A blind Maester? They avoided the Maesters as a rule, but they were scholars. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like for him to be barred from his studies that way. “Sure. I cane do that. Might as well help him spend his final days enjoying himself.”
Pat sat on the bed and plucked her gurdy from the case, making sure the wheel was properly rosined and changing the cotton on the melody string. They lingered in the room until she was satisfied, then they left their room to join the feast.
Brandon and Rickon Stark met them in the hall leading to the great room. Bran bowed to Andi. “Would you grant me the honor of escorting you to the feast, Lady Andrea?” She could tell he was nervous and was trying to remember exactly how it was to be said. He was just too adorable!
Andi gave him an elegant curtesy. “I would be delighted, Lord Brandon.” She placed a hand on his arm and walked with him. They watched as little Rickon carefully and slowly repeated the same invitation to her sister. Repeated it so perfectly that he called her ‘Lady Andrea’ before quickly correcting himself. Pat nearly melted from the abundance of cuteness and gave him her hand.
Brandon brought her to the head table where she would sit with Lord and Lady Stark as well as the King and Queen, as the representative of House Lennart. Technically Julie was older, but although she was still called a lady, in the eyes of the North she had wed a commoner. Most families would have disowned her, but they were not most families, or even most people. Derek was practically family, her parents had known him longer than they had Julie, and the marriage had been readily accepted. Julie and Derek were free to sit with Sam and the others while Pat sat at the table with the other high born youngsters. Jon was there, too, having been pulled over by Robb.
“Lady Andrea, I hardly recognized you.”
Okay, the Queen was a bitch. No, that was an insult to bitches. Some of Andi’s best friends were bitches. “We always come prepared, Your Grace.”
The King peered at her. She’d never met Robert Baratheon in his youth, thankfully, but she remembered him being described as a handsome, burly man. Strong and tall. Clearly he had not handled the years, wealth and power well. Now he was a fat, red faced man who reeked of ale and wine. Her magic told her that his liver was close to succumbing to cirrhosis and his heart strained to work. She doubted he had more than a handful of years in him if he didn’t make changes in his lifestyle. It was on her tongue to scold him as she would a stubborn bear who wouldn’t lay off the honey and eat things with more nutrition to them. But she also had to maintain diplomacy. One did not start reprimanding a king about his diet at a feast.
“You’re from Deepwood Motte, then?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
He grunted. “Clever people you have there. Never knew what I’d been missing until I got to the Erie and learned about indoor plumbing. Lord Arryn hired them to plumb the Red Keep. Now the place smells a damn sight better. It’s already making a difference in the city, what they’re doing there.”
“I’m glad we can be of service. I’ll be sure to tell my brother’s lead engineer.”
“Engineer.” He tasted the word. “Is that what you call them?”
“Yes, that is their title. It applies to someone who specializes in the designing and building of things. Devices, buildings, roads and the like.”
“Engineer. Has a nice sound to it. Maester Pycell asked that I discuss with Lord Stark about your brother and his refusal to let the Citadel send a Maester there.”
She was sure that they did, the nosy bastards. “We’ve no need for a Maester, Your Grace. Deepwood Motte does quite well without them.”
“But who tends you during illness?” The Queen swirled wine in her goblet. “Who delivers the babes?”
“I do, Your Grace. Myself, and Dolittle and our other healers. We’re quite good at it. I dare say even better than your Maesters. Our forefathers needed no Maesters when they tended to those left at Deepwood Motte after they arrived here, and we do not need them now.”
“When they arrived?”
“That was how the Lennarts became the lords of Deepwood Motte, Your Grace.” Ned Stark declined a refill on his ale. “A century and a half ago it was held by House Glover, but during a harsh winter their food stores went off. The snows were too deep and the other houses could not send relief. Many starved. Others took their chances with the food stores and became sick. The whole of House Glover was lost. About that time strangers driven from their homelands by war landed near the motte. They found a weakened and dying castle and town. Instead of taking it by force, they tended to the ailing. They shared their food. Their leaders helped to gather the dead and see to them properly. By the time the snows let up enough Brynden Stark could ride to them, he found the remaining people of Deepwood Motte grateful and accepting of the strangers who had saved them. Since the Lennarts and those with them had acted as any Lord was expected to the Lord Stark asked for their oath of loyalty. In exchange, he named them the Lords of Deepwood Motte. He advised the King of his decision and why. It was not questioned and the Lennarts have been loyal Northmen ever since.”
“And the whole of the realm prospers because of it!” Robert hoisted his mug. “This is from what you brought with you, I’m told. Great stuff!”
“The honey ale. My grandfather and cousins make it. That whole side of the family has a sweet tooth. I’ve tried to steer them towards healthier foods but they won’t budge. It doesn’t help that they’re so skilled with what they do with the honey.”
“Why doesn’t your brother send the trade wagons down to us? They’d be welcomed in the south. It would give those flowery cunts in Reach some real competition.”
“I’ll mention your interest when I return home. He’ll be sending the next building crew soon, anyway. He might as well send one of the tradesmen to explore more possible routes.”
“That’s Conlan Lennart, right?”
“Gregory, Your Grace. Conlan stepped down from being Lord. Couple years ago.”
“Oh? What happened.”
“His wife had triplet boys when she already had a two-year-old daughter to chase after. Conlan decided that for the sake of his marriage and his wife’s sanity he should be at her beck and call.”
The King’s eyes bulged. “Triplets? Did they make it?”
Andi laughed. “Yes, though it was more than a month of very little sleep. They came too early and too small as multiples as want to do. Then, about the time they should have been born had she carried fully, they just sort of,” she made a vague getter with one hand, “woke up. As though nothing was ever wrong. I gave thanks to every deity I remembered and a couple I think my sleep deprived brain dreamt up.”
He laughed and raised his tankard again. “Gods be praised. Your brother is a lucky man. Three healthy boys at once. A miracle, that.”
“Their parents might not always agree. Our parents think it’s hilarious. I’m told Conlan was quite the challenge to raise. Now he’s paying for that three times over. It doesn’t help that their grandparents encourage them.”
Robert found this funny. “Are you the one who went to Dragonstone?”
“No, that was Dolittle. He is the lead healer. How is your niece?”
“I don’t hear much from Stannis, but he did say she is fully healed. No sign of the grayscale left on her.”
“I’m glad. Dolittle will be happy to hear she is thriving.”
They settled into the meal. Andi knew that they drew stares with how much they ate, but King Robert dismissed it with a laugh when she went in for her third helping. She was not relaxing at the table wit Catelyn and the queen, a goblet of her mothers wine in her hand as her sister opened her case and bulled her gurdy to her.
“What kind of instrument is that?” the queen inquired.
“It’s called a hurdy gurdy, though I have no idea why. The design came with them when our forefathers arrived. She fell in love with it when she was two and ten.” Pat started turning the crank and the drone strings hummed. When her fingers started on the keys, a lively melody filled the hall to the delight of those gathered. With her pretty looks, easy smile, grace and talent, Patrice was used to being liked. This visit would be a good test of her ability to fit in.
“Interesting. It has more depth to it than a lute.” Cersei sipped her wine as she listened. Some got up to dance as Patrice played, including Robb who invited Myrcella to join him. Robert and Ned had left the table. Ned to speak with his brother Benjen visiting from the Wall and Robert to enjoy himself with the men and the serving girls.
In front of his wife! Her mother would have sliced Father to ribbons for such a thing. Well, first she’d rip the other woman bald, then she’d kill dad.
“Lovely girl, your sister. And so talented. Lovely eyes. I thought at first she might be a Stark cousin.”
Did she really just say that? It was a clear jab at their hosts. Catelyn knew it, too, given how she flinched ever so slightly. You will not use my sister to jab at Lady Stark to make yourself feel better about you whoring husband. “She has our father’s eyes. Our brothers have the same. I’m the odd one out, there. I got Father’s hair but Mother’s eyes.”
Andi almost felt Catelyn relax. Had she really feared that Pat might be a Stark bastard? Them bringing Jon must have reopened old wounds. It also told her the Ned still hadn’t told his wife the truth. That boy could be so stubborn at times.
Pat finished her instrumental and swallowed a mouthful of ale to wet her throat before she started another one. This one had lyrics as well, and her sister started singing “The Longing”. She had a lovely voice. Andi could stay on pitch, but her voice wasn’t anything special. Gregory had a nice tenor that blended well with others. Mother and Conlan could scare off an invading horde with their screeching. They were the only people she knew of that pacified children by stopping their singing.
She felt Ned Stark approaching. “Lady Andrea, my wife says you have something to discuss with me.”
She looked up and smiled. “Yes, My Lord. A private matter.”
“Would the godswood meet your needs?”
“That would be quite sufficient.” She moved to rise as he excused them from the queen’s presence.
They left the great hall, passing the soldiers loitering outside. As they moved towards the godswood Derek was jogging their way. He and Julie had slipped out when little Rickon had been sent off to bed before he fell asleep in his trencher.
“Everything all right?”
“Just getting my wife something to drink. She says we were right. At least about that one.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
Lord Stark looked at her curiously. “Is something wrong?”
“Not wrong, but it does involve one of the things I needed to speak with you about.”
“What is it?”
They were still walking, but the were far enough from other ears to be safe. “Have you ever spoken to my mother or aunt about magic when you visited?”
“Not really. I am content in the knowledge that your family has pledges never to use their magic against us.”
“Everyone has magic, even if everyone cannot use it. Life creates it. From the smallest insect to the largest animal, a blade of grass to the greatest tree, ever living thing emanates magic.” They entered the godswood and the trees themselves tried to prove her right. She felt the pleasant buzz of magic against her skin.
“Magic also has color. Julie can see those colors. It’s a rare gift. Of our people only she and her son, Pippin, have it.” Why her sister named her children after Tolkien characters she couldn’t fathom. Or why Derek went along with it. Merry and Pipp were bad enough, but if she tried to name this next one something like Bilbo, she was calling an emergency family meeting about her failing sanity. “The magic from people is blue. The magic of animals is a very pale yellow.”
Ned nodded, following her words. He was always attentive and he weighed everything he was told carefully. He’d been that way since childhood. Eddard had always been the serious one of the his generation.
“Not long after Jon brought Ghost home, once he got big enough to explore on his own, Julie noticed that sometimes his magic would shift from yellow to a pale green.”
“As though mixing blue with the yellow?” That surprised her. She wouldn’t have thought the mixing of colors to create different shades would have been part of his education. It was an artistic endeavor, more likely to be required of an artisan’s apprentice or someone who needed to know such things for their profession.
“Yes. She’d seen the shade before, during her excursions north of the Wall. The Free Folk have people among them called Wargs or Skinchangers. They can send their minds into that of animals to see through the animals eyes. Hear through their ears. They use it to scout for game or spy on rival tribes. A popular use for birds is to use them to spy on the Watch when they go ranging.
“We scouted the Wolf Woods for possible spies who had crept over the Wall, but there were none. After a few more times she realized that it only happened when Ghost was alone, which only happened when Jon had gone to bed. So we snuck into his room one night to check on him. He was growling and making other wolf like noises in his sleep.”
Ned met her eyes with an expression that was a mix of worry and disbelief. “He was warging into Ghost in his sleep. He thought they were just dreams, but they are more than that. And once he was made aware of it, he started to try and do it consciously. He keeps improving significantly. Ghost is easy for him, likely because they are so close, but he’s also had success with cats, birds, even horses.”
“Is it safe? Is there a risk he will forget how to get back to his own mind?”
“I don’t believe so, but after we leave here Jon will go with me and Julie north of the Wall. She and Derek know some of the Free Folk, but Derek has committed to helping with the next group of tracker students so she’s going with us. I’m going because she’s insisting on going when she’s already three months pregnant.” She said that last with an irritated tone and expression. “We hope to get one of their wargs to speak with him and tell him anything he may be missing. It’s always good to learn from those who have experience.”
Lord Stark clearly still had concerns. Time to drop the next one on him. “It’s not just Jon.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what Derek was talking about. He and Julie slipped out to the kennels when your wife sent Rickon to bed. She wanted to get a look at the wolves when your children turned in for the night. What Derek was telling me is that Rickon’s wolf went green. We won’t know about the others until they fall asleep.”
“Rickon? He’s only six.”
“I’m told I was only ten months the first time I healed an injury. My mother had helped route out some bandits and had a scrape on her cheek. They say she had pulled me onto he lap and I reached up to touch her face and healed it. Shocked everyone. It’s not a common gift and is even rarer in our bloodline.” She let that sink in. “To truly use magic you have to believe in it. That belief comes easier to children, because they don’t yet believe in impossibility. It is much harder for a grown person to learn magic because they have to convince themself that it’s possible to begin with. Not everyone can. It also tells me that Jon gets this gift from his Stark blood. It might explain why the dire wolf is the sigil of your house. And we’d already puzzled out that Bran the Builder had magic. Winterfell and the Wall were both built with it.”
“Then why don’t we already know this?”
“Likely because harsh living and time beat the wonder out of your memories.” They had settled down onto a log that served as a makeshift seat. Andi rocked slightly to nudge his shoulder. “That doesn’t mean you can’t reclaim that wonder. Maybe even you. Try it. Get yourself a pup from one of your hounds, one that seems right to you, and bond to it the way your children have bonded to their wolves. Now that you know it’s possible, you might even be able to teach yourself to warg as well. I’d be surprised if you didn’t have the innate talent for it.”
He seemed both scared of and intrigued by the thought. She smiled. “If you like, we can send Jon this way when he’s done up north to share what he’s learned. I doubt the Watch will let us bring a fully skilled warg back with us.”
“Thank you for telling me. It does make me think of the Stark ‘wolf blood’. Maybe it’s not just wildness.”
“You’re not part wolf, I’d smell it if you were, but it could very well be the magic trying to express itself. Julie does say you shine brighter than most. We’ve wondered why we never saw it manifest before.” She nodded, more to herself. “It’s good to finally solve that mystery.”
“Is that what had you so bothered? Is that what troubled you enough to bring you here?”
She took in a deep breath and let it out. “No. That was just an extra thing.” She licked her lips, not sure how this would go. “Jon wants to join the pack. As one of us.”
Ned’s jaw went slack as he processed this news. “I thought that was dangerous.”
“It is. Very much so. There’s a very real chance he could die from the attempt. But he’s insistent.”
“You came to ask my blessing?” She could tell he had no intention of giving it.
“I want you to tell him the truth.” That stopped his agitation cold. “This choice, if he carries through with it, won’t just affect him. It will affect any children he may father. And their children, their children’s children and so on. Many would say he’s choosing to set aside his humanity. He should know the truth before he commits to such a path. A man has a right to know who he is.”
Ned lowered his gaze, staring into the soil between the Wierwood roots as though it might hold answers.
“When you put that boy in my arms, I didn’t ask for the right to tell him the truth when he was old enough to understand the importance of it. It is your place to tell him that, but I understand if you feel now is not the time. We can ensure that no one gets close enough to overhear you, but if the king’s presence concerns you we will wait until we’ve got him away from here and I’ll tell him myself. But either way, he will be told. It’s past time that he knew the truth of why you sent him to us.”
“No.” He shook his head. “It is my burden. I will tell him. It should come from me.”
She nodded. “Tell me when and where you want him. We’ll make sure he’s there.”
“In the crypts. Tomorrow, before we break fast.”
“He’ll be there.” She studied him. “He may not be the only one you should tell.” He lifted his eyes to meet hers. “Until I shut down the queen’s bitchy little game, I think your wife may have feared Pat was another Stark bastard.” Ned’s blinked, surprised. “You still haven’t told her, either.”
“It was never the right time.”
Andi shook her head and got up. “I’ve never married, as Conlan and our grandfather love to remind me, but I know wounds. That one festers. Little of what the building crews tell us about King’s Landing is complimentary. If you’re going to let Robert pull you down to that cess pit, you should tend to that sore before you leave. The two of you would be all the stronger for it. And you’ve had plenty of time to know if she can keep the secret by now.”
“I often forget you’re so much older then me, then you say something like that. Thank you for your counsel.”
“Comes with the job. You can’t treat the body and ignore the mind.” She bowed slightly. “Thank you for your time, Lord Stark.”
“Please, pleasepleaseplease pleeeeeeease pleasepleaseplease.”
She tugged on his arm as Robb Stark laughed. “Go on, Jon. You’re not going to deny a lady her wish, are you?”
“Yeah, Jon!” added the Greyjoy boy, “Robb says you’re as good as any bard. Let’s hear it!”
“Sing ‘Home’, Jon!” shouted one of the men from Deepwood Motte. Another joined him with, “Misty Mountain!” Another with, “Lonely Mountain!” That got unanimous votes from their party, chanting “Lonely Mountain” over and over, Patrice adding her voice to them.
“You lot going to help me?”
“Start singing and we’ll think about it!” one hollered back, winning laughs from the entire hall.
Jon let Lady Patrice pull him onto his feet. The crowd clapped and cheered, the King along with them. Ser Barristan saw Robb Stark mutter to his nearby siblings, eyes bright as though plotting something.
Jon Snow took a swig of ale before shooting a somewhat annoyed look at his fellows from the Motte. The others in the hall were laughing and jeering him on. Then he opened his mouth to sing the first words... and all laughing stopped.
Far over the Misty Mountains rise
Lead us standing upon the height
What was before we see once more
Is our kingdom a distant light
Fiery mountain beneath a moon
The words aren't spoken, we'll be there soon
For home a song that echoes on
And all who find us will know the tune
Some folk we never forget
Some kind we never forgive
Yai yai yai yah!
Haven't seen the back of us yet
We'll fight as long as we live
Selmy Wanted to let the song wash over him, but that nagging sense of remembrance kept prodding him.
All eyes on the hidden door
A sweet voice kissed his memory. One of the last conversations he’d had before Aerys sent him to join the war. This didn’t need to happen. If the King had only let me speak to them, I could have told Lord Stark the truth!
To the Lonely Mountain borne
In his mind’s eye, the short, dark hair faded out to silver white. The grey eyes gained a shade of violet. Why should I not have some say in who will raise my children after I am dead? She is the kind of woman who would love them as though they were her own. But if we waited until I died, her father would have already given her to Robert. There was no time.
We'll ride in the gathering storm
I am no longer Rhaegar’s wife, but my son is still his heir. I hold him no I’ll will. I want him to be happy. They have my every blessing.
Until we get our long forgotten gold
The reality of what happened at the end of the war settled into his shoulders. He realized in that moment the Lord Stark’s honor ran deeper than any of them had ever suspected.
“Jon?” The voice was a familiar whisper. He felt the slight pressure of a hand on his shoulder. “Jon.”
He made his eyes open. He doubted he’d been asleep for long.
Dark brown eyes looked back at him. Little gold sparks told him that she was amused. “Do you think you can extract yourself from your puppy pile? Lord Stark wants to speak with you.”
As it turned out, he hadn’t slept on the floor in the great hall. He and Robb had still been up and talking, and when the others started getting ready to sleep Robb had drug him upstairs to his room so the others could have quiet. They had stayed there, talking. Rickon wandered in mumbling that he wanted a story. After a while Bran came in. A little later Arya did as well. Sometime in the night they had all four ended up in Robb’s bed. Either Arya or Bran was lying on his back. Rickon had managed to end up with his head at the foot of the bed and his feet between his and Robb’s heads. He had surprisingly smelly feet for a young child.
Jon reached out on instinct to brush Ghost’s mind. His wolf was currently at the back of the kennels with his litter mates. They had gotten out of their cages, thanks to the intelligence of their human owners in the night, and were in their own ‘puppy pile’.
He shifted. Andi reached out and carefully eased Arya off of his back, settling her in the space where he had lain just a moment before. Robb stirred, blinked, then blinked again at the lady in his bedchamber.
“I’m just here for him,” she whispered as Jon pulled on his boots. “Your father sent for him.”
“Do you want me to come along?” Robb winced as Rickon’s foot connected with his jaw.
“It’s a private matter between the two of them. You can ask Lord Stark about it later.”
Robb nodded, his brow slightly furrowed as they left the room. They walked together, the halls deserted in the pre-dawn. There were a few servants up at this hour. Overall the castle felt cold and foreboding.
They found Derek outside where he could watch the entrance to the Stark Crypts. He seemed relaxed as he sharpened and polished a knife, one of many he always had on him. He looked up as they drew near.
“All clear. He’s already in there. I’ll make sure that no one disturbs them.”
Andi nodded. “Thank you, Derek.” Jon was starting to feel real worry. Andrea turned to look at him with that expression she wore when tending a child fighting to keep their sanity. She reached up and straightened his hair, worn short as was the custom amongst the Pack, then gave his cheek a light pinch.
Okay, now he knew something was wrong.
“You’ll be fine “ she told him, likely sensing his anxiety. “I should go pull Pat out of bed. She didn’t take my advice about going to bed early and it’s going to be a battle getting her up and ready.”
He hadn’t taken her advice either, but that had been Robb’s fault. Both of them would be paying for it today. Jon swallowed and went into the crypts.
He found his father standing before the statue of a young woman. The only woman to have such a thing in the crypts.
“My sister Lyanna. The whole of the Seven Kingdoms went to war over her. Thousands of men died over her. We tore noble families apart because Rhaegar had taken her. Stolen her from us before she could be wed to Robert. Stolen her and raped her.”
His father finally looked at him. His eyes were filled with pain and mourning. The feeling of dread that had been steadily growing became a solid block of ice in his gut. “We were all wrong.”
He heard the words that came after that. He heard them all. He knew what they meant. It was just that his mind had trouble stringing all those thoughts and syllables into something coherent.
Ned Stark’s had was a warm solid weight on his shoulders. He was looking at him, expression one of concern.
“I thought...” his voice cracked slightly. Jon swallowed and tried again. “I thought you sent me away because you were ashamed of me.”
“No.” He placed his other hand on the opposite shoulder. “Never. I was afraid for you.”
“Robert... his hatred for the Targaryens knows no bounds. Even after all this time. He refused to do anything when The Mountain murdered Elia and her children. He dismissed them as dragon spawn. He did nothing to stop Tywin Lannister as he sent his men to hunt down and kill every child suspected of being a Targaryen bastard. Even as she lay dying, your mother’s worry was that Robert would kill you if he learned of you.”
He had feared the king would want him dead. “So you told everyone you fathered a bastard.”
“I did. To keep you safe, I stripped you of your name and burdened you with the illusion of illegitimacy. You have a Stark’s coloring, but you were too young to pass off as one of Brandon’s. Benjen spent the war at Winterfell. He didn’t have the chance to father a child, and if he’d done so, the mother would have been known. Of the three of us, I was the only one who could have been in a position to have fathered a child, and I wouldn’t have been the only high born to have done so during the war. I had thought to raise you here, at Winterfell amongst your cousins. I hadn’t counted on how much claiming you would hurt my wife. I should have, but I was young and foolish then.
“And when I arrived home, Andrea was here. Sent by her parents to await my armies return in the case that her skills were needed.”
Jon frowned. “So you decided to hide me with them? Why?”
Ned released his hold and leaned against the far wall. “I couldn’t know who might have suspected the truth. I still can’t. I trust Howland Reed, he would take a Stark confidence to his grave. That’s why I asked him to come with me after Lyanna. She’d been in Rhaegar’s company for more than a year. It was likely she was with child, if one hadn’t already been born, and after Robert’s callous disregard for your siblings, I didn’t want anyone with me who couldn’t be trusted. But there is the midwife who delivered you and your mother’s lady’s maid. The High Septon at the time granted the annulment and performed the marriage. Who might he have told? Which of the King’s Guard had known other than Ser Arthur? Did the prince tell any confidantes we didn’t know of? I’ve feared most every day that someone might come to Winterfell demanding Rhaegar’s child.
“But I knew the Pack would never let them lay hands on that child. You know them. You’ve lived the whole of your life with them. What would they do if someone came to Deepwood Motte or the Keep to harm a child?”
That answer was clear. “They would tear them apart.” They suffered such devastatingly high child mortality rates that all children were precious to them. No malicious actions towards a cub were tolerated. Even if that cub wasn’t one of theirs.
“To find Andi waiting at Winterfell was like an answer to a prayer. I promised Lyanna I would keep you safe. That I would never let Robert or the others touch you.”
“You told Andi the truth.”
“I did. I would not ask them to take you under false pretenses. It would not have been right to do so. Andi didn’t hesitate to accept. Once she had seen to those injuries that lingered, she took you up into her arms and returned to her family. Patrice was barely a month younger than you and a Lady Kate decided to raise you along with her. She didn’t even call for a wet nurse, but fed you at her breast next to her daughter.”
“Her good father calls us ‘milk siblings’ because of that. No one in the Pack considers it strange. No one in the Pack looked down on me for being a bastard either.”
“That is because they have enough sense not to punish a child for the sins of his parents. Would that more men were as wise.”
Jon stared at his mother’s face. How true was the likeness? “What good does it do? I know the truth, but I can’t speak of it. What use is it to know this?”
“Because a man should know who he is. A man has a right to know where he comes from. You are no common born person and you were not conceived in an act of betrayal. You are true born and noble. Your blood is more noble than mine.”
“And if I say anything about it, the King will order my death. He will order your death for treason! Robb will likely face the same unless he disavows you.” He threw his arms open. “What am I to do with this? When I came here I had a father and siblings. Now I don’t even have that!”
“You are my son in every other way that matters! I wanted to raise you here, but it was safer for you to be hidden elsewhere. I prayed that you and Robb would love one another as brothers. When he was old enough for me to tell him about the Pack and bring him with me, I was overjoyed by how quickly the two of you bonded. You are my blood, and I have never regretted that Lyanna entrusted you to me. My only regret is that you have been denied the chance to know them.”
Ned sighed. “I should have questioned it. I only met Rhaegar once, but the man I met did not strike me as the kind to force a woman. His reputation was that of a good man, a great improvement over his father. Many hoped he would move to take Aerys off the throne. But once the Mad King murdered my father and brother, the North could not be silent. There was nothing declaring your father’s innocence and too much to make us hate the Targaryens. By the time I learned the truth, it was too late. Rhaegar was dead. Aerys was dead. Robert had claimed the throne and too many lives had been lost. Telling the world about you would have only prolonged the violence and increased the chances you would not live to become a man. I promised her I would keep you safe. It was all she asked of me before she died.” He looked at him. “Never doubt that you were wanted. Your mother loved you. I love you. You are my blood, you are of Stark blood. You are as much of the North as she was.”
His eyes stung from unshed tears. “Is my name even Jon?”
“She named you Jaehaerys. It’s a good name, the first king of that name was known for his wisdom, but it is a Targaryen name. I called you Jon to further disguise you.”
So even his name wasn’t his. “Who am I? I don’t even know any longer.”
“You are my son. I may not have sired you, but I still claim you as such. The Stark name hides and shields you. The question now is how you will live your life. You are grown and there are opportunities available. I can petition Robert to declare you a legitimate Stark, or you can choose a name for yourself and start your own house. There are lands in the North that need a lord. Strategic points that sit undermanned or empty.”
Jon frowned. “What do you have in mind?”
“There are a few, but Moat Calin is the one that should be manned first. From a strategic standpoint it is important. The castle itself requires extensive renovation but I can hire Lord Gregory’s engineers for that and it includes lands north of the swamp for farming. And we’ll find you a wife. Lord Reed has a daughter. She is your age , but we would do well to wait until the castle is repaired enough for comfortable residence. She would not find Moat Calin distasteful and House Reed can well advise on how to make the best of the swamp lands.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that Lord Reed would know you’re not really asking him to wed his daughter to a bastard.”
His fath...no, his uncle nodded. “There would be no secrets between you, but if you feel Lady Meera would not suit, there are other ladies. You have time. It wouldn’t do for you to wed before Robb at any rate. That would cause comment.”
“So I would leave the home I’ve known all my life to set up a new home amongst strangers.”
“I know it may seem odd, but it is a choice that is open to you. You have the bloodline and the breeding to be a Lord, and it a less dangerous life than the one you are considering.”
Ah. So that was it. “Andi told you about my desire to join the Pack.”
“Are you going to forbid me from it?”
“I want to. But as much as many of my fellow lords have forgotten it is not our place to make all decisions for our people. As long as they do not break any laws, your choices are yours to make.”
“Would you love me any less if I do join them?”
“No.” Ned met his eyes. “I would not love you any less, but I beg you to consider other paths. What you seek is dangerous. It could kill you. Or it could drive you mad and then they would be forced to kill you. And it is not just you. It will pass on to your children who will face the same risks. If you wed, you could only choose from Deepwood Motte whereas choosing to be a lord will open far more options for you.”
Jon gave him a sad smile. “There would still be Lady Meera. House Reed keeps their secret as well. Or perhaps one of the girls from House Mormont.”
He could tell that Lord Stark did not like the idea of him staying with the Pack. “I thought you liked them.”
“I do. The North has benefited from their being with us, even if few truly know why. What I don’t like is that you are planning to take such a risk with your life. Why do you want this?”
“Because I want to belong.” He let the words fall between them.”You offer me lands and a title, but I will be alone. Even with your support the other lords will see only your bastard. The Lennarts treat me as though I am their blood, but I am not one of them. The others accept me but I will never be as fast or as strong as they are. Not as I am. I have never truly belonged. Not anywhere. If I become one of them, then I’ll be Pack. I will belong.”
Ned looked pained to hear that. “You do belong. You belong to House Stark. You belong to the North.”
“But I am always apart from both.” Jon let his head fall back against the stone wall of the crypts. The flickering light of the sconces danced across his mother’s stone face. “You’ve told me much. Given me much to consider. I...I would like time to think on it.”
Ned nodded. He reached out with one hand and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “If you need to speak with me, you’ve only to ask.”
Jon nodded but said nothing as his second father left him to his musings.
He slid down along the wall until he sat on the floor of the crypts, his face turned up towards Lyanna’s statue but not really seeing her. He didn’t want to be wholly alone, but he didn’t want to have to hold a conversation. He reached out with his mind and found Ghost. A brief while later the dire wolf came padding through the corridors to nuzzle his face.
“Who am I now, Ghost?” He ruffled the white fur. “Who am I supposed to be?” Ghost gave a soft whine and licked his face. Jon hugged the wolf, burying his face in the soft coat.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, Ghost’s head in his lap, but his ass and legs had gone numb when he saw a shadow approaching. A feminine hand dangled a cloth bundle before his face. “You never came back in to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“He might be.”
Ghost’s ears perked up, his large head rising as he sniffed at the bundle hopefully. Jon accepted it and untied the knot at the top to reveal a hunk of cheese, half a loaf of soft bread and three plump sausages. Andi wouldn’t have suggested them if the contained anything that might be harmful to Ghost, so he tore a third off one and fed it to him.
She sat down across from him, her back against the base of Lyanna’s statue. “It went that well, huh.” He tore another piece of sausage for Ghost. “How much did you yell at him?”
“I didn’t.” He paused. “I don’t think I did. I’m still trying to wrap my mind about it.”
“I bet. It’s a lot to take in.”
“He says he still thinks of himself as my father.”
She nodded. “That’s fair. From where I’m sitting you have three.” He looked up. “The one who sired you, the one that hid you under his name and reputation then did what he could to keep you safe, and the one who raised you. Although that last one was a surprise. I didn’t expect my parents to take you in when I brought you home.”
That was new. “What did you think would happen?”
She shrugged. “I thought I’d get to keep you myself. But I’d never had a baby and Mom had Pat. Next I knew she was nursing you along side her. Then she was putting you to bed in the crib next to her. Before I could blink I was shoved aside into the role of older sister to you as well. They pretty much stole you from me.”
He laughed. It was a weak laugh but he couldn’t help but give it. Ghost took advantage to steal the last third of the first sausage.
“It was probably for the best. The amount of time I work, I wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time raising you as a babe needs. And they did a proper enough job raising the four of us. You’ve turned out all right.”
Jon started on the second sausage. “He wants to make me a lord. Thinks I should take a wife and a castle.”
“Which girl and which castle?”
“Meera Reed and Moat Calin.”
She rolled that over in her mind. “Moat Calin is in rough shape, but it could probably be fixed. The Reeds are good people. I’m not sure she’s the best fit for you, but you might be one of the few who wouldn’t sneer down his nose at her. I haven’t met her, but I think one of the rats coming back from a trade run mentioned her and said she’s quite the hunter and trapper. Could move almost as quiet as we can. Not exactly the kind of skills most high borns look for in their brides. And that family is known to have Seers. There’d be the chance it could show up in your children.”
“Your mother and Erra say that kind of power can be more curse than blessing.”
“Now why can’t Pat pay attention like you do? If you’re not sure you want a high born, you could always settle down with a Pack girl. I wouldn’t advise either of the Schyuler sisters, though.”
He blanched. “You know about that?”
“Everyone knows about that. If you wanted discretion you shouldn’t have decided to lose your virginity to a pair of Bouda girls. Though I applaud the ambition of going for a threesome right at the start.”
Jon split the last sausage with Ghost as his skin flushed red to his ears. Time for a change of subject. “He doesn’t want me to join the Pack. He’s afraid it’ll kill me.”
“I’m afraid it will kill you. The risk of it doing so is real. Even with Panacea, roughly twenty seven percent of those infected go loup at stage four. One in four don’t survive their first change. It’s a dangerous thing to go through.”
“Are you going to tell me I can’t?”
Andi sighed. “It’s not my place to order you around. Only Greg has the authority to bar you from it, and he’s not likely to do so. You’re practically family and we know you can be trusted. You’d be an asset to any clan. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one tried to recruit you.” She reached out with one foot and tapped his leg. “But can I ask a favor?”
“Take a bit more time to think about it? You just got blindsided by your own heritage. Take some time to try and figure out what it means to you and what you want to do with it.”
“What can I do with it? Lord Stark believes the King would kill me if he found out.”
“Not just the King.” He cocked his head to one side. “I knew the Stark children. All of them. They were as much a pack as we are. Lyanna may have slipped away to avoid her father’s plans to wed her to Robert, but she loved him and her brothers. There is no chance she didn’t try to get the truth to them. Aerys was mad. Rhaegar could have told him and it just didn’t pierce through his insanity, but Lyanna would have tried to get word to her family. That she wasn’t successful tells me that someone didn’t want them to know. Someone who likely wanted that war and was willing to use the great houses to get it.”
He frowned. “I hadn’t thought of that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lord Stark has. He already has concerns of who else might know.”
“There probably are a few that at least know about the marriage and don’t speak of it because they don’t want to face Robert, but they may not realize there was a child. They’d have to know Eddard Stark very well to know that he’d never father a bastard. His reputation for honesty is what made it work.”
“So they may know Rhaegar didn’t kidnap her, but they aren’t as likely to know about me.”
They sat in silence. Jon tore off a hunk of the cheese and chewed. Ghost followed the action closely, so he broke off a piece for him as well.
“So how do you wish to proceed?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think I can decide here. Too much in my head. I keep coming back to how everything I ever thought I knew about myself was a lie. And I have to be careful because if I say something that gets back to the King, I’m as good as dead. House Stark likely with me. They’re my family.” He split the rest of the cheese with Ghost. “I need...space.”
Andi nodded. “Do you want to go ahead to the Wall? I doubt we can leave before tomorrow, but I also doubt they’d be sad to be rid of us. Well, Lady Stark will be happy you’re gone, but it’s up to Ned to fix that. This lie has impacted her as well. And it might be a good thing for you to go to the Wall while Maester Aemon still lives.”
“Aemon? That’s a Targaryen name.”
“And he is. Or at least was. First he became a Maester, then he decided to be the Maester for the Watch. Rumor was that he was offered the throne and refused it.”
“Do you think he can be trusted?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him. I know he’s old. Very old for a human. He doesn’t have many years left. Mayhaps not even one. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you should tell him. It’s your secret, not mine.”
He considered that. “Yes, lets move on to the Wall.”
Andi gave a nod and got up. “I’ll get on that, then. Do you think you can hold it together until morning?”
Jon rose, his fingers in Ghost’s fur. “I can. I’ll just avoid anyone who might set me off.”
“Avoid the royals, then. The King is drunk most of the time and the Queen is a cunt. If you need a distraction you can busy yourself splitting up the wagons. It’ll just be me with you and Julie so you can leave the bulk with the guys.”
“We’re not taking anyone else with us?”
They moved towards the exit of the crypts. “No. I’m not taking Pat to the Wall, not with the type of men they use these days. The lords use the Watch to get rid of the dregs in their lands, rapers, murderers and the like. Taking her up there would be asking for a massacre the moment one of them tried to put his hands on her. Derek can sit on her here then take her home when they go back.”
They walked out into the crisp air and the now empty space. “Where is Derek?”
“I sent him to get something to eat when I came to check on you.” He grimaced. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t mind watching your back. Heads up.”
Jon looked up and saw Robb and Grey Wind padding his way. His bro...cou...brother looked like he had something heavy on his mind. “Something the matter, Robb?”
“I...I just spoke with Father.”
Andi’s brow raised. “You really did corner him to ask what he wanted Jon for?”
Robb nodded and Jon’s brow went as high as Andi’s. “And he told you?”
“Aye. He said Andi thinks I’m a warg. That we all are.”
Andi’s shoulders relaxed a bit. “Well, we’re not sure about Sansa just yet. That could be because she feels herself to be more lady than Stark. It may change if she sees the rest of you at it.”
Robb looked at him, his expression somewhere between uncertainty and eagerness. “Father said I should speak to you about it.”
Jon glanced towards Andi who smiled. “Go ahead. I’ll see to the rest of it. You’re the one with that particular gift at any rate. I wouldn’t know how to answer his questions.” She excused herself and went back towards the castle.
Jon looked to Robb, this man he still loved as a brother. Who accepted him fully from the moment Lord Stark introduced them the day he brought him to the Keep to be told the secret houses Stark, Mormont and Reed shared. His brother looked at him now, curiosity alight in his eyes.
Well, he did need to keep himself from letting his newest secret out at the wrong time. This would do nicely.
“I’ve had my fill of crypts. Let’s take these two for a run outside the walls and I’ll tell you what I’ve puzzled out so far.”
Arya nodded as she hefted the twin practice tomahawks in her hands. Julie watched her take a few practice turns with her wrists before she pulled out the polished oak case. “And these you only use if you need to deal real damage. You can have them only if you promise to only wear them under the right circumstances.”
The girl’s eyes locked onto the case. “What are the right circumstances?”
“Being someplace where you might be in danger. The woods. Someplace away from your father and his men. Any time your instincts tell you things aren’t right. You’re a smart girl, Arya. You’re smart enough to know when things aren’t right. I just ask that you be honest with yourself when making that decision.”
The dark haired child nodded. “I promise.”
Julie smiled and pushed the box over the furs towards her. Arya opened it reverently, eyes going wide as she spied the twin tomahawks inside. She picked one up and lifted it to the light coming in the window. “Why are the blades black?”
“So they don’t catch the light when you throw them. Women can be strong, but men are naturally stronger and bigger. We have to be cunning and quick if we’re to hold our own in a fight. My mother is strong, but she’s also fast. Very fast. And she’s a dirty in fighter. In a real fight, when you’re fighting for your life, you can’t always follow rules of honor. The man you’re fighting against means to kill you, and you need to kill him first. If that means you have to be sneaky and take him out quick when he can’t see what you’re up to, then so be it.”
Julie pulled out the folded leather belt at the bottom of the box. “This is like mine and I had it made long so it can grow with you, but you might still need another one day depending on how you fill out as you mature. Stand up.”
Arya stood as Julie fit the belt about her waist. She put the practice axes in the holders as Arya put the live ones back in their case. She removed the belt and practice blades, tucking them in there as well, just shutting the lid as Andi came in.
“Are you corrupting Arya again?”
“Most definitely.” Julie gave the Stark girl a hug and a kiss before sending her on her way. Andi stood aside to let the child pass, smiling at her youthful exuberance.
“What’s in the box?”
“You do now what they say about cats and curiosity, right?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“That’s the one I’m giving you. What’s up?”
“Jon wants to leave for the Wall. I told him we’d go in the morning.”
Julie grimaced. “It went that well.”
Andi sighed. “He doesn’t think he yelled, but I get the feeling he’s still in shock.”
“Where is he now?”
“Ned’s smart. He told Robb about the warg thing and he came looking for Jon to get answers. They took their wolves for a run outside the walls.”
“Deflection and redirection. Nice. I always said Lord Stark wasn’t just another pretty face. Good breeding stock, too. Those are some pretty kids.”
“I feel sorry for Arya. She looks just Lyanna at that age, so I’d be surprised if she doesn’t fill out just as beautiful when she’s grown. Her father is going to beating men off with his sword.”
Julie considered this before shaking her head. “Nah. She’ll beat them away on her own.”
“Okay, what was in that box?”
“Cats and curiosity. Never a good combination.” The door opened and Pat came in. She shut the door behind her and walked over to the bed, throwing herself across it face down with a loud groan. “Dramatic. Good timing. A little over the top. I give it a six out of ten.”
“Five. She should have slammed the door. It would have brought the whole thing together.”
“They’re just sitting in the solar doing needlework.” Pat rolled over and looked at her sisters. “Since breakfast, that’s all they’ve been doing.”
Julie snickered as Andi patted her leg. “That’s what proper young high born girls do.”
“Why? How do they not die of boredom?”
“Well, you’ll have time to figure that out. You’re staying here with Derek and the guys.”
“What? No! I’m going to The a Wall with you and Julie.”
Andi said “No, you’re not,” as Julie said “That’s not happening.”
“Mom said you had to bring me.”
“Mom said we had to bring you with us to Winterfell,” Julie agreed. “She never intended for you to go to the Wall.”
“We’re not taking a pretty young high born to the Wall. It’s a glorified penal colony these days.”
Andi arched a brow. “Okay, a man sent to the Wall because he was found guilty of rape corners you and tries to yank up your skirts. What do you do?”
“I rip his balls off!” The answer was automatic. “Probably break his arm. Maybe throw him out a window for good measure.”
“And that’s why you’re not going.”
“That is a perfectly reasonable response to attempted rape!”
Julie smiled. “You remember the part about not making a spectacle of yourself? Most pretty young high borns can’t do one of those, let alone all three. That would be a spectacle.”
“It’s not that you’re wrong, it’s that you lack the experience to temper your reactions to something believable. You’re not used to having to hobble yourself. It takes practice to appear ‘normal’.”
“But I want to go with you and Jon.”
“You’re whining.” She remembered when Kate would tell her the same thing. Sheesh! If this was what girls were like she was glad she was having another boy. She should do something nice for their mother when she got home to thank her for all the patience she’d shown in raising them. “We should probably take her. I don’t know if she can handle being on her own with the High Borns.”
Pat glared. “I’m not stupid. You’re trying to trick me into agreeing.”
Julie beamed at Andi. “She’s getting smarter every day!”
Andi snickered. “Seriously, though, it’s better if you stay here. The whole point of this exercise is for you to prove you can pass as ‘normal’ among people who aren’t us. You can bet Mom and Dad will ask Lord Stark how you did next time he visits and he’ll tell him if anyone noticed anything off with you. How you do here will determine when you can be allowed travel to places that aren’t Winterfell, Bear Island or Greywater.” She pulled Pat up into a sitting position and smoothed her braid. “And I don’t want to spend most of my days fixing broken bones because you beat up the Watch.”
The teen rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll stay.”
Andi kissed the top of her head. “Good. Why don’t you get your gurdy and take it with you. You can play and entertain the ladies while they sew and gossip. It’d be a better idea for you. I’ve seen your needlework.”
Pat made a face at her before getting up and leaving the room to fetch her gurdy from theirs. Andi waited until she’d be out of hearing range before asking, “Do you think she knows that if the starts hob nobbing with high borns she’ll end up fending off suitors?”
“Nah. That hasn’t even crossed her mind. She’s just got a case of wanderlust. She’s bored.” Julie got up. “We should start getting things ready for tomorrow. How broody is he?”
“It’s pretty bad, but we expected that. He just needs time to come to grips with it. Jon’s a smart enough lad. He’ll sort it all out. It’s hard enough being at the point in your life where people expect you to be an adult when you don’t yet feel like one. It doesn’t help he’s also still getting used to the idea of having magic. This just makes him feel like even more of an outsider.”
Julie shook her head. “Poor boy. At least he has his looks to fall back on.”
They made their way to the other ladies to find Pat already in the solar and preparing to play. Andi gave their excuses. She and Julie would be leaving to the Wall the next morning. Jone would be traveling with them. Derek would be staying with Pat and the others to discuss what would be needed in the next trade run then head home. Lady Stark seemed relieved to hear that her husband’s “bastard” would be leaving. Ned really needed to tell her the truth. He’d brought Jon home at the worst possible time. They’d only been together a fortnight after their marriage and she’d spent the whole of her pregnancy apart from him. Their marriage had been new and delicate and he’d brought home another woman’s babe. The damage it had done to that young and hopeful bride’s feeling of security had been crushing.
They turned to go to start prepping for the trip and Julie caught sight of Ser Barristan standing at the door. He was the guard watching over the Queen and princess for the day. His eyes were watching Andi, his expression calculated. “Is something the matter, Ser Selmy?”
The knight smiled. “No, My Lady. I wish you a safe journey.”
His interest in them was odd, but Ser Selmy’s reputation was solid. Perhaps he was just being paranoid and was always considering how each new person or circumstance impacted security. Their father was like that. Fortunately Derek was more laid back than Curran Lennart. If their mother was the one who was planning to take a trip to the Wall in the early stages of pregnancy, their father would rage, break some things and try to tell her she couldn’t go. Then she would kick him in the head, they’d end up fighting and likely knock down a wall, or a small building, until they reached a compromise of either him going with her or her going with a med mage and a dozen renders. Derek trusted her to know her limits and would just tell her to make sure her tomahawks were sharp and to take a bow and a spare sword. One of them had to go home, anyway. They’d left the boys with their grandparents and if one of them didn’t go home to reclaim custody there might not be a town to go home to. Derek already has an obligation he’d made with the trainers, so he was the designated adult.
They spent the day moving things to the wagon set aside for the Watch and wrapping things up with Measter Luwin and Ser Rodrick. Julie spoke with the stable master about bringing a stallion with them the next trade run to spend time at Winterfell to cover a couple of his mares. He was fond of her Sugar, which was a descendant of her beloved Peanut from so long ago. The Pack stable masters had been careful with handling the breeding of their horses. They had needed to introduce some Westerosi bloodlines for health and genetic diversity, but they also wanted to maintain some traits from their own lines. Peanut and two other Gypsy Vanners had been popular, so carefully managed breeding had kept the flowing manes and feathers. The current generation was bigger, the Gypsy breed was a smaller version of a draft horse, but they’d chosen breeds with a similar musculature to keep the overall build even if they’d had to increase size. Sugar would be a stunning mount for an armored knight who wanted to show off but the man in charge of the Stark horses was pleased with her intelligence and temperament as well as her hardiness. He wanted to try and introduce that into the castle stables.
Once everything was settled she caught a nap, pregnancy made you sleepy at times, before freshening up for the feast. She shared a trencher with her husband, glutting herself on his presence before she’d be apart from him for at least three months. No more than four. She would be back before Remembrance Night no matter what.
Movement at the head table caught her eye as she reached for another roll. The King and Ser Barristan were talking to Andi. A look of displeasure crossed her face that only someone who knew her would recognize. “Honey? What are they talking about up there?”
Derek looked up. He concentrated a moment before shaking his head. “Too much noise. I can’t make it out. She ain’t happy, though.”
Pissed off cats were never fun. “I hope it’s not something really dumb, like the King wanting to visit the Motte.” That would be the last thing they needed.
“Doubt it. Lord Stark asked me and the guys to go on a hunt in the woods, though. The King likes it and we’ll be in there at least three days.”
“Do we have anyone this far over?”
“No telling. Clan Nimble is running their new trackers. They never tell anyone all their plans.”
‘Trackers’ was a gentle term. ‘Spies’ was more apt. One the rats rivaled Nimble in stealth, only able to beat them because they could fit into more places. “You’re going to make sure they don’t stumble over any massive foxes?”
Jon, as it turned out, had packed his guitar and he brought it down for dinner to play with Pat. The instrument was a exotic to Westeros as her gurdy, though the North had seen it’s like more often. They kept the guests happy and cheerful. Julie sat with her head on Derek’s shoulder as she watched the pair sing a tune that was too bawdy for a young lady like Pat, but no one here would call her out on it. She’d started it after all.
“This is a sweet sight!” The Lannister dwarf, Tyrion, sat across from them. “It struck me that I hadn’t yet made your acquaintance, My Lady. I’m Tyrion Lannister.”
She smiled and meant it. She didn’t understand why people scorned those born different. She’d rather judge a man by his actions. From what she’d seen and heard of this one over the past two days, the Boudas would love this guy. “Julia Gaunt. This is my husband, Derek.”
“The commoner who married a lady and wasn’t gelded for it.”
Julie grinned. “My parents already loved him more than me before we wed.” Derek gave his shoulder a shrug to jar her head, but other than that he only smiled.
“Fortunate, then. I hope you don’t think me over bold, but I have to ask. What happened to your eye?”
“You’re the first one who had the balls to ask this run. A mass murderer with a god complex took it.”
He blinked. “What happened to him?”
Derek chuckled. “She took one of his.” He lifted her hand and kissed it, love and pride in his eyes.
“I can see why these Northmen like you. Aside from the excellent ale. I prefer wine myself, but this stuff grows on me.” He poured himself another tankard full from a nearby pitcher.
“Her cousins make it. That and meade. They can work magic with honey.”
Julie helped herself to more milk. “Do you know what the King was talking to my sister about?”
Tyrion frowned to himself a moment before remembering. “Ah, Yes. It seems Ser Barristan wants to see the Wall before he dies. Since he never asks my good brother for anything, the King is sending him with on the morrow.”
No. And just...no. “Ser Barristan to come with us?”
“Yes. I plan to go the Wall as well, but I will be traveling with Lord Stark’s brother, Benjen, when he goes back. Besides, only Jon to travel with you? He’s still just a boy. Hardly enough to guard two ladies and a wagon of supplies. Ser Barristan is one of the finest fighters alive. It is good he can travel with you.”
Julie kept a pleasant expression on her face as her husband laughed under his breath. Even Derek’s quiet laugh could be unnerving to those who didn’t know them. Lord Tyrion excused himself to see if Jon and Pat would take a request, leaving them with just their own guys who all looked at her.
“Well,” piped Sam, a hulking figure who looked intimidating and was brutal in a fight, but a real teddy bear at heart, “have fun with that.”
The rest of the crew laughed as Julie groaned and his her face against Derek’s shoulder.
Pat sat on the comfy chair Lady Stark had had brought in for her and played her gurdy softly. She kept things to gentle melodies and sang the occasional ballad, not pushing herself too hard lest she decide to cut loose that night at dinner. The ladies giggled and gossiped as they sewed. The Queen would likely drink and make the occasional biting comment but she wasn’t there today. Apparently she had a headache. Likely from all the wine last night.
They’d stopped trying to engage her in conversation. She wasn’t over the moon about any boys. She didn’t care for needlework or new dresses. And none of them knew how to hunt. She should have tried harder to get Derek to take her with them this morning, but she’d promised to ‘behave’ and she wanted to prove to her parents that she could do this. People overlooked Julie’s eccentricity because they thought she’d married beneath her and were put off by her ‘missing eye’. Andi got away with murder because she was good at pretending to be normal and was a skilled healer who could work miracles. Pat was the baby and still had to establish herself.
It’d be so much better if she could just use her magic. She could become the queen of Westeros with Robert Baratheon serving as her foot stool if she could use her magic. But Mom would tear her off that throne and pound her into the ground before locking her away somewhere so she couldn’t do it again.
A commotion reached her ears, quickly coming their way. Pat stopped turning the crank and looked tot the door. Lady Sansa noticed. “Are you tired, Lady Patrice? I can get you some water.”
She shook her head. “No. Something is wrong. Someone’s running for the door.”
Sansa was about to ask more but a panicked voice reached them. “LADY STARK! LADY STARK!”
The door burst open and a man tumbled in, breathing heavily. “My Lady! It’s young Bran! He’s fallen!”
Catelyn froze only a heartbeat before fleeing from the room. They followed her, Sansa running to catch up with her mother. Pat could practically taste the fear on the air as the broke out into the open. It wasn’t hard to find the spot. There were people crowded about the broken tower.
“BRAN! BRAN!” Lady Stark’s voice was a shrill note of panic as the pushed her way through. Pat slipped her way past with easy grace to see Maester Luwin kneeling by the splayed and unmoving form of Brandon Stark. She could see the rise and fall of his chest and hear the beating of his heart, so he was still alive. The Maester was trying to keep things calm and collected, but Lady Stark was frantic. And with good reason.
Pat looked up. The tower was tall. She could have fallen from it with no trouble, but Bran was a small, human child. He could have bleeding on the brain. His spine could be bruised or broken. Internal organs could be damaged.
No Maester could fix that.
She turned and pushed her way out of the gathering, breaking into a run to the stables. She threw open the doors to the sound of panicking horses. They smelled her and the didn’t care for it. Only their mounts remained calm, used to the knowledge that they weren’t food.
The stable master tried to calm the horses and spied her. “Lady Patrice?” He watched as she made a beeline to their bridles and saddles where they’d been stored. “Can...can I help you?”
“I need my horse.” The further she entered the stable the more the horses panicked.
The stable master stepped in her path. “I’ll bring her to you. Please, wait outside. The horses are acting up.”
She wanted to argue, but she only glared. “Be fast!” She went back outside and listened to Lady Stark’s frightened cries until he brought her horse out. The mare could sense her agitation and stamped a foot in eagerness. Between her and the stable master she got the saddle and harness on in record time.
“My Lady? Shouldn’t I have a groom accompany you?”
“They’d only slow me down.” She mounted Poppy astride, ignoring how much skin her skirts exposed as they bunched up.
“Wh...what do I tell them?”
“That I’ve gone to get my sister!” She urged Poppy forward and the mare pounded towards the open gates. The guards leapt out of the way as they went by.
They rode hard until she was well out of sight of the castle and town. She reined Poppy to a halt and swung down before removing her bridle. Pat stripped off her shoes, dress and the small clothes Andi insisted she wear while at Winterfell and used the bridle to tie them to the saddle. She kissed the horse’s nose and sent her off towards the woods. All their horses were trained to find their way back to the Keep stables and her scent on the clothes would warn the wolves and other predators to keep their distance.
Turning the direction leading to the Wall, Pat let her other self out.
The young man sat easily in the saddle. When they stopped to camp, they all worked to set it up rather than the ladies standing aside and expecting he and Jon to do everything. The women were strong and proved skilled at setting up a camp and fire. He had wondered about the amount of supplies they pulled from the wagon, too much for four people, until he saw Lady Andrea eat. She put away more food than the King, which was shocking given her fit figure. She ate just as much when they had broken their fast that morning as well. He wondered where she put it all.
“Do you have plans to join the Watch, young Jon?”
“No. I can’t say that I have. I’m curious about it, and Julie says she can introduce me to some of the Free Folk.”
A knot unwound in Ser Barristan’s gut, he was relieved the boy wouldn’t waste himself on the Wall, but he frowned. “You want to meet with the Wildlings?”
“Aye. I want to know things they know. They follow many of the old ways and have different customs. Erratim says it’s always important to learn the ways of others.”
“Our aunt,” supplied Lady Andrea. “Brash. Arrogant. And far too clever for her own good. She could rule the world if she had the ambition to do so.”
“Fortunately for the world, she’s content with spending her time telling us when we’re being stupid,” Julie added.
“Which she does at least twice a day.”
He laughed, but the laugh was cut short when his horse began to fidget nervously beneath him. “Easy boy.”
“Hey, Andi,” Julie said with a grin, “stop spooking the horse.”
“It’s not my fault his horse is fidgety.”
“It certainly isn’t me or Jon. We wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Only because it would be too small for you to actually...” Andi trailed off and seemed to sniff the air. The pulled the wagon to a halt and turned around to look behind them. Jon followed suit and bit off a curse before reaching over and taking his horse’s reins in hand.
“Shhh....it’s all right, boy.” Somehow the young man managed to calm the horse and Ser Barristan turned in his saddle as Lady Julie growled.
“I’m going to skin her alive!”
“Get in line.” Lady Andrea stood up in the front of the wagon and glared at what appeared to be a swiftly approaching feline that looked to be nearly the size of his horse. It ran towards them, powerful limbs chewing up the distance. Barristan reached for his sword only to have Jon shout him down.
“Stay your blade! There is no threat!”
No threat? The beast was massive. As it leapt to clear the remaining distance between them Barristan noted the giant paws that were larger than a man’s head, doubtless hiding razor sharp claws that would gut him even through his armor. It landed with an unnatural grace and Lady Andrea continued to glare at it, hands on her hips as if about to scold a misbehaving child. The cat’s coat was a dark grey with stripes that were almost black. The basic shape was like the depictions of lions he had seen, but it was more. Bigger. Fiercer. The darker coloring clearly setting it apart from the golden beasts that adorned the Lannister banners. It opened its jaws and he saw teeth that could rip a body apart. The maw opened wider and...
“There has been an accident. Brandon Stark is badly injured, likely dying.”
Barristan nearly lost his seat. The words were clear and concise. And the voice was...Lady Patrice?
Andrea’s jaw fell open slightly. To his side Jon choked off a gasp while Lady Julie growled. “Just fucking perfect!”
Jon regained his voice. “What happened?”
The lioness turned her head his way. “He was climbing the broken tower. He must have fell. He wasn’t responsive but still breathing when I came for you.”
Julie was glaring at the beast that was apparently her younger sister. “And you didn’t think to ride a horse to do that!!”
“It was an emergency! He could have a broken spine! He could be bleeding inside his skull! I’m faster than any horse, and I did take one until I was well out of sight!”
“THIS is exactly what we meant when we said you had to behave! Now look what you’ve done!” Julie waved a hand towards him.
“EVERYONE STOP TALKING!!”
They did. He wouldn’t have expected Lady Andrea raise her voice, she seemed too composed for such a thing, but her words had been loud and rich with a beastial snarl that could have come from the feline standing only feet away. Everything fell into a dead silence, all attention on her. The weight of it pressed down on them until Jon spoke up.
“Andi?” Just one word, soft but full of meaning. She turned to look at him, a slight furrow between her brows. Behind her, Lady Julia’s voice drifted.
“It’s your call.”
Andrea held Jon’s gaze for a moment longer before moving into action. She turned towards the side of the cart where Julia sat astride her horse, getting down. The petite blonde nodded. “Right, then.” She dismounted from her horse, holding the reins as Andrea took her place in the saddle. “I got this.”
The lioness turned her body to watch her sister ride off, ears turning in confusion. “But you’re faster on four feet, too!” She called out after her.
Julia was digging in the cart behind her and extracted a pack. “Yes, but unlike some people she knows how not to cause a scene!” She hurled the pack at the cat, pegging it square on the spine. The beast whirled around, much like any cat would when startled, flattened her ears and bared her teeth. Lady Julia looked supremely unimpressed. “Get dressed!”
The lion’s body shifted and moved. Barristan saw the fur split and bones shift. It was so quick that he was just wrapping his head around what he was seeing when it was over and a very naked Lady Patrice was opening what proved to be her sister’s pack and began pulling out clothes.
“I don’t know why you’re so angry. Maester Luwin isn’t going to able to help him. Not like Andi can. I thought we’re supposed to be loyal and helpful to the Starks.”
“I’m too angry to talk to you just yet. Get dressed and get up here.”
Jon was still holding onto the reins of his mount. Barristan noticed this when he turned his face away to grant the girl some modesty. Jon watching him. He offered a slight smile. “So...Pat can turn into a giant cat.”
He delivered it so bluntly. Ser Barristan decided to respond in kind rather than reveal how terrified he was. “So can Lady Andrea, from the sound of it.”
“Most certainly. She’s just better at fitting in. Most people dismiss any of her eccentricities as those of a woman who has been allowed to pursue what is usually a man’s profession, but she can appear like any high born lady if she feels like it. You could probably take her to Court and no one would ever know.”
Selmy considered that concept for a moment. A lioness the size of a horse with the intellect of a person. Such a creature could slaughter a room full of nobles with little trouble. If they were cunning about it, they could pick off their targets one by one. Lady Andrea, with her knowledge of the human body, could be dangerous enough without teeth and claws.
And she was loyal to House Stark.
“It is a family trait, then, Lady Julia?”
The slender woman looked his way, her single eyed gaze calculating. “It is. Don’t worry. I was adopted. Mom took me in after my parents died. Before she married Dad, even. I’m the normal one in the family.” Patrice snorted and Julia looked over her shoulder to find a now dressed Patrice, clad in a loose pair of trousers and a long tunic and frowning at a pair of slippers better suited to a fine dress. “What?”
“My feet are bigger than hers.”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before you ran off without your clothes.”
“I tied them to Poppy’s saddle so the wolves would leave her alone.”
“At least you’re not a complete idiot.”
Patrice curled her upper lip, baring her teeth at her sister much as a snarling cat would. It struck Selmy how close to the surface the beast was. These people of Deepwood Motte had seemed like any other Northman when they were at Winterfell among others, but now that they were on their own and their secret exposed, Patrice Lennart seemed more a predator in the guise of a pretty young girl than what one would call a high born lady.
“You can use my spare riding boots, Pat. They’ll be a bit big on you, but they’ll keep off the chill.” Jon nodded to the cart and Pat tossed the pack belonging to her sister into it before rummaging around until she found his. The boots were wrapped in his bedroll to protect them should they be waylaid by a rainfall.
Barristan kept his peace, his mind weighing what he had learned in a very short amount of time. He was acutely aware of Lady Julia’s attention being on him. He knew when someone was not directly watching him but yet keeping him in their focus. It was a skill he most often saw in the most deadly of fighters or most dangerous of politicians. Lord Baelish and Lord Varys were both like that. So were Ser Meryn Trent and Ser Jaime Lannister. This woman would kill him without hesitation. He was certain of it.
The people of Deepwood Motte were mysterious but not completely reclusive. Their services as builders were sought after and lords paid well for them. They had introduced indoor plumbing to Westeros, a vast improvement to chamber pots and garderobes. Kings Landing was still undergoing a complete overhaul of the city’s sewers, something that had been ongoing for a decade now. And their healers has developed a cure for greyscale, the Lady Shireen Baratheon the most famous example. It was known that they declined to let the Maesters into their midsts, though they had shared the greyscale cure with the Citadel. Each year they switched out the building crew with new people, the builders never moving their families to the capitol while working there.
He thought of the night before and how much more Lady Andrea had eaten compared to them, then thought back to Winterfell. Lady Patrice’s appetite had been just as voracious. So had most of their people. Jon and Lady Julia were more like normal men. She had said she was an adopted child of the Lennarts, not one born to them, and that the ability to turn into beasts was a familial trait. So Jon was not like them, which made him feel somewhat better.
Lady Patrice, fearsome as the lion was, seemed overall to be a sweetly natured young girl. Julia, however, might appear to be delicate and graceful but she wore those clever axes at her hips and he was beginning to suspect that combat had been involved in the loss of her eye.
Patrice slipped the boots onto her feet and climbed up onto the bench next to Julia who was still scowling. “Greg is going to rip your head from your shoulders when we get home. Just see if he doesn’t.”
The youngest Lennart rolled her eyes. “No he won’t. He’ll snarl and roar, maybe shake me a little, but he’ll get over it.” She seemed utterly unconcerned about the prospect.
“Just keep telling yourself that.” Julia snapped the reins and started the cart moving forward again. Barristan was aware that Jon was waiting for him to move to join them. Apparently Jon would take up the rear of the party just in case he decided to make a run for it.
He wouldn’t, of course. He wasn’t about to abandon Rhaegar’s child in the presence of these people until he knew more.
“Lady Andrea Lennart of House Lennart! I should be expected!” She hoped she was expected. She didn’t know if Daniel left anyone behind with Pat when he went with they joined the King on his hunt, but it was likely that a runner was sent to find them to let Lord Stark know what had happened. He would have returned to the castle at the very least.
It took extended moments, but the portcullis was raised to grant her entry. She prodded Sugar forward and rode into the yard, handing her off to the stable master when she dismounted. She spied Derek approaching her and relaxed somewhat. She met him halfway to the main hall but pulled up short when he spoke. “I need to show you something.” His voice was low and serious. She nodded and followed him until they got to the broken tower.
“Is this where he was climbing?”
She studied the tower. “Did some of the stonework come loose?” She didn’t see any obvious place. “How far up was he?”
“Knowing Bran, probably the top, but that’s not what bothered me.” He motioned her to follow and she did so, entering the tower. She caught the scents of mildew, dust and humans. The Queen and Ser Jamie Lannister specifically.
Derek led the way to the top room of the tower and let her enter first. She peered around the cluttered room and inhaled. Andi blinked, her head giving a little shake and her expression one of feline indignation. She inhaled again and her lip curled. Her head turned quickly as she gave Derek an incredulous, questioning look.
He nodded. “Yep.”
Her grimace grew sour. “Well, that certainly explains why none of the Queen’s children look like the King.”
“I’ve seen spiders less sure footed than Brandon Stark.”
She didn’t like where this was headed. “Do we have any proof other than they were in here fucking?”
“Nope. He could have truly lost his footing. He could have been startled and lost his grip. Or they could have pushed him. We’ve no way of knowing for sure.”
They could have purposefully tried to kill a cub. Andi clenched her hands into fists and knew her eyes likely had gone gold.
“Do we tell them?”
“We can’t. It’s our word against the Queen’s. One doesn’t accuse a queen of an incestuous affair without proof. Lord Stark would believe us, but the King would have no reason to other than wanting to get rid of her. That wouldn’t be enough for the rest of the lords.”
“We should at least tell Lord Stark.”
She wanted to. She wanted to march out of the tower, find the queen, and break the bitch’s bones until she admitted to what had happened. But she could do none of that. Not unless she was prepared to kill the queen, the king and all their men.
“No. Even a good and even tempered man like Ned Stark can become a beast if his family is threatened.”
“We’re gonna do nothing?” He sounded offended at the idea of it.
Andi met his gaze and held it until he lowered his own, a quiet acknowledgement of who was in charge. “Tell our people that unless they’re his family or the Maester, no one is allowed to be alone with Brandon Stark unless you or I personally vouch for them. He’s under our guard as of now. Be subtle about it, but we keep an eye on him.”
She gave him a light punch on the shoulder in admonishment of the ‘alpha’ crack. “I need to see the boy.”
They left the tower and had just entered the main building housing the family when Lord Stark came striding down the hall with a purpose. His worried expression melted into one of relief when he saw them. “Andi. The stablemaster said your sister had ridden to find you.”
“She found us. Did her horse show back up?” She should have asked when she arrived.
Derek shook his head. “Nope. Must have headed back home. If the wolves in the woods don’t get her, she should make her way back to the Keep or be found by our scouts.”
Andi nodded and walked with Lord Stark. “Has he roused at all?”
“No. Not once.”
“What about involuntary reflexes? Does he swallow if they try to give him liquids?”
“Yes, and Maester Luwin gave him broth. It has to be done carefully. He says his breathing and heart are steady.”
The man was holding himself together, but just barely. She feared what Catelyn must be like, but she hated this. Women were allowed to be more emotional, it was expected of them, but Lord Stark was expected to be stoic. In a fair world he would be allowed to weep and scream his sorrows, which he no doubt wanted to do. She’d known this man since he was only a babe and in her more feminine moments she still saw him as that rosy cheeked child.
Ned led her into the bedchamber. Bran looked so small against the sheets and furs, his skin nearly snow pale. Catelyn sat by his bed, her hands shaking as she worked at making a totem to her gods. Andi had seen it done before. It was something that the followers of the Seven sometimes did when a loved one was fighting for their life. Lady Stark was praying with all the desperation that flowed through her.
The thought that this could very well have been an attempted murder rushed back to the forefront of her mind and Andi forced herself to push it back down. She had to be the Healer right now, not the Lioness.
Maester Luwin looked up to see her and relaxed. He didn’t understand what she did, but he knew her to be a skilled healer. He had been at Winterfell during the war and had been present when she’d tended to those of Lord Stark’s men who had still nursed injuries. “My Lady. I wish you returned under better circumstances.”
“So do I, Maester.” She approached the bed. She was aware of Catelyn’s head coming up to watch her. “Any change at all?”
“None, I am sorrowed to say. He breathes and his heart beats strong. I suspect he will live and he should wake eventually, though I’ve no way of knowing how much of his mind will be intact when he does.”
Head injuries were a bitch. “May I?”
Luwin bowed and stepped back. Andrea stood by the bedside and summoned her magic forth. Nothing too flashy, making a show of it would be a waste of energy, but some things she could not avoid. She was aware that her eyes were glowing with he golden fire that was her other self. Dolittle’s magic was blue. Her mother told her the other healer she’d known of her caliber, Hugh D’Ambray, also glowed blue when he healed. Blue was the color of human magic. Her magic, however, was of Shinar. Ancient and more than human. It flared golden, though Julia’s sensate abilities showed her that the magic was more a maelstrom of colors that shifted constantly. Few had her sister’s level of sensitivity, no one in Westeros that they were aware of but it wouldn’t surprise her if at least one of her children showed the gift as they grew older. To regular human eyes, she was just golden.
Her magic brushed the boy’s head and mind. Some bleeding on the brain, but not as much as she had feared. A bit of swelling, but it was already starting to go down. There were cracks in multiple bones as she moved downward. If the boy had been conscious, breathing would have been uncomfortable thanks to the cracked ribs. In that the unconscious state was a blessing. He breathed more normally where had he been awake he might have kept his breaths shallow and thus increased his chances of contracting pneumonia.
It was when she moved over his hips and pelvis that she got the worst of it. She bit off a curse and pulled back her magic.
That wasn’t good.
“My Lady?” Ned’s voice was deceptively even given what the man must be feeling.
Andi looked up to meet his eyes. She flicked her eyes to Catelyn, then to Maester Luwin. She liked the Maester, but there were some things you just didn’t speak of.
Eddard Stark was a lot smarter than most gave him credit for. “Maester Luwin, whatever is said here, I do not want it to be reported to the Citadel. Do not share it with your brothers.”
“As you wish, My Lord.”
He nodded. “He will keep quiet. I trust him in that.”
She nodded. “I can wake him. That isn’t a problem. It is a head injury, and head injuries are difficult. He will probably not remember falling and never will. That’s typical of a head injury. Not even I can fix that. He may also have a change of personality. Sometimes a person who was happy and carefree before an accident can turn into someone surly and angry. A shy person may turn into someone boisterous and outgoing. There’s no way to know for sure.”
“Will he still have his wits?”
“I believe so. I’m not sensing anything that would result in a severe decrease in cognitive abilities. Also, he’s young and still growing. Children are more resilient. His brain is still developing so even if there is some impairment there’s also a good change that his mind would compensate over time as he matures. He’d actually be in greater danger of such things if he were a grown man.”
Maester Luwin nodded. “This is something that we have noticed over the years as well. Children are better able to heal from such things than adults.”
Ned relaxed somewhat. She had to continue.
“There are a lot of incomplete fractures. I’m surprised there are no complete breaks, but a child this young, they haven’t fully formed and much of their skeleton is still flexible. He has cracks in his ribs, so his being asleep is a good thing. He isn’t restricting his breathing in discomfort, and I can mend those before I wake him to prevent that all together. All this, however, isn’t what I’m worried about.”
Catelyn’s glimmer of hope faded. “What is it?”
Andi looked up. “Derek, could you come here, please?” He walked over to her side and she had him stand with his back to the Starks. “Our bodies are controlled by our brain, who sends its signals through specialized structures that run through the spine.” Her hand moved down Derek’s back. “These structures branch out from the spine according to what body parts they control. The lower down the spine, the lower down the body.”
Maester Luwin nodded. “This is what we have observed as well, My Lord.”
“Bran’s spine is broken here.” She rested her hand on Derek’s back at the pelvis. “The structure within is crushed flat.”
Luwin sighed, his eyes lowering as Lady Stark looked to him for explanation. “That low on the spine, it is likely he will not be able to walk. He may also lose control of his bowels and bladder.”
Catelyn stifled a cry as Ned’s fingers tightened reflexively on his wife’s shoulders. “Is there nothing you can do?”
Andi met his eyes steadily. “Not here, My Lord.”
Ned understood immediately. “You would have to take him to the Keep.”
“I would. The procedure to remove the bone fragments would be lengthy, and my magic will make his body burn off anesthesia more quickly. I don’t dare risk it without Dolittle’s assistance. I’ll need him to keep Bran under. It is not something you want him awake for. The pain would be unbearable. I would need him unconscious and still, but I don’t want to risk it without fixing the rest of the injuries. I would also want to put some more weight on him, first. He’s thin. Not overly so, but the thinness of an active child who rarely sits still long enough for the food he eats to put any bulk onto his frame. Treating him will burn through what meager fat stores he has, so I want to add to them before proceeding.”
Lord Stark nodded. “I understand. Robb will go with you. He will explain everything to Bran.”
Catelyn looked up. “Robb will go? I am his mother! I will go with him! You’re not sending him away from me when he is like this, Ned. I won’t stand for it!”
Ned frowned, clearly torn. “There are things you do not understand, love.”
“I understand that my child is injured. I understand that we’re fortunate he is still alive! I will not let him out of my sight, not for anything!”
He looked at her, then to Andrea.
“I believe I have already made my views on what secrets you keep known. She is your wife. You know her better than anyone.”
He nodded, a single slow movement of his head. “Can you being your work but not yet wake him until we return?”
“Very well, then. Cat, come with me. There are things we need to discuss.”
Her husband sat down on the log near the Weirwood, his expression troubled. “What is it you need me to know, Ned? Why do you not want me to go with Brandon?”
“There are secrets, Cat. Secrets that House Stark has kept for a century and a half. Secrets that, should they become known, could force the people of Deepwood Motte to leave Westeros or fight for the right to stay. If they choose to fight, a lot of good men would die and our world would never be the same.”
“Is this to do with how they do not age?” He looked up at her with a raised brow and she snorted. “I’m not blind, Ned. Julia and Derek have been coming here two or three times a year since I arrived and they are the same age they were when it began. Andrea hasn’t aged a day since I met her nearly two decades ago.”
He gave a soft chuff. “True, though that is another thing entirely. That has to do with Lady Kate and her family. They are the ones who keep some ageless. Most of the people of Deepwood Motte are not immortal though they age maybe only half as fast as you and I. No, their secret is far more terrifying to those who do not know them.”
He patted the log beside him and she sank down to sit at his side. “What are you afraid of?”
“The Lord of Winterfell was aware of the trouble at Deepwood Motte that winter, though there was nothing he could do. The snows and storms were too great. They could not be reached. They would have been fine but a good portion of their food stores had gone bad. Eventually hunger drove them to try and eat them,and many who did either died or became severely ill. Others perished from starvation when they didn’t risk it. The Glover family was lost completely.”
He had gone over this with the King at dinner. Still, he was talking, so she held her tongue.
Ned opened the book he had taken from his office. The pages were yellowed and there was a neat, spidery thin script. “According to what Lord Stark wrote, there was another storm. It was described as though demons were screaming in the night, and the skies were lit with purple lightning. People huddled in their homes, terrified to go outside as the earth shook. They felt it even here in Winterfell, and then all fell silent. The storm had left another three feet of snow by morning and so it was even longer before they could set out to Deepwood Motte. When they could finally attempt it, they could not take much in the way of extra supplies. The snows were too deep. They used sleds to carry what they could and set out in the woods. A journey that only takes a fortnight in more favorable circumstances took more than moon, but before they reached the motte, they came across a keep that had not been there before.”
Catelyn frowned. She thought of how Andi and her people spoke of their home. “I thought the Keep and Deepwood Motte were the same.”
Ned shook his head. “No. The Keep is a few miles out from the Motte. It is a well built structure. Not as large as Winterfell, but solidly constructed. There were strangers there, men and women unknown to my family, but there were also people from Deepwood Motte who had been brought there.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Another world. One far different from this one.” He turned the page and she realized he was reading what the previous Lords Stark had written so that he did not miss anything in his retelling. “They had been under siege in that world, and the one leading the army attacking them was a powerful magic user. They were winning, so their enemy made a final, desperate attack. Whatever he did, his magic uprooted their Keep and banished them here. They went from a world where they were known and mostly accepted as part of the comminuted to being cast here where they were alone and afraid.”
She shook her head. It sounded like madness, but before she could give form to that thought, she recalled watching Lady Andrea as she examined Brandon. She recalled the faint golden glow that had radiated from the woman’s skin as she examined him. Back when she had been sent to Winterfell at the end of the Rebellion, she had tended the wounds of the soldiers still battered. Men who had been nursing injuries for weeks or months she had restored to full health in a matter of moments. “When you spoke to the King, you said that they had given aid to the people of Deepwood Motte.”
“They did. Their leaders were not foolish. They knew if they were to be accepted and not attacked, they had to prove that they could be trusted. They shared their food stores with the starving. The ill that could be treated in their homes were, those that needed more serious care were taken to the Keep. They have quarters there, their ‘hospital’, where they care for the sick and injured. That is where Andi wishes to take Brandon. She has tools there that she does not have access to here. The people from the motte spoke to my ancestor on their behalf and told them how these strangers had saved them. Their leaders had arranged to gather the dead and give them the proper rights. There were so many that the bodies had to be burned, and they built the pyres themselves. In the absence of their Lord, the survivors easily moved to following the newcomers’ leaders, likely comforted by the natural authority they wielded.”
Catelyn pondered this. “But if the snows were so bad, how did they move when no one else could?”
“Because they are not men. Or at least, they are not only men.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They are shapeshifters, Cat. Both man and beast, but not in the way of the legends of the North. They don’t just send their minds into those of beasts. They can shed their human bodies and become beasts.” He let her have a moment to digest that. “Lord Curran and his children are lions. Derek is a wolf. Most of those that came with them are wolves, I believe, though I do not know them all well. Samuel is a bear. That is the secret that House Stark keeps. House Mormont as well. They had arrived shortly before the Starks, braving the frozen waters between Bear Island and Deepwood Motte. House Reed knows as well, though not by the same means. They sometimes have members born with the green sight. One of them had visions of them and journeyed to see what it was about.”
She struggled with it. With the insanity of it. “But... what does that mean?”
“They are faster and stronger than normal men. Their senses, sight, hearing and smell, are all greater. I’ve no doubt Derek can hear us even now.” She looked to the entrance of the Godswood, though Derek was hidden from her sight. “Do not worry. He will not betray our confidence. They are an honorable people. They also heal faster than we do, and they do not fall prey to most illnesses that plague normal men. A broken bone would lame me for near two moons, but for them it would barely last a fortnight. They are great fighters, though pitting them against normal soldiers would lay their secrets bare, so we do not call them when we call the banners. Instead, when the North goes to war, the Pack defends the North. They are why the Greyjoy Rebellion did not impact us as greatly and lasted as briefly as it did. They threw the reavers back into the sea as soon as they made land fall.”
It sounded impossible. “How did they come to be this way?”
“Most are born, but it can be contracted. What was explained to us is that it is a contagion, like a pox or greyscale, but instead this one imparts the ability to change form. They are careful not to spread it, that is why we do not call them, but it has happened a few times since their arrival. We did not require them to tell us who in Deepwood Motte joined them, that was the choice of the people there who decided to accept them as their new lords, but they do tell us when there are others. Either by choice or by accident.” He turned the pages until he came to a ledger. “Choosing to become one of them is risky. One man in four does not survive the first transformation. Of those that do, nearly half will go mad and have to be put down. Only seven have been changed without first asking to be, each one a case of self defense on the part of the shape shifter. Five of those involved shape shifter children set up on bandits, reavers or Iron Born. The children are still young and act on instinct where the adults are trained to keep their minds about them and use their superior strength while still in the shape of a man. They are why the building crews only leave for no more than a year and do not take their families with them. The children would give them away.”
Catelyn shook her head in disbelief. She would assume that he was jesting, but her husband would not jest when the situation was so dire.
“If you go with them, Cat, you will see many things that you still think are impossible. You cannot speak of them away from the Keep or the motte. They were known in their world, but many feared and reviled them. When they were banished here and had to start over, it was decided that the rest of Westeros should not know everything about them. Men fear what they do not understand, and what we fear we often try to destroy. They have been good for the North. You know this. We all know this. But no matter how much good they have done, there will be those who cannot accept what they are if it was known. You cannot speak of it, and Brandon cannot speak of it.”
“Will she want to make Brandon one of them? Is that how she seeks to heal him?”
“No, she would not. She would never purposefully infect a child. Only adults can choose to join them. Their laws are firm in that. She does not need to take such drastic measures at any rate. She can perform truly miraculous feats of healing. There is a woman among their people who is not a shapeshifter but one that some of their people found in dire circumstances. When she came to them, she had lost an arm to infection. Andi was able to make her body grow a new one.” He smiled at her wide eyed look of shock. “Aye. It surprised me as well. I do not know how she did it, but it was within her power. If anyone can make Bran walk again, it is she.”
Hope flared anew in her chest. She could heal her son. Her son would not be a cripple. “I will keep their secret. I will make sure Bran knows to keep their secret. If she can heal him, if she can make him whole, we must go.”
“She is willing to take him. The Pack places a high value on children. She would never turn him away if we were willing to send him. With him being our son it merely means that they will let him return to us rather than keep him with them until they can be sure that he will not tell anyone else.”
He would be all right. Her son would be all right. “Yes. Yes, we can do that.”
Ned gave a slow nod of agreement, then drew a deep breath as though preparing himself for something. She felt the ice reform in her gut.
“There is something else you should know. You are likely to hear of it if you spend much time with the Lennarts while you are there. It is about Jon.”
Her heart missed a beat. Had Jon’s mother joined him at Deepwood Motte? Had her husband been going there to visit her as much as their son? Had more children been born to them?
“He is not my son.”
She could not have heard that correctly. “What was that?”
He was looking at the ground before them. “Jon is not my son. Not by birth. He is Lyanna’s child. By Rhaegar.”
She had heard him. “Why?” Why the lies? She knew why. She was not foolish. She knew the king’s hatred for Rhaegar and all of his family. His child would not have been spared, especially if born of Lyanna. She wanted to know why Ned hadn’t told her.
“You were Brandon’s betrothed, not mine. At first it was because I did not know you. Did not know if I could entrust you with such a secret. Later... it was because I could not tell you because if it ever reached Robert’s ears, your ignorance would have prevented you from being executed with me.”
Catelyn rolled this over in her mind. “I thought such terrible things. Horrible things that made me ashamed of myself. I wished harm on him, Ned. Wished him dead because I thought he reminded you of a woman you loved more than me and still mourned. I thought them, then prayed to the seven to forgive me, only to wish them again later!” Her eyes stung with unshed tears and she wasn’t aware that her voice had risen. She could not hear clearly with the sound of her blood pounding in her ears.
“No one could blame you, Cat. You thought yourself betrayed.”
“I BLAME ME! I blame myself, Ned! HE WAS ONLY A BABE!” She had gotten to her feet without thinking about it and he rose to meet her. He was trying to quiet her when the man known as Samuel padded into the Godswood. “How could you have kept this from me for so long? How could you let me feel such pain for so long?!”
“Sorry, my lord, but Derek says if you two get much louder your voices are going to carry. People will notice.”
Ned nodded. “Thank you. We are nearly done.”
Nearly done? He could not mean to stop here. She needed more time to yell at him. More time to make him understand! “Does Robb know? He knows of the Lennarts and their people, of course. You have taken him there often enough. Did you tell him about Jon?”
“No, I have not. As far as Robb knows, they are brothers.” He took her shoulders in his hands, his expression regretful and ashamed. “Cat, we must go back inside. We need to let Andi know what you understand the significance of going with her to the Keep.”
Yes, Brandon. Her ire had pushed him out of her immediate thoughts. How could she have lost sight of what was important? She nodded and Ned tucked the journal under his arm and rested his free hand on her back as he walked her back to the castle.
Derek gave them a nod as they passed him where he sat and sharpened one of his knives on a whet stone. They made their way to Brandon’s room where Lady Andrea still stood by his bedside. He already looked better, color returning to his pale cheeks, but he was still asleep.
“I will go with you and my son.” Cat met her eyes and wondered where the lion was. The dark brown orbs seemed so ordinary and human. Perhaps in the near perfect stillness with which she stood? Could a purely human woman stand so still? “I understand what that means, Lady Andrea. I will do nothing to disrespect or endanger your house or your people.”
If Maester Luwin was puzzled by the exchange, he showed no sign of it.
Catelyn looked to her son. “Please.... wake him?”
Andi smiled and reached a single hand to her son’s forehead, cupping her palm and fingers over the curve of his skull. She began a soft, melodious chant, the warm golden radiance suffusing her skin again. This time it was deeper, somehow, and the cadence of her words seemed to wrap around everyone in the room. Soothing. Calming.
Brandon’s eyes fluttered beneath the lids. Cat watched as they opened for the first time since she’d been called to his side.