“Don’t look away,” San muttered to his younger brother, Aryn. Aryn glared at him.
“I wasn’t going to,” he hissed back. “I want to see the blood.”
San sighed as the woman in black was led forward for her execution. Of course the warning had not been necessary for Aryn - he was a proper Lord’s son, who loved battles and fighting and gore. His only problem was that at nine years old, he was too small for a proper horse. San had that much on him, at least.
San, on the other hand, preferred dancing and etiquette, and - when he could get away with it - he let his sister Robbin teach him needlework. The first time his father, Lord Catellian Stark, had ordered him to view an execution, he had tried to close his eyes, earning a sharp clout on the head from his father’s Captain of the Guard. At the sight of the bloody head, he had promptly vomited, while the rest of the men-at-arms held back their laughter at the lord’s sissy son.
But this time, he kept his eyes grimly fixed on his father’s sword of Valyrian steel. It flashed once, then came the sickening thud of the head hitting the ground. San swallowed, and managed to keep control of his stomach. Beside him, Aryn was staring with wide eyes that no longer looked so gleeful. Good. It was about time he learned that death wasn’t a game. Likely their father had come to the same conclusion, because as they rode out, he moved his horse to Aryn’s side.
“Aryn,” Lord Catellian said. “Do you know why I killed the woman myself?”
San held his horse a few steps back, just close enough to hear.
Aryn answered uncertainly. “She was a wildling, wasn’t she?”
“No,” Lord Catellian said. “She was a deserter, an oathbreaker. She swore her life to the Wall and then tried to run. Our ancestors, the First Men, decreed that he who issues a verdict shall carry out the sentence himself, lest he become too comfortable with ordering deaths. Do you understand, Aryn?”
“I…I think so,” Aryn replied.
When San had received the Talk from their father, he had replied that he would never be comfortable with killing. Lord Catellian replied that that was a good sentiment, but that sometimes killing was necessary. San had not been swayed.
To San’s surprise, Lord Catellian dropped back to ride next to him. “You did well today, son,” he said, the words sounding wooden and artificial.
San looked at him warily, as unused to receiving praise from his father as Lord Catellian was to giving it. But he tried. “Thanks,” San said.
The two lapsed into their customary uneasy silence. Up ahead, Aryn had challenged Bret Cassel, the master-at-arms’ son, to a pony race, and the two galloped off. Lord Catellian shook his head indulgently.
“I wish we could switch,” San said suddenly, then mentally kicked himself for saying it out loud.
His father looked at him sharply. “What do you mean?”
San stared down at his horse’s mane. “It’s just…Aryn’s so much better at fighting and riding and hunting, and I’m just…”
“Aryn is bold and lacks diplomacy,” Lord Catellian said. “You are cautious, and of sound judgement, traits which give you the making of a wise and just ruler. Being a lord is not all about hacking your enemies to bits.”
San looked up at his father in astonishment. For the first time, a compliment from his father had sounded unforced. “You think so?” he asked in astonishment.
Lord Catellian nodded. “You and Aryn will be well paired as Lord of Winterfell and Captain of the Guards. You just need to learn to balance each other.”
Work with Aryn? The thought of it made him nearly as sick as the severed head had. He and Aryn were complete opposites, and while he understood his father’s vision of balance, he did not think it could ever work in practice.
From up ahead, they heard a loud yell, a child’s shriek, followed by Aryn shouting “Papa! Papa, come quick!” San suddenly felt cold. As much as he hated the little pest, he did not really want anything bad to happen to Aryn. He spurred his horse faster, and followed his father into the woods.
They found the boys next to the corpse of the most enormous wolf San had ever seen - it was larger than his horse. The ponies had balked, refusing to go near it, and Bret ran around trying to catch their reins. Aryn crouched by the wolf, reaching for something.
“What is that?” San gasped.
“A direwolf,” Lord Catellian said, dismounting. “The first one to come south of the wall in over two hundred years. And she is dead.”
San shuddered, and tried not to gag at the smell of even more blood. This was shaping up to be an awful day.
“My lord,” the master-at-arms said, also crouching down by the wolf. He pried something out of the bloody gash in its throat. “Come look at this.”
Lord Catellian took the item. “A piece of antler?” he said. “San. What do you make of this?”
San jumped. “M-my lord?”
“It has the makings of an omen, does it not?”
“Uh, I suppose so.” San could have kicked himself for sounding like a doddering idiot. He tried to pull himself together. “The direwolf is the symbol of our house, and the stag is the symbol of…um…House Baratheon, so a wolf killed by a stag…” His voice trailed off. Queen Roberta Baratheon, a childhood friend of his mother’s, was currently on her way to Winterfell with her husband, King Cicero Lannister. San did not want to think of the implications of the omen.
Apparently, neither did his father. Lord Catellian carelessly tossed the piece of antler to the ground. “Then again, it is best not to put too much stock in omens. Superstitious nonsense. Aryn, what have you got there?”
“Puppies!” San’s brother exclaimed happily. He looked up with the brightest grin San had ever seen on him. The only things that ever made Aryn smile were swords, and using them to hurt people.
San climbed off his horse and followed his father to look. Sure enough, crowded against the direwolf’s belly were several pups. Each one was the size of a half-grown hunting dog, but they were still blind and helpless. Aryn had been petting them, but when he tried to pick one up, it bit him.
“Put that thing back!” Lord Catellian said sharply. “It’s dangerous. Better put them out of their misery and move on.”
“No!” Aryn yelled, clutching the pup tighter. “I want to keep him!”
“Her,” San corrected, having a better angle to judge the pup’s sex. “The direwolf is the symbol of our house,” he added to Lord Catellian. “Living by omens may be foolish, but so is tempting fate. I think we’d better make sure these pups survive.”
Lord Catellian’s face took on a thoughtful cast. “You make a good point,” he said. “I did say you had sound judgement.” As San glowed under the unexpected praise, Lord Catellian added “And there are five pups. One for each of the Stark children. Who am I to ignore such a clear message as that?”
“Six!” Aryn said suddenly, pointing off to the side. At first San thought it was just a patch of snow, but then a pair of eerie red eyes blinked at him. An albino, driven away from their mother by the others. “One for Jane, too,” Aryn said happily. Jane Snow, their mother’s bastard child by an unknown man she had met before she married their father, was a particular favorite of Aryn’s. It was thanks to Aryn’s influence that she had been allowed to take lessons in swordplay from the master-at-arms, and Jane was the only one who never went easy on Aryn in the practice ring. Well, San didn’t, but that made little difference.
Lord Catellian grimaced. “Well. One for Jane too, I suppose.” He hated having a constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity, but he loved Nadia so much that he was willing to act as if the child were his own.
As Aryn grinned, and struggled to lift both his chosen pup and the albino, San heard his father mutter under his breath “Maybe it will do us all a favor and die.”