Shrouded Destiny - Gladiusx - A Song of Ice and Fire (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Prologue Chapter Text Chapter 2: Fickle Blessings Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 3: Addled Wits and Weary Minds Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 4: The Hunter and the Prey Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 5: A Warning Heeded Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 6: The Leal, the Delightful, and the Reckless Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 7: Saviours and Sellsails Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 8: Heartfelt Hospitality Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 9: The Final Gift Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 10: Friends in Court Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 11: Plans and Punishments Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 12: Royal Arrival Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 13: That Damned Mutt Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 14: Off with his Head Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 15: Breaking the Fear Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 16: Of Uncertainty and Kinslayers Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 17: The White Huntsman... Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 18: ...and the Maiden Fair Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 19: Of Squabbles and Preparations Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 20: Of Woes and Perils Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: Built Different Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 22: A Religious Disagreement Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: A Welcome Visitor Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 24: Bitter Secrets Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 25: Stepping into the Unknown Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 26: A Daring Step Forward Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 27: Interlude-A Peek Into the Dark Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 28: Of Gifts and Dwarves Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 29: Of Plans and Resolve Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 30: Winds of Change Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 31: They Chose Their Lot Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 32: Trouble Brewing Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 33: Lies, Deception Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 34: Suffering from Success Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 35: Ploys and Plans Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 36: A Malignant Web Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 37: Rage Against the Dying Light Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 38: The Follies of Youth Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 39: Shadows on the Wall Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 40: Tears of Woe Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 41: The Bog Devil Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 42: Sand Castles Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 43: Strides Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 44: A Brief Reprieve Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 45: A Shadow of a Shadow Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 46: Cloudy Skies Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 47: The King is Dead Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 48: Far From Home Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 49: Turning Point Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 50: Usurpers and Pretenders Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 51: Woes and Follies Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 52: The Sword in the Darkness Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 53: Crucible Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 54: Death Knell Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 55: Adversity Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 56: The Black Flame Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 57: Anvil of Fate Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 58: Awakening Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 59: Echoes of Blood Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 60: Of Crooked Cruelty Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 61: The Crimson Herald Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 62: Tides of Change Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 63: Winds of Strife Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 64: Dreams of Peace Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 65: Cooking Plots Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 66: Of Ice and Fire Notes: Chapter Text Notes:

Chapter 1: Prologue

Chapter Text

Year 3XX After Aegon's Conquest

The sun had not risen in months, and the only lights were the flickering flames of the torches and the soft glow of the waning moon. Unfortunately, Jon had no time to enjoy the view, no matter how magnificent. A cold wind was blowing, cutting as sharp as a knife through even the thickest of furs, and the screams of men dying echoed across the field. The air was filled with the stench of rot and decay.

Jon swiftly yet precisely brandished Longclaw in his right hand while holding a torch in his left. He could not allow himself to lose too much strength while killing wights. But they could not be ignored - there were thousands of them, a veritable tide of rot and death like usual. He cut through the undead like a hot knife through butter, but as soon as one foe was down, another would take its place. He could not avoid the clawing hands completely and hits piled up on his armour. It was holding up nicely, but he could feel bruises slowly forming underneath.

Time lost its meaning as Longclaw danced through the air, but eventually, the wave of corpses started waning. Just when Jon thought it was over, five ethereal figures riding horrifying icy spiders finally appeared and effortlessly ploughed through the thinning ranks of his men.

"Bowmen, aim for the spiders!" a cry tore from his throat, hoping that some of the marksmen still lived and had heard him. Each archer had but a single dragonglass arrow; there were simply not enough of them to go around. He himself only had two in his possession.

A thin volley of fire and dragonglass arrows fell over the Cold Ones. The fiery arrows felled the giant spiders, but most of the fire and obsidian bounced away harmlessly from the milky crystal armour of the Others. One of the Walkers was struck by the black glass-tipped shaft over its exposed blue face and shattered with a soft tinkling sound. The other four rushed into the line of men. People desperately tried to stop them but died by the dozen; the tired fighters couldn't put up proper resistance. The pale crystal swords were reaping lives effortlessly, and within a handful of seconds, the rest of the men did not dare to face the White Walkers and broke down. The Cold Ones decided to chase after the retreating humans.

Jon dropped his torch, sheathed Longclaw on his hip and quickly strung up his yew longbow. He nocked one of his two dragonglass arrows, drew to the limit, and aimed carefully at one of his icy foes. For a short second, it felt like time had slowed down. With each breath that he took, half a dozen men were dying. With a twang, the arrow flew true, hit an icy blue eye, and shattered one of the Walkers just as he was about to slay yet another man.

The last three pale fiends immediately looked his way with their unnatural cold, burning eyes. He quickly let loose the last dragonglass arrow, but a crystal blade deflected it with a tinkling sound. Jon threw his longbow away and unsheathed Longclaw once again. Gathering his strength, he lunged at the one on the left with all his speed, barely avoiding the incoming strike from an icy blade, and ran Longclaw into an unprotected part of its face. A cracking sound was heard, and the pale Other shattered like glass. But Jon had no time to admire his handiwork, as his other opponents were already hacking at him. He dodged, but another blade still grazed him across his right leg.

He ignored his numerous wounds and bruises and pushed himself to the limit as he traded blows with the so-called Cold Gods. Jon could now easily match them in strength and speed and was even superior in skill. A bitter reward for the death of Ghost, yet he had grudgingly used it to the fullest. But even Longclaw could not cut through their crystal armour, so Jon had to create an opening and strike in the gaps or unprotected parts. Jon's scale armour, however, did little to resist the crystal swords in their hands. Their icy edges would cut through it as if it were silk, so he had to either dodge, parry, or deflect every one of their attacks. And he was already tired and wounded from hours of fighting. If he were rested, he would be able to slay both of them down with ease.

Slowly but surely, Jon started to tire even further. Every parry rattled his bones, and the sweeping cuts were harder and harder to avoid. Soon, he would be too slow to fight two of them at once. Mayhaps this was where he finally died?

Jon was already tired of the endless struggle and cared little for life and death anymore. But he was not going down just like that - he might as well take the thrice-damned Cold Ones down with him. He gritted his teeth and jerked to the side, barely avoiding one crystalline sword, and stabbed Longclaw's tip in the face of its owner, killing him. However, the second pale sword impaled him through the torso. The Other cackled triumphantly and tried twisting the blade, but it would not move. Jon had grasped the icy sword hand in an iron grip of his own, and gathering the last vestiges of his waning strength, Longclaw tore through the air one last time, striking the unprotected pale neck. The cackling head fell off the corpse; then both parts shattered like ice.

The crystalline blade buried in his gut pulsed with a terrifying cold, which spread rapidly with every weakening heartbeat.

Jon knew he was finished for good this time.

A heavy metallic taste filled his mouth. The surroundings grew hazy, and his limbs were heavy. He took a few weak steps to lean on the nearby tree. A feeble tug barely pulled out the icy blade, which fell with a sharp, ringing sound. Then, Jon Snow collapsed with a weary sigh at the base of the tree, painting the bone-white bark with his dark red blood.

From the east, for the first time in moons, the rays of the sun peaked over the horizon.

Brandon Stark

Tears streaked across his cheeks as he watched in sorrow through the weirwood tree as the events played out.

"The second battle for the Dawn is finally won," an old, raspy voice next to him uttered. "My time here is finally at an end. I can finally rest."

"Why?" Bran croaked out weakly after removing his hand from the nearby milky white root.

"Why what, boy? Be more specific!"

"Why did everyone have to die?" he spat bitterly and glared. "My father, mother, brothers and sisters are all dead! Only I am left now, and I will never leave this cave!"

"Stop wallowing in self-pity, boy. You agreed to leave your family name behind when apprenticing under me. The world does not revolve around your former House. And you know that Jon was not truly your brother. The Starks might be dead, but millions of others live!" Brynden's raspy voice grated in his ears.

Everything felt meaningless to Bran, and even the air tasted bitter upon his tongue. The sun rose from the east, but there was only darkness left in his life. The price was too high, too heavy.

His father, killed for trying to do the right thing. His mother and Robb, betrayed and butchered by scheming bannermen at the Red Wedding. Sweet Sansa, poisoned at her own wedding by the vengeful queen. Rickon drowned in a cruel autumn storm in the Bay of Seals. Arya, killed by the faceless men for trying to leave and return to Westeros. And now, Jon was dead after almost single-handedly destroying the Others and ending the Second Long Night. It was only Bran left now, but he was nought but a spectre himself, bound in this ancient cave until death decided to take him.

"There is no way you did not foresee this already. After all, you were powerful and experienced enough to glimpse into the future! Why did they all have to die?! It's not fair!"

"The world isn't fair. I warned you, boy! I warned you when you agreed to become my apprentice that you would watch how your loved ones die as you're stuck here!" The Three-eyed crow glared at him with a single eerie red eye. "And yes, I can glimpse into the future. But time is like a raging river. Do not think for a moment that I arranged for the deaths of your kin. For dozens of years, I looked and looked for a way forward but only saw an icy death. Thousands of possible futures, and this was the only light in the future darkness!"

Bran recoiled on his chair as if struck. House Stark had eight thousand years of glorious history. Was this how it all ended? With him slowly wasting away in a quiet cave beyond the Wall, full of sorrow and regrets? Disappearing into the annals of history with nigh but a sigh. Was their existence always meant to end like this? He was powerful now. Not as a lord or a knight as he wanted before, but as a greenseer and a skinchanger. Could he truly not do anything, even with all his magical prowess? A wild idea formed in his mind.

"No! I refuse!" Bran uttered through his now clenched teeth. Brynden looked at him as if he was a fool. "I refuse to give up on my family!"

"There's nothing you can do, boy," Brynden's hoarse voice sounded mocking to his ears. "Even if you could go back in time, this is the only way the Others could be defeated. You are but a cripple that cannot lead, govern, or fight, and none would ever listen to the ramblings of a child. At best, you'd only make things worse than they already were."

Bran suppressed his boiling anger while looking at his mentor's ghastly face. The old man was right; he had no talents for any of those.

A daring idea formed within his mind, one that simply would not go away.

"Yes, I would not be able to do much for true," he admitted slowly, but he found his face twisting in a feral grin. "But Jon, on the other hand, could. He's the one who rallied the shattered remains of North, the Night's Watch, and the Free folk against the gathering darkness. He's the one who could best the Others in a fight and live! He is the one who brought the Dawn!"

"And how would you return him, my young and green apprentice? He is already dead and does not have the greensight. And suppose you somehow succeed, you would change things irrevocably. 'Tis not a guarantee that your cousin could win again or that any of your family would live," his mentor's voice was nary a whisper now, but something unknown flashed in his red eye.

"My brotherdied with his lifeblood colouring a heart tree's roots red; he's still within my reach. Even now, his corpse is still warm. I will drag his mind into the weirwood and cast it back in the river of time!"

"Simply trying to glimpse through time is already incredibly dangerous. Meddling with the turbulent rivers of time will drown your mind both in the past and the present. You change one thing, and the ripples can spread far and wide," Brynden warned him quietly, but his apprentice's eyes were still full of conviction. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Bran knew he was not meant for glorious deeds. He knew that ever since he woke up with his legs crippled. He knew that he had made many mistakes. But now he could make everything right again.

Bran nodded and no longer paid attention to his mentor. His hand weakly lifted Dark Sister from the nearby wall and ran the cold, rippling blade through his palm. He then grasped the thickest of the bone-white roots with his bleeding hand and pushedallof himself into the weirwood.

Finding Jon's mind was easy. Even after his brother had died, his soul still shone with power like a beacon in the surrounding darkness, slow to disperse. Bran touched it with his magic and tried pulling it. It felt both freezing cold and searing hot to the touch and as heavy as a mountain. It barely budged. He pulled with all his strength, hoping to drag it into the weirwoods, but it was too heavy. Bran, however, did not give up and continued stubbornly.

In the cave, Brynden Rivers watched as his apprentice began to bleed from every orifice. The foolish boy was truly attempting it and was killing himself in the process. But Bran was not strong enough, his mind not sturdy enough, and his powers not polished enough to succeed. At least not alone.

Brynden was already lingering for too long and had no desire to wait for decades until he managed to find another apprentice. He remembered his sweet niece, Melantha Blackwood, who married Willam Stark. All of the Starks were his kin too, in a manner of speaking...

Did he want things to truly end like this? His kin were dead. The Blackwoods, the Targaryens, the Starks, and even the Baratheons were all gone now. At this moment, he felt every single year of his cursed existence weighing upon his bony shoulders. Duty had always been heavy, but as he got older and older, it grew into a crushing mountain upon his shoulders. Could he cast an already-won victory back into uncertainty because of a youthful folly just for a slight chance of things being better for some of his wayward kin? Was it worth it to completely sever the line of the three-eyed greenseers, surviving all the way from the Pact? Could Jon Snow, his great-grandnephew from both sides, succeed again if given a second chance?

Yes, he could!

The boy had been as brittle as cast iron when leaving Winterfell. But the cruel world had hammered him repeatedly, and he did not break but instead turned into pure Valyrian steel. The age of the greenseers had been long over. Brynden was the last remnant of once mighty, yet now forgotten powers, better left little more than a distant memory. Mayhaps it was for the best if it ended with him and Brandon.

Bloodraven slipped into the weirwoods and pulled on Jon Snow's mind, together with his apprentice. Bran's senses flared in surprise, and his efforts stumbled for a moment, but he quickly regained his bearings. They managed to drag it into the weirwood network and began to push against the river of time together. In the cave, thick black blood began oozing from his orifices, too. It took half a minute of heavy exertion, yet Bran started to weaken rapidly. Their bodies grew thinner and thinner.

Pushing such a magically heavy mind was supposed to be nearly impossible. Yet the strongest greenseers in eight thousand years working together could accomplish it, albeit at the cost of their existence. With a final effort, they mustered all their strength and managed to hurl Jon Snow's essence across the turbulent stream of time. The moment they succeeded, the waters began to boil and churn, and the river roared with rage, drowning Bran and Brynden. With the final embers of life and magic left within him, Bloodraven sent Jon Snow one final gift before his essence was crushed by the furious waters.

In the cave lay two corpses. An old man with bloodstained, parchment-like skin lay entangled within a twisted throne of weirwood roots, and a smaller boy stuck on a chair-like contraption. Instead of eyes, on their faces lay empty sockets filled with blood. Both corpses were only loosely hanging skin and brittle bones, but a grotesque smile sat on their faces. And so, the ancient cave beyond the Wall became the final resting place of the greatest Greenseers of this Age, where their remains lay forgotten together with the bones of the Children and the Giants.

Winterfell, 2nd Day of the 3d Moon, Year 298 after Aegon's Conquest

Eddard Stark

Lord Stark,

Deepwood Motte has officially finished rebuilding.

Galbart Glover

Short and to the point, as always. He sighed and placed the letter in the drawer. Galbart had killed Maron Greyjoy at the siege of Pyke and later expressed heavy concerns about retaliation upon Deepwood Motte in the future, especially since it was quite close to the sea. Ned hoped there would be no more fighting within his lifetime, but he knew all too well that one rarely got what he wished for, so he gave Glover his blessing and permission to crenellate heavily. Galbart had quickly started negotiations with the Wulls for granite from their quarry. The old Wull Chieftain only agreed after Glover took his youngest daughter for a wife, much to Ned's chagrin. Now, eight years later, the seat of House Glover had become a proper keep instead of the wooden motte and bailey that it was before.

Ned had even visited it in person with Robb and Jon two years ago. The Keep was being remade out of stone; ironwood was used for support beams, and it looked impressive even when half-finished. The curtain walls were in two rings. An outer ring that was thirty-five feet tall and twelve feet thick stone walls, with a proper moat outside, and the inner wall was forty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. And all of it was built on a hill. It was not a large holdfast, but not a small one either. All of this was only possible because of the bountiful and long summer, and even then, the Glovers would still have to tighten their belts for the next handful of years.

Now, with a hundred bowmen, Deepwood Motte could hold off thousands of attackers, and Galbart could hopefully sleep easily at night. Hopefully, Balon Greyjoy would avoid any foolish moves as long as Theon was sitting here in Winterfell. But Ned knew that the Lord Reaper of Pyke was not known for his wits and had not written to his last son a single time in nearly ten years. A pity his advice to send the man to the Wall was left unheeded. The Lord of Winterfell wouldn't be surprised if Balon was simply biding his time to strike again when Westeros seemed weak.

After receiving Galbart's letter, Ned was curious enough to send a team of stonemasons and architects to survey the Moat. He knew that his father had the desire to rebuild the entrance to the North during his childhood but had never gotten around to doing it. The reason became apparent as soon as the survey team returned. The price of restoring Moat Cailin would eat away all their saved-up coin and still beggar House Stark for a generation. While they were not poor by any measure, the closest stone quarry was hundreds of miles away, and the price of transporting the required stone over such a massive distance was unfeasible. The troubles did not even end here. The swampy ground surrounding most of the moat was not very suitable for crops, and the upkeep of the Moat would have to come purely from Winterfell's coffers. Worse, the amount of work it would take to drain the surrounding swamp in order to dig for new foundations for the curtain walls was tremendous.

It was simply not worth it, especially since there were no enemies to the South. While only three towers remained of the Moat's original twenty they were more than enough to repel invasions from the Neck with the assistance of the crannogmen. Ned couldn't help but wonder if every new Lord of Winterfell dreamed of restoring the Moat to its former glory, only for the idea to be quickly squashed by reality.

His mind slowly wandered to more immediate issues. Ned grimaced at the thought that the whole southern court was coming to Winterfell because his foster father was dead. That had caught him completely off-guard, and he had no idea what to do. The South rarely boded well for House Stark. At least it would be some time before they arrived. If they were coming by land, it could take them up to half a year to arrive. After all, the royal entourage would only travel as fast as its slowest member.

After a few moments, Ned shook his head and banished those thoughts completely; they only made his head hurt. A mournful howl that chilled his spine was heard in the distance, making him grimace. He'd deal with things as they come. He stood up, grabbed Ice, left the solar, and headed towards the serene godswood, for he needed to clear his head.

Walder hastily intercepted him in one of the hallways, gasping for air. The face of the gigantic guardsman that loomed more than a head over him was heavy with worry and distress.

"My Lord," he took a deep breath and continued grimly, "Bran has fallen."

Everything froze, and Ned felt as if he had dived into the icy waters of the White Knife during the onset of winter. Fallen…?

"Lead the way," he managed to eke out after gathering himself. "Is my son…?"

He was afraid to voice the word lest it became real. Ned vividly remembered the day when the news of his father and brother's death arrived, along with Aerys' demand for his head. Everything felt surreal then, and it took him days to fully believe he was not dreaming.

"I don't know, Lord Stark. I was sent here to fetch you immediately."

Eddard forced himself to calm down and quickly followed after Walder. His mind refused to work, feeling sluggish as if drowning in a swamp.

As soon as they entered the courtyard, the only sound that could be heard was a heartwrenching wail. The wail of his wife, Catelyn. His blood ran cold now, and he numbly approached where all the guardsmen had clustered together.

He found the weary face of Rodrik Cassel, who shook his head grimly when he saw him. The ring of men-at-arms opened to let Ned through, and he finally saw.

His boy, oh his young boy! Bran, the cheerful, full of hope son, lay deathly still on the cold ground, head cracked open, blood everywhere... Catelyn had crumpled over his body, weeping with sorrow.

Robert Baratheon, the Crownlands

"What is it this time?" He asked, not even bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice.

"The Queen's wheelhouse has broken down again, Your Grace," the blond ponce squeaked. Were they going to wait half a day until that thrice-cursed monstrosity on wheels was repaired again?!

Gods, he was surrounded by blond c*nts everywhere. The boy looked thin and soft, like a woman, and almost as pretty, and the only thing missing was a c*nt and a pair of teats. He struggled to remember why he had taken those two ponces as squires. A few moments later, he scowled when it came to him. His goddamn harpy of a wife wouldn't shut up about it, so he had agreed to silence her incessant screeching. At least now, on the road, he did not have to deal with her while she was stuck in the blasted monstrosity she called a wheelhouse.

Damn it all! At least he was going to visit Ned now! The thought alone lit a fire inside him and brought a smile to his face.

He drank in the surrounding sights, the rolling green hills and fields full of wheat. And most importantly, the fresh, warm breeze that gently blew by. The only time he managed to get away from the stinking pile of sh*t called King's Landing was when he went out on a hunt. Maybe a royal progress was in order? It would be good for his subjects to see their king. And the fact that he'd be away from the stench of King's Landing and its vipers for a long time definitely did not have anything to do with it. Not one bit!

But first, he had to get Ned to be his Hand. They would be together again, just like in the good old days!

"Wine!" He ordered, and the blond twat passed him the skin of wine, and he took a heavy swig. Ah, Arbor Gold was the good stuff, albeit a bit too sweet. Those flowers were sh*t at fighting, but at least they made decent wine, but it was not bitter enough for his taste. "When did we leave King's Landing?"

"A sennight ago, your grace!" the golden-haired sh*t replied with trepidation, making him frown.

Gods, they had passed through Hayford yesterday, and the keep was scarcely a day's ride away from King's Landing. At this pace, they would get to Winterfell next year!

This just wouldn't do. He turned to look at the blond twat he had regretfully taken in as a squire. What was his name again? Lanot? Lannet? Bah, did it even matter?!

"Boy, tell everyone to get ready; we'll continue on horse!" Robert ordered.

"The whole retinue?" The blond sh*t asked weakly. "B-but what of the Queen's wheelhouse and the servants?"

"Yes, the whole retinue! Their King commands it! And Others take the blasted wheelhouse. If Cersei can't ride a horse, she's welcome to return to King's Landing, but all my children stay with me. Anyone else who is too slow to follow can stay behind!" He declared and grimaced, trying to ignore the coming headache. Just imagining his harpy of a wife's screeching made his head swell. Would it kill Tywin's thrice-cursed daughter to keep her mouth shut for once in her life?!

High Heart

"What is this? Things have changed!" A raspy cry tore through the air. "Ah, ah ah, the gods have gone silent…The Song?! I cannot see! There is only an endless shroud of snow and blood!"

A pale old woman no taller than three feet hobbled weakly among the weirwood stumps, barely standing upright with the help of her small gnarled cane.

Dragonstone
Melisandre recoiled as her flames raged, tearing her vision to shreds. It took her a few heartbeats to calm down, and she continued gazing at the twirling fire.

She stood still, looking and looking as time flew by. Outside, the sun slowly hid behind the horizon to the west when she finally stirred again. No matter how she looked now, no visions came from the angry flames. Why did R'hllor punish her so?!

Or maybe the Lord of the Light wanted to tell her something. The last of her visions was about the lands of cold and ice, something that could only be beyond the Great Wall.

Melisandre shuffled uneasily in realisation.

Was R'hllor displeased with her for dallying here and trying to push her own goals?!

She hastily gathered her small travel bag, threw her scarlet cloak over her shoulders, and rushed towards the docks, paying no heed of anything in her way.

Patchface watched as the Red Witch glided like a spectre in the hallway and cackled with glee while scuttling sideways like a crab.

"In the dark, the dead are dancing, and the shadows come tagging, tagging!" His face, painted in motley, twisted in terror, and his joy was replaced with horror. "The Song is drowning! Oh, oh, oh!"

Chapter 2: Fickle Blessings

Notes:

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the ASOIAF universe. All recognisable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of GRRM; I make no claim to ownership.

Acknowledgements: This chapter was edited by Void Uzumaki. Cheers to Bub3loka, my beta reader, who helped me immensely.

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Robb Stark

Something was wrong. Ever since Grey Wind howled a few minutes ago, he was whining restlessly and nudging at his feet.

"Your new dog is going to deafen us, Stark," Theon groaned. "Mayhaps you should return it to the kennels for now?"

"It's a direwolf, not a dog," Robb replied without bothering to hide his annoyance. "Mayhaps we should find you a squid to keep you busy?"

"It's a kraken," his friend scowled, "and I'm plenty busy already."

With his whor*s and flirting around with every maiden that caught his eye in Winter Town, no doubt.

"If you say so," he nodded with a chuckle and picked up Grey Wind. The pup finally relaxed when he was scratched behind his ears. Gods, the direwolf was so adorable when he lolled his tongue!

Theon was just about to try and give a not-so-witty comeback when Desmond came running.

"Lord Robb, Lord Stark has called for you in the courtyard," the guard urged grimly.

"What happened?" Robb asked as they followed the man back towards the gatehouse, a small grey direwolf trotting behind them.

"Lord Bran... fell."

"What do you mean by fell?!"

The heir of Winterfell stopped dead in his tracks and looked at the sombre man.

"Lord Bran fell while climbing one of the curtain walls," Desmond tensely explained, waving them over to continue moving.

"Is my brother... well?"

Robb felt foolish as soon as the words left his mouth. If Bran were well, his father wouldn't have sent a guard to fetch him. His insides began to twist into painful knots, imagining what had happened to his brother.

Desmond just shook his head sadly and continued.

Winterfell's courtyard was deathly quiet, and Robb choked and felt like something punched him in the gut when he saw a small body carefully being carried out in a black shroud by servants with their faces covered by grey cowls. Robb's eyes found his mother, who, with puffy eyes, trailed after the black shroud, sobbing quietly. Next to him, Theon stood frozen, unsure of what to do.

If there was any doubt in his mind, it was gone now. He could feel it in his bones; Bran wasdead.

His father was standing in the middle of the courtyard, face carved from ice and harshly barking out orders as the gathered guardsmen quickly dispersed.

As Robb approached, he saw that his father's soft grey eyes had hardened into two chips of slated stone as he listened to Rodrik Cassel.

"Robb, Theon," Eddard Stark nodded in acknowledgement, and Robb could see that the rim around his eyes had reddened slightly.

"Father… how?" he eked out weakly.

"One of the servants saw the whole thing," his father's voice was cold and stern but cracked slightly at the end. "Bran's hand slipped when he tried to lift himself up on one of the protrusions, and he simply fell and hit his head a few times on the way to the ground. By the time the servant ran over, he was already gone,"

"But Bran never falls," the words slipped out of his mouth, and his father's eyes bore into him.

"Remember this, Robb," a tinge of grief leaked through Eddard Stark's stern words. "Remember this. There's always a first time. A time to fail where you previously always had succeeded. Where expectations are betrayed, and some blows come from where you least expect them."

Everything became a numb blur for Robb. Two guards escorted a disbelieving Sansa and a shaken Arya, and he watched how their expressions crumbled as their father explained the situation. His sisters cried and cried, and he wanted to join them, perceptions be damned, but he couldn't.

Robb just felt... numb, angry, and helpless for the first time in his life. How could Bran be gone just like that?! He had seen his brother running around and laughing happily in the morning just a scant few hours ago...

The heir of Winterfell wanted to scream and shout and just... hit something. But looking at his distraught sisters, Robb slowly began to calm down. Something nudged his leg, and he saw Grey Wind look at him with sharp yellow eyes. Robb picked the pup again with a sigh and ran his fingers through his fluffy fur, and the tension slowly fled his body.

"From now on, every single one of you is to have a minder," his father's steely eyes bore at the now defiant Arya, who looked like she was about to protest. "And if you try to evade or escape your minder, you will be confined in your room for a moon, where only the Septa will be allowed to visit."

That seemed to finally cow his younger sister... for now, at least. Robb also had to hide a grimace at the prospect of being constantly babied by one of the guardsmen.

At that moment, Harwin ran over, face dripping with sweat.

"My Lord, we cannot find Jon," the guardsman reported after wiping the beads of sweat from his brow.

His father closed his eyes for a few heartbeats, and his face somehow became grimmer.

"Jon usually goes towards the Godswood after the morning training," Robb hesitantly said. "But I am unsure if he would be there now."

The Crypts and the Godswood were the only two places where only members of House Stark were allowed, and anyone else required special permission from Lord Stark to enter, guardsmen included. His brother oft stayed there, choosing to brood away in peace. Robb had oft found him lounging at the hot springs when not praying at the Heart Tree.

"Let us go fetch your brother, then," Eddard Stark finally spoke and turned to Sansa and Arya. "You two return to your quarters for now."

Arya had the sense not to protest this time, and his sisters headed back to the Great Keep while Robb and his father strode towards one of the wooden inner gates, which led to the Godswood, accompanied by Rodrik, Harwin, and Theon.

The usually tranquil canopy of trees felt solemn and dark as they quietly trudged through the soft, mossy ground.

The hot springs were empty, so they headed towards the Heart Tree. Robb couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding as they approached the thick, bone-white trunk of the ancient weirwood.

"JON!"

Robb froze when he saw his brother, spasming amidst the pale roots of the tree, skin blue with frost and face covered with blood. No, not blood. His spine crawled, and blood ran cold when he realised that the carved face above was weeping tears of crimson sap on top of Jon's brow.

Selyse Baratheon

The sun was slowly setting in the west, and it was time for the evening prayer, but Melisandre was gone. The guardsmen had reported the priestess boarding a vessel headed North earlier today. And while her Lord Husband thought nothing of the 'red woman' as he called it, she did not doubt it was only a matter of time until Stannis could be converted. But alas...

Had Selyse done something to insult the Lord of the Light?!

She had fervently prayed every day and every night, but R'hllor's priestess abandoned her anyway. She began restlessly pacing along the wooden floorboards of her chamber.

But... mayhaps one did not need a priest to pray to the Lord of the Light, just like one could pray to the Seven without a septon!

Selyse racked her mind to remember the exact words as she called for one of the servants to pour her a glass of spiced honey wine from Lannisport.

She dismissed the servant and slowly began taking sips from the cup as she stared at the flickering fire in the hearth.

Ah yes! Melisandre oft gazed upon the flames to divine R'hllor's will.

The Lord of the Light speaks through the fires, but one must sacrifice first to receive in return.

R'hllor permitted his most faithful servants to glimpse the future from the fire! And there was none as faithful as Selyse was.

The hearth would not do. It was too small, too flimsy, to let her see the one true god's will. Selyse quickly placed one of those annoying gaudy tapered chairs carved with draconic motifs in the middle of the room and piled a few useless pieces of cloth. A few pieces of firewood were added for good measure. But no, his was not a good enough sacrifice. She tossed in her fox-shaped pin and her favourite silken bodice and poured the spiced honey wine on top.

Deep in the back of her mind, a weak voice told Selyse she was doing something incredibly foolish. Yet Selyse ignored it with a snort; the Lord of the Light would guide her!

With some struggle, she managed to get a glowing ember from the hearth with a fire poker and toss it on the pile she had gathered.

Selyse Baratheon watched with fascination as a furious fire combusted and quickly began to rage, bathing her face in searing heat.

"Lead me from the darkness, O my Lord! Fill my heart with fire so that I might find my path!"

She gazed into the angry flames, and she saw.

The fire danced and danced, and she could finallysee.

Herself, being skinned alive by an ugly looking lowborn in a field of snow?!

The flames twisted-

Her daughter, burning on a pyre, and Selyse jumping in to join her...

-and spun-

Her daughter, now a young woman, lost amidst a vast field of snow...

-again-

Her daughter, with grey scarring gone, exchanging wedding vows with a northern savage... before an old, gnarly heart tree!?

-and again-

Her daughter, a woman grown and beautiful, bronze crown atop her brow, surrounded by a host of happy children.

-and-

Her innocent daughter, riding a naked man in her maiden day suit as one would ride a horse?!

A pair of angry purple eyes gazed at her and-

Selyse staggered back as if something had crashed into her, mind muddled. She coughed and touched the wetness on her cheeks. She gasped as her fingers were covered by blood, but everything felt unbearably hot at that moment. Selyse looked around and let out a raspy gasp; the room was filled with black plumes of smoke, and the fire was slowly spreading through the varnished planks on the floor.

At that moment, her gown caught fire; she opened her mouth to yell but only managed to inhale a mouthful of black smog, heave over, and cough even harder.

Eddard Stark

Ned hated it, feeling powerless. It was a bitter lesson, learned long ago, but he did not think he would have to taste grief and despair again so soon...

He had been blessed, and all his children were born healthy. Many tales of miscarriages, stillbirths, and sickly babes not surviving to see a full year haunted him every time Catelyn got pregnant. But the gods had proven generous, and no such thing happened. And yet here he was, with one son to bury and another one on the way.

But it was not the gods at fault, only himself. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. He was supposed to rule and defend a whole kingdom, yet he could not protect his own son from himself. A boy of scarcely nine with a deadly penchant for climbing. Had he been more strict and more careful... this could have been avoided.

And now, a vigil awaited him after Bran's body was embalmed.

But first, he had to know if he was going to lose a second son today. One not of his loins but a son in all the ways that mattered. It was first about family and his promise to Lyanna. But as the years passed, he came to love the boy as his own.

Yet now, the gods had proven cruel. The weirwood sap had done something to his son, and he had been so cold to the touch that itburned. So unnaturally cold that Jon should have died. No normal man could be so cold and live, but his boy proved otherwise. Was it an ember from the fickle blood of the dragon furiously resisting the chill? Or mayhaps something long forgotten from the ancient, brutal history of House Stark, where they took the daughters of every king, sorcerous or otherwise, they vanquished as brides?

He stood in the dim hallway and waited on the opposite side of the wooden door. Robb had wanted to wait here with him, but Ned had sent his heir away.

It had been hours since then, and Luwin was yet to leave Jon's room, so he held onto a small spark of hope.

The door suddenly opened, and searing heat struck Ned square in the face, making him sweat. Luwin tiredly walked out, his grey robes damp as if he had taken a soak in the hot springs with them.

"Will Jon live?"

The short, old maester tugged at the chain around his neck and sighed.

"I don't know, my Lord," he confessed with worry in his eyes and used his damp sleeve to wipe his face futilely, as it remained just as sweaty as before.

"What do you mean you don't know?!"

Luwin took a staggered step back, and Ned realised that he had finally lost his composure and took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down. The maester had no fault here, and yelling would accomplish little.

"I have never seen or heard about something like...thisbefore. It should not be possible!" Luwin worriedly tugged at his chain again. "When Jon arrived, he was so cold that his clothes had frozen stiff, and I had to slice them open. It should have killed him, yet he showed no signs of frostbite. Then, he suddenly became feverish, and his skin became reddish hot as a heated metal in the forge. I barely managed to stop the seizures, but Jon kept alternating between searing hot and freezing cold. He should have been dead long before he got to me, yet he still lingers!"

"How?"

The maester grimaced heavily.

"Magic. This can only be magic," Luwin explained grimly. "I thought... that it was a force long gone from the world, at least here, in Westeros, but alas, the gods laugh at mortal men like us."

"You have the Valyrian Steel link, you studied the higher mysteries, surely there is something you can do?" Ned asked, not daring hope leak into his voice.

"I've done all I could, my Lord. We don't study the practice of higher mysteries in the Citadel, but its history, lore, and limits," the maester shook his head. "There's very little on the properties of weirwood sap, and what is known is vastly different from Jon's situation. I will write to the Archmaester of Magic, Marwyn, to see if he could provide guidance, but Oldtown is on the other end of Westeros. It will be at least a fortnight before a raven returns with a reply, and by that time, it might be too late..."

Ned's knees lost strength, and it was only by sheer will that he remained standing. And maybe some help from the granite wall at his back. The thought of burying a second son pressed down on him like a gigantic boulder. But no, his boy was still alive, still fighting; he would not hand him over to the gods just yet. But what could he do?!

"Is there anything else that can be done?"

"I will peruse the olden tomes in Winterfell's library," Luwin worriedly fiddled with his chain's rippled, smoky steel link. "But I can barely read Old Tongue, and they might not have anything on the subject. I would not lose hope just yet, my Lord. Despite all of this, Jon does not seem to be waning; only time will tell whether he will make it or not."

The maester's words made him feel a bit lighter, if nothing else. Ned knew Jon was stubborn, and would not give up, so there was yet some hope left. He dismissed Luwin and headed towards where Bran's remains were. The thought of standing vigil over his young boy made his insides twist into knots again.

"My Lord! There's a fire in the Sea Dragon Tower!"

Stannis forced his tired eyes to open and quickly stood up from his bed. Two panicked guardsmen were standing at his door.

"Explain!" He curtly ordered as he quickly donned his grey woollen tunic and leather breeches.

"The Lady Baratheon's apartments were aflame a few minutes ago, and Ser Lothor Hardy has raised the alarm and sent us to notify you," Varly hastily explained.

It took a few heartbeats for his mind to finally shake off the drowsiness.

"My daughter?!" Stannis demanded.

"She is... at her quarters," Gared, the other guardsman, said with a gulp. "The master-at-arms has already sent men to fetch water from the well!"

As soon as his leather belt was strapped to his waist and worn boots were on his feet, Stannis grabbed his cloak and dashed out of the room. The bells began to ring.

The only thought in his head while he was rushing down a flight of stairs was Shireen. Stannis never considered himself a good father or husband, but he kept to his wedding vows. There might have never been much affection between him and his wife, but he loved his daughter, even if he was unsure how to truly show it.

The Lord of Dragonstone cursed his indecisiveness. His wife had insisted that Shireen stay with her all the way in another tower instead of in the family quarters in the Stone Drum Keep, where he resided. Unwilling to fight Selyse on this, he had let the matter go.

Guardsmen were scuttling about chaotically, but he paid them no heed as he ran through the gallery leading to a visibly burning tower. Red flames were hungrily licking just below the neck of the dragon-like structure, exactly where his wife's apartments were.

Stannis' breathing quickly became ragged, and he once again cursed himself for neglecting his time in the yard. Had he let himself go, just like Robert did?!

He ignored the burning pain in his lungs and immediately began climbing up the Sea Dragon Tower's narrow and twisting steps, passing over guardsmen carrying buckets of water.

A minute later, he finally stopped when faced with a dozen guardsmen blocking the flight of stairs from where searing heat and smoke were coming. More and more men were streaming in, forming a living line to pass on the water from the well, but their efforts were little better than pissing in the inferno and hoping it would die out.

"My Lord," Ser Hardy dipped his head as two guardsmen with a bucket full of water caught up and futilely tossed it into the roaring fire above.

"Shireen?!" Stannis demanded as he was heavily gasping for breath.

"I've sent a man to try and fetch her and Lady Baratheon four minutes ago, but he hasn't returned," the master-at-arms reported grimly. "You should get out of here, my Lord, the top of the tower can collapse on us at any moment!"

The Lord of Dragonstone gritted his teeth as he stood still in a fleeting heartbeat of hesitation. Before Ser Hardy could object, Stannis took a deep breath and ran up into the searing heat.

The smoke stung his eyes, the hot flames licked his clothes painfully, and every mouthful of air seared his innards. The wooden panes and flooring decorating the hallway's walls were all feeding the fires, but he had no time to look at any of them. He found a body on the ground, burning, and leapt over it. He ignored the entrance to his wife's chambers and continued deeper into the fiery hallway. It took him less than a dozen heartbeats to arrive at Shireen's door, which was also aflame. His boots were now on fire, and every step was more painful than the previous one.

He didn't stop for a moment and hurled forward with all his strength, ramming his shoulder into the door and smashing it open. His sleeve caught fire, but he ignored it as his gaze was immediately on his daughter, cowering in the corner, small face filled with fear and terror. He hastily ran over to her, unlatched his cloak and covered Shireen with it before hauling her up in his embrace and running back out.

His lungs were demanding more and more air, but he had none to give. Not only his feet but his whole body began screaming in pain. He felt like roast beef as his vision began to swim, his head got dizzy, and moving became harder and more agonising with every passing second.

Stannis, teeth gritted, did not falter and kept his daughter securely wrapped in his cloak above the flames.

Lothor Hardy saw his liege Lord leap out of the roaring fire, gently place a squirming cloak on the stairs and collapse onto the ground, half his clothes aflame.

Out of the heavily singed cloak rolled out a coughing Shireen Baratheon.

5th Day of the 3rd Moon, Winterfell

Sansa Stark

The small burial ceremony ended as a granite lid closed Bran's tomb. Sansa felt like crying again, but her red eyes had no more tears to give. She had prayed to the Seven and even to the Heart Tree to give her younger brother back, but alas. Despite her ardent desires, what was dead stayed dead. In the end, she prayed to the Stranger to lead Bran into the afterlife and protect him.

Sansa hated it; everything was wrong now. Father was no longer warm and kind but stern and cold. There was still a sliver of warmth underneath, but it was rare to see. Her mother now spoke curtly and was clouded by a veil of sadness around her. She scarcely attended meals anymore, and the rest of her time was spent in the small sept, praying in vain. Robb… was angry and grim. Sansa had no idea what her elder brother was angry at, but she suspected he didn't know either. All of his free time was spent either in the yard, furiously swinging a sword until he could no more, or with Grey Wind.

Rickon was the same as always. A bit too young to realise what was truly happening, but even he could see that something was wrong. One time he had asked for 'Bran', and Catelyn had burst into tears, making him cry in return. However, Arya had become quiet and glum and no longer fought with her. Usually, Sansa would celebrate, but she did not feel like it.

Now with Bran gone, the smiles of House Stark seemed to be buried with him.

If that was all, things would not be as grim. Yet, her half-brother, Jon, was also lingering near death. Maester Luwin had no idea what was wrong with him, but from what she had heard, it was a miracle that he had survived so far. Sansa drifted away from Jon as she grew up, and now she regretted it. Bastard or not, she did not want to lose another brother! Despite his sullen nature, he had always been kind to her.

After the funeral was done, she wandered aimlessly around the many courtyards of Winterfell, shadowed by her minder, Porther. There were no lessons today, and Sansa did not feel like talking or playing with Jeyne or Beth either.

Her feet unknowingly led her to the kennels. Thinking of her own direwolf, she made to turn back to her chambers; it would be time to feed Lady with warm milk soon. Their Lord father had decreed that all the direwolves were to be taken care of by their hand only, without any help from the servants.

Sansa froze before she even made a dozen steps. If Bran was dead, and Jon was on the sickbed, who was taking care of their pups?! She spun, pulled up the hemline of her gown a bit, and quickly ran over to the kennels.

A storm of loud barking greeted her, along with the smell of privy, and it took a few moments for the Kennelmaster to quiet down the hounds.

"Lady Sansa, what brings ye here?" The stout man asked curiously after bowing his head.

"Farlen, do you know what happened to Bran's and Jon's direwolves?"

"Aye, Lady Arya came and picked them up that day," he explained gruffly.

"Thank you, Farlen," Sansa nodded gratefully and left.

After procuring a small wineskin of warm milk from the kitchen, she quickly headed towards her rooms in the Great Keep.

Her minder remained at the entrance. Thankfully, her father had agreed to allow her and all her siblings' unsupervised movement around the Great Keep.

As Sansa climbed the stairs to the family wing, she almost crashed into her sister, who was rushing downwards. The eldest daughter of Eddard Stark stilled at the three extra pairs of small eyes looking at her from below. Golden, yellow, and red.

"Arya, where are you going with all the direwolves?"

Her sister hesitated for a few moments but eventually replied. "To keep Jon some company."

"I'll come with you," Sansa's words rolled out of her mouth before she even realised.

"Why?" Suspicion dripped from Arya's voice.

"Can't I see him as well?"

She could see indignation in those grey eyes.

"You've never cared for Jon before, why would you do so now?"

Anger bubbled within her gut, and Sansa had to swallow back the biting remark on the tip of her tongue. She didn't want to fight with her sister, not today. And Arya was right; she did avoid Jon before, if only because of the urgings of Septa Mordane and her mother.

"I don't want to lose another brother," she quietly admitted, and her sister's glare softened.

"Fine, let's go," Arya finally relented.

They slowly made their way to Jon's chambers so the young pups could keep pace with them.

"Have you fed them yet?" Sansa asked while eying the fluffy trio trotting behind them curiously.

"Only twice today," her sister admitted. "Was going to the kitchens to fetch some milk for them after visiting Jon."

They were at Jon's door now, and Arya nodded to Fat Tom, who pulled on his ginger whiskers and let them in with a nod.

A wave of heat struck Sansa when she entered the room as if she was in the hot springs.

Arya ran over to the shutter and opened it, letting in a cool summer breeze. Sansa's gaze, however, was stuck on the bed where Jon lay, skin with a slightly reddish hue, covered in sweat. She hesitantly walked over to one of the chairs near him and sat down. Her brother's face was oddly serene and peaceful, yet he seemed feverish.

"What's wrong with him? Can't Luwin treat him?"

"Nobody would tell me anything." Her sister's eyes became downcast, and she sighed sadly.

At that moment, the two grey direwolf pups curiously trotted around the small room, but the white one silently went near the bed, rose on its hind legs and tried to go climb up, but it was too small.

Sansa gently picked it up, and it started squirming in her grasp without letting out a sound.

"What's his name?" she inquired before letting the small direwolf on top of Jon's covers.

"Ghost," Arya absentmindedly provided as she watched the two grey direwolves chasing each other on the floor.

A soft tussle from the bed drew Sansa's attention, and she let out a soft gasp as Jon slowly began to stir.

Notes:

House Stark is visited by loss early.

Maybe I wrote this a bit too angsty… but they never truly experienced such a sudden loss, with nothing else to distract them.

Some might notice that Bran was nine instead of seven. I guess I might clear that up now; as part of the ripples of sending Jon back in time, things changed. Harrenhal's Tourney came two years earlier than the book canon, along with the rebellion, with all sorts of consequences that will be seen later on. Don't expect a simple+2 years for everyone, though.

Things happen on Dragonstone. And no, Selyse doesn't see the future; she sees 'a future' of another world/worlds because the sight is so messed up right now.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

You can also expect the next chapter ofConvergence of Fatesthis Thursday!

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 3: Addled Wits and Weary Minds

Notes:

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the ASOIAF universe. All recognisable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of GRRM; I make no claim to ownership.

Acknowledgements: This chapter was edited by Old Man of the Mountain. Cheers to Bub3loka, my beta reader, who helped me immensely.

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ned Stark

After three gloomy days of grief and mourning, the news that Jon was waking was like a ray of sunlight tearing through the stormy sky. When he lost his father and brother, he had to deal with that loss alone, and even then, there was not much time for grief, as he had to fight for his life and his vengeance.

Now, there was no war to fight to distract him, and his family was far bigger. The last three days had been dark and gloomy, and everything felt... empty after Bran's funeral. Catelyn was inconsolable; his wife blamed herself and spent almost all her time either in the Sept or the cold crypts in front of Bran's tomb. Ned feared she might fall sick, especially since she scarcely touched any food unless he brought it himself.

Robb was angry, but spending some more time in the yard was never remiss. Rodrik had ensured that his heir was not mindlessly looking to swing his sword and still learned things in the process. The others were... sad, for lack of a better word.

As he entered the hallway, Ned saw his daughters restlessly waiting in front of Jon's room, three direwolf pups spinning around their feet. The elder one was dressed in a graceful gown as usual, and the younger one was in breeches again, making him sigh.

"Did Jon really wake?" he asked directly as soon as he approached.

"Yes, father," Sansa nodded shyly, looking rather skittish as if she wanted to run away.

He was surprised yet glad to see her in front of her 'half-brother's' room. Catelyn had easily convinced her to stay away from Jon as soon as his balls dropped and his voice began to crack. His wife was simply set in her southron ways, and Ned didn't interfere when Sansa slowly drifted away from her half-brother. Not that his boy would do anything; Jon had not given Ned any reason to have doubts either.

'Tongues will wag, Ned! It can ruin her marriage prospects in the future!'

He shook his head, snorting inwardly, and focused on his girls again.

"And did he say anything? Like what happened at the Heart Tree?"

"Jon just silently... stared at the ceiling, father," Arya pouted and ducked down to play with the direwolves, who were quickly on her like a heap of grey and white fur.

"Maester Luwin is with him now," Sansa supplied helpfully as she tried to stand straight, but to Ned's amusem*nt, she kept fidgeting slightly, and her gaze wandered towards her sister and the pups.

Ned expectantly looked at Fat Tom, who lazily watched from next to the door with a smile.

"Lord Stark," the guardsman quickly coughed. "The Maester said not to be disturbed until he finishes his examination."

The Lord of Winterfell nodded and leaned on the warm granite wall, content to watch his daughters while waiting. Eventually, to Ned's amusem*nt, Sansa let go of her propriety, ducked, and scratched Jon's direwolf behind the ears. The white pup melted in her arms, and Arya was busy playing with the other two. He did not remember any of the direwolf names since the last few days had been too much, but he was almost certain that the second grey direwolf was male and thus not Sansa's; otherwise, his eldest daughter wouldn't be playing with the white one. Which meant that it was... Bran's. Ned banished a tinge of guilt for not remembering the direwolf; he had attempted to busy himself in the ceremonies and duties in his grief and worry. Thankfully, unlike him, his younger daughter had not forgotten about the pup.

For a moment, he imagined Arya as a woman grown, even wilder than she was right now, with two direwolves as large as horses trailing after her, causing all sorts of mischief. The thought made him wince.

"This one is Brandon's, right?"

"Yes, father," Arya's shoulders sagged as she stood up. "I've been feeding the pup in his stead!"

"Does it have a name?" He gently asked.

"Bran never gave him one," she explained mournfully.

Ned squatted down and gently picked up the unnamed grey furball, who squirmed to turn around and look at him with its yellow eyes. A wet tongue was already upon Eddard Stark's face a heartbeat later, and a chuckle rang from the side.

"His name will be... Winter!" The Lord of Winterfell proclaimed, and he let go of the direwolf pup, who now decided to lie down on his right boot. "I'll be taking care of him now."

The idea came on a whim, but it felt just right now that it was voiced out loud.

"But father- "

"No buts, Arya. You already have a direwolf. It would not be fair to your siblings if you had two," he attempted to placate.

Arya did not seem truly appeased by the looks of her mutinous face, so he strictly looked at her with his lordly gaze, and her protest died out before leaving her lips.

"Fine," she eventually mumbled under his stern gaze.

Gods, what would he do with her when she grew up? She was wilder than both Brandon and Lyanna combined at only eleven. At least she seemed to get along with Sansa... for now. Ned had hoped that his youngest would begin to grow out of this rebellious phase, but alas.

A few minutes later, Sansa stood up, face filled with worry.

"I'm going back to my chambers," she declared and all but rushed towards the stairway.

Arya grew bored soon after and left as well, with two tired pups in her arms.

"Tom, guard by the stairway for now," Ned ordered the plump guardsman, who promptly moved away.

The Lord of Winterfell stood still, watching the little direwolf lazily snooze on his boot.

Time tickled by, and he grew worried as Luwin had not left the chambers yet. He trusted the old maester, and there was nothing he could do but stay and wait.

A pair of strong footsteps grabbed his attention, and he looked up to see Robb, dressed in a fine black doublet and cotton breeches, slowly walking this way.

"Arya told me Jon has awakened," his eldest explained quietly as he curiously eyed the grey furball at Ned's boot.

"Luwin is inside now, tending to him," Ned provided with a sigh. "Why's your hair wet?"

"Took a quick dip in the pools to cleanse the dirt and sweat from training," Robb admitted with a sigh. "How do you deal with... all of this?"

"Grieving or waiting?"

His son tiredly ran a hand through his auburn hair and closed his eyes.

"Both?"

Ned hummed thoughtfully as the only audible sound in the hallway was Robb's choppy breath.

"For waiting, you will have to learn patience one way or another," he finally said with a soft chuckle. "Although you can always busy yourself with some work. Being a Lord is an endless string of duty and obligations, and you might as well deal with some sooner rather than later."

"And how do you deal with the sorrow, father?"

"There's no easy way to deal with it, son," Ned provided with a forlorn sigh and placed a hand on Robb's shoulder. "But you must not let it consume you. Death is just another part of life. Everyone dies sooner or later."

"Bran was too young, it's not fair-"

"The world isn't fair, Robb!" Ned interrupted and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Acceptance... takes time. I know it hurts, but there's nothing we can do but learn from our mistakes where we can and move forward. Take some time alone in the Godswood and grieve, but keep walking forward."

At that moment, the door finally opened, and a tired Luwin walked out of the room.

"How's Jon?" his son impatiently prodded.

"Well, he's better than before, Lord Robb," the maester said with a cough. "I couldn't find anything wrong with him at all, and he's in perfect health aside from the fever, which is finally beginning to break."

"And did he truly wake?"

"Yes, my Lord," the old man slowly confirmed. "He keeps alternating between falling asleep and waking up, but for some reason, he refused even to acknowledge my presence in the room, let alone speak with me. Mayhaps he would be amenable to speak with his father instead."

"Go get some rest, Luwin," Ned waved the maester away.

"His mind might be still addled by the fever," Luwin warned as he trudged away.

The Lord of Winterfell entered the chamber with trepidation, followed by Robb.

The room was warm, or at least warmer than usual in the Great Keep, and the scent of herbs and poultices was still heavy in the air. It was rather plain, with a single bed, two chairs, a cloak hanger, and a trunk to the side. On the bed, Jon lay deathly still.

Ned sat on one of the chairs, and Robb joined him on the other.

Jon lay still, eyes looking at the ceiling. Ned would have thought him dead if not for the occasional blink or two and the fact that his eyes were chaotically darting around the room as if expecting an attack.

"Jon?" he gently urged. "Speak to me, son. Tell me what happened."

Lyanna's son sharply twisted his neck, and his grey eyes widened. A moment later, a raspy, tired laugh tore out of Jon's lips. It was a jarring, harsh sound, and the Lord of Winterfell couldn't help but see one not the innocent eyes of youth but the hardened gaze of a veteran. Jon's eyes were weary and had hollowness to them as if they had seen too much blood spilt and lives taken, many by his own hand too. Like a veteran of many a battle, if not more. What if his son had gone mad, just like his sire and grandsire? Worry flooded Ned like a river, but it quickly abated, remembering Luwin's warning.

"We were worried for you, Jon," Robb added quietly.

Jon finally stopped with his raspy laugh, his face grew weary, and his eyes skittishly looked around the room, looking for an unseen enemy.

"I died," he finally spoke with a low, hoarse voice.

"What do you mean you died?" Ned carefully inquired, trying to hide his unease.

"Finally got killed, sword in the belly at the weirwood," his son coughed out.

"But you're alive, brother," Robb cried out. "There were no wounds on your body at all!"

"If I were alive, why would you be here?" Jon's face twisted in a sad smile.

"We're alive too, Jon," Ned carefully reminded, wondering what all this was about. Has his son's mind truly gone addled? He knew the Old Gods were harsh and cruel, like the Northern wilderness, but they were not ones to give poisoned gifts like this!

"But you're not!" his son coughed out with such a conviction that Ned's blood froze. "You died! You all died, and I was the last to perish!"

"What do you mean? We're alive and standing right before you. You say we died, then how, Jon?" Robb asked, face now pale.

The boy's eyes widened, and his wild eyes finally stopped wandering and looked straight at them with a scary intensity.

"Lord Stark got executed in King's Landing by the King," his son croaked out miserably. "Arya and Sansa died there too."

Eddard Stark froze, and chills crawled up his spine. Did he get found out?!

"Why would Robert execute me, Jon?" The Lord of Winterfell finally found his voice. "And why would my daughters die there too?"

"The next one, not Robert. Don't kno' why, wasn't there. Treason, they said. Neither Arya n' Sansa survived either," Jon kept recounting hoarsely, each word slurring more and more and becoming harsher and harsher. "Robb went south to avenge you n' died at a wedding, with L'dy Stark, killed by Boltons n' Freys. Bran n' Rickon got killed by the Turncloak at Winterfell."

"Turncloak?"

"Greyjoy."

His son uttered the name with such venom that if words could kill, the Greyjoy in question would have been dead thrice over. And there was only one Greyjoy that could be turncloak in Winterfell…

"Bran's already dead, Jon. Enough of this, you need some rest," Ned decided, and he stood up, unwilling to listen to this tale any longer. Jon sagged on the bed, defeated, and closed his eyes. "Hopefully, some sleep will do your mind good. Call for me when you decide to tell me what happened at the weirwood."

The Lord of Winterfell dragged his paling heir out of the room and slammed the door shut.

"My brother has gone mad," Robb lamented, worry marring his face. "Theon would never betray us, and nobody would dare to break Guest Right at a wedding."

"Luwin warned us his mind could be addled," Ned sighed heavily. "There was some strange magick involved here, and he's still feverish too. We can only hope Jon will return to normal with enough rest."

Davos Seaworth, Dragonstone

All the guardsmen looked alert and armed to the teeth. They let Davos enter the keep easily enough, but Dale was stuck at the gates for now. Two men-at-arms led him towards Ser Lothor Hardy, Dragonstone's master-at-arms. He all but rushed down the hallway, trying to follow their quick pace.

Soon, they were in front of a thick oaken door. He was ushered inside while a pair of guardsmen stood guard in the hallway.

The room was not too large, and a plain oaken table sat at the centre. Old Maester Cressen sat on a chair near the hearth, and Ser Hardy paced around the room.

"Ser Davos!" The Claw knight stopped in his stride and greeted him far more enthusiastically than before.

"What happened to the Sea Dragon Tower, is Lady Shireen fine?" He blurted out.

"Lady Shireen is fine," Cressen supplied as he sighed. "But someone set the tower on fire."

"Who?"

"We're trying to find out," the knight sighed from the side and scratched his auburn beard. "I've checked all the servants or guardsmen, and they know nothing and saw nothing. We only know Lord Stannis had little friends, we were hoping to tell us if he had any enemies."

Davos couldn't help but tense. Something was very wrong, the prince should have been here.

"What happened to Lord Stannis?"

The old man's face twisted into a grimace, and he sighed.

"The Lord is heavily wounded, Ser Davos," Cressen finally explained. "When the tower started to burn, he rushed inside the fire to save his daughter. Sadly, Lady Selyse perished in the flames."

Neither of the men looked particularly saddened about the death of Stannis' wife, and Davos couldn't blame them. Selyse Florent was an unpleasant woman. Aside from her… plain looks, she was haughty and even sterner than her husband.

"Do you know who could have orchestrated such a travesty?" The master-at-arms prodded again.

"Stannis oft said the court was full of lickspittles that would smile in your face and stab you in the back. It could be anyone in King's Landing," the onion knight wearily provided. "His only friend there was Lord Arryn, and even then, it was more an alliance of convenience."

"And Lord Arryn is dead now," Ser Hardy murmured, and the room became deathly quiet.

"What happens now, will Stannis live?" Davos queried.

"The Lord's condition is severe," the Maester sighed and rubbed his wizened chin. "His burns are bad and might yet fester, his lungs inhaled too much smoke, and his fever is too strong. But he still fights."

The onion knight let out a sigh of relief. Stannis was not one to give up, and as long as he lived, he'd not give up!

"We've locked down all ways out of the fortress," the master-at-arms continued. "Nobody can come in or leave, lest they make an attempt on Stannis directly now. No word of the Lord's condition will leave outside the walls without my permission. Whoever orchestrated this attack will not be able to attempt again!"

6th Day of the 3rd Moon, Winterfell

Jon Snow

Even in death, he did not get to rest. Did he not earn it?! Leading and fighting for years and years, not giving up no matter the odds! Every inch of his body was in pain, and visions of family, ice and death, and the old Winterfell continued playing out in his mind, whether he closed his eyes or not. Why did the gods have to torment him with visions of his father, brother, sisters, and even Ghost?! But wait, wasn't Eddard Stark his uncle?

Or was he?

Things like that had long stopped mattering…

11th Day of the 3rd Moon

A cruel jape by the gods.

It took him some time to realise, but he was not dreaming and was not dead either. He was back at the beginning, with endless war and struggle on the dark horizon. But things were slightly different, Bran was already dead, everyone looked a tad older, and his hands did not seem to belong to a boy of four and ten.

"Your fever is fully gone," Luwin carefully explained after placing an old, calloused hand on Jon's brow. The maester then placed a finger on his wrist. "I think you're fully healed now, Jon. A few more days of rest might do you good, though."

Jon silently watched as the maester left his room.

He had so many things to say, so many things to explain, but he didn't know where to begin. And worse, they all thought him mad and treated him as if he was fragile glass that would shatter into pieces at any moment. Only his uncle visited him once more, and Jon could see fear and wariness in his eyes. It hurt, it hurt so badly, just as much as the icy blade that twisted in his belly and took his life. He wanted to say a thousand things, yet his mouth remained shut.

Maybe, just maybe, he was really mad and had imagined everything from before.

Or worse, he was not mad, and soon, enemies would descend on House Stark like vultures from every direction, and death was stirring from the Lands of Always Winter once more for the first time in eight millennia.

Why him? Why always him!? What did he do to earn this punishment?!

Why couldn't he just… stay dead after he got killed.

He was tired. So very tired, and all he wanted to do was rest.

Jon Snow wearily closed his eyes and dreamt of ice and death again.

14th Day of the 3rd Moon

He could feel wetness on his chin and wearily opened his eyes. White fur and red eyes greeted him, and a small chuckle involuntarily escaped his lips.

"Ghost! How did you get in here?"

The direwolf didn't answer him, but suddenly Jon had a vague vision of stealthily sneaking in as the servant opened the door to bring food. Hells, was he seeing Ghost's memory?

He could physically feel the worry in Ghost as he nudged him with his tiny snout. Jon stood up, gently picked up his companion, and scratched him behind the ears.

Maybe living was not so bad after all, especially since he had his trusty direwolf with him again!

But things were different once more. Looking at his red eyes, he could feel his connection with the direwolf far better than before. Instead of a faint sense of something he couldn't even feel, it was there, in the back of his mind, glaring solid like a part of him. Even before, Ghost always obeyed his orders almost unconditionally before getting killed by the Red Witch.

He nudged at the connection, and the worldshifted.

In front of him sat a young man with splattered hair, tired grey eyes, and a familiar long face. He was looking at himself. Jon quickly attempted to pull away -

-and he was looking at his direwolf again.

Gods, was he a skinchanger, just like Six-skins had told him? Jon could acutely feel Ghost's presence in his mind, even without looking at him. He could also feel the direwolf's mood and feelings, and sometimes even peak through his eyes!

He mentally nudged Ghost to get off his lap, and the direwolf pup jumped down on the floor, spun around and looked up at him, tail wagging fiercely. Well, scarcely a pup anymore, he was already nearly twice as big as he was a few days ago!

That settled it; for good or for bad, he was most certainly a skinchanger. It was so easy, and his connection with Ghost felt just right! It felt just as natural as… walking.

Was it the wierwood sap? Or maybe something else? He shook his head; he had no way of knowing.

Jon stood up, carefully walked to the shutter, and opened it, letting warm yet fresh air flow inside his small room. Or, well, at least it felt warm compared to the usual cold.

He carefully glanced at his limbs in wonder and waved his hand around. The numbness was gone. Ever since his first resurrection, his senses had sharpened, yet the world had become dim, and everything felt numb as if covered by a layer of cloth.

The only problem was that his body felt weak. Jon walked to his bed and attempted to lift it up. It was harder than expected, yet easier than it should have been. His monstrous strength and speed were not… gone, but it seemed his body could no longer keep up.

Jon looked at the table, where a platter with some ale and a generous serving of venison and cheese sat. He sat there and quickly began wolfing it down, slipping pieces of meat to Ghost, who hungrily devoured them.

He wondered what to do now. He could always return to his bed and sleep, pretending everything was not going to go to sh*t. But no, he had wasted more than enough time skulking for now. And now he felt restless, and as he ate more and more of the food, his body felt less and less stiff and weary, and soon it was brimming with power instead.

No, he was done moping! But what could he do?

He could go to his uncle and warn him of the coming threats.

Jon grimaced at the thought; he would probably be laughed at or considered mad. Seven bloody hells, they even considered him mad already for his feverish blubbering. Nobody would heed his warnings. Even if he was not mad, he had no proof for any of it. Jon was not privy to the Southron plots that killed his kin; things reached the Wall very slowly and with little detail.

For any of this, he would need more than his word, and he had only that. And, who would believe a no-name young bastard? The Night's Watch was slow to believe him with ample proof even when he was their Lord Commander, tried and tested in battle. The North was even slower to believe him, even when the broken pieces of his uncle's kingdom uneasily united behind the last one with Stark blood.

And the South? They never cared and kept squabbling for that sh*tty iron chair.

'Why would you care about the North and House Stark?'An insidious voice whispered in his head. 'You've given more than enough, you owe them nothing! You could leave all of this mess behind and go to the warm and peaceful Summer Isles!'

Jon bristled and angrily banished the voice from his head. He was not going to leave his family to the vultures! But the voice was right. This was going to be one giant bloody mess, and there was not much he could do. With every moment he remained here, more and more free folk were slain, and more wights were raised by the Others beyond the Wall. The Night's Watch would not move their sorry arses until it was too late, if at all, and the wildlings would not listen to reason before they were beaten bloody into submission first. The Northern Lords would baulk at accepting the savages from beyond the Wall that raided their lands for years. The Watch itself was filled with the scum of the Seven Kingdoms and was prone to insubordination and mutiny. There were honourable men that joined the ancient order out of duty, but they were few and between.

Maybe, just maybe, there was a peaceful way that this all could be resolved. But Jon didn't know it. It would take one insult, one person with a fiery temper, for everything to devolve into a bloodbath again.

He was finally faced with an empty platter, yet his stomach still rumbled softly in hunger. He stood up and began pacing.

What could he do? Was there even anything he could do? The Southern kingdoms were one enormous mess that had pulled in House Stark like a treacherous bog. But he couldn't just leave his uncle, brothers, and sisters to die!

What to do, what to do?

Things could scarcely be worse than the last time!

Staying here would accomplish nothing, and chaining himself to the Night's Watch would do just as little. Going south would probably get him killed, as he did not know how their silly games were played. Could he find a way to warn his uncle of events he knew little about without sounding utterly mad? Hells, could he face his uncle and his family without breaking down and crying like a little babe?

He suddenly stilled in his step. A wild, wild idea began forming in his head. It would be incredibly hard and fraught with danger. But that was already the story of his life; mortal peril and bitter struggle were already commonplace for him.

It was incredibly bold, and mayhaps many would call it foolish. He would likely die long before he could succeed, but he would rather do something than stay here and wait for others to make the first move. A pity he could not be in two places at the same time.

A grim smile formed on Jon's lips as a daring plan began to form in his mind.

16th Day of the 3rd Moon, Crownlands

Robert Baratheon

"This is too slow," Robert grunted.

"We're moving nearly thrice as fast as before, Your Grace," Selmy provided unhelpfully.

And they just passed Brindlewood a few hours ago. Nearly twenty days now and scarcely half the way out of the Crownlands.

"And we're still crawling like a f*cking turtle! Wine!"

One of the blond sh*ts handed him a wineskin, and he took a generous swig. Thirteen miles yesterday! At this pace, it would still take nearly half a year to get to Winterfell. He didn't fancy spending so much time on the saddle, listening to the whinging of his harpy wife and looking at the blonde ponces every evening. A pity she did not give up and return to King's Landing.

f*ck it, did he have to actually resort to this now? But the other option was equally unappealing. He f*cking hated ships! This once, just this once, he'd do it.

But only once.

"We switch course to Maidenpool," he declared after taking another generous gulp of wine.

"This might delay our journey by a moon, Your Grace," the old knight cautioned.

"Nay, send a quick rider to King's Landing to order the Lady Lyanna and a good escort to sail up the Bay of Crabs. We'll visit that coward Mooton and his pool before sailing up to White Harbour," Robert explained, not bothering to hide his distaste. He still remembered the sweet crunch as his hammer met the head of Rhaegar's Mooton squire at the Stoney Sept. At least Myles Mooton was not a coward like his soft lordly brother.

A pity Cersei had not given up, and he had to endure her insufferable presence more oft without the wheelhouse. But the image of his wife puking her guts out on the sea made him smile.

Notes:

Jon says some unbelievable things in his fever and is considered mad.

Obligatory moping ensues. I decided to spare myself writing too much needless angst; thus the small time skip. It takes him some time, but with some moral support from Ghost, Jon gathers his wits and has a wild plan.

But isn't Joffrey etc, incest spawn? Maybe, he wasn't there and did not have proof. The only person who is adamant about this is Stannis, who provided no proof, and was the primary beneficiary of Cersei's children being bastards as the next in line. Why didn't he say anything when Robert was alive? Why did he hide on Dragonstone?

And here's the thing, Jon knows only what vaguely reached him, and all of it is second/third/fifth-hand information, almost all of it conflicting.

In case you missed the hint at the prologue, Jon never met any of his siblings/cousins after leaving for the Wall. Sansa, Arya, and Robb all died before setting foot in the North. Bran was stuck in the cave for life, and Rickon died in a storm on his way back to Skaagos. Jon has no idea what they have gone through, only that they are all dead.

Obviously, more details will be unveiled as we go.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 4: The Hunter and the Prey

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

Also,warning!, there are some rather graphic scenes here.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

17th Day of the 3rd Moon

Lord Eddard Stark

Eddard tiredly rubbed his brow as the raindrops relentlessly pattered his shutter. It would snow during the night, but the days were too warm and turned the snow into rain. He collapsed on the Lord's chair behind the desk and sighed. The waiting had become unbearable, and all he could do was worry while his mind conjured worse and worse scenarios. It didn't help that the king's arrival loomed in the distance. Ned hated dealing with the Southron court and had no desire to see any of it, doubly more so now when he was grieving.

Now with the latest rain erasing the tracks, if his men had not found traces of Jon, then there was nothing that could be done. And worst of all, only so much time and resources could be spent without beginning to gather far too much unhealthy attention. His last hope was to have some of his principal bannermen spot Jon and return him to Winterfell, but the chances were slim.

Jory finally entered the solar, looking tired and sat on one of the chairs.

"Anything?"

"No, Lord Stark," his captain of the guard replied with a grimace.

"You're telling me that a sick boy of six and ten escaped his room, direwolf in tow, bypassing the guard at his door, the guard at the entrance of the Great Keep, the guardsmen at the armoury, the kitchen, and those at the gates and walls and left Winterfell unnoticed with the finest garron in my stables, and you have no idea how he did it?!"

"Yes, Lord Stark," Jory admitted, and his shoulders sagged.

Ned could feel his head beginning to throb painfully. In moments like these, he wished he was a landless second son with no duties and responsibilities.

"Did you find out what he took from the armoury?"

"A brigandine, arming doublet, chainmail sleeves, greaves, a shield, two quivers full of arrows and a yew longbow, two bastard swords, three daggers, a hunting axe, two hunting spears, our finest tent, and my camping supplies. All of the finest quality," the captain finished and looked down, face laden with guilt.

Gods, had Jon taken his favourite fur-inlaid tent with the Myrish silk cot? Ned groaned and tiredly rubbed his brow again. Coupled with all the travelling food missing from the kitchens, it was as if his son was preparing for war.

What had happened at the heart tree?

Why did Jon speak of things that had never happened in his fever?

Why did his boy run away? Jon had never wanted for anything in Winterfell!

How did he manage to sneak away unnoticed while looting the armoury? Jon could have just asked, and Ned would have let him take his pick anyway, just not his favourite tent...

The Lord of Winterfell had so many questions and no answers at all.

"All the guardsmen on duty that night will assist the gong workers with clearing the cisterns and drains for a fortnight," he ordered. Ned could not leave the failure of duty unpunished, but he did not want to flog anyone either. Jon had sneaked around with an uncanny amount of skill without anyone noticing at all, and he'd rather consider it his son's ability than his guardsmen's failure. But still, more steps would have to be taken. "Double the guardsmen on watch, start recruiting more men, and report to Rodrik to intensify the training for everyone."

"It will be done, my Lord," Jory promised and quickly ran off.

Ned's own desire to lift his sword and strike people bubbled angrily in his gut.

It had been a while since he regularly trained in the yard, and mayhaps it was time to take it up again. His odd training once or twice a fortnight would no longer cut it. And since he had ordered his guards to train more rigorously, it would be good to join them and lead by example. Robb seemed to have calmed greatly with the help of all the time spent in the yard.

He poured himself a small cup of ale and downed it in one go.

If nothing else, Ned could take solace that Jon had left well-prepared. His boy was an able hunter and a fighter, and with a direwolf in tow, albeit an adolescent one, little could endanger him in the Seven Kingdoms as long as he used his head wisely. But the most worrying part was that Ned had no idea if his son still had his wits about him!

At that moment, the guardsman outside the door announced Rodrik Cassel and the weary master-at-arms entered his solar. The old knight shed his wet cloak and placed it on the hanger before silently sitting on the chair.

"Nothing," Rodrik glumly reported. "No traces from our trackers and hunters; the wolfhounds found no leads at all."

And now, with the heavy rain, any trail would be lost. Ned found his hand had balled in a fist and took a deep breath.

"A green boy of six and ten avoids my best guards, sneaks out of my keep, makes a fool of the North's finest, and we have no idea how or why?" The Lord of Winterfell slumped on his chair again, feeling defeated. He was not sure if he should feel proud of his boy or furious.

"None of this were the actions of a green boy," Cassel hesitantly countered. "Pardon me, my Lord, but only a cunning and seasoned veteran could pull this off. While Jon himself is cleverer than he shows and is intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of Winterfell, I wouldn't expect it from him. But I think I know how he managed to run away."

"And why did you not say anything about it so far?!"

"It's all a conjecture, and I have no proof," the old knight supplied with a grimace.

"Well, it's better than what we got so far, so spill," The Lord of Winterfell urged with a sigh.

"I think the boy climbed down the shutter of his room," Rodrik began slowly. "The window is large enough and was left open. It would be close enough to the ground floor, so it's not impossible. Jon could have sneaked into the armoury while the guardsmen changed shifts during the night. It's also possible that they were asleep on duty. Mayhaps one or two, but not all of them."

"Indeed," Ned acquiesced with a grimace. "But he never showed a penchant for climbing before. That didn't explain how he managed to sneak past the walls with a horse."

"Jon's always been a resourceful and observant lad, and he did climb all over the trees in the Godswood as a child," Cassel countered as he pulled on his grey whisker. "He could have worn a direwolf livery and simply ridden out before dawn when the guardsmen are laxest. The main gate always stays open in peacetime, and the men guarding it are far more stringent on who enters than who leaves. But as I said, this is only a conjecture of mine."

Ned's mind came to a grinding halt for a short moment. His boy might have played his guardsmen for fools, but Ned knew Jon very well; his son did not have a malicious bone in his body. But the possibility alone sent cold shivers down his back, and his mind began conjuring worse and worse images again. If it was not Jon but someone hostile and experienced enough, his whole family could have had their throats slit during the night. Someone familiar with Winterfell's layout could do much harm if they put their mind to it.

"It seems that I've grown too lax. This cannot continue," Ned murmured to himself before raising his voice. "From now on, every soul entering and leaving Winterfell will be carefully checked. I've ordered Jory to double the guard and recruit more men-at-arms. You're to increase the training of everyone in Winterfell. Wait for me in the yard in an hour, I require some sparring myself."

The master-at-arms nodded and quickly headed out of the solar, leaving Ned Stark alone with his thoughts.

He sighed and forced himself to stand up and head to his chamber to change into something more suitable than silks for the yard.

Just as he was putting on his training tunic, Winter paddled over to him, scroll too large for his small frame comically clasped in his jaw.

"Where did you find that, boy?"

The direwolf didn't answer but insistently butted his leg with his tiny grey head. Ned chuckled softly, petted the eager furball, and picked up the scroll. The Lord of Winterfell slowly unfurled it, and he couldn't help but feel a sense of dread. A single glance almost made him drop it; the letters were written not in ink but in blood.

Dear uncle,

Mayhaps I am truly mad, and I hope that I am, but I feel that I must give you a warning. I beg of you to read it till the end, no matter how fantastical it sounds-

Ned paled, and his heart began to hammer like a drum; how did Jon find out!? Ned had been cautious not to mention anything. And only Howland knew, but his friend had never left Greywater Watch since the Rebellion. He fought off the urge to quickly toss it into the crackling hearth with gritted teeth and forced himself to continue reading.

I hope I am mad, and it's all something conjured by my addled mind, but just in case it's not, I'm writing this letter. I'd rather this all be a bad dream and be your bastard son instead of Rhaegar's, but one rarely gets what one wishes for. Some things have changed, but most seem to have remained the same. Beware...

23nd Day of the 3rd Moon

Jon Snow

Jon fed a piece of dried jerky to Ghost, who happily devoured it in one bite. Nearby, Shadow, the newly-named pitch-black garron, grazed a few tufts of grass sticking out of the snow-covered ground. Being in the wilderness seemed to agree with his companion, as he looked far happier and had grown half the way to his knees now. At the start, Jon had hunted some smaller game like hares, squirrels, and the such, nothing that be considered poaching and catch the attention of the local outrider patrols.

Now, Ghost had started hunting on his own, and quite successfully at that, if the connection in his mind was to judge. He now always knew what his direwolf was doing or where Ghost was. A shroud of snow had covered the land last night, making Ghost incredibly hard to spot, especially with his silent steps. He had to make do without any fire when he approached the Bolton lands, lest it attracted undue attention, but the weather felt warm compared to the freezing cold that he had grown used to.

Ghost quietly darted into the snowy forest to scout ahead, leaving a thoughtful Jon alone. He could slip into his companion's mind, but the direwolf was smart enough to deal with things on his own. Over the years, Jon had become an able ranger and tracker, but he still struggled to compete with Ghost in the forest. His thoughts slowly drifted towards certain decisions of his. Gods, now that the numbness was gone, he felt like a child again, plagued by indecision and all sorts of pesky feelings. Feelings that were very pleasantly muted after Melisandre's cruel resurrection were now back with a vengeance.

A fortnight later and he still felt craven for avoiding his family. Were they even his family anymore? Gone were his brothers and sisters, and cousins had taken their place. Alas, Winterfell was a place of ghosts for him. Deep down, he had wanted to become the Lord of Winterfell, and when his darkest desire came true, it tasted like ash on his tongue. His kin slain, and the North itself was torn apart, facing enemies from within and without. He had yearned dearly to reunite with his siblings, and now that they were here and alive, not only had they turned out to be cousins instead, but Jon found himself with nothing to say. They were the children of summer, young and joyful, but he was no longer the same innocent boy of four and ten, but a weary, battered, and broken shell of a man, kept together only by duty and vengeance. And now both the duty and vengeance were gone, vows or oaths no longer bound him, yet he found himself walking down a similar road again.

Everything else felt meaningless as long as the darkness gathered and the white winds began to blow.

The endless struggle amidst the snow was the only thing he knew now.

As for why he left so quickly?

Jon knew that a letter written in blood from a missing son would be far more striking than the mad ramblings of a bastard with addled wits. Or worse, Eddard Stark would believe him and keep him confined to his rooms. And Jon did not think he could set his eyes on Greyjoy without gutting the traitorous c*nt open, which would create a myriad of problems. Last but not least, it was necessary to leave because nobody else could deal with the Others as well as he could. Nobody else knew how!

But no matter how much he repeated that in his head, it didn't make the bitter feeling disappear.

Hopefully, Bran's direwolf would follow his instructions. He did not expect to be able to connect to its mind almost as easily as he could with Ghosts'. Jon also knew that the Lord of Winterfell's hands were tied without proof, and he wondered if Lord Stark would listen and follow his ideas. The North, the Watch, and the Free Folk were all as stubborn as they came; despite their differences, words would do little to convince them. Even after all three were bent and broken into pieces, on the verge of death and with a common enemy, Jon had struggled greatly to bind them to work together, and even then, there were a lot of problems.

Having the Night's Watch, the North, and the Fre Folk work together without being broken first was nothing but a pipe dream.

Words were wind. There was only a single way any of them would listen and work together.

Violence.

Jon shook his head with a sigh; he prayed his uncle would at least heed his warnings.

Not that Jon knew exactly what had gone wrong in the South. But at least he knew the broad strokes of it.

Nobody in the South is to be trusted. There were no friends there, only plotters and schemers that would stab you in the back at the first opportunity.

Mayhaps he was wrong, but all his efforts to squeeze out some help from below the Neck had been in vain. Vague promises of future aid that would never come to pass in return for the North's thinning number of swords and obeisance. As if he would bow to those who beheaded his father or break bread on a table with those who plotted his kin's demise. Most would see him killed just for being the 'son' of Eddard Stark. He had suppressed his burning desire to tear into the South, killing everyone that wronged his family, as they were far too numerous and the North's strength had waned greatly, and he was far too busy battling the Others.

But the South was not his concern now, no matter how dangerous it seemed. He was just a bastard again, and the North was ruled by the Lord of Winterfell, not Jon Snow. He had aided his uncle in every way he could, and now it was out of his hands. No, the bigger threat lay to the far north.

But first, he had to deal with one final pesky problem before heading beyond the Wall.

A small smile appeared on his lips as he felt Ghost nudge him through the link. The gods were smiling upon him today, he had expected to wait and stalk here for nearly a moon, yet it was scarcely the second day. He slipped his mind into the direwolf, only to be greeted by a gruesome sight. At a small clearing in the distance stood two ugly, cruel-looking men wearing the Flayed Man heraldry, surrounded by a handful of hounds.

The familiar one, with blotchy pink skin, wormy-looking lips, and pale, soulless eyes, was forcing himself upon a bruised and naked maiden while the second, all sorts of blisters and spots covering his skin, watched from the side with delight. Jon broke his connection, quickly strung his yew longbow and followed his companion's direction, trying his hardest not to produce a sound while stepping only on rocks and roots. He could recognise the repulsive face of the bastard of Dreadfort anywhere; although he was not sure who the other man was, it mattered little. He, too, would not see another sunrise. Thankfully, the snow was thin and soft enough not to crunch with every step. The moment the sun peaked over the clouds, it would melt the snow away.

It took him nearly half an hour, but he finally reached where Ghost stood as still as a statue amidst the snow. Jon looked at the clearing and felt his guts clench at the sight. The maiden now lay unmoving on the ground amidst a pool of blood; chunks of flesh were missing from her body, and he could see some blood dripping from some of the dogs' snouts. That was far from the worst he had seen, but the loathsome sight made his stomach churn. Gods, he felt like a green boy again! He shook his head and cleared his mind.

The uglier man that looked like he belonged in a pigsty was forcing himself upon the cold corpse while Ramsay watched from the side, fleshy face twisted grotesquely from sad*stic glee.

He carefully measured the distance and thanked the gods again. The wind was blowing towards him, so the hounds had not yet smelled him nor Ghost. But a hundred yards was too far; Jon was unsure he could strike true at this distance. If he missed here, things could get ugly.

Jon slowly crept forward, praying for the beast of a man not to finish his vile deed just yet. Two painful minutes later, he was little less than sixty yards away, and the raper was still rutting the cold corpse.

An arrow was quietly notched, and he drew the yew bow and aimed towards Ramsay.

The arrow flew, and before it found its mark, Jon quickly drew a second one from the quiver and instantly let it loose towards the second man. The first one struck true and buried itself straight into Ramsay's eye, making him collapse like a sack of rocks. Sadly, the bastard's companion twisted and tried to see what was happened and was only struck in the shoulder.

Jon cursed while the man cried in pain and turned to run and quickly let loose a third and a fourth arrow. The third and fourth ones impaled his back, and he tumbled on the ground. The uneasy hounds seemed to have pinpointed Jon's location and mindlessly rushed his way, barking furiously. He barely managed to order the reluctant Ghost away; his direwolf was too young and small and would be easily killed by the bigger savage dogs. Arrows flew from his bow one after another, but he only downed two of them by the time they approached. When they were ten yards away, he tossed the bow away and quickly unsheathed his bastard sword in his right hand and a dagger in his left.

The five hounds directly went for his feet, but he lunged towards the reddish one on the left and lopped off its head with a single strike. The body tumbled on the ground, spraying blood everywhere while the head rolled to the side. The other four couldn't turn instantly, and after two short heartbeats, he found himself facing four pairs of eyes.

Even though the hounds were large and vicious, he did not fear them. He was faster, stronger, and just as vicious and had fought far more dangerous and numerous foes. Their hide couldn't halt the edge of his sword. Just as he prepared to slay them, he could feel something wiggle on the back of his mind.

Suddenly, their growls turned into pitiful whines; they all rolled on their backs, exposing their bellies, and he-

-found himself looking at the dangerous two legs with savage grey eyes.

28th Day of the 3rd Moon

Roose Bolton

The Lord of Dreadfort dismissed the servant after she filled his chalice with his favourite spiced wine.

"So where is he?"

Roose took a small sip and languidly looked at the captain of the guards.

"Ramsay's dead, my Lord," Walton reported.

A pity his bastard son had been shaping up to be… useful. But now, he was faced with a new quandary.

"And how did that happen?"

"Found him and Reek along with some woman in the forest where he liked to hunt or what little was left of them. Bears, wolves, and crows had feasted generously. Their eyes were pecked out, and they were mauled so badly they wouldn't have been recognised had it not been for the torn coat of arms," Steelshanks dutifully explained. "Seems like they died about five days ago, but all the traces were destroyed by hungry beasts, the snow, and the rain."

He thoughtfully twirled the wine for a few moments before taking another small sip, the spices making his tongue tingle pleasantly.

"What of his hounds?"

"Found a few torn limbs all over the forest and two half-eaten dogs, my Lord."

His bastard at least had the sense to perform his indiscretions in the more secluded parts of his lands. This time, the boy had ventured out only with Reek in tow, leaving Skinner and Grunt in the Dreadfort. But Ramsay's willfulness seemed to have worked against him this time. Usually, nobody dared to do anything under the banner of House Bolton.

A peaceful land, a quiet people.

Ramsay did hide his proclivities well enough and had not made any enemies Roose knew of. But the bastard, with a man-at-arms and a couple of hunting hounds by his side, should not have been easy to kill, especially by wild animals. Yet, the boy had always been reckless with little self-control; it would not surprise him if Ramsay tried to bite off more than he could chew. What a foolish death; Roose couldn't help but wonder if the gods simply deigned to punish his kinslaying son for his sacrilege.

Not only were his son's activities unsavoury, but his origins were as well. Roose never really acknowledged Ramsay as his bastard officially, especially since he was a fruit of partaking in the now-forbidden right of the First Night.

"What do you think of this, Walton?"

"Well, if it was done by men, they certainly knew how to cover their tracks. But not a single thing was looted from the corpses, and it's hard for a large number of men to hide their tracks well, even with the rain. Methinks Ramsay got a little too brave and ran afoul of an angry cave bear from the nearby hills."

It mattered little now; he had far greater problems than a dead bastard boy with far too much daring and too little wits.

"Double the patrols around the border and question anyone suspicious," he finally ordered.

"And what should we do with Ramsay's bones?"

"Leave them to the wolves," Roose impassively decided before dismissing Steelshanks. There was no need to bury a bastard in the crypts, where only the trueborn Bolton lay.

As the clinking of the captain's steel greaves was quietly fading in the distance, the Lord of Dreadfort took another sip and found himself in a dilemma.

Roose was sorely lacking an heir. His heir-apparent was Harwin Slate, the second grandson of the current Lord. A Bolton's daughter married into the Slates five generations ago. That would simply not do; the Dreadfort would never pass on those fools.

Ramsay could have been taught with time and maybe legitimised as his sole son, but now he had to look for a third wife. But it was not as simple as picking out a daughter from any House, big or small. House Bolton had an unsavoury reputation; many Northern Lords would hesitate to wed their daughters to him. He had to negotiate with Rodrick Ryswell for nearly two years before managing to arrange the marriage to Bethany. His first two marriages had hardly borne any fruit. Out of eight births, only Domeric had survived beyond the cradle. Roose now needed a third, more fertile wife, preferably one that would grant him a decent alliance.

He was not getting any younger, and it was time to review his options and begin negotiations.

He rang his bell, and a wiry serving girl entered, trying to mask the fear on her face but failing.

"Fetch me Maester Tybald."

3rd Day of the 4th Moon

Cotter Pyke, Eastwatch by the Sea

"Now, now, now, what do we have here?" Cotter Pyke asked with a wide smile, looking at the smuggler dragged in by the two burly rangers. He could recognise a Tyroshi c*nt with their bright clothes and that painted hair anywhere, and this one smelled like loot. By the Drowned God, it's been only three moons since they bagged their last Tyroshi smuggler.

"We caught this one tryin' to sneak south after selling steel to the wildlings," Darlan explained with a toothy smile while he kicked the man down.

"Ah, this is a mis-"

Gormon smacked the smuggler's head with the flat of his blade, and the man flopped on the ground out cold. Everyone hated the greedy f*cks tryin' to arm the wildlings just to earn some coin. The better armed the savages were, the more deadly were the rangings north of the Wall.

"Blackbird n' Talon caught his ship's loaded with weirwood, furs, ivory, some silver nuggets, n' few swords n' axes of poorer steel," the ranger added while Cotter whistled inwardly. The smugglers had gotten f*cking silver! "Woulda chopped his head off on his own deck, but f*ckers like this are too good for me sword."

Well, if nothing else, it would give Cotter one more ship under his command!

"This would make a hefty coin, enough to buy proper booze for everyone for half a year," Maester Harmune drunkenly muttered from the side, making Gormon snort with amusem*nt.

Gods, he was tempted to toss Harmune down the Wall sometimes; the f*cking Citadel had sent the most useless c*nt for their maester. But alas, should he do that, he risked having an even more useless c*nt come over.

"Hang him and all of his crew," Cotter ordered as the rangers dragged the man over to the middle of the courtyard.

"But what do we do with the galley slaves?"

"They can take the Black or hang with the smugglers," he waved it off. "We can always use more men."

Rangers, builders, stewards, there were never enough.

Just as he turned to return to his quarters, one of his men barely intercepted him from the docks beyond the makeshift gate.

While the castles on the wall were supposed to have no walls or defences to the south, a few braver wildlings had sailed around and attacked them during the night before, and thus a simple wooden palisade was raised to at least hold off raiders.

"Commander Pyke, a woman is looking fer ya," old Maekar hoarsely rasped out, trying to catch his breath.

The steward looked extremely thin, his eyes were sunken, and his sparse white hair looked dry, sticky, and as if it would fall off any moment. Cotter didn't give him more than a few moons before he went to sleep and didn't wake on the morrow, and even that might be generous. Maester Harmune, whose sole redeeming feature while sober was his two silver links in medicine, had declared that nothing could be done for the man.

"Is Kevan tryin' to smuggle his whor*s in again cuz he's too lazy to go to Hollowtree's whor*house?" He asked tiredly.

"Nay, this one's some weird Essosi priestess dressed in all in red from the ship from Gulltown," the old man added, coughing and wheezing sickly.

This sounded suspiciously like those annoying red priests. What in the Drowned God's name would one of the fire-loving f*cks want to do with him?

"Lead me to her," Cotter said with a sigh.

The Commander followed the hobbling man and soon left the dilapidated wooden gate and was onto the dreary docks. He blinked, unsure if the eyes were not deceiving him. Cotter was faced with a gorgeous pair of boobs and an alluring face, with an unhealthy obsession with the colour red. The red-haired, red-eyed woman in question was dressed in a rather thin crimson dress, yet the cold did not seem to bother her at all. Her unused travel cloak was crimson, and her small travel bag was also red. Cotter could see a lot of the Black Brothers looking lustily at the woman, but she seemed unbothered. Yeah, definitely a red priestess.

"You've been looking for me, lady…?"

"Melisandre of Asshai, devout servant of the Lord of the Light," she supplied with an alluring smile.

Cotter, unaffected by her melodic voice, shuddered at the mention of that accursed place. He'd seen a man that returned alive from Asshai, and the hardened sailor had become a drooling, quivering mess that had taken a leave of his senses and could only bumble like a lackwit and could not even control his own bladder.

No matter how much he wanted to bury his face into the ample bosom before him, his ma's warnings about witches ran like a death knell in his head.

"What brings a red witch all the way here?" He bluntly asked, hoping to send the vixen away as soon as possible.

Preferably before the Black Brothers lost whatever little control they had or before she decided to do her foul magicks here.

"I require a horse and a passage beyond the Wall," she stated.

"I can give ya a garron for a dragon, Malindre," he offered after mulling for a few moments.

He would normally order her searched in case she tried to smuggle something to the wildlings, but another look at her half-naked form dissuaded him from that… no matter how tempted he was to do the search himself.

"It's Melisandre, commander," she corrected with another sweet smile. "And I will take the horse."

"But if you want to go beyond the Wall, none of my men will accompany you."

"I only require a passage; R'hllor will light my path," the red woman assured him.

"Fine!"

Well, if the crazy priestess wanted to kill herself, Cotter was not going to stop her. A pity for the poor horse, he would make sure Norrey picked some older gelding that would not be missed.

Notes:

Stuff happens!

Jon's not in a good place mentally, he has long become a lone wolf and is unwilling to confront his kin.

ASOIAF winter = mini ice age. Northern summer snow = the regular yearly winter.

You'll notice that Jon is 16 as opposed to 14. This is one of the ripples, Harrenhal and the rebellion happened two years earlier, withallthe ripples and consequences.

And the Father of the Year award goes to…

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

On a side note, Epilogue Part 5 of 'The Dragonwolf'is coming out in two Tuesdays (or you can read it right now on my discord).

Also, check out Bub3loka's'A Lament of Snow and Magic', an HP x ASOIAF crossover in which I heavily participated in the planning and editing.

Chapter 5: A Warning Heeded

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki

B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement. Without those people, I'd probably not be here now.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Davos Seaworth

Dragonstone

Despite Maester Cressen's fears, Stannis had finally awoken three days ago. They still had no idea what had started the fire, the claw knight had grown highly paranoid, and the fortress's defences had been tightened to the extreme. Not even a rat could enter without the knowledge of the master-at-arms. Worse, the Lord of Dragonstone was in great pain, and his throat couldn't produce anything beyond raspy coughs or pained wheezes.

And thus, he was still stuck here, unable to leave for nearly a moon now. There was little to do in the fortress; the Onion Knight was never one for training at arms, especially in his old age and with his missing fingers. So, most of his time was spent walking around idly, and he visited the local sept for the first time in years. Davos was not a particularly godly man, but a prayer or two were not remiss at times like these. Yet he could spend only so much time in the sept before growing tired of it. Even then, the aimless waiting would have been nigh unbearable if not for little Lady Shireen's insistence that he learn how to read.

Stannis' daughter was still the sweet and gentle little girl he remembered, but she had grown even sadder. Her eyes almost always rimmed with red, and he knew she probably cried herself to sleep every night. Still, she showed steely resilience, and once Shireen had something on her mind, nothing could stop her. Thus, when she decided he needed to learn to read, he couldn't help but buckle to her persistence.

Davos's mind idly wandered towards his sons; the seven had deigned to bless him with seven healthy sons, and he couldn't help but wonder if the gods had given him a sign. But alas, he was not a septon and could not even begin to understand the gods' will. Dale was grown enough to handle things on his own, but his other boys were young and impatient enough to do something foolish without his supervision after so long. Especially Allard, who was rash and had a penchant for finding trouble when there was none. Hopefully, his eldest would keep them in line.

Just as he watched the dreary sunset while enjoying the breeze and the smell of salt, sulfur, and brimstone from the western wall, a fat guardsman rushed over.

Davos recognised him as Dain, the local butcher's son who had a notorious fondness for salted pork and freshly baked sweetbread with the body to show for it too.

"Lord Baratheon has summoned ye," the man wheezed out as he tried to catch his breath.

Thank the Seven, it seemed that Stannis had recovered!

"I shall go at once," the former smuggler reassured with a curt nod and headed to the Stone Drum tower.

Hopefully, with his liege lord back on his feet, Davos could leave to box Allard's ears in again, return back to his beautiful Marya, and see his two youngest.

By the time he climbed the overly long flight of stairs and reached the Lord's quarters, the Onion Knight was out of breath. Father above, he was made for the sea, not climbing like a squirrel! At least his own holdfast was nothing more than a small tower with four floors and a thirteen feet tall curtain wall, but good enough to keep brigands and pirates out.

The imposing pair of guardsmen guarding Stannis' quarters nodded at him and opened the door.

The chamber smelled heavily of herbs and poultices. It was a nearly empty room with no ornaments and luxuries beyond the barest necessities. The Lord of Dragonstone lay still on the bed, most of his body aside from the face covered entirely by green-tinted soaked bandages.

Davos quickly came over to the bed and sat on the nearby chair.

Stannis shuffled uneasily and twisted his head to look at him with his dark blue eyes.

"Ser Davos, I am in need of advice," the Baratheon wheezed out painfully before starting to cough wetly.

"I would be glad to give you my advice, m'lord," he bowed his head lightly, "yet I'm but a former smuggler and know little of the lordly games and woes. Ser Hardy or Maester Cressen could provide far better counsel than me."

"I have heard their counsel, and now I shall hear yours!" Another bout of wet, sickly coughing ensued. It took a few painful moments before he calmed down. "Cressen says my lungs are damaged beyond repair."

The former smuggler recoiled at the news. Stannis had always been a man of iron will and conviction, undaunted even after starving for nearly a year in Storm's End. He remembered the young, painfully thin Lord back then, whose eyes were like two darkened and raw chips of sapphire, unbroken despite the odds.

"How long…?"

"The Maester says little more than half a year if I stay here," another sickly wheeze that made Davos wince inwardly. "The sulfur and brimstone of the Dragonmont are bad for my damaged lungs, he says. As if I have not been here for sixteen years! I am to spend the rest of my days confined to my bed, dying slowly and painfully! My legs are so badly burned that the barest of movements alone is agonising, let alone walking. Cressen was surprised I even managed to survive, as the odds were in favour of the Stranger."

"Can't nothing be done?" Davos hopefully inquired.

"Can't anything be done," the Lord repeated, wheezing painfully.

"What?"

"Can't have a double negative," Stannis explained hoarsely, much to the smuggler's incomprehension. A scowl settled on his face, and a pained sigh tore from his parched lips. "Forget it. Suppose I move away, I can extend that half a year, but for how long, Cressen does not tell," another painful but thankfully short bout of coughing. "Yet who can I trust when the Lannisters are trying to get rid of me? My master-at-arms and maester claim that the fire was but an accident, that no outsiders entered the fortress that day, but I know better. Jon Arryn, the second most guarded man in the Seven Kingdoms, thought himself safe, yet they murdered him with ease. My wife has perished, and my daughter was almost killed in my own keep!"

"You think Lord Tywin Lannister is behind the fire and the Hand's death?"

"Nay, not him, but his children. The old lion is content to sit in his gilded rock and rule his lands, but the Imp, the Kingslayer, and the Harlot are -"

Another round of wet coughing interrupted Stannis' words, and his face twisted in pain. A few painful heartbeats later, the bedridden Lord finally calmed down.

"Why not go to His Grace with this?"

"I have no proof," Stannis bitterly croaked out. "Even if I did, it would be dismissed, and I would be slighted once more if I even managed to leave King's Landing alive. No matter what I do, it is not enough for him! The only family my kingly brother cares about is Eddard Stark; somehow, the Lord of Winterfell is more of a brother to Robert than I ever was! Even now, he's going all the way North to make him his Hand instead of asking me. No, Robert and his northern brother can deal with the Lannisters on their own."

Davos had never seen his liege's mask of iron composure crack like this. Stannis' face had reddened, and he was heaving and wheezing heavily. The onion knight finally realised that the disgruntled Lord of Dragonstone is only human and could be pushed beyond his limit too.

"What shall you do then, m'lord?"

"I must prepare my daughter for when I pass on, lest the snakes and lions tear her apart," he coughed out. "She shall be the Lady of Dragonstone after me, but half a year is not enough. I… know I am not loved amongst the Lords. Which of my vassals do you think could be trusted enough with my daughter and me against the Lannister gold?"

Davos rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"Lord Monford Valeryon, m'lord," he stated with confidence.

"Why?"

"He's a proud man from an old House, and Castle Driftmark is well-defensible. The Lannisters killed Lord Monford's aunt in the sack, and he'll never forget that. His Grace has strongly suppressed all the former dragon loyalists, and last but not least, you saved his half-brother's life during the Greyjoy Rebellion."

Robb Stark

Sparring simply helped him get his mind off all the woes and the… wrongness. One day, he was two siblings short, and while his mother might have somewhat reduced her visits to the sept, only to turn her attention to Rickon, who was quickly beginning to chafe under all that coddling. Alas, she stubbornly refused to listen to anyone and was glued to his younger brother at all times. At the start, Rickon loved it, but he quickly tired of it and grew rebellious and oft attempted to run away, much to his mother's chagrin.

Rodrik had taught him how to use a greatsword long ago, but he had preferred a longsword, so he was out of practice. After nearly a fortnight of heavy training, his body had remembered the previous drilling, and his movements were no longer choppy or awkward. But the blunted greatsword was far heavier than what Robb was used to, and he grew tired faster than before. His lungs were on fire and screamed for more air as he was forcing his weary body to keep exchanging blows with the energetic Jory Cassel. While Robb had fought five guardsmen one after another already, the captain of the guards was rested, as he had sparred only with a single man so far.

Even with his last moon heavily focused in the yard, the heir of Winterfell could scarcely beat Jory one out of five bouts, and that was if he was lucky. The captain was taller, stronger, and more experienced and skilled than Robb.

He felt his movements slowly grow sluggish, and a few moments later, his greatsword was knocked aside, and the blunted tip of Jory's blade was at his gorget.

"I yield," Robb tiredly grunted out with a grimace.

"You lasted longer than last time," the captain said as his eyes lit up, and he placed his sword away.

"Still getting my arse handed to me, though."

"Any improvement matters," Jory pointed out. "If you keep this up, soon, very few will be your match in Winterfell."

Robb couldn't help but grin; at the start, spending almost all of his time in the yard was just to let the anger out. The rage was quickly smacked out of him, as a furious swordsman was easier to defeat. Instead, he had channelled all of his fervour into unyielding persistence, and now, even with a greatsword, he could best some of the guardsmen that defeated him before. Alas, Jon was gone, disappeared gods know here, and he had nobody his age worthy to test his skill against. Theon was three years his elder, yet Robb defeated him even before, let alone now. Not that the heir to the Iron Isles trained too hard. Even now, he was in Wintertown, visiting Ros.

"Maybe with a longsword, I'd stand a better chance," Robb couldn't help but grumble, looking at Jory's smug face.

"In a few years," the captain chuckled goodnaturedly. "You've not seen blood in battle yet, Lord Robb. There's a difference between a man who has fought and killed for his life and one that has not."

He nodded absentmindedly, returned his blunted greatsword to the weapons rack, and turned to watch his father spar with Rodrik as he began rubbing his sore body. Instead of a greatsword, his father favoured sword and a dagger and was slowly but surely whittling away the knight's defences. Eventually, Rodrik overextended, and his father managed to pin his opponent's sword to the side with his dagger and slammed his shoulder, knocking the older knight to the ground. Eddard Stark helped his grumbling master-at-arms up, gave his shoulder a squeeze, and turned towards the most veteran of the guardsmen.

The next opponent turned out to be Hallis Mollen, and Robb trudged towards the Guest House after ordering one of the servants to bring him a set of clean clothes to change into. It was time to get a few precious moments of rest for his sore body in the hot springs before his father finished his own sparring and needled him for more lordly lessons.

Robb entered the Godswood from the small wooden gate next to the Guest House. The first thing he noticed was the pleasant scent of pine and oak. Inside the ancient grove, the canopy above blocked the sun, and, on the ground, the gnarly roots and stones were covered by moss, surrounding the packed earth. There was also a faint mist coming from the direction of the hot springs. The heir of Winterfell took a few moments to admire the serene view and trudged towards the softly churning waters just below the moss-covered wall. Small streams flowed out of the three hot springs and merged together before crossing the Godswood and flowing into the castle's moat. He quickly discarded his clothes on a large stone nearby and entered the steaming pool on the left. The bubbling water reached just below his ribs, and he took a few moments to find a shallower side to sit down so only his head stayed above. The soreness in his muscles was replaced by the pleasant encompassing warmth, and he let out a sigh of contentment and closed his eyes as a robin chirped from a nearby elm.

His mind slowly drifted over the last half a moon; Eddard Stark rarely visited the yard to train, as he was usually busy with his Lordly duties and was either spending his time in the solar or riding off to settle disputes. But this changed a fortnight ago, shortly after Jon disappeared. His father also shelved a part of his lesser duties and made ample time to give Robb personal tutoring every day instead of twice a sennight.

The melodic singing of the bird felt so calming…

"-Robb, Robb!"

A voice startled him awake, and he almost jumped out of the water.

Across the pool, thinly veiled by steam, his father was sitting, only head and shoulders above the water, hair glistening with moisture. Gods, he hadn't even heard anyone approach!

"Hello, father," Robb coughed out once he calmed down. The chirping bird was nowhere to be heard, and the only other sound was the soft bubbling of the hot water.

"Had a nice nap?" Eddard Stark asked with a knowing smile. Gone was the usually troubled demeanour that he carried around.

"Aye," he confirmed with a sigh. "Is it time for our lessons?"

"In a bit," his father hummed as he stretched his arms. He noticed a few old scars along his shoulder and forearms. "But if you're ready, we can mayhaps start here."

Robb barely managed to hold in his groan. He didn't mind doing his duty, be it training or learning. But there was scarcely any spare time anymore, and when he did manage to find an hour or two, he was too tired to do much. Alas, being the heir of House Stark was far from fun.

"In the Godswood?"

"Nobody said that lessons must be given in a dusty room," Eddard Stark chortled. "In fact, I find myself liking it here more."

"Fine, but I have a few queries first, father," after receiving a nod, Robb slowly continued. "I didn't ask until now, but I feel that I need to know. Why make me train only with a greatsword? Why the more intense and detailed lessons?"

After half a minute of silence, the Lord of Winterfell sighed heavily, and his grey eyes looked weary. For a short moment, the unshakable pillar of a man was replaced with a tired and weary father, but a moment later, his eyes hardened into two chips of stone. Robb couldn't help but notice that the greying beard made him look far older than his four and thirty years.

"You are of age now, Robb," he began slowly. "When I was your age, I expected to become a master-at-arms somewhere and mayhaps fall in love and wed a beautiful highborn maid."

"But you love mother!"

"Aye, I do love her now," his father confirmed with a small chuckle. "How can I not love a woman who gave me five strong children? But this was not always the case. She was to be your uncle Brandon's wife; alas, the Rebellion happened. I was not prepared to be the Lord of Winterfell, let alone a husband. I never spoke to your mother before we wed, and we entered the marriage bed as strangers. Lately, I feel that I have not prepared you enough for becoming the next Lord of Winterfell."

"You're hale and hearty father, I won't become Lord until you probably see your grandchildren grow up!"

"That was my hope as well," Eddard Stark hummed with a soft chuckle. "But fate oft makes fools of the best of us. If something happens to me, I'll have you be prepared."

Chills ran through Robb's spine, despite the hot water surrounding him.

"Is this about the King's visit? Weren't you friends?"

"A crown can change a man, but enough of this," his father's voice grew stern. "I'll tell you more about the south when we're done with the Northern Lords. But first, as for why I'm having you train with a greatsword. The reason is simple; for years and years, I learned how to fight with a longsword and dagger, and when the time came to wield Ice, it was too cumbersome for me. You might have noticed, but I only use our ancestral blade for ceremonial purposes and not as a weapon of war as it was intended."

"Isn't Ice just too big and heavy to be used in battle?"

"Valyrian steel is easily half the weight of normal metal, so while Ice is not light, it's not unusable. Swords forged in the fires of the Freehold also have an unnaturally sharp edge that never dulls, so a skilled and strong swordsman can cut through normal men like a butcher through pigs. Your grandsire, Rickard Stark, was said to chop through steel, bone, and wood effortlessly with Ice in hand in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. He split one of the leaders of the Band of Nine in two with a single swing of his sword; shield, plate, and bone cleaved through cleanly. I might not be able to wield Ice in battle, but you will. Does that answer your questions?"

"Aye," Robb confirmed. The thought of using the ancestral blade of his House stirred something primal within him.

"I will also let you handle some of my Lordly duties with my supervision and guidance from now on," Eddard Stark thoughtfully added before splashing his face with a handful of hot water. "But that's for later. Now, let's begin with our lesson. Tell me how you would handle the Northern Lords during a war campaign, especially Lords Umber, Bolton, and Karstark."

The heir of Winterfell stirred from his resting place with interest. Lately, his lessons were quite different from the usual warfare, lordly duties and rights. They now focused on a detailed analysis of the Northern Lords, their keeps, their Houses, and their current relationship with the Starks in the last twenty years. But this was the first time his father asked him how he would deal with specific Northern bannermen in war.

"Karstark is stern but leal," he carefully began as he tried to glean anything from his father's now impassive face. Alas, it was in vain. Robb felt envious of Eddard Stark's stony expression that gave nothing away. "He'll do whatever task I assign him easily enough. The GreatJon is proud and fierce, though he will be difficult to deal with unless I earn his respect. But how would I do that?"

"You tell me," the Lord of Winterfell returned impassively, and his gaze turned piercing, making Robb feel even more naked than he already was.

"I should present a firm and unyielding front," Robb finally spoke after a minute of thoughtful silence. "Or impress him with my martial prowess. But I doubt I can do anything noteworthy against the Giant of Last Hearth."

"Indeed," his father acquiesced. "You cannot show weakness if you wish to lead the North. But once you earn Lord Umber's respect, he'll be your lealest bannerman. What you said about Karstark is true, but Rickard is also a very vengeful man. He lost a brother in the Stoney Sept to a member of house Cressey, and later in the Trident, he dedicated all of his efforts to hunting down anyone with the Cressey sigil. They still haven't recovered from that butchery, if I recall correctly. You can assign whatever positions you want to him, but should one of his kin die, he will try to get vengeance no matter what. What about Roose Bolton and the rest of the Lords?"

Robb gulped as he processed this.

"The others aren't particularly troublesome to lead. But I'm not sure how to handle Roose Bolton," he finally admitted.

"The Lord of the Dreadfort is easy enough to handle from a position of strength, but a Bolton is never to be trusted," his father slowly explained. "Roose, in particular, is remorseless and cunning and wouldn't hesitate to stab you in the back should it prove beneficial to him and his House. With that in mind, how would you handle him during a war?"

Robb paused for another heartbeat, remembering the bad history between the Kings of Winter and the Red Kings.

"If the Boltons are such a thorn in our side, why didn't House Stark vanquish them when they rebelled twice?"

"It's not something written in the history books, or Luwin would know," Eddard Stark acknowledged with a sigh. "I had a similar question to my Lord-father when I was just a boy before I was fostered at the Eyrie. The first time, they managed to lay the blame at the feet of the unruly Greystarks and had a legitimate excuse to revolt. A Bolton son was slain on Stark lands, and the Kings of Winter refused to give any explanation or recompense, or so the story goes. They somehow managed to goad the Greystarks into starting a rebellion. Remember, my son, the Flayed Man is always cunning. The second time they rebelled was when the North was attacked by the Ironborn and an alliance of Andal Warlords at the same time. King Harlon Stark defeated his foes, only to return home and find it burned by Lord Royce Bolton. The Dreadfort was too hard to take, and winter would soon be upon them."

His father took a deep breath and continued.

"If House Stark had stormed the hardy and well-manned fortress, the losses would have been big enough to greatly weaken their position as kings. The cunning Flayed Lord thought that the snow would melt away Harlon's army and resolve, but he was wrong. After two years, when their larders began to run low, the Boltons finally felt fear and bent their knee on the condition that their youngest, the three-year-old grandson of the Flayed Lord, was spared from the Black or the block. The Northern King reluctantly accepted because the winter was too harsh, and his army was soon on its last leg. Now, let's get back to the question at hand."

At that moment, Robb finally felt uncomfortable after standing in the hot water for so long. Gods, his skin had gone all pruney. He carefully left the pool and grabbed a grey towel to dry himself, and quickly began putting on the clean clothes the servants had placed nearby.

"I would avoid giving Bolton any important command of any of the troops," Robb hesitantly provided as he clasped his leather belt. "A position of honour, not too important and one he cannot refuse, would be perfect. Particularly, one with plenty of danger and little glory, to whittle down the Bolton forces and, if I'm lucky, he'll die from the enemy in the process or be captured."

His father nodded with approval and rose from the bubbling waters, revealing a lean yet powerful scarred body, reminding Robb that his father had seen plenty of fighting. There was a wide sword scar on the side and a few smaller ones on his back and above his navel. Eddard Stark had never been fat, but the hint of plumpness that had begun to appear in the last few years was nowhere to be seen now.

"That is a good plan," Eddard Stark acknowledged, but his face grew deathly serious, and his voice became heavy. "But you must remember, Winterfell is the most important thing for House Stark. As long as it stands, House Stark will stand strong. With five hundred men, you can repel ten thousand, and with two thousand, you can stop half a hundred thousand. If you leave south to go to war, make sure to leave an ample garrison and a trusted person in charge. Throw the forces of more unruly lords in the most dangerous parts of the fighting, but do not compromise your battles by giving the important positions to those unfit to stand in them. It will keep them honoured and weakened while preserving most of your own forces while also giving them a taste of battle."

Robb couldn't help but feel stumped at his father's words. That was quite… cunning and unlike anything he was taught before.

"But wouldn't it be dishonouring yourself with actions like this?"

"Nay, there is nothing dishonourable about giving your bannermen a chance to win some spoils and glory," was the impassive reply. "It seems that I have taught you wrong. Robb, what is honour?"

The heir of Winterfell was stumped for a short moment, and Eddard Stark finally finished clothing himself and sat on a clean stone nearby.

"Doing the right thing?"

"Right according to whom?" His father countered, and after half a minute of uneasy silence, he continued. "There are many types of honour, but the most important is to honour one's vows. A Lord's word is as weighty as a mountain and should not be given lightly. It is why we upheld our agreement with the Boltons in their second and last rebellion, despite the temptation of destroying them root and stem as we had done to many other nameless Houses before them. If you shirk it, your word will always mean less for it, and people will begin doubting your ability to rule your vassals. People would say House Stark were nothing more than traitors for rebelling against the dragons, but they forget that fealty is a vow that goes both ways. Obeisance is given only in return for mercy, justice, and protection, and House Stark received neither. And when I called the banners in rebellion, all my bannermen answered me dutifully, despite being a boy raised in the Vale that few had seen and even fewer had remembered. Did you know that I was in love with another woman before I married your mother?"

The heir of Winterfell sat there stunned, unsure if he had heard correctly. Then, something clicked.

"Was it Jon's mother?"

"Nay," was the forlorn denial. "There's another story there, one that you will hear soon if your studies progress well enough. I had resolved myself to not speak of this, but mayhaps you need to hear it. It was Ashara Dayne, and we had agreed to wed each other."

"But-" Robb's words failed him at that moment. This was the first time he had heard about any of this, and he felt so confused. If the woman in question was not Jon's mother, was his father having an intended and a paramour on the side?

"Aye, we were young, and I was just a second son with no land to inherit. Despite being Dornish, the Daynes are a respected House with a strong Fist Man ancestry and tradition, said to originate all the way in the Dawn Age. Alas, the gods laugh at the plans of men, and your grandfather and uncle perished in the hands of the Mad King in a foul mockery of a trial. During the Rebellion, our forces were severely lacking in numbers, and we could not afford Hoster Tully to join the royalist cause or even to stay neutral, which would leave our western flank and supply lines completely open. So, despite my promises of marriage to Ashara Dayne, when the Lord of Riverrun demanded to renew the marriage arrangement to our Houses, I agreed. And I do not regret it. I scarcely even remember how the dornish beauty even looked anymore. Nothing good awaited House Stark if we had lost, and both of us wouldn't even be here to have this conversation. House Stark is not just our family, but every single soul under us that we have sworn to protect." His father's speech fell into a pregnant pause for a moment. "So… what is honour?"

A heavy silence followed up as Robb was pondering on his answer. A few minutes later, a set of hurried footsteps heralded the arrival of one of the guardsmen, Wayn.

"M'lord, Howland Reed is at the gates, claiming he's here to see you."

"Let him in. I'll meet him in the yard in a few minutes," Eddard Stark ordered the guardsman, who quickly ran off, knowing he was not supposed to be in the Godswood for longer than necessary. His father turned to look towards Robb again. "Well, my son, think on it carefully. There is no need to give me a hasty answer. I suppose our further lessons shall wait for tomorrow. Go to Luwin, and brush up on your recent history of the Great Houses of the South and their current members."

The Lord of Winterfell headed towards the yard, leaving Robb Stark alone in the godswood, deep in thought.

Notes:

Stannis is not well and is getting paranoid. I mean, who wouldn't?

It seems that Ned doesn't want to sit back and wait for stuff to happen to him and starts making some preparations(Although he's not really ready to believe Jon's letter just yet fully. But it doesn't hurt to be prepared, just in case).

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Also, kudos would be greatly appreciated if you liked the fic so far!

Chapter 6: The Leal, the Delightful, and the Reckless

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Eddard Stark

"Lord Stark," his friend greeted him with a smile, and Ned finally felt some relief.

Howland Reed was still a head shorter than him and slim like all the other crannogmen. A slight brown stubble sported on his chin, and his signature bronze scaleshirt peeked beneath his dark-green cloak.

"It's Ned for you, Howland. Did you come alone?"

"Five of my men are in Wintertown," Howland supplied before looking around the bustling with training guardsmen yard. He carefully leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I received your summons, Ned. Did something happen? Winterfell looks like it's preparing for war."

"We'll speak in my solar," Ned hushedly replied, turning towards the Great Keep. As usual, his muscles felt pleasantly tired after a good training session. Since he started sparring regularly again, he felt more energetic, and his mind was clearer.

Before they passed the ironwood gate, the Crannoglord handed over his black trident and three bronze knives to Donnis, one of the four sentries at the entrance of the Great Keep.

A few minutes later, they were finally in front of the oaken door of the solar, guarded by one of his men.

"Stand watch at the stairway and let none pass, Varly," he ordered, and the man dutifully moved towards the end of the hallway.

Ned opened the door and entered the room, only for his boots to be attacked by the enthusiastic Winter.

"Down, boy," he ordered, and the grey direwolf sat, looking expectantly at him with yellow eyes while his shaggy silvery tail was sweeping along the floor in excitement. It had scarcely been a moon, yet Winter reached his knees already.

"Gods, Ned, is that a direwolf?"

Howland stood there in shock as Ned tossed a piece of jerky from the stash to Winter, who happily devoured it in one bite. A second and third piece followed, and it seemed that the young direwolf had enough as he returned to his favourite spot on the myrish rug near the hearth.

"Aye."

"I thought the direwolves were gone south of the Wall for nearly two hundred years."

"Now there are six," Ned said with a sigh, remembering the day of the execution, and chills ran down his spine. He grabbed a jug of dark ale, filled two tankards on the desk, and handed one to Howland. "I am in dire need of advice, my friend."

"Ask away, Ned," the crannogman urged after taking a sip. "House Reed have always been leal servants of the Starks."

The Lord of Winterfell took a generous gulp of his own.

"Have you told Jon anything?" He slowly asked, and his friend's face scrunched up in confusion momentarily.

"I haven't seen the lad since he was a swaddling babe, and I have not left the Neck since the Rebellion ended," Howland replied, face still puzzled. "Why?"

A heavy sigh tore out from his lips. If his friend did not tell Jon, it only meant one thing. He walked over to his chair and slumped down as the Lord of the Neck sat across the desk.

"It all started with a Night's Watch deserter-" the tale began to slowly tumble out from his mouth. The old deserter's fevered rambling, the dead direwolf gored by a stag, the pups, Bran's death and Jon's collapse at the heart tree. The impossible illness, and eventual seemingly nonsensical rambling, before his son disappeared from Winterfell and, finally, the letter written in blood, heralding all sorts of dark omens.

When Ned finished his tale, he let out a sigh of relief. It was as if he had a mountain pressing on his shoulders, and it was now gone. For a moon, he had nobody to confide in, and he felt as if the world was going crazy, and he descended into madness along with it. Robb was far from ready, and he felt unsure about entrusting his woes to his wife after reading the letter, especially since she was still grieving. And while he had faith in Rodrik and Luwin, neither could be trusted with the knowledge of Jon's parentage.

He glanced at Howland, who looked incredibly troubled.

"Ned, do you still have the letter?"

The Lord of Winterfell grabbed a small bronze key from his belt, unlocked the lower drawer, withdrew an ironwood box and placed it on the desk. With another key from his belt, it opened with a rusty click, and he handed over the roll of parchment to the Crannoglord.

His friend's green eyes darted along the parchment, and a minute later, he placed it back into the ironwood box with a heavy sigh. Ned hesitated for a short moment. The words penned down with blood were both too damning and dangerous. But the urge to toss it into the fire lost out, and the message returned under lock and key.

"I thought magic had waned from the land, merely a thing of the past, alive only in the tales of old," Ned sighed, still troubled. "Yet Luwin, with his Valyrian Steel link, says that magic was at play, and even the old records couldn't help him make heads or tails out of the odd malady. Do you think Jon has truly lived the future, or it's just the addled rambling of a fevered madman?"

"Magic might have waned, but it never truly left, Ned. It might be little more than a memory now, but it's not to be underestimated," Howland slowly began, as his brow was scrunched up with thought. "Which day did Jon fall ill?"

Ned paused for a few moments, trying to remember.

"Second day of the third moon."

"It is as I feared," his friend replied, looking even more troubled, "That's the day my son lost his sight."

"Did young Jojen go blind?!"

"Nay, he lost his Greensight," Eddard opened his mouth, but his friend quickly continued. "Ever since he caught a greywater fever as a youngling, he was bestowed prophetic dreams or visions by the three-eyed crow that our old records classify as the Greensight. At first, I was sceptical, but then he foresaw his wet nurse dying to a lizard lion. The next morning, she was wandering in the swamp looking for mushrooms for her frog stew when a lizard lion pulled her into the turbid waters. Jojen's sight was weak, and he scarcely saw anything beyond the mundane things. On the first day of the third moon, he dreamed of blood, ice, darkness, and death, and nothing ever since. His body, which was weak ever since the greywater fever, has finally begun to strengthen, and his dreams are no more."

Eddard Stark's first instinct was to claim his friend's words were a load of horsesh*t, but Howland Reed was not one for lying, and after the last moon, Ned himself had seen things just as crazy, if not even more. The memory of his gloved hand burned from the unnatural coldness seeping from his son's skin was still fresh in his mind.

"Three-eyed crow? Glimpsing into the future? I thought that was just an old children's tale."

He vaguely remembered the tale of Daenys the Dreamer and how the Eyrie's maester had simply dismissed it as the Targaryens covering for their shameful exile from the Freehold.

"Most tales have a grain of truth in them," the Crannoglord explained with a pained smile before sipping from his tankard. "The three-eyed crow is one of the last great Greenseer lineages, clinging to life in alcoves hidden by magic. Yet it's not only the Greenseers who can glimpse into the future. The Dragonlords also had a similar ability, albeit lesser. When the mightiest of sorcerers gather, few things are impossible. The wonders and horrors of the Freehold were equal in their grandeur, and the Children of the Forest did manage to shatter the Arm of Dorne and flood the Neck with the Hammer of the Waters, after all."

"Gods..." The Lord of Winterfell tiredly ran a hand through his hair. All of this was supposed to be just a children's tale.

"Aye. Jon could be having glimpses of the future from either side of the family. It's not impossible that he truly has travelled through time either." Howland's words were very close to his own suspicions, but Ned needed to hear them from someone else's mouth to feel less mad. "According to an old legend, eighty-one Greenseers willingly sacrificed themselves to shatter the Arm of Dorne, so you'd never know with magic. You said it yourself, Jon escaped Winterfell and took whatever he wanted, leaving nary a trace like a skilled thief or a catspaw. Is this something a sixteen-year-old boy could plan, let alone pull off after half a moon of being bound to the sick bed?"

"f*ck," Ned groaned before emptying his tankard in one breath, welcoming the bittersweet feeling burning through his throat. There was no point in dwelling on this any longer. "How does one prepare for the Long Night?!"

"Jon left you the answer," Howland supplied. "The Northern Mountains have significant deposits of obsidian, along with Skaagos. I'm sure some can be found in other areas around the North, even near Winterfell, considering the hot springs you are so proud of. Lya's boy refuses to divulge his plan but seems to know what he's doing."

And Ned couldn't help but worry. But there was nothing he could do anymore. Even if he found Jon and made him return to Winterfell, his son had proven far too slippery and could probably escape again anyway. He could only hope Jon would succeed and return home.

"Obsidian is far too fragile for anything other than arrowheads, daggers, and speartips," he darkly recounted. "I can order it being gathered and worked, but none would use it over normal steel. But any outright talk about dead men walking and Long Night would simply be madness."

"There's not much that could be done about this without proof. Still, some preparations can be done, and you can start with your brother," his friend proposed thoughtfully. "The First Ranger would be far better positioned to prepare the Watch from within or procure proof, especially if he knows what is coming. But I'm not too worried about the Others. Jon claims he has a plan of his own to deal with them."

"He's just a-"

"-A Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, a Lord of Winterfell, a King of the North, and an experienced warrior and a veteran of many a battle," Howland Reed interrupted. "He might be a sixteen-year-old boy now, but if what half of the letter is true, he not only survived but thrived against all odds with foes in every direction. Have faith in your nephew! Even so, I'm more worried about the troubles in the South. Bolton rebelling is just a matter of course when the direwolf is weak, but everything else seems like someone was trying to push House Stark into a perilous conflict. The dead direwolf omen does not bode well either, as I find it difficult to believe that Robert would ever harm you in any way. Alas, I am unfamiliar with the games of the South and can be of little help with this. But it seems that young Jon put this well enough-nobody from the South can be trusted."

Ned tiredly rubbed his brow. His questions were answered, yet now he had even more than before. It felt as if the world was going mad. Magic, prophetic dreams, the Others and dragons walking the land once again while enemies gathered against his House in the shadows, making him feel like a helpless child once more.

Could he afford to ignore Jon's warning?

No. Even if Eddard still felt somewhat sceptical, it painted a dire future; something couldn't be allowed to pass. But at least now he had an inkling of what to do. If nothing else, he could plan and prepare. House Stark was ancient, and its roots ran deep. It would not be so easily toppled, especially if he had anything to say about it.

"I shall pen a letter and send riders to the clansmen and the Skagosi, ordering them to start looking and mining for obsidian and crafting it into daggers and arrowheads," he finally decided. Ned could already feel the headache of dealing with the quarrelsome Skagosi and the inconvenience of them not having ravens or maesters. "But what do I tell the Lords and the Watch should they ask why?"

"Oh Ned, you've always been too honest for your own good," Howland bemoaned. "I have no idea how you fooled people that Jon's yours for so long. The solution is pretty simple, you will say that you received a dire warning about a great peril from a Greenseer, which is pretty close to the truth. Your pristine reputation would play in your favour, and your bannermen will believe your word. We of the North still remember, and a Stark's word is more valuable than gold. Besides, it's not like he's wrong. The signs are there for those who wish to see them. This summer has been unnaturally long, and more veterans are deserting their Watch. You even mentioned the last one speaking of the Cold Ones."

By the gods, Ned hated lying, but despite his mislike for the idea, Howland was giving good advice. If lying could aid his family, he would grit his teeth and lie! None of his remaining children would perish anytime soon if he could do something about it!

"That still leaves the problem with the South," a heavy sigh escaped his mouth again. "House Stark has far too many alliances on the other side of the Neck to stay out of Southron affairs, even if I decline the Handship."

"That might be so, but you've still isolated yourself from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, Ned," his friend chastised softly. "You still have no idea who the main players are or what they want, despite being the most connected Highlord in the realm. Is it truly any wonder that almost all of those connections were turned against House Stark? Someone clearly used you to start a civil war and drag the Starks right into the middle of it all. I think you should summon Lord Wyman or his heir for advice. House Manderly still keeps some connections to the South for trade, if nothing else. The merman lord and his heir are far more cunning and shrewd than they appear and are still one of your most leal bannermen."

Ned briefly mulled on the idea before realising it had no downsides. His friend had a point; he was not alone in all of this. House Stark had plenty of trusty bannermen that could serve as his advisors. Not to discount Rodrik or Luwin, but while wise and experienced, they simply lacked the lordly perspective. Two heads were better than one, and three were better than two. Seven hells, it had taken him nearly a sennight to suspect someone actively moving against House Stark, but Howland had seen through it almost immediately.

"I require your services by my side for the near future, Lord Reed," Ned declared after a minute of contemplation.

His friend gave him a wide smile.

"It would be an honour, Lord Stark."

9th day of the 4th Moon

White Harbour

Princess Myrcella Baratheon

She shivered and pulled her golden velvet cloak tighter. It did little to ward off the Northern cold. Even the gentle rays of the sun couldn't warm her up yet. She vaguely remembered cold and snow from her early childhood, but it felt so long ago. And it was supposed to be a damned summer right now!

The Lord of White Harbour was old and so fat she wondered how he could even move. It was a small miracle he managed to kneel, and a mystery how he would even get up. Wyman Manderly reminded her of an oversized barrel about to burst. His fat spilt from his blue-green velvet doublet, and it looked as if he had not one, not two, but four chins. His sons seemed to take after their father in every way but slightly less round, with walrus-like moustaches and bald heads that shone in the midday sun. The merman granddaughters, however, looked nothing like their father or grandfather. They were both slim and demure and very pleasing to the eye, even with the younger one having her hair dyed in a garish green colour.

"Rise," her father's voice was not as booming as usual. The journey at sea seemed to hit every single member of their family but her and Uncle Jaime. She threw a look at her younger brother Joffrey, who was uncharacteristically silent, most probably because he looked ready to heave over and spill his breakfast.

She turned her attention to the centre of the square just in time to see how the Lord of White Harbour needed the help of two burly guardsmen to get up from his kneeling position. Myrcella couldn't help but wonder if her father would soon require aid to get up himself. While he was not as fat as the Lord before him, he wasn't far off…

Finally, the cold wind began to die out, and the sun's soft caress managed to seep some warmth into her skin. From the side, her mother, wrapped tightly in her crimson velvet cloak, fussed over Tommen's runny nose with a silken handkerchief, and Joffrey was trying to suppress his shivers and look manly but failing miserably.

He looked like a sickly cat instead.

It unnerved her how much the cold affected their party, and this was supposed to be the height of summer. Myrcella shuddered to imagine how the North was during winter.

A serving man dressed in a sea-green tunic quickly walked over with a platter of bread and salt. Her kingly father tore a generous piece, dipped it in the salt, and devoured it in one bite.

"Your Grace, I have a feast prepared for you at New Castle!"

The mention of a generous serving of food and wine seemed to invigorate her royal father.

"Lead the way, Wyman!"

"I must apologise in advance, Your Grace," Lord Manderly began as he wiped a few beads of sweat from his head with his meaty hand. "The Castle Stair leading up to New Castle is lined with steps and unsuitable for a wheelhouse. But I have the finest horses to take you there if you wish."

"Bah, it's good to feel solid ground under my feet after so long," her father eagerly waved it away. "It would do us good to stretch our legs before the feast!"

On the side, her mother looked like she had just swallowed a lemon whole. A pity, as the unqueenly grimace made the otherwise beautiful face of Cersei Lannister look rather grotesque.

The whole procession slowly headed up the white street, and Myrcella had ample time to look around. The chill of the northern air seemed to abate even further as she started moving.

The Northern city was… not bad. From the inner harbour, the wide cobbled streets were straight and orderly, and the smell of pigsty that was ever present in King's Landing was replaced with clean but salty air. While White Harbour was bustling, it thankfully lacked the noisy commotion of the royal city. All the houses were built from whitewashed stone, creating a clean appearance. Even Lannisport was not as tidy and orderly as this.

The city guard had cordoned off the streets, men wearing simple arming doublets and woollen cloaks dyed in sea green with a silver trident emblazoned on their surcoats. Each watchman had a bludgeon, a dagger, and a spanghelm.

"It's lovely," Rosamund said in awe from her left.

Alas, her handmaid was nearly half her age and barely reached her elbow. Sometimes it felt that Myrcella had to care for the younger girl, not the reverse. Not that she minded; Rosamund was a sweet little girl, and her cousin besides.

To her right walked the rest of her family, bar Uncle Tyrion. The shortest lion had probably found his way into the nearest brothel. Uncle Jaime's gaze lazily wandered around the streets, looking for danger. Next to him, her mother had donned her ever-present scowl. Tommen's eyes sparkled as he drank in the surrounding view while Joffrey still looked pale and miserable.

"It certainly isn't as dreary as I dreaded," her mother hummed as she looked around. "While small, the city is passable. Hopefully, the rest of the North is similar. Perhaps a merman's daughter for your handmaid, Myrcella."

"Bah, they make us walk like common peasants in this cold," Joffrey grouched from the side, and colour finally seemed to return to his pale face.

Alas, he quickly got better enough to start his usual incessant grumbling as soon as he got away from the rocking of the ship.

"Our royal father commanded it," Myrcella countered. "If you had to ride a horse while your world was still spinning and shaking from the boat, you could very well fall off. Besides, it's not bad. Usually, all we see is Casterly Rock, King's Landing, and the Gold Road in between. Now, you get to visit some more of the other bannermen. Maidenpool was great, and I've heard that Winterfell's hotsprings easily rival Jonquil's pool."

"We are the royal family!" her younger brother continued whinging. "The rabble should come to us, not the reverse!"

Gods, would he ever grow up?! He was three and ten and as tall as her already!

"If everyone came to King's Landing, it would be too full of people you don't like," Myrcella countered, and Joffrey's face scrunched up. "Besides, good luck moving a hot spring all the way to King's Landing. And it was the Northern swords that placed Father on the throne, and House Stark is very well-connected. Aside from the friendship between Lord Stark and our royal father, the future Lords Tully and Arryn are cousins of the Stark heir, and the Greyjoy heir is fostering in Winterfell. This is an opportunity to make your own connections and shows you care for your future bannermen, you know. Many a king did a royal progress for a reason, Joff!"

Her brother finally shut up, and his face became thoughtful. He even looked half as adorable as Tommen now, as long as he did not open his mouth. For some reason, Myrcella felt that her mother's eyes flashed with disapproval, but the Queen remained silent. The princess couldn't help but pity the woman who got to marry Joffrey; he was simply unbearable.

They finally ascended the hill and were at the opened gate of the proud and pale New Castle. The large keep and the surrounding ring of curtain walls were made of whitewashed stone. The ramparts looked more than forty feet tall and fifteen feet thick. As they entered the courtyard, Myrcella couldn't help but shiver as the sun was hidden behind one of the pale towers. Without the sun's warm kiss, the cold returned with a vengeance.

The Manderly heir and his Woolfield wife approached her mother and Joffrey, offering to show them the way to their quarters.

At that moment, though, all her attention was drawn by the dark-haired Wynafryd Manderly, who came to her and Rosamund with two fur-lined cloaks.

The Northern Mountains

Jon Snow

It seemed that he managed to successfully pull off Ramsay's assassination since nobody followed him. He wouldn't have minded culling a few Bolton men as he was sorely out of practice; his current body still felt sluggish and weak. Then again, the men-at-arms were usually innocent of their overlord's sins. He could get away with that too. Aside from Ghost, who could easily hide, Jon had nothing that would distinguish him as a Stark aside from his looks, but more than half the North shared the first men colouring, similar to him. It would also be good to avoid openly breaking the King's Peace.

Regardless, Ghost had grown too large to travel in his bosom. In fact, he was already above his knees, and in another half a moon, he'd be larger than the other dogs. Jon's travel speed slowed with the four hunting hounds for his companions. It took him nearly twelve days instead of the original estimate of eight to arrive at the Liddle lands while evading all the villages and settlements from afar. That was two days ago, and Jon had been searching for dragonglass since.

Alas, he only knew of one open vein of obsidian somewhere around here but not the exact location. The last time he visited when everything had been covered by a thick white veil of snow, and the clansmen were the ones that mined the obsidian and provided it to his forces. Mayhaps he could easily acquire assistance in the Little Hall, the seat of the Liddles, but he didn't want to impose on their hospitality. Even as a bastard son of Eddard Stark, he would be warmly welcomed and aided. Bastardry meant very little compared to blood and mettle in the harsh northern mountains.

But that was not all; Jon was wary of his uncle having ordered his bannermen to return him to Winterfell should they find him. While the need to prove himself to the world had dimmed long ago, the sliver of stubborn pride had remained.

He had already left Winterfell and helped himself plenty from the armoury; there was no need to go around begging for pittances from the leal Stark Bannermen. Even if Jon failed, if his uncle heeded his warning, the Others could be fought off if the Watch and the North were not caught unaware like last time.

Mayhaps he was foolish to rush headfirst beyond the Wall to confront the foes of old, but no matter what preparations were made, it would be far simpler to snuff out the danger before it could gain in on numbers. Something that would take the Night's Watch and the North years. They were simply not prepared to even consider the existence of the Others, let alone confront them or fight beyond the Wall during the harshest of winters.

But Jon Snow was.

The Others weren't that terrifying foes once you knew how to deal with them. The real problem was the endless horde of wights under their thrall and the fact that if it got too cold for too long, the Bay of Seals might freeze, allowing them to easily bypass the Wall, turning the North into a terrifying battlefield.

Jon's failure or success would depend entirely on himself and his skill. Fighting, death, and ice have been his companions for a long time now. He had made peace with his death long ago, even before dying twice.

A sigh escaped his lips as he gazed at the sun. It was slowly crawling towards the western horizon; dusk looked little more than two hours away. The current clearing was too good to pass up, and it took at least half an hour to set camp properly. Mayhaps he would have better luck on the morrow after a good night's sleep. Jon tied Shadow's reigns to a nearby tree at the end of the small clearing and started pitching his tent. Ghost dashed into the nearby pinewood in hunt of some prey. After the tent was done, he also headed out to gather a few dry twigs for his campfire. Red Jeyne, Helicent, and Maude followed him while he left Willow to guard the uneasy Shadow.

Now wasn't that a surprise? Not only could he near effortlessly slip into the minds of Ramsay's former hunting hounds, but he could somehow tell their names. And, similar to Ghost, it felt as if they could tell his intentions or even thoughts the moment they passed through his head. He wasn't going to complain, though. They made hunting even easier, and having four more faithful companions would only aid him in the future.

"Now, I suppose you don't know where exactly that deposit of dragonglass was?"

Sadly, Red Jeyne didn't respond and only huffed at him with amusem*nt as she wagged her shaggy tail. Just as he finished gathering a bundle of dry branches, he felt Ghost wildly tug at his mind.

He slipped into his companion's mind, only to be greeted by a terrifying sight.

A young auburn-haired girl with grey eyes garbed in leather breeches, and a fur-lined tunic had climbed high on a thick sentinel tree. She was holding onto a thick branch for dear life and looking in terror at an enormous snow bear that was effortlessly rocking the humungous tree below. He reckoned the monstrous beast was about twenty feet tall as it stood on its hind legs. By the gods, its enormous back was at least six feet wide. The tree was groaning with every push, and it looked as if it was going to fall any moment now. He could clearly feel Ghost's terror.

Jon snapped the connection, returning to his own body.

A wise man would pack up his things and move away from the monstrous bear as far as possible. A behemoth of enormous size straight from the tales of old, not something a lone man could hunt.

The Bastard of Winterfell, however, ran towards his horse, the gathered firewood left forgotten amongst the grass. He grabbed his hunting spears, yew longbow, and quiver and sprinted in Ghost's direction as he began stringing up his bow. Helicent, Red Jeyne, and Maude dutifully ran after him with angry barks. The girl reminded him of his sisters; she had Sansa's hair and Arya's eyes. Even if she did not, Jon knew he would regret it if he did not do anything. In his previous life, he had many regrets, but in this one, he would have none if he could help it.

He weaved between the trees and leapt over stones and gnarly roots as he ascended the hill. Jon felt his blood begin to sing as he pushed himself to the limit. He felt the hunting hounds lag behind, unable to keep up with his mad dash, yet could not slow down as the chances that the girl still lived dwindled with every second. The upcoming clash of life and death only made his heart thunder with excitement.

A dozen heartbeats later, he finally arrived, only to see the sentinel tree groan under the monstrous bear's efforts. A large patch of earth near its roots began to rise ominously as the tree tilted dangerously while the girl above was crying and yelling for help.

Jon Snow took a deep breath and bellowed angrily to draw the bear's attention while he notched an arrow. He succeeded as the monster turned around to face him androaredback at him. The terrifying sound reverberated in the air, making even his bones shake. On four legs, it was still nearly eight feet tall, towering over Jon. f*ck, the beast was even larger than Borroq's gigantic boar. Why was something this size south of the Wall?!

He could only blink as the snow bear charged his way far faster than its size would suggest. He barely managed to loose two arrows that missed the behemoth's eyes and harmlessly bounced off its white-furred head, enraging his foe even further. He couldn't aim well as the bear was too fast, and it was already upon him before he could blink. Even with his inhuman reflexes, he had yet to grab his spear and scarcely managed to roll to the side, barely avoiding the furious charge. He instantly got up and turned to face his foe, ignoring the flaring pain from the rocks he hit during his reckless roll. Unable to halt its momentum, the bear crashed into a younger pine, toppling it with ease, and it turned to glare at Jon with a pair of angry brown eyes.

His heart beat like a drum excitedly, Jon's hunting spear was finally in his arm, and he could taste the danger in the air. Yet his blood froze as Ghost crept up behind the beast. For a short moment, he had forgotten about his companion.

Thankfully, the bear didn't notice him as the direwolf was silent as usual and easily blended within his surroundings. Ghost hid patiently, though Jon sent a strong desire through his link for his companion to stay away. He gripped his spear tightly as the furious beast rapidly approached. He took a deep breath, aimed at the eye, andthrewhis first spear with all his might. His aim was true, but the bear moved its head at the last instant, and the steel tip bounced off its forehead. The steel tip probably bent before leaving a small smidgen of blood that only infuriated the bear more than anything else.

He swore inwardly as he gripped his last spear; another throw would leave him bereft of weapons.

Jon's blood sang with excitement as he gripped the ash shaft and prepared himself. He would have mayhaps half a second to pierce the enormous snow bear's eye before it ran him through. But two heartbeats before it came in the range of his spear, it quickly began to slow down as the hunting hounds finally caught up and dashed his way, barking up a storm and providing a short moment of distraction.

He took a deep breath as his foe was only ten yards away; one strike of the titanic paw would effortlessly crush the thickest of bones. Now the enormous beast was looking around, hesitating whether to attack Jon, the newly discovered direwolf, or the incoming dogs. It didn't help that if it stood up on its hind legs, its neck, eyes, and mouth would be too far away from him to reach with his spear. Even on four legs, he would struggle to stab into its eyes from below.

Every inch of his body was tensed to the limit, every muscle tightly coiled like a spring. If his foe went for his companions, there was nothing he could do with regular steel against the thick fur. Before the bear could choose whom to attack, Jon decided to act as the behemoth was warily eyeing Ghost. He took a large step forward, leapt recklessly with all his might, and cried out, grabbing the bear's attention again.

It instantly looked his way and began to rear back up with a growl as it swatted the enormous paw at him. It was lightning-fast, but Jon was half a heartbeat faster.

His heart soared with joy, and he smiled savagely as the steel tip of the hunting spear found the snow bear's eye.

Notes:

Ned turns to an old friend for advice and help.

More AU changes appear. Since the Harrenhal Tourney and the Rebellion happened two years earlier, and now the birth order of Cersei's kids is scrambled (because why not?!). Myrcella is the eldest, and Joffrey is already 13. The royal procession has finally arrived in the North, but the road from White Harbour to Winterfell is not short.

Jon's abravereckless f*cker with no fear of death. The Jon PoV just didn't come out the way I imagined, but what can you do?

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any! And do leave me a kudos if you liked the fic!

Chapter 7: Saviours and Sellsails

Notes:

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the ASOIAF universe. All recognisable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of GRRM; I make no claim to ownership.

Acknowledgements: This chapter has not been edited by anyone but sleepy ole me, so beware. Cheers to Bub3loka, my beta reader, who helped me immensely.

Warning! There's also some possibly graphic/disturbing content not for the faint of heart, but nothing explicit.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Lysara Liddle

Her heart sang with joy as the young man heroically leapt and drove his spear through the enormous snow bear's eye. The beast instantly slumped, but the gigantic paw that was already in motion still struck him. Lysara froze as her saviour's body rolled through the packed ground like a ragdoll.

A moment later, he finally stopped at the roots of an ancient oak. After a few moments, the young maiden got out of her stupor and cautiously eyed the sprawled snow bear.

It was not moving at all.

Fear completely forgotten, Lysara quickly climbed down the tilted sentinel tree and dashed towards her fallen saviour as fast as her legs could carry her.

A relieved sigh escaped her; his eyes were still open, and he struggled to get up. But it was short-lived as her eyes glanced towards his ribs. His brigandine was torn open, a few plates of steel were bent like straws, and there was blood. Gods, what would she do now?! Lysara shook her head furiously, trying to remember old Lena's lessons.

"Hey," her eyes goggled as the man greeted her with a strained voice, face contorted by pain. "Are you unharmed, my lady?"

For a short moment, she stood there, stunned. He finally sat up, back to the oaken tree, and unsheathed a dagger from his belt after a short struggle. Before Lysara could find her words, the man cut a large strip from his grey cloak and pressed it on his bloody torso.

"I'm fine," she barely mumbled. "But-"

Unable to articulate herself, she just timidly gestured towards the injury.

"Ah, 'tis but a flesh wound, no need to worry. Might leave a scar, but I'll be fine," he quickly waved her concerns away.

"There was blood!"

"Well, that happens when you get wounded, my lady," he chuckled weakly, but she was not feeling amused one bit! Yet Lysara did notice that his face was no longer too pained nor his voice as strained. "I was lucky. My armour took the brunt of the strike, which lost its strength after the bear died. After going through the brigandine, the chainshirt, and the arming doublet, there wasn't much power left in the claws. But I'm certainly bruised and might've cracked a rib or two."

Lysara's worries subsided at his now confident voice. Bruises and cracked ribs were far from lethal, so he would definitely be fine! She finally took a careful look at his features and blushed. Gods, he was pretty, even with the dirt and beads of sweat running down his face! Her saviour had soft grey eyes, high cheekbones and a sharp, sculpted face. His comely face was surrounded by damp, dark hair reaching his broad shoulders. Wait, she had completely forgotten her manners!

"Ah, thank you for saving me, ser-" Lysara paused when she realised he had not given his name. She had not even introduced herself either!

Her cheeks reddened.

"Name's Jon," her pretty saviour took mercy on her and responded with a pained chuckle. "I'm not a knight either, just a Northern bastard."

But he was so heroic and pretty! How was he not a knight?! At that moment, she heard a faint shuffling behind her. She instinctively turned around and froze.

She was surrounded by four vicious-looking hounds; one was as white as snow, one dirty red, one brown, and the last had grey fur. A few fearful heartbeats passed, but nothing happened. Lysara noticed that none of them were standing aggressively, nor were their teeth bared and began to calm.

"Ah, those are my companions," the young man voiced behind her. "They are harmless, don't worry. Give them your hand to take your scent."

A breath she did not remember holding was released, and she hesitantly offered her right hand, making the pack approach and inspect it with their wet noses.

"LYSARA!" a mighty cry tore through the air, startling both her and the dogs, making her pale. The hounds instantly turned towards the source of the cry; four tails rose in the air as they crouched defensively in front of her and her saviour.

That was her father's voice, and she was going to be in so much trouble…

And there he was. Atop the northern rocky ridge, her father, Torren Liddle, along with her brothers, Duncan, Morgan, and Rickard, followed by nearly three dozen hunters and a score of angrily barking hunting hounds. Even from that distance, Lysara could see her father's weary face etched with worry, but she could recognise the storm brewing in his icy eyes.

The hounds in front of her began to growl in warning as the group approached, and her father's wolfhounds barked up a loud racket. All of them looked tense, spears and bows in their arms.

"Down, Ghost. Girls," the voice of the young man behind her was almost drowned out in the ruckus, but at that moment, the four hunting hounds sat down peacefully, and her father's hunting hounds quieted down as he raised his hand in a fist.

"Hello, Father!" she waved, trying to look cheerful.

It did not work. Torren Liddle did not spare Jon more than a passing glance before pinning her with his icy gaze.

"Lysara," his voice was impassive, slow and measured, his usual northern burr nowhere to be heard; she couldn't help but shrink down. "Did you remember what you promised when I agreed for you to accompany us on the hunt?"

"That I'll make no trouble and listen to your commands?" Lyarra timidly recounted and tried to evade her father's sharp gaze.

"That's right. Look me in the eyes when I speak to ye!" he snapped coldly, and she guiltily looked up to meet his eyes. "And what did you do when I ordered you to stay in the camp with Rickard?"

"I went to look for some yellow caps for the stew?" She offered weakly as she rubbed her neck. "I just wanted to help too…"

"Lysara," Torren's voice was deathly calm, but his icy eyes were filled with worry. "Next time you go to 'help', don't foolishly sneak away, but come to me, and I'll get someone to escort you. You could have been mauled by a wild animal or taken by a daring wilding. We just heard a monstrous roar from this direction not long ago."

She couldn't help but laugh nervously at his words.

"Da, you gotta see this," Rickard, her youngest brother, pointed towards the snow bear's corpse that looked like a small hill from here.

Torren Liddle craned his head and looked at the slain beast. The only reaction he showed was the widening of his eyes before returning his gaze to Lysara. Her brother Morgan and half a dozen hunters went to the corpse to inspect it.

"You'll not only double your lessons with Lena but muck the stables and help in the kitchen for the next three moons without a single complaint." She swallowed down her objection at his stern face and bowed her head in agreement. From experience, Lysara knew there was no point in arguing lest her father decided to lengthen her punishment further. "And who is your companion behind you?"

"That's Jon, father," she explained and stepped away as she realised she was standing in front of her saviour. "He killed the bear to save me."

"Well met, Chief Liddle," Jon bowed his head in acknowledgement with a slight grimace.

Torren Liddle, however, was staring at the young man without saying a word for some reason.

"Gods, father, is that a direwolf?" Duncan, her eldest brother, broke the silence as he pointed towards… the white wolfhound?

At that moment, her father's face softened, and the ice in his blue eyes finally melted.

"That's a direwolf, alright, with its overly large head." Torren Liddle finally agreed as he gazed at Jon. "Yer a Stark. The Ned's boy?"

By the gods, why didn't he tell her he was a Stark?! It took all of Lysara's control not to squeal in delight right here. Starks were even better than knights!

"Aye, I'm Lord Stark's son, but just a Snow."

At that moment, Morgan finally returned, bloody spear in hand. Soft steam arose from the badly twisted leaf-shaped steelhead as it dripped rich black blood.

"Father, that behemoth must be what was driving all the prey away. Methinks it weighs at least four thousand pounds, more than enough to feed us for a whole moon. The skin is undamaged. It took five of us to take the spear out of the eye," her brother looked at Jon with undisguised admiration.

"I apologise for stealing your prey, Lord Torrhen," Jon chimed in with a pained grimace as he pressed the now reddish strip of cloth tighter to his wound. "I relinquish my rights to the carcass to you."

"None of that Southron crap, lad," her father dismissively waved his hand; Lysara noticed his voice had regained its usual brogue. "A tall feat for the songs, slaying a beast so large alone. I would have lost me only daughter and even some of me finest men putting it down. Name or not, The Ned's get is always welcome in me lands. How's yer wound?"

"Bruised heavily, and claws raked my skin, but I'll live," her saviour barely suppressed a groan. "Might need a clean bandage and mayhaps some poultice to ward away any festering."

"We'll get ya to me Hall, lad, and old Lena will patch ya up good," he turned to the rest of the men. "Rodrik, Hrothgar, go fetch the litter for the Ned's son. The rest of you, skin the beast and harvest everything before it goes bad. Tonight we feast!"

Tyrosh

Salladhor Saan

The sun was slowly crawling towards the horizon in the west, giving a pinkish hue to the clouds littering the vast sky. Salladhor looked at Zephon Sarrios' enormous manse with a hint of annoyance. The black marble walls were nearly twenty feet tall, and he could see Unsullied patrolling along the ramparts above. The gates, made of solid ebony lined with silver and gold, were also manned by four Unsullied, who stood as still as statues.

The whole place could easily qualify as a fortress if it wasn't for the excessive amount of luxury. He had no idea why the richest magister in Tyrosh had summoned him, but Salladhor was never one to pass up an opportunity to make some gold. In fact, he could practically hear the sweet clinks of coin filling his purse. He just hoped that the magister would not make him wait until dawn. That bad business with the sack forty years ago dragged the Saan name through the mud in this city because of his greedy uncle.

Thankfully, Salladhor did not have to wait long. A buxom blonde with long, flowing hair and pale skin, dressed in scant silk, scarcely covering her ample teats and shapely hips, haughtily walked out of the ebony door next to the gate and looked at him. With her lithe waist and heart-shaped face, the woman would easily be the top courtesan in the best pillow houses in Lys!

"Magister Sarrios will see you now, Master Saan," she spoke in a melodic voice, beckoning him with a smooth, elegant gesture.

He took an appreciative glance at her swaying hips and, a moment later, followed. She moved so lightly and gracefully that the only sound he could hear was the rustling of her dress. To his chagrin, none of Salladhor's concubines could hold a candle to the alluring messenger before him. Ynanna's holy teats, he'd have to visit a pillow house to vent after this.

The courtyard was vast and opulent. A broad walkway was paved in white marble, and exotic trees, plants, and flowers of myriad colours were lined around the path. Salladhor was a well-travelled explorer, but he could only recognise a scant few like Goldenheart, Ebony, Nightwood, and even Black-barked trees! Not only that but there was a giant statue of a pair of naked lovers made entirely out of jade. He could also spot a gilded fountain surrounded by four silver sculptures of bare maidens.

His gaze now slid forward to the manse where the prodigal magister resided. It was a tall building made of white marble, with a tall round tower at every corner. It had a wing on each side, and large glass windows littered the facade. Pillars with the shapes of dancing bodies supported the elongated parts of the silvery roof.

At that moment, Salladhor couldn't help but envy Magister Sarrios. Alas, men like him had to break their backs and brave the seas to get a small fraction of the riches the Tyroshi Magister possessed.

They finally arrived at the entrance of the manse. The large goldenheart door was inlaid with silver and was guarded by yet another pair of Unsullied.

The magnificent display of wealth became even more luxurious inside, but Salladhor was now too numb to care. After a walk down a wide hallway filled with marble, jade, and gold, they entered a large hall.

At the corner, a completely naked maiden pleasantly ran her delicate fingers on a large golden harp lined with rubies. His eyes slid over the few unsullied that stood like statues along the walls towards the numerous bare maids running around with gilded platters heavy with food or silver-bound pitchers of wine. They all had the red anemone tattooed on their belly, signifying their status as pleasure slaves. To Salladhor's surprise, none were lesser in looks than the fair messenger. The woman led him towards the centre, where a large mahogany table lined with jade, surrounded by ebony chairs tapered with crimson velvet.

Magister Zephon Sarrios stood on a large ebony throne lined with gold and encrusted emeralds. Tall yet plump, with olive skin, dyed blue hair, and a round face, the man didn't look too impressive. Clad in a loose robe of purple silk emblazoned with gold, his fingers were adorned in valyrian steel rings bejewelled with large diamonds and emeralds. A slender, naked, silver-haired valyrian beauty with purple eyes was feeding him grapes while a second, buxom and just as naked, was massaging his neck and shoulders.

It took all of Salladhor's self-control not to stare at their rosy nipples but at the unappealing magister instead. Even in Lys, one would be hard-pressed to see so much naked flesh, let alone one of suchquality.

"Ah, Captain Saan," Zephon Sarrios smiled widely, blinding the Lyseni Captain with a flash of gold. He almost tripped on the jade stairs up the dais as he saw that all of the teeth of the magister were golden. "Just the man I was looking for. Take a seat, and do not be afraid to fill your belly or soothe your parched throat."

"Magister Sarrios, it's an honour to meet you," Salladhor bowed his head and sat across the table.

One of the naked maids with red hair and an ample bosom came over and filled his goblet with a dark-purple liquid, and an exquisite scent teased his nostrils. Ynanna's holy teats! Was this from the legendary exclusive stash of Lord Redwyne?! Then he noticed that all the cutlery on the table was made from dark, rippled steel and gaped. Salladhor did not know what to do for the first time in his life. His desire to bury his face into the ample bosom of the naked redhead beside him warred with his admiration for the opulent cutlery and the need to drown the cup filled with the wine of legend.

With titanic effort, he shook his head and forced himself to focus on the Magister, who had a sly, knowing smile on his face.

"I take it you're in agreement with my meagre bounty, Captain," pride was evident in the tyroshi's voice. "I am in need of your services."

"What do you require of me, Magister?"

The merchant prince's jovial expression melted away and turned blank. He slapped the arse of the lithe beauty next to him, and she lifted one of the pitchers and filled his valyrian steel goblet studded with rubies.

"My eldest daughter, Melyta, is to marry Archon Varonar as his main wife," he slowly began before taking a generous gulp from his goblet. "I've prepared to add the grandest dowry of the Free Cities, so all would know House Sarrios is the richest and most powerful of them all! Countless treasured materials have been prepared, from imperial jade from Yi Ti to valyrian steel armaments for the Archon. I shall gift every priceless treasure from the four corners of the world!" He grandly waved his hand, but then his face soured. "But I am unable to find anyone to procure weirwood and mammoth ivory!"

Salladhor opened his mouth to agree but then halted. Something was wrong; this wouldn't be too hard for any run-of-the-mill smuggler to procure!

"It should be simple to get some weirwood or ivory from the Night's Watch for a man of your calibre, Magister," he cautiously replied.

Zephon Sarrios was not only the most powerful head of the Tyroshi cartels, the owner of the most developed harbour in the city, but also the sole distributor of the luxurious purple dye, the biggest banker, and the head of the chattel slavery in the city. He bred and trained the finest slaves, be it pleasure, fighting, serving, or craftsmen. While the Archon ruled in Tyrosh in the open, Zephon Sarrios was the hidden power of the city.

"Ah, my friend Saan. Usually, you would be right!" Zephon's smiling face then twisted into an angry grimace. "But that cretin Arvaad bought out all the mammoth ivory off the market and refuses to sell to me no matter the price! And I need not the measly branches of the weirwoods but thick trunks to make a grand statue of my daughter, so her beauty will be remembered for eternity! I need a brave man to go north of that icy Wall and procure me the goods."

It took a moment for Salladhor to remember who Arvaad was. Another rich and powerful magister, second only to Sarrios. He commanded the largest portion of the Tyroshi fleet and had a lot of connections in Westeros.

"Why me?" he found himself asking suspiciously. Something did not add up here; plenty of skilled smugglers and pirates in Tyrosh would jump to earn the Magister's favour. "Surely, Tyrosh does not lack capable sellsails eager to do your bidding."

Zephon Sarrios then pulled the lithe naked serving girl into his lap. Ignoring her yelp, his dark hands began to rove eagerly over her pale flesh.

"Ah, my friend, normally you would be right," the magister nodded in agreement. "Given enough time, I can surely procure the ivory one way or another. But the wedding is in less than three moons! All the men I send north of the Wall never returned. That damned Cotter Pyke and his black sails would let them go up and catches them on their way down when they're weakened, slow, and heavy with spoils! You're the only one alive that has sailed past the Wall and returned. It does help that you have ample skill and experience."

Salladhor frowned; he could remember at least three other Captains who had made the trip north of the Wall and returned.

"What about Ardo the Earless?"

"I already sent him! The Blacksail caught him, lopped his head off and confiscated his men, ships, and my goods! That fiend Arvaad bought the taken ivory already. The weirwood was not even half large enough for my goals! And he's the fourth one that went and did not return! Red Hydalf also went, but..."

The magister needed not finish; Red Hydalf was a far poorer sellsail than Ardo; fools would not succeed where the seasoned veterans failed.

It seemed like Cotter Pyke had only grown more savage during his stay at the Wall. Salladhor finally took a sip from his own cup, and his mouth almost went numb with pleasure. He found himself gulping more and more, and before he knew it, the goblet was empty, yet his newfound thirst was unquenched. The red-haired servant came over and instantly refilled it. Ah, this damned Tyorshi! He had ruined other wine for Salladhor…

He lifted his newly filled cup and, this time, with titanic effort, managed not to drink it all in one go. The Lyseni smuggler slowly took a small gulp and twirled the liquid around his mouth, sending slivers of pleasure down his spine. How was Salladhor supposed to drink normal wine after this?!

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He looked at the vast array of delicacies in front of him, half of which even he did not even recognise and groaned. It took Salladhor Saan all his focus to force himself to think.

The last time he had gone to smuggle past Eastwatch was eighteen years ago when the infamous Blacksail Cotter was only just caught for f*cking some iron lord's daughter and sent to the Wall. His skill in sailing was matched only by his ferocity, and his fame had just begun to spread across the sea. It was a great jape back in the day for a lusty pirate of renown to be forced to take vows of celibacy.

Baelor Morrigen, the commander of Eastwatch back then, was like a sundered sieve, and unless you were stupid or too greedy, you could come and go as you wished.

But now, if he wanted to sail North, he would have to brave the Shivering Sea east of Skagos to avoid the Bay of Seals and the Blacksail. Dangerous, but well within the capabilities of someone like Salladhor Saan!

Salladhor finally stopped mulling and reluctantly forced himself to tear his eyes from the godly wine and look at the Magister, who was eagerly exploring every part of the slave in his lap, both with his hands and tongue. Sarrios suddenly squeezed the girl's bare teats with a savage scowl as Salladhor took his sweet time to reply. She did not dare make a sound, but her face contorted into a pained grimace, and tears began to run down from her amethyst eyes.

"So, you want me to sail north of the Wall, chop off a gigantic sacred tree, hunt down some mammoths, avoid the Blacksail, Lord of the Ships, the Braavosi, and come back here in about fifty days?"

"Indeed, Captain Saan," the magister confirmed and pushed the pleasure slave off his lap, making her fall into the floor with a pained cry before lifting his goblet and taking a generous gulp. "But worry not about the Lord of Ships. After a fire at Dragonstone, none has seen or heard from him for a moon now!"

Truth be told, Salladhor did not fear the Blacksail or the Braavosi too much, but Stannis Baratheon was a terrifying man. You could not bribe him with anything, and he was just and fair and could even turn smugglers into honest men! Such vile sorcery was too dangerous; he would rather not risk getting captured and somehow turning over a new leaf.

"It will still cost you heavily, Magister Sarrios," Salladhor finally responded, and he took a bite from a juicy piece of meat covered with reddish sauce. "The Northmen hate it when people cut down their sacred trees!"

Gods, even the food here was to die for. The meat was soft and succulent and melted in his mouth, leaving a pleasantly spicy feeling on his tongue.

"Just a bunch of savages worshipping trees," the Tyroshi waved away his concerns without a care in the world. The buxom valyrian slave was still kneading the man's shoulders relentlessly. "The price is not an issue, my friend. I will pay you thrice the weight in gold for the mammoth ivory and weirwood trunks. If you deliver everything, I'll even gift you half a dozen of my finest slaves of your choosing!"

Salladhor Saan quickly ran the numbers through his head. He could make plenty of coin by selling silk, dyes, oranges and lemons in Gulltown and White Harbour. He could also stock up on cheap fur clothing in White Harbour, as those would be needed North of the Wall if one did not want to freeze to death. The route north of the Wall was not too difficult either and returning would be easy if Stannis Baratheon and his men were not active. North of the Wall, he could sell steel armaments and acquire some valuables and assistance from the wildlings. Even if he went with ten ships and paid all their crews handsomely, Salladhor would still be rich enough to be considered an important Magister in Lys afterwards. Yet, there were some problems.

"I'd do it, Magister, but I know nothing of mammoth tracking or hunting," he cautiously admitted.

"Don't worry, I will send Denzo Hartys and his men with you. He's an experienced elephant and man hunter. If you two bring me some exotic savages, I shall not be stingy either."

Bah, now he had to split his reward with another, and a slaver at that. Manhunters were all nasty ilk and difficult to deal with. Although that was not truly a problem, after the job was done, this Denzo Hartys and his men needed not reach Tyrosh.

"I'll take him with me," Salladhor finally confirmed with a vigorous nod.

After this, he could retire and live like a king for the rest of his days.

"Good, good," Magister Sarrios's face split into a broad smile, blinding him with its golden shine. The Tyroshi then stood up and, with a gesture, the buxom valyrian beauty massaging his shoulders bent over the tapered throne's armrest, leaving her naked pale arse hanging in the air. "Mayhaps it's time to sample what my slaves have to offer. Senerra, attend our guest."

The flame-haired beauty that had served him the wine came over and began unlacing his breeches. The Magister pushed aside his robe, revealing his naked body, and directly mounted the bent-over silver-haired slave.

Notes:

Lysara Liddle and pretty much everything Tyroshi is a complete OC.

Unfortunately, the love goddess of Lys is not named (the one depicted on their coinage), so that honour goes to me. Ynanna = The Lyseni Goddess of love, pleasure, sex, beauty, and fertility. Derived/inspired by Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love and that whole package that goes with it. The same Goddess was renamed Ishtar by the Babylonians and the Assyrians.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any! And well, drop a kudos if you liked this fic!

Chapter 8: Heartfelt Hospitality

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

10th day of the 4th Moon

Torren Liddle

The crisp morning air saw him kneeling in prayer at the Heart Tree amidst its thick roots, just as the first rays of the sun lazily peaked from the eastern hills. His breath formed fleeting misty clouds in the morning cold. The weirwood was old, older than the Liddles, with most of its gnarly roots being thicker than a woman's waist. Torren opened his eyes and looked at the carved face grotesquely twisted in defiance as usual. The Gods had proven merciful yesterday; now it was time for a sacrifice. Behind him, clad in wool, leather, and fur, stood his sons, his unruly daughter, and his greying uncle Jarod, who watched on from the side as he thoughtfully stroked his braided white goatee.

His nose tingled at the strong metallic scent as he started circling the Heart Tree and poured the crimson liquid carefully into the base of the gnarly roots while Duncan began hanging its entrails along the branches. Enough blood was drained from the behemoth bear to easily fill the five ironbound buckets. The crimson liquid did not colour the bone-white roots red but seeped into them and the soil below as the red leaves rustled.

A wide smile formed on Torren's face; the Gods had seen and accepted the offering! He nodded inwardly; it was a macabre sight as some blood still dripped from the entrails.

Sacrifice and worships to the Old Gods required little ceremony and could be done anytime, unlike the southrons and their stone effigies, where one had to have the zealous rainbow-loving white-bound priests perform pompous ceremonies.

The Liddles all kneeled in a half circle around the Heart Tree in silent prayer for a few more moments.

Before long, he stood up and looked at his family. His sons and brother were solemn, while Lysara finally looked shaken. Good, it would do for her to finally learn some of the olden traditions. She was too young the last time they made an offering to the Gods; before joining the Stark to fight the reaving squids on their dreary isles.

"Let's go."

Unlike the larger lordships, the Liddles were nought but a clan, their keep modest, and godswood but a small grove for prayer and sacrifice, filled with sentinel pine, oaks, chestnut, and a scant few elms. The ground was covered in blue coldsnaps and dangling bleeding hearts, giving the air a soft and pleasant sweet scent. It was separated from the rest of the keep by a small granite masonry, barely seven feet tall. In less than a minute, they were in front of the small oaken gate that led to the training yard.

He stopped and turned to Lysara, whose usual co*cksure attitude was replaced with uncertainty and trepidation.

"Even entrails and blood could be turned into blood sausages to fill our larders, yet we sacrificed them to the Old Gods. Why?"

His daughter stilled as her brow scrunched up in thought. The minutes stretched by as she was mulling, but in the end, she shook her head as no answer left her lips, so Torren turned to his eldest.

"Duncan, can you tell her why?"

"The gods of forest, stream, and stone are harsh and primal like the very nature they embody and care nought for the affairs of mortal men," his eldest began explaining in his deep voice as his slate-grey eyes darted to his sister. "They might not give, but they do not take. It's an olden custom to give an offering when luck shines upon you so the gods do not feel spurned for their blessing, but it is mostly practised only in the mountains now. And we, the Liddles, have our own tradition of giving a sacrifice before going to war."

Torren nodded in satisfaction at the explanation.

"Luck?" Lysara muttered in confusion.

"Do you know how incredibly fortunate you were, sister?" Morgan grunted in displeasure and gently ruffled her hair, eliciting a pout from his sister. "If any other man found you, they would have turned tail and run or simply died under the bear's claws. By the time we arrived, you'd have been nothing more than food in its belly. Each claw was as big as a dagger and could shred through armour as if made out of parchment. Not only did the Jon decide to risk his life to aid an unknown young girl in mortal peril, but he succeeded in slaying a beast that would take down many a brave man with it."

Lysara stared guiltily at the ground, making Torren sigh. A few months of mucking horse sh*t and endless chores in the kitchen would whittle down her foolish wildness. After all, one could only be foolish until one realised the pain of consequence.

The Liddle turned around, pushed the small oaken gate open, and entered the small training yard, and his daughter immediately darted towards old Lena's Quarters, where the Jon was resting.

"Lysara!" She immediately froze at his words and turned around. "Ye have ta clean the stables and assist Dalana in the kitchens before attending lessons."

His daughter hung her head low and headed towards the stables instead.

"If you offered to wed her to the Jon, she would accept in a heartbeat," Jarod's ribbed as his eyes crinkled in delight while the stable boy handed Lysara a shovel. "It's been hundreds of years since a Liddle was wed to a son of Winterfell."

"I'd love ta have a man of his calibre as my good-son, but Lysara's far too young at only two and ten, not even flowered yet," Torren grunted out. "She can dream all she wants, but I saw she did not hold Jon's gaze. Maybe Lysara could have caught his eye in a few years, but now he thinks of her as a child. But do you think a man like him will stay unwed for a handful of years?"

"You've grown soft, Torren. If this had happened to the old Norrey or Burley, Jon would already be swearing marriage vows with one of their daughters at the heart tree," his uncle countered cheerily. He tried to keep a serious expression, but a second later, his lips twitched, and he burst out in laughter.

"Aye, and they would have The Ned knocking on his gates, asking why his son was stolen like a wildling," the Liddle added with a chuckle before shaking his head. "The Stark watches over his brood like a hawk, scarcely letting any of them out of his sight. Let's go to see the beast's fur."

"Should be still salted at the mead hall," Duncan helpfully supplied. "The tannery's chamber wasn't large enough to stretch the skin."

"Are we going to put it on display?" Rickard chimed in.

"Nay, neither of us took it down," Torrhen shook his head. "Would be shameful to display such a trophy when slain by another. The organs, meat, and fat are a generous gift that would bolster our stores for quite some time. The Jon will decide what to do with the pelt when ready."

They finally reached the middling mead hall. It was the second largest structure in the Liddle's seat of power and was almost entirely made out of pine, with grey slate tiles covering the roof. At the ridge, it barely reached eighteen feet. The facade also had a small slanted front shielding the door and the now-opened shutters from snow and rain. With a small push, the bronze-bound oaken gate no longer barred their way.

The insides smelled of the sweet scent of burned oak as the hearth's flames playfully danced, illuminating the belly of the mead hall. Four large ornate beams of intricately carved oak supported the rafters, each depicting a different tale. All the tables were pushed to the walls, leaving a large clearing in the middle of the hall, where the enormous pelt stretched between the four pillars' bases.

He looked at the enormous salted pelt, and his mind could not help but wonder. It easily covered a big part of the large wall of his hall. From the tail to the head, it was sixteen feet, and the width was only slightly lesser.

He had seen the beast with its formidable size up close before it was butchered and couldn't help but thank the old Gods. The thick sentinel tree that Lysara had climbed was almost toppled. It looked like a slanted pillar; even its bulging roots, the size of a man's waist, were half-pulled up in their futile struggle to keep the trunk grounded. The charge of the monstrous bear would have easily laid low a smaller pine. If Ned's son had not been there, they would have been mourning his daughter, not feasting in celebration.

"Tough beast. Two skinning knives broken, three twisted, and two more blunted in skinning it," Duncan's sombre voice roused him out of his musings. "Even more in butchering it. Rodrik says most of the meat is as hard as steel."

Jarod scoffed to the side as he pulled a chair over.

"Have no fear, Dunk. Dalena will work his magic as always. We'll sample its tender paws for the next few days, and you will enjoy smoked venison for moons to come." His uncle's mention of the succulent delicacy that was bear paws made Torren salivate a bit, but he quickly shook his head.

"What are we going to do with the Jon?" Morgan asked as he pulled one of the chairs over and sat down.

"He's a guest in my halls for as long as he wishes," the Liddle declared.

"Only he has to wake up first to receive Guest Right," Rickard jested, making them chuckle.

"I'd like to see how you end up after a meeting with a bear even half the size of that beast, nephew mine," Jarod snorted, making his youngest son deflate.

"A pity our guest of honour spent the feast in his name in the tender hands of Lena," Duncan barked out a laugh.

The old wood witch was anything but tender, but there were scant few things she could not cure.

"We'll simply hold another feast once he's well on his feet," Torren said.

"What about our larders?" his youngest son worriedly asked.

"Worry not, Rickard," the Liddle waved away his concerns. "The summer snows are over, and food's easier to come by. With our bolstered stores from the bear, we can easily afford not one but at least four more feasts!"

"I wonder what brought him so deep in the Northern Mountains," Jarod hummed thoughtfully. "If he wanted to take the Black, he could have simply taken the King's Road to Castle Black. Hells, his uncle, the First Ranger, would have probably escorted him. And as you said, the Ned keeps his pack close, refusing to part with any of them."

His brother voiced his own thoughts, but the Liddle shook his head.

"There's no need for idle guesswork as if you're a gossiping scullery maid, Jarod," Torren chastised, making his eldest snort softly. "We'll find out from the horse's mouth when he wakes."

The conversation lulled down, and the only sound heard in the mead hall was the soft cackling of the hearth and the faint hubbub from the yard.

"I do wonder how that behemoth ended up here," Rickard broke the silence after a few minutes.

"Beast like this can only come from the Lands of Always Winter. It probably swam through the Bay near the mouth of the Milkwater in search of food, or maybe something drove it away," Jarod thoughtfully supplied. "But the f*cker is big even for the lands beyond the Wall."

Torren couldn't help but shudder at the thought. What could chase away a monster such as this?

More than an hour later, Delia, one of old Lena's assistants, fetched him with the news that Jon Snow had finally awoken. He ordered one of the servants to bring over the large clay pot from the kitchens. The wood witch and her apprentices lived in a not-too-small house built out of log and undressed stone, nestled just next to the godswood's wall. It was crowned by a simple roof of grey tiles. There was even a small door next to it, leading inside the godswood, where the old medicine woman had a small garden full of various herbs.

Many years ago, when old Lena was not so old, when his father Torrhen was still alive, and Duncan was just a newborn babe in his swaddling clothes, the medicine woman had stubbornly lived in a small thatched hut far outside the walls of Little Hall and refused to move in, no matter how hard his father had tried persuading her. At least until her granddaughter, Valla, had been taken by the wildlings while gathering herbs in the forest. Lena had bitterly cried and cursed but had finally agreed to finally come under the protection of the Liddle.

Torren opened the creaky pine door and was immediately hit with the usual heavy herbal smell. Only a few candles and the flickering heart illuminated the dim room. All the walls were fully covered with wooden shells full of clay and bronze pots full of her herbal concoctions. Old Lena was sitting near the fire, using a bronze mortar and pestle to grind some herbs into powder. A hunchbacked and wrinkled old woman, her hair had long become as white as snow. She turned to look at him with her icy eyes the moment he entered.

"Liddle," the old woods witch rasped out in greeting.

"Lena," Torren returned with a nod. "How's he?"

"Healing well. The boy is… strong," she hummed thoughtfully and finally placed her mortar and pestle on a small wooden stand nearby.

"A green boy no longer," he corrected. If Jon Snow was a boy, what did that make the rest of them? Green Southron maids? "And aye, his arm is strong, a single strike cracked part of the great snow bear's skull."

"That might be so," the old crone conceded grudgingly with a wet cough. "But he's still six and ten. Yet there's more, something on the edge of my mind I can't put my finger on. A normal man would have been gutted open even with all the armour, yet Jon Snow's flesh had not been raked too deeply, and his ribs were only barely bruised instead of shattered. Mayhaps it's luck."

"The gods were generous," he hummed in agreement. "And his brigandine is the finest make of northern steel, not some iron a green smith cobbled together for a poor man-at-arms. Can I see him?"

"Aye, just don't let him get up or walk," Lena mentioned towards the red door to the left, leading to the small cosy infirmary room where her bedridden patients usually rested.

Torren gave her a nod and opened the red door. The room was quite dark, and the smell of herbs and poultices was even heavier. Two pairs of eyes instantly settled on him as he entered. Two sharp grey eyes belonged to Jon Snow lying on the bed near the small hearth, and two crimson red belonged to the silent white direwolf curled at the bottom of his master's feet. With the colouring of weirwood, the beast was blessed by the Gods, and he even suspected that the Ned's son might be a warg. Ghost, the aptly named direwolf, decided Torren was not very interesting, laid down his head and closed his crimson eyes.

"How are ye feeling, lad? I hope ye don't mind me using yer name."

"Call me Jon," he said with a slight grimace as he lifted himself up so his back was supported by the wall. Herb-soaked bandages run over his naked torso. "And I'm as well as one could be when stuck to a bed. Did you manage to get Willow, Shadow, and my things? The old wood's witch left before I could ask her."

"No need to fret, all yer hounds are at the kennels. Feisty bitches, the lot of them. The grey one almost took off Daren's hand when he tried to bring her over," he explained, and the young man coughed before wincing in pain. "Easy boy, our hounds aren't much better. Yer garron is resting at the stables, and yer things are there in the chest at the corner. Only yer longbow was trampled by the bear."

Jon just sighed.

"Thank you for taking care of the girls and me," he bowed his head. The chieftain squinted his eyes, remembering how obedient the man's hounds were at his every gesture but fierce to everyone else. Any doubt that the Jon was a warg quickly evaporated, yet he was not one to press.

"Bah, it's the least I can do," Torren bowed his head in turn. "If anyone has to give my thanks, it is me! Ye saved me precious daughter. Ask any boon, and I will grant it."

Jon Snow shuffled uncomfortably in the bed before sighing.

"I would require some dragonglass, Lord Liddle."

"Dragonglass?" The Liddle asked incredulously.

Of all the things the young man could have asked, his request was some worthless brittle rock that could be found at every corner of the mountains?!

"Aye," Jon Snow confirmed, face deadly serious. "If you have someone knowledgable in working it, I'll need as many daggers and arrowtips as possible."

The chief of Little Hall paused for a short moment and looked at the solemn man in front of him, and his mind was quickly made up.

"I'll see it done," Torren declared. If the Ned's son wanted dragonglass, he would get it. "By the time yer well enough to leave, ye'll have more obsidian than you know what to do with! But if ye don't mind me askin', what brings a son of Winterfell here, in the Northern Mountains?"

Jon Snow's face grew troubled as his brow scrunched up in thought.

"Tis not a very believable tale," the young man began with a heavy sigh; the words were slow to tumble out of his mouth. "I have been having dreams for some time. Dreams of darkness, death and ice from the far north…"

He wanted to say that the boy was just jesting. It was on the tip of his tongue, but he held it in and observed Jon Snow's face. He was gravely serious, and his grey eyes were resigned. The young man had spoken, expecting not to be believed. Not a believable tale, indeed…

The chieftain's blood ran cold.

"The Long Winter?"

"Aye, but I have no proof. Mayhaps it's just a bad dream, or my wits have been addled," Jon Snow eked out a hollow chuckle. But Torren found himself staring at the empty grey eyes. The eyes of a man who had lost everything yet were on the youthful face of a lad scarcely six and ten. "I wish it were so, but I cannot take the chance that it is not…"

"Say it is so, what can a single man do, albeit as daring as ya?" Torren challenged. "Why not go to the Stark with this?"

"I've already warned my father," a tinge of bitterness crept through the young man's voice. "But he cannot begin moving the North without proof, and I have none to give. I am here to travel to the Lands of Always Winter and see the threat with my own eyes."

The chieftain could feel that the man was not telling the whole tale, but why would he? Even here in the North, where people had long memories, the Long Night was little more than a children's tale or an old legend from more than eight thousand years ago. For good or bad, Torren himself wanted this to be just a boy's nightmare.

"What's dragonglass got to do with any of this?"

"I've perused some of the olden tomes of Winterfell," Jon's face became an unreadable icy mask, reminding Torren of The old Stark. "The Others are unharmed by bronze and iron, but dragonglass is said to be their weakness, and these mountains are brimming with it."

"They are, true. And fret not, you'll have yer black stone," Torren found himself sighing. "Why not warn the Watch about this?"

"The Watch is dwindling and can barely hold off the wildlings, let alone spare men to look for the Others on the word of a dream-struck green boy," Jon Snow scoffed. "I'll be lucky if they don't laugh in my face."

The Liddle agreed inwardly; the Watch was indeed hard-pressed to deal even with the savages beyond the Wall. And they wouldn't believe the Jon's word either, mistaking his youth for foolishness or inexperience. Torren shook his head; there was not much that could be done, and he himself was not sure if he truly believed.

"Enough of these dreary tales for now."

Jon nodded, and for a short few moments, Liddle sat there in contemplation. He had no idea how long had passed when a knock on the door broke the silence. An older boy in roughspun clothes entered with a large wooden tray, struggling to carry a large pot easily twice the size of a grown man's head, together with some bread and salt. It was carefully placed on the small wooden drawer next to the bed.

"It is finally here! Thank you, Jor," the chieftain dismissed the serving boy and turned to Jon. "I have not given Guest Right yet."

The white direwolf finally stirred from his resting spot, hopped on the ground, and neared the tray curiously with a wagging tail.

"What is this?" Jon Snow inquired with a nod towards the clay pot after dipping a piece of bread in the salt and devouring it.

"This is the heart of the snow bear ya slew," Torren provided with a small chuckle.

"I gave up my rights to the spoils, though," the son of Winterfell pointed out.

"That might be, but it's an ancient tradition. In the olden days, when a boy reached six and ten, he would venture out alone in the wilderness and would not return home lest they proved themselves a man. To do so, one had to best a warrior in single combat or hunt a worthy beast! 'Tis rarely practised nowadays, even here in the mountains, but by taking down the bear, ye have proven yerself a man grown."

"What does the heart have to do with that?" Jon Snow asked curiously.

"Ah yes," Torren coughed. "To complete the journey, the boy had to eat the heart raw to gain the strength of his hunt." The chieftain couldn't help but chuckle at the grimace on the young man's face that slowly morphed into a steely resolve, so he finally added with a laugh. "But at some point, we started cooking them instead."

"Thank you once again, chieftain."

The Liddle waved away Jon Snow's concerns.

"Eat up and rest, lad. Ye've given me much to think about."

Torren took one last glance before he left, and he snorted inwardly as he saw the young man sharing his spoils with the white direwolf.

14th Day of the 4th Moon

Jon Snow

The Liddles proved generous in their hospitality. In his previous life, Torren had died fighting the Boltons for Stannis, and Jon knew little of him. Duncan, the Big Liddle, had been one of the rangers of the Night's Watch, a hardy and reliable Northman both now and before. Morgan, the Middle Liddle, was severe and gruff as always, and the youngest, Rickard, known as the Little Liddle, almost always had a jest on his lips and could be seen smiling most of the time, a contrast to his solemn self that Jon remembered. Truth be told, all three of the brothers were tall, their bodies were rippling with power beneath their leather tunics, and there was nothing middling or little in any of them.

According to a guardsman, the nicknames came when they were still young and stuck much to the displeasure of the brothers.

The old Jarod Snow reminded him of Uncle Benjen with his easy laughs and generous tales. Despite getting on with age, he was tall and wiry, and Jon had little doubt that the greybeard knew his way around a sword or bow.

The young Lysara not only looked like a mix of his Arya and Sansa but also acted like them; she had not been a thing in his last life, to his knowledge. Being the object of her admiration was amusing, but she was just a young girl. He had an inkling that Lysara had died when encountering the behemoth bear before, her clansmen too late to save her; thus, he had never heard of her before…

He shook his head and focused on the present. His bruised side only ached if he tried to overexert himself or moved too suddenly, but otherwise, he was fine. The wounds had scabbed, and Lena had already removed the stitches in the morn. Jon took up his horn of mead and emptied it in one breath.

He could feel the burn down his throat and warmth in his belly, but he was not getting tipsy yet. The mead had a rich, honeyed taste that felt sweet on his tongue. But for good or bad, it seemed that spirits were still slow to affect him.

"DRINK!" The gathered men urged on as the serving wench filled their horns again.

"DRINK!"

Jon emptied the mead in one swig and looked across. Rickard, whose face was reddened and his eyes bloodshot, swayed while clumsily attempting to lift his horn. But before he reached his lips, his eyes rolled over, and he fell back on the ground, his horn clattering on the floor, mead spilling on the pine boards of the hall.

"THE JON!'

Hearing his name being cheered with such fervour was odd, yet not unpleasant. While the hall was roaring in celebration, Jon knifed a whole roast chicken and slipped it beneath the table, where Ghost and Red Jeyne had curled by his feet.

Two men pulled over unconscious Little Liddle to the side, and the Middle Liddle took his place, and the surrounding men quieted down.

"Another round?" Morgan challenged with his gruff voice as his sweaty bare scalp glistened with the light of the fire.

Jon lifted his newly filled horn in the air and downed it again in one go, making the crowd erupt into cheers again.

15th Day of the 4th Moon

Little Hall was a small but cosy keep, the people were all welcoming, and Jon couldn't help but like it. The seat of the Liddles was nestled atop a steep hill, making the otherwise twenty-five feet walls a formidable obstacle. Torren Liddle had not mentioned anything about the Others, and Jon had not pushed, so his stay here had been carefree and peaceful. Alas, all good things must end, and he could not afford to dally any longer since he was good enough to travel.

Even after all that drinking, was only feeling tipsy at best. In fact, aside from waking up twice to relieve his displeased bladder, Jon had slept like a newborn.

So, after waking up before the crack of dawn, he already dressed up fully and clad himself in his patched-up armour. The smith here was not as good as Mikken, but while the repairs looked ugly, they were good, and both the brigandine and chainmail were as good as new. He knew the dragonglass he had requested was with his saddle in the stable, so there was little point in staying any longer.

The sun was yet to show in the east, but a slight pink hue heralded the arrival of dawn. Ghost silently trailed after him as Jon entered the kennels and opened the door to the small fenced square where his hounds were.

Helicent, Red Jeyne, Willow, and Maude greeted him with happy barks and wagging tails. He ruffled them behind their ears, and they happily joined Ghost, who was already approaching Helicent in size, the biggest of the pack, and was already above his knees in height.

With a mental nudge, they all grew silent as Jon headed towards the stables.

But as he approached, he realised that his path was barred.

Jared Snow, Toren and Duncan Liddle, all armed to the teeth and clad in brigandine and chain, barred his way. Jon groaned inwardly; he wouldn't be able to leave unnoticed now.

"Chief Liddle, Dunk, Jarod," Jon greeted evenly. "I thought you'd still be resting after yesterday…"

"You might have managed to drink all of us under the table, but the Liddles are made of stern stuff too!" Duncan boasted.

"What he means to say is that we drank and ate pickled cabbage to make the hangover go away," Jarod added with a chuckle.

"Uncle, you're not supposed to give away our secret…"

Torren, however, looked furious, and Jon could even see a vein throb dangerously at his temple.

"Lad, do ye think The Liddles to be thankless curs who know no gratitude?!" The chieftain finally exploded, and his angry voice thundered through the yard, scaring away a few snow shrikes from the slated rooftops.

"Ah, you've helped me more than enough with just the dragonglass and patching me and my gear up," Jon responded, baffled. They owed him nothing!

"Horsesh*t," Torren spat on the ground and signalled to the side. A servant ran out from the stables, carrying a long, pale bow. "You broke yer bow to save my daughter, it's only right that I grant ye another. This is a weirwood longbow with a string from the sinew of the beast you slew."

Jon accepted it with a nod. In his haste to sneak away, he had forgotten about the longbow.

"The bear pelt is yours as well," Jarod added. "Nay, don't decline, lad. It's a magnificent skin, too precious to turn into clothing, but it would only shame us if we place it on display when we're not the ones to hunt the snow bear down."

Jon knew a stubborn Northman when he saw one; he was one, after all. They all looked like they had made up their minds and would not accept his refusal, making him sigh. What was he going to do with that gigantic pelt? Jon silently mulled for a moment before a mirthful chuckle tore from his lips.

"If so, I have a request for you. Could you bring the pelt as a gift to my father in Winterfell?" And as proof that he was alive and well. But that was left unsaid. "I might have taken his favourite tent before leaving…"

Jarod barked out in laughter.

"I thought your tent was familiar," Torren added with a throaty chuckle. "It belonged to the Silver Prince, and the Ned took it as his spoils after the Trident. But worry not lad, I'll see the pelt to Winterfell myself!"

The bastard of Winterfell stood there stunned while the young stable hand brought out the saddled Shadow. What was the chance that he had taken the tent that had belonged to both his father and his sire?

At that moment, another servant ran over, holding two folded packages.

"Can't have a son of Winterfell travel around without bringing glory to his house," Toren handed the still baffled Jon a padded surcoat and a thick linen cloak lined with wool on the inside.

Jon Snow mechanically looked at the thick dark-grey surcoat, which had a lone white direwolf head with red eyes proudly sitting in the middle of the chest. These were the reverse colours of House Stark whilst also depicting Ghost, who had come over to inspect the image with his silent gaze curiously. The cloak was much the same in colour, but the heraldry was on the back.

Even when he had been declared a King of the North, he had stuck to black clothing with scarcely any sigils other than a silver direwolf clasp for his cloak. The North had a long, bitter war to fight, so he had little time and patience for pageantry.

At that moment, he felt wetness on his cheeks and realised that a few tears were escaping from his eyes. Jon furiously wiped them, cursing the dust that had probably irritated him. The stable hand kept taking out saddled horses for some reason.

"Just take them, Jon," Torren urged. "The Stark acknowledged ya as his son before ye could even walk, so bear the direwolf proudly. And Lysara spent every last minute of her free time helping in their making."

"Not that any would doubt you're a son of Winterfell with a living direwolf," Jarod added with a chuckle.

With trepidation, he donned the surcoat, and the cloak was clasped over his shoulders with a small bronze pin.

"If you give me any more, it will be me who owes you," Jon warned.

"Pah, me daughter's more precious than some trinkets," Torren shook his head. "Four quivers full of black glass arrows and twelve daggers are on yer saddle as I promised."

"Thank you, Chief Liddle," Jon nodded gratefully and mounted Shadow with a leap, ignoring the small stab of pain to the side where he was still tender.

"Duncan and I are going to join ya, lad," Jarod said, making Jon tense.

"We want to see with our own eyes if your dreams are true," Duncan added solemnly.

Jon inwardly cursed the stubbornness of his fellow Northmen once more and began feeling regret about telling Torren.

"There's a high chance I will perish," he warned. "If you come with me, you might not return."

"Good," Jarod laughed boisterously. "This was to be my last summer, and dying in a battle against the foes of legend or the wildlings riders is far more glorious than going hunting in the winter!"

"I was about to go to the Shadow Tower and join the Watch the next sennight, but there's far more glory and honour in fighting for a Stark than for the Watch!" Duncan declared with a wide grin as he mounted a brown garron.

"I'm just a Snow," Jon reminded them.

"Load of Andal horsesh*te," Torren spat on the ground. "A son of Winterfell is a son of Winterfell, regardless of which c*nt spawned him."

Jon remained impassive outwardly but felt warm on the inside, despite the clansman's crude language. Although it was a Stark that birthed him, not that he would go around announcing that…

"You can come, but only if you follow my command," he finally acquiesced.

To Jon's surprise, Duncan and Jarod nodded in agreement, despite being older and supposedly more experienced. Mayhaps it wouldn't be bad to have more horses, trusty men to watch his back, and more supplies on his journey.

Notes:

Jarod Snow= Uncle of Lord Torren Liddle, OC. Everyone else, aside from the Liddles, is OC as well.

Duncan and brothers call Jarod uncle instead of grand-uncle for short.

This chapter just kept on giving, and it was a joy writing it. GRRM's northern lore and customs ring incredibly empty and bland, so I had great fun filling some of them here, but nothing too drastic.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me(and so do Kudos!), so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 9: The Final Gift

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

18th Day of the 4th Moon

Somewhere in the Northern Mountains

Jon Snow

As the sun crawled towards the western horizon, a grey owl hooted from the nearby pines.

This part of the mountains had grown wild, and there was scarcely a trace of human activity; the roads had all narrowed and were covered in bushes and weeds. The fertile parts of the gift had long grown fallow, and the forests had slowly begun to reclaim them. The part with the northern mountains reminded Jon of the Haunted Forest, albeit more lively. They would have been nearly at the Wall by now if not for his sore side. The wound was fast to heal, even by his standards, but he did not want to risk pushing too much and making it worse, so they barely rode more than six hours a day at a leisurely pace.

They had stopped at a small clearing to rest for the night.

A small brass cauldron slowly bubbled above the campfire, letting out the alluring smell of rabbit stew. Both he and Duncan had caught a rabbit earlier. Red Jeyne and Ghost were both peacefully curled by his feet. The reddish hound was surprisingly well-behaved and affectionate, not what he would have expected for one raised by the bastard of Dreadfort.

Helicent was content to be sprawled to his right, snoring softly; Maude and Willow were at the edge of the camp, gnawing on the bones of a mountain goat that Ghost had killed earlier. The hounds oft followed his direwolf in the forest and were fearsome hunters with him at the lead.

With six garrons, three without a rider, they could carry a wide range of tools and supplies that a lone man with a single horse could not, including a large bag of salt Jarod had decided was necessary.

The old clansman slowly stirred the cauldron's contents with a wooden ladle before filling it with stew, bringing it to his mouth, and taking a tiny sip.

"Tis almost ready," Jarod said with a smile. "Keep bringing me game every eve to save our supplies for Beyond the Wall. Who knows if we'll be able to hunt anything over there?"

"Or find wild herbs and roots," Duncan added.

"The lands Beyond the Wall are not lacking food if you know where to look for it," Jon stated absentmindedly as he scratched behind Ghost's ear.

"How do you know?" Duncan curiously asked, and Jon stilled.

"I asked Uncle Benjen about it," he quickly lied. "When I was a child, I dreamed of joining the Watch and endlessly pestered him for details."

"Why didn't you join?" Big Liddle leaned over and asked curiously.

"I don't think I would fit in very well," Jon slowly explained. "But if I do join, I wouldn't be able to assist my family if they need me."

"True," Duncan thoughtfully agreed and tossed another branch into the cackling fire.

"Ha! You've got the right of it, but forgot the most important part! I told Dunk here that he was crazy to think swearing off women so young," Jarod slapped his grandnephew's shoulder before looking at the stew. "It's ready, methinks."

The old man grabbed a strip of linen, took the brass cauldron off the fire and placed it on a nearby rock to cool.

"To be fair, the vows only forbid you from taking wives, not bedding women," Jon coughed.

"Eh, tryin' to bed a spearwife will get your balls bitten off. And the pox-ridden whor*s in Mole's Town don't count," Jarod waved dismissively. "Why pay coin when you can find a willing woman?"

"Uncle, I always wondered how an old lecher like you never sired a dozen bastards of your own or had not taken a wife," Duncan clicked his tongue.

"Look at your pa, he has you four devils, and his hair's going grey at forty. I lack Torren's patience, so I give moon tea to my lovers," Jarod said with a lusty smile. "Old Lena is generous enough to supply me when I ask nicely. And if I swore myself to a woman at the heart tree, I'd be stuck with her for the rest of my life."

The old man grabbed and filled a few bronze bowls from their bags.

"Having a direwolf with us is mighty convenient," Duncan noted as he fondly looked at Ghost. "Him marking around the camp, and nothing dares approach."

"And they would sense intruders long before we do," Jarod added, handing them a bowl of stew each. Jon could sense the scent of sage, rosemary, and garlic, making his mouth water.

And it was true. Ever since he came back, Jon never had to worry at night. Ghost would wake him when anything came near, even before he had taken in the hounds.

"But are direwolves supposed to grow so fast? Your Ghost has visibly grown in just a sennight," Duncan pointed out.

"I… don't know," Jon shrugged. It was true that Ghost was growing faster than the previous time, but he wouldn't complain. A fully grown direwolf was a fearsome foe and a trusty companion.

He had far more important things to worry about, so Jon put the thought out of his mind and focused on the hot stew. It was not Gage's cooking but still far better than the pitiful slop in The Night's Watch. Once it was empty, he handed the bowl to Jarod.

"Another."

"You are almost as insatiable as the old Wull," the greybeard chuckled as he returned a filled bowl.

"Jon needs plenty of meat to heal," Duncan objected. "And at only six and ten, he can grow a bit more, methinks."

"He's nearly six feet already," Jarod snorted. "If he keeps shoving food down his throat like this, he will not become a giant but a merman too fat to ride a horse."

The image of him looking like Wyman Manderly made Jon laugh, and Duncan quickly joined him. But he was not worried about gaining in girth. The harsh lands beyond the Wall did not allow for excess.

"So, how are we going to cross the Wall?" Duncan idly asked, and Jon raised an eyebrow. They had yet to ask a single thing about their destination and mission the last three days and were content to let him lead the way.

"At the Shadow Tower," Jon said. "Commander Denys Mallister has little reason to bar our passage, but if he proves stubborn, we can sneak past Westwatch and the Bridge of Skulls at night."

"The old Eagle might grumble, but he'll let us pass," Jarod chortled. "The clans, the Umbers, and the Starks give far more aid to the Watch than anyone else."

Willow and Maude suddenly started barking northwards, quickly joined by the now awake Helicent and Red Jeyne. Ghost was up on his feet as well, teeth silently bared.

All the men instantly stood up, Jon had grabbed his sword, which always rested within a hand's reach, while Duncan had hefted his greatax, and Jarod had his sling in hand, ready to pelt any intruders with stones.

"We're surrounded," Jon said as he squinted his eyes; he could feel Ghost sense many foes.

"f*ck!" Jarod swore under his nose. "How many?"

Even with his sharp senses, the direwolf struggled to feel anything but danger and the faint scent of leaves and trees from every direction. The hounds were no better; they could feel that there was something, and they did not like it. How did they sneak up upon four savage hounds and a direwolf?!

"Near half a hundred," he uttered as he picked up his shield from the nearby log.

"Then it's time to meet our ancestors," Jarod grunted savagely as he started to whirl his sling. "Let us prove ourselves worthy!"

Jon's heart was thundering like a drum as his body tensed, he did not like the odds with his side not fully healed, but he was not going to go down without a fight either. He took a deep breath.

"SHOW YOURSELF, CRAVENS!"

Only the whirling sling, hound's growls, and leaves rustling restlessly in the wind could be heard for a few tense heartbeats. Jon quickly glanced at the tree where the horses were tied and noticed they did not seem uneasy or bothered.

"We come in peace," a melodic voice spoke. A woman's voice. It was high and sweet and felt like music to his ears. But it carried a tune of profound sadness that made him want to weep.

"What do you want from us?" Jon asked suspiciously while signalling Jarod to lower his sling and nudged the dogs mentally to sit down. He was still ready to rush into action with his sword, though.

A short figure with a cloak made of red leaves emerged from one of the bushes ahead, and Jon and his companions gasped. A pair of golden-green slitted eyes belonging to a small two-legged creature with nut-brown skin similar to a deer, along with pale spots. She had two large ears; her hands had three fingers and a thumb sporting black claws instead of nails. Vines, twigs and withered flowers were woven into her hair, a messy brown, red, and gold tangle, reminding Jon of autumn leaves. She was beautiful in a raw, primal way that Jon could not deny, despite the strangeness of her features.

"We are here to return something to its rightful owner," She gently said.

"What are you?" Duncan hoarsely asked, and Jon could see his knuckles turning white from gripping the greatax.

"In our language, we're calledthose who sing the song of the earth."

Something in Jon's mind clicked.

"You're the Children of the Forest," he stated as Duncan and Jarod silently stared at the legend come alive. Ghost and the hounds, however, seemed vigilant and ready to pounce at his command.

But Jon had seen more than enough legends and myths in person and liked them little.

"The men call us that, yes," her catlike eyes squinted in displeasure. "But we have been here long before the First Men crossed the Arm of Dorne with their bronze spears and axes. Men, they are the children."

"Apologies, earth singer," Jon conceded with a light bow, but he did his best to keep an eye on the so-called singer. "You said you're here to return something."

"Yes," at that moment, another child, no, earth singer with darker skin and snow-white hair, came from behind a tree, carrying a lengthy fur-wrapped bundle. The singer slowly approached under the men's vigilant gaze and placed the bundle in front of Ghost and Red Jeyne before swiftly fleeing into the nearby shrubbery.

He squinted his eyes; she was almost as fast as the Others. The first earth singer gazed at him expectantly, and he cautiously kneeled to pick up the wrapping. Ghost felt no maliciousness from the small being or her companion, so Jon found himself easing up.

He stabbed his sword into the ground so both hands were free. The package was light, and he quickly discarded the furs, only to reveal a pitch-black scabbard, a gaudy hilt wrapped in black leather rested at the mouth, encrusted with a ruby on the gilded crossguard. He recognised it. While fighting the Others, he had memorised every Valyrian Steel sword in Westeros and their characteristics and whereabouts. A pity it had been for nought, as no bearer of such blades was willing to lend them to the North or aid them in person.

There was a familiar feeling in the back of his mind, and he slowly released the blade from its prison and stared. Dark grey steel, with black ripples gracing the length of the longsword, which had a single fuller incised along the blade.

It feltrightin his hand. He could feel his blood boil in excitement.

Jon Snow twirled the blade, and it made the familiar whistling sound of unparalleled sharpness of a sharp edge cutting through the air. He slashed towards the thick log where he sat, and the longsword sunk halfway with nary an effort. With a light pull, the blade was free and up in the air again.

This changedeverything!

To the side, Jon saw that Jarod had finally lost his composure, and his eyes were as wide as saucers, while Duncan was rubbing his eyes and pinching his arm as if he wanted to wake up.

"Dark Sister, the blade of the Sorcerer Queen, the Rogue Prince and the Dragonknight," he declared with amazement before gazing at the earth singer and bowed deeply. "A priceless gift. Do you have a name?"

"My name is long and too cumbersome for your tongue, but you can call me Leaf," she provided.

He had contemplated going to Castle Black and trying to acquire Longclaw, but he doubted that the Old Bear would bequeath it to him if he did not take the Black. There was always the option of trying to steal it, but it was too dangerous, and too many things could go wrong. It did not help that the seat of the Lord Commander was full of unpleasant memories and faces he would rather avoid.

Death? It was a long time since he feared dying or failing, so it bothered him little.

Gifts like this were too precious to be given for free. But first-

"I am Jon Snow, and this is Jarod Snow and Duncan Liddle," he introduced his companions with a nod. "The sword was lost with Brynden Rivers Beyond the Wall. How did you get it? Why would you bring it to me, Leaf?"

Now that he got his hands on Valyrian Steel, he'd never let it go, but it was important to know what the other side wanted.

"Nearly a moon and a half, things changed. The Three-Eyed Crow suddenly expired, but not before bidding us bring the dragonblade to the blessed direwolf and aid him," she explained in her sad yet melodic voice, and Jon had to fight not to weep again. "And the blade belonged to the Three-Eyed Crow."

This was the first time one could speak so ethereally, yet with such tangible sadness.

But Leaf's answer only raised more questions. The blessed direwolf to those who worshipped the Old Gods could only be Ghost with the colouring of weirwood. If the blade belonged to the Three-Eyed Crow, was he the notorious Brynden Rivers? Or maybe his son or grandson, as Bloodraven would have been nearly a hundred and thirty, long dead. But that was not so important right now.

"How did you find me?"

"You and your white wolf are touched by the Old Gods, shining with power like a sun in the darkness to us Singers," Leaf unhelpfully provided. "There's ice and fire in you, the Last Hero come again."

"I'm no hero," Jon grunted sourly.

"As you say, Jon Snow," Leaf bobbed her head with amusem*nt, and it took him a few moments to push down his irritation.

The implication that these singers could easily find him did not sit right with him. He hated magic with a passion; it reminded him too much of the accursed Red Witch. Wait, if he was so easily found-

"Can others find me as you could?"

"No, the Old Gods guard their champions jealously from errant gazes."

Well, that was a relief!

He took his time to study the so-called Earth Singer. She was no bigger than Arya but spoke with a grown woman's voice and wisdom. Indeed, not a child. Her calm voice, peaceful words, and graceful movements spoke volumes. After many bitter lessons, Jon could tell there was not a single drop of deception in her. Nor any animosity.

"You would offer your assistance at the words of a dead man?" He found himself asking.

"Yes, the Three-Eyed Crow was our last greenseer, our elder and leader, and his words are heavy even in death," Leaf's voice grew forlorn. "Without him, the protections that hid us began to wane, and we could only wait for death. The age of the Singers of the Earth had long begun to dwindle, and we are its final remnants. There is no room for us in the world of men, and the Singers of the Ice would eagerly hunt us down to the North."

Singers of the Ice… what an apt name for the Others. Jon Snow carefully appraised the sad Earth Singer in front of him once more. She had not lied a single time; he could feel it. Even Ghost was amiable towards the so-called earth singer. The being in front of him was simply pure and straightforward. Could he even afford to refuse freely given assistance?

"Tell me, Leaf, what exactly can you Earth Singers do?"

The Lord of Winterfell

"I've finished preparing everything for the welcome feast, my lord," Vayon Poole reported dutifully. "Lady Sansa's assistance with the decorations, arrangements, and singers was much appreciated."

Eddard Stark was baffled. That was the job of the Lady of Winterfell, not her daughter. Another problem for later. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and shook his head before focusing on the task at hand.

"Can our larders survive the royal appetite?"

The worries of feeding the royal court in his halls had become fleeting in contrast to everything Jon had revealed, but he could not afford to ignore them. He remembered the feast at Casterly Rock after the Greyjoy Rebellion all too well, where every knight and lord gorged themselves as if it was their last meal. At least he had time to prepare - the royal retinue was anything but fast, and by the last account, they had not even crossed half the distance to Winterfell from White Harbour yet.

"The long summer has made our harvest generous, but with the additional guardsmen and three hundred men with the King, we might have to cull one of our larger herds."

And together with the exotic fruits from the far south and Essos, the royal visit was shaping up to be an expensive venture. Nearly two and a half centuries had passed since Winterfell had been graced by royal presence. Some might say it was an honour, but any joy that Ned had initially felt at the prospect of seeing his childhood friend had grown cold, especially after reading Jon's bloody warning. Damn him!

Damn Robert and his royal hide!

Ned had more than enough trouble brewing on the horizon without dealing with the petty Southron games.

"Use the feast to start emptying our larders and granaries of everything that cannot last more than a year and start filling them up with only lasting foodstuff," Ned ordered while rubbing his brow.

"But my lord, it's still summer, there's still plenty of time to prepare for winter."

"This summer won't last forever," he grimly reminded. "Better to be prepared now. Winter is coming."

"It shall be done," Vayon vowed solemnly.

"And send for my lady wife," Ned added before dismissing the steward.

He did not begrudge Catelyn from grieving about their son, and he never barred her from worshipping her rainbow statues. But there was only so much she could shirk her duty in sorrow. Ned had scarcely seen his wife outside the family meals, where she had mostly remained silent or focused her attention on Rickon. Most of her day was spent praying at the sept, clad in black mourning clothes.

The minutes flew by as he focused on the ledgers, and eventually, the solar's door opened, and Catelyn entered.

Dressed in a plain black robe with no jewellery, one could mistake her for a woman of the Faith. Her fair skin looked paler than usual, and her beautiful face was beginning to look gaunt, and her figure slimmer.

Between sparring, training Winter, his lordly duties, Robb's lessons, and his long planning sessions with Howland, he seemed to have neglected his lady wife.

"You summoned me, Ned?" Her voice had grown raspy.

He grabbed two chairs, placed them facing each other near the hearth, and sat on one of them.

"Come here, Cat," he said with a sigh, and she joined him with a small smile.

"Did you know that Sansa has taken up almost all of your duties?"

"Gods…" his wife paled even further, her face heavy with guilt and shame.

'Twas a shameful thing to be a lady of the House, yet have no idea what is happening in her household.

"Indeed. I know it's hard, but it's been nearly a moon and a half, and you've grieved enough," Ned curtly said. "Cat, I love you dearly, but I married a lady of the realm, not a septa. You have three more children that need you just as much as Rickon does."

"But what if he also starts climbing-"

"No, Cat. I've always indulged you, but too much coddling will not do Rickon any good. The wolfsblood is strong with him. It's time for him to start training under Rodrik."

"He's only five name days old," she vehemently objected.

"What of it? Robb started as soon as he could walk, and Rickon is older, wilder, and more restless. Better to have him busy and tired than always looking up to run around with mischief," Ned reasoned with a sigh. "That's far from the only problem, Cat. You look like you've begun to waste away."

"I…" his wife trailed off, unsure what to say.

The loss of Bran had devastated her far more than he thought.

"From now on, you will attend every meal with us in the Great Hall," he ordered sternly. "And you will eat, or gods help me, I will feed you myself in front of the children and the servants," Catelyn reddened, and her lips twitched. "And if I hear you visited the Sept more than once a moon, I'll personally tear it down."

Guilt and love warred in her blue eyes, and she eventually let out an amused huff, stood up from the chair, and curtsied.

"I shall do as my lord commands me."

She stiffened as Ned abruptly stood up and pulled her into an embrace before she could sit down. He grimaced; Catelyn had indeed grown thinner. A yelp escaped her lips as he sat down and pulled her into his lap.

"Should I get the servants to bring you a meal here and now?"

His wife shook her head and melted into his embrace. "Not now, I shall join you at the Great Hall at luncheon."

At that moment, Winter stirred from his resting place near the corner. The silver-furred direwolf stretched lazily and trotted over to them with a wagging tail, making his wife stiffen in his arms once again.

"Give him your hand," Ned whispered in her ear.

Catelyn hesitantly reached out her arm, only for the direwolf to inspect her carefully with his muzzle for a short few moments before curling down in their feet.

"He's bigger than Shaggydog and Grey Wind," she observed. "They are sweet and obedient little things as pups, but are you sure they will stay as such when grown?"

A loud knock on the door stifled his reply before it left his tongue, and saw Winter jump warily, facing the entrance.

"What is it?"

"My lord, we have caught a raper in Winter Town," Walder's voice rumbled through the door.

"I'll be in the yard in a few minutes," he replied and mulled over an errant idea for a short moment. "Send for Robb, Sansa, and Arya to join me."

"At once, my lord!"

"Ned, why would you summon for our daughters?" Cat asked cautiously as she stood up.

"It is time they see northern justice," the Lord of Winterfell replied curtly, and his wife's face twisted in horror and recoiled as if struck.

"This is not a woman's duty!" Her voice was shaky. "They are to be ladies of the realm, and they've no need to see that… ugly butchery!"

"Septa Mordane has done her best to turn them into ladies, true," he conceded but steeled himself. "But closing your eyes does not mean the bad goes away, Cat. Our children are of the North. Winter is coming, and it does not suffer the green boys and the maidens of summer."

"Damn you Starks, and your winter!"

Much to his pain, his wife looked furious, like a shadowcat ready to pounce on her prey. But he had hardened his heart. Eddard Stark had shielded his children from the ugliness of the world as best as he could for a long time, but in the last moon, he had come to realise that it might have been a grave mistake.

"You are a Stark too," he reminded her as he grabbed his fur-lined grey cloak emblazoned with the sigil of his House from the hanger and draped it over her shoulders. "Come, your daughters will need their mother."

Catelyn deflated, and the anger bled out of her.

"Yes, my lord," she acquiesced with a tired sigh.

Notes:

This chapter was quite hard to write. Bloodraven is a gift that keeps on giving, but this was the last of it.

I have a love/hate relationship with Catelyn as a character, and she was very hard to write, but I think I managed to do her justice.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 10: Friends in Court

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Eddard Stark

He looked at Robb. His son was stocky and strong, with an easy smile and laughing blue eyes. Still a boy, despite already being six and ten and reaching Ned's height. Behind him, Grey Wind was trailing curiously. The direwolf and the boy were inseparable almost everywhere outside the training yard.

By Robb's side stood Theon Greyjoy, another source of unease. As always, Balon Greyjoy's son proudly wore the black velvet doublet embroidered with the golden kraken of his House, and his face was graced by a co*cky smile as usual. Ned had allowed the boy the same tutoring his children received and even greater freedom. Yet he could see it. Despite his efforts to turn the boy from a hostage to a foster son, the stigma remained.

In the end, blood was thicker than water, and it shouldn't have been such a surprise that Theon would have chosen his own birth family, despite Balon's complete disinterest in his would-be heir. Ned regretted his feeling of mercy for the cowering ten-year boy back then. He should not have offered to take the boy and let Stannis, Robert, or Tywin deal with him. But it was too late; he had taken the ironborn heir in, and returning him to the Iron Isles was not an option now, nor was sending him away.

His gaze moved to his wife, gently speaking to Sansa and Arya in hushed whispers. His younger daughter looked excited, but Sansa had grown pale.

Eddard Stark shook his head and looked carefully at Robb, who fidgeted under his gaze. His son still had much to learn before he could lead the North, let alone wage war. Eddard Stark had no plans of dying anytime soon, but being prepared did not hurt.

"Today you'll mete out justice, Robb," he decided as he picked up Ice from Jory and placed it in his son's stunned hands.

It was time to bloody his boy without the risk of battle. Hunting deers and hares in the Wolfswood was far different from taking a man's life.

"But-"

"Ours is the old way," Ned reminded his son, who nodded uneasily after a moment. "Remember your lessons. Let's go now."

Catelyn threw him a piercing look from the side but ushered the girls after them. Robb uneasily held the ancestral blade of their House; he was barely taller than Ice. It would have made for an amusing sight if not for the occasion. They headed towards the main gate, accompanied by two scores of guardsmen led by Jory and Walder.

"Jory, can you tell us what happened?" Robb asked hesitantly.

The captain of the guards moved closer and coughed with a heavy frown.

"A merchant from King's Landing was staying in the Smoking Log. He pulled Barba into his room-"

"Innkeeper Errold's daughter?" Robb asked, face darkening.

"Aye, her. He pulled her into his room and forced himself on her. When old man Errold heard, he came over to halt them, but the merchant had his two sellsword guards beat him bloody. Hallis Mollen and Harwin were in the Smoking Log and managed to subdue the sellswords and send a runner to the other guardsmen and Winterfell."

They made the rest of the way to Winter Town in solemn silence, where a small crowd had gathered at the market square, and the wooden stalls were all pulled aside. As they neared, loud cries echoed among the muddy square.

"Release me at once! This is a mistake!" The voice was high-pitch and grating to the ears. Artos and Dylon held a manacled, plump man garbed in a green velvet tunic who was bellowing for all to hear. His bald scalp beaded with sweat despite the chill in the air. "I have friends in court!"

"Friends in court?" Artos snorted.

"Yes, yes," the merchant nodded vigorously. "Lord Baelish and Commander Slynt-"

"Have nothing to do with the North," Ned interjected icily.

"Ah, milord," the plump man's face twisted in a greasy smile as he turned to him and made a shallow bow. "My name is Dynas. As I was saying, this has been a mistake!"

"A mistake?" Robb echoed coldly.

"Yes, yes," the merchant bobbed his head like a squirrel. "I paid for the girl's service, and her father attacked me!"

"LIAR!" The crowd parted to show a furious Helga. Errold's wife had reddened eyes, and her weathered face was twisted in scorn and fury. Trailing after her was a slip of a girl, face bruised and bloody with tears streaming from her swollen eyes, and Ned could see that her dress was torn underneath the cloak. "Me daughter is not even four and ten and no whor*, you focken' brigand! Yer thugs crippled my Errold when he tried to stop ya!"

"Oh please, she wanted it, and I was going to compensate her-"

Ned took a careful look at his children. Catelyn was looking at him pleadingly, Arya had gone pale, and Sansa looked ready to faint. Robb had clenched his jaw, and he could see his son grit his teeth while Theon's eyes angrily glared at the merchant.

"RAPER!"

"Vile woman, stop besmirching my good name!"

Robb looked hesitantly at him, but Ned remained impassive and lightly shrugged his shoulders. The Lord of Winterfell wanted to see how his son would do. Clearly, the man was a raper, one used to getting away with it. Would Robb geld him? Would he behead him or offer him to take the Black?

His heir looked at the beaten girl, and his hesitation was slowly replaced with an icy resolve.

"Silence!" The squabbling immediately ceased at Robb's cry. He then looked to Artos and Dylon. "Bring him to the block."

The plump man's greasy smile was briefly replaced with shock before it turned into disbelief.

"This is a mistake; we could still resolve this peacefully. It's just a peasant girl's maidenhead," Dynas cried out as the pair of guardsmen placed him over an oaken stump and held him down. "The whor* wanted it, and I was going to pay!"

"Any last words?" Robb asked as he slowly unsheathed Ice.

The dark, smoky ripples shone in the middling sun as his son carefully made a few practice swings to the side.

The plump merchant struggled for a few moments but couldn't budge the strong arms of Artos and Dylon.

"My friends shall hear of this!" Dynas angrily vowed. "I demand a trial by battle!"

"A poor choice of last words," Theon snorted with amusem*nt from the side. "I don't think the man has ever swung a sword in his life."

"You're neither knight nor noble to demand such," Robb said.

"Wait," Dynas' desperate voice echoed in the square. "I shall take the Black!"

For a short moment, Robb paused, but his eyes were steeled with resolve.

"In the name of Robert of House Baratheon, the First of His Name, King of the Seven Kingdoms and Lord Protector of the Realm, by the word of Robb of House Stark, I do sentence you to die." The Valyrian Steel greatsword rose in the air, and the plump man began struggling frantically but to no avail. Artos and Dylan's hands were like two pairs of iron pincers, holding the merchant down effortlessly.

The blade descended with a single motion, and Dynas' head rolled on the ground, leaving a bloody trail on the mud. Ned nodded with approval at his son; it was a clean cut. Soft cheers and grunts of approval were heard from the crowd.

"The Night's Watch has no need for peddlers," Robb coldly stated, face pale but stoic, but Ned could see a slight tremble in his hand. "Put his head on a spike at the main gate for all to see and bring his two thugs here."

Lew grabbed the head and headed back to the gate while Walder went to fetch the imprisoned sellswords, and Alyn and Alebelly carried away the headless corpse to be burned.

Ned glanced at his daughters; both looked shaken, and his wife had grown pale. He shook his head inwardly; his children would be coddled no more. Two dark and shaggy men that looked like children next to Walder were dragged over by the enormous guardsman effortlessly.

Robb took a deep, shuddering breath, steeled himself and looked at the manacled men.

"The block or the Black?"

19th Day of the 4th Moon

He watched through the window as a fat rider rode into the courtyard below, followed by two knights and four squires. The man who looked too large to ride on the poor horse wore a sea-green cloak.

"Wylis is here," Ned said, eliciting a thoughtful nod from Howland. The mermen knight had thankfully answered his summons and arrived prior to the royal party.

The Lord of Winterfell walked back to his desk and sat on his tapered chair as his mind wandered to the previous day's events again.

The merchant was bold to think that simply giving the names of 'Lord Baelish' and 'Commander Slynt' would get him out of trouble. No doubt the man had done something similar before or simply paid his way out of it. The more concerning part was that Baelish was apparently the master of coin, and Janos Slynt was the Commander of the Goldcloaks, both important positions in King's Landing. In the future, Baelish had risen even further, according to Jon, somehow usurping the role of Lord Paramount of the Riverlands and Lord Protector of the Vale. Definitely a man to be wary of.

The plump Southerner had far more coin in his purse than a common merchant would have. Much to Ned's pride, Robb had given ten dragons to Errold and his family, and the other thirty had entered Winterfell's coffers.

What was Robert doing as King if he let outlaws run roughshod over his subjects?! Jon Arryn had taught them better than that…

Ned shook his head and took a sip of dark ale. What happened in King's Landing was Robert's problem, not his.

The sellswords had refused to 'freeze their balls on the Wall'. Despite his fears, Sansa and Arya had not fainted even after the third beheading. It pained to see both of his vibrant daughters so quiet and subdued, but it was a lesson that needed to be learned sooner rather than later. Robb had emptied his stomach when he returned inside the keep but otherwise held up well. With time and experience, he would become a great Lord of Winterfell. Catelyn was wroth with him but attended all the meals and no longer wasted away at the Sept and resumed her duties as a Lady of Winterfell and mother of four.

Once again, a forlorn sigh tore out of his lips, and he emptied his tankard full of ale. Ned wanted to confide in his lady wife badly, but grief and anger did not go hand in hand with reason. When her head cooled down, he would slowly inform her.

"Wylis should be here any moment," Howland's voice broke him out of his musing. "We can get a measure of the King and his family before they arrive."

Ned simply nodded. Making plans solely on Jon's letter would be folly. His warnings were heeded, but Jon had stated that certain things differed from what he remembered. And he was well aware that all plans go awry as soon as the first arrow flew.

"Ser Wylis is here to see you," Walder's voice announced through the door.

"Let him in."

The heir of White Harbour entered, still in his riding clothes and armour. A pale green padded surcoat with a merman emblazoned in the middle graced his cuirass that covered his barrel-like chest, and a sapphire trident brooch clasped his green cloak over his shoulders. Just as he last saw the man two years ago, his head was shaven, and he was chasing his father in girth.

"Lord Stark," Wylis made to bend the knee, but Ned quickly came over and stopped him.

Courtesies were the last thing on his mind right now, and Wyman's son was a heavy, stout man; if he could not get back up on his own, Ned and Howland would struggle greatly to get him back on his feet.

"No need for this now, Wylis," Ned greeted warmly and returned to his chair. "Come, take a seat."

"Lord Reed," the fat knight greeted as he sat down.

"Ser Wylis," the crannoglord returned serenely. "How was your travel?"

"A bit muddy because of the light snow, but otherwise good," the merman knight jovially said from underneath his brown walrus moustache before looking covetously at one of the pitchers of wine on the oaken desk. "My throat is parched; I hope you don't mind-"

"Oh no, feel free," Ned nodded, lamenting his decision to dismiss the servant earlier. Wylis happily filled a goblet with wine and took a generous gulp. "How fares the king?"

"His Grace has seemed to… let go of himself," the fat knight carefully supplied.

"Walder, guard the stairway," Ned raised his voice.

"Yes, my lord," Walder's reply was barely heard through the door, and his heavy footsteps dwindled further and further away.

"It's been nearly two hundred and fifty years since a royal presence has graced the halls of Winterfell. Speak freely, Ser Wylis; I want to know what to expect when the royal party arrives," Ned ordered.

The merman heir fiddled with his moustache for a few moments before sighing.

"The king seems to have gained at least eight stone since the Greyjoy Rebellion and has lost interest in everything but feasting, drinking, and whoring," Wylis slowly reported, eliciting a grimace from Ned. "He cares little for the Queen and shames her in public by groping serving wenches in full view of the court."

Ned couldn't help but shake his head. He knew his friend did not have a good marriage, but this…

"How are the queen and the royal children like?"

"Cersei Lannister looked like a lioness whose tail had been pulled," the merman heir reported with a chuckle. "The children take after their mother in looks. The crown prince seems gallant and courteous at first glance but has a bad temper with a penchant for cruelty if provoked. Joffrey had a servant nearly flogged to death for serving him the wrong wine. I am unsure whether the crown prince knew the difference or was looking for someone to vent his frustrations on."

What was Robert doing? Could he not be bothered to rear his own heir, at least?! An heir had to be carefully nurtured, let alone a Crown Prince!

But no, his friend seemed to be too busy feasting to care. Ned could easily see how he could have lost his head under a person like this. A small sigh tore out of his mouth, and he focused on the matter at hand.

"What about Princess Myrcella and Prince Tommen?"

"The Princess is as beautiful as her mother, if not even more," Wylis said after a generous gulp of wine. "Polite, courteous, and sharp of wit, she seems to be the new Realm's Delight with none of the cruelty. The youngest prince is but a small and shy plump boy with a penchant for reading. "

"When do you think the King's party will arrive?" Howland curiously asked from the side.

"Well, they made seven leagues on the first day when I travelled with them," Wylis recounted as he rubbed his meaty chin before emptying the remains of the goblet in one go. "If the gods are gracious and the weather is good, they will arrive within a fortnight."

"Thank you, Ser Wylis," Ned nodded gratefully. "I've arranged for some of the best quarters in the Guest House for you."

Barring the ones meant for the royal family, that was.

The knight stood up, gave another deep bow, and left the solar, leaving the Lord of Winterfell alone with Howland.

"This means little, you know," the Lord of Greywater Watch said.

"You heard him. All of Cersei's children take after her," Ned countered.

"Aye, I did hear. And four of yours look like Cat. Both of mine take after Jyanna in looks," Howland explained. "Jon also takes after his mother. What I mean to say is looks are flimsy proof of anything. You know Stannis would be the sole beneficiary if it were true. Why did he not bring it up to his royal brother? Why wait after Robert died and you were executed?"

"What about the crown prince's cruelty?"

"Was not Robert cruel that day? Laughing at the desecrated corpses of a babe of two and a pregnant woman?" Howland shook his head. "The lion is also cruel. Joffrey is Tywin's grandson, after all. And there are bad fruits on every tree, Ned. Neither the Reeds nor the Starks were lacking in cruel butchers who revelled in senseless acts of violence."

His friend did have a point. All they had were a few words written in blood, and Jon himself had stated that he was not privy to the Southron plots, just what he had eventually reached him at the Wall.

"Aye, I guess you're right," Ned sighed.

Howland ran a hand through his hair, and his face twisted grimly.

"There's something worse, though. It doesn't really matter if the royal children are Robert's or not."

"What do you mean, if the Queen had cuckolded the king, it would be…."

"War, yes. But what if the children simply take after their mother, as happens quite oft, and people are simply fanning the flames of conflict, intent to force House Stark to make the first move and take all the scrutiny and blame?" His friend carefully proposed, making Ned pale. "I find it hard to believe that Cersei would give Robert horns for nearly seventeen years, and you would be the first to notice. What about the Master of Whispers, the Kingsguard, the small council, and the other courtiers? What about Robert himself? Are they all blind while you are all-seeing?"

Ned tiredly rubbed his brow and slumped on his chair.

20th Day of the 4th Moon, The Gift

Jon Snow

He opened his eyes, stretched, and looked at the starry sky above. To his left, near the crackling campfire, sounded the snores of Jarod and Duncan. Red Jeyne and Willow were curled right next to him, and Jon could feel Ghost prowling after a hare in the nearby forest. Helicent and Maude were guarding the edges of the camp, together with an earth singer assigned to watch duty.

His plans were the same as always, but his chances of success had increased substantially with a valyrian steel blade at hand. Facing the Others alone with obsidian weapons had always been a risk, but one he was willing to take. And for good or for bad, he was no longer alone now.

He shook his head and got up. To the far east, a slight pink hue formed on the horizon. At least he had not woken up too early today; there was less than half an hour until sunrise.

Aside from Jarod and Duncan, the ground was littered with smaller, childlike figures clustered together and covered by their leafy cloaks.

Fifty-seven singers, the last remnant of the Dawn age, scarcely half of them hunters and warriors. But they were mighty useful companions despite the fact that only Leaf knew the common tongue. They could stay watch during the night, take care of the horses, find edible roots and mushrooms with ease and help cook and were excellent scouts in the forest to boot. The Earth Singers had a very sharp hearing, and together with the dogs, they made for an excellent night watch.

Which meant more sleep and better rest for him, as long as he did not wake up before the crack of dawn, like just now.

A pity only Leaf could speak the common tongue, although a few other singers did understand some of it.

Jon finally found his way to the edge of the camp, where Leaf stood vigil on a rock.

"Hello, Jon Snow," she greeted with her sad voice.

"Good morning, Leaf," he returned as he sat on a nearby rock and gazed into the darkness. "How did you cross the Wall?"

"By taking the Bridge of Skulls at night," she explained.

In hindsight, that wasn't that big of a surprise. The Watch was stretched thin for men, and they had abandoned all but three castles for a reason. Westwatch had scant patrols from the Shadow Tower at best.

"Can you cross it again and meet us North of the Wall?"

"We'd have to trek through parts of the Frostfangs and cross the Milkwater," Leaf said with a frown. "But I know a few easier crossings up the river. It can be done. Are you not going to cross with us?"

"Nay, passing through the Shadow Tower would be better. I'd rather be allowed passage by Commander Mallister and not have to fight rangers beyond the Wall mistaken me for a wilding. But I don't think the Old Eagle or the other black brothers can stomach seeing you singers."

"Indeed, humans are quick to attack us on sight," she agreed softly. "I am surprised someone like you agreed to let us join you."

"Like me?"

"One not blessed with the greensight," she explained. "Greenseers have an affinity with us. Powerful, yet bound to the weirwoods lest they wanted to waste away quickly, and the earth singers gathered around them for guidance and protection."

"Turning you away did enter my mind," he admitted. "Yet I cannot afford to refuse any aid, especially one as genuine as yours. What would you have done if I had declined?"

"Wander, looking for another hidden alcove while our numbers dwindle into oblivion," Leaf mumbled.

Sadness, acceptance, and peace radiated from her voice and her body. Jon looked upon the being of legend and couldn't help but sigh. The Singers of the Earth had long accepted their fate and, after millennia, had little strength left to fight it.

Could he have so graciously accepted defeat?

Jon Snow found himself chuckling ruefully. No, he would fight to his last breath, he always did, and he always would. He couldn't help but marvel at greenseers' power over the earth singers. Even with the last of them dead, they followed his words religiously.

"Can you tell me more about this three-eyed crow?" He found himself asking.

"He was once a man called Brynden Rivers-"

"Bloodraven?"

"Yes, the very same," Leaf bobbed her head as Jon stared at her incredulously.

"But how could he live for so long? He'd be more than a hundred and twenty years old!"

"In human years, yes," she agreed. "But greenseers always live far longer when wed to the weirwoods."

Was Brynden Rivers passing him Dark Sister as one bastard of House Targaryen to another? Not that he'd complain.

Yet a frown found its way to his face as he looked at the gilded guard with the red ruby on his belt. It was too gaudy, too eye catchy, but Jon couldn't reliably get a trusty blacksmith to change it for him unless he turned back to Little Hall, which would waste nearly a fortnight. He was not afraid of the wildlings but possibly brothers of the Night's Watch recognising or coveting the famed sword. He was no longer the Lord Commander's steward, just a stranger from nowhere. And Jon honestly cared little about the connection with House Targaryen.

Long gone were the days when the dragons were men of greatness, and Maester Aemon was but a dwindling echo of times forgotten. By his memory, Daenerys and someone calling himself Aegon were too busy fighting against each other and the Tyrells over who would hold the Iron Throne, ignoring any of his pleas for aid. All of his efforts to catch a wight had been in vain, as it was quickly dismissed. Supposedly necromancy was practised before in Westeros, and some practitioners still existed in the far corners of Essos to this day, so a moving corpse was flimsy proof of anything.

"Why the long face?" Leaf asked curiously. "Does the sword offend you?"

"Nay, only the hilt," he shook his head with a sigh. "Too conspicuous."

"I can change it if you wish," she offered.

Jon held back the scoff on his lips and curiously gazed at Leaf.

She was sincere.

"How? Are you well-versed in the art of smithing as well?"

"No, but we can use thetrue tongueto shape wood with the song," Leaf carefully offered.

"I thought you could not do magic?"

"It is not magic, but the power of the true tongue itself. It would require seven of us to sing together and sacrifice a few drops of blood to stir the trees."

Jon squinted his eyes. That still sounded like magic, but it seemed mighty useful.

"Do it," he finally agreed. He'd rather try this than risk showing a Valyrian Steel blade to the blacksmith at the Shadow Tower.

Denys Mallister, the Shadow Tower

Denys Mallister was old. Nearing seventy years, he was still grateful to have all of his teeth and to be able to move. His choice to swear his life to the Night's Watch after his father passed away was spontaneous but not something he would ever regret. He did not stand to inherit anything and could only become a hedge knight or a master-at-arms as the fifth son. After a year of aimless wandering around the tourneys of the realm, he had decided to try his luck with the ancient order at the Wall instead. Denys had been hesitant at first, but the work had been fulfilling, albeit harsh. As the years flew by, the Shadow Tower had become his home, and the Black Brothers - his family.

Yet things had grown troublesome lately. More missing rangers than ever, more deserters, and even fewer recruits than usual.

He looked at the three Northmen before him, all armed and armoured to the teeth. This was the oddest trio Denys Mallister had seen by far, and he had seen a lot of strange things in his seventy years of life.

A large, hulking man, body brimming with strength, wearing the three pinecones on white and green, the sigil of House Liddle. A tall yet wiry greybeard, no less dangerous, wearing the same heraldry but in reversed colours.

A bastard.

And the oddest sight was the young man who was in charge. Not only did a white direwolf head grace the dark-grey surcoat, but a living snow-white adolescent direwolf reaching the man's waist trotted calmly behind him, followed by four large and vicious hunting hounds. They were all suspiciously well-behaved, and if this were on the other side of the Wall, Denys would claim the man was a warg. He looked shy of six feet tall and green as summer grass, but once the Commander of the Shadow Tower looked closer, his eyes and posture spoke differently.

His gait was filled with confidence, one borne of experience, not arrogance. His dark grey eyes were sharp and heavy; Denys Mallister couldn't help but feel that he was dangerous.

Very dangerous.

After decades of experience, the Commander of the Shadow Tower trusted his gut feeling, as it had saved his skin more than a dozen times.

But the most peculiar thing was not the dangerous dark sword that had an odd yet intricate ironwood lining that somehow merged into the steel guard, nor the pale pommel the shape of a direwolf head that looked to be seamlessly carved out of weirwood, but his looks.

The boy, nay, the man, looked like Lord Rickard Stark come again.

The same dark hair, the same long face, and the same hard, steely eyes reminded Denys Mallister of the former Lord of Winterfell, albeit far younger and prettier but no less dangerous. Despite the odd direwolf sigil, this could only be Jon Snow, Rickard's grandson.

"I take it you aren't here to join the Watch?" He asked reluctantly.

Denys direly needed men of their calibre as few worth their salt joined the Black Brothers on their own nowadays, and he had to make do with outlaw dregs or green boys lured in by the recruiters with false promises.

"Nay, Commander Mallister," the young man said and bowed respectfully. "I am Jon Snow, and these are my companions, Duncan Liddle," the boulder-like man nodded politely, then Rickard's grandson gestured towards the greybeard, "and his grand-uncle Jarod Snow. We seek passage further north."

"What business would you have Beyond the Wall?" Denys grunted.

"We're seeking to find the sword Dark Sister," Jon Snow provided simply.

"This is a folly," he sighed. "Many a ranger had sought the famed blade after Bloodraven disappeared, but none were successful. All the parties sent by the Mad King returned with empty hands or not at all. It's probably buried under the snow or forgotten in a dark cave somewhere."

"I am aware of the difficulty, commander," Rickard's grandson evenly said.

"You can join the Watch; once you become rangers, you can venture beyond the Wall freely," Denys Mallister attempted to dissuade them once more.

"I'm afraid we'll have to decline." Jon Snow's steely eyes had not wavered for even a second. "Neither of us is ready to swear off women or our Houses."

If it were any other making a request to pass, he would simply send them off. But House Stark had supported the Wall for eight thousand years, and the Liddles themselves sent supplies every year and oft joined the order. And bastard or not, the young man before him was considered valued enough to be raised together with his trueborn siblings in the ancient halls of Winterfell all the same.

"Alas, I tried," the Commander of the Shadow Tower lamented with a regretful sigh. "I shall let you pass, but I'm afraid I cannot provide you with any aid as we're already stretched thin. You'd be completely on your own."

Jon Snow nodded as if he had never expected otherwise.

Notes:

Ned's preparation takes a whole different dimension as time passes. We see another person with many friends at court. But his friends at court seem to be of little help outside of King's Landing. Littlefinger has many friends in many places. But not all of them are good.

None of Mance Rayder's plans were going to have a good ending, and Jon is well aware of this fact. It's good that he has a daring plan of his own.

It always felt that the accusation of Cersei's children being bastards was flimsy without her confession (especially without the book about lineages, which isn't too solid proof on its own). Howland is trying to be a voice of reason.

The COTF unveil some minor not-magic (or so they claim) related to trees (gee, what a surprise!?), but that's the last of their bag of tricks without a greenseer.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Kudos, comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 11: Plans and Punishments

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Eddard Stark

His gaze inspected the crying Jeyne Poole, whose dress and hair were splashed by mud, before settling on the defiantly-looking Arya.

"She called me 'Horseface'!"

Vayon's daughter did not deny and instead cried harder.

The Lord of Winterfell sighed inwardly. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now, but the wolfsblood was not something to be contained.

But no longer. Ned had already lost Bran to this foolishness, which led his brother and sister to an early grave. Even watching the execution had not made her mellow out, unlike Sansa, who had shed some of her childish naivety.

What could he do?

Arya furiously resisted Mordane's futile attempts to shape her into a highborn lady. The old Septa was far from inept, but the wolfsblood would have its due.

"Jeyne, if you want to act as a gossipy serving girl, you'll go to help Gage in the kitchen as scullery maid until the King's party arrives," he decided before sending Vayon's daughter away, then looked at Arya. "What am I going to do with you, child?"

"Nothing?"

At that moment, his daughter's daring eyes infuriated Eddard Stark.

"Septa Mordane's lessons seem to be lost on you," he lamented.

"I hate the Septa and her stupid teachings!"

This was far from the first time since he had heard a similar phrase leave his daughter's lips.

"That's enough. Mordane is doing no more than is her duty, though the gods know you've made it hard for the poor woman. Your mother and I have charged her with the impossible task of making you a lady, but alas."

"I don't want to be a lady!" Arya mutinously proclaimed and bit her lip.

"Is that so?" Ned asked icily.

"Yes!"

The Lord of Winterfell looked at his daughter. At eleven, she looked like a younger Lyanna but thrice as wild. The memory of his sister's body at four and ten haunted Eddard Stark's dreams to this day. And an even fresher, more bitter memory of his son's head sprawled lifelessly on the ground with his head cracked open made his blood freeze.

"Fine," he agreed, and Arya's eyes lit up joyfully. "If you do not want the privilege of being a highborn lady, so be it. From now on, you'll have to work with the other washerwomen and scullery maids. You will be moved out of the Great Keep and sleep in the servant's quarters. You will no longer receive any allowance and will have to work for the roof over your head, the meals on your table, and the clothes on your back."

His daughter was aghast, and the earlier happiness was replaced with horror.

"But-"

"No buts, Arya. You wanted this. From now on, you'd have to earn everything you want with your own two hands. Did you think all the rights and privileges you enjoyed by being a daughter of House Stark came for free?"

Her face had gone pale. It hurt Ned to do this, but he did not see any other way how she could possibly learn.

He could not bury another one of his children.

He would not.

Hopefully, a taste of the harshness most had to endure would grant her a new perspective.

"But-"

"Enough, The Lord of Winterfell has no time to freely chatter with scullery maids and washerwomen. You have until tonight to vacate your quarters. And from now on, you're forbidden to use the name Stark. Your mother, brothers, and sister will be barred from seeing you either. The guards and the servants will be informed, so do not expect special treatment," Eddard warned. "Do not search for me unless you find your desire and willingness to become a lady."

Eddard Stark tiredly gazed at the unfurled map of the North before him when a knock on the door grabbed his attention.

"My lord, lady Stark and lord Robb wish to speak with you," Harwin's voice came through the door.

"Let them in."

Catelyn and Robb entered the solar, both looking rather wroth.

"Father, did you truly disown Arya?" Robb asked directly.

"Sit down," Ned ordered, and both his wife and son pulled over a tapered chair and sat on the other side of the desk. "Today, your sister threw mud at Jeyne Poole over some childish insult. This is far from the first time Arya is up to trouble or mischief. If your daughter did that, what would you do, Robb?"

His heir paused in thought for a few heartbeats.

"I'd punish her?"

"Indeed, such behaviour is unbecoming for a daughter of a Great House," Ned agreed. "But what would you do if your methods of disciplining failed to work? What if your daughter stubbornly keeps refusing to act like a lady, let alone become one, regardless of what punishments you mete out?"

Robb's face scrunched up, but he seemed not to find an answer to that query.

"Ned, she's still our daughter!" Catelyn protested.

"Aye, and Lyanna was my sister, and Brandon was my brother, but that did not save them from their own foolishness!"

His son looked thoughtful for a moment.

"What did Aunt Lyanna do? Wasn't she kidnapped?"

Ned sighed.

"At the Tourney of Harrenhal, one of House Stark's bannermen was being bullied by three squires. Your aunt fought them off with a tourney sword. Instead of bringing the matter to Brandon or me, she, at the age of two and ten, decided to enter the lists as a mystery knight to punish their masters. She succeeded, albeit battered and bruised, and grabbed the attention of both the Mad King and the Silver Prince in one fell swoop."

And worse, he feared that Arya could create an even greater mess with the royal court here in Winterfell. Those with the wolfsblood were prone to easily earning the royal ire.

"Lyanna was the Knight of the Laughing Tree?!" Catelyn stood there, face twisted in disbelief.

"Yes, and she was only a year older than Arya then. Now the king comes to Winterfell, and our daughter is even wilder than her aunt ever was," he sighed. "It's time she learns the consequences of her actions before it's too late. I only indulged her desire; by her words, she has no wish to be a lady."

Catelyn looked torn, but Ned could see acceptance find its way into her blue eyes.

"Can't we at least visit her?" Robb pleaded.

"What punishment would that be? Do you think I wish to cast out my own daughter, Robb?" The Lord of Winterfell shook his head. "I don't! But you can bring the mule to the river, yet you cannot force it to drink. Sometimes, there are no good choices, and you're forced to pick between two options you dislike."

Robb's shoulders sagged, but Catelyn was not appeased just yet.

"But to have our daughter chop onions and wash clothes like an ordinary scullery maid?"

"Well, what do you propose, Cat? Arya barely cares about her lessons when she doesn't run away from them. She's more wolf than girl and learns nought from the usual punishments. It's high time she realises what all of her privileges mean. She can always come back once she reconsiders being a lady."

Catelyn tiredly rubbed her eyes but provided no reply. It was unsurprising because they had already tried everything with their youngest daughter…

"But Arya is stubborn," Robb noted.

And that's why he asked Vayon to give her the harshest tasks and to work her to the bone. Not that he'd mention that to Robb or Catelyn.

"Let's see how stubborn she can be when she has to pour in blood, sweat, and tears just to barely eke out a living. Enough of this, I have already decided, and it's in your sister's hands now."

22nd Day of the 4th Moon, Beyond the Wall

Jarod Snow

The cry of a snow shrike echoed from the nearby pine grove. The meadow they had chosen for a resting place was blue with coldsnaps and frostfires. The horses were grazing peacefully on a few patches of grass sticking out of the snow-covered ground. He pulled his heavy woollen cloak closer. The air was frigid, even to Jarod, who had spent a lifetime in the harsh northern mountains. According to the rangers, there were only a handful of months each year when the land Beyond the Wall was not covered with a veil of snow.

Only the grey-furred hound called Helicent was here, circling around the camp; the rest had gone hunting with the white direwolf in the wilderness.

To the left, the distant rumbling of the Milkwater could be heard. They had settled on waiting for the Children of the Forest to come. And wasn't that a bloody surprise?

Children of the f*cking forest in the flesh! Ethereal voices like a song, all clad in leaves and bark. And they even came bearing gifts. Dark Sister was a famed blade with a bloody history, and Jon had been wise to change its gaudy hilt and guard as much as possible.

At the start, Jarod had thought this journey was a foolish whim and had just agreed to follow the Jon because he saved little Lysara. Dying for a son of Winterfell was as good a death as one could get in his twilight years. Yet Jon Snow was a man with a mission, and every single movement had a purpose, and not even for a moment he wavered. Despite his young age, he had a very imposing mannerism and a harsh, steely gaze that brokered no disobedience. He was always the first to rise, the last to sleep, and led from the front. Even the Children of the Forest were following him unquestionably. But it was not all ironclad order - Jon Snow was open to advise and was amiable enough unless the situation called for otherwise.

And, the more time passed, the less Jarod thought they were chasing dreams and old wives' tales. Even the Children had freely spoken of the existence of the Others as a known fact.

Despite being young, Jon seemed to be versed in the hearts of men and had a jaded yet accurate view of things. The Night's Watch might have let them pass, but their little leafy companions would not have been welcomed. In fact, knowing the Southron faith, half the men would think them demons and attack.

Jarod shook his head and placed his newly gathered bundle of kindlings on a clean rock under the sun's rays so it would stay dry. Surely enough, Duncan was still pitching up a tent, and Jon was finishing his own. And gods, what a tent it was! Made of the finest leather, with a myrish silk cot inside, fit for a king! From the hands of the Silver Prince to the Stark and now his son!

They did away with simple bedrolls south of the Wall, but it was not enough here. It was too cold, and even if you placed a hide beneath your bedding, you could still wake up with a limb or two lost to the nightly chill. Carrying a cot and tent was chunky and took up a lot of space, but they could afford it with the additional horses.

"Let's spar," Jon proposed as he stretched his hands skywards. "I haven't swung a sword in nearly a moon, and it would not do to get rusty here."

"We didn't take any training swords," Jarod noted. "Using live steel is dangerous and can damage our blades needlessly, especially when the nearest smith is south of the Wall. Especially if you use the dragonsword."

"There's plenty of wood around," Jon said.

"Better than just waiting, as long as we don't tire ourselves out too much," Duncan agreed with a shrug as he nailed the final stake of his tent. And it was true enough a spar wouldn't hurt; they were already clad in armour and ready for a fight.

And under their stunned gazes, With a few measured yet powerful swings of Dark Sister, Jon Snow quickly fashioned three crude swords out of the thick branches of a nearby oak. The rippled blade cleanly sliced through the hardwood with nary an effort in the young man's hands.

The Dragonlords of old would weep if they could see their precious swords reduced to a woodsman's axe.

"We brought axes for things like these," Dunk indignantly noted.

"Aye, we did, but I want to get used to the feel of the blade in my hand," Jon explained as he handed them a crude stick in the shape of a sword each. "Valyrian Steel is not only inhumanely sharp, but it does not lose edge no matter what, so there is no harm done."

"You two spar first; I shall stand watch," Jarod offered. He would get a good chance to get a measure of Jon's skills, and hopefully, Dunk would tire him out.

He had no desire to lose to two young men not even half his age. Duncan was a fierce fighter with sword and axe, and Jon Snow carried himself as a veteran of many a battle.

Jarod threw a leather pelt over a rock and sat down as Dunk and Jon faced each other fifteen yards away amidst the small clearing. For a minute, they stared at each other without moving a muscle, but Jarod could see that Dunk was getting restless while his opponent looked as calm as a pool of water.

Surely enough, Dunk moved first. His nephew was quick and fierce, but Jon seemed unphased by the furious assault, easily blocking, evading, or deflecting all of Duncan's strikes. The minutes flowed, and Jon Snow had not moved from his position even by a single step despite only defending from the fierce onslaught, while Dunk was slowly beginning to grow winded. Not only that, but Jon had only defended until now.

Suddenly, his steely eyes sharpened, and he finallymoved. Dunk barely managed to block the first lightning strike, but the equally quick follow-up knocked the wooden sword out of his hand, and the sharpened oak pointed at Dunk's throat.

"I yield," his nephew said, respect clear in his voice. Breathing heavily with a brow shining with sweat, Dunk came over and whispered: "Beware, he is not only quick but far stronger than he looks."

Duncan was one of the most formidable warriors with sword and axe in Little Hall, second only to Torren himself, yet he lost without giving his opponent a sweat.

Jarod pushed down his apprehension, stood up, and gave his makeshift sword a few swings. The crude, thick branch was heavier than a typical training sword, but not by much. The balance was a tad too skewed towards the front, making it a bit unwieldy, but it was usable for a training blade.

Jon Snow was using a similar weapon, so there was no room for complaints.

He stood in the clearing and faced the young man of six and ten. Despite his relaxed posture, Jon showed no openings and gave Jarod the feeling that he was facing a master.

Jon moved quickly, and Jarod barely lifted his sword to parry in time. The strength of the blow rattled his wrists, and he had no doubt the makeshift weapon would have broken if it wasn't thick and hardy oak.

Instantly, Jarod found himself on the backfoot of the storm that was Jon Snow. The fierce and lightning-quick deadly strikes quickly overwhelmed Jarod, and he could barely defend himself. Every blow rattled his bones as if he was fighting against an Umber. The worse thing was that the strikes were getting even quicker and stronger.

With a sharp crack, his sword broke, and Jarod found a crude wooden blade at his neck.

"I yield," he conceded with a sigh. The last time he had felt so severely outmatched in strength, speed, and skill was when he was still a green summer child. Despite getting on in years, Jarod might have lost some of his vigour, but his sword hand was still strong, and he had plenty of experience to make up for it, yet it helped him little.

But the thought brought a smile to his face; no matter what, it was good to be led by a fierce and capable warrior. The son of Winterfell did not disappoint once again. Gods, he had barely broken a sweat!

"We should practice every day from now on," Jon said as he sat down.

"Wouldn't it be too dangerous to get tired while travelling in unknown territory?"

"Soon, the singers shall rejoin us, and they can stand watch. Practice is essential. The Others are said to be inhumanely quick and powerful, wielding crystalline swords of ice of unnatural sharpness," Ned's son explained with a deathly serious tone, and Jarod felt a cold chill crawl up his spine. "Regardless, we won't push ourselves to the limit but just train enough to stay sharp."

The prospect of fighting such fearsome foes excited Jarod. There was no valour, no glory in defeating weaklings or dying to them!

"What are we going to do after the leafcloaks return?" Jarod asked.

Until now, he had refrained from inquiring about their next actions and was content to sit back and take a measure of Jon Snow out in the open, and he was not disappointed so far.

"We'll head to Craster's Keep."

"I thought the wildlings did not work stone, let alone raise holdfasts?" Duncan scratched his ear.

"It's not a stone tower or anything like that, just a small wooden hall with a dike surrounded by a palisade," Jon explained as he began arranging the kindlings and dried bark for the fire. "Craster is a particularly vile wilding who has nineteen wives."

"By the gods," Jared couldn't help but whistle. "He must have sired an army from his loins!"

"You would think so," Jon hummed in agreement, but his eyes darkened dangerously. "But he takes his daughters as wives when they come of age."

Jarod started cursing under his nose. Not even the valyrian sisterf*ckers slept with their sons and daughters!

Duncan's face had begun to redden.

"Wait, did you just say this Craster takes his daughters as wives?!"

"Aye, he does," Ned's son confirmed impassively. "A small mercy, for he is said to sacrifice any of his newborn sons to the Cold Gods themselves."

His nephew spat on the ground. Not only an incestuous demon worshipper but a kinslayer as well?! Jarod shook his head; this was vile even for a savage.

"How would you know what happens North of the Wall?" Jarod couldn't help but ask sceptically. "I doubt this Craster advertises his foul deeds for all to hear, or he would have lost his head long ago."

"He lets the rangers rest under his roof, so the Night's Watch leaves him be. And a black brother told me about the rest," Jon shrugged. "That's why we'll go there, to see for ourselves. It's a good place to begin our search as any."

"Aye, true," Jarod agreed with a grimace. "But what then?"

Jon started hitting his flint with the steel striker, producing a showerful of sparks, and soon enough, the dry splinters of broken bark were aflame. The fire slowly started crackling, and Ned's son straightened up.

"Afterwards, we'll look for Mance Rayder's army."

"You want us to join the King Beyond the Wall?" Duncan asked incredulously.

"Nay, not join," Jon shook his head. "No matter what you say, wildlings might be proud and fierce, but they are not stupid. Mance Rayder gathered them out of desperation, they have no way of fighting the Others and would rather take their chance at attacking the Wall. What I intend to do is give them some hope. Knowledge to use obsidian to fight back against the so-called Cold Ones."

Jarod could admit that it did not sound like a bad plan. His nephew had gone quiet, deep in thought.

"And how would you make them listen?" He prodded. "Most of them hate us as much as we hate them and would not trust a single word you say. And they might attack the Wall anyway."

"If speaking does not work, I shall show them. If that does not work, I will beat them until they listen. If that does not work, I shall break them," Jon boldly declared. "I'd rather have half a hundred thousand men fighting the Others with their lives on the line instead of the Others having half a hundred thousand wights more under their thrall."

The camp sank into silence at the daring words. Jarod would call him a madman for such a crazy idea, but if anyone could pull it off, it was him. Duncan looked less conflicted; using the wildlings to fight against the Others seemed to agree with him. Anyone south of the Wall would rather leave the savages to die or even kill them themselves than make peace with them or fight together, common foe or not, and Jarod was no different. There was just too much enmity. But even he was impressed by the boldness of the plan. If nothing else, things would certainly be interesting.

"You never intended to bring any proof south of the Wall, did ya?" Jarod pointed out.

"No, not when alone. I've already warned my Lord Father. And what good would proof do? What's to stop them from decrying it as a sorcerous trick?" Bitterness seeped into Jon's voice. "Even if the North and the Watch acknowledge the Others were a threat, they would still happily let the wildlings die and bolster the ranks of the wights while hoping that the Wall would stop them."

"Didn't the Builder raise the Wall for the same exact reason?" Duncan asked.

"He did, but any wall is only as strong as the men that guard it," a heavy sigh tore out of his mouth. The fact that the Night's Watch was at its weakest in recorded history was left unsaid, but all three knew it. "And in the last half a hundred years, the Bay of Ice froze once during a harsh winter, and the Bay of Seals froze twice. I'd rather strike first, strike fast, and strike hard than risk it!"

As soon as he uttered the last word, Jon Snow's head snapped towards the northwest, instantly stood up and unsheathed his dragonblade.

Duncan instantly reached for his greatax, and Jarod cursed under his nose as he grabbed his spear.

"Did I miss anything?" Leaf's short, lithe figure appeared from behind an old, thick sentinel pine. Her eyes golden eyes glinted with mischief.

Arya Stark

27th Day of the 4th Moon

This was stupid!

Everything had gone wrong!

Her back hurt. So did her legs, feet, and hands. Everything hurt. Her fingers and palms were rubbed raw from washing clothes by the moat for the last five days. The food consisted of little more than hardtack and tasteless stew that was not only little but bland, and she could barely chew, let alone swallow it. She still felt hungry.

Her eyes still stung from the onions she had chopped earlier. She felt tired, she felt dirty, miserable and alone. There were no longer servants to draw her a warm bath and clean her clothes.

She thought her father was just jesting and would forgive her as he always did, but no. His eyes had grown as hard as a stone, and his voice had been as cold as ice.

Her mother did not come to visit and sing her a lullaby before sleep nor comb her hair. The thought of the rough, hard bed in the dingy, cold little room made her want to cry. Nymeria was locked up with her father. There was no Old Nan to tell her stories, Rickon to run after her, there was no Robb with his easy smiles, and most importantly, no Jon. Ever since he had gone missing, everyone had started acting stupidly.

She regretted it; she did. It wasn't fair!

Even Septa Mordane had said she had the hands of a blacksmith. Unlike Sansa, Arya's stitches were crooked, her voice was too scratchy to sing, and she was not nearly as pretty or graceful. Why did they want to turn her into a lady so badly?!

Arya knew she'd be a terrible, terrible lady. She looked at her dingy, roughspun bedding and barely held in her tears.

She had stubbornly held on, working everything they threw at her, but it was unbearable.

The thought of spending another night in here made her want to cry. At that moment, she finally made a decision. Arya left her quarters and dragged her tired feet towards the Great Keep. If they wanted a lady, she would give them one!

Walder's gigantic, hulking figure could be seen from afar guarding the large oaken door at the entrance. She always wondered if the giants were truly as big as he was.

"Hello, little Arya," his voice rumbled kindly as he dipped his head. "You're not supposed to be here."

"I want to speak with my father," she said. "I have changed my mind."

"Go in, then," he acquiesced. "Lord Stark's at the solar."

The climb up the steps was harrowing as all of the muscles in her legs ached, her waist hurt, and she was already tired from the hard day's work.

It felt like forever, but Arya eventually reached the topmost hallway where the solar resided.

Desmond, the guardsman guarding the door, looked at her questioningly before announcing her.

The first thing that greeted her inside the chambers was her father's tired gaze. Sitting on the lord's chair, he had large circles beneath his eyes and looked troubled.

"I'm sorry, Father," she eked out, failing to hold her tears any longer. "I'll t-try to be a good little lady and no longer make t-trouble, I promise! My stitches m-might be little crooked-"

Father abruptly got out of his seat and pulled her into a tight hug before gently wiping away her tears. Gods, she missed him; she missed them all so much!

"I'm sorry too, Arya," he sighed, and she felt his large, warm hand soothingly circle over her back. "It seems that Septa Mordane does not have the skills to properly instruct someone like you. You will no longer need to attend her lessons; instead, I'll call for a different governess to tutor you," his voice cracked, heavy with feeling, "and if you behave like a proper lady during the length of the royal visit, I'll allow you to train with the bow."

Notes:

There's so much to unpack here. Because the Rebellion happened two years earlier, Arya is two years older(11), and Lyanna died two years earlier (14), any parallel between the two is far easier to make for Ned. He has too much on his mind, worries too much, and literally lashes out. Arya is both spoiled and a bit neglected, knows very well she's the daughter of a highlord.

His punishment might or might not be too much, but it comes from a place of concern and anger (not a great combination). Tl; Dr Ned is at his wit's end and overreacts. Or does he? There's also the fact that Bran got himself recently, so Ned is less willing to tolerate Arya's bouts of wilderness.

Because he's the Lord of Winterfell and his word is law in his household, the protests from Robb and Catelyn are not enough to change his mind because he can totally be stubborn when he decides to be. I'll leave that for the readers to decide whether his concerns are valid or not.

It turns out that Arya is less stubborn than her father, who still loves his daughter in the end, and decides that he has used the stick enough, and now is the time for the carrot. The common drudgery has a way of breaking the most stubborn of people, and while Arya is wild, she is definitely pampered and spoiled as a daughter of a Highlord and eventually buckles.

Jon's plans are finally revealed to his companions. They are probably not the objectively best plans, but they are definitely shaped by his experiences in the last life/death. The animosity built over thousands of years between the North and the Watch against the wildlings is not easily discarded. Why doesn't Jon try to convince the Watch and his father to let the wildlings pass the wall?

Well, he knows the wildlings, the Northmen, and the Night's Watch and is convinced they don't mix very well. The North was broken and battered in his own timeline, the Night's Watch was heavily depleted, and the wildlings were defeated and scattered to the winds. Even then, they barely managed to work together (and not all of them by a longshot! ) against a common enemy.

Does that mean Jon broke the Others with heavily depleted and barely united forces under his command?

Yes.

Is this the best possible plan ever to deal with that particular issue? Quite possibly not, but it's the one Jon has settled on.

And next, we will finally see the long-awaited arrival of the royal party.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 12: Royal Arrival

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

1st Day of the 5th Moon, Winterfell

Robert Baratheon

Finally, his royal children were presented, the introductions concluded, and condolences given.

"Take me down to your crypt, Ned. I would pay my respects."

"We've been riding since dawn; the children are tired and cold and can use some rest and refreshment. Surely the dead can wait?" Cersei asked neutrally, but Robert could tell she was feeling annoyed.

He looked at her, then meaningfully at her brother, and thankfully the Kingslayer led her aside.

Ned, gods bless him, called for a lantern and led him towards the crypt while Catelyn pulled Cersei and the children over to show them their quarters.

The years seemed to have struck his friend badly; Robert could see weary lines on his face, large black circles under his eyes, and grey had begun to sneak into his usually well-kept beard. Not only that, but he noticed Ned was a tad thinner than usual. And far more solemn, something he had never thought possible. Losing a son had hit his friend hard.

One would think the Lord of Winterfell had begun to waste away, but his stride was still powerful, his gait straight, and he effortlessly pushed open the thick ironwood door that barred the entrance to the crypt. He signalled to Selmy to remain at the door. The old knight gave him a disapproving look but knew better than to argue.

"I was thinking we'd never arrive," Robert complained as he followed his friend down the narrow stone steps. "I even had to take a ship to get here; otherwise, you might have seen me only next year!"

"It's only around seventeen hundred miles from King's Landing to Winterfell by road," Ned provided. "You would have been here in four moons at most."

"Bah, the royal procession crawls like a turtle at its fastest, and this was after we got rid of that monstrosity my wife called a wheelhouse!" He snorted and put a hand on the granite wall to steady himself as they descended deeper into the darkness. "The rain and snow didn't help. Snow, Ned!"

"Summer snows are common enough at this time of the year," his friend provided with a rare smile. "I hope they did not trouble you much. They usually melt at the first kiss of the sun."

It was getting colder as they braved the winding steps. Only the soft flickering of the lantern warded away the pitch-black darkness. A lesser man would have been scared.

"The Others take your mild snows," Robert cursed as the air became more frigid. "What will this place be in winter? I shudder to think."

"The winters are hard," Ned admitted softly but then his voice grew steely. "But the Starks will endure. We always have."

"You need to come south," he prodded. "You need a taste of summer before it flees. Shed your thick furs and feel the hot kiss of the sun upon your skin, and taste the bounty of summer - melons, peaches, fireplums, so ripe and sweet, unlike anything you tasted before! Flowers everywhere, the markets bursting with food, the summerwines so cheap and so good that you can get drunk just by breathing the air. Everyone is fat and drunk and rich!"

Robert patted his stomach with a thump and laughed heartily, but his friend remained as joyful as a block of ice.

"Winter is coming," Ned said ominously, and the king could feel his friend was not in the mood, so he let the topic go for now.

Ned was never big for celebrations, but nearly seventeen years as a Lord of Winterfell seemed to have sucked out what little joy he had before.

They continued to descend in silence, and by the time Ned led him into one of the deeper floors, Robert Baratheon was gasping for breath.

Why did the Starks have to bury themselves so deep into this darkness?!

The shadows danced as they went further into the hallway, past the endless rows of stone pillars where the statues of the long-gone Lords of Winterfell and Kings of Winter sat upon their granite thrones and guarding their own sepulchres.

The Starks of old looked all imposing with their stern, grim, and fearsome faces, with stone direwolves curled at their feet and the traditional iron longsword on their laps, all rusted, and at places, only reddish stains remained.

Robert couldn't help but shiver at the chill, even through his thick cloak, but Ned seemed unbothered by the cold. Ice was said to run through the veins of the Starks along with blood, and right now, the king believed it fully.

They finally stopped at a trio of statues.

"Here," Ned said as he hooked the oil lantern to the hanger next to the pillar.

Robert fought his urge to ignore everything and gazed further into the darkness. There were no more statues; the flickering light illuminated the empty and unsealed tombs, save for one. The king slowly made his way to the small sepulchre.

"Is this your boy, Ned?" He asked, not unkindly.

"Aye," his friend said, voice raspy. "He loved to climb and climb the most, and in the end, the climb took him."

After a short pause, Robert rummaged through the insides of his cloak, took out the forget-me-nots he had Lancel gather, and gently placed them in front of the tomb before turning to Ned and squeezing his shoulder in support.

"My condolences."

He bowed his head and uttered a silent prayer for Ned's boy before returning to the trio of statues and the sepulchres behind them.

At the front was the dignified Lord Rickard Stark on his granite throne, iron longsword clasped by his stone grip. To his right stood Brandon, and to his left was Lyanna. Ah, sweet Lyanna, gone before her time. All three taken by the damned dragon's madness and greed.

Robert Baratheon knelt in front of the statue of his lovely betrothed and silently cursed that silver-haired rapist for the thousandth time. A minute later, he had finished paying his dues, and his knees had begun to protest the cold stone below, so he stood up after a short struggle and looked at the statue of his beloved.

The cold granite had captured Lyanna's likeness well enough, but it was a dead, colourless thing; it lacked her fire.

"She was more beautiful than that," he said as he gazed upon the stone face. Ah, if only Lyanna had lived, she would have been his rightful Queen and not the angry lioness he had for a wife now. "Ah, damn it, Ned. Did you have to bury her down here in the darkness?"

"She's a Stark of Winterfell," was the quiet response. "This is where she belongs."

"Lyanna should have been on a hill somewhere, under a fruit tree, with the sun and clouds above her and the rain to wash her," Robert lamented.

"I was with her when she died," Ned recalled, lost deep in thought. "She wanted to come back home, to rest together with Brandon and Father. I bring her flowers sometimes. Lyanna was… fond of flowers."

The king gently cupped the stone face and brushed his fingers over it. Alas, it was not meant to be, all because of the damned dragons and their greed! "I kill Rhaegar every night in my dreams. Again and again." Ah, how sweet was the sound of steel caving in and bones crunching as his warhammer struck down the Last Dragon; sweeter than any song, sweeter than the fruits of summer. "But it is not enough! A thousand deaths will still be less than he deserves."

"We should return, Your Grace," Ned sighed. "Your wife will be waiting."

"Others take my wife," Robert muttered sourly and turned his gaze from whence they came. "And if I hear 'Your Grace' once more, I'll have your head on a spike. We are more to each other than that."

The lantern barely illuminated a dozen yards, and the darkness swallowed the rest of the endless hallway. Gods, the thought of all the stairs on the way up did not sit well with him. Hah, if Lyanna could see him now, she would laugh and weep, the mighty stag, the Demon of the Trident, frightened by a flight of stairs!

"Let's go," the king finally decided, Ned unlatched the lantern, and they slowly made their way through the darkness again. They were alone down here amongst the Kings of Winter, undisturbed by the gazes and ears of others. "You must be wondering why I came all the way to Winterfell after so long."

"For the pleasure of my company, surely," Ned said lightly, and Robert snorted. "And there is the Wall. You need to see it, Your Grace, to walk along its battlements and talk to those who man it-"

"The Wall has stood for what, eight thousand years? It can stand for a few more without me propping it up," he waved off. He had more than enough of the cold already without visiting that gigantic block of ice."I have more pressing concerns. These are difficult times, and I need good men about me. Men like Jon Arryn," he stopped and turned to face his friend. "Men like you."

"I am yours to command, Your Grace," Ned vowed. "Always."

"I want you at my side again, Ned," Robert admitted. The memories of them running around the Eyrie and the Vale together were something he still yearned for. Damn the throne; if he had known what it was to be king, he would have fled to Essos on the first ship! But no, they chained him with a crown and a throne, and he foolishly sat on it. "I want you down in King's Landing, not here at the end of the world where you are of no use to anybody!" He blankly stared at the darkness, remembering the endless drudgery of ruling. "I swear to you, sitting on a throne is a thousand times harder than winning it. You or Jon should have taken it, not me."

"You had the claim, Robert," his friend softly objected. "Nobody would have kneeled at an untested Northerner who follows the Old Gods."

"Untested? Without your planning, our bones would be laid to rest at the Ruby Ford. Or would they name it the Stag's Ford, then? And piss on the claim; we had the victory, and we had the swords!" The King thundered. "If it was about a claim, that dragonspawn would have ruled us, and he could have been as mad as his father or brother," he shook his head. "Nay, the dragons are gone now, and you have saddled me with ruling. Laws are a tedious business, and counting coppers is even worse. And the people… there is no end to them. Always complaining, always petitioning, and there is no end to them, I sit on that damned iron chair until my mind is numb and ass raw. They all want something… and the lies they tell. And my lords and ladies are no better. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools. It can drive the best of men to madness, Ned. Half of them don't care to tell me the truth, and the other half can't find it. There are nights I wish we lost at the trident. Ah, no, not truly, but…"

"I understand," his friend said softly.

Yes, that's right. Ned was the only one who always understood him! The brother in all but blood, and even that was taken by that damned Rhaegar!

Robert shook his head, took a few breaths to calm himself down, and nodded with a smile, "You're the only one, my friend," he straightened up, "Lord Eddard Stark, I name you Hand of the King!"

Ned dropped to one knee, and the silence stretched for a moment. "Your Grace, I am not worthy of the honour."

Robert found himself grinning, "If I wanted to honour you, I'd let you retire. No, I am planning to let you run the kingdom and fight the wars while I feast, drink, and wench my way into an early grave!" He slapped his bulging gut. "You know the saying about the king and his Hand?"

"The King dreams, and the Hand builds?"

"A fishmaid I bedded once had a choicer way of saying it. The king eats, she said, and the Hand takes the sh*t," he roared with laughter at his own jest, but Ned, still kneeling quietly, did not seem amused; his face had become a carving of ice, similar to the silent disproval from the stone kings of winter. His laugh quickly dwindled when he realised this was not the best way to bring his friend south. "Damn it, Ned, at least humour me with a smile!"

"They say it grows so cold here in winter that a man's laughter freezes in his throat, choking him to death." Robert could totally believe it. It was summer here, yet colder than the last winter at King's Landing. "Perhaps that's why the Starks have so little humour."

"Come south, and I'll teach you how to laugh again," Robert cajoled. "You put me on this damnable throne; now help me hold it. If Lyanna had lived, we would have been brothers, bound by blood and affection. It's not too late. You have a daughter, and I have a son. My Joff and your Arya shall join your houses, as Lyanna and I might have once done."

Ned paled even further, and his face twisted in a grimace.

"She's too young, only eleven."

"Old enough for a betrothal. The marriage can wait a few years. Now stand up and say yes, damn you!"

Hesitation shone in the steely grey eyes, and Ned sighed heavily. "It pains me to say it, but Arya is not suitable to be a Queen. Not now, not ever. My daughter is wilder than Lyanna and Brandon together. She's more likely to slit your son's throat during the bedding than let him touch her."

Robert roared out in laughter again at the image, so little Arya not only looked like her aunt but took after her in character! But it was understandable. Truthfully, if Joffrey were not his, he'd not want his daughter wed to him either. Ah, where did he go wrong with that boy? Myrcella and Tommen were so much better.

He shook his head; Robert was ill-made to be a father, let alone king. But it mattered little; he was already one and might as well enjoy it to the fullest!

"Ah, my mistake, Ned. It's understandable that you don't want to part with another child so soon," the king nodded wisely, pleased with his conclusion. Sanda, or what was her name, would not do either. But that was not a problem. "How about my Myrcella for your heir? She's well-mannered, more beautiful than her mother, and with wits to spare! You'll find no better woman for your boy in the Seven Kingdoms. They're even the same age and can wed soon if need be!"

He had inspected Robb Stark very closely earlier. On the cusp of manhood, the boy looked half Tully, half Stark, a powerful figure of a born warrior if he ever saw one, with an easy smile and good courtesies. Robert was never a good parent, but he wanted to do right by his children. And this was a worthy match for his daughter, if there was any!

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Your Grace," Ned sighed with hesitation. "These honours are all unexpected. May I have some time to consider? I need to tell my wife…"

Gods, was his knee not tired yet?

"Yes, yes, tell Catelyn and sleep on it if you must," Robert reached down and effortlessly pulled Ned up to his feet and patted his shoulder. "Just don't keep me waiting. You know I'm not the most patient of men."

Abel the Bard

Benjen Stark's appearance was unexpected, but in hindsight, he should have seen the First Ranger coming. Thankfully, they had never met in person, so he could not recognise his face. Still, Lord Stark could remember his face from all those years ago, but Mance had decided to risk it anyway. Not that he was unprepared, he let his beard grow out for this. As one of the knights demanded, he continued playing the lute, and his gaze moved towards the high seat.

The guards near the walls were carefully keeping an eye on him, and that would make him wary if the other bards were not under the same scrutiny.

The King was nothing like the peerless warrior described in the tales but just a fat man with a penchant for drinking. Even now, his face had grown red from too much wine as he was groping a maid in full view for all to see.

No, Robert Baratheon was not a threat. The only weapon he would lift was his wine cup.

The more worrying prospect, however, was the wolves. Lord Stark had grown gruffer and more dangerous after nearly ten years and was currently discreetly sneaking glances at the Queen's golden children with curiosity. Winterfell had always been a formidable fortress, but the last time he had not paid much attention to it or its lord. Now though, Mance scarcely saw little, but it spoke loudly. Even if he had his whole army throw themselves at the walls of this keep, they would fail to take it.

Now it was teeming endlessly with wary guards, and he was barely allowed entry, even with his singing skills. It was very hard to sneak even a dagger and a short sword; even now, those lay in his room at the tavern. Abel was very glad to have left them behind, the inspection to enter the inner yard was ever stricter, and not even daggers were allowed unless you were highborn.

The biggest problem was that all the Stark children had gotten themselves a direwolf if half the rumours were true, including Wolf Lord himself. A f*cking direwolf that could tear a limb off a man with nary an effort, and they were raising them as dogs!

Mance would eat his lute if they were not all wargs. Anyone else would have been long attacked, pups or not. The Old Gods had blessed House Stark greatly in the new generation, despite their loss.

The Night's Watch barely had a thousand men, but if Mance wanted his people to cross the Wall, he'd have to deal with the North, which meant dealing with House Stark. The King beyond the Wall wanted to think he could best the wolves on the field, but experience taught him otherwise. The summer was long, and according to the teachings of old maester Aemon, the North could mobilise forty thousand swords, and Eddard Stark's tactical acumen was a legend even fifteen years ago. He looked at Robb Stark, and there was that half-giant muscled man clad in steel near him. The two daughters were under watch by at least a dozen burly guardsmen, and the youngest boy was no less defended either.

Attempting to kidnap any of them was futile, especially with their direwolf pups. Even if Abel somehow succeeded, he would not manage to travel five miles without getting found. Mance Rayder shook his head and continued playing 'A dornishman's Wife'for the Southron knights as they began to sing along. His biggest hope was for the fat stag king to pull the Lord of Winterfell to the South. A green boy would be far easier to deal with than someone like Eddard Stark.

Eddard Stark

Robert had become a pale shadow of himself; gone was the mighty warrior with a warhammer, and the fat and perfumed king had taken his place. And sure enough, both the betrothal and the Handship were offered, although he did not expect the hand of the Princess to be offered to Robb. Eddard had observed Cersei's children closely but could find little fault with them. Joffrey was not the most pleasant of boys, but few were at three and ten, and he had seen worse before. Myrcella was a beauty to behold with her long golden curls and emerald eyes, and while serious and proud, there was none of the ire and disdain her mother poorly tried to conceal. Not that it helped that Robert had a serving wench in his lap…

The feast had finally ended as the hour of the bat had approached. Now he was gathered together with Howland and Benjen in his solar. Three loyal men were guarding the stairs to this floor, and none would hear what they were to speak now.

His brother placed down his nephew's letter, and a forlorn sigh tore from his mouth as his brow was scrunched up in thought.

"So Jon's Lya's boy?" Benjen whispered as he shook his head. "Madness, all of it!"

"I wish it were so, but…" Ned shook his head. "As you read just now, we have greater problems we cannot ignore. You're the First Ranger. Do you think there's any truth to his warnings of the Others?"

His brother stood there deep in thought for a few moments before grimacing.

"I'm afraid it's quite possible. We lose far more men on ranging lately, and entire wildling villages are gone without a single soul remaining," Benjen slowly explained. "First, we thought it was Mance Rayder gathering them all before a desperate push through the Wall, but even he cannot muster all of them, and many of those hamlets are abandoned with food, clothing, and arms all left behind. The wildlings are afraid, and the few we've caught recently speak of the 'Cold Shadows'. We thought them growing mad from the cold and hunger, but…."

"I feared this was the case," the Lord of Winterfell sighed. "The deserter that we caught spoke a similar tale, you see. He was so mad with fear it made him flee all the way here to Winterfell, and his only request was to burn his body."

"Damn it all! The Night's Watch is not ready to face the Others!" His brother tiredly ran a hand through his dark hair. "Seven hells, we are not ready to deal with a King Beyond the Wall either. Scarcely a thousand men between three castles, and half of them builders and stewards, not too skilled with a blade or a bow."

"You'll have the North behind you," Ned squeezed Benjen's shoulder. "The Night's Watch won't stand alone. And if Jon's word is to be trusted, he knows how to deal with the Others. I've already sent for the clans and the Skagosi to start mining and fashioning obsidian into daggers, speartips and arrowheads."

"Aye, that's true, but you cannot call the northern banners to simply wait forever at the Wall," the First Ranger countered. "The wildlings can be broken in a decisive fight or two. But the Others? For all we know, any fighting against them might stretch for years. The Gift lays fallow. We can barely feed our own, let alone tens of thousands more throats for long."

"We need to strengthen the Night's Watch. But the question is how?" Eddard muttered to himself. "The South is never going to believe any of this, and we have no proof but some words. And words are wind."

He did not mention how Robert seemed to care little for the Watch. In fact, his old friend seemed to care little for anything not related to wenching, feasting, and drinking. The crown had brought the once mighty stag to ruin and decadence.

"Lord Commander Mormont has been struggling to do so for years, but all of his pleas for assistance to the Wall would have met deaf ears if not for the North," Bejen sighed. "As for proof, I will try to convince the Old Bear to try and procure some, but I give no promises. For no word to reach the Watch directly, all our rangers who met the Walkers were either slain or fled."

"You'll arm yourself with obsidian-tipped weapons before you return to Castle Black," Ned said with a tone that brooked no disagreements, and his brother nodded.

"It's better than just words, but I doubt proof would be easily believed, even if you manage to procure a wight," the Crannoglord cautioned. "The Others are far from the only ones capable of sorcery to raise the dead as their thralls."

"Then what can we do?"

"There's not much the North can do on its own that it has not done already," Howland supplied as he thoughtfully scratched his chin. "But… there is a way, but you will mislike it."

The Lord of Greywater Watch spoke with such a foreboding tone that it sent cold shivers down Ned's spine.

"Tell me."

"You can accept Princess Myrcella as a bride for Robb and demand the lands of the New Gift be returned to the North as a dowry with a reduced tax for five years. The king will not hesitate to grant it. You can use the coin to directly support the Watch. The Umbers would regain their lost lands, and so would the clansmen, and you would still have enough left to appoint two or three more middling lords to rebuild old holdfasts and repopulate the first line after the Wall."

"You are right, I mislike the idea greatly," Ned sighed heavily. He had dreamed of resettling the Gift before, but not like this. Abusing his position and haggling like a common merchant with the crown?

Benjen also did not look very eager about it.

Although the golden-haired maiden would make a fine wife for Robb, especially if Howland was right, and she was Robert's daughter.

"Then you'll mislike what I will say even more," Howland continued. "While the Lord of Winterfell can reach only the North, the Hand can reach Seven Kingdoms."

"I'm ill fit to rule as Hand, and it's too dangerous," Ned shook his head in denial.

"It's not an honour so easily declined," the Lord of Greywater Watch sighed. "The king came all the way here with pomp and pageantry, and you cannot let him return emptyhanded. And I don't mean to stay in the South for years. Go there, and do everything in your power to bolster the Night's Watch from the office of Hand. No need for proof they might or might not believe. Sending more men, more supplies would be easily within your grasp! Robert has always been a proud man, even more so with a crown atop his head. Sooner or later, you'll disagree on something, and you can resign and return North. By then, the Watch would be manyfold what it was before!"

"You want me to accept the Handship only to shirk away my duty later, Howland?!"

"The King is the Lord Protector of the Realm first, and that duty falls on the Hand second, Ned and that does not mean you would not do the rest of your duties and help Robert at the same time," the crannogman shrugged. "If you have any better ideas, I'm all ears."

After finishing another round of lovemaking, Ned left the bed without bothering to put on his clothes, made way for the windows, pulled the tapestries away, and opened them, enjoying the cool night air entering the chambers. His wife's quarters were the warmest in the whole keep, and he oft felt them too suffocating for his taste.

He was intent on declining Robert on both of his offers, but damn Howland, he was speaking too much sense. And the worst was, they had no better ideas.

His desire to avoid the Southern mess was already futile. Vows and alliances he would never break bound him stronger than steel. Tully, Arryn, Stark, the bonds were already vowed and written in blood, and if he agreed, so would be Baratheon. At that moment, Ned felt like he was tangled in a web of his own making.

"Did Robert tell you how your foster father passed?" Cat's soft voice echoed from the bed. "Or about my sister and her son?"

"I didn't ask," Ned admitted. Jon Arryn was far from his mind these days; he had greater troubles. His stay at the Eyrie seemed like an eternity ago. While he loved the Lord of the Vale, old men died all the time, and they did before they reached seventy, let alone eighty, like his foster father. He worried even less for Lysa and Robert Arryn, both of which outlived House Stark and Tully after ignoring their bonds by blood.

"Then what troubles you so?" Catelyn's soft voice echoed from the bed, and he turned to face his wife.

Ah, how he wanted to tell her everything, but now was not the time or the place.

"I want to refuse him."

"You cannot. You must not," she stood up. "The king travelled all this way to give you great honours other highlords can only dream of. The last time a princess married outside the Royal Family was over eighty years ago!"

"I know," he agreed softly. "But I am sorely needed here."

"The North is peaceful; there has not been a battle fought here in more than fifty years," Catelyn said. "Isn't Robb already aiding you in your duties? And all that additional tutoring you give him! He might be young, but our son is a man now and can handle any trouble that comes his way. Princess Myrcella is a demure yet smart girl, she would make a great wife for him and a worthy Lady of Winterfell."

"I have no real reason to decline that marriage. He wanted to wed Arya and Joffrey first…" his wife made a choking sound and gaped like a fish. "Aye, I managed to dissuade him from that particular notion. But new, far direr tidings came from Beyond the Wall."

She paled. "Did you not say Mance Rayder is nothing for us to fear?"

"I do not fear a bold deserter of the Night's Watch," he shook his head. "You turned out to be right. Far darker things stir in the Lands of Always Winter than desperate savages."

"Ned?"

"The Others have begun to move again."

"How can you know?" Cat shuddered and pulled her covers closer.

"It's not a single thing," he waved it away. "More missing rangers than ever, more deserters, the last one I executed was broken by fear, but not a fear of men. And a warning, a warning I could not ignore."

"A warning?"

"A greenseer," he lied and swallowed heavily as he felt a knot twist in his stomach. "He left me no room for doubt."

Ned hated lying, but he did not feel it was the right moment to tell his wifeeverything.But it was not yet the time. Doubt was etched on her face, but it was replaced with thoughtfulness.

"And hearsay would easily be dismissed from the King and the rest of the Realm," Cat slowly muttered. She believed him; at that moment, he couldn't have loved her more. "Without proof, people would say the cold addles your wits, and you're seeing grumpkins and snarks where there are none."

"Aye, and I have no real proof to offer," Ned agreed.

"You must still go South," she said after pondering for a few heartbeats. "The North is already aiding the Watch as much as it can. In the court, you can forge more alliances for House Stark. And as Hand, you can force the rest of the kingdoms to provide men and supplies to the Wall. The North needs not be the only one to aid the Watch."

A knock came at the door, loud and unexpected, making Ned turn with a frown.

"What is it?"

"My lord, Ser Rodrik caught a man trying to sneak into the Maester's Turrent and sent a guard to report to you," Desmond's voice came through the door.

"I'll be there in a few," Ned said after exchanging a worried look with Cat before crossing to the wardrobe and grabbing his doublet and breeches.

A man sneaking like a catspaw during the night after the King's party arrived? It did not bode well at all.

Notes:

There's so much to unpack here as well. Ned has too much on his mind to ask about an old man dying, which is not particularly suspicious, so Jon Arryn is left mostly unmentioned. He also holds some subconscious bias against Lysa for not honouring her alliances with House Stark and Tully in the future.

Arya is preferred to Sansa because she's far closer age to Lyanna this time in looks and reminds Robert of his old flame. Myrcella's age gets her near the top of the list of marriageable royal children.

The die is cast, and Ned is faced with a choice he doesn't like. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Catelyn's reasoning is similar to the original so far, and Howland proves to be quite cunning in a practical sense. As for why she's so quick to believe? She was originally superstitious about things North of the Wall, and Ned was the one to dismiss them.

As we already established, Howland already believes that Cersei's children are Robert's and simply inherited their mother's colouring.

I want to remind you that Jon had no way of objectively knowing the truth, and neither did Howland or Ned at this point. The notion of the queen cuckolding the king with her own brother and nobody would find out is so absurd that it is barely believable, especially from the mouth of the one that benefits the most (Stannis, who was the closet source of information Jon had on the topic).

Oh, and the increased security in Winterfell begins to bear its first fruits.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Drop a kudos if you liked the story so far!

Chapter 13: That Damned Mutt

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

A.N: I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

2nd Day of the 5th Moon

Davos Seaworth, the Isle of Driftmark

Stannis had taken his sweet time to come to a decision, and more than a moon later, they were finally here.

"Driftmark is yours, my lord," Monford Velaryon bowed deeply.

The Lord of the Tides was a handsome, tall man garbed in green silk with fair hair and purple eyes. There was no woman next to him, and if Davos remembered correctly, his wife had died after a bad miscarriage a handful of years ago. According to the rumours he had heard on the docks, lord Monford had not remarried despite having only a single heir because of his fierce love for his deceased spouse.

"Lord Velaryon," Stannis returned stiffly.

Everything about the Lord of Dragonstone was stiff right now, from how he moved his limbs to his face, which reminded Davos of an iron mask. Still, his presence was imposing as always, and his gaze was even more piercing than usual. The Lord of Dragonstone showed no outward signs of pain at all; all his terrible burns were beneath his neck, covered by his garb.

Despite Stannis' dislike for the milk of the poppy, he decided to use it for public appearances to present a position of strength.

"My condolences for Lady Baratheon's passing," the Valyrian lord sounded regretful, but he only elicited a gruff nod from Stannis. Monford then pushed forward a young boy who had the same colouring. "This is my son, Monterys."

The heir of Driftmark hesitantly looked around before bowing.

"This is my daughter, Shireen Baratheon," Stannis' voice grew steely, and Davos could sense a sliver of pride underneath as the shy girl was pushed forward and curtsied. "Enough of the pleasantries. Let's go somewhere private."

It seemed that Castle Driftmark was rarely in use, and the Lord of the Tides preferred High Tide with its pale stone and slender towers.

Aside from the luxuriously decorated entrance and antechamber, the inner hallways and rooms looked less… gaudy than Davos expected. A few delicate myrish vases could be seen everywhere but were sparse at best. Jade, silver, and mahogany were replaced with oak, bronze, and olden, threadbare tapestries whose colours had begun to fade with the passage of time. It seemed that the Velaryons had fallen far from their former glory as the richest House of the realm.

After a nod from Stannis, they were led to a small, private parlour while the young Monterys hesitantly led Shireen towards her quarters, escorted by a pair of guards. Davos barely stifled a laugh at the sight; the shy girl towered over the young boy with a whole head.

Monford bid the guards stand at the hallway entrance, and as soon as the door closed, the Lord of Dragonstone collapsed bonelessly on a tapered chair and began to cough wetly. The Valyrian lord watched with confusion as his liege finally managed to gather his bearing after a painful minute.

"Lord Monford," Stannis wheezed out painfully. "I am in need of your service."

Eddard Stark

Usually, the Lord of Winterfell would deal only with executions and arbitration, not petty thieves or poachers. But he was already up and about, so he might as well handle it, lest the court thought House Stark was neglecting the king's security.

"What do we know?"

"The man entered with the royal party. He refuses to say anything," Rodrik shook his head as he descended into the dungeons, lantern in hand. Winter had decided to accompany them and curiously trailed after Ned.

Like the stairway, the dark hallways were narrow, cold, damp, and lined with undressed granite. Most of the cells were hewn directly into the stone, making any prisoners stuck in perpetual darkness.

At the end of the passageway, a pair of braziers flickered, scarcely illuminating the four wary guardsmen.

They stopped at the first oaken door. It was very thick and so generously lined with iron that it took two strong men to push it open.

The flickering lantern revealed the insides of a small cell, where a thin, short man with sandy hair and dark eyes had his hands and feet clasped in irons. He was clad in a gaudy cotton tunic and breeches, and Ned vaguely remembered his face from the feast. A bard, mayhaps?

The prisoner blinked in confusion for a few heartbeats, then warily eyed the adolescent direwolf, stood up, and bowed deeply, despite the manacles.

"'Tis a mistake, m'lord! I meant to visit one of the serving maids!"

Eddard Stark squinted his eyes; the man had just lied; he could feel it. He shook his head and pushed the odd feeling into a corner of his mind.

"Not only a thief but a liar as well," Ned snorted and nodded to the guardsmen outside.

Heward brought an ironwood stump while Wayn and Jacks held down the man and forced him to his knees with the thief's hand pressed to the bloc. Winter obediently sat down on the ground to the side and observed with his shining yellow eyes.

"W-wait! What are you doing?!" the chained man cried out as Rodrik handed him a sharpened steel blade. A pity Ice was too large to be used in narrow places like this.

"Your right hand is forfeit for thievery," the master-of-arms supplied, "and so is your tongue for lying to the Lord of Winterfell."

The bard began to shiver and struggle, but it was futile against the iron grip of the two burly guardsmen. Ned gave the blade a few waves to test the balance before lifting it and aiming for the outstretched right hand.

"I-I'm innocent!"

Ned stilled; he could tell the desperate plea was genuine, and this time, the man had spoken truthfully.

"Innocent? You were caught sneaking inside the Maester's Turret in the middle of the night," Rodrik snorted. "Doubtlessly to steal some parchment, candles, or even precious books!"

"If not to steal, why sneak like a thief in the night? Speak truthfully, and you can keep your hand," the Lord of Winterfell offered after a moment of contemplation.

"I w-was sent here b-by the l-lord Littlefinger to deliver a wooden box to the m-maester's tower w-without being seen," he uttered hoarsely.

Truth.

"Littlefinger?"

"L-lord Petyr B-Baelish."

Truth. That Baelish again, what would the master of coin want with his family? Ned liked this not.

"There was no crate on him, my lord," Rodrik supplied.

"It's in my room at t-the tavern, I swear," the bard's cries became desperate. Truth. "I tried to scout first to see if I could sneak past the guardsmen…"

There was no lie in his words, and the Lord of Winterfell found himself frowning. Even ignoring the odd feeling on the back of his head, he saw no deceit in the trembling man.

"Do you oft do tasks for the master of coin?" Ned returned the blade to Rodrik, who put it away in its sheath and signalled for the guards to release the man.

"He pays good s-silver to bring him rumours from afar, m'lord," the bard stood up, still burdened by the chains, and trembled. "A-and even b-better coin to deliver things."

Truth.

Eddard Stark sighed inwardly.

"Get five more men, quietly escort him to the tavern, and bring me back this box."

The visiting bards, fools, and the more important merchants were usually housed in the tavern in the Outer ward, and it had been re-opened to accommodate those too lowborn to stay in the Guest House but would be needed close by in case the nobles required entertainment. He should have foreseen that the royal retinue and their camp followers would not be trustworthy.

Eddard Stark tiredly ran a hand through his hair as he waited in a large room in one of the inner towers; Winter curled in a grey ball at his feet. The whole day was long, troublesome, and tiring, and he now found cursing himself at his decision to visit his wife's chambers instead of simply sleeping. Staying awake was becoming a struggle.

Soon enough, the bard entered, escorted by Rodrik with half a dozen men-at-arms, and the direwolf at his feet perked up.

A delicate, intricately carved box was presented on the small table before him. Made of polished ebony and small enough to fit into the palm of his hand.

"Do you know what's inside?"

"No, m'lord," the bard vigorously shook his head.

This time, Ned ignored the feeling in the back of his mind and carefully observed the fair-haired man before him. All visible signs only confirmed the vague feeling that he had spoken truthfully.

"Your name?"

"Corwyn, m'lord."

Beads of sweat were pooling heavily on the bard's brow, despite the cold night.

"You'll keep your tongue and hand, Corwyn," Ned decided, and the man let out a relieved sigh. "But trespassing inside my halls is not something I can forgive, nor was attempting to lie at the start. Five lashes."

"B-but you promised!"

"To keep your hand, not to free you from punishment," he flexed his fingers. "Take him out and flog him in Winter Town. And Corwyn is now barred from Winterfell."

The guardsmen dragged the reluctant bard out, leaving Ned alone with Rodrik, both looking at the intricate box. Winter was also circling curiously around the table.

"Let me," the master-at-arms cautioned. Ned nodded, and the old knight took the miniature chest and carefully latched it open. "A tube?"

Rodrik blinked a few times in confusion and fiddled with the box for a handful of heartbeats before handing it over.

The insides were padded with purple velvet, and a lone bronze cylinder lay in the middle. The small, delicate tube had two polished lenses on each end. A far-eye. Ned cautiously picked it up and closely inspected it in the flickering light of the nearby torch. The glasswork was smooth, without any visible blemishes. The bronze was also polished like a mirror, with a few intricate circles and stars inscribed along its length. Only the myrish craftsmen could make glasswork so fine. It would be rather costly to buy for a common merchant but within the means of even minor lordlings. He held up the cylinder and gingerly looked through the lens, seeing the table far closer and in greater detail. A far-eye indeed.

The cylinder was left on the table as he fiddled with the box curiously. Yet there seemed to be nothing exceptional aside from the intricate carvings.

Why would the master of coin go through all this trouble just to send a far-eye to Winterfell's maester?

At that moment, Winter rose on his back legs, poked his snout at the ebony box in his hands and whined.

Ned placed it on the ground and watched as his direwolf circled around it uneasily and poked at the bottom with his paw. Clearly, the canine's sharp senses found something the Lord of Winterfell couldn't. Winter suddenly bit the box and wildly shook his furry head.

"Stop it, boy," for the first time since he began training the beast, the direwolf ignored his command. But before Ned could even get angry, something cracked with a click, and Winter stopped before paddling softly to him and placing the box in his hand with a wagging tail.

Barely adolescent, his bite had still cracked open the hardwood like an egg. A small compartment had popped out from the bottom, containing a tightly-rolled parchment, sealed by wax bearing the blue falcon of House Arryn. Ned absentmindedly scratched Winter behind the ear as he checked the mark and frowned.

Rodrik turned to leave, but the Lord of Winterfell waved him to remain. Cassel was leal and would keep his secrets. The old knight averted his gaze.

The message was marked not for him but for Catelyn Stark, his wife.

There was nothing wrong with sisters trying to write one another. But the Arryns lacked neither ravens nor trusted riders to carry a message. Why all the secrecy, and why was the master of coin used as an intermediary?

He hesitated for a few moments but decided to open it regardless. He trusted his wife, but not Lysa Arryn, let alone this meddlesome Petyr Baelish.

With trepidation, Ned broke the seal, and his brows furrowed. The letters and words were all jumbled and made little sense. He spun it around, but it was still meaningless gibberish. A private language, mayhaps?

Surely, his wife would be familiar with it, as the message was intended for her. He rubbed his tired eyes, rolled back the parchment, tucked it and the far-eye in the inner pocket of his cloak and slumped on the chair. His quarters were too far away for his liking, and Ned simply felt tempted to sleep here.

Rodrik hesitantly approached; the swinging lantern in his hand made the shadows dance.

"My lord," the old knight tugged at his greying whiskers, "I had the guardsmen observe the royal retinue during the feast. There were a few other suspicious characters amongst the entertainers. Jugglers, jesters, dancers, and bards, among other men."

Damn Robert and his hide, did he have to bring the whole pit of vipers with him?!

Ned tiredly rubbed his brow and held in his groan. He struggled with the desire to leave these woes for later, but no. His sleep was already gone; it was better to deal with problems now. What if they did some mischief in the night, just like the Corwyn fellow?

"Bring them in for questioning."

"In the middle of the night?" Rodrik asked.

"Aye, now."

The knight bowed and left the chambers. Ned's heavy eyelids slowly closed as he sat there waiting, and didn't notice how the grey direwolf curiously paddled through the open door and into the darkness outside.

Abel the 'Bard'

A loud yell awoke him. He stood up instantly, grabbed his sword and lute, struggled to fasten his cloak in the darkness, and creaked the shutter slightly.

Abel cursed inwardly, the surrounding yard was swarming with guardsmen, and the darkness made everything hard to see, but he could count at least two dozen torches streaming towards the entrance.

Had they found him?

His heart beat like a drum, and the sound of heavy footsteps coming from the hallway forced him to come to a decision. The sounds of doors opened one by one, and the confused and drowsy voices of the patrons quickly banished his drowsiness.

Deserters of the Watch were executed, and his head would roll if he was caught. But Mance couldn't afford to die here. He finally had his sweet taste of life and freedom and wanted more.

Saying a quiet prayer, he opened the shutter, climbed onto the window sill and looked above. His earlier caution to memorise the layout of the tavern had paid off as he had chosen a room with a view to the backside on the lower floor.

Thankfully the Stark men hadn't surrounded the building. Abel pushed the shutter closed from the outside as he jumped down to the ground. With some luck, they would think the room empty or that he was visiting some scullery maid and wouldn't look too close in the darkness. Taking a moment to massage his now numb legs, the bard cautiously looked around.

No guardsmen could be seen, and the thick darkness would work in his favour. But he'd now have to sneak to the hundred feet wall, climb it, swim through the cold waters of the wide moat, and climb the second wall without being found.

A curse tore from his lips; this castle was a f*cking death trap.

At least the skies were dark and cloudy; the moon had waned fully. He quietly moved under the thick veil of darkness, from building to building, staying away from the braziers and torches, hoping nobody would spot him. Maybe it would be better to cause some sort of distraction and try to make for the gate.

Yet, there was still the drawbridge and the outer gate. What if the former was raised? And Abel had counted the gate guard when entering with the royal procession. What distraction could draw half a hundred vigilant guardsmen from their posts?

At that moment, a low growl sounded behind him, making Abel freeze.

His hand made for the grip of his sword, and he slowly turned around, only to be faced with a pair of yellow eyes shining like lanterns through the darkness. With squinted eyes, he could barely make out the silhouette of the hound; it wasn't particularly huge, just above his knees.

"Good boy," he whispered loudly, trying to placate the dog, but it continued growling even louder. "Come now, I mean no harm. I was just about to leave, you see."

If only he had grabbed a piece of jerky from the feast. Abel cursed his luck again, slowly unsheathed his sword, and stepped forward. He had to silence the shaggy mutt before it alerted the numerous guardsmen.

Yet the dog stepped back, and a powerful, high-pitched half-bark half-howl tore through the night. Abel cursed and charged towards the damned pest, but it turned tail and dashed away, barking up a storm.

"Others take this f*cking mutt," a stream of angry curses escaped his mouth; the voices of guardsmen had begun to approach along with the light of their torches.

The hound was too fast, and there was no point in chasing it in the dark. Abel gritted his teeth and made for the outer wall as fast as his legs could carry him. But the thrice-damned barks followed right behind him, giving up his location for all to hear.

A sharp pain stabbed into his right ankle, dragging his whole foot, and after a moment of weightlessness, his face met the ground.

Someone began to scream, and it only took Mance a few moments to realise that the sound was coming from his own mouth. His leg was throbbing with crippling agony, and he vaguely heard the shouts approaching.

The Lord of Winterfell

"-lord, my lord!"

Ned groaned, cracked open his eyes, and blinked in confusion at Rodrik's worried face flickering on the lantern's light. The taste of hot blood filled his mouth.

What was happening?

Blurry memories of chasing after bad men in the night clouded his mind. It took him a few moments to remember that he was in one of the towers, evidently fallen asleep. The more he tried to remember the odd dream, the faster it slipped away. Shaking his head with a sigh, he rubbed his weary eyes and focused on his master-at-arms.

"We caught the men," the old knight recounted. "Two bards and one jester, all in the dungeons. But there's some… trouble."

"Trouble?" Ned stood up and stretched, but his body still felt stiff and tired.

"Well," the master-at-arms hesitated for a few moments, then motioned towards the ground with his hand. Winter sat there, snout covered in blood and tail wagging vigorously, looking at Ned expectantly. "We rounded the suspicious folks, but one was missing."

"What's with the blood?" he asked, massaging his temples to fight the rising headache.

"Winter hunted down the runner as he was escaping, barking up a storm. Bit through the man's ankle as if it were made of straw, crunched through bone and all. When we arrived, the bard was moaning in pain, and the direwolf was cautiously circling him while growling."

Looking at Winter, who was eagerly gazing at him, Ned could hardly imagine the young direwolf capable of such damage.

Dangerous beasts, indeed.

But uncannily smart and loyal as well; just tonight, Winter had greatly helped him twice. He didn't regret taking the pups in; he'd just have to continue making sure they were well-trained.

"Do we know why the bard ran?" Ned scratched his beard.

"The man only cursed and moaned at us," Rodrik snorted. "But he wouldn't run if he was innocent," the greying knight hesitated for a moment, "there's something familiar about him, but I just couldn't bring it to mind."

"Let's go," the Lord of Winterfell stood up with a sigh and followed after Rodrik. Outside, Desmond, Wayn, and Jacks followed as escorts.

"I sent him to Luwin so the catspaw doesn't bleed out before we could question him," the old knight explained as they made their way to the Maester's Turret.

Now that Rodrik mentioned that, it made sense. A bard would be a very good catspaw; men were far more busy feasting and drinking at celebrations than worrying for their life.

Two braziers illuminated half a dozen men-at-arms at the tower's entrance, one of which led them up the stairs in front of a small oaken door guarded by four more guards.

The smell of poultices and herbs hit him as he entered the room. A score of candles and two oil lanterns illuminated the room as if it were day. In the middle stood a wide wooden table, and a still man, face covered with dirt, clothes changed into a plain roughspun robe, was tightly strapped by chains on top of it. Luwin stopped busying himself around the bandaged foot and bowed.

"How's our runner?" Eddard asked.

"Passed out from the pain, my lord," Luwin tugged at his chain nervously as he looked at Winter, who had followed and was now sitting peacefully with his tongue lolled out. "His leg will be crippled, the ankle is mangled too badly. I can force him to wake if you wish."

"Not yet," Ned tiredly rubbed his brow, deep in thought for a moment. "What can you tell us about him, any oddities?"

"Strong, broad chest and shoulders, he has the body of a warrior, not a bard. The way his palms are calloused suggests he trained at arms from a young age," the old maester straightened up. "And there's plenty of old scars, all marks of blades and arrows."

He carefully gazed at the knocked-out man chained to the table. Thick beard aside, there was something distantly familiar in his dirty face, but Ned couldn't put his finger on it.

"Aside from the usual knives and daggers, he also had a short sword with him," Rodrik added grimly. "The man somehow managed to smuggle it inside through the guard."

Gods, what did a man have to do to stay protected in his own keep?!

"Tighten security even more." The master-at-arms grimly nodded at his words. "We cannot afford any accidents with the royal family in our halls."

"Mayhaps we can see the maker's mark on the arms?" Luwin suggested with a cough. "It could give us a clue about where the man came from."

"Bring them here," Ned ordered, and the master-at-arms headed out of the room.

A minute later, Rodrik returned with a short sword and a dagger in his hands. He unsheathed them and looked at the base of the blade, where the smiths traditionally left their marks.

"Both bear the same mark. Looks familiar, but I can't recall," the old knight grumbled and carefully handed one hilt to Luwin and the other one to Ned.

The Lord of Winterfell carefully inspected the marking. A simple half-circle with two-crossed lines-

"This is Arlyn's work," Luwin supplied. "The Shadow Tower's master smith."

They all looked at the man chained on the table. His hair was mostly grey, with a few strands of brown valiantly resisting the inevitable onslaught of time.

"So either a deserter or a wildling," Rodrik concluded.

"A wildling won't be able to blend so easily in the North," Ned shook his head. "Nor know enough of our songs to play at a royal feast."

The room fell silent as they were all lost in thought. Gods, what a mess!

"It's also possible that one of the black brothers sold some of their arms for coin and claimed it was lost," the maester cautioned.

The feeling of familiarity strengthened. Eddard had seen this man before, but where? Damn his tired mind!

"Luwin, clean his face and shave his beard," he ordered.

The maester used a clean rag and a basin full of water brought by one of the guardsmen, and soon the grime was gone, revealing a weathered yet sharp face underneath.

A familiar face, a bard, a deserter of the Night's Watch. A deserter of the Night's Watch…

As the razor trimmed through the tangled beard, it finally clicked.

"Mance Rayder!"

Salladhor Saan, Beyond the Wall

Alas, all the coin made in selling fruits in Gulltown was gone in their heavy fur-lined clothing and thickened wool cloaks for the crews. Sailing through the treacherous waters east of Skaagos was but a simple feat for a man like Salladhor, so they had reached their destination with little to no trouble.

Yet it seemed that their troubles had just begun.

Heshiveredagain; the cold was not deterred by his thick woollen undershirt, his fur-lined tunic, or the heavy double cloak. In the beginning, it wasn't that bad, but as they sailed northwards, it slowly seeped into his clothes and skin, and even his bones felt as if they were going to freeze.

Salladhor felt cheated. It was the height of summer back home, where you could go naked in the night and still feel warm!

Where was the summer here? The land was full of ice and snow, with no summer in sight. How people even lived in this cold wasteland was beyond him. If it got any colder, even piss would freeze before it hit the ground!

Salladhor was glad he only took two of his ships and his hardiest men. Any other would have mutinied.

With his shivering hands, he struggled to uncork his wineskin. Even his fingers were freezing, despite the thick leather gloves. Salladhor finally succeeded and took greedy gulps of the pear brandy.

The strong drink set his throat on fire, and warmth began to spread from his belly.

"f*ckin' snow," Denzo swore, his deep breaths forming small misty clouds. The fierce scowl had been a permanent fixture on his face since they reached the snowy shores. "Saan, gimme some of the brandy."

The manhunter was tall and strong, muscled like a bull, with olive skin and a bare head covered by a fur-lined hat, and also shook like a leaf from the cold, despite his thick clothing. Salladhor laughed inwardly at the man's stupidity; the Tyroshi heavily regretted his decision to shave his head after they departed. Not only that, but Denzo had only brought that weak pale-green piss from Myr they called nectar. So sweet it would make your teeth ache and did little to warm up your insides.

An unpleasant, petty man, but Salladhor still needed him and his ilk to catch those mammoths. After a moment of hesitation, he threw the Tyroshi his spare flask.

"Use it sparingly, Hartys," the sellsail warned. "This is all you'll get."

Salladhor had eight more in his cabin, but they were saved for his own throat, not for some slaver.

Denzo grudgingly took a small gulp and belched loudly. Hah, at least the fool stopped shivering.

"Hundreds of miles of shore and not a single soul in sight," the manhunter grumbled as he strapped the wineskin to his black belt and gazed at the coast.

There had been a few small villages, all abandoned. Now there was nobody to trade with or ask for directions, let alone capture like Hartys wanted. It was a rugged, lonely place full of bare drab rocks and coarse sand; the songs of seagulls were replaced with the ominous cries of crows and ravens. The foreboding forest looming above the shore was little better; despite the white veil of snow, it looked dark and haunted.

A tinge of regret began to swell within him, but he quickly squashed it. A little bit of hardship and Salladhor would make enough coin to live as a prince for the rest of his life!

"We came here for weirwood and ivory," he clicked his tongue. "No goods, no coin."

Although both of the materials would still sell with ease, none would be willing to pay even a tenth of what the magister had promised.

Salladhor tried to stay calm, but worry had begun to gnaw at his gut.

They had arrived a sennight ago, and the lyseni smuggler thought everything was in the bag, yet they had found nothing along the shores. No wildlings, no mammoths in sight. There were a few handfuls of the red-leafed trees, but they were too young and small, trunks thinner than a girl's waist at the root, all useless. And it wouldn't do to chop sacred trees and provoke some divine wrath for nought.

The Archon of Tyrosh's wedding was in less than two cycles, and with a moon of sailing back south, they had less than twenty-five days to procure all the materials.

"Always coin with you smugglers," the burly man shook his head with a dismissive snort. "Your head is too filled with dreams of gold to think. Didn't the savages live around their bone trees? Two ducks with one rock," he cracked his knuckles, "and elephants don't drink seawater, mammoths should be little different. We'll have to either venture into the dark forest or sail up that big river we passed yesterday. Even the savages need to drink; there will be at least some living in the surroundings."

As unlikeable as the manhunter was, Salladhor could grudgingly admit that Denzo was good at what he did.

Worse, they had to hurry; he doubted Magister Sarrios would give them a single penny if they arrived after the wedding.

"According to my map, there's a large lake upstream," the smuggler said. "We can use it as a base and spread our search from there."

"Let's go. I'm sick of this damned cold," Denzo Hartys wearily rubbed his gloved hands. "The sooner we're done, the sooner we can go back."

Notes:

Winterfell's increased defences begin to pay off. I thought long and hard about Lysa's message, and since it came with the royal retinue(remember, book timeline), Littlefinger had a hand in it. In fact, she has no reason to lie to her sister; this is clearly Baelish pulling and planning sh*t in the dark. Cloak and dagger stuff is far more his style.

Also, Littlefinger didn't go through more layers of delegating because this was too important. Keep in mind that he has only been in KL for about five years, if not less, so his means should be somehow limited still. Another thing is that, while somehow suspicious, there isn't particularly anything incriminating in sending messengers like that (at least not for Baelish).

Winter is a good boy. Or, well, depending on the perspective, a damned mutt.

Ned's having a wild night. And he's going to have an even wilder day.

Our essosi friends are having trouble with the northern summer. It seems that the good-paying job is not as easy as it first sounded.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

Chapter 14: Off with his Head

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: yours truly so expect some mistakes; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

2nd Day of the 5th Moon

Robert Baratheon, the First of his Name

The king awoke, and his throbbing head made him scowl. He couldn't help but feel old - ten years ago, he could spend three days feasting, drinking, and wenching and feel as spry as a stag in the morn, yet now only a single night had lain him low.

His feather bed was already empty; the wench from last night had been sent out of his quarters as soon as he had finished. Five years ago, he could have bedded three at the same time for thrice as long, but alas, it seemed that old age caught up even to royalty.

Groggily standing up, Robert called for his servants, who quickly garbed him in his green velvet doublet and black silk leggings and handed him his golden mantle with the black-and-gold squares cloak. It was time to hear Ned's decision; a night should have been more than enough to speak to Catelyn.

As usual, Selmy was vigilantly standing outside of his quarters, although worry shone in his pale blue eyes. Moore, with his lifeless gaze and empty face, joined Selmy at the entrance of the Guest House. One could mistake the Valeman for a corpse if he were not moving. Alas, his skills with the blade had earned him the white cloak after winning a melee a handful of years ago.

The courtyard was swarming with even more guardsmen than yesterday, all tense and wary, but Ned was nowhere to be found. The rest of the royal retinue looked unsettled but otherwise undisturbed. The warm rays of the morning sun just peaked from the east; it was too early!

"There are too many men-at-arms here for a garrison," Moore noted, voice flat. "Even more than yesterday."

"Bah, Ned honours me with this level of protection," Robert waved his concern away, "but mayhaps something happened during the night?"

Even old Selmy was on edge, fiddling with the handle of his sword, "Should I find out what, Your Grace?"

Robert shook his head and gazed at the Stark men before finally spotting a familiar face.

"Cassel!" His voice boomed, attracting the attention of the man wearing the surcoat emblazoned with the ten wolf heads. The captain of Winterfell's guard, if his memory was correct. "Where's Lord Eddard?"

"Lord Stark is at the Godswood, Your Grace," Jory quickly came over, his face grim.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed Barristan signalling Greenfield and Trant, and soon there were two more white cloaks behind the king. Ha, the old knight was worrying for nothing again! Winterfell was safer than the Red Keep for him.

"Well, lead us to him, Captain Cassel," Robert urged, and they soon headed towards the wall behind the Guest House. "What was the commotion in the yard about?"

"One of the singers attempted to sneak into the maester's turret in the night," Cassel shifted uncomfortably, "and then another outlaw was caught hiding amongst the bards."

For a short moment, Robert wondered why Ned was worried about a handful of pickpockets; those were always common no matter where. That was no job for the Lord of Winterfell; the bailiffs would chop a few fingers off for thievery or deliver a dozen lashes and let them go.

They reached a large iron gate, and with a nod from Ned's captain, the two sentries there pushed it open, revealing the ancient grove.

The Godswood was undoubtedly a better sight than the usual stuffy septs; the air also lacked their typical heavy smell of incense that weighed on your eyes and had none of the grating septons with their long-winded speeches and sermons.

Robert couldn't help but understand Northerners more; the olden places of worship were far more palpable than dealing with the holy men of the Faith and their endless ceremonies.

His friend was sitting nestled amidst the thick roots of the Heart Tree, but something was wrong, and it wasn't the large grey furball at his feet nor the old carved face above that had budding red sap in its eyes as if it were about to weep. Ned's face had grown even paler, and large, black circles had formed under his eyes, and his tired gaze was listlessly wandering at the still pool of black water across him. Half a dozen burly Stark guards were watching vigilantly over their lord from a distance.

"Ned," the Lord of Winterfell stood up at his words and bowed. But he looked worn out and tired; his usually well-kept hair was tangled and messy. "You look like sh*te. Did you forget to sleep and keep poor Cat busy all night?"

"We caught him, Robert," Ned's voice was hoarse, as if he hadn't even heard him.

"Caught who?"

"Mance Rayder! We caught him!" His friend let out a choked, raspy laugh.

"Who's that?" The name sounded familiar, but too many names had passed through the king's ear to remember even half of them.

"The King Beyond the Wall!" Ned's hand balled into a fist.

Ah yes, the fabled deserter and a self-styled king of savages; Robert vaguely remembered Jon mentioning him some moons ago.

"How'd you find him?"

"After one of the singers tried to steal something from the Maester's turret, I had the rest of the suspicious bards brought in for questioning," Ned's eyes hardened into two chips of stone. "One of them tried running but failed. Turned out he was more than a bard."

Robert tried to remember the faces of the men from the feast, but all he could recall was the thick ale, his wife's eternal sour face, and the well-endowed serving wenches. The grey furball at his friend's feet uncurled, revealing a wolf who lazily stretched and obediently sat beside Ned.

Ha, so those silly rumours had some truth in them? Mayhaps Robert should try and catch a young buck for himself during the upcoming hunt?

Barristan cautiously stood forward.

"Lord Stark, if I may?" Ned nodded at the old knight, who continued slowly, "Why did nobody recognise him at the feast?"

"Few look too closely at the jesters and the bards, Ser," his friend tiredly shook his head. "Rayder has gone grey and has grown a thick beard. I scarcely remember his face after seeing it once ten years ago. It was him running away and his weapons that gave him away. Sword and dagger both bearing the mark of Shadow Tower's smith."

"The man certainly has stones," Robert chuckled. Well, that definitely explained the scores of worried guardsmen.

"Why would he risk his hide to sneak into Winterfell?" Selmy asked, voice heavy with suspicion.

"I know not," Ned straightened up. "He refused to say a word, and my brother and Ser Rodrik are interrogating him right now. But it matters little; deserters from the Watch have only one fate. At noon, he will lose his head."

"Lead us to this King Beyond the Wall," Robert said, intrigued. "I want to see another king for myself, even if clasped in irons."

Maybe another royal presence would loosen the man's tongue?

"Your Grace, it might be prudent to get more men to accompany us," Selmy cautioned. "What if more of his ilk have sneaked in?"

"No need, there are plenty of leal swords here," the king dismissively waved his hand. "Even a chicken can't fly through this keep without alerting the guardsmen."

The Lord of Winterfell wordlessly led them in a different direction, seemingly towards the outer keep. Jory flanked Ned to the left while the adolescent wolf calmly trotted to his right, and the other six Stark guardsmen trailed behind the kingsguard.

This,this,was what Robert needed. Capable, loyal men to run the kingdom in his stead, not those stupid twats that couldn't find their arse unless someone kicked them on the bum. Jon Arryn had been such, but old age had slowly whittled away his foster father. Robert should have summoned Ned South long ago.

They eventually reached the wall and entered the outer yard through an ironwood door.

Scores of vigilant men-at-arms could be seen at every corner of the yard, and the Lord of Winterfell led them towards the enormous curtain wall where a lone tower was nestled. At least half a hundred sentries were near the entrance, all vigilant and armed to the teeth.

"These are not your dungeons," Robert observed as they climbed the narrow stairway.

"Aye, 'tis the maester's turret," Ned coughed. "Had to get Luwin to patch him up lest he bled out before we could ask some questions."

They finally arrived at a small hallway with a door on each side, guarded by a pair of sentries. And a figure cloaked in black was leaning on the wall.

The cloaked man spun, revealing a tired Benjen, who bowed deeply.

"Rayder has nought but silence and vile curses for us," the First Ranger shook his head. "Not that it matters. Without him, the wildlings would either slaughter each other or scatter to the winds."

"If he still refuses to speak, I have a skilled torturer in my retinue," Robert hummed thoughtfully. "Give Sevius a day or three, and this Mance Rayder will sing all his secrets for us to hear."

"There's no need for further indignity, Your Grace," Ned warily declined. "His words cannot truly be trusted, torture or not."

The king conceded with a shrug and motioned for the guardsmen to open the door.

Inside, a battered man garbed in only a grey roughspun robe sat on a thick, heavy chair, tied by chains and clasped with manacles on both his hands and feet. Rodrik Cassel was uneasily standing to the side, keeping an eye on the prisoner.

Mance Rayder's hair was tangled, caked with dried dirt and splattered with sweat, and his bruised face was twisted into a pained grimace, possibly because of the linen bandages on his ankle.

"Not very impressive for a king," Robert voiced his disappointment out loud.

"That makes two of us, king kneeler," the deserter spat, heaving.

The kingsguard tensed, but Robert let out booming laughter, "Insolent! You'd make for a fine jester, Rayder. Come now, tell us what are you doing here?"

Gods, it had been quite some time since someone dared to speak to his face like this, and Robert found it refreshing.

"Why would I do that?" The old deserter let out a pained, raspy chuckle. "There's nothing for me but the block."

"Come now, Rayder," the king coaxed. "Swear fealty to me and bend the knee. Speak of your purpose here, and I shall consider sparing you."

Ned and Selmy were about to object, but Robert raised his hand, and they swallowed their words. After all, he was interested to hear the reply but had only really promised to consider.

"Even if I wanted to kneel, I couldn't." Mance spat on the floor and glared at the direwolf beside Stark. "That vile mutt made a cripple out of me with a single bite. You should be wary, your direwolf lord and his progeny are all wargs, and wargs are not to be trusted."

Robert saw how everyone in the room shuffled uneasily, but he could easily see this foolish slander for the ploy that it was. Hah, and it seemed that Ned trained his wild pet very well!

"You were right, Ned - his words are not to be trusted," Robert snorted. "The cold has addled the poor man's wits. Next, he'll tell us how grumpkins and snarks are back!"

"I might have made the mistake of entering the direwolf den, but you'll all be f*cked soon enough," Mance Rayder let out a hoarse, vindictive chuckle. "A pity I won't be here to see it myself."

The king glanced at his friend, who looked even paler and more tired.

"I tire of this pointless charade. Off with his head!"

The news of the upcoming execution attracted attention very quickly.

The square in Wintertown was rapidly being filled by the royal court at one side and smallfolk at the other. They stood on an elevated wooden platform, but it was only large enough for House Stark and the Royal family. Benjen was solemnly standing to Ned's other side, not uttering a word. Soon enough, the square was packed full; after all, it wasn't nearly every day that something as interesting as an execution of a wildling king happened.

Myrcella arrived, ever curious, shadowed by Arys Oakheart, and Robert considered for a moment sending her away but decided against it. If his plans were to be realised, she was to be the next Lady of Winterfell; it would do her good to see some Northern justice. Not to mention Catelyn and her daughters were already here. Even Cersei had decided to show her face, possibly out of boredom; he was more than aware of his wife's distaste of everything not Lannister.

Joffrey, who was rarely interested in the trivialities of rulership, had found his way here, followed by the Hound.

Cersei attempted to protest their daughter's presence, but a meaningful glance silenced her. Robert had no patience for her endless complaints right now.

An enormous man wearing dark ringmail and plate adorned with direwolf livery, almost the size of the Mountain, was effortlessly carrying a large granite block that must have weighed at least twenty stone. In his youth, Robert wagered he could do something like this with nary an effort; Gods, he was strong back then!

"A strong man," he noted, "Was this the man who split Lord Volmark in two after killing two dozen reavers at the battle of Harlaw?"

"Aye, it's him," Ned confirmed.

The stone slab was slammed in the middle of the square.

"What was his name again? Waldon?"

"Walder," his friend sighed quietly with a shake of his head. "A most stubborn and leal man and a devout follower of the olden way. Declined knighthood and land so that he could serve House Stark in person. His family have been leal Stark men for generations; his great-grandmother has raised at least four generations of Starks, including my children. I plan to ennoble him soon, land or not."

"Leal service must always be rewarded," Robert agreed and curiously looked at his friend, who was standing still. "Did you finally grow tired of doling out justice yourself and employ a headsman?"

"Nay, House Stark keeps to the Old Way."

At that moment, Robb Stark arrived, garbed in a fine gambeson with a padded surcoat depicting the grey direwolf on top with a white cloak waving on the wind behind him. His face was solemn, and his steps were slightly hesitant. Behind him trailed Jory Cassel, carrying the monstrous greatsword that could only be Ice.

Boos and angry yells erupted from the gathered smallfolk across as a dozen burly men-at-arms dragged Mance Rayder towards the stone slab.

Walder effortlessly pushed the deserter's head down onto the block. Any trace of hesitation disappeared on Robb's face as he used both hands to unsheathe the Valyrian Steel greatsword that was only slightly shorter than him. Ned's heir looked at Robert, and the king nodded.

"Last words?"

"f*ck you," Rayder spat on the ground. "But you kneelers will be f*cked soon enough when the Others come for you too."

A wave of dark murmurs passed through the crowd, and Robert squinted at the self-proclaimed king savage; the damned man kept making trouble.

"In the name of Robert of House Baratheon," Robb's powerful voice cut through the whispers, "the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, I, Robb of House Stark, Heir to Winterfell, sentence Mance Rayder to die!"

The rippled greatsword rose in the air, and with a single sure strike, Mance Rayder's head rolled on the mud.

Ned's lad was good; there was no mistake about it. Although he looked a tad unsettled, his sword arm was sure, and he conducted himself with dignity. The more he looked at Robb, the more he liked his future good-son.

Robert took a deep breath, "Put that head on a spike for all to see on the main gate. Let buzzards and vultures peck it clean!"

As Robb cleaned the blood from Ice with a cloth, the smallfolk erupted into cheers, chanting 'Stark' and 'Baratheon', making Robert laugh boisterously.

Slowly, the crowd began to disperse.

"Ned, I'll be leaving for Castle Black," Benjen said. "Lord Commander Mormont must be notified."

The First Ranger seemed even wearier than Ned now.

"Send a raven, Benjen," Robert snorted. "Or at least take a good night's sleep. Why rush back to that icy Wall of yours?"

"Who knows what preparations Rayder has made, and ravens can get lost in the North."

Tsk, those Stark men spoke with far too much reason!

"Bah, you Northmen, always duty, work, and no fun." The king couldn't help but pity Benjen; the poor man had decided to swear off women and warmth at scarcely five and ten.

"Take all the horses you need, and pick ten of my outriders to escort you," Ned hugged his brother tightly and patted his back.

"Take care, Ned," the First Ranger turned to Robert and bowed, "Your Grace."

And just like that, Benjen Stark was on his way to the stables. The king looked at his friend, whose eyes were tired, and a yawn attempted to escape his mouth, only to be covered by his gloved hand. Good, Robert knew that tired men were far easier to agree to persistent requests, as this was a strategy Cersei heavily employed on him.

"So, Lord Stark, what is your decision?"

"Too many ears here. Let's head to the Godswood," Ned's tired face twisted into a grimace.

Most of the men-at-arms were dismissed; only Rodrik Cassel, two burly Stark guardsmen, and Selmy followed them into the ancient grove. Eddard's steps had grown sluggish, so their way there took far more time than before.

They reached the Heart Tree, and Robert motioned to the men to move away and give them some privacy. The Highlord's eyes hardened into two chips of stone.

"I'll accept, Your Grace, but I have some conditions."

"Conditions, Ned?" Gods, why was his friend trying to bargain like a fishmaid at the market?! "Fine, name them!"

"Halved tax for the North until the next spring."

Robert struggled to remember all those endless sums and ledgers, but his head began to pulse, and he waved his hand away in the end, "Granted!" Who cared about copper counting anyway? Soon enough, it would be Ned's problem again, not his!

"I want the Gift returned back to the North."

"Done," Robert generously declared. Let none say that he was not an open-handed king! What the dragon took, the stag would return!

"And lastly, larger support for the Night's Watch from the South."

"I can't force free men to take the Black. You should know that Ned," the king shook his head.

"Nay, there's no need for any force. I plan to reform the Watch and need your support for it."

"Why bother?" Robert asked, genuinely confused. "The King Beyond the Wall is dead, and the wildlings will continue squabbling amongst each other again. Don't tell me you believe that old wive's tale about the Others? I know the likes of Mance Rayder, and they would say anything just to spite you!"

"Aye, that might be true, but what if someone manages to gather the wildlings under a single banner again? They are already gathered in tens of thousands; even half would be a problem. The Night's Watch simply doesn't have the men to patrol the Wall, let alone beat back an incursion. And I cannot deal with them if I am in King's Landing."

Robert opened his mouth, then thought better and closed it. While Robb was a capable lad, he was too young to lead a war. And the southern banners would take at least half a year to muster and march all the way into the northern heartland. Damn his friend, he was making far too much sense!

Bah, it was not as if Robert would be the one to deal with this either, beyond stamping a few letters or decrees.

"You can have as much support as you can gather, Lord Hand," the King agreed. "But I want to see Myrcella and Robb wed before we leave south. She's a maiden long flowered. There's no point in waiting. Go rest now, and tomorrow we'll celebrate with a hunt!"

Jon Snow

They had about two or three more days until they reached Craster's Keep. The fabled earth singers were scarcely affected by the cold, slow to tire, quick to move, and did not slow their pace in the slightest. In fact, they aided them greatly; half a dozen ones with dark spotted skin were very skilled hunters, a handful of them could easily cook or forage for edible roots and herbs, and there was even a skinchanger. A thin brown-haired Singer that Jon called Deer, with a grey owl companion.

Even now, a few were of them scouting around or hunting.

Yet, for all their agility and endurance, they were quite weak. Jon estimated that a trained boy of three and ten could overpower most if not all of them. The only other downside was that none but Leaf spoke the Common Tongue; only a handful could understand the Old Tongue, and even fewer spoke it. Their names were too long and cumbersome to be reproduced in common speech, so Jon had to make up a handful of names for himself.

They cautiously rode into a settlement; the Singers of the Earth trailed warily behind them. It could barely be called a village, with a simple dilapidated hall and a handful of drab thatched huts nestled around an old, twisted heart tree with a terrified face.

"This place has been recently abandoned," Jarod ominously pointed at the dry firewood under the crude roof to the side. "It's the third settlement like this."

"We've not seen a single human ever since crossing the Wall," Big Liddle added.

As Jon had known, the Others were already adding thralls to their ranks, one group of free folk at a time.

"I'm afraid we'll meet with some soon enough," he turned to the earthsinger, "Leaf, send one of yours to scout carefully."

A short conversation in that odd, melodic tongue that sounded like a gentle song, and one of the darker-furred singers that Jon named Blackstep cautiously began to check building by building. Jon honestly doubted that there was anything here, Red Jeyne and Maude seemed far too calm, and it was not cold enough for the 'ice singers' to be here now. The unnatural chill their presence brought was not something easily forgotten.

"Has something happened to Ghost?" Duncan worriedly rubbed his thickening stubble. "We haven't seen him in five days now."

"Ghost is a few hours away to the southeast, hunting for his own food and scouting the nearby woods," a chuckle escaped his lips as he remembered looking through his companion's eyes earlier. "He has found some friends."

"Friends?" Jarod echoed, curious.

"Aye, of the canine kind." Six more wolves had begun to follow the direwolf; if Ghost kept it up, he'd have his own large pack of wolves in a few moons. There was even a young, motherless direwolf pup, weaning at one of the bitches.

After a handful of tense minutes, Blackstep returned, body bereft of tension, and nodded. Jon could understand that easily enough, even without Leaf's translation.

The Others had definitely slain the inhabitants here. There were some signs of struggle, a few broken doors, but other than that, nothing. Although hungry predators could have broken the doors in search of food, it mattered little. After a round of cleaning, they settled in the hall and hung a heavy bearskin on the open entrance to bar the cold outside. There was even a large bronze cauldron left behind, which was carefully scrubbed and used to make a stew of the pair of deer two of the singers had just caught. Despite having deer-like dappled skin, it seemed that they were not deterred from eating things that looked similar to them.

A few leafcloaks were stationed on the roof and trees outside as lookouts. Jon sparred a few quick bouts with his human companions before heading outside. Snow crunched under his boots as he restlessly walked around the small settlement while waiting for dinner to be ready. Red Jeyne faithfully trotted after him as usual, and in the end, he ended up face-to-face with the thick, twisted Heart Tree.

Jon knelt in silent prayer before the carved face that was forever frozen in agony. Long ago, he used to seek guidance, peace, and luck before the weirwood. But as time passed, those things slowly lost meaning amidst the snow and death. Now, he prayed not for himself but for his kin's and kith's wellbeing instead.

Now that Jon was here, beyond the Wall and not alone, things changed. Should he continue on his planned course or try something completely different?

For a short moment, he sensed someone silently approaching behind him and tensed. Yet Red Jeyne turned, and he could easily see through her eyes; it was no foe.

"No wonder the gods chose you," Leaf's soft, sad voice sounded behind him. "In all my life, I've seen few as genuinely devoted as you."

Was it truly devotion? In the end, he had little but duty, and the Old Gods left, and Jon had latched onto both like a drowning man to a straw.

He turned to look at the short, child-like being behind him. As always, sadness and melancholy clung to her closer than her cloak of leaves.

"You mentioned me being chosen before?"

"Yes," the singer was heavily amused. "The Gods picked you as their champion."

Jon rubbed his brow in confusion. This was the second time Leaf mentioned this.

"And what does being a champion of the Old Gods entail?"

"Nothing more than a blessing, a mark for potential greatness, or even a reward for a grand deed," her cat-like eyes blinked curiously, "Raw weirwood sap from a Heart Tree is very strong, very poisonous, without any preparation, lethal to even greenseers. Only those chosen by the Gods can survive it; your eyes, nose, and mouth bear its bountiful mark. Your skinchanging powers have been altered. I assume you can only slip into the mind of your direwolf and hounds?"

"Aye," he confirmed. "I attempted to bind a raven or a snow shrike but 'twas in vain. Though it could be my inexperience more than anything else."

"It is as I thought," Leaf tugged on a tangled strand of her hair. "I might be mistaken, but your powers are forever bound to warging. Your talent for it has increased a thousandfold, but your ability to connect to other beasts is gone in exchange."

"How do you know all these things?"

"I have lived a long, long life, and seen many things, Jon Snow," a forlorn sigh tore from her. "Mayhaps too many. The True Tongue lets you connect to nature itself if you delve deeper into it. We singers have very sharp senses, and I have learned toseeand tohear."

Jon couldn't help but imagine that if the Old Gods had deemed to choose priests, Leaf would be one of them.

"Is that why Ghost grows so quickly?"

"Perhaps. I am not too well-versed in the art of skinchanging, but I do know a few things. Just as the beast bleeds into the man, so does the man bleed into the beast," her liquid golden eyes inspected him with great interest. "More so with such a strong connection like yours, Jon Snow. And even without the Old God's blessing, you're…more, and in turn, so is your direwolf."

"Stew's ready," Jarod's cry echoed from the shabby hall.

The waxing moon softly illuminated the night sky as Jon stood vigil on the hall's roof. Sleep had not come easy, and he had decided to take the first watch with two other Singers; after all, he couldn't let them handle all the trivial tasks forever. One was nestled on a sentinel tree to the North, and the other had climbed an old oak to the southwest.

Suddenly, the air became a familiar deathly cold, and his hand instinctively found the pommel of Dark Sister. Red Jeyne whimpered below, and Jon agilely jumped to the ground and entered the hall where his followers slumbered.

"To arms!Theyare here!" Jarod and Duncan immediately jumped at his cry, and so did the Singers. "Light your torches. The wights will burn like kindling at the smallest flame. Archers to the roof, the rest retreat to the hall and avoid fighting the Others up close."

Notes:

Mance Rayder has nothing to lose as his life is forfeit, no reason to speak, and every reason to dislike House Stark right now. We already saw that he's a stubborn f*ck. And right now, he's not feeling very generous, either. Ned has no reason to trust a deserter's word who curses and tries to deceive.

Well, Ned finally buckled, and the celebratory hunt is now on the table.

We see some light shed on Jon's situation, but as with everything arcane in ASOIAF, I decided to make it rather ambiguous. Maybe Leaf is correct, maybe she's biased, but hey, that's the only explanation we have so far *waves his unreliable narrator t-shirt*.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Comments, questions, and suggestions greatly motivate me, so don't be shy if you have any!

And well, gimme some kudos if you like the fic so far.

Chapter 15: Breaking the Fear

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Jarod Snow

Despite doing it a thousand times, stringing his horn and yew bow suddenly became a very arduous task for his shaking hands. After many northern winters, Jarod thought he knew cold.

He was wrong.

The frigid air became heavy, oppressive, and almost painful to breathe. Not even amid the worst winter had he felt such a dire chill. Even he, a veteran of many a battle, felt his stomach turn into knots like a green summer boy. The two hounds on watch, Maude and Helicent, slunk fearfully into the hall, whimpering.

"Six of our best archers to the roof," Jon's steely voice brooked no disobedience as he calmly strode half a dozen yards before the hall's door. Just a little shy of six feet, the young man had a lithe frame that had room to grow still, but his cloaked back looked impossibly large.

For the first time, Leaf's song-like speech sounded dire like an autumn storm as she quickly repeated the words to her kin. Jarod and five more Singers quickly climbed the crude thatched roof and carefully positioned themselves on the wooden beams to avoid falling through the straw. Although it was more about him than the leafcloaks - Jarod reckoned most of the Singers barely weighted more than six stone.

The moon had waned, but no clouds barred the starry sky, shining scarce light upon the haunted forest around them.

"Duncan, hold the entrance," the dragonblade remained on his belt; instead, Jon had a burning torch in his right hand and a leather-bound buckler in the left. "Save the obsidian for the Cold Ones. Wights tire not but are slow and clumsy. As long as you are careful and stay away, you have nothing to fear from them."

Fear wrenched his insides, and Jarod had to push down his desire to flee. Liddles did not flee. The silence stretched painfully as the frigid air stung in his eyes, and every breath bitterly raked at his throat; the only sound that could be heard was the cracking crowns of flame atop the torches. He strained his ears to the limit, and he finally heard them. Footsteps ominously crunched through the snow, and half a minute later, Jarod saw silhouettes approach in the darkness. Next, he saw the eyes shining through the night, all blue like a cold, akin to baleful stars.

True to Jon's word, they slowly approached as if in no hurry at all, and soon he could make out some details. Men and women, garbed in furs and crude leathers, young children and old crones, all came like a slow, tidal wave of rot and flesh towards the hall. Face and skin all deathly pale, with darkened, bloated hands. The sight of a young girl, barely six, with half of her face slashed off and her guts cut open, made his stomach churn.

Jarod's hands began to shake even harder, and he wondered if he had not been a fool to come here. His gaze found the Singers at his sides, and he found them pale and shaking like lone leaves in the wind.

Were they all going to die here? The old clansman bit the tip of his tongue, shook his head furiously and squeezed the bow in his arms with all his strength.

He was no craven!

Below, in front of the hall, Jon Snow stood undaunted. Spine straight like a spear, an icy gale made his cloak flutter, causing the white wolf's sigil to dance amidst the encroaching darkness.

Laughter bubbled in Jarod's throat, but the cold choked it; here he was, a man of nearly one and sixty, feeling fear on the roof, while a lad of six and ten bravely faced off directly against the icy darkness of old on his lonesome.

As his foes approached, Jon Snow did the unthinkable.

He took a step forward, and his bodyblurred.

The only thing Jarod could see was the torch tearing through the darkness like a falling star across the skies. The flame danced, and two heartbeats later, the snowy clearing was finally illuminated as the corpses began to burn like a hungry bonfire.

Hah, like a kindling indeed!

Jon Snow moved faster than the old clansman thought possible, staying out of reach of his foes while his torch lightly tapped the bloated limbs. Jarod pinched his leg to check if he was asleep, but the pain was very much real as he watched their young leader methodically and ruthlessly eliminate the shambling corpses. Clustered too closely together and pushing against each other, the fire began to spread among them.

A small handful of wights wandered towards the hall, and at that moment, a battle cry tore through the quiet of the night. Duncan slammed his torch in the face of the first corpse before ramming his shield into it, knocking it straight into the two behind.

The flame hungrily devoured them, and his grandnephew struck down the final foe before quickly returning to his post at the hall's doorway.

Less than a minute later, Jon Snow stopped moving amidst a fiery clearing; the snow had melted where the burning corpses had fallen on the ground, and a soft, steamy mist rose in the darkness. In the dark, they had looked like a tide, but his wayward glance told him they were less than three dozen. The hungry flames quickly fizzled out, leaving nought but embers, bones, and muddy ash in their wake. The sour smell of rot and charred meat was heavy in the air.

Jon Snow's torch flickered, and Jarod's gaze was drawn northward into the dark woods.

A weak gasp escaped his lips as he finally saw. A shadow finally stepped into the clearing. Tall, gaunt, as if its limbs had no meat, pale, bereft of any colour. TheOtherradiated cold, icy hardness and wore an odd, translucent armour that changed colour with every step. One moment, it was black as a shadow; the next - white as snow, dappled with brown and green from the trees and slushy mud. It all danced like a shadow on a moving torch with every step the being took.

Jarod's hands were stiff with cold, and he could hardly bend his arms to reach for the quiver on his belt. With gritted teeth, he grabbed an arrow, but the shaft broke in his stiff grasp. It took him a few precious heartbeats, and a new arrow was finally set on the bowstring. Yet his hands weren't steady enough, and he couldn't aim well enough so far away in the darkness.

The leather-bound buckler was thrown aside, and the flickering torch was sharply stabbed into the slush, and with a single, graceful motion, Jon Snow threw his cloak over his shoulder and unsheathed his blade. Its dark, smokey ripples looked like they sucked in the dancing light as the blade was finally released into the open.

The Cold One had an impossibly thin, translucent longsword as if made of glass in his hands. Its eyes were blue, so deep a blue unlike anything he had seen before; there was something malevolent to them, and they burned like ice. Jarod's heart faltered as one, two, three more shadows emerged from the darkness behind the first. Yet they stood at the end of the clearing like icy statues, looking on with their cold blue eyes and making no move to approach the confrontation.

The one in front swept its cold gaze across the clearing and to the hall before pinning Jon Snow. It opened its mouth, and a sinister, sharp sound escaped akin to icicles escaped its blue lips.

The language was sharp, jarring, unlike anything Jarod had ever heard, but he recognised the following sound.

It was laughing at them mockingly.

Fury awoke in Jarod's veins, and his hands finally stopped shaking. He notched a dragonglass arrow, pulled the string, and aimed at the one facing the young son of Winterfell. He was still unsure about hitting true in the dark, especially as Jon was too close, and he could move too damn fast. And the other Cold Ones were too far for Jarod to aim true in the darkness. He was not the only one, as the Singers next to him had all aimed. Yet just as he was hesitating, Jon Snow raised his hand in a fist, and the old clansman slowly released the tension in the bowstring.

Suddenly they both moved; the dark, smoky blade met the crystalline sword, and an anguished high-pitched sound, as thin as a needle, painfully lingered in the frigid air.

The cold, blue eyes were no longer mocking, only malevolent, and the Other stirred into action, inhumanely quick.

Jarod's heart beat like a furious drum as the pitched, keening sounds rippled in the air, making his head pulse painfully. Both Jon and his foes moved so inhumanely fast that his eyes strained to keep track of them in the darkness of the night. Striking true now seemed impossible, but he still held the black-tipped arrow notched on his string just in case.

The minutes dragged on painfully, and neither figure appeared to slow, yet Jon's lightning-fast silhouette seemed faster and faster. His movements became less and less choppy, and the dragonsword became more and more savage as its fierce slashes cleaved through the air from one strike into the next like a raging river.

Eventually, the icy blade was too slow to parry, and the dark, smoky sword bit into the pale neck.

Something sizzled; the sound of ice breaking clearly echoed in the night, followed by a screech so sharp and heartrending that Jarod dropped his bow, and his gloved hands instinctively covered his ears. Under his surprised gaze, the Other had stilled, and like a spiderweb, cracks quickly spread across his body, which quickly began to melt. Dark Sister sizzled softly as a small, smoky cloud surrounded it. Pale bones, and crystalline armour, were all gone in a matter of heartbeats, leaving only a cold pool of freezing water at Jon Snow's feet.

He had done it!

Yet Jarod's joy was short-lived, as three more pale shadows rapidly moved through the darkness towards Jon Snow, icy swords all drawn. They did not run, yet were almost as fast as a horse, their steps graceful, leaving no footprints in the snow. The young Northerner below turned towards them and stepped forward, sword poised for another fight.

The old clansman cursed and quickly fumbled; thankfully, his bow lay at his feet and had not fallen from the roof. Twangs sang through the air, and the other five Singers deftly began shooting with their weirwood bows, raining black-tipped arrows at the incoming Cold Ones. It took him a moment to join them in the effort as he released arrows as fast as he could at their gaunt faces.

The Others were hardly deterred but quickly slowed down; Jarod could see a spark of apprehension in their cold eyes. Still, they were quick, agile, and hard to hit, and the obsidian tips struck at the glass-like armour, producing a keening sound as if an animal cried out in pain but seemed to do no damage to it. The thin, crystalline swords danced through the air, striking most arrows away.

Yet under the persistent hail, a shard of sharpened obsidian found a piece of unprotected pale flesh. One of the Cold Ones cracked with a pained screech before melting away. Less than fifteen yards from Jon, the last two foes stopped still in their tracks, hesitating, but the rain of arrows began to wane. Jarod reached into his quiver, but his hand found it empty. Alas, the amount of dragonglass was limited, and none of them had more than a dozen obsidian-tipped arrows at any time.

Under the old clansman's surprised eyes, they turned around and dashed away.

Yet Jon Snow charged after them, like a wolf pouncing after its prey.

For a moment, Jarod thought that their young leader had been led into a sinister trap, but then two cracks rang after each other, and a pair of wailing cries tore through the night.

The horses were still very scared and neighing in fright, and it was pure luck that they had not managed to tear through their bindings and run away. One of the Singers, with grey eyes and reddish-gold hair, began to sing a slow, peaceful tune that calmed the steeds down.

Jarod couldn't help but whistle; the little Earth Singers proved more and more useful with every passing day.

"f*ck!" Duncan released a sharp, shuddering breath and wiped away the pooling beads of sweat from his brow. "None would believe this. Not without seeing with their own eyes."

They edged closer to the giant bonfire Jon had ordered to be set alight in the middle of the clearing. More than a third of the stashed firewood in the settlement had been spent on it.

His nephew looked as if he had run to Red Hill and back, and Jarod felt the same, despite the fact he had sat still on a wooden beam for the entire battle.

"Indeed," Jarod agreed grimly, "I'm still unsure whether this is some bad nightmare…"

"A few charred bones are hardly proof of anything, nor is a puddle of frozen water," his nephew shook his head.

He looked to the side, where Jon Snow stood placidly as if he had not just slain three foes of legend. There was a deep, purple gash beneath his left eye and another, lesser one on his forearm, and a leafcloak with white hair that Jarod had called Snowy was fussing over his wounds with some dark-green paste while sadly uttering sad words in her quaint tongue.

"She says that both shall leave a scar," Leaf added from the side. He only grunted disinterestedly at the news. "You fight very aggressively."

The old clansman had noticed as well but decided to hold his tongue. The shame of being frozen in fear while a lad scarcely a quarter his age was bravely fighting was still fresh in his mind; it made his blood boil. Not to mention that their chosen leader clearly knew what he was doing even in his daring boldness; two small wounds fighting such mighty foes were a small price for a victory.

"Fear is their greatest weapon, and someone has to break it," Jon hummed. "How much did we salvage?"

Jarod couldn't help but agree; he himself managed to overcome his fright due to the young bastard's unending valour.

"Twenty-three arrowheads and forty-seven shafts," the Singer said. "The rest is too damaged for a proper rework."

"So we lost a sixth of our arrowheads, but we have no casualties," he summarised. "Quite lucky that they attacked a somewhat defensible position. If we are forced to fight in an open field, we'll be hard-pressed to avoid deaths or heavy wounds. And we might need to find a new source of obsidian."

"We know a few deposits of frozen fire around the Frostfangs and the hills and caves of the Haunted Forest," Leaf shrugged, and Jon Snow's head whipped towards her in surprise. Snowy, trying to bandage Jon Snow's wounded forearm, sighed in exasperation. "Why so surprised? The Singers have used what you call obsidian since the Dawn of Days before you men walked the land. We are adept at finding it and even better at working it."

The clearing descended into silence, and the red hound lazily trodded in and curled by her master's feet.

"Can't we catch some of the walking corpses?" Duncan asked hoarsely. "Bring it to the Watch. Let the Northern Lords witness what stirs here, Beyond the Wall. With the North behind us, we shall not lack for swords to aid us!"

"It's far harder than it sounds," Jon's voice was forlorn. "The wights rarely, if ever, wander off without a purpose alone. Their masters always keep them close. Horses can't bear the smell of the dead; even if we capture one, it will forever struggle with its full strength. And the magic that keeps them going fades if you slay their master, so you'd not only have to capture one but either run away or let the Other flee. Not worth the risk."

"Aye, and they were not beyond fleeing when the tide of battle turned against them," Jarod noted. "Even when seemingly outnumbering us, they struck in the darkness of the night. Cunning, yet lacking in courage, just like a band of Dornishmen. If too big a force comes, they would probably avoid engaging in an open battle."

Duncan thoughtfully nodded.

"Even if we capture a wight, what's to stop them from claiming it's just some vile sorcery?" Jon's voice was slow yet heavy and bitter. "The learned men of the Citadel are sceptical of the old tales. Some still believe the Singers, Giants, and Others to simply be extinct wildling tribes," Leaf snorted in amusem*nt while Jarod rubbed his brow tiredly. "And there are plenty of records of sorcerers capable of raising the dead as thralls, and it is not something unique to the Others. A handful of the more arcane sects in Essos can still do it to this day. If the opportunity presents itself, we should grab it, but there is no need to place ourselves at risk needlessly."

The old clansman couldn't help but look at Jon in a new light. Not only was he a fierce and daring fighter, but a man of words and learning. And while his goals and plans did not look very formidable at first glance, he seemed well-prepared to handle all sorts of trouble that came with leadership or fighting in enemy territory.

"Are we still headed for Craster's Keep?" Jarod asked.

"Aye, we're only two days away."

3d Day of the 5th Moon

Eddard Stark

He looked through the opened window; the sun was scarcely peaking through the eastern horizon, yet the yard was already buzzing with men eager for the coming hunt. It seemed that time had only made Robert's appetites for entertainment greater, but Ned welcomed the distraction with everything that had happened.

For good or bad, his son was to marry Cersei's daughter, and while he felt somewhat torn about the choice of bride, Ned could find no qualms in the princess herself, nor were there any unsavoury rumours following in her wake. Catelyn was happy with the match; Howland was supportive, but he still held a waning grain of doubt from Jon's letter.

But it mattered not now; the deal was already struck and would soon be sealed in blood.

With a sigh, he closed the shutter and pulled the heavy tapestry back in its place before returning to his bed, where his wife had finally stirred from her drowsiness. It was a surprise to find Cat next to him as he awoke, but not an unwelcome one.

"Isn't it too sudden?" She asked. "Less than a moon! Wouldn't it be better to wait and give them time to know each other? Many lords would want to attend the wedding of the northern heir and a royal princess."

"The king commanded it," Ned shook his head. "I've sent ravens to my bannermen, and it's plenty enough for them to arrive at Winterfell should they wish. Besides, the royal retinue already strains our stores, and you want to wait for moons and invite the whole realm?"

Catelyn finally nodded in agreement before humming.

"Which children shall we take to King's Landing with us?"

The Lord of Winterfell stilled and gazed at his wife. He grimaced inwardly; it was a normal thing for the Hand's wife to accompany him in the capital.

Yet he could not afford to do so.

"All of them shall stay here, in Winterfell, and so shall you," he said.

"No," Cat's face had gone as pale as snow, and her blue eyes shone with fear.

"Yes," he sighed. "The South is too dangerous for us Starks, I'd rather not risk you or our children."

"If you think it so dangerous, why accept?" Her voice was as weak, barely a whisper.

"I'm willing to take the risk," Ned hardened his heart. "But you shall stay. It would be cruel to leave our children without both a mother and a father. Robb would need your experience and advice to govern the North."

"Robb is a man grown now, and he scarcely needs his mother to coddle him at six and ten," Cat softly countered. "You have filled his head with endless lessons, and while he might lack experience, he is more than capable of ruling Winterfell. The princess's wit is not inferior to her beauty. I have little doubt that Myrcella can be a worthy Lady of Winterfell in my absence."

"My decision is final," his wife's shoulders sagged in defeat. "But fret not, I don't intend to linger long in the south."

Or so he hoped. Eddard Stark would do his duty but had no desire to stay in the pit of vipers for too long nor quarrel with his hardheaded childhood friend.

The room descended into silence as Ned stretched his stiff limbs; it was rare that he'd sleep for so long but even rarer to forego sleep for a whole night.

"What will happen to Arya, Ned? Our daughter told Mordane that she shall no longer attend the septa's lessons as you'll find her a different tutor."

He looked at his wife, who gazed at him hesitantly from the bed.

"I have summoned Maege's third daughter; she should be here within a fortnight."

"Lyra Mormont?" Catelyn's blue eyes were filled with doubt. "She's barely a maiden of twenty, and has training at arms, Ned!"

"Aye, the opposite of the Septa in almost every way," he agreed, "Mayhaps she will have an easier time teaching our daughter. And I promised Arya to allow her practice with a bow should she behave during the Royal visit."

"So that's why she's so obedient," his wife murmured quietly. "But training to fight? It will be hard to find her a husband later on!"

"I know," a sigh escaped his lips. "But the wolfsblood is not so easily tamed. She will be quick to rebel against anything she considers injustice. For now, let her struggle with the bow; it is not something easily mastered. If Arya fails, she will have no grounds to complain."

To be a marksman requires a grown man's strength, a trained man's endurance, and years of dull, repeated training. Yet, even if she managed to master it, it would be fine, as fighting foes from afar was acceptable, just like Alysanne Blackwood. But, deep inside, Ned had given up on finding a great match for Arya. He'd be willing to let her take her pick from the North, as long as they were leal and worthy.

"She's soon to grow into maidenhood and find boys more interesting than swords," Catelyn said, sounding hopeful, like she tried to convince herself more than him. Her eyes hardened with resolve. "Ned, I shall teach our daughter."

"When? Your duties are bound to keep you busy, especially with the Royal Retinue here and the arriving guests."

"Arya can shadow me, watch and learn the duties of a Lady of the keep," his wife's voice was soft, pleading. "I can set aside some time each day to teach her the rest."

"Fine," he agreed. "But she's still to attend lessons with Lyra Mormont when she comes. And I stand by my promise; should Arya behave, she can begin training in the bow. But only the bow."

A soft smile danced on Catelyn's face as she put aside the covers, revealing her bare body, and pulled him into the bed.

They slowly gathered in the yard before the Hunter's Gate, preparing to ride into the Wolfswood. Only the king was yet to show up, and much to Ned's dismay, if the chatter of the royal retinue was correct, his tardiness was a common occurrence. Alas, his favourite tent was gone, taken by his boy, and now the Lord of Winterfell had to settle for another, lesser one. Ah, that myrish silk cot! He just hoped Jon was faring fine, whatever he was doing now.

Winter trotted faithfully to his side; the Lord of Winterfell wanted to see if the direwolf would follow his commands in the wilderness. The presence of the young wolf seemed to unnerve almost all of the nearby horses.

Ned's gaze slid to the younger group, which was split in two. On one side, there was the Joffrey, excitedly inspecting a gilded crossbow, shadowed by the Hound and surrounded by older squires and younger knights from the royal retinue. The Lord of Winterfell found it odd that the crown prince lacked a Kingsguard, but it was none of his business if the king preferred his heir to have Clegane for a sworn sword over a white cloak.

On the other side was Robb, accompanied by Grey Wind, Theon, the younger Stark men-at-arms, and northern huntsmen. For the first time in a while, his son looked absentminded, even hesitant.

Gods, Ned did not have the chance to speak with Robb since the feast! His son knew he had to marry one day, but probably did not expect to be so soon…

"Jory," Eddard turned to the younger Cassel, that followed him along with half a dozen men-at-arms. "Bring me Robb."

The Captain of the guard quickly spurred his horse towards the younger group, and soon his heir was before him. Winter and Grey Wind curiously began to chase around each other, unnerving most of the Southron horses that were still unused with the scent of the direwolves. Even the northern ones were still eyeing the two wolves warily after more than two moons.

"You summoned me, Father?" Robb's voice was absentminded.

"Aye," Ned nodded with a sigh. "What troubles you so, my son?"

"My wife-to-be," his heir whispered.

"Is she not to your liking?"

"No, it's not that, but, ah…"

"Princess Myrcella is courteous, pretty, with wit to spare, and I can hardly think of anyone better suited to be your bride," the Lord of Winterfell admitted. None of his northern maidens came close to the princess in bearing, grace, or courtesy.

"I shall do my duty," Robb sighed. "I just look at the bitter queen, with her cold eyes and scathing glances and wonder if Myrcella would take after her mother."

"Fret not, my son. Your mother and I were two strangers wed together, yet we grew to love each other."

"How did you do it?"

"It takes time, effort, and understanding, but do not despair; you will have all of a lifetime to know her. Most importantly, do not dwell on things that could have been yet failed to happen. As long as you respect your lady wife, she shall warm up to you. Did you have a chance to speak with her yet?"

"Aye, but only shortly. Myrcella is indeed beautiful and courteous, although a sliver of pride hid underneath," a ghostly smile found its way to Robb's face.

"Pride oft comes with royalty, Robb," Ned chuckled. "But so what? There's no finer match for a princess than my son and heir. The North is as large as the rest of the kingdoms together, and there are no other suitors in Westeros with a pedigree as ancient and mighty as yours nor any other heirs as skilled and well-trained as you. Do not sell yourself short."

Much to Eddard's amusem*nt, Robb's cheeks reddened, and he ducked his head.

A few moments later, his son shook his head and coughed. "Any other words of advice?"

"Well, the wedding might be in less than a moon, but that's plenty of time," the Lord of Winterfell found himself smiling. "After the hunt, court her as is due. Show your betrothed around Winterfell-"

"I know how courting works," Robb interrupted with another cough.

"Well then, I don't have much advice left to give you," Ned snorted.

"What if I make a mistake?"

"Everyone makes mistakes, Robb. It's inevitable. Do not be afraid to make one. Learning from them is what counts," his son nodded thoughtfully, most of his earlier hesitation finally gone. At that moment, Robert finally appeared atop his destrier. "Take care and clear your head from distraction. A hunt is a serious endeavour, not to be underestimated; the cornered animals are the most dangerous ones."

Here's a picture of Myrcella that I wasted too much time to generate:

Shrouded Destiny - Gladiusx - A Song of Ice and Fire (1)

Notes:

We're back with some action. Someone continues being reckless. Or maybe it's daring/bold since it worked?

Back in Winterfell, Ned finally managed to get some sleep. Some important conversations are had.

Robb hesitates a bit, but who wouldn't when told they were to marry a stranger with a disfunctional family in less than thirty days, no matter how pretty.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Chapter 16: Of Uncertainty and Kinslayers

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Himura and Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

5th Day of the 5th Moon

Myrcella Baratheon

The princess knew she had to marry but did not expect the wedding to come so soon and so suddenly. Back in the south, the knights and lordlings of all ages from every corner of Westeros had attempted to court her, but the king and the queen were quick to not only dismiss but forbid it. One of the rare few things they both seemed to agree on with ease. Her uncles' heavy glares and sharp tongues were quick to dissuade and chase away any errant attempts as well.

Oh, Myrcella knew well enough that she would probably wed someone important, but she had always thought that Joffrey would be the one to wed a Stark, not her. Not that she minded, but the suddenness had caught her flat-footed. Although it seemed that she was not the only one surprised. Her royal father had probably been heavy-handed about this, as her future family were just as surprised as she was, although Robb Stark had been hard to read.

Winterfell was a grand keep, easily bigger than the Red Keep itself, built in solid granite instead of pale red stone. The smell of privy was absent, replaced with clean, fresh air, slightly scented with pine and sweet smoke. There wasn't any excess luxury on display, and the northerners seemed quite practical, but her future family did not seem to lack wealth. The insides of the Great Hall, Great Keep, and Guest Hall seemed to be more oriented towards the practical display of martial prowess, as there were plenty of hunting trophies and carefully-woven tapestries depicting victories and heroic feats of old lined plenty of walls. And in the Great Hall alone, she managed to see more ironwood than ever before in her life.

All of the Starks wore silks and velvet with ease, aside from Lady Stark and her younger daughter, who seemed to prefer plainer clothing. Her future good family was far different from what she expected. Sure, they lacked the usual pomp and annoying sycophantic flattery, but that was not all. It took Myrcella a few days to finally put her finger on the difference - they had something that had been missing direly in the interactions of both House Baratheon and Lannister.

Warmth.

There was no love lost between her Baratheon side of the family. Stannis was gruff, always scowling and grinding his teeth. Her cousin Shireen was a small, sad thing marked by greyscale and was almost always stuck on Dragonstone, out of sight and mind of the royal court. Renly might have always had a smile on his face, but it was a distant, frivolous thing, just like the rest of him. The Lannisters… were cold and quite reserved, even to each other. Her Grandfather seemed incapable of smiling, let alone joy and happiness, and the rest of his House seemed to follow his example one way or another.

While the Starks… were warm like the rays of the midday sun, despite, or maybe because, they ruled the vast lands of ice and snow. It was a subtle thing that was not easy to notice, but if you looked closer at the subtle gestures, Lord and Lady Stark loved each other dearly. Even the First Ranger Benjen, Lord Stark's brother, seemed well-loved by his kin. Her future good brother and sisters seemed so different from each other as the night and day, yet there was so much familial affection and warmth in their interactions.

All things considered, Myrcella did not mind being wedded to the Stark heir. But there was a problem - her betrothed was hard to read. To her chagrin, unlike the others his age in the royal court, Robb did not seem smitten with her beauty, and she could feel a trace of hesitation under his impassive face. Myrcella did not want a cold, distant marriage like her parents, full of hateful quarrels and indignity.

She had tried to pry out some details from her future good-sister Sansa as they did their stitches together with the Septa the day before, yet the red-haired girl had only provided a few polite, cautious words revealing nothing of import. Her options of knowing more before the hunting party returned were rather limited, so she decided that a visit to her uncle was due. Despite his short stature, his eyes and mind were sharp, and he always knew all sorts of interesting things and provided sound advice.

Thus, after breaking her fast in her quarters, Myrcella headed to her Uncle Tyrion's room on the floor below, shadowed by the ever-silent Ser Arys. Her mother would throw a fit as she did every time Myrcella visited her uncle, but what Cersei didn't know wouldn't hurt her.

As she entered the lower hallway, a small, short figure almost crashed into her. Under her stunned gaze, a familiar young red-haired boy, scarcely reaching above her waist, barely managed to stop half a yard away from her. The boy was clad in a dark cotton tunic and grey pants and had a small, ermine mantle behind him.

"Hullo!" Rickon Stark breathlessly beamed at her with his bright blue eyes. Behind him trailed a shaggy, pitch-black wolf with a wagging tail, lolled-out tongue and green eyes, along with an exasperated burly Stark guardsman who bowed respectfully. The boy urged the wolf forward and declared proudly: "This is Shaggydog!"

His minder groaned while she could hear Ser Arys snicker silently behind her. Yet, looking at his wide, genuine smile, Myrcella was not offended by the lack of decorum at all; when Tommen was younger, he was much the same. In fact, faced with the adorable sight, she barely resisted pinching his little red cheeks.

Myrcella settled for tussling his wild auburn hair with a smile, "Where are you headed in such a rush, little wolf?"

"I'm not little," the boy protested weakly for a short moment. "I'm going to see Tommen. I promised to show him the Godswood yesterday!" A moment later, Rickon mumbled abashedly with a slightly bowed head, "Princess."

"Oh, none of that. We're going to be family soon; you can call me Myrcella when we're not in public," she reassured the boy, who smiled happily at her. Her gaze moved to the black wolf, now calmly sitting beside the boy. "Your companion is very well-behaved."

If Myrcella was to believe her mother's words, the direwolves were nothing more than uncontrollable savage beasts good only for their pelts. But looking at the black wolf in front of her, which was scarcely larger than an ordinary hound, there was no trace of feral savagery.

"Robb and Sansa helped me train him," Rickon proudly stated, puffing up his chest adorably.

Indeed, a wondrously close-knit family, Myrcella couldn't imagine Joffrey helping Tommen with anything other than trying to terrify him with cruel jibes or derisive words. Nor her mother getting along with her uncle Tyrion. And it would be a cold day in the seven hells if Stannis and Renly could stand each other. But Rickon's words gave her an idea.

"Oh, what can you tell me about your brother?" Myrcella asked slyly. "He seemed a bit too quiet."

"Robb's just sad!"

"Sad?" she echoed curiously.

"Aye!" Rickon bobbed his head adorably. "Ever since our two brothers are gone, he's been sad."

Myrcella knew about Bran Stark's untimely death, but Eddard Stark had three sons, not four, according to her studies. But, well, that would explain why her betrothed was still wary. Grief was a powerful thing.

"Your brothers are gone?"

"Uh-huh," the boy's countenance saddened. "Bran fell from one of the walls and is now sleeping in the crypt, and they say he won't wake. Jon fell sick and disappeared afterwards. Ever since, nobody would play with me but Shaggy!"

Who was this Jon? Perhaps a friend or even a bastard? Something to be investigated later on.

"Go, run along now, Tommen would love to play with you," the princess urged, and the cheer returned in Rickon's blue eyes as he rushed towards her youngest brother's room, followed by the eager black wolf and the burly guard. Tommen was in dire need of proper companions, and, despite being more than a year younger, the youngest Stark son seemed suitable.

Hopefully, he'd manage to bring her brother out of his shell.

A minute later, she arrived in front of her uncle's room. Hopefully, Tyrion would be here and awake. She hesitantly knocked a few times.

"Who is it?" her uncle's muffled voice through the wooden door.

"It's me, Myrcella."

"My favourite niece!" the door swung open, showing a drowsy Tyrion below, garbed in his usual red doublet stitched with gilded lions. His visage was horrifying to behold, as always, but it meant nothing; the so-called imp was always kind and generous to her, much to Cersei's chagrin.

"I'm your only niece, uncle," she dryly pointed out.

"Doesn't make my words any less true, little Cella," he tutted as he looked up at her face. Her uncle didn't reach her elbows in height. "Ah, it was only yesterday when you were a wee little thing, shorter than your poor uncle. Yet here you stand now, tall, grown, and about to be a woman wed. How can your short uncle be of service to the future Lady Stark?"

"You might be short of stature, but your mind is sharper than any other," she snorted at Tyrion's penchant for theatrics and lowered her voice to a whisper, "Do you mind if we talk inside?"

He nodded and led her into his quarters. The room wasn't particularly big, and the only thing that stood out was the messy bed and the heavy desk laden with candlesticks and piles of books, accompanied by a silver goblet and a pitcher of wine. Ser Arys dutifully stood guard outside the door.

Tyrion sat on one of the small chairs and turned to her, "So, Cella, what troubles you?"

"Well… I am unsure how to feel about Robb Stark," she admitted. "He is charming and courteous on the outside, but there's some distance. Everyone has only good things to say about him, yet it's his family or servants speaking."

"Well, by all accounts, they aren't lying," Tyrion smirked. "Distance is normal; the upcoming marriage seemed to surprise him as much as it did you. Your husband-to-be is squeaky clean. He treats his lessers well, there isn't a single cruel bone in his body, and he isn't lusty or greedy. According to the whor*s in Winter Town, he visited only twice for all the times he was in town, both times dragged by the Greyjoy boy. He hasn't bedded any of the maids or servants either. Well, there's always that with him chopping heads off. Though, the lad doesn't seem to revel in the butchery either, according to a drunk guard I overheard. Ah, if my father could see such a well-raised heir, he would go green with envy!"

She couldn't help but imagine the sight, and a giggle escaped her lips.

"Mayhaps you have a point," Myrcella agreed after a few moments, "I just… don't want to end up angry and bitter like Mother."

"Never," her uncle vehemently shook his head. "You're the sweetest girl, and Robb Stark would be a fool not to treat you like the treasure you are. Alas, I know little of happy marriages, so if you want advice on that particular topic, you should look for Lady Stark. After all, she's the one happily wed to the Starks despite her own sudden marriage."

She bobbed her head in agreement; as usual, her uncle was sharp and to the point and gave insightful advice. Just as Myrcella was about to leave, she remembered Rickon's words.

"Does Lord Stark have bastard sons?"

"Well," Tyrion hummed and thoughtfully scratched his jutted forehead, "he was rumoured to have sired a bastard, Jon Snow, if my memory is correct. Supposedly the boy was raised here in Winterfell along with his trueborn siblings."

Myrcella couldn't help but wonder how Lady Stark managed to be so agreeable with her husband after he brought his bastard to live in his own keep. Even the honourable Eddard Stark had a moment of weakness in his youth, yet for some reason, that did not make him any lesser.

"I met Rickon in the hallway," she hesitantly began, "he said his brother 'Jon' fell sick and disappeared after Bran fell."

"You think he died?" her uncle squinted his mismatched eyes. "Well, it could be a thousand things, niece. Rushing to conclusions like that is not wise, as young children are not exactly known for their sharp wit or concise speech. You can always ask your betrothed about his bastard brother. He would probably start courting you when he returns from the hunt."

"What if-" the words choked into her throat.

"What if your husband-to-be brings his own bastard home to be raised?" Tyrion finished for her. "I don't think you need to worry, niece. Supposedly Jon Snow was the fruit of Eddard Stark's first flame, Ashara Dayne, who died birthing him. And, while charming, Robb Stark has not found himself a paramour just yet. Besides, House Tully is not powerful; half their bannermen are stronger than the trout. Yet in Westeros, there's nothing mightier than the union of the Lion and the Stag right now."

Her mother was not in her quarters, and after nearly an hour of searching through the stone maze that was Winterfell, Myrcella finally managed to find Cersei.

Apparently, she was exploring a squat and round drum tower that looked ancient and, according to the pair of sentries outside, was named the First Keep. An old seat that had gone out of use centuries ago, evident by the disrepair. Even the gargoyles decorating the ramparts above looked quite worn.

After a short hesitation, Myrcella ordered Ser Arys to remain at the old keep's entrance. After all, neither her mother nor uncle would harm her, and Winterfell was swarming with guards. Even the elusive King Beyond the Wall met his end while trying to sneak here.

Myrcella climbed a flight of stairs, and when she neared the top, the voices of Cersei and Jaime echoed.

Curious, she suppressed her desire to announce her arrival and carefully approached, minding her step so she was not overheard. Myrcella stopped as soon as she was able to make out their words.

"- too many guards everywhere. We can't, Jaime," Cersei's voice was uncharacteristically soothing.

"Well, they did catch that deserter-gone-king along with a few petty thieves," her uncle jested as usual.

"That's not a laughing matter; even this old, abandoned keep is well-guarded. I would say Stark was planning treason, but I don't think the wolf has it in him," her mother's derisive tone returned, making Myrcella sigh inwardly.

"It's good. If nothing else, Myrcella will be well-protected here," Jaime Lannister's voice grew serious.

"Damn Robert!" Cersei's sudden screech made the girl wince. "Damn him for taking my daughter away!"

"A daughter was always going to be married off unless you planned for Cella to become an unwed old maid."

"Maybe she should!"

The princess found it odd, for a moment, that her mother was so reluctant to give her away when scarcely showing a sliver of affection for years. But she quickly realised that it was not out of love for her daughter but rather possessiveness more than anything else. Myrcella knew better than anyone that there was not a single shred of love in the cold heart of Cersei Lannister.

"There's nothing you can do," there was a hint of warning in Jaime's voice. "Stark has at least four swords for every blade the royal retinue brought, all of which would answer to Robert Baratheon anyway. Once the king has made up his mind, there's no changing it. And Robb Stark is a respectable match for Myrcella. Just accept it; there are worse things than this."

"I can write Father!" Cersei's words petulant words made Myrcella wince again.

"And he would laugh at your face, dear sister," Jaime snorted. "Who would be a worthy match for the Realm's Delight? The Martell second son that would inherit no lands? Edmure Tully, who is almost twice her age with his troublesome vassals and small castle? Robin Arryn, a sickly boy of six? Or maybe that crippled steward Willas Tyrell?"

The silence was deafening, as apparently, her mother had no answer.

"The Starks are little more than savages, Jaime," Cersei finally found her voice again. "They don't even employ a proper headsman!"

"There's nothing wrong with doling out justice by your own hand," Jaime's voice grew steely. "Myrcella's blood would rule half the kingdom now."

"What about that ridiculous dowry Robert agreed to? He's out of his mind!"

"Well, she deserves at least this much!"

The princess had had enough of the silly arguing and continued climbing as loudly as possible to announce her presence. The voices immediately ceased.

Myrcella entered an old, abandoned hallway and saw the Queen and her brother tensely looking at her. Jaime's hand was coiled on his sword's hilt but quickly eased.

"Mother, Uncle," she curtsied.

"What are you doing here, sweetling?" Cersei's smile was a tad forced.

"Looking for you," Myrcella replied. "The Baratheon maiden cloak would not arrive on time for the wedding. Lady Catelyn and Sansa generously offered their assistance in making a new one, along with the best choice of black and gold fabrics Winterfell has to offer. Do you wish to aid us?"

The Queen's face twisted and reminded Myrcella of curdled milk.

"I shall," her mother nodded through gritted teeth, much to the princess' amusem*nt; Cersei looked like Uncle Stannis for a short moment. "Let's go find Lady Stark."

They quickly made their way down the stairway and were joined by Ser Arys as they left the First Keep., Finding the Lady of Winterfell turned out far easier than expected. She was waiting in a courtyard facing the northern gate, followed by Arya Stark and two scores of Stark guardsmen. The sight reminded Myrcella of the ugly young duckling wobbling after her swan mother.

"Your Grace, Princess," Catelyn Stark curtsied, followed by her younger daughter, who looked rather stiff in her courtesies.

At that moment, a large party rode through the gate, explaining why the Lady of Winterfell was waiting there. For a short heartbeat, Myrcella thought that her royal father returned from the hunt early, but none of the banners were familiar. Buckets, knives, trees, cones; a motley heraldry cobbled in white, blue, green, brown, and a rare smidgeon of yellow.

The men were burly and rugged, with plenty of weathered, shaggy faces. All of them were clad in boiled leather, mail, or even hauberk, all armed to the teeth. Warhammers, spears, axes, shields, and swords were aplenty. It was akin to a river of steel, beards, hardened leather, and muscle flooding through the gates. The last to enter was a large wooden two-wheeled cart drawn by four horses. They looked to be more than a hundred riders, quite a formidable force of mounted men.

The men at the front quickly dismounted and headed towards Lady Stark with smiles on their faces. Myrcella saw her uncle Jaime tense as two of the men approached. One, as tall as her father but wiry and no less dangerous, had a surcoat depicting three pine cones, one white and green, while the other, half a head shorter, had broad shoulders and a belly bigger than the one her royal father sported bore three buckets on dark blue as his heraldry. The second man's hands were as large as hams and looked like fleshy hammers.

"Lady Stark!" Both bowed deeply in front of Myrcella's future good mother, not paying a single whit of attention to the Queen.

It made for an odd sight, as even the shorter, stout man was a head taller than the Lady of Winterfell and thrice as wide. Even odder was how a lady commanded so much genuine respect that even her royal mother lacked.

"Wull, Liddle," Catelyn Stark's voice was a bit strained as she turned to Cersei, "This is Her Grace, Queen Cersei Lannister." They all bowed their heads, but Myrcella noticed it was not nearly as deep or respectful as the one Lady Stark received. Her mother noticed it as well, judging by her thinning lips. "What brings nearly half of the Clan heads here? Is there some issue?"

Ah, so that's why the heraldry was unfamiliar, the northern clansmen were mentioned in her studies, but as they were not considered nobility, they were little more than a few cursory lines.

"We're here to speak with the Stark and to attend the young Stark's wedding, of course!" Wull's voice boomed across the courtyard as he slapped his bulging stomach, and then he looked at his tall companion, gaze heavy with envy. "The rest of the chieftains are on their way too, a few days behind us! And well, old Liddle here has a special gift for the Stark."

"My lord husband is on a hunt in the Wolfswood with His Grace the King," Catelyn explained, then signalled to a servant who brought trays with bread and salt. The chieftains were quick to accept guest right with a wide smile. "If I might be so bold to inquire, what gift would Lord Liddle have personally for my husband?"

"Ah," the Liddle chieftain coughed uncertainly as everyone in the courtyard gazed at him. Most of the clansmen's gazes alternated between envy and admiration.

"C'mon, old pinecone, shadowcat got your tongue?" Wull clicked his tongue as he shook his head.

"Damn it, Big Bucket," Liddle muttered and waved to the back, "Morgan, bring it."

Four strong men removed the shroud from the carriage and lifted an enormous furry white wrap.

"What is this," Lady Stark asked with apprehension.

"Ah well, it's easier to show than explain," the tall chieftain coughed, looking mighty uncomfortable. The so-called Big Bucket slapped his shoulder with a wide grin. "Need some large and clean place."

"To the Great Hall then," Catelyn said with a sigh while she tiredly rubbed her brow.

Myrcella was not the only one that eyed the enormous white fur roll that took four people to carry. Arya, Ser Rodrik Cassel, and even her uncle gazed at it with undisguised interest.

Sometime later, they finally arrived at the Great Hall.

Everyone watched on with interest as the long tables and chairs were pulled towards the wall, clearing a wide berth of space in the middle.

Then, the four burly men placed the wrap there and carefully unfurled it. An impossibly enormous, perfect snow bear pelt revealed itself. It was… pristine; there was not a single tear on it! It was easily long as tall as three grown men and half as wide. Easily a priceless gift, as Myrcella hadn't heard, let alone seen, anything approaching it in size or quality.

The silence was interrupted as someone whistled, impressed. Even her mother was eyeing the fur with interest.

"This," Catelyn struggled to find her words as she cautiously eyed the enormous pelt, "This is the gift?"

"Aye, for the Ned!" Liddle proudly declared.

"You honour us with such a priceless gift, Chief Liddle," she bowed her head. "I'll be sure to place it on display for all to see."

"Alas, I cannot claim credit for such a gift, for it is not I who slew the beast," the Northman bowed his head, and the clansmen erupted in cheers. "The Ned's son slew it alone, saving my daughter Lysara from certain death!"

"Gods, Lord Stark has been holding out on us," Jaime snorted.

"Ned's son?" Catelyn's voice was faint, and her face had grown pale.

"Aye, the Jon!" The clansmen erupted into cheers, and Myrcella noticed that Arya Stark leapt with joy while Lady Stark looked as if she was about to faint. Gods, were they speaking about Lord Stark's bastard? "He even refused reward or spoils for his deed. But I'm no cur to repay grace with ingratitude and keep such a magnificent skin that I had no hand in the slaying. The Jon reluctantly accepted it, only to send the pelt as a gift to his father!"

Craster's Keep

Duncan Liddle

"Mance Rayder?" Craster spat on the mud. "What do the free folk want with kings? Much I can tell you o' Mance Rayder and his doings if I had a mind for it. But why would I? You're not even crows, I have a good deal with the crows. You Southrons don't belong here in the True North. Begone now."

At that moment, the old burly wildling froze, and his cruel smile filled with rotten brown teeth was replaced with horror as he gazed behind them. The pigs began to squeal in terror from the pigsty to the left, the sheep went wild, while all of Craster's dogs began to whimper.

Duncan turned and saw Ghost standing behind them, silent as a shadow. For the dozen days he had not seen the direwolf, he had grown enormous, almost as tall as Jarod. But the towering beast was not alone; aside from the four hounds, there were two slightly smaller grey direwolves, one on his left and the other on his right, and at least a score of smaller grey wolves behind him, all eerily gazing at Craster in silence.

"Now, now," Jon Snow's voice was as smooth as silk as he picked a sharp yet heavy woodsman axe from their supplies from one of the saddles. "There's no need to be so brash and rude. Tell us what we want to know, and we'll be out of your hair. In return, I'll gift you this nice axe, the finest northern make."

The young Snowmoved,and with a loudthunk, the axehead effortlessly sank into a thick tree stump next to him. The strike was so powerful that the stump itself cracked.

If he was afraid before, Caster was terrified out of his mind now.

"Ah, I'll tell you-"

"Why didn't we just kill the bloody kinslayer," Duncan groaned as they camped three leagues away from Craster. "You were right, no boys at all, and he beds his daughters. And one of the girls fearfully said that their sons are given to the cold gods while he was showing you on the map."

"One of his wives' is heavy with child," Jon said while he effortlessly carved a straight wooden branch with Dark Sister. "I'd rather wait for it to be born. If it's a boy, we can strike down more Others; Craster can meet his gods in death afterwards."

"And if it's a girl?" Jarod asked.

"He dies regardless."

It was an amazing thing to see Jon effortlessly shape simple arrow shafts so quickly with only a sword. Sure, they were a tad crude, but far better than anything they could make here otherwise. Even the leafcloaks seemed impressed with Jon's work. Duncan couldn't help but wonder how many their leader had made to get so good at it. Gods, he was scarcely six and ten and was unnaturally skilled and knowledgeable at many things, including fighting.

The battle at the small village would be forever seared into Duncan's mind as he witnessed a struggle belonging straight to the tales of olde. But it was a good thing; it was a great honour to follow such a formidable man who daringly led at the front, even more so if the Stark blood ran through his veins.

"I'm no midwife to know of pregnancies and birthing babes, but can we afford to wait for moons for the child to be born?" His uncle sighed as he was checking the arrow fletchings. "What if the wildlings move away?"

"Well," Leaf chimed in, "I have some knowledge in that field. The woman will give birth in less than a moon if there are no surprises. A fortnight most likely, so we won't wait too long."

"Is there anything you don't know?" Jarod looked curiously at the Singer.

"Plenty," she snorted. "But if you live as long as me, you're bound to pick some things here and there along the way."

Duncan still had trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that the little deer-like being could live more than five times a human could. The small clearing grew silent as Jon gazed at the campfire, lost in thought.

"According to Craster, Mance Raider's people have begun to gather at one of the Milkwater's western sleeves," the young man slowly began to draw in the soft mud with a stick. "We're about sixty leagues away from there, give or take a few. But they will take quite some time to gather, and tens of thousands of men are not so quick to move, so we can afford to wait for Craster's child to be born."

The mud map was odd, but if you squinted enough, it looked accurate with what he remembered about the Lands beyond the Wall back in Little Hall.

"What shall we do while we wait?" Duncan straightened up as he continued to slowly knap the piece of obsidian in his hand into a crude arrowhead. The Singers were far quicker and better than him at shaping dragonglass, but he didn't want to feel useless. "Sooner or later, the daughterf*cker will spot us if we linger around."

"What can the old wildling do?" Jarod snorted. "Ten years ago, the man might have been formidable, but he's older than me, and his strength is waning with every next moon."

"We shall head to this deposit of obsidian Leaf mentioned near the lake to restock. It's the closest, less than sixty miles away," Jon decided as he looked at the lines drawn in the mud and stabbed his stick into the nameless lake, which flowed into the shivering sea through a river. "Leaf, pick out a handful of suitable Singers to watch on Craster without being noticed."

Notes:

We see what Myrcella is up to, and certain people get really close to an aneurysm. The Liddles finally arrive, but they're not alone; Ned's vague warnings and requests have roused the otherwise reclusive Mountain Clans.

And Jon and Co finally arrive in Craster's Keep.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Chapter 17: The White Huntsman...

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

Warning for the faint of heart: Violence, death, and all sorts of unpleasant stuff in that vein.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

7th Day of the 5th Moon

Robert Baratheon

This was the life he had always been missing. Ned by his side, enjoying everything the kingdoms had to offer together! Well, almost everything - his friend seemed to take his marriage vows quite seriously now; Robert would have thought him made out of stone if Eddard hadn't sired a bastard all those years ago. Ah, his Ned was lucky: Catelyn had a heart of gold to accept another woman's child under her roof; Robert still remembered how Cersei subtly threatened to do away with Mya should he bring her to court.

Alas, the Quiet Wolf seemed somehow troubled, but Robert couldn't blame him; many things had happened in the last fortnight.

At least the hunt proved quite successful. The Wolfswood was a far more primal, feral place than the Kingswood; the harshness ever present in the North had left its undeniable touch here. The beasts were a tad bigger, faster, and generally harder to catch - but that only made the hunt more meaningful.

As they made it to the top of the hill, the grey walls of Winterfell finally peaked above the tree line in the distance - it seemed that in less than half an hour of riding, they'd be back and ready to gorge themselves senseless on venison! Few things were as appetising as the meat that you had caught and killed by your own hand.

As the king, Robert was at the head of the procession, his friend and Howland Reed to his right, and the kingsguard trailed behind him, followed by everyone else.

The crannoglord was observant as usual - ever since Robert had arrived, he had scarcely seen a single word escape his mouth; it seemed that the Lord of Greywater Watch was content to simply watch impassively. If he was a tad bigger with a white cloak, Howland could easily be mistaken for a kingsguard. In fact, with his green and brown garb, he almost merged with the surrounding forest, and Robert found his eyes oft passing over the short man.

"It seems that your skills have only sharpened with time," Ned said from his right. "Clean kill; the second stag you speared is one of the biggest I've seen."

The first one he slew was nothing extraordinary. But the second… it might not have been the largest Robert had slain, but the antlers atop its head were the most majestic he had seen. Perfectly symmetrical, with no cracks, chips or any flaws. The curve, the size, the pale colour, everything was magnificent and just right; they would look even better mounted atop the Iron Throne itself. If only the damned royal chair was more comfortable, he would be more inclined to hold court…

"Nowadays, I wield the spear far more than the hammer," Robert lamented. "You've not gone rusty yourself. A wild shaggy mountain horse, I haven't seen those since our days in the Eyrie."

"They're a rare sight here, too," the northern lord agreed.

"Poor old Selmy, he looked like his heart was about to burst with worry when the shadowcat leapt out of the bushes," the king barked out in laughter, remembering the old knight's reddened face.

"Shadowcats are no jape, Robert, you know that," worry simmered in Ned's grey eyes.

"Hah, twenty years might have passed, but I still remember how that crotchety old knight, what was his name Margot, Margrave?"

"Morgen Tollett," his friend supplied gruffly.

"Aye, Morgen Tollett got raked to death through his ringmail and arming doublet in his sleep during that hunt," Robert patted his belly with a chuckle as Eddard sighed. "You fret too much, old friend; that's what my kingsguard are for. And your wolf made short work of the damned overgrown cat before it could do anything. Only a pity, the pelt is too savaged, or you could have gifted Cat a shadowskin cloak."

"Some of it can still be salvaged," Ned waved dismissively, "Enough to fit a cloak for my Arya for her next name-day."

They finally entered the open plains between the Stark seat and the wolfswood.

The king wanted a direwolf of his own. But alas, for eight thousand years, the Starks were the only ones that had managed to tame direwolves consistently. Even if Robert managed to procure himself a cub, he was far more likely to get himself mauled or savaged sooner or later, just like all the others that had attempted before.

Robert's only consolation was that his grandchildren would have direwolves of their own.

His thoughts drifted to his future good-son, Robb Stark. Just like his father, the lad turned out to be a capable hunter; he had slain an enormous moose, albeit with the help of that direwolf of his. Those beasts were a hundred times better than hunting hounds. The young man reminded the king of his joyful youth, especially with those laughing blue eyes, the strong body, and the charming disposition. The boy did not favour the warhammer but seemed to be a far better rider than Robert had ever been.

He would have been envious if Robb Stark was not about to become his good-son in less than a moon.

Ned sure knew how to raise his children; all of them were a credit to House Stark, even that wild hellion Arya. At first glance, the young girl seemed rather subdued, yet Robert could see the defiant glint in her eyes and the restlessness bubbling underneath.

From behind, Joffrey's guffaw entered his ears, souring Robert's mood. Ah, where did he go wrong with that boy? Against all rules of the hunt, the little sh*t had killed a young doe and bragged about it for all to hear. And none dared to speak out because it was the crown prince, although many a man began to sport frowns when looking at Joffrey.

Truthfully, the king knew where he went wrong. His heir had a cruel streak and was arrogant and vain but no more different than some other noblemen his age. It was that shrew, his mother the queen, whispering with her poisonous tongue in the boy's ear. To this day, Robert regretted taking Jon's advice to wed the old Lion's daughter.

Sadly, it made too much sense back then to marry the gorgeous 'Light of the West' and bind her formidable father to the throne. But under the pretty face and the generous pair of teats hid the blackest of hearts.

Now, her influence in court was great, and even if Robert wanted to get rid of his wife, it would be too damn difficult even without the proud Old Lion. He could find some reason to disown his eldest son, but Cersei would raise hell and would focus on moulding the spineless Tommen to suit her own image. His youngest was sweet and kind but craved his mother's attention.

If Robert truly set his mind to it, he could do it. He could get rid of Cersei. Yet would it be worth it? No, the following fallout would leave him bereft of feasting, wenching, and drinking for a long time, the only things making rulership somewhat bearable. Maybe one day, his wife would choke on her spite.

Hah, wouldn't that be amusing?

Robert shook his head; thinking of Cersei always soured his mood. Hopefully, with Ned by his side, things in the capital would take a turn for the better.

"I've been thinking," the king hesitantly began, "Tommen and Rickon seem to be getting along very well. Why don't I leave my boy here to foster."

And get him away from the influence of his shrewish mother and the court's useless lickspittles.

"That would be too much favour for House Stark, Robert," Ned shook his head.

"Piss on that; I'm the King! If anyone has any problem with it, they can take it to me!"

"Still, it would be unfair for Robb to look after the boy when newlywed," the northern lord persisted, "How about this - I'll take Tommen as my page when we leave south, and arrangements can be made for Rickon and Tommen to foster together at a trusted lord when your son reaches ten name-days."

"Fine," Robert begrudgingly agreed. If Eddard taught the youngest prince even half as well as any of his own children, Tommen would benefit greatly.

The rest of the short way to Winterfell was spent in silence.

Inside the courtyard, they were greeted by a surprise - it seemed that Cerwyn and a good part of the northern clansmen had arrived. Wull, Burley, Norrey, Liddle, Harclay, Knott, Irondam, Redhill, and many others Robert did not remember anymore.

Knowing Ned, he probably invited the whole North to attend his heir's wedding, but the road from the furthest Northern mountains was at least ten days, and the marriage had been decided scarcely five days ago. They were here for something else, although if Robert were to wager a guess, they would definitely be staying for the wedding celebrations anyway. It didn't matter much - the more, the merrier!

And well, there was Cerwyn, who was definitely here for the latter - his seat was only a hard day's ride from Winterfell.

For some reason, Catelyn seemed somewhat uneasy, but Ned's children all looked happy.

The courtesies were quickly exchanged, and the Lady of Winterfell approached her husband with a hint of reluctance and whispered in his ear.

The long tables were laden with food and drink, and the merriment was going full force. To the side, the bards were playing 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'as half the younger clansmen sang along, and Robert was ravenously devouring the roast venison of his own kill. In the absence of northern lords other than Cerwyn, Reed, and the Manderly heir, most of the chieftains of the larger clans were clustered near the head of the highseat.

"-and the lad speared the beast clean through the eye!"

This was the third time Torren Liddle was retelling the tale. The Stark daughters were leaning forward, listening on with interest, and they were far from the only ones as Robb and his royal children were paying rapt attention as well. Oh, and what a tale it was; valour, bravery, and skill, a hero victorious against all odds in saving a damsel in distress!

Yet none could dispute it - the enormous pelt was pristine - not a single tear. Morgan Liddle had brought the thick skull the size of a hound - the crack at the hole where the right eye was supposed to be was unmistakable. And most important of all, the Northerners were straightforward, honest folk, and if the Liddle Chieftain said Jon Snow slew the gigantic beast and saved his daughter - it had surely happened.

The fact that Ned's bastard boy was willing to send the priceless pelt as a gift to his father spoke volumes of the respect and loyalty to House Stark and his father. And humble to boot, requesting no reward for saving a lord's daughter.

And well, Ned's face was a mask of ice, but Robert could read it well enough - there was a hint of relief in his countenance, and he had the feeling the Lord of Winterfell was bursting from pride on the inside.

Gods, the lad must be quite strong to crack one of the thickest parts of the skull with a spear, and the king idly wondered if he could take down such a beast on his lonesome. He snorted inwardly; of course, he could - there was nothing Robert Baratheon couldn't slay!

The king had half a mind to reward the boy himself - a knighthood and even a generous strip of land somewhere in the Stormlands or Crownlands, along with more honours. But Jon Snow was nowhere to be found.

"Hey Torren," the king took a generous gulp of wine from his goblet, "Where's the boy now?"

"He seemed to have his mind set on travelling," Liddle shrugged and took a swig of ale from his tankard.

"Ah, a free spirit," Robert nodded wisely. He couldn't blame the young bastard; being free like the wind to wander where his heart desired was a dream come true.

Wine and ale flowed like a river; the clansmen did not shy away from drinking at all. The king could even see a few of the younger clansmen crowded around one of the long tables below, where Morgan Liddle, Jeor Harclay, Tyrion Lannister, and Rogar Wull were competing to see who could drink the most.

Robert looked around the high table - none of the chieftains seemed too eager with their cups, and Ned was never one to indulge himself with baser pursuits like drinking. Ah, damn all those bores, where was all the celebration!?

With a loud burp, the king stood up and swaggered towards the table where the young clansmen were drinking.

Eddard Stark

Joffrey was oft charming and polite, especially in public, but now that Eddard had seen his cruel streak with the young doe for himself, he could see the mercurial nature hidden underneath the pleasant veneer. The Lord of Winterfell was glad to have declined that betrothal; the thought of the blonde boy as his good-son made his skin crawl.

And he had earned himself a young page to watch over while dealing with the mess that was going to be King's Landing.

Today was far too eventful for his liking.

He sighed; at this rate, Winterfell's stocks of wine and ale would be finished before the wedding even took place. Alas, such was the cost of hosting his bannermen and the royal court for nearly a moon. At least Ned had more than twenty days to procure more - while difficult, it was still possible. On the bright side, food would not be a problem - Winterfell's larders were filled to the brim, and harvest was around the corner. At most, a few large herds of cattle would have to be butchered, but replenishing those at the height of summer was not an issue either.

What was most important was the news about Jon - alive and well, albeit rather reckless.

His children were ecstatic to hear of the brother they thought lost, Catelyn - not as much. As usual, she said nothing, but Ned could recognise the conflicted reluctance brewing in her eyes. She had made her dislike of Jon's presence in Winterfell known to him long ago, but it seemed that his absence suited her even less.

Thankfully, the feast was finally over, with plenty of people passed out drunk. Robert, Tyrion Lannister, and Rogar Wull were the only ones on their feet after that drinking contest, though all three were swaying unsteadily. All those passed out on the benches and tables would regret it the next morn.

Ned shook his head; he was already feeling quite tired, but before returning to his sorely missed feathered bed, he had to deal with the belligerent mountain chieftains first, so he led them to a guarded chamber behind the great hall, where they could speak in private.

Although they seemed to be far less quarrelsome and oddly united, not that he'd complain. The last thing he wanted to do was settle petty disputes over hills, creeks, poaching, and the like now. At least no challenges of single combat were issued tonight.

"We're all scouring the mountains for obsidian and mining every deposit we find as you ordered, Lord Stark," Hugo began with a bow as soon as the door closed. "Is it true that you received a warning of dark things stirring Beyond the Wall?"

The chieftains began to murmur, but there was no sign of surprise in any of them - it seemed that they had already heard about this.

"Aye," Ned's throat felt dry, "I have, and supposedly obsidian is their weakness. Better to wait for all the Northern Lords to come before speaking further of this."

"What shall we do with all the black rock, though?" Ronard Burley grunted out.

The old chieftain had greying hair and a thick white beard and was one of the most crotchety chieftains. As his name would suggest, he was quite tall and burly, his back was beginning to hunch forward, and his neck was incredibly short and thick.

"Fashion it into spearheads, daggers, and arrowtips and begin sending it to the Watch; they will know what to do," Ned rubbed his brow. "As long as you keep doing this, you can consider a quarter of your yearly due forgiven."

The promise of reduced taxation seemed to catch their attention far better than any vague threat of legendary foe stirring. That seemed to satisfy their curiosity, so they began leaving the chamber.

Ned signalled to Liddle to stay behind; he wanted some more details about Jon's stay in Little Hall.

"Yes, Lord Stark?"

"Tell me, where did my son head to?"

A tired sigh escaped Torren Liddle's mouth, and he tiredly ran a hand through his hair.

"Beyond the Wall to see if he can see the threat with his own eyes, or at least that's what he told me," the chieftain's words made Ned's insides twist into an icy knot. "I do think he was holding a few things back, though. I sent Duncan, my firstborn, and my uncle Jarod Snow with him."

The Lord of Winterfell didn't trust his voice right now, so he nodded gratefully instead.

"What was your impression of Jon Snow?" Howland asked from the side, brow heavy with thought.

"Valiant, resolute, and sad," Torren replied without hesitation.

"Sad?" Ned found himself echoing.

"Aye, sad. The lad got on well enough with everyone but rarely smiled or laughed, and even then, it scarcely reached his eyes as if he was grieving. I know most young men are usually proud, angry, or hot-headed. Yet there was not an ounce of any of those in him, only peace." A languid yawn escaped the chieftain's mouth. "If there's nothin' else, may I be excused?"

Eddard nodded and wished him a restful sleep; Torren Liddle promptly left the chamber, leaving him alone with Howland Reed.

"What do you think Jon is aiming to do Beyond the Wall?"

His friend shook his head, "I have no idea. But it seems my earlier conjecture proved true - he's indeed grown dangerous. Fret not, Jon should have little trouble with his skills even Beyond the Wall, and he is no longer alone."

8th Day of the 5th Moon

Salladhor Saan

Salladhor's idea of trying to trade with the locals and receive aid and directions from them was met with failure as soon as chopping down weirwood was mentioned.

Screams and cries echoed through the small settlement as Denzo's men did their job. This was the second not abandoned village they found along the lake's coast, and the Lyseni sellsail grimaced as the air was filled with cries of pain and anger. The first one barely had a handful of old crones and greybeards left - nobody useful.

While savage, the locals could do little against Denzo's manhunters - bone and stone weapons could barely scratch the tyroshi slaves, who were a dab hand at fighting unprepared and unarmoured foes. Using shields, nets, staves, and clubs, they methodically subdued the fighters and hunted down the women and the children. Out of little more than a hundred inhabitants, less than two dozen seem to be fighters, so they were easily overwhelmed.

None of the savages were wasted but the wounded and the old - the former were put down instead of spending their scant medical supplies, while the latter brought no coin - so they were done away with.

A nasty business, but hopefully, Magister Sarrios would pay a hefty coin for their efforts. Salladhor shook his head and signalled his own men to bring their axes and begin processing the enormous weirwood tree in the middle of the village. Nearly thirty feet thick at the trunk, the gigantic tree that towered with its ominous red leaves above was everything they would need. On the bone-like bark, a grotesque face twisted in a fury was carved as if it were gazing at them angrily.

Salladhor snorted and made his way to the Tyroshi manhunter. He was inspecting the prisoners one by one before sending them back to the ships. It reminded the Lyseni sellsail of a man inspecting horses at the market. All clasped in chains, they were forced into a long line, and any who dared to struggle or make trouble was smacked on the shins - which quickly dissuaded the savages from resisting. The most troublesome ones were already put down at the initial fighting.

Ah, what a tragedy - to be born at the wrong place and time. But that was their lot in life, and Salladhor would finally retire in luxury with their involuntary aid.

"With this, we will have enough weirwood," he said. "Only the ivory is left now."

"Will still take at least half a day to chop it down. I've had my men looking around. There are no traces of mammoths nearby," Denzo grunted angrily and struck down a thin greying woman with his cutlass. Blood coloured the snow as the body tumbled down helplessly. The next slave was carried in, and manhunters quickly removed the manacles and carried away the corpse to be tossed to the side.

Too old to be worth the effort to feed her all the way to Tyrosh, that one. Aside from the fighters who would do well in the fighting pits, the finest slaves were those that had not seen twenty name-days yet. Young enough to be pliable to training while not old enough to be ruined by the harshness of the northern wasteland.

"Can try asking one of these poor sods here," the sellsail proposed and nodded towards the short, mousy woman with a weathered face and brown hair that the Tyroshi was inspecting.

"Woman, do you know where we can find mammoths?" The words were spoken in westerosi; Denzo grabbed the chains and pulled her close. Next to his hulking figure, she looked like a small, helpless child.

"f*ck you!"

Her defiance earned her a brutal smack on the face and made her tumble in the snow bonelessly.

"I think you killed her," Salladhor observed the unmoving body.

"Worthless, that one," the manhunter snorted, stabbing his spear into her back.

There was no movement or grunts of pain; it seemed that the earlier strike had indeed finished the wildling.

"I tell ye where to find the mammoths," a woman down the line yelled.

Denzo motioned for a pair of his men to bring her over. Pale skin, long, tangled dark hair, amber eyes, and long legs made for a tantalising sight even through her furs. Once washed and groomed, she would easily be a beauty.

"Tell us," Denzo's voice was menacing. Ah, the subtlety of an elephant, that one.

"Take me as yer woman, and I shall tell ye where to find the mammoths," her mouth twisted into a crooked grin, revealing two rows of pearly white teeth.

The Tyroshi man stepped back and critically inspected the woman before him from top to bottom.

"Fine, I shall take you." he nodded half a minute later. "Now tell us!"

At that moment, Salladhor's men began chopping the giant weirwood.

One of the captured savages began yelling and pointing towards their sacred tree. Yet he received a smack upon the head, knocking him out. A few more tried to struggle but could do little against the manacles.

"I tell, but only you," the woman's face became impassive as she glanced at the weirwood.

Denzo Hartys impatiently leaned in closer. She was just about to whisper in his ear when her face suddenly twisted into a feral snarl and bit the Tyroshi's ear.

The slaver pushed her away, and two of his men began to beat her with their clubs. Denzo's right ear was almost completely gone, replaced by a torn, bloody stump. The tall man heaved over and moaned in pain for a moment before standing up, furious.

With a nod, the two slavers moved away from the woman. Aside from her bloody mouth, her face was untouched, but judging by how she trembled and heaved, her body had been heavily battered.

"You f*cking bitch! I'll break you!"

Undaunted by Denzo's roar, she spat a bloody piece of flesh at him and cackled.

"Kill me if you wish, but yer already dead."

That stilled the furious manhunter for a moment.

"No, you shall live," Hartys wiped off the blood from his face and slowly shook his head. His dark eyes glowed with fury, but he remained still. "You'll be our whor*, spreading your legs for my men as they desire."

"So be it," she showed a feral, bloody smile and twisted her head towards the weirwood tree where Salladhor's men worked tirelessly. "The gods will strike ye down for this."

Salladhor looked at the weirwood tree. From the carved face, red sap ominously wept as if it were blood, making him feel rather uneasy.

"Foolish savage," Denzo guffawed and grabbed her chain, yanking her closer. "What is the tree going to do to me? Pick up a sword and fight back?"

An owl hooted somewhere in the distance.

Jarod Snow

As promised, the Earth Singers had led them to the obsidian deposit. For good or for bad, their journey here had been uneventful - travelling, sparring, and even hunting.

"That will make for a fine cloak," Leaf said while effortlessly knapping a piece of obsidian. Under her dark claws, the black stone was quickly shaped into an arrowhead.

"Aye," Jon agreed without stopping his own work.

The shadowcat was one of the largest Jarod had seen, nearly the size of a large pony. It would make for a fine pelt, be it as a gift, cloak, or cover, and Jon was almost done skinning it.

It seemed that their leader was indeed a master huntsman; he had tracked down and taken the beast with ease. A spear through the eye, just like the snow bear. Even now, he was quickly skinning the carcass with such ease and skill that would make one feel envious.

Jon Snow was like a cabbage - there were always more layers of surprising skills underneath.

Jarod shook his head and returned to fletching the new arrows.

Their camp was bustling with activity - three were roasting a boar over their fire - one of the leafcloak hunters had caught it. A dozen Singers were working on the obsidian just like Leaf; a few were scouting the surroundings or keeping watch. Duncan was to the side, chopping stakes for spear shafts.

At that moment, one of the Earth Singers ran in, his dappled face filled with worry and anger. Jarod recognised him as the one with the grey owl pet.

Instead of the usual soft, melodic sound akin to a summer breeze, his speech was harsh and choppy, like a blizzard amid the coldest winter. Leaf's sad face became even more forlorn. Duncan and the other singers crowded around them, and Jarod could see the faces of the leafcloaks alternate between sadness, anger, and acceptance.

Jon just finished skinning the shadowcat, cleaned his hands and dagger in the snow and patiently waited.

"What is it?" He asked as soon as the worried singer finished.

"Dark-skinned men are putting wildlings in chains in a village near the lake and are chopping down an old Heart Tree," Leaf sighed.

"Essosi slavers," Jarod spat. The only thing a Northman hated more than slavers were those who dared to chop down the heart trees.

"And their numbers?" Jon's face was impassive, but his hand was on the dragonsword's hilt.

"Less than four scores."

"We can take them!" Duncan angrily brandished his greatax.

Ah, to be young and hot-tempered. Jarod felt just as furious but knew things were not as straightforward. Less than half of the Earth Singers could fight and were more hunters than anything else. Although the slavers were not really trained fighters either, they usually fought unarmed smallfolk caught by surprise. Still, a battle could prove costly.

"And we will," the young bastard agreed and turned to Leaf. "How far is the village?"

"Less than two leagues to the northeast," Leaf said, her golden eyes heavy with feeling as she looked at Jon Snow as if seeing him for the first time.

"Good," he hummed thoughtfully. From the forest, Ghost, followed by his newfound retinue of wolves, padded over. They were nearly three dozen now. "Here's what we'll do-"

Notes:

The hunt is finally over. Bobby B loves drinking. The rest of the things go about as expected, really.

Our not-so-favourite Tyroshi slavers are finally checking some of their goals but also attracting thewrongsort of attention.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Chapter 18: ...and the Maiden Fair

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

Warning for the faint of heart: Gore, death, and all sorts of unpleasant stuff in that vein that you can see in your average ASOIAF fic.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

8th Day of the 5th Moon

Val, Beyond the Wall

Luck was on her side this day; with a pouch filled with berries and a dead hare in her hands, Dalla and Val would not go hungry for the next three days. Prey had never been abundant, but lately, everything was even more scarce than usual, and the forest - more unwelcoming, forcing the sisters to get by on berries, roots, and fish. Neither of them was good at catching fish, but their mother had passed her knowledge of herbs and healing to Dalla. Val had attempted to learn some, but the bow, knife, and spear suited her far better. Still, a woods witch rarely went hungry as long as people needed healing and were willing to bring gifts in return, which meant fish or sometimes skins in a village next to the lake. A few daring ones demanded that Dalla waste her precious herbs and poultices on them with nothing in return, but Val had taken care of those reckless fools.

Still, the voices in Greystone urging to join Mance Rayder and his army grew in number with every passing sennight, pride and freedom readily abandoned for fear. Dead things walking in the woods - rumours of abandoned or slaughtered villages made even Val hesitate. Yet the promises of the self-proclaimed king ran false; she remembered her mother, Valla, saying that even if all the Free Folk united under one banner and attacked the Wall and defeated the Crows, the Lord of Wolves and his kneelers would still smash them effortlessly as if they were gnats.

Val's mother would know - she was half a Southron. But then again, Mance Rayder used to be a Crow too and, by all accounts, was somewhat confident in his chances of success, and Valla's odd respect for the 'Stark' even on her death bed felt odd, misplaced. Was the Wolf Lord strong enough to protect his lands when raiders managed to climb the Wall, take what they could, and return?

Yet, did they have a choice but to try? Soon enough, one dawn, they might wake under the thrall of the Cold Shadows if they stayed here. Half a moon ago, some of the braver, more experienced hunters and raiders had gathered up, and gone into the woods, intent to fight the ominous yet elusive foe.

They never returned.

They could take their things and leave, but things were said to be even worse in other places. Truthfully, their only option was Mance Rayder; the only question was when their pride would buckle under the dread. If there was one thing that Valla had taught her daughters, it was that survival always came first. Pride and freedom could come and go, but you'd need to survive another day to keep them.

Val shook her head and focused on the small, trodden trail leading towards Greystone as she tied the dead fox to her belt. Yet, fifteen minutes away from the village, she couldn't help but feel that something was off. Sure, the forest was more ominous these days, but her gut was telling her it was more than that. Had Crows sneaked to attack Greystone? While rare, tales of them slaughtering villages were not unheard of. Or maybe it was the Cold Shadows or even Mance Rayder's men? The Nightrunners did raid around the lake from time to time. Regardless, those who failed to listen to their gut feeling rarely lived past twenty.

With trepidation, she left the trail in favour of the trees and bushes and quickly climbed up a thick sentinel. Sure enough, she heard something and stilled on her branch, carefully watching down. Not more than two minutes later, she saw an odd man cautiously walking down the trail, not more than fifteen yards away from her. He wore no black, yet his furs were too well-made and still looked somewhat cold despite them, and his steps on the snow were cautious yet uncertain. His skin was the colour of dark, muddy clay, though Val couldn't say if it was from dirt, paint, or something else, and his face twisted into an unpleasant frown.

After a few seconds, she concluded him to be an odd southron from far away, remembering her mother's tale of the wide world that stretched further than one could imagine. Fantastical tales of lands where snow never fell and everything was lush, green, and warm. Val snorted inwardly and focused on the man. The blade on his hip was a fine make, doubtlessly steel, judging by the clinking ringmail peeking under his belt and cloak.

He was coming from the village, and the worst part was the blood on his garb. There were dark, crimson globs and splashes on his fur-lined cloak around his wrists.

Not only a stranger but a foe.

Was the village sacked, the men slain, and the women stolen? What of Dalla? After a short moment of hesitation, Val steeled herself; she would have to go and see for herself. But first, this strange new foe must be dealt with.

She never fought with Crows or Southrons but remembered old Oden's teachings on how to kill them. While impressive, their armour rarely covered their neck, knee, or elbow joints very well. And, of course, their eyes were rarely protected but were much harder targets to hit.

Val squeezed the handle of her bone knife and tensed once the man neared the trail below her. Her heart thundered like a drum, and when he was just below, she leapt down into her foe and slammed her knife into his neck above the fur-lined collar, and they tumbled onto the cold, wet slush. A pained moan escaped his throat as they rolled around the snow, and the few rocks and roots that slammed into her back and side knocked the breath out of her and made her lose her grip on the knife.

When they stopped, the man was atop her, gurgling in his own blood and face twisted in agony as his beady black eyes stared at her in disbelief. The stench of sh*t and piss irritated her nose. Val ignored the weight pressing on her and wrestled to grab the wood-bound handle sticking out of her foe's neck. Her hand grasped the slippery, blood-covered hilt and pushed, twisting and pushing further, making him twitch and gurgle.

A few heartbeats later, he stopped moving. With a grunt, Val pushed his body away, stood up, and inspected herself with a wince. Her scarf, tunic, and cloak were all painted red with blood. Dull throbs littered a few parts of her torso, a result of hitting rocks and particularly gnarly roots during her roll in the snow. The kill fazed her little, as Val had slain men five times before. Three trying to steal her, and two during a scuffle with a wandering tribe. No, her main worry was for Dalla, her younger sister. The village was just a convenient place where a few smaller clans and families had gathered for protection, including them.

Still, she had to get away immediately lest the companions of the fallen man found her. After a moment of hesitation, Val quickly looked around and saw and heard nobody. The forest was eerily quiet, and the usual cries of the snow shrikes were absent. Weighting her risks, the spearwife cut the man's furs and belt, revealing a ringmail underneath.

The man's body was a tad thicker, but they were of similar build. With some struggle, Val removed the chainmail and pulled it over her tunic. It felt odd, but it did not restrict her movements too much, nor was it too loud. After a short inspection, she noted that her knife's edge had chipped in a few places and threw it away in favour of the pair of steel daggers resting on the belt. There was also an odd, curved shortsword akin to a waning moon, a wooden club, and something reminding her of a fishing net. An odd choice of arms, but Val had little time to hesitate and picked up the blade and quickly made her way into the woods, leaving the rest of the odd spoils on the corpse.

Beyond the Wall, nothing was as valuable as steel, so leaving it behind would be a great waste. Alas, burning the body would take too long, so she left it there. Hopefully, it wouldn't wake up anytime soon…

Val tried to be as stealthy as possible, stepping on stones and roots where she could, leaving next to no trace, but the ringmail clinked softly with every movement. Yet, in the eerily silent forest, it sounded like thunder in her ears. She swore quietly, pulled off the hauberk and hung it on a low branch in a way that was not visible from the trodden trail. She then marked the three with a slash from a few sides and continued.

The minutes stretched on, and Val became tenser as she approached the village through the forest while ignoring her throbbing torso, grimacing at the thought of bruises. She heard it before she saw it, yet it was wrong. A worrying mix of pained cries, moans, and odd yells in a new, unfamiliar tongue. It was not the Old Tongue nor any mixed variations that she had heard other tribes and clans speak before. The words were smooth and pleasant, akin to the flowing of a small creek, in complete contrast to the cries of pain.

And then, Val cautiously arrived at the end of the treeline and sneaked a peak from behind a nearby thick trunk. She wasn't worried about her head being spotted - the village was around thirty yards away, and the nearby shrubs and low branches provided generous cover. The following sight chilled her insides far more than ice or snow ever could - the village was swarming with those clay-skinned men. Dozens of them, all clad in well-made leathers and ringed mail and armed with steel. Never before had Val seen so much steel in one place.

A few corpses were carried onto a large pile. Val grimaced in recognition - those were Oden, the chieftain here, old Varok, and most of the remaining hunters and older folk. The rest of the villagers were in a long line, clasped in iron chains, and were led onto two enormous wooden… what did her mother call them again?

Boats.

Many a time larger and more impressive than the fishing rafts they made, both wooden monstrosities easily outsized four mammoths, if not more, reminding her of Valla's childhood tales.

Val thought most of them were made up, but…

She looked around - a few thatched huts and the hall were being ransacked, while much to her disbelief, the heart tree was being chopped down. Did those fools not fear the wrath of the gods?!

Yet, the rhythmic thumping of the axes as they methodically bit like ants into the enormous base of the weirwood spoke for itself. And worse, there was not a sign of her sister. Was she already on the boat?

Yet, if Dalla was there, could Val do anything? She was fierce and brave, but those men had slaughtered the chieftain, the raiders, and the remaining hunters and outnumbered her greatly. Worse, Val had no way of knowing if her sister was even on the ship. She could try something if there were one, two, or three. Yet there were many, as numerous as the village, if not more.

As the spearwife was hesitating, unsure what to do, a vicious, mighty howl tore through the air from the east. A lower-pitched and different one followed, then a third and a fourth. Direwolves; a chill ran down her spine.

They rarely attacked villages unless starving, but the scent of blood seemed to have drawn them here.

The southrons seemed unnerved, and rightfully so - a single direwolf was a dangerous foe, let alone many. A tall, burly man with a bloodied cheek began barking out harsh orders. Clad in finer clothing and wearing more steel and bigger weapons - this was undoubtedly the chieftain. A handful of men with spears, torches, and bows headed towards the eastern forest, where the howls had come.

A mistake, Val noted happily; there was no worse place to face a pack of direwolves than the forest. Sure enough, howls, cries of pain, anguish, and horror could be heard all the way here, distracting the invaders.

One of the men that had entered the eastern treeline ran out desperately, yet a moment later, a vicious white blur leapt and slammed into him, taking him down. A snow-white direwolf, bigger than any Val had seen, tore out the man's throat and gazed at the invaders. Even from here, she could see a pair of baleful crimson eyes that sent chills down her spine. Yet before the southrons could rally, the wolf disappeared into the woods with a proud swish of his shaggy white tail as if taunting them.

Silence, absolute silence, as nobody moved or said a thing; all the cries of pain and howls had stopped.

The enormous chieftain angrily brandished a thick, curved blade and snatched a spear from the hands of one of the others, and a stream of harsh words escaped his mouth.

A moment later, everything became chaotic, and Val froze, unable to do anything but watch with fascination.

As everyone was gathering towards the east, where the white direwolf had killed the man, from the west, a rain of black arrows tore through the skies like a swarm of hungry ravens.

With cries of anguish and blood, some of the men fell to the ground, while others panicked and ran around blindly. The arrows stopped as abruptly as they appeared, and Val noted that no more than a dozen had fallen; quite a few arrows had stuck into fur cloaks or tunics, yet the men did not seem much bothered by them. Another volley of arrows was now met with shields and struck down only four, but they seemed to be only wounded, judging by their pained cries and the way they rolled in the muddy slush.

Two figures dashed out of the western forest. Both clad in steel, one was tall and burly, while the other was slightly shorter and lithe. At the same time, from the eastern treeline dashed out a mixed pack of wolves, big and small.

Wargs?!

"LIDDLE!"

"WINTERFELL!"

Just as Val hesitated to join them, she stared at the sight before her and blinked. The shorter fighter, garbed in grey, was faster than she could believe and fearlessly ploughed through the sides of the clay-skinned men. Her eyes could barely track his movements, but his sword blurred, slashing through steel, bone, and flesh effortlessly, like a hungry wolf amongst sheep. The blades and cudgels of his foes couldn't catch him, nor could their nets.

But Val noticed the attackers seemed uneasy and surprised, slow and hesitant to meet the deadly foe. A few of them were slowly retreating towards the old wharf.

The fierce man was agile like a shadowcat and did not remain in more than one place for more than half a heartbeat, lunging towards the foes on the side. Blurred, sweeping strikes faster than most could counter left many men gurgling painfully from their sliced throats, if not a head shorter. The blade reminded Val of a raging river - each cut seamlessly flowed into the next, cleaving through wood, weapon, flesh or bone with savage surety.

The grey cloak twirled behind him with a deadly flourish, and the spearwife could finally make out the thing stitched onto the back - a shaggy white direwolf head.

A mighty warg? Though Val had heard many a tale about them, each one more fantastical than the rest. Yet the only one she had met could only enter the mind of a small white fox and was a big craven and a worse raider. No, mayhaps not only a warg but someone blessed by the gods?

The attackers attempted to surround him, but a few errant arrows continued hailing from the forest, forcing them to lift their shields. At that moment, the taller, burly companion arrived and ferociously protected the left flank of the wolfish man, furiously striking down any who neared with his enormous ax. The tall man might have been slower but was no less dangerous.

On the other side, scores of big and small wolves savagely encircled and attacked lone men from the sides and back. Terrifying howls melded with the screams of terror and anguish.

The enormous chieftain that towered over a head from the other invaders finally made way to stop the warg-lord from slaughtering his men. Yet, he fared no better - his cleaver was chopped in two with a sweeping slash that removed his head.

The fight - no, this wasn't even a fight, not anymore. It reminded Val more of how a few younger children tried to play-fight against the old veteran raiders, only to lose terribly every time.

Beset by two sides and with their leader slain, the invaders were quick to lose their courage and decided to turn tail and run towards the ships.

But alas, it was too late; the wolves were relentless and pounced on the backs and legs of the fleeing men with fervour, while the fighter began cutting through multiple foes with every swing.

Before Val could blink, there were no more dark-skinned invaders standing, yet the man didn't stop - he rushed the old wharf and leapt up the wooden stairs of the closer ship.

Jon Snow

He wasn't feeling particularly merciful, so every single slaver had been slain, even those who surrendered. His brigandine had done its job splendidly - the whole fight, if it could be even called one, had earned him only a handful of bruises, courtesy of the few strikes he failed to avoid or deflect.

Getting looks of admiration, respect, caution, and fear was not a particularly new feeling, but it was odd to be again on the receiving end of such gazes. Jon shrugged it off and continued striking down the remaining chains since not all keys for the manacles were found. Thankfully, he didn't chop off any limbs, although three of the most fidgety children got a few shallow cuts.

The Singers of the Earth received no fewer looks than he did, although there seemed to be less fear and more curiosity. Understandable since none of them looked particularly imposing or threatening as they were scarcely taller than an eleven-year-old child. What seemed to unnerve the Free Folk and the slaves were the three dozen wolves with bloody-dripping snouts that roamed around the corpses. Four of the normal wolves were killed, and a handful were wounded, but there was nothing too serious.

At first, Ghost's ability to gather his own four-legged retinue had been amusing, but Jon could tap into their mind as easily, and they followed both his and Ghost's commands with no resistance whatsoever. Now, after the battle, they had proved their usefulness, it would have been a far more challenging fight without the distraction and the pack hammering the slavers from the opposite side. Jon mentally nudged them, and they retreated into the forest while Ghost padded softly to his side.

"Can any of you speak common?" Jon turned to the freed rowers as he absentmindedly scratched behind the direwolf's ears. Fifty-two of them - all gaunt, tired, apprehensive, and freezing, courtesy of their rough, ill-fitted fur garb.

"I can, Ser," a wiry pale-skinned man with a tangled beard and messy dark hair stepped forward while fearfully glancing at Ghost, reddened snout dripping with dark blood.

Jon noted his proficiency in the common tongue, despite the hoarse voice, and decided to ignore the misplaced title.

"Fret not; he doesn't bite unless I tell him to," the man gave him a sceptical grunt, making Jon chuckle. "Hailing from Westeros?"

"Nay, just a merchant from Essos, though my ma was from Gulltown," he bowed, and then his fear was replaced with solemnity. "What will happen to us now?"

"You got a choice: stay here, or take the boats and leave."

"You're willing to give a bunch of slaves you never met two of the fanciest galleys I've ever seen?"

"Yes," Jon said with a shrug. "They are useless to me, and most of you would probably die if you decided to stay."

"Quite generous," the man noted suspiciously.

"Take it or leave it. I can spare you a handful of cudgels, nets, and daggers, but any bows, weirwood and steel will remain here."

The essosi rower turned to his fellows a slew of quick, hurried words was unleashed, spoken in some valyrian dialect Jon couldn't recognise; the rest rowers eased and began to nod.

After a short discussion, the man turned to Jon, "None wish to stay here, but we can only man one of the ships."

"Good, but first aid us clear up," Jon pointed to Duncan and the Singers, who were now stripping anything of value from the dead slavers and checking if any of the spent arrows could be reused. Arms, chainmail, and furs were all valuable and would come in use sooner or later.

The man said a few words to the freed rowers, and they enthusiastically joined in.

Leaf, who was inspecting the nearly chopped-down Heart Tree, turned around and quickly dashed his way.

"Jon, can I have a few dozen corpses?"

"What for?"

"I think I can sacrifice their blood and innards to restore the Heart Tree," Leaf replied hesitantly.

"Do it, but chop the heads off first."

"Going to do a repeat of the Hungry Wolf?" Jarod asked from the side.

"They've earned it."

Jon walked through the freed wildling, trailed by the Liddle bastard, and the direwolf wandered off. His attention turned to the young dark-haired wildling woman sitting atop a fallen trunk with blood all over her face and looking quite battered. The others might have looked scuffed, but none seemed roughed up like she was. Something in her was somewhat familiar, but Jon couldn't put his finger on it.

"What did you do to earn such a beating?" The greybeard asked directly, not mincing his words.

"They were asking after the mammoths," she groaned painfully. "Was gonna send them straight to the giants n' Mance Rayder, but I lost my temper when they started chopping the Heart Tree n' bit off their chieftain's ear instead."

"Bold!" Jarod roared in delight while Jon let out a chuckle at her daring.

"Being bold hurts," she winced. "They said you fought with the strength of ten men and speed of five. Are you a god?"

"I don't feel particularly godly," Jon snorted, but she didn't look very convinced.

"Blessed by the gods, that's what he is," Jarod murmured to the side, and the woman nodded along, face filled with understanding.

He wanted to retort, but it died in his throat. They weren't exactly… wrong. Blessings, curses, was there any difference in the end?

"Regardless, I'm grateful for the aid," she tilted her head to the surrounding Free Folk that listened on with interest. "We all are. Those mud-skin f*cks came when we least expected them from the lake, slaughtered most like pigs, and captured the rest. They looked southron but came from the North."

"Probably sailed up the river. Essosi slavers can only attack those weaker and less prepared," Jarod spat on the ground, then looked at the battered woman and froze. "Where'd you get that pin?"

"This?" She pointed towards the worn oaken pinecone that clasped the fur cloak atop her shoulders. "Was from my ma."

At that moment, Jon felt Ghost tug at his mind and smiled inwardly at the fleeting image.

"Forget it," the greybeard sighed and tiredly waved. "What's your name?"

"Dalla," Jon Snow hid his surprise well enough and scrutinised the woman. Sure enough, there was some resemblance, but the abundance of blood on her face and the lack of swollen belly made her look quite different. It took him a few moments to rattle his memory, but he did remember that Mance Rayder mentioned he met his wife on his way back from Winterfell.

Jon stilled - he had completely forgotten to mention Mance Rayder's visit to Winterfell in the letter to his father. A sigh tore from his mouth; there was not much to be done about it now; Jon wasn't even sure he wanted to do anything. He could have attempted to warg into Bran's direwolf, but that connection had waned once he travelled a few hundred miles. And the Wall was also another obstacle that would bar his attempts, even if the connection was still present.

"I'm Jarod Snow," the old clansman hesitantly spoke up, breaking Jon out of his musing. "The young man securing our spoils over there is my nephew, Duncan Liddle. And our fearsome chieftain is called Jon Snow."

"Aren't you two related with the same name as well?"

"Nay, Snow's the name given to those born to unwed parents," Jon explained with a shrug.

"Sounds stupid," Dalla coughed, then gazed at him curiously. "What brings southrons like you so far north? I thought only Crows could pass the Wall, and there were no Children in the south."

"Don't let them hear ya call them that," Jarod snorted, "the little leafcloaks prefer being called Singers of the Earth and got the voice for it to boot."

"As for our purpose here - we're hunting," Jon explained.

"Hunting?"

"Aye, for the Others."

His words were met with gasps, suspicious glances and disbelief.

"Don't think the Cold Shadows can even die," Dalla spoke sombrely, "our best hunters and raiders went to fight them a fortnight ago and never returned."

"Everything can be killed," he shrugged, "the Others might be dangerous foes, but we've slain four before."

"Blessed by the gods," the woman hummed quietly with a shake of her head, then nodded, "Aye, if it's someone like you, I can believe it."

"What'll happen to us now?" A chestnut-haired boy looking around twelve, maybe thirteen, spoke up fearfully.

"That's up to you," Jon shrugged.

"Up to us?" Dalla echoed with a pained grimace.

"Aren't you going to take us with you?" The boy persisted.

"You can follow if you wish," he shrugged, "But don't expect to be coddled. You'll have to pull your own weight, and if you can't keep up, you'll be left behind."

Jon knew leaving the Free Folk here would probably get most of them killed. Yet taking them would result in a similar fate, as he had no way to protect them, especially while fighting the Others. Nor did he desire to play a wet nurse to a few snot-nosed brats.

"When are you goin' to leave?" The battered woman asked quietly.

"Five, maybe ten days."

Dalla then looked around as if searching for someone, and he had quite a good idea who. "Have you seen a pretty spearwife, long honey-coloured hair and blue eyes, perchance?"

"Aye, there," Jon pointed to Val, who walked out of the tree line under the watchful eyes of Ghost and two other direwolves, who slowly circled her from afar. She looked to be bloodied but otherwise unharmed.

A relieved sigh escaped the battered woman's lips, and she looked at him oddly, "Didn't think southrons could become skinchangers. My ma used to say magic was gone in the south."

"Dalla!" Val finally rushed over and stopped just in front of her sister.

Notes:

Val finally shows her face. Jon might be reckless, but he has the skills to back it, and he did learn tactics at Ned's knee, just like Robb did.

Salladhor Saan was killed by one of the arrows and didn't even have the chance to surrender, not that it would have done him any good.

Was Valla the missing daughter of old Lena from Little Hall? Yes.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Drop a kudos if you like the story so far!

Chapter 19: Of Squabbles and Preparations

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki & Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

8th Day of the 5th Moon, Castle Black

The First Ranger

Four of them were crammed inside the Lord Commander's solar, looking over the map of Beyond the Wall.

"You expect us to believe this… old wives' tale?" Ser Alliser snorted.

Benjen could clearly detect the hint of derision in his flinty voice, but he cared not. He knew the man was bitter and did not begrudge him. Many forced between the black, the block, or losing some limb held resentment. Nowadays, few came to the Watch on their own, and even a good part of those were led astray by the wandering crow's false promises.

Truthfully a good night's sleep in his bed after riding hard for the last six days sounded quite alluring to him right now. One horse had died, and he had nearly driven the other four to death. Yet, things like rest could wait; he had hurried for a reason.

"I am the sword in the darkness," the Benjen spoke solemnly, and the old knight's eyes hardened, "I am the fire that burns against the cold. I am the shield that guards the realm of men!"

"I know my vows well enough," the Southerner grunted.

"Then, Ser, you should know that we know little chance but heed Lord Stark's warning," Aemon's voice was soft but pointed like an arrow towards the heart of the matter as always. "It is our duty as men of the Night's Watch."

"It would certainly explain how few of our rangers that were to go deeper north managed to return lately," Jeor Mormont seemed weary. "There are those… rumours from the fisherfolk near Eastwatch - they say they have glimpsed white walkers on the northern shores."

"Snow, snow," the black raven cawed from the Lord Commander's shoulder, giving Benjen the chills.

The bird usually repeated words it had just heard…

"That was just Mance Rayder, and he is gone now," Thorne sounded unconvinced. "Without him, the savages will kill each other or scatter like a pile of loose sand. Besides, the sun makes the snow play odd tricks on your eyes if you stare at it for too long. Many a time I've heard fisherfolk in King's Landing claim to have glimpsed some merlings or selkies once or twice a moon when they're deep into their cups."

"Maybe. But Mance Rayder was a good ranger but not good enough to command the wildlings to catch so many of ours," Jeor sighed and rubbed his brow. "The more I think of Lord Stark's warning, the more it makes sense. Even most of the recently caught wildlings spoke of a similar tale. Cold shadows in the darkness and dead men walking."

"We scarcely know anything about the Others," the wizened maester said.

"There's no proof of any of this," Alliser Thorne's eyes were flintier than usual. "Just some vague conjectures and the ramblings of some old drunkard and a few savages driven crazy by the cold."

"It's the height of summer," Aemon reminded. "We should find some proof, even if it's just for the Night's Watch. Forewarned is forearmed."

"It's been a while since we had a great ranging," Mormont muttered while gazing at the unfurled map.

"It's too risky to send most of our strength blind," Bejen cautioned. "Send me."

"I don't like this," Old Bear's voice was grim, "We've lost enough capable rangers as it is."

"I'll pick a dozen men with a good head on their shoulders and lead them myself," the ranger explained, "If you call for a Great Ranging and something goes wrong, the Watch cannot bear the loss."

"But we can't bear the loss of Benjen Stark either," the old maester sighed. "If anything happens to Lord Stark's brother, the new Hand might be far less amiable in providing any of the promised aid to the Watch. And without the support of the North, we'd be just as doomed."

"My lordly brother knows his duty," Benjen countered. "There cannot be a strong North without a strong Night's Watch."

He was aware a part of the reason he was chosen for First Ranger was that he was Ned's brother. There had been more skilled rangers than him, with far more experience seven years ago. But Benjen also ensured that all the doubts about his ability were squashed in the yard or field and never lost his drive to improve. Now none could rival him in Castle Black, both on ranging or with a blade.

There were many great warriors in the Watch. After all, there wasn't much to do here at the Wall when not ranging but mundane duties and practising one's skill in arms. Yet, sooner or later, most grew complacent, and their efforts waned, reduced to barely staving off the rust. To his knowledge, the only veteran that had relentlessly pushed himself as hard as him was Qhorin Halfhand, and the First Ranger defeated the man in three out of five bouts when they last met.

"Yet he took more than half of the Gift," Alliser's flinty voice broke him out of his musing. "The Watch does not answer to the Iron Throne - the King had no right to give away our land!"

"You are free to go south and voice your displeasure in front of Robert Baratheon," Benjen snorted. "The Watch is nothing without the Seven Kingdoms."

"What the Iron Throne easily gives, it can easily take away," Aemon chuckled hoarsely, "It's not like the Order has been using Alysanne's gift much the last two centuries."

"What's done is done! Lord Stark has promised he shall do his all to aid the Watch to the best of his abilities, and I have no reason to doubt his word," Jeor slammed his hand on the table and turned to Benjen. "You said obsidian supposedly kills thoseOthers?"

"So did the greenseer claim," the First Ranger sighed. He knew this would be difficult, but alas, he couldn't truly speak of his nephew's letter. He trusted the men in this room with anything else, but not this. "I received two quivers of obsidian arrows and half a dozen daggers before I left for here."

He had almost left without any, but Ned had managed to gather a handful of the glassy rock from the Stark lands.

"I remember reading through some of the olden records when I first arrived," Aemon's pale, unblinking eyes gazed at Benjen, "According to them, the Children sent a hundred obsidian daggers to the Watch as tribute every year."

"The Children of the Forest?"

"The very same."

Benjen could believe it, the Old Bear looked thoughtful, but Thorne seemed as cold and dismissive as always.

"Lord Stark has already bid the Skagosi and the mountain clansmen to begin mining and fashioning obsidian and send it to the Watch," the First Ranger rubbed his brow. "We should see the first shipments before the end of this moon."

"Death. Death," the raven cawed erratically, and the Lord Commander offered him a few grains of corn, which were quickly gobbled up by the black beak.

"There might be some pieces of obsidian remaining in the old abandoned vaults," the maester offered.

"Fine," Mormont's voice became grim as he gazed at Benjen, "Go on your ranging, but only after you gather some obsidian arms. You're free to pick ten men and venture north."

"It shall be done," the ranger bowed with a small smile.

"I'll give you three moons, Stark, and if you aren't back with any results by then, I'll be forced to call for a great ranging regardless," Mormont turned to the maester, "Go through our library and see what you can find on those 'Others'. And Thorne, I want the current batch of recruits in fighting shape as fast as possible."

The Old Bear then dismissed them but signalled Benjen to stay back.

"Yes, Lord Commander?"

For a minute, the old man's indomitable eyes scrutinised him. It reminded Benjen of his father's heavy gaze that made him squirm as a boy. Yet, while formidable, Jeor Mormont was no Rickard Stark, and Benjen Stark was no longer a green boy.

The former Lord of Bear Isle unstrapped the sword with the weathered bear-head pommel from his belt and shoved it into his hands, "Take this."

"That's the Mormont family blade," Benjen shook his head reverently and attempted to return it, "I cannot accept it."

"You can, and you will," Jeor grunted and didn't move to pick up the offered sword.

"You should pass it on to Lady Maege or her daughters."

"None of them favours the sword," a bitter laugh rolled out of the Old Bear, "Besides, they considered it disgraced after my son's idiocy. No, Longclaw is mine to give away as I wish."

"Why not use it yourself?"

"My sword arm is not what it was five months ago, let alone five years ago," the Lord Commander sighed, and his shoulders sagged. "Every day, I grow a tad slower and weaker. Take it, Stark, and don't argue. By your own words, these cold f*cks can shatter normal steel, but Valyrian Steel is unbreakable."

"Thank you, Lord Commander," Benjen bowed. "You honour me greatly."

"Honour you?" Jeor snorted. "You're the best sword in Castle Black if not the whole Watch. I can hardly think of anyone worthier to wield this. Maybe you can wash away the blade's dishonour. Change the pommel as you wish. You look like sh*te. Go now; some sleep will do you good."

The first ranger left and slowly headed towards his quarters, deep in thought and Valyrian Steel blade in hand. The sword was light, but it weighed uncomfortably in his grip.

Receiving a Valyrian Steel sword like this was a tremendous honour. It was practically unheard of for someone to voluntarily pass it down outside their House. Yet Benjen remembered his father's lessons and saw this for what it was. He would have never received the blade if he was not a Stark. Ned had spared House Mormont after Jorah's disgrace when they could have easily been deposed and replaced with someone else, especially with no eligible male heir bearing the name Mormont. But he did not, and the Mormonts remembered that kindness.

The Watch did not take part and was supposedly impartial to any political affairs, but Jeor knew his House's debts well.

It annoyed Benjen greatly, even if he tried his best not to show it. But he was not crazy enough to decline a dragonsword. The First Ranger would do what he always did - prove himself worthy and then some more. He would do his part, and try his best to procure proof, one way or another.

Still, it mattered little. Mormont was mostly convinced, and Benjen could tell Aemon believed, while Thorne dismissed the whole thing.

So what if he convinced the Lord Commander and the black brothers?

Truthfully, there wasn't much the Watch could do now. Not with the scarce amount of men left in the order. Benjen's only hope rested on his brother's shoulders.

Dutiful, honourable Ned, who never disappointed.

Who managed to spin a lie and hide Lya's boy from the whole realm. A nephew lost to him, even now.

Benjen just hoped Jon was fine. He never admitted it, but the sullen young boy was his favourite. He shook his head and began thinking of whom to bring for his ranging.

15th Day of the 5th Moon

Arya Stark

Her stitches were crooked again.

"Better than last week," her mother said warmly.

"Still crooked, though," Arya frowned down at her work.

What was supposed to be a direwolf looked like a mismatched rat instead.

"You need not be a skilled seamstress, Arya," Catelyn sighed softly. "Just enough so you can be considered knowledgeable in case you need it. No skill can be mastered overnight. Let me show you again, and don't rush it this time."

They undid the stitches, and her mother slowly guided her through the smallest of motions. The next attempt looked less crooked than before.

Arya beamed; she loved her mother; she really did. But now, she loved her even more. Catelyn Stark was amazing, and a far better teacher than Septa Mordane could ever be. Her stitches almost looked like a direwolf. Almost. Shadowing her mother proved to be quite interesting. Not as swordplay or bow practice, but far better than the governess' lessons.

Coordinating and organising the Stark Household was far more arduous than Arya ever expected. Catelyn was also busy arranging events, greeting the new noble guests, dealing with the royal family and the entourage and ensuring no problems arose in the running of Winterfell. Amazingly, she did it all with grace and courtesy that would make Sansa jealous. Even Arya, who had little interest in pageantry and the such, was amazed by the amount of respect and power Catelyn managed to command.

"Come, it's time to break our fast," her mother said after half an hour.

"More wedding preparations afterwards?" Arya asked, remembering how her mother had all but fought with the Queen over the number of courses on the wedding feast for hours yesterday.

Who cared if there were twenty-one or twenty-two different dishes? Regardless, the girl was happy to note that her mother had emerged victorious in that argument. Although trying not to burst out in laughter when the Queen looked like she had swallowed a lemon whole had been a great challenge.

"Most of the details are ironed out now," Catelyn sighed tiredly as they walked through the hallways, "We'll focus on finishing the wedding cloak with the Queen."

"Does that mean I'll be free for the rest of the day?"

The girl tried to hide her excitement but probably failed, judging by her mother's knowing gaze.

"Partly. I've arranged for Luwin to tutor you instead in the afternoon."

"But I finished with the maester's lessons last year."

"Reviewing your knowledge never hurts," her mother chided. "Besides, I asked him to go into far greater detail in history, household management, and sums this time."

Arya dutifully nodded; the sun had barely risen, so she still had half the day to herself. Luwin's lessons might have been boring sometimes, but she was no worse than Sansa there, so she didn't hate it. Another fortnight and all of this would be over, and she'd get to begin her arms training, even if only the bow.

The Great Hall was quite bustling, reminding Arya of the last harvest feast; half the Stark bannermen had arrived already. Arya made her way and sat next to her sister.

Sansa was lost in thought while looking at Robb and Myrcella, who were happily talking to each other. Her brother had a small smile, while the princess looked impassive, but her green eyes gleamed with delight. Her sister then threw a forlorn look at Joffrey, who had his usual arrogant expression that seemed to look down on everyone and everything. Sansa was sullen. But even while sulking, her sister seemed pretty and ladylike, much to her envy.

Arya opened her mouth to make a jab at her sibling but thought better and quickly closed it. Causing a scene during breakfast would be… unladylike, and the bow training was only half a moon away.

Truth be told, she'd rather have Myrcella as a new sister rather than have Sansa married off to someone annoying who looked like a girl. Arya shook her head and focused on the pieces of honeyed chicken before her.

Noon was fast approaching, and Arya had gotten bored of playing with Nymeria - one of the few things that wouldn't get her in trouble.

With a sigh, she wandered around Winterfell aimlessly, followed by her direwolf and Alyn, one of the Stark guards. It was good to have received word of Jon, but it still felt surreal. Arya simply couldn't imagine him killing that bear, no matter how many times Torren Liddle retold the tale. Yet the enormous white bearskin pelt hung behind her father's seat in the Great Hall for display for all to see said otherwise.

Her favourite brother was now called the 'White Huntsman' by some of the clansmen, even though she was unsure whether it was because of the bear's colouring, Ghost, or maybe his name. A bawdy song, 'The White Huntsman and the Maiden Fair',a heroic rendition ofThe Bear and the Maiden Fair, had spread like fire in the last few days - much to her mother's chagrin. There was only one problem.

Why did he leave?

Why did Jon leave her alone? She couldn't practise archery or even stickfighting without him. Everyone missed him! Arya couldn't help but wish he had taken her along and taught her how to hunt.

"Arya?" Her sister's voice startled her. "Shouldn't you be with mother?"

Arya found herself on the covered bridge between the armoury and the Great Keep. She looked up to see Sansa standing still like an elegant statue and gazing at her with some sullenness that reminded her of Jon. Lady was there, sitting obediently next to her sister, but she looked rather miserable, with ears drooping low. Nymeria softly paddled to her littermate, playfully nipped her ear, and circled around.

"Shouldn't you be in lessons with Mordane?" Arya made a face at her sister.

"There are no lessons today."

"I already did mine early in the morning," she explained honestly.

Sansa nodded and turned to gaze through the window into the yard.

Arya curiously approached, and, to her disappointment, it was the younger boys drilling under the watchful eyes of Ser Rodrik. Tommen and Rickon wore heavily padded armour that made them look like small barrels, more so the blonde prince, who was already rather plump.

Both were panting heavily and staggering under the shouts and encouragement of two dozen spectators. Robb and Theon were there, along with the Stark men-at-arms, Cley Cerwin, the clansmen and men wearing Lannister and Baratheon livery she didn't recognise.

"Not showing the dear Crown Prince around?"

"He's… in Wintertown," Sansa replied evenly, and her gaze didn't move from the windows.

"Doing what?" Arya needled.

"Visiting the brothel."

That explained why her radiant pretty sister was here, sulking more than she did at breakfast.

The girl laughed as Rickon whacked the older Prince with his small wooden sword, "So, just like his father?"

"It's not polite nor wise to speak ill of the king," Sansa's protest was weak.

"It's true, though."

Her sister had no response to that. Soon enough, Rickon and Tommen could barely stand straight, let alone fight. Robb entered the yard and began sparring against Walder.

Her brother no longer staggered from the giant's heavy blows and managed to hold his ground better.

"Robb can't win against Walder," her sister's voice was dull, making her frown. She preferred when Sansa was smiling and happy.

"Of course," Arya snorted. The titanic guardsman was one of the most dangerous fighters in Winterfell. Even their father lost more often than not against the man. "But our brother's getting better; half a year ago, most guardsmen gave him trouble."

They watched down at the yard in silence; they sparred thrice, and all three Robb lost, but Walder had to work more and more for each victory.

Then, Sansa stiffened, and Arya saw Joffrey approach, shadowed by the Hound as always. It did not bode well; the crown prince bore his usual mocking smile.

She thought the golden-haired boy would challenge her brother when tired, but the Prince seemed to have some sense. Joffrey stopped in the shadows with the southern squires and knights while the Hound walked forward and stopped some five yards away from Walder, who was wiping beads of sweat from his face.

Clegane might have been muscled like a bull, but he was still half a head shorter than the heaving giant who looked down on the scarred man.

"Care for a bout?" The Hound's voice was loud and coarse, just like the rest of him.

"On the morrow," the man-at-arms grunted.

"Afraid?"

Walder snorted at the taunt and simply turned away, not paying further attention as if the Hound was just a barking dog. Arya couldn't help but giggle as the good part of Clegane's face began to turn red.

A burly bald clansman with a pinecone stitched to his rough surcoat stepped forward. He was almost as tall as the Hound and no less muscled.

"Wanna fight me instead?" The clansman's voice boomed, making Arya wince.

"Not interested," Joffrey's sworn sword turned around.

"Why, Clegane, you only dare challenge tired foes?"

The Hound slowly turned around and measured the Northerner before him.

"The giant of Winterfell is not much of a fighter if a green boy of six and ten can tire him out," the golden prince jeered and laughed at Clegane's words, and the Lannister and Baratheon men were quick to join him.

"Come now, is the dog all bark and no bite?" The clansman snorted, and Robb, Theon, and the Stark guardsmen and clansmen were the ones to jeer and laugh.

Joffrey's sworn shield stilled before his burned face twisted into an ugly snarl, "I'll make you regret this."

"Which House is the man from?" Arya asked.

"That's Morgan from clan Liddle," her sister hummed. "The mountain clans aren't really considered nobility."

The two big men were just beginning to don their armour when Turnip, Gage's daughter, hastily ran to Sansa and Arya.

"Lady Arya, lady Sansa," the girl bowed clumsily while gasping for breath. "Lady Stark requests your presence at the entrance yard."

"Now?" Arya reluctantly asked; she wanted to watch the two big men fight. "Why?"

"The Mormont and the Glover banners are approaching."

So her new governess would be here today. Her father had only said she was from Bear Isle, no matter how much she asked.

"Come, Arya, let's go," Sansa urged, "It's our duty to welcome the guests."

Both the fighters had just finished donning their armour, and now Clegane and Liddle were facing each other, waiting for Rodrik's signal. Arya grudgingly tore her gaze from the window and followed after her sister, together with Nymeria and Lady. Hopefully, the clansman would kick the scarred man's sorry arse. Even if he didn't, Walder would probably make short work of the dog knight.

With a sigh, Arya shook her head. She'd definitely ask Robb who won at dinner, a pity that she couldn't watch for herself.

As they crossed a gallery and passed the gate leading towards the outer ward, Arya began to feel restless. "Do you think Lady Mormont brought her daughters? I heard they were trained at arms."

Maybe she could convince one of them to teach her some tricks with a sword? She hoped whoever tutored her was not as boring as Septa Mordane and at least half as good as her mother and not stiff like the old Septa.

"We'll see soon enough," Sansa sighed. "But the Lady of Bear Isle only brought Lady Dacey to the harvest feasts."

Arya made a face at her sister. She hoped Sansa was wrong and that Lady Mormont brought all her daughters. All the highborn ladies were like Beth Cassel and Jeyne Poole, quick friends with Sansa with their sewing and stupid giggling.

Maybe she could get a friend of her own, one not interested in boring things like pageantry and stitches? Lyanna Mormont, Maege's youngest daughter, was about her age, and if she was anything like her mother, Arya knew they would get along.

They arrived at the yard leading to the northern gate, and Catelyn Stark stood patiently in her grey woollen dress, surrounded by a dozen men-at-arms, looking every inch dignified as the proper Lady of Winterfell should be.

"Come now, girls, the Glovers and the Mormonts are almost here," her mother proceeded to inspect them.

Once satisfied, Arya and Sansa stood next to her mother, and soon enough, riders began to stream through the gate.

First were the Glovers, led by a gaunt, greying man wearing a red padded surcoat with a silver fist. Galbart Glover, the Lord of Deepwood Motte, had a broad smile resting upon his face. Courtesies were quickly exchanged, and then the Mormonts followed in.

At the helm was Maege Mormont, grey, stout, yet fierce as usual in her ringmail. Behind her rode two women and one girl. Neither wore surcoats, but a brown bear was emblazoned on their green cloaks. Arya noted that Dacey Mormont wasn't there.

"Lady Stark," the stout Lady bowed, then motioned towards what were surely her daughters. "This is my daughter, Lyra, as Lord Stark requested," the tall, slightly plump woman clad in byrnie with a bearded ax on her belt stepped forward and curtsied smoothly.

Her mother inspected the brown-haired Lyra Mormont with an impassive face, but Arya could tell she wasn't happy as she nodded.

"And these must be Jorelle and Lyanna?" Catelyn motioned towards the other two.

The shorter, plump woman was clad in ringmail with a bludgeon strapped to her belt like her mother and seemed rather clumsy.

The youngest, Lyanna Mormont, tall as Arya, was the last to step forth. Unlike her sisters, she wore no arms and was garbed in a green cotton dress and gracefully walked forward and did a perfect curtsy. Not only that but her pretty brown hair was woven into a long, elegant braid.

Arya's face curdled when Lyanna Mormont threw Sansa a wide, admiring smile.

Notes:

House Stark unknowingly sets a record for the possession of the most Valyrian Steel blades in Westeros. If poor old Tywin knew, he'd go green with envy.

Writing Arya is always a f*cking chore, but I think I did well enough. Poor Sansa is heartbroken by the cruel reality. Joffrey is still a c*nt, but half an idea smarter. It was he who sent Clegane to fight with Walder purely to entertain himself.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Do consider dropping kudos if you liked the fic!

Chapter 20: Of Woes and Perils

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Eddard Stark

16th Day of the 5th Moon

Ned groaned tiredly and took a generous gulp from his cup of ale. Juggling Robert, the royal party, and his bannermen quickly became tiring. His lessons with Robb became far rarer and shorter, and Ned even managed to sneak a few sparring sessions in a private yard very early in the morn, relieving some of his tension. "I hope there are no more mishaps."

"I'd hardly call a training yard spat a mishap," Howland chuckled. "Those happen all the time."

"Both the Hound and Morgan Liddle are bruised black and blue," Ned snorted. "Torren's son has a broken arm, while the Hound's nose was smashed, and half of his teeth - knocked out."

"Well, the king should assign someone more capable and, well,restrainedto the Crown Prince. You know, like one of the white cloaks."

"That's what I told Robert when he came whinging to me," Eddard sighed. "Could have been far worse if Walder hadn't broken them apart before they could maim each other permanently."

Clegane had managed to break the clansman's forearm with a savage strike, only for the Middle Liddle to headbutt the southerner, knock away his sword, and go berserk with his fists and elbows, broken limb or not.

Still, it wasn't too bad as nobody was dead, and he knew that when you gathered too many armed fools with nothing to do but wait, trouble quickly arose due to restless pride. Eleven days, only eleven days more until the wedding. He was tempted to simply call for another hunt; Robert would be pleased, and the rest would be busy chasing prey in the Wolfswood instead of trying to beat each other to death in the yard.

"I asked around - all that trouble was started by the Crown Prince," the crannogmen rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The boy is incredibly spoiled underneath, and his mother indulges him in everything, big and small. The king needs to be firm with his heir, but it seems that the only firmness in Robert is all about drinking and wenching. More precautions need to be taken before going down to King's Landing."

"I already intend to take a hundred of Winterfell's finest," Ned's shoulders sagged. "Even that much is pushing it as a Hand, and if it were any other king, I wouldn't have been allowed that many."

"I will bring twenty of my best hunters and trackers," Howland proposed. "You plan on asking Wylis to join you already, and he could easily bring another thirty good men from White Harbour without rousing too much attention."

"That would still raise undue suspicion and eyes on us," he pointed out. "Such a might just make things worse instead of better."

"I'll get my men to arrive separately, and Wylis can do the same. Neither will be part of your retinue officially but can be your eyes, ears, and hands outside the Red Keep if need be."

Eddard gingerly wiped the beads of sweat pooling down his brow. He stood up, walked to the alcove, and latched the window open. The crisp northern air felt invigorating. Gods, he dreaded thinking how unbearable the heat would be down in the Crownlands. Ned hated the situation he found himself in - he was not built for scheming and intrigue. But fate had forced his hand, and he had no choice but to endure. And the Starks endured, be it winter or war. For good and for bad, the Lord of Winterfell was no stranger to picking between bad and worse, so he'd make his choice, grit his teeth and walk forward. But regardless of everything, he would pick House Stark first.

Of course, he'd definitely try and help his royal friend if possible - but definitely not at the expense of his family. No, that perilous future Jon had inked with his blood would never come to pass, not while Eddard Stark still drew breath.

"My lord, Ser Wylis is here," Lew's voice came from the door.

"Let him in." Ned strolled to his chair behind the desk and sat down with a sigh.

The Manderly heir, garbed in his sea-green doublet, walked in and bowed, "You called for me, Lord Stark?"

"Aye, take a seat, Wylis," the rotund knight sat on one of the tapered chairs across from Ned. "You've probably heard that the Princess' dowry was quite substantial."

"Indeed," Wylis's eyes gleamed with interest. "Almost unprecedented in history."

"His Grace is generous to his friends," Eddard agreed. "It opened up certain opportunities and made me consider things I had not considered before. House Manderly should have ten warships and nineteen trade cogs, correct?"

"A bit less," the knight jovially patted his bulging gut. "Our small fleet is eight warships and seventeen cogs."

"I want it expanded. The North must become a naval power again."

Wylis hesitantly fiddled with his walrus-like moustache for a moment, and the oaken chair creaked under his sizeable frame as he leaned forward, "How big of an expansion are we talking about?"

"At least forty warships more and double the number of heavy cogs that can be outfitted for battle if need be."

"That would take years and plenty of coin to accomplish, Lord Stark," the Manderly heir grimaced. "White Harbour's shipyard is quite small, and procuring that much wood would be difficult. Finding and training so many sailors would take quite some time."

"Expand the shipyard," Ned ordered. "Fret not - House Stark shall aid your efforts. We will provide oak and pine, to be shipped with barges down the White Knife. Your yearly tithe will also be reduced while expanding your fleet. Naturally, I want at least five warships to be manned and ready to fly the flag of House Stark."

"I'll see it done," Wylis bowed, a thoughtful smile resting on his face.

"One more thing. After the wedding, I will require your advice in King's Landing."

"It's an honour, my lord."

"Bring a capable retinue, too, I shall need aid down in the capital."

"I shall send my fastest rider back home to inform my father," the merman heir nodded.

Ned dismissed the knight and slumped on his chair. Winter stretched from his corner, softly padded his way, and sat beside him.

"Even if Manderly manages to build a sizeable fleet, your western coast will be exposed to a potential Ironborn incursion," Howland pointed out and poured himself a cup of spiced wine.

"I know," Ned grunted. "But there isn't much that could be done. All the houses that held the Stony Shore faced a perilous task. The western coast has always been the most perilous place in the North. Woodfoot, Greenwood, and Fisher were all extinguished in their attempts to defend it. It doesn't help that the Stony Shore is one of the most unwelcoming corners in the North - windswept by the cold gale from the sunset sea and full of jagged rock."

"There must be something that can be done," the crannogman insisted.

"All the trade routes have to pass through Ironman's Bay, so even if we somehow manage to lay down the requisites for a proper shipyard, any fleet would cost more to upkeep than the coin it could generate through trade or fishing," Eddard shook his head - it was a sad fact that many of the Winterfell Lords had to face before. "There's a good reason why most of the western coast is rather empty. Still, it's not that big of a worry as there are three defensive lines to the west - the Rills with the Ryswell horse that could sweep any reavers brave enough to venture inland, the wolfswood with Glovers and his huntsmen, and the Northern Mountains and the clans."

"Fine," Howland acknowledged with a sigh and downed the cup of spiced wine. "What will you do with the Gift? And what of the Watch?"

"I have some plans about the Gift, but they can wait for the rest of my bannermen to arrive. As for the Watch - any changes or aid would require much more planning than I thought."

Val, Greystone village

She stared at the Heart Tree. Lustrous white bark covered the base where the axes had bit into the weirwood. It was a shiny, silvery thing, unlike the dull, pale colour of the rest of the trunk. Still, when she ran her finger over the surface, it was impossibly smooth, just like ice. Amidst the roots, pale bones of the invaders were strewn. They were pristine white like freshly fallen snow - whatever was done to them had sucked away every ounce of blood and gore.

It was just a sennight since her whole world was completely flipped over, and she still felt odd. If the wolf lord's son was so mighty, how strong was the father?! Tales of old, a time long passed, the Age of Heroes, that their mother used to tell had come alive before her very eyes - the lord of wargs, Children of the Forest, nay,Singers of the Earth,they preferred. However, it was hard for Val to call them anything else but children with their short statures.

"Dara asks if we're joining them," Dalla's soft voice sounded from behind.

Val turned and carefully inspected her younger sister. Aside from a few fading bruises, she looked fine; her figure was no longer strained while walking, and her gnarly cane was more akin to a weapon than a means of support.

"I thought she wanted to steal the warg lord," Val snorted. Who wouldn't? Even that scar under his left eye made him more comely in a primal, rugged way.

"Who wouldn't?" Dalla echoed her thoughts out loud, and Val chuckled. "She failed, just like Hyldine and Brella. Two direwolves and four hounds guard his fancy tent at night. So, will we join the others?"

"There's no use going to Mance Rayder," Val shook her head. "He's running away, just like everyone else. I daresay the safest place in the north is with Jon Snow."

"So you think the warg lord slew an Other himself?"

"Aye, the Singers confirmed it, did they not? Besides, I can easily believe it after seeing him fight."

"Indeed," Dalla agreed with a sigh.

"So the rest want to join Rayder?" Val twirled her braid. The dye was beginning to wear off, and she'd have to find more golden roots.

And it was not a one-time thing - Jon Snow would do mock fights with Jarod Snow and Duncan Liddle every day, practising with wooden swords and staves for at least half an hour. The older Snow and the big man were formidable fighters yet lost every bout.

"There's not much left for them here, and none are willing to risk hunting for the cold shadows," her sister pointed out. "The village was already struggling before, and with our best hunters and raiders dead, it's just children, green boys, and a handful of spearwives. Although there's no guarantee they would reach Rayder's army alive."

"Following Jon Snow won't be easy either," Val shook her head. "Are you well enough to keep up?"

"I am," Dalla smiled slyly, "I even managed to secure three of the village's garrons for us two."

"How did Arda even agree to part with any horses?"

Arda was the oldest spearwife alive in what remained of the village.

"The warg lord promised to tell them the secret of slaying the cold shadows."

"So the horses are his," Val coughed. "Let's go then. The southrons should be leaving soon."

She prayed for luck for a final time at the heart tree, and together, they headed for the small clearing in the middle of the village.

Her eyes wandered towards the old wharf - the boats were long gone now, probably far south. A score of the free folk had decided to join the unchained men. Promises of warm green lands, freedom and abundance had swayed many, but that rang like empty words to Val. They weren't strong enough to even keep their freedom, so she suspected that, sooner or later, they would end up in chains again.

The lake shore was lined with spears, and a head was impaled atop each one. It was a pleasing sight - their expressions were all frozen in terror. At first, Val had thought that those Southron invaders were just unwashed and dirty, but after a closer look, it turned out their skin was indeed the colour of clay.

They finally arrived at the clearing. At one side stood Jon Snow, flanked by Jarod Snow and Duncan Liddle to his right and an enormous white direwolf as tall as her to his left. Ghost was the great beast's name, and with his silent, calm demeanour, Val would think him harmless. But she knew better; the memory of him pouncing, ripping off limbs, and killing men with laughable ease was fresh in her mind still.

On the other side were the remaining villagers. Little more than two dozen, and mostly children at that, led by a handful of fledgling raiders and spearwives.

"- bone, bronze, and steel do little against the Others, but this," Jon Snow showed a dagger, hewn from black stone. "This can harm them. Obsidian."

"And where can this obsidian be found?" Arda's voice was laden with suspicion.

"Not too rare," the Singer called Leaf spoke. "It should be abundant near mountains and hot springs, although not impossible to find a few pieces scattered across the hills and forests."

The other Singers of the Earth were out of sight, somewhere in the forest.

"I can spare you a dozen daggers and spears each, along with two quivers of obsidian-tipped arrows," the warg lord offered.

"Fine, we'll take 'em," Arda grunted. "Can we have some steel too?"

"Half a dozen daggers and two axes," the terse reply came half a minute later.

It was clear to Val that she wanted more, but in the end, the old, weathered spearwife reluctantly accepted under Jon Snow's steely gaze and turned to the sisters, "Are you two comin'?"

"Nay, we're following the southrons."

Arda nodded wordlessly and turned around. Duncan Liddle handed them the obsidian arms and some daggers while the spearwife led over three of the older garrons.

The tattered, inexperienced group slowly trudged west through the slush with a handful of horses loaded with furs and supplies. Val wouldn't miss them, not much. There was no love lost at the cold parting. While they were accepted because of Valla and then Dalla's skills with herbs and poultices, they were never truly welcome. Simply because of the odd hair colour Val was born with, they were considered cursed by the gods.

Val and Dalla found themselves under the intense gaze of Jon Snow. His eyes were serious, yet there was a weight to them, reminding her of those weathered raiders that rarely survived to turn grey. Yet, he was not domineering, aggressive, or cruel as other chieftains and Southron lords were rumoured to be. His messy dark hair was cut below his neck, and his sharp, young face sported a slight stubble. If just looking at the pleasing-to-the-eye face, one could easily mistake him for a green boy. Yet, he was anything but - his stride was powerful and dignified, always with a purpose, his spine was straight, and his words were clear and sharp, and it was easy to just listen to and follow.

Jarod Snow reminded her of old Varok - wizened, experienced, and powerful, yet he deferred to the younger man. Duncan Liddle was large and strong enough to think he'd have a giant ancestor, yet he also easily followed.

Truth be told, she was tempted to try and steal Jon Snow for herself, just like the other spearwives. But, there was a sliver of stubborn pride inside her, and Val was content to simply observe from the side for now. Still, if Jon Snow tried to steal her away, she wouldn't try to fight him off too hard.

He stepped forth, making Val realise she was gawking at him.

"Val and Dalla," his voice was clear and pleasing to her ears. "I said it before, and I shall say it again. If you follow me, I want your full trust, loyalty, and obedience."

"Aye, do you want us to kneel to you and swear some vows, warg lord?" Dalla's voice was somewhat scathing.

"Nay," his reply was as cold as snow. "Your word is enough."

"You ask for a lot," Val observed.

"Maybe," Jon inclined his head. "But it is you who wanted to follow me. I don't know you, and I don't trust you. You can still catch up with the other group if you wish."

"Heh, it might seem that he might be asking for too much," the old man laughed. "But we'd have to entrust our backs in fighting to you. As for trusting Jon Snow - the blood of the ancient Kings of Winter never disappoints."

Dalla looked at her hesitantly, and after half a minute of contemplation, she nodded with a sigh. They had already made up their mind earlier, and this changed nothing. She had seen how Jon Snow fought, alone or with his pack of wolves, and could think of no place safer than following him. Skinchangers alone were a force to be reckoned with, and most, if not all, free folk were wary of them. But Val had never heard of anyone claiming more than six skins, let alone three dozen.

"Fine, we'll give our word," her sister muttered. "Do you expect us to lay in your bed too?"

"Where or whom you sleep with is none of my concern," Jon Snow snorted. "You're also free to leave anytime. I have no time to coddle you two either - if you cannot keep up or follow orders, you'll be left behind regardless."

Val sighed inwardly but nodded, "My spear and knife are yours, Jon Snow."

Dalla also pledged her bow and skills as a woods witch to the warg lord. It took the two sisters ten minutes to gather their meagre personal effects and secure them to the weathered saddles.

"So, what now?"

20th Day of the 5th Moon

Benjen Stark, Beyond the Wall

The haunted forest was more ominous than usual. Ten of the finest swords and trackers in the Watch had joined the ranging, trudging through the cold, muddy ground – the snow had begun to melt a sennight ago.

Benjen took his time picking the men, as he wanted not only skilled veterans but also ones who would follow orders and work well together. It was not an easy thing - skill and experience went hand in hand too oft with pride and arrogance.

"I don't like this," Jaremy Rykker said.

The knight's face was serious, lacking his usual sardonic smile.

"There are very few things you like," Thoren Smallwood snorted, "And almost all of them reside in the whor*house of Mole's Town."

Rykker ignored the man's jibe and cautiously looked at the darkening surroundings.

"What exactly do you mislike so much?" Othor's hand was on his ax, and his gaze was warily roaming around the twilt forest.

"The loss of the Gift," Rykker flexed his hand. "The Watch is already waning, and now we lost half of our land."

He was not the only one; many black brothers were far from happy with the King's decision. Thankfully, any ire was pointed more at Baratheon than Stark.

"Not a big loss," Alan of Rosby rubbed his chin, "I accompanied Mormont to Winterfell two years ago. Most of the Old Gift was fallow, and the New one was little more than wilderness."

"My brother will not abandon the Watch," Benjen said. "Nor will the North."

"If things continue as they are, in thirty years, we'll struggle to man even a single castle, let alone guard the Wall," Rykker grunted.

"We'll see," the Fist Ranger shrugged. Hopefully, Ned would manage to reel in more support for the Watch as promised. "We should focus on our mission now."

"I don't like this mission," Jafer Flowers rasped out. His voice was grating ever since a wound to the neck two years ago. "Looking for legends and myths? What's next, grumpkins and snarks? Madness!"

"It's our duty to follow the Lord Commander's orders," Jarman Buckwell grunted. "At worst, we'll find nothing and return in a moon or two."

"Still, dragging those glass-tipped arrows and daggers is a waste," another sighed.

Indeed, the additional supplies were cumbersome to carry, but nothing they couldn't handle.

"Mormont should have called for a Great Ranging to slaughter Rayder's army instead of making us chase old wives' tales," Smallwood motioned towards their group with a scowl.

"Fool, they would just scatter the moment they hear of Mance's demise, and we'd chase after the wind and catch snow at most," Rykker let out a peal of joyless laughter.

"Whitetree, Stonehill and Redhollow were all abandoned," Ebben, a burly and experienced ranger, added with a tinge of fear.

"The wildlings in Whitetree and Redhollow had left, probably to join Rayder's men," Stonesnake pointed out, "But the ones in Stonehill were slaughtered. Their small dwellings were all wrecked, yet we found no bodies."

"It wouldn't be the first time; savages kill each other all the time," Smallwood waved his hand dismissively.

"But why would they take the corpses?" Jarman Buckwell asked.

"How would I know what goes in the head of those wildlings? Half-mad, half wild, the lot o' them!"

Benjen began regretting taking Thoren Smallwood. The man was too prideful and quarrelsome for this mission.

"They could have burned them," Buckwell insisted.

"But we found no bones or traces of pyre or ashes."

Their group fell into silence as the horses slowly continued through the forest. Benjen tried his very best to look confident, yet was feeling… unsettled. His hand found Longclaw's grip, and he felt a small measure of relief. The pommel was changed to a black wolf head, and the wrapping was redone with new leather strips.

Still, his eyes darted warily to the surroundings; his senses were telling him something was wrong.

"What will we do if Craster is gone as well?" Othor's rumbling voice broke the silence.

"Nay, old Craster wouldn't leave for anything," Thoren said. "He has more than a dozen wives to tend to!"

"We'll see soon enough," Benjen rubbed the bridge of his brow and looked to the west. "Even if he's gone, we can spend the night at his hall. Though, we must hurry if we want a roof over our head tonight."

The sun was almost fully swallowed by the Frostfangs, and the daylight was quickly waning.

They urged their steeds into a moderate trot, still wary of the surroundings. Any faster, and they'd have a mishap with the rugged terrain in the quickly dwindling light.

A cold gale struck Benjen's face like an icy whip, making him shiver. The air grew still then, yet more and more frigid. Behind him, he could feel the chattering of teeth.

"Is it me, or was it warmer last evenin'?" Ebben asked.

The ground beneath the hooves began to crunch. Benjen looked down, only to see the muddy slush covered by a layer of frost. The sun was now hidden beyond the Frostfangs; only a faint tinge of orange illuminated the mountains to the west like a halo.

"It was," Alan of Rosby noted as they rode into a small clearing. "It's the height of summer, and the Wall was weeping when we left."

"Bah, there's no summer here," Smallwood said. "The cold comes and goes as it wants."

The horses began neighing, and Benjen felt his garron shift uneasily against the reins.

That feeling in the back of his head that told him something was wrong only grew. They could ride hard towards Craster, but it was far more likely to cripple their horses and have a mishap in the icy darkness. After ranging for more than thirteen years, never had the weather turned so suddenly.

If his fears were correct, things would get ugly real soon. Worse, they couldn't really ride away in the night either.

"Dismount!" He leapt off his horse and took the leash in one hand, and the other arm found Longclaw's handle. The other rangers grumbled but followed his orders. "Light your torches."

A few moments later, eleven lights flickered, illuminating the clearing.

"Why is it so cold?" Jafer asked behind him. Benjen could see their breath forming misty white puffs.

The horse began to neigh even harder and struggled fiercely in his grasp.

One of the garrons kicked one of the rangers, slipped the reins from his rider's grasp and disappeared into the night.

A terrible screech tore through the twilt forest, making chills crawl up Benjen's spine, and the horses began to struggle harder.

"What the f*ck was that?"

"I hope not grumpkins or snarks," Rykker grimaced.

"Ebben, tie the horses to that stump," the First Ranger pointed at the trunk of an old fallen pine in the middle of the clearing. "Othor and Jafer help him. Stonesnake and Alan, I want you up the tree."

His orders were hastily followed, but not before they lost another horse into the darkness.

A tinkling, skittering sound tore through the ominous quiet.

Five enormous icy spiders, blue and hairy, easily the size of a horse, charged out from the haunted forest. For a heartbeat, Benjen froze at the sight of the tall, gaunt, pale, and icy beings riding atop the beasts.

"F-f-father a-above g-g-give m-me strength-," he heard someone's teeth chatter behind him. "W-warrior g-g-grant-"

The First Ranger furiously shook his head as his heart thundered like a war drum. The horses began neighing even louder; another tore away from his leash and ran away.

"Use your spears," he cried out as he grasped his pike, "Aim for their blue eyes."

The icy foes were nearing rapidly, yet arrows began to flutter through the night from above. Alan's famous skill in archery proved true -with a horrible screech, two spiders crashed into the frozen ground, arrows embedded into their eyes. Their pale riders, however, were quick to leap on their feet and gracefully glide forward through the hoarfrost.

Benjen braced himself as the other three spiders were upon them. At the same moment, a symphony of howls reverberated through the darkness.

Notes:

Hmm, stuff happens, and Ned continues making moves. Jon's party increases in size.

There will be a lot of fighting North of the Wall, and after thinking for some time, I decided that writing full battles would quickly get boring - but anything important will have a prelude/aftermath and maybe the ending parts of the fight.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really), don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Chapter 21: Built Different

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

20th Day of the 5th Moon

Val

Val thought she knew the cold well. She was born here, in the cold dark forests and raised and grown amidst ice and snow.

Yet, when she took a breath, it was so cold itburned,and her mare, obedient and calm Mara, was neighing uneasily beneath her, struggling against the reins for the first time Val could remember. No, it was not the fear of seeing icy horrors from the tales of old crawling into existence before her own eyes. It wasn't the high-pitched, keening sound that lingered sharply in the air every time rippled steel met thin ice. Nor was it the shrill screeches of the enormous spiders.

It was her every single sense telling her to turn around and flee!

But Val stood her ground and stiffly watched from the hill amid the trees, attempting to keep the unsteady Mara at bay, as it was the only thing she could do. Next to her were Jarod, Leaf, and a score of Singers, with the rest remaining back at their camp.

Yet Jon Snow and Duncan Liddle had dismounted their unruly steeds and dashed forward on foot, together with four direwolves.

Jarod and the two dozen singers stood there, bows ready, making Val wonder why they did not attack. She gritted her teeth and forced her stiff hand to pick up an obsidian-tipped arrow and notch it onto her bow. Yet, she quickly realised why no arrows were let loose- at this distance, it was hard to aim at the chaotic fight, and Jon Snow had said the men of the Watch were their allies. The heavy darkness did not help either - if it wasn't for the half-moon glowing softly from the sky, Val wouldn't be able to see much from the flickering torches.

The crows barely managed to hold their ground, the tall, gaunt, dignified one matching one of the Cold Shadows blow for blow while others seemingly struggled against the spiders and the Others.

The White Shadows were lithe, impossibly fast, and danced around the crows with little effort. But not as quick as Jon Snow when he was culling southrons as if they were sheep. The giant spiders were savage and forceful, attempting to skewer the men with their spiky legs. Three crows were quickly felled, but the last one managed to hug one of his foes in his mortal throes, buying enough time for a stone-tipped spear to bury itself into a pale neck.

A terrifying wail followed a crisp cracking sound as the icy being fell, and everything became messier. One of the spiders was felled by a sword stabbed into its eyes; the direwolves rushed ahead and pounced upon the two remaining. Two heartbeats later, Jon Snow leapt into the fray, fancy sword tearing through the frigid air.

Jon Snow

The keening echo lingered in the air as crystalline frost repeatedly met dragonsteel. His foe seemed to prefer sweeping blows, but his blood boiled with joy as if nothing else mattered as Jon not only resisted the onslaught but managed to slowly overwhelm it with his precise tapering strikes. As soon as he saw an opening, he struck the deadly icy blade aside, leaving his icy foe open.

Dark Sister cleaved through the neck of the last Other, making the gaunt, pale head roll to the side. Its remains collapsed on the ground, crunching like broken ice and melting rapidly.

He took a deep, shuddering breath to calm the excitement rushing through his veins. Fighting the Others had been a dull, bitter struggle after his resurrection by the Red Witch, but now, everything wasmore, including his joys and sorrows.

Walking the thin line between life and death amidst the heart of battle made him feel alive,whole and realin a way he didn't know he lacked and was more intoxicating than the strongest of ale. His kin and his family were alive back home, and everything was stillrightin the world and would hopefully continue to be so.

Still, Jon would not let his feelings rule him, though he would take his joys where he could. As he calmed down, he became aware of the cold throb in his shoulder, where the icy sword left its mark - the price of recklessly fighting two Others at the same time. It didn't feel too deep, so it could wait for now.

"You're not… wildlings," it was the tired voice of a battered, bloodied ranger that Jon recognised as Jarman Buckwell, a skilled swordsman and a better scout.

He quickly looked around; four rangers had survived, looking worn and cautious in the flickering light of the dozen torches stabbed into the ground. Jon saw two more black brothers observing warily atop the nearby sentinel pine. But, the most important of them was the ranger who had gone toe to toe with an Other and won. Despite the ambush, he had bested an Other after seeing it for the first time with pure skill. He had to squint to make out the detail in the darkness from this distance; the shape of the scabbard on his belt was intimately familiar, along with the pommel in the shape of… a black direwolf head. If Jon was a betting man, he'd bet all his meagre coin that the sword was Longclaw.

But no, the most important thing was his face. Despite being red with blood, it was all too familiar to Jon. He cared not about the others, but Uncle Benjen was alive and well despite gasping for breath and standing unsteadily on his feet. An ugly, pulsing gash ran diagonally from the top of his face, between his brows, and ended up on the other side of his jaw. Jon couldn't tear his eyes from his uncle.

"I'm Duncan Liddle!" Big Liddle proclaimed proudly, face red from the cold or maybe the battle. "And this is-"

"Jon!" Benjen's voice was hoarse and tired but joyous.

He had seen plenty of wounds, and his uncle would live by the look of this one, albeit with quite the scar.

"Uncle!" A genuine smile couldn't help but bloom on his face.

The words seemed to bleed out the tension from the Black Brothers.

"I should be mad, but I'm glad to see you here, Jon. I'd hug you, but my legs don't listen right now," the First Ranger chuckled ruefully as he sat down on a nearby rock. "I thought I'd meet my ancestors tonight."

"You slew a Cold Shadow," Jon pointed out. "And the rangers managed to skewer another."

"Aye, but the remaining three would have finished us all if not for you and your companions. Is that Valyrian steel?" Benjen nodded at his scabbard.

"Aye, Dark Sister."

"I thought the blade was lost," Buckwell's tired voice was wary; the man squinted, "The pommel looks all wrong."

"I got lucky," Jon shrugged. "And the previous one was too gaudy; I like it more like this."

"Are… are those beasts with you?" Jaremy Rykker warily jerked his thumb at the four direwolves feasting on the remains of one of the spiders they had torn apart.

"You have nothing to fear from my dear companions. They are harmless."

Jarman Buckwell choked out a cough as he looked at the enormous spiders that were practically torn apart by the direwolves. Ghost lifted his head in puzzlement and gazed at the rangers as he crunched through a large thorny leg, snout dripping with dark ichor. In the darkness, the direwolf's shining red eyes looked particularly fiendish.

"Are you a warg, Jon?"

"Yes, uncle," he admitted with a shrug. "It's quite handy."

Benjen took it in stride while the other three rangers shuffled uneasily.

"Stark," A voice came from above. One of the rangers atop the sentinel pine. "Odd things are coming from the tree line."

"Odd things?" Benjen groaned as his hand reached for Longclaw.

"Ah, fret not," Jon waved dismissively. "Those are the rest of my companions. Don't panic - they are with me and mean no harm."

As his eyes roamed the frost-bound ground, his gaze paused as it spotted a peculiar flicker.

The four hounds were guarding the makeshift camp formed around the three campfires, and Jon had sent Ghost and his canine retinue to return to the forests not only to scout but to avoid unnerving the black brothers too much. Still, the presence of the Singers seemed to distress the rangers greatly, though his uncle looked unconcerned about it. His trust warmed Jon's heart, and he loved him more for it.

Unlike Benjen, Rykker and Buckwell refused to be treated by the Leafcloaks, so Dalla was fussing over their injuries. Though, they seemed to be little more than scraps and bruises. The only heavy blows they suffered seemed to have struck their ego, not their body.

Jon ignored the sharp stinging in his shoulder as Brightspot, an old Singer, gingerly worked over his new wound, applying a smelling poultice.

A new scar to be added to his collection. After the wrappings were applied, the leafcloak skirted away towards Leaf, speaking something in her ear.

"She says to use your left hand sparingly in the next few days, lest you want to risk reopening the wound."

He nodded thankfully and testily moved his limbs to determine which motions hurt or which did not. It wasn't too bad - he could still somewhat fight with his right hand if need be, and judging by his previous experience in the last few moons, he'd be as good as new within a sennight.

For a short moment, Jon's eyes darted towards Val, who was staring blankly at one of the crackling fires. The spearwife was even prettier than he remembered - her lithe yet buxom body and long legs drew his wandering gaze with laughable ease. Her sharp, clear face with high cheekbones framed by long, honeyed locks was even more pleasing to his eyes. And her eyes, oh her eyes - proud, steely blue, so gorgeous that you could get lost in them. It was no wonder that the gazes of the other men were drawn to her. Truth be told, Jon had seen only two women even come close to her beauty - Lady Stark and the Queen.

However, Val was not just a pretty face - she was brave, daring, and a great scout and could fight quite well with a spear and a knife.

Yet, the spearwife seemed shaken and hesitant, though it was typical after meeting the Others for the first time. Their inhumanly cold, dark presence could frighten even the bravest of souls. In his last life, she had died a dog's death from a spear during the mutiny that got him killed. Much to his chagrin, long-forgotten emotions that had been numb for years were rekindled by the sight of the attractive young woman. And this time, she did not seem to be involved with another man, nor was Jon bound by vows of celibacy.

The more time he spent in her vicinity, the greater his desire to have her. Oh, he was tempted, so very tempted. Yet Jon made no moves - he did not lack self-control after his too-long and too-bitter life. If Val even agreed to become his woman, it would only paint a target on her back. He was well aware that his journey here, Beyond the Wall, was fraught with mortal peril, and he could die one way or another the next day.

Nor could he use her like a whor*, before throwing her away. He was not Theon, after all.

A part of Jon wanted to find a piece of happiness thought long lost to a bastard, yet his gut warned him that it would slowly crumble his resolve to do what needed to be done, distract him in a selfish way detrimental both to his own goals and to Val's well-being. The memory of Ygritte and their tragic foolery had long gone dim, but the bitter lesson remained.

So, Jon shook his head, and his eyes briefly roamed the camp. A tense silence hung in the air, only interrupted by the crackling of the fires. The other rangers were warily sizing up his party, and Benjen's gaze was mostly stuck on him as if seeing him for the first time. Besides that, from time to time, he could see everyone's eyes dart with wonder and incomprehension at the unfurled piece of hide in front of him.

He sighed inwardly and finally returned his attention to the thin, crystalline sword lying conspicuously on the pelt before him. Picked from the frost-covered ground, it might have been razor thin, but it was just as heavy as one made of steel.

"Why didn't this… sword melt like the rest of the icy f*cks?" Duncan finally broke the silence.

Now wasn't that the question? Never had the Others left behind anything but a frozen puddle of water after dying. Arms, armour, and bodies all melted away after being slain. Was this something new related to those small, unexplainable changes Jon had experienced so far?

And if so, what else had changed?

"I have no idea," he admitted slowly. "Leaf?"

She shook her head wordlessly and warily approached the crystalline blade.

After a moment of hesitation, she slowly reached with her clawed hand. Yet, the moment her limb touched the hilt, a sharp hiss escaped her lips, and she leapt away as if struck.

"Itburns!"

"Jon picked it up with no trouble," Jarod observed from the side. "Let me try."

The old bastard also approached cautiously and extended his gloved hand forward. For a short moment, he grasped the hilt but recoiled away almost instantly.

Jarod stiffly peeled off his glove, revealing his fingers, which had a slight blueish tint. Yet it quickly gave way to an angry red.

"Careful, old fool," Dalla approached angrily. "You can easily lose your fingers like this. The Horned Lord said that magic was a sword without a hilt. There's no safe way to grasp it! Let me look at this burn."

"Jon seems to be able to grasp it easily enough," Jarod pointed out with a wince as the young woods witch brought out a jar with a foul-smelling concoction and unceremoniously shoved it in his hands.

"Don't waste all of it," she warned. "And the warg lord is special."

Benjen, whose face was half-covered by a gauze, looked at Jon quizzically, and the young man tilted his head at Maude, the grey-furred hound resting at the edge of the camp.

Everyone's eyes were staring at him, and with a sigh, Jon reached to grasp the crystalline hilt. There was no freezing cold the others had experienced, only pleasant coolness. With a frown, he stepped away and carefully twirled the blade; its balance was perfect, and the grip was comfortable. Almost equal in length to Dark Sister but slightly heavier.

Frowning, he struck a nearby tree stump, only for the sword to sink in almost effortlessly, just like Valyrian Steel. Jon knew the bite of the icy blade well enough; he had experienced it upon his body plenty of times.

"About as good as Valyrian Steel," he offered.

"Figures," Benjen groaned. "Othor was gutted open with nary an effort - those blades cut through ringmail as if it was made of silk."

A few others volunteered to touch the icy hilt. After all, who wouldn't want a magical sword?!

Alas, it seemed that it wasn't meant to be - the hilt was unbearable to the touch of everyone who attempted to wield it.

Everyone but Benjen.

"How?" Rykker's mouth was gaping like a fish as his uncle held the sword and cautiously inspected it in his hand.

"I have about as much idea as you do," Benjen coughed out with a shrug. "It is rather cold but not too unpleasant."

The crystalline sword was once again deposited over the fur before Jon.

"The Starks are just built different," Jarod guffawed, followed by the chuckles of Duncan and two of the rangers.

The laughter quickly died out, and the crisp air became solemn.

"Jon, can I have that sword?" Benjen's voice was slow and hesitant.

"All yours, uncle," Jon wrapped up the icy blade in the hide and handed it over to the First ranger. "What are you going to do with it? Try and learn to dual wield?"

Benjen didn't rise to the jibe, "As if! This can serve as good proof for Lord Commander Mormont for the return of the Others."

"Giants we knew, now Children, Others, and wargs," Rykker muttered quietly to the side, yet Jon still heard him. Leaf too, judging by the annoyed twitch in her ears. "What's next, grumpkins and snarks?!"

"What if it melts, though," Jon pointed out. "Sure, it remains whole for now, but…"

"I know," Benjen sighed. "I'll bring back the remains of the fallen rangers, along with one of the spider carcasses."

"We should burn the dead now, uncle, lest you want them to rise again."

"But the Others were already slain. Who will reanimate the corpses?" Jarod asked.

"Wait, hold on! The icy f*cks can truly raise the dead?!" Buckwell groaned and buried his face in his hands.

"Aye, they can. But can you risk it? There are only six of you left. If you drag the bodies and the spiders, you might suddenly be overwhelmed when you least expect it."

"And the ice spider is only proof of the existence of ice spiders and nothing else," Leaf chimed in, earning a few suspicious looks from the rangers.

Benjen lifted his hand to rub his brow but stopped with a grimace the moment his fingers reached the gauze. "How dangerous are those wights?"

"Very dangerous if caught unaware. They are slow and clumsy but don't tire or feel pain, and a tad stronger than when they were living. Not only that, but they retain some of their experience in fighting from before they died. Muscle memory, I think, is what a Maester would call it," Jon sighed. "Yet, fire burns them as if they were doused in oil."

The First Ranger closed his eyes in silent contemplation for a few minutes before sighing heavily.

"You are indeed right," his uncle agreed. "We shall burn the bodies, all but Thoren Smallwood. He's going to be bound by all the rope and leather we can spare, just in case. That and our word should be enough."

Jon chuckled at Benjen's choice - Smallwood was still an annoying, pretentious twat, and it seemed that the First Ranger shared his opinion by the twitch of his lips.

"You should chop off a few spider legs and take them with you, too. It's not much, but the ice spiders are quite dangerous, and seeing is believing."

Benjen nodded tiredly. "We'll have to sleep here. A pity we couldn't reach Craster tonight,"

"Indeed," Jon agreed, though for a completely different reason. "We'll take watch this night, uncle, and deal with the corpses. You and your rangers should rest well and ride fast and hard for Castle Black tomorrow."

The other rangers didn't look particularly warm at the idea of trusting Jon and his party. Amidst their caution, there seemed to be a hint of curiosity, but their tiredness seemed to win out, and no objections or questions were voiced after the First Ranger remained silent.

"A sound advice, Jon," his uncle stood up with a groan, slowly approached, and gave him a sideway hug, avoiding his wounded shoulder and whispering in his ear: "We should speak before dawn tomorrow."

21st Day of the 5th Moon

Val

Her sleep was uneasy, so she got up, wrapped herself in her bearskin cloak, and left her sister in their small leather tent. The skies were still dark - there was no sign of dawn. She wandered uneasily around the edges of the camp and received a few nods from the leafcloaks that stood watch. The red fur hound also looked at her for a brief moment before curling down on a dry piece of wood.

Her distress from the previous evening had Val return to her childhood habits - namely climbing. She picked a particularly tall and sturdy ironwood tree near the camp and agilely climbed up, using the bumps and branches either as footing or to pull herself up.

Once high enough to feel the cold winds, she stopped and closed her eyes, letting her unsettled mind slowly calm. Val wrapped herself well in her fur cloak, sat down the thick branch in the most comfortable and secure position she could muster, and gazed up to the clear starry sky. The stars flickered wondrously, shining on their own, with no moon in sight to eclipse their glory.

While her worries were somehow abated, they were not completely gone - the frigid memories of the battle last evening were still there. Val had hunted and fought before - taken many a life of both man and beast and while it had been hard and gruelling, it never made her falter like that.

There was not much she could have done in that battle, and she knew that - neither the leafcloaks nor the old Jarod Snow had done much besides watching. But even so, even if she had to fight, she wouldn't have been able to do much. The terrifying speed of the Cold Shadows still sent chills up her spine, along with their icy swords.

What were they thinking when they decided to follow Jon Snow?

The image of him leaping undaunted into what seemed like a certain death would be forever branded in her mind.

But Jon Snow did not die; hewon.

She was terrified and impressed in equal measure.

No, it was not the danger that bothered her so much; living in the Haunted Forest had never been free of peril. Though she was afraid for her sister's life, Dalla was clever enough to get by without her help. It was the feeling of weakness - Val hated feeling weak; she hated it with a burning passion. The burning sensation of fear and helplessness grated upon her as nothing else did. It reminded her of when she was just a wee girl, and other older children used to mock her and push her around in the snow.

She could never truly fight against the Cold Shadows. Not on her own, never on her own. But did she truly need to? Even Jon Snow didn't fight alone.

Did Val regret her decision to follow the Warg Lord?

No.

His warning when they voiced the desire to join him proved true. And now, Val arrived at the second reason she felt so rankled - she had promised her aid in fighting, yet when the fighting had come, she turned out useless. Unlike her sister, who tended to the wounded and helped prepare foodstuff and supplies, Val had nothing to show after enjoying Jon Snow's hospitality and protection.

It was unacceptable.

Stop crying, my daughter. Can you do anything about it? If so, why waste precious energy on whinging? If not, accept it and move on.

Her mother's words echoed in her mind, and Val let out a wan smile. As usual, Valla's words were true, even so long after the cold took her.

So, what could she do?

Her skills in tracking felt wasted - even Val knew she couldn't compete with a pack of wolves, let alone Ghost and the other three direwolves leading them. The little leafcloaks were all annoyingly helpful - they worked seamlessly to keep the camp going and helped in every way possible without complaint.

The answer came quickly - she would join the southrons in their mock fights, learning what she could. Val would not get left behind! As for the rest - Jon Snow already knew of her skill and hopefully would be the one to entrust her with tasks - like a proper chieftain.

Mind finally assuaged, Val nodded to herself, tore her gaze from the starry sky, and slowly began climbing down as renewed resolve bubbled inside her breast. She would hone all her skills, do better, and there would be no freezing and no failure when the moment came.

More than halfway down, she stilled as she heard two sets of quiet footsteps from the other side of the massive tree.

Val hesitantly paused her descent as Jon Snow and Benjen Stark, his crow uncle, stood just a few metres below the branch she was perching on. If they looked up, they would easily spot her…

"So, you wanted to speak with me privately, uncle?"

The voices were not too loud, but she could hear them clearly in the silence of the night.

"Aye, Jon," the black-cloaked man sighed. "Gods, words can barely describe how glad I am to see you alive and well!"

At that moment, Val keenly wanted to be somewhere else. She wanted a peaceful place to clear her wary mind, not to listen in on a secret talk. Once again, Val hesitated whether to jump down and alert them of her presence or simply remain here silently-

"Me too, uncle, me too."

"You know… Ned showed me your letter," the crow's voice was weary.

"Ah," a heavy sigh escaped the warg lord. "And… does he think me a madman still?"

"No, not a madman," Benjen barked out a laugh. "Ned believes you, Jon. He's making preparations. More importantly, he worries about you. And so do I."

Val wondered who this Ned was. Perhaps the Wolf Lord himself?

"There's no need to fret," Jon straightened up. "I know what I'm doing."

"Aye, I saw that well enough for myself last night," the crow's voice grew forlorn. "By the gods, how you've grown."

"It was that or death. You mentioned preparations. What are they?" Jon's voice was thick with curiosity.

"Well, Ned has the clans and the Skaagosi mine for dragonglass and passed the warning to the Watch. That's why I'm here instead of attending my nephew's wedding."

"Robb's getting married?!"

"Aye, to Princess Myrcella."

"Gods," the warg lord rubbed his brow in confusion. "How old was she again?"

"Five and ten."

Jon Snow muttered something under his nose, but it was too quiet for Val to hear. "That changes things."

"Indeed it does," the dignified crow agreed. "Ned took back the New Gift as a dowry, along with other generous benefits. My brother means to strengthen the Watch as much as possible."

"That's far more than I expected," Jon sighed. "That's the biggest dowry I have heard of. What did it cost?"

"Ned had to take the Handship despite his reluctance."

"Kings are not so easily declined," there was a worry in the young man's voice.

"Fret not. Everything will be fine - Ned has heeded your warning and is being cautious about things. Howland Reed will be there to advise him."

"I admire your confidence, uncle. But you're right - it's out of our hands now."

"Forewarned is forearmed, and Ned will not be caught unaware this time. You know him as the kind, loving father, yet the Quiet Wolf is the most dangerous. Robert might have struck down the silver prince with his hammer, but it was my brother who crushed the dragon's armies and won the war, and he was barely older than you are right now."

"Prowess on the battlefield doesn't make you impervious to scheming and knives in the dark," Jon coldly pointed out.

"That is true, but do not underestimate Ned."

"I want to be optimistic, but…" A heavy sigh was followed by an uneasy silence. "I never asked, but why join the Watch so young?"

"Winterfell had become… unbearable for me," Benjen's voice became solemn. "I walked the halls expecting to meet a laughing Brandon, a wild and playful Lyanna, or my stern but fair father. Yet, they were gone, and I only saw ghosts and bitter memories. And when Ned came back with a wife of his own, I felt like a stranger in my own home. Everyone had moved on, one way or another."

"Yet, why take the Black? A Stark never lacks for options, even as a third son."

"That is true, yet… the Watch offered me a new family. A purpose for a young boy feeling lost. And most importantly - they needed men."

"Just like that?"

"Aye, just like that. It all just seamlessly fit together. It has often been hard but rewarding, and I've had no reason to regret."

"You've never dreamt of taking a wife and fathering some children?" Jon prodded; there was something odd in his tone that Val couldn't figure out.

"Well, maybe a few regrets," the crow amended with a cough. "I won't deny I've known a woman's warmth, but passion and lust are far from everything in life. It's easier to put your heart and mind into your duty if you have no wife and children to worry about. Besides, I'm blessed with plenty of nieces and nephews to spoil instead. Soon enough, Robb might provide me with more hellions to fret over. That's enough for me."

The warg lord chuckled mirthfully. "I somehow can't imagine Robb with children. My mind just refuses to conjure the image."

"It was the same with Ned, but lo and behold, he's got half a dozen now. But, it seems he might not be the only nephew to provide me with more sprogs to spoil."

"Oh?"

"I saw you looking at that fair-haired spearwife, Jon." Val leaned in closer. She had felt Jon Snow's gaze upon her, but it was rare and impassive. The warg lord was incredibly hard to read. "I've never seen you look at a woman like that before, but I know that gaze."

"It takes two to make children." Jon didn't deny it.

"She seemed just as interested in you, if not more. Do you know how the wildlings take their wives?"

Was Val truly so obvious?

"Aye, I know of 'stealing'. But it hasn't even been a moon since Val joined my party," Jon sighed. "And well, it's complicated."

"Ah, but I've found out that things are oft far simpler than they seem," the crow countered. "Come now, what's truly stopping you?"

"Well, the whole 'stealing' thing is… not to my taste, not really. Besides, my path forward is fraught with peril and death - maybe in a sennight or a moon, I will be dead."

That didn't matter.

"All the more reason to find some joy before you go. Although, it seems death won't take you just yet, nephew mine."

Val grudgingly agreed with the crow.

"Sometimes it feels that everything I touch turns to ash," Jon's voice was hollow.

"Horsesh*t! Come now, is that a reason to give up? Aye, life is hard and sometimes cruel, but it's a man's due to fight it."

"I don't feel ready just yet."

"Fine," the crow snorted. "But, let me tell you this - if you wait too long, she might slip away from your grasp, and you'd regret it."

"If she tries to steal me, I won't struggle too hard."

Val preened and wanted to laugh out in joy but held it in. While odd, this whole conversation finally made her feel some relief. Jon Snow would be hers. She just had to figure out how to sneak around the direwolves and hounds guarding his fancy tent at night.

Some might say it was too early, too sudden, but Val knew what she wanted. Besides, for the last fortnight, she only found him more and more to her liking with every passing day.

"Ah, I suppose this is the best I'll get out of you," Benjen chuckled ruefully. "Now I know how Ned felt when trying to convince me not to take the Black. Don't gape at me, Jon. For all their differences, Ned, Lya, Brandon, and Father were the same. Being as stubborn as a mule runs in our family."

"Do you know what really happened with… her?" Jon's voice was quiet yet thick with longing.

"Lyanna?"

"Aye."

"No more than you do," the crow sighed. "Rhaegar, my sister, and the three kingsguard took that secret to their graves, I'm afraid."

"Maybe it's for the best."

"Maybe. But regardless of everything, I'm proud to have a nephew like you," Benjen Stark coughed. "Ah, damn it, enough of past sorrows. Let's speak of the future - care to share your plan with your dear uncle?"

"I'm going to string up Craster at a Heart Tree next."

"Has the old bastard done you harm, Jon?"

"Not to me. But bedding his daughters and granddaughters offends gods and men, more so when he gifts his sons to the Others, and they leave him alone in return."

"Are you sure of this?"

"As certain as the coming of winter."

A storm of curses erupted from the older man, and it took him a whole minute to calm down. "f*ck, I always thought Craster was a shady man, but I was willing to close my eyes because of his generous aid to the Watch."

"I understand, uncle, needs must. You are bound to the Watch, and there are no laws but the sword on this side of the Wall. Still, you're quite lucky, you know. Craster is why I was here - he has a child on the way, and I was preparing to ambush the Cold Ones if it was a son."

"And after old Craster is dead?"

"To Mance Rayder and his ilk."

The crow shuffled uneasily. "What do you want with the King Beyond the Wall?"

"With Rayder? Not much. They might have all grouped up, but they're running nonetheless. I mean to teach them how to fight the Others."

"You should know that the wildlings are a quarrelsome lot. Most would die rather than listen to people South of the Wall."

"Maybe so," the warg lord chuckled. "But their feud is more with the Night's Watch than anyone else. That and themselves, if not for Rayder, they'd be killing each other instead."

"Obsidian is no better than stone against plate armour…" Benjen murmured. "You mean to use the wildlings as your sword against the Others!"

"Crudely put yes," Jon Snow shrugged. "But, what is the alternative? They would attempt to cross the Wall to hide from the Others. You know the North would never accept them south of the Wall. Bad blood has run for thousands of years, and as things stand now, the northerners would rather see every one of the free folk dead. Any attempts to cross the Wall will be met with slaughter, one way or another. I just mean to give them the chance to stand their ground and fight instead of run."

"Bold!" the crow chortled. "But there's one tiny problem. Mance Rayder is no more."

Val froze. How could the King Beyond the Wall die?

"How in the seven hells did the fool die?"

"Ned caught him sneaking in Winterfell after the king arrived, and Robb lopped off his head for desertion."

"That… certainly complicates things," Jon Snow rubbed his brow tiredly. "So Lord Stark has Robb meting out justice now?"

"Aye, he's quite good at it."

"Ours is the Old Way," the warg lord let out a sad chuckle. "When did Rayder die?"

"Little less than three weeks ago."

"So there might still be some time before Mance's army finds out of his demise. I just have to hurry up, I suppose."

"Jon, I know you've set your mind to things here, but be careful."

"I try to be. But your task is not going to be easy either, uncle. But before you go, I have one final gift for you."

Something white darted amidst the trees, grabbing Val's attention.

"I have everything I need, Jon. There's no need-"

"Hush," Jon Snow interrupted as the enormous form of Ghost appeared beside the warg lord. The direwolf was massive, as tall as his master, and if Val heard correctly, he was still young and could grow more.

Ghost leaned forward with his enormous head and gently placed a pitch-black furry ball straight into the crow's stunned hands.

"Is this…?"

"Aye, a direwolf for you."

"Gods, what about its mother? I don't want an angry den-mother the size of a horse stalking after me with a vengeance."

"Fret not - Ghost and his pack found him nearly a moon ago, starving and alone. His mother probably died at birth or shortly after. Come now, don't hesitate; I can feel a budding bond between the two of you."

"I'm a warg?" The crow stood there, stunned.

"I think so. Uncle, you can't be the only Stark missing a direwolf. He will be your most faithful companion for life. I mean, look at his fur- it's only fitting. The Night's Watch can't really object. He can already pass as one of them."

Benjen Stark sighed but kept the young squirming pup close to his chest.

"The sun will rise soon; I should wake the others and get going. Thank you, Jon."

"And uncle, please avoid leaking my plan if you can."

"Aye, I can do that."

A few moments later, the two formidable men headed back to the camp. Ghost paused, and his enormous head looked up. The spearwife froze under the scrutiny of the pair of baleful red eyes. Before she could blink, the direwolf turned around, shaggy white tail wagging happily, and disappeared into the dark forest.

To the east, a faint pinkish hue heralded the approach of the dawn while Val stood still on that branch, feeling more lost and confused than before.

Notes:

Benjen is a hidden badass; who would have known? Direwolves find out that big spiders are tasty.

Jon's not immune to feelings; he's just got very good at practising self-control. His reasons for being reluctant to enter a relationship are, well, human enough. His previous experience with Ygritte was both tragic and almost swayed him away from his set course. There's also Robb hooking up with the wrong person, which didn't pan out very well, either. Keep in mind that Jon, in the books, was basically thrown into the meat grinder with little to no time to rest or process stuff. Everything was hectic, rushed, and so on. Now, he finds himself hesitant, which is only human.

Val? Val is also a rather complex character. But she knows what she wants and is not afraid to go for it. She also accidentally witnesses a proper heart-to-heart talk between a nephew and an uncle.

And finally, the most essential part - Benjen, as a First Ranger of the Night's Watch, gets a proper companion.

This chapter turned out longer than I expected. I even exceeded my usual 6k word limit, but I doubt any would complain :).

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really). Don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where a chapter is posted two weeks in advance.

Drop a kudos if you liked the fic so far!

Chapter 22: A Religious Disagreement

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

22nd Day of the 5th Moon

Val

The weather had turned warm again after the Cold Shadows were slain. Jon Snow had been different since meeting with his Crow uncle. Truth be told, Val still felt a tad guilty for unwillingly listening in on their talk. Still, she struggled to wrap her head around half the things they mentioned.

It wasn't an obvious thing, but Val could see that his steps had become lighter and his rare laughter - more joyful and genuine. As if a weight that the warg lord had carried had been put down, and he was now unfettered. Even his gait has become more… peaceful.

It had been the second day now, and Val expected the young chieftain to come to her and confront her about listening on, yet no such thing happened, as if he did not know. And every time Ghost passed by, his red eyes had an odd glint when gazing at her.

Jon Snow was sitting still on a rock with his eyes closed like a statue as they gathered around him, waiting silently as the sun peaked through the clouds to the east. Val felt like she was surrounded by a lakeful of twigs and leaves with all the Singers and their tree-like attire. You could rarely see the leafcloaks clustered together - they were always spread out amidst the shrubbery and trees; only at night, those who failed to find a barrow grouped up to share warmth. Dalla threw her a knowing look as Val carefully ran her hand through the dirty, reddish fur of Red Jeyne as the hound eagerly munched on the roasted piece of meat she had offered.

His fancy tent wasn't always guarded by direwolf during the night anymore, but there was at least a hound or two, usually the one Val was petting or the dark-furred Helicent.

"Craster has a son," Jon opened his glimmering grey eyes. "He left the babe out in the cold atop a crude altar hewn in stone."

"Kinslayer," Jarod Snow mumbled.

"Aye," the young chieftain agreed. "Though, I don't think the Others are coming to take the babe."

"Well, you did kill them," Leaf pointed out. "I don't think any more will be coming anytime soon."

"Indeed," Jon Snow grimaced, "the scouts and my wolves have not found anyone in the surroundings."

"What now?" Duncan scratched his ear quizzically.

"Now? Ghost and his pack are dragging Craster here to be strung up."

"And what of the babe?"

Val couldn't help but snort inwardly. Gods, the young Liddle seemed to be such a bleeding heart - caring for a little monster cursed by the gods.

"One of the direwolves left him in front of the hall for the women to pick it up," Jon explained, and Dalla spat dismissively on the ground.

"Nineteen wives," Duncan shook his head.

"Most of them daughters, and probably granddaughters too," Jarod pointed out.

"Regardless," the young Liddle sighed, "What shall happen to them without Craster?"

"It doesn't matter," Val hissed out. "They willingly gave away their sons. They are no better than the sick old f*ck they lay with."

"Aye," Dalla agreed. "A man can own a woman, or he can own a knife. No man can own both. With nineteen of them, they could have easily killed Craster in his sleep if they wanted to or simply ran away, but they stayed."

Duncan still looked hesitant, "But-"

"Think, nephew mine," Jarod interrupted. "Nineteen women used to having a roof over their head and every meal secured. Do you think they'll expect any less?"

"The world is full of people that want for help," Leaf chimed in. "But more oft than not, they're cravens - unwilling to grab their fate with their own two hands. Would that some find the courage to help themselves first."

"Do not concern yourself with them," Jon's voice was as cold as ice. "We have an abundance of woes and challenges without adding to them. Craster's wives have made their bed, and they'll lay in it now."

"Besides, I doubt most of them have ever walked past that dyke of his," Val pointed out. "They've all gone plump and soft like pigs and wouldn't be able to walk two leagues before getting tired."

There was still some reluctance left in his gaze, but Duncan seemed to let it go.

"What will we do next, then?"

"Off to Mance Rayder's army."

"With him dead, it will be hard to make all the factions in his camp listen if they even remain there," Jarod straightened up.

"News from the south travels slowly here in the North," Dalla said, and the southrons bristled for some reason.

"Aye, and half the free folk have feuds running back generations - without Mance Rayder to bring them together, they will begin fighting each other sooner or later," Val agreed.

"Regardless, I mean to try," Jon's voice was impassive. "As long as some listen, I'll count myself successful."

"The free folk are not only stubborn but distrustful of kneelers," she pointed out. "It will be a tall task even."

"Mayhaps some can put aside their pride and take heed. Hope is not so easily turned down at a dire hour," Jon's grey eyes glimmered as if he was remembering something. He then whipped his head to the southwest. "Craster will join us shortly. A pity there's no heart tree nearby."

"I can carve a face on that weirwood for the gods to bear witness to his death," Leaf offered a black dagger in her clawed grasp.

"Aye, do it."

The Singer hopped to the nearby weirwood with a spring to her step. With a single motion, she pricked her palm, colouring the tip of the stone knife dark red before driving it into the pale bark with a single graceful movement, slow and steady. The calming scent of pine was suddenly replaced with heavy sweetness.

Just as Leaf began to work on the tree, curses, grunts, and cries of pain heralded the arrival of Craster. Dragged in by Ghost and another slightly smaller brown direwolf, the infamous man looked far less impressive than Val imagined, not only because he was caked in mud. Greying, rather sturdy with broad shoulders and an ugly face twisted into an agonised snarl, with his right elbow bent at an odd angle, the man looked… more pathetic than anything else. The direwolves brought him before Jon before finally letting go of his ankles as if they were obedient hounds.

"f*ckin' warg," Crasted grunted in pain as he stared venomously at them. "I'm, argh, a godly man!"

"A godly man?" Jon snorted and looked at Leaf, who had just finished carving a smiling face atop the pale bark. "I suppose you'll get to meet the gods soon enough."

"f*ck your false gods, accursed kneeler," Craster spat. "Killing me will anger the cold gods!"

Val glared in outrage, and she was far from the only one. Did this old f*ck truly worship the Others?!

"Good," the warg lord's face blossomed into a wide smile that had a hint of somethingwildin his eyes. "Let them come."

23rd Day of the 5th Moon

The Cold Ones did not show up to avenge him despite what Craster seemed to think.

The sun's warm rays had turned the ground to muddy slush again, much to her chagrin. Even as the day dwindled, the warmth lingered on.

Val reflected that there was possibly such a thing as too much warmth. Cold, frozen ground and snow were preferable to the dirty mess that clung to her worn leather boots and forced her to step on roots and stones, and even the garrons moved slower in the mud.

Still, she couldn't complain too much - everyone was friendly, helpful, and reasonable, and in the rare instance when she had no time to hunt, fish, or forage, those who did have time shared what they caught. A bowl of stew from the brass cauldron or a skewer of roast was always guaranteed in the evening. In turn, when Val did catch more, she shared. Even in the village, there had never been such an abundance of food - the hunters kept most of what they caught for their kith and kin.

Even sleep at night came easy - there was a strong sense of safety in the camp. Who'd not only dare but succeed in sneaking upon singers and direwolves?! There were no squabbles over the smallest of things, no tension, posturing or arguing over meagre possessions, and everyone worked in almost seamless harmony.

And the reason for all of it was Jon Snow. Each word that left his mouth weighed like a mountain, and he could radiate calmness and surety and somehow make any problems go away the moment they appeared. Who could seemingly gauge your strength and capability with little more than a glance that saw right through you.

The evening neared, and they had to set camp for the night; Val went to fetch some water from the nearby spring while Dalla was setting their tent. She hadn't just yet asked Jon Snow for some mock fights as planned. Last evening, when he sparred with Duncan and Jarod, she got tongue-tied, and her legs felt heavy when she wanted to approach and had just settled for watching.

"You want to steal him," Leaf's high, melodic voice made her spin around, steel dragger drawn.

The spearwife squinted her eyes at the Singer sitting on a branch above her and rocking her legs, yet the face of the short deer-furred being was unreadable.

"What's it to you?" Val's voice came sharper than she intended.

Leaf leapt down on the roots yet produced no sound when she landed like a cat. "I can give you some advice and a warning if you wish."

"Why?"

"It looks like you might need it," the leafcloak shrugged. "Jon Snow has my loyalty, and I think you might be good for him."

"Fine," she agreed sceptically, returned the dagger to its sheath and crossed her arms as she gazed down on the Singer. "How exactly do you think I would be good for him?"

"You might have noticed, but Jon Snow has no fear of death."

"How so?" Val hummed. "What he does might look reckless, but he's more capable than normal men and knows his boundaries."

"That is true. But I've seen him fight before, and Jon Snow has no fear of death."

The spearwife tugged on one of her honeyed locks and gazed at the leafcloak. "Are you sure you're not mistaken for valiance and battle fervour?"

"I have lived a long, long life and seen many winters, Val," Leaf's voice was as dry as decaying leaves. "I've seen many a man who lived for the fight or the hunt, but he is not one of them. Jon Snow fights like every battle is his last, and death is just an old friend to be welcomed. The only reason he's still hale and hearty is his prodigious skill at arms and the blessing of the Gods."

"Let's say you speak true," her voice was sceptical, but the spearwife cared little, "How would I help him?"

"There's great sorrow hiding within Jon Snow," the Singer sighed heavily. "As if his heart is bound by ice that can only be melted by a woman's touch. There's greatness in him, and should you succeed, being together will not be easy."

"Hurdles scare me not," Val returned with a dismissive snort. "Nothing worth in life is easy!"

"Oh, I know," Leaf smiled sadly. "But, will you be willing to follow Jon Snow through thick and thin?"

"Aye!"

"Truly? Even if he eventually returns to the South, will you follow him and be a kneeler's wife? For all his prowess, Jon Snow is what you would derisively call a kneeler." Val wrinkled her nose at those words, and a sad sigh tore out of the leafcloak. "I thought so."

The spearwife closed her eyes and pinched her nose. "Why would he go back?"

"Isn't it only normal to long to return to one's home?" Leaf's golden eyes shimmered sadly. "Kith and kin bind him stronger than any chains ever could."

Val blinked at those words; it was an odd statement she couldn't truly understand. Now that she had left Greystone village, she had no desire to return. But reuniting with your kin - that she could acknowledge. But Jon Snow was not with his kin - he was here, far away from them.

"If I steal him, he's going to be mine," Val stated far more confidently than she felt. "We can make a new family."

The deer-like child laughed deeply, the sound akin to tinkling bells. "Gods, there's no need to lie to yourself; the only way to steal him would be if he lets you. No, even as Snow, the blood of the Ancient Kings of Winter runs strong in his veins, and it would not be denied. Wed Jon Snow, and you'd be part of the wolf pack, whether you want it or not."

Not every stealing led to a wedding - vows before the gods were a finality many did not dare risk.

"So what? What you speak might never come true. You can't know the future."

"Indeed, I can't, for I'm not blessed with the sight," Leaf agreed with a sigh. "But I don't need to see the future to know where the road you tread goes."

"I don't-"

"Listen," the Singer interrupted with a raised hand, claws sharp. "I'm not warning you to stay away from Jon Snow, far from it," she sighed again. "But it will not be easy if you want to be with him. There will be many trials along the way, testing your will, resolve, and love. A young hero, a highlord's son, with a wildling maiden might sound like a story for the ages, but the world is harsh and unforgiving, not a song."

"Was this your warning?" Val asked evenly, trying to hide her annoyance from the tiring riddles.

"It was. I don't mind if you get together with our chieftain. Jon is the kind of man that will pluck the stars from the night sky for his kin, should they ask," Leaf smiled widely, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth. "But beware - break Jon Snow's heart, and I shall hunt you down myself, offer your innards to the gods and devour your heart raw."

The spearwife grabbed her dagger's handle and hissed, "You can try!"

Despite being more than two heads shorter, Leaf did not seem intimidated.

"You've nothing to fear from me as long as you don't hurt Jon Snow," her voice was as calm as a frozen lake. "In fact, I shall be your greatest aide as long as you stand by his side."

"I'm not treacherous, unlike the crows and the southrons," Val snorted.

"Words are wind," the Singer shook her head. "North or south of the Wall, you humans are all alike, even if you want to pretend otherwise. I've given you my warning already. Do you want my advice?"

Val was tempted to tell the little deer-like creature to sod off, but something held her tongue. She grudgingly unclenched her jaw, "Fine."

"Helicent likes roasted hare the most, and Ghost loves it when you scratch behind his left ear."

Just like that, Leaf disappeared, leaving the stunned spearwife behind. Val took a few heartbeats to gather her bearing - she couldn't sense any deception in the Singer's final words. Worse, Leaf was so quick and quiet that if she wanted Val dead, the spearwife would be bleeding out on the snow before she could blink.

A shuddering breath escaped her lips, and she swallowed heavily; the whole talk had been nerve-wracking. But it awoke something in Val - did the foolish little leafcloak think her some faithless and meek southron?

No, she was a proud and fierce spearwife with no fear of adversity. Odd, cryptic riddles, hints and threats would not stop her; Jon Snow would be hers soon enough.

Val filled the waterskins up and set a few traps around the creek, hoping to have a catch by the morn. It was a slow, arduous process that made the anger from talking with the leafcloak bleed out of her. She even found a few stalks of mugwort, woodruff, and nettles for cooking and Dalla's collection of herbs.

The sun was beginning to hide behind the Frostfangs to the west when Val finally returned to the camp.

Amidst a small clearing, Jon Snow, wooden stick in hand, was fighting against Jarod and Duncan, who attacked together with tipless spears. Val could see a dozen leafcloaks sitting on stones and branches, watching on with interest. The nephew and uncle duo were quick on their feet, their movements precise, relentless, and vigorous.

They were well coordinated, attack and defence in tandem, yet still had trouble fending off the warg lord's swift attacks. Jon Snow weaved around the savage staves almost effortlessly and swatted away those who came too close with his blade. Both of them were outstanding fighters - Val could begrudgingly admit that she couldn't best either of them in the open.

She couldn't help but wonder why they had abandoned their swords in favour of spears, but the reason came to her quickly enough. The black stone, obsidian, was too brittle for something like a sword and could only be used as daggers, spears or arrow tips. Like a children's fight, although much more severe and brutal, Jon Snow played the role of a Cold Shadow while Duncan and Jarod attempted to defeat him.

Still, even while holding back, the young chieftain was stronger and quicker, eventually overwhelming the duo. The mock fights were repeated a few times with the same result, although Jon did receive a few glancing blows at the end.

"Gods, the lords from Starfall to Last Hearth would scramble to recruit you as their master-at-arms if they knew of your skill," Jarod grunted, gasping for breath while he rubbed his forearm, where the wooden sword had smacked just now.

"Come now, uncle, is old age finally catching up to you to whinge like this?" Duncan snorted in amusem*nt between his heavy heaving. "Barely half an hour of sparring is hardly that harsh."

"Ah, we'll see what song you'll sing when you reach my age, and you not only tire faster, but your bruises ache not only harder but for longer too," the greybeard muttered.

They walked away from the small clearing and headed towards their tent, making Val realise she had spent the whole time watching again. Even though it was not a real fight, the savage dance had been so mesmerising that the spearwife had failed to tear her eyes away from it, let alone deign to join.

A hand patted Val on the shoulder, and she spun, only to see Dalla looking at her with amusem*nt.

"I'll take these," her sister grabbed the pouch filled with herbs. "Don't be shy now - go and ask the warg lord to show you some moves."

"But they finished already," Val's protest sounded weak even as it left her mouth.

"Our chieftain looks far from winded," Dalla observed. "Come now, he wouldn't refuse to… what did they call it again? Ah yes,sparwith you."

After a short moment of hesitation, Val realised her sister was correct - the warg lord did not seem tired. In fact, he was looking in her direction right now.

She stepped forth into the clearing slowly, although her gut felt like a tangled knot of nerves.

"Lord Snow," her tongue felt oddly numb as an odd gleam appeared in his eyes. "I want to fight you too."

He slowly nodded as his gaze impassively roamed over her. "Spear or sword?"

There was the slightest tinge of desire in his grey eyes, but it was so fleeting that Val might have imagined it. No, his gaze was more akin to a warrior looking at his foe or a wolf looking at its prey.

A smile appeared on her lips - Jon Snow was not taking her for some helpless southron maiden, but a proper spearwife.

"Spear."

26th Day of the 5th Moon

Eddard Stark, Winterfell

Winterfell had never been fuller.

But then again, it has been over three centuries since it hosted a royal wedding. The wedding itself was to be tomorrow - yet the air was already festive, filled with laughter and merriment; the remaining bards were singing with almost unmatched fervour.

The yearly harvest feast paled in comparison to the overflowing Great Hall. Ned couldn't remember when all of his bannermen were present at the same time in here - big and small, they all came and brought large entourages. Even the quarrelsome Skagosi had come just yesterday, and it wasn't the usual messenger to deliver the taxes, but Crowls, Magnars, and Stanes, which were closer to the mountain chieftains in bearing than the northern lords, had come here, with kith and kin.

The eight long rows of trestle tables were filled to the brim. Ned was glad for his decision to go along with the wedding as quickly as possible - there would simply have been no more space inside for any additional Southron nobility. Even now, some of the younger and less important squires were seated outside, under the clear skies. Five hundred seats in his Great Hall were all filled.

Even the Guest House couldn't house all the arrivals - they had to open tower quarters to handle the excess visitors.

Ever since the royal family had arrived, his time for sparring and tutoring Robb had thinned greatly, but he still managed to find time once or twice a sennight away from prying eyes.

Not to mention that Winterfell's larders were thinning out at an alarming speed. But the wedding was tomorrow, and the royal party, along with him and the other guests, would depart the following day. Thankfully, it was still summer, harvests were bountiful, and the herds of cattle were abundant- while hard, preparing for the coming winter would be possible.

Ned's gaze roamed the merriment that had taken over the hall - everything looked joyful and peaceful. Even Robb and Myrcella, both too young and innocent, faces were flush with excitement and happiness despite the tinge of nervousness that their demeanour betrayed. It seemed it would not be a cold marriage, one less weight off his shoulders.

Ned closed his eyes, would be that the summer would last forever, together with everlasting peace.

A sigh tore out of his mouth; Eddard Stark knew better. The Starks knew better.

No peace lasted forever, and sooner or later, winter would come, as it always did.

Barely six and ten, Robb was considered by all rights an adult. Ned couldn't be more proud of his firstborn: sharp of wit, quick on his feet, with a strong sword arm, and about to be wedded to a beautiful princess.

Yet there was reluctance in his heart. Robb was good, but he was not ready yet. There was more that he could learn, more experience that he could gain, but there was not enough time…

Catelyn squeezed his arm in reassurance beneath the table, and Ned gave her a slight smile as he found himself relaxing. After all, worrying overmuch would achieve nothing.

For once, Robert seemed eager to finish dinner early, if only to meet the day of the wedding faster.

However, Ned couldn't yet afford to rest in his feathered bed. There were matters of import that suffered no delays to be discussed, especially now that all of his bannermen were here, under his roof.

While everyone slowly began to pour out of the Great Hall, heading to their quarters for the night, he signalled Robb to follow him in the gallery behind.

"Tomorrow is going to be a long day. Shouldn't we go to sleep, Father?"

"You have the right of it, Robb. This shouldn't take too long; just stay by my side, listen and observe.

The Lords, heirs, and Chieftains of the North, House Stark's principal bannermen, slowly trickled in groups of twos and threes. To Ned's amusem*nt, Wyman Manderly turned out too fat to ride a horse, and a wheelhouse wouldn't ever reach in time, so his eldest, Wylis, was here representing the merman lord.

"I'll be brief," Eddard spoke up as soon as everyone had gathered. "As part of the dowry for the Princess, the New Gift has been returned to House Stark."

His message was received with satisfied and intrigued murmurs. Roose Bolton was even gazing at him with his pallid pale eyes as if he was seeing him for the first time. He'd love to chop the Leech Lord's head off, but Roose was a cunning man and would not give him undue reason. Ned had, however, decided to keep the part about the tax reduction to himself. Most of the excess would go to bolster the Watch and the new Houses anyway, and as for the rest - House Stark could use some additional coin to add to its coffers for a cold day.

"And what of our former lands?" Greatjon's loud voice rumbled through the gallery; the Giant of Last Hearth towered at least a head over the rest of Ned's bannermen. But not for long, especially if Walder accepted the honours.

"They will be restored to their original boundaries."

The gallery erupted into cheers. With this, House Ironsmith would once again rise into prominence, the Umbers would once more be able to compete with House Dustin in power, and the Irondam and Claycreek clans would receive a substantial amount of land, lining them up among the more powerful chieftains in the northern mountains.

"And what of the lands of the now-extinct Houses like Ashwood and Lightfoot?" Lord Beron Dustin asked once the commotion died off.

Ah, the houses that had died off for Alysanne Targaryen had given away all their land.

"They shall be split into three fiefs," Ned straightened up. "House Cassel shall be elevated into a landed masterly House, along with Walder, while the last fief shall remain under the stewardship of House Stark for now."

The gallery took the news as well as expected - some grumbling, some unhappiness, some joy and surprise. Doubtlessly, now the second and third sons of the North would soon aim to prove themselves one way or another - in a bid to earn land, even as a masterly house. Or, well, plan to match up one of their daughters with the newly landed nobility. After all - marrying the head or heir of a masterly house was still better than the landless second or third sons.

Robb stiffened next to him, and at that moment, the Lord of Winterfell realised his mistake. For all his effort to prepare and educate his heir, he had failed to bring him up to speed on current affairs. Though his son barely showed any surprise, it was odd to see his laughing eyes and easy smile be replaced with the 'frozen face of House Stark' as Robert loved calling it.

Important yet uncomfortable truths Ned had delayed too long had to be spoken, both to his heir and wife. But not yet; Ned still didn't feel ready. Let Robb take his joy in tomorrow's celebration with a clear head for now.

"One last thing before we return to our feathery beds," Ned grew solemn. "Mance Rayder might have been dead, but the trouble from Beyond the Wall is not over. The wildlings are gathered in large numbers and might attempt to attack even without him. All the clansmen and the northmost Houses should keep regular patrols and prepare themselves in case the wildlings succeed in passing the Wall en mass."

"We'll crush the savage f*cks if they dare to show their mangy faces," Greatjon roared boisterously, making Ned sigh inwardly. The fact that half the lords grunted or laughed in agreement did not help.

Although they were not particularly wrong, wildlings could easily be swept away by heavy horse in the open field. Besides, discipline beat numbers nine out of ten.

"Aye, but desperate foes are not to be underestimated," he reminded them. "That's beside the point - I have received whispers of odd…thingsstirring Beyond the Wall again."

"Bah, old wives tales," Edmund Flint, the Lord of Flint's Fingers, grunted dismissively.

"Foul things happen beyond the Wall," Lord Svennar Stane coughed. "Our fisherfolk claim to have glimpsed the white walkers north of Eastwatch."

"Never thought I'd agree with a Stane, but chieftain Svennar has the right o' it," Greatjon also looked severe and grim. "Things feel wrong lately."

The northmost bannermen looked quite worried, while the rest - sceptical at best. Ned sighed inwardly; this was sadly within his expectations. Robb shuffled uneasily next to him.

"Are you sure that's not just your sh*tty ale muddling your wits?"

It was Galbart Glover trying to jibe Umber again.

"Listen here, you-"

"ENOUGH!" The gallery grew silent at his cry. "It might be an old wives' tale or a real danger to be fought against. It matters little. The Watch has waned too much to deal with anything alone. The king has given me permission to reform the Night's Watch, and even without that, the North will not be caught unprepared, even if I'm still in the South. Here's what the North shall do-"

Notes:

Jon Snow murders an innocent old man because of religious disagreements. Oh, poor Craster…

Val receives a very unexpected shovel talk.

Ned has a talk with his bannermen - and it goes as well as expected, but he does know how to control the herd of proud and prickly cats that are the Northern Lords.

You might have noticed - there's a Dustin Lord and not that shrill Barbrey, which will definitely be expanded upon soon.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really). Don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where I am quite active and willing to chat/answer questions and the like.

Do drop a kudos if you like my story~!

Chapter 23: A Welcome Visitor

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

27th Day of the 5th Moon

Edmure Tully, the North

After the narrow causeway of the Neck, the kingsroad had dwindled to two winding dirt tracks, surrounded by endless hills and forests.

"I can barely feel my arse anymore," Kirth Vance groaned. "After so much riding, it must have taken the shape of the saddle. I hope all the coin spent buying two dozen more palfreys from Lord Vypern and this mad rush is worth it."

Edmure's backside and legs felt much the same, together with the rest of his weary body, but not just him; all of them were worn out from the ambitious journey. They had ridden hard for nearly twenty days now, travelling an almost impossible distance if not for having almost four good horses for each rider. Ronald's poor Pemford squire was left with the thankless task of taking care of all the additional steeds.

The Tully heir felt a tinge of guilt; they had been near Vypern Castle when the news of his nephew's upcoming wedding had reached his party. It was his daring idea to buy additional horses and ride northwards in a bid to catch the wedding, no matter what. All of his friends were here with him, albeit grumbling, and it warmed his heart.

"I started dreaming of a soft feathered bed and a hot bath each night," Ellery Vance shook his head forlornly. "Yet when I open my eyes in the morn, all stiff, tired, and covered in grime and sweat, I'm greeted by the cold ground below and the gloomy sky above."

"Stop your poetic whinging; we managed to find an inn to sleep twice! It will be worth it - it's not every day a princess is married to a highlord's heir," that was the tired voice of Marq Piper. "Such a grand occasion happens twice a century at most!"

"Aye, and the king knows how to feast and celebrate, if nothing else," Ronald Vance, the eldest brother and heir to Atranta, added sluggishly. "I still remember the endless bounty of the royal wedding. Wine flowed like a river, and the tables were so laden heavy with food that your belly got filled just by the sight of it."

"The old lion spared no expense once his dream came true. Sadly the rest of us don't sh*t gold," Lymond Goodbrook japed, eliciting a wave of hearty yet tired chuckles.

"This feast should not be any lesser in Winterfell; after nearly ten years of summer, even the cold and frugal North would have their stores full and cattle grown fat," Patrek Mallister noted dryly.

"I wouldn't be too sure," Hugo Vance countered quietly. "They have summer snows every year, the last one apparently less than a moon ago."

"If that's the summer, I dread to imagine a northern winter," Ellery Vance shuddered, and he was far from the only one. Indeed, the weather had been noticeably colder when they had passed the Moat.

"I just hope we're on time," the youngest Vance brother groaned again. "Imagine if we missed the wedding by a day, and we only arrived for the clean up after all the barrels of ale and wine dried up."

"Don't jinx us, Kirth," Edmure warned. "We passed Cerwyn this morn, and the castellan said the wedding should be either today or tomorrow. Come now; we can see Winterfell in the distance on that hill yonder."

"The man was so old and frail I wager he didn't have all the wits to him," the Vance heir snorted. "I wouldn't be surprised if he even knew which day it was."

They continued in silence; the long, harsh journey had taken a toll on them all. Edmure signalled to Kirth, who grumpily raised the standard bearing the silver trout of House Tully.

Winterfell's granite walls became more and more imposing as they approached, and while they weren't as enormous as Harrrenhal, they were just as staggering, doubly so, when they neared, as it became clear that there was an inner, even taller wall behind the first one. Edmure could see at least two dozen men patrolling the ramparts above, steel helmets glinting with silvery lustre in the sun. Beneath the enormous walls, the fabled Winter Town mentioned by his sister could be seen.

"The second wall must be at least a hundred feet tall," Marq Piper whistled as they ascended the hill leading up to the gate.

"If properly manned, this castle will be impregnable," the Mallister heir noted, awe in his voice as he gazed at the looming grey walls.

"They can still be starved out," Lymond Goodbrook said. "A big castle like this will require a big garrison, thus plenty of mouths to feed."

"I heard the godswood is enormous with small animals and wild fruits. The castle also has glass gardens where food can be grown even in winter," Edmure countered. "Besides, there's plenty of space inside to raise poultry if need be."

"Aye, and when summer snow falls and blocks the roads and the baggage trains, the fools sieging this place will be dying in droves from hunger and cold," Patrek laughed.

"What else would you expect from something made by the hands of the Builder himself!" the Tully heir agreed with a chuckle.

They made the rest of the slight ascent in silence. Beneath the walls stood rows of small, neat houses made from logs and undressed stone extending towards the east. The muddy streets were filled with cheery smallfolk, and Edmure could see various stalls offering goods and produce beside the main road. Bards and mummers were plying their trade in the square. This was the biggest gathering of people they had seen since entering the North.

They finally crossed a large square just before the formidable gate, flanked by two crenellated bulwarks on each side. There was an enormous stake crowned with a severed head on display that they looked at curiously next to the gate.

"Halt!" A burly man clad in ringmail and padded surcoat wearing the grey direwolf of House Stark stepped forth as soon as their party approached the opened gate. Edmure had seen plenty of sentries and guardsmen, yet the one before him was one of the most formidable, both in bearing and stature. The rest of the guards behind him were just as dangerous-looking and well-armed. "What brings you Southerners up to Winterfell?"

"I am Ser Edmure Tully, brother of Lady Catelyn Stark and uncle to Robb Stark," Edmure nudged his steed forward, then turned to introduce his companions one by one. "These are Ser Ronald Vance, the heir of Atranta, and his brothers, Sers Hugo, Ellery, and Kirth. This is Lord Lymond Goodbrook, Ser Marq Piper, heir to Pinkmaiden, and Ser Patrek Mallister, heir to Seaguard. We're here to attend my nephew's wedding!"

"Your presence here is surprising, Sers. You can go in, but no funny business. Lady Stark has been notified of your arrival, and you better be who you say you are, else you might end up warming our dungeons," the guardsman grunted. "Or you might join our lauded deserter king over there."

The man pointed to the impaled head covered in tar; it was beginning to rot, but you could see the weathered face twisted in an angry snarl.

"Deserter king?"

"Aye, Mance Rayder, the fooling King Beyond the Wall who tried to sneak into the castle once the royals arrived. He was found the next night and shortened a head for all to see!"

With that final warning, the guardsman signalled, and the rest of the sentries freed up the way.

They bypassed the portcullis and a small tunnel where the ceiling was filled with murder holes, only to step on an enormous drawbridge and see that a formidable moat separated the inner and outer walls.

"That explains why the guardsmen are so strung up," Lymond noted.

"Can't blame them. Hosting the royal retinue must be an arduous task, sneaking wildlings or not," Edmure shrugged amiably.

"How'd they get enough water to fill a whole moat up the hill?" Patrek Mallister scratched his neck as he looked around.

"Winterfell has hot springs," he supplied idly. "They probably feed into the moat."

"Good, I'm dying for a warm bath," Kirth groaned.

"Fret not. We'll have plenty of time to get presentable. Weddings before the old gods take place in the evening, and there's still a few hours until sunset," Marq added.

The second gatehouse was even larger and more formidable than the first, and after bypassing it, they entered an open courtyard only to be faced with a veritable wall of steel.

Despite wearing a modest wollen dress and looking particularly weary, Catelyn looked like a regal flower amidst a sea of burly guardsmen who were all eyeing them suspiciously.

"Edmure?!" His sister's surprised cry seemed to bleed out the tension from the men-at-arms.

"Cat!" The Tully heir cried out and dismounted with a wide smile that changed to a wince as soon as his feet landed on the packed ground. Gods, he was sore! "We rode as hard as we could as soon as we heard about the wedding. I hope we're not intruding?"

"No, I'm glad to have you here," Catelyn's face warmed up as she held her brother in a hug. "You arrived just on time; the ceremony is tonight! When I heard of Tully banners, I didn't know whom to expect."

The younger man smiled broadly, "There was no way I would miss the chance to visit, sister. I hardly remember the last time I've seen Robb; making it to his wedding is the least I could do."

"Come, come. Be welcome to Winterfell, all of you," She signalled to a servant holding a tray of bread, salt, and wine, and her nose wrinkled almost imperceptibly. "You all need to get into a clean garb and wash away the stench of the road."

The rest felt dreadfully short when a knock on the door awoke him from his stupor.

"Lady Stark is expecting you at the Great Keep's entrance, m'lord," it was the voice of a young serving girl who had shown him his rooms. "The wedding is about to start soon."

"I'll be there in a few moments," he half groaned and heard muffled footsteps moving away.

The news had chased away any remaining drowsiness, and Edmure leapt from the bed, only to regret it a moment later as his muscles and joints complained in protest. He hastily grabbed the clean dark blue cloak that Catelyn had generously provided, then left his room.

The pleasant hot bath and the new clothes did not make Edmure feel any less sore and tired. The flagged stone of the hallway stood unsteady before his feet, and most of his body ached with every step taken. Since the Guest Hall was packed full, he was given rooms in the Great Keep with House Stark, but his companions' quarters were in a fancy tower near the Guest House. The stairs proved to be an arduous task, but Edmure braved them anyway.

At this moment, he felt thankful that weddings before the old gods were far quicker affairs than the drawn-out drudgery of sermons and vows in the Septs; the Northerners didn't dawdle with needless pomp and pageantry, that was for sure.

Outside was already dark, and a soft reddish glow could be seen receding to the west. A few braziers and torches illuminated the yard as the chilly evening gusts made Edmure shiver and pull his cloak closer.

Cat, now a head shorter than him, lantern in hand and garbed in a warm red and blue gown, was already waiting by the entrance, accompanied by three children, but he could also spy a few guards shadowing her from a distance. Far enough to provide privacy yet not too far to be useless. The children caught his eye as Edmure had not met them before, but his sister had described her brood well enough in her letters, and it was quite easy to guess who they were. The oldest, Sansa, looked like a younger and more beautiful version of her mother with her high cheekbones and soft red curls, garbed in a beautiful silvery gown. She was fast approaching her mother's height as well, clearly the blood of her father at work. Arya was all wolf; there was not a single trace of her mother in her with her dark hair, grey eyes, and long face.

Clad in an ermine mantle, Rickon was peeking from behind Cat's skirts and had also inherited his mother's colouring. He looked at Edmure curiously with his large blue eyes and- "You walk funny."

The honest observation made all of them freeze for a long, drawn-out heartbeat before Sansa coughed politely with reddened cheeks. Arya tried very hard to stifle laughter with a fist while Catelyn's eyes darkened, and her brow wrinkled with displeasure.

"Rickon, that's not a polite thing to say," the Lady of Winterfell reminded with a soft yet firm tone. "You should apologise."

"Uh, sorry," the boy mumbled sadly with the high-pitched voice that all young children had. "But, it's true, though! You said lying is bad…"

"It's fine," Edmure chuckled, waved reassuringly, and reached down to tussle his thick auburn curls. "But if you're unsure what to say, you can also remain silent and observe."

Rickon nodded vigorously, and Cat threw him a grateful look.

"You look like Mother," he noted timidly. "And like Robb."

"I'm glad you noticed, nephew, for I am Edmure Tully, your mother's brother," he smiled proudly at the boy who perked up. "You can call me Uncle Edmure."

"We should start walking," Cat said, turning to lead the way, her grey cloak lined with heavy wool spinning behind her. "There's quite some way to the Heart Tree, and Ned and Robb are already there waiting."

They headed towards one of the walls where the entrance to the godswood resided; thankfully, the pace was set by Rickon and his still-short legs, which suited Edmure just fine.

"I have to apologise again for my lacklustre gift," he coughed in embarrassment.

"Nonsense," his sister shook her head vehemently, "Robb loved the feathery cap. Ser Piper told me you shot down the grey owl yourself. Besides, your presence here means far more than some gift. Few would deign to ride so hard for almost a moon just to attend a nephew's wedding."

The wall surrounding the godswood was a little over twenty feet tall, and Cat led them through an arched stone door with two guards stationed on either side.

"Follow me carefully and watch your steps for the roots and stones," the lady of Winterfell warned as she led the way forward, the lantern in her hand cleaving through the thick darkness. As the four of them followed after her, Edmure felt like they were little ducklings trailing uncertainly after their mother. To be fair, Catelyn had been the one to raise him…

They walked upon a path of sorts, a meandering footpath of ancient, cracked stone overgrown with moss, half buried under the packed dirt, and the fallen leaves, gold and red. Treacherous, thick brown roots pushed from underneath, threatening to make unaware visitors slip.

The grove was a dark, ancient place, especially at night, as the thick canopy above veiled the moon and the stars. Bushes, branches, and trees twisted and danced under the flickering light. It was very different from the godswood of Riverrun, with its trimmed bushes and pruned trees. If anything, It reminded him of Harrenhal's godswood, albeit with a far more primaeval feeling to it.

"Uncle Edmure," Rickon's childish voice broke the silence. "Do you have any dreams?"

"My sleep is nice and easy, but if I have any dreams, I don't really remember them by the time I wake," he offered after a moment of thought. "Do you have any?"

"Lots! I keep dreaming of Jon," the young boy turned around and beamed. Edmure had the feeling that Sansa and Arya were listening on with interest while Catelyn's form had stiffened.

"Jon?"

"Aye! My brother," Edmure was once again dazzled by a smile. "They say he's gone north to fight the snow bears, but I see him fighting the dark icemen with a blade of fire!"

"Quite interesting," the Heir of Riverrun scratched his head, unsure what else to say. Jon Snow was anuncomfortabletopic for House Tully at best.

Having a bastard or three was not unusual, and in fact, it could even be expected. No, Edmure had nothing against the boy, but Lord Stark's decision to raise him in Winterfell along with his trueborn children had been indeed insulting, if nothing else. The fact that he supposedly took after his father's colouring and was quite capable was another sore point when Robb took after his mother.

And last but not least, the mysterious mother, an unnamed woman that still somehow remained in Eddard Stark's heart; from Catelyn's infrequent letters, Edmure suspected that his sister harboured a measure of fear that she would be put aside in favour of that unknown woman. He didn't know what to think about that, though, since the Lord of Winterfell had stubbornly ordered all talks on the topic to cease.

"Uh huh, and he's wearing large wolf skin with snowy fur as armour," Rickon continued relentlessly, "and there is Ghost and lots o' wolves and those short leafy people! Sometimes, there's Uncle Ben too!"

"Do you have some other dreams?" Edmure subtly tried to change the topic as he carefully stepped over a thick root. Had he also been so excited in tales and stories as a child?

"Once, I saw Bran resting below the ground in a chair of pale roots," the boy's voice grew hesitant. "There was this very old man with one red eye, too. It's just stupid dreams, though. Bran's sleeping in the crypts, and they say he won't wake."

The sorrowful, angry turn took the Tully heir aback. His nephew's abrupt death was a tragic thing he had learned of earlier today upon his arrival, but he hadn't had much time to think about it. It made sense, though, as Rickon was at the age where children could not yet grasp the concept of death.

"Shh, sweetling," Catelyn's soothing voice came from the front. "We all miss Bran."

"I just want him to wake up and play with me again already," Rickon's glum voice made Edmure's heart clench.

Would his ailing father simply not wake one day, leaving him… alone? Edmure shuddered at the thought, although it might be the Stranger's mercy - under the grave ailment, Hoster Tully's wits were slowly leaving him, and he was growing weaker and weaker with each day. His father had been strong, firm, and wise in his memory, but watching him become this frail ghost that could barely leave his bed had broken Edmure's heart. Staying in Riverrun had become too painful.

They continued in eerie silence, and soon, the darkness became enveloped by a shroud of warm mist, wafting out a few bubbling pools they passed over. They walked in silence until they arrived at a large clearing filled with men and women. Many a guest held an oil lantern in their grasp, and along with the ruddy glow of the flickering torches stabbed into the ground, the clearing was almost as bright as day.

A strong gust of wind parted the thin, misty veil, revealing the enormous weirwood. Edmure barely suppressed a shudder - its five-pointed leaves were like hands grasping at you, and the white bark reminded him of bone, let alone the sad face that looked as if it was about to weep crimson tears at the sight of you.

With their chilling macabre aura, the heart trees had always scared Edmure. Yet, beneath the crown of crimson red leaves, just next to the carved face, stood a young man. Powerful, well-built and nearing Edmure in height, with dark auburn curls framing his sharp, clean-shaven face. Robb Stark stood there, garbed in grey leather boots and a black velvet doublet studded with a large silver direwolf across the chest along with rims lined with silver. His face was impassive, but a hint of nervousness could be seen in his blue eyes.

Cat led them through the solemn crowd to the right of the heart tree, where Eddard Stark stood proudly, with four hounds sitting like statues beside him. No, not hounds, they were too shaggy, and their heads were too large and ears too sharp - were those the lauded direwolves? The Lord of Winterfell nodded warmly at them as they arranged themselves beside him. The groom's family always stood on the right, while across them, to the left side of the weirwood, stood the royal family - the Queen with a sharp smile that did not reach her eyes, Joffrey Baratheon with his golden curls and gold and yellow garb with a bored face that gazed at the weirwood with odd curiosity. The younger prince, Tommen, looked more afraid than anything else and tried to hide behind the Queen's skirts in vain. The infamous Lannister brothers stood there next to each other, one tall, proud, and valiant, clad in white and gold, the other one - short and misshapen, garbed in the colours of the Lannister lion.

As Cat leaned in and whispered softly to the unnerved Rickon, Edmure's eyes wandered across the foggy clearing, further away from the heart tree where the rest of the guests stood on both sides of the smattering path. He wagered that there were more than a hundred souls here; living in the cold north had given almost all the northern chieftains and lords a harshness to their rugged faces; there was little softness to be found in their stout or burly frames.

Then, the crowd stilled utterly.

From the drifting mist, a large figure loomed in, and when another gale parted the fog again, the king was revealed; huge in a way that reminded Edmure of a hulking bear, he was escorting a young maiden, almost two heads shorter than him. Wild, fierce beard as black as coal like his hair along his reddened face contrasted his daughter's gentle golden curls and delicate pale skin.

"Who comes before the old gods?" Robb's powerful voice tore through the silence; all traces of hesitation had fled his nephew.

"Myrcella of House Baratheon comes here to be wed," Robert Baratheon's voice boomed like a warhorn as he arrived before the heart tree. "A woman grown and flowered, trueborn and noble, comes to beg the blessings of the gods. Who comes to claim her?!"

"Robb of House Stark, heir to Winterfell. I claim her." The crimson leaves above rustled despite the lack of wind. "Who gives her?"

"Robert of House Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and her father," the king turned to his daughter. "Princess Myrcella, do you take this man?"

"I take this man," her voice was soft, sweet, and firm as she looked at Edmure's nephew.

Robb was a lucky man; the princess seemed ethereal in her white silken dress that gracefully hugged her womanly body. Even the Queen, for all of her cold beauty, could barely compare to her daughter. The Realm's Delight, indeed!

The king stepped aside as Robb and Myrcella joined hands and knelt together before the heart tree in silent prayer. The carved face stared down at them as if in judgement, and Edmure could not decide if it was happy or found them wanting.

They stood up, and Robert undid Myrcella's golden cloak emblazoned with the proud crowned golden stag of House Baratheon. In its place, Robb clasped the heavy white wool cloak bordered with grey fur and bearing the savage grey direwolf of House Stark.

And just like that, they exchanged a kiss, and it was done.

Robb boldly picked up his now-wife in his arms and made way for the Great Hall as tradition dictated; the crowd followed, erupting in cheers, the most boisterous of them belonging to the king.

Despite the dark and horrifying heart tree, Edmure found himself liking the wedding ceremony, which must have lasted less than a quarter of an hour. It definitely had nothing to do with his aching body and growling stomach.

They streamed into the Great Hall like a hungry flood, welcomed by long tables laden with a vast bounty of food and drink. Edmure was seated with Tyrion Lannister to his right and Lord Howland Reed to his left. On the other tables, his friends were dotted among the northern lords and chieftains.

Any grand speeches prepared were forgotten when the King directly grabbed a roasted boar leg and bit into it, juicy fat spiling into his coarse beard.

By the time he grabbed a mouth-watering honeyed mallard, a serving wench filling his cup with wine, the hall had already been overtaken by the celebration. Wine and ale flowed like a river; half the men sang along with the bards to Fair Maids of Summer, and the other half were chattering merrily.

"There's a septon in Winterfell, is there not?" Edmure asked after washing down a bite of succulent meat with some arbour gold.

"Yes, Septon Chayle," Tyrion Lannister said after swallowing a piece of venison pie. "A young, cheerful man you'd never expect to see in a sept devoted to a dreadfully boring thing like the gods."

Edmure had seen the infamous Imp before, and he was not easy on the eye as always. His face was grotesque, and his mismatched eyes, along with his sharp, biting words, tended to unnerve you.

"I expected that the wedding would be hosted by a septon at the very least. Wouldn't the High Septon and the Most Devout be offended when the Faith was spurned at a royal marriage?"

"Mayhaps," Tyrion snorted as he took a generous gulp of his goblet. "But what will they do but complain to the king and risk his wroth? It was his idea all along, you see. My dearest sister insisted that the High Septon himself came all the way here because Chayle was not of high enough rank. Lo and behold, my royal good-brother didn't have the patience to wait more than a moon and commanded to forego the clergy entirely. Although I can't complain, northern weddings suit me just fine - a quick ceremony without the needless pomp and straight to the drinking and feasting!"

"The Faith can whinge and whine, but they have no power in the North, even less so the High Septon," Howland Reed said after sipping what looked to be ale. The crannoglord was a short, slim man with a trimmed beard, piercing eyes and mud-brown hair.

"But, there's a sept here, in Winterfell? And don't the Manderlys follow the seven?" Edmure sputtered.

"The septon here is born and bred in the North, along the White Knife," Lord Reed waved dismissively. "The tiny shack made of wood you call a sept is Lord Stark's willingness to have a harmonious marriage more than anything else. Septon Chayle might believe in the Seven, but he believes in the Starks more. The Snowy Sept in White Harbour is not under the power of the Most Devout or the High Septon; they answer to the Manderlys; otherwise, the wolves would have never allowed the mermen in."

"Maegor pulled out the Faith's teeth long ago," Tyrion added after another generous gulp of wine. "It's been almost three centuries since the High Septon had the power to make or break a crown. You should see the current one - he's even more impressive than my royal good brother in girth and, according to the rumours, takes bribes from anyone willing to offer him any. Even godly men like him have needs - I have seen him in a brothel once or twice, and it was not to preach sermons to the whor*s. Our beloved clergy are all bark and no bite!"

"That might be so down in King's Landing," Edmure agreed with a sigh. "But I've heard that the Most Devout in the Reach has grown rich and prosperous off the bounty of the long summer."

"Fascinating," Tyrion's tone was dreadfully dull and bored, but Edmure noticed Howland next to him squint with a calculating gaze. The Imp then turned to look at him curiously. "We weren't expecting any southern guests since my royal good-brother had decided to hold the wedding as quickly as possible, truth be told. Although the more, the merrier!"

He lifted his cup in a toast and drained its contents in one go, only for it to be immediately refilled by one of the serving wenches.

"The queen does not seem happy," Edmure observed.

"The North does not agree with her," the dwarf chortled merrily. "But then again, few things do. Little can warm my sister's cold heart, let alone the North. I imagine she's loath to give away her precious daughter, too. Lord Reed, you ventured into the Tower of Joy and lived to tell the tale, did you not?"

There was genuine interest in Tyrion now; he had his whole attention upon the Lord of Greywater Watch like a hawk ready to dive on its prey.

"That I did, albeit barely," the crannogman confirmed, voice as soft as silk. "But do not ask me to regale you with the details. It was a brutal, bloody battle, and I have no wish to relive it."

"A pity," another generous gulp of wine, the third or the fourth newly-filled cup, made Edmure wonder where the dwarf managed to keep all of it and still seem sober. "It might have been a fight for the ages. Lord Stark's valiant skill would have been immortalised in the songs for taking down the Sword of the Morning and his fellow kingsguard!"

"There's nothing glorious in battle, lord Tyrion, only blood and death," Howland's voice grew as cold as the night outside.

"Ah, but deeds of valour must be eternalised for the generations to remember - I'm surprised none of the bards have begun singing The White Huntsman and the Maiden Fair!"

"The White Huntsman and the Maiden Fair?" Edmure echoed curiously as the crannoglord sighed and turned away from the dwarf, intent on ignoring him.

"Do you see that enormous white pelt?" Tyrion pointed to the wall above the King and Lord Stark's seats, and an awed gasp involuntarily escaped Edmure, so busy with the feast that he didn't notice it upon entering the Great Hall. "Magnificent, isn't it? Pristine and twice larger than anything else I've ever seen! I wouldn't truly believe it, but all the mountain clansmen tell the same story. Your good brother's bastard slew the beast on his lonesome with a single strike, saving Lord Liddle's young daughter. He asked for no rewards from the chieftain but to send the pelt to his lordly father as a gift. And now his daring deed is going to be remembered every time a bard-"

"Kin is important in the North, and some of us just want to honour their parents," Howland Reed interrupted dryly. "I doubt Jon Snow thought of songs, honour, and glory when charging against a beast over ten times his size. Although I'll admit, it makes for a good story."

Edmure had mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, if the stories were true, what Jon Snow had done was a valiant deed, but on the other hand, all the honour and glory he earned shamed Cat. But doubtlessly, the Imp would know all that yet had decided to raise the topic anyway. Was it to try and drive a wedge between House Tully and House Stark? With a sigh, he shook his head; it was better to enjoy the festivities than dwell on such bothersome topics right now, so Edmure dived once again into his half-eaten mallard.

"Ah damn you, Northmen, no sense of humour," Tyrion tutted and drained the contents of his cup again. Then, his gaze turned into a frown as he looked at the head of the table, where the princess was beginning to look somewhat nervous. "My favourite niece seems to be dreading the upcoming bedding. Would you be amenable to assist me in a small endeavour, my lords?"

"Do tell," Edmure sighed.

"I mean to start a brawl," the Tully heir almost choked on his wine at those devious words, but Howland Reed was quick to pat his back.

"You want to make a distraction so Lord Robb and his wife sneak away without the bedding?" The crannoglord asked evenly.

But it seems that Tyrion's idea had arrived a tad too late; the bawdier songs had begun, and Greatjon Umber immediately stood up. "BEDDING!"

The other Northmen joined in his bellows, but before anything else could happen, the Kingslayer, who, unlike everyone else, had abstained from food and drink so far, swiftly swept his royal niece off her feet and dashed towards the bedchambers before anyone else could move.

"That's cheating!" Galbart Glover cried out, and the rest of the men drunkenly chased after the bride, but the wine and food had made them grow slow and sluggish. The surprised Robb was left to the ladies, who swept him up and began to tear away his clothes like hungry vultures as they carried him towards the bedchambers.

Notes:

Edmure tries really hard to make it on time for his nephew's wedding and succeeds by a hair's breadth, along with his silk pants retinue.

A royal wedding happens. To clarify, Rickon does not see the future or the present in his dreams - he sees the past.

Tyrion does what Tyrion does best - attempt to stir some sh*t for the fun of it.

The Dustin Lord PoV wouldn't fit in the wedding chapter, so I'm afraid we'll have to leave it for the next time.

Also, I claim unreliable narrator here(and in every other chapter, really). Don't take things said at face value; it's just the words/thoughts/speech of the characters.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where I am quite active and willing to chat/answer questions and the like.

Chapter 24: Bitter Secrets

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

28th Day of the 5th Moon

Lord Beron Dustin

He stretched lazily and groaned. Most of his joints were still stiff, his body was heavy, and his head was pulsing.

The guest quarters in the Guest House weren't the most luxurious, but the feathered beds were good enough. No, the feeling of stiffness was from the feast.

Ah, that glorious feast, a perfect wedding if he had seen one! Ale had flowed like a river, and Beron feasted his eyes and hungry belly upon the generous courses.

At least he still remembered - Beron recalled many knights and Northmen passed out by the end. Peh, weak fools that could not even hold their ale!

The Lord of Barrowton was joyous; the North had finally received the honours and acknowledgement it deserved. After all, did they not bring the dragon low? Were they not the bulk of the swords who pushed the Stag King's claim to the Iron Throne? Were they not the ones who answered his war calls against the reaving squids?

Even though he wasn't lord during the Rebellion, Beron had known that the North did not lack unhappy lords for Rickard Stark's decision to look south for alliances. Still, it was not their place to voice their displeasure or try to dictate what their liege did with his children. But the unhappiness wasthere.

And now it had all paid out. All those Southron connections and fighting had finally borne a tangible result. Lord Eddard Stark had always been fair and honourable in his dealings, but Beron never took his liege as someone who would make such daring moves.

A royal marriage, reclaiming of the New Gift, and even the position of the Hand all at once!

Was that the crannoglord's influence? Since arriving, Beron had seen Howland Reed hover behind Eddard Stark like a small, deadly shadow. His friendship with the lord of Winterfell was well known.

Despite isolating themselves from affairs outside the Neck, the crannogmen were quite devious if provoked. Moat Cailin was only half the reason for breaking hundreds of Andal warlords and kings; the crannogmen and their cunning ways had been the other half. Howland Reed might look small and unassuming, but a Dustin knew never to underestimate a Reed. Even more so because of his lovely wife, Alyne Dustin, formerly Fenn, he was well aware of the dangers of the crannogmen.

Lord Beron Dustin did not receive anything from this arrangement, but the opportunity was there. Lands in the Gift were ripe for the taking. No, not for him, but for his brother Damon and his second son Artos. Besides, Lord Stark taking the position of Hand opened possibilities for the Northmen down in the court of King's Landing.

Though there was a tinge of disappointment in Beron, the proud, fierce warrior he had seen in the Greyjoy Rebellion was nowhere to be seen. The long summer had turned the Demon of the Trident into a fat man deep into his cups who openly disrespected his wife for all to see by groping the passing wenches.

It was not like that here. Despite the long summer, the snow kept coming every year. The vast harshness of the North culled the weak with surety, leaving only the strong behind. You could not grow soft here, as it would mean not only your death sooner rather than later but possibly that of your kin and vassals.

Was it any wonder that the Starks produced heroes in every generation? Benjen Stark had become one of the youngest First Rangers in history, and it was an earned title. The man screamed danger with every step despite his jolly gait. Lord Stark was a different kind of danger, reminding Beron of a calm winter day. Seemingly peaceful but harsh, and when provoked, it was like a relentless blizzard. The whole of Westeros had seen that when the Quiet Wolf was the fist that broke the arrogant House of the Dragon. And then, his sons were onlygreater. Beron had no doubt that the smallest of direwolves, Rickon, would grow formidable, just like his brothers, father, or uncle.

Robert Baratheon, however, was a different matter. It was not only a sorry sight but a warning of how the cosy South could make even the greatest of men go weak andsoft. His heir was no different, gallant and courteous at first glance, but once you took a closer look, the boy was more wilful and cruel, hollow with no substance to back it up.

War was coming again; Beron could feel it in his bones. But Lord Stark was prepared; he had already foreseen trouble brewing on the horizon. He put little stock in the tales of grumpkins and snarks from Beyond the Wall, but the wildlings had to be stopped, and the Watch needed to be strengthened regardless.

With a sigh, he slowly got out of bed and gingerly donned a dark yellow silken doublet and a pair of leggings.

His brother and two sons were already awake in the next chamber.

"Damon, you look like an auroch ran you through," Beron shook his head at his brother's haggard demeanour.

"Aye, but I outdrank all the Southron prisshy knights," the words came out slurred as Damon leaned unsteadily on the wall.

The lord of Barrowton sighed in exasperation. Damon's amber eyes were bloodshot, and his usually well-groomed chestnut curls were an unkempt, tangled mess. That was beside the tunic, heavy with the sour stench of ale and wine. His brother was a great warrior, but his penchant for competing over the silliest things would someday be his undoing.

"And the servants had to carry you to our quarters, uncle," Beron's eldest, Roderick, pointed out with a twitching nose, making Artos snigg*r from the side.

"Damon, go take a bath and get a change of clothes," the Lord of Barrowton exhaled slowly to get his rising temper under control. Thankfully, his unruly brother never argued when he used his lordly voice and was quick to scramble out of the room, albeit swaying unsteadily like a ship amidst a storm.

Beron looked at his two sons, his pride and joy. Roderick was a burly boy, barely five and ten, dutiful and serious and everything a lord would want in an heir. He had inherited his mother's dark auburn hair, but he had his grey eyes. Artos was three years younger than his brother and always had an easy smile on his face, a dead giveaway for his penchant for mischief.

Thankfully, both had presented themselves adequately at the feast.

"Father, do you know why Lady Slate glared at me throughout the last day?" Roderick's face was baffled. "I don't remember offending her or any of the Slates."

"She was also glaring daggers at Lady Stark too, albeit far more subtly," Artos added thoughtfully.

"Barbrey Slate, second daughter of Lord Ryswell," Beron could only sigh. "NottheLady Slate. She's the wife of Jared Slate, the brother of Lord Sigrin Slate. According to the tales, she was Brandon Stark's lover in her youth. Barbrey aspired to become the Lady of Winterfell, but Lord Rickard Stark had other ideas. When that didn't work out, she looked to the younger brother, Lord Eddard, but that match failed to go through, too. Then her father attempted to get her wed to Willem Dustin, but the Rebellion started before those plans could be finalised."

"And I'm guessing Lord Ryswell attempted to make her Lady of Barrowton once you took the seat anyway," Roderick hummed.

"Indeed, Rodrik Ryswell tried, but, well," he sighed, "even young, I knew not to welcome such a lustful and ambitious woman no matter how advantageous the marriage. A lady's maidenhead is a precious thing, and you can infer much about her character by its absence. Many lords refuse to wed a woman who is not chaste on their wedding bed. Besides, I knew your mother since we were young, and I always wanted to marry her, lordship or not. It did help that she was the eldest daughter of Lord Fenn, though."

"So, Barbrey Slate grew bitter over her unfulfilled ambitions?" Artos summarised with a chuckle.

"That she did," Beron scratched his beard. "And looking at you is a reminder of what she could have had. Greed is a treacherous thing like that, my sons. She grasped for more and more, and in the end, she is at the mercy of her good brother's hospitality with only two daughters to her name that will never be important."

"So, I shouldn't… have asked Lady Sansa for a dance?" Roderick shuffled uneasily.

Right, his heir had indeed asked Lord Stark's daughter for a dance during the feast. Beron furrowed his brows, trying to bring the details to mind; the last night had grown hazy towards the end.

"Don't think much into it - a dance is a dance and nothing more. A wedding feast is to celebrate; if you can forge genuine connections, it's good, but it is not necessary. Lady Sansa would have declined your offer if she did not want to dance with you."

"She did dance with most of the northern heirs," his younger son observed. "I heard some rumour that she was enamoured with the crown prince, but…"

"But she said she's not feeling too well and retired for the night when Joffrey Baratheon asked," Roderick finished for him. "She wanted to avoid him."

A knock on the door stilled their conversation.

"Milord, Lord Reed requests an audience," Doryn's voice sounded through the door.

"Let him in," Beron turned to his sons, "Go find your uncle and make sure he hasn't gotten lost or drowned in the springs."

Roderick and Artos quickly scurried into the hallway and, through the open door, entered the Lord of Greywater Watch.

"Lord Dustin," the crannoglord nodded politely.

"Lord Reed," he greeted politely. "Not that I dislike your presence here, but seeing you seek me out so early in the morning is surprising."

The crannogmen could never hold their ale too well, a fact that Beron was well aware of, yet the man before him had drunk a lot last night and was now standing before him, fresh like a spring flower.

"Well, I was unsure when you'd depart from Winterfell, so I had to make haste."

Beron rubbed his chin; whatever had brought the short lord here was urgent. He couldn't think of anything but-

"May I inquire what brings you here? Does Lord Stark require something of me?"

"No, Lord Stark is quite busy right now, preparing his household for his departure south," Reed's voice was deceptively soft. "But I'm afraid that his tenure as Hand will be fraught with many difficulties."

"Aye, King's Landing is a pit of vipers," Beron agreed quietly. "But there's not much I can do about that. I understand little of the Southron games they play down there."

"Indeed. But yesterday, I heard His Grace likes to host tourneys for the smallest occasion. While Lord Stark managed to dissuade him from hosting one in Winterfell, I have little doubt that he would find a reason to host one as soon as we return to King's Landing."

The Lord of Barrowton barely suppressed a groan and rubbed his brow; his head was still pulsing from yesterday.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"While Lord Stark's retinue in the South can only be so large, a tourney is a perfect reason for more Northmen to show up in the king's city without raising any suspicion," a cunning smile bloomed on Howland Reed's face. "And I heard the king is very generous with the victor's purse. The lowest reward His Grace has ever given out for first place in the lists is fifteen thousand golden dragons."

Suddenly, the fatigue and weariness were forgotten, and a savage smile found its way on his face.

1st Day of the 6th Moon

Robb Stark

A loud knock on the door awoke him. Robb shuffled drowsily but found himself tangled in limbs. By the gods, he felt tired and too warm.

With much effort, he cracked his eyes open, only to be greeted with a curtain of golden curls belonging to a peaceful, gorgeous face and the pleasant scent of jasmine.

His mind stilled for a few heartbeats, trying to remember what had happened. Then it all came to him in a rush; right, he was married, and now the king's daughter was his wife.

It felt surreal, as if he was stuck in some dream.

Again, the knock on the door drummed louder and more persistent.

"Lord Robb, your presence is requested in the solar," the voice was gruff, belonging to one of the guardsmen, whose name he was too sleepy to remember.

"Coming," the newlywed Stark groaned and gently tried to pry Myrcella's grip off his body without waking her.

As Robb hastily tied his boots, he felt an uneasy shuffle on the bed behind him.

"What's happening?" his wife's eyes were just as dazzling green despite being groggy.

She stretched elegantly, reminding him of a cat. Gods, she was beautiful, and he had to struggle to tear his gaze away from her graceful curves and soft skin peaking from underneath the covers.

"My Lord Father is summoning me."

She squinted her green eyes and pouted in displeasure, "Come back quick. The bed feels cold without you."

He nodded with a promise and quickly headed towards the lord's solar.

Gods, there was only darkness as he looked through the arrowslits at the alcoves; it was not even the crack of dawn outside…

Married life… treated Robb well. Things had been awkward at first, but he and Myrcella had managed to find their footing.

Behind the outwardly courteous veneer, the princess was a sweet, witty girl with a smile that could melt your heart. And now she was his wife. Truth be told, Robb was glad he had nearly a moon to get to know her. Even Greywind, who was initially suspicious, had grown close to Myrcella.

Yet, this new responsibility felt rather foreign and left him feelinguncertain. He didn't mind having a wife; no, it was amazing. It just made him feel lost.

The solar door was guarded by Walder and Jory, but they quickly let him through.

Inside, his father was sitting on his lord's chair, lost in thought, and Robb could swear there was a measure of uncharacteristic hesitance in his grey eyes.

Even the usually calm Winter was paddling around the room with unease.

"I hope I didn't interrupt anything, Robb?" The edge of his father's lips quirked up, and the Stark heir froze for a heartbeat.

"Only my sleep, Father," he coughed out. "Isn't it a bit too early for a lesson?"

Even after the royal party had arrived, Robb's father had still found the time to give him some impromptu lessons at least thrice a week, if shorter than usual. However, that left him with a greater opportunity to court Myrcella, focus on his swordwork, and get to know his future bannermen and their heirs.

Although that meeting the night before the wedding had blindsided him, Robb hadn't had the chance to ask about details just yet.

"Not really, not a lesson, although it can be taken as such," Lord Stark grew grim, "Take a seat. We're waiting for one more."

His father's solemn face chased away the last vestiges of drowsiness, and Robb quickly sat on one of the tapered chairs before the desk.

"And who would that be?"

"Your mother," an uncertain sigh tore out of his father. "We barely had the chance to talk yesterday. How is married life treating you?"

"I did my duty," Robb exhaled, a breath he did not remember holding in. "Although I suppose it wasn't too hard when your bride is beautiful. I'm just feeling… unsure."

"And what bothers you so?" His father straightened up and leaned in closer, face heavy with concern.

He had to fight the grimace from appearing on his face but failed.

"That's the problem, I… don't know?"

"Try to put it into words, Robb."

"There's nothing in particular. It's just a feeling of unease, that uncertainty about me and the future, I think. What if I screw things up?"

"That's just nervousness," a small smile crept to his father's face. "It's fine to be nervous, and it shows that you care. Uncertainty about the future will always be there; none of us are… seers, after all. You have little to fear as long as you keep yourself prepared and walk forward with your eyes and ears open. I think I taught you well -thinkbefore you act, and your woes and problems will quickly dwindle. Wild impulsiveness has always been our House's flaw, but you have a level head on your shoulders."

The words were oddly reassuring; his father always somehow managed to cut to the crux of the issue with precision.

The door opened, and his mother, garbed in a plain blue gown, entered. She looked tired, although it was not surprising; not only were they up far too early, but his mother had been making most of the arrangements around the wedding and guests, on top of tutoring Arya in her dwindling free time. The last month had been incredibly intense and exhausting for all of the Starks, especially the Lady of Winterfell.

"Take a seat, Cat," his father's face grimaced again before he turned to the door and raised his tone. "Walder, Jory, guard the staircase for me."

His mother sat right next to Robb.

"Why the secrecy?" She asked, voice still drowsy, as two pairs of clinking footsteps slowly dulled in the distance.

With a signal from his father, Winter stopped wandering around the room and curled just at the door.

"Some secrets… are better left unsaid. But fate seems to have forced my hand. As you know, I depart today," his father started hesitantly, but it dwindled with each following word. He fished out a bronze key from somewhere, unlocked one of the drawers on the desk, and pulled out an ironwood box. Another smaller key and the box clicked open, revealing an ominous roll of parchment. "I admit I have not always been entirely forthright about certain things," the Lord of Winterfell took a slow, deep breath. "Here's what happened at the Tower of Joy-"

Robb's mind grew numb as his father wove a bitter story of the inglorious battle and everything that had led up to it. A heavy promise given to a dying sister, the life of a newborn weighed against the wrath of a king. Yet even that raised more questions than answers. Did Robb's aunt flee her betrothal with Robert Baratheon, or was she seduced? Or worse, had she just been taken away…? Eddard Stark had no answers to those questions either.

Sansa was also three and ten, the same age Lyanna had gone missing. And Robb could see his sister was still young and naive and dreamed of songs and knights and heroic princes. A sweet word here, a smile there…

Jon Snow, his half-brother… no, his bastard cousin?

Still, it was a surprising, tragic tale, but somanythings now made sense.

His mother next to him, however, had gone as stiff as a stone.

"I see," Catelyn Stark's voice was like ice. "Why not confide in me before, my lord? I understand that at the start… we were strangers, but later?!"

"Family, Duty, Honour, those are your House words, are they not?" His father looked old and tired. "Regardless of anything, Jon Snow is not your kin, and you have shown that many a time. As much as you disliked the boy for my supposed infidelity and the distant threat that his presence brought, you would have hated him even more for the threat of his parentage. Why would I make you pick between risking Robert's terrible wroth upon House Stark and a single boy?"

"No," Catelyn Stark choked out. "I would have been kind to the boy. Why lie to me, Ned?!"

"I never lied," the Lord of Winterfell let out a bitter chuckle. "I never claimed Jon was my son; you all assumed so. Not only you but the rest of the kingdoms, too. True, it was easier to let you all make your own conclusions…"

That made both Robb and Catelyn pause. He tried to think of a time when Eddard Stark had called Jon his son, but… he couldn't remember. It has always beenmy bloodorJon.

"Besides, showing kindness to Jon?" His father shook his head, and his eyes grew harder. "He would be far bigger a threat to our children, even with his bastardy, if his parentage got out, but not out of any fault of his own. What about the suspicion of genuinely caring for your husband's bastard? Would you be willing to see the boy for the boy and not for Rhaegar and Lyanna's folly? After all, hewasborn of lust, sin, and weakness, a true bastard in every sense, conceived outside the marriage bed as your Faith preaches. No, I wanted to carry out that bitter secret to my grave. It was my burden to bear and mine alone."

Catelyn Stark recoiled from those words as if slapped. Robb felt as if he was dreaming, but no, he pinched his forearm, and the pain was there; it was all real…

"I…" his mother hiccuped. Her serious blue eyes shimmered with tears. "May I-I b-be e-excused?

"No," the steely rejection made her wince. "I'm not done yet."

Robb wanted to just disappear somewhere; watching his parents like this made his heart ache painfully.

Yet, Eddard Stark stood up from his chair suddenly, came over, sat next to his sobbing wife, pulled her into his lap and gently brushed her tears away. Catelyn Stark stiffened.

"Shhh, I do not blame you for any of this," his father sighed heavily as he gently rocked his mother into his embrace, making the tension bleed out of her. "I never did. Your position was no easier than my own."

"But, if you wanted to take the secret to your grave, why tell us… why now?" The words slipped out of Robb unbidden. "It's a terrible secret, but what does it even matter in the end?!"

"Well, the gods laugh at the plans of men. Things changed," Eddard Stark's weathered hands slowly unfurled the parchment roll from the ironwood box. The words looked familiar and were written in rusty red. Blood. "Read."

If the earlier tale had been harrowing, the letters inked with crimson chilled him to the very core. An even more horrid tale of war, death, and betrayal, old wives' tales coming back to life…

"Madness," Robb whispered. "This can't be true?!"

"Only two souls alive know of Jon's parentage," Ned rubbed his brow. "Howland Reed and I. The kingsguard had even slain the midwife that helped my sister give birth. And Howland Reed was sworn to silence and had never left the Neck until I called him a moon ago, and I never told Jon, no matter how hard he asked. Jon had no way of knowing, but he woke up from his ailment andknew. Not only that, but despite being bedridden for a fortnight, he effortlessly slipped away from Winterfell, armour, supplies, horse, and direwolf in tow with none the wiser."

"Wasn't that just his fevered rambling? About us dying…" Robb said, but the surety had left his voice now.

You died! You all died, and I was the last to perish!

That harrowing anguish in his hoarse voice, the empty, tired eyes of a man that had seen too much on the face of his sullen but young brother. Jon's skin had been so cold itburnedto the touch, even through his clothes, when they found him beneath the heart tree. An ailment that had forced even Luwin to concede defeat and reluctantly admit it was arcane in nature.

"I b-believe him," Catelyn whispered, making Robb whip his head in surprise towards her. "The b-boy, J-J-Jon, I don't like him, b-but heneverlies. You f-found him beneath the h-heart tree, no? Under the eyes of the Old Gods... thismustbe their doing. How can a green boy of six and ten slay such a b-bear alone?!"

"Indeed," his father agreed. "Icannotignore this warning even if I wanted to. If there's even the slimmest chance it is true…"

"This has been the reason for all those endless hours of new, different lessons?" Robb grimaced. "All those moves you've made. You were preparing me to take over in case you die?!"

He had wondered why he needed to know everything about most of the important nobility in the Seven Kingdoms. Yes, the Great Houses and their heads, connections, and interests were important to know in such great detail, but now Robb knew the Boltons and the Freys were added into the mix along with many others. His father had been teaching him to be wary of all those who had a reason to turn their back on House Stark in a moment of weakness.

The endless hours of simulating battles over various terrains in unfavourable positions while handling the northern lords and the enemies also made sense…

"It never hurts to be prepared," Eddard Stark smiled sadly. "I should know, one day, I was a landless second son with no prospect, but the next day, I was the Lord of Winterfell, with a slain father and brother to avenge and a missing sister to find."

"But then, why wed me with Myrcella?" Cold numbness crept into Robb's veins as he remembered her warm alabaster skin and her soft golden curls. "Isn't she a… bastard?"

"So what if a daughter takes after her mother?! I wouldn't trust the word of Stannis Baratheon. The boy, no, Jon, has tried to tell his tale as objectively as possible," his mother's voice was rigid, even as she fiddled with the scroll after reading it. "Even he did not claim to know the exact details of what happened in the South and claims the Southerners and their games are not to be trusted. Convenient that Stannis spoke up about this supposedbastardryonly after his royal brother had died, and he would be the next in line. If he was so righteous and loyal as he claims, why did he not go to the king with his findings? Why wait for his death?Why wait for my husband's death?!" Never had Robb seen such fury nor venom on his mother's face. "No, your father was right to wed you to Myrcella for the price given. Ah," she paused thoughtfully for a few heartbeats, "someone in court wants to set the Lannisters against the Starks."

Robb's gut twisted into a painful knot. No, no, no, he would not lose his father!

"Father, aren't you walking into a trap now?"

"No… he has to go, even if to pull in more aid into the Watch from the rest of the kingdoms and reform them," Catelyn's tone was bitter, unwilling. "Far easier to do as a Hand than a Lord of Winterfell…"

"Maybe I'm walking into a trap, but it's a risk I'm willing to take," Eddard Stark ran a hand through his hair. "We must all do our duty, and mine is to defend the North and my family. Besides, I'm going forward, prepared and with my eyes open."

"Please, Ned," his mother's voice cracked, and she latched onto her husband as a drowning woman to a straw. "I don't care about kings, crowns, and honours. Promise me that you'll come back to me.No matterwhat it takes. Promise me."

The Lord of Winterfell stilled for a second, and a dark shadow passed over his face as his jaw clenched.

He closed his eyes and wrapped his hands over Catelyn Stark, "I promise."

Robb awkwardly shuffled next to them; he wasnotused to such open shows of affection between his parents. Though, it wasn't exactly open, was it?

They were in the privacy of his father's solar.

"Ned," Catelyn shuffled uneasily. "What is… Jon Snow doing now? What purpose does his wandering serve?"

His father rubbed his brow tiredly.

"I don't know. I spent countless hours thinking about what Jon planned, but I can't think of anything other than that he did think of us all dead. Winterfell must be full of ghosts for him, people he thought were dead but are suddenly walking. But no, I spoke to Torren Liddle, and he said Jon was headed Beyond the Wall. But I just can't think of why…"

Robb again looked at the words inked in blood, and his mind whirled. While sullen, Jon was skilled in tactics and could be quite cunning. But that was as a child, not a seasoned veteran of many battles, former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and King of the North.

If Robb was in his brother's boots, what would he do?

What could a lone man do in the Lands of Always Winter?

A single man who spent years struggling against the foe of legend on his lonesome, with a reluctant, shattered, dwindling ragtag force of black brothers, northmen, and wildings?

What-

Then, it all made sense, and a laugh couldn't help but escape from his lips. Gods, was Jon always so reckless?! His parents looked at him questioningly.

"I know what Jon wants to do," he shook his head. "He wants to use the wildlings to fight against the Others before they turn to wights - wield them as one would use a sword. He did spend some time amongst them, no? Even managed to make some cooperate and submit as Lord Commander."

His father looked even moretiredthan before.

"But…canhe do it?" Catelyn shuffled uneasily. "How can he make the savages listen? They are unruly, lawless folk, even more so now that we've slain their king. How is he going to find obsidian in that frozen wasteland?"

That was the question, wasn't it?

Notes:

Some of you might have expected this, others - not as much, but it's here regardless.

Now, Dustin, what is there to say about Dustin? This is something I didn't plan for, but I realised that it happened since I pulled the Rebellion up for two years - Barbrey's father would have had no time to actually make the marriage to Dustin go through, so she was left hanging, and well, yeah. We have an actual functional House, Dustin, not that bitter, hateful widow larping around.

We know Willem Dustin had uncles and granduncles, so by law, they'd be the next to inherit, and Beron is the son.

And well, Dustins might or might not be battle junkies; who would have thought? *Shrugs*

Now for the reveal.

Keep in mind that, canonically, Catelyn is the most superstitious out of the Stark family. Her dislike (not hatred) for Jon comes from many things, most of it the sh*tty situation Ned has placed her in.

We see her fold and defer before Ned in every situation where he is present, so her doing the same here is not surprising. Also, Ned knows his wife well and calls her out on her guilty denial. As per canon, Catelyn is a wife and a mother first, not arrogant or evil, but not a selfless saint. And most importantly, Ned and Cat are in love for all of their faults.

Also, Cat is supposedly very politically cunning, and she makes her own conclusions because… why wouldn't she?

And no, it's not all forgiven nor forgotten; it just hasn't fully sunk in justyetfor both Robb and Catelyn.

Keep in mind that without the book of lineages (that is somewhat flimsy in itself because we don't actually get any details of the text itself, only a vague, unreliable narrator), it is not something they have even considered reading to confirm or deny or confirm the parentage of Cersei's children. Heck, they most probably don't know of the book's existence. Hey, Catelyn pushed out four out of five kids that looked like herwithoutf*cking her brother, after all.

And it's done at the last moment. However, Ned has been busy, both planning things, juggling bannermen, tutoring Robb, and preparing his retinue to head South.

Robb has a fresh insight into his brother-turned-cousin and his actions.

Lastly, to clarify and for ease's sake, Planetos is rolling on the lunar calendar, and they have 13 months of 28 days each, and their year has precisely 364 days for ease of storytelling.

Also, Istronglyclaim unreliable narrator. None of the characters are objective, and they all have their own biases.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can drop by to hang out or ask me or others some questions.

Chapter 25: Stepping into the Unknown

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

2nd Day of the 6th Moon

Benjen Stark, Castle Black

Othor, Bannen, Ulmer, Ebben, and Thoren Smallwood.

Five good rangers had died under his command. It was no fault of his own but a small mercy - it did not change the facts. At least their mission was a success, for all it could have been a terrible disaster.

Eight days. It had taken the ranging party eight days to return to the Wall. As much as Benjen wanted to rush along, they were wounded, battered, and weary; it had been a miracle that they made it back even this quick, seasoned rangers or not. It was a grim, solemn journey spent mostly in quiet as the enormity of what they had found and faced was truly beginning to sink in. Dragging the body of Thoren Smallwood, which had started to stink terribly on the third day, didn't help much with their mood or the horses. The fact that the corpse could rise at any moment did not bring them comfort despite binding its limbs with thick rope.

Midnight was the only grace from the perilous expedition; the shaggy black direwolf pup uplifted his mood with its presence alone.

But theywerefinally back near the hour of the eel last night, and Mormont had only sent him to rest after taking his account of the ranging.

His small room was finally a place where Benjen could truly relax, allowing him a full night of good sleep for the first time in what felt like forever.

Now morrow had arrived and with it - the concerned Maester Aemon. Warm yet bony fingers slowly and methodically explored the Cold One's gift that ran through most of the ranger's face.

Benjen had been caught unprepared for such a perilous fight that cold night, especially after a long day and nearly a dozen days of riding prior. The Others were faster and stronger than most men, but it was not a gap that the First Ranger couldn't bridge. In fact, the icy foes were not overly skilled with their crystalline blades - they seemed to rely more on their superior power, reflexes, and arms.

Now, Benjen knew how to fight them and would not repeat his mistakes again. If his nephew at six and ten could beat the Others with such laughable ease and daring, so could he! The First Ranger only had to push himself harder in the yard.

"Is there any pain or discomfort?" Aemon's soft voice shook him from his musings.

"Only a mild itch, yet speaking strains my skin unpleasantly."

"It is healing well, albeit slowly. Whoever attended the laceration was quite skilled," the shrunken old maester gazed at the ranger with milky white eyes. "I rarely concern myself with hearsay, but I've heard the oddest thing. My dreams have been uneasy as of late, I feared that you did manage to find what you ventured out to seek."

"That and so much more," Benjen grimaced as he stood up from the bed.

An insistent knock on the door echoed ominously, heralding the arrival of Jeor Mormont.

After Benjen bid him enter, the door banged open, waking the snoozing Midnight, who was curled in a small cot next to Benjen's bed, and the Lord Commander strode in, followed by Ser Thorne, both grim-faced and stern. The master-at-arms looked even more taciturn than Benjen thought possible.

"How's our First Ranger, maester?" The Old Bear's voice was hoarse and strained.

"The wound will scar, but Benjen Stark is as fit as a fiddle if a little tired," the wizened old man shakily said and weakly sat on the chair near the bed. "Nothing plentiful rest and good food wouldn't fix."

"Good," Mormont rubbed his brow. "If only last night were just another bad dream, but alas. I've already heard Rykker, Buckwell, and the others confirm your story. Now, I'd like to hear it again with my wits fresh and mind rested."

And possibly so Maester Aemon could know the details. Benjen gathered his thoughts and slowly retold the perilous events of their ranging.

With some effort, the icy blade was removed from the frost-bound wrapping, and all of them inspected it, but it still proved untouchable for anyone bar Benjen.

"Wargs and Children, ice spiders and White Walkers," Thorne shook his head with a thin smile. But Benjen could tell from his tone that the knight believed it all, albeit reluctantly.

"You all say the same thing, but I still struggle to believe it," Jeor Mormont sighed, looking even more old and tired than he already was. "What's your barely six-and-ten nephew doing North of the Wall with Children of the Forest, no less, Stark?"

"Saving our sorry arses, apparently," Benjen barked out a laugh. Midnight padded over to his right and obediently sat down, tongue lolled out. The adolescent wolf was nearing his knee in height now.

"Are you sure this beast is safe?" Thorne eyed the large dark pup with caution. "I've seen what grown direwolves can do - men mangled and torn apart with laughable ease in the blink of an eye."

"Fret not, Ser; Midnight is well-behaved and will be well-trained."

"House Stark were the only ones recorded to have tamed direwolves," the ancient maester wheezedout, and Benjen threw a grateful nod at the old sage.

Doubtlessly, many would call for his companion to be closed in the kennels, but as long as Midnight behaved, Benjen could deflect such attempts. Still, that meant the black pup had to be strictly trained, although it wouldn't be arduous - his companion was quite obedient.

"My head hurts just trying to think about it," the Lord Commander pulled onto his shaggy mane of hair. The First Ranger understood well enough - the myths and legends were coming back to life far too quickly for the old commander's liking - while there were a few possible sightings of wargs and skinchangers, they were rare and never really confirmed - Children of the Forest, Others, and ice spiders were considered to be little more than old wives' tales.

"The boy should stop cavorting around the Haunted Forest and return Dark Sister to its rightful owner," the crotchety knight spoke with his flinty voice while looking at the shrivelled maester.

"Peace, Ser," Aemon raised his hands placatingly, though his soft voice held a tinge of sorrow. "The time of the dragon had long passed. Young Snow seems to be making far better use of the blade than I ever could. Heroes emerge from the young, not the old - if Benjen's nephew managed to find my House's lost sword where so many have failed, he is fated to wield it."

"How well would you trust this nephew of yours, Stark?" Mormont's eyes bore into the First Ranger.

"With my life," Benjen said.

"Damn it all, we could use men like that in the Watch," the Old Bear grunted. "If I had fifteen like him, I'd fear no White Walkers or the such."

"What is a Snow even doing beyond the Wall?" Alliser squinted suspiciously at Benjen.

"Following the orders of his Lord Father, of course," Mormont waved away the biting words. "How else would the Liddle heir follow him? Stark already suspected dark things were stirring Beyond the Wall well before we did," the old commander turned to Benjen. "Are you sure those Cold Shadows can raise the dead? Thoren Smallwood does not look like he'd get up anytime soon."

The First Ranger snorted inwardly but did not dispute the Old Bear's theory. Truthfully, he could see how Jon's presence North of the Wall was suspicious, but the fact that his nephew was considered a son of Lord Stark diverted many of those troubles.

"I have not seen it for myself, but I trust Jon and Duncan Liddle, and the rest confirm my nephew's words, and they have no reason to lie."

"According to the legends, the Others can indeed raise the dead as their thralls," Aemon added.

"Smallwood looks pretty dead to me," Jeor rubbed his brow with a sigh.

"Mayhaps because we killed those who could otherwise raise him," Benjen shrugged grimly. "If they could raise the dead from afar, we would have been long overrun by a tide of corpses."

"I suppose. But that means a rotting carcass serves us none. I'll order Marsh to have a pyre prepared for Smallwood. At least Lord Stark's dragonglass weapons proved their merit."

"The king must be notified," Ser Thorne's words were like a handful of spat-out nails.

"He shall be, but as far as I'm aware, His Grace is already travelling back to King's Landing, and we do not know which route he is taking," Mormont sighed. "It would be easier for the word to reach him when he arrives in King's Landing."

"Shadow Tower and Eastwatch must be contacted first," Aemon proposed quietly.

"Yes indeed, I shall pen a letter to Commanders Mallister and Pyke with orders to halt all rangings beyond the Wall," the Lord Commander rubbed his grey beard. "In fact, it is time for a council of the Watch to convene. Both of them shall be recalled to Castle Black; we need to figure out a proper strategy to combat the threat of the Others and begin preparing the Watch."

"The Watch does not have the numbers to fight alone," Thorne grunted. "We will be forced to rely on the Crown and the North for aid regardless."

"The king can wait for now. Later, I'll sail down from Eastwatch to King's Landing myself after the gathering," Jeor Mormont straightened up. "A wandering crow can be ignored, but the Lord Commander coming with proof in person should not be. If Lord Stark wants to reform the Night's Watch, I shall be the one to represent the interests of our Order."

Benjen hoped the ice blade would be enough proof for the Southerners.

"We should still send a rider or pen a letter to Winterfell informing them of our findings regardless," he coughed, and the Jeor nodded grimly.

"Might I suggest writing to Archmaester Marwyn?" The wizened maester stirred from his chair. "Or even inviting him here. His knowledge of the arcane might prove invaluable considering the foe we face."

"See it done, Aemon," the Lord Commander commanded.

3d Day of the 6th Moon

Arya Stark

Things had changed two days ago. The royal retinue had finally departed, and with it, her father, many of the household, including Vayon Poole, and a hundred of the finest swords Winterfell had to offer. Jory, Alyn, Walder, Harwin, Varly, and many others were now gone.

The Imp had gone north to the Wall with a handful of Lannister men-at-arms, and her father's bannermen had left Winterfell, too, leaving the castle feeling empty. Arya had just gotten used to the bustle and commotion, and the newfound quietness unnerved her somewhat.

Uncle Edmure and his friends had remained, intent on staying for an additional sennight. She liked her uncle; his jolly and carefree demeanour was welcome in dispersing the sudden gloom that had taken hold over Winterfell.

And that was the problem - Robb looked troubled, but there was a tinge of newfound solemness, and Arya could oft see him lost in thought. He took up their father's duties well enough, but his bouts in the yard had become savage, if not desperate. Not only that, but Robb locked himself up in their father's solar for hours at a time, doing gods know what.

Her mother was also troubled, and she had become clingy as if Arya, Sansa, and Rickon would suddenly disappear.

Not only that, but to Arya's disbelief, Septa Mordane had been relieved from her teaching duties, and Catelyn had taken it upon herself to conduct the tutoring in the womanly arts instead.

Arya had finally managed to get the hang of stitching somewhat. It was no longer as crooked, but a glance at Sansa and Myrcella's work told her theirs were far more exquisite, making her sigh.

Her mother seemed to have read her thoughts as she leaned over.

"Patience, Arya," Catelyn chided. "The more you rush, the more crooked your stitches become. Don't compare yourself with someone older and more experienced."

She numbly nodded and continued with the embroidery, trying to pay attention to the painfully slow and annoying work. It was tedious and boring, but something Arya had bitterly accepted despite her reluctance, as her mother would not let her start any training with the bow unless she continued her regular lessons. She cared little for embroidery, but if that was what it took to get some training in arms, Arya would do it.

Another errant look around the room told Arya that her stitches were as good as Jeyne Poole's and even better than Beth Cassel's. She blinked in confusion as the odd feeling of satisfaction rose within her. Mayhaps her mother had a point, and embroidery wasn't that terrible in the end.

Then she glanced at Lyanna Mormont, who had remained here as a lady-in-waiting to Mother. Or maybe the princess? Arya wasn't sure. But Lyanna's stitches almost rivalled Sansa's needlework, and Arya's face curdled. Indeed, the world wasn't fair, Arya reflected bitterly. But why did she care about some stupid stitches? She'd be training with the bow soon!

Beth, Lyanna, and Jeyne started whispering to each other and giggled quietly.

That seemed to quickly attract the attention of her mother.

"Why are you three giggling about instead of working on your stitches?" Catelyn loomed over the chittering pair, making them halt.

"They were gushing after my brother," Myrcella sighed, and Arya saw Sansa go stiff at the words.

It needed no clarification which brother they were gushing after, of course, the tall and pretty one, not the short and fat one. Though Sansa seemed to have lost her flame for Prince Joffrey, judging by the way she had avoided him during the wedding feast and danced with a few northern sons like Karstark, Umber, and Dustin instead. Arya grimaced at the memory of that night; she somehow managed to politely decline a handful of dancing offers without kicking people on the shins.

"We thought he was in love with Sansa and she would be Queen…" Rodrik Cassel's daughter shuffled timidly.

"This is not Dorne. House Stark is content with a single royal marriage," Mother coldly pointed out. "Besides, the position of a royal consort comes with many dangers, as Princess Elia Martell found out for herself."

The brutal words chilled the room. There was truth in those words, Arya could easily acknowledge. The golden Queen oft seemed wroth with the husband. Despite her impassive face, her green eyes were almost venomous when looking at the king when he was groping wenches in front of the whole North to see.

The grisly tale of Elia Martell's ignoble end was not a topic that was not broached in the open; only various rumours swirled around it, one darker than the rest, and the only thing they could agree on was that she and her daughter were murdered brutally.

"Wasn't the silver prince's wife and daughter killed under the orders of the Mad King?" Myrcella's soft voice was curious.

The Lady of Winterfell twirled around to look at the princess.

"Where did you hear that?"

"Well, that's what Grandmaester Pycelle said when I inquired about the topic."

Catelyn Stark looked troubled for a heartbeat, then let out a heavy, tired sigh.

"My husband was there that day," the words were slow and measured. "No, the deaths of Elia and Rhaenys were not the deed of Aerys. The House of the Dragon slighted a few powerful lords too many, and the Demon of the Trident would never suffer direct claimants to his rule if he could help it. Yet their clandestine deaths were the perfect way for Lord Tywin Lannister to prove his undeniable fealty to the new king. In truth, few held any remaining love for the dragons, even fewer for the Dornish, so the lords of the realm were content to close their eyes and pretend some nameless swords had done the deed or pin it on Aerys, who would have been mad enough to probably order it himself."

The following silence was deafening; Sansa looked sick, Beth and Jeyne - ready to cry, while Myrcella looked unsettled. Suddenly, Arya was even more glad that her sister would not be Queen - Joffrey looked like the sort that would slight powerful lords for the sake of it.

After a knock on the door, Luwin entered the room, carrying a handful of books of account.

"Is there a problem, Luwin?" her mother eyed the maester with an unreadable expression.

"We should review the figures, my lady," Luwin said. "The royal visit proved costly, and Lord Stark decreed that we should prepare our larders for winter afterwards."

"I suppose," Catelyn Stark exhaled slowly. "Let's get it done then. Princess Myrcella, stay with me. The rest of you go join your brothers for luncheon."

Beth, Lyanna, and Jeyne ran out of the room, relieved, and Arya hesitantly lingered at the door. Oddly enough, Sansa stayed next to her, waiting patiently.

"Can I help you with something, Arya?"

"Well," the girl hesitated. "Can I begin my training with the bow? I promised to behave as a lady should-"

"Yes," her mother interrupted, to Arya's surprise. There was none of the reluctance that she would have expected. "You're to report to Lady Lyra and Ser Rodrik after the luncheon and follow their instructions without fail, or you will forget about any further training. And take your sister with you."

Arya gaped, and she was far from the only surprised one. Luwin looked at Lady Stark as if he was seeing her for the first time, and even Myrcella blinked in surprise.

"Mother?" Sansa shuffled uneasily next to her. "Am I to train too?"

"Yes, Sansa. If not the bow, then the dagger."

"But training at arms is not… ladylike."

Catelyn's expression hardened. "Nobody will know the difference; a dagger can be hidden under the gown."

Arya's back, hands, sides, and even fingers hurt. Her legs, too, for that matter. The training was far harder than expected, and much to her chagrin, Sansa seemed to be just as good as her despite her reluctance. And they had barely done much - it was all footwork and stance this, proper grip and form that. Endless, mindless repetition of boring basics. Arya stank of sweat and was covered in grime, and keeping her eyes open was a struggle. No longer was Septa Mordane the strict demon in her mind; no, that position was now shared by Lyra Mormont and Rodrick Cassel. Under their jolly demeanours hid a terrible beast that was unleashed on the training yard.

Even eating was cumbersome, but her stomach rumbled greedily, forcing her to continue forking at her slice of venison; a little bit more, and she could retire to her bed! It wasn't swordpractice as she wanted, but a bow and dagger were a good start. Once she proved herself skilled, they would surely allow her to train with a sword too! Next to her, Sansa was eating slowly, lost in thought. Even after the training, her sister managed to look pristine and ladylike, with her red curls bound into a training braid that Lyra Mormont had shown them, and there was no weariness in her perfect posture. Still, the sense of sluggishness in Sansa's movements gave her away.

Truthfully, Arya couldn't help but wonder why Mother had made her sister train; Sansa was so terribly reluctant but silently agreed with Catelyn as a well-bred lady would.

Now that the royal guests were gone, the direwolves were allowed in the Great Hall. Grey Wind chased around Shaggydog while Arya slipped pieces of chicken to Nymeria and Lady, lazily curled at her and Sansa's feet underneath the table.

Rickon was joyously sitting still in Edmure's lap, who generously helped Arya's brother with pieces of beef, while Robb was solemnly speaking with her uncle's retinue about boring things about the Riverlands.

Theon was quite glum and sitting two seats from Robb, angrily poking at his food. Arya never liked the Greyjoy heir but had learned to accept him as that annoying guest who wouldn't go away. Yet his confident smile seems to have wilted, probably since it had been months since Robb had spent much time with him. They had slowly drifted apart since Bran's death, and two days ago, Robb's attitude towards his friend seemed to have cooled even further.

Suddenly, the chatter quieted, and Arya glanced to see everyone looking at the bewildered Rickon, especially Robb, whose face had gone grave. Even her mother leaned over with a troubled face.

"Rickon, could you tell me more about those dreams of yours?"

"Err," Arya's brother squirmed uneasily into Edmure's lap. "There were plenty of wolves like Shaggy, and Jon was fighting those icemen with a black sword of fire. But it's all foggy, and I barely remember."

That seemed to dampen the merry spirit of the table, and the talk slowly returned to the Riverlands, but Arya's thoughts were swirling with her feathered bed more than anything else.

Theon, who looked like Jon when he was sulking, walked over and sat at the free seat on her left with a half-bored, half-annoyed expression.

"Hey, Arya, want some tips in archery?" The familiar co*cky smirk returned as Arya squinted at the Greyjoy. "You seemed to be struggling quite a lot in the yard today."

Those words chased away the sleepiness. Was Theon being genuine or mocking her? Arya couldn't really decide. He was indeed one of the best with a bow in Winterfell if Jon's grudging words of praise were to be believed.

"Fine."

5th Day of the 6th Month

Val, somewhere near the Milkwater

They were nearing Mance Rayder's army; they probably would finally find them or their scouts in a day or two. Val had seen more and more tracks in the last few days.

Her body ached from exertion, though the few bruises earned in the spars with Jon Snow didn't help. In their playfights, he never overwhelmed her with his speed or strength but instead showed just enough that she felt challenged.

Any mistakes in her footwork or overreach with her wooden staff were painfully struck down as soon they appeared. There was nothing malicious in it, for the warg lord treated his other companions no different in sparring.

In truth, the spearwife would have thought she was not getting better, but Dalla noted that her moves were faster, trickier, and flowed more smoothly. But that was not all - she had managed to win twice against Jarod and once against Duncan, whereas, at the start, they had proved unsurmountable opponents. Val also felt more vigorous and a tad stronger the last few days. That made the whole thing exhilarating; the spearwife could see why the southrons oft sparred.

However, Jon Snow always seemed slightly better and remained unbeatable no matter what she tried.

After a few bouts of training, the group retreated to the campfires and tents. The Singers were scuttling around and about, eating their bloody mushroom stew or tending to the horses. A few were knapping at pieces of obsidian with their dark claws, shaping them into speartips and arrowheads. Val knew a few kept watch on the surrounding trees while most wolves prowled around the camp. As for most evenings, Jon Snow was carving arrow shafts, Duncan Liddle was either gathering firewood or practising with his ax, and Jarod Snow was methodically fletching the newly formed arrow shafts.

Val went through her usual routine - into the forest to place a few traps far away from the wolves, hoping to catch some prey by the morrow. Though it was hard, the presence of the wolf pack deterred a lot of smaller animals even from afar, yet she managed to catch something more often than not. And, of course, gather whatever berries and herbs she managed to spot.

Yet, the gods seemed to smile upon Val as one of the traps had caught something before she could return to the camp. Tonight, they wouldn't rely on the Singer's stew, roots, berries, and dried rations.

The herbs were handed to her sister, who got busy with her pouches and concoctions while the spearwife focused on the fire.

"Do you think there will be trouble with Mance's army?" Dalla asked from behind her.

"Undoubtedly," Val snorted without tearing her gaze from the skinned hare skewered on a stick, slowly churning atop the fire. "If word of Rayder's death had reached them, half would flee, and the other half would be tryin' to kill each other."

"And what if they don't know?"

"We follow the warg lord and his lead," the spearwife shrugged. It had taken some time, but the idea of relying on Jon Snow as their leader and chieftain had slowly sunk in. And it was both calming and freeing - he seemed to deal with whatever situation with confidence and ease. It was so easy, so simple to put your faith in the warg chieftain and simply follow.

That realisation had made Val lose any lingering uncertainty and hesitation; her mind was now set.

"Are you going to find your daring anytime soon?" Dalla's voice was genuinely curious. "The warg lord won't lack for spearwives trying to steal him in Mance's army."

"I'll try tonight," she turned over the stick so the bottom side of the hare wouldn't get burnt.

"Just like you tried the last five nights?" Her sister snorted in amusem*nt.

The allure of sleep had been irresistible the last few days by the time the evenings came.

"Well, no, I will really try tonight," Val said, more to herself than anything else. They descended into a calm silence as the crackling flame made the meat churn pleasantly. Soon enough, the succulent smell of roast meat tingled pleasantly in her nose. A little more and it would be ready; she spun the stick with the hare again. "What about Duncan?"

"What about the big lunk?" Dalla stopped grinding her nettles with the pestle.

"When are you going to steal him?" Her sister stilled, face blinking in surprise. "Don't deny it - I see you stealing glances at Dunk. If you keep waiting, some spearwife in Mance's army might steal him under your nose."

Dalla sputtered and refused to say anything else, so Val smirked and stopped pushing. Soon enough, the hare was roasted, and they started devouring it with gusto. One leg was placed aside for Helicent, whom Val saw lying by the chieftain's fancy tent.

The sunset and the bustle inside their camp slowly died out; the Singers huddled together around the roots of the trees or hit into some burrows while the rest retreated to their tents.

Val fought off the weighting eyelid with enormous effort and stared at the tent's ceiling, trying to stay awake. A myriad of thoughts swirled into her uneasy mind. She knew that sleep would take her when she closed her eyes. Forcing herself to remain awake turned out to be a struggle, and soon enough, Dalla's breath evened - her sister was finally asleep. The spearwife waited a few minutes more for good measure and discarded her clothes, leaving only her cloak to cover herself with.

With the saved roast hare leg in hand, she quietly went out and snuck by the glowing embers left by the campfires. She froze when a pair of large golden-green slitted eyes gazed at her from one of the surrounding trees. A silhouette stirred in the dark, making Val's heart thunder like a drum.

Two heartbeats later, the figure gracefully approached, and the spearwife saw Leaf emerge from the shadows and throw her an amused nod before seamlessly melding back into the darkness.

A shuddering breath escaped Val's lips as she shook her head and slowly approached the large fancy tent where the chieftain rested.

Her palms felt sweaty now, and her pulse was racing like a scared doe in the forest; for a moment, Val considered turning around and returning to her tent to sleep.

But it seemed that her presence had been noticed again, this time by Ghost.

Like a pale, shaggy shadow, the enormous direwolf was beside her; the spearwife had not seen or heard him approach. This was the first time she had seen him up close - larger than any other of his kind Val had seen before, Ghost reached just above her nose. Any more, and he'd be already taller than her.

Trying to suppress the chilling images of the wolf tearing enormous spiders with laughable ease, she stood still.

With a gulp, Val hesitantly offered her empty hand forward, and the direwolf inspected it with his wet muzzle. It seemed he found her satisfactory because he lowered his enormous head, and she hesitantly ran her fingers through the snowy fur, scratching behind his left ear.

That got the enormous, shaggy white tail wagging furiously and earned her a wet lick upon her face, and in the blink of an eye, the white direwolf was gone just as fast as he had appeared.

The spearwife was less than ten yards from the tent's entrance, but her legs felt as heavy as if made of bronze, and every step was a struggle.

A low growl halted her once again - a grey figure stirred from just by the entrance - Helicent was staring at her with bared teeth. From the side, Red Jeyne raised her shaggy red head for a heartbeat before slumping down to sleep.

The hare leg seemed to placate the grey hound, and with a drumming heart and heavy legs, Val finally entered the tent.

It was big, warm, cosy, and fancy from what Val little could gleam in the darkness - the ground was covered by rugs.

She discarded the cloak, revealing her bare body to the cool night air and cautiously approached the cot where Jon was sleeping.

The spearwife shivered and, for a painfully long moment, wondered what the hells she was doing. She never had a man before.

Something cold and icy was upon her neck, making Val still in her steps.

Even in the darkness, she could make out the dark, smoky ripples of the blade that now rested by her neck, ready to cut into her skin.

"What are you doing, Val?" The voice was little more than a growl.

A pair of dark eyes hungrily roamed over her body. They were fascinating, and she could swear there were flecks of deep silver in them, making her skin tingle pleasantly.

"Stealing you?" The words sounded weak even to her, and Val realised that she hadn't even brought a weapon, and her limbs were stiff, whether from the cold, the tension, or the long, tiring day.

She could never fight off the warg lord, weapon or not.

"Are you sure?" His words were raw, heavy with lust and desire, making her shiver for a completely different reason.

The sword was placed aside, and his furs were pulled away, revealing his lean but powerful torso, stirring something inside her.

"Yes-"

Before she could finish, Val was pulled into Jon Snow's fierce embrace, and any words were quickly forgotten.

Notes:

We see more of our favourite uncle.

Wow, 23 chapters later, the royal party finally left Winterfell - we see Catelyn's reactions to the revelations. One thing that is good about Catelyn is her willingness to do things for her children and husband, even if they are illogical or hasty. Supposedly, she's quite smart and capable in politics - but obviously, anything Catelyn says or does is subjected to an unreliable narrator.

As for Pycelle and the Elia Martell blindsiding - I obviously took that from the OG narration that was supposedly recorded by the maesters in canon, along with the rumours that went around.

Jon and co approach their destination while Val finally finds her courage. Also, it seems that faced with a naked beauty in the middle of the night, Jon's control is thrown out. I finally got to write this scene; it was one of the things that I actually did plan from the very beginning.

Now, I have more of the pieces set on the board I want them to be, so you can expect the plot to start moving forward quicker (or maybe just as slow as before, but diverging far harder in other directions?!).

Also, Istronglyclaim unreliable narrator. None of the characters are objective, and they all have their own biases.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can drop by to hang out or ask me or others some questions.

Do give me kudos if you liked the story!

Chapter 26: A Daring Step Forward

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

6th Day of the 6th Moon

Jon Snow

A sigh tore from his mouth as he stared at the varnished ebony poles that held the tent's ceiling. His sire's luxurious tent, then his father's and now his. The smell of last night's coupling still lingered in the air. Albeit somewhat awkward at the start, Val had been as wild as a shadowcat, and his back still ached from where her nails had dug into his flesh, but it wasn't painful enough to bother him.

This was the second time he was 'stolen'.

Truthfully, Val couldn't steal him even if she tried, but alas, the sight of her bare body in the dark turned the seething embers of desire into a raging fire of passion. For a short moment, Jon had tried to find the words and the will to turn her away but found neither.

There were no vows to hold him back this time, nor were they foes with different goals.

Was it love?

There was passion and lust here, desire, and Jon truly liked Val now that he got to know her more. Without a shred of doubt, the spearwife was comely, loyal, and fierce. There was also an undeniable sliver of pride underneath, and she was good - one of the most resourceful hunters and trackers Jon had seen.

The request for training had caught him flat-footed, but the desire to learn was genuine. And those daring eyes, more silver than grey, made Jon's insidestwistwith desire.

Love is the death of honour, the bane of duty.

But he was neither a brother of the Night's Watch nor did he bear the crown of winter anymore, just a nameless bastard in the vast lands Beyond the Wall. There were no vows, oaths, or duty, just Jon Snow.

Nor could his feelings truly be called love; that lesson was learned long ago. Not yet - Jon Snow definitely held affection for Val, and it could grow into more with time.

Light softly spilt from the edges of the tent's entrance, where a brown bear's hide served as a flap. Jon lowered his gaze, and his eyes settled on her peaceful face. Val's soft, honeyed curls sprawled across his chest as she clutched his side in her sleep. The way her fingers curled over his torso made desire pulse beneath his skin again. With Ygritte, it had been a hasty affair borne out of peril, necessity, and lies, yet there was none of that here. Jon could now understand all those men who visited the whor*houses - a woman's warm touch was a stronger temptation than the sweetest of wines.

Though, did it matter anymore? The deed could not be undone. He could only accept it as fact and move on. That thought wasn't… too bad.

Why wouldn't he try and find some happiness for himself? No, he had already found it, and now, Jon had to grasp it with his hands and not let go.

The thought echoed in his mind; it was equally liberating and terrifying.

We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our greatest glory and our greatest tragedy.

Would it be glorious… or would it be tragic?

No, Jon Snow had enough tragedy for a lifetime.

No more!

The thought lit a fire inside him, something that had long been extinguished. He had accepted loss, death, and failure as a part of life long ago. But… neither was an option now, not anymore!

Jon Snow no longer drifted amidst the darkness and cold, seeking death in battle. No, hewantedto live. Hewantedto win.

Just drifting towards a vague direction, an idea would not do anymore.

With his two hands, he'd grasp victory by the horns and make itglorious.

Val stirred, and her silvery-grey eyes blearily cracked open as she gazed at his face.

"It dawn yet?" A drowsy groan escaped her rosy lips.

"Aye."

The sun had risen half an hour ago, and Ghost was already patrolling around the camp with elation.

"You're mine now," the spearwife declared triumphantly before wincing. "Gods, do you ever tire?"

"Maybe," he chortled. "But I think it was I who did the stealing. After all, you're in my tent and bed now, are you not?"

Stealing was not final for the free folk; no, it was not marriage. It could lead to such, but it was not one - even the free folk considered a true marriage a union before the eyes of the gods, and it involved no force or fighting. Relationships Beyond the Wall could be simple and infuriatingly complicated. Val could still leave and pretend none of this happened, and so could Jon.

But he didn't want to.

His question was innocent enough, but the underlying meaning remained - did she want this to continue or not?

Val groaned again but did not deny it.

"I'll get my things here, then," the spearwife stretched languidly and yawned.

And this was it - now Jon Snow had aparamour, maybe a wife in time if the gods willed it. Being wed was a new… but not an unwelcome thought - in his last life, he did not dare to dream or even think of it. After all, why would he curse a woman with his bastard surname? And later, he simply did not care amidst the numbness anymore.

A movement grabbed his gaze again - Val's generous form was revealed again as she shrugged off the covers, and he had to squash the burning desire rising within. He couldn't tear his eyes off as the spearwife grabbed his cloak, the one with the direwolf sigil, covered herself and strode outside with a hypnotising sway of her hips.

The camp would definitely know what had happened now if they had not heard them during the night - neither Jon nor Val tried to be quiet.

His mind drifted to the imminent meeting - they were close, and Mance Rayder's camp would be found in the next few days. It would decide everything, and he could not afford failure, not anymore. His thoughts churned furiously, trying to cobble up a better plan; simply reacting to things and going with the flow would not do anymore.

8th Day of the 6th Moon

Tormund Giantsbane

They were all sitting in a crescent before a large bonfire again.

"It's been almost four moons now!" Harma was disgruntled again.

They all were; Mance was late - he should have returned half a moon ago or so. And without Rayder to make peace, things were becoming heated, and not inthegood way.

"What if his crow friend on the Wall lied, eh?" Alfyn Crowkiller had the nasty snarl upon his face again. "Mance cannot come back because he'salready dead, deceived by those kneelers!"

Devyn Sealskinner anxiously tugged onto his tangled dark hair that looked more like a bird's nest than anything else.

"He coulda been delayed!"

"Or he could've been caught! Or even the Wall could have killed him - even the best raiders can die if the ice falls off!"

"We cannot afford ta wait here fer much longer," even the quiet Soren Shieldbreaker spoke up. "The surrounding land is almost stripped bare!"

"Rayder will come back! And-"

Tormund remained silent as they argued, and he glanced at the Thenn chieftain, who also watched on with a grim face - although, with his missing ears and bald head, Styr always looked ferocious. Mag the Mighty's enormous grey form also shuffled with worry.

At first, he wasn't worried much - Mance Rayder could have been delayed, be it by some storm or other mishap on the road. The distance he had to travel was vast, but Rayder had been to the wolf lord's den before, so Tormund held no worry. But the days flew by, and there was no word of Mance.

The Mead-king of the Ruddy Hall had to face reality now - the King Beyond the Wall wasn't coming back. The only person who was keeping this quarrelsome lot together could very well be dead. Soon enough, the warring chieftains would begin to fight again, and many other tribes would leave - it was Mance Rayder who they followed, and Mance Rayder was gone.

Even that red witch of the east remained silent as she gazed into the flames - the Lord of Bones had brought her here. Her worship of the god of fire attracted many a man amidst the snow - everyone wanted a piece of warmth. But it was a foolish thing - fire was useful, aye, but to spurn the forests, the rivers and stones, and the winds and storms was folly.

Melisandre did not understand the old gods - they were the fury of nature in their fierce glory, ice and fire included. The flames were a hungry thing - they only consumed and gave nought but ash back.

"That's f*cking it!" Rattleshirt leapt up on his feet and turned to leave.

"Where are ye goin'?!" Harma cried out.

"Out of here!"

More and more chieftains stood up to leave, but suddenly, everyone halted, and the clearing grew silent.

"Wok dak nah gran!"Mag's mighty voice tore through the air as he stood up, and his eyes looked to the south worriedly.

Squirrel people?

And then, Tormund saw them.

Short, deer-like folk, with sewn-bark for tunics and cloaks of leaves, spears and bows in their clawed grasp, and the surrounding free folk warily split to make way. None of the folk dared to bar their path. But, no, they were not the real surprise - it was the man walking at their helm.

Dark hair, grey eyes hard like stone, with a fine grey cloth with a white direwolf head sewn upon it. Southron?

But a spearwife stood proudly to his left, as a wife would, and was cloaked in a fine shadowskin pelt, and a ringmail peeked underneath, and to his right, there was an enormous snowy direwolf with red eyes. The beast was far bigger than any other direwolf Tormund had seen, but that was not all - he could count at least half a dozen other direwolves trailing behind as if they were obedient pups.

Next to his snow bear, Sixskins was salivating at the sight.

With the wolves, the leafcloaks, and the men, more than half a hundred followed this chieftain.

He was young, but a long, thin scar sat proudly beneath his left eye. His whole presence screamed danger to every one of Tormund's senses, and there was relentless surety and purpose in his stride. Not even when fighting crows, other tribes, or wights had he met such a daring demeanour.

Tormund was confused - he had never heard of kneeler wargs before. Or maybe it was one of the other two men behind him who were skinchangers, although they looked just as Southron as he did.

An angry figure barred his path. Rattleshirt glared at the newcomer with distrust, hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Who the f*ck are ya?"

"Jon Snow, son of Eddard Stark," the young man's strong voice was like a whip as it cleaved through the clearing. The enormous white direwolf sat down like an obedient pup; when sitting down, the beast was even taller than his master.

A hush fell across the camp, and for an agonisingly long heartbeat, nobody dared to breathe. The Starks were well known even here, Beyond the Wall - dangerous men, the strongest of the kneeler southrons. Many a raider had tried to kill Benjen Stark for glory but instead had fallen under his wicked blade.

Surprise gave way to everything else as the Lord of Bones stepped forth, body tense and ready to fight.

"What's a kneeler want with Mance Rayder?"

"Mance Rayder? Why would I want anything to do with a dead man?"

Whispers and murmurs spread like snow in the wind. But Tormund could find no deception in the man's voice, and to his surprise, he found out that he did not question the statement. After all, they were already considering Mance's death just earlier.

Rattleshirt unsheathed his sword and pointed it at Jon Snow, "You killed Mance, then?"

"Nay, it was my brother who did - shortened him a head."

Harma now approached with her wicked spear and hateful snarl.

"You're bold to come here after killing our king, kneeler!"

"Mance Rayder was nought but a stubborn fool for trying to sneak into my father's home uninvited," Jon Snow shrugged unapologetically.

That angered some, but others seemed to agree with the words. Tormund among the latter - he disproved Mance's desire to sneak South - and it turned out he was right. Trying to sneak into a man's home was spitting on guest rights and would get you killed even here, in the true north!

"I say we kill this f*cking kneeler and his filthy beasts!" Alfyn Crowkiller brandished his spear savagely, trying to rouse the others into action, yet none was too quick to attack a pack of direwolves, let alone one led by a man.

"Is that a challenge to single combat?" Despite being surrounded, Jon Snow showed no fear and stared daringly at the Crowkiller. The raider shuffled uneasily with hesitation as everyone looked at him. The Southron's face twisted into a mocking smile, "Or are you too craven to fight me yourself? Mayhaps you need some help from your friends?"

Alfyn's face reddened.

"That's f*cking it! I'll gut ya, kneeler," Alfyn approached, spear poised, as everyone retreated to clear up a circle. "Keep your mangy pets away."

It had been a while since a challenge to single combat had been issued so boldly and in front of many people. Mance had done it twice or thrice, but the fights had been held in secluded places with few eyes watching.

"I've no need for Ghost's aid," Jon Snow ran his hand through the shaggy white fur of the direwolf, who then silently retreated next to the fair-haired spearwife. Only the two challengers remained amidst the circle. "If you're feeling uncertain, you can call for more friends - I don't mind."

The mocking lilt in his voice seemed to enrage Alfyn, who gave a guttural cry and charged with his spear, and the surrounding folk began to cheer and jeer.

Jon Snow calmly drew his sword from the sheath, and Tormund could see dark, smoky ripples glisten along the blade.

Alfyn stabbed forward, trying to skewer him, and Tormund thought he would have succeeded, but the warg lazily stepped aside in the last second, and his sword blurred through the air.

Tormund sucked in a deep breath as Alfyn's head rolled on the ground, and his body collapsed like a fallen tree, staining the slush red.

The jeers and cheers halted - the only thing that could now be heard was the breathing of the crowd as wispy clouds of white smoke escaped their mouths. The dark blade dripped rich with blood, and Jon Snow unceremoniously picked up Alfyn's fur cloak and used it to clean his sword.

Alfyn was not a weakling - even Tormund could admit he would take some time to defeat the fierce raider. But this Jon Snow seemed very cunning - he enraged the Crowkiller and slaughtered him with one swing. And it was not easy to behead a man in a single strike, no. Tormund had thought right - the Southron wasdangerous.

"Anyone else?" The voice boomed like a crack of thunder. "Anyone else wants to fight me? Come now, step forth!"

Tormund wanted to stop this folly and find out what the kneeler was doing here so far north, but interrupting a challenge wasnot doneunless you wanted to show yourself gutless craven. Besides, they were better off without Alfyn anyway.

A few hesitated, and just as Tormund thought Rattleshirt would leap to the opportunity, the red witch whispered something in his ear, but after a moment of hesitation, the man pushed her away and stepped forth anyway.

He was not the only one, as Weeper, thick, with his shaggy blonde mane and his cloudy blue eyes, had entered the ring, eyeing the other raider cautiously with his watery gaze.

"Piss off, Weeper. He and his fancy sword are mine!"

"I'll carve your eyes out, Rattleshirt," the Weeper taunted with a sinister smile as he swung his scythe testily.

"There's no need to squabble - one or two makes no difference to me," Jon Snow snorted dismissively, infuriating both of his foes.

"I'll drink from your skull, you kneeler scum," Rattleshirt spat, then turned to Weeper, "You can have his eyes, but I get to keep his sword."

"Fine," the other raider grunted, and together, they began circling Jon Snow.

Tormund couldn't help but wonder if the kneeler had overestimated himself - both his foes were experienced raiders and could keep their wits sharp even while angered; they were also cautious, unlike the reckless Alfyn.

Now, Weeper was approaching through the front, while Rattleshirt wanted to flank their foe by the back, although Jon Snow did not seem particularly bothered.

They attacked at the same time, scythe from the front and jagged sword from the back.

Jon Snow jerked back, evading one and lazily twisted, deflecting the sword aiming for his back. The next slash was towards his face, but it was easily parried. Weeper and Rattleshirt were very aggressive but couldn't fight well together - the kneeler effortlessly weaved between their strikes and parried the rest. He was quick on his feet, often moving in such a way that left both of his foes to the front, and sometimes even managed to manoeuvre around, placing Rattleshirt between himself and Weeper. For every step they made, the Southron did two, if not three, all quick and precise!

All of that done with a grin on his face - he was playing with them. Jon Snow had not even attacked yet! Tormund felt like he was watching two wild boars charging after a shadowcat, which was just toying around with them instead.

The next moment, everything went to sh*t.

Harma silently leapt into the clearing as the fighters approached her position, spear in hand, aiming for Jon Snow's back. Yet, before she could do anything, the fair-haired spearwife with the shadowskin cloak had dashed forward. Varamyr's face was twisted in greed and malice as he eyed Jon Snow and the direwolves.

Yet, an agonising wail escaped from his mouth; Sixskin's bear roared in fury, the direwolves began to growl, and everyone reached for their weapons and -

"ENOUGH!"

The kneeler's bellow whipped like thunder, halting all of them.

Weeper lay on the snow, head rolling away from his fallen body, while Rattleshirt's corpse rested on the ground, cleaved in two from head to groin, bloody innards steaming softly in the air, and his jagged sword still in the grasp of his right hand, albeit severed just above the hilt. Harma was weakly gurgling on the ground, her throat skewered by the kneeler's spearwife with a spear, and Sixskins was spasming on the snow, steam coming out of his eyesockets - it looked like they were boiled like a stew - Tormund would eat his beard if this wasn't some sorcery, not that anyone would miss Varamyr. Knowing the vicious runt, the greedy Sixskins tried to do something and got himself killed for it.

His enormous snow bear was slumped on the ground next to its owner, two arrows sticking out of its eyes; the odd feather fletchings could only belong to the southron greybeard with the bow that followed Jon Snow.

Not only that, but the enormous snowy direwolf had ripped out the throat of Varamyr's shadowcat, and Sixskins' wolves had all their tails lowered in submission before the warg's pet.

Tormund shook his head; sorcery was a dangerous thing; wargs were thrice as dangerous as ordinary folk and sorcerers - thrice as dangerous as wargs.

Everyone seemed tense - and if an actual fight broke out, Tormund wasn't sure it would stop - the quarrelling tribes and clans might very well decide to start their old feuds in the commotion. That was beside the fact that none wanted to be the first to attack the deadly Southron and his direwolves.

Yet, despite the outburst of violence, which was deserved, Jon Snow stood there, unmoving yet ready to fight again. Those damned fools, Harma and Varamyr, had tried to interrupt a challenge and paid for their lives. Still, the sudden onset of fighting made things even more tense.

In fact, Jon Snow had only slain the most feared and hated warband leaders so far - nobody that would be missed. A glance told him that a few raiders were already planning on taking command of the now-headless warbands. And the Southron's eyes were now vicious and his gait defiant - he was not afraid to die and take as many as he could down with him.

Tormund shared a short glance with Styr, who nodded reluctantly, and Giantsbane stepped forward, sword in hand.

"You're a bold man, Jon Snow," Tormund admitted begrudgingly. "And good with a blade," the best he had seen, yet such words would never be said aloud, "but you're surrounded and have taken no guest right. Why have you come here to make trouble, kneeler?"

"To tell you how to kill Others."

Tormund blinked, unsure if he was hearing things in the cold. He was far from the only one - many looked at Jon Snow with distrust and disbelief or as if he had gone mad.

"The cold shadows cannot be killed," Styr snorted from the side. "Many tried."

One of the Children stepped forth, cloaked with crimson weirwood leaves and gazed at them with golden-green cat-like eyes.

"Jon Snow has met the Singers of the Ice twice and emerged victorious both times," her voice was high and sweet, yet sad. There was no doubt who these Singers of the Ice were.

"And why would we trust yer word?" Morna Whitemask spoke up for the first time.

"Do you have any choice?" Jon Snow's grey eyes were like two chips of stone as his gaze roamed over the gathered free folk. "Aren't you tired of running for your life? Of being hunted down like dogs?"

"You crows are the ones that hunt us down!" An angry voice echoed from behind.

"Aye, shout like a craven from the back, but do you dare to show your face?" The Southron snorted when none moved. "I am no crow, and I took no vows - yet the feud you spoke of goes both ways. At least you can fight back against the crows, can you not?"

Tormund knew Jon Snow was right - most were only willing to band together and follow Mance because he showed them a way out where they saw none. Yet the fool went and got himself killed playing bard, and without him, they couldn't even band together anymore. Even Mance dared not attack the Wall directly - the kneelers were numerous and could not be underestimated.

"Tell us then!"

9th Day of the 6th Moon

Jarod Snow

The sky was cloudless, endless blue stretched from east to west, and the sun's warm rays seemed to warm everything up.

He looked around - the enormous camp was already over half empty, and even more wildlings were departing.

Gods, the stones of Jon Snow still left him awed even today. Many changed when they bedded a woman, but his change had been grander than most. His bearing had utterly transformed since Val walked out of his tent with the direwolf cloak wrapped around her. Any previous trace of reluctance and solitude was gone, and if Jarod did not know better, he'd say he was looking at Rickard Stark come again.

The sheer daring and gall that a boy of six and ten had to pull off his stunt was the stuff of legend and myth - and if he was a bard, he'd already be making a song about it. Alas, Jarod's talent was gravely lacking - his voice sounded like a bull's grunts, and he had no wits for rhymes.

Jarod had almost pissed himself yesterday when they entered the camp - but Jon Snow walked in as if he owned the place, and none dared to halt his way, be it out of fear from the direwolves or surprise from the Singers. That was beside the fact that there were f*ckin'giantsin the flesh here. Even the smallest was twice as tall and large as a burly man.

He thought the bastard of Winterfell a madman for his insane actions in the gathering of chieftains - but instead, the young man seemed to have won their grudging respectafterslaying five of them. Seven bloody hells; there had even been a short moment where it looked like they would die fighting surrounded by thousands of wildlings, and Jarod almost shat his breeches.

Yet, Jon Snowknewwhat he was doing, who to kill, what to say, and when to say it, and the situation had calmed down. A few wildlings had still glared at them as if they wanted to boil their bones and drink their marrow, but none dared to make any move.

There were doubts concerning the effectiveness of obsidian, but with Dalla, Val, and the Children backing his words, coupled with his offer to swear on a heart tree, had many believing.

To Jarod's surprise, the wildlings seemed barely more than savages, rapers, and thieves at first, but at least they knew the old gods and followed most of the proper traditions.

As soon as the word about the obsidian and a few locations where to find it had spread, many had left the camp - they had come to follow Mance Rayder, and with him dead, old feuds were renewed. None dared to fight in the camp, though, as Styr of the Thenn and Tormund Giantsbane had managed to keep the peace together.

And now, they were gathered again before the bonfire, but in reduced numbers.

"Do you truly want to lead us, warg lord?" It was a woman with shaggy chestnut hair, face covered by a weirwood mask.

"I am going to fight against the Others regardless," Jon's voice was daring as he stood before the gathered chieftains again, Ghost's enormous form sitting next to him as if he were an obedient dog. "I said it yesterday, and I shall say it again today - you're free to join me if you wish."

The red priestess was gazing at Jon Snow with devotion and desire as if she were a hungry wolf and he was a fresh piece of meat. And gods wasn't that a f*cking surprise, a priestess of R'hllor all the way here.

Jon Snow avoided the woman's attempts to approach or start a conversation and did not even deign to look at her.

Melisandre's interest in the young bastard who wouldn't even look at her made Val seem like a furious shadowcat - ready to pounce and claw the Essosi's woman eyes out.

"He is Azor Ahai come again-"

"Do not speak when your counsel is not requested," Jon's voice was full of venom, again not looking at the red-haired woman. "None care for your old dusty prophecies here."

The red priestess recoiled as if struck but offered no response, content to observe with her blood-red eyes.

"Why would we follow you, Lord Snow?" Soren Shieldbreaker, a burly auburn-haired chieftain with a large ax, asked. "You already told us how to kill the Cold Ones."

"Indeed," he nodded serenely. "I told you how to kill them, but none of you truly know how tofightthem. If you follow me, I will not only show you how but I shall be the first in every battle."

The Ned had taught his son well; a true Stark of Winterfell never gave orders that he was unwilling to do himself!

The proclamation was met with a wave of approving grunts and nods - it seemed that even the wildlings could appreciate a valiant man.

"Why do you even want to kill the Others?" It was the voice of the broad-chested Tormund Giantsbane, a short, greying man of tall boasts and jolly laughter. "You can just hide behind that Wall o' yours. Har, I knew I would if I were you!"

"Maybe I could," the young bastard agreed, surprising many. "But only for a time. When winter comes, the white winds blow, and snow falls from the sky without an end, the Bay of Ice and the Bay of Seals will freeze, and the Wall won't save me either."

Jarod shuddered as if ants crawled up his spine, but he was far from the only one - those words seemed to chill them all.

"We don't kneel," Styr gruffly spoke.

"And I will never ask you to," Jon riposted, earning a lot of surprised glances. "But a word of fealty on your honour - that I'll take."

Some of the chieftains, more than a third, scowled at the words and left.

"Fight me first," the Magnar of the Thenn challenged.

Jon stood undaunted, "Fist, sword, or axe?"

"Har," Tormund chortled, "You certainly got stones, lad!'

"Fist," Styr grunted.

The wildling chieftain unclasped his cloak and removed his bronze-scaled shirt and the crude tunic underneath, revealing his lean but muscled body. The man did not seem bothered by the cold, and Jarod could count quite a few scars.

Jon also discarded his brigandine and clothing, revealing a just as powerful and lean body, albeit half a head shorter than his opponent, with quite a few scars that seemed to earn many appreciative glances. The bastard of Winterfell had always pushed himself more in their spars and training; he fought harder, trained harder, practised harder, and itshowed.

The space around the bonfire was quickly cleared up for the fighters.

Styr Thenn did not wait long before rushing in, swinging heavily with his ham-like fists.

"We've never seen ourchieftain," Duncan uttered that word with heavy amusem*nt, "wrestle or fisticuffs."

"I don't think he'll have much trouble," Jarod chuckled, looking at how Jon efficiently weaved between the wildling's savage strikes.

Any master-at-arms worth his salt would train wrestling and grappling - a must-have skill against foes in heavy plate. Unarmed hand-to-hand was also rather popular amongst the young sons of the North, and looking at the young Snow, he excelled.

His punches were relentless, quick, and brutal and landed far more often than those of the wildling did.

Speed, skill, strength, experience - unsurprisingly, the Bastard of Winterfell lacked none of these, even with his fists.

Yet Jarod couldn't help but notice Jon was holding back - he was pulling his punches quite a bit. Not only that, but he avoided striking any places that would knock out his foe - the chin, temple, nose, liver, or the weak spot below the heart and, in turn, avoided getting hit in vital areas himself.

It took him a few moments, but the old bastard realised the young leader was both hiding the full extent of his prowess and letting Styr of the Thenns keep some dignity even in loss - it would indeed not do to sow resentment between those who would follow and fight with and for you.

The wildling chieftain took quite a bit of punishment before he began to heave like a tired mule after pulling a particularly heavy cart for hours through the mud. Surely enough, the younger Snow saw that and, with a swift punch, nicked Styr's chin, who wobbled for a handful of heartbeats before promptly collapsing in the cold slush.

Looking no worse for wear despite taking a few errant hits, Jon Snow fought four more challenges - all of them decided to try their luck with fisticuffs in a bid to avoid fighting the warg lord with a blade and risk their heads. Yet, it seemed that Ned Stark's son was no less devastating with his fist and won all the fights with little effort, though there was none maimed or killed this time, only bruises upon their pride and body.

Under Jarod's disbelieving eyes, the wildlings that mockingly called him kneeler yesterday were then swearing their loyalty. Mag the Mighty, the giant chieftain, had been convinced by Leaf to follow them, and with him, Styr, Tormund and scores of other chieftains, big and small, agreed to follow Jon.

Suddenly, Jon's modest warband had swelled from less than a hundred to nearly thirteen thousand.

Notes:

Writing this chapter was a pain in the arse, but I finally finished it.

Or how Jon Snow finally makes up his mind after a good night of f*cking, comes into the enemy camp, kills a bunch of assholes, and punches a good part of the rest into obedience.

Did Varamyr try to steal Jon's direwolves? He totally did and failed spectacularly.

Obviously, not everyone is warm on following a kneeler, let alone fighting the Cold Shadows, but the word about obsidian will now spread. Still, we see that despite what the Free Folk talk about, they respect strength, honesty, and cunning, so Jon Snow has no issues getting more followers.

Keep in mind that all numbers about the wildlings will be unreliable narrators. There are no censuses, nobody counts specifically(heck, most of them are probably very sh*tty at counting), and all that jazz, but Jon nabbed less than a quarter of Mance's total forces.

As for wildling loyalty - many stop following Mance Rayder once he is defeated and captured(despite his promises, years of effort etc), so as long as you keep winning…

Also, Istronglyclaim unreliable narrator. None of the characters are objective, and they all have their own biases.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can drop by to hang out to chat or ask me or others some questions.

Chapter 27: Interlude-A Peek Into the Dark

Summary:

Someone asked for the OG timeline and the deviations so far? Here you go!

Chapter Text

Late 300 AC'

-Stannis uncovers the Karstark treachery, arrests them and burns them alive. Most of the Karstark forces disperse/flee, but Stannis manages to retain about half with promises of rewards.

-Battle between Bolton and Stannis, heavy casualties on both sides, no decisive victor - Stannis is wounded heavily. Ramsay Snow is killed. The Frey forces that were placed at the van are almost completely decimated.

-Bastard Letter arrives, Jon Snow is slain in the mutiny of Castle Black - slips into the mind of Ghost and lives there. The mutiny is blood but is put down; all the perpetrators are slain, and notable casualties include Val and Satin.

-Queen Selyse Baratheon temporarily takes charge of Castle Black; the Queen's Men are the most numerous and well-armed/trained faction.

-The unease caused by the mutiny and the bastard letter continues; Selyse is convinced Stannis is defeated/repelled but not killed, and under Melisandre's advice, agrees to sacrifice Shireen to the flames to bolster Stannis' chances of success.

-Jon Snow wakes up numb, yet somehow feeling stronger and faster; he can feel Ghost's presence in his mind, but the direwolf's body is unmoving and unresponsive and dies soon. Jon's mistrust of Melisandre turns into hatred, but even the hatred is numb.

-Rickon Stark is found by Davos, and after a lot of convincing, they turn to sail down to White Harbour. The ship is sunk in a storm, and Davos and Rickon die drowning.

-Roose Bolton finds out Stannis is wounded and presses his advantage; after another indecisive battle, Stannis retreats to Deepwood Motte. Heavy casualties on both sides due to the snow/cold.

-Another indecisive battle follows as Bolton tries to catch Stannis before he turtles up in the Motte, where Manderly finally manages to position his forces for betrayal, and Roose is killed. Stannis passes away from wounds.

-Manderly and Barbrey Dustin work together to take control of Winterfell and kill the remaining Freys.

-Free of his vows (technically), Jon gathers the wildlings as intended and marches down to Winterfell.

-Tensions are high between Manderly and Jon's forces until Howland Reed, Galbart Glover, and Maege Mormont arrive with Robb's decree naming Jon legitimate and his heir. A survivor from Davos' wreckage brings word that Manderly's plan to search for Rickon is abandoned. Jon Stark is crowned as King of the North,

-Jon's grip on the North is tenuous, and the Northern forces are spent. Theon and Asha Greyjoy are beheaded. Melisandre is exiled, and preparations to face the Long Night have begun - mining dragonglass, etc. Jon expels the remaining ironborn from the northern shores and also somehow succeeds in consolidating his tenuous hold on the North, along with the few thousand surrendered Free Folks and the spent Night's Watch.

-Storm's End has fallen to treachery to the Golden Company. Aegon Blackfyre raises the Targaryen banner and manages to gather a handful of lords to his cause, mainly because of Lord Jon Connington.

-With Pycelle and Kevan assassinated, Cersei manages to grab some measure of power and take control of the Lannister forces but has to wrangle with Mace Tyrell for every minor thing. The High Sparrow and the Faith Militant have almost completely paralysed KL politically.

-Euron manages to defeat the Redwyne Fleet with deception, yet the ironborn take heavy casualties. Is considered to have gone mad in his plan to sack Oldtown.

-Rhaegal and Viserion make their nest in the nearby mountain/caves near Mereen but are unsuccessfully hunted down by the Ghiscari. They flee towards the Painted Mountains.

-The second siege of Mereen continues. Victarion Greyjoy arrives and breaks the naval blockade, putting down the riots brutally (streets ran red with blood?)

Early 301 AC

-One of the minor vale lords/knights finds out Sansa's identity and goes to KL in hopes of getting rewarded; Cersei finds out Sansa's identity.

-Selmy fails to dispose of all the rotting corpses, a new, unnamed black plague begins in Mereen, and people begin to die like flies.

-Mereen is stormed twice unsuccessfully.

-Daenerys manages to escape the Dothraki with the help of Drogon, whom she still struggles to control. She burns parts of Vaes Dothrak in the process; the Dothraki hate her. Takes her quite a while to force Drogon to listen to her.

-Harrold Hardying's marriage with Sansa goes through, but on the wedding feast, Sansa is poisoned by the Strangler and dies (by Cersei, who now knows where Sansa is, obviously).

-Aegon Blackfyre manages to consolidate most of the Stormlands, and Doran Martell tentatively agrees to send some forces to aid him (not much)

-Tyrell, Lannister, and High Sparrow continue wrangling in King's Landing for power and influence; Mace Tyrell refuses to move his forces until his daughter is cleared of all charges, while Cersei keeps postponing the trial by the Faith more and more in hopes of finding/fabricating more evidence.

-Euron Greyjoy attacks Oldtown, half the city burns, but the ironmen are defeated, and the Crow's Eye is slain by Garth Hightower wielding Vigilance.

-News of Jon's ascension to kinghood reaches Arya in Braavos, and she attempts to leave the Faceless men to return home but is killed by the Kindly Man.

-Plague continues to run rampant in Mereen, Victarion Greyjoy, and Selmy die to the plague. Tyrion Lannister dies in the fighting in the camps outside Mereen, along with Jorah.

The city continues to implode with unrest

-Daenerys finally manages to return to Mereen just before the city surrenders and burns parts of the sieging army, but Drogon is wounded by scorpion bolts lodged in its scales/wings.

-Daenerys struggles greatly to deal with the plague and restore order in the city; the siege is not fully broken - compromise is reached with the Ghiscari. She attempts to find Viserion and Rhaegal in the Painted Mountains, but they are avoiding her. After a few moons, she gives up.

-Eventually, Daenerys leaves with the remaining Iron Fleet ships under Red Ralf Stonehouse and three thousand unsullied (all that survived the plague+riots+siege), arrives on Dragonstone, takes over the keep that has only a token garrison, which surrenders and declares herself Queen.

The South is split into four factions:

1)Daenerys and the remaining Ironborn(tentatively, and not all of them) with a handful of spent Narrow Sea Houses that pay her homage in name. No capable leadership at the helmet, but they have a dragon which is tentatively listening to Daenerys some of the time.

2)Aegon Blackfyre + the Stormlands + token support from other middling lords, former royalists and Dorne, which is also trying to send out feelers to Daenerys

3)Lannister-Tyrell alliance, which is splintering slowly but surely and has no capable leadership or command at the helm. King's Landing suffers from a heavy bout of the Shivers that decimates a lot of the men-at-arms; the sickness also spreads to other places in Westeros

4)Neutral Vale, Baelish keeps waiting for something to happen, but nothing does. The struggle between the Lords Declarant and Baelish continues.

-Things in the south continue to slowly implode, and no decisive victories are won for each side. Snowfall and cold weather slow down the tempo of the war.

-The Bay of Ice begins to freeze, and Jon is forced to focus his attention on dealing with the increasing incursions of the Others. The Night's Watch has been reorganised in the meantime, and tentative rangings Beyond the Wall begin, with the pure aim of killing wights and Others (some are successful, others not).

-Requests for aid from the South are denied, as nobody acknowledges the North as a sovereign kingdom nor Jon Snow as a King in the North. Captured wights are dismissed as flimsy proof, and Jon is blamed for having a necromancer in his employ.

-A slow, bitter struggle continues for years as the North is slowly enveloped in perpetual darkness. Tactics against the Others are developed, but the numerical superiority of the Wights is too big.

-The battles in the North are brutal; both small and large scales have large numbers of casualties, and things look kinda hopeless, although the Others themselves take heavy casualties. After an unknown amount of time, Jon Snow dies in battle, taking the last Others with him.

-Bran throws an epic tantrum and casts Jon's soul/mind into the past, with the aid of Bloodraven, vanquishing the final Greenseer lineage from history.

-Even with the Others defeated, fierce winter continues, and the famine and plague get even worse. Jon Connington manages to infect Aegon with Greyscale, and Aegon eventually dies. Daenerys is killed by one of her jealous lovers. Tommen looks like a winner for half a year more until he dies of a bad case of the shivers.

By spring, Westeros is almost completely devastated, and there are dozens of declared kings all around, but with questionable claims to much, the Triarchy teams up again and invades the continent ripe for picking with everyone exhausted/squabbling.

New timeline:

278 AC - Aerys sends Steffon Baratheon in search of a Valyrian-blooded bride for Rhaegar, yet he returns empty-handed and perishes along with his wife in Shipbreaker Bay. Later that year, Rhaegar is married to Elia Martell. Elia Martell gets pregnant shortly after the marriage.

279 AC - Elia Martell's pregnancy is heavy, but she gives birth to a healthy baby girl named Rhaenys, who takes after his mother. Aerys is incensed about having a dornish-looking granddaughter, and his suspicion that someone is poisoning Rhaella increases. His erratic behaviour, insults, and burning of people for the smallest offences make Rhaegar heavily concerned, and the Tourney of Harrenhal manages to take place towards the end of the year, yet is crashed by Aerys' attendance.

-A twelve-year-old Lyanna has ungodly luck in unhorsing three knights in the lists featuring the following factors.

1)She subconsciously managed to skinchange/scare the opponent's horses, making each round a 3v1 scenario.

2) Her opponents were sloppy. The first one was heavily drunk, the second one had a bad case of stomach ache (he ate something bad the last evening) and could barely hold it in his breeches, and the third knight had the straps of his saddle too loose because his squire is incompetent lil' sh*te. Howland Reed may or may not have featured in any of those cases of misfortune.

3)Lyanna barely managed to win even then and was bruised black and blue.

-Early 280AC, Catelyn Stark is almost of age and flowered, and Hoster Tully decides to proceed with the marriage.

-Lyanna Stark is spirited away ten leagues from Harrenhal by Rhaegar (what she was doing there, we will never know).

-Rebellion proceeds to happen the same way, only two years earlier.

-mid/early 281 AC - King's Landing is sacked, and heavily pregnant Elia Martell is raped and killed with her belly torn open by Gregor Clegane. Rhaenys Targaryen is stabbed half a hundred times for crying too loudly.

-Jon Snow and Robb Stark are born,and Willem Dustin dies unwed at the Tower of Joy (war began before marriage negotiations with Barbrey Ryswell and her father could be finalised)

-282 AC - Daenerys is born when a storm sinks the newly made royal fleet; Daenerys and Viserys flee with Willem Darry to Braavos

-283 AC - Myrcella Baratheon is born

-284 AC - Sansa Stark is born

-285 AC- Joffrey Baratheon is born

-287 AC - Arya Stark is born

-289 AC - Bran Stark is born. Greyjoy Rebellion - Maron Greyjoy is killed during the Storming of Pyke by Galbart Glover instead by a collapsing tower

-290 AC - Galbart Glover requests to crenelate from Lord Stark and receives permission/blessing.

-291 AC - Tommen Baratheon is born

-293 AC - Rickon Stark is born

Chapter 28: Of Gifts and Dwarves

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

14th Day of the 6th Moon

Robert Baratheon, somewhere in the North

It was dark still, though the barest hint of reddish orange glimmered on the eastern horizon, soon to herald the arrival of the morn. Yet there was not a hint of sleepiness within Robert, and he felt his body brimming with vigour despite the early wake.

He stood atop his black destrier, Storm, as the chilling gales battered his face; a hooded fur-lined cloak protected his back and neck well enough. The North was a hardy place, old and cold; Oakheart and Selmy stood uneasily behind him like a pair of white shadows, along with another dozen riders, all shivering under the nightly chill.

It had been nearly a fortnight since they had left Winterfell, and they were making good speed despite Cersei's complaints about her sore bum. If anything, that only made Robert steel himself to maintain the tempo if nothing else - a tired lioness barely roared. However, he didn't doubt that his petty wife would find some way to make his life miserable later on for it. Yet, Robert couldn't find it in himself to care; for now, he could enjoy the road, the endless hills, the blue sky, and the lack of stench that came with his city. The cold felt invigorating more than anything else.

Soon enough, Ned emerged from his tent, step slow and drowsy and eyes heavy with sleep as the Stark men-at-arms were saddling his horse.

"Up, up, Stark," An amused cry tore from Robert's mouth. "We have matters of state to discuss!"

"Should we go inside the tent, Your Grace?" Ned rubbed his eyes groggily.

"No," Robert waved away. "This camp is too full of ears. We shall go out for a ride - I want to taste that country of yours."

When his friend was on the saddle, Robert spurred his steed forward. He threw a wayward glance behind him - his royal retinue and Ned were following. Without a worry, he urged Storm faster, and the vicious cold wind battered against his face. It was chilly, and it cut like a knife across his exposed skin, but Robert loved it, even when his hood was removed by a vicious gale. The light from the east crept up more and more, colouring the sky red and orange and slowly banishing the lingering darkness.

Robert had had enough from the road and wheeled Storm to the west into the roiling hills, where mist still crept in the lowlands. A joyous smile couldn't help but appear on his face as he rode and rode through the green expanse, the sound of his friend and retinue galloping behind him.

Soon enough, when cresting over a craggy hill, dawn broke, and the sun finally showed to the east, making Robert halt and turn around, gasping heavily. Ned reined just behind him, and the rest of the retinue had stopped just out of earshot.

"Gods," he chortled, breathless, "it feels good to get out and ride the way a man is meant to! I swear, Ned, Cersei had a wheelhouse when we left King's Landing; you wouldn't believe how slow that monstrosity was - a day scarcely passed without an axle breaking or a wheel cracking. Yet it feels that we're still crawling on the road even without it!"

Ned didn't look even a bit winded at the travel so far, making Robert wonder if he had let himself go too much. Mayhaps he would spend more time in the yard. The idea made him shake his head; such an endeavour would require him to drink and whor* less.

"We're making a good way, Robert. In two or three days, we'll be in the Neck already."

"And it will be two more moons till King's Landing at this pace," the king sighed. "How's my youngest doing?"

"Tommen is still getting used to his new duties," Ned rubbed his brow tiredly, "the boy is young still and has much to learn."

"You're doing good work, and he no longer jumps from his own shadow from what I hear." Tommen was too soft and weak, but he was barely a boy, and there was plenty of time to grow. Still, his friend was good at raising children - all of his had turned out well. "Last night, Cersei came to whinge at me that you're stealing all her children, you know. I hear Joffrey had been going to you, too?"

"Gods," Ned groaned with exasperation, "your eldest came to ask me about the gods."

"The gods?" Robert's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Why would he come to you for the Seven-Pointed Star and not some septon?"

"The old gods, Robert, not the new."

The king couldn't help but gape at his friend's strained expression. The image of Joffrey piously praying under the bloody leaves of the heart tree made him chortle. It was like a dam had burst open, and the chortle turned into a guffaw as his laughter echoed across the hills. It took him a good minute to calm down and speak again.

"And what does my eldest want with the old gods?"

"The lack of clergy intrigued him," Ned's words were slow and measured. "Along with the weirwood trees - he developed some odd fascination with them. And he asked about certain practices, about sacrifice and the such."

"I thought these barbaric things stopped long ago?"

Ned's jaw tightened.

"It was no different than placing a man's head on a spike - it was just done before the heart tree where the gods could see your victory. It was the same thing for justice - killing men before the sight of gods. You do things the same in the South, do you not? Your own scaffold is just before the Sept of Baelor. Should I stop teaching the crown prince?"

"Ah, it's no bother," Robert waved away his friend's concerns, "It would do Joffrey good to learn more things, and half his kingdom follows the Old Gods, after all."

"Religion is one thing, but what about training at arms and rulership? Your eldest has only trained once since he came to Winterfell, and to my knowledge, there's nobody to teach him the matters of state."

A pained groan escaped his lips. He had left most of his councillors in King's Landing and came here to pick up a friend, not another one!

"And I suppose you have a recommendation of your own?"

"Joffrey is the right age to squire, at least," Ned pointed out. "A king must know how to fight and lead. Ser Barristan is a prestigious choice that nobody would object to. And either you or Pycelle should teach the boy about the intricacies of rulership."

"His mother would hear nothing of it," Robert groaned. Not that he had any desire to spend on whinging children.

"Are you the king, or is she?"

The biting words felt like a slap, and he reddened as his gloved fists squeezed over the reins in a fury. How dare he?!

Robert opened his mouth, but he could only sigh under Eddard Stark's steely, unrelenting gaze. The king deflated as all of his fury bled out of him - it was true; he had started giving in to his harpy of a wife because he was tired of arguing.

"You don't have a lioness in your bed every night," the words felt bitter on his tongue. Ah, ah, if only it were Lyanna instead. Ned wouldn't understand -hiswife was kind and full of passion, not this cold, spiteful bitch that was his queen. "Nor do you have Tywin Lannister for a good-father."

Damn Jon Arryn for convincing him of this marriage!

"I suppose I don't," Ned grimaced. "But you hardly spend most of your nights with your wife. Have your eldest squire for the Kingslayer, then. Some discipline in the yard would do him good, and Cersei would be unable to object."

"I thought you disliked the Kingslayer?" Robert blinked, looking at the man before him as if he was seeing him for the first time.

His friend stiffened, and his jaw was clenched again, reminding him of Stannis.

"I would not deny his skill with a blade or his blood ties to the boy. And Joffrey is the crown prince, Robert; he needs to be groomed for rulership and the rest of his duties sooner rather than later."

"Fine, fine, I'll get Pycelle to start his lessons and for the boy to squire for his uncle," the king grunted. It was not a bad idea to have Joffrey away from his mother's clutches, but he wasn't sure if these endeavours would even have any effect. "I have half a mind to keep riding in the distance and leave all these headaches behind."

"I believe you mean it," Ned smiled fondly.

"I do! What say you, Ned? Just you and me, two vagabond knights on the road with the swords at our side, the wind at our back, and whatever fortune we can make in front of us. A tavern wench or a farmer's daughter, mayhaps?"

"Ah, those days are long gone, Robert, you know this," his friend shook his head forlornly. "You cannot run from your crown anymore than I can run from my lordship. Both of us have wives, children, and duties. We are not the boys we were…"

The king snorted; Ned was young once but never a boy, always solemn and serious.

"More's the pity. What was her name, Ned?"

His friend froze.

"Whose name?"

"That common girl of yours," he scratched his coarse beard, trying to remember. "Becca? No, she was one of mine, gods - I loved her black hair and these sweet eyes; you could drown in them. Yours was… Aleena? No, you told me once. Was it Merryl? You know the one I mean, your bastard's mother?"

For a painfully long moment, Ned stood there, silent like the statue in those frozen crypts of his as the cold northern gale battered at them.

"I forgot her name," his voice was quiet like a whisper, face full of guilt and longing. Oh gods, was he blaming himself? No, Eddard Stark was not a block of carved ice but a man of hidden passion, Robert knew. "Even her face is lost to me…"

"A pity - she must have been a rare wench to make Eddard Stark forget his honour, if even for an hour," Robert grinned, but Ned's face only soured further.

"Is that why you called me here?" The words were even more chilly than the night gale. "Are the matters of state now whor*s and hedge knights?"

"Fine, fine," the king slapped his knee; gods, the lordship had made his friend a more dour man than he ever was. "You were too hard on yourself; you always were. I won't press if you don't want to talk of it, but if you're so prickly, you ought to take a hedgehog for your sigil."

That finally elicited a snort from his friend. Ah, no matter how struck up Ned seemed to be, Robert would hesitate to call him Baelor the Blessed. The pious king was rumoured to have never bedded his wife, yet here Ned was with five, no four now, sprogs to his name from his lady, with probably another on the way as Cat had the glow of a woman well-f*cked.

Robert shook his head and looked around as the rays of the morning sun were banishing the last vestiges of the roiling mist, revealing a flat field of green and brown dotted with hills here and there.

"The barrows of the first men," Ned tracked his gaze and pointed at the hills.

"Have we ridden into a graveyard?" Robert couldn't help but frown at the sight. Disturbing the dead was a bad thing; who knew what vengeful ghost or vile curse would come out? The first men were hardy folk, a remnant of a dark and bloody, long-forgotten era where heroes, monsters, and gods clashed amongst the lands.

"These barrows are everywhere in the North, Your Grace. This land is old."

"And cold," he couldn't help but grumble as another icy gust swept past. "Too much work and no fun, you Starks. There was a rider in the night from my spymaster. Here."

He grabbed the roll of parchment from his belt and handed it to Ned.

"Is it still Varys?"

"The man is capable, and I had no reason to dismiss him," Robert waved away the frown as his friend's eyes scanned the words on the parchment.

"What is the source of this?"

The king braced himself for another disappointed glare.

"Do you remember Ser Jorah Mormont?"

"Would that I might forget him," Ned's words were tight and blunt. "A slaver, an oathbreaker, and a craven rolled up in one."

"Well," Robert shuffled uneasily but then hardened himself. "Ser Jorah was in Pentos, anxious to earn a royal pardon to allow him to return from exile. Lord Varys makes good use of him."

"From a slaver to a spy," his friend's brow was scrunched with thinly veiled distrust as he returned the letter. "I would rather he was a corpse."

"Spies are more useful than corpses if you ask Varys," Robert chortled, then eagerly leaned closer. "Jorah aside, what do you make of this report?"

"Daenerys Targaryen has wed some horselord. What of it? Should we send her a gift?"

The king couldn't help but frown about how nonchalant his friend was about the spawn of the mad king. Did he not care?!

"A knife, perhaps. A good, sharp one with a bold man to wield it."

"You know," his friend's words were slow and measured as he was deep in thought, yet Robert could detect mirth in his friend's voice. "Viserys must be a fool. I've read on the horselords."

"You have?!"

"Aye, from my grandfather Rodrick's journals and some treatises from adventures and explorers. He served with the Second Sons for many years and travelled most of Essos. You see, the khals oft take more than one wife," Robert reared in surprise. And there was a sliver of raw envy underneath. "They don't acknowledge any marriage alliances in the following generation; any khal is made by his mettle and skills, not blood."

"How does that help us?"

"Viserys was a fool to give away his sister's hand like this. Send an honest gift-"

"As if! Why would I give anything to those dragonspawn!"

His roar seemed to unsettle both of their horses, and Robert was forced to tug on the reins to calm the unnerved Storm just as Ned patted his grey destrier's neck.

"Do you trust me, Robert?" The king frowned but nodded. There was no man alive he would trust than the one before him. "Then I shall speak frankly. The Dothraki are hardy, savage folk, but not without their own brand of honour. Send a genuine gift to this Khal Drogo, and forget about the mad king's children."

"That would make me look weak!" Robert snorted dismissively. "As if I'd send some savage offerings!"

"You could send a catspaw after Viserys or even the Khal's wife, but that would only infuriate him. How would you feel if someone sent a dagger in the dark after Cersei?" Ned looked at him pointedly.

"Happy, especially if they succeed! I'd celebrate - I mean mourn for days!" The thought made Robert grin, yet Ned looked at him flatly.

"And then you'd call your banners and go to war because it would be a slight against you and yours."

Ah damn it, why did his friend always have to speak so much reason! More's the pity that nobody would assassinate Cersei; Robert would love to feast after her death and go to war afterwards.

"Fine, damn it!" The king groused. "What gift should we send to the man? The khals extract riches in tributes from all the Free Cities - they lack not for fancy trinkets and gold."

"Something rare," Ned murmured, deep in thought. "I have a few mammoth tusks in Winterfell's vaults. One can be bound by gold and silver, and carved with runes and turned into a warhorn."

"And mammoth ivory is more than thrice as large as those measly elephants they have in Essos," Robert hummed. Damn it, now he wanted to go Beyond the Wall and hunt for those elusive mammoths. It would be a glorious hunt!

"Aye, Khal Drogo would view this as a tribute, making Viserys and his claim a laughing stock. The boy's dependent on his sister's mercy now. The Dothraki have never set sail before; we don't need to give them a reason to sail now."

He couldn't help but frown.

"And what if the dragon whor* begins birthing dragonspawn?"

"Let her," his friend shrugged. "Her royal mother had great difficulty birthing. Even if she succeeds, they might all turn out to be girls - the Dothraki place little stock on women. Even if Daenerys manages to birth sons, they'd be half-savages that have never even seen Westeros - what threat are they to you?"

"Come now, Ned, surely you know of the Blackfyres. Five times they tried to come back to plague the kingdoms!"

"Doesn't that work well for you?" The Lord of Winterfell quirked his eyebrow. "Nobody would support the horselords should they come here. Nothing unites the kingdoms like an outside foe."

Robert couldn't help but nod; the memory of Greyjoy's folly was still fresh in his mind. Still, that did not fully assuage his troubled mind.

"But the Blackfyres could barely muster ten thousand swords. A hundred thousand Dothraki screamers are a different thing altogether," he pointed out.

"They are," Ned admitted with a smile. "But every rider has a horse or two, and no fleet can carry a hundred thousand men and twice as many horses in one go. The horselords are savage folk, and none would suffer their presence here in Westeros, dragon banners behind them or not. You have nothing to fear as long as they cannot gallop up curtain walls or across the sea. Besides, it's not easy to kill someone protected by a hundred thousand horsem*n."

"Bah," Robert spat on the ground, "if only Stannis had caught the dragonspawn instead of dallying."

The gall of his brother to demand Storm's End when he had failed his most important task!

"Stannis is an unmatched at sea," Ned straightened up. "The horselords know nothing of sailing; if they dare cross the Narrow Sea, he'll meet them with blood and steel and feed their bodies to the waves. And those who do manage to go through would face the kingdoms united; few would tolerate slaving savages."

"I would have had the dragonspawn killed long ago if not for Jon Arryn's misplaced mercy," Robert fumed and had to rein in Storm, who began whining nervously. "More fool I for listening to him. And then it was too late when that pox-ridden Pentoshi cheesemonger had them walled up in that manse of his, protected by his pointy-capped eunuchs from every side."

"Jon Arryn was a wise man and a great Hand. He let them go free - and from what little I heard, Viserys managed to piss away almost all of the goodwill his name provided in the Free Cities in less than five years. Never interrupt your opponent when he's trying to make a mistake, Robert - you know this. The khal probably took the girl because she was pretty and cared little for her brother or the fallen House of the Dragon."

Robert exhaled slowly, trying to rein in his temper.

"Fine," the words were spat like a handful of nails as he poked his finger like a spear at the man. "Have it your way -youarrange a suitable gift for this Khal Drogo."

"It shall be done, Your Grace," the Lord of Winterfell bowed deeply.

In the end, it was upon Ned's head as Hand to fight the war should the horselords cross the Narrow Sea anyway. Why would Robert care?

18th Day of the 6th Moon

Tyrion Lannister, the Wall

The North went on forever and ever, and Tyrion couldn't help but wonder at the grand size - and emptiness of the land. Rocky hills, rivers, and valleys aplenty, covered by elm, oak, pine, and shrubbery, which stretched in every direction. He could see the northern mountains looming to the west, their peaks still capped with snow. Inns, villages, and holdfasts were rare around the kingsroad even more so than before Winterfell, for few had reason to travel to the Wall, and those who did were on a one-way trip. Tyrion knew his maps better than most, but no piece of parchment could ever bring to life the reality before his eyes.

He and his two men-at-arms had quietly departed along with the king but headed North instead. It was a long, dreary journey, especially since neither Jyck nor Morrec liked to talk much. At least the latter could cook quite well and was a better hunter or a servant than a warrior with his recurve bow.

Despite his uneasy sleep, nothing befell him - there were no brigands, wildlings, or the such, as Jaime had worried when they left. For a short moment, Tyrion hesitated in his choice of destination, but in the end, he did not give up - this was his chance to travel unsupervised, away from the judging gaze of his father, lack of company or not! Besides, Tyrion did vow to piss from the Wall itself, and he'd be damned if he did not.

At least the North seemed safer than anything else, although that could be Jyck and Morrec with their steel or just the golden lion of Lannister warding away any trouble.

Yet, he found himself bored - he had readThe ConquestandHistory of the Kings-Beyond-the-Walltwice each and had no desire for a third reread. Those were all Maester Luwin had deigned to spare from Winterfell's library. Tyrion was forbidden to take the rarer tomes with him - but he did get to read some of them during his stay there. Most of them were focused on the North and House Stark itself - tales, history, and similar fascinating readings. There were even a few ancient leather-bound tomes inked with the runes of the first men that Luwin could barely decipher - it was an old, dead script seldom taught; it was surprising that the Maester knew any at all.

All the reading left him moderately satisfied - his niece was in good hands. Robb Stark was one of the more decent lads out there, capable and courteous, if a bit too much like his father. Which was mayhaps not a bad thing - Catelyn Stark was one of the happiest noblewomen Tyrion had seen.

Thankfully, his dreary journey was finally coming to an end - the enormous Wall was looming above them, shining grey and blue under the sun. His thighs were raw from the riding even with the steady pace, his legs cramped oft, and the cold chilled him to the bone. He'd love to complain - but there was nobody to complain to, as his escort was no better than him, so Tyrion kept quiet.

They had passed Mole's town two hours ago - a pitiful, dilapidated village more than half beneath the ground, connected by underground tunnels and burrows. Now, Castle Black could be seen in the distance, nestled like an ugly gnat beneath the Wall. As they approached, he saw it wasn't much of a castle - only a bleak hodgepodge of stone towers and timber keeps.

There were no curtain walls because the infamous Night King, the thirteenth Lord Commander, supposedly wed a woman of deathly pale skin, called the corpse bride and declared himself king. Once he had been defeated by the unlikely alliance between the Breaker and Joramun, and ever since, the Night's Watch had been forbidden to build walls, and the name of the Lord Commander had been struck from history.

It was an old tale from the Age of Heroes, and Tyrion couldn't help but question it. Why did nobody object when the Night King wed, let alone declare himself king? For thirteen years, he stood unchallenged until his supposed atrocities attracted too many foes. None dared to challenge his marriage or title, it seemed - mayhaps that's what had forced the order to change their vows? Tyrion knew the words well enough.

I shall take no wife, hold no land, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

An odd phrasing that had inspired Visenya Targaryen to create the kingsguard's vows. Were the vows changed after the Night King?

Did it even matter?

Tyrion had no way of knowing. The First Men scarcely recorded anything and left a few runes carved upon rocks and tales given mouth to mouth for generations for the world to remember them by. The first organised chronicles were inked by the Andal septons millennia later, and he knew how hearsay went from one mouth to the other in a span of a moon, let alone after thousands of years…

They finally approached - there was no gate or wall, just a wooden stair guarded by a lonely tower, its grey stone and dreary like the rest of the cold land.

Yet, the inside was not a half-abandoned ruin full of former criminals who had chosen a penal colony over losing a limb or their life - the yard was swarming with men sparring, and he could see two or three older warriors drilling batches of new recruits with grim vigour. There were a handful of barrels filled with black rock… obsidian? The clanging metal echoed from the smithy as plumes of dark grey smoke escaped its blackened chimney.

His curious gaze counted roughly over two hundred men, drilling hard as if their life depended on it.

Tyrion's arrival elicited a few errant glances.

"Is it me, or is the Watch preparing for war?" He turned to Jyck.

"Seems so. This reminds me of when the Crow's eye burned the Lannister fleet, and Lord Lannister began mustering," the red cloak agreed, with a quiver in his voice.

Gods, was Castle Black going to be under attack? Or mayhaps they were preparing for a great expedition, ready to crush the wildlings once their king was dead?

At that moment, A figure hurried out from one of the timber keeps.

It was Benjen Stark - yet he was different - a wicked scar ran across his temple, from the right side of his temple to the left cheek, barely avoiding his eyes. Instead of his jolly smile, his face had gone grim, although it could be his new scar. There was a dog, no a pitch black direwolf pup, stalking after his footsteps, about as large as one of the Stark children. Were direwolves some common dogs you could pick up now?

"Lord Tyrion, are you or your companions here to take the Black?"

The words were sharp and on point, like most of the Starks.

"And go celibate?" Tyrion tutted. "Oh no, the whor*s would go begging from Dorne to Casterly Rock."

That seemed to darken the scarred man's face even further. Damn those wolves, they were as cold as their land - no sense of humour at all!

"How can the Night's Watch help the Queen's brother?"

Tyrion wrinkled his nose. Indeed, he was nothing more than the imp - the son Tywin Lannister never wanted, and the brother the queen loathed. But it did not make it less true - blood ran thicker than water, and even a tiny lion was still a lion.

"I was hoping that I could climb the Wall and piss from it, my dear good-cousin," he threw the First Ranger a taunting smile, making Benjen sigh tiredly. "Unless you struggle to find a place for someone small like me and my two humble companions? I assure you, we'll cause no trouble here!"

"I suppose we can find a room or two," the man rubbed his brow. "There are no inns here, and if you want a whor*house, you'd have to visit Mole's town. Lord Tyrion, you couldn't have chosen a worse time to come here, but… I suppose you could still prove useful if the tales of your wit are true. We are hardly in a position to turn away aid even from the most unlikely of places…"

"What ails your ancient order to require the help of the likes of me?" An unbidden snort escaped Tyrion's mouth.

"Old things,darkthings stir to Beyond the Wall again," the words were as joyless as the man who spoke them.

Was the man japing? Benjen Stark was looking at him without a hint of deception.

"You're preparing to fight grumkins and snarks?"

"If only, Lord Tryion, if only," Benjen shook his head, his dire face hardening even more. "I suppose you have to see some things to believe them. Come."

Intrigued, he dismounted, handed over the reins to Morrec, and quickly trailed after the First Ranger, his sore, stubby legs struggling to keep up with the tall man's pace.

Notes:

I'd admit it was not the most exciting chapter by a long shot, but it was one I couldn't do without. Nothing much happens here, yet a lot of things do. The specifics of the chapter avoided me for a long time, and I wanted to skip over some things but found that I couldn't - Tyrion is not unimportant, and Varys' letter/raider is another significant point of divergence. Yeah, Daenerys exists, and technically, Varys waited for months (just like he did in canon) before informing Robert of the wedding (sneaky Spider).

Tommen is a decent page; Ned subtly tries to exert his influence over the crown prince for a good cause.

Now, we see Ned doing something different based on the information he received from Jon. That's beside the fact that Daenerys is technically sixteen or so at this point and no longer a child but a woman grown - since the Rebellion did end two years earlier. On the other hand, he has no desire for someone unreasonable to loom over his head with dragons. Yet, a Khal's wife is well protected, and assassinating seems more likely to spark a war than prevent it, so he's trying for different angles. He also doesn't want to go after innocent children right away either - Ned finds this distasteful, but his argument won't be BS like slaughtering innocents and whatnot - Daenerys was not innocent when she invaded Westeros in Jon's timeline and restarted a bloody and ambitious war of conquest. A tricky conundrum for him - Daenerys can be a danger on her own, but hatching dragon eggs is an esoteric thing, and nobody is sure how the fck it's done, so he chooses a somewhat different tactic than trying to appeal to Robert's mercy for something he loathes.

What results would be achieved is another question.

As for Tyrion, he entered a poked hornet's nest, and things are definitely going to get interesting. From now on, the Others plot would take a backseat with sporadic glimpses mostly; I won't go into extensive ass detail there unless it's a turning point to be had.

Also, Istronglyclaim unreliable narrator. None of the characters are objective, and they all have their own biases.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can read ahead or simply come chat or ask me or others some questions.

Do drop comments - they keep me going, and constructive criticism is always welcome. If you enjoyed the story - do consider dropping a kudos.

Chapter 29: Of Plans and Resolve

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

27th Day of the 6th Moon

Tyrion Lannister, Castle Black

His boots crunched as they stepped over the crushed gravel atop the walkway.

Tywin Lannister's youngest son was cold - the thick, fur-lined cloak and the layers of wool and leather couldn't truly fight off the vicious icy winds cutting at his face and pulling up his clothes like an insistent lover. The sun peaked between the turbulent clouds above, but its rays scarcely provided any warmth.

Pissing off the top of the Wall had proven a challenging endeavour with the almost constant gale and the severe risk of his piss freezing or even being blown back to him, but difficulties like this could not stop Tyrion once he made up his mind.

He couldn't help but wonder at the black brothers who had to patrol this hellish place at night - whoever had said the Seven Hells were full of fire had clearly never visited the Wall. The older rangers here, those who had lost a limb or three during winter, would say nothing burned like the cold, and maybe they were right.

Maybe the septons had it all wrong - the seven hells were filled with ice, each one colder than the next. It would be just like the Wall, only worse. And to think this was still the height of Summer…

Regardless, Tyrion took one last look northwards. The haunted forest stretched like an endless carpet of green to the horizon, dotted with red from the five-pointed leaves of the weirwoods that still thrived there; the North had kept their sacred trees unmolested by the steel axes of the Andals, and so did the Lands Beyond the Wall. However, the forest lustily crept towards the south as if trying to envelop the Wall within its embrace.

The nearby portion was kept clean by the black axes of the Watch and its fierce appetite for firewood. However, when Tyrion looked east or west, the treeline had almost reached the base of the Wall - the order was truly lacking for men.

His gaze wandered to the west - the Frostfangs loomed in the distance, peaks veiled in white with the shimmer of rivers and springs that gleamed like diamonds from afar.

It was a primal, magnificent view that could humble even the tallest of men, let alone Tyrion. Casterly Rock was taller than the Wall, but the sight fell short in comparison - the sunset sea to one side and fields and hills to the other - they were dull, ugly, and bare. Not to mention the lack of a lift to take you to the highest point of the Rock dissuaded most people from enjoying the sights, especially for someone with such short, stubby legs like him.

Perhaps he could mention these contraptions to his father to have them installed?

With a shake of his head, Tyrion returned towards the crane, where the iron cage still awaited him.

The black brothers at the winch nodded dully without uttering a word. Not a merry lot for sure, the Watch was filled with thieves, rapers, and bitter old men. Tyrion suspected that many regretted picking the black over the block.

Soon, his descent began, and the cage swung slowly like a pendulum from the angry gales, forcing Tyrion to grab the iron bars and hold on tight.

The sight below was dreary as usual - the yards were filled like a hive full of ants. Men garbed in black, drilling with spears and bows in various formations.

The commanders of the Night's Watch and the senior rangers had debated for nearly a dozen days before deciding to switch the training of the black brothers.

After all, dragonglass could not be hewn into anything longer than a dagger. It was perfect for spearheads and arrowtips, however. Someone had proposed embedding them into clubs, but that idea was quickly put down - it would require too much material for a single weapon. Tyrion had checked the edges of the knapped obsidian arrowhead - it was razor-sharp, more so than castle-forged swords, albeit far more brittle.

Slowly but steadily, he descended until the cage jerked to a stop when it hit the ground with a thud. It took a few moments for the ground to stop wobbling, and Tyrion unlatched the door, unsteadily making his way to one of the wooden keeps where the feast hall was.

He had to go over one of the training yards where Ser Alliser Thorne screamed at the new recruits to stand in a proper spear line. Tyrion shook his head; it was a sorry sight - many of them barely knew one end of the spear from the other.

Around the other courtyards, stewards and masons were busy chipping away at raw obsidian, slowly shaping it for use.

The wooden keep was an even more sorry sight - rather dilapidated and made from stacked weather-beaten pine logs, with a pair of sentries garbed in black leathers and wool cloaks at the door.

"You wanna join the meeting, little man?"

It was the sour-looking man with a craggy, weathered face who spoke.

"Yes," Tyrion nodded curtly.

They opened the door with a creak, letting him enter.

The insides were somewhat dim but cosy and warm, with the rafters above covered by cobwebs and blackened by time and smoke.

Just as one entered, they were faced with a stand where the slender icy sword, which glimmered like a diamond upon the flickering lights, was displayed for all the brothers of the Night's Watch to see. The air around it was frigid despite the roaring hearth, and parts of the stand were laced with a thin layer of frost. Three nights ago, a group of fools had tried stealing it; one lost his hand to the frost, and all of them were caught and hanged for desertion afterwards.

Grumkins and Snarks and Others and Children of the Forest had come to life if the testimonies of six rangers were to be believed.

Tyrion still wasn't sure if all of them were not driven mad by the cold either way, for the tales that were spun were more and more unlikely and sounded like something from the Age of Heroes.

A sword of ice was a queer, unseen-before thing, but it was little proof of anything. Thought the dull dread in the eyes of those who had returned along with Benjen Stark was the real thing, along with the desiccated limbs of what must have been a monstrous-sized spider. Surely, they must have fought and seen something, but Tyrion was not convinced of what it truly was.

The snow could easily play with your eyes during the night, and Children of the Forest, Wargs, Others, walking corpses, and icy spiders were too fantastical for his mind to accept. A bastard, barely of age, doing heroic rescues even less so.

Yet, the more time Tyrion spent here, the less sceptical he felt - in the end, one would not build a seven-hundred-foot wall to keep a few savages with sticks and stones out…

The smooth, straight wound that ran diagonally from the left side of the temple to the right side of the chin turned the First Ranger's face into a savage reminder that could not be denied.

And the icy sword was the real deal; it was unnaturally sharp and could bite into steel and hardened wood with little effort. But for some reason, only Benjen Stark could wield it - the handle was so cold itburnedto the touch, even after wrapping it in leather and linen, quickly covered by a layer of frigid hoarfrost.

Tyrion would know - he couldn't help but resist trying to touch for himself; the ache from the slight burn on his finger still lingered, and it was earned from a single yet brief touch.

"Here to join us again, Tyrion?" The Lord Commander's voice brought him out of his musing.

"There's not much else to do for a man like me," he returned as he waddled his way to one of the empty chairs around the high table. Too tired for acrobatics, he climbed the chair like a monkey and sat down, his chest scarcely above the long oaken table.

Jeor Mormont, Denys Mallister, Cotter Pyke, Benjen Stark, the old Maester Aemon and a few others were gathered here, looking at a multitude of maps of the Wall and the lands beyond strewn all over it. Dreary men, all garbed in the black clothes of the Night's Watch.

"Are you certain you wish to leave so soon?" Mormont prodded.

"Indeed," he nodded. "My brother Jaime will be wondering what has become of me. He may decide that you have convinced me to take the black!"

"If only I could," the Lord Commander shook his head and gazed at one of the numerous maps before him. "You have cunning in spades. We could use men of your sort here."

"Then I shall scour the Seven Kingdoms for dwarfs and ship them all to you, Lord Mormont." His jape barely elicited a chuckle or two from the dreary men.

"If all of them had half of your wit and guile, I'd take them without hesitation," the former lord of Bear Isle hummed. "You should consider travelling south with us. From Eastwatch to King's Landing is more than twice as fast as on horse."

Of course, Tyrion knew that already; it was just that seafaring and its endless swaying had never appealed to him. He had tried it once, and it was a dismal experience, feeling as if someone had bludgeoned his head and forced him to keep puking out his luncheon in a bucket.

"Fine," he finally agreed, looking at the desperate gazes of the men around the table. Tyrion felt his insides twist - they all looked like drowning men grasping for straws, and there was little he could do to aid them. Travelling more than two thousand miles on horseback was just as unappealing in the end. At least the torment would be over quicker on a ship, and the sooner he returned, the sooner he could spend his time in Chataya's again. "When do we leave?"

It was little wonder the North was such a gloomy place - the only half-decent whor*house on the road to Castle Black was in Wintertown.

"In three days," Cotter Pyke's voice was rough, just like the man itself - the ironborn commander was a hardy man; his nose had been broken again, and a coarse beard attempted to hide his pox-scarred face. "I'll accompany you to Eastwatch, and you'll take one of my ships from there."

"We must do something about the increasing desertions," Benjen Stark also spoke up, face grave. "More than a dozen men slipped out through the night ever since I returned."

Tyrion didn't blame them - he wouldn't want to fight terrifying foes of myth and legend either. Most of the brothers of the Watch were just petty outlaws who preferred to avoid losing a limb or the gallows. Fighting wildlings was one thing, but White Walkers, giant spiders, and walking corpses were another.

"You can't expect a few farmer boys to be willing to fight against walking corpses and big spiders," Tyrion pointed out.

"We don't have much choice now, do we?" Cotter Pyke sighed, rubbing his brow tiredly.

"Write to the Northern lords," Denys Mallister tilted his head. "Have them send back the deserters here upon capture, where they ought to be made an example of in person. Anyone else would think thrice before fleeing after a few proper hangings."

"That is easily done. But we barely have a thousand men, and only a third of that any good with arms," Mormont rubbed his brow tiredly. "Far from enough to defend the Wall properly, let alone risk thinning our ranks further by going ranging. Besides, you can train a craven to wield a spear or a sword, but you cannot make him find his guts and fight a battle properly. As much as it pains me to admit it, the Night's Watch cannot deal with this alone. Our only hope is your lordly brother, Stark, and His Grace."

"Even if we had the numbers, it's not like the Others would give us a pitched battle," Benjen pointed out. "They only attack during the cold nights and when they have the element of surprise and number's advantage."

Seven above, all of them were a grim, dreary lot, just like Castle Black. It was a terrifying sight what the lack of hope could do, even to the best of men.

"Both of you are correct," Aemon's voice was soft and quiet, but they all leaned to listen to the old man's words. "But mayhaps we're going at this the wrong way. In the scant records we have, if they can even be called such, it was said that the Long Night lasted for a generation. I know not if such a thing would happen again, but we need to prepare for every scenario. Lord Stark's intent to reform our ancient order will be essential."

"You mean to address every issue the Night's Watch is facing at its very core?" Tyrion asked, intrigued.

"Indeed, Lord Lannister," the ancient maester nodded. "I believe that was our Lord Hand's original idea as well. We must grab this opportunity and take even the smallest advantages here."

"I am wary of discarding eight thousand years of tradition so quickly," Denys Mallister added. "But mayhaps we truly need some change. The Watch will dwindle to nought within a century if nothing changes, even without any foes looming from the north."

"Aptly said," Jeor Mormont straightened up. "That's why I shall be going in person with the ice sword down South with Buckwell and Jafer Flowers to testify what they saw North of the Wall, along a few wandering crows. Now, though, I'll hear your thoughts on how to possibly address the many troubles we are facing."

8th Day of the 7th Moon

Val

The tide of corpses seemed endless in the darkness of the night, yet their front line held, with Jon fighting savagely at the helm.

The surroundings were littered with braziers and torches, keeping most of the creeping darkness at bay.

The burning corpses burned out too quickly, leaving little more than charred bones behind.

Val and nearly a score of the best marksmen stayed atop the hill, guarded by a dozen wolves led by Ghost. It was unnerving to wait in the darkness while a battle raged around you, but Jon Snow's tactics had proven their mettle - torches danced in the night, setting the walking corpses aflame.

After a few more minutes, deafening screeches finally heralded the arrival of the enormous spiders and their icy masters, and Jarod Snow signalled them to notch their arrows.

Her heartbeat thundered like an angry drum; her limbs were stiff, and every mouthful of frigid air burned her throat as cold puffs escaped her reddened lips.

The moment the Others appeared, Jarod Snow gave his signal, and the icy foes were greeted with an unending hail of obsidian. The two dozen Singers climbed the trees on the side and began raining arrows from above upon the Cold Ones.

Val could count about ten of the Others, but after a few heartbeats of the relentless onslaught of arrows and a few inhuman screeches, all the spiders were dead, and the Cold Shadows were reduced to a measly three.

One tried to hide between the wights while the other two charged into the melee, but to no avail.

The first one managed to escape into the darkness, but the other two perished - one was decapitated by Jon, while the other was crowded by five spearmen, and even the crystalline sword failed to fend off all the spears aiming for his pale neck.

The Others had all fallen, but the tide of corpses continued - albeit slowly dwindling.

While the fighting at the base of the hill continued, Val and the others, with a bow and obsidian arrows, had to remain vigilant, scanning the dark forest for a return of more Cold Shadows.

For good or for bad, none came, and slowly but surely, the wights lessened until there were no more.

A victorious roar spread through the hill, and the battle ended.

"JON SNOW!"

"WARG LORD!"

Weapons raised high in the air, the cries chanting her man's name were nearly deafening and wouldn't dwindle.

Though the cold night had its way of extinguishing even the most blazing of passions, and a handful of minutes later, Jon sat atop the hill next to the playful flames of a crackling fire. His hair was a splattered mess of gore and sweat, and his attire fared no better - his cloak and doublet were almost entirely covered by guts and blood, yet other than that, he seemed unharmed.

Removing all that grime from his attire would be a challenge, however. The rest of the fighters looked like a mess, but none had fought as hard or killed as many as Jon.

The free folk initially gazing upon Jon Snow with suspicion or mistrust now only had grudging respect and even reverence in their eyes. A few spearwives, especially that red-haired Ygritte, were eyeing him hungrily like bitches in heat, making Val scowl just from the thought of it.

While some men had many lovers and wives, she loathed the idea of sharing him withanyone. Jon Snow was hers, and hers alone.

"I ain't wounded," he waved away the pale-haired Singer. "Go tend to the others."

She nodded and quickly dashed away, like a deer in the night. They might not speak the tongue of men, but most leafcloaks understood the words well enough now.

A relieved sigh escaped Val's mouth as she sat beside Jon on the fallen log. Every time they battled, there was a sliver of worry in her, but it was steadily dwindling - despite still being the first in battle, her man seemed far more cautious.

"Nine dead and thrice as many wounded," Jarod came over and reported dutifully. "Not much obsidian can be scavenged. Seems like we lost half a thousand arrows."

Jon nodded silently and continued cleaning the rippling blade from all the gore with a rag.

"Good fight," sitting across the fire, Blind Doss slammed a fist atop his chest, "and better victory!"

"Aye," one of the raiders, Derk, roared in agreement, and the others quickly joined his clamour. "Feels good ta fight instead o' runnin' like frightened rabbits!"

To the side, a dozen men were quickly piling up all the unburnt corpses and limbs on one enormous pyre. A few were cutting apart the spiders to be roasted - with thousands of throats to feed in one place; you could not afford to discard any source of food, and the spiders tasted surprisingly good. The direwolves also devoured the remains of the spiders with relish.

"This cunning idea of yours worked very well," Styr grunted, impressed.

"The Others are no different than any other foe," Jon's voice was languid. "Once you know their weaknesses and habits, they can be killed and hunted down. I promised you to show you how to fight them, did I not?"

The hill exploded with grunts and hollers of agreement, and many began chanting his name once more.

This was the second time their group had managed to bait the cold ones to attack, and like the first time, Jon Snow led them to victory. Two more warbands had also succeeded, albeit with quite higher casualties, and another, smaller one had been completely annihilated.

For nearly a moon, Jon's forces had felled nearly three dozen Cold Shadows.

And so they did - all those sworn to Jon had been split into a handful of warbands: small ones of fifty men and larger ones of two hundred, and this one was the latter. All in all, it was just about two thousand warriors and spearwives, with the rest of the folk staying back to guard, harvest, and process that obsidian vein where they had made their camp.

A few skinchangers with winged companions allowed a greater ability to respond to those overwhelmed too much.

Jon had initially wanted to send out more warbands, but that seemed to be the limit of warriors that could be armed with obsidian by their deposit. Battling against the Cold Ones exhausted their obsidian-tipped arms quickly - they were brittle and quick to break, and too few could be salvaged after a battle.

The warbands would pick a defensible position to dig into for the night and await the arrival of the Others, armed to the teeth with obsidian and prepared to fight wights. The Cold Shadows always came during the night and avoided attacking unless they had the numbers advantage, and Jon punished that habit of theirs with impunity.

"Do we know how many icy f*cks are out there?" Howd the Wanderer raised his arms and stretched in a bid to relieve the tension from his limbs.

"It doesn't matter," the Thenn chieftain gave a bloodthirsty grin, looking particularly savage with his missing ears and shaved head, splattered with dark gore. "We'll kill every single one of them."

"Lord Snow!" A cry came from the nearby scout, who ran over hurriedly. He had a piece of ice hooked upon the tip of his spear and was eyeing it with apprehension. "Morl found this where the Cold Ones fell. Had his hand burned when tried to pick it up too!"

The rest of the surrounding warriors quickly spread out, making way for the man.

Jon snatched the icy object from the tip of the spear and carefully inspected it. Val could see it clearly now; under the flickering lights of the fire, it was a slender bracelet hewn from ice, reflecting the surroundings like a pool of water, just like that blade of frost the crow had taken south with him.

9th Day of the 7th Moon

They were in the enormous tent that used to belong to Mance Rayder, thrice bigger than any other. Like the rest, it was made of sewn hides, fur still on, but this one was made of the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. Jon had claimed it for his own, and they held meetings here.

The ice bracelet was too thin for Jon's wrists, so he hung it from the wooden frame above like a trophy for all to see. Like the sword, he was the only one capable of touching it without getting burned.

The tent was hot and smoky; baskets of peat stood in the four corners, filling the air with dim reddish light, though the icy trophy hanging from above provided a hint of refreshing coolness.

The mouth-watering scent of meat teased her nose as Val, her sister, and a few others spun skewered hens over two braziers. Ghost was lazily sprawled next to her, his enormous shaggy head resting upon her lap and red eyes set on the chickens. Jon and the more important chieftains were spread around in a loose circle, sitting on crude stools or pelts or cleaned logs. The tent felt crowded - more than a score of men and women were inside.

"One of me scouts said the Nightrunners had all perished," Morna White Mask said.

She was a tall, wiry spearwife garbed in a brown fur-lined cloak sprouting long, shaggy hair, her face hidden by her carved weirwood mask, and one of the major chieftains following after the warg lord. Her blue eyes were big but stabbed at you like daggers. Val wondered if she was scarred or ugly underneath to hide her face like that.

"Har," Giantsbane's voice boomed like always, "serves the prickly fools right!"

Val also felt a tinge of vengeful satisfaction at the news - most of the Nightrunner tribes had been a nuisance, oft raiding around the lake and Greystone village. However, that meant that the Cold Ones were becoming more daring.

"I wouldn't be that quick to celebrate, Tormund," Soren Shieldbreaker shook his head, face solemn.

"And why?" The tall-talker grinned, waving a chicken leg stolen from the platter. "Never liked 'em, sneaking during the night, not daring to fight out in the open like proper warriors!"

"As if ye haven't slinked around in the dark yerself,Giantsbabe," Howd jeered, making the tent erupt in laughter.

"Aye, but I can fight, while the Nightrunners can barely make out one end o' the spear from the other! They must do it all wrong, that's why!" Tormund hollered and joined the commotion with a guffaw of his own.

It took them nearly a minute to calm down, and Soren was the first to speak.

"Aye, I know fools are oft the first to die, but the more of 'em that die, the more wights we have to face."

"There's nothing to be done," Jon shook his head. "Let them make their own way. Even with the river beside us for fishing and all the sheep, oxen, goats, hens, and pigs we managed to gather, food is not plentiful. More swords, spears, and bows are more a hindrance than aid if they're unruly."

"Aye, a bad friend is far deadlier than a good enemy in battle!" Giantsbane nodded his head vigorously while chewing his chicken leg. Val could see the oily grease drip into his tangled beard, then onto the shirt and ringmail and grimaced; no wonder some called him Giantstink.

"They chose their lot," Styr shook his head. "Some are hunted like deer in the forest, but others fought off the Cold Shadows. One of Gerrick Redbeard's raiders bragged that their chieftain managed to slay three of the cold gods!"

"Slay three Cold Shadows? Har! That boy might be kissed by fire but can barely handle a bear, let alone the Others."

"It matters little if he was the one to slay them or his men," Jon shrugged. "But this is good - we can fortify our position here properly while most of the Others try and hunt the scattered folk. The more the rest can put up a fight, the better for us."

"Wouldn't we be drowned by a tide of corpses, Lord Snow?" Soren still seemed uneasy. He wore an old, battered mail atop a thick shirt sewn with boiled leather, probably picked up from some slain Crow.

Another hen was fully roasted, and Dalla handed out two braces and a platter of cooked chickens for the chieftains to feast while Val handed out half a chicken to Ghost, who lazily lifted his head from her lap and devoured it in two crunching bites, bones and all.

"The Others won't attack unless they have the numbers anyway," Val's man pointed out. "And we'll have a proper wall by then."

"Ye'll make southrons of us all with those walls o' yours," Tormund shook his head, splattering grease all over.

"You say that now, Giantsbane, but I know the likes of you. You'd rather be behind or atop the wall when the fighting starts," Morna snorted, and the tall-talker didn't refute but smiled with a nod.

"Anyone has anything of import to discuss?" Jon asked.

"Ah, I almost forgot!" Tormund slapped his head. "The Great Walrus sent some men, asking if he could join ye."

"He leads the people of the frozen shore, does he not?"

"Aye, the ones with the walrus tusks, not the antlers," Giantsbane nodded. "I think he had near two thousand folks with him, though only a third o' that any good in a fight."

Jon rubbed his chin thoughtfully while looking at the fire.

"Tell him he's welcome to join if he should agree to my rules." The tall-talker nodded. "If that is all, the meeting is adjourned!"

The mentioned rules were simple enough - anyone above the age of eight had to contribute to the camp one way or another, and all had to swear to follow Jon's word. If you couldn't fight, hunt, or cut down trees, you had to learn to knap obsidian, work wood, cook, fish, fletch arrows, carve shafts, or tan furs and hides. The Great Walrus was far from the only one who had expressed a desire to join Jon's forces after Mance's army dispersed after his death. But, too many were proud and savage, unwilling to bow down to the warg chieftain and his southron rules.

None raised any more concerns, and the chieftains quickly streamed out of the tent.

Jon walked up to her and leaned over, his hand ruffling Ghost's shaggy fur, while his mouth approached her ear.

"I shall wait for you within the springs," the whisper sent pleasant shivers down her neck.

One last teasing grin was thrown her way before he also headed out.

Ghost finally stirred and, after a lazy stretch, trotted after his master. Val stood up unsteadily, her legs a tad numb.

"You're going tosparin the hot springs again, aren't ya?" Dalla gazed at her knowingly.

"And what of it?" Val flicked her sister's forehead, eliciting a fierce scowl from her sister. "You should go and steal Duncan already. I've seen a few spearwives eye the man."

"I don't like the big lunk!"

The protest was not as vehement as it was half a moon ago.

"Indeed, and that's why your gaze wanders to him every time he's around," the spearwife tutted.

"Even, and I mean, even if I liked him," Dalla glared at her. "I ain't a fighter to steal him proper, and the lug refuses to come for me!"

"Aye, but that's not the Southron way," Val shook her head. "I couldn't fight off Jon even if there were two dozen of me. There's no need for stealing - go into his tent tonight; I doubt he'll send you away from his bed."

Her sister spluttered incoherently, and her face reddened.

Val smirked victoriously and also left the tent. Its entrance was guarded by Red Jeyne, Helicent, curled atop two mossy stones nearby, and three raiders who had sworn directly to Jon.

The hill was covered by tents in almost every direction, with folk roaming around like a hive of ants. Val had never seen so many people clustered in one place, and even now, it made her marvel at the sheer grandness of it. The smell was somewhat sour and unpleasant - sh*t and piss and sweat wafted up with the wind. Although it wasn't as bad as a sennight ago since Jon had ordered everyone to start digging for outhouses and latrines, and everyone who dared sh*t in the open was made to clear his mess or outright exiled mercilessly. The few who dared argue with Jon were beaten up and thrown out without any pity.

Scores of younger children were frolicking around amidst laughter and smiles, but they were few.

Many women and older children knapped black pieces of rock, slowly turning them into speartips and arrowheads. Others were carving shafts or fletching the arrows while dogs and hens ran around, scourging the surroundings for leftovers.

Though, it was not a single hill - only the highest one, surrounded by a handful of lesser ones, also covered with tents and the such, with a few creeks and brooks running in the lowlands.

Others were clustered around fires, cooking and sewing. Down the hill in a clearing, Duncan Liddle drilled raiders with spears to fight in a line and to follow orders.

The free folk resisted the attempts of order, but Jon Snow's tactic gave tangible results, and he was not a man who could be denied - those who did not wish to follow were chased away. Slowly but surely, Jon had turned the scattered, numerous folk into what looked to be a cohesive force. Yet, even with all that, more than a thousand had left anyway, refusing to be told what to do by some kneeler.

Duncan, Tormund, and Jarod were Jon's most trusted - if the warg lord was out with a warband, one of them would hold the hill in his name.

At any time, at least ten bands were out, either hunting for food or digging up on some hill for the day, preparing for an attack by the Cold Ones.

Val's gaze moved to the west, where the Milkwater flowed. On the shore, younger boys and girls were fishing while oxen and goats roamed, looking for grass.

To the outer base of the hills, some men and giants were digging a trench while others were slowly building an odd palisade - a double-layered fence of thick fresh logs filled with pressed ground and crushed gravel between. Val couldn't help but wonder if this place would look like a Southron castle; some were already calling it the Warg's Hill or even the Warg's Keep.

Many had voiced their disagreements at such an endeavour at the start, but Jon had managed to convince them of the merits of a proper defensive wall.

Plenty of men were clearing the nearby treeline - by Jon's orders, there had to be a mile of bare ground from their wall. Even more were toiling at the obsidian vein at the crag less than half a league to the southeast. The black rock had become even more precious than steel once the news of its ability to harm the Cold Ones spread.

All that work would have been slow and hard without the aid of the mammoths and giants. Their enormous size and strength lent itself to the back-breaking work Jon had endeavoured to begin.

The camp was like an enormous ant's nest - buzzing with activity, which only calmed down during the nights. But even then, it did not stop fully.

Jon, however, told her that this was nothing compared to certain places south of the Wall, and Val struggled to wrap her head around his words.

Ah, it didn't matter. The spearwife shook her head and headed towards the cave.

On her way there, Val noticed the red witch. She was staring into the fire again, and the spearwife couldn't help but think Melisandre was lost or confused despite her impassive face.

Jon avoided her like the grey plague and wouldn't even look at the woman. It was a good thing, for Melisandre was a beauty that turned many a head, although none dared to steal her after some fool sneaked into her tent one night and had his member burned out, wailing pitifully for the whole camp to hear.

Any doubts about her ability with sorcery were quickly dispelled after that, and she was left unmolested - none were daring or foolish enough to provoke a witch.

During the last sennight, Melisandre could only be seen gazing into the fire restlessly, face glum. According to the rumours, she had not touched food or drink even once for the last half a moon, yet looked no worse for it. Not only that, but the red woman of the east seemed to feel no cold and would only stir for a short walk before returning to her resting place before her favourite bonfire.

Even those who had decided to believe in her red god could not get more than a few words out of her, as opposed to her rumoured sermons that were said to happen before.

Val passed by her, and the woman did not tear her gaze from the flames. For some reason, Leaf was sitting on a large boulder nearby, looking thoughtfully in the direction of the red witch.

A few heartbeats later, the spearwife approached Jon's fancy tent. It was nestled before a small grove of trees on the western slope of the main hill, the only ones left uncut. Jon had claimed the place for his own, and Leaf had carved a face in the biggest weirwood.

Amidst the trees was hidden the stony mouth of a cave that puffed out roiling clouds of soft mist dispersed by the wind. Val made her way inside, under the watchful eyes of a handful of singers and direwolves that lounged amidst the grove and descended into a small hot pool of bubbling water.

The insides were warm, damp, and foggy by the steam, and she had to watch her step to avoid slipping on the rocky surface. According to Leaf, the water made its way underground and flowed within the Milkwater.

She finally arrived after a short flight of crude steps hewn into the stone. Jon was already there, his muscled torso half-covered by the bubbling water, surrounded by a ring of smooth, round rocks. He had removed everything sharp from within the cave and the pool itself.

Val quickly discarded her garb - cloak, breeches, and shirt, joining Jon's clothes on the hanger he had managed to latch on one of the walls.

Once her white fur boots were undone and Val was in her maiden day's suit, she bravely dipped into the bubbling hot water, leaned into Jon's torso, and sat beside him.

His eyes were closed, but a smile appeared upon his lips as Val began to run her fingers over his scarred torso. Some of them were smooth, straight cuts earned from the icy blades of the Others, but there was also a jagged claw mark upon his side, courtesy of an enormous bear he had slain.

There was little fat on him; Jon's body was brimming with power. Beneath his skin, she could feel the corded muscles, almost as hard as steel.

"You should stop dyeing your hair," the words made her freeze.

How did he know?

While Val stood there, stiff, Jon cracked an eye open and grabbed one of her locks. The tip of it had gone silvery, with only the barest hint of gold left in it.

"Snow-kissed hair is cursed," her voice was nary a whisper, and she couldn't hide her trepidation.

Red hair was kissed by fire - it spoke of warmth, fire, and lifeblood and thus brought luck. White hair was everything but - associated with snow, cold, death, and the like.

It had given her many fights and curses and distrustful glares in her childhood until her mother had found a proper concoction to dye it with. Yet now, the dye seemed to be easily washed from the steaming water.

Val wanted to disappear into the bubbling pool now, hide away from the world and couldn't bring herself to lift her gaze and meet the gaze of distrust or disgust that her hair usually received.

Was Jon going to leave her now and take to one of the many other spearwives that lusted over him instead?

"Don't care," the words might have been soft but sounded like a thunderclap in her ears.

A finger lifted her chin, forcing her to meet a pair of grey eyes dark with lust.

"B-But, it brings bad luck," she choked on her words. "Many would claim me a witch to have beguiled you with some vile sorcery."

"I am most definitely bewitched." Jon Snow let out a bark of laughter, then pulled her in his lap, embracing her body as his head rested upon her shoulder, and his mouth began to pepper her neck with soft, warm kisses, making her insides heat and flutter. By the time his mouth approached her ear, Val had already melted. "Your wiles are irresistible! Tongues will always wag - they call me the warg lord or Lord Snow. A sorcerous witch would make a fitting wife for the likes of me."

She turned to face him, face flushed.

"You want to wed?"

Val had not contemplated that idea much before; stealing and bedding was one thing, but you could still decide to leave or find another lover. On the other hand, marriage was far rarer, different and more final - it was a union that lasted until death before the eyes of the gods. In fact, not many of the free folk ever bothered with things like that.

"Aye, I'll take you before the heart tree and speak the vows if you wish," his voice was as soft as the silken cot in his fancy tent. "I am not blind - I can see you glaring at the spearwives as if you wanted to claw their eyes out for looking at me."

Oh gods, she wanted it. Yet, she could not bring herself to say yes just yet.

"You don't want to have a dozen lovers or wives akin to the likes of Ygon Oldfather and his odd brood?"

"There is a certain appeal to that, I'll admit," she would have slapped his arm if there wasn't an amused smirk on his face, "but that's what the savage folk do. We,southrons, only wed once."

The words made her pause. Once wed, the spearwife was supposed to put down her spear, get her belly heavy with babes, and rely on her man for most things. It was not much different from what was happening now, but there were no babes…

The thought was not unappealing, and it would get the other lusty spearwives to finally back off - a married man was not to be snatched, and Jon Snow would never leave her.

"I will not be your meek and mewling southron lady, Jon Snow," she reluctantly peeled her body off his and gazed into his eyes. "But I would wed you."

Notes:

Okay, so this chapter was a bitch and turned out far bigger than I thought it would, but hey!

The Night's Watch is now forewarned and makes preparations.

As for the cattle in Jon's camp, Mance Rayder had them in his camp. While it's odd that cattle, which implies some form of agrarian society, is there, the wildlings are a mash-up of villagers, nomads, hunter-gatherers, fisherfolk, cave-dwellers, etc.

So, I suppose a very basic hint of animal husbandry is not out of the picture.

We also get a peek at what Jon and his forces are doing.

Wrangling the wildlings proves difficult; some leave while others reconsider joining. The other wildlings who fled are a mixed bag - some are getting hunted, but some are fighting back now that they have the means to.

Now, on Val's hair, it's pretty self-explanatory.

Jon's proposal to marry might seem sudden, but keep in mind that he was never going to f*ck around, and once he slept with Val, he considered her his, and marriage was just making it official.

The marriage customs of the wildlings are very vague and unclear, but overall, stealing does not seem to be considered a binding/lasting arrangement, while marriage is such (see, Craster, Tormund's daughter who got stolen first, andthenweds Longspear Ryk afterwards).

The confusion here mainly stems from Jon Snow, one of the two Beyond the Wall PoVs who gets all sorts of conflicting information from multiple sources.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can read ahead or simply come chat or ask me or others some questions.

Chapter 30: Winds of Change

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

12th Day of the 7th Moon

Melisandre of Asshai

Her dreams were short, yet cursed like always - respite and agony intertwined. Before, Melisandre felt rested after an hour of sleep, yet… now, it was steadily growing. Two moons ago, her evening rest had already increased to two hours, and now, to her horror, it was steadily approaching three.

And Melisandre of Asshai loathed sleeping and the dreams that came with it evenmore.

'Melony,' It was a woman's cry, followed by a man's voice, 'Lot Seven'.

She stared into the crackling bonfire before her; flames danced and danced, but they were fickle, empty.

R'hllor was silent.

Eyes closed, prayer left her lips, another prayer in her mind, and then Melisandre opened her eyes to face the flames.

Nothing.

It had been nearly half a year since the Lord of Light granted her a vision or answered her prayers. Even the fire inside her had grown dim - the agony, the ecstasy filling her, searing her, was dwindling. No, it had been dwindling moons ago; now it was gone. Melisandre was feeling empty and cold on the inside.

She wanted to blame this savage, frigid land or the Builder's Wall, but no, R'hllor had stopped answering her calls that day on Dragonstone.

Ever since she had felt the cold darkness stirring from the far west, Melisandre had prayed and prayed to the Lord of Light to show her Azor Ahai. Ice and fire swirled together, blood and snow danced in the winds, faceless men and trees with faces.

For moons and moons, Melisandre kept looking, even after entering the service of Selyse Baratheon. Many before her were brought low by their hubris of seeing what they wished to see instead of what R'hllor showed. This is why she had sailed north to arrive here, Beyond the Icy Wall, where the servants of the Great Other stirred once more.

The Lord of Light was always right, and her latest vision of cold, darkness, and death did not feature the stag lord in any way. Stannis, a man who breathed duty with every action, had shown some signs, but Melisandre remained uncertain.

It was a handy thing - a powerful lord's wife was an easy way to spread the teachings of the Lord. Oh, how she wanted to believe that she had found the Promised Prince, but the spark of uncertainty had turned into a raging storm of fire with her final vision.

When the Red Star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai will be reborn again amidst smoke and salt to wake the dragons from stone.

Too many signs, too many words, too many visions, all fickle, like the minds of mortals.

Melisandre loved to put up a facade of poised confidence, yet had always struggled with her inner doubts. Mayhaps even the prophecy had beenwrong,or those who had inked it down all those thousands of years ago.

But now, there were no more visions, yet the doubts remained.

The powers learned in the shadows of Asshai and the fires of the Temple of the Lord of Light remained, albeit slightly weaker, and the red ruby atop her breast did not waver.

With Rattleshirt's death, the newly converted followers scattered into the white winds, leaving her alone.

Melisandre knew the wildlings were fickle folk, but now she had nothing. Her work scattered, her destiny uncertain.

Darkness gathered, and the night was dark and full of terrors.

Yet even in the darkest hours, there was hope.

The choking presence of the icy servants of the Lord of Darkness was closing in, and the wild folk could do nought but plan their escape beyond Brandon's Wall.

For all their fiery savageness, they lacked the fire in their heart to fight against the coming darkness.

Thenhecame.

With a sword in hand, Jon Snow stoked the flames of courage within the hearts of men and women, banished the cold fear and turned the falsetrue. He turned cowardice into bravery and crushed the servants of the Great Other with unmatched valour, vanquishing every icy foe he met.

Even now, she could see the circle of dark despair around them loosening little by little. The ebbing waves of cold and death were rebuffed again and again despite their hungry insistence.

The blade he wielded was not red and lacked the flames of the Lightbringer, yet was Dark Sister any lesser? Forged in the fires of the Freehold itself, Melisandre could feel the rippled steel pulse with a fiery power of its own, more so than others of its ilk. After all, the dragonlords had dug deeper into the depths of the arcane than anyone else.

Even with her sight gone and her dulled senses, she could sense something about Jon Snow.

The signs were allwrong,and nothing fit…

But maybe it was Melisandre who was wrong?

It would not be the first time…

It was a dull thing, but there was fire to his ice, hidden deeply inside Jon Snow. It seemed like a tiny spark but could turn into a roaring fire within a heartbeat. It was all wrong, but the boy, nay, his flesh might have looked young, but he had a regal, heroic presence, utterly devoid of youth and its follies.

Was this the Last Hero come again of the ancient legends of the First Men?

While born a bastard, Jon Snow hailed from the line of the Builder himself, a descendant of the savage heroes of yore. Her weary mind wondered if the Prince that was Promised was not a title by blood as much as one passed on by the merit of one's skill and prowess?

Little remained about the sorcerer-princes of the Freehold who dwindled into oblivion millennia before the Doom, other than their ability to bend the arcane to their will, and quite a few scholars had speculated that it had been a position given by merit over blood, first and foremost.

And here, Jon Snow was called many things - Lord Snow, Warg Chieftain, Lord of Wargs and the such. Despite certain negative connotations, all those monikers carried underlying respect even amongst the savage folk - it was a power earned with his sword in hand, blood or not; he easily held those titles like a king would wear a crown.

Melisandre looked into the flames, but they wereempty. Doubt began to gnaw at her again and again.

Jon Snow had not only rebuffed any of her attempts for a talk, but he also did not deign to even spare her a single glance and avoided her as if she was a pox-ridden whor*.

Underneath his calm veneer brewed a molten river of barely restrained fury, all aimed ather.

And Melisandre had no idea why, and finding out was not easy - approaching the so-called warg lord uninvited was asking for death.

Given some time, she could ply her plentiful wiles and turn the burning hatred into a searing passion, as they were two sides of the same coin. The temptations of the flesh were hard to resist, even more so for the hardiest of men. Melisandre had done it before, but any such attempts would be met with unrestrained violence by the fair-haired spearwife that shared Jon Snow's bed. Val was a beauty but no less savage than the lands that spawned her.

She had little doubt that the direwolves would also tear her apart the moment she tried anything. There were too many of them to be affected by her glamours and charms, and Jon Snow's ability to effortlessly slip into their skins made them even more resistant to such deception - the lone could be tricked far easier than the many.

And so, the red priestess sat here, gazed into the fire, and prayed and prayed - but all she received was silence and more questions.

But one of them was far more poignant than the others.

Had the Lord of Light abandoned her?

Melisandre had asked herself this again and again for moons now, but no response came, only silence. Although silence could be taken for an answer of its own to her growing dread…

Nothing - she wasnothingwithout R'hllor.

The Lord of Light demanded loyalty and sacrifice, but she had already given it all…

She was here now, following the Lord's directions. Yet, Melisandre had never been so lost.

The idea to go back to the Temple in Volantis and consult with High Priest Benerro swirled in her head, but it was quickly squashed. The icy servants of the Lord of Darkness were drawn to her akin to moths to a flame and would hunt her down should she journey south alone.

The idea of foraying through the snow-veiled haunted forest on her lonesome without R'hllor's guidance made her grimace. The fear of death had long fled her, but perishing in vain served no purpose.

Worse, her need for sustenance had begun to return with a vengeance - her appetite had started to appear once more, and her meagre supply of food was quickly dwindling. And because of Jon Snow's clear, albeit silent, disapproval of her presence, none were willing to provide her with leftover foodstuffs.

"Melisandre of the Shadow," a woman's voice, high and sweet, yet weighted by sorrow. "Your welcome here has almost expired."

The priestess finally stirred from her seat and jerked her head, only to be faced with one of the so-called Singers of the Earth, a queer deer-like folk that followed Jon Snow. Cloaked in leaves and clad in tree-bark, nut-brown fur dappled with pale deer-like spots, long ears, and large golden eyes slit like a cat.

Oh, Melisandre was well aware of the ancient legends of the so-called Children of the Forest, but seeing them in person was another thing. At first, she had almost claimed them servants of the Great Other, but upon a closer look, they carried none of his vile and frigid darkness. Still, there was a hint of something bloody, something primal in them, just like the nameless deities of yore they worshipped.

If the whispers she had heard amongst the camp were true, only one of the Singers could speak the common tongue, and she had the apt yet droll name of Leaf.

"Is Lord Snow exiling me?"

"Everyone in the camp has to pull their weight, one way or another." But are not doing it - the words were left unsaid, but the priestess heard them well enough. "You enjoy the hospitality and protection like a guest, yet you were not invited."

The priestess looked at Leaf with a tilt of her head; the brown-furred thing barely reached her face in height, even when she was sitting. Truly, the stature of children.

Though the Singer was hard to read, her guarded eyes gave away nothing, and her face was serene like a forest.

Melisandre could not leave.

Yet, to stay, she had to prove herself useful in some way. An unwilling grimace formed upon her face - her dwindling skills lay in sorcery, persuasion, and seduction - none of which were considered of value amongst the wild folk. Trivial abilities like sewing, cooking, and the like were never necessary for a priestess of R'hllor.

"I am willing to… contribute," she offered, voice cracking slightly at the end.

The cat-like eyes were gazing at her knowingly, and the Singer nodded.

"I can teach you how to shape obsidian if you wish?"

Melisandre gazed carefully at Leaf, but the offer seemed surprisingly genuine, and worse, there seemed to be no strings attached. Her ability to read the hearts of men and women was something she prided herself upon, but doubt had begun to take root there.

Dragonglass, or frozen fire, as called by the Valyrians, was a fitting name for something that hailed from the fiery depths of the earth and was the weakness of the Cold Servants.

"I would be grateful," the priestess nodded carefully, trying to gleam something from the leafcloak's expression.

Instead of fetching pieces of dragonglass to be shaped, Leaf sat on the log beside her and curiously gazed into the fire before returning her gaze to the priestess.

"You keep looking at the flames, yet the more time passed, the more disappointed you seemed," there was a hint of curiosity in her melodic voice.

"R'hllor grants visions to his devout servants," Melisandre gave the typical yet no less truthful response, but the words left her reluctantly. "A skilled and pious follower of the Lord of Light would be guided through the fires and, in turn, light the way for the rest."

"Yet you seem quite… lost."

"It's been quite some time since I have been granted a vision in the flames."

"Gods are oft fickle," Leaf chuckled softly, the sound akin to tinkling bells in the wind.

"You understandnothingof R'hllor," Melisandre gazed into the flames and prayed again, yet nothing came. The fire danced and danced, yet it felt empty, cold.

"Mayhaps, yet I know of deities. The Old Gods lost their name in the rivers of time long ago," the Singer blinked at her before moving her eyes towards the crackling fire. "Dimwitted fools think it's trees that are worshipped, but nay. Mine gods are far more primal and powerful than a single forest could ever be. Rock and stream, forest and fire, storm and sea, sky and earth - the power of nature in its grand wroth and beautiful glory."

There was not a single shred of doubt in the deer-like being before her, and Melisandre couldn't help but blink. It was rare to be met with such a firm conviction.

"If your old gods were so powerful, why have your ilk dwindled so?"

"The greatest folly of your silly orders and clergies is that you believe gods care much about the short lives of us mortals," Leaf's chuckle was cold and mirthless now, just like the flickering snow that began to dance in the air.

Melisandre opened her mouth to give a sharp retort, but no sound came out. Half a year ago, she would have immediately denounced such blasphemy, yet the silence was deafening and maddening at the same time, and it made her feel like a blind woman wandering in the dark.

"Just… show me how to work dragonglass," the priestess sighed, pushing down her weariness.

15th Day of the 7th Moon

Princess Myrcella

There was a serene sense of peace in Winterfell. Her royal family and all the guests had departed for nearly two moons now, and the bustling bannermen and their retinue had also fled with them. It was an odd novelty compared to the commotion she was used to, but not an unwelcome one.

One of the most significant differences was the servants - the Starks knew most of them by name and received an ironclad loyalty from them. Ever since she was wed to Robb, Myrcella was on the receiving end of adoration, respect, and warmth from the household staff. It was quite unlike what she was used to with the Red Keep, where one had to be cautious of fools, lickspittles, and spies, and all the servants were as skittish as street cats.

The sense of unity and loyalty seemed to be continuously fostered by House Stark - a member of the household was invited to dine on the high table with them, where Robb listened to their woes and troubles. A tradition that Lord Stark seemed to have employed to a great degree, yet it would be inconceivable in the South - a noble, no, a highlord breaking bread with commoners and smallfolk.

It was an odd thing through and through, but Myrcella found that she did not really mind, as it brought a sense of novelty.

She also found herself being less and less guarded by the day - the Starks were far more warm, welcoming, and accepting than either side of her family.

After the wedding, her quarters had been moved into the Great Keep, right next to Robb's, although they oft spent the nights together. Any qualms about the coldness of the North were quickly dispelled - to her amazement, hot water from the hot springs flowed through the stone walls there, turning the place as warm as the Red Keep.

Myrcella was content and happy - despite her misgivings, everything was fine. The first week had been somehow rocky, and her good mother and Robb had seemed particularly tense, but she had also felt quite a lot of apprehension - this was her first separation from both of her royal parents and a permanent one at that. The tension dwindled with time but still lingered - Robb took up the duties as the Stark of Winterfell and continued to train in the yard with even greater fervour than before. Lord Stark had taken a hundred and fifty of his finest swords from Winterfell, along with the steward and a few other essential staff. Myrcella's husband seemed dead set on refilling the vacancies and vetting their ability in person.

And while the princess never cared much for fighting, watching Robb fight and train in the yard was oddly captivating - the clash of steel was akin to a dance, albeit far more deadly.

Next to her, Grey Wind sat calmly as Myrcella absentmindedly ran her hand through the shaggy fur of his neck. The direwolf approached the size of a pony and might have looked vicious but, in the last fortnight, had begun following around her like a puppy, albeit far larger and deadlier. Even at night, Grey Wind tended to sleep by the door.

Basking in the evening sun that banished most of the nightly chill that clung to the ground, Myrcella felt almost blissful. The northern cold lost most of its bite once you got used to it, but it was still there, never to truly leave.

"Lady Stark requests your presence," Rosamund's voice brought her out of her reverie.

Straight yellow hair, dull green eyes, and rosy cheeks - her distant cousin had remained here as a companion - the only one from the royal party. She could still remember how the Queen had proposed that a score of redcloaks remained here to guard Myrcella, but Lady Stark went red at the insult, and that had ended any such talks.

Rosamund was warily eyeing Grey Wind, who had lazily lolled out his tongue. Could the princess blame the poor girl, especially when the direwolf towered over her small form?

"He's one big softie," Myrcella cooed, scratching the underside of the shaggy neck, making the tail wag harder. Rosamund didn't seem very convinced, judging by her fearful eyes. "Come here and give me your hand."

The girl reluctantly approached as if the direwolf would devour her whole, much to Myrcella's amusem*nt. Grey Wind leaned in and inspected Rosamund's quivering hand, and finding her boring, the direwolf arose and twirled around Myrcella, moving to her left.

Catelyn Stark had turned out quite headstrong yet was far more accommodating than Myrcella expected and just as demanding. Her good mother was strict and firm yet soft in a warm, endearing way, which the Queen lacked.

The way to the Great Keep was not too long, but Myrcella found herself short of breath. For some reason, her endurance had dwindled lately, and she felt somewhat lethargic. Thankfully, in a few minutes, they finally arrived at one of the meeting chambers at the base of the Great Keep.

With a nod, the guardsman, Tom, opened the door, and Myrcella entered, seemingly interrupting the conversation inside. Rosamund bowed and scrambled, probably to join Beth Cassel and Lyanna Mormont. Inside, Catelyn Stark was calmly sitting by an oaken table, Shaggydog's pitch-black form curled by her feet - just like Myrcella, one of the direwolves seemed to always stick around Lady Stark for the last half a moon.

Lyra Mormont stood in the middle of the chambers in her usual leathers and ringmail. Lady Stark nodded to Myrcella, and the princess quietly sat beside her. Grey Wind proudly trotted into the room and dashed forward to nip Shaggydog's ears before curling on the ground by her feet.

"How are my daughters faring, Lyra?"

"Lady Sansa has little talent with a dagger," the dark-haired woman sighed. "Not for the lack of trying, though; she's a gentle soul with little inclination to violence. Her talent lies in the bow, but her heart is not into it."

Lady Stark sighed, and for a heartbeat, Myrcella could swear she looked ten years older. It was a fleeting thing as she quickly hardened her face and looked every inch a mother of wolves. The princess had begun to admire Catelyn Stark - even in her plain woollen gown of grey and blue, she oft managed to look more regal than her mother in silk and gold.

Truthfully, this was probably the oddest thing in the North. Even here, training at arms for women was rare outside of the more dangerous corners like Bear Isle and the mountains, and Lady Stark's insistence on making her daughters learn such things struck Myrcella as odd. However, mastery of daggers and archery was still within the acceptable pastimes for noble ladies, even in some places in the South, albeit barely.

"It's been only a moon and a half," Catelyn said, voice impassive, but there was a hint of worry within her blue eyes. "I know little of training at arms, but any skill worthwhile takes a long time and effort to cultivate. What of Arya?"

"Lady Arya is… the opposite of her sister, really," Lyra grimaced. "Her talent with a dagger is far better than that of a bow, and her enthusiasm is endless."

"You say like that is bad," Myrcella noted curiously.

"It can be," the Mormont lady rubbed her brow tiredly. "Training overmuch can see muscles, joints, and tendons strained if not outright damaged. Lady Arya hides it well, but there is an unruly streak underneath, reminding me of my sister Alysanne. The reckless reliance on armour can be quite dangerous, and I feel that she simply does not understand how perilous fighting truly could be and is treating this like some sort of a childish game."

"Do remind my younger daughter if she refuses to follow your instructions, she will be barred from further training for a fortnight unless she learns how to listen and behave," Catelyn's reply was steely, making even the steel-clad woman step back with a nod under her stern gaze. "And what of Greyjoy? I heard Theon has been joining the lessons."

"He's been co*cky but quite helpful with the archery practice."

The words were reluctant, but there was a tinge of respect there - it seems that the Heir of the Iron Isles was a skilled marksman. Myrcella didn't know what to think of Theon Greyjoy - the young man usually spent most of his time in Wintertown with whor*s if the rumours were true, and when she did see him, it was during the meals in the Great Hall, where he was half-co*cky, half sullen.

"Thank you, Lyra. You can leave us unless there's something else to report."

"By your word, Lady Stark," Lyra bowed and left the chambers.

Lady Stark closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head and picked up the small tunic with the yarn-threaded needle from the table. Judging by the size, it would go to Rickon once embroidered with the running direwolf of House Stark.

"You look quite tired," Catelyn's voice was heavy with concern as she looked at her. "If you wish, we can postpone this for later."

"There's no need," Myrcella shook her head and grabbed a piece of fabric herself. "All of you are doing so much."

"When all the household positions and the larders are fully refilled, the workload will be greatly reduced," the Stark matriarch noted fondly before her face turned deadly serious. "We must prepare for winter, for as my husband loves to say, winter is coming."

"It's still the height of summer," she said. "Surely we have plenty of time to prepare?"

"That's what I thought when I first came here, you know," Catelyn sniffed. "Yet winters in the North are longer and far harsher than in the South, and you can never be overprepared."

"Does it ever get easier?"

"There are always some harder moments, and inviting the whole North on top of the royal appetites was the most demanding of them all," Lady Stark gave her a wry smile. "It's all worth it in the end, though. Gods, even the cold has a savage beauty to it - when the deep winter comes, and snow falls and falls, you can see the land covered in a thick veil of white in every direction. It is as magnificent as it is deadly. When that time comes, you'll also find yourself bored to tears - there's not much to do."

It was hard for Myrcella to imagine, so she simply nodded and stared at the piece of fabric in her arms. It was grey velvet, suitably soft for a nightgown, yet she felt too lethargic to work on such a delicate thing.

"Shall we wait for Sansa and Arya to join us?"

"They'll probably take their sweet time to wash off the sweat and grime from the yard," Catelyn shook her head forlornly.

"Why the training at arms? House Stark does not lack swords to defend its daughters," Myrcella found herself asking, and her good-mother shuffled uneasily.

"It's more for my peace of mind than anything else," the words were slow and measured, but at the end, her voice became raw and jagged. "The ladies of the realm are usually well protected, yet all the less prepared to meet face-to-face with the cruelty of the world when the time strikes."

"War? But my father squashed all his foes and made the rest pay homage to him."

The Greyjoys were beaten into submission, and all the Targaryen loyalists were broken and reduced, with the House of the Dragon left with nought but a beggar prince and his small sister. There were no foes left - her royal father had beaten them all.

"There's no end to greed and ambition, Myrcella," a bitter chuckle escaped Catelyn Stark's lips. "House Targaryen sat as an unassailable behemoth, yet was torn down, albeit for a righteous cause. House Baratheon's legitimacy was earned at the end of swords, spears and warhammers. It is still fresh and shaky without decades of tradition and stability to back it up."

"None would rebel while my father is alive."

"Indeed, none would dare raise their banners against him, that's true. But would your brother hold the same respect?"

"My father's still young," she pointed out. "Barely thirty-six name days."

"No man lives forever. Robert Baratheon is a carefree man of great appetites- and even greater excesses. I have seen him feasting and drinking as if every day is his last," Catelyn sighed heavily as if the weight of the world rested upon her shoulders. "When I was but a little girl, it seemed like peace would last forever, but as I grew up, I realised that is nothing more than a fool's wish. Scarcely twenty years pass without a war - sooner or later, another one is bound to come."

The words were chilling, and the princess could not refute any of it - her good mother might have spoken bluntly, but her words rang true.

"Can't… can't we do anything?"

War was dangerous; she knew that much, and Myrcella found the idea of risking the lives of her family, both new and old, unappealing.

"Women cannot lead battles or fight in wars like men can. But we can provide sound counsel to our husbands and sons when the time comes."

"Is that why you're so…" The words died in her mouth as her throat felt dry.

"Helpful and kind?" Catelyn finished for her with a rueful smile, and the princess blushed. "You're wed to Robb and are now my daughter in all but blood. When I'm gone, you shall be the Lady of Winterfell, the word of advice and, if need be, the voice of reason in Robb's ear. A capable lord must have an equally capable and trusted wife, as two heads are always better than one."

She coughed and looked down, trying to get her rising embarrassment under control. Myrcella knew that much herself, but seeing it was another thing. There was a hint of undeniable approval and gentleness in Catelyn's blue eyes - and the open honesty of her words was striking far more than any scheming or deception.

It was not a bad feeling.

This,thiswas why she found herself liking Winterfell more and more - it did help that Robb was a far better husband than she had hoped for. Attentive, gentle, and passionate, and nothing like her royal father or uncle. Life was far from bereft of troubles and woes, but they seemed largely insignificant when not facing them alone.

Myrcella's stomach twisted then, and she lurched forward, fabric almost slipping from her grasp.

A wave of nausea almost made her world spin, but a firm yet soft hand propped her up.

"Myrcella, are you fine?" The princess raised her gaze to meet the concerned eyes of Lady Stark.

"I think I need some bedrest," she managed to mumble and push down the rising need to puke out her luncheon.

"When was the last time you've had your moonblood?" Catelyn's voice was oddly joyous.

Myrcella closed her eyes, trying to fight her pulsing head; gods, the lights in the room were irritating to her eyes now.

"Nearly two moons ago?"

"I think," Lady Stark's words were quiet and soft like velvet, "you might be with child. It seems that two wolves shall join the pack."

"Two?" Myrcella echoed, confused. Gods, the headache was killing her.

"You're not the only one to miss your moonblood twice," her good-mother let out a soft, joyful laughter. "I did give birth to five children and know the signs well enough. I've yet to go to Luwin myself because the seed might not always quicken, but by the second moon, the chances of miscarriage are low."

The princess tried to smile, but her stomach lurched, forcing her to heave over.

16th Day of the 7th Moon

The Isle of Women.

A ship with a sinister dark-red hull swayed unsteadily by the dingy dock. It had a single mast adorned by pitch-black sails, bearing a golden kraken; the ship's figurehead was a black mouthless maiden with one hand outstretched as if she was grasping for something before her, figure slender and curves generous - all of it forged by black iron.

The night was filled with cries of pain and yells of anguish across the village as the houses were set on fire. Yet the stone-faced ironmen were oddly silent as they herded a long line of men, women, and children clasped in irons towards the dusty square of the village, where a crude altar with a wide basin lay.

In the middle of the basin sat a round, scaly stone, pale orange with swirls of brown.

And right next to it, under the wan light of the moon, a pale and handsome man with a mocking smile and a black eyepatch covering his left eye. His lips were pale blue, glinting ominously on the flickering bonfire amidst his neat, dark beard. Atop his silver-lined belt was slung a greatsword in a gilded sheath with a golden lion-head pommel lined with red gold and rubies for eyes. He was clad in black scale armour inscribed with various glyphs, patterns, and arcane symbols.

To his right was a shivering figure leaning on an ebony staff inscribed with odd runes and figures, cowled in dark, heavy robes despite the sweltering heat.

"So noisy," Euron Greyjoy frowned as he looked at the wailing captives before turning to the figure beside him. "How much blood is needed?"

"A full b-b-basin should be enough," the voice was hoarse with an odd accent, yet shivering.

The Crow's Eye hummed thoughtfully and motioned his men to drag over the first captive, a tall woman with her belly swollen heavy with child.

She pleaded and cried, yet a knife quickly ran deep through her throat; the ironmen held her down over the basin as she began to gurgle and struggle while rich blood dripped down over the scaly stone. Half a minute later, her trashing was reduced to nought but a twitch, and after long and agonising two minutes, the flow of blood lessened, barely covering the bottom of the basin, and her still form was thrown carelessly to the side.

All the prisoners tried to struggle and yell, but it was in vain and only earned them a few brutal and painful strikes. Few who did not cease to resist were outright knocked out.

The captives were brought forward one by one, and the pile of corpses quickly grew until, nearly an hour later, the basin was finally filled with blood.

"What now?" Euron asked cheerily as he inspected his dagger dyed red with blood.

"It should stay t-there and absorb the lifeblood u-until dawn," the robed figure was shaking again. "A dozen virgins must burn on a pyre at dawn to awaken the dragon from stone."

On the morrow, as the sun peaked through the east, the Crow's Eye smiled with anticipation at an enormous pyre where twelve young maidens, some barely more than girls, were wailing in agony. Half an hour later, only ashes and embers remained, and he impatiently had his men search a round with a handful of iron fire pokers.

His joyous smile was replaced with a fierce scowl when the scaled orange stone was revealed intact. With a single motion, the sword was released from its sheath, a glint of dark, rippled gold glinted in the sun, and the head of the robed figure rolled on the ground, colouring the ashes and sand red.

"What a waste of time," Euron tutted, taking a swig of his flask, leaving a deeper shade of blue upon his lips. With a sigh, he cleaned the blood off the heavy dark robes of the fallen figure and turned his gaze northward. "These warlocks are useless."

Notes:

Chapter featuring Melisandre 'what do I do without visions again?' of Asshai, Myrcella 'Winterfell is nice' Baratheon/Stark, and Euron 'these sorcerers are f*cking useless' Greyjoy.

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can read ahead or simply come chat or ask me or others some questions.

Chapter 31: They Chose Their Lot

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

Also, if you're feeling generous or want to support me or read ahead, you know where to find me.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

18th Day of the 7th Moon

The Heir of Winterfell

He was to be a father.

Not only that but there was also another sibling on the way.

The news left him happy and worried in equal measure, even more than before. That was far from his only worry - his father's departure had him fretting even before the ominous revelations dropped at the last moment.

Many things made chilling sense after that fateful morning; the usually calm and placid Lord of Winterfell had begun making quick and daring moves, and it seemed it was for good reason. His father possibly rode south to his death, and the only consolation Robb had was that things were supposedly different now - Eddard Stark had brought many leal swords and sound advice with him.

Howland Reed might be a small and quiet man, but he had cunning and wisdom in equal measure.

No, he could see how his father had taken Jon's foreboding warning and had changed many a thing.

But the Heir of Winterfell couldn't help but worry - things might have diverged, yet trouble still brewed.

The Ironmen loomed from the west, dark, icy foes stirred from the myths of yore from the north, dragons and sellsails from the east, and the south seemed to have an uneasy peace.

His cousin, no, hisbrother, because Jon was still his brother in all ways that mattered, had easily shown with a few words how fragile the calm that had enveloped Westeros was. Robb knew his history well enough - every generation, there was a war or two, and House Stark would not be able to avoid this one. While the Baratheon dynasty seemed stable, he had seen the king with his own eyes - the days when the Demon of the Trident was a lauded warrior were long gone. No, it was only past glory and new, uneasy vows that held the kingdoms together, and Robert Baratheon himself had shown that oaths of fealty could be broken and the Iron Throne snatched if you had enough swords, no matter how righteous your cause.

It was no wonder that everything could go to sh*te once Robert Baratheon died. The royal succession was oft messy, even more so when the next in power would be Joffrey, who was overly arrogant and quite spoiled under his courteous veneer. It was little wonder so many used the tumultuous time to make a grab for power.

And Robb Stark wasn't ready; he didn't feel ready to lead men into battle, nor did he feel ready to be a lord or a father.

Winter was coming.

The Starks always prepare and endure, my son; they have done so since the Age of Heroes.

Robb Stark was not ready, so he did everything in his power to prepare. His mother had been delighted to continue expanding upon his knowledge of the Southron Houses and their different feuds and interests. The time spent in the yard and the solar only increased - his father had inked down his woes, considerations, and plans for him to mull over.

Thankfully, Myrcella and his mother were deftly handling the resupplying of their larders and granaries and replenishing the household staff that had left with his father. That left Robb with the time and energy to focus on his tasks - lordship duties, personal training at arms, and swelling the number of the House Stark household guard.

His father had taken a fifth of Winterfell's Household down south, along with Jory, and now, Robb was faced with the daunting task of refilling the household guards and expanding them. Named the Royal Guard before the Conquest, they were still the peerless elite and the leal backbone of their house, albeit going by a far more mundane name now. Recruiting and training new members was a slow process, but nothing worthwhile was ever easy. Those who wanted to serve House Stark in the North were not hard to find, yet Robb had to screen every single man with the aid of Rodrik Cassel.

Still, no matter how hard he prepared or how much he did, it did not feel enough; Robb trained until he could lift his weighted sword no more; he planned and ran figures and fights in his mind until his head got dizzy.

But it did not feel enough.

"Are you trying to become a fish by staying in the spring for so long?"

With a groan, Robb opened his eyes and craned his neck to be met with Theon's amused grin.

"If staying in the hot springs overmuch was enough to turn one into fish, you'd have become a squid long ago," he joked weakly.

"And what would you do without my company, I wonder?" His friend quickly discarded his clothes and dipped into the pool himself. Theon was pale and lean, but at seven and ten, Robb was finally half an inch taller than his friend. "It seems that lordship has made you a man too busy to have fun."

"I have duties now," Robb sighed.

His feelings about his friend had grown cool. At the beginning, he was in denial about Theon's possible future deeds and betrayal, but upon some introspection, he realised that he too would choose kin over kith every time. A difficult choice as it may be, but blood was thicker than water, and Greyjoy was an old line of reavers and raiders since the Age of Heroes, and a single hostage-turned-ward could never truly undo that.

His mother had always treated Theon with distrust, as an outright hostage even, and maybe she had a point. Still, while the feelings of friendship had cooled down, Robb tried to keep treating Theon well in his spare time, which was dwindling more and more. That did not prevent him from holding a feeling of caution within.

"Understandable," Theon tutted cheekily, "You ensured your wife is round with babe, not that I blame you. If I was wed to such a beauty, I'd hardly leave the wedding bed!"

He did not raise to the bait, "There's some time until she starts showing. Oh, are you perhaps looking for a wife yourself? Has some maiden caught your eye?"

His friend snorted.

"Aplenty, but I am in no rush. Looking at you, being a husband is an unfortunately busy thing - you scarcely have time to visit Wintertown with me," there was a tinge of sourness in Theon's voice.

"It's more the lordship than anything else."

"I've yet to see or hear of any lords practice so hard or so much in the yard, Robb. You're training as if you want to join the kingsguard and become the next Dragonknight or the Bold."

"Mayhaps," Robb shrugged, "it helps me clear my mind, truth be told. And, no matter how lauded the Dragonknight and his swordskills were, he still lost to an elderly Cregan Stark. A lord must not abandon his skill at arms."

"You have all the swords in the North to fight for you," Theon wryly shook his head. "All this practice is for nought."

"You say that as if you don't spend many hours each week polishing your skills with a bow."

Archery was traditionally a skill considered below most of the nobility, for the smallfolk or those too craven to fight at close quarters, or something to entertain yourself and show off during hunts and the such at most. Yet, Theon had a great talent for marksmanship, and not pursuing that was folly.

"Ah, but your sword must be plenty polished by your wife," Theon crassly laughed at his sputter and moved to the opposing side of the pool, away from Robb's swat.

"I hope you remember your courtesies in public - my wife or not, Myrcella is still a princess and the future Lady of Winterfell besides," he reminded, trying to suppress his rising annoyance. His vexing friend was very good at dancing around the line of vulgarity in private, almost offensive but not quite. "How are my sisters doing in their archery practice?"

The Greyjoy heir straightened up, and his face grew thoughtful.

"I'm still surprised Lady Stark entertained, let alone allowed such a thing. But, to answer your question, both are doing quite decent for novices. Sansa is quite talented but mostly goes through the motions, while Arya is… enthusiastic. If she keeps it up, she'd be a force to be reckoned with in a few years."

Robb let out a heavy sigh; he was delighted his sisters were here. No, his siblings and parents would not die, and Winterfell would not fall, not now, not ever, if he had anything to say about it.

"Do you miss your home?"

The question made Theon still, then crane his neck and look to the sky. It was not a topic Robb tried to breach - he still remembered the boy who arrived nearly a decade ago, looking lost and alone. He wanted to make him feel welcome as much as he could, but alas…

"Sometimes," he admitted quietly. "But I scarcely remember Pyke anymore - only the gloomy dreariness and the smell of salt in the sea wind remain. Yet, neither my father nor sister have sent a word for nearly ten years now…"

Robb closed his eyes for a moment; blood ran thicker than water indeed…

For a brief moment, he considered letting Theon write to his father, but the idea was quickly discarded. After all, he was a hostage.

Gods, knowing what could be was such a curse, and it left him both wary and weary.

With a slight groan, Robb stretched out his fatigued form and got up.

"Leaving already, Stark?"

It had been some time since he prayed.

"I have a stone waiting for me by the heart tree and a load of work besides."

Theon shrugged with a huff.

The Princess

Winterfell's godswood was far older and more primal than the one at the Red Keep. Still, Myrcella did not mislike it, but she had to be careful as she stepped over the mossy stones and errant roots, trying to make her trip.

A few birds sang their chirpy song, making the place oddly calming.

Before her, Grey Wind faithfully trodded, silvery paws making no sound. It made sense that people feared the direwolves; they would undoubtedly be a terror in the forest. This one already reached her chest in height and still had a tad more to grow. His littermates were slightly smaller in stature but no less imposing.

Rosamund walked behind her, warily looking around as if something would dare to jump out of the next bush and ambush a direwolf. Or pass through Winterfell's ironclad defence that continued strengthening even under Robb.

It took them some time, but they finally arrived at the centre of the ancient grove, where the enormous heart tree loomed with its grasping red leaves and bone-like bark before a black pool of still water. Undoubtedly, it was far more ominous a sight with its melancholic face than the Sept, but it lacked the overly righteous septons and septas that loved preaching their sermons and rebuking you at the slightest misbehaviour.

Truthfully, the princess never cared for religion - if her royal parents only paid the Faith lip service, why would she be any different?

And here, in Winterfell, the Old Gods lacked the annoying clergy of the south. Sure, there was Septon Chayle and Septa Mordane, but they were confined to that shack they called Sept.

Her personal Septa, Eglantine, was quietly dismissed shortly after the royal party departed - Myrcella needed neither a judgemental priestess nor her mother's spy.

Shaking her head, the princess focused her gaze on her husband, back nestled amidst the pale bark of the heart tree, his chest rising rhythmically as the enormous ancestral blade of House Stark, Ice, was clutched within its grasp. A monstrous thing of Valyrian Steel, barely shorter than him when upright in stature.

Yet, he carried it almost everywhere and could already wield it well enough.

She gently approached and shook his shoulder, attempting to wake him up.

"Cella?"

His eyes blinked drowsily at her, and a giggle escaped her lips.

"You missed luncheon, Robb, and I was beginning to worry," Myrcella sighed. "Thankfully, Grey Wind always knows where to find you."

The direwolf was not only well-trained but incredibly smart, and hearing his name spoken, a shaggy silvery tail began to wag furiously.

"It seems that you've stolen my direwolf," he rubbed away the sleepiness from his eyes. "Ah damn it, I was supposed to review plans and reports in the solar."

"And eat, don't forget to eat," she shook her head wryly. "You're running yourself ragged."

"But-"

"Taking an afternoon or a whole day off every once in a while would not hurt. It might even help - everything should seem easier with a rested body and mind."

"As my princess commands," he surrendered with a chuckle that made her heart flutter. "I suppose I can take it slow for a day every now and then. How are you feeling?"

His face gazed at her belly with concern, making her sigh.

"I'm pregnant, not a cripple, Robb. And to answer your question, I've had better days."

The feelings of nausea and exhaustion came and went as wilfully as the wind, and she found herself letting the reins of her temper slip from time to time. Still, the prospect of bearing a son warmed her; even her catty mother took joy in her children.

Robb finally stirred from his resting place, stretched lazily, her nose wrinkled as she heard his joints and back pop.

"I can get Rosamund to fetch a luncheon here if you wish."

"Nay, I'll have it in the family dining chambers," he waved away and led them back to the Great Keep. "Keep me company?"

She inclined her head in agreement and hooked her hand through his elbow.

"I had a few suggestions to discuss with you either way."

That made him laugh; it was a clear, ringing sound that also brought a smile to her face.

"Wasn't I supposed to be resting?"

"I hope it's not such a chore to listen to me," she retorted coyly.

"Never!"

"Well, it's just a suggestion I brought to your Lady Mother, and she tentatively agreed. I intend to do most of the work and the planning myself."

"Oh?" That seemed to grab Robb's attention, and his blue eyes lit up with interest.

"I want to restore the broken tower and the First Keep."

"That is doable enough, although it shall cost quite some coin," Robb rubbed his stubble thoughtfully.

"Not too much - we have the masons, we have the workhands, summer shall stay for quite some time, and such an endeavour shall barely make a dent in Winterfell's coffers."

"I am inclined to agree with the watch tower, but what shall the First Keep be used for? The upkeep for an empty building alone is not… insignificant in the long run."

"I was thinking of inviting a few ladies-in-waiting from your bannermen, with Lady Stark's input and permission," she used her free hand to twirl her golden curls. "Placing them in the Great Keep feels inappropriate since they are not kin, yet they are not exactly guests to stay in the lacklustre Guest House, which can also use renovation-"

"Do it."

"Wait, just like that?"

"I have no issues with such preparations," Robb smiled warmly. "You can tear down the Guest House and remake it completely if you wish. My only condition is that all the workers are from Wintertown and the lands of House Stark. You mean to form some sort of northern court by summoning ladies-in-waiting?"

"A small one, to get to know the daughters of the northern bannermen," her words were slow and deliberate.

There was a hint of caution in her husband as his gaze grew thoughtful. House Stark notoriously did not bother with the usual scheming ever present in the South, but that did not mean it did not exist. Having a few confidantes would allow Myrcella to make connections and pull knowledge and influence into her grasp.

In King's Landing, her royal mother had entrenched herself firmly in the court, letting Myrcella feel stifled by a gaggle of Lannisters, Lannys, and Lannetts, all hailing from Lannisport or more distant branches of the Lions of the Rock.

Truthfully, she could do something similar here, but the princess was wary of Cersei Lannister inserting her own spies, and thus, she would court the northern maidens instead. It didn't seem daunting, as the Lords of the North beheld House Stark almost with devotion.

"I shall allow it," Robb finally responded, voice cautious. "But since you're getting so many builders and masons, add two more large granaries inside Winterfell."

Myrcella's heart swelled with joy, and in a fit of daring, she twisted her neck and lunged forward, smashing her lips upon his. Robb was quick to respond, and for quite a few heartbeats, they got lost in the heat of the moment. When they finally separated, Robb gazed at her lustily while Rosamund had her eyes covered behind her hands, cheeks reddened. Still, the green eyes of her distant cousin could be seen between the two big gaps in her fingers, causing the princess to chuckle.

A guardsman clad in a mail shirt and a padded surcoat hastily ran through the stone door leading into one of the numerous yards.

"Lord Robb, the First Ranger is here!"

Myrcella peeled herself off Robb's embrace with a grimace and whispered in her husband's ear.

"You can have a quick luncheon with your uncle, and then we can retire in your chambers."

Robb coughed, his ears reddening adorably as he tried to school his face, then turned to the guard.

"Lead us to Uncle Benjen, then."

A few minutes later, they were in the yard before the Great Keep.

On the way there, they were joined by Nymeria and Lady, who were cautiously trotting just behind Grey Wind.

Benjen Stark looked worse for wear, and it was not his gaunt stature or unkempt hair. There was a long, smooth scar running diagonally from the temple to the other side of the jaw, giving him a fierce look, especially combined with his icy blue eyes.

But the most significant change was the… pitch-black direwolf beside him.

Grey Wind, Nymeria, and Lady all had their tails and hackles raised and growled quietly at the interloper.

The black wolf was a little smaller than Lady, yet he did not back down. Instead, he looked on with challenge with a pair of icy blue eyes, just like his master.

"Sit, Midnight," Benjen's command was immediately obeyed, and the wariness of the other direwolves lessened as Grey Wind cautiously approached.

For an endlessly long and heavy moment, Myrcella worried, but then Midnight's ear was nipped playfully, and the tension bled away as the two direwolves began to spiritedly race around the yard, soon joined by Nymeria and Lady.

"I see you've found yourself a companion of your own, Uncle," Robb cautiously noted as his eyes were trained upon his uncle's scar.

"It was but a gift. There's so much to tell you, Robb," the First Ranger tiredly ran a gloved hand through his damp hair, and then his eyes flickered to Myrcella. "But first, congratulations on your nuptials."

He did not seem particularly happy, yet the princess couldn't blame him - the man radiated worry and exhaustion, so something… serious must have happened.

Undoubtedly, Robb saw much the same as his face grew pensive, and he squared his shoulders.

"Well then, I've yet to have lunch. Join me, uncle?"

Benjen Stark nodded tightly and followed them into the Great Keep.

Jarod Snow

The wildlings might be savage folk, but even most of them understood strength and followed the proper traditions.

Now, all the chieftains and warband leaders had gathered here - Styr of the Thenn, Tormund Giantsbane, Morna Whitemask, Soren Shieldbreaker, Harle the Huntsman, the Great Walrus, and many, many others of some renown, including skinchangers or famed hunters or warriors. Over a hundred souls had gathered here, though just by the Heart Tree stood Leaf, surrounded by a score of direwolves. Mag the Mighty was also standing to the side in his greyish coat, his enormous figure towering over everyone but the trees.

Ghost loomed over six feet tall on four legs, enormous, vicious, and deathly silent. His pack had kept swelling further and further; the enormous snow-furred direwolf and his retinue sat still like statues, making for a surreal yet imposing sight that unnerved countless men.

It was a blatant show of force - one easily understood by even the biggest of lackwits.

Jon Snow proudly stood before the Heart Tree, garbed in a plain surcoat depicting his personal coat of arms. The heavy cloak the Liddle had gifted him rested upon his shoulders, albeit now covered in patches from the long road and many fights.

"Who comes before the old gods tonight?"

The spearwife approached with a soft smile, clad in pristine white furs, her silver-gold locks bound into a long, elaborate braid. The other wildlings treated her quite cautiously now - apparently, the Valyrian hair was considered cursed, much to Duncan's amusem*nt.

Jarod had seen such features long ago in the south from a few sailors hailing from Driftmark, and while silver-gold hair was quite rare, there were thousands of those bearing the Valyrian features of yore still.

If he had to guess, someone with enough Valyrian blood made his way to the Watch and spread his seed Beyond the Wall, as some of the lustier black brothers oft did despite their vows. Brynden Rivers was far from the only dragonseed that found its way to the Wall in the past two centuries, although most were of far lesser names and renown to garner any attention.

"Val of the free folk comes to ask the blessing of the gods!" Her voice echoed through the dark clearing. "Who wants to claim her?

It was an odd deviation from the traditional northern custom, but the spearwives oft gave themselves away, requiring no father or brothers to consent ceremonially. But considering that whole distasteful business with the stealing, it was little wonder. For good or for bad, there was no bedding, as those who chose to give vows before the eyes of the god had already stolen each other…

"Jon Snow," there was a deep, pregnant pause filled with odd tension. "A son of Winterfell. I claim her. Who gives her?!"

Any hesitation was gone from his voice, which whipped like thunder with power and resolve towards the end.

"I give myself," the words were bold but not unfitting for the likes of Val as she stepped forward and interlocked her hand with Jon. "Here, before the gods, I take this man!"

And then, Jon Snow removed the white pelt from her shoulders and clasped the snowy direwolf cloak in its stead.

A kiss later, they were considered a man and wife.

"This is not much different from what we have back home," Duncan said thoughtfully.

"Weren't the Southron weddings full of pomp and excess?" Dalla asked, next to him.

The woods witch had sneaked into his nephew's tent at night, and they had been together ever since, leaving poor old Jarod on his lonesome.

"TheNorthernceremonies are similar to this," the greybeard nodded to the now newly-wed pair as they kneeled before the heart tree in a silent prayer. "It's those below the Neck who have long, drawn-out rites."

"If you say so," the woods witch shook her head, disbelief evident in her amber eyes.

While Dalla was also a beauty, she lacked the Valyrian features of her sister - quite possibly conceived by a different father, not that he would poke at such a personal topic.

The even shorter-than-usual ceremony ended. Jon Snow grabbed Val in his hands, and they headed to the clearing filled with rough, long tables cut in from raw pine.

As the personal companions of Jon Snow, they had a seat at the head table, albeit at the end.

The Bastard of Winterfell's efforts to introduce order into the chaotic minds and lives of the wildlings had begun to bear some fruit - albeit at the cost of plenty of broken noses and thousands of overproud swords and spears leaving. However, most of that was offset by other tribes and warbands that had decided to come under Jon's protection instead.

The wildlings' nomadic ways, however, did not lend themselves to a great bounty - the tables had modest amounts of food, most of it meats, stews and fish, with a smidgeon of cheese and herbs here and there.

There were no fruits, bread, corn, or vegetables like cabbage and leek. Jarod loved meat very much, but he loved variety even more, and the lack of simpler spices made everything even more bland than usual. Not only that, but most of their plates and cutlery were made from rough wood, crudely made stone, or very rarely - bronze.

Still, it was not all hardship - they had a significant excess of wood from clearing the forest, and Jon planned to construct a wooden hall atop the hill. The wildlings were shoddy craftsmen and builders with even worse tools, but Jarod had participated in building the hall back home and promised to lead the efforts.

Jarod's gaze wandered towards one of the lesser tables, where Leaf was animatedly speaking to the red witch, who tried to sport a blank expression but failed as her red eyes glimmered with interest. For good or for bad, the leafcloak had managed to craft an odd friendship with the Essosi woman.

"Gods, if anyone told me I'd be here half a year ago, I'd call them mad and laugh at their faces," Duncan shook his head.

There were a few bards and singers, singing their odd wilding songs, some of which in the harsh, clanging old tongue. As with everything else, they had their own songs, though they did not lack for ones from south of the Wall. Probably spread by the unlamented Mance Rayder, who had also been a bard.

"Why, did you think you'd never come to the true North?" Dalla smirked at him.

"Nay, I planned to join the Shadow Tower as a ranger," his nephew merrily waved away, earning him an outraged squawk from his lover.

"You, a crow?!"

"The Night's Watch always needs able men, and it's an honour for the clansmen to serve."

"I'll never understand you, Southrons," Dalla shook her head, "Crows have to swear off women and children, you know? What's the point without those?"

"Ha, did you hear that, Dunk?" Jarod barked out in laughter and elbowed his nephew in the rib. "You got yourself a lass with a good head on her shoulders."

If they ever returned home, it'd be amusing to watch Torren's face at his new good-daughter.

"I ain't ready to be fathering any children," Duncan panicked for a moment, but the woods witch clasped his hand firmly.

"Fret not - my ma taught me how to brew moon tea. I shan't be growing round with babes anytime soon unless I want to."

That seemed to calm down his nephew quite a lot.

"Well, I never thought even in my wildest dreams I'd be fighting the stuff of myth and legend nor seeing wargs, singers, or giants with my own two eyes," he coughed, trying to push down his embarrassment.

"Is it truly so surprising?" Dalla asked curiously. "Don't you have sorcery like the warg lord in the South?"

"Rarely," Jarod said, tone fond as he remembered Little Hall. "Men like Jon Snow and his ilk are few and far between. You might look for them for years, and you could find none."

"There are no other men like Jon Snow," Dalla shook her head. "We've seen wargs and skinchangers aplenty, but there's only one Warg Lord."

"He's a unique one indeed," the greybeard bobbed his head. "A worthy man to follow and die for!"

"Wait," the wood witch's eyes darted between Duncan and him, heavy with suspicion and a tinge of confusion. "Did you come here to die?"

"Of course we did," a guttural laughter rolled out of Duncan's gut.

"All men must die," Jarod Snow nodded in agreement. "And there's no worthier death than dying for a Stark."

"But the Warg Lord is a Snow?"

"A son of Winterfell all the same," his nephew shook his head and bit into a roast fish. "Stark, Snow, we'll follow them if they're worthy!"

Dalla was looking at them with heavy confusion and incomprehension.

"But… why?"

"The Starks have fought and died for the North for millennia," Duncan Liddle said proudly as if it explained everything. It did, but judging by the doubt on her face, she did not truly understand.

Jarod sighed; the wildlings and their crude view about fealty, crowns, and the such limited them greatly.

"From the Gift to the Neck, from Bear Isle to Widow's Watch, there's not a single place where the Kings of Winter have not fought and bled. The North remembers these sacrifices, and a worthy Stark shall always find Northmen willing to fight and die for him!"

The woods witch just blinked in confusion and rubbed her brow.

"What does it matter what his forebearers did?"

At moments like this, the jarring difference in the wildlings reared its ugly head. They acknowledged vows, valour, and honour but did not truly know their worth.

"You see this feast?" Jarod motioned slowly with his hand at the tables. "How is it?"

"It's the most food I've ever seen in one place," Dalla said with wonder, grabbing a chicken leg and taking a generous bite.

"And south of the Wall, any minor lordling can do the same, if not better. Most, if not every, peasant has a roof over their head and the protection of their liege lord to farm and raise cattle and poultry."

"I've heard of your kings and stone houses," she waved dismissively. "You have to kneel and bend over for some unproven fools."

"Are they truly unproven?" Jarod asked. "The line of House Stark has produced great men since the Age of Heroes," he nodded towards Jon Snow. "Here's another. Just like his father before him, and his father before that, all the way to the time of the Builder himself. House Stark might take, but it always gives in return."

"And what if there is a fool or a weak son?"

"Then he dies in due time, and a worthier son, brother, or nephew takes his place," Duncan shrugged. "My father always said weaklings and fools do not last long in winter."

Dalla did not seem very convinced, but she spoke no more and focused on the roast leg in her hand.

"So, nephew mine, you never got to tell me how the hunt went this morn," Jarod grunted.

The wedding preparations and his work organising the unruly wildlings had eaten up most of his day.

"Aye, we followed Orrel's eagle and managed to ambush and kill two Others and three hundred corpses."

An impressed whistle couldn't help but escape from the greybeard.

"Gods, this is the fifth time - having swift eyes in the sky seems to be proving mighty useful."

These skinchanger patrols had proven surprisingly effective. Jon Snow's direwolves had also managed to find and lead an ambush towards the Cold Ones twice. While not as effective as the skinchangers with birds, Ghost's wolf pack probably had over a hundred members, which could cover a great distance. Although, none save Jon Snow knew the number of wolves that answered to him.

"Aye," Duncan nodded vigorously. "I've heard the legends about Lord Stark's mind for warfare, but seeing it is another thing altogether. Our chieftain is brutally countering and killing the Cold Ones and their thralls as if it's some child's game."

"Those who left seem to be struggling, however," Jarod noted. "The Others are hunting them slowly - it feels like we're facing far more wights than before. Could have sworn I recognised one of the f*ckers I burned this mornin'. Some of these tribes fight off the Cold Ones and even slay them, but others…"

"They chose their lot," his nephew shrugged, spat out a fish bone, and hungrily attacked another piece of fish. "The strong shall survive as they always do. Fools and weaklings oft die in the cold, after all."

Casterly Rock

Kevan Lannister

"Enter!"

The pair of redcloaks opened the door, and Kevan walked in.

In the lord's solar, Tywin Lannister sat in his chair, green eyes gingerly scanning through the contents of the many unfurled rolls of parchment before him. Garbed in his usual crimson doublet trimmed with golden lions upon the cuffs and neck, he made for an imposing sight as always, even in the comfort of his home and when he had no plans to do one of his sudden inspections.

The Lord of Casterly Rock was called many different things, but he was nothing if not meticulous.

Kevan patiently waited for about five more minutes until his eldest brother finished going over his work and quickly penned a letter of his own.

"Is there any word on those troublesome septons in the Reach?"

"None," the knight shook his head. Two long and bountiful summers, one after another, had resulted in abundant harvests, and the smallfolk numbers swelled to almost unprecedented levels. Even prosperity did not come without a price, it seemed. Idle third, fourth, and fifth sons had grabbed the attention of the most devout and quite a few wandering septons. It happened in many places, but it was by far the worst in the fertile Reach.

"Then, I take it there's news from the North?"

"Yes, Tywin. Your granddaughter has wed the Stark heir."

"Your thoughts?"

He found himself under the imposing gaze of his brother, the one that could make lesser men tremble with fear. Yet, for Kevan, this was nothing new.

"I am torn. From what Tyrek wrote, Robert has made too many concessions to Lord Stark. Handship, marriage, the Gift, and reduced taxation until the next spring. Not only that but Tommen has been taken as a page to Lord Stark," Kevan worriedly ran a hand through his balding locks of hair.

"Good."

"Good?" He couldn't help but echo in confusion.

"I'd be apprehensive if this was anyone else but Eddard Stark, truth be told," Tywin's words were slow and measured as usual. "Yet that foolish royal good-son of mine has finally managed to find some wits to rub together between all that drinking and whoring. The Gift is meaningless in truth; the taxes from the North are a pittance, so there's no real loss there. And he finally bound the North by blood, and with it come the Vale and the Riverlands. Lord Stark's honour is undeniable - he would attempt to mould Tommen into a formidable man and a capable aide for his elder brother, not use it to further his interests like many others would."

"And… the position of the future Queen is far more important than giving away a princess," Kevan rubbed his beard thoughtfully.

"Precisely," his brother nodded, the barest hint of satisfaction flashing in his green eyes. "I might have been unable to attend the wedding in person, but prepare a generous wedding gift for my granddaughter."

"It shall be done," Kevan nodded. "Though, it might be prudent to send a few handmaids for Myrcella to have a few ears and eyes in Winterfell."

"Did Cersei leave my granddaughter on her lonesome?"

"Only with Rosamund and Septa Eglantine," he grimaced at Tywin's thunderous expression. The girl was barely eight and clueless, and a Septa in Winterfell would not be too welcomed. "According to Tyrek, House Stark is not lacking for servants or retinue, which they draw with ease from their lands. My son says Winterfell's protection was heavy, even capturing some self-proclaimed savage king. Cersei's offer to leave behind a score of red cloaks was, ah, not appreciated."

"Has my daughter lost her wits?" Tywin's golden brows furrowed in thought for a brief moment. "Send Joy."

Kevan barely managed to suppress his sigh; he knew that eventually, his brother would find some use for Gerion's bastard daughter, but he did not think that moment would come so soon. Still, trying to change Tywin's mind based on silly things like sentiments was folly.

"Sending her alone might be seen as an insult," Kevan grimaced. Even if the North was more tolerant of bastards, it was mostly their own bastards.

"Tyland Lannett had a daughter almost Myrcella's age, did he not?"

"Yes, Cerelle Lannett."

"She shall go too as Myrcella's handmaiden, and my niece will accompany her," Tywin declared. "If Joy is smart, she can catch the eye of Lord Stark's bastard if he returns."

Kevan nodded and quickly left the solar; his brother might have been a hard man, but he did care in his own way, even if it was hard to be seen. Tyrek had some disbelief, but mostly praise in his last report, to heap upon Jon Snow, who seemed to be making quite a name for himself in the North with his deeds. As a bastard of Lord Stark, he'd not lack opportunities, no matter how small, and Joy's future would be well-secured if she managed to garner his interest.

Even without such things, his grandniece was brilliant and resourceful and could possibly manage to set up Joy with a worthy spouse.

Notes:

Talks are had, and plans are made. I was tempted to write out the conversation with Benjen, but recycling the Others' reveal is getting tedious, and there's another one coming in King's Landing(and yeah, we're finally arriving in King's Landing next chapter, ahoy!). Plus, some mystery never hurt anybody. Myrcella does not lack ambition; who would have thought?

Starring Myrcella'I am not without ambition!'Lannister, Robb'I wished there were more hours in a day'Stark, Theon'everything is a joke'Greyjoy, Duncan'f*ckin' let the noobs die'Liddle, and Tywin'I will pimp out my bastard niece to this bastard, it totally makes sense'Lannister

Another wedding, even simpler, and another peek into the Northern mentality.

The North is kinda brutal, but we already knew that.

Tywin gets some news and does Tywin things; hooray?

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can read ahead or simply come chat or ask me or others some questions.

Also, feel free to drop a kudos if you liked my story so far!

Chapter 32: Trouble Brewing

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Highgarden

Garlan Tyrell

Bound by elaborate floral-patterned steelwork, the thick oaken gates of Highgarden were as beautiful as the rest of the high seat of the Reach. High-arched and tall, they were painted with an intricate golden rose that split between the middle as the gates were opened.

Garlan greeted the guards and rode Audrey, his faithful dapple-grey mare, past the open entrance. The familiar briar labyrinth was the first to greet him, walled by pale crenellated curtain walls on both sides and easy to navigate. It was doubtful whether a few thorny bushes would ever slow down any would-be invaders - the whole labyrinth was more for aesthetics than anything else.

That did not make the three layers of curtain walls any less formidable. The frivolous King Garth the Tenth, also known as Garth the Foolish, had lost not only Highgarden but the legendary Oakenseat itself, chopped by a Black Vulture. Mern VI had not only restored the seat of House Gardener to its former glory but had placed great effort in making all the fortifications quite formidable, lest the highseat of the Reach got threatened by daring raiders again.

Three crenellated walls instead of one, each higher than the last, made Highgarden one of the most formidable fortresses in Westeros, just behind Winterfell, Casterly Rock, Storm's End, and Harrenhal.

Usually, Garlan would appreciate the colourful brambles along the way, but right now, he longed for a hot bath more than anything else - to wash away the dust and the sweat from the road and rest his weary body after a hard day of riding. With a sigh, he continued to the vine gate - it was the same as the first one but decorated with lush tendrils and twigs.

The ride to the final gate was short, and Garlan was finally home.

For all its verdant greenery and elaborate masonwork, Higharden was nought but one enormous display of opulent wealth and grandeur.

All the three crenellated curtain walls and the towers and keeps inside were of white-washed stone, which almost shone under the sun. The insides were no less imposing - gold, silver, and marble were commonplace amidst delicate paintings, tapestries, myrish rugs, and luxurious velvet tapering in gold and green.

Handing Audrey's reins to the stablehand with a nod, Garlan made for his quarters.

The steward, Lorent Westbrook, with his pepper-grey hair, was waiting for him at the entrance of the Ivy Keep.

"Ser Garlan," the man greeted. The steward had grown even plumper than the knight remembered, as his green doublet seemed to be straining to hold in his girth. "Your Lord Father has requested your presence for dinner."

"Tell him I'll be there in half an hour, and quickly get me a hot bath drawn," Garlan rubbed his sweaty brow.

It was not oft that his father would summon the family to a dinner officially. House Tyrell did eat together more often than not, but it was not uncommon for them to take dinner in the common hall or their own quarters. But it made sense; he had finally returned from his father's errand.

The long hot soak that he dreamt of earlier was dreadfully short, and the young knight rushed to the dining chambers after putting on a verdant-green silk tunic slashed with gold.

The family hall was on the third floor, with colourful stained-glass windows in the shapes of flowers and petals.

"Stop dallying, Garlan," his grandmother's annoying voice was the first thing to greet him. "We've been waiting for you for ages."

"Have you really?" The knight took the seat between Willas and Margaery with a sigh. "I suppose I could have shown right up, smelling fresh of the road."

The whole family was here, bar Loras, who was still with Lord Renly in King's Landing. A dreadful squiring in truth, as the king's youngest brother was a middling knight and had little interest in martial pursuits. Still, his father's attempt at finally making a connection with the royal family had finally paid off, though Garlan was not sure if it was the correct bond to pursue.

"Fret not, my gallant son," Alerie, his mother, smiled fondly at him, "Mother is exaggerating - we've barely waited for more than ten minutes."

"I don't recall ever giving birth to you," Olenna Tyrell mumbled loudly enough for the whole table to hear. "I'm only to blame for your oafish husband."

The Lady of Highgarden pulled upon her silver braid, rose her chin up high, and pointedly ignored the Queen of Thorns. Garlan's mother never really managed to win a verbal spar against his grandmother, and she had long accepted it as a futile endeavour.

"We're all here, finally," the Lord of Highgarden pompously raised his hands, unphased by his mother's sharp tongue.

"All but Loras, who is still in King's Landing to play with swords," his grandmother interrupted with a tut.

"My youngest son has grown into a formidable swordsman! And there's nothing wrong with staying in the capital and making connections, Mother," Mace Tyrell coughed out. "Anyway, let us sup!"

Garlan turned his attention to the succulent roast beef, steaming bread and gravy, and the next few minutes were spent in silence as they all ate. The outer layer was just as crispy as he preferred, and the insides were soft, chewy and mouth-watering.

Garlan, who had been subsiding on a simple traveller's fare for quite some time, felt like a starved wolf and refilled his plate once it was empty.

Food was an essential matter for Mace Tyrell, and all of his children knew full well that trying to interrupt a meal was one of the few things their father did not tolerate. Even Olenna Tyrell did not dare to incur her son's displeasure in such case as she supped on. She slowly spooned a small serving of mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs - one of the few fares that she could eat with all her teeth gone.

A few minutes later, most of their bellies were filled, and they patiently waited for the Lord of Highgarden to finish his honeyed pie.

With a flourish, his father took out a silken napkin and wiped the oil and crumbs from his face.

"So, Garlan," Mace Tyrell took a small sip of spiced Arbour Gold to wash down the rest of the food, "how was your journey?"

The knight hummed thoughtfully and signalled the servant to fill his cup with sour red wine.

"Well, the roads are filled with vagrants. There's little trouble now, but you can see more lordly freeriders and knights on patrols. Though it appears that the Most Devout has sent out the wandering septons to steer them in with offers of food."

"And every loaf was accompanied with a serving of piety, no doubt," his grandmother snorted. "Everyone dreams of a long summer, and when it arrives, it brings only trouble."

And it was indeed the case - there had only been two winters in Garlan's lifetime, both rather short compared to the enormous summer.

"Where did all those… wanderers come from?" Margaery asked curiously.

"A long summer means bountiful harvests, plentiful food, and, in turn - more babes for the small folk," Willas inclined his head patiently. "The firstborn inherits the father's farm, but all those second, third, fourth, and fifth sons have bleak prospects and oft leave their homes to find their fortune elsewhere."

His sister's face adorably scrunched up in thought.

"Can't the lords just employ all those free hands?"

"There's only so much land to be given out, only so many apprentices a craftsman is willing to take," Garlan explained before taking a sip of his cup and savouring the rich yet bitter taste in his mouth for a good moment. "Poor homeless wanderers make for ill-suited and untrusty guardsmen, so most knights and lords are wary of them, too."

"There are other factors at play here," his crippled brother coughed. "That four-crop rotation the maesters proposed during the Unlikely's reign also began to bear fruit - the increase in farm yields is as large as a fifth in some places and allowed livestock to be bred even in the colder moons. The bounty of long summer and peace has made steel tools almost freely available for most farmers, easing their workload."

Willas was as insightful as always; he raised points Garlan never really thought much about. Who would have thought that Aegon V's sponsorship in the Citadel would turn this way - he wanted a way to allow the poorest to feed themselves, yet the reduced workload at the farms and increased food only produced more vagrants instead…

"Bah, it's fine as long as they don't make any trouble," his father waved dismissively. "Besides, this also allowed us to increase taxes with little objections," he added gleefully. "Now, onto the important parts. Princess Myrcella has been wed to Lord Stark's eldest."

"Wait–" Garlan almost choked on his next gulp of wine. Willas helpfully patted his back a few times while the knight managed to cough out the errant droplets of drink. "When did that happen?"

He had been gone for less than three moons!

"The news of the wedding arrived the last moon," Willas coughed. "Even the ceremony was announced a month earlier."

The knight straightened up and scratched the back of his head.

"Isn't that… quite rushed?"

"Indeed, royal weddings are to be a grand affair," his father puffed, face disgruntled. "House Tyrell received no invitation!"

"Pah, the North is too cold and dreadful," Olenna Tyrell's tone was admonishing. "The marriage took place less than a moon after it was decided. It seems like the king was rushing to tie Stark up more than anything else - nobody south of the Neck received any invitation."

Seven above, how many things had happened while he was away?

"So I suppose Lord Stark is the Hand now?"

"Indeed," his grandmother laughed outright. "The silent wolf turned out a far better haggler than many thought - he got a royal bride for his son, the Handship, and half a kingdom's worth of land."

"I doubt it took much haggling," the Lord of Highgarden shook his head. Garlan's father always spoke with great respect about the Lord of Winterfell. "His Grace probably easily reversed the giving of the Gift simply because it was the dragons who took it. Eddard Stark is an honourable man - he could have pushed for a betrothal of his daughter to the Crown Prince but did not."

"Doesn't that suit us better?" Margaery chimed in. "Mayhaps I should join Loras in court."

"Renly's attempts to annul his brother's marriage with the lioness wouldn't bear much fruit, dear," his grandmother's words were soft and kind for the first time. Garlan's sister was Olenna Tyrell's favourite grandchild, and it showed. "Even the High Septon would be reluctant to void a marriage that bore three children. Besides, Cersei Lannister has sunk her claws deeply into the royal court. No, trying to grab the king's attention would see you disgraced like that Florent girl all those years ago."

However, the warning did not seem to deter Margaery much.

"The hand of the Crown Prince is not taken."

"Indeed it is not," Willas softly agreed. "Now, with his elder sister married, the king has shown that he is open to matches, and hundreds of ladies would flock to court in hopes of catching the prince's eye."

"Wooing a crown prince is not an easy affair," Olenna Tyrell shook her head. "You have to not only win his heart but his royal parents' approval."

"But, our House is the most wealthy and powerful-"

"Both of which create plenty of enemies, both new and old. The Lord of Dragonstone still hates us," Garlan pointed out. "And half of the Reach still lusts after Highgarden."

"That would be true if Stannis Baratheon did not run to Driftmark after his fox-eared wife perished in a fire," his grandmother cackled joyfully. "Mayhaps he's looking for a proper Valyrian bride to replace his cursed daughter with a son."

"Mother, it's rude to laugh at others' misfortune," Mace Tyrell chided.

"Hah, you speak as if you did not goad that hoary stag into a grudge by yourself. Taunting a starving man with feasts, peh! Be glad that his stubborn and unforgiving ways made him no friends. The day Stannis croaks, many shall rejoice, and you shall be amongst them."

His father's face darkened at the reminder of his failure - he had wanted to make Stannis Baratheon surrender, only to find out that the second-born stag would rather break than bend. Still, the grudge went both ways - Robert Baratheon had crushed cousin Quentin's chest at Ashford before being forced to retreat.

"Cersei Lannister would still be a big obstacle to a union between Margaery and the Crown Prince," Willas broke the uncomfortable silence. "According to Loras, she's very mistrustful and weary of any who dare approach her son."

"Of course she would be," Olenna snorted. "The Queen's power comes from her father, husband, and sons. Tywin's daughter would want Prince Joffrey wed to someone easier to control than a Tyrell."

"The decision still lies with the king in the end," Mace Tyrell puffed his chest. "Mayhaps it's time to go to court and speak with His Grace - our House has much to offer to the crown."

His sister's eyes glimmered thoughtfully.

"Wouldn't that sour our connections with Lord Renly?"

"Not necessarily," Willas leaned forward, but his face twisted in a grimace; it seemed his leg was acting up in that particular position. "Even if you were to wed Joffrey, we'd still be wrangling with House Lannister for influence - the Lord of Storm's End would be our natural ally."

"It would be wise to solidify our control in the Reach, then," his grandmother gazed at Garlan and then at Willas with glittering blue eyes. "One of you must wed a red apple, a huntsman's daughter, a Crane, or a Rowan."

Garlan shared a grimace with his eldest brother. Neither truly desired to marry; Willas more because he was mocked for his crippled leg, and his desire for the companions of the fairer sex had soured in favour of dealing with animals. On the other hand, Garlan planned to stay unwed so his children couldn't contest Highgarden from Willas' future brood. Well, that and the fact that a wife, sons, and daughters would detract him from his martial pursuits. Yet, despite the reluctance, both of them knew their duty. After a few moments of silence, the knight finally sighed.

"I shall do it," Garlan said and took a generous gulp of his wine to try and wash down the unease. "Just pick me someone agreeable and pretty."

He had a vague memory of the daughters of Rowan, Tarly, Fossoway, and Crane but not a great impression, in truth. The ladies tended to love pageantry, glory, and fame - things Garlan had little interest in.

"I have just the right one for you," Olenna Tyrell gave him a wide, toothless smile. "You'll love her. Dainty, kind, and bright-eyed."

25th Day of the 7th Moon

Lord Yohn Royce, Runestone

The Lord of Runestone finished devouring his roasted salmon, washed it down with a gulp of dornish red, and looked at his eldest, Andar. A stalwart heir, although he failed to inherit Yohn's full prowess with a lance. It was an olden tradition for the Bronze Lord to break his fast with his eldest whenever possible.

"Have you considered names yet?"

Andar had finally wed last year to the eldest daughter of the Lord of Strongsong, Sharra Belmore. Yohn's good daughter was a tall, buxom beauty with fiery hair like her father and a kind heart, even if she was not quick of wit. Arranging that particular alliance had taken quite some time, but Yohn was happy with the result - and now, his first grandchild was on the way.

"Edwyn for a boy, Jenelyn for a girl," his heir replied as he finished his generous serving of roast beef steak. "I can't help but worry, though."

"The birthing bed is a woman's battle, son," Yohn said, not hiding his sorrow. "There's little us men can do there. Take heed, Sharra is a fit and strong woman."

By the Mother, it had been nearly fifteen years since his Alyna perished from childbirth fever. Ysilla was a joyful daughter, but every time he looked at her, Yohn was reminded of his late wife.

Still, the words did somewhat assuage Andar's worries.

"I just don't want to lose any more of us," the words were slow and forlorn, jagged heavy with feeling.

Yohn wanted to tell his son that his brother was only missing, but it had been nearly a year, and such words rang false now and would only lead to more pain. In the end, a heavy sigh rolled off his chest, "All men must die, my son - nobody lives forever. It's just the way things are. Waymar knew the risks well enough before joining the Watch."

Yet the regret of agreeing to let his youngest join the ancient order so soon would forever haunt him. He had known that Waymar's bones would never rest in the Bronze Crypt where the Royces had been interred since the Age of Heroes, but that did not lessen the heavy feeling of loss.

"Alas, who would have thought that savages would prove so dangerous," Andar's shoulders slumped, but his grey eyes glimmered with satisfaction. "At least Lord Stark shortened their foolish king a head."

"Never underestimate your foes," Yohn cautioned and raised his arm to squeeze his son's shoulder. "Least of all the desperate, savages or not - to this day, some good knights still perish to the mountain clans' ambushes. Lord Mormont did write that Waymar was far from the only ranger missing."

The ten mountain clans of the Vale might have dwindled to little more than an annoyance in the last few centuries, but the wildlings from the frozen wastes did not lack in numbers. Unlike the Mountains of the Moon, the Lands Beyond the Wall were harsh yet vast and not lacking in bounty.

"And what of Robar - is my brother still set on his path?"

"He is," the old lord sighed, and his gaze moved to his old, gnarly hands. "There are worse things than being a tourney knight, and his desire for glory and adventure is not something so easily discarded." He was no stranger to the thirst for pageantry, glory, and recognition - that passion ran in the blood. He could not begrudge his son for following in his footsteps.

"Do you think our kinsman will succeed in courting Lady Arryn?"

Yohn paused for a moment; his son's change in topic was abrupt yet understandable - out of unwillingness to speak about his missing brother.

"Nestor will definitely try," he said after a thoughtful silence. "He got a taste of power now and found it to his liking. Yet Lady Lysa might prove," Yohn pulled on his moustache, trying to find the right word, "recalcitrant towards such advances. Her marriage to Lord Arryn was out of duty more than anything else."

For the longer part of two decades, Nestor Royce had found himself the second most powerful man in the Vale, ruling over the kingdom in Lord Arryn's name as a High Steward of the Vale. Yet now that Lady Arryn had returned to the Eyrie with an heir, all that power was gone with the winds.

It had been a peaceful time, but without a Falcon ruling the Vale, Yohn could feel turbulent undercurrents slowly beginning to move beneath the calm. With ten years of regency on the horizon, things could become unpredictable, especially since Lysa Arryn seemed more skittish than usual the last time he saw her.

"And the yearly grieving period would give her enough time to fully consolidate her place in the Eyrie, making any attempts to dislodge her nigh impossible," Andar noted. "I'm more worried about that Braavosi upstart who's begun to buy out debts slowly."

Yohn couldn't help but cough to cover his surprise - it was not oft that he was blindsided like that, let alone by his heir. Andar had never indulged in gossip before.

"You mean our master of coin? Where would you hear such rumours?"

"Aye, Littlefinger - Ser Brenon Templeton confided in me that his uncle was approached by Lord Baelish to buy off his debts."

"Why would anyone agree to such things?" The Lord of Runestone asked, aghast. Procuring a loan was an agreement of honour or favours for the nobility, not some common thing to be bought or sold!

"I don't know," his son shrugged. "Even Brenon does not know much."

Baelish was a famously cunning man known for his ability to rub two coins together and breed a third, but these new moves were alarming. Even more so when such matters were not easily spread around - talk of coin was considered beneath many.

Yet, despite the bounty of the long summer, the Vale did not lack for noblemen who threw around gold carelessly to the point of procuring debts - one of his own vassals, Coldwater, owed Runestone a hefty sum of coin.

Indeed, the undercurrents were beginning to form without a Falcon ruling from the Eyrie, and Yohn liked it not.

The king's bold moves were also alarming, but Yohn was not overly worried - when Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark worked together, few things could stand in their way for long.

"Keep an ear out for such things," Yohn decided and rubbed his brow tiredly. The more time passed, the more he found his dislike for schemers and chicanery growing. But for now - there was nothing he could do but watch.

"I shall," Andar nodded, and his face turned formal as he stood up. "By your leave?"

"Go, we all got our duties for today. I'll grab Maester Kalon to go over Runestone's ledgers myself." This situation with Littlefinger had made Yohn feel a sense of unease that simply wouldn't go away. It had been a while since such an unsettling feeling came over him, and it would not hurt to go over the finances of House Royce.

Andar bowed and left - his son would usually practice in the yard for an hour, then ride around the Royce Lands, either for a quick hunt or to address any matters of law and justice in the nearby fiefs and villages.

Just as the Lord of Runestone was headed towards his solar, Doren, a lean guardsman with shaggy dark hair, ran over urgently and spoke breathlessly, "My lord, Manderly ships are approaching the harbour."

Fifteen minutes later, Yohn Royce was in the yard, facing a plump merman and his substantial retinue. He could see two Woolfields, a Locke, and at least five more knights and half a dozen times the number of men-at-arms.

"What brings you to Runestone, Ser Wylis?"

The Royce Lord looked at the bald, rotund knight before him. To the right stood a tall, wiry knight with curly hair, wearing a padded surcoat over a ringmail depicting golden crossed keys.

The green mermen of White Harbour were a rare sight here, and he could not recall the last time a Manderly made his way to Runestone, let alone the heir, leading more than half a dozen ships.

"Lord Stark and His Grace have entrusted a very peculiar task upon my father's shoulders," Wylis ran his finger over his walrus-like moustache. "House Royce's expertise in runic inscription is unmatched in the seven kingdoms."

"It's been centuries since anyone had much interest in the runic script of the First Men," Yohn Royce could barely hide his surprise.

Besides the rune-carving tradition passed down to House Royce from the Age of Heroes, there were at least two dedicated artisans in Runestone, nurtured in the art of inscription since childhood as per custom.

The heir to White Harbour looked almost troubled for a short moment, but he quickly steeled his expression.

"Lord Stark and His Grace have agreed to send a wedding gift to Khal Drogo - an enormous mammoth warhorn - polished to perfection, carved with intricate runic script, and bound by the finest gold and silver. All the work is complete bar the runes - none were knowledgeable and skilled enough in White Harbour to do the delicate work required."

Such a thing was troubling - the crown rarely concerned itself with the happenings in Essos.

"And why would the king care about some horselord in the far-east?"

"The Khal in question was wed to Daenerys Targaryen and has at least half a hundred thousand screamers at his beck and call," Wylis uttered, and Yohn burst out in laughter.

It took him a good half a minute to calm down.

"Has the begging dragon lost his wits?"

Even fools knew the Dothraki could not be trusted and that marriage alliances meant nothing for those who freely took many a wife. Their notorious aversion to seafaring would make them even poorer allies if Viserys Targaryen ever thought to sail back to Westeros.

Yet it had been surprising that the royal response to such a thing was so… thoughtful. Robert's notoriously short temper when the House of the Dragon was concerned was legendary at this point.

It seemed that even after so many years, Eddard Stark still managed to temper his friend's passions - by sending such an elaborate gift, they gave the Khal a token of respect. Not only that, but it made the Targaryens know that they were watched yet not overly significant.

"Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon shall always find aid in my halls," Yohn declared proudly. "Do you intend to deliver it yourself?"

"Ser Donnel Locke and two of the warships shall be the ones to sail east," the Manderly Knight admitted. "Lord Stark has requested my presence in King's Landing."

For a long moment, the Lord of Runestone ran a hand through his beard, considering his options.

"I shall bid my son, Robar, to aid him and three of my finest knights. It would do good for my boy to see some of the wide world before throwing himself into some youthful folly."

Ser Wylis bowed, "Any further aid would be warmly welcomed!"

If Robar wanted to make something for himself as a second son, getting the attention of the Hand and the King would go a long way to help him. He would also have the chance to attend a royal task led by Donnel Locke, an older and experienced knight, along with themanythings Essos had to offer. The road from Pentos to Vaes Dothrak was thousands of miles long, after all.

7th Day of the 8th Moon

King's Landing

Eddard Stark

He slowly approached the stag, wandering beneath a tree, grazing on a small patch of grass while biting at the acorns and seeds. His paws were perfectly silent, and there was no wind. As soon as he was close enough, he pounced and effortlessly sank his jaw into the thick throat, ripping away -

Eddard Stark woke up with a start, swimming in sweat and the taste of hot, rich blood heavy in his mouth.

As usual, the sleep was uneasy. It didn't help that Robert had driven the dawdling procession with a newfound harshness since the news of the Targaryen children had arrived. More than fifty days of relentless riding later, they were finally approaching King's Landing. Most castles, holdfasts, and inns were skipped unless they arrived near sunset.

Although Ned had the suspicion that one of the driving forces was the Queen's displeasure at the tempo - Robert's eyes just lit up with glee when she looked all crumpled and tired. Still, few could say that the lioness was not a creature of pride - she raised her chin tall and rose to her husband's challenge.

For good or for bad, many of the servants, wagons, and retinue had lagged behind, unable to keep up with the pace and would be slowly catching up over the next moon.

At this point, all Ned wanted was a hot bath, a feathered bed, and a well-roasted steak.

With a sigh, he groaned and got up. His remaining clean garments were a few hundred miles behind in a wagon, and he had only managed to get a quick wash in a cool creek two nights ago. Gods, the heat here was sweltering, and even the springs and rivers felt warm compared to the White Knife. Still, soon enough, the hellish travel would finally end.

It took five minutes for Howland to arrive after sending Alyn to fetch for him.

His friend also looked worse for wear from their rushed pace; his usually well-groomed chestnut hair was tangled like a wild bramble bush.

"Another wolf dream, Ned?"

"Aye," a tired groan escaped his mouth. "It was not a boar but a stag this time. Can't have a proper night of rest because of this."

"I did tell you that all I know was from a few records of old that my ancestors inked down," Howland shook his head. "Winterfell might have more - the kings of winter did keep direwolf companions for millennia, yet their numbers dwindled, and they eventually died off centuries ago."

The direwolves were among the most dangerous predators, especially in packs - they were hunted down to the last in the North, despite the casualties. It didn't surprise Ned that House Stark lost their direwolves. A poorly trained beast of this size could have easily killed a noble child, let alone an adult. A few wilder sons or daughters having their pet murder or maim the Stark Bannermen for no reason would see the direwolves killed off.

While the beasts had proven loyal and reliable companions so far, past generations of House Stark did not lack for fools or weaklings. Direwolves required a firm hand and a loving touch, things not all were blessed with.

This was one of the reasons he heavily emphasised training them - Robb and Sansa were to help Rickon and Arya.

"Magic is a dangerous thing," his friend's quiet words were heavy with caution. "You must either rule it, or it shall rule you."

Ned had always had an appetite for beef and venison, but lately, it had grown even more. However, he was unsure if it was from something else or simply the harsh travels and the smoked and dried meats that were his food of choice for the last two moons.

"Fine, fine," he found himself agreeing. "A man's talents are supposed to be mastered."

In truth, Ned still felt scepticism, if not outright suspicion, about these tales of sorcery, but he did not have the luxury of ignoring them, not anymore.

It was a short quarter of an hour before they had to depart again, and all Howland had for him was a method of deep breathing and meditation - with the attempt to find a supposed connection with Winter in his mind. Ned felt nothing of the sort, but he certainly invigorated and rested in the end, which made the whole thing worth it anyway.

"Good morning, Lord Stark," it was Tommen's childish voice, and Ned returned the greeting with a soft nod - standing on too much courtesy with a young page was counterproductive to anything they would want to learn. Still, the more menial tasks like cleaning clothes and running unimportant errands were discarded in favour of more lessons and the opportunity to observe and learn.

The young prince was already waiting for him outside the tent, having his arms shined and ready, just like every morning for the last forty days. With Ice left to Robb in Winterfell, Ned had taken to his favourite longsword with a dagger for a side arm. His armour was left with the wagons with the rest of his stuff, guarded by a third of the household guard he had finally decided to take.

The harsh pace, coupled with the rudimentary training at stances and footwork each evening, had been good for the prince. Ned suspected that the soft boy had cried himself to sleep the first few evenings, especially judging by Cersei Lannister's scathing looks. Yet now, the plumpness had almost fully melted away from Tommen's face, and his movements were no longer as clumsy, and the boy had grown hardier.

Soon, Ned's destrier was saddled with Tommen's assistance, and the Lord of Winterfell was ahorse, followed by Tommen with his docile gelding.

Yet, for once, Robert did not seem in a particular rush; his pace was almost… leisurely.

"Gods," his friend groaned, "I'm not even there yet, but just the thought of the royal court makes me tired."

"Surely it cannot be that bad?" Ned couldn't help but rub his brow.

"You'll see it soon enough for yourself - fools and flatterers aplenty," Robert craned his neck forward and sniffed. "And the wind carries the stench all the way from here."

Ned was aghast - there was something foul in the air, true enough, but the stench of the road that clung to them was no better - the heat helped little.

The morning sun felt harsh and forced him to pass his cloak to Jory.

"Keep the court fool and dismiss the rest," the Lord of Winterfell proposed, half-serious. "Surely, the kingdoms don't lack for capable men?"

"If it were so easy," Robert laughed and patted his bulging gut. "But you're Hand now - you'll have the joy of dealing with them at your leisure."

Closing his eyes, Ned pinched the bridge of his nose to hide his budding frustration. As they travelled, the king's negligence only showed more - in truth, Robert Baratheon cared very little about the affairs of the realm.

"Mayhaps I'll do just that." Once he dealt with the business concerning the Night's Watch, Ned had vowed to do his very best to help his friend, both with the court and the ruling of the kingdoms.

"I've sent an outrider to tell my small council to start preparing for a tourney," the words seemed to bring back some shine in the king's blue eyes.

"A tourney?"

"To celebrate the new Hand of the King, of course," Robert waved his meaty hands with a flourish. "And the marriage of my daughter. We hogged all the festives for ourselves in the North."

Poor Myrcella was added as little more than an afterthought, making Ned wince. He was not surprised - Howland had warned him about the possibility of an upcoming tourney; according to Tyrion Lannister and a few other loose-lipped members of the royal retinue, Robert had taken every chance to host one with a great feast and a hunt afterwards. His friend's appetites for food, drink, and entertainment had grown as big as his girth.

The reckless spending of coin irked Ned, but the southern nobility, bar his good-brother Edmure, had missed Robb and Myrcella's wedding, so he could not object to the festives. Tourneys were not even that entertaining, filled with too much posturing, pageantry, and pomp where you revealed your skills at arms for anyone with a watchful eye to study - it was scarcely worth it. The practice atop a horse was not too useful; in a real battle, one would use far less cumbersome armour and aim to kill their foes, not dismount him by striking his shield or at the thickest point of the breastplate.

Training for a joust made one skilled in jousting, not warfare. It was a pity that the melee and the archery were far less popular facets of the Southron tourneys.

"If we continue at this pace, we might not reach King's Landing until midday tomorrow," Ned observed as their tempo slowed considerably.

Robert waved dismissively.

"Bah, go on and ride ahead if you're in such a hurry to drown in stench."

"I shall."

And so, half an hour later, Ned and a part of his retinue rode ahead down the kingsroad, Howland by his side and Tommen trailing behind bravely atop his golden pony.

Another hour later, and even without his fur cloak, the Lord of Winterfell began to sweat hard under the merciless rays of the summer sun.

Gods, he missed the North.

The horses began neighing uneasily, and surely enough, Winter jumped out to join them from the nearby shrubbery, snout covered in dried blood. Ned had let the direwolf wander freely, and it showed - he was the size of Tommen's steed now, and his fur was quite shaggy. Still, his companion remained receptive to his command and training, so Eddard had no reason to leash him like some dog.

Despite being close to the direwolf for many moons, most horses were still wary of the beast's presence.

With a signal, Jory, Tommen, and the rest of the retinue lagged behind a respectable distance, giving him and Howland some privacy.

"Things are worse than I feared, Howland," Ned groaned. "Robert complains about Joffrey but refuses to try and teach him, and the boy himself longs for attention and guidance, eagerly asking me many questions and joyous when I reply. The Queen tries to keep him away from me after she caught him twice coming to me with such queries."

"Mayhaps she's afraid you'll steal her third child too," the Crannogman laughed.

The Lord of Winterfell could only sigh; he could see where Howland was coming from but was not amused at the jest.

"This is not a laughing matter. Joffrey is to be the next king, but he knowsnoughtof ruling."

"Unless His Grace decides to send the boy to the Night's Watch or the Citadel, there's nothing we can do but hope that the Grand Maester would manage to corral some knowledge into him." Ned was aghast at his friend's nonchalance. "Even that seems unlikely - if he learned nothing for thirteen years, I doubt Joffrey cares much for rulership, much like his father. The Seven Kingdoms has weathered many bad kings; it can weather one more. Training Tommen to be a capable Hand to his brother is the best we could hope for."

"Yet none of those kings were the good-brother of House Stark," he countered wryly.

"Do remember why we came here, Ned," Howland's words grew grim. "You don't want to entangle yourself overmuch with the court but to muster support for the Watch."

"I do plan to aid Robert in any way I can. Besides, that alliance is now sealed in blood."

The Lord of Greywater Watch shook his head.

"His Grace is all roar and bluster, not a man who truly wants assistance. No, the king's desires lie in the more baser pursuits than rulership and governance. Do what you can to help him, but don't risk your hide for a drunken fool," Ned opened his mouth to object but… couldn't. Robert had indeed turned into such, no matter how crude it sounded. "Keep to your vows as a man sworn to the Iron Throne, not as the good-uncle of Joffrey Baratheon. His Grace has little interest in the governance of the realm - why would his son be any different?"

It pained Ned to admit it, but Howland was making a sound point. Despite the sharp words, he was glad to have brought his friend here in the South - he did give wise advice and a different outlook.

They rode in silence for some time as golden fields of wheat and barley stretched on both sides of the kingsroad. Peddlers, travelling hedge-knights, and caravans became a common sight as time passed, and all of them made way for his procession.

A gust of wind brought a heavy stench of privy, making his nose twitch.

"Gods, did it stink as bad last time?"

"The smell of smoke and death overshadowed it," his friend darkly recalled.

That day, Ned had been so close to ordering his forces to attack Tywin Lannister as his troops were still tickling in through five of the gates. Yet the old Lion had foreseen such circ*mstances - he had his brother Kevan approach as an envoy immediately, clearing any possible misunderstandings.

The more they approached, the heavier the smell became - it seemed to unsettle even Winter, who looked quite wary. It took over three hours to finally see the pale battlements of the Gate of the Gods.

The sweltering weather had him reconsider employing the service of a skilled tailor - a lighter attire would not be remiss. Almost all of his garments might have been of fine make, but they were too thick and heavy for his stay here. The heat was far worse than he ever anticipated, but then again, the last two times he went so far south were in winter and early spring…

The faces of the Seven hewn in white-washed stone above the portcullis stared in judgment as the Lord of Winterfell passed below.

The captain of the gate was quick to allow him entry, and from there, it was a straight road to the Red Keep. Many stared, whispered, and fearfully pointed at Winter and his bloody snout as they passed down, making him frown.

The wide cobbled street passed between Visenya and Rhaenys' hills, and the walls of the Red Keep could finally be seen looming atop Aegon's hill like an ugly crimson blotch.

The bronze gates of the royal seat were wide open, and the Lord of Winterfell steeled himself for a tumultuous stay in the capital as he rode past them.

Notes:

Oh hey, look, another big chapter - not that I think anyone would be complaining.

Starring: Olenna 'vagin*l Diplomacy is da wae'Tyrell, Yohn'We still got 'em rune skills'Royce, Howland'I give sound advice'Reed, and Ned 'I totally don't steal other women's kids' Stark.

We get to see some politicking, and Ned finally gets to arrive in KL. I wanted to do the whole KL chapter in one go, but Garlan's PoV turned out far longer than expected.

As I wrote this PoV, it occurred to me that a toothless Olenna would have far greater difficulty speaking coherently and clicking with her tongue, but since I'm kinda strapped for any feasible solution, I'll just do what GRRM did - ignore the issue entirely, pretend it's not there.Shrugs

I update a chapter every Sunday! You can find me on my discord(dgj93pNeAD), where you can read ahead or simply come chat or ask me or others some questions.

Chapter 33: Lies, Deception

Notes:

Obligatory disclaimer: I don't own ASOIAF; that honour goes to GRRM.

Edited by: Void Uzumaki , Arimai, and Himura; B. Reader: Bub3loka

I also want to thank everyone for their support and encouragement.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

7th Day of the 8th Moon

King's Landing

Eddard Stark

The king's steward was a jolly, balding man with a large potbelly, garbed in dark red robes adorned by golden stags and lions along the length of the sleeves. He warily stepped back at the sight of Winter but quickly managed to school his face with a slightly forced smile.

Not that he was alone in this, most of the men-at-arms guarding the Red Keep looked at the direwolf with unease.

"Lord Hand," he bowed with a stiff flourish. "Grandmaester Pycelle has convened the small council and urgently requests the Hand's presence if it pleases you."

Ned suppressed a groan; fools and flatterers, as Robert had said. And none could be trusted.

Was this some power play to see where he stood by requesting his presence immediately while he was still unwashed and travel-weary?

Perhaps they wanted to take a measure of him as he was tired - exhaustion had its way of loosening your mouth and shortening your temper.

Schemers and snakes, none to be trusted, if Jon had the right of it - and right now, Ned was