I don't own Ranma or A Song of Ice and Fire. See, look, my story actually has an ending!
It's been a long, bloody path my friends, but we have at last come to the end. As always I would like to thank Anthony444 for his aid in plot points and ASoIaF facts.
This has also now been betaed by my minor mistakes man Ultimaflare. Please give him your thanks, as there were dozens of small mistakes here that no doubt messed with the flow of the story.
Now without further ado, let us begin the final chapter of this saga.
Chapter 21: War Ends, a Royal Line Begins
Traveling down the Torentine had been an exhilarating experience for Arya, by far the best part of the trip to her. Arya had never been anywhere before that had demanded such stringent water control as the Prince's Pass had. The horses, Nymeria, and the humans had all been forced to conserve water, and the pace the animals could go had suffered accordingly. By the time they were a bare five days into the pass Arya knew that any army marching through the pass would've had to carry its own weight in water to get this far.
The idea that this Pass was supposedly the easier way into Dorne was astonishing and showed Arya how Dorne had kept its semi-independence for so long. Though even so, the journey wasn't as bad as it could have been. While there was no autumnal rain here, the heat that should have hammered them during the day was markedly absent a sign that winter would have an impact even here and further south. Arya and Nymeria could feel it in the wind, winter was making its way south and even if the White Walkers were stopped it was going to be both long and bad.
During the night it was so cold that the guides House Dayne sent up to meet their lord at Nightsong, House Caron's castle, were seen to shiver in their tents despite being prepared for it. More than one man commented on it, and was fearful about what it might mean for Dorne, especially given the events of the war so far.
They didn't even go more than a fourth of the way down the Pass before their local guides led them off into a small culvert of the pass. From there they followed a trail into the Red Mountains that no army, no matter how organized or disciplined, could have followed let alone survived. The Red Mountains were as dry as the Pass, and moving through them was even more debilitating, plus the narrowness of the passage itself made it impossible.
Arya knew that without the locals leading them they would have become hopelessly lost in the passes, and then would probably have died from thirst or exposure to the elements. Hearty Wolfsworn she might have been, but Arya knew she would have died eventually all the same and wasn't afraid to admit it. Of course, Nymeria wouldn't have had as much trouble and could have gotten them both back the way they came easily enough, something she didn't even mention to Edric.
Several days journey away from the pass found them coming out into the deep valley that the Torentine had created over millennia. It was a wild place of deep crags, rocks, and a few sparse trees, but even so, the party made their way down to the river quickly. And from there, they took the Torentine down further south.
But the Torentine was no Mander, or even the Green Fork. It was barely wide enough for two canoes to go abreast for much of its course and even when they came near Blackmont, the river was more rapids and small waterfalls than anything else. Those were a lot of fun, at least to Arya and Edric, and they had thrown their strength into fighting the river with the guides. After High Hermitage, the seat of the now-defunct (if Edric had anything to say about it, and as Lord Dayne he did) cadet branch of House Dayne, it became much smoother.
Yet now that their trip was smoother, Arya and Edric were forced to sit and take lessons from Lord Dondarrion. The first few days were history lessons, then etiquette, which Arya was unable to get away from since they were all still stuck in canoes. Now, as they were nearing their destination of Starfall, it was current events and economics.
"The first thing you must understand is that economics and geography are closely linked. While Dorne produces several luxury foodstuffs, citrus fruits, olives, and other such, most Dornish lords rely on trade with the Reach and Essos to bring in bulk foods. It's taxing the trade both coming and going that allowed House Martell to build up so much liquid capital, since their land sits directly on the mouth of the Greenblood, the most important river in Dorne."
Lord Dondarrion paused, smiling grimly. "Yet even with the Greenblood, food can't be transported to enough of the land by river, and trade from Essos is expensive at the best of times, in autumn and winter that price is going to go up far more. With their military strength gone, Prince Martell will have to sue for peace in some fashion because Dorne can't survive without its landward trade."
"Couldn't they just abandon the deeper desert? And as for bringing in food, I'm not so well up on my geography this side of the Neck, but aren't there those islands between here and Essos? Surely trading with them would be less expensive." Arya asked. She wasn't really interested, but this tied into the war, and that she was interested in.
"No, those Houses in the deep desert won't simply up and move, smashed though their militaries might have been they are too proud for that. As for those islands, most of them are controlled by pirates, and very few of them have any farmland to speak of. And while Dorne has a small merchant fleet, if House Redwyne retains even a small portion of its own fleet then our allies will be able to blockade the few ports Dorne has easily enough."
Arya shrugged her shoulders. "So they'll try to nip in fast and dirty with whatever they've got left before you and Edric's house get yourselves situated, smash your new duchy before you can get your feet under you."
"They're welcome to try, though I'd have thought you'd noticed that House Blackmont didn't try anything when we passed through their lands." Edric said the laugh. "As for any Martell supporters, they could probably burn a few of our smallfolk's out, but…" he smiled as they passed a final bend in the river, and stopped, pointing. "I don't think they'd have much luck trying to take Starfall at least."
Ahead of them the Torentine finally widened, becoming one with the sea. On a smallish island set in the center of the Torentine sat Starfall. The castle was not as imposing as others Arya had seen, but its walls rose out of the rock of the island directly on the shoreline. It had a small dock leading up to its gates, over which the main gatehouse loomed with dozens of murder holes. Its walls stood at least five stories tall, with the towers set into the walls being another two stories. The central keep was not a keep so much as another tower, which loomed even larger, possibly as tall as fourteen stories. Several of those towers had ballista or catapults on their parapets.
"Okay…" Arya said after a moment's silent contemplation of the castle. "Suddenly this whole duchy idea sounds a lot easier to make stick." Ahead of them the castle's bugles sounded a joyful note signaling they had been spotted, and more importantly the two banners they were currently flying.
Moments later the group left behind their canoes, entering the castle. Inside, they were greeted by raucous cheers. "Lord Dayne! Glory to Lord Dayne! Glory to Lord Dayne the Brave!" These cheers were for Edric, but at least one in that crowd was just as happy to see Beric as she was to see her nephew.
Lady Allyria of House Dayne was a tall woman with a somewhat thin frame, elegant features, long light blond hair and almost violet eyes like her nephew's. Her lips were full and curved into a smile as she watched the servants move to take the traveler's packs and horses, though she twitched a little at the sight of the monstrous direwolf sitting there patiently as a well-trained hound.
For now however, her curiosity was secondary to another emotion. She waited patiently until they had all handed their horses and packs over to her servants then moved forward quickly. Beric turned to her saying softly "my lady I have ridden…" but Allyria interrupted him by grabbing him by his ears and pulling him down into a kiss.
This went on for some time, until it prompted Arya to turn to Edric and say "You think they'll notice if we head off to our rooms, or should we find some way to guide them to theirs?"
That seemed to break the two lovers out of their personal world for a moment, and Beric coughed apologetically while Allyria simply pushed him away slightly reaching for Edric and pulling the young boy turned man into a hug. "And you are welcome home as well my Lord." she murmured, speaking into his hair as he came up to her chin at present. Despite his growth since joining the Royal Army Edric still had some growing to do, something Arya hoped could also be said about her.
"It's good to be home Aunt Allyria." Edric said was what dignity he could muster, which frankly wasn't a lot. "Even if for Arya and I it will be a brief visit."
Above Edric, his aunt's eyes narrowed, flicking over to Arya. Standing there in her worn travel pantaloons, her breastplate of lizard lion armor, Fang at her side and short cropped, dirty hair, Arya looked more like a simple soldier than the daughter of a Great House.
"And who is this?" she asked, trying and actually succeeding in keeping a sneer out of her voice. In comparison to the lovelies of Dorne, or even the Reach this girl looks like a jumped up street urchin…
Allyria's thoughts juddered to a halt as Nymeria moved from the gate, the crowd of servants, armsmen, and horses parting quickly. Arya smirked, rising to the hidden challenge in the older woman's eyes as Nymeria moved to sit beside her bonded human. "Arya Stark, Wolfsworn and sister to the king and the Hand."
Later on the three of them and Allyria met in her study, a well-appointed room with several soft fluffy Dornish style divans scattered around it with small writing desks set next to each. Scrolls and books lined two of the walls with the fourth facing a large open balcony.
They drank water infused with a hint of lemon, the common drink in this part of Dorne. Even to great Houses like Dayne, water was still a precious resource, and sharing it like this was the Dornish equivalent of breaking bread in the North.
It'd taken several hours to catch Allyria up on all of the news the three had to share with her, and even that didn't tell her everything. While the Reach had learned of Ranma and Daenerys' victory in the war, how that victory had come about had yet to reach them by the time Willas and Jon marched. And unlike House Martell, House Dayne had nothing in the way of a spy network.
But there was nothing wrong with Allyria's mind, and she sat and listened to the news of the war, what was going on in the North, and how Arya was intent to head southeast to Oldtown to join the fleet being sent north. She listened, asked questions, and took it in, never relinquishing her grip on her fiancé's hand, staring at Arya and Edric in turn.
When they finished their tails, she sat silent for a moment then looked at Beric. "You returned my nephew and Lord to me, only to have already agreed that he can simply walk off?" The question could have come out with quite a bit of bite to it, but it was more whimsical than anything else. "And what will you run off for, the love of this young rapscallion? You say you are Arya Stark, and with the direwolf at your side none will believe otherwise. But even so, you are not the sort of young the lady I would choose for my nephew."
"I have chosen of my own free will, Aunt Allyria," said Edric quickly. "Arya and I have come far together, gotten to know one another in good times and trying, faced things that would have broken any normal highborn lady. And there is something to be said about a woman who can stand beside you not only in managing your lands but defending it at need."
Arya simply smirked. She knew she wasn't exactly normal fiancé material, and didn't care a whit. Ranma had told her years before all of this began to be herself, that someone who could love her as herself would come along eventually. She was somewhat surprised that it had come so quickly, but she liked Edric, and was interested to see if this whole relationship thing was as interesting as so many people made out to be.
"Very well," said Allyria smiling slightly at that response. "I know better than anyone what can happen if young love becomes unrequited. I'll give my blessing to this union, so long as we can formalize it right now. I will send you a note via raven to Highgarden for relay up to Winterfell for your mother and father, accepting their offer of your hand in marriage, in my Lord's name and my own as his regent. That should do for the proprieties."
She smirked suddenly looking at Arya and Edric with a gleam in her eyes. "However, while we here in the Dorne are very liberal when it comes to what is allowable between affianced, or even between single men and women, I don't want to become a great aunt anytime soon. Do I make myself clear?"
Both youngsters blushed, not looking at one another now as they stared in completely different directions and she laughed. But then she went on brusquely. "However, while the bulk of your news was new to me, some of it had already reached my ears, if in a roundabout way. And I have news for you to convey to your brother the hand."
Arya cocked her eyebrow and Allyria went on. "Lord Doran Martell is dead." Beric and Edric both nearly choked on their drinks at that, and she smiled thinly. "House Martell's ravens arrived with that news several days ago. He was poisoned apparently by a guest in his House, a Magister Illyrio, who has since disappeared. No one knows why the two of them had a falling out, but rumor is that Doran wanted to offer Illyrio to your brother and Daenerys if things went wrong. Areo Hotah, the Sunspear's captain of the Guard has gone in pursuit of him.
"Doran's son Quentyn is now trying to rally the great Houses to him, but the news of his father's death, and the murderer, forced many of us to think that things had gone awry with our armies. Needless to say, Quentyn is not having much luck, though that could change one way or the other if news of the disaster Martell led Dorne into spreads."
Frowning thoughtfully, Beric nodded. "So we might be able to convince the Houses between here and Blackhaven to side with us with little in the way of military action. Stability, increased trade with my own House and the other Marcher Houses, and of course the new Royal House's approval for our actions will make for a very tasty carrot if the power of the stick becomes known."
"Indeed. Quentyn is well-thought of by some, but he doesn't have his father's diplomatic skills, or his decades of experience. House Blackmont and Manwoody have communicated via raven with us here that they will 'wait until the situation clarifies itself' before taking action. That is diplomatic speech for not wanting to take any action either way. If we can guarantee that food from the Reach will still flow into their lands we can bring both of them to our side. Manwoody in particular is dependent on that trade, and Blackmont has always been an ally of Dayne, though it must be said that is because they rely on trade up the Torentine, which we control."
"But that is enough serious talk for now." Allyria smiled, tugging Beric to his feet. "We can continue such discussion later; in particular which castle will serve our new duchy as its capital. Yet it has been a very long time since my fiancé and I were up alone together, and we have a wedding to plan. You know where Dawn is stored Edric, show your fiancé the Sword of Morning, and tomorrow we will hold a ceremony to formally pass it on to you."
The two youngsters couldn't get out of the room fast enough that after that, and spent several moments staring off in different directions outside the room, before Edric sighed, tapping his hand against Arya's but not taking it. "Come on, I'll show you Dawn. Trust me, it's a sight to see. "
They walked through the castle up several flights of stairs, Edric exchanging greetings with those servants he knew, which were most of them, while Arya smirked at the odd looks she was getting. Evidently despite knowing who she was and what her standing was, her looks still drew some disapproving looks from these soft southerners.
All of her amusement faded into nothing when they walked through a specially sealed and guarded door to stare at Dawn. It was a greatsword, not unlike Ice, though the blade was somewhat thinner along its body. The blade was a pale white almost like milkglass, the edges of it gleaming sharp in the light of the fading rays of the sun coming through a high window behind it. The hilt was long enough for the blade to be wielded two-handed, with a small tourmaline stone set in the pommel. The crossbar, much the same size of Ice's, was marked in its center by a five pointed star. It was both beautiful and deadly, conveying both majesty and danger in one.
"So, so that is Dawn." Arya said reverently. She remembered the story of how her father had fought the Sword of Morning at the Tower of Joy, how Lord Reed's intervention was the only reason the two of them had returned from that expedition. Yet what had always struck her was how even after crossing blades with him, her father, the most honorable man that ever existed, would never hear a word against Arthur Dayne. "The finest knight, the finest man in the realm," he had often said, "they often say that sometimes the sword makes the warrior, but in his case it worked both ways. His legend became its legend, and the glory of Dawn reflected his own."
"Yes." Edric said gently, reaching forward to touch the sword reverentially. "This was why I was sent away to squire with milord Beric, above his relationship with my aunt. Beric is known as a very good blade and a knight of valor, I needed someone who could teach me both honor and the blade. There are better blades, more valorous or seemingly valorous people, but he was the best when it came to possessing both qualities."
The two of them fell silent for a moment, simply walking around the sword where it hung in its case wondering about it, about the legends and the truths behind them. "It's said that only dragonglass or Valyrian steel can see off White Walkers," Arya said at last. "Somehow, I think a third name's just been added to that list."
"Yes." Edric said, smiling grimly. "Every man who has wielded this blade has added to its legend. I hope, when we face the White Walkers, that I will do half as well."
Edric remained up all night in silent vigil in front of Dawn, kneeling in front of it in full plate armor, taking no food or drink and without even Arya for company while four sworn knights of House Dayne and Lord Dondarrion watched from the five points of the room. He recited the names of those who had wielded Dawn before him, their deeds and legends, from a long scroll, committing them to memory, though he had known most of them long before this. Every time he made a mistake one of the knights would stride forward and smash him on the shoulders of his armor with the flat of the blade, and he would have to begin again. This happened only a few times, a good omen, it was said.
Then, as the light of the sun began to peak over the horizon, Allyria, Arya, and several other witnesses came into the room silently taking up places along the walls facing Edric and the raised dais which held the sword and its case. They stood there silently while tinkling chimes sounded from every tower of the castle.
The light of the sun was crawling up the side of the tower when they were joined by a sixth knight. His armor was white from the tip of his ancient, closed helmet to his feet, with a large star carved out of the chest piece. This man should have been the previous Sword of Morning, here to pass on the title and sword to his replacement. But Arthur Dayne was not the first Sword of Morning to die without choosing his own successor.
At such times five oldest knights in residence in the castle played a game of bones to choose who took over the duty. After all, luck played a part in battle, so it seemed fitting for luck to play a role in the ceremony if needed. Afterwards none of them would speak of who had won the right, and he would fade into anonymity, a voice of the past passing on a sacred trust.
The knight strode forward to stand to one side of Dawn, staring down at Edric. When he spoke, his voice was sepulchral in his helm, and even those who knew all the knights who had been eligible for this duty could not say for certain who it was. "Who comes before the Dawn?"
"I, Ser Edric Dayne of House Dayne, knighted by Ser Dondarrion for actions taken in times of war, do stand before you."
"Knighthood alone does not make you of the Morning. For what reason will you bear the Dawn?"
"I will bear Dawn not for myself, but for those who come after me and for those who cannot defend themselves. Not for glory, but justice."
"Why do you think yourself worthy of the Dawn?"
"No one is worthy of Dawn if they think themselves so, but those who bear it can become worthy through their actions before and after. Through oath action and service will I honor Dawn, adding to its legend as those before me have."
"Finally, where will you bear the Dawn?"
"I will bear Dawn into darkness, lighting the way. From now until my dying days or until someone proves worthy to succeed me."
At that moment the sun's rays at last hit the windows of the room, filling it with reflected light. "Then rise Edric Dayne, and take your sword!"
Edric stood, reaching forward with both hands to the hilt of the greatsword in its case, lifting it out easily. It was light in his grip, lighter even than a Valyrian sword of similar size, almost as light as a longsword but not quite. This close the whiteness of the blade was even more apparent, reflecting the sun's rays like glass. Yet even so, Edric could tell the edge was a sharp as a razor, and for all its beauty the sword was still a deadly weapon.
He held it up above his head as all of the knights in the room intoned as one. "Let the darkness and those who would do dark deeds tremble, for the Morning once more has a Sword!"
Edric and Arya stayed the rest of the day in Starfall, taking part in the wedding between Beric and Allyria, before leaving early the next day. Beric's war was over, but the two of them still had a job to do in the North.
As the two of them and a few guards took ship out to sea, a man stood hidden in a small shadow cast by Starfall's outer wall. His face seemed to shimmer for a moment, and he sighed shaking his head irritably at his inability to join the crew of the small cutter. This chase is not going very well.
"You know, if you clench your teeth any harder you're going to shatter something." Edd mused, as he slowly pulled at a flagon of watered down wine. The Vale Army didn't believe in the same rigorous strictures against drink that Ranma enforced in his own army, but at least with all the snow nearby water was easy to come by. If only all the other problems the Vale army has could be so easily rectified, which, Edd thought as he looked at his friend, is why Ranma looks fit to eat rocks.
Ranma glared at him, but the glare had no heat, and it subsided after a brief moment. Around them the army moved on, its pace laggardly in Ranma's opinion, but it was the best the Vale troops could do, and Ranma shook his head as he looked around them. "I should've stayed with the Vale army for a day or two when I was running up north, gotten a feel for them. If I had done that, I might've been able to force the Vale lords to start changing how they did things then, which would've given them more time to settle into the changes instead of now."
"And if you had, Winterfell might've fallen at the first assault given the numbers of White Walkers and mages you told me that army initially had." Edd rebuked quietly. "Don't second-guess yourself like that. That way lies madness, and too much regret will force you into stasis when you have to move."
"When the hell did you get so wise and worldly Eddy?" Ranma laughed, smacking Edd on the shoulder before becoming serious once more. "Still, I can't believe that Lord Manderly let the Vale Lords march out with so little in the way of logistical training! If Jon or Timot were here, both of them would be screaming right now. And as for Merry…" Ranma actually shuddered a little at how his blonde lover would react to how little the Vale had in terms of trained healers or medical supplies.
"You're a little biased my friend, are perhaps the word I'm looking for is spoiled." Edd laughed. "The truth is the Vale Army is moving at a decent clip for these conditions." By these conditions Ed meant the foot and a half of snow that covered the ground here in the North at this point. It had snowed practically every other day, and was of course staying on the ground. There was less snow underneath the trees of course, which allowed the Army to make its way through the forest at an okay rate for any non-Ranma trained army, but even so it definitely hampered movement.
"And at least all of the Vale troops have enough warm weather to see them through. Why I can only think about 12 instances of frostbite since we met up with them."
"It feels as if we've only covered 12 leagues since we met up with them." Ranma retorted. "But even so it's not just the speed we're moving that bothers me, it's the lack of weapons."
Ed winced. "Yeeess, there I can agree with you."
It turned out that Lord Manderly hadn't had enough dragonglass weapons on hand to fully equip the Vale Army. But rather than leave some of their troops behind, they had simply taken all he had and distributed them evenly to each of the lord's forces. Only one man in five had a dragonglass weapon, worse in terms of arrows, and even fire arrows were at a premium. While each archer Ranma had taken from Winterfell had three full quivers of fire arrows and another two of dragonglass, the Vale men barely had ten fire arrows each and a half a quiver worth of dragonglass.
"I'm glad you thought of bringing as much fire arrows and Dragonglass weapons as you did Ranma, even if we've left Winterfell badly understrength in terms of those weapons behind us." They left enough dragonglass arrows behind to arm the defenders, a group of around 600 men of the mountain clans and House Stark, but not a single spearhead or dagger of dragonglass remained in either Cerwyn or Winterfell.
Ranma shook his head again then deliberately changed the subject slightly. "How is morale among our own men?"
"They're about as irritated by the slow pace as you are," Edd reported smirking a little. "But they're holding up well enough. They aren't eager to face the White Walkers or wights again, but I think the term grim determination fits their feelings well enough."
"Good," Ranma nodded. "I'm afraid that when battle begins, the brunt of it will still fall on us."
"Wish I could argue," Edd replied with a shrug.
"We're running out of time!" Ranma growled suddenly, slamming a fist into an open palm, the crack of leather on leather audible to the men around them causing many to turn to look at their liege before looking away quickly at the anger on his face. Edd grimaced but nodded, understanding once again what worried Ranma.
The last they had heard from Hornwood was that Lord Hornwood had pulled his people out of the field, retreating into his castle. But that castle's main defense was the moat that surrounded it, and in that same report Lord Hornwood had passed on that the moat had frozen solid. He had sufficient weapons of dragonglass to see off any White Walker assault and to give them an edge against the wights but despite that and his troops being reinforced, Hornwood itself wasn't that good a castle. It could fall if the White Walkers were prepared to throw enough wights at the problem.
"I know," Edd said soberly. "But unless you want to break off our own forces and leave the Vale Lords behind, there's nothing we can do about it. Or we could stop halting the march with enough daylight left to start digging entrenchments?"
Ranma shook his head firmly. "No. I know the Vale Lords think that it's stupid and a waste of time, and I wish we could ignore it, but I don't think we can. If I were the White Walkers I'd change my tactics after what happened at Winterfell, and I'm not willing to bet that they're idiots or incompetent."
Edd nodded, but he knew that those entrenchments were a sore point between Ranma and the Vale Lords, even Lord Royce who had proven to be Ranma's greatest ally among them thanks to his friendship with Eddard. Ranma had taken the Vale Lords to task about practically everything in terms of their army's logistics, and had ordered their army to start building entrenchments every night. Those entrenchments took enough daylight, which was of course short because of it being winter that it cut off about a third of the time they could march on a daily basis. And it hampered the army's morale, being hard, dirty work fit more for peasants than armsmen. That it also highlighted the difference in the training and endurance of the Northern and Vale forces was also a sore point.
As if summoned by the discussion, two of the Vale lords, Lord Elesham and Tollett moved up out of the army to speak to Ranma again about that very issue. "Your grace, we have yet to see a single sign of a wight or White Walker. Surely that means we can stop throwing up those entrenchments every day. We could be covering more ground per day if you stopped insisting on us stopping the march so quickly."
"Lord Elesham," Ranma said, his tone such that the man flushed angrily, "in comparison to what my army could be doing even in conditions like this your army is going at a snail's pace! Adding a few more hours to that won't matter, but those entrenchments could matter a great deal. We will keep building them every night, and I will continue to personally inspect them every night to make certain that they are built just like the latrines."
The two older men glared at their young king but Ranma ignored it and went on. "We could send more men forward to clear the trail in front of us, if we can stamp the snow down in a wider area for the main army we can press forward faster, and we could also bring in more game for the army at the same time, cutting into the time needed for that every morning."
So the march went, marching through the scattered forest and rocky terrain that made up most of the North. By Ranma's estimate the army only made around six leagues a day, then they would stop and throw up what defenses they could for the night. Those defenses were decent enough, mostly fighting steps facing four feet deep trenches with stakes inside of them. But there was a lot of grumbling about them, and more than one Vale Lord was blaming the need for those defenses on their slow pace, rather than their lack of organization, their constant need to forage, and the slow pace their own troops could march. Mutters of dissent began in more than one quarter against Ranma, and even fights between the Northern and Vale troops, but Ranma remained adamant.
A month out from where the armies had left the White Knife, those entrenchments proved their worth, as Ranma had feared they might. But the White Walkers had learned more than Ranma had feared, because they also targeted Fenris, who was on patrol at night making a circuit well around the army.
Fenris prowled through the night, moving through the snow and terrain of the North as easily as a man would across an open plain. This was his home, his territory, the entire North was his in a way that it would never belong to any human. His ancestors had lived here and further north for millennia, long before the First Men had come to this section of the world. Now he used that knowledge, patrolling around the army his bonded lead.
He paused suddenly, crouching down, making his body profile almost vanish into the snow between two trees, crouching behind where a third tree had recently collapsed. There was a smell in the air, a smell of death and decay. Lips peeled back in a fierce rumbling growl Fenris rose lightly onto his feet, golden eyes staring out into the dark as he made his way forward.
Before he could reach where he felt the smell was coming from however, he paused between one step and another, then backed away slightly, bringing his eyesight down towards where his foot would've been. Where he had just been about to step was a trap. It was not a human one there was no normal iron in it merely wood and ice and one black metal spike, the same kind of metal the White Walkers wore in their armor. He snarled slightly, then backed away further and made to go around it.
Arrows suddenly flew from among the trees all around him, and Fenris snarled, ducking behind one tree for a moment before bringing up his ki to protect himself.
Then there were dozens of White Walkers all around him, thrusting forward with very oddly shaped spears. The tips of these spears were continually barbed all along their length, and it looked as if someone had wrapped the first two feet of the shaft with some kind of thorny vine.
Fenris dodged the first two that tried to spear him, paw lashing out to catch one White Walker in the leg as he lunged at the other one smashing his head into it and ripping out the White Walkers gut's with a wrench of his jaws. Then he leaped wildly away, snarling.
From the spear of the downed White Walker the thorny vine around its tip had unraveled with all the speed of a cracking whip, catching him along his side. Fenris turned, biting it in two, his teeth glowing blue gold as he ripped it apart, but by that point the others were on him.
They pressed him hard, so hard that Fenris couldn't even get a howl off, and the direwolf spent a brief moment to fear for the pack, for the army he was defending, before concentrating on his own battle.
Torches glimmered in the night here and there all along the ditches, each light separated from by several yards, five archers on watch so that the men retained their night vision enough to see out into the forest around them. Most of those archers however did not expect an attack. There were guards patrolling out in the darkness after all, tramping through the snow and underbrush all around the camp to make certain they weren't surprised by a nighttime raid.
Unfortunately one thing that Ranma had never really realized was that the White Walkers had exceptional night vision, and even though their eyes glowed with that eerie blue light, they were exceptionally good at sneaking up on people at night. Two-thirds of the patrolmen died without a single warning sounded in return, and the first warning of the danger to the main army was a hail of arrows coming out of the darkness. More than a hundred archers died in that first assault, then their fellows quickly raised the alarm.
Screams abounded in the night, and Ranma rushed out of his tent looking around wildly. Closing his eyes for a brief moment he reached out through their mental connection to Fenris, only to get a brief mental impression of fierce combat against a weapon that Fenris hadn't seen before. Dammit Ranma, let this be a lesson, the White Walkers can adapt and plan just as well as humans! They must've somehow drawn Fenris off then ambushed him. But I can't help Fenris right now, the army's going to be in a bad way. Night attacks like this are bad, especially against an opponent like this!
"Form up! Form up on your banners!" He shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice heard vaguely over the shouts and screams coming from the camps outer edges.
Edd pulled him himself out of their tent quickly, pulling on more clothing and looking askance at Ranma who haven't bothered. "You're going to freeze." Edd commented smacking Ranma on his shoulder.
"I've got no time to freeze," Ranma said shaking his head. "Get the archers and tell them to reinforce anywhere their company commanders want along the camp's edge. Form up the spearmen in the center of the camp, do it quickly but organized you understand? So long as the army sees that someone is doing something they won't panic. That and our camps defenses should be able to keep most of the army intact whatever happens. Then send the Wull and his men after me!"
Edd nodded, and raced off quickly followed by several of the company commanders. By that point however, the rest of the Vale Lords had come out of their tents, looking confused, worried, and though most would never admit it, frightened. Lord Royce and Ser Symond Templeton however were made of sterner stuff, and they rallied the others with a few sharp words before turning to Ranma. "What would you have us do?"
"Rally your men and gather your archers, but keep them back for now. Push swordsman and spearmen forward to help defend the earthworks." Ranma said crisply.
The Wull then pushed forward out of the crowd of soft southerners, he and his men all bearing greatswords or battleaxes along with the steel armor House Stark had gifted them with. At their belts each wore a dragonglass dagger. "What'd you have us do, Young Wolf?"
"With me Wull, we have monsters to slay!" Ranma laughed, his voice more a howl than a sign of humor, and the Wull and mountain men with him barked their own laughs as Ranma turned back to Lord Royce and the Valemen. Pulling out Ice from its sheath, he pointing it where he felt the noise of combat was the loudest. "I'll be over there, get your man moving my lords!"
Lord Royce nodded, slapping his chest plate with one armor plated fist then nodding at the others. They all raced off in different directions, shouting orders and Ranma winced. Their hearts were in the right places, but that many people shouting commands all at once was going to have a bad effect on organization, and in an action like this an organized response was one of the most important things.
Too late to change it now, he thought, by which point he was already on the earthworks, staring at a small horde of wights which were charging the camp. Behind him the Wull and his men raced into position, having been unable to keep up with Ranma.
The White Walkers arrows however were still falling among the men, and those were the more dangerous threat. However, the men posted around the edge of the camp had already responded, archer and swordsman alike, rushing to their designated positions. Yes! Ranma thought, ecstatic. The training I forced them into has taken control thank the Old Gods!
"Get your heads down!" He shouted. "Keep your heads down and wait until the wights get up here to engage! Anyone who has a Dragonglass dagger or spear, remember aim for the chest or head. Anyone else, chop limbs off! The dead fuckers aren't as hard to deal with if they're in pieces!"
With that Ranma put some steel into his words as he jumped back up onto the wall hacking downwards at the first few wights to try and climb the side of the ditch. Several of them fell, hacked into pieces and dead for real thanks to the Valyrian blade, but Ranma was forced to duck back under cover rather more quickly than he would've liked when several dozen White Walker arrows sought his death.
They impacted all around him, and one actually arced over the earthwork and almost took him in the side despite his rolling around, nearly smacking into the Wull's side, who laughed. He looked up to see several hundred archers already assembled, wearing two Vale House colors, Elesham and Redfort. They also all had fire arrows on their bows and he nodded grimly. Fire in a wood like this might normally have been a very bad idea to tempt fate with, but given how heavy the snow was on the ground and how cold it was out, Ranma was prepared to chance it. "Men of House Elesham, fire out into the wild to my left! Men of House Redfort, wait for targets, and if you see any White Walkers trying to gain the earthworks, target them with dragonglass arrows!"
The man all roared back in reply, and Ranma turned quickly bringing up Ice to block a farmer's hoe coming towards his face. Ice cut through the weapon, taking the man in the chest and sending him back to the grave. But there were other wights already on the earthworks and Ranma shouted, "Up and at them!"
The swordsmen, and spearmen and mountain men all around him obeyed with alacrity, regaining the small step that was on the interior of the small dike, hacking and slashing at the wights coming over the makeshift barricade. Above them they heard the thrum of arrows as the fire arrows sang past them, impacting into the woods randomly. Here and there they stuck into the trees, and slowly the woods began to burn slightly, but thanks to the snow as Ranma had predicted it didn't spread often. Here and there when the arrows impacted pine needles or large piles of leaves that for some reason weren't covered by snow it did, but those instances were very few and far between, and quickly snuffed by the snow turned into water around them.
But the fires did have an effect on the attackers. Whatever their control over them, the White Walkers could not force the wights to come anywhere near fire. The attack faltered at least here, and Ranma nodded at the Wull, who was cleaning his massive battleaxe of ichor as two of his men made certain if the wights on the ground by knifing their chest and tossing their hacked apart bodies onto the nearest fire. "Well done my Lord, can I leave this area of the wall to you?"
"Go on Young Wolf!" Said the man nodding his head. "I think that the fight to our left is goin' poorly, they'll need ya more'n me an' mine."
Ranma nodded, clapped the man hard on the shoulder and ran off in that direction.
The battle continued, but thanks to the earthworks and the training of the Northerners backing up the Valemen, the wights and their accompanying White Walkers couldn't break the army's morale or defenses. The attack cost them, far more dearly than what Ranma supposed the size of their force equated to, but they could not quite break through the earthworks.
Fenris showed up after Ranma had moved almost halfway around the camp. His fur was covered with slashes here and there, but nothing life threatening. He howled coming in on the attackers from one side, bowling several White Walkers who were busy aiming towards the defenders over before they knew he was there.
Seeing this Ranma rallied the men around him, men of House Tollett to charge over the earthworks, getting in close with a White Walkers and their wights before they could retreat. "Charge, charge and we can break them now!"
Lord Tollett had been among those who had most disdained Ranma's input on the running of the army, both his 'suggestions' (read orders or diatribes) on logistics and his insistence on the fortifications. Now however he was a believer, and he took up the shout. "You heard his Majesty, charge you sons of whores!"
Soon after that, the battle was over. The remaining White Walkers faded back into the dark of the night and were gone. Ranma scowled as he stared down at the bodies of four of them, wishing he could convince himself that they had cost the White Walkers more than 15 or 20 of their own number in this battle. But he couldn't. Still, if I can come up with a way to stymie this sort of assault, I can start to really do damage to their numbers…
Shaking that thought out for now he grabbed up a horn from his side, blowing into it twice, before shouting out orders. "All unit commanders report to your lords with your wounded! Lord Wull, Edd, take command of the defenses for now!" He shouted that several times, then grabbed some men nearby and used them as runners to carry his orders throughout the army.
Of course it wasn't that easy, the Vale Army wasn't organized anywhere near to the Royal Army's standard, and now with wounded to care for, that came to the fore again. Where is Merry when I need her, Ranma thought, shaking his head. We'll need her skills, though I'd like to keep her and Dae close for more selfish reasons. On the other hand, I think I'm actually happy she wasn't here. She and Daenerys have been in danger too often as it is.
As dawn broke, the various Vale lords came together with Ranma once again looking grim. "We've lost a little over 1,300 men my Lord, and we've got a fourth that number again in wounded. Caring for them is going to cut into our supply medical supplies badly," said Lord Royce, shaking his head. The glow of his bronze armor's runes had slowly faded since the battle, but more than one of his fellow lords were still shooting glances of awe in his direction.
He looked over at Lord Redfort, who grunted then bit the arrowhead. "You were right Your Majesty," he said bowing his head to Ranma. "You were right, and we were wrong. Building those earthworks saved this army, and it's clear by how your own the men did in that assault that your ideas of organization and training are also effective."
Ranma could have decided to grind the man's intransigence into his face, but he didn't. "An organized and disciplined army is never outnumbered my lords. I will not say that organization or discipline is of the most important things in an army, but they are high up the list. Therefore, we will leave the remaining wagons here with the wounded and say, four hundred men or so. Lord Royce, I noticed that your eldest son is not here, was he injured?"
"Slightly Your Majesty, Andar took a glancing blow from a mace to his helmet. His life is not in any danger, but it has certainly had an effect on his ability to walk and think for the moment."
"Very well, we'll leave him in charge of the wounded. They're to retrace our steps back towards the White Knife, then make their way back down to White Harbor."
"What if some of the White Walkers move around our army and attack them Your Majesty?" asked one of the other Vale lords respectfully.
"I don't intend to give them the chance. Starting tomorrow, we are going to double march this army. My own men will start clearing the path ahead of us, Fenris and I will go ahead of them, with enough of a distance between us to hopefully draw any White Walkers we can down on ourselves."
He looked over at Edd who nodded, already understanding what Ranma would have him do. "Ed, you'll be in charge of our men, keep them breaking trail for the rest of the army but don't let them separate too much in the Woodlands."
"I have done this before you know" Edd replied mildly, though his eyes glinted slightly and Ranma nodded holding up a hand. Edd nodded at the apology, and Ranma went on. "We'll want the wounded and the dead stripped of their dragonglass, those weapons are to be distributed among the men. Howland, Wull, I'll want you to start combing the Valemen for scouts, train them on the march as you would your own to move through these conditions as best you can. You'll be needed at night."
Howland Reed bowed his head, exchanging glances with the much larger Mountain chieftain. Howland and a portion of his men had been caught outside the camp during the attack having been on patrol. He and his men had evaded a group of White Walkers, ambushing them in turn before joining the battle by charging the assault from the southeast.
Ranma looked around the lords grimly. "Understand me, this was but a first round against the White Walkers between us and Hornwood. They've learned from the battle up at Winterfell somehow, and it's obvious they don't have the beasts or the magical creatures to face us in an open battle. But that might not always be the case, and we need to be prepared for it. This will be the way they fight us for now, skirmish, night assault and small scale attacks, but they cannot defeat us like this, not if we're smart."
The men around him all nodded grim agreement, and Lord Elesham gave voice to their thoughts. "We are yours your Majesty, you will hear no further complaints or arguments from us."
"Good." Ranma said briskly. "Then be about your business my lords, I expect this army on its way by midday."
Merry and Daenerys both sneezed as one slamming their heads into one another as they laughingly pulled out of a hug brought about by a comment from Daenerys. Daenerys was about to ride Rhaegon over to New Castle with Sunfyre following. The dragons were now so large that the idea of them following along on foot through the city with the rest of the army was simply untenable, and they might react badly to the noise of the cheering crowd. This plan had been worked out in advanced with Lord Manderly via his son Wylis, who controlled the Three Sisters.
Up in the air Daenerys and her dragons would still be visible, but well out of range of the shouts and cheers of the crowd. Merry, Greatjon, and the other lords would then march the Royal Army through the city.
"That hurt," Merry whined, shaking her head. She glared over at Dacey who had burst into laughter at the sight of the two younger women slamming their heads together like that. "It's not funny from this end Dacey!"
"Someone must be talking about you two." Dacey said with a laugh. "That's a superstition here in the North anyway. Nonetheless, I think we should be going Your Majesty."
The two women nodded, and followed Meera and Dacey out of the large tent, the two dragons moving to follow their queen. They could only do so one at a time given the size of the tent flap, and they were noticeably reluctant to leave the warmth of the tent, but they could bear the cold. Both dragons were already saddled as well, and knew what that meant and were looking forward to it. Flying with their queen was always more fun than flying solo for some reason.
Even on the deck of the flagship the cheering of the smallfolk of the city could be easily heard over the shouts of Ser Davos ordering his crew around or any of the myriad other sounds of the army disembarking. Much of the work on those docks had stopped, and the men on them were cheering lustily at the sight of the Royal Army returned, and of course Daenerys and her two dragons.
The dragons in particular were being cheered lustily, and Daenerys heard many a man or woman shouting her own name. "Daenerys, the Seven bless Daenerys the Just, the Old Gods bless your marriage!"
It wasn't just the fact that the dragons could be seen as the ultimate enemy of winter however, no there was more to those cheers, more to the fierce pride those cheers conveyed in every shout of "The Stark, the Stark, the North for the King and Queen! White Harbor for the King and Queen!"
That was because tales of the War of Reformation had gone before the Royal Army on the whisper of rumor, bard's songs and raven's wings. The men and women cheering Daenerys and her absent husband knew what the northern army had accomplished, the price it had paid and the tremendous victories it had won. And they knew now, that whatever else happened the North would never again be seen as a backwater to be ignored or labeled as unimportant in the great game. Through fire, blood, courage and skill the North had made itself heard, and it would never again be silenced.
Daenerys took a few moments to wave at the crowd before moving over to Rhaegon, quickly flinging herself up into the saddle behind his neck. A mental command was sent out,Fly, my dear one!
Rhaegon pushed himself off the deck and out to the side further than any would credit given his bulk, which was now the size of four warhorses tail to jaw. A single beat of his wings held him there above the water, then another sent him a little higher and then a third, his muscles straining. Dragons were made more to drop from a height first to gain some momentum, and flying like this was hard on them, but both dragons had trained for it from the beginning and soon enough Daenerys and Rhaegon were in the air.
They circled the fleet in the harbor once then Daenerys sent out another mental command, ordering Sunfyre up into the air to join them. Much to the delight of the crowd the two dragons began to dance in the air, rolling and twirling up and around one another then they were moving off away from the harbor deeper into the city towards House Manderly's seat.
Moments later, they were spiraling down, the courtyard of the castle purposefully cleared for them. Several local lords minor waited there along with Lord Manderly himself, sitting on a palanquin at first but as Daenerys flung herself out of the saddle he lifted himself onto his feet before bowing to her floridly. "Your Majesty, White Harbor is yours as always. And though I doubt that at this late a date I will be the first, let me add my congratulations on your pregnancy to those that have gone before me."
"Your congratulations are welcome Lord Manderly, as is your hospitality." She looked at the crowd of city delegates and minor lords then made the next words she spoke loud enough for every ear to hear. "Since leaving your lovely city, we have heard reports of how you have served my husband and I, and I thank you for that service in both our names. You have shown intelligence, probity, and above all loyalty, all things that we could wish all of our vassals both noble and not shared."
With that she moved forward, taking the man's hands when he made to bow again, leaning forward to kiss his fat cheek. "It is good to be home." she said leaning back. "Home in the North."
The two of them moved inside after sending the two dragons off to a prepared stable for them, both dragons now too large to follow Daenerys into the keep itself. They probably could still fit through the hallways, but Daenerys was worried that the close confines would make them panicky, and dragons panicking was never a good thing to contemplate.
They soon sat in Lord Manderly's conference room exchanging tales. Lord Manderly was astonished at how much his young king and queen had accomplished in the south. The breaking of the Westerlands had reached his ears but the creation of the duchies or the final battle against Stannis and Viserys had not, and learning that the Stormlands in their turn would be broken was astonishing.
Their diplomacy and mercantile endeavors also impressed him, and he shook his head smiling faintly. The only problem he had with everything that they had accomplished was the fact that the Iron Bank would almost certainly see them as enemies now. That and the fact that all of his work in trying to set up a currency based on silver had gone out the door the moment they had taken the Golden Tooth.
"I do apologize for that," Daenerys said shaking her head. "If we had known when we set off that we could take the Golden Tooth, we would not have asked you to devote so much of your time to try to come up with a new system of currency."
Lord Manderly shrugged. "It is not a an issue your Majesty, it's not the first project I've done that went unneeded. The Iron Bank however, that disturbs me. While right now their influence in Westeros is limited, in time they might be able to put a lot of pressure on Westeros economically."
"I realize that, and I'm willing to let bygones be bygones with them despite the fact that they backed that, that pretender and the former Master of Whisperers." Daenerys replied. The Golden Company survivors were very forthcoming about who would pay them, hoping for leniency. They hadn't gotten it, Ranma and Daenerys were death on any mercenaries or lords who preyed upon the smallfolk as the Golden Company had in Duskendale and on the march.
"If we are able to hunt down any more of Littlefinger's caches I'm even willing to turn those monies back over to the bank. But my husband and I will never allow them to dictate terms to us. Furthermore, the Royal Bank will be taking a far larger role in the economy from now on."
"I have some ideas about that, mostly based around investment ideas and the concept of ownerships in various businesses." Wyman said, looking at the young woman closely.
Daenerys waved one hand, and the older lord went on. That conversation continued until the rest of the army arrived in the keep and the barracks surrounding the city's walls. Merry, Greatjon, Jason and the others came in joining them, with Merry quickly making her way over to sit beside Daenerys. She nodded her head at Lord Manderly, curtsying prettily despite wearing pants.
Lord Manderly laughed, shaking his head. "You too are welcome Princess Baratheon, or should I call you the Maiden of Healing? I've prepared plans for a Healing Hall here in the city, and have gathered as many medical supplies as I could for the army, if you are willing to look over them."
"Of course!" Merry said happily. "In fact, if my lady and the rest of you don't need any medical advice for this meeting, I can go now."
The other lords who had come in with her shook their heads while Daenerys frowned faintly, tapping her stomach, which was just beginning to show her pregnancy, something Wyman had noticed earlier. "I'll need to ask you some questions later about this little issue that I just thought of as I was flying with my Rhaegon, but that can wait until tonight."
Daenerys looked over at Wyman who nodded, gesturing to one of the footmen waiting by the doorway. "Young Eustace here will show you around the city your Majesty, I understand you have a bodyguard?"
"I do indeed, Eric's outside with Dacey and Meera."
"In that case, as I said Eustace will show you around. But… we have already prepared a place for your mother, who arrived here along with the other prisoners that were supposed to go to the wall are here in the city."
At those words Merry's face blanked and Wyman went on delicately. "It's in one of the towers here the castle, rather away from them normal hubbub of castle life, something we felt was appropriate. We've spread the other prisoners out and have only retained the Queen and the Kingslayer here in the Castle. If you wish to check up on them Eustace can show you where they are today, and you can begin your tour of the healing hall and the warehouses I've turned over for medical supplies tomorrow morning."
"I think I will do that and…"Merry paused looking at Daenerys. "Should I also take the opportunity to introduce Arianne to her new charge?"
Greatjon guffawed and more than one Lord had a wide vicious smile on their face as Daenerys laughed, nodding her head. "Please do. I've already discussed with Lord Manderly what we plan to do with the princess of Dorne and he's given me assurances that Arianne will be watched both by the Silent Sisters and by his own people."
Lord Manderly nodded, Merry curtsied once again and left the room.
After her friend/lover departed Daenerys turned back to the others, beginning the strategy meeting brusquely. "My lords, Lord Manderly and I discussed many things before you joined us, but one thing in particular impacts our plans going forward tremendously. It turns out that the Vale has decided to break its isolation. Under Lord Royce and Lord Redfort the Vale put forth an army composed of around 11,000 men. But they did not decide to join the war in the South, rather Lord Royce apparently…"
That took some while to explain, with Wyman interjecting here and there to elaborate on what the Vale lords and he had discussed, but by the end of it none of the lords with Daenerys were looking very happy. Jason put their thoughts into words, frowning angrily. "Are you telling me that there aren't any dragonglass weapons in the city? That we're stuck here until that pirate and his fleet returns on their second run?"
"I'm afraid so Jason," Wyman replied, shrugging his shoulders which set his body to jiggle. "We had no way of knowing where you were along your journeys and Ranma wanted more aid to be sent towards Hornwood as soon as possible."
Daenerys looked at Greatjon, gesturing at the massive map on the table in front of them all. "Greatjon, you and Dacey have the most experience in moving overland in the North, could you show me where on this map you think the Vale could be by this point?"
Dacey moved over from the where she had been guarding the doorway to lean over Greatjon's massive shoulder, and the both of them talked for a moment in low tones, while Jason and his son Patrek quickly engaged Lord Manderly in a discussion about logistics and the defense of the city. Eventually the two looked up.
"This is the route I'd take if I was heading from white Harbor to Hornwood," he said tapping it out with his finger on the map, following the White Knife for a bit and then splitting off and making a relatively straight line towards Hornwood. "At least if I had an army anyway."
Dacey nodded agreement. "They couldn't be further than that, not if they're matching any kind of normal army's speed. What kind of baggage train did the Vale lords have?"
"They initially arrived with both horses and mules drawing carts. We were able to exchange those animals with local horses, but they refused to part from their carts. It's doubtful though that…"
"Bah, wagons'll be next to useless in the North at this time of year." Greatjon interrupted, scoffing. "The snow'll be too thick, and along that route there aren't any trails a wagon could follow, no matter how small. They'll be carrying all their foodstuffs and other supplies by this point on their horses or their own damn backs if they don't know how to care for their horses at night." Even Northern-bred horses needed blankets to cover their legs and bodies at night, or the temperature would give them frostbite as surely as a human.
"Lord Manderly you said that my husband intended to meet with the Vale army and command it along its march to Hornwood?" Lord Manderly nodded, and the queen frowned thinking as she looked at the map. "If that is the case, then my lords I believe we can leave Hornwood and the Vale army to my husband."
"We're not going to reinforce them?" Tytos asked.
"Reinforce them, with what?" Jason shook his head. "We don't have any dragonglass weapons remember?"
"Fire arrows we still have in plenty." Greatjon said looking over at Lord Manderly who nodded. "Dragonglass weapons aren't the only ways to kill wights or White Walkers. Enough fire can do it, and remember we have the dragons."
"Dragons can't do it all, but we might be able to do enough. But I will not throw away the lives of our men by sending them into battle against the White Walkers and their undead minions without the proper weaponry."
"I say we should march upriver along to Long Lake and from there over to the Last Hearth Daenerys," Greatjon said, addressing her as she would Ranma, something which made Daenerys smile despite the lack of propriety. "I've no doubt my castle's been attacked since this began. If we relieve it, it'll make a good starting point for our march up towards the Wall, I promise ya!"
"I don't like it your Majesty." said Tytos Blackwood shaking his head. "I agree that marching to the aid of the Last Hearth makes sense, but shouldn't we concentrate on driving back the White Walkers along the coast it in aiding Lord Rickard?"
"Lord Rickard will reinforce his forces twice over at Ramsgate and Widow's Watch," Jason said, shaking his head. "And those places were already supplied with dragonglass, remember?" He directed that question Lord Manderly, who nodded his head quickly. "I agree with Tytos, without dragonglass of our own, our numbers can all too easily be turned against us."
"In fact," Lord Manderly said shaking his head. "The Vale forces marched out of here with only one dragonglass knife or spear point for every five men."
Daenerys let them argue for a moment, staring at the map. She was calculating distances, thinking of plans, and most importantly what Ranma could have known when he marched out. She was also thinking of the quality of the men with him, Rickard, and the Wolfsworn. We have the best we could possibly send reinforcing Hornwood and the eastern coast. The western coast is too far removed for us to do aught about. That leaves the Last Hearth and the straight path up to the Wall to us. That siege has been going on too long as it is, we must move to relieve it as fast as possible. Which means Greatjon is right, even if his opinion is rather biased.
"This is what we will do." Daenerys said softly, yet even so her voice cut through that of the men around the table easily. "Lord Blackwood, Lord Jason, you will remain here in command of the army. You will keep training the men, and hopefully after he retakes Hornwood, my husband will send out word of that. If he does, we can learn more about what fighting the wights and White Walkers is like and you can take that into account."
"You make it sound as if you won't be here your Majesty." Jason said looking at her with a frown.
"I won't be. Instead myself, Greatjon, the forces of his House and say 3000 extra scouts and archers will move up the White Knife with my dragons. If my husband hasn't cleared out Winterfell and Cerwyn of their dragonglass weapons, we can supply ourselves further from them at House Wells. But since Winterfell has been cleared of enemies, and my husband is busy marching to Hornwood's aid, we probably won't see much in the way of threats until we get past Winterfell. I aim to relieve the Last Hearth, then begin to clear the Kingsroad for traffic up to the Wall."
"That's a very dangerous gamble you're making." Tytos said, though there was more approval then disapproval in his voice while Greatjon's opinion on the matter need not be said. He was anxious to go to his seat's aid, especially since the Last Hearth had not been heard from via raven for far too long.
"You'll find travel up the White Knife relatively quick your Majesty." Wyman said smiling faintly. "Young Bran's idea for putting the barges on what he calls skates makes them go like blazes over the ice of the river. And at last report the winch and pulley systems at the various waterfalls were still in working order. Your dragons though, they will require a special barge made just for them. I had commissioned one such already, but I did not realize how large they had grown until today. It should still be ready in a week however."
Daenerys frowned, then pointed to Winterfell. "Can we get a message via raven to Winterfell and back before then?"
"Possibly, given favorable winds for the raven."
"Do so, I wish to know if we should stop there, and if they have any armor for those among our archer force that still need such. I'll also want all of our archers armed with every fire arrow you can give us."
Wyman nodded complacently. Fire arrows were relatively easy to make here in a city like White Harbor, unlike in castles, where they would quickly run out of flammables.
Daenerys suddenly looked up as a feeling of disgust and irritation came through her connection to dragons. Seeing through their eyes she saw that they had been given some odd looking meat that they had never tried before, though the carcass of the animal looked familiar to her. Is that a seal or a walrus? Regardless of what they were, their meat did not please the two dragons.
"I believe we have done enough for now my lords, rest yourselves for the rest of the day, then get back to work tomorrow morning on preparing the logistics for the mission to Last Hearth. I'll also want to go over the numbers for food and clothing production Lord Manderly, though we might need to talk to Davos to organize shipments of food from the Reach if possible, as well as talk to you Greatjon about how quickly your lands can get started on shipping coal elsewhere after we liberate your seat. But right now I believe I should go and make sure my dragons are settling down in their manger. Until tomorrow my lords."
With that she rose, and every lord there rose in turn bowing formally as she left the room. Lord Manderly too had stood up, and he smiled at his fellow lords. Daenerys might have started out with nearly all her power and influence coming from her marriage to Ranma, but now, now she had become a queen in truth, and Lord Manderly, for one, knew now that if they got through this winter, the future was bright indeed with her and Ranma at the helm of the nation. Although, getting through the winter is going to be our sternest test by far…
Deciding to get the easier meeting over with first Merry had Eustace escort her and Eric to where Jaime was being kept in the basement of the castle. Staring through the bars she shook her head, rather bemused. She had thought that the loss of his dominant hand would have broken Jaime, but despite that and several months of captivity, her uncle didn't look much the worse for wear. He was standing in the center of his cell working out with a long piece of wood that one of the guards must have given him, working through several sword forms trying to get used to using his remaining hand as well as he had his dominant one.
He stopped as he caught sight of Merry, bowing sardonically. "You're looking well for a princess of a defunct dynasty, Myrcella."
"They see me as friend first, Baratheon second, and Lannister a distant third, so my looks don't count against me when it comes to Daenerys and Ranma, or indeed any of their men and lords." Merry replied dryly. "You're looking better than I expected uncle, I thought you would be either broken or angry yet you seem to be neither."
"I'm not truthfully. Oh, I was at first though, believe you me. I wanted to kill your 'friend' Ranma more than I wanted nearly anything before." Jaime replied with a shrug. "But since arriving in White Harbor most of the news has been about the White Walkers and their undead hordes. I know I'm to be sent to the Wall eventually, and if those are the kinds of threats I'll likely meet, well…"
Jaime shrugged his shoulders, his ever-present smirk on his face, but when he spoke he was deadly serious, perhaps for the first time ever in Merry's presence. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life Merry, things that Arthur Dayne, Oswell Whent and Jonothor Darry would have struck me dead for. And a lot of things I am proud of, things they would never have done yet needed doing. But standing against such as that, that will definitely top the list. And maybe, just maybe wipe the slate clean so that when I die, my old brothers, my true brothers not the scum that replaced them in the white, will welcome me among their number. I mean to be at top form when I face them, whenever that may be."
Merry cocked her head staring at him thoughtfully. "I'm happy for you then and wish you luck. This will probably be the last time I see you uncle, so I wanted to say farewell. You weren't ever much of an uncle to me, but you at least were there for Tommy and I as we grew up, and I can't blame you for the acts of my mother or older brother. Your loyalties give you credit, even if the people you gave it to weren't worth it. I'm glad you found a cause that's actually worth your skill and I hope you find some measure of happiness in the future."
She laughed suddenly. "Especially since Tyrion is up there already with his new knightly order. I imagine the two of you will have a lot to talk about."
"I imagine we will!" Jaime laughed, and Merry turned to leave when his voice stopped her. "Myrcella, Merry, are you happy?" Merry turned to look at him and he went on. "I mean…" he faltered, seemingly at a loss for what he really wanted to say. "Are you happy with the way things are?"
Merry could tell that wasn't the question Jaime really wanted to ask, and she wondered if he wanted to tell her about her real parentage. After a moment's reflection she decided she didn't want to know. Either way that went it was nothing she was interested in now. So she simply nodded addressing the question he had it asked. "I am happy yes. I have a dream for the future, my healing halls and bettering my skills in that area, and as for my personal life…" she smiled. "That is as good as it's going to get."
Despite her rather tart words there was a happy light in her eyes, a gleam of a woman in love. Seeing it Jaime frowned but nodded. Despite the fact that he was her real father, he had never acted that way, even when he could act so as an uncle rather than a bodyguard. He'd simply never really cared for any of his three children, doing so was always Cersei's joy, not his. He always cared for Cersei and her alone, and now he realized how empty that made his life. One child of the three alive, one of the two whose character I could have grown to love and I can't do it, he thought morbidly. It would wreck her life, and what point would it serve, a base attempt to get her to acknowledge me, for what? Too late now, too late for everything.
After a moment Jaime simply nodded. "I'm glad you found a profession that you can be happy in I suppose. Stay safe Merry."
Merry simply nodded again and left without another word. She had one more stop to make before she could put the last of her past life behind her, and she was eager to be about it. Behind her Jaime stared after her for a time frowning and thinking of what might have been an old mistakes before shaking his head, and once more moving through his sword forms.
With the easier meeting over with, Merry followed Eustace through the castle up to a tall tower the only entrance of which was a single stairwell barred by a relatively new looking heavy door. There she found Arianne and the two men assigned to watch her, and she smiled thinly. "Are you ready to meet your charge, Arianne?"
The Dornish princess glared angrily at the stag who she knew wasn't one but words failed her. She had no friends left, no allies, no standing. Even the Sand Snakes, her own cousins, had told her to simply deal with it and then proceeded to distance themselves, getting on with their own tasks, with Dacey and Alayaya. She had made her bed, she brought a murderer and a psychopath into Westeros with a Dragon as his call, and it cost Dorne nearly all of its military strength and more than a few lords. Indeed because of her actions it would be all her brother could do to keep House Martell in power at all in Dorne, not that she knew it at the moment.
Without waiting for a reply Merry moved past Arianne, pushing the door open and leading the way up the staircase. At the top of the tower they found the suite where the former Queen had been ensconced. They also found the helper that Merry had assigned to the woman during her trip north, a northern man by the name of Robillard who had lost his arm at the elbow during the battle of Darry, one of the few casualties the rest of the army had taken in that battle. He was calm, conscientious and both elderly and happily married, so Merry had no fears that her comatose mother had been taken advantage of under his watch. At the time that had seemed much more important than it was now.
Her mother had not improved, she was still comatose. She could eat and her body was still working, but the mind behind her eyes was still not there. But thanks to the servant women here in the castle, at least she didn't look as bad as she had on the trip up, Robillard not being willing to try to bathe her or ask others to.
"There has been no change in her?" She asked.
"There've been a few moments where Cersei's woken up lady Merry, but they've been brief." said Robillard bowing deeply to her. "During those times she cried for you, for yer brothers, and her own brother a time or two." Once Cersei even cried out for her own mother, but that, Robillard would not share with Merry or anyone else. He had been the only one in the room to hear it, and that cry, that desperate, fearful, childlike cry, had struck him to the quick. For some reason sharing that with anyone seemed like an invasion of the once-powerful woman's privacy as bad as raping her would have been and he would not do it. "Yet most of the time she's been like this…"
Arianne was staring at the woman on the bed in mixed horror and fury. "Is, is taking care of this, this broken thing to be my fate?" She asked, anger in her voice but her face was trembling fit to break as she spoke. "Killing me would have been a kinder fate."
Merry whirled on her angrily. "I don't know why you're complaining, to my mind you and my mother have quite a bit in common! My mother broke Westeros for her son's sake, you broke it for vengeance! You brought back Viserys Targaryen, you made him a threat he could never have been on his own, and thousands paid for it in Duskendale, in Gulltown, in Dragonstone, in the battle of the Shadow's Fall and even on your own side! I think you two deserve one another."
The older woman made to reach forward Merry hands grasping angrily, but her two guards pulled on her chains holding her back.
"Remember, my mother's well-being is directly connected to yours." Merry went on staring Arianne in the eyes, her own eyes chips of unrelenting emerald. "If anything should happen under your watch, you will pay for it with your life."
With that Merry turned away visibly dismissing Arianne from her thoughts as she moved over to the bed leaning forward. She gently kissed Cersei's forehead, saying nothing. There was too much and too many emotions going through her right now to let her speak. She then stood up, staring at her mother for a few more moments before turning away exiting the room.
Lord Leyton Hightower was an elderly man with a craggy face hidden by a bushy but well-trimmed and cared for beard which showed more than a hint of gray. Sharp, intelligent brown eyes deep set into his skull stared out at the world from above the beard, and wide shoulders fading under the weight of age. He wore good, expensive but above all comfortable clothing. He was a man who had lived long enough to not care what people thought of him and was secure in his own power, especially here in the center of his family's power.
He greeted Willas and Jon in Hightower's main hall, quickly ushering them, lady Margaery and their advisors into the drawing room where a meal had been placed around a table. Three men already waited them there, all three clad in the plate and tabards of warriors, though none of them had weapons at their sides for this meeting. "Please help yourself my Lords, we have much to talk about. And Lord Hand, may I present my son Garth, Ser Jon Fossoway of the Green Apple Fossoways and of course Garlan Tyrell."
Jon nodded, but quickly moved to the side when Willas moved forward, the two brothers exchanging a powerful hug before Margaery moved forward at just as quickly, throwing her arms around her brother. As the family reunion continued, including an exchange of news which included the deaths of Loras and their father, Jon moved over to the table, looking over at Lord Hightower who made a motion towards one carafe in particular.
Jon took it, poured a small amount into a goblet, sniffed and drank a sip. He nodded approval, but then set the goblet down firmly moving over to the table. They all had a lot to do, and being drunk would help no one. He looked over at the man who was inarguably the second most powerful lord in the Reach Lord, and smiled thinly. "So, how much work have you been able to do on the logistics side of things for the fleet?"
"That will depend on which direction you have decided to send the fleet my Lord Hand, as well as the size of the force." The older man replied smiling faintly. "We've gathered enough food, we think, to get your fleet to say Greenstone, but if you're going West, there's no place along the route you can be certain to be resupply until you get to Seagard."
"What of winter gear? Food is important on the voyage, but it won't matter if our men freeze before we even get to the battlefield."
"We prepared some 2040 coats gloves and hats all told, not enough for your full army of course, but…" Leyton shrugged his shoulders. "How many men are we actually sending?"
"That remains to be seen. In the North your horsemen won't be worth anything. By this point the snow is deep on the ground, and the cold will kill most of your southern horses quickly."
"I'd disagree on that, but I haven't seen a true winter, and it's true that horses take more fodder than men" Willas said with a shrug, sitting next to Jon as Margaery and Garlan made their way over behind him. "I've also heard that much of the North is covered by forest or rocky terrain, and in that kind of environment horses are more of a hindrance than an aid."
"Exactly." Jon replied with a nod. "Especially in the area of the North where we're going."
"I take it by that you've decided on your direction." Margaery asked, sitting down next to him on his other side with a salad on her plate, a sharp contrast to the heavy meats and cuts of foul that the men had on their own. She did however steal several such cuts from her brother Garlan, who sat across from them, staring at Jon thoughtfully.
"First, Garlan I'd like you to tell us about the campaign against the Ironborn. More importantly, do you have any idea where the Ironborn ships which should've been defending the Shield Islands went? And, how much damage did they do?"
Garlan nodded, looking at Jon Fossoway, who had arrived in the city only a few days before the force under Willas and who was just as interested in Garlan's campaign. He took a long from his wine glass before putting it down. "We set off from here with around…"
"And so we returned here, receiving word from a patrol boat out from Oldtown that we were to come in to meet with you and Willas. I have to say that Archmaester Martyn isn't pleased with the wait, though he understood when it was explained to them. He would like to talk to you by the way." Garlan concluded.
Everyone's plates had been cleared by this point and while Garth and the others had all been dismissed, Margaery, Leyton, Jon, Willas, and Garlan sat around the small fireplace. Lord Hightower and Garlan held small snifters, while Margaery, Jon and Willas both sipped from their wine glasses.
"I would like to speak to him as well, in fact I would love to have the time to go to the Citadel and talk to all the Archmaesters there. But frankly we don't have time, and I'm afraid if I do head to the Citadel, I'm likely to be embroiled in some of their politicking. Or at least so lady Margaery has so advised me."
"Lady Margaery is most wise," Leyton smiled thinly. "The Council of the Citadel plays its games with far more energy and vigor than many lords ever realize. I think they're still debating what to decide to do about the coming of the dragons and magic, but I'm getting a distinct impression that they might stick their heads in the sand and try to ignore it frankly."
"In that case I should definitely speak to them." Jon said smiling thinly. "Myself and Ghost will convince them otherwise."
"More importantly," Garlan said looking at him, his gaze direct. "Which direction are we going to go, and how many men are we taking? There have been some rumblings from many of my own men they wish to head home, especially the levy forces. They need to get out into the fields to help their fellows bring in the last harvest before winter closes in. Whatever the Seven's power, it still takes men and their hands to bring in the harvest."
Jon nodded crisply. "Agreed, any levy forces are to be sent home immediately, with full pay of course, and provisions to see them home."
"Oh?" Lord Hightower said leaning forward and with one eyebrow raised. "And where exactly will this pay be coming from, and how much are we talking about?"
"From you for now Lord Hightower, and the pay is to be two silver stags for every day they spent under arms, minus the cost of any equipment." As Leyton began to cough on the spirits in his snifter Jon went on. "I will write out a letter of credit in the name of the king that it will be paid back once we are certain the roads between here and the Golden Tooth are free of bandit activity."
"So it's true then you did take the Golden Tooth." Leyton, chuckled quietly, leaning back. So long as the young Hand wasn't intending to simply force him to pay out of the goodness of his heart he had no issue with the idea of paying the smallfolk forming the core of the levy forces, though it would cut into his family's liquid capital.
"Yes we did, not, admittedly my most favorite memory." Jon shuddered a little and the three men looked at him quizzically while Margaery chuckled. She knew that Jon was 'wary' of heights and had actually breathed a sigh of relief that the room they were meeting in didn't have any windows. Given the height of Hightower which was one of the wonders of the known world, that was definitely a good thing in Jon's opinion.
Waving aside their interest Jon went on. "Garlan, let's talk about the composition of the force we should take further, and the way the Houses under you preformed, or didn't as the case may be. House Mullendore and House Cuy in particular..."
Garlan nodded and the two began a discussion on that point, while Willas engaged Hightower in a talk about the various logistical aspects of the journey. It turned out that the levy forces of those houses had been badly hit in the battle against Balon's forces at sea, but they had served him well. The other two houses, besides Hightower whose men had served under Garlan however, Blackbar and Bulwer, had performed admirably from the get-go.
"If we send your levy forces home along with your cavalry, how much will that leave us. And Lord Leyton, could we see a map of the Reach?" Jon asked.
Leyton nodded and waved his hand to a servant. The man quickly moved over pulling out a large, detailed map from a wide drawer while Leyton and Willas moved over to join the discussion, along with Margaery. "Loyalty needs to be rewarded, and incompetence or arrogance punished…"
"Are we talking about House Florent now?" Margaery asked archly, causing the men to laugh. "But you're right Jon, and in this case it is easy enough. House Mullendore's military strength is gone, their lord, heir and cousins dead. Lady Mullendore is a… a former Crane I think, but there's no way she can hold Uplands and the lands of the House. I would recommend we send a knight, whoever you and Garlan suggest brother, to take over the running of the House for now. But the House itself should be removed from the Great House status, and made into a House minor."
"Agreed, and I know just the man. Ser Hugh Blackbar, a cousin of that house. An older man, he served with distinction in both the battle of Oldflowers and again against Balon. But he was injured badly in that battle, and his strength is not what it was. This would be a fine way to reward him." Garlan said enthusiastically, looking at Jon.
Jon laughed. "These are your people my lords, I will not argue. Very well that was simple enough, the lands of the House will be divided in half, half falling under Hightower control, as part of your recompense for your loyalty."
Leyton's eyes widened, but Willas and Margaery merely nodded. Hightower was powerful already, adding that land, all decent farmland but nothing special, wouldn't matter in the long run. Especially since House Tyrell's own land had grown so much itself.
"House Cuy I think is in the same position as Mullendore, correct?" Jon asked, and Jon and her brothers all nodded. Like Martyn Mullendore, Branston Cuy had handed their levy forces over to Garlan before leading their trained armsmen and knights north to join Renly, only to die under one Baratheon or the other. "But Sunflower Hall's position makes it important, and an interesting strategic position not only for us, but for the new Duchy of the Passes."
At that Garlan cocked his head quizzically, and Willas cut in to tell him and Leyton the plans there. Both were astonished at the idea, but after a few moments understood the why of it, as well as why the Royal House had no worries about instigating another time of many kings. The Royal pikes and the training which had produced the Wolfsworn and to a lesser extent Edric Dayne and even Patrek, was a very big stick indeed. That was not even considering the fierce, passionate loyalty Ranma and Daenerys had been able to invoke in their subjects, lords and smallfolk alike.
When Jon spoke again however, Garlan smiled widely. "I think that because of that, and the fact it is on the sea as it is, it should be gifted to Desmond Redwyne."
"An excellent idea! I think that Desmera will do well enough as lady Redwyne, so long as someone else can handle the military side of things, and she has someone helping her with the numbers aspect of rebuilding the Arbor. But Desmond showed true grit, intelligence and loyalty from the beginning of this war, and truly deserves to be rewarded for it above what he could expect as a cousin of the main Redwyne line." Garlan enthused. "And of course taking Sunflower Hall might be hard, which will give my cavalry and the Redwyne forces with us here in Oldtown something to do while the rest of us head north."
The meeting went on from there, as Willas and Leyton, under Jon's direction began to redraw the borders of the Great Houses around Oldtown. Blackbar and Bulwer were formally given Great House status, removing them from being under Hightower's control, though Beesbury and Honeyholt were gifted to Gunthor Hightower for his role in the war effort, and that house removed from the rolls of Great Houses, placed under Hightower as Mullendore remained. So despite losing the taxes those two houses, along with Cuy, would have paid into his house's coffers, Leyton was well-pleased by what they had gained instead.
With that discussion done, Jon and Garlan got to grips with the force that would be sent north. Garlan would remain behind in Oldtown with Willas to provide another proven field commander to his brother, just in case. Garth, the older of the Hightower brothers, would travel north with Vigilance, the House's Valyrian sword, and their men.
The total force sent would be a little over 5,100 men, coming from Tyrell, Bulwer, and Blackbar for the most part, with a bit under a thousand pulled from Florent and Peake, though they would not include any of the lords or knights of those houses. Jon and Willas wanted to remove some of the men from Lord Florent and Peake, hoping that would curtail any trouble from that quarter in the future.
That this would leave Willas and Garlan with more than enough men to smash any lord with delusions of grandeur were not lost on any of them. Especially after Margaery, in a clear, concise tone, enunciated the lords who might cause trouble in the future given their losses in the war, inclination, or, as she put it 'gross stupidity'. That Florent and Peake fell into two out of three of those categories was a given.
Instead of providing men Hightower would provide supplies, including both new weapons and shields, not just food or winter apparel. After Jon explained this, Leyton frowned. "Those men already carry weapons my Lord Hand. Why do you then talk about new weapons being supplied by my city?"
"I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've decided that the spear phalanx or pike regiment tactics isn't going to work against wights as well as it does against humans. Yes the pike does a lot of damage, but wights don't feel pain, so killing blows to them are meaningless save with dragonglass. So instead, we should think about maiming them." Jon stood up, moving towards the door "I'll be right back."
As the door closed behind Jon, Leyton turned to look at Willas and Margaery. "I am impressed, I didn't except to be, but he's a most intelligent young man despite his northern upbringing. He listens, he's insightful and quick, as well as very dangerous. I thought he had been given the status as Hand simply so the new king wouldn't need to appoint anyone who's loyalty he was not utterly certain of to the post, but now…"
"You should meet his brother sometime, the two of them are so alike in many ways it's almost scary." Margaery laughed, cuddling under her brother Willas' arm on the coach the two of them were sharing. "He even impressed my grandmother, and you know how hard that can be."
A moment later Jon returned, holding in one hand a pike, and in the other another kind of polearm. Garlan and Willas looked at it shrewdly, noting that the blade made for half the length of the entire weapon, and that the blade was curved slightly and sharp on both edges. The length of the pole itself was about six feet rather than the fifteen feet of the pike. "The overall weight looks to be similar to a pike," Garlan murmured, moving to take the blade.
Jon handed it over equably then moved over into a clear space. "A normal pike is thrust forward like so," he said demonstrating with the pike he still held. "This causes tremendous wounds of course, and can kill or maim even through plate given enough strength behind the thrust."
Margaery giggled suddenly, and Jon realized what he had said. Both of the girl's brothers looked at her askance, and Garlan shook his head while Leyton looked astonished and appalled. "You still haven't grown out of that dirty little mind of yours, have you sister?"
"Nope." Margaery said with a chuckle. "Not even a little."
"If I could have your attention over here." Jon said, his face a little red at the smirk Margaery was giving him. "As I was saying, that's fine for living opponents, but wights don't feel pain, and can keep coming regardless of wounds like that. Indeed, from what Dacey told me even Dragonglass can only put them down if they take out the heart or brain."
Garlan turned back from looking at his sister, hefting up the other polearm that Jon had brought in. "This looks more for slashing attack, is that so?"
"Garlan has the right of it." Jon said, exchanging pole arms with the slightly older man. Instead of thrusting as he did with pike, Jon brought this polearm down in a slash. "Again, this can cause tremendous wounds but the main objective is to cripple by taking off arms or hacking off legs."
Lord Hightower looked over at Margaery, expecting to see the girl looking a little pale at the rather bland explanation of the weapon's purpose, but she was simply looking on interestedly. Next to her Willas frowned thoughtfully tapping one finger against his lips. "How do you see this playing out in a mass attack?"
"The front line will be divided into two groups, spaced one to one in the formation. One group will hold shields, large tower shields big enough to cover themselves and the person directly to their right. That person will in turn wield a glaive like this. It won't be perfect especially given the time we have to train the men, and we'll be doing most of that training on the ships, but it should be easier to learn than the pike anyway."
"How many of these do you think your city could make in around two weeks milord?" He asked Leyton.
Hightower frowned then moved over to a small desk to ring a bell. Moments later a servant man appeared, and Willas and Lord Hightower talked to the man quickly. "I'll have a blacksmith here momentarily I don't know enough about the art myself to give you an answer."
Jon nodded then went on, moving over to the table where Willas and Leyton had been working earlier. "The next question is tents, and braziers, you cannot understand how important it will be to keep warm at night on the march."
"You still haven't told us which direction you'll go. And you're planning this out is if you don't expect us to stop for dragonglass." Garlan objected.
"We're going west." Jon replied bluntly. "You have heard about the miracles occurring here in the Reach which are credited to the Seven? I tell you now that they are not the only gods who have risen to fight the White Walkers. In front of the Three Singers in Highgarden I received a vision. That vision told me that I personally need to be on Bear Island or the island will fall, and with it the western defense of the North and eventually the Wall."
"I can't bring it to mind." Garlan muttered looking over at Lord Hightower who shook his head.
Leyton shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't have any map of the North that I would rely upon. I have one which shows the coastlines of course, but not in enough detail to matter."
"My map is up here." Jon laughed, tapping his forehead. "If the White Walkers can take Bear Island, they can move against Deepwood Motte, a small town set on the shores of the Bay of Ice. Worse, they'll be able to march inland into the Wolfswood and up into the mountains. The Wolfswood is…" he paused trying to think of the words that would get across the true impact of that woodland. "Ancient, immense, deep. No army could move through it with any kind of organization no matter how well trained or led, and even making camp would take hours at best, be impossible at worst for an army of any size. In that kind of environment it'll come down to individual skill and weapons. Worse, it might force us to fall back out of the Wolfswood to try and defend its borders, and given the size of it, that's impossible.
"All good solid strategic reasons my Lord, but without Dragonglass, we have nothing that can kill the White Walkers." Willas objected.
"Fire, Valerian steel, Ghost, Nymeria, myself, Arya, and anyone wielding a Valyrian blade," Jon said, listing the people on his fingers.
Garlan sat back down, frowning thoughtfully. "We don't have many Valyrian blades you know, they don't exactly grow on trees even here in the Reach. Indeed throughout the Reach I don't think there are more than ten of them. Other than House Tarly's and Hightower's blade, the other three are all with the army your brother apparently smashed."
"As I said, there is myself and Arya when she arrives. Besides, I don't think it's ever been proven that regular weapons can't kill White Walkers if you get in a killing blow that ignores their armor. It will be costly, but more costly than trying to fight them in the Wolfswood, no."
Garlan tried another tack. "Surely the North has enough resources left to send to Bear Island itself?"
"Again the Wolfswood blocks most of the Northern forces from getting there easily, and we haven't heard anything recently from the North at all. Certainly they wouldn't be able to send dragonglass to the Island before this, and the mainland probably is facing its own issues."
"But surely that's another indication that we should go the other way and pick up dragonglass weapons." Garlan objected.
"There is another consideration here to think about." Lord Hightower broke in reluctantly. "Braziers and tents. Braziers will call upon my blacksmiths' time and skill, just like your glaives will. We might be able to meet one area of demand, but not the other. The same issue faces us when talking about clothing and tents."
"And Seagard isn't that large a town, it could maybe make braziers for us but tents? As far as I know it doesn't have that larger a tanning industry does it?" Garlan asked.
"It doesn't, but Lannisport does." Jon said, smiling thinly. "Could you gather enough food to get the fleet to Lannisport in two weeks Lord Hightower?"
"Yes I believe so…" Leyton said, looking at Jon shrewdly.
"You would trust the Lannisters?" Willas asked, not condemning just questioning, though his brother was looking rather angry at the very idea.
"We're not trusting them, we're not asking them for men, but for goods." Margaery said thoughtfully. "I'm uncertain that we should trust any food Lannisport could give us, but tents are easy enough to check the quality of, as is clothing and braziers."
"Have any of you ever met Kevan Lannister?" Jon asked.
"I met him once at a tournament at the Rock." Garlan said musingly. "He is an intelligent man who likes to work in the background. He never pushed himself forward, but I think he'll be an effective ruler for the Rock and Lannisport. If you're asking if he's trustworthy I think he is so long as he remembers that Westerlands no longer has an army, and has no desire to seek vengeance in a way that could bring on more pain for his family."
"We have two of his sons as captives along with Daven Lannister in Riverrun, I think that is enough of an incentive."
"I liked Daven." Garlan said suddenly looking over at Jon. "He was a decent enough blade, and wasn't anywhere near as arrogant as most Lannisters. He was arrogant of course, most lords are, but not so unthinking or cold."
Jon shrugged. "He acquitted himself honorably in the Riverlands and has been treated as such, but he's still a hostage, at least for now. Right now however, let's talk with your smithy expert Lord Hightower, that'll give us an idea of the numbers we need, then we'll talk about the number of ships we can afford to send, and what else we might need House Redwyne's naval power for…"
As the four men put their heads together, Margaery leaned back. She didn't have much of a head for numbers, and so had little to offer to this portion of the discussion. So instead, she thought, and wondered, and made her own plans.
It turned out that Lord Hightower's initial impression was correct, Oldtown could produce enough glaives for the infantry portion of the army, or enough braziers. If they tried to concentrate on both, even if they used simple iron for the braziers, it would cut dramatically into the numbers they could produce. The tower shields too would take time to build up in sufficient numbers, and their rims too would take time away from the blacksmith's other tasks. And the tanners and clothing merchants couldn't supply both winter clothing and tents in sufficient quantities before Jon's deadline. Indeed, even the raw resources needed for all these tasks became a bottleneck.
With that in mind Jon asked Lord Hightower to concentrate on the weapons rather than the braziers, and wrote out a message for Lannisport and Riverrun, which would send it on to Seagard. Lannisport would be able to supply the brazier's and the tents Oldtown could not, and Seagard could make up the numbers in terms of their shields and arrowheads.
Seven ships would be left behind to guard the Shield Islands, with seven more to guard the Straits into Oldtown. Five others were sent down to 'show the banners' in Dorne then head further north to start shipping up dragonglass to White Harbor with Saan. Further, Jon extended his promissory note to Lord Hightower to begin building more six ships, which would join those five in transporting dragonglass up to White Harbor.
Several days later Edric, Arya, and their men arrived at the city's wharfs having taken a ship from Starfall. They were immediately ushered through the city and up to the massive Hightower, where they found Jon and the others. Jon got to his feet, moving over and pulling his younger sister into a hug smiling and waving a raven message. "We received a new message from Riverrun. They passed it down to here from Highgarden, and it details Ranma and Daenerys' victory. They're calling it the Battle of the Shadow's Fall! It makes for some interesting reading, especially since there was another enemy, an army called the Golden Company, we didn't even expect."
Arya quickly grabbed the note out of his hand, rushing over to a chair and plopping herself into it without another word. Jon laughed, and turned to Edric. "And how went to your own mission?"
Without a word Edric pulled out Dawn, holding it up in both of his hands one hand underneath the blade. "Dawn." He said simply. "I am now the Sword of Morning."
Jon chuckled and nodded. "Good, we might need you and that sword on Bear Island when we get there."
"My Lord, I can't find lady Margaery, do you know where she is?" Asked Domeric Wythers.
Willas looked up from where he and Lord Hightower were going over the numbers for the construction yards. Simple affairs in comparison to war galleys, galleons still cost quite a bit, almost as much as the rest of the work that had been put into providing for the army sent north that morning. "I have no idea where my sister could be, she finished a write up on Lord Peake for me yesterday, and left it on my desk. Why, did you need her for something?"
"We were supposed to return to Highgarden today as soon as the fleet left, your grandmother was most specific, my lord, so I…"
Willas turned a little frosty. "Really, and what if I had told you I needed my sister's aid here?" The man stuttered a little, and Willas went in for the kill. "Understand me Ser, I am Lord Paramount of the Reach and Lord Tyrell. I rule my House, not my grandmother. Any orders that do not come from me should at the very least be brought to my attention. Do I make myself clear?"
The man stuttered and Willas nodded. "Now, find a few of the others knights, and search my sister. If she is not found anywhere in the Castle, then feel free to barge in on me again, understood?"
The man nodded quickly and left, and Lord Hightower looked at Willas. "You do a very good Tywin impression my Lord."
"Thank you," Willas said with a nod, then he began to laugh. Lord Hightower looked at him in surprise, and Willas tried to compose his features only succeeding after several moments. He held his hand to his face, moaning dramatically. "Oh no, my sister is missing oh no, whatever will I do. Just as the fleet carrying Jon and the army departed too. But I suppose that's just a coincidence…"
"You think she hid away on one of the ships?" Lord Hightower asked in surprise. Then he frowned. That could be dangerous they are going into a war zone after all, and sailors are not the most controlled bunch at the best of times."
"My sister has that wild wolf girl to look after her, and Jon as well. I doubt anything will happen to her, though my grandmother and mother will both probably be put out about it."
Lord Hightower shook his head. "She was always a willful girl, but I didn't think she was so precipitous, to go haring off like that. I pity the man who'll have to put up with her."
"Jon at least has some practice in that area." Willas replied then burst into laughter again.
The White Walker commander of the army marching on Hornwood was a wily man, and older for his race than most sent on the expedition to Skagos. He was one who had first looked askance at the very idea of sending an iceberg out to sea but since Skagos fell he'd become a believer, and had begun to modify his own tactics. With no news coming from Winterfell, he knew that the assault on their Old Enemy had failed, and Hornwood and the ancient keep of the giant lovers would be reinforced quickly.
When one of his small patrols and the wights it could gather did not report back, the man knew that the Old Enemy would be coming after him and planned accordingly. He sent several thousand wights to invest Hornwood, more to keep the defenders inside than anything else, along with several White Walkers from his own band, a force 200 strong. Then the rest of the army kept marching determined to catch the force under the Old Enemy out in the woods where his men's better individual abilities would come into play. Above the army, flew the one dragon they still had.
While the White Walkers came with winter and could in some small fashion control the temperature around their influence, they did not control the full power of it. No one could control the seasons like that, not even the gods.
Winter passed through the Neck heading south bringing far colder temperatures, sleet and even snow. Harvests ended in the Riverlands and in the Vale, which was already having issues.
The Vale mountain clans, having grown bold in recent years, now were forced down into the lowlands in ever greater numbers. Despite the war now going against them thanks to the forces under Silas attacking one mountain clan after another, they were a growing problem, along with the weather itself.
But that wasn't the only sign of winter, others could be seen floating in the ocean. Watching one such near the last of the fingers Salladhor Saan frowned. And when he spoke, he voiced the thought of thousands, millions spread out around Westeros. "Even if you don't count the undead and their masters, this winter is going to be truly foul."
Rickard and those with him would have possibly responded to that phrase rather coarsely considering that while winter was still extending its grip elsewhere, here in the Narrow sea between the Bite and the Bay of Seals, it had already clenched its fists around the land and ocean. Floating ice was everywhere in large quantities, and the winds and waves were tumultuous at the best of times. They had lost two ships outright and three more had been forced to turn back with damages before they reached Ramsgate.
Transferring the men two of them carried, the last having been a war galley out of White Harbor, had been a nightmare, costing hundreds of lives. Luckily of the two ships that had sunk, only one had been a transport strip. Yet even so 500 plus men going down in a nighttime squall was a bad blow to morale, made worse by the ships which had been forced to turn around. In all the expedition had lost a little over eight hundred and forty men, leaving them with a little over 3000, mostly Karstark and Riverlands men.
Their destination, Ramsgate, was somewhat like Karhold, only smaller. It had a small dock at the back leading out onto the Broken Branch river, with a small two-story tall wall around a central keep, which was circular in nature and only about six stories tall. Across from the castle along the river was another tower guarding the other side of the river, but that tower had fallen into disrepair over the centuries. The men of House Woolfield had tried their best to put it back into working order since the war began, but their best hadn't done much.
Lord Woolfield was a short man coming up only to Rickard's chest, but he was wide across the shoulders, and had a sort of ram-like approach to life in general, yet in many ways more resembled a dew than a ram. "I can spare some 600 man," he said to Rickard bluntly. "And I'll give you two/thirds of our store of dragonglass weapons but I and the rest of my House will remain here."
He shook his head sadly. "We've lost several minor Houses. Too many of my folk refused to evacuate their homes, only those closest to my seat were willing to do so really. But we've got too many people here, we're too good a target if we just let you take all of my fighting men."
Rickard shrugged. "So long as those men of yours know the lay of the land between here and Widow's Watch, I don't care. What about food?"
"None to spare. We can give you a few deer, a few loaves of bread but that's about it. Like I said, we've got a lot of mouths to feed here."
Rickard walked off looking over at Daryn who shook his head. "A lot of mouths to feed is a matter of perspective I suppose. I guess they've got around eight or nine hundred smallfolk, including women and children here, plus the House's own population. I'd bet Hornwood has double that or more. Roger and Hathan are checking the stores now, we'll see if we can convince Lord Woolfield to be a slightly more honest with us if need be."
That was in fact the case the man had badly exaggerated how low on food they were, nor were they actually in a siege situation just yet either, which allowed the hunters to keep bringing in food. Using both of those facts Rickard browbeat the man into giving him several horse-loads worth of food, mostly salted meat and bread, simple fare which would last for a long while. With that and the supplies they had brought with them, Rickard and his men marched out.
Luckily, Gustav Woolfield was made from a different cloth than his uncle. The head of the scouts which had been seconded to the army was a middle-aged but still vigorous man, a widower who had recently lost his wife to a cold. He understood his duty and was aggressive and the pursuit of it.
Looking around at Rickard and the Wolfsworn, Gustav gestured at a map of the area. This map wasn't quite as good as House Stark, Manderly or Cerwyn could produce of their own lands, but it was decent enough. He placed small pebbles here and there around the map saying, "These are the places where we have seen or heard of White Walkers attacking, mostly wights up to this point." He pointed to five stones in particular. "My uncle probably told you we've lost several minor Houses, and he's right about that, in fact we've lost all of them to our north and northwest. Keeps and holdfasts can only slow the wights, they can't stop them."
"How large a force do you think we're dealing with?" Smalljon asked.
"Depends on what you're talking about. Thousands of wights at least but there's been no sight of the White Walkers." Gustav said with a shrug. "As to where, I think they've moved west. They took these Houses going that way anyway, here, here and there." he said drawing a very crooked line, but one that led westward along the isthmus point towards Widow's Watch.
Rickard scowled. "House Flint of Widow's Watch might not be the most powerful Great House, but it's still a Great House, and one that didn't commit any forces to the war in the south. Why would they attack such a strong position?"
"That I don't know, but if I had to guess I'd say it's because House Flint did a lot better at the job than my own house did in forcing its people to pull back to the castle. Think of all those people there, if they can get inside its might double or even triple their numbers."
"Widow's Watch doesn't have that good a defense either," Daryn said, frowning. "I've been there, it was a good, solid castle when it was built, but it's rather run down in several areas these days. I don't think it could withstand a long siege. It also can't be supplied by sea, since it sits on top of a bluff."
With the sea the way it is we couldn't supply them from the ocean anyway." Theon said shaking his head. "Frankly I'm astonished we didn't lose more ships than we did."
"That brings up an interesting question." Roger said thoughtfully. "Will we even be able to attack Skagos if we push the White Walkers back that far?"
"The Bay of Ice has probably already frozen solid. Moving over it won't be easy, but we could do it, there's a trick to moving over ice like that." Rickard said frowning. "But we'll cross that bridge when we have to, right now there's a force of White Walkers out there, and I mean to destroy it."
The Wolfsworn all smiled, showing their teeth and nodded as one.
While White Walkers could move quickly, wights, while of course not needing to stop to eat, drink, shit or sleep, didn't move very quickly as a large group. They just weren't maneuverable enough to move through heavy snow quickly, and their passage tamped it down just as much as any human army.
The force of the Royal Army however had marched and fought for months now, and had gotten very good at it. Even without Merry and Ranma around to organize their camps, Rickard and the others were easily up to the task of organizing them. Every man carried either a small brazier, a tent, or food, and they marched from right before dawn to evening before throwing up simple earthworks around their camp. So unlike the Valemen, they made excellent time.
But they could not catch up to the force of wights marching on Widow's Watch since that army was marching away from them, forcing them into a chase. Marching after them, they came upon several holdfasts which had been either deserted or taken, their people wiped out. Searching these ruins augmented the army's own stores slightly, though Rickard and the Wolfsworn were quick to point out that at the moment any riches would have to be carried by the people who purloined them. That stopped any looting in its tracks, and the march quickly continued.
Daryn and the rest of the Wolfsworn moved out in front of the army, racing along both before and to the sides of the army's route of march to find and hopefully trigger any ambushes before the rest of the army arrived. They didn't run into anything however, but they did spot some signs of the White Walkers and their wights passing by.
Rickard looked up spotting Roger waiting in sight of where he led the army. It wasn't long Rickard was beside the younger man and he looked at him quizzically. "I thought Daryn was the one who normally stopped by."
"Daryn and I found something out there, he's busy burying it."
"What did you find?" Rickard asked cautiously.
"Evidence that the White Walkers don't want to just kill us, they want to take their time about it." Roger's voice could've been made of beaten metal, and his face behind the beard was set in a rictus snarl. "They don't have any place for babies or children too young to be of use in their armies."
"Children…"Rickard said slowly "they use children in their armies?"
"Above a certain age, possibly. We came upon a farmstead, it looked pretty well designed, a decent enough place built on top of a tiny hill. But it didn't save the people there, and a babe and two young children were there. If the White Walkers can't turn you into something useful for them, they… play with you."
Rickard's jaw clenched imagining the twelve or so children who worked or lived in Karhold, thankful that almost all of his people including the servants had gotten out. "We will avenge them." He said simply.
"Oh yes," Roger nodded, slowly, calmly the calm before a storm. "That I can promise."
Four days later the scattered forest and farmsteads began to give way to rocky clearings, too rocky for horses to live on, but there were still a few scattered farms here and there. Covered in snow now of course, as all the land was. Despite it being clearer now, thanks to the snow it was actually tougher going. But here the White Walkers and their wights had done the humans a favor, beating down a path in the snow they could use to follow the undead horde.
Even so, Rickard knew they were coming within another day or so march of Widow's Watch, and wasn't about to trust to the trail of the wights to tell them where they were. He ordered the army to rest, sending the Wolfsworn further out to find the White Walkers.
He had just sat down to dinner when Daryn ran into the camp, skidding in the snow and frozen mud of the ground of the camp. "We found them," He said quickly.
Kneeling down next to the fiery pot Daryn poured himself some of the stew nodding his head respectfully towards Rickard who nodded back, handing over some utensils quickly. "Where away?"
"They might be within a half days march of Widow's Watch, maybe the same for us if we double time it."
Rickard frowned thoughtfully. "Tell me, have you seen any sign that the White Walkers have killed or turned any of the animals? Theon said something about that, didn't he?"
"He did, but we haven't seen any sign that they've continued that trend. I, I don't think this is the army that took Karhold, at least not all of it."
Rickard frowned. He wasn't the strategist that Ranma was, or even the tactician. He had never led a full army like this, portions certainly and done it well but planning out an entire battle was something he had never had to do except for in the Saltpans, which was rather an easy one. Yet he was not afraid to ask advice. "What do you think we should do?"
Daryn smiled a wolfish expression on his face. "I think the White Walkers need a lesson in always looking around them rather than concentrating on one target. What I suggest we do is march through the night, then rest without cook fires and when they attack Widow's Watch, attack them in turn from behind. We'll pin them in place against the walls of the castle, and wipe them out."
"Get the rest of the Wolfsworn here," Rickard said after a moment. "I want their opinions."
The sun was starting to go down by the time the Wolfsworn returned to the army. By the time they did arrive however, the Army had thrown up its normal defenses, and every man had gotten some hot food inside of them. Rickard wanted all of his men to have a good meal if they were going into battle tomorrow.
When the Wolfsworn assembled Rickard began to outline the plan. "Daryn has a suggestion, and I think it's a workable, but I want your opinions."
After he finished Roger shook his head as did Hathan while Theon simply looked irritated. "It'd be a good plan, if our men could charge through snow as they can down the cleared trail the White Walkers left. They can't. Sorry Daryn, but the idea of enveloping them like that isn't going to work. Not unless House Flint's kept the snow off the ground somehow in a wide area around its castle anyway.
"In this kind of terrain, with the amount of snow on the ground we just have to charge into them." Hathan said with a shrug. He and Roger were the best trained cavalrymen among them, and had been most irritated by the need to leave their horses behind when coming on this expedition, the calculation being one horse for six men in terms of room and eight in terms of space for food making them too expensive. "I think we might have a numbers advantage against this force, I say we use it."
After a moment Rickard nodded. "Very well, I've already given orders for the army to rest. We'll rest for several turns of the glass, then march through the night, camp closer to the Widow's Watch and then fall upon the White Walkers as they attack the castle. That's the best plan we're going to make."
"Prior planning might prevent poor performance, but trying to plan ahead can often times lead to indecision." Theon said, mangling together two phrases that Ranma had said occasionally. "Let's get it stuck in, wipe these bastards out and move on."
The first part of the plan such as it was worked well enough. The White Walkers had no scouts out behind them or even to their sides, intent on attacking and taking Widow's Watch and turning every human in it into their thralls. The army was therefore able to march through the night unmolested, camping within three leagues of Widow's Watch.
In the distance the Army could hear the attack began, but Rickard was not about to order their own attack until the morning. He instinctively felt that attacking the White Walkers out in the open at night was a recipe for disaster and so long as the White Walkers could not bring a dragon against the castle, it should stand for at least a day or so.
The next morning commanders and sub-commanders relayed orders through gestures and low hisses as men prepared for battle. The Stark Pike-now spear regiment formed up in the center of the formation, with the men of House Karstark to either side, and the archers and scouts forming up behind them. In front of this force Theon and the rest of the Wolfsworn moved forward rapidly.
Rickard a given them specific orders: get in close unseen, and take out the White Walkers before retreating. All of them held Valyrian blades, even Theon had a Valyrian dagger, a stiletto about eight inches long with a wickedly sharp point that Roger had picked up for him.
Once they came within sight of Widow's Watch they spread out, with Theon going down to one knee and pulling out his bow fitting a dragonglass tipped arrow to it as he stared at the castle. The White Walkers were throwing their wights against the castle walls indiscriminately. He watched as dozens possibly more than 100 siege ladders being carried forward by those wights. The White Walkers however were well back of their army, spread out in a line, firing up at the castle occasionally, but not hitting anything. They think themselves safe out of bow range, and they might be from though Castle, but damn sure not from me.
Daryn and the rest of the Wolfsworn however couldn't get close. As they had feared, outside of the direct route the wights had trampled down, the snow was too thick on the ground to allow for a fast passage. Worse it would make their movements too loud.
Quickly realizing this, they moved in front of Theon. "No chance of subtlety working here, we'll just have to charge!" Roger actually sounded happy as he lifted his Valyrian longsword, which he had named Sunset.
Theon nodded. Hathan wasn't looking forward to this, much preferring to fight on horse. Still, it wasn't the first or even fifth time he'd have to go into battle on his own two hooves. He lifted the longsword he had been given from the treasures taken from the Golden Company, which he had named Oathkeeper.
"As soon as they spot you, I can have arrows in the air." Theon said, still staring down the length of his arrow at the distant targets. "But a lot of them are archers too, and I told you what those arrowheads could do."
"Well, Ranma dodged arrows sometimes, how hard can it be?" Daryn asked, smiling weakly. Yet even so he too held up his own Valyrian blade, Woodhart.
Smalljon grinned cracking his neck and hefting up the Giant Cleaver, a Valyrian claymore he had taken from among the wreckage of the Golden Company's elephant charge. "Did you decide on a name for that little prick of yours Theon?"
"Iron Thrust." Theon said, smirking evilly but not looking away from his targets. "Heh, innuendo, boast and threat all in one."
"No." Said all the others around him, shaking their heads, but it was Daryn who spoke up. "Just no, even Valyrian daggers need better names than that. How about Archer's Kiss?"
"Feh, sounds too feminine for my tastes. We can talk about this later I suppose, but right now boys, we've got a battle to win."
With a final nod at their friend the others moved off, each went slapping Theon on the shoulder as they went. Even Smalljon gripped Theon's shoulder once before joining the others, their differences forgotten.
Between one step and the next the Wolfsworn charged. Giving up any pretense of trying to sneak up on the White Walkers they raced forward covering the distance between them, 50 yards or so, in seconds.
Even so the White Walkers heard them coming through the mud and frozen ground and turned. The first two to race bows to shoulders died swiftly. One of Theon's dragonglass tipped arrows took one through an eyeball. The second died from an arrow slamming into and through his chest plate.
For a moment the White Walkers were torn by indecision, most of them going for their swords, while a few fell back away from this unexpected assault lifting up their bows and arrows. Those men died, Theon cutting them down with a speed and accuracy that was astonishing.
Daryn it was the first to reach them, his lizard lion armor, like that of Edd, Ranma, and Jon, lighter than even the chain mail the others wore. "Righteous in wrath!" He howled, bringing his sword up and around smashing a White Walker blade so hard the man lost his grip on it, and could only stare in stupefaction as Daryn's return blow caught him in the neck severing his head and sending it flying through the air in the spray of yellow blood.
Then Smalljon hit them like a rather small but very concentrated avalanche, bearing four of the White Walkers who had grouped together to the ground, his Claymore stabbing into them repeatedly as he laughed, smashing their own blades aside with his gauntleted fists pummeling and ripping them apart with his bare hands.
The others too smashed heavily into the White Walkers, killing and scattering them. Those that scattered too widely died under Theon's fire. But their luck against any of the Wolfsworn one on one was very bad, and they had lost too many in that initial charge to regain any equilibrium. Before the horde of wights could turn to attack them, the last White Walker died under a blow from Hathan.
There was a roar behind Theon, and he turned. "The Sun of Winter!"
The army marched up behind him. Then halfway between him and the Wolfsworn, who had begun to fall back now that the White Walkers were dead and the wights attacking, the spears came down, and that march became a charge. "Honor above all, for the king and Queen of the North!" At the same time the archers on the wall redoubled their assaults, and the gate game down, allowing the men within to sortie.
Leaderless, being attacked from both sides by weapons that could kill them, the wights had no chance. Worse, they were almost evenly matched in numbers for the first and possibly only time in this entire war. All told the wights attacking Widow's Watch numbered around 6000, which meant the humans, with their combined forces, almost matched them.
Lord Flint and Rickard met in the battle, nodding into one another as the cleanup went up our all around them. "Your intervention was most timely Rickard," said the older man, wheezing slightly as he leaned on his sword. Nearby Robin Flint waved his own longsword in the air in a salute to the two older men then reached down and picked up a still weekly hand tossing it into a nearby bonfire. "My stores are yours, and my men if you need them."
About a week after their ships left the Whispering Sound Jon and Arya finished practicing for the day, and he smiled at her, ruffling her hair. "I think it's about time that you let Margaery out of your room don't you think? She must be going stir crazy confined in there."
His younger sister gaped up at him for a moment then shook her head looking over at Ghost. "Let me guess, Ghost smelled her?"
Jon nodded, and Arya laughed before heading down below. She came back a moment later with Margaery dressed as a pageboy, rather badly if Jon was honest. Some women might be able to wear clothing like that and play the part of a man, but not one like Margaery. You can't hide those hips whatever you do Jon thought to himself, trying not to stare at said hips, though I'm surprised that she was able to tie a breast band so tight as to not make those obvious as well.
"So my game was up from the moment it started." Margaery said with a theatrical sigh, before cocking her head at Jon. "Why then did you let me aboard at all?" Around them several dozen of the Reach knights and armsmen were gaping at her, while Garth was looking both amused and shocked.
"Ghost smelled you the moment you boarded, though I will say that I was surprised that he decided to keep it to himself for so long. I get the impression that Nymeria actually sat on him at one point to enforce that." The idea of the smaller Nymeria sitting on the larger Ghost caused Arya and Margaery to laugh, but Jon was actually serious. Ghost was a much more laid-back, calm sort of fellow than Nymeria, who was extremely bossy at times.
"I noticed that you are making no attempt to turn the ship around Jon Stark." Margaery said, moving forward to place a hand on Jon's chest. Jon was bare to the waist at the moment, having exercised with both Garth and Arya and Edric one after another. He was rather sweaty despite the cold ocean air, but something told him not to try to clean himself up, indeed Margaery's eyes were roving his body in a way that made him want to blush.
"I-it would set us back at least a week and a half, more like a month to get back to this point. That would serve no purpose, and I like having you around my lady." Jon said, before coughing and looking away blushing lightly. "Your, your um, diplomatic skills have proven themselves useful in the past, and I might need them when we get near Lannisport."
"I am so glad that my 'diplomatic skills' will be of use on this trip my Lord Hand." Margaery said curtsying mockingly, her eyes laughing at him before she turned to head back below with Arya. Now that the jig was up, she could get out of these irritating breast bands and put on a comfortable blouse instead.
Jon sent Ghost with her, ordering the direwolf to guard her door from now on whenever she was present and Nymeria wasn't, a job that Ghost took to readily enough, huffing in amusement to himself at the human mating rituals. Direwolves had it so much simpler, not, mind you, that Ghost had found a lifemate of his own just yet. The quiet stalker made a mental note to look into that issue when they returned to the home range, and followed the honeysuckle smelling female down one into the large wooden thing.
Behind them Garth shook his head. "Now she's an interesting one isn't she? I'd heard tales of Margaery, and I know roses are supposed to have thorns one and all. But they aren't supposed to latch onto and follow you no matter where you go."
"No woman likes to have her investment get away from her my Lord." Arya said, laughing and following the other older woman, while Edric and Jon just shared a look shaking their heads before pointedly ignoring that comment.
Since the Vale lords had lost their last bits of intransigence against the way Ranma and Edd did things and they had at last gotten rid of the last of the carts along with the wounded, they had made a much better time. Even so, this area of the North was dense woodland and scattered rocky plains with the occasional cleared farm or holdfast scattered seemingly at random. There were a few trails here and there, but nothing anyone in their right mind would call a road, which made marching across it difficult at the best of times.
Winter was not the best of times. There was a reason, Ranma reflected, that most armies in medieval times did not move during winter. It was the next best thing to a frozen hell. Keeping warm was a trial, keeping the army moving was a trial, staving off sickness, frostbite and keeping your horse warm, all of these were trials which slowed the army's march to a crawl. Even Ranma's northern troops had problems, though frostbite and keeping the horses warm were not among them.
But against the White Walkers humanity could not afford to bivouac somewhere safe until winter was over. Especially given how long winter could last in this weird world.
Because of the terrain the Army column had slowly begun to get strung out. Howland watched their back trail while the Wull and his men, used to moving in these conditions to a degree even the other northerners couldn't match, watched the flanks. The northern contingent under Edd continued to break trail for the rest of the Army, stamping down the snow when they had to, finding the best route forward, and generally making it easier for the Vale troops behind them.
They even chopped down wood for the nighttime fires which were the difference between life and death for the Army. It became so cold at night, that if your tent ran out of wood to burn on the brazier you were very unlikely to wake up the next day. Even during the march there were still cases of frostbite. No amount of organization or discipline about always covering up or making certain you wore your gloves at all times could hold up against the little mistakes that sometimes creeped into the men.
And the northerners hadn't brought enough min-heaters, as Ranma called Bran's small iron heaters, to go around. Worse, they didn't work as long or as well with wood instead of coal. The Vale Lords, their sons and commanders got a few, but the majority of the men had to do without.
Since that first attack however they had only seen a scattering of wights. Those scattered sightings were dealt with by the scouts, all of whom had a few dragonglass arrows and knives. Only twice did the wights amass in large enough numbers to pose a threat, and both times Fenris and Ranma saw them coming.
The two of them also changed how they were acting, leaving Edd and the other lords to follow Ranma's orders with the army the two of them went out day by day, scouring the woods around the army well beyond even the scouts. Because of that, the White Walkers were unable to ambush the army, and began to lose numbers in small penny packets themselves, both wights and their masters.
At night while Ranma rested Fenris would use his mental domination to control nearby wolf packs and send them searching for wights or White Walkers. They ambushed them several times, though the wolves of course paid for this, except for the times when Fenris was able to home in on them before the battle began. The scouts still lost men, and occasionally a trap caught portions of the army, but the losses so far were under control.
At times instead of attacking the main army, the White Walkers attempted to ambush Ranma and Fenris. It didn't work, costing them nearly fifty warriors in one battle. But that, and the fact they saw so few wights gave Ranma a clue as to how the next battle would go. When they broke out of the wildlands southwest of Hornwood's main holdings, Ranma called Edd aside.
As the hustle and bustle of the army making camp went on around them, Ranma confided his plans with Edd. "The White Walkers are cuing in on me." He said without preamble. "They're learning, and they know I am a primary target, they've tried several times over the past few weeks to attack Fenris and I in isolation, and I don't see that changing anytime soon."
Edd nodded, turning from where he had just rolled out his bedroll on the floor of the tent the two of them shared. There weren't enough small camp beds to go around, and both young men had volunteered theirs for some of the older Vale lords who needed the extra comfort. "It makes sense, if they can communicate over distances the same way they spread their influence, if I was them I'd damn make you my primary target."
"Agreed. I think they'll try for another battle, but it will be a night battle instead of a daytime one. Something that can allow them to cause a lot of chaos and confusion, and take advantage of the fact Fenris or I are often outside the camp, isolated."
"Even after the drubbing they took last time when they tried to attack the army when it was in encamped?" Edd asked skeptically. "I'd think they'd try to attack us while we're on the move."
"No, they know they've got a big advantage at night over our troops, they'll think that'll allow them to overwhelm the guard, and once the perimeter breaks, chaos and confusion will do some of their work for them, especially if I can be 'caught' outside the camp. But that's given me an idea. Do you remember me talking about that giant crystal that the White Walker mages were using as some kind of focus?"
"I remember, almost as big as a man and twice as fat, made of something that looked like blue quartz? I remember its effect much better though, if we'd had to fight all of the wights in that army…" Edd shuddered a little. "I don't think more than one in forty of our men would've gotten out of that alive. But still, why would they change back to open combat rather than continuing their hit-and-run tactics?"
"Because they're losing troops too." Ranma said grimly. "The wights aren't smart enough to be used on hit-and-run tactics, they're barely up to ambushing regular patrols, and even there they aren't a big threat. I know they are still taking a toll, and morale sinks like a stone every time they appear, but they aren't going to stop us like that."
"The White Walkers are good enough to be used in that fashion, and their assaults, when they get past Fenris and I, are bad, but I think they're susceptible to casualties. We've not seen any of them for five days, and they weren't able to bring up reinforcements in that army outside Winterfell."
Edd nodded. "So what is your plan?"
"Tonight I'm going to switch up with Fenris." Ranma said. "I'm going to keep doing that until we reach Hornwood. Hopefully that change will draw the wights and their masters in where we can crush them on our defense. I don't want to face another army of the size they had attacking Winterfell in the open field." Ranma finished feelingly.
"You're going to try to draw them into attack you personally?"
"Lord Royce the others have absorbed enough about how I do things I think, and really once the battle actually begins they're decent enough commanders. But I don't think I'll be able to draw in all of the White Walkers, and damn sure not enough of the wights. That leaves me to what I wanted to talk to you about."
Edd cocked his head thoughtfully staring at Ranma then out the tent flaps into the darkening night, and when he spoke it was a flat statement rather than a question. "You want me to hunt up that crystal. You think it has to be nearby?"
"I think that distance really effects how much influence they can bring to bear, we saw that with the army attacking Winterfell." Ranma said with a shrug. "I won't deny that they've probably scrounged up several thousand new corpses, but I'm betting that most of their numbers come from older corpses looted from old battlefields. So if we take out that crystal, we shut down another White Walker army, or at least remove a lot of their numbers."
"Their mages will be with the Crystal." Edd said, another simple statement of fact. "Those giant spider things, possibly some bodyguards. Any direct magic?"
"None that I saw, though they can definitely do something with the temperature around them, you might have to be careful about that. And remember, those arrows of theirs are deadly if they stick you with enough of them." Even Ranma had been weakened badly for a few days after the first battle of Winterfell, and Edd didn't have the excess ki he did.
Ranma looked at his friend, wondering if he was sentencing Edd to die, but knowing that if he wanted to bring the White Walkers into a decisive battle, he had to offer them an irresistible carrot. That was himself, and the army without him or Fenris with it. That meant that Edd had to be the one to hunt up the crystal.
"How am I going to find that Crystal?" Edd asked.
"Fenris and the wolves. Fenris can control the local wolf packs but instead of attacking they'll search for the crystal. Even White Walkers have trouble spotting them moving around at night."
Edd looked off into the distance again then nodded slowly. "All right then, it sounds like we have a plan."
Needless to say the Vale lords were not very happy about their Army being offered as half of the bait for this trap. That was until Ranma described how they were going to bait the trap. While they wouldn't be throwing up any of the normal fortifications they did every night, there would be fortifications deeper into the camp hidden by the bulk of the tents and horses. With that bit of surprise and a few other surprises thrown in, they would seem an easy target without actually being one
They were still two days away from breaking out of this piece of woodland when the attacks stepped up as Ranma had feared. Wights were seen once again, and several normal patrols both during the day and night were lost, their men killed, there dragonglass weapons destroyed and ground to powder. Ranma and Fenris in turn trapped and wiped out a White Walker force of twenty. This convinced the Vale lords that Ranma's plan had merit, and they withdrew their objections.
Several days after that battle they reached the spot Ranma had thought they were heading towards: the ruins of a small keep, which had a single outer wall still standing, the ground of the keep itself creating a large mound of uneven stone directly next to the wall. This mound and the wall centered one corner of the camps defenses.
More importantly, there was a riverbed nearby that made for a Reedy ditch, covering another portion of the camp. The riverbed was filled with stakes, but there was no bulwark added to it back it up, and other than posting more than the average number of guards on top of the mound of stones that marked the keep there weren't any defenses there either.
Unless one could look deeper into the camp, where they would notice that the Northerners, who normally were camped in small lots scattered throughout the camp in order to be able to bolster the defenses quickly had concentrated right behind the mound. Lord Royce's men also backed up the empty riverbed, with the archers of House Elesham well back from the guards on the riverbed directly behind tents set up touching one another in a long u-shape. They were the most disciplined among the Vale troops, with House Templeton coming a close second.
That House however had its men spread throughout the defensive perimeter, not on it, but backing it up in several places. They would work as small reserve forces in the battle to come, along with the mountain clan troops.
After taking one final look around the camp, Ranma nodded over to Edd, who nodded back before heading out with the patrol which he would ditch quickly, going to ground before full night hit. Once he did, he would have to wait for Fenris to find him then direct him where he needed to go. That would be the chanciest time, if Edd was spotted, the game was up. But the White Walkers weren't nearly as adept at ambushes during the day, and so long as he was well hidden behind snow and rock before night came, he would be fine.
He turned to Lord Royce nodded his head. Ranma had wanted to put Howland in charge, but that was politically impossible, and Ranma had merely named him to command the northern men, his own, the Stark archers and the Cerwyn/Tallhart spearmen. "You have control of the army my Lord, fight well."
The older man nodded grimly, clapping Ranma on the shoulder and Ranma nodded back before turning and running off, heading out into the woodland beyond the camp. Fenris was already gone, having left the army around midday.
Ranma patrolled around the camp for several turns of the glass watching as the moon rose higher and higher into the sky, frowning and wondering if he had been wrong. That maybe the White Walkers would be willing to continue trading troops as they had been.
Or maybe they just aren't able to get a large enough force of wights in position. No, that makes no sense, we've been heading for this spot for more than a week, they had to know it was my target, and in that time they should've been able to concentrate their forces.
As the moon above the forest disappeared behind a heavy cloud cover, Ranma found out he was correct. Arrows suddenly flew at him from out of the darkness all around him and eyes which had been closed or narrowed into slits so that the light in them could not be seen opened.
Ranma dodged those first few arrows more by luck than anything else, his night vision was good but not up to spotting arrows in the dark with no moonlight. Even so he was able to take cover behind a log, a flung rock killing the only White Walker that could train on him from that position, taking the creature in the eye with enough force to fling him back, his neck broken if his skull and eyeball hadn't.
Two warriors charged from both sides at Ranma while the archers continued to try to pin him down. Ranma waited until they were right on him, then whipped out Ice from over his shoulder, cutting down one before jumping up over the other's spear thrust, grabbing his head in passing, before landing and twisting him around to use him as a shield against several arrows from the others. The White Walker screamed and shrieked in his own tongue for a moment then Ranma snapped his neck, the arrows not doing anything against him.
"Interestin', these bastards really are immune to their own weapons. I wonder if that kind of thing can be overcome with numbers. Though it's doubtful seeing as this guy looks like a pincushion," Ranma muttered, tossing the body aside and leaping for nearby tree. He trusted his lizard lion armor, but it had really taken a pounding in the second battle of Winterfell, and Ranma had no wish to join his former shield in looking more like a hedgehog than a human.
The White Walkers numbered around ninety, gathered in from practically every hunting party or skirmishing group which heard the call from Hornwood. From down deep into House Manderly lands or up into the mountains they came for this assault. Yet despite their numbers they were cautious as they approached the area where Ranma had gone to ground, murmuring to one another in their harsh, grating language. What they were saying Ranma couldn't tell, but they obviously realized the ambush had already gone awry. Boys, ya don't know the half of it.
Several of them dropped bows and pulled out swords, moving forward cautiously to where Ranma was hiding. Behind them came six others, and as the four in front White Walkers charged over the small stump, the ones with bows raced forward to either side, peppering the area where Ranma should've been with arrows.
But he wasn't there. Ice was, the point of which had been sticking up out of the position, which was why they had thought he was still there. But not Ranma.
For a moment that they all shouted and argued, then turned as one as shrieks abounded from further away. Ranma dropped out of the treetops, slamming into a group of White Walker archers, kicking and punching. He sent several of them flying away their bodies broken before being forced to dive for more cover from other White Walkers, who had turned quickly and fired without any hesitation into their fellows.
Ranma took to the treetops again, only to stop as several of the White Walkers pointed up at him. Their night vision was almost as good as cats, and they reacted quickly to the fact that he could travel the treetops, far faster than humans would've been able to. Damnit but they adapt quickly!
With that thought Ranma threw himself out of the tree, having to use his hands to block several arrows coming at him in midair. But his mastery of the aerial style stood him in good stead as always, allowing him to change his direction quickly enough to get by them, then using a slim tree trunk to pull himself into a different direction, going to ground with a roll that surprised the few archers that could still accurately train on him. This is going to be tougher than I hoped.
While the force of White Walkers tried to pin Ranma down the wights they had assembled attacked the Army coming at it from two directions. Just as Ranma had predicted, they didn't try to attack the stronger seeming earthworks to the east and west of the camp, knowing that they would've faced greater casualties that way.
Instead, they came at the bivouacked army over the hump or stone from the old keep and through the riverbed. The suddenness of the attack took the defenders aback, allowing the wight's archers to kill several dozen of the men on watch, but their deaths brought the rest of the army the warning it needed.
Under Howland the men of the North quickly readied themselves, half of their number having simply been waiting in their tents for the call up. They rushed to their position at the base of the small mound of stone the spearmen to the fore the archers behind them and Howland's men spreading out to either side, covering the area near the end of the wall and the undefended flank.
The horde of undead clambered down the hill towards them, met by a hail of arrows. But that didn't slow them, and they were thousands strong. Much like the horde up in Winterfell these wights came in all states of decay, ages and gender, and more than one man blanched at seeing women or teens among them.
Elsewhere the defenders began to stir. The Valemen under Lord Tollett and Ruthermont rushed to attack the horde coming down the small hill with their arrows from all directions, fire arrows and dragonglass, killing the wights in their hundreds. The fires did better than the dragonglass here, breaking up the assault so that when it rammed into the modified pike line, they didn't break through that first line of defenders.
"Hold!" shouted Howland, his voice even coarser sounding the normal. "Hold!"
Elsewhere, the wights had pushed their way through the riverbed and up into the camp, only to run into the surprise that Ranma and Lord Royce had designed. Facing the riverbed was several dozen tents set in a half circle around it. These had been placed in such a way to cover small four feet tall bulwarks complete with a fighting step made of the hard earth behind them and logs from nearby trees.
This allowed the men to have a reach advantage, which the spearmen and swordsmen used ruthlessly. The archers on this flank too began to have a field day, but most of their arrows were fire arrows rather than dragonglass. Thanks to the fires they caused this attack became even more broken than the one of the other flank.
Nonetheless, the sheer weight of numbers was telling, and none of the fires survived for long, snuffed out by snow and a cold that began to drag at the men's bodies and even their minds. More and more of the rest of defenders facing the normal earthworks to either flank of the camp were called in, and casualties began to mount quickly.
The heavy armor and reach of the spears allowed the Northerners to keep their losses down, but it was their discipline that truly allowed them to hold the line, as well as the depth of their line. The Vale men however were being pressed and pressed hard despite having more numbers and more archers.
Lord Royce observed all this from a small makeshift platform made of a large log cut flat that allowed him a few extra feet in height, enough to see the battle from the thousands of torches and fires scattered everywhere. He shook his head grimly, turning to Ser Templeton. "Signal your men, pull at least two companies back from backing up the rest of the earthworks. My men need more aid."
"Done." said the Head of the powerful Knightly House replied grimly.
Lord Royce quickly turned away from him, nodding to another man. "Pull back a few hundred of your own, but make sure they're all armed with dragonglass daggers then send them to reinforce the Northerners. They're holding now, but Howland's men on the east might soon find themselves pressed hard.
Overall the battle seemed to be at a stalemate, but all the lords knew that would only last until the White Walkers decided to switch some of their wights from attacking the two obvious weaknesses in their defenses. Once they did, the defenders would lose the ability to concentrate their numbers, and would quickly be overwhelmed.
Unfortunately the White Walkers were actually quite quick at such things, as Ranma had discovered. And the nature of their next gambit also came as a nasty surprise. A shout from the eastern edge of camp when up, more of a scream than a shout really. "Spiders! Giant spiders!"
Lord Royce quickly turned in that direction, staring through the torch lit night to see several spiders like Ranma had described facing up in the second battle of Winterfell. Though he didn't know it these spiders were not nearly as large as the ones that had been sent against the Last Hearth, but nor were they as impromptu looking as the ones Ranma had faced up at Winterfell. They lacked the metal portions of their construction and were small, only about twelve feet high, thus able to move through the woodlands without being seen or causing much commotion even during the day. But there were dozens of them, and they raced towards the ditches facing them with disturbing speed.
He turned to the Lord who commanded that section of the camp, Lord Redfort, ordering briskly "fire arrows! Order your archers to concentrate their fire arrows on those things! Don't let them pass the ditch!"
The man nodded warily and moved off to take personal command of his troops reluctantly, but his men didn't need to be told. They had already begun to rain fire down on the creatures, but they weren't having much success in actually downing them. The spiders hit the ditch, smashing aside several of the stakes set into it, before facing dragonglass armed spearman. Though spread out, the spearmen were able to halt the advance of the spiders. Spiders didn't have any weapons they could use against someone facing them from above like that.
But the damage was done. Where the spiders died, the snow and ice that made them started to fill in the ditch. This allowed the wights amassed behind them road into the defenders. And worse was waiting, high up in the nighttime air, its presence an unseen shadow.
"Ordering the reserves," Lord Royce bellowed gesturing at another Lord who nodded and raced off. But that was it, almost all of their forces were committed now , either at the two prepared defensive zones, or at the new breakthrough.
Lord Royce realized this was it if they could hold, then maybe they could win this battle. But it all depended not on them, but on Edd, Fenris, and Ranma's ability to keep the White Walkers themselves from joining the battle. He spared a brief moment to send a prayer their way before hopping down from his vantage and rallying his bodyguard. "Time to get it stuck in boys, who's with me?!"
Though almost buried underneath the snow in his little hideaway Edd could still hear the battle going on at least a league away through the trees. Sound carried on a night like this, and the trees didn't so much muffle as amplify the sounds of battle. I hope this works, it sounds like it's getting close over there.
He stayed as still as he could, slowly starting to lose feeling in some of his toes and his fingers because of the cold. But just as he was wondering if Fenris had somehow have been intercepted, he heard a faint growl, and something began to dig him out from his little hideaway.
Pushing himself out of the snow quickly, Edd came face to snout with Fenris, something that no sane person would enjoy. But Edd had no fear of Fenris and he was all business as he whispered, "Did you find it?"
Fenris nodded huffing slightly in response, and Edd breathed a sigh of relief. "Lead me to them. Then it'll be up to you to decide what you should do, join me in the attack on them, or join the rest of the battle. Do you know how Ranma's doing?"
Fenris shrugged his shoulders in a very odd move for a direwolf, then pulled at Edd's sleeve again, motioning him to follow. Edd followed Fenris for what seemed like hours through the woods, but was only a bare half turn of the moon hidden high above them, the two of them moving quickly and silently through the words.
Suddenly Fenris stopped, whipping his head around to block Edd's progress through the hard-packed snow. From there they moved forward much slower, until over the next slight rise in the ground Edd finally spotted what had caused Fenris to stop. It was a slight dip in the ground on the other side, and therein lay the crystal he was seeking. It was surrounded by three White Walkers mages and four guards. More than I'd hoped but less than I figured. If I can get close, I think I can take them.
The warrior types seemed to be alert at their posts though, which wasn't so good. Edd turned to look at Fenris, the direwolf's breath wafting into his face. At any other moment he would've made a joke about it, but not right now.
Before he could speak however, Fenris twitched his head, looking back towards the battle and letting loose a very low whine. "It's that bad?" Edd asked quietly, so quietly you couldn't have heard him even if you were standing within inches of his face.
But the direwolf heard, and again nodded his head. Indeed, that moment had been the one where the spiders had appeared, with the second wave of attackers smashing into the eastern defenses. Several wolves hidden nearby had seen it, and set up a howl, which none of the army could hear over the din of battle but which carried easily to Fenris.
"No time for subtlety then," Edd grunted standing up and charging from their hiding place. "The Sun of Winter!"
For a moment his sudden assaults took even Fenris by surprise, but then the direwolf howled and charged with him.
Despite their element of surprise, the first two warriors on guard turned to them quickly, moving as one to engage Edd. Edd locked their blades together with his spear, forcing them backwards and to one side through sheer strength, while Fenris raced on. Two more turned to engage Edd, but Edd killed one of his opponents with a neat lunge before coming back to block their blades, knocking one off balance and then catching him with a kick to the head that snapped his neck.
But they hadn't seen all the defenders the mages had. Four other warriors quickly made themselves known, bursting out of the trees around them where they had been hiding so well even Fenris hadn't smelled them. These four were armed with spears, and they engaged the direwolf forcing him back and further back, this strange vine-like steel whips around their weapons smacking out forcing Fenris to dodge and retreat, unable to close with the mages.
The mages quickly turned their attention on their attackers. Elsewhere in the battle this caused a brief moment of hesitation among the wights, or at least those wights that were of more ancient stock. Their commands faltered for a brief moment, before starting up once more.
In that small clearing however the mages made their power felt directly. Stalactites of ice appeared from the snow covering the ground, trying to impale both direwolf and man. Fenris was able to dodge easily, but Edd, locked with the two White Walkers in close combat was nearly hit.
He was forced to dodge at the last moment to one side and one of the White Walkers nearly skewered him while he was off balance, the warrior's ice blade skittering off his gorget with punishing force but not penetrating. His return thrust however caught the White Walker in the center, of his chest plate, punching through easily.
The last warrior pressed Edd hard, pushing his spear out of position before Edd could recover from his thrust. But Edd let go of his spear with one hand, punching out hard and catching the warrior on the jaw. A normal human wouldn't have been able to put much power into that kind of a punch against a White Walker to matter.
But Edd was a Wolfsworn, not the strongest of them, but he was strong enough. The White Walker screamed and flew backwards, it's jaw shattered, and it's odd yellow blood dribbling from gums cut by splinter's of its teeth. Before it could gather itself Edd had come back, twirling his spear around like a staff, the end slamming with bone-crushing force into the White Walker's skull.
With Fenris fully occupied with the four spear wielders, Edd quickly dodged still more stalactites, moving toward the three mages purposefully. One of them was taller than the others and was dressed more like a warrior then a mage, black steel armor rather than the flowing steel cloaks that the mages wore. He turned away from the crystal quickly, bringing out a sword that was slightly larger than the normal White Walker blade as well. He seems to sneer at Edd, and then glided forward with the preternatural speed of his kind.
Edd engaged him, knocking his sword to one side and trying to go for a quick kill, but the warrior recovered quickly, bringing his sword around faster than any of the others had moved. Edd was forced to dodge way, and the two circled one another, dragonglass against whatever fell amalgamation of ice and steel made the White Walker blades.
Despite Edd's reach advantage the White Walker was faster and a deadly swordsman besides, far better than the others had been. Edd winced as his cauldron received a cut, feeling the strange ice-deadness that the White Walkers weapons could cause seeping into his system for a moment before disappearing. He gritted his teeth and fought on, bringing the butt of his spear around almost catching the White Walker before he could move back. But then his sword flashed, and Edd's spear was cut into.
But that didn't dissuade Edd. Instead he came on, using the blunt end as a makeshift club, changing his grip on the other to use it like a short stabbing spear instead.
By this time Fenris had killed three of his four opponents, but he was limping. One of the men had caught him on the front paw, and the weird metal whip from another spear had raked his side despite his ki strengthening his fur. All three were dead however, forcing the last two mages to turn their attention entirely to Fenris rather than Edd or the main battle. Stalactites and even faster spears of ice shot up from the ground, trying to aid the last warrior facing Fenris.
Just like before this caused a loll in the battle though this time it lasted long enough to be noticed. Lord Royce was quick to take advantage of it, and at the same time Ranma had finished with the rest of the White Walker warriors, racing back to take part in the battle, crashing into the attackers attacking Lord Royce's men by the riverbed.
The White Walker facing Edd quickly compensated for his new style, smashing the club to flinders with one blow, before dodging Edd's spear. His sword then came back slicing into Edd's shoulder before Edd could dodge in turn.
He grimaced, feeling the cold of the weapons of the White Walkers slowly seeping into his system. But he was a Wolfsworn, unlike anyone else he and his brethren more life energy than the White Walker's weapons could suck away.
Another slice to his thigh made Edd realize something however. I can't beat him. Not with my spear like it is, and not with me wounded already. Not without taking a risk…
So thinking Edd pushed hard when next he locked his short spear against the White Walker's sword pushing the man off-balance. Then he stepped back quickly, grabbing his belt and the dragonglass dagger there. As he had expected, the White Walker didn't give him a chance to pull it out. He recovered from being off balance quickly, and thrust hard.
Edd dodged just enough for the blow to not be an immediately killing one, letting it penetrate his side rather than his chest full on. He grimaced, but his free hand rose from the hilt of his dragonglass dagger. Quick as a striking snake that hand lashed out, grabbing the White Walkers hand, holding him in place. The White Walker had only a moment to realize that he was dead, before Edd brought his spear up, thrusting it into the thing's chest.
Edd then collapsed to his knees, gasping as he wrenched the warrior's blade out of his side, breathing in deeply and trying to force the cold out of his body with willpower alone. It didn't work very well.
He looked up as Fenris moved to his side, wining a little. Behind the wolf the bodies of the mages and the last spear-wielding warrior was scattered around, their yellow blood splattering the snow and ground, but strangely not steaming. The direwolf pressed into Edd's shoulder gently, motioning with his head over to the crystal.
Fenris' ki was somewhat depleted at the moment, and he remembered what Ranma's armor had looked like after he was near a crystal when it exploded. The direwolf had no wish to see what would happen to him ki strengthening technique or no if he was that close to the crystal when it blew.
Realizing what Fenris was trying to tell him, Edd groaned, but threw one of his arms over the direwolf's neck. "Just get me away from the fucking thing."
Complying quickly Fenris dragged Edd about twenty feet before stopping, placing his bulk between Edd and the crystal. Still propping himself up Edd reared back holding his short spear. He faltered for a moment, his free hand fisting in Fenris' fur to hold him upright as the cold of the last warrior's blade began to eat at his vitality, combined with the feel of the cold night creeping into the openings in his armor and clothing.
He stood there for a moment, then gathered himself and hurled his spear forward. "The Sun of Winter!"
The spear flew straight and true, the dragonglass tip impacting the crystal dead on. Unlike when Ranma used ice however, the crystal didn't explode. Rather it simply shattered, fragments going everywhere, but not with concussive force.
Edd saw nothing of this having slumped against Fenris' side in a dead faint. The direwolf took a brief moment to stare hard at the crystal, watching as the light which had imbued it went out between one blink and the next. Then he began to howl, at the same time opening up his mental connection to his bonded.
Ranma had gained the hidden palisade, standing on top of it with Ice hacking and slashing while Lord Royce and a few others stood on either side. Lord Royce's rune-encrusted weapon did almost as well as Ice against the wights, something the older man was thankful for. Though it made Ranma wonder in an odd moment between swings, if Royce should've brought along all of the runic weapons that his family was supposed to have in their vaults.
Just as quickly as he had gained the outer earthworks however, Ranma was forced to defend them against an attack from above. An undead dragon flew out of the sky, it's ice breath attack impacting one of the weakened areas of the southern flank, killing dozens of men and breaking the morale of those who remained.
Men began to run, throwing down their weapons and fleeing from the horror of fighting wights and the undead dragon, but before the rout could become total Ranma was there. "Direwolf's Claws!"
The vorpal blades sliced out, turning the undead dragon into so much slurry and Ranma stood there in the break, Ice whirling, cutting and slaying. "Rally to me, rally to me!"
Despite their best efforts however the battle was slowly turning against the defenders. There were just too many wights and if a human went down and wasn't stabbed with a Dragonglass dagger through the heart, he quickly rose and attacked his fellows. This had happened dozens of times that night and the morale of the Vale forces was close to breaking because of it and the sheer number of corpses coming at them.
Suddenly more than two/thirds of the wights shuddered in place, then collapsed. Seeing this Ranma howled his victory to the nighttime sky, joining his voice to practically every other soldier in the army. "Edd and Fenris did it!"
Then he heard Fenris's howl in the distance, and Ranma quickly turned to Lord Royce. "You're in charge here, I'll be back." With that Ranma raced off, hoping that that howl didn't mean that his friend had paid for his victory with his life.
The losses among the Vale army were heavy. Of the bare 10,000 or so Vale men that had taken part in this battle, fully a third were either dead or wounded. Worse, they just didn't have anyone to equal Merry and her helpers' ability to aid those badly injured. The best they could do was make them somewhat comfortable as they died. The numbers of dead would therefore go up over the next few days.
The Northerners had come through it relatively well. With the uneven terrain slowing the White Walkers attacking them down, the spear regiment had been able to withstand the constant pressing of the White Walkers, never breaking its line. They had lost 226 men, though half of those were wounded.
But despite the White Walkers concentrating what they saw as weaknesses in the defenses of the entire camp their flanks, particularly the section guarded by the wall for a portion of its length, had come under attack several times. Howland's men had paid a price for the victory, as had the Wull's. Of the men Howland had left the Neck with, he had barely a fourth remaining.
Sitting outside the tent housing Edd, Ranma shook his head at Howland. "You and your men have done enough my friend. I think we've destroyed the White Walker's presence in this area, and maybe even further North. You've done your part, take your men and head for home."
Howland gritted his teeth but nodded. Child mortality among the crannogmen was heavy, and the losses of so many men would be felt by every house in the Neck for decades to come. He had no choice if he was to retain enough hunters to keep the lizard lion population from growing but to retreat. "I am sorry we could not do more my Lord."
"More?" Ranma laughed, clapping the shorter man on both shoulders and shaking him lightly. "Howland, you just took part in two victories against the Great Enemy! Do you have any idea the numbers of wights they just through at us? I don't, they're still burning bodies, but the new ones, the ones they made from the former Bolton lands, number in the thousands! And that was a bare portion of the whole they through at us! Do not belittle yourself or your aid to this war my friend."
Howland stared into Ranma's face then nodded. "Thank you Ranma. May the Old Gods bless your way." With that he turned, heading off to find his men and begin the preparations to break camp.
Ranma leaned back on his camp chair set against the outside of Edd's tent, rubbing at his face wearily. The battle hadn't wearied him out so much as dealing with the dead and wounded, and organizing the pyres. Those were always emotionally exhausting for all concerned. "Lord Royce, how is morale among the men of the Vale?"
"The men are in shock your majesty." Royce answered bluntly. "The veterans are shocked by the sheer amount of carnage this one battle showed them, while the youngsters are appalled and afraid by the same. Fighting the White Walkers and wights is like fighting no human enemy. Wounds that would kill a man they just ignore and even hacked to pieces they simply come back! I saw at least four men go down when hands that had been cut off wights grabbed them around the ankles and pulled them down to make them easy meat for others. I thought we were prepared for this after that first clash, but the sheer scale of this battle and how many of them there were…"
"It does take some getting used to." Ranma said grimly. His lips twisted into a smirk but there was no humor in the expression. "I could wish we wouldn't have to. But this was only the second battle in this campaign my Lord. I have no information about where my wife is with the rest of the army, or what's going on at the Wall, but I fear the worst when it comes to the Wall. I mean to move on to Hornwood, then further north. Now tell me true, how many of you and your fellow lords have the stomach to come with me? I don't want men who will break, I want men who realize what they are facing and are willing to do what they must to beat back this enemy."
Lord Royce thought for a moment. "Lord Elesham and Lyn Corbray were both wounded in the battle. One had his leg amputated, the other took an arrow in the eye but lives. I would recommend that we send them and their men back with the wounded. That will leave us with somewhere a little over 6,000 men plus your own that'll give us something like six."
"How many able-bodied men will they have?"
"Around seven hundred or so."
"Not enough." Ranma said with a sharp shake of his head. "Which of your other lords was most shell-shocked by last night?"
Lord Royce didn't understand the word 'shell-shocked', but he understood the gist of it. "I think young Eustace Hunter and old Lord Redfort. One is feeling his mortality, the other was untried until this war began. I could wish his older brother had been sent to serve with us, but that was Old Eon's decision."
"Sent another 400 men back with the two of them, men of the young Lord's house I think. Have Lord Redfort transfer leadership of his men to you. After all," he smiled, and there was some humor in this one, "your houses will soon be joined in marriage anyway."
"So long as we survive this war, Your Majesty." Royce said with a barking laugh of his own. Then he looked at the tent behind Ranma. "Young Edd?"
"He'll pull through I got to him in time I think. But we might be leaving him at Hornwood. Until then, I've ordered the men to rig up palanquins for the wounded. We'll rest here for the rest of today and tomorrow, then march the day after."
With a nod Ranma dismissed the older man, leaning back in the tent chair and closing his eyes tiredly. They he turned to look at the tent. You will pull through won't you, Edd? I don't want to become a liar, and I damn sure don't want to lose a friend. Pull through or I swear to the Old Gods I'm going to find a way to come after your ass in heaven or hell!
Surprisingly Kevan Lannister actually came out to meet the fleet which had anchored well out of range of Lannisport's defenses. He was a somewhat tall spare man, whose hair had obviously seen better days, quickly receding on his hairline due to recent worries.
As his people began to transfer the goods he had promised to the Royal Army from several barges Kevan asked Jon about his sons. "I realize that you hold two of my sons in Riverrun my Lord Hand, along with my cousin Daven. But my son Tyrek is still unaccounted for, he should've been with Cersei and Loras. Do you know aught of him?"
Jon and Margaery exchanged a glance, and Jon finally shrugged. "I'm afraid not my Lord. I was not with the Royal Army when they captured the Queen-Regent Cersei and her baseborn son. They didn't communicate any messages about any other special prisoners via raven did they?"
That last query was aimed at Margaery, who shook her head. "None of the ravens I've seen mentioned anything about another Lannister being captured, Jaime and Cersei were the only two in the army apparently. Jaime was sent to the Wall, though if he's arrived or can even reach it these days is beyond me. And Cersei… by all reports her mind broke when the truth about her oldest son's activities came out."
"What do you mean?" Kevan asked, his concern for his son derailed for a moment.
Margaery coughed delicately. Most of what she had heard about the Vile One did not come from ravens but from rumors and stories passed on by her grandmother's agents. Nevertheless, much of it was solid, and she knew for a fact that some bards in Highgarden were trying to compose a song about the fall of the false king. After exchanging a glance with Jon who nodded, Margaery replied telling Kevan about what had been found out about the Joffrey and how he had been executed for that and for kinslaying, which he had actually admitted to openly.
Kevan rubbed his eyes, frowning heavily. "I could wish I had some neutral confirmation of this, and yet, and yet it doesn't surprise me." And I am going to stay silent about who Joffrey's father might be. He thought grimly. My family has suffered enough for their actions, I'll not drag our name through the mud even further. "Yet that's still doesn't answer my question, where is Lancel?"
"My Lord, if he had been with the force out of King's Landing when the Royal Army captured Jaime and Cersei he would have been captured, and we would've heard of it. But there were two battles before that between the Lannister and forces, and Reach forces under my brother Loras. The king told us via raven that my brother had died." Margaery said, smiling sadly though calmly, having had time to grieve in Highgarden with her mother and grandmother after that news had reached them. "It's possible he might have escaped there, and simply gone to ground, or…"
"Or he's dead." Kevan said harshly, turning and glaring out to sea. "My son dead in an unnoticed, unmarked grave. Because of the perfidy of my niece and nephew, because of my nephew and his idiocy!"
Jon looked at the man, and decided that he had suffered enough. "My Lord, if you have parchment and ink on you, let me write out a message. I will fix the Royal seal to it, and I will send it to Riverrun." Further, Jon would add something that would tell his sister that it was definitely coming from him, some small secret that only family could've known.
"For your aid in supplying the army my Lord, I will order my sister to release one of your son's. It will still be some months before he can arrive at the Rock of course, but he will be released. Further, I will agree now to also have Sansa release your other son in five years' time. Daven will be released five years after that, unless he agrees to a deal in the future." Daven, Jon new could be sent north to serve with the Royal Army for a time, though he didn't know for certain just yet under what capacity.
"I thank you for that my Lord Hand." Kevan said bowing his head in thanks. "And for what it is worth, I was against this whole war in the first place. My brother could never really understand how any other lord could think differently than he himself, and that always colored his actions when dealing with other lords. The initial accusations against your father should never have gone as far as they did."
"On that we will agree my Lord," Jon said coldly. "My brother has said occasionally that the only true victors in war are the carrion birds. We might have won, but we paid for it in blood, and we may yet lose another war, costing not just the North but all humanity dear."
Kevan looked at him hard in the face then nodded not commenting on whether or not he believed that there was some threat beyond the Wall. He wasn't certain, and he never spoke up when he wasn't certain. "Then I wish you good luck my Lord." With that Kevan turned, and crossed the plank back over onto his own ship. Moments later, a clerk came out with the writing implements Jon had asked for, and he sat down on a crate and wrote out the message he wanted.
Margaery moved over to him quietly. "Don't you think you're being up bit precipitous?"
"Not really," Jon said with a faint smile. "Or are you worried he might act up once he has his sons?"
"His sons don't bother me, for all reports neither of them exactly covered themselves with glory, true?"
Jon nodded, that was very true indeed. Neither of the two youths had impressed anyone with their general intelligence let alone their martial ability. Margaery went on quickly. "No, I'm speaking about whether or not it will embolden him, make him think you're soft?"
"I don't think we have to worry about it. For one thing, I asked your grandmother to start investing more heavily in spies in Lannisport, which is the only remaining avenue of power for the Lannisters. Yes, the Rock is impressive, and their lands could raise a smallish force, but without the Golden Tooth it's the ports that can keep them rich. And for another, we'll release the younger brother first, which would mean we still hold his heir under our thumb for another five year." Jon didn't mention how most of those ideas had come from Alayaya and Daenerys who understood spying and commerce to a degree he couldn't match.
"A shrewd move." Margaery murmured. "Resentment of past wrongs can fester my lord, and while Kevan is a reasonable man who is to say the next lord of the Rock or the lord after that will be as reasonable? Best to keep an eye on them indeed, and to be ready to slap them down again."
"Of that you may be certain." Jon said with a faint smile. "Hence why House Tully controls the Golden Tooth directly."
To one side Garth and a few of the others had been checking over the goods being brought onto the ships, communicating with the other ships via small white flags, white for good, black for good that hadn't passed inspection. So far Garth hadn't seen a single black flag, and eventually he nodded over at Jon.
Jon nodded back, and turned to Margaery. "You know," he said rather whimsically, "This was the point I thought I'd need your diplomatic skills for, and you were definitely a help with Kevan, but we are going into a war zone from now on. The Iron Islands aren't exactly peaceful at the moment, the storms and seas are going to get much rougher, and that doesn't even consider what we might face on Bear Island or in the Bay of ice if we're very unlucky. You don't have to come with us Margaery."
He looked away blushing slightly. "I should not have to say that I care for your welfare, and would wish you safely home rather than seeing you risk yourself like some silly maiden out of a fairytale."
While he hadn't inherited much of his father's stern expression or cold nature, he had unfortunately gotten some of his father's inability to get himself across me emotionally, but thankfully Margaery was able to discern what he was really saying. She looked at him, then leaned up and kissed his cheek, smiling faintly. Jon kept a very neat trimmed goatee, which made him look somewhat more dashing and simply older than Ranma which she rather liked, though she had never enjoyed the full wild beards that so many men thought defined how manly they were. Jon was more than manly enough without such affectations. "Your sweet, but stupid. I have come this far, I'm going all the way."
Jon frowned, then sighed and turned to the captain of the ship, ordering him to weigh anchor.
Several days after Ranma's victory against the second White Walker horde Daenerys and her small force had stopped their progress along the White Knife. Like Lord Manderly had said, the skate and wind driven river barges Bran had developed were extremely fast. They moved as far in a single day upriver as a barge could have in two down river.
They were huge though, the normal ice barges were twice as large as normal river barges. They needed to be to house both goods and the oxen that powered the wipers which pushed the barge's sails, powering the barge forward. Daenerys' barge was even larger, and had two extra oxen on the wheels to power it forward at the same speed as its fellows.
Daenerys stared at Shireen Baratheon, who would be set ashore today to head to Winterfell. Daenerys had come to somewhat approve of the younger girl, there did seem to be some intelligence under that meek exterior. But frankly she had not responded well to Daenerys or even Merry's attempt to bring her out of her timidity. There were flashes like in that meeting with her after Merry had arrived by Maidenpool, but not enough.
I hope that Eddard and Catelyn will have better luck than we did, hopefully she will be able to look past Ranma's marriage to me and remember the friendship between their houses. After all, they've done such a magnificent job with all of their children already, what is one more ward to that?
In command of Shireen's defenders went Lord Blackwood's fourth son Hoster who seemed the most susceptible to colds among the Riverlands contingent, and who had come with them originally as second in command of the archers. He also took Cley Cerwyn with him, intent on returning the young page home.
But not, Lady Cerwyn would be pleased to find, young Bess. She had been sent to Riverrun after Lord Darry's attempted betrayal, and remained there still. The infatuation between the two of them had been based more on friendship with Arya then any real feelings between the two of them, and Cley and she had both been happy to part as merely friends.
"You will like Winterfell," Daenerys said at last, smiling at the younger girl. "Trust me, the Starks are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Even Lord Stark is rather warm underneath that stone exterior of his."
Shireen nodded, but even now she looked away as she spoke to Daenerys. Is that because of my family's past, or that Ranma and I defeated and killed her father? The first could be overcome, the second that might be dangerous down the line if we install her in Storm's End as Lady Baratheon.
That was a thought that had often come to Daenerys since this journey began, but at present it was just a thought, something to make a note of in the future not right now. Right now, Shireen was not a threat, merely a young woman who had been torn this way and that by the vagaries of other people's ambitions and hates.
"My father, he spoke well of Lord Stark, one of few people he did. I, I hope that he is not as cold as he is reputed to be, but I've never heard anything about lady Catelyn that speaks against her."
"Exactly, just keep an open mind and learn from the two of them, and you will find Winterfell a welcoming place." Daenerys smiled again encouragingly then bid her farewell, watching as she descended the ramp and joined her honor guard and Cley.
Moments later, Daenerys turned aside, making for the large cargo hold that contained her dragons. Dacey and Meera stood at the entrance, having left her alone as she bid farewell to Shireen. Dacey nodded at her, reaching forward to grasp the queen's shoulder and squeezing it hard. The Mormont woman knew that while this mission was necessary, it was taking a toll on Daenerys.
Her pregnancy was entering its third month, and she was showing clearly now. But that, the awkwardness this added to her normal controlled movements and her odd mood swings was just part of the problem. The other half was that Merry wasn't with them. She and Daenerys had argued about it, but Merry had eventually made the queen realize Merry could do more good with the larger portion of the army and in White Harbor than marching with the smaller force Daenerys currently led, a force of a little under 3000 in comparison to the main army's 14,000.
Nor was she the only one of Daenerys' normal entourage missing now. Alayaya and her two protégés-cum-prisoners had remained in White Harbor as well, to help set up a spy network there. Or rather, to make the city a gathering place for the spy networks that Nymeria had access to and which Alayaya had already created in the course of the war.
In response Daenerys smiled wanly at Dacey and Meera then entered the cargo hold. Her two dragons raised their heads to her, and Daenerys smiled, moving forward to scratch their eye ridges and whisper softly to them.
A few days after bidding farewell to Shireen Dacey opened the door to the hold abruptly. Daenerys looked up from where she was helping Rhaegon pull off bits and pieces of his shed scales scowling angrily. "I thought I said to keep that door closed! Before their scales re-harden is when my little ones are most vulnerable to cold." Luckily Sunfyre hadn't molted at the same time as Rhaegon, but even so it was still a threat.
Dacey shrugged off her queen's ill-temper, knowing it was only partly because of concern for Rhaegon, with the other part of it being her pregnancy messing with her mind. Old Gods save me from ever getting pregnant, how did my sisters put up with it?
"You wanted to be told when we start to recognize markers, well I just saw some I recognize, we're nearly to the Long Lake. I'll give it another hour and a half or so before we reach it at this speed."
Daenerys stood up purposefully and nodded. "Get Greatjon, I want to talk to him immediately."
Moments later Daenerys, covered in her lizard lion armor and a heavy fur coat, cloak and gloves stood next to Greatjon on the prow of the barge. "The Long Lake will be frozen solid by this point just like the river," Greatjon said authoritatively. "We can follow it and the canal to get closer to the Last Hearth. Once we're out on the lake there isn't any way we can be ambushed but the canal itself, that might be a little tricky if the White Walkers have really attacked my home and have enough men to send out patrols."
"How likely is it that your home still holds out Greatjon?" Daenerys asked softly.
"Against any normal enemy, I'd say my men could hope hold out for years! We've always been careful about stocking food and kept strong watch out. Last Hearth isn't nearly as strong as Winterfell, but its strong enough and the walls are thick such that even the strongest of catapults won't break them." Greatjon said proudly.
"We also kept a lot of older weapons, dragonglass weapons that will serve my men well against the White Walkers. And Hother is a dangerously sneaky sort of man. He'll have come up with something to irritate any attackers, trust me." At his own words Greatjon guffawed, but there was a certain brittle quality to it. Lord Manderly had been explicit about what Ranma had faced at Winterfell, and if a horde of similar magnitude had attacked the Last Hearth, then his home might well of fallen long before this.
"Do not worry my Lord," Daenerys said smoothly. "Remember, Winterfell heard from them several times after the siege began and as you yourself said, your men were prepared and your minor nobles pulled back from their holdfasts to your castle quickly. That would give your uncle enough men to man the defenses."
Greatjon nodded, then asked "how far away do you think you should fly your dragons my lady?"
"You said that the canal will be a dangerous place so Sunfyre and I will remain with the rest of the army until we clear the head of the canal. After that we will make for the Last Hearth."
From her position nearby Dacey frowned. "I still don't like that idea. You'll be unsupported, and neither of your little ones have proven that they can stand up against regular archers, let alone the fell magics that are seemingly imbued in the arrows of the White Walkers."
"True, however, their flames have grown much stronger. Why did you think I had them practicing it every day while we were at sea? We can shoot fire down farther then they'll be able to shoot arrows up. Unless they can shoot them far beyond human range, and we haven't heard anything about that, then my little ones will show that fire can always melt the toughest ice." Daenerys smiled, and it wasn't a nice expression.
Andrew Willowtree stared over the wall, shaking his head. The castle of Last Hearth was on its last legs, and though the words might have seemed funny given the wording his mind had come up with, this had not been an amusing series of events. Though the White Walkers have been unable to breach the defenses, they had come close several dozen times, and there were still thousands of wights out there.
They were running low on dragonglass arrows, and the last time they used the coal trap, it hadn't worked. The coal in the trap, which they had been able to renew twice astonishingly enough, simply had no more fuel to give. The wood piled on top of it burned somewhat, but not nearly long enough. Now was only a matter of time, and even now he could see more spiders, far more haphazard ones than the originals being slowly assembled by what could only be the mages among the White Walkers.
"We gave them a good run, but I think we're coming to the end." He said sadly, Looking over at Hother.
"What would you have us do?" Hother scoffed, spitting to one side. "Run for it? They'll run us to earth no matter where we go. Wights don't need to rest, don't need to sleep, don't need to eat or crap! No, best to stay and fight, least that way our end will be worth a bard's tale or two."
"I know that, I'm just wishing there was something we could do for the womenfolk and the children!" The younger man barked back angrily. "The women, they'll share our fate, but the children? The ones that are too young to be of use?"
Both men had seen more than one example of women and children among the wights sent against the walls, but there was a definite cut off, 12 maybe 13, young teenage years at any rate, were useful anything below that was not.
Suddenly one of the men nearby shouted at them "My Lords, I think you need to see this."
Both men turned back to look out from the gatehouse and immediately spotted what had caused the man to shout. Half the army out there was marching off, heading to the southwest from the looks of it. "What the?" The rest however continued to form up for an attack, including the spiders. "What do you think is going on?"
The older man grinned suddenly. "I think that our prayers to the Old Gods have been answered, I think my Lord has returned, and now we just have to hold."
Daenerys and her forces did indeed pass across the Long Lake without incident, but the canal which carried them from there to the Last River where it moved through Umber land was another matter entirely. The canal itself, about thirty feet across was clear, but this area of the North was dominated by an offshoot of the Wolfswood. In places despite the area of the canal being cleared that woodland came close enough to the canal to give archers good cover for ambushes.
This was proven quickly a bare few hours after the first barges entered the canal. Arrows flew from those woods, impacting several of the men on guard on the lead barge. "Ambush!" Greatjon bellowed. "Archers to the fore, Meera, Dacey, get your scouts lazy carcasses out there now!"
The archers quickly grabbed up their weapons, but the shadows beneath the trees was such few of them could see anything to aim at. They fired blindly, and several of them died from the White Walker arrows that came their way in turn.
But they had given Meera and Dacey enough cover to get over the side of the dragon barge and head into the woods along with Meera's scouts, a force of fifty men who she had trained to her exacting standard since Riverrun. All of them were armed with dragonglass knives, though their arrows were not.
Dacey was the first to encounter the White Walkers. Her claymore, a Valyrian blade she like the other Wolfsworn had taken from the wreckage of the Golden Company which she had named Kodiak hacked towards two White Walkers who were attacking the lead barge. One of them died, his side sliced open despite his plate armor, while the other scrambled backwards, dropping his bow and grabbing at a longsword at his side.
That White Walker stabbed forward, his sword smaller and much quicker than Kodiak. But for all of that, Dacey was just as fast, bringing Kodiak back into a guard position which blocked the first blow before turning the second.
The third nearly caught Dacey as she stumbled over a root, but before the White Walker could recover, Dacey's flailing fist caught him in the knee. The White Walker screamed, falling sideways as his leg gave out, before a stab from Kodiak ended his screaming.
More screams abounded throughout the woodland then as Meera and the others, who had ambushed several White Walkers, were ambushed in turn by wights. Dacey charged through the woods towards the nearest sounds of combat, and found several scouts facing three times their number of wights, which had come out of the woods to surround them.
"Fall back, fall back to the barges!" She shouted, moving forward to hack at a few of the wights. Others turned their attention to her, easing the pressure on this group of scouts, and they moved back, several of them lighting up fire arrows and firing them into the wights all around them. The snow and ice piled up here and there and the frigid weather kept the fires from spreading for now, and wights began to die even as the men around Dacey continued to fall back.
"Over the sides and at them lads! If ya can't kill 'em, hack 'em apart! If you've got the dragonglass weapons, stab the undead fuckers through the heart of their Old God's damned brain!" Greatjon bellowed, leaping from the barge out onto the edge of the canal and into the woods. The men of his house followed, as the archers, no longer under fire from the White Walkers, began to fire into the forest once again.
Greatjon hammered into a large force of wights armed with farm equipment, howling and laughing as he bellowed his warcry. "The Giant's Fury, the Giant's Fury has come for you, you soulless fuckers! HAHAHAHA!"
His Valyrian greatsword hacked and slashed to either side, as light in his hand as a longsword, sending the hacked bodies of wights this way and that. The sheer power of his assault and his own bellowing fury brought more wights down on him, giving the archers behind him cover fire.
While Greatjon and the others secured the area around the stalled barges, Daenerys closed her eyes, and then sent Sunfyre out into the air. As usual the takeoff was rather awkward but when Sunfyre was in the air he regained his kind's normal grace.
For a moment Daenerys was tempted to send Sunfyre down against the attackers all around them, but decided against it. They are too close to my own men, I can't take the risk. So instead Sunfyre began to circle the area, looking for any groups of wights or their masters to attack before they could come forward. He spotted some of them, and at the first sight of a White Walker Daenerys nearly lost control of their link thanks to the strength of the emotions they evoked in him.
Rage, wrongness, vile, ancient evil, does not belong, does not belong! While neither dragon could communicate with words, Daenerys had become very good at putting words to the emotions she felt through their link, and that was as close as she could get to explaining what Sunfyre felt at that moment.
Sunfyre dove, flame already boiling out of his mouth as the normally placid dragon attacked without being ordered to. His flame, far stronger and longer ranged than it had been in the past smashed down, igniting the White Walkers and several trees around them turning the snow and ice in the area to steam in a brief second. The White Walkers didn't even have time to scream before they were immolated, and Sunfyre pulled out of his dive, his voice raised into a scream of victory.
Despite her surprise, Daenerys got over her shock at Sunfyre's response to the things from the far North and quickly took command of the link once more, overriding Sunfyre's mind, which was trying to force the dragon down again to hunt more of them, sending a burst of deep love and approval through their link as well as orders. You'll find more of those things where I direct you dear one, don't worry. Go east, fly east, and you will see.
Rhaegon might have fought her despite his love for her at that point, being denied the kills in the area around them just then, but Sunfyre did not. Sunfyre turned obediently away leaving Greatjon and his men to face the wights, who had just lost the last bit of White Walker support they had as the dragon flew on.
It took a turn of the glass, or perhaps a little longer before Daenerys, gazing through Sunfyre's eyes, saw the Last Hearth. More importantly she saw it was under attack. Several giant things like giant spiders but not quite, they looked like ice and metal combined into a spider shape were attacking the castle, with several dozen White Walkers on their backs.
Several of them had reached the outer parapet of the castle and now an army of wights was climbing up them while the White Walkers on their backs rained down arrows on the defenders. Elsewhere on the battlefield several mages sat around a giant blue crystal, while some kind of creature began to rise out of the ice and snow around them.
The attackers were not having it all their own way. The White Walkers had lost hundreds of wights, their corpses burning everywhere around the castle. And several White Walkers had also been slain, both by dragonglass arrows and up close. But up close White Walkers were stronger and far faster than most humans, and even without the wights it was obvious the White Walkers were winning this battle.
Or they were, Daenerys thought grimly, then without another word, sent Sunfyre down at the army of undead and their masters, starting with the magic users. Not even a turn of the glass later, it was all over, and the way to the Last Hearth was clear.
The fleet had made excellent time since leaving Lannisport. Yes there had been storms, but even the worst of winds from the storms seemed to be speeding them on their way. They hadn't lost any ships either. Several dozen men had died from storm related injuries, but even so they made excellent time into the Iron Islands. Jon had ordered the fleet to remain near the shore, passing between the Cape of Storms shore and the Iron Islands. That wasn't the fastest way through, but it was the safest in terms of the sea, and would hopefully let them steer clear of the war going on in the Islands.
Even so, they saw a ship coming towards them. As it neared the lookout shouted down to the waiting commanders. "It's flying three flags my lords, can't make them out just yet!"
A few moments later he amended that statement. "One flags the Kraken, I can't recognize the other two." He shouted the descriptions down, and Garth in the others all looked at one another. "That is a very odd group, House Marbrand, House Banefort and House Greyjoy, all represented by one ship?"
Jon looked at Margaery. "I might have fought the man, but that didn't tell me much of how he acts. Will Addam Marbrand try to break the peace accords for his loyalty to House Lannister?"
"No," Margaery said shaking her head firmly. She looked over at Garth who frowned for a moment then nodded in agreement. "He's not a political animal at all, nor is he one to seek personal gain in terms of power my Lord, it is skill with the blade he cares most about, indeed, I've heard rumors that his Lord father was actually thinking of passing him over, because he's a complete incompetent at managing land. But he is an honorable fellow, by all reports."
"Jaime in miniature." Garth added bluntly. "A warrior through and through who cares nothing for aught but skill with the blade. If you beat him, he'll listen to you regardless of anything else."
"Then your recommendation?"
"If it was just House Marbrand's flag, I'd think that he might've heard rumors what's going on in the North, and wish to join us. The others though, it's evident that something odd has happened here in the Iron Islands, or at least unsuspected."
"Something that hadn't been reported back to Lannisport yet," Jon mused, causing Margaery to start in surprise and nod agreement quickly. "Kevan didn't warn us about it. I think then, we should wait for them. Signal The Seven's Windsto take over flagship position, we'll let the rest of the fleet keep going, while we remain here with three war galleys to await them."
Several hours later the ship was close enough to hail one another, and a small dinghy was sent across.
Addam Marbrand hadn't changed much since he'd crossed blades with Jon, a little older, a little thinner, with a rather neat scar running along one temple right before his ear, but that was all. He and Jon exchanged wary nods, but the others with him much more interesting.
Lord Banefort was a tall saturnine man, who looked much like Jon remembered Lord Bolton looking, only not nearly so sickly in appearance, or intelligent if Jon was blunt about it. Even his greatest detractors could never say that Lord Bolton was anything but intelligent and energetic. Lord Banefort had the look of him, but not the intensity.
The third man in the group however was just Jon had imagined him upon hearing about Rodrick the Reader. He looked a strange cross between a maester, and an Ironborn warrior. His face was lively with intelligent eyes behind wire rim glassed, but his hands showed the calluses of a warrior, and he carried himself like one too.
But it was the fourth person that came on board the flagship whose appearance startled Jon. He'd heard tales of Asha and her exploits from Olenna, and had built a picture of her in his mind. And while he'd gotten her general build correct, it was very obvious that Asha was sick at present. It looked as if she could barely stand, her eyes were bloodshot, she wavered on her feet, and her skin looked white clammy to the touch.
Yet it was Asha who spoke first. "You are going North, I will go with you."
Jon and Margaery looked at one another, that over at Garth who shrugged incomprehension. "Why?" Jon asked eloquently.
"Now comes the price," she said, her voice falling into a strange cadence. "All must stand together, or all will fall separate, gods and men, all fall into the Cold Times." She held up her hand, and only now did Jon notice that she was wearing a gauntlet on one hand, while the other was uncovered. Jon stared at it, seeing the gem and the intricate carving on its fingers and knuckles, while Asha went on in that same tone. "Thou who didst agree to be mine servant, to wield mine power, now must stand against the Great Enemy."
"Perhaps," Rodrick said quickly, stepping forward as Asha looked to almost collapse, overcome by the effort of raising her gauntlet. "I should explain a little more. You see, it all started several thousand years ago, when the Storm God and the Drowned God were in contest for the souls of the Ironborn..."
That tale took some time, but Jon and Margaery were both interested, interrupting occasionally to ask questions or to clarify certain points which the Reader, who evidently had a bit of a bard in him, dealt with easily. Rodrick finished by saying "and almost ever since she used her gauntlet to see off that first feint against our shores, Asha's been having visions, which have grown more powerful over time. There is a price to be paid for using that weapon, and these visions of hers apparently are calling her to pay for that and for the finding of it as well."
Jon nodded. "That makes some sense I suppose, but why are all four of you. Why are you here Addam?"
"We've heard tell of your creation of duchies in the Westerlands" Addam said bluntly. "I have conquered the Iron Islands, every single one save Harlaw. And that one, in return for ensuring its independence, Harlaw surrendered to me.
"We agreed to not attack your ships, or to go to the aid of the other islands, that does not mean we surrendered to you." Rodrick mildly, though his eyes flashed at the younger man.
Addam smirked at him, and palmed his sword with one hand for a moment. Whatever the peace and between these forces might be, it was obvious that it wasn't very deep at the moment.
"My Lords, " said Margaery quickly, "this is a parlay on neutral territory. Whatever your grievances with one another, please be mindful of how you speak or address one another. Is this a permanent thing? Your two forces together? Or is it something that will fall apart the moment Asha leaves the islands?"
"It is not entirely based upon her no." said Addam, frowning heavily. "While my forces brought along weapons for the thralls in our attempt to arm them, we did not bring along enough food to feed them, and we had not realized how dependent the other islands are on Harlaw for that food. " He glared at Rodrick who simply smiled back affably.
"Apparently Harlaw is the only island that has significant farmland, and exports food to the other islands. But even that is failing thanks to the weather lately." He shivered, because it was quite cold out, not cold enough yet to make man in danger of frostbite during the day, but certainly cold enough to harden the ground and make any attempts at farming go from difficult to impossible.
"Which is where you come in my Lord?" Margaery asked looking over at Lord Banefort.
"Indeed milady, my House supplied the invasion army with food and other goods as was my duty to House Lannister. But since the House has fallen from its position as Lord Paramount, any agreements based on that are no longer viable. We are willing to do so, but we require more in the way of payment, which the Iron Islands alone cannot supply and which House Marbrand has refused to."
Politics, Jon groaned internally, nodding his head. He wasn't happy, he did not like the idea of the Iron Islands staying a single unit no matter who ruled it, but nor did he like the idea of their people starving to death. Besides, at the moment I have bigger giants to slay. "Perhaps my lords we should head to my cabin and get some water? I have a feeling this discussion is going to take a long time..."
"To tell the truth Ranma if your army hadn't forced the White Walkers to bypass us I don't know if my castle would've held. As it is, we barely held the walls. The White Walkers strafed our walls with their cursed arrows near constantly for over a week, with us not seeing hide nor hair of any of their wights. Then they threw all of their men at us one night, it was the surprise of the sudden assault that nearly broke us."
Ranma nodded as he looked over at the courtyard of Hornwood, while Lord Hornwood's lady Donella directed her servants to bring out packs of supplies, mostly hard bread, jerky, leather strips for mending shoes and gloves, and some medical supplies. Though Ranma knew there wouldn't be near enough of that to replace a bare tithe of what the Vale army had already used.
Not that Hornwood had it easy either. The damage to the exterior of the castle wasn't much of course you couldn't really damage stone with arrows after all. But there were at least 230 covered bodies, possibly more lying along the stable wall, and smoke from the pyres that Lord Hornwood had set outside the Castle for the wights was visible from leagues around.
Lord Hornwood himself was sporting a gash across his face that hadn't been there before, and had a one of his arms done up in a splint. Most of the armsmen in Ranma's line of sight were injured as well. Yet despite that Hornwood had already pledged to add a further 1,530 men to Ranma's force. This included the cavalry force sent to Hornwood by Lord Manderly to guard the shipment of dragonglass. Their horses were surviving the winter well enough, and all of them brought along enough blankets for the horses at night as well.
"You're right about that Lord Hornwood. Judging from the force that struck us out in the woods I don't think you would've lasted very long, that's not even including the undead dragon I was forced to kill."
The older man shook his head. "How you did that I've no idea Ranma, I'm just grateful you did. Me and mine will do whatever we can to aid your army both now and on your way, never fear." His smile however went away quickly as he spotted Edd Karstark leaning heavily on a spear whose head had been removed. He was pale and weak looking, and was limping badly, but refused all offers from aid from those around him. "I heard young Edd was injured sore, will he recover fully?"
"He's lived this long." Ranma said with a laugh nodding at the man as everyone else made way for his slow plod towards the keep. "I'd originally intended to leave him here with the other walking wounded and then send him down to White Harbor to meet up with my queen and the main army when it arrives. But he cursed me so much when I brought it up I think he's faking it now."
"About that, I've had news you should hear." Gesturing Ranma to follow him, the older man made his way through the busy courtyard towards his keep, describing at the same time the news that the Royal Army had arrived but that most of it had been left in White Harbor due to not having enough dragonglass weapons. At that Ranma simply nodded, understanding why his wife had made that decision.
And unless the White Walkers are willing to face us with their own numbers, I think we've turned the tide with the destruction of the army that would've attacked here. With my father's order of digging up and cremating all the major cemeteries and the numbers of wights we've faced so far I have to believe that they are sorely pressed in terms numbers of undead. If they aren't, our attempts to take the offensive might well fail, and with it any chance of reaching the Wall before it falls.
"I agree with my wife's decision, but it does put us in a hard position." Ranma said aloud. "I'd hoped to rest my army here for a few weeks, but I'm not certain any longer. You say she and Greatjon moved up the White Knife to relieve the Last Hearth?"
"Indeed, it was a bold move, but with the dragons she might well succeed. I've had time to look at my House's old records, what few of them there are." He barked a short laugh shaking his head. "My family's never been the most well-read lot and our old records aren't very good. But I found one stone tablet with old tongue runes on it that I eventually deciphered. It mentions dragons being a force to be reckoned with against the White Walkers."
"I hope so, because if she has liberated the Last Hearth…" Ranma frowned, thinking hard, calculating travel times, going over a mental map of the North, and thinking about Daenerys. He pushed past his concern for her, his longing for her and Merry in order to analyze what she would do next. Daenerys knows the strategic goal as well as I do, so…
"I'm going to assume Daenerys'll keep on going up to the Wall to break the siege there. If that's the case, my Army and I might be needed more on the shore of the Bay of Seals then marching up to the Kingsroad. If I were the White Walkers, I'd be doing everything I could to throw another assault around the Wall right then directly at it." He said grimly, not even noticing that Lord Hornwood had guided the two of them through the keep up to the second floor as he was thinking.
"My son is with the force under Lord Karstark who was sent to liberate or reinforce Ramsgate and Widow's Watch." Lord Hornwood said, smiling at his daughter-in-law Alys, who was walking down the hallway towards them carrying a small bundle from which loud gurgles could be heard. "But on a happier thought, may I present my grandson, Torrhen."
Ranma laughed, moving forward and forgetting for a few moments that he was a king embroiled in possibly the deadliest war Westeros had seen in millennia. He put his arms gently around Alys and her babe, smiling down at them both. "Hello little cousin, you're looking well, as is your child."
"I would be even better if my husband were here with me Ranma." Alys said tartly, though she leaned against his shoulder for a moment. "Is there any chance of that happening anytime soon?"
"If we can leave lift the siege of the Wall, I'll send him back to you I promise." Ranma said placing one hand over his heart. "I promise. In fact, after nearly two years of war, I think all of the Wolfsworn and my northern forces deserve a break. But we won't get it yet, because if we rest now, Torrhen here won't be able to grow up."
Alys stared at him for a moment, then nodded, holding her baby to her chest and smiling.
Thanks to Lord Hornwood and his lady's efficiency the army was resupplied. Some of its broken and damaged equipment repaired, and even some of its torn tents replaced within the four days Ranma allowed them to rest. Their medical supplies however simply could not be brought back up to the level they had been when the Vale army left White Harbor.
Ranma had taken that time to train with the Vale men more, forcing them to get used to his way of fighting and marching as well as working with the men from the White Harbor and Hornwood. Though they at least had heard reports of how he operated, and knew that discipline and organization was paramount in how Ranma led his men.
Because of this and because Ranma took nearly every horse, all northern bred, that Hornwood had, adding about eighty or so mounts to his supply train, they made much better time leaving Hornwood then they had going towards it. Within another week they had left Hornwood land, marching into the semi-unclaimed territory formerly ruled by House Bolton. Fenris, Ranma, and the remaining mountain clansmen continually scouted around the Army but they didn't see any more White Walkers.
After another two week's march they reached the Weeping Water, crossing the frozen river quickly. Here they began to come under attacks from scattered forces of wights. The scouts, all old hands at this now, dealt with the wights using fire arrows on the wights before the wights could use what limited intelligence they had to turn on them.
But despite the vast territory of House Bolton being completely open to them, there were no other White Walkers sightings. Not even Fenris could detect any hint of them, which told Ranma they really had concentrated in the forces which Ranma and his allies had already destroyed. They really are susceptible to casualties, Ranma thought as he stared to the west towards where the skeleton of the Dreadfort still stood. That's good.
Another week and a half's journey brought them to the Last River, the same river that was connected via a canal to the Long Lake and which past within a few days journey of the Last Hearth. Here Fenris began to smell the passage of another human army. With the local wolves help they began to trail that army, which Fenris could tell contained the Wolfsworn, discerning their familiar scents from the scents of the army even days after its passage.
Gathering Edd, the Wull and his remaining Vale lords to him Ranma explained matters, saying that the Wolfsworn had left behind tokens that he and Edd had noticed rather than trying to explain that Fenris had been the one to find out who they were trailing. "I think we're only a bare few days behind them, so I'm going ahead alone to see if I can find them. If I can we'll join together before marching on the Bay of Seals. I don't think we want to be strung out once we hit that shoreline."
Lord Royce frowned, fingering his runic encrusted longsword for moment. "You expect that we'll be hit again Your Majesty?"
"I think it'll be a minor miracle if we aren't. It's been more than three months since I arrived in Winterfell. That's more than enough for them to have sent forces from Starhold's Point across the water to Skagos, and then from there to the Bay of Seals."
"With normal ships for certain but I've never heard tell that the White Walkers can sail." The older man objected. "Stubborn sailors possibly, but would they be intelligent enough to keep such around, or would they have simply thrown them at us already?"
"And we hadn't heard anything from Hornwood or in White Harbor to explain how they got to Skagos in the first place." Ranma said with a shrug. "They could very well've done that, or done something else entirely, something we can't even imagine. Regardless, I am not willing to hope they'll be so stupid as to not reinforce their initial assault around the Wall. And that is the other matter my Lords: the Wall must be liberated!"
"But will taking Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and liberating it do much Your Majesty?" asked one of the other Vale lords, frowning not in censure but in thought. "The Bay of Seals is certain to be frozen solid, which would stop us from using ships to bring up supplies to the Wall, to say nothing of making it easier for the wights to send forces from Skagos into the North."
"I don't know," Ranma said honestly. "I just don't know. But I doubt it's frozen entirely… the Bay of Seals goes around the Wall, touching at the Haunted Forest's shoreline on the other side. If it was frozen entirely, then we would've already lost, the White Walkers could march their entire army around that way."
"Frightening thought," muttered Robar, a sentiment more than one man their shared. Up to this point, Ranma and his Northerners had faced far more of the White Walker's actual magics and beasts than the Vale army as a whole had, but even that little bit was enough. The Dragon alone had almost broken them in the brief seconds it had to attack them before Ranma arrived, and they had no wish to see the giant spiders, giants or enthralled beasts that the Northerners spoke of seeing in the battle at Winterfell.
Edd suddenly laughed, shaking his head. His face as still pale, and he complained of his side twinging occasionally, but he was well on the way to a full recovery. "You people are missing the forest for the trees, and it's rather amusing."
"Would you like to share with the group, oh sharp one?" Ranma said, smiling at his friend as he reached over to squeeze his shoulder.
"Well, the White Walkers have always come with winter correct? So it stands to reason that when the Wall was put in place, it was also winter. I don't think that Bran the Builder would have put such a magnificent defense in place if it wasn't up to the task of stopping them. So it stands to reason that the Bay of Seals won't be totally frozen, or at least won't be frozen enough to let them send armies around his Wall."
There was some murmuring about that and Lord Royce, who was a bit of a scholar of the Heroic Age, nodded. "Makes sense to me, though if that's natural or something based on magic could be a question."
"For now we're wasting daylight." Ranma said, though he inwardly agreed with Edd's observation. "I mean to head for the Bay's shore anyway, we'll see what conditions are when we get there. I'll see you in a few hours." Ranma said, nodding to Edd and then turning and racing off. The Lords all looked at one another, shrugged their shoulders and began to bellow commands to their men to get the army moving once again.
The Karstark/Flint/Woolfield army had been marching for weeks now mostly dealing with small skirmishes here and there, most of which the Wolfsworn handled. There had only been one pitched battle at a small holdfast on the edge of House Karstark land, which several White Walkers had filled up with a force of new wights of all ages, young and old. Rickard had led his House's men in against him with the Wolfsworn and slaughtered them all, though had lost forty-three of his own men in the doing.
The Wolfsworn all knew that demons were riding Rickard at this point. Being so close to his fallen seat and the sight of his eldest son and heir's death was effecting him greatly. It took all of Daryn and Roger's diplomatic skills to convince Rickard not to march to Karhold, throwing off the plans he'd made when given command of this army. Now as they were a few days away from the woods that made up most of the House Karstark's land that need had subsided, but a brimming fury was visible in the older man, just waiting for a target.
Patrolling the army's back trail Smalljon was contemplating this and wondering if that anger would see them all doomed in the next large clash when he began to hear wolves howling. This wasn't exactly unusual, the wolves were constantly howling these days well out of sight of any of the scouts around the army, but an almost constant presence. This one however was from quite a bit closer and with an odd timbre to it. Frowning, Smalljon turned almost thinking he' be able to see the wolf in question, only to see a man racing towards him on foot from behind, a large greatsword slung over his back.
A few moments later the man was close enough for Smalljon to make out some of his features. An instant later Smalljon began to bellow with laughter, a sound that caused those men marching nearby to turn to him, then stare in the direction he did. Laughing and shouting however Smalljon ignored them, striding back down the muddy, icy path, his breath making great gusts in the cold air as he shouted and hallooed in welcome to his kind and friend.
A bare turn of the glass later Ranma was reunited with the Wolfsworn along with Rickard and all of them had tales to tell. The liberation of Hornwood, the destruction of not one but two White Walker Army's, and Edd's valor all made the Wolfsworn and Rickard in particular smile proudly, while Ranma heard their own tales gleefully. Around them the Army began to throw up its nighttime entrenchments, larger this time by twice again for the Vale Army coming up behind them.
After the exchange ended, Rickard stared hard at Ranma. "What would you have us do Ranma?"
"Have you sent scouts forward to the shoreline yet?"
"No, I've been using the Wolfsworn as my main scouts, but even then I don't let them go more than six leagues in any direction away from the army. I felt that their ability to spring traps would be wasted if they could also be pulled out of position." Rickard replied. He didn't mention that had been an idea he'd gotten from overhearing Roger and Daryn discuss that very possibility.
"Can you guarantee that none of the White Walkers you've seen were mages? Edd and I came up with the idea that it was their mages that allowed them to pass on information over long distances." The Wolfsworn nodded grimly, and Ranma smiled grimly.
"Good. If it is just their mages being able to pass messages or something to do with their main forces, then they won't know about the men that Lord Hornwood added to my army or about all of you. So we might have an advantage there. Our force composition is different from the army that faced the White Walkers near Hornwood, we're better trained now, better lead, and we have you my friends, an irregular infantry force that they cannot match.
As his friends smiled, with even Rickard assaying a wintry sort of smirk, Ranma went on. "If they've sent forces to reinforce Skagos, or have already sent forces from there to the shoreline, I mean to use those advantages if we have to. Until then, I'll want the Wolfsworn and I to head forward and scout the shoreline, just in case."
The two armies joined together that evening without much fanfare, though the Vale forces were particularly happy to note that they wouldn't have to work on that evening's entrenchments which was always hard work given the frozen nature of the ground. Noticing this, the men of the North responded to with ribald jeers.
Early the next morning their good humor continued, the men taking their cue from Ranma and his friends, who were all as boisterous as wolf cubs. Even while the now combined army more marched forward, with Ranma and the Wolfsworn going ahead, that good humor continued unabated.
Several days later however, when the wolfsworn came within sight of the shore all jokes and good humor died. The Wolfsworn went to ground, while Ranma pulled out Myrish glass, staring through it at the shoreline, though normally calling it a shoreline was sort of a misnomer, because like much of the Narrow Sea's shore here in the North, the Bay was mostly craggy hill or sheer cliff for most of its length.
But right here that was not the case. About two leagues in every direction from Ranma's position the shore was a gentle one, sea giving way to small rocks, clumps of bushes and sand. Of course the sea itself was also frozen to several dozen yards out to sea.
And it was crawling with White Walkers and their forces. There looked to be somewhere around 2000 wights down there. Most looked like long dead wildlings for the most part. Here and there were scattered forces of White Walkers, almost as much as Ranma had seen in the army that attacked Winterfell, and ten giant spiders spaced around the perimeter of what was obviously an army camp. These spiders were far larger and more complete looking than the ones Ranma had seen at Winterfell.
That means there are mages down there, even if I can't see them from here, Ranma thought frowning angrily as he pulled the spyglass down for a moment, careful that the faint sunlight didn't reflect the lands and give his position away. Behind the Army he could see three ships, and when Ranma trained his glass on them he could see several groups of men moving around them, their movements clumsy but seemingly sure. Well it looks like Lord Royce was wrong, they are smart enough to keep some of their captured people alive.
"I'm just glad that the Bay isn't totally frozen, if it was I doubt we'd be able to survive the army they could send at us." Hathan murmured from behind him. His horse, a Hornwood horse he'd commandeered, was several hundred feet behind their current position, grazing on a bit of grass sticking up from the rocks that dominated this area of the North.
"Would you think we should do?" Roger asked, whose own horse was back with Hathan's. "I don't know about you but that looks…"
He stopped talking as two of the ships turned away from the shoreline ponderously, pushed out into the water by several of the spiders leaning against the ships until they finally were beached no longer. The third ship moved in, taking the other two's place and began to disgorge more troop in the form of a few giants.
"That looks like a landing force securing a beachhead for a larger army." Ranma said grimly nodding his head sideways toward Roger. He frowned studying both the Army and the terrain. The terrain was rocky in the extreme away from the shoreline, and the snow of this area of the North was heavy and hard-packed stuff, easy to walk along. There were also several dozen large boulders ranging from human sized to four or even five stories here and there scattered randomly here and there.
He frowned scratching at his beard, making a note to shave it before either of his loves saw him with it, before turning to more immediate matters. "Daryn, Smalljon, spread out to either side, out of sight of those bastards. I want to know if this is the only landing point they're using, and what the rest of the Bay of Seals looks like."
"How far out you want us to go?" Smalljon asked his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"As far as you can and get back by tomorrow night. Hathan, head back to the army tell them to slow down. In fact tell them to camp where they are for now, and to send parties back along our trial to chop own any trees. The wood's to be saved for now, not added to our fire supplies."
Theon watched his friend carefully from a nearby hiding place near the roots of an ancient tree which had been struck by lightning sometime in the distant past. Ranma and Roger were sharing the top of a small boulder, out of sight from the shoreline by simply being too far away, with the other Wolfsworn clustered behind them on the ground. "What are you planning to do?"
"I don't know yet, that depends upon the terrain. And if we can convince the White Walkers to throw good money after bad." He frowned thoughtfully thinking debating, and finally nodding. "Theon, find a place where you and say the best dozen archers from among our men could hide and strike those ships out in the water where they anchored before You think that's possible from around here?"
"I could start picking them off from here for sure, though we'd have to move closer for the other archers."
"Do it." Ranma ordered, frowning intently as he went back to examining the army. Over the next few hours he continued to do so, waiting for Daryn and Smalljon's reports, while Hathan and Edd were able to convince Rickard not to charge ahead blindly to engage the force already present on the shoreline.
It soon became dark out, and Ranma put his spyglass away. Not even he was able to see that well in the dark, and the White Walkers of course didn't need torches for their army's movements. Instead he closed his eyes, seeing through Fenris' while the direwolf made his way forward, getting far closer to the enemy army than any human could have done unseen. Even Ranma would have had to resort to the Umi-Sen-Ken, which the White Walkers could see through.
Over the next two days the White Walker's ships, or more ships, Ranma couldn't tell, came out of the sea to add still more troops to the force already present. The first few times these were giants, adding about fifty giants with each ship, though counting them through Fenris' eyes was not an easy task. The third time was a force of White Walkers, making the total number with the army on the shoreline larger than the number which had been with the army that attacked Winterfell.
And the last time, each ship carried a single undead dragon. Seeing them Ranma groaned, or was that Fenris? At the moment they were so linked it was impossible to tell. Not good, not good at all. The giants or the spiders or the dragons would be enough of a problem, all together, that's a major problem. Although, they haven't sent out any scouts, that sort of arrogance will cost them if I have anything to say about it.
At that moment Theon came out of the night to join him in the small hideaway Ranma had commandeered each night since they had arrived on the shore. "Ranma, I think I found a place where we could hide about 12 or so good archers. But the moment we light fire arrows the smoke will tell them we're there. Sorry, but the closer you get to shore the fewer hiding places there are, and none of the one's I've looked at could hide the smoke."
"That's fine I think," Ranma replied after pulling back from his link with Fenris with more difficulty the normal. He'd been riding the direwolves senses so deeply over the past few days, trying to figure out if he could tell the mages from the regular warriors, trying to see if he could see where they had hidden the crystal or anything else useful that he had delved deeper into their link than ever before.
He spent a few moments simply shaking his head, rubbing at his temples as if he had a headache while Theon waited impatiently. "All right," Ranma said at last, shaking his head. "I think I've got the beginnings of a plan, but we'll have to wait until Smalljon and Daryn report back."
"Wait no longer," said a voice from out of the darkness, the whisper carrying to them easily. Moving through the rocky terrain around them and finally pushing into the small crevice where Ranma hid, Smalljon nodded at the two of them, his face grim despite his joke a moment ago. "The rest of the shore to the south and east of here isn't as clear as it is here, but there's a place I found right as I turned around where I think they could continue to land troops in the future."
"The future is one thing, right now is another. They've shown no signs of spreading their forces between two landing spots and have continued to drop off forces since you left." Ranma said shaking his head.
"I don't think we'll be able to fight them in a straight up battle on the shore." Theon warned. "We could retreat straight east, drag them into the Gift."
"But then they may just ignore us and attack Eastwatch, that's what I'd do. Take Eastwatch, and you can sweep the Wall from there and if the Wall falls…'Ranma shook his head. "No, we're going to have to fight sneaky…"
"Ranma, there aren't any forces we could call on to help us here, but if we lose…" Smalljon warned.
"If we lose we die. If we pull back, they'll just ignore us and march up north to the wall. Even if my wife's already broken the siege that won't matter if Eastwatch is attacked by that large a force from behind."
"So what are we going to do?" Theon snarled angrily. "Throw our lives away for nothing! All the good we've done so far we could lose here!"
"We fight." Smalljon said grimly. "We fight and pray for a miracle."
"We fight sneaky, like I said. Those spiders, if we can get them away from the rest of the Army I might be able to do something about them. And if they've learned about Winterfell and the other Army, they must know I'm public enemy number one."
"Maybe," Smalljon murmured, "but that will leave the dragons and giants to us. I'm not exactly happy with the idea of facing an enemy that can attack from the sky." He smirked slightly. "I've gotten used to thinking of the sky as belonging to your wife, not our enemies."
Throwing off his earlier skepticism Theon smiled evilly, tapping one of the dragonglass tipped arrowheads in his quiver. "I can take them out if they come within range and I'm lucky, and if we can somehow get them on the ground I think the Wolfsworn could deal with the others."
Ranma frowned thoughtfully, still staring out into the darkness.
At that point Daryn arrived, moving into the small hideaway, though now with the four of them in it, it was getting quite crowded. "About five leagues away the shoreline becomes a cliff face." He said, gasping a little. "I ran as far as I could along it, and I didn't see an end of it. I think, I think it stays a cliff until you get to that little port by Eastwatch, and Eastwatch has a lot of siege weapons that face the ocean, so I don't think they could land troops in that direction."
Ranma nodded, thinking hard. That army isn't going anywhere just yet. And if Hathan and Roger got the army working like I told them to, we might just have a chance here, a thin one but a chance. "All right, here's what we're going to do…"
The first the White Walkers knew that they were being observed was Ranma's shout of "Direwolf's claw!" coming from near point-blank range a few turns of the glass before dawn. The vorpal blades shot from his hiding place directly outside the White Walker's camp, smashing into and through one of the giant spiders standing at the far end of it. The construction of ice and steel crashed to the ground, it's steel parts slicing through or embedding themselves in White Walkers and wights alike and he howled, "Winter is Coming!"
With that he ran forward, hacking and slashing with Ice at a few White Walkers on guard at the edge of their camp. At the same time several thousand archers, pushed forward from the rest of the Army the night before, fired blindly into the camp. Unable to see in the dark they simply fired their arrows, dragonglass tipped of course since fires would have let them be seen and they'd had enough trouble moving quietly, as quickly as they could emptying their quivers within a few moments.
At the same moment the Wolfsworn charged in from different directions, spread out slightly in teams of two, Smalljon with Hathan and Roger, and Theon with Edd. Daryn was missing from their force, as was Fenris. Both of them had another job to do.
By the time the archers had emptied their quivers the White Walkers had gotten themselves under control again from the shock of being attacked like this. After all, they were the ones supposed to ambush others, not be ambushed in turn, particularly like this. But despite this shock the Wolfsworn were soon in danger of being overrun.
Realizing this, Ranma howled again his voice a primal snarl of fury. "Now, away!"
The Wolfsworn quickly broke off fading back into the night. They raced away, while Ranma pulled back slowly northeast, making him an obvious target for any kind of attempt to follow them.
The dragons of in the White Walkers camp flew up, searching down at the ground, but their eyesight wasn't as good as that of real dragons, especially at night. After a moment they were recalled, and the giant spiders were sent out instead, racing after Ranma. On their backs each of them carried a complement of twenty archers, more than enough, in the White Walker's minds, to bring Ranma to heel.
Theon looked at Edd, the two of them now racing from where they had hidden as the dragons were in the sky. Both of them were covered from head to toe in cold, hard snow at the moment, which Theon was not exactly happy about. Despite his heavy winter coat it was damn cold. "I hope this works."
"If it doesn't, we're dead, nothing we can do about that." Edd shrugged philosophically. "Besides, do you want to live forever?"
"Hells yes, I want to live to see my great-great-grandchildren grow up, and still be hale and hearty enough to fuck when I do." Theon replied. Edd simply shook his head at the other young man's humor, and he used that word lightly.
After their initial assault the archers had all retreated, going to ground the moment the wolfsworn signaled via howls that the dragons had taken to the air. Now they raced away through the darkness, daring broken ankles and feet to get away from the hornet's nest they had poked with a long stick.
The snow hindered them somewhat of course, but thankfully the White Walkers were not as interested in them, the army slowly folding out of its camp to come after them. But their initial response, the spiders which could have ridden the archers to earth and then gone on to slaughter the army scattered three leagues away did not go after them. Every single giant spider in the army went after Ranma.
Elsewhere in the dark Ranma continued to run, dodging through the rocky landscape with ease, while behind him he heard the heavy trump, trump, trump of the giant spiders. Joy, it worked. Now I just have to make certain that I get out of this alive.
The spiders chased after him, getting closer with each passing moment, their long legs and big bodies carrying them over obstacles Ranma had to go around and with a speed that was inedible. But that didn't matter, Ranma just wanted them concentrating on him.
As they came closer he dodged this way and that, not bothered overmuch by the spider's attempts to crush him. They weren't agile enough to bring their mouths and fangs down to bite him. Rather they served as walking mobile platforms for the White Walker archers, making them very dangerous against normal targets. Luckily, Ranma wasn't normal. If they had just kept a few of those beasts back this plan would never have worked. Heh, whatever powers they seem to possess, the White Walkers definitely have tunnel vision when it comes to tactics!
He bit off that thought when an arrow from one of the archers above nearly smacked into the back of his head, forcing him into a diving roll. Instead of retaining his forward momentum however, Ranma kicked off a boulder at the start of his roll, leaping up onto another one and then onto a third before jumping up into the air. Once there the White Walkers of course fired on him, as they had been doing all along but now Ranma was able to dodge their arrows in midair, smacking them aside with his hands and using those brief bits of force to remain in the air.
Humans would've gaped in astonishment at this feat but the White Walkers simply kept on firing. One of the spiders moved forward quickly, trying to bite him with its massive fangs. But Ranma grabbed it, flipping himself onto its back and pulling out Ice from its sheath, slicing two White Walkers into pieces. That he was in among them, the other White Walkers still firing on him but not hitting him thanks to their own fellows, as he killed several more before thrusting Ice down into the spider's body right where it's brain should be. It immediately began to convulse, falling to the side and he leaped off, hurling Ice forward like a spear to slam into and through the face of another spider.
That spider fell forward dead as well. Whatever powers they used to create and give life to the spiders they couldn't empower them with no brain to work with. Yet those White Walkers on its back survived the tumble for the most part, going to ground in the rocky field around them, shooting at Ranma whenever they had the chance, not retreating but working with their fellows, shouting orders to one another and generally trying to encircle him.
Ranma however was still in the air, using the White Walkers own arrows momentum to stay there for a moment, slicing out a "Direwolf's claw!" at another spider. It hit, slicing the spider into pieces along with its crew, and then Ranma was on the ground again, rolling behind another large boulder.
He huffed or a moment shaking his head, feeling the exhaustion of that technique hit him. "Dammit I can only do two of them now?!" Whatever the hell was feeding on his ki got worse the further north he went. It hadn't had an effect his body however, and Ranma raced forward towards Ice.
An arrow found his side, a week point in the lizard lion armor at one of the joints. Ranma could feel the spell on it trying to feed on his ki and he pulled it out quickly, tossing it aside and holding a hand there as he rolled to avoid more arrows. Two White Walkers closed with Ranma their blades drawn, but Ranma dodged the first one's sword thrust, hammering his leg into the second throwing it back with its chest armor and the ribs beneath it broken.
The other lived for a brief moment as Ranma flipped himself over his sword. Landing on his other side Ranma pulled him off balance for a palm thrust to the side of the face which, rather than breaking his jaw actually made his entire head explode in a welter of yellow blood and ichor.
With the crews of the spiders above him still firing down at him, and the crew of the downed spider still trying to find him, Ranma dodged and ducked, using the cloaking technique so that the spiders at least couldn't see him. The cruise seemed to direct them somehow with that grating tongue of theirs. But it gave him a few seconds, putting a few of them out of position as he raced for Ice. Note to self Ranma, don't throw your weapon again, better to think things through than be without one.
He grimaced as an arrow gouged his cheek, but because it didn't stick in his flesh Ranma didn't feel the spell in it pull at his life force which was a blessing. Dodging and diving through the boulder field towards Ice Ranma was grazed several more times by arrows, but the lizard lion armor was equal to the task of deflecting most of them. Weak points existed in it of course, or else Ranma wouldn't be able to move, but aiming for those weak points was an order of magnitude harder than aiming for Ranma in the first place.
In response Ranma routinely picked up small pebbles and hurled them at any White Walker he could see, both on the large spiders moving around still trying to step on him, or the downed crew of the spider around where Ice lay. With his strength behind them the small pebbles hit with as much force as a musket ball, smashing through plate armor and skin alike.
Then Ranma was on the crew of the downed spider, smashing and kicking them aside before he reached for Ice. Another arrow smacked into his back right near where his hips began and he winced before reaching back and pulling it out. Another nearly found his eye, leaving a furrow right above it. In response Ranma ducked, pulling one of the White Walker's bodies over him for a moment as he dashed the blood out of his eye. He couldn't afford to be half blind now.
Thankfully because it was just a graze his healing ability kicked in almost immediately, closing the wound within moments. But by that point Ranma was already moving on.
The spiders were still moving around him haphazardly, try to keep their distance now their crews realizing that the spiders themselves weren't quick enough or agile enough to catch Ranma. Arrows fell like hail all around him yet despite this Ranma closed with one of them, Ice flashing out in a wicked arc.
"LKGHRAAA!" The spider let out a squealing sort of sound, one of its massive ice and steel legs cut straight through. Whatever magic had given the homunculi life they couldn't repair themselves with the surrounding ice or snow. And unlike most spiders, these didn't have enough legs to deal with the loss of one very easily. It remained upright, but it's movement was harshly curtailed.
And then before it could move away, Ranma had sliced the second leg. While the spider began to fall towards the ground, Ranma grinned evilly, dodging yet more arrows as in the distance the sun began to rise. You brought the wrong tools to this party! I just hope the rest of the armies doing as well.
By this point the wights, the remaining White Walkers, the giants, and the dragons had all moved out of this small encampment by the frozen shoreline. Moving through the rocky terrain they raced after the retreating archers as dawn began.
This pursuit was rudely interrupted when Hathan and Roger lead the Vale and White Harbor cavalry in slashing attacks against their front, which was mainly White Walkers and wights, the giants not able to keep up with them. Instead of closing to use their lances at point blank range, the cavalrymen would throw their spears overhand at the enemy, not doing much damage with them, but inhibiting their charge after the retreating archers.
The two groups of around 640 men each did this three times before Hathan, who was in overall command being much more levelheaded and less impetuous than Roger, blew his horn four times. The archers had reached the first entrenchment, the safety of it full quivers and the infantrymen.
As they retreated back the way they came, the two cavalry groups merged once more, showing the enemy their tails. Hathan and Roger now raced their horses along next to one another through the terrain, going as quickly as they could without worrying about their horse's legs breaking in the uneven terrain.
They nodded to Theon who stood calmly halfway between the first defensive position and the oncoming horde. Yet he wasn't there to attack the horde. No, he was staring up at the dragons.
Those dragons dove down towards the retreating cavalry, intent on using their ice breath on them before they could retreat into the protection of the archers. Not that the White Walkers were anything but confident, they didn't know anything about the human's army but surely they were outnumbered here, and of course there were the Giants to consider.
But when they dived down they met Theon Bowsinger, newly made lord of the new House Bowsinger by Royal decree, and his warcry was a scream of pure fury. "For Torrhen Karstark! Our bows sing!" With that he pulled his bow up, pulling back the powerful bow to its full extent and let fly within a bare second.
The arrow sliced up into the air as straight as he could make it moving with all the speed of a shooting star. It impacted his target, the first dragon's eyeball. Piercing it the arrow kept going, splashing out the back of the dragon's skull at the same time destroying its brain. Without even a death cry the dragon plummeted to earth, slamming into the ground right before the oncoming horde of undead and White Walkers, but they didn't stop their racing advance.
Before a second dragon could turn away, another arrow is in the air. But this one only impacted its eye ridge, it didn't penetrate, and it squalled with fury as it beat its wings moving higher into the air to join its fellows, seven in all.
Roger had wheeled his horse back around, coming up behind Theon and he shouted now, "Theon grab on!"
Theon turned, putting his bow over his shoulder for a moment and reaching out with one arm to grab Roger's own, letting the other man pull him into the saddle as Roger raced on. "How many times do you think you can do that?" Roger asked, staring at the trail ahead of them, directing his horse around some of the more obvious obstacles.
"As many times as I have to." Theon replied coldly. "I owe them a debt of blood."
"All the North owes them that." Roger said grimly. He shouted now at his men forcing them on. "Ride you horse humpers! Ride!"
Rather than presenting the White Walkers a single solid target, Ranma had decided to spread his army out, but not in a conventional way. He had devised a scattered defense in depth, creating earthworks which ranged from trenches to several large boulders pushed together to create raised positions for archers. These hard points were scattered over several leagues in every direction six or seven leagues away from where the White Walkers had been encamped on the shore.
He had also spread out his commanders, with Lord Rickard in charge of the Center, the Wull the right flank and Lord Royce the left, with orders to do precisely what his father had ordered the entire North to do at the beginning of the winter war: trade land for lives. Only a few of the archers' positions were such that a retreat would be impossible. The rest, the infantryman and archer commanders were all under orders to pull back from the moment they felt their position was untenable.
Such maneuvers would've been impossible for nearly any other human army, but Ranma had worked the Vale Lords and his previous commanders hard, instilling in them and their men a discipline that was as dangerous as any weapon. And he had the Wolfsworn, as he had said, a force of irregular infantry whose quality the other side simply could not come close to matching. Even the giants couldn't match the Wolfsworn, as evidenced by the first clash the giants had with the first of the human entrenchments.
This entrenchment was several dozen small trees hacked to pieces and stacked together between two large boulders. Over 100 archers from the initial attack had retreated to these boulders, with another 320 infantrymen waiting to defend them.
The wights struck it first and were repulsed, fire arrows and dragonglass arrows, dragonglass spearheads and daggers doing for them all. White Walkers too fell, killed by dragonglass arrows or simply falling back to trade fire with the archers while the rest of the horde slowed down somewhat, their forward momentum stymied here and elsewhere.
Then the giants struck, smashing aside a few of the men on top of the barricade, hacking and smashing at the wood of the barricade itself with massive cleavers. They killed over 20 men in as many seconds, but then Smalljon was there. He roared and hacked down with his greatsword from the position on the parapet. "The Giant's Fury!"
Like the wights and the other undead creatures dragonglass weapons hurt the Giants, but they could not kill them without it actually being a kill shot. Unlike the White Walkers themselves, where even a graze from a dragonglass weapon would at best paralyze them, at worst kill them painfully. And regular weapons couldn't do much against the giant's hide, even fire arrows couldn't hurt them much before they could put the fire out.
But Valyrian steel did not have that issue which was proven now when Smalljon's sword sliced cleanly through the head of one creature, cutting its brain in half before going on to amputate an arm. A quick return swing caught another giant, cutting its head entirely off in a show of strength that would not be the last Smalljon evinced in this battle.
He howled with laughter, roaring out "The Giants Fury, the Giants Fury for the King and Queen!" Smashing and stabbing, Smalljon killed every giant that came within range of his sword.
The giants actually recoiled from his fury. Quickly however the wights and White Walkers began to spread out to either side, trying to envelop the position. One of Lord Rickard's men, the commander of this position saw this and bellowed "Retreat! Archers first then the armsmen!"
The men complied, the archers from one side of the position retreating first, then stopping about 40 yards away to rain fire arrows down on the pursuing wights and giants as another hard point took them under fire as they came around the former position. The giants didn't seem to mind fire as much as the wights, they feared it in large quantities, but could put it out if it hit them quickly enough to not take any damage.
The other archers came next, racing past their fellows position to take up another point and laying down their own fire, as Smalljon and the infantry pulled back just in time as the first of the wights came around their previous defensive position despite all the archers could do.
All along the front this pattern was repeated, the humans trading their defensive positions and ground for causing casualties among their attackers. Sometimes it didn't work. Sometimes a commander didn't retreat quickly enough and sometimes the White Walkers came up to quickly, taking a specific position under too much fire with their ice arrows to let it retreat.
Yet even with the dead quickly rising to support them the White Walker army took far more casualties than the Royal Army. The battle became a grinding sort of combat, becoming general quickly as both flanks of the army's central position came under attack quickly.
Hathan and Roger quickly brought their men back and around, rearming with more dragonglass tipped spears, and they rode out hitting the attackers here and there as they tried to encircle this or that defensive position, protecting the infantry as they retreated, though the cavalry paid for it in lives themselves occasionally.
At one point however the dragons got involved again. They had been cautious for a time, Theon's easy dispatch of one of their number and wounding of a second had made them skittish, and their masters knew that the dragons were the easiest way to break castles in the future which made them precious now. But they sent them in again and despite the best the scattered groups of archers could do they wreaked havoc wherever they struck.
Theon killed one more from a position on top of a giant craggy rock which he had climbed with difficulty it being several stories high, drawing the attention of two more. They both turned to him and dove down from either side of him. Their angles of attack were such that Theon knew he would only be able to get off one shot before the other dragon was on him, either with its breath attack or with talon and fang.
Despite this Theon stayed where he was, waiting to get the first dragon in his sight. The dragon seemed to realize that it was his target, and began to veer off, its wings beating slowly to stop its swooping descent. Yet even so, it wasn't quick enough. "For the honored dead and for my king!" Theon shouted, letting loose the arrow.
It was a shot out of legend. The dragon had turned its head almost entirely away, pulling its vulnerable eyes and open mouth away from a clear shot. But even so the arrow hit its nearest eye, smashing through it and out the other side with all the force of a ballista bolt. The dragon plummeted sideways down into the ground, kicking up rocks and snow, smashing several wights to pieces at the same moment.
Theon had just enough time to turn and try to pull out his Valyrian dagger before the other dragon was on him, its breath trying to freeze his body cold. But before it could, there was a shout from below.
"The Sun of Winter!" And suddenly Edd was there, leaping up with all the force his legs could handle, thrusting a dragonglass tipped spear up and into the dragon's stomach.
Theon ducked aside screaming in agony as the breath attack hit his arm, smashing at the ice that grew there and wincing as both his coat and vambrace shattered from the cold of it as he rolled away. Even the skin had peeled away in places, but he was still alive. At the same time the dragon smashed into the boulder, knocking it on its side and causing Theon to fall to the ground with it.
Even with Edd's spear in its guts the undead dragon raised itself on its hind legs, breathing in deeply. But before it could use its breath weapon again Theo jumped forward, his Valyrian dagger stabbing it in the eye. For a moment he thought that the dagger wasn't long enough to find the thing's brain, and he thrust harder, Ichor and puss bursting out onto his hands. Then after a brief second it finally collapsed and went still.
Theon fell to one side gasping and grasping his wounded arm, staring in horror at the bleeding places where his skin had been pulled away by the shattering ice that had previously been his vambrace and clothing. Then he was pulled to his feet by Edd, who laughed at him. "A few scratches for not one but four dragons dead and one injured? That's a trade I'd make any day, Bowsinger!"
Theon would've smiled but he stared past Edd's shoulder up into the air, where there were still three dragons circling. Then he looked over at the mess they had made of some of the entrenchments and the men that had been there. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to pay that trade yourself would you?"
"I might have to," Edd replied seriously, before starting to pull Theon away as he saw White Walkers making their way through the boulder field towards them. "Come on! Fall back, let's get that arm some cover, and you some more arrows. This battle isn't over yet."
Hidden in the same hideaway Ranma had used to observe the White Walker army Daryn waited. He waited as the sounds of battle hit him and Fenris. Waited while Fenris moved off as quiet as a shadow, almost invisible even in daylight. Waited while the sounds of battle grew further away, gripping his longsword with both hands as he stilled himself to calm. Calm I need to do my part, let the Wolfsworn and our allies do theirs.
He remained even as the cold of his hiding space began to permeate his body despite his woolen coat and plate armor. He waited, until Fenris returned tugging at his sleeve. Then Daryn stood up, brown eyes flickering with berserk fire, the same fire that had befallen Edd a time or two as he nodded at the Wolf. "Let's go."
Fenris stared at the human, then showed his teeth in an answering wolfish grin.
With that the two of them made their way through the semi-abandoned shoreline, the entirety of the White Walker's army having moved off just as Ranma had predicted. The White Walkers didn't understand the concept of or need for a reserve force. They had thrown their spiders and other troops against Ranma, and then the rest of the army against the archers that had attacked them. Now all of that force was embroiled in the battle several leagues away.
But a small group had remained behind: the mages. Ranma had hoped that they had to be hidden somewhere nearby, the number of cadavers among the wights showed that they had to have some local source to amplify their influence. And Fenris had found it just as he had done previously. It was hidden in a small cave by the shoreline. It's entrance almost entirely frozen over by ice, but the interior was big enough for four White Walker mages to sit around a crystal much like the ones Ranma and Edd had smashed previously.
They didn't have any White Walker guards, instead this group had a giant defending it. A single giant was standing guard outside the cave now, a massive club in his hand, and an equally massive shield on one arm, something that Daryn hadn't seen before. Staring at the giant from over a small rise, Daryn cocked his head at Fenris. "If you take that thing out, I'll take the mages."
Fenris didn't bother to replied verbally, simply smacking him with its tail as he moved by before racing over the rise howling as he raced forward. The giant turned, bellowing its own fury at seeing a direwolf, lumbering towards the massive beast.
Daryn let Fenris to it, knowing that even if that giant was five or six times a normal giant's strength it wouldn't have any luck against the direwolf, which outweighed it probably 2 to 1, and was stronger besides. Instead he raced on, the giant actually ignoring him as he raced towards the entrance to the cave.
The ice underfoot came alive, spikes coming up at him but Daryn struck at them with his longsword and shield, blasting his way through, until he smashed his shield into the ice rising to cover the entrance to the cave. It took several blows to break, but when it did, he was able to leap inside just as his boots had begun to freeze to the ground beneath them. He rolled as he landed, avoiding several other ice spikes suddenly growing down towards him impacting the ground where he had been standing.
In response Daryn's longsword flashed out, catching one of the mages in the leg and cutting it almost entirely off. Whatever durability they had against regular weapons mattered not at all against Valyrian steel and that White Walker mage went down screaming as he clutched at the stump of his leg.
Two others turned quickly, moving away from the crystal, their metal cloaks glinting in the dull light of the cave as they pulled out swords.
One of them was older than the others, taller too, resembling the White Walker general that Edd had mentioned, something Daryn realized and he flicked his sword up in a mock salute, circling them both as they did the same, eyeing him warily. "Your friend down in Hornwood made ill-use of my brother-in-law Edd I heard. I'm afraid however he isn't a swordsman, while I, with all due modesty, am. Let's see how well you do here."
With that he charged, his looked longsword flicking here, there and everywhere as he roared, his voice echoing and re-echoing in the cave. "Righteous in Wrath!"
The two White Walkers fell backwards, one of them trying to move around Daryn but he quickly charged the other, pinning him and his blade against the side of the cave with his shield. Swiftly Daryn turned, dueling with the other sword to sword. Three clashes went by quickly, then a fourth, a fifth, and suddenly the White Walker's blade shattered under the Valyrian steel.
Daryn turned, ducking underneath as the one he had pinned to the side of the cave at last pushed his shield away, thrusting up with his sword. That White Walker died with the Valyrian steel cutting through his plate armor easily.
Then Daryn was forced to raise his shield which shattered at a blow from the White Walker's weapon, and Daryn winced as the metal fragments of his shield cut into his arm and face slightly. But they didn't have enough speed to do too much damage.
The White Walker general or whatever he was pressed forward quickly, trying to take advantage of Daryn's wounded state, but Daryn met him blow for blow, his lips a thin, cold smile. The White Walker soon became almost desperate, shouting something in the grating language of his kind to the other man.
Stalactites and stalactites suddenly grew, thrusting towards Daryn, but Daryn, dodged backwards, his sword coming up in a sweep that bisected some of them, then he kicked out sending the pieces at the warrior trying to engage him. Dodging around him he moved towards the mage, having to dodge several times again as the ice below his feet came alive trying to grow to impale him, and he winced as one spike of ice went through his foot.
Desperately the mage wielding the sword tried to engage him, but Daryn knew he was coming, and dodged to one side, coming around with his sword flashing out quickly. The White Walker couldn't get his feet under him after his desperate lunge, and Daryn's slice took him high in the neck, nearly cutting his head off.
The last mage turned to him, raising its hands and summoning up a cone of cold, but it wasn't powerful enough to do much but slow Daryn down. He winced as the cone impacted his wounded foot, but even so his sword came up and he thrust forward quickly, gutting the last mage.
Then he moved back over to the injured White Walker, who had been pulling himself towards the cave's opening surprisingly, only to stop as Fenris looked inside and chomped down, biting the White Walker's head off entirely before spitting it to one side. The direwolf made a face, and Daryn actually laughed, much of his fury leaving him. "Tastes foul, hmm? Doesn't surprise me, I don't think they are made of the same stuff as we are, and I don't mean mentally either."
Fenris nodded his heavy head then looked past Daryn at the large crystal. Daryn turned to look at it too, then shrugged his shoulders. "Longswords, come, longswords go." he said philosophically. "Even Valyrian swords."
He moved past Fenris, motioning him to one side then turned, changing his grip on his sword so that he was holding it as if it was a throwing spear. Then he threw back his arm and hurled it forward shouting "For the Wolf King!" Then he dove to one side as Fenris followed, covering Daryn with his own massive bulk.
The Valyrian blade smashed into the crystal, and there was an explosion of magical power which nearly buried the cave, shattering the crystal into countless pieces which flew in every direction with deadly power. When Daryn looked inside however he was astonished to see Woodhart sticking up out of the ground on the other side of the crystal.
It looked mangled, the blade warped and twisted, but intact. Daryn whistled shaking his head. "Those Valyrian's certainly knew what they were doing when it came to swords."
Elsewhere Ranma had finished de-legging the last spider and had been moving through the downed White Walker troops like a direwolf among chicken. The last few of them actually turned and ran, but Ranma was on them in an instant, cutting them down mercilessly. The last one died with Ice smashing into its back and through its chest pinning it to the ground like it was a butterfly on a wall.
At the same moment Ranma felt his bonded's exultation at a deed well done, and he howled in victory. He raised Ice into the air, connecting the Fenris for a moment. Now we join the main battle, and end this!
Hathan found himself unhorsed, his horse dying under him to a giant's blow. But he had thrown himself forward, smashing his dragonglass tipped spear into the thing's face, then whipping out his blade and slicing into its chest as he fell. He rolled on the stony earth for a moment, coming to rest and thrusting forward with his blade, destroying another giant's kneecap before turning away, bringing up his sword to block a battle ax a wight swung towards his face as another mounted armsmen's spear slammed into the giant's chest.
Nearby another armsmen had been unhorsed, the horse rising, the man lying where he fell. Hathan quickly made his way over and pulled himself into that saddle, hacking to either side of him as Roger sounded the retreat.
Suddenly the wights all around them fell, the magic in them unable to sustain them. The last three dragons and the giants however kept going, and there were still hundreds of White Walkers around.
Then there was they howl as loud as the loudest of horns and Fenris and Ranma struck the back of the army with Daryn, hacking and slaying dozens of White Walkers who had remained at the back of their army shooting arrows at the human fortifications as they advanced.
One of the remaining undead dragons turned and dove toward them, only to die as Ranma boosted Fenris into the air. The dragon tried to use its breath weapon on the direwolf, but the wolf dove through it, his fur glistening in the sunlight with the ice covering it, smashing into the dragon's face and ripping through from one side and out the other.
That left only two undead dragons in the sky. They both dove down, doing still more damage, but most of their intelligence seemed to have left them with the mages, and they got too close to the positions they were attacking. They did untold damage, but the arrows of the defenders did enough damage to their wings to force them to the ground, where Roger and Hathan met them, charging them from behind.
Smalljon saw the wights collapse to the ground and howled his own warcry. "The Giants Rage! The Giant's Rage for the king!"
He lost his sword then, the blade of it getting caught in a giant's club even as it knocked the club out of the giant's hand. The giant reached for him with both arms, but Smalljon roared in reply, gripping the thing's wrists right behind its massive fists.
The two of them held there for a moment, strength against strength, but then Smalljon roared again and ripped to either side, the giant's arms popping out of its shoulders. The giant had a moment to roar in pain and lean forward to bring its teeth to bare before Smalljon hammered it with a shield from one of the fallen armsmen, shattering its skull before picking up his blade and thrusting it deep into the giant's chest.
Across the field of battle the giants were the last to fall. The White Walkers, those that could, faded away, here and there in ones and twos trying to go to ground, trying to retreat, but there would be no retreat for them now. Fenris was on them hunting them down one after another, calling his lesser brethren to the hunt. The Giants however took quite a bit more killing until the last one fell to a massive overhand blow from Roger, which cut through most of its neck, at the same time another cavalryman lanced it from behind.
For a moment for several leagues all was silent save for the cries of the wounded and dying, and then there was a roar from thousands of throats as it dawned on the army that they had won. It would sink in soon however what this victory had cost them.
Casualties, despite Ranma's plan, were bad as they always were after a battle against the White Walkers. Of the remaining Vale forces, there remained 9,000 men, a horrible total considering the might that had marched out from the Bloody Gate. Two lords had also died, Tollett and Elesham.
The Northerners had fared somewhat better, but even they had been battered bloody. Rickard Karstark had nearly died, both of his arms shattered when he went toe to toe with a giant, killing the beast as its club smashed his arms to flinders. It would be a minor miracle if both arms didn't have to be amputated. Dozens of knights from House Manderly were dead, dozens of horsemen from White Harbor and Hornwood, and the Karstark, Woolfield, and Flint men had paid a price for the victory.
Yet because of Ranma's strategy, most of those losses were in wounded rather than dead, the wounded, the men retreating when they could rather than fighting to the death. Now with the battle over Ranma delved into the job of caring for those wounded, putting everything he had learned from watching Merry and his own knowledge to work in organizing the efforts, thankful for beyond words that Rickard had brought along several dozen of Merry's more experienced helpers with his forces. But even so he knew they would lose hundreds of the wounded in the next few days, and he began to set up a brutal triage to conserve their limited medical supplies.
As the sun was beginning to fall however Ranma was interrupted by Daryn coming into the tent he was working in, limping slightly on his foot, which he had personally seen to earlier. "Ships incoming," Daryn said with a grin. "Allies!"
Ranma left the tent, moving forward towards the frozen shoreline as he pulled out his Myrish glass. He lifted it to his eye and after a moment smiled. The ships coming towards the shoreline, slowly oh so slowly, were flying the flags of House Manderly, Blackwood, Mallister and several others while above them all flew the Royal standard. He then noticed on the lead ship a small, yellow haired figure. Seeing that figure Ranma let his spyglass drop for a moment, and sighed, thanking the old gods for this deliverance for his wounded.
Ranma and Merry stole a brief moment together later that night, hidden in a small out of the section of the camp with Fenris hidden nearby to smell anyone coming towards them. Merry started to explain she had remained in White Harbor, then came forward with the army which left the city the moment Saan had returned from his second run from Dragonstone. But she didn't even get halfway through before Ranma's arms were around her, pulling her into a hug and a kiss so ardent that it took her breath away.
He leaned back after a few moments putting his forehead against hers as he stared into her Jade eyes. "I don't care why you stayed back Merry, I'm just damned glad to see you. You and your helpers, you'll be the difference between life and death for hundreds, maybe thousands of men here, and that is a gift beyond price."
Merry blushed, leaning up to kiss him gently on the chin, then smirked, leaning back somewhat in his arms. "By the way, congratulations."
"Congratulations, for what?" Ranma asked, knowing full well that Merry wouldn't congratulate him for just his victory here. She all knew all too well the cost of such victories.
"I'd have thought that the messages from White Harbor to Hornwood would've told you." Merry said looking at him a little askance now. "Daenerys is pregnant, she stopped taking moon tea that night the three of us spent together in Maidenpool. She's about five months into her pregnancy, and she was showing the last time I saw her. I had to practically order Daenerys to stop flying with her little ones when she reaches her sixth month, just in case. She said that dragons were gentler to ride than horses, but…"
She trailed off as she noticed that Ranma looked as if someone had struck him in the head with a Warhammer. "What, really, I mean I knew Dae was going to stop taking moon tea, but, I, I am, I'm going to be a father?" He looked so ludicrously shocked and worried that Merry burst into laughter.
She shook her head after a few moments, smacking her hand on his chest and moving out of his unresisting arms. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I still have a lot of work to do." With a laugh she left him there, still staring at nothing, his eyes wide and unseeing as a feeling of profound joy rose within him.
"Strike while the iron is hot." Ranma said as he looked around at the gathered Lords, commanders, Wolfsworn of his army and Davos and a few captains of the Royal Navy. Time enough to think about being a father later, right now he had a war to win. "Your arrival Jason, Tytos, gave us enough men to not only leave enough of the army here to see to our wounded, but to also press the attack."
Both the River lords nodded, and so did Rickard fingering the stitches on his forehead where he had taken a glancing blow from a giant's club. "Agreed, and thy brought enough stores as well. But what happens after you take Skagos?"
"That is the question, " Ranma sighed. "If I have to, I'll leave the assaulting force in place as a garrison, but that'll be hard, dangerous work if the White Walkers are still able to send troops around the Wall."
"It can't be something that's easy for them," Jason said thoughtfully. "It has to be something that takes a lot of time, or the force that you destroyed here would've arrived long before you reached the Bay of Seals, and they wouldn't bother besieging the Wall at all."
"True, and it's obvious they weren't able to take whatever ship or whatever they did to Skagos to the shore here." Daven said thoughtfully. He nodded his head over at the three ships his fleet had captured. "Those are White Harbor galleys, and Theon said that they're the ones that he and his men took to Skagos. They didn't need to use our own ships and our own men to transfer their troops like that if they could've used their original transportation."
"None of the old records I've ever seen mentioned the White Walkers being able to put to sea at all, so that makes sense. And it give your idea about the Bay of Seals some weight as well, Robar." Ranma replied, nodding over at the old man. "But we're getting distracted. I want to leave within the hour." He held up a hand as many of the Lords made to protest.
"I told you, strike while the iron is hot! If they can't get more troops to Skagos, we might be able to take it without a fight, or we might find them trying to re-create their magical constructions there, and halt it before they can build up another army! Either way speed is of the essence. Davos, Jason, Tytos, get the fleet ready to move, leave as much of the supplies as you and Merry think is necessary for the rest of the Army, then we'll leave with the tide."
Knowing they were dismissed all three men nodded, bowed and left the tent. Ranma turned to Rickard, Edd and Lord Royce. "Lord Royce, I formally give you command of the Vale forces remaining to us. Once Merry is certain that all of the wounded can be safely moved, you'll take the Vale, Hornwood, Manderly, and Woolfield forces on a march up to the Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Don't push the men too hard, considering that my wife's probably already broken the siege your men might not be needed immediately there. Merry will stay with you to deal with your wounded."
One of the Vale Lords harrumphed shaking his head. "Tis unseemly, her and some of her helpers are all women! Our men are not all true knights my Lord, and they been on the road for months, you cannot…"
His voice trailed off, as every Northerner and Riverlander there simply stared at him. They weren't particularly threatening stares, but there was a certain penetrating quality to them that froze his marrow.
"I realized that we haven't been campaigning in areas where this was necessary my Lord." Ranma said softly. 'But perhaps I should make you aware of my policy against rape and molestation: execution. The penalty will be carried out no matter the perpetrator's identity or rank. I executed my own men for it, I executed Westerlanders lords and men for it, and if ought happens to Merry or any of her helpers, her bodyguard has full permission to do the same."
And it would still be kinder than what I'd do to you if aught happens to Merry while I'm away. Ranma growled, mentally shaking his head. I know leaving her behind, again, makes sense given the wounded, but I hate being apart from her and Dae. Hell, the two of them and the rest of my family! I am so damn tired of this war.
There were some grumblings about that, but not many. Though she'd been at work for only about a half a day by this point, Myrcella and her helpers had saved hundreds of lives and were set to save more from here on. And even the dullest Vale soldier (or lord) had seen the love and respect the Northerners and Riverlands men paid to the Maiden of Healing.
After that Robar grabbed his fellow Lord by the shoulder, and quickly ushered him out remonstrating with him in a loud tone that carried back into the tent for several moments, causing Ranma and the others remaining within to chuckle. That left Ranma with Rickard, Edd and the Wolfsworn. "Rickard, you'll take command of your own Houses forces and those from Flint and Cerwyn."
This would give the Rickard a little under 3500 men, each of those forces having taken a pummeling in the last battle despite Ranma's strategy. The spearmen in particular had taken losses, as had the armsmen of House Flint, nearly a fifth of which had died under the undead dragon's breath assaults.
"I want you to march down and retake Karhold, I only ask that you send the Cerwyn and Flint forces home afterward. They've paid enough in blood and lives for this war already, as have you."
Ranma sighed, reaching over to grab the older man's shoulder and staring him in the eyes intently. "I know that nothing material can make up for Torren's death, or the losses you sustained in Karhold. But I mean to at least try."
He let go of the man's shoulder and reached into a pouch, pulling out three scrolls he'd prepared long before this. Each of them bore the signet of the royal family. "This is a promissory note declaring that the royal family will pay for any repairs necessary to Karhold, Last Hearth, and Hornwood, and House Mormont's longhouse."
He frowned briefly, wondering what was happening on the other side of the North before shaking it off. "Those Houses, and your House in particular Rickard paid a heavy price for your loyalty to me and mine, and for your loyalty to humanity as a whole. It's only right that you get some recompense for that."
"This, is an order for a survey to be done of your lands." Ranma went on holding up the second scroll. "Any resources will be found, and further the royal family will pay to start such project up, though," he said smiled thinly "they will be taxed somewhat in the future if anything comes from it."
Rickard nodded, smirking a little at that phrase before Ranma went on picking up third. "And this, is part and parcel of the second. If a sufficient harbor can be found to start up a small port somewhere along the Bay of Seals, or where the Sun Stream reaches the sea, you will have Royal aid in paying for it."
Rickard took the three scrolls, tuckingthem into a pouch of his own. He knew intellectually that with these scrolls the future of his House would be all the greater than its present, and that in the long term the price in blood, death and dishonor would seem worth it. But right now, Rickard was simply tired of it all, and just wanted to go home.
"Thank you your Majesty, and thank you for your understanding. Will my son be coming with me?" He asked, looking over at Edd.
"Definitely," Ranma replied quickly looking over at Edd. "Edd, you've done your part and more since coming back to the North. And you're wounded, again." he said smiling thinly had Edd, who coughed and looked away, knowing how close he had come to death after the battle in Homewood from his wounds against that White Walker general. Something he had not shared with his father or brothers-in-arms.
"Go home, set your House in order, bury your dead, then do what you can to survive this winter." He gestured outside the tent, where it was snowing once again, and blisteringly cold too. Most of the guards and workers out there had to be bundled up in two or even three cloaks, with every extremity covered just as the men on the Wall had been doing for weeks or months, which made the loading and unloading of the ships a much slower affair. "Even if we beat off the White Walkers, it's going to be a bad one."
Despite Ranma's desire to move immediately, the fleet took the rest of the day and well into the next to unload enough supplies for those remaining behind. Still the ships eventually were able to pull up anchor and head out to sea.
But the army's delays did not stop there. What good fortune they had at sea with wave and wind coming up from the Bite left them and what should've taken a bare four days took them eight. This was thanks to the amount of ice floating in the Bay of Seals, and the snow storms that racked them occasionally. They didn't lose any ships thankfully, though several of them had come close a time or two of being capsized in a particularly hard storm that hit them about halfway to their destination.
Nonetheless, all the ships arrived, and with Fenris and Ranma going before them the Royal Army disembarked on Skagos.
To surprisingly nothing. Whatever the White Walkers had here, they weren't willing to try to contest the landing. Ranma frowned heavily, scratching at the stubble on his chin. Theon stood beside him, eyes narrowed and a dragonglass tipped arrow on his bow.
"This is the same spot you came ashore right?" Smalljon asked, coming up beside them, letting loose a hawser that he had been using to pull one of the dinghies into the shoreline.
"Yes," Theon said crisply. "The ice hasn't moved much further out to sea since then. Surprising, I would've thought it would."
"Whatever the case, let's get on actual ground, and quickly." Ranma decided. "We'll head into the woods and hold there while Jason and Tytos land the troops. I want to make certain that they can't somehow reverse their own powers or something."
"Er what? You really need help in communicating my friend, use your words." Daryn laughed, smacking him on the shoulder.
Ranma gave him the finger but nodded. "I mean, we know that their mages can make an area colder if they concentrate on it. If they can do the reverse they might be able to start melting that ice out there just as our troops are disembarking."
Roger nodded, and gestured his wife and the others forward, while Ranma began to bellow orders behind them to the men, slowing down the disembarkation so that the troops were spread out, not enough of them on the ice at any one time to either weaken the ice or provide a target.
But despite his concerns no magical assault revealed itself. The disembarkation went smoothly, and several hours later the men went to work on a large fort cut out of the woods nearest the shoreline.
Fenris and Ranma did not join this work however. Instead Ranma and Fenris headed into the woods scouting around trying to find anything they could about what kind of force the White Walkers had here. Twice they were attacked by small spiders but that was all.
Ranma was elated clenching his fist hard. Yes! I knew it, that force we smashed on the shoreline of the Bay of Seals, that must've been all they could muster up.
A few periods of the glass later however, Fenris found something else to explain away the lack of defenses. He found a dead direwolf and several dozen dead White Walkers. The direwolf in question was young for the breed, younger by at least a year and a half than the direwolves bonded to the Starks. The area around the dead direwolf and the White Walkers' corpses was shredded and mangled as if a battle had taken place.
Fenris nudged the dead direwolf rumbling sadly under his breath, then looked up at Ranma whining a little. Ranma understood, and nodded his head. Moving to a nearby dead branch then set it alight before moving to each body of the White Walkers in turn setting them on fire as Fenris let loose a howl.
It was a howl of victory and grief, unending as the tides, unyielding as the mountains. It reached every corner of Skagos, and was reverberated back to them in the throats of dozens of direwolves. Looking at his human even as he continued to howl Fenris opened up their bond, sharing the information the direwolves of the island shared with him.
The direwolves had felt the White Walkers arriving and had retreated everywhere they could, hiding here and there in the deepest, darkest places of the island, in the deepest, densest parts of the forest, where even the Skagosi never went or couldn't. They waited there, hunting only seldom, drawing no attention to themselves hiding in such a way that no human alive could've found them.
And even the White Walkers did not even realize they were still there. They thought the few that they had found and killed had been the totality of the direwolves on the island. Instead they had been sacrificed by the packs, those too old and infirm or infertile females.
Then at some unseen call when the massive force that had assembled here as part of the White Walkers second echelon was off, they attacked. They came out of their hiding places, stalking through the woods that they owned, more than any human could ever own them led by a female, a massive creature for the breed larger even than Nymeria, and they slaughtered every White Walker they could find.
Now the remaining White Walkers on the island, a bare two dozen or so, had retreated to the same village that Theon had found the Skagosi in, and were held up there, trying to send out messages. But any reinforcements from further north could not arrive here in time, and Ranma had destroyed the force that had been sent out already.
Ranma came out of their link with a gasp, and stood there a minute getting his breath back, shaking his head. "Avatars of the Old Gods, that was what you and yours were called ones Fenris, it looks like there might be more truth in that than most old sayings. And I think that's truer now than it has ever been."
He laughed suddenly, rubbing Fenris' ears occasionally as he felt his direwolf's interest in the female direwolf that led the packs against the White Walkers. "Leave it be for now you horny dog, I think we need to finish off that little pack of White Walkers first don't you? Then you can go courting."
Fenris huffed, knocking his head against Ranma's head nearly hard enough to knock him over, but nodded all the same. With that, the two returned to the rest of the army. When Ranma explained what he had learned the rest of the Wolfsworn simply nodded and muttered that it made sense, while the Riverlands lords and their men looked very disturbed by save for Lord Blackwood. Followers of the Old Gods, they were much more at home with the ideas of the direwolves being that intelligent even in the wild.
"What would you have us do Your Majesty?" Lord Blackwood asked formally.
"Send out scouts during the day, but not at night, forces of 10 just in case, and not too far out. The direwolves don't seem to be hungry, but they aren't pampered pets either. Fenris can control them to a certain extent, but I'd rather not have him push that too far."
"Not pampered pets he says!" Patrek laughed, pointing at Fenris. "And what you have to say about that, my four-legged friend?"
Fenris looked at the finger pointing at him, then bared his teeth and Patrek quickly pulled his hand back which caused Fenris to huff in laughter.
"Exactly," Patrek muttered, shaking his head the little. They all laughed, and Patrek made a mock salute to the direwolf, who simply nodded his head like a king getting his just do.
The next day as the rest of the army continued to make Camp Adamant, the name Tytos and Jason had decided on for the large fort, into something more permanent, Daryn and the rest of the Wolfsworn led a large force of Blackwood and Wull men through the woods. They quickly made their way through the island with Theon guiding them towards the village up into the mountains.
Occasionally they would see movement in the woods, flashes of fur and knew that it was the direwolves who had reclaimed the island for the animal kind. But none of them had a problem with it, indeed most of the men preyed on a nightly basis to the Old Gods, thanking them for their aid in this war. Each night the direwolves howled in response, moving through the woods around them almost like an honor guard now rather than sentries.
After weeks of hard travel Theon stared out at the village where his men and he had been seduced by the White Walker's womenfolk, his eyes and face bleak. "Feels like I've come full circle, sort of. I honestly never expected to see this place again."
"Is it just as ya remembered it?" The Wull asked, standing next to the Wolfsworn and staring hard out of the woods toward the palisade.
"They repaired the walls a bit, though I can't tell if they did the same thing to any of the houses on the other side. More importantly I'm counting an even dozen White Walkers on patrol along the parapet. Half of them look like those women of theirs too."
Nearby one of the Blackwood man whistled appreciatively as he stared, his jaw gaping open for a moment. "Damn me, they're gorgeous! Almost as sexy as the Queen."
"They'll turn you to their creature through your cock if you keep thinking with it!" Theon said sharply, turning it to the man, not noticing how his friends all exchanged amused glances behind him. The cost might have been high, but Theon had at last learned there were some prices too high to pay for wenching. "I only survived because of Ranma's training me for so long. Don't be fooled, that trick of theirs is probably their most effective. I'm just glad they didn't think to keep using it in the rest of the North."
"Arrogant of them." Daryn said, cracking his neck explosively. "Though personally I prefer a much more earthy sort of beauty, like my lady wife." He smiled, thinking fondly of Alys. Ranma had told him of his son, of how the toddler was seemingly a healthy child with a good set of the lungs, and it had made him yearn all the more for home. One more battle, he thought. One more battle, then I can go home. Rickard was not the only one who is weary of war.
Smalljon clapped Theon on the shoulder, while Hathan simply nodded, moving over to his horse and the front of around 600 cavalry. "Start the party Theon," Hathan Shieldarm said grimly. "Let's end this."
Theon nodded and the order was passed along the line. A second later more than a thousand archers began to set their fire arrows alight from small fires. Those fires warned the White Walkers that they were out there, and several dozen more raced to positions along the outer wall, while the cold air began to turn even colder, so cold that it started to hamper people's movements, but it wasn't enough.
Moments later, the archers fired, not at the White Walkers themselves but at the palisade. The wood was slick and frozen with ice and snow, piled halfway up the palisade itself, but there was still wood to be seen, and the arrows struck it here there and everywhere lighting the palisade, slowly but surely burning away the ice.
This attack continued throughout the day, the archers unceasingly firing not at the defenders who fired back at them with scant success thanks to the woodland. The snow melted, the ice melted, the palisade began to burn, and the White Walkers howled in their tongue with bitter anger and impotent rage as their defense began to crumble.
Then Smalljon roared out of the woods, covered by a few hundred all their archers, all of them now aiming with dragonglass arrows at the White Walkers around the gate of the palisade. Smalljon was not carrying his greatsword, instead he was carrying a huge hunk of wood, longer and thicker around than he was under one arm, racing forward like he was a one-man battering ram.
Which he was. He struck the door like one, shattering it off its hinges and then diving aside as the cavalry which had roared out of the woods behind him galloped in, longsword's out and seeking White Walker blood. "The Riverlands, the Riverlands for the king and queen! Honor's Shield!"
By the time Theon and the rest of the archers raised in after, the battle for the village itself was over. Hathan pushed his visor up, pointing his longsword with his other hand, it's blade streaked with yellow ichor, at the single longhouse in the center of the village. "They're hold up in there." He reported grimly. "Six or seven of them, all females."
He shook his head then, staring around at a few of the Riverlands men, who shuffled sheepishly in their saddles, the horses shying away in reply. "They seem to be able to cast some sort of allure spell, it affected our men before they could kill them. It got stronger where any of the women were together, hence why they were able to retreat at all."
"I'll handle this." Theon said grimly, shaking his head. "Daryn if you think you're up for it you can come with me as well."
Daryn nodded grimly. He fixed the image of Alys, brown haired, brown eyed, freckled, laughing,human Alys in his mind, his desire to see her, his delight in their courtship, their marriage, and their child. "I'm ready my friend."
Hathan saluted them with his blade, while Smalljon simply nodded. He knew himself far too well to have any illusions that he would be immune to the White Walker female's spells, and Roger wasn't there, remaining behind to command the construction of the fort.
Theon nodded, and Daryn and he strode forward, entering the broken shattered ruins of the doorway into the longhouse, pushing it to one side and entering the long hallway that made up the main room of the place. None of the White Walker females were there. "There are rooms in the back" Theon said calmly, pointing them out. "Set a fire somewhere in the supports, I'll be back."
Daryn nodded, moving over to a torch which looked to have been unlit for months, lighting it up with his flint and tender before moving on, while Theon stalked through the hallway towards the back and the rooms there.
Theon heard the female White Walker's before he saw them, screeching to one another in the harsh tongue of their kind. They were evidently having an argument, and Theon wondered for a moment if they were trying to place blame for this disaster, or trying to figure out what to do. Not that they have any options left but to die.
Stalking down the hallway Theon found the women all together in the chieftain's quarters. Moving next to the doorway, he chanced a quick look inside.
The White Walker female's carefully groomed good looks were gone now, and they stood snarling at one another. If Ranma had seen them then, their raging eyes, their wild unkempt hair along with their voices and skin color would have reminded him of banshees. Westeros didn't have any legends of such however, though they might start after this day's work.
Looking at them though, Theon still felt a faint stirring before he clamped down on it. No, no matter how tight their pussies, the price for sampling these bitches is too high by far. Time to make them pay instead for what they did to me and to my men here. With that, Theon girded himself and moved into the doorway.
Theon's first arrow took one of them in the eye, silencing her forever. Three more arrows left his bow before he passed the threshold of the door, and four more females died. One of them had been nicked by a dragonglass arrow meant for one of her fellows behind her, and she fell, screaming in agony as the dragonglass tortured her soul.
Out of arrows, Theon drew his stiletto, moving forward quickly his eyes bleak. In his mind Theon wasn't killing women now, he was exterminating so many rabid animals, and he meant to be done with it quickly.
One of the two surviving women however had different ideas. She spoke up in common, moving forward as her hands flashed. Suddenly her unkempt appearance seemed to fade slowly, leaving the beautiful woman who had seduced him in this very room so many months ago. "So, the conquering hero returns! You lived through something none of your race ever has before. You, you Theon Greyjoy, are destined for great things. I see that now, and I am sorry I had to test you so."
Theon stared at her, seemingly entranced, and the other female slowly made her way around the two of them, making for the doorway. The female in front of Theon moved towards him, sweeping her hair back to reveal her chest, barely covered by a thin white chemise. "I could guide you, you know Theon. I've dreamt of that night we spent together, you were magnificent, better than any of those so-called males of my own race. We could do great things together you and I, forge our own kingdom… Why should you or I bow to the whims of others, be it your king, or those who rule my own race?"
She held up a hand to the still and silent Theon, placing it over his chest plate while her other hand moved up to twin in his hair. She pulled his head down toward her for a kiss then gasped as something hard and sharp was thrust under her ribs.
"Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me." Theon said softly as the woman gasped and grunted as her life's blood, or whatever equivalent the White Walkers used, flowed out onto his hand. "Die bitch."
While the temptress fell to the stone floor staring up at him incredulously, Theon turned to chase after the last female. He stopped though when he saw Daryn in the doorway, the last female dead at his feet. The two men nodded at one another grimly and a few moments late Daryn and Theon left the longhouse. Several turns of the glass after that, the Army left while the village burned behind them.
At the same time that Theon was dealing with the last of the White Walkers, Ranma and Fenris made their way to the shore of Skagos facing northward. Fenris kept on looking around, his snout wriggling as if he was trying to analyze a scent, and more than once he went entirely rigid, staring out into the woodlands. But whatever it was that was bothering him, Fenris refused to answer any of Ranma's questions about it.
After two days travel Ranma and his bonded at last reached the shoreline. There they found how the White Walkers had gotten to the island in the first place, a massive iceberg at least five maybe even seven leagues in size. And there was another, even larger iceberg set end to end beyond that one.
As he and Fenris moved over the ice Ranma frowned, wondering if he could somehow burn the things. Maybe if I used wildfire or got Daenerys and her two dragons here… But even then it'd be a slow process, there's too much ice here.
That doesn't even consider the last problem, how the hell do I secure Skagos? I'd have to leave the entire army and the Wolfsworn here, and even then, if the White Walkers can swing enough of their main army around and out to sea they might not be able to hold.
As he was thinking that Ranma and Fenris made their way back off the ice and into the gigantic forest which dominated Skagos from one end to the other. He was still worrying about the problem and not coming up with any solution when a low growl came from his left.
Ranma and Fenris turned in that direction, and watched as out of the woodlands came a direwolf. It was a massive female, nearly as large as Nymeria and suddenly knowledge flowed down their link quicker than Fenris could control it. Ranma suddenly realized why Fenris had been so itchy the past few days: she was in heat, nearing the end of her heat cycle actually, and she hadn't been bred yet. The fact that, like wolves, direwolves mated for life and that she had never found a male worthy of her, also carried over in her scent somehow.
Frowning Ranma shook off Fenris' interest in the female, wondering if the heat was the only reason the female had sought them out. But the look in the direwolf's eyes carried far more intelligence than any non-bonded of the species should be able to convey. And then there's the way the direwolves of the island acted after the White Walker's second assault force left…
After a moment Ranma smiled thinly. "I think you're a messenger or perhaps a guide, is that right?"
The female direwolf nodded its head, and then turned twitching its tail in a way indicating then to follow. Ranma shrugged and followed, while Fenris eagerly hustled ahead, before pausing and moving slower, his mind overcoming his instincts. The direwolf female turned its head to look at Fenris, and again nodded its head before moving off, as if Fenris had somehow passed a test, which might've been the case, or might not.
It was obvious the female was interested in Fenris, or at least it was if Ranma allowed their link to open far enough to tell, but it was equally obvious it had a job to do. The female would do that job before having any fun, and appreciated that Fenris wasn't going to push his suit just yet.
They traveled for hours not because they crossed so much ground, but because the trees became so dense that going forward was difficult in the extreme even for Ranma who could take to the treetops. Here were pines and other types of trees which kept her leaves year-round. Here were weirwood trees, hundreds of them with their branches interconnected, drawing so close together that Ranma could barely squeeze between them.
Suddenly the going got easier. At the same time around them Ranma felt dozens of direwolves through Fenris' senses, moving through the trees as silently as only the apex predators that they were could. An honor guard, Ranma realized, just as Theon had on his march towards the village. Or perhaps witnesses? A few minutes later Ranma spotted several of them and noted idly that the female who had come to get him and Fenris was head and shoulders bigger than any of the others, marking her out as pack leader.
A few moments after Ranma realized that he stopped and stared. Ahead of them was a giant weirwood tree, nine stories tall if it was an inch, and longer around than most holdfasts. It was ancient, it's boughs drooping, yet it's sheer power could almost be felt like a physical thing, and suddenly Ranma knew something. This was possibly the oldest weirwood tree in existence, untouched by man for thousands upon thousands of years, as powerful alone in its ability to convey a message from the Old Gods as the entire Isle of Faces.
Ranma moved forward, noting in passing that while it had dozens of faces on it they didn't look to have been made by someone's hand. Rather they seemed to have grown out of the bark of the tree like the one in Winterfell. But these faces weren't as humanlike as that one was. They were mere shadows, their features indistinguishable but their presence undeniable.
When he was within reach Ranma stopped, then stretched forward to place his hands on the weirwood tree below two of the faces trying not to touch any of the faces directly feeling it would be disrespectful. Closing his eyes Ranma began to search out his senses for the Old Gods. How, how can I secure Skagos against further incursions, how can I do it to Bear Island?
The answer came to him quickly, a blast of knowledge: A scene of Ranma, Jon and Arya, kneeling on the shoreline, , placing seeds along the edge facing North, then of his sending his energy into one, the power moving from one to another. Then he saw his force leaving, the island losing any sign of human habitation, being left to the beasts of the forest. Then he saw another scene, of Ranma, older than he was now, kneeling with several young children in front of the weirwood tree of Winterfell. Both the aid, and the price for that aid in one.
With this Ranma knew what he had to do, and smiled grimly. I accept. With that oath given Ranma felt himself back out of the link. Almost immediately the weirwood trees all around him began to drop acorns.
At the same time the power which had compelled the female direwolf broke. She immediately launched herself at Fenris, and the two of them went down snarling and yipping, rubbing each other's scents all along their bodies before the female raced off, Fenris in hot pursuit.
Shaking his head at that little bit of drama Ranma moved around the woodlands, grabbing as many acorns as he could find among the loam. Hours later Fenris hadn't returned, and with a sigh Ranma made his way back out of the woodlands.
The journey took him until the moon was high in the sky, and by the time Ranma made it back to the shore, he knew it was pass midnight. Still, Ranma was determined, and retraced his steps all the way to the shoreline, where he picked up speed, surveying the entire shore before stopping at one place which faced out to the Shivering Sea.
From there, Ranma made his way westward, stopping and planting a seed every few hundred feet. It took him the rest of the night, but by the time the sun was rising, he had finished. His hands, despite his ki-toughening them, were red and painful, his knife, which he had been using at first having been dulled and then broken on the hard ground.
After a moment of simply standing and blowing on his hand, Ranma knelt down as he had seen in his vision. He touched the ground directly over the seed he'd just planted, then began to funnel his ki down into the ground. He had to do so for several minutes before he found the seed, yet when he did it was as if a dam in his head, a dam he hadn't even known was there, suddenly came down.
Oh you bastards! Just as fast as Ranma had realized what the Old Gods wanted him to do he realized that the Old Gods had been planning this for years. They had placed some kind of block on his mind, keeping Ranma from accessing his full life force so adroitly he hadn't even realized it, just chalking it up to his normal problems with projecting ki. It was a cold, harsh move which had cost Ranma hundreds possibly thousands of lives he could have saved through use of his ki techniques.
Yet it might just be worth it right now, even how much I hate it. All of his energy which had previously been dammed up inside of him, built up for years yet which he'd been unable to use now came out of him in a torrent. And somehow all of the seeds he'd planted seemed to be connected, taking of his energy to grow far, far faster than they ever should have in nature.
The process continued for hours, draining Ranma of all the horded energy of his body, then began to take even further, as the seedlings sprouted into trees all along the shoreline. It took and took until Ranma's vision began to fade, and he slumped to one knee. He tried to break it off, but the connection he'd forged, or possibly the will of the Old Gods, kept him there, kneeling next to the weirwood tree as it grew.
Ranma had no idea how long he slumped there unconscious, but when he awoke it was to Fenris lightly licking his face. "Gerroff," Ranma muttered, trying to raise a hand to push his bonded away only to realize he was too exhausted to raise his arm.
Even so Fenris moved away, dragging a carcass of an elk into view. The sight of the uncooked meat made Ranma's stomach roar louder than he had ever heard it, and he grimaced, before letting Fenris drag him away from the shore, deeper into the woods where the direwolf gathered enough fallen wood to build a fire. Ranma weakly set flint to tinder, then watched rather bemused as Fenris hurled the elk carcass onto the fire.
After a few moments the direwolf ripped off a chunk and brought it to him. As hungry as he was the meat was possibly the tastiest thing Ranma had ever eaten, and he practically devoured the whole carcass himself, not that Fenris seemed to care, having hunted for his own food with his new mate. As Ranma finished eating the female direwolf, who Ranma decided to name Lyanna if he could get her to respond to it, came out of the woodlands, curling up next to Fenris proprietorially.
Ranma smirked at the two of them, chuckling and sending a feeling of congratulations through his link with Fenris. Then sighing he pushed himself to his feet, moving through the woods on weary feet towards the shore once more. Everywhere he looked weirwood trees, young but strong, grew along the shoreline, and he smiled grimly. Now it's up to the Old Gods to keep the White Walkers from landing here again. More power to them say I, so long as they don't fucking take mine again!
The trip back to the main army took Ranma nearly a week exhausted as he was, but eventually he arrived back to the hails of his friends and lords. Explaining they were done on Skagos and that furthermore they had to pull Camp Adamant apart took some doing despite all the evidence of the Old Gods and magic his men had seen, and another few days went by while the army obeyed his odd order and Ranma recovered.
Then they put out to sea once more, heading to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with a new passenger. The female direwolf refused to be parted from Fenris and Ranma hadn't the heart to argue. Getting her onto the flagship took some doing but eventually she and Fenris were ensconced in his quarters, and the fleet was on its way to the Wall.
In comparison to Ranma's march and the battle on the shoreline, Daenerys and her forces had it easy marching up to the Wall. They weren't even attacked often because Daenerys had one dragon on patrol at all times, along with Meera and a few men she had trained to move almost as unseen over the lands as she could.
Whichever dragon was not in the air would rest in a massive specially made covered sled, made in the Last Hearth to a design that Bran had created after he learned that dragons needed heat on a daily basis to deal with the cold. It was pulled by five teams of trained reindeer, who handled the cold of the journey with an ease that made Daenerys rather jealous at times.
But with the reindeer and the way the road up to the Wall had been enlarged in the months before the winter war began, they made very good time despite the number of sleds with the army now. Most of the men with her were also on horseback with several remounts and sometimes they even tied themselves into the saddle to keep going at night.
Both Daenerys and Greatjon were consumed by worry about the siege of the Wall, and they knew they had to break it as quickly as possible. That was why Greatjon hadn't objected to the army taking nearly everything edible in the Last Hearth with them and hadn't even tried to suggest he should remain behind. Instead, he had left Willowtree behind and in charge of the defenses of his seat, a sign of his trust in the man who had taken over command of the defenses when Hother was killed during the White Walker's final push to take the castle.
Five times on their trip the dragon on patrol found and destroyed parties of wights. But not once did Meera or her guards see a hint of White Walkers. Not at night, not during the day. Daenerys and Dacey felt this meant they had pulled back up to reinforce the siege on the Wall, while Greatjon felt they might not have had enough White Walkers to spread them out around the more uninhabited areas of the North.
They marched for a little over two months from the Last Hearth up to Castle Black, so much time Daenerys was now into her third trimester of her pregnancy and could no longer ride her dragons let alone a horse. Yet despite their fears, the battle to relieve Castle Black was anti-climactic.
Sitting on the driver's seat of the dragon sled, Daenerys closed her eyes, concentrating on her link to Sunfyre and Rhaegon. She watched as they wallowed into the air, then rode their minds as they rode the wind, sending them forward from the rest of the army as Greatjon, Elia and Dacey prepared the army. With so few dragonglass spears and daggers to go around, they would have to rely on fire arrows and dragonglass arrowheads rather than hand to hand weapons to do any real damage.
Daenerys watched as Sunfyre and Rhaegon fell upon the attackers from behind, burning several dozen wights and White Walkers, swiftly creating a massive dead zone around the makeshift defenses of the beleaguered defenders. Then at her mental urging Rhaegon moved further abroad hunting any signs of movement in the surrounding area while Sunfyre circled the castle that really wasn't one.
Looking at Castle Black Daenerys shook her head, ignoring the odd look she got from the Stark drover sitting beside her.
How odd, it really is designed more as a barracks and training area than a castle, just like Ranma said it was. That lack of defenses facing south makes sense if you fear another Night's Watch King rising, but it nearly bit us in the ass here. If they had concentrated on attacking the Wall from behind, this war would already be over, and the Wall taken. That is a very scary thought, and something we might need to think about in the future if Ranma can't find a way to secure Skagos and Bear Island.
By the time the army was in sight of the battlefield, the battle was over and the siege broken by the dragon's sudden and seemingly unexpected assault.
When they arrived Daenerys and the army were greeted by shouts and cheers from people who looked as if they had been through sheer hell. She stared around at them, raising her hand with a faint, aloof smile, trying to let none of her shock or horror show on her face. Every man and woman there was gaunt to the point of emaciation having lived in starvation conditions, their eyes wide and desperate in their dirty, gaunt faces.
Daenerys spent a moment to order her two dragons into a manger that was currently empty, and then set several Stark men to cover the open entrances to the manger to keep in the heat before following Dacey as she and Greatjon cleared the cheering, boisterous crowd out of the way, making for the tower. Inside she was not met by Lord Commander Mormont, but Tyrion Giantslayer.
The Imp nodded at her, holding out his hand to shake the Queen's. Daenerys shook it gravely and said simply, "My army is laden with as much food as the Last Hearth could spare, along with fresh meat taken on the hunt in the past two days. You'll need to set up plan to distribute them, and order as many hunters as you can out to augment it now."
Tyrion was a ghost of the man he once was. His normal finery hung loose on his small spare frame, his face, which had once been lively and intelligent, looked almost like that of a ghost with sunken cheeks and skull almost visible through his skin. He nodded his eyes lighting up with something well beyond eagerness, an almost desperate hunger in them, his shoulders slumping in a relief so strong it was almost palpable. "You're a Seven-sent miracle Your Majesty, I swear it's enough to make a believer out of even a sinner like me."
He laughed, and Daenerys allowed him to do so as he led them through the tower, though she noted how brittle, almost manic his mirth sounded. Almost as manic as the cheers outside.
Eventually Tyrion stopped laughing, shaking his head, and when he looked at her, some of the edge of hunger and exhaustion had receded in his eyes. "The entire wall was possibly another week, possibly two weeks from running out of food entirely. And for over a month that food's been mostly bowl's o' brown that reminded me all too well of what the smallfolk served to one another in the poorer portions of Kings Landing."
Daenerys nodded. "We'd feared that, which was why I decided to start marching up here after liberating the Last Hearth rather than try to link up with my husband and his army. Tell me, what's been going on here? Other than the siege, how have they been attacking you?"
"Other than keeping us from refilling our larders after an initial hard push the siege became small-scale attacks here and there for a time. Then they learned where the weakest points of the Wall was, and began to hammer them. But we responded to that and they were forced to spread out once more."
"Weaker parts?" Dacey asked skeptically from where she was walking next to Daenerys, ready to aid her if the pregnant queen overbalanced on the stairwell they were currently walking up.
Tyrion shrugged, waving his stump in the air. "The Wall is magical, not just an engineering feat but a magical marvel, ancient runes of power are embedded along its entire length, but some of them have failed over time. Those places let their creations the dragons on the Others come within contact of the Wall, where elsewhere they wouldn't be able to."
"Your losses?" Daenerys asked softly.
"As our men weakened from hunger, our losses mounted whenever they sent a serious attack in. Our losses haven't been bad, we've lost more men to famine and disease than outright attack. Still, the Night's Watch is a shell of the force it was. My own order's lost a bare two hundred men or so, and the other Houses are pretty much the same."
Tyrion frowned heavily, his eyes darkening. "The losses among the smallfolk has been much worse. We had to execute several dozen people for resorting to cannibalism, and there have been several food riots here in Castle Black, which I had to put down harshly which caused several hundred deaths among the smallfolk that retreated here."
"But they haven't reached the Wall." He gripped Daenerys' arm, his eyes feverish and his hand shaking a little. "And that is the main thing Your Majesty! They have an army out there, the size and power of which you can't believe without seeing it. If they had gotten on the Wall with even a 10th of it, they could've swept us aside. But we've held, by the Old Gods and the New, we've held, and with your arrival we'll keep on holding!"
"You have my Lord," Daenerys said with a nod. "And you and every man who served here will be rewarded accordingly. You will be paid as the Royal Army is paid per day, with an extra gold dragon for every man and woman for every week of the siege."
Later that day Dacey and Daenerys made their respects to Lord Commander Mormont while Greatjon organized another convoy back down to the Last Hearth to start bringing up coal. The old man had survived but was too weak to get out of bed at this point the lack of food hitting his old body hard. Others however had simply died of starvation, including the former maester of Castle Black, which caused Daenerys a bit of grief when she heard about it. She had so looked forward to speaking to him, and now that time was gone.
Nonetheless, more food quickly came in as hunters denuded the nearby forests of every animal they could find, with more being shared out along the Wall with the other castles quickly. The next day Daenerys began to move from one castle to another with her little ones, destroying the besieging force here and there and everywhere on the southern side of the wall, but she never let them fly further north, fearing they could be overwhelmed by the undead dragons out there.
When she first saw those things through their eyes Daenerys nearly lost control of both her dragons, even the normally well-tempered Sunfyre, when pure rage ripped through their minds. It was on an order of magnitude greater than their initial reaction to the White Walkers attacking the Last Hearth, as if that anger had been more a mental thing, this was an emotional response, a reaction to this bastardized version of their own might and glory.
Twice as she made her way along the Wall those dragons attacked the Wall, and her little ones ambushed them in turn, slaying two of the undead dragons by overwhelming the larger magical constructions before retreating back over the Wall to those areas of the Wall where their enemies could not travel. This seemed to send the White Walkers into disarray, the entire army falling back, into the Whispering Wood, only their siege engines and a few guards remaining visible.
Soon enough Daenerys and her retinue arrived at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, which was placed under Greatjon's command now the men he had brought up with from his House joining their brethren. Daenerys ensconced her dragons there, in a large stone stable, while she herself was given the commander's suite for her own use. There she waited with baited breath for news of her husband and his army and from White Harbor as well.
While the siege of the Wall had broken and the war to the east was seemingly winding down, the siege of Bear Island was also coming to an end, but it looked to be an ending in favor of the attackers. The reinforcements of the White Walkers had arrived, and almost immediately began to attack the keep. Lady Maege immediately ceded the palisade around the longhouse to them, retreating in good order to the longhouse's roof.
While doing so she had fired the palisade, catching 4 of the 10 giant spiders leading the assault, as well as a few of the Giants. But the two dragons cost her dearly on the retreat, her archers simply unable to do anything about them. Even fire arrows only seemed to annoy them like so many bee stings, and their breath attacks and claws had slain several hundred men as they retreated from the palisade.
Now they circled up above the longhouse, waiting until the fire of the palisade died down. Behind that fire the remaining giant spiders served as raised platforms for their archers, which began to duel with her own at long-range. They caused few casualties however, and led a very uneasy life thanks to the ballista on the roof aiming for the spiders. Two spiders had 'died' to its fire before their riders realized the danger. This left only four of them moving around out there, serving as mobile archers platforms for their riders.
Luckily the palisade's fire wasn't going to die down anytime soon. The palisade had been made of wood, both green and not, and had been kept relatively clear of both ice and snow since Maege and her men had fallen back to it. Its feet had also been liberally lathered with fish oil.
Even so, Maege and every surviving defender knew it was only a matter of time. The dragons could attack now, but for some reason the White Walkers were keeping them back, waiting until they could support the giants and the rest of their land-based forces. She watched as several of her archers tried to fire arrows up at the dragons only for one of them to veer off avoiding them easily. The other simply ignored them, the arrows smacking into its underbelly and wings before bouncing away without any effect.
Maege shook her head, thinking of her grandchildren and the other children especially the youths who had stayed to fight, and knew that they would never see another sunrise. That her House would die here, only for all of them to be rise up once again to serve their enemy. If I had a single dragonglass dagger to me, I'd start killing my own people right now to save them from that she thought grimly. Simple death is one thing, serving the White Walkers after death is entirely another.
Shaking her head Maege ordered half of her men down below to get some rest, pulling her cloak and hood around her as she chose a corner of the longhouse's balustrades, leaning against it and closing her eyes. She idly thought about the dead drop that guarded the front door, thinking it ironic that he would probably split stand everything the White Walkers could throw at it, only for the longhouse's roof to fall above it to those damn spiders, which could easily just drop White Walkers or giants onto the roof.
Thinking about that and other, even odder thoughts mostly of what might have been Maege fell into an uneasy dream while the fires of the palisade slowly died down throughout the day and night. The dragons kept circling, and the White Walkers kept sniping, but nothing happened throughout the night save for another spider losing a leg to a ballista bolt. The sound of its screeches didn't rouse Maeve, though they did affect her dreams.
The next morning Maege was woken by a roar from the scrubland behind the wall barricade, which had burned down to nothing through the day and night. There stood the giants, the White Walkers and a few hundred or so wights, along with the remaining giant spiders which would along with the dragons be the true doom of her longhouse.
As men began to race up onto the roof all around her Maege spoke in a deceptively calm tone. "I want half of you archers with fire arrows on those spiders, maybe enough fire will deter them just like it did with the palisade. The rest, fire arrows on the giants, ignore the wights! Armsmen hack at anything you see coming over the balustrade, but beware of elf shot!"
She stared up at the dragons, wondering what kind of plan she could make for them then shouted. "A hundred men stay with me in the center here, your job will be to aim at those dragons which come within range, maybe enough fire arrows will deter them. Aim for the head and the eyes if you can!"
That was as far as Maege got before the White Walkers attacked. The White Walker's spiders led the way, stepping over the giants and wights, while the archers on top of them fired over at the longhouse roof. Men fell screaming as the elf shot hit. Then the two dragons came in from the east and west and Maeve knew that she and her house were about to die.
Deliverance came suddenly and without warning from the south, the area of the woodland nearest the shoreline. It was segued by a bolt of lightning coming out of a clear sky to slam into the face of one of the dragons, which exploded in a blast of gore.
From the woodlands to the south of the longhouse came a shout from thousands of throats. "Honor above all, the Reach and for the king and queen! For the Iron in our blood!"
An army suddenly appeared there coming out of the woodlands and forming up in the scrubland around the longhouse with Jon Stark at their head. He raced forward with Ghost, Arya, Nymeria and surprisingly Edric beside him howling the battle cry of House Stark. "Winter is coming!"
Jon howled as the last remaining Dragon drove down towards them, while behind them Asha pointed her mighty finger again. All jokes aside, that glove and the blessing of her god make Asha a very scary woman.
In emphasis to his thoughts another bolt of lightning lanced out, striking one of the giant spiders. Unlike the dragon which simply lost its head, the spider's entire body imploded like a giant overheated steam kettle, slaying its crew instantly and painfully. While the snow and ice that made up its body dissipated in that broiling heat the metal shattered, flung every which way like a catapult stone breaking upon impact, sending shards of stone every which way.
Only this time it was steel not stone. Another spider collapsed to one side its legs and body riddled with the shrapnel, its crew dead along with several dozen wights and White Walkers on the ground. Even a few giants collapsed to the ground, their hearts and head gone.
Jon had no time to marvel at the efficacy of that one shot. He simply pointed one of his blades ahead shouting, "Concentrate on the giants! I'll take the dragon!"
He was answered by a laugh from Arya, who suddenly cut to one side, racing towards where the dragon was turning around to bring its breath to bear on the approaching army. "I think not brother, you just stay here on the ground where you like it, I'll handle this!"
Edric looked at her aghast and made to follow but Jon shook his head, and Nymeria quickly cut him off. "Leave her to it lad, she's the best we've got for fighting an airborne enemy, we've got other things to attend to." Above them another lightning bolt lanced out, killing the last giant spider. But Jon knew that was the last time Asha would be able to use her magic for a while. Now the army was on its own against the rest of the White Walkers' magical forces.
The dragon flew low, strafing the side of the army with its ice breath, not heading deeper into it for the moment, while its masters analyzed the weaponry of that army, trying to determine if it had dragonglass. After a moment seeing through the dragons eyes they saw no dragonglass among the regular troops and pushed their undead minions and creations forward accordingly.
This dragon however would not have any time to benefit from that knowledge because it had flown low enough for Arya to jump up and grab one of its trailing back legs. Not being alive the dragon didn't feel it, and Arya pulled herself up until she was standing on its large back then began to stab down into its back with Fang. "Die creature!"
But Fang was no Valyrian blade, nor was it made of dragonglass. It couldn't do much damage until Arya found the thing's spine which took a few precious seconds, during which the dragon had used its breath weapon again.
As men died below them Arya hacked into the thing once more and suddenly the dragon felt pain! It had lost feeling in its hind legs, and it roared, turning its head around to stare at whatever had caused the pain. It saw Arya and began to open its mouth, but then Arya lunged forward, her feet leaving the dragons back as she did so, her arms at full extension with Fang held in both hands before her. "Winter is Coming!"
The dragon reared back automatically and rather than the open mouth Fang cut into the outer edge of its maw, and up into the mouth from there. It reared back, pulling Arya with it but she refused to let go. It whiplashed from side to side trying to loosen the blade in its mouth, but Arya didn't let it. Latching her legs around the dragon's neck she ignored the scales cutting into her leggings, pushing forward with all her might even as the dragon continued to spiral upwards.
The dragon lifted up its arms, reaching at Arya and slashing at her. But Arya moved this way and that around its neck avoiding the claws, wincing as the scales cut further into her legs and the cold of the air around them began to penetrate. Even so she still thrust Fang upwards, trying to drive the blade up through the thing's mouth and into its brain.
One of the claws caught her back, and Arya grimaced in pain as it opened up the lizard lion armor. But it didn't penetrate deeply enough to cripple her and a moment later she had thrust Fang up to its hilt finally finding the thing's brain. It immediately began to fall like a rock.
Turning Arya got onto the things back as it continued to drop downwards, and she frowned, speaking to herself for a moment, her words whipped away by the wind. "Perhaps I didn't think this all the way through…" A second later the dragon crashed into the snow and earth below.
Arya was flung free, and she cursed luridly as she slammed once, twice, five times like a skipping stone over water before she came to a bumpy landing against a tree. Groaning she pushed herself up, shaking her head as she stared at the battle, and then decided that just this once, she could sit this one out and leaned back against the tree again.
With Jon and the wolves disrupting the giants, the glaives went to work both on them and on the White Walkers. Hundreds of men fell to the White Walkers, their speed and strength beyond normal men, but the glaives ability to slice off limbs, a few Valyrian blades, and Dawn proved effective enough. By the time midday arrived, the battle for Bear Island was over.
Jon leaned heavily against the carcass a downed giant, staring down at one of his twin swords both of which were covered with yellow Ichor. "Note to self, White Walker bodies may be immune to regular blades, but their eyes are not."
He looked up as cheers and shouts of "Stark, Stark! The North!" Abounded from the longhouse. He waved his twin swords in the air for a moment, which caused the roars to double in volume.
He was about to move in that direction when Arya limped were over towards him. "You think you have problems?"
She was leaning heavily on Edric, who was bearing up easily under her slight weight. He nodded at Jon, who nodded back, raising one of his blades in a swift salute.
Dawn and Edric had both proven their worth here. White Walkers might die from Valyrian blades, but the moment Edric had pulled out Dawn, any White Walkers who saw it had actually recoiled in fear. Valyrian daggers and swords could kill them, but dragonglass could kill them painfully and apparently so could Dawn, only even more so. Several times during the battle Edric had injured a White Walker only to watch as it died screaming. Even the giants weren't immune to it, and his presence had possibly kept the casualties among the regular armsmen down to a somewhat manageable level.
Arya held up the broken hilt of Fang, shaking her head. "That damn dragon bit my sword in half!" Jon stared at her, then around at the battlefield as he thought about all the politics crap he'd had to deal with, and how much easier the actual battle was. Then he began to laugh and he only stopped when Arya smacked him upside the head several minutes later.
About a week after leaving Skagos, Ranma and the rest of his army arrived at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. He was greeted there by fanfares and trumpets, but more importantly by both Merry and his wife, who was very visibly pregnant. Ranma carefully hugged Daenerys to him, laying his hands gently on her distended stomach, staring into her violet eyes. "Daenerys."
He packed her name with as much emotion and love as he could and Daenerys actually shivered in his arm for a moment in response while Merry laughed quietly nearby. She had gotten her own such response from Ranma weeks back, and then again from Daenerys when she arrived here in Eastwatch a bare few days ago.
"Ranma. I missed you sorely my love." Daenerys said, and Ranma laughed nodding. She kissed the side of his face lovingly before whispering. "You got here in good time, Merry and her female aids believe that I'm four weeks at best away from giving birth."
"Then I arrived at the perfect time." Ranma said smiling. "Now, I'd actually like to get out of this wind if it's all the same to you two, I presume we've been given quarters." Later on in their room Ranma and Daenerys pulled Merry into a three-way hug and then Ranma gave both his loves a tongue lashing, toe curling kiss. He pulled back with a sigh, chuckling at how Merry looked so wobbly on her feet as Daenerys simply leaned against his shoulder breathing deeply. "I missed you both so much!"
"And we missed you, but we had to part, you are right about that back in Maidenpool. We all did more good separate then we could have done if we stayed together." Daenerys replied, before turning to make certain the door to their room had locked behind them.
Their Lords let Ranma have some time with his wife and Merry, assuming that since the queen was too far along her pregnancy for their reunion to become physical and that Merry was close enough to both that her remaining with them was simply a sign of that friendship. They exchanged tales, with Ranma being particularly interested in how Daenerys broke the siege of Castle Black and what happened afterwards with the White Walker's army while Ranma absolutely astonished his listeners when explaining what it happened on Skagos.
"I don't like it that the White Walkers pulled back so quickly." He mused. "That disturbs me."
"You mentioned several times in your own tales that they were susceptible to casualties. Could they simply realize now they'll never get past the Wall? Could they be looking for other ways around the Wall?" Daenerys asked.
"No, they're not done yet. Have we heard from Bear Island?" Ranma replied.
"We have a brief raven message from them. It appears that rather than stay in the south as our Hand, Jon came north with a significant sized force from the Reach. Including Arya, her betrothed Edric Dayne, and Margaery Tyrell, who, in Jon's words, he has an 'agreement' with." Daenerys smirked while Ranma laughed, glad that bit of conniving had played itself out as they expected.
But when Daenerys went on her voice was serious. "There were some other things he mentioned, including a mention about the Iron Islands and Asha Greyjoy coming with them, and an Archmaester Martyn who wishes to put himself at our service. Garth Hightower is leading a decent sized force of Hightower men from Deepwood Motte up to the Wall as an honor guard for him, though how quickly they'll move through the mountains and the Wolfswood, or even if they can, is anyone's guess."
"But Jon's already stated he'll remain on Bear Island with is main force against any further invasion attempts from the Frozen Shore. We'll get word to him about what you did on Skagos, and see if he and Arya can reproduce it." Daenerys finished.
"Agreed, but for now, I think we'll need to be prepared for another push here." Later that day Ranma made that point to his lords, though many of them weren't convinced. After, of course, giving his condolences to Harrion Karstark, along with Greatjon and meeting with Tyrion briefly.
"Surely my lord the White Walker's won't wish to lose any more men in a battle they can't win. If the force here on the Wall know that the siege is broken and more aid has arrived, will they really through good gold after bad? I would think with the regular physical defenses of the Wall any such idea would be insane." Tytos said.
"I don't think the White Walkers are actually insane, but they are determined. They'll come after us again, especially now the magic in the Wall has weaknesses. Has something been found about that?"
Lord Commander Mormont and Tyrion both shrugged. "We've been searching all the castles for any information we could find about them, but we haven't had any luck. None of the surviving records mention anything about them, and only Castle Black has any records at all."
Ranma frowned. "I hate to suggest this, but when I was passing through the Neck, Howland's son Jojen mentioned a vision he had. Apparently the boy's been a sort of seer most of his life, only as events piled on one another before the war his visions began to get more and more imprecise. Still, he mentioned a stone in Castle Black, and the dragons, not certain what the connection is there, but it's something at least."
"We'll concentrate our search in Castle Black, but we haven't found anything yet." Tyrion said despondently.
Ranma nodded, but went on. "Just try your best. In the meantime, I want the Royal Army spread out along the Wall, rotate as much of the defenders off as you can, get the castles that you were previously using and the lands around them built back up." Many of those castles had to be cut off entirely from the ground below, in order to keep the White Walkers from getting up onto the Wall due to too few defenders. "But I want every commander to know that at least two-thirds of his force is to be ready to defend the Wall at all times."
That very evening, as portions of the royal army were dispersed along the Wall Ranma's prediction was proven correct. In the dark of night, with the moon blocked entirely by clouds, the White Walkers made their move.
Whatever else could be said about them, the White Walkers were not stupid. They learned and they knew tactics if not strategy. And they had magic, which is what they began the battle with. The snow slowly falling from the sky suddenly became ice as a wave of fear and cold hit the Wall.
These physical representations of the White Walkers magic represented the massive thrust of their magical power hitting the weakened Wall with everything the White Walkers could muster. Knowing that their new tricks had failed to allow them around the Wall, the White Walkers had become desperate. Hundreds, thousands of magic users from the most powerful to those who had been sent forward with the army, most of whom were mere journeymen, joined together in small groups scattered everywhere along the wild North Beyond the Wall.
The runes, which had been too long without their power being renewed, began to fade here and there at this sudden and overpowering assault. Not all of them, and not all at once, those runes on either side of runes which had been damaged or lost all their powers over the years faded most quickly, while others faded slowly, if at all.
It didn't matter however, the White Walker warriors and the army had their orders. Out of the Haunted Forest came practically their entire land based army, thrown directly at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. This sudden and overwhelming attack pulled the entire remaining Royal Army up onto the wall directly in front of Eastwatch and to the west of it for three castles, along with all of the nearby forces which had already been on the wall.
The siege weapons on both sides fired, and the undead dragons began to attack wherever they could. The White Walkers wights and spiders moved forward, and men, undead, and a few White Walkers began to die.
The dragons were the most dangerous threat. They slaughtered many of the defenders, now able to land in scattered areas cleared of the magic that had kept them back. But they were met by the Wolfsworn. Theon Bowsinger killed several before they could land, and when they did, the Wolfsworn Greatjon and the others who wielded Valyrian blades met them head on.
The sight of this fearlessness rallied the men, and those with spears quickly got into the habit of rushing forward if it looked as if a dragon would actually come within their range. The undead dragons were not actually very intelligent and often would come within range of the humans' spears even if they were just trying to use their breath weapons. Many an undead dragon died that night on a dragonglass spear-tip wielded by a common-born infantryman.
The giant spiders also were a major threat now because now they were able to climb up the Wall's northern face. Wildfire and siege weapons killed hundreds of them, but those that lived to get up the Wall deposited White Walkers directly onto the Wall's massive parapet. And again it was proven that White Walkers were simply faster and stronger than normal men. They lacked the defenders organization however, and could not match the Wolfsworn, Fenris or his mate up close and personal.
Hundreds of men died in that fight, and more broke, but the Wall so attacked held thanks to the Royal army and the Wolfsworn. But this attack, for all its force, was but a feint, designed to pin the human reinforcements in place to allow the true attack to hit the humans where they were already weak.
Several dozen dragons, their backs heavily laden with White Walkers, flew up so high into the air over the Wall that they were practically out of sight from the Wall below them, then, several turns of the glass they dove down like raptors seeking prey on Castle Black.
The first sign their plan might fail came in dragonfire. Five of them died as the others scattered, fear of the fire of the real dragons which burned both undead dragon and passengers alike filling them before their masters could regain control and force them down.
Six of them turned heading toward the two living dragons, which quickly ascended into the sky, knowing as Daenerys did that height meant life in air combat. Linked to their queen's mind as they were, Sunfyre and Rhaegon danced in the air, working in tandem a linked team their opponents could not match.
Rhaegon and Sunfyre had originally come out of the sky to the south having flown out from Castle Black the moment the drums had warned of the attack. Daenerys had originally intended to use them to both make certain there weren't any more White Walkers south of the Wall waiting for this attack, but at Ranma's behest she had kept them in the area after that rather than send them east towards the attack.
Ranma had studied the White Walkers, and knew that misdirection came naturally to them, and so would be the tactic they would use if given the chance. Every time they tried to fight humans straight up they lost, at least in this war. Misdirection, feints, and ambushes were where the White Walkers were strongest, and while the Wall made ambushes practically impossible, and they could no longer go around the Wall, misdirection was still possible.
This was why Ranma was at Castle Black too. He stood by Tyrion and Lord Commander Mormont, staring up at the dragons. And this time fuckers, I've got enough ki to use my attacks as often as I want. "Ready yourselves my lords. The Wall stands, tonight and every night after the Wall Stands!"
His cry was answered by a roar from several thousand throats and arrows arched into the sky at the descending dragons. Many of those arrows didn't actually have arrowheads, instead they carried small pouches of wildfire. When they hit, naturally the wildfire ignited, and the undead dragons burned.
"Direwolf's Claw!" Ranma shouted, again and again, slaying more than a dozen undead dragons and their riders before they could land on the parapet. Only nine of the undead beasts landed successfully, but that was enough to bring more than 270 White Walkers onto the Wall. Men began to die all around Ranma and he nodded at Tyrion grimly. "Good luck Imp, see you at dawn!"
"Aye your grace, I've already got a wench picked out to celebrate seeing another day!" Tyrion laughed, and he raced forward with Bronn a shadow in the dark following as Ranma made for the nearest dragon, Ice out and ready.
With the last of the dragons facing them dead, Daenerys called back Rhaegon to the small prepared stable while she, Elia, Meera, and several dozen wounded searched the castle. Daenerys, concentrating as she was on her two little ones, was next to no help, and indeed had to be led along by Meera. Daenerys had no idea why she thought they would find something Tyrion, Jeor and all their searching hadn't before, but she also knew they were in dire straits right now, and needed a miracle.
Indeed, the battle to the east had become vicious by this point. The sheer number of White Walkers and wights assailing the Wall, the spiders and their ability to climb it now, and the dragons were taking a bloody toll on the defenders.
The defenders organization and the Wolfsworn were now able to keep the White Walkers coming across from the giant spiders at bay, and indeed more of them were dying well short of the parapet now, rocks and rubble tossed over the side did for those. The defender's catapults and wildfire were also taking a horrible toll on the attacking horde.
But the mages controlling the dragons had learned to keep them away from the Wolfsworn, and were slowly learning to keep them out of spear range. Giants too had begun to appear, being up to the parapet by the giant spiders. And whenever a group of White Walkers made it onto the parapet, the death toll among the defenders was horrendous, made worse when those they slew rose to serve them.
If not for the Royal Army being there the Wall would soon have been lost, which would become a mystery in the future: why didn't the White Walkers attack en-masse earlier than this, before the full Royal Army could arrive? Many historians came up with different answers, but none could really come up with an understandable answer. The best guess was they didn't really understand or care about the humans being reinforced, or they had hoped to take the wall without a full frontal assault, since even without its magical defenses, the Wall gave its defenders an almost overwhelming advantage if they had the numbers to man it.
None would ever know the real reason: that to the White Walkers, the Wall was a mere beginning. They wanted to crush the Ancient Foe, the Starks and their allies in one battle, break their morale, and regain that feeling of fear and awe that was as important a weapon to them as the magic which allowed them to raise the dead.
That fear and awe had taken a major hit with every victory the humans had won, but it all centered on Ranma, Daenerys and the Wolfsworn. Killing them would allow the white Walkers to regain that fear and behead the human resistance at the same time. And it wasn't like those in command of the White Walkers cared about the warriors dying in their hundred this day, or about any of their creatures.
Cutting down another White Walker, Ranma grounded Ice between two stones of the parapet, leaping up onto its pommel then into the air, bringing his hands forward. "Direwolf Claw!"
Another dragon died, and Ranma remained in the air for a moment to shoot off another ki attack at an undead wyvern, for that was what Daenerys called the undead dragons having noticed how different they were from her own 'little ones', that was trying to get behind Sunfyre. He wondered where Rhaegon was, but decided Dae must have decided to rotate the dragons.
Ranma approved, since this fight looked to be a battle of attrition rather than shock. Thinking that and feeling a faint lull in the battle around him, Ranma landed by Tyrion and his second-in-command, whose name Ranma could never remember. "Tyrion, pull half of your archers back, rest them for now we'll go with resting a fourth of our men every hour for your own men, and every four for my own. Then I want two squads of ten sent out in both directions along the Wall."
Tyrion nodded, pulling out his sword from a White Walker who had been unable to dodge his attack, its leg having been impaled right under its strange black armor by another warrior's spear. "You want to know where else we're being hit? We heard the drums from the east but they could have thrown some more attacks like this elsewhere."
"Yeah, but I also want to know where the magic of the Wall is still active. If we can pull men from those sectors to where the Wall's magic is weakest, we might be able to start getting some force parity here." Tyrion didn't know the words force parity, but he understood their meaning, and simply nodded, moving off quickly.
Ranma turned to Jeor, frowning at the old man who really should have sat out this battle. Despite a few weeks of good food, the old man hadn't recovered his strength from the siege he and his men had faced, and he was gasping now, the Valyrian bastard sword Longclaw dipping down to ground itself on the stone of the parapet.
"Jeor, I want you to pull back around two-hundred of your men who're most tired, we'll keep them back for now as an emergency reserve."
"Your Majesty, that will leave you badly understrength on this section of the Wall, and the runes here are failing even now!" Jeor said, gesturing to one side. The light of the runes could be seen here and there moving along the Wall, but here in front of castle Black itself they had gone dark quickly after the drums had warned of the attack further east.
"I know, but the White Walkers seem to've realized their attempt at a feint failed, that means they'll keep pounding us with smaller forces, try to wear us down here and to the east as well, so we might need those men later on more than we do now. Besides, I hope to bring in more forces from the west if possible." Ranma had not met Val, but had heard good things about her from Tyrion and Daenerys, who had, and if her part of the Wall wasn't under attack, the wildlings could certainly be of help here.
Just then a hail of arrows soared up onto the parapet, killing several down men as the crews of four giant spiders fired up onto the parapet from where they had been unseen far below the light of the torches. The defenders, even Ranma, had concentrated so much on the undead wyverns they hadn't even seen the giant spiders climbing up the Wall until they were in position.
At the same time the dragons which had been circling and trying to draw Sunfyre away from the Wall north turned and raced down. Even while Sunfyre slipped in behind them and flamed two of them out of the sky the others landed wherever they could along the wall, disgorging White Walkers and a few of the undead giants.
"Shit! Tyrion grab your fucking archers and push them to the parapet. Patrek grab a few or your men and start heaving rubble over the side. Lord Jeor, looks like…Jeor? " Ranma frowned turning back to Jeor and stopped speaking as he saw the Old Bear, his body slumped around an arrow that had caught him in the gorget, punching through his armor.
As the battle raged outside, Daenerys took a moment to come out of her trance partway, having just ordered Sunfyre to switch off with Rhaegon. Rhaegon had far better combat instincts than Sunfyre, and she had become an expert at riding the rage and fury both dragons felt fighting the White Walkers and their creations.
Looking around she shook her head at Meera and Elia and the men of House Cerwyn, who had served under Kyle Conton before their injuries took them off the Wall. "We're running out of time I think. Whatever magical attack the White Walkers have used is spreading. If the magic of the Wall falls completely, the White Walkers have the forces to spread us thin, then break us."
The queen who had faced more battles than any woman of her line had ever faced before shivered, her hands going to her belly and the life within. "We could very well lose this war unless we find this damn stone Jojen Reed saw in his so-called visions."
Meera nodded while the men grumbled and muttered among themselves. Most of them were missing limbs, or had fared even worse than most under the siege conditions, and so couldn't really do much in combat, but even so being sidelined like this was hard for all of them.
Elia watched them all carefully, very wary about three women being alone with so many men, regardless of how honorable they were supposed to be or the ladies station.
But Meera had her mind on other things, staring around at the deep basement the group had been trying to explore, with somewhat limited success. "You know, I think we might have been going about this the wrong way." As Daenerys raised an eyebrow the younger girl went on. "I mean, Ranma said Jojen's vision showed one of your dragons breathing on the stone? Well, can your picture even Sunfyre being able to fit down here, even if you could convince them to try?"
"I can't believe I didn't think of that." Daenerys scowled angry at herself, not Meera. "So what we're looking for is either part of the keep itself, somewhere high up, or on the first floor of the basement area."
Elia frowned, turning back to the conversation. "Someplace hidden in plain sight perhaps? Yet I have no idea where that would be."
"The King's Tower." Daenerys said, definitively. "It makes the most sense, either there or in the Lord Commander's tower, but that tower's been in use for decades, the King's Tower hasn't been. Even when I arrived I didn't move into it, though I could have. We'll restart the search there."
Meera and Elia both nodded, and raced out of the vaults through the Shieldhall and out into the snow covered ground, using the tunnels dug through the snow to move through the courtyard. They had to wait until the men with them broke open the door which was frozen solid. The gate and lock had also rusted in the centuries since the tower had last been used.
Eventually, as the battle on the wall became more desperate however they broke through. The men spread out quickly, while the three women stayed together, heading up to the top. They found their way blocked at several points, but eventually they were able to get up to the small chamber that visiting kings must have used to hold court in.
A large oaken chair sat on a small dais at the end facing several large murder holes, set rather closer together than most Daenerys had seen before, while the frayed remains of a carpet could still be seen on the ground covering the area between the doorway and the 'throne.' Several piles of dust and remains could be seen here and there along the walls on either side showing where four large tapestries had previously hung.
On the hard stone of the walls were carved several direwolves and dragons, along with lions, roses, and other heraldic symbols taken from the powerful Houses of Westeros. The carvings had survived the centuries far better than the rest of the finery in the room had, though given how many centuries it had been Daenerys thought that should have been obvious.
"It's here," Daenerys murmured. "Somewhere in this room, I just know it! Spread out, look for any kind of stone that seems out of place."
Meera shook her head moving forward quickly. "Remember what Elia said, hiding in plain sight?" She pushed the oaken throne backwards, and underneath it was a large stone of purest black, so black it seemed to suck at the torches she, Elia and the few men who had followed them held.
"That's it then," Daenerys murmured, closing her eyes. "I think those murder holes are large enough, so…" She reached out for Sunfyre, leaving Rhaegon to this own devices entirely for now.
The larger of her two dragons was having fun, dancing and slashing in and out of the undead wyverns. His fire and mobility gave Rhaegon an edge over their numbers, while his greater strength allowed him to both retain and regain the height advantage that was life or death in midair combat. None of the undead wyverns could match his ability to come out of dives or move as fast.
Sunfyre came out of the shed, and instead of joining the battle high up over the looming Wall made for the far smaller Royal Tower. His claws allowed him to actually hang onto the side of the tower as he put an eye to one of the murder holes. Seeing Daenerys inside, he stared at the large black stone she gestured at. Then he waited while Daenerys, unwilling to risk her unborn child to dragonfire, joined Meera, Elia and their men in the hallway. Once they were all in place, Sunfyre breathed in deeply then let loose a torrent of fire through the murder hole he had previously been looking through.
The fire seared through the murder hole and across the small throne room, impacting the black stone and moving over it, but something odd happened. Instead of hitting and splashing as fire normally would when impacting stone, the fire that actually hit the stone vanished, sucked into the black stone. Then runes or red, gold and blue began to appear all along the stone, intertwining and then disappearing into the stone of the tower, which, though no one had ever thought about it for centuries, backed up against the Wall.
In the battle more than one White Walker warrior frowned, feeling something on the edge of their senses. But they didn't have the training necessary to understand what it was. Nor did they or their opponents, pressed hard now as more giants were brought up by the monstrous spiders, notice how the blood of those who had fallen began to be somehow sucked into the cracks between the stones of the Wall.
But they definitely noticed when the wards, which had been losing power as the magical pressure on them continued, began to flare back into life. The warriors cried out and those that could began to retreat, while those that could not, died. All along the Wall the wards reactivated slowly but surely. Here and there those runes that had been damaged flared up darkly, not complete by any means but still powerful enough to join the chain of the magical defense.
Powered and renewed by the blood of those who defended it and the fire of the dragons they flared up for those with eyes to see, cutting off the White Walkers influence from further north. Those surviving wights south of the Wall collapsed where they stood, dead for real this time. Yet they died without pain, the magic in them simply cutting off, like those undead creations stuck on the Wall. Not so the White Walkers caught on the Wall. The White Walkers died where they stood, screaming in anguish until they collapsed into fine ash.
The White Walkers lords were not fools. They stared through the eyes of their fellows nearest the Wall, and seeing that brimming energy decided. At some unseen signal the entire army began to retreat from the Wall, leaving behind their dead and undead creatures alike.
Ranma saw this, and laughed loud and long, raising Ice high in the air. All around him the men began to cheer, as they realized that the Winter War was all finally over.
Of course, life was never as clean as that. Plans had to be made for the Royal family to head back to Winterfell and the disbursement of the army. With the Wall once more empowered as it was, it no longer needed as large a defensive force. "I think we've earned a few months of simple family time." Ranma said, later that evening, as he held his wife to him in their giant bed in Castle Black.
Her belly was such that she could only sleep on her back, and even that was rather uncomfortable, but there was nothing wrong with her mind even so. "I think everyone else in the army could use the same my love. I've already sent orders to Eastwatch and Ser Davos to prepare the Royal Navy. They'll be taking the Vale Lords and the Riverlands lords' home. The Vale Lords have proven themselves in this war, and…"
"And the Riverlands forces have been almost as true to us and our cause as the northern forces. And have much further to travel to go home." Ranma finished. "But we'll retain the Dornish and Reach forces on the Wall and Bear Island. Just in case, and they have the most to prove I feel. Though with Jeor gone Tyrion will be in charge of the Wall's defenses.
Bear Island though is still vulnerable until we hear that my siblings have been able to somehow do what I did on Skagos there. We should also leave the Wolfsworn, or at least those Wolfsworn who aren't needed at home by their wives. Roger needs something to do after the death of his wife, and Hathan can stay with him, though Smalljon will have to go home with his father to help rebuild their lands."
Roger's wildling wife had died in the final few moments of the battle on the Wall, unwilling to retreat despite having been wounded early on. Roger was crushed by it, and desperately needed something important to concentrate on. He was also a good organizer and tracker, and would serve the defenders here well.
"Yes, House Umber, Mormont and House Karstark. I heard you rewarded House Karstark for their loyalty, and I know your mother plans to arrange a marriage between a Mormont girl and Bran, just like Rickon and Katarina Cerwyn. But we'll have to think of something to do for House Umber."
"Not really," he said with a shake of his head. "Give them control of the Long Knife and the canal, give them a percentage of the taxes from the goods traveling down it, and a new title, defender of the Gift say, and House Umber will be happy."
"And of course paying for the repairs to their seat," Daenerys murmured, nuzzling into his shoulder.
The door opened then and Merry walked in, smiling at the two of them before closing the door behind her and quickly moving to the bed. Getting underneath the covers she began to pull off her clothing one piece at a time tossing them to the floor by the bed, laughing as she noticed Ranma's rising excitement. "You two have been thinking somber thoughts for too long, I think it's time you concentrated on something more important don't you?"
Daenerys smiled at the two of them, she was too far along to join in of course, but that didn't mean she wouldn't like to watch the two of them. "I quite agree my love."
Later that night Ranma slept with his two ladies asleep against his shoulders, smiling. The Winter War had ended, humanity was victorious and so lived on, and a new life was on the way for the new royal house.
There would be other songs to sing of the royal family and their allies, other problems, other wars. Not only against the White Walkers, but Essos as well, since winter would soon hit that continent as well, and just because Skagos and Bear Island were protected from the White Walkers new and surprising tactics of using icebergs, did not mean that Essos was. And Westeros of course had other issues, other problems that would rear their heads occasionally.
But for now, as Ranma said, they had won some time for themselves and for their families. And really, what else could anyone ask for?
Woot. Just woot. I had a devil of a time coming up with ways to make all the battles in this chapter different enough to not make them the equivalent of rinse/repeat. I realize that I could have gone into detail, put in a lot more scenes here and there of character interaction or about logistics or about travel in winter or any number of things. But I wanted to show war and how this war was different from the ones Ranma and the others fought before, and how alike it was in other ways and felt that I had done enough character interactions before this chapter.
I also know some people will think I should keep going, showing the rest of winter, the problems it causes, the news of the Golden Tooth running out of gold, the Essossi issues, the last Greyjoy brother being hunted down like a dog and possibly his horrible, horrible death. But I am just burned out on this world. Too much war/politics is not a good thing, and this, when the main reason Ranma was brought to this world has been dealt with, was the right place to stop. And indeed this was where I wanted to end it when I began this story, before I realized how many other plots I'd have to introduce over time. I hope you all enjoyed it even if this ending doesn't tie things up in a pretty bow.