Chapter 25.

A few days had passed and Tyrion, Bran and the rest were preparing to return to the Wall. Samwell was going to meet them partway and they would bring the Horn of Winter back to the frozen North.

It made Tyrion twitchy to have an object capable of destroying their greatest defense so close to it. But, the young Greenseer insisted that it was the only way possible to summon the Giants. The same magic that kept the White Walkers out would also keep the Horn from working properly.

"I'll have to be on the other side of the Wall before I can begin.", Bran said.

Tyrion nodded at that. As someone who had always relied on learning and logic, it was a bit of a relief to see that even the supernatural followed certain rules.

Just as he was turning to leave, a thought occurred to him. "Bran, if the White Walkers cannot pass the Wall, how was a group of them able to attack Winterfell?"

"One the reasons that the Night King pursued me is because of my ancient lineage. Bran the Builder of House Stark directed the raising of the Wall and our blood was shed on the very foundations, mingling with the sorcery. If he had been able to enslave me, the the Army of the Undead would have been able to ignore the magical defenses."

"But," Bran continued, "The Boltons are-"

He broke off and began again with a certain amount of satisfaction, "Were just as ancient a family as the Starks. They too helped to build the Wall and they shed blood on it as well. And, with Ramsay Bolton among their ranks, the Others and the Wights were able to pass."

Ironically, because the Night King was busy with Bran, he was unable to take advantage of the situation created by Ramsay. Even for inhuman immortals, life had moments of missed opportunities.

And then, Bran said the oddest thing of all. "I feel sorry for Ramsay and all the rest of the Boltons."

That earned an incredulous stare from Tyrion. In an age of impossibilities, this sudden sentiment ranked near the top. "Why, in the Seven Hells, would you say that!?"

"Part of being a Greenseer is reliving ancient memories of your ancestors. I've seen visions of my father as a young man. If I push hard enough, I can see even older events." The boy's eyes grew clouded as he recalled things that had happened decades ago.

"The Boltons have their own share of Greenseer power. And, I think that the Night King was a Bolton. That would explain why so many of them become twisted monsters." Bran shuddered. "I hate to think of what their dreams were like."

Tyrion suppressed his own shudder as he rolled the notion over in his mind.

He had spent his entire life cursing his father and his sister. Now, for the first time ever, he realized that there were even worse families in the world. In a way, that was an even more bizarre concept than that of Dragons and White Walkers.

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In Winterfell's Courtyard, Magic and Destiny were being ignored in favor of the more pressing issues of Young Love and Flirting.

With an afternoon free of work, Pod, Bronn and Arya spent the time in sword practice.

The sell-sword was particularily impressed with the young wolf-girl. Despite her noble background, she had a bigger murderous streak in her than any ten guttersnipes from Flea Bottom.

Ally showed up to watch and, when Pod got nicked on the arm, insisted on bandaging the cut. This was an involved process, during which she managed to "accidentally" brush up against him several times.

Just as she finished, Ally suddenly said, "Wait a moment, I think you have another small cut on your scalp." Jumping onto a convenient horse mounting block, the young lady began a minute inspection of the top of Pod's head.

Of course, this position meant that her chest was now only a few inches away from his face. And, despite the cold, she was wearing a low-cut dress underneath her shawl. "Um...", he mumbled nervously.

"No cut, my mistake." Hopping back down, she favored Pod with a sunny smile. "See you all at dinner. Roast goose! Jelena's been showing me how to cook. It's going to be really good."

As Ally rushed off, Pod saw that Bronn was giving a look that was halfway between amused and impatient. "What?", he asked.

"What the bugger are you waiting for? Are you going to fuck her or not?"

Pod's eyes flashed with anger and the young Knight opened his mouth to say something. But, then he hesitated.

"Well?" Significantly, Bronn grasped the handle of his dagger. "Gonna tell me to watch my words?"

"I think she'll say it better than me."

Turning, Bronn met the eyes of Arya and decided that the boy was right. The Stark girl had a death-glare that rivaled Lord Tywin's.

Her stance was relaxed and ready to kill. And, the tone of her voice matched her stance when she said, "Don't talk about my friends like that."

Matching her quiet menace with his own, Bronn gave Arya a slow grin and asked, "Do you think you can take me in a fight, girl?"

"No. Which why I won't fight you."

"If I want to kill you, I'll poison your wine. Or, I'll stab you in the back next time you're with a woman. Or, I'll shoot you with a crossbow when you're on the privy taking a shit."

For most, hearing words like that would have been the end of a friendship and the beginning of an enemy. For the sell-sword, knowing that Arya meant every word of what she said only increased his liking of the girl.

With equal parts of mockery and respect, he bowed low and said, "M'lady, I shall watch my fucking manners."

To give Arya credit, she didn't look smug or crow in satisfaction. She simply nodded and said, "Thank you."

Looking past Bronn, she added, "I would've said it differently, but he's right. Pod, you need to decide what you want."

Further conversation was curtailed by the arrival of Gendry, who was delivering freshly forged swords. Arya went over to talk to him and somehow transformed from a remorseless killer to a shy young teen during the short walk over.

Bronn shook his head as he watched the pair awkwardly flirt. "I don't know if that's the luckiest bastard in the Seven Kingdoms or the unluckiest."

Slapping Pod on the shoulder, he said, "C'mon. Dunno what you're going to do about your girl. Don't really care, either."

"But, M'lord always says "Everything's better with some wine in the belly.' " Bronn started for the Main Hall, trailed by Pod. "We'll have a drink while you figure it out."

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They started for the Wall the next morning.

Before leaving, Pod met with Ally and (With many stops, starts and fumblings) explained the decision that he had come to.

Because of her position within Lord Tyrion's Court, if he started something with the young woman, it would have to end with marriage.

(Not to mention the fact that, if he trifled with the blonde's affections, Arya would probably kill him. Painfully. )

Pod ernestly told her that he did like her, but he wasn't certain that he was ready to be wed yet.

The girl was quiet for a long moment and the young man cringed inside, terrified that she was going to start crying.

Instead, Ally smiled sweetly at him and said, "Very well. You can help me choose somebody else."

Completely nonplussed, Pod looked at her blankly. "What?"

"Men can wait until they're thirty or forty to find a wife and no one thinks twice about it. If a woman isn't married by eighteen or twenty, she's an old maid." Ally cocked her heaad as she regarded the other man. "I'll have to marry somebody and you know about all the Knights and Lords in the North. So, you can help me choose."

"Now, I prefer somebody tall and dark. He does not have to be dark, but tall is a must. No insult intended to Lord Tyrion. In fact, if he has a scar like Lord Tyrion, I'd like that. Also-"

Bewildered, Pod listened to the list of desirable traits of Ally's potential new suitor and asked himself, "What just happened?"

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Tyrion laughed his arse off when he heard this latest development.

"That girl is much more clever than most would expect.", He told Arya. "Either he decides that he truly doesn't care and he'll genuinely help her. Or, he'll have to win her back to keep her from someone else."

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Among those who left Winterfell was Ailwin Frey.

Up until now, Ailwin had been milking his broken leg as an excuse, even though it had long since healed. Now, he said it was good enough for regular work and was immediately put into the supply train heading back to the Wall.

In a world full of master schemers and intricate plots that spanned decades, the young was unique in the unformed simplicity (More like stupidity) of his planning.

Follow the Lannister. Steal the Horn. Figure out the rest of the details later.

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Sam met up with them when they were only a few days out.

Jon hugged his friend tightly and then had a good look at him.

Oddly enough, Sam looked like he had lost weight. But, that may have just been Jon's imagination. More than anything else, for the first time since Jon had met him, he simply seemed to be comfortable in his own skin.

Gilly and Little Sam had taken to living in Braavos like ducks to water. A similar level of ease and success was present in Older Sam's project of getting the Maester's books preserved and copied.

Now that Lord Tywin had given his blessing to the project, hundreds of volumes of ancient knowledge were being sent to Braavos. Sam was having the time of his life cataloguing all of them.

Jon caught the unspoken undercurrent that his friend was finally getting the respect he deserved and was pleased.

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The Horn of Winter was spectacularily unimpressive, completely failing to live up to it's fearsome legend. It just looked like a dirty old hunting horn.

Tyrion stared at it. There was absolutely no hint of power about it and he wondered if the myth was simply a tale and nothing more. The boy vouched for it, but still...

On the other hand, Tyrion reflected smugly, sometimes the unimpressive can accomplish miracles.

Shrugging, he ordered the Horn to be guarded around the clock and left to attend other business.

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A representative from the Printer's Guild had also arrived from Braavos, bearing the latest figures. And, the news was not good. Sales had dropped off precipitously in the last few months.

Sweating despite the cold, the young man (Obviously expecting to be the scapegoat) explained that many of the churches that bought religious tracts had started building printing presses of their own. The Guild could enforce a monopoly in Braavos, but not in cities that were thousands of miles away.

Unlike the Drowned God's Wine, the Iron Bank did not own a share of the printing and couldn't be bothered to go after any imitators.

Tyrion tapped the sheet of figures thoughtfully. "I see."

"Scholars and learned men are still buying books, but I doubt that those sales will grow much larger." The Braavosian spread an assortment of the new religious books in front of Tyrion.

While sifting through them, one in particular caught his eye. "What is this one?"

"That volume was published by the Bearded Priests of Norvos."

Once a year, the Free City of Norvos held a festival which featured trained bears dancing down the Sinner's Steps. The cover featured a comically drawn bear and the insides were rendered in the same artistic style, telling the tale of a young bear learning to dance for the first time.

Tyrion knew very little about the Religion of Norvos. Even the name of the god worshipped by the Norvoshi is known only to initiates. He did know that they practiced ritual flagellation as part of their worship. Which explained the book, as somebody in the church hierarchy apparently decided that they needed to seem more innocuous in order to get more converts.

"Mostly drawings and very little writing.", he mused as he leafed through it.

"Most people simply do not know how to read, M'Lord."

Leaning back in his chair, Tyrion mentally chewed it over. Almost as an afterthought, he told the Guild Member that he could leave and the young fellow gratefully fled.

Pod came back in and began refilling Tyrion's goblet.

"Knowledge, Pod, is just as much theft as it is inspiration. Someone learns about a good idea, steals it, puts their own addition on it and sends it back out into the world."

"How one reacts depends on one's nature. The Maesters hide their knowledge obsessively. My father would have any thieves brutally murdered." Tyrion smiled and said, "Myself, I shall simply steal the idea back."

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The obvious solution was to produce original content. Various theater companies cheerfully copied from each other all the time. However, as long as one kept ahead of the curve with new plot additions, the customers would keep coming back.

Tyrion liked the concept of combining art with words and started right away on creating a lurid tale of adventure that would capture the imagination.

Truthfully, he welcomed the distraction. One of the perils of having skilled commanders was that it left much less for him to do. Also, he was keeping his drinking to a (By his standards) minimum, whoring was out of the question and gambling had become tedious since he began owning racetracks.

In hindsight, Tyrion was frankly astounded by how much time he had spent on debauchery.

A round of storytelling would be a decent antidote to boredom.

Far, far away, in the most remote depths of the frozen North, there was a Lost City.

Established by an exiled Prince of Valyria and his clan, the City perched on the rim of an ancient volcano. Drawing power and warmth from the smoking depths of the earth, the Valyrians wedded their magic to the local spirits of Wind and Fire.

When the rest of the Valyrian Empire fell, the Exiles closed their Dragonstone Gates and flourished in seclusion.

Dellyne considered writing his own stories for these new "Art Books", but decided against it. On the rare moments when somebody had tried to draw his work, it had never quite matched Dellyne's inner vision of what it should be.

Besides, it was good to let someone else be creative for once. Dell was curious about what the Little Lion was going to come up with.

Over the centuries, the Valyrian Nobles intermarried with the Wildlings, creating a mixed tradition of ancient, decadent culture and raw, primal savagery.

When they heard of this, the Wildlings thought the notion of a Northern City, luxurious or otherwise, was hilarious.

Some years ago, Princess Vivienne was injured in a fall and unable to move her legs. Taking pity on her, the Goddess Syrax not only healed her, but gifted her with beauty, strength, speed and toughness beyond that of mortal man.

In exchange, Vivienne became Syrax's Champion, with a Sacred Duty to save the weak and punish the wicked. Leaving the Lost City on her Giant Snow Falcon, Adere, she flew to Essos to begin her adventures.

"Giant Snow Falcon!?", Arya asked, incredulously.

"It's certainly more impressive than a horse."

"Why not give her a dragon?"

Tyrion shrugged. "Daenerys Targaryen already has dragons. This is new."

"Oh."

Upon arriving in Braavos, she met a young boy, Nathaniel, and took him as her Squire. Nat, as he was commonly known, was somewhat bumbling, but brave, loyal and true.

He also was gifted with his own magical abilities. The young Squire would have glimpses of possible futures in his dreams, which often led the pair to their adventures.

Additionally, he had the skill to shapeshift into a massive Direwolf. Nat's ability reflected the lunar phase. At Full Moon, the change took moments. Then, as the Moon waned, his strength was lessened and the shift took longer. During the New Moon, it was nearly impossible to make the shift.

Meera heard this and chewed her lower lip as she thought it over. "Why didn't he make the boy into a more traditional Warg?", she finally asked.

"Lord Tyrion said that he was saving those powers for a future Arch Nemesis.", Bran replied.

"I see."

Personally, Arya thought that wasting time on children's tales was rather ridiculous. Especially given the very real dangers that they were facing.

When she mentioned this, Tyrion gave her an ironic smile in response. "More ridiculous than a girl with barely more than the clothes on her back and a sword vowing to kill some of the most powerful people in the Seven Kingdoms?"

Arya gave him a dirty look as he continued. "Besides, when you make your own stories, you can guarantee a certain amount of justice. Possibly even a happy ending."

Brienne was pleased at the idea of a heroic female warrior and flattered that Princess Vivienne (Described as over six feet tall and blond) was partially modeled after her.

These good feelings changed abruptly when she saw the first sketches.

Never one to waste time, Tyrion sent a raven to Braavos on the very day that he came up with his new venture. Thanks to the city's new stature as the world's publishing capitol, there were artists and illustrators aplenty.

Tyrion chose a half-dozen of the best and sent them details on how the characters were to appear. Within a week, the first batch of drawings came back and Tyrion showed them to the others during supper.

Brienne took one look and began sputtering in outrage.

"That's obscene!", she finally ground out. "She's practically naked!"

Other than the usual boots, cloak, gloves and swordbelt, the female on the paper only wore three triangles of chainmail that barely covered her breasts and her nether regions.

Trying and utterly failing to act innocent, Tyrion looked up at the irate woman and explained, "Vivienne originally comes from a very cold environment. She has to wear very little. With more clothes, she would get overheated."

Brienne looked down her nose at the Little Lion and sneered. "I'm certain that was your entire reason.", she said sarcastically.

"There's other reasons." Bronn had selected the bustiest rendition and was regarding it admiringly. Nodding towards the page, he said, "A bit of distraction in a sword fight can be the difference between living and dying. That's what I'd wear, if I had tits like that."

Amidst the chorus of groans and disgusted noises that greeted that notion, Ranulf slowly set down the mutton leg that he'd been gnawing on. "I just lost my appetite."

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On the other side of the world, Khal Jhaqo had assembled an enormous horde of Dothraki and pointed them towards Meereen. Within a week, they would be at the City Gates and would avenge the humiliation that he had suffered.

Ironically, Jhaqo's past failure had fueled his success in creating such a huge force of warriors. The constant rage that he felt and the need to prove his manhood led him to issue challenge after challenge to his fellow Khals.

During several of the fights, he unflinchingly took wounds in order to deliver killing blows to his opponents. Many expected that at least one of the injuries would go bad and sicken him. But, they all healed quickly and cleanly.

This increased his stature among the Dothraki. It was whispered that even disease and infection fled from his towering wrath.

(In reality, this was due more to the fact that the Khal had a private stash of the Drowned God's Wine. Jhaqo was single-minded, but he wasn't stupid.)

The streets of Meereen were dead quiet since the citizens were almost catatonic with worry. They knew exactly what to expect if the horsemen won and the best that they could hope for was a quick clean death.

Daenerys's advisors were also consumed with worry, but for different reasons. The Breaker of Chains had outlined her plan and they unanimously agreed that it exposed her to too much danger.

She shut down the protests before they gained any traction. "This plan will result in the least bloodshed, for the Dothraki as well as Meereen."

Gazing at the horizon, towards the direction of the coming Horde, Daenerys continued, "It was with the Dothraki that I first found love and acceptance." And for a moment, as terrible as when she first felt it, she remembered the loss of her husband and child.

"I will not submit to Khal Jhaqo, but will I do my utmost to avoid a slaughter."

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Finally, Tyrion and his assorted crew arrived at the Wall.

The usual confusion of a long journey's end, combined with the end of one guard's shift and the beginning of another, meant that the Horn of Winter was left unwatched.

It was only for a few minutes. What kind of fool would steal it while surrounded by an army and with nowhere to run to?

Ailwin tucked the Horn underneath his cloak and half ran/half walked towards the tent where the spare mounts were kept. Mentally, his inner thoughts were consumed with an almost rabbit-like desire to flee and it was astounding that he actually had enough wit to go for a horse.

Immediately, after finding that the Horn was gone, the new guard went and told Tyrion.

(For one thing, he wanted to make sure that everybody knew that it was the other guard's fault and not his.)

Jon had been meeting with the Little Lion and the pair of them strode towards were the Horn had been kept. With every step, Tyrion swore venomously while his taller companion didn't say a word. Ashen-faced, Jon was too busy picturing what could happen if the Wall came tumbling down.

"There is literally thousands of places to hide the Horn. The thief could bury it, hide it among other horns, hide it in Castle Black." Tyrion looked up at Jon. "If he keeps a calm facade, we-"

Ailwin chose this moment to come bursting out of the Stable Tent.

Never a great horseman to begin with, the months that he had spent afoot had further eroded his skill. The stallion reared and danced underneath him and the renegade Frey spoke soothingly to the beast to calm it.

As it quieted, Ailwin looked up, saw Jon and Tyrion staring at him and instantly pissed himself.

Sawing on the reins, Ailwin screamed, "GO,GO,GOOO!" and galloped for his life.

Trading a glance, the two men yelled for the guards to give chase and ran for their own horses.

Whipping his stolen horse through the snowbanks, Ailwin stole a desperate glance over his shoulder and saw a black tide of riders after him. Turning back forwards, the Wall loomed in front of him, blinding white even in the dim winter sun.

The decision to turn right or left was taken out of his hands when his horse stepped into an unexpected hole underneath the snow and pitched the Frey head over heels. As the stallion screamed in agony from a snapped leg, he frantically pushed on, clutching the Horn like a talisman that would somehow save his neck.

By the time Ailwin got to the Wall and turned with his back against the ice, his pursuers had formed a waiting semi-circle around him. Panting from exertion and shivering with fear, he saw the men step aside to let Jon and Tyrion through.

"STAY BACK!" He brought the horn out and brandished it at the dwarf and the bastard. "I-I'll blow it! Let me go free or I'll blow the Horn!"

For a moment of perfect stillness, every man there wondered what was going to happen next.

Then, Tyrion squinted at Ailwin with sudden recognition. "You're a Frey, aren't you?"

The words weren't as damaging as the tone of reflexive contempt that Tyrion used.

Unwittingly, he had hit Ailwin in the one place that would push him past fear and into uncaring anger. Standing as tall as he could, the young man lifted his chin and said, "I am. And, fuck all the Lannisters!"

Lifting the Horn to his lips, Ailwin put everything inside him, every ounce of breath and rage, into the note that echoed through the air.

And, nothing happened.

Idiotically, the Frey looked at the instrument in his hands. Maybe he needed to blow it more than onc-

A massive lightening bolt ripped out of the sky and struck Ailwin, rendering him into a charred mess of twisted flesh in an instant.

After a few minutes, Tyrion lifted his head from the snow where he (Along with everyone else) had been thrown flat.

Ailwin's body wasn't of as much interest as the ten-foot crater left in the side of the Wall by the bolt's strike. The cracks radiating from the crater weren't especially deep, but they had an ominous look to them.

"Oh, fuck me."

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Later that evening, after wine and food and a partially successful attempt to quash the rumors that were flying around, Tyrion went to see Bran.

The Giant came in the Greenseer's tent and set the ruined Horn down on a table between them. "You knew this was going to happen."

It wasn't a question and the young man didn't try to dissemble with his answer. "I did. Those cracks will grow larger. Other cracks will appear. In weeks, the Wall will begin to crumble in earnest. In months, it will collapse and become rubble."

"Why did you let this happen?"

"My Lord, I know that one of your greatest fears after the Battle of the Wall was that the Others would play a long game. They would wait you out until your men were weakened by cold and hunger. Then, they would strike."

Tyrion cocked his head as he gave Bran a suddenly wary look. "Is reading minds one of your powers?"

"No, I saw an argument that you were going to have had with Jon." Bran paused and elaborated, "This would have taken place in a future that doesn't exist now."

"I see," Tyrion said, slowly. He didn't doubt the boy, but some of these notions took a while to properly get used to.

"The future constantly shifts as it forms from the past and solidifies for a brief moment into the present. It is difficult at times to guess what is to come. But, I believe the Night King will wait until the Seven Kingdoms are distracted with the next war. Then, he will strike."

"Another war!?" Tiredly, Tyrion rubbed his forehead against the headache that he knew was coming. "When will this one be?"

Bran shrugged. "A century and a half from now."

"Ah. Somebody else's problem then." Tyrion nodded towards the Wall. "The rest, I understand. Now that the Wall is falling, it will be a challenge and an opportunity that he can't ignore."

"Was all that about summoning more giants true or not?"

"It was entirely true, my Lord." Bran reached out, rested his hand on the charred remains of the Horn of Winter and closed his eyes for a moment.

Opening his eyes, he removed his hand and said, "Done."

Tyrion blinked at this rather abbreviated demonstration of magic. As long as it works, he decided as he left the tent.

That evening, Tyrion and many others dreamed of the Wilds of the North beyond the Wall. And, of a winter wind that roared across the landscape like a Giant's hunting horn.

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My apologies yet again for delays.

In my defense, I've discovered that there's more than one kind of writer's block.

One of the biggest reasons that I had for writing this was that I wanted to know just as much as you guys about what comes. Now that I know (More or less) how this ends, it becomes harder to motivate myself to finish this.

But, I will definitely finish this. That's a promise to you guys and to myself as a reader.