Ned Stark Lives! Part 3 Chapter 46 Everyone
Jon Stark's death and the destruction of the last wight army north of the Wall was later used by Tyrion Lannister and other historians as the official end of the war. When news of his death spread there was much lamenting and fears of renewed attacks now the Prince was gone, and though sightings of wights were made over the years in various places, no more wight armies formed, no large scale attacks occurred, and gradually people began to understand it was all over.
But the dying was not over. The winter lasted almost three years. By the time spring arrived many more had died, through hunger, sickness, neglect, or murder. The grey maesters of the Citadel in Oldtown later estimated almost a third of the population of Westeros died in those years, starting with the beginning of the wars. Most of the dead were where the early battles took place and where the Others and their minion armies rampaged. The North, the Riverlands, and the Crownlands suffered the greatest loss and damage. The Westerlands suffered from the attacks of the ironmen and from their great losses in battles, but most of their land was unspoiled. The Vale had lost few men, and its land had hardly been touched by war. The common people praised the late Lysa Arryn for keeping them long out of the wars, but the proud knights of the Vale resented such praise, and in later years lamented their late coming to the fight, though they did do great service in the end. The Reach, the Stormlands, and Dorne saw no great battles on their lands except for the few sieges in the Stormlands when Aegon returned, but all had contributed great numbers of men to the wars and their losses had been heavy, especially for the men of the Reach. Many lordly families had lost sons and fathers, brothers and uncles in the great battles far to the north.
As for the common people, the numbers lost would remain unknown except to the gods. Whole villages and towns and even forts in the North, the Riverlands, and the Crownlands were despoiled and depopulated. Some regained their former status but many more remained unlived in and all that was left were burnt timbers and cold foundation stones. Farmland lay empty for years, even after the snows and frosts ended, for there were no people to work the land. For those smallfolk that did survive it was a boon, as wages for labor rose throughout the kingdom, especially in those areas most affected by the war.
It took time for the economy to get started again. Coin was scarce for a time, even with loans to the crown from men like Illyrio Mopatis, but gradually things began to shake loose, and as more people grew confident that the war was over and peace would prevail, they began to pull out their hidden sacks of coin and began to spend on things other than the basic necessities of life. Pubs and wine sinks and houses of dubious repute always did well, but more business began to feel a surge in sales, and as they received money, they in turn spent money, and on it went, until five years after the wars had ended things were almost returned to normal.
The snows had reached as far as the Dornish Marches, on the border with the Reach and the Stormlands, and even a few flurries landed in Sunspear, but were gone in half a day. Rains did come to Dorne, and for a brief time the desert bloomed again, but like the snow it was short-lived. Heavy rains also swept over the Arbor, and washed away much of the soil of the famed vineyards. It took years for the land to recover, and never did reach the same level of excellence, so much so that in later years those who had discriminating palates complained that the famed Arbor gold was never like it was 'before the war'.
That's how people began to talk, of 'before the war' and 'after the war'. They tried to forget the war itself, and all its horrors, but that was never quite possible. In each region the first harvest after the long winter helped, and was celebrated throughout the land in a grand festival. The people began to hope their troubles were behind them and for the most part they were. Peace came, and as the years went by and no new wars broke out and no new attacks came from the Others, credit for this was bestowed on one person and one person only, their Queen, Daenerys Targaryen, the First of Her Name, and her wise and strong rule.
Her marriage caught everyone in the capital by surprise and an even bigger surprise was when a daughter was born to Queen Daenerys Targaryen five months later. A strong healthy daughter, who she named Rhaella after her own mother. Dany almost did not survive the birth, as the baby was twisted in her womb, and in the end Qyburn had to open the womb and pull the child from her body. Dany hovered between life and death for two days but then began to grow stronger after Qyburn, over the objections of the maesters and wet nurses, insisted her daughter be placed in her arms. Feeling this new life she had made, feeling her small baby girl breathe and wriggle and snuggle close gave Dany the strength to live. Jorah Mormont never left her side, her strong bear, and the whole city waited with tense anticipation for good news. A week after the birth, when it seemed she would live after all, Dany strode out into the cold on trembling legs on a balcony facing the city with her child swaddled in her arms and the whole city cheer lustily for their Queen and her baby.
Rhaella took her mother's family name, for she was royalty, and did not take the name of her supposed father, Jorah Mormont. Qyburn soon told her Dany may never have any more children, the damage to her body too great, from her lost son and the trauma of the birth of her daughter, and this turned out to be true. Princess Rhaella Targaryen was the only child born to Dany, and Rhaella never knew the man who she called her father was not her real father. Rhaella grew up tall, like both her true father and Mormont, and with the silver hair and purple eyes of her mother, so no one ever questioned too closely her parentage. She was named heir on her fifth birthday when it seemed Qyburn was right and the Queen would not have any more children. Named heir, but on the advice of her councilors, who still held out some hope for a male heir, it was pronounced she was heir only until a brother was born, but none ever was.
Jorah loved this daughter who was not his, as he loved Dany, and he doted on both as much as he could. Dany grew closer to him as the years went by, but she never truly loved him, not like she had loved Khal Drogo…or Jon. Yes, she finally admitted to herself it had to be love, and the sadder she grew when she came to grips with this. But Jorah had done much for her, and she would not forget that, and he gave legitimacy to Rhaella, and a more solid foundation to the restored Targaryen dynasty.
In court, Mormont was given a role as military advisor and commander of the royal army, a standing force that started out small but eventually grew to thirty thousand men, with a large force at King's Landing and others in garrisons throughout the land. In time they began to serve as the royal constabulary as well, working in hand with the local lords to bring law and order to regions that sorely needed it. By royal decree, each territory in the kingdom provided men for this force, and it had no family ties except to the Iron Thorne. Every man who entered its service had to pledge a bond of loyalty to the Iron Thorne and its ruler, no matter what family each man belonged to.
Lord Randyll Tarly became second in command, often serving as commander when royal duties took Jorah away. He too had to pledge loyalty to the crown only, an oath he only made after Lord Willas Tyrell absolved him of his bond of loyalty to the Tyrell family. Stern as always, Tarly whipped the army into a formidable fighting force. He never showed his grief, but Dany knew in her heart he grieved for both his lost sons, even the one Jon had told her he had banished from his family for being a weakly. Sam Tarly was given a prominent role in Tyrion Lannister's history of the war, and throughout the land he would become known as a great hero. Upon all of the party that had gone north of the Wall, Jon, Sam, Angus Norrey, Val, Jojen, Meera, Hodor, and Bran, Dany bestowed the tile of Hero of Realm, and long their story was told when people spoke of the war.
The royal army was Lord Hand Ser Barristan Selmy's idea, and would prove to be one of his better ones. No longer would the crown be totally dependent on keeping loyal those families who controlled large numbers of knights and retainers. The royal army provided good pay and discipline, and was made up of veterans of the wars in its first years. Many a landless knight or second or third son joined this force, seeking a place of pride for himself in the realm. They wore only a simple gold crown as a sigil on their surcoats, to show their bond to the royal family. Some groused that it was just a Targaryen army in all but name, but as a force with no ties to anyone but the Queen it proved effective as a balance when two or more houses threatened to go to war. Dany sided with no house in these disputes, and considered her dragon and her army as a force of peace, the implied threat being that whoever started the war would suffer the greater for it.
In their first years the men of the royal army spent much of their time improving the kingdom's roads, laying stone to make them more passable, building bridges over creeks and rivers, and erecting small forts every ten miles on these roads, which soon became stopping points for weary travelers. Twenty years after the end of the wars, travel and safety was much improved through the kingdom, and for once the old adage that a maiden with a bag of gold could walk from the Arbor to the Wall and still have her virtue and coin seemed possible.
Over time Dany's court changed as advisors came and went, but Varys and Ser Barristan Selmy remained for many years until age caught up with both of them. Ser Barristan was her rock for ten years, the father she never knew, a man she could trust completely, and though he did not always agree with her, or she him, in the end they always found a solution and made choices that served the realm, not themselves. He died on a warm night a day after suffering a heart seizure while on duty. As he lay in his sick bed his last word was 'Ashara' before his eyes closed forever. Dany later learned this was the name of a young woman, sister to a Kingsguard man in her father's day, who had killed herself at the end of Robert's Rebellion. No knew why he said her name, or what connection he had to the woman, not even Varys, and she could only guess that perhaps the stern old man who had served her so well had once been in love, but unable to act on his feelings for his duty would not allow it.
For his replacement Dany looked to many men, including Lord Stark, and Lord Tarly, and Lord Tyrell, and all begged off for various reasons. Finally, she asked Tyrion Lannister, and he said yes, and in turn served the Queen wisely for many long years.
Varys also stayed with her for many years to come, and his service was invaluable. Old he grew as well, and more portly, and one day Dany noticed he had a nagging cough, which grew worse, and four months later the great master of whisperers died in his bed. Loved by few, and hated by many, the funeral was a small affair. The day after his funeral she was told that Varys' quarters had been torn apart, even the walls, and she worried that perhaps people had been looking for something Varys had written, his great secrets, all the knowledge of the people he held power over. She worried that perhaps Varys had written down his knowledge of Rhaella's true parentage, but as time passed and no one asked for money to keep silent, and no scandals came of this, Dany began to breathe easier. She hoped that Varys took all his great knowledge to the grave, and knowing him and all he was, perhaps he was smiling in his secret way even in death.
Qyburn took over Varys' duties. Long a fixture in the capital and at court, Qyburn was an odd man, and Dany was not totally sure of him, but he did fill Varys' shoes nicely. Rumors of him swirled around the court, that he conducted macabre studies in the deep dungeons, that he was a wizard, or that he was in league with the Great Other. Dany never saw any proof of this and put it down to mere superstition and jealousy, and she never had reason to complain of Qyburn.
Rhaella like her mother became a dragonrider. One day a month or so after Rhaella had been born Dany was finally healthy enough to feel the lure of the sky again. She came to the Dragonpit to ride Drogon and to her great astonishment she found a red dragon egg in his stall.
"Gods," she said as she picked it up. It was still warm, as if just been laid. But how?
Later Tyrion Lannister explained it all to her. "Dragons have no sex to distinguish between male and female, though we have called them 'he' and 'she' in our histories and at present. My best guess is that they produce eggs though an asexual process. How, I do not yet fully understand, and I would not risk my small neck by crawling around under a dragon to see exactly how it all works."
"What of Elianta?" Dany asked him. "You had a chance to examine her."
"Unfortunately, much of inner organs were lost to the crows before we could accurately draw them or recover them."
One thing Dany did know about her ancestors was that in the time of dragons many were bonded with their dragon in the crib. The day after she found the egg she took it to Rhaella's crib, despite the protests of her husband and the maester and wet nurses, who all cowed before her glare. "She will become a dragonrider," Dany declared and Jorah looked to protest more but then merely nodded. "As you wish, Your Grace," he said. Dany placed the egg beside Rhaella, who giggled and grabbed it and held it close to her small body, the egg almost as big as she was.
Dany did not know if she needed fire to hatch the egg as her three eggs had hatched, but she would not risk such and so waited…and waited…and waited. Finally, after three weeks, the egg hatched in the night and a tiny red dragon came forth. When they heard Rhaella squealing in delight in her crib, she and Jorah awoke. Rhaella had her small hands wrapped around the dragon's body, holding it like a doll. Dany hovered over the crib, fearful, but nothing bad happened.
Dany had named her three dragons after her dead brothers and husband, and her daughter after her mother, so her first instinct was to name the dragon for her father, but she knew this would be seen as a bad omen, as her father had by all accounts been mad. She searched the genealogy of her family and their dragons' names, and finally decided that if anyone of her ancestors deserved to have a dragon named for them, it had to be Aegon, the name of six kings, including the very first and her dead nephew, who she had only known for a brief time. She named the dragon Aegerion the Red.
By the time she was ten years old Rhaella was a master dragonrider, and in one grand year, on the fifteenth anniversary of Dany's coronation, all four living dragons flew together over the great crowds in King's Landing, Drogon now almost as big as the fabled Balerion of old. By then Rhaella had grown into a ravishing beauty and caught the eye of many a man, but only one she truly loved, a man of the Reach, a son of Garlan Tyrell named Markus. He was of her age, born in the last year of the war, and he had all his family's good looks and was brave as well. They married in their sixteenth year, and in the years to come Rhaella and Markus had five children, three of them boys, and Dany and the realm breathed a little easier knowing the succession was secure.
Jorah never returned to Bear Island after his one visit after the war where his people had shunned him and shamed him, as his family still considered him a traitor. Dany wanted to intervene, but he said it would do no good, and to leave it be. A visit to Winterfell went only marginally better, and Lord Stark treated them as their rank deserved, but he was cold to Jorah, and would always be so. Stubborn these Northerners were, but she could not change that, and so for the remainder of his days Jorah never went home again. He had his duties with the court and the royal army and as a father and later a grandfather as well. But as the years went by, his body grew full of aches and his joints became swollen and he found it difficult to walk and carry a sword and so he was retired from service. Five more years he lived, getting weaker and greyer and she cried to see him in such a state. A wheeled chair became his home and his frail body had to be carried to bed by strong men. The gods finally gave him a merciful death in the twenty-third year of their marriage, and a lavish funeral she gave this man who had loved her even if she could never return the sentiment.
"Was I such a terrible person not to love him?" she asked Tyrion in private after the funeral. Both were getting older, he near fifty, and going a bit grey and slightly bald, she almost forty, and a bit stouter. He had been her Hand for over a dozen years now, and she felt she could talk to him about anything.
"No, my Queen," he replied. "The gods only know why we love one and not another."
"You know the reason why I married him, don't you?"
"I do. You did it for the realm."
"Yes, but they will never know. They can never know."
"They never will. I promise." A promise he kept, and the realm never knew.
She was still beautiful and desirable, and many a lord came courting, but Dany never took another husband. Lovers she had, for she still had the needs of a woman, but they were mere trysts, and she made sure they understood where things stood, and none she kept for long. One foolish young noble man thought he would be the next to sit by her side on the dais in the throne room and persisted on trying to see her after she broke it off, and when she rebuffed him he grew angry and demanded coin. Tyrion as always had men of dubious repute in his service and after a few of them visited the young man, Dany never saw him again. She feared Tyrion's men had killed him, but Tyrion merely said that his men told the young fellow that if he ever wanted to put his cock in another woman he best leave the Queen alone.
The years passed, her grandchildren grew older, and time marched on. And as always she kept her eye on those who had played such a large role in her life when she was just a girl trying to become a queen. All the news she eventually heard, and in their joys and sorrows she took a keen interest, even those who she never truly called friend.
A few short months after Dany had her daughter Val had a baby boy, Jon Stark's only son, and a baby who many placed great hopes on, wondering if he would be the new Prince. In the tradition of the free folk Val did not name him for two years, not while winter lasted, and all was so uncertain.
The free folk never returned north of the Wall. They settled the Gift, and each clan claimed a region, and built stout houses in small villages from the great tracts of timber that filled the land. Food was scarce those first years, and game and fish were their mainstays, as was some food Ned Stark could spare from his larders, which were hardly much better. But with the new spring life bloomed and the free folk learned how to plant a crop and become settled farmers, and grew crops of wheat and barley and corn, tended orchards of apples and pears, and raised colonies of bees for their honey.
Mance remained their leader, and in time he and the girl Gilly who cared for his baby and hers in those dark days of war grew close and he took her as his wife and more children they had, fine sons and daughters. Gilly named her first baby for Sam, the boy she had loved, even though he was not the father. Val was always close to them, for Mance's first son was her nephew, and she became Mance's trusted right hand, for a time.
Her people's wild ways did not totally disappear, and more than one internal dispute Mance had to settle with steel. Ned Stark let him rule his people without interference, but when the Northerners and the free folk clashed, which seldom happened, he stepped in. Anyone, his own people or Mance's, who broke the law on Northern land outside the Gift was subject to his justice. Mance accepted this, despite some grumblings from his own people about him being a knee bender. In time, the free folk and Northerners began to intermarry and a hundred and some years later there was little distinction between the two except their history and some customs.
When spring came Val finally named her son Jon, for his father, and had always had that name in mind. When he was still a babe, six months after he was born, she took him to the Wall, to Castle Black, where Lord Commander Cotter Pyke now resided. The Wall had been rebuilt, the Watch had grown in numbers, and many of the new recruits were orphaned boys of the realm and some even of the free folk. Mance joked that the men of the Watch would grow bored now that they had no free folk to fight all the time, but from what Val saw the Watch was ever vigilant, sending out patrols deep into the wild lands north of the Wall, maintaining posts at many of the old abandoned castles, and always looking for the day when the great enemy would come again.
Jon was here as well, the man she had loved, inside Viserion, and Val brought their son to meet his father. Viserion was sitting on the Wall, where he often was they told her, and Pyke took her up in the cage to the top.
"What does he do all day?" she asked Pyke as they rode up to the top of the Wall, the baby swaddled in her arms.
"He sits, and stares, always to the north. Sometimes he flies off, to hunt," he told her.
"Does anyone talk to him?"
"He's a dragon, and they are scared of him, all of them. No one goes near him."
"He must be lonely," she said, worried on what Jon was feeling as his soul resided in the great beast's body.
When they reached the top the wind was strong but Val was used to the cold and pulled her cloak around her son even more snuggly. Off to the left was the great white and gold dragon, looking even bigger than she remembered. It was by itself, no men of the Watch nearby. They were all near the cage or off to the right, looking at her with worry on their faces. The day was cloudy, with a hint of snow in the air.
"Be careful," Pyke said to her as she walked towards Viserion…towards Jon.
The dragon noticed her and raised his head, his golden eyes focused on her. As she got close she opened her cloak and held up her swaddled son…his son.
"Jon," she said. "Here is your blood. Here is your son."
Viserion leaned forward, his huge snout inches from the baby's face. Then a low growl came out of Viserion's mouth, a hint of smoke as well, and Val suddenly felt a shiver of fear, and her first instinct was to pull the baby back, a mother protecting her child. But then the baby she would later call Jon reached up and touched the snout of the dragon, and gave a little giggle. Val always said later Viserion smiled, grinned at least, and then spread his wings and leaped off the Wall, did a full circle in the air above them, and then let go a mighty screech on the wind, before he flew down below the Wall and headed off to the north. In years to come Val would return often with her boy, and he too became a dragonrider, sitting on his father's back, growing taller and stronger, every day looking more like Jon had looked, and like his father he joined the Night's Watch to take his place as a defender of the realm.
But all that came later. The Stark's took a great interest in the boy, as she knew they would. When he was born winter was still deep on the land, but Ned and Catelyn Stark rode the long distance to her home in the Gift and saw the baby boy. They brought much food and other things for her and the baby, and asked her to come south with them to Winterfell, at least till winter had passed, but she begged off, saying he belonged here, with her people.
When spring came and her son was named, things began to change. Some among her people shunned her, for lying with a man of the Watch and having his son. Old hatreds died hard, and despite the peace between the two groups, many could not forget their long feud. Some who insulted her she wanted to kill, but Mance stayed her hand. "You cannot win every fight," he cautioned her. "One day your son will be an orphan."
"If I cannot fight, I cannot stay. There is only place I can go."
They welcomed her with open arms at Winterfell. She took her place as a defender of the castle, given the title captain of the north gate, and she only agreed when Stark told her she did not have to bend the knee. Her son was raised with the other children, and in time they knew the truth of another thing.
Little Jon was four years old when he and Rickon and some other boys were playing in the main keep of the castle. As Rickon later confessed, he led them to his parent's room, to show the other boys the great sword. There it hung on a wall, still in the same sheath Jon Stark had used at the end. Rickon took it down and pulled it out, and told the other boys the stories, and he pretended he was Jon, fighting the Stranger and the leader of the Others and the wights. Everyone took a turn holding it and playing. Then came little Jon's turn…and the sword Lightbringer came to life, filling the room with light and heat and fire.
No one was hurt beyond some singed hair and clothing, and the fire was put out in a short time. Rickon's parents only punished him and the other boys, including Jon, by making them work in the kitchens for a week scrubbing pots and pans. All of them were told to never speak of what had happened to anyone.
"He is the Prince reborn," Val said in awe. They were sitting in Lord Stark's solar discussing what had happened.
"He is," said Ned Stark.
"What do we do now?" Robb Stark asked.
"We keep it secret," Catelyn Stark said. "No one must know outside of us."
"Rickon knows what it means," Robb said.
"He knows to keep quiet," Ned Stark replied. "He is not a little boy anymore. The other boys…no one would believe them…I hope."
"What of the sword?" Val asked.
"It stays where it is," Ned told her. "When the time comes, if it ever comes, then he will take it."
"Maybe it is time he learned to use a sword," Robb suggested.
"He is just a boy!" Catelyn said in worry.
"Robb is right," Ned Stark said. "Tomorrow he will begin his training. I assume you approve."
That was for Val. "Aye. It is time."
She and Robb left the solar, he limping slightly on his wooden leg as he always did. As they neared the rooms Val and little Jon shared she turned suddenly and looked at him.
"Why must we be alone?"
He sighed. He knew what she wanted, knew she wanted him for she had told him more than once, and he had rebuffed her each time. Each time she stopped for a while, but then it happened again, as it did now once more. "I…I still can't," he told her.
Val always understood why and in the past had said nothing about it, but now she could no longer wait. If he rebuffed her again, she would have to find another man to fill the void in her heart, but no other man she wanted. "It has been more than four years since she died. Did you die the same day?"
"No…you did not," she said. She reached out and put a hand on his chest and felt his heart beat faster. "You are still young, you have life inside of you. All I am asking is you share it with me."
Robb stared at her, his eyes filled with pain she wanted to drive away, and then she leaned forward and kissed him and after a moment he returned the kiss. She dragged him into her rooms, now empty, as the boy was gone working in the kitchens, and there the two of them let their passions take hold, loving each other and trying to drive away the hurts they both felt at being left alone in the world with a child to care for.
A moon's turn later he asked her to marry him, saying everyone in the castle knew they were lovers and it was unseemly. She balked, wondering about her people, and what they would say. And then she realized they had already shunned her for having little Jon, and she owed them nothing. "Aye" she told him after a moment's hesitation. The wedding was held a week later before the weirwood, and after the ceremony they told Bran the good news, which he passed on to their friends in other places where weirwoods still grew. She and her son took the Stark name. Val loved Robb's daughter Lyanna as if she were her own child, and later three more children she would have, two girls and finally another boy, who Robb named Benjen for his lost uncle. He became the heir to Winterfell after Robb. Val loved her new family, and at last found some peace in her heart.
Asha Greyjoy married Qarl the Maid as soon as they returned to the Iron Islands and later she had three children, a son and two older daughters. The son she named for her father Balon, and he was named heir to the Seastone Chair. No land locked mother she would be, as still she captained a ship, and her first daughter had been born at sea.
"A good omen," she told Qarl, as she held the new babe in her arms below deck. "Take her up and let her feel the spray in her face and smell the Drowned God's world." In later years this girl would become as fierce a sea captain as her mother.
They lived in Lordsport when not at sea, in a modest home Qarl inherited from his deceased parents. She feared Victarion would take her son to raise as his heir, but he did no such thing at first, leaving her and Qarl be with the boy. But he visited often, and when Balon was seven Victarion insisted he live in Castle Pyke and be trained and learn about being a true ironborn with salt and iron in his veins. Balon wanted to go, for he adored his fierce uncle, and Asha reluctantly agreed, though she did visit often. Balon grew up tall and strong and well liked, a fine heir, but then as he grew older people began to whisper that he was no war leader. This was Victarion's fault as he was uncharacteristically overcautious with the boy. He went to sea rarely with Balon and gave him no ship of his own to captain, perhaps fearing the loss of his heir to some random act of the Drowned God, and when war came calling he told Balon to stay at Pyke and command in his stead.
Perhaps the caution had to do with Victarion's continued bad luck with women. He had a succession of woman, but none he married and no children did they have. Victarion died in his sixtieth year, fighting a pirate band in the Step Stones, called by the Queen to rid the kingdom of this new trouble. Victarion grinned with glee when he heard the news. He called his captains, and forty ships set sail, Asha's ship included, with Qarl second in command as always and her eldest daughter as part of her crew. A moon's turn later they met the enemy in battle and crushed them. Twenty pirate ships were sunk or captured, to one ship lost by the ironborn. But it was their King's ship which went down, holed by a pirate ship ram. As his ship sank under his feet, Victarion was seen leaping to the enemy's deck with his massive ax in hand, wading into a swarm of pirates, slewing many before being overwhelmed. This ship was later sunk, and his body was never found. In revenge the ironborn slew all their captives, cutting their throats and offering them to the Drowned God as they tossed the bodies over the side for the sharks to feast on.
Her uncle the Reader stayed in King's Landing all those years, consumed by his duties as master of coin, and by the wealth of books to be found in the Red Keep's library. When she stopped in the capital to tell the Queen and her uncle of their victory and Victarion's death, Asha's fifteen-year-old son Balon was confirmed by the Queen as the new King of the Iron Islands. Later when alone in his private quarters, Asha asked her uncle for a favor.
"Nuncle, please come home. My son needs you. Already men will wonder if this boy can rule them. He is no Victarion. He is young but still he has not yet even captained a ship at sea and you know what those old fools will say about that. To make it worse Victarion commanded him to stay home, as he would not risk his heir in battle. I was against this, saying the boy needed to shed blood or they would never respect him. We need your wisdom. Men will respect him more if you are by his side."
"Or they will say he is weak and needs me to help him rule."
"Maybe, but they will say it anyway. With you, he will not make any mistakes."
"He does not know me. I have hardly ever met him."
"He trusts me. He will accept you."
He uncle thought and looked around his rooms, full of shelves of books, and she wondered if he had read them all, or worried that he might never have the chance. "Put them on my ship," she said. "All you want."
He sighed and then nodded. "Yes, it is time. I am old. I will spend my last days in my homelands, doing what I can to help our new King."
The Queen was reluctant to let him go, but her Hand the Imp convinced her. He said the finances were in good order, men of wisdom who had assisted Lord Harlaw were well trained in such things, and it was better to keep the Iron Islands peaceful than to have a civil war break out.
The Queen gave a farewell banquet for Lord Harlaw, which was also used to celebrate the victory at sea, even though Asha's was the only ship to make it to the capital, the rest going home with their prizes. Asha had no fit clothes for a greenlanders gala, and refused any such from the Queen. She attended in her sea going clothes, tight leathers and wools, and knee high boots, attracting as much attention for her attire as for her good looks. The years and child bearing had not changed her much, and her life of active duty kept her trim and fit. She would have been the bell of the ball, except the Queen's daughter Rhaella was more stunning than Asha had ever been, and attracted every man's eye. Asha even caught Qarl staring and had to smack him hard on the arm.
Before she and her uncle left the city the Imp came to the docks to say his goodbyes, and could not help but get in one last word. "Any chance of this new King repaying some of my family's stolen wealth?"
"None," Asha told him. "It's all gone anyways, years ago." Asha hated the Imp, and he had no love for her people.
"Don't be absurd. It can't be all gone," the Imp replied. "Someone must have it, I am sure, as hardly a ship has traded with your people for many a year now."
He was right about that. The whole of the west refused to trade with them, an imposition the Imp and Ned Stark put on them, and the Reach had followed. Sometimes ships from Dorne or the Free Cities made port, but they were few and far between. The Iron Islands still had some items of value, especially ivory walrus tusks and the ambergris of the sperm whale, valued for its use it soaps and perfumes, yet this was but a small amount each year.
"Someone has it," she replied to the Imp. "But not my family. Spent on castle repairs and new ships, or pissed away on drink and dice and whores. Not a copper you will ever get from us, so forget it." She glared down at the little man, her hands stroking her throwing axes at her sides. Behind the Imp was the dark-eyed Bronn as always, one hand resting on his sword pommel. He grinned and she grinned back. "You ever want to try me, you know where I'll be," she told him.
"Why not now?" Bronn asked.
"Bronn," the Imp said with a sigh. "Not today. Besides, we are both getting a little too old for violence to solve our problems. Lord Harlaw, Lady Asha, please convey to your new King my congratulations on his ascending the Seastone Chair. If he wishes to have cordial relations with Casterly Rock, here are my terms." He pulled out a small scroll from inside his small sleeve and handed it to the Reader.
Her uncle did not open it till they were at sea. "A formal apology, first and foremost he wants. The return of any people from our lands who were taken captive."
"Fat chance of that. The Queen made Victarion return them all years ago."
"True, but there may be some of ours who never obeyed this command to free their thralls." Then he continued and shook his head in dismay. "He wants at least a repayment of one million gold."
"Ha, he's dreaming!"
"It is only a small part of what we took."
"We don't have it."
"Other families still do I am sure. If we ask everyone…"
"No. They will laugh at us and make my son look even more foolish."
"Yes. Perhaps Lord Tyrion will forgo this point. Hmmm, the rest seems reasonable. Renewal of trade, exchange of envoys, a readjustment of fishing rights, and other small points. Perhaps we can make some of this work."
"We can tell him to go to hell, too."
"Asha, trade will be good for us. Good for your son. If Lord Tyrion opens his lands to us, the Reach will follow. Maybe even the North some day. For too long Victarion wrote to me to ask the Queen to force people to trade with our islands but she refused, knowing how they all felt."
"I know all this. I heard him bitch about it every time I saw him, but he would never bend to give the Imp what he wanted."
"We must do something. King Balon can make the islands prosperous again."
She knew he was right. "Then let us make it happen."
For a year the Reader negotiated with the Imp, and finally the terms were agreed to. King Balon and Asha and the Reader traveled to Casterly Rock to sign the treaty of trade, and in a private ceremony with the Imp and his wife Shae, Balon apologized for his people's attack all those years ago. He also handed over a token fifty thousand in gold, all they could scrape together. Asha seethed through it all, but when it was done, the treaty was sighed, and the Westerlands was open to trade once more. Within a month the Reach did the same. The North never did open up again, but they had little to offer anyway. In time the Iron Islands prospered and King Balon was later hailed as a wise leader, loved by many, despite never leading his people into battle.
Lord Davos Seaworth served as master for ships for twenty-five years before retiring to his lands in the south. His small navy the budget allowed for suffered some losses fighting the Step Stone pirates, and so the Queen called for the Iron Fleet, but it was his knowledge of the pirate's ways and their secrets bases which allowed the ironmen to catch the pirates and crush them.
His wife and sons and their families joined him in the capital, and this made Davos happy. His wife took the loss of their son Devan hard, as he expected, but when her first grandchildren were born her face began to smile once more.
His days were mostly spent in meetings with the small council. Whenever he could escape this drudgery he went to the places he loved most, the dockyards to supervise ship building and repair, or at the wharfs to watch the daily catch come in and see to the trading ships and their cargos, or on patrol out in Blackwater Bay, stopping and boarding ships to make sure no one was smuggling. A strange reversal for the man many sailors still called the Onion Knight, for he was once a great smuggler.
He visited Shireen on occasion in Storm's End, and it made him sad to see her grow older and have no husband or family. They tried to find a match for her, but one by one the great houses, and then they minor ones, all refused her, and there was no doubt it was because of her affliction she had suffered long ago. Finally, it seemed a young landless knight would take her hand, but in his cups he was overheard telling his friends how he would wed her, bed her, and once a son was born make sure she fell off a battlement the next day. When word of this got back to Selyse Baratheon she had the knight arrested, and it was he who was pushed off a battlement of Storm's End the next day, to his death in the seas below. Selyse herself died of the wasting sickness some months later, and Shireen was all alone in that great castle, with her fool Patchface and her bastard cousin Edric Storm her only friends. Edric married, and began a family, and there were whispers that Shireen wanted to name him her heir, but as he was a bastard the laws of the land prevented her from doing so. Or so the rumors went.
The Queen often traveled on her dragon, but this was not always safe or practical, for her and one rider to be all alone, especially as she got older, and so at times she went by ship. Whenever the Queen had to sail somewhere, he served as captain of the ship, not trusting anyone else with this duty. She traveled north to the Wall, south to Sunspear, west to Casterly Rock and once even to the Iron Islands. Twice she crossed the Narrow Sea, both times to Pentos. The first time was to pay homage to her friend and benefactor Illyrio Mopatis, to repay him for his generosity in the years when she was in the wilderness, and later when her rule was uncertain. The second time was when word came the old merchant was gravely ill, and she arrived in time to say a last goodbye and stayed for his funeral rites. She wept inconsolable when he died, for he had been one of the few who had supported her when it seemed every day would be her last. Varys was there as well, and for once in the years since he had known Varys the famed master of whisperers had little to say, a sad look on his face always, and tears he shed too at the funeral of his old friend.
And once, in the dark of a stormy night, the Queen told Davos of her greatest desire. It was after Jorah Mormont had recently died, and Davos himself was old and ready to retire. He and the Queen were all alone in her quarters, when the Queen spoke to Davos on this wish she had long harbored.
"I want to crush Braavos," she said to him. "Is it possible?"
He knew why she wanted this. Braavos was home to the Faceless Men…and one had killed Jon Stark all those years ago. When Tyrion Lannister became Hand he had once asked Davos something similar, and when Davos told him it was impossible, Tyrion laughed it off, as if it was just a mere thought. Davos pressed him, and Tyrion admitted it was a question the Queen had asked him. They talked on it, and Tyrion told him why she wanted it, and they both agreed to never speak on it again, for if she commanded it, and they could not turn her from this desire, they would have no choice but to obey.
Now he was faced with that possibility once more. He shook his head. "No, Your Grace. I would not recommend it."
"I have dragons, four dragons now," she said. "Larger than almost any dragons in the past. Four dragons and a fleet of a hundred ships and my royal army. They would be unstoppable."
She sounded drunk, her words slurred, and he noticed a near empty wine decanter on a small table by her chair. "Your Grace…many would die, both them and us. Any such attack would cause great damage, but to what purpose? We cannot stay there, we cannot occupy the city. The other Free Cities would rise up against us. And we would lose our trade and have Braavos as a life long enemy. They would send the Faceless Men after you, and your family."
"I will crush the Faceless Men!" she shouted, and then she gasped for air and let out a sob. He remained seated and silent while she regained her composure. "Forgive me," she finally said. "I have had too much wine. You are right…it would never work. The foolish dream of an aging woman. Go. Let us not talk on this ever again."
They never did, and a few months later Davos retired to his small keep in the Stormlands with his wife. He spent his old age in quiet, occasionally going to sea on one of his son's ships, and often he found himself telling his grandchildren stories of his life, and always they wanted to hear of the wars, and what he had done. They especially liked the stories on how he had smuggled onions into Storm's End and saved the rebellion by saving King Stannis' army from starvation, and later how he saved Arya Stark from the dragon and volcano on Dragonstone, and also how he smuggled the great heroic Dragonslayer Gendry out of Duskendale so he could save the capital from the terrible dragon. Well, some of the stories weren't exactly true, but a good story always bent the truth, just a little.
Prince Doran of Dorne received two terrible letters in a short time. The news of his son Quentyn's death in the east many months ago came first, the letter sent by raven from King's Landing by Oberyn during the wars. Doran still was grieving over this when more heartbreaking news came. Just when word reached Sunspear of the great victory at King's Landing, another letter followed, from Oberyn's eldest daughter Obara, saying Sarella, King Aegon, and Oberyn were all dead as well.
Quentyn had died many moths ago, in Meereen, killed when he foolishly tried to free Daenerys Targaryen's dragons from what he thought was their death sentence. The Queen sent Doran a long letter explaining all this, and later she visited Dorne, and more talks they had on Quentyn, and she asked his forgiveness for what had happened, and Doran, being the man he was, placed no blame on her for his son's foolish actions or his death.
As for the others, their deaths were more easily explained. King Aegon had died from wounds when his dragon went amok, Sarella had been killed by Jaime Lannister when she tried to take him to the city, and Oberyn had been slain fighting Jaime Lannister in a trial by combat. The Kingslayer had died as well, but this offered Doran no comfort. His son and his nephew, his brother and his brother's daughter, all gone forever. Doran wept, and his daughter Arianne wept as well, and when he told Ellaria all this news she let out a scream and broke down in tears for days.
When the armies came home there was little rejoicing. His brother's daughters still wanted to fight, to take vengeance on the Imp and the rest of his family. Doran had them all arrested and shut up in cells for a month. When he released them they all got down on their knees before him to ask for his forgiveness, which he gave. On pain of death he made them swear to raise no hand against the Lannisters ever again. They promised, but he knew words were wind, so he reminded them of what else was now true.
"Tyrion Lannister has a dragon," he said in his soft voice. "The Queen is his friend, and she has a dragon as well and may well be able to summon the third dragon from the Wall." The implied threat he did not state but they understood.
Lady Nym scoffed. "Dragons tried to take Dorne in the past. They failed."
"Yes," Doran said. "But many Dornish died. If just one Lannister dies by your hand, dragons and their fire will come here again. Then I will see all of your heads off your necks to end it." They all promised to obey and after that he had no more trouble from them, none with the Lannisters at least.
When they learned Quentyn was dead Doran at last he told his daughter Arianne the great secret, of the pact that said she was to marry Viserys and Quentyn was to marry Daenerys.
"All for nothing now," she lamented. "Poor Quentyn. Would she had even married him?"
"No. The pact was made when she was a child. When he met her she was a woman, a queen to be, with three dragons. Oberyn wrote that Daenerys told him she refused his hand." Later the Queen would confirm this. "It was my folly which sent him to the east, my burden to bear."
To his wife Mellario in far off Norvos he wrote a long letter, explaining everything. It pained him to write, his hands twisted by the gout that racked his body, but he would trust no maester to hear his words. It also pained him for he had to tell her of her son's death, of the reason why, and the role Doran had played in it. Mellario had long been estranged from him, the reason given because he sent his son Quentyn away to be fostered with a Dornish noble family. But in truth they had fallen out of love. She missed her homelands as well, and never got used to life in Dorne. Now he asked for her forgiveness, and also asked her to come back, for he was dying, and had a short time left, and he needed her here for Arianne, to stand by her side when she became Princess of Dorne.
He entrusted the letter to Aero Hotah, the captain of his guards. "Deliver it to my wife," he commanded.
The captain hesitated, for he had his duties to protect the Prince. "My Prince, who will safeguard you?"
From his chair Doran waved a dismissive hand. "Who would want me dead? An old frail man with one foot in the grave already? Such a quick death I would welcome. But not to worry, I shall not go unguarded. This is more important, and I trust no one but you. By ship to Pentos you will go, and then overland to Norvos. Gold and silver is yours for the journey, and twenty of our best spears as well. Do not fail me."
He did not, though it took six months for him to go and come back. In the meantime Doran spent as much time as he could with Arianne, having her sit by his side as he ruled, and teaching her all he could. Each day he could stand court but an hour or two, and then he needed the milk of the poppy for his pains. When he left she took over, and all her decisions he later reviewed and for the most part nodded his approval. By trial and error she learned, and also learned to control her passions and to use reason to solve what at first seem like unsolvable problems.
"Best not to rush to a judgment," he advised. "What seems impossible today may be resolved tomorrow. But a judgment made in haste cannot so easily be undone. If you do so you will look more foolish than by not deciding at all or by delaying."
"Always I growled with impatience at your indecision, Father," she said. "Oberyn did as well, but he always trusted you."
He sighed as he remembered his brother. "Two different sides of a coin we were, my brother and I. You I fear are more like him than me."
"Is this such a bad thing?" she asked, hurt by his words.
"No, no. Action is needed at times. But temperament as well. I am hoping your mother will serve that role. If she comes."
"She will," Arianne said. "We have been too long without her. She must forgive you for Quentyn."
"We shall see."
Mellario did come, and she cried to see him in his chair and how frail he was. She cried for Quentyn as well, and after some weeks of talking she finally put aside her anger and forgave him.
A year later Prince Doran died in his sleep, filled with so much milk of the poppy each day that at the end he barely recognized his family. Many said it was a mercy that the gods took him at last. His daughter Arianne became the Princess of Dorne, and with her mother at her side, she ruled as wisely as her father could ever have hoped.
Lord Willas Tyrell returned home from the wars less a brother and a father, and with much to deal with as the new Lord of the Reach. He comforted his sister and mother in their grief, and the day after his arrival home he had to preside over his grandmother the Lady Olenna's funeral. Despite her unhidden years of scorn for her son Mace's at times foolhardy rule, she had never gotten over the shock of his death.
And then there was his uncle Garth he had to deal with. The day after his grandmother's funeral Willas called him to his solar and made him stand there in front of his desk like a supplicant come begging a favor. "Things are going to change, Uncle," he said, without even a hello.
"I am yours to command, my lord," Garth said, his voice not the booming voice Willas remembered as a boy, but sounding contrite. Maybe he knew what was coming, maybe one of his many spies had told him of the talks Willas had with his sister and mother. Maybe he hoped to avoid his fate, but Willas would not be swayed.
"You are as of now relieved of your duties."
Garth stared at him, his eyes hard. "You cannot spare me."
"I can, and I will."
Garth grunted. "When it all falls apart do not come begging to ask me to return."
"That will never happen, I assure you."
"Your father never…"
"I am not my father," Willas said, his voice harsh.
Garth grunted again. "At least tell me why."
"You have too long wielded power," Willas told him. "Too many men are in your pocket, too many who owe you favors and will do your bidding, not mine. No, don't try to deny it. I have known for years. My grandmother always told me. She said, 'Willas, the day you rule the Reach the first thing you do is get rid of him'. So I am."
"That old fool, she…"
"Silence!" Willas shouted. "I will not have you sully her name in my presence, not when she is freshly dead."
His uncle glared but said nothing. "Good," Willas said, in a calmer voice. "Now, to the future. I will grant you a pension of five hundred gold dragons a year as reward for your long service to our family."
"A mere pittance," his uncle replied with scorn. "Keep your money, for you will need it when the finances collapse without my steady hand. I have more than enough."
"Very well. You are also to leave Highgarden, only to return at my special invitation for official functions and holidays."
Now his eyes bulged and he began to sweat. "Leave Highgarden? But it has been my home for over sixty years!"
"You have an estate in the countryside, do you not?"
"Yes, but it is not my home!"
"Now it is. I will not have you here, poisoning the good work I intend to do."
His uncle tried a new tactic as his voice became almost fawning. "But I am your family, Willas, I am your uncle. Surely that must count for something."
"Family? You dare speak to me of family? After the way you treated my mother and sister when you knew my father was dead?"
"I did nothing to insult or harm them," he retorted, his old hard self again.
"No, you did nothing but disobey their wishes."
"Wishes that would have released Cersei and her daughter, so they could plague us ever more!"
"Not release them, only made their stay more comfortable. You held them almost like common prisoners, all without my say so."
"Your father was dead and you were far away. I had to take the necessary steps."
"Including murdering a young girl on a cold road in the middle of the night?"
"That was not my doing or intention. By all accounts your precious friend Martell's bastard daughter did the deed."
"It matters not who killed her. Our men set the trap. Our men, our brave lords and sers, who look down their noses on anyone who is not. Ambushing a fleeing mother and her daughter in the dark of night. You have no idea how much damage that has done to our precious sense of honor. Nor how often I had to apologize for that in King's Landing."
His uncle would have nothing of it. "We did the realm a favor. Besides, if they didn't help the Kingslayer escape none of this would have happened. They would have been allowed to go into exile."
"The way Ser Jaime told the story, you and Caswell and Fossoway made it easy for him to escape."
"So you take the word of a traitor over me?"
Willas calmed himself. "No, Uncle."
"If anyone is to blame it is Caswell and Fossoway. I gave them orders to make sure all three got to King's Landing. Ask them if you don't believe me."
"I can't. They are dead."
Now his eyes really bulged. "Dead? How? When?"
"The news of both their deaths I just received by raven this morning. Fossoway's horse went mad and threw him when he was on his way to his homelands. He broke his neck in the fall. As for Caswell, apparently he was drunk and fell into the Mander off the bridge near his keep. He broke through the thin ice and was swept downriver and drowned before anyone could save him."
"They were murdered!"
That reaction surprised Willas. "Don't be foolish. Accidents, both."
"The Imp! It's his doing!" Garth said, eyes wide with fear.
"I doubt it. Why would he risk war with us over such?"
"Revenge for his dead family. He is a devious one, mark my words. Accidents my foot. I am next, don't you see!"
"Now you are being over dramatic, Uncle. For one, Lord Tyrion hated his sister. As for Ser Jaime, he died in a trial by combat which had nothing to do with us."
"Then it's his niece, Myrcella. He wants revenge for her."
"I give up," Willas said in exasperation. "I will not accuse Tyrion Lannister of any such thing without solid proof."
"When I am dead will that be proof enough for you?"
"You are in no danger. If you die, I will go to war, I promise you."
"A small comfort that will be if I am dead. Let me stay here, so I will be more protected."
"Let us put this matter to rest," Willas said with impatience. "I will not change my mind concerning you. As of now, you are retired and must leave the city."
Garth composed himself and then gave him a stern glare. "You have not heard the last of me," and he left without even the courtesy of a good-bye.
When he was gone, Willas' mother came out of the nearby bedroom. "Did you hear it all, Mother?"
"Yes. He must go, Willas."
"He will. I will not have him here."
"No…he must go. Permanently."
Willas looked at her in puzzlement and then at last understood and wondered at how she came to such a decision. Long she hated him, he knew, but to kill him, no, he would not do that. He shook his head. "No. He is old. He cannot last much longer."
"And if he tries to undo your rule?"
"Then we best make sure he doesn't."
"Very well. For that we must put it on a more solid foundation," she said. "It is high time you were married."
Willas grinned slightly. "Father tried to make a match for me with Sansa Stark."
"I have heard. A beauty, is she not?"
"I have not seen her, but by all accounts yes. But she is almost half my age younger, just thirteen or fourteen I believe. Still, by all accounts a lovely young lady."
His mother's face grew worried. "Willas, we have heard rumors of her."
"I know, about her and Sandor Clegane."
"It would not be good to marry a woman who could never love you."
"Perhaps not," he said with a small sigh. "It would also insult our loyal bannermen who have daughters. Very well. I trust you in this matter. Find me a wife, Mother. I prefer blond hair and blue eyes, if you must know."
"I remember. You and Cecilia Beesbury. When she stayed with us that month as a companion to your sister. You were smitten with her, but your father refused the match for he had higher hopes for you. A more noble family, he said."
At the mention of the name old feelings stirred in Willas. "Cecilia, yes…what has become of her?"
"A maid of sixteen years, she is. Never married. Some say her father refused more than one hand for her, perhaps holding out hope for yours. I have been in touch with her father. They will come here in a week."
Willas smiled. "When were you going to tell me?"
She smiled back. "I just did." She bent over and kissed his brow. "I want you to be happy, my son. Marry her if you wish, but do not feel forced to do so."
"We shall see. Thank you, Mother. Now I have much work to do."
As his mother was leaving she stopped at the door. "Tyrion Lannister," she said.
"Yes, what of him?" Willas said as he looked up from some papers on his desk
"He is like his father in many ways I have heard people say. He will not forget or forgive what they did to his family. Caswell, Fossoway. Is it possible he had them killed?"
Willas knew she was right, but could not say so to Garth. He had heard all the stories when in King's Landing. Lord Tarly told him of the suspected Faceless Man who had freed Loras and Margaery, suspected to have been hired by Lord Tyrion to free them. There was also the story of one such man pretending to be Stannis and killing his red woman on Dragonstone. Again, rumors floated about that Tyrion had hired him to do the deed.
"Yes, possible, but with no proof I will say nothing."
"What if Garth also dies through some accident?"
"Then I will breath a little easier and sleep a little better."
"So will I," his mother said and then she bid him good day.
Garth did die, five months later, of a heart seizure, which the maesters said was perfectly normal for a man of his age and girth. Perhaps his condition has been exacerbated by his nervousness in those last months. He kept a personal guard around his country estate day and night, hardly slept, and had all his food tasted before he partook. He let go servants he suspect of treachery and even had one poor man near flogged to death, trying to make him confess that he was a spy. The man's only crime was to be discovered in Garth's solar picking up some papers that had fallen to the floor while he was filling the lamps with oil. When Willas heard the news he forced Garth to pay for the man's treatment for his injuries and give him an additional one hundred in gold for his pain. When his uncle died Willas did the decent thing and gave him a proper funeral in Highgarden.
Willas met Cecilia Beesbury, and soon a match was made, a lavish wedding held, and in time an heir and a spare were born, along with a pair of twin sisters as well. His own sister Margaery at last re-married, this time to a knight of some standing of the Hightower family, a distant cousin, for their mother was a Hightower. Unlike her brief and, to Willas' point of view, ridiculous marriage to Renly, this one lasted, was consummated, and produced three children in the years to come.
When the winter ended Willas had the body of King Tommen Baratheon exhumed and returned to Casterly Rock. He and his wife accompanied the casket, and stayed at the Rock during the funeral. As per order of the Queen, throughout the realm all dead were burned. Later the King's ashes were interned in a stone sarcophagus in the Lannister hall of the dead.
After, Tyrion and Willas had time to be alone and talk. They were in his solar, discussing some matters of trade and the raising of men and funds for the Queen's growing royal army and also the Night's Watch.
"I always wondered something, my lord," Willas said, when the formal talks were done and they were sipping a decent wine. "Concerning Lords Caswell and Fossoway. "
"Oh, yes? What of them?" Tyrion replied.
"Their deaths is what concerns me."
"Really? As far as I know, they both died in accidents."
"Yes. So I was told."
Tyrion smiled slightly, an enigmatic smile, one that bespoke of a hidden secret. "Well, then I believe we have nothing to talk about. As far as you and the realm are concerned, they died in accidents. And as far as I am concerned, your family had nothing to do with planning the murder of my niece. Do we understand each other, my lord?"
As he said this last somewhere in the castle a dragon roared, as if daring Willas to challenge the dragon's master. But Willas was no fool. Enough blood had been spilled, and those who had died had stained his house's honor. "We do," Willas replied, knowing Tyrion was more like Lord Tywin than he had ever suspected, and the matter was dropped and never spoken of again.
The Lord of Casterly Rock finally returned to his home after the wars to a hero's welcome. At least from the few people who remained. His family had been gutted by the wars. His father, brother, sister, two uncles, four cousins, two nephews and a niece, all dead, and many more were missing, most likely wights destroyed in battle or still roaming the roads at night. Pod was dead as well, and Tyrion keenly felt his loss.
He and Bronn first returned to the capital to get Shae and find out how his men were doing. She hugged him tight and kissed away much of his tiredness and aches. As far as his army was concerned, they were healing well, and all were eager to get home.
"Yes, it is time," he told Clegane and the other commanders. "Let us prepare."
When the meeting was done, Clegane was waiting for him. "How is she?" he asked.
"Well, as far as I know," Tyrion replied, having no need to ask who 'she' was. "At home, in Winterfell, with her family…where she belongs."
"I will not cause any trouble if that's what you are trying to say."
"I am. And I appreciate you not doing so." The big man said nothing and turned to leave and Tyrion felt bad for him, knowing what it had been like to love someone you could not have, more than once. "Look, winter is on the land, and I need you with me, for now. But there is still the future. She will get older, and knowing the temperament of these Stark ladies I am sure she will defy her father some day and come to you."
"I don't want that if it means a war with her family."
"Well, then you had best get over her."
"I can't," he said and then was gone. Poor bugger, was all Tyrion could think to say. He knew Ned would never let Sansa go to him, and if she did it on her own, it would be nothing but trouble.
A week later they were ready to leave the capital. Before he left he had an audience with the Queen and Ser Barristan. "I wish to offer you a position on my council," she said. "No specific one, except as advisor. Your wisdom is needed."
He shook his head. "I am flattered, Your Grace, but I must decline. I am weary. I need to return home and straighten out my affairs there."
Ser Barristan snorted. "I told you he would refuse."
"You did," the Queen said with an admonishing look that Ser Barristan did not seem to notice, for he pressed on.
"The Queen is not responsible for your brother's death, Lord Tyrion. He brought that on all by himself."
Ser Barristan as always saw things so clearly. It was the real reason Tyrion had refused. Despite their more cordial relations of late, he was unable to see himself sitting with and helping the woman who had sent Jaime to his death, not yet at least, maybe not ever. In truth he did want to join them, finding nothing more enjoyable in life than the intrigues of politics, besides sex, wine, and books that is. But Jaime's death was still too fresh for him to consider it.
"Yes, I quite agree, Jaime made his own troubles," Tyrion said. "But as I said, I must return home. Perhaps in time to come I may fill a post. But for now, I must beg off, Your Grace."
"So be it," the Queen replied. "Fare you well on your journey home."
It took three weeks, the snows bad in the mountains, slowing their progress, but eventually they reached their homelands and slowly the army began to grow smaller, as men went to their towns and villages on the way. Shae rode with him on Rhaegal, terrified at first, but growing to like it more and more each day they went aloft.
Clegane made his good-byes one day, moving to the north of the Golden Road for his family's keep and lands, a lone man on a big horse moving off in a wide snow covered land.
"I think I shall miss him, sour mood and all," Tyrion said to Bronn.
"Not me," Bronn replied. "He's no fun since he stopped drinking and seeing whores."
"Now we are both married and on our way home, we shall have to be more like him in future."
"The whores, maybe, but you can't mean the wine as well?"
"Oh, by all means, surely not the wine. How silly of me to even hint at such a suggestion."
Tyrion was busy with many problems to resolve when he got home, such as rebuilding Lannisport, fixing the damage to the Rock, and dealing with filling positions once occupied by those now dead. Leo Lefford above all needed placating and so Tyrion made him a new title, master of land. In theory he was supposed to be in charge of developing the land for agriculture, but since the farmers did this themselves, his one main duty ended up being the collection of taxes on farmlands. Of course he used the position to line his own pocket. Tyrion let him be as long as not too much went astray, and Lefford was wise enough to know that Tyrion needed his share and a share also had to go to King's Landing. Tyrion pronounced the new title when Alysanne and Ser Addam got married soon after the wars.
Tyrion also had to find a place for Rhaegal to live. He thought to keep him underground in an old mine, but knew from his study of dragons that they did not thrive well when kept inside covered shelter. Finally he chained him up in the old training grounds, the place where the Clegane brothers had fought, and here Rhaegal lived for many years to come.
After things were more settled, Bronn took his family back to his keep and lands, and for a time Tyrion felt his absence keenly. Then one day Shae told him some startling news.
"I am with child," she said.
"Gods," he said before thinking. He was shocked, and did not smile and hug her or say that was wonderful or anything an expectant father should say to his wife. She snarled in rage and was about to hit him when he felt a tear trickle down his left cheek and then his right and before he knew it he was bawling. She held him close and finally he began to speak, saying how much he loved her and how happy he was.
Only later did the bad thoughts come, the thoughts that had worried him since he had become a man. "What if the child is like me?"
"Idiot," Shae snapped at him. "It will be your child. Of course it will be like you."
"No, I mean…"
"I know what you mean. You will love it no matter what shape or size it is, as I have loved you."
He smiled. "Yes, of course. How silly of me." But still he worried, up to the day his son was born, a perfectly normal son with his mother's nose, and Tyrion's dark, almost purplish eyes and pale blond hair. He named him for his favorite uncle, Gerion, the one who had gone east to Valyria and never returned. A second child, a daughter, was born two years later, and she was as perfect as her brother, though with eyes and darker hair like her mother Shae. He named her for his dead mother, Joanna, and hoped the gods gave her a longer and happier life than his mother had.
During Shae's first pregnancy, about six months after the end of the war and his return home, one day a man appeared at the Rock and asked to see Lord Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion and his guards met him in the foyer of the main entrance hallway. He was an old man, stooped and bent at the waist, a walking stick in hand, a small backpack seeming to weigh him down.
"I am Lord Tyrion Lannister," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"A man has come to collect a debt," the old man said in a low voice that only Tyrion could hear.
He quickly dismissed his guards and took Jaqen H'ghar into a side room. Now the old man straighten his body and his face changed into one more familiar to Tyrion. "Have you heard the news, Lord of Lannister?" Jaqen asked.
"Yes. Seems like bad fortune has befallen three men of late. Two accidents and a heart seizure, was it not?"
"It was, though this man can only own to the first two. Garth Tyrell died of his own excess and age. Though a man tried to reach him sooner, it was not an easy thing to do. Then for a time this man infiltrated his home, but learned that man was quite paranoid about assassination, and even employed food tasters. He also claimed loudly and to all that Tyrion Lannister wanted him dead. Perhaps if a man had hastened his departure, suspicion would have fallen on you. So a man let him be. After seeing him, it was easy to surmise his time was limited. For his death, there is no charge."
"No, I promised full payment no matter what, and so you shall be paid. A Lannister always pays his debts. Er…well…in time. I can give you about half now."
"That will do. Two horses as well a man needs, plus a wagon."
"Done. The rest of the coin I can send in a year's time. I am sure you will still have sufficient funds until I can pay the rest. Where shall I send it?"
"A man will return when the time comes. A year. No later, no sooner."
Jaqen returned to the guise of the old man and Tyrion had his servants put him up in a modest room and bring him food and drink. The next morning, before sunrise, Jaqen rode away on his wagon with half the promised coin, heading up the road to the Golden Tooth. A year later he returned and got his final payment and Tyrion Lannister never laid eyes on him ever again, and never learned where he went, or who he was living as. He could very well have drunk wine with him at some lord's daughter's wedding, or passed him on a road, or even met him at court in King's Landing in later years when he became Hand, but Tyrion never knew. He once asked Ned Stark if any in his family ever saw or heard from the man but no one had, not even Arya.
Meanwhile life went on. He had his history of the wars to write, and his tale of the dragons, and for years he worked on them steadily, occasionally send off letters to ask questions of his comrades of old, or to do research in his own voluminous library. But much of he wrote from memory and from his notes he took in those days and weeks at the end of the war when he wanted to hear everyone's story before they scattered to the winds. At last he finished it, and then came the unwanted and laborious task of handwriting the copies. He sent a letter to King's Landing asking for skilled scribes. When he was still contemplating this unenviable task, he received a letter from Qyburn.
"I wish to use your history as the first book to be printed on my new machine. It uses metal blocks to print words on paper. With this it can make many copies in a short time with less labor than having scribes handwrite the copies."
Tyrion was skeptical, but Shae said go, see him and find out if it was possible. She was busy with two small children so he went by himself. He packed his manuscript and his notes and some clothes, mounted Rhaegal and flew to King's Landing. After the necessary greetings and meetings with the Queen and other officials, he found Qyburn deep in his chambers under the city. It was still as wondrous and strange as the last time Tyrion had been here. His large steam machine was now a mill, filling one side of the rooms, busily grinding grain into flour, a long pipe taking the smoke of the coal fires out into the air outside. But it was the new machine which intrigued Tyrion the most. It was a large wooden device, with metal plates in a press that reminded him of how grapes were turned into wine. On one side was a place where small letters stamped in metal could be placed to form words. Covered in black ink, a sheet of paper was laid over them and then the press closed and the words were imprinted on the paper, in straight, neat, readable lines. Tyrion was flabbergasted that no one had thought of such a thing before now.
"How did you come up with this?" he demanded after seeing the first pages of his book printed.
"I must give credit where credit is due," Qyburn said. "It was Lord Harlaw who gave me the idea. He lamented the time it took to hand copy books. Said it limited our spread of knowledge. I quite agreed. He had heard of such a press used in Yi Ti, using wooden blocks to print one of their religious books. Wood, of course, would not last as long as metal, Lord Harlaw said. We contacted a smith, who thought us mad, but gold changed his mind. He made the metal lettering and other things we needed from molds we helped him design. And so here we are."
Harlaw joined them at the work, and in two weeks they had printed all the pages, bound them with glue and string, covered them with leather, and the first one hundred books of the history were complete. They went on sale at five gold dragons each, and letters saying such were sent to all the great houses and the Citadel as well. Most replied that they would like a copy and so Tyrion began his new venture in publishing. For the Queen, Tyrion made a gift of the first book ever printed in Westeros.
"A History of the Great War of Fire and Ice," she read the title aloud as he presented the book to her in her solar. "By Lord Tyrion Lannister of Casterly Rock." She looked puzzled. "Fire and ice?"
"Fire for the dragons, ice for the Others," he explained.
"I see. And what of the early war between the different factions in Westeros?"
"That is all there as well. The preliminary steps to the greater calamity. Now I must warn you, not everyone is painted in a flattering light. I wrote an honest account, and so some parts may offend some people. I did not spare my own family, nor anyone else."
She smiled slightly. "Even me?"
"Well, that is for you to decide. I must confess I did deride your long stay in Meereen."
Her eyes flicked to Ser Barristan who was sitting nearby. "You are not alone in that criticism, my lord," she said and Ser Barristan looked to protest and then changed his mind and said nothing. "I am sure I can stand to read of my follies, as long as others are equally treated."
"Oh, yes, all is there, the good, the bad, and the ugly."
"You may make some enemies from this," Ser Barristan warned.
Tyrion shrugged. "Then may they remember I have a dragon on my side."
Enemies he did make, in the Reach and Dorne and the Vale especially. The Reach he criticized for their foolish charges that saw so many die on the Trident and in the last battle. Dorne and the Vale he criticized for their late arrival to the wars. It was all true of course, but no one likes to read of their mistakes. Over the years letters filled with hate he received and more than one knight of the Reach challenged him to a duel, one even to his face at King's Landing in later years. He ignored them all and none ever dared try to attack him, a man so highly ranked and obviously in favor with the Queen.
He was concerned with how Ned Stark would take the tale of Jon Snow and all that came of his hiding the truth for so long, but Ned merely said it was a good read and at least Tyrion told the truth of matters.
After the book on the wars was printed he returned to Casterly Rock as the winter was ending at last and began to work on his history of dragons, which was printed a year later. His family finances began to grow better at last, as gold dug out of the ground began to slowly accumulate, as debts he owed were slowly paid off, especially to the Iron Bank, and as trade and the whole of the economy began to get back on an equal footing as before the wars.
When winter ended Lord Willas Tyrell and his new wife returned Tommen's body to the Rock. Tyrion had Tommen's ashes placed in a stone sarcophagus next to Jaime's in the hall of the dead, son and father side by side in death at least. He also had a small memorial made for Myrcella, a stone statue of her placed in a small garden in an upper courtyard, and in years to come Tyrion often went there to think on things and remember the young girl who had died so tragically. He only wished he could have done more to save her.
As for Cersei, there were no memorials, no funerals, no prayers, no place of honor with the other Lannister dead. As far as Tyrion was concerned, she was gone, and though they had no orders to do so, no one ever mentioned his dead sister in his presence. No one except his Aunt Genna, that is.
After Tommen's funeral she broached the subject. "I know you hated her, Tyrion, but she was family. We should have something for her."
"No," he said. "Please never mention it ever again."
She sighed. "As you wish." And she never did. Nor did they mention that other matter, on who his real father was, and Tyrion knew it would do no good to have that become common knowledge. Genna agreed, for it would undermine his position as Lord of Casterly Rock. Whenever anyone asked him why he could fly a dragon when only Targaryens ever could, Tyrion would reply that somewhere in his past his family must have had more than drop of dragon blood, though he knew not who it was. Unlike Drogon, Rhaegal never produced any eggs, so Tyrion would not know if his children could be dragon riders or not, for a dragon only accepted one rider to command it and would not accept another while that rider lived. His children did, however, love riding with him, and he was sure either Gerion or Joanna would become the next Lannister dragonrider once Tyrion was gone from this world.
Genna served him well, as one of his advisors, a tempering voice when others were overly bold or rash, Tyrion as well. It was she who told him it was his duty to go to the capital and serve the Queen when the letter arrived asking him to be Hand after Ser Barristan had died.
Tyrion still could not forget Jaime. "She had my brother killed."
"No, Tyrion. Jaime made his own bed. You tried to save him, everyone knows this. The Queen needs you or she would not have asked."
So he went, as he always did, and his family came with him and later Bronn joined him as captain of his guards, bringing his wife and two growing sons with him as well. Tyrion had missed it all, the intrigues of politics, and as Hand he was at the pinnacle of power in Westeros. Tyrion enjoyed life, as he always did, and he was never so happy.
But in the nights, sometimes when alone and awake, reading or thinking, he would remember the woman he had first loved, Tysha, and wonder where she was and what had become of her. For all his power and gold and use of Varys' network of little birds, no sign or word of her was ever found or heard, and sometimes he wondered if it had just been all a dream, that first marriage, that little house they had lived in, those few short weeks they had together. And then he would remember how horribly they had treated her, and he would find himself weeping, and wondering if his memories were the gods' way of punishing him for his current happiness, and for the terrible crime he had committed against a woman he had loved.
He was drunk as usual, but the drinking was not so much for pleasure these days, but to dull the pains in his belly. They had started a moon's turn ago and had gotten worse each day. Trying to suffer in silence, he told no one, not Tyrion, not his wife or his two sons, all who had come to the capital with him when Tyrion named him captain of his guard when he became Hand. That was five years ago, and life had been good up to now. The only thing that dulled the pain was wine, and tonight he was in one of his favorite old haunt's in King's Landing, a wine sink in one of the seedier parts of town, a place that reminded him of younger days when he had only a few coppers in his pocket and not a care in the world.
Maybe it was the caring that gave him belly aches. He loved his wife, though he would never admit that to Tyrion. His sons were growing into fine men, both tall and strong and becoming fine swordsmen. Both wanted to be knights, despite Bronn's disdain for those who called themselves 'ser'. In the capital he found good men willing to take his sons on as squires so they spent their days serving these men, and were happier for it.
The wine sink he came across on his way home after first visiting an apothecary. He explained the pains he had to the apothecary proprietor and asked if he had anything to cure him. The man shook his head sadly. "Not if it's the wasting sickness."
"Feels like crabs pinching your guts? Blood in your chamber pot after a shit?"
"Aye. Getting worse too. What can I do?"
"Nothing. Milk of the poppy will help ease the pain."
"Fuck that. What do you mean nothing? Am I going to die?"
"They all do in the end…sorry."
Bronn was in shock. "How long?" he asked quietly.
"A month or two. Half a year at most."
Bronn stared at the man, not believing it, and stumbled out of the place in a daze. "Fuck. After all I been through," he thought to himself. He started walking home, to the Red Keep and the Tower of the Hand, ready to admit to his wife what was happening, maybe to see Qyburn to see if he had any answers, for he seemed to know more than most men. That's when he saw the alley and remembered the wine sink, and it was still there.
"A drink or two," he said to himself. "To ease the aches." And to face the wife.
Come the dawn he was still there, senseless with drink, dicing for his coin with three other men. That was a mistake, dicing with the silver and gold he had, when they had nothing but coppers. His soft clothing too marked him as one who did not belong here. No one knew who he really was and he did not tell them, wanting to enjoy himself without being called 'lord' or be known as Tyrion's friend. They won some of his coin, but then he knew it was time to go home at last, and he scooped up the rest of his coins, put them in his money purse, and staggered out the door.
They caught up to him near the alley entrance, all three.
"The coin," the biggest one said. "Hand it over." In the dim light in the shadows made by the rising sun Bronn saw he had a long dagger in his hand.
"That sword too," said another one with a cudgel, standing behind Bronn. "Look at that hilt. Reckon that's a real ruby?"
"Could be," said the third one, a skinny fellow, not much heft to him, ugly as well, but with the dull flat eyes of a man who has seen war, and he showed no fear. He had a short sword, pointing right at Bronn's belly.
Bronn grinned. "Coin is it you want?"
"And the sword," said the big fellow. "Right sharpish now, then you be on your way."
"If you want it, you have to earn it."
Bronn's fighting knife was in the big fellow's throat as he said the last word, slicing away his life, and he gargled out blood and fell to the ground. He knocked away the sword with a back swipe of his other hand, and he felt pain there, and then his boot kicked the fellow with the cudgel behind him in the lower shin. His sword was out and it the swordsman's belly before he could react, and then Bronn saw stars as the cudgel hit this head. He fell to his knees and pain sliced into his right thigh and he looked down and saw the skinny swordsman had stabbed him as he lay dying. Bronn yelled in pain and then swung around and skewered the man with the cudgel and he dropped and died as well as the first two.
Bronn staggered out into the street, looking for help, but it was empty this time of day. He walked a block, pounding on doors, but no one came. Then he collapsed, blood gushing from his leg wound, him unable to stop the flow. He tried to pull off his sword belt, to use it to tie his leg wound off, but his hands felt numb, his fingers cut from where he had knocked the sword away, his fingers now clumsy, and he could not do it. He leaned against a wall and waited for death to come.
"Are you hurt?" said a voice, a woman's. He opened his eyes and saw her, a skinny woman with brown hair, younger than he was. She was carrying a burlap sack of something.
"Aye. My leg. I need a tourniquet. Can you help me?"
She said nothing, staring at him. "I know you," she said at last, her voice changing.
"What? Come on, woman, I'm dying here. Wait…I know you, too. The baker boy's woman? Sorry, forget your name."
"Sheila," she said. "From Harrenhal. We have our bakery around the corner."
"Aye. Sheila, be a love and give me a hand. Quick now, before it's too late." Already she was swimming in a cloud of haze before his eyes.
"You attacked Harrenhal," she said, her voice hardening. "You killed a man. I know you did it. Everyone told me it was you."
"What? What man?" he gasped, feeling his body go numb, hardly able to think.
"My father," she said, her voice catching a bit. "He was one of the guardsmen under Lady Whent. A good man he was and you cut him down in cold blood. Long I wanted to see you die. I served you at Harrenhal, and later at the Twins in the King's tent, and at Salt Pans, and every time I saw you I prayed that the gods would take you away. Now they have answered my prayers at last, you horrible man. I hope you rot in some deep dark hell."
She turned and walked away, and as life ebbed out of Bronn, he thought maybe he deserved her scorn and hatred. How many fathers and husbands and brothers had he killed over the years? Enough for the gods to condemn him to hell? Maybe. But he also knew this was a mercy, for he'd be dead in a month or two anyway, from the crabs in his belly. His only regret was he did not get to say good-bye to his family, or Tyrion, and he knew the little shit would weep for him when he heard the news. He hoped they would all get good and drunk at his funeral.
"Fuck it all," Bronn said aloud with his last bit of energy, and then he died.
Arya Stark became a woman at last and consummated her marriage during the second year of the winter. Five months later she became pregnant and as the winter ended a boy was born to her and Gendry. They named him Robert, for Gendry's dead father. In the next ten years to come six more children she had, seven in all, four boys and three girls, and all would live to adulthood. Arya's mother said it was the gods' doing, seven being the number of the gods, but Arya would always say it was love that did it, love she had for her husband, and the love she had for her family.
Their first son was born at Winterfell but the rest were born at Castle Cerwyn, which she and Gendry decided to rename Castle Baratheon, for their new family. They moved in after the winter ended, and found they had much to do. The place was home to some twenty smallfolk, who claimed it as theirs, even after they learned who Arya and Gendry were. After Nymeria near tore the leg off their leader, they had no more trouble, and the man even became their strongest supporter in years to come. After his leg healed Gendry gave him a spear and armor as he did the rest of the men and made them their first guard. The women became their servants, and none complained. One old woman turned out to be a fine cook, and another a midwife, which Arya would need in years to come. The children they trained to fight as well, even the girls, for all would need to fight if the wights ever came back.
Her troubles with the Freys ended at last as well. Her father and Gendry went to the Twins when winter was over, carrying two large chests of gold. Lord Ryman Frey was eager to accept the payment, but the one called Black Walder said it was an insult, so little after his family had done so much for the Starks. Arya's father had to promise two more chests, and even then Black Walder wanted more. Two young Freys were to be taken by Gendry as his squires, and made knights when the time came, all to be paid for by the Stark family. Only when her father and Gendry agreed to all terms was the wedding promise renounced by both families in front of a septon.
Arya and Gendry could at last breathe a little easier. With the Queen's first promise of Gendry's gold for being a hero arrived they made major repairs to their castle, and bought enough seed to plant the nearby land and they would soon no longer be dependent on Winterfell for coin or food. More smallfolk came, and settled, and in time three thriving villages sprang up near the castle. Gendry was their smith of course, and he trained two boys as apprentices. Arya was the lady of the house, and saw to all, the stables, the gardens, the kitchen, the brewery, the sept, and the servants. For ten years they lived like this, and often Arya's family visited for they were only a half day ride from Winterfell. Old friends came and went, and their family grew bigger and bigger.
Nymeria went off one time to hunt she thought, and was gone for a long time. She had been getting heavier, and Arya thought she was sick, but it turned out she was pregnant, and when she came home, five little pups followed her. They looked like a cross between direwolf and dog, and no doubt one of the big dogs Gendry kept to help him hunt was the father. Arya's children took to the pups immediately, and began giving them names, and fighting over who owned who. Gendry told them they would share them all or he would cast them out in the wild, and that ended the fighting. In time, Arya grew to know her children had inherited her special abilities, and long did she train them in the ways she had learned, and also told them they must keep silent about it, for outsiders would not understand.
Her children also knew their parents had done something special in the past, but it was only when Robert was eight years old did they find out the whole truth. Arya schooled her children, but with so much to do and her limited knowledge she had sent Robert to Winterfell for more intense study with Maester William. When he came home for a visit he had Tyrion Lannister's big book on the war with him. Long into the night he read about the war, and he read aloud to his brothers and sisters the parts about Arya and Gendry and the rest of the Stark family. At breakfast the next morning they were all looking at their father with big eyes. Finally Robert spoke.
"Father, did you kill a dragon?"
"Ah…yes," Gendry said. "With your mother's help," he quickly added. And then it was bedlam as everyone was talking and asking questions and so they told them the story, and more stories, but also told them that everyone who fought in that war was a hero, and not to let them think their parents were anything special. But of course they did.
One sunny day her father came, with a letter that had arrived from Storm's End by raven. "For you," he said, as he handed the letter to Gendry. In the last ten years he had learned to read and write well. As he opened it and read his eyes grew wide.
"Shireen Baratheon has died," he said. "Taken by a sickness one month ago."
"How terrible," Arya said, remembering the young girl who had tried to be her friend on Dragonstone before it had erupted.
"Her mother is dead as well," Arya's father reminded them, his eyes taking on a narrow cast as he looked at Gendry, who had gone pale. "What else does it say?"
Gendry gulped. "The old maester, he wrote it. He says…he says…I am heir to Storm's End."
Arya gasped. "No! It can't be! I know Shireen never married, but there must be a cousin or an uncle or someone."
Gendry shook his head and handed her the letter and then she shook her head in disbelief. "Gendry is next in line, the maester writes," Arya said. "Shireen made a will and named him heir after her mother died four years ago."
"Poor child," her father said. "She knew she would never marry, would have no children."
"She wanted it for us," Arya continued. "Me and Gendry. For what her mother tried to do to us. To ask for forgiveness."
Her father got that grim look he often had. "Someone in the family may contest this."
They did, and it took a year or so to straighten it all out, and they had to go to King's Landing for a hearing in front of the master of laws, but in the end the will stood as a binding document and as Gendry had been declared legitimate and could inherit, so the castle and lands became Gendry's. He, the orphan bastard of King's Landing, had become by the stroke of a quill one of the richest men in the land.
True to form, the new Lord Baratheon never let it go to his head, and in later years when at times it seemed like it might, Arya put him in his place and made him stop being so foolish. After the hearing Lord Davos took them by ship from King's Landing to their new home, just the two of them, for their children had stayed in Winterfell while the matter was settled. And now for the first time Gendry met his half brother, Edric Storm. They worried on this, for they feared Edric might feel slighted. He had lived in the castle all his life, and now a new master had come, one who had been born in even worse circumstances, but was now heir to it all. However, Edric turned out to be nice young man, who held no grudges and he and Gendry became like true brothers, and life long friends. The first night at a lavish dinner they spoke on the matter.
"Besides," he said to Gendry. "You are the older. If we were both legitimized, the inheritance would still be yours."
The old maester spoke up. "There is another, one older still."
"Mya Stone," Gendry said. They had heard all about her from Sansa's adventures in the Vale.
"More than her," the maester added. "Only the gods know how many children your father had, my lords."
"Varys would know," Arya said and so she wrote to him and later he wrote back, and told them all he knew. Five more children of Robert Baratheon were out there he believed, all unaware of who their true father was.
"What should I do?" Gendry asked her as they prepared for bed that night after they received Varys' letter. "They are all my kin."
"Maybe best if we do nothing," she said. "Maybe they wouldn't believe it anyway. Or they might ask for too much and cause us nothing but trouble. Old Nan always said too many piglets at the teats mean someone will go with nothing."
"I heard the same, but about cats. But at least we can ask Mya Stone to come if she wants. She is my older sister after all and I would like to meet her."
"Yes, that would be nice. Let us write to her in the Vale."
A year later, all their children had at last come to their new home, and so did her parents for a time, and later Mya Stone.
When Gendry and Edric met her at the gates, she climbed off her horse, and then took a look at her two younger brothers, standing side by side. She was stunned, seeing family for the first time in her life, and then she swallowed hard, and dipped her head, to Gendry, who wore the Baratheon stag sigil on his doublet.
"My lord, I am Mya Stone, your half sister."
He said nothing, but approached her, with tears in his eyes, and hugged her tight in his big arms. "Welcome home, sister," he said and she gasped and started to cry. Edric joined them, and Arya and all her children stood by with her parents waiting for them to calm themselves.
Gendry at last introduced the rest to her, and when she got to Lord and Lady Stark, Mya dipped her head.
"My lord, my lady. I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter Sansa once long ago. How is she?"
There was a long awkward silence and then Arya's mother smiled politely. "She is well." Lord Stark's face had turned to stone, and he curtly greeted her and turned away and walked back into the castle.
Mya was apologetic. "I am sorry if I have offended anyone."
"It's not your fault," Arya told her. "My sister…well, it's a long story."
When the winter ended Sansa Stark became one the healing teachers that was being asked to work in the school at King's Landing being set up by the Queen. When the request came she hesitated, but her father sat her down and explained things to her.
"This is from the Queen. It would be difficult to refuse. Besides, it is a good thing you would be doing. The realm needs healers, and these young girls need someone to guide them."
"I am a young girl as well."
"You are sixteen now, a woman. It is time for you to take your place in the world. And maybe in King's Landing you will meet…"
"No," she said quickly, cutting him off. "I won't."
Her father said no more about it. She agreed to go, and when the roads were better she left with some men to guard her. Saying goodbye to her family was hard, especially since her sister had just had a baby, but she was glad to be doing something useful once more. She had also hoped Sandor might be in the city, but after she arrived she soon found out he had left years ago, when Tyrion Lannister had taken his army home.
As for her problems with the Vale, she was never asked to give an account of what had happened to Baelish and Corbray. Lord Yohn Royce, embarrassed by Lady Lysa's confession of helping Baelish murder Jon Arryn, tried to sweep the whole matter under the rug. He became Lord Protector of the Vale and took young Robert Arryn under his wing and tried to raise him as a proper man and leader for his people. Sansa's confession on the edge of the moon door was dismissed as a girl terrified for her life saying anything to please her tormentor. Lady Lysa's death was put down as an accident, which she had brought on herself by pushing Sansa out the door. All this was explained in a long letter Lord Royce sent to Sansa's father. He even told them he had the moon door removed and a thick stone wall now stood in its place. From now on people in the Vale would receive a fair hearing for their crimes.
But the matter was not at an end as she had hoped. No one cared for Baelish, and many were glad he was dead, but Ser Lyn Corbray was another matter. He had a family, and they demanded answers. Questions asked in Duskendale led them to the belief, not incorrect, that Sandor Clegane had killed their kin. Who told them Sansa never knew, but she often wondered if it had been that family whose house Tyrion had quartered in. When the winter ended, about the same time Sansa was approaching King's Landing, three men of the Corbray family traveled from the Vale, searching for Sandor. They found him on his family lands, confronted him, and a fight ensure. Sandor killed all three, but was gravely wounded.
Word of this she did not know until Tyrion Lannister showed up in the capital for some meetings with the Queen. When she asked about Sandor, his face clouded over, and he told her the story, and how he was still in a sick bed, more than a month after the attack, hardly clinging to life, despite Tyrion sending a maester to tend to him. Several wounds he had, many minor, but a sword wound in the upper right chest was bad. At first it seemed he might recover, but many days later the chest wound festered. It was a wound that would have killed a normal man by now, but Sandor Clegane was not a normal man, and he still clung to life.
She packed her bags and healing kit, got medicines from the maesters, and from them and the strange man Qyburn who had once tended Robb she learned all she could about such a wound. When she asked Tyrion how to find the Clegane keep, he did her a favor she would never forget. "There is no need for you to ride. I will take you on Rhaegal." Then he looked at her, his eyes full of sadness, but he said nothing.
As they flew over the countryside, Sansa could see the land coming to life again, the fields filled with workers planting crops, the flowers blooming, the trees green once more. A land of beauty, but she felt no joy, fearing the man she loved would be dead by the time she reached him.
He was not but close enough it was hard to tell. The Clegane lands were on the southeastern slopes of the mountains that made up the central uplands of the west, close on a stream that fed the upper Red Fork of the Trident. A high tower was the main building, with some sheds and barns and a large stable and kennel nearby. Two villages were close by but looked mainly deserted as they flew overhead. Hanging from the top battlements of the keep was a large banner with the Clegane sigil, three black dogs on a golden field.
She found him laid out in a bed on the second floor of the keep, attended by a middle-aged dark haired maester and an older woman who she later learned was a cousin of Sandor's father. They later told her they had no strength to take so large a man to the upper floors, so his bed was brought down in what would normally have been a living room. She quailed when she saw him, lying in bed, his hair long and his beard growing on the half of his faced untouched by fire, his forehead hot with fever, his breathing ragged. His chest was wrapped with bandages and she could smell the infection before she saw it.
"I fear he hasn't long," said the maester. "I made a poultice, but it did not work. Too long he went without proper care."
"I did my best," the cousin lamented. Sansa later learned she had come to live with Sandor to care for his house. After the attack came she had sent a boy on a horse to find help but it took a week for word to reach Tyrion that his bannerman was in trouble.
She hovered over him, not sure what to do, feeling lost…but then she knew she had to try or she would never forgive herself. She took off her cloak, rolled up her sleeves, and told them to bring her hot water, scalding hot, and the cousin moved to obey.
"What are you doing?" the maester demanded. "He will die, mark my words."
"Not if I can help it," Sansa shot back. "Now help me or get out of my way."
"Lord Tyrion, who is this woman?"
"A healer," Tyrion said. "Who saw more of war and wounds than you ever did. Now do as Lady Stark says. Help her or get out of the way."
"Lady Stark?" the maester said in surprise. "Sansa Stark?"
"He was mumbling your name. 'Sansa' he kept saying."
"That's me. Please help me save him."
The maester shook his head but then he must have saw something in her eyes and nodded. "We will do our best."
After they washed their hands and arms they unwrapped the bandages on his chest and Sansa saw the ugly red pus filled wound. She also saw the terrible shoulder scar where his brother had near killed him. As they unwrapped the bandages Sandor grimaced in pain and opened his eyes a bit.
"What? Sansa?" he said in a bare whisper.
"I am here," she told him. "I am going to save you."
"No…no good…let me die."
"No, I am going to save you," she said, already knowing what she wanted. "And when you can rise from this bed I am going to marry you."
His eyes widened and then she thought he smiled, but maybe she just wanted it to be so. "Let's get to work," Sansa said.
"I think that is my cue to leave," Tyrion said.
The maester got his medicines. "First milk of the poppy." They gave him so much he was totally senseless when they got to work. They cut into the flesh of the wound, drained massive amounts of pus, and cut and cut away the dead flesh, but still the red lines of corruption snaked across his chest. She was told by Qyburn this might be so and he explained to what to do. "We must shave all the hair away, from the chest, clean everywhere. And then we must burn the wound with fire. Deep, not just on the surface."
"I know that much, young healer. But he refuse to let me do so," the maester said. "Threatened my life."
"He will die if we don't do it. We must try."
The cousin spoke up. "He hates fire."
"I know. But it must be done."
In the hearth nearby Sansa heated a dagger until it was red hot. Four men who worked on the land came in and held Sandor down, even though he was still asleep from the milk of the poppy. The cousin held a lamp over the wound and they cleaned him and shaved the area around the wound. The maester sponged away the blood and used a device of Qyburn's making for spreading flesh apart so she could work deep. Sansa used another Qyburn tool, a suction device, to drain more pus and blood from the wound, and then she took the dagger, a heavy glove on her hand to protect it from the heat.
She looked at Sandor. "Forgive me," she said and then she placed the dagger inside the wound. Sandor shook and arched his back and a low garble came from his mouth, and the four men had to use all their strength to hold him to the bed. Sansa worked fast, her training paying off as she played the dagger around the wound, burning and searing, sealing off the wound, cauterizing it, the smell of burnt flesh heavy in the room, and then she was done. Catgut came next, her years of needlepoint training coming in handy. When done the maester made a new poultice and slapped it over the wound before they bandaged him.
"Now we must wait," she said.
"And pray," said the cousin, whose name was Maria.
After Sansa cleaned her hands again and dried them off she went outside into the fresh spring air, the men following her.
"May the Seven bless your soul, my lady," said one, and the four men dipped their heads to her and went off down by a barn where they had been laboring to fill it with fresh cut hay when she had first arrived. A dog was there, big and black, chained up, and he growled and snapped at the men. Sansa approached.
"Don't go near Blackie, my lady," warned one man. "He'll rip your arm off. Only the lord can get near him."
"No, he won't harm me," she said. "I know how to tame a mad dog." As she got nearer she stared at the dog, deep into its large eyes, and slowly its growls turn to whimpers and by the time she was beside him he was down on his belly, making whining noises. She was looking out his eyes, at herself, and then she smiled and came out of his mind. "Hello, Blackie," she said as she petted him, and the four men looked at her in astonishment.
She found Tyrion sitting on a bench by a stream which Rhaegal was in the process of trying to empty with big laps of his huge tongue. Nearby were some more men and boys standing by some stables and who could only stare in awe at the dragon and the little man who rode it.
"How is he?" Tyrion asked.
"Time will tell," she replied.
"Sit…we must talk."
She sat and he talked. "You said you would marry him, yes?"
"Was that a promise you intend to keep, or just a way to make him fight for his life?"
"Both. I am a Stark. We don't break our promises."
"Say what you think, my lord. I have heard it all enough already."
"Will be mad, yes. My mother as well. My sister, my brothers, everyone. I don't care. It is my life."
"You are the daughter of a great lord."
"A daughter who will become an old maid."
"And if he dies?"
She struggled to control her emotions. "If he dies, then I will die as well. For a time. We will bury him, not burn him, and to hell with the Queen's orders, for I would never put a flame to his body ever again, especially not in death."
"And then when I am ready I will do my duty once more, as I have done most of my life, and be a great lord's daughter again. If some day a man comes along who wants me not because I am a great lord's daughter or because I have wealth or can give him power, then maybe I will marry such a man."
"Such men are few and far between."
"Sadly, you speak a great truth. Why can't we marry for love? The smallfolk do it all the time. You did it."
"Yes, I did. I am a great lord and I married a woman of questionable reputation. But I don't give a care. All these noble lords and ladies and sers smile to our faces, but whisper behind our back, when Shae accompanies me anywhere. We laugh about it and call them fools. But I know it hurts her sometimes. Yet we have no regrets."
"I thought you were going to try to talk me out of marrying him."
"No, I would never do that. But please tell your father nothing of this conversation. I'd hate to have him begin to dislike me again."
They were silent for a while and then Sansa wanted to know something. "The men who came for Sandor…where are they?"
Tyrion nodded to the stream. "Their ashes and bones are in there, long gone downriver by now. Their arms and armor the village smith melted down. Their horses were slaughtered and the meat salted down, and it was welcomed by all, as not much is left till the new crops come in. Not a trace will you leave, I told them, and watched them do the work."
"So many people know."
"You cannot hide this. Someday someone else will come asking after the three men."
"Quite possibly," Tyrion agreed. "And someone will talk. They always do."
"Yes. They always do," Sansa said with a sigh. "Were the three of any high rank?"
"Knights, all three."
"Will it never end? Perhaps I should tell the realm the truth, what really happened that night. It was self-defense after all."
"No, say nothing. Leave it to me. I am thinking of flying to the Vale and having words with Lord Royce about all this."
"What will you say?" she asked, glad he was on her side in this.
"I will tell him three of his people attacked one of my bannermen with no provocation. Accused him of crimes with no proof. They tried to kill him instead of seeking justice in more civilized ways, and he had to defend himself. If the families of the dead persist on asking for justice, I will offer gold. If they still refuse, I shall remind them of my scaly friend here and also that the Queen is on my side."
In the end he had to do just that. They took the gold, and so he did not have threaten them with his dragon or the power of the Iron Throne. When Sansa's father heard how Tyrion had paid to keep the matter quiet, he tried to pay Tyrion back but he refused to take the money. "My family did enough harm to yours," Tyrion said to her father when he flew to Winterfell. "Consider it a debt I owed you and is now paid."
Robb had to tell her all this in a letter because she and her father were no longer speaking to each other when those events came about. Sandor did not die, though it was touch and go for a week, and a month later he was strong enough to stand by her side in a village sept and become her husband. Only the local people attended, those who lived on the Clegane lands, and called him lord, though he hated it, and now called her Lady Clegane. He took one sip of wine to toast their wedding, but drank no more, and kept that promise through all the years ahead. Ale he would have with his meals, but no more than a cup, and strong drink he banished from his life, blasphemy as well, though in that he did slip at times. Violence as well he renounced, and never did his sword drip blood again, and they were fortunate that war seemed a thing of the past. Religion he hated, but she made him go to the sept, and when their children were born, two boys and two girls in the years to come, she made sure the household was a pious one, and all her children were raised in the Faith of the Seven. Only when their sons were tall and strong like their father did Sandor pick up his sword again to teach them to defend themselves.
But all that came later. That night, after the simple wedding, in the top floor bedroom of the tall keep they finally gave vent to their passions, something they had tried to do years ago but had been stymied in ever since.
In the morning, she made their breakfast, and then after they sat and talked on the future. "You must write your parents," he said. "Get it done with now. Then we deal with it and have no more worries."
She wrote the letter…and was greeted with silence.
Down in the valley between the keep and the border of the Riverlands was a track of forest where a woodsman said was an old gnarled weirwood. She went to it, and spoke to Bran.
"I have heard," he said, when she spoke on her wedding.
"What did they say?"
"Mother seems happy."
Bran sighed. "He is mad, said you did it against his wishes. Said…said…if you want this man, so be it, but never are you to come home again."
Sansa cried to hear this, but steeled her heart, and went to the village sept and prayed for her father to forgive her. But he was a stubborn man of the North, and he never did.
In time her mother came to see her, after Sansa had her first son, and she made peace with Sansa, and accepted Sandor as part of the family, and she thanked him for saving Sansa and Robb all those terrible years ago. And Arya and Gendry came once as well. Arya did not seem to have forgiven Sandor for killing her friend, but at least they were cordial. Robb and Val also visited once with Lyanna and Jon and their other children, and Tyrion and Bronn came often, but not so much after he became Hand to the Queen. Sandor grieved when he heard Bronn had been killed, waylaid by some tavern thugs in King's Landing, and over the years more bad news came, of this one and that one they had known in years past going to their graves.
Her children grew up, and the oldest two married, and a few years shy of her fortieth birthday Sansa became a grandmother for the first time. And then one day soon after, in the midst of a new spring after an eighteen-month long winter, a dragon appeared out of the sky. It was young Jon, on Viserion. "Your father is very ill. He does not have much time. He has asked for you."
Her heart quailed, and she looked at her husband, older and grey now, and Sandor nodded. "Go. Make your peace. We will come as soon as we can."
She kissed him and her children and grandchildren goodbye, climbed on Viserion once more, and prayed to the gods she would reach him in time.
The years passed by, and his children grew up and married, and they were still his joy, and heartache. Sansa, against all his wishes, married Sandor Clegane, and it would forever put a strain on the family. Often Cat tried to persuade him to forgive her, but he could not do so. And later when he wanted to, he feared it was too late, and so he grieved in silence for his missing daughter.
Arya found happiness at last, and had a large brood of children, and then left the North for the Stormlands. Ned persuaded them to give Castle Baratheon to Rickon as his seat. He married a Frey girl, whom he had met at a harvest festival when he was seventeen. They had one daughter, but his wife lost a son in the womb, and another daughter was dead a week after her birth, and after that they were too heartbroken to have anymore. Rickon grew into a fine man, though sometimes Cat said he drank too much, and wept for his lost babies.
Their new son Edmure grew up in the shadow of his father and older brothers and sisters, his great uncles as well, and all the famous people the Stark family knew. For all his life from everyone outside the family he heard the tales of the great war and the role his family had played in it. It gnawed at him, Ned could see, and as he got older he sought out such adventures for himself, never settling down, traveling the Seven Kingdoms, and even the Free Cities.
He earned his spurs as a knight, fought with a free company across the Narrow Sea in a renewed war in the Disputed Lands, and learned what it was like to kill a man and feel bowel watering fear. He took a wound, recovered, and came home after that, said it had been enough, and now knew why his own family members seldom boasted of their role in the wars. He stayed home for a while, but was still restless. Though he was fond of women, none caught his eye, and when he was twenty-two, after a visit from the Wall of his cousin Jon on his dragon Viserion, Edmure joined the Night's Watch, as Starks had done for ages, to stand his post until his watch was ended.
Cat grew sad in those years, her children and grandchildren scattered across the land, her husband not speaking to her daughter. Of course, Robb and Val stayed in Winterfell, and as heir Robb would never leave, so that helped, having them and their children close. But then there was the matter of Bran, which Cat never got over, no matter that she talked to him almost every day, and visited him twice in the flesh. Those two visits were hard on her, and after the second one, she could not stand to go again.
Her uncle Brynden, the Blackfish Tully, went home and became lord of the castle and of the Riverlands. To the surprise of all he took a wife, the oldest daughter of Jonos Bracken, and in his last years she gave him two children, a boy and a girl, and when the oldest was only five, Lord Brynden died in his sleep after catching a bad cough. He and Cat went to Riverrun, arriving well after the funeral, and stayed a month to help the lady and the new heir settle all affairs. The Freys made some trouble over making a boy Lord Paramount of the Riverlands, but with the Stark family and the Queen backing him, the five-year-old Lord of the Riverlands had no more trouble.
As for himself, there was much else to do in those first years. Long days Ned spent on the road, moving from place to place in the North, ordering things again after the terrible war and winter. He made peace with the Dreadfort when a distant cousin of Roose Bolton, a member of the Dustin family of Barrowton, inherited the lands and title. To Karhold he went, to make sure the new Karstark heir had the support of the people, and to renew friendships strained by the wars. The Last Hearth he visited as well. The Greatjon was always his friend, and at least once a year Ned visited him or he came to Winterfell. As always, the Greatjon grumbled about Mance and the wildlings being on his doorstep, but all in all they were less trouble than Ned had expected.
And then as he aged, word came that old friends were slowly leaving the world forever, and in Winterfell as well. Old Nan, who had survived the winter and the wights, died soon after Hodor was returned to her, and many said she only hung on long enough to see him once more. Mikken passed on a few years later, an infection from a bad burn at the forge taking his hand, and then it worsened and he died days later, and Gendry of all was the saddest to see him go.
Lord Wyman Manderly passed in his sleep a few years later, his heart giving out at last, and a lavish funeral and banquet was given in his honor.
The Greatjon died long years after, fat and grey, keeling over at the table in his home, a cup of ale in hand, in the middle of a story about something he said he had done, and laughing his booming laugh. His son the Smalljon said he had a smile on his face when he died.
Mance Rayder and his eldest son, the one he had with Dalla, went one winter on a hunt, and they found him and the boy days later, the son dead, Mance barely clinging to life, a dead bear on the bloody snow besides them, Mance's spear in its belly.
"A long life I have lived, and I cheated the gods of my death once. But not this time," he was reported to have said as they tried to carry him home. He died before they got there, and Gilly wept, and they burned the bodies and they chanted their prayers. Val and Robb and Ned went to pay their respects. Without their leader, Ned worried the wildlings would go back to their old ways, but a council of elders told him they would keep the peace, and respect all agreements Mance had with the realm.
And as time passed Ned felt all his years catch up to him. The old wounds never healed, not totally. His leg that was broken bothered him in the cold, and ached often. The head wound was worse though. Headaches he got, and at times he was dizzy and had blurred vision. His eyesight began to go, and when Tyrion heard this he had sent to Ned a pair of glass discs in a copper frame, which he wrote were made by that strange fellow Qyburn. Tyrion used a pair himself, for reading. Ned tried them, and found they helped him read and see better, but he was too worried on what people would think to wear them in public.
One spring day he woke up and felt funny all over. His left side seemed numb, and when Cat came into the room with a basin of hot water, she took one look at him and cried out and dropped the basin. She dashed to his side.
"Ned, are you all right?"
He tried to talk but could only mumble. "Gods," she gasped and she ran for Maester William. Soon Ned knew he was in real trouble. In a looking glass he saw that the whole left side of his face was slack and drooping.
"A seizure of the brain," said the maester, now old and grey himself. "A stroke it is termed. It will affect his speech and movements for some time."
"Will he recover?" Cat asked.
"Perhaps," said William, but Ned heard the caution in his tone.
He did recover, for a month, but then it happened again, and this time it was worse. He lay immobile in bed, hardly able to raise his hands, and for three days he could not speak at all, then when he did so, he said only one word, "Sansa". He knew he was dying, and it was time to make his peace.
The word went out that the great lord was dying, and they came, those that could. Howland Reed and the Northern lords all came as soon as possible. The Queen and her daughter flew to Storm's End on Drogon and Aegerion and picked up Arya and Gendry. Tyrion came on Rhaegal, and Jon and Edmure came from the Wall on Viserion, and Rickon and his family came from Castle Baratheon. When it seemed Sansa would never get the word, they sent Jon to find her and bring her home.
As they waited, they surrounded his bed, all his family and friends, and his eyes were opened, but all was blurry, and his breathing was labored. Cat sat by his side, a rock through it all, keeping calm, trying to be there for everyone else. She knew he was dying, had said her prayers, and like him had accepted it. The rest found it hard to do so. Some wept, and some were trying not to, Robb most of all. He took his oldest son's hand and struggled to speak. "You…you are now Lord of Winterfell. Do me proud, as you did so long ago."
"Always, Father," Robb said and then the tears came in a flood and Val took him away to a corner table where they sat.
Next came the Queen. "Your Grace, the realm is at peace. Keep it always so."
"I will, my lord," she said and then she too began to weep and her daughter led her away.
Tyrion was there now and he gulped and his eyes were shining. "For once in my life I find it hard to speak," he said, his voice cracking. "I fear I will miss you terribly, old friend."
"I will miss you, too."
Tyrion wanted to say more, but then shook his head and grasped Ned's hand once, squeezed it tight, and then left the room, sobbing as he went.
Arya and Gendry stood by his side now. "Lord Baratheon," Ned managed to say to his good son, the words coming slowly. "You did not know your father, but he would have been so very proud of you. As am I."
"Thank you," Gendry gasped, his cheeks wet with his tears,
Arya was trembling, her face pale, her hands shaking as she held Ned's hand "Don't go, we love you," she said in a small voice, the woman turned into a little girl again.
"I must. It is time, my little wolf. The gods are waiting for me." She nodded once, sobbed, and turned and buried her face in Gendry's chest as he held her close.
Rickon came closer, and could not speak, and fell to his knees by the bed and cried as his mother held him tight.
Edmure stood by, tall and strong, all in black, his face stoic, and he bent and kissed Ned's brow. "Goodbye, Father. We shall all miss you so very much."
"I am proud of you, my son," Ned said. "May your watch never end."
Then the door opened, and young Jon came in. "She is here."
Sansa walked into the room and all went quiet. She stepped up the bed, and the gods seemed to be with him as his vision cleared and he saw her in all her beauty, tall as he remembered her, her hair long and auburn still, her face older, but still beautiful.
She took his hand. "Father, I am here," she said in a trembling voice.
"My child, my poor child. I am so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?"
"Yes, Father, I have done so long ago. Can you forgive me?"
"I do forgive you."
Sansa let out a sob and knelt by the bed and kissed his hand.
"Is he a good man?" Ned asked, his voice getting weaker.
"He is. I love him so much."
"I wish…I wish…gods…the children…" But he could say no more, as if the gods had only allowed him to speak long enough for this moment. His vision began to dim, and sobs he heard, and then Cat was kissing his cheek.
"Be well, my lord, my husband, my love," she said, her voice strong. "Let them take you if it is time, let you suffer no more on this mortal world. You have done all any man could have done. We love you. May the gods have mercy on your soul."
He struggled, and spoke once more, one word, "Bran…" and then he died.
"Yes. I am here."
"Where is here?"
Ned looked around. He was standing in a forest on a trail, and it seemed like a cool spring day. The sky was blue, but it was not too hot. Bran was beside him, and he was taller, and he was not a crippled little boy anymore. He smiled and Ned laughed. "Bran! You can walk!"
"I can fly too, Father." Bran looked up and a bird, a raven, settled on his shoulder. "Lord Stark!" the raven cawed.
"Bran? Where are we?"
"Soon you will know. Come."
He went on ahead, on the path, and his raven leaped from his shoulder and flew off. They crossed a small wooden bridge over a gurgling stream and as he looked down he saw his reflection and he was a younger, as he was when the wars ended. Then they came to a large field. A road went through the field and in the distance now he saw a great wooden structure. As they neared the building, he saw a rising set of steps led to a great set of double doors which now opened and much noise came out, of people talking, and laughter. He walked up to the steps but Bran did not follow. Ned was on the first step when he turned back and looked at Bran.
"I must go Father, back to my tree," his son said. "It is not my time. The gods have only allowed me to come here to say goodbye."
Ned looked at the building. "What is it?"
"It is home," Bran said. "They are waiting for you."
Ned stepped down and took his son in his arms and hugged him tight. "Goodbye my son. I will love you always."
"As I you, Father," Bran said, and he smiled. "Be happy. They are waiting for you."
Ned turned to look at the building and then turned back and Bran was gone.
He walked up the steps and into the doors and entered a huge room. Inside a massive banquet was going on. Trestle tables were filled with men and women, and each table groaned under the weight of food and drink. It was as if it was the dream he had when he had been wounded in the head, but slightly different. At the tables were people he knew, people from his life, and all of them he knew were dead…and now he was too. There was his father and brother and mother and sister at one table, his grandparents as well. The Greatjon and Mance Rayder were at another table, arm wrestling each other. The Blackfish was there as well, with Edmure Tully, and Lord Wyman, a huge codfish in front of him and his fork was buried deep.
Then all went silent. All eyes were on him, as he strode up the center aisle of the room. At the end was a man, standing by a hearth, and here he saw Brandon the Builder once more, as he saw him in the dream.
"Eddard Stark, welcome," said Brandon the Builder. "Great service you have done the realms of men, and such service is always rewarded. The old gods have seen fit that you should join us in the afterlife. May you find peace here at last, and let your cares and worries fall away."
"Thank you," Ned said and then he was engulfed by a flood of noise as everyone cheered and came at him, slapping his back and welcoming him, and then he was hugging his parents and Lyanna and his brother Brandon, and his friends, and then they ate and drank and talked and Ned was happy…mostly. Benjen was not here, nor Jon, and he knew they still had work to do in the real world. He missed Cat, and his children and grandchildren, and still cursed his stubbornness for leaving things with Sansa go on for so long.
Then he saw another face come out of the crowd, a rounded face, a bald head, a man in soft lavender robes and slippers on his feet.
"Yes, my lord. A strange place to meet, is it not?" Varys sat with him, sipped some ale and made a face and put his cup down.
"Aye. And here I thought you despised the gods."
"I did, I do, even yet. But they don't seem to care one bit. I am here because of something I once did. I saved the realm and so I have been rewarded, whether I like it or not. Did you know they don't serve one decent wine here? And the beds, don't get me started on those."
"I don't understand. What did you do to be here, with all these people? I mean, this is more like a Northern drinking hall than the palaces you were used to."
"I have been thusly rewarded because I saved your life after you had been arrested, Lord Stark, and by extension, I helped save the realm."
Ned was puzzled. "You mean you saved my life by getting them to let me take the black?"
"It didn't matter. Joffrey was going to kill you, no matter what you agreed to."
He was still confused, but then he remembered, those days long ago, sitting in the black cells, telling Varys that he promised he would take the black, but first he had to confess, in public. "When I confessed, was it to be?"
"Yes. A public execution I imagine, though the details I knew not. Baelish was talking him into it, in his slimy way, and he seemed set on doing so. I heard of it, could take no chances, and made sure Joffrey was quite ill that day and could not attend your confession. A little something extra in his food. And this is the thanks I get. I made sure Ned Stark lives, so he could help save the realm, and now I have to suffer for all eternity? Madness."
Ned laughed, loud and long, and clapped Varys on the back. "The gods have a strange sense of humor. Maybe I could talk to someone about you, as repayment for what you did for me."
"No, please don't. I am sure they would just get mad and send me to some dark hell far worse than this. Oh, no, here comes the Greatjon again. Every day he wants to see if he can get me so drunk I'll tell him all my secrets."
"Many I have."
Ned thought on this. "One secret I would like to know."
Varys tittered. "Just one?"
"For now. It's about Aegon. Was he the real Aegon or not?"
"Real. I took him from his crib myself."
Before Ned could ask anymore questions about it the Greatjon was there and Varys was lost to him. But there would be time to ask more on this later.
More friends he saw, and his family, and more he talked and drank and remembered, and time seemed to matter not in this place. Sometimes they stayed in this hall, and sometimes they went outside and walked the land and generally did as they pleased. He had finally found his place of peace, heaven if you will, a Northerner's version of it at least, and at last could lay aside his sword and shield, and feel good that the realm was at peace, and men and women would protect it if war ever came again. In time he knew his wife and children and more friends would join him here, but he hoped it would be a very long time to come, as he wanted them to enjoy the life he had helped build for them and protected for them and their future generations. And that was all any man could ask for at the end of his days.
And so it is over at last, after three and a half years and one point five million plus words. My mighty thanks to all who stuck through this work from beginning to end, and especially those who wrote reviews, both good and bad. By the way "please write faster" "please update soon" and "where is the next chapter" do not count as reviews. A lot of work goes into each chapter, and I do have a life, a job, and a family, so as always please be patient with us fan fiction writers. Sorry to gripe, but of late it seems I have gotten more of these comments, especially from one irritating person (you know who you are).
Okay, got that off my chest. Now, as to the writing process for Part 3. Again I had several objectives.
1. Big battle on the Trident, and its aftermath. Harrenhal surrounded, the advance on King's Landing, big battle there, the Others retreat.
2. Dorne gets involved, Aegon comes to Westeros, alliances are made.
3. Dany comes home, plays a major role in the wars, meets Jon, and in the end sits on the Iron Throne. Her pregnancy was planned (I mean by me, not her) and was done to shake things up a bit, and also provide for a future dynasty and stability.
4. Arya and Gendry end up on Dragonstone, the dragon awakes, the island explodes, Melisandre dies. All planned. Gendry living – not planned. I was going to kill him, but didn't have the heart to do it. And especially when I looked at what Arya would have become afterwards – vengeful, soulless, dead inside. I didn't want our plucky heroine to go to the dark side. I needed her desire to do good and her hope to have a future with Gendry for events in King's Landing, rallying reluctant allies, and getting people to fight when they had to. And of course, Gendry living led to more stories, such as more conflict with Ned and Stannis, the escape to the capital, lots of fun in the capital, especially having him kill a dragon, and so on. All in all, I think it was better to not kill him.
5. Jon and his gang find the cave of the Great Other and Sam dies, Jon becomes a dragonrider, all planned. But here is where I had a crisis of confidence. What the Great Other is exactly is not in any of the literature or websites, or anywhere. So I had to operate in the dark a bit here. I thought at first to make it some kind of entity, like a great cloud of snow and ice and smoke or something, but that seemed too silly. I ended up making him flesh and blood, though a god. I got there by using ideas from the Faceless Men, and the words they say, and what we know about the Stranger. I thought, what if the Stranger was a real man once, and the other Seven as well. So I gave him a background story, and why he is ticked off at the world, and all that. From that premise it all fell into place.
6. Tyrion becomes a dragonrider. This is sort of semi-canon in that here are hints in the books, but there is much speculation about this, with some saying he is and others saying he isn't the son of Aerys. For me, he is, and in my thinking Aerys raped Joanna, and she feared to tell Tywin for she knew he would go to war. As for Tyrion and Shae, I was going to have her die on the Trident with Pod, but thought that was too harsh, a double whammy like that, and Tyrion deserved a little happiness, so why not have them marry. A great 'fuck you' to all of Westeros from Tyrion.
7. Jon dies. Not planned, not till near the end. But it suddenly occurred to me he is dealing with a god, a ruthless god, and to have everything end up neat and tidy seemed too easy. I had made Jon into a kind of superman, with his sword, and his ability to make fire, and his dragon. Kind of boring if we know every time he faces the Others and wights he will win. So how do you kill him? By treachery of course. Hence the Faceless Man. And what a more awful way to die for a man of the Watch than to fall off the Wall? I was sure more than once it had happened in the past. But when it came to write all that I got cold feet and thought I would be vilified. Yet, Jon was a warg, and he had a bond with his dragon, so…aha! The eureka moment. Well, sort of. Kill Jon, but not really. A bit of a cheat, and yes I had my deus ex machina moment, but what the hell, I wanted my cake and I wanted to eat it too. So Jon dies, but lives on in Viserion, and also in his son.
8. More planned things –
- Theon is saved by Stannis but becomes a wight and is destroyed by Robb.
- Roose wants revenge, Robb loses a leg, Sandor kills Roose.
- Roslin dies in childbirth.
- Bran becomes a greenseer, which is canon, and I hope what I used as his real purpose is what becomes true in the books and TV show.
- Aegon becomes King, then dies, by dragonfire.
- Stannis gets killed, becomes a wight.
- Oberyn and Jaime's fight was planned from day one of Part Three, as was Jaime murdering Cersei and both the deaths of Tommen and Myrcella.
- Sansa kills Baelish, ends up in the Eyrie, out the moon door, rescued by Jon. Yes, I know it was a bit over the top, but it was fun to write.
- Bronn makes many jokes, drinks lots of wine and ale, and kills his enemies.
- Most of the rest came as I wrote. The last chapter was a bit harder, because it was longer, and had to serve many purposes, and I had few guide posts.
Some people have asked me to take part in shared stories or to use their ideas, but I never do this as for me writing is very internal. I do have some advice though.
1. Know your ending before you begin. That way you can take it step by step to where you end up. That being said, three years ago I did not have this exact ending, but I had a vague idea of it. Even that was enough to set me off.
2. Write from point to point. You have things you want to get done in each chapter. These are your points. The rest is filler. For example Sansa's chapter in the Vale. Points I wanted to get done - she arrives, she gets arrested, she meets Mya Stone, she meets her aunt, she spends a night in the sky cells, Lysa confesses to Jon Arryn's murder, Sansa and Lysa go out the moon door, Jon rescues Sansa. All the rest was filler to bridge these points.
3. Layer. For each chapter write the bare outlines, the main points, fill the gaps, and then layer. Sometimes I would write the main scenes first, then go back and fill in the gaps. Or sometimes I would start at the beginning and go straight through. But every time I layered. And by this I mean when you think you have finished, start again, and layer in more details, more color, simple things, like where a cup is, where a person is standing as someone else enters a room, what color a dress is, what the weather is like, what time of day is it, small details that make the story come to life. Also, when you review it as you layer, you will catch some mistakes, though some do slip through, as I am constantly reminded.
4. Leave 'em wanting more. Always make them want to read the next chapter. Do this by leaving 'wham' endings. These are endings that surprise, excite, and make a reader want to scream. If you've read this whole story, you know what I mean.
5. Research. Always research canon, unless you are totally doing your own work. Even then you might have to do some basic research. But in fan fiction, if you do not know the canon, people will point this out. I called Rickard Stark by his grandson's name Rickon Stark in one chapter. I uploaded it and went to bed, happy I had finished a chapter. I woke up to many reviews pointing out this mistake. Egg on the face for sure. Fixed it right away. It happens.
More from me? Sorry, not in this story. It's done. Maybe in others. But I need a break first. If you want more stories, look at my profile you will see I have written other things, my own things. Check them out, and if you like them, please buy them. Us starving writers need all the help we can get.
One more thing - if anyone wants to use the alternate universe I have made for your own fan fiction please feel free. I know Mr. Martin hates fan fiction, but he has made such a rich universe it would be a shame to waste it, especially as he is so slow to write more. We need something for us fans. (Sorry, but I had to say that. I respect his process, but come on already – almost five years we've been waiting!)
And that is all. Again thank you. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and like the rest of you I will be waiting for book six (soon I hope) and season six come the spring.
Steve, still in Seoul, Korea.