Joffrey Lannister took a deep breath of frigid air in through his nose and adjusted his cloak around his shoulders. The fur lined heavy black cloak was a gift from his uncle when they arrived at Winterfell. He'd rode out from Casterly Rock with his Grandfather, one hundred Lannister swords, a score of men volunteering to Take the Black and nearly as many squires, pages and scouts.
They'd met with as many men marching out of Storm's End under the banner of Baratheon and the direct command of Lord Stannis at the Crossroads and continued the march north. In each town they passed through they'd received a royal welcome and in each place either his grandfather or Lord Stannis would ask for volunteers to join the Night's Watch. They would receive one or two men from the lords, though some lords like the Tullys and Reeds would also offer food or mounts or weapons as well.
At Winterfell they met with his uncle and his force and all three forces marched out of Winterfell under the Direwolf banner. He'd seen over a score of sigils since he'd left the Rock. Many he knew as well as the Lion of Lannister: The flaming tree of Marbrand, The brindled boar of Crakehall and the golden wreath of Algood. The sigils of the men marching under the Stag were also familiar to him; the sea turtle of Estermont, The lightning bolt of Dondarrion and the suns and moons on the shield of the woman they called "The Maid of Tarth."
It was the northern sigils he was still somewhat unfamiliar with; Mermen, Bears and Giants chief amongst them. Still they were what he'd come to expect from northmen; imposing men who looked used to having snow in their beards while his teeth would chatter with every gust of wind. He did his best to keep his jaw clenched though, as his grandfather had told and shown him, 'Battles are won with swords and spears, wars are won with men who believe in their leaders.'
His eyes found the woman again. Her ghastly profile drawing his gaze like a beacon, her nose must have been broken at least once, she looked like she cut her straw-colored hair with a dagger. Still she was nearly as big as the Umber, the one they called "Smalljon." He tried to picture her in a dress but his mind rebelled as badly as if he'd tried to picture his Uncle Tyrion as full-grown. She seemed strangely comfortable in her armor, perhaps even more than the man riding alongside him. Sandor Clegane. The Hound was sent with them by his father to act as a sworn shield, his grandfather did little to protest as he'd long kept Ser Gregor as a sworn sword.
She fascinated him, why would she march with Lord Stannis? Did she not have a miserable husband on the Isle of Tarth with ugly children? She looked up at him and scowled a bit and he looked away, right into the smirking face of The Hound. "Fancy her, boy? Aren't you betrothed to a Princess?"
He shook his head, "No." He glanced her way again for a moment, "Why is she here?"
Sandor grunted, "'Brienne the Beauty?' She's one of the fiercest swords in the Stormlands, they say. One of the Dondarrion men says she won a melee before they marched and the boon she asked from Lord Baratheon was to march with them." The scars of his face twisted as he gave her an appraising look, "Looks strong as an ox but I could take her, she'd make me work for it though."
Joffrey nodded, he trusted Clegane's appraisal nearly as much as he would his father or grandfather's. Sandor Clegane was as battle-hardened as his older brother but he'd twice refused knighthood. He was a hard man and Joffrey found he liked the man's counsel. He was one of the few men to talk to Joffrey like someone other than Lord Jaime's heir and Lord Tywin's squire.
Sandor had appraised nearly every man they'd marched with, including Lord Eddard and Lord Stannis. He'd told Joffrey things to look for in a man's posture or eyes that would giveaway how they fought. These conversations were not all that different than the things his grandfather taught him, Tywin stressed the importance of knowing what any opponent's strengths or weaknesses were. Though grandfather was more concerned with battle formations and maneuvers. Sandor's lessons were closer to when his father was teaching him to swing a sword as a boy. Perhaps that was why he found his talks with the Hound so exciting.
He would rather best a single man with a blade than ten thousand men with maps and orders.
He looked to Brienne again, she had something to prove. She was hungry to prove her worth to someone; that was what drove her. It was probably what made the men turn away from her, someone with something to prove in battle would be dangerous if angered. Father had said that more than once when they'd watch men train in the courtyard or at the tourneys they attended together. Father always watched men fight as though they were teaching him something and Joffrey tried to take that lesson to heart.
He thought about what his father would say about this woman. He'd probably laugh, much like many of the men in camp would after she walked by, but then he'd look her over and perhaps see what he could learn from her. He decided then to keep an eye on Brienne of Tarth. The wind gusted and cut into him, it drew his attention forward. The Wall had been in sight since yesterday but now as they approached the gates of Castle Black it towered over them. Not even Casterly Rock seemed so formidable, though he knew the mountain the Rock was built into was taller. He glanced in either direction to see it stretch into the horizon. He spurred his horse until he was near his grandfather's side, he found himself riding next to the banner men.
The column halted behind his grandfather Lord Stark and Lord Baratheon. From the gate, he heard a guard call out, "Who goes there?"
His uncle called out, "Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell. I am here on orders of the King. We also bring arms, mounts, supplies and volunteers to join the ranks of the Watch."
A short time passed before the gates opened and three riders emerged. They were all dressed in the black of the Watch and all looked to be older men. At the front was a broad shouldered man with thinning white hair and a thick beard. He stopped his horse and glanced at Lord Stark, "Ned."
His Uncle nodded, "Jeor."
Joffrey assumed the man to be Lord Commander Jeor Mormont then. He gestured to the men that rode out with them, the first was a man with greying hair tied back with a ribbon. "Lord Steward, Bowen Marsh." The other was a noble looking man with dark hair and a trimmed beard. "Ser Jaremy Rykker."
His uncle nodded at both men, "The Hand of the King, Lord Stannis Baratheon of Storm's End." Then to his grandfather, "Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock."
Jeor snorted, "Quite the company you travel with, Ned."
If his uncle saw any humor in Mormont's remark he did not show it, "We've been sent to bring justice to the King Beyond the Wall."
Mormont nodded to Ser Jaremy and he rode back towards the castle. Not long after the knight disappeared within the gate began to open fully. Lord Stannis nodded to one of his men and the order to make camp was called out. The men began to break into groups and make camp. Joffrey followed his grandfather and uncle as they rode ahead. When he passed through the gate he took in the men training in the courtyard. He glanced towards one of the larger buildings and caught sight of his Uncle Tyrion. The dwarf smiled and raised his hand in greeting. He returned the gesture and Tyrion crossed the courtyard.
He dismounted his horse and approached his grandfather to take the reins of his mount and secure it. Lord Tywin turned to his younger son as he removed his gloves, "Tyrion."
Tyrion gave the elder Lannister a tight smile, "Father. Have you come to Take the Black?"
Tywin turned towards Lords Stark and Baratheon, "Hardly. His Grace has asked Lord Stark, Lord Baratheon and I to perform a task." He then followed them towards one of the towers where Lord Mormont was dismounting.
Tyrion nodded then turned to Joffrey with a far more genuine smile, "My dear Nephew. I do believe you have grown since we parted last."
He smiled, "It is possible, Uncle. How has your grand adventure been?"
Tyrion laughed as they followed Tywin across the yard, "Excellent thus far. We were planning to leave for Eastwatch shortly, but Jon's uncle has been out on a ranging and he has not returned yet." Joffrey nodded as he recalled Benjen and Jon Stark from his first visit to Winterfell. "Am I to assume that with three Lords of Great Houses at the head of half a thousand men that Mance Rayder is the man my father has been sent to dispatch?"
Joffrey nodded, "Yes, uncle." They entered the tower and climbed the stairs into the Lord Commander's chambers. Mormont pulled a canvas map from his bookshelf then spread it across his dining table while a raven muttered from his perch on the headboard. Joffrey looked over the map and quickly recognized it as the known lands beyond the Wall. "A moon's turn ago, I asked our First Ranger to scout the Frostfangs. Our men had previously spotted Rayder north of the Milkwater, gathering the Wildlings."
Lord Stannis gestured to the map, "We will march north and west from Whitetree, past the Fist of the First Men. From there we can follow the Milkwater into the Frostfangs."
Mormont frowned, "You're near a thousand, you won't be able to surprise him."
Lord Tywin replied, "We don't intend to, we are as much a symbol as we are a force. The Wildlings may have numbers but we still have advantages in training and steel. When presented with our force the Wildlings will scatter."
Mormont turned to Lord Stark, "What of Rayder?"
Joffrey was surprised by the icy expression on his uncle's face, it was so unlike the warmth he'd always seen before. It was a mirror of his grandfather's face, "He broke his oath. He will face the King's justice."
There was silence in the room again, Joffrey felt the tension rising amongst them. It was as though the men knew something he did not and were silently debating if they should discuss it. Then Mormont spoke, "Benjen told us Gared's tale. My son sent word as well, there are stories of the Others moving beyond the Wall." Tyrion laughed but he was the only one and his laugh soon died. Joffrey's mind went to all the crib tales he had heard. Tales of the Others and the Long Night.
Stories he'd grown up believing were meant to frighten children. Wights and Ice Spiders and a winter that lasted a generation. It had to have been a jape to make him squirm, probably similar to the ones they make when new recruits arrive at Castle Black. Any moment now Mormont would laugh and uncle Tyrion would slap him on the back. They must be joking, they had to be. Yet as the tense silence stretched out between the men, and their faces remained unmoving Joffrey slowly became convinced that there was no jape.
Despite the warmth of Mormont's fire, it suddenly felt like the wind that had cut through him as they approached Castle Black had returned. Only this time the wind was inside him.
***Post Note: Sorry about the delay, but I have a very demanding full time job so there's not always time for my hobbies. Plus I was caught on what I planned for someone in the next part, now that I've pulled that trigger hopefully things will start flowing again.