Apologies for the delay on this. I have had no time off since August and I am beyond exhausted. I'm going to be on holiday for basically most of December. Yay!
The line of Wildlings never seemed to end. They came through the gate at Castle Black as a long straggling column, all ages, in all kinds of conditions. Some were wounded, some were visibly pulling themselves along through willpower alone, some strode through fast and with grins and others struggled through with grief etched on their faces. And their clothing. Some wore furs that had been stitched together with all kinds of threads, whilst others wore leather or in some cases cloth.
One little group caught his eye. A tall grim-faced woman came through with a small baby in a sling around her neck and a large pack on her back. By her side trudged a small boy pulling a little sled that had a pile of furs on it. All of them looked tired and as the woman looked around Castle Black her face worked for a moment and grief cascaded across it. And then a moment later the mask of tired reserve was back. No-one else was with her. Whoever the father of the children was, there was no sign of him and Ned wondered what the story of that family was.
"Makes you think, doesn't it?" The words came from Jeor Mormont, who had approached quietly from one side. "Poor buggers."
"Aye, it does," Ned sighed in response. "And if we don't hold the Others here at the Wall then that's going to be what the people of the North look like as they flee past Moat Cailin. We stand here and we win here, because otherwise…"
The Lord Commander shivered a little. "Aye, and don't I know it." He then sighed. "At least some of my men are starting to get his head out of his arse." He jerked his head to one side and Ned could see one of his senior lieutenants, Quorin Halfhand, standing to one side and watching the Wildlings with a peculiar look to his face.
"What's up with him?" Ned asked.
"He used to think that the only good Wildling was a dead one. Fair enough, they've spent centuries raiding our lands and we've spent centuries tracking them down and sticking their heads on spikes. Now, for the first time, he's having to think of them as people who need to be saved from the Others. Look at the poor bugger's face. He's a good man, but once he's got something in his head it's hard to shift it. He'll learn. He's learning now."
"Good," Ned sighed. He hated to think about what must have happened to the Lord Commander in that terrible future that Rob had been sent back from. Rob had had word of a Great Ranging that had gone badly wrong.
There was a pause and then Ned heard a horn sound from the top of the wall. He looked up and frowned. "What was that?"
"Someone trying to get my attention," Jeor muttered and then he stumped off to the lift. Ned watched him go and then looked back at the flow of men and women as they came through the gate. They included another group of giants and their mammoths and he blinked a little as one of them noticed him and said something to the others, before they all nodded their heads at him ponderously. He nodded back at them and they strode off through the South gate. What was it that they had recognised? His description? Or the Fist of Winter?
He looked down at the great mace. Why had it been hidden away for so long? He had no doubts about using it now, the times required it. But when had his ancestors put it away in that room?
"Ned!" Jeor was shouting his name from the lift as he came down in it. He frowned and then walked over to it.
"What's wrong?" he asked as he approached the base of the approaching lift.
"There's a column of men coming in. Odd armour, from the colour of it. They're bearing peace banners. Based on what some of the Wildlings said, it might be the Thenns."
Ned paused and then nodded. "Right then. I'd best look impressive shouldn't I?"
Jeor barked with laughter as he burst out of lift and then looked him up and down. "Not too shabby," he grunted. "You look a bit thin from all that riding, but you'll do." Then he looked around at Castle Black. "The Thenn are coming!"
Some stared, more than a few swore and some gripped the pommels of their swords and looked grim. But the Old Bear's gaze beat down that of anyone who looked as if they might object.
Ned turned to the gate on the Wall and waited. And then a long double line of men strode through the gate. They were dressed in bronze armour, or what passed for armour, some with leather shirts sewn with bronze discs and scales, and some in bronze cuirasses. All had a shield and a spear, the latter with leaf-shaped heads.
They were led by a tall, lean, man with a shaved head and face. He wore bronze scale armour, bore a spear with an elaborate head and after a moment Ned realised that the man had no ears, just holes in the sides of his head. Frostbite perhaps? The man raised his spear and the men came to a ragged halt.
The leader of the Thenn looked about – and then his eyes fell on Ned and he seemed to collect himself slightly before his chin came up a little and he strode over to him. As he approached Ned could see that the man had been in a fair few fights – and then he was trying very hard not to seem nervous, especially when the man's eyes darted to the Fist at his waist.
"You are The Stark?" The Thenn spoke in the Old Tongue, the language of the First Men, something that Ned was now very familiar with after all his studies.
"I am The Stark," he replied in the same language. Placing a hand on the head of the mace at his hip he added: "I bear the Fist of Winter. I am the first Stark in many years to wield it."
The Thenn nodded slowly, before bowing his head. "I am Styr, Magnar of the Thenn. You… you lead us now. The Long Night is on us, as it was foretold. The Others return, leading dark things. You hold the Fist. Lead us- we will follow." His face worked for a moment. "We failed you," he said hoarsely. "We failed you."
He stared at the earless man who looked so upset. "Failed me? I don't understand."
Styr looked up at him. "Your ancestors gave my ancestors duties, long ago. Keep the peace beyond the Wall. Lead the Free Folk in keeping watch. Beware of Hopemourne." He closed his eyes for a long moment. "We failed to keep the peace and the Free Folk and the Nights' Watch fell into war. We failed to keep a good watch. Hopemourne awoke and we did not see it." He bent and laid his spear on the ground in front of him. "My life is yours. I will take your punishment on behalf of my people. My son, Sigorn, will lead the Thenn afterwards." And then he knelt and bowed his head.
'By the Old Gods,' he thought, 'he expects me to kill him.' Instead he leant down and picked up the spear. "Stand, Styr, Magnar of the Thenn. The Stark commands it."
The lean man looked up uncertainly and then stood. Ned looked him in the eye and then handed him the spear. "Much has been forgotten, South of the Wall as well as North. Old alliances must be reforged. My Father was murdered before I could be told much about what it means to be a Stark, but I suspect that things were buried by a weight of years before then. The Thenn have remained true though. You remembered old truths. Let us build on that."
Styr stared at him for a long moment – and then he nodded slowly. "We are sworn to The Stark and the Stark alone now. Command us."
Ned nodded back and then looked at the line of men. "Is this all the strength of the Thenn?"
"A part of it. More wait beyond the Wall. We have stripped the Valley for the first time in centuries. Supplies, forges, grinding stones – we have brought it all." He said the words with simple pride.
"Have your men pass on into the Gift. Places have been set aside for your people," Ned said quietly. "You and I must talk though. We must talk of many things with the Magnar of the Night's Watch."
Styr's shoulders seemed to relax just a little and then he turned and bellowed orders to his men, who started to march through the South Gates. Ned looked at Jeor Mormont, who had been a fascinated spectator to the whole thing. "Time to dicker again Jeor."
"Aye – I'll fetch more ale."
The problem with old inscriptions was that they were, well, old. And they eroded, weathered down by wind and rain and sheer time. Fortunately someone had once had the presence of mind to write some of them down before they wore away completely and now he was sitting at a desk with ramparts of books looming over him, happy as a novice given his first glimpse of the library.
The books were in excellent shape (and so they should be) but he was getting a bit frustrated. There were a number of particularly pertinent inscriptions and other records, but the main fact was that the exact history of the early part of the Hightower itself was, well, murky at best.
No-one knew who had built that lower course. Yes, there was evidence in the form of inscriptions that the First Men had built the part above that – Bran the Builder yet again – but again there was some ambiguity there. Bran the Builder must have been a very busy man indeed. The lower part, with that strange stone…
A cough and a sniff heralded the arrival of Marwyn, who peered at the collection of books. "How goes it?"
"Slowly," he muttered as he made a note on a piece of parchment. "Which to say better than no progress at all. The earliest of the runes are… problematic."
"What about the runes on the gate?"
Ah. He smoothed the scowl from his face. "Those are… peculiar. I thought at first that they were an old variation of the tongue of the First Men, but there is something… odd about them. Different. They remind me of carvings I have seen near the God's Eye once, many years ago. I have a theory, but it remains in its infancy and cannot yet toddle."
Marwyn gave him a rather baffled look. "I see," he said, sounding as if he didn't. Then he sighed. "Tudyk is declining. He wants me to take over his position."
Perestan looked up and grinned slyly at the other man. "Too much work?"
A slight groan was all the answer he needed. "All that faffing about… all that paperwork… Gods…" He shook his head. Then he looked at Perestan again. "Word of the Gate at the base of the Hightower is beginning to spread. It's just a matter of time before it reaches the Starry Sept."
Now it was Perestan's turn to groan. "Oh joy," he said sarcastically. "Remind me again about the benefits of religion?"
"Keeps the smallfolk quiet and stops nobles from being greedy idiots."
"They're always going to be idiots."
"Aye, but they can at least appear to be pious."
This was a good point and he nodded slightly. "Well then. I'd love to see the reaction of a Septon to that gate. Whatever it is, it makes bladder control difficult." He looked back at the mound of books. "I wish I knew what it is! It's old Marwyn, it's very old. Older than Oldtown, older than the rest of the Hightower. And whatever's on the other side of it… well, I'm glad that it's locked."
There was a long silence and then the door opened on the far side of the room and Ebrose walked in. A fat lad followed him, who was looking about the room with a great deal of interest. The Archmaester looked at Perestan and Marwyn and blinked more than a little. "You two don't normally get on together."
"Driven together by research," Marwyn replied dryly. "That and mutual griping about stupidity."
"Ah," said Ebrose. "Yes, well, we all roll our eyes at that. This is Samwell Tarly. Lord Willas Tyrell sent him here to carry out some research. Research about the founding of Highgarden and Garth Greenhand."
Marwyn squinted at the lad. "Tarly? Any relation to Randyll Tarly?"
"I'm his eldest son and heir," the fat lad replied. "And you are Maester….?"
"He's Marwyn and I am Perestan," Perestan replied with a grim smile. Then he peered at the young man. "You look nothing like your father."
The lad shifted from one foot to the other and then back again. "Yes," he said quietly. "I know. It might have been pointed out to me quite a bit."
There was a brief silence and then Perestan looked back at Ebrose. "Why is he here? In this room?"
"He needs access to some of the books you have."
Perestan glared. "I happen to be using them."
"Not all of them at the same time, Perestan? Surely he can read some of them when you are not looking at them?" He gestured at the rampart of the books.
After a long moment of thought Perestan reluctantly conceded that he might have a point. "Why Willas Tyrell, by the way, not Lord Tyrell?"
"Lord Tyrell is on a prolonged hunting trip," Ebrose said, staring at the ceiling. "Lord Willas is effectively in charge of the Reach at the moment."
Perestan absorbed this for a moment. "Well," he said eventually, "Anyone has to be an improvement on Mace Tyrell." Then he looked the boy up and down. "Lord Willas sent you to research the history of Highgarden and Garth Greenhand?"
"Well," the lad said with a gleam of something undefinable in his eyes, "I do have some experience of finding information for Lord Willas Tyrell. And things. Otherbane for example."
They all stared at him. "Otherbane? The weapon of the Gardener Kings? The weapon that hasn't been seen since the Field of Fire?" Marwyn was openly staring.
"Yes," Tarly said with a hint of defiance. Then he pulled out a piece of parchment. "Now, if you'll excuse me I have an initial list of books I'd like to take a look at." Perestan peered at the list. It was a very long one. Hmmm. It was possible that the lad might have a little potential.
She pattered on next to noiseless feet along the corridor and then very carefully peered around the corner. Arya had not diverted from her course at all and was indeed headed to her room. Her shoulders were slumped and Cat's heart ached for her daughter. She looked as if she was deeply sad and Cat knew that it was her fault.
As a result she had been avoiding her own mother all day – and now Cat had had enough. She waited until Arya and Nymeria entered the room and then she strode in behind them and closed the door.
Arya looked at her in shock, followed by some sullenness. "Hello Mother."
"Arya, sit down. I need to talk to you."
Her second daughter rolled her eyes, but obediently sat on her bed, with Nymeria sitting next to her.
"Good," said Cat as she sat on the other side of the bed. "Now – Arya I need to talk to you."
"Mother, if this is about the Septa again…"
"No, this is about the other matter. This is about you saying that you – and Bran! – are a warg."
The brows came down into a stubborn scowl and her daughter crossed her arms. "What about it?"
"Arya, this is important. And… this is something that I am having trouble with. I know that the Old Gods have spoken through your father, yes, I know, and Jon. I believe in the Seven, but I also believe in the Old Gods. I have to, too much has happened. You claiming to be a warg is important. I know that you believe it. So – help me to believe it. I want you to prove it to me." There. The words were said. She couldn't believe that she had said them, given her upbringing.
Arya was directing a very odd look at her, a look that somehow combined utter disbelief with wild hope. "You… you want me to show you how I warg?"
She swallowed. That part of her mind that said that this was all unnatural was screaming at her. "Yes."
Her daughter searched her face with her eyes, before making an 'eep' noise of excitement and then scooting back to that she was pressed against her pillows. "This will take a little while," She said quietly. "I've showed Bran. I'll show you. Mother – my eyes will turn white. And I'll be in Nymeria. You need to ask me to do things through her. I mean that I'll be in her, but you need to talk to her to give me orders. Does that make any sense?"
She ran her daughter's words through her head, winced a little but then nodded.
Arya's eyes searched her face again, her own face more serious than she had ever seen it, and then she closed her eyes. A long moment of silence followed and Cat could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Part of her mind was still pointing out that this was blasphemy whilst another part of her remembered the red fire in Ned's eyes on the night of the direwolf.
On and on that silence went and just as she was starting to wonder what was happening Arya's eyes suddenly flickered open. They were white – not the white of the roll of an eye, but an absolute white that almost glowed. Cat's hands flew to her mouth almost without her thinking about it – and then she noticed that Nymeria was standing to one side, her head tilted to one side. They she huffed a little and leapt down to the floor, where she sat.
Cat peered at the little direwolf, her hands gripping her knees. "Arya?" Nymeria nodded and then panted happily. Cat looked at Arya for a moment and shuddered a little at those white eyes, before looking back at Nymeria, her mind whirring. "Arya, what's four plus three?"
The direwolf huffed again, before barking seven times. "Ten minus five?" Five barks. "Raise two of your paws." A front right and back left paw was raised.
"It's true," she muttered, utterly stunned. "It's true. You are a warg." Nymeria darted forwards and licked her hand, before doing back and sitting on her haunches. Then she looked at Arya. Cat also looked at her daughter – and then she gasped as the whiteness faded from Arya's eyes, returning to their natural grey.
"Are you alright Mother?" Arya asked the question quietly, almost fearfully. "It's just me, and Nymeria, I mean warging… I've read about it, Starks did it in the old days, there are statues in the crypts and it's natural Mother, it's not unnatural and you're staring sat me and I don't know what else to say and-"
Cat shut her daughter up the best way that she knew, by hugging her. "You are my daughter," she said fiercely, as Arya squeaked and then melted into her embrace. "My daughter the warg." And then she wondered what Ned would say. It would not matter to him, she knew. Arya would always be Arya.
The long line of men on horses stretched ahead of him and he winced a little as he tried to find a new way of seating himself on the saddle that didn't hurt. This wasn't his first time on a horse – he'd travelled on business a few times for Master Mott. He'd quite enjoyed it at the time. Of course he was now facing a longer trip. A much longer trip.
He'd heard about saddle sores from some of the other men. He wasn't looking forwards to finding out exactly what they were like. His new clothes were taking some getting used to as well. They weren't as nice as the clothes that Shireen and the others were wearing, but they were still better quality than he had ever worn before. And they were warm. It was colder than King's Landing here. Colder but oddly… cleaner. Nicer. The smells were better. He'd lived all his life with the stench of the city in his nostrils. White Harbour had been so clean. And now the road was clean as well.
A rider galloped past him and he watched him go carefully. Lord Stannis had been very clear: "Stay at the back of the column, watch the men around you and be wary. There's some here who wish you ill. You can be sure of that."
It all made him uneasy and he'd taken to watching everyone carefully. Especially the man in red cloaks. Lannister guards. He'd already had one good reason to be cautious. He'd found his horse to be a bit skittish that morning. Checking every part of the saddle he'd found out why – a small caltrop placed under the saddle. If he'd mounted his horse then a prong would have maddened it beyond belief.
Lord Stannis had seen it when he surreptitiously shown him and ground his teeth a bit. "Well spotted," he had told him. "Keep being careful. I'll set a good man to watch you."
The good man in question was a knight, Ser Jorah Mormont. A knight, or the Northern equivalent. He was riding next to him now, a tall and rather solemn man with thinning hair. He'd seen him sparring with Father in White Harbour.
Father. It was still so strange to think that his father was actually his Grace the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Robert, the First of his name. It still made him feel strange inside.
He'd seen his half-brothers and sister once or twice. They were very blonde, very much like their mother. Prince Joffrey, from what the guards and servants had said, was a right little shit, but Prince Tommen and Princess Myrcella were said to be very nice. Kind even, although the little boy was oddly fixated with cats.
And then there was the Queen. She was beautiful, if cold. Blonde and cold, like gold made flesh. She was travelling in a carriage that seemed to annoy her a lot. There had been talk of a wheelhouse, but on a trial run the wheels had all fallen off after a mile.
He's also seen the sworn sword, or bodyguard, or whatever the seven hells it was, to Prince Joffrey. Sandor Clegane was large, had a fascinating helm in the shape of a dog and was horribly scarred on one side of his face. He was, in a word, intimidating. And someone to avoid. The man was… dangerous. He wasn't sure why, but he avoided him as a result.
They rode a long way that day. A long and painful way by the end. He ached in all kinds of places that he'd rather not think about and then there was the chafing… But eventually they came to a stout keep ruled by a large man with Manderley blood and his doting wife and seven (Gods almighty, seven?) children.
Rhys Greensnow was some descendant of a Manderley bastard perhaps and had had plenty of warning of the arrival of the King and his huge group, and probably coin from White Harbour to help with the cost of hosting them all. There was already a couple of beef carcasses being roasted as they arrive and as the King boomed his pleasure at the welcome, whilst the Queen sniffed and looked chilly.
As everyone scattered to their various quarters, some inside the keep and some in the nearby inn Gendry looked about, jiggled his legs and wondered if his balls would ever forgive him for the ordeal that they had just gone through. They'd have to – it was another half a day to the ferry over the White Knife and then the road that joined up with the Kingsroad, or so people said. Ser Jorah slapped his shoulder, nodded at him and then walked off to join his all-but-wife Leera.
Hearing the puff-huff of a bellows in the distance he looked over to one side. Yes, there was a smithy there and before he knew it his legs had led him there.
The blacksmith was a short burly man with enormous black eyebrows and a surprisingly deft swing of the hammer. His assistant, who was pumping the bellows of the forge every now and then, was cut from the same cloth and was obviously his son, although by the way that the younger man was wiping his forehead and shivering, he was also ill. Both looked at him briefly as he approached but said nothing as he folded his arms and watched.
The blacksmith was making a sword, and not a bad one, but as the steel started to be shaped Gendry could see that the younger man was starting to shiver again, this time more violently. He pulled his jerkin off and strode over to the bellows, placing his saddlebags to one side. "Give over, I'll take it."
The blacksmiths son peered at him. "Can you handle a bellows?"
"I could at King's Landing. I can do the same here."
The two Northern men looked at him, then at each other, and then the older one shrugged. "Get to bed, Jon. That wife of yours will never forgive me if you fall over in the forge. You're not well."
The younger one opened his mouth as if to argue, before shivering again and then relinquishing the bellows, before taking off his leather apron, hanging it neatly up, looking around the smithy and then walking off. Gendry nodded and then pumped the bellows hard to get the temperature up a little as it did not look quite right. This seemed to please the blacksmith, if a grunt and slight nod meant what he thought, who then reheated the sword before pounding on it again.
"To anyone good?"
"Master Mott in the Street of Steel in King's Landing."
"I'm with the King's party, on the way to Winterfell."
A pause. "You heard the bellows then?"
The sword was coming together nicely now, the steel just the right colour and Gendry watched as it was shaped to just the right manner before being quenched in the right bucket. The blacksmith looked up. "You here to just pump the bellows or work?"
"I can take work if it allows me to do my own bit."
"What are you working on?"
He pumped the bellows hard for a moment and then reached for his saddlebags. He didn't have much, but he had enough to start making two objects in White Harbour. One was a helmet in the shape of a stag's head, the practical kind, mind. The other was a simple helmet with a faceplate. Something that didn't make him stand out. He pulled them both out and handed them over.
The blacksmith turned each over in his hands, inspecting them carefully as Gendry pumped the bellows every now and then, as well as adding coal in the right grill. "This is good work. Both of them. Why a stag though?"
"For… for my father. He… wears Baratheon colours."
"Oh aye?." Shrewd eyes searched his face. "There's two swords and five knives that need making over there. Finish them and you can work on whatever you like."
Gendry thought about it and then nodded, before reaching for a leather apron. Best to hide in plain sight for a while.