He found himself almost liking the North, as he rode along the road behind the brat. It was the kind of place where you could tell a man to bugger off and not be looked at funny afterwards, or worse still have some bloody fluttering prick claim that his honour had been besmirched and that they now needed to fight a duel.
The last time he'd fought a duel it had been very short.
No, but he did almost like the North. It was colder than King's Landing and bleaker, but there was something about the place that he found… well, fitting. It was a place where he might one day find a place. Perhaps. Maybe.
The brat, of course, hated the place. It was too cold, the people didn't seem to respect his father enough, or not enough for his liking. And him too. The brat thought that everyone should grovel before him.
To be honest the North was not a place where people grovelled. You couldn't. It wasn't that kind of place. This was a harsh, hard, place. The Gods only knew what it was like in Winter, and from what everyone was saying, Winter was coming. They were preparing for it too, something that balled the brat. "It's still Summer," the brat had told him that morning. "Winter is a long time away. The Citadel hasn't even sent out their white ravens. What do those stupid peasants have to worry about?"
The fact that the North was, well, further North than anywhere else in Westeros obviously didn't occur to the little prick. Did he never think about things like that? Of course not, he was Prince Joffrey, spoilt brat and prick of the first order.
Well, at least the little shit had stopped babbling nonsense about the sword. Stormbreaker was now something that he avoided looking at, did not talk about and avoided whenever possible. It was funny, in a way.
What was less funny was that there was another Baratheon about, sort of. Gendry Storm looked a lot like his father, something that the brat resented. Fortunately Gendry Storm also seemed to be always escorted by either Old Stoneface or a Northern knight called Mormont. The two boys had so far not met and long may that continue. The King seemed to like his bastard and that was something else that the brat resented.
He sighed a little as he looked back for a moment at the long line of men and women on horses and carts that stretched behind him, before looking at the line ahead. Somewhere on the road the King was riding with his second son, who kept asking questions about everything.
He had a nagging feeling that something was going to go wrong someplace up ahead.
She hated salvage work. Too much backbreaking work, often in freezing water, for too little reward. The bodies were also a problem, but in the worst cases you just put some rancid fat under your nostrils and breathed through your mouth a lot.
The ship she was working on had been impaled on one of the iron spars and sank in place. Now, at low tide, they had pulled out the spar and were patching up the side of the ship. There were some bodies at the stern, bobbing in the dirty water there. One still had an arrow in his chest, another was missing a leg. She had no doubt that that the leg was waiting to be discovered by some unfortunate man or woman.
Still, the work took time. Kept her busy. Stopped her from thinking about things. Like the fact that the Iron Islands were now effectively in a state of civil war. One that she was now a major part in. Yes, Father had started the whole thing, but… But what? What could she say in defence of her father now that so much blood had been shed?
The man working next to her stopped working all of a sudden and she was about to turn and snarl at him to keep at it when she noticed the approaching figure of her nuncle. A closer look at his face showed that he was in a rare taking – as angry as she had ever seen him. "What's amiss?"
"The orders that Victarion was obeying. Or trying to obey. Gods damn your father. And especially Damphair."
She looked at him as he raked his hair with a hand. "Victarion will live then?"
"He'll live. He'll have a headache for a week according to the maester and he'll have a limp for perhaps the rest of his life, but he'll live. It's what he was ordered to do here that… words fail me. He and his men were ordered to raze Harlaw to the ground. The entire island. Buildings burnt, ships stolen, land ploughed with salt, men killed and women raped and deported to become salt wives. The Iron Price in full – on my people! And why? We are all heretics according to Damphair, we do not deserve to live!"
Horror stole over her. "Then they would have done the same thing to Great Wyk then?"
"But that's two of the largest of the Iron Islands. Thousands of people live on them… that's madness."
"No, that's Damphair and your father. That's how they intend to rule. The Drowned God rules them, and they rule us."
She stood there, the thunder of the surf somehow a long way away, drowned out by the thunder of blood in her ears. She knew that she had made her choice to join her uncle – her sane uncle – months ago. But this all made things as real as they could ever be. Terrifyingly real. "Then we must talk to the Stonebrows and the others on Great Wyk. We must decide how to move against…" Something seemed to stop her from speaking for a moment. "Against my father. Uncle, I am ashamed to call myself a Greyjoy."
He directed a sympathetic look at her. "You are not the only one. Your brother has written to me from Winterfell. It was a long letter that he said that he dared not send to your father. He has been touched by the Old Gods themselves he said. He no longer believes in the Drowned God, as I suspected. He touched on it in his previous letters – this was more detailed. And more anguished. But he has made his choice." He paused and then pulled a face. "There was other news. The Silence has been seen off the coast of the Reach. Sailing North."
Asha stared at him. "He would not dare – would he?"
"The man's mad, Asha, he's always been mad. I've always wondered what happened to him to drive him so insane. I wish I knew what happened to him." He seemed to think for a moment, before shuddering a little. "On second thoughts, perhaps I don't want to know. Madness is a place that it's hard to come back from."
"Where do you think he's going?"
"I don't know, but I have sent out a warning to Great Wyk. They'll be ready if the Silence appears off their coast."
She nodded sombrely. Then she looked at him again. "I would like to read what my brother sent you."
"You'll find it interesting. He was there when the Call was sent out by Ned Stark."
She thought about this for a long moment. "My little brother's been having an interesting time of it then?"
"Yes. But perhaps a bit less violent a time as we have had. Although he did say that he was going to the Wall with Ned Stark for a meeting of the Lords of the North." He sighed. "It makes me ashamed. The North prepares to fight on the Wall against the Others, Robert Baratheon rides for Winterfell, there's word that Houses Royce and Redfort also travel to Winterfell and the Company of the Rose has returned. And what do we do here on the Iron Islands? We fight each other because your Father and his brother deny the Call. Come. I'll show you the letter. And we need to plan our next move."
Tonight they were staying at a place that really annoyed the Queen, a small keep that was apparently owned by some family that had just gotten back to the North from Essos, or something like that anyway, he hadn't been near when someone had explained it to the crowd.
What he did know however was that the keep's blacksmith was an old man with an apprentice who was so young that he barely knew the correct colour for iron that was ready to be beaten into shape. When he had offered his services in the forge the old man had accepted rather reluctantly, until he'd seen Gendry fashion his first sword.
And now he was pounding on what would be a hoe blade eventually. It was good to work on something that would be so needed when it came to tending the harvest. People seemed to be talking about it a lot around him – growing as much food as possible, getting ready for the winter.
"So this is where you are!"
He looked up at that and then smiled as he saw Shireen at the door to the forge. Then he frowned a little. "You stay there! It's a dangerous place, a forge, and your father would have my head if you were hurt here."
His cousin – that still felt so strange even now – rolled her eyes and then pointed at a low bench to one side. "Will you worry less if I sit there?"
He sighed. "Only if you stay there. It's safe there. Forges are dangerous my lady."
She rolled her eyes again. "Stop calling me that! I'm your cousin!"
The hoe needed some attention so be pounded on it for a moment. "Never had a cousin before," he muttered in a low voice. "Still hard to know how to talk to you."
Shireen directed a piercing look at him, before nodding and seating herself on the bench. "So – what are you making?"
"A hoe. For the crops."
"How long will it take you?"
"As long as it takes. Too quickly and it won't be much use. Too long and that's time lost on making something else. You judge it as you go along."
This seemed to make sense to her and she nodded, before watching as he worked – and occasionally asking some very good questions about what it took to be a blacksmith. It was all just enough to make him relax just a bit.
After a while she fell silent, before abruptly asking: "Can you make something for me?"
He gave the hoe one last tap and then looked at her. "What do you need?"
"It's Father's name-day soon. His old knife is broken and he was talking about getting it reforged. Can you make him a new one? I can pay for it."
"A general blade, or specifically made for him?
Shireen blinked at him. "What's the difference?"
"General blade is, well, made for anyone. If it's made for him then it's unique to him. The handle will be made for his hand, so I'll need to know how large his hand is."
His cousin thought about that and then nodded, before sitting back and watching as he finished off the hoe, before wiping his hands and the hammer free of sweat and then starting on a second hoe.
As he was about halfway through making it he realised that they were no longer alone. A slim blond boy was standing in the doorway. He was dressed in fine leathers with a lot of fur attached. Frankly he looked like a blond weasel wearing his mother's furs. Gendry eyed him warily and bowed awkwardly. "My Prince."
The Prince looked about with a sneer on his face. He didn't step into the forge, he looked at the floor as if it was filthy. Behind him loomed the large frame of Sandor Clegane, the horrifically scarred man that men called the Hound. "So you're the bastard," he said eventually with an even larger sneer. "The blacksmith bastard."
Anger stiffened his spine for a moment, but then reality hit him. "Yes, my Prince. I am a bastard. And I am a blacksmith. Do you need anything worked on at the forge?"
The Prince eyed him in a slightly confused manner, obviously wondering why the bastard was being so polite. Then he seemed to rally a little. "At least you know your place." A smirk and a look over his shoulder at The Hound, who just stared back at him icily. "What are you working on?"
"A hoe my Prince. For the harvest."
"Oh, a hoe. For the peasants."
Anger prickled at him and he added: "I've also been commissioned to make something for the Hand of the King."
The sneer seemed to deepen, if such a thing was possible. "Really? For my uncle, Lord Stannis? You are a bastard with delusions. You lie. Perhaps I should get my dog here to give you a thrashing for lying to a Prince."
As he cursed himself for opening his mouth and took a slightly better grip on his hammer he was interrupted by a delicate clearing of a throat. "Actually, cousin Joffrey," said Shireen, "He's telling the truth."
The Prince – no, the little shit as everyone else seemed to call him, amongst the Stormlanders and non-Lannisters at least – actually jumped a little, before stepping in and looking at Shireen. "What the Seven Hells are you here for?"
Shireen looked back at him stonily. "Commissioning a new knife for my father from our cousin. He's very good with that hammer."
The little shit seemed to quiver with uncertainty for a long moment, looking from Shireen to him, to the Hound and then back to him. He seemed to be slightly… fearful?... about Shireen and Gendry remembered the tales of how he had shunned her for her old greyscale scars. Then he seemed to rally a little. "Well, what a match. The bastard blacksmith and the… silly little girl."
Shireen just stared at him and then stood up from the bench. "You wanted to say 'scarred little girl' didn't you? Well, you can't. The scars are gone. The Old Gods cured me. I've found things and seen things and lived though things that you can't imagine. So, you know nothing, cousin."
The little shit flushed with fury and took a step towards Shireen that raised Gendry's hackles. Shit, he thought, this is going to be bad. And then another throat was cleared at the door on the other end of the forge, and Stannis Baratheon stepped into the room. He was dressed in his own leathers and had a sheath of messages in his hand. His eyes were also burning with anger. "Nephew," he said, glowering at Joffrey in a way that made the little shit cringe more than a bit. "Are you insulting my daughter?"
The little shit paled and all but danced from foot to foot for a moment. "….No?"
The glower intensified. "Good. Do you have somewhere else to be?"
"Then I suggest you go and do something there. If I find you bothering my daughter or your bastard half-brother I shall be… annoyed."
The little shit pulled a face that might have been an attempt at an ingratiating smirk, before all but fleeing. Stannis Baratheon watched him go with an odd, unreadable, expression on his face and then walked through the door that the little shit had left by. "Gendry."
"Thank you for keeping my daughter safe in this forge."
Gods, how long had he been there? "I'd never risk her here my Lord."
His uncle paused for a moment and then tossed something at Shireen, who caught it with wide eyes. "The handle to my old knife." And then he strode out.
Gendry looked at Shireen – who sent a beaming smile back at him.
It was odd how the sight of the Foxhold up ahead raised his spirits. He'd spent so long hoping for a little holdfast somewhere and then when he did get one (well, bigger than he had ever dreamt of) he found himself getting far more emotional about it than he ever dared imagine.
Home. He was home. Such a strange concept. Father would have laughed his arse off and then paused and told him that he was right.
As he and his guards clattered in through the main gate and then up before the keep he could see activity as many people started to gather. Ursula Stone was one, as she directed people into place before smoothing out her skirts and then clasping her hands before her stomach. And then there was Maester Haster, who was walking into place. Both looked reasonably calm, which was a good sign.
Dismounting, he handed his horse off to a groom with a word of thanks and then walked up to the others. "She's still alive then?"
"She is," his Steward said in a hard voice. "She had a few close brushes with The Stranger, but she's still alive."
Bronn nodded and then dismissed all but Stone and Haster. "How is she?"
The Maester pulled a slight face. "She has good days and bad days, my Lord. Good days outnumber the bad days at the moment. On the bad days, the loss of her arm seems to come as a shocking surprise in the mornings. On the good days, well, she gives us a lot of orders."
Bronn stared at them both. "Orders? What kind of orders?"
The Maester looked embarrassed whilst Ursula Stone looked a bit like her last name. Then she coughed a little. "Oh, orders on the lines of 'Saddle the horses, I demand I be taken to the Eyrie at once', 'Send a raven to Winterfell at once, my son must be sent back straight away,' and then 'Lord Arryn is dead, I am the Lady Regent of the Vale, you will obey my orders at once.' Only louder. Much louder."
He rubbed at the bridge of his own nose for a moment. "Aye, well, she can whistle for all that. Lord Arryn is most certainly alive and well, and very angry with her. How long will it be before she's well enough to travel?"
Haster chewed his lip for a moment and somehow managed to look even younger. "Travel to King's Landing my Lord?"
The lip got chewed a bit again. "Maybe a month. Maybe two. Losing an arm was a terrible strain on Lady Arryn, my Lord." Something seemed to occur to him. "Is she even still Lady Arryn?"
Bronn's eyebrows went up and down for a moment. "That's a good question. I don't know. Lord Arryn didn't exactly say if he'd divorced her, although given the fact that she tried to kill him he'd have reason to. I would if I was him." Then something occurred to him as well. "Does she even know that Lord Arryn's still alive?"
"We haven't mentioned it to her," his Steward said with a distinct gleam to her eye. "It will no doubt come as a shock."
He eyed her carefully. "And you think that I'm the one to tell her?"
"She should know how badly she failed."
He was going to reply on the lines of 'You're a hard women Ursula Stone', but then he remembered the thing that he was carrying. Instead he turned to the Maester. "I'll talk to her later on. Monitor her closely – Lord Arryn himself wants her in King's Landing for her trial." Then he turned to his Steward. "I need to talk to you."
They found a small room just off the main hall of the keep and once they were in it Bronn closed the door and then looked about. It seemed safe and secured, and this wasn't King's fucking Landing. Still, he kept his voice low as he asked: "Has she talked about the letter she had?"
"No, she has not. You gave it to Lord Arryn then?"
"I did. He was most grateful." He paused and then he pulled out the piece of parchment from his coat. "He gave me this."
She stared at it. "What is it?"
"A gift from Lord Arryn. To me – and to you – for our discretion about the letter."
"That's not very informative. What is it?"
"The document that makes you a Cawlish."
Ursula Stone went as white as a sheet, her face shocked into total immobility. "…What?" she said eventually in a very small voice.
"I asked Lord Arryn if he could legitimise you. He's acting Hand of the King at the moment."
She stared at the document, her face still shocked and then she reached out with a trembling hand and took it from him. He watched as she cracked the seal on it and then read it carefully. When she was finished she stared at him as if she had no idea what he was. "Why?"
That was a good question, and one that he had long pondered over. "Because," he said eventually, "I am Lord of the Foxhold, but I need a lot of help. This place is my home now. I need to know it better. I need someone who knows it. And you know it best of all. This was your home long before it was mine. I know that you had no plans to leave, but I wanted something to really ground you here and keep you…" He struggled for the next word. "Here. Helping me here."
There was a long moment of almost audible tension in the air, as something bubbled up unsaid at the back of his mind – and then she nodded. "Very well. I know what you mean." She sniffed slightly, her nostrils flaring. "You do need help." And then she stared at him again. "You are a very odd man, Bronn Cassley."
He smirked at her. "Oh, I'm practically unique! Thank you – Ursula Cawlish."
There was another pause, as intense emotion flickered on her face – sadness and mourning and jubilation and something else – before she broke it by curtseying formally before him. "Thank you, my Lord." And as she walked off there was a swish to her hips that most definitely caught his eye.