Sorry for the delay on this. We've had a lot of bad weather and life has been quite busy. Everything is goi ng to start speeding up soon as everyone converges on Winterfell, but I still have a few pieces to put into place before Robert Baratheon rides into the courtyard and meets Ned again.


Robb

They planned to leave the Nightfort as soon as they could. The captured Wildlings were left in the charge of a grim-faced group of Builders from Castle Black who were given very specific orders from Ser Alliser Thorne that they were to be used as workers for a week and then sent South with whoever Mance Rayder sent from Castle Black.

Two things had happened before they left. The first thing had been the cremation of Coldhands, once known as Rickon Stark. That had been a solemn moment, with the surviving members of the Night's Watch standing in front of the funeral pyre with their swords bared in salute. Robb, Jon and Theon had joined them, as had the Wildlings. "We called him the Wanderer," Rayder said quietly. "We never knew why he was wandering, we just knew he was out there and that he was patiently waiting for someone or something. And now he is at peace."

The second thing happened as the remains of the pyre cooled and were being raked through for bones by Uncle Benjen and Ser Alliser. Gerion Lannister, with his son next to him, had called Tyrion and himself to one side.

"I need to talk to you," the one-eyed Lannister said quietly. "Tyrion, have you been dreaming recently? Not ordinary dreams – dreams of things that later come true?"

Tyrion Lannister stared at his uncle as he went a little pale. "Perhaps," he said reluctantly. "Before we helped Coldhands I had a dream a night or two before. I was running down a passage with something important in my hands and I knew that I had to be somewhere. And some months ago I had a dream of a future that must never come to pass."

His uncle returned the stare. "How bad was it?"

"I was leading men South from the Westerlands to The Reach, all that remained of the strength of the Westerlands. Casterly Rock had fallen to the Others, who were also besieging Winterfell. King Robert had vanished somewhere in the Riverlands. It was…. it was bad."

Gerion Lannister nodded slowly and then looked at his son, who was also pale, and who nodded ever so slightly. "Greenseers," Gerion said eventually. "It runs in the blood. My son has the Greensight. And I have a touch of it too. Not much, not compared to Allarion, but enough to make me aware that things are happening here in the North that are… important."

Robb and Tyrion both stared at the two others, who both looked back levelly. Eventually it was Tyrion who broke the silence. "You hinted that you had been drawn here to the Nightfort. Was it because you dreamt of that fight?"

"I dreamt that us not arriving here in time would mean the difference between narrow victory and bloody defeat," Allarion said quietly. "But if that meant in terms of the fight here or the larger fight ahead I cannot say. I do not know. Interpreting the dreams can be… hard."

"The son of a friend of my father is a Greenseer," Robb muttered. "He might be able to advise on such things. Any more dreams you can tell us about?"

Father and son swapped another gaze. "I dreamt of an empty lion whose fate depended on him talking to a weirtree that walked," Allarion Lannister said eventually. "I dreamt of storms that grew and stones that shone. I dreamt of a wolf that seemed to be made of water, which snarled at a rotted hand emerging from ice. And I dreamt of a bloodied wolf before a door to a hole in the world."

Tyrion Lannister's eyebrows had been going up and down a lot at all of this. "More puzzles, more riddles," he muttered eventually. "We must work these out." He looked at the remains of the pyre, where the last of the bones had been reclaimed from the ashes and which were now interred in a small box. "Back to Castle Black at once I think. Even if we have to ride through the night. Thorne's right, the Lord Commander will have to be told of all of this. And Lord Stark."

As Tyrion Lannister stumped off, with Allarion next to him, the latter's father held up a hand for a moment. "I need to talk to your father," Gerion Lannister muttered quietly. "This is important. Robb Stark, I am not my brother. I am not obsessed with power, I am merely driven with wanting to remain alive, my family above all. And I had a dream that my son did not, one that you will understand better than anyone. I dreamt of a man within a younger man, a man who… well, I dreamt of twin towers that fired crossbow quarrels at a young wolf, who was then killed by a flayed man, before falling through the years. Your face was there. Do not worry, I will keep your secret. I must talk to your father though."

Shock roiled through him for a long moment and he had to stiffen his spine so as not to look about to make sure that no-one was eavesdropping. "Oh, you may be assured of that," he said just as quietly.

Gerion Lannister nodded at him and then strode off. Robb smoothed his face and then walked over to his own horse, which was being held by Jon – and who took one look at his face and frowned. "What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you on the road," Robb replied. "Let me know if you start dreaming though."

"Dreaming?"

"There are Greenseers riding amongst us. Come on – there's a lot to tell Father."

"Aye, and that's a bloody understatement," Jon replied as they both heaved themselves into their saddles. "Plus Alliser Thorne keeps giving me funny looks because of my sword."

Robb sighed a little as the others also mounted. "Something else to talk about on the road." He looked to one side where Val was seated on her horse and staring fixedly at the gates. He had a sudden feeling that life was going to be complicated soon.

"Ride!" Uncle Benjen roared and they all obeyed, trotting out of the gates and then riding South, before turning towards the road to Castle Black.


Balon

The room was silent apart from the crackling of the fire and the distant sound of the waves. He stared at the messages scattered across the top of his desk and then sighed and passed a hand over his face, willing the fingers to be still and not shake.

Aeron was sitting by the fire, staring into the flames, his long hair shrouding his face. The bloody man was brooding yet again. It was about all he did these days.

These days… he had to admit that he did not have as much control over the Iron Islands as he might have liked. The fighting and dissension was spreading – even the Greenlanders had heard that something was wrong. There had been a message that morning from Baratheon, or rather from his Hand, Stannis fucking Baratheon, telling him to 'cease this conflict between you and your lords and restore peace to the Iron Islands'.

He'd been trying to do just that, didn't the fools know? But that fool Victarion had bungled things badly, so much so that almost his entire force had been lost. A handful of ships had returned, all with wounded men. The survivors had spoken of the cunning of that thrice-damned man Harlaw. The Reader was more than just a reader, he could fight as well.

And now… now he didn't know what to do. He was Lord of the Iron Islands in name only at times. He had control of Pyke, Saltcliffe and Blacktyde. Harlaw and his band of rebels controlled Harlaw, Great Wyk and Old Wyk. As for Orkmont, well the place was apparently on a knife edge, feverish with unrest but caught between the two sides.

He had to face facts. This was more than a rebellion now, he was fighting a civil war. House Greyjoy's rule over the Iron Islands was now in peril – peril almost bad as what had happened at the end of the War.

"You must send more men," Aeron said suddenly, still staring into the flames. "Harlaw must be stopped."

"There are few left to send," Balon replied bitterly. "We need to keep what remains of the Iron Fleet here, to protect Pyke from attack. I can call on support from Saltcliffe and Blacktyde, but they will be reluctant to send their full strength – they will be vulnerable."

"They should obey your orders! You are Lord of the Iron Islands!"

He smiled bitterly. "I am the Lord in name only at the moment. We face an impasse at the moment."

A door opened to one side and he turned quickly to snarl at whoever had dared to enter – only to stop, shocked into stillness.

"Well hello there brother! And Damphair too, what a surprise!" Euron. It was Euron. He was standing there, bold as brass, dressed in dark leathers. A patch covered one eye and a smirk was plastered to his face. "Have you missed me, brothers?"

After a moment Balon swallowed his shock. "You. What are you doing here?"

Euron smirked a little harder and then sauntered – swaggered even – over to the table, where he sat in a chair, leant back and stuck both feet on the table. "Why," he said with a wave of his hands, "I am here to support my Lord brother against the vile rebels. How could I stay away?"

Aeron eyed him darkly. "You were exiled. On pain of death." He looked at Balon. "Kill him."

Their brother laughed. "Ah, is Victarion still upset about his wife? Such a shame he was captured on Harlaw."

"He killed her." He stared at Euron who did not react at all to that news. "But you already knew that. Aeron's right, I should order you killed. How did you even get in here?"

This got him a pained look, "Balon, this is castle where I grew up. I know every nook and cranny in this place and certainly all the secret ways. It would be embarrassing if I couldn't get here unseen. Except for the guard whose throat I slit that is." The smirk intensified. "Besides, you can't kill me. I am the man who will win this war for you, this war that you have bungled so very badly."

It was hard, but he repressed the snarl and the need to rip out his brother's throat with a spoon. "And how do you plan to win this conflict?"

There was something about the smirk that Balon now found rather uncomfortable. It was the smirk of a man who knew something that he did not. "I know how badly this war of yours is going. I know about Harlaw and the Stonebrows. If you to win this war then you have to kill them. You've tried and you've failed. You need to get them to come to you."

He glared at the man. "And how do you suggest that happen? They will never come here unless they have won!"

Euron looked at him with a gaze that combined pity, derision and no small amount of contempt. "Then you call a parley. They need the Iron Islands to be united so that they can meet the need of the Call – don't bristle like that Damphair, only an idiot would deny that it went out – so should you call for a parley to discuss peace then they will eventually listen."

"Are you insane? If I break guests rights then even the lowliest house on the Iron Islands would never trust me again."

Euron's face rippled slightly with emotion at the use of the word 'insane', but he seemed to pull himself together and then smirk again. "It's very simple. You call a parley with the Reader and the Stonebrows. You promise guest's rights. You meet them on, say the North shore of this island, for talks and then…" Euron smirked viciously. "Well, you can't be blamed if your exiled and notorious brother, who just happens to also be dashing and brilliant, returns, gets the wrong end of the stick and through a tragic misunderstanding kills the rebels."

There was a long silence as Balon thought all of this through. "You would kill them and then claim it was all a mistake?"

"Aye. You might have granted guest's rights, but who could have known that I would choose that moment to return? The blame would all be on me. Until you purged their followers that is and resumed your rightful rule over all the Iron Islands." The smirk returned.

"And what would you get out of this?" Aeron asked the question that was already on Balon's mind. "You never suggest anything without it benefitting you in some manner."

"Oh, so cynical, brother," Euron chided the Drowned Man. "Can't I help my own family for the glory of the Drowned God?"

"The glory of the Drowned God? You dare speak of the Drowned God in such a fashion? You are not a pious man!"

Euron sprang to his feet with a scornful laugh. "Oh, Damphair, you always were a poor, blind, fool. You never did see the real world, the true world. I have seen things that would have driven lesser men like you raving mad. I have seen wonders and terrors and marvels and monsters! You think that I deny the Drowned God?" He took a step closer to his brother, who had also stood up. "I know what he is far better than you ever will. And… other things. Oh, so many other things." Something else passed over his face, a rich medley of fleeting emotions that included horror, wonder and madness. Whatever it was, Aeron shrank back from that face, his eyes suddenly very wide.

There was a long moment of tension and then Euron wiped the look from his face – and then the smirk was back as he turned again to Balon. "Think over my idea brother. Think it over…" He walked over to the door. "I'll be back in three days." And then he was gone, sauntering out of the door as if he didn't have a care in the world.

Balon and Aeron stared at the door as it closed and then slowly sat back down again. "You can't trust him," his brother said after a while, as he seemed to collect himself. "That man's mad. He's always been mad."

He stared into the flames of the fire. "Mayhaps."

"You're not considering this are you?"

Balon pulled a face. "I'm thinking about it. It might work."

"And what does he get out of it?"

"Oh, I know what he wants. He wants to be my heir. After all, Asha has betrayed me and from all reports Theon is a Stark in all but name now. The Ironborn will never follow him."

Aeron stared at him as if he was mad. "Euron can never be allowed to be your heir! The man would lead us to death and destruction!"

"He'll never be my heir. Asha may have betrayed me, but I still have hopes for her." He leant back in his chair, deep in thought. "This will take some careful planning."

His brother stared at him again, but then seemed to shake himself and then resume his own brooding, the room silent again apart from the crackle of the fire and the boom of the surf. Yes, both careful thought and planning indeed.


Aemon

He gripped the wooden railing of the balcony outside his quarters and looked out at the courtyard below. Castle Black had truly come alive again. There were times when he could close his eyes and imagine that just for a moment the years had rolled back and that the gate might open at any time to admit Bloodraven. The castle bustled with people as supplies and men and yes even women rolled in. Help for the Wall. Help for the Night's Watch. Help against the Others.

There were also times when he wanted to reach back in time, grab the heads of his ancestors and bash them against each other until common bloody sense entered their thick skulls. Few of them had ever seen the Wall. More had scorned it – and the Night's Watch. They'd foolishly viewed the latter as the private army of the Starks, something that had never been true.

He had often wondered what might have happened if someone like Aegon the Conqueror had ever seen the Wall. Yes, his ancestor had been to Winterfell, but he never saw the Wall. Surely the sight of it would have triggered something – men would not have built such a thing without a reason and men could not have constructed it without magic. And a man or a woman on a dragon would and should have seen that. Felt that.

Ah, magic. He had often wondered about that. Why did it ebb and flow? Did it even ebb to the point that some of his brothers at the citadel so insisted? Why had the dragons vanished? Surely if the dragons had died off at Dragonstone and the Dragonpit (or whatever was left of the latter) because of the ebbing of magic, then why had the Wall not suffered damage – or the Others never woken up? And the Others had been awake and murdering their way to the North of the Wall long before Daenerys had hatched her dragons.

It had all brought up most unwelcome memories of Aegon and the day that he had heard of his brother's death at Summerhall. He had his own suspicions about that.

He sighed and then turned and entered his quarters. So much to do and so little time. He felt as if time was running against them now, some instinct deep within him was calling out in warning and he had no idea why.

It was then that he saw it. There was a canvas package on his desk, about the width of two hands and the height of a hand. There was a piece of parchment next to it. He peered about his quarters carefully. No-one was there. Only then did he approach his desk. There was a name written on the parchment. 'Aemon Targaryen'.

Well, this was a poser. He started to reach out for it, before pausing and then pulling out the gloves that were folded into his belt. He slipped the gloves on – no sense taking any chances, not with the hairs on the back of his neck standing on edge – and then picked up the parchment and unfolded it.

There was a message inside it. 'I was asked by a man who was a friend to a man who I owed a favour to if I could bring the package you see here to the blind Maester of Castle Black and then read it to him. As the Old Gods have restored your sight my help is not needed, so I must remain in the shadows. If you have an answer to the package then leave it here two days from now. I will ensure that it will find its way to the girl who sent it to you.' And the note was unsigned.

Interesting. The lettering was neat and had a certain Essosi style to it.

He picked the package, noted the stitching and then pulled out his knife and carefully cut through it. There was a letter within. He unfolded it carefully. Ah. The handwriting was small and precise. That of a girl perhaps – and a well-educated one at that.

'My dear great-grand uncle. I must apologise for never having previously written to you. My brother told me that little could be expected of you due to your age. My brother, as you might have heard by now, was wrong about many things.

'I need your advice. I need counsel about so very many things and I apologise if this letter rambles or is confused in places. I have been told by a former councillor to my father that this letter will find its way to you unread by any other. I hope that it does.

'By now you may have heard that I have three dragons. The tale of how I got them is a dark one but it is true. My brother killed a servant of the Magister of Pentos who was host to us both, before Viserys tried to kill me and another servant. The Magister interrupted my brother but both then died in a fire that they accidentally started. I was trapped in a room to one side and… I do not remember what then happened, just that when I was found in the embers of the room I had three tiny dragons on me. One of the Magisters said that my eyes flashed with silver light, but that must have been a trick of the light.'

Aemon felt himself pale at this, remembering a passage from a history of his family, but then gathered himself and started to read again.

'I am on my own in Pentos now, the last of family with the exception of you. I have three dragons and I am now the heir to the Iron Throne, but I am all but a prisoner here in the city. I am the 'guest' of the Magisters, but I know the truth of the matter. The cage is a gilded one, but it is still a cage, both for me and my dragons.

'I know what the Magisters want of me. They stress that they just want to see my dragons grow fully and safely and that I should be protected as well. The truth is that they look at my dragons and instead see weapons of war. They hunger for war against Braavos, and then against any other city that they want to burn and then conquer and they will use my dragons to do it.

'Already they are bringing me old tomes on dragon husbandry, some of them so old that they predate the Doom. That at least is a good thing, because I feel as if I am far out of my depth on such things. Did our ancestors have such books? If they did then where are they now?

'I have been told of another matter by that old councillor to my father, a rather odd man called Varys. A more concerning one. I have been told that the existence of my dragons is known to the other cities – and that they are already preparing for war.

'I do not want to be the reason behind any war. I do not know what to do. Should I stay in Pentos or try to flee – but if I flee then to where? The other cities will seek to use me and my dragons the same way that Pentos dreams of using me. But where else? Andalos is abandoned and the Dothraki Sea increasingly empty. As for Westeros I know that Robert Baratheon wished my brother dead and probably wants the same for me, and that the actions of my father and my brothers have diminished the standing of our House greatly, weakening any support there.

'If you can advise me in any way I would be most grateful. You are the last living member of my family and I have no-one else to turn to for advice.

'I send my love and respect,

'Daenerys Targaryen.'

He stood there for a long moment, staring down at the letter. He almost wanted to cry. There was a desperation in that letter, a need for advice and help and knowledge. And then he slowly nodded. Lord Stark needed to see this.

He found the Lord of Winterfell talking quietly with the Magnar of the Thenns. Both had similar frowns of intent as they spoke in the language of the First Men, a language that Ned Stark was now apparently highly adept. They both noticed him arrive, with the Thenn nodding to him, before bowing to Lord Stark and then taking his leave. "Can I help you Maester Aemon?"

Aemon looked about carefully and then handed the letter over. "It was in my chambers – I just found it. Its contents are most singular, Lord Stark."

Ned Stark took the letter with a frown and read it. He had to give the man his due, his sole reaction was to briefly flicker an eyebrow up and down for an instant. "I wonder who delivered this here?"

"I wondered the same thing. I must reply to my great grand niece though. She is alone in a pit of vipers and I am now the only family that she knows of." He looked at Lord Stark. "Three dragons would be a great help here at the Wall, if it could be arranged."

"Easier said than done," Lord Stark rumbled as he pulled on his top lip. "I see your point though. Robert would never agree to it however. He is… somewhat obdurate about members of your family. That said, I agree that you should advise her. She sounds desperate."

Aemon nodded slowly. "I will advise her to wait, but to watch the horizon for threats. The other Free Cities might well move against Pentos before her dragons have fully grown. I like it not that King Robert's Master of Whispers has been advising her as well."

"Aye, that worries me too. Robb told me that Varys is not a man to be trusted."

Men shouted at the gates and they both turned as those gates opened to reveal a party of men – headed by Ser Alliser Thorne and Benjen Stark, followed by Robb and Jon Stark, the Greyjoy boy and others.

A smile stole over Ned Stark's face as his shoulders relaxed just a little from released tension. "Write your letter, Maester Aemon. My party will be away at dawn, bound for Castle Black."

"Father!" Robb Stark called as he dismounted. "Maester Aemon! We have quite a tale to tell you!"

"It seems that the writing of that letter will have to be put off." He looked at the party. Mance Rayder was there, as were most of those who had left, but who were the others? And why did Tyrion Lannister now have an axe carried in a leather scabbard over one shoulder?


Gendry

Acting as the blacksmith to the King's party was actually making him both well known and well hidden. It was an odd combination. He was known as 'His grace's natural son', true, but also as 'that blacksmith who swings his hammer bloody well'.

He knew that they were going a bit slower than his father might have liked and that they had actually paused for a day or so. They were a few days away from the Kingsroad, but just up ahead the bridge over the small tributary to the White Knife was in poor condition from too much usage over the past few months and urgent repairs were being made to it.

Fair enough. It also meant that a lot of messages were coming in to be dealt with by his father and his uncle. He knew that. The business of the realm never ended and he shuddered at how much had to be dealt with ever day. The pause also meant that he had a chance to work on a few things himself – and to spy out the lay of the land.

A hard place, the North. He liked it. There was no side on most people, little flummery. They were staying in another minor keep tonight, one owned by a vassal of the Cerwyns. It was a quiet place, made lively by the Court, and he had done his usual thing of seeking out the blacksmith within it and volunteering to worth in the smithy. Today he had repaired two daggers, a sword, a spear and five hoes.

A lot of people were farming in the North. A lot. And there were those who were moving North to help and support them. The lordling they were staying with, one Lord Idrys, had recently celebrated the marriage of his oldest son to the daughter of a lordling from the Riverlands. He seemed to small something in the air, a feeling of… liveliness? Action? The land seemed to be coming alive.

Perhaps it was all in his head and he was imagining it.

He hammered on the blade of the sickle that was now in front of him and drove out the silly thoughts that were crowding it. Just work the metal. Work the blade. Shape it. Fashion it.

As he placed the sickle in the right quenching bucket for the right amount of time before finally pulling it out he realised that he had company. A small blond boy was standing at the doorway. He was trembling with nerves, but the moment that he saw that he had been noticed he swallowed visibly and then stepped forwards. "You are… you're the blacksmith?" the last word was said in a near-squeak.

He nodded. "I am. How may I help you Prince Tommen?"

The boy blanched even further, as if that was possible, before rallying. "Cousin Shireen said that you could be trusted?"

He peered at the boy. "I can be. What's wrong?"

A piece of metal was held up in a trembling hand. "It's my stirrup," Prince Tommen all but whispered. "I broke it. It's all my fault. Father wants us to move fast and I was trying to, but when I dismounted it broke and-"

Gendry stopped the desperate flow of words by reaching out and gently taking it from him, before smiling and then peering at it. It had once been high quality but long usage had worn it out. "Not your fault, it's old and worn. How long have you had it for?"

Prince Tommen looked at him, confused. "Um… years?"

He nodded. "Not your fault, my Prince. You simply wore it out without meaning to. If you need to learn more about your tack ask a groom. Now, don't worry about this, I can fix it easily."

Tommen eyed him nervously. "Easily?"

"Oh yes," he said as he looked through his tools and then started to choose a replacement piece of metal for the broken part. "It won't take long. You can watch if you like."

This seemed to take the Prince by surprise, judging by the way that he peered at Gendry. Then he looked at his feet. "Erm, would Joffrey ever know about this?"

Gendry eyed him. "No, why would he need to?"

There was a pause as Prince Tommen looked shifty. "He finds things out."

Gendry knew that he was not a perceptive person, but he seemed to see something very clearly at that point. Tommen did not like the little blond shit. "I won't tell him. I just mend things. Let me mend this. Best stand over there though, this place can be dangerous for someone who doesn't know the risks."

As he fixed the piece of riding tackle he talked through exactly what he was doing, so that the Prince knew what was happening. Tommen sat on a stool, safe in one corner, watching and occasionally asking a question. As time passed he seemed to relax and look less worried. When it was over and the stirrup was fixed he handed it over to his half-brother. "It's cool enough now. Just reattach it to the saddle. Look at the other one too, just in case that's worn as well."

The Prince took the stirrup and nodded slowly. Then he looked up at him. "Thank you," he all but whispered, before slipping out. Just as he passed through the door Gendry heard him whisper: "Why couldn't he be my brother?"

Damn it, did the lad hate Joffrey that much? Perhaps he did. Poor boy. Shireen had told him about how much Joffrey seemed to bully his brother and sister.

He sighed as he pulled out the helmet again. All it needed was a bit more work on the neckguard and as he laboured over it he thought about his life. Everything had changed in some very strange ways. He was in danger, that much he knew at least. His very existence was a threat to someone, but he didn't know how or why. All he did know was that he needed to check everything about his own riding tackle every morning.

Perhaps Winterfell would see an end to the need to constantly look over his shoulder?

Well. He looked down at the helmet. It was ready. He felt as if a host of butterflies were loose in his stomach, but he'd told his father that once it was made he would give it to him.

First things first though, he had to shut the forge up and put the tools away. The risk of fire was too great to risk it though. It took time but he was satisfied when he closed the door and looked about cautiously. No sense taking risks.

He didn't exactly skulk across the courtyard – he would never really know how to without looking like an idiot – but he did look about more than he would have normally. A man was shouting somewhere at the main gateway, but apart from that it was quiet. Judging by the hour he knew who would be guarding his father and as he strode down the corridor he saw the welcoming sight of Ser Barristan Selmy standing there.

The old knight smiled a little as he saw Gendry and then nodded a little. "Is it ready?"

"Aye. Is… is His Grace free?"

"He's reading some reports that came in from White Harbour. Wait here a moment lad." And with that he knocked lightly on the door, waited for the bark of 'Come!' and then slipped in. There was a rumble of voices and then he returned. "In you go."

As he shuffled in, Ser Barristan just behind him, he could see that his father was standing by the fireplace, where a small fire was burning. He was wearing a shirt and breeches, both of which seemed to not fit him as well as they should and he was scowling at a message in one hand. Stormbreaker was propped up in one corner of the room and there was also a set of iron weights on the table. Father was driving himself hard, everyone said the same thing, trying to return to the fitness of the past.

"Gendry!" Father said as he finally looked up. "Ser Barristan said that you wanted to see me. What's amiss?"

"Nothing's amiss," he muttered as he strode forwards – and then he brought out the helmet. "It's ready. Your Grace. I mean, Father. YourGracefather." He was babbling, because by all the Gods he was nervous.

His father reached out slowly and took the helmet from his trembling grasp. "Oh my." A finger traced the lines that he had so carefully etched on to it. It was hard to make a helmet that looked like a stag's face without giving it a muzzle that restricted some aspects of sight, but he had managed it. Long hours he'd spent on it, as well as puzzling over the horns. Too much metal would make it too heavy, so he'd combined metal and actual antlers. It was practical but also a symbol of the Stag King. "Gendry… this is magnificent."

He tilted his head from one side to another. "I hope it fits. The padding was a trial at times, I didn't want it chafing and-"

His father cut him off by putting it on and then adjusting the straps, before closing the visor and then twisting his head from side to side. Blue eyes twinkled at him through the eyeslits. "What do you think Ser Barristan?"

"Formidable, your Grace. And practical."

"Aye." His father pulled it off, restored his tousled hair with a swipe of the hand and then grinned at him. "Thank you, Gendry. A worthy gift."

He stared at his feet. "Given time I could make it better, make you a better one that is, but I-"

"Lad, it's magnificent. You're young, anything after this will be a bonus." He placed a large hand on his shoulder. "I know that it hasn't been an easy trip for you. Stannis and Ser Jorah have told me of matters."

He seemed to be about to add something when a fist thudded against the door. "Your Grace," drawled the voice of the Kingslayer, "The Lord Hand is here with a man of the Night's Watch. They wish to speak with you."

For a moment he wanted to run away. The Kingslayer was languid, cynical, sarcastic and above all dangerous. Everything about him seemed to proclaim that to Gendry, from the way he laid a hand nonchalantly on his sword, to the way that he looked at Gendry as if he was dog shit on the bottom of his boot.

"Enter," Father boomed, gesturing to Gendry to step back a little as he placed the helmet on the table.

The Kingslayer opened the door and then waited for Stannis and a tall man dressed in black to enter. The stranger was travel stained and held a satchel in his hand. He bowed respectfully to Father and then looked at Stannis.

"A messenger from Castle Black," his uncle said, looking strained if such a thing was possible. "He has a delivery from Lord Commander Mormont. Robert… Your Grace, it's unsettling to say the least."

The Kingslayer, who had closed the door behind him, smirked. "Is it a snark, or perhaps a grumpkin?"

The man of the Night's Watch turned and glared at him. "A lesser Lannister," he grunted, before placing the satchel on the table and reaching within it. "Your Grace, I am Galbert Snow of the Night's Watch," he said hoarsely, "Lord Commander sent this to you. It shows what we are facing. You must prepare yourself." And with that he placed a cloth-covered shape in front of Father.

Father stared at the man in front of him and then at the shape. "What's that?"

Galbert Snow took a step back. "I would not have anyone say that it is any kind of trick. We found it North of the Wall. View it, but don't try and touch it. Your Grace… dark things walk under the Sun North of the Wall."

Dread pooled in Gendry's stomach, like icy porridge, and he stared at the cloth and whatever was beneath it. His father felt it too. "You've seen it already Stannis?"

"Aye, I have." Stannis swallowed awkwardly and then seemed to collect himself. "You must too."

His father reached out and pulled the cloth off. Under it was a small cage that contained a severed head. The head of a man not long dead. Gendry winced a little, before pausing. Something didn't feel right about this. He just had no idea what.

And then the eyes of the head opened, blue and bright and terrible and the mouth opened and closed as it tried to bite the air. Muscles moved and bunched at the jaw and temples and the forehead wrinkled as whatever this foul thing was tried to will itself to attack them.

Ser Barristan let out a curse of such intensity that he was surprised, whilst Gendry found himself flinching backwards. As for the Kingslayer he narrowed his eyes and laid a hand on his sword, before seeming to pause and then just stare at it. As for Father… yes, he jerked back briefly with surprise, before collecting himself and then leaning forwards to examine the dreadful thing carefully. "This is the head of a wight?"

"Aye, Your Grace," Snow said hoarsely. "It is. They've been seen. They've been cut to pieces. We're sending examples South, to show what we face."

"Then the Call was sent true. The Others have returned."

"They have Your Grace."

The Kingslayer scoffed. "But the Others are just a legend, surely? What is this, really? A trick? Where are the wires?"

Snow whirled around and curled a lip at the Kingslayer. "You know nothing of this. It's no trick, it's what we face. It's why we need help." He turned to Father. "They're coming, Your Grace."

Father stared at the severed head, which was still glaring around as much as it was able to. "The old enemy, as Ned once said to me when he talked about the old legends."

A silence fell, one that Gendry finally had to fill. "That cage," he said in a rush. "What's it made from? I don't recognise the metal."

"You have a good eye lad," Snow replied. "We don't know. It was found in a place called the Overlook by the First Ranger, Benjen Stark, along with other such cages. All we know is that the First Men made them somehow. They slow the rot down, so that proof of what we face can be taken South."

"Do you have more of them then?" Stannis barked.

"We have, my Lord Hand," the man of the Night's Watch nodded. "And yet more were found, or so I heard when I sailed South. More have or will be going South. To all the major lords and also King's Landing."

This got a belly-rumbling laugh from Father. "Gods, I'd like to see what Pycelle or Varys say about something like this. Probably piss themselves and then deny that it happened."

It was only then that Gendry noticed something that everyone else had not. Stormbreaker was humming slightly and the wight was snarling at it.