The desk in Ned's solar never seemed to be free of paper and parchment. She looked at the heaps wryly and then sighed a little.
There was always so much to do in Winterfell and with Ned away and Brandon just a boy it fell to her to arrange matters as much as she could. Sansa, bless her, was trying to learn - she would be a lady herself in a few years - and Luwin was a tower of strength, but she missed Ned fiercely as she dealt with the hundred and one things a day that had to be taken care of in a citadel the size of Winterfell, especially with all the work that was being done on Wintertown nearby.
Winter was coming. Everyone around her seemed to know it now and she had a steady stream of people coming to her with progress reports of food being sown, others harvested, yet others pickled, or salted, or preserved in some manner.
And then there was the work on the Broken Tower. Once it was mended they'd obviously have to find another name for it, but Ned's orders were being followed to the letter. The structure was sound, the rotted timbers in the upper courses had been removed, the stonework redone in places and the scaffolding erected. It wasn't finished of course, and the workers would be busy on other matters when the King arrived. Too noisy otherwise.
According to the last messages the King was about two days away. Ned was on his way back and was also about two days away by her best guess. It all felt horribly tight, as if the world was pressing in around her, as if there was a flood of events bearing down on Winterfell. It worried her and she also knew that it worried Luwin.
She sighed again as she looked back that the pile of work in front of her - and then she heard the sound of running boots in the corridor outside, followed by the frantic tattoo of knocks on the door. Startled she stood. "Enter!"
The door was flung open to reveal a panting Jory Cassel. "My... my lady... the watchtowers report... riders approaching. Stark... banners. 'Tis Lord Stark they... report."
Her heart leapt within her breast and she beamed at him before sweeping out, the wheezing man following her. As she all but ran down the corridor she saw Sansa and Domeric round a corner, Septa Mordane in tow, and she waved at them. "Sansa, your Father is approaching!"
Her daughter stopped, startled, and then she and her betrothed ran to join her, Lady running ahead of them and a huffing Septa Mordane behind.
As her little party emerged into the great courtyard she could see that Ser Rodrik Cassel was busy getting an honour guard in place, with many glares and not a few barked commands. He looked up as she approached and bowed quickly, before going back to making sure that the Lord of The North received a proper welcome back.
The Terrible Threesome had emerged from a corridor somewhere, Summer gambolling ahead of them, whilst Arya and Nymeria had also appeared. Arya's dress had mud on it from somewhere and she was wearing a helmet for some bizarre reason. She rolled her eyes at Luwin, who was nearest, and then man grinned briefly before taking it off her daughter.
The gates were open and her heart was pounding as they all waited. Ned must have flown down from Castle Black and she wondered what it had cost him.
And then there was the sound of horsemen and she watched as the party came through the man gates, mounted on blowing horses. Frostfyre preceded them and she smiled as the other direwolves bounded up to their mother as she guided them into a corner and then licked each in turn.
As Ned dismounted she blinked. He looked so tired - tired and thinner than he'd been for some time. Her husband had been driving himself hard, she could tell that at a glance. She wanted to run into his arms - but she had appearances to keep up so instead she strode forwards. "My Lord, Winterfell is yours."
Ned smiled that special little smile that he reserved only for her and then nodded at her, before taking both her hands in his and kissing them. "Thank you my Lady." And then he embraced her. She melted into his arms, almost in tears. "Gods, I'm tired," he whispered in her ear. "We made good time though."
As she stepped out of his arms and looked at the rest of Ned's party she smiled at the sight of Robb. He looked tired as well, as did Jon and Theon, but they were all healthy apart from that. Tyrion Lannister looked as if he was about to fall over, as did many of the others and Ned called out orders for them all to be taken care of.
"We have some interesting guests," Ned muttered quietly to her. "But first, are you well? Is the babe well?"
"I am well and it seems to be thriving. Luwin's pleased with me," she replied. "But - what guests? I can see Mance Rayder again, and I remember Jeor Mormont, but who are the others?"
"I will introduce you."
"Good - and then I need to tell you about the guests we have here."
Ned groaned quietly. "Important ones? Robert cannot be here already, he would be roaring at me and slapping my back by now."
"Important enough." She sniffed. "It might be best if you bathed first though."
"Oh aye. I do smell, Cat, and my arse is one giant bruise. Come, let me introduce to the rest of the party and then you'd best come with me to make sure that I don't fall asleep in the bath."
He was tired. Gods in the trees, was he tired, but there was too much to do. At least he now smelt a lot better and he'd been able to nap for an hour or two. Not nearly as much as he would like to, but just enough to take the edge off his weariness.
Robb, Jon and Theon had also bathed but were now asleep, and the word from the guest quarters was that so were all the others, except for Tyrion Lannister for some reason.
But he himself had too much to do and he was now sitting in his solar, staring at all the papers. Cat had done an excellent job, but there was so much that only he could do.
The door creaked open and Cat entered, closing the door very firmly behind her. "Edric Stark is coming, as you requested," she said as she sat down in front of him. "There's something you need to know first about Arya and Bran." She twisted her fingers together for a long moment. "I discovered something about them when you were gone. Something that I had a hard time accepting at first. Ned... our daughter and our son are... are wargs."
He stared at her. "Say that again? They're what?"
"Wargs, Ned. Arya discovered it first she said. She was having odd dreams, where she was in Nymeria, but then she realised that they were more than mere dreams, that she really was 'in' her direwolf." She looked about the room, distressed. "I... I did not believe her at first when she told me. It slipped out when I was talking with her about taking her lessons with Septa Mordane more seriously, but she said that as the Long Night was coming, there wasn't much point in needlework if wights and the Others were coming - and then she said that she needed other knowledge and that she was a warg.
"I did not believe her at first, not truly, which upset her, but once she showed me... then I believed."
He sat there, absorbing that knowledge with wide eyes. "She... she showed you?"
"She did. Her eyes turned as white as milk right there in front of me and Nymeria obeyed every order I gave her - including tapping out the answers to sums with her paw. Arya truly is a warg. And so is Bran. They both need teaching in this thing and there is nothing that I or Luwin can suggest."
After a long moment Ned leant back in his chair as he thought very hard and very fast. "By the Old Gods. I knew that Arya wanted to be a warg, but 'tis another matter to become one. That said, why should it not be true, after all the things that we have seen over these many months?" He pondered again. "I'll ask Rayder if any of his men are, or know of, wargs. The Wildlings have often surprised me with what they know of the Old Ways. And if Arya is indeed a warg... well, that is something we can use."
Cat sighed a little but nodded - before pulling out the red ledger that he had seen before. "When you talk to Edric Stark you need to have this I think."
"Oh?" He asked as he took it. "Why?"
"Bran noticed what we did not - it has a rose embossed on the cover."
So it did. "You think that there is a connection to the Company of the Rose?"
"Given the list of what appear to be contracts inside, yes. And Ned - the last pages of writing are in your father's hand, or so Luwin told me."
He leafed through the book to those pages and studied the script, before feeling his face pale. Yes, the entries were indeed in his father's hand. "Damn it, how did I not notice that before?"
"You were looking for information on the Others, not strange entries about contracts."
Ned nodded and then placed it to one side. "So much to do. I'll deal with the Company of the Rose first and then see Bootle. We'll try him in the Great Hall I think. We'll do it properly, so that Dacey will see her father avenged."
"I'll make the preparations," Cat said as she stood up. "Oh, and Lord Dayne wishes to speak with you."
"I know," Ned groaned. "I know he's just a boy, or near enough, but every time I see that damn sword I remember the Tower of Joy."
"Ned, when he and Lord Dondarrion pledged their help, that sword glowed. There's something odd about it."
He stared at her carefully. "It did what?"
"It glowed. I take it that it didn't do that when you fought Arthur Dayne?"
"No," he muttered, thinking back to that terrible day. "But the way that that bloody man was all but gurning as he fought me, there was something going on with it. It seemed fine when I strapped it to one of the horses afterwards. Anyway - I'll ask him about it when I see him."
A fist thumped on the door and he stood as Cat bustled to the door and opened it to reveal a dark haired man who looked a little younger than Ned. He was dressed in dark grey clothes and he held a book with the red cover that looked surprisingly familiar. He also looked a bit nervous.
"Edric Stark, Ned," said Cat, before leaving.
His cousin hovered near the door for a moment before stepping into the room at his gesture to approach, closing the door behind him. There was a long moment as the two men sized each other up.
"You look a bit like my grandfather," Ned said eventually, breaking the silence.
"And you like my great-uncle," came the reply, before the other man seemed to recollect where he was. "Your pardon Lord Stark. I am Edric Stark, once leader of the Company of the Rose. He drew himself up almost formally and then bowed and held out the book. "The Company is disbanded, in answer to the Call. We have done out duty as was commanded long ago and have returned to the North. Command us."
Ned paused, before taking the book. "Cousin, welcome back - but what do I even call you? Edric? Lord Edric?" He hefted the book for a moment. "Are these your records? I must tell you now that as the second son of my father there is much that I was not told about you and the Company."
A noise escaped Edric's mouth, something like a cross between a sigh and a groan. "I feared as much. Hells, my father feared as much." He sank into a chair, ran a hand over his face and then looked up at him. "How much do you know about the Company of the Rose?"
"Just that you were founded by exiles - those that refused to bend the knee to the Targaryens," Ned replied as he sat down himself and placed Edric's book next to the one from the secret room.
"Yes," Edric replied wryly, "And... no. We were indeed founded by those who refused to bend the knee. The thing is that they were ordered to by Torrhen Stark, our ancestor."
Ned stared at him. "What?"
"When Torrhen Stark came South to support the others kings in opposing Aegon the Conqueror, he was horrified by what had happened at the Field of Fire, the Last Storm and Harrenhall. So he halted his army at the Trident, as everyone knows, before meeting Aegon and bending the knee. What people don't know is that before he bent the knee he went to the Isle of Faces and consulted with the Green Men, or rather the Green Man, the leader on the Island."
"I didn't know that," Ned said with a frown.
"Few do," Edric replied. "It's a secret passed on from father to son amongst the Starks alone, when they come of age." He fell silent. "Or so I hoped. Lord Rickard never told you?"
"He never had a chance to do so," Ned said grimly.
"As my father and I feared then. Very well - the Green Man of the time was a Tully and he told our ancestor what he had told his nephew, the new Lord of the Riverlands. There were three things that they both had to know, only he added some more details for Torrhen Stark. All three things were secrets that had to be kept. The first was that any promises of new swords made from Valyrian steel were worthless, because the secret of making the steel died at the Doom. The second was that the Targaryens were just lesser dragonlords, not greater ones, so that eventually the dragonlore of the Targaryens would fade and the dragons would be lost, which was a shame because a time would come when they would be needed again.
"The third secret was that there was another piece of Valyrian knowledge that would fade with time - how to wed brother to sister and not have children that were deformed or lunatics. Because when that happened then Westeros would have mad kings - and that they would not be kind to Northmen."
He remembered the moment that Jon Arryn had called him to his solar, pale and strained, to pass on the news that Father and Brandon were not just dead but had died in such cruel circumstances. Remembered all the tales of the Mad King, cackling and gibbering on his bloody throne. "Those were three secrets that were all true then," he said hoarsely. "All too true. But what does that have to do with..." He stopped talking as the pieces fell into place in his head. "Torrhen Stark created the Company of the Rose to protect Northern nobles?"
"He did. He ordered the main families of the North to send their second or third sons to Essos, to join the sellsword company that he was organising and funding there in great secrecy. So that no matter what happened in Westeros, the Lords of the North would always have kin that would replace them in the event of disaster. Such a mad king ordering the deaths of a lordly family on a whim.
"And all though these past almost 300 years we were there. Waiting, in reserve. Brokering quiet marriages with noble families of the North. Keeping ties to the North. Taking on assignments, like all sellsword companies, but never great and terrible ones. We were not the Gold Company, who supported the Blackfyres. Instead we were just the Company of the Rose. Stolid and dependable. We would take on missions and inform Winterfell through secret ways. The final arbiter of if we should do anything or not was always the Stark In Winterfell." He pointed at the books. "You'll find the hand of many a past Stark in those books, on both sides of the Narrow Sea. We earned quite a bit of gold over the years, all safely tucked away in the Iron Bank. There is an account owned by the Starks, and that money is yours. And then there are those owned by each family in the Company. Or there were. We have brought that money that we had over with us."
Ned stared at the books and then at his cousin, stunned. "How many families?"
"I made a list." He pulled it out and handed it over to Ned. "You'll find some names on it that have long since died out here."
Blinking with surprise Ned quickly passed his eyes over the list. "By the Old Gods," he muttered after a long moment. "Redstarks? Ryders? Dustins?"
"Aye to all of them. There's even some Boltons - we heard that the family over here was reduced to just two trueborn members."
Ned could feel his mind whirring like a Mryish toy. He had always felt a certain amount of shame at the fact that the North had not prospered as much as other areas of the realm, that there were extinct houses here and there. And now... "This will complicate some matters. And also mean that there will be lords reclaiming ruined holdfasts. We will cope with anything that arises from that." He shook his head. "You have done well, cousin."
Edric hung his head for a moment. "Don't thank me, thank my forefathers. We came damn close to disaster a time or two. Last time was when word came of the death of your father. Lord Rickard once went to Pentos, when you were young, I believe? He met my father there. They became good friends. When word came of his death, and your brother, and especially the nature of those deaths... well, it was touch and go if the Company would remain in Essos or break apart and return to the North to lay our swords at your feet. My father was tempted himself, but talked himself hoarse persuading people that they could not go."
Ned thought about this and then nodded himself. "Ah - it was proof of why the Company had been set up?"
A bitter smile crossed the face of his cousin. "Exact proof, as it were. It demonstrated why we were in Essos. I followed your progress with great attention. You have no idea how relieved I was when you triumphed. It shook the Company, Robert's Rebellion."
This made a frown cross Ned's face. "Wait - when Robert's Rebellion was over and the Targaryens were thrown down, why did you not return then?"
"Two reasons. Firstly Robert Baratheon has Targaryen blood and we did not know him. Secondly - no word to return came from you. Winterfell was silent and we did not know what to do."
"You could not send word?"
"We send word via the secret channels. You did not reply."
"I never knew of those secret channels."
"I know that now. My father suspected that you had not been told of us. But we could not openly send word. That eunuch that reported for the Mad King was now reporting to Robert Baratheon and we could not take the risk of muddying the waters by attracting his attention, especially as he had odd ties to people close to the Gold Company. The oath we all took, whenever a man or woman of the Company came of age, still stood. Not to return until we had word from Winterfell."
"But I did not send word and you are here now. Why?"
"The Call. That always had precedence. Should the Call ever be sent, should the Others ever awaken, that extinguished one oath and replaced it with another - to return."
"Well... return you have. Will you keep the name Stark or found a cadet branch?"
"I have sons and daughters. I was thinking about the name Rosestark and a holdfast somewhere."
Ned stood, walked around the desk and clasped hands with the other man. "Then let me be the first to greet you as Lord Rosestark of the North. Welcome home cousin. Welcome home."
He was several miles beyond tired and he wanted nothing more than to slump into a bed and fall asleep. The past few days had been beyond unpleasant, an unending series of painful jolts as they galloped South. Yes, Ned Stark was a formidable man indeed. Even Father would have been impressed by the speed of their party. Uncle Gerion certainly had been.
Much as he wanted to fall asleep though, there was something more important that he had to do. That meant, of course, jumbling his thoughts back into order every now and then then, but… He paused as he realised that he was walking with his eyes shut. That was bad, very bad. A bad idea. He pinched the base of his thumb for a moment to wake up again and then walked on.
Liniment. He needed more limiment. Wait. Liniment. Yes.
He found Dacey Surestone sitting in the Godswood, sitting before the Heart Tree. She looked… very intent. Focussed. The leaves were whispering slightly in the branches above her and he stopped dead in his tracks for a long moment, before walking slowly towards her. As he approached she looked up and blinked a little, before smiling. "Tyrion. I heard that you were back."
"I am." He sat down very carefully on what was hopefully a soft patch of grass. "I'm a bit achy."
She blinked at him again. "I'd be amazed if you weren't," she said dryly. "How many miles have you ridden?"
That was a good question. He paused. "I'm not entirely sure. A lot. Over far too few days. Parts of me hurt that I didn't even know existed. I ran out of liniment I'm afraid – other people begged me for it."
She peered closely at him. "Tyrion, are you alright?"
"I'm a bit weary. Actually I'm very tired, but that's besides the point. I saw many carts by the main walls with the sigil of House Surestone. Has anything happened?"
Her nostrils flared for a long moment. "Willem Bootle is in a cell here."
"Ah." He said the word carefully. "When is he being tried?"
"Later today or early tomorrow. Ned's got a lot to do."
"The leaders of the Company of the Rose are here. Lord Dondarrion and Dayne have arrived, the latter bearing a glowing sword. And the King is due to arrive the day after tomorrow."
He thought that all through. "Yes, I see your point. The Wall was quite eventful as well."
She peered at him again. "So I see. You have acquired the beginning of a beard, an axe and two daggers."
Tyrion suppressed a giggle. "Oh, the beard was to stop my face catching a cold. The axe and the daggers were left to me by an ancestor of mine, one Tyrek Lannister. The daggers are called the Warnings. They glow at the approach of wights and Others. The axe is called Rocktooth and it kills wights and Others. Quite spectacularly too, I might add."
Peering did not seem to be enough for Dacey Surestone, because suddenly she was boggling. "Wights?" She said the word in a strained voice. "Others? You have seen them both?"
"Oh yes." His eyes were fluttering quite hard right now. Gods, but he was tired. "Seen them and helped kill them. There were a lot of wights and four Others. They were trying to get to Rickon Stark, a member of the Night's Watch who was half turned by an Other centuries ago, but who was saved by the Children of the Forest. He was carrying magic within him to help mend the Wall, so that South could talk to North and North to South. We protected Rickon Stark – Coldhands he renamed himself, quite apt actually – and killed them. I used Rocktooth on a few wights and an Other. Robb Stark got one, Jon Stark got one and so did Uncle Gerion. Valyrian steel is quite effective. Then we got Coldhands through the Wall via a magic gate and he fixed it and died."
There was a long moment of silence – and then Dacey shuffled over to sit next to him. "I think," she said eventually, "That you are going to have to tell me exactly what happened. Only later, when you are less exhausted and more coherent."
"What a good idea," he said faintly, his eyelids fluttering so hard that there was more darkness than light in his vision. "I think a nap might be in order." And then he slumped down against her. The last thing he knew before he fell asleep was that his head was on her lap and that her hand was stroking his hair as the wind gently rustled the leaves above them. Home. He was home. And then sleep took him.