Sorry for the delay on this, but the length of it should make up for it.


Jaime

He watched the King stride off with the Toothgrinder and Stark the Stern and repressed a small worm of… well, he wasn't sure what. Worry? No. Unease? Perhaps. He sighed. Well, at least their long journey was over. Winterfell. It was bigger than he had expected and a little less muddy. Oh and quite crowded at the moment.

As the crowd broke up and the Kings party started to get organised in unpacking their things he looked about. Lady Stark was talking politely to Cersei, who was being cold and polite back at her. Oh dear. His sister disliked their hostess. Well, perhaps she would start to like her a bit after Joffrey was betrothed to Sansa. He thought about this and then smothered a guffaw. No. No-one would ever be good enough for Joffrey in Cersei's eyes.

And with that he looked around. Someone was missing. Where was Tyrion? He stared around the scurrying crowd but failed to see the short but toweringly sardonic figure of his brother. And then he saw a familiar face – no, pair of faces.

"Jory Cassel is it not," he drawled as he walked up to the man and the oddly familiar woman. "Are you well?"

"I am, Ser Jaime," Cassel replied. "Be welcome to Winterfell."

He looked about the place and smiled politely. The identity of the woman was still eluding him, until she turned to looked at Robert Arryn – the boy who was so different now! – and then something clicked in his mind. "I remember you now – you work for Jon Arryn, as his son's nursemaid, do you not?"

She looked at him and then nodded gracefully. She seemed different – more alive somehow, less inclined to fade into the background. The last time he had seen her she had been wearing a shapeless dress, but now she was resplendent in a dark brown dress that fitted really rather well and… well, she was standing rather close to Cassel. Was the man bedding her?

"I am indeed his nursemaid, Ser Jaime," she replied, before sighing as the boy in question shrieked with laughter at something that Edric Storm said. "Although at the moment he needs me reminding him to mind his manners rather than any nursing."

Jaime smothered a smile with his hand, as Cassel openly smiled, before turning to him. "You must pardon how close we stand to each other Ser Jaime, but Annah and I are now married."

His eyebrows flew up. Ah, so they were officially bedding each other. He smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. "Congratulations to the pair of you and the very best wishes for the future. Now, I wonder if you could tell me if you know where my brother is? Easily recognisable fellow, uses very long words at times."

Cassel nodded. "Aye, Ser Jaime. Last I heard he was in the library in the main keep."

"Of course," he sighed. "I should have looked there first." That or the nearest brothel, he didn't say out loud. "Where is it exactly?"

Robert Arryn, Edric Storm and Bran Stark hurtled past, all gabbling something about horses and Annah Cassel sighed, nodded her head at Jaime, kissed her husband on the cheek and then picked up her skirts and ran after the trio at a surprisingly fast speed.

"I can show you, Ser Jaime," Jory Cassel said with a small smile and then looked at the retreating figures to one side. "Those three are something of a handful."

"So I see," Jaime replied. "Robert Arryn appears totally changed from the last time I saw him."

A shadow crossed Cassel's face. "I was there at White Harbour when it was discovered that his 'medicine' was in fact poison. He has been weaned off it and… well, you can see the difference. The boy is cleverer, no longer shakes, can ride and has seen more of the Sun."

They crossed the courtyard in silence after that, turned a corner, went across another smaller courtyard towards a doorway, up some stairs, down a long set of corridors and finally arrived at a large door. "The main library, Ser Jaime," Cassel said wryly. "The domain of your brother, Maester Luwin and the Lady Surestone. Good luck." And with that he nodded and walked off.

As he walked into the library he could smell the usual aroma of old books and heavily dusted shelves and he paused for a moment and smiled. Yes, one of the natural domains of Tyrion. Then he looked around. A lot of shelves, a lot of books. Some of the former looked new and a lot of the latter looked old.

Hearing a murmur to one side he strode quietly in that direction. Tyrion was sitting in a chair in front of a large table that was covered in books and pieces of parchment. On the other side of the table was a woman who appeared to be about Tyrion's age. She had dark hair, a square chin and a nose that was a tad too large to make her pretty. She was looking through a large book in front of her, glancing occasionally at a picture on a piece of parchment to one side. "It looks a bit like the Throne of Winter, only it's older," she said with a frown. "How strange. And that inscription… I'm glad you didn't sit in it."

"Given the bones around it, I'm very glad as well," Tyrion replied. He had what looked like the beginnings of a beard on his face and he would occasionally shift in his seat with a wince as if his arse hurt. "I'd rather stay sane."

He had no idea what they were talking about and he was about to walk closer when all of a sudden his brother's head came up and tilted to one side. "Hello Jaime!"

"You can always tell when I'm behind you," Jaime chuckled as he approached the table and then sketched a bow. "How?"

"It's the oil you use on the leather straps for your armour," his brother said with a smirk. "Quite distinctive."

"My vanity will be the death of me," Jaime smiled as he stood there and inspected Tyrion. He was a little thinner and his eyes were a bit different, as if he had seen something. "But perhaps you should introduce me to your companion?"

Tyrion started a little and then looked at the woman, who was regarding them both with what looked like carefully hidden amusement. "Where are my manners? Dacey, this is my brother Ser Jaime Lannister, knight of the Kingsguard. Jaime, this is the Lady Dacey Surestone, the Surestone of Surestone as she is known here."

Jaime bowed his head. "My Lady."

"It is good to meet you, good Ser," she replied with a graceful sitting half-bow. "Lord Tyrion here has told me much about you."

He eyed his brother sardonically. "Should I be worried, brother?"

Tyrion smirked at him. "Just a little." Then he smiled something more genuine. "Of course not!"

Lady Surestone gathered up some papers and a book before standing. "I will leave you two to your reunion. Tyrion, please let me know when we can resume our discussion about what you saw at the Wall. I'll be helping Lady Stark with the preparations for tonight's feast for the King. Oh and I'll send a little more liniment."

As she bustled out Jaime saw the look that he gave her retreating back and sighed a little. Oh dear. He drew up a chair and eased himself into it, listened for the sound of the door closing and then looked at his brother. "You like her."

"What's not to like?" Tyrion said with a careless shrug of the shoulders that was a little too careless. "She's clever, she's fierce, she likes books like very few people I've ever met. She's striking and she's near enough to my own age."

"So, are you courting her?"

Something flashed over his brother's face, a combination of pain and sorrow and anger. "No," Tyrion said eventually. "I dare not. I care about her too much to risk her. Not after what happened to Tysha."

Ah. He winced. One day he would have to tell Tyrion the truth about that. "The two are not the same though, brother. This Lady Surestone is… well, a Lady. Is she related to any of the Great Houses of the North or anywhere else?"

"She's cousin to Ned Stark himself. He late father was very well liked."

"Surestone… Surestone…" He mulled the name over. Then something sparked at the back of his head. "Wait, there was a Surestone at the Trident, or so I recall from the tales of the battle. A tall man on a horse with a battleaxe who helped carve a hole through the line to allow Baratheon to get at Rhaegar Targaryen." He looked at Tyrion again. "That was her father? Then she is nothing like Tysha and not even Father can criticise such a match."

"I know, but… Jaime, I'm nervous. I am very fond of her, but without Father's permission…"

"She's a cousin to the Lord of the North. Father wouldn't dare… harm her. Might glare at her a bit though. Now – what's all this here? And what was that last part about liniment?"

Tyrion winced. "I'm still recovering from my ride South from the Wall. We got back two days ago and my arse is still one giant bruise." He leant back in his chair, checked that there was no-one else there and then smiled wryly. "Father needs to know about just how fast Ned Stark can move when he needs to. Jaime, a week ago I was at Castle Black with Ned Stark, two of his sons and a group of others."

He stared at his brother in some shock as he ran the numbers through his head. "But… that means that… I mean that must have been hundreds of miles and… Tyrion, that's impossible!"

"Not if you have a series of waypoints arranged, each with fresh horses. I have galloped harder and further than I have ever done in my life this past week and by all the Gods my legs and arse and every part of me still aches a bit, even now. As I said – Father needs to know how fast Ned Stark can move at times."

Jaime nodded thoughtfully. "And how was the Wall?"

There was a pause as Tyrion flipped through some pieces of parchment and then slid one over towards him. He picked it up and looked at it, his eyebrows rising. It was a sketch in charcoal of what had to be the Wall. Then another sketch slid towards him. Castle Black perhaps? And then a third. He picked it up and felt his eyes widen as he stared at it in shock. "Is this…"

"A giant. On a mammoth. Yes, they really exist. I've seen them." He hesitated for a moment as he ruffled through a number of other sketches. "Members of the Night's Watch have been going South from the Wall with small cages that were made by the First Men. The cages contain… wight parts. Have you seen one yet?"

He went still for a moment. "Yes," he said wryly. "I saw one the other day. It was brought before his Grace himself. A head in a cage that still moved. Tell me something – how was it done?"

His words made Tyrion peer at him with one of his head-down, lowering looks, which was a sign that he was either puzzled or annoyed. "How was what done?"

"The head in the cage? How was it made to move? Wires? Levers? It had to me from Myr, yes?"

Tyrion's hands went still on the parchments. Then he pulled another one out and slid it across the table at him. "Jaime, it was real. Wights are real. I should know. I've seen then. I almost died twice at the Wall, once from rogue Wildlings and the second time from, well, wights."

He looked down at the picture – no, pictures. Dead men running towards the person who had drawn the picture. Severed limbs. And an odd gate of some kind that looked like a mouth. "You drew these?"

"I did. I normally keep my artistic endeavours to myself, but in this case I thought that I had to sketch what I remembered. What I saw. I went beyond the Wall, Jaime. At the Nightfort."

He looked at them. "You saw these… things?"

"I did."

"But… Tyrion, the whole point of chopping someone's head off is to make sure that they never move anything at all ever again. Dead men – aye, and women – don't move!"

"These did." Tyrion said the words with a brutal clarity. "They ran towards me. Or rather towards the half-wight we had with us, trying to kill him and us. It's… a long and complicated story. But yes, they were dead but they still moved. They were sent by these." Another picture, this time blue ink over charcoal lines that showed thin-faced things that looked like men but weren't. They wore old-fashioned armour and they held odd swords.

"What… what are these things?"

"Others. They are the reason behind the Wall, why the First Men were so terrified that they built something that split the land in two and then founded the Night's Watch, an order that has lasted for who knows how many thousands of years. And let me tell you brother, they terrified me. The very air around me grew colder as they approached. If we had not had three men with Valyrian steel swords there… well, I would have died. Fighting one was bad enough."

None of this made any sense at all. Tyrion had fought one of these things? "You… fought one?"

"With the help of this." He held up an ancient and rather odd-looking axe. "Peculiarly enough it's a Lannister family heirloom, left at the Nightfort by a distant relative of ours. It's called Rocktooth."

He'd been wrong. Now none of it made any sense at all. "So, you went to the Nightfort to, erm help a half-wight and then fought with full wights and Others?"

"Yes."

There was a long pause. "Are you drunk?"

"No." Tyrion said the word with a dreadful finality.

He was pretty sure that he wasn't drunk himself and he stared at his brother and then at the pictures and then at Tyrion again. Someone opened the door behind him and he heard the boots of two people approaching. "You seem to have had quite a trip, Tyrion."

"Oh, I've barely scratched the surface yet." Tyrion looked up at whoever was approaching. "I haven't told him yet," he said, raising his voice a little.

"I hope he reacts better than you did."

The newcomer's voice sounded familiar - very familiar indeed. But that was impossible. He turned and then gaped. Uncle Gerion was standing there, with a young man next to him.

"Hello nephew. The dead are marching on the Wall."

He was pretty sure that life would never make sense ever again.


Brynden

He was amazed by the change in the great hall of the Twins as he stepped into it. Old tapestries had been torn down, windows uncovered and somewhere high above a large trio of windows had been unblocked.

Now, shards of light speared down onto the dais, illuminating Lord Stevron Frey, Lord of the Crossing, and his oldest son, Ser Ryman. The latter looked as if recent events had shaken his wits and somehow shocked some sense into him.

The previous night had not been a restful one. It had been immediately obvious that Walder Frey was deathly ill in the wake of the apoplexy that had struck him down. He had been carried away at once by his immediately family, including those of his immediate sons that were there.

The Green Man had watched them go with an inscrutable look on his face, before turning to the others. "He will not last the night," he told them. "Be careful. This place is like a tinderbox."

And he had been right. As dusk fell and the word from Walder Frey's chambers continued to be bad, the atmosphere in the Twins had been strained, with various sons and grandsons of the wretched man stalking about the place in clumps, hissing at each other, eying particularly hated relatives. Knuckles had been white as they gripped the pommels of swords.

Brynden, Brienne and the Green Man had stalked through the place, preparing for their departure the next day. Yoren of the Night's Watch had gone on his way, riding grimly South with his head in a cage, bound for Riverrun. He hoped that Hoster was well when he arrived. He had his issues with his brother, but he did not want him to have the same reaction as Walder bloody Frey.

The Late Lord Frey had finally died just after midnight, whereupon his eldest son had shown that he had nerves of steel. He had immediately claimed his inheritance, being the first in line to the title and also being surrounded by his sons and grandsons with swords that were in some cases half-drawn. Oddly enough one of them had been the Fool of the Crossing, Aegon, also known as Jinglebell. Only there had been nothing foolish about him at that moment – just a grim-faced man in dark clothing.

The Green Man's party had immediately supported the new Lord Frey. Certain others had not. Ser Aenys Frey had tried to cull the top of the family tree a bit and replace his older brother, a silly idea as his second oldest brother Emmon Frey lived in the Westerlands.

The head of Ser Aenys was now on a spike on the Southern end of the Twins, along with his son Rhaegar. It had been senseless and foolish beyond words and he had wondered at the time why the man had done it.

Now, as he approached the table with the Green Man and Brienne, he could see that times had changed right there and then. The new Lord Frey had a piece of parchment in his hand and seemed to be quietly pleased about something. As they approached he stood – and Brynden realised that he was sitting in a far plainer chair than the one that his father had always used.

"Lady Brienne, Ser Brynden, Ser Duncan – or should I call you just the Green Man? I do not mean to cause offence."

"I am just the Green Man now," came the response from the former Knight Commander of the Kingsguard. "I stopped being Ser Duncan the Tall when I set foot on the Isle of Faces."

Lord Frey nodded and then looked down at the parchment. "House Frey," he said in a voice like iron, "Will shortly be sending a great deal of support to the Wall. The list of those of my brothers and nephews and grand-nephews who have decided to take the Black is a long one." He looked up. He seemed taller somehow. "I will also send word to the Lord Commander, apologising for the lack of support that the Night's Watch received from my late father. He did not believe. I do. I heard the Call. So did my sons. Some have not been the same since – for the right reasons."

Yes, Brynden could see that. Aegon Frey, once known as Jinglebell, was standing to one side, his hands behind his back and a sword at his side. He seemed… more focussed than before. Interesting. But had he been changed by the Call or had the Call merely made the man within stop pretending to be a fool?

"I will not wait for a man of the Night's Watch to arrive to send them North," Lord Frey continued. "Instead I will send them North to the Neck, to Moat Cailin, and then hand them over to Lord Reed's men." And then he straightened up again. "The Others have returned. Lord Tully must know of this, if he does not know already. I will not be known as my father was – as the Late Lord Frey. House Frey stands with House Tully and House Stark."

Brynden nodded with the others and then as they swept out he wondered how long those whoresons Black Walder and Lame Lothar would last on the Wall. Not long at all with luck.


Ned

Robert was very different indeed from the tales that Robb and Jory had told him. Oh, he was still big and if he looked carefully he could see where the fat had been on him, but there was more muscle on him that he had had at Pyke. And he seemed to blaze with energy, the kind that he hadn't seen since the Trident. That energy occasionally led him astray, as twice he charged down the wrong corridor, before being recalled by Ned's amused coughs, but it was as if the years had rolled back.

As for Stannis, he was a little balder than at Pyke, but still just as quiet and intense. But there was something a little different about him, the way that he looked about as if searching for something.

When they got to his Solar he placed the Fist on his desk, watched Robert prop what could only be Stormbreaker against the wall, waved them into the chairs that he had prepared for them, closed the door very firmly and then poured three goblets of wine. No need for bread, salt and wine, not those two, although he would have been happier if it had been Jon Arryn instead of Stannis.

"Thank you Ned," Robert said as he took his goblet. "Gods, I would never have believed it. The change in Jon's boy… I'm sorry I didn't talk properly to your bastard son, I was that shaken by it. I'll tell you both something I'd never admit to Jon, I was beginning to suspect that Robert Arryn was a half-wit. Poor boy, all those fits, the wobbling head, the lack of brains… And then to see him like that!" He quaffed some of the wine and then looked at Ned with a shrewd eye. "He's no longer taking that, ah, 'medicine' of his, is he?"

Ned sat in his chair and sipped his own wine. "No. He's been weaned off it. And the less he took the more he, well, he grew. Jory Cassel escorted him North with his nurse, Annah, and from he said the lad started to change not long after White Harbour, where the poison was discovered. He's fast friends with my Bran and your Edric now. The Terrible Threesome – that's what some call them now. Rightly so at times."

Robert laughed at that, whilst a ghost of a smile crossed the face of Stannis. Then the laughing stopped as his old friends' eyes examined him. "You look like shit. You've been pushing yourself, haven't you?"

Ah. Time to tell a few truths. "You heard that I was at Castle Black?" He waited for the nods. "A week ago I was still there. I got back to Winterfell two days ago."

There was a moment of silence as Robert blinked at him – and then he shared an incredulous glance with his brother before straightening from his slouch. "Bloody hell Ned – Castle Black to here in five days? That's faster than you moved after the Trident!"

He felt a smile come and go. "I had to talk to the Lords of the North there. And then I had to greet my King."

"If you call me 'Your Grace', here, in your Solar, I'll clip you about the ear Ned," Robert rumbled. There was a creaking noise as he then leant forwards in his chair. "Are things that bad at the Wall then?"

He pulled a slight face. "Better than they were. Worse than they need to be. The Night's Watch were down to three inhabited castles on the Wall. After all that's happened lately and the people and supplies that have arrived… now the number's doubled, nay tripled. The Builders on the Wall are repairing and replacing as much they can, but they need more. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont came South with me, in order to speak with you about what the Night's Watch needs."

Robert nodded slowly and then looked at Stannis, who raised his eyebrows. "We saw a head in a cage, on the way here Lord Stark. A wight?" Ned nodded. "Then what else are we facing?"

Ned sighed. "The Others. But before we get to what we're facing you need to know something. I was at the Wall for another reason. I've met with Mance Rayder, the so-called King beyond the Wall. Under my authority as the Warden of the North I've given him and his wildlings – the Free Folk as they call themselves – permission to pass through the Wall and settle in the Gift and New Gift."

Black eyebrows seemed to fly upwards like birds. "Bloody Hells Ned," Robert rumbled. "Why? The Wildlings are naught but savages, as you told me yourself."

"Aye," he replied, looking his old friend in the eye. "And I was wrong. I've been wrong about a lot of things and I'm man enough to admit it." He sighed. "The Wildling raids against the Wall happened because of a reason. They were being pushed South. Something was massacring them, forcing them to flee – so they did. They were planning to force a way through the Wall – that was how desperate they were."

He paused. "There are a lot of the buggers. Far more than I ever imagined. Rayder said that he could call on a host of a hundred thousand of his people. And before you tell me that's impossible, I've seen the Wildlings passing through the main gate at Castle Black. Hundreds of them, hour after hour, an endless line of them. Giant and their mammoths too. All fleeing. All terrified."

Ned stood up and slid the Fist back into his belt. "And we've been lucky. We almost had no warning of what's coming at all. Because… Your- I mean Robert, do you remember the letter from Lyanna I got when we were at the Eyrie? It was on the day that Denys tried to lift your Warhammer over his head and almost brained himself."

Roberts face softened for a moment as he remembered. "Aye, I do. What of it?"

"She wrote that on Brandon's Naming Day he was in this room with our father for a long time and that when she saw him next he was… different. Sombre, as if he knew something. I think that my father told him something. And I think-" He walked over to the wall and pulled the tapestry to one side to reveal the door. "That my father took him in here." He rolled the tapestry back to that the bulk of the side of it could be held by a metal hook on the wall and then opened the door.

Robert and Stannis had stood the moment that he revealed the door and now they stepped forwards. He had lanterns ready and he led them into the passage, before stopping at the old door with the ancient wolfshead carving.

"Ned, what is this place?" Robert rumbled. "It's… ancient. Reminds me of the crypts at Storm's End."

He inserted the key and turned it, opening the door. The hinges still creaked a bit, but at least the dust was gone. He ushered them in and closed the door behind them. "We still don't know what a lot of this is. The oldest of the records that were stored in here was on hide and were badly faded. Starks of old kept things in here. Secrets. Secrets that thanks to Aerys Targaryen I never knew about."

Robert was staring about the place in bafflement. Then he blinked. "You came of age in the Vale, with me."

"And by the time I saw Winterfell again my father and Brandon were both dead. I never knew this place even existed until recently."

"Then how did you discover it?" Stannis asked the question as he stared at the skull with the horns.

Ah. Time to tread carefully, at least for a moment. "I… had reason to believe that something was happening North of the Wall. There was a message from the Old Gods." He paused, taken a little aback at the lack of scoffing, and then ploughed on. "I called on the Lords of the North to send me all the intelligence they had about the Others. You remember GreatJon Umber, Robert?"

"Oh, aye, little man, quite quiet," Robert replied with a straight face. "I remember him."

"He checked on an ancient Stark relic that my ancestors had given his thousands of years ago, telling them to check on it and that if it ever changed colour whoever was Lord of the Last Hearth was to bring it to Winterfell. GreatJon Umber did check on it and he brought it straight here once he saw it had changed colour. He placed it in my hand and… I had a vision. Of the North, like I was flying like a bird, and then the Wall and the Wildlings and then… a place called Hopemourne. Where there was a thing shaped like a man, with horns in his head. The Night King. The King of the Others. I saw him, and he somehow saw me. When I came back to my senses in my Solar I told everyone to search Winterfell for anything hidden, before, well, passing out."

There was still a lack of scoffing, although Stannis was frowning a bit. "You don't sound surprised."

"Ned, I stood where the old Godswood used to be in Storm's End and looked down at a Weirwood tree sapling, touched it and had a vision of a hidden place," Robert said in a very serious voice. "Edric told me he'd had the same vision when he touched the sapling. And later on we discovered that place - the crypts where the Durrandons, the Storm Kings of old, were buried. There was a statue there with a sword. Stormbreaker, back there in your Solar. And the statue… its eyes lit up with green fire and it called me Storm King, before giving me the sword."

"Magic has returned to the world," Stannis said through slightly gritted teeth. "The statues of the Seven in the Great Sept in King's Landing have changed. They face North now in warning, after telling a Septon that death marched on the Wall." His face worked for a moment. "And then…" He stopped, rallied, tried to start again, before pulling out a handkerchief and blowing his nose.

"My niece Shireen is no longer marked by greyscale, Ned," Robert said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "She and Gendry, one of my bastards, found a Godswood on Dragonstone. There was a Heart Tree there. She placed a hand on it and the Old Gods healed her."

Ned stared at the bald Baratheon and then clapped him on the shoulder. "Then we shall raise a goblet of wine to her continued good health. I am glad to hear of that."

"Thank you Ned, I mean Lord Stark," Stannis rumbled, putting his handkerchief away. "So, Winterfell was searched then?"

"It was, and this was found." He gestured at the walls around it. Then he picked up the little stone bowl, which was covered in a piece of heavy cloth. "And this." He pulled the cloth aside. Inside lay the Hearthstone. It was not quite shining with light, but it was brighter than it had been on the day that the GreatJon first brought it to him. "The stone's the Hearthstone. We don't know what the bowl is called. Placing the Hearthstone in the bowl sent out the Call."

The two Baratheons peered at the stone and the bowl. "So that's it?" Robert asked. "That sent out the Call?"

"Aye. Doesn't seem like much, does it? But it's drawn a lot of people here to the North. I think it restored all kinds of connections. Like to the direwolves. Something else to tell you about." He eyed Robert. "You didn't seem too surprised at the sight of Frostfyre and the other direwolves, did you?"

Another bark of laughter from Robert and a wry twist of the lips from Stannis. "Word on the road and word in the keeps and holdfasts on the way here were of Ned Stark and his direwolf. I told everyone not to react too much at the sight of her. Wasn't easy. Where is she?"

"She comes and goes. Wouldn't surprise me if she's guarding this room."

"That should surprise Barristan Selmy a bit. Right. These Others. What do they want?"

"All the records, both here and at Castle Black – Maester Aemon has found a huge cache from the Nightfort – all agree on one thing. They want us all dead. Every living thing. You can't bargain with them. You can't reason with them. You can't even threaten them. The Wildlings have seen them in the far North, beyond the Wall. The Night's Watch has seen them on the First of the First Men, from the protection of an old secret vantage point called the Overlook. Near a place called Craster's Keep as well. And my sons Robb and Jon, as well as a number of other men and women, fought four of them and a small horde of wights just North of the Wall by the Nightfort."

Robert frowned a little. "Your sons are alive. What did they have that the Wildlings did not?"

"Dragonglass. Valyrian steel – I gave Robb Ice when I found the Fist of Winter," he slapped the mace at his side, "In here. And starmetal, the kind of metal that the First Men used to make some of their most important weapons. Like the Fist. And perhaps Stormbreaker too? They're rare, but there are others." He raised both eyebrows. "The Lannisters had an axe called Rocktooth. Tyrion Lannister found it at the Nightfort. He was with Robb and Jon. Killed an Other with it too."

A silence fell. Robert seemed to be having trouble processing what he had just heard and Stannis actually had a finger in one ear to clear some wax out or something like that. Eventually Stannis said what his brother could not: "You… what?"

"The Imp killed… an Other?" Robert blurted.

"Oh, aye." He looked at them both. "I'm still not sure if, based on what Robb said, he wielded it or it wielded him, but he kill one of the Others with it. And before you say anything else, you need to see this." He reached out, tugged on a glove and pulled out one of the swords that Robb had brought back with him from the fight at the Nightfort. It was a long, wicked blade, made from some kind of crystallised ice that had somehow not melted, and he needed the glove because he hated the way that it felt in his hand, as if it radiated not just cold but evil too.

"Take out one of your daggers and then test it against this thing. Strike hard."

Robert gave him a quizzical look and then pulled out a dagger and struck hard indeed – hard enough that he staggered as the dagger shattered into a dozen hoarfrost-covered pieces.

"Gods!" Robert gasped. "That was good steel too!"

"No wonder the Wildlings flee them," Stannis said as he stroked his beard. "What do they still use, North of the Wall? Bronze? But Valyrian steel works against that thing?"

"It does," Ned replied as he put the horrible thing away. "We don't know why. Might be that the Valyrians used dragonfire to make their steel, not that we know anything more about that."

There was another silence. Robert finally broke it. "The Imp wields an axe like Stormbreaker?"

"Aye," Ned replied. "He's changed a bit. He knows what's out there now. Perhaps he can tell his father."

"Gods," muttered Robert. "How is my goodfather going to react to all of this?"

"He might take some persuading, but there's something else you need to know." Ned replied. "I mentioned that there were others at that fight North of the Nightfort. One of them was Gerion Lannister. He answered the Call."

"Gerion Lannister?" Stannis all but spat. "Lord Stark, Gerion Lannister is dead. He sailed into the Smoking Sea and never sailed out of it again."

"Oh, he sailed out of it. He was half-dead, missing an eye and clutching Brightroar, but he sailed out. It's a tale that will shake you. Certainly shook me. There's a look in his eye when he tells the tale that shows that he's not the same man that left. He's been at the Summer Islands since then with his family. He's here with his son. They answered the Call."

His words bought him another combined stare of incredulity from the Baratheons. But the expression on his face must have convinced them.

"Bloody Hells," Robert muttered again. "Gerion Lannister? With Brightroar and his son? How old is his son?"

"Old enough to fight with his father and my sons at the Nightfort. Gerion Lannister said that he never told your Goodfather about his family in the Summer Islands. Said that he'd never have approved of them."

"Wait," Stannis broke in. "Gerion Lannister heard the Call all the way from here, in the Summer Islands?"

"Aye – and before you ask I do not know if any other Lannisters heard it. Tyrion Lannister did not. But other families did hear it. The North is united like nothing else since the death of my father. The Skagosi have even sent ravens promising support. And people have been coming from the South, as I said. Lord Dayne is here. So is Lord Dondarrion. I've heard that even the Ironborn have been sending help to the Wall. The Company of the Rose have returned, something that I need to talk to you about later. And… the Mountain Clans of the Vale are in the Gift as well."

Robert stared at him again and then seemed to remember that he was still holding a goblet of wine, which he suddenly raised to his lips and emptied in one swallow. "The Mountain Tribes of the Vale? This is where they came to after they vanished?"

"Aye." He sighed. "I need to have a long talk with Jon Arryn about this. They brought something with them. The banner of the last Griffin King of the Vale."

Robert passed a hand that shook a little over his forehead and then tried to drink from the empty cup again. "The Mountain Tribes of the Vale and the banner of the last Griffin King. By all the Gods, Ned. I need some more wine." Then he paused. "These Others. You say they come from Hopemourne. Where's that?"

Ned nodded. "Far, far, North of the Wall. I'll show you the map." He opened the door again, ushered them through, locked it behind them and passed down the corridor and out into the Solar to where the annotated map of the North was hanging.

As they approached it he grabbed the jug of wine and divided the last of what was in it between the three goblets. It gave Robert enough time to get to the map and stare at it intently. "Ned, what are all these places North of the Wall?"

"Wildling settlements," Ned said grimly. "As I said, there were more of them than we ever suspected. Most are abandoned now. The Others hit the ones to the far North a few years ago. Now, you asked where Hopemourne was. Here." He stabbed at the map with a finger.

"So far North…" Robert muttered. "Too far North for any army to get to. That far North the horses would die like flies and so would the men…"

"I know," Ned said heavily as he returned to his seat. "My first instincts were to attack as well, but this is not that kind of a war. We don't know what strength the enemy is in, what his plans are, other than to attack and what he has waiting for us. An attack would be folly. The Wall was built for a reason, Robert and right now our best stratagem is to defend it. The First Men… there's something they must have known. They built the Wall, they created these… artefacts, like the Hearthstone, the bowl and who knows what else to alert people that one day the Others would return. Tyrion Lannister didn't just find Rocktooth, he found twin daggers called the Warnings, that glow at the approach of wights and Others."

He lifted his hands as if reaching for something and then let them fall. "Our ancestors, the First Men, made all these things, created all these weapons and defences and objects to warn us and we damn near ignored them all! We almost missed all the warning signs! And the Night's Watch fell into decay and the Wildlings warred with them – did you know that originally they acted as scouts against the Others for the Night's Watch? Our ancestors built this great system – and we have let it fail in front of us. Us and our ancestors."

There was a moment of silence. "Too much time," Stannis grunted as he drank from his own goblet. "Too much time has passed. The Others have not been seen for thousands of years and men reckon that a decade can be a long time. Men go to war for trivial reasons and burns keeps and knowledge too easily. The Andals came and destroyed what they found in places and then came the Targaryens and their dragons. Lord Stark, it's a wonder that we still have anything after all this time."

It was a remarkably prescient speech, coming from Stannis Baratheon, and Robert and Ned both looked at him before nodding.

"Aye," Robert boomed, "You have the right of that, Stannis. We have been warned and we are moving now. The South will stand by the North. We have no choice in this, the stakes are too high. Your people are not just preparing for war but also winter – we saw the preparations with every mile we travelled. We'll send ravens summoning every manner of help now Ned. Repair the castles on the Wall first, get the logistics in place. We can't hold the Wall existing on snow and ice once Winter comes. We'll need food."

"A lot of it," Ned agreed. "This has been the longest summer for a thousand years. A long winter will follow it, I feel it in my bones. Luwin has heard from the Citadel that the Maesters are arguing over whether or not this winter will last as long as the summer that now comes to an end."

"I knew there was a war coming," Robert said with a grim smile as he drained his goblet and then stood. He seemed to be coming alive again after being so shocked and still earlier. He rolled his shoulders and then grinned at Ned. "I've been training with a log again, to get the fat off me. I'll need one here."

Then he looked at Stormbreaker as it rested against the wall, before looking at the Fist of Winter. "The Gods have a sense of humour, Ned. You with a mace and me with a sword. Right. There's a lot of ravens we need to send out. Then I need to train and we'll talk again." Grabbing the old sword he hefted it in one hand then walked to the door and opened it, before sticking his head out. "Are you alright there, Ser Barristan?"

"Enjoying the novelty of guarding you in the company of a large and solemn direwolf, your Grace," came the muffled response. "How can I serve you?"

"If you see a servant wave them down and send the Maester here to see us would you? We have a Call to answer with storm of swords!"