Sorry about the delay on this, I've had an appalling bout of hay fever, plus I've been very busy.
Winterfell was just as he remembered it. He had visited it first with his father, years before Robert's Rebellion, but he remembered it best from the great ride South to avenge the deaths of Rickard and Brandon Stark. He hadn't fought for Robert Baratheon, he'd fought to gain vengeance for the old Lord of the North and his oldest son, brutally murdered by the Mad King.
He remembered the Trident, the place where men had scrabbled for the rubies in the water after the death of the Mad Prince, and the stink of King's Landing after that. And he remembered that shining moment at Pyke, the moment the wall crumbled under the impact of great trebuchet to create the breach and the sprint into it, fuelled by rage and hate for those Ironborn scum, Thoros of Myr to one side with his blazing sword, Ser Jaime Lannister not too far away, and Jory Cassell on the other side, with more screaming at his back.
He always wondered if it had been Maron Greyjoy who had been the one who had confronted him first. He knew that Balon Greyjoy's second son had been there on the other side of the breach, but had he been the one in the chainmail with the sword, or the other one in the boiled leather armour with the axe?
He'd been knighted that day. Heh. A follower of the Old Gods anointed as a knight.
And after that… Lynesse.
He forced his thoughts away from his estranged wife and looked about Winterfell again. The Broken Tower had scaffolding about it, draped with what looked like oilcloth against the rain, and the top did not look as broken as it once had.
Oh and he tried not to look at the people who were darting cold and angry glances at him. Others were refusing to even look at him. Jory Cassell was one of them. As he led the Kingslayer away his eyes slid over Jorah as if he didn't even exist.
Part of him wanted to shrivel with shame. Another part wanted to run. But the stubborn bastard within him also wanted shout that he and was atoning, that he had earned his pardon, that he was sorry but that he had answered the Call.
Leera had done off to talk to someone about their quarters and he thanked the Old Gods that he had her. She kept his feet on the ground. If only she had been his wife instead of Lynesse.
As he shrugged internally and then watched with a half-smile as the boy Gendry made his way unerringly to the smithy of Winterfell, a hand suddenly landed on his shoulder and then pulled him back so hard that he hit the wall behind him with a grunt of pain.
As his head rang from the impact he shook it for an instant – and then he froze. Father. Father was standing in front of him. He was dressed in black, looked older than ever, had a beard that was now mostly white instead of mostly grey, but it was Father. He also had a raven on one shoulder and a look of... he wasn't sure what it was a look of. It combined rage with bafflement with pride.
"I don't know what I should do," Father said before he could say a word. "Part of me wants to knock you down, spit on you and then denounce you for dragging the name of Mormont through the mud by dealing with slavers. But then part of me wants to hug you for answering the Call from across the other side of the Narrow Sea."
"I had to come back," Jorah muttered. "The Call... I felt it in my bones."
His father seemed to quiver for a moment, before sighing. "By the Old Gods, Jorah... what were you thinking?"
"I needed coin. I was a fool."
"Aye, that you were. To take a Hightower as a wife after your first wife died... I knew that it wouldn't end well. Where is she?"
"Lys. Coin outweighed love after I fled into exile. And she can stay there. She's concubine to another man now."
His father sighed again and placed a hand on the pommel of his sword. Jorah stared at it. Plain pommel. Terror ran through him. "Father, you're not wielding Longclaw – please tell me that you got it after I left it behind."
Something new flickered in Father's eyes, something that might have been approval. "I got it. Wielded it at the Wall for years. But Maege came to Castle Black with the rest of the Lords of the North and I decided that Dacey should have it. She's worthy of it."
He thought about his lanky younger cousin and then nodded reluctantly. "Aye. She is."
Father stared at him for a long moment. "Right," he said eventually. "You and I are going to have a little talk about a few things."
He sighed as Father dragged him towards a door. Hopefully he should get through this without too many clouts across the back of his head.
Merryweather was still talking cheerfully about the improvement in the Crown's finances and he nodded along with the others in satisfaction. Petyr Baelish had lied a lot about so very many things and now things were back on a more even keel.
As Merryweather ended his report Monford Velaryon, the new Master of Ships, leant forwards and started to speak. The Lord of Driftmark was not his first choice for the role – Ser Davos Seaworth was worth ten of the bloody man – but he was competent and above all loyal.
They would need loyal men soon.
As Velaryon spoke he listened with one ear but mulled over other affairs even as he nodded as the words rumbled past him. Gods, but he was tired of this. He'd been doing it for far too long. The Eyrie called.
The Realm still looked to King's Landing, despite the absence of Robert. News of his trip to the North took time to spread, so still the ravens came with their short messages and the riders with their far larger ones.
And for every great matter of State there was always a hundred, no, a thousand lesser ones. One lord sought justice against another for some tiny slight. One lord saw vengeance against another for some land being 'stolen', or merchandise purloined.
There were almost times when he preferred those lesser things to the thornier of the larger ones though. Like the one that was facing the Small Council – well, the Smaller Council as Renly kept calling it – right now as Renly himself started to speak. Hoster Tully had sent a raven saying that the unrest involving the Faith Militant was dying down, as he now had one of the major contributors to it under lock and key at Riverrun, some mad septon called Blackfoot, or Sparrow, or something.
Apparently the man was raving mad, had mysteriously gone blind and kept soiling himself. Hoster wanted to shorten the wretched man by a head but wanted some instruction from King's Landing first, like the canny old trout that he was.
As far as Jon was concerned his goodfather should drop the wretch into the nearest river, which wouldn't be hard at Riverrun, but there were other issues at work here. He needed to talk to the new High Septon about this. It was a shame that Cassley was back at Foxhold, he had a good line in bright and cheery smiles as he played with crossbows. Well, Quill would do just as well.
"Have Lord Tully execute the wretched man and be done with it," Merryweather spat as a silence fell. "He deserves it."
"Yes, I fully agree my Lord, but surely we need to hear the thoughts of the High Septon?" Pycelle wheezed in a manner that made him seem to be the old fool that he pretended to be.
"From the account sent in by Lord Tully we have more than enough information to order his death three times over," Jon replied in a voice like iron. "Raising men who bore the banner of the Faith Militant. Leading men against Ser Edmure as he sought to defend High Heart. And, above all, trying to get to the Isles of Faces to burn it to the ground. That last one alone would be enough to earn a death penalty. That place is sacrosanct, as agreed by Kings and lords before even the Conquest."
It was possible that Pycelle muttered the word 'Heathen nonsense' under his breath, but Jon wasn't entirely sure. The other Lords however nodded in agreement at Jon's words.
"Agreed," Renly sighed. "I will talk with the High Septon, but the decision of this Small Council is that the man who calls himself the High Sparrow must die."
"Aye," Jon said, and the others followed his lead, even Pycelle. He looked about the table. "Is there any other business? As otherwise-"
Before he could adjourn the meeting and have a long-overdue word with Renly in the next room, a fist hammered against the door. He looked over with a sigh and scowl. "Come!"
The door opened to reveal Quill, who bowed and then approached the table. "Your pardon my Lords, but a man of the Night's Watch has arrived from Castle Black to address the Small Council."
Jon peered at his faithful servant. He looked... pale, almost green, and he seemed to be shaking slightly. "From Castle Black, Quill?"
"Aye my Lord," Quill replied shakily. "A message that... must be seen to be believed."
Varys frowned. "Seen, master Quill?"
"Aye, my Lord. Seen."
There was a moment of quiet confusion in the room and then Jon nodded. "Very well, send him in."
When Quill re-entered he was leading a man in worn and travelstained black clothing. He was holding a square object in both hands that was covered in black cloth., which he held in front of him as if it was something terrible. As he approached the table he paused to bow hastily.
"My Lords, I am Denys Hollern of the Night's Watch and I bear a... a token of proof from Castle Black."
Varys raised an eyebrow at the man. "Proof of what, exactly?"
Hollern gulped. "What we face, my Lord." He placed the object on the table in front of him. "This is from Lord Commander Mormont. He wants the Small Council to know what is marching on the Wall."
There was a pause as everyone looked from the object, to Hollern and then back to the object. Finally Renly reached out and jerked the black cloth from it. It was a cage made from some kind of odd metal. And inside sat the severed head of a woman.
Jon stared at it. This made no sense whatsoever. He was about to ask what in the Seven Hells this was all about when all of a sudden ice seemed to spread down his back as the head opened its very blue eyes and hissed at them all, before gnashing broken teeth.
Merryweather and Velaryon jerked back in their seats so violently that they came close to falling over. Pycelle also recoiled, but not as badly, whilst Renly froze in place, his eyes very wide indeed. Somehow Jon willed himself to just stare at the horrible, impossible, thing. "What," he said eventually through very dry lips, "Is that?"
"The head of a wight my Lord," Hollern answered. "The Others are animating dead bodies North of the Wall. The Call is true."
There was a long moment of silence in the room. And then it erupted with shouted questions from every man but Varys, who just sat there, his eyes flickering in what Jon knew to be deep thought.
The Smith of Winterfell was a man called Mikken who had, much to his surprise, heard of him. "Word travelled ahead of you," he said as he eyed Gendry carefully. "Lords have ravens. Blacksmiths have those who travel on the roads. Merchants, smithing supplies, apprentices seeking work… aye, I've heard of you. Gendry Strongarm Storm, natural son of His Grace the King. Not a bad blacksmith from what I've heard."
Gendry felt his ears go warm. "Just an apprentice," he muttered.
"So you say," Mikken said wryly. "Right. There's a smithing apron over there, and a hammer. There's a few things I need help on."
And so he'd buried himself back into smithing work. His life had been truly odd these past months but the feeling of the heat of the forge and the sensation of hammering on metal was real in a way that some things had not been.
He made a trio of hoes, and then a dagger, before starting on something more complex. It was like the head of a halberd, only it had large tines at its base. He puzzled over this for a moment or two as he worked on it and then he realised. "It's for fighting wights isn't it?"
Mikken, who had been working on one of his own, grunted with approval. "You're right. What made you realise it?"
"I saw the head of a wight in a cage on the way here. Made me think about how you fight a dead man that walks. A spear will go straight through him and he'll keep walking towards. These tines… they'll hit ribs and stop him dead."
The Northman smiled and nodded. "Aye. You have the right of it. You saw it faster than my apprentice."
He smiled and kept at it. One halberd and then another. It was only then that he realised that they had company. There was a quartet of solemn faces at the door. Shireen was there, with three boys all about the same age.
"This is Gendry," Shireen said with a scowl. "He's a blacksmith, and a forge is a dangerous place and you are all to do what he says, alright? He's my cousin and he's nice, but he wants to keep people safe in a forge and we need to do what he says." The three boys nodded almost in unison and then sat down in a line at her direction. When they were in place she looked at him. "This is Brandon Stark and Robert Arryn and Edric Storm. They heard about you and wanted to come and pester you, so I have taken them in hand." She smiled at him, glared at them (which made them all flinch a little) and then look back at him. "Edric's your half-brother by the way."
Gendry faltered in mid-stroke before recovering. Yes, the boy at the end had black hair and blue eyes and the look of his father. "Edric, yes?"
The boy nodded slowly. "Are you my half-brother?"
"I am. We share a father."
"Why are you a blacksmith?"
He shrugged. "I just am. I was apprenticed as a boy in King's Landing."
Edric nodded. "I was brought up at Storm's End. My mother is of House Florent."
Gendry rolled his shoulders. "My mother wasn't highborn at all." He hammered on the halberd head a bit more. "Do you want to be a blacksmith?"
"No. But this forge is amazing!"
"And dangerous," Shireen broke in with a glare that made all three boys quail a bit. "Very dangerous. Forges are not a place for people to just wander in." She paused. "Is Father's knife ready yet?"
He grinned at that, before placing the halberd to one side and then pulling out the knife that he had been working on and handing it over to her. "For your Lord Father."
Shireen looked at it from all angles – and then she grinned and embraced him. "It's perfect, Gendry! Thank you so much!"
He smiled at her again before picking his hammer up again and returning to the halberd. "Let me know what Uncle Stannis says about it."
He looked at the map again as Ned talked with Stannis and Maester Luwin about messages. When he heard the sound of departing feet he looked at the doorway in time to see Stannis and the Maester leave clutching messages. As they left the huge form of Ned's direwolf padded in and then sat next to Ned's chair. It looked at him with its head to one side and then huffed almost in welcome, before it turned its head and looked at Stormbreaker. Again a tilt of the head and a huff, before those disconcertingly intelligent eyes returned to him.
"She's very protective of you Ned."
"And I of her. All Starks used to have direwolves once. They were a link to the Old Gods. I don't know when that link was broken. I don't even remember the night that it was restored – the Old Gods possessed me to do that."
He stared at Ned. "The Old Gods… possessed you? Like they possessed Shireen? From what I was told her eyes burned with red fire."
"Apparently so did mine," Ned replied dryly. "I don't remember a bloody thing, but apparently I led a party of men from Winterfell, in the dead of night, to a forgotten Godswood in the Wolfwood, where I summoned her. She was heavy with pups – and now all my children have one. Even Theon Greyjoy."
He gaped a little at that but then rallied. "Aye, I saw the Squidling. How's the brat doing?"
Ned raised his eyebrows for a moment. "I might have turned him into a Stark. His own father virtually ignored him growing up, and the boy's been affected by quite a bit here. He's turned his back on the Drowned God for a start. He worships the Old Gods now. He had some very odd dreams a few months back. Walked into the hall where we break our fast with a wound on his face one morning. Something with rotted fingernails had slashed at him. He said that he had dreamt about his dead brother Rodrik."
Something cold seemed to waft through him for an instant and he shivered. "Gods that sounds ominous."
"Aye, but later he had a dream where what was left of his brother tried to drag him before the Drowned God. He refused and appealed to the Old Gods. The wound vanished and the boy has a Heart tree medallion that appeared from nowhere. No's he of the North now. He doesn't want to be a Greyjoy – says that his father's a fool. Greystark's a name of ill fortune in the North, so he's thinking about Greymist perhaps. He might seek you out. Talk to him Robert. He's not his father."
He brooded over this for a moment and then laughed shortly. "Gods, I'd like to see the look on the face of old Balon when he hears that his last remaining son has disowned him!" He looked at Ned. "You've heard of the fighting on the Iron Islands?"
"Aye, I have. Balon Greyjoy is all but at war with Rodrik Harlaw."
"Last raven spoke of more than that. I might need to send someone there to bash some heads together. Stannis would do it, but he might enjoy it too much. He'd also say 'I told you so' to me too many times before he left." He sniffed. "He was right though. I should have hammered Balon fucking Greyjoy's head flatter than a pancake, burnt Pyke to the ground and put The Reader in charge of the pack of raping idiots."
Ned sighed but then nodded. "Aye, it might have been better in the long run. I always knew that Balon Greyjoy was an idiot, but the years have somehow removed wisdom from his mind instead of increasing it."
He nodded a little in reply and then peered at his old friend. "By the way, how bad were things at the Wall before this alliance you struck with the Wildlings?"
Ned flared his nostrils for a moment in that way he had whenever he thought of something unpleasant. "Worse than in my worst nightmares. The Watch was down to three castles, as I said. Weaker than they had ever been. The Wildling raids were bad and getting worse almost by the day. I was close to calling my banners and marching to the Wall to defend it. And, yes, I would have sent you a raven. I'd never deny you the chance to dent some skulls."
"I knew that there was a war coming Ned. I felt it in my bones," Robert muttered. "I didn't know where or when, but I knew it was coming. So how many times had young Robb been at the Wall then, finding things out for you?"
Ned blinked at him, confused. "That was his first time there."
He peered at ned again and then snorted. "Oh come on Ned. That boy of yours has seen more of war than just a couple of skirmishes. I could see it in his eyes. Young face, old eyes."
Something odd happened to Ned's face at that point, a shiver of emotion flashed over it like lightning. "Aye," he said tiredly. "I know. I told you that the Old Gods had spoken through a few people. Well, they spoke or rather acted through him too." He fell silent for a moment and Robert could tell that Ned was struggling with something. "I said that this all started with a message from the Old Gods. Well, Robb witnessed that message. But as what he saw… you'd never believe me."
"Come off it Ned," he protested, "You know that I would!"
"No," Ned replied with an odd look to his face again. "You wouldn't. Not without proof. It's a long and odd – and very terrible – tale to tell, and besides it's his tale and not mine to tell. You'll hear of it, I promise you. But not just yet."
Robert cast an uncertain look at Ned but then nodded. "Speaking of family there's something else I'd like to speak to you about. We should have been goodbrothers many years ago, you and I. If Lyanna had lived I would have married her. We still can be goodbrothers. I want to join our two Houses – your Sansa with my Joffrey."
Ned's eyebrows flew up for a moment. "I would be honoured," he replied carefully. "But there's a problem. Sansa's already betrothed."
"Damn it," Robert said a little crossly. "Who to? Can it be quashed?"
"Domeric Bolton. Roose Bolton's only son."
Bugger it. His own eyebrows went up and down. "Oh I remember Roose Bolton. Any man with the banner of a flayed man sticks in the mind, but that quiet little bugger always gave me the willies, and I don't say that lightly. You'd betroth your daughter to the son of that man?"
Ned tilted his head to one side slightly. "Domeric's not like his father. He was fostered in the Vale, at the Redfort. You can ask Lord Redfort himself what he thinks about the lad. I'll be talking to him later myself, him and Bronze Yohn Royce. They need to talk to me before tonight's feast. But back to Domeric – he's not his father. And he's certainly nothing like his mad half-brother."
"I heard about him on the road up. Mad doesn't seem to begin to describe him."
"Aye, well, Ramsay Snow's dead and buried. No, Domeric has sworn to treat my daughter as I would expect him to. And he swore that oath on the Fist of Winter. People who swear on that and lie – well you saw the head on the spike at the main gate? Ser Willem Bootle, who tried to cheat my cousin Lady Surestone out of her birthright. He placed a hand on the Fist and swore that he did not murder Dacey's father. Next thing I know the man's flying through the air, stone dead."
He looked at Ned and then at the mace. "Bloody Hells. That's useful."
"And frightening. These things, your sword and my mace, are old, Robert, very old. Who knows what else they can do?"
It was a good point but he still leant back and scowled a bit. "This marriage with the Boltons – important?"
"Domeric's the only remaining son. There's some cousins that came over with the Company of the Rose – you'll need to meet them, as I said – but Domeric's the heir. The Boltons are important in the North, Robert. And the betrothal has been announced. I can't break it easily – even for my King. The North needs to be united for this war Robert."
Damn it, Ned was right. He nodded reluctantly. And then Ned added: "And the two are in love. Sansa and Domeric have been making plans like redesigning the banner of the Boltons."
Damn it again. "In love are they? Young love. I wouldn't have Lyanna's niece be unhappy. A shame, she might be the making of my eldest, but I won't press for the betrothal to be broken Ned. So stop squinting at me like that. Right. My Tommen and your Arya?"
Ned eyed him with a twinkle in his eye. "Is he tough?"
"Arya is like Lyanna. It doesn't surprise me at all that she's been sneaking out and getting sword lessons. She's refusing to take embroidery lessons by the way. Says that it makes more sense to learn to fight alongside the men if a second Long Night is coming."
He thought of Tommen, his sweet, cat-addled boy, married to the reincarnation of Lyanna. "The poor lad," he said dazedly. "Well, it might make him as well. We'll talk about it. That or Myrcella and your Bran – they're of an age, are they not?"
Ned seemed to go into a reverie for a moment. "Aye," he said eventually. "One of those might work. We'll discuss it."
Good. He smiled – and then he sobered. "Right then. We've talked of business and duty long enough. Take me to your crypts Ned. I need to pay my respects to your sister."