Apologies for the delay on this, again. I am back from Bermuda, exhausted and with yet more work to in the next few weeks.
He found Robert in the Crypts the next morning. He'd left his old friend alone after his fight with the Kingslayer, as he could tell just by looking at him that Robert had some demons to exorcise. Apparently he'd staggered around the training yard with that log until he almost collapsed, eaten an entire roast chicken with his bare hands, drunk a yard of ale and then vanished off to his bed.
And now he was here, looking at Lyanna's tomb again. Somehow he registered Ned's arrival without even looking at him. "Morning, Ned."
"Robert." He joined his King at the tomb. "You've been quiet."
"I've been thinking." A ghost of a smile came and went. "Not used to it." And then he went back to staring at the tomb. Just before Ned could ask what he was thinking about Robert finally said: "I keep dreaming about her, Ned. It's the oddest thing. She's in a forest of weirwood trees, in the snow and she's trying to tell me something – but then there's this noise and something keeps pulling her away. Last night I dreamt I almost caught her, I almost grabbed her, but then… ach. Just a dream. But it's such a real dream. I'll confess that the more the years passed the more her face… blurred in my memory. This time last year I could barely remember what she looked like. Now, I could describe every inch of her face."
Robert had mentioned that dream before, but the way that he was talking about it made Ned pause for thought. "Do you think it might be more than a dream?"
This made Robert pause himself. "I don't know, Ned. I just feel… different."
He eyed the hulking King to one side. He was holding Stormbreaker against his chest, where it was almost hidden in the darkness. "Robert, that sword rusted everything metal that it touched on Jaime Lannister. What else can it do?"
Robert looked down at it slowly and then shrugged. "I don't know, Ned. I knew that it might break the Kingslayer's sword – that happened in the Red Keep months ago. But I didn't know what else it might do. When his armour, helm and shield fell apart, well, I was flabbergasted. Tried not to show it though. As for what else it might do… I don't know. You said that the Fist of Winter killed Bootle stone dead – what else can that do?"
It was a good question and all Ned could do in reply was shrug. "Luwin's combing through the archives with my cousin Dacey."
"Aye, and Ser Barristan's looking through the archives left by the Selmys. They were the swordbearers for the Durrandons." He paused, his jaw working as uncertainty crossed his face for a long moment. "I need to know if bearing this sword has changed me, Ned. I'm thinking about a lot of things."
"Like… like how I've been a piss-poor king so far. Don't deny it, Ned. Not to me. We've been through too much together. I have been a bloody awful king. Jon ruled the Seven Kingdoms as Hand whilst I just… drank and ate and whored my way though my life. You know what? I never realised what it would be like to be King. When you all knelt and proclaimed me King I thought… well, I did know what I thought. Perhaps that if we won it would be like being Lord of Storm's End, only on a greater scale. I never dreamt what it would really be like. Never really thought about it.
"And then, when we won – and I lost at the same time, when she was taken from me – I never really stepped into the role, did I?"
"You led us to victory against Balon Greyjoy."
"Aye, but that was war Ned. And I like war. War's easy compared to the piddling boredom of peace, of running a Kingdom full of the proud and the pompous and the stupid."
"Is it? Robert, you remember that meeting when you hammered out the strategy for winning the war? You and me in that room with Stannis, Tywin Lannister, Paxter Redwyne and Mace bloody Tyrell? You dominated that room!"
"It was war, Ned-"
"No, it was politics too. Never forget that Robert. We crushed those Ironborn thanks to you."
Another pause fell. Then Robert finally smiled slightly: "You're too kind Ned. But still… I've been a bloody awful king, even then. And since I've held Stormbreaker… I've had these thoughts. Small ones at first. Doubts. But now, greater ones. This is my birthright, but I need to be better, Ned. But I don't know how to be."
"Lead us in this war, Robert," Ned urged. "You are our King. There's so much to do. You know what's at stake. There's nothing that's more important than this war that's coming. If you think that you should be better then learn. Just don't turn your face to wall and give up." He couldn't bring himself to tell his old friend that yes, he was right. He could be a better king.
Robert set his jaw a little and then looked back up into the face of Lyanna's statue. "Gods, she would have been ten times the Queen that that treacherous whore was. She cared about people. She didn't have her nose in the air, thinking that she was better than anyone." He paused for a moment and then he opened his shirt a little and pulled out a little pouch that hung around his neck on a leather cord. "I've never shown this to anyone else, Ned. The man who made it for me died in the siege of Storm's End."
Frowning, Ned took the proffered pouch, tugged it open and then upended it. A golden locket with a long, fine, gold chain slid out of it. The face of the locket was split in half, with a Stark direwolf on one side and a Baratheon stag on the other. "It's beautiful, Robert. This was for Lyanna?"
"It was. I was going to give it to her on our wedding day. There's a lever on the side. Open it."
There was a lever and it was a fiddly one to operate, but it opened eventually. When it did his heart seemed to stop for a moment. Inside was a little etching of a very familiar symbol. A laughing tree. There was a pause as he struggled to speak. "You knew then. That it was her."
"I knew. I worked it out. The Knight of the Laughing Tree cinched his saddle the same way that she did. Held the reins the same way. The length of the stirrups… I'm a good horseman Ned. I notice how good others are. I knew it was her by the end of that day. I knew why she did it too – to punish those fools who beat young Howland Reed. She did what was right."
Robert sighed gustily and smiled sadly. "If she had been at my side from the start as Queen… Gods she would have pushed me to do the right thing. She wouldn't have let me drift, or lose myself in food and wine and… other things. As I said I was going to give her that locket on our wedding day and then laugh with her about what she did at Harrenhall and tell her how proud I was of her."
Ned nodded mournfully and handed the locket back to Robert. But unexpectedly Robert did not return the locket to the pouch. "I couldn't give it to her in life, but I can in death. Ned – with your permission?"
Another nod and then Ned watched as Robert carefully hung the locket around the neck of the statue, before smiling wistfully. "It looks good on her, does it not?"
"Aye," Ned muttered, the old grief rising like a black tide in his throat for an instant. "It does."
Robert wiped his eyes for a moment and then turned. "Come on then. Back to your Solar. We've got to wait for a lot of news, plus my former goodfather. His face should be a picture when he hears about just what his bloody children have been up to. All of them.
"Well that's a surprise."
Asha looked at the man next to her. Old Gregor's words had been flat and frankly rather stunned. She didn't blame him. She was a bit stunned herself.
"I thought Moat Cailin was supposed to be a ruin." She peered at the fortress. Once there had been three semi-derelict towers. Now there were five, with a sixth being built. The curtain wall had been rebuilt in most places and there was a wooden keep rising up. "That's not a ruin."
"Where'd they get the fucking stone?" Robar asked.
Old Gregor laughed shortly. "Don't be a fool lad. It was here all the time. It takes time and coin to build a castle. You need to dig the foundations and ship in the dressed stone. But they don't have to do either here. The foundations are already dug and there's all the stone they need from the fallen walls and towers. They just needed the men to dig it up, clean it off and then start mortaring it all together. To a plan, of course. Someone must have told them where the floor went."
She nodded and then led them down the causeway towards the fortress on their freshly purchased horses. They'd bought them at the first inn they had found, from a very suspicious innkeeper who had made them pay more than they probably should have. She didn't mind, this was too urgent. They'd been lucky with the weather – a stiff wind from the South had gotten them into Blazewater Bay in record time, before they'd benefited from the winds from the West that often blew that far North that had taken them as far up the Fever River as the Black Wind could take them.
Robar had hinted that he could double back, knife the innkeeper and get their money back, but she'd told the fool not to bother. She had had that odd scratchy feeling between her shoulder blades that meant that they were being watched by some unseen person or persons ever since they'd landed, which was why she'd told the rest of the crew to head back to High Harlaw as quickly as possible.
She'd mentioned it quietly to Old Gregor, who had looked about the trees around them and then sniffed mightily. "Crannogmen," he'd whispered. "And more of them than us. They're on alert."
"How can you tell?"
"My mother was from the Neck. A merchant. Taught me the signs." And then he'd shut up, eyeing an inoffensive tussock of grass that seemed to have absolutely nothing behind it but air.
It certainly explained why six guards in armour rode out to meet them, wearing the colours of House Reed, all Crannogmen. "Ironborn do not normally travel by horse in the Neck," the leading man said suspiciously. "Who are you and what is your business at Moat Cailin?"
"Asha Greyjoy, daughter to Balon Greyjoy, on urgent business for Lord Harlaw in Winterfell," Asha replied. "Very urgent business there – we are travelling to see the King in Winterfell."
The man who had questioned them stared and then stirred a little in his saddle. "Torrhen Reed, cousin to Lord Howland Reed," he said nodding slightly. "Very well, given your task – and how small your group is – you may pass. Word was passed of your arrival. Had you ordered the murder of that innkeeper who sold you the horses, Lady Asha, you would be dead by now by the way. Pass on."
They rode on, Robar's face flaming with a combination of anger, embarrassment and fear, eyeing the towers of the fortress as they rode past it. As Old Gregor had noticed everywhere there were men working on stones, digging them out, cleaning them, chiselling some, breaking up others, whilst yet more were mortared into place at the stern direction of a couple of men who seemed to be builders.
"This place couldn't be taken easily before, and it's impregnable now," Old Gregor muttered to her. "From the South – or from the North. They're getting ready for a war, Asha. And look at how hard they're working. The Call was strong here."
She nodded reluctantly. The place made her feel… uneasy. The war in the Iron Islands was important, it was why she was here, but this place… this was where the real war was, she could feel it. The pull that had been nagging at her for months now was… diminished here. Not gone, never that, but lessened. The others seemed to feel it as well, especially Old Gregor, who was looking about the place with eyes that seemed to be full of emotion.
"I should have fucking listened to me Ma," she heard him mutter at one point. "I should have listened to her. She said I was touched by the trees." But then he noticed her sharp look and shut up.
They rode on, leaving the fortress behind them and all the time the sense of being watched never left her, that tickle between the shoulder blades. The causeway was in good repair, with the bogs all around it and then the sea in sight to the East. A nasty shore that, a bad place to be caught by a change in the wind. As for the bogs… they smelt. And looked as if they could suck down anyone on a horse.
But there were paths here and there, because she could see a figure on a horse in the middle of one bog. A man in a green cloak. As they passed him he reached back and pulled at the back of his cloak, so that a hood was raised onto his head. A hood with antlers on it.
It took a moment to realise that Old Gregor was no longer riding at her side, but had reined in sharply and was staring at the man in the bog, his face as white as a bleached sail. "What's wrong?" Asha called, feeling worry as she tugged on the reins. The old sailor looked as if he had taken an arrow to the heart.
The others stopped as well, but after a long moment Old Gregor swallowed and kicked his horses' ribs, making it break into a trot. "A Green Man," he muttered as he reached her. "It's a Green Man. Out of the bloody legends. They've left the Isle." He looked at her and there was something in his eyes that made her feel faint herself. "The Call is true. The Others are coming. The Stark calls for aid. We are fucking well needed."
And so they galloped North.