Sorry for the delay on this folks. I am desperately, desperately, tired and I really need a week off work. We are finally coming out of lockdown here and my wife and I have had the first dose of the vaccines.
On the plus side though - we have two new Maine Coon kittens (brothers) who are making life a lot of very cute fun.
Stay safe out there folks.
Gods, but he'd missed this. Riding on campaign again – the greatest campaign in the history of Westeros, certainly since the Conquest – was something that made him feel alive again. He'd missed this – riding at the head of what was almost a vanguard of an army, heading towards a battlefield.
And what a battlefield. The further North they rode the more he saw why it was that Ned had never returned to King's Landing after the war. He was too busy running the North and trying to grow it. The North was huge – and harsh. It was cold and the further North they rode the colder it got. Ned had given him a lot of advice about what to wear and their party had benefitted from those words of wisdom.
Even his former Goodfather had listened, to his quiet amusement. Hidden and quiet, obviously. He was being careful in how he treated the man. The resources of the Westerlands – their gold and silver especially – would be vital in the war that lay ahead.
And he had to be careful about that as well. He'd cursed himself for the way that he'd stupidly scorned Jon's worries about 'counting coppers'. That had led to Baelish and his contemptuous pilfering of the Treasury.
He didn't like to think of that smirking little piece of shit. He'd never liked him, there had always been something that made his hackles go up whenever they talked. Like an idiot he'd never wondered why.
That made him wonder just what Baelish would have thought of the wight heads and all the other evidence of the Others. Probably would have sneered at them and called them Northern lies or something like that and then tried to persuade him not to support the North.
Well, the North had to be fucking well supported. The Wall was their best defence. It was enormous and would probably eat resources like nothing he could imagine, but he'd work out the tactics once he got there and could see the lay of the land.
He had no intention of being the King who lost this war. The Targaryens had been fighting for power and the right to stay on that damn chair that he should have melted down years ago. He was fighting to keep Westeros safe and well and filled with living people. These Others… they wanted to kill everyone and everything and then raise the dead as wights to dance to whatever tune they liked, if they even had music.
That was the thing that bothered him – the strangeness, the wrongness of the enemy. With men you knew what they were fighting for – love, or coin, or power, or hate, or loyalty – or a combination of all of those. But these Others… what did they fight for? Death? He'd known men who fought because they wanted to die, but this was different.
It made him uneasy in a different way. He had a part to play in this, a role that the Gods had chosen for him. Storm King. But what did that mean? What could he do? He couldn't control the clouds, he couldn't make lightening strike or thunder boom. What did they want of him? He had to work it out.
He would also have to ride up and down the column again soon, Stormbreaker in his arms. The word about the Mountain had spread quickly and it was expected of him now that he'd use the sword of his ancestors to try and detect any foul magics being used on the men. He had no idea if he could even tell, but from what The Imp had wrote the Warnings had glowed near the body of Gregor Clegane. So far Stormbreaker hadn't so much as flickered, and Ser Barristan had been keeping a close eye on it as they rode. That said, just seeing him had gotten the men's spirits up and that was important. A king who forgot that was no king. Aerys had shown that.
Well, that and being an insane dribbling lunatic who was willing to sacrifice King's Landing in his delusion that doing so would make him a dragon.
He understood all too well why young Jon was so terrified of his Targaryen blood. There were times when the thought of going mad worried him as well. He was only on the throne because of his family link to the Targaryens. He was finally coming to terms with that now. Yes, he hated Rhaegar for kidnapping and raping Lyanna. Yes, he hated Aerys for being a cruel lunatic who had condemned him and Ned to death for just existing. But his grandmother had been a Targaryen and he had loved her fiercely – he could never hate her. That realisation had been like a key turning in a lock in his head.
As the Sun started to draw down to the horizon in the West they found themselves at a large inn, where the innkeeper had been expecting them thanks to the advance riders and where there were quarters for all, even if some of the men had to sleep in a barn to one side with carefully tended braziers inside. He made sure that everyone was settled – a lesson that Jon Arryn had drummed into him – and then made for his own room, where there was a hip-bath ready with hot water in it and a giant scrubbing brush, the application of which on his back made his eyes cross with pleasure.
After that he made for the common room and joined the others in eating and drinking. He was tired – gods, they all were – and he realised that he needed to keep a clear head, so he swallowed the ale and didn't ask for wine. And even though there was a comely wench or three about with magnificent tits, he didn't indulge in too much flirting. The ghost of Lyanna seemed to be at his shoulder at times and he had not yet thought on how to release that wraith of memory. He needed to – Gods, she had told him too! – but he couldn't yet work how to do it.
He did watch, amused, at how Gendry's eyes tended to widen at some of the women in the room. His son was… well, shy. He was young, coltish, and a good lad. And, above all, no-one was trying to kill him. He'd thought long and dark thoughts about that after Stannis had told him about the attempts on the way to Winterfell. Cersei of course. Gendry also seemed to be always staring at a piece of runed metal. He needed to ask the lad about that. And with that he shrugged and went to bed, where he slept the sleep of the knackered.
When morning came he indulged in his usual ritual of hoisting a log over his shoulders and striding about the courtyard as the inn came alive and the men started to make ready for the day's ride. He added an extra circuit before shrugging the log off and then standing there panting, leaning over with his hands on his thighs, before pouring a bucket of warm water over his head and then going back to his room to dress and then join the others in breaking their fast. And then to horse again.
They made good progress that morning. And then just before noon, as they were stopping to have a spot of lunch, he heard shouts off to the distance. Looking over he could see a party of horsemen approaching from the North, with upraised hands of welcome and a banner that he recognised. And there was a huge man leading them on a large horse.
The large man looked in his direction as he dismounted and Robert could see a flash of grinning teeth and hear a boom of laughter.
"Get your skinny arse over here, Umber!"
"Is that our loud King?"
He could feel Selmy stiffen next to him and he raised a calming hand. "It's alright Ser Barristan. That's Lord Umber – the GreatJon. He's short on tact and long on boisterousness."
"What's tact?" The GreatJon boomed as he approached – and then knelt formally. "Your Grace. Welcome to the North." He looked up. "I am bloody glad to see you but my knee's getting damp and as you said I have no tact."
The laughter bubbled out of him and he reached out, grabbed the GreatJon's arm and jerked him effortlessly to his feet, before clapping him on the shoulder. "GreatJon! Haven't seen you since Pyke!"
"Aye, your Grace. Good times for squid squashing!" The huge man sobered for a moment. "It's good to see you your Grace, The Call was sent and the South has answered. I heard that you were on the road to the Wall. Where's Lord Stark?"
He jerked his head to one side and led the huge man off to one side. "Oldtown," he said eventually. "Ned's headed for Oldtown." Catching the GreatJon's frown he quietly explained the message from the new Lord Tyrell. By the time he had finished explaining the Lord of the Last Hearth was pale.
"Bloody hell," Umber said eventually. "Well, I hope that Ned sorts that out. In the meantime I came to see you for a reason your Grace. To warn that that there's giants in the hills to the North-west of here. They trade with men a bit, so there's every chance you'll see them on the road. And they're a bloody great shock to the system if you're not ready for them. I know that your horses won't be. I thought a warning might help."
He frowned. "They're not a threat are they?"
"Not unless you're a threat to them. They don't even eat meat. Make great cheese though."
Robert eyed the man for a moment. "Any cousins of yours there?"
The GreatJon boomed with laughter. "If Umber family legends are true, then yes. Odd to think that I might have family there." He shrugged and then looked flintily to one side. "I seem to smell Lannisters."
He suppressed a wince. "Tywin Lannister is riding with me to the Wall, with others including his brothers."
The big man. "Brothers? Gerion?"
"You've met him?"
"At Castle Black. Not bad for a Lannister."
Someone called from the group to their rear and he slapped the GreatJon on the shoulder again. "Have some lunch and ride with us for a while. There's a lot I need to know about the North."
It was good to have the GreatJon at his side. The man looked big and threatening but had a surprisingly shrewd mind. After they resumed their ride North after lunch – gods that man could eat and drink! – he rode next to him and filled in a few gaps in his knowledge about the North.
Where they could see habitation they also saw a huge amount of work being done, to sow or harvest or chop. A lot of firewood was being laid down to dry out and he even saw signs of a few coal mines here and there. And according to the GreatJon there soon would be some shaggier cows. Umber had a plan that made sense to him at least.
And then they reached an area where the trees by the left-hand side of the road became thinner and gave way to hills covered in grass. Umber paused them here and shouted out his warning that there were giants in the hills on their mammoths and that they all had to be mindful of their horses.
More than a few horsemen in Lannister Red scoffed almost openly at that, muttering to each other. The GreatJon noticed that, he could see at once, smirked more than a bit and then nodded at his King to ride on.
When the first huge shapes of giants on mammoths were seen there were more than a few startled shouts and pale faces, although Gerion Lannister joined the GreatJon in reassuring people.
One group of giants, with mammoths to one side, was close to the road, dickering with what looked like some men dressed in bronze armour. "Thenn," the GreatJon said quietly. "They're Thenn. Wildlings." His face worked for a long moment before he sighed. "The best of the Wildlings. They obey Ned and enforce the law in the Gift and the New Gift. Never thought I'd say those words. Always thought that all Wildlings were scum." He coughed a little. "I… I was wrong."
He peered at the man carefully and then nodded. "There's a lot of it going about," he replied wryly, before looking at some of the riders about him. Young Lancel Lannister was staring at the giants in such a way that he seemed about to faint with astonishment.
Which was a bad thing, because when the wind shifted slightly and blew down from the direction of the mammoths more than a few horses became skittish. He reassured his own horse with a pat and a caress, as did the GreatJon.
And then the Lannister boy's horse got a good whiff of something and neighed. The boy was too busy gaping at the giants to seem to notice – and then the horse reared onto its hind legs for a moment. Lancel Lannister swore and then went flying – only to be snatched out of the air by the great arm of the GreatJon, who grabbed him with a grunt and then lowered him to the ground as someone else calmed the horse.
"There you go boy," the GreatJon boomed. "You alright?"
The young man seemed to shake himself, looked humiliated – and then nodded. "My thanks Lord Umber," he said after a long moment. "I owe you a great debt."
He could see a very pale Kevan Lannister to one side also nodding at the GreatJon, who acknowledged them both with a tight smile. "You're welcome lad."
After the lad had mounted his horse again and they all rode on he noticed that the giants had all stopped dead and were watching them closely, along with the Thenn after a moment. The GreatJon also noticed this and after getting a nod of permission from him rode off to talk to them.
When he returned the Lord of the Last Hearth was pale. He rode up next to him and then eyed him from head to toe.
"What about them?"
"They asked who the 'Storm-man' was. The human who brings the thunder and lightning in his wake. The man with the sword of storms."
He paled a little and then looked back at the giants and men in bronze who were staring at him. Gods. What was he? What did he need to be?
He still had strength in his arm and a good eye. He knew that. He knew it because that morning, just after dawn, he'd killed his wife with that arm and that eye. That and a very sharp sword.
She had been brought to the block dull-eyed and muttering nonsense. Something about darling Petyr and babies. He wanted to tell her that her Petyr was squatting in one of the nastier hells somewhere that was reserved for thieves and cuckolds, but he could tell at a glance that his words would have been worthless, that she would not have heard them.
She had been lost to madness and had been there for some time.
So instead he pricked at her back with the point of his sword, just enough to make her arch her back and stretch her neck in shocked surprise – and then he had picked the spot on her neck to aim for and swung. He had struck hard and true and his sword had severed her neck with one blow.
He'd been glad that her head had fallen with her face to the ground. He didn't want to see her last moments, her eyes rolling, her mouth trying to open and scream. She had been his wife, she had birthed his son… and yes then she had betrayed him and then tried to kill him.
Now she was with the Silent Sisters. Her bones would be taken back to the Vale and quietly buried near the Bloody Gate. Not the Eyrie. She'd never be buried there. Or at her old home in the Riverlands. It was a form of revenge beyond death. Petty perhaps – but one day he'd have to sit down with his son and explain to him why he'd done what he had. Why he had executed the lad's mother. She had loved him, in a twisted way.
She'd also poisoned the boy - and if Baelish had lived who knew if that twisted little maggot would have persuaded her to poison him as well? So much evil had followed from Baelish being fostered at Riverrun.
And speaking of the Riverlands he was now looking at a new issue involving the lands that bordered the Vale.
The Shield of the Riverlands looked so… old. Old but somehow enduring. The shape of it was ancient, the metal on it so like that of Stormbreaker, the leather old, worn but somehow still supple.
There were three others in the room. Quill, a silent watcher who he knew was worried about him and then Bronn and his Steward, who had changed into a dress. They were all looking at the shield and waiting.
A knock at the door was answered by Quill, who stepped to one side to admit Pycelle, who was holding several books and who looked almost excited as he sat down and then looked at the shield with what looked rather like greed.
"Well, my Lords," the ArchMaester said with a smile. "Quite the ancient mystery!"
"Is this indeed the Shield of the Riverlands ArchMaester?"
The books were placed carefully on the table. "The Shield is something out of the age of legends that vanished during the Andal Invasion, my Lords. We have very few references to it. We know that it was owned by the Mudd Kings. Legend has it that bearing it raised the spirits of the men in battle. Legend also had it that when it was raised in the air at the right time it would shine like the Sun itself."
At these last words Bronn and his Steward looked at each other, before the Lord of the Foxhold looked at the old ArchMaester and then at him. "ArchMaester, when Ursula here first picked the Shield up, it…. Well, it shone. Like a piece of the Sun was in it."
Pycelle looked as if he was torn between scoffing and looking faintly impressed. "You are sure about that Lord Cassley?"
"Quite sure." Cawlish said the words without quite biting them off.
Even Pycelle it seemed could detect the dislike in her voice, because he suddenly harrumphed and then pulled over one of the books and leafed carefully through it. "As for the ownership of the Shield, whilst it might be named for the Riverlands it was an heirloom of House Mudd, which of course is not entire extinguished and which married into House Cawlish. Steward Cawlish is of that blood and whilst the Foxhold was… well, fought over by Riverlands and Vale over the years, its current situation in the Vale is not disputed. Therefore, my Lords, Steward Cawlish, there can be no claim by Riverrun on this, erm, object."
Jon nodded with a sigh. "Excellent." Then he caught the look on Pycelle's face. "What is it ArchMaester?"
"Well, there is the issue of wielding it my Lord. The other great artifacts of the First Men are currently carried by men – His Grace the King, Lord Stark, Lord Tyrell, Lord Dayne – if Dawn is indeed a blade of the First Men – and Lord Tyrion Lannister. Steward Cawlish is… well, she is but a woman, to put things bluntly."
Ursula Cawlish fixed the old man with a look that reminded Jon at once of her father. Jordy Cawlish had had the exact same look of magnificent disdain. "ArchMaester," she said after a long moment. "May I remind you that I am of noble blood and that the Shield shone when I picked it up, as Lord Cassley attested to?"
This prompted a moment of gabbling vacillation from the wretched man, before Bronn put an end to it. "She can wield it. I think she was born to wield it. And no-one should take it away from her or tell her that she's too weak. She's not. She heard the Call. And that's that."
He smiled slightly at the way that she was looking at the former sellsword who was displaying such remarkable hidden depths. And then he made a decision. "That is not quite the end of it, Lord Cassley. I think that there is a ceremony that I need to organise right here in the Red Keep and I think that there is a vitally important question that you need to ask the daughter of the Late Lord Cawlish that is linked to that ceremony."
As he gestured to a faintly baffled Pycelle and a slightly smirking Quill to leave the room with him he could tell that Bronn had gone very white – but resolute – and that Ursula Cawlish had blushed bright red – but looked expectant.
If they survived the war that lay ahead the children of those two would be… interesting.
Running the North in Father's absence was something that never became easier. So much to do, a never-ending stream of things to read, think about and sign, or sometimes just read and sign, or sometimes read, sigh and sign.
Which he had just done as he sat in Father's solar.
He still had the feeling that his education about how to really rule the North had barely begun, although that was probably being harsh of him. That said, the last time he had been in at least titular charge of the North he'd ended up with crossbow bolts in his chest and a knife wielded by Roose Bolton ending his life.
Was he more cautious now? Yes. He was. Was he also being a fool when it came to his heart before his head? Possibly. Mors Umber was now in Winterfell, along with young Ned Umber. The boy was a bit young and more than a bit overwhelmed, especially by the Terrible Threesome, but he had a good heart.
Arya was so far utterly unimpressed by him. Well, perhaps that might change.
As for Mors Crowfood, he was, frankly, a force of nature. His height and powerful build were extended by the snow bear cloak and his ability to drink vast quantities of ale were already making him something of a… well, some regarded him with awe and some thought he was a rowdy drunk.
Rowan, the mother of Val and Dalla, would be at Winterfell in the next day or so and he was feeling extremely anxious about that. Was he being a fool about this? He knew what Father wanted for the North – the Wildlings added to the population of the land, turned from enemies into Northerners, expanding the population of the land.
Val was… someone extraordinary. Beautiful, deadly, intelligent and… someone who intoxicated his senses.
He wanted to back away at times. He knew what his last mistake had cost him.
In the meantime he had also been wandering about Winterfell, Grey Wind at his heels, looking for something that he had not the faintest idea about. The Green Man had told him to search for hidden things, but what could be hidden? He'd stared at the map of Winterfell for far too long and then walked the walls and stared down at it.
Was there a lost building somewhere? If there was then there was no sign of it. Was there therefore somewhere underground? But they had been through Winterfell after Father had been given the Hearthstone and found nothing.
He paused and drummed his fingers on the table. That said, they hadn't found the annexe in the crypts with the graves of the wargs until after Father had been possessed by the spirit of one of their ancestors.
He couldn't count on a similar possession. He was missing something. He just didn't know what.
And so he left the solar and went out into the main courtyard. The Terrible Threesome were nowhere in sight, probably because Shireen and what Bran had named 'her wagging finger of scolding' had scared them off somewhere.
From the strains of a harp in the distance Domeric was also somewhere nearby and where Domeric was, Sansa would be too. Those two were a good union, especially as Domeric was nothing really like his father.
There were times when he thought very dark thoughts about Roose Bolton. And then other times when he forced himself back from those thoughts.
He had a nagging feeling that he needed to look deeper into Winterfell. The Broken Tower was being repaired, as was the First Keep. The more he thought about the hidden room in Father's solar the more he wondered if that had been an earlier tower that had been enclosed within the building that had enveloped it.
This needed a Maester really but as Luwin was rather busy with Mother and the other pregnant ladies of Winterfell, he couldn't really vex him with all of this.
Perhaps he needed to walk through the crypts again? It might not hurt.