The past few months have been... busy. Vermont in August, Bermuda in September, Singapore in a few weeks, two editions down, one being assembled (long story), one outsourced to a freelancer I trust and one being planned. Oh and there was a major work crisis, now resolved.
I'm tired. But - onwards and upwards!
With every report, every despatch, every whisper, of how the region around Oldtown was recovering, he felt a lifting in his heart. The blight was vanishing from the Reach, there could not be the slightest doubt of that now. Wheat was standing taller, apples were ripening, grapes were plumper than before.
The prospect of famine in the Reach, something that had terrified him, was vanishing. And with it the fears of the Realm. The blight had been tied indeed to the Drowned God, who had somehow been driven into a frenzy to escape his prison by the Call, or so their theory ran.
And the death of the Drowned God was echoing in all kinds of places. According to Lord Hightower at least three innkeepers and four ships chandlers in Oldtown had been reported as having gone raving mad, screaming about the silence. Two had killed themselves, one by pounding his head against a stone wall and the other by calmly tying a sword to a door frame and then frantically running onto it to impale himself.
"Ironborn," Lord Hightower had said grimly, "Some pretending to be Reachmen. And devout enough in their belief in the Drowned God to be effectively Drowned Men. Father always wondered if the Ironborn had eyes in Oldtown. I would say yes, they had. No longer though."
Maybe. Perhaps not. Oldtown was a huge city and he wondered how many other inhabitants of the docks would turn out to have ties to the Iron Islands.
He sighed and looked down at the map he had been studying for some time now. He wanted to be away from the South as soon as he could arrange it. Starks did not prosper in the South and he would not feel safe until he was home in the North. 'Safe.' That was a relative word was it not, with the Others marching on the Wall, with war looming over them all.
But he could not go, not yet. He had a promise to keep. He needed to go into Dorne and bring back Willam Dustin's bones. He'd promised Barbery Dustin that he'd do so and he could not go back on his word. He had to do it, he had to go there, he couldn't send someone to do it.
Too many eyes were on him now and he felt… uneasy about it all. He didn't want to go to that accursed place, but he had to. He sighed again and rubbed a hand over his face. Well. Perhaps a quick visit to Highgarden, to discuss supplies for the North and then a quick and quiet – if that could be arranged – ride to the Princes Pass and the place where the Tower of Joy had once stood.
If he could curse Rhaegar Targaryen for nothing else, it would be for that utterly cruel name. The Tower of Joy. The place where his sister was raped repeatedly and finally died. He had pulled most of the place down to make the cairns for the dead, even Hightower, Whent and poor anguished Arthur Dayne.
Would the cairns still be there? If he brought back Willam's bones, should he also retrieve the other bones, sending them back to the North, to Oldtown, Harrenhall and Starfall? Well… the bones would be light.
But he also didn't want the attention. Too many eyes on the past. Too many eyes on the secret of Jon's true parentage.
Perhaps a short, quick visit. He'd take just his guards, men who wouldn't talk or speculate about why Rhaegar had left Lyanna there with members of the Kingsguard. They'd just go for the bones.
Knuckles rapped on the door to one side and he turned to look at it. "Enter."
A man in Tyrell colours walked in, watched by his guards. "Lord Stark, Lords Tyrell and Hightower send their compliments and ask that you join them at the main gate of the Hightower." The man eyed the direwolf that was watching him. "The Lady Frostfyre as well. A… situation has developed there."
Ned frowned a little as he rolled up the map and placed it to one side, before picking up the Fist of Winter and placed it in its leather sheath at his side. "What kind of situation?"
The Tyrell man stood there irresolute there for a moment and then his lip curled a little. "There is a delegation from the Starry Sept here, my Lord. They claim to be here to 'seal and cleanse and finally close' the Gate under the Hightower." He quivered for a moment. "My Lord, I was there in the tunnel when you fought the Drowned God. I have no words for their demands. I…" And then he clamped his mouth shut and nodded sombrely.
Ned eyed him for a moment and then nodded back at him. "I understand. I'll come now." He looked at Frostfyre, who came to her feet and shook herself before padding almost silently over to him. "Let's meet some fools," he told her quietly, acknowledging her snort of wolfish derision, and then they strode off.
When they arrived at the gate he could see that things were tense. There was a knot of Septons in fine clothing, richly dyed garments that must have cost a lot. The leading one was even clutching a sceptre with a sparkling crystal on top. In front of them were Willas Tyrell, Lord Hightower and Norry, the Septon of the Hightower and a good and decent man.
He had arrived towards the back of the Septons and he quirked his lips, gestured to his guards to stay back and then walked quietly to the rear of the group, listening carefully. As he approached he could see Willas notice him and then raise an eyebrow, but he shook his head, which allowed him to hear the blustered nonsense from the leading Septon. "Lord Tyrell, Lord Hightower, as I said I – we – are here to finally close and cleanse the dread Gate below our feet. What it was that tried to escape through it, it must be finally repelled by the power of the Seven and the Gate shut, also by the power of the Seven."
Lord Hightower's nostrils flared. "The Drowned God is dead, he was flung through the Gate and the Gate is quiet again – Lord Stark defeated the Drowned God with the aid of the Old Gods, so your presence here is meaningless mummery!"
The Septons collectively scowled, with the exception of Norry, who looked as if he was looking at a group of fools.
"Lord Hightower," the Septon with the sceptre said, "The Old Gods are no more than shadows and myths compared to the Seven-Who-Are-One. The creature that was at the Gate was no god either. Whatever it was, the Seven pushed it back, as everything that happens is as to their plan. And we must now complete the work with a ceremony at the Gate that shall sanctify it."
"I was at the Gate when Lord Stark battled the Drowned God," said Norry in a loud voice. "I was a part of the crowd, along with Lords Tyrell and Hightower. I saw what that terrible thing was. It was the Drowned God, a thing of madness and wrath, the thing that killed Septon Alyston. I was there when he died as well. I know of what I speak. You? Were you there? No, you were not. You know not of what you speak, Septon Choras!"
The Septon went red in the face with fury. "You are close to heresy Norry!"
"And you are a fool Choras! I was there! I saw Lord Stark and Lady Frostfyre fight the Drowned God! I saw them grow in size with the blessing of the Old Gods! Did you? No!"
"What you saw-"
"WAS WHAT HAPPENED," Ned bellowed and the group of Septons jerked and scattered at the sound, looking over their shoulders and blanching as he strode through them with Frostfyre.
Choras went white as he approached, but then seemed to rally as Ned stood with Willas and the others. "Lord Stark."
Ned looked him up and down before tilting his head. "Septon. You must be from the Starry Sept, yes?"
The Septon lifted his chin a little and nodded, hefting the sceptre with its crystal a little. Now that he could see it more closely he could see that it had been gilded, and not by a skilful hand, whilst the crystal looked more high-quality. "Yes, Lord Stark. We are from the Starry Sept. We… thank you for your efforts, but we are clear in our view that we must now seal the Gate under the Hightower."
"The Gate is already closed," Ned said coldly. "You seek to do something that is no longer required. The Drowned God is dead."
"Heresy!" The word was hissed by a Septon in the crowd and Ned swept them all with a black look that made them all take a slight step back.
"I was there. I fought the Drowned God. And, with the aid of the Old Gods, I slew the Drowned God. And that is the end of it. Are you seeking to claim my victory?" And to one side Frostfyre growled, a long low sound of warning that made the Septons step even further back.
"My… my Lord Stark," Choras said in what was almost a snarl. "The Gate is a heathen, blasphemous, creation of the-" And then went as white as a sheet, almost biting the words he had been about to say back into his mouth.
"You were about to say 'The First Men', weren't you, Septon?" Ned said coldly. "My ancestors – and the ancestors of many of the men here. How many of you heard the Call?"
From the various uneasy looks and shuffling of feet, the answer must have been almost all of them. However, Choras made an attempt to rally them. "With a simple ceremony the blessings of the Seven will-"
"Will what?" Ned almost bit the words off. "Allow you to claim that the Drowned God is truly gone now, with the aid of your sparkling bit of glass on a stick? He's dead, he's gone, I killed him, the end." And then he leant forwards until he was almost nose to nose with the irritating little streak of piss. "And the Old Gods helped me."
Choras jerked back, his eyes wide and his mouth agape, and his sceptre fell from his hands and fell to the floor, where it shattered. Not that the Septon seemed to care, because he was gaping at Ned. "His eyes…" And then they all fled for the doors that led outside, not quite at a run but certainly at a fast trot, with the occasional stumble as one shot a fearful look at him.
Ned watched them go with a scornful look, folding his arms and shaking his head in disgust, before looking back at the others. "Why do men like them always scurry across the floor after a victory, desperate to take the credit?"
"Because they think that they can," Willas replied. "And they forgot that you were still here and that I am not my father. And they're worried – the Call awakened a lot of things. Weakened the Starry Sept as well, especially after that fool Alyston tried and died at the foot of the Gate."
The Lord of the Reach shuddered. "When his body stood – well, I think I have seen a kind of wight. I have seen the undead." And then he looked at Ned. "And I have seen you touched by the Old Gods again now."
Ned stared at him. "Again?"
"The reason they fled? Your eyes were red." He nodded. "I think that that is a tale that must be spread about the city. I doubt that Choras will be back. And if he tries… he'll regret it."
They rode from Castle Black not long after dawn, a cavalcade of cloaked men, the crowned stag banner at the forefront, others following. It wasn't as large a group as he might have expected in previous years, but he was happy with their numbers, their destination was still being rebuilt and he couldn't take that many. There were enough of them. The Lord Commander at his side, the First Ranger behind, Lords Lannister and Tarly, Redfort and Royce, Rayder as well and others, including the frail but determined figure of Maester Aemon and his wildling assistant.
He had to smother a bitter smile at the absence of the usual bootlickers and dregs of the Court. Life here on the Wall was too hard for some. Good. Useless cunts, the lot of them, all talk and no balls. Good at lofty phrases, all wind and words. Here at the Wall, though, life was harder than they could take. Few had come with the Court to Winterfell, fewer still had made it to Castle Black.
No, those who were there with him were there for a reason. The war on the Wall. Oh, he wasn't a fool. Men like Tarly were there because they loved war and flocked to the horns of war. Others were like Tywin Lannister, who was there because his children had found new and different ways to fuck up and was there to retain his standing in the Court and the Kingdom.
The road along the base of the Wall was good, well-maintained now and better than it had been in many decades, as Mormont had told them, so their progress was good. There was a lot of traffic along it, volunteers, Night's Watch, others from the Seven Kingdoms. Rallying to the Wall. Thanks the Gods for all of them, they'd need them all to repair centuries of neglect at the castles.
His mood always darkened as he thought about that. The Targaryens yet again. Tywin Lannister had told him quietly that the Tower of the Hand contained written records of previous Hands of the King, with Targaryen comments about the Night's Watch always straying into fears that the organisation was the private army of the Starks. He had to admit that his Father had commented that they might be such a group, but he long remembered the quizzical horror on Ned's face when he'd asked him bluntly at the Eyrie if the Night's Watch obeyed the orders of Ned's own father.
He shook his darkened mood off and paid more attention to the road ahead. He had better things to do than curse over foolish Targaryens and their misunderstandings about the way that the North worked.
They made good progress, galloping at times around blockages on the road. They reached Queensgate, which was almost restored, by mid-morning and then they paused at Deep Lake two hours after Noon to eat. That castle was well under repair as well, fresh tiles on the roofs and new buildings amidst the repaired older ones. Mormont looked at the place, grunted and nodded, which was the equivalent of a score of flowerier words.
They ate in the hall, a simple meal but enough for the trip ahead of them, washed down with watered wine. That was something about the North that he liked – the water there was cleaner there. Bloody cold in places though. And afterwards as they started to prepare to head on for the Nightfort he looked the place over, trying to look for weaknesses. The gate through the Wall was already being blocked up and iced over. No, this place would stand.
And then he heard the sound of voices off to one side. Three men were at the southern gate, three dressed in the black of the Night's Watch and another who wore the tabard of House Greyjoy, something that made his skin crawl at once. After a long moment the guards let them through after beckoning for other guards to escort them – and they made straight for him, before bending the knee before him.
"Your Grace," the leading man of the Night's Watch said, "We are from Westwatch-By-The-Bridge, which is being restored. We are here with despatches that arrived there from the Iron Islands brought by this messenger from Asha Greyjoy."
The Greyjoy messenger dipped his head in acknowledgement and then held a large oilskin-covered pouch out to him. He took it and undid the stitching with his belt knife and then looked at the thick wedge of papers within. "My thanks to you all and also to Lord Greyjoy. I'll draw up a response – we ride for the Nightfort this afternoon. You can eat and rest here and then join us there, the response will be ready in a day or so."
They nodded, looking pleased, and walked off after bowing a little awkwardly and he pulled out the message within. It was written in two hands, one of Lord Harlaw and the other being the new Lord Greyjoy, and the tale was one of death, betrayal and madness.
He looked up and gestured to a Baratheon guardsman. "Fetch Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon, at once."
"Aye, your Grace!" The guard nodded and took off at a run.
He kept reading the messages, his heart twisting in his chest as he read and reread it. After a while he heard the sound of footsteps and looked up to see the arrival of the two man he had summoned. "From Pyke," he said bleakly. "You both need to read this – the others too. Gods, what a tale."
He passed the papers over and then ran his hands through his hair. Magic. Others. And whatever the fuck Euron Greyjoy had become, what he was doing. Gods. At least they knew that Ned was alive and had triumphed, but… should he have gone with Ned? They still didn't know exactly what had happened at the Hightower – had there been a cost to Ned in his victory? He wanted to fly into a thousand pieces in all kinds of different directions – and then he caught himself and clenched his fists and took a deep breath. Focus, man, focus.
For a moment he could feel something jolt deep inside him – and then Maester Aemon raised his voice. "Euron Greyjoy, it seems, is a fleshsmith. My Gods. I had hoped that such knowledge had died from this world of ours."
He looked at the man – and then hurried over and guided the white-faced old man to a bench, looking around for some wine. There was a flagon to one side and a cup and he poured a drink for the Maester of Castle Black and gave it to him. "Here, Aemon, drink this."
Aemon Targaryen took the cup with trembling hands and drank from it. "My thanks, your Grace. What a tale within these words. What a terrible, terrible tale. What Euron Greyjoy's crew much have endured, to be… twisted in such a way."
"Word has already gone out about his crimes, but to read this full tale…" Mormont shivered. "Kinslaying, alliance with the Others, and this? None of this makes any sense."
"To a normal man, no," Aemon said, sounding stronger already. "But to someone who has accessed the darkest of Valyria's secrets? Then it is not a question of sense but of power – power over others. Power over those he sees as being lesser than he. This Euron Greyjoy doubtless places himself above we mere men. His purpose, his task, makes sense to him, and him alone. We must be very wary of him now. He views us all as puppets – and he is, in his eyes, the puppet master."
A grim silence fell. "Warnings must be sent – again," Robert said with a sigh. "You're right, he cannot be underestimated. More ravens must be sent to warn again of him. We'd best tell the others here, before we ride again for the Nightfort."
They did so, to be met with horrified mutterings and even a look of deep, profound, unease on the face of Tywin Lannister when he read what had happened on the Silence, something that unnerved Robert more than he cared to admit to.
Not long after that they rode on down the road, a more silent group than had started. They hadn't exactly been jovial before, but the tale from the Iron Islands had cast a pall over all of them.
When he first saw the great bulk of a castle on the horizon by the Wall he realised at a glance why the Nightfort had been abandoned as the Night's Watch had started to fail. It was the biggest of the castle on the Wall and had must have been such a drain on its resources just to keep it operational that of course they had abandoned it for Castle Black.
He could hear horrified mutterings from the men around him as they approached it and noted how run-down it was, but Mormont and Benjen Stark seemed almost cheerful as they looked at it.
"They've done well," Benjen called out to the Lord Commander. "The repairs are starting to really show now."
"You mean it was worse than this?" Ser Kevan Lannister spluttered.
"It was worse," his brother Gerion said grimly. "There were trees growing in the main courtyard and all the roofs had holes in them – or were sagging."
There were work teams all over the castle as they approached, some in black cloaks and others in different colours, showing the mix of people at work on the Nightfort. The man in charge was a grizzled old Black Brother who had a Stormlander accent and who he vaguely remembered had been a third or fourth son of a very small house near the Dornish border.
The Great Hall of the Nightfort was habitable, along with the stables and a few other buildings in the castle, and after they had stabled their steeds and settled into their quarters – which must have been below the high standards of some, not that he gave a damn – he gathered them all in the Great Hall.
"We need to see this chair – and then this magic Gate that's here."
Benjen Stark led them the chair at once, down under the Great Hall, walking down stairs that took them past the tombs of long-dead Lord Commanders of the Night's Watch. When they reached the room that contained the chair he felt his skin crawl just looking at the thing. There was something about it that left him with the oddest feeling that something was… somehow looking back at him? That made no sense, but he took his time in inspecting it, walking around it and eyeing it carefully. "So that's the chair."
"Aye," said Benjen Stark with a sigh. "Now that I look at it – it's a part of the ground is it not? It looks as if was not hewn out of the stone but… moulded? Why did I not see that before?"
"Why would you have, First Ranger?" Aemon said thoughtfully as he looked at it carefully. "There is something about this chair that tries to raise hairs on my head that no longer exist. Something… fey, for want of a better word."
"Speak plainly, Maester Aemon," said Tywin Lannister in a low voice. "You mean magic."
There was a long moment of silence. "Yes," Aemon said quietly. "Magic."
Robert nodded slowly and then shivered a little as he looked around the room – and at the repaired corner of the ceiling that had once had a hole in it. A hole through which men had entered the room and sat upon the chair and… gone raving mad by the sound of it.
"Looks more comfortable than the Iron Throne," he muttered after a moment. "But I'm not risking my wits sitting in it." He peered more closely at it. "What are those carvings at the back of it? And what's that alcove in the arm for?"
"They look almost like flying creatures of some kind," Benjen Stark replied. "And I'll be the one risking my wits, your Grace, if you please."
"To the Gate then, now," Robert rumbled. And so Benjen Stark led them again, out of the chamber with the chair and then to another tunnel that had wooden planks that crossed a well that led to the strangest gate he had ever seen. A gate made of weirwood, that face sent a chill up his spine.
That was as nothing to what he felt when the First Ranger stepped forwards and the eyes on that face opened, eyes that were blind and sightless. And then it spoke: "Who are you?"
"I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers. I am the shield that guards the realms of men." Benjen Stark said in a steady voice.
"Then pass." And the fucking thing's mouth opened and expanded until that was all it was. He stood there, irresolute for a long moment, and then he followed Benjen Stark down the passage that had appeared. Magic. Fucking magic. A magic portal. He knew it existed but it was still something that was just… stunning.
And the more he thought about it the more he wondered about what they were facing. How he needed to get a grip on all of this. Cope with this. No - understand this.
As they emerged into the open air on the north side of the Wall he heard thunder crack overhead and he looked up at the clouds. Was there a storm coming? Perhaps not.
"It was here that we faced them," Benjen said as he gestured at the area. "The wights came from over there. The Others too. The bodies were burned over there. As for the bodies of the Others… they turned to ice and snow."
They all stood there for that long moment, looking North. There was a keen wind blowing, one that made all of them wrap their cloaks about their bodies, and he wondered what a true winter wind would be like.
"The Black Gate – it can only be used by living man of the Night's Watch, yes?"
"Aye your Grace," Aemon said firmly. "The Histories are clear on that fact."
"Does any man here doubt what we face now? That magic exists and is something that we must factor into our plans?"
There was a collective shaking of heads and mutterings of 'no'.
"Then head on back. Maester Aemon, might I have a word about what we might face?"
As the other lords departed through the Black Gate the old Maester approached. "Your Grace?"
"Your pardon – did you read the last part of the message from Pyke, about Jon Stark?"
A small smile crossed the face of the ancient Maester. "I did. He is married now."
"To a Wildling. Ygritte. I remember her – what a mouth on that girl!"
"Oh yes." Aemon sighed after a moment. "I hope that they are happy."
Robert looked at the closing maw of the Black Gate. "What do you think that his paternal grandfather is screaming now in the depths of whatever hell he's in?"
Aemon smiled a very thin smile indeed. "Nothing worth a damn thing."
He smiled and laid a hand on the shoulder of the old man. "Quite right – now, lead me through the Black Gate. There's much to do before tomorrow."