It had been a long time since Viserys had entered the caves beneath the northern hill but he found them easily enough. The dreams sent to him by the Bloodraven had painted them for him so vividly that he thought he would never forget how to find them.
"Is this where the Children of the Forest have lived all these years?" asked Sansa. "I would never have guessed that such a place could be their home."
"What did you expect? A village among the trees?"
"I hadn't thought about it?" the girl admitted as she walked beside him up the gully towards the entrance. Her dress and light shoes were curiously out of place here in the freezing wilds. "I suppose something so open would have been destroyed by the Andals."
"Or by the First Men, in their day. Our ancestors were no less aggressive in war. Most likely the singers have hidden under the ground since they promised peace with the kingdoms of men."
"On the Isle of Faces," she recalled. "So long ago that no one is really sure how or when."
"So I was taught. I'm not sure how much of that is true. It's possible not even the singers or the Others can be sure at this point."
"Didn't your great-uncle tell you?"
Viserys smiled coldly. "Uncle Brynden had his own plans and goals. He told me what served those, but it's hard for me to be sure if what he told me was accurate." As they walked he reached to his belt and loosened the sword in his scabbard. Through some quirk of this state, he found that it was his brother's sword – the one shattered on the streets of Pentos.
Sansa saw the act and touched his sleeve. "Do you expect that they won't welcome you?"
"I doubt they're pleased by how I left."
"Is it dangerous?"
"Everything is dangerous," he pointed out. "I'd imagine they'll at least notice us. Probably we'll have the same risk at the White Keep."
The cave was as he recalled, a narrow crack in the ground leading into the darkness. Viserys looked around for a torch and then remembered that he wouldn't be able to make one.
Sansa raised one hand and it began to glow with a blue light. "I spend my nights wandering," she said when he gave her a questioning look. "The Other's eyes glow but I needed something for myself."
"I can't argue with that."
The light was steadier than that of the torches and it cast the twisting, worm-like roots in a colder cast as they descended. Sansa's lips twisted when she first saw the skulls in the walls but she didn't falter.
One moment they were alone and then two of the singers stepped out of the shadows, as if they'd simply materialised. Viserys suspected that they had been lying in wait, the bark-like colour of their skin blending with the dirt of the walls.
"You should not have returned," one said.
Viserys looked them over. Neither wore armour and their weapons were short spears with obsidian tips. No great threat to a man armed and alert. "I suppose I should apologise if I led you to believe your opinion still mattered to me."
The other shook his head. "You have brought fire and blood and death, your father's legacy." The large liquid eyes shifted to Sansa "And you..." They widened and then the singer gave voice to a cry of alarm, raising his spear and moving .
"Get back!" Viserys snapped - half to the singer and half to Sansa. He stepped forward to meet the attack, sword sweeping out of its scabbard and into a parry. The real sword would probably have half-severed the spear but here it merely deflected the weapon.
The first of the two singers joined the other. "Ice," he said mournfully. "Why did you bring ice, child of wood and fire?"
"I don't know what you mean," he heard Sansa exclaim from behind him as he blocked one attack after the other. He was so much taller and had that much more reach that the spears didn't give the two children of the forest any particular advantage.
Viserys seized one spearhead as he parried the shaft behind it and yanked, pulling its wielder off-balance. The prince followed this up with a kick to the singer's chest, sending it sprawling. He didn't particularly want to kill them, he realised. For all that they'd tried to entrap him, there was something pathetic about these last survivors of a race that had once dominated Westeros. "She asked me nicely?" he told them. "Why shouldn't I have done it? Aren't the Starks of the old blood too?"
"Old blood she is, ice-ridden she is. Our doom, she is."
Sansa touched Viserys' back. "We can go, Ser Viserys. If they feel it's a bad thing, we can leave. I don't need to see more."
He backed up. "As you would have it, my lady."
The singers didn't follow and as he sheathed his sword he looked at their disconsolate forms. "Don't follow us."
There was a cold wind around them and the last thing he heard before Sansa took a step away into the halls of Winterfell and brought her with him was a mournful wail.
Sansa saw the White Keep looming out of the snow. To her surprise she saw that more ice had formed around the base of the walls of ice so they now rose less abruptly from the earth, although the sides were still steep, almost as if it was a natural outcropping.
"Ye gods." Viserys shook his head. "How many of the Others are there to need a city the size of King's Landing?"
"I don't know," she told him. "If you wish to turn back…"
"Nothing of the kind," the knight assured her. "Though if you'd rather not be seen with me then I quite understand."
The long ramp up to the gates was bare of snow and of concealment but what did that matter. Sansa stepped from the hillside where she'd first looked upon the White Keep and when her feet touched down they stood on the outer wall, looking inwards.
Viserys paused and when she looked up at his face his violet eyes were narrowed and intent. "I've never seen the like," he admitted. "All these towers are linked – it's truly a single structure not a city, or any city I know at least."
She nodded. "What would you like to see first?"
"There seems to be movement there." He pointed at one of the long halls, one with broad, arching windows of ice so flawlessly clear that they might have been Myrish glass. "Shall we?"
"By all means." She took his hand and this time he led, stepping from the wall down to the broad sill of one of the windows.
Below them, inside the hall, wights were forming into orderly companies – or as orderly as they could when it didn't seem to have occurred to the Others overseeing them that there was any cause to form groups of like arms and armour. Still, there were several hundred of the dead being assembled by two of the Others. They wore their usual robes beneath armour of ice that had a reflective sheen.
Sansa was pulled to the side as Viserys moved them into the cover of the side of the window. "Are those…?" he asked, hesitant for the first time since she'd met him.
"The Others? If you mean those in white then yes," she answered.
"They aren't as monstrous as I had expected."
Sansa released his hand. "Wait until you see them more closely."
He looked at her, eyes warm. "I spoke poorly and I apologise, Sansa. It's their actions that mark them as monsters. Not their appearance."
She nodded and when he offered her his hand she took it in hers again. Then she pulled him forwards and stepped backwards, entering the cell where she'd been kept at first. "My prison," she told him.
The room was cold and barren. Without prisoners, it seemed that the Others had ceased to concern themselves with keeping it warm. The bedding that Sansa remembered had been removed and frost marked the walls.
Viserys stepped to the window and looked out, then shook his head. "Almost as barren as the Eyrie. Was Cersei here with you or were you kept alone?"
"She was here until they placed her on the throne. After that..." Sansa's voice caught for a moment. "After that they used her body as a servant."
"The proud lioness of the west... she would have hated that."
"Why would that matter to them?" she said bitterly. "To them we're nothing but tools, whether we're alive or dead."
"More than that. Their armies have been turned back, Sansa. We must at least be obstacles."
"Perhaps, but we're not people to them."
He considered her words and then shrugged. "I suppose I don't see them as people either."
They descended the stair.
"What more can you show me?" he asked.
"There's the great hall," Sansa told him reluctantly. "But I'm not sure it's safe to go there."
Viserys took her hand. "What be there that you dread, when we've come so far?"
"Their lord," the girl told him frankly. "Their throne. Their caged wolf."
The third seemed to bite at him. "I was a caged dragon once. The bars were more gilded - sometimes it was the Usurper's kindness that cut me the deepest - but I was hostage against my family's loyalists and trophy of his victory before I was his fosterling."
"I'm not a hostage," she said quietly. "I'm a weapon in their hands."
"I've promised that I'll save you if I can. And to do the other thing if I can't. I'll need to know where I can find you if that's to happen."
Sansa closed her stark grey eyes. "Alright." She pointed down one of the grand corridors. "This way."
Viserys didn't ask her why they walked down the passages one footstep at a time rather than taking the long, leagues long strides that could carry their spirits across Westeros in heartbeats. He had told her the state of the Bloodraven when they'd found him. The old sorcerer had been trapped on his throne for decades but even one year must exact a toll.
They turned into another hall, almost at the hall of the tree-throne and Sansa halted at the sight of three men, armed and armoured, who guarded the intricately carved ice of the doors at the far end.
Pale in death, Prince Jaime Lannister's crimson cloak made him still shockingly out of place amid the white ice, far more so than the black furs that swathed Renly Baratheon. Between them stood a man of snow, clad in ice - sword and cuirass of crystal as pale as glass.
And he saw them.
"Our thanks to thee, interloper." The Other stepped forwards, sword in hand. "Thou hast led us to our elder brethren but now your purpose ends."
Viserys drew his sword. "You don't get to tell me what my purpose is." Not you, not the Baratheons and not even my father's madness.
The teeth that were bared in contempt were more ice than ivory. "Not even when the fire in your blood was at its height could your folk have challenged us. Only the old blood in your veins makes you worthy of note."
The swords touched, the first probing exchange. When Viserys withdrew his blade Sansa saw that it was shorter by a handspan. The cold of the Other's sword had cracked and broken the steel of his sword where they touched.
"Viserys, please flee," Sansa implored miserably. "You can't fight them."
Heedless of her, Viserys advanced as the Other lunged again. He discarded his broken sword, throwing it into the face of his opponent. A hasty parry reduced the blade to splinters, but that was just the memory of the sword.
Now another memory filled the silver-haired knight hands and the Other's sword shrieked as it ground against the edge of a long sword of Valyrian steel.
"Don't underestimate Valyrians," he spat into the no longer cool and confident face of the presumably ancient creature in front of him. "Nor the fire in my blood."
Their swords crossed again and again, sparks flying from them as Viserys pressed the pace harder and faster, pushing the other swordsman back towards the door.
For a moment Sansa dared to hope and then cold hands seized her.
Her exclaimation of dismay broke the pace of Viserys' onslaught. With one sweeping cut to push the Other's sword out of position to threaten him, he saw the two more Others that had entered the passageway from behind Sansa
"Go!" she called out. "Tell my father!"
Viserys grimaced and she saw the Other he was fighting bring his sword around in a vicious cut, trying to take advantage of the knight's distraction. Like lightning, Viserys parried and Dark Sister stabbed out in riposte.
The Other screamed as the Valyrian steel penetrated side, just below the arm where the armour didn't extend.
When Viserys withdrew the blade there was no blood nor any sign of a wound, but the Other slumped against the door, sliding down it between the silent, statue-like forms of Jaime Lannister and Renly Baratheon.
Turning, the last Targaryen prince raised the ancient sword in salute to Sansa - and then with one step he was gone - fleeing for the safety of his body in the Eyrie.
Oberyn absented himself from the little gathering on the pretext of continuing his search for Areo Hotah. They both understood it was probably hopeless - a dead body could be hidden forever with far more ease than a living man - but it wouldn't have been wise for the Red Viper to sit in on a conversation between Olenna and the great-grand-daughter of his first and most notorious victim.
Gwyneth Yronwood was young and unwed. Not as eligible as some maidens for her eldest sister was heiress to the ancient house that had once ruled half of Dorne. Her father and brothers were in the north which was no trivial risk, but as matters stood her precedence was unlikely to rise past second in line.
Olenna didn't plan to mince words with her. "You've angled for this invitation, so one must wonder where your House stands in the court of Princess Arianne."
"My house were once the bloodroyal, until Nymeria's arrival raised the Martells to dominance," Gwyneth answered her. "We've never sat well with Sunspear's rule but some princes are easier to live with than others."
"Doran fostered his older son with you for several years, did he not?"
Gwyneth nodded in agreement. "I knew Quentyn well. Too well to think he would have been inspired to poison Tywin Lannister without someone else making the suggestion."
"Too much the innocent?"
"In some ways, yes. Or perhaps I should say that he seemed too dull to me."
"And if he had lived, if Arianne had for some reason not been her father's successor then the wounds done to relations between Martell and Yronwood could perhaps have been bandaged by a marriage between him and one of your house."
"Many alliances are considered," the younger woman observed, "Only to never come to fruition. You were to have wed a Targaryen at one time, were you not?"
So she had the wit to have learned something of who she would be meeting. A small accomplishment but more than some had managed. "Some might have expected Arianne to wed a Targaryen. It would have seemed unlikely after Aerys'... erratic handling of his son's marriage but after the Lannisters' banners killed Princess Elia it might have seemed a viable option."
"Under King Robert I suspect House Martell wouldn't have survived such a gamble."
"He was not a man prone to leaving enemies at his back," she admitted.
"And now his oldest daughter has inherited his crown. It's a very Dornish succession and not one that the Targaryens might have accepted."
"Prince Stannis dislikes compromises. That doesn't mean he can't make them if he sees the need."
Gwyneth paused in reply. It wasn't hesitation, Olenna thought as servants provided them with tea. Merely a desire for privacy and she wasn't surprised that the Dornishwoman resumed without a beat once the servants had withdrawn. "Civil war in any of the kingdoms while we're facing an outside threat could be said to compromise the security of Queen Cassana's reign."
"Many things could be said. I've always thought that men dwell too much on what has been said and less upon what has not been said."
"Yes." Gwyneth cupped her teacup in both hands. "Princess Arianne keeps her remaining brother under very close guard. To ensure his safety, of course."
"She's lost so many of her family already."
"Many other houses have lost as well. It's said that the Night's Watch and thousands of sworn swords from all across Westeros were slain when the Others broke the wall."
"That's very close to the truth."
"And the levies from Dorne fought with King Robert, under the lead of a stormlord who my father speaks well of. It's a shame that there's no prominent Dornishman among the commanders of the queen's armies."
"Given the rigors of war it seems that men of worth are being recognised and appointed to high offices as a consequence," Olenna observed, fishing for exactly what Gwyneth might be seeking.
The young woman nodded. "Prince Oberyn, for example. An exile under the Targaryens but able to return home under the Baratheons and even rising to sit on the Small Council. I recall my grandfather saying - long ago, you understand - that in his own day a man disgraced in that fashion would have been expected to take the black."
Olenna was glad she hadn't been sipping on her tea at that moment. Her hands were less steady than they had been a year ago. "I would imagine that should the Others be dealt with that we'll still need a Night's Watch to deal with the utmost North. I have trouble imagining a new Wall will be built but some guard will be required."
There was a tap at the door and Nymeria opened the door.
"I was expecting you earlier," Olenna reprimanded her.
"I was expecting to be here earlier," Oberyn's daughter answered. "I was also expecting to remain in Dorne longer, but there's been a raven from the north."
"Not more ill news, I hope?" asked Gwyneth.
"A summons from the queen. The dragons are needed in the North."
Eastwatch was still, somehow, clinging to the coast. The castle, although damaged, supported a tiny garrison watching for movements of the Others.
While Thoros' little band of madmen unloaded their gear onto the quays that had once served as home to the Night's Watch's small fleet, Aliser tramped up to the tallest remaining tower. Stones had been salvaged from the damaged sections of the castle to make it weatherproof again and as he arrived, two men were manhandling stones to add to a low wall encircling the tower.
"It's not much," Ser Aenys Darry admitted as he saw where Alliser was looking. "I mostly had them start working at it to keep them busy."
Alliser knew the Riverlander mostly from twenty years before when they'd both taken the black after the fall of the Targaryen dynasty. A minor cousin of the lordly house of the town that shared their name, Aenys probably could have avoided taking the black after the Trident but he'd also borrowed heavily to equip himself and in the absence of booty from a triumphant royalist campaign he'd been unable to repay his debtors.
"Has there been any sign of the Others?" Alliser asked.
"Fortunately not." Aenys shoved his mittened hands under his armpits as they climbed the steps up to the tower entrance. "I keep lookouts at the top of the tower in all but the worst weather and we patrol when we can but thus far it's been blessedly quiet."
"No trouble with horses?"
The other knight shook his head. "We don't have any. If we did have to run for it, we'd use our ship. I wouldn't like our chances of fleeing over land." He kicked at the lower panels of the door until it was opened for him, incidentally knocking snow off his boots.
Alliser kicked at the wall to clear the worst from his own before entering the tower. The inside was decently warm with a fire in the centre. There were no real interior walls, and a stair connected this half of the tower to the other half, which had the floor a yard or so higher. Stairs led up to it and more stairs led up from that to the floor above his head. Presumably the same pattern continued to the top of the tower.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?"
Alliser grunted at the question. "The Hand wants someone to try to reach the Other's keep out near the old Night Fort."
"From here? Are they mad?"
"It's the least worst route - and they probably are. R'hllor worshippers. We've brought dogs and sleds but I don't reckon they'll make it back even if they do get that far."
Aenys shivered at the thought of such a journey. "They won't find it hard to find then - the line of the Wall's still obvious. But that won't make it easy going."
"I know that but what makes you think Ironfoot cares? These aren't men following a lord he'll have to account to. If none of them come back then he's not lost anything of note and if they do manage something, all to the good."
"Except if the Others trace them back here." Aenys pushed back his hood and walked to the fire. "We can't hold off any serious attack here, Lord Commander. We've too few men."
"You're not supposed to hold off an attack," he answered firmly. He'd probably need to find someone else to command here if Aenys was like this. Although where would he be able to send the man if he was reassigned? "All you'd do if that happens is send a raven and then take to your ship."
"Easier said than done." The other man gave him a serious look. "The lookouts can't see far in bad weather. I don't mind telling you, I'm not sure we've been doing any good up here at all. It might be better to withdraw the garrison entirely."
"It's important we keep a foothold here, precisely for expeditions like this." Alliser warmed his hands over the fire. "The only way we can defeat the Others is to hit back at them. With things the way they are, we won't be doing that with armies. The White Keep might be a bit ambitious right now but I have to admit that sending smaller parties might work."
"And if it doesn't?"
Alliser glared at him. "What do you want to do, build a wall across the Neck and hope that that stops them?"
"They don't have ships, so it ought to."
"The way our Wall stopped them? And how do you know they don't have any ships." Alliser grabbed the other knight's shoulder. "Talk like this won't help anything. Now who can you recommend as a guide for the heretics?"
Aenys gave him a long look. "You're serious?"
"Then I know the ground as well as anyone."
The lord-commander gave him a suspicious look. "You're volunteering?"
Aenys gave him a weak smile. "It's got to be better than staying here."
Well that solved one problem, Alliser noted. Now to find a replacement captain for the garrison. "Find another couple of men to go with you," he ordered gruffly.