Chapter 54: A Fated Gathering

Forward: Editing credit to Rainsfere.

The Next Day - Late Morning - Fairmarket - Geralt

After the rough few days he had gone through, Geralt spoiled himself by sleeping in for once. No one among the Winter Wolves or militia would argue that the Witcher deserved some rest after the daring mission to Riverrun. Few beyond the inner circle knew of what happened so far, yet Geralt knew that rumor would spread fast if the truth spread.

"It won't be easy to tell." He muttered to himself as he paced around his tent, too anxious about the threat of the Crones looming.

For all he knew, they could be rallying their monsters to wipe them out, since what they found in the depths of Riverrun was just a fraction of what they had. Even if they had the defenses expanded around the town borders, the sheer ferocity and numbers of such creatures would only be delayed. Yet he had to put those fears aside, knowing such thoughts would distract him from being an effective leader. He had to remember he wasn't alone, even if the threat was one only he truly understood.

Sighing, he got his armor picked out, fully dressing himself for the day. At the least, he had to keep up appearances for the troops, since it was clear since his return had made morale surge. Once fully equipped, he left his tent to begin strolling among the ranks of tents surrounding his own. It reminded him of the days when he was with Foltest on his campaign to fight the rebelling nobles, despite him having the more 'royal' accommodations being the commander of the Wolves.

"Morning Commander Geralt!" One of the men greeted, leading to others nearby doing so as well, even giving a salute back. It took a moment for him to give a respectful nod back as he continued along, weaving his way through the company's camp and towards Fairmarket. The defenses from before were completely finished thanks to their combined efforts. The biggest improvement being the expanded trenches along the whole northern side, with the western area being worked on currently. The walls were also reinforced with scrap metal, along with adding roofed sections to protect against ranged barrages.

With the gates open, he walked right into town as the townsfolk were busy going about their morning tasks. Near one of the storehouses, he recognized Ogatto helping out the villagers off loading whole crates and barrels that take two men to haul around. The copper skinned warrior had no trouble with such labor, almost showing off considering a couple of the village girls giggling and muttering about him. With the last of the supplies stored, he leaned back against the cart to relax, gulping from a waterskin before seeing the Witcher.

"Ah! Morning to you Geralt." The Dothraki greeted. "Thought you were resting more after the long week we endured."

"Same could be said for you." Geralt countered. "Just restless after what happened in Riverrun."

"Who wouldn't be my friend." Ogatto said seriously. "I've seen and heard of many strange things in my travels but what we found…well…better not to speak openly of."

The Witcher nodded in agreement. "I have to thank you for being open about the truth when I questioned you."

"There was no reason to hide it any further. Denial would just strain our alliance further. I am glad Marcus understood that when you confronted him on the matter."

"Wasn't exactly pleased with his reasoning, though I forget how such…threats aren't exactly normal here."

Ogatto nodded as he finished his break, now walking with the Witcher towards the palisade wall to stroll along it. "His approach was as if you were a lord. Do you think any nobleborn would believe the outlandish claims of monsters made out of the fused flesh of slain men? No, they would think him delusional and throw him in chains."

"Don't think even the likes of Robb or Stannis would believe him without physical proof." Geralt muttered in agreement as they paused on the wall, staring out towards the south where the nearby river weaved. "Hell, not even sure if physical proof will work. The lords of the North are a loyal but stubborn bunch. Even if we can make them believe this threat, they may not take it seriously enough."

"Ignorance is death." Ogatto stated, drawing a curious look from Geralt. "A saying a wise friend shared. It echoes well for me since my people's unwillingness to change is bringing about a slow end." Leaning forward against the wooden cover of the wall, he had a sharp gleam in his eyes. "When the Riverlands are freed of this terror, I plan to return home. There is only so much I can do in the coming conflicts as just a warrior."

"Heh, I can relate. Never thought I'd be the leader of a small army." Geralt chuckled, drawing a small laugh from the Dothraki.

"If you survive and continue on this path, you'll be more than just a war hero. I can see a legend that will be spoken in every corner of the Kingdoms and even the exotic lands of the Far East!"

However, Geralt wasn't listening to the Dothraki as his sharp gaze was set on the forest on the southern edge. He could see movement among the treeline, horses and carts from what he could make out. With Ogatto squinting, he too would see it as well. Grabbing a nearby signal horn tied to the post, he took a deep breath before blowing it, sending out an alert. More followed along with the bells in the town ringing. Despite the surprise, everyone was reacting in an orderly manner as the militia formed up along the walls while the villagers retreated into their homes. Out in the camp the Winter Wolves quickly armed themselves, taking up formations on the southern end of the camp. Considering the nearby crossing along the nearby Fork was a good choke point, the approaching group would have to bypass the Wolves to get onto any favorable ground.

"Can't be Lannisters…maybe some traitor Houses?" Ogatto questioned as gradually this unknown group began to stray out of the cover of the forest.

Geralt didn't reply just yet, not quick to jump to conclusions as he noted the arriving group seemed more like a ragtag caravan then an invading army. He could make out soldiers, though not what House they served from this distance. However, that answer was soon given as one of the leading riders raised up a banner that showed a black shield with a weirwood tree surrounded by a red background filled with flying ravens. The banner bearer stopped before the crossing at the river, with the caravan stalling as well.

"Gods, that's the Blackwoods." One of the militia members remarked.

It was clear this was a major turning point, Geralt turning around to address the militia. "Prepare horses from Marcus and get him to the camp! We're going to ride out and see just what is going on. Get horses ready to ride out to meet this group!" He ordered, everyone swift to obey his command. Moving down from the wall, he was already heading out to get Roach ready, leaving Ogatto to man the town defenses.

Returning to camp, the leading members of his company were there waiting for him, mounted and ready to lead their troops. "The Hells is going on Geralt?" Theon questioned, clearly confused about the situation.

"What else does it look like?" Dacey countered. "Doesn't look like an army, but refugees, obviously from Raventree Hall. Question is if this isn't some kind of trick."

"Which I plan to find out." Geralt assured the group. "So far they're keeping their distance and want to parlay. Right now, I need some armored riders to back us up just in case."

Dacey nodded. "I'll get the Umber troops rallied up then. They'll be ready to follow you when you head out." With that, the shieldmaiden rode off to do so.

"Theon, I'm going to need you to keep charge of the troops alongside Dacey. Unless I give a signal or you see clear fighting, you don't attack. Understood?"

"Very clear." Theon answered confidently before they both began to ride out towards their rallied forces. It didn't take long for Marcus to approach on his own horse, followed by a few militia members mounted up.

"Didn't expect this to happen." Marcus stated. "News of Raventree had been scarce, and this doesn't look anything like an army."

"Which could mean bad news for that holding." Geralt added. "Still, we have to handle this carefully."

"Not disagreeing on that." Glancing over their gathered escort. "Ready to head out then?"

"Yes." With a gesture, the Umber riders gathered up in a protective formation while the militia riders covered the flank. The banners of the Winter Wolves and House Stark were bared, which when revealed brought out clear cheers from the gathered caravan. "Well, that is a good sign." He muttered to Marcus, who chuckled a bit. The group came to a stop at their side of the crossing, looking towards the banner bearer. "I am Commander Geralt of the Winter Wolves, forward company for Lord Robb Stark!" He then gestures to Marcus.

"And I am Marcus, leader of the Fairmarket Militia. To whoever is leading this caravan, step forward so we may properly speak!"

The banner bearer shuffled in his saddle, seeming to react to Marcus' introduction and moved forward. Getting closer, Geralt could make out the rider being a young man, perhaps nearing his twenties from what he could guess. His clothes, while worn out and styled for travel, were fitting for someone of noble status. His features spoke of a groomed lifestyle, having such a boyish face, if slightly dirted from travel. Marcus shifted on his mount staring at the young man, almost in a hint of recognition.

"Thank you…especially to you Marcus for hearing me out. I apologize for this sudden arrival, but we had no choice!" The young man spoke out. "I am Hadrian Rivers, bastard…and last son of Lord Tytos Blackwood." The introduction made Marcus give a surprised look, for a moment wanting to speak up only for Hadrian to keep speaking. "Raventree Hall has fallen through betrayal of House Bracken and…what I can only describe as a horde of monsters. We beg for shelter here and offer what little we…"

"Boy, you can cut it with the damn formalities!" Moving forward, he approached the young man. Geralt followed along, understanding there was no threat to see the gruff man leaning in to firmly shake hands. "Glad to know you are alive lad. Can't imagine what you've been through."

Hadrian did his best to keep back tears, squeezing the Northener's hand tightly. "It's…we lost so much. So many good people…my father…"

"Calm down." Geralt bluntly stated as he could tell Hadrian was emotionally stressed. "We can talk about what happened privately. Right now we need to get these people settled in."

"Indeed. These people have suffered much." A woman spoke up, drawing all three attention back to the caravan. Riding on a horse was Catelyn Stark, the weary noblewoman gave a warm smile towards Geralt. "Sorry we have to meet again under such dire circumstances Ser Geralt."

"Lady Catelyn!" Geralt rode closer to her, amazed that she was alright. "I…we thought the worst after what we found at Riverrun."

"I can imagine." She sighed, clearly wary with exhaustion. " We can speak of such things later. Right now these people need aid first."

"Of course, Lady Catelyn." Marcus quickly replied, muttering to his militia riders to spread out and spread the word of the Raventree refugees. Looking at Hadrian, he gave a warm smile. "You should get some rest lad. We can manage things from here."

The young man shook his head. "No…We have to talk about what happened. I can endure a bit longer."

"If he is willing, then we shouldn't delay a meeting." Geralt urged. "Right now we need to compare what we know…considering the threat we face."

Marcus nodded in agreement, just that stern gaze to show there was no more reason to delay here.

There were no disagreements among the group as Hadrian along with Marcus rode back to the caravan, urging them forward while Dacey and Theon led their troops back to give new orders to the rest of the Winter Wolves. Geralt meanwhile escorted Catelyn back with some of the Umber troops to the Three Kegs. Right now the people needed to know House Tully remained and would struggle alongside them in these trying times.

An Hour Later

Preparations were in order for the Raventree refugees to settle on the northern outskirts of Fairmarket. While it was further from the river, it offered the most space and farthest from possible battlelines if the town was attacked again. At least the refugees had enough supplies to support themselves, though the people of Fairmarket were willing to give whatever was needed. Such unity eased worries of inner conflict for now.

In the backroom of the Three Kegs quite the dense gathering. Marcus with his companions, Geralt with his Winter Wolves commanders and lastly Hadrian and Catelyn. The first questions on everyone's mind was how it all began, a story that Catelyn shared in grim detail.

"It was about a week after I left King's Landing after my…rash actions seeking the truths about what happened to Brann. News of my husband's arrest had me go to Riverrun in hopes of settling matters peacefully." Cateyln explained. "Then they appeared, the 'seers' who shared knowledge of what was happening, such as my husband's death and the fate of my daughters. We were desperate for news and in the end their visions were true…yet it was all a ploy to gain our trust."

"That is how the Crones work. They mix in truths and goodwill before digging into their darker intentions." Geralt remarked.

"Yes. I wish I hadn't been so blind to it all." Catelyn went on to explain the horrors that followed to Riverrun. How her father recovered from his aged woes only to turn up dead, the strangeness across the castle and the growing madness of her brother. Her uncle had been wise enough to ready his forces to face the Lannisters intruding into the lands, a threat Edmure had been overlooking because of the 'advice' of the Crones. "I should have left then, but I had to try to get my brother to see reason. Beyond that point I was little more than a captive, someone for them to torment."

"If anything, you're lucky to have been spared, Lady Catelyn." Dacey remarked.

"I can only thank the heroics of Sir Rodrik and his men." Mentioning the master-of-arms made her bite back tears. "They and everyone who suffered from these monsters deserved better."

"I agree, but it's not going to be simple Lady Catelyn. We went to Riverrun recently in search of answers…and from what we found there…I can't imagine what it's like in the heart of their territory." Geralt calmly stated. He continued on about what they found at Riverrun, trying his best to be detailed yet formal to Catelyn. Yet hearing the fate of her brother and her ancestral home was too much for her to handle as she cried. "I'm sorry Catelyn…"

"No I…you had to do it." She stammered. "I…I think I need to rest…just-"

"Say no more." Marcus spoke up, moving beside her. "You've been through so much and need rest my Lady, for you and the Smallfolks' sake." All she could do was nod as the Northerner escorted her out of the room, returning after a short while. "Sandra will take care of her. For now though…" He looked at Hadrian. " we learn what happened to Raventree Hall."

"Monsters and betrayal are what happened." The young man muttered. He retold the horrors of the attack, the strange fog and monsters sweeping into the vale to force everyone into the castle. "Then the Brackens showed up. At first we thought they were there to aid us only to bear another banner alongside theirs, that of the Crones."

"The Brackens?" Marcus questioned. "I know they've been rivals with your family for ages, but your father strived hard to build good ties with Lord Janos."

"From my experience, no one is incorruptible to the Crones." Geralt bluntly stated. "They learn what you desire, give you a piece of what you crave and then bind you to them."

"That explains what happened to Edmure and the Tully soldiers who remained with him. If there is some…enchantment going on, they must barely have any will left." Theon suggested.

"Not always." Geralt said. "The Crones can keep you under a form of enthrallment but they've never had to rely on it so heavily before. More often than not the men and women under their sway obeyed them out of fear or loyalty. Not because they lost their will."

Dacey looked disgusted. "Loyalty? To them? Surely they knew what these Crones did to people."

"Some did but that brings me back to what I said earlier: They learn your desire, give you a piece of it and then next thing you know, you're in the palm of their hand and there's no escaping them." Geralt paused for a moment, letting his words sink in for everyone present. "Either you obey obediently or out of fear or despair after they break your will, it makes no difference to them. You will obey or you'll be punished."

"Monsters through and through." Hadrian muttered, a bit of a shiver going through him. "I can't believe I've survived this long. My first time…running into the Crones themselves and then the ghoul with Marcus…well…guess I've been lucky."

"Hm, wouldn't chalk it all up to that." Geralt pondered, his hand slightly tracing along his wolf medallion thoughtful. "From what you shared, taking on a Chort isn't a small feat, even for me."

The praise did make Hadrian blink in surprise, chuckling a bit shyly on it. "Just…did what I had to do, that is all." He replied, trying to brush it off.

"Come on, no need to be humble." Ogatto laughed. "You may not be a warrior, but a keen mind can be greater than a strong sword arm."

William scoffed at the Dothraki's saying. "Best not say such things around your kinsmen. They'll call you soft for such talk."

Everyone yammered a bit on the subject, with Dacey prying more about the encounters with the Chort. Geralt meanwhile pondered on a mix of thoughts though, ranging to the vague details on Hadrian''s escape from Raventree. Claims of an 'escape tunnel' ferrying a caravan of such size seemed questionable. Plus, ever since meeting the young noble, his medallion had been shaking and at times his keen senses picked…something shadowing them all. Slightly his gaze drifted along to a nearby cabinet, looking to the top of it knowingly before Marcus spoke up.

"So, if the Brackens have turned traitor there is no telling who else may be on the Crones' side. They have one of the bigger armies around, though not enough to outmatch what the North is bringing in."

Willain grunted. "More concerned with our current numbers and the Lannisters. Even if the other Winter Wolves find the Blackfish and his forces…what does that give us? Hopefully a few thousand…at best above over a thousand."

Theon chuckled a bit nervously. "Heh, I'd rather we focus on the best case scenario, not the worst." Though his optimistic reply just earned a glare from the archer. "Whatever the case, what do we do? Sit here and hope the freaks don't come eat us or until the Lannisters sneak up from the east and rout us?"

"Look Greyjoy. I don't disagree, but with our numbers we're one bad battle short of falling apart." Marcus countered. "If the Blackfish joins us, maybe we could take Harrenhal. We'll need stronger fortifications than the ones we currently have if we have any chance of surviving against our enemies."

"I have to agree." Hadrian muttered. "But, even with the Blackfish we can't just go and take Harrenhal. We don't have the men and we'll likely be harassed on our way there once we cross the Fork by the Crones. We need more men."

"Hadrian's right." Geralt sighed. "Right now we can't risk going south with the number of men we have. So for now we double up our defenses and report anything strange until Lord Robb arrives. Don't care how minor it is. If there is something odd going on at night or people acting strange, report it and I'll look into it personally."

Marcus spoke up on this point. "Also about the items you requested, the herbs and silver. Plants we got plenty of though silver not as much. Not a lot of raw ore on hand and most aren't willing to smelt what they have."

"Bet they'll regret that when the freaks come to eat their guts out." William cursed under breath.

"Then offer compensation if needed. Supplies, coin or whatever they need." Geralt urged. "Right now every silver tipped weapon we can make might make the difference." The seriousness in the Witcher's tone showed how dire the matter was, taking a moment for Marcus to nod in understanding.

"Very well. I'll press the matter with those holding out." There was a long moment of silence as no one else had anything else to suggest. Just the uncertainty had everyone tense, though no one was willing to admit this fear. "It would be best that we get back to our usual tasks. After the false alarm and having to help with the newcomers from Raventree, we got a lot to do. Agreed?"

Mutters of agreement followed as everyone began to leave, though Geralt stayed where he was. His cat-like gaze was set on Hadrian, the young man hesitating to leave which caught Marcus' attention. "Umm…just have a private matter to ask Geralt about." Hadrian remarked, making the Northerner nod in understanding before leaving the room.

Now alone, Geralt gestured to the door. "Make sure it's locked. I don't want anyone coming in unexpectedly." Hadrian hurried to do so, nervous with the Witcher's gaze at his back. "I think we best get to the truth on how you've gotten this far. Not doubting your skills or leadership…but you overcame what some would call insurmountable odds."

"I…guess that would be hard for you to overlook." Hadrian muttered. "So just…how much do you believe about magic and possibly…Old Gods being real?" Though considering Geralt's unnatural looks, he realized how silly his question was directed.

Geralt gave an amused scoff at the question. "Look at me Hadrian, do I look like someone who doubts such things?" Tapping his hand on the table, he spoke up once more. "So how about everyone here show themselves. We're safe, no one is listening at the door, else I'd have heard them by now." When he glanced back to the top of that cabinet, where perched on top of it was what could be mistaken as a child crouched up there. However the beastial eyes, claw-like nailed hands and sharp angular facial features betrayed the more supernatural aspects of the humanoid. It did very much remind him of a Godling, though the face and sharp gaze lacked the childlike innocence they often showed.

"Urr…impressive." Root muttered, shifting to lean out from her hiding spot. "The shroud of Nokk keeps me invisible unless I affect my surroundings. How did you notice me?"

"My medallion for one." He tapped the silver wolf charm around his neck. "It reacts to magic, especially proactive uses of it. Second is that while I couldn't see you but I could hear you with how rapidly your heart raced. Could hear it clearly whenever I glanced at where you were hiding."

Hadrian stood there, awe on his face with how this reveal was playing out. Geralt's calmness and Root's clear respect towards the Witcher seemed shocking to him. "Umm…anyway here's my secret ally." He replied. "Geralt…this is Root, mystic and envoy of the Children of the Isle of Faces. I'm considered to be an Inheritor, sort of a mediator between humans and her kind."

"Huh…interesting." Again, Geralt handled the news quite calmly as he glanced between the two before lingering on Root. "So do you plan to talk up there?"

The Child gave an amused growling chuckle before she leaped from her perch with catlike grace, landing on the table without so much as rattling it. "I was expecting a lot more shock and surprise from you. It seems the Old Gods weren't exaggerating your capabilities."

A true hint of surprise and questioning showed on Geralt's face, though Hadrian was quick to speak up. "Uhh, it is a bit complicated." The young man went on to explain how there was a pact made between the Houses of the Riverlands to help safeguard nature and in turn the sleeping Old Gods who had become part of their aspects. He shared about the earthen tunnels that linked between the weirwood and the miracle at the Red Fork through the power of Ruvia. Root confirmed it all on how the powers of the Gods could be tapped into, though were difficult and at times fickle.

"Yet the actions of the Crones and other threats have stirred them." Root hissed. "The abominations had claimed a site of great power, a hill called High Heart which bore many weirwood trees until the Andal savages cut them down." A growl of anger showed at the mention of the historic invaders.

"Though even barren, such a place would be a great Source of Power." The odd look by the two made Geralt sigh. "It's a term we use for sites of magic. Ritual stones, temples and the like. If this place was truly a font for the Children, then that would explain why the Crones are capable of all of this."

"It would explain the monsters for sure." Root muttered. "Such creatures have never existed, so they are no doubt copies of the creatures from…your world." She smirks at that reveal, with Geralt remaining calm despite it. "What is certain is the Crones must all die and their profane font destroyed on that hill. If they continue, they could very well taint the slumbering Old Gods…or even awaken them."

"What happens if they are awakened?" Hadrian questioned.

Root gave what could be only described as a fearful grin. "Then we'll all see just how terrible the legends of old were. I doubt the Crones could survive their wrath yet the humans would no doubt be victims as well."

"And I can't imagine how much stronger the Crones could become if they can tap directly to the Old Gods." The thought of such primordial power for them to control would truly make this continent a living Hell. "So if it's the Children's duty to safeguard the Gods, why are you the only one here?"

Root gave a low growl at the question, though not in frustration towards the Witcher. "Fear. Some within the tribe worry the Crones or the humans will end us. Yet after all I've seen…to hide away will mean our doom anyway." She then glanced at Hadrian. "Though with the leadership the new Inheritor shows, I believe such a shared threat can at last unify our kind."

Her unblinking stare and hopeful words did make Hadrian give a small grin back in appreciation for her words.

"Not wanting to sound demanding, but I don't think we can wait too long for your tribe to agree on anything. Right now a little magic, no matter how finicky, can make a difference for us."

Root gave a sigh, understanding the Witcher's demands. "Well I offer what talent I have to the cause. Perhaps you have something in mind to test me."

For a moment Geralt thought before a good request came to mind. "You don't happen to have a means to scry or sense others from long distances?"

"Hah! Considering I have been able to track you, it shouldn't be too hard." Root's tone almost seemed boastful. "Who should I seek?"

"Lord Robb Stark, Warden of the North. I wish to know just how far he is from here, being somewhere in the Neck. Another would be Ser Brynden Tully, better known as the Blackfish, Lady Catelyn's uncle. He should be in the eastern fringes of the Riverlands."

"Knowing the general location does help the process. Ruva's essence may be thin in the Neck, yet it should be enough to peer into it." Root then sat cross legged on the table, arching her head back and closing her eyes to enter a meditative state. Geralt studied her closely, medallion humming more intensely as magical power, though unseen, was becoming active. The passive look of the Child became more tense. "I see a young man, proud…noble…determined. The blood of the skinchangers is…strong in him." The mention of what Geralt assumed was about the Wargs was curious. The Stark siblings did have some notable affinity to their direwolves, a hint on some bloodline gift. His musings aside, he continued to listen to Root. "On barges of the marshmen…many hardened warriors loyally at his back." Yet she paused, a low snarl. "Yet a shadow looms behind him. A black aura…foul." Suddenly she snapped her eyes open before taking a deep breath. "Sorry. Scrying this way is difficult to maintain."

"It's fine. If you need to stop, you can."

Root shook her head before taking a deep breath. "Now, for the other one." Once more she closed her eyes and relaxed, a low hum soon coming from here. "I see a knight…weathered yet unyielding even in these horrid times. I see scarred men, a battered army who'd follow him to the ends of the earth. Strong warriors baring the white wolf and…" Suddenly Root stopped, a look of confusion showing on her face. "Fire…why is this power there? It's not possible, Rlo is…" Suddenly Root's eyes snapped open and without warning sprung into a leap. Even for Geralt, she was too fast to react as she opened the door and rushed out of the backroom.

Geralt and Hadrian rushed after her, though looking down the hallway, she was gone. Considering there was no panic in the pub proper, she had used her magic to become unseen. "What got into her all of a sudden?" Geralt questioned.

Sighing, Hadrian shrugged. "My guess is Rlo is another Old God, though not sure why she acted that way."

Already Geralt had one theory since there was only one person in his company that believed in a god of fire and he was likely with Ser Brynden right now. He'd have to have a talk with Thoros before Root did something rash. "Hopefully she'll stay out of trouble."

"She'll be careful not being noticed." Hadrian tried to assure, the weariness showing on his face.

"You best go rest up. After the journey here, you deserve some proper sleep."

The young man nodded, too tired to speak further. Stepping aside, he headed for the private bedrooms where Marcus had one reserved for him. Now alone, Geralt decided to head back to his camp and see what could be done for the new refugees. Fairmarket had to be kept orderly if the Blackfish and Robb were going to arrive any day by now.

The Next Day - Mid-Day

It had been a calm day so far despite the new arrivals from yesterday, a good show of cooperation between the three groups. The mutual threat of the Crones had everyone united, though Geralt wondered how long it could last. At the moment he was busy ensuring the production of oils and other alchemical tools against the monster threat. While many didn't understand the use for such strange things, no one doubted the Witcher, especially after the horrid tales from Raventree spread about.

The herbalist's workshop was full of brewing caldrons, the fumes quite intense which made even Geralt have to wear a face mask to bear the stench. "Remember, you have to keep the fires going at the right temperature. Overdo it and you'll turn it into paste. Too little heat and it will be watered down." The herbalists nodded in understanding as they continued their work while Geralt left the shop, taking a deep breath once outside.

"Ser Geralt." Catelyn's soft voice spoke up, drawing his attention to the noblewoman with Dacey escorting her. She looked far better after a long bath and day of rest, though her eyes still had a distant hint to them. As she approached, villagers did bow or formally greet her, with her returning with a reply back.

"Lady Catelyn. You seem in better spirits today."

"I can't let my sorrows get the better of me." She glanced around the village, sighing. "I don't feel I deserve the affection of the Small Folk. As a Tully, I failed in protecting them by inviting those…things into the fold."

The three began to walk through the town, Geralt standing close beside her to speak more privately. "Blaming yourself isn't going to change anything, Catelyn. If anything you being here will be critical for when Robb and the other Lords of the North arrive. I may have a lot of favor with them, but you know how fickle politics can be even with war."

"Oh I can understand. I know many will not be pleased knowing what you did to Riverrun." Geralt glanced at Dacey, the young warrior shrugging slightly.

"Felt she should know the full story, Geralt. It was her home after all."

"I don't blame you for keeping that from me yesterday. After knowing what happened to my brother…I'd have fainted for sure." Catelyn muttered. "Yet if Edmure in his last moments of sanity knew our home was lost, then I trust him and your own judgment. I'll not let such sacrifices be ignored, no matter what stubbornness we face."

The calm yet fierce tone was all the reassurance Geralt needed. "Convincing Robb of this threat needs to come first. Lannisters should be a second thought at this rate."

"Who knows what their side is doing out there. While they may have started this, no soldier of any House should suffer at the hands of these abominations." However, there was a sudden bellow of a horn, though coming from the east instead of within the walls of the town. Catelyn's eyes lit up as she suddenly hurried for the eastern wall, Dacey and Geralt following along. "Gods it is him…" On the eastern hillside was the banner of House Tully, the Blackfish's personal banner and of the Winter Wolves.

"They found the Blackfish. Now that is amazing news." Dacey remarked.

Though as the nearing army came more into view, Geralt had a feeling this positive turn of events wasn't going to be as good as she hoped. "We'll see. Let's get to the main tent, I have a feeling Ser Brynden has a lot to share with us."

As expected, Brynden and his company leaders had been swift in arriving at the Winter Wolves camp with Smalljon, Doric, Beric and Thoros with them. Despite the hurried journey here, the Blackfish wasn't going to let a few tireless nights get in the way of things. The other leading members of the Winter Wolves, Fairmarket Militia and the Raventree survivors. Brynden did truly match up to his reputation. An aged yet no-nonsense man, a leader who leads beside his men instead of in the backlines. However, seeing Catelyn did make that imposing demeanor falter, embracing the last member of his family. He almost seemed to shed some tears, only kept back to not seem soft among the gathered. "Thank the Gods you're alright Catelyn. I should have dragged you out of there when I had a chance." She muttered quietly to him, making him glance between Hadrian and Geralt, nodding in understanding as he whispered something back to her before letting go of her. "Now then…I'd prefer we skip introductions. Beric has seen to that during our trip here, so I'd discuss our dire situation first."

He got right to the point on the harsh losses his forces suffered until realizing the supernatural threat they faced, changing tactics to survive and plan. What was certain was most of the Riverlands had fallen, be it under the predation of the Crones or lords allying with them. Hadrian also retold the events at Raventree Hall, going into the finer details on the tactics involved in the castle's downfall. The news of the famous castle's defeat and likely death of Lord Tytos brought an angry glare in Brynden's eyes.

"Lord Blackwood was one of the most reliable lords and an even finer friend. Those damned Crones will pay for this." He muttered. "At the least, his sacrifice spared many and you did well getting by despite the odds." The praise by the renowned knight did have Hadrian glance aside shyly, much like yesterday.

Beric soon spoke up. "Perhaps we should also learn of what happened at Riverrun as well." He glanced at Brynden who's expression had returned to grim seriousness.

Geralt along with his companions during that mission would retell what happened at the ancestral keep of the Tullys, of how it had become infested by a monster nest and of Edmure's fate. Brynden scowled at learning of the loss of his nephew and home, though the anger wasn't towards the group. "You did the right thing. If anything I should have done more for Edmure, try to force some sense into him when I had the chance." The set gazes in the tent made him grumble slightly, as he knew what was on everyone's minds. "With my nephew's passing…the right of succession does fall onto me. Lord Paramount, I've never cared for the title no matter how many believed me suited for it."

"I can understand that, Ser. When I started the militia for Fairmarket, it was to protect us from pillaging armies, not monsters." Marcus remarked. "This isn't about politics and power, but survival. If anything, we need people dedicated to the wellbeing of others, honest and forward leaders like you." There were mutterings of agreement, especially among fellow riverlanders.

"Bah, enough!" The Blackfish grumbled. His gaze glanced at Catelyn, her kindly gaze making him calm down. "I'll take up the title, but only until this war is over. The Riverlands needs a younger leader to rebuild, not an old stubborn knight like me."

"I'm sure Lord Robb and King Stannis will see to that once peace returns." Geralt tried to assure.

"If it does." Thoros muttered, the Red Priest having seemed to be in a dark mood ever since returning. There was a clear tension with the normally jovial man, a clear sign he had been dipping into his usual drink and there was something troubling him.

Brynden "Not sure what is worse, that men would lower themselves to be traitors to such filth or just how many have been slaughtered in just a few short months." He growled, gesturing over the map he had which detailed territory that was wiped out or supposedly under the control of the Crones. "With House Bracken joining them, they now have a force that can navigate the Riverlands properly as opposed to just running through it."

Hadrian grimly nodded in agreement. "The Brackens invaded in full force after the monsters forced us into the keep. Also considering what we can suspect that the dead are used to create these creatures…the Crones won't truly suffer any real losses."

"Then the path forward is simple." Smalljon grunted, slamming one large fist to the table. "We take out the source. We know they're at High Heart. I say once Lord Robb and the others arrive, we crush them! Between our experienced troops and the rest of the North at our back surely we can beat them!"

Thoros shook his head. "Days earlier I would have agreed, yet as I ponder this blight we face, rushing into battle seems wrong. We'd be fighting them on their home ground, which could no doubt hold all sorts of nasty surprises for us." The Red Priest sighed. "We need to be tactful. As all the other battles have shown, a loss will be impossible to recover from."

"Which I agree." Brynden stated as he glanced at Marcus. "What we need is a stronger point of defense, with the Brackens now against us, Fairmarket just isn't defensible against such a large army. We need a better place to fight on our own terms." He then pointed to the spot on the map where Harrenhal was. "You all no doubt know about Harrenhal. The Lannister forces and mercenaries had been fortifying the place for months. Ruined as it may be, it's the most defensible place in all the Riverlands right now and provides a lot more space for an army to shelter in."

Marcus nodded in agreement. "Place may have melted to dragonfire, yet has stayed together in the centuries since. A few thousand or hundred could hold back a force many times their size if properly supplied."

William hummed at that detail before looking between the renowned knight and his resourceful friend. "Hey, not wanting to seem rude, but if you two have a scheme on capturing this place, best tell us. Doubt we have the time for the North's armies to siege this place." A few others were just as curious, muttering agreement with the archer.

"Like we said, Harrenhal is a tough place to get into, yet it has its cracks." The Blackfish explained before looking at Geralt. "With your Winter Wolves breaking into Riverrun, I think you could pull off a similar infiltration. If the battlements' weapons are sabotaged, the main drawbridge dropped and the gate opened…Robb's forces could capture the place with minimal losses."

Geralt thought over this place. If anything it was reminding him of the time Foltest had him breaking through the layers of defenses at Lavalette Castle. "We don't have much choice. As William said we can't waste time with a siege. When we march south with Robb's army we'll have to take the castle as fast as possible so I take it you know a way or two in?"

"Heh trust me. Been keeping tabs on that old ruin for years, along with scouts keeping track of what the occupiers are doing." Bryden explained before glancing at Marcus. "So Marcus, I heard of your raids eastward against the Bloody Mummers. Perhaps we can use those backtrails to avoid prying eyes, be it men or monsters."

"I do have a few routes in mind. I'm sure one or two of them will be suitable for an army to march along."

Already the whole gathering was focused on forming a plan, everyone having some role to play be it sharing advice or an opinion. However for Thoros, the Red Priest continued to seem distracted from the way he glanced aside and didn't join the growing conversation. Such behavior seemed odd to Geralt, he stepped over to quietly speak with his friend. "You've been acting odd since you arrived. Something on your mind?"

The Witcher's presence did snap the dour mood from the priest who gave a faint smile back. "Just my visions or more of the uncertainty of them. They've been unclear…constantly shifting one night or the next." He sighed. "I'm not sure if it is a matter of my faith or the madness our world faces."

"Will you be alright for the attack on Harrenhal? I'd prefer for you to be alongside me on this mission."

Thoros gave his classic grin, seeming thankful at the invitation. "Considering what I missed out on at Riverrun, I have no plans sitting out on that!" Laughing, he patted the Witcher firmly on the shoulder. "Right now I need some time alone. A little stroll will do me some good." He stepped away from Geralt, walking away as he disappeared into the maze of tents.

For a moment Geralt hesitated in returning to the meeting, hand fiddling his medallion which had been trembling strongly near the priest. It was clear that whatever powers his friend had were getting stronger. Whatever the source, be it truly divine from the Lord of Light or something more innate, he couldn't imagine how difficult it was to adapt. Yet he trusted his companion to handle such struggles, putting those worries aside as he reentered the tent to rejoin the meeting.

Thoros - Forest Nearby Fairmarket

"Right…where are you, you little imp." Thoros muttered as he strolled down the woodland trail, one hand gripping the hilt of his sword on his belt. Ever since they had returned to Fairmarket, he had been seeing…something spying on him. Always from a distance or at the corner of his gaze, large primal eyes that disappeared when he glanced at them. Even during the meeting, he could see a small figure outside the tent that seemingly no one noticed. "Must be some critter of the Crones…a spy." It was risky to do this alone, yet Thoros felt he had to test himself for his own sake in his faith.

"I'd rather die than serve such filth!" A raspy female voice growled, seemingly drifting with the wind.

At that point Thoros drew his sword, the blade swiftly becoming set on fire. "Then why do you hide?" He growled back as he glanced about. "Or do you fear the light of R'hllor?"

There was silence for a moment before there was a thump on a tree branch behind him, making the priest turn around with his sword up. He saw the child-like figure, a creature he had only seen described in books relating to the Old Gods out of curiosity. The creature was female from what he could tell, although his attention was more focused on the strong slingshot she had, a large black nut aimed right at him.

"That power is of Rlo!" She hissed back, keeping the band of her sling back. "Such magic has long faded in these lands. How does a human have the blessings of the greatest Old Gods?"

A rush of emotions filled Thoros' head. Confusion, anger and fascination of what this creature was saying. If it wasn't for his experiences with Geralt, he likely would have battled this creature, calling her a heretic for spreading such a 'lie'. He quelled his zealous fury as he took a deep sigh, the flames on his sword extinguishing. "May the Lord of Light forgive me." He muttered in prayer to himself before lowering his sword. "R'hllor is the Lord of Light. God of Flame and Shadow. His existence is older than the great cities of Essos and even the Asshai who wrote the prophecies that his faith would bring."

Root tilted her head hearing all of this, lowering her slingshot. "The titles you speak of are what Rho was. Flame, light and shadow. He was one of the first of the Old Gods, one of the shapers of this world." Giving a sigh, the Child sat down on the branch lodging back slightly. "Yet like many he faded from these lands. The elders assumed he had become one with his aspect or killed by the Enemy of Life. Perhaps…we didn't assume he would depart and change. Such things are not in the nature of the Old Gods."

The more he heard, the greater Thoros' fascination grew. If what the creature spoke was true, R'hllor was possibly even greater than what even the oldest texts spoke of. "Uh…it seems we have a lot to discuss…imp of the Old Gods."

"Ugh, don't call me an imp, human!" She hissed back in annoyance. "Differences aside, you carry a great power…one that could easily tip the scales in this war…and the next to come." She paused for a moment, seeming torn on saying anything further before speaking again. "Tell me…are there any prophecies of Long Night?"

Notice: Phew…so I'll admit I made some big mistakes. The Syrio and Barristan side story just wasn't panning out however I wrote it. That sadly took a lot of time which then wasn't helped with a few different sicknesses hitting me and my busted toe causing a lot of trouble. For now that side story will be on hold until I can find the proper way of telling it.

Yet I'm back on track and determined as ever! This chapter was very conversation heavy yet lays out what is to come for our heroes in the Riverlands. The Crone War is going to be a bloody fight that is only going to be rivaled by the Long Night. Course, there is another battle to show as the next chapter will be the clash between Renly/Tyrells and the Lannisters. It may very well be a two parter full of the horrors of war and the might of the Mountain returning.

I do thank all of you for your patience for this delayed chapter. Please share your thoughts in a review or PM or even join our ever growing Discord channel.