The Winter Witch
Note: This chapter is the removed content from the previous, where I had my case of writer's block, plus some more. You can all thank artemisgirl for my return to this story. They gifted me with the most wonderful item ever – and not only did it remind me of everything I loved about this crossover, but it also made me feel great as an author to know that this work is so loved by people. So, thanks for the kick up my butt. This chapter's for you ❤️
Travelling to Skagos was difficult.
First, the waters around the large island were treacherous and full of wrecked galleys that were destroyed on sharp, slick rocks; no sailor was brave enough to dock on the island - presuming that there even was a trading port, to begin with.
Second, Hermione had never visited the island previously, so she had no visual component for her Portkeys or to Apparate to.
After consideration, Wyman Manderly offered them a ship from the White Harbour. Presently, several rather nervous sailors and a hardened captain, along with Hermione and those from Winterfell were on Mermaid's Kiss, their large ship bobbing and dipping in the choppy, grey waters off the Bay of Seals.
It had already been two weeks of unreliable, stormy winter weather, and the travel between the southern port of the White Harbour back north toward Karstark and Umber land was frustrating; when she returned to Winterfell, Hermione was going to strongly suggest Robb build a navy with ports further into Umber lands, as well as near the Mormonts to the west.
While they weren't pressed for time, exactly, the close quarters from being on a ship for weeks on end was beginning to show in the terse conversations and snappish retorts many were resorting to when speaking to one another. And with Captain Ronas refusing to bring the ship around the northern tip - something about being too far north, no thank you - or the southern tip - hedging into open waters and Ibbenese people or something similar - Hermione was left with a small patch of coastline to work with.
"Fine!" she shouted, throwing her hands down after another shouting match with the captain, hoping to find a better place to drop anchor than well away from the rocky outcrops of the island and the large, forbidding and slick, sheer cliffs from the crumbling and rocky tips that jutted from the coast. "I'll take this as it is and find a way onto land!"
Hermione stalked the deck of the ship as Captain Ronas brought it back and forth along a narrow stretch of coastline unhindered by sharp rocks or the remnants of wrecked vessels, her amber eyes focused singularly on the landscape and an opening for her to Apparate toward.
She finally found a spot that pleased her and disappeared with a sharp crack that was swallowed by the choppy slaps of the waves hitting the bow of the ship. She left Jaime Lannister leaning with his weight braced on his arms across the deck rail, while Sansa stood beside him, her red hair blowing in the icy cold winds coming from the north.
"Do you think we will succeed, Ser?" asked Sansa quietly, aware of Clegane at her back shifting his weight as the ship rocked.
Jaime snorted. "I doubt she'll give us much choice. The King in the North wants his family back and that witch would fight the gods themselves to make it happen."
They only had to wait a little longer in the bitterly cold wind, as something silver-streaked across the choppy waves, floating above them and completely untouched by the spray of the turbulent waters or the roiling foam.
Clegane swore loudly as the form of a large wolf came into being before them, reaching for his sword just as Jaime Lannister stumbled back unevenly on the deck. The wolf hovered in the air, despite standing on its four paws. It was vaguely see-through, glowing silver and pulsing the tiniest bit. Its eyes looked from Jaime to Clegane, to Sansa, and then opened its mouth.
"I've found somewhere you can Portkey to," spoke Hermione's voice, causing Sansa to blink at it in surprise. "It's relatively flat, but the area around it is rather rocky. So - prepare yourself when you arrive. Remember, your Portkeys are attuned to me, so you'll need to adjust your landing."
"Adjust our landing-?" muttered Jaime, but the wolf-with-Hermione's voice continued.
There was a gurgle of surprise behind them, and Jaime lost his breath as a hook near his navel seemed to yank him up and over the waters, above the ship. Despite tears in his eyes as the cold stung and bit at his bare cheeks, Jaime could see the others in their expedition alongside him, all looking rather uncomfortable except for Eddard Karstark, who was aiming his legs to land first instead of flailing like Clegane was.
What is he doing? was all Jaime could wonder, narrowing his eyes as the man began to lightly kick as they neared the island, and then he thought: Oh, that's why, as he slammed face-first into the hard, frozen earth.
He groaned against mulch.
Somewhere, Karstark was laughing.
Jaime was green in the face as he shakily stood, but Clegane had thrown up again and Sansa was trying to be prim as she dry heaved somewhere to their right. Karstark, however, was grinning like a madman. The other three Stark guards - introduced merely as Hollyn, Garrett, and Toran - were all groaning on the ground.
Hermione stood a few feet ahead of the group, an amused expression on her face. She raised her eyebrows as she caught Karstark's eyes. "Had a good trip?"
Karstark shrugged. "It was pretty good, actually. I've had worse."
"Worse?" groaned Jaime, narrowing his eyes on the Stark cousin. "How in the hells was that in any way good?" His stomach jolted and he lurched a bit on his feet. "Ugh - I think I'm going to be sick…"
Hermione waited patiently, even deigning to wave her wand and remove any sick that the group threw up - as well as removed the smell - but then her face turned down in a frown. "This isn't the best place to remain. We need to move."
Jaime took the time to survey the landscape and with a mental swear of agreement, unsheathing his sword. The relatively protected cove that Hermione had found was surrounded on three sides by towering sheets of cascading rocks that had tumbled down the sloped mountains around them - but the craggy features were also an excellent place for an ambush.
"How far is Rickon?" asked Sansa quietly as she hovered close at Clegane's elbow.
Hermione reached into her beaded bag and tossed a rolled-up scroll at Sansa. "You'd best be our map guide, Sansa."
Sansa frowned but unrolled the scroll. It was not the same map that Hermione had used earlier back in Riverrun; instead, this was a map of Skagos and the surrounding waters, with a single drop of Robb's blood resting to the east of them.
"It's not moving," announced Sansa, "But he's still some distance."
"Then let's get going," said Jaime, taking the lead. "I don't want to be here any longer than I need to be."
"Agreed," said Hermione with a decisive nod. She tilted her head back and let her curls whip around her face with a sharp wind that swirled through the cove. "There's a storm coming."
"Wonderful," muttered Jaime, taking a few steps forward with a downward turn to his mouth as it set into a scowl. "First, it's the Starks and 'Winter is Coming,' and now we have a witch that is just as ominous with 'a Storm is Coming'!"
Hermione fell into step behind the ex-Kingsguard, with Karstark at her side and Clegane and Sansa behind. The last of the guards joining took up the rear.
Skagos was mountainous and often their path, with Sansa calling directions every so often for the most direct route to Rickon, was slowed by what was in their way. Hermione exercised her magic when they came across large, immovable boulders, levitating them out of the way or crushing them into tiny pieces with blasting hexes. Other times, as they scaled down steep rocks, they slipped and cut their hands.
By the time they had made it down the mountain range Hermione had Portkeyed them to, they were all exhausted and sweat-drenched, despite the cold air. The sky had darkened to a near pitch-black and a steady snowfall had begun, with large goose feather-sized flakes quickly piling up around them.
"How much further?" shouted Karstark back at Sansa as the wind began to pick up.
"Not too far, I think," called back Sansa, her red hair a beacon in the growing snowstorm. She held up a hand to push it back and shivered.
"Huddle up, and I'll cast a warming charm on everyone," instructed Hermione. Despite their discomfort and awkwardness, everyone did so and sighed in relief when Hermione tapped them with her wand. Heat radiated down until each person was enveloped with what felt like a warm blanket wrapping around them.
"We can barely see a thing in this storm," said Karstark loudly, glancing around. "Should we press on or make camp for the night?"
"It's night?" asked Jaime sarcastically. "How could you tell?"
The group glared at the golden-haired knight.
"Let's pitch the tent and I'll set up the wards I used during the war," sighed Hermione, glancing up and around. "Then we can think of establishing a rotating watch."
"Wards during the war?" asked Jaime curiously. "I know you helped the Young Wolf, but-"
"Not that war," said Hermione shortly, her words and voice tight and clipped as she turned her back on him. "Don't you remember how we met?"
Jaime's brow furrowed even as Hermione dumped her beaded bag to the snow-covered ground. She knelt and rummaged through it, finding what she wanted quickly and then tossed out the tiny package.
Upon being released from a confined magical space, the square pack sprung up and unfolded upon itself time and time again until it was a large, flat square. Hermione stepped forward and tapped it once with her wand, and then the square grew upwards and out, lines shaking and unfurling as the spikes at the ends burrowed their way into the hard earth easily until the lines were taut and the tent was erected.
Clegane blinked, muttered something under his breath about a warm drink, and then strode forward and past the cloth barrier and into the tent. Sansa scurried after him, with Karstark and Hollyn on her heels, with Garrett, Toran, and Jaime standing outside, staring at the tent with ill-ease.
"It's perfectly safe, but if you prefer being outside during a blizzard, that's your choice," said Hermione smartly, and then she too disappeared into the tent.
After a long moment of uneasy looks shared between the men, and uneasy glances upward at the low-hanging grey clouds, the men scurried after her, eager for some peace and quiet in a warm, protected location.
It was not perfectly safe, as they discovered thirty minutes later when something large and heavy threw itself at the side of their tent before Hermione had the opportunity to go outside and set up any perimeter wards.
Although the tent was magically enhanced and withstood the attack, the side of the tent buckled inward, nearly into Karstark's side, brushing up against him where he sat in an armchair with a mug of hot chocolate.
"What the-!" he spewed the drink down his front.
Clegane, Lannister, and Hollyn all leaped to their feet, swords in their hands as they raced out of the front flap, just as Hermione absently waved her hand and the spilled hot chocolate vanished, leaving Karstark's tunic clean and fresh.
"Stay here!" instructed Hermione, racing after the other three with Eddard on her heels, while Garrett and Toran shuffled Sansa to a defendable spot in the middle of the tent.
"But-!" sputtered Sansa, looking around in bafflement. She turned to Garrett and Toran, and asked plainly, "Aren't I the one who is supposed to convince Rickon to join us?"
Outside the tent, Hermione ran into chaos. Between the thick, blowing snow, the bitter cold, the thick darkness of the night, and the oddly high-pitched shrieks that sounded like birds being murdered, it was hard to focus. A thundering crash of thunder reverberated across the sky, shaking Hermione deep in her bones as lightning lit up the far distant mountain range with a vivid blue. The warming charms she had cast earlier remained but despite them, the bite of the freezing weather caught at Hermione and stole her breath for a moment, leaving her hesitating and wondering where to go.
A flash of black darted past her in between the white and grey of the turned weather, as well as a glittering flash of a sword and a spurt of red as blood caught and flew. A low growl indicated that it was Clegane. Something fell into the snow, sending up white powder as it heavily landed, staining the area around it red.
Hermione ducked the sword's swing in time, crouching just as Clegane nearly over-balanced.
"Watch it!" she snapped, glaring up at him.
He grunted. "Can't see in this snow." He squinted down at her. "Can't you do something about it?"
Hermione blinked and then pressed her lips into a thin line. "I can. Watch my back?"
He nodded in reply as she stood. Hermione took stock of the surrounding area of the impossibility of sight, gently rolling her wand between her fingertips as she considered what to do. Then, she took a deep breath and held her wand up and aloft.
She began murmuring under her breath, the spells tumbling off her lips as her magic pushed against the elements around them – and, also, something else magical but old, and twisted, and worrisomely dark.
Sweat began to bead against Hermione's brow, and her breaths grew laboured as she felt that other presence push back the tiniest, in curiosity first, and then with more determination as her magic brushed up against it. She braced her feet physically and cut her wand down sharply across her body, her murmurs growing louder as she pushed back – the presence did the same – and then suddenly it was gone, like something else drew its gaze, letting her stumble forward into the snow.
Hermione's magic surged and burst out from around her in a golden circle, sparks bouncing off one another bright and sizzling against the snow. The wind disappeared first; the howling was suddenly muted and the snow stopped blowing, leaving the large flakes to gently float down. Then, the small crag of rocks behind the tent began to glow, illuminating the area and revealing the carnage that a few moments wrought: Hollyn was on the ground, the snow a bright red around his bisected middle and his eyes glassy, even as the falling snow began to slowly blanket him in a white shroud.
There were two bodies around Clegane, one near Hermione, and both were dead; the one closest to Hermione was the one she had seen die as she stepped out of the tent.
However, there were several others around them, coming from a gap between two now glowing rocks. The Skagosi men were tall and broad-shouldered, wearing shaggy fur and wool double-wrapped cloaks that covered the bottom of their faces like ponchos, and heavy stolen mail or leathers underneath. Some were smaller figures, wrapped in the same furs and leathers but were female or teenagers who joined the attack. The dark of their clothing blended into the darkness around the small lit space Hermione's magic created, and even without expanding the light, the witch knew there were others nearby.
Edd still had one of the Skagosi in his grip, having abandoned his sword and reducing the two to using their fists, teeth, and feet. The two were grappling with each other, their grunts some of the only noise in the illuminated circle of light.
Lannister, on the other hand, had his sword pointed unerringly from the neck of his quarry, the tip pressing against the soft, vulnerable flesh. The man at Lannister's mercy had both his arms extended to the side, empty-handed, but a thick scowl barely visible from beneath a bushy beard indicated his thoughts on the matter.
One of the Skagosi that emerged from the craggy rocks spat something at the group, while the two flanking him – a man and woman – drew back their bows and arrows, ready to release. One of those arrows was aimed at Edd, who grunted as his Skagosi shoved him far enough back that he managed to punch Karstark hard against his jaw. Edd stumbled, spitting blood from his mouth, and ready to swing around to continue the fight.
The woman with the bow released the arrow with a loud twang.
Hermione jerked her wand arm up, a "protego!" escaping her lips sharply as the invisible barrier slammed into place in front of Edd. The arrow bounced off, and he turned his head to glance at it, just as the Skagosi man's hand hit his square jaw, already turning dark with bruises, and sent him reeling back again.
Shouts of surprise at Hermione's save of Edd from the arrow caught her attention and she wrenched her eyes off Torrhen's older brother to see Clegane dart in front of her, sword swinging up and gleaming in the light of her glowing rocks as he blocked the downward swing of a Skagosi man in shaggy fur.
Clegane's sword bit into the fur and then further, a stream of hot blood catching on his sword tip and making the man hiss as he leapt back to avoid being bisected.
The large Skagosi man with the two archers on either side of him barked something in their guttural language. The man Clegane was fighting scowled and spat something at them, backing up with a hand pressed at his chest where Clegane's sword caught him.
A loud, wet smack made Hermione turn, seeing Edd had caught the man he was fighting around the middle, threw him back and down and was pummeling his face.
Hermione sharply cried, "Edd, stop!" and the Karstark froze.
"Fancy some translation, witch, or should we just kill them all?" asked Lannister, a sardonic tinge to his voice that barely restrained the eagerness he held in wanting to continue the fight. He was the only one who hadn't moved when the others fought, his eyes remaining on his enemy. His golden hand glinted off the light from her spell, and the man at his sword-point winced as it struck him in the eyes. The smirk on Jaime's face was clear that it had been a deliberate move.
Hermione swallowed, glancing around. She was sure she could disarm some of them men and women that were surrounding them in the clearing – as well as surrounding their tent – but not all of them, and not with enough warning that they would escape with their lives.
The Portkeys were meant to return them to Winterfell with Rickon – not an entire group of Skagosi warriors! Hermione winced at the idea of unleashing them in Winterfell, despite how well-protected the ancient fortress was – and with those soldiers who remained behind. They were used to enemies coming from beyond their walls, not within!
The same Skagosi said something again, but then changed direction and, in a deep voice, spat, "Southern?"
The Northerner in the group – Eddard Karstark – bristled at the insult and Hermione sighed.
"We're not weak-assed pansy Southerners!" spat Karstark, glaring at the Skagosi nearest him.
That man remained unmoved, staring at the burly man, but the leader with the flanking him sent a dry, disbelieving look toward Jaime Lannister – in his gleaming golden armour – and Clegane, who, despite his mercenary-like boiled leathers and fur-lined cloak, wore more steel than the Skagosi combined.
Hermione pursed her lips. "Shut up, Edd." She turned to the leader, taking a cautious step forward. She kept her wand pointed to the ground but prepared to whip it up with a protego if necessary. "We don't mean to intrude – we're looking for someone – we mean no harm—"
"Speak for yourself," muttered Jaime, and Hermione nearly groaned as his words carried in the clearing.
"Why are you here?" the man continued, the 'w' sound coming off thick and reminding Hermione of Viktor and his pronunciation.
"We're looking for someone—" began Hermione, keeping her hands out despite holding her wand in one. She hoped she looked non-threatening.
The man snorted. "You are not welcomed here."
Hermione pursed her lips. I'm getting that impression, yes, thank you.
"We just need to find someone and then we'll be on our way—" Hermione grit out, eyes darting around the group, searching for the right, redheaded, tiny figure that should be Rickon.
"Leave," the leader spat, recessed eyes dark and hooded. "Leave, now."
Hermione bit back a scowl of her own, eyes darting around.
"What do we do, witch?" muttered Clegane, nearest to her.
"Just say the word," added Jaime, his voice carrying.
Hermione resisted the urge to snap at him for making things worse – did he never take anything seriously? How was she to guarantee their safety if he continued to persist in being a git?
As Hermione tried to think, thoughts racing from one potential to another, and easily discarding each as it came in an increasingly hopeless situation (how would she ever tell Robb that she failed in returning Rickon to Winterfell?), Sansa stepped out of the tent behind them, Garrett and Toran flanking her.
She drew all the eyes, her bright red hair gleaming against the snow in the clearing. Hermione's magic – lighting up the rocks and still sizzling in the air, mimicking the falling snowflakes – bounced off the auburn, turning strands golden and highlighting Sansa's beauty.
She drew back her hood, blue eyes imploring the men standing around the Winterfell group as she spoke softly, "Please. Please, ser. I am looking for my brother—"
"I know you."
The words were loud enough that everyone heard them, but there was a plaintive quality, a shakiness that betrayed uneasiness. Everyone turned to face the speaker, and Hermione bit back a gasp when one of the tall, skinny fur-wearing warriors stepped out from behind a female. Lurking at his back was a giant black direwolf.
"Merlin," she breathed, eyes wide. She unconsciously took a tiny step back.
Despite being used to Grey Wind, seeing the pulled-back lips of the black wolf was frightening; saliva and spittle bubbled around its sharp teeth, longer than her hand, and its eerie yellow eyes fixated on them, while the teenager's blue eyes – like Sansa's – was on her alone.
"Rickon." Sansa's eyes were wide. "Merciful Mother, Rickon!"
She took a few steps forward – and Rickon mimicked her. But before he could pass the archers, one threw their arm out and stopped him in his tracks, snapping something at him in another language.
Sansa paled. "Please, no, don't hurt him!"
"What do you want with the boy?" the leader asked, his voice growing thicker in his anger.
"Want?" echoed Sansa, bringing her hands up to clutch at her cloak. "He's my little brother! I want to embrace him! I want to make sure he's been eating! That he's warm!"
Rickon, on the other hand, scowled fiercely at the man and slipped under his arm, taking several loping strides down the snowy embankment until he was within am arm's distance from Sansa. He seemed to be confident but from where Hermione stood, she could see his eyes dart around uneasily at the steel in Clegane and Jaime's hands.
Behind him, near the woman he was with, the black direwolf growled.
"I remember you," he said again, like stating a fact. But his brows furrowed. "How?"
"Oh, Rickon," began Sansa sadly, "Don't you remember me? I'm your sister. Sansa."
Rickon's eyes moved all over Sansa's face, as if trying to place her. He began circling her, leaning his body this way and that as he moved.
Next to Hermione, Clegane shifted, his fingers flexing around his hilt.
"Easy," she murmured.
"I don't like this," muttered Clegane darkly, eyes on Rickon. "This ain't right. The boy ain't right in the head – look at him. He moved like he's a predator."
"Wouldn't you have to be, if you grew up here?" muttered back Hermione, eyes glancing around quickly. Still, she swallowed thickly and kept a tight grip on her wand.
Rickon stopped, facing Sansa again, bringing a hand up. Clegane mimicked him, bringing his arm up and ready to fight if needed. But Rickon ignored him – despite the bob in his throat – and ran his fingers through Sansa's red hair, watching it move with fascination. He did it a few times, eyes locked on the strands.
Finally, his fingers closed into a fist, and he lightly tugged. "Sansa? From… from winter. Where winter fell?"
Laughing wetly, Sansa nodded. "Yes, yes, Rickon. From Winterfell – from our home."
He let go of her hair, blinking at her. "And… and Robb? And Jon – no…" his eyes darkened. "Jon left. And you left. And Arya left, too! And Mother and Father! Everyone left!"
"Here we go," muttered Clegane.
"I didn't mean to, Rickon!" cried Sansa, reaching forward, and clutching at his arms. He struggled in her grasp and the Skagosi around them brought their inferior swords up and the archers drew back their arrows again. But the two Stark siblings only had eyes for each other.
"Leggo!" muttered Rickon. "You left! Everyone left!"
Help came from an unexpected source: the female warrior that had been standing near the wolf stepped forward, placing a hand on the teen's shoulders. She muttered, "Little Lord – calm yourself. This is your sister – don't you recognize her?"
"I do, Osha, but…" Rickon trailed off. "She'll leave again."
"I won't Rickon, I promise!" cried Sansa.
"Tell you'll stay? Here?" asked Rickon, eyes wide and full of childish hope. "With me on Skagos?"
Sansa bit her lip. "Rickon… I… I can't stay."
"You just said you wouldn't leave me!" howled Rickon, backing away and into Osha.
"I can't stay because I want to go home to Winterfell!" cried Sansa, raising her voice to match Rickon's shouts. "Robb's there! And Arya, too! And Jon! And we're going to find Bran soon. So we're all together again, Rickon!"
He froze. "Together?"
"And… Mother and Father?"
Her face crumpled. "Oh… Oh, Rickon, no… they're… they're gone."
"No!" he shouted, eyes wild and a snarl on his face. "No! No! NO!"
"Little Lord, listen to your sister," said the furred woman, her voice low and raspy. "You can return to your home, where it's safe. See your family again."
"You're my family, Osha," muttered the teenager petulantly.
Sansa choked back a sob, and Hermione could barely take it. She stepped forward, cautiously, easing herself next to Sansa. She tried to modulate her voice enough like when treating younger Gryffindors when she was a prefect and asked, "Don't you want to see Winterfell again, Rickon?"
From under a very curly mop of hair, Rickon eyed her warily.
"Don't you want to see Robb and Jon again? Fight with Arya?" prompted Hermione, soothingly. "Help us find Bran and bring him home?"
"Arya was a better archer than Bran," said Rickon suddenly, despite his blotchy face from his shouts. "Bran wasn't fun."
"You'll get along well with Arya," continued Hermione easily, with a grin. "She's a swordfighter now."
Jaime scoffed, loudly.
Hermione shot him a glare and then turned back to Rickon. "Do you like to fight with swords?"
"We don't have many here," he said quietly, glancing around as well. "Are there swords at… Winter… Winterfell?"
"What do you remember there being?" asked Hermione quietly.
Rickon paused, considering. He glanced at Sansa who nodded encouragingly at him, and he began, hesitantly, "Grey. Lots of grey towers. And… warm water in puddles? Ponds? There were more Shaggys… other wolves. And…"
He trailed off, growing quieter. The wolf, Shaggydog, moved away from the others and came to a rest next to Rickon, towering over him. "And a garden. Filled with trees and plants even when everything was covered in ice and snow. And a big tree in the middle, with red leaves. It… it looked like it was bleeding from its eyes."
"The Godswood," murmured Sansa from Hermione's side, beaming at Rickon. "In Winterfell. You remember."
Abashed, Rickon drew back on himself and glanced nervously at Osha, who said, "It's up to you, Little Lord."
But the tall Skagosi warrior scoffed. "He stays. You stay. We welcomed you, and then you leave? Not without our say so."
Sensing the mood beginning to shift, Hermione nudged Sansa back toward Toran and Garrett, even as Jaime stepped back and around from his still-at-sword point opponent; Clegane moved as well and the group clustered together, with Rickon and Osha and Shaggydog – his wolf – between them and the Skagosi.
Discretely, with their group blocking the view of the tent, Hermione swished and flicked, and the tent collapsed in on itself, folding smaller and smaller until it disappeared and zipped through the air into her waiting hand, hidden behind her back. She clenched her hand closed around the small canvas pocket and tucked it into her beaded bag, catching Edd's eyes against his bruised and bloody face.
"Do you want to go home, Rickon?" asked Hermione, loudly enough for the Skagosi's benefit.
Rickon warily looked between the two groups, but then let his blue eyes linger on Sansa. Longing appeared in them.
"Aye," he nodded, Osha pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
Hermione's lips quirked up into a smile. "Then we should go."
"No one is going!" shouted the man. "No one!"
Hermione sent a cold look toward him. "I'd like to see you try."
The archers drew back their arrows just as Jaime launched himself at Rickon, grabbing him and Edd and Clegane went for Shaggydog while Sansa grabbed hold of Osha's arms.
Startled, Osha yelped, "What's that for?!" just as Jaime howled, "He's bit me! The little brat bit me!"
And in between all that, as the archers let their arrows fly, Hermione looked the leader dead in the eyes and said the activation phrase on their Portkeys. The snow swirled around them, the colours blending together and the space they were standing in was soon empty, with the arrows flying by and landing harmlessly in the snowbank behind where they stood…
It was like no one had ever been there.
Lords Bracken, Blackwood, and Bolton were waiting in the courtyard when Hermione's Portkey brought the larger group back from Skagos. Immediately Shaggydog howled his displeasure, turning around in agitated circles and snapping at both Jaime and Clegane enough that they brought their weapons up to retaliate, just as they skipped backward away from the dripping saliva and yellowed teeth of the direwolf.
At the center of the chaos stood Rickon, curious blue eyes taking in (un)familiar spires and stone, a hard edge to them that no preteen should have - but his cautious survey of Winterfell was eerily like Arya's gaze, and enough that Bolton almost inaudibly sighed.
What this war has done to our children… he thought, the hard, cold heart in his chest clenching at the fate of his own two sons.
"Nothing… has changed?" asked Rickon, tentatively, as he slowly moved in a circle.
A sharp pull in Bracken's face and a general sigh from Blackwood made Hermione grin - she knew what they were thinking. Rickon didn't throw up on his first Portkey trip and had recovered rather well.
"There are some changes," said Sansa, stepping forward tentatively as she brushed her fingers lightly across Rickon's shoulder. Both Clegane and Eddard Karstark were on her heels, both men carefully watching the youngest Stark.
He jerked back, skipping away from her and closer to a wild-looking dark-haired woman in layered clothing. Shaggydog growled and snapped once more at Jaime and Obara before moving to his master.
Rickon shrugged. "Dunno. Can't tell."
"It's the same, little Lord," the woman at his side soothed. She, too, had been looking around in partial awe and displeasure. "It's been a few years."
"Too many," a new, solemn voice said, and the group turned to face the three lords that greeted them and the man who strode toward them through the wide doors of the great hall.
Rickon's brow furrowed as he took in the man: from his leather boots to the spiky, bronze crown in his dark red hair. He did not look like the Magnar, with his wild black hair and thick black beard; nor did he look like any of Stane, with their hulking mass and thick, hairy arms. But there was something familiar in his long face, in the hard stare of his eyes…
The towering sand-and-grey coloured direwolf at his side, its bearing just as regal as the man's, caught on Rickon's memories. Shaggydog huffed loudly, tilting his nose in the air and sniffing.
The other wolf cautiously padded forward, past the man, just as Shaggydog moved from Rickon's side. Shaggy's head lowered and he pulled back his lips, exposing pink gums and yellowed teeth as he growled, low.
The other wolf tilted its head to the side, but remained upright and puffed its chest a bit, the fur rippling and ruffling so that he appeared larger than he was and barked, sharp and low - and then with a quick move, launched at Shaggydog. He tussled the black wolf to the dirt, pinning the wolf with two massive paws and his jaw around Shaggy's neck.
"Shaggy!" cried Rickon, eyes wide as he took a few steps forward to do - something - to help his loyal wolf -
But then the larger grey wolf let Shaggydog go, and Shaggy rolled on the ground, belly up and whining and then the grey wolf was licking Shaggydog's neck and Shaggy was panting in happiness.
Rickon froze. He'd seen this behaviour before… a long time ago…
The man with the crown descended the few steps from the top of the patio until his boots hit the dirt of the courtyard. He was only feet away from Rickon and towered over him in thick furs and dark colours, and looked so familiar, like a memory that was just out of reach.
"Rickon?" the child could hear Sansa's voice. "Rickon - do you remember-"
"Robb," he breathed, just as Sansa spoke the same name, their voices mingling. Rickon's eyes - the same eyes as his older brother's, he realized now - widened. "Robb. Robb!"
Then Rickon launched himself at his eldest brother, and Robb knelt in the dirt, uncaring of staining his fine clothes as he caught Rickon in his arms and hugged him tightly. There was a familiar smell of sweat, and crisp winters and wolf that carried Rickon to a long-forgotten memory of a time before Robb left to go south, to avenge their father.
The memories were returning to him, now, faster than before.
Still in Robb's arms, content to be with his big brother, he missed what was happening around him, but he heard the echoes of a rumble in Robb's chest. He drew his head back and listened to the conversation around him.
"-it difficult?" asked Robb.
The curly-haired witch shrugged. "It wasn't easy - we've a few injuries-"
"Speak for yourself," retorted the Lannister, tossing his head back. "The little heathen bit me!"
Robb smothered a laugh. "Bested by a child, Lannister? Perhaps you need to return to the training yard."
"Not a bad idea to keep our skills sharp," a woman grinned, although it was all teeth and Rickon found he liked it. She did a fancy twirl of her staff. "What do you say, Ser?"
"Anytime, Sand," gritted out Lannister, staring hard at the woman.
"How about after you both fight me?" called out another voice, a familiar one, and Rickon pulled from Robb's arms to watch as a dark-haired girl with a long face in breeches came to stop next to Robb, staring at Rickon.
He stared back. "I know you."
She nodded slowly.
"You - Bran would climb, but you… you would fight," continued Rickon, frowning as he puzzled her out. He mentally went over his family in his head: his father (who looked like this girl - he thought, anyway), and his mother who had red hair and blue eyes, like Sansa, although with a much sharper voice; Robb, who was now standing at his side… but there was someone missing…
"Arya." The name came to Rickon quickly. He turned sharply on his heels, looking around the courtyard as those who journeyed to Skagos began to peel off to other duties or to speak in groups. "Where's Jon?"
"At the Wall," replied Robb, quietly.
"Why did he leave?" demanded Rickon, narrowing his eyes on Robb. "Why does everyone leave? Why don't we stick together?"
Robb sighed, eyes closing. When he opened them, they were pained and there was a grimace on his lips. "We shouldn't have left, Rickon. None of us should have."
"The lone wolf dies," said Sansa quietly from his other side.
"But the pack survives," finished Arya.
"And we're getting our pack back," continued Robb, reaching out to touch Rickon. He allowed it this time. "One by one, we're bringing our family home. To Winterfell."
"With… with Grey Wind? And Shaggy? And Summer?" Rickon turned to look at Sansa and Arya. "Where are Lady and Nymeria?"
Sansa's face immediately crumpled. "Lady is dead."
Arya's scrunched up, the grey of her eyes fading just the tiniest bit as her thoughts turned inward. "Nymeria… is on her way. I think… I think she's getting closer."
"And Ghost is with Jon," replied Robb, "At Castle Black. We think Bran and Summer are beyond the wall."
Rickon nodded. "Jojen and Meera took Bran and Hodor. It was Jojen's idea."
"To go beyond the wall?" asked Robb, and then he was glancing over Rickon's shoulder, so he turned and saw that the witch had inched closer and was listening.
Rickon stared at her, unsure if he could trust her despite being part of the group to bring him home, but he turned back to Robb instead to address him. "Jojen said he saw something. It was Bran's destiny."
"Destiny?" asked the witch. She was startled, eyes wide and her face a bit pale as she glanced at Robb.
Rickon nodded slowly.
"Did Jojen say anything else, Rickon?" asked Robb, clutching at Rickon's shoulders. "Anything about his destiny or where they went or why? This is important. Please - do you remember?"
Rickon chewed on his dry lips and thought back to the chaos just before the Ironborn took Winterfell when he and Bran and Hodor and Osha were hiding with their wolves in the crypts -
"The three-eyed raven."
"The what?" asked Arya loudly.
Rickon shrugged. "Bran said he had to meet with the three-eyed raven. And Jojen said it was north of the wall."
Robb sighed and let go of Rickon, standing to his full height as he turned to the witch. "It's something."
"The map will help," she replied, her voice even and calm. She turned to him, staring down at him and Rickon stared back at her. "Thank you."
"Are you going to get Bran?" asked Rickon.
"Good," he said, firmly, before turning back to Robb. "I'm hungry. Can we eat now?"
Sansa stepped forward. "Of course, Rickon! And I think a bath too-"
Horror stole through his body. It was one thing to be reunited with his family - but to force a bath on him? A shriek welled up in his throat and erupted with the pitch and fury of a boy who absolutely refused to do what his elders wanted, and he threw himself away from his bewildered sister, the words, "I WON'T I WON'T I WON'T YOU CAN'T MAKE ME" falling from his lips.
Somewhere off to the side, Arya snorted, shaking her head.
"Yeah, just like old times." She threw her hands up and walked away, toward Obara and Jaime. "The only thing missing is him ripping his clothes off and running around naked."
"Give it time," the wilding woman with them muttered, eyeing her young charge as well. "He's a difficult one to manage, the little Lord is."
"If that's difficult, then Bran will be a breeze," commented Robb idly, staring at his youngest brother as he wailed and began rolling in the dirt, as though caking it on would deter Sansa from bathing him.
Hermione groaned. "You just had to say that didn't you?" Confused, Robb glanced at her, and she continued, "That's like saying 'nothing can go wrong,' Robb."
"Well, there will only be wildlings, right?" said Robb, even if his voice was a bit shaky. "And the cold, and maybe some wights. But you managed that well enough-"
But Hermione levelled him a dead-eyed stare, and Robb sighed. Yeah, it was wishful thinking on his part, too, that everything was going to be easy. With their luck, Bran would probably be in the middle of a cannibal camp.
It's not like it could be worse than that, right?