[ Chapter 1 - The Stark Pups ]
Under grey wool, padded coat, and a shirt of mail, swords clashed in the training yard, a song Brian Cassel had heard numerous times before. He was familiar with it, you couldn't expect anything else from the nephew of a knight. Jory was pressing on, his sword fast and strong but Brian stood his ground, giving as little ground as he could despite the gap between their skills.
They have been sparing for a little less than an hour now and Brian had won a single bout out of a dozens, a result of his brother slipping on a frozen puddle. Jory was a fierce opponent, one Brian had learnt the art of war with since he was old enough to walk. Jory had always been more into the sword than Brian, who would spend only as much time as he had to in the training yard, as was expected from the captain of Lord Stark's household guards.
The two men fought, the sound of sword to steel ringing across the yard. One spending all of his efforts to defeat the other, who was still holding back some. It was easy to see their shared blood as both had dark-brown hair and black eyes. Yet for all their similitudes, one always claimed to be more handsome than the other.
Time was almost up, this spar was to be the last and Brian intended to win at least once through skill. He dabbed his sword forward and parried a left cut before stepping back half an inch, he turned right when Jory went for that side and swept back his blade. Brian made an effort to lean more into his right foot and use his right arm more than his left, building more and more momentum in the fight.
The two were clashing under the watchful eyes of Ser Rodrik Cassel, their uncle and the master-at-arms of Winterfell. Soon enough, his efforts paid off as Jory went more and more for Brian's left. Brian's sword moved a beat too late and Jory immediately went for the resulting opening, exactly what he intended. Brian swiftly smacked Jory's hand with the back of his blade, making him drop his with a cry, before rushing at his brother.
He did not expect his face to meet a fist.
Brian cried out and the pain was so sudden he lost his footing, fell down hard on the ground with his helmed head ringing like a bell. "Well fought, little brother." Jory panted and offered a hand which Brian took. "You've become better." his smile was a pleased one. They were both puffing and sweating buckets and Brian could feel his clothes stick to his skin, the fresh northern air filled his lungs like icy water and he avidly drank it.
"Not—good—enough—to best—you." Brian said with no heat as he went to stow his weapon and armor, he had to clean himself now.
"You fought well, both of you." Ser Rodrik said from the side, he too seemed pleased and his eyes set on Brian. "Your efforts paid off Brian, you almost had Jory there."
Brian still felt bedazzled but he nodded, "I—thank you—for—your— lessons, uncle." he groaned as his head throbbed, a familiar ache but one he could do without. Jory was moving his hand back and forth as if it would chase the pain away, but other than that, the captain look less worse for wear than his little brother.
Brian leaned on a wall and took a mouthful from his waterskin, waiting for the pain to clear away. He much prefered the aftermath of sparing to the actual exercise. Clouds went by as Brian waited for his breath to even out.
"You alright here?" Jory set himself next to him. "You'll forgive my lack of restraint, that's what happens when you're as strong as me."
"You wish. I've barely—felt your tape." Brian jested and Jory grinned at his cheek, they relaxed with their backs on the wall and both watched the clouds drift away. Brian saw one in the shape of a horse while Jory saw it as a man with his arm raised, Brian called him blind which earned him a cuff.
Brian soon saw his uncle approach, "Good fight Brian, you've improved, the old knight said, the lads will soon come here, you may leave if you want." the knight said idly, looking far off in the distance. He always told him this after Brian finished sparing, always before the recruits' training as he disliked others see him in such a state. Brian always answered the same,
"I shall go clean myself, uncle. I'd rather not bother the new recruits." he said before he gave them a smile and began to walk to his quarters, a cloth and wash basin prepared there beforehand. Ser Rodrik sighed before turning to Jory, they shared a look before rising their swords at each other.
In a warm room was his cousin Beth, a small lovely girl of two and ten with curly auburn hair more brown than red. She was with other girls, young ladies with needles and cloth to embroider, septa Mordane was here too. Some of the girls here were older than him by a moon or two but most were younger.
Brian had his harp in hand, a sleek beautiful thing he had made himself after many a failed attempt. It was of dark brown northern wood, polished smooth and a few inches shy of Arya's height, with many wolves hand-carved on the head and body. He even had an ornate ironwood case with leather straps made to take it with him in travels, expensive to make to say the least. Brian had used all of his fortune but he thought it well-spent and worth every penny.
He stroked the cords with the ease of familiarity and a sense of contentment filled him as people listened and did their things while basked in the music he strung. Today he played The Bear and the Maiden Fair. He was good at this.
Sansa was enjoying her embroidering, humming as her needle went gracefully back and forth through the cloth, a grey direwolf coming into the white handkerchief; Jeyne's head was lightly swaying right to left and Beth was paying more attention to him than to her needle, smiling as she did so. Only Arya and septa Mordane's were discontent, their brows furrowed.
Arya was focused on her task and her fingers moved as if they were of stone, she needs less focus when using a bow, Brian thought with amusement. Arya struggled and looked at how easy Sansa made it seem before redoubling her efforts with a huff.
Brian was aware of the looks and small giggles sent by the other ladies. They were captivated by the songs made by his harp, enraptured by the music he made. Even Arya, who hated all things Sansa liked, appreciated a song or two about heroism, bravery and daring.
Septa Mordane looked at him like he was an intruder, which Brian guessed was right.
Sewing lessons were supposed to be only for young ladies after all, but he wasn't here for that, wasn't he? The septa used to tell him that he couldn't stay for reasons that changed every day but eventually, in front of his pig-headedness, she just relented and let him here, how sweet victory was.
Robb, Theon and Jon were always quick to jest at his expense, laughing at his love for the harp or his obvious preference for books to swords and bows. It was the only time those three agreed on something, which was a ridiculous thought in itself. Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy agreeing on something?
Brian looked at his young cousin. Beth was visibly not doing as well as her peers, she was younger than most by a year or two, and her lack of progress visibly frustrated her.
"Cousin," he called, "what song shall I play next?"
Beth raised her head and made to think about it, a finger to the corner of her mouth, before asking her friends what song they wanted and after much debating, she said,
"Could you play Two Hearts That Beat as One ? It would be so lovely!"
A love song, how surprising.
The harpist made a show of warming himself up, rolling his shoulders as well as flexing his fingers and winking at the girls, much to their delight and amusement, before plucking the strings of his instrument. Sounds echoed in the warm room and even the old septa had closed her eyes in relaxation, Arya watched him like he was stupid and he only grinned at her before casting his eyes at his young cousin.
His uncle had married three times and of the children he had with them, only Beth remained, mothers and daughters had died to sickness and winter. They should have been more, more than only four Cassels in Westeros, but that was not to be. Beth was the only one who didn't mind his love for the harp, his uncle Rodrik having no taste for music and even Jory only just supporting it, preferring the sword unlike himself.
Had his uncle's daughters survived, would they be like Beth? Kind and sweet; or maybe more like Arya? Wild and passionate?
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts before it was opened. It was the servant Donnis.
"Lord Brian? Yer uncle ask for ya. He's waitin' at the stables." he said.
"What is this about?" Brian asked after he put his harp down.
"A deserter milord. Lord Stark ride out and yer uncle ask fer ya."
Arya's eyes darted up at that, "Can I go?" she eagerly asked.
"You may not." septa Mordane said with tight displeasure.
"But I want to!" Arya threw her needle to the floor.
"You should stay here Arya," Sansa said primly, "we have to finish our lessons."
Arya looked like she was going to say something when she heard the other ladies giggling to themselves, Brian turned his head and saw them pointing at Arya's revealed handkerchief.
It was a unsightly thing, with threads hanged loose and clashing colors, what Brian suspected to be a wolf looked more like some poor malformed dog with no chance of survival had it existed.
Arya's face reddened and her entire frame trembled like a volcano ready to explode.
Brian acted before she could.
"Is it for me? Thank you Arya, it's just as I wanted it!" Brian said as he hurriedly took it from the floor, much to everyone's consternation, and examined it closely, turning it back and forth before putting it in his pocket.
"You—you want it?" Arya was wide-eyed, just as confused as everyone else.
Brian lifted an eyebrow as if surprised, "Well, I can give it back to you if you want." he made a show of taking it out.
Arya hastily cried out "No! Take it! I give it to you!"
Brian looked and saw the other ladies glare jealousy at Arya's back, "I hope the next will be even better than this one." he grinned and Arya beamed, Sansa looked like she wanted to applaud but she hid behind her work instead, no doubt smiling.
Donnis cleared his throat in waiting, "Oh, right."
The noon was cold and misty, a day like every other in the North. Lord Stark had rode with twenty men to execute a deserter from the Night's Watch, little Bran with them. Brian thought it time for the young boy to see a proper execution. Bran was his favorite among the Starks, and the fact that their names were only one letter away had nothing to do with it.
Robb, Jon and Theon were here too at Lord Stark's side, Brian was beside Jory and Ser Rodrik, warm in his furred grey cloak. Two men-at-arms garmed in Stark coat of plates brought the deserter before them, the grey and white banners of the direwolf flowing in the morning wind.
"I know I broke my oath," the deserter's face was raw and miserable, "and I know I'm a deserter—I should have gone back to the Wall and warned them." The man's voice was filled with fear and bone-deep fatigue.
"But I saw what I saw, I saw the White Walkers." he whispered with dread. "People need to know.—If you can get word to my family—tell them I'm no coward—tell them I'm sorry." the man looked like he really believed what he said, the madman's tale made him shivered as Brian remembered Old Nan's more dreadful stories.
It was time, Lord Stark nodded to the doomed man and the deserter's head was forced on an ironwood stump. Theon brought forth Ice, the valyrian greatsword of the Wardens of the North, and Lord Stark drew it as easily as one lifted a babe. It was a magnificent sword, beautiful in its simplicity. There was no gold nor jewel on the hilt, only a smoky dark blade; this was a sword made for killing criminals, a sword made to uphold law and order.
"In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, I, Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, sentence you to die." the Lord of Stark lifted the greatsword high above his head and severed the man's head in a single, swift stroke.
Brian worriedly turned his eyes to Bran and saw the smallest wince but the boy did not look away. "You did well." he heard Jon echo his thoughts to Bran as Robb put a hand on the boy's shoulder. Brian refreigned from going to the boy, not wanting to suffocate the poor lad when he already had his brothers with him.
He himself had been two and ten when he first saw justice, two years older than the boy. It brought him sorrow that he had to witness such a thing so young. Apparently Lady Catelyn had protested but Lord Stark insisted.
"What's the matter?" Jory asked him as they rode back to Winterfell.
"Nothing, I'm just thinking about what he said." Brian had also read about the Others, the demons of ice and death from the Lands of Always Winter. Those were from children's tale but they had to come from somewhere; Brian remembered Robb had once asked for gauntlets he had lost and someway somehow, at the end of the day, some servants in the castle were looking for an entire suit of armor.
Words lose their meaning as they pass from mouth-to-mouth but there is always a sliver of truth buried beneath the songs and tales. What kind of wildling tribe were their ancestors so afraid of? How terrifying these savages must have been to become the Others through the ages?
Jory had a wry smile from seeing his brother so deep in his thoughts before his attention went back to the present.
"Race you to the bridge?" Robb asked with Jon at his side. Brian almost said yes before seeing the red-haired boy on his pony.
"You go, I'd rather not exhaust Slow Dancer for naught." he smirked confidently, patting at his black rouncey.
"Your loss!" Jon said as he kicked his horse forward, Robb following with a curse and they galloped off in a shower of snow.
Brian saw Lord Stark approach Bran.
"Are you well, Bran?" Lord Stark asked not unkindly.
"Yes, Father." Bran looked up to his father, wrapped in furs and leathers, and stood straighter on his saddle. "Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says the man was afraid."
"What do you think?" Lord Stark asked.
Bran seem to think for a moment, "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave," Lord Stark told the boy. "Do you understand why I did it?"
"Jon said he was a deserter." Jon was right.
"But do you understand why I had to kill him?"
"Our way is the Old Way?" Bran answered.
"The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword." it was something his lord always did. Whenever justice had to be done, the Lord of Winterfell himself would ride out, take up Ice, stare at the man in the eyes and hear his last words before executing the criminal. There was no headsman in the North for the blood of the First Men flowed thick there.
"Is it true he saw the White Walkers?" something flickered in Lord Stark's eyes.
"The White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years." Brian would have snorted if Lord Eddard Stark wasn't his liege.
"So he was lying?"
Lord Stark was silent, "A madman sees what he sees." Brian put a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"You shouldn't put too much thoughts into this, Bran, stories are stories. You will no sooner meet a White Walker than you will a dragon." He's still shaken by the execution, Brian thought before whispering conspiratorially in the boy's ear, "you wanna bet on who's going to win the race between Robb and Jon? I'll let you ride Slow Dancer if you win." Brian was gifted with a laugh, it looked like the boy wasn't afraid anymore.
Something was lying on the bridge and the party had opted to follow on foot. It was a stag, a dead one. The smell of corruption hit their nose like a slap to the face, its guts were pink and red out of its belly.
"What is it?" Jon asked, Brian wondered if he was a halfwit before he understood what Jon truly meant. What is it that killed it? They were in front of the stag now, the strong smell made him frown in disgust.
"Mountain lion?" Theon guessed and Brian went for his sword and looked to the trees round them.
"There are no mountain lions in these woods." Lord Stark answered, then what killed this beast? Brian gripped his sword a little tighter.
"Let's keep an eye out, the thing may still be here." Brian said.
They went down on the riverbank, stepping over grey stones covered in green moss.
Soon they came to the most terrifying beast Brian had ever laid eyes on. It had shaggy grey frozen fur and was laying on the grass, as big as a warhorse and rotting with maggots in blind eyes, sharp yellow teeth filled its wide gaping mouth.
"It's a freak." Theon said as Lord Stark crouched before the beast and Brian saw a foot-long shattered antler plunged deep in its throat, wet with blood.
"It's a direwolf." Lord Stark's gravely voice echoed in the woods as he looked over them. A sudden silence came over the party. The direwolf is the sigil of House Stark and it was killed by a stag, Brian shouldn't have felt uneasy but he did. At its breast were five small pups with coats of grey and black. They were whimpering in the cold.
"Tough old beast." the lord said as he took out the antler.
"There are no direwolves south of the Wall." Robb's eyes did not leave the creature.
"Now there are five." Jon said as he took a pup in his arms, "you want to hold it?" he asked Bran.
"Where will they go? Their mother's dead." Bran cradled the direwolf pup close to his chest.
"They don't belong down here." uncle Rodrik said.
"Better a quick death," Lord Stark answered as he unsheathed his sword, "they won't last without their mother." Brian didn't want the pups dead, they looked far to much innocent but he couldn't do anything.
"Right," Theon was eager to follow Lord Stark, "give it here." he told Bran, drawing a dagger and going for the small direwolf.
"NO!" Bran cried and held the pup even tighter against his chest.
"Put away your blade." Robb said and for a moment, he looked like the lord he would be in the future, grand and great in bearing.
Despite not being able to rise his voice, Brian instead decided to stand farther behind his friend, close enough to be in lord Stark's field of vision and hoping that the attention would be drawn on Robb instead of himself.
"I take orders from your father, not you." Theon said. How Brian wanted to shut him up, but a common wolf was neither kraken nor direwolf.
"Please, Father!" Bran cried to Lord Stark.
"I'm sorry Bran." the warden said before Jon's voice stopped him.
"Lord Stark?" he began, "There are five pups. One for each of the Stark children, the direwolf is the sigil of your house. They were meant to have them."
Brian saw Lord Stark's face change, saw the other men exchange glances. The count had come right only because Jon had excluded himself. He had included the girls, included even Rickon, the baby, but not himself, the bastard whose name was Snow.
Brian and the others then looked at Lord Stark for his answer. He felt a sense of apprehension take him then, five direwolves for each of the Stark children and their parent dead, killed by a stag.
After a moment, Lord Stark looked like he reached his decision.
"You will train them yourselves. You will feed them yourselves. And if they die, you will bury them yourselves." he said and threw a look at all of them before walking away, making Brian breath out in relief.
He made to help them take the pups and he took off his gloves, the pup's grey fur was the softest thing he had ever touched. The small direwolf looked as if puzzled, had Brian been a woman, he would have swooned in delight.
"What about you?" Bran asked Jon.
"I'm not a Stark." he answered. "Get on." Jon pulled up halfway as if he remembered forgetting something behind.
"What is it?" Robb asked.
"Can't you hear it?" Jon said.
Brian could hear the wind in the leaves, the water running on the rocks and the whimpering of the hungry direwolf in his arms, but Jon was apparently listening to something else.
The Bastard of Winterfell then kneeled and took something from a bush behind a tree, it was another small direwolf pup.
Its fur was white where the rest of the litter had coats of grey and black and his eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man who had died. Why are his eyes open while the others are still blind?
"The runt of the litter," Theon said with amusement. "That one's yours, Snow."
Jon Snow gave Theon Greyjoy a long, chilling look and Brian cleared his throat.
"Let's get going, I'd rather not be back at Winterfell at nightfall." he said in faux amusement and Robb laughed along, not at all reluctant to help him dissipate the building tension.