Author's Notes: Holy hell, I did it. Sixteen and a half thousand words in less than a month. Less chapter should be less lengthy, and frankly, this one could have been split in two, but fuck it, I wanted to have this arc done in 10 chapters, and this is number 6. I think the transition from one part to another of the chapter might have been a bit rushed, but frankly, I'm giving myself permission to have fast-forwarded that bit a little in exchange for the length of this chapter. Now, for a couple of things:

I'm still very much on the fence with opening a (P)atreon. My biggest gripe with it is the legality, and if comment engagement about it is minimal, then it's probably best to leave that stone unturned. I'll give it a few more chapters before making a decision, but just to reiterate: while monetary gain would be a motivator, it would not IN ANY WAY affect accessibility to the output of this story's chapters. No paywalls, no early access. Just a tip jar. If enough people are interested in it (or, alternatively, enough people are specifically NOT interested in it), I'll come to a decision on it.

As for casting, I'm surprised I didn't think to update this sooner, but now's as good a time as any:

Maester Creylen - Graham McTavish (think of a skinnier version)

Anyways, without further ado, enjoy!


The sound of whooshing air put Geralt's mind at ease, though a lingering tiredness frequently marked his days. He had spent just over three years in Casterly Rock now, and the cold winds of an enduring winter were making voyages and travels difficult to visit Winterfell. Though early morning trainings had now included Jaime, all of the Rock's young lords practicing with the roosters' morning song, Geralt now managed to spend the second half of the night by himself in the courtyard. Such was his exhaustion that the lords had begun to notice, but the Stark held strong. That he was able to fulfill each and every one of his duties was great enough cause for Tywin to overlook it. Ever since he'd taken the Stone Tear, the nightmares he'd been plagued with since his childhood proliferated to the point he rarely slept more than a few hours a night.

What used to be vague, unsettling imagery morphed into horrifyingly realistic visions. So much so, there were nights he would have been convinced they were memories instead of dreams, were they not so impossible. Unending fields of bloody faces facing a dark sky with a black sun at its center. A mummer's elf luring children into her false paradise, cursing them into little monstrosities. A morbidly overweight slug wearing a man's skin, swallowing people whole. And in distance, molded from smoke, disease, and death, five great looming shadows watched over their horrors. He didn't let it affect his days, and though the Lannisters and their lot showed concern, he made sure never to allow exhaustion to sour his conversations. And while his nights grew longer and his dreams shorter, his days at least grew more colorful.

He'd kept his word to Tywin, and never once brought Tyrion up in any further conversations. The effect had already been made, however, the week of Geralt's tourney. A daring few lords had made passing jokes at the dwarf's expense in that time. Those that the five, led by Jaime, did not intimidate an apology out of received a taste of Tywin's wrath. Though he'd wanted to sit the little boy next to him during the games, he knew better than to push his luck. Fortunately, the young boy's appearance had already forced the Great Lion to take a stance, and he was placed between Jaime and Daven. In fact, with Geralt's achievements against the raiders hidden from the commonfolk, Tyrion's appearance eclipsed his celebration. For that, he was grateful.

With the tourney over, there was as likely of a chance to drink from a broken glass as there was to hide Tyrion away once again. Where Tygett had held silence in the confrontation between the youngest and oldest of the pride, he stood his ground fiercely after the fact. With additional aid from Kevan and Genna, and above all, Tywin having already reached the conclusion that what came before could no longer continue to be, the Lord of the Rock conceded. Daven and Geralt found themselves relieved of having to accompany Tyrion every night, and the day granted the lot of them more chances to spend time with the boy.

Cerenna was mischievous, but Jaime was incredibly imposing in not allowing any real cruelty to happen upon his brother. In that, both Myrielle and Daven assured him she'd never take it too far. For the most part, the worst she would do would be to try and convince him of falsehoods and of fairy tales being undeniable parts of history. She'd claim ghosts and lions lived in the bowls of the Rock, but to her frustration, Tyrion had read enough on his home to know the former was a falsehood and the latter true only when traveling acts were invited by House Lannister.

Myrielle was gentler, if not originally somewhat offput by the child's misshapen body. She was still as kind as she could be and doubled for how Genna treated the youngest of the lot. More oft was the case she would sit with him when Geralt was already accompanying the child. The boys took after Jaime and Daven's leads, the latter not as adept as the former at treating his cousin, but another solid link between Tyrion and the rest of his family.

It was his father's siblings who actively sought the boy out. Kevan and Tygett were the ones who most rarely spoke to the boy, but that was solely due to the birth of their sons. Lancel and Tyrek equally demanded attention from their mothers, and they in turn looked for help from their husbands. Still, Geralt would see the pair accompanying Tyrion on the first lessons Maester Creylen taught him. To his surprise the grouchy Maester had been one of the ones to make the least of the news, treating the dwarf no more nor less sternly than he did his siblings. Even better, Geralt would go as far as to wager. Tyrion took to books like a shark to water, and Creylen had remarkably few critiques with the boy's thirst for knowledge.

Genna and Gerion were the ones most often seen with him. Enough to parent, but not to stifle. The Lady of the Rock took him as if he were Cleos or Lyonel, spending her time accompanying and teaching him in both lordly and boyish matters. Gerion was less so the strict parent, but he humored the boy whenever he made another discovery or learned a new word. Whenever the dwarf came stamping his feet through the hallway, he'd kneel to catch him head on, lifting him and torturing him through remorseless tickling. Only Tywin remained distant, his presence alone scaring the child into silent obedience. Few were the times when Cersei would actively try to find and conjure a way to torment the boy, but Jaime was always a step behind. When she failed, she would give Geralt a dirty look before going her way.

Geralt panted, wiping sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. He paused his training and looked up. Surprisingly, the night was spotless, allowing for a view of thousands of twinkling lights to accompany him throughout the night. No moon tonight. For some reason, the thought relieved him. He spent a good minute rubbing his eyes, allowing the stars to separate and gain form. …That's good enough for now. I'll train more when the others arrive. He decided to sit on the steps leading into the courtyard, putting his sword down and letting it lean against his shoulder as he looked up. The weight was beginning to feel light again. I wonder who else will add to it.

Though he never directly spoke of that night again, none had been more grateful to Geralt than Lyle Crakehall had been for his stand against the pirates. It was a month after his nameday had been, time enough for his burly friend to return to his ancestral home, Crakehall, and spend time with his family. Before then, he'd asked Geralt if he valued Wolf's Claw. He'd answered it had been a gift from one of the most loyal vassal houses in the North, and Lyle asked Geralt to lend it to him. He'd been apprehensive to part with him, but when the large boy all but begged, he relented. When he came back to Casterly Rock, he did not return with it. Instead, he brought him an exceptionally long, polished oak case. It was taller than Geralt, nearly Tygett's height.

When we first began training, I remembered your advice. I know you carried your greatsword easily by the time the pirates… I, uh, I thought you'd need more. When he opened the gift, he was met with a sword, six feet in length without counting the hilt. It had been elegantly made, perfectly sharpened, and had twice the girth Wolf's Claw had held. Geralt had been stuck uncomfortably between feelings of apprehension and gratitude. Before he could call on his friend's disregard for his previous sword, Lyle pointed at the pommel. When you told me you valued your sword, I told our master smith to use all the steel your Wolf's Claw was made from and add to ingots from our own House. A new handle needed to be made, but I made sure your pommel was as it was before.

All Geralt's concerns had dissolved then and, uncharacteristically, enveloped the large boy in a brief, tight hug. In that case, it'll need a new name. The bears of House Mormont gave me that sword for my thirteenth nameday, and now the boars of House Crakehall have grown and strengthened it even further. Not a wolf's anymore. I'd say Beast's Claw would suit it better. Thank you Crakehall, this is the best gift of them all. Neither mentioned the gift nor the warlocks after that day, but there was a greater ease that colored their usual routines. Unused to the weight, in fact, Lyle had bested him in the duels they'd had for the better part of three months. And as it happened before, Geralt once again found himself getting too comfortable with the blade he wielded.

He remained pensive for some time, the first hues of deep mauve pushing the dark skies away. When the first orange rays began to wash away the stars, he heard a few pairs of armored footsteps marching his way. Right on time, though it sounds emptier than usual. Geralt stood up, gently swinging Beast's Claw upwards and laying it against his shoulder, waiting for the golden monolith of an instructor to arrive. To his surprise, Tygett was flanked by a pair of soldiers, not a single one of the boys in tow. His face was severe. "Lord Geralt, you've been summoned. You are to accompany me immediately."

"Yes, my lord." He answered calmly, if not wearily. It had been a while since the Steel Lion had spoken so drily. He motioned to the other hall. "I'll bathe myself quickly, before–"

"Your bath can wait, we are needed now." Tygett insisted. Just barely, he allowed his features to soften up. "The others are heading there as we speak. This is an important matter."

"Understood, my lord. Lead the way." Geralt replied, sheathing his sword and stepping into the giant's brisk pace. Two years of training and plentiful food had allowed Geralt to stretch and grow. His clothes had to be frequently refitted with his thickening muscles and elongating limbs, and the top of his short hair could now brush Tygett's chin. Still, he was not tall enough that he could carry his blade without tilting its scabbard diagonally. Each month, it gets a little straighter though. Maybe I'll be eye-to-eye with Brandon when next I see him.

To his surprise, the giant led him to the rooms for the ill and the wounded. He knocked raptly at the door, his armored hand summoning brief thunders against the old wood. The pair of soldiers took it as their cue, bowing to the pair, spinning on their heels and walking away. The door opened, and the two walked in.

Geralt remembered the council Tywin had gathered when word of the pirates had reached them. This time, however, both Emmon and Genna were there as well, tired and weary. More so on Emmon's end. It's a wonder he's even here. Genna is far more fit to stand here than he is. Most surprisingly, the Frey was fairly close to Tywin himself, Genna standing between the two. Kevan stood at his other side, and Tygett joined him. The five were crowded around the foot of a bed, where a young man he'd not met laid on his side. Geralt in turn walked to where the others were, standing in a curved line behind the lords. Standing beside an empty space near Jaime, he gave the group a questioning look. His answers came in a series of shrugs that varied in intensity and speed. A final knock, and Gerion and Creylen walked in, the former standing by Emmon and the latter grabbing a stool and placing it beside the stranger.

"Now, turn your back to me. I need to assess the damage." Creylen curtly barked. The stranger shuffled, burying himself deeper in his sheets and hiding both face and body. The maester grumbled, "Enough with the infantile behavior. Back to me."

"Listen to him, Merrett." Emmon ordered, though Geralt could scarcely imagine even a whipped pup heeding him. 'Merrett' shuffled some more, rebelliously covering his form more tightly instead. The sulky Frey attempted to raise his voice. "Come now, brother, you must do as you are told."

"You weren't there." Came Merrett's voice, muffled by cotton. He's a young man by voice, and a Frey as well. What did we do to deserve such refined company? He peeked his head out, a round, unnoteworthy face for a round, thick skull, draped in an upside-down bowl of greasy black hair. He had only a small, thick patch of hair between his chin and his lower lip for a beard, small ears stuck to the sides of his head. He was pink from neck to ears, frowning deeply. "We weren't even by the woods. We'd stayed in a tavern in Tumbleton, but they–"

"You will obey the Maester's orders." Tywin's impatience caught up with him, and the young man flinched. He turned a dark shade of scarlet, shifting onto his side so his back was to the maester. Creylen nodded in a rare show of gratefulness to the lord, lifting the covers so his torso would be bare. Though short, Merrett was stocky, equal parts fat and muscle. More discreetly, he pulled up the sheet below so the lords would not see. If he grew any redder, Geralt imagined Merrett Frey would be the first man to die of shame.

"Severe blisters, as was expected." Creylen frowned, squinting his eyes to analyze the young man further. "They must be treated to prevent bursting, but there is no excess pus to be found. No other signs of infection, either. Proper rest and cleansing will be all that's needed for Lord Frey to make a full recovery."

Gerion's curiosity got the best of him, walking around his siblings to Creylen's side. He let out a loud whistle, humor tainting his surprise and disgust. "Severe might be an understatement, Maester. Poor Merrett's got half his arse bloated and yellow."

Merrett let out what Geralt imagined would have been curses, but the mountain of embarrassment he was buried under muddled them into incoherent mutters. Emmon's frown grew, lower lip quivering, swallowing deep and turning to the Great Lion. "Lord Tywin, this attack cannot go unpunished. As a son of Lord Walder Frey and… and y–your good-brother, I–I demand justice in the n–name of my f–f–family!"

Tywin gave him a look, and when Emmon tried to stand closer to the lord, Genna's quick slap of her husband's hand cowed him back to his place. Tywin stepped towards the side Merrett's face was turned to, looming over him and staring him down. Somehow, the wounded Frey sunk deeper into the bed, shrinking under the lord's attention. "Recount the events that led to your capture and release."

Merrett laid his head deeper into his pillow, as if hoping it would cover his head whole. The better part of the right half of his face remained out, enough to hear him well. "W-we were in a tavern, drinking. In Tumbleton. Hosteen'n me were sent for to Crakehall. We were sent by father to see Lord Sumner, convince him to send cousins Tybolt and Merlon to the Twins, make friends with our lot there. We didn' convince him, and we went back. Winter storm greeted us on the way back an' the River Road got too dangerous, so we went through the Gold Road instead. But the bloody storm followed us, burying' the road and leading our horses astray.

"We ended up further south just to get somewhere warmer, waited 'til the rest of the damn snow blew over. We got to Tumbleton, that damn meager, flea-bitten town. Tavern was run down, but Lord Footly couldn't even muster rooms to house us with him. So we stayed there, we drank… and then we drank some more. Then bloody Hosteen got it in his head that tracking stags would clear our minds. After nights freezing our arses off, the oaf decided we needed to ride and warm ourselves with a hunt!"

Sounds like you could do with freezing your arse off right about now. When the pause prolonged, Tywin cleared his throat. Merrett whipped his head to face him and turned crimson again. "I, uh… so we went hunting, Hosteen and me. Rode by the Mander looking for any animal stout enough. There… there was a group there, sitting around a fire. Hosteen said we should keep going, but I tol… I said we could go by the fire and sit with them awhile. He relented too easily, Hosteen, so we went to the group. They spoke all nice to us, invited us to eat with them. I'd wanted to stay at the tavern, and the cold made me–us, made us hungry."

A coward and a fool. If he weren't so stocky, he'd be the exact Frey every House imagines whenever they hear about their lot. Little wonder Crakehall's grandfather chose not to send his lot with them. Poor lord already lives with the pain that his daughter was wed to that bald rat. "One moment we're talking, the next moment, they've got ropes in their hands. Hosteen's up, sword in hand, but one of 'em struck me on the head. Next time I wake up, I'm saddled on the back of one of their horses as they're riding through the woods, so they hit me again. I wake up again, and I'm in a cave, surrounded by them. The Brotherhood. Toyne wasn't there, the coward, but that bloody Smiling Knight… and that skinny little whore, the White Fawn, she's called, she took her iron brand and she, and she–"

"Branded you and let you go, once your father paid for you. A good deterrent for lords attempting to haggle away at their sons' ransoms." Gerion concluded. Geralt would have snorted if the elder Lannisters were not in the room. Figures Walder Frey would try to lower the price for his son's life. The Young Lion cocked his head to the side, eyes still stuck on Merrett's wound. "Though I have to say, that scar of yours only looks like a fawn if a half-blind, piss-drunk painter attempted to engrave one. As it is now, it looks more like an ass's head. If that ass had been struck with greyscale."

"Gerion." Genna's voice was calm but firm. Gerion raised his hands gently, backing away and returning to his sister's side. Immediately after she stepped in front of her husband, looking her brother directly in the eyes. "Tywin…"

"Follow me." He simply said bluntly, turning to the door and leaving it open for the others to follow through. Geralt and the others allowed them to go through, following half a minute afterwards. Only Creylen remained by Merrett's bedside, taking some oils and ointments from his cloak and rubbing them on the beet-red Frey. Gerion was understating how awful that fawn looks. When they were out, Jaime led the lot, following a few dozen steps behind Gerion at the tail-end of the first group.

"Merrett's a cousin of yours, Lyle?!" Daven questioned silently from the back, taking a look back at where the door to the room was shrinking away. Three years' time had been enough for the boy's voice to drop several pitches lower, though by nature he still raised it when he wanted to call someone out. Close to turning six-and-ten, much of the awkwardness in his face had faded with time, and his build proved to be somewhere between Addam's litheness and Lyle's bulk. Geralt and Lyle towered half a head over the cousins, but if Daven were to catch up, he'd be following well in Tygett's footsteps. He scratched at his short, shoddy beard. "There's a damn well of strength in your blood to make a Frey like that, but not nearly enough to cull the frailty away. He's just about as thick, but that gelded boar boasts of only half your size."

"Aunt Amerei died when I was just a boy, so I remember her little. In honesty, I remember my Frey cousins little. Only Hosteen truly stands out amongst the lot. He's a warrior in body and spirit, but he's… single-minded." Lyle, in turn, looked one-and-twenty instead of seven-and-ten. A short but full beard covered the lower half of his face, and although a bit of greasiness remained in his shoulder-length hair, each year it diminished a little more. He was the only one of the boys to stand taller than Geralt, but the Stark had nearly caught up to him, just shy of a couple of inches away. He was thick in all aspects, a boar the size of an aurochs, but he'd be the first to say Geralt remained the strongest of the five.

Sometimes, I wonder if my saving him prevents him from entertaining the idea of besting me. Contrary to his Frey cousins, the Rock had done well to ferment wit and contemplation into his judgement, though his House's honor decreed he remain direct and honest. There were days Geralt missed the boy shouting unnecessarily or misreading a situation, but there was a calm openness to the young man that came surprisingly close to reminding him of the North. "Grandfather required the marriage to pay a loan we'd humbly asked from your House to repair Crakehall. Lord Frey offered her weight in silvers, and in the end he agreed. But father never forgave him for sending her away, so he would never consider my brothers going to the Twins as well."

"Lord Sumner was under pressure, especially with the way House Lannister was spiraling." Addam had grown as well, still the shortest of them, but only a few hairs behind Jaime. Arms, legs and face had stretched, giving way to high cheekbones and the gallant look his family held. His hair had darkened, and even with his beard clean-shaven, Geralt would oft see him sporting a spotless, copper shadow during the late hours of the evening. On foot, he remained the least dangerous of the five, but on horseback he was likely the best of them. It didn't take an observant man to see girls and young ladies fawning over him whenever Jaime wasn't around. "Few were the lords who paid back their loans to Lord Tytos, but your grandfather had enough sense to know not cross Lord Tywin, even in his youth. Still, it's cruel what Merrett was put through. No man should ever be disgraced to suffer the nature of such a wound."

"The wound on his arse is likely the one he'll most quickly recover from. Winter will end before his pride returns. If it ever does. And worse still, the rumors will sting him for the rest of his days." Jaime had never had an inopportune look in his youth, and his transition to manhood had gone as smoothly as the deepening of his voice. As Cersei was to the girls, Jaime was every bit the golden lion of the boys. Vibrant green eyes and golden mane of hair coloring a beautiful, lordly face left ladies both young and old, wed and unwed, blushing and breathless. And as Casterly Rock saw him, Jaime knew full well how he looked and acted the part. It's a miracle we made peace while we were still boys. He'd be insufferable now.

"Rumors?" Daven interjected, furrowing thick, dirty blond eyebrows. "What rumors are there to be had? Every man in Westeros ought to have heard of the Kingswood Brotherhood by now, and there's no such thing as a kept secret with Walder Frey. Merrett got captured and branded by them, to their many boastings. There's no unbreaking that chalice now."

"Aye, he was stolen by bandits, but that's not all. He was pinned down by their leaders and branded like cattle after they stripped him of his clothes." Jaime shook his head, dry laughter following his words. "Poor Merrett's going to have to think of a way to convince the seven kingdoms he wasn't buggered by half the Brotherhood as well. Even if he denies it, others will believe he's trying to lie and preserve his dignity. If a woman markedhim when he was bent over, it takes little imagination to what outlaws would do to him in that position, especially with men like the Smiling Knight and Longneck among their ranks."

He paused for a moment, looking up at Geralt with an inquisitive look. "You're awfully quiet, Stark."

Geralt shrugged. "Nothing to say. Merrett lost, and it may as well have cost him his manhood."

Daven leaned forwards so he was between the two. "And what then are you so sullenly focused on, wolf?"

"Your lord uncle." Geralt replied, prompting the four to turn to him. "This ought to be King's Landing's problem, and they should have been uprooted by Aerys. Instead, they're still alive and well after these past few years, and the Crownlands have been ineffective at best in countering them. Now the West has cause to intervene. What Lord Tywin chooses to do is what I'm curious about."

"Well, good-brother's brother or not, that ambush happened officially outside of the Crownlands." Jaime said, rubbing his hand over his smooth-shaven jaw. "If they get any ideas, they might even think to try their luck in the Westerlands, and my father's not the sort of man to allow any potential enemies to get that chance."

That's the problem, thought Geralt. The trek took them to the faintly familiar path leading up the Lord's Tower right to Tywin's office, silence naturally overpowering any conversation among the boys. Upon arriving to the solar, both groups took the spiral stairs up to the top, coming to the meticulously carved map. The elders took their places, only Tywin keeping his spot at the center, with the boys crowding around the Westerlands again.

"Tumbleton is part of the Reach," contemplated Kevan, tracing his finger to the small dot by the Mander. "It explains why the king's men weren't there. Are their numbers swelling enough to expand, or are they just looking for territory where Crownland soldiers are not?"

"Unfortunately, Merrett's account of events shed little light on their strength and numbers, just a tale of how his brother's 'carelessness' got him a fresh new brand." Gerion replied, chuckling drily and rubbing the beginnings of a beard coloring his jaw a faint gold. "Hosteen, for that matter, had a more valuable assessment. The Brotherhood's hunting party they encountered had little over half a dozen men, and among them, one bore a painted black heart on his pauldron. So for every seven or eight men, there's a serjeant. We know Toyne's got six captains, the only ones who bear his winged black heart on their armors.

"Reports claim there's ten black hearts for each of their winged ilk, so we're looking at four, maybe five hundred Kingswood brothers." Gerion chuckled, eyes fixed on the carved mass of trees below King's Landing. "Quite the whore their mother must have been, to produce such a great litter."

"They're all whoresons. They must be executed as such." Emmon mumbled pitifully. Geralt almost chuckled. Best you stay out of this, my lord. The adults are speaking. Genna's face mirrored his sentiments. Huffing, she looked closer.

"They're avoiding King's Landing, no doubt. Half the gold cloaks have been stationed outside the city walls this past year. It's done little to deter the bolder members of their little band, but the Brotherhood's withdrawn from their usual hunting locations." Genna's lips pursed, frowning as she looked on. "Merrett's capture was by merit of opportunity, not desperation. However much the capital's outskirts have been reinforced, it's done little to stifle the Brotherhood's success."

"The smallfolk are at the root of that." Tygett added, arms crossed. "Even those reportedly put to torture did not give up information on the Brotherhood's whereabouts. Those that did withstood it long enough to give time for the lot to move locations. So long as they believe that they are protectors and not outlaws, Toyne and his followers will find means to escape the soldiers' grasp."

"There's a force being mobilized by his Grace." Tywin's voice was even colder than usual as he spoke those last words, fading as he resumed. "An attack on Princess Elia's caravan left Lord Commander Hightower wounded. A force of four hundred soldiers is to be led by Ser Arthur Dayne in his stead, with Ser Barristan Selmy as his lieutenant."

He paused, looking directly at the Kingswood. "We will send a contingent with theirs."

"I will lead it." Tygett turned readily, his scowl strengthened by determination. He turned fully entirely to his brother, steel in his tenor. "A joint attack from both forces will uproot this pestilence."

Tywin nodded, sounding no argument to his proposal. That prompted Gerion to lean onto the table. "Then I would go as your lieutenant, dear brother. Best we send these outlaws straight to the Father's court before they get any more ideas about alleged righteous causes."

"You will ride in two days' time with four hundred of our own soldiers." Tywin declared, leaning so his finger could trace Casterly Rock. "Though you will take the Gold Road, by the Mander you'll deviate to meet with Ser Arthur's men, following the Blackwater Rush. There, you will coordinate to find and execute Simon Toyne and his men."

All lords looked in agreement, and Emmon cleared his throat. When their attention landed on him, the Frey remained with his mouth agape, choking on his answer. His face grew red like Merrett's, and he closed his mouth, shrinking behind his wife. All that talk of justice for your brother, Frey, and you haven't the guts to join your good-brothers. Still though, this is a bold move, even for Lord Tywin. Geralt frowned, gaze lifting up to look at the lord. Might as well clear any doubts now. He spoke up. "Permission to speak, my lords?"

Both the boys and the elders turned to him, all curious as to what he had to say, before turning to the Great Lion himself. Tywin's face never changed. "Permission granted."

Geralt nodded, clenching his jaw ever so faintly, pausing for a moment. Now, how best to word this? He looked at Blackwater Bay. "My lord, what are the odds this ends in war with King's Landing?"

The boys looked baffled at the question, as did Emmon, but the older lions were synchronous in their scrutiny. Tywin raised a brow. "And why do you believe it would end in a war?"

"The best years of King Aerys's reign happened while you were his Hand, my lord." Geralt replied, huffing as he continued. "He's been going through new hands like a drunk through cups of wine. Lord Merryweather lasted a tenth of your tenure after your resignation until he was exiled, and Lord Chelster half of that. It's only a matter of time before he finds cause to oust the new Lord Connington, and not one of them has put a stop to the Kingswood Brotherhood. I doubt his Grace would be well enough of judgement to be grateful for your intervention. If anything, it would accentuate his failures since your departure."

"Aerys's judgement is not so compromised to start a war he could not win." Spoke Tywin evenly, pointedly not contesting any one of Geralt's points. There was almost a hint of amusement in his drawl. "However far his mind may have fallen, success from our force would not end in further conflict."

Geralt's eyes narrowed. "But it would escalate tensions."

Tywin looked at him for a moment, and wordlessly, his expression answered everything. But if he means for Aerys to be pressured out of his office, who will sit in his place? Moreover, who could depose him from within? There's nothing to stop that madman from locking himself up in the throne room. Few were the words that leaked from the capital that the commoners would learn about, but the Warden of the West had ears far more acute than the commonfolk. Only rumors claimed that a recent execution had occurred before King Aerys, while he sat on the Iron Throne. Only he was burned alive instead of hung or beheaded.

But that rumor's been spoken of often enough to warrant a measure of truth. And now the Great Lion intends to provoke him further. Geralt wondered if this had been the true cause of his father's apprehension in sending him to Casterly Rock. In any case, we ought to prevent any attempts at assassinations. War's more likely than Lord Tywin's choosing to see. "My lord, I suggest we accompany Ser Tygett and Lord Gerion as well."

The boys gawked at him, always shocked by what new madness his audacity conjured. For once, the lion lords looked at him as if he'd said he believed in Others and magic. If nothing else, it was worth saying alone for seeing the shame on Emmon's face. Once more, Tywin remained unfazed. Tygett spoke up. "The five of you have grown in strength, skill and maturity, there's no denying that. But there is no practical reason to bring you along. Still your battle lust, Lord Geralt, you'll not lack battles in your lifetime."

"There is a practical reason, Ser." Geralt countered, standing as straight as the giant. He turned to Tywin again. "If you would hear my words, my lord, I could convince you."

Tywin remained motionless. Gerion's frown told him he agreed with the largest of the brothers, and Genna added, "Geralt, I know you mean well. And however skilled my brothers and our soldiers would be compared to flea-bitten criminals, it would be in territory they know well. If the incursions upon our own lands taught us anything, it's to prepare for the unexpected. They might have taken the five of you by accident last time, but the Brotherhood will undoubtedly mark you as targets. It is an unnecessary risk."

To Geralt's surprise, it was not Tywin who spoke up next, but Kevan. "It would be, and Lord Geralt would surely know that. And still, he argues that there is a practical reason to join our brothers. I say we let him explain his reasoning. If it fails to convince us, then we continue as planned. Tywin?"

Geralt composed himself enough so that his surprise wouldn't show. …Thank you, Ser. I won't forget this. The focus was back on the Great Lion, who remained unreadable. A moment passed, and he nodded. Geralt looked to the four at his side. "Perhaps we're not experts, but at least we're battletested, and experienced enough in plans that go awry. Should an inconvenience come to pass, we'll be readier this time. And if we're ever to fight, maybe even lead in battle, we need more than just castle training. The youngest of us is nearly six-and-ten, wars have been led by younger men. But that's not my reasoning."

He turned back to Tywin, thoughts fleeing to a dream of a gaunt, brown-haired, withering old king, consumed by fear and jealousy. "There's no reason to believe Aerys is getting better. Not with his history with his Hands, not with the rumors of burnings in his throne room. If he sees your intervention as an insult, he might not risk war, but he'll likely consider returning an insult to you of what he would believe to be equal in offense. That insult could be to have your brothers suffer an injury, if not worse. The Kingsguard are bound to his will, and in the heat of battle, an ally's arrow could accidentally hit the wrong target. With the Sword of the Morning or Barristan the Bold to validate those accounts, it might even believable, but with your son, nephews, and wards on the field…"

"…an injury, accidental or not, would certainly start a war." Gerion completed, frowning deeply. "Lord Geralt's reasoning is damnably sound, but I still argue against it. We're grown men, Tyg and I. Grown men and experienced soldiers. It'd be an unnecessary, and quite frankly infuriating challenge to deal with false allies as well, but we can manage."

"I agree." Tygett concurred, crossing his arms. "If attempts are made on our lives, we'll not fall to them. Even if your presence lessens that risk, that would still put you in harm's way."

"They will go." Both groups looked at Tywin in astonishment now. Before anyone could get a word in, he raised his hand. "Tygett and Gerion are experienced enough that they would be prepared for any underhanded play by King's Landing's forces. That is not why Jaime, Daven, Addam, Lyle and Geralt are going."

The northerner stood a little straighter and analyzed Tywin, and he immediately understood that the Great Lion had decided on that long before Geralt had thought to suggest it. "They are no longer boys. Coddling breeds weakness, and as Geralt has stated, they have had practice with unpredictability in the battlefield. This will be an exercise to foment that knowledge.

"Aerys has, at most, forty thousand soldiers indisputably his between the Crownlands and Dorne. The Rock alone has the strength to match that, and the North has similar numbers. The rest would be determined depending on the nature and the tide of the conflict. If it did come to a civil war, he knows there is a chance he could stand on the losing side, and that's enough for him to fear starting anything. This is an opportunity for them to test their skills and strength against a force that will be overwhelmed by numbers and tactics." He spoke directly to his siblings, a finality in his tone brokering no contention. "They will not have castle walls to protect them the day war calls upon them."

"Yes, my lord." The lords replied, only Genna saying Tywin, but with no less respect.

Light finally poured in, the sun finally whole and out of the horizon. Face half-covered in shadow and half-painted in fiery gold, Tywin decreed, "Then this meeting is adjourned."

No one said another word, and they all filed out of Tywin's solar. They marched out and went back to their daily routine, if not with unusual taciturnity. Only when the boys were left alone did they bombard Geralt with questions and praise, with only Jaime differing from the lot by confirming his father would have already intended to. Geralt agreed, but the boys remained relentless in their commendations for his bold advice at the meeting. In private, Jaime repeated them as well. I figured it would be a coin toss if father would show us to the battlefield or not, but I admit I didn't think to request it at the meeting. You've got balls, Stark, there's no denying that.

Two days came and went surprisingly quickly, leading to hopeful yet worried goodbyes from the lords, the girls and Darlessa. Tygett and Gerion were firm and humorous respectively in their consoling, leaving the group with no room for fear as the boys donned their armors. The road was long, the snowfalls making the horses wary of skidding. Soldiers had already broken the ice that glazed just out the entrance to Casterly Rock, and the rest was thin enough for the stallions to stomp through its surface.

The contingent was led directly by the brothers, both for once perfectly coordinated and rigorously running the lot. Might've gone unsaid, but it's clear as day they're terrified for harm to come to us under their watch again. Even if we're fighting this time, they'll probably be twice as strict as last time. Geralt pondered for a moment. Perhaps that's also the reason Tywin sent us under them, to allow them to prove to themselves they've improved. Though that would seem like an abnormally caring move on the lord's end, Geralt had learned even a man like Tywin did love his brothers, despite how little he showed it.

It was the first time Geralt rode through the Gold Road, though it looked silver with winter finally coming down on the West. The winds were cold enough that Geralt was reminded of home, but not enough that he felt paralyzed by them. Even with his steel armor, he felt cloaked enough to feel warm. But while Tygett and Gerion kept a strong front, the boys and a number of the soldiers failed to hide their shivering. They're unused to it. It's no wonder they view the North as impenetrable. It allowed him to take the lead, cheekily condescending the others while the Lannister cousins cursed him openly.

A brief stop at Deep Den gave the lot time to heat themselves up, and Geralt an introduction to House Lydden. Incredibly self-confident and boastful for a bunch of cave-dwellers. Lord Lewys Lydden had mentioned no less than three times throughout dinner of King Joffrey, born Lydden, married and became the first Andal King of the West. Twice as many times, he daringly called Tygett and Gerion brothers, toasting to the progenies of the 'old king'. He was all too oblivious to Tygett's open distaste and Gerion's finely laced insults, which he mistook for compliments. If nothing else, it takes a badger to forget the lion's might.

They were out of the mountain by the morn, and the journey took on straighter paths. Their luck proved to be better than the Freys'. No storm followed them, and the worst of the cold remained behind, snow clearing to show the arid dirt coloring the great yellow path to the east. It took several nights of camping, but both the soldiers and their commanders rode quickly. Within a week's time, they made it to their first destination. Geralt could hear the Blackwater Rush several minutes before their horses could drink from it, raising his brows at the violent speed at which the waters ran.

"Not the best place to bathe," called Gerion from the front, catching his eye. He laughed and shook his head. "Some claim fresh, young maidens swim here, beckoning to them any man brave enough to join them. I'd guess that's just a rumor made to fool boys into diving in and drowning themselves. There's far more proof of that than there are of lasses wet all over."

"Gerion speaks true." Tygett asserted, ignoring his brother's jests. "At its worst, the Rush has spilled from its bounds and dragged men and their mounts deep into its bowels. If you must drink or take its water, go not alone. With winter storms coming and going, you're as like to die of drowning as you are of frostbite, should it catch you."

"Not so in Stark's case." Daven grumbled. "Madman could ride naked and still be warmer than the rest of us if we set our horses ablaze."

"Aye, but I doubt he's the best swimmer. Can't imagine the North having an unfrozen lake or sea." Jaime countered, giving Geralt a cheeky grin. "Naked or not, you'd be flailing like a roasting pig."

Geralt shrugged. "That still means I have a chance to live, which is more than you can say. Is that your cloak, Jaime, or did you drape your bed covers over your shoulders?"

The group laughed, a brief moment of respite for the lot through the chill of the journey. They spent as long camping on the river as they did along the road, though the farther they went, the fewer fires were allowed to be kept. It will be impossible for the Brotherhood not to know our whereabouts, but we can delay that knowledge for a while longer, Tygett had reasoned. Gerion coincided, And when they do, they'll have fewer clues on the size of our forces. They won't be sure if it's a hundred or a thousand men, and that ought to have them shitting their britches. Fear alone is half the battle, and should they surrender to it, they're far more likely to lose in their fight against us.

Fortunately for the group, further east and south, even winter appeared to recede. Huddling was far from their favorite activity, but in a large tent, keeping close enough to one another helped ward the cold away. At least for them, Geralt thought tiredly as Lyle's thick arm fell onto his chest. Only when the others were asleep, did he take his trinket out of his pocket. He'd deliberated on taking it or not, but fear made him ponder on the possibility of a maid entering his room and taking it for herself. Even convinced that the damnable item was the cause for his lack of sleep, he had too hard a time letting it out of his sight. Who knows? It might even bring me some luck in this battle and finally make itself of fucking use.

Some more days passed, and finally, they saw the edge of the Kingswood. Moreover, they could see soldiers in gold and black and red, all camping around the edge of the forest. The tents had enough dirt on their sides to let Geralt know they'd been there for a while. Tygett's strategy was not shared by the lot, who generously lit bonfires for every five or so men. I count sixty smoke pillars. Either Lord Tywin's information was wrong, or there's a quarter of them not around here. Riding closer, the men stood, bearing gold cloaks and Targaryen sigils. Their stances were callous, and it was clear the soldiers did not know how to feel about Lannister men joining their ranks. Tygett and Gerion rode at the tip of the spear with the boys not far behind, though a row of armored riders remained between the lords and the boys.

"We hail your commanders, Ser Barristan and Ser Arthur of the Kingsguard." Tygett's voice rumbled, a boom that only served to make the king-sent force more anxious. "We would speak to them immediately to coordinate a strike that will destroy this band of outlaws for good."

The grounded men murmured, not quite reaching for their weapons, but not heeding the large commander's commands. A voice equal in strength emerged from the crowded lot. "I'm afraid my brother is out with a hundred of our men, but I would be honored to relay our information and knowledge to you."

And out of the crowd marched a figure clad in pristine, white, heavy plate armor. Helmet in hand, Geralt was met with a clean-shaven man with medium blond hair dashed with streaks of grey and white. His blue eyers reflected a steel stronger than most men's swords, though his expression was serene and noble. The sword at his back had an intricate and elegant sheath, with a hilt that looked stronger than iron. But Geralt had read on the Sword of the Morning and seen enough depictions of Dawn to know the man was not its wielder. Ah, so this one's the Bold. Tygett and Gerion hopped down their horses in unison, walking forwards to meet the knight while the former removed his helmet. Barristan bowed his head. "Well met, my lords. On behalf of his Grace, we're grateful for your aid in this matter."

"Oh, the honor is all ours, Ser Barristan." Gerion replied, bowing his head with his brother, his usually impish smile withdrew to a more subtle smirk. "Who are we to stand idle while merciless marauders make away with our neighboring lords and ladies?"

"What Lord Gerion means," Tygett emphasized before his brother's enthusiasm got the best of him, "is that our force stands ready. We were told you would have a force of four hundred, and Lord Tywin saw fit to match that with our own."

"Then by your brother's fealty, victory will undoubtedly be ours." Barristan nodded, eyeing the lion-bearing riders before his gaze landed on the boys. His greying brows furrowed. "My lords, I see behind you young men who must surely be your squires. Are they prepared for the battlefield?"

"They've had experience, if that's what worries you." Gerion answered with a smile, though his tone gained a seriousness rarely seen in the man. "They'll be under our watch, to be sure. But make no mistake, however young they look, each of them has taken more than a life in battle."

"The first is always the hardest." Barristan agreed sagely, turning to Jaime and the others, voice ringing crisply. "Stand together. Those who try to hog the glory oft are the first to fall."

"Ser Barristan speaks true." Tygett called, turning to the others as well. Side by side, Tygett was still fairly taller than the aged knight, but the pale, white armor made him stand nearly as thick and shine twice as bright. A sword second only to Ser Arthur amongst the Kingsguard… though some say it's only Dawn that keeps Dayne at the zenith, or else they'd be evenly matched. "Your positions will be discussed when we oversee the plans tonight. Whatever the case, stick by one another, and do not stray from our forces."

"Commander! The Sword of–" The Targaryen soldier stopped, looking between Barristan and the new arrivals. The Kingsguard gave a crisp nod, and the soldier regained his composure. "The Sword of the Morning's returned to the town!"

"Then we must go." The knight turned to the leonine pair. "My lords, if you'll follow me, we'll meet with Ser Arthur at the village in the Kingswood. Our presence there is of the utmost importance."

"Then lead the way, ser, our men will accompany yours." Tygett agreed crisply, returning to his stallion with Gerion as soldiers brought Barristan's mare to him. He looked at the boys and growled. "All of you, follow us. You'll keep silent through the Kingsguard knights' plan, but you will be watching. Let's go."

He gave a loud 'HA' and his steed neighed, trotting after the white silhouette that galloped into the woods. Gerion followed hot at his heels, and Jaime in turn led the other four as they rode. They spent nearly half an hour through the thick of the forest, past root and soil and stone, with the occasional shallow streams making a splash under their hooves. Eventually, the great wooden pillars gave way to a clearing, with a dozen or so homes and halls built by thick logs. The townsfolk were out, perhaps half a hundred that came in all ages, weary and fearful of the armored lot in their home. But as the group dismounted, their attention returned to whom they crowded around. Tygett and Barristan parted the commoners easily, enough for the boys to follow closely behind. As the forest did, the people gave way to six figures, the centermost shining too brightly to ignore.

His hair was briar close to ebony, perfectly parted at the middle and just long enough to brush his armor's pauldrons. Elegantly high cheekbones made his face no less welcoming, if not a bit somber, with short, full lips under a nose neither too big nor too small, too sharp nor too girthy. His eyes were what stood out the most, a wise mauve bordering on violet, regal to be sure, but not inherently linked to Old Valyria. Were it not for his imposing armor, nigh as thick as his brother-in-arm's, he would have looked like an Essosi prince. There was a soothing aura to him, though beneath its calm surface, hints of pain could be seen. One look at the five women in different states of injury and disrobing showed exactly why.

"Ser Barristan, my lords, you'll forgive me if I do not bow, my focus is on hearing the tales of these maidens' strength and bravery." His voice was silky, but it lacked no amount of fortitude. With gentle grace, he unclasped his white cloak, draping it around the arms of the most exposed woman. The one with the worst bruises. "Forgive me, my ladies, what I'll ask from you is cruel, for you've already done much to survive your attacks. But if you could muster one last nugget of bravery, I would ask you to tell the townsfolk what you told me before we arrived here. On my word as a knight, we shall bring their treacheries to justice."

His voice carried across the wind like a gentle hand, caressing each of the maiden's pains and fears, though still they remained puffy-eyed and blubbering from their injuries. The one closest to Arthur panted quickly, gasping for air faster and faster as her mind dragged her back into her haunting memories. The legend of House Dayne knelt before her, gripping her hands gently and giving her a pleading look. She breathed slower, tears running down her cheeks, slowly nodding and readying herself. She wasn't able to look up at the entourage of lords and commonfolk, instead focusing on Arthur's gauntleted hand.

"They attacked us." She mewled, lips trembling. Her broken voice set the others off, each tearing up or weeping harder as her aching infected them. "They swore they would protect us, look out for us, but they attacked us."

Arthur prodded gently, "Who did, my lady?"

"T-t-the Brotherhood. The Kingswood Brotherhood. T-t-the S-S-S…" Her stuttering devolved into nonsensical muttering, the knight before her hushing her tenderly, tightening his grip on her hands with utmost care. She stopped, letting out the sob building in her throat. She's missing a few teeth. More are cracked or chipped. Arthur offered her a flask of water when she finished, the girl gratefully nodding and taking several swigs. He passed it around to the others, letting them focus on filling their needs rather than giving in to their fears. Another minute passed, and ever so patiently, Arthur waited. The girl looked at him gratefully, lips trembling again. "T-t-the Smiling Knight… the Smiling Knight attacked us, ser, him a-a-and his fiend. The tall, gaunt one, with the scars 'round his neck."

"Oswyn Longneck, his squire." Ser Arthur completed, leading to half the girls to confirm with their furious glares and the other with their fresh outburst of tears. The townsfolk murmured amongst themselves, worry and shame coloring their words. You house rats for long enough, complain not for the fleas on your back, Geralt thought wrathfully. Every one of his companions were in different states of horror, disgust and fury, only Tygett matching, if not outright surpassing Geralt's own deeply, the knight closed his eyes, mustering the closest look to commanding without losing his compassion. "Tell the townsfolk, my lady. Tell them what those who swore to protect you did to you."

She broke down again, burying her face in her hands, something far worse than shame destroying her spirit. She grieves, Geralt realized. Her whimpers confirmed his suspicions. "We was to be married, Geremy an' me, we was to be married. We said our vows–"

She sobbed with the weight of heartbreak and shame, reduced to all but a child as she hugged herself, wincing when her hands graced too far below her belly. Geralt was fuming, he could feel the fire building in his lungs, spreading to his guts. Arthur remained calm, voice dropping to a whisper. "I beg you, my lady, allow us to avenge you. You, and your beloved Geremy. Say the words, and we shall not waste another moment."

Geralt was convinced the girl was a lost cause, but Arthur broke through. Her red eyes flashed with sadness, then anger, then just enough resolve. "We was in the Kingswood, my family and me. I was before my Geremy, sayin' our vows to the Father, the Mother… then they came. They was laughing, callin' us godless for havin' no septon, no lord to 'bind us'. The shorter one, the one with the evil smile, he says he was a knight, that he would give me his favor an' see us wed."

She shook her head, her fingernails clawing blood out of her arms. "He says he was owed payment, but we ain't had not gold. He says for us not to worry, that we had what he an' his boys needed. Geremy stood up to him, took his old man's axe an' stood up to the Smiling Knight. He laughed. He laughed and he cut him to pieces. Called us ungrateful, says we still owe him. They tore me dress off, the one my sisters and ma made. They broke theirs dresses too. They worked so long on 'em. Then… then he was on top of me, hand on me neck.

"He smiled," she'd managed through broken teeth, "he stripped us of our honor and beat us bloody while he smiled."

"We've heard enough." Tygett growled, teeth grinding each other nearly to dust. He turned to an equally livid Gerion. "Bring our healers. Make sure their wounds are tended to."

"At once." Gerion seethed, marching away and barking orders at other crimson troops. At Arthur's gesture, Targaryen soldiers also came, coating the women so his bloodied white cloak could be returned to him. The village looked frightened as the lords stood, unanimous in their anger, but Barristan remained with a stoic front, and Arthur never let himself fall into anger. He looked around until he locked eyes with the village elders, aghast and remorseful.

One stepped forward, "M-m-my lords, we swears to you on the Seven, on the Father hisself, that we didn't want none of this! We know those girls, they're Brenna's daughters, sweet lot, they's innocent. We would never–"

"You took the Brotherhood in and gave them shelter, the very outlaws that hurt Brenna's daughters on the wedding day." Arthur spoke evenly, silencing the lot, instilling guilt and fear into all the commonfolk. To Geralt's surprise, he walked to the elder and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Had we tended and protected our own better, you would not have needed to shelter those scoundrels. The fault is as much ours as it is yours. Brenna's daughters will never be the same again, they'll bear those scars for the rest of their lives. But you have a chance now, Lundyn. Tell the other townsfolk sheltering the Brotherhood who it is they're housing, who it is that Simon Toyne truly protects. Make right by your own, Lundyn, and on my word the king and his men will make right by you."

"I… of course, ser. Thank you, ser." The old man bobbed his head, talking to what looked like a pair of his sons, who took to old mounts and made for different directions. His clemency left all in surprise, and though the fear of torture and execution was cleared for the townsfolk, it left them all to revel in the disgrace they wrought upon the maidens. Ser Arthur was counting on it. He's done better than light a fire in the rat's den, he's making their hosts oust them deliberately. Still, Geralt had a hard time believing he was capable of setting aside his rage for the smarter choice, and from the looks of it, Jaime and the others were of the same mind. Even Tygett was still fuming, closing and opening his fists heatedly.

"My lords," Ser Arthur stood up before the group, bowing elegantly once the crowd dispersed, "I apologize for my delay in greeting you, there were important matters afoot."

"Nonsense, ser," countered Tygett, voice still carrying remnants of the bloody wrath the maidens' tale had spurred, "you've acted remarkably prudently. Without the townsfolk's support, the Brotherhood will be out in the open, ready for us to cut off and decimate."

"Precisely, my lord." Ser Barristan nodded, all too aware of his brethren's plans. "If you would follow us to our tent, we can arrange for the positions our soldiers will take."

"Then we shall follow. Lord Gerion will be with us shortly. Boys, form up." At his bark, the five stood straighter and followed them to the tent. It was simple, the only item of value being the detailed map of the forest over a simple, forgettable table. There, they learned of the Captains of the Kingswood Brotherhood. Wenda the White Fawn, Fletcher Dick, Ulmer, Big Belly Ben, Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged, and the Smiling Knight, all under Lord Simon Toyne's command. Geralt's hairs pricked up when the last captain was named. If I find him, I'll be sure to cut him a new smile.

The groups were to be divided, to root them out the following day by noon. The enemy knew the terrain to well to attempt to contest them at night, and their forces were nearly at six hundred. That still gives us two hundred soldiers more, better armored, and better trained, Daven had said. Geralt frowned. Aye, that just means that this lot has survived with shit armor and fewer men despite being against greater odds for years. Their experience might be worth more than our soldiers'. The boys themselves were to be divided, Tygett taking charge of Jaime, Addam and Lyle while Gerion watched over Geralt and Daven. It was the first night were none of the boys spoke a word, all of them too anxious over what the next morning would bring.

By the time dawn had risen, the news of the maidens' defiling had reached the other commonfolk in the Kingswood, and their resentment of the Brotherhood swiftly left them without hiding places. Now is the time, Barristan sternly stated, before they can chance to regroup and hide once more. Though they'd ridden on horseback, Toyne had been clever enough to wait for them in the thickest of the forest, forcing the lot from their horses. They'd marched readily, Gerion several steps ahead while Daven and Geralt kept pace. An arrow came out the back of a Lannister soldier's head, and all seven hells broke loose.

They rushed to Gerion's sides, both Geralt and Daven swinging their swords at men with black hearts on their chests. Swiftly, they took the serjeants down, leading to an unintelligible bark from Gerion. In the distance, he saw a man kneeling, and instinctively he ducked from where the arrow flew to. The Young Lion charged forwards rapidly, shouting back 'STAY WITH THE MEN', as he forced Ulmer to draw his sword. Geralt nearly ran after him, but Daven caught his arm and motioned his head to where a portion of the allied soldiers looked to have been stopped dead in their tracks by the outlaws.

The pair cut their way through ragtag swordsmen and archers, Daven slashing their guts open and beheading a few. With wolfish fury, Geralt cut his opponents in half, leaving his luckier targets swordless and armless. Eventually, the currents of battle led them away from where Gerion ran off to, to where the forces were held to a standstill. Though the Brotherhood's men were outnumbered, no man of the West or the Crownlands dared step forwards into the opening between them. No arrows rushing by let him know that neither Fletcher Dick, Ulmer nor the White Fawn were keeping their forces at bay. Instead, he heard a roar, a charge, and a shrill, bloodcurdling shriek.


The cackles that overshadowed the scream were loud and vicious, followed shortly by a wet splat, concluding in even crueler laughter. A crimson soldier fell with half his face skinned off, right half of his teeth as bare and unprotected as his eye, now lacking eyelids and the skin around it. He gasped in agony before the shock overtook him, death bringing a merciful end to the unfathomable pain. Swinging his sword quickly in the air, the Smiling Knight giggled cheerfully over a broken pile of a dozen different soldiers who'd been gifted his joy. Atop the corpses he'd carved, he looked taller than his moderate height.

His hair was dark, receding at the sides while the frontmost end remained strong. His grey eyes were larger than most men's, but not enough to be unnatural. His nose and ears were rather normal for the terrifying figure they adorned. It was his smile that was most notable. Cut at the cheeks to make it wider than it already was, there was a predatory edge to it that told of a man who feared neither justice nor revenge. It spoke of the happiness he found in others' suffering, of the pleasure it took from bestowing tragedy on others. The one that befell the women. Both Lannister and Targaryen troops remained several feet back, allowing the Brotherhood men at the Smiling Knight's back to march forwards. Even Daven at his side remained paralyzed.

"Now," he called, pointing his sword at the opposing army, nearly all of them flinching, "who here is man enough to face me? All I've slain are yellowbellies, cravens, and women in men's skins. It's by my mercy that I don't strip your leggings and make whores out of you all. Come now, who will challenge me?!"

He smiled, he stripped us of our honor and beat us bloody while he smiled. His rage had him looking at the ally soldiers in disgust. No one moved. Geralt looked back at the monster again. The black beast in his stomach would not let him breathe evenly, so he stilled his mind and concentrated. You've done this before, a familiar stranger within him spoke, do it again. He put Beast's Claw on his back and marched forwards, leading them all to part ways to let him through. He ignored Daven's words and tuned out the world's cacophony. His mind was made, and his blood demanded the miscreant's head.

The crowd gasped at his easy stride, fully unbothered by the three sets of men at the bloody madman's back. Walking calmly, he swung his sword in a heavy pendulum, a thick whoosh following each spin. He was out of the Lannister ranks, away from his men. Whoosh. He took a few more steps, closer and closer to the Smiling Knight's dueling range. Whoosh. He stopped a few feet away, never once moving his burning glare away from the maniac's obsidian eyes. Whoosh. He remembered the bruises on the women's skins, the blood on their skirts, the pain and shame in their eyes. Swing. Beast's Claw came rapidly down, blood coming off its full length as Geralt stood primed for the battle. The Smiling Knight grinned wide.

"So this is your best?" He cackled, vile mirth easing his tension. "Bunch of cocksucking cowards you lot, letting some overgrown welp take over for you lot. Say boy, do you know how I–"

Geralt ran forwards. "HAAAUUUGH!"


The Smiling Knight barely just blocked his downward strike, grunting at the weight of the force behind it. He smirked again, mouth opening to say something as he moved his sword, but Geralt swung down on him again. CLING. And again. CLING. Faster. CLING. Faster. CLING, CLING. The butcher bit his tongue, brows furrowing hatefully at every step back the maddened wolf forced him to take, to the gasps and whispers of the crowd. They murmured, neither side moving, but Geralt heard none of them. He just kept swinging, until the Smiling Knight growled and managed to hop out of his range. A vicious swing to Geralt's left side was swiftly and powerfully met with Beast's Claw again, a vibration reverberating into his arms. CLIIING.

Veins in his throat bulging, the Smiling Knight laughed and roared, "MY TURN!"

He stuck his sword in the ground, swinging upwards rapidly and flinging mud at Geralt's face. Briefly blinded, Geralt allowed his ears to take the reins, whipping his head back as a faint swish just barely licked his left cheek. Through mostly closed eyes, he saw the rabid assailant's silhouette, the shine of his blade moving wildly his way. To the man's fury, Geralt continued to block, his fury equaling the Brotherhood's mad dog's bloodlust. He gave a shrill scream, kicking Geralt's chest and raising his sword high. Dirt out of his eyes, he swung upwards with all his body's weight. CLACK. Two thirds of the Smiling Knight's Blade went flying, a dagger's worth of steel left on his hilt. With the momentum, Geralt spun and swung again, only lower.


"AAAUUUGH!" A cry escaped the Smiling Knight as Beast's Claw trespassed steel and leather, burying itself deep in his hip. Tears ran down his eyes, but his grin never faded. Pulling his blade out, the man fell, attempting and failing to hold back the blood and intestines pouring from the wound with his right hand. Sword dropped, fear warping the confident steel in his eyes into broken glass, his smile took a pleading shape. He shakily raised his right hand at him, trembling as the blood left him. Did the women give you that same look, bastard? But he could barely see his face through the thick, round, plate helmet that obscured all but his eyes. "W–wait! You are definitely the better man! I, Bazuso, am–"

Guts brought Beast's Claw down, narrowly missing his head, instead sinking past the Smiling Knight's neck nearly all the way down to his groin. Pressing his foot against the dead man's chest, he gave a grunt and pulled it free, a fresh coat of crimson announcing its victory. …The fuck did he say? He blinked, and immediately his guard was up. The men were quiet, shocked by what had transpired. The silence prolonged, each side tense at the results. Then the Lannister soldiers roared in victory, reverently chanting 'Geralt, Geralt, GERALT!', over and over again. The Brotherhood's men finally gave in to fear, their monster crudely put down. One serjeant cried retreat, but the lion's men were already charging forwards.

Geralt shook his head. Doesn't matter, he thought, there's still a battle to fight. Beast's Claw held high, he ran to the front lines again, leading three score of crimson cloaks. Terrified and running, an legion half the size of the Brotherhood's could have cut them down easily. And we have the upper hand in numbers. Men fell left and right, Geralt removing heads if not outright cleaving bodies in half. A brave few tried to fight back, but he quickly overpowered them, throwing Benjen's knife into the neck of a petrified archer. At the head of them, the woods gave way to a clearing where the rest of the commanders were having it out.

He arrived just in time to see Jaime plunging his sword deep into Fletcher Dick's heart. He dropped on top of where his severed hand and blade were, blood seeping deep into the soil. He caught Geralt's eye and gave a rapid nod, the two falling into step and rushing to where the Lannisters and Barristan fought against the Brotherhood. From the side opposite of the field, Ser Arthur leaped in, stepping into the raven-haired giant Big Belly Ben's side. The boulder-like man swung his warhammer at the Kingsguard, pitifully slow to the Sword of the Morning's catlike reflexes. Dawn licked him where the steel ended and the leather began at the back of his knees, bringing the brute to his knees. It barely made a sound when it cut through gorget, flesh and bone, in two fell swipes bringing down the largest of the captains.

Tygett wasn't as fast, but far stronger in his swings at the Longneck. His rage at the women's injustice must have caught up with him, because once his strike forced the Thrice-Hanged's sword out of his hands, he took his arm at the shoulder. And then the other. And then his leg at the thigh. Nearly a stump, screaming and flailing on the ground, the knight of Lannister split his long, meaty neck in two. Even decapitated, Oswyn's hazel-haired head still looked like it had a neck to hold on to. Gerion made do with a simpler execution when he degloved short Ulmer's sword hand, soon after slashing across the outlaw's gut, letting all matter of entrail burst out as the captain collapsed. From afar, Geralt caught a mane of pale gold riding away, frightened brown eyes focusing on escaping. The White Fawn runs. Best not return, captain, there's hundreds of soldiers waiting to make a whore out of you here.

"Lord Simon, come out and face me!" Ser Barristan's shout cut through the air as his sword had cut through a dozen Kingswood brothers. From the dwindling numbers of the defenders stepped out a tall, gruff man. He had receding hazel hair, a peppered hazel beard, grey and yellow armor with a winged black heart on its chest, and exceptionally bitter eyes. He's gone too far to submit and surrender, that one. And when the soldiers came running, Ser Barristan raised his hand, stopping them in their tracks. He walked closer to the offender and pointed his blade at him. "Man to man, Toyne. With all that you've done, this is far more honorable an end than you deserve."

"And what I've done is only half as dishonorable than what your wretched king does on a whim, to those he swore to protect. All the while, his adherents scramble over one another to lick his boots and praise him for his cruelties. That a few were branded so they remember their wrongdoings ought not be considered a crime." His growls came out riled, poisoned, rehearsed. He isn't afraid of dying, Geralt realized. He fears failing. He could almost respect the miscreant for that. Toyne spit on the ground. "Keep your honor, ser. I've no regard for hypocrites and lickspittles."

"Then have at thee." Barristan answered, tone never wavering. Toyne roared and charged, while Selmy never moved. The commander made to strike, but Barristan was faster. The last leader of the Kingswood reacted quickly, enough to riposte the blade. His eyes widened, realizing his loss. Barristan the Bold had already predicted that move. Faster still had been Ser Barristan's own counter, resulting in his blade piercing Simon's outer black heart and his inner bleeding one. As elegantly as he stabbed his enemy, he withdrew his sword, allowing Lord Toyne to fall flat on the ground. The troops erupted in cheers and the Kingswood Brotherhood tossed their blades and knelt, surrendering to the victors. We've won.

Rushing behind them brought the pair to turn to Daven leading Addam and Lyle. Covered in blood that mostly wasn't theirs, the trio felt relief and hugged the pair, the five relaxing as they allowed their fears to be washed away with their triumph. Daven was the first to break them apart, grabbing Geralt by his chest plate and looking him directly in the eyes. "Bloody. Fucking. Madman! The strength of two men and the balls of seven! You're a damn beast, wolf! Direwolf, I keep forgetting. Not anymore, not after today!"

The others looked at Daven surprised while Geralt chuckled. Seeing as the object of Daven's fascination wouldn't explain further, they looked to the crazed Lannister. He shook his head and pointed directly at Geralt's face. "This fucker right here split the bloody Smiling Knight in half!"

"Is that true?" Jaime asked, getting a step in. Geralt shrugged and nodded. The blonde gawked for a moment before bursting out laughing. "My cousin's delivered an understatement then. By sheer brutality, his skill put him second to Toyne. How'd you manage that one, Stark?"

Geralt's smile disappeared. "I thought of the women."

That robbed the humor from the five, bringing out somber moods from the group. Addam was the first to place a hand on his shoulder and grip it firmly. "Nothing may ever fix the damage that was done to them, but you've avenged their honor, Geralt. That alone is more than most can say."

"Yes, you did." Agreed Lyle, softly punching his shoulder, ignoring the hair that got glued to the dried blood on his cheek. "You stood before a monster the men were too frightened to face and cut him down. A shame you're not interested in knighthood, this alone would surely earn you a rank among them."

"Better not do so, Crakehall, I'd likely sully them. If I hadn't been in the heat of the battle, I'd have liked to lop off his cock first." Geralt grunted, frowning when he remembered the man's pleading eyes. But I slashed at him with all my strength, expecting heavy armor when he barely wore more than boiled leathers. Who did I see…? He shook his head again, not wanting to give further thought to the apparition his mind saw fit to conjure. Instead, he turned back to Jaime. "And I saw you making Fletcher Dick handless and heartless. You had your share of spilling a captain's blood as well."

"Killing him was barely half the accomplishment. He's a better fighter than the average soldier, but not by much." Jaime pointed at punctures in his armor, a brown halo around them telling the story of the blood that was forced from his body. "That man was born with an eagle's eye. It took running as fast as I could to get to him without getting an arrow through my head. Or neck. Or balls. Father ought to thank the gods he got me in the thigh instead, or Casterly Rock would have been given to Tyrion's sons."

"Shame then, Casterly Rock was close to having a competent mind follow your father's." Geralt replied, earning an elbow to his side and laughter from the group. When it died down, he gave Jaime a nod. "Well done, Jaime. You might have more guts than I gave you credit for."

"You surprise me, Stark. If you finally see clearly enough to notice that, you might just stop mistaking sheep for whores." His eyes led him to two marching figures, and he turned quickly, finding Tygett and Gerion to be walking towards them. Geralt nudged the others, who turned around immediately and saluted the pair.

They shouted briskly, "My lords!"

"At ease." Tygett replied, voice lax with the end of the battle. Beneath his tough visage, there was a swelling of pride behind his eyes. "You've done remarkably well. You ought to be proud of yourselves."

"Aye, bravo, lads. You're now proper soldiers, experienced in multiple battles." Gerion offered encouragingly. He leaned closer and whispered with a wicked smile. "See? No underhanded assassination attempts. We're fine."

Geralt nodded, but Jaime was the one who wasn't convinced. "And which side has lost the most men, uncles?"

"The royals, lad. They don't have the strength to ambush us." Gerion added, for once speaking on the same note as Tygett, who simply nodded in support. He looked back briefly and added, "Besides, both the Bold and the Sword of the Morning are far too honorable to accept resorting to schemes. His Grace would have done better to send out his favorite mute, Payne, if he wanted us gutted so badly."

"That's enough of that. All of you, stand straight!" Tygett barked, prompting Gerion to chuckle and the boys to jump at his orders. The Steel Lion removed his helmet, leading the lot to where the two shining knights stood. If nothing else, the texts don't do their skill justice. He bowed his head, and the pair did the same. "Excellently fought, Ser Barristan. It's rare enough to see a proper riposte in combat, never mind a counter riposte. The Brotherhood is defeated."

"In no small part due to our western allies." Barristan replied as honorably. He gave Longneck a passing look. "I see you dispatched Oswyn yourself, my lord."

"I did, ser. Fury got the best of me, but the young girls' tales spurred my wrath." Tygett grunted, shaking his head, and frowning at the corpse. "One cut would have sufficed, the rest was indulgence."

"You'll be hard-pressed to find perfection on the battlefield, my lord." Arthur offered, a tone much more tranquil than Barristan's bravado. "In the end, he was our enemy, and one foul enough to find joy in others' misery. You bested and slew him, nothing to lose a night's sleep over."

"Especially when the dearly departed brothers believed battlefields were the home to perfection." Gerion quipped, bowing his head to each of the knights. "Well met, sers. Tourneys don't do your training justice. Would that I could have seen more of your fighting, I've probably learned a book's worth just from watching your bouts."

"And you have fought fiercely as well, my lord. Ulmer might have been Fletcher Dick's apprentice, but he was also twice the sword, and quick with a dagger in his left hand." Barristan humbly replied, bowing his head in tandem with Arthur. "To come out without a scratch is not an accomplishment to undermine."

"Naturally. One scar makes me a handsome warrior, Ser Barristan. Two would mark me a woeful weakling." He grinned cheekily, prompting a sigh from Tygett, a lack of response from the knight, and a cordial chuckle from Arthur. The third's reaction lit his eyes with victory. Satisfied, he kept his easy smile over a more sobered mood. "But enough of us old men. We've had enough experience in our lifetimes with brigands that this was no grand deed. It's the lads who should be getting the praise, for they all fought well. My dear nephew Jaime was responsible for killing my opponent's master, in fact. Should tonight we feast as comrades, it's in their names that we should toast."

"How old are you, son?" Barristan asked, looking directly at Jaime. One look at the boy was enough to see he was struggling not to look awestruck. He barely said 'six-and-ten' without stammering, and the old knight chuckled. "You've done well, my lord. We've lost at least two dozen good men to Fletcher Dick. When their wives and children wonder about their killers, they'll know the young lion Jaime Lannister set their souls to rest."

"Ser Barristan speaks true." Arthur added, pleasant beam on his face. "The West will soon count on a fine new knight to join their ranks."

For the first time since his arrival, Geralt watched Jaime's face turn scarlet, bowing deeply before the two. As he rose, a smile plastered on his face, he briefly met Geralt's gaze. His smile fell, and after a moment of contemplation, shot him an irritated glare before sighing. "It's an honor among honors to be praised by you both, Ser Barristan, Ser Arthur. Having said that, I… I can't stand here and take credit for Fletcher Dick on my own. Not when the man who brought down the Smiling Knight stands here besides me."

He turned directly to Geralt, and that in turn had the four men raising their brows in surprise. He stood a little straighter as the lot scrutinized him from hair to toe, the knights especially observant. I don't think this was as flattering as you intended it to be, Lannister. Ser Barristan was the one who spoke up. "The Smiling Knight was cruel and vicious, but those squalid qualities only accentuated his formidable skill. Did you truly cut him down? On your own?"

"It was easier once his sword was broken, ser." Geralt responded carefully, unsure of how to best handle the attention. His answer left them all the more astonished. Hurriedly, he added, "He fought dirty, but his techniques aren't as good as the tales the soldiers spun. Men were just terrified to be locked in combat with him, especially after seeing his victims, more so the ones who survived. I was good, sure, but I just won because I was angry, not afraid. I knew I couldn't fall until I slaughtered the bastard."

"A great tool, to allow rage to fill you with strength." Arthur nodded, still a bit shocked. Sagely, he continued, "Use it to steel your resolve, but never allow yourself to get lost in it. While ceaseless fury may give men the strength of lions and wolves, it can also reduce their minds to such beasts. Any man experienced enough with fighting animals will know how best to bait them, to make them fall into his traps. Ser Barristan here showed a fine example of that through Toyne's own loss."

"A good fighter, but too confident." Barristan agreed, looking back at the fallen commander. "And infamous for his counters. Proficient in giving, but not in receiving. Knowledge of that was worth more than having the better sword. In the end, pride killed him just as much as my blade did."

"But that's enough of such dour talks. Toyne and his captains are dead, and we all lived." Gerion cut in, putting an arm around each knight. Tygett barely held in a sigh while the members of the Kingsguard looked at the man in amusement. "What say you, my lords and sers, that we leave lessons for the morning, and tonight we toast our comrades' valor and our enemy's swift defeat?"

"I think, my lord," Arthur offered with a soft smile, "that it would be thoughtless of us to refuse such an enticing offer."

Barristan nodded, "Lessons ought not be forgotten, but there is a time to celebrate as well."

"Then I insist we treat you to our spiced honey wines." Tygett spoke in a voice just shy of a command, position remaining rigidly upright. "Our brother foresaw our victory in the Kingswood and saw to it that we brought a few of our barrels for your men and ours."

"And the commonfolk." Gerion added, giving looks to the giant and the knights. "Ser Arthur rightly stated that we would fight for the townsfolk more than the Brotherhood did, as is his chivalrous wont. With their aid, it's only fair they join us in our celebration."

"I couldn't agree more, my lord." Ser Arthur's smile widened almost imperceptibly, but sincerely as well. "We're all due the celebration of our victory together."

And with that, the groups parted, the knights and the Lannister coordinating the men to properly dispose of the corpses and shackle the surrendered prisoners. The Night's Watch will be receiving a hefty supply of men soon. I wonder how well Crownlanders will do on the Wall, if they even make it that far. The processes were done effectively, efficiently, and as night fell, campfires were lit where lords, soldiers and commoners alike drank wine and sang and danced.

The boys themselves had had their gratuitous fill, with a drunken Gerion rolling a barrel their way for 'the Kingswood's heroes'. Lyle was, to the group's surprise, the first to grow dizzy and merry with the wine, hugging them one at a time and naming them his 'brothers in steel'. Daven was only slightly more composed, swinging his cup wildly up into the air, spilling half his wine on Geralt and shouting 'TO THE LIONS, BOARS, TREES AND WOLVES OF CASTERLY ROCK'. The men cheered and chanted, mellowing enough for Addam to lead them in song. Jaime laughed with them, catching Geralt's eyes and silently raising his cup to him. He raised his own and smiled to himself. Not quite the wolfpack, too many boys here trying to be their own men. But good friends through thick and thin.


Tygett's shout cut through the crowd, and all went quiet. The giant of Lannister stomped through the grass loudly, still clad in steel, sword on his shoulder. His frown was severe, but even with wine blurring his vision, Geralt could have sworn he saw a swell of pride and joy in his green eyes. Stopping a few feet from the logs the boys sat on, he stopped. A minute passed in awkward silence, breaking only when Gerion, Arthur and Barristan walked towards the giant's sides as well. In a swift motion, all removed their swords and stabbed them on the ground. "Jaime Lannister, Daven Lannister, Addam Marbrand and Lyle Crakehall. Come forth and bend the knee."

There was another pause, all of the called-upon boys' eyes wide as saucers, they quickly scrambled to their feet and rushed forwards, bending the knee before the lot. As the four lowered their heads eagerly, the four armored commanders stood each in front of one. Gerion stood above Addam, Tygett before Lyle, Barristan in front of Daven, which left Arthur all to Jaime. In a practiced manner, Tygett began. "I've overseen your training for years now, and seen your valor and skill firsthand once again to know the time is right. Though some of you squired for my brothers and cousins rather than I, I was granted their express permission to oversee this matter."

"Even roped me into this as well." Gerion laughed, though all traces of alcohol may as well have been banished from his face and posture. "I have come last rather late, but the title 'Ser' now precedes my name as it does for my brothers, in no small part due to Ser Tygett's compelling words and Ser Barristan's knightly grace. As my brother has stated, tonight was the night, and the gallant members of the Kingsguard asked to join us."

"With all that you've accomplished, it would be callous of us to overlook your triumphs." Ser Arthur said, smiling down at Jaime. "It is a good day to find so many young men worthy of rising to this honor, it is only fair that we do our part as well."

"Now, bow your heads and heed these words." Ser Barristan proclaimed, placing his sword on Daven's shoulder. He began first, "In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave."

"In the name of the Father, I charge you to be just," Arthur spoke, placing his sword on Jaime.

"In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the young and innocent," Tygett ordered, placing his sword on Lyle.

"In the name of the Maid, I charge you to protect all women," Gerion said sternly, placing his sword on Addam.

"In the name of the Smith, I charge you to guard the commonfolk," Tygett continued.

"In the name of the Crone, I charge you to be wise," Arthur followed.

"And in the name of the Stranger, I charge you to keep these vows, even if they should lead you to your death." Barristan finished, the four sheathing their swords once more. "Now rise as fellow knights and shields of Westeros."

The four rose, flustered and excited, barely managing to remain still. Then the cheers roared once more. SER JAIME, SER DAVEN, SER ADDAM, SER LYLE. And on and on they hailed their names. Only when the commotion died down did the four warriors walk towards where Geralt remained sitting. This time, it was Ser Barristan who led the conversation. "Your deeds are worthy of knighthood as well, my lord, and we'd be ready to give it, but Ser Tygett and Ser Gerion tell me you do not seek knighthood. Is this true?"

"It's true, Ser Barristan." Geralt rose, bowing his head to the group. "You're like to see it as heretical, but in the North, we pray to the Old Gods, and they're not quite the knight-makers the Seven are. Meaning no offense, while I'm grateful for the offer, your favor would be wasted on me."

"None taken, my lord. There are many great warriors in history that were not Knights of the Seven." Offered Ser Arthur with a gentle smile. "But considering your friends were to be knighted, we wished to make sure you did not desire the same, else we would have given you the same honor."

"You see, sers? This is the impudence we've been forced to house in the West." Gerion shook his head, a mock frown failing to hide his amusement. He firmly grasped Geralt's shoulder and squeezed hard. "An unbearably brave and strong young man who refuses to accept proper rewards for his efforts. What a horrid insult to live with."

The celebration must have made the more stoic members of the group lighten up, because this time, even Barristan and Tygett chuckled with Arthur at the lion's remarks. They left with amicable nods, and the soldiers' cheering and dancing livened up even brighter. As the night went on, Daven ultimately snoring on the trunks, Lyle singing with the men, and Addam entertaining a young maiden to a dance, only Jaime remained besides Geralt. They remained in a comfortable silence for a while, breaking when Jaime spoke up, "You made a mistake refusing their offer, Stark. You do realize this means you have to salute me now, don't you? A knighted lord outranks other mere lords."

"That you'd need knighthood to pull rank tells me your lordship wasn't worth much to begin with, Lannister." The two laughed, each taking another swig from their cups. Straightening up, Geralt gave Jaime a firm nod. "Congratulations, Ser Jaime."

"Don't go soft on me, Stark. I'll demand father to put you in a box and ship you back to that frozen hellscape you call a home." Jaime snorted, leading to more chuckling between the two. A look flashed across his face, and his mouth tightened for a moment. The wine made it loosen up as Jaime turned to him. "Say, Stark."

Geralt straightened up, eyes curious at his change in tone. "Yeah, Lannister?"

"I remember something you told me, the night you arrived." Jaime pondered, scratching the shadow on his cheeks. "It was after dinner, on our way to your room. You said you'd seen battle. Or maybe that you'd tested your steel against a man. I can't remember what exactly you said, but it's clear enough what you meant…"

Geralt hid his surprise. You remembered that all those years? He finished what Jaime couldn't bring himself to ask. "…You want to know if I had used it to kill a man."

There was a moment of hesitation in his green eyes before the drinks pushed the words forwards. "Did you?"

Geralt sighed, nodding. His time in Casterly Rock had solidified the worth of his word, and Jaime immediately reeled back in shock at his answer. The Stark, in turn, answered the question the other did not ask. "There was a wilding incursion earlier that year. My brother Brandon and I were dispatched, sent to observe and learn from the battlefield. Much like our experience with the pirates, things didn't go according to plan. One thing led to another, and I killed my first there."

Jaime turned to look at a fire, taking it his words in. "Three-and-ten and already experienced battle. No wonder you were so prepared when the pirates took us. Hells, even after you rescued us, I could barely just hold it together for the others and the captured children. I–"

He stopped again, cheeks reddening. Scratching the back of his neck, he met Geralt's gaze again. "…Did you–"

"–Piss myself? No, but I might as well have." Geralt replied, now looking at the flaming tongues dancing over the pile of woods. "That fucking day haunted me for over a month. If pissing myself on the battlefield meant it was over by nightfall, I would have preferred that."

"So you're saying I should be thankful I soiled my britches by the time we got back to Casterly Rock?" Jaime questioned, eyes squinting with scrutiny.

Geralt snickered in turn. "Depends. Would you have preferred to soil yourself before Ser Barristan the Bold and the Sword of the Morning?"

"…Fuck, well played, Stark." Jaime relented, and a more tranquil aura returned between the two. Another few minutes passed, while the men quieted down as drink or sleep took them. "Well, knight or not, you've been a damn fine soldier to fight alongside with, Stark. Would that I could have seen you take down the Smiling Knight, but the colorful tale the men tell will have to do. Funny, we each took down a captain of the Kingswood Brotherhood. You took the Smiling Knight's smile, and I took Fletcher Dick, so who the better swordsman is we've yet to see. We're due a duel, you and I, but in for the time being, now's as good a time as any to toast our victory with a good friend."

One last time, the heir to the Rock raised his cup. "To the warriors and the knights of the Rock."

"To the warriors and knights of the Rock." Geralt smirked and raised his own. "And to smiling dicks."

Jaime shook his head, laughter building in his chest until it spilled out his mouth. He clashed his cup against Geralt's, "And to smiling dicks."

Author's Notes: The bitch and a half this chapter was writing the transition from the tent-planning to the battle of the Kingswood. Everything before and after was much more meticulously written, but goddamn, I wanted to get this chapter out. I'm pretty happy with the results all things considering, and more and more elements are coming into play. Next chapter should be calmer, but there'll definitely be something to get you all riled up and on your toes. Now, I hope you've enjoyed this, it's been a very long time since I've updated a story in less than a month with over 20 pages worth of writing. If you have a minute of your time, leave a review, state what you didn't like, write about what you did, it's all welcome.

The Almighty Afroduck,

All Hail