Of White Trees and Blue Roses
I own nothing. This all belongs to GRRM, and I'm just playing with the story he gave us.
Apologies for the long wait. I'm glad to say that my final assignments and exams are out of the way and I'm no longer a student (pending resits). Robert has been hanging around at Summerhall for so long he's probably sick of the place!
Because this looks like it's turning into a mammoth chapter, there will be a short Summerhall Part 2, but I'm aware you've waited long enough and I just want to get this out there while I can.
Chapter Forty Two – Summerhall (Part 1)
Robert was amongst the first to emerge from the tree line, looking around apprehensively even though faster-riding scouts had already informed them that Summerhall was deserted—his force had managed to get there first, but how far away his opponents were, no one knew.
A sea of tall, purple-topped weeds had grown up right up to the base of a steep-sided hillock, on top of which was a tangle of blackened ornate stone arches, crumbling walls, and charred, rotting beams which once supported a roof but now looked like the ribs of some long deceased beast. A slain dragon, Robert thought to himself.
Over twenty years ago, before Robert's birth, Summerhall had been a Targaryen summer palace. It had burned to the ground with King Aegon V inside, and his son and heir. Early morning mist weaved amongst the weeds and ruins; you could almost imagine it was smoke and that the fire damage was fresh. It was apt—this was the beginning of Robert's quest to slay his own dragon, the beast that had stolen his love and flown her away.
They said Rhaegar came here regularly, camping amongst the wreckage of the palace inhabited only by ghosts. What wouldn't Robert give to find him here now? He would gladly add another Targaryen spirit to haunt the place.
It would be better that way, if it could be ended here and now—a simple trial by combat between two accomplished warriors. Rhaegar would answer for his own sins as well as those of his father, and Robert would gladly take up his war hammer knowing that right was on his side. In return for the deaths of Lord Stark, Brandon Stark, and the other northerners—and of course, the abduction of Lyanna—he wanted to see Rhaegar Targaryen dead.
But it wasn't meant to be. There was no one here but the stream of cavalry behind him. No Rhaegar. Instead of man against man this would be settled army against army. Where one life lost would placate Robert, many widows and orphans would be made instead, and many sons taken from their families.
It was unfamiliar. Robert knew the melee and it was well known, but he had never commanded men on a field of battle. He knew the theory, taught by Jon Arryn with stone figurines on a wooden table, but he wasn't playing with tokens this time. These knights were flesh and blood, and the wooden table would be this ruined palace.
Where he could control the swing of his own hammer, he couldn't control the actions of some green squire whose name he didn't know and who would probably end up skewered by a spear or sword. He himself, despite his tourney experience, had never killed a man. Could he kill when it counted?
He had no other choice. He had been left no choice. King Aerys had burnt Lord Stark and Brandon in cold blood. Robert couldn't be faint of heart now his life and his love was in the balance, and the lives of his friends, his brothers, his men...
If he hadn't left Storms End after receiving Jon Arryn's reply then he would have been caught there, and the only thing worse in Robert's mind than leading a number of unprepared men to possibly die in his name was being under siege in his own castle for the duration of the rebellion, sitting in his hall, starving to death and hoping for news of his friends' fortunes.
Almost all of the knights and lords who had flocked to his banners had still been on hand, having remained to take advantage of generous Baratheon hospitality. He'd been feasting and laughing with them in the great hall when the messenger had arrived. After reading the note, Robert had gotten to his feet and announced that the time had come for those who had answered the call to back up their promises with action.
Most had still been drunk and agreed vocally, and even the sober had seemed to have little reservation. Knights had gone to dress in their armour, and foot soldiers had gathered outside the walls. Riders had been dispatched to various castles and towers to call up more men. The scene had been one of urgent chaos, leading to a mad dash across country by torch light.
For now, only the cavalry had been swift enough to arrive, riding all night. The foot soldiers were still on the road and when reinforcements would arrive was anyone's guess. At the moment they were too few to face the three lords headed their way, and no doubt every one of his fifty-five hungover knights and their squires were aware of it.
"We should set up our position, my lord," an aging Ser called to Robert, catching his attention and pulling him from his thoughts.
Coming back to the matter at hand, Robert tried to view the field as if it were a table in Jon Arryn's library. The clearing was roughly oval in shape, the ruin situated closer to the northern perimeter, with disused and overgrown roads from the north west, west, south, and east. Anything coming from the east was likely to be friendly, and unless the suspicions of less friendly forces were aroused, it would be likely they would use the pathways rather than tackle the undergrowth.
How large was the force being mustered against him? Who would arrive first and when? Would he have time to defeat one lord before the next arrived?
One thing was certain, the greatest weapon at his disposal was surprise. It would be a shame to lose that advantage. No doubt Lord Fell, Lord Cafferen, and Lord Grandison would scout ahead like Robert himself had done.
"We'll conceal ourselves in the undergrowth to the south east and wait. Gods willing they won't have met along the way, and when the first of these bastards arrive we'll ambush them."
A younger knight, perhaps around Robert's own age, questioned his plan. "Would it not be wiser to wait for the infantry and the archers? After all, we are not many."
Robert looked at him straight in the eye. "I'm not going to sit around, hiding in the bushes like a peeping Tom, while they get themselves organised. Knights, a few squires and sell swords—we'd struggle to stay hidden with more. If we're quick they might never know what hit them. They'll probably head towards the open ground to the south, and on my signal we let them know we're here."
The knight nodded. Trying to leave as little evidence of their presence as possible they made their way across the meadow of weeds to the designated spot. From within the trees, they had an obstructed view of the intended field of battle, but a few squires up trees kept lookout.
Horses twitched nervously as they waited, and Robert hoped that a stray whinny wouldn't give their position away. It wasn't only the horses that were showing their nerves.
Finally, a rustling in the trees above caught Robert's attention, and a skinny boy shimmied down the trunk.
"Two fawns on green, heading this way," the squire said as loud as he dared. "Only half as many knights but I counted three rows of ten archers, with foot soldiers behind."
"Did you see how many soldiers on foot, Ulfrid?" Another knight who Robert knew well from Harrenhal asked. Robert looked at his free hand—the one not holding onto one of the two Baratheon standards that had made the journey with the cavalry—and saw that it shook a little. So Robert wasn't the only one finding battle for the first time today.
"No, Ser. I didn't stop to count."
"No matter. We know they're coming." Robert looked at his own gauntleted hand, gripping his reins. His squire handed him his war hammer, struggling with the weight. Robert had no such trouble. It felt familiar and the effort required to hold it in one fist stopped any nervous shaking.
It seemed like an age before movement appeared beyond the trees, and all eyes were on Lord Robert Baratheon. He shifted his war hammer across his lap and held his arm in the air.
Casually, shouts could be heard, organising Lord Cafferen's men. Green and white knights dismounted, and archers and soldiers took drinks from skins and food from their packs.
Robert brought his hand down in a sudden moment, grabbing his war hammer and joining the surge of horses, accelerating as fast as they could with their heavily armoured burdens.
Looking ahead, Robert could see that the sound of galloping hooves had caught the attention of a number of men on the other side of the tree line. Some got to their feet, but few had time to react before he burst into clear view, being unable to hold himself from crying out, "Storm's End!" as his heart pounded hard and he prepared to swing his hammer.
Robert lurched, and suddenly felt a sensation of flying as his horse stumbled beneath him. Earth and sky twisted until his body jarred against the ground. A shock ran through him, from shoulder to thigh, and with a grunt Robert found himself lying on his back.
After a few moments, the clang of metal on metal and a piercing whinny reminded him of where he was and what he was doing. Struggling to get to his feet, Robert lifted his visor to see his horse pierced by an arrow to the neck, thrashing for a second before becoming still. Close by one of his own knights, still mounted, trampled and slashed his way through a group of green and white soldiers only a few paces to his right.
With a stumble, Robert found himself upright, stiff and sore, with fighting all around him. Feeling as if he was caught in the eye of a storm, he looked around and found his war hammer lying next to his dead horse. Retrieving it, he barely had a moment to wrap his hands around its shaft before he caught movement out of the side of his eye.
A boy, ginger-haired and a good two heads shorter, was sprinting in Robert's direction, his freckled face wrinkled up in a half-roar. The sword he carried was lifted high, drawn back to strike.
Feeling as if each heartbeat took an eternity, Robert pulled his hammer from the ground and swung. It caught the sword-wielding boy square in the chest, connecting with his breast plate with an almighty thud. The force physically knocked Robert's would-be opponent to the floor, the sword flying from his hand.
Robert took three steps forward, standing over him. The boy's caved in armour bore a huntsman on green—House Tarly. With a splutter, the boy coughed up a mouthful of blood, coating his chin in deepest scarlet. Robert didn't pause as he lifted up his hammer to strike once more.
"Wait," his victim choked. "Wait!"
The hammer struck his head, and after a brief tremor throughout his body, the Tarly boy went still, as did Robert as he looked down on him.
But there was no time to come to terms with what he'd done. An older man, his face lined and grimy, framed with straggling black hair, came at Robert with a mace. His other hand held a shield. Robert swung his arm with all the power he could muster. His first two blows were deflected, but the third connected with the man's shoulder with a sickening crunch. When he crumpled over in agony, Robert brought the hammer down on his back.
Next, an archer about to let loose an arrow at one of Robert's men, and then a foot soldier who gave a good fight before he died. Every time there was another man to take the place of those who'd fell. Robert was struck by how he found time to notice the face of each—one with his front teeth missing, another with a bleeding gash across his face, an old man, a young man...another, and then another.
A green and white knight charged in Robert's direction. Standing his ground, he saved all his strength for the moment when he stepped to the side, rolling out of the way to miss both the horse and the blade headed his way, but remaining close enough to tangle his hammer amongst the beast's legs.
The horse fell, taking its rider with it. As he approached the Ser, he rolled over and lifted his visor. A middle aged man with a familiar face gave a painful grimace.
"I yield! I yield...the field is yours..."
Realising there was more grey in his beard than the last time he'd seen him, when he'd been newly orphaned, Robert finally placed the features of the man below. Lord Cafferen.
Breathing hard and taking a moment to allow the red mist to dissipate, he didn't know whose horn rang out but realisation rippled out in circles. Men paused mid-skirmish, looking to their lords for guidance.
Finally deciding on his next move, Robert held out his hand to his fallen bannerman. There was a moment of silence as they looked one another in the eyes. Lord Cafferen accepted the gesture with a firm grip and allowed Robert to help him to his feet.
"How did you know?" the defeated knight asked.
"I threw a feast. You weren't there."
Lord Cafferen thought for a moment before sheepishly adding, "I wasn't the only one. Fell and Grandison..."
"I know, and that's why I'm going to ask your men to fight for me. If you won't answer my call to arms, maybe they will?"
"You want them to fight alongside the same men that they just fought against? On the same field that their dead kin still lie on?"
Robert walked a short way, making his way through the bodies, over to where his horse had fallen. "And why not? What brought them here in the first place? They came here because you, as their lord, commands it. The Stormlands are still mine. Why wouldn't they fight for me?"
His opponent couldn't answer and so remained silent.
Young Lord Robert Baratheon stood tall and raised his voice. "I didn't come here to dye this field red with the blood of my own people. Nor did I come here to fill my dungeons with good, honourable, brave men.
"I came here today to fight your lord. The king promised him more land, more castles, and so he brought you here to die...and what benefit would those castles or that land bring you or your families? Nothing, that's what." He held the attention of both his own men and the vanquished.
A voice rang out amongst the hushed crowd. "And what benefit do your men get for fighting for you? I hear you came here for a girl."
"That's true, in part. Rhaegar Targaryen stole the women I was going to marry, Lyanna Stark—took her like she was some common whore from a backstreet brothel, not the highborn lady she is. He dishonoured her, dishonoured me, and dishonoured her family. Her brother, Brandon Stark, went to King Aerys with his grievance and he was thrown in jail, his men butchered like vermin in a trap. Any survivors, he brought their fathers to Kings Landing and put all their heads on spikes.
"It doesn't matter how high the lord. Lord Stark, Warden of the North, asked for trial by combat, and was prepared to draw his own sword and let the gods decide the more honourable cause, and how did the king answer? He burned Lord Stark in his own armour, and had his heir strangle himself to death trying to save him.
"The king says fire is the Targaryen champion. I say that's a coward's excuse. He knew the gods weren't on his side. And still he avoids picking up a sword himself. How many red dragons on black do you see on this field? That's right, none. The Mad King and his son, the 'whiter than white' Prince Rhaegar, they do what they want and send others to fight their battles. "
The crowd murmured in agreement.
"What offence have I given the Targaryens? They stole my bride and didn't raise a sword in anger against them, although I wanted to. God, did I want to. Yet I'm the one fighting to keep my head on my shoulders, and the head of Lord Stark, though his brother and father have already paid for their complaints with their lives. And the Targaryens don't even have the decency to take to the field themselves, or send their own men. I'm here fighting my own wars.
"I don't want to cross swords with my own people. I don't want to see men die in the name of a king who treats his own subjects as if their lives meant nothing, so he and his son can abuse their positions as if it was their gods given right. Any man on this field who will join me in showing this...king, if you can call him that, that we won't stand for his way of ruling, will be welcome. Who will fight for me now?"
The response was overwhelming. After it was obvious where the loyalty of his own men lay, Lord Cafferen himself stepped forward and put his hand on Robert's shoulder.
"You have a way with words, young Lord Baratheon. I'll answer your call to arms, albeit a little late."
Shifting the weight of his hammer, Robert nodded, and as the fire in his blood dissipated, he began to feel weary. Surveying the destruction around him he caught sight of the knight with the shaking hand in the woods before the attack, lying on the ground still gripping Robert's banner.
Picking his way through the other bodies, Robb made his way over, bending down to retrieve his colours, but before he could a stench assaulted his nostrils and his face wrinkled.
He found Lord Cafferen standing over him. "I remember him from Harrenhal. Didn't he fight in the melee?"
Robert nodded his head.
"A little less glorious than playing at war on a tourney field, isn't it? Messier. Bloodier. No one shits themselves play fighting."
"Does that always happen?"
Lord Cafferen gave Robert a sympathetic look. "We're all just sacks of meat and bone in the end, and one day that will be me or you, lying somewhere—in the mud or in our beds—and the last thing we do on earth is empty our bowels. Not very dignified...not very knightly."
Robert got to his feet, leaving the banner where it lay. He caught the attention of one of Lord Cafferen's knights passing by. "I want every banner, every green and white tent you can find, and I want you to set up camp on that." He pointed to the ruin on the top of the motte. "We're not going to be able to hide this. It's going to be the first thing they see when they arrive so let them think you bested me."
Lord Cafferen smiled. "You're not as green as you would think a boy of your age, are you?"
As his new found ally departed, Robert retrieved his belongings from his dead horse, and on the way back he found himself stood over the Tarly boy, or what remained of him. Again, the smell of excrement rose up from the mangled corpse and Robb took a moment to comprehend his first kill.
If the Tarly boy had succeeded, if Robert had paused for a second or two longer before picking up his hammer, or had been slower to rise after being thrown, then the rebellion would have been cut off before Robert had time to swing in anger. The boy had been brave, but stupid. Robb didn't even have a name to put to him, but something told him the freckled face and the ginger hair that was now a red mangled mess would haunt him for some time to come.
He thought about the faces of the others whose lives had been cut prematurely short after being on the receiving end of his war hammer. The most surreal part of it was that, no matter how Robert struggled to come to terms with his actions now, that in the full flow of battle he'd felt free. He'd been aware of his own strength—swinging his weapon had felt like the easiest thing on earth, and he knew now that having to hold back the killer blow during practice or melee was going to feel unnatural.
Once arrived at the "Cafferen" camp that had been set up amongst the charred Targaryen palace, Robert had time for a bite to eat and a swig of wine, before the signal that the next errant lord was on his way. This time Robert found himself sat next to Lord Cafferen, watching from a height, hoping he wouldn't lose the element of surprise.
Lord Grandison made his way half way across the open space before those at the head of the column realised something was amiss, at which point Robert ordered his Cafferen archers to open fire before leading his cavalry onto the field for the second time that day.
This time, things didn't go as well, and the surprise did not give him the advantage he'd hoped for as the Grandison force recovered quickly and had numerical advantage. If it hadn't been for the eventual arrival of the Baratheon reinforcements, he doubted that Lord Cafferen would have been able to talk Lord Grandison into laying down his arms.
As Robert listened to Lord Cafferen give a colourful account of Robert smashing through the trees, looking almost like the Warrior himself, and Lord Grandison's misgivings about not wanting to end up decorating a spike in King's Landing for switching his alliegances and going back on the king's offer, Robert realised that he had found a fortunate ally.
Finally, after much argument, Lord Grandison agreed, and Robert even had time to close his eyes for a short while before he was called to mount up again, though he did not sleep thanks to the ghost of his first kills come to haunt him.
To be continued...