When Gendry Waters had asked for an audience with the Marshal of the King's Host, Ned was not surprised. They had uprooted the boy from everything he had known in his life, Ned thought that he would come seeking answers for that. He was a stubborn, wilful boy, according to Hengist the master-at-arms, but that was much as Robert had been at that age. He even had the look of Robert about him, with this dark blue eyes and the thick mane of black hair, though now it was cut short in the fashion of a soldier.
Yet when Gendry was finally permitted to stand before Ned in the Marshal's pavilion, he asked a question that Ned did not expect.
"I want to go with Lord Isildur, milord," Gendry said. He wore the red tunic of the King's Host now, and stood with his hands behind his back squared as his drillmasters had taught him. Ned stared at Tobho Mott's former apprentice, expecting him to explain further. He did not have to wait long.
"I heard from some of the lads around camp that you're putting together some men to accompany Lord Isildur, chasing some bandit in the Riverlands. I want to go along, milord," said Gendry.
Ned stood up from his desk and regarded the boy carefully. He spoke truthfully. Isildur had requested twenty men from the King's Host, Riverlanders who knew the land well.
"And why would you want that Gendry?" asked Ned slowly.
"May I speak plainly, milord?" replied Gendry.
"Aye, of course, speak your mind lad," said Eddard.
"Lord Isildur ordered me to leave Master Mott's, it was at his order that I came here, and I've got a feeling it was his order that made you take me in. I think he owes me some explanation for all this, and I want to hear it from him," the armourer's apprentice had told him.
Now Ned Stark stood before Isildur in the small hall of the Tower of the Hand, and against his better judgement he was arguing on Gendry's side.
"You at least owe him this much, after all you've put him through," said Ned. Isildur frowned sternly round his pipe. A cloud of smoke filled the air above his head.
"No," the Hand of the King said "This is no common bandit we're pursuing, this is the Ser Gregor Clegane, the Troll. Gendry is too valuable to put him to risk like this,"
"He has the look of a warrior about him, and I think the day is drawing near where he would rather wield a sword than forge one," replied Ned. Isildur grimaced.
"Aye that may be true, still we ought to keep him out of harm's way. Why did he request to accompany me?" he asked.
"He wants to ask you why you have done these things, he wants to know the reason why," Ned said.
"And did you explain it to him?" said Isildur carefully.
"Nay. I offered, but he will only hear it from you. He says it was your command and he wants you to answer for it," explained Eddard. Isildur chuckled.
"Stubborn like his father," laughed the Lord of Minas Ithil. Ned smiled at that.
"Aye, that much is true," he said. Isildur sighed, and then took a long puff on his pipe. The heavy aroma of pipeweed hit Ned's face, and his friend blew out a near perfect smoke circle.
"Can he fight? Can he ride?" Isildur asked.
"His master-at-arms says he can out-wrestle any other recruit, and he's got a strong arm on him. I've seen him swing at the pell, I would not envy any man he strikes," Ned replied.
"And his riding?"
"Well, he's never sat a horse, but he wouldn't fall off,"
Isildur scratched his chin in thought, emptying the spent ashes of his pipe into a tray on the table. He shook his head.
"There is a warning in my heart against this prospect, Eddard. If Gendry accompanies this errand, it will come to grief in the end," he said.
"Many things must be risked in war," Ned said quietly.
Promise me Ned, the words whispered in his ear.
"Many things, but not all things. If he is slain, what hope do we have? A fool's hope," Isildur said.
"He must trust us if he is to help us, and he distrusts you most of all for what you have done, you have the most to answer for to him," said Eddard. Isildur's grey eyes flashed darkly at his words. There was a moment of silence and tension in the hall. Then the son of Elendil smiled suddenly.
"You are the only one who would ever speak to me like that, Ned," laughed Isildur. Ned chuckled.
"Aye, well Robert has given me much practice," Eddard sat down on the bench of one of the long trestle tables. Then after a pause he asked the question that had been plaguing him "How is Robert?"
"His strength returns, day by day, though he is weak still. His wound was deep," Isildur shook his head, and crossed his arms. There was a distant look to his eyes.
"None could have kept him out of that melee, Isildur. Once Robert sets himself on something, forbidding him from doing it is the surest way to see it done," Ned said gently. The guilt was written as plain as day on Isildur's face.
"Aye, and I was too fool to see that. My brother has always said that oft will pride and wrath turn treacherous in the end. Anarion should be here, not I," Isildur's voice was that of a man who knew he had failed his duty. He looked back to Ned. "You shall see him much more often after I depart, he shall enjoy that,"
"What do you mean?" Ned said in confusion. He had gone to see Robert many times already, though usually the King was resting. Isildur grimaced again as if he knew the words he was about to speak would not be taken well.
"Eddard, I need someone I can trust in the city whilst I am away. You shall act as Hand of the King in my stead,"
"What? Why?" Ned asked sharply. He furrowed his brows in confusion.
"You are the only man I can trust with this duty. I need someone to protect Robert whilst I am away," explained Isildur.
"Surely Stannis would be the better choice?" said Ned. Isildur's face darkened.
"Stannis Baratheon is a good man, and true, but he does not have the loyalty of the Host, and his dedication to the Law may lead to him act too hastily. Patience is needed still. It must be you," he said.
"Patience until you return with Gendry?" said Ned, testing Isildur's mood on the question. The Hand of the King shook his head sternly.
"No," Isildur said with finality. "No, he is too important. He stays where he is safe,"
"Very well," Ned conceded. There was a long quiet moment; Isildur stood as if deep in thought.
"When you come back to the city, bring a company of the Host with you. At least a hundred men or more. Have them barracked here in the Tower of the Hand. That should keep Cersei from attempting anything whilst you are here," said Isildur.
"A fine idea. Only a company though? Cersei has many guards and a dozen seasoned knights at her command. Perhaps I should bring more men?" suggested Ned.
"We must take care to avoid the appearance of seizing power. When all these matters are settled in the end, to the lords of the kingdoms it cannot look like we have usurped the throne, otherwise we will force more lords to Lannister's banner, and only war lies down that path," Isildur replied. Ned had no patience for these intrigues and games, but he knew he must play his part regardless of his feelings.
The Maidenvault was a long building that sat behind the royal sept, hard by the wall between the middle and lower baileys of the Red Keep. Its thick greystone walls were lined with stained windows, and a tall carven entrance stood at the southern end of it. Standing before the carvings of the Father and the Mother at either side of the door, Ned recalled his childhood lessons about Baelor the Blessed. The pious King had built the hall and its rooms and apartments for his sister-wives, to save himself from the sin of lust. Now though, the Maidenvault had served as the guest hall of the Targaryens and the Baratheons for over a hundred years.
Ned set his hand to the carven wooden door and pushed it open. It swung in nearly noiselessly, but the Maidenvault was far from silent. From the dining room and echoing all around him, Ned heard his daughter's voices yelling. Desmond and Porther stood guard by the door.
"What's all that noise?" he asked them.
"Your girls at it again, my lord," said Porther with a shake of his head.
"It wasn't Joffrey's fault!" screamed Sansa.
"Liar! Liar! LIAR! He murdered Mycah!" shrieked Arya.
"He was just a butcher's boy!" Sansa replied.
"HE WAS MY FRIEND!" snarled Ayra.
"That is enough you two! When your lord father returns, he WILL hear of this," said the stern voice of Septa Mordane. Ned sighed. War was easier than raising daughters.
He hurried from the entrance hall, following the direction of the shouting. Suddenly Sansa screamed out in pain and Ned heard the rumbling growl of the direwolf Lady.
He threw open the door to the dining room. Sansa was crying in pain, her head down, whilst Arya pulled on her hair. Her direwolf, already as big as a hunting hound, was bristling at Sansa's side, baring white fangs fiercely. Their septa stood beside them, futilely commanding them to stop.
"Arya! Sansa! Stop this at once!" Ned shouted sternly. At the sound of their father's voice, they both immediately stopped. Arya released Sansa's hair. They both stood stiffly, and Ned looked from one to the other. Arya's face was petulant, and Sansa looked near to tears. Lady stopped growling and sat down upon her haunches. Then, all at once, they both started talking at the same time.
"My lord father, please tell my dear sister to stop-"
"Joffrey didn't, it was all-"
"You're such a liar! Just cause you-"
"Stop calling me a liar!"
"Enough! Both of you, to your chambers, now," Ned commanded.
"That's not fair!" they both protested. His patience was running out, he did not have time for this bickering. Seeing the cold stare upon their father's face, the two girls fell quiet. Silently, they turned and left. Lady padded quietly at Sansa's side.
Ned cast a questioning look in Septa Mordane's direction. To her credit, the good Septa did not make a single noise of frustration, she simply explained:
"Sansa was in aflutter about the Prince today, and would not stop talking about him at luncheon. Arya is less fond of the Prince on account of that business on the road,"
Ned remembered it well. The whole latter stage of their journey south after the incident at the Trident had been an agony. Few feelings could make a father more miserable than knowing his daughters were miserable and being able to do nothing to stop it. He shook his head.
"You are a good woman, and patient, to deal with them, Septa. Tell them they are to pack their things, we are moving to the Tower of the Hand. I will speak to them after I have made the arrangements with Vayon,"
"As my lord commands," Septa Mordane replied, bowing her head deferentially. She walked off with all the prim poise a septa of the Faith was capable of, showing no sign of being perturbed by the arguments of the Stark girls. Ned smiled at that. Catelyn had made a good choice with the Septa.
It did not take long to arrange to have Ned's household moved from the Maidenvault to the Tower of the Hand. Vayon Poole was a reliable man and Ned had only the say the word for him to leap to action. Yet long experience had taught him not to go too immediately to speak to his children when they had erred. Ned preferred to leave them with their consciences, till their tempers cooled.
The study was filled with a guilty silence when he finally came to see them. They sat next to each other, not looking at each other, not daring to speak, eyes at the ground. Ned pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down, leaning forward to look at them.
"What did I see earlier?" he asked. Sansa was the first to speak.
"Arya just won't understand, Joffrey and I are in love, and she hates everything that is nice and splendid and beautiful, that's why she can't stand Joffrey,"
"Joffrey is a lying piece of filth, and he had my friend killed, and I hate him and I want him to die!" Arya started saying before Sansa had even finished. He put up his hand and both of them stopped immediately.
Oh Arya, I was not wise to hire that water dancer for you, there is so much of Lyanna in you, he thought with a deep sadness. He looked at Arya and then at Sansa. How he wished he had left them in Winterfell, how he wished even more that he had stayed in the North himself and not come. Would Sansa ever forgive him for what would become of Joffrey? Ned couldn't say, he only knew it had to be done.
"The Red Keep is not Winterfell, your childish bickering was harmless there, but this is a dangerous place," he said sternly. "Do you understand?"
"Dangerous?" asked Arya. Sansa kept her tongue. Ned Stark sighed.
"One day I will explain everything to you, but do not trust in appearances. There is danger in a place like this, perhaps more danger now that Isildur is riding out. Listen now and mark my words: A single wolf, by itself and on its own, it is nothing. Its strength is in its family, its pack. You will end this war you are fighting between each other now, have I made myself clear?"
There was a long moment of quiet in the room.
"I'm sorry I called you all those things… Mycah dying wasn't your fault," said Arya at last in a small voice.
"I'm sorry too my sister, I know you don't actually hate everything. I just… Get cross sometimes," Sansa replied.
Ned smiled and felt an inward relief. His two daughters were as different as night and day, yet for all that they were Starks and they would stick together. He only hoped they would leave their bickering until they were safely back in Winterfell.
If he had followed his heart in that moment, he would have left for Winterfell right there. Yet duty still incessantly called, and despite his weariness he felt himself drawn onwards by it. He told the girls he would be back the next day, and left instructions with Vayon Poole to have their things all moved to the Tower of the Hand by the next morning, then he and his guards mounted once again and rode away.
The encampment greeted him with its usual sprawling, foul-smelling, ugly appearance. Evening was deepening and the smoke of a thousand campfires raised into the sky. The air was still and without breeze and the banners hung limply from their poles above the gates. A sentry stood by the gates, leaning against his halberd, wrapped up in his cloak against the evening chill. He snapped up and stood straight when Ned rode past.
"Good evening milord," he said dutifully. Ned nodded at him from his horse.
"As you were, sentry," he said, smiling.
Raucous laughing and talking came from within the long wooden meal-halls that lined the road down the centre of the camp. Ned smiled at the familiar sounds of soldiers drinking and jesting after a day's duties. He spurred his horse to a trot and his column of guards followed closely.
Three banners were set before the officer's tents at the central square of the camp. Robert's royal stag in the centre, Ned's direwolf sigil on the right and Aratan's white tree of Gondor on the left. These Ned had set when construction of the camp had begun, to mark out the very centre. He dismounted before them and, leaving his guards outside, walked into the officer's tent.
The captains and lieutenants of the King's Host were clustered around a wooden table in the middle of the pavilion. They were the younger sons of lesser noble houses, and hard-bitten hedge knights who had sworn service to King Robert, and experienced sellswords looking for a steady job. A hard group of men, but now each wore the Baratheon stag upon his tunic.
A thin, wiry young knight was plucking strings on a lute whilst the rest of the men jeered and laughed. Two men, one broad and portly, the other tall and bald, were sitting across from each other at the table, hands locked and arms flexing with exertion, arm-wrestling. They grimaced from the effort. In the rear corner of the tent, Ned spotted Aratan. His long legs were stretched upon a stool before him, and he was smoking his pipe and sending the occasional smoke ring towards the other officers.
Then one of the men spotted Ned.
"Lord Marshal!" the cry went up. The music and laughing stopped, and the two arm-wrestlers immediately stopped. Ned spotted empty bottles of wine on the table amongst plates covered in the remnants of supper.
"Good evening sers," he said "Carry on,"
The men visibly relaxed, and they quickly returned to their drinking and their laughter. Ned locked eyes with Aratan, and jerked his head towards a quieter corner of the tent. Taking his feet off the stool, Aratan emptied his pipe and quickly joined Ned.
"What news from my father?" Aratan asked quietly, perceiving what had happened.
"I'm to act as Isildur's Hand in his absence. You can take care of matters with the army while I am in the city?" said Ned. Aratan nodded.
"Good, get a company together to go with me on the morrow. And send Gendry to me," Ned whispered.
Jory brought supper from the cooks to Ned in his tent. The head cook offered to roast a chicken fresh for the Marshal, but he refused. Stew, black bread and a flagon of ale, the same fare as the men ate, would suit him.
"My lord, Hengist begs an audience," called one of his guards at the door when Ned had finished the last of the bread. Wiping his mouth, he stood up and called for master-at-arms to enter.
Hengist was a wide, heavyset man with arms like logs and a toad's ugly face. Jory had found him drinking in a seedy tavern along River Row, regaling the serving girls with tales of battle in the Disputed Lands of Essos. He had fought in a dozen of the dreary little wars of the Free Cities, for Braavos against Volantis, and for Volantis against Myr and for one lord or another. He had taken to the King's Host like a fish to water.
"Milord, I brought the boy you asked for, at the Captain's orders," Hengist said sharply. Behind him Gendry trailed in and stood stiffly.
Ned nodded to the master-at-arms and the big man whirled on his heels and marched out smartly. Gendry regarded Ned with dark blue eyes. The flickering light of braziers and candles illuminated the tent.
"I spoke to Lord Isildur earlier today, he will not allow you to accompany him, the danger would be too great" Ned said at last. Gendry grimaced and said nothing.
"I understand how you must feel, Gendry. This all must seem so strange to you," he continued. Looking on Gendry, he was reminded so much of Jon, riding away to the Wall with the promise that someday Ned would tell him about his mother. His throat tightened.
"If you wish, Gendry, I could tell you much of why this has happened and what Isildur's plans for you are,"
Gendry was quiet for a long moment, as if weighing the offer. His eyes were thoughtful.
"Milord, you've been kind to me. You did not order me to leave my home and the only family I've ever had. You have my thanks, but I will hear this from Lord Isildur, no one should speak for him but him," the armourer's apprentice finally said in a resolute voice.
"So be it. I am leaving for the city at daybreak, if you change your mind whilst I am away, speak to Captain Aratan and he will get word to me," Ned told him.
Dismissed, Gendry turned about and left the tent with the same soldierly sharpness as Hengist drilled into each of the recruits.
So much like Robert, proud, stubborn, Ned reflected after the bastard boy had left.
He wondered if Robert knew about Gendry, about Barra the little dark-haired daughter of a whore, about the fisherman's wife's boy and all the other little bastards he had spread around King's Landing.
Robert had always been like this, ever since they were boys in the Eyrie and he got a common girl with child. Ned remembered going with him to go see his little daughter; how Robert would come to play with his daughter long after he had lost interest in the mother. That was Robert's way: He could promise a girl eternal love in the night and not recall her name in the morning, but his love for his children, trueborn or bastard, was real and fierce.
But his trueborn children aren't his at all, Ned thought with sudden remorse. He had seen how Robert's face would light up when Myrcella was in the room, he had heard Robert talk about what a perfect daughter she was. He had seen Robert carrying little Tommen around on his shoulders, and laughing and encouraging the boy in the training yard. Even Joffrey seemed to look up to their father.
What will he do when he learns? The thought was a cold one. Too well did Ned remember the Targaryen children, the ruined skull of Prince Aegon, the slit throat of their mother Elia Martell. All wrapped in red Lannister cloaks to hide the blood. Robert had turned away then. He had done nothing. What would he do if his own children were the products of incestuous adultery? Would Stannis and Renly lay the cold bodies of Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella before him, wrapped in Baratheon gold?
Promise me Ned,Lyanna's voice whispered to him.
Ned put the thought out of his head. That was another battle for another day.
As he lay down in his cot for the night, his last thoughts before sleep took him were of Catelyn. He prayed silent prayers to the old gods to keep her safe, wherever she was, and to bring her back to him and to their children in Winterfell.
Dawn came clear and cold the next day, with a pale sun climbing above the palisades. After his morning wash, the cool air was refreshing and invigorating. It reminded him of home, almost.
His household guard were in good spirits as they saddled their horses in the central square. The men of the King's Host chosen to accompany Ned and Isildur stood shivering in the chill, wrapping themselves in their woolen cloaks. Under the watchful eye of a sergeant, a hundred and twenty men fell into ranks to form a single column. Spears and halberds and crossbows they carried shouldered, the steel tips of the polearms winking in the morning light. At the side of every man was a sheathed short sword, and on their backs were slung shields painted with the Baratheon stag. Most of the men wore gambesons or jerkins of hard leather, only a few had mail byrnies, though all had a metal helmet of some kind. Behind them, a few mules carried their baggage.
Ned found Jory standing before his tent, the bridle of Ned's rouncey in his hand. The horse pawed the ground impatiently and swished its tail.
"These southron boys can't take a little chill milord," laughed Alyn, already mounted. Ned swung up in the saddle.
"They'd be pissing in their breeches if they saw a summer snow," jested Jory, mounting his own horse behind his lord.
Ned and his household guard, thirty strong on horseback, took their place at the head of the column. Ned swung his arm forwards. There was a deep roll of the drums, beating out the pace for the men on foot. With a tramping of heavy booted feet and shod horse hooves, they set out.
The road from the encampment to the City was a familiar one for Eddard after months in the south. It was a winding dirt road that went along shady tree-lined lanes and past farmer's fields. Over valleys and hills and small babbling brooks. The men marched steadily, to the unending beat of the drums. The sun soon approached noon, and the day grew miserably hot. Smallfolk, men and boys and young women, came out of villages and farmsteads on both sides of the road to watch the march with curious eyes.
A wind rustled the leaves all around them, louder and more suddenly than the breeze had been. Ned drew his horse up atop a ridge. Beneath him, the vast city of King's Landing spread out beside the Blackwater Rush. Atop Aegon's High Hill, the Red Keep frowned down. Suddenly a fear took him. Eddard Stark was used to fear, but not like this. He had a sudden desire to take his family and run to Winterfell as fast as they could go. Something inside him told him that he should not ride into that city. Then the breeze ended and the leaves stopped rustling and the feeling passed. Yet it was with disquiet in his heart that Ned rode on towards the Old Gate.
"Clear the road for Lord Stark! Clear the road for the Lord Marshal!" yelled out a goldcloak in a loud voice as Ned rode beneath the gateway arch.
The cobbled streets around the Old Gate were filled with people, mostly the household workers and retinues of the wealthy merchants and nobles who lived on the northern slopes of Rhaenys' Hill. Their prosperous manses stood stately along the broad avenues. Curious eyes watched Ned and his men, and they marched straight for the Red Keep.
Ned led his men down the Street of Sisters to the city square, people everywhere stopping to watch, and bowing their heads respectfully to Lord Stark and the direwolf banner carried behind him. Pretty young girls, some whores and some not, smiled alluringly and blew kisses at the soldiers, and the men grinned and winked back them in return.
The Street of Seeds led them to Shadowblack Lane, which wound and twisted up along the slopes of Aegon's High Hill. The Red Keep awaited them at the top, banners flying in the sea-breeze. The ironshod tips of the portcullis jutted down from the gate like the fangs of some monstrous beast. It almost looked like the maw of a great dragon opening wide to swallow him whole.
The bailey was already full of men and horses, hurrying here and there beneath the Tower of the Hand. They wore the black mail and black surcoats of Isildur's housecarls, or the livery of House Dondarrion, and many too had no sigils at all but only the plain armour of freeriders and sellswords. The air was abuzz with their voices, and with the neighing of horses, and the clatter of hooves.
Ned spotted a head of red-gold hair amongst the confusion.
"Lord Beric Dondarrion," he said in greeting, dismounted his horse. Beric Dondarrion turned, and bowed courteously in greeting. Beside him stood a portly, grey-haired man, wearing red robes over a mail hauberk, who matched the bow.
"Lord Eddard Stark. Lord Isildur has awaited your arrival, he shall be glad to hear that you are here," said Beric.
"Aye, and I am glad that you shall accompany him. I have heard tell of your courage and skill, Lord Beric," Eddard replied. The Lightning Lord of Blackhaven cut a dashing figure, handsome and tall, in plate and mail with a black cloak, his breastplate displaying the forked lightning bolt of his house.
"You ought to come with us, Lord Stark, we are going to vex old Tywin Lannister terribly," said the portly man whom Ned knew as Thoros of Myr. "I think we might actually learn if he really shits gold," he added with a laugh.
"Would that I could," Ned replied, grinning despite himself. "But duties calls here in the city,"
Suddenly a quiet fell and many of the men turned towards the Hand's tower. Isildur had stepped forth.
There were times when Ned could glimpse something of the majesty and power of the Lord of Minas Ithil, the man he called his friend but whom had lived since the days of the dragonkings. Very tall he was, proud, erect, and masterful. His ageless face, pale and grim, was the image of an ancient king. His burnished mail, shining black and silver, fell to his knees. The white tree of Gondor, and the crescent moon that his own sigil, he bore upon his surcoat. His grey cloak was cast about his shoulders and the silver eagle broach held it there. Under his arm, a tall winged helm which flashed with the fiery gleam of mithril. The hilt of the great sword Narsil was seen at his side. He walked forward quickly, heavy ironshod boots sounding on the cobbles. Just the sight of him, seeming so wise, so powerful, so lordly, it was enough to raise the men's spirits and smiles spread amongst those he passed. There was a light in his grey eyes.
Isildur tossed something small towards Ned, and it twinkled as it caught the sun. He caught it deftly. It was a heavy metal pin, fashioned in the shape of an open hand.
"The duty is yours now," he told Ned, grinning. Then he said in a voice loud and clear "Lord Eddard Stark, I do hereby name you Hand of the King, to act in my stead, until I shall return from dispensing the King's Justice,"
"As you command, I shall await your return, Lord Isildur," Ned replied formally, bowing his head. Isildur stepped close and clasped Ned's shoulder.
"Keep a watch on Robert, and try to keep his spirits up. He will need you if he is to recover," he said in a low voice. Ned nodded.
Isildur released him, his face a study in complete, easy confidence.
From the stables, his squire Ohtar brought forth Isildur's horse, Fleetfoot. The proud animal tossed its mane impatiently, till its master took the bridle and greeted it in the Elven tongue. The sound of Sindarin brought memories of Lyanna to Eddard, and a deep pang of sadness. She had been so happy after she had returned from her studies in Annuminas. She was young, happy, free-spirited and beautiful. That was the year before the tourney of Harrenhal, and all the trouble that would come from it.
Lya, what would you say if you saw us now? What would your counsel be? Ned thought with melancholy.
More horses were brought forth from the stables for the King's Host men that would travel with Isildur. Plain hackneys and the lesser rounseys of no great virtues, but reliable enough animals for the hard ride ahead. The twenty picked men, stout riverlanders to the man, bade farewell to their companions and put their packs upon the saddles of their mounts.
At a word from Isildur, the whole company mounted. A hundred and fifty men in total they numbered, with the better part of Isildur's housecarls, and the household guard of Beric Dondarrion, and the freeriders and sellswords who had chosen Thoros as their chieftain. The twenty King's Host men were last of all, but amongst that noble band they were proud to wear the King's sigil on their chests.
Then the Lord of Minas Ithil ordered the banners to be unfurled, and behold! The first and tallest was of the royal gold and there reared the stag of House Baratheon. Behind it, black and the white tree of Gondor. Next to that, the forked lightning of the Dondarrions. The standard-bearers trotted to the head of the columns, the coloured silk flapping upon the flagstaffs.
Isildur reined his horse up behind the banners. He turned in his saddle.
"We ride west!" he called out loudly. He placed his mithril helm upon his head, and the sun caught it and it gleamed brightly. Then he set a silver-chased horn to his lips and blew a mighty note, which resounded off the walls of the keep.
Fleetfoot sprang away, swift as the hawk from the sky, and quickly Lord Beric followed him. The rest of their company rode in their wake. The hooves clattered on the cobbles like a rockslide in the mountains. One of the soldiers in a King's Host gambeson pulled up suddenly, as if uncertain on his horse, and Ned spotted a glance of dark blue eyes before he was gone. In a short moment, they poured out of the gates, and the banners disappeared from sight.
Ned was left alone in the bailey, and he turned around to the expectant faces of Jory, his guards and the company he had brought with him.
"Jory, get the men barracked in the Hand's tower, and get the watches organized," he ordered.
"As you command, my lord," Jory replied dutifully, vaulting down from his saddle.
"Father!" cried Arya suddenly. She ran out of the door to the Tower of the Hand, an excited look on her face, dressed plain as usual. Ned smiled at the sight of his youngest girl and he went down on one knee. She caught him in a tight hug.
"You're to live with us now? In the Hand's Tower? And you're to be the Hand while Uncle Isildur is away? Everyone says so! Will we see you more often now? Are these the men you were training? They're awfully big. Oh, hello Jory!" Arya said, hardly stopping to breathe as was her fashion.
"Hello little lady," Jory laughed, grinning at her. "Arya Underfoot" the men of Winterfell had always called her.
"Yes Arya, I will live in the Tower of the Hand with you and your sister, until Isildur returns, and soon enough, we'll go home to Winterfell, together," Ned said, tousling his daughter's hair. She smiled brightly at him.
"Will you come see my… dancing lessons someday, father? Please!" Arya asked, taking his hand. He stood back up.
"Aye, love, I will, but right now I have to go see the King. Run along to your lessons for me," Ned replied. She nodded happily and then ran off.
Robert's sick room was in a high floor in the royal apartments in Maegor's Holdfast. His windows opened on the east, and through them Ned could see the Narrow Sea glittering in the sun. The open window brought a much needed freshness to the stale air.
The King lay in his bed, his head and shoulders propped up by a mound of pillows. A pale, sickly sheen of sweat was upon his brow and his bare chest. He looked hollow somehow, drained of all the life he once had, and his breathing was shallow yet his eyes still glinted with his old vitality.
"Ned!" he said in a voice louder and yet frailer than Eddard expected. "Your King needs you to answer a question, and answer it true,"
"What is it, Your Grace?" Ned pulled up a chair and sat down at Robert's side.
"How did I ever get this damned fat?" asked Robert, sweeping his hand down towards his expansive paunch.
"I suspect all the eating may have had something to do with it," Ned commented drily. Robert laughed, and the sound was heartening to hear.
"Gods, that cursed throne has ruined me, hasn't it? Couldn't even put my armour on properly," the King said, shaking his head.
"Age catches up to all of us," said Ned.
"Except that Isildur, damn him. He was right though, you were both right, I had no business in that melee. Now look at me," Robert said, shaking his head. "Got a dagger stuck in my belly, and got myself stuck in this bed. Ah, no matter. Did Isildur ride out?"
"Aye, he's heading for Ser Gregor's keep. I'm to act as your Hand in his stead,"
"He told me. That badge will suit you," Robert said, laughing weakly. "How I'd like to see the look on Tywin Lannister's smug face when Isildur gets there. What Cat did was ill done, but unleashing Clegane on the Riverlands? Monstrous," Robert shook his head.
"Cat will return Tyrion, Your Grace, I swear it," said Ned. Robert smiled.
"Too damn serious all the time, just like you always are. I know she will, I trust your word," the King said.
They sat in a comfortable, companionable silence for a moment. Gulls were crying outside the window.
"Have I been a bad king, Ned?" Robert asked at last, suddenly. The question seemed to trouble him.
"Your Grace?" said Ned questioningly.
"Oh enough of all that "Your Grace" ballocks, we're more than that. Answer the damn question," Robert said.
"You've given the Realm good years, Robert," said Ned.
"I did? The Realm must have really appreciated all those hunts I went on, all those feasts I threw, all those whores in my bed," Robert said with a bitter laugh. "It was Jon Arryn who ran the Realm, and now Isildur. And yet history will remember me,"
"You are worried about your legacy?" said Ned.
"It's a hell of a thing, taking a wound like this and surviving it, Ned. When the bastard drew that dagger, I thought I was a dead man," replied Robert.
"He was the dead man in the end," Ned reminded him.
"Heh, I made a right mess of him, I hear," Robert laughed, scratching his chin through his beard.
"A dreadful mess," said Ned.
"I thought I was dead though, all those days before I woke up again, I thought I was dead. I saw Lyanna's face, shaking her head at me. It gives a man cause to think. How will the people remember me after I am gone? Robert the Usurper? Robert the Warrior? Robert the Drunkard?" said Robert, his eyes melancholy.
"They will remember a good king who overthrew an evil madman and gave the Realm peace," Ned replied.
"Seven Hells, Ned, I ain't dead yet!" Robert replied, grinning. "But when I get out of this bed, things will be different, I promise you. We'll put everything to rights between your family and the Lannisters, and then you and I and Isildur will make the rest of my reign something to remember! The bards will sing of the happy days of good King Robert!"
Ned had heard Robert make promises like this before, but this time his voice was filled with conviction. For a moment he considered telling Robert the truth right there. The words were on the tip of his tongue. He was opening his mouth to speak.
"Your Grace," he began, but then Robert coughed. An awful, body-shaking, painful-sounding cough that left his eyes watering. And Ned recalled just how weak his King still was, and he knew he could not tell him now.
Gods forgive me, Ned thought sadly.
The door opened. Ned glanced up and standing there were Prince Tommen and Princess Myrcella. Tommen was a plump boy, with a kind and sweet face, and white blond hair, the youngest of the royal children. Myrcella had long, curly blonde hair like her mother, and keenly intelligent but kindly eyes. Behind them stood a stout septa.
"Your Grace," they both said together, and Tommen bowed and Myrcella curtsied.
"Oh enough of that, come here my little ones!" Robert said happily. Beaming smiles broke out on their faces and they both raced to their father's side.
There was a feeling like a cold hand closing around Ned's heart as he watched them. The joy, the love on the faces of Robert and his "children". Tommen prattled on about the escapades of his cats, and Robert listened and laughed along with him as only he knew how to. Myrcella told Robert all about her lessons, and often the prince and princess talked over each other, yet Robert managed to hear both of them. He tousled Tommen's hair and Myrcella kissed his cheek, solemnly telling her father that a kiss could help make any injury better. They looked so happy, all of them. So completely and purely happy. Ned remembered that little bastard girl in the Vale, playing with her father.
Robert, how can I tell you that those children aren't yours?
The next day brought grey clouds from the south, and a light drizzling rain fell upon the city. It fell cold upon Ned's head as he crossed the bailey from the Tower of the Hand. Upon his doublet, he wore the heavy pin of silver, the Hand which identified him as the King's Hand. The Small Council awaited him in the Great Hall.
It was not the first time Ned had walked down the length of the Great Hall of the Red Keep. The Redguard and Ironguard on duty glowered at Ned and his guards. Rain spattered the tall windows. The Iron Throne hunched upon its dais, spreading wings of iron fangs. It was a hall filled with memories for Ned. Jaime Lannister upon the Iron Throne with the blood of a king on his golden blade. The Targaryen children wrapped in red cloaks. The black dragon skulls staring down with empty eye sockets at it all. It was impossible for Ned to walk in his place and not feel a creeping unease.
Petyr Baelish was not amongst the Small Council anymore, Isildur had dismissed him. That Ned counted as a blessing as he walked into the council chamber. The Baratheon brothers, Stannis and Renly, stood in conversation at one end of the table. Renly was dressed in a green doublet in a fashionable cut, a black stag leaping on its front, but Stannis dressed more plainly in black. Grand Maester Pycelle sat across from them, eyes lipped as if he were about to doze off. Varys, bald-headed and all in long robes, sprung up from his chair and shuffled towards Ned as soon as he walked in.
"My Lord Hand, it is so good to have you amongst us," he said simperingly, with a courtly flourish and bow. Ned tried not to grimace. He had never liked the Spider, even if Varys had warned them of the danger to Robert.
"Oh yes, our troubled Realm does need some good stern northern leadership," Renly said with a jolly twinkle in his eye.
"My lords, let us begin," Ned said, pulling up a high-backed chair at the centre of the table. The Small Council seated themselves to his left and right.
"Troubling news, I fear, my Lord, from the west," said Varys.
"We still must appoint a new Master of Coin," interrupted Pycelle suddenly.
"I am much wearied of all these figures and accounts, indeed," Renly said, drumming his fingers on the book.
"The situation in the west is more important than the Master of Coin," Stannis said, irritated.
"I agree with Lord Stannis," said Ned. "What news, Lord Varys?"
"I hear such terrible things, my lords," said Varys with a sigh of theatrical sadness. "Armies rallying, and the drums of war beginning to rumble across the land. There is talk that the Tullys have called their banners, and Lord Tywin is assembling forces, though neither have moved yet, and of course that dreadful business with Ser Gregor Clegane,"
"I suppose Lord Isildur will have to handle that when he gets there," said Renly.
"What does this Council advise?" asked Ned.
"We ought to wait for King Robert to recover before we take rash action," said Pycelle slowly.
A puppet, just like Isildur said, thought Ned.
"Some action, perhaps, is necessary to calm the tempers involved?" said Lord Varys.
"Isildur sent letters with royal commands, that doesn't seem to have done much good," said Renly skeptically.
"Then we must do something more forceful than a command," said Ned.
"They are breaking a royal command, they ought to be punished for this transgression," said Stannis sternly. "My lord, let me send out the Royal Fleet,"
Ned smiled grimly. Stannis had almost read his mind.
"My thoughts exactly Lord Stannis," Ned said. "I will send reminders to Casterly Rock and Riverrun that they are to keep the King's Peace. At the same time, send out fifty ships for Lannisport, with orders to place a blockade on it. The King's Host shall march to the Gods' Eye. Perhaps a show of force will make them reconsider their actions,"
Ned had no intentions of using the Host against the Tullys, not against his own wife's family. At the Gods' Eye, the King's Host would be better positioned to come to Riverrun's aid. With the combined threat of the Royal Fleet and the King's Host, he hoped Tywin Lannister would back down. If he didn't, Ned was determined to defeat him. And he knew that there was nothing Robert would love more than crushing a lord that had defied him.
"Yes my Lord Hand, it shall be done," Stannis said. Stannis Baratheon never smiled, but he looked almost pleased.
"My-my lord, perhaps-" stammered old Pycelle.
"You will provide the ravens, Grand Maester?" Ned said.
"…Yes, my lord," replied Pycelle.
The council wore on for most of the morning and into the afternoon. They discussed matters of laws and taxation. Long did they debate the appointment of a new Master of Coin. Renly argued for Willas Tyrell, crippled heir of Mace Tyrell of Highgarden and famed for his learning and wisdom. Grand Maester Pycelle suggested Lord Gyles Rosby, though Ned thought him too sickly for Council duties. Stannis on the other hand thought Lord Ardrian Celtigar, renowned as one of the wealthiest lords in the Narrow Sea, would serve admirably. Ned would have sent for Lord Wyman Manderly or one of his sons from White Harbour, but they would not arrive for weeks. In the end they reached no final decision, and left the matter to be settled another day.
Another day passed, and a third and a fourth, quietly. The rain often shared the sky with the sun, and the days were hot and humid or else cold and damp.
Robert's condition seemed to endure, he neither strengthened nor weakened as Ned saw him each morning. He did tire easily though, and he often took to sleeping for long portions of the day. He was always awake when Ned came to see him though, and he always stayed wakeful with Tommen and Myrcella. Ned saw little of Cersei or Joffrey, and counted himself fortunate for it.
He spent each morning with Robert, and though Ned tried to discuss matters of state with him, often Robert would turn to laughing and reminiscing on old times, happier times at the Eyrie with Jon Arryn.
Each afternoon was devoted to the Council, and to talk of taxes, harvests, trade, appointments. It was the ominous rumours from the west though that were like a weight upon Ned's mind. He knew Catelyn was out there, somewhere, perhaps in the Eyrie if she was lucky, with Tyrion Lannister as her captive. The thought of his lady wife mixed up in all that was happening brought a fear to him. He could only hope she would stay in the Eyrie, safe in the Vale, until matters could be settled. Then Ned would ride to her, and they would go home to Winterfell together.
The evenings would bring him back to the Tower of the Hand, to sup with the men in the small hall, and then to listen to Arya tell him about her lessons or hear Sansa play the high harp. It was the hours with his daughters he treasured most of all, and he drew his strength from them. Yet he knew that soon he would have to find the girls a ship and send them home, for their own safety. King's Landing was too close to Casterly Rock, and though the walls were high and the Red Keep strong, Winterfell would be safer still. He commanded Vayon Poole to quietly find a swift ship with a good captain.
Fires burned on torches and braziers in the hall. The tables had been pushed back against either wall, and the hall was empty. Empty but for Ned, sitting at the high table, and before him stood Arya and her 'dancing' master, Syrio Forel.
Arya and Syrio faced each other, standing a few yards apart. In their hands, each held a slender wooden waster. In unison, they bowed. Then both took up the stance of Braavosi water dancing: Sword held out straight, arm slightly bent, off-hand cocked half-way between, body leaning back. Slowly, they began to circle each other. Lightly, they touched swords together.
Suddenly and swiftly Syrio beat Arya's blade aside and lunged. Sweeping her off hand down, Arya slapped the thrust away and responded with a stab of her own. Light-footed as a cat, Syrio sidestepped away from Arya and out of her reach.
Arya was not discouraged, and she pursued Syrio relentlessly with a flurry of rapid thrusts. The Braavosi water dancer turned each attack aside with a fluid ease. Then Arya overextended herself on a thrust, and Syrio seized her wrist and tripped her leg, sending her sprawling to the hard stone floor. Ned frowned. The Braavosi had come with a high cost and a high reputation, but perhaps he was too rough for his daughter.
Arya was down, but not defeated. Rolling over, she caught Syrio's leg with her own and tripped him in turn. Too nimble was Syrio Forel to be caught by such a trick easily. As Arya rose to her feet, he rolled away and then scrambled up before she could strike.
Back and forth along the hall they sparred, their wasters clacking together with each thrust and parry. Though Arya's sword never managed to even graze Syrio, still Ned could see that his daughter had come a long way since he had found her stabbing at the air in her room with her Needle.
So much like Lyanna, Ned thought.
Arya crouched, sword held in close to her body. Syrio raised an eyebrow and shuffled in closer to her, but as his sword flicked forward towards her, Arya slapped it away with her empty hand. This time was not as before. She lunged, throwing herself into the attack, extending her whole arm and body. Quickly Syrio slipped away, but Ned sat up in his chair. He had saw it. The lightest touch, only a fraction of a moment, upon the front of Syrio's doublet.
Arya staggered, thrown off balance by the momentum of her lunge. Syrio stood, sword resting on shoulder, a smile on his Braavosi face.
"Well done, Arya child, you progress far," Syrio said.
"Did you see, father? Did you see? I got him!" Arya said, excitedly grinning. Ned smiled and nodded. He stood up from his chair and descended the dais. Arya ran over and hugged him, and he put a hand on her shoulder.
"Your girl should have been born a bravo, Lord Stark. She is a good student of the Water Dance," said Syrio. Ned tousled Arya's hair.
"Aye, strong willed she is, but she comes along well. I'll admit, Syrio, I was not certain about your methods," said Ned.
"The Dance of Bravos is not the Dance of Westeros, I teach as I was taught," replied the Braavosi.
"He's the best teacher, father! Will he come with us back to Winterfell?" said Arya. Ned chuckled, it was strange to see her so eager to learn. She had not taken to any lessons like she took to this.
"I will ask him. Now go on, get washed up," Ned replied, patting her on the shoulder. With a happy nod, Arya ran off.
Syrio and Ned stood and watched her go, till she disappeared around the corner and up the stairs.
"I confess Lord Stark, Syrio Forel was surprised when he was asked to train a girl," said Syrio "I did not know that the ladies of Westeros fought,"
"The ladies of the south rarely do, but the north is not the south. Have you ever heard of Lady Maege Mormont of Bear Island?" Ned said with a chuckle. Syrio shook his head.
"She's as tall as a man, dresses in mail and carries a spiked mace," Ned explained. Lady Maege and her warrior-daughters had been guests of Winterfell many times, and though the Lady of Bear Island was stubborn and willful, she was as loyal to the Starks as any.
"And the Lord of the Isle of Tarth is said to have a daughter better with a sword than most of his knights, and my own sister Lyanna could outride me and Benjen on any day," Ned added. Syrio laughed.
"They may count your daughter amongst such fierce women one day, yes, I think it shall be so," he said.
"I don't know what my daughter's future will bring. Once I thought I would be no more than the lord of a holdfast for my older brother, but now I am Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North and Marshal of the King's Host," Ned shook his head "I want her to be safe Syrio, do you understand that? Safe from whatever ill fortune or fate may bring,"
"You have the love of a father, Lord Stark, this I know well," said Syrio, nodding gravely.
"Will you go with her? To Winterfell. My steward is searching for a ship to take my daughters home, and you would have an honoured place at my hall, I promise you," Ned said.
"She is a good student, and to continue her training would be an honour, Lord Stark," said Syrio "But I have been long away from my own home, from Braavos. Do I have time to consider the offer?"
"Of course, I shan't send them away for some time yet," replied Eddard.
"You are a good man, Lord Stark, I am honoured by your patronage," Syrio said with a Braavosi bow. Ned smiled and extended his hand.
"In the north, we shake hands," he said. Syrio took his hand and shook it firmly.
Ascending the many steps of the Tower of the Hand, heading towards his own chamber, Ned passed by his daughters' rooms. Torches burned in sconces, lighting the hall with dancing shadows. From behind Sansa's door, he heard a noise. Ned paused. It was the sound of sobbing. He knocked on the door softly.
"Y-yes?" came the choked reply.
"May I come in?" he asked. There was a noise that almost sounded like a yes.
He found his daughter sitting on her bed, her eyes reddened with crying. She wiped away tears with the back of her hand.
"Good evening father," she said, courteous and proper as she always was.
"What's the matter Sansa? Why were you crying?" he asked, sitting down next to her.
"Arya says… She says you're sending us home to Winterfell," Sansa said, sniffling. Ned frowned, there was no way around it, and so he nodded.
"But why? What did we do wrong? I've been good, father, I'm always good, I always listen, why am I getting punished too?" Sansa asked.
"You're not being punished," Ned said gently. "Things are not safe. I will not lie to you, there may be war soon. I want you to be in Winterfell, safe and far away from whatever may happen in the south,"
"War?" Sansa said, confused. She sniffled again, then raised her chin. "If there is to be war, father, then please let me stay here with Joffrey. I love him, I will stand with him no matter what foe he may face, just like Luthien and Beren,"
"Sansa, my dear, you may be a Luthien, but Joffrey is no Beren," Ned said sadly. He hated to hurt his daughter so.
"What do you mean?" said Sansa.
"When you are older, I will find you a match who will be worthy of you, as he is not. Someone brave and gentle and strong," he paused to remember the old Dunedain tales Sansa so loved, "Someone like Beren or Tuor,"
"Joffrey is brave and gentle and strong!" she insisted. Eddard grimaced.
"He's going to be the King someday, and I will be his Queen and have his babies, you promised!" she said, her eyes watering with tears.
"Sansa," Ned said. "One day, I promise you, you will marry a great lord, and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords of their own, but it will not be Joffrey. This match was a mistake, for reasons I can't explain to you yet, but you will understand, some day,"
Sansa was opening her mouth to reply when Jory Cassel appeared at the door.
"My lord, Lord Stannis and Lord Renly are begging an audience. They say it is urgent," said Jory. Ned sighed.
"Very well, show them to the study," he said. He turned to Sansa.
"Everything will be alright, Sansa, I promise you," he told her.
The study was a snug room, the walls lined with book shelves and maps and Myrish tapestries. A bright fire crackled in a hearth. Standing by the mantel was Stannis Baratheon, his brother Renly next to him. Their faces were serious, though Renly was as well dressed as if he were about to attend a ball, with dark green tunic and cloth of gold half-cape, despite the hour of the night.
"Eddard, we must talk," said Stannis grimly. Ned closed the door to the study behind him, and glanced at Renly.
"Stannis has shared your counsels with me," said Renly, "Robert is my brother too, and my King,"
"What do you know, Renly?" asked Ned.
"I had had my own suspicions about the Lannisters for some time, even about Cersei and Ser Jaime, but Stannis confirmed it for me. I stand with you," said Renly staunchly.
"Sending the fleet and the Host to warn the Lannisters was a beginning, but we must take further action. Cersei will not stand by while her family is defeated in the field," said Stannis.
"You have the loyalty of the King's Host, and it has not marched away yet. Between the three of us, we have two hundred swords or more in the city. Let us strike now," Renly said.
"Strike?" asked Ned.
"Take Cersei and the children into our custody, and secure the capital," said Stannis.
Unbidden, images of children wrapped in red Lannister cloaks came clouding into Ned's mind. He heard Tommen and Myrcella laughing with their father.
"What will happen to them in custody?" said Ned.
"We hold them, and tell Tywin Lannister to send his armies home. I can put the Tyrells on your side, and with them the Lannisters won't be able to resist us," said Renly.
Isildur's warning echoed in his ears.
"The Tyrells will side with us when we have seized the capital and taken the Queen and her children into captivity?" said Ned. "What lords will side with us when we look like usurpers?"
"Trust me Lord Stark, I know the Tyrells. With them, and the King's Host, the Tullys and our Baratheon bannermen, we'll have the biggest host in the kingdoms. Tywin Lannister will back down," said Renly. Stannis scowled at the name of Tyrell but said nothing.
"There is more to power than who has the biggest army, Renly," cautioned Ned. "We will drive many lords into the Lannister camp if we make it look as if we are seizing power from the King's children, perhaps the Tyrells as well,"
"They aren't the King's children," snarled Stannis harshly.
"But the lords of the realm believe that they are, and we have not shown them otherwise yet," said Ned.
"Every moment we delay only gives Cersei more time to prepare. We should move before it is too late," said Renly.
"Robert lives still, and he is King," cautioned Ned.
"And I want my brother so stay alive. I will not stand around and wait for that Lannister woman to slip poison in his wine," said Stannis.
"Telling him that his children are not his own will kill him just as certainly as any poison," said Ned sternly.
"Perhaps he is right, brother," said Renly. Stannis grunted.
"Cersei is guilty, we know this, why do we wait to bring justice to her?" he said.
"Her crimes will be punished, Stannis, I swear it. But we will punish her, not her children, and we need Robert on our side to do this without igniting a civil war, and he is not strong enough yet," said Ned.
"The children are abominations, born of incest," said Stannis, gritting his teeth.
"Joffrey isn't just that, we all know what he is," said Renly.
"They are innocents, and if the King's Peace is to be broken, I will not break it by filling King Robert's halls with blood and dragging children from their beds," Ned said, slowly and certainly. He stared the Baratheon brothers down with cold, dark, grey eyes. A silence fell amongst them.
"Lord Isildur would agree with us," said Renly.
"Lord Isildur is not here, I am," said Ned sternly. He had no taste nor patience for such things.
Silently, Stannis and Renly left Ned's study and walked away. Through an arrow slit, he watched them walk back towards the tower where their brother waited in his sickbed.
Weary of intrigues, heartsick with worry over Catelyn and Robert and his daughters, and missing Winterfell with all his heart, Ned finally retired for the night. The sleep he found was not restful.
In his dreams, that round tower which Rhaegar had named the Tower of Joy stood, slender and pale with the red mountains of Dorne at its back. By its door stood the three men in milk-white armour, which he remembered more clearly than anything. Around him rode the shades of dead men. Yet when Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, looked up and saw Ned and opened his mouth to speak, words came forth which Ned did not expect.
"LORD EDDARD STARK!" the White Bull bellowed in a voice that was not his own.
Promise me, Ned, Lyanna whispered desperately.
"LORD EDDARD STARK! COME FORTH!" roared the voice again.
Ned awoke suddenly. His room was dark. Outside, the sky was an inky black, with the first, pale fingers of dawn coming in the east. In the bailey below, someone was shouting for him.
"LORD EDDARD STARK,"
Someone hammered on his door urgently.
"My lord, the Kingsguard is in the courtyard, they're calling for you," said Jory desperately. Ned sat upright in bed. Jory opened the door as Ned was dressing. Jory was already wearing his jack of plates, and a mail shirt beneath, sword and dagger at his belt.
"My sword," said Ned, pulling on a shirt, and the Captain of his Guard retrieved it for him. He girt himself with his sword, and then Jory helped do up the laces of his padded doublet. Outside, Ned could still hear them calling for him.
The small hall was in chaos as Ned strode down the stairs. Men of his household guard and the King's Host were mixed together, pulling on gambesons and mail shirts and helmets. They seized spears and halberds and crossbows, and buckled on sword belts. Ned walked through them and they followed him to the entrance hall, and the broad doors of the Tower of the Hand were flung open.
Flickering torchlight gleamed on white plate harness, looking like ghosts in the darkness. In the bailey before the Tower of the Hand stood the brotherhoods of the Kingsguard. Ser Barristan Selmy, Lord Commander, and the White Swords stood in the centre. He held his helm beneath his arm. His blue eyes were sorrowful. Behind him was Ser Ilyn-Payne and the seven knights of the Ironguard, to the left the Redguard, and the Heirguard to the right. Behind the brotherhoods, Ned saw men in Lannister livery and crimson cloaks, and the tall, grim shape of the Hound in ashen-grey plate, his longsword in hand.
Ned walked down the steps of the Tower of the Hand, feeling calm despite the armed men before him. His guards and the men of the King's Host filed in behind him. The air was cool on Ned's face and he felt no trace of sleep.
"Lord Eddard Stark, I have been charged with your arrest," said Ser Barristan somberly. Ned could see the regret in his eyes. Eddard Stark stepped forward.
"What is the crime?" he asked loudly.
"High treason against the Crown," said Ser Barristan. There were murmurs at Ned's back from the men behind him.
"By whom am I accused?" asked Ned. It was his right to know his accuser, and to answer in court, that he knew. No man in the Eight Kingdoms could be executed without trial, and certainly not the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.
"The Queen Regent," answered Ser Barristan. Eddard's blood ran cold.
"The Queen Regent?" said Ned. Selmy nodded sadly.
"King Robert passed in his sleep. Long live King Joffrey," said Ser Barristan. Ned felt a lump in his throat. He swallowed to force it down.
"Long live the King!" echoed the knights all around him.
"The Queen Regent has accused you of treason, of plotting to usurp King Joffrey's succession," Barristan said.
"No!" cried a voice behind Ned.
"Lord Stark is no traitor!" cried another.
It has come to it then, Ned thought, breathing in deeply. He knew what he must say. The truth must come out.
"Joffrey is not the King's heir!" declared Eddard Stark.
The courtyard filled with the sound of dozens of swords drawing at once. The Hound took a step forward and closed the visor of his fierce dog's head helmet.
"Ned, please, do not condemn yourself with your own words," pleaded Ser Barristan. "Come into captivity peacefully, and I swear that you will get a fair trial,"
"Don't go!" yelled another of the King's Host men at Ned's back.
"You will not take our Marshal from us!" shouted one of them.
Ned looked behind him. A hundred and fifty men stood with grim faces, ready to defend his life. They outnumbered Cersei's men by many, even with all the knights of the Kingsguard.
"Ser Barristan, you are a good man, an honourable man, I mean you no harm, but you will not take a captive of me," said Ned.
Just then, the portcullis in the gatehouse creaked and slid open. A river of black iron and golden cloaks came rushing in as the City Watch poured into the courtyard. At their head came striding Ser Janos Slynt, his high, plumed, commander's helm upon his head and sword in hand. Ned looked up and saw a line of City Watch archers file out onto the battlements, training their bows down upon the courtyard. There were black iron spears in the hands of every Goldcloak before him.
"Please Lord Stark, I do not wish to hurt you," begged Ser Barristan.
Jory stepped forward, bare steel in hand, to place himself between his lord and the men before him.
"Jory, no!" said Ned, catching his captain by the shoulder and whirling him around.
"Go inside, protect the girls," he ordered.
"But my lord,"
"Do as I command! Now!" said Ned urgently. Shaking his head, Jory ran back inside the tower.
Ned turned and looked at his men. They were as ready to fight for him as before, with spears and short swords and halberds in hand, no matter how many foes stood before them. Yet so many of them were so young, so many of them had no more protection than a gambeson or a leather jerkin. Only his own guards had full hauberks of mail. Then he turned and looked at the sea of faces on the other side of the courtyard, at the knights sheathed in steel. Alyn and Porther and Jory were good sword-arms, but against Ser Barristan Selmy and Sandor the Hound and Ser Ilyn Payne? And behind them, the Lannister men-at-arms and the Goldcloaks.
"If you let my men go, I will go with you," said Ned in a loud voice.
"I swear to you, Lord Stark, on my honour as a knight, if you come into captivity peacefully, no harm will come to your men," replied Ser Barristan. There were angry murmurs and whispers behind Ned, but he nodded and began to walk forward towards the Kingsguard.
"NO!" yelled somebody from the steps.
There was a clatter of a crossbow. A bolt shot through the air.
Ser Barristan's head jerked back and he let out a choked cry.
"Hold!" roared Ned, throwing up an arm.
Selmy's hand was clawing at his throat. Between his fingers, the long shaft of a crossbow bolt had pierced his neck. His blood was dark and red upon his white cuirass. He was choking in it, struggling to breath. Barristan the Bold sunk to his knees, the redness seeping from between his fingers. He collapsed and lay still.
There was an immense silence for a moment.
"Murderers!" shouted somebody.
"They murdered Barristan!" yelled another.
"No!" roared Ned in desperation, but his voice was lost amongst the roar of the crowds all around him.
In a rush of screams and shining steel, the two forces came charging together.
The arrows from the walls fell like a hailstorm.